| 'Hey, Bud. What's happenin'?'
'Yo, Pops. It's
shook his head as he gazed at the swarm of cats gathered around Buddy
on his back patio. Gwennie, the gray, shaggy canine who lived down the
road, was the only other dog. He recognized his own cat Chessie as well
as the Manx cat Freddy from one road over. He thought he might have
seen the marmalade cat somewhere in the neighborhood, but wasn't sure.
'Yup. That's what I said. Story
hour.' Buddy shifted slightly on the seat of the high wooden
'But it's eleven o'clock, Bud. Time
'Maybe for you humans. But for us
animals it's time to do our own thing. And right now that's story hour,
Buddy spoke, the gathering of cats looked his way. When Jim replied,
their heads turned as one in his direction - as though they watched a
fast-paced tennis game. One old Tabby's raggedy ear seemed to have been
chewed on more than once, and skin showed through his rough coat of fur
in several bare spots.
'Why this late at night? Shouldn't
these animals be at home?'
cats all gazed into Jim's face, slight smiles on their mouths. Then, as
one, they acknowledged Buddy's words with barely perceptible nods,
heads slanting upward as Buddy's leaned down toward them.
'These are all guard cats. They
patrol their homes and the neighborhood at night. If anything looks
suspicious, they call Max here and he takes care of it.'
scruffy Tabby lifted his chin in salute, then glanced fondly at the
other cats. Jim noticed that one eye was slightly misshapen. This was
one tough cookie.
'The cats are guards?' Jim
asked, a touch of mirth in his voice.
'Laugh, Pops. Go ahead. Laugh. But
who do you think keeps all the homes free of mice and other intruders?'
eyes turned to Jim as they bobbed their heads in agreement with Buddy's
words. Chessie meowed at him and the marmalade cat raised a high five
'Buddy, how did you get out? All
the doors were locked.'
'Boy, Pops, are you nave.'
He waved a paw in the air, dismissing Jim's question. 'We'll
talk about that another time. I'm busy here. Okay now, where were we?
Oh, you're right, Chessie. The Cat in the Hat.'
'Okay. Okay. Just keep it quiet out
here. I'm going to bed. I'm locking up, Buddy. You and Chessie can get
back in the same way you got out.'
'Aww, Pops. Can't you just leave
one door unlocked? It's hard climbing out the basement window. And it's
dusty, too. Not good for my public image to arrive at story hour all
'So that's how you get out. Well,
I'll leave a door unlatched for you. But I'm locking that basement
'As if that would make a
difference,' Buddy muttered to Chessie.
'What? What did you say?'
'Nothing. Just finding my place in
Buddy read on, Jim listened with astonishment. He had no idea Buddy
could read. What a revelation! He quietly opened the door to his family
room and went inside, shaking his head and leaving the animals on their
own. He could see by the light of the moon that the cats and Gwennie
were listening intently. Even Bear, Buddy's ever present stuffed
companion, seemed enthralled.
that night, Jim heard Buddy and Chessie come to bed, with deep sighs as
they settled, as if they had had a very tiring time. In the morning,
Jim found the door he had left unlocked for the pair was locked! How
the devil did they do that, he wondered. Jim walked his dog and then
sat in his recliner as Buddy stretched out on the floor. He fell asleep
almost at once. Jim nudged him with his foot.
'Buddy. Wake up. We need to talk.'
'Mfph,' Buddy yawned and
then said, 'Not right now, Dad. I'm pooped. These
late hours are starting to tell on me.'
'That's what I want to talk about.
WAKE UP, Buddy. Wake up.' Buddy raised his head, forehead
wrinkled in displeasure. He groaned and sat up, leaning against Jim's
'Is this really necessary?'
'Yes, Buddy, it's necessary. I
didn't know you could read.'
'I can't. I just look at the
pictures and make up the words. I can make out some words, but the
money I'm making is going to go into reading lessons. Gwennie says
she'll teach me.'
'And does Gwennie read?'
'Claims she can. And with that
uppercrust English accent, I'd believe anything she says. She's a real
'And the cats understand you when
you speak English?'
'Yeah, of course they can. What do
you think they are? Dumb animals? They may not be able to talk, but
they can understand anything they choose to.'
'Anything they choose to?'
'Drat! Welllll. That's a slip of
the tongue. Don't tell anyone about that, will you, Pops? Those cats
would be at my throat if their people knew they could understand
everything. Their lives would change drastically. As long as no one
knows, they only have to do what pleases them.'
'Let's get back to something. What
do you mean by the money you earn? You're making these cats pay
for you to read them stories? Stories that you're making up as you go
along. Something's wrong here. And where are they getting the money?'
'Same place I was getting mine until you caught on. Behind
cushions in chairs, on the laundry room floor, the bottom of the
hamper, the floor of closets. A penny here. A nickel there. It adds up
and I can use it all.'
'And what is Gwennie going to
charge to teach you to read?'
'Sort of on a sliding scale.
Depends on how well I catch on. And I'm hoping I can dazzle her so that
she forgets I'm to pay her. I think she has an eye for me.'
'Romance in the air?'
'Nah, Pops. Not really. I just
think she's all right, but I don't want any encumbrances. I like our
life here just as it is. Don't you?'
'Yes. Yes, I do. To a certain
extent. If only you didn't come up with all these schemes. I'm never
sure I want to come home after work. Not sure what I'll find.'
'Aw, don't get paranoid, Dad of
Mine. Everything's cool.'
several nights, the same scene was reenacted. Lying in bed, Jim could
hear the slight drone of Buddy's voice as he read to his
adoring group of animals. As he fell asleep, Jim pondered how his two
pets could lock the door. One night, he heard the two close the back
door. Jim tiptoed into the family room and watched as Chessie, on
Buddy's back, stood upright and swung from the lock handle. Buddy
encouraged her in whispers.
'That's the old girl. Pull hard.'
watched in amazement as the lock fell from the right to the left.
Chessie leapt gracefully to the floor and started to groom her already
immaculate fur. Buddy carried a handkerchief in his mouth - Jim could
see that it was one of his own with his initials on it - the four
corners in his mouth and the linen hanging heavily toward the floor.
Buddy had to hold his head high to step around the sagging bundle.
watched as Buddy elbowed the door to the powder room and emptied a fall
of coins into a wastebasket tucked into a corner. So that's where the
money went. Was what he had told him the real reason for the money? The
scheme for Gwennie to teach him how to read? That was the kicker.
Time passed, as did the season.
Summer turned to fall and the level of coins in the bottom of the
wastebasket grew. One bright, sunny October Saturday, as Jim raked
leaves, a neighbor stopped to talk.
'Do you have any idea what's wrong
with the cats around here?' Larry asked.
alarm bell went off in the inner recesses in Jim's mind. 'No. Don't know anything. What's the problem?'
'Well, they're acting like they're
scared out of their wits. I usually have trouble keeping Max inside.
Now he won't go out.' This was the Max that Jim knew wasn't
afraid of anything. His scruffy and scarred body attested to that.
neighbor joined the two men. 'Talking about the
cats?' Bill asked.
'Well, yeah,' Larry
answered. 'Do you have a clue? Is there some cat
predator we don't know about?'
'I haven't the faintest idea. All I
know is that my Persian won't go outside and spends most of the day
under the couch. Shaking and meowing so pitifully I can't stand it.
Driving me nuts,' Bill finished.
'Yeah, Max too. The blasted cat
practically begs not to have to go outside.' At the look on the other
men's faces, he continued. 'I'm not kidding.
Old-nothing-fazes-him Max has turned into a whining sissy. We were
invaded last night by mice! Wonder if there's something in the water.
Have you seen those stray dogs wandering around? Max usually takes care
of that problem.'
Chessie, Jim? She okay? Or has she gone bonkers too?' Rather than
answer, Jim muttered unintelligible words as he rushed into his house.
'BUDDY. FRONT AND CENTER. RIGHT
'What's up, Pops? Did you realize
you're yelling? Probably not. Because you never yell at me. You're the
kindest, most considerate Dad, a guy ever had. I'll bet you couldn't
find a better ...'
'Oh, cut it out, Buddy. Quit trying
to butter me up. Don't say a word until I tell you to. Understood? I
want some answers.'
Springer made a gesture of zipping his lips and sat down at Jim's feet,
an expectant look in his eyes - the perfect picture of the obedient
dog. Jim looked at his pet and wondered what was happening. The angelic
mien on Buddy's face didn't fool him. The Bud was up to something.
'What's your problem, Dad of Mine?
Scale gone funny again and weighed you too heavy. You know, maybe it's
because you've been indulging a little too often. Don't take it out on
me. I can't help you with your weight problem.'
'BUDDY, BE QUIET. DON'T TALK. And,
no, I haven't gained any weight.' Jim was rather proud of his
recent weight loss. 'Stop trying to distract me. I
'Sure, Pops. What do you want to
know? I could crank up the old Apple and surf the net for you. Anything
at all. I'm sure we could ...'
'Buddy, I'm losing what little
patience I had.' Jim's voice had dropped so low, Buddy had to
tilt his head to catch Jim's words. He knew he was in trouble now. Not
a good sign.
Buddy lay back down on
the floor and placed his head between his outstretched paws. His big
eyes watched Jim intently. He searched his brain for transgressions .
Nah, couldn't be the scam he had going with the paperboy. Or his plan
to buy a bicycle with the money he was earning at story hour. He had
decided he really didn't need to read. And anyway he wasn't too sure
Gwennie knew how. So how could she teach him?
'I want to know why all the cats in
the neighborhood are scared to death.'
look of profound relief washed across Buddy's face. He sat up and
leaned his head against Jim's leg. Looking into Jim's eyes, he flashed
a twinkle and said, 'Is that the big problem? Good
grief, Dad. That's no problem. Just a little fun.'
'A little fun? To scare creatures
to where they don't want to go out? No mice have been caught all week
and stray dogs have been roaming the neighborhood and Max hasn't been
seen outside for days. He usually chased them away.'
'Ah, those cats are all wusses. Say
Boo and they jump a mile. You should see them,
Pops. Why don't you come to tonight's reading session? Should be good
for a laugh.'
'Just what are you reading to them?
Or making up? I gather you can't read yet.'
'Well, now that you mention it,
I've gone through all the books that I knew the story to. And, no, I
can't read yet - although I can make out some words now. Gwennie says
I'm going to be a good student. Speaking of Gwennie, have you seen that
kickin' new collar she has? Sparks up her bee-you-ti-ful eyes. She's
really a looke ...!'
last word strangled in his throat. His eyes caught Jim's and he shrank
in his skin. His mouth snapped shut with a click of teeth and he looked
as penitent as is possible for a Springer Spaniel.
'Sorry. Sorry. I get sidetracked
when I think of Gwennie. Pops, why don't you come to story hour
tonight? You'll see that I'm just having a little innocent fun.'
Jim shuddered. Buddy's idea of
innocent fun wasn't his own. But he agreed and waited patiently for
nightfall. Buddy climbed on his high stool and Gwennie and Chessie
arranged themselves on the slate patio floor as soon as dark
fell. The neighborhood cats arrived one by one. Max slunk
furtively to Buddy's stool and sat with his back against the rungs like
a Western gunslinger watchful for sudden attack. His damaged ear
twitched and his mismatched eyes roamed ceaselessly around him.
and the marmalade cat greeted him in whispers, but Max ignored them,
obviously preferring to keep attuned to his surroundings. Buddy rustled
a newspaper and began to pretend to read it. 'Last
night, the cat snatcher struck again. No one has seen this creature,
but rumors have been resounding through this community. It's tall and
has long black fur. Long fangs and red eyes adorn its stubbled face and
its nails on long, long toes are sharp and curved.'
paused theatrically to allow his words to sink in. The cats surrounding
his stool whimpered and seemed to draw into themselves and become half
their size. Max visibly shook. Buddy continued, 'Three
cats disappeared overnight. Their owners each said their pets went out
at bedtime and never returned. They all reported hearing wild shrieks
and then silence. Talking to this reporter, the neighbors had tears in
their grieving eyes.'
gazed around at the quivering mass of fur surrounding Buddy and smiled.
'She's enjoying their fear,'
Jim thought. He'd never have believed it of the old girl.
'Every owner of a missing cat
concurred that they had seen a large black shape in their yards, but
when they investigated, they found nothing.' Buddy again
hesitated before continuing, looking benevolently at each of his
audience ... as though he wanted to imprint their faces on his memory
before they too disappeared.
his head gently, despairingly, he went back to the newspaper and began
again. 'No new sightings have been reported, but
that doesn't mean that the Cat Snatcher has moved on. Cats have been
disappearing every night. The police are at an impasse. It's
like trying to catch a wisp of fog, the police chief is quoted.
It's impossible to catch fog. We don't know
what else to do but ask everyone to keep their cats in and hope that
the Cat Snatcher moves on. That's all for tonight, ladies and
gentlemen. Time to say goodbye. See you all tomorrow night for a new
update. Keep together now. There's safety in numbers.'
cats began moving off the patio, looking for all the world like a huge
lump of many legged fur, so close to each other were they. 'Isn't that a hoot, Pops? Look at them. They're scared to
death. Max is almost catatonic. Hey! I made a funny! CATatonic. Get it,
Daddeo?' Buddy said as he and Jim watched the cats edge en masse
off the patio.
'Yes, Buddy. I get it. Oh, yeah! I
the harsh tone of Jim's last words, Buddy lowered his head and winked
at both Chessie and Gwennie. 'Watch this, Dad. Just
watch this.' Buddy raised his head and his voice and bellowed, 'Oh my God! What's that? I see something in that garden
over there. Dark and big.'
The retreating cats cowered for a
moment before screeching and breaking apart like a dark ice floe in
warm water as they streaked for their homes. Jim heard pitiful cries
and nails scratching on wood. One by one, doors opened and the cats all
disappeared into lighted rooms where no shadows loomed.
'BUDDY, LISTEN UP! YOU'RE GROUNDED.'
'Wha ... Why ... I didn't do
anything. Why am I grounded?'
'Look what you did to those poor
'Aw! I just brought some zing into
their dull little lives. They're eating it up. Putting a little fun in
their drab existences. Nothing to do but walk around and catch mice.
Imagine the boredom. Blah. No color.'
'I repeat. You're grounded. And
you're to return all the money you collected. What a fraud you are.
Pretending to read and then making up the newspaper articles. There is
no cat snatcher. And there never was.'
'All that lovely money? You're
heartless. Do you know that? You're heartless. I'll be destitute. Not a
farthing to my name. How can I hold up my head in this ritzy
'I'm sure you'll manage, Buddy. I'm
sure you'll manage.'
'For another thing, how do you know
there never was a cat snatcher? Are you sure? Tell me that, hunh? Can
head dropped to his chest and it swung back and forth as he
contemplated his dog. He thought he had raised him right. Where had he
gone wrong? 'Buddy, story hour is over. No more. You
may have one more night to give back the money and explain that you
made all that nonsense up. And then it's over. Do you hear me?'
head snapped up and he looked adoringly into Jim's eyes. 'You're the boss man. Whatever you say goes. I'll take
care of everything. Okay? Trust me.'
'Trust, my dear Buddy, is up for
Jim held the door to the family room open for Buddy and Chessie to go
inside, Buddy continued his assurances. 'I'll
explain everything to them. Don't worry. They'll be mad at me for
awhile. But I have big shoulders. I can handle it. Don't you worry
about me. I'll be fine. Yessiree, I'll be fine.'
raised a paw and, making sure Jim saw him, swiped that paw across his
eyes and noisily smothered a sob. Jim's face softened as he gazed at
Buddy. Maybe, he thought, I've been too hard on him. Fortunately he
missed the look Buddy gave to Chessie. He didn't see her return a slow,
almost imperceptible shake of her head. Nor did he hear Buddy say, 'Time for Plan B.'