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Cat on the EdgeA Joe Grey Mystery
By Shirley Murphy
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright ©2006 Shirley Murphy
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The murder of Samuel Beckwhite in the alley behind Jolly's Delicatessen was observed by no human witness. Only 4t the gray tomcat saw Beckwhite fall, the big man's heavy body crumpling, his round, close-trimmed head crushed from the blow of a shiny steel wrench. At the bright swing of the weapon and the thud of breaking bone, the cat stiffened with alarm and backed deeper into the shadows, a sleek silver ripple in the dark.
The attack on Beckwhite came without warning. The two men entered the brick-paved alley, walking side by side beneath the dim light of a decorative lamp affixed to the brick wall beside the window of a small shop. The men were talking softly, in a friendly manner. The cat looked up at them carelessly from beside the concealed garbage can, where he was feasting on smoked salmon. The men exchanged no harsh word; Joe caught no scent of anger or distress before the smaller man struck Beckwhite.
Though the evening sky was already dark, the shops along the alley were still open, their doors softly lit by the two wrought-iron wall sconces, one at either end of the short lane. The stained glass door of the tiny tearoom reflected the lamplight in round, gleaming patterns of blue and red.The narrow, leaded glass doors leading to the antique shop and the art gallery glinted with interior lights warped into circular designs against the darkness. The closed door to the bistro presented a solid blue face, but there were lights within behind its small, leaded windows, and the easy beat of a forties love song could be heard. The golf shop lights reflected out around the edges of its half-closed shutters, and the shopkeeper could be glimpsed deep within, toting up figures, preparing to close up and go home. The soft thud of the wrench could not have reached him; he did not look up. There was no sound from the alley to alert anyone to the murder which had just occurred within that peaceful lane.
Between each pair of shop doors stood a large ceramic pot planted with a flowering oleander tree. The pink-and-white blossoms shone waxen in the dim light. All Molena Point's alleys were small, inviting oases designed to welcome both villagers and tourists. At the near end of the lane, where the tomcat was eating, one ordinary, unremarkable wooden door shut away the kitchen of the delicatessen. The busy front door was around the cornet The trellis, and the sweet-scented jasmine vine which climbed it, concealed behind its lower foliage the delicatessen's two garbage cans, and now concealed, as well, the astonished cat.
Here in the alley, Jolly's employees received deliveries and brought out their discreetly wrapped trash to discard, carefully saving back the nicest delicacies, which they put down on soggy paper plates for the village cats.
The cats of Molena Point were not strays -- most were blessed with comfortable homes -- but every cat in the village knew Jolly's and partook greedily of its rich offerings of leftover broiled chicken, pastrami, a spoonful of salmon salad from an abandoned plate, a sliver of brie or Camembert, or the scraps from a roast beef sandwich from which mustard must be scraped away with a fastidious paw. Joe ate well at home, sharing his master's supper, but Jolly's menu ran more to his tastes and less to fried onions, fried potatoes, and hamburger, and he had only to chase off an occasional contender. He had, at this time in his life, no aversion to eating after humans. And he liked George jolly; the soft, round old man in his white clothes and white apron would come out sometimes and watch the cats eating, and smile and talk to them. If George jolly had been in the alley at that moment, the murder very likely would not have occurred. The two men would have walked on through. Though the killer might simply have waited for his next opportunity; it was not a crime of sudden passion.
There was nothing Joe could have done to prevent Beckwhite's murder even if he had so desired, the action coming down too fast. As the men talked softly, strolling along, the shorter man, with no change of tone or expression, no shifting of pace, suddenly produced the chrome wrench in a whirl of motion describing a bright arc. His swinging weapon hit Beckwhite so hard that Joe heard Beckwhite's skull crack. Beckwhite collapsed to the brick paving, limp as an empty rat skin.
At the far end of the alley, behind the last oleander tree, a shadow moved, then was still, or was gone, impossible to know; but neither the killer nor the crouching tomcat saw it -- their attention was on the deed at hand.
No question that the victim was dead or swiftly dying. Joe could sense his death, could smell it. The sharp grip of death shivered through him like a sudden winter chill.
Joe knew who the dead man was. Samuel Beckwhite owned the local auto agency, and he was Joe's master's business associate, the two shared a large, handsome establishment at the upper end of the village. Joe had at first supposed the other man was a customer for one of Beckwhite's mint condition BMWs or Mercedeses, or maybe he worked for Beckwhite and the two were taking a shortcut back to the car agency. He found the smaller man offensive, his walk unnaturally silent, his voice and accent too soft, too artful.
But then, there weren't that many humans Joe liked, nothing to cause alarm; until he saw the bright wrench swing up. Swiftly the deed was done. Beckwhite fell and lay still. The damp breath of the sea and of eucalyptus trees scented the alley, mixed with the perfume of the jasmine vines. Above the love song's soft, nostalgic melody an occasional hush of tires could be heard on some nearby street; and Joe could hear the sea crashing six blocks away, against the rocky cliffs. The evening had turned chill.
Excerpted from Cat on the Edge by Shirley Murphy Copyright ©2006 by Shirley Murphy. Excerpted by permission.
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