British public relations firm Perkins & Tate are used to dealing with show business—but this time, the celebrities are cats. The company’s been hired to publicize a major event for cat fanciers, but even if the felines in attendance are dignified, elegant, and well trained, the same doesn’t always hold true for the humans . . .
After a valuable cat statue disappears—and the exhibit’s much-disliked organizer is found dead in a cage with two Sumatran tigers—Douglas Perkins and Gerry Tate must sniff out a two-legged beast.
“The appearance of this second-in-a-series from England will gladden Babson’s numerous aficionados in America. . . . Suspenseful action . . . While many convincingly real cats compete for the reader’s affections, even Doug, expressing indifference to feline charms, falls helplessly in love with a wistful kitten.” —Publishers Weekly
“For the marvels of metamorphosis, stick to Kafka. For the joy of cats, consider Ms. Babson.” —The New York Times Book Review on Nine Lives to Murder
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I can take cats or leave them alone — especially the four-legged variety. In fact, I prefer to leave them alone.
Not that they spook me. And I'm not an aureliophobe. I have absolutely nothing against them. It's just that they go their way, and I go mine. I'd always found it a perfectly convenient arrangement.
This time, however, quite a decent sum of money was involved, and so the twain were going to meet. Perkins & Tate (Public Relations) Ltd were contracted to do the PR for a glorified feline extravaganza, otherwise known as the 'Cats Through the Ages Exhibition.'
I followed Mrs Chesne-Malvern, the Organizer, through the Exhibition Hall, which was incorporated into one of Outer London's newest airport hotels, taking notes. I had the distinct impression that this was going to be my favourite memory of the whole Show. The carpenters and electricians were all over the place, the cats hadn't moved in yet. So far as I was concerned, the situation was ideal. It wasn't an opinion I felt safe in confiding to Mrs Chesne-Malvern.
' ... and general interest,' she was saying. 'Here, for example —' she paused in front of a low platform with a half-completed railing high above it, from which curtains were obviously to drape —'we will have a replica of the life-size statue of Dick Whittington's cat on Highgate Hill. This has been especially designed for us and will be cast in gold by Hugo Verrier — perhaps you've heard of him?'
'I believe,' I said cautiously, 'we once did some publicity for his aunt.' I didn't add that she had not liked the publicity and had forcibly expressed her disapproval by raking a large chunk out of my partner's face. To add insult to injury, the picture of her doing so had made the front page of every paper in London. 'We got a lot of front page stuff,' I added truthfully. There was no point in telling her we hadn't been paid for it. We didn't want her to know a precedent had been established.
It seemed to satisfy her. 'We shall expect the same,' she said. 'You might like to note that the Golden Cat has been insured for £250,000. You might also like to note that it has genuine emeralds for eyes. Originally, they were a pair of earrings — my own modest contribution to Art. Of course, they've increased the value considerably — the statue itself is hollow — but one cannot put a price on Works of Art. And it will be an original Hugo Verrier, after all.'
'I thought you said it would be a replica of the Highgate Hill statue,' I said.
She frowned. 'Perhaps I expressed myself badly. It will be Hugo's own interpretation of the Whittington Cat. I can assure you, it will be a completely original Work of Art — within, of course, the framework of the Whittington legend.'
Hugo, was it? 'I see,' I murmured, and followed her as she moved hastily away from the low platform and led me to a heavily reinforced dais at the opposite end of the aisle. 'We'll have a statue of the Egyptian Cat-God Bast here,' she said. 'Genuine. We've arranged a special loan from a collector of Egyptian antiquities in the north. We are not —' she glanced at me sharply —'at liberty to divulge his name. Like most collectors, he prefers to remain anonymous these days. It's too often an invitation to burglary if it becomes known that one has a collection.
'Nor,' she forestalled a remark I hadn't been about to make, 'does he carry insurance on his collection, or any part of it. The premium would be prohibitive. In any case, it is invaluable and irreplaceable.'
I nodded, looking at the reinforcement of the dais. If the thing were that heavy, they were on a safe wicket about insurance. No one would be likely to pick it up and tuck it into a carrier bag.
'Now, over here —' we threaded our way back to the top and centre of the aisle, across piles of boards, wire mesh and electrical cables, to an ominous wheeled cage, facing down the aisle —'we'll have Pyramus and Thisbe. You've read about them, of course.'
'Of course,' I said. In the long annals of lady writers who had viewed unlikely mammals and decided There's a book in you, Pyramus and Thisbe were the latest to head the best- seller list. They were threatened only by the saga of a lady who had raised a boa constrictor from sickly babyhood. The recent revelation, however, that the lady had been a striptease artiste who had found a useful place in her act for her pet after the last fig leaf had been discarded — while sending the book to the top of the best-seller list in America — had weakened sales here in England, where animal lovers had been shocked by the thought of an innocent serpent being made party to a low theatrical routine.
In England, Pyramus and Thisbe — a beautiful, treacherous, and quite possibly deadly, pair of Sumatran tigers — reigned supreme. They would draw the crowds, all right. And the crowds would make them exceedingly nervous. For the first time, I began to feel exceedingly nervous myself. The cage didn't look all that strong.
'Have you any questions?' Mrs Chesne-Malvern shot at me suddenly.
Actually, I wanted to know where the bar was. But that didn't seem the sort of question an assiduous young PRO should ask during the first briefing, so I shook my head.
'You're sure?' She seemed disappointed.
'Well —' I remembered the clue I thought I had picked up earlier — 'I think I might like to know more about Hugo Verrier — perhaps get pictures of the various stages in the creation of his Cat. You know — human interest stuff.'
She both smiled and frowned. I had the right idea, but had used the wrong jargon. However interesting he might be to her, personally, Hugo was human. And the whole idea of the Exhibition was that humans were to take a back seat to cats.
While she struggled with the words with which to correct me, I struggled with some words to extricate myself from the impasse. We collided in a dead heat.
'Actually, I think —' she began.
Just as I said, 'What I mean to say is —'
We stopped and grimaced at each other politely, each motioning for the other to continue.
Thanks to the rule of Ladies first, I won. After demurring graciously for a moment, she accepted the wave of my hand and continued.
'It was just,' she said, 'that I thought we ought to give extra attention to a special section we have in the Exhibition. Working animals. The Public so seldom considers them, you know.'
Her unconscious emphasis was interesting, as was the train of thought leading to the idea. So, Hugo, however artistic and brilliant he might be, was not to be classified as a working animal.
'Very interesting,' I said. But we were on the move again. I had already noticed that this area was more complete than any part of the auditorium so far. Ankle-deep red carpet lined an aisle between several large luxurious stalls, also well carpeted, with a corner of silken cushions in each spacious pen. We halted in front of a large cardboard cutout of a pair of shapely legs. At the feet, a fluffy white Persian lifted a gentle paw to stroke the nylons. She didn't need to tell me, but she told me anyway.
'This is where we'll have Lady Purr-fect — the Perfection Hosiery cat. It's largely thanks to Perfection Hosiery that we're having this Exhibition. You've seen Lady Purr-fect on television?'
'You might like to mention —' she frowned at the paw lifted to stroke the nylons —'that she is perfect. I mean, she does have claws — and teeth — she's just naturally extremely gentle. All our cats have their teeth and claws. They've all been checked by our own veterinarian. We were most insistent about that — especially in the working cats section. After that unpleasant publicity a few years ago, we felt it was most important.'
Something seemed to be called for, she was looking at me expectantly. 'Oh, I quite agree,' I said hastily, establishing myself, I hoped, as a person of sensitivity in her eyes, although I would have been much happier to have heard that Pyramus and Thisbe had both been de-clawed and de-fanged. I wasn't at all pleased with their presence, although I could see that they were going to be one of our best publicity angles.
'And here —' we crossed the aisle to a fairyland boudoir scene —'we have Mother Brown.' Her face softened, her voice was almost hushed with awe.
I stared at the showcase pen, with somewhat less rapture than she. The coy little white satin bed was surmounted by a crown, from which fell half-draperies in the Napoleonic style. The initials 'MB' were intertwined in gold embroidery on the coverlet, and on the white woven matting of the stand. There was no clue to Mother Brown's affiliations, save for the miniscule scarlet lettering along the base of the bed, 'Keswick Catteries.'
'Very nice,' I said. 'Er ... what product does she represent?'
'My dear man —' Mrs Chesne-Malvern seemed genuinely shocked — 'Mother Brown is the product. That is, she produces it. Mother Brown's kittens are in the highest demand all over the world. In fact, you might say that Mother Brown is one of Britain's hidden export assets.'
'I see.' Well, that was a good line. And the stand was photogenic. We could probably give Mother Brown a bit of a knees-up, publicity-wise.
'Actually —' Mrs Chesne-Malvern's voice lowered even more impressively —'we were extremely fortunate. Mother Brown will be here with her latest litter. Helena — that's Helena Keswick, of Keswick Catteries — wasn't able to promise in advance, but they just squeaked by at the minimum age for an Exhibition Litter. And the sire is Father Thames, also of Keswick Catteries. They're all sold already, of course. Helena has just kept them together for the Exhibition.'
And a lovely picture of dear little kitties, with their dear little Mum — of a sort to delight the flinty heart of any photo editor. 'That's fine,' I said heartily. 'Just what we want.'
'We're very pleased they passed the age requirement —' she glanced at me obliquely —'but Helena is usually good about timing.'
Was there a trace of acidity in that remark? I was tired, and it had been a full day even before I had decided to come over and case the joint of our latest client. There were moments when I felt I would be glad of a steady nine-to-five job in some dull firm with the same dull people, day after day. At least one wouldn't be perpetually trying to discover the lay of the land. One would know where one stood: in the same place, amongst people who would never change, and would uncompromisingly be the same, day after day. No surprises, and no interest. Further reflection along these lines always brought me back to the feeling that I had chosen the better part. But there were also moments, such as this, when I remained unconvinced. It was uphill work, trying to walk a tightrope amongst the established relationships of a group of people to whom I was always a newcomer.
'Then, over here —' we moved to an adjoining stand, tricked out with a megaphone, director's chair, and miniature camera —'we have Betty Lington's Silver Fir. A stupid little thing —'
I wasn't sure whether she were referring to the mistress or the cat.
'— but beautifully photogenic.'
The cat, I decided, optionally. On the back wall of the stand was a blow-up montage of stills of several of Britain's leading actors and actresses, each fondling, with varying degrees of ease, the same platinum Persian.
'She spreads her much too thinly, if you ask me,' Mrs Chesne-Malvern said severely. 'After all, she's getting on. And those looks won't last for ever.'
Once again, I was confused.
'The real money is in trade-mark stuff. But she's just spread her net too wide. And she's been altered, too. So, how much of a future is there for her?'
The cat again — I sincerely hoped. I tried to look intelligent — a task I felt increasingly beyond me. Perhaps I should have let my partner, Gerry Tate, handle this. It had never occurred to me to plumb his feelings about cats but, at this moment, I felt they must be warmer than mine.
I recognized that I was being unfair. I hadn't seen any cats yet — not the four-legged variety. But Mrs Chesne-Malvern was rapidly putting me off the entire breed for life.
'When do the animals move in?' I asked. 'I mean, do you bring them in the night before? Get them used to the whole idea before the Public arrives to stare at them? Or do you just have them come in that morning?'
'The working cats,' she said pointedly, 'will come in tomorrow night. Actually, they'll be working here the next day. Perfection Hosiery has hired them for that day, so, of course, the general Rules for Exhibitions don't apply to them. Working cats are in a special category. Perfection Hosiery will be photographing The Purr-fect Year', their next year's calendar, here. Lady Purr-fect will be posing with each of the working cats, and by herself, for the months of the year. That will take care of that day.
'The day after that, will be the Exhibition proper. Again, the cats will come in the night before, be checked by the Vet, and settled comfortably into their pens. The pedigree cats, that is. The domestic cats will arrive on the morning of the Exhibition. The pedigree cats won't be judged, they're just for exhibition, as are the working cats. The domestic cats, however, will be given prizes.'
'That sounds fine,' I said, taking the line of least resistance. I felt that, with any encouragement at all, she'd spend a few hours initiating me into all the reasons for everything. Which would be more information than I needed to know just to get publicity for them. She seemed to expect me to say something more, however, and I tried to oblige.
'What about the owners?' I asked. 'Where do they stay while their cats are penned here?'
'The Committee — the owners of the Working Cats — will be staying in the hotel. The hotel has kindly made rooms available to us —' she waved a hand —'In a corridor adjoining the Exhibition Hall, so that we can be nearby. It was most kind of them — even though they've just opened, the hotel is fully booked. I suppose,' she added reluctantly, 'we'll have to acknowledge them in the publicity releases.'
'It would be the sporting thing to do,' I agreed. 'It's nice of them to fit you in, and so close to the Exhibition Hall itself. It means you can pop in and see how the cats are during the night, doesn't it?'
'You must remember,' she said, perhaps detecting something not quite simpatico in my tone, 'that these are extremely valuable animals. Each one represents a small fortune — both now and potentially. Of course, we'll have a Security Man on guard throughout, but it's in the hotel's best interest that the cats are as well looked after as possible. Also, these owners are the Committee, and they'd prefer to take no risk at all. They'll remain near their cats.'
'I see.' It was a new world, and I felt I would rather not turn around too suddenly in it, in case I saw the disembodied grin of the Cheshire Cat floating above one of the unfinished stalls. I could see, however, that the Committee had a vested interest in the Exhibition. You don't hire a PRO unless you have a vested interest in something.
They'd seen that Perfection Hosiery and Lady Purr-fect were in great danger of taking over the Exhibition completely, and so they'd brought in Perkins & Tate to do the publicity for their own Working Cats. The Lady Purr-fects (I'd heard there was a stable of them, all identical, and all doubling for each other like actors and dictators in a Banana Republic) were an industry in themselves. An industry geared to, and powered by, high-octane publicity.
The Committee, not realizing the ins and outs of the matter, would expect the Working Cats' publicity to equal, if not surpass, Lady Purr-fect's publicity. Otherwise, why were they spending good money hiring a PRO? The resultant space would be matched, line by line and photo by photo, with Lady Purr-fect's coverage and — inevitably — found wanting. But how do you explain these things to amateurs? They think you're just concocting an alibi before you even start.
'The Working Cats will move in tomorrow night,' Mrs Chesne-Malvern said crisply. 'Oh, yes,' she answered my raised eyebrow, 'everything will be ready by then. Next morning, they'll start shooting the calendar. At 12.30, television news cameras will be here to take Kellington Dasczo unveiling the Whittington Cat. Mr Dasczo is also on the Committee and will be exhibiting his Pearlie King.' She glanced at me proudly. 'So, you see, we'll already have quite a bit of publicity from him — before you even start.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder at the Cat Show"
Copyright © 1972 Marian Babson.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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