“Cat in a Box” by Kevin Prufer (from Kansas City Noir)
Cat in a Box
by Kevin Prufer
Country Club Plaza (from Kansas City Noir)
At last the cat fell asleep and, because Armand still could, he drove his police-issue Crown Vic through the Plaza, down Main Street. He took a left on 47th, slid past Latte Land then Pottery Barn, past Barnes & Noble and Gap Kids, then left again. Three fat men stood outside a fake Irish bar and laughed while the snow came down, but Armand drove right past them too, over the bridge at Wornall and left again, to Ward Parkway then Main then 47th again.
Around and around he drove while the cat slept in the cardboard box beside him.
Sometimes Armand’s legs felt numb. Sometimes they tingled, as if he’d exercised too hard the day before, or a dull ache would curl up his thighs and settle around his hips. He knew he shouldn’t be driving.
It was two days before Christmas. He’d seen the 280,000 colored lights blink on at seven p.m., during his first pass, while the cat meowed plaintively and scratched at the little air holes he’d cut in the box. Still driving, he unwrapped a sandwich, tremblingly swallowed cold coffee.
After a while the stores closed, their windows dying away in the gloom. A pretty girl turned the key on Burberry’s and hurried to her car. The cat slept soundly again.
The restaurants went next, spilling their drunken yuppies onto the snowswept pavement where they fished in their coats for car keys or looked into the reflected Christmas lights in each other’s eyes.
Armand drove in circles, listened to slush part beneath his wheels.
Once, he stopped the car and tilted the seat back and closed his eyes, but he didn’t sleep. Instead, he concentrated on his fingers, willed them to open and close, played them awkwardly over the steering wheel, two taps of the ring finger, then the index finger, then the pinky, though they ached too. They were harder to control today than even ten days ago.
He’d given himself one more week. One week of driving, of East Patrol, of holding his coffee with both hands to conceal his tremor. Then he’d tell Jackson, who already knew something was wrong. And then he’d tell Balls, who would want his gun and his car keys, who would want his badge and his clip, who would nod gravely and say, “Armand, I don’t know what else I can do.” And there’d be a retirement party at Lew’s and, after that, he’d end up drinking with Jackson and Rorkisha at the Cigar Box as long as their babysitter would allow, and then he’d drink alone or go home where, slowly, slowly, the disease would finish him off.
But he wasn’t going to feel sorry for himself.
The Dollmaker had driven through these snows, smiling as the final stragglers exited the bars, slid into their cars. The Dollmaker had sucked on his Camel Menthol, peered through someone else’s window, smiled, smiled, smiled.
“That cat,” the boy had told him four nights before, “she get into everything. Everything.” He held it to his chest, rubbed its chin. He was maybe twelve or thirteen, said his name was Lamar. “Where’d you find her?” he asked, not looking at Armand, no, looking at the cat, stroking it behind the ears while it stretched and purred. “You so thin,” Lamar whispered to the cat, “you a thin little girl.”
And Armand wasn’t sure how much to say, what to tell Lamar, whose mother wasn’t home, whose mother danced at the Fantasy Ranch on Route 50 halfway to Sedalia, which was a euphemism for taking off her clothes for truckers rumbling along through Warrensburg, Lone Jack, and Kansas City, toward the great blankness of Kansas itself.
“You know how I can reach your mom?” Armand asked, but the kid shook his head, said she wasn’t answering the cell phone, but she’d call when she got her break.
“Where’d you find my cat?” Lamar asked again.
Armand sat on the front steps beside the boy, looking out over Prospect Avenue, unsure of what to tell him. Kids made him nervous—he didn’t have any of his own, though once he’d thought he would. But he liked Lamar, who lived in a neat house on a not very good corner of a bad neighborhood.
A patrolman found the third victim, Wilma Perrin, fifty-five, in a white Toyota Camry parked illegally near the east end of a construction site where Bannister Mall once stood. Satisfied that she was dead, he closed the trunk and waited for Armand and Jackson to arrive.
The woman’s eyes were open and glittered white in the streetlights’ glare. Her teeth also glittered behind the sad grimace of rigor, her face tight and strange and pale. She probably hadn’t been dead very long, though it would be hard to tell because of the cold.
She looked a lot like the little doll the killer had slipped into her mailbox before anyone noticed she was missing, a neatly sewn, three-inch-tall plump doll in a pale blue dress and tiny boots. The victims all looked too much like their dolls. The Dollmaker had studied them carefully, gotten the wardrobes just right, the freckles and the jewelry.
With the end of a pencil he carefully peeked under her collar at two thick welts. He’d choked her, but he didn’t kill her that way. He’d choked her to have fun. Probably after he gave her the injection, as it was taking effect.
Sodium thiopental takes some time to work, maybe two, three minutes. So, first she became dizzy, then her eyes closed, her muscles going momentarily rigid, then slackening, loosening. Completely limp. Maybe he brushed hair out of her face. Then he choked her for a while. Then he straightened her collar to hide the welts. Then he probably followed up the first injection with another, this one phenobarbitol, to prolong the effect.
And then he’d loaded her into the trunk of the Toyota Camry—all this flashed before Armand’s eyes quickly as he sat on the stoop with Lamar and the cat. He placed her lovingly into the trunk of a stolen Camry and drove her through the snow, down Hillcrest, where he parked the car and disappeared.
Armand told none of this to Lamar. Nor did he tell Lamar that when he and Jackson finally got that trunk open again—it had frozen shut—it was not the dead woman Armand saw first. No, it was the cat—Lamar’s cat—tired, hungry, and angry, sitting on the victim’s chest. Armand looked at the cat and the cat looked at Armand. Its eyes glowed greenly in the darkness.
Then Armand closed the trunk once more, lest the animal escape.
“Where’d you find my cat?” Lamar asked again.
And Armand shook his head. “Crime scene,” he said. “She was at the scene of a crime.”
Armand thought about all this as he drove around and around the Plaza, watching the last bars close. Through the windows, he could see waiters mopping floors, flipping chairs upside down atop the tables.
The cat mewed in the box beside him. When he turned onto Wornall, he heard pellets of food roll around.
From behind him came the long low moan of what might have been a cold wind. And the snow fell like a million little white angels in the night.
“Here’s what we do,” Jackson had told him, when they finally got Wilma Perrin to the morgue and the Toyota to forensics. “We put a tracker on the cat, then we let it go. The cat leads us straight to its home and there’s our crime scene.” He laughed, like it was joke, but it wasn’t. And after a moment he said, more seriously: “That cat got in the car at the same time Wilma did, to stay warm. And cats know how to get home.”
Armand was thinking it over. The fact was, they had three victims. Three little dolls and three dead bodies. But no crime scene. The Dollmaker clearly hunted victims away from their homes, picked them out of crowds, met them in shopping malls or movie theaters, followed behind them on highways, cornered them in unfamiliar territory. He knew them well, had watched them, probably photographed them so he could make their dolls.
And somehow he subdued them, injected them, played with them, loaded them in the trunks of cars, drove them elsewhere still, to odd corners of the city, to out-of-the-way parking lots where, after hours, his victims slowly recovered, then—from cold, from thirst, bound and unable to move or call out—died. To think of it made Armand tremble, made him hold the steering wheel a little tighter.
This was where he was going: paralysis, then nothing.
As if he could calm the cat, he patted the cardboard box. “Good cat,” he told it. “Shhh.”
Without a firm crime scene, they had no witnesses. If he knew where the victims had been abducted, he might find someone who had seen it happen, perhaps without realizing what he’d seen. But without witnesses, there was little to go on except the sodium thiopental and phenobarbitol, which led nowhere. And the dolls, which provided less than he’d hoped.
Armand was no cat person, but his wife had been, and when she died her cat had lived on another four, five years. And one day, when he’d brought the cat to the vet, the vet had offered to have it chipped. And this is how Armand came to know that lots of cats—all those adopted from the SPCA, for instance—came with a little microchip the size of a grain of rice embedded in the skin between the shoulder blades. And if this cat was chipped, that meant it could be scanned for the owner’s address.
And with an address, they had something close to a likely crime scene. And perhaps there they’d find a witness.
It would be easier than following the damned thing through the streets of Kansas City, anyway.
It had begun with a strange, dull ache in his joints, as if he’d had too much exercise the day before, though Armand exercised rarely, and then only under pressure from his doctor or from Balls, his immediate supervisor, who insisted all of them, even sixty-five-year-old homicide detectives, achieve “a level of physical fitness.” And quitting smoking hadn’t been enough. And mostly laying off the drink hadn’t done the trick, either.
But the ache remained, climbing up and down his legs, and then, a few weeks later, it was in his wrists. Sometimes it felt like handcuffs tightening over them. It was in his elbows, a sort of tingling pain, the sting of a bee. He’d grown unstable on his feet and, waking up in the middle of the night, had to hold the side of his bed to keep from falling while his legs attained their balance, while they caught up with the rest of him.
And his regular doctor looked concerned, as did the first specialist. And the next, and the third, a young Vietnamese woman who told him it was not going to get better, she was so sorry to tell him this. They could slow the process a bit, they would take an aggressive approach, there were a number of clinical trials going on right here at the KU Medical Center. “People live for years with this,” she said, smiling, by which she meant that people went on, slowly losing the ability to move their arms and legs, unable, at first, to drive safely. And then to walk, or feed themselves, or change the channel, unable to do anything at all but lie in bed or look out the window at the snow, which swirled now around his car as he took another left, and another, driving around and around the Plaza, two days before Christmas, a cat in a box on the seat beside him. It was midnight now.
He hit a bump and something rattled in the trunk.
It would feel like being locked in a trunk.
Lamar was a good kid, a sweet kid. He wanted to know about the crime scene and Armand told him a little bit, that he’d found the cat in a stolen car.
“Cat gets into everything,” Lamar said.
“What’s its name?”
“Cat,” Lamar said. “I thought you was dead,” he said to the cat.
Armand smiled. Lamar stroked the cat.
“Was it that white Toyota?” the kid asked after a moment.
Armand felt his pulse quicken. He was waiting for Jackson to show up. But Jackson was going to be late.
“Yeah,” Armand said. “You know the car?”
“Sure. Big Camry? It was parked right in front of the house for like three or four days and Cat pretty much lived underneath it. I had a feeling about that car. It didn’t belong to no one around here.”
“You see who was driving it?”
The kid thought about that. A Cadillac rolled down the street, stopped for a moment while the driver threw a can out the window, then emptied his ashtray onto the curb. “Yeah,” Lamar said at last. “I think I seen him. He came and went sometimes.”
“You remember what he looked like?”
“Did he steal the car?” Lamar asked.
“Did he murder those people? The ones they finding in the trunks of cars?”
“You know about that?”
“I read the paper,” Lamar said.
Lamar was sorry he couldn’t remember what the guy looked like. He’d seen him several times easing the white Toyota into and out of that spot in front of his house, opening the trunk, hunting around inside. But he hadn’t paid much attention.
Armand asked him lots of questions, told him to take a deep breath. The kid looked like he was going to cry. “If you don’t remember his face exactly, do you remember if he reminded you of someone?”
But Lamar didn’t know. “He was a white guy,” he said, “kind of average. That’s all. I didn’t really look.” And Lamar was really near tears now, he wanted so badly to remember, wanted Armand to think he was a good kid, a smart kid. And when his mother came home, he wanted her to know that he’d helped the cops with that big case, that he’d helped them catch the Dollmaker, but he couldn’t remember anything except a white guy walking to the car every now and then, opening the trunk—he’d seen it through his bedroom window—closing it. A white guy in a yellow jacket. Or a white jacket. And a baseball cap.
And then the car was gone and Lamar had thought of it no more.
And now he was helpless. And he wanted his cat back for good. Armand said they’d hold on to it for a few days, bring the cat back home as soon as a vet could surgically remove the chip from its neck. Armand said they needed to keep the chip to preserve the chain of evidence.
But something bigger was nagging at Lamar, some detail, and after Armand left he kept thinking about it. He thought about it while he made himself mac and cheese, and while he curled on the couch to watch TV, then closed his eyes. He thought of it when, through the haze of sleep, he heard his mother unlock the door and shake him awake and put him in his own bed.
And he dreamed about it, the man in the yellow jacket unlocking the trunk of the car, dreamed the man lifted the trunk then glanced up at him. The man seemed to see Lamar’s face pressed against the window. He smiled and waved. He was missing two fingers.
He had served on the KCPD for nearly forty years and still didn’t want to retire.
And he’d worked 214 murders.
It was easy to say that most of those were mundane and pathetic—a dead dealer, a gas station attendant who should have just handed over the cash, a gangster who thought he’d keep all the money and disappear. But the truth was, there was nothing mundane about any of them. Every dead hooker, addict, teenager was strange and mysterious to him. What had they been thinking? How did they become who they were, and why did they end this way, sprawled in the back of a Trans-Am, dead in the zoo parking lot, crumpled over their own front steps? What had their hemorrhagic eyes seen?
But these new bodies—these bodies in the trunks of cars, their little cloth images dropped in mailboxes—they hit him in a stranger place. They weren’t mysterious at all, he decided, feeling the dull ache working his arms and legs, feeling his foot shift, unbidden. They’d died immobile too, injected and immobile. He was going to go like that—a prisoner in his own body, unable to move, unable to do anything at all. And when they closed the trunk on him for good, when the light failed—
Now, driving around and around in the Crown Vic, watching the snow pretty up the midnight sidewalks, he wanted to get out of the car and stab the Dollmaker. He hated him like he hated the quickly degenerating cells in his slowly failing brain. He didn’t want to know the Dollmaker’s story. He didn’t want to know anyone’s story.
He wanted the fucker dead.
When Lamar woke up, he was sure the guy was missing those two fingers. When he’d waved, his hand looked like a claw. Why hadn’t he remembered that right away? Why hadn’t he said it to the officer right away?
“You took the bus here to tell me that?” Armand asked, leaning back on his desk chair. He’d quickly put away the crime scene photos when the kid arrived, shoulders still dusted with snow.
“Why didn’t you just call?”
“I got no phone.” He shrugged. The truth was, he wanted to see the station, wanted to come in person to make things right.
“And aren’t you supposed to be in school?”
“I guess.” The kid looked out Armand’s office window, onto 27th Street. “I don’t always go.”
But Armand was smiling the whole time, so Lamar wasn’t worried. “And you’re sure the guy was missing two fingers, right?”
The kid nodded.
“The pinky finger and the ring finger?” Armand held his hand out, curling those fingers down so his hand looked like a claw.
“I’m pretty sure,” the kid said. “I dreamed about it last night, but I’m pretty sure.”
So what if the kid couldn’t pick the freak’s picture out of a photo lineup—“I don’t really remember his face, just the hand,” Lamar had said—what did it matter? How many perps were there in Kansas City with access to pharmaceuticals and missing those two fingers? It had to be William Steingart.
So Armand drove the kid home in his Crown Vic. And the kid asked again when he could have his cat back and Armand told him soon, soon. “The cat’s fine,” he said. “They’re feeding him real good. Tuna and milk. It’ll be fat and happy when you see it next. Just another day or so.”
Steingart was a registered nurse, a sweet, lean, clean-cut bastard of forty-plus who smelled of Axe deodorant and something like playdough. When Armand asked how he’d lost the fingers, he smiled kindly, said he’d bet them away. “You should see what the other guy lost,” he said. But when Jackson raised his eyebrows, Steingart demurred: “I fell, put my fist through a window. It was years ago. In St. Louis. Not such an interesting story, I’m afraid. But it doesn’t slow me down any.”
Steingart smiled through the whole interview, his chair tipped back. He was voluble, cheerful. He noted Armand’s tremor, noted the scar that ran along Jackson’s cheek. He told them about his wife, who taught fourth grade in Leawood. He told them about his car, how the heater was dead and he froze all the way here. “Anything to help you fellows out,” he said.
And when Armand asked about how he was doing with his treatment, Steingart smiled, said he took it one day at a time. “You know, you’re never really free of those thoughts,” he said. “You just learn to control them. You learn not to act on them. To stay away from certain temptations. When they get too strong, I call my support team.”
“Right,” Armand said.
“I haven’t done anything like that in years,” Steingart said. “Not anything.” But the guy’s smile was weird, it was off, it was, Armand thought, hinky.
“You been driving a white Toyota Camry recently?” Armand asked.
Steingart thought about that one for a beat too long. “Nope,” he answered.
“What about a ’97 Honda Civic, dark blue?”
“I drive a Chevy Impala,” Steingart said.
“You been hanging around near Bannister Mall at all?”
Again, Steingart appeared to think about it. “Bannister Mall’s closed. There’s nothing down there.”
“What about Prospect Ave. and 67th?”
“Near Research Medical?”
“Yeah, near there.”
“Now and then,” Steingart said. “You know, there’s a place I like to eat up there, Salaam Cafe.”
Jackson crossed his legs, looked at Armand.
Armand grew flushed. His fingers tingled. His thighs ached. Then he looked out the window at the snow. “You kill those people?” he asked at last.
“What people?” Steingart said, a faint half-smile playing over his lips.
“You know what people.”
Jackson coughed again.
Steingart just smiled. He looked right into Armand’s eyes and smiled and smiled. He wouldn’t stop smiling, not even when Armand asked him again, not even when Armand got out of his chair, walked around the table, and grabbed him by the lapels and shouted into his face, “Did you kill those people? Did you kill them?”
And then Jackson was pulling him away, was saying, “Cool it, man. Cool it.” And Steingart smiled that strange affectless smile.
And it was true, they didn’t have a thing to hold him on. They couldn’t even get a warrant on what they had: a kid who may have dreamed the missing fingers.
“I’ve had quite a day,” Steingart said as he rose from his chair to leave.
“What?” Armand was still flushed, his legs unsteady.
“Real busy,” he said, and before Armand could react, the man took his hand in his claw and shook it cordially.
Around and around Armand drove as the snow piled up. When he hit the pothole on the corner of 47th and Pennsylvania, he heard a knocking. Now and then, the cat scratched at the box. It was, Armand hoped, still a little drugged from its surgery. It let out a loud, deep meow.
The car rode low in the gathering snow.
Armand was thinking now about that fourth doll, the one Elizabeth Wallace’s father found in the mailbox just that morning, not twelve hours ago.
“She was going to the mall,” he said. “And she texted to say she was staying at Julie’s. It seemed believable.” The man was crying. He did not want to let go of the little cloth doll, the three-inch misshapen image of a pretty, plump redheaded girl of nineteen in jeans and a pink sweater.
“I’m so sorry,” Armand said.
“But Julie never talked to her last night. She was never going to Julie’s.”
The man was twisting the little doll in his hands. Armand reached over, gently took it from him, slipped it into a little plastic bag.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll need a picture of her too. Something recent. Do you have something like that?”
Where had Elizabeth Wallace been going when she was seen last?
According to her father, she’d been headed toward Oak Park Mall.
Had anyone seen her in the mall?
Miller was on it. Melichar was on it. Nguyen was on it. So far, no one in any of the stores she frequented recognized her picture. At least not from the day she disappeared.
Gas stations? The post office? Blockbuster? Anywhere else she might have stopped on her way to the mall?
She’d gotten in her car and disappeared.
And now it was getting dark, the sky gone from gray to charcoal, and cold. Six o’clock, two days before Christmas. He’d been working since dawn.
Armand turned to Jackson. “I’m going to get a bite to eat, bring the kid his cat back.” He’d made the cardboard box for the cat that morning. Once it had held reams of office paper.
Jackson nodded. He was on the phone, on hold. “You coming back?” he asked, covering the mouthpiece.
“Yeah,” Armand said. “I just need some air.”
“Bring me a sandwich,” Jackson said. “And a Mountain Dew.”
“Yeah,” Armand said. “Got it.”
“You’re not thinking of visiting Steingart, right?”
“Stay away from that,” Jackson said. “I’m serious. We got nothing on him. If he did it, we’ll get something on him. But you stay away from him for now.”
“He did it.”
And he’d meant to do exactly that. He’d picked up the cat downstairs, carried it in the box through the snow to his car, placed it on the front seat. It mewed and scratched in the box beside him as evening continued to fall, as Armand drove up Broadway toward Lamar’s house.
But all he could think about were Steingart’s last words to him—I’ve had quite a day . . . Real busy—that strange smile playing over his wet lips, how he shook Armand’s hand, the little squeeze he gave him, the way those three remaining fingers felt.
I’ve had quite a day, he’d said. “A busy day,” Armand said out loud, his face grown flushed. The hot air blowing from the Crown Vic’s heaters annoyed him. The cat angered him. Who the fuck did Steingart think he was? And in Armand’s mind, the needle slid in, slowly, Elizabeth Wallace tipped back in the passenger seat of the blue Civic, eyes wide, a gun, perhaps, in his claw. He could hold a gun with three fingers; Armand had tried it.
Then he imagined Lacy Johnson, or Wilma Perrin, or Kaylee Sims—in and in and in went the needles while they cried, while their eyes rolled back and their arms went limp. Sometimes the needles went in just once. Sometimes, just as the women recovered, the needle went in again.
And what did they think as he closed the trunk over them, as they heard the car start up? As he drove them through the streets, paraded them around town, left them parked in the freezing cold where their bodies would not work, where their bodies failed them and all they could do was think, and all they could think was, Get me out of here!
And without really knowing it, Armand turned left on Blue Ridge Boulevard, then pulled onto Route 50 East toward Steingart’s house.
The cat shifted in the box.
“Your wife here?” Armand asked him
“Of course not,” Steingart said. “I told you she’s at a conference.”
“Was she at a conference when Lacy Johnson disappeared, three weeks ago Thursday?”
Steingart appeared to think about it. He wetted his thick lips. “She was visiting her mother, now that I think about it,” he said.
Steingart sipped his tea. He’d brought them both tea, though Armand hadn’t asked for it.
“And when Wilma Perrin disappeared?”
“Now when was that again?” Steingart asked.
“Oh, dear. I don’t remember where she was.”
“She was out that evening,” Armand said. “Parent-teacher conferences. I checked.”
“Oh, yes,” Steingart said. He sipped his tea again. “Is there a problem with that? She’s not a suspect, is she?”
“No, it’s just a funny coincidence.” Armand drummed his uneasy fingers on the arm of the sofa, two taps with his ring finger, two with his pinky. It took some concentration. “Why are you smiling?” he asked at last. “Is this funny to you?”
“Of course not,” Steingart said, still smiling.
“Is this a game? Is it some kind of game?”
“It’s not a game.”
Armand slid his hand into his jacket pocket, held his fist there to keep it from trembling, felt the cold steel of his service revolver. He’d taken it from the glove compartment of the Crown Vic before he knocked on Steingart’s door. He looked long and deep into the other man’s eyes. Steingart shifted modestly.
“Where’s Elizabeth Wallace?”
“Oh, dear,” Steingart said.
“What did you do with her?”
“Oh, dear.” He was still smiling.
Outside, snow decorated the windowsills. It came down and down over the rooftops and the parked cars. It fell big and luminous in the streetlights’ glow. It fell big as aspirin tablets.
Armand withdrew the gun.
“She’s in a tan Kia Sentra parked at the airport. Lot B, four or five spaces east of stop 7. She’s probably still alive.”
Jackson was silent on the other end of the phone. “What the fuck?” he said at last, but by then Armand had hung up.
It had been a pleasure getting the information out of Steingart. A real pleasure. And now he’d spent six hours driving in circles around the Plaza just thinking about it, watching the restaurants close, watching the bars close, watching as one by one the cars that lined the streets disappeared.
It was a beautiful snow. A lovely, numbing snow that decorated the windshield for just a moment before the wipers brushed it away. Again and again. For hours.
The cat meowed on the seat beside him. He still had to bring it to Lamar, but it was far too late now. Tomorrow. He’d do it tomorrow. Christmas Eve. It would be like a Christmas present.
And what did it matter if he retired six days before he’d intended? What did it matter if they put him in a box, in a cage? He was already in a cage and it got smaller every day.
The cat scratched at the box, stuck its paw through one of the air holes, meowed.
And the murderer in the trunk was just coming to—Armand could hear him back there moving, his first half-hearted kicks. Then the sound of the tire iron hitting the wheel wells, fists banging on the ceiling. “Let me out of here!” the murderer called.
Armand wondered if he ever would.
KEVIN PRUFER is the author of numerous critically acclaimed books of poetry. His mysteries appear in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Crimewave, and elsewhere. He lived in the greater Kansas City area for fifteen years before moving to Texas, where he is a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Houston.
Posted: May 7, 2013
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