wc=12.2 K
ray hartman


"OKey, all right, so it's ankh, not angst and Mau not Mao. I gettin' better?"

"Really, Mr Levine ...  not so one would notice."

"Ahh well - furry, frisky, feline ... I'm sorry Mrs Wonders,  that fourth word ...  ya talked so fast two verbs made an adverb and it sounded Italian."  I wuz hanging over my  desk pouring bourbon into the  dame clients tumbler as February rain beat a tattoo on the windows, and between the rap and the rattle and the splash ...

"Un'espressione rustic,"  my not-so-rustic client gushed  cross the  inkstain blotter.  She frowned and frowned ...  nylons  rustled under tweed Peck-and-Peck;   bright flush drained from her face and  stiletto heels rapped  dust devils. "I trust you   photograph better than you hear, Mr. Levine ..."  she  finally said and squirmed deeper into the leather lounge.

She wuz doin' the same ta me ...  talk and squirm a size-12  gush into my size-6 attitude  while her wandering lists of wandering husband complaints squeezed  pain inta my ears and wax outa my pencil mustache.  Ya wanted ta knock the dames nose with an eraser. 

That picture  I shot fast ...  clients size-14 checkbook  stalking away.  I  grunted  ... "Not my best language huh, Italian, but if I get  your drift ya want me ta take pictures a' your tabby."  I rolled wingtips off the desk scuffed and battered  as my shoes. "Kittens, cats, tabby ...  yeah, at least they eat small birds ..." I shook two fresh Reds from the pack. "Sure I love nature ... best part a' the natural world  I sez, but actually Mrs Wonders ..."

Client  snatched hungry at the Red. "Call me Shela, won't you now ... S-h-e-l-a,"  she scribbled  gamely on the blotter.

"Uhhh, well yeah, Shela ...  sure I see better than I hear that's why my eyes are in front," I sez flashing the Zippo.

"Then by all means bend an ear!" Her smokey maroon lips pawed restless. "I said hubby, not tabby you twit. A slabbering, drooling, no-account vagabond of a husband."  Smokey billows oozed from her mouth.  "And  while fellato IS an Italian word it is most certainly NOT an adverb!"

"...oh ... THAT fellato ... "

"Oh yes ...",  clients plucked eyebrows raised. " She ... that is SHE, that preening, shameless, controlling, feral bitch!"

Pall Mall I shuffled under the moustache and chewed ... "A SHE too, huh not just a tabby ... uhhh hubby. Two that is, or both ...?"

"SHE ... insinuating that tawdry,  vaporous faux-Egyptian style, why ... why she's worse than a drug!"

"Hooked the hubby, huh ...?"

Clients face flushed. "Affections alienated, Mr Levine ---  ohhh how I trusted them with FyngFyang my  spotted Mau  and ... ohhhh how I hate them now!" She wrung her fat little hands hands -  flipping out a picture  of hubby not tabby.

I recognized it. "That ... that's a fish, isn't it?"

Shela sniffed. "Heuby loves his koi ... more than FyngFyang and certainly more than me. I came to a private investigator for revenge, ... get me  juicy revenge!"

"Blue-plate or buffet?"

"That will be MORE than enough coy cleverness Mr Levine." Rivers of crocodile tears welled in Shela Wonders eyes. "Do your homework, as Heuby has NOT been doing his ... I want  glossies!"

"Ahhh ...  photographic revenge. I  hear, I see  - something like holding hands, groping hands ... hand-cuffs ... how intimate should this photographic revenge be Mrs Wonders?"

"In flagrant'e  eight-by-ten  color glossies and covered with sweat!" Her lips exploded. "Excruciating!" Then - plumbing depths of a  suddenly pale,  shallow face the dame drained two fingers of  Wild Turkey and glumly rose. "Really Mr Levine ... Sammy ... you should call me Shela. From a man of action like yourself ...  a  Holy City private investigator and OH we know how dashing THEY are.  How ... how creative in exposing evil.  You ARE a man of action are you not ... Sammy?" She stalked to the window and brooded down on an  icy State and Broad. "A man who takes command, not training ...?" Then she whorled blowing a thin stream of smoke  like bad intentions cross the room . "Anyway, Mrs Wonders sounds so ... so uncertain!"

And with a snap of  arrogant, stiletto heels, and smear of mascara  Shela Wonders lamed through the door. Who woulda figured ... a koi ... I  butted out the Red, cracked  my office safe, and took out a two-inch thick folder.  'Excruciating, juicy, photographic revenge,' demands the client. How do ya do that, Sammy without the judge demanding 90-days ...? Revenge, feline, feral ... maybe ya need an invitation like RSVP, cause sure I take pictures, and what part'a nature gets exposed -  that pays the rent. Homework. I'd done mine ... flashed the Zippo on a fresh Red and opened the file.

Charleston cats never wuz the same, after she came ta town. Citten Delove what a gorgeous  dame one twitch a'  blonde, Georgia flag or x-ray from her blue-sparklers make two bricks and a pound a' cement walk on water. And if ya believed her real devot'es make the water thank them.  Citten ... or  CD as  most clients called her had a top-dawg vet degree from  Athens, an almost feline chemistry for anything with paws and a fat checkbook. Just off  Meeting Street  she ran a clinic called CittyKats. 

Citten  found instant success among Charlestons manicured claws. Fer fans a' CD,  CittyKats became  shop, sop and ouvre-de'-fur,  a bright upmarket salon  that amused, consoled, revived and entertained, as well as doing ta cats what'cha couldn't do ta City Council. And it looked classier -   live oak overhung the  two-story  brick colonial; a  brass, cat-tail plate swung  by the door - a walnut door like the paneling inside all the 18th Century style held together by invisible foam-N-chrome. Which 18th century was a matter of some discussion ...  three huge Bastet  planters graced the  front brick walkway which instead of darting in from the street looped  its way among the cat-headed nudes like a  gentle but insistent leash. Old and new, huh a  kitten-like sphinx guarded the entrance.  Looked a thousand years old, that stone sphinx  mighta come ta Charleston with the first ship ... Italian marble sez local stonecutters who did the work and paid ta have blocks shipped from a  Georgia quarry ... they installed the eyes, too,  for the kitten sphinx  which  in  restless pink neon purred CITTYKATS. 

All of which sez plenty about cat owners. But  Georgia stone hadn't made CD  top-paw in the Holy City. Or the first floor surgery, where toms became tame. Her clinics  second floor  sported the liver-scented, teflon walkways or 'cat-o-bans' as patrons came to call them for which CD had become famous. For cats that minded, the scratching posts were mahogany and salmon grew  fat, but not old in a cedar-lined aquarium. Some spin huh, fer CD?

Yeah, CD ran an obedience school for cats and the  fat-wallet SOB matrons  who owned them. Owned them, loved them ... adored them a few bitter Baptists clucked  and a local Rabbi had a  cat stoned though whether before or after Cittens treatment nobody would say ... In fact the building had become something of a shrine, to Charleston feline cognocenti as a fluffy cross between cats-cradle and little Egypt.

Most of  CDs business got done there, at the city cat-clinic like most of her  yachting got  sailed out'a  Admirals Marina tip-of-the-bay  with more lounging, fat-cat Republican patrons than a Lompoc swimming pool, and most of her drinks got drunk at Momas Money where I don't know the doorman and ain't been invited recent. Ta say we moved in different circles wuz ta call me a triangle.

Or square ... and  Charleston, the biggest small-town  east a' Reno drew its social lines straight as an Egyptian hypotenuse.  Course a  Charleston PI might bend those lines, working  both South-of-Broad and East-a'-the-Cooper. But I didn't need a Low Country geography lesson.  After Shela Wonders left  my office I  hit the telephone with  pals willing ta jaw -  SOB-types take more time mixing kitty-litter than martinis ... and grow crystals outa flower-pots ... and look for the Celestine prophecies between Nehemiah and  Esther ... not good pals ...

Then there wuz Jimbo, who  fair-enough mixed no litter, but  runs  TWO BEANS, the espresso station downstairs lobby a' the Allreed Building  - Jimbo that is, and and his alley-cat mouser TomTom who's scarce around the bean-roaster as an Allreed Building mouse ... thanks ta TomTom. The elevator rocketed me down ...

"Squeeze two beans like usual, Mr Levine," bellows Jimbo as  the elevator spits me out?

"Sure, Jimbo hold the Tabasco."

"Yer kiddin', Mr Levine, right? ..." 

TomTom wuz nowhere in sight. Jimbo's reading  our local rag, The Charleston Standard one hand pouring a cup a'  java with the other into a ceramic mug steam blazes from the top would eat through stainless ... Most times Jimbo's about six-point-five outa ten ...

He sez.  "It's 20-degrees outside, but Ms Peepers sez it's too hot  at Charleston High."

"Like that java, huh Jimbo ...?" Ms Peepers ... who ran upper crust a' Charleston society from her weekly gossip column. I grab a counter seat. "So the glitzy Ms Peepers got the hots. How's that, Jimbo?" The mug slides into my paw.

"Too much love."

First gulp of espresso turns my nose red. "In Charleston?  Ya sure Ms Peepers talkin' about the same city where even fresh water won't date the salt?"

Jimbos crew-cut, ex-Navy head sticks over the counter. "Makes no sense to me neither, Mr Levine, but  something about too much love at the raves. Ya know what a rave is? Yeah, me neither - sounds like a dance party, way  Ms Peepers talks, but computers play German music. Personal like I could never stand that German Umpa Umpapahh, but kids is different now,  huh ... she even sez they go into ecstasy about it. Go figure ..."  Jimbo turns ta push pastry into a brick oven. "Ya want cherry, blueberry or chocolate-flake-mint?"

Think I'm gonna gag I sez. "Beats me, Jimbo ...  surprise me. And  by-the-way where's TomTom?"

"I ain't seen him fer two days. I think he got a new girlfriend."

"Never had him fixed , huh ..."

"Fixed! That ain't funny, Mr Levine not for TomTom. He ain't a  paisley  puss - fifteen pounds a' mean alley cruiser and he don't keep it all between his ears."

"Some do though, huh ... I mean the ex-girlfriend, she wants me ta do something with her cat, Shasta."

Jimbo smirks. "I thought she had a collie last time, she wanted ya ta do something with ..."

"If ya remember, Jimbo that's how comes I ditched her. But she's reformed -  got a cat and wants ta reform her cat too."

"They ain't never the same, ya know ... I mean after ..."

"I told her that. Anyway, I hear about this  top-dog local vet - right downtown, actually, by the name of ..."

"Delove," Jimbo barks. "Citten Delove"

"So ya DO know her. I thought ya said ..."

"Sometimes  her clinic sends up an order fer cat-tail crullers."

"No way ..."

"I seen worse in  the Navy. One admiral outa Sonoma wanted asperagus pizza ... but I wuz supposed ta grown it in the dough before I baked it."

"No ..." I scratch my head. "So TomTom still beats the drum ..."

"Mr Levine, I'd never have TomTom fixed, but coupla' months ago he got  fightin' with one a' them big sewer rats.  I seen the rat ... TomTom won, but got torn up real bad. I took him inta CD."

"And she patched him up."

"She's a good cutter ..." Jimbo folds his paper and stuffs it under the counter. "... when she keeps the blade away from what's none a' her business." 

"Cat,  kitty, hairball ... what part a' the business don't Citten understand?"

"Oh, about the feline CD knows everything." Jimbo leaned back, snagged the  mint Danish and slid it over next ta the java. Slides a big paw through the salt-N'-pepper crew-cut. "If ya wants she'll  do what's needed ta Shasta, but ... "

Bite a' the mint Danish I try - it tasted more like root than leaf. Jimbo smiles, turns and takes two steps toward the roaster. "Heh Jimbo, waaait a minute,  I smells more litter than cat what'cha not tellin' me?"

"There ain't nothing wrong with the way Citten smells ..." Jimbo musta known, he said that too fast ... cause he stopped fer a long draw on his own rocket fuel. "You ... you  ain't workin' a case are ya ...?"

"Na, Jimbo nothin' like that."

"Then who wants ta bad-mouth a dame, huh Mr Levine they all got more kinks than cats got fur." Jimbo stands straight up and looks me straight. "Ya made reservations?"

"Well, ahhh not exactly ..."  

"Ya gotta wear that hat?"

"Jimbo I ain't got square hair like you, gives a watch-cap corners."

"It makes yer eyes look beady, Mr Levine, that pork-pie ... that and the moustache. Ya know how women hate guys with eyes that look too close. They might try ta give ya the bums-rush, like dames gotta say no three times before they think about it. Then, keep yer eyes open ... and yer nose. Just inside the  clinic front door  there's a fur-filter.  It filtered ticks too, and smell which I don't like neither ... maybe you don't ...  Surgery is on the first floor, but ta watch yer gonna need an invite."  Jimbo's back at the counter leaning over. "And watch yer azz,  Mr Levine after all those nos just what invite ya say yes to ..."

"OKey, Jimbo, OKey ..." I sucked down last of the espresso and belted out the door. Whose nose and what yeses, I'm wondering? Who ever said NO ta a gorgeous dame like CD, especially since I'm lookin' for an invite of which kind I don't exactly know.  Jeeez,  that's another NO, Sammy ...  maybe today Jimbo's nine-outa-ten ... It got me worried.  A bitter Charleston wind bit through my topcoat who invited it?  Today  me neither, when I  rambled  into Dr Deloves clinic just after lunch with no appointment and a 4-year old  ball-a'-fluff Siamese borrowed from the ex-girlfriend so mean  her scratching post wuz made a' brass.

"Dr Delove, please," I  scratched at the receptionist  -  her head I could see, the glowing top of it nothing else. "This IS CittyKats," I scratched anxiously with a henpecked SOB accent while flashing my stainless Rolex hasn't seen the pawnshop in months ...  Funny , how the air inside the office was crisp and light and tangy as fine ale. Intoxicating ... which mighta been the receptionists mental state cause two neon hairs didn't move.

Woozy, but determined I held up the cat. "It's an emergency! Shasta has overdosed on catnip." Four ounces of the stuff  is what it took ta get Shastas claws outa my neck before the ex- stuck her furry face in a bowl of Jack Daniels. "Heh, sweetheart, wake up, the wife's in a tizzy ya can see she's barely breathin' ... "

"She?" The receptionist  eyebrow raised, before she stood - all 6 feet of starched, white cotton lean and slinky as a cobra ready ta strike eyes dark and deep-set -  her  slim face topped by a razor-cut shock of hair bleached neon peach smoothing into Nile night black falling to her shoulders.  "Do you normally wear glasses?"

"Only when I miss my mouth, sweetheart."

She drew back the entire waterfall hissing. "And where have you missed today or should you  just be with someone?"

It wasn't a question. Not from this starchy dame who ain't asked a question since her lipstick wuz pink not silver. Her silver ankh rattled once ... a hand flew out shagging Shasta from my grip and flipping her into a silk-line kitty-litter end a' the walnut table while the other slid a pre-stamped credit draft under my wrist  which stamp read $400.00.

"Sign this," she sez. "Then leave."  

"But ... but, heh sweetheart I need ta speak with the Doc ..."

"And you might be ...?"

'Bouts then I wuz wondering. Egyption-style cat  murals  graced  both the reception-room ceiling and floor. Two east-a'-the-Nile felines chased each-others tail  above my head, while engraved into the walnut floor planks two collared  furry Egyptians ...  Jeeez, Sammy ya better know who ya are today. "Sweetheart who mights I be  how 'bouts the cat owner," I sez shades north a' polite.

Starchys eyes froze contemptuous. "Owner? Did you say  o-w-n-e-r?"

"Does this hairball look like a rental?"

"Specism at its worst! Humans do not possess cats. Try feline facilitator, try cat companion - and while you're trying, a personal appointment with Dr Delove requires one months reservation  AND a referral." With that the starchy dame slinks over ta Shasta and starts stroking her jaw got teeth make lions jealous. I stepped aside ...

"Heh sweetheart better watch  out ..."

Two steps was all I took and Shasta lets out a scream  melt hairballs and uncurling her claws pointed right at my nose.  Who sez female cats don't know where they want ta be?  Low growls filled the room. Starchy hovered protective. I stopped dead.

Side of the room,  faint scented spray burst from two feline statues and between them a  door snapped open in the white marble. A thin, violet edge washed out the voice smooth as a Nile dhow. "Another soul to Osiris, may Bast forgive ..."  Then  waves of blonde hair,  a thigh-high white leather skirt and gams ta match 36-caliber steel-tips. Last I caught blue-sparkler x-ray.  "That  puss-in-purgatory scream would raise mummys. Praise RA, RAhon-da what was that nasty little man doing ...?"

Beside watching her not nothin'! She wore a mask and surgical vest, and carried a bloody surgical knife in her left hand. Which wuz my personal introduction ta Citten Delove. In my profession I been called plenty a' things by plenty a' dames, and even when they change their mind it's easy ta come up nickels short ... so  waving at Shasta and dropping into a  straight-up, roll-over break-yer-back Ra-King  chair I sez , "just try'n ta do a good deed, sweetheart for a needy animal even if it means swallowing hairballs."

Real clever, Sammy ... an enigmatic, sphinx-like smile curled  CDs lips. "Needy animal,  now is it ..." She cat-pawed to the reception table, and held out her arms.  "Hairball ... indeed!"

An acolite had followed her out of surgery. He was black as the spade-Jack and seven feet tall and  stripped away  her mask and knife and gloves and disappeared catlike through the wall-slit. Until then I hadn't noticed it ... it or him or her ... the tabby cat, I mean a BIG  spotted tabby  lounging casual  while leashed to the wooden, spraying Egyptain RA-cats. I'm thinking 18-th century ... as in Upper Kingdom. I'm thinking sabre-tooth leopard, and half expect the tall gent ta return wearing a ravens beak.  I'm figuring it's smooth and final as CDs bloody scalpel ...  if that cat ever got loose.

CD  poked and pawed Shasta never taking sparklers off me. "And who might this animal be, RAhon-da,"  Citten Delove finally managed, while slipping a thin green tab between Shastas fangs?

"I have no idea, Dr Delove.  He appeared without a reservation."

"Yet another wandering Levintine ..." CD eyed the spotted tabby then looked back at me like maybe I wuz gonna make a move - the wrong move  and  ...  "Not an obedience class member, then ...", she mused biting her lip as Shastas examination continued. "A strained ligament, and fat deposits ... criminal mistreatment on the part of the ... companion ..."

Now CDs  blue X-ray bore right through me,  so two muscles I didn't move huh ... "Heh, bacon and eggs the hairball eats good as me!"

"Criminal de-nutrition, and the untrimmed claws ..."

"Untrimmed claws," I babbled? "Kinda like yer tabby-da-spot over there by the wall ..."  CD demurred. I rapped. "What's criminal, sweetheart are the scratches on my back."

"Tabby ... oh, you mean Chea-ta' the cheetah ...  she's quite harmless to the well-intentioned visitor."

"Then how comes it's licking it's fangs like that  --- Jeeez they're big!"

"Chea-ta' likes to keep her tongue sharp,"  CD smiled. "And those scratches on your back, well ... that -- I cannot imagine," sez CD stroking Shasta and sliding her off ta Starchy in exchange for a  thin glass of   sticky green liquid. Starchy served one to me while  CDs eyes ...  they lit into my gut like scalpels. "If not criminal  you're behavior, then ... matters of obedience, perhaps ..."

"Sweetheart ... I mean Dr Delove,  disobediance like ya couldn't guess."

CD sipped careless at the drink. "Genetic?"

I  sucked the green slime; it tasted like lemonade without water and I simpered twisting my mustache. "Genetic? Oh  no -  it's natural Doc ... a drug overdose. Bad Shasta, lazy Shasta, disobedient Shasta ... she broke into the unlocked catnip supply."

"Ra-be-raucous what a disgrace ...," CD blanched. "A  feline facilitator blaming everything but himself  ... his own lack of ... discipline ..."

Leaning forward I mugged. "It's tough, Doc when the kitten does what it pleases."

"Oh really ... the kitten ..."  Her hand brushed away blonde hair to reveal a pouty smile. "Have we an opening RAhon-da ...?"

"In the classes?" Starchy huffed. "New  obedience classes are oversubscribed ..." She slid couple steps toward the spraying, wooden cat-sculptures letting a thin smile fade when she saw me watching. "... oversubscribed -  for the next six months!"

"A pity ... "  Cittens eyes flickered over the engraved floor. "It's unconforming, but ... " she eased  back, against the  walnut desk showing more gams than Egypt has pyramids. "Perhaps we DO have an opening,  some unenrollment in a beginners class. The weak, the careless often fail you know ...  Has he paid ...?"

For a PI used ta being a man-a'-action it wuz like floating on a raft as the tide flowed in and out with my fortunes. Or being unrolled, then rolled again ... now there was a word: unenrollment. Sounded like somethin' ta do with Pharaohs army,  or CDs ... like  how did ya unenroll from CDs army?  What were ya fightin'? ... like this I'm thinkin' while the dames go back and forth. And  for  2nd-ankle in a two-dame stocking, Starchy  still pulled some elastic.

She had dove into a stack of forms, and surfaced waving my fresh-signed check. "Paid in full. For a wandering Levintine,  perfect marks. A  Mister Levine, according to Vera-Chek and a merchant of womens hosiery."

Of which CD wore none and of which damned lie  Sammy-da-sockman wuz courtesy of a database hack run by  my computer perv palsy Ben Hricko. He had the big-iron and fat-pipes ta warez, and thought  only  Fed hackers knew the grift.  I coulda been a different salesman every month, and since Hricko owned only half of what he sold I could been  Sammy-da-fatcat and  the Feds don't care long as taxes got paid.

Hricko's a bad Catholic - nice pal huh,  but for Egyptian furballs I needed no palsy letting my eyeballs drift by Starchy and bug out. "Yeah, Dr Delove that's what I actually had in mind. Not that the furball ain't important, but ...  a beginners obedience class ... where do I sign?"

"Furball!" Hairball  ...? Oh my poor dear, deluded  leg-man what a long path of training you have."

"Oo-oh yes oh yee-es," I stuttered breathless. "If discipline's the game, ya got my name."  Couple seconds I let drop. "The cat, yes the cat ... it never minds."

Who knows what  attention sets off a dame? RAhon-das  voice snapped sudden. "Dr Delove this is most un-regular., First a kitten strays, then  a stranger joining ... I think ..."

"Tut-Tut RAhon-da. We plant while the river rises ..."

Starchy hissed. "But he's ..."

"A Semite? Oh dear RAhon-da they have served us before ..." CD put  down her drink and for half-seconds let her  eyes lick across my face. "Careless, yes ... careless disobedient companions will of course produce a ... an incautious feline."  Cittens eyes sparkled as she scratched on a notepad. "Nine-PM tonight, Mister Levine ... I trust you can read the address? Membership both exclusive and discrete and of course,  by invitation only."

Sweetheart I'd bet my bobbysocks on that. Nice card, though, with a texture like squashed cat-tails and engraved pictures of an ankh, a crocodile, cobra  ... and a slave.  I said. "Heh that's great ... ya want me ta bring a cat ... or how 'bouts a sample a' my merchandise?"

CD demured, beneath a swirl of blonde hair. "Oh my poor  enchanted  Mister Levine be assured  your dear kitten will receive the best of care, and otherwise?  We supply everything!"

Bingo!  And no late afternoon dash ta Sears Womens Better Foundations ... Who takes care a' my kitten's mostly my business. What's  otherwise  I had no idea, but CD neither;  top-a'-the-tree peaches rarely did while an honest PI just roots  and roots ...  and sometimes invites come like the cats-meow. I gave it my best, humble smile.  Both CD and RAhon-da grinned archly as I  stuffed the address card into my jacket and beat-feet  out the door.

I bet it never snows in Egypt. Sleet was dripping  from Tradd Street  oaks.  Nice trees, huh maybe they need a hug? I  wave greetings at a vague, cape-clad body passing by and  toss an acorn to a squirrel without tryin' ta hit it, tip my pork-pie ta couple a' gals strolling by arm-in-arm must be the love-bug huh ...?  Maybe that's it! I don't need ta bring a cat to the evening obedience class cause CDs gonna supply a whole flock of Charleston kitty orphans ... kinda nice a' the dame, huh?  I whistled  at a car dodging puddles ...  out ta the real world  where raindrops spattered.

Nice moves, Sammy ... I whistled, maybe ya should thank the ex-fer loaning  you Shasta and treat her to dinner. Nice gal. Maybe that collie wuz a mistake  ...  I picked up another acorn ... and sat down  - a swirling rain-curtain grey and cold and  stinging as Folly Beach jellyfish slapped my face, and startled me. I looked at my hand, and the acorn ... whatch'a doing, Sammy? Looked across Tradd cobbles at the hungry squirrel ... I breathed deep leaning over the rusted city bench tourists photographed while  rain-spatter chewed at my face I kinda liked 'em no two balls a' sleet ever feel the same ... till  rooting in my pocket I had found a dried green olive musta been a short martini I thought  sucking the bitter salt green pulp -- oh yeah ... 

It had always bugged me how comes pyramids slanted up not down too big for a martini, but ya couldn't even catch water.  What wuz they thinkin'? Then I  dropped the acorn and flipped the  olive pit cross-street clipping the furry little rat-face rodent in a furry ear.  It screamed and ran up the tree; I drilled back toward the office. On State Street the rain wus sharp-tooth as  crocodiles and the air thick and  unforgiving  as a  Negev sand-storm.

Six-thirty  I pour through the Allreed Building  glass door. Lobby's  quiet and empty.  Jimbos still behind the  espresso counter. "Squeeze two bean, fer ya Mr Levine," he grumbles?"

"No time, Jimbo I gotta make tracks like a cat." Funny guy, Jimbo he got three mugs on the counter and I ain't gonna have one and his eyes ain't the big blue smiling ex-Navy  saucers twenty years at sea bought him, but  black arrows  darting into the lobby corner. It's dim. An ancient brass mailbox stands there all angles and levers and chutes kinda looks like a medieval torture machine Jimbo keeps it shined and I can't see it.

Steaming black java splashes ta  the mug rim. Jimbos voice grates. "How 'bouts sugar, Mr Levine I got raw, raw N' raw ..."

"Heh Jimbo I  never ..."

It's a spear of an ancient voice from the corner. "Oh, but you will tonight, Mr Levine, coat that damnable Levintine soul with un-natural, disposable sweetness."  The kind a' dead-lung voice every PI imagines he hears just before the last bullet he ever hears catches him slow and tired and  surprised.

My head yanks around, I'm sliding left and my right hand falls to the belly-gun grip at my waist as the second voice drawls out. "Leave it,  Sammy yer too young fer  last rites and and too bright for the dark river." A hard mans younger voice,  I know it, that one.  It jawing copper plaintalk. "Ya look jake ta me, Sammy, but yer sweatin' like a perp. Better sit down! Inspector Morraine and me,  and you we needs  palaver."

Jimbos out from behind the counter  with three steaming mugs and mugs me. "Like I tried ta tell ya Mr Levine ... raw, raw N' raw."     

The lobby's quiet and empty.  Espresso's drunk, Jimbos vanished and lights are gone dim like butts on the three cigarettes. Lieutenants silver bourbon-flask lays on its side and  only when the table rattles  does the flask ring hollow. It's been like that for a while ...  Fags we light them fresh. 

I'm thinkin' what are ya doin' here, Sammy with the Vice Inspector who on a normal roust talks ta his Captain and G*d only, and  him  double-dating a Homicide Lieutenant when Vice and Homicide coppers get along like sperm and a condom? Vice Inspector Morraines  black cape drapes over his chair - he sits to my left twitching Catholic vengeance and  wheezing lung  while Nicky ... Lieutenant DeLeon's on my right. Morraines two foxes no longer  trailing arm-ta-arm sit upright against the wall. The brass mailbox doesn't shine any more just waiting.

Nicky sez. "Ya walked into this with yer head under yer butt, Sammy. Ya not sleeping too well these days?"

"Yeah, Nicky ... Lieutenant I sleep fine normal but I got asthma from the girlfriends cat."

"Cat, huh ...  no mental helpers for that asthma?"

"I breath through my mouth not my ears," I slap back  Nicky flat-faces it ..."Mental help sure Lieutenant  the girlfriend she loads five slugs and one green olive in the 32-caliber."

Lieutenant rolls his thin frame forward so the chair creaks. "Ya asleep on the street too, when Morraines foxes trolled by? What kinda PI street-craft is that, Sammy? Lucky this time they didn't frisk ya. Maybe next time they're gonna blow your nose ..."

"I wuz watchin' the squirrels, and thinkin' about the galfriend ..."

"Ex-gal, isn't it?"

"Heh what's a year or two between friends?"

A cigarette twitched uncontrollable between  Inspector Morraines fingers old and arthritic and clammy as hi-stone.  "Friend ... hehehe ...  she tried to kill you, Levine," Morraine  coughs out with pieces a' lung and blows a huge grey cloud over the coffee-mugs.

"Did I complain?" Sneer I wiped away mental. Ya didn't put screws in Morraine and walk easy. Inspector Morraine ... he ran Charleston Vice-squads like the Pope wishes he ran Catholics. "Heh, Inspector unloaded guns go off all the time, and  that I never reported ... and she didn't try hard ... and she missed."

"More's the pity ...  but  your paramour ... she's making it up to you now, though ..." Morraines black-bush eyebrows furrow and raise. "... something for the kitten in us all hehehe ...  better than a tanning spa, eh for a twisted Levintines special needs Hahahaha  ." And he hides the cackling laugh behind  those groping, yellow-stain gnarled fingers.

"She ain't pair a' nothing ... just a dame."

"And you're nothing either, are ya Sammy just a guy with a sick cat." Nicky tilts  aside his white Panama and grins. "Not a man with a need ...  lets call it mental ..." Nicky leans back on his chair and X-rays me. "It's all in you're brain, right Sammy? Hot or cold, stoned or sober ..." Nicky slams the chair forward. "Coulda' knocked me out cold, you coming outa Cittens cathouse I woulda guessed anybody but ..."  he pulls down on the Red till it glows like hot nails. "Now if ya were working a case ...  a case involving Citten? Some SOB matron feeling cats claws from Citten  Delove ...  asks around for a PI and and runs ta  Charlestons favorite bed weasel? Nothing like that ...?" Nicky's fist slams on the table and the empty mugs rattle and rattle ... "You're not working a case, are ya   Sammy?"

"Working? Me, Lieutenant ... hell no I eat cheese from the foodbank , sleep on a shrimp-scow and girlfriends ..." I shot a quick look at Morraines  prim foxes.  "Them I get  'em from the orphanage."

Morraines parched face flushed pink .... "Squeeze the Levintine bastard, Nicky." 

I lock eyes with Morraine. "Squeeze? I'm a lemon, Inspector not an avocado ..." Glance away where Nicky shuffles the battered pack a'  Camels. "Heh, Lieutenant wait a minute I got 14-Constitutional rights and now's 'bouts the time ta use two maybe three ... who pays my bills not the City ... I  flash a Nikon not a badge."

"Where's the cat?"

"I left her at CittyKats, or rather ..."

"Didn't get a ... a prescription then, did you. No medicine?"

"Just advice, Lieutenant. Eat less eggs. And I gotta say nothin' more about no client till the judge sez holler."

"Oh and holler you will  Levine," Morraine smirked. "From the sinful depths of that  damned Levintine soul will you shout. As will the judge. Ten to twenty, Levine ... hard time with bad food and sick people. Hard, corrupting time for a ..."

"Less than the bast'rd deserves," Nicky broke in shooting  badeye  and Morraine slumped away eyes watering and thin lips clamp-jaw.  Nicky eyes me cautious ... "Not many Jews do hard time ...'Course Sammy could prove ...  useful!"

I leaned forward too grabbed at the empty pack a  Reds. Grabs one a' the Lieutenants Camel Straights and gagged at the first lungful then said. "Lieutenant I got no idea what this is all about." It wasn't quite a damned lie --- no worse than Nicky's, cause when a copper said useful he meant either shoot yer wife and kid or -- wear a wire.  I had no kid ta shoot ... "Maybe the Vice-Inspector here's tired a' watchin' his  North Charleston whores shoot-up and die so why's he gotta watch me?"

"Could be cat-hair on the wingtips,  Sammy and a mud trail."

"What floats ta the top ain't always creme, Lieutenant, and even if ya don't crawl through it ..."

"I  didn't say ya crawled, Levine ... but Citten Delove has a  regular menagerie waddling through ... Noahs Nile ark, a  zoo, a carnival,  King Tuts circus complete with candy apples ... cotton candy, eh Sammy?"

"Nothin' white, huh Lieutenant  even Coco-Puffs rot my teeth I ain't never touched it!" Nicky sez nothing. "And how comes," I sez dragin' tip a' my moustache into a curl ..." how comes a Homicide copper's  so interested in the Inspectors grift? ... I mean job ... I mean the whore's are hot, Morraine  cools 'em off and you get 'em ..." 

"Works just like that doesn't it  Sammy --- snatch, sniff ... snuff right down the slide," Nicky spits out bitter. "Just a  sideshow, huh in Cittens carnival ...   that's you sez you, but  fact is in this maze we're not particular which rat runs it!" Nick looked at me hard and words slapped. "About the candy ...  maybe some action's moved  downtown, and not just blow-N'-glow at the Omni." Nicky shuffles uncomfortable what's he hiding ... while he's thinkin' and finally spits out. "About the snuff, if I told ya I'd have ta  snuff ya -- or hire you."

Slapped like a face full a' rain -- what made two-plus-two. Somehow somewhere Citten Deloves house-a'-cats wuz Cittens cathouse.  Now this is a very different thing from one-on-one two-backed beasts love-finds-ways  when my wife's outa town - oh yeah, a very different thing. Not jelly-roll, but a confection factory. Some a' that IS the Citys business. But who's payn' the bills my client not Nicky  ... what's he want ta bust up before I get the glossies ... 

I sez casual.  "Ya got a drug problem  so arrest  Krauts, who cares if the Beemers get made in India?  Arrest  some shysters ... Jeeez half the attorneys on Broad Street  got starch-nose five minutes after the judge sez GUILTY, or ADJOURNED, or JUDGES QUARTERS ..."

"Speak cautiously of your betters, Levine," Morraine cautions.

"Krauts and shysters ...  that's old news, Sam ...," sez Nicky suddenly tired.

"And Citten Delove she's the news?"

"A pagan sorcerous," Morraine  en-tones,  "devouring  Holy City virtue."

"She'd starve."

"Damn your Levite tongue." Morraines paste-white face flushed. "The witch has been accused in three AOA suits ... and payed to have the cases dropped."

"Witch? On Jeeez  if every  alienating Charleston  bimbo  got burned we'd run outa wood."

"Those men were un-naturally influenced," spit Morraine."

"What woman don't huh?" Sweat leeches from my collar. "Witch, huh so ya gonna burn her? OKey, all right she's one queer dame got papyrus growing stead'a brain-cells, but they're both white and stringy ... huh? Maybe it's a low fat diet."

Nicky said steady. "Lots of people on that diet, Sammy. Charleston people. Some good some ...  some gain some lose some missing ...  nobody talks!"

Hanging the question, and oh yeah I ain't graduated from PI correspondence school last week a question it wuz like 1st person present. Spill guts. Ya been there! I sez. "That why ya had the place staked out?  The cape, the car and the two foxes ...?"  Nicky sez nothing. I gotta laugh some. "That's steak, maybe, huh Lieutenant fer the feline blueplate and if it's a stake fer the witch  the Inspector, here, huh he ain't got no hammer."

"Hammer? Steak?  Blueplate! Sammy ya creep," sez the Lieutenant letting his face drift ta the ceiling, "one more piece a PI smartazz crap and we're gonna sweat ya  so hot and so hard  rubber drawers melt, and Weight-Watchers feels like a Roman orgy."

"Romans I don't know about, Lieutenant, but Egyptians? I think Citten drinks lemonade."

"Some of the witches special brew." Morraines eyes glitter. "Drank some, did you ...? 'Course you did.  Last thing you remember, of Citten Delove, isn't it! Mainlining! What was the perv like, Levine?"

"Ahhh sorry Inspector last green thing I seen wuz an olive and I think a squirrel ate it."

Nicky's face is sudden an older mans face. "Sammy I got a list; rat, mole, weasel, cat, kitten, hubby ... fool. Which ones are you? I got a mind ta drag ya down ta City Station tonight."

I'm sweatin' -- a  cat-tail kruller in the microwave. How comes coppers makes a list like hammers make bent nails?  Which wasn't going ta get me high marks in Citten Delove obedience school. Or a second invite about which Nicky had no reason ta care. Yet, I saw it how a cop makes an offer ... I sez . "Heh Lieutenant what's better? Ya pay cabfare tonight ...  put scratches in the cuffs I don't talk all night or ... or I drive myself ta City Station tomorrow and we ... chat unofficial whatever I know which right now I ain't sayin' I know nothin' but may tomorrow."

"You got some appointment?"

"Only with sunshine."

"Not big on Egyptian history, are we ... that's sun-God RA!  Nice gent. Fed the disobedient  to Nile crocs! Wear a wire ... for your ... protection ..."

"Copper coil ain't never protected the women what's one gonna do fer me just cause it's got a battery attached?  Besides Lieutenant I'm Sammy-the-Mole not electro-perk."

Morraine spits. Nicky chews on his cheek. Breathing stops, while a thin stream a' smoke  streams outa Nickys  Camel. He looks 'cross ta Morraine then sez quiet. "6-Am!"

"Six waaa ... heh Lieutenant I can't find 6-AM on a map."

"... 6:15 ... AM"

"No tail, I sez," seen the foxes craft it ain't so bad ..." Nicky nods I rap. "No recorder no movie no Steno no ... no blood test."

"No clampjaw and original glossies."

"Copies only ..."

"Bitmaps ... 16-Megs a pop." Nicky hesitates. "You carrying the SpyCo?"

"Heh, Lieutenant nobody heard about that ..."

"Yeah nobody heard  ...  are ya kiddin' with me Sammy? It's the best digital audio, so I want all the mp3s."

"Ya want I should use  Napster?"

That buys me nothing. "Make him prove it, Nicky" cackles Morraine and palms something  small and shiny off ta the Lieutenant. "Shouldn't bother his stomach 'tal ... HAhaha hehehe... "

Lieutenant thinks for a second,  tips back the white Panama then slaps down  the shiny metal disc size of a squashed lentil. "Swallow it!"

I tab it to a fingertip. The disc pulses ... "Feels kinda scaly ...  this kosher?"

"If ya start breathing funny, it bleeds." Nicky looks at his Rolex and hitches. "Sammy,  ya need an invite consider yourself RSVPed, but if  one photo, or one-db of one sound goes missing I'm gonna see ya locked in  witness protection  for a month ... some North Charleston rat-hole with  more roaches than sunbeams, two dyke officers  cooking tube-steak three times a day and playing my daughters 14 Metallica albums  on a blaster size of your car radiator."

Bleeds ...  bleeds what ...? Unwelcome invitations ... how comes ya got ten-thousands of 'em, eh Sammy? DeLeon and Morraine left shortly too bad the foxes didn't choke on their blonde pony-tails they wuz snickering so bad  I wuz left with dry metal-mouth and a headache make King David pass out aspirin and fours hours a' dark martini evening.

How comes I need witness protection? Protection from what,  down the slide like Nicky sez, oh Jeeez, Sammy. Who needs ta get loved ta death? Love I'm big on that, too much love ta too many people it pays my rent,  what folks do on their back and what people put in their nose some like ta sniff chicken soup, but snuff?  Dead by snuff what's he really mean? Maybe Egyptians got to America first and discovered tobacco. Tut-da-toker ... I didn't think so. And what I had planned, shooting photos inside CDs address vanished like seeds in a rising river.

'Course that door address wuz none other than Citten Deloves  three story townhouse, two blocks from the marina where old SOB money wouldn't buy ya  a gatehouse.  The street stank harbor salt and  address are on the street not above them. Way above high enough ta fly  ...  for that I ain't been invited,  or my merchandise dangling  from a rusted  ladder 30-feet off the Utility Street cobbles after crabbing 'cross a tile roof felt like every piece a' wet moss in Charleston lookin' ta slip my wingtips  and air don't forgive like water does .

Nobody floats down from a roof-top - not with 30 pounds a Nikon telephoto and SpyCo sound enhancer strapped ta their neck - my neck -  I had climbed the fire-escape on the adjoining building, shot a roll  with the telephoto lens and scampered across the roof. Now mostly I'm tryin' ta stay alive shooting  closeups.

It's dark and rainy and  1-AM, and  so cold an owl and a mouse are sharing CDs chimney flue from which billows a yellow cloud tinged in  green.  Wet wood, huh and the last martini I ate wuz  five hours ago. Five ... like  five more  8x10 glossies, that's a  satisfied clients check, next months rent and no month-a'-corndogs in witness protection ...  and mostly that's cause  most'a  CD's business ain't all of it.

What slaves-a'-the-Nile I been shooting and recording the last three hours through the third floor window of Citten Deloves obedience studio. It's  a fancy, slanting  window leaning out at the bottom, up at the top so the moon can peep in and three feet away only, as owls fly cross a walkway and six feet down from my perch. Close enough for the wide angle lens ta snap all five oily, naked bodies if ya didn't count the cat.  Cause the bodies wuz  mostly kats not cats. The part'a CDs business that  had spun-up, spun-off  and spun-wild crashing like an WinME  boot-disk ... what  sweat covered glossies I got photographed for a certain SOB matron who mighta been uncertain but  need wonder no more.

Jeeez, Sammy ain't ya lucky this ain't a vacation holiday or ya mighta  broke windows ta get in or knocked on the door ... cause the cheetah skin shorty CD wuz wearin' had more holes in the right places than Pharaoh had  frogs tits-N'-azz every gal got blue-plate CD had the 9-course all-ya-can-eat. And Moses mighta tossed a neat stick, but it wasn't the seven-foot electric cattle-prod  CD wuz sporting from her throne.

It sat toward the back of the room, beside what looked like a walkway, but beside  the door stood two mummy coffins.  I'm thinkin' she got ta be kiddin', right ...?  About waxed-up bodies I wasn't sure, but King Tut and Queen Hash woulda been real proud how CD lorded  obedience  from the throne.

That too was covered in part by cheetah skin - lucky  its neck like the  five other members of  the obedience class wore a leash.  She had paraded them  all night before a cobra-head-shape furnace glowing red and belching green fumes.  Heh, but ya gotta stay warm, right ...  what they wore ... sometimes they wore croc'-masks sometimes not ... 

Only one face of the five I recognized -  that face, Shela Wonders wandering  tabby, er hubby a Charleston City Council member big in the PETA circles who ate spelt not Wheaties, and had tried ta  register koi in private aquariums cause fish too get emotions, but like CD had settled for a leash law.  His wuz crock-skin and short.  And while CDs training  methods mighta seemed harsh as a pyramid builders whip that she had too and the cracks and howls I coulda recorded with a tin-can one thing was certain the way Citten ran her feline facilitators and had twice run through the harvest there still wasn't a dead kitten in the room.

CLICKwrrrrr CLICKwrrrrr ... I shoulda been in Hollywood, but I ain't a boob-man Citten had  stuffed all five a' the kats in reed  baskets and settled the tops down before releasing the  Cheetah. CD prowled behind it, goading  each basket with the cattle-prod. Prime stuff, for a divorce trial ...  affections weren't  just being being alienated, but canned. The SpyCo recorder caught the howls in vivid detail that would make even a jury of  retired, senescent postal-workers retune their hearing-aids.

After a particular deep stab,  one basket-top started ta rise,  the voice  within pleading  terror and mercy and pain ...  and the cheetah darted for it jaws foaming ...  woven straw top sucked down just before the cheetahs teeth dug in, but CD screamed. "Bad Kat ... Baaad, baaaaaaaad kat." She stalked back to the throne cheetah in tow and leashed him, returning to the basket with the  slave-drivers whip snapping. "Who serves the sun-goddess serves himself and the harvest. But he who disobeys? Arise, slave, for mother-RAs anger burns!"

Jeeez ya never want ta make a dame angry ...  Mr Barbeque  that's me I had the hots  fer this scene. It had ta get even better, cause Citten had bound all five-baskets with leather thongs and placed a lit candle on each. She had also popped a chrome lid one end of the aquarium. It was a  glowing-yellow glass cylinder that ran length of the room  and in which floated the longest alligator-belt wuz ever made -- that is after some pilgrim skinned  the croc'.  It had poked out bouts half a jaw through the lid ... CD  tossed in something looked like leg-a'-lamb ... or maybe the whole back quarter  ... Jeeez what a mess.

For the money-shot  I leaned out on the ladder far as the laws a' physics permitted ... which laws also permitted the steel gun-muzzle pressed against my neck ta feel cold as an Egyptian mummy in Iceland.

"Ungrateful  scum. We should have sunk the cradle!"

CLICKwrrrr CLICKwrrrrr "Uhhh, can ya hand me that filter, sweetheart? Yeah, the big ..."

    S-N-A-C-K went the safety --

"And to think I let you positively LUST over my hair, my temple, my pyramid, and you practically a slave."

"Slave, sweetheart ya built a pyramid recent? Go easy on that trigger. Ya pull that trigger I'm gonna float like a brick without straw."

"Put down the stupid camera, Mr Levine - if that's your real name - that stupid microphone also."

    S-N-A-C-K went the hammer --

I hooked  Nikon and SpyCo over a  bracket just under the roof-eves. "Dumb PI, huh and me thinkin' maybe ya had the hots fer me ..."  Damm-funny smart-mouth I wuz thinkin' fer a PI hangin' off a ladder  middle a' the night shooting skin but ... quick jerk of my head  I'm staring into the  wide vacant black pits of Starchy RAhon-das mindless peepers. She wuz crouched on the sloping roof  one hand slinked around the ladder that held her up while her body ... it swayed to-N'-fro she wuz jacked outa' this world six ways by which chemical I did not know except it wasn't number-9 love potion ... maybe cobra venom. It oozed out of her, behind the 45-caliber Colt  her other hand pressed to my neck which American product  like the Colt still  worked just fine. Not Starchy ...  dead eyelids fluttered. I couldn't see her finger squeezing the last ounce a' trigger-spring ... but I could taste it ... the 4000-year old hate and this tenth-of-a-second or the next she wuz gonna blow off my neck.

So I jumped.

Oh Jeeez, Sammy ... I jumped  into the slanting-up window where raindrops drizzled and ran like reflections of a glowing, orange glass knife-blade.

Dead-by-glass I ain't never asked the Rabbi. Starchy came too, with a scream, wailing  as I grabbed her arm and  BLAM  her Colt spit 150-grain lead - slug  slashing through my pork-pie hat  leaving a crease hot and bloody.

How comes ya can  feel and think so much in 3-tenths  of a second and ya  still can't stop stubbing yer toe on the nephews fire-truck?

Cause a head-crease wuz gonna feel like lipstick smear when the safety-glass in Citten Deloves window finished tearing out my liver and ripping cancer outa my lungs sac-by-bloody-sac. Jeeez I could see it  flying up toward us the shimmery glass and bamboo rods in slow-motion as we pelted down.  Right at my neck it wuz gonna shatter Starchy and me all tied up arms and legs ...  like the perv Hricko sez about time it's always too long when it's personal.  Heh, ya got no kid yet Sammy and the ex  after she threw ya out she burned yer picture. Cittens  cheeks and mouth ballooned looking up in shock-mouth-open surprise lips forming frozen screams - the cheetah leaping, straining  his leash  ...

... candles and fireplace fuming  like hell sez nice-ta-meet'cha ---  then  flash it's ...... oily, stretchy, strainy, grainy  tearing membrane snatching at skin. We ripped  through  one layer then another ... of the oiled papyrus window-screen all three layers snapping off  bamboo rods like firecrackers ...  while we tumbled down rag-dolls  hitting the  rug-floor thick as a futon and bouncing up from the six-inch-deep papyrus mat beneath it.

First bounce laid Starchy  direct into an empty  wicker basket.  Who got lucky ... Jeeez, Sammy, Citten Delove mighta been hell on a mans bare skin, but I guess she hated calluses on her toes. I  missed the baskets; wicker must be a dame thing. I  rolled over twice wuz on my feet  lungs burning, but peeps and ears sharp as Chea-tas' tongue, and crouching cause bloody and creased and banged around as I felt  after the jump I've floated longer on a 4th martini and fallen harder off  bar-stools.

But  some bars are classy than others. A thick, yellow-green mist hung in the air. It was tangy and sweet and taste  I figured like Egyptian beer mighta tasted ta the slaves after a tough day on Cheops pyramid.  You coulda  floated on the mist. It streamed up like a yellow fountain through the the ripped papyrus window, and the  cobra-shaped fireplace from which the color sprang just  crackled and blazed and blazed.  Low bellows rumbled from the room-length aquarium.  The five wicker baskets  holding five obedient kittens did not move.  Citten Delove had retreated to her throne where she sat in regal disdain arms crossed one hand holding  a hatchet-size anhk and the other the 7-foot cattle-prod. Her whip wuz stuck inta one a' the holes in her shorty nothin' else stuck outa.  Sudden like  the air smells cat without the litter.

It's a chewy smell,  and after 8-months a' Shasta-the-EXs-Siamese tearing hair off my chest I knew what to expect from the cheetah breathing chewed rabbit fumes through six-inch fangs not even that many inches from my nose. Did I say I hate cats? But, I never shot Shasta. Then again, Shasta never put six-inches a' fang through the brim of my pork-pie right beside the bullet hole, which is what Chea-ta' the cheetah did soon as CD snapped her leash.


Death-be-not-proud, eh Sammy, but watch yer azz. Chea-ta' tumbled at my feet  twitching away all nine lives and lay still. OKey I'm a normal sensitive guy, but Chea-ta' wuz a normal sensitive carnivore that woulda' ate me. So I shot the sucker and kicked the body - it did not move. How many holes does a cheetah have and still feel OKey five I figured ... now Chea-ta' had eight and wuz ready for the embalming table.

"Chea-ta' - Chea-ta' ...," wailed CD. She dashed over, ta hold it's head - let out one piteous scream  then  turned on me. "I am RA-ness hear me roar! Some stocking-stuffer YOU turned out to be,  Levine. Ohhh how I had planned   - you would have got two ankles in the same stocking, but  NOOOO ... you can't play nice kitty, pretty kitty here kittykittykitty.  RAhon-da was SOOOO right ...  we should have sunk the cradle." .

Quick twitch a' my  peeps round the room brought me back ta Citten. "Are you kiddin'? I had that  rap floated by me already, sweetheart ... like two bricks and cement."

CD jumped back. "Plagues on you ...,"  she  cursed glancing over at RAhon-das motionless, moaning form draped over the basket ... and snarled. "So you think you're one of the boyz from Syracuse, come to clean out Memphis?"

"No, sweetheart just a local PI on retainer ... $200 a day plus expenses which includes a new hat, but that ain't nothin' like the racket ya got going here."

"Racquet!" Cd's shaking in fury. "You think this gold ankh is a racquet?"

"How comes King Tut never used it in his court?"

"Infamous, lying vermin," CD squeals, and  tosses the cattle-prod at me.  I duck left and the prongs thwack into the floor spitting sparks and stuck there. SNAP  cracked CDs whip over my left ear, and it  burned like a leather hornet . How comes ya need a smart-mouth, huh  Sammy? Syracuse ... Memphis ... I ain't never been ...? SNAP cracked Cds whip again and my smoking, 32-caliber belly-gun flew cross the room talking a piece a'  trigger-finger with it I might sometime need.

"Heh, sweetheart wha'cha doin' I might need that  32-caliber.  There's a ditzy dame here got animal pals and I ..."

"Pals? Animals? Ditzy dame! Ohhhhh ...  you ... you melifluous, sniveling bed-weasel  you aren't worth Egypts deadliest asp." With a quick snatch CD grabbed one a' the empty  wicker baskets and jumped to her throne.  "RA-be-raucous  oh my dear Mr Levine whatever tabby you may have encountered, you have not even SEEN animal pals." Then she tipped off the  lid and tossed the basket at me.

Did I say empty? I dodged ... so did the  hooded cobra head come flickering out a' the basket as it whizzed by eyeball ta snakey eyeball.  Mustn't a' liked my  contacts cause it struck. But cobras are slow ... I seen the movie any mongoose knows that, so when cobra-fangs struck whizzing by  they missed me and put two more holes in the brim a' my pork-pie hat, which by now looked more like a sieve than a sun-visor.

Cold sweat pours over my face giving me a bleary look at CD, who was perched seductive on one arm a' the throne.  "That's no asp ta play with I agree, but  sweetheart ya got  pest problems get a tom."

In a fury CD shook the ankh at me. "Keep it between your ears, alley cat. It's no problem this bastet-in-boots can't solve. Ohhhhh, you deplorable, obtuse  little man."

That's twice CD sez 'little', and whatever circles she runs in  nobody knows better than  Sammy Levine she don't know big-from-little about me.  But I forgave her ... funny, she actually looked pretty good,  in a kittenish way with holes and spots in her cheetah-skin shorty aligned just about right.  Maybe she wuz free  Friday night ... maybe she like oriental? She sez nothing. Actually, I wuz surprised  too, just how nice the cobras eyeball sockets looked. By now, the cobra had wiggled  half-outa the basket and was standing six-feet tall flapping its hood and hissing  at the tail end of a snakey coil. "Got a flute, sweetheart," I sez laughing, "I think your animal palsy wants ta mambo."

"That's cobra, fool not mamba! Play," she screams. "You think you've seen my animals play? HAHAhahaha ..."

And she whistled. I don't mean  pucker-up and blow, and I don't mean stick-two-fingers-in-yer-gums and holler I mean --- in three high wailing, vibrating tones that woulda woke mummys  the whistle snaked right out of CDs nose ... and  knocking the basket aside Snakey-the-cobra dove right for me.

And  me? I'm twiddling my moustache, which coulda been my last twiddle ... at which moment the shredded papyrus window above us decide ta fly off in in gust of Charleston Harbor squall fierce and unrelenting which sent rain pelting through the hole, sucked yellow-green fudge air from the room like an airborne vac and sent my porkpie hat holes and all flying across the room. Flying toward the approaching cobra. It musta liked the first taste, cause Snakey struck again and struck hard.  Fangs punched right through both sides a' the leather hatband, while the top ... well, THAT top of the porkpie flopped right over its hood -  black shiny, bottomless cobra eyes and all. It's fangs stuck and eyes covered ... the cobra thrashed around on the floor like Pharohs army in the Red Sea. It beat up half the floor, till it found  the engraved fireplace  --- it  wiggled into the warm coals  fangs and hat  and scaly-tail beating the bronze waiting for the next pilgrim figured it's better for snakes ta see than curse darkness.

Sudden like. The air smells like crappola, fulla human sweat and dead animals. Rain is pouring into the cobra-shaped fireplace and the fire is out. Couple of the human basket-cases are starting ta rumble. Nothin' looks so sweet anymore, or nobody. Citten Delove  had climbed top a' the aquarium.

"Sweetheart come down," I sez, "that's no hot-tub for a gal like you."

"Prepare your soul,  you miserable,  weaseling ungrateful un-facilitator. No wonder you fed eggs to a cat, but now you're out of lives, rat-boy because even a cat has only nine." 

Saying that she slides back the metal lid from which lid that wuz no more climbs out the croc falling like a 16-foot hungry oak log to the  floor which was now more swamp than floor cause a' the rain and me ...  rain beating through the open window made the rushes swell into a gooey, swampy slime, and me ... what do crocs find in the swamp standing woozy-brain with a crap-face smile half-washed away  hot blood beating like mad and  still breathing?  I'll tell ya what ya jerk  -- it's lunch, Sammy.  That's what the croc finds doin' that.  

CD snapped her whip over its tail. "Serve the goddess!"

Serve?  Blueplate! Oh Jeeez, Sammy she must be kiddin', huh ...? I ain't never seen a croc  serve, ta say DART.  They waddle, right? They're too big and too fat and too slow ta dart  ...  'Course most  didn't have CDs  leather whip cracking  over their fat azz. This one shot snapping and sloshing and bellowing cross the room like a  starved leather bullet.  My legs felt like concrete pegs and my knees water.

Move, will ya Sammy ...  and I got a hand full a' ... ...  it wuz my right elbow that hit it, the 7-foot cattle-prod  CD used ta teach Kats obedience it's  three metal  tips  stuck in the mat --- I wrenched it out -  there wuz no ON/OFF switch, but the dial  read PAIN, MORE PAIN, NIRVANA  ... I went for the Sanskrit, jumped aside jabbing the prods  as the croc barreled on  jaws snapping wide and when  sparks flew I don't know who flew further.  Maybe I hit a molar when I rammed the prods into the crocs open jaws ...  Croc  flew in a sparky blaze hitting the far wall bellowing alligator pain and chewing bricks inta sawdust.  I hit the aquarium back first wrapping around like an old tire. How many miles ya got left, Sammy? CDs whip snapped over my neck. I pealed off the glass and threw the prod up  ta block ... again the whip came down,  but when it snapped on the prongs she caught a jolt that sat her blonde flag straight up, and her azz smack down on the metal aquarium top.

"You struck RA," she muttered, tugging at the electro-blo-dry hair.

"No, sweetheart the setting wuz toast lite."

"You would have butter on both sides," CD pouted, " ... if only you asked nice ..."

"NOW ya tell me ..." I jumped,  grabbing for her wrists.

She twisted away, seductive ...  "I'm queen of the Nile, not the slut of-Sudan!"  And came up swinging the ankh not like queen-a'-the-Nile, but Geromino on a bad-hair-day. "Didn't your mother teach you to say please?"

I duck, and the bronze  edge buried  with a THUNK in the wall  just above my head. "I thought they wuz gold not  brass, sweetheart if ya paid full price  I'd demand a refund. Please ..."

Then she slapped me. "Disobedient, slime, I always get a discount!"

What?  CD  just belted me right-cross on the kisser ... I ain't never stopped a dame from slapping me. "Then  how comes ya can't afford a decent dress?"  Cause even if ya didn't deserve, it means ya fooled 'em.

"The salesman said it  was Italian ... and  very coy!"

"Lemme see the other side ..." Which fool was CDs not many,  but  hauling her around I did  clamp her wrists and tumbled her  through the open aquarium lid into the water bubbling and swearing and spitting ... and  naked as a kitten wearing none of her cheetah shorty.  I slid the latch shut and sat back straddling the glass and  leering!

"Ha," I laugh," whose the basket-case now, Raw-kettes?"  I rip open the lid and toss the shorty into murky slime. "Plant that while the river rises, sweetheart," I gloat ... and immediately hear the braying azz - I never done before not recent anyway laughing at an enemies bad fortune when paying your own way ain't so easy  ...

SLAM ... while the croc  he's braying too, and  with a running start cross the room slammed his 16-feet a' untanned Coach-bag  into the  wooden aquarium  base.  The glass aquarium rocked,  snapping me against the wall, then settled back Croc  bellowed up at me jaws snarling, then chewed on the base and when that did nothing he backed off slapping his tail on the marshy floor like maybe he had a pack a' pals in the next room as mad and as hungry as he wuz. Twice he launched upward, toward me only ta  have scraping claws slide off the glass. I'd yanked CDs bronze ankh out of the wall  and woulda put it between those scaly, crocodile  eyes, assuming my arm wuz longer and quicker than his jaw and that ain't no done deal if he had got purchase ... the croc always with the beady-reptile eyeballs on me he never gave two winks ta CD,  the sputtering, Egyptian mermaid trapped  inside the watery cradle.

Croc wasn't getting up to me, and I certainly wasn't going down to him, and if he hadn't turned  ... and seen Starchys limply beating legs kicking out from the wicker basket ... but the croc DID see Starchy,  and with that seeing came the biggest croc smile IF crocs ever smiled and I swore the croc winked at me how safe are you ya Levintine bastard as his long, scaly snout snapped shut. Chicken tenders is better than rat-bone it said. Who needs an  azz ordr've, when quail pot-a'-feur is waitin' it said.

It said plenty, those snapped-shut, toothy jaws, and it turned my guts over. Jeeez,  Sammy ... I jumped up shouting. "Heh, leather-lips. Oh no ya don't. Heh, ya swamp-fed Coach-Bag in training, ya wanna bite something ..."  I shook the ankh at him. "Why don'tcha come and lick this just for the vitamins!" It bought me nothin', all that shouting or was it braying I got headaches the way  loose jaws hit me.

Croc turns lazy on his heels, and  all 16-feet  a' claws-N'-jaws  set out  in a determined, lumbering waddle for Starchy's basket. It's across the room, other side a' CDs throne. My head's swimming,  adrenaline jolting  through muscle the Rolex thumping my wrist and my heart  pounding  like I had two ribs missing and it was gonna fly right through my chest. Fish or  cut-bait that's you, Sammy ya got 2-seconds ta decide who's the real  reptile leg-man in this pond.

I didn't jump, but  flew off the aquarium toward the croc, and if it whipped around toward me bellowing red murder, which it musta' I heard nothin', cause a' the slamming at the doorway to the side of CDs throne what came busting through ... I seen nothin'  and what I remember ... a nightmare slog only coupla' steps cross the swamp rug floor ya couldn't get legs ta move, not fast enough ...  I remember only the crocs head as it  turned away from Starchy and came for me, barreling over the  throne flying jaws wide open and foaming dirty breath - and I let fly the ankh, got my arm into that throw  which ankh mighta  flew between the crocs scaly eyes ... maybe not I heard explosions,  felt  hot wind and  stinking, leathery flesh crushing  over me ---  lights out.

It's dark. And white ... dark and white and  cold, and a small red light  flashes EXIT. Better than none, huh Sammy I didn't think they let ya out at all  ... I try raising my left hand it won't move. My right hand moves to touch it, but it's all wrapped up like a mummy and when I try to touch it  ... pain just races and races.  So's my face; I try ta touch that also, and my eyes ... The Rabbi sez there is no hell, and Father McClusky sez hell is hot. Neither said the TVs  in hell only play green, squiggly lines ... I don't try ta touch those. A bell rings and angels appear. Something pulses into my  arm and I am very sleepy.

Don't go, angel don't go ... It's dark. A bell rings ... a bell,  an insistent southern drawl. It beats on me.

"Dammit, Sammy ya gonna sleep all night?  How can ya sleep trussed up like that, ya got more tubes N' wires in ya than electro-perk. Probably want  ta snooze all day tomorrow, too ...  that's what the docs say, anyway. Course they get paid ...  the cop union sez we have-ta pay your bill, cause ya swallowed that metal tab. Are ya listenin',  Sammy? The nurses ... they takin' care of you? Not tried to cope a feel, have you or anything ... that's against department regs ...  ya listening Sam?"

I croaked, "Starchy...!"

"What's that? Heh, ya are listening. Sure musta been pretty stiff in there alone, but didn't hurt yer nose, huh ... That's good well, there's good-N'-bad. Know what I mean?  Like your blood tests. How'd ya get so much a' that damned ecstasy crappola into yer veins?  No, no, no quit shaken yer head the doc sez no way a man could breath in that much. Ya musta found CDs supply and copped a few tabs. Can't figure when ya had time but ... Morraine's gonna want ta sweat ya about that ...  anyway, we took down  Citten Deloves  drug operation ... all of it  ... or you did."

A straw gets shoved in my mouth. The bourbon is raw and old and warm. Nickys voice weaves and fades ...

"How'd ya figure CDs grift?  I know, she had a whole zoo a grifts but her shysters ... they claim the five guys were getting Chiropractic therapy in those baskets ... helped them be better cat facilitators. Facilitator ... ya know what that means, Sammy?  Nah me neither. But the drugs - I figure that's the coffin nail in Citten Deloves  dhow. One of the mummy cases was filled with ecstasy tabs. The love-drug some call it. Helps ta keep the cats, smiling, I guess. Sniffed it out, huh ... you did ... Maybe a tip-off from the frail with neon-peach colored hair?  Some piece-a-work, huh that dame?  Looks sweet and innocent, till ya swab her fingers. Way we figure she was the one embalmed the guy in the mummy coffin. HE had too much ecstasy in his veins also ... that's what we figure. Dead by love.  'Course one of the techs ... he claims there was snake venom in the old fart, but hell, Sam, quit bobbin yer head. You see any snakes? Hah ...  didn't think so."

"Pork-pie ...," wuz what I managed.

"Eye," sez Nicky?  Yeah ...  nice eye, nice throw with the hatchet - ya split that croc right 'tween the eyes. I blew it's head off, 'course, last second before the jaws got ya, but ya got there first ... from what we saw, ya  probably saved the neon dames life."

Nicky's pacing beside the bed ...  b-e-d ... the linen's cool and fresh. I didn't think hell changed the sheets regular.  A cigarette flares - butt pokes my mouth and the smoke - it tastes like a soul goin' ta heaven. Yanked away.  Nicky's white Panama  washed grey and red  and green-striped looms over my face.

"'Course ... yer name, Sammy ain't going up in neon. CD's still queen of Athens, and  this is Charleston not Memphis.  Diplomacy, discretion and all ... and important Holy City names ... ya can't make basket cases outa them, all a' CDs clients in the obedience school - HA ...some school, eh Sammy? We got ta keep those names ... and your name outa the papers. I mean, how's it gonna sound  '... local Jew pimps Pharaohs alligator while naughty vet swims for it ... ' know what I mean, Sammy?" Nicky paces cross the room to the frost-aire unit turns it off. "Now about those glossies, Sam, and the SpyCo mp3s?  I know ya took the photos, and recorded all the damned moans and howls, but damned if I can find them. We saw how ya got in - dammit Sammy did ya have ta jump through the ceiling?  That's felony trespass, and the DA  is gonna sweat ya about that. Who knows what evidence got destroyed. Anyrate  I had two dicks scrub the entire roof next door ... the one ya climbed over.  They found nothin'. No camera, no film ... not squat! Can I spell that out for you, Sam ... never mind if ya weren't so banged up and bled out I'd sweat ya now, but ... heh get some rest it's gonna be a long day  tomorrow ..."

Straw fills with bourbon again. It burns my stomach old and warm , and  it must be how angels piss. I lay back.