There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and rattle your collar and make the fleas jump off you like cats from a tub. On nights like that every terrier meet-up ends in a fight, and meek little Yorkies tongue their fangs and study their owners' necks.
I hadn’t worked a case in over a month and was hitting the sauce hard. It’s a gloopy brown sauce from a can of beef chunks, and I ate it as part of yesterday’s breakfast, along with a dog-park stew of mud and fish emulsion garnished with grass. I’m hooked on grass, like lots of us bulldogs. Grass, brown sauce, horse, you name it. I’ll eat anything to help me forget.
Or to remember.
So long as it’s food.
Or anything like it.
But I couldn't wolf down all of yesterday‘s breakfast. I had that hopeless feeling you get when the last squirrel of autumn shinnies up the last dying tree in the last rundown park on the sad side of town, taunting you like string cheese just out of reach. It makes you feel like life is meaningless, as my human mumbles with a mouth full of nachos. This night I was thinking, maybe he’s right. Maybe Dog is dead, like the French cats say. What’s the point of living?
Then the point walked into my yard, all bells and fur and a sweet, musky scent.
Did I say walked? This dame didn’t walk, she sauntered, sashayed, she did whatever ten-dollar word the pretty boys uptown with the pedigrees use. She had a pink little nose, hips that made you forget the allure of upholstered chairs, and green eyes, I guess—I leave the color commentary to the two-legged boys with the full-spectrum eyes.
Oh, one thing more. This dame was a cat.
You know what they say about opposites attracting? When I met this doll, I knew it was time for walkies on the wild side. And she knew just how to snap my leash.
She mewled out the kind of sob story I’d heard a million times before. Her hubby was a fat cat she’d married for the cream, only the cream had curdled, and now he was tomcatting all over the neighborhood—but he expected her to sit at home like a good little princess.
I licked my paw. “So why don’t you leave him?”
“Dumb loyalty, I guess,” she sighed, and turned to show me the fluffiest, cutest, snowiest tail you ever did see.
I smelled trouble. She slapped me for that.
“I deserved that,” I said. “So what do you want me to do for you, doll?”
“Get the dirt on him so I can leave him. It won’t be easy.”
“He licks himself clean eighty-three times a day.”
I asked his name, and Princess purred in my ear. It twitched my leg like a paddle-point rub.
There’s a good dog who lives in my head and barks at me when I’m ready to stray. “Down, boy!” he told me. “Stay! Stay!”
I told the puss: “You’re on, doll face.”
My first stop was the playground of the neighborhood park to see what nuggets I could scoop from the sandbox. I followed a trail of discarded cheese-stick wrappers to a sniveling, reeking pile of rat fur shivering next to a dumpster.
“What’s shaking, Rizzo? Besides you, haw haw.”
“F-f-funny, man, funny. Hey, dawg—you got any cheese?”
“Cheese? Naw,” I said, jamming a stick of string cheese into my gob. “Unless you consider this creamy, chewy, salty thing cheese.”
“Gimme man, gimme!” he said, tripping over his feet to get at me. I smacked him with the back of my paw.
“Not so fast, Rizzo. You know anything about a fat cat named King involved in some racket? And I don’t mean yawling on the back fence at midnight.”
“No!” he said in a way that showed he had something to hide. That, and the frantic circles he started running in.
“You’re running scared, Riz. You need something to calm you down.” I dangled a cheddar cube an inch from his nose.
Fear and Desire fought for his soul. “It’s all in the family!” he screeched, snatching the cheese and shinnying up the dumpster before I could woof.
I headed over to an underground catnip joint where the herb was cheap and the talk was cheaper. It was run by a fat white Himalayan who dipped too much into her own merch. She fancied herself an ancient Egyptian queen called Catshepsut. She had two little mice tethered by chains, and had shaved them bald. They were massaging her paws while a third mouse in chains fanned her with a sparrow feather.
“The King?” she said, breathing out duplicity and catnip. “Never heard of him. But I know who might.” She passed me a papyrus scroll and brushed my paw with her own. “If you’d like to spend a little one-on-one time with a gal who knows how, I can lose these guys in three bites.”
“Pass,” I said. “Mouse breath makes me sick.”
The name she gave me was Walter, a stool pidgeon who hung out in a seedy little spot beneath a bird feeder. On the way there I checked in on Giselle, a worn-out French poodle who turned tricks in the alley for cut-rate treats. She had just rolled over for a high school kid, and was about to sit up and beg when I caught her eye. So she flopped and played dead, and the kid took off running. I guess he figured those cheap treats had killed her.
“Eet ees mon beeg strong he-dog,” she said with a wag of her stiff derrière. Hip dysplasia, I figured.
I asked her if she knew the King.
“Sacre bleu cheese! Hee ees a bad wan. You stay away from heem, mon hansom frien'.”
Then she let out a burst of French scent, and I don’t mean perfume.
“And you stay away from those knockoff treats the high-school kids peddle. They’re bad for the digestion.”
“I weel geev you a clue of wan word, zen no more talk. Tabby Town,” she whispered.
“The number is two,” I said, stepping over a mound of the stuff. “Pardon my catalogical language.”
As I ambled on towards the pigeon’s roost the clues jitterbugged in my brain. “All in the family.” King. Princess. Tabby Town. But I just couldn’t focus. The thought of Princess’s fluffy white tail was eating at me like a tapeworm.
I reached the pigeon’s roost and stepped towards Walter, but he flew the coop just as three lurking thugs emerged from the shadows: a big drooling Rottweiler, a white pit bull with a head like an anvil, and a snappy Chihuahua with vampire teeth.
“Well, if it isn’t the Pound Puppies rejects,” I said. “About seven pounds in your case,” I told the little guy. I sneered at the pittie. “You’re a peach—the part they throw away. The pit, dummy. And you,” I told the drooly lug, “put the rot in Rottweiler.”
That set them off big time. I gave as good as I got, but with the shrimp razor-toothing my foot, the rot trying to mount me, and the pittie gnawing my collar like a chew toy, I staggered back against the wall.
“Stay away from the king,” said the little guy, panting, “if you know what’s good for you.”
I’d gotten in some pretty good licks—which confused them, frankly—and they were no more eager to keep brawling than I was. “Tell your boss I don’t lie down for anyone,” I said. “Or roll over.”
I walked back onto the lost, lonely streets, and the answer struck me like a neon sign. It was a neon sign, for a pet store called Tabby Town, an overpriced emporium where the posh people pamper their precious pricey preening pets.
A snooty Afghan with a $70 coif looked down his long snout and asked with disdain if I needed some help. “A Chuck-It, perhaps, or a tug-of-war toy?”
I was in no mood for games, so I brushed him aside and charged towards the back room, which was marked by a lurid red light and a giant sign saying “Forbidden.” What I saw there turned my stomach—which isn't easy, considering the park mud I eat.
There, in miserable little incubators, were dozens of newly born kittens—pretty cute, if you like that sort of thing—who would be sold upfront for a king’s ransom. And there on an overstuffed cat bed overlooking it all with a Cheshire-Cat grin was the King himself, a massive furball who bore a faint resemblance to the kits. But the kits bore a much stronger resemblance to another member of our sordid little cast who was seated at the paws of the King in all her snow-white glory. Princess.
I looked from her to the kits, and the kits to her. They looked like little copies of Princess. I cocked my head in confusion.
“You’re not too bright, are you?” she said. “Shall I spell it out for you?”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“They’re my daughters! My sisters! My daughters! My sisters! Now do you get it?”
I shrugged. “So what? I’ve got five brothers who are sons, four daughters who are nieces, and a plush leather sofa that’s my common-law wife.”
She let out a yowl from the depths of despair. I didn’t get it, but it meant lots to her. And when that big smug tom threw his head back and laughed, I charged him with the fury of hell and chased him, minus a chunk of cat-thigh, out of the place forever.
“You’re free, doll,” I said.
As I walked down the dog-toy aisle, eager to flee the stench of depravity and sawdust saturated with rabbit urine, I noticed a bin of chew toys made to look like pit bulls—just the thing for my nephew-sons. An old friend, a pug called JJ who had long since retired from the fight game, was checking them out too.
“Not bad quality, Sam,” he said. “Solid, bite-sized, last for weeks.”
I picked one up and checked its price tag. 300% above cost. That figured. I cast it disgustedly back into the bin.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Tabby Town.”