Prologue:
Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

WARNING! Step through these doors at your own risk. The results could be CATastrophic.”

The man in the yellow and lime green Madras jacket smiled at the sign and pushed through the double doors, carefully holding the carrier in front of him. Once he was inside, the noise hit him flush in the face; hundreds of voices competed with a public address announcer calling out a series of numbers in a voice tinged with impatience.

A compact and solid five foot ten inches, he walked with a slight swagger, and had an open, expectant expression on his face that seemed to welcome the chaos swirling around him. Pausing on the landing inside the auditorium, he lifted the carrier to eye level and crooned to the sleek blue point Siamese inside.

“Here we are, baby. Does it smell like championship time to you? These other fur balls won’t know what hit them when you enter the ring.”

He surveyed the multiple layers of walkways circling the center of the auditorium like some gargantuan wedding cake. Each level was crammed, side by side, with large pop-up shelters, looking like acrylic Quonset huts. A mob of humanity crowded the aisles, stalking particular breeds, and engaging the proud owners in conversation about everything from behavior to birth parents. They peered intently through the mesh and vinyl doors of the shelters, scrutinizing the felines and mentally comparing them to their own favorites.

Each of the shelters sat on a six-foot table and great care had been taken to give the space a distinctive look to match the elite breeds dwelling within the cages. Frilly curtains were draped over some exteriors, and the tables were covered with fancy cloths and skirts, damasks and silks. Some tables held accessories for their dwellers—toys, brushes, and combs—while trays of snacks rested on others, as if they were expecting guests for tea. Inside a few of the shelters were miniature couches, tables, and chairs, furniture that the felines ignored, but gave the space a cozy lived-in look.

Cats of all sizes, colors, and coats lounged in their holding cages, some sleeping soundly, as only cats can amidst the din and rumble of conversations, and others suspiciously eyeing the crush of people slowly working their way along the narrow walkways.

It was easy to spot the owners. They were nervously grooming their show animals, carefully combing longhaired Himalayans and Maine Coons. Across the aisle, an elderly woman cleaned the eyes of a submissive Ragdoll, while her neighbor wiped the sleek coat of a rambunctious Oriental Shorthair with a chamois cloth until it glistened like a ceramic figurine.

“Ring six is looking for Persians one-ten, one-eleven, one-twelve, and one-fourteen. Please bring your Persians to ring six.”

The public address announcer’s voice slashed through the clamor and dozens of people moved deliberately toward the side rooms to see the judging. In Ring 2, the judge lifted a silky Chocolate Lynx Point Birman named Sinhs-Sational Jitter Bug Dandy, standing the stocky cat on his hind legs, staring attentively into the round blue eyes, and turning him over as though examining a cashmere sweater. Then he teased him with a dangling toy on a long stick flicking it high above the cat and watched him leap to capture the prize. The spectators applauded enthusiastically at this athletic display as if an Olympic record had just been broken.

“Ring six is still waiting for Entry one-twelve. This is your second call, number one-twelve, where are you?”

The man in the Madras jacket smiled broadly at the Siamese he carried. His teeth gleamed like those in the television toothpaste commercials. “There seems to be some delay with Entry one-twelve, doesn’t there, Snickers?” he said to the cat. “Let’s see if we can help.”

Nearby, a woman pulled a contentious Persian from a silk-lined cage. She was in her mid-fifties and wore a stylish navy blue pantsuit, her neck, wrists, and fingers festooned with gold jewelry. She plopped the cat indecorously on the table, grabbed a sterling silver comb, and attacked a knot of hair.

“Honestly, you pick the worst times to throw one of your fits, Katmandu. You know I love you to death, baby, but we’re late as it is and this isn’t helping. One more Grand Championship and you’ll break all records, so let’s shape up.”

She combed desperately at the tangle on the cat’s left side, causing the Persian to turn her pansy face and laser her blue-green eyes at the woman. Katmandu was a handsome cat, wearing a resplendent coat of cream shaded with delicate silver markings and a mantle of black flowing from her back down her sides. She lifted her brick-red nose leather slightly in apparent acknowledgement of the woman’s remarks, turned back, and closed her eyes.

“I can see that you’ve poured all your love and attention into this beauty,” the man said, suddenly appearing next to the woman. “It’s no wonder she’s a champion. But then, I see you have no shortage of beauty and love to give, do you?”

The voice dripped with liquid velvet. It was the sound a Chocolate Grand Marnier Truffle might make if it could speak. The woman’s eyes cut toward the man, startled by the stranger with the silken voice. There stood a balding man with the most blinding smile she had seen this side of a movie screen. For the first time in twenty years, she felt a blush creep across her face.

The man leaned in and peered at the engraved plate on the cage and read the name aloud: ‘ “Best of Breed GC, NW, RW Katmandu Moonstar of Valhalla.’ And you are a beautiful Grand Champion, aren’t you, girl?” he said to the cat.

He turned his round face toward the woman and fixed her with green eyes that she would swear actually twinkled as he spoke, emphasizing his words with slight nods and a bright smile. “She is a worthy champion. You should be proud of what the two of you have achieved.”

The woman felt herself blush again. There was a seductive aura to the man, as though his sole desire was her well-being, and she unconsciously found herself nodding in a mirror image of his own head movements. She wondered how he could speak while maintaining such a broad smile. That must have taken practice.

“She is the love of my life, but sometimes she can be rather petulant. Like now. Isn’t that right, honey?” The woman shook her head in mock aggravation, but by the tilt of her head, the set of her shoulders, and the smile that had replaced the pinched mouth; it was obvious that this friendly stranger had lifted the mantle of tension from her just as a magnet lifts iron shavings.

“She wants you to know that she’s worth the effort, and you can’t take her for granted,” he said. “It’s amazing how cats can read our innermost feelings, isn’t it? And instinctively they know that we would do anything for their happiness.” As he spoke, his head bobbed earnestly and his free hand floated over the champion cat, as though he was conducting an orchestra. His incandescent smile punctuated the brief conversation.

She flipped back her bangs, and took another long look at the man. There was something about the round face and fleshy jowls that made her want to reach out, grab his cheeks, and playfully squeeze them. Those rubbery mounds looked as though they could be twisted and pulled into a hundred different shapes, like balls of clay in the hands of a potter. She resisted the temptation and for the first time noticed that he was carrying a cat of his own, a lovely Blue Point Siamese of obvious good breeding.

“I don’t remember seeing you at any of the shows, Mister…” She paused as if she may have forgotten the introduction.

He smiled again and extended a hand. “Where are my manners? I’m John Morrow, my friends call me Jake.”

“Esther Corcoran, Mr. Morrow. Very pleased to meet you. So, are you new to this game of ours?”

“Of course, I’ve always been a cat lover, but I’ve just begun to dangle my toes into the competitive waters. It’s fascinating the way—”

“This is the final call for Entry one-twelve for ring six. Final call for number one-twelve.” The announcer’s voice broke into Morrow’s statement.

“My God, that’s us,” Esther said with more than a trace of panic.

“We only have a minute to get to ring six or we’ll be disqualified. Come on, baby.” She picked up the handsome Persian and tenderly settled it over her right forearm, careful not to disturb the mantle of flowing hair.

She took a step toward the ring, and John Morrow, Jake to his friends, turned quickly to move out of the woman’s way. His arm banged against Katmandu’s table as he turned and he clumsily dropped the carrier he was holding. It landed at his feet with a loud crash, and a frightful yowl rose from the floor.

“Snickers, are you all right?” he cried, bending over and pulling the cat out of the carrier. He clutched Snickers to his chest tenderly and kissed the cat’s head over and over.

Esther stopped in mid-step, horrified to see the Siamese plunge to the floor. She watched Morrow sweetly kiss the poor cat and reached out her hand to scratch Snickers under the chin, letting her fingers trail lightly over Morrow’s jacket. He put a hand on her arm in return.

“I really must go,” she said breathlessly. “Why don’t you come with me to ring six and see Katmandu make—”

She didn’t finish her sentence, which surely was going to be to see Katmandu make history. Her voice stopped in mid-thought, as did hundreds of others, dropping an eerie blanket of silence over the huge auditorium. At that precise moment when Esther Corcoran and Katmandu were about to dash to ring six where the champion Persian would make history, the hall went dark.

The darkness that descended like a heavy shroud over the International Cat Fanciers Show was so complete, so dense and unyielding, that she could no longer see John Morrow and his shining teeth. Perhaps if she had the eyes of a cat, she might have seen his yellow pants pass in front of the table when he brushed against her arm.

Unfortunately, there were no windows in the auditorium to help wash away the blackness, no sky lights to relieve the tension and fear with refreshing beams of sunlight. And what seemed most strange, and would receive an abundant amount of conversation by the New York City investigators later that day, the auditorium’s emergency generator lights were also dark.

The stunned silence was abruptly broken by shouts of alarm, and the sounds of more than one person toppling off the walkways. Then, just as suddenly as it went dark, the hall was again bathed in light.

Esther saw no reason to panic. Her mind had been racing while she waited for the lights to come on and she actually said a prayer of thanks to whatever technical goblins had picked that moment to scramble the lighting system. Surely, this electronic glitch had upset the judging timetable and there was no way they could disqualify her.

The first thing she noticed when the lights came on was that John Morrow was nowhere in sight. Then she looked down at the pliant feline dangling from her arm and saw that it wasn’t GC NW Katmandu Moonstar of Valhalla, but a lovely Blue Point Siamese named Snickers.

That’s when she screamed.

Powered by WordPress