Cato scanned the bedroom, wondering if his good judgement had deserted him. Maybe Bobby was right. Outside, he’d said that it didn’t look like much—and now, inside, it looked like even less. In fact, it kind of looked like the place had already been robbed.
Some of the drawers in the tallboy were hanging part way out, revealing the edges of a tangled mass of grubby looking clothes. The bed was sloppily made, a faded maroon paisley bedspread yanked half-arsed over the pillows. And there was clutter and books—a ridiculous, insane number of books—everywhere: falling off the shelves, stacked against walls, jammed into corners between bits of furniture. Old books, with yellowed pages, their spines declaring the owner’s interest in arcane spirituality and obscure cultures. Life with the Ancestors. Embodied Spirits: Ritual Carvings of the Asmat. Among the Art-loving Cannibals of the South Seas.
Cato called out to Bobby, who was downstairs in the living area.
“How’s it going?”
“Slim pickings. What did I tell you? These people are like, pov-oh. I mean, they’ve got a plasma TV…and they live like pigs. There’s at least a half packet of crushed potato crisps under these cushions…”
Cato wondered why Bobby was looking under there and was about to ask him, but then thought better of it; he was an idiot after all. He turned back to his task.
His task: to make good on his promise. The three had been stationed in the soap-green minivan across the road, scoping out joints to case, when they saw them—the middle aged couple—leaving through the front door of the Edwardian cottage. A real estate agent might have described it as “charming,” meaning that it was actually small, drab and unassuming.
But a couple of years on the hammer had refined Cato’s instincts for easy prey, or so he thought. His laser beam orbs found their targets with ease, guided by lingering insatiability, by the now never ending lean-times, perpetual war and constant rationing.
He watched the man, scruffy-looking with tufts of chalky hair, fumbling in his man-bag as if he had already lost something, or was worried about doing so in the not too distant future. The woman—equally unprepossessing—said something to him and grabbed his arm, led him towards the car, as if to upbraid him for a characteristic of absentmindedness which one might reasonably infer to be a state of being, rather than an occasional lapse.
Cato narrowed his eyelids at the unbarred windows. The car rolled away and disappeared around the corner.
“That’s the one,” he said.
Bobby leaned over to get a better look through the window. He turned to Cato and scrunched up his nose. “Really?”
“I’ve got a feeling. Jewellery, for sure.”
Bobby was silent. Hanging in the quiet air was the fact, the awareness they shared, that this was their last chance for the day to get it right. After one job with hardly any takings, another thwarted by an unexpected alarm, this was the final opportunity to bring in enough to soothe the beast of craving that was stirring, inevitably, relentlessly, from its slumber. And the fact that Cato had zeroed in on this—this dumpy little cottage with the dumpy little owners—for the rescue operation spoke volumes of their desperation.
Bobby sighed, drumming his fingers on the dashboard. They were all uneasy—except Schooner, who was sitting in the back, eyes shut, earphones in, seemingly uninterested in the developments. Since last night he had been looking a little green.
Cato turned and locked eyes with Bobby, and his expression said what he could not say out loud, because the day’s events proved him a liar: have I ever been wrong before?
“You’re the boss,” said Bobby.
And Cato was, indeed, the boss. He gave the orders, because that was his job. Nobody quite knew why it had turned out that way, but nobody really questioned it either. Maybe it was because he was smarter than they were. They were born and bred losers—he had come over from the other side. He was worldly, knew the enemy. The most educated junky, the best-looking junky, the junky with an actual hairstyle, who sprinkled his conversation with the word “basically.” Because basically, he knew what he was talking about.
Cato designated the looting zones. Bobby to the downstairs combined living-dining room; himself to the master bedroom, as befitted his status in the pecking order; Schooner, the quiet one, in the downstairs study.
At first their confidence had been boosted by the fact that the window to the living room was not only unbarred, but unlocked. All they had to do was swing it open and climb right in.
They had the big canvas bag. They had their gloves—these days they liked to do things “professionally”. And Cato had his latest acquisition, a pistol with a silencer. They had never needed it yet; perhaps its mere presence was an incitation to unnecessary events. But there was something about the feel of it wedged in his back pocket, something that made life better, made life more like a movie. He was in the lead. You could bring a bit of that old time smacky glamor back, pretend things were like they’d been to start with.
But as Cato yanked out the top drawer of the tallboy and emptied its contents on the bed, his enthusiasm began to dwindle. Everything had been chucked in their unsorted: coins, half rolls of chewing gum, random pieces of paper scrawled with phone numbers and computer passwords, cough lollies, bags of dried fruit. He wondered how he would find anything in such a mess. His hands started rifling through in a frenzy of irritation.
He became aware of a weird feeling, a sense of being observed. He turned and started at the large green eyes that had been boring a hole in his back.
It was a cat. A huge cat—he had never seen a cat as big, except on television, and those weren’t domestic cats, they were wild cats, from deserts and forests. This was a housecat, just very large and fat; almost the size of a guard dog, but with an armor of lard in place of muscle. White, with a grey striped cape. It had a wide, boxy head with a strangely non-feline face. Most cats had small noses. This one’s nose was long and wide, like a baboon, and its eyes were too close together.
Cato puzzled at the soundness of mind of a person who would choose such an ugly cat for a companion. It didn’t seem quite right. Something bubbled up to his memory, from his aesthetics class at university. The lecturer pointed to the feline as an illustration of neoteney or juvenilization: humans ascribed “cuteness” to cats for their small snouts and wide eyes, much as women with wide eyes and small noses are considered superior in beauty, as these are the facial characteristics of babies and children. People like cats because they are dainty and cute and innocent looking.
Perhaps, he mused, this cat had been cute as a kitten, and had only grown hideous later, and so the owners had been deceived.
It crouched in the doorway, batting its tail from side to side, and stared at Cato with the unblinking eyes. Cato shook his head, clearing his mind and refocussing. These strange, disorienting echoes of a former life would creep up on him at the weirdest times, like…well, like when he was doing a job. Briefly he would be reminded of unrecognisable priorities, and behind them, an unrecognisable self that had apparently once existed, and now only offered up random, floating slivers of memory.
He turned around and resumed sorting through the disappointing booty on the bed. In amongst that lot he found a metal canister. Inside there was a thick roll of notes in various foreign denominations. Excellent. He pocketed that and kept looking.
Impatient, he decided to try the next set of drawers down. Emptied all that on the bed and there it was sitting there right there on top, like a cherry crowning a sundae: a small velvet bag. He opened it up and emptied it into his palm: antique gold rings, one set with a ruby, another with an emerald, and another, a large pink diamond. He dumped them back in the bag and put it in his pocket and turned to head back downstairs.
But it was still there, still staring at him. In the same low crouch as before, its enormous tail whipping; but it seemed to have advanced towards him a couple of feet, and now, the black pupils of its strange beady eyes had dilated to the size of hubcaps.
“What the fuck do you want then?” said Cato. “Shoo!” He flung his hand towards it uselessly. The cat did not move.
“Piss off you ugly bastard!” He grabbed a brown moccasin that was lying next to the bed and hurled it at the creature. It leapt and darted out of the room, down the stairs.
Cato gingerly followed behind.
In the living room, Bobby was examining the contents of a glass display case, scratching his head in confusion.
“Is any of this shit valuable?” he said.
Cato went over to see what he was looking at. Arrayed on the glass shelves were a series of wooden carved statues and masks. The statues were representations of pregnant women and what appeared to be men with extraordinarily large penises. The masks were exaggerated, theatrically expressive faces with hooked, flare-nostril noses and buttressed brows. More weird islander voodoo stuff.
“Hard to say. Might go down well on eBay. Better safe than sorry,” said Cato. “Get it in the bag.”
“Creepy looking things…” said Bobby, opening the glass case. He began systematically sweeping each shelf of ornaments into the canvas bag, seemingly glad to not have to look at them anymore.
Cato pulled the velvet bag from his pocket and waved it in Bobby’s face. “What did I tell you? Jewellery.”
“Nice,” said Bobby, nodding.
“Three gold rings with gems, all antique too.…let’s go see where Schooner is at.”
Cato led the way to the study, with Bobby following behind, clutching the bag. Schooner was there leaning over something, a hint of arse crack poking out over the top of his jeans.
“What’s going on?” said Cato.
Schooner spun around as if caught in some act.
“Well, it’s not what we came for, but…” he trailed off and pointed down into a trundle drawer that slid out from underneath the desk.
Cato and Bobby leaned over Schooner’s shoulder to get a better look.
“I see,” said Cato.
From the magazine on the top of the stack Bethany Bangles stared at them with vacant colorless eyes, and a much more compelling set of orbs arrayed below. Beside her was an extensive collection of DVDs, dating all the way back to the late nineties.
“I wouldn’t have picked it,” said Bobby. “With all the books and spooky statues…”
“Just because the guy reads books, doesn’t make him a fag,” said Cato—somewhat defensively, Bobby thought.
“Let’s just get out of here…” said Cato, scratching the back of his neck.
There was an outdated laptop on top of the desk. Bobby tucked it under one arm and they headed back to the living room. Cato paused, looking at the entryway to the kitchen, realising he hadn’t assigned a plunderer to that quarter. Normally, there wouldn’t be much to find there, but on impulse he walked through the passageway and there it was: an antique sideboard, with the “fine” china for dinner parties. Below the glass display with the nice floral plates were sets of drawers.
He went over and randomly pulled open a couple of drawers.
“Ah-ha!” he called out to the others. “Now this… this is the shit!”
Cato had uncovered a stash of antique silver: sets of cutlery, a candelabra, and a gravy dish, the elaborate engravings of which marked them either as highly sought treasures, or accomplished fakes.
“Doesn’t look like much,” said Bobby.
Bobby knew nothing about design. Bobby never watched Antiques Roadshow.
“This is regency silver you bozo” said Cato. “Come here and help me.”
Bobby and Schooner followed into the kitchen and they all started yanking out the drawers, carrying them into the living room and dumping the contents on the sofa.
Together they were sorting through a bonanza fit for a Christie’s auction when there was a piercing, baleful mewl. Cato twisted around and the cat had reappeared at the bottom of the stairs, its posture erect, standing at attention. It stared at them with its slitty green eyes, head cocked slightly to one side. The tail flicked, left to right.
“That bloody cat” said Cato. “He was upstairs, before…”
“That’s not a cat” said Bobby, letting out a little laugh. “That’s a beast!”
“Yeah,” said Schooner. “Wow. Look at him… he’s huge!”
“None too pretty either,” Bobby pitched in. “Look at that snout!”
“Face like a baboon,” said Cato. “Gives me the creeps. Come on, let’s get this lot bagged and get out of here…”
They started sweeping the good stuff into the sack.
The cat leapt onto the glass coffee table next to the sofa. It crouched and stared, its tail whipping to and fro, a crazed look in its eyes.
“Well, he isn’t scared of you, that’s for sure,” said Schooner.
Cato turned to the cat, got in his face. “What’s your problem, huh? Why can’t you just get lost like a good little kitty?”
The cat did not retreat, but moved closer, hissing. Now Cato could see the nametag dangling from its fat throat. “Jonathon” said the tag, with a mobile phone number scrawled underneath.
“Jonathon!” said Cato, standing up straight, addressing the others. “His name’s Jonathon.” He laughed. “Fuck off Jonathon!”
Jonathon lunged, clipping Cato’s ear with a claw.
“Oh, you…” Cato put his hand to his ear, examined a small smear of blood that came away with it. “Got a mind to shoot you, you ugly motherfucker.”
“Well, why don’t you?” said Bobby.
“I will…” said Cato, laying his hand on the pistol in his back pocket.
“No, don’t,” said Schooner. “I like cats…”
“It’s not a cat,” said Bobby again. “It’s a beast.”
Jonathon emitted a deep growl.
“It’s an ugly bastard,” said Bobby. “Go on…”
Cato pulled the pistol from his back pocket and aimed it at Jonathon’s head. Jonathon was momentarily confused, pulling back and flattening his ears.
“Cato, don’t,” said Schooner. “We’re here to steal stuff, not kill innocent animals. We’re thieves, not murderers.”
Back in the days when he still cared, Schooner was a vegetarian.
“Pffft” said Cato. “You getting on your moral high horse, that’s a good one. Is there really any difference? You reckon you’re higher up the karmic tally board because you’re a thief? You ask the people we steal their precious antiques, their memories from, they’ll tell you we aren’t much better than murderers.”
“So,” said Bobby “If there’s no difference, do it then,”
Schooner stared at Cato with his rheumy, pallid eyes. It wasn’t something Cato talked about, but Schooner made him uneasy. He wasn’t sure what it was. Sometimes there was a strange look in his eyes, an impression simultaneously of vacancy and intensity. Perhaps he had just been on the hammer so long that the curious state that characterized the sunnier moments of addiction, that sense of being apart and above from everything, had come to permeate his soul: and yet that was the opposite of how it was supposed to go, and there was something off, something slightly fishy about that.
Schooner crossed his arms. “Your ego creates a lot of problems for you doesn’t it,” he said, a slight smirk dragging up one corner of his mouth.
Cato squinted at him, pissed at his impertinence, and now more determined than ever to do the opposite of what he wanted. “Whatever!”
He put his finger on the trigger and was about to pull back when they heard the sound of chattering voices and the key turning in the front door lock.
“Shit!” he said. “They’re back already?”
The three took what loot they had already siphoned into the bag, and disappeared out the back door and over a fence.
George and Aileen came fussing and bickering through their front door.
“I knew I’d forgotten something” said George, as they came down the hall. “And I stopped to get my bearings, but you wouldn’t let me.”
“I asked you if you had the tickets earlier, inside, and you said yes!” She sighed. “If we stopped every time you thought you’d forgotten something, we’d never go anywhere.”
They had arrived at the concert hall ten minutes early, as planned—but without the tickets. George concluded that he had left them in one of three possible locations in the house—and they had agreed, in spite of Aileen’s better judgement, to go back and look.
Entering the living room they were confronted with the scene: the contents of the sideboard and its drawers scattered all over the sofa and living room floor.
Aileen gasped. The house keys fell from her hands.
Next, they saw the glass display case, now empty of George’s Oceanic fertility figures and masks.
“Oh, god no…” George balled his fists at his temples. “No, no, no…”
He turned back to Aileen. Their eyes met, exchanging the same shock, the same unfurling horror and outrage. Aileen raised her hand to her mouth.
“The bastards,” said George.
He looked back at the glass case, not quite able to get his head around it, not quite able to comprehend its emptiness—or their absence. He had collected them over a period of twenty years, during his anthropological fieldwork in Melanesia. Each was associated with a time and place, faces, smells, landscapes; smoke and rotting fruit and pandanas trees, the squish of deep wet grass underfoot. The memories had been rent apart from their symbolic vessels. History was trashed, meaning violated.
He felt himself tremble, sweat forming on his brow. “The bastards” he said again.
He kneeled down, picking scattered items off the floor and sofa one by one. “They’ve taken grandmother’s regency silver. The fucking bastards.”
He began stalking about the house, assessing the damage, the heaps of scattered possessions, the upended drawers, the preliminary evidence of where they had been and what they had taken. “The bastards” he repeated at intervals, moving from room to room. “The fucking bastards.”
Aileen had collapsed in a chair at the dining room table, the air rushing out of her like a crumpled paper bag. George returned to find her in some kind of trance state, staring at the open living room window.
“This is my fault,” she said quietly, her eyes diverted from his. “They came through there. It wasn’t locked.”
“What!?” said George. “What do you mean it wasn’t locked? That window is always locked!”
Aileen twisted her fingers together and bit her lip. “Yes but…I unlocked it when I cleaned all the windows the other day. And I thought I locked everything again, but now that I think about it, I don’t actually remember locking the window afterwards…”
She put her face in her hands and began to cry.
George rubbed his forehead, fighting an impulse to give expression to his exasperation.
“I’m so sorry dear,” said Aileen, her throat closing around the words. “All those years…all that work…”
She looked up and met his eyes and he realized that she thought he was angry with her, that she was full of fear and shame. But this was no time for that.
“No, no, I’m sorry” he said, taking her hand, giving it a squeeze. It felt cold and limp.
She seemed to be staring inwards at some world of utter desolation.
“I didn’t mean to shout,” he said, lowering his voice, emphasizing each word.
Jonathan emerged from under the sofa, and loudly said: “Meow.”
Aileen was roused from her stupor. “Oh, Jonathon!” she cried, and bent over and picked up the cat, hefting his toddler’s weight with visible effort. “You poor baby! He must have seen the whole thing…” she said glancing at George.
“That must have been very distressing.” George rubbed Jonathon’s crown as the cat nestled in Aileen’s arms. “Poor Jonathon, are you okay? Did the big, bad men scare you? So glad he seems alright…”
Poor Jonathon. Yes, it must have been frightening. Cats like order and quiet. He would have been completely bewildered, all these strangers banging around in the house, throwing everything all over the place. He had been with them for more than a decade, and they loved him to bits, but just at that moment, George found himself having the uncharitable thought that he wished they had got a dog instead.
Jonathon wasn’t in the mood for Aileen’s attentions. He meowed again and wriggled and craned his head over, his signal to let him down on the ground.
She released him and looked at her husband, her eyes widening. “Mother’s rings” she said. “In the drawer in the upstairs bedroom. Maybe they didn’t take them…”
Together they went upstairs to find the room’s contents tossed on top of the bedspread. With everything strewn all over the place, it was hard to tell what was actually missing, and what could simply not yet be found. But soon enough, they established that the thieves had taken her mother’s rings.
This time she did not cry. She was blank faced and frozen. George led her back down the stairs, sat her down at the dining table, and put the kettle on for some tea to calm their nerves.
“I think I need something stronger…” Aileen said as the kettle started whistling.
He had to agree. He took the brandy from the pantry and poured them both a small glass.
“We won’t be able to get the money back on the insurance,” Aileen said, laying her palms flat on the table before her. “Because it was my fault. I left the window unlocked…”
George sat opposite her at the table, pushed the glass of brandy across.
“Don’t worry about that now,” he said, vainly grasping at reassurance. “Could have happened to anybody. What were you saying, just before, about my forgetfulness…” he tried a light hearted chuckle, but it filled the space between them awkwardly, its artificiality too apparent.
“Take some of your brandy,” he said, choosing a more pragmatic angle.
She raised the glass to her lips and took a gulp. Felt the fire hitting her chest, and her hands grow a little steadier.
“They just don’t get it,” she said. “All these things mean nothing to them. It’s just money. As soon as they turn it into cash it’s forgotten. No idea, no respect for the…” she trailed off. “They call it sentimental value. That doesn’t really capture it does it?” Aileen began choking back tears again. “My mother…my mother would turn in her grave to know I had been so careless with her rings!”
“It’s not your fault,” said George. “We all make mistakes. It’s them—they’re just bastards, through and through, and they don’t give a toss about anyone, probably not even themselves…just bastard junkies…”
George felt the familiar rub of fur on his ankles under the table. Jonathon had been under there, listening. He came out and stood up on his haunches next to them at the table.
“Meow” he said.
“What is it, Jonathon?” said Aileen.
“It must be terribly frustrating for them,” said Aileen. “To not be able to tell us what’s wrong.”
Jonathon swiftly leapt on top the dining table.
“Jonathon!” said Aileen. “Naughty boy! You know you’re not allowed up here.”
“Meow!” said Jonathon.
“What’s the matter buddy?” said George.
Jonathon shifted back and forth on his hind legs. “Mrrreow?”
George brought his forefinger to his lips. “Wait a minute!” he said, evidently pleased with his powers of divination. “I know what it is! It’s his dinner time! Just before seven. Right on time. He wants his dinner!”
Jonathon was like a clock: as regular in his habits as an infantryman. If you happened to forget what time it was, he would let you know before too long.
“Oh, of course he does!” Aileen reached across and scratched Jonathon under the chin. “Yes, Jonathon, we understand now, you’re hungry aren’t you?”
“Meow!” said Jonathon.
“Would you mind…?” Aileen said to George.
“Of course not.” George rose from the table.
“Mrrreow” said Jonathon, jumping off the table and following George into the kitchen.
“Better give him two hearts today,” said Aileen. “After everything he’s been through. He deserves it.”
George pulled a baggie with chicken hearts from on top of the fridge, where they had been defrosting. Jonathon flitted around the kitchen, rubbing against his legs, mewling excitedly.
George dropped the hearts in Jonathon’s feeding bowl and Jonathon lunged at his meal with no further remarks.
He returned to his seat at the table. “Well,” he said. “I guess we better notify the police…”
Aileen was resting her chin on her hands, staring absently at the window. “Yes, I guess so.”
Suddenly her eyes sharpened. “George…” she said.” Why don’t you go over to the linen cupboard, get a towel for your hand…and break that window. Maybe we could at least get the money back.”
“Aileen!” said George. “That’s insurance fraud. I’m not sure what I think about that…”
“Upstanding to a fault you are, George,” Aileen said, and drained her glass. “Always have been.”
“It’s not a matter of being especially upstanding. It’s just…normal! If we did that, we wouldn’t be much better than the guys who robbed us.”
“You and I know, it’s not the same thing…”
Jonathon appeared to be completely engrossed in the task of feeding, but what the humans did not always appreciate about feline nature—its very evolved, very sophisticated quality—prevented them realising that he was a true multi-tasker, all his senses permanently on the alert, tuned into unfathomable frequencies.
So while George and Aileen thought that he was just gorging himself on offal, Jonathon was in fact missing nothing of his surroundings, from the world-weary crow calls beyond the windows, to the stirring of a distant storm, to the scents of a barbecue down the street, and all the way back to his owner’s complex deliberations about the ethical status of burglary versus insurance fraud.
His lidded eyes watched them, his human companions, over the top of his feeding bowl.
It was true after all, what she said: yes, it was incredibly frustrating to not be able to tell them what was wrong, or even what was right. The constant struggle to communicate via such inept phrases as “meow,” “mrrreow” and “prrrrr,” and the wholly inadequate apparatus of non-verbal signalling encompassed in such constant and tiring activities as leaping on and off of tables, rubbing at ankles and wriggling out of arm locks, left him feeling exhausted and defeated.
Oh, that self-adoring bastard junky with the gun had known what he meant all right, by one swipe of his strong, sharp talons. He had almost paid with his life.
But it was worth it, deep inside, he felt it was worth it. Or was it?
After all, they didn’t know. How could they know? How could they ever know how much they truly meant to him, how he had risen to their defence, how he was full to bursting with love?
The channels were so limited: incomprehensible expletives, tactile overtures and withdrawals. In the end, it always came back to this, the red plastic food bowl. The great mediator. It did an imperfect job, just like everything else, but at least in the end, there was meat. Chewy, gristly and delicious. Meat talks.
Sometimes, there’s nothing else for it but to present in the spirit of reception, of gratitude: to accept their offerings, to tear lovingly at their hearts.
Obelia Modjeska is primarily an author of short fiction. Her work has appeared in Why Vandalism, Cantaraville and Torpedo. She lives and writes in Sydney, Australia.