Silence of the Cats
Martin checked in with his parole officer as soon as he stepped off the bus from prison. He committed a burglary less than an hour after he registered at the halfway house where he’d be living until he found his own place. The halfway house was an old converted church on Second Street in Fletcher, Oklahoma. The place had at least a dozen cats prowling the grounds and the building.
He had finished three years of a five-year hitch for B and E. That’s breaking and entering for those of you who’ve been living in a cave for the last hundred years. Martin was paroled right on schedule for someone who did his time without any credit for good behavior.
No good behavior credit and no bad behavior on his record. He didn’t cause trouble. He kept his head down and his mouth shut. He didn’t suck up to the guards like some of the other cons did. Sucking up to the guards was a good way to get your ass kicked in the yard or after lights out. Martin kept his head down and did his time.
He figured he was the only guilty man in prison. Everyone else was innocent. He wasn’t. He’d been caught burglarizing a house because he was stupid. Well, maybe not stupid, but he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. His technique was very simple, too simple. Pick out a house and wait until the people leave for the day. Always break in during the daytime, when people aren’t home. After they’d left for the day, he’d walk around to the back door and use a twelve-inch pry bar to force his way inside. It was very effective. On his first burglary, he’d used a five-pound sledgehammer to break in. The hammer worked great, but it was too big and heavy. He couldn’t carry the hammer and all the loot he wanted to take.
After he broke into a house, he would go straight to the master bedroom. That’s where people keep their jewelry and watches. If they have good prescription drugs, they usually keep them in the master bath medicine cabinet or in their bedside tables. He’d go through the cabinets and the drawers. Next, he’d make a blitz search of the closets. People keep guns in their closets. He never bothered with big screen televisions or computers. Those are a dime a dozen. Hard to carry, too.
Grab the goods and get out. Never stay in a house for longer than ten minutes. He had it down to a science. It worked every time, except for when it didn’t.
He watched this house on Kickapoo Street in Crystal City for two straight mornings. The man and woman were out of the house by 7:30 each day. The third morning, he waited until the ‘go to work traffic’ was off the street. The last thing you want is to run into someone’s neighbor while you are hauling their stuff out the front door. Like always, he rang the doorbell to be sure no one was home. If anyone answered the door, he would tell them he was selling solar electric systems. He’d worked up a pretty good spiel about solar systems.
No one was home and he jimmied the backdoor and rifled the master bedroom a minute later. Nice jewelry, five or six watches, and about fifty hydrocodone pills. Well, forty-eight pills after he dry-swallowed two of them. The closet was a gold mine. There was a gun safe and it wasn’t locked. What kind of moron buys a gun safe and doesn’t lock it? He put three pistols in a pillowcase. One was a Glock. He threw in several boxes of shells. There were two hunting rifles, a shotgun and an AK-47. He took them all and headed for the door.
He parked about a block away from the target house. Martin hoped no one would see him running down the street. He wanted to look like a solar salesman, but that illusion broke down because of the pillow case full of guns, bullets, watches, and jewelry he carried over one shoulder. Or maybe, it was the shotgun and rifles he carried. He looked like a young skinny Santa Claus making a delivery to a survivalist camp.
He guessed some busybody must have seen him run down the street. He wasn’t very fast because the guns kept shifting and he had to stop and adjust them every few steps. In retrospect, he should have left a couple of the guns in the house or on the ground where he dropped them. The pillowcase tore from the weight and everything spilled on the ground behind him. He was franticly loading everything into the trunk when the police pulled up.
His was probably the only arrest that year where the police had their lapel cameras turned on. It’s hard to argue you’re innocent when the cops have video of you holding stolen guns.
After he saw the video, he took a plea deal. His public defender said, “My boy, they got you on video. When the jury sees a video, there is nothing you or I can say. Don’t be stupid. Take the deal.”
Martin took the deal.
Martin did alright in prison. He didn’t have to hide from gangs. No one tried to assault his virtue. He knew that sort of thing happened, but he was pretty big and pretty ugly. He was careful and didn’t draw attention to himself. He just did his time.
Prison was better than a school for Martin. Everyone was happy to tell how they’d gotten caught, hypothetically. Remember, everyone is innocent in prison. He was different, he was guilty. The first lesson was that pigs get fat and hogs get slaughtered. That was a fancy way of saying don’t steal more than you can carry. His cellmate, Gilman, told him the story about a little boy who got his hand caught in a cookie jar. The kid couldn’t get his hand out of the jar because he wouldn’t let go of any cookies. Sounded a lot like him and his load of guns.
He got a new nickname out of it. Gilman and everyone else called him ‘Cookie’ for the rest of his time.
Prisoners were allowed internet access during the day. There were hundreds of websites that tell people how to protect their homes from burglars. They also told Cookie how to pick a house to rob. Cookie’s favorite was whatburglarslookfor.com. He clearly hadn’t known what to look for when he robbed houses or he wouldn’t be in jail. The websites made him a smarter burglar.
One day when he was bored, Cookie looked up the history of Fletcher, Oklahoma because the halfway house where he would stay after he was paroled was in Fletcher. This small town had been around since the late 19th century. It sprung up during the first big oil boom. Most small oil-driven boomtowns faded into oblivion when the oil played out. The prairie, forest, and weather reclaimed their crude buildings and fences. The hardy grasses and scrub oak trees erased all evidence that these towns had ever existed. That was not the case for Fletcher. It’d grown from a bar and a blacksmith shop into a small, but modern town. The dirt streets were paved and the water pump in the town square was gone. The houses had utilities and there was not a living citizen who had ever used an outhouse. People lived in Fletcher and commuted to work at the army base on the Texas border. The town was complete with a city hall, police force, subdivisions, hospitals, schools, gas stations, and even a fast food restaurant or two.
Fletcher’s police force was small for the size of the city. The crime rate was extremely low. Fletcher didn’t have a dog catcher, and there was no animal control department. Rumor was that cats were never killed or harmed in Fletcher. No one suggested Fletcher harbored some type of evil cat cult with robes, masks, or droning chants, and there were no sandaled Egyptian priests burning scented candles and using obsidian knives to sacrifice unbelievers to some secret cat god. The good people in Fletcher just liked their cats.
Cookie learned a lot from the internet and he learned a lot from Gilman, who was a self-acknowledged fountain of knowledge. Gilman claimed to be a very successful burglar who had robbed over a thousand houses.
Sometimes other inmates asked why he was in jail if he was such a great burglar. He always replied, “Great burglar, bad drug dealer.”
Gilman’s rules for burglary were simple and were consistent with the information on the internet. “Picking the right house is the most important step. If you pick the wrong house, you might as well turn yourself in to the police. Look for a house where the homeowners could be on vacation. Is the yard mowed? Are there newspapers in the driveway? Is the trash can out on trash day? Any of these could be a sign the people are out of town.”
“Pick a house where the windows or doors are screened by bushes or trees so neighbors can’t see you break in. A high wall or fence around the backyard is great. Homeowners like privacy. Privacy is good for crooks, too. Stay away from corner houses, they’re more exposed. It’s easier for people to see you. A cul-de-sac house is best. Less traffic.”
“Even if the house looks like nobody is home and the landscape will give me cover while I break in the home,” Gilman continued, “I have three walk-away rules.”
Cookie asked, “What are they?”
“If there is security system, walk away.”
“I read on the internet that some homeowners just have a security system sign, not an actual security system.”
“Don’t take that chance, Cookie. Walk away.”
“If there’s a dog, walk away. I don’t care if it’s a big dog or a little dog, walk away. I don’t need to see the dog. If there is a ‘beware of dog’ sign, walk away. If I see a water dish or food dish in the yard or when I peek through the windows, I walk away. Dog door, walk away.”
Martin asked, “What about cats?”
“Who cares about cats? Dogs bite, bark, and make a fuss. Cats don’t do anything. Cats don’t care. Besides, dog people will shoot you. What are cat people going to do? Stab you with a knitting needle?”
“What’s your third rule?”
“If the television is on inside the house, walk away. Don’t try and decide whether or not the television means anyone is really home. Walk away and go to another house. Don’t take the chance.”
Cookie said, “So, I pick a house that looks like no one is home and then check for the walk away rules. Is that right?
“Yeah, but always rob a one-story house. Lots of two-story houses have the master bedroom upstairs. If you get caught upstairs in a two-story house, you’re screwed. You going to jump out the window and break your fool neck or fight the homeowner? Cookie, in Oklahoma, old ladies with walkers carry great big guns. Don’t get caught upstairs. Stay out of basements, too. Basements don’t even have windows. People can lock you in a basement.”
Cookie understood it was a miracle he didn’t get caught the first time he’d broken into a house. Good thieves are made, not born. Of course, the people had left their door unlocked, but that’s another story. He listened to Gilman, kept his head down, kept his mind right, and did his time until he eventually made parole and was back at his old job on his first day of freedom. He’d learned to be a better burglar. He did a blitz job on a little bungalow on Carter Street for walking around money. He made enough on the first job to buy a junk car. The halfway house loaned him a cell phone with over an hour of time on it.
He picked a neighborhood about three miles away, Potawatomie Estates. There were three ways in and out of the subdivision and no gates or stoplights at the entrances. He wouldn’t get trapped in the neighborhood. It was strange that he didn’t see any dogs, but there were plenty of cats.
Cookie thought the cats were watching him. As he walked down the streets, he didn’t feel like he was being followed, but he’d see a calico cleaning its fur on a porch. The calico would stop and stare as he passed. Two houses later, a Siamese stopped torturing a small lizard and watched until he walked by. There was always a cat watching him.
He decided that worrying about cats was stupid. He was being paranoid. Cats don’t watch people. There are no watch cats.
He walked the streets wearing exercise clothing as a disguise in the mornings for three days in a row. Cookie learned the morning routines of the neighborhood walkers and runners. Everyone going to work left before nine o’clock. He picked a cul-de-sac called Calico Road and watched it like a hawk. No car traffic after nine. There were no dogs and no dog doors. He noticed cats, lots of cats. Whenever he thought specifically about cats and glanced around, he could always see a cat going about early morning cat business. There were gray cats, black cats, white cats, big cats, small cats, old cats, and kittens. He never knew if he never saw the same cat twice. It’s hard to be sure because all black cats look the same. The cats eventually became so commonplace that he didn’t notice them anymore. The cats blended into the suburban landscaping like a rose bush or bird bath.
He walked the cul-de-sac every morning and cased the houses. One house stood out, it was a single story with faded paint. The shrubs and juniper trees blocked the view on one side of the house and the gate to the back yard. He wouldn’t be seen from the street or neighboring houses once he was on the side of the house. The gate to the back yard wasn’t locked. He counted ten masonry rows in the block wall around the rear of the house. Ten rows make a wall at least six feet tall. Good enough.
Cookie came early for next two days and verified the homeowners’ morning routine. The man and woman drove away in separate cars before eight o’clock each morning. No security system, no signs of a dog, and no sounds from a radio or television. It didn’t get any better than that.
The house met all the rules. This house was too good to be true. There was no reason to walk away.
Cookie decided this was the house and Monday was the day. He parked a block away and walked the area in his exercise clothes until nine. The neighborhood routine was perfectly normal. When the commuters were gone and the walkers and runners were off the streets, he hurried to his car and pulled off the sweat suit that he wore over his slacks and shirt. He put on his cheap Goodwill Store jacket. He removed the floppy hat and oversized sunglasses that shielded his face from the sun and prying eyes.
Cookie clipped on his solar guy badge, walked to the house, and rang the doorbell. No answer. He tried the front door out of habit, it was locked. He turned from the door and almost tripped over a tuxedo cat that was quietly standing right behind him. He kicked at the cat, who scowled in silent displeasure and stepped aside.
He quickly walked to the side of the house and stepped behind an overgrown juniper bush. A quick look around and he stepped through the gate and crossed the back yard. There was a female Burmese warming in the morning sun and watching her litter of kittens chase each other around the yard. The mother cat, the kittens, and Cookie ignored each other with quiet disdain.
There was a sliding glass door. There wasn’t a broomstick or anything wedged in the track to keep the door from opening. He tried the door and wasn’t surprised to find it unlocked.
Cookie went through the sliding door and left it open behind him. He hurried past the breakfast nook, down the hall, and into the master suite. He glanced into the guest bedrooms as he ran down the hall. Both rooms were immaculate and looked unused. The beds were made and nothing was out of place. The hall bath didn’t show any signs of use.
Once in the master, he rifled through the bedside tables and didn’t find anything of value. He took some costume jewelry, a couple of cheap watches, and a partial bottle of Ambien. He tossed them in a pillow case liberated from the bed. The medicine cabinet was empty except for aspirin, sinus medication, and an assortment of lotions and creams.
There were two walk-in master closets. He picked the one with men’s clothes and hurried to the end farthest from the door. Always start in the rear and work toward the door. He pulled a double handful of hanging clothes from the top rod and threw them to the floor. Cookie pushed the remaining clothes to one side and saw a handgun zipper case and three boxes of ammo on the shelf. It was a Chiappa Rhino Chrome with a six-inch barrel, one of the most valuable handguns in the world. He dumped the crap from the bedside tables on the floor and zipped up the gun case. This was all he needed, it was worth five or six grand, easy.
When he picked up the gun case, he felt someone watching him. His hair stood on end as he turned and saw three cats in the doorway. One was a Maine Coon and the other two were whatever cats. He rushed from the closet and the cats moved to let him pass by. The Maine Coon brushed against his leg. The only sound was the slight rustle of the cat’s fur sliding against his khaki pants.
There were at least a dozen more cats in the master bedroom. He wondered how anyone could live with all these cats. He dodged around them as best he could. The cats never complained vocally whenever they had to move out of his way. One scraggly gray tom swiped at his leg as he went by. The tom’s claws sliced through his khakis and made parallel cuts on his left leg. He cursed and kicked the cat into the wall. The tomcat never cried out.
Every cat in the room arched its back soundlessly and stepped stiff-legged toward Cookie. He jerked the comforter off the bed and whirled it in the air like a matador’s cape. The cats moved out of reach of the spinning cloth, but didn’t retreat from the room. He forced the cats away from the bedroom door.
He threw the comforter at the cats and backed toward the doorway. He turned to run down the hall, but there was nowhere to step. The hallway floor was covered in cats. There were at least a hundred cats. They silently glared at him. The indifferent arrogant stare from a single cat is unnerving. The placid silence and implied threat contained in the eyes of a hundred cats was terrifying. Cookie would have felt better if the cats moved about, yowled, howled, purred, or made any sort of noise.
The cats were silent. They waited like small statues. They stared at him with that quiet expressionless cat face that can mean fear, pleasure, happiness, hatred, boredom, or what’s for dinner.
Cookie hesitated in the doorway, frightened by the silent carpet of feline fur that filled the hall. He hesitated, frozen by the silence of the cats. The Maine Coon jumped on Cookie’s back and sank its claws and teeth into his neck. The other cats in the bedroom attacked his legs, biting and slashing with their claws.
He dropped the gun case, reached with one hand to grab the Maine Coon, and fumbled with his other hand trying to brush the cats from his legs. The Maine Coon released his neck and attacked his right hand with teeth and claws. Before his left hand could force a single cat from his legs, it was bitten and shredded by unseen claws. He staggered forward, trying to kick the cats from his legs as he moved.
His legs were heavy with cats and he stumbled, flailing with both hands. Finally, he was able to fling the Maine Coon cat from his hand, although it cost him a small piece of his right thumb.
Cookie heard someone screaming. It was him. More cats jumped on his back and legs. He finally dropped to one knee under their weight. The cats didn’t give him a second’s respite. He couldn’t catch his breath. The hall cats sat mutely watching while cats from behind him stealthily climbed or jumped on his back and tore at his head and neck.
He couldn’t stay upright under the weight of the cats. Cookie screamed again and dropped to his hands and knees. He was at eye level with the hundreds of cats in the hall. The cats didn’t hurry or show any emotion, they slowly and soundlessly came forward and almost gently engulfed him. It looked remarkably like ants swarming out of an anthill and flowing over errant grasshopper or like a toy in the yard slowly disappearing beneath a multi-colored snowfall.
When the family came home that night, they found some bones and clothing scattered in the backyard. Most of the bones had been carried off by one cat or another. The only other evidence was the open back door and the bloodstained carpet in the hallway.
It wasn’t hard for the homeowners to surmise what had happened. The woman got a trash bag and picked up the bones and clothing the cats had left in the house and the yard. The man filled a small carpet cleaner and steam cleaned the carpet.
The old gray tom came up to the lady in the back yard and silently held out a paw to show a claw torn to the quick. One rear leg that was broken or badly bruised. She picked up the cat and carried him into the house. She placed him on the kitchen counter and carefully cleaned, disinfected, and bandaged his wounded paw.
The cat complained bitterly about the bandage, but was distracted by an offering of tuna fish. The man came into the kitchen to wash the steam cleaner and the woman said, “Whoever broke into our house hurt the tom’s front paw. I think he has a broken leg. Who would treat a cat like that? He must not be from around here. I’ll take him to the vet and pick up some takeout on the way home. Chinese?”