Karl stared at the cats face on the security monitor. He fished his tarnished lighter from his pocket, dragged an ashtray across the metal desk, and lit another cigarette. It was his twelfth of the shift. The office was equipped with a space heater, surprisingly ambitious for its size, that heated the tiny room. The smoke-filled air was stifling. Karl took off his hat. The pinpoints of sweat on his wrinkled forehead were blue in the glow of the monitors.
Karl had never been a cat person. He harbored no ill will toward them- hed gotten along well enough with his familys Russian Blue as a child, and the two of them spent long stretches loafing in front of the television, staking out mouse holes, and establishing supply networks from the dinner table to the floor. He was just more of a dog person, that was all. Dogs were less likely to get into mischief. When he was still with the force, Karl would tell his new detectives to look into a suspects eyes during interrogations: Cat eyes mean theyve started some shit, dog eyes mean theyve probably just stepped in it.
The cat on the monitor was no stranger to Karl. It had a habit of strutting in front of each security camera before parking its ample figure in front of the entrance to the building. The cat had a fondness for sitting on the wide, weathered handrail that stopped just before the front door and pawing at the intercom light. After a while, Karl became accustomed to seeing the cats face on the monitor-- wide, plaintive eyes anchored squarely above a white, mustached muzzle. Either Karl had a tremendous bias, or the cat looked an awful lot like him.
Karl ground the remains of his cigarette into the overflowing ashtray and leaned closer to the monitor. The last few days had left him with a growing fascination at the cats eyes. Whenever the cat sat in front of the monitor, as it was now, Karl swore he could see an unusual awareness dancing in the cats eyes. Karl continued to stare at the black cats eyes as it playfully batted at the blinking intercom button. He reached for his coffee mug. The intercom crackled to life.
Can you buzz me in? Im freezing my whiskers off out here.
Karls coffee mug slipped from his hand and scattered on the floor. His mind stumbled and staggered over a variety of words, but Karl could only sit in slack-jawed silence as the cats stark white eyebrows angled downwards toward the center of its face. Coffee was pooling on the linoleum.
Hello? Mustache Guy? I know its your shift tonight. Can you please just buzz me in for a minute? Its really cold out here.
Karl, unsure of what was happening, let alone how to handle it, did the first thing that came to mind. He pressed the intercom button. P-pardon?
The cat responded in a high, feminine, and, to Karls already substantial surprise, decidedly sarcastic voice. You know, buzz me in? Press the little button so the door will open and I can stop freezing to death? Im sure they explained the process during your orientation.
Karl fished a cigarette from his pack and raised a trembling hand to his mouth. As he fumbled with his lighter, a torrent of words poured over his mind: Hallucination. Psychosis. Senile dementia. Schizophrenia.
Okay, I see whats going on here. Youre a little weirded out because of the whole talking cat thing. I understand. Its kind of a big deal. But I have a situation here: if I dont get inside soon, Im going to die of exposure. Out here. In a mall parking lot. The cat looked over her shoulder and waved a paw across the empty lot. I deserve better than that- we all deserve better than that- so Im asking you, one mustache to another: can you please, please, just buzz me in?
Karls thumb was faster than his brain. He depressed the button and watched the heavy glass doors swing open.
Oh man, thanks a bunch, Mustache Guy! If its not too much trouble, could you meet me in the vestibule? I dont think Im strong enough to get the second set of doors open. The cat winked into the camera and sauntered through the open doors.
In his surprise, Karl had let his cigarette burn to the filter. He tipped the flaky gray mess into the ashtray and watched the front doors on the monitor. It was warmer in the vestibule. He could easily leave the cat there for the night. Turn off the intercom and let the morning crew deal with it. What will they say if they discover a talking cat? What if the cat is gone in the morning? Or worse, what if its still there, but it wont talk to anyone? Images of a dancing cartoon frog flashed through Karls mind. The sweat beads were sliding down his face now, iridescent blue worms in the light of the security monitors. Karl slicked his hair back and put on his hat.
I was starting to think you werent gonna show. The cats tiny voice was barely audible through the thick glass doors.
Karl pulled one of the doors open and the cat strutted through. I shouldve had more faith. Youre a good one, Mustache Guy.
My name is Karl, not Mustache Guy. Karl tapped a finger against his gold name tag.
Sorry, Karl. Didnt mean anything by it. The cat looked up at Karls name tag. Karl with a K, huh? I like it. Im Kara, by the way. Also with a K.
That explains the feminine voice.
Yeah, you can't always trust a mustache. The belly full of kittens doesnt leave much room for doubt, though. Kara wiggled her hindquarters and her stomached swayed in turn. Hey, can we ride the escalator? None of the other guys let me ride the escalator.
You really think youre the first security guard to let me inside the mall? The other ones just buzzed me in as soon as I made eyes at the camera. Youre the first one I actually had to talk to.
Karl gazed across the empty shopping center. He unholstered his flashlight. Lets go for a walk.
They walked through the dark, silent innards of the mall, Karls footsteps echoing from one end to the other. Kara padded alongside him, her white mustache and eyebrows floating through the darkness. When they reached the food court, Karl aimed his flashlight at the escalator. The frozen staircases began at opposite sides of the food court, criss-crossing one another in a large, still X. Large UP" and DOWN" signs hung the respective escalators. Kara titled her head expectantly toward Karl.
You know you can walk up without turning the power on, right?
Yeah, but then youre just climbing stairs. I can do that anywhere.
Karl pulled a key from his keyring, slotted it into the control panel, and the escalators started with a groan. Kara sprinted toward the nearest set of stairs.
Karl! Karl! Check it out! Im going up the down stairs!
Karl waited for the black cat to reach the top, then plucked the key from the escalators control panel. He walked across the food court to the unmoving up escalator, and climbed the silent stairs to the second floor. He found Kara panting at the top, exhausted.
Karl stared down at her. You know, when humans are pregnant, our doctors discourage strenuous exercise.
Kara rolled her eyes. You guys are so dramatic. How many babies do women have? Three? Four? Maybe a couple more if theyre Mormon or something? Ive cranked out at least twenty. I think I know what Im doing. She paused. Any chance youve got some extra milk lying around?
Karl scooped up the cat. Lets get you something to drink.
I can walk, you know, said Kara, though she wasted no time curling into his arms. Karl nudged open the door of the office and set the cat on the floor. Kara opened her eyes to see the brown coffee still settled on top of the linoleum. Karl noticed that something seemed odd, but the cat derailed his train of thought. Still getting the hang of those opposable thumbs, eh?
I didnt hear any complaints when I used them to buzz you in.
Kara laughed. Fair enough. How about that milk?
A shaft of light crept across the floor as Karl cracked open the refrigerator. Half and half okay?
Even better," Kara purred, staring expectantly into the bowl that Karl had placed on the floor.
Karl poured the contents of the carton into the bowl and began to blot up the coffee on the floor. The room-temperature mess stuck to his paper towel. Karl danced around the idea of putting less sugar in his coffee. Kara, tail contentedly flicking back and forth, raised her head from the bowl.
You ever miss the force, Karl?
Karl paused, a coffee-stained shard of ceramic pinched between his leathery fingers. Whats that?
The force. You used to be a detective, right?
Howd you know that?
Kara licked the cream from her whiskers. Grow up, Karl. Im obviously a projection of your subconscious. You really think this mustache is a coincidence?
Karl stared at the black cat, his wrinkly crows feet furrowed around his squinting eyes. Hed seen the cat with his own eyes. Talked to it. Picked it up, for gods sake. More prognoses paraded through his mind: Psychotic break. Brain tumor. Hysteria. Acid flashback. He was sweating again. The ceramic shrapnel slipped from his weathered hand and clattered against the floor.
Come on, Karl, Im just kidding, giggled Kara. I promise, youre not crazy. Your file was sitting on the desk last week and I snuck a peek. I told you this wasnt the first time Ive been inside.
Karl retrieved the remaining pieces of the mug and dropped them in the trash can. Im just getting over the fact that theres a goddamn talking cat in my office. You could at least hold off on the mind games. Karl eased himself into a chair.
Kara continued to lap at the half and half. Fair enough. You do miss police work, though, right?
Karl remained silent for a while before responding. Why am I getting the third degree here?
I dunno. Mall security doesnt seem that exciting. It must be tough working here after all the gunfights and high-speed pursuits and stuff.
Karl rolled his eyes. Watch a lot of television, Kara? The cat hung her head. He couldnt see past her dark fur, but Karl was fairly certain that she was blushing.
You know what I miss? said Karl. I miss closing cases.
You mean like collaring suspects and catching bad guys and all that Hawaii 5-0 type stuff?
Karl shook his head. No, I mean literally closing the case. Signing paperwork, typing reports, closing the folder, and sending everything down to Records.
Kara laughed. Seriously?
Seriously. Knowing that the perp is parked in a cell and the reports gathering dust in a filing cabinet. That everythings over and the mess is cleaned up. Its the best feeling in the world.
Why dont you go back?
Karl sighed. I was... encouraged to retire early. He brushed a finger across his mustache. I guess I could volunteer or something, but Id rain on a lot of parades if I went crawling back looking for a job. Besides, Im too old to be a detective. Why the sudden interest in my career, anyway?
Kara hopped onto the desk and padded up to Karl, her white mustache level with his own. Her voice grew serious. Your file was on the desk the other night because they were talking about you. They want to get rid of you, Karl.
Karl arched his bushy eyebrows. Who? Jacobsen? That asshole. I do everything to the letter!
Yeah, thats sorta the problem. You take things a little too seriously. Most of the other guards are kids or slackers or both. Theyre not exactly obsessed with protocol. Jacobsen plays internet poker all night. You, on the other hand, walk halfway across the food court just to use the proper escalator.
It was the up escalator!
It was turned off! Theyre all just stairs when the powers off! Karl grimaced. His mustache approximated a frown.
I like you Karl, I really do. You have more personality than any of the other chowderheads that sit in this office, and youre more liberal with the half and half, too. So why were you encouraged to retire?
Karl huffed. Bueaurocratic shit. Some paperwor went missing a couple times.They thought senility was getting the best of me. I think theyre full of shit. I think it was that asshole Ramirez trying to throw me under the bus.
Is this anything like your feud with Jacobsen? Or the Orange Julius guy?
That asshole is selling something other than smoothies. Hell slip up sooner or later.
Karl stared the cat for a long time before she spoke again. I think you should quit.
They cant fire you without a good reason, and youre not the type to give them one. Youre either going to work here until you quit or die. In the meantime, they're going to make things pretty miserable for you." Karl frowned. Look, you obviously miss detective work. Maybe you cant rejoin the police department, but you could at least volunteer or take a consulting job or do some private investigating or something. This job is killing you, Karl. Kara waved a paw at the mountain of cigarette butts blossoming from the ashtray. When was the last time you smoked this much? You really wanna die at a mall? Like I said, we all deserve better than that.
Karls eyes narrowed to wrinkly slits. He plucked the bowl from the floor, spilling the remaining half and half across the linoleum. With his free hand, Karl flung the office door open. The thin wood rattled as it bounced off the wall. Karl jabbed a bony finger at the door. Were done here. I dont need to take career advice from a talking cat.
Kara met Karls bitter stare and slunk toward the door. You dont have to snap at me. I was just trying to help.
Karl closed the door behind the black cat and took a seat at the desk. The office chair protested his weight with a creak. As he leaned forward to watch Kara exit through the monitors, he realized for the first time how exhausted he was. His head lolled and his eyelids slid shut under their own exhausted weight.
When Karl awoke, light was pouring through the windows of the building, the talking cat was gone, and a beet-red Jacobsen was asking why the front doors were unlocked and the Orange Julius was a fucking disaster.
Karls typewriter carriage slid home with a clang. He released the finished report from the machine and placed it atop of a small stack of papers, which he slipped into a manila folder with the label Kinsey (B). Karls smile forced the edges of his mustache upward as he closed the folder.
He rose from his desk, crossed the tiny office, and opened a dull green filing cabinet. Karl flipped through the Is and Js and slotted the finished case into the K section. He elbowed the heavy drawer, which slid shut with a gratifying clunk. There was a knock at the door. Come on in, said Karl.
A sheepish older woman stood at the threshold of the office. The sunlight filtering through the blinds turned her wrinkles into deep, brown canyons. Karl figured she was at least eighty. She peered out from beneath the brim of her gaudy, flowered hat. Is the the private investigators office?
A courteous smile flickered across his face. Thatd be me. What can I do for you?
I was hoping you could help me find someone.
You came to the right place. I have pretty good luck with missing persons. The woman fidgeted at the door. Why dont you grab a seat? said Karl.
The elderly womans feet stuttered across the office and she sat down at the desk. Karl took a seat opposite the woman. So who is it youre looking for?
The woman rummaged around in her enormous handbag and produced an old Polaroid. She slid the photograph across Karls desk. Karl glanced at the photograph. I dont really do pets, maam.
The womans droopy face sagged even further. I thought as much, but I found your business card in my mailbox and I figured I should at least give you a try. Animal Control hasnt been any help at all, and the flyers my granddaughter made dont seem to be doing any good." She stared into the photo on the desk. Shes been gone a few weeks now. Im awfully worried. The wowan leaned closer. Besides, she kind of looks like you. Karl looked back at the picture. Only then did he notice the white eyebrows and mustache.
Karl chuckled. Write down your name and number. Ill start looking as soon as I can. The womans smile parted the wrinkles of her face like a curtain, and she scrawled her information on a Post-it note. The woman rose slowly from her seat and walked toward the door. Ill call you as soon as I find something, said Karl. The woman gingerly closed the door behind her.
Karl picked up the Polaroid and studied the familiar feline face. He subconsciously touched his mustache as he stared at the cats. Karl chuckled. He rose from the desk and jumped when he heard the sound of his coffee mug crashing to the ground, but when he looked up, it was still standing on the corner of the desk. Karl stared at the mug for a long time before retrieving his coat and hat from the coat rack, then slipping out the door. He owed a talking cat an apology.