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Tom Cat and the Bone Lady

by Sue Parman

part 1 of 3

I had an uneasy truce with Dr. Cecily Seck until her cat sauntered into my office and dropped a bone on my foot.

The cat was an orange tom with a chewed right ear and needle-sharp claws, still a kitten. The bone was the right femur of a newborn child, about 72 mm. in length. I had about three seconds to decide what to do about both of them.

“I knew it!” The fingernail-on-blackboard voice of the woman in my doorway left a smoking trail through my inner ear. Too late to throw a wastebasket over the cat and the bone.

“Interesting specimen.” I tried to sound casual, keeping my head down over a pad of yellow paper, pencil clenched in my fist. “Your latest case?”

“You’ve been out to sabotage me since you came!” The photographs of Cecily Seck on her web page showed a slim young woman of no more than twenty-five. In my doorway she was closer to sixty, and looked like a bantam sausage with electric hair. About five feet tall, she had grown sideways on a diet of late-night popcorn and red wine.

I licked my dry lips. “The cat-”

“I’ll kill you if you try to poison him.”

“I don’t even like cats!” I shoved away from the desk, accidentally kicking the cat, and Cecily shrieked and grabbed both cat and bone.

“Cat killer! You keep away from me and Tom Cat!” With the cat yowling and digging its claws into her shoulder, she charged down the hall.

I found I was still holding a pencil in my hand. I drew some scribble marks on the yellow pad. The lines were ragged, and so was my breath. The small office reeked with a suffocating, resinous scent. Cat hormones, maybe. Rancid sweat. Fear. Also something else — an overtone of decay, as if Cecily’s work permeated her skin and hair.

Cecily Seck was a forensic osteologist. When she wasn’t teaching courses in physical anthropology at the university, she consulted for the Coroner’s office. They called her the Bone Lady.

My office was right across from hers, and even with her door closed I could hear her talking on the phone or to students about her latest cases. Her voice had a manic quality that pierced walls and had even been known to be heard four floors down. “Top secret! They called me up in the middle of the night to go out to Diamond Canyon! The feet were missing — probably a hit, or maybe carnivores, there are a lot of coyotes there. I took the leg bones back with me to deflesh in my garbage so I could analyze the damage. It doesn’t take long, not with the worms and beetles I use. Of course the neighbors think I’m strange!”

Any student in my office would stop pretending to listen to me. I could see their ears pivot, their attention waver. The great Dr. Seck. Her piercing laugh echoed through the corridors. She wore skeleton earrings at Halloween, and decorated the lab skeleton with colored lights at Christmas.

Her fifth husband was in and out of mental hospitals; he was the usual one she called when her cat needed catsitting. The junior faculty covered her classes when she was on cases, and the students whispered her name in awe. Maybe they’d be one of the lucky ones to be accepted as a graduate student. “Romancing the bone,” one student quipped.

I had joined the department two years ago. Within a month she had made a play for me, and I was flattered. The great Cecily Seck. So what if she was twenty years older than I was?

But she had a cat. I was allergic to cats. When I showed up at her house with a bottle of red wine, my throat swelled up and my sinuses revved into high gear. The bedroom was lined with mirrors and bowls of popcorn. The orange tom — he was bigger in my imagination than the small cat that had laid the bone on my boot — sat in the middle of the waterbed, at which point I had drawn the line. But Cecily had been icily clear: “If you’re against my Tom Cat, you’re against me.”

Afterwards, when I heard about the blow jobs she gave to every janitor, garbage collector, and construction worker on the campus (they called her “Dr. Suck”), I was relieved that she had handed me my hat (she kept the wine). By now I knew that she needed at least two conquests a day to keep up her self-esteem, more if her daily dose of lithium was off.

Her conquests came in two categories: planets allowed to circle her sun, battered and burned (like her much-divorced husband), or smashed meteorites relegated to outer darkness and total destruction. By being kicked out of her castle of popcorn, merlot, and cat hair, I assumed I was out of her orbit, in another solar system, no longer on her horizon. But I was wrong. No one survived Cecily’s gaze; she was Medusa, and you got turned to stone or pulverized wherever you were.

She started bringing Tom Cat to the office. He had the run of the corridors, and no one seemed to complain. The Dean had told her he would send the cat to the pound if he ever found it wandering around the campus without her, but as long as they were together, her magic umbrella of protection conferred immunity. No matter that the university had a policy against pets in faculty offices, that it went against hygienic code, and that some people (including me) were allergic to cats. The great Dr. Seck had privileges.

And now I was convinced the cat was in league with her. Everyone else in the corridor liked cats. Why didn’t it visit them? Why bring me its deadly gift?

I drew a cat on the yellow pad. A cat with giant fangs and a forked tail.

“Are you busy, Dr. Ferguson?”

My pencil dug into the page. I tore off the sheet and threw it away. A student stuck his head timidly around the edge of the door, and I struggled to remember his name.

“She does that, sir — gets furious when Tom Cat shares one of her bones with anyone else.”

Damon — that was his name — Damon looked at me through shaggy bangs like a hunted sheep dog. I was learning to recognize the types of students that Cecily recruited: sinewy, energetic, slightly dumb, mostly innocent. After a few semesters with her they took on a crafty, edgy look. If I looked in the mirror, I knew I would see Damon a few years older, innocence deeply submerged if not lost, sliding toward 40 on the downslope of a messy divorce.

“The cat must like you a lot. He never shares her bones with me.” Damon shook his bangs despondently, then seemed to cheer up. “Thank goodness. The last person it happened to-”

“Never mind.” I found that when I doodled, my hands stopped shaking. “What are you still doing here? I thought you were due to graduate last semester.”

“That’s why I’m here, sir.” He was a tall boy, early twenties, dark curly hair that boiled around his dirty collar. “She won’t let me graduate.”

“She doesn’t control the graduation process,” I said irritably, my pencil threatening to inject the tattered fibers of the yellow pad with lead poison. “Have you completed the fifty-four units?”

He looked down. His hands, long-fingered and tanned, clenched his knees. “I need to finish one more independent study.”

“Ah.” I put down the pencil. I hadn’t been aware that I was drawing another cat. It had a bone in its pointy teeth. “Why don’t you substitute another class, if that’s all you need to graduate?”

“But I need a good grade. I’m applying to the Ph.D. program at Texas A&M.”

“And her recommendation, of course.”

“Well, um, yes. If she’ll give it to me.”

I doodled another cat alongside the first one. The second cat had dropped the bone and was smiling. As far as I knew, Cecily never recommended any of her students for graduate programs in forensic osteology. As the Graduate Program Advisor, I followed up on many of our students’ efforts to get into Ph.D. programs. The reference letters were of course confidential, but the decisions were not. “I’m afraid your student doesn’t meet our standards.” “Frankly, I’m amazed that they bothered to apply.”

As I served on more national grant-giving and curriculum-planning committees, the assessments became more frank. “I’ve never seen a more vicious letter.” “The student must be a fool to have requested a letter of recommendation from her.”

It was pointless to dissuade them from pursuing her. Fame had all the drawing power of a Scylla and Carybdis. Never mind trying to explain to students that the reason she was the only star on the platform was that she systematically eliminated the competition.

“Sir, would you...” The gangly Adams-apple throat seemed to be negotiating an apple. “ I mean... if you could talk to her...”

I exxed out the cats with heavy black lines. “Damon, my advice to you is to register for another class and take your lumps with the independent study. So what if it lowers your grade point average a little? How did you do on the GRE?”

“I haven’t taken it yet.”

“Why on earth not?”

“I was all signed up for it, but then she had to go out on a case and her ex wasn’t available, and she needed me to take her cat to the vet. I thought...”

I doodled a cat choking on a large bone. I had gone to the chair of the department the first time this had happened and was told that the university had its hands tied. “We protect the guilty and persecute the innocent,” was her laconic comment. “It’s the University Way.”

Now I was part of the system, passing on the policy of futility. I kept my eye on my drawing. “There’s nothing I can do, Damon. You need to make up your mind whether or not you’re going to face her. I’ll back you up if you file a complaint.”

That was the problem. None of these heat-seeking missiles would ever complain; they insisted on blowing themselves up. Another semester, another body.

Try to answer the following question. You have found a body under a house. The bones at Station #1 are most likely to belong to which of the following: a middle-aged, cynical, mediocre professor of anthropology, a virile stud of twenty-three, or a stupid cat.

I thought he would get angry, but he closed his eyes and sat for a while, his forehead wet with perspiration behind his shaggy bangs. I almost pitied him, but then I remembered the tom cat in the middle of the water bed reflecting a thousand images along with a thousand bowls of popcorn. Damon must not be allergic.

“I hate that cat,” he finally said. “Doesn’t the university have a policy against cats on campus?”

I smiled as I crumpled up my doodle-sheets. “I don’t think the cat is any happier than you are.”

An orange shadow whipped past his shins as the door closed behind him, and a series of needle-pains heralded the arrival of Cecily’s cat climbing onto my lap. “Got away, did you?” I asked it, and took hold of it gingerly to put it out the door before Cecily came roaring back down the hall in search of the person who had stolen her true love.

The cat was the one constant source of affection in Cecily’s life. She never seemed to get angry at her cat. “He’s the only reliable man in my life,” she would tell students. “My Tom Cat.”

I sneezed, and my hands clenched the tiny body. I could feel the bones beneath its skin and was surprised, given all the food she seemed to feed it. The secretaries got a recital of what Tom Cat had eaten the day before. Liver paste, calves’ rump, fish heads, caviar. How many times it had been to the vet. How expensive it was to pay for its allergy shots (I had been surprised that cats could be allergic too; perhaps he was allergic to Cecily).

To my surprise, the cat began to purr. I heard her shouts down the hall and realized I had waited too long. “Don’t betray me, Tom Cat,” I muttered, and slid in close to the desk so the cat, still on my lap, was hidden from view.

She barged in, her face pale with rage. “Where’s Tom?” she demanded, and I almost jumped out of my seat as the claws dug into my thighs.

“You’d better find him before the Dean does,” I said, stifling a sneeze.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Sue Parman

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