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The night was cool, and above the village hills the stars hurled down their ancient light-borne messages. High up on the open slopes where the grass blew tall and rank, a small hunter crouched hidden, his ears and whiskers flat to his sleek head, his yellow eyes burning. Slowly he edged forward, intent on the mouse which had crept shivering from its deep and earthen burrow.
He was a big cat, and powerful, his short gray coat sleek as velvet over his lean muscles; but he was not a pretty cat. The white, triangular marking down his nose made his eyes seem too close together, as if he viewed the world with a permanent frown. To observers he seemed always to be scowling.
Yet there also shone in his golden eyes a spark of wit, and a sly smile curved his mouth, a hint that perhaps his interests might embrace more of the world than simply the palpitating mouse which awaited his toothy caress- a clue that this big gray tom saw the world differently, perhaps, than another cat might see it.
Crouching low, he did his best to keep his white paws and white chest hidden, keep his white parts from shining out through the dark grassy jungle. He would have preferred to have been born solid gray in color- that would make hunting far easier- but one did not have a choice in these matters. And he did favor his neat white paws.
The mouse moved again, a quarter inch, watching warily for any presence within the blowing shadows.
Quivering, it stretched farther out from its shelter, its eyes gleaming black and quick as it strained to see any foreign movement. Its ears twitched, alert to any threatening sound upon the hushing wind, and constantly its body shivered with the habit of fear, every tiny muscle tensed for flight, ready to vanish again among the heavy roots.
The cat's eyes didn't leave his prey; they blazed with hunger and lust for the kill, bright as yellow coals. He drew back his lips over gleaming incisors as he tested the mouse's musty smell, his pink tongue just visible tasting that irresistible aroma. His shoulders rippled in anticipation, and he licked his nose as if he was already licking warm and succulent mouse flesh. The small rodent was damnably slow about leaving its cover. Joe remained still with great effort.
Below him down the grassy slopes the village of Molena Point slept snugly at this predawn hour, the cottages protected from the sea wind by the giant oaks among which they had been built, and by the surrounding hills into which the homes and shops were tucked like a tangle of kits snuggled against their mother. In the center of the village the courthouse tower rose tall against the dark sky, as pale and lonely as a tombstone. The Mediterranean building housed two courtrooms, various city offices, and, at the far end, the Molena Point Police Department. The ongoing murder trial which would resume this morning in the courtroom was, despite the tomcat's irritation about the matter, of great concern to him.
For weeks the quiet village had talked of nothing else but Janet Jeannot's murder and of the fire in which she had died. There was heavy speculation about the young man who had been indicted for her death. Prurient excitement about these events had transformed Molena Point's usual calm ambience into an emotional bedlam. Gossip and conjecture seethed through the village shops and cafés so that Joe, prowling the village streets catching snatches of conversation, was aware of little else. Though his own interest did not stem so much from village gossip as it did from a far more personal concern.
The mouse moved again, creeping farther from cover, half an inch, then an inch, bravely and foolishly leaving its grassy blind, drawing so close to Joe that Joe had to clamp his jaws to keep from chattering the age-old feline death murmur. He oozed lower, slipping silently toward it through the grass, disturbing no blade, every fiber of his being honed in on that sweet morsel.
The mouse froze.
Joe froze, his heart pounding with annoyance at his own clumsiness.
But no, it hadn't seen him. It had paused only to gather itself for a dash across the bare earth. It stared across, fixated, toward another stand of heavy grass, where a tiny path led away, a quarter-inch lane vanishing between the green stalks. Joe's muscles tightened, his lips drew back, his yellow eyes gleamed.
The mouse sped, streaking for its path, and Joe exploded across the little clearing. With one swipe of scimitar claws he raked the creature up into his waiting teeth, it fought and struggled as his fangs pierced the wriggling morsel.
The mouse knew a moment of apocalypse as it hung skewered and shrieking in the cage of teeth clamped through its body. Joe bit deeper into the warm, soft flesh, the sweet flesh. The mouse screamed and thrashed, and was still.
He crouched over it tearing away warm flesh, sucking up sweet, hot blood, crunching the mineral-rich bones, then the surprising little package of stomach contents. The stomach usually contained grass seed or vegetable matter, but this morning he was rewarded by a nice little hors d'oeuvre of cheese from the tiny mouse stomach. Camembert, he thought, as if the mouse had lunched on someone's picnic. Or maybe it had gotten into the kitchen of one of the houses that dotted the hills. He could taste a bit of anchovy, too, and there was a trace of caviar. Joe smiled. Its belly was full of party food.
How fitting. The mouse had taken its final repast from the silver trays of a party table. Molena Point's cocktail crowd had supplied, for the little beast, an elegant last meal, a veritable wealth of pre-execution delicacies. Joe grinned, imagining the small rodent up in mouse heaven, gorging for eternity on its memories of anchovies, beluga, and Camembert.Cat Under Fire
Excerpted from Cat under Fire by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
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