Aug 3 2013 10:15am
Cat in an Alien X-Ray by Carole Nelson Douglas: New Excerpt
Cat in an Alien X-Ray by Carole Nelson Douglas is the twenty-fifth mystery featuring feline P.I. Midnight Louis and his roommate Temple Barr (available August 6, 2013).
Temple Barr, PR professional, will encounter UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy nuts who are too bizarre even for tin foil hat therapy, when an Area 51-themed attraction on the Las Vegas Strip threatens to bring more than starry-eyed enthusiasts to town. Once again, it is up to that furballed P.I. Midnight Louie to keep his crew in line and save them from the attack of the creatures from the beyond…or common criminals that prey on the innocent.
I am running ears-back, footpads flat-out down a dark alley.
This is not normally a problem for lithe ninja me. My skintight, full-body black catsuit is next to invisible in dark narrow spaces, and my hidden shivs are primed to scale any porous material I encounter, including the careless wandering person in my way.
The only thing in my way in this alley is a blank brick wall. I make a hard right, striking sparks off concrete with my rear brakes, and splitting enough nails to visit a pedicurist in the morning, were I a metrosexual sort of guy.
Which I decidedly am not.
Another blank and topless wall forces me left, and then right again. I sense my pursuers gaining on me, but I have no idea who—or what—they are. Or where we are. It feels like I have been running like this for blocks.
I spy a bright pinpoint at the end of my tunnel, put my paws to
the pavement, and rocket toward it with my patented burst of cheetah-level speed. Midnight Louie is no easy catch.
I crash through the bright light like a circus tiger through a giant paper embroidery hoop. . . .
Only there is no sawdust to land on, just another inescapable tunnel, this one all spotlights and aurora borealis.
My pupils have slitted needle-thin, but the light is burning so bright, I am blind as I fall through empty air into apparent nothingness, my agile spine spiraling down like a drill bit.
“Louie,” a voice calls, echoes.
Wait! Stop the action. I am being called back from the brink of annihilation by a familiar voice. My Miss Temple needs me. I cannot go splat on an unseen surface. I must fight gravity. My limbs thrash.
Then something from behind grabs me, shakes me, rattles and rolls me.
Never have I been so helpless.
Wait! The voice is not Miss Temple’s. It is female but from another species speaking through my roommate’s usual whispered little nothings.
Who has the nerve to come between a guy and his girl?
I am shaken more softly, and the light fades into the dark gray of a room without light.
I feel my pumping limbs slow and slacken. Around me are dim familiar forms, the most familiar—and acting like it—is indeed my Miss Temple.
“Louie, you are just dreaming. Nothing is chasing you but the Sandman. Wake up. You’re tattooing my thigh with your thrashing feet.”
She is slipping her hands around my cushy warm midsection to heave it upright, and me with it.
“Sorry, boy, but that stings. You are off the bed for the rest of the night.”
I am ushered to the edge of the zebra-print spread and nudged until I have no choice but to puddle down to the cool wood parquet floor.
What a way to be awakened! Tossed out on my ear, although it is actually my feet that hit solid ground first, thanks to my native athletic ability.
I sit up and wash these exiled ears of the unfriendly decree from my very own roommate, whose bacon and backside I have saved on numerous occasions.
I am surprised to find my shivs still stretching and contracting, as if yet in that state of running for my life. I must admit I keep them highly honed.
They have never run so much as a nylon stocking (although women and particularly my Miss Temple do not much wear such things anymore) in my interaction with the human female population.
And I have never been kicked out of bed before. Is that a blow to a guy’s ego.
And I have never been so sure I was one dead mallard as I was a couple minutes before.
What a nightmare!
I shake my head. I must be slipping. Speaking of that, I decide to slip through the French doors to the small three-sided patio Miss Temple’s condominium offers. Perhaps the cool night air will soothe my ruffled feelings.
I stretch my frame full up to work the lever-style handle with my usual light-shivved touch and fall through to the stone patio beyond, turning to push the door gently shut behind me.
I turn to breathe in night air as warm as cream of potato soup. We are heading into a Vegas summer, when the temperature never goes on vacation, particularly during these global warming times.
The palm fronds fan across a bit of full moon, making a splendid postcard shot. The neighborhood is as quiet as a harried cat could wish. No dogs barking, at the moment. No tires peeling asphalt. At the moment.
And then the hairs along my spine stand up and salute. Looking up through the palm’s fancy fans, I sense something hovering high above the scene. Some alert intelligence observing all, knowing all.
It is calling my name.
My back twitches.
Louie. Come here.
Rise and climb.
It is not morning, and even if it was, I do not then rise and do anything except stretch and scratch my hard-to-reach places, which are none of anyone’s business.
I stare upward anyway. Perhaps I will spot a lazy fly to take down. I need to restore my Great Black Hunter reputation after undergoing that craven dream sequence.
Yet, all my fly-catching instincts are telling me that something big is up, and not only up, but up there, in the vast Midnight Blue yonder.
Louie, do not fight my influence.
I cannot shake that unspoken “voice” in my head. This is more disturbing than any nightmare.
Or . . . am I hearing the moon?
That is not such a crazy notion. My kind are creatures of the night. We court and sing by the light of the moon. And hunt. Some writers have fancied that all of us leap up to the moon every night. (I do not know why we would. If it is indeed made of green cheese, it would attract taste bud–challenged rats, not cats. On the other hand, a planet-wide rat-chasing is an excellent fitness routine.)
Louie. Come up.
Manx, that moon is insistent! You would think it is Miss Midnight Louise, my liberated and obviously misbegotten (by somebody else other than me) would-be daughter.
The light dawns. That phrase is a metaphor, not a descriptive fact. A metaphor is a . . . sort of alias.
I leap to the palm tree trunk and ratchet up its scabrous curving height until I can leap to the frond that brushes the Circle Ritz roof. I slide down its bendable length, using my weight, and leap onto the patio three stories above my Miss Temple’s place, a perfect four-shiv-point landing.
This equally small space puts me face-to-kisser with two round blue moon-shaped orbs, the slightly crossed eyes of Miss Electra Lark’s reclusive, exclusive so-called sacred cat of Burma.
Her name is Karma, and she likes to play with everything from past lives to future predictions.
To add to my annoyance after climbing up to the penthouse level to join Miss Mystic Muse on her Juliet balcony, she does not even invite me in.
“You must stay out here, Louie. Miss Electra Lark has insomnia and just now fell asleep,” she explains. “It was bad enough that I was drawn outside by the moon tides. I had to ease the door shut one toe at a time.”
Insomnia is an inexplicable malady to me. I can fit in a catnap anytime, anywhere, and am about to doze off right here and now from boredom while Karma proceeds to extol the glories of the night sky.
“I know you are at home in the moonlight, Louie, but do you ever look up from your crude expeditions for prey and playmates to contemplate the vast clockwork motions of our universe?”
I am usually too busy looking down to make sure I do not lose my footing on whatever wall I am using for a serenading stage.
“Do you never sense, Louie, the presence of some thing, some entity, far larger than our petty struggles to survive?”
Uh, yeah. Like Animal Control.
And what is this “our” petty struggle to survive? I doubt Karma has ever set one of her sacred white-tipped feet out of the penthouse apartment, other than onto this tiny balcony.
“Do you not think sometimes, Louie . . .”
The long pause after that sentence is getting to be insulting. “. . . that an entire universe of wondrous entities hovers just outside the reach of our hearts and minds?”
And with the defunding of the NASA programs, they can just stay out there hovering undiscovered to their hearts’ content.
“Have you heard of astral projection, Louie?”
Her baby blue gaze leaves the heavens to finally focus again on my lowly self.
“Uh, yeah.” Hey. I am the quintessential dude on the street and the Strip, supposed to be a hip cat up on every new wrinkle in this old town. I need to step up to protect my rep. “I hear that some venues are using holograms of dead superstars like Elvis as tourist attractions. Boogie with Bogey. Get down with James Dean. Mambo with Marilyn.”
“Not holograms, Louie! You have such an impossibly material soul.”
“Holograms are not material. You cannot get more ethereal than being a projected image of yourself.”
“Actually, these crass entertainment technologies do touch on the magic of astral projection. I never need to leave my simple home here at the Circle Ritz—”
Hey! It is a penthouse. And you are the landlady’s prize trust fund baby. I decide to tell her a thing or two for making me sit here to get drenched in mystical mumbo-jumbo.
“I hear Miss Electra Lark,” I say, “has endowed an entire cat shelter to ensure you have ‘most favored nation’ status there should she exit for eternity before you do.”
Karma sighs. Yes. Like a dog. “That is a sweet but useless gesture. I am the result of a thousand reincarnations. My heart will go on.”
Apparently, the ditsy New Age brain too.
Karma is now subtly swaying as a deep purr vibrates her entire body to the ends of the long fine hairs in her ears.
I long to tell her that humans have clever battery-run devices to clear that clutter.
“Before many days are past,” Karma warns in her lowest, most annoying tone of superior knowledge, “you will see signs and portents in the Las Vegas night sky.”
Right, the Treasure Island curbside volcano spitting fake fire far into the dry desert air.
“You will face alien abduction. . . .”
“That already happened to me in Chicago, where the mob is an entire other species of lame.”
“You will dance with the dead down a ten-story mountain. . . .” Manx, is this lady on another plane, probably a discontinued
SST! Nobody measures mountains in stories, but in feet.
Karma condescends to slit open one peeper. “That is a metaphor, Louie.”
“Metaphor, mountain, right. All this is really interesting, Karma, but I have some bothersome, buzzing houseflies to catch on the first floor.”
And a few zzzzz’s.
“Duty calls,” I say, braving the tickle of fronds as I leap onto the palm tree trunk and ratchet back down to my quarters.
“You are due for a great fall,” Karma’s fading voice calls as I flee.
I am not worried, although her whines of gloom and doom and my hasty retreat cause me to lose two nail sheaths on the way back down.
How come the mighty Karma did not predict that?
Temple yawned. It was only midmorning, but Midnight Louie had been thrashing about half the night, giving her dreams of being entangled by a giant furry black octopus.
The cat who deigned to live with her, a solid black, solid twenty-pound guy with a knack for showing up where needed, thumped atop her desk. Midnight Louie nosed her business cards aside to sprawl belly-down on the cool surface.
She eyed the smartphone on her desk as if it were a particularly large insect despite the serene graphic of nearby Red Rock Canyon on the home screen. She’d donned her headset because she expected this long-put-off call to last awhile. She didn’t want to fry her brain . . . or her ear, which was already hot, and probably red. Her fingertips on the desktop were white. And cold.
Her gaze lingered on a pile of her business cards: temple barr, pr. Why was she indulging in cold feet now? She’d once done live stand-ups as a TV reporter, had repped a prestigious repertory theater where she ran into movie stars, for gosh sakes. She’d been a public relations freelancer in super-hyped, larger-than-life Las Vegas for more than two years. She was smart, single, successful, and had even developed a reputation as an amateur sleuth to the point that a homicide lieutenant had actually called upon her services a time or two.
If Oprah Winfrey—or Larry the Cable Guy, for gosh sakes—called right now, Temple could do an instant interview with either one. Or both at a time. She was a media maven and she’d had eluded murderers attempting to flame-roast her in a burning room only recently. Well, one murderer.
So why did she find phoning home so intimidating? Temple would be thirty-one in a couple of months. Past thirty and way past the age of consent.
Louie bent over to apparently study the cell phone screen displaying her “Family” contacts. One big black paw patted it.
“No claws,” she warned, her hand snatching up the phone to safety.
Louie backed away, lifting a forepaw innocent of claw tips. “Sorry, boy. I’m a little nervous.”
Just do it, Temple told herself.
Temple tapped the familiar number in Minneapolis and waited for the ring. On Saturday her father and brothers would be off doing man things, like attending her nephews’ and nieces’ soccer games, performing strange rituals with their heads buried in vehicle motors, and sitting in battered wooden motorboats on lakes, pestering fish while mosquitoes pestered them.
Karen Barr should be home alone now, maybe doing accounts for her antique mall stand or . . . baking oatmeal-raisin cookies. Temple had such a sudden craving for those warm, homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies, her stomach spasmed and her mouth watered.
These autonomic system flare-ups were ridiculous. She called home every few weeks, but . . . But she hadn’t been back to visit since coming to Las Vegas.
“Temple,” her mother’s voice hummed into her overheated ear. “I thought that might be you.”
“Hi, Mom. How are you all doing?”
“Fine. The weather is warming up, so all the boys are out. We had hardly any snow this winter.”
“I never thought global warming would hit Minnesota.”
“So what’s new in your world? Triple-digit heat numbers yet?”
“Not yet. Luckily, you don’t have to shovel sweat. And it’s a dry
heat in this climate.”
“I guess there’s no prying you out of Sin City.”
Good. Her mom had given Temple an out from this awkward conversation.
“There probably is, Mom,” she said. “I was thinking about coming up.”
“That’s wonderful! Any special reason?”
“You’re not changing jobs?”
“Nooo . . .” Temple could have said she was changing boyfriends, but she knew better than to drop the fiancé bomb right away. “I do have someone I want you to meet.”
“Someone?” Her mother’s voice was suddenly guarded. “Kit said you were the social butterfly of the Strip.”
“What? Kit said that? When did you talk to Aunt Kit?”
“A lot of times. Temple. We are sisters.”
“So you two talk about me?”
“She said you’d really settled into that over-the-top city. That you had some key clients and a lot of friends. She particularly mentioned a big Italian family named Fontana that had given you a lot of PR commissions. I was so glad to hear that.”
Oh, Aunt Kit, you devil you. Her mother was imagining a “Mamma Mia knows best” clan when the sophisticated Fontanas were Vegas venue owners and more like the Sopranos, but in a good way.
Obviously, Kit hadn’t mentioned she herself had recently married the eldest of the mob of dreamy Fontana brothers. Their dark Italian good looks, attired in pale Ermenegildo Zegna designer suits, had become a Vegas brand for smooth, single, and sexy.
Temple understood why her aunt had kept mum with Karen. Kit had been a New York City single until sixty and then had married a younger man. Aldo Fontana was a much younger man. If Temple didn’t have her own guy, she’d consider her aunt an ideal role model.
“Well, I’m used to having big brothers,” Temple said, thinking of
her hulking outdoorsy four, “and there are ten Fontana brothers.”
“Mamma mia. Those Italians do reproduce! But I’m glad you still
have ‘older brothers’ to take you under their wings.”
“Sometimes, Mom. I take them under my wing.”
Sometimes family couldn’t see you as independent and grown up, particularly if you were the youngest and only daughter of five.
“Say, speaking of big families,” Temple said, “I never did find out why you and Dad had so many of us. A little out of step with the ‘small footprint’ philosophy of the times, although I’ve seen my birth footprint and it was tiny.”
“Oh.” A pause. “I suppose it was because we really wanted a daughter.”
“You mean you were holding out for a girl the way families always used to hold out for a boy?”
“Way more liberated of you than I suspected, Mom.”
“Thank you. I think. So who is this someone you want us to meet?”
“Well, duh. My fiancé.”
A really long pause. The family had met Max, but had not been so enamored as Temple. No one could have been as enamored as much as Temple at that point, but her family would have resented anyone who’d take her out of the Twin Cities, especially to someplace as glitzy as Vegas.
“So it’s not that magician?” I suggested cautiously. “His name is Max.”
“Well, sure. He’s still alive and well”—just barely—“in Las Vegas.”
“So there’s someone new?”
Somehow that made Temple sound fickle. “Not so new. He lives here at the Circle Ritz too.”
“I always think of a Western movie when I hear that name for your apartment building.”
“Condo. I’m building equity.”
“So it’s over with . . . the magician?”
Temple smiled, sure that epithet for Max had originated with her dad. There was nothing Midwestern about Max except his origins, and that was an unforgivable strike against him in stable Minnesota.
“So who will we be meeting?”
“His name is Matt. He’s a couple years older than I am. He works in the communications business.”
“That seems a good compatibility factor. Where is he from?”
“Chicago.” The capital of the upper Midwest.
“Oh,” This time the “oh” was stretched out on a rising scale of approval. For gosh sakes again, Max had been born in Wisconsin. Everybody was practically neighbors.
“Yes,” Temple said. “We were just in Chicago to get together with his family.”
“You were that close and you didn’t swing up here?”
“Matt’s job makes longer trips impossible.”
“What is his job?”
“A disappearing medium, isn’t it?”
“Not for Matt. He’s syndicated.”
“So when can you and this Matt come up?”
“In the next few weeks. I’m checking to see about family vacations.”
“Your brothers go camping now and again in the summer. It’d be easier if you set a date and we go from there.”
“I don’t want to interfere with any expeditions.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t. The boys wouldn’t miss meeting the new guy.”
Temple rolled her eyes. She bet they wouldn’t. They’d always had
to hassle her dates from junior high on. One thing about Max. Nobody hassled him. They could try, but it never worked.
“It would be a quick trip,” she warned. “Matt works nights.”
“Not another one! Sorry. It’s your business. I was just . . . surprised.”
“Gosh, Mom. This is Vegas. It’s such a twenty-four-hour town, it has its own time zone.”
“No, just exaggerating for effect. I do that a lot in my job. So, we’re good. I’ll check with Matt and we’ll figure a time to visit that works for you all.”
“Fine, but . . . wait.”
“What’s the young man’s last name?”
“Want to check him out on Facebook, Mom?” Temple teased.
“I don’t much go on there.”
Temple smiled. It was a miracle that her mother was familiar with social media at all.
“I’m sure you think everything about him is, dear.”
“Of course, but that’s the last name.”
“Devine?” This pause was the longest yet. “Not the Matt Devine.”
“Well, he is to me.”
“Temple, don’t be coy. You’re not really with that darling guy from the Amanda Show?”
Temple wanted to close her eyes but Louie reached up to pat her cheek with a velvet paw.
“If you say so, Mom.”
“Temple, honey, that’s amazing news! I don’t know why you are so closemouthed about what’s going on with you.”
Try four teasing, overprotective older brothers, Mom.
“I love the show. But isn’t he an ex-priest?”
“I thought Universal Universalists were open-minded.”
“Of course we are, but I have to wonder if it’s some kind of rebellion thing that you’d go for an ex-clergyman.”
“I passed the age of rebellion over a decade ago, Mom. He’s just a
great guy to me, and the only issue with us now is, are we going to get married in Vegas, Chicago, or Minneapolis?”
Louie leaned his intrusive black nose close to the cell phone as Karen Barr’s deep audible intake of breath wafted into Temple’s ear.
“Not serious. Exciting, happy, wonderful,” Temple told her mother. “Yes! Yes, of course. But, dear, it’ll have to be a church wedding, and I don’t know that Las Vegas is quite the venue for that.”
“Are you kidding? There are more churches in Vegas than in most U.S. cities.
Anyway, I’m not coming up to church-hunt, just to give you all a chance to meet my fiancé.”
“It’s great news, honey. We love you and can’t wait to see you.”
“Same here, Mom.”
Mumbled good-byes ended the call. Temple slumped in her ergonomic chair.
Midnight Louie lifted a lazy forepaw to bat at the wires as she returned her headphone to its usual position on her desk, curling the wires into a less tempting mass.
She took a deep breath of her own, then released it slowly. “Well, that’s done,” she told Louie. “You’re lucky cats don’t have families and civil and religious ceremonies. Mom’s right. We’ll have to come up with a geographical site and an ecumenical ceremony. No matter what, I am going to get one gorgeous over-the-top white bridal gown to do it in.”
Temple dried her damp palms on her knit shorts and pushed herself to her feet.
Her spirits lifted with her first step back into the living area. She detoured to the kitchen to make herself a peanut butter sandwich, Louie at her heels and then up on the countertop. Louie was the Royal Sniffer, and the Royal Taster if he liked the sniff. He always smelled her food, but usually turned his nose and whiskers away in distaste.
Temple then went to cast herself down on the living room sofa. She pulled the Review-Journal sections across the coffee table to browse. Now that the May weather was growing hotter for the summer, Louie turned himself around by her side, twice, and cuddled up close.
His big furry body was going to get too hot to cuddle with soon, and she’d already had her sweat shop experience for the day.
A small headline below the newspaper’s first section fold caught her eye:
UFOS AHOY ON THE STRIP
“As if my call to Minnesota wasn’t totally ‘phone home, E.T.,’ ” she mumbled to Louie, munching crunchy peanut butter. He perked a gentlemanly ear. Thank goodness cats didn’t object to talking with one’s mouth full. “Now Vegas is getting all spooked.”
The article made much of a few tourists freaked out by low-flying UFOs they claimed to have spotted hovering over the Strip. Temple shook her head as she read of the darting round “ships” with a broad row of lights beaming a glow around the middle. Probably two Frisbees glued together. People will hallucinate anything, she thought. With all the exotic outdoor lighting in Sin City, a fleet of genuine flying saucers could land and probably be taken for a new restaurant’s advertising gimmick. How would she engineer the effect?
With those silver flattened helium balloons, Temple thought, and a pulsing LED readout like the famous Times Square electronic billboard around the middle. That would work. Hey, the marketers behind this rumor had already scored newspaper ink and even a link to a site where people were mounting camcorder footage and cell phone photos of the phenomena.
And here Temple thought she’d been wandering through her own personal Twilight Zone already this afternoon. Still, inquiring minds wanted to know. Temple picked up her iPad and checked the sighting Web site just to laugh at what people will believe.
The usual jerky videos were fuzzy like all phony UFO footage, but she saw enough to get a sit-up-and-drop-your-jaw moment.
Anyone with a long memory or a thorough grounding in Las Vegas history would recognize this particular model of levitating saucer. The design was crude, the look was hokey, but this shape was not alien to Las Vegas at all.
In that case, maybe the UFOs weren’t an alien visitation but more on the order of a haunting.
Someone should look into this. She was sure someone would.
Temple tossed the newspaper section on the coffee table and went to relieve anticipated family stress by making another peanut butter sandwich, this one with bacon.
Imitating Elvis’s eating habits was as weird as she wanted to get just now.
She had a forthcoming meeting that would make a call home to Mom look like a grammar school cakewalk.
Copyright © 2013 Carole Nelson Douglas
For more information, or to buy a copy, visit:
Carole Nelson Douglas was an award-winning journalist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press until moving to Texas to write fiction full time. In fact, she “found” Midnight Louie in the newspaper’s classified ads and wrote a feature article on the real-life alley cat long before she began writing novels. Since then, her novels include mainstream, mystery, thriller, high fantasy, science fiction, and romance/women’s fiction, and she's been nominated for or won more than fifty writing awards. Carole and her husband are kept as pets by several quadrupeds.