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by M. Mitchell Marmel & EOCostello
The Catto Comeback
by M. Mitchell Marmel and EOCostello
I got a bit of a bite-the-lower lip look from Ciss as we walked out the door. "Wasn't that a bit harsh? I mean, the hairshirt remark and all."
I snorted. "Look at the facts. He beats the crap out of himself, lives in a hole, wears stuff one step above rags...Too much reading about martyred saints, you ask me."
"He's a good buck, Rosie," Ciss said firmly. "He wants to do the right thing."
"Then why the hell does that yiffing idiot do it THAT..." I shot back tetchily, then regretted it and sighed. I could see her point. "No, you're right, Ciss. You're right. It's just...I see him suffering when he doesn't HAVE to, and I don't really get it. I mean, half the time I want to just hold him and comfort him, and half the time I want to shake the damn fool until his teeth rattle."
"Must be love," Ciss offered with a sad smile.
"Must be," I sighed. "So, you're gonna head to the office?"
Ciss nodded. "Stop off, freshen up, then take care of the morning report."
I sighed again. "Me, I gotta schlep back to Casino Island to do that." By this time, we were walking by the shuttered Luchow's. I glanced at the shutters wistfully. "And I could do with some coffee. Wonder what happened to Luchow?"
"Had to retire, from what I hear," Ciss shook her head. "Another health case."
"Swell," I growled. "What are folks supposed to do for food around here?"
Ciss shrugged. "Find someone else to lease the place, I suppose."
I examined the building a bit more closely. I mean really gave it the once-over. I'd never had to before. Nice place, probably dates back to the colonial days. Two stories, little attic, neatly whitewashed boards, standing alone and set back from the street with wide alleyways separating it from its neighbors. A small outdoors seating area to the side surrounded by an airy wrought-iron fence, roughly waist high so customers sitting at one of the (now stored) tables could rest an elbow on it and watch the passersby under the shade of a banyan tree growing in one corner. A small verandah on the second floor looking out over this obviously led to living quarters above the diner. "H'm."
"H'm?" Ciss raised an eyebrow.
"Wonder what it would cost to lease this joint?"
Ciss grinned. "Want me to find out?"
"Sure, not a problem. *Someone* needs to help me with my coffee fix."
I nodded absently. "It'd solve...quite a few problems, now that I think about it. I'd be close at paw, could keep an eye on things, and..."
Ciss gave me a wry grin. "...plenty of room for two on the second floor, too."
I sighed. An early morning breeze. A canopied four-poster. A slow, revolving fan. Buck scent. "Got it in one."
As I headed back to the Nerzmanns', a thought occurred to me. I took a short detour over to Saint Anthony's. The church proper was empty: looking at the small notice board, I could see that morning services were long since over, so I padded over to Father Merino's office in the rectory, behind the church.
The ram was going over some papers as I knocked on the doorframe. "Miss Baumgartner! An unexpected pleasure. I don't see you here very often."
I shrugged. "I'm never sure that I won't burst into flame, entering hallowed ground and all that."
Merino smiled and shook his head. "A vivid imagination, Miss Baumgartner, that in no way squares with the facts. I don't require an asbestos cassock when I drop by Temple. Please, do have a seat. Have you had some tea this morning?"
I sat gratefully. "No, and I could sure use a nosh." Another amused snort from Merino as he bustled off.
The tea hit the spot, and so did the fresh bread with honey. "Ah, that's great, Father. Thanks."
"But of course." Merino smiled, but then the smile faded away. "I am guessing this has something to do with Inspector Stagg. He wasn't at Mass this morning, and that's highly unusual for him. It's a small congregation I have, so any missing member stands out."
I took a deep breath. No one had squared him away, and I didn't like to be the one to break the news.
"Inspector Stagg was very ill last night."
I could see Father Merino's knuckles turn white. "What happened?"
"Mild heart attack. His heart stopped, briefly, but luckily Doc Meffit knew what he was doing, and revived him quickly."
The good father cupped his head in his paws, and sighed. "I was afraid of that. He'd been looking unwell, lately. Where is he, now?"
"Meffit has him under lock and key in his clinic here on Meeting. Wants to keep it hush-hush for the moment. Word gets out, especially up top..."
Merino sighed. "Yes, I know. It's no secret what Chief Pickering thinks of him. I'm breaking no secrets of the confessional when I say that Pickering has the Inspector very upset. If the Chief had a conscience, I hope this is weighing on it like a lead ingot."
"Franklin's probably asleep now. He's been put under sedation, you know, to keep him quiet."
"Well, then, a visit is out of the question, at least until much later in the day. There is, of course, another visit..."
He gave me a Significant Look. No prizes for guessing what that meant. He rose, and closed and locked the office door. Sitting down, he rubbed his eyes and sighed again.
"There are days where it's very hard to do this job. This is one of them. That poor family. If it's not one thing, it's another, keeping them from getting their peace. Or even their rest at night."
It was my turn to rub my eyes. "Well, it's no wonder. Frau Nerzmann tells me he hardly sleeps at night, with all the pacing. And sleeping on a camp bed. With his condition and all that." Thinking about it got me upset, and I could feel the tears starting. "WHY, damnit, WHY? WHY is he always doing this to himself? Why does that stupid sonuvabuck --"
I didn't get much further. Luckily, Merino was a pro, and knew the signs. He held me like a cub, as I bawled like one, and let me cut loose.
Times like this, I know why Willow and Franklin turn to him.
A little later (after I managed to get my emotions together), the two of us stood in front of the stained-glass window in the little side chapel. The one showing Franklin's mate.
And his three doe-fawns.
With Grace looking us straight in the eye, as if asking us what we were going to do about it.
Merino pointed to the inscription underneath the window. "Sorrow, Penitence and Remembrance. Again, I'm not violating any secrets of the confessional, when I say that Inspector Stagg blames himself for the events that took place in New Haven all those years ago."
I looked up from the inscription, to the window, and back again. It made me dab at my eyes again, with an Irish linen pawkerchief borrowed from Father Merino. (Sign of the pro, again.)
"The first time I met...well, Willow Fawnsworthy, it was here, in front of the Cenotaph. The sensation of seeing one's own grave-marker, as it were, must have given her quite a turn. And to see her father's raw emotion and pain...well, it's not something I would wish on anyone, least of all her."
"Or Franklin. I've seen his scars."
"The ones on his body? Or the ones on his soul?"
Damned good question.
"Both, I think, Father. Father? I. Well. Look, there's no other way to put it. I love Franklin."
The good father nodded at his hooves. "Not a difficult fact to discern, to be sure. And, of course, you love Grace as well."
I nodded miserably. "I won't deny it. It's why it gets me...well, you know, right in my guts every time I see those two tearing at their own wounds. They NEVER let them heal. It's so damned UNFAIR! Why can't we just PUT those two in the same room-and let things happen?"
A long, slow look, and then a sad-headshake. "If it were that easy, Miss Baumgartner, and if the world were ruled by logic, I would have done that ages ago. I think you know and I know that we are dealing with two individuals that are very strong on the outside, but are fragile as a china figure inside." He pointed at the window again. "There is a lot of grief, a lot of guilt and heaven knows how much shame going through Franklin's soul, and Grace's. But it's just as if Doctor Meffit was faced with removing a tumour in a dangerous place. Certainly, he might remove the tumour..."
"...but the operation could kill the patient." I gulped, and twisted the pawkerchief. "Father, WILL he ever heal? Will SHE?"
A long silence. "That will come with God's own plan, in His own time. It *will* come." Merino turned to me, tilting his head slowly. "Suppose I said that he would never heal. Suppose I said that Franklin Stagg would remain forever broken. What then?"
In the second bout of silence, I could hear my claws unsheath. "Then I STILL heal him. Or I die trying."
Merino rubbed a finger on the small altar in front of the Cenotaph, picking at a small piece of melted candle wax. "I don't doubt it, Miss Baumgartner. I don't doubt it."
I looked back at the window, and the glass image of Grace Stagg staring at me.
"How do we break the news to...well, Willow?"
Merino rubbed the scraps from his paw with a thumb and forefinger. "Seeing as we are the only two initiates here on the island with full knowledge, the duty falls on both of us. And I fear it will require both of us to handle the consequences of breaking this news to her."
"Father? Do you have some brandy and some fresh coffee in the rectory? I could use a bit of Dutch courage, right about now."
"So could we all, Miss Baumgartner. So could we all."
Les, thank God, was out from underfoot. Willow was by herself in the suite, doing some paperwork. She greeted me, at least at the start, with a grin. It was when she saw Father Merino come in after me, and close the door firmly, and when she saw the look on both of our faces, that she saw something was wrong.
My mouth went dry, and I was getting the shakes. Merino stepped in.
"Grace, your father is..."
The cervine eyes went wide, and I could see her breathing speed up. Being addressed by her real name must have brought home to her that something bad had happened.
"Where's Da? What's gone wrong?"
"Grace, sit down."
"Oh, my God. He's hurt?! HE'S DEAD?!?"
"Grace, *sit down*."
"WHERE IS HE? WHERE IS HE? I HAVE TO SEE HIM! IS IT TOO LATE? OH, MY GOD...!"
Willow bolted for the door, but it was blocked by Merino's bulk. Willow tried frantically to get around him, but couldn't. Her breathing sped up even more, and her tail was standing straight up, quivering.
"NO! DON'T DO THIS, PLEASE! I DON'T WANT IT TO BE TOO LATE. I HAVE TO SEE HIM! PLEASE! PLEASE! IF IT'S TOO LATE, I'LL KILL MYSELF...!"
Merino unfolded his arms, gripped Willow by an upper arm, and marched her to the sofa, and forced her to sit. He had a good hold on her, and she was going nowhere, even though she tried to get up. It must have taken a good chunk of his strength.
"GODAMNIT, YOU TWO CAN'T KEEP ME FROM DA! YOU CAN'T! IT'S NOT FAIR! WHY...?"
I finally found my voice, and sat next to Willow.
"Willow? Your father had a severe attack of gastritis last night. With all the stress he's had, it caused his heart to stop, briefly. Doc Meffit had things in paw, though. Franklin's alive, and he's resting. He's under sedation."
Willow absorbed this. She gritted her teeth, and a truly frightening look came into her eyes.
"I'm going to see him. *Now.* If either of you two try to stop me, I'll *kill* you." She began to hyperventilate again, and Merino had to take a firm grip on her upper arm again.
I don't know how the hell he did it, but he began to look Willow right in the eye. She looked at him, mesmerized. She must have seen the truth there. First one tear appeared, then another. And then- a long, drawn-out wail of anguish that...well, I never want to hear that kind of pain again, as long as I live. Willow's whole body began to shake, and the tears were squirting through her paws as she held them in front of her eyes. Probably a good half-hour before she cried her eyes dry. Merino and I had to take turns holding her. Neither of us could take more than a few minutes of such sorrow at close range without it tearing us apart as well.
I was heartsick. Was Willow-? Could she be-? And with her so close-so close to getting Lover B- Reggie? No! I won't let her!
Maybe Willow thought of that, too. She eventually sniffed, straightened up, and looked us both in the eye.
"It would kill him." Spoken flatly and matter-of-factly.
We could only nod in unison. "Right now, at any rate," I added quietly.
Willow bowed her head, and sighed. There was a long silence, and then she spoke, quietly. "I've sworn one thing to myself. One thing above everything else. The most important thing in my life, even more than Reggie, and that's saying something. I want to be able to hold Da, and have him know, I mean *really* know, that I'm alive, and that I love him, and I always have."
I took one of her paws in mine. "I know. We just have to find the time to say it."
"But what if I'm far away? I mean, I won't be in the Spontoons for much longer..."
Father Merino cleared his throat. "You know that we would tell you when your father's time was coming, my dear."
Willow looked up at him. The fiery gleam in her eye was coming back.
"I know it?"
Willow bared her teeth, and flattened her ears, and began to breathe faster again. "Swear it."
Father Merino blinked. So did I. "Hunh? Willow, we..."
Willow breathed in deeply, and screamed at the top of her lungs. "SWEAR IT! SWEAR IT, DAMN YOU!!!" She grabbed my paws. Hard. Involuntarily, my claws extended, digging into her paws. Willow looked down at the rivulets of blood. "Yesssss..." she hissed. "A blood oath. Both of you." With shaking paws and grip of steel, she proinked my other paw, drawing blood. "AND YOU..." she gritted at Merino. I shot him a quick "better humor the crazy doe" nod. He nodded back and held out a paw for proinking.
"On your knees. NOW." Willow's hiss was pure righteous venom.
The old ram and I dropped to our knees, followed by Willow herself. I think Merino and I were both scared by what was boiling through her body. I was the younger, so I figured I'd better go to bat first. I grabbed her bloody paw in mine, kissed it, and looked her in the eye.
"Willow, I'll swear to you, with all my heart, that if I see your father's time is coming, I'll do whatever it takes, no matter what, to make sure the two of you are reunited. I love your father more than anything, Willow, and I want to see that happen as badly as you do." I put Willow's paw over my heart. "I'll swear on that, Willow."
Father Merino took her other paw in his bloodied one. "Grace, you know that I have your father's soul in my charge. You know that I want, as much as you do, and as much as- as ROSIE does, that your father find the peace that he has earned with all his suffering. When the time is right, Grace, I will move Heaven and Earth to see that justice is done. For you, and your father. That I swear."
Willow/Grace closed her eyes, gulped, and shuddered. After a while, her breathing returned to normal, and she felt her way back to the sofa. She held her head in her bloodied paws, and spoke quietly.
"I...I...I'm sorry I... put you two through that. I...I... don't mean to sound like a mad doe, I..."
Father Merino put his unbloodied paw on her shoulder. "You are loyal to your father, and you love him deeply. It's understandable."
Willow breathed deeply a few times, gulped again and buried her face in Merino's shoulder for some more sobbing, looking up only as I wiped her face and paws with a wet washcloth. "(snif) Thangs. Now what happens?"
It was my turn to put a paw on her shoulder as I handed the cloth to Merino so he could clean up. "Meffit has ordered some rest for Franklin. Three weeks at a resort in Tillamook. On the Althing's tab, thank goodness."
"Alone?!" Willow looked up, horrified.
"Hell, no." I shook my head. "Think I'm letting him out of my sight?"
A grim smile crossed Willow's face. "Nice work if you can get it."
I grinned back. "You're not the only one who loves him."
Willow sighed again. "I know, and I love both of you for it." She looked at me. "When do you leave?"
I gave a slight shrug. "Not sure. They're making the final arrangements now. I'll let you know on the Q.T. when we're leaving."
She nodded. "Even if it's only from a distance...I want to...well, see him. If I can't kiss him-"
"Got it covered." I said with a slight smile.
Willow snickered. "I'll bet. Anyhow, I can give him moral support from afar. Not what I want, but it's what I can do." She looked at me squarely in the eye.
"Take good care of him, Rosie. You'd better, or..."
I nodded, I knew.
Father Merino sighed and dusted off his knees. "I'll...go and see Franklin now. Rosie, you'll stay here for a bit?"
Willow sank onto my shoulder as I nodded. "I'll be along later."
An idea occurred to me as Merino was heading out the door. "Oh, Padre?"
Merino turned. "Yes, Rosie?"
"Does this mean we're all Tailfast?"
Willow looked at me archly. Merino smiled and gave me an amused headshake as he turned back out the door.
Nertz. Ah, well. Can't blame a gal for trying.