Ladd and the case of the missing Malamutes

A Talking Dog Adventure, Chapter Two
By Alfred Goodale | Oct 18, 2010

As for me, Jonquil, the yellow cat, I'm as far from Liberty, Maine, as the shape of the planet allows. I speak only for myself and not for other cats in the Peace Corps. But I must speak, because there was a time in Africa when I lived in a car tire by the sea.

My bed was the rumpled rubber inner tube, my window, the hole where the tire had blown out. Through it I could see the beach, hungry seabirds, strutting crows and magpies. The cries of birds woke me in the morning. Or if not birds, a speedboat in the channel or the whistle of a freighter entering port. Or just the scrape of the Indian Ocean herself, reminding me of where I was, and where I wasn't. No owner, no human voice, no litter box, no cat door, no canned tuna, no foolish dog, no two-legged human shaking my food dish and calling: "Kitty cat, kitty cat!"

My nightly rounds took me among moonlit domes and narrow streets. Few men and fewer women were out. My glossy coat having faded with time, I felt inconspicuous and safe. Even if I could, I wouldn't go back the way I'd come. I remembered the high desert far from the sea, mountains, international border I'd accidentally crossed. Search parties and the best trackers had given up long ago, and anyway, the border was now closed. But that was all right. I didn't mind staying on. I liked it here in the failed state of Somalia.

One day a soggy newspaper washed up on my beach. The birds got to it before I did, but it was obvious from the headlines and the water-blurred image of the new leader that something big had happened, or was about to happen. Thus, at low tide that afternoon, I expected to hear the outbreak of war, rioting, the smash of broken glass.

Nothing like that. All eyes were on the beach. The ebbing tide continued to flow until no tide or sea was visible, only exposed sea bottom. Prayers from distant minarets didn't bring the tide back, nor did automatic rifle fire or shouts to take cover. The huge limousines braked and the tiny pickups stopped, allowing armed men to jump off and stand idle in the deep silence. Donkeys were braying and cocks were crowing when the tide began to return. It came slowly at first, then fast, then as an uprising mountain breaking over everything before it, including my rubber tire.

Clawing at it, I floated inshore alongside drowned chickens and acres of torn seaweed. The intoxicating smell was of kerosene and bobbing apples, of which there were thousands. The tire nudged against a wall topped with broken glass. It drifted around the end of the wall. It stopped and I watched the wall seem to rise as the water receded, enclosing me inside the compound.

The wing beat of displaced birds, first siren, first human cries. A voice in my ear: "Hey, lady. How goes it? How goes the battle?" The American accent came not from a human, but from the female crow gripping the rim of my tire. The sun's hot, isn't it? You look a little dazed. You're drenched and you need grooming. It was a tsunami, you know. A tsunami is a tidal wave caused by a shift in the tectonic plates under the ocean. Did you know that?

"In general, yes."

"I see you're looking at my ID," she said, showing the metal band on her right leg. "It's for security purposes. I'm not meant to talk, but I can tell you. The name is Jane Crow. My twin brother is John Crow. We're being trained to kill!"

"Shame on you!" I protested. "What kind of an introduction is that? I am Jonquil."

"Jonquil, for the flower? You're not very yellow."

"I was, once. But thank you. You're good to think of it."

"You're welcome. Are you very old for a cat?"

"Possibly. Cats keep growing as long as they live, you know. My great uncle is a crocodile 18 feet long."

She cocked her black head. "No, he's not. You're lying to me."

"Cats also have nine lives."

"You're still lying to me."

"Cats, as they age, grow older and wiser!"

This might have put her away, but she'd lost interest in the game. "Crows lead dangerous lives," she said, looking away. "Citizen crows especially. That's what we're called the Citizen Crow Corps. Not that I'm complaining. Crows in the wild lead long, boring lives. Here's John now."

John fluttered down and perched beside Jane. "You'd better not let Alex know you're here," he told me, in voice and appearance exactly like his sister. "Who's Alex? A human. A very important human. Alexander Khan. Remember that name!"

" I jumped from the tire to the concrete ledge on which it had come to rest. "I saw a lot of apples in the flood. Apples don't grow in Somalia. Is Alexander Khan your apple king?

He imports apples by the ton. It's not his main business, but yes. You could call him king, I guess. A kind of king. King Alexander Khan. It fits pretty well!"

Be especially careful with him if you're an American, Jane warned. "Alex likes the apples from America, but not the people. Or the cats, I imagine."

I explained that I was, indeed, an American citizen and had been working in a game park across the border. "I was helping in the animal orphanage, feeding the lion cubs and exercising Gendarme, the elephant. Then one day, Gendarme ran away with me. I crossed into Somalia without knowing it and have been living here ever since."

"Good luck telling that story to Alex. He'd call it a fairy tale and act accordingly. Trust us!" The two crows exclaimed in unison. They dropped down to the cage where they lived and started clearing out the mess left by the receding flood.

 


 

As the months passed, I learned a route over the wall and out of the compound. Hearing the surf at night, I prowled the damaged oceanfront but never found the exact spot where I'd once lived. The city remained blacked out, but the military traffic came back thicker than ever. The once-bare walls sprouted with posters and proclamations, all of them bearing the name and charismatic face of Mr. Alexander Khan. Though I never met him in person, I occasionally heard his hilarious laughter. Some nights he'd enter the house opposite me and by lantern light there'd be a conclave of happy brothers all talking at once. Then next day the party would leave, not to return for days or weeks.

"The loudest voice you hear, that's him," Jane told me. "That's Alex. He moves around a lot and sleeps in a different bed every night. He's fighting the warlords and has to be very careful."

Living above her, I'd grown friendly with Jane. "Go on!"

"He's not from here, you know. He's from another country and used to be very wealthy. One of his hobbies was falconry. Do you know what falconry is? Well, he'd go out in the desert and hunt game with falcons and eagles. That's where he got the idea of training birds to kill humans."

"Yes, you said that before."

"Crows are more useful to him than falcons, you see, because they all look alike and can't be traced. They're also found all over the globe. Crows can go anywhere. This local fighting is just a first step towards the apocalypse, you see."

"Now, wait. You're training to kill humans by pecking them to death?"

"Yes, in a way. By injecting them with poison from the African kefir tree."

"I see," I said, my fraying grey tail rising in horror.

"I've got to go now. Don't tell John a word I said."

"I won't," I promised.

 


 

DEATH TO AMERICA. DEATH TO THE NEW PRESIDENT, the posters said. Jane translated the foreign script for me shortly before she died. The terrible words shocked my ears. I thought again of Robert, my blind long-ago owner. Was he still alive, still writing? Theo, his first guide dog, would be retired by now, and there'd be a new dog in the house. The threat made me angry and jealous and a little homesick, even.

But what about Ladd? Did I want to go home to Ladd? Granted, he was a good chap and a good detective. He even had a nose for business. Ladd Inc. up in town did fine, except for one thing. The proprietor fell short, far short, when it came to working with cats.

Never before, for instance, had I been asked to lick postage stamps or to prepare a dog's supper with nutritious wheat germ added. The last straw came when I suggested he remove the pencil stub from behind his ear and drop it in the pencil jar where it belonged. Hadn't I suggested that before? In reply, he offered to make me his private secretary and seemed surprised when I refused. Poor dear, little did he know that I'd decided to give notice and to find a life in the Peace Corps.

I trained in Milwaukee and went to Africa with a group of agricultural workers, all human. Lest I become a mere mascot, I stayed aloof at first, but once in the host country, we got on fine. I was assigned to a game park in the remote north, working with the orphaned cubs and babies. The almost complete lack of rain was a problem, but there was a windmill and a water tower, a communications center and a community hall for animals and staff. Then came the day I mounted the frisky Gendarme and trotted him out of the park. Years had passed since then. Whatever happened, I wondered to little Gendarme?

 


 

Who was the new President, and why did they want to kill him? Because that's what they were training to do. Jane Crow had died immediately after jabbing kefir poison into the neck of an enemy soldier. "She knew all about the danger of blow back," her brother John said," but she was glad to die for the cause and never knew that the soldier himself survived. He only suffered a high fever and internal bleeding. So in the future, we need to deliver the same poison, but more of it, that's all. Alex Khan is an adaptable guy. He'll figure something out once he gets to the U.S. He's going as a businessman from his own country. The poison is unprocessed, just seedpods that look like unshelled peanuts. The customs guy won't guess a thing."

 


 

To send warning, I'd have to leave Somalia and cross back into Kenya, my host country. The border was officially closed, but that wasn't the problem. The problem was to find the unmarked, unpatroled border and then to find my way to the game park with its baby animals and its short-wave radio.

I traveled in the cool of the night and saw only bare bushes, bare ground and distant mountains to the south. The mountains had doubled in size when, the second or third night out, I stopped to rest among the tree roots of an eroded riverbank.

Lovely! Embedded among the roots were fossilized bones that could be pulled loose and examined, played with and purred over. A wrist bone that might have belonged to me, a matching lower jaw with several broken teeth, an eye socket in a gaping, grinning feline face. The grimace only encouraged my mission, told me I was safe and on the right side of the border. I found food and water and slept all day where my ancestors had slept. The moon rose as I headed south again, traveling fast with my message for the President, the White House, Washington, D.C.

 

 

Alfred Goodale lives in Liberty.

 

 

 

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