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“Have you seen this child?”
I pushed the hand-drawn image across the counter to the proprietor of the house. She gave no sign of recognition or much of anything else, a typical reaction for this part of the world.
“No. Why? Should I have?”
“Um…no, no. Not necessarily. But I’m looking for her. I stop at all inns – common houses you call them up here I believe – like yours to see what I might find out.” I cocked my head jauntily, smiled, and added, “Because you never know when something might turn up!”
She pushed the picture back at me, disinterested. “So you want a room?”
Helpful as always, these northerners. I contemplated this for a moment. Want a room…hmm. Not a hard question, but trickier to assess than you might think.
“Do you have a corner room? Second floor with a view towards the street would be ideal.”
“Ha ha! A view to the street. This street? Here? Have you seen this street? It’s not the kind of street most people want to look at. But if that’s what you want, you’re in luck. You can have a bird’s eye view of Ye Olde Brokedown Boulevard if that’s what you really want.”
She laughed to herself for a moment, shaking her bedraggled head at me in bemusement. Her breath stank of insects and grain alcohol. I wasn’t sure I was kidding as I pondered this possibility. The bug population seemed remarkably controlled here, although arguably that was due to the cold winters. Her fetid display of good humor was mercifully brief. Sighing, she said, “I’m sorry about that. ‘A view to the street’ just struck me funny. What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t. Do you need a name?” It wasn’t so much that I minded giving her my name, more that I was surprised she cared.
“No. No, I don’t. If I get paid, I don’t care who you are. So to the point then. How will you be paying?”
I handed her my credentials, which told her more than she’d strictly asked about: among other details, who I was, who I represented, and implicitly, how she was to be paid were all there for the reading. As she perused my documents, her eyes got a little big, and she took notice of the insignia on my coat.
“You’ll have a cat then, too, I suppose.”
Wellington had been monitoring the local goings-on with his eyes, nose, and ears from the ground, but took the cue to make his presence known. He jumped onto the counter. “You’ll have a cat then, too, I suppose,” he mocked, snorting in disgust, and began to wash, tongue to forepaw, forepaw to face. “You’ll have a warm blanket in the room, I suppose?” he asked in a sing-song imitation of her query.
“Wells, let it go. Rain or not, that is no way to speak to the lady of the house,” I chided. I couldn’t bring myself to put much force into scolding my long-time companion. The day’s travel had been miserable, and we’d made no progress in our search. Wellington was very good at what he did, but the trail was getting cold. We were both irritated, tired, and disheartened. And we were in the boon-toolies. Even if we turned around and headed back immediately, home was weeks away…if the weather was good, which it never seemed to be.
He responded with a “hmmph,” turned his back to her, and continued his impromptu bath, deliberately cleaning the rain water and road grime from his coat.
“I can’t say I’m a fan of who you represent mister…uh…” she faltered. “Just call me Cam,” I offered. “That’s good enough, and as it happens, is actually my name, if you take a closer look at my papers. Well, Cam is a shortcut, but it’s what I go by.”
“Well, Mister Cam, as I said, I’m no fan. Take one look at this street, and you’ll know why. But I know I’ll get paid when I send the bill along, and that’s what’s important to me.”
Wells paused his bath, one paw aloft, and looked at me. “I’m no fan?”, he mouthed silently, cocked an eyebrow quizzically, and went back to bathing.
“Right, well. How about the room with a view, then?”
She turned, grabbed a key from a peg with an experienced swipe, and led us upstairs, the first step creaking as she entrusted her weight to it. The house was in general disrepair, and I didn’t see any other cats, both conditions a bit of an oddity. This wasn’t the wealthiest part of the world, but somehow I felt I was missing something important that would explain the run-down condition of the house and the lack of felines, all-pervasive in the world as I knew it.
Turning the key in the lock, the mistress let us in. “Bedsheets are clean, and you see the warm blanket. Two in fact,” she nodded towards Wellington, who’d already jumped on a blanket and was giving it the requisite inspection. “It’ll do,” he said. “Washroom is down the hall,” she finished, and headed downstairs, closing the door behind her.
“Well, what do ya say, Wells?” I was asking for his assessment of our strategic situation. The window was dirty, but afforded a decent view of the street. The common house was at the top of a “t”, allowing us to see those who were coming and going in three directions.
“I don’t like it much,” the cat grumped. “We can’t see what’s coming behind us. And we’re not high enough.”
“High enough for what? This is the only two story structure in this town. And what do you mean behind us? Did you see what was behind this cat-forsaken place? Dirt. Lots of open dirt, all the way to the mountains.”
“I guess. Maybe it’s the smell.”
“What smell?” I countered. I hadn’t noticed any smell, beyond the pungent smells of rain-soaked travel with too many miles between good washings. My clothes were overpowering. I couldn’t smell anything else, and I was surprised Wellington could.
“Ugh. I don’t know what it is. It’s obnoxious. No wonder there aren’t any other cats around here. The smell is horrid. If it wasn’t for you, I’d have turned away before getting this far. You don’t smell it? It’s been getting stronger.”
“You know, maybe if I get cleaned up and wash these clothes, I’ll be able to smell something other than myself. Why don’t I go do that.”
“Sure. In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye on Bob.”
“Bob” was part of our language built up over years of companionship. When we talked about “Bob”, we were talking about a person of interest who we could not yet identify. Sometimes Bob was important. Sometimes not. But until we knew, Bob was worth watching. “Where’s Bob? I didn’t see him.”
“Oh, he just walked in downstairs. Why don’t you go de-scent yourself, and I’ll let you know what I find out.”
Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
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