McCormick’s acting strange, thought Judge Milton C. Hardcastle. Not let’s hunt leprechauns in the garden strange but something definitely off-kilter. He estimated it was about two days ago when McCormick started walking around with a guilty air about him. It had been followed with a generally panicky disposition and a tendency to look around nervously when being spoken to. Given it was McCormick, the problem could be almost anything and would, usually, be more trouble than he could handle on his own.
As he collected the morning mail, Hardcastle thought back on the scene from breakfast. McCormick always liked to leave early for his morning classes and was usually gone after a quick cup of coffee. Instead he had found McCormick half-crouched by the kitchen table whispering some nonsense words with an intense look on his face. When he realized that he was being observed, McCormick had shot up and claimed to have dropped his car keys which he, subsequently, discovered were still in his pant pocket. McCormick had displayed a reluctance to leave for his classes until the last possible minute. Definitely odd behavior, thought Hardcastle, as he considered the best way to handle the situation. He could bring McCormick into the den and attempt to question him about the strange behavior. This would lead to a series of denials, general babbling, and attempts to steer the conversation away from the matter at hand. It was unlikely to lead to a confession. He could conduct his own investigation by searching the gatehouse for clues. But McCormick was a first year law student and he had completed his parole. He hated to invade the man’s privacy without actual proof. Or, he could wait for whatever it was to blow up in McCormick’s face which, given his history, was the most likely outcome.
Hardcastle pulled out the seat to his desk and began to sit down to send out the monthly bills when his judicial buttocks came in contact with the unseen soft furry bundle which slept in his chair.
“Phftt!” went the cat, angry to have been disturbed from its nap.
“What the…” exclaimed Hardcastle as he rose in time to avoid the furry paw of fury which had taken a swipe at his posterior. He turned and took a closer look at the small interloper. A cat. Makes sense, he thought as he remembered the recent missing can of tuna he had planned to use for lunch the day before. But what’re you doing here?
The cat was obviously well fed with long blue-grey brushed hair and a pushed- in face which caused it to drool slightly. It appeared to be in some kind of cleaning frenzy as it vigorously licked its fur back into place. As it finished, it gave the judge one hard glare before it settled down back in the chair to continue its nap.
Too namby-pamby to be McCormick’s. Not a rescue cat. Must belong to a girlfriend. Some doe-eyed girl conned him into watching her cat and he lost it, decided the judge. Now what am I going do with you? As the cat continued to sleep, oblivious to its surroundings, Hardcastle began to grin.
* * * * *
As McCormick quietly pulled his car into the garage, he was thankful that he had been able to leave the study group early. The day had crept by slowly as he waited for the inevitable discovery. All through his classes, he half-expected the doors to be flung open as Hardcastle marched up to him and demanded to know why a cat was living on his estate. But so far his secret appeared to be safe.
He still didn’t know how it had happened. One minute the cat had been sleeping in the gatehouse and the next minute it had streaked past him into the main house when he went in for morning coffee. Then it had disappeared like a ten dollar bill at the race track. He had been trying to find the hairy fugitive when Hardcastle had appeared. He knew the judge was suspicious and it was only a matter of time before he would be brought into the den for the third degree. He had his banter prepared but hoped the cat would be gone before Hardcastle was ready to start asking questions.
McCormick sneaked into the kitchen and pulled a silver tin from his back pants pocket. “Here kitty, kitty. I got a nice treat for you,” he whispered as he began to open the tin.
“Hey, McCormick!” said Hardcastle as he burst into the kitchen and turned on the lights. “I thought I heard you drive up. You’re home early tonight. No studying?”
“Just taking a little break,” said McCormick as he straightened his back.
“What’s in your hand?”
“Oh, this?” said McCormick as if he had just noticed the silver can. “Just a snack.”
Hardcastle plucked the tin from the young man’s hand. “Barbary Coast Sardines in Spring Water. This is the good stuff. You know I’ve been having a hankering for some fish ever since yesterday’s lunch.”
“Really,” asked McCormick with his eyes fixed on the sardines.
“Yeah. Remember to pick up some tuna when you go grocery shopping this weekend. Grab some crackers and we can have these during the movie,” Hardcastle said as he carried the fish out of the kitchen.
With an air of doom McCormick gathered the crackers and carried them into the den.
* * * * *
The pungent smell from the sardines assaulted his nose and senses as the scent spread throughout the house. Hardcastle had generously supplied him with two of the offending finny monsters atop a small cracker. The small fishes seemed to stare at him accusingly as Hardcastle placed the rest of their brethren on the table on the far side of his chair.
“Just smell these babies,” said Hardcastle as he took a healthy bite. “There’s nothing like a snack of sardines. I thought you were hungry?”
“Maybe later,” said McCormick with the sick realization he might have to actually eat the hapless minnows.
The movie was one of his favorites but he couldn’t concentrate on it. His eyes continued to stray to the door of the den. He knew it was just a matter of time before the hungry animal would appear.
As if on cue, the cat appeared in the doorway, its tail flicking in anticipation. To McCormick’s horror, it began a slow stalk into the room. He mouthed the word no and tried to shoo it away but was forced to turn the motion into a yawn and stretch when Hardcastle turned to face him.
“Are you okay?” the judge asked with a concerned voice.
“Yeah, just a little tired.” McCormick realized in that short period of time, the cat had advanced to Hardcastle’s chair and was eyeing the fish tail which dangled from the judge’s mouth with glee. The cat went down into a crouch and hunched its shoulders as it prepared to leap for its dinner.
“Bad kitty!” shouted McCormick as he flung himself out of his chair. He landed face down with a thud. He could hear the faint sound of chuckling above him. He turned onto his back and looked up at Hardcastle and the cat who stared down at him with amused grins. “You know about the cat?” asked McCormick.
“Yeah,” answered Hardcastle as he fed the hungry feline a few of the sardines. “Want to explain what’s it doing here?”
McCormick sat up and faced the judge. “I don’t know who he belongs to. I was getting ready to leave campus a couple of days ago and found him hiding under my car. I coaxed him out and looked around but no one knows who he belongs to.”
“Why didn’t you take him to the pound?”
“You mean the Big House for Animals,” McCormick said with an offended voice. “He didn’t do anything to deserve that. He’s obviously well fed and belongs to someone. He’s got a collar but no address.”
“What will happen when she has her kittens?” asked Hardcastle.
“Kittens!” exclaimed McCormick as he stared aghast at the cat’s plump tummy and imagined it exploding into a room full of cats.
“Don’t worry, sport. He’s not having any kittens.”
“Are you sure?”
“I checked. He’s all male. What’s his name?”
“The collar says Bilbo.”
“Bilbo,” snorted Hardcastle. “No wonder he ran away. What kind of name is that for a cat?”
“It’s from Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins.”
“Bilbo Who ‘sit?”
“You know, the hobbit from Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit.”
“What’s a hobbit?”
“A small mythical man that lives in Middle Earth.”
“I knew there had to be one of those someplace in this story.”
* * * * *
Meanwhile on the other side of town, two men were talking.
“You’re lucky, Tank. It appears the cat’s been found. I don’t need to tell you the consequences if it’d been lost.”
“It was not my fault, Mr. Grace. The animal was supposed to be sedated; instead when I opened the car door, it jumped out. Before I could grab it, a car honked its horn and it was gone.”
“Our bosses don’t accept failure. We’ll need to retrieve it.”
“I’ll go to the guy’s house tonight and take it before he realizes what he’s got.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” said Mr. Grace as he swatted the back of his associate’s head. “Right now we’ve got a guy who’s found a cat and wants to return it. We will simply go there and collect the animal.”
“Want me to go tomorrow?” asked Tank.
“No. It’s possible it’s a trap. We’ll send someone to pick it up for us. Get a hold of Cheri. She’ll get the cat.”
* * * * *
Meanwhile in another part of the city, in a government building, two men were finishing up a similar conversation.
“We’ll go tomorrow?” asked Agent Babbington.
“No,” answered Senior Agent Franklin. ”We’ll send someone not connected with the organization. Contact Mary Brown and have her report to me.”