“Ah, everything’s crystal-clear now.”
“Sorry. I don’t know. I can’t be specific.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think it’s that simple.”
“More orange juice? It’s fresh-squeezed.”
As he poured, I said, “Sir, I’ve been wondering—where’s Terrible Chester?”
“Watching you,” he said, and pointed.
When I turned in my chair, I saw the cat ten feet behind me and above, perched on an exposed ceiling truss that supported the porch roof.
He is reddish-orange with black markings. His eyes are as green as emeralds fired by sunlight.
Ordinarily, Terrible Chester favors me—or anyone—with only a casual glance, as if human beings bore him beyond tolerance. With his eyes and attitude, he can express a dismissive judgment of humanity, a contempt, that even a minimalist writer like Cormac McCarthy would need twenty pages to convey.
Never previously had I been an object of intense interest to Chester. Now he held my gaze, did not look away, did not blink, and seemed to find me to be as fascinating as a three-headed extraterrestrial.
Although he didn’t appear to be poised to pounce, I did not feel comfortable turning my back on this formidable cat; however, I felt less comfortable engaging in a staring match with him. He would not look away from me.
When I faced the table again, Ozzie was taking the liberty of spooning another serving of potatoes onto my plate.
I said, “He’s never stared at me like that before.”
“He was staring at you much the same way the entire time we were in the kitchen.”
“I didn’t see him in the kitchen.”
“When you weren’t looking, he crept into the room, pawed open a cabinet door, and hid under the sink.”
“He must’ve been quick.”
“Oh, Odd, he was a prince of cats, lightning-quick and quiet. I was so proud of him. Once inside the cabinet, he held the door ajar with his body and watched you from concealment.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because I wanted to see what he would do next.”
“Most likely it involves shoes and urine.”
“I don’t think so,” Ozzie said. “This is all new.”
“Is he still up there on the beam?”
“And still watching me?”
“Intently. Would you like a Danish?”
“I’ve sort of lost my appetite.”
“Don’t be silly, lad. Because of Chester?”
“He has something to do with it. I’m remembering once before when he was this intense.”
“Refresh my memory.”
I couldn’t prevent my voice from thickening. “August…and all of that.”
Ozzie stabbed the air with a fork: “Oh. You mean, the ghost.”
The previous August, I had discovered that, like me, Terrible Chester can see those troubled souls who linger this side of death. He had regarded that spirit no less intently than he now studied me.
“You aren’t dead,” Ozzie assured me. “You’re as solid as this redwood table, though not as solid as me.”
“Maybe Chester knows something I don’t.”
“Dear Odd, because you’re such a naive young man in some ways, I’m sure there’s a great deal he knows that you don’t. What did you have in mind?”
“Like that my time’s soon up.”
“I’m sure it’s something less apocalyptic.”
“Are you carrying any dead mice in your pockets?”
“Just a dead cell phone.”
Ozzie studied me solemnly. He was genuinely concerned. At the same time, he is too good a friend ever to coddle me.
“Well,” he said, “if your time is soon up, all the more reason to have a Danish. The one with pineapple and cheese would be the perfect thing with which to end a last meal.”
WHEN I SUGGESTED THAT I HELP CLEAN OFF the table and wash the dishes before going, Little Ozzie—who is actually fifty pounds heavier than his father, Big Ozzie—dismissed the suggestion by gesturing emphatically with a slice of buttered toast.
“We’ve only been sitting here forty minutes. I’m never at the morning table less than an hour and a half. I do some of my finest plotting over breakfast coffee and raisin brioche.”
“You should write a series set in the culinary world.”
“Already, bookstore shelves overflow with mysteries about chefs who are detectives, food critics who are detectives….”
One of Ozzie’s series features a hugely obese detective with a slim sexy wife who adores him. Ozzie has never married.
His other series is about a likable female detective with lots of neuroses—and bulimia. Ozzie is about as likely to develop bulimia himself as he is l
ikely to change his wardrobe entirely to spandex.
“I’ve considered,” he said, “starting a series about a detective who is a pet communicator.”
“One of those people who claims to be able to talk to animals?”
“Yes, but he would be the real thing.”
“So animals would help him solve crimes?” I asked.
“They would, yes, but they’d also complicate his cases. Dogs would almost always tell him the truth, but birds would often lie, and guinea pigs would be earnest but prone to exaggeration.”
“I feel for the guy already.”
In silence, Ozzie spread lemon marmalade on brioche, while I picked at the pineapple-cheese Danish with a fork.
I needed to leave. I needed to do something. Sitting still another moment seemed intolerable.
I nibbled some Danish.
We seldom sit in silence. He’s never at a loss for words; I can usually find a few of my own.
After a minute or two, I realized that Ozzie was staring at me no less intently than was Terrible Chester.
I had attributed this lull in the conversation to his need to chew. Now I realized this could not be the case.
Brioche is made with eggs, yeast, and butter. It melts in your mouth with very little chewing.
Ozzie had fallen silent because he was brooding. And he was brooding about me.
“What?” I asked.
“You didn’t come here for breakfast,” he said.
“Certainly not for this much breakfast.”
“And you didn’t come here to tell me about Wilbur Jessup, or about Danny.”
“Well, yes, that is why I came, sir.”
“Then you’ve told me, and you obviously don’t want that Danish, so I suppose you’ll be going now.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, “I should be going,” but I didn’t get up from my chair.
Pouring a fragrant Colombian blend from a thermos shaped like a coffeepot, Ozzie did not once shift his eyes from me.
“I’ve never known you to be deceitful with anyone, Odd.”
“I assure you I can dissemble with the best of them, sir.”
“No, you can’t. You’re a poster boy for sincerity. You have all the guile of a lamb.”