The Cat Who Came at Midnight

Lilian Jackson Braun was an American novelist, who was famous for writing cozy mysteries. Cozy mysteries are a sub-genre. Some readers like them, because all of the sex happens “off stage,” leaving a more comfortable reading experience.

All of Ms. Braun’s bestselling stories have titles that begin “The Cat Who . . .” For example, my favorite title is The Cat Who Sniffed Glue (1988).

From 1966 to 1968, she wrote three “Cat” novels to critical acclaim, and then — much like a mystery in one of her books — disappeared from the publishing world entirely for over 18 years. Equally as mysteriously, she reappeared in 1986 to release 27 more books before her death at age 97, in 2011.

It is believed that the two main characters in her novels, felines Koko and Yum Yum, were modeled after her own two Siamese cats. Cat lovers everywhere were enrapt, and waited impatiently for the release of her latest whodunit.

One of them was NOT my Cousin Jim.

Although Cousin Jim lives only about 40 minutes from Ms. Braun’s residence in Tryon, N.C., I would have to say that Jim’s love of cats is fur-deep at best. Cats are aloof and stand-offish, withdrawn and reserved, and Jim likes to maintain a reciprocal amount of affection. Jim might throw a box on the back porch for a cat to sleep in, but he’s not about to let the critter curl up in bed with him to read one of Ms. Braun’s novels.

Earlier this year, Cousin Jim was reclining on the sun porch after a long day writing software code — unwinding in the gentle North Carolina night breeze — when an uninvited visitor showed up. If not for the river of white fur flanking the right side of her face, or the four white boots on her feet, the cat was as dark as the lightless sky.

After a cordial greeting, the two spent the first encounter just staring at each other through the blackness. Then about midnight, the cat slinked again into the darkness.

The next night, the cat showed up again, and again the two shared the general space of his back porch, until the cat sauntered off – again around midnight – into the tall undergrowth of the ravine behind Jim’s house.

This routine continued over the course of several weeks, each one gaining confidence in the other, until a rather wobbly bond was formed. Jim ultimately began furnishing cat treats, and an occasional bowl of premium cat food. The cat provided the entertainment and affection, eventually willing to curl up on the wicker recliner at Jim’s feet.

It was obvious that Cousin Jim was becoming attached to the cat, and probably the same could be said of Gabby. Jim named the cat Gabby, because “the dumb thing won’t shut up while I’m trying to work.”

Gabby presented a problem for Jim. The only reason Jim was in North Carolina was to take care of my Aunt Sharon in her enfeebled last few years. Jim’s Mother had retired to North Carolina to escape the cold, harsh Chicago winters, and Jim really had no other connection to the place. He had no intentions of remaining there after her passing. In fact, a pending purchase of Jim’s new software meant he may have to move to Austin, maybe as soon as summer’s end.

“What if she actually belongs to someone?” asked Jim just a week ago. “I can’t just take her with me. That’s cat-napping!”

“You might just leave her there to wander wild,” I suggested.

“No! What if she falls off one of these cliffs around here?” he said, although I thought the likelihood was as remote as the terrain.

“You’ll know what to do,” I reassured him. “Things nearly always work themselves out.”

I heard from Jim, Wednesday. His voice was weak, and carried an undertone of melancholy in each word.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It’s Gabby,” he said.

“Oh, no! Did something happen to her?”

“Well, kind of.”

Jim told me the story. Gabby was missing. She didn’t show up in the evening. Instead, she wandered in at midnight — the time she usually departs. She was disheveled and distressed. She wouldn’t let Jim touch her. She wouldn’t eat. He called his friend, Troy, who has cats. Troy was little help.

Gabby staggered about, wanting to lie down, yet unable to decide where or how. She was belligerent, and caterwauled her anguish nonstop.

“Oh no!” I said.

“Yep,” replied Jim. “The first kitten was born right at midnight. Jet black. One each for the next two hours.”

“What are you going to do, now?” I asked.

“I really don’t know,” said Jim with zero enthusiasm. “I really don’t know.”

Jim’s got a real Lilian Jackson Braun cozy mystery on his hands, I thought. I can’t say he’s finding it very comfortable, though. Nevertheless, he was right about one thing:

It has a whale of a cliffhanger.

– John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media.