What the Cat Knew

what the cat knew

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chapter-1

drop-cap-reg Rawlins climbed out of the car and stretched, her muscles cramped after being in the car all day. According to the dashboard readout, it was a few degrees warmer than it had been in Tennessee. Added to that, it was humid and the air felt muggy. She could smell the ocean. She’d heard that all points in Florida were within sixty miles of the ocean as the crow flies. She was looking forward to spending some time swimming and looking for seashells. She’d always wanted to live near a real beach. A warm, sandy beach.

“Witch!” accused a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign. He had long, scraggly hair and a beard, streaked with gray, and he was missing several teeth. His clothes were ragged, and even though he was a few feet away, Reg could smell his unwashed body.

She gave him a scowl, but didn’t turn away. His reaction interested her. She was dressed for the part she intended to play—headscarf, heavy jewelry and hoop earrings, a long, flowing peasant dress—so it was not unexpected that he would notice her and comment on her getup. But he had gone with witch rather than a fortune-teller or medium, which she thought was an odd choice. She wasn’t wearing a pointed hat or black robe.

“What makes you think I’m a witch?” she demanded.

“All redheads are witches!” he informed her.

“Ah.” Reg’s red hair was all done in cornrow braids, which hung free around her face rather than being wound up under her headscarf. She liked the effect. And she liked the way the braids felt when she turned her head and they all swished back and forth. She ignored the homeless man and looked up and down the boardwalk.

She liked the atmosphere of Florida. Laid back and relaxed, not like in Tennessee where she had visited Erin. There had certainly been some uptight ladies there. She didn’t regret leaving, though she was sad things hadn’t worked out with Erin. Erin had been a lot more fun when they were kids. She’d grown up too much and become a stuffy old woman instead of the lost child she’d been when they had lived with the Harrises and then again when they had both aged out of foster care and had run a few cons together. Now she was grown up and mature and responsible, no longer interested in Reg’s ideas.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, Erin,” Reg murmured, looking around at the blue sky and the green vegetation, the tang of salt hanging in the air. Swimming in Florida was going to be nothing like a dip in the ocean in Maine. Miles of sandy beaches, warm water, and not a care in the world.

She gathered up her braids with both hands and pulled them back behind her shoulders, letting them fall again.

“There somewhere good to eat around here?” she asked the bum.

People looked at her oddly as they passed, and Reg didn’t know if it was because of her outfit or the fact that she was talking to a non-person.

“Only if you like seafood!” the man cackled.

Luckily, Reg did.

“You should go to The Crystal Bowl,” he told her. “That’s where the witches gather.”

Reg pursed her lips, considering him. “The Crystal Ball?”

“The Crystal Bowl. Get it?”

“Where is The Crystal Bowl?”

He gestured down the boardwalk. “Yonder about two blocks. Big sign. Can’t miss it.”

Reg had been told that Florida, and Black Sands in particular, was the place for psychics and mediums but she hadn’t expected there to actually be enough of a community to warrant a restaurant of their own. She was glad she’d picked Florida over Massachusetts; she’d had enough of New England to last her a lifetime.

The Crystal Bowl had satisfyingly dramatic decor and furnishings. Blacks, reds, and golds combined into a rich tapestry of mysticism, lit by flickering candles which were actually tiny electric lights. East met West in a sort of a cross between an opium den and a carnival fortune-teller set. They worked together in harmony rather than clashing.

The patrons of the restaurant, however, were disappointingly normal. Shorts with t-shirts or light blouses, sunglasses propped on foreheads, everybody looking at their phones or calling across the room to greet each other. No sense of mystical decorum.

The sign said ‘please wait to be seated,’ but Reg walked across to the bar counter and selected a stool.

The bartender was spare, his skin too pale for a Floridian. He obviously spent too much time in the restaurant out of the sun. Either that or he was a vampire.

“Afternoon,” he greeted, adjusting the spacing between the various bottles on the counter and turning their labels out.

“Hi.”

“Don’t think I’ve seen you here before.”

“No, just flew in on my broomstick.”

He eyed her. “Wrong costume.”

Reg grinned. “Good. The old bum down the street said that I was a witch, and I was afraid I’d gotten it wrong.”

“It’s the red hair.”

“So I hear. Mediums can’t have red hair?”

“Mediums can have whatever they want. So what will it be?” He gestured to the neat rows of bottles behind the bar and the chalkboard on the wall behind them.

Reg looked over the options. Should she establish herself as someone with exacting and eclectic tastes? A connoisseur? Someone who was obviously unique and memorable?

But she wanted the bar to be somewhere she could let her hair down, not where she had to always be playing a part.

“Just a draft,” she sighed. “Whatever is on tap.”

He nodded and grabbed a beer stein. He filled it and placed it neatly on a coaster in front of her, pushing a bowl of pretzels closer to her. Something nice and salty to encourage thirst.

“So, Miss Medium, your name is…?”

“Reg Rawlins.” She figured she was okay using the name, even though that was what she had used in Bald Eagle Falls. She didn’t think any charges would follow her all the way to Florida. It wasn’t like she was going to be filing taxes under the name.

He gave a nod. “Bill Johnson.”

Reg took a pull on her beer. It had been a long drive and she was glad to be able to relax and recharge her batteries. Thinking of figurative batteries, she decided she’d better check her actual battery. Reg pulled out her phone and checked the charge. Not too bad. It would last her a couple more hours, and maybe by that time, she would have settled somewhere. She launched her browser and tapped in a search for lodgings. There were plenty of hits for short-term rentals. Lots of vacationers. Finding somewhere permanent might take a bit longer, but at least she’d have a place to hang her hat. Or her headscarf. And plug in her phone.

“You need a place to stay?” Bill asked, obviously recognizing the website.

“Looks like there are lots of options.”

“Sarah Bishop is looking for a tenant. She’s easy to get along with. You two would probably hit it off.”

“Oh?”

Bill looked around the room. “She’s not here yet. She often shows up for supper. If she doesn’t, I can give her a call and let her know you’re interested.”

Reg raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know me from Adam. What makes you think I would hit it off with Sarah Bishop or that you can recommend me to her?”

“Let’s just say… I’m good at reading people. And I would know you from Adam, given that Adam was of the male persuasion.”

Reg considered pointing out that there were plenty of men who could pass as women or had transitioned from one to the other, but decided that antagonizing him wouldn’t be the wisest thing for her to do. So she took a sip of her beer and didn’t challenge him.

“Okay. Well, I’d appreciate that. Being able to move in somewhere long-term right away would be a real plus. Thanks.”

“No problem.” He moved away to help another patron.

Reg continued to browse through the lodging listings to get a sense of what costs to expect for rent and what her options were if she didn’t like Sarah Bishop’s place. It could be a dump. Sarah Bishop could be Bill’s sister or ex and he just wanted her off of his back. He had been pretty quick to offer his help and judge Reg worthy as a tenant for his friend.

Someone took the stool next to Reg’s, and she looked up to see who it was. A strikingly handsome man. Thirty-something, short hair slicked back from his face to show off a widow’s peak, a stubbly beard that at first glance made it look like he had forgotten to shave for a couple of days, but on a more careful examination was painstakingly trimmed. His eyes were dark but glowed almost red in the dim lighting of the restaurant, reflecting the red furnishings and wall coverings. Add a cape, and he’d be perfect to cast as a vampire.

He gave her an enigmatic look. Almost smiling, but not quite. A smirk. She thought he was going to greet her as Bill had, recognizing her as a stranger and asking who she was. But he merely inclined his head slightly and waited for his drink, which Bill brought over without being asked. Obviously his ‘usual.’

“Reg Rawlins, Uriel Hawthorne,” Bill said, making a gesture from one to the other by way of introduction.

Great choice of name. Reg was impressed. Still, Uriel said nothing, just threw back his shot and watched her.

“Nice to meet you,” Reg said, thrusting her hand out to shake his, forcing him to acknowledge her presence.

He left her hanging for a moment, not moving to take her hand, and then finally responded, taking her hand in his in a soft, caressing gesture that made her immediately want to pull back. But she set her teeth and gave him a warm smile. She gave him one more squeeze before letting go and pulling back again.

“A pleasure to meet you,” Uriel returned. “Are you thinking of joining our little community?”

“Well, we’ll see how it goes,” Reg said with a shrug. “I’m new in town and I’ve never been part of… this kind of community before. I’ve always just been on my own.”

“There is something to be said for that.”

Reg raised her eyebrows in query.

“Setting your own rules, doing your own thing,” Uriel said. “No one with preconceptions as to how things should be done.”

“Right.” Reg nodded. Rules, in her opinion, were made to be broken. She wasn’t about to buy into a social construct that tried to control her activities.

“Ah, here’s Sarah,” Bill said, hovering near Reg.

It took her a moment to remember who Sarah was and why she should care. Sarah was the landlord looking for a tenant.

Reg turned, following Bill’s gaze. She was looking for a woman of around her age, since Bill had said that he thought she and Sarah would hit it off. But she didn’t see anyone who fit her preconception.

Bill gave a little wave, and a woman nodded to him and corrected her course to join him at the bar.

She was an older woman, at least in her sixties, with a round face, bottle blond hair that curved around her face, and wire frame glasses. She looked like a friendly grandmother, lips pink with freshly-applied lipstick, a flowered shirt, pink slacks, and flat white sandals. She smiled at Bill.

“Good evening, Bill. How are you today?”

He nodded and didn’t bother to answer the greeting. “Sarah, meet Reg Rawlins. She has just arrived in town and is looking for accommodations.”

“Oh!” Sarah’s face lit up. “Well, my dear, isn’t that wonderful! I just happen to have a cottage that I am trying to rent out! Would you join me for dinner?” She motioned to the tables in the dining area. “I’m afraid I can’t manage bar stools these days.”

“Sure,” Reg agreed, sliding down from hers and taking her drink with her. “That would be nice.”

She didn’t bother saying goodbye to Uriel, irritated with his distant, disinterested manner. Sarah led her to a table which was probably her regular, as there didn’t seem to be any problem with her seating herself instead of waiting to be seated. She smiled and chatted with some of the other patrons as she made her way to her seat.

“Sit down, sit down,” she encouraged Reg, as if Reg had somehow been holding her back. “Reg? Is that short for something? Where did you come from?”

“Regina. I’ve lived all over.”

“Well, that’s a pretty name. Did you pick it, or was it already yours?”

Reg laughed at the question. “I was saddled with Regina, but I picked Reg.”

“Very nice. I like it. And what do you do?” She made a little gesture to indicate Reg’s costume. “You read palms? Tarot?”

“A little of everything. Mostly, I talk to the dead.”

“Oh.” Sarah nodded wisely. “That’s a good gig. Have you been doing it for long?”

Reg studied the woman, not sure how honest to be. She wasn’t sure whether she should be open about being a medium or a con. Both paths seemed equally treacherous.

“I’ve always had… certain tendencies… gifts, if you like…” she said obliquely. “I’m just testing the waters now… seeing whether this is something I should pursue…”

Sarah nodded. A waitress came over and handed them menus, introducing herself and showing off a couple of rather long canine teeth when she smiled. Sarah took no note, and barely gave the menu a glance. She’d obviously been there enough times to know what she wanted.

“What’s good?” Reg asked, glancing over the offerings.

“The seafood is fresh. Other than that… burger and fries… I wouldn’t try anything too adventurous.”

“Good to know.”

After placing her order, Reg leaned back in her seat, looking Sarah over.

“How about you? Did you retire to Florida, or have you always lived here?”

“I’ve lived lots of places, dear. Florida is good for my old bones. As for retiring… maybe someday, but not yet.”

“What is it you do?”

Sarah raised her brows, as if surprised that Reg didn’t know. Was she supposed to have guessed? Did Sarah think that Bill had told her?

“Well, I’m a witch,” Sarah said, as if it should have been obvious.

“Oh.” Reg sat like a lump, with no idea what to say or how to respond. Sarah had turned the tables on her. Reg was used to provoking a reaction from other people. She liked to dress up and to say extravagant things to see how people reacted to her different personas. This time she was in the hot seat. “Oh. I guess I should have guessed.” Reg threw her hands up in what was both a shrug and indicating their surroundings. “After all, we are in the Magic Cauldron.”

Sarah blinked. “The Crystal Bowl.”

“Whatever. This is a witch hangout, right? So of course that’s what you are.”

“I thought you knew. You didn’t just wander in here of your own accord, did you?”

“There was an old bum down the boardwalk… he called me a witch, and he pointed me this way. So, yes… I knew… It’s all just a bit much.” Reg looked around the restaurant. “I mean, everyone here can’t be a witch.”

“Of course not,” Sarah agreed. “We have people of all different spiritual and paranormal persuasions. Witches, warlocks, wizards, mediums,” she gave Reg a nod, “fortune-tellers, healers… people who are gifted and people who are seekers.”

“Okay, then.” Reg looked around at the patrons and shook her head, having a hard time believing that they were all running the same con. “And there isn’t too much competition for the same… customers?”

“Some people think Black Sands has gotten too commercial, and some people complain it has gotten too crowded. But for the most part… people are willing to live and let live. We are peaceful people.”

“Uh-huh.”

Sarah launched into a lyrical description of the town and its more interesting citizens. Reg tried not to sit with her mouth open as she listened. The waitress eventually came over with their meals. Reg hadn’t realized how hungry she was getting, but when the platter was placed in front of her, she suddenly realized she was famished.

“This looks lovely,” she told the waitress, not expecting to be getting a beautifully plated fish at the offbeat witches’ diner. She dug in immediately, taking several delicious bites before looking at Sarah to ask her if she was enjoying her food.

Sarah’s eyes were closed and her hands hovered over her plate as if she were warming them in the steam rising from the food. Reg turned to look at the waitress, but she was already gone. Reg looked uncomfortably at Sarah, wondering if she should follow suit.

Sarah’s eyes opened, catching Reg staring at her.

“Uh…” Reg fumbled. “Amen?”

Sarah nodded slightly. Then she started to eat.

“It really is good,” Reg said. “Really nice.”

“I wouldn’t eat here all the time if it wasn’t,” Sarah agreed. She patted her stomach. “I wouldn’t have to worry so much about my waistline if I was cooking for myself!”

She was plump, but in a grandmotherly sort of way. Reg couldn’t imagine her skinny; it just wouldn’t have fit. Adele, Erin’s witch friend back in Tennessee was tall and slender, and that worked for her, but it just wouldn’t work for Sarah.

“So why don’t you tell me about this cottage of yours?” she asked. “Bill seemed to think that we’d be able to come to terms.”

“He’s very empathic,” Sarah said. “He reads people.”

“Ah. Of course.” It made sense for a bartender. Reg had known her share of good and bad barkeeps.

“It’s just a little two-bedroom,” Sarah said, answering Reg’s question. “But it’s just you…?”

“Yes. No dependents.”

“So you could use one room as your bedroom and the other as an office, and still have space for entertaining in the living room.”

“Right,” Reg agreed. She hadn’t thought about seeing clients in her home. She wasn’t sure she wanted anyone to know where she lived. If they didn’t like what she had to say, they wouldn’t know where she lived to confront her. She had thought she would go to them, do readings in their own spaces. She could read a client a lot better if surrounded by their own things. People gave a lot away by the way they lived.

“It’s separate from the main house, so we wouldn’t be on top of each other. We can each keep our own hours. That can be a problem with night people and day people mixing. The kitchen is small, really just a prep area. You could come use the big kitchen if you needed to do any major baking or entertaining. I really don’t use it that much.”

“I don’t expect I would either. I don’t do a lot of my own cooking.”

“You see? You’d be perfect. You wouldn’t be complaining to me that there’s no oven. It really does have everything you really need.”

“Well, maybe we could go see it after dinner, and talk business.”

“You’re going to like it just fine. I can tell.”

As Reg wasn’t that picky, Sarah was probably right. If Reg didn’t like it after a month or two, she’d have a good idea by that point of where to look for somewhere better. It wasn’t a long-term commitment.

Which was good, because Reg Rawlins didn’t like long commitments.

I hope you enjoyed this sample of

What the Cat Knew

By P.D. Workman

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