The Cat Has Kittens
The sun blazed down on Sahara Wells. In the distance the pyramids looked hazy, and beyond them Cairo was a thin line of green and brown along the Nile. It was fairly warm in the sun, but a cool wind blew across the desert and coats were comfortable.
Rick and Scotty sat on a box under the antenna while Hassan squatted and watched them. For the moment there was nothing for them to do. The scientists were occupied with calculations, and neither boy could make a contribution to high mathematics of the kind used in radio astronomy
Rick was glad of the break. His mind hadn’t been on the job, anyway—it had been on the Egyptian cat. For perhaps the hundredth time he asked, “Why is the cat valuable? Why would anyone want it enough to stage that scene at El Mouski and then ransack our room?”
Scotty had no answers, but he had some questions of his own. “What I want to know is, did the hall porter just happen to step out at the right moment for the thief? Or is he in the act somehow?”
“It really doesn’t make much difference,” Rick pointed out. “He might have been paid to take a walk, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything.”
“Okay. Try this one. Where is the real Ali Moustafa?”
“Good question. Now I’ll ask one. What do we do next?”
“You could cable Bartouki, or even phone him,” Scotty replied. “You said you had thought about it.”
Rick hesitated. He tried to put his reluctance into words. “I just don’t think getting in touch with Bartouki is the right thing to do. I don’t know why. Call it a hunch.”
Scotty had a deep respect for Rick’s hunches. They had a way of turning out to be right. He remembered a description of a hunch Rick had once used and repeated it. “A hunch is only a conscious conclusion based on subconscious data you don’t know you have. Isn’t that about it?”
Rick looked at him. “What are you driving at?”
“What data are buried in your subconscious that make you distrust Bartouki?”
“I didn’t say I mistrusted him.”
Scotty shrugged. “No, but you must, if you don’t think it’s right to call him.”
Rick had to admit Scotty was probably right. What basis did he have for mistrusting the charming little Egyptian merchant? Certainly Bartouki had been nice to them, so carrying the cat to Egypt had been only common courtesy.
Experience had shown Rick that very often he could get ideas from reviewing conversations. He walked away from Hassan and Scotty and stared at the construction details of the antenna. But he wasn’t really looking. Instead, he was trying to recall the entire scene leading up to his acceptance of the cat.
Bartouki had explained its importance. He had said it was needed. Now, what had led Barby to offer Rick’s services as a messenger? The merchant had said that he was anxious to get it to Egypt, but that the Christmas mails were crowded. The Christmas mails … that didn’t seem like much of a reason for not sending it by air freight. Bartouki could have delivered it personally to Idlewild Terminal, to avoid getting it mixed up with the domestic mail….
“I’ve got it!” he yelled. He hurried over and stood in front of Scotty and Hassan. “Listen, who sends mail at Christmas time?”
Scotty’s brows wrinkled. “Everyone, I guess.”
“Not everyone.” Rick warmed to his idea. “There are plenty of people who wait until the last few days before Christmas, but where are they? In America! Anyone overseas who sends a package home tries to get it in the mail early. Wouldn’t you say so?”
“Maybe they should, but I suspect they don’t. People are always waiting until the last moment.”
“But is the overseas airmail so crowded you wouldn’t trust a parcel to the regular mail system?”
Scotty shook his head. “I doubt it. What are you getting at?”
But Rick had an even better argument to bolster the case he was developing. “Christmas mail is to and from Christians, isn’t it? Sure! Egypt is a Moslem country. Moslems don’t send Christmas cards or presents, and they don’t get them, either. The Christians in Egypt are Coptic—anyway, they don’t celebrate Christmas the same way. So why would the airmail to Egypt be jammed?”
Hassan spoke up. “It not so heavy. My brother is letter carrier, and he no work very hard on Nasrani holiday. Nasrani is what we call Christian.”
“I think you’ve got something,” Scotty agreed. “Bartouki could have mailed the cat, but for some reason he wanted a messenger …”
“… and we walked right into it,” Rick finished. “Chances are that’s why he showed us the cat in the first place.”
“Barby had the bright idea,” Scotty reminded. “Bartouki wasn’t the one who suggested it.”
“He didn’t have to,” Rick pointed out. “If she hadn’t, I’ll bet he would have led around to it some other way.”
Scotty held up his hands in surrender. “I’ll buy it. Bartouki needed a messenger. Why?”
Rick sat down on the box again. Why, indeed? He knew now why he distrusted Bartouki, but he had no idea of the merchant’s reasons. He glared at his pal. “Kill-joy. So we get back to the basic question. What does kitty have that people want?”
He took the statue from his pocket and examined it closely, as he had done several times before. The bright sunlight disclosed nothing but a perfect bit of casting. He took out the pocket lens he carried for examination of specimens that might be useful in his hobby of microscopy, but magnification showed him nothing. It was a flawless job.
“I’m stumped,” he admitted. “Come on. Let’s stretch our legs before we get called back in to go to work.”
Scotty and Hassan joined him as he walked toward the barracks where cement was being poured to form the floor. Scotty borrowed the cat for a quick look, then handed it back. Rick stowed it in his pocket.
“Whatever kitty’s got, it’s pretty interesting to some people,” Scotty commented. “Otherwise, why go to all the trouble of trying to get it in the bazaar, then taking the risk of searching our room?”
Rick said what had been on his mind. “I have another happy thought for you. If they really want the cat, they’ll try again.”
“Whoever ‘they’ are,” Scotty agreed. “Let me add a cheery note of my own while we’re at it. They won’t have to get the best detectives in the world to figure out that you’ve got the creature, either. If it isn’t in the hotel room, it’s on you.”
Rick mulled that one over as they watched the workmen smoothing the poured concrete in the form. Would it be better if he disposed of the cat? But how could he? He couldn’t leave it at the project, even though it was locked at night. The lock wouldn’t stop professional thieves. He couldn’t give the cat to one of the scientists, because that would expose them to the thieves, too. He could have it put in the hotel vault, but what assurance had he that it would be safe there? It occurred to him that he would have entrusted his valuables to the hotel vault with no hesitation, but the cat was different, somehow. He just didn’t want it out of his hands until he knew more about it.
Hassan said idly, “Cement color like cat.”
Rick’s thoughts snapped back to the scene before him. The dragoman was right. The concrete mix had been colored to imitate sandstone, apparently a part of the plan to make the architecture as Egyptian as possible. There was enough of the mix in the form to make a thousand cats, and more was being mixed in a portable cement mixer.
The Great Idea took shape in his mind, and suddenly he laughed outright. “Kittens!” he exclaimed. “Wouldn’t that throw them for a loop? I mean, if several Egyptian cats showed up.”
Scotty laughed with him. “It definitely would. We’ll show ‘e
m that it doesn’t pay to confuse us. Only how do we do it?”
Rick pointed to the office building where the plasterers were still at work. “Make a plaster cast, then use the concrete mix for the models. How about it?”
“Could work,” Scotty said quickly. “Come on.”
They rummaged around through the construction debris and found a pair of small wooden boxes that had held instruments. With Hassan as interpreter, Rick talked to the construction foreman and a plasterer was detailed to help. If the form could be prepared right away, the low desert humidity would harden it enough to use by the time they were through work.
The wooden boxes were filled with soft plaster while Rick coated the Egyptian cat with oil used to lubricate the antenna bearings. The cat was pushed into one box until only half of it showed. The plasterer smoothed the surface around the cat.
A sheet of scrap metal was used as a lid for the second box of plaster. Working quickly, the plasterer turned it upside down and held it in position while Scotty slipped the metal out of the way. The plasterer pushed it down on the cat, losing only a little plaster in the process. The little statue was now firmly embedded in plaster.
By the time the boys were summoned to the control room again, the plaster was firm enough so the plasterer could run a thin wire between the two boxes to start the process of separation. When the plaster was a little harder, he would use the wire and a long knife to separate the two halves completely.
The boys went to work, checking various elements under Winston’s direction. They kept at it until late afternoon. The sun was slanting down behind the pyramids when they were told to knock off for the day.
They hurried to the plaster mold at once. Hassan was already there, waiting, with the plasterer. The Sudanese guide pointed to a batch of concrete in a wooden tub. “We mix, more dry than for the floor, so easier to make cats. Now we start?
Any time,” Rick said. “Thanks, Hassan.” The resourceful dragoman had realized the concrete mix being used for the floor was too liquid for easy handling and had prepared a drier batch.
The plasterer went to work at once. He worked rapidly but skillfully, using the wire and knife to cut through the plaster until he reached the cat. Rick worried that he might cut or scratch the original, but the Egyptian was deft. In a few moments he lifted the upper box and the cat came to light, still gleaming from its coating of oil. Rick lifted it out of its plaster bed. The two boxes now contained perfect half impressions.
The boys, Hassan, and the workman shook hands all around. It was a job well done. The rest was easy. Rick oiled the form while the plasterer put the new concrete mix through a screen to remove lumps, then the two halves were filled slightly overfull and put together. Pressure was applied simply by standing on the upper box.
The workman lifted the upper box off with great care, disclosing a perfect half-cat in fresh concrete. The dry mixture kept its shape, but made great care necessary. The Egyptian workman held out both hands and Hassan turned the bottom box over. Working gently, the plasterer released the casting from the mold. It dropped into his hands. The boys watched eagerly as he used his knife to trim the flashing from the cat replica, then he wet his fingers from a bucket and smoothed out a few rough spots. The man grinned with pleasure, and the boys grinned back.
“Perfect,” Scotty said.
Rick added, “If I didn’t know its mother personally, I’d think this was it.”
The first kitten was put gently aside to dry while others were cast. The next two castings broke, but three perfect kittens resulted from six tries.
Rick was satisfied. “By tomorrow they’ll be hard,” he said with a grin. “Then we’ll work out a cat distribution program. I may go back to El Mouski and hand one to the phony Ali Moustafa, just to see what happens.
Not while I’m healthy enough to stop you,” Scotty said positively. Then he grinned, too. “But there’s nothing more fun than kittens, and we’ll have plenty of laughs with these. You wait and see!”