DISCLAIMER

The following is a work of fiction.

The characters and events involving the Sons of Anarchy are the creation of Kurt Sutter.

No copyright infringement is intended.

Any use of lyrics and the mention of songs and performers in this text is also not intended to infringe upon any copyrights held by any of the artists.

All original characters that are not part of the SOA universe are my own creation. Any similarities to real persons are merely a coincidence. However, the Reserve Officers Association Chapter 7 and Camp Atterbury, IN are real entities.

Much thanks and love go to:

My DH (who is thankfully very much alive!), for taking the time to offer insights. Also for having the love in his heart to allow me all my little obsessions and not feeling threatened by them. We've had 15 great years together; here's to many more!

My best friend (who does live in FL) for kicking my ass when needed and for love throughout these many years. My unofficial 'Godchild', her daughter, for her love as well.

The Indy Tarts and Tartans fan group, for giving encouragement in this venture, even though there was little GB involvement. Tignation, Samcro forums, and Facebook friends who also took an interest and added their encouragement. You know who you are.

Kim Sisk (Sisko44 on , check out her SOA/Tig Story called 'Sapphires and Whiskey'. It rocks!) for the wonderful cover art. I love it!

Finally, much thanks to Mr. Kurt Sutter for creating the SOA universe in the first place, and to Mr. Kim Coates for his excellent portrayal of Alex 'Tig' Trager.

Charming Pawse

Book 2

Chapter 5

Cat Recalls

the Night Bill Died

and

Why She Really Relocated

Cat was awake long before her alarm the morning of the funeral. She'd dreamed about the night Bill died and the days that followed. Despite the reassuring presence of the cats at her feet and Alex pressed against her backside, she couldn't get back to sleep.

She hadn't been visited by that dream for many months. Donna's death hadn't brought it back, so she couldn't understand why it had chosen that night to return. She lay in the semi dark bedroom, listening to the snores of the cats and Alex as sleep continued to elude her. 'Telling Otto about it must've brought the damn thing back. It's not nerves about bein' in the motorcade! I've been to far too many of these things in my life not to know how to behave.' She decided to quit fighting the bed and slid out from under Alex's arm. He stretched and turned over, burrowing under the covers and pillow.

She showered, treated her wounded palm, and dressed in the outfit she'd picked after combing through her closet the night before for an outfit that was dressy but compatible with the bike. She'd opted for velvet cords, suede fringed boots, velour v-neck top and satin overshirt, all in black. The only color accent was a necklace with a gold cat on the end of the chain. The cat had garnet eyes, and a white jeweled collar with an orange stone heart tag on it.

While the men had been at Otto's house the previous evening, she'd made a tape from a vinyl album. She hoped the selections would give Otto some comfort not only that day, but in the days and weeks to come. She had a cassette player she could part with, which she stored in the Yamaha's trunk along with the cassette.

She started the coffeemaker. Instead of cooking, she ventured to the coffeehouse. She o wanted to make sure things were running well, given the number of nomads and charter riders in town.

She walked through the back of the store and filled a 'Charming Pawse' pastry box with a selection of scones and muffins, including a few of Alex's favorites. She went to the front to pay for her items and found Pete and Adrian busily filling drink and food orders for charters and nomads. The riders were making a run on the whiskey flavored coffee. Their orders were moving swiftly, and the riders were patient.

"Looks like business is brewing," she remarked as she selected two pounds each of the Jack Daniels and Southern Comfort blends.

"Sure is, Miss Cat," Adrian grinned at her pun. They tip well, too," he nodded toward the overflowing kitty jar.

"The stock holding up OK?" She'd anticipated the whiskey flavored coffee would go over well with the visitors, and Miss Anna had indicated there was plenty, but she didn't want to take chances. If more beans needed to be flavored and roasted she'd have to call Christopher or JR in early to do it.

"Everything's fine, Miss Cat," Pete assured her. "You prepared more than enough of the whiskey flavored beans. We've sold quite a few bags to the out of town charters!"

"Good. I'll get out of your way," she said, ringing up and paying for her items. "If anything comes up, call the cell. I'll check for messages as often as I can."

"You do what you have to do today, Miss Cat. Don't worry. We've got things under control," Pete assured her, pouring out two more coffees and setting out two warmed muffins on plates. "Whiskey blacks and cinnamon raisin muffins warm!" He called out the orders then turned his attention back to his employer. "By the way, we need to talk about the rally. From the feedback we're getting, we're not going to have enough space to hold it here."

"We'll definitely talk tonight," she replied as she retreated to the back door. "If I don't call you, call me at the house."

She crossed the back yard to find Alex sitting in one of the chairs, semi-awake with his shirt unbuttoned and open to the sun. He was enjoying a cup of coffee and a smoke.

"Hey!" she called.

"Hey, back! I woke up alone and missed you. Nervous about today?"

She shook her head. "Just woke up early and couldn't get back to sleep. I didn't want to disturb you by fightin' the bed," she replied.

"Should've disturbed me, I'd have found a way to get you back to sleep," he grinned wolfishly, blowing smoke out through his nose.

"That's why I got up. You did a good job of puttin' me to sleep last night," she grinned. "You're insatiable!"

"Can't help it that I have healthy appetites," he replied. His eyes lit up at the sight of the pastry box. "Speaking of which, anything in that box for me?"

She held the box tauntingly out of his reach. "Maybe. Though why I indulge you is beyond me."

"You enjoy spoiling me," he gazed longingly at the box. She was standing just far enough away that he'd have to get up. He was comfortable and didn't feel like moving. 'She'll get too close soon enough,' he consoled himself.

"Hmpf!" she snorted. "First Bill, now you. How come I get blursed with two guys in my life who can eat like hogs without having to worry about it?"

"It's a man thing, babe." His eyes assumed a sad, sorrowful, puppy-like expression as he continued to gaze hungrily at the pastry box. 'I know there's at least one Snicker Bar Muffin in there!' Next to the cookies his father-in-law sent every month, his next favorite baked delicacy was her muffins. "I can't wait to taste the love you put in every bite," he added.

"Damn you!" she growled, opening the box and removing a muffin. "You know I can't deny you anything!" She started to hand the muffin to him, only to have him grab her by the arm and pull her into his lap. He took the muffin, placed it back in the box and put the box on the table next to his chair before kissing her long and hard.

"Morning, wife." He examined her palm, noting the wound looked none the worse for wear from the previous night's basketball game. She had covered it with guaze and an elastic bandage. "I'll redo that for you later," he remarked.

"Mornin', husband," she replied, resting her head against his shoulder. "I'd appreciate that."

He retrieved his muffin and took a large, satisfied bite.

"Hey, be careful!" she yelped, as crumbs from the muffin fell onto her chest. "Don't get crumbs down my titsling!"

Alex looked at the modest V-neck of her shirt, mentally comparing it to the more revealing tops worn by KD and the other actresses the night before. "I doubt any self respecting crumb could find it's way down there without a GPS device!"

"Huh! I'm surprised you know what that is! Would you prefer I flaunted my best assets?" she asked, playfully sticking out her chest for emphasis.

"Hell, no! I'd have to kill the competition," he replied, licking the offending crumbs from her clevage and planting a kiss right at the base of her throat.

"Then quitcher bitchin'," she laughed as his beard and mustache brushed against her skin.

"Not bitching, observing. I better be the only one that gets to enjoy the view.' He munched contentedly. "You smell good. It's different."

"White tea and ginger lotion and ginger scents cologne," she replied.

The golden cat figurine glittered in the sunlight, catching his attention. He palmed it, taking note of the garnet eyes and jeweled collar. "Don't recall seeing this."

"You haven't. It's been in my jewlery box. It's a present Bill gave me long ago. I can wear something else if it bothers you."

He glared in response to her comment. It was natural she'd think of Bill on a day like this. "Dammit! I knew this wasn't buried back in Indiana!" He growled. "I'm not jealous of a ghost! Leave it."

"Yes, love," she snuggled against him, sighing contentedly. "Otto up?"

"Yeah. Dressed and depressed. He got a call from Rosen this morning about their 'estate'. LuAnn didn't have a will, so things are gonna take time to sort out."

"Guess they never expected it would be needed until later in life," she mused.

"Guess not," he agreed. 'Not a smart thing in our line of work. It's fine if you don't have anyone. Guess it's time to talk to Rosen.'

He finished his muffin and took care of any stray crumbs in his own unique way. When he finished, they walked into the house where Otto was sitting at the table, an empty cup of coffee sat in front of him. He was staring off into space.

Cat poured a fresh cup of coffee for him and set out a small plate and napkins on the table, removed the baked goods from the box and arranged them on a platter, which she also set on the table. "There's muffins and scones on the large plate, Otto. Help yourself."

She put the bag of coffee next to the door so she could grab it when they left for the funeral, then

poured coffee for herself and Alex. She selected a scone, indicating he should follow her. He grabbed his cup and another Snicker Bar Muffin and followed her into the bedroom.

"What's up, babe?"

"I just wanted to give Otto some privacy. He doesn't need me hovering over him like a mother hen." She quickly made the bed, then sat down and leaned against the pillows. She picked up her coffee but left the scone on the table.

Alex set his coffee and muffin down long enough to get comfortable on his side of the bed. "Why does that surprise me?"

She shrugged, sipping more coffee. "You tell me."

"Anyone else would constantly remind Otto that he owes 'em. You've not thrown his situation in his face, treated him like a guest and a man instead of a felon."

"He is a man and our guest," she replied, still not comfortable with the praise for her behavior.

Alex sensed her discomfort and decided to it was time to change the subject. "Here we have all this spare time, and you not only get your shower in, you make the bed, too!"

"Guess we'll have to find some other way to fill the time," she retorted. "I could do some work on the opening for the rally."

He shrugged, not wanting to let on that he had an agenda. "If that's what you wanna do. Seems a waste when we've got this chance to have some uninterrupted time together."

She cast a suspicious glance at him, wondering what he was up to. 'He's right, though. I can work on the montage when he's otherwise occupied.'

He returned her gaze with an innocent expression. "Anything wrong with wanting some time with your woman when no one and nothing can butt in?"

"No. You're right. I can work on the opening anytime. You have my full attention. What do you want to do, besides the usual?"

Alex pretended to consider her question. There was really only one "other" thing he wanted to do; learn the real reason behind her move to Charming and what caused that guilt Otto sensed in her. He finally replied, "You could tell me the whole story about Bill's death. You're thinking of him anyway, so why not share it all with me?"

She stared at him in surprise. "You really wanna go over all that again? I told you about it long ago!"

"Uh, uh. You told me what you wanted to tell. You never told me how you got through his murder and everything that came later. We're in full disclosure mode now, baby. That makes a difference."

"But today? Now?"

"I see what Otto's going through – what Opie went through – but can't understand it. Sure, I lost that girlfriend years ago, but it's not the same." He paused a moment, then added, "I hoped if you shared your experience with me, I could relate better. Especially with Otto. He's going through Hell."

Alex was telling a white lie; he and Otto had decided to get her to talk about her loss. Otto had sensed her guilt when she spoke to him about it. Alex knew how guilt could eat at a person if it wasn't dispensed with. He didn't want her going through the mental shit he was enduring.

She sipped more coffee, hiding her distress behind the large mug. 'He knows I'd walk through fire for him. Does he have any idea what he's asking?' She gave him the 'look' as she replied, "It's not a pretty story, Alex."

"Baby, you can't tell me it doesn't bother you. I'll bet that had something to do with you waking up early and being unable to go back to sleep."

She glared at him. 'Dammit! Nothin' gets past him!'

"Weren't you just saying that you can't deny me anything?" he added.

"OK! OK! You win. But I need a refill," she sighed in resignation.

"Sit. I'll get it." He took both cups to the kitchen for a refill. When he returned, he sat off to the side with his legs crossed so he could watch her as she talked.

While he was in the kitchen, Tig quietly informed Otto that she had agreed to talk, and led Otto back to the library. Tig deliberately left the door open to enable him to eavesdrop.

"Like you always tell me, baby, just start at the beginning. I'm all attention. You do not have the option of leaving anything out."

The night Bill died was like any other night. He was working until the store closed at midnight, but wouldn't be home until nearly 3AM. Closing meant he had to set up the cash drawers, prepare the deposit and count the receipts, put away returns, clean the place, and several other assorted tasks for the next morning.

She had gotten away from work late which was not unusual. A call came in right at the end of her shift, forcing her to have to deal with a major problem a co-worked had blown off with a 'pat' answer. The customer called back, very unhappy with the outcome of the previous call. She had taken the time to work out a solution for the unhappy customer without getting a 'thank-you'.

The cats met her at the door, crying for attention and supper. She gave in to their demands then called the store to let Bill know she was home and safe. She'd tried to call on her way home but didn't get an answer. It made her a little concerned. She knew there were times when the staff couldn't answer the phone, but given the location of the store, unanswered phone calls made her nervous.

The phone rang several times, but he finally picked up. "Thank you for calling The Video Store. This is Bill, how may I help you?"

"Hi, Pookie. Just got in. The usual reason. You busy?"

"Yes. Someone called in sick and we're swamped. People are in line so I can't talk right now," he replied. "Glad you're home safe," Before she could reply, the line went dead.

"Damn! Not even a 'goodbye' or 'miss you'!" She growled, replacing the cordless on the charger. She missed him, and wished he could've taken a quick break long enough to say a decent 'hello'.

It seemed that things had been getting worse for them after he'd lost a promotion to Melissa Johns a few months earlier. Cat considered the gal incompetent and figured she was being kind with that opinion. Anytime there was a crisis involving the chain, she called Bill to handle it.

That annoyed her for a lot of reasons: handling crisises was Melissa's job; the calls always took away from what little time Cat and Bill had together; and it appeared that the owner didn't care who handled the problems as long as he wasn't bothered by them.

The crisis calls seemed to grow in frequency, turning her annoyance into a smouldering rage until she eventually threw harsh epithets at her husband whenever Melissa called. Bill wouldn't argue with her, choosing to remain silent and let her vent until she got it out of her system. He always forgave her temper and rages. It didn't keep her from feeling rotten and like a terrible wife after every shitstorm.

"I don't know why you put up with this shit from me, Pookie," she'd told him after her most recent and really nasty 'Vesuvius'. "Don't you get damn tired of the same old thing from me? It's like being around Mother!"

"Don't you start!" He wagged his finger at her in mock warning. "You're nothing like her. Better that you tell me what's bothering you than bottle it up inside like I do," he grinned the boyish smile that dissolved her anger as quickly as it would rise. "I don't disagree with you. It's rough on you to never know when I'm going to get called out. But what can I do? She's my boss, if I tell her to find someone else, she could fire me on the spot! Raj has promised me the next promotion, and things will be a lot better."

"I realize that, but like your card said, 'The waitin' is the hardest part'! Sometimes I get tired of waitin'."

"You'll see, honey. This whole mess will be worth all your volcanic eruptions. Besides, you're cute when you're mad."

She considered watching television, but there was nothing interesting on. She decided to go to the store and play 'Casper the friendly ghost employee'. She couldn't check out customers, but she could do all the menial tasks that would help get Bill out of there that much sooner.

She changed into jeans, sweatshirt and sneaks, then gathered her cell, wallet, and keys. A quick pet to the felines and the MF6 was rolling towards the video store. It was a 20 minute drive from their house; the store wasn't in the best part of town.

Cat turned on the radio and switched over to the local news/talk channel. She'd missed most of the top story concerning an armed robbery in the shopping center that housed the video store. Neither the on-scene reporter nor the anchor

repeated the name of the store, but she wasn't overly concerned. There was a liquor store that cashed checks in the same plaza that was a frequent target of robbers. The reflection of red and blue flashing emergency lights when she turned into the parking lot didn't phase her.

Worry gnawed at her as she neared the parking area for the video store and saw a large number of emergency vehicles and news trucks parked in front of it. 'Don't panic. Multiple cop cars at an armed robbery are normal in this neck of the woods. So are live news trucks,' she consoled herself.

She parked the MF6 next to Bill's Hyundai and walked to the building. Her concern intensified when she saw yellow police tape barring entry to the store. The video store had been held up. 'Not that it hasn't happened before,' she reminded herself. 'I'm sure everybody's fine.'

She strained to catch a glimpse of Bill or his employee through the window. She saw uniformed and plainclothes police officers milling about and an EMT dipping behind the counter. What she didn't see was a reassuring sign of Bill. She caught sight of her former mentor and friend, David Walker, who'd provided the live radio report.

She waved at him and David reluctantly returned her greeting. He walked over to her followed by a white shirted police officer. Cat noticed the gold cross of the police chaplain on the officer's lapel. The bad feeling turned into an icy fear in her gut. "David, what's going on? I missed the bulk of the story, and y'all didn't recap."

David's face was pale. He didn't want to be the one to tell her the bad news. "Cat, you need to talk to the chaplain," he replied quietly, stepping aside to allow the chaplain to take his place in front of her.

"Mrs. McLaughlin, I'm Bert Johnson, IMPD chaplain corps. We tried to call your house but didn't get an answer."

"Sorry about that, I was comin' here to help my husband," she replied. "He's been shot, hasn't he?"

Her calm directness caught the chaplain off guard as he'd expected a more emotional response. He recovered quickly to reply, "Yes, I'm afraid so, ma'am. Perhaps you should come with me," he lifted the yellow tape to allow her to duck under it. She glanced at David, not wanting to take him away from his duties, but also needing a friend.

He acknowledged the question in her look with a nod and stepped up next to her. The chaplain and reporter escorted her into the video store, past the uniformed officers and the television reporters scurrying after the police spokesman for the latest update or giving a breaking news feed to their stations.

"Hah! What makes Walker so privileged?" called out one of the reporters. The camera operators' lights bathed the entrance in a harsh white gleam, their video machines recording her entry into the store.

"That's for me to know and you fucktards to find out," she muttered. "No offense, David."

"None taken, Cat. I'm off duty anyway, the station is sending another reporter down to cover the story."

"Thanks," she replied.

As they approached the entrance to the video store, Cat saw that the glass window to the doorway was shattered. The outer entry was filled with pieces of safety glass that crunched under their feet.

They walked around to the side of the counter, and she saw Bill laying on the floor, his white shirt stained crimson while a pool of blood collected on the floor around him.

"I don't care what you say, that tape is not leaving this store! I'm responsible for it and it's not coming out of my bottom line!"

Cat closed her eyes and sighed deeply, the shrill, whining voice of her nemesis, Melissa Johns, grated on her nerves. She could feel the beginnings of a migraine stirring from the woman's voice. 'It figures the bitch would carry on over a two dollar video tape!' She stalked to the office at the back of the store, where Johns was using her body to keep a police detective from exiting. The detective held a video tape in one hand, a tape that might hold the identity of the robber. The detective was quickly losing his patience with the woman. Cat could sympathize with him.

"Melissa, give them the frackin' tape. I'll buy one from stock to replace it," Cat ordered angrily.

"You're not the owner, McLaughlin! I'm in charge, and I said the tape stays here!" The other woman shrieked, her eyes full of spiteful venom.

'That's it!' Cat's right hand curled into a fist and she let fly with a roundhouse punch that caught Johns right under the chin. The force of the blow lifted the district manager off her feet so that she fell on her butt.

Cat withdrew her wallet from her back pocket and removed a five dollar bill, flicking it into Johns' lap. "Buy yourself two frackin' tapes with that!" she retorted, turning to the detective with a grim but apologetic smile.

"You bitch!" Johns shouted, rubbing her chin as she rose to her feet. "Bill's finished here!"

"That's fine with me!" Cat hissed back.

"Officer, I want that bitch arrested for assault! You saw what she did!"

The detective looked from Johns to Cat and back to Johns again, then looked at the tape in his hand. "Ma'am, you'll be better off if I don't. If I arrest her for assault, I have to arrest you for interfering with an investigation and obstruction of justice."

Johns expression turned from anger to haughty indignation. "You wouldn't dare!"

"He would," Cat replied with a feral grin. "And I'll gladly sign a witness statement to it!"

"Your call, ma'am," the detective replied.

"Have it your way," Johns spat. "Bill is no longer our employee. Good luck paying for his care when our liability carrier denies your claim!"

"You just try that, sweetie. Bill was still employed when he was hurt, so they'll pay." Cat smiled sweetly as she added, "By the way, have a nice wait for the door repair people, I'm afraid Bill's a little too preoccupied to fill in for you."

Cat turned on her heel and left the woman sputtering angrily. The detective and the other officers stifled their smiles as they followed. The detective slipped the disputed video tape into an evidence envelope as he moved away from the office.

During the fracas with Johns, the EMTs had managed to get Bill ready for transport. Cat followed the stretcher as it was moved from the store. "I'm his wife," she stated calmly as one EMT climbed into the back of the ambulance. "I'm coming with you."

The chaplain nodded at the driver, and he allowed Cat to join his partner. The doors were closed and the driver ran around to the cab. Seconds later, the ambulance left the parking lot, lights flashing and sirens screaming.

"Don't go to Wishard," Cat advised the EMT. "I'd prefer he go to Methodist."

The EMT related that information to the driver, who signaled an acknowledgement. The EMT placed an oxygen mask over Bill's face, then began working to keep Bill stablized during the trip.

Cat sat next to the stretcher, gazing intently at her husband's pale face and closed eyes. She reached out to take his hand in both of hers, shocked at how cold it felt. His body usually radiated heat. "I'm here, Pookie. Ever and always."

The trip to the hospital didn't take long. The ER entrance loomed in the door windows as the ambulance backed to it. Orderlies and nurses rushed out and opened the back doors, removing the stretcher and rushing it into a treatment room.

Cat followed in their wake, using the momentary confusion to her advantage. She stood in a corner of the treatment room, well out of the way of the doctors and nurses working to safe her man's life. She preferred to be as close to him as she could, the forms could wait.

The doctors and nurses worked hard to save Bill, but she knew they were fighting a losing battle. His blood pressure was extremely low and getting lower, as was his pulse rate and respiration. As she watched, the numbers on the monitors continued to decline.

She tried prayer, but couldn't make her thoughts form the right words. She wanted to beg, plead, and deal with the Almighty for Bill to live, but knew none of that would make a difference. If God wanted to call her man Home, there was nothing she could do to stop it.

The monitor alarms blared, alerting the medical team that Bill's vital signs had flat lined. One doctor on the team began administering manual CPR, He shouted orders to the rest of the team in an attempt to revive his patient.

Another doctor, more tenured and experienced, reached out and took both the younger doctor's hands in his. When their eyes met, the older doctor shook his head and eyed the clock. "12:01 AM," the experienced doctor murmured.

The younger doctor looked at Bill, then at the clock. "He's wearing a ring. Is his wife waiting outside?"

"I'm here," Cat replied softly, not moving from her corner.

The tenured doctor had seen her when he'd first come in, but he'd not had her removed. She was out of the way and not interfering. He decided if she wanted to watch her husband die, she had that right. He motioned Cat forward, and the staff parted to allow her to step up next to the table. "I'm sorry, ma'am," he said.

"Not your fault, doctor. All y'all did the best you could," she replied in that same soft voice.

He gestured to the team to leave the room. They quietly filed out, heading to other treatment rooms where their skills were needed.

The tenured doctor stopped long enough to speak with the ER's head nurse. "The patient died. His wife is in the room right now, saying goodbye. Give her a few minutes before letting the morgue attendants in. She can fill out the necessary paperwork after they take the body."

"Yes, doctor," the head nurse acknowledged.

Cat stood next to the treatment table where Bill's body lay. The silence in the room was deafening following the noise and confusion of the last few minutes. 'He's gone,' she told herself. 'Everything that made Bill special has already gone wherever it's supposed to go.' He looked as if he were asleep and would wake up any moment, but she knew that was just wishful thinking. She leaned over and rested her head on his chest. Her arms went around him. "Oh, Pookie. If only I could take back all the bloody fights we had about the job. I'm sorry. You were the best Life had to offer, and I should've been more supportive and appreciative. I love you." She put her lips to his cooling ones, giving him one last kiss. Her reveries were interrupted by a discreet knock on the door.

She straightened up, but continued holding one of his hands in hers. "Enter!"

The door opened to admit the morgue attendants, pushing a stretcher. "We're sorry, ma'am. We--"

She held up her free hand and nodded. "I know. You have to take him to the morgue."

She stepped away from the table, watching as the attendants transferred Bill's body to the stretcher and covered it with a sheet. The attendants wheeled the stretcher from the treatment room, through the triage area and past the waiting lounge. Cat quietly followed behind the stretcher. As they moved past the waiting room, she found not only the police chaplain and David Walker, but also Bill's aunt and uncle waiting for her.

"Guys, could you hold up just a moment?" she asked, waving her relatives over. She lifted the sheet from Bill's face, so they could say their own goodbyes to him.

Aunt Brandy was crying as she approached the stretcher, and hugged Bill. Uncle Mark stood behind his wife and neice-in-law, his face pale and drawn. When Aunt Brandy straightened up, Cat replaced the sheet over Bill's face.

She felt Uncle Mark's arm around her shoulder, and she put her arms around both relatives, sharing their grief. "I have to fill out some paperwork for the hospital. If you'll wait for me," she asked.

"We'll be waiting over here," Aunt Brandy replied, tears streaming down her face before she buried her head in her husband's chest. He led her back to the waiting area.

Cat accepted the clipboard of forms from the head nurse, and quickly filled them out. She wanted to get home before the dam burst on her reserve, but the mundane matters still needed her attention.

"Mrs. McLaughlin?" Cat looked up at the nurse standing in front of her, holding a plastic bag. She knew the bag contained Bill's personal effects. 'That was pretty quick,' she thought. She accepted the bag with a murmured thanks, and glanced at the police chaplain, who nodded in silent response to her unvoiced question.

She nodded her thanks, and returned to the paperwork, holding the bag in one hand. When she completed the forms, she returned the clipboard to the nurse, and asked if there was anything else that required her immediate attention.

"Not from us. Just have the funeral home contact the morgue when they're ready to pick up your husband."

Cat nodded her thanks, inwardly grateful the nurse hadn't refered to Bill as 'the body', and turned to the little group waiting behind her. "I've gotta get back to the car, and make arrangements to get Bill's car home," she stated, her mind focused on the immediate needs. 'If I just keep focusin' on the mundane, I'll get through this nightmare.'

"We'll help you, honey," Uncle Mark replied, his voice gruff from his own emotions. "That's why we're here."

"I called them, Cat," David added. "I felt that you needed family. Give me a call if you need anything, especially if the media gets too annoying." He embraced her, thinking briefly of the young, enthusiastic reporter he'd known in Terre Haute. He'd not agreed with her reasons for getting out of broadcasting, but respected her decision. He never regretted keeping the friendship going. Somehow, he'd help her through this, if she'd let him.

Cat turned and followed her relatives to their van. The ride back to the parking lot was quiet. No one felt like talking.

The news vans and police cars were gone by the time they arrived at the parking lot. The store was still lit up, and she could see Melissa Johns pacing in the customer area beyond the counter, talking animatedly into her cell phone.

Cat smiled grimly. This would be a test of Johns' ability to handle her position. Bill would never get called out to do her work for her.

She made a move as if to go to the store, but Aunt Brandy stopped her. "Let it go, Cat," she pleaded.

Cat gave her aunt the 'look'. Either David or the chaplain had told of her fight with Johns. She glanced again at the agitated woman, then turned her back on the scene, removing the key to Bill's car from her keyring. She handed the key to Uncle Mark. "I'll drive the MF6 home, one of you can follow me."

She climbed into the Cruiser and started the ignition. She waited for Aunt Brandy to adjust the Hyundai's seat and get situated, then pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home.

The drive was quiet. She didn't feel like listening to anything the radio had to offer. Nor was she up to playing a CD or tape. Her mind was racing over the immediate things that needed to be done. There were people to call and things to prepare to do the next day. She was driving on automatic pilot and surprised herself when she stopped in her own driveway and Aunt Brandy pulled the Hyundai next to her.

She unlocked the front door and greeted the cats as if everything was normal. She put her keys on the hook where they belonged and went to the phone.

Despite the late hour, she needed to call her father and Bill's parents, She didn't want either of them read the news on the internet – or in her father's case - hear it through the media or read it in the city paper.

"Yallo?" answered her father's sleepy voice.

"Hi, Daddy. Sorry to call you this early – or late. It's Bill. He's gone Home."

Uncle Mark winced at her directness, even though she'd softened the bad news. 'Guess there's no way to really soft pedal something like that,' he thought, holding his wife close.

"What happened?" her father was wide awake.

She quickly filled her father in on the details, leaving out the more descriptive narrative for a

later time. "I didn't want you to read this in the paper, Daddy," she added.

"I appreciate that, kitten. Do you need me to come up later today?"

"No. I have to work out the arrangements. Stay put, and if you'll call the rest of the Marshall clan, that'd be a big help. I'll handle calling Mama and Dad and Mother's folks."

"Are you alone?"

"No, Uncle Mark and Aunt Brandy are here."

"Let me talk to Uncle Mark, then. Love you, kitten."

"Love you, Daddy." She handed the phone to her uncle and went into the kitchen to start the coffee pot. It was going to be a long night, and caffeine was in order.

"Honey, sit down. I can do that," Aunt Brandy said, coming up behind Cat to embrace her.

"It's already set it up," Cat replied, briefly returning the embrace.

"Want us to call William and Ana?"

"No, if you'll tell your son, that'll help. I have to be the one to do this."

She poured three cups of coffee, and handed the creamer to her aunt. She returned to the living room, where Uncle Mark was finishing up with her father.

"We'll keep you posted," her uncle-in-law said, ending the call.

"You two have a nice confab?" Cat inquired, setting the filled cup in front of him. "I hope he didn't give you too many things to do where I'm concerned."

He smiled wanly at her. "How'd you know?"

"I know my father. It's how he copes." She picked up the phone and pressed the speed dial to her husband's parents in Texas. Though it was late, her father-in-law was still awake.

"You'd better wake up Mama, she needs to hear this, too, and I'm not up to repeatin' myself tonight," she said after greeting him. She waited a moment, then heard her mother-in-law pick up on the extension.

"Hi, honey. We're both here. What's wrong?"

She took a deep breath and carefully explained the reason behind her late night call. There was silence on the other end of the line when she finished, then her mother-in-law sighed softly.

"Are you all right?"

"I'm coping. Uncle Mark and Aunt Brandy are with me. I suspect they're staying overnight. I'll be talking to the funeral home later today, and will call you once things are finalized. The service won't be 'til late in the week to give you time to get up here."

"We'll call Cissy and let her know, so you don't have to worry about that. Try to get some sleep, honey," Mama McLaughlin replied. "We love you."

"Love you, too." She replaced the phone on the charger and sat at the dining room table, listening to her aunt and uncle murmur in the living room.

The cats sensed something was wrong, and wound their bodies around her legs, purring in comfort. They were confused by the presence of the relatives so late at night, and no sign of their 'cat daddy'.

"I'm gonna work in the office for a bit, make up a list of stuff to take care of. Y'all are welcome to the guest room, the bed's made up."

"Can't this wait until morning?" Aunt Brandy asked.

"No. I need to do something. If I go to bed, it's not gonna do any good. It's better if I stay busy for awhile. It's how I cope," she replied.

Her aunt understood and patted Cat's shoulder. "We'll be in the living room for awhile if you need us."

She searched through the file cabinet for the 'just in case' folder, where her's and Bill's final wishes were kept. It was a document they updated every anniversary.

Bill had carefully written out a guide to help her make decisions, including the funeral home to use, what kind of music to play, who to contact within the Reserve Officers Association, and other matters that she needed to know 'just in case' the worst happened. She'd made a similar document for Bill. 'He'll never have to worry about it now', she thought sadly.

She made up a computer file with the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of people and places that would need to be contacted, and printed three copies. One she folded and put in her back pocket, the other two were intended for her aunt and uncle.

She wrote up an obituary to turn in to the newspaper and the funeral home, and selected a picture to go with it. Picking a picture was no easier than writing the notice. She briefly considered using his favorite; a picture commerating his opportunity to touch the Indianapolis NFL franchise's Super Bowl trophy. That same picture was his avatar on Facebook.

She opted to use her favorite picture, which was a profile shot similar to what many movie actors used. He held his chin on his closed fist, looking up slightly into the camera. His smile was warm and his eyes danced with vitality. His wedding ring glinted in the light from the flash.

She sorted through the various computer files of digital pictures, selecting several to print

later. Those would be displayed at the memorial service. Each picture brought back bittersweet memories. Several conventional pictures from their wedding album and other photo albums were marked for use as well.

Once she could no longer endure looking at the pictures, Cat went to her Facebook page and posted on her update status: "Cat McLaughlin. . .is in mourning. Yes, the news you either read in the paper, heard on the radio, or saw on teevee is true. Bill was killed at work last night. I'm coping, his parents and my father know. Our uncle and aunt are with me. Please know I love you, but if I'm not online for awhile, it's nothing personal. Please watch our pages for updates."

She copied the posting and pasted it on Bill's page. They didn't share all the same friends on Facebook, and she didn't want to leave anyone out of the notifications. Most of their Facebook friends were also on their email lists, so she didn't have to duplicate the message in email. She did copy and paste it on the message board they belonged to, trusting that group would pass the word, and to the Indy Tarts and Tartans Gerard Butler email loop.

Then she called her employer's attendance line. "This is Cat McLaughlin. If you've been anywhere near print and broadcast media, you know my husband was killed last night. I am invoking funeral leave for the next five work days. If you need me, call my cell, the house, or email me." she left the necessary phone numbers and email address.

When she'd picked up the receiver, the stuttering dial tone advised her of voice mail messages. She pressed the access code and listened as the message center announced that one new message.

She listened to the message for five seconds, then erased it. 'Damn it to Hell! Trust her to take an event like this to spew her garbage!' She checked the caller ID, noting that the telephone number that matched the time stamp was listed as a payphone. 'Shit! She walked in the dark to make that call just to get around the call block!'

She didn't know whether to be proud of her mother's ingenuity, or sick to her stomach by the foul words the woman's chronic paranoid schizophrenia had wrought. 'It figures I'd get this bullshit instead of sincere condolences and an offer of help. Even words of love would've been welcome You'd think I'd be used to this shit by now,' she scolded herself.

She left the computer logged on and powered up, in case Uncle Mark wanted to use it, and left the office. Her aunt and uncle had gone on to bed. The coffee pot was washed and set up for the next morning.

She rinsed out her coffee cup and left the copies of the 'to do' list on the counter, along with a note for them, then trudged wearily to the bedroom. The cats had given up on her hours earlier, and were curled up on Bill's side of the bed. The youngest cat, Misty, was curled up in Bill's shirt.

She was too tired to undress. She kicked off her sneaks, removed her glasses, and lay down. The cats moved to her side, pressing against her, purring loudly and nudging her hands for petting. She stroked their fur as the tears she'd denied slid down her cheeks.

Misty crept onto her chest, licking the salty tears, and Cat couldn't take it anymore. She rolled over, sending Misty and the others scurrying for safety and buried her face in Bill's shirt, sobbing herself to sleep.

Reliving that awful night was difficult. 'The pain doesn't go away with time. It's like a scab. No matter how hard the scab is, it still hurts like Hell to reopen it,' she thought tiredly.

"Bill and I agree on one thing about you," Alex remarked, knowing how difficult this was for her and wanting to lighten things up a little. "Whenever you get mad, you're more than 'cute', you're downright desirable!" He clasped her hand in both of his; it was cold and trembling. "You mentioned a 'just in case' folder. Do you still keep one?"

"The original one. Haven't gotten around to updating it. That's something I need to do for you. It's in a folder in the file cabinet in the computer room. I'll take care of it tonight."

He squeezed her hand appreciatively. "I was thinking along the same lines, babe. We'll both write one out. I'm also going to arrange a meeting with Rosen at the earliest opportunity."

She nodded, took a bite of her scone and washed it down with coffee. Misty sniffed at a crumb of scone, licked it, and batted it around the bed like a toy. "Don't recall asking your opinion of my baking, Misty. People don't like catnip scones!"

Alex smiled at the way she teased the little cat. 'I'm sorry to do this to you, baby. There's things I've gotta know, and you've gotta get this out of you.' He wished he could let her edit some things out, but that wasn't possible. He needed to hear it all. "I remember when you called Rev. Marshall when your mom died. You called it 'going home' then, too."

She smiled wanly. "Back when there was only one version of Star Trek, we watched as a family, and the running joke was whether Dr. McCoy would say something was dead. The classic line was 'He/She/It's dead, Jim,' and usually turned up in every episode. Therefore, we used the phrase 'gone Home' when we spoke of someone passing so I wouldn't laugh at an inopportune moment."

Otto was fascinated to learn his hostess was a preacher's kid. 'Explains why she's so contrary! But it explains a lot about her caring nature as well. Imagine Tig hooking up with a preacher's kid!'

Alex caressed the back of her hand with his thumb. "It must've been rough having your Mom turn on you that night."

She nodded. "Thing is, love, she doted on Bill when we were first married. He'd take her to the store or the library or anyplace else she wanted to go every week; he did odd jobs for her whenever she needed it. We paid for her to move from a high-crime area to a better neighborhood, and always had her over for holidays. Things would be fine between us until she'd go off her meds. All her parnoid hate and anger would target me, and we'd have to distance ourselves from her, sometimes for years at at time!" She sipped some more coffee before softly adding, "We were into the third year of separation from her when Bill died."

"Did she hear about his death on the news?" Alex asked.

"About the robbery, yes. Her first call was right after the 11pm news, when we were still at the video store. I'll never forget her exact words: 'I hope he dies!'."

He winced in sympathy. "I'm sorry to make you relive that, baby. "

She took another swallow of coffee and leaned back against the pillows, her mind bringing her back to the day after Bill died. "It's OK, love. You had no way of knowin' what transpired. When you're in a living nightmare, you wonder if it can get any worse. You hope it doesn't, but it always does."


She only got a few hours' sleep. Her aunt and uncle had thoughtfully unplugged all the phones, but no one had turned off the alarm clock. It went off at it's usual time. She wearily sat up and shook her head, wishing that she'd only dreamed of the previous hours events. One look at the swelling and bruises on her right knuckles proved it had not been a dream.

She showered and put on clean clothes before shuffling into the kitchen. Her nose led her to the fresh pot of coffee Aunt Brandy had made. Though her stomach pouch complained it was empty, the thought of food made her nauseous.

She poured coffee and creamer into the cup she'd used earlier and ventured into the living room. Uncle Mark was in the office, talking on the phone. Aunt Sandy was working on her laptop.

"Hey," Cat said, curling up on the sofa next to her aunt. The television was off, which was a blessing. She didn't want to see the TV news.

"Good morning," Aunt Brandy replied. "I heard your alarm go off. We thought we shut off everything."

"It's OK. I needed to get up anyway. Too much to do." She sipped coffee while Aunt Brandy tapped the keyboard. "What's been goin' on?"

"Lots of calls coming in. Thanks for leaving out the email passwords. I've been answering emails all morning for you. I've saved them all for you to read at your leisure."

"Thanks, Aunt Brandy. I gotta call Mama and Dad back. Bill wanted to be cremated, and I'd rather iron this out with them before meeting with the funeral home."

"They were able to reach Cissy. She called her girls. Your father was able to reach your step-brothers. Danny is on his way back, but your other step-brother is too sick to travel. Your Dad said he'd talk to your step-mother later, but he doubts she'll make the trip."

Cat nodded, making notes on the legal pad she'd lifted from the dining room table. "I wouldn't expect her to. Traveling is hard on her these days. The cats get fed?"

"Uncle Mark left the bedroom door open a crack, so they came and woke us up, very insistent that they get their breakfast. Ebony can be very persuasive when he stands on one, can't he?"

"I've found that a 20 pound feline on the bladder can be quite an effective wake-up tool," she grinned.

"Try an 80 pound dog sometime," Aunt Brandy smiled in response.

She called her in-laws and discussed Bill's final wishes with them. "He wanted to be cremated, and I'm ok with that. I wasn't sure if you wanted to see him before it's done."

"We talked about it last night, honey," Ana replied, her voice thick with grief. "We want to remember Bill as he lived, not the shell. We're still coming up, as soon as we can get a flight in, but if that's what he wanted, you go ahead and do what he asked."

Cat's next call was to the funeral home to set up a meeting with the director for later in the day. She called the minister at their church and asked for an appointment to discuss the service. "I've got some time this afternoon. What time is your meeting with the funeral director?" Cat told him, and he assured her he'd be there so they could work things out at the same time.

Aunt Brandy refilled her coffee cup. "Some reporters have called along with several family members. Did you get everything ironed out?"

"Yeah," she replied quietly. "Could you drive me to the funeral home? I'm not so sure it's a good idea for me to drive right now."

Aunt Brandy nodded. Cat stood up, her legs a little unsteady. "I'm going to put together an outfit for him to be cremated in. I'll be ready in a bit."

She walked into the bedroom and rummaged in the closet before selecting Bill's favorite shirt - the only one she'd absolutely hated - a pair of his comfortable jeans, socks, underwear and his sneakers. She added his wedding ring to the carry bag and returned to the living room.

Uncle Mark had gotten away from the phone for a bit, and was standing with his wife. They gazed worriedly at Cat, she was pale and quiet. "Everything all right, Cat?" he asked. "Do you want me to deal with the life insurance carrier with the Army and his work?"

She nodded, finding it difficult to speak. She didn't want to know, but she had to ask about her mother. "Has she called?"

He grimaced. "Yes, unfortunately. The number wasn't blocked and she got through."

"She's callin' from a payphone. I tried to block it last night. Guess I'll try callin' the caseworker and see if they'll do anything."

"I can do that for you," he offered.

Cat shook her head. "Thanks, but I have to be the one to do it. Sometimes they refuse to deal with me, and I'm her only daughter. It'll give me somethin' to do on the way to the funeral home. Could you also call the liability carrier for the chain about a claim? Might as well get that started, too."

Uncle Mark nodded and returned to the office. The women took the McLaughlin's van to the funeral home. All Cat really wanted to do was lay her head back against the seat, but she had to deal with her mother's case worker. She scrolled through the stored numbers on her cell until she came to the caseworker's and pressed the 'call' button.

"Community Mental Health, this is Tasha speaking," came a cheery voice over the cell.

"Cat McLaughlin calling. My husband was killed last night. Mother is taking advantage of that and using payphones in her area to call and make unkind, unneeded comments. I need you to put a stop to it." Cat spoke in a brisk, matter-of-fact manner. It was a technique she'd developed with the case worker over the years.

"We've talked about this before, Mrs. McLauglin. We can't make your mother do anything."

She raised her eyes to the heavens. Same old bullshit! "Look, with her brother taking himself out of the picture, she's focused all her paranoia on me. I would think it would concern all y'all that she ventured out in the dark last night to leave a nasty message for me from a payphone. It should also concern you that she would call again today and give my husband's uncle unholy Hell!"

"Do you have proof that she called?"

"You know the only proof is the caller id and the phone messages and Uncle Mark's word."

"And you know that doesn't suffice. I'm sorry for your loss, Mrs. McLaughlin, but we have to think of your mother's best interests. For us to accuse her of something that may or may not be true would hinder her recovery."

"I don't see any recovery takin' place, that's the problem!" Cat replied. "I'm puttin' ya on notice that if she shows up at the funeral, I will have her removed and I'll do everything possible to have her charged with harrassment, trespassin', or whatever it takes to have the cops take her away. I would suggest you check on her right away." She turned off the phone and covered her eyes with both hands. The migraine was knocking on the door of her brain.

"That didn't sound very productive," Aunt Brandy observed.

"It wasn't. It's like going to the doctor and telling him it hurts when you move a certain way and he responds 'Then don't move that way'!"

"Do you think she'll show up and make a scene?"

"Do brown and black bears take a dump in the woods? Of course she will. Especially if she thinks that Daddy will be there."

Aunt Brandy grimaced at the response, trying not to laugh at her neice's dry humor. "I'm sorry, honey, I don't want to laugh at you."

"Who says I'm laughing?" Cat smiled grimly. "You can count on her causin' trouble as one can count on Death and taxes."

They arrived at the funeral home, and Cat mentioned her concern to the funeral home director.

"We'll let the motorcycle escort know to watch for her, it'll help if you have a picture of her," he assured her.

"I don't have a real recent one, the last one I have is about 10 years old or so, but it should suffice, I hope," she replied, handing over the carry bag containing Bill's clothing. "I wanted him to have something to wear besides a sheet when he's creamated."

The funeral director accepted the bag, handing it off to one of the employees. He led Cat and her aunt to an office, where they waited for the minister.

Cat and the director discussed the pre-service music. "Bill wasn't a super religious person, so I'm going to make a music tape. He liked all kinds of music, and that's what I'd like to have played in the background. Some of it will be in other languages, but it'll be tasteful."

"Whatever you want to do, Mrs. McLaughlin, within reason, of course."

The United Methodist minister arrived and apologized for being a bit late.

"We've certainly had our share of late arrivals to church services," Cat replied with a wan smile.

They discussed the memorial service. The minister would read Bill's favorite Bible passage, then give an eulogy. The majority of the service would be given to those wanting to share memories of Bill's life. Cat would be the last speaker.

There would be honorary pallbearers, Bill had written out who he wanted, and they would escort the funeral director and the urn from the parlor. "Only half of the ashes will be buried, that's why I'm purchasin' more than one urn. One is for his mother to have, the other is for the burial. I know it's unusual, but that's why we purchased the plots in the first place."

He nodded, making notes in the file.

Cat handed over copies of the obituary she wrote for Bill to the minister and the funeral director. "Sorry if I'm stompin' on anyone's turf, I worked for a small town newspaper and writin' obituaries was one my assignments."

The men reviewed the passage and nodded in approval. It was well-written but concise. The funeral director noted her request that in lieu of flowers, donations should go to the Southside Animal Shelter, the church's building fund, and/or the Salvation Army so the envelopes could be made available.

"We appreciate you thinking of our fund," the minister added.

"I know times have been hard, and every little bit helps," she replied. She also described how she wanted to place pictures of Bill around the room, including a collage that could be placed on a stand near the urn.

"We could put together a DVD of the pictures if you'd prefer," the director explained.

She shook her head. "No, I want people to feel free to roam and talk. Showing a DVD would make people feel like they have to sit and watch."

The employee who'd taken the carrybag from his boss knocked at the door to the office. He beckoned him to enter. There was a whispered conversation, and the employee handed something to the director before quietly departing. "I'm afraid that we're unable to creamate your husband's wedding ring," he informed her, passing it to her.

She accepted it, holding it in her palm for a moment, before her hand closed over it. "I'm sorry."

"Not a problem, Mrs. McLaughlin. Some women wear the ring on a chain, others have it buried with their husband. If you wish to have it buried with the ashes, we can add it before the burial takes place."

She nodded. "I'll think on it."

The director showed her and Aunt Brandy to the showroom, where she looked over the various urns on display. There were all shapes, sizes, and colors to choose from. Cat saw the one she wanted right away. It was simple and elegant, colored in black, with silver around the rim and on the top. She chose a smaller version of the same urn for Mama Ana.

Black, silver, cream, and crimson had been their wedding colors. At least she'd matched two of the colors. Maybe the pedestal for the urn could be covered in cream and crimson. She made that request when she filled out the order.

With the purchase of the urns, and signing the release for Bill's body, the planning session was over. The church would hold a dinner for the family and friends that attended, as part of their outreach. The service would be held at three in the afternoon that Friday.

All that was left to do was to go home and deal with the fact that her life was forever altered, and not for the better. She already felt that a part of her was missing, and would remain empty for the rest of her life.

Were it not for the cats, she wondered if she'd want to go on. Fortunately, the cats needed her as much as she needed them. 'Besides, Bill wouldn't want you to lose the depression battle. You've fought it for years, and you sure as Hell don't want to be a carbon copy of Mother!'

After the meeting with the funeral director and minister, Cat sent her relatives home for awhile. "Y'all have been great, helping out like this, but your puppies need you, and I'm gonna have to get used to being with just the kitties anyway."

"Are you sure? One of us can come back later if you want," her uncle replied.

"I'm sure. I'll be fine. If I need anything, I'll call."

They were reluctant about leaving her, but they also needed to check in on Grandma, who lived next door to them. He handed over the list of phone messages and other items he'd handled in their absence.

"There's a message from Bill's boss, you might want to return that call first," he informed her.

They embraced her and reluctantly left the house after she promised again to call if she needed anything, no matter what time it was.

She settled in the office, dialed the number to the chain's corporate office, and gave her name to the receptionist to the receptionist. After a brief wait on hold, the owner, Raj, came on the line.

"Hi, Cat," Bill's employer greeted her. "I'm sorry for what happened, and that Melissa made an ass of herself."

"It's OK, Raj. I take it she complained loud and long."

"She woke me from a sound sleep last night, bitching about you. Did you really hit her so hard that she landed on her ass?"

Cat smiled grimly. "I have the bruises on my knuckles to prove it. But I suspect you have more on your mind than discussin' my fightin' skills."

"She wanted us to disallow your claim against our liability insurance for Bill's injury. I told her that wasn't going to happen and gave her Hell for withholding evidence. Then I heard this morning that he'd died. There's a double benefit if an employee is killed on the job."

Cat was speechless. She shouldn't be surprised over Melissa's pettiness, but she was. 'Bill's body couldn't have been cold when she called Raj!'

"Cat, you still there?"

"Yeah," she replied, taking a deep, steadying breath. "Truth be told. I'd rather have Bill than the money." She could hear Raj breathing, but he didn't respond to her statement. "Sorry, Raj. I didn't mean to harpoon you."

"I was trying to figure out how to tell you this without causing more pain. Bill and I disagreed on this, and now I think he was right. Hindsight, y'know."

"What is it, Raj? If you're afraid I'm gonna reach across the phone and tear your throat out, you're safe. It's a physical impossibility."

"True, but you might still want to tear me a new asshole," he replied quietly.

"Raj, please, just tell me what's on your mind. If you need to confess that it was wrong to give Melissa the promotion, I agree. Feel better?"

Silence again greeted her comment. Finally, Raj replied softly. "I wish it were that easy. Bill was helping me gather evidence that Melissa couldn't do the job. He was always my choice. Melissa was involved with one of my staff, and the affair ended badly. She threatened a suit if she didn't get the position, and my lawyer felt she might win. I increased Bill's pay to compensate for the inconvenience, and didn't tell anybody. He wanted to tell you and I forbid it. I was ready to demote her when this happened."

Cat felt sickened by Raj's confession. Her mind raced over every mean and angry word she'd thrown at Bill about his work in the last few months, her grief magnified it into something worse than it had been. She hated herself. She felt like she'd been punched in the gut by a two ton wrecking ball.

"Cat?"

"I'm here, Raj. Bill was right. Y'all should have told me. It would've made a big difference. It's too late now. I have to go," she replied, surprised that her voice didn't reflect her inner turmoil.

"Call me if you need anything, Cat. I mean it."

"Yeah." She gently returned the receiver to the cradle. She was numb with shock and horror. She should've been told, but she also should've trusted Bill enough to accept what he was doing and support him, instead of throwing obstacles in his way!

She slid out of the chair onto the floor, great sobs tearing from her throat as tears of regret and self-loathing poured from her eyes. She stayed that way for some time, ignoring the cats attempts to comfort her with their purrs and affection. When she cried herself out, the self-loathing remained.

She got up, went into the kitchen and fed the cats, but she wasn't really thinking about them. She was filled with pain and wanted to numb all feeling. She'd quit drinking after the surgery, she couldn't handle the sugar and it didn't take much to make her drunk.

'I wanna get so lit that I don't feel anything!' There was an unopened bottle of Jack Daniels Black Label under the sink. It'd been given to them some time ago, and Bill had put it away. He didn't like whiskey and she was loathe to toss out a perfectly good bottle of booze. That would be her ticket to oblivion. She retrieved it and took it to the bedroom.

She sat on the bed and opened the bottle, taking a long, appreciative sniff. The aroma was just as good as she remembered. She flicked on the TV, looking for something to keep her company beside the felines. But every channel revealed either reruns or stuff that was to stupid to endure.

It was the down time for all her favorite sports teams, so no Cubs baseball, Bears football, or IU basketball. The music video channels annoyed her, and her favorite soap opera didn't appeal to her, despite the allure of 'The Great Victor Newman'. The movie channels were bereft of any of her favorites, including Harrison Ford, Kim Coates, and Gerard Butler. 'Damn! Springsteen was right! 'More than 57 channels and nothin' on'!"

She finally turned to the satellite radio channels and settled for the classical station. She'd worked the classical music program at the student operated radio station at Vincennes every Sunday night. Now it comforted her as no other music could.

She lifted the bottle to her lips and took a sip, reminding herelf not to drink too much too fast. The 'funnel effect' caused by her pouch would send the liquid right back up, and that would not be satisfying. The amber coloured liquor slid down her throat, and she welcomed it like an old, long-lost friend. Her chilled insides felt a little warmer, and she immediately felt a buzz.

'It's still gonna take awhile to get properly lit,' she thought, taking another careful sip. She got up long enough to turn on the bathroom light, just in case the alcohol caused a dumping episode and she needed to move fast. Then she returned to the bed, throwing Bill's shirt over her shoulder where she could inhale his scent and took another sip.

'I always prided myself on being different from Mother. Swore I'd never give my husband the grief over work like she used to give Daddy.'

She mentally compared all the fights she'd had with Bill over his work to her Mother's rants over the church. In her grief and guilt, she could see no difference, but her soul didn't want to accept that she'd fallen as low as her mother. "Daddy tried his best to balance his calling and family. At least it was just one or two churches, not a whole slew of stores like the video chain!"

She'd grown up knowing her father couldn't attend every basketball and volleyball game, musical, chorus recital, play, and the like. Sometimes emergencies came up, and he had to miss out on a planned family outing. That was when her Mother would pitch a major fit over the missed opportunity. Cat had accepted it as par for the course, so why had she given Bill so much shit?

"Because you're as much of a selfish asshole as she is!" she answered herself. "That's all there is to it. Maybe you need to let her live here with you after all!"

The idea was so repellent that she tipped the bottle and chugged a large swallow. Her pouch rebelled, and she ran to the bathroom, getting to the sink just in time to let the liquor gush out her mouth and down the drain. "Shit! Waste of perfectly good booze!"

The buzz was still present, so if slow and steady was the only way to get 'comfortably numb' then so be it. She returned to the bed and got comfortable. She continued sipping until she was more than lit. further than 'comfortably numb', and well past drunk. By the time she finished the bottle, she was unconscious.

Tears trickled down Cat's face from the remembered guilt and shame that tortured her after that phone call. "After Raj told me what was really goin' on, I hated myself for puttin' Bill through Hell. I was supposed to be on his side and supportin' him instead of adding to his burden!"

Alex reached out to brush her tears away. "You didn't know the whole situation, baby. From what you say, he apparently understood that."

She shook her head angrily. "That's not the point! I never should've nagged Bill over somethin' he had no control over! If he'd been a lazy bum and not willin' to work then he would've deserved gettin' bitched at. He didn't deserve what he got from me at all!"

'That must be why you've never given me shit about the Club,' he thought. It hurt to know he was opening old wounds. 'That's why she didn't want to tell me her feelings about our arrest! I can understand that, but her reaction to the home burglary still doesn't make sense!'

Oblivious to his consternation, she took a deep breath and petted Misty. "Had it not been for that good, old, friendly bottle of Jack, I wouldn't have survived the night," she continued. "It got me 'comfortably numb' and enabled me to live to see the next day and get some much needed help from a real live friend."

"Ding, dong! Ding! Dong! DING! DONG!" the noise of the doorbell grew louder and more annoying as it brought her back from the land of numb. The sound of the bell pounded in time with her headache. Her mouth tasted like the bottom of an unscooped cat box.

"Go 'way!" she muttered, burrowing her head under a pile of pillows.

"Ding! Dong! Answer! Me! DING! DONG!"

'Fucktard!' she thought, burrowing deeper into the pillows. "I can be stubborn, too!" she shouted, though it was muffled by the pillows. "Go away!"

"NO! WAY! Answer! The! Door! Now!" the doorbell was making itself heard. "Open! Up!"

"Fuck! Off!" She hollered again. "Shit!" She couldn't breathe and threw the pillows off her head. She sat up and wished she hadn't, as her pouch complained bitterly. Seconds later, she fled to the bathroom, as the sugar overload caused a major and very painful dumping incident.

"If I'm busy in here, that asshole will give up and go away," she murmured to the cats, who looked at her like something they'd yakked up. She held the trash can in front of her, paying homage to the great god Ralph as the remants of the previous night's binge made its' unpleasant journey back the way it'd pleasureably gone down.

"DING! DONG! DING! DONG! DING! DONG!" The doorbell was being very insistent and repeating itself rapidly.

The last spasm shuddered its' way through her, and she cleaned up after herself. Her head was pounding like a Peter Criss drum solo. She washed down some aspirin, then swished some mouthwash around in her mouth to get rid of the nasty taste.

"I'M! NOT! GOING! AWAY!"

"All right, motherfucker! I'm coming!" she screamed, storming through the house, sending cats scurrying out of her way for cover. She unlocked the door and squinted into the sunlight; she couldn't make out who was insistently leaning on the doorbell. "What part of not gettin' an answer don't y'all understand?" she growled, shading her eyes against the glare of the sun.

"If you'd answer either of your phones, chick, you'd know who was ringing your bell!" June exclaimed, pushing past her. She carried her knitting bag and a suitcase, along with the newspaper and the mail. "Nice to see you, by the way. You look like shit."

"I feel like it. Nice to see you, but how in Hell did you get here?"

"Duh! Rental car from the airport! I got one when you wouldn't answer the phone. It made sense just to get my own wheels and drive out than have the kid haul ass from Bloomington."

June walked through the house and dumped her bags in the guestroom, then returned to the living room. Cat was still standing in the foyer, her mouth wide open.

"What? No hello? No coffee? Damn, girl! You're slipping!"

"I'm hung," Cat replied.

"That explains your lack of manners to someone who's flown over a thousand miles!" June strode into the kitchen, washed out the coffeepot and started a fresh one brewing.

The cats meowed at her, running to their empty bowls and back again. "I know, babies. It's hard to hire good help these days. I'll feed you in a minute."

She walked over to her friend and enfolded Cat in a hug. "Yes, I'm real, not some alcohol induced dream, chick." She stepped back from the hug, her nose wrinkling. "Phew! You smell like a distillery!"

"Guess that's better than shit," Cat replied dryly. "Sorry 'bout the odair."

"Don't worry. It won't send me on a binge," June assured her. "I would've been here sooner, but it takes time to arrange a flight at the last minute. I started working on it as soon as I read your Facebook page."

"You didn't have to come, but I'm damn glad you're here," her calm facade crumpled as she cried, "Oh, June, I fucked up royally!"

"We'll talk about it, chick. First things first. Come with me." June grabbed her by the arm and marched Cat back to the bedroom and the master bath. The bottle of Jack stood on the bed table, empty.

"You must've been righteously sick from all that," June observed.

"Very much so. I've got a mother of a headache as well."

June turned on the shower and pointed to it. "Strip. Wash. In that order. I'll set out clean stuff for you. Coffee will be ready when you are. You'll feel better." She closed the door behind her, leaving Cat to follow her orders.

She adjusted the water to the temp she preferred turned on the exhuast fan, peeled out of her clothes and stepped under the running water. June was right. She was beinning to feel better.

She was felt quite clean by the time the water started to run cold. She dried off and found that the aspirin had also taken the edge off her headache. The thud was just a small drone between her ears. She opened the bathroom door to find clean sox and undergarments waiting for her. 'Good. At least she didn't pick my entire day's wardrobe!'

She dressed in fresh jeans and long sleeved shirt, and felt more like a human being than a garbage disposal. The cats were lying on the bed, sound asleep and purring. The 'dead soldier' was gone from the bedside table, presumably in the trash.

She followed her nose to the kitchen where the freshly brewed coffee was waiting. She poured herself a cup, added cream, and walked into the living room, where June sat on the couch, knitting furiously.

"Feel better?"

"Human. I'm glad you're here, did I tell you that?"

June smiled. "I knew you'd eventually get around to it. Drink your coffee so we can talk."

"Have you always been this bossy?"

"When you need me to be. Drink. It's not Jack Daniels. It's better for you."

"Bitch!" Cat replied good naturedly, sipping the brew.

"Takes one to know one," June retorted, never

dropping a stitch of her knitting.

"Love you, too."

They sat in companionable silence, broken only by the click of June's knitting needles. Cat rose for another cup and carried June's with her to refill both.

"Get something to eat!"

"Yas'm!" Cat replied dutifully, grabbing a box of cereal off the top of the fridge and carrying it under her elbow along with the full cups in her hands.

"That's all you're eating?" June glared at the box. "Dry?"

"Gets too mushy for me with milk," Cat replied, setting the cups down and opening the box. She chomped contentedly on strawberry yogurt oat circles.

"Whatever," June sighed. "What do you mean you fucked up? You obviously didn't hit Bill once too many times with the baseball bat, or you'd be in jail. Talk."

Cat sipped her coffee, momentarily wishing for a stronger type of liquid courage. As if reading her thoughts, June waggled a warning finger at her. "Don't make me use this knitting needle on you. No more Southern, or Jack, or Jim or anything else alcoholic. How'd you fuck up?"

"Remember when Bill presumably lost the promotion to Melissa?"

June nodded. "How can I forget? That was moving week, and you spent half the trip to Florida bitchin' about her lack of competence!"

Cat sipped more coffee, waiting for June to catch the key word in her sentence. It didn't take her long.

"What the Hell do you mean, the promotion he 'presumably' lost? He was passed over wasn't he?"

"That's what I meant about fuckin' up royally, kittenface," Cat told her of the news Raj had shared with her the day before. June's knitting remained in her lap as she listened to the painful narrative. "In the end, kittenface, I'm just like Mother."

"So that's what brought on the binge," June replied. "I didn't think you'd get lit over Bill's death. You're not that weak. I knew it had to be something major!"

"It is. So, I guess you're gonna scramble back to Florida as fast as you can make arrangements for the return trip," Cat murmured. "Wouldn't blame you."

"If you don't shut up, I'm gonna stab you with this knitting needle. It'll hurt you and stain my alpaca yarn!" June was shaking with anger. "Time for you to get off the pity pot!"

Cat shut her eyes, prepared to hear the worst. June had been her best friend for ages, but she knew there was only so much anyone could tolerate, and Cat's behavior to her husband had been abysmal.

"Look at me, Cat. You are not your mother. You know it deep in your heart and you'd accept it if you'd get your head out of your ass long enough! I've seen your mother in action! Raj should've told you, or let Bill tell you what was goin' on. They didn't tell, you didn't know, and you reacted the way anyone would react when the sanctity of their home is threatened! That's not being a paranoid, selfish ass! That's normal!"

June was saying everything that Cat knew to be true intellectually. The guilt and hurt had already eaten away at her confidence, and that tiny little seed of fear of becoming like her mother had grown into a very large and strong oak tree overnight. "How can you be so sure?"

"I've known her half our lives, chick! I've seen her in action and her illness is in my line of work. Like most mentally ill people, she doesn't realize that she causes her own problems; it's always someone else's fault. She's wrapped up in herself because of it. You're the exact opposite. You give of yourself and can easily recognize when you've brought things on yourself."

Cat put up one hand in the classic 'talk to the paw' gesture.

"I'm serious! You love my kid like your own; you fought for Bill and your life together. It's never been about you/you/you! It's always been about us, we, and ours!" June's eyes were blazing with anger at the circumstances that had hurt her friend so deeply and the mental health devil that lurked ever present in her friend's life. "You need to remember that Bill loved you, and he knew why you were raised unholy Hell about the job situation. How many times did we discuss it at cawfee church, anyway?"

It was a rhetorical question. Cat knew she wasn't expected to respond and June didn't give her the opportunity. Like Cat, June had a mighty temper in a small frame, and when riled, that temper was an awesome force of nature.

"We all make mistakes and hurt those who love us, and who we love. How many times have you and I had nasty fights and then come back together? Your mother makes mistakes, doesn't remember them, and doesn't recognize the hurt she inflicts. I only wish I'd gotten here sooner so you wouldn't have learned the truth and gone through this on your own!"

"All you'd have done was watch me get lit and possibly fall off the wagon yourself. Do you think I'd want to be responsible for that, on top of everything else?"

"Think I'd throw away 25 years of sobriety on you? I love you, but not that much! But I would have been here to keep that damn guilt trip from getting out of hand!" June sighed and put down her knitting, taking her friend's hands in hers. "Your devils of self-loathing do this to you every time you lose your temper. It's asinine! You're allowed to be temperamental once in awhile and not fear you're becoming like your Mom! I'm being the supreme bitch right now, do you think I'm ready to go into the rubber room?"

Cat shook her head, her eyes glinting with tears. 'June's right. It's ok to be a bitch at times, as long as you know when to stop. I know when to stop. I'm not nuts; at least not certifiably so!'

June could tell that her impassioned words were sinking in. 'It's abou damn time!'

"I think you just kicked my ass royally between my ears again. Thanks, kittenface. You always come through for me."

June reached out and hugged Cat firecely. "And you always do likewise. Believe me, my training will tell me when it's time to lock you in the padded room and throw away the key. Not to change the subject, but what's on the agenda today?"

Cat sighed, returning the embrace. "You're the best sister of my heart I've ever had, you know that?"

"Ditto, chick. What needs to be done?"

Cat pulled out her list of to-do's which had been ignored over the last few hours of alcohol induced self-pity and handed it to June.

"I take it you've been to the church and funeral home. Did you post the info on line?"

"No, I kinda got sidetracked."

"Then you go post this stuff, and I'll start working on the pictures. When you're done with the postings, you can look for the music you want to use for the visitation and the service."

"Sure thing, boss," Cat replied with a grin.

"By the way, I had a wonderful chat with your mother while you were in the shower. She's pissed that you sicced the caseworker on her. Good for you!"

"Doesn't sound like it did much good," she replied sadly. "Sorry if she gave you trouble."

"Chick, there's nothing she can say to me I haven't already been called. What's that the Bee Gees sang about 'it's only words'?"

"You're datin' yourself with that one, kittenface."

"Only another old broad would know it, chick. You lost your mother years ago to the sickness. What's left isn't really her. I rather enjoyed the battle of wits with her, sharpened my claws."

"You're a bitch, and I love you for it."

"Love you too, now get to postin' so I can get to work."

Cat was laughing when she sat down to the computer and updated the web pages with the updates about the funeral, thanking one and all for the calls and messages of support.

The fan group had sent an email inviting her to a Tart Night Out that evening. June had been a member of the same group before relocating. Cat thought she might enjoy seeing some old friends. "Hey, kittenface! Wanna do a Tart Night Out tonight? The Tarts want to get together to remember Bill."

June walked into the office to look over the email. There wasn't a new Gerry movie out, but the group was interested in doing dinner and Starbucks afterward, a typical TNO. Bill had always gone to those events, even if he had to leave to handle a 'crisis'.

"Critter's on her way up. If she can tag along, I'm game. So long as you stay out of the hard stuff!"

Cat raised her hand in the Girl Scout promise. "I swear, no more liquor for me. The hangover and the dumping aren't worth the buzz."

"Then let them know we're coming. I'll call Critter and let her know we're going out to eat tonight."

Critter was their pet name for June's daughter, Cat's 'unofficial' godchild. Critter had been a part of her life, and vice versa, since the girl was five. Now she was nearing her last year in college studying non profit law.

Cat emailed the Tarts, announcing that June and her daughter would be joining them, accepting the invitation for a TNO. She found herself looking forward to it.

The postings and emails done, Cat retrieved another cuppa. She'd been so busy that she'd forgotten about the headache and it had gone away. She went into the music room and started pouring through their vinyl, cassette, and CD collection, looking for the music she wanted.

One of the tapes she came across was one Bill had made of music he'd suggested for their wedding reception. She thought they'd lost that tape in a move, and had been bitterly upset over the loss. Bill had promised to remake it, but never had the time he felt was adequate to attend to it. The tape was an ecletic mix that included Abba's 'I've Been Waiting for You''; Pour Adelaide (an instrumental by Richard Clayderman); Paul McCartney and Wings 'Mull of Kintyre'; Donna Summer's 'State of Independence'; and a Sarah Vaughn selection, among others. She turned on her stereo, inserted the tape, and hit play.

As soon as State of Independence began, June walked into the music room with wide eyes. "Oh my God! He finally remade it?"

"Nope, this is the original," Cat replied, fresh tears shining in her eyes. "Look at the cassette."

June saw Bill's writing and the date and smiled softly, remembering how people cocked their heads when that particular song began their reception. "You're going to have that play before the memorial, aren't you?"

"Damn straight. Bill always associated that song with me. That's why he started the tape with it. Your favorite is on here, too."

"One Night in Bangkok?"

Cat nodded, and that set June to crying. They sat and listened to the entire tape, and worked together on the picture collages.

The doorbell rang as they were finishing up. June went to answer it and ushered her daughter into the house.

"Hi, Mom. Good to see you. How's 'Aunt' Cat?" the young woman was happy to see her mother after months apart and gave her Mom an embrace, but the girl was obviously worried for her 'unofficial' godmother. Ever since she'd read the notice on Facebook, she'd been trying to make contact, and grown concerned when there had been no response.

"See for yourself, kiddo," Cat replied, walking up and enfolding both women in her arms.

"I've been so worried about you!" Critter said, smacking Cat's arm.

"Sorry, Critter. It's been Hell."

The two women shared a significant look, as they knew from experience what it was like to suddenly lose a family member. Cat had been there for them both times during the previous year, now it was their turn to support her.

"Where'd you park?"

"Behind Bill's car. I didn't figure that'd be a problem."

"Good thinking. If we're not careful, people will think I'm opening a used car lot!" Cat grinned, letting her 'little girl' know she'd done the right thing.

Critter got herself settled in the guestroom with her Mom and they visited for a bit, leaving her alone. Feeling a little bad for ignoring the cats, she got out the bottle of 'chat noir' catnip and sprinkled it liberally on their scratching posts and toy mice, so the trio could enjoy their own buzz.

That night, the girls joined with the Tarts and Tartans fan group for dinner on the far North side of town. They met at a local bar that offered live bands for entertainment. Cat kept her promise and didn't order anything alcholic. Talk was upbeat. They all had fond memories of Bill putting up with Cat's obsession with Gerard Butler.

Their official 'Gerryfest' group was performing that night, which made their gathering more enjoyable. The group performed 'Galway Girl' from Gerry's movie 'PS I Love You' especially for them, and at June's request, they performed 'Mull of Kintyre' for Cat.

The fangroup welcomed June back to their fold. She had been quite missed since her move, so it was only natural that she share some of her adventures in Sunny Florida.

"Bill would've really enjoyed this," Cat said at one point.

"He certainly loved being the only Tartan amongst all of us Tarts!" June added with a laugh.

"As long as he remembered which Tart was his, I never minded sharing him!"

"And we loved having him with us!" One of the group added.

When they went to Starbucks, everyone got their favorite drink and toasted Bill's memory. A black and silver vase was presented to Cat, then each member placed a black-ribboned rose in the vase, their traditional present to a member who'd lost a loved one.

"It's beautiful, gals, and it's gonna be on display behind the pedestal at the memorial. I'll be sure to get a picture for those of you who can't be there," Cat promised, her eyes misting up at the love and support shown by her friends.

The party broke up soon after the flowers were presented, with hugs going all around. While Critter wasn't a Gerry fan, she was made an honorary Tart due to her devotion to her mother, 'Aunt' Cat, and 'Uncle' Bill.


"Glad I insisted you remove that vase from storage after we got back from Indiana!" Alex remarked, looking over at the vase sitting on top of the TV. "Their tribute means a lot to you, and those Tarts sound like good friends."

"They are. I'm sorry there wasn't any time for you to meet them when we were there," she replied. "Then again, maybe that's just as well. Your animal magnitism might've been too much for them!"

He preened like a peacock. "What can I say, baby? When you've got it, you've got it!"

She wrinkled her nose as she took another bite of her scone. "Just hope it's not catchin', love!"

Her sharp retort effectively deflated his ego. "Damn evil woman!" He scowled, but she didn't flinch. "What's this damn 'Gerryfest' you mentioned? Sounded like some kind of orgy!"

She favored him with 'the look'. "You would think that! It was a weekend event we put together every year. It originally started as a one day thing that ended with a charity auction and viewing of 'Phantom of the Opera' . It grew into a three night mini-convention."

"Baby, I can see taking three days for a motorcycle swap meet or a patch over. But three days to celebrate one actor? That's obsessed!"

"Hmphf! We didn't spend the entire time droolin' over Gerry! We offered a historical tour of the city, our favorite band would appear, there was a costume and karaoke contest, a fanfiction writers' panel discussion, and usually a trip to Butler University to buy Butler themed items. The weekend always culminated with the dinner, chairty auction and movie. We'd usually raise about two or three grand for the chosen charity each year."

"Did Bill attend? I would think being one of the the only men in a group of rabid Butler fans would be a good thing. Plenty of women to console," he grinned wolfishly.

"No, he always stayed home. Too many women in one place for his taste," she admitted. "He gave us a lot of support by donating DVDs and posters from Gerry's movies for the auction. He knew that while I enjoyed looking, my heart and soul belonged to him." She gazed wistfully at Alex, adding, "I wish you didn't feel so threatened by my little 'crushes', love."

"Cause you make it pretty fucking difficult not to feel that way! Especially when you ignore me to flip channels between Butler and that Kim Coates character to watch Goddamn movies you already own!" he growled.

Otto glanced at the framed autographed photos from Gerard Butler, Kim Coates, and Michael Crawford adorning the library walls. There were also photos taken of her being embraced by three of the actors from Star Trek. 'Tig, you have nothing to worry about. I can tell from her tone of voice that you're number one with her. If she had to choose between them and you, you'd win hands down.'

"Honey, if you don't know by now that you have nothin' to worry about, you never will!" Cat replied with a small laugh. "After all, you haven't shared the bedroom with the Phantom and King Leonidas since that first night!"

"When it comes to you and this room, I only share with the cats!"

"You certainly made that clear yesterday!" she retorted. "Sometimes you won't even share with the kitties!" She leaned back and inhaled deeply, closing her eyes against the beginnings of a headache. "After the Tart Night Out, the families descended on the town, and that was the last really good thing that happened before the service."


Both sides of the McLaughlin – Marshall family converged on Indianapolis the day before the

service. Cat's father and step-brother drove in and would be staying at her step-mother's cousins on the East side of town. Her step-mother couldn't make the trip. William, Ana, and Cissy flew in from Texas and would stay on the West side in a hotel near Uncle Mark and Aunt Brandi. Cissy's little girl was staying at home with her older sisters, who couldn't get more than one day off to attend their uncle's funeral, so they stayed in Texas. Uncle Mark and Aunt Brandi's son, Marcus, had driven up from the Gulf coast, arriving just in the time for the family gathering that evening.

"Good thing we did Tart Night Out last night," June remarked, as more family members continued to check in. "I forgot just how large and blended your family is." June and Critter bowed out of the family dinner, though they were invited. This would be a chance for two two to have a little 'family time' of their own.

The families had dinner that evening at Uncle Mark and Aunt Brandy's home. It was the first time in many years that they'd all been together in the same place, and the house was nearly bursting at the seams. Mama Ana insisted on cooking her specialty, a Korean dish called bubogli (tenderized, marinated beef with rice).

Bill had left a will, and while most everything went to Cat, there were some items, such as his postage stamp collection, that he wanted certain other people to have. Cat discussed his wishes with the family so each recipient could make plans on taking their item back or having it shipped.

"Most of his clothes are going to Goodwill and that kind of thing, unless there's something anyone absolutely wants and/or can wear," she added.

"There's a couple of his Texas t-shirts that I'd like," Marcus replied. "And those ties with all the funny types of designs on them, if that's OK. But are you sure about giving me his class ring?"

She nodded. "You graduated from his high school, who best to have it?" She wrote down everyone's requests on her notepad, promising to bring the smaller items to the dinner the following day.

The evening ended early, as her father was tiring out and she had driven him and her step-brother out to the gathering. As they traveled back to the East side, Danny leaned over the back seat to place a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Anything you need help with, sis?"

She shook her head. "You've done a lot by bringing Daddy up here, and accepting the role of honorary pallbearer. I know it's kinda weird to be asked to escort an urn to a hearse, but it really means a lot."

"I'm honored that Bill wanted me," he replied softly. "Do you need any help with takin' stuff to the service?"

"Why don't y'all plan on stoppin' by the house tomorrow, and if we need you, you're there, and if not, you'll there to lend moral support?"

"Sounds like a plan to me," he replied, sitting back in his seat.

She dropped them off at the cousins' house, but didn't go in to visit. She wasn't avoiding the cousins, it was just that she had so much that needed to be done to mentally prepare herself for the day to come.

Cat found June and Critter relaxing in the living room on her return to the house. The women had gone out for supper and done a little shopping. Cat didn't feel left out. She was happy that the two had gotten some fun together.

She didn't ask, and knew June wouldn't tell her anyway, whether her mother had made any more calls. She really didn't want to know. There was nothing she could do about it. The police couldn't do much to make her stop, unless Cat filed a restraining order, and she just didn't have time to do so. She figured if she ignored her mother's antics, then the woman would give up and move on to some other kind of mischief.

Cat glared at the phone when it rang, but the caller ID didn't show a payphone. Instead it read the police department's chaplain's office was calling. "Cat McLaughlin here,"

"Mrs McLaughlin, this is Bert Johnson. Did I wake you?"

"No, sir. What can I help you with?"

"I wanted to call to warn you that we're releasing the surveillance footage to the local media, it'll be running on all the newscasts tomorrow. We're releasing the tape in hope it might generate a few leads on your husband's murderer."

Cat rolled her eyes. 'Perfect timing! Run the tape of his death on the day of his funeral! Shit!' She took a deep breath and replied, "I see. Did anyone consider the irony of the day?"

"I'm afraid not, that's why I wanted to call you."

"I wanna see it before the rest of the metro area does. Can I come out there? I know it's late, but I'll be too busy tomorrow."

"I know, Mrs. McLaughlin. I read the announcement in the paper. Do you really feel up to seeing it?"

"If the local newsers are gonna run it, I can watch it," she replied resolutely, staring down June's wordless objections with 'the look'.

"I'll be there in half an hour, if that's OK with you."

"I'll leave the light on for ya," she replied grimly.

"Are you out of your ever lovin' mind?" June screeched. "How can you want to see that?"

"Maybe I am nuts, kittenface," Cat replied quietly, somewhat amused by her friend's choice of words. "But I'm gonna see it anyway. The rest of the damn metro area is gonna get to see it, why should I pass?"

"Girl! Sometimes you take the cake!"

"Yeah, yeah. Talk to the paw! Nobody's askin' you to watch!"

June glared at her, but knew there was no use trying to talk her out of it. "You are one ballsy female."

"Thanks. Coming from you, that's a compliment."

A few minutes later, the doorbell chimed and Cat ushered the chaplain into the house. He had a video tape in a plastic box, holding it as if it were something he'd picked up in a cow pasture.

"Mrs. McLauglin, the tape's pretty graphic. It's not been edited," he warned her.

"I would expect not!" She accepted the tape from him and loaded it in the VCR. She gazed at June, who was sitting on the couch, furiously knitting away. Critter had retired for the evening.

"Last chance, kittenface. You stayin'?"

June nodded, her needles clacking away.

"OK. Here goes." She pushed the play button, and the black screen came to life with black and white, grainy images of the last few minutes of Bill's life.

Had the store not been so busy that night, Bill's killer would've been obvious to spot. Cat smirked when the young adult attempted to enter via the exit door and couldn't get it to budge. He kept pulling on the exit door, but it only opened from the inside. He apparently didn't figure out that he could go out the exit and come back in, choosing instead to wait for someone to pull the exit door open so he could duck inside.

He darted in and out of the camera angle, moving around the aisles as if he was looking for something to rent. He glared repeatedly at the long line of customers waiting to be checked out. Eventually, the line dwindled to three, and he grabbed a box from a shelf and stood behind the last person. He also picked up a package of popcorn.

Bill was checking out customers as quickly as he could while his other employee was putting away tapes and DVDs on the shelves. The robber stepped up to the counter and Bill greeted him, beginning to work the computer to check out his purchses. The robber then pulled out a gun and pointed it at Bill's face.

There was no sound, but Cat could tell that the robber was yelling orders. She felt proud seeing her man quietly and calmly comply with the orders being screamed at him, filling a plastic bag with money from the drawers.

There were five cash registers, two had been in use during the evening. One was locked, and Bill didn't have the key to it. There was a brief discussion, then the gun went off, knocking Bill onto his back.

The robber leaped onto the counter as the employee ran to the back office and slammed the door. Cat knew that was standard procedure, and that the employee would be calling the police, then Melissa.

The robber kicked at the locked drawer, but it wouldn't open. Enraged, he pointed the gun down at Bill and fired repeatedly until he was out of bullets.

Not willing to leave any cash behind, the robber picked up the cash drawer and hurled it at the plate glass window, shattering it. He grabbed the money bag, his video and popcorn and fled to an idling vehicle, throwing the small items in the car then retrieving the cash drawer. The camera wasn't able to get the license plate. All she could tell about the car was that it was a light colored four door sedan. It was impossible to determine the make or model from the side view.

She turned off the tape, rewound it and ejected it from the VCR. She put the tape in the plastic box and handed it to the police chaplain. "I hope y'all catch the fucktard. I can understand one shot, but the whole Goddamn clip?" Her eyes brimmed with tears at the brutality of Bill's killing. Either the robber was doped up, or a gang banger who didn't give a damn. Not that it mattered. Dead was dead, no matter the reason behind the robber's brutality.

"You were right, June. Seeing the tape didn't make me feel any better. The good news is that it doesn't make me feel any worse."


Cat rose from the bed and stretched. "Pardon me a moment, love. You don't drink coffee, you rent it space."

"I'll get refills," he offered. His head was swimming. 'Her friend is right, takes a lot of balls to watch your husband getting gunned down.'

Otto followed him to the kitchen, where the two men quickly compared notes. "Well, now we know the reason for the guilt. I figure that's why she's never given me shit about the Club," Tig murmured, pouring the last of the coffee into mugs. He reached into the fridge for a Snickers bar as Otto selected a muffin.

"Yeah," Otto replied. "Finding out what Bill was really doing relly tore her up. Especially with the issues she had with her Mother. At least she came out the other side."

"She's a fighter, and that makes her relocating over a home invasion burglary not make sense." Tig added. "Hell, when she was putting the coffeehouse together, she stalked across the street to confront me for sitting out front and watching for awhile! She looked like she was going to take me on."

"What'd you do?"

"Took off and left her standing in the middle of the street. Didn't need a major scene on Main Street."

Otto grinned at the mental image of Tig fleeing from a determined Cat.

"Not that I'm complaining about the end result," Tig continued. "I just hate putting her through this!"

"I know, brother. But you've taken her this far, might as well keep going. It's probably going to do her some good to get it out. We have plenty of time to let her recover before the service."

"I guess you're right. Tell you the truth, I'm learning things about her I didn't know before."

"One thing you need to learn, Tig. You're no match for those actors. All women have their cinematic crushes. LuAnn had 'em. I was fortunate that none of them were porn actors, though I had my moments with some of the ones she worked with!"

They returned to their respective rooms. Cat grinned at the sight of a Snicker bar in Alex's hand. "You're gonna turn into one of those if you're not careful, love."

He shrugged and bit into the candy, chewing contentedly. "That's the last of the coffee, babe. At least for the moment. Another pot's brewing. Figured Otto would like some more."

"He's not bored by bein' left alone, is he?"

Alex nearly choked. "Nah. He's relishing the private time. He won't be getting much of that after today."

Otto was sitting in the rocker in the library, and grinned at Tig's quick recovery. 'I'm definitely not bored!"

Cat stared intently at Alex, wondering why her mention of Otto made him choke on his candy. She shrugged and curled up on the bed. "I've always said that weddings and funerals bring out the worst in people, and I wasn't wrong about this one."


The day of the service was sunny and warm. Cat was relieved that the weather wasn't going to contribute dreariness to the day's events. The service itself was going to be difficult enough. A gray and rainy day would've made things worse.

With June's help, Cat had come to terms with the fights she'd had with Bill about the job. She realized Bill had never fought back in their verbal clashes because he knew where her heart and mind was in all the disagreements. June had also helped Cat to realize that her anger had been directed more at the situation, and not at Bill, while her mother's tantrums had been motivated by self indulgence.

Though she still felt bad about the fights, she accepted that Bill had tolerated them because he loved her. She knew she would carry the sadness and some guilt for her actions for the rest of her life.

She dressed that day in black velvet pants, black dress shoes and a black satin top with a sewn-on gold metallic vest. She wore the pearls Bill had given her for their wedding, her wedding ring and a watch. Bill's wedding ring hung on a golden chain around her neck, but the ring itself rested inside her shirt, next to her heart.

Cat didn't like purses. As a rule, she felt that if her pockets couldn't carry what she needed, she didn't need to take it. She made an exception for the day, loading her wallet, cell, keys, a comb and her sunglasses in a small black shoulder purse. She also tucked a couple of packages of tissues, just in case.

She also needed the purse to carry her small pocket tape player and a black ribboned rose with a blue topaz stone. She planned to stay behind when everyone else left the cemetery, in order to pay a private tribute to Bill.

Her father and Danny arrived, and helped load her car and June's with the picture collages and other items they were taking. With a two hour visitation scheduled before the service, the three women wanted to get to the funeral home early enough to place the pictures and get things ready.

Cat insisted on driving the 'MF6', and would drive it in the processional to the cemetery. She didn't like limos. The few times she'd been in one, she'd felt uncomfortable and lost. There was no sense in having someone drive her when she had a perfectly good, working vehicle.

Cat, June, Critter, and Danny got the picture boards set up throughout the room for Bill's service. Despite her request for no flowers, there were a few bouquets from out-of-town family that couldn't get time off. She asked for a flower stand to place the vase of black-ribboned roses behind Bill's urn. The funeral home found a holder that would suffice, and the flowers set off the urn quite nicely.

Cat handed the funeral director the tapes she'd made. One was the wedding music Bill had made for her, the other was selections he'd always played in the car, usually European dance music. She smiled at the thought of people trying to identify "How Could This Go Wrong" when it was sung in German.

William, Ana, and Cissy arrived in one car, just after all the set up was completed. Mama Ana was pleased by the pictorial tribute to Bill, as well as the vase of black-ribboned roses.

Cat hadn't wanted any kind of reception line. She wanted things to be as casual as possible. The whole idea of the visitation was more for people to talk amongst each other and share their memories. As people started to enter the room, they would come up to Cat or to the McLaughlins, and if they weren't quickly remembered, stated who they were and expressed their condolences to the family.

The music she'd prepared on tape played quietly in the background, and she saw several people smile and nod as a particular selection caught their ear and stirred a pleasant memory or two.

Several individuals approached the urn in order to pay their respects to Bill in their own quiet way.

Before the service began, the funeral director met with Cat and the honorary pallbearers. Besides her brother Danny, the pall bearers were Marcus; Bill's best friend Ben Kentson; Cat's cousin Geoff, and their two mutual friends near Raceway Park. The funeral director handed out carnations – Bill's birth month flower - that Cat had purchased.

"When I pick up the urn, you'll form a column, three on each side. Once Mrs. McLaughlin passes you with the vase, you'll follow us out to the hearse, three on each side of the door, until everyone going to the cemetery are in their cars. When we get to the cemetery, you'll line up the same way at the hearse, and follow me to the grave site. At that time, you'll file past the pedestal and may drop your carnation there if you wish."

Cat was still on edge about the possibility of her mother showing up during the service and kept a wary eye on the door. The minister started with prayer, then gave a short eulogy, relying upon the obituary Cat had provided. "We all were touched, in one way or at one time by Bill. Instead of me preaching to you, I'd like to invite any who wish to come forward and share your own memories of Bill."

June was the first to speak, and told how she and Cat had Bill worried about her choice of material for a wedding dress. "Cat had always called Neil Diamond's 'Forever in Blue Jeans' her theme song, and she always joked about wearing blue jeans for her wedding. Bill was appalled. So, Cat agreed to go with one of those long vests the character 'Maude' wore, in white, naturally, and long pants.

"We always intended to make a traditional type of wedding dress, but Cat enjoyed teasing Bill when he left himself open to it, and we teased him unmercifully about the dress.

"One day, he came home unexpectedly while we were working on the dress, and we had to find a way to cover the real material so he wouldn't see it. I had this black material with swirls of neon color, and we used that as camouflage. Bill walked in to find us spreading pattern pieces on that material. We assured him the dress would work out just fine, and he was very worried."

There were plenty of laughs at that point, as many of those in attendance had been at the wedding and remembered Bill's visible relief when he saw the cream satin covered Cat walking down the aisle on her father's arm.

A steady progression of their friends and family came up to share memories. Cat's father spoke of the time he and his wife had received a visit from Bill during one of his reserve weekends. He drove from Camp Atterbury to their home in order to ask permission to marry Cat, even though they'd already been engaged for some time.

"During his visit, once he'd asked permission, he fell asleep right where he was sitting. He looked like he was watching TV, until his head bobbed and he snored," Rev. Marshall added.

More laughs met that story. Everyone who knew Bill knew how easily he could fall asleep and look like he was attentive to what was going on around him.

Several others came forward to speak. Members of the ROA and friends he'd made through various jobs shared memories, along with a few of the Tarts who spoke about his involvement in the Gerry Butler fan group, and how he was elevated from 'The Reluctant Tartan' to simply 'Bill the Tartan'.

His cousin Marcus came forward to talk about Bill's unique babysitting methods. "Bill would watch me on occasion when the 'rents had a 'date night', and would introduce me to various Korean dishes. I can definitely say today that while I may be studying oceanography, I do not want to share seaweed with the fishies! He fed me so much seaweed I'm surprised I didn't grow gills!"

The current president of the Reserve Officers Association, Indiana Chapter Seven spoke of Bill's support for the group and of his service as a past president, and his former commander at Camp Atterbury also spoke of Bill's service in the Army Reserve.

Eventually, those who wanted to speak had done so. The minister nodded to Cat, who stood up and walked to the lectern.

"Bill and I were good friends long before we figured out there was more to the relationship. We both worked at the same place on the northwest side of town. I had a starter bike at the time, a 250cc, and was running home during lunch when a station wagon sideswiped me on the interstate on ramp. Everyone at work saw the accident. My bike was messed up and had to be towed. I wasn't in much better shape; the sheriff brought me back to work. Through the rest of the day, I worried about getting home, as I didn't have money for a taxi or bus fare. Bill lived a few blocks from me, so he offered to take me home. Our friendship started that day.

Through the years, he was my 'knight in shining armour', always coming to my aid when I needed rescue from some scrape, always an ear to listen to my woes. He saw the best there was in me when others couldn't or wouldn't. I think he had that ability to see the best in many, just by the lives he touched."

She nodded to the funeral director, who beckoned to someone in the office. In seconds, the room was filled with music, and the song 'Because You Loved Me' by Celine Dion played.

"For all the times you stood by me

For all the truth that you made me see

For all the joy you brought to my life

For all the wrong that you made right

For every dream you made come true

For all the love I found in you

I'll be forever thankful

You're the one who held me up

Never let me fall

You're the one who saw me through

Through it all

You were my strength when I was weak

You were my voice when I couldn't speak.

You were my eyes when I couldn't see

You saw the best there was in me

Lifted me up when I couldn't reach

You gave me faith 'cuz you believed

I'm everything I am because you loved me

You gave me wings and made me fly

You touched my hand, I could touch the sky

I lost my faith; you gave it back to me

You said no star was out of reach

You stood by me and I stood tall

I had your love, I had it all

I'm grateful for each day you gave me

Maybe I don't know that much

But I know this much is true

I was blessed because I was loved by you...

You were always there for me

The tender wind that carried me

A light in the dark

Shining your love into my life

You've been my inspiration

Through the lies you were the truth

My world is a better place because of you...

I'm everything I am because you loved me."

"That song best describes what Bill meant to me. He had the strength to allow me my interest in certain actors and not feel threatened. The vase of black ribboned roses are testament to that; a gift from the Gerard Butler Tart and Tartan fan group we belonged to. Not only did he encourage my interests, he participated in them. He was what made Life bearable, and now Life will be a little less enjoyable because he's gone."

She stepped aside to allow the minister to give the benediction, then the funeral director and the honorary pall bearers moved forward. The funeral director took the urn, Cat carried the vase of black ribboned roses behind the funeral director as they left the chapel.

The honorary pall bearers took up their places on either side of the hearse door as the attendees filed out to their cars.

Cat was relieved that her mother hadn't shown up. Bus service was non existent to the funeral home and the church, but she could still show up at the cemetery; there was bus service there. Cat hoped that wouldn't be the case. Most people would be put off by the logistics of such an attempt, but her mother wasn't most people.

The drive to the cemetary was made a little difficult by the lack of courtesy some drivers showed to the procession. One driver actually held up the procession by waiting to make a left turn in front of them, instead of pulling aside and allowing the line of cars with funeral flags and bright lights to pass by!

The hearse pulled to a stop near a small grave. There was the usual tent and chairs set up for the immediate family. A small hole had already been dug, but there was no sign of the grave digger. A pedestal lay over the opening, where the funeral director placed the urn.

Cat placed the vase of black ribboned roses in front of the pedestal. The funeral home employees had brought the floral arrangements for decoration as well as to allow the attendees to select a flower for a keepsake.

The honorary pallbearers waited until the attendees had gathered around the grave site to move from the pedestal, leaving their carnations as tribute.

The minister stepped forward to read the traditional grave site service, pausing to allow the Reserve Officers Association members present to perform their own small part of the ceremony.

Traditionally, when a military person died – whether the deceased was active or retired - their casket was adorned with the US flag. That flag was then cremoniously removed from the casket and folded near the end of the graveside service. With no casket, the ROA president and Camp Atterbury commander presented a pre-folded flag to her and murmured the traditional phrase, "On behalf of a grateful nation." She held the flag to her chest during the benediction.

The minister gave the standard benediction that was very familiar to Cat and the other United Methodists in the gathering. She, her father, and others recited the words with the minister: "May the Lord bless you and keep you, May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious until you. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and bring you peace. Amen."

A lone trumpet played 'Taps'. It was the first time that day that Cat's reserve broke. Tears streamed down her face as the trumpet played, signaling to one and all that another defender of the nation had fallen.

June and Critter were standing behind Cat's chair. When 'Taps' began, both placed a comforting hand on her shoulders, reminding her of their comfort and presence.

After the last note faded, the funeral director stepped forward and announced, "Our service is completed. If you wish to select a flower from the arrangements, except for the black-ribboned roses, feel free to do so."

The minister stepped forward, shaking hands and murmuring words of sympathy to Cat, her father, Bill's parents, his aunt and uncle, cousin, and grandma.

Those who had gathered at the grave site started to return to their cars. Cat remained seated, waiting for everyone to leave so that she could pay a silent tribute to her fallen lover, her best friend, her husband.

"Do you want us to wait with you?" June whispered.

She shook her head. "No, thanks. You and Critter go ahead to the church, let everyone know I'll be there shortly."

"I can wait at the MF6 and bring you back to the church, Aunt Cat," Critter offered. She could see how the day was wearing on her 'godmother', and feared that driving might be too much for her.

"It's OK, Sweetie. I'll be fine. Take care of this for me," she replied, handing over the flag to her godchild. "I just need a few minutes alone with Bill. I won't be long, I promise."

The women embraced for a moment, then June and Critter reluctantly left her alone and departed the cemetary. A few attendees who wouldn't be going to the dinner stepped forward to offer their condolences and support before they, too, left her behind.

"Mrs. McLaughlin, everybody's gone now," the funeral director said softly. She nodded and watched as he took the urn from the pedestal and removed the lid. There was a piece of paper spread out on the ground to catch any ashes that might spill. He carefully poured the ashes from the large urn into the smaller one, until he was satisfied they were as evenly divided as he could make them. Not one bit landed on the paper.

He replaced the lid on the large urn, and permanently sealed the smaller one, which he placed in a box and set aside for the moment.

Next, the large urn was permanently sealed and Cat watched as it was lowered into the hole in the ground. She threw a ritual handful of loose dirt over the urn and watched until the worker had completely covered the small grave.

Other workers from the cemetery and funeral home were taking down the chairs and the tent, preparing them for storage until the next time they were needed.

When the grave was covered and the funeral and cemetery workers had departed, Cat knelt next to the mount of freshly moved earth and removed her own black ribboned rose from her purse.

"Well, Pookie, this is it, the final step to letting you go. It's harder than I thought. We were supposed to grow old together, but that's not gonna happen now. I'm sorry for goin' all to pieces when Raj told me the truth. You know if I could go back and change anything, never fussin' about the job would be that thing. But we can't have everything, and you would want me to learn from this.

"I know you're at peace, now I've got to find my own peace. It's not gonna be easy, and it almost seemed like 'There's No Way' was gonna be my theme song. I can hear you sayin' 'Don't you start,' so I won't. Remember how I first considered that song of Bryan Adams from the movie 'Robin Hood' as 'our song'? I still do. So here it is, one last time."

She withdrew her tape recorder from her purse and turned it on. Bill had never understand why she considered that song much more personal to their relationship than any other, even the Celine Dion tune that came out a few years after their marriage, or any songs that came out before it. To Cat, it just said it all about what Bill meant to her because it covered everything he ever was to her:

"Look into my eyes – you will see

What you mean to me.

Search your heart- search your soul

And when you find me

There you'll search no more

Don't tell me it's not worth tryin' for

You can't tell me it's not worth dyin' for

You know it's true

Everything I do – I do it for you

Look into my heart – you will find

There's nothin' there to hide

Take me as I am – take my life

I would give it all – I would sacrifice

Don't tell me it's not worth fightin' for

I can't help it – there's nothin' I want more

You know it's true

Everything I do – I do it for you.

There's no love – like your love

And no other – could give more love

There' snowhere – unless you're there

All the time – all the way

Oh – you can't tell me it's not worth tryin' for

I can't help it – there's nothin' I want more

I would fight for you

I'd lie for you

Walk the wire for you

Yeah I'd die for you

You know it's true

Everything I do

I do it for you."

She removed the tape and stuck it through the fresh mound of dirt, not caring that it would deteriorate in time. It and the black ribboned rose were the last gifts she could give him. She kissed the rose and stuck it in front of the marker that had been placed on his grave. It was a small gray piece of limestone carved with his name, birth date and place and date of death and place.

"See ya when I see ya, Pookie. Take care of the furbabies that crossed the Rainbow Bridge before you. I know you'll be watchin' out for me and will try not to wear you out."

She rose to her feet, turned and walked back to the 'MF6'. The funeral director had placed the box with the other urn containing Bill's ashes on the floor of the passenger side of the car, along with the vase of black-ribboned roses. All that was left now was to get through the dinner and then she could go home and sleep for a few hours.

Shrill screaming from the fellowship hall met her ears when she got to the church. She knew that voice, and she winced. A yellow cab waited at the entrance to the church. 'I never thought she'd go to that much expense to make trouble!'

Cat ran inside to a nightmare. There was her mother, unkempt and wild-eyed, yelling and screaming at her father while their friends and family looked on in shock and horror. Her father was cowering in a corner, doing his best to keep away from her. Danny was trying to intervene, but the crazed woman was too fast for him to catch her.

Cat lunged forward and succeeded in grabbing one of her mother's arms, spinning her around to face her blazing anger and pain-filled eyes. "How dare you?" she growled angrily, her voice low but clearly audible to the entire room. "What kind person would act like this, today of all days!"

"What do you care? You never call, or write! You turned him against me just as you turned your father against me!" her mother screamed. The woman's face was bright red from her anger and outrage, tears were running down her cheeks.

"You're right. I don't care. Not any more!" Cat replied, taking her mother's arm and pulling her from the room. "Whoever you are, whatever you are, the person who was my mother doesn't exist, and I have no desire to know you!" Half pulling, half leading her from the fellowship hall, Cat got her mother back to the taxi and literally threw her into the back seat, slamming the door and locking it.

"Keep your thumb on the door lock the entire way back to her home," she spat at the driver, tossing a pair of twenty dollar bills through the passenger window. "Do not stop anywhere, take her straight to her house," she gave the driver the address.

Her mother wasn't done yet. She fired a parting shot at Cat. "Just wait until you get back to the house. I left you a present to celebrate your being single and unwanted, too!"

"Get the Hell out of here!" Cat yelled, backing from the door. She was breathing heavy, not from exertion, but from stifling her desire to lash out at the chronically mentally ill woman. Hitting wouldn't solve anything, and probably wouldn't make her feel any better, but that urge was there, and it took all her concentration to keep from kicking the cab as it passed her.

"I'm sorry, chick. She got in while I was busy in the kitchen and I couldn't get past the crowd to protect your Dad," June reported from behind her. "He's OK. Are you?"

"No. She's pulled something at the house, I have to go. Now." Fear for the cats was uppermost in her mind. Though her mother had loved cats too, her illness could lead her to do anything to get back at a supposed slight, including harming innocent animals.

"I'll cover for you," June replied, squeezing Cat's hand reassuringly. "Go. Call me as soon as you find out what happened."

Cat squeezed June's hand back and raced to her car, flying out of the parking lot. 'Please, not the furbabies. Anything but that!'

June returned to the fellowship hall, where the guests were beginning to recover from the shock of the episode and murmuring amongst themselves. She rounded up Marcus, Danny, and Geoff.

"Cat's racing home. Her mother might've done something awful there. Go to the house to help her, I'll deal with everyone here. Danny, is Rev. Marshall OK?"

"Just shook up. She didn't land any blows."

June nodded.

Two men, Dave Walker and Larry Griff approached the group. Both were friends of Cat's and were concerned about her hasty exit.

"Is Cat in trouble?" David asked, "If she needs help, I'm coming along."

"Me too," Larry added. "I've had some experience with her mother."

"We'll take my van," Geoff replied indicating with a nod that the other two could come along.

As the men ran to Geoff's van, June moved to the center of the fellowship hall and clapped her hands for attention. "May I have your attention, please?"

All eyes turned to her and the room fell silent.

"Thank you. I have a message from Cat. She apologizes for leaving without a word; she had to return home for an emergency."

Murmurs of sympathy rippled through the room, everyone knew what June meant after witnessing the confrontation between Cat's father and mother and then Cat and her mother.

"She also wanted me to express her apologies that you had to witness that scene. We hadn't planned on her coming here, as the dinner wasn't publicized, and we thought it was safe. I expect to hear something from Cat soon, but she would want us to go ahead with the meal the church has supplied."

Cat's father rose from his chair and announced, "I agree. I'm fine, and Cat wouldn't want us to leave without enjoying the meal her church has made for us."

The church's minister then gave a blessing so the attendees could be served.

Cat knew she was breaking every driving rule in the books, changing lanes at a moment's notice and speeding towards home. All kinds of images were running through her mind. Several irate and surprised driver's flipped the bird at her, but no cops were in the area to pull her over. She wished one was around, just so the cop could go with her to her home and to help prevent her from going after her mother if her fears were real.

She glanced ahead as she pulled onto her street and saw that the garage door was wide open. 'At least the house isn't on fire!' she pulled the car to a stop on the street, grabbed her baseball bat, and ran to the front of the house. She had her cell out and dialed 911.

"911, what is your emergency?"

"This is Cat McLaughlin, my address is 4118 Manor Dr. My house was broken into, the garage and front door are wide open. I've gotta check on my cats."

She hung up before the operator could respond.

'This is not good,' she thought, hefting the bat and walking softly inside. A sour smell greeted her nose. 'Yup, she's been here all right.'

Cat peeked first in the office. The computer was still intact, but that was the only piece of electronics left. The little TV, the dish receiver, the DVD burner and the DVD/VCR were gone.

She ventured into the living room to find the electronics in that room missing. The library was a mess as books, CDs, records, tapes and DVDs were all over the floor. A check of the music room revealed the entire stereo system and her keyboard was gone, and the guest room had also been ransacked.

'June and Critter will have to check for anything missing,' Cat thought, venturing into the back of the house. The kitchen had been ransacked, though nothing seemed to be missing.

The master bedroom looked like a tornado had hit it. The electronics in that room, including her game systems, had been taken. 'She was certainly busy, don't know how she pulled this off and don't want to know. I just want to find the cats.'

She called for them, and Ebony came running in the open front door, meowing and rubbing against her legs. He seemed none the worse for being outside. "Where are your brother and sister?"

She threw Ebony into the guest bathroom for safety, and resumed looking for Misty and Ming. She knew Misty would've hidden, possibly under the bed. Misty would come out for treats, so she rattled the treat bag, calling for the little cat and her brother.

The sound of her voice brought Misty out of hiding. Cat hugged the little one-eyed feline and threw her into the same bathroom with her big brother. 'Two down, one left to find.'

"Cat, is everything OK?" Danny called from the open front door.

"Hell, no! Mother was busy!"

"Are you sure it was her?" Geoff asked.

"Take a deep breath," she replied grimly. "She was here and pretty well cleaned me out. Ming is still missing."

"Where are the other cats?" Marcus asked.

"ME-OWT!" cried Ebony from behind the bathroom door.

"ME-OWT! NOW!" cried Misty.

The men gave her a relieved grin at the feline answers. There was no doubt about what they wanted.

"You'll get out when I find your brother," Cat replied, tapping on the door.

A police cruiser pulled up to the driveway and a uniformed patrol officer got out. Cat and the men came out to meet him.

"What happened, ma'am?"

Cat quickly explained what had happened at the church, and what she'd found on her return. "As you can see, there's no sign of forced entry to the door. Makes me wonder if she had a key made. Can you go over to her house with me? I want to confront her, and compare my key to any of hers. I'm willing to bet she has my property and my cat."

The patrol officer shook his head. "I have to stay here to fill out the report. You should tell me what's missing, I can have a detective come out as well."

"My step brother can give you the basics, he was at the church and saw most of it, I got her out of there. If you're not willin' to send an officer out to her place, I'm gonna get my stuff back myself!"

She stalked to her car, Geoff climbed into his van. Larry ran after Cat and grabbed her by the arm. "Do you have a set of keys to Bill's car? I'll drive it, and we'll take as much stuff as three vehicles can carry."

She took the key to Bill's Hyundai off her ring and handed it to Larry, then climbed into her car and started across town to her mother's house. As she drove, she called Mrs. York, a good family friend and her mother's landlord, to request that someone from maintenance meet her at her mother's apartment to let her in.

"I saw what happened, honey. I'll have someone meet you there. Be careful. I didn't know she'd gotten this bad."

"She's good at that," Cat replied, switching off the phone. It didn't take long to get to the unit, which was a five story building. Her mother lived on the top floor.

'If she has my stuff, she had to have hired someone to help her. Where in Hell did she get the money? She sure as Hell didn't do this by herself!'

Cat pulled her car around to the back of the building, parking as close as possible to the door that led to her mother's rooms. Geoff and Larry did likewise and followed Cat up the stairs.

The door to her mother's apartment was locked. No surprise there. She pounded on the door and hollered out, "Open the Goddamn door, Mother! You know why I'm here!"

"Go away or I'll call the cops!" her mother screamed.

"Do it! I dare you! Especially when they see you have stolen property in your possession! In fact, I'll call 'em for ya!"

Cat was bluffing, but her mother had no way to know that. The door remained locked. One of Mrs. York's maintenance workers arrived and quickly unlocked the door for her. Cat ran inside and up the stairs, to find Ming in a carrier, crying to be let loose.

"I should've known!" Cat snarled, grabbing the carrier and handing it to Larry. "Take him out to my car, put him in the front on the floor."

She looked around at all her electronic items piled all over. "Geoff, start grabbin' what you can. Mr. Shore," she added to the maintenance worker. "If you'll help, I'll pay you."

"No need," he replied. "Mrs. York asked me to help you in any way possible. Just point out what we need to get."

"You'll find my initials and date of birth etched on the back of my stuff," she replied. "At least the electronics. The games I never got around to markin'."

She turned back to her mother, anger and frustration welling up in her. 'I gotta remember, it's not her fault, it's the mental illness that makes her do these things.'

Her mother returned her stare with a look of wild hatred. June's words of a few days ago came back to Cat. "Mother, I don't know why you feel you have to destroy me. I'm not the enemy just because I did what was necessary for your well being. Do you think I like havin' to be the bad guy?"

"Yes! You get a kick out of having me locked up for three days at a time! But I'll get even with you. I'll make you regret every time you've ever committed me!"

There was a knock at the downstairs door followed by a shout of "Indianapolis Police! I'm coming up the stairs!"

"It's alright, officer!" Cat cried in reply. "No one's armed!"

"What's going on here? We received a call from the neighbors about a disturbance!" the officer inquired when he reached the top of the stairs, his gun was drawn, but he holstered it when he saw neither woman was armed. His nose wrinkled from the stench of the closed up apartment.

"My daughter broke into my place and she and her friends are robbing me!"

Cat raised her eyes to the Heavens in supplication. "We're actually takin' back what was taken from my house. If you call dispatch, you'll find out that an officer was sent out to my address just a bit ago. I just buried my husband today and my mother created a scene at the church. Apparently she managed to loot my home while I was at the service. Look at the back of the large TV there, and you'll see my initials and date of birth etched on it."

The patrol officer removed a flashlight from his belt and shined it at the back of the TV. "CM, 12/16/1959. That's you?"

Cat pulled out her driver's license to show the officer. He nodded and returned it to her.

"Ma'am?" he politely turned to Mrs. Humphries, Cat's mom. "Care to tell me what's going on?"

Mrs. Humphries remained stubbornly quiet.

Cat spied her mother's keyring on a table, picked it up and found a very new key on it. She took it off the ring and compared it to her house key. The grooves matched. "I won't know for sure until I try this out, but I bet it will fit my door."

"Mrs. McLaughlin, this must be very difficult for you," the officer said, looking between the determined new widow and her mother. "Do you wish to press charges?"

Cat glared at her mother; the idea was tempting. It would be a different experience from the other times she had been taken into custody by police. Those had been court ordered emergency detentions so she could be evaluated and helped. If she pressed charges, her mother would go straight to jail. Jail was not a pleasant experience for a fully functioning person. For her mother, it would be like setting fire to a short fuse attached to a crate of dynamite.

She shook her head. "No. All I want is my stuff back, and for her to leave me alone. She's sick, as you can see, and I can't deal with her any more."

Geoff and Larry had been quietly going up and down the stairs along with the maintenance worker, retrieving Cat's property and loading the cars and van. All three vehicles were nearly full. Everytime the Cruiser's doors opened, Ming let out a plaintive cry of 'ME-OWT!'

Cat knew knew that some of her books and other items were still there, but wasn't about to try to sift through everything to find them. Those could always be replaced.

"Goodbye, Mother. Have a nice life. I plan to have one without you," Cat said dismissively, turning her back and running down the stairs to the safety of her car.

Her stomach was upset; she felt like she was going to throw up. She leaned against the car, panting and fighting off the nausea, while Ming continued to cry 'ME-OWT!"

Larry and Geoff stood next to her, both gulping in great lungs full of clean air. "Did we get everything?" Geoff asked between deep breaths.

"Dunno. Don't care. Let's get the Hell out of here!" Cat climbed into her car and started the engine, taking a moment to rub Ming's nose, which was pressed against the wire of the carrier door. "Hang in there, little man," she crooned. "You'll be home soon."

"ME-OWT!" was his hoarse reply.

She pulled her cellphone out again and dialed June's number. "Cat, everything OK?"

"No, it's not. Tell the immediate family to stay there for a bit. I'll be with them shortly. Gotta meet with the police at the house again, and then we'll be back."

"OK. Be careful."

"Right."

There was an unmarked cop car at her house, along with the marked car. Danny and Marcus had given the police officers all the information they could. The three vehicles parked where they could find space.

Geoff, Larry, David, Marcus and Danny unloaded the vehicles, returning the electronics to the rooms they belonged in and hooking them back up.

Cat removed the extra key from her pocket and tried it in the front door. The key worked perfectly.

"Mrs. McLaughlin, that wasn't the smartest move you could've made," the detective stated.

"At least I got my stuff back. If I'd waited, she could've done anything with it. The most important thing is that I got my other cat back safe and sound. I think y'all will be very interested when you compare notes with the cop that was sent to Mother's house. If y'all don't need me for anything else, there's a dinner I have to get back to."

The detective had completed the investigation in her absence, and since she wasn't going to file charges, there was really nothing more he could do. He handed over a card with his name and telephone number. He'd printed the case number on it. "Call me if you change your mind about filing charges," he said.

"Thank you," Cat replied, shutting the door after him.

She let Ming out of his carrier and then released Ebony and Misty from their confinement. The three rushed around the house, sniffing its' familiar scents and reassuring each other that their world was OK, just a little disheveled.

"Let's get back to the church," she said, opening the front door and allowing the men to file out in front of her. She locked the door and they drove back to the church.

Cat did some serious thinking about her situation on way back to the church. She had no idea what had set her mother off. It could have been brewing for a long time, given the amount of money and time involved.

'Whatever brought this episode about, I'm not livin' with this sword hangin' over my head any longer. I'll put the house up for sale. I can use that and the insurance money to start over somewhere as far away from her as possible.'

The hard part would be getting the family to understand and accept what she had to do. Maybe this episode would help. Whether she had their blessing or not, she was intent on making the change.

Most of the guests had left shortly after the dinner. She really didn't blame them. She'd get letters out to them later with an apology and an explanation of her actions.

Bill's parents, her father, Uncle Mark and Aunt Brandy, Grandma, the Southern Indiana Marshalls and her Uncles Michael and Marion had waited for her. Marcus, Danny and Geoff joined the group.

June and Critter started to leave, but stayed at Cat's request. They needed to hear what she had in mind. June would understand more than anyone Cat's need to put distance between her and the impossible situation. She also asked David and Larry to stay. They'd been good friends, and deserved to hear this straight from her.

"I'm sorry about all the uproar," Cat said when the little gathering was seated around a large table.

"It's not your fault, kitten," her father replied. "You tried your best, but she outsmarted you."

"In more ways than one," she grimly acknowledged. "Somehow, Mother got a key made to the house and she helped herself to everything of value. She had to have hired help to manage it; there's no way she did it on her own. She'd even taken Ming."

"Did you press charges?" Mama Ana asked.

"No."

June was the only person not surprised by the news. There was a moment where everyone was speaking at once, expressing their outrage and shock that Cat hadn't had her mother arrested for theft.

June came to her rescue by holding up her hand for quiet. When the group complied, she said, "It wouldn't have done any good. Mrs. Humphries wouldn't have accepted why she was being punished, just that she was being punished. It would make things worse for Cat in the long run. It's part of the nature of the paranoid schizaphrenic."

Everyone knew of June's background, and that she'd helped Cat many times in dealing with her mother. A gradual acceptance came over the group, but that wasn't to last long.

"What happened today makes it clear that I can't stay in Indiana. Nor can I move to Alabama, Texas, Tennesee, or Florida," Cat added, naming all the states where she had friends and family. "I can't take the chance that she won't go after any of you in order to hurt me. I'm going to move as far as I can as soon as I can."

Stunned silence met her announcement.

Her father looked hurt, but he nodded in acceptance of his daughter's logic. Her in-laws were the most stunned and upset. The idea that Cat didn't want to live anywhere near family upset them more than her mother's behavior.

"Does this mean you're breaking off contact with us?" Ana inquired.

"No, Mama. I just can't put all y'all at risk. I won't. She's proved today that nothing is beyond her means. I won't make the mistake of underestimating her again."

"Where will you go, kitten?" Rev. Marshall asked.

"I haven't thought that far yet, Daddy," she admitted. "I'm basically following June's example. Pack, pick a town, and go and take my chances."

"Maybe you can transfer within your company," Uncle Mark offered. "Doesn't it have offices all over the nation?"

"I'm not sure I want to. The money's good, but the hassles aren't worth it. Getting a transfer is getting more difficult with all the outsourcing of work to cheaper countries."

"There's no talking you out of this, is there, sis?" Danny stated.

She shook her head. The discussion was getting hard for her.

"Sometimes a complete change is what is needed. I can relate to that. Moving to Florida was the best thing for me. Indiana had become too painful," June offered. "I think Cat is in that place right now. It's not that she wants to move, she needs to do this. Her own mental and physical well-being is at risk if she doesn't."

The family mulled that over, talking amongst themselves. Eventually, each member of the family nodded their acceptance of the idea, even offering to go out to find boxes so they could help pack over the weekend.

Cat half expected her mother to have made another raid in her absence and was relieved to come home to find everything secure. June and Critter checked their bags and found nothing missing.

They helped her straighten up and put things back to rights in the library and other rooms, preparing for the packing party the following day.

"You might not be happy with this, chick, but I called your doctor after you left the church," June explained. "I could tell you were stressed."

"No shit, Sherlock!"

June returned Cat's response with her own version of the 'look'. "Your doctor agreed that you needed additional time off to deal with everything. She's putting you on a leave of absence, citing your PTSS as a cause. The paperwork's already in motion."

Cat embraced her friend. "I appreciate you thinking of that. I have plenty of sick leave built up. Thank you."

"Do you have any idea where you're going?" Critter interjected, concern for her mother's friend evident in her voice.

"Not yet, honey. Someplace warm, and someplace west of the Mississipi. I've been South and East."

"How are you gonna decide?" she pressed.

"I dunno, put up a map of the US and throw a dart?"

"Why not?" June replied.

"You've got to kidding me! That was a joke, kittenface!"

"I'm not joking. We can put the map up in the garage, blindfold you, and have you throw a dart. If it lands someplace cold, you can try again."

Cat thought over June's suggestion. 'Why not? Let Fate, Serendipity, whatever it is make the decision.' She got up from the sofa and retrieved a large map of the US from the office. It was one of Bill's, and listed every single city, town, borough, and podunk place on the map. She also grabbed a magnifying glass to see where the dart landed.

"OK," she said. "C'mon, if we're gonna do this, let do it."

June and Critter joined her in the garage, and mounted the map on the far wall. June wound a bandanna around Cat's eyes and then turned Cat around in a circle. "Just make sure I'm pointing at the garage wall, and not the cars!"

"Trust me, Cat. You're dead center of the map. Let it fly."

"Not until I can hear that both of you are behind me," she replied.

"All clear!" June and Critter called out in unison from behind her.

Cat took a deep breath, held up her hand with the dart, aimed, and let fly just a bit to her left. That was because she really didn't want to wind up in some barren place like Oklahoma or Nebraska, where it could still get cold.

"THUNK!"

Cat removed the bandanna, and saw that the dart had landed near the California coastline. Possibly just a little more North than she might've wanted, but not by much.

The women moved to the map and Cat took the magnifying glass from June. The point of the dart was lying in a circle next to a town named 'Charming'.

"Charming, California," June repeated to herself. "Has a promising ring to it."

"Let's Google it!" Critter exclaimed, running into the computer room. She quickly accessed the internet and entered the city name in the computer.

The women read through the information presented on Google, learning that Cat's new home was located in San Joaquin County with a population of close to 15,000. It was located near the Bay Area, Stockton, and the Govenator's home of Sacramento. It was largely a timber and agricultural town, and boasted a mild climate, a toasty 94 degrees in the summer and a mild 61 degrees in the winter.

king middle-class.

"Doesn't sound too bad," Cat observed, reading over Critter's shoulder.

"At least it's warm," June added.

"It's also as far away as I can get from here and still be in the Continental US. Kinda sounds like some of the towns Daddy served. Not really large, but not extremely small."

"How do you plan to get there? And take the cars?" Critter asked.

"I'm going to let the Hyundai go. It's got more miles on it than the MF6, and I can't take both. The Hyundai and I fought, anyway. I just haven't gotten around to callin' the bank to take it back yet. As far as gettin' there is concerned, I'm gonna get everything in a rental truck, put the MF6 on a trailer, load the cats in their carriers, and drive," Cat added.

"All the way to California?"

"June, it can't be any worse than two women, three cats, and two rats in a 1985 Chrysler Fifth Avenue goin' from Indiana to Florida in the summer!"

"Yeah, but you'll only have the cats for company, won't you?"

"I guess so. Unless you or Critter want to take the time off to make the trip. I'll pay your way to fly back, naturally."

"I'd go in a minute," Critter replied. "But I can't take any more time off work."

"Neither can I," June added sadly. "I accepted a job to start Monday, and have to fly out Sunday night."

"Well, that settles that," Cat replied.

The following day, the relatives showed up to pack boxes and help sort through Bill's things that wouldn't be making the trip. Mama Ana decided to have the urn mailed to her, instead of trying to get it home via the airline. Cat promised to ship it that coming Monday.

The group worked all day, pausing long enough for coffee, potty, and food breaks, and had the house packed up by the end of the afternoon.

Cat treated everyone to dinner at a Korean restaurant she and Bill often frequented on the far East side of town. The restaurant served a main dish along with different appetizers such as dried fish, seaweed, three different versions of kimche, dicon radishes, and other delicacies. It was then that Cat announced the name of her new home.

"It certainly sounds like a good omen," her father replied, after mulling the news over for a bit. "It's pretty far, though. What will you do when you get there?"

"Scout the town, see what kind of business venture might work out. BJ has a good idea with her coffeehouse and book exchange, but she struggles in a city like this, especially with the corporate icon in the same plaza. Google didn't indicate whether Charming has such a place, much less corporate entities, but if there isn't, then there will be."

Cat had run a small book store in Terre Haute for a few months and had minored in business management at Vincennes University, so she wasn't going into it blind. Everyone could tell she'd given it some serious consideration and wasn't just jumping in with her eyes wide shut.

"When will you be leaving?" Mama Ana asked.

"As soon as I put the house up for sale, and the insurance companies settle the claims. Possibly by the end of the week. In the meantime, I'm taking a leave of absence from work, and will call 'em once I'm in California to see about a transfer or to resign."

"How will we know you've made it ok?" Aunt Brandy asked.

"I'll keep the cellphone account open until I get settled, same for my email address, the main one. There's also the Facebook page, and I'll post there each night, provided the hotel has a computer."

She turned to her father and added, "It's gonna be hard for ya, not havin' me in the same state, but please understand why I have to do this."

"I do, Kitten. Both sides of the family have let you carry the burden too long. You deserve your freedom, and if this is what you have to do, you have my blessing."

Cat got up and went around the table to embrace her father. She'd miss him, but at least they could still talk by telephone every night, despite the three hour time difference that would eventually be involved.

Though Bill's parents and sister were still a little apprehensive about the change, they, too, added their approval to Cat's decision. "You have to do what's right for you, honey," Mama Ana said.

On Sunday evening, Critter returned to Bloomington and June drove herself to the airport to return her rental and fly back home to Florida.

It was the first time Cat had been left alone in the house since the day she'd spoken to Raj. She wasn't fearful or worried about it. She'd lived alone with only her cats for company before, it wasn't difficult to return to that again. She still had her love for Bill to comfort her, and the years they'd been together.

The following week was busy and productive. She received word from the liability carrier, the Army, and Bill's private life insurance carrier that the claims were settling, and they needed to know where to send the checks. Cat had called her financial advisor early Monday morning and arranged to have the liability and the Army checks deposited with him, so that he could invest them.

The check from the private insurance was deposited in the account she'd shared with Bill, which she converted to her own name. That would give her the money necessary to pay the funeral expenses and move to Charming.

She met with her former landlord, Mrs. York, to discuss her mother's situation and get advice on putting the house up for sale.

"I'm sorry your mother pulled all that on the day of the funeral," Mrs. York said when Cat walked into her office. "We had no idea that she was planning anything."

"Don't worry about it. She's not your responsibility. I need to pick your brain about a realtor. I'm putting the house up for sale and moving to California."

Mrs. York nodded sagely. "I figured you'd do something like that. You need to make the break. Would you be interested in keeping the house and letting me manage it for you?"

Cat shook her head. "I thought about it, but feel it's better to just put it up for sale and not have any ties to it."

Mrs. York started noting some names of people she knew in the business, but she also had an idea brewing in the back of her head.

"I also think it's time to get Mother in a little better situation. That walk up all those stairs isn't easy for her. Do you have anything that is one level, with few neighbors for her to disturb?"

Mrs. York gazed at her with surprise. "You still want to help her after what she did?"

Cat shrugged. "She's still my mother, even if she doesn't act like it. Before I leave, I want to ensure that she's comfortable."

Mrs. York pulled the vacancy list to her and scanned it. She did have one location, a block off a major bus line, four rooms with utilities paid. She usually upped the rent by five dollars a week after a tenant left, but she could afford to keep the rent the same as it was exactly what Mrs. Humphries was currently paying. Mrs. York pointed it out to Cat.

She nodded after reviewing the listing and looking over the picture of the duplex in the listing book. "Looks pretty good. You still have the telephone number for her caseworker. I'd suggest calling her and mentioning the place and the price. They'll be more willing to work with you than with me. If the maintenance staff is willing to do so, I'll pay them to move her."

"I'll do it on one condition, that you agree to sell your house to me. I'll put the money in an account here that we can use for your mother in an emergency."

"It needs some work. I'd not let it go for less than we paid for it."

"What, some carpeting? Wall painting? You've not torn it up, have you?"

Cat laughed. "Hell, no! But I am taking the freezer in the garage."

"Well, if the rest of the appliances are staying, that's fine. It's a good location, and with the community pool, I should be able to get a good family in there with no difficulty."

"Are you sure you want to do this, Mrs. York?"

The older woman nodded. "I'm very sure. It's a good investment for me, and it'll allow you to provide care for your mother without having to worry."

Cat held out her hand. She trusted Mrs. York. She was a savvy businesswoman, and wasn't out to fleece her. She'd live up to her word.

"I'll get the process started, then," Mrs. York said, shaking Cat's hand on the deal. "Call me in a couple of days and we'll sign all the paperwork."

"You've got a deal."

By the end of the week, the papers had been drawn up, Mrs. York had performed a walk through to note what needed to be done, and the papers were signed. The account was opened in Cat's and Mrs. York's names and the house was added to the vacancy listings.

Cat's mother was quickly moved into her new apartment. The caseworker ageed to the move as it would be safer for Mrs. Humphries and the mental health organization didn't have to pay for the move. The caseworker had heard from the police about the incident on the day of Bill's funeral, and was grateful that Cat didn't file charges.

Cat made arrangements for the one way rental and hired the church's youth group to load the truck. She mapped out the best route from Indianapolis to Charming. On moving day, while the cats cried "ME-OWT!" from the bathroom, the youths loaded boxes and furniture into the truck, and also helped Cat get the MF6 loaded onto the attached trailer. After the kids left, she made a final walk through to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything.

There was nothing to show that she and Bill had been there for 15 of their 20 years of marriage. There were places where the paint hadn't faded from all the pictures that had hung on the wall. She'd cleaned and vaccummed the house and washed the windows. The utilities were due to change over to Mrs. York's name that day. The satellite dish would stay, but she was taking her receivers.

She let the cats out of the bathroom and smiled at their cries that sounded like "WHERE?" as if they were asking "Where is Everything! It's all gone!"

She scooped each cat into her arms, hugged them, and then dumped them into their individual carriers, lugging each carrier to the truck, where she placed them on the floor of the passenger side facing the driver. She then brought out the water bottles, food bowls, and other cat necessaries.

Her own care package consisted of her cellphone charger, some tapes, and her trip book. She locked the door for the last time, and handed it to Mrs. York, who'd come out to see her off.

She'd arranged via phone for a post office box in Charming, so her mail would forward after she left. She hoped to get across country in a week's time.

She took one last look at the house, took a deep breath, and climbed into the truck. The cats were crying, and she talked soothingly to them. "We're going on an adventure, kids. It's gonna take time. As Coach Knight infamously said, 'You might as well relax and accept the inevitable'."

She turned the key and the ignition roared to life. As the felines launched into a three part disharmony of 'ME-OWT!', the truck pulled away from the house, headed to an unknown future and a place she hoped would live up to its' name.