The Cult of the Bast Cat
There was no help the young constable could offer to the emaciated drug addict dying on a bed of filthy blankets.
He heard a faint whimper.
PC Shah lifted the bedclothes and found a tiny baby. He wrapped the infant in the cleanest towel he could find and placed it in its mother's scrawny arms.
The constable had been sent to arrest Sharon for the possession of drugs, not attempt to make her last moments as comfortable as possible. Perhaps the paramedics would be able to save the child when they arrived.
PC Shah had braced himself to face a knife or screaming abuse, not this. His mother, a psychologist, had explained to him about some glitch in the brain responsible for addiction, a sort of neural misfiring which caused obsessive behaviour. At that moment the finely thought out theory seemed irrelevant.
The ambulance was taking a long while, so PC Shah sat clasping Sharon's hand and uttering empty reassurances that everything would be all right. She pressed a locket into his palm, and then died minutes before help arrived.
Before opening it, the young constable sat drinking weak tea in the canteen to get over the disturbing experience. Perhaps there was a clue as to the baby's next of kin inside the grubby locket. He was right: it contained the photo of a young man PC Shah recognised. It looked as though the baby would be better off in care after all. The father was Taylor Balfour, another addict. Despite coming from a well-to-do family, he could usually be found taking drugs under the railway arches. There was at least an outside chance the Balfours would take on their son’s child if the DNA test confirmed its parentage. PC Shah hated having to deal with people from privileged backgrounds without a superior present so he checked in with his sergeant who, predictably, told him there was no one available to waste time on drug addicts.
Taylor wasn't under the arches, so PC Shah reluctantly went to the family home in the suburbs.
The Balfours regarded being questioned by a lowly constable as an affront to their sense of self-importance.
Did they know where their son was?
No, they hadn't seen him for weeks.
Were they aware he might have fathered a child with another addict?
Immediate indignation! Who was this adolescent in uniform to make allegations against a member of their respected family? Probably some comprehensive pupil who managed to scrape through a couple of GCSE's.
PC Shah took some comfort in being able to explain that he had firsts in sociology, science and history, more qualifications than this prosperous family held between them. The constable could have been lying to them of course, but the owner of those dark brown eyes was too honest to score points that way.
And PC Shah’s father was the dean of an Oxford University and mother a psychologist.
There was a disbelieving pause before the inevitable question.
Then why was he only a minor officer of the law?
At this point the library door opened and in walked the last person the PC expected to see.
‘No, he isn't lying. PC Shah is a remarkable young man.’
The constable's jaw dropped. ‘Chief Superintendent!’
‘I personally wish he would apply for promotion.’ D/C.Supt Andersen could have added that she understood why he didn’t after the difficulties she had encountered on her way up that greasy pole, having to prove more than capable in the eyes of so many who weren't. Her subordinate looked as though he was confronting a huge, hungry vixen – the fortunate effect she had when really needed – and he obviously wasn’t going to ask what she was doing there. ‘I am also interested in the whereabouts of young Taylor, though probably not for the same reason. The Balfours were good enough to let me see his old diaries in the hope there would be a clue as to his favourite haunts.’
‘I see, ma'am.’
‘So, as I think we should now both leave his family in peace, you had better return with me.’ PC Shah was about to protest. ‘I know you were given a lift here and have no transport back.’ As a junior officer, that had happened to her enough times.
Instead of driving to the station, D/C.Supt Andersen pulled into the forecourt of a country pub. She ordered two coffees, which were brought to them in its secluded garden.
‘You first,’ she told PC Shah.
He took a deep breath, not knowing how well acquainted his superior was with the touchy Balfours. ‘I believe Taylor to have fathered the child of Sharon, a drug addict who died this morning.’ There wasn't much else he could add, so ventured warily, ‘Ma'am?’
‘Taylor was the last person to see my old DI. It's the anniversary of Daniel Proctor’s disappearance five years ago when I was a DCI. He was following up a few tenuous leads about some antiquities smugglers. He disappeared without trace after radioing in that he was taking Taylor Balfour back to his parents after hauling him from some drug den. The car was found over 20 miles away in a condition that suggested it had been stolen by joyriders.’
‘And you think Taylor knows more?’
‘He must do, but refused to admit anything back then. If it weren’t for the Balfour’s lawyer, I’m sure I could have intimidated it out of him. Now he’s older, I thought I could try emotional blackmail. And if he really does have a child, he might have some sympathy for what Daniel’s family is going through.’
‘Given time, I'm certain I can track him down, but the sarge will only give me so long.’
D/C.Supt Andersen opened her phone and strolled over to the children’s play area, out of earshot. After a brief conversation she came back and announced, ‘You are now answerable to me.’
‘Let me know when you've found Taylor and we'll take it from there.’
PC Shah's - often inconvenient - empathic intuition told him that the only chance of finding the young man would be at the dead of night. He silently left the Shah’s family residence at three in the morning after bribing the macaws with biscuits to stop them waking everyone else. Flying at liberty about the hall meant the birds were a better burglar alarm than a flock of geese, but they always had their price.
PC Shah didn't expect to find Taylor sheltering under the railway arches, even though it was pouring with rain, so he drove on to the squat where Sharon had died. The place had been boarded up and police tape tied across the porch. Behind it, slumped in a corner, was Taylor. The young man looked haggard and middle-aged, his emaciated frame wracked with the tremors of withdrawal.
Taking him to the station and requesting an overnight cell at 3.40 in the morning did not go down well, so PC Shah reluctantly invoked the authority of the detective chief superintendent, which provoked even more resentment. Having anticipated the condition Taylor would be in, the constable had brought with him some methadone and change of clean clothes due to be donated to a charity shop. Taylor was beyond saying anything sensible, so the constable removed the trainers’ laces, just to be on the safe side, and let him sleep.
That was the easy part: persuading the young man three hours later to have a meal before being interviewed by D/C.Supt Andersen was more difficult. At last Taylor was able to communicate sensibly after the methadone, two hours sleep and food. PC Shah's mother would have probably thought the young man's addled brain only fit to be analysed in a Petrie dish, but her son needed to salvage what was left of its memory.
Fortunately D/C.Supt Andersen was an expert interviewer. The constable took notes as she patiently encouraged Taylor to recall what had happened those five years previously. He could remember meeting DI Proctor. The detective had pulled him out of a squat about to be raided by armed police pursuing a dangerous drug dealer. What happened after that remained a blank.
Another hour and several strong coffees later, glimmers of what had happened came back to him. Taylor was able to explain how DI Proctor had put him in his car and on the way back to the Balfours stopped off to look into a complaint about a large cat killing family pets - dogs included. Had Taylor been in his right mind at the time, it might have occurred to him that it was an odd errand for a detective inspector. The addict had been told to wait in the car while DI Proctor left to knock on the front door of a large house. He could only remember that it was somewhere in the north of the town.
DI Proctor went into the house and never came out.
Taylor waited an hour before, still addled by drugs, leaving the car to find his way back to the railway arches.
If he hadn’t been seen leaving the squat with DI Proctor and taken in for questioning he would have probably forgotten everything.
PC Shah searched the database for reports of missing pets about that time. The occupiers of the house the complainants named had been very secretive, coming and going all times of the day and night, and kept a huge cat with an unearthly yowl that sent urban foxes running for cover. There was even a photo of the place. A plaque on the perimeter wall announced that this was home to The Cult of the Bast Cat. On the occasions their feline assassin managed to get out, the trail of the neighbourhood pets' remains always led back to that address. The RSPCA had tried to investigate, but found the property dark and not so much as a suspicious paw-print in the raked forecourt gravel. So the matter was forwarded to the police. DI Proctor might have genuinely picked up the file because his family were animal lovers, keeping everything from gerbils to a wolfhound, and felt some empathy with the other pet owners. But D/C.Supt Andersen had known the man well enough to realise that there had been something more to it than that.
PC Shah picked up the keys of the house from a letting agency and reported back.
‘Do we tell Taylor about the child, ma'am?’ PC Shah asked D/C.Supt Andersen as they went to her car. ‘His parents were pretty indignant when I mentioned it.’
‘They would be. Too full of their own importance. We can only hope the DNA test proves it to be someone else's.’
‘It will end up in care.’
‘You and your new wife could adopt it.’
This woman knew too much about the way the mind of his new bride worked and that he was a pushover when it came to large-eyed infants of any species. They were a young couple destined to adopt.
The detached house DI Proctor had left Taylor outside had been deserted since his disappearance and was in a poor state of repair. The Cult of the Bast Cat plaque had gone and a TO LET board on a tree hung by one nail.
D/C.Supt Andersen and PC Shah entered a spacious hall. The sparse furnishings gave it the feel of a religious order. Facing them was the main room. Half open shutters allowed in enough light to illuminate the large statue of a cat on the plinth at its far end.
‘Bast,’ PC Shah announced without warning.
D/C.Supt Andersen knew all about cats. ‘Egyptian, isn't she?’
‘Yes,’ he picked up a folder full of faded photocopies. ‘Though the photos of these pieces aren't from the same cult. They’re just random antiquities – mainly Egyptian.’
His superior suddenly stepped back. ‘Oh my goodness!’ She had been about to tread on the desiccated remains of a large cat.
‘PC Shah's reaction was the same. ‘Good God!’
‘Well that at least solves the cold case about what was eating the pets. Animal that size has to be a puma. Probably poisoned by neighbourhood watch.’ She turned her attention to the pages scattered about the floor. ‘These seem to be in Arabic.’ She handed one to PC Shah.
Without hesitation he picked out several words. ‘Tinsaal… mumtaaz – taman… wadi il mulook... These are descriptions of relics for sale.’
The fact that he understood Arabic did not surprise her.
‘Oh no, Daniel walked in on a gang of antiquities smugglers. Stupid man. Why didn’t he report in first?’
‘They must have created the Bast cat cult as cover.’
D/C.Supt Andersen perched disconsolately on the edge of the statue's plinth. ‘So, what now? Look for a body, do you think? His wife’s convinced he’s still alive.’
PC Shah was both flattered and disconcerted that his superior officer was asking his opinion. ‘She could be right, ma'am. These criminals were experts. Their business was fencing valuable antiquities. It is unlikely they would have committed murder in cold blood. DI Proctor probably blundered in at the wrong moment and was somehow spirited away.’
‘How? Daniel was a good officer. He would have found some way of getting in contact.’
‘I've no idea, but there is every indication that this syndicate left in a hurry.’
‘What are the chances of tracking them down after five years?’ she pondered to herself. ‘They could have relocated to the other side of the world.’
PC Shah began to gather up the discarded paper. ‘May I study these ma'am?’
‘Go ahead. You're the only copper I know who understands Arabic and the budget won’t run to a translator on a cold case - even mine. I’ll be at a conference for two days, but call me right away if you get a lead.’
PC Shah took the documents back to the station. He worked through the evening and into the night. Apart from one discreet phone call to his new wife, he examined the stack of soiled papers for some small clue that would pinpoint the current location of the syndicate. Many of the relics in the photocopies were listed on the antiques’ database as stolen or missing. Most of them came from Egypt. A call to The Ministry of State for Antiquities there confirmed that the best pieces had been stolen from museum collections. PC Shah's fluency in Egyptian Arabic enabled him, with several phone calls, to ascertain that the gang responsible had been apprehended two years previously as they attempted to leave Egypt with their hoard on a chartered plane. Most of them were convicted and sentenced to substantial terms in prison.
PC Shah emailed a photo of DI Proctor to the investigator in charge of the case.
The next morning there was a response.
Daniel Proctor had been apprehended with the antiquities smugglers, though not convicted. He had been unable to respond to questions in any language and was deemed unfit to plead. He was committed to a sanatorium where, every month, questions about his identity were put to him. Medical opinion decided that his mind remained in a drug-induced passivity which kept him removed from the real world.
On being informed, D/C.Supt Andersen immediately left the conference to board a flight to Cairo where she confirmed his identity. After proving that he was a police officer, the authorities allowed her to bring him back to the UK.
Daniel Proctor’s reunion with his family induced no response from him, so PC Shah persuaded his mother to examine the DI.
A scan revealed no brain damage. Beyond eating, sleeping and carrying out basic tasks, the mental shutter had come down on reality. Where he was now, there was no way of telling.
The detective's family were relieved that he was still alive, yet distraught that he did not recognise them. They insisted that there was only one way to bring him back. Dr Shah advised against it. Without knowing more about his condition, shock therapy was not the answer.
As it would have been difficult to override their wishes, D/C.Supt Andersen was obliged to let them have their way.
‘Has Taylor been tidied up?’
‘Yes ma'am,’ said PC Shah. ‘His mother brought in a therapist who seems to be helping him deal with his addiction.’
Dr Shah’s appeals to Daniel Proctor’s family for them to wait before trying to reawaken the trauma that had catapulted him out of the real world only convinced D/C.Supt Andersen to never sign over power of attorney to her relatives. She persuaded the Balfours to allow their son to accompany her, PC Shah, Dr Shah, DI Proctor and his wife to the house of The Cult of the Bast Cat.
Outside was a newly-erected board displaying an artist’s impression of the expensive apartments to take the building’s place after it was demolished. This HQ for an international smuggling syndicate would soon be the up-market residences of those most likely to buy their antiques – genuine or counterfeit; it wouldn’t have mattered as long as it impressed their dinner guests.
Dr Shah wished the place had already been levelled: the foreboding that this would raise dangerously suppressed demons was becoming more insistent.
PC Shad unlocked the front door and Dr Shah, D/C.Supt Andersen, Taylor, the unresponsive Daniel Proctor, and his wife entered.
The DI pulled back, but his wife coaxed him forward.
Taylor experienced guilt at leaving the man who had helped him five years ago. ‘You remember going in, don't you? You stepped into that hall and I never saw you again.’
But Daniel Proctor had once more been plunged into that monstrous hell of the Bast cat, swallowed into a whirlpool of disorientating terror, and then – as the ocean became calm - awareness.
Suddenly he was gazing into the lapis lazuli eyes of his goddess and realised who he was. Expression at last returned to his face.
His wife was elated and wondered how the others could have doubted that she knew best. ‘He's coming back to us.’
Then Daniel Proctor started to speak a strange language. His tone was assured, with an edge of authority, but the words were incomprehensible.
PC Shah shook his head. ‘It's not Arabic or Coptic.’
‘No,’ agreed his mother. ‘I believe he is speaking an ancient Egyptian dialect.’
Daniel Proctor's wife was beside herself. ‘You have to bring him back!’
‘I'm not sure that is possible.’
The DI did not hear the ensuing recriminations. He was where he should be; in his own time and place, standing before the altar of the Bast cat, offering tributes to his implacable, mysterious goddess.