There's a lot of etiquette involved when dealing with talking cats, I've discovered over the years: it's pretty easy to step wrong and end up buried ankle deep in gravel. And I mean buried head-first.
For instance, the situation Ned and I found ourselves in at the beginning of February, 1984. Our previous El Brujo had just quit, the coyote call of true love beckoning him off into the hills above Irvine, and Mr. Hyniof had given us the task of hiring a new El Brujo.
Maybe I should talk a little about cat names here. I know, I know, T.S. Eliot did this already, but, well, I'm talking about cat names in a business environment. It's one thing when you're dealing with a cat who lives in your house, eats your food, provides you with companionship and all that, but cats are very different as co-workers.
See, cats in the business world never give their real names--at least all the cats I've worked with over the years. They adopt the title of whatever job they're holding. I think it has something to do with wanting to keep their office lives separate from their private lives, but whatever the reason, every professional cat I've known, I've known only by their job title.
Of course, Ned and I didn't know anything about this then. I had thought that the cat who worked as our wizard, a vital position in every branch of "Hey, Your Nose is on Fire" Industries throughout every continuum, I had just thought the cat's name was El Brujo.
Until Mr. Hyniof gave me the folder labeled El Brujo Hiring Procedures and stomped back into his office.
I looked at it, then at Ned. "What, we have to find another cat named El Brujo?"
Ned blinked. "Whaddaya mean?"
I pointed to the folder's cover. "How many cats in the world do you suppose are named El Brujo?"
The canvas of Ned's brow wrinkled. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe there's something about that inside."
Well, there was a lot of stuff inside, pages and pages of stuff, all full of phrases like, "Candidates for the position of El Brujo must demonstrate a full and working knowledge of all aspects of trans-causal wards," and "Candidates for the position of El Brujo will show proof of Cloak Displacement abilities." Ned and I spent three days going through it all, and by the end, I still had no idea what we were supposed to do.
"This is hopeless!" I tried to slam the folder closed, but it was made from fairly light-weight cardboard, not the sort of thing that slams very well. "Every time it refers you to a different section for an explanation of a term, that section refers you back to the first section again!" I stood up. "I'm going to ask Mr. Hyniof what he--"
"No!" Ned grabbed me, his twiggy fingers snagging the sleeve of my jacket. "We don't want to get him involved in this, believe me." He shuddered, his wooden shoulders clacking.
I had to sit back down before he would untangle his hands from my jacket. "Well, how are we going to do this, then? I mean, sure, if a cat came in the door, we could ask him to spin a trans-causal ward, but how would we know if he'd done it or not? All these terms, all these qualifications..." I blew out a breath. "About the only thing I'm sure of is that the applicant has to be a male cat."
"Male?" Ned blinked. "I don't remember reading that."
I turned the folder over, tapped the cover again. "El Brujo, it says. I may not know much Spanish, but I know that that means a male. La Bruja would be a female." I shrugged. "I'm just wondering how we're supposed to get the word out that we're hiring. Are there any newspapers that cats read?"
Ned waved a hand. "We just put notices in garbage cans, in back alleys, you know, places where cats hang out. I'll take care of the distribution if you'll write the thing."
That sounded good, so I rolled a sheet into the old green reconditioned Smith-Corona that Mr. Hyniof had put out at one of the four desks in the front office, glanced at the notes I'd jotted while leafing through the pages of the Hiring Procedures, and typed up the following:
"The local branch of 'Hey, Your Nose is on Fire' Industries is now taking applications for the position of El Brujo. Applicants must
Application must be made in person at the 'Hey, Your Nose is on Fire' branch office, second- and-a-halfth floor, Gateway Commons, the University of California, Irvine."
I showed it to Ned, he nodded, and when I left that night, he had already churned a couple dozen copies out: he's quite a fast typist.
The next evening, I came into the office to find Ned at my desk, three newly sharpened pencils on the blotter beside a stack of forms. "Any cats out there?" he asked.
"I didn't see any." I looked behind me to be sure, then came the rest of the way into the office.
Ned sighed. "I was out till dawn this morning putting our fliers out, and so far we haven't had a nibble."
I moved past him and took a seat at his desk. "Well, give them some time."
He nodded glumly, and even though our first applicant didn't show up till two days later, Ned sat at my desk, prepared, the whole time. I thought he was going to blow a gasket when on that second day, the door creaked open and a small gray cat head peaked in, eyes darting and whiskers twitching. "Excuse me, but is this the 'Hey, Your Nose is on Fire' office?"
Well, Ned practically burst from the chair, leaping down the narrow aisle between the desks. "Yes, sir! Come right on in!"
The cat's eyes went huge and black, and with a yowl, he vanished. "Wait!" Ned yelled, flinging the door open and rushing out into the hall. "Come back!"
I sat and waited until Ned dragged himself back into the office. "Well," I said. "We wouldn't want someone that nervous working for us anyway."
Ned nodded and sat back down.
When the door next opened an hour or so later to reveal a black and white tom with one ear that didn't quite stand up, Ned was much more subdued, just waving a hand and saying, "Please, come in, sir."
The tom sniffed the air, then sauntered in and leaped up onto the desk. "Hear you're looking for an El Brujo," he said, his voice scratchy and deep.
"That's right." Ned took one of his pencils and set it to one of his forms. "If I might have your name, please."
The cat's other ear went down. "What?"
Ned looked up. "Your name. For the application."
"Uh-huh." The cat narrowed his eyes, reached out with one paw, grabbed the tip of Ned's cardboard nose, and with one easy motion, tore it clean off, the canvas ripping underneath.
"Hey!" Ned shouted, but by then the cat had leaped from the desk and vanished down the hall, the door slamming behind him.
Ned was down on his hands and knees under my desk, patting around on the carpet for his nose. "Hmmm," I said. "I guess that's the wrong approach."
"Phooey!" I heard him say, then he was standing up, his nose in one hand, his other hand holding the tear closed in the middle of his face. "You take the next one: I've gotta get myself back together." He pushed his nose back into place, grabbed my stapler, clacked over to the window, and bent close to it, using it like a mirror.
I sighed, sat down at my desk, and a moment later, the door burst open, a huge gust of hot wind blasting Ned's papers up into my face. I heard him give a shout, but by the time I'd freed my eyes, I found myself looking at a long-haired black cat sitting on my blotter, her tail wrapped demurely around her paws.
Amber eyes half- closed, she, well, I'd have to say she regarded me. I cleared my throat. "Uhh, good evening. Have you come to apply for the El Brujo position?"
Her tail flicked, and another piece of paper flew into my face. "Perhaps," a voice like molten honey replied, "you don't read your own notices."
I pulled the paper away and saw that it was one of our announcements before it was snatched from me, slamming onto the blotter beside the cat with a sound like a car crash. The cat patted it with a paw. "You ask here for a male cat."
The absolute menace in that voice made the hair on my neck quiver. "Uhh, yes. I assumed that since the job was for an El Brujo rather than a La Bruja that--"
"Bad assumption," she said softly, and then...well, then the room exploded.
I mean it: desks smashed to dust, windows blowing out, carpet shredded and bursting into the air like streamers. Before I could even blink, I was down on the bare floor, inch long bits of metal and scattered fabric the only thing left of my chair, carpet fragments raining down around me, the black cat still seated on my blotter pad, her tail still curled around her paws.
I swallowed, reached for a big black marker pen that had formerly rested in the tray of my desk drawer, bent over the announcement on the floor next to the cat, and scribbled out the word "male." I set the pen down and sat back up. "If you can put this place back together, the job's yours."
The cat regarded me again. "Well, I suppose I'd better," she said after a long moment. "It sounds like you could use some straightening out around here." She half- lidded her eyes, flicked her tail, and...
It was like an explosion in reverse, everything flying back together: in less time then it takes to tell, I was sitting in my chair again, my desk in front of me, the cat yawning and running a paw over her ears. "One of your florescent bulbs was about to burn out, too, so I fixed it."
I nodded. "El Brujo," I said, "welcome to 'Hey, Your Nose is on Fire' Industries."
Next time, Mr. Hyniof's first meeting with El Brujo and all the trouble that started.
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