Meet Mr. Baggins
I don’t know about you, but I need my pets, two cats who are pushing ten years old. These days they sleep a lot, especially when the temperature is below zero. But seven years ago when my husband died, they were there for me, big time—along with my family and friends, of course. And that’s the point—they are part of my family, they never fail me.
Mr. Baggins, Fina’s cat in Too Quiet In Brooklyn, is based on my door opener. The fictional character, Mr. B appeared one day in the garden of the family’s townhouse on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights. That was long ago, long before Fina’s story starts. Her mother scooped him up, took him inside, and he became the family pet. Years passed with lots of changes in Fina’s life, but Mr. Baggins remains, the hopeful, playful, loving part of her. He’s her comfort zone, the éminence grise of the Fina Fitzgibbons mystery series.
Animals play many roles in fiction—some of them minor, sometimes major parts—but they always have a reason for being in the story. They are connected to plot or to characterization or to theme. Sometimes they humanize the main character or echo her emotions. Because they are masters of instinct, they are great predictors of danger. At other times they move the action in other ways, like the dog who chases a squirrel and finds a body in the woods, or the cat who befriends a skunk and the two just happen to be in the right place at the right time to help the action along (thanks, Elaine Orr). Some pets are at the heart of a mystery story, making discoveries that help their owners solve cases.
Mr. Baggins is Fina’s comfort zone in a world she’s almost always questioning. He echoes her emotions and her opinions. Sometimes, but rarely, Mr. B deepens the plot.
Here’s his debut in Too Quiet In Brooklyn. Fina’s discovered a body and is being interviewed by her arch rival, the beautiful but tit-crushing NYPD Detective First Grade Jane Tennyson.
Mr. Baggins, Mom’s cat and Lucy’s mascot appeared. He had a way of popping up out of nowhere, like he did the first time one spring day nine years ago, sitting in the garden like Alice’s cheshire cat and smiling up at Mom. Now he was smiling up at me, rubbing against my jeans and Cookie’s legs and just about every other surface he could manage. Except, of course, for Jane and her partner. He blinked up at the detectives, his neck stretched, his cheeks puffed out like he was part frog, his grey plush body on red alert. Then he slinked back over to me, his stomach almost touching the ground, stealing a backward glance at Jane as he ran and doing his Hold Me purr. I scooped him up and started to walk toward the front, but he jumped out of my arms and made a beeline for my chair.
The four of us gathered around the receptionist’s desk, me with a window view so I could watch the crime scene, and Jane in the captain’s chair. I saw her glance up at my licenses hanging on the opposite wall. When she did a double take, I expected a snide remark, and sure enough, I wasn’t disappointed.
“So you’re a cleaner or an investigator?” She flashed her teeth at me again.
“Both,” I said, surprising myself. “But they’re similar, wouldn’t you say?”
The room was stuffy so I turned on a couple of fans. Cookie and I wrote out our statements and I began answering their questions. While I was talking, Cookie nodded or looked down at her fingernails. Mr. Baggins made himself comfortable on three-quarters of my chair, surreptitiously taking up more and more of the surface and kneading his thick paws into my back. Somewhere, a siren wailed.
As if they hadn’t read one word of our statements, they asked me about the position of the corpse, the approximate time we’d found it, and what I’d moved or touched. Jane referred to the photos I’d sent her of the body in situ as I was talking. Her partner asked a bunch of questions, most of them repetitive or irrelevant, having me describe again the where, when, and how, the amount of foot traffic at the time we discovered the dead woman, whether we’d seen anyone acting suspicious.
“I called 9-1-1 as soon as I could.” I emphasized that I’d used latex gloves and mentioned the sapphire ring, making sure Jane’s partner wrote it into his notes, but forgot to mention I thought I’d recognized the victim. Cookie confirmed she’d seen the ring, too, and to her credit, answered all questions thrown at her with a yes or a no. They asked more unnecessary questions, Jane looking bored toward the end and thrumming her fingers on the arm of her chair until I asked if she’d found any ID on the corpse, reminding her that we hadn’t.
She tossed her wavy mane, saying she’d already alerted Missing Persons and they were on it. “These cases in the Heights, something’ll turn up quick.”
Picking up the drift, I said, “Funny. I haven’t seen the press around, have you?” My radar was alive to any giveaways that might fly across Jane’s face and I thought I saw a momentary uplift hover for a brief second around one corner of her mouth.
“As I say, I expect to hear something any minute,” she said. “A body found on Henry Street on a slow news day? They’ll be on it, trust me. And the staff at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle seem to know stuff before it happens.”
By this time I was on one small edge of the seat and Mr. Baggins was sprawled. Truth to tell, Jane didn’t look worried at all. Matter of fact, she looked a little too smug to me. A minute ago, I’d seen one of the techs wearing orange goggles and shining his magic lantern around the victim’s neck.
“I snapped some photos of the face and right hand, but I suppose you wouldn’t want smart phone stuff since you’ve got the latest equipment and probably were able to lift fingerprints.”
She tried to stifle a smile, folding in her lower lip. “Got lucky.”
Which meant they’d have a name of the perp in a couple of days or less if he was in AFIS. Not soon enough, though. Considering she’d be assigned to investigate a few other major crimes, to say nothing of the pressure on her to gather forensics, I thought I’d have a slight advantage in the time department.
“Who doesn’t wear gloves these days?” I asked, making small talk now that she’d simmered down and hoping she’d spill more info if I could just keep her talking. “It’s clear the woman was murdered.”
Jane’s smile was brief. “You know better than to say that, but obviously we’re treating it as a homicide,” she said, talking to me as if I was in grade school. She flicked her eyes up at my licenses again and looked at me like I’d fallen off the dark side of the moon.
With that, Mr. Baggins stretched, sashayed from the back of my seat, plunked his considerable rear end onto my lap, and stared at Jane. He does this thing when he’s assessing a new situation—opens his mouth up a slit and flicks the tip of his tongue out a couple of times while his eyes bore into you, and that’s what he was doing to Jane.
She couldn’t help herself. “Here, kitty, kitty.”
Mr. B flicked his tongue again but otherwise was cat still and I could see his whiskers stirring in the fan’s breeze.
“I wouldn’t talk to that cat if I were you,” Jane’s partner said, brushing crumbs off his tie. “Liable to take a bite out of your thigh.”
“Who, Mr. Baggins?” Cookie asked. “He wouldn’t hurt a mouse, would you, Mr. B?”
His squat little body made a graceful arc into Cookie’s lap.
If you have a favorite fictional pet, drop a line or a comment—I’d love to hear from you. And thanks for stopping by and reading.