Trial by Fire

A hard-boiled “tail” of crime, oblivion, and an unexpected challenge
Sam Spayed

I slid into a booth in a swanky joint I frequented little, if ever, in a part of town I saw only at night, if then. It was high noon. I was meeting up with an alum we’ll call “Joe.” He had a story to tell. I’d been there half a second when a pair of sharp eyes appeared opposite me. 

I looked him over. Well-groomed. Not too young, not too old. I’m paid to notice details. 

“Just the facts,” I said. “How’d it happen?” 

Joe spun a credible yarn about signing up as assistant to the head honcho of a company on the rise. He became a utility player extraordinaire — reports, promotions, site logistics, sales support — whatever the boss needed, he did it and did it well. 

“So what’s the beef?” I pressed. I flagged down a server. “Bring two anything,” I said sideways, not losing eye contact with Joe. Two sarsaparillas arrived. We chewed the straws. 

“No beef, I loved it,” Joe said through a foam moustache. The trouble started when the company’s longtime cat herder retired to the window sill. They’d searched around and found a new one. 

“We did the required background check,” Joe said. “Everything looked jake. Over time we were tipped off that our enterprising feline had used a relative’s pedigree to hide a rap sheet. Same name except for the middle initial.”


“It gets worse,” said Joe. “He shows up late one day and slinks out with a whole stack of employee files.”

“Not too bright, even for a calico,” I said.

“He did time,” Joe said, his eyes flashing satisfaction. “The cage suited him.” 

“What happened next?” I didn’t have all day and even less for the tab.

“We called the agency. They sent us another one,” Joe said, his voice lilting. “She wasn’t clinical, just irrational.”


“Three months in, she gives us one of those looks that only cats can give you and says, ‘Nothing personal, but I’m not suited for this job.’” 


“We never saw her again.” 

Strike two. I was wearing down. It was way past my naptime. I blinked at the server with eyelids like damp canvas. From out of nowhere came a bowl of coffee grounds and two spoons. 

The company’s next cat herder looked great on paper, Joe said, interviewed like a pro, and pounced on the offer. “In retrospect,” he lamented, “the tiara should have been a tip-off. 

“She had no idea that anything she did could ever be wrong!” Joe said with the rhythmic incredulity of a ’40s film noir tagline. “She set herself up for failure.” 

I sensed the payoff was near. 

“My boss, the CEO, got involved. He said ‘Look, all the cats here know you. They trust you. I think you’d make a great director of feline resources.’” 

“As in cat herder,” I surmised. I’m paid to connect the dots. 

“Still, I had nothing but doubts,” Joe said. “I had zero FR experience. My first task was literally to cut the previous director’s final check. It was trial by fire.”

I had the big picture now. 

“The point is, it’s a really interesting job that I never expected to be doing. The company’s growing. I love training,” Joe said. “I envision my story with a headline like ‘Grinnell Teaches You Never to Fear New Challenges’ or maybe ‘FR Fun with Joe.’”

I shook my head. “I was thinking ‘The Felon, The Crazy Kitty, and The Princess,’” I said, “but I don’t think I can use it. I don’t look good in civil suits, if you get my drift. Besides, nobody would believe it.”

Joe didn’t look too disappointed. He said he had cats to herd and sprang off. I left a tip and went off to track down another improbable alum story. Something about a famous movie star who couldn’t even get a part in his school play.

This story is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

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