AS I stepped into the living room, the small of my back itched. My hand whirled around my side, reaching for the Glock 23 that no longer nestled between my belt and my skin.
This was ridiculous.
I hadn’t carried a gun for three years, not since I handed my boss a paper that clearly stated, right under the NCIS logo, that Cameron Sherwood was no longer available to do his dirty work. I no longer faced armed terrorists or drug dealers with alarming frequency. These days the worst adversary I came across was a puffed-up cat sporting unsheathed claws.
So why did I reach for a nonexistent gun?
Everything looked normal. Fran Welch always kept her living room in pristine shape. I didn’t care for her color scheme. White furniture on top of a cream carpet was a little too sterile for me, but she didn’t pay me to criticize her taste.
She did, however, pay me to take care of her cat while she was gone. Speaking of Mr. Muffin Tops….
“Here, kitty, kitty, kitty.” I jiggled the plastic bag up and down. “I have your favorite treats.”
Where was that cat? Usually I only had to shake the bag once. The spoiled boy would appear out of nowhere, twining himself between my legs. Then he’d open his mouth, ready to accept any morsel of tuna, sautéed in salmon oil, which happened to drop his way.
A breeze whipped through the open door, causing the drapes to flutter. The rest of the room was dead still.
“Here, Mr. Muffin Tops. Come on, boy.”
Ms. Welch trusted me to care for her baby while she was in New York. I had to find him.
I shut the front door, then moved farther into the house. I kept an eye on my feet, not wanting to step on anything important. A habit I picked up years ago while walking through crime scenes.
Why was I being so cautious? So a cat didn’t come when I called. That didn’t mean I was walking into trouble. The small of my back needed to get with the program.
I scratched my back, then made myself walk like a normal person, not caring what I stepped on. Ms. Welch might have shut the cat up in the kitchen when she left this morning, although she never had before.
When I stepped into the hall, the itch intensified into a full-fledged hackle. There on the left, the den door hung open, a sure sign that something was wrong.
Ms. Welch’s den was her workroom, the place where she planned her fabulous parties, and like any work area, it was a mess. She left the door open once and I accidently got a look inside. We were both mortified, and immediately pretended that it never happened. Ms. Welch’s home was her showcase. She never wanted visitors to see anything as ordinary as a pile of papers on the desk. She certainly wouldn’t leave on a trip without pulling that door closed.
Back in stealth mode—I couldn’t help myself—I tiptoed toward the den. Now I really missed my Glock. I searched the hallway for another weapon. An oil painting of a ship sailing through a hurricane hung on the opposite wall. Such a small ship was doomed to be swamped by the intense waves surrounding it. I hoped I wasn’t about to suffer the same fate.
I bunched my fingers into a fist and looked through the open doorway. My caution was justified. The den was a disaster.
Ripped from their shelves, dozens of Ms. Welch’s books littered the floor. Scattered papers covered every surface of the room, and the drawers of the filing cabinet hung open and empty. A broken vase lay next to a smashed computer monitor, the desktop covered with fragments of glass and pottery. Someone had torn a photograph of Ms. Welch into pieces. She smiled at me from one large fragment, her heart-shaped pendant around her neck.
A quiet yowl came from the right. I risked a step inside. A huddled mass of fur lay on the rug under the window.
“Mr. Muffin Tops!”
His legs twitched as he tossed from side to side, like he was groggy and trying to clear his thoughts. Blood pooled on top of his head, coating the orange fur between his ears with red.
I had to get him to a vet. Forgetting about being careful, I crossed in front of the desk, then stopped cold.
Ms. Welch lay on the floor, between the workspace and the cat. Her skirt hiked up, revealing far too much of her leg, her blood seeping into the beige carpet.
Blood from a very big hole in her chest.
“WHAT DO you mean the cat is gone?”
The sheriff of Sunrise Cove loomed over me, eyes blazing, hoping to make me squirm in my kitchen chair. Handcuffs jiggled in front of my nose, the light bouncing off the shiny metal at a dozen odd angles.
Sheriff Jake O’Neil apparently thought he was a tough guy, but he was out of his league. I was tall and skinny, and people often underestimated me. The sheriff expected me to wilt under the strength of that steely gaze, but when it came to playing good cop, bad cop, I was an expert.
“As I’ve said three times, Sheriff, the cat needed immediate medical attention. I asked my assistant to come and take him to the vet. Then I waited for you.”
“You’re such a Good Samaritan.” Was that sarcasm? He leaned down and rattled the cuffs at my eye level. “You removed evidence from a crime scene.”
“I tried to save a cat’s life. That’s hardly tampering with evidence.”
“That’s not your call to make.” His hot breath washed against my skin.
“What would you do? Let the animal die?”
“Of course not. I’m not an ogre.”
I flinched away from his gaze. Clearly I’d hurt his feelings. I’d assumed he was a jerk like nearly every small-town cop I’d ever worked with. It looked like I was wrong.
“Finding Ms. Welch’s body was a shock. I guess it knocked the sense right out of me. I’m sorry, Sheriff.”
“Well, I suppose you didn’t know any better.” O’Neill stood straight, and put his cuffs back on his belt. “Next time you call for help first.”
“I hope there never is a next time.”
O’Neill whispered, “Me too.”
Voices down the hall announced the arrival of the forensic team. We were in the kitchen for our interrogation. I thought O’Neill might abandon me to quiz his forensic team, but it seemed I still had information he wanted.
“Come with me,” he ordered.
O’Neill walked into the den, then stood back against the wall, making damn sure to stay out of the way. A woman on the forensic team snapped pictures while her partner broke open a fingerprint kit. Another technician measured the distance between the body and the desk.
O’Neill asked his team some timely questions, then plucked a notebook out of his breast pocket and started in on me again.
“Let’s go over your involvement one more time, from the beginning.”
“Ms. Welch called me at my shop yesterday afternoon around one,” I said, making sure to include any details O’Neill could need.
“Your shop? That cat place on the corner of Main and Fifth?”
“That’s right. I’m surprised you’ve heard of it. Do you have a cat, Sheriff?”
I bet he didn’t. I would remember if a man that tall, with striking red hair and gorgeous brown eyes, had set foot through my door.
“Nah, I own dogs.”
Probably big ones, like golden retrievers or German shepherds.
“My sister has a couple of cats,” O’Neill said. “They love those treats you make.”
“My tuna/salmon bites are popular with the feline set.” Thank God. Most of my income came from selling those tasty tidbits.
“You came here to deliver a batch of treats?”
“Not exactly. Ms. Welch needed someone to watch over her cat while she was out of town. Her sister is allergic, and Ms. Welch would never leave Mr. Muffin Tops in a kennel.”
“She trusted you?” O’Neill asked, writing everything down.
“Oh yes. The first time we met Mr. Muffin Tops purred while I petted him. Ms. Welch told me he usually swiped at strangers, sometimes with claws out. Since he liked me, she asked if I could cat-sit whenever she was gone.”
“Where was she going?”
“New York.” I looked down at the body. Ms. Welch had been a modest woman. She wouldn’t have liked us staring at her with her skirt hitched up and her underwear showing, even if she was dead. I fought the impulse to pull it down. “She didn’t deserve this.”
“Nobody does.” O’Neill cleared his throat. “Do you know why she was going to New York?”
“I’m not sure. We mostly talked about cats, but she did say something about a party convention.”
“Isn’t every convention a party?”
“You misunderstand. Ms. Welch was a professional party planner. You know, events like weddings, dances, and formal dinners.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Somebody didn’t think so.”
“No, they didn’t.” O’Neill closed his notebook and shoved it back into his pocket. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Sherwood, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir, Cameron Sherwood.”
“Well, Mr. Sherwood, I think you should get back to your cats now. I’ll call you if I need anything further.”
A clear dismissal, so why wasn’t I heading out the door? With my assistant, Cissy, at the vet, no one was minding the store. College girls flocked to the Cat’s Meow on Friday afternoons. In addition to selling treats, I stocked plenty of cat-themed knickknacks, which brightened up many a dorm room. A week of tedious classes and homework behind them, they loved to shop on their way to the beach. Right now all that discretionary spending was going elsewhere, but somehow I couldn’t make myself leave.
A nice lady lost her life today. Homicide wasn’t my business anymore, but I wanted to help catch her killer.
“I could hang around, Sheriff, and give you a hand.”
“I have enough help, Mr. Sherwood. Though if I need to interrogate the cat, I’ll call you.”
The forensic team laughed, but I didn’t find the joke funny. All small-town sheriffs were assholes after all.
The coroner arrived. I backed out of the doorway so he could push his gurney through. I wasn’t needed.
As I stepped into the hall, the sheriff told the coroner something I could not believe.
“It looks like she interrupted a burglar, doc, and he killed her for it.”
I whirled around, storming back inside. “Are you kidding? You think this is a burglary gone bad?”
“Mr. Sherwood.” The sheriff turned on his steely look again. “I thought we already said our good-byes.”
“I can’t believe you’re this dumb. A panicked burglar didn’t kill her.”
“Dumb?” Yes, O’Neill’s face flushed, nearly as red as his hair. “How dare you barge into my crime scene and start questioning my deductions. You’re just a cat-sitter. You don’t know anything.”
“I know how to use my eyes,” I countered. “Take a look around. Her cell phone and purse are by her desk. Why would a robber leave them behind?”
“Killing a woman could fluster even a pro. He forgot them in his haste to get out, that’s all.”
“A burglar wouldn’t mess with the books and the files. An intruder, searching for something, would.”
“People hide valuables behind books and in filing cabinets all the time. It’s the first place a burglar would look.” O’Neill picked the photo fragment off the desktop, holding it up so I could see. “Where’s her pendant? It isn’t on her neck.”
He had me there. “Maybe she left it in her bedroom.”
“We’ll check. Now if you don’t mind….” The sheriff’s fingers latched on to my elbow, digging deep as he pulled me to the door. “I’ve had enough of you and your amateur theories. Get the hell out and take care of your cats. Leave the crime solving to the experts.” He pushed, sending me stumbling into the hall. The door slammed closed the second I was clear.
I stood there, torn. I couldn’t let O’Neill just write off Ms. Welch’s murder, but what could I do? I willingly gave up my badge and my gun years ago. Ms. Welch deserved justice, but butting heads with what passed for law enforcement in this town wasn’t going to get me anywhere.
First I had to get back to the shop before the kids spent all their money elsewhere, then I needed to check on Mr. Muffin Tops and make sure he was okay. After that, I’d consider my next step before diving headfirst into somebody else’s murder investigation.
I kept that vow all the way into the living room. A pitter-patter of water splashed against the windows. I deduced it had started to rain. See, I could still play at detecting. Then another anomaly caught my eye.
How did a black speck get near the fireplace?
I knelt next to it, careful not to touch in case it was a clue. The speck was a clump of black hair, the dark color standing out against the cream-colored pile. The sheriff would laugh his ass off if I showed him this. Half the forensic team had dark hair.
Forget it. I should get out before O’Neill saw me.
Instead I leaned forward to get a closer look. The strands were short and dense, more like fur than hair. Could another pet have been in here? Mr. Muffin Tops was an orange-and-white cat. Ms. Welch occasionally let him use the pet flap in her kitchen door. I suppose some black dog or cat could have wandered in here when it was unlatched. No other explanation seemed likely.
I got to my feet and brushed carpet dander off my knees.
At least I’d solved one case today.
MY SHOP keys jangled in my hand as I hopped out of my rusty pickup. I’d had my share of adventures with the old girl over the last thirty years, but this time my beloved rattletrap had made it across town without breaking down. A good day.
A crowd of eight people stood around the front of the Cat’s Meow. One woman cupped her hands around her face while she looked in the window. Looking for me.
I apologized while I unlocked the door, promising everyone free treats for their trouble, then got to work. My shop catered to all things cat, both for the actual felines and the people who loved them. I sold cat food, toys, and the aforementioned gourmet treats, as well as all kinds of cat paraphernalia for the human set. Everything from cat-themed greeting cards to cat-shaped night-lights to slippers that made you look like you had a big, furry cat on each foot. If it had a cat on it, I sold it.
On this day I gave away twelve bags of tuna/salmon bites to compensate for my tardiness, sold eighteen bags of organic dry food, and helped a couple pick out a cat tree for their brand-new Bombay black kitten. They added a litter box and five action-packed toys to their order, and staggered out the front door, arms full.
Despite being late, I made a good profit for the afternoon. Not bad.
When the last human left my store, I checked in with my assistant. Cissy said Mr. Muffin Tops was resting comfortably and should recover just fine. I told her to put the vet bill on the company credit card. I didn’t know who would end up taking care of the cat, but I had enough money to pay for his treatment, at least for now.
I still had an hour until closing, so I powered up the computer to fill any online orders waiting for shipment. As I scrolled through my webpage, I found my eyes closing on their own accord. The adrenaline churned up when I found Ms. Welch dead vanished, and suddenly I was bone-tired. I couldn’t wait to lock the door and go get a Hawaiian pizza from Marcelloes’. Then I’d head home, kick off my shoes, and watch a basketball game on TV.
The bell over the door rang, signaling the arrival of another customer, hopefully my last of the day. I put a smile on my face, and still managed to hang on to it when I caught sight of my visitor.
Two thousand people called Sunrise Cove home. You would think one lone woman with a passion for purple dresses and orange straw hats couldn’t keep track of everyone.
Abigail Barnett must have a gossip telegraph stashed in her basement. The second anything noteworthy happened in this berg, she knew about it. Then she talked about it, to everyone she met. Especially me.
It seemed I was easy to talk to.
Sighing, I grabbed a cola and pulled my stool closer to the counter. I might as well be comfortable.
“Mrs. Barnett, how lovely to see you. Do you need more treats for Angelica?” Angelica was her beautiful Himalayan cat, with long white fur and blue points. She had the sweetest personality, unlike her owner.
“Oh, Mr. Sherwood, it’s terrible. Fran Welch was murdered.”
I had only found the body three hours ago. Hell, Sheriff O’Neill’s team was probably still processing the scene.
“I was there, Mrs. Barnett.”
“That’s right, you found the body. You saw her lying here, stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife. It’s enough to give one nightmares.”
“The murder weapon came from her kitchen?”
I hadn’t spotted a knife near the body. Maybe O’Neill found it under one of the fallen books.
“The sheriff can’t tell for sure. He’ll have to wait until the lab can test the stains on the blade.”
Of course she knew all about O’Neill’s thought process. She probably knew what he had for breakfast that morning. Busybody, thy name is Abigail Barnett… which could work to my advantage. The sheriff would kill me if he caught me snooping around in the case, but could it really be called snooping if a customer happened to give me a fact or two? It would be rude to stop Mrs. Barnett before she had her say, wouldn’t it?
“Do they know who killed her?”
“No, but Sheriff O’Neill is looking for a burglar.”
Damn. “What do you think?”
“Me?” She touched her hand to her chest. “I’m sure I don’t know.”
“Come on.” I plopped my elbows on the counter. “I bet you have a theory.”
“Well….” She looked left and right, making sure we were alone before answering. Just us two little conspirators. “I’m not sure a burglar killed Fran.”
“Because that rich bastard, Sheldon Moss, hated her. He said he’d ruin her, and she’s ruined now.”
“Sheldon Moss? The man who owns Cascade Lumber?”
Despite years of deforestation, cutting down trees was still a thriving business in the Northwest. Moss owned one of the biggest lumber companies in the region, and he was the wealthiest man in town.
“Yes. He hired Fran last month to plan his daughter’s wedding, but something terrible happened. The groom ran off, leaving Nancy crying at the altar.”
“Nancy was the bride?”
“Why blame Ms. Welch if the groom got cold feet?”
“I don’t know, but Sheldon Moss fired Fran and kicked her out of his house. She must have been involved somehow.”
The clock chimed, synced with a rumble from my stomach. Quitting time.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Barnett, but I have to close up shop now. Ms. Welch’s cat is at the vet, and I want to check on him before going home.”
I knew damn well the cat was fine for the night, Cissy had said so, but what was the harm in a little white lie? Especially if it meant I could get out the door in a few minutes.
“The bastard hit poor Mr. Muffin Tops on the head, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” I said, “but he’s going to be okay.”
“Thank goodness.” Mrs. Barnett checked her diamond watch. “You’re right, Mr. Sherwood, it is getting late. I have to go now.”
She got halfway to the door before I spoke. “Mrs. Barnett.” I waved a plastic bag at her. “Your cat treats.”
“No, thanks. Angelica still has a month’s supply.”
The bell tinkled and she was gone. Moving fast, I locked the door behind her.
This terrible day was almost over. Time to deal with pizza and basketball, not murder.
I CRACKED open my eyes, and a pulsing red light shot right into my pupils. I slammed my lids shut, embracing the dark. As long as I couldn’t see the phone, I didn’t have to deal with the messages, right?
It’s a cat way of hiding. My beloved Maine coon, Rylie, would stick her head behind a tissue box, the rest of her body in plain view. She thought I couldn’t see her because she couldn’t see me. It worked for her.
For me, not so much.
Even with my eyes closed I knew the phone was there, just inches from my hand, its red light bouncing off my eyelids in colorful patterns.
Who could sleep through that?
Giving in to the inevitable, I flung off the comforter and hauled myself upright. No longer hiding, I bravely reached for the phone before I could change my mind.
I had two messages. The first one made me want to flush the cell down the toilet. I didn’t. No point in throwing away a four-hundred-dollar phone. My sister could still track me down, no matter how much I wanted to hide.
Since our mother died, Janice had made it her mission to look out for me. She was there for me the night Dad cut me out of his life and every day since.
I hadn’t been fair, hitting Dad with two surprises at once. First that I was gay, and second that I had quit my job. Six generations of Sherwood men had served in the United States Military, and I was the seventh. I kept a low profile during four years in the Navy and the decade that followed at NCIS. I hated myself every second while I kept the family tradition alive. After one disastrous night I’d had enough.
Dad walked out on me that night. We hadn’t spoken since.
Janice stayed in my life, almost too much. She called me all the time. Normally I liked to hear her chatter on about office gossip at the realty company, but not today. Not while she was trying to set me up on a blind date.
I’d never had a steady relationship while I’d been in the closet. A brief encounter in a car or a one-night stand kept the biological urges at bay. The rest of the time I concentrated on my work. Even though I was no longer actively hiding, the thought of a date, out in the open, scared me silly.
Try telling my sister that. Janice thought I needed a boyfriend to be happy, and she was going to find me one, no matter what.
I was very much afraid the blinking red light meant she had succeeded.
My finger hovered over her picture on my phone. If I pressed it, her message would play, sealing my fate. Instead, the coward that I was, I tapped the unknown number just below it.
The voice that came out of the speaker made my heart drop. It was Natalie Turner, Ms. Welch’s sister. Her voice was thick, like she’d been crying. She didn’t say much, simply asking me to call back as soon as possible.
I hesitated. The last time I spoke to a grieving woman was five years ago. I had to tell her that her son was dead. Back then I spared her the details that continued to haunt me to this day. I didn’t tell her how scared Trent Crowe looked perched on the edge of that rooftop. How my chest heaved, gasping for air to replace what I’d lost chasing him up there. The look on his face as he fell backward, disappearing from view. The sound his body made when it slammed onto a car one hundred feet below. I didn’t tell Crowe’s mother any of that, but I remembered. I would always remember.
I pushed the past away. Thinking about that fiasco wasn’t going to help Ms. Welch’s sister now. At least I wasn’t responsible for her death.
“Thank you for getting back to me so quickly, Mr. Sherwood,” she said after we exchanged greetings, and I offered my condolences. “I know we haven’t met, but my life’s turned upside down since yesterday and I must ask a favor of you.”
“Of course, Mrs. Turner. I’ll help you in any way I can.”
“I understand you’re the one who found… found my sister.”
“I did, but I shouldn’t talk about it. If you want details about the investigation, you should contact Sheriff O’Neill.”
“That’s not why I called you. I’m sure the sheriff will catch the culprit in time. I need your help with Mr. Muffin Tops.”
“First I want to thank you for saving his life.”
“I didn’t do anything, Mrs. Turner.”
“Yes, you did. You got him to the vet before it was too late. I’m grateful, for my sister’s sake.”
“Ms. Welch did love her cat.”
“I can’t say the same. I’m allergic to pet dander. My eyes start to water if I’m within ten feet of the cat. I can’t care for him myself, but his continued well-being is important to me.”
I could see where this was going. My precious Rylie had passed away only three months ago. I wasn’t ready for a new cat in my life, but I couldn’t turn my back on an animal in trouble either. “Would you like me to look after Mr. Muffin Tops for you?”
Her sigh came over the connection loud and clear. “That would be wonderful, at least until I find him a permanent home.”
“Of course. I’d be happy to take care of him.”
“Thank you. Oh, and don’t worry about money. I’ve already given the vet my credit card. Please keep track of expenses for cat food and the like. I’ll reimburse you.”
“Thank you. I’ll call the vet later today to see when Mr. Muffin Tops can come home.”
“Yes, about that. As I said, Fran was rather particular about caring for the cat. She spared no expense for a bed and toys for the animal. Even though I don’t think Mr. Muffin Tops would notice the difference between a designer bed and an old blanket on the floor, Fran would want the cat to have his things.”
“I want to honor your sister’s wishes, but Ms. Welch was killed in her house. I’m not sure Sheriff O’Neill would want me walking through the crime scene.”
“But she died… died in the den, didn’t she? The supplies are in her bedroom upstairs. Surely you could visit the second floor? I’d go myself, but….” Her voice broke. I could tell she was crying.
“It’s okay,” I broke in quickly. “I’d be happy to go fetch whatever you like. I’m sure the sheriff will understand.”
O’Neill didn’t need to understand. I wasn’t going to tell him. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have some insurance. “Would you mind writing me a note giving me permission to enter the house? That way I’m covered even if the sheriff shows up.”
“Okay, I’ll drop by in a couple of hours to pick it up if that’s convenient for you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sherwood. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”
“It’s the least I can do.”
“I’m grateful. Now I must call the mortuary to make arrangements.”
Arrangements no one expected to make for a thirty-seven-year-old woman. It hit me then, what a waste Fran Welch’s death was. The killer was getting away while O’Neill searched for a burglar who didn’t exist. Despite my current occupation, I was still a trained investigator. I could do more than look after a cat.
“Mrs. Turner, do you have any idea who might have killed your sister?”
“No, everybody loved her.” That response was automatic, one she amended a minute later. “Well….”
“What is it, Mrs. Turner?”
“She had been traveling to Portland a lot recently, and she wouldn’t say why. She used to live there, but she moved here for the peace and quiet. Why did she go back?”
Good question. I had another.
“Why would a party planner want peace and quiet? You need people for parties. Why not live close to social centers like New York or LA?”
“Planning lavish parties is quite profitable, Mr. Sherwood. After ten years working nonstop, Fran had made enough money so she could scale back the pace of her business. Only planning events for friends or select acquaintances, traveling only when she must.”
“Is that why Ms. Welch was going to New York?”
“I suppose. Fran didn’t say.”
Mrs. Turner didn’t know any more about Ms. Welch’s plans, and we hung up.
I tossed the phone on the bed and thought about Fran Welch while I put on my jeans. Even working part-time, I still didn’t understand why a party planner lived in Sunrise Cove. And why all those trips to Portland? It didn’t add up.
I puzzled over it through breakfast at the Main Street Diner, and while driving to Mrs. Turner’s house.
Far too busy to call my sister.
MS. WELCH’S back door hadn’t been tampered with. Lacy white curtains hung behind four intact panels of glass, blocking the view inside. The blue paint was so clean it looked brand-new. I got out a magnifying glass and examined the brass around the keyhole. Not a scratch on it. No burglar picked this lock. Ms. Welch had let her killer into her home.
I wondered if O’Neill had thought of that.
I still had a key to the house. I unlocked the door and paused inside the threshold. No sign of anyone, especially not an enraged sheriff rushing me with cuffs outstretched. The click-clack of the grandfather clock filtered into the kitchen from the living room. Silence filled the rest of the house. I was alone.
My phone beeped. Janice’s twenty-third text of the morning. Pissed off, she would keep sending them at precise five minute intervals. There was only one way to make them stop.
I answered one text, telling her I would call her later. The phone fell silent, at least for now.
In order to get to the bedroom, I had to go down the hall, then cross the living room to get to the stairs at the opposite side of the house. That meant walking past the crime scene. The cops had tacked two strips of yellow tape across the den door in the shape of a big X. A subtle hint to keep people out. I plastered my back against the opposing wall and inched forward. O’Neill wasn’t going to book me for disturbing evidence.
Thinking about the sheriff disturbed me. A tough guy and an animal lover all rolled in one. I wondered what other surprises O’Neill hid under that mop of red hair.
Upstairs the cat bed sat on the floor next to the human one. I doubt if Mr. Muffin Tops ever put a paw on the satin cushion. Most cats liked to sleep with people.
Rylie had slept on the pillow by my head. Mr. Muffin Tops would probably stake out his own spot atop the mattress, and maybe that would be okay. When Rylie died I didn’t think I could ever love another cat, but I was lonely. I lost my cat, and Mr. Muffin Tops lost his owner.
We needed each other.
But I couldn’t leave the cat bed behind, even if the kitty never went near it. I promised Mrs. Turner, and I was going to keep my word.
I found a catnip mouse and tossed it into the bed. It hit so hard it shifted the cushion, revealing a white triangle underneath.
A cat bed was a strange place to keep a business card.
I picked it up and my blood went cold. Embossed on the front was a logo for Watchword Investigations, a private detective firm in Portland.
Had Ms. Welch hired a private detective to dig her out of trouble? Trouble that got her killed?
I’d found a solid lead and didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t forget that I saw the card and couldn’t follow up on it alone. No one at Watchword would tell the truth to a guy who owned a cat shop. They might talk to someone with official standing, like a county sheriff.
I sucked in air, expanding my chest to three times its normal size, then let it go in a gush.
There was no choice. I had to call O’Neill.
THE SHERIFF had been so pleased to hear from me, it had taken twenty minutes for my ear to stop ringing. I think he said he’d be dropping by, but it was hard to tell though all the cursing.
I’d annoyed him somehow.
Not wanting to irritate him further, I went outside to wait. I sat in one of Ms. Welch’s brown patio chairs, a wrought iron table in easy reach. As soon as my butt hit the material, the cushion molded around the curves of my bottom, making for the perfect seat. Memory foam. I needed to shop in better stores. This chair was more comfortable than my favorite recliner.
The sun beat down on my head. I shifted the chair a scooch to the left, positioning it underneath the shade of a bottlebrush tree. The trunk took the worst of the heat, the light filtering through the branches, sending leaf-shaped shadows dancing across the tabletop. Even though I was in Oregon, the atmosphere around the patio had a southern flair, at least for the moment. I wished I had a mint julep.
The skin under my watchband started to sweat. I took off the timepiece and put it on the table, right next to my phone.
As I moved my hand away, the smartphone came to life, showing me a screenshot of my sister with a grin on her face. I didn’t think she was smiling in real life. Afraid to stall any more, I swiped my thumb over her chin, and greeted her with my happiest tone.
“Janice, dear, it’s so wonderful to hear from you.”
“Stow the crap, Cam. I know you’ve been ducking my calls.”
“Ducking your calls? Me? You wound me, Janice. You really do.”
“I’d like to wound you, with pitchforks and torches.”
I could picture it, her chasing me down the street, swiping the prongs against my rear end. The image made me wince. “You don’t need a pitchfork. Your diabolical plan will be painful enough.”
“A blind date isn’t diabolical.”
“Cam, when you came out, you said you didn’t want to hide who you are anymore.”
“Then you need to go on a date.”
“I’ve dated men.”
“Making out in a car doesn’t count.”
The foam under my butt shifted while I squirmed. “I wish I’d never told you that.”
“I wish you’d confided in me sooner.”
Dead silence filled the air.
Janice had never quite forgiven me for not telling her I was gay, but I was too afraid to come out back then. Some people, like Janice, would accept me, but others wouldn’t. It was too much to face. I didn’t want to make waves, couldn’t break from fear’s grip. Not until Trent Crowe jumped off that roof. As I stared down at his body, I made a promise. His death wouldn’t be in vain. I would live life out in the open, in honor of him.
An easy promise to make, not so easy to keep. Janice tried to help by pushing me in the right direction, but she couldn’t understand why I didn’t just go along for the ride. Time to admit the truth.
“I’m scared, Janice. I’ve always kept my private life hidden. Sharing a meal with a man in a restaurant, holding his hand where everyone can see… I don’t know if I’m ready for such a big step.”
Her voice softened. “Then make it a smaller step.”
“Listen, Cam. You’re not going to make out in the dining room, just have dinner with the guy. Men do eat together in restaurants, even if they don’t strip each other with their eyes.”
I laughed. Leave it to my big sister to show me how stupid I was being.
“Okay, Janice. Who’s this perfect guy you’ve set me up with?”
“Well, he’s not perfect. He has dogs.”
“That sounds encouraging.” A scratching sound distracted me. Something pushed against the branches of a bush, making them rustle.
“It’s the best I can do. Let’s face it, baby bro, you’re in a league by yourself when it comes to appreciating felines. Remember, a dog is man’s best friend.”
She ignored me. “At least he doesn’t hate cats.”
“That’s a plus….” A flock of birds exploded from the tree, sending foliage flying in all directions. A clump of leaves landed in my hair. I jumped to my feet.
“What’s the matter?” Janice asked.
“Nothing.” I tucked the phone under my left ear, freeing my right hand to comb through the strands on my head. “I’m just coated with tree poop.”
I heard a strangled laugh. “How did that happen?”
“I don’t know….” I spotted a flash of black in the corner of my eye. “A cat scared a flock of birds out of one of Ms. Welch’s trees.”
“A cat? Not Mr. Muffin Tops?”
“No, he’s still at the vet, but Dr. Link said I could pick him up later tonight.”
“Good.” My sister sounded smug. “That means you’re free for dinner.”
“Yes, don’t worry, I’m going.” I finished shaking the foliage from my head. “You never said who my date is.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Are you going to tell me?”
“Because I don’t want you to hate him before you even get a chance to know him. Just be at the Red Jam Café at seven. You can’t miss him. He’ll have a white flower in the buttonhole of his blue jacket.”
“How do you know what he’ll be wearing?”
“Because his sister is going to dress him before he can leave the house.”
“His sister picks out his clothes?”
“Only when she wants him to make a good impression.”
The leaves shifted again, possibly signaling the return of kitty. I edged near the bush, trying to get a closer look.
“Let me guess, he’s a jeans and T-shirt type of guy.”
“And you’re not?”
“Point.” I’d cheerfully donated my suits to charity the day I gave up my badge. I didn’t need to make cat treats in fancy clothes.
“You put on something nice,” my sister ordered. “Don’t make me come over and dress you too.”
“Okay, don’t worry.” The suits were gone, but I still owned a set of khakis with a matching blazer. “I’ll be at the Red Jam at seven, and I’ll be presentable.”
“Thank you.” She let out her breath. I wondered if she’d been holding it all this time. “I love you, baby brother.”
“I love you too.”
I had just reached the bush. A black cat burst out of the foliage, heading straight for the outdoor table. Before I could move, he snatched my watch in his jaws and ran for the front of the house.
“Dammit,” I yelled, taking off after him.
“What’s the matter?” Janice asked.
“A kleptomaniac cat just ran off with my watch.”
“I’ve got to call you back, sis.”
I thumbed the phone off. By the time I rounded the house I was too late. There was no sign of the little bugger, just an amused woman standing there with a baby carriage.
“Let me guess,” she said. “A cat just stole something from you.”
“My watch. How do you know?”
“Edgar just passed by me, running for home. I thought he had something gold dangling out of his mouth.”
“Edgar the cat. Our neighborhood jewel thief.”
“Jewel thief? He’s stolen things before?”
“Many times.” She laughed while adjusting her baby’s blanket. “Edgar must be part magpie, because he loves to steal bright, shiny objects. He’s taken items from nearly every house on the block.”
“Really, and nobody’s complained?”
“There’s no need. Maggie keeps track of everything. They’re safe with her.”
“Maggie is Edgar’s owner, I take it.”
“Maggie Stone.” The woman pointed down the street. “Her house is the last one on the block. Stop by when you have time, and she’ll give you your stuff back.”
“I will, thanks.”
The baby started to cry. “I’d better give this one her lunch. Have a nice day.”
As she left, O’Neill’s cruiser rolled into view.
So much for a nice day.