In the latest from the author of The Cat, the Vagabond and the Victim, a feline with a penchant for pilfering ends up unearthing a deadly mystery....
Jillian Hart and Tom are finally tying the knot, but first they need to make sure Tom’s stepson, Finn, is as comfortable as possible in the lake house they will all call home. So when it becomes clear that Finn has fallen for a pretty cat from the Mercy Animal Sanctuary, Jillian and Tom readily agree to make room for one more—even though the tortoiseshell kitty is a notorious kleptomaniac.
So far, the cat has sneaked out of the adoption center time after time, bringing back trinkets, shoelaces, and socks. But when she brings back an antique locket, Finn enlists Tom’s and Jillian’s sleuthing skills. They hope to return the treasured item to its owner, but their search for answers is sidetracked when a body is found. Still, their sneaky cat’s find may just lead them to a killer....
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Leann Sweeney is the New York Times bestselling author of the Cats in Trouble Mysteries, including The Cat, the Vagabond and the Victim and The Cat, the Mill and the Murder. Leann was born and raised in Niagara Falls and educated at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Lemoyne College in Syracuse, New York. She also has a degree in behavioral science from the University of Houston. A retired registered nurse, she has been writing in the mystery genre for many years and also writes the Yellow Rose Mystery series. Leann has lived in New York, Texas, and now in South Carolina with her husband, Mike, her two cats and her spunky, hyper Labradoodle, Rosie.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The cramped office that served the Mercy Animal Sanctuary smelled like hay and kitty litter and kibble and pine-scented air freshener—or as I liked to call it, love. There was nothing I enjoyed more than being here to cuddle with a cat or a dog starved for affection.
But on this particular sunny October morning, I had not come to comfort the shelter’s inhabitants. Instead I sat beside my future stepson, Finn, as we waited for the owner, Shawn Cuddahee. He would be bringing a very special girl from the cattery.
Finn was in town on a college break. His stepdad, Tom Stewart, and I were getting married in a week and Finn had handed in research papers and taken a few tests early so he could be part of our celebration. As usual he planned to volunteer at the shelter during his stay in town. But he had something else on his mind today. Since his last time volunteering, Finn hadn’t been able to get a certain cat out of his head—a little tortoiseshell kitty, or “tortie” as they were usually called. Since she was still available, Finn wanted to adopt her. But the cat would have to live with Tom and me until he moved from the dorm into his own apartment next semester.
As we sat on folding chairs in the cluttered space, Snug, the African gray parrot who believed he was in charge of the office, entertained us. He promenaded back and forth on the horizontal dowel Shawn had nailed up near the ceiling, saying, “Hello, Jillian Hart. Hello there,” and “Finn, clean the dog crates. Clean the dog crates.”
When Shawn finally rushed through the door from the kennel and cattery, his face was flushed with agitation. And he wasn’t holding the tortie. “Sorry, Finn, but she’s gone again. She is the sneakiest little girl we’ve ever had.”
Finn stood. “That’s okay. I planned on working today anyway and she always comes back. She’ll probably be here by the time Jillian picks me up later.” He looked my way. “Anything I need to do to help you guys with the wedding setup when I’m done here?”
I laughed. “Though I’m certain you’re dying to wrap vines and rosebuds on Kara’s banister, we’ll take care of it.” Kara was my stepdaughter—my late husband’s only child. She was hosting the reception at her gorgeous new house.
“Yeah, I’d probably be more useful here.” Finn looked at Shawn. “Where should I start?”
Snug piped in with “Clean the dog crates, Finn. Clean the dog crates.”
Shawn still seemed a little annoyed and preoccupied, but not with Snug. He bent and retrieved a shoe box from under the desk and set it down on the battered metal surface. He glanced back and forth between us. “You sure you want a cat who brings this kind of stuff home all the time? ’Cause I got a couple across the road from here who’ll always take the difficult cats. They’ve got a barnful to protect their chicken feed from rodents. Cats do that quite efficiently.”
I leaned forward and examined the contents of the box while Finn merely seemed amused.
Shawn picked out a shoelace and held it up. “This is so old it couldn’t hold anything together.”
I spied what looked like a ragged sock, several coins, buttons, more shoelaces, a filthy little sachet pillow and a baby’s knitted hat. I looked up at Finn and smiled. “Are you adopting a cat or a magpie?”
Snug said, “Magpie” three times and did a wolf whistle to top it off. None of us could keep a straight face after that one.
“That’s it.” Finn grinned. “I’ll call her Magpie. It’s perfect, Jillian.”
Shawn shook his head. “All I can say is you’ll have your hands full. She may become a domestic indoor cat right away, since she’s real friendly, but she’s an escape artist.” Shawn looked at me. “She’s always sneaking out to hunt for anything she can drag back here.” He waved his hand at the box. “This stuff is just from the last few days. I wanted you to see evidence of what you’re getting yourself into if you plan on keeping her through the holidays, Jillian.”
Finn glanced my way, a hint of anxiety in his eyes. “You said it would be no problem, right?”
“Absolutely no problem. I’m excited to have her with us.” I smiled because it was true. What kitty didn’t challenge its human caretaker?
Finn went on as if Shawn and I needed more convincing. “Plus, I’ll be living with her and Tom starting the second week in December and through most of January when we have semester break.”
I could tell this kitty must indeed be special. Finn really wanted to bring her home.
Shawn’s phone rang and he answered, “Mercy Animal Sanctuary.” After listening for several seconds, he said, “This cat is wearing one of my collars? You’re sure?” He nodded and glanced at Finn. “What does the kitty look like?” More listening and more pointed looks at Finn. “I’ll be right there.”
Finn cocked his head and stared at Shawn. “Was that about Magpie?”
“Oh yeah. Did you bring a crate for this girl?” Shawn asked.
I nodded. “It’s in my van. Someone found her, I take it?”
“Yup. And you’ll never guess who. You can follow me and then please take this little troublemaker off my hands.” But Shawn smiled. He had a soft spot for the troublemakers.
We left the office with Snug bobbing his head and chanting “Magpie” over and over.
The route Shawn took confused me at first. True, I’d lived in Mercy for seven years, but there were more back roads than people in this town. Then I recognized where we were headed and turned to Finn sitting beside me. “How did Magpie end up at Ed’s Swap Shop?”
“You got me. This should be a fun mystery to unravel, Jillian. I love it.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “A cat who collects other people’s trash ends up with a man who does the same thing. Seems fitting.”
Finn laughed. “It’s perfect she’s with Ed.”
We considered Ed Duffy a relative. He was the lovable, gentle live-in companion of Tom’s mother, Karen. Ed had been collecting junk for years and actually did a steady business either swapping his treasures for different items that caught his fancy, taking things on consignment or selling some things for cash. Finn spent almost as much time with Karen and Ed as he did with Tom. In fact, when we pulled onto the neglected patch of asphalt Ed called a parking lot, the old guy opened the door and Finn’s rat terrier, Yoshi, raced straight for him. Ed often kept Yoshi at the shop when Finn or Tom didn’t plan on being home. Tom must have dropped the dog off before he went to pick up the new suit he’d bought for our wedding.
Finn opened his arms and the dog leapt into them. After licking his beloved Finn’s face and wiggling with joy, Yoshi jumped down and greeted me as he’d been taught—by sitting and waiting for me to pet him. Then it was time to say hello to Shawn, who was already crouched and waiting to scratch Yoshi behind the ears.
Ed called, “Y’all come on and help me with this little feline problem I’m presented with.”
Soon we all crowded into the store. Decades ago it had been a family home and the stacks of toys, tools, small appliances, magazines, books, lamps, fishing gear and so much more made what had once been the living area seem tiny. And there before us was this battered old love seat—obviously a recent addition. It filled what little space had been left in the center of the room. Since we couldn’t get past it, we all stood staring down at its dingy brown upholstery.
Ed stroked his gray beard. “This here is my dilemma.” He looked down at a whining Yoshi. “Help me out, fella. Make some noise.”
Yoshi complied by jumping on the love seat and yelping at the space between the love seat cushions.
We all heard a cat meow in reply. I would have expected a hiss if one of my three cats found itself trapped in a sofa, but Magpie had been at the shelter so long she was probably used to barking dogs.
I put my hand to my mouth and muttered, “Oh my. Is she stuck?”
“Darn right,” Ed replied. “Only good thing is she can almost get her head through that crack and I saw the tag on the collar, got a flashlight for a better look. Like I said on the phone, she’s one of yours, Shawn. But I’ve been working for an hour to coax her out of there and it ain’t happenin’.”
“Actually, Gramps, she’s now my cat.” Finn smiled at Ed. He’d taken to calling him Gramps not long after he came to live with Tom.
Ed’s bushy eyebrows rose in surprise. “Well, there’s a new development. Guess she needs savin’ right quick, then.”
Shawn addressed Finn. “Yoshi’s done his job. Maybe he needs to go in the back while we work on this problem. The cat’s probably spooked a little.”
Finn had to squeeze past the sofa, and as soon as Yoshi was closed up in the back room, he returned and stood by Shawn again. I fit my fingers between the back of the love seat and the attached cushions. I used a soft coaxing voice. “Hey, baby. You okay?” I wiggled my fingers. The sofa was old and dirty, and I was thankful the dark brown of the cushions hid a lot more than the stickiness I felt.
It only took a minute for Magpie to pop her head out. Finn laughed and whipped out his phone to snap a picture. “Got to think of a caption for this when I put it up on Instagram.”
“Such a pretty girl,” I whispered, stroking the side of her face.
Meanwhile, Shawn was looking underneath the love seat in the back to check if she’d gotten in through a rip in the fabric. He stood and shook his head. “She either got in there the way she’s trying to come out, or came in through the bottom.”
“There’s no hole in the bottom, Shawn,” Ed said. “I woulda seen it.”
“So she can get out, but she’s choosing not to.” Shawn smiled wryly. “Typical cat.”
Sure enough, Magpie began to worm through the space and finally Finn couldn’t stand it anymore. He grabbed hold under her front legs and eased her out.
It was then that we saw she had a thin gold chain wrapped around one front leg.
“Ah. So you were Dumpster-diving again.” Finn held her up and looked into her eyes so Shawn and I could free the chain. It seemed to have an etched gold locket attached.
Magpie, with her mottled black-and-gold fur and pale green eyes, was indeed a beauty. Shawn held her back legs firmly so I could untangle the jewelry. I felt the same stickiness on her paws. Had someone spilled a soft drink on the sofa? An entire soft drink? Because that was what her fur felt like.
When we were finished, Finn held his new friend close. I stared down at the locket and saw something grimy on my hands.
Wait a minute. What’s gotten all over me?
I slipped the jewelry into my pocket. My palms were rusty red and I held my fingers to my nose. I immediately recognized the smell.
“I—I have blood on my hands.” I tried my best not to sound as panicked as I felt. “Shawn, please check Magpie. She might be injured.”
I stared down at my palms again and realized my hands were shaking. Did the cat sneak into that sofa because she was wounded? Or vomiting blood? Cats usually hide when they’re ill or hurt, so that might explain why she was hunkered down in an old piece of furniture.
Finn held her firmly for Shawn’s inspection, and after a thorough examination, Shawn smiled at me. “She’s fine. Looks as healthy as the last time I saw her before she managed to open her crate and get out the cattery door.”
“Then there’s blood on that sofa. Or under the cushions.” I glanced at Ed. “Could there be a dead animal in there? Because this is not just a little bit of blood.” I held my hands out to him.
He grimaced. “Guess we have to tear the thing apart and then I’m takin’ it to the dump. Sure as heck can’t trade this old thing to anyone and I don’t want it around. I’ll get my big knife and start taking it apart . . . see what we got.”
“You find this outside somewhere, Ed?” Shawn asked.
The old guy had already wrangled around the sofa and was behind the store counter. “Yup. By the clothing donation box they got set up on Harkins Road.” Ed held up a container of disinfecting wipes. “Catch, Jillian.”
He tossed them to me and I started cleaning my hands, grateful to be rid of the mess. Meanwhile, Finn fetched the crate from my car and brought it in. With my help, Finn put his new kitty in. Within seconds she began fiddling with the latch.
All of us now had blood somewhere on us and I passed the wipes around.
Ed said, “That’s what you get for sticking your hand in there. I wasn’t about to get chewed up by an angry cat.”
“She’s not angry, Gramps. She’s scared.”
“Whatever you say, son.” Ed sounded unconvinced.
Shawn put his face close to the sofa cushions. “Can’t hear anything, can’t smell anything but blood. Probably any animal in there was freshly killed by our friend Magpie.”
“You think so?” I didn’t want to believe it, but cats are predators.
Shawn read my mind. “You’ve been around cats long enough to know that’s probably what happened. A bird or squirrel or a rat, no doubt. I’ll help Ed take this old thing to the dump after we find out what’s inside. A critter that needs burying, if you’re up to the job.”
Finn said, “Are we dismantling the sofa right now? I hate to leave Yoshi locked up much longer.”
I had plenty to do myself and didn’t want to end up with the task of burying a poor, dead animal. I did have a wedding in my imminent future, after all. Then something caught my eye—a coppery glint between the cushions. I almost touched it, but Shawn grabbed my hand. He’d seen it, too.
I looked at him, my heart beating a lot faster than seconds ago. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Looks like a bullet to me. Guess we won’t be touching this thing until our favorite evidence collector checks it out first. I’m sure you or Ed can call up Deputy Candace Carson, tell her we’ve just made her day.” Shawn glanced at Finn. “I need to get back to the shelter. You coming?”
“Somebody probably shot a squirrel or something, huh?” Finn said, sounding concerned.
Shawn and Ed exchanged skeptical glances. Shawn said, “Looks like .22 ammo to me. Not exactly a hunting gun. But we can’t make assumptions. Lord knows Candace has drilled that into me by now.”
“I promised to help Shawn with the bales of hay he has to move or I’d stay until you and Candace get this figured out.” Finn looked at Ed. “I can come back and we can move this out of here later, okay, Gramps?”
“Son, I got it in here and I can get it out. Been hauling stuff for years, long before you were born.”
“Um, hello?” I said. “What’s with y’all? You think I can’t lift a little piece of furniture? Ed, Candace and I can handle this. Go on, you two.”
Finn smiled. “Sorry. We’re sounding like a bunch of macho guys, aren’t we? I’ll let Yoshi out, say good-bye and meet you outside, Shawn.”
Soon they were gone, leaving Ed, Yoshi and me alone with a dirty love seat and a determined cat. How long before she got out of that crate?
I focused on the sofa and felt a stirring inside that told me we wouldn’t be finding any dead animals today. Maybe because after all the times I’d helped Candace on cases, she’d taught me well, taught me to pay attention to my instincts and even the tiniest of fears.
I tossed th...
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