This needy litter may be cute... Unfortunately, the deadly mystery they bring with them is anything but.
It’s kittens for Octo-Cat when an orphaned litter shows up at our doorstep. And although the needy litter may be cute, the deadly mystery they bring with them is anything but.
Charles has been hinting at a big surprise he’s planned for our first Valentine’s Day together, but the arrival of the kittens quickly changes everything. Now he’s helping me figure out who put the babies on my porch and why their paws are covered in blood.
Meanwhile Octo-Cat is left to play babysitter to the unruly brood while we investigate, and he’s none too happy about it.
Right, so all we have to do is keep the kittens safe, solve their mystery, find forever homes for them, and try to find a way to salvage Valentine’s Day. That shouldn’t be too impossible…
Read the first three chapters!
Hi, my name’s Angie Russo. I used to be a paralegal, but now I’m a full-time private investigator… well, at least in theory.
We only get about one case per month, and they only sometimes pay. Luckily, my cat came with a very generous trust fund from his previous owner, which solves at least one major problem.
Oh, also, my cat talks.
Not to everyone, though.
Considering his constant stream of criticism and unwanted life advice, I’m sure he wouldn’t have the time to talk to anyone else even if he were able.
Did I mention he’s my partner?
No, not like that. He’s my business partner.
My romantic partner is a handsome, brainy, sweet, and considerate attorney by the name of Charles Longfellow, III. And while I may call him “sweetie,” my cat calls him “UpChuck.”
I’ll probably have to cave soon and make a deal with Mr. Kitty to get him to stop that. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and I don’t want anything to ruin it for us.
Besides, Octo-Cat should be busy with his own date that night. He and his long-distance girlfriend, former show cat Grizabella, are as in love as any two cats could be. I should know, because he’s constantly lording it over in front of me, saying how much better his relationship is than mine.
Cats, am I right?
Well, I also have a dog—a little rescue Chihuahua named Paisley. She technically belongs to my nan, but we all live together.
Paisley is sweet like a double scoop of double fudge ice cream covered in sprinkles and chocolate sauce. Sometimes she’s too optimistic about people’s intentions, which means she’s not exactly the best crime-solving partner.
Nan, on the other hand, uses all her varied life experience to solve our cases in the most unusual way possible. As a former Broadway actress, she’s all about costumes, accents, and general over-the-topness.
Boy, do I love her for it.
Speaking of love, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the raccoon who lives in my back yard. His name is Pringle and he has zero boundaries. Not too long ago, he uncovered a long-buried family secret by snooping around the attic—we still haven’t fully resolved that one—but he also kind of saved my life a couple weeks ago. I guess that makes us even.
As a thank-you, I now allow him to come into the house whenever he pleases. And he “pleases” quite often. Our grocery bill has risen precipitously. Meanwhile, Pringle is beginning to resemble a literal fuzz ball with all the junk food he puts away on a daily basis.
Sometimes I wish I’d never had that near-death experience that left me with my ability to talk to animals, but then I remember all the amazing things I’ve gained in life since then. Don’t tell him, but the greatest of those things is my friendship with Octo-Cat.
Sure, he only sometimes shows me affection, but when he does it’s enough to keep a smile on my face all day.
That brings us to today.
It’s been T-minus six days since my cat deigned to let me pet him. My parents have been on a glamorous Alaskan cruise for the past three days, and I have had no cases since investigating the mayor’s missing golden retriever last month.
All this downtime has got me wondering whether I should take up a hobby while I wait for the next big case to land in my lap. I have tried advertising, but that’s mostly been a bust. So what else can I really do?
Maybe I should go back to school and finally work toward a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice or something.
I have seven associate degrees, because I’ve always loved learning too much to commit to any one field for four whole years. But now that I’m a PI, I can’t picture any other life for me. Would a degree help bolster the confidence of potential clients?
Or maybe someday I could officially join the police force and work as a salaried detective? Would they let me forgo a human partner in favor of my cat?
Hmm. If not, that might be a deal-breaker.
So many options, but none of them are just right.
I’m pretty sure I know what I need to do, and it’s the one thing I’ve been trying so desperately to avoid ever since I got started.
My boyfriend Charles is the senior partner at his law firm and has offered on more than one occasion to hire me through the firm to help with cases. Sure, Charles was a good boss while I worked for him as a paralegal—in fact, that’s how we first met and became friends.
But our relationship has evolved so much since then, and I’m worried it might hurt the good thing we have going together. Also, returning to the law firm feels like a giant step back even if my job title would change.
I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that I just don’t know what to do.
Maybe the cat would be willing to decide for me…
Octo-Cat regarded me with a piteous look. He flicked his tail and knocked a bottle of painkillers from the nightstand on which he was perched. “See, this right here. This is why you need me.”
I’d planned to do a little reading before tucking in for the night, but the two of us had gotten to talking about my conundrum and—as expected—the tabby had no shortage of opinions.
“Think about it,” he continued, swinging the tip of his tail like a metronome. “Everything you have is because of me. House. Job. Boyfriend. Need I go on?”
I swallowed down my comeback. Sad to say, he was right. I hated that he was right.
“So what should I do?” I asked with wide eyes.
“Isn’t it obvious?” He narrowed his eyes at me, then groaned. “Oh, right. Forgot who I was talking to for a moment there.”
I resisted the urge to pick him up and carry him out into the hall so that I could shut the door between us and finally get some peace.
Octo-Cat, however, continued his lecture unaware of just how painfully it was being received. “You should take the work from UpChuck. Duh.”
“Don’t call him that,” I mumbled.
He rolled his large amber eyes. “You need more experience and references, and he’s offering to help you get those. It’s not just you you have to think about here.”
I bit my thumbnail and sighed. “Okay,” I said simply. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow then.”
My tabby seemed pleased with this conclusion. “Now are there any other parts of your life that you need me to fix for you tonight, or can I go about my nightly duties?”
“What nightly duties?” This was the first I’d heard of them, and while Octo-Cat did help solve cases, he did precious little else with his days. Could the nights really be all that different?
“Oh, you know. Keeping my favorite spot on the couch warm. Walking over all the counters and tables to make sure they’re still sturdy. Protecting the house from ghosts. Watching the—”
“Wait. Go back a second there. Ghosts?”
He glared at me as if I should have known better than to interrupt his soliloquy. “Yes. Didn’t you know? Only cats can see them.”
I studied him for a second in an attempt to figure out whether he was being serious, but he just stared at me blankly, giving absolutely nothing away.
“Are ghosts really real?” I squeaked. I knew I had something of a magical ability, but I had a hard time believing that those fairytale supernatural creatures walked among us.
My cat yawned, and his smelly tuna breath hit me full-on in the face. “Guess you’ll never know,” he said flippantly before jumping off the side table and trotting out of the room.
Something told me I might not sleep so well that night.
Saturday had arrived, and I was looking forward to sleeping in and waking up extra refreshed.
Nan, however, had other plans. She breezed into my room bright and early, carrying a coffee mug so full I had to wonder how she kept from spilling. “Rise and shine!” she sang, beaming at me from her spot next to my bed.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and pulled myself into a sitting position. The wooden spindles of my old-fashioned headboard dug into my back, offering me a rather rude awakening, indeed.
Nan pressed the coffee mug into my hands. Some of the hot liquid escaped, sloshing over the side of the cup and onto my comforter.
That was when Paisley arrived. “Good morning, Mommy!” she barked before belting out a spirited rendition of some happy little nursery rhyme about a doggie in a window.
It was all way too much noise first thing in the morning, and I’d never been a morning person to begin with.
“What do you want?” I snapped, perhaps a bit too unkindly.
Nan narrowed her eyes at me. “Don’t sass me, dear. I’m headed out for my new booty boot camp class in a few minutes.”
“Thanks for asking, but I’m not interested,” I groaned, attempting to take a sip of the coffee but spilling again.
My grandmother shook her head. “Good. Because I didn’t invite you. I was lucky to get the one spot I did. This class usually has a six-month waitlist, but they somehow managed to squeeze me in at the last minute.”
“Then what do you need?” I asked from behind the steaming mug.
She raised both arms and motioned toward me. “To give you that.”
I eyed my coffee and nodded my thanks. Nan always brewed it for me, given my well-documented fear of coffee makers. It may seem silly, but I’d just never been able to look at them the same after my near-death experience last year. Of course I’d tried other forms of caffeine, but none sated my addiction quite like a good old-fashioned cup of joe.
“Have fun at class,” I said sweetly, feeling guilty now for having snapped earlier.
Nan lifted her arms in front of her at shoulder height, then did a quick dip and squat. “I won’t,” she said with a grin. “That’s the point. Beauty through pain.”
“You’re already beautiful, Nan,” I muttered. Even though I’d taken up jogging with Nan a few days a week, she was still in far better shape than me—and, wrinkled or not, her body showed it.
She turned and shook her bottom, which was clad in pink velour sweatpants. “I’m looking to tighten and tone. If Grant ever gets around to officially asking me out, I want to be ready.”
I shuddered at the thought. While I was happy that my grandmother had found a close friend in Mr. Grant Gable, I definitely didn’t want to think about how said friendship might involve her needing a tight and toned bottom.
“Well, I’m off!” Nan trilled, heading back out my bedroom door with Paisley yapping at her heels.
I sat sipping my coffee and thinking about what I wanted to accomplish with my day. Saturdays used to be my favorite, but now that I was self-employed every day was both a work day and a vacation—not a good vacation, but rather the kind that happened when I didn’t have enough to keep me busy on the job.
“Morning, shrimpy.” Octo-Cat appeared in the doorway seeming rather pleased with himself.
I raised one quizzical brow. “Why shrimpy?”
“Why not? Humans call each other sweetie, sugar, and honey, so I figured I’d try calling you after a food I like.”
Given that my cat loved shrimp to an inhuman degree, I was very touched—and also glad that no one else could hear him calling me this strange new nickname.
A smile spread between his whiskers as Octo-Cat luxuriated in a long sunbeam that had stretched lazily across the bedroom floor. He looked really happy.
“May I help you with something?” I asked, suddenly very suspicious.
He did a crazy-looking cat yoga pose and then jumped up onto the bed beside me. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“Since we don’t have any active cases right now, I figured this would be a good time for you to drive me to Grizabella’s for a visit.”
I almost choked in shock. “But she lives in Colorado. That’s a really long car ride. And besides, how would I explain such a trip to her owner?”
“Christine is not her owner,” my cat said emphatically. “We both know the cat’s always the one in charge.”
Octo-Cat shook his head in disappointment, then whipped his face back toward me. A sneaky smile stretched from furry cheek to furry cheek. “As for Christine, I’m sure you’ll think of something during the long drive over.”
His piece said, the tabby lifted his tail high, then turned to leave.
“Wait,” I called before he’d made his exit.
Octo-Cat peeked back over his shoulder. “Yes?”
“I don’t think we can manage a trip to see Grizabella right now.”
“Why not? It’s not like you have any work to do.”
He had me there. “I just don’t think—”
“No, it has nothing to do with thinking. The truth is you don’t want to, but next Friday is Valentine’s Day and I haven’t seen my gorgeous Grizz since Thanksgiving week.”
I sat higher in bed, hoping the change in posture might render me more convincing in my deceit. I supported Octo-Cat’s relationship and wanted him to be happy, but this request was simply ridiculous.
“Yeah, it’s Valentine’s Day!” I practically shouted. “I already have plans with Charles.”
“No, you don’t.”
“How do you know I don’t?”
He heaved a giant breath. “When you’re sleeping, Pringle goes through your phone and reads everything to me.”
My heart dropped right into my stomach. “WHAT?! What’s everything?”
He smirked. “You know, texts, emails, status updates, the works. And neither you nor UpChuck has mentioned any Valentine’s Day plans.”
I was stuck, stuck, so hopelessly stuck… but also very angry now. “You can’t just look at my private stuff!”
Octo-Cat chuckled. “You’re my human. There shouldn’t be any secrets between us.”
And with that he left.
I took another sip from my mug, but by now the coffee had grown cold. As much as I loved my bossy, overbearing feline, I just couldn’t rationalize an impromptu cross-country trip, especially when his girlfriend’s human had no idea I could talk to cats.
I needed to find a way out of this.
And I probably needed to change the passcode on my phone, too
As much as I’d have liked to go back to sleep, the fresh coffee stains covering a good portion of my comforter made that inadvisable. Besides, I didn’t need to lend any credence to Octo-Cat’s argument that I should take him to see his Internet girlfriend all the way over in Colorado. He already claimed I did nothing with my days, and sleeping through this one would prove that theory of his.
Maybe I could trick him with a made-up case to keep us both busy until he found a new idea to obsess over. Then again, he wasn’t the easiest cat in the world to fool. I could find a legitimate case before next Friday. Couldn’t I?
Already at a loss, I padded my way down to the second floor. Once there, I found Octo-Cat in his new bedroom, sitting right on top of the giant 140-gallon aquarium I’d recently caved and bought him.
Outfitted with richly colored silks and a baroque decorating scheme, my cat’s room was nicer than mine. It also kind of resembled an eighteenth-century Parisian brothel—or at least what I assumed one might look like.
An accurate comparison or not, I felt immensely out of place whenever I entered, which meant I mostly gave Octo-Cat his privacy. Not that he ever returned the favor.
Still, someone needed to feed his fish—and it was better if that someone didn’t find herself tempted to eat them every time the lid to their tank was opened.
“I’ve told you I can handle it,” my cat groused when I grabbed the canister of food flakes and twisted off the top.
I shrugged off his argument. “Yeah. I’m not in the habit of inviting disaster into my home.”
“My home,” he corrected with an irritated sniff. “And what are you talking about? Disaster is basically your middle name.”
“Maybe. But I doubt your fish would appreciate you sticking your paws into the tank and batting at them with those sharp little claws of yours.”
Octo-Cat jumped off the tank and raised a paw to his chest. “Who are you calling little? I am deeply offended, and so are they. My fish have names, and I’ll thank you to use them.”
Even though I regularly talked to pets and forest animals, I’d never once heard Octo-Cat’s fish utter anything other than “blub, blub.” Was he simply pulling my leg about this? Then again, if other animals could talk, why wouldn’t fish be able to as well?
Still pondering this, I sprinkled the food into their tank and quickly closed the lid to avoid any kitty shenanigans.
When Octo-Cat jumped back on top to watch them through the tiny opening for the water filter in the back, I decided to ask for a little clarification on the matter. “What are they?”
“They’re fish, genius.”
I met his eyeroll with one of my own. “Of course, they’re fish. But you mentioned they have names. Right? So, tell me, what are they?”
He hopped back onto the floor and sat at my side, his eyes trailing the largest fish as it swam idly about the tank. “See, that big orange one? That’s Tasty.”
“Uh-huh. What about the striped one?”
He smiled and shifted his gaze to the aforementioned fish. “That’s Delicious.”
I was beginning to see a pattern here but continued to listen until all the fish had been named—among them were Yummy, Scrumptious, and Appi-teaser. My guess was he’d seen a few too many commercials for a certain restaurant chain leading to the made-up name of that last one.
I didn’t point this out, though.
Instead I shook my head and said, “I’m not letting you eat your fish. They’re supposed to be your pets.”
“Angela,” he said, aghast. “Who says I want to eat them?”
“You—” I began but was cut off by the merry chime of the doorbell. I didn’t recognize the tune since Nan had recently changed it. It definitely had an upbeat doo-wop vibe about it, but I wasn’t particularly fluent in that era of music.
“We’ll finish this later,” I promised the tabby before racing down the stairs.
Upon pulling the door open, I found my other half, Charles, waiting on the front porch with a giant grin on his face. He immediately wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me in for a kiss.
“Gag. Get a room,” Octo-Cat spat as he finished descending the stairs.
I chuckled as Charles and I finished our greeting.
“Great idea. We’ll use yours,” I told the mean kitty.
Charles bunched his eyebrows in confusion. “Use my what? Oh, right. You were talking to the cat, weren’t you?”
“Sorry. He’s just being bratty, but I’m focused on you now.” I flushed and tucked a fallen strand of hair behind my ear. Sometimes I forgot that others could only hear one side of my animal conversations. “What’s with the early-morning surprise?”
“I thought we could spend the day together, if that’s all right with you.”
“That’s perfect with me.” I gave him another long, lingering kiss.
Octo-Cat walked by, then stopped and pretended to retch—except that part-way through his performance, his faked motions led to a very real need to empty his stomach.
“Gross!” I cried when the puddle of puke landed just a few inches from my left foot.
“You’re telling me,” Octo-Cat responded before trotting into the kitchen and leaving me to clean his mess.
“Well, that’s romantic,” Charles quipped with a goofy laugh.
“Isn’t it just?” I carefully turned away and grabbed the cleaning spray and a roll of paper towels from our coat closet.
“It’s okay if today’s not perfect,” Charles assured me, accepting the dirty bunch of used paper towels from me. “Today’s just Saturday. It’s next Friday that’s important.”
“What do you—?” I stopped when I noticed Charles’s face had crumpled into a frown. “Valentine’s Day, yes. I’m really excited.”
I wasn’t a doting romantic, but I loved that Charles was.
“This will be our first one together, and I want to make sure it’s special.” He sprinted toward the kitchen to dump the soiled towels into the trash.
“Okay. What should we do?” I asked with an innocent smile as he jogged back.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got it all planned out.”
“Great. Tell me about it.”
“Nope. It’s a surprise.” Something flashed in his eyes that made my stomach fill with butterflies, both because I loved Charles and because I had a tendency to fear the unknown.
“Just so long as you’re not planning to propose,” I joked before I could stop myself.
Charles’s face fell again. This time my heart sped to a million beats per minute—or somewhere thereabouts.
“Oh,” I said when nothing better came to mind.
My boyfriend reached his hand up to cup the back of his neck and averted his gaze toward the floor. “Um, I was going to wait until the big day, but…” His words trailed off as he sunk to the floor, took a knee, and then looked back up at me with bright, hopeful eyes.
“Charles, I…” I what? What could I possibly say to this?
I loved him. I’d committed to him. But I didn’t want to get married just yet. Not until I had my life and business in better working order.
He licked his lips, took my hand in his, and then burst out laughing. “Just kidding!”
Octo-Cat guffawed with laughter as he passed by yet again. “Ha! Maybe UpChuck’s not so bad, after all,” he muttered to himself.
And as much as I hated that cat’s snarky comments about my boyfriend, I hated the idea of them teaming up against me even more.
Luckily, Charles had no idea what Octo-Cat had just said.
I wouldn’t be telling him, either.