A journey into Nan's shocking past... via train!
Ever feel like your entire world has been turned on its head? That’s how I’ve felt ever since the gang and I found out that Nan has been keeping major family secrets stashed neatly away in the attic.
What’s worse, we still don’t know exactly what happened, and I have so many follow-up questions, like is she still the same woman I always assumed she was? And can I ever fully trust her again?
With Nan unable to give me a straight answer, I invite my parents to join me for a cross-country train trip so that we can all discover the truth, once and for all.
Octo-Cat hitches a ride with us, too, and it’s a good thing he does, because it isn’t long before a dead body joins us in the dining car. Now we have two mysteries to solve, and fast—our lives and legacy depend on it.
Read the first three chapters!
My name’s Angie Russo, and lately my life has taken one dramatic turn after another. Seriously, where can I even begin?
I guess it all starts with my cat.
Think that sounds boring? Well, think again!
My cat can talk. Only to me, but still.
We met at the law firm where I used to work as a paralegal. I never really loved that job, but I did enjoy having food in my fridge and a roof over my head, so I stayed despite being treated like a glorified secretary and not the shrewd researcher I’d worked so hard to become.
We had a will reading scheduled one morning, and I was called in to make some coffee for the attendees. The machine we had was approximately a million years old and unpredictable even on its best day. This was not one of its best days. All I wanted to do was make the cruddy coffee and get back to work, but—lo and behold—I got electrocuted and knocked unconscious instead.
And when I awoke from that zap, I found a striped cat sitting on my chest and making some pretty mean jokes at my expense. Well, as soon as I realized the voice was coming from him and he realized that I could understand what he said, that cat recruited me to help solve the murder of his late owner.
That’s how I and Octavius Maxwell Ricardo Edmund Frederick Fulton Russo, Esq., P.I. became an item. I’ve since shortened his name to Octo-Cat and have become his official owner—although he’d surely tell you that he’s the one who owns me, and, well… he wouldn’t exactly be wrong.
He came into my life first with a murder mystery and then with a generous trust fund and even more generous list of demands. So now here we are, living in the posh manor house that previously belonged to his late owner, drinking chilled Evian out of Lenox teacups, and operating the area’s best—and only—private investigation firm.
There was a brief upset when a raccoon named Pringle set up a competing business, but we’ve moved past that now. Because, yeah, at first I could only talk to Octo-Cat, but with time, I also gained the ability to communicate with other animals, too.
The regular cast of mammalian characters that make up my life include an eternally optimistic rescue Chihuahua named Paisley, that infamous raccoon racketeer named Pringle—also known as the Master Secret Keeper for our firm—an easily distracted, nut-obsessed squirrel named Maple, and my crazy-daisy, live-in grandmother, Nan.
Frankly, I’d love to add a bird to our merry little gang of forest misfits, but they’re all too frightened to talk to either me or Octo-Cat. Go figure.
And despite our diverse skill set, our P.I. outfit isn’t exactly successful. We’ve only had one case to date, and we weren’t even paid for it. I know it will happen for us eventually if we just stay the course and continue to believe in ourselves…
Well, that’s what Paisley insists, anyway.
Even still, I’ve got this huge new thing in my life that is keeping us plenty busy, with or without work to fill our days. I just discovered that I have a whole big family in Larkhaven, Georgia, that I never even knew existed until a couple weeks ago. And what’s more, they’ve invited me, my mom, and dad to come down for an extended visit so that we can all get to know each other.
Octo-Cat insists on coming, too. He hates long car rides and refuses to even consider getting on a plane, which means we get to take the train. Whoopee.
Sure, it won’t cost very much, but it will take longer than a day of continuous travel to get there. Still, I can’t exactly leave him behind when he was a big part of helping me locate the hidden branch of our family.
Yeah, Nan had kept them hidden from us for my entire life and my mom’s whole life, too. But now that we’ve found them again, there’s no keeping us apart. Nan doesn’t want to join us, even though Mom and I both assured her she’d be welcome. She still feels guilty about what happened.
Maybe we can convince her to join us for the next visit. I hope we can, because even though she kept a major secret from me, she’s still my best friend and my very favorite person in the whole wide world.
That’s why saying goodbye to her right now is so difficult…
* * *
“Promise me you’ll call every single day,” I moaned, hugging my grandmother so tight I had to wonder if she could even breathe.
“Mommy, I’m going to miss you, too!” Paisley, Nan’s five-pound tricolor Chihuahua, cried as she pranced on the platform from the other end of her neon pink leash.
I scooped her up and peppered her adorable little face with kisses. “I’m going to miss you, too,” I cooed in a cutesy, crazy pet lady voice. Talking to the animals like this in public made people think I was weird but kept my secret ability hidden. “Mommy will be back in sixteen days. You can wait sixteen days, can’t you?”
“I don’t know how to count,” Paisley said with a happy bark.
I handed her over to Nan and took Octo-Cat’s cat carrier from my mom so she could get in goodbye hugs, too.
My cat growled during the handoff. “Hey, there’s delicate cargo in here!”
Mom and Nan said a quick goodbye, and then I set Octo-Cat down to hug her again. As pathetic as it might be to admit, I’d never been away from her so long. I’d grown up under her roof and lived with her most of my adult life, too—although now she lived with me rather than the other way around.
Throngs of passengers dragging big wheeled suitcases passed us on either side, and I had to step back to avoid getting hit by a fast-walking woman who was more focused on her phone conversation than where she was going.
“Look,” I told Octo-Cat. “She has a cat carrier, too.”
And she did. Only it was much fancier. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bling adorning the case was actual diamonds—or at least Swarovski crystals.
“Show-off,” my cat muttered, even though I’m pretty sure he’d have loved a decked-out carrier like that to call his own. It didn’t matter that he’d sooner surrender one of his few remaining lives than willingly get inside.
“I’m surprised there are so many people out here,” my dad said, glancing around uncomfortably. “I didn’t realize anyone still took trains when there are so many other options available.”
“It’s romantic,” my mom gushed, leaning into him and possibly squeezing his butt from behind. It seriously grossed me out how in love these two were, even after thirty years of marriage. They sure acted like high schoolers, sometimes.
“I feel like I’m about to rush platform nine and three quarters at King’s Cross for the first time,” I said with a snort and a chuckle.
“When were you at King’s Cross?” my dad asked with a furrowed brow.
Ah, jeez. Sometimes it was hard being the only avid reader in the family. Had my parents seriously not even seen the movies?
“That’s it!” I cried. “We’ve got like thirty hours aboard that train. More than enough time for a Harry Potter movie marathon, and when we get home, I’m lending you my book collection so that we can get you all the way caught up.”
“Homework?” my mom whined.
“Ugh, you’re the worst ever, Mom,” my dad added.
And then they kissed so long and hard that my mom’s foot popped up like a fairytale princess getting her first big kiss. Only this was their six millionth big kiss at least.
This was going to be a very long trip. Very long, indeed.
“The conductor’s waving you over,” Nan said, pointing toward a uniformed man standing just outside of our train car. “Best get a move on.”
“Are you ready?” I asked Octo-Cat.
“Just get me out of this thing,” he grumbled, as if this whole method of travel hadn’t been his idea.
“Relax,” I murmured as we made our way over to the step up into the train. “I’ll have you out in two minutes, and then it will be smooth sailing from there. After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen on a train?”
Famous last words… I really should have known better.
After giving Nan one last squeeze, the four of us strode up to the train and climbed aboard. Well, Octo-Cat was carried in what he’d deemed his “travel prison.” In the back of the car, I found a grouping of four seats that faced each other, two on each side, and placed Octo-Cat’s carrier onto the aisle seat, taking the spot by the window for myself.
Nan stood exactly where we’d left her on the platform, waving furiously and hopping up and down. “Bon voyage, my dear!”
I laughed and blew her kiss.
“You’re just as embarrassing as she is,” my mom muttered, scooching over in her seat so that she and my dad had not a millimeter of space between them. “No wonder the two of you are always conspiring on something.”
I let that one slide, despite the fact that she and Dad were way more embarrassing than Nan and I would ever be. Mom had always felt sensitive about how close me and my grandmother were, and I knew she felt left out somehow. It was even worse now that we’d recently found out Nan wasn’t her real mother, that she had in fact actively kept her from her birth mom based on the request of the man both women had once loved.
Yeah, we were still untangling that one…
That’s why we were headed down to Larkhaven, Georgia. My grandfather’s side of the family still lived down there and had invited us to come on over for a little family reunion. Of course, we had no idea where my biological grandmother had gone, or even if she was still alive. But one thing at a time.
My dad whispered something in Mom’s ear, and she giggled.
“Gag me on my own hairball,” Octo-Cat drolled beside me. My sentiments exactly.
Passengers continued to pile onto the train. Dull chatter settled around me like a comforting blanket. Perhaps, this wouldn’t be so bad, after all. I watched a mother with two young children settle near the front of the train, then an elderly couple settle a bit closer to us. All kinds of people chose trains over planes, it seemed.
Who’d have ever guessed that the rail travel industry would still be going strong in the twenty-first century? Not me.
A man wearing an old-fashioned fedora and argyle sweater vest slid into the seat across the aisle, then immediately withdrew a rickety looking typewriter and began to pound on the keys. His fingers moved deftly as he added word after word to the sheaf of paper hanging from the top of his old-fashioned machine.
A typewriter on a train. Two anachronisms in one.
Throw in the fedora, and that makes three.
Suddenly the man stopped typing and pushed his glasses farther up his nose as he turned toward me. “What’s a good word for suspicious? Except for more subtle?” His unblinking eyes bored into me as he waited for some kind of genius revelation to spring forth from my mouth.
“Um, odd? Curious?” Kind of like you.
He rubbed his chin. “Hmm, I’m not sure those will work. Ahh, well. I’ll come back to it in the second draft.”
“The second draft? Are you writing a novel?”
That was kind of cool. My nan had always claimed she’d write a book, and little by little she had made progress over the past several months—although the book she was working on was a memoir, not a work of fiction. I often wondered if she planned to include the truth about my grandfather and bio-grandma.
“Oh, yes,” the man said with a smile that lit up his whole face. “Not just any novel, the next great American novel. You see, it’s about—”
“Angela!” Octo-Cat cried from inside his carrier, practically panting in his sudden onset of panic. “Get out! Get out now, or we will be forced to spend the entire journey listening to this guy’s delusions of literary grandeur.”
“It sounds wonderful,” I told the aspiring novelist. “Unfortunately, my cat needs to be fed now.”
The tabby yowled pitifully to help sell our story.
I still thought it might be cool to talk to a real live writer, but the fact that this one referred to his unfinished manuscript as the next great American novel was a flashing warning sign. This guy thought he was important, talented, God’s gift to readers, even. I was all for credit where credit was due but believed it was better to let others sing your praises than to belt them out on your own.
“I’ll be back later, okay?” I offered with a friendly smile. I didn’t want to be unsupportive of his dreams, especially since my dream of becoming a full-time P.I. with my talking cat as a partner was every bit as crazy.
“And run,” Octo-Cat directed.
I was not going to run away from the poor guy. At least not literally.
I stuck a Bluetooth device in my ear as we pushed through our car into the next. The thing hadn’t worked in years, but it did provide a great misdirect when I felt the need to talk to Octo-Cat in a public place.
“What do you think?” I asked him as I felt the train jolt to life under my feet. My hand stretched toward the wall, catching me just in time to avoid my stumbling forward.
“Well, that was unpleasant” my cat complained with a low growl. “Can I please get out of this thing now?”
“I’ll let you out as soon as we settle somewhere,” I promised, pausing for a moment to glance out the window as we rolled away from the station. Nan was still out there waving like mad, but soon she became a speck on the horizon.
He sighed and thumped around in the case. “I know it was just an excuse to get away from Chatty McMyNovel, but I could use a meal or at least a spot of Evian.”
“The dining car it is.” I raised him higher and hugged the carrier to my chest as I pushed into the next car.
I hoped the conductor wouldn’t give my parents a hard time for me being up and out of my seat already, but then again most of what I knew about trains came from old timey books and movies. Things seemed to run a bit different in our modern age of digitization.
Luckily, we only had to pass through three other passenger cars before reaching our destination. That was good news for the journey ahead. I liked knowing that snacks were nearby, should we need them.
“I should probably text Mom and Dad to let them know where we went.” I unlatched the wire front door, and Octo-Cat sprang out onto the table twitching mightily.
“You do realize that in cat years that was almost a full prison sentence, right?” He shuddered, then plopped on his side and began to lick his kitty bits for all to see—and on an eating surface, no less. At least I was used to his less than courteous ways.
Shaking my head, I sent a quick text to my mom, asking if she needed anything while we were over here. As soon as I sent the message, my phone spat out a message to let me know I had a low battery. Twenty percent. Ugh, leave it to me to be so preoccupied with the upcoming journey that I forgot essentials like making sure I had a fully charged phone.
Glancing around the dining car, however, put my fears to rest. Every single table had an electrical outlet. I just needed to fine my phone charger inside my jumbled mess of a suitcase and then we’d be perfectly fine.
“I’ll go see if they have any Evian,” I told Octo-Cat.
He mumbled something, not bothering to pause his public ministrations to address me properly.
I sighed and shook my head again, then approached the snack station with a rumbling belly. Another basic necessity I’d ignored in my excitement over the trip.
The worker saw me approaching and forced a smile. His curly red hair fell forward into his eyes, and he reached up to brush it from his face. Perhaps I would stick to prepackaged food unless I was certain he wouldn’t be the one preparing it.
I’d seen steak among the meal options, and that sounded really good right about now. Was it too early to order my dinner? I hoped not.
Before I could reach the counter to order anything, however, a woman wearing a cream skirt and matching peplum blouse intercepted me.
“Hello, there,” she said with a friendly but placid grin. “Were you just talking with your cat over there?”
She glanced over my shoulder and nodded to Octo-Cat back at our table, then set her eyes back on mine with a knowing expression, aka an expression that suggested she’d already figured out my closely guarded secret.
Five minutes aboard a train, and I’d already made a major misstep.
I took a giant step back, but the lady reached out and grabbed my wrist, chuckling softly as she did.
“I didn’t mean to insult you. After all, I talk to my Grizabella constantly. Few people understand the special bond between a woman and her cat. Wouldn’t you say?” She tilted her head to the side and widened her grin.
I nodded as relief washed over me. “My name’s Angie, and he’s Octo-Cat.”
“I’m Rhonda Lou Ella Smith.” She held out her hand, which hung limp from her wrist. Did she expect a shake or a kiss? Either way, I was afraid of hurting her with my strong grip, so I settled on a fist bump… which failed miserably.
Rhonda brushed her hands off, then folded them in front of her waist. “Yes, well. Care to join us at our table? Better you than someone else, after all.” She laughed again, and the sound reminded me of a bird singing at first morning light. Everything about her reminded me of a bird, actually—from the delicate bone structure to the expensive and perfectly tailored outfit and flashy jewelry all the way to her dazzling platinum hair.
“Sure, let me just order our snacks first.” I turned back toward the red-headed counter attendant and he dropped his hand from his mouth sheepishly. Gross. I bit my nails, too, but not while working food service.
“Oh, don’t you worry about that. I have more than enough to share,” Rhonda promised, then sashayed back toward her table, moving so gracefully I had to wonder if she’d escaped from a ballet or a circus trapeze act or something.
“Okay, then. Be right over.” I smiled again just in case she turned back at the sound of my voice and skulked back to my table, completely baffled by the elegant woman’s interest in me. Was it really so simple as her feeling a bond to me as a cat owner?
“Whatever you agreed to, I didn’t,” my cat told me, sitting up straight and wrapping his striped tail around himself. “I’m staying right here.”
“Then I guess you won’t be getting any Evian,” I whispered, turning my back to him and counting to five under my breath.
“One of these days I’m calling the animal cruelty association on you,” he said from behind me, then jumped from the table onto my shoulder.
“Ouch! Claws!” He’d never hitched a ride on me before, so I wasn’t sure why he wanted to do it now—other than perhaps thinking it could be a fun new way to humiliate, and thus punish, me for forcing him to make nice with the other passengers.
“What a cute trick,” Rhonda chirped, clapping her hands in delight as we approached.
“Tricks? Aren’t those for old dogs? I am a cat, madame,” Octo-Cat said to our new friend, although I’m sure she only heard his croaky, entitled meow.
“Don’t bother speaking to her,” a smooth, lyrical voice rose from the bench seat. “She never understands.”
My eyes darted to the gorgeous long-haired cat with dark face, tail, and paws and striking blue eyes. Must be the previously mentioned Grizabella. There were cats, and then there were cats. Grizabella belonged to the latter classification. She looked like she could have stepped out of a textbook, so perfect was her coat, her stance, basically everything about her.
Octo-Cat stiffened on my shoulder, brushing his whiskers against my cheek as he craned to see the Himalayan better. “Pray, Angela. Do you also see an angel before us?”
An angel? What?
I tried to turn to look at him, but only got a face-full of striped tabby fur. Irritated, I pried him from my shoulder and set him onto the empty bench seat across from Rhonda.
He didn’t even protest. He also didn’t stop staring at the other cat for even a second. As soon as I set him down, he hopped onto the table, his quest for Evian apparently a thing of the past.
“Dear beautiful feline, it is an honor and a privilege to look upon you,” he said, his amber eyes growing larger the longer they beheld her. Either he’d been spending too much time around Pringle, our resident raccoon and medieval knight enthusiast, or he’d discovered one of the fantasy channels on TV. Knowing him, either was equally likely.
“I think my cat likes yours,” I told Rhonda with a chuckle. I’d never seen Octo-Cat try to flirt before, and I kind of wish I hadn’t seen it now.
“Careful,” the woman warned. “Grizabella doesn’t much like other cats, or people, or anyone, really.” She reached out to stroke the Himalayan’s long fur, but a quick paw batted her away.
Talk about a cat after Octavius’s own heart.
“I do not appreciate your attempts to flatter me, house cat,” Grizabella hissed, then cuddled up to Rhonda’s side. Talk about hot and cold. Octo-Cat also had pretty intense mood swings, but normally in the space of an hour rather than mere seconds.
And, normally, such a slight would send my tabby into a mad spiral of hurling insults and lashing claws, but not this time. “You misunderstand. I am part Maine Coon, the most ancient of American-born breeds, and I am at your service, beautiful Grizabella.” He dipped his head closer to the table and folded his ears out to the side in a show of respect.
“I don’t need your service. My human meets my needs just fine.”
“Hard to get,” Octo-Cat remarked with a jaunty laugh.
“No. Impossible to get,” Grizabella corrected, her tail flicking on the bench seat beside her and beating against her owner.
“Nothing is impossible.” Octo-Cat winked, then licked his paw. “I will find a way. After all, solving mysteries is my job. I own half of a private investigation firm, mind you.”
Grizabella did appear mildly impressed by this but said nothing.
I figured it was time for me to chat with the other human, lest we raise suspicion about our special communication link. “What brings you on board the train today?” I asked Rhonda, doing my best to focus my full attention on her.
Rhonda fingered the gold pendant that hung down from the chain of pearls around her neck. The piece was enormous and quite stunning, given the intricacy of the design carved into it. A cluster of matching pearls sat proudly in the middle of the piece, creating a real treat for the eyes. The thing must have cost an absolute fortune. On the contrary, my nicest piece of jewelry was a delicate sterling silver chain with a paw print charm that Nan had given me on my last birthday.
Rhonda glanced out the window thoughtfully. “I prefer rail travel. It’s better for Grizabella.”
“We’re headed for Georgia,” I volunteered. “Is that where you’re going?”
“Not this time. We’ll probably get off before then.” Odd that she didn’t actually name her destination, but I decided not to press. Pressing was not the point of making small talk, after all.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a train before. Well, except maybe at the zoo.” I laughed at my own non-joke.
Rhonda did not. “You’ll like it. There’s nothing quite like it.”
“I can see that already.”
She smiled again, then returned her attention to the window. Strange she was so insistent on having us join her when she didn’t really seem to want to talk.
We fell silent. Both of us turned our attention toward the cats, who, much to Octo-Cat’s chagrin, had still not made friends.
“Oh, dear Grizabella. I will do anything for you, even lay down one of my nine lives.” He crept to the edge of the table and sat right in front of Rhonda, who cooed happily and stroked his fur.
“Not interested,” Grizabella said, lifting her nose into the air.
Octo-Cat ignored the human and continued to beg the Himalayan for her love. “I could catch a mouse. Would you like a nice dead mouse?”
Grizabella growled and ran under the table to avoid my poor lovestruck bumpkin.
When I glanced back toward Rhonda, she was chuckling into a cloth napkin. “That’s my Grizabella for you. She doesn’t much approve of other cats, and they don’t approve of her.”
I was just about to argue that Octo-Cat approved greatly of the Himalayan, but then Rhonda said, “It’s why we make such a perfect pair.”
What a strange thing to say. Was this the wealthy woman’s way of saying she didn’t approve of me—or that she thought I didn’t approve of her? Why would it even matter? And, again, why had she insisted on having us join her?
I smiled but said nothing in response. Eventually, she moved on to tell me stories of Grizabella’s many mundane adventures. Honestly, I kind of wished I’d stayed with the writer guy.