I was just your normal twenty-something with seven associate degrees and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. That is, until I died… Well, almost.
As if a near-death experience at the hands of an old coffeemaker wasn’t embarrassing enough, I woke up to find I could talk to animals. Or rather one animal in particular.
His full name is Octavius Maxwell Ricardo Edmund Frederick Fulton, but since that’s way too long for anyone to remember, I’ve taken to calling him Octo-Cat. He talks so fast he can be difficult to understand, but seems to be telling me that his late owner didn’t die of natural causes like everyone believes.
Well, now it looks like I no longer have a choice, apparently my life calling is to serve as Blueberry Bay’s first ever pet whisperer P.I while maintaining my façade as a paralegal at the offices of Fulton, Thompson & Associates.
I just have one question: How did Dr. Doolittle make this gig look so easy?
Read the first three chapters!
The first thing you should know about me is that I hate lawyers. The second is that I work for them.
I didn’t plan it that way. Not one bit.
I was going to be a huge star, leave Blueberry Bay behind without so much as a farewell glance over my shoulder as I booked it the heck out of there. The problem with that plan was, well, you need talent in order to be a star—and I never had much of that. At least not that I’ve discovered.
When the temp agency assigned me to work for Fulton, Thompson, and Associates as their new paralegal, I almost said no. But then I saw those dollar signs and remembered how rent is a thing that exists.
And so here I am, doing the needful to get by as I continue down that elusive path toward fame by eliminating every possible talent one at a time. Stands to reason, if I keep at it long enough, I’ll eventually find my true calling. Who knows? I could be the world’s best hip-hop yodeler…
Except I already tried that and I’m not.
It’s fine, really. I’m enjoying the journey, although I sure do wish the destination would hurry up and get here already.
Hi, I’m Angie Russo, and one day you’re going to see my name in lights.
You see, my nan used to be a celebrated Broadway actress back in the day. That is, until she quit at the peak of her career to retire to Glendale, Maine, and raise her family.
Before you ask, no, I can’t sing, dance, or act, but Nan assures me that I have star power in my blood. Just like she did and just like my mom.
Oh, yeah, you probably know my mom. She’s the news anchor on Channel Seven and my dad does the sports report. Seeing as they’re these huge career types, it was Nan who did most of the work raising me—and that suited me just fine.
In fact, I’d still be living with her even now if she hadn’t given me a gentle push out of the nest and told me it was time to fly.
That was about a year ago and happened just shortly after I collected my seventh consecutive associate degree from Blueberry Bay Community College. Yes, indeed, I’ve always loved learning anything I could wrap my brain around.
At least God did me a solid by making me smart, even if He made my unique talents hard to find. One of my degrees is, in fact, for paralegal studies and law administration services, which may seem like a strange thing to study for someone who hates lawyers as much as I do.
But that’s a story for another time…
This is the story of how I almost died, and it’s a good one.
* * *
I began my day by sniff-testing two blazers with the goal of choosing whichever was cleanest for a will reading at the office that day. Both smelled vaguely of sweat and gym shoes, meaning either would earn me a stern lecture from the partners. Then again, maybe that’s precisely what I deserved for putting off that trip to the dry cleaner’s for so long.
After spraying a cough-inducing fog of deodorizer into my closet, I plucked the neon pink jacket off its hanger and pushed my arms into the sleeves. A black and white polka dot blouse and stretchy leggings completed the outfit perfectly. Because I didn’t have time to wash my hair that morning, I pulled my poofy shoulder-length hair into a messy bun and accented the do with a cute barrette I picked up earlier in the week from my favorite dollar store.
And before you can ask…
No, I didn’t have time for dry cleaning.
And, yes, I always had time for the dollar store.
On that particular morning, I didn’t have time for either one, though. In fact, I’d spent so much time agonizing over which blazer to wear that I’d pretty much run out of time altogether. I’m already not a morning person, but when you add in a manic rush to get to a job I don’t even like…
Well, I could already tell just how bad this day would end up.
I raced out the door—unshowered, unfed, and uncaffeinated—hoping that I’d at least have some luck and catch all green lights on my commute that day. Instead, the longest train in the world cut me off not even two blocks from my house. The train tracks run along the only major street to serve our small coastal town, and there’s absolutely no way for me to reach the firm via backroads, which meant I found myself stuck waiting in a line of angry, honking cars for a solid fifteen minutes.
By the time I actually reached the office, I was the last one through the door and we had less than ten minutes until the will reading commenced. My hope to sneak in undetected proved unfounded as well.
“Russo!” Mr. Thompson bellowed before the door even closed all the way behind me. If you pictured an old, white guy wearing boat shoes and an ascot, you’d have a pretty good idea of how Mr. Thompson looked and an even better idea of how he acted. He was a fantastic lawyer, but not a very personable boss.
A thick, meaty vein pulsed at the side of his head, and for some reason I couldn’t stop staring at it. He pointed at me with a shaking finger and a scowl. “Late and dressed like you’re attending an 80’s themed party instead of a will reading. Nope. That’s not going to fly today. Go see if Peters has a jacket you can borrow.”
It took the strength of a thousand body builders not to roll my eyes as I slumped off to find the only female associate in the whole place.
We often got grouped together by nature of our shared gender, but Bethany Peters and I were nothing alike. She was blonde and pretty and looked like she should be sweet as pie, too—except she was actually the biggest shark of them all. I guess you have to be in order to get taken seriously in a man’s world.
But what did I know?
I was just a glorified secretary who didn’t even want to be there.
Bethany turned her nose up at me the second I entered her office, and I pinched my fingers over mine. See, Bethany had an obsession with essential oils and even sold them in these tacky online parties that she invited us all to about once per month. Even at that point I’d only worked at the firm for a few months but had already ordered more lavender bath salts than I could ever possibly need.
On the day of the will reading, Bethany’s office reeked of juniper and lemon—definitely not one of her better combinations. Still, whatever blend of restorative girl power mojo she was trying to concoct, I sincerely hoped it would work for her.
“Let me guess,” she said in that nasally, condescending tone that she always used whenever talking to me or one of the other employees without a law degree. “Fulton sent you in to borrow a jacket from me.”
A smile crept across my face. “Thompson, actually.” Call me a contrarian, but I loved getting the chance to prove her wrong, especially when a day started off as bad as this one had. It was a small and beautiful gift.
“Can’t you pick up some more appropriate work clothes for yourself so you’re not always stuck borrowing mine last minute?” She sighed before lumbering over to the other side of her office with loose arms and large, exaggerated strides. She looked like a preppy blonde gorilla, but I decided to keep that particular comparison to myself.
“Thompson… Fulton… They’re both kind of freaking out today,” Bethany confided in me. “Apparently the old lady that died is related to Fulton.”
“How do you know?” My eyes grew wide. So, this was why everyone was making such an unusually large fuss that morning.
“Well for starters, her last name is Fulton, too.” She tapped on her temple to draw my attention to her superior brain power.
I tapped on my head and shot her an ugly grimace in response. Now we were both office gorillas, and what an exhibit the pair of us made.
Bethany chuckled as she handed me the most boring navy-blue blazer God ever put on this green earth. “Try to keep it together for the reading, huh?”
I nodded while switching jackets. The blazer pinched at my armpits, but I knew better than to complain. “Thanks,” I muttered, narrowly escaping Bethany’s office before she could once again remind me that Goodwill or the Salvation Army were nice places to find clothes within my budget.
“I’d lose the barrette!” she shouted after me.
Aargh, so close.
But since Bethany tended to be like a dog with a bone once she had an idea, I pulled my cute little accessory out, taking a few caught hairs with it. The bun came out next, and I quickly finger combed my hair to make it semi-presentable. Hopefully that would be enough to make everyone happy.
“Angie, is that you?” Mr. Fulton, the senior most partner called from inside the conference room. For whatever reason, Thompson always uses our last names, and Fulton sticks to our firsts. Maybe that was their way of playing good lawyer, bad lawyer, or maybe they just liked to keep us on our toes.
I put on my best smile. After all, the guy did just lose a family member. “Good morning, sir. Can I help you with something?”
His eyes lingered on my face briefly before he cleared his throat and pointed to the dusty old coffeemaker in the corner of the room. “We’re going to need lots of coffee, and since you’re a bit late this morning, I’m afraid there’s no time to make a run to the barista. You’ll have to use our backup maker. As strong as you can make it, please.”
“I’m on it!” We didn’t use the in-house coffeemaker very often and really only kept it around for code red caffeine emergencies. The fact we needed it now was definitely not a good sign.
In fact, I’d never actually used that old thing at all. The one time I’d almost had the chance, an intern burst into the office carrying a tray of Starbucks and let me off the hook. This ancient thing shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, though. After all, I had seven associate degrees.
Mr. Thompson, Bethany, and a few of the other associates entered while I was fiddling with the roast basket, which for some reason refused to line up with the necessary grooves in the machine. Normally we’d only have one or two attorneys present at a reading, but they seemed to be pulling out all the stops for this one.
Was it just because the person who died was related to one of our partners? Or was something more going on here? My curiosity had definitely been piqued by this point.
Working in my corner, I caught a few snippets of the discussion happening around the conference room table. Our day-to-day conversations at the firm were normally pretty dry, but things sounded refreshingly juicy today.
“Admittedly, it is a somewhat unusual situation,” Thompson said first.
Later, Fulton said, “Given the stipulations, I’m expecting one of the grantees to contest.”
An associate named Brad set up a tape recorder—yes, another ancient relic living in our office—and Bethany shuffled a bunch of papers around.
When the coffeemaker’s basket snapped into place, I let out a triumphant yip, drawing aggravated stares from my colleagues. “I’ll just be right back,” I promised as I rushed past the growing crowd with the empty coffee pot.
A beautiful, blonde woman wearing a matching cardigan set and a string of pink pearls stopped me before I could make it to the kitchen tap.
“Angie, I’m so glad I ran into you!” Diane Fulton—Mr. Fulton’s wife—shook her head and knitted her over-plucked brow. “Did you catch last night’s episode?”
Even though Diane dresses like a blue-blood snob, she was actually the coolest person in the entire place. She and I had a whole list of reality shows we liked to watch together and discuss whenever she came by the office to visit her husband for lunch.
Her eyes widened as she waited for my response. I may have been late to work, but I would never be late when it came to our shows.
“I couldn’t believe Trace got eliminated,” I answered with a tragic sigh as I turned on the faucet and let water fill the coffeepot. “Hopefully he’ll still get a record deal out of the whole thing.”
“Let’s catch up later,” she told me with a slight frown. “I have to…” She pointed to the conference room and knitted her brow again.
And I felt just awful for her. “I heard. My condolences. You, uh, weren’t close, were you?”
She stared at me for a moment as if she hadn’t heard the question. Her dangling earrings were so long, they hit her cheeks as she shook her head. “Ethel was Richard’s great aunt. She was very old and had been sick for a long time. I think we were all expecting her to go sooner rather than later.”
“Still, that sucks,” I offered.
Diane gave me a polite smile then excused herself.
Seriously? The best I could come up with was that sucks? Good thing none of my degrees were in counseling. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to go back to school. After all, school had always been my happy place. That was part of how I’d ended up with so many degrees to begin with.
I returned with a full carafe of water and a bag of coffee grounds that had expired some time last year but thankfully still smelled fresh. During my very brief absence, the meeting room had filled with even more folks. The Fultons must have been one big family. Either that, or Great Aunt Ethel had been one wealthy--and presumably generous—woman.
Mr. Fulton looked to me with one eyebrow raised in question.
“Almost ready,” I assured him as I rushed past the room of people to my quiet, little coffeemaker corner.
Quick as I could, I filled up the tank with my freshly gotten water, scooped some grounds into the filter, and pressed the big red button to initiate the brewing process.
So, I pushed it again… and again… and another thirteen times to no effect.
“Plugging it in would help,” Bethany shouted loud enough for everyone to hear and causing them all to laugh at me and my well-meaning incompetence.
Ugh, talk about wicked embarrassing!
I groped around the back of the machine until I found the cord. Everyone was still laughing when I pushed the plug into the closest socket…
First, I felt a gentle prick on my fingertips, then my entire body lit with pain. For about two milliseconds, I became hyper-conscious of my surroundings—every smell, sound, feeling, even what the air in that room tasted like just then. The individual laughs transformed into a collective gasp that tore through the room.
Then with a sharp zzzzztt it all fell away.
And I fell unconscious to the floor.
I woke up on the conference room floor. Funny, I couldn’t remember passing out, yet there I was.
My heart womped a million miles an hour, but most of my body had become fuzzy and tingly. I tried to move my arms, but they seemed content to lay splayed out at my sides. One by one, my senses started to come back online.
Mrs. Fulton’s shriek was the first thing I heard, then others in the room began to murmur amongst themselves. Some voices I recognized, but others were completely unfamiliar.
Bethany said, “It’s probably time we threw that old thing out.”
Mr. Fulton ignored her as he rushed toward me. “Angie… Angie…” His panicked voice grew closer until he’d arrived right at my side. “Are you okay?”
Meanwhile, Mr. Thompson mumbled something about liabilities and workman’s compensation—exactly as anyone who knew him would expect him to do in such a situation.
I was still trying to remember what had happened when an unexpected weight pressed down onto my chest and made it quite difficult for me to breathe. The overpowering smell of tuna filled my nostrils, and the sudden intensity of it brought on a coughing fit.
A voice I’d never heard before hovered over me. “Well, how about that? This one had more than one life, after all. People, pssh. So fragile.”
“Oh, she’s breathing!” Diane shouted.
“Of course, she’s breathing, honey,” her husband responded with a note of relief in his previously panicked voice. “She’s also coughing.”
“And here I thought the car trip wouldn’t be worth it,” that same unfamiliar voice chimed in, pairing the words with an unkind chuckle. “That was, paws down, the best entertainment I’ve had all week.”
Finally, my eyes flew open, and I found a gleaming amber gaze watching me from just a few inches away. Wait… Why was there a cat in the office, and why was it on me? I struggled to sit up, but my limbs were still too heavy to lift on my own.
“Oh, honey,” that voice drawled again. “If you expect to keep walking, then you probably should have landed on your feet.”
I let out a loud groan. I could feel the activity humming all around me, but the only thing I saw was the danged cat who was definitely intruding in my personal space right about then.
“What happened?” I asked before coughing again.
“I think the coffeemaker electrocuted you when you tried to plug it in,” Diane revealed. Her shaky voice made it obvious she’d been crying. I felt so bad that my clumsiness put her through that.
“Oh, jeez. This one’s even stupider than the first. I’m really looking forward to living with her while the rest of the family figures out where to dump me. Such a pity. They don’t know greatness when it’s staring them in the face.”
I moaned and attempted to lift my head to get a better look around the room. “Who is that?” I demanded.
“It’s me, Angie,” Mrs. Fulton said, squeezing one of my hands in earnest. “You asked what happened, and I told you about the coffeemaker.”
“No, the guy who just called both of us stupid.” I wished I could sit up to see past this annoying cat, but he was the only thing that filled my vision in that moment. Of course, I had lots of questions about the coffeemaker and how such a tiny old appliance had managed to zap me unconscious, but the need to identify the unknown speaker weighed on me much more heavily.
A cruel snicker sounded nearby. “I called you stupid, because you are stupid. Honesty is the best policy, the truth will set you free, yada yada, and all that other nonsense you humans like to say.”
If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have sworn that strange, lilting voice was coming from the cat. Man, how hard had I hit my head when I fell?
The cat leaned in so close that his whiskers tickled my face. His unnervingly large eyes moved frantically from side to side as if stalking some kind of prey. Oh, how I hoped I wasn’t that prey. I’d barely escaped the coffeemaker. If something sentient set out to hurt me today, I wouldn’t even stand a chance.
“Did you… Did you really hear what I said?” the voice asked again, and again it really sounded like it was coming from the cat. Did he eat a tiny human or something? None of this made any sense.
“Yes, I hear you, and I think you’re rather mean,” I answered with a huff, giving the best attitude I could, considering my prone position.
“Angie, who are you talking to?” Diane asked with words that sounded unsure and just as worried as I felt myself.
“I’m not sure who it is, but he keeps insulting me.” I closed my eyes tight, then slowly opened them again.
The cat seemed to smile, but not in a friendly way. Once again, I wondered if he considered me easy prey. Heck, I considered me easy prey, too.
“No one’s insulting you,” Mr. Fulton insisted. “We all just want to make sure you’re okay.”
The cat smiled again, bigger this time. “Ooh, ooh, me! I’m insulting you, you big, stupid bag of skin.”
“He just called me a big, stupid bag of skin! Can you really not hear him?” I blinked half a dozen times, then pinched myself. Nothing seemed to change.
“Russo, I think maybe you should take the rest of the day off and a trip to the emergency room,” Mr. Thompson commanded after clearing his throat loudly from somewhere near the door.
“Wow, you really can hear me,” the voice said again. “By the way, hi, I’m Octavius Maxwell Ricardo Edmund Frederick Fulton, and I have some demands.”
I was having a difficult time keeping track of all the threads of conversation. I knew the partners were worried about me and about themselves, but I still couldn’t identify the mystery speaker or figure out what he wanted. “Octavius Maxwell… who?”
“Honey, are you talking about the cat?” Mrs. Fulton asked, picking the tabby off from my chest.
My straining lungs thanked her, and immediately I felt stronger.
In a cutesy baby voice, Diane held the cat up to her face and cooed, “Are you trying to help our Angie feel better? You’re such a sweet fuzzy wuzzy.”
The cat turned to me and narrowed his eyes into slits. “Heeeeelp meeeee.”
Energized at last by my need to find out what the heck was going on, I managed to sit up and look around the room.
“Oh, good. Now that you can move again, Peters will take you to the hospital,” Thompson decreed.
Bethany sighed but didn’t argue the point.
“Wait!” The tabby cat trotted up to me the second Diane set him back on the floor. “What about my demands?”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. There was absolutely no way…
The cat flicked his tail and emitted a low growl from deep in his throat. “I know you can hear me, so how about doing the polite thing and keeping up your end of the conversation, huh?”
“What do you want?” I whispered, but still everyone in the office could see and hear the crazy lady talking to the cat she’d just met.
“My owner was murdered, and I need you to help me prove it. Also, of equal importance, I haven’t been fed in hours. Maybe years.” His ears fell back against his head and his eyes widened, making me feel inexplicably fond of him despite his bad attitude.
Then the first part of what he said hit me, and I gasped. “Murdered?”
Bethany tittered nervously and grabbed me by the arm. “Okay, let’s get you to the hospital. Hallucinations are not a good sign.”
“But…” I began to argue. That argument fell away when I realized I had no sane or valid reason to resist.
“Murdered!” the cat shouted after me dramatically. “She was offed before her time, and now that I know you can hear me, you’re going to help me get her the justice she deserves. It’s the least I can do to thank her for all the years she spent feeding me and arranging my pillows just as I like them. Also, did you hear the part about me needing to be fed?”
Bethany and I had almost made it to the doorway. That meant it was my last chance to talk to the cat. For all I knew, we would never see each other again. Of course, I knew it was totally crazy to assume there was even a chance any of this being real, but still, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the talking tabby needed my help.
“I want to help!” I bellowed back into the room just before the door closed behind us.
“No, you need help,” Bethany growled, sounding even more like an animal than the cat had. “Thanks a lot, by the way. This was the first time they’ve included me in something this important to the firm. Now, thanks to your little act with the coffeemaker, I’m going to miss it.”
That hurt almost as bad as the zap from the coffeemaker. “You honestly don’t think I electrocuted myself just to sabotage you, do you?”
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “No, I’m sorry. I know it’s not your fault. I just have to work twice as hard to get ahead since I’m the only female associate, and everyone wants to put me on the baby track instead of the partner track.”
“Yeah, well… at least you’re not just some glorified secretary.” I honestly couldn’t believe Bethany was complaining about her problems when I’d just had a near-death experience a few minutes earlier…
Or maybe I could. It was Bethany, after all.
She settled me into the passenger seat of her car. It was a newer model Lexus, which told me she probably didn’t have things quite as bad as she thought. Still, I felt guilty for costing her what she considered to be her big shot, so I said, “For what it’s worth, you’re the smartest one of them all.”
She laughed as she buckled her seatbelt and adjusted the rear-view mirror. “Even more than Thompson and Fulton?”
I nodded, and the movement made me dizzy. “Especially more than Thompson and Fulton.”
We shared a brief glance of camaraderie before she backed out of her spot and navigated onto the main road. Hopefully there would be no more trains passing through today, because despite our brief bond of sisterhood, I wasn’t sure how long either of us could handle being trapped in a car together.
“Thanks for taking me, even though I know you didn’t want to. You don’t have to wait around. Just drop me off and I’ll call my nan to come get me when I’m done.”
“Already planned on it. If I hurry, I can still make part of the reading.” She tapped at her temple to once again show her superior thinking.
And just like that, we were back to normal.
As for me? I wasn’t so sure.
I sat swinging my legs off the side of a wheeled hospital bed as the emergency room doctor laughed right in my face.
“You actually got electrocuted by an old coffeemaker?” Whatever kind of reception I might have expected to get at the hospital, this definitely wasn’t it.
I crossed my arms over my chest and turned away so I wouldn’t have to look at his inappropriately amused expression. “Yes, I don’t see why that’s funny.”
He finally sobered up as he twiddled his pen between his fingers like a strange tic. Studying me with a slight frown, he asked, “And it caused you to lose consciousness?”
“Yes.” We’d been over this before.
“Did you hit your head on the way down?”
“I don’t think so.” There was still plenty about my accident I couldn’t quite wrap my head around, but at least I felt fine physically.
The doctor stuck his pen back into his pocket and peered into my eyes before declaring, “Well, you look okay to me. The most I’d prescribe to you is a dose of regular strength Tylenol in case there’s any pain from hitting the floor like you did.”
He hesitated for a moment, then shook his head and offered a wry laugh. “It’s strange, though… the voltage in that coffeemaker should have only given you a light zap. I’m surprised you had such a strong reaction.”
So, we were back to this. I needed to get out of there before he called in his entire staff to check out the freak on display in the ER.
“Gee, thanks,” I muttered.
His vision narrowed. “Yes, thanks is right. Be thankful you haven’t got any burns. No concussion, either. But you did manage to score a day off work, huh?” The doctor had the audacity to wink at me before letting out another chuckle and turning to walk away.
“I didn’t do this to myself on purpose!” I called after him, trying not to let my frustration get the better of me. What a jerk.
When I was sure he wouldn’t be coming back, I shot a quick text to Nan and gathered my things to go wait for her outside. The whole time I sat there waiting, I didn’t see a single person come or go through those spinny glass doors. Even though Blueberry Bay wasn’t the most densely populated area, I still expected the hospital to see some activity. Then again, maybe it was a good thing that clown of a doctor didn’t have any actual sick people to look after.
I paced back and forth along the curb, trying my best to recall every detail of that morning. As unkind as the doctor had been, he did have a point. I’d nearly died at the hands of an old coffeemaker, and when I’d woken up again, I could talk to animals.
As a kid, I’d loved watching Eddie Murphy as the hapless Dr. Doolittle, helping his animal patients like no one else could thanks to his unique ability to talk with them. Back then, I’d thought it would be so cool to be able to understand and hold conversations with animals.
But now that I was faced with the reality?
I was scared out of my mind.
A strong gust of wind kicked up a swirl of leaves, drawing my attention to the parking lot where a pair of seagulls fought beak and talon over a fast-food hamburger wrapper that appeared to have a bit of cheese stuck to its center.
One of them held its wings out to his side and screeched. Then the other hissed and pecked at his opponent’s feet. Their fight took on new vigor as they danced around the wrapper screaming and pecking at each other—and giving me the beginnings of a wicked headache.
“Oh, will you just be quiet!” I shouted at them.
If the birds could hear me, they were clearly too occupied with their impromptu battle to care.
Wait… could they hear me? Would they be able to talk to me like the cat from work did?
I tiptoed over to them, thankful I was on my own in the abandoned parking lot because I knew how crazy I looked in that moment. Still, a little crazy was a small price to pay for finally figuring out what was going on with me today.
I cleared my throat and addressed the birds. “Excuse me.”
One of the seagulls cawed and nipped at the other, but neither of them gave me any credence.
“Excuse me,” I called a little louder, taking several more steps forward.
One of the birds turned to look at me, and the other took the opportunity to grab the wrapper and hop away with it. The first gave chase and soon the two were locked in a tug of war, the paper wrapper twisting and crinkling between them.
I chased after them too and yelled at the top of my lungs, “Excuse me!”
Finally, they both gave me their attention, although neither let go of the coveted prize.
Since I at last knew they were listening, I followed up with an offer I knew they wouldn’t be able to refuse. I smiled wide and told them, “I have tons of tasty food. Burgers, fries, ice cream cones… It’s all yours if you just answer one question: Can you understand me?”
One of the gulls tilted its head as if to think about this. While he was distracted, the other yanked the wrapper free and flew off into the sky.
“Sorry about that,” I told the remaining bird. “I can get you more food, better food that didn’t come from the trash. What do you say?”
Before the gull could answer, a ruby red sports coupe rolled up next to me, scaring him off once and for all.
Nan rolled down the window of her favorite new toy and whistled at me. “Hop in, dearie!”
“Thanks for coming to get me.” I slid onto the slippery leather seat and tugged the seatbelt across my chest.
Nan let the car idle as she lowered her cat eye sunglasses and studied me without saying a word. Her blue-gray hair was covered with a brightly patterned silk scarf, and she wore driving gloves that matched the exact same shade of red as the car’s exterior. I had to admit, Nan had style. Even when she’d moved away from the spotlight of Broadway, she’d never stopped putting on a show.
I shrugged. “What? I’m fine.”
Additional wrinkles formed on her forehead. “You didn’t say much in your text. What happened?”
“Just a mild electric shock. Again, I’m fine.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “Then why the hospital?”
I shrugged again. “You know how the partners are. They don’t want to take any risks when it comes to liabilities and whatnot.”
She shook her head, then stepped on the gas pedal so hard it jerked us both back against our seats. “So where to?”
I needed to find that cat since it seemed only he had the answers I craved. If I was lucky, then this would all turn out to be one very bad dream. Either way though, I had to know—but Nan didn’t. At least not until I knew how to explain what was happening to me.
“Back to the office, please,” I answered, fingering my seatbelt nervously.
Nan let out a sassy little huff. “C’mon, not even going to take the full day off? You’ve already been excused, now let’s play hooky. Maybe we could hit the beach. Or perhaps a matinee. What do you say, dear?”
Ah, playing hooky. That had always been Nan’s favorite thing. Some of my favorite childhood memories involved her breaking me out of second period to go on some zany, ill-conceived adventure. As I’d grown older, our skip days had grown fewer and far between. In fact, we hadn’t managed a single one since I’d moved out to get my own place.
Make no mistake, I missed my nan dearly. However…
I hated to let her down, but I had no other choice. “That sounds great, but I’ve got to grab my car from the office or I’ll have a hard time of it tomorrow. Maybe I could meet you for dinner instead?” I offered with the biggest smile I can muster.
Nan groaned and took a sharp right turn. “This new job has changed you.”
Oh, she had no idea.
* * *
Despite Nan’s objections, she brought me back to the office in one piece. Hardly more than an hour had passed since I left and most everyone was still hanging around, discussing the surprise twists in Ethel Fulton’s will. Could one of them really be a murderer?
Only my new cat friend had the answers, which is why it was so important that I find him without any further delays or interruptions.
I spotted Bethany chatting with the other associates and headed her way to ask that they fill me in on what I missed.
“Can you believe she left so much to the cat? What’s a cat going to do with all that money?” someone I didn’t recognize grumbled, taking a long pull at his take-out coffee cup.
The woman standing beside him nodded. “It’s a real slap in the face.”
Who are these two? Could they be the murderers? I wondered, trying not to stare as I committed their features to memory.
Diane came out of nowhere and saddled me with a giant, squishy hug. “Oh, thank goodness you’re okay. We were all so worried!”
“Yup, you’ll need more than an angry coffeemaker to take me out. I’m made of tougher stuff.” I knocked on my collarbone to demonstrate my durability.
As much as I enjoyed my chats with Diane, I came back for one reason and one reason alone—to find that cat. Somehow, I had to figure out a way to inquire about him without raising anyone’s suspicions.
“Um, did the reading go okay?” I fished, hoping she would take the bait and swim with it.
Mrs. Fulton dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in close. “Yes, but some of the relatives are upset with their take. You know how these things are.”
“At least she didn’t leave it all to the cat.” I tried to act casual, seeing as I’d already overheard that the dearly deceased had done exactly that.
“Well, not all of it, but it was still quite a bit. That’s why he was here, you know. She required all beneficiaries be present and seeing as the cat was one of the biggest, well, there you go.”
I feigned shock—not the electrocution kind this time, but the real, honest-to-goodness surprise at receiving unexpected news. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Diane shook her head and made a funny face. “Never let it be said that Auntie Fulton didn’t love that cat.”
“So, what’s going to happen to him now that she’s gone?”
Mr. Fulton noticed us and crossed the office to join our conversation. “Back already, Angie? Don’t you at least want to take the rest of the day off?”
Crud. I’d been so close to getting the answer I needed from his wife. Now I had to find a way to steer the discussion back to the location of that cat without making things too awkward. Mr. Fulton was a smart guy who regularly bested the area’s top attorneys in court. Did I really think I could outmaneuver him?
I had to try.
I swallowed hard and put on the same semi-famous smile that had landed me this job in the first place. “I’m fine. I’ll probably head out early but wanted to check in first to grab my car and let you all know I’m okay.”
“Great. See you tomorrow, then. Sleep in a little if you think it will help.” Mr. Fulton patted me on the shoulder and glanced pointedly toward the door.
I knew he was just looking out for me, but I couldn’t leave without first talking to that cat, especially if there was a murderer afoot. Hopefully Mr. Fulton would thank me for my stubbornness on this matter later.
I stood my ground, twisting my hands before me. “Actually, I was wondering if the cat was still around. He seemed pretty worried, and I wanted to let him know I’m okay.”
Husband and wife exchange a worried expression.
“It’s okay, dear. We’ll tell him for you,” Diane informed me kindly.
I hated lying, but desperate times…
“It may not be okay,” I warned then jumped with both feet straight into my lie. “I did a course on Animal Psychology back at Blueberry Bay Community College, and it would help if he could see for himself that I’m fine. Otherwise, um, behavioral problems could arise due to sublimated anxiety.”
Mrs. Fulton stared at me in confused horror. “Oh, no, we don’t want that!”
Mr. Fulton chuckled. “You said it, honey. Especially since he’s staying with us for the foreseeable future. We don’t want old Octavius taking out his sublimated anxiety on our new curtains.”
And there it was. Another golden opportunity, one I was too greedy not to grab hold of.
“You know… He’s probably already quite anxious. More than likely depressed, too, what with his owner dying and his whole life being uprooted.”
“I hadn’t thought of it like that.” Diane’s brow pinched with concern. “Can cats get depression?”
I almost had her.
Nodding vigorously, I dug my hooks in deeper. “Most definitely, and since they can’t exactly take anti-depressants, they really need someone who knows how to recognize the signs and treat them naturally.”
“What are you suggesting?” Mr. Fulton asked. Unfortunately, his face gave nothing away.
Shrugging, I try to act disinterested in the outcome to really sell it now. “I know I’m just a paralegal, but I did take that course and I’ve always had a way with animals, especially cats. Since you have so much going on with the family and the estate, maybe I should take him off your hands for a few days. I could keep him out of your hair and help him work through his depression, if you want.”
They looked at each other, exchanging a look I couldn’t quite discern. I supposed that type of thing came with being married for thirty-plus years.
Diane was the one who finally answered for both of them. “It would be a huge help to us, but are you sure?”
With a massive placating grin, I answered, “It would be my pleasure.”
Yes, a pleasure—and hopefully not my funeral instead.