I never signed up to be a private investigator with a snarky, talking cat for a partner, but there’s no backing down now. Especially considering a prominent politician was murdered pretty much right in my backyard.
The only witnesses were the senator’s two hairless cats, Jacques and Jillianne. Normally pets want to help us solve their owner’s murders, but this time it seems the two devious felines might actually be the ones who committed it…
Surprisingly enough, my own partner in crime, Octo-Cat, actually wants to help this time, but he can barely understand our two prime suspects because of their strange Cornish Rex accents. And I thought speaking tabby was hard!
So, there you have it, even with two successful cases behind me, I really don’t know how I’m going to solve this one. Is it too late to go back and pick another career?
Read the first three chapters!
Hi, I’m Angie Russo, and my pet cat never ever stops talking. Not just mews and meows, but actual words that I can understand. So far, I’m the only one who seems to have this ability, and I still have absolutely no idea why.
It all started when I got zapped by a faulty coffee maker at the law firm where I work as a paralegal. Since then, Octo-Cat and I have used our special connection to solve two murder investigations together. Yeah, even I have to admit, we make a pretty great team.
Only a few weeks have passed since our super sleuthing earned the local handyman Brock Calhoun a get-out-of-jail-free card. And already my feline sidekick is begging for another case. Apparently, napping and complaining all day isn’t an exciting enough life for him now.
All my life I’ve been on the search for that one amazing talent that would make me special and give me purpose. My nan starred on Broadway in her prime, and my parents both work for the local news station and love what they do.
They were all so sure of their talents early in life, but I’ve really struggled to pinpoint mine. I couldn’t even figure out my passion well enough to nail down a bachelor’s degree, racking up seven associate degrees instead.
I definitely never expected to find my true calling as a paralegal, especially considering how much I’ve always hated lawyers. But now that I have Octo-Cat and my special ability, I find that working at the offices of Thompson, Longfellow & Associates provides the perfect way to use my new-found abilities for good—especially considering that the newest partner knows all about my ability to speak to animals.
Oh, yeah! Charles didn’t get fired. Instead, he got promoted. I was so proud of him that I even suggested we go back to the Little Dog Diner in Misty Harbor to celebrate with the world’s best lobster rolls. He told me it would have to be some other time, though, because he already had plans with his new girlfriend, Breanne Calhoun.
Yeah, I don’t get that, either.
The news that he’d started dating the cold and snippy realtor we’d very recently suspected of murder was enough to extinguish my crush on Charles once and for all, though. I’ve also decided that the next time Octo-Cat refers to him as “Upchuck,” I’m not going to correct him.
The thought of him and Breanne together makes me sick, too.
It’s for the best, though, I suppose. I really need to focus on understanding my new pet-whispering abilities, and Octo-Cat and I both need to get better at investigating cases without raising the community’s suspicions. That pretty much means I have no time left for love or infatuation or whatever it was I once felt for Charles.
Anyway, who needs a boyfriend when you have a talking cat?
Not me. Well, at least not for right now.
Lately I’ve been spending a lot more time with my mom. Ever since she helped us catch the real murderer in our latest case, she’s been on this kind of career high. She got the exclusive scoop and even managed to record our showdown with the murderer live and on camera. The feature was picked up all over the nation, and she and my dad have received job offers from clear across the country.
The latest was from San Antonio, I think.
She’s not saying yes to any of them, though. At least, not unless I agree to move with them, too. But I would never leave Nan, and Nan would never leave Blueberry Bay.
So we’re all staying put exactly where we are.
Sure, if enough people learn my secret, I probably will have to leave eventually. Right now, a total of five people know—Nan and my parents, who I told on purpose, along with Charles Longfellow, III and a college student named Mitch, who both figured it out by accident. Hopefully I can keep that number from growing any larger, but it seems like several people are on the verge of figuring things out already.
And that definitely worries me.
Especially since my mom just invited me to help her with her newest investigative journalism assignment…
* * *
I’d finally switched to a part-time schedule at the firm, and today was one of my days off. And by off, I meant I got to stay home and pack up my tiny rental house under the supervision of one very demanding tabby.
Not only did I have to discard a number of my belongings that he found to be inadequate, but he was also the reason I had to move in the first place. Granted, I’m the one who said I’d owe him a big favor if he allowed me to put him in a harness to take him outside. I hadn’t counted on that favor amounting to more than six-thousand square feet, though.
As it turned out, the favor he wanted was for me to purchase the old manor house he had lived in with Ethel Fulton before she was murdered and, through a truly unbelievable series of events, he came to live with me. Now a twelve-dollar harness was costing me the better part of my five-thousand-dollar monthly stipend, and I’d learned to be more careful about promising my kitty companion open-ended favors.
Yes, my former boss, Richard Fulton, did offer me a generous break on the price. Also, there were fewer interested parties once the greater populace found that the former homeowner had been murdered, but still—still!—owning Fulton Manor would require a pretty penny from me not just to keep up with the mortgage, but also to carry out the many repairs that seemed to be more or less essential for safety purposes.
At least that’s what the home inspector said.
Hardly any time has passed at all, and yet somehow the sale is final and the house is ready for me and Octo-Cat to move in. It’s funny how bureaucracy can either slow things way down or speed them way up depending what side you approach the red tape from. Around Blueberry Bay, the Fultons owned the spool from which the red tape was unraveled, which meant I bought myself a manor house with very little effort on my part.
Nan, who adores both me and my cat in equal measure, decided to help out, too. Even though she’d owned her little Cape Cod style home for more than thirty-five years, she decided it was time to sell and move in with me at my new Eastern seaboard mansion.
“The difference is,” she explained, “this time I’ll be living with you and not the other way around.” That was how she justified kicking me out of her house less than a year ago, only to move in with me now.
Honestly, I’m more than a little thrilled to have an added buffer when it comes to Octo-Cat. I love him more than anything, but he also infuriates me on a regular basis, constantly finding new and exciting ways to push the poorly constructed boundaries I’ve tried to erect.
And so all of us are moving in this weekend, even though Nan hasn’t even had an offer on her house yet. Breanne says it will be easier to sell without a current resident. Yes, I couldn’t believe Nan hired Calhoun Realty to list her house, either. She and I needed to have a serious talk about family loyalty.
But first we had to survive the big move.
“Someone just pulled up outside,” Octo-Cat informed me, hopping onto the end of the bed where the better part of my wardrobe was laid out for evaluation. I took packing as a good opportunity to downsize, even though my living space would increase nearly ten times.
A moment later an urgent knock sounded on the front door and my mom’s voice called out, “Angie? Angie, are you here?”
“Coming!” I yelled, letting the half-full box in my arms fall to the floor.
I flipped the deadbolt and my mom immediately pushed her way inside. “You’ll never guess what happened!” she told me, reaching into my closet and grabbing one of my jackets, which she thrust at me excitedly.
“What?” I asked, still a bit sleepy and not quite ready for this level of enthusiasm.
She followed me into the kitchen where I grabbed a can of Diet Mountain Dew and flipped the tab. It was my latest attempt at a suitable coffee replacement, and so far, so good.
“Lou Harlow was murdered!” she squealed with delight.
“Um, Mom. How about a little less bliss over someone dying, please?” Lou Harlow wasn’t just some random local, either. As one of the two senators appointed to represent the great state of Maine, she was one of the most famous people to reside in our little corner of Blueberry Bay.
And now she was dead. And for some reason, my mother was terribly excited about it.
“I’m sorry. I know it’s sad she died and everything, but guess who’s been asked to cover it?” She bit her lower lip and pointed both thumbs toward her chest while widening her eyes to a comical degree.
“Congrats,” I murmured, still feeling icky about her reaction to this whole thing.
“Thank you,” she said with an airy smile. “Turns out I did such a great job covering the Hayes murders, the station would like me to do another investigative piece.”
“I’m really happy for you, Mom.” And I was. She’d worked hard to get here, and at last everything was coming up… bodies in the morgue, I guess.
“Good, because I need you to do it with me.”
“What? No, no, no, no.” Yeah, I’d done the legwork to find the Hayes’s real killer and clear Brock Calhoun’s name, but that didn’t mean I wanted to jump straight into another murder investigation, especially one as prominent as this one would no doubt prove to be.
“Angie, I don’t really think you have a choice.”
I groaned and shook my head. “Oh, yeah, because that’s the way to win me over.”
“The senator was killed in her home,” she revealed. “Do you know where that home is?”
“Somewhere in Glendale?” I guessed with a sigh.
“Not just somewhere,” my mom corrected with a new light dancing in her hazel eyes. “Right next door to your new house.”
Well, this was exactly not what I needed on moving day. My new home had already been tainted by murder, and now the place next door had become an active crime scene as well.
My mom stared at me with wide, sparkling eyes. “Well?” She nudged me with her elbow as if we were doing something as harmless as discussing reality TV gossip. This wasn’t reality TV, though. It was actually real life. My life.
“I know that look,” Octo-Cat proclaimed from his seat beside me. “It’s the same one you get right before you decide to do something stupid.”
“Well, good luck on the investigation,” I mumbled, hoping to silence them both so I could get back to packing.
It didn’t work.
My mom grabbed both my wrists and attempted to drag me from my chair. “Come with me. I need you,” she whined, drawing out each word dramatically. No wonder she’d become Blueberry Bay’s go-to newswoman. Even I found myself both wanting and dreading to know what would happen next.
I yanked my arms away and wrapped them around my waist defensively. “In case you forgot, it’s my moving day, and I still have lots to do before the movers get here in a few hours.”
Mom baulked at this excuse as she moved behind my chair and put a hand on each of my shoulders, causing me to flinch. “A few hours? Why, that’s way more than enough time to take a quick glance. Besides, aren’t you curious?”
I bit my lip and tried really hard not to say anything. The truth was I had, in fact, begun to enjoy the thrill of the investigation. And despite my better judgment and bigger priorities, I was definitely intrigued by the newest murder in town having happened right next door to my new place.
A fresh corpse next door. What a housewarming gift!
Seeing that she had me on the hook, Mom began to reel me in. She put her face beside mine and tipped my chair back. “Tell you what. How about you come with me now and, after we take a quick look-see, I’ll come back to help you finish packing. Deal?”
I groaned and pressed my forehead to the table. The chair’s front legs landed back on the floor with a jarring thud. “Deal,” I murmured into the cold wood.
“Right back into the thick of it. Why am I not surprised?” Octo-Cat commented drolly before trotting off without so much as a glance my way.
“Yay!” My mom clapped her hands several times and began to yank on my arm again. Sometimes I felt like the most grown up person in my entire family, which was saying something since Mom was in her early fifties and Nan had already high-tailed it well past seventy.
“Let’s go,” Mom said, tugging at my arm once again. This time I got up and followed. “I’ll fill you in on what I know on our drive over.”
True to her word, the moment the car doors closed beside us, my mom jammed her key in the ignition and started to talk. “I know you were never interested in politics too much, but Lou Harlow was a four term senator. She won every term by a huge landslide and was probably going to be re-elected the next time, too. Everyone around here loved her, which makes her death all the more shocking.”
I chewed on my thumbnail as she spoke, a bad habit that had gotten more and more out of control lately.
My mom swatted me with one of her perfectly manicured hands. “Stop that. It’s gross!”
“Sorry,” I muttered, running my index finger across my jagged thumbnail as I switched my focus back to the matter at hand. “So, a political rival wanted her seat and it was easier to murder her than to try to win fair and square?”
“Maybe,” my mom said, bringing both hands back to the steering wheel now that she’d decided she didn’t need to hit me a second time. “We’ll definitely work that angle and see what we come up with.”
I sensed a but. When Mom didn’t provide it, I decided to give her the lead in. “But?”
“Why kill her at home when she spends most of her time in Washington?” she asked as if I might actually have the answer.
I shrugged. “Maybe it was more convenient.”
“It’s too obvious, though. Don’t you think?” She frowned as she considered this.
“Well, maybe our killer isn’t very smart. How did the senator die, anyway?” In my experience, killers usually were pretty smart, actually. Smart, but vain. Combine those two traits with their lack of a moral compass, and it often spelled trouble—both for their victims and for me, the fiery upstart who did my best to help bring them to justice.
Well, lately, at least.
Would I continue chasing killers around Blueberry Bay forever?
Only time would tell, but I had a sneaking suspicion that the answer just might be a resounding Oh, heck yeah!
Mom pulled up to a stop sign and switched on her blinker, then turned to look at me. Once again, her expression was filled with utter joy as she revealed, “Somebody pushed her down the stairs!”
Oh, for the love of…
“Then how do they know it wasn’t just some stupid accident?” It looked like we might have both gotten ahead of ourselves, and here I was considering myself the sleuth of the century—at least as far as Glendale, Maine was concerned.
Mom seemed flustered. “They? Who’s they? We are the ones investigating this, and we don’t know for sure, but we definitely suspect foul play.”
I bit my tongue to keep from mentioning that the police were still the true detectives here and that I was too new to the case to be a part of her royal we. It seemed I still had to learn this lesson for myself, too.
Shaking off my disappointment, I turned my head to watch the scenery flying past my window. Greenery stretched as far as the eye could see—trees, flowers, grass, everywhere life. Well, except at Lou Harlow’s manor house.
Gulls drifted on the breeze, reminding me that gorgeous Blueberry Bay was just beyond the horizon. We lived so close to the ocean that the air always tasted slightly of salt. My new house sat so close to the shoreline, in fact, that I could walk there in ten minutes flat.
“I really wish people would stop turning up dead around here,” I told my mom with a sigh. We were a small town to begin with. If the murders continued at their current clip, we’d be down half our population by the end of next year.
“Don’t you think it’s just a little bit exciting?” my mom said as she navigated us down the private drive that served all the most elite homes in Glendale—including now, rather inexplicably, mine.
I understood where my mom was coming from, though. For years, she’d wasted her journalistic talents on puff pieces and human interest stories. This new dastardly turn of events in our small town made for big news and a far more interesting job for her.
Still, people were dying, and that was definitely a problem.
I was saved from answering her question by the appearance of red and blue flashing lights on the top of the hill. My mom drove one turnoff past my new house and pulled right up to the late Lou Harlow’s estate. Cops were everywhere, definitely more than technically worked for our sleepy little town. It seemed as if the whole county had arrived—whether to help investigate or merely to gawk remained to be seen.
A few officers stood by the entryway chatting over takeout coffees. Others paraded around the property talking into their radios and trying to look important. Somebody else worked on stretching that jarring yellow crime scene tape around the porch.
I hated it. I hated it so much. The good senator deserved better than this. We all did.
Mom pulled straight up behind the nearest cop car and shut of the engine. “Ready?” she asked with a quick glance my way before charging out of the car and right over to the group of officers who had gathered by the house.
“Quite the scene you’ve got here,” she said jovially while I struggled to catch up. Even though I was taller than my mom and should have had a quicker stride, she’d always buzzed around like a hummingbird, sometimes moving so fast you could scarcely keep track.
“Yeah, and it’s a private one at that,” a county officer informed us both, making a little shooing gesture with her hand.
“Laura Lee, Channel 7 News,” Mom answered proudly, shoving a hand forward in greeting.
The officer sneered and refused to take the proffered hand. “Oh, then we definitely don’t want you here.”
One of our local boys spotted us from across the yard and shouted, “It’s okay. She’s with us.” Officer Bouchard jogged over to join us. “She’s got the needed clearance,” he told the others.
“Thank you,” my mom said, simpering at the county officer who had tried to deny our access. “Now, be a dear and catch us up, please.”
I sighed and made a mental note that How to Win Friends & Influence People would be the perfect gift for my mom on the next holiday that required such things.
“Officer Raines?” my mom read from the angry lady cop’s badge. “I just want to help.”
“Like heck you do,” the other one spat back.
I tried to block their bickering out as I studied the massive stone façade before us. Just like my new house—Fulton Manor—this one was at least five-thousand square feet and probably about as old as the state of Maine itself. Gorgeous bay windows stuck out at odd intervals around the second floor in what appeared to be a recent remodeling job. I wondered if you could see the ocean from up there. Whatever the case, they seemed like nice little nooks to hang out with a good book. Maybe I could add a window seat as part of my own remodels as well.
I’d almost fully immersed myself in this bookworm fantasy of mine when a flash of something caught my eye. I squinted to try to make out what was up there, but was met only with the fluttering of drapes. Whoever or whatever was looking out upon the chaotic scene below had now disappeared.
I left mom to continue her battle with Officer Raines and inched slowly toward the entry. Her preferred method of investigation may have been talking, but I’d always preferred to jump straight in with both feet and see what I could discover.
At least if I found trouble waiting for me on the inside, I knew there were a dozen-odd officers loitering nearby. Any of them could offer up some help in a pinch.
I had nothing to worry about as I tiptoed right into the middle of this fresh crime scene.
Despite the flurry of activity outside, the inside of the manor house sat empty—eerily so. As soon as I entered, I came face to face with the grand staircase. It had been cordoned off and the area was already scrubbed clean, though the recent disturbance was obvious.
One of the lower steps had caved in on itself, calling into question the soundness of the entire structure. A few feet from the landing, the body position had been marked in a shining white outline. The poor senator. She’d been a huge force in life, but the outline marking her death seemed impossibly small.
As much as my mother assumed I didn’t know about the political scene or about current events in general, I’d actually voted for the senator in her two most recent elections. She’d fought hard to protect the natural beauty of our great country and the citizens within it. Even though I liked to think of myself as non-partisan, I agreed with Senator Lou Harlow’s stances more often than not.
Plus, from the few televised interviews or online news articles I’d managed to catch, I liked her. She reminded me of Nan, but in a tailored pant suit instead of a flowy silk kimono.
She’d done so much tireless work on behalf of the people, and now one of those people had killed her. I bowed my head and said a quick prayer, hoping that her death had happened quickly and without pain, and that the killer would soon be brought to justice.
I’d been around murder a lot lately, but somehow this one felt more personal. Lou Harlow wasn’t a stranger. She was someone I’d seen on the TV, the Internet, and even the odd newspaper that still found its way into the firm where I worked.
“There you are,” Mom shouted after me, disturbing the sanctity of the moment as she flew in through the open front door.
I kept my eyes fixed straight ahead. Was there some important clue I’d missed because emotions were clouding my judgment with this one?
“Such a shame,” Mom clucked, finally showing a blessed bit of remorse.
We stood side by side, studying the scene. A glint of yellowish green at the top of the stairs drew my eye and I stepped forward to get a better look.
“What is it? What do you see?” Mom asked in an excited whisper.
I still hadn’t figured out what was up there, but I pointed anyway.
We both craned our heads and shifted our angles until finally I saw a scary, mummy-looking face watching me from above. “It’s some kind of animal, I think.” Although it looked like none I’d ever come across before. Maybe in a zoo, but in the wilds of coastal Maine? I think not.
“The senator did have two pet cats,” Mom pointed out, still struggling and twisting in an effort to discern the animal for herself.
“Whatever’s up there, I’m not really sure it’s a cat.” I took another step forward, bending my neck straight back to achieve a fresh perspective. All that did was hurt me, though. “Ugh. I wish it wasn’t so dark in here,” I moaned.
Mom lifted her phone high and then snapped a picture of the area using her flash. The burst of light was more than enough to fully illuminate that same little animal that had first caught my eye. A second larger one of the same kind also sat farther back away from the bannister. They still looked like something that had come straight out of a horror movie, but now at least I could clearly tell they were cats.
Cats with no fur and lots of wrinkles. Eww.
I shuddered as I pictured Octo-Cat shorn down in a similar fashion, and that particular mental image was even scarier than the two odd Sphynxes sitting before me.
Mom showed me the picture she’d managed to get on her phone. “They’re hairless cats,” she said matter-of-factly.
I shivered again. “Why would anyone want a cat without hair?”
“Allergies? Attention?” Mom guessed and offered me a casual shrug. “Could have been either with the Senator.”
A growl sounded above, and I swear the little hairs on the back of my neck shot straight up. I was a newly branded cat person, so why did these two freak me out so much? Was it that they were hairless or that they were staked out at a murder scene? Both?
After another emphatic growl, the larger of the two cats appeared at the top of the stairs, peering down at us like a dissatisfied overlord. Or a prison guard. Or a killer.
“Hi,” I said, even though I knew he couldn’t understand me without Octo-Cat here to translate.
He opened his mouth wide, then let out a terrible hiss before turning tail and stalking off with the smaller cat in pursuit.
“I am officially terrified of those things,” I said.
Mom shoved her phone back into her bag and turned to me with that same excited expression she’d worn most of the morning. “Know what I’m thinking?”
“I’m not sure I want to know,” I admitted. I should have been at home packing the last of my boxes for the big move, not shaking in my flip flops at the sight of these two bizarre felines. There was absolutely no reason this little investigation of ours couldn’t have waited.
Mom grabbed my hand and gave it a squeeze. Obviously, we were not thinking the same thing here. “I’m thinking,” she revealed with a happy squeal, “that this looks like a job for Pet Whisperer, P.I.”
“Pet Whisperer? P.I.?” I shook my head and tried very hard not to roll my eyes. Of course, she’d given me a special headline-worthy moniker. She’d probably already written and rewritten my featured story in her head several times over.
“That’s your new name,” she said, squeezing my hand again. “Do you like it?”
“Um, I’m fine just being Angie.” Must not encourage this. I wanted my special ability to remain a secret, not become front page news.
“Not for you,” Mom said with a sigh. “For your business.”
“I don’t have a business,” I pointed out. I still didn’t like where she was headed with all of this.
“Wrong again,” she crooned. “You’re already doing the work. You might as well hang out your sign and get paid for it.”
“Interesting idea, but I don’t want people to know I can talk to animals,” I reminded her. Besides, I still had my part-time salary from the law firm and my full-time stipend for being Octo-Cat’s official guardian and the overseer of his trust fund.
“Everyone will think it’s a gimmick,” Mom countered with a wink. “But only we’ll know the truth. Besides, it will give you an excuse to bring your cat with you while investigating, which is what you need anyway, right? I mean, if he’d been here this morning, we could have cracked the whole case wide open by now. Those cats definitely know what happened. I just know it.”
“Why do you have to be so excited about this?” I asked, resigned to the fact that I was apparently opening a business now—and, worse still, that my cat would be my new business partner.
“That’s branding, baby,” Mom answered with a glamorous flip of her hair.
Oh, brother. Or rather—oh, mother.
I took a couple big steps back, careful not to upset the crime scene as I walked away from the crazy lady who just so happened to be my mother. Turning to the door now, I said, “Okay, great. So, I’m just going to go make sure the police know the cats are up there. With the stairs cordoned off, it might not be easy to get them down.”
Mom followed after me as I returned to the bright world outside. I squinted from the sudden onslaught of sunniness and swept my eyes over the premises in search of the one officer I knew well enough to approach. Once my eyes adjusted to the light again, I spotted Officer Bouchard at the edge of the property examining a small copse of evergreens at the edge of a much larger deciduous forest that divided Harlow’s property from mine.
I jogged over to him, knowing my mom would have no trouble keeping up if she wanted to.
“Did you know there are cats inside?” I asked him, embarrassed by the fact my breaths came out labored from that short burst of exercise.
“That would be Jacques and Jillianne,” he said with a chuckle. “Ugly little things, aren’t they?”
“They’re… cute. Um, in a different way,” I insisted. In a very different way. Still, even though I’d just had the same thought myself, I suddenly felt defensive on their behalf.
My mom joined us then, having chosen to stroll elegantly across the field rather than run like I did. I guess it was now part of her persona or something. The news waits for no man, she’d often told me, but for a woman, it just might.
Officer Bouchard smiled kindly at Mom. “Yeah. The senator picked them up from a breeder in France, thus the fancy names. They’re slippery little buggers, too. I’ve been trying to catch them all morning, but so far, no luck. Figure with the next of kin on the way, the cats can be his problem when he gets here.”
“Next of kin?” Mom inserted herself between me and him. She’d already pulled out her phone and started the recording app, which she now held up to him like a microphone. “And who might that be?”
Officer Bouchard stared at the phone, then cleared his throat and answered in a crisp, clear voice, “Her son, Matthew Harlow. Lives in Chicago. Should be here by nightfall.”
“And who do you think killed Lou Harlow?” Mom asked, pressing the phone even closer to his face.
He sighed and pushed her hand aside. “I think it’s too soon to say. We haven’t even ruled out the possibility of it being an accident yet.”
Until today, I’d only seen one crime scene before—Bill and Ruth Hayes, who were murdered in their own home. I saw it long after the fact, but I’d had the same feeling today as I’d had then.
Call it my gut.
Call it intuition.
Or maybe even just a lucky guess.
Whatever the case, I knew it had been no accident that killed Lou Harlow. Someone had wanted her dead and decided to take matters into his or her own hands.
Now we just had to figure out who.
The Pet Whisperer P.I. was officially on the case.