The Cat Caper

The Cat Caper


 

What’s even worse than having a snarky talking tabby as your best friend?

When he inexplicably goes missing…

Octo-Cat is gone, and all the evidence suggests that he was taken on purpose. With the growing number of people the two of us have put behind bars, it’s no surprise that someone’s out for revenge.

But how will I ever manage to solve this particular crime without the help of my partner?

The only other person who might be able to help me just relocated to Georgia. But I’m desperate enough to try anything, including exposing my secret to the whole of Blueberry Bay. Anything to bring him home safe.

Oh, Octo-Cat. Where have you gone?


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Read the First Three Chapters

Chapter One

My name’s Angie Russo, and I’m a cat person.

Lately, that is the most important thing about me.

Not that I’m a part-time paralegal and also a part-time private investigator. Not that I live in a giant East Coast manor house or that my quirky nan is one of my best friends. Not even the fact that I’ve managed to rack up seven associate degrees due to my academic indecisiveness.

Nope.

The most important thing about me is definitely the fact that I have a cat.

But he’s not just any ordinary feline, mind you.

He talks. A lot. As in hardly ever shuts up.

And if you think your cat is demanding, just imagine what my life looks like.

I have to feed him a particular brand of food in a particular flavor in a particular Lenox dish and at very particular times of the day. He also only drinks Evian. I’ve tried to trick him in the past to save on this ridiculous expense, but—I kid you not—he knew the difference. And, boy, did I pay for that one.

In all honesty, I can spare the expense, though. You see, my cat also has a trust fund—a big one. His previous owner was murdered, and it was by pure dumb luck that he and I ended up together. That is, if you can call almost dying at the hands of a faulty coffee maker “luck.”

I mean, I do.

I love my life and would change very little about it. I do plan to quit my paralegal gig soon to pursue detective work full-time. Naturally, my cat would be my partner in that operation. He watches so much Law & Order that he practically has an honorary degree in criminal justice, and he’s got claws that he isn’t afraid to use when we find ourselves in a tricky scrape.

Other than his sometimes gratuitous violence and over-the-top television addiction, he has plenty of other unique skills that make him an indispensable partner, too. First, there’s the fact we can communicate. Obviously, no one ever suspects that the curious-looking feline across the way is actually listening in on their conversations.

When you add Nan to the mix with her background in Broadway and knack for creating colorful characters and then flawlessly bringing them to life, we have quite the little operation.

So, go ahead and eat your heart out, Scooby Doo.

If you’re wondering about me and who I am outside of being a cat owner, I’ll make this real simple for you: I’m the Velma of the group. I love researching, learning, wrapping my mind around any and every puzzle that comes our way.

I have a near-photographic memory and a knack for mnemonic devices, but lately my brain has been a tad less reliable than I’d like.

Usually, I remember everything without fail. Ever since this new guy Peter Peters started working at the law office, though, things have definitely gotten a bit fuzzy. I hated that guy almost instantly, and I’m pretty sure he has something to do with the fog that’s taken up residence in my head… But I just can’t remember why.

Lucky for me, he’ll be leaving the state very soon. Unluckily, he’s taking his cousin Bethany, a former partner at the same firm, with him. She was a good friend, and I’ll definitely miss having her around. Still, I get the fact that she needs to be there for her family—even if this particular member of her family is the creepiest guy I have ever met.

Honestly, it’s probably time for me to quit, anyway. Well, just as soon as I work up the nerve to let down my secret crush by handing in my two weeks’ notice. I’ve had the hots for our senior partner, Charles Longfellow, III, ever since he moved here from California and began working his way up the ranks at our firm. He’s only a few years older than me, a legal prodigy and also someone who’s had a few lucky strokes like I have—so no judgment, please.

I’d probably have bitten the bullet and asked him out already, but he has a girlfriend now. By the way, I hate her, and not just because she’s standing in the way of what I’m convinced could actually be true love, but because she’s mean and bitter and has never shown me an ounce of kindness in our entire acquaintanceship.

At least she’s not a murderer, although I did suspect her of a double homicide a few months back. We solved that one, though, and got both her and her brother off the hook. We also solved the murder of a prominent senator who used to live right next door.

And as ready as I am to hang up my sign as a full time P.I., I’d much rather be chasing white-collar criminals around town than the homicidal maniacs I’ve been dealing with as of late. Because that’s the thing about murderers: they’re dangerous with a capital D. It stands to reason that eventually one of them is going to want revenge on the crazy girl and her cat that got them arrested in the first place.

I just hope I’m ready when karma comes calling…

 

 

I almost ran straight into Nan when I returned home from work that sunny afternoon.

“Look what I made for you today in my community art class!” she cried, completely unbothered by the fact I’d almost knocked her into the antique stained-glass windows that flanked either side of our front door.

I took one giant step back and studied the sizable metal sign she held between her aged hands.

“Pet Whisperer, P.I.,” I read aloud, then grabbed the thing to take a closer look—and almost dropped it as soon as the heft transferred to my hands. “Oof, this is really heavy!”

Nan shook her head and tutted at me. “Well, it’s not made of paper, dear.”

“What kind of art class are you taking, anyway?” I said as I appreciated how the various scrap metals had come together to create something new and beautiful.

“It’s a little bit of everything—sculpture, welding, landscapes, still-lifes, nudes.” She winked at that last one, and I had no doubt that this meant the nudes her entire reason for signing up in the first place.

“Sounds like a good time,” I said with a laugh. My nan was always finding something new and exciting to occupy her time. Apparently, this included advertising my closely kept secret to all of Blueberry Bay.

Nan caught me studying the sign with a nervous expression and explained, “It’s for your business, dear. Seeing as I’m your assistant, I figured I’d make myself useful.”

“But we haven’t even officially opened yet,” I argued. I loved Nan and was excited she wanted to help, but the added pressure didn’t make this big career transition any easier on me.

“Yes, you really do need to get on with it already,” my grandmother told me as she furrowed her brow in my direction.

I groaned even though she was one-hundred percent right about this. “Okay, but I don’t want people to know I talk to animals, remember?” That was the other weird thing about the last couple weeks.

My memory was a bit fuzzy, but also my mind seemed to be more open. I still didn’t know how I could talk to Octo-Cat, but lately I’d been able to hear other animals besides him, too.

First there were the birds on the rooftop, then a curious squirrel in my garden. I’d even managed to listen in on a great big buck I’d startled in the woods outside our manor house. My ability to understand other animals was touch and go, and also a brand new complication in my already crazy life.

It had always been Octo-Cat and only Octo-Cat, and I really didn’t know how I felt about becoming a full-on Dr. Dolittle these days. If word spread among the animal kingdom that I could understand their needs, would they all start swarming me with their legal problems?

I was way out of my depth here, considering I was just a paralegal and had no great passion for the law—other than choosing to uphold it most of the time in my day-to-day life.

“Where’s Octo-Cat?” I asked, craning my neck to glance up the grand staircase but not finding him at the top. Normally, he liked hanging out up there this time of day because it was when the skylights dumped lots of warm sunlight in that exact spot.

“He’s around here somewhere, I’m sure,” Nan answered dismissively as she took the sign back from me and studied it with a huge, self-satisfied grin on her face.

“When did you last see him?” I asked, checking his other favorite nap spots. Maybe the sun wasn’t following its normal, predictable pattern today. Perhaps cloud cover had interfered. I knew my cat well enough to know he hadn’t voluntarily changed his routine.

Something was off, and the sooner I figured out what that was, the better I’d feel going into the rest of the day.

Nan came over and gave my shoulder a little squeeze. “I watched an episode of Criminal Intent with him during my mid-morning tea. That was only a little more than two hours ago. I’m sure he’s fine, dear.”

But I wasn’t. Not at all.

I’d already lost him briefly a couple weeks ago, when he’d ended up on Caraway Island as if by magic. I still had no idea how he’d gotten out there or why I couldn’t remember going with Nan to pick him up. All I knew is I needed to find my cat, and I needed to find him now.

“Help me look for him. Would you?” I asked Nan.

She nodded and tucked the metal sign away in the closet, then together we conducted a thorough search of both the house and the yard.

“Well, that’s strange,” Nan said, scratching her forehead. “Maybe he’s just out for a walk and lost track of time.”

Again, this was not how my cat operated. If I so much as tried to sleep in an extra minute, I’d get an earful about how disappointed he was in me. He did use his cat door as Nan suggested, but he never strayed far.

At least not until today.

A swatch of white appeared at the bottom of the driveway, and I watched as the mail truck grew closer and closer.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” the mail lady, Julie, trilled as she rummaged through her sack. “A light load today,” she said next as she handed me a stack of mail that had been folded together using a thin rubber band.

“Thank you, Julie!” I called after her, biting my lip as I quickly flipped through the junk mail, bills, and solicitations.

But then I found an unfamiliar envelope, one that had no return address and was addressed simply to “Octavius” Fulton.

Yes, to my cat.

I swallowed hard and tore it open without even the slightest moment’s hesitation…

 

Chapter Two

The date at the top of the letter had already passed two months ago. Not a good sign. Not good at all.

“What is it?” Nan asked as I quickly scanned the legalese before me.

“It’s…” I took a deep, shaky breath in an effort to avoid either screaming or breaking down in tears. “It’s an arbitration notice.”

Nan’s face loomed closer, concern pinching at the edges of her mouth. “An arbitration for what?” she huffed with clear outrage.

After a deep, painful swallow, I forced my eyes to focus on the page and read the entire letter from top to bottom before I spoke again. “The other beneficiaries of Ethel’s will are disputing Octo-Cat’s inheritance.”

“Oh, dear,” Nan said with a disappointed shake of her head.

“If he wants to contest, he has to appear in court by this Friday. Otherwise his agreement will be implied, and the arbitration will go forward.” Even as I spoke the words, I couldn’t quite believe them. Why was this happening now? Or ever for that matter? It’s not like the others had gotten cut out of the will. Ethel had loved her cat dearly and wanted to make sure he lived the rest of his days comfortably. Knowing Octo-Cat as I did now, I totally understood. It wasn’t exactly cheap to fulfill his demands for Fancy Feast, Evian, fine china, Apple products, and—oh—a giant East Coast manor house.

I folded the letter back into thirds and sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose to stave off the rapidly building headache. “Nan, if this goes forward, he could lose his trust fund. We could lose the house. We could even lose him.”

I would not cry. Crying wouldn’t fix this. It wouldn’t bring Octo-Cat home. I needed to suck those tears that threatened to spill back in and approach both situations with a clear head.

Nan placed a hand at the small of my back and guided me back toward the house. “Well, we’ll just have to find him by Friday, then,” she ground out. “Failure is not an option.”

My cat had only been missing for a few hours, tops, but already I was terrified for him. He’d be devastated if he lost his inheritance and I could no longer afford to maintain his lavish lifestyle and expensive tastes. Worse still was the fact that he could be lying hurt in a ditch somewhere, and I didn’t even know where to look.

Nan motioned for me to sit on our massively uncomfortable antique Victorian couch. “You wait here while I make tea,” she instructed softly. “The hit of caffeine will help wake up our brains. We’ll solve this. Yes, we will.” She hurried out of sight, singing to herself as she went.

That just left me sitting on my own in our large, empty living room. I hated it. Octo-Cat should have been there, complaining about something, questioning my life choices, or telling tasteless jokes that no one else found funny.

While I worked hard not to let fear cloud my normally rational brain, Nan continued to sing loudly from the kitchen. Apparently, she’d already composed a ballad about our mighty victory over catnappers and arbitrations. I had no idea where she found the energy.

Could a catnapper really be to blame for Octo-Cat’s sudden disappearance? It was certainly a possibility, given how unlikely it would be for him to wander off on his own. But who would want to take my crabby tabby, and why?

Nan’s gray, curly head popped out of the kitchen. “Yoo-hoo, Angie dear!” she called, waving at me.

I lifted my head and attempted a smile that wouldn’t come.

“Why don’t you give our good friend Charles a call? May as well update him on the situation and see if he can help.” As soon as she’d said her piece, Nan disappeared from view and the singing started up again.

Charles. Would he know what to do? Nan seemed to think so, and the three of us had made a pretty good team more than once before. At the very least, he’d be able to walk me through this arbitration notice and help me formulate a plan for escaping unscathed.

The phone felt heavy in my hands. Placing this call meant admitting that something was wrong. That Octo-Cat was really missing. Could I maybe pretend for a few blessed minutes that everything was still okay? Would that be selfish of me? Stupid?

“Don’t dilly-dally, dear!” Nan trilled from her place in front of the stove, then switched to singing in a different language. I assumed Korean, given her newly discovered K-pop infatuation.

Not even the deepest breath I could muster filled my lungs with the strength I needed to make this call, to speak these dreaded words aloud. But I did it anyway. I did it for Octo-Cat.

“Angie, everything okay?” Charles answered after a couple rings. He was still at the firm, of course. He’d been putting in long hours ever since Bethany had put in her resignation notice. With her moving away to start a new life in Georgia any day now, that left Charles as the sole partner at a law office that had seen a veritable revolving door of attorneys these past several months.

Hearing his voice so full of concern, of kindness, set off the tears I’d already been struggling to hold back. “Charles, he’s gone!” I cried. “Octo-Cat is missing, and we can’t find him anywhere.”

Charles sucked in a deep breath, then said, “I’m sure he just found a great new napping spot and will wander home when his belly starts rumbling.”

The way he rushed through this explanation proved that Charles didn’t believe those words. And neither did I. We both knew my cat too well to believe he had willingly altered his routine.

“There’s also this arbitration thing,” I added, knowing I should probably re-open the letter and read the exact wording. But I was already far too tired, too emotionally spent to read that horrible thing again.

“What?” Charles’s voice came out low, hostile almost. “Who’s requested an arbitration with you?”

“Not me,” I corrected with another deep, weighty sigh. “Octo-Cat. And it’s the other recipients of Ethel’s will.”

He was silent for a few moments as he contemplated this newest development in the everyday traumas of Angie Russo. “Don’t let that add to your worry,” he said at last. “For now, just focus on finding Octo-Cat. He can’t be far. Besides, we both knew that the will would probably be contested eventually despite Richard’s best attempts to prevent that from happening. You’ll have a chance to contest the dispute before the arbitration goes ahead, too.”

“Yeah, but the deadline’s Friday,” I said glumly. So far, I’d managed to avoid going to court for any personal matters. The only reason I’d ever stepped foot in the county court before was to offer on-the-spot assistance for the lawyers from my firm. Usually, Charles.

He balked at this. “Friday? But that’s nowhere near enough time.”

“Yeah, I know.” I traced the intricate paisley pattern on the couch with my index finger, letting my vision go blurry but still refusing to let any tears fall. With a sniff, I informed Charles that, “The letter has a few different postmarks on it. Looks like it originally went to my old rental and then got turfed back as undeliverable until they finally found my forwarding address.”

“But they all know exactly where you and Octo-Cat are,” he protested. Charles had always been the sort to wear his heart right on his sleeve, and as such, I could tell that he’d become angry. Real angry.

I nodded, even though he wasn’t there to read my body language. “I know that, too.”

We both sighed in unison, and then I asked the question that had been plaguing me ever since the letter first arrived. “Do you think they sent it to the wrong place on purpose?”

“Of course I do,” he growled. I could hear something slam down on his end of the line. “It’s still okay. We’ll find Octo-Cat in no time at all. Meanwhile I’ll start putting together your grounds for contesting the arbitration, and we’ll show up on Friday ready to kick some serious complainant butt.”

“Thank you. You always make me feel better.” That was Charles for you. He never hesitated to offer his help when I needed it, and that was a big part of the reason why he’d become my closest friend since he relocated from his home state of California in favor of the scenic Blueberry Bay region of Maine.

“Want me to stop by after work to help you look for Octo-Cat?” he asked me after a brief pause. “I could finish up early and offer a second set of eyes. Or third, rather, since I’m sure Nan’s already on the case.”

I let out a weak laugh. He knew us too well. “Actually, I kind of could use a change of scenery. We’ve already been searching for hours, and he’s clearly nowhere nearby.”

“Want to come over to my place, then?” he asked without even the briefest hesitation.

“Yes, please,” I trilled.

Now that Charles was on the case, I knew everything would be okay. I had to believe that, because the alternative simply broke my heart.

If Octo-Cat were here, he’d no doubt yell at me to toughen up and do what needed to be done. And that’s exactly what I would do to bring him back home—and to make sure we kept him here, right where he belonged.

 

Chapter Three

Charles invited me to come over for a quick dinner and epic brainstorming session at six thirty that evening. When I showed up at six thirty-three, however, the house stood dark and empty. Assuming he’d gotten delayed at work, I decided to let myself in using the key he kept stashed in the garden around back. At least it was a better hiding place than Nan’s preferred placement under the front door mat. It’s a wonder she never got burgled even once in all her seventy-ish years of life.

“Hello!” I called as I pushed my way inside, just in case Charles was in the shower or something and hadn’t heard me knock.

Nothing.

I shrugged, then made my way to the kitchen. The least I could do is set the table, since I assumed he’d be bringing takeout home with him. Neither of us were great cooks, but thankfully I had my newly awakened culinary genius Nan to make sure I always had something yummy on my plate. It was both a blessing and a curse, considering I’d grown at least one pants size in the months since she’d discovered this new passion of hers.

I marched through the house, turning on some lights as I went, knowing Charles preferred to keep the curtains drawn for some odd reason. It still felt incredibly odd, though—seeing the house that I’d grown up in now set with all of Charles’s sparse, manly decorations. Nan had decided to sell her former home and move in with me when I came in possession of the big manor house we both resided in now, which meant putting this one on the market.

It all worked out kind of perfect in the end, considering Charles needed something a bit more permanent than the Cliffside Apartments, where he used to live. Cliffside was also host to a vast percentage of Glendale’s criminals—or, at least the ones that got caught. Based on my own unique experience as of late, the more money a person had, the more likely they were to kill somebody to protect it.

Some people were just never happy, and I vowed never to let myself become one of them.

Feeling a bit more at home now, I grabbed a pair of plates from the cupboard by the stove, then turned to head back out to the dining room and almost jumped right out of my skin at the horrifying sight before me.

“Oh my gosh,” I cried, fumbling the plates in my shock, but thankfully not dropping them. “You scared me!”

Yes, it seemed I was no longer alone. Charles still hadn’t put in an appearance, but his two Sphynx cats had appeared in the doorway and stood contemplating me with twin sets of glowing eyes. How had I forgotten about them?

“Hello, Jacques and Jillianne,” I said with a friendly smile. Hopefully, they couldn’t see that I was internally screaming at that moment. J and J, as Charles had taken to calling them whenever discussing the cats as a pair, had no hair but lots of wrinkles on their exposed skin. If you try to picture what a brain might look like if it grew four legs, a tail, and a pair of glowing eyes, then you’d have a pretty good idea why I was so startled at the initial sighting of these two.

The larger of the animals—Jillianne—stepped toward me. “A prince, a princess, and a paralegal walk into a kitchen. Which didn’t belong?” she said, allowing me to hear one of the famous Sphynx cat riddles firsthand for the very first time. After all, it was only very recently I’d gained the ability to talk to anyone of fur or feather other than Octo-Cat.

Jillianne flicked her tail and narrowed her eyes when I didn’t immediately answer. “Oh,” I sputtered, suddenly feeling as if I were a contestant in the final round of Jeopardy—and that I’d just bid all my money without having the slightest idea what the answer might be. “Is the answer the paralegal? Um, because I’m here by Charles’s invitation, I swear!”

I raised my hand and crossed my heart, hoping it would reassure the suspicious felines. It did not. Little Jacques arched his back and let out a dry, hacking hiss.

I took two giant steps back and put out my hands before me. “Don’t you remember me? I took care of you, when…” Probably best not to bring up their recent trauma involving the untimely murder of their first owner. “I helped solve the case and get justice for the Senator. Remember?”

“Angie?” Charles’s voice sounded from the other room followed by fast approaching footfalls. “Are you talking to J and J?” he asked when he’d made it to the kitchen. “I thought you couldn’t do that.”

Oh, crud.

I crossed my arms and scowled at him. “How is it that you are always the one to randomly discover all my secrets? Seriously, how?”

“Lucky timing?” he offered, lifting Jillianne into his arms and giving her a kiss on her forehead. And let me tell you, that cat went from threatening my life to contentedly purring within a matter of seconds.

I let out a giant, happy sigh. Well, at least I was safe now. I was also never going to let myself into Charles’s house with the spare key ever again.

“So…” Charles said, drawing the single syllable into several long beats. His green eyes bore into me, and I found myself trapped in his gaze. “You can talk to all animals now? Because this development would have come in handy when we were working the Calhoun case.”

“Shut up,” I grumbled, trying and failing to look away. Even when he was irritated with me, Charles’s expression still held so much kindness. “You still won. And yes. I can talk to other animals now. I have no idea what changed or why, and I’d prefer to keep it hush-hush for now, please.”

“Do you hear that?” he asked the black hairless cat in his arms using an adorable baby voice. “She thinks we’re going to share her secret. Yes, she does.”

It was strange how hot I found it watching Charles baby and dote on his creepy cat. Obviously, my crush was never going away, no matter how many times I accidentally walked in on him kissing his horrible girlfriend, Breanne. Regardless of his bad taste in… well, many things but especially girlfriends… Charles was the best guy I knew. Bar none.

He proved that further by coming in close and rubbing a calming hand on my shoulder. “We’re going to find Octo-Cat, and we’re going to dismiss this arbitration. Everything is going to be just fine.”

The friction from his touch gave me a little thrill that I quickly worked to stuff down. He was my friend, my boss, the most inappropriate choice possible. Not for me, at least not right now.

I let out a weary sigh. It had been such a long day already.

Charles set Jillianne back onto the floor and searched my face for a moment. “You do believe me. Don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitation. Even though I didn’t know what the future might one day hold for the two of us, I knew Charles would take care of everything going wrong in the present. I also knew that one way or another we would all be okay. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what it might cost us in the meantime.

“What’s the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?” the smaller spotted cat Jacques asked me from his spot on the kitchen floor. Apparently, he wasn’t as good at riddles as his companion, which is why he typically let her speak for the both of them.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what the answer to this one might be. Was it important? Would it somehow help me find my missing cat?

“Do you know what the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow really is?” I asked Charles as I rolled one of my hangnails beneath my thumb—a disgusting nervous habit I’d given up on trying to overcome.

He blinked at me a few times, then burst out laughing. “I don’t know. A bowl of cereal. Weird question.”

I looked back toward Jacques, but he’d retreated back into the bowels of the house. Was he just messing with me, or had he tried to share something important?

Perhaps I’d never know.


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