Lately my life has seemed pretty perfect—great house, great gig as my own boss, great new boyfriend, and the world’s most awesome talking cat. Turns out I shouldn’t have let my guard down…
Even though my private investigation firm is brand new, I’ve already got some not-so-friendly competition, and it’s coming from the sticky-fingered raccoon who lives under my front porch. I have no doubt he’s robbing his clients, since he’s stealing from mine, too.
Things go from irritating to downright dangerous when he foists a little trinket from my attic, one that suggests dark secrets and spells big trouble for my beloved Nan.
I need to learn more, but that’s not going to be easy since the person of interest lives under the same roof. Can I trust this raccoon racketeer with something so dear? Unfortunately, I haven’t got any other options.
Read the first three chapters!
Hey, my name’s Angie Russo, and I own one-half of a private investigation firm here in beautiful Blueberry Bay, Maine.
The other half belongs to my cat, Octavius—or Octo-Cat for short. It may not seem like his nickname keeps things short, but trust me on that one. Every time he tells anyone his full name, he always adds at least one new title to the end. The most recent version is Octavius Maxwell Ricardo Edmund Frederick Fulton Russo, Esq. P.I.
Like I said, it’s a mouthful.
And he’s kind of a handful, too.
While my spoiled tabby is undoubtedly my best friend, he does have a way of making my life harder. For instance, he’s been catnapped, ordered to court for arbitration, and even repeatedly threatened to kill our new dog.
Did I mention that all happened in the span of just one month?
But that’s Octo-Cat for you.
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying he’s a true individual.
And even though he’s just about as stubborn as they come, he does occasionally change his mind about things.
That new dog we adopted? She’s a sweet rescue Chihuahua named Paisley. She liked him from the start, but it took Octo-Cat much longer to warm up to her. Now I am proud to report that the two have become close friends. In fact, one of my cat’s favorite hobbies has become stalking and pouncing on his dog and then wrestling her to the ground.
Yes, his dog. That’s how much the tables have turned these past few weeks.
Together, the three of us live with my grandmother, Nan. Although she’s the main one who raised me, she lives in my house.
And I live in my cat’s house.
Yup, Octo-Cat is a trust fund kitty, and his stipend is more than generous enough to pay the mortgage on our exquisite New England manor house.
It’s a bit ridiculous, I’ll be the first to admit that. But, hey, when life gives you lemonade, it’s best if you drink up and enjoy!
Speaking of, I’ve been dating my dream guy for about seven weeks now. His name is Charles Longfellow, III, and he’s my dream guy for good reason. Not only is he the sole partner at the law firm where I used to work, but he’s also incredibly smart, kind, attentive, handsome—and, okay, I may as well just admit it—sexy.
Not that we’ve…
I can talk to my cat. I probably should have mentioned that earlier, seeing as it’s the most unusual thing about me.
I can talk to my dog, too, and most animals now.
Long story short, I got electrocuted at a will reading, and when I regained consciousness, I heard Octo-Cat making fun of me. Once he realized I could understand him, he recruited me to solve his late owner’s murder, and the rest is history.
From there, we realized two things. One, we make a really good crime-solving team, and two, we were stuck with each other for better or worse. Usually, things are better, but he still has his hissy fits on occasion—and so do I, for that matter.
And I guess that brings me to today.
Today marks the two-month mark since we first opened our P.I. outfit for business, and in that time, we’ve had exactly zero clients. Even my normally optimistic nan can’t spin this one in a positive light.
No one wants to hire us, and I’m not sure why.
I’m well-liked in town, and it’s not like people know I can actually talk to animals. They think including my cat as a partner is just a gimmick, and I prefer it that way, honestly.
But I’m starting to worry that we’ll never bring any business in.
At what point do we give up on our entrepreneurial enterprise?
Octo-Cat is pretty happy sleeping in the sun most of the day, but I prefer to have more in my life. I even quit my former job as a paralegal to make sure I had enough time for all the investigative work I felt certain would fall into my lap the moment we opened for business.
Yeah, I was more than a little wrong about that one.
I need to figure out something, and fast, if I want to keep my operation afloat, but how can I trust my instincts when they were so wrong before?
Here’s hoping Octo-Cat has a bright idea he’d be willing to share…
* * *
It was Wednesday morning, and I’d spent the better part of the last two days handing out flyers to any person, business, or animal who would take one. Out of desperation, I’d even visited parking lots and shoved the brightly colored papers touting my credentials under the windshield wipers of each car in the lot.
Still, not one person had called to share a case with me.
Nan had left the house early to serve a volunteer shift picking up litter around town. We’d both agreed the animal shelter, while in need, wasn’t the best place for her to share her generous heart—because we both knew she’d end up adopting almost every dog and cat in that place.
Our house was already full enough, thank you very much.
I sat in the front room of the house, sipping a can of Diet Coke. The coffee maker still scared me silly, given that the last time I’d used one I’d been electrocuted, and tea just wasn’t the same without Nan to keep me company.
Paisley and Octo-Cat scampered around the house in their perpetual game of tag, and I wracked my brain for any kind of idea that would help get us some clients.
The electronic pet door buzzed, and both animals ran outside.
I smiled and watched them zigzag through the yard. Mid-autumn had hit Maine, and now most of the fire-colored leaves had fallen from the trees. While I tried my best to keep up with the raking, it wasn’t easy given the fact that an enormous forest flanked my property on two sides.
Leaves blew into our yard all the time.
Like right now.
I sighed as a gust so strong I could practically see it swept through the trees and deposited at least five landscaping bags full of leaves on the front lawn. Leaves of every color carpeted the greenish-yellow grass—red, orange, yellow… turquoise?
“Mommy! Mommy!” Paisley cried from outside, and I went running. The sweet and innocent Chihuahua got upset fairly easily, but her small size also made her incredibly vulnerable. I never took any chances when it came to her safety, and neither did Nan or Octo-Cat.
One of us was always with her whenever she ventured outside.
And even though I knew Octo-Cat was out there now, I still needed to make sure nothing had happened to frighten her.
Both Paisley and Octo-Cat were waiting for me on the porch when I stepped outside. Paisley even had a turquoise piece of paper clamped within her jaws.
“What’s this?” I asked, taking it from her.
“It’s one of your papers, Mommy!” the little dog cried proudly.
I glanced at the bright paper in my hands and then back out to the yard where dozens, maybe even hundreds, more had mixed with the autumnal leaves.
She was right. This was my paper. In fact, it was the flyer for our P.I. firm that I had so painstakingly distributed the last couple of days. I’d handed out every single one that Nan had printed for us—I’d made sure of it.
So why had they all followed me home?
A squeaky laugh underneath the porch gave me a pretty good idea.
“Pringle!” I yelled, stomping my feet as hard as I could to try to force the raccoon out of there.
I knew he was mad at me ever since I’d banned him from entering the house, but to sabotage my business? Really?
“Pringle! Show yourself!” I cried, stomping so hard the impact raced up my foot and all the way through my calf. I tried to be fair to the animals that had made themselves part of my world, to accept them for their unique selves. Most of the time that was easy…
But this particular raccoon was driving me straight in the direction of the nearest asylum.
His laughter continued from under the porch, but Pringle made no move to answer my call. I had half a mind to widen the hole he used as a doorway and climb under there myself when Octo-Cat graciously intervened.
“Angela, that’s not how this is done.” He paced the edge of the porch with tail and nose held high. Whatever he was about to suggest, he was obviously very proud of it.
I stopped stomping and placed a hand on my hip, widening my eyes as I waited for Octo-Cat to enlighten me.
“Paisley, stay,” he said to the Chihuahua, then trotted down the stairs and approached the edge of the raccoon’s nearly hidden burrow. “Sir Pringle, would you kindly give us the distinct honor of your presence?”
I heard the raccoon before I saw him. “At your service, dear Octavius.”
When I peeked over the railing, I saw him making a deep bow toward my cat. For whatever reason, he idolized the tabby. At least that was his excuse for stealing so many of Octo-Cat’s things. I still didn’t know where his occasional fairytale knight mannerisms came from, but he clearly enjoyed this particular brand of make-believe.
Normally, I’d play along, but I was too angry to play by the raccoon’s ever-changing rules today.
“What’s this?” I demanded, waving the brightly colored flyer in the air.
Pringle bared his teeth in irritation. “I’m not at your beck and call, you know.”
I bared my teeth right back, just barely holding in an irritated scream. I’d never hurt a hair on his thieving head but hoped I could at least scare him into good behavior with the threat of it.
“Pray, answer the fair maiden’s question,” Octo-Cat intervened yet again. Oh, jeez. I’d have to block whatever medieval fantasy channel he was watching on TV when I wasn’t around to supervise. Even though I realized he was trying to help, this whole thing was turning into one giant migraine.
The raccoon ran up the porch steps, climbed the railing, and plucked the paper from my hands. “That’s mine,” he said then tucked it under his armpit before running back to the yard and out of my reach.
I placed both my hands on my hips and narrowed my eyes at him. “Actually, it’s mine.”
“Finders, keepers.” The smile that crept across his face now was far worse than his earlier show of aggression.
“What? No!” I cried. Just as I’d never hurt him, I knew Pringle would never cause me physical harm. At the moment, I was feeling rather emotionally attacked, however.
“Mommy, do you want me to chase the big bad raccoon away?” Paisley wagged her tail in excitement, refusing to take her eyes off the masked thief for even a second.
“Oh, no, sweetie, you don’t have to…” My words trailed away as I watched Pringle dive into the newly distributed leaves and gather up the remaining flyers.
“Actually,” I said, changing my mind in an instant. “Go for it.”
The little tri-color dog took off like a shot, barking at the top of her lungs. “Hey, you! Nobody messes with my mommy!”
Pringle lowered himself to all fours and shook his head. “Call off your hound. Let’s discuss this like the civilized creatures I know at least one of us is.”
Paisley ran a wide arc around the yard and then returned to my side. “He’s still there,” she pouted, then instantly brightened again. “Should I try again, Mommy?”
I smiled and bent down to pet her silky fur. “You did great. Thank you.” Rising again, I marched straight over to Pringle. “Okay, let’s hear it. Why did you take all my flyers?”
“They’re pretty,” he explained, hugging the disheveled stack to his chest. “I like pretty things.”
“But they weren’t here. I put them up all over town. How did you even…?”
He shrugged. “So I hitched a ride. Sometimes I like to go on adventures, too, you know? It would be nice if I didn’t have to invite myself, but since you’re not doing the job.” He shrugged again. If I wasn’t mistaken, the beginnings of tears had formed in the corners of his giant black eyes. Strange how sometimes my animal friends seemed more human than any of the people I knew.
“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.” I squatted down to face him head on. “I didn’t know you wanted to come, too.”
“Of course I wanted to come!” he shouted. “I like adventures just as much as the next forest animal, you know.”
I chose not to mention that distributing flyers begging for work was hardly an adventure. “Tell you what, next time we’ll invite you along, too. Deal?” Or at least the next time after I’d had a chance to cool down. As it was, he’d wasted a day and a half of hard work when I’d have given him colored paper had he just asked for it.
Pringle shook his head and eyed me warily. “Not quite.”
I waited, refusing to add fuel to his flaming theatrics. I got enough of this from Octo-Cat, and frankly I liked him far more than this nuisance raccoon who’d become a frenemy at best.
Pringle sighed. “I’m keeping the pretty papers.”
“Why do you even need them?” I asked with a groan.
“I’m taking up origami, and these will do very nicely.” Pringle turned his nose up so high I could only see chin, then he marched straight back to his under-porch apartment.
How did he even know origami was a thing?
And how did he know enough to want to attempt it himself?
What an odd animal.
“See, Mommy! I scared him away!” Paisley sat proudly on the edge of the porch, shaking so hard with excitement that I hadn’t the heart to tell her that Pringle had played us rather than other way around.
“That guy…” Octo-Cat plopped himself down beside the Chihuahua. “He’s getting way too big for his britches.”
I couldn’t agree more, but for the moment I was done discussing the masked menace. We had too much else we could be doing with our day.
“C’mon, you two,” I said with a sigh. “It looks like we need to come up with a new advertising plan.”
As the three of us filed back indoors, a new determination overtook me. My P.I. business would succeed or fail based on its own merits. I would not let an egotistical raccoon with delusions of grandeur stand between me and the role I just knew I was meant to play in this world—or at least in my small corner of it.
“I know that look,” Octo-Cat said with an open-mouthed smile that showed off his pointy teeth. “Nobody puts Angie in a corner.”
I snorted at that one, picturing myself in the classic 80s romance opposite Patrick Swayze. Even though he used to watch only Law & Order, he’d greatly expanded his viewing habits in recent months. Largely, thanks to my nan.
And while I appreciated my cat’s support, I definitely needed to start limiting his television time.
As it turned out, my cat wasn’t the only one watching too much television these days. Normally, Nan would spend most of her mornings in the kitchen as she did the food prep for the day and whipped up treat after delectable treat for us to enjoy with our daily tea. Today, however, the kitchen sat empty, pristinely clean, and completely abandoned.
“Nan?” My voice felt disturbingly loud as it echoed through the empty manor.
When no response came, I raced to the garage to check if her little red sports car was still parked snugly inside. She often left after lunchtime to volunteer or take a community class, but she generally informed me before heading off. Besides, if she’d left the house early today, I should have seen her from my place on the front porch.
Well, her car sat waiting in the garage, right where it belonged.
So then where was my nan?
Paisley stood on her hindlegs and padded my leg with her tiny clawed feet. “I can still smell her close by. Want me to show you where she is?”
As soon as I nodded, the little dog bolted up the stairs and began scratching at the door to one of the bedrooms we didn’t use.
“Nan?” I called cautiously before pushing it wide open.
Paisley raced in before me, and Octo-Cat slinked in after.
Nan, however, was still nowhere to be seen.
“Paisley, are you sure she’s here?” I asked, seriously beginning to worry now.
“Oh, yes! Up there!” She ran over to the closet and began to jump and do clumsy side flips, not stopping until I looked up and noticed the open attic hatch.
I craned my neck to try to see inside. “Nan?”
She appeared in a cloud of dust. The bright silk scarf on her head featured an emoji print, and she wore cat-eye sunglasses, presumably to protect her eyes from all the floating dust motes. “Oh, hello, dear.”
“What are you doing up there?” I demanded, not any less worried now that I’d found her in a potentially dangerous situation. “How did you even get up there?”
“Just sorting through some things. I started with my bedroom but wasn’t quite ready to call the whole thing quits for the day just yet.” She turned away and crawled out of view.
“Call what quits?” I shouted after her.
“I didn’t know we had a higher place,” Octo-Cat remarked, then dropped low and wiggled his butt, making an impressive leap toward the hatch.
His front paws grazed the entrance but couldn’t get a grip.
“Ouch,” he moaned after he fell clumsily back to the ground.
“Are you hurt?” I asked, attempting to stroke and soothe him.
He flinched and slinked away from my hand. “My poor pride,” he whined. “What kind of a cat can’t stick the landing? Ouch.”
“Oh, Octo-friend. Can I kiss your ouchies?” the dog offered, licking her lips in anticipation.
“Insult to injury,” my cat muttered.
Both animals ran out of the room, leaving me on the ground and Nan somewhere above.
“Nan?” I called again. “What are you doing up there?”
She popped into view again, laughed, and shook her head as if this should have all been obvious. “Why, Mission Marie Kondo, of course!”
“Marie Kon—Wait… Is this from that book everyone’s talking about?” If memory served, there were also memes aplenty.
Nan scrunched her face up. “A book? Hmm, well, I don’t know about that. It’s a show on Netflix. I binged the full first season the other day. I do hope there will be a new season soon.”
I knew for a fact it had been a book first but kept mum.
Her eyes lit up as she explained, “It’s the new Feng Shui. Everyone’s doing it. If something doesn’t spark joy, then it doesn’t belong in your home. Fun, right?”
“Yeah… Fun,” I muttered. Already we had far more house than possessions to put in it. Sometimes I felt like we lived in a museum with all the antiques we’d inherited as part of the estate. We could do with more personal items to fill it out, not fewer.
“Well, are you coming up or am I coming down?” My grandmother tilted her head to the side in a gesture that reminded me very much of her Chihuahua sidekick. “You know what? I’ll come down.”
A moment later she’d scurried out of the crawl space and dropped the rest of the distance to the carpeted floor below. Her knees bent a little on impact, and I worried she’d broken something.
Racing to her side, I gently pulled her back into a standing position. “Oh my gosh! Nan! Are you okay?”
“Of course I’m okay. What do you take me for? Some kind of invalid?” Both her knees and her voice shook, but shockingly she wasn’t any worse for the wear. Not like Octo-Cat and his poor, damaged pride.
What do I take you for? A seventy-something woman, that’s what! But I didn’t push it since she appeared to be perfectly okay. Maybe one day I’d be in as good of shape as my grandmother, but somehow I doubted it—not when she was part Betty Crocker, part ninja.
“Do me a favor, because you know I worry,” I begged. “Next time you want to go in the attic, grab me first—or at least grab a chair.”
She waved my concerns away. “No need to worry. I’m done for now.”
“Did you get rid of lots of stuff?” I asked, only now noticing the two large trash bags that sat to the side of the closet.
“A good chunk of it. What have you been up to this morning?”
I filled her in on the reappearing flyers and the confrontation with Pringle, ending with the most unbelievable part. “And get this? He says he needs them so he can do origami!” I exploded.
“Oh, good,” Nan said with a pert nod. “I was worried he wouldn’t be able to find any craft supplies.”
“Wait. Are you the one who turned him on to the Japanese art of paper-folding?” Why was I even surprised?
She shrugged. “I had an old book. It wasn’t sparking joy for me, but it seemed to spark joy for our raccoon friend, so I handed it right over.”
“But a book? Does he know how to read?” How could he read if Octo-Cat, who’d lived much more closely with humans, couldn’t?
Nan chuckled. “Well, that’s a question for him, dear. Not me.”
I rolled my eyes hard and let out a long, extra breathy sigh.
“No need to get snippy now,” Nan scolded as she charged toward the door.
I followed her down the stairs and into the kitchen. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to take it out on you. It’s just I’m trying so hard to find clients for Octo-Cat’s and my business, but nothing seems to be working.”
“Oh, you need clients?” Nan raised an eyebrow my way while filling our tea kettle at the sink.
“Of course we do. It’s been two months, and still we have zero clientele to show for our efforts.” Talk about depressing.
My grandmother set the kettle on the stovetop and turned back to me with a giant grin. “Well, why didn’t you say so? I happen to know someone who is in desperate need of your services.”
“What?” I gasped. “And you didn’t tell me?”
Nan hit me gently with a hand towel. “Calm down, you. I just found out yesterday, and I was quite busy at the time.”
With her Marie Kondo-ing, right. I rearranged my features into a placating smile. Even though I loved my nan more than anyone else in this entire world, sometimes her roundabout methods could be a bit infuriating.
“Well,” I said when she still hadn’t said anything after a full minute. “Who is it?”
She crossed her arms over her chest and turned her face away. “Apologize first. That’s twice you’ve snapped at me in the space of five minutes.”
“I’m sorry.” And I was. I loved Nan’s quirkiness and wouldn’t change her for the world. For all her faults, my grandmother was still my best friend and my idol.
As soon as that final syllable left my mouth, she whipped back toward me to make her big reveal. “I prefer to let you be surprised, but I’ll ask your new client over for dinner tonight so she can give you all the details. I feel quite sure she’ll hire you on to help her out.”
“Thank you, Nan!” I sang, wrapping her in a solid hug. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter that she was playing coy with the details. Nan had found a client, a real, honest-to-goodness client!
Finally, things were looking up for Octo-Cat’s and my P.I. business.