The Cat, the Wife and the Weapon
A Cats in Trouble Mystery
When quilter Jillian Hart returns to her lake house in Mercy, South Carolina, she discovered her friend, Tom, is missing-and his estranged half-brother has moved into Tom's house. Jillian doesn't trust the guy, especially since he allowed Tom's diabetic cat to escape. When police officers find Tom's wrecked car with a dead stranger inside, Jillian is determined to find out what happened to Tom-before someone else turns up dead.
Cats don’t worry, I thought as I pulled two of the three pet carriers from my minivan and lugged them to my back door. I disabled the security alarm and carried a couple fur kids inside. Cats are brave, sometimes afraid, always curious, but they do not worry. How wonderful that must be.
Worry had plagued me my entire trip home to Mercy, South Carolina. For the last week, I’d been on a business trip, traveling across a few Southern states selling my handmade cat quilts at craft fairs and cat shows. November can be a sweet month in South Carolina, weather-wise, and offers lots of opportunities to sell my wares. I’d had a successful tour, but my cell phone had not rung once during my journey home. I’d left at least ten messages for my friend Tom Stewart. Maybe more. Why wasn’t he calling me back? Had I left too many messages and he’d gotten tired of my calls? Or had there been some kind of emergency?
With concern a background thrum in my head, I carried in the last cat and the suitcase into my house. As for my three kitties, their plaintive meows to be released from captivity told me Syrah, Merlot and Chablis felt only relief that their journey was over. No, they weren’t worried at all.
I opened their crates and set them free, then watched them slink into the kitchen. I loved how cautious they were. Not worried, just careful .After all, who knew what creatures might have invaded the house during our absence? They might need to be pounced upon and eliminated. All three cats gracefully crept around the kitchen, noses and tails twitching.
But it was the invisible invader that continued to bother me—the one inside my head. I went outdoors again. This was the first real wintry day I’d experienced in a week, cold wind blowing, gray skies above. I unloaded the quilts left unsold, again rolling through possibilities as to why Tom was not returning my calls.
I went back in the house and set my suitcase by the washer. Before the trip I’d left a large box in the utility room and now, as I carefully packed away the remaining quilts, I recalled what had happened the night before I’d left town. Tom and I had enjoyed a nice dinner and then watched a DVD while cuddled on my couch. He said he would miss me. I knew I would miss him too.
I talked to him on the phone the first five nights while I was away. Then my calls started going straight to voice mail. Was it something I said? Problem was, I was so tired during our last conversation, I couldn’t even remember what we’d talked about. Did he think I was blowing him off?
Merlot pressed against my calf, his warbling meow pleading for me to quit standing around and provide him with food and water. He’s a big boy, a red Maine coon cat with a giant appetite. I opened the pantry and took out three cans of tuna cat food, thinking how I should have followed through—phoned my stepdaughter, Kara, and asked her to see what was up with Tom. Kara worked part time for Tom’s security business when she wasn’t running the Mercy Messenger, our small town newspaper—or when she wasn’t supervising the construction of her new house on the outskirts of town.
I snapped open each can, and the noise brought the other two cats racing from wherever they’d been. Chablis, my seal point Himalayan, and Syrah, my amber Abyssinian, were as hungry as Merlot. They never ate much when I took them with me on business, but their semi-fasts ended as soon as we arrived home.
Why not call Kara now? I thought, setting three dishes of food and a stainless-steel pan of water on the floor in the utility room. I always used stainless or glass because plastic dishes are toxic to cats and can give them mouth sores or make them sick.
Kara is my stepdaughter, my late husband’s only child, and though she was an observant young woman and probably knew exactly how I felt about Tom, I never wanted to seem too romantically interested in him. She liked him, worked well with him, but the whole thing between Tom and me seemed awkward when it came to Kara. I felt as if calling her to ask about Tom would be like saying, “Hey, have you seen my boyfriend? The one who is slowly taking your father’s place?” No one could ever take her father’s place in my heart, of course, but it might seem that way to her.
“Oh heck,” I said aloud. “Quit with the mind games and do something.” I had to find out what was going on. Now.
I took my phone from my jeans’ pocket and stared down, gripping it as tightly as Chablis hangs on to her banana catnip toy. Call Kara. Do it.
She answered on the second ring. “Hi, Jillian. You home yet?”
“Just got in. Listen, I have a question. Is there something wrong with Tom’s phone?”
“Why?” she said.
I explained about the unreturned calls.
She said, “Maybe he didn’t take his phone with him, or forgot his charger.”
“Take it with him where?” Even though I couldn’t remember much from our last talk, I was certain he’d never mentioned a trip.
“He called me a couple days ago, asked me to handle any jobs or clients. Said he had to go away for a few days.”
“Oh.” A quiet “oh,” a small word that failed to hide the surprise and disappointment I felt that he hadn’t shared his travel plans with me.
Kara must have picked up on the emotion because she quickly said, “I got the feeling it was a last-minute thing, and he didn’t offer me any explanation. He sounded rushed or distracted or . . . something.”
“Oh,” I repeated. The worry was back. If there was one thing I’d learned since my husband’s death two years ago, it was to rely on my instincts. I knew Tom. I trusted him. Something was definitely wrong.
“You’re sure he’s not back in town?” I said.
“I’m sure. He’d call to find out about any new customers, Jillian,” she said. “I expect we’ll hear from him soon.”
“Maybe I’m overreacting,” I said, “but I’m concerned. What if he never got out his front door?” Thoughts of my husband’s collapse right here in this house, his instant death from a massive heart attack, flashed through my mind.
“Really? You’re jumping to worst-case scenarios?” I could picture her lovely, indulgent smile, so like her father’s.
“Okay,”she said in a take-charge tone. “Clearly you’re beyond stressed about this. Did you try his landline?”
“I didn’t have the number with me. He hardly uses that phone .But maybe his cell is damaged or lost. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll call his house right now.” An ounce of relief washed away some of my anxiety.
“Call me back after you talk to him—either now or later,” Kara said. “I don’t like to hear such strain in your voice.”
I hung up, the chill in the house making me shiver. No afternoon sun to warm things up. The murky, cloud-dulled day meant the cold would linger on. After I turned the thermostat up to seventy, I went through the living area and down the hall to my home office. I took my address book from my desk drawer. All three cats followed and jumped up on the mahogany surface to check out what I was doing.
Merlot crooned his concern—he has a special sound for intense interest in my state of mind. When I’m upset, all three of them seem to sense it and follow me everywhere. If I were to sit down on my sofa right now, they would be all over me.
First thing I did was add Tom’s landline number to the contacts on my cell phone. Then I hit call. His answering machine picked up.
I didn’t bother to leave a message, just disconnected. His voice on the answering machine greeting, so engaging and cheerful, made my stomach clench.
Trust your instincts. This disappearance isn’t like Tom.
I looked at the three curious feline faces staring up at me. “I have to do more than make phone calls, friends. I’m sure you’ll take much-needed cat naps while I’m gone.”
Tom lives about a five-minute drive away in a secluded neighborhood within walking distance from his mother, Karen’s, place. His mother. While I was traveling home, I’d considered calling her. But Karen is an odd bird. If I alarmed her unnecessarily, Tom would end up receiving endless visits from her when he did come home—or she might even take up residence in his guest room for a while. No. I couldn’t call her. Not yet.
The first thing I noticed when I turned on to Tom’s street was that the work van he used for his security business sat in the driveway. But rather than his Prius parked next to it, I saw an unfamiliar car. A white Ford sedan. Had he traded in his beloved little car for something so generic?
But wait. Maybe he’d had car trouble and this was a rental. It sure looked like one. But if so, it still didn’t explain his lack of contact.
I pulled in behind the Ford and was soon knocking on the door of his red brick home The November wind had picked up just in the last few minutes. I pulled my barn jacket closer around me and turned up the brown corduroy collar. Arriving here on this familiar front porch made me think of Tom’s cat, Dashiell. His big tabby was recently diagnosed as diabetic. If Tom was out of town and left the cat behind, someone would have to be giving Dashiell his insulin. Maybe the car belonged to a cat sitter, a role I would have taken on had I been here.
The forty-something man who answered the door wore navy sweats and his feet were bare. He looked more like a guest who had made himself comfortable than a pet sitter.
He smiled and said, “I was hoping for company, and it seems as if my prayers have been answered.” He looked me up and down. “And answered in a very fine way. How can I help you?”
That voice. So like Tom’s voice. But he appeared a tad younger than Tom, had blond hair rather than dark hair and was maybe four inches taller. A good six foot four if he was an inch.
“I—I—I—” Words wouldn’t come.
“I’m not scary, am I? ’Cause you look like your panty hose are quivering,” he said.
What? I had to deal with a wise-guy stranger now? As politely as I could, I said, “I’m sorry, but who are you?”
“Bob Cochran.” He had a crooked smile, perfect teeth and broad shoulders—the kind of guy women fell for instantly. Especially with his bad-boy vibe. Younger women, that is. Not me. Being in my mid-forties may have brought a few wrinkles, but I’d gained wisdom and an eye for trouble. I liked the trade-off.
He went on, saying, “I take it you came to see Tom, but he’s not home. You’re welcome to come in, though.”
The wind whipped my hair across my face and I brushed it away. But though I was cold and more than a little confused, I didn’t know this man from Adam. I wasn’t about to go inside the house with a stranger. “Where’s Tom?”
“Good question. My brother hasn’t shown his face since I arrived two days ago.”
“Your brother?” I said. That explained the resemblance.
“Guess he never mentioned me. Figures. And you are?”“Jillian Hart. Tom’s friend.”
He offered his charismatic smile again. “A friend with benefits?”
My cheeks heated up and I started to turn away. “I’ll come back when Tom’s home.”
Bob Cochran grabbed my elbow. “Wait. Sorry. That’s not any of my business. But maybe you can help me out. See, I expected Tom to be here and I’m a little puzzled he hasn’t shown up. Especially since he left his cat.”
Dashiell. Tom left Dashiell alone? I withdrew from Bob Cochran’s grasp but didn’t leave. I couldn’t now. “How is Dashiell?” I craned my neck to see past the man’s wide frame.
“He left instructions for a neighbor to care for the animal—the old lady next door. Mostly illegible notes about food and medicine. She came over, said something about how she could give the cat his shots and test him since she and this cat had the same problem, whatever that meant. But the stupid animal slipped by me when I let her in. Haven’t seen the thing since.”
“What?” I almost shouted around the lump of panic in my throat. “When did this happen?”
“Two days ago. I told the neighbor I’d come and get her if the cat came back.” He cocked his head and smiled again. “It’s only a cat. They always come back to where the food is.”
I had no time to enlighten this idiot about Dashiell’s medical problem. I had to find Tom’s cat now.
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