The Cat, the Vagabond and the Victim
An Excerpt From
The Cat, the Vagabond and the Victim
One

Visitors don’t often knock on my front door at eleven o’clock at night. But my friend Allison Cuddahee from the local no-kill shelter had called me in a panic to ask a favor. She arrived thirty minutes later bearing a gift.

The opportunity to foster a cat is always a gift as far as I’m concerned. This particular feline’s name was Clyde, and I already knew he was a celebrity. The press was onto him and his amazing story. See, various out-of-town reporters had been hanging around the Mercy Animal Sanctuary, hoping for photo opportunities. That was why Allison resorted to this late-night, stealthy delivery. I guess you could now call my home his “undisclosed location.”

I’m Jillian Hart, I live in Mercy, South Carolina, and I have a history of helping cats. After all, my three beauties—Syrah, Merlot and Chablis—are all Hurricane Katrina rescues. I found each of them in different shelters in the Houston area where I once lived. They’d been removed from flood-ravaged New Orleans and remained unclaimed months after the storm. But my now-late husband, John, and I gladly gave them a new forever home. I wondered how they’d get along with Clyde, who was being surprisingly quiet in the crate Allison set at her feet in my foyer.

“Thanks for stepping up again, Jillian,” Allison said. “We sneaked Clyde out the back door of the shelter and into my car because two particularly pesky reporters have been following Shawn around ever since this big boy was transported to our place. We were afraid they’d follow Shawn’s truck if he drove Clyde over here. Now let’s hope they weren’t paying attention to me.”

Shawn was Allison’s husband, and together they ran the local pet rescue shelter.

I glanced down at the crate. “I caught Mercy Animal Sanctuary in the background when the Today Show aired Clyde’s story. I suppose they found out about him because of the piece that ran in our town paper?”

“Who knows? It seems to me anytime a cat travels more than fifty miles, he or she makes the national news.”

“You two come on into the living room,” I said. “Can I get you some sweet tea? Water? A soda?” I took the bag of food and treats she’d placed on top of the crate and led the way through the foyer.

The sweet perfume of early summer’s pine and Carolina jasmine wafted through the air as Allison carried Clyde in his crate with some effort. Although of a slight build—three inches shorter than my five foot four—Allison had well-toned biceps and strong legs from her work at the sanctuary. If she was struggling with that crate, my guess was that I was about to meet a big boy—maybe bigger than my nearly twenty-pound Maine coon, Merlot.

“Nothing to drink,” she said. “I am exhausted and want to sneak back home before one of those weird reporters accosts me with questions. And I’m not talking about your Kara. She’s been nothing but wonderful.”

Kara was my stepdaughter, my late husband’s daughter, and the editor and owner of the local newspaper, the Mercy Messenger.

Allison set the carrier down near my chenille sofa, and my three kitties immediately surrounded Clyde. Syrah is a sorrel Abyssinian, Merlot a red tabby Maine coon, and Chablis a seal point Himalayan. I heard no growling coming from inside the crate—unusual, but a relief. Maybe Clyde would fit in here quickly.

I turned to Allison. “So you’re not upset that Kara broke the story about Mr. Jeffrey and Clyde in the Messenger?”

“Of course not. It’s these out-of-towners who bother me. It all started as a simple human interest piece as far as Kara was concerned.” Allison knelt by the carrier. “Shawn was happy to talk to her about Clyde—even though he’d rather be speaking with dogs, cats or birds. Who knew the major networks would run with this? Maybe that’s because it doesn’t quite have a happy ending yet.”

“It is sad about Mr. Jeffrey’s death and how poor Clyde never made it home in time to be with his friend,” I said. “But Candace won’t tell me much about what they found at the man’s house except to say that if not for Clyde, his body would still be lying there undiscovered.”

Deputy Candace Carson, a local police officer and my best friend, was investigating the man’s passing. Kara reported that his death was assumed to be from natural causes, but the coroner had not released an official report. Only three days had passed, though. Maybe tomorrow we’d know more.

Allison rested a loving hand on top of the crate. “Norm, poor Clyde’s best buddy, is gone, and I know this guy feels the loss.”

“I’m not sure I understand why Mr. Jeffrey—Norm—placed Clyde away from his home,” I said. “He sent him to stay with his sister or his nephew, right? At least, those are the two people on the news I saw giving interviews.”

She nodded. “Clyde was supposedly with the sister, a woman named Millicent Boatman. That other person on TV was her son, Dirk. Anyway, Mr. Jeffrey took the cat down to Hilton Head where the Boatman woman lived two months ago, but Clyde ran off. Then he showed up on Norm’s doorstep several days ago and raised a ruckus. Woke the neighbors, who wondered why in the heck Norm didn’t hear his old friend meowing at the door.”

I peered into the crate and said, “But there was no waking your friend, huh, buddy?”

Clyde, a gigantic orange tabby with the kind of upturned mouth that looks like a perpetual smile, blinked at me. This boy had traveled more than two hundred miles to get home. A combination of sorrow and admiration created a lump in my throat.

Allison said, “Shawn is not inclined to hand this cat back over to the sister without first talking to her away from the cameras. He wants to know how Clyde escaped from her house. And would you believe she hasn’t even shown up in Mercy yet? Too busy giving interviews to CNN, I guess.”

“And I gather they’re still thinking Mr. Jeffrey died of natural causes?” I said.

“Far as I know. The man did have cancer.” She whispered the last word. “Don’t know what kind—not sure I want to know.” Allison’s eyes filled as she fixed a short, burnished wave of hair behind her ear.

I said, “I guess Mr. Jeffrey must have been too frail to care for this big fella. Anyway, I promise to heap tons of love on him if he’ll let me.” I was feeling the need to comfort both Allison and Clyde now. “This guy knew his owner was ill and he needed to get home.” I watched Syrah, my bravest kitty, nose in close to the carrier door.

“Kara kept anything she knew about Mr. Jeffrey’s private medical issues out of the paper,” Allison said. “But those reporters must have got someone to talk. Like this Millicent person, maybe?”

Chablis rubbed against Allison’s knee, her curiosity about Clyde satisfied for now. Besides, she knew Allison needed a little comfort.

Allison sat cross-legged on the floor so Chablis could climb into her lap.

“Did you know that Norm adopted Clyde from us?” She stroked Chablis, who closed her eyes and raised her chin to offer her throat. Allison complied and stroked it.

“I had no idea.” I pushed two fingers through the carrier grate to let Clyde sniff my fingers. “When was that?”

“Clyde walked right up to our sanctuary door a couple years ago,” she said. “’Course he was a kitten and a third the size he is now. You can imagine our surprise when Candace brought him back to us the other day. We recognized him right away by his smile.”

I shook my head, troubled. “All they want to talk about on the news is Clyde’s voyage home. I heard next to nothing about poor Mr. Jeffrey and how much he probably missed his cat during his illness.”

Allison said, “Thing is, it’s not all that amazing for a cat to travel long distances to return home. Those TV folks don’t understand the true feline nature if they think it’s odd.” The passion for animals that both Allison and Shawn felt came through in her voice. “Animals love with all their hearts. There’re a few humans I know who could take a lesson from them.”

“That’s for sure. But I don’t understand why these reporters are still hanging around. I mean, the story’s over, right?”

“Oh no. Not over yet. One of those reporters was shouting at my husband this morning, yelling that he knew Shawn wasn’t in any hurry to turn over the cat to Millicent Boatman.” She shook her head in annoyance.

“How could they possibly know?” I said. “No. That was a silly question. The folks in Mercy do love to talk.”

“True,” she replied. “As far as Shawn is concerned, this cat will not be turned over to a woman who couldn’t hang on to him, so I am sure there will be a bit of a disagreement over who gets possession of Clyde. Like anyone can really possess a cat.” She grinned, and it warmed my heart to see her lovely smile.

“You got that right,” I said.

“Anyway, the story continues. Candace says—and you know how thorough Candace is when it comes to an investigation—anyways, she agrees that until she knows for sure who Clyde should go home with, he stays with us. Well, now with you.”

“Still, Mr. Jeffrey did give Clyde to his sister, so if she persists about wanting him back, then—”

“Nope. Not yet, anyway. Shawn worries that Clyde will leave Hilton Head again and might not make it back to Mercy the next time.” Allison continued to pet Chablis, who purred loud enough to wake the birds sleeping outside.

Clyde finally broke into the conversation, and the sound made me start. His meow was louder than a small dog’s bark. No wonder Mr. Jeffrey’s neighbors had heard him.

Merlot backed off a couple feet from the crate, and this time, his tail puffed and he growled. Syrah’s coat stood on end, too. But Chablis? She was content in Allison’s lap, completely unaffected by Clyde.

“Wow. That’s quite a voice he’s got,” I said.

“He can be very vocal. He had to be to get the neighbor’s attention. Hope he doesn’t keep you awake tonight.” Allison gently moved Chablis off her lap and stood. “And now, I need to go home.”

I rose, too. “Is Clyde on scheduled meals? I mean, he seems awfully big and—”

“Big, yes. Overweight, no—probably because of the long trip he just made. We’ve been filling his bowl as soon as it’s empty because he’s hungry all the time,” she said.

“What about his feet after his trek? Are they okay?” I asked.

Syrah had jumped on the sofa behind me so he could look down at the crate—and be higher than our new friend, Clyde.

“His feet are fine,” she said. “All he suffered was a little dehydration. He didn’t even need worming. My guess is this guy made friends along the way—and he made good time, too. Took him a couple months. Probably walked five to ten miles a day.”

“Wow. I’d be exhausted—and probably lost—if I were him. But since cats have their own little GPS in their brains, they aren’t quite as directionally challenged as someone like me.” I picked up the bag of kibble. “I’ll be starting Clyde out in the basement guest bedroom. As soon as you called, I ran down there and put out a clean cat quilt, a litter box and fresh water.”

Allison smiled. “You’ll spoil him rotten. And he deserves to be spoiled. I’ll carry him down for you. This boy is heavy.”

“I believe I’ll let you do that. I don’t want to drop him.”

Fifteen minutes later, a tired Allison was on her way home and Clyde was already digging into his food while I sat by and watched.

I knew my three cats would not be joining me in bed tonight. They’d be parked outside the guest room door until dawn. Cats do not like a closed door, especially when a visitor is on the other side.

I’d miss them, but cats have to do what cats have to do.

Two

At first, the loud and insistent knocking on my front door seemed to be part of a dream. Was I experiencing Allison’s late-night visit all over again? But the noise persisted and grew even louder. I sat up and squinted at the nightstand clock. Seven a.m.

Seven a.m? What the heck?

I grumbled as I got out of bed and found the jeans I’d left on the floor last night. My friends do not knock on my front door; they come to the back of the house. And they call first—at least most of the time. So, though I wanted to cover my head with my pillow and grab another hour of sleep, I had to find out who was being so demanding. Maybe a neighbor had lost a pet . . . or maybe Allison needed me to do something else for her. But she could have phoned. No, this was something else, and I had a bad feeling about it.

Groggy from staying up too late playing with my new friend, Clyde, I felt almost hungover as I rummaged in my dresser for a T-shirt. What a fun cat that big boy was, and once he started playing the “paws under the door” game with my crew without any hissing or growling involved, I decided it was okay to let my three curious felines into the room to meet him right away. It helped that mine were used to an occasional feline guest, but I still thought it best that after I supervised their getting to know one another, I’d shut them out for the night.

Now, when I could have used another hour of sleep, I’d been awoken by some person pounding—yes, now they were pounding—on my front door.

I grabbed my cell phone as I hurried to see just what was so urgent. When I peered through the peephole, I saw something I certainly didn’t expect: a man who I could have sworn was wearing makeup—and maybe even hair spray.

Huh? Since I couldn’t see beyond the distortion of his large sandy-haired head through the peephole, I hurried back to my living room, grabbed the remote and turned on my television. It was a new smart TV, and my security expert and boyfriend, Tom Stewart, had set it up so I could access a screen that showed the view from every security camera installed outside my home.

Sure enough, I could see the entire picture of what was transpiring out there.

“Darn it all,” I muttered. But I was glad for all my cameras. Tom installed them after Syrah had been catnapped a few years ago, and I could have never anticipated how much I appreciated being able to see most of my property, both inside and out. Plus all the feeds were connected to my smartphone. Even if I was away from home, I knew what was happening here. I’d told Tom he could probably make a fortune selling his techniques for this sort of thing, but he said other companies already did similar work and that he didn’t really care to get involved in business that might involve travel or take up more time than his PI and security business already did.

Various other people besides this man loitered on my lawn, drinking coffee or staring vacantly at the front of my house. The man at the door had on a suit and there was a woman with swept-back blond hair who wore an expensive-looking print dress and high heels, but others wore shorts, T-shirts and headphones. And not small earbud headphones, either. Big headphones. Cables snaked along my driveway to a van with a satellite dish on top. Yes, the TV folks had found Clyde. And, of course, they’d found me, too. I was again reminded there are no secrets in the small town of Mercy. Not for long.

I found Candace’s number in my speed dial. Though worried I might wake her, I had no idea what to do about this situation. I might need her police presence here.

Fortunately, she seemed quite alert when she said, “Hey there. What’s up, Jillian?”

“What’s up?” I eased onto the sofa, still staring at the media tableau before me. Chablis joined me, promptly sprawling across my lap and blinking up at me. “Here’s what’s up. My front yard is cluttered with people holding cameras, and one of their vans is blocking my driveway.”

She sighed heavily. “Great. They know you’ve got the cat. I promise I didn’t tell them a thing.”

“Of course you didn’t. But what should I do?” I ran my hand over Chablis’s silky champagne-colored coat and felt calmer almost instantly.

More sighing came through the phone. “I’m waiting for a fax from Mr. Jeffrey’s pathologist. His autopsy report should come in today. Can I send Morris to get those press-types to back off? They do have a right to be on the street, but we can get them away from your front door.”

Morris Ebeling, Candace’s partner, seemed the perfect choice for the job. A grouch in uniform was just what I needed. “Thank you,” I said. “I only want them to stop pounding on my door and not block my driveway.”

“Will do. Just don’t talk to them,” Candace warned. “They’re sorta like kids and candy. You give them a taste of sugar and they’ll keep begging for more.”

“I have no intention of giving them the time of day—which is seven o’clock in the morning, last I checked. Should I call Kara to come over and intervene? She’s their colleague, so to speak.”

“No. Don’t do that. If they figure out you two are related, they won’t leave either of you alone.”

“Okay. Morris it is, then. Talk to you later.” Ready for much-needed coffee, I disconnected and picked up Chablis. “Keep me company in the kitchen, baby, and we’ll pretend there’s no one out there trying to get our attention.” I was certain Syrah and Merlot were waiting downstairs. A closed door and a strange new friend named Clyde could not be ignored.

By the time the coffee was brewed, Morris had come to my rescue. I heard his familiar gruff voice shouting at the folks assembled on the front lawn. In case they decided to invade the back of my property as well, I’d closed every blind in the house so no one could sneak a peek into one of the many windows overlooking Mercy Lake. It bothered me to be denied the view of the salmon-colored sunrise spreading its glow across the water. I’d only had a glimpse this morning.

A good five minutes later, Morris knocked on my back door, shouting, “It’s me, Jillian.”

I let him in and gave him a grateful hug, which seemed to catch him by surprise. He blushed bright red, a Christmas-like contrast to his forest green uniform.

“Just doin’ my job,” he said after I thanked him. “They got no right steppin’ all over your flowers and rattling your door like you’ve got Elvis Presley’s ghost floating around in here.”

“My pansies? Darn it all. They were doing so well.” I walked over to the coffeepot and held it up, eyebrows raised.

He nodded at the carafe. He might even have been drooling. “Your flowers are flat as the earth used to be. I can make them pay you for those. I got all them TV idiots rounded up in the road and I’m bettin’ not one of them is leavin’, neither. How much those flowers set you back?” He took a mug off the little stand by the coffeepot and handed it to me.

“Not much. I’ll let it go. I don’t want to talk to any of those people, not even about crushed pansies.” I filled his mug and pushed a spoon and the sugar bowl toward him.

Just then, Syrah, Merlot and Clyde appeared through the door leading to the basement. That darn Syrah had probably been working all night to get the guest room door open. Latches to him were merely a puzzle to be solved—and he always succeeded.

Morris glanced down at the cats as he doctored his coffee. “This big one’s the guy causin’ all this ruckus? He’s just a dern cat. What’s the big deal?” Realizing his mistake at once, he offered a rare, conciliatory smile. “Sorry. That’s the wrong thing to say to you.”

“True, Morris. No such thing as just a cat to me.” I knelt and greeted all the felines. “I suppose this is a human interest story and these press people have nothing better to do right now. I called Kara last night after Allison brought the cat over here. She says a slow news cycle will make reporters go after a tale like this—pun intended. Plus they got a photo of Clyde—from where, I don’t know. She told me since he’s got this lovable face and he’s so big and pretty, the story of his travels has gone viral.”

“Yeah, like a disease. Reporters are prone to those types of illnesses.” Morris held up his mug. “Best coffee I’ve had since . . . about an hour ago.”

I laughed. “You do love the stuff. You hungry? I was just about to toast a bagel.”

“Nope. I gotta get back. With Candace all tied up making sure Norm Jeffrey died a natural death and wasn’t a victim of foul play . . .” He paused to roll his eyes. “Anyways, she’s busy, and I got to pick up the slack. Who knows? Some kid mighta spray-painted the high school bricks with his girlfriend’s name now that school’s near out.”

Vandalism and public intoxication were the most common crimes in Mercy. But if Candace was still investigating a death three days after a man’s body was discovered, I was certain she had a good reason. “Candace has a concern about how Mr. Jeffrey died, right?” I stood and all four cats began weaving around my legs. They were hungry.

“What do you think? ’Course she has a concern.” But then Morris’s annoyed expression disappeared. “Sorry. I know she’s your best buddy and I shouldn’t be actin’ like she don’t know what she’s doin’. She’s good at her job and a lot less lazy than this old SOB.” His cheeks fired up again. “Pardon my language, Jillian. It’s early and I need at least six more cups of joe before my mouth cleans up proper.” He glanced down at the cat crew. “Bet these four don’t care, though.” He smiled.

“All they care about right now is their next meal. Anyway, if Candace has a concern . . . well, we both know it’s not without cause.” I leaned a hip against the kitchen counter as the cats stared up at me in patient anticipation. “Tell me what the heck is going on.”

“Okay, there is something—but don’t you go repeating it.”

“Of course not,” I replied. I knew there had to be more to this story.

“The number of pills in Mr. Jeffrey’s heart medicine bottle wasn’t right. Not enough there for when the prescription was last filled. She thinks that could mean something. Me? I wouldn’t have been even lookin’ in that bottle to begin with, much less countin’ the pills. Anyways, she pestered the coroner to have the man autopsied—something that wouldn’t normally have happened seein’ as how he was old and sick. But you know Candace. Never leaves a stone unturned.”

I smiled. “That’s my girl. If there’s foul play involved, you know she’ll find out.”

“Got that right.” Morris drained his mug and set it in the sink. “You have any more trouble with those folks out yonder, you call me and I’ll arrest their sorry butts for trespassin’. They’ve been warned.”

“Thanks for coming over, Morris.”

Grumpy as the old guy was, he was still huggable, but he left before I could hug him again.

After Morris had gone, I dealt with the most pressing issue—hungry cats. Then I rechecked my security feeds to make sure the newspeople were complying with Morris’s warning to stay away from my house. They were. For now. So after I gobbled down my bagel, I showered. While toweling my hair, I heard knocking again—but fortunately at the back door.

By the time I reached the kitchen, Tom had already come inside and was crouched down, his hand extended to a sitting Clyde. My three cats were rubbing against Tom’s knees and thighs, begging for his attention.

“Hey there.” I raked my hands through my still-damp hair. “You’re here early.”

Tom looked up at me, his amazing blue eyes gentle as a whisper. “I was worried after I checked your surveillance feeds this morning. But now I understand.” He glanced knowingly at Clyde.

“Yes, the celebrity cat has a new temporary home. He was staying in the guest room, but Syrah decided he needed to be released from captivity.” I eyed Syrah. “You love a challenge, don’t you?”

Tom patted each cat’s head and stood. “You need knobs rather than latches if you want to keep Syrah from opening any door he pleases. He’s got it down to a science.”

I laughed. “But what fun would it be then?”

Tom walked over and took me in his arms. We shared a fresh-from-toothpaste, minty kiss. “When do I get to join the fun here full-time? Because I’ve been patient and—”

I touched a finger to his lips. “First we have to tell the folks in our lives that we’re getting married. I think I’d like to invite everyone for a barbecue. How’s that sound?”

He smiled down at me. “You’re ready to let the secret out that we’re engaged?”

I nodded. “Time to let the cat out of the bag.” He’d asked me to marry him several months ago—and I’d said yes. But I told him I needed time to let the idea sink in, learn to live with my decision to move on after losing my husband to a heart attack more than five years ago. But I felt ready now.

Tom smiled, tilted his head to the ceiling and let out a whoop that sent all my cats scurrying to far corners—all except Clyde, who stayed put and seemed to study us both as if we were statues at a museum. Then Tom hugged me close. “My mom thought after my first marriage, I’d never get married again. She’ll be pleased, even if we middle-aged folks won’t be giving her the grandkids she always wanted.”

I lifted my face to his and we shared another kiss.

Five minutes later we sipped coffee at the small mosaic-tiled table in the kitchen nook that overlooked Mercy Lake. I opened the blinds enough so we could enjoy the water lapping the bank under the morning sun.

Tom said, “Should I set up a few more cameras so we can tell if those TV people get closer to the house? They do have to respect private property, after all.”

I laughed. “More cameras? Have you bought new techie toys you want to try out on me? Because the White House might be envious if they saw how well-protected my house is.”

“I do have upgrades that I planned to put in anyway. You liked how I did the four-screen feed on your smartphone, right?”

“Yes, but I can wait on that. The reporters’ interest will surely wane in a day or two. Another story will catch their fancy and they’ll be gone as quick as they arrived.”

“Having once been a cop, and even now in my PI work, I’ve tangled with reporters a lot. I can tell you that newspeople from big-time TV are aggressive and manipulative. I don’t like them hanging around here—especially when I have a security installation to do fifty miles away today.”

I leaned toward him, forearms on the table, brows knitted. “You don’t think I can handle them?”

“Guess that sounded too old-school, huh? I know you can take care of yourself.”

I reached over and grabbed his wrist. “Glad you get that, so hush. I’ll be fine.”

For an instant his eyes seemed to glisten, but the tender moment was interrupted by Candace’s unique knock on the back door. She let herself in before Tom or I even had a chance to stand.

“Hey there, y’all. I see the show goes on right in front of your house.” She made a beeline for the fridge, took out the pitcher of sweet tea and set it on the counter. She opened a cabinet and removed a glass. “It’s a nice kitty story, but isn’t there a war somewhere that deserves their attention more than one vagabond cat?”

Candace’s voice brought my three friends meandering in from the living area. They gathered around her legs and promptly deposited cat hair on her uniform trousers. They loved Candace. She knelt to greet them. Clyde sat just outside the kitchen, observing. He was such a calm and handsome boy—a patient watcher.

Tom went over to Clyde. “This celebrity is one cool customer, huh, Candace?”

Candace smiled at Clyde. “Loved that guy from the minute I laid eyes on him outside Mr. Jeffrey’s house.” She poured her tea and put the pitcher back in the fridge. “If I weren’t so busy all the time, I would have taken him in myself. Clyde must have known something was wrong here in Mercy to travel all that distance. And he was right-on. Which is why I’m here. I fear those reporters will be around a tad longer once the autopsy report goes public.”

“Uh-oh.” I glanced at Tom and saw concern furrow his brow.

“What’s the problem?” Tom said.

“Overdose of digitalis, his heart medication.” Candace took a long drink of tea.

“Did he take his own life?” I was thinking about what I’d learned concerning Mr. Jeffrey’s terminal cancer. Some folks would rather control the end of their life than have a disease make the decision about when they would go.

Candace’s eyes narrowed and she cocked her head. “Suicide would be the logical conclusion. But if you’re gonna go do something like that, why not take the entire bottle of pills? Why leave any behind?”

Tom folded his arms and nodded in appreciation at Candace. “You’re right. Why not take the whole bottle?”

“I didn’t think about that,” I said. “But please tell me the killer didn’t leave behind an unsigned, computer-generated suicide note.”

Candace allowed a small smile. “Don’t you hate it when you see that on TV?”

I knelt and extended a hand to Clyde, who was looking at me now. “Obviously the killer had access to Mr. Jeffrey’s medication. That should narrow the field.” The cat trotted to me and rubbed his head against the back of my hand.

Lips tight, she nodded. “Narrows it to about one or two people here in town. Enough said about that piece of information for now. Anyways, before I pay a visit to one of them, I need to know exactly what happened in that house and why the poor man had to die right now. Because, see, he was dying anyway.”

“Really?” I tried to sound surprised, not wanting her to know I’d already been given this information. But then I saw a look on Candace’s face I’d become quite familiar with—her “I need you to do something for me” expression.

“Yup. The man had the big C. And right now, I need time and space to investigate this case. Learn everything I can about Norm Jeffrey. And that’s where you come in. Jillian, I need a favor.”

Three

I hefted Clyde up into my arms—gosh, he had to weigh twenty-five pounds—and carried him into the living room. “I’ll help any way I can.”

Tom and Candace followed me—and so did my three cats, no doubt unhappy I wasn’t carrying a cat named Syrah, Chablis or Merlot.

Clyde purred like an idling motor as I sat on the couch. He was so big, he could rest his head on my chest while the rest of him stretched out all the way to my knees. Syrah jumped up on the back of the couch and stared down at Clyde, his sleepy glare not concealing his jealousy. Meanwhile, Merlot and Chablis sat at my feet and looked up with undisguised indignation. But Clyde had traveled so far for loving comfort, I felt the need to offer him what I could.

Tom came to the rescue. He picked up Chablis and sat with her on his lap at the opposite end of the couch. She would be the one most offended by my cuddling another cat. Merlot turned and decided Candace was the best option for his share of affection.

Merlot was content to rest against Candace’s legs when she sat opposite me on the overstuffed chair, her glass of tea held with two hands. Syrah, meanwhile, sat in his favorite spot, a place where he could keep a close eye on Clyde.

Candace leaned toward me. “You and Clyde present the perfect picture. This is what the newspeople want to see.”

“But I thought you weren’t happy with the press presence here,” I said.

“I’m not pleased, but I want you to invite a couple of them in for an interview. Let them see Clyde like Tom and I are seeing him right now. You can answer questions about him and about cats in general—because you know more about cats than any person I know.”

“But—”

Tom interrupted, saying, “You want her to invite those people into her house? What’s the plan, Candace?”

But I understood. “Distraction, right?” I stroked Clyde, whose face now rested in the crook of my neck.

She lifted her glass in my direction. “You got it. If we give them what they came for, I’m hoping they won’t notice I’m investigating a suspicious death. They’ll continue to focus on the journey of one determined cat.”

I shifted, rubbed a thumb against Clyde’s cheek. His already loud purring amped up another notch. “I don’t know. Can’t Tom sit with Clyde and talk to them? If you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly a Kardashian.”

“You’re better than any reality TV princess,” Tom said. “Better looking, more genuine. I’d be glad to help, but I have to work. I’ve put off this client once already—last week when it rained like God opened a spigot. But in my book, you are so made for a TV appearance like this, Jilly.”

“I agree.” Candace drained her glass and stood. “It’s settled. I’ll talk to them, give them a time—I’m thinking this afternoon right about when the autopsy goes public. They’ll be here interviewing you, get their story and then hopefully leave town. And meanwhile I can pick up my search warrant, sneak back to the Jeffrey house and look for anything we might have missed in light of these autopsy findings.”

Tom released Chablis. I could tell she was becoming a tad pissed off that I was holding Clyde. She made her way over to me and sniffed at him. He was so content, he didn’t even open his eyes. I stroked Chablis with my free hand and this seemed to mollify her—for the moment.

Tom bent and kissed my forehead. “I have to get going. You’ll do great. And maybe you can sneak in a mention of your cat quilt business. Nothing like free advertising.”

“Bye, babe. Drive carefully.” Clyde wiggled free, apparently feeling the need to accompany Tom to the back door.

“Be careful when you open the door, Tom,” I called. “Clyde’s following you.”

After we heard the back door close, Clyde soon ambled back to join us, that darling smile on his impish face.

Before leaving, Candace said she would talk to the reporters and call me with the time they’d be arriving with their cameras and lights.

“You owe me, Candace Carson,” I called as she left through the back door. I tried to sound like I was joking, but a gnawing had begun in the pit of my stomach. I’m no fan of the spotlight and I am not one for inviting strange humans into my home. Fur babies are quite another story. But then, animals that you love and care for rarely turn on you. I had the sense this upcoming encounter might not be as simple a solution as Candace believed it would be. Not by a long shot.

• • •

The two reporters and their crew of four who knocked on my door at two o’clock had less equipment than I’d imagined. As they noisily invaded my living room, the reporters immediately informed me Deputy Carson had assured them they could each have a separate interview. So this would be doubly difficult. One of them was the man in the bow tie who’d knocked on my front door so early this morning. His name was Gerard Holcomb and my first impression was that of an abrupt and distracted man. I wasn’t getting a good vibe off him, especially when he pretty much ignored me after introductions, peppering the cameraman with orders instead.

The other “correspondent,”as she called herself, was Tess Reynolds, the blonde I’d seen first thing this morning. She now wore a cream silk blouse and pencil skirt. She shook my hand, made eye contact and seemed interested in talking to me. I had seen her on a morning show she once hosted years ago. When I mentioned this, she quickly explained that she was a “special assignment” correspondent now.

Up close, Tess looked every bit her age—which had to be early sixties. On television, she had never seemed to grow old and it struck me that I preferred seeing her in person. She seemed softer, more human. In contrast to Gerard Holcomb, she even acted interested in Clyde. But when I offered to pick him up and bring him to her so she could pet him, she held up her hands and stepped back. “No, no, no. Can’t have any cat hair on me. But he is sweet looking.”

Mr. Bow Tie then insisted that I remove my “other animals” from his “set.” Yup. He called my house his set. I refused, but it didn’t matter. Merlot and Chablis scurried down the hallway to my bedroom once they felt they could safely get past the cameras and extension cords. Syrah, however, wasn’t about to relinquish his territory. He perched on the picture windowsill and stared at the man with impervious disdain.

A young woman, maybe midtwenties, approached me with authority once Tess and Gerard began busying themselves deciding where to best “place the woman and the cat.” I was simply the woman. Clyde was just the cat. Regret and anxiety began warring for priority inside my head.

“I’m Cindy and I’ll be doing your hair and makeup,” the young woman said. “You’re very fair, and with those red highlights in your hair, we’ll go with lighter rose shades.” She smiled and asked if she could set her makeup case on the dining room table. But she didn’t even wait for a response. She just walked to the table, set the case down and opened it.

Hair and makeup? Why had I ever agreed to this? I thought someone would simply shove a microphone in my face, ask me a few questions and then these folks would leave. But they’d gone all Barbara Walters on me and I felt as if my life belonged to them now. Meanwhile, Clyde sat calmly at the junction of the kitchen and living room, unperturbed by this mayhem. I needed to take a lesson from him, get through this and hope they all left town as soon as they walked out my door.

A good thirty minutes later, I was seated in my overstuffed chair. It had been moved so the view of the lake out my picture window was prominent in the background. This forced them to push aside the leather recliner that my late husband once sat in every night before bed for as long as we’d been together. I swallowed down the lump in my throat as I watched them move it, eager to shout, Be careful with that, but not wanting to sound rude.

The cameraman was the only person who seemed interested in the scenery. After the sound man clipped a small microphone onto my shirt—a pink blouse the makeup lady “suggested” I wear after a thorough examination of my closet—he smiled as he looked out on the shimmering water. “What a view, Mrs. Hart.”

I nodded appreciatively, grateful for the presence of someone who didn’t seem completely self-involved. As Tess began her interview, I found myself drawn to his encouraging smile rather than to her. At least he sensed my discomfort.

“We’re here in the living room of Jillian Hart in Mercy, South Carolina. She’s graciously invited us inside so we can visit with a now-famous orange tabby named Clyde. Clyde is a wanderer, we have learned. He traveled more than two hundred miles to find his original owner.” She stared fondly at him sitting in my lap. “Such a bittersweet tale. Can you tell us how he came to be living here with you today?”

I told her about his needing a foster home after his owner’s untimely death and how I had fostered cats in the past.

Without a mention of poor Mr. Jeffrey, she went on. “The world is amazed at Clyde’s stamina. Did he have any health issues after such a long journey?”

“No, ma’am. He has a great appetite and his paws are in perfect shape. Our local vet found absolutely nothing wrong with him.” I forced a smile and stroked the cooperative Clyde. He lay on one of my kitty quilts that I’d draped over my lap. Tess thought it would be a nice touch to have him sitting on a quilt.

Meanwhile, Syrah had taken his favorite spot on the sofa back and his expression seemed to mock us both. It was as if he were saying, Why are you doing this? You sound ridiculous—and Mr. Big Cat? What’s with you? Have you no pride?

I fought a sheepish grin, knowing this would be a perfect assessment had Syrah been able to talk.

“We understand you helped out another famous cat—one belonging to local socialite and philanthropist Ritaestelle Longworth. How do these two cats compare?”

I was momentarily stunned by her question. How did she know about Ritaestelle and her cat, Isis? And what else did these people know about my life? I took a deep breath before I answered. “Isis and Clyde are very different, but both special. Just like each person is unique. I haven’t known Clyde that long, but he is a calm and loving boy. And I can tell he is missing Mr. Jeffrey. I could never be a substitute for the man who originally rescued Clyde.”

“Yes, he was a rescue cat, wasn’t he?” She tilted her head and again smiled at Clyde. “I understand rescues are often very bright. And this one must have his own GPS to have come so far.”

“Actually, scientists believe cats do have a kind of GPS in their brains and—”

“So interesting, indeed,” she interrupted. “What’s in Clyde’s future? Will he live with you or go to one of the former owner’s relatives? Or perhaps one of our viewers will have the opportunity to adopt him. I know the e-mails and tweets are already flooding into the network.”

Her suggestion struck a nerve. This wasn’t a game show with Clyde as the prize to be offered up to their viewers.

“That’s not up to me,” I answered, trying to keep my tone Southern sweet. “Please remember, Mr. Jeffrey will always be Clyde’s owner in his heart. Right now, this boy needs love and attention. That’s my only focus.”

Her interview ended with a question about my kitty quilt business and whether Clyde had decided the one he sat on belonged to him. I wasn’t sure what I answered as I was still stunned by her lack of empathy for a dead man.

Gerard Holcomb was up next and his questions were similar. But though Tess seemed pretty much the same on camera and off, Gerard turned on the charm. He became a totally different person than the man who had pounded on my door and marched into my house.

I even found myself smiling broadly when he said, “You and this cat have already formed a bond. When you watch this interview once it airs, you’ll see what the world is seeing. I understand you have cats of your own.”

I told him about my three Katrina rescues and beyond the cameraman, I saw Tess’s face fall. She hadn’t thought to ask about my other cats and knew she’d missed an opportunity to add even more emotion to the interview. Her research hadn’t revealed all the details of my small-town life. But somehow Gerard knew, probably by instinct, that my own cats might have an interesting backstory similar to Clyde’s.

He finished the interview by asking the cameraman to get a close-up on Clyde’s wonderful, gentle expression and I felt more relaxed than I had all day.

But the minute the red light on the camera went off, he reverted to being a jerk. People, unlike cats, have the ability to often disappoint.

Four

Once the television people went out the front door, I was thankful to see them pack up all their equipment and drive away. If Candace and I had our wish, they were off to the airport. I felt as if a weight had been lifted—until Clyde began pacing around the house and meowing mournfully. This was not his home, no matter how easily he had embraced me and my cat family.

In my opinion, cats grieve. After all, the part of the cat’s brain where emotion is centered is almost identical to a human’s. Clyde had worked so hard to get home to Mr. Jeffrey and instead he found himself in a strange house. I tried to comfort the big boy, but Clyde didn’t want treats, or tuna cat food or even real tuna water, and believe me, that was something cats rarely turned down. He simply needed time and petting and, most of all, acceptance.

 

The Cat, the Vagabond and the Victim

The Cat, the Vagabond and the Victim

A Cats in Trouble Mystery