The only thing that could make the High Cliff Shelter for Cats even cozier is a reading room where kids can snuggle up with a furry feline and a book. But as Lara and Aunt Fran prepare for the reading nook’s official opening, the health inspector in their New Hampshire town, Evonda Fray, decrees that the shelter qualifies as a “cat café,” thanks to the free snacks it serves to visitors—and that it must be shut down.
When Evonda’s body is found in her car clutching a copy of the cease-and-desist order, suspicion naturally falls on Lara and Aunt Fran. But there’s a whole litter of potential culprits, including a tenant in one of Evonda’s buildings who’d been ordered to give up his rescue cat, a disgruntled daughter-in-law, and more. Now Lara—with some help from her aunt and her spirit cat, Blue—has to pin the tail on the right suspect …
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Lara Caphart could hardly believe it. The official reading room of the High Cliff Shelter for Cats was completed.
She swung the new storm door back and forth, then pushed it closed. It clicked into place with a soft snap. "Perfect," she proclaimed. "I know it sounds silly, but I am so thrilled with this door!"
One chunky hand resting on his hip, Charlie Backstrom — the contractor who'd built the cat shelter's addition — stood back and inspected his work. "Looks good," he agreed. "Now remember, when the cold weather gets here, you gotta lower the screen and —"
"You're repeating yourself, honey," Nina Backstrom said, slipping her arm through her husband's. "You've shown Lara three times now, how to lower the screen and pull up the glass pane."
"Hey, that's okay," Lara said lightly. "It never hurts to get a refresher, right?"
Charlie, handsome in a rugged sort of way, with melt-in-your-mouth brown eyes, smiled at his wife and kissed her cheek. He winked at Lara. "Wives. What would we do without them?"
Nina feigned a scowl. "Oh, I'm guessing you'd be living on frozen dinners and cardboard pizza and watching sports on TV every night."
"Instead of those scintillating mysteries you're always trying to get me to watch?" He quirked a smile at her. They both looked at Lara.
Lara held up both hands. "Don't look at me. I'm not getting in the middle of that one."
Charlie and Nina, who were both around thirty, were one of the sweetest couples Lara had ever met. They teased each other a lot, but the banter was always good-natured — at least it seemed to be. Perpetually outfitted in a gray work shirt and blue, knee-length cargo shorts, Charlie was a total contrast to his petite wife. Today Nina wore a stylish, pale-pink jersey top over white cotton shorts, a flowered bathing suit peeking out over the jersey's neckline. Beneath her strawberry-blond bob was a sharp head for numbers. She acted as financial guru — and organizational genius — for the business, while Charlie performed the labor and hired the subs. He walked with a slight limp, which he jokingly referred to as an old football injury.
"So, what do you think?" Nina said. "Are we done?"
Lara looked all around the new room and felt her smile widening. "Yes, I think we are. It's been a long haul, but now that I see the finished product, it was all worth it."
On Saturday, she and her aunt were having a grand opening for a few close friends. The following day would be the first official "read to a cat" day in the new room.
The idea for the addition had sprung from a little girl who'd tried to sneak into the shelter one day, book in hand, determined to read to a cat. After a bit of research, Lara had discovered that several other shelters in New Hampshire had "read to a cat" days.
With the help of their part-time shelter assistant, Kayla Ramirez, Lara had set up a similar program. It gained popularity more quickly than they'd anticipated, but they had only one problem: space. Aunt Fran's Folk Victorian home was the entire shelter, the small back porch having been transformed into the "meet-and-greet" room. In that room, cats and prospective adopters made permanent matches, some of which seemed almost magical.
Earlier in the year, Lara and her aunt had made the decision to add the room to the rear of the house, adjacent to the back porch. A local architect designed the plans, and Lara hired Charlie Backstrom to oversee the project. He used subcontractors when needed but did most of the work himself. A master carpenter, he'd built custom shelves with adjustable tiers for the children's books.
He'd pulled off a near miracle, completing the project by the date specified in the contract. Over the course of the construction, which had dragged on for nearly four months, one thing after another went wrong. A pipe burst in the new bathroom, the floor tiles had been damaged in shipping, and a large shrub in Aunt Fran's yard had to be uprooted because the building specs hadn't accounted for it.
To save money and to speed things up, Lara had done a lot of the painting herself. She'd even finished the bathroom ceiling — no easy task. Despite the problems, Charlie's work was impeccable. He performed every task to perfection, even if he had to do it over three times.
Lara was anxious for Aunt Fran to return from her lunch date with Jerry Whitley, Whisker Jog's chief of police. Lara wanted to surprise her aunt with the custom-made door. When the oversize box arrived two days earlier, she'd rested it against the wall and warned her aunt not to open it or try to peek.
"Lara," Nina asked, "where on earth did you ever find a storm door with a cat on it?"
The new storm door, made from sturdy aluminum, bore the shape of a cat in the center. It was a splurge, but Lara couldn't resist spending a bit extra for it. She knew Aunt Fran would love it. Thanks to a few hefty donations from generous sponsors, the cost hadn't broken the budget.
"I scoured the internet and found a manufacturer that made custom designs," Lara explained. "Luckily, they were able to make a cat."
"Do you mind giving me the company's name?" Nina asked.
"I'd like to check them out and refer our customers there, if that's okay."
"Sure," Lara said, and gave her the name. "It'll come right up if you Google it," she added.
Nina pulled her phone out of her pocket. "I'll add it to my notes. Thanks, Lara." She tapped her phone a few times, then slipped it back into her pocket and rubbed her hands together. "Now, before Charlie and I head out to White Lake for an afternoon swim, may I take advantage of your hospitality and play with a few of the cats?"
She wiggled her fingers. "I need a cat fix."
Charlie rolled his eyes. "Here we go."
"Oh, be good." Nina swatted his arm lightly with her fingertips.
Charlie stayed behind to fiddle further with the door as Lara led Nina through the kitchen toward the large parlor. On the way, she noticed the red message light blinking on the shelter's landline.
Nina followed her gaze. "Do you need to check that?"
"No, I'll check it later." She held out a hand toward the large parlor, where a carpeted cat tree rested in front of the picture window. Nina went ahead of her into the room.
Orca and Pearl, their newest arrivals, had planted themselves on separate levels of the cat tree. The two were siblings, each with forepaws the size of catchers' mitts. Orca was long-haired and black, with four white feet, while Pearl was silky soft and pure gray. Lara called them "double trouble" because of their feline antics. What one didn't think of, the other did. Orca had been known to distract Lara by kneading her shoulder and purring in her ear, while his sneaky sister batted all the trinkets and lip-gloss tubes off her bureau. Lara now kept her possessions tucked safely away in drawers, out of reach of their huge paws.
From his perch, Orca leaned over the edge and batted at Pearl with one gigantic paw. Pearl swiped at him with her own paw as if he were a furry toy.
"Oh my gosh, those two are so cute. And those paws — they're so big!" Nina cooed.
"They're polydactyl cats," Lara explained. "Instead of five toes on each forepaw, they have six."
Nina gazed at them, her pale-green eyes lighting up. "Do you think the gray one will let me hold him?"
"That's Pearl, and she's a girl," Lara said. "I'm sure she will. She's very lovable."
Nina stooped and held out her hands to the gray kitty. Pearl leaned into her, and Nina swept her into her arms. Pearl purred into her ear, and a wistful look crossed Nina's face. "Oh, you're so sweet. I sure wish I could take you home."
"Charlie's not big on cats, is he?" Lara asked her. She'd sensed that when he was working on the addition. Even Munster's attempts at bonding with the contractor had been soundly, if gently, rebuffed.
Nina shook her head. "Don't remind me."
She hugged Pearl for a while, and then sighed and released her to the floor. Snowball padded over and brushed against Nina's arm. Nina laughed and tickled the white fur between the kitty's ears. She straightened. "I'd better be going. I'm sure Charlie's getting —"
The jingle of the front doorbell interrupted her.
Lara shrugged and looked at Nina. "Will you excuse me a minute? I have no idea who that is. We're not expecting anyone."
Nina stepped away to one side. Lara opened the door to find a scowling, fiftysomething woman standing on the top step.
"Hello. May I help you?"
The woman, tall with stringy blond waves that brushed her shoulders, held up a clipboard thick with papers. She wore the expression of someone who'd just stepped in a wad of bubble gum and couldn't get it off her shoe — or, in this case, her bright red sneaker. Around her neck she sported a chain from which a large pendant dangled, a blackbird with a jeweled eye perched on a golden branch.
"Are you Miss Caphart or Mrs. Clarkson?" she said brusquely.
The woman's tone was so rude that for a moment, Lara had to stop and think. "I'm Lara Caphart. What can I do for you?"
"I'm Evonda Fray. I'm the health inspector."
Lara hoped her face didn't register the shock she felt. "Um, health inspector?"
The woman heaved a sigh, as if she were tired of explaining herself to dolts. "Yes, health inspector. Surely you've heard of them. They protect the public from unclean environments?"
A wave of ire rose in Lara's chest. Was she implying that the shelter wasn't clean? And why was she here in the first place?
Lara took in a calming breath. She tried to think why a health inspector would show up, unannounced, at the shelter, but nothing came to mind. Had Aunt Fran made an appointment with the woman and forgotten to tell Lara? Not likely. Aunt Fran was too efficient to let something like that slip.
"I'm sorry," Lara said, attempting to soften her tone. "I ... we weren't expecting you. Did you make an appointment with my aunt?"
Evonda Fray barked out a laugh. "Health inspectors don't make appointments, Miss Caphart. You ought to know that."
Maybe she should have, but she didn't. Even in her days working part-time in a Boston bakery, she couldn't recall a health inspector making a surprise visit.
Lara suddenly remembered that Nina was there. "Ms. Fray, you'll have to excuse me for a moment. I have guests and I need to explain the interruption."
"It's Mrs. Fray," she snapped. "I'd appreciate you addressing me properly."
Oh, if only, Lara thought.
She nodded and turned toward Nina, but she had already ducked out. Lara strode off and went back to the new reading room. Charlie and Nina were still there, whispering in low tones. It looked as if they were preparing to leave.
"Nina, Charlie ... I'm so sorry about the interruption. The health inspector showed up without warning."
Charlie absently picked a piece of lint off the arm of Nina's pink jersey. "Health inspector? Whoa. Major bummer," Charlie said. He waved a hand around the room, then his face relaxed. "Hey, look, I wouldn't worry. This whole place is spotless. You guys keep it so clean ..."
"I know. We do. But —"
Nina reached over and hugged Lara. "We'll get out of your way. You've got enough to deal with right now. And give Fran our regards, okay?"
Lara swallowed. "I will," she said glumly.
"We drove Nina's car today," Charlie said, "but I'll come back tomorrow with my truck and get rid of that big box the screen door came in. I leaned it against the back of the house, so it won't be in your way. Oh, and one more thing. I noticed that the storm door has a slight gap at the bottom. When I come back, I'll add some weather-stripping."
"Thanks, Charlie. That would be great. We have a permit for the recycling station, but that humongous box will never fit in the Saturn. You're both coming to the open house on Saturday, right?"
"We wouldn't miss it," Nina assured her.
With her aunt away and the Backstroms leaving, Lara didn't look forward to being alone with General Evonda. Gideon had planned to stop over with BLT wraps from the coffee shop when he got a break, but he must have gotten tied up at the office.
She almost begged Charlie and Nina to stay, but then thought better of it. They'd driven Nina's car here instead of Charlie's truck so they could head directly to White Lake after the door was installed. They deserved a break and were looking forward to an afternoon of relaxation.
Besides, she and Aunt Fran had nothing to hide. She could handle Inspector Red Sneakers.
She'd dealt with worse.
Much worse.CHAPTER 2
Stomach in her throat, Lara returned to the large parlor. The inspector scribbled furiously on her clipboard, her red-ink scratches getting larger with each entry. Outside, a car door slammed. Lara's gaze darted to the front window. Relief flooded her.
Aunt Fran was home.
The chief had just dropped her off and was already easing his car out of the driveway. Lara heard the door to the kitchen open and close. "I'm back, Lara," her aunt called out.
Seconds later, her aunt emerged into the large parlor from the kitchen. Lara prayed her aunt would pick up on her worried vibe. "Aunt Fran, this is Mrs. Fray, the health inspector," she said in a flat voice.
Aunt Fran, her cheeks rosy, her hair fluffed back from her face in soft waves, put on her brightest smile. For a woman in her late fifties, she had youthful skin and sparkling green eyes. She'd always reminded Lara of the way the actress Audrey Hepburn looked in her later years.
"Mrs. Fray, it's a pleasure to meet you," Aunt Fran said in the kindest of tones. "I'm Fran Clarkson, Lara's aunt. We operate the shelter together. Can we get you anything? A cold drink?"
Evonda smirked. "Seriously? You're already trying to bribe me?"
Every muscle in Lara's body tensed. Something told her this inspection was not going to go smoothly. Fortunately, her aunt piped in before she could utter the reply that was dancing on the tip of her tongue.
"Mrs. Fray," Aunt Fran said courteously, "I only offered you something because it's quite hot out today and I thought you might be thirsty. If that's not the case, please forgive me for being presumptuous."
For a moment, the inspector looked taken aback. Lara suspected she wasn't accustomed to being spoken to so directly. Evonda gave Aunt Fran a brisk nod, her mouth turned down in an almost cartoonish scowl. If Lara were to sketch the curve of her lips, they would look exactly like an upside-down U.
Evonda stood there and glanced around for what seemed an eternity. Finally, she jammed her pen over her clipboard. "All right. Now show me the cages. Where do you keep the cats?" She uttered the word "cats" as if it began with an "r" instead of a "c."
"Mrs. Fray," Aunt Fran said, "this is not a traditional shelter. It's a family shelter, with only a limited number of cats. We don't have cages because we don't need them. We have an open concept here. The cats have free range."
It was a spiel Aunt Fran had related to visitors many times. Nonetheless, it irritated Lara that they should have to defend their shelter at all.
Evonda opened her mouth wide enough for a bat to fly in. "You don't have cages? How many cats live here?"
"Right now, we have six," Aunt Fran said, with a surreptitious wink at Lara. "But we've had as many as twelve."
Lara smothered a smile. She knew Aunt Fran was thinking of Blue, the Ragdoll cat that only Lara could see. Technically, with Blue, they had seven.
She racked her brain, trying to picture where all the cats might be at that moment. It was close to one o'clock — catnap time for most of the resident felines. Thank heavens, Lara thought, murmuring a silent prayer.
Orca and Pearl had fled their perches at the sound of Evonda's grating voice. They were probably upstairs playing tumbleweed on Lara's chenille bedspread. Dolce and Twinkles, who were best buds, typically dozed atop Aunt Fran's bed during the daylight hours. Munster was a wanderer, always on alert to greet someone at the sound of a new voice. He hadn't made an appearance yet, which was odd. Had he already sensed that an enemy had barged into their midst?
Snowball was a lovebug, always wanting to chill with a human. She sat on the sofa, her tail switching with agitation as she regarded Evonda with one green eye and one blue. Her white fur stood slightly on end — a sure sign of stress. A clump of it stuck to the tapestry pillow that rested against the arm of the sofa. Lara made a note in her head to give Snowball a good brushing after the inspector had gone.
Evonda shot a look at the white cat. For a single moment, Lara thought Evonda's gaze softened. Then her voice cut through her like a hatchet. "I'll start with the kitchen," she announced.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Claws of Action"
Copyright © 2019 Linda Reilly.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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