The meow of death . . .
Whisker Jog, New Hampshire, is a long way from Hollywood, but it’s the place legendary actress Deanna Daltry wants to call home. Taking up residence in a stone mansion off Cemetery Hill, the retired, yet still glamorous, septuagenarian has adopted two kittens from Lara Caphart’s High Cliff Shelter for Cats. With help from her Aunt Fran, Lara makes sure the kitties settle in safely with their new celebrity mom.
But not everyone in town is a fan of the fading star. Deanna was in Whisker Jog when she was younger, earning a reputation for pussyfooting around, and someone is using that knowledge against her. After being frightened by some nasty pranks, Deanna finds herself the prime murder suspect when the body of a local teacher is found on her property. Now, it’s up to Lara, Aunt Fran, and the blue-eyed Ragdoll mystery cat Lara recently encountered to collar a killer before another victim is pounced upon . . .
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“I thoroughly enjoyed this puzzler of a mystery. Reilly cooks up a perfect recipe of murder and mayhem in this charming cozy.”—Jenn McKinlay, New York Times bestselling author
“Smart, sassy, and a little bit scary. Everything a good cozy should be!”—Laura Childs, New York Times bestselling author
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"Oh God, I've got to get ready."
With the toe of her beaded blue sandal, Lara Caphart turned off the vacuum cleaner and pressed the button to retract the cord. The cord snaked into the vacuum with a loud snap. She jumped slightly at the sound.
Take a deep breath, she told herself. She's only a movie star. She's only been nominated for three Oscars and a Tony. She's only Deanna Daltry ...
Lara was lugging the vacuum back to the supply closet when she bumped smack into her aunt, Fran Clarkson. Seven months ago, Lara had moved into her aunt's Folk Victorian home in the town of Whisker Jog, New Hampshire. Though Aunt Fran had lived in the house for well over three decades, as of the beginning of the year it officially became the High Cliff Shelter for Cats.
"Sorry, Aunt Fran. I'm rushing, and I — Oh good glory, you look gorgeous. Is that a new top?" She tucked a strand of her coppery hair behind her right ear.
Aunt Fran smiled, her green eyes beaming beneath the smidge of highlighter she'd swept along her upper lids. "Yes, it is," she said, referring to the gauzy, moss-colored top she wore over her pale gray capris. She did make for a stunning picture. "Lara, why are you so jittery? Ms. Daltry won't be here for at least another hour."
"But ... but ... she's Deanna Daltry! And she's going to be living in our town — in tiny Whisker Jog, New Hampshire!"
Aunt Fran chuckled. "I've never seen you so starstruck before. Remember, she's here to adopt, not to audition us for parts in her next movie."
"I know, I know. It's just —"
"And also remember, she has a reputation for being late. Notoriously late. So don't expect her to be here at the stroke of three."
Lara sighed. It was true. The famous actress, best known recently for her starring role in the Broadway hit Take Me, I'm His, had often been dubbed Hollywood's "late date." Never married, she was known for her string of leading-man lovers, as well as for her generous good works.
She glanced around the back porch. The official meet-and-greet room for the shelter, it boasted a sturdy square table over which a cat-themed runner had been draped. The ceiling border depicted whimsical cats — hand-painted by Lara — frolicking over a background of cerulean blue. A pine corkboard hung on one wall. Photos of cats that had been successfully adopted covered the board. Lara was pleased that four kittens and two adult cats had found good homes since the shelter opened in January.
A furry body leaped soundlessly onto one of the four padded chairs. The Ragdoll cat, blue eyes sparkling, gave Lara a curious look.
Lara grinned at Blue, the cat that had the knack of popping in and out of the scenery like a puff of smoke.
"You're always smiling at that chair," Aunt Fran said. "It must remind you of something."
If you only knew, Lara thought.
"It reminds me that I'd better get hustling and clean up. When our illustrious guest arrives, I don't want to look like something a squirrel dug out of a hole in the ground."
* * *
It was the stroke of four thirty-five when Deanna Daltry arrived. The actress had driven herself to the shelter, her vintage cream-colored Mercedes spotless and gleaming under a mid-July sun.
Slender and silver-haired, Deanna wore her hair in a short, casual style combed away from her face. Clad in faded denim capris and a white halter top, she held out one hand.
"Forgive my bare face," she said, sounding apologetic. "I find that the less makeup I wear, the less recognizable I am."
"Ms. Daltry," Lara said, trying valiantly not to gush. "I would know you anywhere. And you look beautiful, with or without makeup." She took the woman's outstretched hand, holding it a second or two longer than she should have.
Deanna's gray eyes made a sweep of the room. "Is this room the shelter?" she asked Lara. "I'm loving the feline décor."
"The shelter is actually our home," Lara explained. "Three of the adult cats live here permanently. On adoption days, we outfit them with blue collars to indicate that they're in-house cats. This room" — she waved a hand at the table — "is where we introduce ourselves, tell you about our shelter, and enjoy tea and snacks with those who wish to partake. Is iced tea all right? With the heat, we figured ..."
The actress grinned and winked at Lara. "'Those who wish to partake.' You're a dear young woman, do you know that? And yes, iced tea sounds like just the ticket on this sultry day."
Inwardly, Lara slapped herself. Why did she have to sound so goofy in front of this legend? Why couldn't she just be herself?
"Anyway," Lara went on, "my aunt, Fran Clarkson, will be here any second. She's —"
"I'm here," Aunt Fran's voice trilled from the doorway. Lara couldn't hide her smile. Her aunt's tone never warbled that way. Was she feeling a bit starstruck herself?
Aunt Fran set a pitcher of iced tea on the table, along with a small plate of cat-shaped cookies. "Ms. Daltry," she said, offering her hand to the actress, "I'm Fran, and we're honored that you've chosen our shelter. Please have a seat."
The table had already been set with tall glasses, dishes, and spoons. Lara poured each of them a glass of iced tea. "I hope you like cookies," she said. "Daisy Bowker at the local coffee shop made them especially for you. They're flavored with lavender."
Deanna's smile widened. "To match the iconic gown I wore in Forever and a Century? How sweet of her."
"That's amazing, Ms. Daltry," Lara said. "How did you know that?"
"First, I insist that you both call me Deanna." The actress flashed a brilliant smile, but Lara spied a touch of sadness in her expressive eyes. Ignoring Lara's question, she looked around. "Aside from these delightful cookies, I haven't seen any cats yet."
Lara laughed. "We close the door to the large parlor on adoption days, until we're ready to let visitors in." She pushed her chair back and left the room to open the door. Munster, an orange-striped darling, moved past her like a rocket. He knew that on days when that door closed and then opened again, he was about to meet new people.
Lara followed the cat to the back porch, where he promptly jumped onto their visitor's lap.
"Oh, what a darling you are," Deanna cooed, stroking his head. "But you're wearing a blue collar, so I can't adopt you, can I?" She pushed her chilled glass toward the center of the table.
"He's our official greeter," Aunt Fran said, then smiled at the slender gray cat eyeing them from the doorway. "But Bootsie here is ready for a nice quiet home, aren't you sweetie?"
Bootsie dipped her head forward and moved cautiously into the room. Aunt Fran called to her, but Bootsie made a circuitous route and wound herself around Deanna's ankle.
Deanna clucked over the cat, reaching down to run a hand along her soft body. "She's a doll, for sure," the actress said and then sighed. "I know I sound selfish saying this, but ... well, I was actually hoping to adopt a pair of kittens." She held up a slender hand. "And I already know what you're thinking, that everyone prefers kittens over adult cats because they're so cute and frisky. But for me, coming back here represents a new beginning, and —" She paused and gazed up at the ceiling, the fingers of one hand lightly touching her throat.
Aunt Fran spoke first. "Ms. — I mean, Deanna, you don't need to explain. Your feelings are fully understandable. And, as it turns out, your timing is excellent."
"Three weeks ago," Lara said, "someone left a cardboard cage on our front porch. No note, no explanation — just a shy mama kitty and three very hungry kittens inside."
"The kittens are about fourteen weeks old," Aunt Fran explained, "so they're definitely ready for adoption. We've already approved an application from a woman who wants to adopt the mom and one of the kittens. As soon as the woman's recovered sufficiently from her hip surgery, she and her daughter are going to pick them up."
Deanna's gray eyes beamed. "So, the other two are still available?"
"They are," Aunt Fran confirmed. "They've both had their vaccinations, but they're due for a second round in a few weeks. We'll give you a referral to our preferred vet, who will also do the neutering and spaying when each one is ready."
Lara couldn't suppress a smile. "They're predominantly white, but the male has two black stripes above one paw that make him look like he's wearing an armband, and the female has a brown, diamond-shaped mark next to her right eye. We've been calling them Noodle and Doodle, but of course you can name them anything you'd like."
Deanna clasped her hands together. "Oh, I can't wait to see them."
Lara rose from her padded seat just as the elusive Ragdoll, Blue, slipped onto the vacant one. Blue set her chin on the table and gave a slow blink, her gaze coming to rest on Deanna. From the cat's expression, Lara saw that she approved of the woman.
"I'll get them for you," Lara said. "Last I saw, they were napping on the cat tree in the large parlor."
She scooted out of the room, returning a minute later clutching the kittens to her chest. Lara handed the male kitten to Deanna. Munster sniffed the kitten's tail but didn't vacate his comfy lap space.
"Oh, they're absolutely angelic." Deanna nuzzled the male kitten against her cheek, smiling at the female tucked under Lara's chin. "They're perfect," she declared. "I promise to give them a loving home."
"We do have an application that needs to be filled out," Lara said carefully. She didn't want to risk offending the actress, but anyone wanting to adopt had to be approved. It was part of the process designed to give their feline residents the best homes possible.
A noise from the large parlor drew Munster's attention. He leaped off Deanna's lap and went off to investigate. Lara set the female kitten in Deanna's lap.
Deanna bit down gently on her lower lip, then curled her free hand around the female kitten. Her voice grew soft. "I wasn't sure about coming back to Whisker Jog," she murmured, a pained look dimming her eyes. "But you've both made me feel so very welcome. I'm glad I'm here, and I'm grateful to both of you for giving me a private appointment. I know you're not normally open on Thursdays." She laughed. "Application process? Good! Bring it on. I assure you that once you check me out, you won't have any reservations about letting me adopt."
"Excellent," Aunt Fran said.
The kittens had gotten antsy, so Deanna set them down. Their mom appeared suddenly and sat watching them from the doorway. Her other kitten hovered behind her.
"Here's mama now," Aunt Fran said. "We've been calling her Catalina and her other kitten Bitsy, but her new owners will probably change that."
All white with one black ear and one black forepaw, Catalina looked up at Deanna. Her tail curled around her feet as she assessed the newcomer.
"So that's the mama kitty," Deanna said with a smile. "What beautiful markings."
Bitsy, slightly smaller than her sibs, padded over to Deanna and sniffed at the toes of her purple sneakers.
"I think she's checking me out." Deanna winked at Lara.
Catalina was clearly comfortable around the actress. Deanna reached down and stroked her head, eliciting a soft purr from the cat. The kittens immediately went over to their mom. Introductions over, Catalina turned and strolled from the room, Bitsy, Noodle, and Doodle following in her wake.
After that, Deanna seemed to relax. She began regaling Lara and Aunt Fran with tales from her early days in Hollywood.
"Do you ever get tired of people intruding on your privacy?" Lara asked. "I'll bet people are always trying to take selfies with you."
The warmth in Deanna's expression cooled, and her eyes narrowed. "You've hit the nail on the head, as they say, Lara. You can't imagine how many times I've wanted to hide, to disappear. How often I've wanted to seek out a place where no one can bother me or hurt me." Her thin nostrils flared slightly.
"I'm sorry," Lara said. "I shouldn't have asked. I didn't mean to pry."
The actress' smile instantly returned, as if prompted by a cue card. "Don't be silly. It was a fair question." She swallowed the last of her iced tea, then pulled her cell phone out from the tiny purse she'd brought with her. "By the way, you're both coming to the reception on Sunday, right?"
"Reception?" Lara asked.
Aunt Fran piped in. "I saw something in the paper about it. The Whisker Jog Ladies' Association is holding a welcome tea and reception for Deanna this Sunday afternoon at the historical society. I'm not a member, so no, we've not been invited."
"Bummer," Lara said.
Deanna waved a hand. "Never mind that. You are invited, because I'm inviting you. I'll speak to Evelyn Conley, the coordinator. Besides, I fully intend to support your shelter, and I want to make that known to everyone attending this little shindig."
"Oh, that's so kind of you. Thank you," Aunt Fran said.
Lara's mind instantly flitted to her wardrobe. As a watercolor artist, she spent most of her days working in paint-splattered T-shirts and denim. She had no idea what to wear to an event like the one to which Deanna had invited them.
But that got her thinking. Gideon, the local attorney she'd been seeing for a few months, had asked her to dinner the following Saturday at a new restaurant just outside the town limits. She'd planned to splurge on something summery to wear, but hadn't had a chance to shop. Maybe she could find something that would fit the bill for both events.
"Yes, thank you, Deanna," Lara said. "I'd love to attend."
"Fine. I'll see that invitations are hand-delivered to you by tomorrow. As for that application, is it something you can send to my private email address?"
"It sure is," Lara said. "If you give us your email address I'll get it right off to you."
Deanna's smile was genuine. "I'm so pleased that I came here today. You've both been gracious and lovely. And I promise, those kittens will have a wonderful home."CHAPTER 2
The door to the white clapboard building that housed the Whisker Jog Historical Society had been propped open with a large brick. Painted barn red, the door boasted a patriotic folk art flag hanging directly below its brass knocker.
Voices drifted from inside the building. Aunt Fran went in first, Lara trailing behind her.
Lara felt good today, pleased that she'd found a flowery yellow sundress and matching espadrilles at a price she could almost afford. The dress flared at the bottom, and was adorned with two deep but discreet pockets. She'd splurged and bought the ensemble, dressing it up with the chunky gold necklace her aunt had bought at a yard sale a few months earlier. She'd tucked her cell in one of the pockets — just in case she wanted to snap a few celebrity pics.
"I've never been in here," Lara said, gazing around the large entrance that had once served as a meeting room for the townspeople. In one corner, a portable air conditioner struggled to pump out enough chilled air to cool the surrounding area.
"The reception must be in the main room," Aunt Fran said. "Since we're early, why don't you browse here for a bit. Some of the town's artifacts are quite interesting. I'll head to the back to see if anyone needs help setting things up."
"Thanks. I think I'll do that."
Lara was glad to see that her aunt was walking far better than she had been before her knee-replacement surgery. And while Aunt Fran no longer used her cane, Lara knew that her right knee still troubled her. Lara looked forward to the day when both her aunt's knees were back to normal and pain-free.
She wandered over to a large glass case that sat in the center of the room. Beneath the glass was a yellowed map of Whisker Jog, its edges brown and wrinkled. Lara peered at the handwritten paper tacked above the map. It explained how the town got its name.
Originally called Elbern's Location, the town's boundaries had once formed a precise rectangle. Then a local farmer had claimed that a narrow slice of land at the southwest corner was actually part of his cow pasture in the adjacent county. Founder Josiah Elbern, the land surveyor who'd painstakingly laid out the boundaries, railed at the farmer, calling him a scoundrel and a heathen. But the farmer persisted, so Elbern brought the matter before a magistrate. To his dismay, the farmer had his ducks — or rather his deeds — in a row, and proved title to the sliver. The boundary line was changed, spoiling the perfectly rectangular town. Livid over the decision, Elbern changed the town's name to Whisker Jog, deeming the jog in the new boundary line a debauchery created by a sliver of land the "breadth of a cat's whisker."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Claws Of Death"
Copyright © 2018 Linda Reilly.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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