When she’s not dreaming up irresistible dessert bars for her Minneapolis treatery, Bar None, Charity “Chase” Oliver is running after her cat, Quincy—a tubby tabby with a gift for sniffing out edibles. But what happens when this cat burglar leads Chase to the scene of a real crime?
The jig is up for Chase’s adorable plus-size cat, Quincy. His new vet says “diet”—that means no more cherry cheesecake bars. From now on he gets low-calorie kibble only. But one taste of the stuff is all it takes to drive him in search of better things. Quincy’s escape is the last thing Chase needs after the nasty run-in she has with underhanded business rival Gabe Naughtly.
Chase tracks Quincy down in a neighbor’s kitchen, where he’s devouring a meatloaf, unaware of the much more serious crime he’s stumbled upon. Gabe’s corpse is lying on the kitchen floor, and when Chase is discovered at the murder scene, she becomes suspect number one. Now, with a little help from her friends—both human and feline—she’ll have to catch the real killer or wind up behind bars that aren’t so sweet.
Includes recipes for people and cats!
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The butterscotch tabby cat crouched in his soft-sided carrier in the strange room. His nose twitched. This place was full of the smell of fear. He hadn’t eaten for two hours. Time for a decent meal. At least a snack. He clawed at the inside of the zipper. The top flap budged a bit. After he silently worked at it for a few more minutes, the flap opened far enough. Purring, he sprang out.
Charity Oliver jumped up from the plastic chair in the examining room and caught her cat. “Quincy! How did you escape?” She stroked him and he twisted his head to lick her hand.
“Here, let me, Ms. Oliver.” Nice deep, rumbly voice, she thought. The veterinarian took the cat from her. His strong hands were warm. He cuddled Quincy, who began a steady purr.
“Please call me Chase, Dr. Ramos.” Only Anna called her Charity, after all, and hardly anyone called her Ms. Oliver.
Dr. Ramos set Quincy on the stainless steel examining table and fished his stethoscope out of his lab coat pocket. After sticking the earpieces into his ears, he bent his dark curls close to the cat to listen to his insides, then palpated Quincy’s stomach.
Chase felt bad about the poking and prodding her little darling was enduring, but Quincy didn’t seem to mind it. In fact, he licked the vet’s hand.
This guy was no ancient fuddy-duddy vet, like the one in Chicago, she thought. The pictures on the pale blue walls were of angelic children and fluffy pets, not clinical diagrams. Her heart rate sped up a little as she twirled a strand of her straight, honey-blonde hair. He couldn’t be much older than her own thirty-two. And not bad looking at all.
After the vet had taken Quincy’s temperature and peeked into his ears and mouth, he lifted the cat onto the scale and frowned.
“Is he healthy?” she asked. “I wanted to get him checked, since we just moved here. I adopted him from a shelter. He was the smallest of the litter. Little stick legs, and that sweet tail—it stuck straight up. Someone had dropped them off on the beach.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe he’s gotten this big. Isn’t he handsome?” She was chattering. Like a ninny. She needed to stop chattering.
“You say he was found on a beach? Lake Calhoun?”
“Oh no, Lake Michigan. I got him when I was living in Chicago.”
When the vet looked at her, she noticed his deep-set, coffee-brown eyes for the first time. They matched the little chocolate labs on his white coat. Except the little dogs couldn’t give her that flutter inside.
“Where do you live now?” he asked.
“Here. Minneapolis. Dinkytown.” There, that wasn’t chattering.
Dr. Ramos straightened and stuck his stethoscope into his pocket. He rubbed his palms together with a papery sound. “He’s a nice-looking shorthair, healthy for now. You need to make some changes, though. I’m afraid Quincy is far too fat for his small frame. Fifteen pounds is more than he should be carrying.”
Okay, the vet wasn’t that good looking. Quincy wasn’t “far too fat.” Was he?
Quincy meowed and batted at Dr. Ramos’s elbow. Chase thought the cat was disagreeing, too.
“We’ll have to put him on a diet,” the vet continued, catching Quincy’s paw and stroking it. “Is he an inside or outside cat?”
“Um, inside.” Mostly inside. Except when he got out. Quincy was a clever escape artist.
“Good.” He whipped out a prescription pad. “Here’s what we’ll need to feed him.”
“See that he doesn’t eat anything else, other than a few treats. Is he used to eating twice a day or once?”
“Well, I leave his food out.”
“Twice a day, to begin with. One-third cup per serving. I’ll write the amount here. We take his bowl up when he’s finished. Treats only once a day. That’s written down, too.”
“But he usually munches all day long. He doesn’t eat that much.”
“He’ll get used to it.”
Definitely not that good looking. Poor Quincy! “He won’t like that.”
Dr. Ramos gave her a stern frown. His eyes were more of a hardwood-brown than coffee. “Do you want a diabetic cat?”
Who did he think he was? Her sixth-grade teacher?
She raised her chin in defiance. “I’ll see what we can do.”
The vet turned to go. “Bring him back in two weeks. I want to see his weight down by at least a pound.”
• • •
Chase pulled her little Ford Fusion into the slot behind the Bar None and carried Quincy up the wooden steps to her second-floor apartment. She set him, in his carrier, on her kitchen counter and returned down the inside staircase to fetch the bags of cat food she’d bought on the way home.
She stopped beside her car and closed her eyes, turning her face up to soak in the late summer warmth. This last week of August, the temperatures were already dropping a bit, but the sun still put out heat. The leaves of the small trees at the edge of the alley parking area riffled in the slight breeze. The trees were green, but the autumn blaze of color would begin soon. A few marshmallow-fluff clouds drifted in the impossibly blue Minnesota sky.
Chase brought the bags in through the back door of the Bar None, where Quincy spent his days, plumped them down on the granite counter, scooped out enough food for tonight, then hurried upstairs. She was expecting her business partner, Anna, and her best friend, Julie, for dinner, and to sample a new recipe Anna was trying out.
After releasing Quincy, she mixed up a salad and put sandwiches together. The women would eat the minimal meal in haste, then start sampling dessert bars.
Anna Larson, Chase’s business partner and so much more, arrived first, tripping lightly up the stairs.
“You amaze me, Anna,” said Chase as Anna hung her brilliant blue sweater on the hook by the door. “My stairs don’t bother you a bit, do they?”
Anna gave a short laugh. She was the age to be Chase’s grandmother, early seventies, yet she ran up the stairs as easily as Chase, or more so. She wore blue jeans, sneakers, and plain T-shirts, but loved topping her outfits off with sweaters in various shades of blue. Today’s was adorned with yellow chrysanthemums.
“I thought we should try these. Pineapple Walnut Dream Bars.” Anna spread a printout on the counter. “I cobbled this recipe together from a couple of others we’ve done in the past.”
Quincy came into the kitchen to greet Anna. He rubbed against her blue jeans until she picked him up and rubbed his round tummy. “Who’s a good boy?” she asked. “Who’s a cuddlekins?”
Quincy purred that, obviously, he was the good boy and the cuddlekins.
Chase picked up his empty ceramic bowl from the floor and rinsed it out, then filled it with precisely one-third of a cup of mixed cat food, half new and half old. The woman at the pet store had told her to mix the two for a few days.
After Anna set him down, he cautiously approached his bowl and sniffed. He gave his mistress a baleful stare with his amber eyes, then picked at the food.
“It’ll be okay, Quince,” said Chase, softly. “You’ll get used to it.”
Was that a doubtful expression she got from him? He let out a howl.
“What’s wrong with Quincy?” Anna snatched him up.
“He’s on a diet. He doesn’t like it.”
“That’s right, you went to the vet today. Shall I give him a treat?”
“Only once a day, the doc said.”
Anna widened her eyes in horror. “Once a day? I give him num nums all day long.”
“That may be our problem.”
Anna grabbed a handful of his usual treats and fed them to the cat. “He’s starving.”
“He’s not starving. We’re supposed to use—” She looked for the new treat box, but she’d left it downstairs. And now she was saying we. “He has special treats now. Dr. Ramos says he’s too fat.”
“Quincy is large-boned. You tell that to this Dr. Ramos.”
Julie, Anna’s granddaughter and Chase’s best friend since childhood, arrived and the three women sat down to their meal.
The dessert trial went well. All three agreed that Pineapple Walnut Dream Bars should be sold at the dessert bar shop co-owned by Chase and Anna.
“But the name is cumbersome,” Chase said. “Besides, we have several called Dream Bars already.”
“How about Hula Bars?” Julie asked. “The pineapple and the coconut taste like something Hawaiian.”
Anna snapped her fingers. “Yes! That’s it. I’ll call them Hula Bars.”
The shop and Chase’s snug apartment above it were located on the fringes of the University of Minnesota, in an area of Minneapolis called Dinkytown. It was a small neighborhood with wide sidewalks and its own distinct, comfy, homey aura. Chase and Anna wouldn’t have thought of locating anywhere else. Not only because of the location, but because the property had been in Anna’s family for three generations, first as a jewelry store, then as a sandwich restaurant, and now as the Bar None.
“These are every bit as good as the raspberry ones.” Julie finished her last bite and dusted powdered sugar from her fingers.
“Take the rest home, Julie,” said Chase. The sweetness, offset by the dusky walnut taste, lingered in her mouth. “They’re in a plastic box on the counter inside.”
The women sat sipping lemongrass tea on Chase’s balcony. The temperature had dropped with the sun and they were wrapped in sweaters.
“We won’t be able to sit out here in another month or so,” Julie said. Chase’s best friend bore a family resemblance to Anna, her grandmother. Both women were shorter than Chase’s five six and they had the same periwinkle-blue eyes. Anna’s short bob was gray, while Julie’s was still dark brown, since she was exactly Chase’s age.
Chase warmed her fingers on her mug as a gust of brisk air hurtled down the street. “We almost can’t sit here tonight. I wonder if we’re getting a cold snap.”
“I’ll stop by the grocery store on my way in tomorrow morning,” Anna said, “to pick up coconut extract and some dried pineapple. I think we have everything else in the shop for the new recipe.”
The plastic bin of Hula Bars lay on the counter, unguarded. The kitchen, indeed the whole apartment, smelled like goodness. The sweet scent tickled the nose of the hungry cat. He wondered why the food and the snacks were so poor lately. Following the enticing odor, he jumped up and explored the countertop. It was no problem to bat the container to the floor, where the lid popped off and the contents were strewed across the tiles.
“I’m going to have another half cup,” Chase said, rising. “Anybody want more?”
She saw them both shake their bobbed heads in the dark, lit only by the light spilling from the living room French doors. They were two warm, wonderful friends and she loved them both.
When she got to the kitchen, she spied the remains of Anna’s creation on the floor and let out a squeal. Quincy had polished off at least two of the cookie bars. The cat glanced up, blinked, and sauntered away to clean his whiskers.
“What am I going to do with you, Fat Cat?” She picked up the mangled treats and dumped them in the trash. “Sorry, Julie,” she called. “Quincy ruined them. You can pick some up at the shop tomorrow.” She cuddled her cat for a moment. She didn’t want him to feel bad. He was bound to be ravenous until his weight went down.
After Anna and Julie departed, Chase poured a glass of pinot noir and rested her feet on the hassock in front of her favorite stuffed chair. She loved her living room every bit as much as her shop. It was decorated in mocha and cinnamon tones, with the soft leather couch being her big splurge. Framed Impressionist prints she’d picked up at the Art Institute of Chicago—the one place in Chicago she missed—graced the walls. She braced as Quincy pounced into her lap, his purr motor on high. Had he gained a pound already?
• • •
Laci Carlson, one of the two sales counter helpers at the Bar None, stared at the bags on Quincy’s shelf in the shop kitchen. “Quincy isn’t out of cat food. Why did you buy so much more?” Laci, who had recently graduated from high school, was petite and delicate, with huge sky-blue eyes, and insisted on curling her long, naturally straight hair every night. By now, early afternoon, it was beginning to lose the curl.
The cat being discussed was safely latched in the office, where he spent his days during business hours. “He’s on a diet,” Chase said. “Do you think he’s all that fat?”
The other salesgirl burst into the kitchen from the front. “There you are.” She stabbed a long, thin finger at Laci. “Have I not told you a dozen times to put the checks under the twenties? And to write down the driver’s license and phone number?”
Laci wilted a bit before the taller woman. “I forgot, Violet.” She fingered the edge of her Bar None smock. The identical smocks, mulberry-colored and edged with pink rickrack, had been embroidered with the Bar None name and logo by a friend of Anna’s named Willow Vanderling, who lived in Pennsylvania. On the two women, they seemed like completely different garments. Vi’s looked sleek on her taller, more elegant frame, and the first thing you noticed about Laci’s was the trim, the color picked up by her pink blouse with frothy white lace edging. She favored frilly pastel tops with pearl buttons at the cuffs.
“I’ll handle this, Vi,” Chase said to the tall, self-assured woman.
Violet huffed and turned toward the salesroom.
“You really do have to—” began Chase.
“I know, I know. Violet just makes me so nervous. I’d rather work when she’s not here. It’s so nice and peaceful when she goes on break.”
“We’ll go back to the old schedule next week, but I need both of you now. You know how many dessert bars we sell to the parents when students are moving onto campus.”
Laci slunk through the swinging double doors to the front, the salesroom. Chase, alone now in her kitchen, reached for one of her large stainless mixing bowls and got down bins of brown sugar, flour, and baking powder from the open shelves that lined one wall of the no-nonsense kitchen. She stuck the conglomeration under her commercial mixer, set it whirring, and opened the refrigerator to pull out the shortbread base she had baked yesterday for Cherry Cheesecake Dream Bars, one of their specialties.
Anna Larson came through the back door while Chase was breaking eggs into a smaller bowl.
“Is that Doris Naughtly’s Beemer I saw out front?” asked Anna.
“If it is, I won’t stop her from shopping with us, Anna.”
“I know she spends plenty of money here,” said Anna, “but I still wish she’d take her business elsewhere.” Her frown made it clear that Doris’s car being in front didn’t make her happy.
Chase knew a little about their old feud, but would like to get the whole story. She made a mental note to work on that one day soon, then started mixing in the eggs. “Can I help you carry anything?”
“Could you bring the sodas in from my car? I’ll take over your mixing. What is it?”
“Cherry Cheesecake Dream Bars. I’ll get one of the girls to help me carry them.”
Anna bought several cases of soda every week. The college kids liked carbonated drinks with their sweet treats.
Chase pushed through the swinging doors. She loved the front of the shop. The décor had been left up to her and she was pleased with the way it had turned out. The walls, striped with the colors of raspberry and vanilla, stood behind low shelves painted cotton candy–pink. The glass display case glowed from the lights within, illuminating trays of Lemon Bars, gooey Oatmeal Raspberry Jam Bars, and a colorful array of other flavors, from pink lemonade to margarita cheesecake.
There were several customers in the shop, but only one was ready to buy. Doris Naughtly stood before the glass case, one hand on her hip, the other waving her diamonds at the tray of Lemon Bars. Violet was waiting on her, so Chase looked around for Laci to come help her unload. She found her behind a tall display of boxed treats on a table near the front talking to Ted Naughtly, their heads close together.
That romance seemed to be heating up. Ted, Doris’s son, seemed like a nice enough kid, but had been sent home from Purdue in December, the middle of his sophomore year. His father, the owner of the second-floor donut shop a few doors away on Fourteenth Street, railed to all who would listen that the grading was probably unfair, the professors must have had it in for his kid. Flunking out didn’t seem to bother Ted nearly as much as it did his father.
“Don’t you want some Peanut Butter Fudge Bars for your husband, Mrs. Naughtly?” Violet asked.
That girl was a crack saleswoman. Chase was so glad she worked in the Bar None.
Chase turned to look at Doris before she followed Laci into the kitchen. Doris hadn’t answered. The woman had a sour expression on her perfectly made-up face. She pursed her lined lips for a moment. “We are no longer together.”
“Oh,” Violet breathed. Chase raised her eyebrows, startled. When did that happen? she wondered. She wanted to stay and hear the whole story, but it would seem odd—and nosy—since she was mostly through the doorway. She’d get the scoop from Violet later.
Or . . . maybe she could get it from Laci now. They went to the parking place behind the store and each lifted a case of soda from the trunk of Anna’s robin’s-egg-blue Volvo.
“What’s going on with the Naughtlys?” Chase tried to sound casual.
“Why? What did you hear?” Laci’s blue eyes grew even larger than usual.
“I just heard Doris say that she and Gabe are no longer together.”
“Oooh!” The young woman wailed. She gripped the case of cans, squeezed her eyes shut, and let her sudden tears splash onto the cardboard, leaving damp splotches.
“Oh dear.” Chase set her case down and took Laci’s. “What is it?”
Laci sniffled. “It’s been so hard on Teddy. He’s so heartbroken.”
He hadn’t looked heartbroken to Chase. He had looked very interested in what was inside Laci’s frilly blouse.
Chase was sorry she’d asked. The girl was so overly emotional.
“Maybe they’ll get back together. They’ve been married an awfully long time.”
Laci shook her head, mutely, taking the cardboard case from her, still weeping. “They’re getting a di-divorce.”
“Let’s go in. You can go to my office for a bit to compose yourself if you need to.”
She nodded. “I suppose Ted’s gone by now anyway.”
Chase counted to three. “If you’d rather talk to Ted, go do that instead.” Chase shifted her case and took a tissue from her pocket. “Here, dry your face.”
Laci stared at the crumpled tissue.
“I haven’t used it. I stuffed it in my pocket this morning.” Chase thrust it at her.
“I have some,” Laci said, and proceeded into the shop.
Chase counted to twenty this time. Laci and Violet were by far the best candidates she and Anna had interviewed six months ago when they opened up. Maybe someone new needed a job by now. Who was she kidding? She knew she wouldn’t fire the girl. After the humiliation of being let go from not one, not two, but four jobs in Chicago, she’d never do that to anyone else. Either Anna would have to fire her or Laci would have to quit.
Chase came in the door, left open by Laci. Quincy padded in behind her.
Anna let out a stifled scream and pointed at the cat. “A mouse,” she whispered, so the customers wouldn’t hear her.
“Oh, Quince. He must have run out when we opened the door.”
“But how did he get out of the office?” rasped Anna.
“How does he ever get out? I wish I knew.”
She chased the cat around the prep island and succeeded in cornering him. The mouse was, luckily, dead. After she persuaded Quincy to drop it, Chase picked it up with about thirty paper towels and took it out to the industrial-size trash bin, being careful to keep the cat inside the kitchen.
When Chase reentered, Anna had redeposited Quincy in the office. Chase wondered what she’d given him to eat. Anna was adding the coconut extract and nuts to the eggs and brown sugar for the batch of Hula Bars she had just started.
“You want me to finish them up and you can go out front?” asked Chase, scrubbing her hands with a stiff brush at the deep sink against the outside wall.
“Absolutely not. I have no desire to come into contact with—”
The tinkle of the chimes on the front door was followed by a booming voice. “Well, well, well. Here’s the happy family.”
Anna groaned. “Not Gabe!”
He didn’t come in often, mostly because his wife brought him his favorites, the Peanut Butter Fudge Bars Violet had suggested. Maybe, thought Chase, he’s come to buy them for himself since they’re splitting up.
She rushed out front. Gabe Naughtly blocked the way of his wife and son as they were trying to get out the door.
“What’s your hurry?” His rotund body produced a lot of sound. His gravelly voice filled the little room.
“Mr. Naughtly, can I help you?” Chase hurried to the trio.
The man swiveled his mostly bald head in her direction. “Hold your horses. I just got here.”
Chase saw that Violet was packaging six of Gabe Naughtly’s favorites.
“Gabe, leave me alone.” Doris looked distressed. Ted tried to look bored, but concern showed on his face, through the three-day stubble he’d cultivated. He was much taller than his little round father but, even at his young age, was tending toward beefiness.
To Chase’s surprise, Gabe stepped aside to let his wife leave. Doris lifted her head and managed an air of aplomb as she swept past him. Ted threw his father an intense stare that Chase thought looked hostile.
Gabe stood frowning after them for a few seconds. Then he stumped across the wooden floor to the counter. “I’ll have a half dozen of those.” He poked his finger at his usual, leaving a smudge on the glass.
“All set,” said Violet, hoisting the white paper bag printed with the Bar None name and logo, a cookie bar beside a fat ring striped in dark red and pink.
“Has the health inspector been here?” he asked Chase.
Health inspector? Again? “No. He was completely satisfied last time you sicced him on us. Why would he be back?”
“I told him about the rats behind your store.”
“What rats? The ones you put there? The white ones you bought from the pet store like last time?”
“Ha. Very funny. You won’t be laughing when they close you down. The rats might be indoors next time.”
“I’m not laughing now.” Chase felt her face turning bright red, her heart racing. She clenched her fists to keep from punching him. The man was an absolute pig. “Vi, don’t sell those to this man. Gabe Naughtly, leave my shop. Don’t come here again.”
“Over my dead body.”
“If that’s what it takes.”
She felt Vi and Laci’s amazed expressions at her implied threat. Gabe’s glare was just plain mean.
“You’ll see,” he said as he stomped out.
Vi silently set the paper bag below the counter. Laci got busy rearranging the prepackaged treat boxes. Chase stalked toward the kitchen, but Anna stood with one of the swinging doors open.
“I heard everything,” she said. “Don’t worry, the health department won’t close us.”
Chase collapsed onto a stool, starting to shake as her adrenaline rush let up. “What if he puts rats inside, instead of in the alley?”
“Quincy would catch them,” said Anna.
“But what if a customer saw one? He might do it, you know. That would be the end of us.”
Anna stroked her hair. “He can’t do anything to us, sweetheart. The business is going well, we’re making a profit already, months ahead of our schedule. I even heard two women talking about our Toffee Bars in the drugstore yesterday.”
“I don’t know why he wants this location so bad.” Chase leaned her head into Anna’s body.
“Probably because we’re doing so well, Charity. He’s probably picking on us because we’re the newest business in the area and he figures we’d be the easiest for him to dislodge. He’s wanted to relocate from the second story for a long time. I know he’s approached other business owners about buying their properties. Trouble is, he doesn’t have the money to do it.”
Anna’s hand on her head soothed Chase. She started to relax.
“But he sounded serious. I’m afraid he’ll do something awful to close us down.”
“How could he? Why don’t you take a walk to work off some of your negative energy.”
Anna was right, Chase told herself. He couldn’t shut them down. Could he?
Laci and Violet had just left and Anna pulled down the front shade with the words “Bar None—Closed” on the other side. It had been a busy, profitable day.
Chase gave Anna a high five as she turned. “We did it again.”
Anna’s smile gave Chase a needed lift. She loved how the skin around her eyes crinkled, kind of like the way butter topping will crisp up on the top of a cookie bar. Anna was the sweetest person she knew. After her parents had died in a small plane crash, Anna Larson had taken her in, per her parents’ will. After all, Anna had raised Chase’s mother.
A knock sounded on the closed and shuttered front door.
“That’s Julie,” said Anna, moving the shade aside to check.
“I came for my Hula Bars,” Julie said. “Did you make some today?”
“I did,” Anna said, “and we sold most of them. Let me see if there are any more.” They both followed Anna into the kitchen, where Chase needed to finish the cleanup.
“Laci and Violet are outside arguing,” said Julie. “Did you know that?”
Chase and Anna sighed in unison. Chase freed Quincy from the office. He jumped up with all the grace of an Olympic gymnast and patrolled the counters for leftover crumbs, pointedly ignoring his mistress. It was his nightly routine. Chase had her own routine, as a result, disinfecting the countertops last thing every day.
“Those two,” said Anna. She rummaged through the refrigerator for the leftover Hula Bars.
“They were at it today,” said Chase.
“I hope you realize that we can’t continue to have them working here together,” Anna said. “I’d like to replace Laci, but then we’d have to go through the whole hiring process again.”
“That was torture, wasn’t it?” Chase said. “There were so many unsuitable applicants. You really think we should let Laci go?”
“I’d like to see that,” said Julie. “You can’t stand to fire anyone. You told me so yourself.”
It was true that Chase was a natural born peacemaker. She disliked confrontation immensely. But Chase also didn’t want Anna making all the decisions, since they were partners. After all, Anna was the one who had picked Laci and Vi to hire. Chase just knew that she couldn’t fire either of them.
Chase shook her head. “Yah, you’re right.” Then she brightened. “Hey, I have some dirt on the Naughtlys. They’re splitting.”
“Wow,” said Julie. “What’s he going to do without all her money?”
Anna, who had been bending low, straightened up. “They were both in here today and—”
“Anna,” shouted Chase. “What were you doing?”
Anna’s eyes widened in innocence. “I wasn’t doing anything.”
“You slipped a cookie bar to Quincy.”
“Only one. Here are some of the new bars.” Anna put them in a bag and gave them to Julie. Then she hefted the garbage sack out of the wastebasket and headed to the back door.
“What’s going on?” asked Julie. She climbed onto one of the stools at the work counter and Chase sat beside her. After Julie had graduated from law school, she’d taken a job in the district attorney’s office. Chase was so proud of her for getting through law school and landing a good job.
“I did something awful today.” Chase studied her lap.
“It couldn’t be that bad.” Julie ducked to see her friend’s face.
Chase raised her head. “I got into an argument with Gabe in front of my staff and some customers.”
“It’s not the first time, is it?” Julie grinned. “He’s not your best friend.”
“No, he’s not.” Chase smiled at Julie and gave her friend a fake punch in the arm.
“I made her walk around the parking lot a few times to cool off afterward,” Anna said, returning from taking out the trash.
“It did make me feel . . . a little better.”
“But I meant, what’s the big deal with Quincy?” Julie said.
Chase told her all about the visit to the vet and Quincy’s new regimen, since they hadn’t discussed it last night.
“I hear Dr. Ramos is kinda hot,” Julie said.
“I thought so at first, Jules. But he’s mean, putting Quince on such a tiny amount of food. Look at him. See how hungry he is?”
Julie swiveled her head left, then right. “Where is he?”
“Oh brother.” Chase ran out of the shop to the alley. All she caught was a glimpse of his fluffy tail, disappearing around the corner at the end of the block.
She pounded down the alley, her heart racing, but couldn’t see him when she reached the corner.
“He’s gone!” she shouted. “I can’t find him!”
Julie and Anna both came running.
“He’s never gone beyond the alley,” Chase said. “That’s a little worrisome.”
“We’ll get him,” Anna said. “Julie, you go left. Chase, you go right. I’ll cross the street.”
Chase rounded the corner and circled the block, peering into every doorway and nook and cranny, inspecting the branches of the small trees that grew in the round sidewalk cutouts, eventually coming to the front of her own shop. Laci and Violet were still there, glaring at each other.
Violet noticed her first. “What are you doing? Did you lose something?”
“Yes.” Chase fought to keep her voice from quavering. “Quincy got out. I don’t know where he went.”
“He’ll come home, won’t he?” Vi asked.
“I’m not sure. He’s mad at me about the diet.”
“We’ll help,” said Laci. “I’ll search across this street.”
“Vi, could you watch the back entrance in case he returns? I don’t want to leave it standing open.” She pictured Gabe crouched in the alley waiting for his chance.
The two young women bustled off, calling Quincy’s name and peering into window wells and doorways, as Chase had been doing.
She continued up the block, coming to the next corner. Quincy had gotten out many times in the past, but had never gone beyond the end of the alley. He usually hung around the large trash bin, hoping to snag a warm rodent. That cat’s tummy was never full. Where would he go? Would he get lost?
The cat strode along the tree-lined street. Cooking smells wafted out of the houses and condos. The strong odor of meatloaf drew him to one of the buildings. The smell was stronger here because the front door was slightly ajar. That was no problem for the butterscotch cat. He hooked a claw around the bottom edge of the door and inched it open wide enough to admit him. The smell of meat intensified here. He rolled in some paper scraps on the floor, but that wasn’t it. Up there, on the counter. That was his goal. There was another smell, but he ignored that one and jumped over the object sprawled on the floor to get onto the counter.
At the end of the block, Chase looked across the street to see Laci canvassing the stores and businesses, her huge tote bag slung over her slender shoulder. Vi carried one similar, but it had a different shape to it. Violet’s was more square, so Chase was sure she was seeing Laci. Chase decided to continue into the next block. Everyone else had this one covered. All the buildings on this block were businesses, some with living quarters above like hers, with stairways in the rear.
A block away, the shops ended and condos sprang up with a few nice houses sprinkled in among them. Chase made her way slowly down the street, calling Quincy’s name every five yards.
There were more trees here, bigger ones. Dusk was starting to fall and she was afraid they wouldn’t find him tonight. He might be stuck in a huge maple or nestled in the branches of a gnarled oak. Not a soul strolled the sidewalk besides Chase.
At the second set of duplex condos, she saw a door standing ajar to the unit on the left. Had Quincy gotten this far? Would he go inside a stranger’s home? He didn’t seem to be anywhere else.
Chase climbed the six steps, not making a sound, and searched for a doorbell, but didn’t find one, so she pushed the door. It opened into a bare, unfurnished living room. The room was dark, but she saw light coming from the kitchen around the corner. All she could see from the front of the apartment was the refrigerator. She stopped, unsure of herself. This sure felt like trespassing.
Still, Quincy might be in there. The smell of meatloaf was strong.
“Quincy?” She said his name softly, hoping not to attract the attention of whoever lived here and whose property she was invading. The air felt dead, like the dwelling was empty.
The wooden floor planks creaked as she tiptoed across the living room. Chase flinched with each footfall, her nape hairs prickling. No one appeared at the top of the stairs to her right, yelling at her to get out, so she kept going.
She hoped Quincy was in the kitchen, where the food was. If not, she would have to think about exploring further. Quincy could be crouched inside an empty room, scared. For all his fierce bravado, he was a small animal, and vulnerable in so many ways. What if this household owned a pit bull? Or a mastiff? She almost whimpered aloud thinking about it.
Chase braced herself with a deep breath, inhaling another whiff of the delicious aroma, and peeked around the corner, into the kitchen. Sure enough, Quincy sat on the counter, devouring the meatloaf. But what caught her attention was the man, lying on his side on the floor beside some scraps of paper, his back to her. She knew him.
She breathed his name. “Gabe? Gabe?”
Quincy turned his head toward her and blinked his gorgeous amber eyes, then returned to his task.
Gabe must be injured, she thought. She knelt and shook his stiff shoulder. No response. She rolled him onto his back. Gasped. A steak knife was stuck in his chest. That couldn’t be good! She reached toward the handle to pull out the knife, touched it, then hesitated and started to draw her hand back.
A soft voice from the doorway said, “What have you done?”
Chase dropped her outstretched hand to her side and spun toward the unknown man. He was middle-aged and had a preppy look, khakis, blazer over a polo shirt, sockless dock shoes.
“Should we pull the knife out?” she said. “He’s not bleeding much. Maybe we should.”
“You probably should have wiped your prints off and thrown it away before I caught you.”
Chase rose and the guy took a step backward. “We need to call nine one one,” she said.
“Why did you kill him?”
Now Chase took a step back. “Kill him? Is he dead? Why would I kill Gabe? “
Her mind raced. She had reason enough to kill him. This man thought she had. Her prints, as he said, were on the steak knife that obviously had killed him.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Torvald Iversen. I’d shake your hand, but it’s bloody.”
Chase inspected her right hand. He was right again. “Then you call nine one one. What if he’s alive?”
Torvald stepped around her and felt for a neck pulse. He gave her a dark scowl, then punched the three numbers into his phone. The man went out the front way to talk to the dispatcher, leaving Chase with the body . . . and her cat, still chowing down.
“Quincy, how could you?” She wiped her hand on a paper towel and stuck it in her pocket before she lifted her cat off the counter and nuzzled her face against his warm head. To her relief, he didn’t try to return to his feast. He might be full, she thought. Half of it was gone. She chanced another glance at Gabe, but he hadn’t moved. He had to be dead.
Being careful to avoid the body and the surrounding pool of blood, she followed Torvald Iversen onto the porch. He was slipping his phone into his pocket. “You’re to stay here, not leave,” he said.
This guy was annoying her. “Says who?”
“Says the dispatcher I just spoke to.” His voice was quiet, but smoky, in a creepy sort of way.
“And I suppose you’re free to go?”
He sneered, but halfheartedly.
“I thought not.” Chase, being a better person, did not return the sneer. “I have to get my cat home.” That sounded lame as soon as she said it. But what was she going to do with him while being questioned by the police? “Who are you?”
As the ambulance pulled up, lights and sirens at full speed, Quincy tensed in her arms. Chase tightened her grip and returned to the living room to shield him from the commotion a bit. The door, however, was standing wide-open and the noise made it into the living room just fine.
Her face buried in Quincy’s soft, orange fur, she felt tears begin. Then her hands started shaking, which alarmed Quincy even more. This was the second encounter with Gabe that had ended up with her shaking and distraught. But it would be the last. Deep inside, a small blossom of relief opened. He wouldn’t release a rat in her store. He wouldn’t report her to the health department (unless he already had). And he wouldn’t shut her down.
“What were you doing here, anyway?” She jumped. That man, Torvald, had come up behind her.
She hoped she hadn’t spoken any of her thoughts aloud. “Chasing my cat. He ran away and snuck in here.”
“He knows how to open doors?”
Two uniformed men, and one woman, ran past them into the kitchen.
“What are you doing here?” she asked Torvald.
“I had a business meeting scheduled with Mr. Naughtly.”
She wondered why he didn’t buy his donuts during business hours like everyone else. “It looks like he was ready to eat dinner.”
“It was a dinner meeting.”
A warm, familiar voice came from the doorway. “Chase? What’s the commotion?”
“Dr. Ramos! Am I ever glad to see you.”
“I was on my way to the drugstore when I saw the vehicles on the street. Is Gabe okay?”
“You know Gabe?” Did everyone know him?
Dr. Ramos gestured to the south. “I live two condos away. What’s happened? Are you feeling all right?” He must have noticed the tears on her face.
Torvald Iversen cleared his throat. “I arrived and found her pulling out the knife she stabbed Gabe Naughtly with.”
Chase whirled toward him. “That’s not true!” Quincy tightened his claws on her sweater.
A policeman with a deep five-o’clock shadow joined the group. “Who found the body? The call said someone named Iversen?”
“No, I found him,” said Chase. Her cat squirmed.
“Why don’t I take Quincy to my place until you’re done here.” Dr. Ramos took control of Quincy and, after assuring the policeman that he’d just arrived, walked down the stairs and into the night. Chase was sad to see the only friendly face disappear.
An hour later, after she told the policeman what happened, and after a detective arrived and she related everything three more times, she started walking toward home. She wondered how she would find Quincy and Dr. Ramos, but he hailed her from his screened-in front porch, two houses down.
Ten minutes later, ensconced in a recliner of fake—but very nice fake—leather, wrapped in an afghan, and sipping hot chocolate, Chase had almost finished going over the events of the afternoon to Dr. Ramos, who urged her to call him Mike.
“I told the exact same story to the policeman and to the detective, who showed up after you went home. That awful man, Torvald Iversen, kept interrupting and contradicting me the whole time we were questioned by the police officer, but the detective took us into upstairs rooms and talked to us separately. That man thinks I killed Gabe Naughtly!”
“You’re shaking again.” Mike hiked the afghan up her shoulder where it had slipped off.
She wasn’t shivering from cold, but it felt nice to have Mike Ramos fuss over her like that. What she was shivering from was harder to get over than cold.
“Do you think they’ll believe him?”
“I imagine they’ll check everything out. Lots of people must have seen you outside, trying to find Quincy.”
What People are Saying About This
“Every ounce a delightful new cozy mystery series.” –Paige Shelton, National Bestselling Author of If Catfish Have Nine Lives