Cassie's good friend Dawn is part of an organization that's trying to protect a colony of stray cats on the property of a condo community in Chadwick, New Jersey. The residents have got their backs up over the cat invasion, and Dawn has come to Cassie's grooming and boarding shop, Cassie's Comfy Cats, to ask her help in talking sense to them.
Not everyone's against the cats. Eccentric Sabrina Ward feeds them and has even created makeshift shelters for them in the nearby woods, infuriating her neighbors. Following a heated community meeting—in which Cassie and Dawn come up with a proposal—Sabrina's body is found in the woods. The police are calling her death an accident, but Cassie smells a rat. Narrowing down the list of suspects may be tougher than herding cats, but Cassie is determined to collar the killer before another cat lover has a fatal accident . . .
Praise for The Persian Always Meows Twice
“Fans of felines will appreciate Cassie’s demonstrated attachment to the master species, which Watkins successfully integrates throughout her debut, a deft blend of mystery and cat love.”
“A promising start to a new cozy series. And the information the author provides about cats is fascinating.”
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"Please, Cassie! I know it's a big favor to ask, but maybe you can get through to these people. After all, it's a matter of life and death!"
My friend Dawn sometimes overdramatized things, but technically I supposed she was right. I probably owed her a favor, anyway. We'd come to each other's rescue so often over the past year, it was easy to lose count.
"They might just throw me out of the meeting," I warned her, while refilling our coffee mugs and bringing them back to the front sales counter of my shop. "At least your mother lives at The Reserve. I have no business being there at all."
"You'll be there as my invited guest, and ... and professional consultant." Alighting on one of the secondhand wooden stools behind the counter, my tall, auburn-haired, rather Bohemian friend fanned her hands in supplication. "Face it, my only argument will be that if my mother wasn't away on vacation, she'd be part of this protest. Even though I took in one stray — that I love to death — I'm no expert on feral cats. But as the owner of Cassie's Comfy Cats, you've got real cat cred."
I'd never thought of it that way before — maybe I could turn "real cat cred" into some kind of advertising slogan. Have it stenciled on the front window under the name of my shop? Or maybe across the front of my hot- pink sales counter?
I still wondered just how welcome Dawn and I would be at this meeting tonight. From what she'd already told me about The Reserve at Chadwick, most of the homeowners were older. Dawn and I, being only in our late twenties, might stand out as nonresidents interfering in the community's private business.
"Remind me, again, what the issue will be tonight. You're trying to persuade the condo board to try a trap-neuter-return program?"
"They did try it once. My friend Sabrina worked with a local rescue group — people from FOCA, you know them, right? Anyway, they caught a few of the cats, not all of them. Some residents say that just proves the approach doesn't work. We need to persuade them to try at least once more." Dawn sighed. "Sabrina's a terrific advocate, but she can be a little ... forceful, and the other residents are starting to tune her out. That's why we need you!"
My sixtyish assistant, Sarah Wilcox, emerged through the doorway that led back to the cat playroom. She preferred to look professional for the job — unlike me, in my jeans and T-shirt — and usually dressed in a self-chosen uniform of a patterned tunic with solid-colored pants. Today her outfit followed a dark green theme that complemented her rich, chestnut complexion.
Now she tried tactfully to catch my eye. This let me put off making any commitment to attend the evening's meeting, at least for a minute longer. "Yes, Sarah?"
"Want me to put the Van away before I go?" she asked.
Dawn brightened. "What's happening with that? Did you finally find somebody to convert that old thing?"
I paused in confusion for an instant, then realized she thought I was referring to the aged, matte-black vehicle that had been parked for about two months in my rear lot. It formerly belonged to a local rock 'n' roll impresario who had relished its sinister appearance. I'd gotten it at a bargain price, in the hopes of turning it, someday, into a mobile grooming studio.
With a laugh, I told Dawn, "Oh, no, she means a cat. A Turkish Van. Semi-longhair white with red points, very pretty." When I turned back to Sarah, she was grinning over the mix-up. "Yes, Taffy can go back in her condo. Gee, is it closing time already?"
"Time flies when you're having fun." She brushed one hand over her nose and mouth. "Fur, too."
I laughed again. "In this business, it sure does."
Sarah disappeared through the doorway in the screen that separated the front of the shop from the playroom. Equipped with assorted tunnels, perches, trees, and a complex network of wall shelves, that central space allowed our boarders to get some safe exercise. Farther back lay our well-equipped grooming studio and another large room fitted out with a dozen cat condos — each the size of a broom closet — to accommodate our boarders. All of our services catered to felines only.
"As for the actual van with wheels," I told Dawn, "that project is stalled. So far the only quote I've gotten has been way beyond my budget."
"Too bad. I like the idea of you being able to take your grooming services on the road." She took another swallow of her coffee and returned to her main objective. "So, will you come with me tonight?"
I'd had a long, tiring day and was looking forward to a quiet evening at home. My store dated from the turn of the century, so that second-floor apartment was far from luxurious. It consisted of a living room, a dining room or second bedroom, and a single bathroom and kitchen last renovated in the 1950s. Because I had three cats of my own, the seating pieces were pet-proofed with cotton slipcovers and fleece throws, the area rugs an indoor/outdoor material that cleaned up easily. The framed artworks included some of my own from my college years and a surrealistic print, of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing herself as a leopard, from a downtown gallery. Bookcases held volumes on human psychology, cat breeds and behavior, and favorite mystery novels.
The place wouldn't end up in a design magazine anytime soon, but to me it was a cozy haven after a long day on my feet. Right now, I looked forward to lounging on the sofa while I flirted on the phone with Mark, the local veterinarian I'd been dating for about eight months. His days were even busier than mine, though, so we both probably would be too tired for more than a quick chat. Afterward, I'd maybe catch a new detective show on TV that was getting a lot of buzz, then have an early lights-out.
I definitely hadn't figured on driving out on this damp, chilly November night, over dark country roads, to listen to a bunch of strangers debate an issue that was pretty much none of my business.
Still, Dawn had made a good case. For what it was worth, I guessed that I could add my voice to those who wanted a humane solution to The Reserve's feral cat problem. There were, indeed, feline lives at stake.
With a sigh, I ran a hand through my shoulder-length brown hair, limp after the full day I'd spent prettying up other people's pets. "I'll have to pull myself together a little ... put on some decent clothes ..."
"Fantastic! Thank you so much." My friend clapped her long, graceful hands. "I'll drive us. It's kind of hard to find your way around, because the roads curve and, of course, most of the buildings look alike. Fortunately, it's not an awfully big community — only about fifty units and maybe seventy or so residents."
"I'll finally get to meet the legendary Sabrina." I took both of our empty mugs to the small coffee stand behind the counter; I'd wash them up later in the grooming studio sink. "You said you connected with her when you were in college? But isn't she your mom's age?"
"Older, probably around seventy now. And that was about twelve years ago. I took a self-defense class Sabrina taught on campus. She had such a great attitude, so tough but so funny, that we went on exchanging e-mails and meeting for lunch every now and then. I'd tell her about starting my health food store and she'd keep me up to date on all her protests and causes." With a bemused smile, Dawn added, "How she ended up living at The Reserve, I'm really not sure. Kind of like throwing a lit firecracker into a haystack."
Dawn said she'd stop back for me in an hour, and by the time she'd left, my attitude toward the meeting had changed. If this gutsy older lady was ready to mix it up with her neighbors at some stodgy suburban enclave, I wanted to be on her side.
* * *
"They're taking over our community! They're vicious, and who knows what diseases they're carrying?"
"They do all kinds of disgusting things right outside my front door. My grandkids visit me, and I don't want them exposed to that."
"Our walking group used to love strolling down the trails with our binoculars, looking for new birds. Now we keep coming across dead bodies."
"I don't see that they're hurting anyone. They have a right to live, too."
"This is a nice, upscale neighborhood. They don't belong here."
I squirmed on my stiff metal chair. When I'd agreed to accompany Dawn to this meeting, I hadn't expected a mêlée — especially given the ages and conservative bent of the residents. Although The Reserve at Chadwick wasn't technically an active-adult community, most of the forty or so people jammed into the conference room looked past middle age. Dawn and I probably did stand out, not only because we weren't residents but because we were actually under thirty.
It was a prosperous, sedate crowd dressed in comfy corduroy and practical pullovers; I even spotted one turtleneck patterned with tiny autumn leaves. They hardly looked like a bunch of rowdy protestors, but something sure had set them on fire with rebellion tonight.
I asked Dawn in a whisper, "Are these meetings always so ... lively?"
She shook her head. "According to Mom, most of the time very few people attend and the agenda is pretty boring. But like I warned you, this issue has everyone riled up."
The condo board members, seated behind a long table at the front of the room, also looked unnerved by the strident complaints. Poster-board placards on the tabletop identified them as Lauren Kamper, the board president; Alma Gunner, vice president; Joan Pennisi, secretary; and Dan Greenburg, treasurer. Also present at the table was Sam Nolan, the resident manager.
Lauren leaned into her microphone and tried to regain control of the gathering. "Folks, we can't have everyone speaking at once. Yes, Ted?"
A strongly built man with a shaved head stood up at his seat. "Some group came here last month to fix this problem. They were supposed to catch all these stray cats and take 'em away. What happened with that?"
A woman a few seats to his left, with short gray hair and a shrill voice, replied. "They only caught a few, and a week later they brought them all back! What the heck good does that do?"
Nolan, tall and lean with salt-and-pepper hair, thumbed through some paperwork on the table in front of him. "Okay, let's review. Two months ago, we contacted the county Humane Society about the issue. They said they don't have the resources to deal with every feral-cat problem in the area, and referred us to FOCA, Friends of Chadwick Animals. A FOCA committee, called Fine Feral Friends, came here in October and set traps. They reported afterward that they were able to capture, neuter, and vaccinate ten of the cats."
"And they did it for free," added Dan, the thin, nearly chinless treasurer.
Joan, the prim-looking secretary, suggested, "We can call them to come again. ..."
"Forget that!" shouted a pudgy man in a rust-colored sweater. "Ten cats? There's at least two dozen, and they're breedin' all the time. We need to get rid of 'em, permanently." He swept his finger across his throat.
Dawn shot me a pleading look. "Cassie, can you explain to them? About trap-neuter-return?"
At this point, I would sooner have stuck my head into a hornet's nest than provoke this crowd. But to speak up for the animals was, after all, the reason I'd agreed to come along this evening. Gathering my courage, I raised my hand until Lauren pointed at me.
"And you are?" she asked, sounding wary.
I stood up. "Cassie McGlone. I own Cassie's Comfy Cats, a grooming and boarding business in downtown Chadwick. I'm here tonight at the request of my friend Dawn Tischler" — I glanced down at her — "whose mother, Gwen, is a resident here at The Reserve. She's off on a three-week vacation in Morocco right now."
Joan, a brunette in a ruffle-necked blouse and ladylike oval glasses, bent her head over her electronic notepad, probably to jot down my credentials. I was prepared to add that I also had a certification in animal behavior, just in case someone asked. No one did.
Lauren wore her highlighted blond hair skinned back in a low ponytail, which emphasized her good cheekbones; her aqua, V-necked sweater subtly flattered her trim figure. She seemed impatient now with my recital of my bona fides. "And your interest in this matter, Ms. McGlone?"
"Dawn asked me here to explain the reasons behind the trap, neuter, and return approach. See, if you just remove the wild cats, others will come to take their place."
"Why would they do that?" Lauren asked, in a mildly baffled tone.
"This land obviously used to be forest, and you're still surrounded by woods. There are probably a lot more wild cats out there who don't come any nearer right now, because there's already an established colony."
Joan tilted her head and nodded, as if the explanation made sense to her. Sam also seemed to be paying close attention.
Encouraged, I pressed my case further. "That's why it's better to leave the existing cats there, but neuter and vaccinate them so they can't reproduce or spread any diseases to pets or people. They also won't get into as many noisy fights with one another, so they'll cause less disturbance."
"Trouble is," Ted interrupted, "people keep feeding them. It says in our bylaws that you're not supposed to feed wildlife. And that's what these cats are!"
"Even that doesn't stop them from killing the birds," complained Alma Gunner.
At the back of the room, a woman's strong contralto rang out. "May I say something?"
Sam responded with a tight smile. "Might as well, Ms. Ward. After all, you're a big reason why our community's in this situation."
When I saw who had spoken, I yielded the floor and took my seat. I had not met Sabrina Ward yet, but Dawn admired her tremendously, and I knew the woman had a long history of feminist and animal activism. Now that Sabrina lived at The Reserve, she'd become the staunchest champion of the feral cat colony.
She rose to her full, diminutive height with the help of a cane. A dark knit cap barely tamed her long, wavy hair, dyed a burgundy shade and threaded with gray. She wore a purple paisley shawl as a muffler and a faded denim jacket over a loose, flowered, thrift-shop dress. As if she needed glasses, Sabrina squinted in the direction of the board members' table. Even so, she somehow radiated steely will and determination.
"It's true what you say, Ted. Residents who feed the cats close to their homes aren't helping the problem. That's why the FFF people and I have set up feeding stations farther out in the woods. Once the ferals get used to eating there, and nowhere else, they'll be less likely to hang around the town houses."
"Those feeding stations are dangerous, too," protested a rosy-faced man with a blond comb-over.
"Why is that, Bert?" asked Lauren.
He stood. "They're too near the community trails. I was walking my dog Jojo the other day, and he got into some of the cat food that was left out. I stopped him before he ate very much, but an hour later he was so sick I had to rush him to the vet." With a catch in his voice, the man added, "They've still got him there, trying to figure out what's wrong with him."
"She probably put a hex on him!" The lady with the short gray hair stabbed a finger in Sabrina's direction. "She's a witch."
Dawn shifted irritably in the seat next to me. "Oh, God, some of these people! How does Mom stand to live around them day in and day out?"
A better question, I thought, might be how Sabrina fit into this community. Not only would her appearance and attitudes make her conspicuous, but if she dressed from thrift shops and couldn't afford eyeglasses, how did she even buy a condo here?
Meanwhile, Sabrina ignored the accusation and regarded Bert gravely. "Mr. Chamberlain, I'm very sorry about your dog. But I doubt it was just the stale cat food that made him so sick. More likely, someone in this community poisoned the food in hopes of harming the cats, and Jojo was an accidental victim."
This caused a stir through the gathering, and I heard mutters of, "Now she thinks we're poisoners!" and "Getting paranoid...."
Lauren took command of the microphone again and ordered the group to settle down. "Ms. Ward, I doubt anyone would do a thing like that. But even if someone did, it just goes to show that matters have escalated to a dangerous level. Ted is right, our bylaws do prohibit feeding wild animals. We've made an exception in this case, because you and the FFF convinced us that you had a plan to reduce the colony. But as Heidi said, so far it hasn't been very successful."
I couldn't resist jumping into the fray again. "It takes time to get a whole colony under control. After a few cats get caught, the rest catch on and avoid the traps. You have to keep trying until you get them all."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Feral Attraction"
Copyright © 2018 Eileen Watkins.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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