It’s summer in Mayville Heights, and Kathleen Paulson and her detective boyfriend, Marcus, are eager to attend the closing concert of the local music festival. The concert is a success, but then one of the band members is discovered dead shortly after it. At first it’s assumed the death is a robbery gone wrong, but Kathleen suspects foul play—and she’s certain that she, along with her trusty side-cats, Owen and Hercules, can help solve the murder.
Before his death, Kathleen had noticed the victim in the library researching his genealogy, and when she and Marcus take a closer look at the man's family tree, they begin to think a previous death of one of his relatives now seems suspicious. The more Kathleen thinks about it, the more this murder feels like it could be an encore performance. Kathleen and her cats will need to act fast and be very careful if they want to stay off of a killer's hit list.
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The stage set up at the end of the marina parking lot was in darkness, and there wasn't enough light from the stars and the sliver of gleaming moon overhead to make out anything, even though we were sitting just a few rows back. The crowd spread out across the pavement on lawn chairs and coolers had gone silent, so silent it seemed as though we were all holding our breath. But underneath that silence I could feel a faint buzz of anticipation, like the current of energy in the air just before a thunderstorm hits.
And then a clap of wood on wood, one drumstick hitting another, counting off the beat-One! Two! Three! Four!-cracked the quiet. And all at once there was music: the sound of a raucous electric guitar; and the crowd went wild. Beside me my friend Roma was grinning, bouncing on her canvas lawn chair, her dark eyes shining. She leaned sideways, bumping me with her shoulder. "That's Harry, Kathleen," she said in my ear, "which has to mean-"
She didn't get to finish the sentence because the smooth voice of the announcer boomed through the sound system, drowning out everything else. "Please welcome-after a very long absence-Johnny Rock . . ." He paused. I leaned forward, suddenly knowing what his next words had to be. And then they came: ". . . and the Outlaws!"
The stage lights came up and the crowd really went wild then, cheering, clapping, hooting and whistling. I couldn't take my eyes off the stage because that amazing electric guitar was in the hands of Harry Taylor-Harry, who mowed my lawn and kept just about everything running at the library for me. He was in his fifties with just a little hair left, his face lined from years of working outside in the sun. Harry looked like someone's dad, practical and dependable, which he was-not like some rock star guitar virtuoso-which it seemed he also was. I knew Harry played guitar. I knew he had been in a band, in this band, but I was dumbstruck that I had no idea he was so incredibly talented.
Roma was already moving to the music. "Close your mouth, Kath," she said, grinning as if she'd guessed what I'd been thinking. "I'm pretty sure you just swallowed a bug."
I didn't get a chance to answer because Johnny Rock had started to sing John Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.," striding onto the stage from the left side. His voice was full and strong with just a hint of a raspy edge to it.
Johnny Rock, aka John Stone, looked like he could have been actor Bradley Cooper's older brother-blue eyes, brown hair shot with a bit of gray waved back from his face, long legs and muscular arms in a tight black T-shirt and faded jeans. He had that same naughty-boy grin as the actor as well.
Harry was just behind Johnny's right shoulder, a few steps back. He, too, wore a black T-Shirt and jeans, but not his ubiquitous Twins ball cap. I realized that he was playing the same solid-body Fender Stratocaster that he'd brought to Reading Buddies at the library, where he'd led the kids in an enthusiastic version of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." The song had been stuck in my head for days afterward.
Beside me Roma was already up and dancing. It seemed like the whole crowd was on its feet, spilling across the parking lot onto the grassy riverbank. Roma grabbed my hand and pulled me off my chair. "I can't believe they kept the whole band coming back together a secret."
"Me neither," I said, leaning sideways so she could hear me. Harry had been in the library just hours ago and there had been no hint from him that he'd be onstage tonight when I'd said I was looking forward to seeing Johnny in concert. I had no idea Harry was so good at keeping a secret. It seemed there were a lot of things I didn't know about Harry Taylor.
"Well, Mike checked my cracked tooth on Thursday and he didn't give anything away, either," Roma said, raising her voice over the crowd noise.
Mike Bishop, who had expertly completed a root canal on my upper-left molar just recently, was also up onstage playing bass, standing behind and to the left of Johnny. Like Johnny and Harry, he was wearing jeans and a black shirt, along with a dark gray fedora over his gray curls. And he couldn't seem to stop grinning. He raised one arm in the air. "C'mon, people, you should be dancin'!" he shouted.
The outdoor concert was part of the Last Bash, a revival, after twenty-five years, of a summer festival celebrating food, music and small-town life. Mayville Heights was trying to bring back the celebration as a way to entice more tourists to our Minnesota town. The highlight of the event for just about everyone was the return to the stage of Johnny Rock, who had been a local celebrity in his teens and twenties, first as the lead singer of Johnny and the Outlaws and then as a solo performer. Johnny had gone on to become a very successful businessman. He had just sold his real estate development company and was going back to his first love, music.
I closed my eyes for a moment and just focused on Johnny's voice as the band segued into Boston's "More Than a Feeling." I draped my arm around Roma's shoulders and we swayed back and forth to the music, heads together like we were teenagers. The 1976 rock ballad showcased Johnny's vocal range. He was good-not just small-town-bar-band good-good enough to have had a career as a working musician, in my opinion. And I knew a little about the music business. My brother, Ethan, had his own band back in Boston, The Flaming Gerbils. I'd learned from watching his career develop how mercurial the music business could be, how it took more than talent, how sometimes it seemed that talent was the least important factor. I couldn't help wondering what had derailed Johnny's long-ago musical aspirations.
Roma was singing, "It's more than a feeling," softly by my ear. I opened my eyes. Next to Roma, her husband, Eddie, and our friend Maggie were dancing. I knew Mags could dance but I hadn't known that Eddie could. I shouldn't have been surprised. Eddie Sweeney was a former NHL player. He was tall and fast and smooth on his feet, even without skates.
To my right Marcus-my Marcus-was dancing with Mary Lowe. Mary was easily a foot shorter than he was and several decades older, but she had some smooth moves herself. She caught my eye, raised her eyebrows and gave me a saucy grin.
I smiled back at her.
"Best night ever," Roma said.
It was one of her favorite expressions, but she was right. This was going to be one of those nights I knew I'd remember for a long time.
The band came to their last song way too soon. "You know, I could stay out here all night," Johnny began.
"Do it!" a voice yelled from somewhere on the edge of the riverbank. There were echoes of the words all through the crowd.
Johnny smiled. "Believe me, I'd like to, but like they say, all good things must come to an end." He gazed out over the crowd. "Thank you all for coming tonight and I hope you liked my"-he turned and looked over his shoulder at the guys behind him-"our little surprise."
People started clapping again. I leaned back against Marcus's chest and he wrapped his arms around me. I wished the band could keep playing all night. I didn't want to be anywhere except where I was right now.
Johnny walked back to Mike and leaned an elbow on his friend's shoulder. Mike's hands were resting on his glossy black StingRay bass. He was about average height, with a stocky build and strong arms. He had a great mischievous grin, which he was giving to Johnny now.
"Mike and I met on the playground when we were what? Six years old?" Johnny asked.
"Seven," Mike said.
"Another kid, who I won't name"-Johnny coughed-
"Thorsten." Everyone laughed. "Had just knocked out one of my front teeth with a swing. Mike looked all around and found the tooth in the grass. He gave it to me so the tooth fairy would come."
"Professional courtesy," Mike said, deadpan.
"We kinda lost touch for a while and then Mike came to audition for the band. And we've been friends ever since."
Mike looked up at Johnny. "You know, a good friend is like a good joc-" He stopped and held up one hand, a not-exactly-sincere expression of contriteness on his face. "Sorry. This is a family venue. I'll start again. A good friend is like a good athletic supporter."
Johnny shook his head. "Really?" he said.
I wasn't sure if he knew the punch line to Mike's story but I knew there'd be one.
Mike nodded. "Absolutely. Not really very flashy." He raised an eyebrow. "No sequins. And sometimes makes you just a little uncomfortable." He held up a hand again. "But when life kicks you in the"-the drummer rolled a flourish on the cymbals-"you know you're always covered!"
Mike pointed a finger at Johnny. "Love you, man."
"Friends to the end," Johnny said.
The two men fist-bumped and then Johnny moved toward the drummer. He ran a hand through his hair. "Paul and I met in detention," he began.
"We were set up," Paul called out.
Paul Whitewater was wiry with lean, strong arms in his black T-Shirt and his bleached hair was cut very short.
"Now there are differing opinions on whether or not we deserved to be in detention," Johnny continued.
"That time," Mike added, deadpan.
Johnny narrowed his eyes at the bass player. "That time," he repeated. He turned his attention back to Paul. "My brief stint as a juvenile delinquent not withstanding, I couldn't have found a better drummer or a better friend."
"Back at you, brother," Paul said.
Ritchie Gonzalez was the band's keyboard player. He was stocky and solid with dark eyes, dark hair and olive skin. He wore a black leather cuff on his right wrist and a silver skull bracelet on his left. The bottom of a tattoo peeked out from the edge of his T-Shirt sleeve. "Hey, Johnny," he said with a smile.
Johnny smiled back at him. "Ritchie and I met in church."
"And the building wasn't struck by lightning," Mike interjected.
Johnny shot him a look but it was clear from his body language and the hint of a smile pulling at his face and eyes that he wasn't really mad. "You're going to get struck by something if you're not careful," he said.
Mike folded his arms over his instrument again and dropped his head but he couldn't completely rein in his grin, so once again his contrite act didn't quite work.
Johnny gave his head a little shake. "As I was saying, Ritchie and I met in church. It was during the music festival and there were about three classes' worth of kids down in the basement of St. Bartholomew's waiting for our turn to perform. Ritchie was fiddling around on this old organ he'd found down there."
"It was a Yamaha A55 Electone," Ritchie said. "Someone had probably donated it to the church."
"I'm sure they had no idea what they were starting." Johnny gestured at Ritchie. "So I'm standing there, looking oh so cool in my white shirt and bow tie." There was a ripple of laughter. "Thank you, Mom, for making me wear it to every music festival I was ever in. And Ritchie-who I'd like to point out was not wearing a bow tie-started playing 'Light My Fire.' And I started singing."
Ritchie frowned. "Did you tell them we were in a church?"
Even from several rows back, I could see the gleam in Johnny's dark eyes. "And it was very shortly after our time at St. Bartholomew's that we met Paul. But you know that part of the story." His words got yet another big laugh. Next to me Eddie gave a two-fingered wolf whistle. Roma leaned against his side, her head on his shoulder and her arm draped across his back.
There was only one band member left. "Harry Taylor," Johnny said. Harry smiled at him. Johnny looked out over the crowd. "Do you want to know how long I've known this guy?" he asked.
"Yes," I called out. So did a lot of other people.
"When I met him, he had hair," Johnny said. "Lots of it."
Harry smoothed a hand over his almost bald head.
"The first time I heard this guy play, it was on a guitar he got from the S&H Green Stamps catalogue. And even then it was magic." Johnny clapped a hand on Harry's shoulder and they exchanged a look. They had the kind of easy connection that comes with old friends. "We've been friends longer than I sometimes want to admit to and I don't know a better person."
Johnny held out a hand, gesturing at the band. "These guys are more than just my friends: They're my brothers." He raised his arm in the air and Mike began to run a bass line. Harry joined in on guitar followed by Ritchie and Paul and they moved into a song that I'd never heard before with Johnny covering every inch of the stage as he sang.
When you can't find the way,
And you can't see the road,
When your heart is too heavy
To carry the load,
When you can't find your voice,
When the darkness won't go,
When you're looking for somewhere to lay your weary head down
I'll be your home.
At the end of the song the other four members of the band joined Johnny at the edge of the stage to take a bow, arms around one another's shoulders. The crowd stayed on their feet, cheering and clapping, even after the men had all left the stage. I could see that they weren't going to let the band get away without another song.
The lights dimmed a little and Ritchie walked out from somewhere backstage. "Thank you," he said, waving at everyone as he slid behind his keyboard. He started to play a melody that I knew, but in the moment couldn't place.
Mike came out of the wings from the left side of the stage. He picked up his bass and put the strap over his head. "We love you!" he shouted to the crowd as he started to play.