Freelance writer Jaine Austen has a new job, a tropical vacation on the horizon, and her cat Prozac is slated to star in a major commercial. But when the claws come out behind the scenes, murder is the only thing to meow about . . .
When Jaine’s cat Prozac is tapped to star in a Skinny Kitty commercial, Jaine never would have guessed the world of cat food could be so, well, catty. Nervous about the finicky furball’s diva nature, Jaine is pleasantly surprised—if not in stunned disbelief—at the sight of Prozac eating and napping on cue like a seasoned pro. But just as Jaine begins dreaming of fame and fortune, Skinny Kitty’s inventor drops dead on the set. Everyone is a suspect—including Jaine. And she’ll have to get her paws on the truth before the killer takes a swipe at another victim . . .
“Levine’s charming heroine is right on target.” —Kirkus Reviews
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Murder Has Nine Lives
A Jaine Austen Mystery
By LAURA LEVINE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Laura Levine
All rights reserved.
I sat in the doctor's waiting room, my cat Prozac in my lap, praying the poor thing wouldn't suffer, that the procedure would be over quickly, with no need for extra painkillers. I had to remind myself that she'd had a good life and that if the worst happened, she wouldn't even know what hit her.
Wait a minute. Is somebody out there wiping away a tear? Did you actually think Prozac was about to bite the dust?
Heavens, no. It wasn't Prozac I was worried about. (That cat makes Vin Diesel look like Tinker Bell.) It was our darling veterinarian, Dr. Madeline Graham. Last year she wound up getting seven stitches after simply trying to clean Prozac's teeth.
Now I sat in Dr. Madeline's waiting room, Prozac baring her soon-to-be-cleaned teeth at me from her perch in my lap, and prayed that no blood would be shed in the course of her annual checkup.
Dr. Madeline practiced out of a converted bungalow near the beach in Santa Monica, her waiting room a former parlor with lace curtains on the windows and a fireplace filled with a carton of well-worn pet toys.
Behind a faux antique desk sat Trudi, Dr. Madeline's receptionist, a no-nonsense woman with a steel-gray ponytail and a faint scar on her arm — the latter, compliments of Prozac.
Between answering phone calls, Trudi chatted with the waiting clients — a middle-aged man with a hulking rottweiler, and a young gal with a gorgeous white kitty.
The rottweiler, who just a few minutes ago had come sniffing over to make friends with Prozac, now sat cowering at his owner's feet, still shaken by the wrath of Prozac's fiery hiss.
I smiled apologetically at his owner, but the guy just glowered at me.
"It's never the animal's fault," I heard Trudi say to him in a booming stage whisper. "It's always the owner."
I certainly wasn't winning any popularity contests in this waiting room, was I?
"You're going to be a good girl, aren't you?" I cooed in Prozac's ear. "All we're going to do is check your heart, look in your ears, and give your teeth a teeny little scraping, okay?"
She gazed at me through slitted green eyes.
Go ahead. Make my day.
I could practically see the EMTs wheeling Dr. Madeline off in a gurney.
Ignoring the angry thump of Prozac's tail on my thigh, I forced myself to think about all the good things in my life. Like the two-for-one special on Double Stuf Oreos at my local supermarket. And the Starbucks gift card I'd discovered in a pile of unpaid bills. And, most important, my upcoming vacation in Hawaii.
Yes, in less than a month, I, Jaine Austen, a gal who usually watches her ocean sunsets on Beachfront Bargain Hunt, was about to take off for ten glorious days in Maui. True, I'd be spending those ten glorious days with my parents, not anyone's idea of a romantic getaway. But still, ten days in the sun, with nothing to do but sit back, sipping mai tais, and have my parents fuss over me, sounded quite heavenly.
Who needs romance, I always say, when you've got parents with an unending supply of love and fudge?
I was thinking about how I really needed to get myself a cute pair of strappy sandals for the trip when the door to the waiting room whooshed open and in breezed a hefty gal swathed in layers of crinkly gauze, a mass of bangle bracelets jangling on her arms. Her hair was swept up in a sloppy bun, anchored in place by two bright red enamel chopsticks.
She swept over to Trudi in a cloud of patchouli.
"Trudi, love," she said, bending down to give her an air kiss. "Where's that darling kitty you told me about?"
Trudi pointed to the other cat in the room, the snow-white beauty sitting demurely on her owner's lap.
"Oh, she's precious," Ms. Chopsticks crooned. "But not exactly what I was looking for."
And then she caught sight of Prozac.
"My God!" she cried, her eyes lighting up. "That one's perfect!"
And like a shot, she was jangling across the waiting room.
"What a darling kitty!" Ms. Chopsticks said, plopping down in the chair next to me. "What's her name?"
"Prozac? Just what the doctor ordered! At least mine did. Three times a day," she confided with a jolly wink. "Mind if I pet her?"
"I wouldn't if I were you. She scratches."
"And I've got the scars to prove it," Trudi said, eyeing her arm ruefully.
"Oh, the precious angel would never scratch me!"
And before I could stop her, she was swooping Prozac up in her arms.
Visions of lawsuits danced in my head, but much to my relief, Prozac had suddenly switched to Adorable Mode, all big eyes and loving purrs.
I was soon to discover the reason why.
"Would Prozac like a yum-yum?" Ms. Chopsticks asked, taking a Baggie full of cat treats from her purse.
Was she kidding? When it comes to treats, Prozac's a gal who can't say no. (She takes after me that way.)
Soon Prozac was inhaling kitty treats at the speed of light, making disgusting snorting noises as she sucked up her chow.
"She has quite an appetite, doesn't she?" My companion stared down at Prozac in awe.
"If it's not nailed down, she generally eats it."
"That's wonderful!" Ms. Chopsticks said. "She's going to be perfect for the Skinny Kitty commercial."
"It's a new diet cat food. She's eating it now. They're shooting a commercial for it next week, and we've been looking all over for a cat to star in it."
In her lap, Prozac inhaled the last of the cat food and belched in content.
"I'm Deedee Walker," Ms. Chopsticks said, handing me a business card. "Agent to the Animal Stars. I know star quality when I see it, and I see it in your darling kitty."
We both looked down to where Prozac was now sniffing her privates.
"We're holding auditions tomorrow at ten a.m. The address is on my business card. Please bring Prozac. I'm sure she'll be wonderful."
Really? The cat who, for as long as we've been together, has refused to sit still for a single Christmas photo?
But before I could voice any objections, Deedee had plopped Prozac back in my lap and was sailing out the door, bangles jangling in her wake.
I sat there, stunned. Was it possible my fractious furball had what it took to be a star?
I gazed down at her now and watched as she plucked an ancient Cheerio from the depths of her tail.
She lobbed me a look of sheer pride.
I think there's a gummy bear in there, too!
So much for stardom.CHAPTER 2
I'm happy to report that no blood was shed in the course of Prozac's exam. Perhaps Prozac was feeling mellow after her recent snack. Or perhaps it was the Kevlar vest Dr. Madeline had chosen to wear for the occasion.
Back home, Prozac resumed her usual perch on my living room sofa, licking herself free of the evil smells of Dr. Madeline's office.
I checked my phone and saw I had a message from Phil Angelides, proud owner and prop. of Toiletmasters Plumbers, serving the greater Los Angeles area since 1988. And one of my biggest clients. I've been writing ads for Phil ever since I first came up with the slogan In a Rush to Flush? Call Toiletmasters! (Winner of the Los Angeles Plumbers' Association Golden Plunger Award, in case you're interested.)
I pushed the PLAY button and heard Phil saying words that always bring joy to me and my checking account:
"Give me a call, Jaine. I've got an assignment for you."
When I called him back, he was bubbling with excitement about a breakthrough product in the world of commodes, the Touch-Me-Not toilet.
"All you have to do is wave your hand in front of an infrared light, and the toilet flushes itself!"
Phil's one of the few people on the planet who can wax euphoric over a toilet bowl.
"I need you to write a brochure for the Touch-Me-Not," he said. "Stop by the office tomorrow afternoon, so you can see it in person. It's a work of art, Jaine! A work of art!"
I assured him I'd be over the next day to see his miracle commode and hung up, delighted at the prospect of an incoming paycheck. I was just about to head to the kitchen for a celebratory Oreo (or three) when there was a knock on my door.
I opened it to find my neighbor, Lance Venable.
Lance and I share a duplex on a jacaranda-lined street in the slums of Beverly Hills, far from the mega mansions north of Sunset.
"Hey, Jaine." He breezed into my apartment in a designer suit and bow tie, his tight blond curls moussed to perfection.
Accompanying him on a leash was his adorable pooch, Mamie.
"Doesn't Mamie look fab?" Lance said. "I just picked her up on my way home from Neiman's."
For those of you not in the Venable loop, Lance spends his working hours fondling ladies' bunions in the shoe department at Neiman Marcus.
"Lucky Mamie had a luxurious Day of Beauty at the Chow Bella Pet Spa," Lance said, "where she was treated to a 'pawdicure,' a detoxifying thermal wrap, and a soothing lavender/aloe shampoo!"
Prozac looked up from her privates and shot me a baleful glare.
And all I got was a crummy teeth scraping.
Indeed, Mamie looked quite fetching, her white coat gleaming, a dainty pink bow in her hair.
Prozac gazed at her in disdain.
What a weenie.
"You really should bring Prozac in for some grooming," Lance said as my little angel began clawing a throw pillow.
"Are you kidding? I'm happy I made it out alive from her annual checkup. By the way, you'll never guess what happened at the vet's office today. Some gal who reps show biz animals stopped by and fell in love with Prozac. She wants her to star in a commercial."
Lance's eyes widened in disbelief.
"Prozac? Take direction? The cat who can't sit still for a simple Christmas photo?"
"Crazy, right? But the gal swears she can make Prozac a star."
"That's the silliest thing I ever heard," Lance scoffed. "I love Prozac dearly, but we all know she's a whacked-out little maniac."
Prozac glared up from her attack on the throw pillow.
Hey! Who're you calling "little"?
"The very idea of Prozac in a TV commercial is ludicrous," Lance went on, bursting out in a most annoying peal of laughter.
By now I was starting to get ticked off. It's one thing when I doubt my pampered princess's capabilities. But hearing Lance dis her was a whole other story. Frankly, my hackles were more than a tad raised.
"I don't know," I said. "She might do okay."
A derisive snort from Lance.
"If that cat can act, I'll eat my bow tie."
At his feet, Mamie gave a happy yap, thrilled at the prospect of either Prozac acting or Lance eating his own tie.
With dogs, it's hard to tell.
"Well, gotta run," Lance said. "Time to show off Mamie's new look to the neighbors. Everyone loves her so!"
And off he sailed, Mamie trotting in tow.
Up until that moment I hadn't really planned on showing up at the audition. But now I was steamed. I took Deedee's business card out of my purse. On the back she'd written the address where the audition was to take place.
I made up my mind to be there.
"We'll show Uncle Lance just how clever you are. Won't we, Pro?"
But my kitty prodigy was too busy chasing a dust bunny to hear me.
I woke up the next morning to the sweet sounds of Prozac yowling at the top of her lungs, clawing me for her breakfast. Through bleary eyes, I watched her ricochet around the bed in full-throttle Feed Me mode. And suddenly my dreams of showbiz stardom went poof. No way was Prozac ever going to behave herself long enough to land a part in a TV commercial. Why even bother showing up at the audition?
But then I remembered the insufferably smug look on Lance's face when he said Prozac would never make it in advertising.
And just like that, I was angry all over again. So what if Prozac didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of getting that part? We were going to the audition!
And so at exactly 9:30 a.m. Prozac and I were in my Corolla, heading over to the Mid-Wilshire office building where the audition was scheduled to take place.
Unwilling to risk one of her hissy fits, I left Prozac's cat carrier at home. True, I had to drive with my little darling scampering around the gas pedal, playing havoc with my blood pressure, but that was a small price to pay for her goodwill.
Now with Prozac nestled safely in my arms, I took the elevator up to the third-floor offices of Skinny Kitty, Inc., and headed into a waiting room filled with adorable cats and their fiercely proud owners.
I signed in at a reception desk, where a harried receptionist in dangly cat earrings told me to take a seat until my name was called.
Prozac and I plunked ourselves down next to one of the show biz kitties, a pro by the name of Mr. Jingles. I knew this was his name because it was embroidered on the sash he wore, Miss America–style, across his furry torso.
Mr. Jingles' trainer, a big-boned redhead in a MR. JINGLES FOR PRESIDENT T-shirt, was giving her charge a pep talk.
"Who's the smartest cat ever? Who's gonna beat out all the other cats and get this part? Mr. Jingles, that's who! Now, gimme five!"
She held out her palm, and I watched in awe as Mr. Jingles stood on his hind legs and brushed his owner's palm with his paw.
"Wow!" I said to the redhead. "He's amazing."
"He is, isn't he?" she beamed. "He can roll over, jump through a hoop, and play the piano."
Prozac yawned, clearly unimpressed.
Yeah, but can he cough up a hairball the size of a S'more?
And Mr. Jingles wasn't the only talent in the room. All around me, perfectly groomed cats were doing clever tricks and heeding their owners' every word.
Meanwhile, in my lap, Prozac was busy hissing at a nearby philodendron.
Once again, I felt hope ebbing away. Compared to her competition, Prozac didn't stand a chance.
I was just about to pack it in and go home when Deedee came sailing into the waiting room, bangles jangling and chopsticks poking out from her bun.
Her eyes lit up at the sight of Prozac.
"Jaine, dear! I'm so happy you made it!" she cried, sitting down next to me in a cloud of patchouli. "I just know Prozac's going to run away with this part."
"But, Deedee. All these other cats are trained professionals. Prozac's never performed before in her life."
"Yes, but I doubt any of these other cats can eat like Prozac. Never have I seen a cat suck up food with such gusto. And that's just what they're looking for."
"You really think she stands a chance?"
"Absolutely!" Deedee assured me.
"That cat over there," I said, pointing to Mr. Jingles, "can give his owner a high five."
"Really?" Deedee eyed Mr. Jingles as he struck a few chords on his toy piano.
"Not to worry, hon. I'll take care of him."
"What a darling kitty!" she exclaimed, jumping up and making a beeline for the piano-playing prodigy. "Mind if I pet him?"
"Not at all," Mr. Jingles' trainer replied. "He loves attention."
Deedee crouched down, her back to the redheaded trainer, blocking her view of Mr. Jingles. Then, in a move so fast I almost missed it, I saw her slipping Mr. Jingles a kitty treat. Which he gobbled up eagerly.
Her job done, Deedee got back on her feet.
"Such an angel!" she cooed to the redhead. "Best of luck to you, hon!"
Then she trotted back to me, a sly grin on her face.
"What on earth did you give him?" I whispered
"The teensiest dose of kitty Valium," she whispered back. "He'll be out like a light in minutes."
Indeed, as I looked over at Mr. Jingles, he was curling up into a ball, his eyes narrowed into sleepy slits.
"Mr. Jingles!" the redhead chided. "What's got into you? This is no time to be napping. We need to rehearse your piano routine!"
Next to me, Deedee was smiling smugly.
"See? I told you I'd take care of him."
"But, Deedee —"
"No need to thank me, hon. That's what agents are for!"
I was still reeling over Deedee's duplicity when a door at the far end of the waiting room opened and a pale woman in jeans and a T-shirt consulted a clipboard and called my name.
Gathering Prozac, I hurried to her side.
"Knock 'em dead, hon!" Deedee shouted out after me.
I just prayed she wouldn't be doing the same out in the waiting room.
"Hi," said the clipboard gal as she led me down a short hallway. "I'm Linda Oliver. I'll be producing the commercial."
Wow. She sure had me fooled. With no makeup, unflattering harlequin glasses, and her hair scraped back in a headband, she looked like a secretary on a really tight budget, not an advertising bigwig.
Now she opened the door to a conference room and ushered me inside. A large mahogany table dominated the room, a handful of people sitting at the far side.
"I'd like you to meet my husband, Dean," Linda said, "the inventor of Skinny Kitty."
A handsome guy with jet-black hair and what looked like a freshly sprayed tan, Dean sat at the head of the table, rifling through kitty head shots. He looked up and nodded at me curtly, and I couldn't help wondering what a slick dude like him was doing with a mouse like Linda.
Excerpted from Murder Has Nine Lives by LAURA LEVINE. Copyright © 2016 Laura Levine. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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