Curl up with the latest from the national bestselling author of Borrowed Crime...
Springtime in Chilson, Michigan, means it's librarian Minnie Hamilton's favorite time of year: maple syrup season! But her excitement fades when her favorite syrup provider, Henry Gill, dies in a sugaring accident. It’s tough news to swallow...even if the old man wasn’t as sweet as his product.
On the bookmobile rounds with her trusty rescue cat Eddie, Minnie meets Adam, the old man's friend, who was with him when he died. Adam is convinced Henry’s death wasn’t an accident, and fears that his own life is in danger. With the police overworked, it's up to Minnie and Eddie to tap all their resources for clues—before Adam ends up in a sticky situation...
About the Author
Laurie Cass, the national bestselling author of Lending a Paw, Tailing a Tabby, and Borrowed Crime, lives on a lake in northern Michigan with her husband and two cats.
Read an Excerpt
Also by Laurie Cass
Excerpt from Cat with a Clue
Throughout the long winter, I’d often dreamed about the month of April. It would be warm, I’d thought. Sunny. There would be baby lambs and fluffy white clouds and daffodils and we’d be able to walk outside without boots and hats and thick coats and mittens.
In the northern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, however, the reality of April was a little different.
I switched on the bookmobile’s windshield wipers. They groaned as they tried to move against the slush spattering the glass, but inch by inch they gained speed and finally arced across, shoving the white stuff away.
“Remember the April eight years ago?” Julia Beaton asked. There was an element of wistfulness in her expressive voice.
“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “This is only my fourth spring in Chilson.” I’d spent many a youthful summer with my aunt Frances, but I hadn’t lived in Chilson until I’d had the great good fortune to be offered the job of assistant director at the Chilson District Library. The decision had taken less than a second to make.
A job in my favorite place in the world? In a region teeming with lakes of all sizes, in a land of forested hills, in a small town filled with outstanding restaurants and eccentrically original retail stores, and in a library building lovingly converted from an old school? Sure, there was winter to deal with, a season that could last a solid five months, but I loved to ski, so where was the downside?
“It was the best April in the history of Aprils.” Julia sighed. “The April to beat all Aprils.”
“No snow?” I nodded at falling flakes.
“None whatsoever,” she said dreamily, rearranging her long strawberry blond hair into a loose bun. “Blue skies, warm air. It was a page from Anne of Green Gables.”
Right then and there I decided there was nothing better than a coworker who knew the same children’s books that you did. Julia was the perfect bookmobile clerk and I would be forever grateful to my aunt for finding her for me.
Back in December, the library had received a large donation to fund the bookmobile operations. The gift had almost made me weep with gratitude. Chilson’s bookmobile was my pet project, which meant it was my responsibility to find the money to run the program. Once the check cleared, I’d immediately started the hunt for a part-time bookmobile clerk, and the sixtyish Julia had been my happy hire.
Born and raised in Chilson, she’d moved to New York City right out of high school to find fame and fortune as a fashion model. That particular career path hadn’t worked out, but her fallback career as an actor had worked out just fine. She’d found a satisfying amount of Broadway fame, saved her money, and waved good-bye to the bright lights as soon as the offers of leading roles slowed to a trickle. These days she taught an acting class at the local college, turned down every community theater role offered to her, and was always looking for ways to expend her considerable energy.
My aunt Frances, who taught woodworking classes at the same college, had made a paper airplane of the clerk’s job description and sailed it into her classroom. Julia, one eyebrow raised, had unfolded the paper and scanned the text. When she started to nod, Aunt Frances had smiled and walked away, dusting off her hands at a job well done.
Now I grinned, not taking my attention off the road. “If you don’t like winter, maybe you should consider moving to Hawaii.”
“Winter I like just fine,” she said. “It’s April that’s the trouble. No matter what temperature it is, you always want a little bit more.” She sighed, then looked at the large plastic carrier snugged up next to her feet. “What does Eddie think about April?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Julia leaned forward, looking into the cat carrier through the wire door. “Good morning, young sir. How do you feel about the current weather conditions of cold, slushy, and wind tossed?”
“Mrr,” said my black-and-white tabby cat.
Eddie and I had been together for almost a year. It had been an unseasonably warm day last April that lured me from inside chores to a long walk outside that ended at the local cemetery. Which sounds odd, but this particular cemetery had an outstanding view of Janay Lake and beyond to the bulk of the massive Lake Michigan.
While relaxing in the sun on a bench next to the gravestone of one Alonzo Tillotson (born 1847, died 1926), I was startled by the appearance of a large black-and-gray cat. He’d followed me home, where I’d cleaned him up as best I could, turning him black-and-white. I had responsibly run an ad in the newspaper and had been relieved when no one claimed him. Because of my father’s allergies, I’d grown up without pets. Eddie, who my vet estimated was now roughly three years old, was my first pet, and I wasn’t sure how I’d ever lived without my opinionated pal.
There’d been a little issue when my new boyfriend turned out to be allergic to cats, but after trying a series of various medications, he’d found one that worked just fine. Then again, since we were now in the midst of a long-distance relationship, he had probably let the prescription lapse. I made a mental note to send a text to remind him.
“Eddie,” Julia told my furry friend, “you must learn how to enunciate more clearly. Theatergoers in the top rows will never grasp your nuances unless you work on the consonants.”
Julia sighed and settled back. “He does not take advice well, does he?”
The interviewing process for the bookmobile job had included a tour of the bookmobile and an introduction to Eddie, because Eddie had been part of the bookmobile from the beginning. He’d stowed away on the maiden voyage and quickly become an integral part of the services we offered. Books, magazines, DVDs, video games, and Eddie hair, not necessarily in that order.
For months I’d felt the need to hide the feline presence on the bookmobile from my follow-the-policy-or-else boss, Stephen Rangel, but it turned out that Stephen had known about Eddie’s adventures from the beginning.
I really should have known better.
And I really should have known to stop interviewing after I’d talked to Julia. She was the best candidate for many reasons—and had the bonus of being eight inches taller than five-foot-nothing me, making the job of reshelving the top rows of books easy to delegate—but the buttercream frosting was how she’d immediately started talking to Eddie in the same way I did, which was as if he understood what we were saying.
We agreed that this was ridiculous, of course, but there were times when his comprehension of human speech seemed to go far beyond his name and the word “no.” Not that he paid any attention to either, but the twitching of his ears proved that he heard us.
“Cats aren’t big on taking advice,” I said. “They’d much rather give it.”
I flicked on the turn signal and started braking. It was time for our first stop of the morning, in the parking lot of what had originally been a gas station and was now a . . . well, I wasn’t sure exactly what it was. A store, sure, but a store that defied description. The owner stocked everything from apples to taxidermy supplies. On the surface, it fit the definition of an old-fashioned general store, but there was also a corner with tables, copies of the Wall Street Journal, and free Wi-Fi.
“General stores don’t stock the Wall Street Journal,” I muttered, bringing the bookmobile to a stop.
Julia laughed. “Wake up and smell the twenty-first century, Minnie Hamilton.”
I pretended to sniff the air, then frowned, shaking my head. “I like my stereotypes and I’m going to keep them.”
“Mrr,” Eddie said.
“You two are quite the pair.” Julia unbuckled her seat belt and reached forward to open the wire door. “There you go, Mr. Edward. You are free to move about the bookmobile.”
“You’re very welcome,” she replied.
Julia and I fired up the two computers, emptied the milk crates we used to haul books from the library to the bookmobile, un-bungeed the chair at the rear desk, and unlocked the doors. Eddie watched our activity from his current favorite perch, the driver’s seat headrest, and made the occasional critical comment.
“What do you think he’s saying?” Julia, who was straightening the large-print books, cast a glance Eddie-ward.
I didn’t need to look to know. “That he wants a cat treat.”
“Maybe,” she said in the tone indicating she was about to get creative, “he’s saying that every day is a gift. That today, especially, is a gift and we should—”
The back door opened, and a few sturdy-sounding footsteps later a man came into view. Henry Gill could have been a young-looking eighty or an old-looking sixty, but with his bald head, fit frame, and almost complete crankiness, he was one of those people you just didn’t think of in terms of age.
“Good morning, Henry,” I said.
The look he gave as his return greeting made me wonder if my hair, which was black, shoulder-length, and far too curly, had gone up in flames without my noticing.
Eddie gave Henry a long visual examination, then jumped off the headrest and trotted down the aisle. He bonked Henry’s shin with the top of his hard, furry head, then started twining around his ankles in the feline-standard figure eight.
Henry reached down and gave Eddie a few pets. Then, when he realized I was watching, he stood up. “Doesn’t do to make cats too happy,” he muttered. “Next thing you know you’ll be feeding them bits of prime rib by hand.”
I grinned. Henry was undoubtedly a curmudgeon, but he liked cats, and Eddie appeared to like him back, so it was easy for me to overlook his cranky attitude and see down to the man underneath, a man I liked quite a bit.
“You have an excellent point,” I said. “If you’re in the market for biographies again today, there’s a new Theodore Roosevelt you might like.”
Henry grunted, but didn’t nod, so I wasn’t sure whether he’d said, “Why, yes, Minnie, that sounds wonderful. Thank you for being such an outstanding librarian” or “Whatever.” I gave a mental shrug and left Henry alone, or as alone as you can leave someone in a bookmobile.
Other people came on board, and the time passed quickly. Julia and I were kept busy with helping people find books and checking them out, and at the end of the forty-five-minute stop, Henry was the last patron to leave.
I checked his books into the computer and slid them back across the counter to him. “Would you like a plastic bag?”
He picked up the books without answering, then put them back down again. “Here,” he said shortly and, reaching into his coat pockets with both hands, he drew out two brown paper bags and handed them to me. “For you and her,” he said, tipping his head toward Julia, then picked up his books and tromped down the steps and outside.
“What are those?” Julia asked.
“Everyone says Henry Gill has turned a little strange since his wife died,” Julia said, not opening her bag. “Rock, paper, scissors to who opens theirs first?”
Patrons bearing questionable gifts were something no one had warned me about in college. Before I could scare myself into imagining what could lurk inside, I opened the bag, reached in, and drew out a Mason jar filled with a golden liquid.
“Oh, my.” Julia’s voice carried reverence and awe. “It’s maple syrup. I take back every unkind thought I ever had about that man.”
I held the jar up to the light, admiring the liquid gold, and, once again, came up against the reality that we never really know what goes on inside people’s heads. Henry as a maple syrup Santa? “Who would have guessed?” I murmured.
“What’s that?” Julia asked.
“Henry,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like him.”
She nodded. “He could have made a fortune as a character actor. Never would have gone a day without work.”
“You’re probably right,” I said, laughing, although I couldn’t imagine Henry living anywhere but northern Michigan.
“Oh, I am. He has that sparkle.” She used her fingers to make imaginary fireworks. “It’s hidden, but he has a hard kernel of personality that is bedrock and unchanging. A good director would draw that out of him in two rehearsals.”
“So you’ve thought about this.”
“I cast everyone I meet,” she said. “Occupational hazard.”
“Even him?” I nodded in Eddie’s direction. At that particular moment he was curling himself up onto the computer keyboard, and I made a mental note to vacuum it at the earliest opportunity.
“Eddie is the levity that every drama needs,” she said. “The humor that allows the tragedy to be felt deeper. The dose of reality in every fantasy.”
I walked away before she could cover every type of play in existence. Eddie as everyman? Please.
My cat lifted his head an inch, met my gaze, and winked.
• • •
The next morning, I settled into my office chair, a steaming mug of coffee in hand. I absolutely had to talk to Stephen, and to do that, I needed to be fortified by copious amounts of caffeine.
Stephen, in many ways, was an excellent boss. He laid out concrete goals, he made his expectations known, and he didn’t micromanage. However, his goals were usually impossible to meet, the expectations nearly so, and his support skills were of the “Don’t bother me unless the sky is falling” variety.
The current situation was typical. Back in December, one week after Stephen had told me that he was grooming me to take over his job when he retired, he’d summoned me to the second floor. Stephen’s was the only office up there; the rest of the floor held conference rooms, a computer training lab, storage, and the Friends of the Library book sale room. Stephen’s corner office had a stupendous view of Janay Lake, and it stayed warm even in the buffeting winds of winter, thanks to thick curtains and a radiant heater, but I found it a lonely place.
“Ah, Minnie,” he’d said as I’d walked in that December. “It’s time to start thinking about a book fair.”
I’d blinked at him. “A book fair?”
“Yes.” He’d frowned. “Surely you know what a book fair is.”
Of course I did. I’d just never heard of one being held in Chilson.
“Book fairs,” Stephen had gone on, “are events held to promote the sale of books. Publishers, booksellers, and authors all come together. There can be author readings, contests, prizes, giveaways, story hours, any number of things to promote books and reading.”
It wasn’t a bad idea. Every time I turned around, it seemed, I heard about another new small regional publisher. If the pace kept up, soon there’d be as many small publishers in the area as brewpubs. Plus, the region was blessed with a large number of outstanding bookstores, and there were authors everywhere, especially in summer, when the seasonal folks returned.
“Early May,” Stephen had said, nodding. “That’s when we’ll hold it.”
Two of those words had jumped out at me like an alien in a 3-D movie: “May,” and “we.” Both held dire implications.
“Early May?” I’d asked. “There’s no one around that time of year. A summer book fair would have ten times the number of people attending.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Minerva,” Stephen had said. “And you illustrate the point of a spring fair perfectly. Yes, more people would, perhaps, attend a fair in the summer months. But I want, and the library board wants, to hold an event that will bring locals to the library, people who wouldn’t otherwise walk in.”
It had sounded reasonable, but I didn’t quite buy it. “Why would anyone walk in to buy a book on one particular day when they can walk in any old day to borrow a book for free?”
Stephen had checked the knot in his tie. “Because Ross Weaver will be here.” He’d glanced at my face and chuckled. “Ross is a high school friend of mine. We’ve kept in touch over the years and when I told him I was considering a book fair, he said he’d be happy to make a public appearance.”
At that point I’d realized my mouth had been hanging open. I shut it and wondered at the world. Ross Weaver was the author of twenty bestselling thrillers. He was good-looking enough to be cast as his own main character and by all reports was a genuinely nice guy. The notion that Ross Weaver was friends with my boss, who would always be cast as the nerdy guy who never gets the girl, was going to take some mental adjustment on my part.
“That’s . . . great,” I’d finally said.
“Yes.” Stephen had handed me a piece of paper. “Here’s an outline of what needs to be done.”
The full import of the conversation had finally hit the inside of my brain. “You want to hold the book fair here at the library,” I’d said slowly. “Five months from now. And you want me to plan the entire thing.”
Stephen had sighed. “You must break that habit of exaggeration, Minerva. I’ve given you the date, the location, and an author who will draw hundreds, if not thousands, of people to the event. The rest should almost take care of itself.”
Spoken like a man. I looked at the list he’d given me. He’d included the names of a handful of publishers and booksellers.
“That will give you a start,” he’d said, reaching for his computer keyboard. “If you ever want to sit in this chair, Minnie, you must delegate. You can’t do everything yourself. It’s past time for you to learn how to manage a project properly.”
I’d put on a smile and walked downstairs. When I reached my cozy office, the paper was a crumpled ball in my fist. I’d taken a deep breath, then another one, and pushed my thoughts back where they belonged. Back to books and libraries and bookmobiles and away from the idea of using Stephen’s tie to . . .
“Never mind,” I’d said out loud, tossing the small paper ball into the wastebasket. I’d thumped myself into my chair, pulled out a yellow legal pad of paper, and started my own list.
Now it was April. The book fair was edging ever closer, and it was time to update my boss on the progress. I looked over my notes, picked up the three-inch ring binder that contained said notes, slugged down the last of my coffee, and headed up to Stephen’s aerie.
“Ah, Minnie.” Stephen was taking off his coat. It was three minutes past nine and I’d caught him dead to rights at being late. It was an excellent way to start our meeting. “How are you this morning?” he asked as he sat behind his large desk.
I smiled politely. “Fine, thanks. Do you have a few minutes? I’d like to update you on the book fair plans.”
“Yes, that’s coming up soon, isn’t it?”
“Five weeks, two days, and one hour,” I said promptly.
Stephen laughed, but it was laughter that had a crinkly edge. “Are you sure you want to spend your time calculating that figure?”
I’d made it up, but there wasn’t much point in telling him so. Stephen and my sense of humor weren’t compatible. I placed a pile of stapled papers on the corner of his desk. “These are for the next board meeting. It’s an update on the book fair.”
Stephen eyed the stack. “Does it include financials?”
Of course it did. And none of the contents would be a surprise to Stephen. Early on in the event’s planning, I’d handed him an estimate of the cost. His eyes had gone wide, and for a short happy moment, I’d thought he might cancel the whole kit and caboodle. But even as he’d been frowning at the bottom line, his face took on a glazed look and I knew he was running calculations in his head. He’d rearranged a few line items in the budget, told me to cut the event costs by ten percent, and waved me away.
After a few minutes of fuming, I’d come to the obvious conclusion that it was my job to make the fair a successful event that didn’t drain the library’s resources. So I’d obtained multiple estimates for every large purchase. I’d driven down to Traverse City to pick up items and combined the trip with personal chores so I didn’t charge the library mileage. I’d asked for business donations. I’d asked for sponsors. I’d begged for free advertising.
And somewhere along the line, I’d become a passionate believer in the whole thing. Why not hold a book fair in May? Why not bring new folks to the library? It was an outstanding idea and I was grateful to have the chance to show off our beautiful building to new people.
Now, standing in front of my boss, I was practically bouncing on my toes with energy and enthusiasm. “Here’s what’s left to do,” I said to Stephen, and launched into a lengthy narrative that started with confirming the number of vendor tables we needed to rent.
Stephen’s eyes glazed over halfway through my recital, but my zeal carried me to the end. He blinked when I finished, then stirred and asked, “Have you considered a location for overflow parking?”
Of course I had. I’d figured that out weeks ago. “If the back parking area fills up”—which it never did, but whatever—“I have permission from the Methodist church to use their lot.”
My boss nodded, his attention drifting to the magazine on his desk. “And you have a plan if the weather is rainy? Or cold?”
“The tents have side panels,” I said. “With them pulled shut, everything inside will stay dry and with people inside, it’ll stay relatively warm.”
“Sounds as if you have everything in hand.” Stephen put on his reading glasses and picked up his magazine. “Thank you for the update.”
Clearly I was dismissed. Since I hadn’t been invited to sit down, I didn’t have to stand up; all I had to do was walk out of the room. So I did. When I got downstairs, I dropped the binder on my desk and picked up my favorite mug, which was emblazoned with the perky logo of the Association of Bookmobiles and Outreach Services, and went in search of more coffee.
The break room was occupied by my best library friends, Holly Terpening and Josh Hadden. Holly was a couple of years older than my thirty-three and Josh was a couple of years younger, and we’d all been hired by Stephen about the same time, Holly as a clerk, Josh as the library’s IT guy.
Holly was married to a man who had a wonderful job over a thousand miles away. He came home to his wife and two small children whenever he could, but I dreaded the day that Holly would get tired of living without her husband and move the family out West.
“Want some?” Holly proffered a full pot of coffee. “Just so you know, I made it myself.”
“True fact,” Josh said, feeding a dollar bill into the vending machine. His caffeine intake was almost always of the carbonated variety. “Saw her take the scoop right out of Kelsey’s hands.” A can thudded out of the machine and he shoved it into one of the side pockets of his cargo pants as he pulled out another dollar.
For the thousandth time, I wondered why he didn’t bring his own soda and put it in the fridge instead of spending so much money on the vending machine, and, for the thousandth time, I didn’t ask.
“Thanks,” I said to Holly, and held up my mug. Her brown hair was held back in a ponytail and, as she poured, I saw the method of ponytailing was via a sparkly pink hair fastener.
“Anna help you get ready this morning?” I asked.
Holly’s daughter, Anna, was five. Her father sent the kids weekly trinkets, which for six-year-old Wilson tended to be baseball cards. Anna’s presents were often hair related, which was getting a little awkward because she was more interested in building houses out of her brother’s baseball cards than she was in accessorizing her hair.
“It was handy,” Holly said. “Josh, when are you going to stop wasting your money on that crap and start drinking coffee like an adult?”
Josh looked up. His dark hair was almost as curly as mine, since he hadn’t bothered getting it cut in months. He pushed it out of his eyes. “Next month, probably.”
“What?” Holly froze.
I lowered my mug and peered at my stocky coworker. “You hate coffee. You’ve always hated coffee. You’ve never even liked the smell.”
He shrugged. “If I dump in enough sugar I should be able to get some down. Enough to do the job, anyway.”
“But . . . why?” Holly asked.
Josh rubbed his thumb over his fingertips. “The coffee here is free. This stuff is a buck.” He popped the top of a can and took a long swallow.
Holly and I exchanged glances. “It’s been a dollar a can for years,” I said. “Did you get a pay cut that I don’t know about?”
“Nah.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I put in an offer on a house. If I get it, I’ll move out of my apartment next month.”
“Josh!” Holly shrieked, and ran to him, her arms outstretched. “That’s great!”
I watched Josh submit to her hug with good grace and hoped the house-purchasing mentality wasn’t contagious. “I didn’t know you were looking to buy.”
“My landlord’s been raising my rent every year and not fixing half the stuff he should be. A house will cost me more, but at least I’ll be building equity.”
I blinked. The idea of Josh as a grown-up was a little frightening. “Well, congratulations.”
“Thanks,” he said, “but I don’t have it yet. The deal could fall through.”
“Oh, fish sticks.” Holly went back to her coffee. “It’ll be fine. And I’ll tell you what. If you want, I’ll help you decorate. If I lived in a city, I’d be an interior designer. I love decorating houses.”
Josh frowned. “Decorate what? It’s not Christmas.”
“Don’t be stupid.” Holly rolled her eyes. “Minnie, tell him how much difference a little decorating can make.”
“Um . . .” My home interior skills were limited to what colors were available in the cheapest brand of paint. Maybe someday I’d own a house, but now wasn’t the time. Librarians had wonderful jobs, but the rewards were more intrinsic than monetary.
“Tell you what,” Holly said. “I’ll pick out some of my favorite decorating books and let you borrow them. Then we’ll pick some paint colors. This will be so much fun!”
Josh’s gaze darted toward me, a little bit of the deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes.
I smiled and topped off my mug. “See you two later,” I said, heading out. “Unless”—I paused in the doorway— “you’d like to help with the final arrangements for the book fair. What do you say?”
“So, Holly,” Josh said, swinging away from me. “What do you think about the rag rolling technique for painting walls?”
Holly put her back to me. “I’d recommend sponging. It’s a lot easier to do consistently.”
“Funny,” I muttered loudly, and left the room.
But actually they were funny, because they’d both been a tremendous amount of help for the fair. So had the rest of the library staff. And almost everyone had agreed to help out on The Day. The only thing left was to carry out the plans already put in place. Plus, we’d spent hours dreaming up every worst-case scenario possible and figured out what to do for each one. I was confident that everything would be fine.
So why was a classic line from that poem by Robert Burns now sliding into my thoughts?
“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley . . .”
I slugged down half of my coffee to wash away the worry and headed back to my office.
That evening, I started hauling empty boxes down from the vastness of my aunt’s attic. Eddie sat at the bottom of the lowered steps and stared upward, offering the occasional suggestion.
On the third trip down, my arms laden with dusty cubes of cardboard, I looked at him and said, “I’d take your comments more seriously if you were actually offering to help, but since all you’re doing is criticizing, I don’t see why I should listen to you.”
“How, exactly,” my aunt Frances asked, “do you think he could help? He doesn’t have any thumbs and only weighs thirteen pounds.”
My aunt was six inches taller than me, twenty-nine years older, and had lived in Chilson longer than I’d been alive. Her late husband, Everett Pixley, had been a Chilson native, but he’d died so long ago that I wasn’t sure if my few memories of him were my own or were generated by photographs. Since then, Aunt Frances had made a living taking in summer boarders and teaching woodworking classes. In all the years she’d been a widow, she’d never once taken a serious interest in another man until December, when she started spending time with Otto Bingham, her new across-the-street neighbor, and I was crossing my fingers that the romance would blossom permanently.
Aunt Frances and I looked at Eddie, who was now inspecting the wall and voicing the occasional “Mrr.” Finally I said, “If he’s not going to help, he should at least keep quiet.”
She laughed. “Are we talking about the same Eddie? Here, I’ll take those to your room.”
I handed over the boxes gratefully and went back up the creaking wooden steps for the last load because, in spite of the chilly weather, it was time for me to get packing.
My winter home was a large room in Aunt Frances’s rambling boardinghouse, a place of pine-paneled walls, claw-foot tubs, ancient board games, and a massive fieldstone fireplace. My summer home was much different: a cozy houseboat that I moored in one of Chilson’s marinas. Not one of the fancy marinas that came with spa and tennis court privileges, but one that normal people might be able to afford if they didn’t eat out much all winter.
Yes, Uncle Chip’s Marina was my summer neighborhood, and it was about what you’d expect from a name like Uncle Chip’s. The marina office and shop had been built in the fifties and not updated since, and the amenities amounted to a small strip of grass next to the docks that held a couple of picnic tables and a metal grill box for anyone who wanted to haul out some charcoal.
In spite of all that—or perhaps because of it—the marina was a friendly place where someone always hosted a Friday night party, and even though the close quarters of living in a marina could get a little much by August, I’d forget about it by Thanksgiving, and come April I’d be longing for a warm evening on my small houseboat’s front deck, reading and sipping the occasional adult beverage.
I gathered up the last of the boxes and descended from the murky attic. When I got off the last step, Aunt Frances collapsed the stairs and pushed them back up into the ceiling. If I’d tried to do the same thing, I would have needed a step stool, but I had become accustomed to my compact and efficient size years ago and it no longer bothered me to let the taller folks take care of things that those folks could do more easily.
Most of the time, anyway.
“Is Tucker coming up to help haul your things to the marina?” Aunt Frances asked.
I shook my head. “I talked to him last night. He’s working on a big project and can’t get away.”
“So, when are you moving?” my aunt asked, dusting off her hands.
“Not that you want to get rid of me,” I said, laughing.
“You can stay as long as you like—” she began.
“As long as I start paying boarder rate,” I finished. “Don’t worry. All my stuff will be out by the end of the month.” Since I moved twice a year, I’d pared my possessions down to the minimum, but it still took a while to get settled. The houseboat cleaning itself was a chore of large magnitude. Chris Ballou, the marina manager, gave me access to the warehouse where my boat was stored out of season, and for the next couple of weeks I’d be spending my spare hours in that cavernous space, dusting and washing and scouring.
“Speaking of boarders,” Aunt Frances said, taking the top boxes off my pile, “this might be the last year I take in any.”
I stopped. “What? Why?”
“Because I’m sixty-two years old,” she said dryly.
“Sure, but you’re a young sixty-two,” I protested. “And you’ve never said anything about it being too much work before.”
Although, since I was living on the houseboat, how would I know if it was too much for her? I never saw her clean and the only meal I ever stopped by to eat was the occasional Saturday breakfast. This was a meal cooked by one of the six boarders, which, in addition to often being entertaining, was also a critical part of the boarding agreement.
“There’s no better way to discover a person’s true character,” Aunt Frances always said, “than to see how he behaves in a kitchen emergency.” And, since my aunt had secretly match-made her boarders into happy couples for decades, I had to agree with her methods.
Now Aunt Frances rearranged her hold on the empty box. “I make enough money from teaching during the school year,” she said. “I don’t have to take in boarders if I don’t want to. And there are so many things I don’t have time to do in the summer. I can’t remember the last time I went to Mackinac Island, let alone Pictured Rocks.”
Oh-ho! I grinned, then wiped it from my face before my aunt could see. This was an Otto-induced change, I was certain. And while it might be the end of an era—children who were products of some of my aunt’s earliest matches were traveling north with their own children—it was always better to leave a party while it was hopping.
“Well,” I said, “I hope you’re not thinking I’m going to take on your boarders.”
My aunt snorted. “With your cooking skills? They’d make their regrets and abandon you within a week.”
“Really?” I frowned. “You think they’d last that long?”
“Only if you get two different kinds of cold cereal.”
She dropped the box on my bed, gave Eddie a fast pet, and scampered out before I could find a rubber band to shoot at her.
• • •
I stopped by the marina the next day after work to make sure Chris would have my houseboat set up for me to start cleaning that weekend.
“Hey, Mini Cooper,” he said lazily. “What’s new with you?”
Since his uncle Chip, the marina’s owner, was almost seventy, Chris was probably somewhere in his forties, but if you went by his speech patterns, you’d think he was twenty. And though the marina was always spick-and-span and shipshape, I rarely saw Chris lifting anything heavier than a twelve-ounce can of beer.
My best friend, Kristen, was sure that he hired elves to do the real work, and I was starting to think she was right. Another of my good friends, Rafe Niswander, said Chris was one of the last of a dying breed of Up North men and that we should encourage him in all ways. Of course, Rafe and Chris were also friends, so I had a good idea of what kind of encouragement he meant—the kind that came in a six-pack.
How Rafe and Chris had become friends, I really didn’t know. They had to be a decade apart in age, and in spite of Rafe’s summery, laid-back attitude, he had a top-notch work ethic and was the best middle school principal Chilson had seen in years. When Rafe wasn’t being the principal and wasn’t wasting his time lounging in the marina’s office, he was renovating a mess of a house that was next door to the marina. He was also taking his own sweet time about it. He kept saying he wanted it to be perfect and ignored me when I kept telling him that perfection was an unattainable goal.
“Hey yourself, Chris,” I said. “My aunt was making fun of my cooking skills, can you believe it?”
He grinned. “Sure can. Good thing you’re not running the boardinghouse, eh?”
“True fact. I’d run it into the ground inside of a week if I took over.”
“Frances Pixley is giving up the boardinghouse?” Chris pushed back his Detroit Tigers baseball cap and stared at me.
From such conversations, rumors are born. “This is a purely theoretical discussion,” I said. “Aunt Frances can’t understand that I’m happy living on cold cereal for breakfast all summer long.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” His feet went back up onto the counter. “Especially if it’s Frosted Flakes.”
I squinted at him. “I always figured you for a Wheaties kind of guy.”
“Too healthy.” He took a long swig from a can of soda, then said, “I got some news. You’re getting a new right-hand neighbor this year.”
“Gunnar getting a slip out on the point?”
Why the wealthy Gunnar Olson had ever rented a boat slip at Uncle Chip’s had always been a mystery to the regular marina renters. His massive boat dwarfed all the others in both size and price, and his flagrantly expensive lifestyle fit in more with the folks at the west end of Chilson.
“Other way around.” Chris creaked back in his ancient canvas director’s chair. “He’s getting a divorce, and to pay off his wife he had to sell his boat.”
“Oh.” A year ago the news would have made me smile. I would have felt bad about it later, but I would have smirked a little and thought it couldn’t happen to a nicer human being.
Late last summer, however, the famously bad-tempered man had done me a favor out of the blue. It had made me look differently at a guy who, previously, had seemed to go out of his way to make his nearest neighbor—me—miserable. After that incident, he’d returned to his annoying “I’m the only one who matters” attitude, but I got to carry the knowledge that underneath the crusty exterior he did, in fact, care about things other than keeping his boat shiny and his drinks cold.
I hoped that Gunnar and his soon-to-be ex-wife could make it through without too much anguish. “That’s too bad,” I said sincerely, earning a pair of raised eyebrows from Chris. Then a thought struck me. “Um, if Gunnar’s not coming back, what’s going to happen to my slip fee?”
My ability to afford marina space and still eat out on occasion was due to the fact that no one else wanted the slip next to Gunnar. There was no way that my budget could easily absorb the full cost of a slip rental.
I ran through some fast monetary calculations. If I bought the store-brand cold cereal, purchased Eddie’s food in bulk, stayed away from Cookie Tom’s, tossed out every single take-out menu in my possession, and slashed my book-buying budget . . . no, it still wouldn’t work. I sighed and looked up at Chris.
Who was grinning.
“Ah, don’t worry about it,” he said. “What Uncle Chip doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Relief and guilt washed through me in equal measures. “Chris, I can’t let you do that. Besides, what if your uncle Chip comes up North this summer? You know I can’t tell a lie for beans.”
Chris nodded. “You’re the worst liar ever except for the dog I had when I was a kid. That mutt would look guilty if he so much as looked at the couch.”
Being compared to a dog wasn’t exactly flattering, but I supposed it could have been worse. Somehow.
“Tell you what,” Chris said. “Let’s see what the new guy is like. He may be worse than old Gunnar was.”
Possible, but not probable. “What if he’s nice? What if he’s friendly and holds the best Friday night parties ever and having the slip next to his would be a bonus and not a misery?”
“Huh.” Chris rubbed the stubble on his jaw. “Let me think on that.”
I looked about the office. A calendar from 1996 was tacked to the far wall. “I could help around here. Do a little cleaning. Paint.”
A horrified expression crowded Chris’s weathered face. “Don’t you dare. It’s taken me years to get the place looking this good. You git before you get any more ideas. Out of here!” He shooed me away.
“Are you going to pull my boat out for me this weekend?”
“If you promise to stick to cleaning to that little tub, yeah, absolutely. Just keep your bleach and mops away from here.”
“Promise,” I said, laughing, and we did a mutual halfway-across-the-room high five to seal the deal.
• • •
The next few days, I spent all my free time down at the marina, getting the houseboat ready for moving into. Eddie had been giving me the cold shoulder for not giving him enough attention, so on Thursday, out on the bookmobile, I wasn’t surprised to hear Julia ask in a puzzled tone, “What is your cat doing?”
I was kneeling on the floor, trying to stuff more returned books into a milk crate than the milk crate wanted to allow, so I happily gave up on the task and looked up. Eddie was lying on the bookmobile’s dashboard and managing to take up the entire length of it. His front legs were stretched out Superman-style, his face was pressed against the dash, his back legs were behind him, and his tail appeared twice as long as it did most days.
“Dusting?” I suggested.
Julia lifted one eyebrow. “Wouldn’t he be actually moving if he was dusting?”
She had a good point. I stood and studied my cat. If the day had been sunny, I might have understood Eddie’s wish to soak up the sunshine with all possible body parts, but it was—once again—cloudy, windy, and wet.
“You know,” I said, “I’ve never seen him up there like that.” Which was odd, because we’d found Eddie in every other possible location on the bookmobile, and that included the top shelves. “Maybe he just wanted to see if he fit.”
We stood side by side, watching Eddie not move. I had the sudden and scary thought that he might have had a kitty heart attack while I wasn’t paying attention, but as soon as I had the thought he opened his eyes and picked up his head a quarter of an inch.
“Mrr,” he said.
Julia sighed. “If only we understood cat.”
“Eddie-speak is likely a whole different dialect,” I said, watching Eddie’s head drop back to the dashboard. “I’m pretty sure he’s his own species.” I was about to tell her that I’d considering applying to the science folks to get the name Felis eddicus established before someone else stole it away, when the back door was flung open and someone pounded up the steps.
“Oh, Minnie,” Phyllis Chambers said, panting. “Have you heard?”
She reached out to grip my hands, her skin so cold to the touch that I almost flinched. Phyllis was another downstate transplant. She’d moved north from a state government job in Lansing last summer and, in spite of the long winter, she was loving the northern life.
“Heard what?” I asked.
“Oh, dear.” Phyllis squeezed my hands, released them, and rubbed her face. Her short hair, a thick and glorious white, was in its normal disarray. She ran her fingers through it, but everything sprang back to where it had been before she made the effort. “Oh, dear. I hate to be the one to bring you bad tidings, but it’s Henry Gill.”
Julia and I exchanged a quick glance. “What’s wrong with Henry?” I asked. “He was fine last week.”
“I’m so sorry, Minnie,” Phyllis said. “But Henry’s dead.”
• • •
That night, Aunt Frances was out with Otto at a wine tasting, so it was just Eddie and me on the couch in front of the fieldstone fireplace. I could have started a fire, and I could have popped a big bowl of popcorn, but instead I stared into space.
“Did you hear what Phyllis said about Henry?” I asked softly. Eddie had been mostly asleep the entire stop, so I wasn’t sure what he’d heard. “A tree fell on him.”
I shivered, hoping he hadn’t suffered. Henry hadn’t been the easiest person in the world to like, but part of my job was to learn about my patrons and bring them . . . well, if not happiness through books, at least something that would lighten whatever load they were carrying, because we were all carrying burdens of some kind.
What Henry’s load had been, though, I didn’t know. The only personal things I knew about him were his book choices, that he was a widower, and that none of his children lived in the state. Also that he tended to avoid conversation, most often preferring grunting and shaking his head whenever those could pass as communication.
I sighed, thinking about the exquisite maple syrup that Henry had given Julia and me the last time he was on the bookmobile. “Phyllis said he’d been out at his sugar shack.” I put my hand on Eddie’s warm back to feel his quiet reverberations. “He’d finished boiling sap and was cleaning up.”
Last year I’d ventured out to a state park to watch a maple syrup cooking demonstration. Add maple sap to a large pan over a fire, boil, add more sap, boil. Add more firewood, add more sap. Repeat until the liquid turned into maple syrup, which was when it reached just above two hundred and nineteen degrees.
I’d happened to mention my park trip to Henry, and over the next few months, he’d dribbled out a lot of maple syrup–making information. For example, I now knew the large commercial operations had complicated systems of tubes that ran from the trees to large storage vats and fancy machines that processed the sap into syrup. I knew that Henry was old-school—no surprise there—and hauled his sap from the trees in buckets. I also knew that he cooked his sap in a massive and ancient pan that he’d inherited from his father, and I knew that he sorted his firewood by age and that he considered firewood stacking to be a fine art.
“Poor Henry,” I whispered, pulling Eddie close to my chest and hugging him tight. For a change, instead of struggling to get away, my cat let me snuggle him close.
And never stopped purring.
• • •
The next day, I risked life and limb by venturing into the restaurant owned and run by my best friend. Kristen Jurek was, physically, my complete opposite. Tall, where I was efficient. Blond and straight hair to my black and curly. She also had the easy grace of the natural athlete, while I had to practice the simplest activity over and over again before I got the hang of it, and she was so used to the admiring stares of men that she didn’t even notice them. If a man stared at me, my first reaction was to wonder what food was stuck in my teeth.
I banged on the back door of the Three Seasons, using the same triple-knock pattern I’d used since we met, the summer we were twelve. We’d encountered each other on Chilson’s city beach and, over cones of mint chocolate chip ice cream, had started a friendship that had endured time, distance, and even living in the same town seven months out of the year. Kristen closed down her restaurant just before winter—hence the restaurant’s name—and spent the snowy months in Key West, tending bar on the weekends and doing as little as possible during the week.
She’d recently returned to Chilson and had immediately jumped into restaurant-readying preparations. For most people, the weeks before the summer season were a time of happy anticipation. Not for Kristen.
“Hey,” I called, shutting the door behind me. “Are you here?”
A metallic crash, following by a sailor-quality curse, was answer enough.
Smiling, I picked my way around stacks of boxes and went straight to the kitchen, where a deeply tanned Kristen, with her hands on her hips, was staring at a large pan on one of the many gas burners. “I hate that pan,” she said. “I’ve always hated it.”
“Then get rid of it,” I said, pulling a stool up to the work counter crowded with cooking and serving items, half of which I couldn’t identify.
“Can’t. Paid way too much money for the dang thing.”
I could see how that would be a problem. “Has Scruffy touched it?” I asked. “Sell it on eBay, saying that it was used by the producer of Trock’s Troubles.”
Scruffy was Kristen’s current love interest. He was indeed the producer of Trock’s Troubles, a long-running cooking television show hosted by Trock Farrand that was occasionally filmed in Chilson because Trock owned a house in town. Scruffy was also Trock’s son and the tidiest person I’d ever met. This was a man who ironed creases into his jeans. Who always carried a handkerchief. Who never had a hair out of place and always knew the right thing to say.
Kristen adjusted the burner’s heat and glared at the pan. “No, but it could be arranged. He’s flying in next week.”
“That will be nice.” I took a linen napkin off the top of a huge pile and tried to fold it into a pirate hat. “Have they scheduled you?”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When it comes to cozy series or any book series, after a couple of books, the series starts to get good or not as good as it started. But with this one the series is still pretty good. Though I haven't been reading as much, especially cozies. So it was nice to get back to this one. And near the end it got a little dark and intense. The mystery in this was interesting. Looking forward to get back to this series and other cozy mysteries.
It's often a challenge for an author to keep a series going; to keep it fresh with new plots, yet with the same characters. Laurie Cass has more than met that challenge and the fourth in the Bookmobile Cat Mystery series is even better than the previous three. Minnie, and her delightfully irascible cat Eddie, set off to determine who is responsible for the demise of a bookmobile patron and friend. Through a series of twists and turns, will they be successful, or will this one get the best of them? I eagerly await the next in this series to tell me where Eddie and Minnie end up next.
This is the first book in the series I have read, but it won't be the last. Excellent writing, characters, and humor.
Pouncing On Murder is the fourth book in the A Bookmobile Cat Mystery series. Busy times are in store for Minnie Hamilton. Spring is just around the corner and time to pack and move to her houseboat till fall. In addition, the library director, Stephen, has decided that the library should have a book fair and has put her in charge in overseeing the project. When Minnie is delivering books to Adam Deering, she learns that his neighbor, Henry Gill has been killed when a tree fell on him. Gill was a bit of a cantankerous older gentleman, but had recently given Minnie a jar of homemade maple syrup and she was anxious to learn more about the process. Deering is sure that it was no accident. When on her next visit to Deering, a car attempts to run them down and she begins to wonder just who the intended victim was meant to be, Deering or Gill. So with the help of Eddie, her cat, she is off to find out who the intended victim was and who the killer might be. Most all of the enjoyable characters are back to give Minnie support and help in her quest to find the killer. Looking forward to the next book in this delightful series.