When cats start getting sick, feline-loving freelance writer Theda Krakow suspects an accident is to blame. But her shelter-owning rocker buddy Violet claims the contaminated kibble was poisoned.
When Theda starts looking at shelter politics, she finds a litter of suspects. The city shelter may be backing down from a healthy pet initiative, and a series of threatening letters suggests a darker motive. Old-fashioned jealousy may factor in as well. The pressure mounts as Theda's editor grabs onto the idea of a hot story - and dangles a prime job as bait. But how can Theda investigate when feelings, and felines, run so high?
As the music scene rallies to raise funds to save the cats, Theda finds herself on the outs with both her friends and her long-time boyfriend Bill. And when she's caught at a murder scene, bloody scalpel in hand and only her beloved cat Musetta as a witness to what really happened, Theda must scramble to find the real killer before she and Musetta become the next victims.
About the Author
Clea Simon is the author of the Pru Marlowe, Dulcie Schwartz, and Theda Krakow mystery series, as well as three nonfiction books. A former journalist, she lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband Jon and their cat Musetta.
Read an Excerpt
Two days earlier
"Tuna breath!" I recoiled in disgust.
"Excuse me?" The voice on the phone was too refined to sound insulted. Still, I owed Patti an explanation.
"Sorry, Patti." I sat up and pulled my plump cat into my lap — and away from my face. "Musetta was giving me a morn- ing kiss."
"Oh, isn't that sweet!" It was, but my cat's bad breath woke me up more effectively than my neighbor's early morning call. "But anyway, Theda, I wanted to ask you about the whole cat food thing. I mean, Violet left me a message, and I've got some lovely chicken livers left over from my dinner date last night. I should tell you about him; he's a most interesting man. But anyway, we did a sauté with some sherry, and I just don't know. I mean, they say the alcohol burns off, but —"
"Hang on a minute." Who had been sautéed? I shook my head to clear it, sending Musetta, my black and white tuxedo cat, bounding to the floor. It was Tuesday, almost nine, but the regular work week meant little in my line of business. I'm a writer, a music critic who specializes in the club scene of this gritty little city, and I'd been out late the night before. A new British band, on its first US tour, had played the first of two gigs in the area. I'd interviewed them for the weekly column I write for Boston's Morning Mail, and although it wasn't necessarily part of the job, I had stayed up with them long after their midnight set, sharing beers and industry gossip. What's a job without perks?
"Patti, I don't mean to be rude." At this hour, with this head, that was the best I could do. "But what are you talking about?"
"Didn't you hear? I thought Violet would call you first." I looked over to my answering machine and saw that it was, in fact, blinking. "There's something wrong with some of the commercial cat food again. Violet's cats have been poisoned."
"What?" That news sent me bolt upright, and Musetta 's fluffy hindquarters cantering out of the room, but I focused my rapidly clearing mind on Patti. "Tell me what happened."
"I don't know the details, darling. I just got the call. But I was wondering if you think that livers, cooked with just a little —"
I couldn't listen any more. "Look, Patti, I'll call you back. I've got to talk to Vi."
"I understand, Theda. But if you can, ask her about —" I hung up and began dialing the shelter where Violet and her partner Caro cohabited with two dozen formerly healthy, happy felines. As the phone rang, I pressed the "play" button on the answering machine.
"Theda, it's Vi. Can you give me a call?" I half listened to the machine while waiting for my friend to pick up. "Something's up. I think I've got some bad cat food." The phone in my hand kept ringing. "Or just come by? And don't feed Musetta before —" I dropped the phone and ran into the kitchen. Musetta was already bending over her dish, lapping at last night's can. She looked up as I grabbed it away. The wet food had gone dry and crusty overnight, the half a can that was left.
"Musetta?" She sat and began washing her paws. "Are you okay?" She didn't respond and I hoisted her into my arms. God, she was getting heavy. "Kitty?" I turned her to look in her face. The round green eyes staring back into mine were clear and bright. Her nose, half pink, half black, was damp and cool. In response to my touch, her tongue darted out and I got another whiff of her breath. "Oh, kitty." She blinked. But halitosis aside, my cat seemed the picture of health. I put her down and refilled her water dish before running back to the phone. The line was dead; nobody had picked up.
Musetta pounced, grabbing my ankle, but there was no time for play. Violet was family, more than any remaining blood relatives. Pulling on sweats and galoshes, I grabbed my keys and headed for the door. It was April in New England. I wouldn't look any odder than most of my neighbors here in Cambridge, and I was making tracks to help a friend in need.
"Yo! Violet? Caro?" I'd driven over to Vi's, but by the time I tromped around the back of the sprawling green and gold Victorian known as Helmhold House, officially the Helmhold Home for Wayward Cats, the mud had managed to seep up to the ankles of my new yellow boots. Which were leaking already. "Hello?" At least it wasn't snow. But the lack of response was worrying me more than the creeping damp. "Vi?"
I hopped in the mud, trying to balance on my warmer foot while peeking through the back door. Nothing, despite my repeated knocking. If I reached up, I could just grab the top of the door frame and — yes — see into the enclosed porch. But before I could examine the living room beyond, I fell back, barely righting myself before I landed in the muddy yard.
Catching my breath, I looked around one more time. Patti lived beyond the hedge, her neat-as-a-pin split level a strange contrast to the colorful shelter. Would Violet have given her realtor neighbor a key? My punk rocker friend was as different from her prim neighbor as their properties, but I needed a way in. Unless ... yes, there was one large rock back here. If I could roll it over, I bet I could at least get a clear view into the house. I caught myself trying to dry my wet hands on my jacket before reaching for the muddy rock and shook my head. What was I thinking? Life before coffee wasn't sensible. But as I grabbed the stone and rolled it, I remembered. This was Violet's not- too-subtle hiding place. Sure enough, taped underneath the miniature boulder was her back door key.
"Hello?" I called softly as I let myself in. No sense giving anyone a fright. A marmalade short hair came running. Head butting me, he began to purr as I scooped him up and closed the door behind me. "Vi? Caro?"
I kicked off my boots and wiped my wet bare feet on the well-scratched sisal mat before proceeding into the living room. "Anybody home?"
Sprawled out on a sofa was my buddy. Her mouth was open, her purple hair matted, and her face pale, dead to the world.
"Violet!" I dropped the cat, who skedaddled with an annoyed mew.
"Wuh?" With a snort, my friend awoke and blinked. "Oh, man."
Seeing her put her head in her hands, I had to ask. "Hangover?" After years as a straight-edge no-booze, no-drugs, no-meat purist, Violet enjoyed the occasional beer and burger. Maybe, if there'd been a tragedy ...
"What? No, just no sleep. What time is it?" She squinted toward the sunny porch.
"Just after nine." Crack of dawn to folks like us, and Violet suddenly focused, taking in my odd attire in the morning light.
"And you? Oh, sorry. When I got your machine, I figured you were at Bill's, you'd get it when you got home."
"Not to worry. You didn't wake me. Patti did." I didn't want to get into why I had been at home. My long-term guy and I had been on the outs for weeks now, and I suspected that Violet secretly sided with him. "But she said something about your cats being poisoned? So then, when I heard your message and I couldn't reach you —"
"Oh, sorry." My diminutive friend stood and stretched, all five-foot-one of her. "I wanted to warn you. Didn't mean to cause a panic. Though, I'll tell you, last night things got hairy."
"Tell." The marmalade cat returned and flopped on the floor in front of me, his thick short fur warm against my bare feet. He was obviously healthy, and whatever crisis had occurred seemed to be under control. Breathing easier, I settled into the sofa and pulled the purring cat onto my lap.
"Well, I got in late. We had that gig out in Worcester." Violet's band, the Violet Haze Experience, was building a reputation all over New England. "We headlined and what with loading out, and getting everything back to the practice space, it must have been around three-thirty, close to four by the time I got in. Caro was out like a light." Violet's partner worked as a contractor, a mostly diurnal job. "I was creeping around with the lights off, when I first heard the hacking. You know, like a hairball?"
I did, indeed. Musetta's fine medium-length fur came up regularly, no matter how careful I was about brushing her.
"So, I didn't think much of it, not until I heard another cat — and then a third. Then, I figured at the very least I should clean up a bit. Why let Caro wake up in the morning to little wet piles of felt and puke?" Violet kept talking as she wandered into the kitchen. I let the cat jump down and followed her. Coffee was definitely in order.
"So I turned on the hall light, hoping it wouldn't wake her and, man, what a mess." Violet shook her head as the grinder got busy with an excellent aged Sumatra, dark roast. Bit by bit, bean by bean, she and Caro had been upgrading the shelter. "Cat vomit and diarrhea everywhere — and I mean everywhere. Half the cats hidden away under the furniture like something was attacking them, the other half lying around so listless I started to really worry. That's when it hit me that they must have eaten poison. There must have been something making them sick like that. But I didn't know what. I called Rachel's beeper and left a message with her service and started the most out-of-it cats on subcutaneous hydration drips. I figured it couldn't hurt 'em. It's just saline, right?"
I shrugged. Violet would be finishing up her undergrad degree this spring, with a heavy emphasis on "pre vet" courses.
"Anyway, they started to perk up right away. Murray — your golden boy over there? — he was totally out of it, and look at him now.
"At some point Rachel got back to me, must have been close to dawn. She said it did sound like they'd eaten something bad, so I should just wrap everything up, keep them on plain water. The good news is, she said that if they'd gotten at rat poison, or, more likely a poisoned rat, they'd have been a lot sicker. I didn't lose any of them, Theda. They're all as healthy as Murray today. But I was still up cleaning and checking sub-Q bags when Caro's alarm went off this morning. She helped with the rest of it, and I was just going to truck the food dishes over to Rachel's office when I thought I'd sit down for a minute — and here you are."
"Wow, that sounds horrible." I took two oversize mugs from the cabinet and helped myself to milk from the fridge while Vi poured. She kept the real stuff for me; soy is fine, but not in coffee. "But why do you say 'poison'? I mean, couldn't it just have been something that went bad? A kitty stomach flu or something?"
"I wish." She threw back the mug as if it were toxic. The soy milk, I was sure. "There are a lot of cranks out there, Theda." She reached for the real stuff this time, as she refilled. "You should see the letters. I'll show you later."
She knew me well enough to know that I'd ask. I'm a journalist, not a private investigator, but sometimes the two fields overlap. "Well," I savored my own coffee. "I'm glad everyone pulled through. Sounds like a horrible night." I looked back to see Murray groom, extending one leg to work on his toes, revealing the pink pads beneath the dark orange fur. "I must say, the place looks good. Smells fine, too." Only a few of us hardy cat lovers, I realized, would be able to enjoy a fine brew while sniffing for cat poo. "Simple Solution?"
"That and leaving the windows open since dawn." We took our coffee back into the living room. This time I checked the sofa before I sat down. It was clean. "But I need to get all their food and toys checked out before I have a riot on my hands. Who knows what was in the food, or where else it is. Wanna help?"
I thought of Musetta, who had been working it hard — rubbing aggressively against my shins — before I left. She hadn't understood why I'd removed her food dish and not replaced it. I thought of her sick, her green eyes dull. Her white belly heaving, her stout little form writhing on the floor. I began pulling on my boots.
"Finally! I was wondering when you'd make it in." Rachel met us in the city shelter's waiting area and, once we'd squirted some hand sanitizer into our palms, led us down the main hallway to her tiny, cluttered office. "I should have known 'first thing' meant closer to noon for you two." She softened her words with a smile, and as I followed my two friends past the big quarantine rooms I was struck by their similarities. Rachel was all business, her curly black hair tied back in a ponytail that bobbed over her white lab coat. Violet was, well, violet, from her spiked hair down to her hightop sneakers. But stylistic choices aside, they could have been sisters — both short, both intense. Kind of like cats.
"So, what have we here?" Stepping over a miniature air purifier, Rachel put the bag Violet handed her on her desk and pulled out several cans. "These all look intact." Violet and I looked at each other.
"I hope we don't have another China situation." I said it. It was on all our minds. The fact that the cans hadn't been tampered with only meant that any toxins could have been there from the beginning. After examining a few more, Rachel put the cans aside and took out an opened bag of dry food. "The sick cats all had access to this?" Violet nodded. She was being strangely silent, considering her suspicions, but maybe she didn't want to bias Rachel. The vet pulled on thin plastic gloves and looked over the bag. "Free feeding?" Violet nodded again.
"Well, then." With a frown of concentration, Rachel plucked a pair of goggles off a shelf. "Let's start here." She shook out one of the kibble nuggets and began to scrape at it, chopping at the fragments and pausing occasionally to add drops of some clear liquid. Preparing slides is tedious work, and I knew the time she was giving us was stolen from other pressing projects, but I was bored. Violet had collapsed into Rachel's desk chair so I poked about, trying to stay out of the way as we waited. Rachel's office was little more than a converted alcove, a tiny workspace between the main hall and a sterile treatment room. She'd compensated by covering all the available wall space with shelves and work notices, so there was plenty to explore.
"Cute." Even my busy buddy couldn't be all business. Tucked beneath one bookshelf hung a tiny reproduction of a vintage poster. "Hang in there, baby, Friday's coming." The kitten suspended from a tree branch looked more startled to find itself there than seriously concerned. Right underneath, I spied a stack of pads, unlined but irresistible, thanks to the shelter logo, the profiles of a cat and a dog, back to back, in an ever so slightly darker cream in the corner. "Very cute." Aren't all writers paper fiends?
"Help yourself." Rachel didn't even look up, so I took two. As a freelancer, I could no longer raid the Mail supply cabinet.
"Dr. W?" A tech stuck her head in the back door and, after a brief exchange, Rachel followed her into the treatment room. I fought back my growing impatience. Violet and I both considered Rachel "our" vet, but in truth, she had a full-time gig with the city, overseeing a staff of five and at any given time about a dozen volunteers at the shelter and its clinic. Testing kibble, as she was doing this morning, might be considered part of her job — public pet health, and all that — but the fact that our concerns had trumped at least a dozen others was due to friendship. The least I could do was wait quietly. I looked over Rachel's desk and started browsing a plan to foster kittens. The first bit addressed kittens who were too young to be adopted. The really little ones, I read, would go to people who were prepared to bottle feed them. Slightly older kittens would stay in private homes until they were mature enough for their vaccinations. I nodded. Distemper, panleukopenia, could wipe out an entire shelter's worth of kittens if they hadn't yet gotten their shots, and by all accounts the disease was a miserable way to die. I moved the page to read more.
"Cat PAT?" I hadn't realized I'd spoken aloud until Violet started in her seat. She'd been dozing.
"Pet-assisted therapy," said Rachel, closing the treatment room behind her. I heard a load thump as something was dragged into the back hall. "Sorry about that." She went back to her microscope. "We're getting some new equipment tomorrow, and Bari and Sue need to clear space." Rachel ignored the noise and adjusted the focus on her microscope. "Usually, it's former show cats. They're used to being handled. I'm quite optimistic about our program. We've got so many friendly old timers here. If I can get the volunteers, it'll give them another lease on life."
"Sounds good." When Violet woke up for real, I'd have to talk to her about this. At this point, in Rachel's chair, she was breathing deeply, almost snoring. Rachel went back to jotting notes. I picked up another folder and began to skim. The words I read — "kill," "pests," "bomb" — jerked my head back.
"Yow, what are these?" I held the folder gingerly, as if it were contagious.
Excerpted from "Probable Claws"
Copyright © 2009 Clea Simon.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I love reading murder mysteries that feature cats, and this series is one of my favorites. "Probable Claws" is the fourth in the series, the other three are "Mew is for Murder", "Cattery Row" and "Cries and Whiskers". All feature cat and rock and roll loving freelance writer Theda Krakow and her black and white tuxedo cat Musetta. In "Probable Claws", Theda finds herself the prime suspect for the murder of a shelter veterinarian, with Musetta as the only witness to what really happened. Theda is released on bail thanks to the connections of her former cop boyfriend Bill. Now she has to find the real killer before she and Musetta become the next victims. The plot is exceptionally well-crafted, the characters are multi-dimensional and likeable, and you find yourself wanting to savor the story while at the same time wanting to race to the finish to find out who did it. You might want to consider reading the entire series from start to finish. One of the things I enjoyed about all four books, almost more than the actual plot lines, was the character development. By the time you're into the second book, you feel like you're reconnecting with old friends. I sure hope that "Probable Claws" won't be the last in this series.
Once again, Clea Simon skillfully brings together the various aspects of Theda Krakow's complicated life. Not every author can intertwine cats, the rock music scene, and the problems at today's newspapers. Over the course of this series, though, Simon has managed to build sympathy for Theda, a woman who often alienates even the people who love her, as she gets so caught up in her current story or passion, whether it's cats or rock music, that she neglects her personal life. Readers who appreciate complicated characters, and intricate plots, will appreciate Simon's latest crime novel, Probable Claws.
My favorite computer moments, however awkward, are when I have a cat sitting on my desk, another cat lying across my chest and arms and a dog at my feet. There is just something comforting in being surrounded by my fur friends. It might come as a surprise then when I tell you that I haven¿t always been a fan of animal related mysteries. No, that isn¿t quite true. I had not really tried enough to form that solid of an opinion. What I had read had not impressed me much and so for quite a while, I shied away from them.And then I was introduced to Clea Simon¿s Theda Krakow series. It was impossible not to fall in love with Musetta, Theda¿s beautiful and playful tuxedo cat. What I like most about this particular series is how natural the cats are in the book. The cats are natural and realistic, which fits well with this series. They behave just like my cats. There are moments when I find myself nodding, ¿Parker does that!¿ Or light is shed on a behavior I might not have understood before.Another aspect I like about the Theda Krakow series is how character driven the books are. Theda¿s personal and professional lives are woven together in such a way that they are integral parts of the mystery; the club music scene and her involvement with the cat community, included. In Probable Claws, the line is even more blurred as Theda¿s career and relationships suddenly are put into precarious positions. What begins as a suspected poisoning of cats at her friend Violet¿s shelter soon escalates into murder, and Theda becomes the number one suspect. Could shelter politics be behind everything? Or is a simple case of jealousy or greed? Animal shelters carry a heavy burden in our society, and Clea Simon touches upon some of the difficulties they face. While her novels focus on cats, the issues also apply to other pets, such as dogs as well. In Probable Claws, the author addresses the problem of over population and euthanasia. With over population, it is difficult to maintain a no kill stance and yet many shelters are trying to go that route, limiting euthanasia only to hard to place animals. But what exactly constitutes a hard to place animal? This too is under scrutiny and a serious issue to consider.Theda is in the thick of things in Probable Claws and she comes across as strong but vulnerable. So much in her life seems to be going downhill all at once and the author captures Theda¿s internal struggle of trying to stay in control despite the odds. Many of Theda¿s friends make an appearance in Probable Claws, including her boyfriend Bill and one of my favorite characters, Violet. The reader gets the opportunity to know fellow reporter Ralph a little better in this novel. Although he isn¿t the most likeable guy, I found myself feeling sorry for him as the novel progressed. But only a little. Probable Claws, the fourth book in the series, is the best yet. The mystery is tightly woven and the tension builds as the story unfolds, resulting in a climax that was both exciting and satisfying. Theda grew as a character in this book, and I look forward to seeing where the author takes her next.
Musetta the cat is witness to murder in Clea Simon's Probable Claws, but don't worry, she doesn't solve the case, traditional detective work does. Cats are central to the plot of Simon's books, but they remain cats throughout.
It all starts with some cat food gone bad. Was it contaminated on purpose? Is this part of a feud between the private no-kill shelter and the city pound? Whatever it is, the stakes are raised when the vet at the city shelter is killed, and Clea picks up the scapel....
Helmhold House for Wayward Cats owners Violet and Caro are stunned when a donated batch of kibble is laced with poison. Neither can believe someone could be that cruel yet they assume it was deliberate. When their pal freelance writer Theda Krakow begs to differ as she assumes it was an accident, they become upset with her for trivializing their concerns; she takes a quick look at the shelter¿s processes to see what safeguards exists.
When her beloved cat Musetta needs a tooth brushing, she drops her off with the shelter¿s vet. When she returns she find Musetta soaked in blood and the vet Rachel dead with a scalpel wound. The police suspect Theda who investigates the murder to clear her name and regain her hope of a permanent position at the Morning Mail. She assumes the motive involves an irate sociopath opposed to the shelter combining the poisoned food with the vet¿s murder
Fans will definitely enjoy this fun cat caper. Musetta is not only the traumatized eye witness to the homicide, the feline wipes clean much of the crime scene as sticky red does not blend well with her tuxedo look. Cat fans will enjoy Theda¿s inquiry into the PROBABLE CLAWS behind the homicide.