Jillian Hart and Tom are finally tying the knot, but first they need to make sure Tom’s stepson, Finn, is as comfortable as possible in the lake house they will all call home. So when it becomes clear that Finn has fallen for a pretty cat from the Mercy Animal Sanctuary, Jillian and Tom readily agree to make room for one more—even though the tortoiseshell kitty is a notorious kleptomaniac.
So far, the cat has sneaked out of the adoption center time after time, bringing back trinkets, shoelaces, and socks. But when she brings back an antique locket, Finn enlists Tom’s and Jillian’s sleuthing skills. They hope to return the treasured item to its owner, but their search for answers is sidetracked when a body is found. Still, their sneaky cat’s find may just lead them to a killer.…
About the Author
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The cramped office that served the Mercy Animal Sanctuary smelled like hay and kitty litter and kibble and pine-scented air freshener—or as I liked to call it, love. There was nothing I enjoyed more than being here to cuddle with a cat or a dog starved for affection.
But on this particular sunny October morning, I had not come to comfort the shelter’s inhabitants. Instead I sat beside my future stepson, Finn, as we waited for the owner, Shawn Cuddahee. He would be bringing a very special girl from the cattery.
Finn was in town on a college break. His stepdad, Tom Stewart, and I were getting married in a week and Finn had handed in research papers and taken a few tests early so he could be part of our celebration. As usual he planned to volunteer at the shelter during his stay in town. But he had something else on his mind today. Since his last time volunteering, Finn hadn’t been able to get a certain cat out of his head—a little tortoiseshell kitty, or “tortie” as they were usually called. Since she was still available, Finn wanted to adopt her. But the cat would have to live with Tom and me until he moved from the dorm into his own apartment next semester.
As we sat on folding chairs in the cluttered space, Snug, the African gray parrot who believed he was in charge of the office, entertained us. He promenaded back and forth on the horizontal dowel Shawn had nailed up near the ceiling, saying, “Hello, Jillian Hart. Hello there,” and “Finn, clean the dog crates. Clean the dog crates.”
When Shawn finally rushed through the door from the kennel and cattery, his face was flushed with agitation. And he wasn’t holding the tortie. “Sorry, Finn, but she’s gone again. She is the sneakiest little girl we’ve ever had.”
Finn stood. “That’s okay. I planned on working today anyway and she always comes back. She’ll probably be here by the time Jillian picks me up later.” He looked my way. “Anything I need to do to help you guys with the wedding setup when I’m done here?”
I laughed. “Though I’m certain you’re dying to wrap vines and rosebuds on Kara’s banister, we’ll take care of it.” Kara was my stepdaughter—my late husband’s only child. She was hosting the reception at her gorgeous new house.
“Yeah, I’d probably be more useful here.” Finn looked at Shawn. “Where should I start?”
Snug piped in with “Clean the dog crates, Finn. Clean the dog crates.”
Shawn still seemed a little annoyed and preoccupied, but not with Snug. He bent and retrieved a shoe box from under the desk and set it down on the battered metal surface. He glanced back and forth between us. “You sure you want a cat who brings this kind of stuff home all the time? ’Cause I got a couple across the road from here who’ll always take the difficult cats. They’ve got a barnful to protect their chicken feed from rodents. Cats do that quite efficiently.”
I leaned forward and examined the contents of the box while Finn merely seemed amused.
Shawn picked out a shoelace and held it up. “This is so old it couldn’t hold anything together.”
I spied what looked like a ragged sock, several coins, buttons, more shoelaces, a filthy little sachet pillow and a baby’s knitted hat. I looked up at Finn and smiled. “Are you adopting a cat or a magpie?”
Snug said, “Magpie” three times and did a wolf whistle to top it off. None of us could keep a straight face after that one.
“That’s it.” Finn grinned. “I’ll call her Magpie. It’s perfect, Jillian.”
Shawn shook his head. “All I can say is you’ll have your hands full. She may become a domestic indoor cat right away, since she’s real friendly, but she’s an escape artist.” Shawn looked at me. “She’s always sneaking out to hunt for anything she can drag back here.” He waved his hand at the box. “This stuff is just from the last few days. I wanted you to see evidence of what you’re getting yourself into if you plan on keeping her through the holidays, Jillian.”
Finn glanced my way, a hint of anxiety in his eyes. “You said it would be no problem, right?”
“Absolutely no problem. I’m excited to have her with us.” I smiled because it was true. What kitty didn’t challenge its human caretaker?
Finn went on as if Shawn and I needed more convincing. “Plus, I’ll be living with her and Tom starting the second week in December and through most of January when we have semester break.”
I could tell this kitty must indeed be special. Finn really wanted to bring her home.
Shawn’s phone rang and he answered, “Mercy Animal Sanctuary.” After listening for several seconds, he said, “This cat is wearing one of my collars? You’re sure?” He nodded and glanced at Finn. “What does the kitty look like?” More listening and more pointed looks at Finn. “I’ll be right there.”
Finn cocked his head and stared at Shawn. “Was that about Magpie?”
“Oh yeah. Did you bring a crate for this girl?” Shawn asked.
I nodded. “It’s in my van. Someone found her, I take it?”
“Yup. And you’ll never guess who. You can follow me and then please take this little troublemaker off my hands.” But Shawn smiled. He had a soft spot for the troublemakers.
We left the office with Snug bobbing his head and chanting “Magpie” over and over.
The route Shawn took confused me at first. True, I’d lived in Mercy for seven years, but there were more back roads than people in this town. Then I recognized where we were headed and turned to Finn sitting beside me. “How did Magpie end up at Ed’s Swap Shop?”
“You got me. This should be a fun mystery to unravel, Jillian. I love it.”
I couldn’t help smiling. “A cat who collects other people’s trash ends up with a man who does the same thing. Seems fitting.”
Finn laughed. “It’s perfect she’s with Ed.”
We considered Ed Duffy a relative. He was the lovable, gentle live-in companion of Tom’s mother, Karen. Ed had been collecting junk for years and actually did a steady business either swapping his treasures for different items that caught his fancy, taking things on consignment or selling some things for cash. Finn spent almost as much time with Karen and Ed as he did with Tom. In fact, when we pulled onto the neglected patch of asphalt Ed called a parking lot, the old guy opened the door and Finn’s rat terrier, Yoshi, raced straight for him. Ed often kept Yoshi at the shop when Finn or Tom didn’t plan on being home. Tom must have dropped the dog off before he went to pick up the new suit he’d bought for our wedding.
Finn opened his arms and the dog leapt into them. After licking his beloved Finn’s face and wiggling with joy, Yoshi jumped down and greeted me as he’d been taught—by sitting and waiting for me to pet him. Then it was time to say hello to Shawn, who was already crouched and waiting to scratch Yoshi behind the ears.
Ed called, “Y’all come on and help me with this little feline problem I’m presented with.”
Soon we all crowded into the store. Decades ago it had been a family home and the stacks of toys, tools, small appliances, magazines, books, lamps, fishing gear and so much more made what had once been the living area seem tiny. And there before us was this battered old love seat—obviously a recent addition. It filled what little space had been left in the center of the room. Since we couldn’t get past it, we all stood staring down at its dingy brown upholstery.
Ed stroked his gray beard. “This here is my dilemma.” He looked down at a whining Yoshi. “Help me out, fella. Make some noise.”
Yoshi complied by jumping on the love seat and yelping at the space between the love seat cushions.
We all heard a cat meow in reply. I would have expected a hiss if one of my three cats found itself trapped in a sofa, but Magpie had been at the shelter so long she was probably used to barking dogs.
I put my hand to my mouth and muttered, “Oh my. Is she stuck?”
“Darn right,” Ed replied. “Only good thing is she can almost get her head through that crack and I saw the tag on the collar, got a flashlight for a better look. Like I said on the phone, she’s one of yours, Shawn. But I’ve been working for an hour to coax her out of there and it ain’t happenin’.”
“Actually, Gramps, she’s now my cat.” Finn smiled at Ed. He’d taken to calling him Gramps not long after he came to live with Tom.
Ed’s bushy eyebrows rose in surprise. “Well, there’s a new development. Guess she needs savin’ right quick, then.”
Shawn addressed Finn. “Yoshi’s done his job. Maybe he needs to go in the back while we work on this problem. The cat’s probably spooked a little.”
Finn had to squeeze past the sofa, and as soon as Yoshi was closed up in the back room, he returned and stood by Shawn again. I fit my fingers between the back of the love seat and the attached cushions. I used a soft coaxing voice. “Hey, baby. You okay?” I wiggled my fingers. The sofa was old and dirty, and I was thankful the dark brown of the cushions hid a lot more than the stickiness I felt.
It only took a minute for Magpie to pop her head out. Finn laughed and whipped out his phone to snap a picture. “Got to think of a caption for this when I put it up on Instagram.”
“Such a pretty girl,” I whispered, stroking the side of her face.
Meanwhile, Shawn was looking underneath the love seat in the back to check if she’d gotten in through a rip in the fabric. He stood and shook his head. “She either got in there the way she’s trying to come out, or came in through the bottom.”
“There’s no hole in the bottom, Shawn,” Ed said. “I woulda seen it.”
“So she can get out, but she’s choosing not to.” Shawn smiled wryly. “Typical cat.”
Sure enough, Magpie began to worm through the space and finally Finn couldn’t stand it anymore. He grabbed hold under her front legs and eased her out.
It was then that we saw she had a thin gold chain wrapped around one front leg.
“Ah. So you were Dumpster-diving again.” Finn held her up and looked into her eyes so Shawn and I could free the chain. It seemed to have an etched gold locket attached.
Magpie, with her mottled black-and-gold fur and pale green eyes, was indeed a beauty. Shawn held her back legs firmly so I could untangle the jewelry. I felt the same stickiness on her paws. Had someone spilled a soft drink on the sofa? An entire soft drink? Because that was what her fur felt like.
When we were finished, Finn held his new friend close. I stared down at the locket and saw something grimy on my hands.
Wait a minute. What’s gotten all over me?
I slipped the jewelry into my pocket. My palms were rusty red and I held my fingers to my nose. I immediately recognized the smell.
“I—I have blood on my hands.” I tried my best not to sound as panicked as I felt. “Shawn, please check Magpie. She might be injured.”
I stared down at my palms again and realized my hands were shaking. Did the cat sneak into that sofa because she was wounded? Or vomiting blood? Cats usually hide when they’re ill or hurt, so that might explain why she was hunkered down in an old piece of furniture.
Finn held her firmly for Shawn’s inspection, and after a thorough examination, Shawn smiled at me. “She’s fine. Looks as healthy as the last time I saw her before she managed to open her crate and get out the cattery door.”
“Then there’s blood on that sofa. Or under the cushions.” I glanced at Ed. “Could there be a dead animal in there? Because this is not just a little bit of blood.” I held my hands out to him.
He grimaced. “Guess we have to tear the thing apart and then I’m takin’ it to the dump. Sure as heck can’t trade this old thing to anyone and I don’t want it around. I’ll get my big knife and start taking it apart . . . see what we got.”
“You find this outside somewhere, Ed?” Shawn asked.
The old guy had already wrangled around the sofa and was behind the store counter. “Yup. By the clothing donation box they got set up on Harkins Road.” Ed held up a container of disinfecting wipes. “Catch, Jillian.”
He tossed them to me and I started cleaning my hands, grateful to be rid of the mess. Meanwhile, Finn fetched the crate from my car and brought it in. With my help, Finn put his new kitty in. Within seconds she began fiddling with the latch.
All of us now had blood somewhere on us and I passed the wipes around.
Ed said, “That’s what you get for sticking your hand in there. I wasn’t about to get chewed up by an angry cat.”
“She’s not angry, Gramps. She’s scared.”
“Whatever you say, son.” Ed sounded unconvinced.
Shawn put his face close to the sofa cushions. “Can’t hear anything, can’t smell anything but blood. Probably any animal in there was freshly killed by our friend Magpie.”
“You think so?” I didn’t want to believe it, but cats are predators.
Shawn read my mind. “You’ve been around cats long enough to know that’s probably what happened. A bird or squirrel or a rat, no doubt. I’ll help Ed take this old thing to the dump after we find out what’s inside. A critter that needs burying, if you’re up to the job.”
Finn said, “Are we dismantling the sofa right now? I hate to leave Yoshi locked up much longer.”
I had plenty to do myself and didn’t want to end up with the task of burying a poor, dead animal. I did have a wedding in my imminent future, after all. Then something caught my eye—a coppery glint between the cushions. I almost touched it, but Shawn grabbed my hand. He’d seen it, too.
I looked at him, my heart beating a lot faster than seconds ago. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Looks like a bullet to me. Guess we won’t be touching this thing until our favorite evidence collector checks it out first. I’m sure you or Ed can call up Deputy Candace Carson, tell her we’ve just made her day.” Shawn glanced at Finn. “I need to get back to the shelter. You coming?”
“Somebody probably shot a squirrel or something, huh?” Finn said, sounding concerned.
Shawn and Ed exchanged skeptical glances. Shawn said, “Looks like .22 ammo to me. Not exactly a hunting gun. But we can’t make assumptions. Lord knows Candace has drilled that into me by now.”
“I promised to help Shawn with the bales of hay he has to move or I’d stay until you and Candace get this figured out.” Finn looked at Ed. “I can come back and we can move this out of here later, okay, Gramps?”
“Son, I got it in here and I can get it out. Been hauling stuff for years, long before you were born.”
“Um, hello?” I said. “What’s with y’all? You think I can’t lift a little piece of furniture? Ed, Candace and I can handle this. Go on, you two.”
Finn smiled. “Sorry. We’re sounding like a bunch of macho guys, aren’t we? I’ll let Yoshi out, say good-bye and meet you outside, Shawn.”
Soon they were gone, leaving Ed, Yoshi and me alone with a dirty love seat and a determined cat. How long before she got out of that crate?
I focused on the sofa and felt a stirring inside that told me we wouldn’t be finding any dead animals today. Maybe because after all the times I’d helped Candace on cases, she’d taught me well, taught me to pay attention to my instincts and even the tiniest of fears.
I tossed the dirty hand wipes into the wastebasket by the shop door and pulled my phone from my jeans pocket. Tom had installed a brand-new cat cam with all sorts of amazing features last month. I could interact with my Chablis, Syrah and Merlot. The cameras in my house moved so I could see them anywhere, and if I wanted to tell them I would be home soon or I missed them, I could turn on the “talk feature.” Technology was so fantastic.
I resisted the urge to activate a chat, though. This whole sofa mystery came first.
I hit the speed dial for Mercy PD, and B.J., the dispatcher, answered and put me through to Candace.
“Hey there,” she said. “I hope you’re calling to meet me for lunch. I’m starving already.”
“You realize it’s only ten in the morning?”
“I know. Long, boring day. What’s up?”
I told her and you’d have thought a bag of gold just landed smack in the middle of her desk. She didn’t even bother to say she was on her way, but of course she was.
While we waited, Ed squatted and secured the crate latch with a wire before Magpie worked her way out. Candace would probably treat her as evidence even if we ended up finding a dead squirrel.
It couldn’t have been more than five minutes before my best friend and the finest police officer in Mercy burst through Ed’s door.
Her forest green uniform pants and khaki shirt hid her curves, but she was a beautiful young woman. Candace agreed to actually wear a dress when she and my stepdaughter stood up for me at my wedding this coming Saturday. I’d seen the dress and I was sure she’d be gorgeous that day even if she felt less than comfortable.
She tucked a loose strand of blond hair behind her ear. “I take it this nasty-looking thing is the sofa in question?”
She set her evidence kit on the floor, put her hands behind her back and leaned over to give the love seat a thorough visual inspection. “I see the bullet you told me about. I can smell the blood, too. From my experience, I’d say the stain’s not that old.”
I said, “Since Ed found this thing outside and there was a cat hiding under the cushions, it’s probably animal blood, right?”
Candace nodded. “I see plenty of cat hair. Could be another cat in there. Maybe a dead one.”
“No way.” I couldn’t stomach the thought. Any animal we found would be terrible, but a cat? No, no, no.
She took her camera from the evidence bag and snapped a lot of pictures—front and back, above and below, and finally focused on the bullet. “Now, let’s find out what we’ve got here.” She removed a small jar and a pair of thick tweezers from the satchel. “I’ll collect this bullet. Looks like a .22 caliber.”
Ed nodded his agreement.
The bullet wasn’t embedded in the cushions, just sort of tucked between them. When Candace grasped it and held it up, a speck of blood was barely visible on the small copper object. Candace dropped it in the jar, and it clinked when it hit the glass. Such an innocent, almost pretty sound. I found it grating and . . . wrong.
Candace held up the jar and studied the bullet. “Not too damaged. I’ll bag and tag this even if I end up throwing it out. Can’t be too careful.” Out came an evidence bag and she took her time writing the where, when and whatever concerning the bullet using a permanent marker. Then she signed her name.
Her slow and deliberate pace only made my anxiety grow. I was almost wishing for a dead squirrel about now, but immediately felt guilty. There could be a completely innocent explanation for the blood—one I couldn’t think of off the top of my head.
Next, Candace snapped on a pair of latex gloves and removed a packaged swab. She smiled. “Science is great. This is a test for blood. Just have to rub it in one little spot.” She glanced between me and Ed, who’d retreated behind the counter. I got the feeling he was nervous, too. “By the way, this is just what we call a presumptive test. If we find anything suspicious, then—”
“Can you please get on with it?” I sounded impatient and I’m usually a pretty easygoing person. Maybe my feelings about this sofa and its secrets had merged with my anxiety about getting married, because I was anything but calm about now.
When Candace’s eyes widened as she saw the change in color on the swab, I understood what we were dealing with before she said a word.
She spoke the words I didn’t want to hear. “It’s blood and it’s human.”
Goose bumps rose on my arms.
Ed piped in then. “Don’t have to be ominous, right? Nosebleed? Female troubles? Kid with a busted head from a fall?”
“Yes. Some kind of accident, right?” I added.
Candace nodded. “Sure. All possible. But see, there’s this bullet. Not an unused bullet, by the way. One that’s been fired and bears a spot of blood.”
Ed’s eyes filled with sadness. “I should have followed my gut, left that thing where it was dumped. An uneasy feeling come on when I was shoving it up in my pickup. When I got back here and heard the cat inside, I thought that’s why I was all troubled inside.”
“Ed, you did right.” Candace was staring at the love seat, hands on hips. “I’ll need your help, though. Tell me again exactly where you found this darn thing.”
“I can write it down,” he said.
“I’m the one who needs to write it down for my report,” she replied. “You, on the other hand, need to come with me to show me the exact spot where you found it.”
“What you need me for? I don’t know nothin’ else, Candace.”
“It’ll be fine. I simply need to know the position of the sofa when you found it, where you pulled your truck in . . . details like that. I’m a detail girl.” She smiled broadly, probably hoping to quell Ed’s obvious apprehension.
“But who’ll watch my shop? And—”
“I can do that,” I offered.
Candace removed the gloves and took out her cell phone. “Nope. Need an officer here to keep this as official as possible. The furniture could be evidence or it could be nothing, but I’m not taking any chances. I’m thinking you got a cat and dog who could use your attention, Jillian.” She nodded at the crate. Yoshi was lying next to it, looking far too calm for Yoshi. Maybe he was scared, too.
“Yoshi can stay with Ed. But are you saying Magpie’s not evidence?” I asked.
“Not really. I’ll get a cat hair sample for comparison to what’s on the sofa. Other than that, I don’t need anything.”
After she put a bit of Magpie’s fur in an evidence envelope, it was time for me to leave. Not wanting to get near the sofa, I blew Ed a kiss from the entrance rather than giving him the hug I was sure he could use about now. “I’ll be in touch. And don’t worry, Ed.”
Soon Magpie and I were on our way, but my nervousness had merged with curiosity. How did that blood get on the sofa? And what would they find when they returned to the spot where Ed found it this morning? These thoughts would nag at me until Candace filled me in.
I glanced at the crate on the passenger seat next to me. Magpie would have much preferred to be out of there if her continued clawing on the latch was any clue.
“What do you know about blood and bullets, Magpie?” I said softly.
I pulled into my driveway, feeling an urgent need for sweet tea, a cat on my lap and Animal Planet on the TV. But Magpie came first. I didn’t want a kitty smeared with human blood visiting with my three resident fur friends.
Before Merlot, my red Maine coon, Chablis, my Himalayan, and Syrah, my Abyssinian, could blink—they were waiting by the back door—I quickly took our new friend to the basement for a bath. I shut the stairway door before Syrah could stick out a paw and stop me. I didn’t need company for this particular job.
Cats and baths don’t often go well together. Perhaps they feel as if it’s humiliating. Two out of my three cats hated getting in the tub—because they believed they could clean themselves just fine, thank you very much. Chablis was different. Any and all attention was welcome, even if it involved water.
Turned out, Magpie was like Chablis. She purred as I shampooed her. When I rinsed her off, the lather was rusty red and had I not known about the blood, I would have thought she’d been rolling in South Carolina clay. I finished the bath as quickly as I could, not wanting to dwell on what had just gone down the drain.
The downstairs bathroom was always ready for guests—whether the guests were feline or human. Since Finn had already dropped off his bag in the bedroom down here, I used his hair dryer on Magpie. I was worried this part of the process wouldn’t go quite as well and kept my thick rubber gloves on to prevent scratches. But this little tortie seemed unflappable. She even rolled onto her back at one point to make sure I thoroughly dried off her tummy.
Merlot and Syrah should have been watching this and maybe learning a lesson on how to behave when it was their turn. They rarely needed baths, but when they did, I often wished I owned a suit of armor.
Worried that the carrier I’d used for this baby would have traces of blood left inside, I stowed it in a corner of the basement for now, knowing it was probably headed for the trash. I had a soft-sided carrier in the storage room and used that to take Magpie upstairs for the meet and greet.
My cats were immensely curious when I set the carrier down on the window seat where the afternoon sun would warm Magpie up. Syrah offered an openmouthed hiss when he saw the new visitor and ran off. Chablis sniffed her and walked away, but Merlot was quite interested and parked himself next to the carrier and stared at Magpie through the mesh. It seemed she would have one friend right away—even though I was certain my other two would come around.
After I had a PBJ sandwich for lunch along with some freshly made sweet tea, it was time to work on the hem of my wedding dress. When John and I had married, we’d chosen the courthouse in Houston. No dress, no flowers, no fuss, mostly because John’s daughter, Kara, in her late teens at the time, had been none too happy about her father remarrying.
Kara and I were close now. I loved her and she felt the same about me. After John’s heart attack seven years ago, his recliner was my haven. I’d sit there and feel wrapped in his arms. But now it had been moved to the master bedroom in Kara’s house. That chair had comforted me through the dark days following John’s sudden death. Now it belonged with her.
For my wedding to Tom, I would be wearing my grandmother’s cream satin dress, and it needed alterations. I was almost done with the hem but would need help from Martha at the local quilt shop for the rest. She was an expert seamstress as well as a quilter. Before I got started with my needle and thread, I heard Magpie softly mewing. She was probably hungry. I opened the crate and set a dish of kibble on the window seat while Merlot continued to stare at our new addition to the family.
Before the tortie even smelled the kibble, she bumped noses with Merlot. He blinked—that loving blink all cats use—and sat nearby to watch her eat.
“Does my big red boy suddenly have a girlfriend?” I asked.
Merlot warbled a response but kept his eyes on Magpie. How sweet, I thought.
I usually felt comfortable leaving the cats to get to know each other, since I fostered kitties all the time for Shawn, but this baby was a little different. She was used to more outdoor time than indoor. I figured about ninety minutes was the max I could work on the hem.
In the meantime, I hoped Magpie would be entertained by my three amigos. I went to my quilting room and set the timer on my phone. I heard no loud protests once I closed the door, nor did I hear sounds of a catfight as I worked. Paws appeared under the door several times, but the addition of a new visitor was probably more interesting than watching me sew. I was putting the finishing touches on the hem when I heard Candace’s familiar knock at my back door—a rather booming version because I no doubt hadn’t heard her the first time.
I carefully boxed up the dress to keep it away from prying cats’ paws and hurried out to greet her. By the time I reached the kitchen, Candace had already let herself in and was taking the pitcher of sweet tea from the fridge. Syrah and Chablis watched her closely.
“Your back door’s not locked—again.” She set the pitcher on the counter and reached for a glass above the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen from the living area. “Tea?”
“Absolutely. Just finished the hem on my dress and couldn’t have so much as a glass of water near it for fear of spilling anything.”
“Almost,” I answered. “A few alterations are still needed.”
“Did you hear what I said to you, Jillian? It’s not safe to leave your door unlocked.” She added ice to our glasses and poured the tea.
“But I had to hurry in here and get Magpie downstairs for a bath without a clowder of cats on my heels.”
“I get that.” She sounded like a mother scolding a child. “But Tom added that app to your phone where you can remotely lock up the house. Why not use it?” She handed me my glass.
“You’re right.” I smiled. “But wait until you’re my age in twenty or so years and see how well you remember what apps are on your phone.”
Candace laughed. “You’re only forty-something, so don’t think I buy that excuse. I only want you to be careful.”
“Let’s sit. You look tired and it’s not even the end of your shift.”
“I can talk for a bit, but first, you have something I need.” She pulled a small plastic evidence bag from her pocket.
“What are you talking about?”
“Ed told me about a locket. I sure hope you still have it.”
“Oh my gosh. I forgot all about it.” I pulled it from my pocket and held it up. “You want me to drop it in the evidence bag?”
I suddenly had Syrah’s complete attention. He stood up on his back legs for a second to get a better look. In his world, dangling objects must be focused on—and attacked whenever possible.
“Hang on a sec.” She set the evidence bag on the counter and then I noticed she had her camera strapped across her chest. She gave a quick pet to both Syrah and Chablis. Merlot and Magpie remained where I’d last seen them, sniffing each other as they sat about an inch apart on the window seat.
Candace took several pictures of the locket and then backed up her photos by taking shots with her phone.
“Did you open that thing up?” she asked.
“No. I haven’t touched it since we unwound it from Magpie’s leg—because I forgot all about it. There is a major life event in my near future, if you remember.”
Her blue eyes brightened. “An exciting one, for sure.” She took latex gloves from her pocket and pulled them on. “Okay, I’ll carefully open the locket so I can catch a few pics and then close it up again. Just keep holding on the way you’re doing now.”
Syrah jumped on the kitchen counter. He definitely wanted a closer look.
“You better hurry up, Candace, or another cat will take off with this tempting piece of jewelry.”
But Syrah, to my surprise, didn’t paw at the locket as I expected, though it certainly held his attention. Once Candace finished taking photos of the etched gold locket while it was open, she took the chain, carefully grasping it in the same place I had done. She asked me to open the evidence bag so she could place the necklace inside.
“I couldn’t see what was in there, Candace—and I sure want to know.”
“A picture of a baby. Don’t know how old, but an infant for sure. Maybe the crime lab can give us an approximate date of the photo.” She showed me the baby’s picture on the camera.
“Just this one picture?” I asked.
“Yup. Bald baby, so whether it’s a boy or a girl is anyone’s guess.”
“Maybe there’ll be a clue when the crime lab people take it apart—like writing on the back. By the way, I am so sorry I’ve been walking around all day with the necklace.”
Candace was dating the evidence bag with a Sharpie she’d pulled from her breast pocket. “I have it now, so no problem. I did find more possible evidence of a crime when Ed took me over to that donation box. Unfortunately, when he picked up the sofa, his truck ran over any previous tire impressions in the ground.”
“So you did find something.” I was almost afraid to hear what it was.
“More blood in the dirt where the sofa had been sitting. I’m surprised Ed didn’t see it, but then he was dragging that sofa all by himself and probably overlooked it. Man’s gonna have a heart attack one day if he keeps trying to do everything by himself.”
“You’ll never get him to understand that. Karen has tried and failed to convince him many times. So, what’s next? Because somebody could be hurt somewhere, right?” I gestured for Candace to take a seat at the small mosaic-topped table in my breakfast nook that overlooked the lake. “Why not get off your feet for a bit and we can enjoy our tea while you tell me what’s happening?”
Candace nodded and once seated across from me, she sighed before taking a long drink. “I phoned the hospital, not to mention every doctor in town about a possible GSW victim. Came up with nothing. It’s frustrating. We don’t have the ability to search such a large grassy area without help. The county sheriff’s K-9 unit is backed up with cases, so I’m stuck. If I put crime scene tape up, it will draw attention and folks will march all over the place. Besides, I’m not sure it is a crime scene.”
“My gut tells me it is. And I’m guessing you think so, too.”
“Oh, something happened all right, but it could be a secondary scene.” She closed her eyes. “It makes me antsy because more evidence might be destroyed before we can thoroughly investigate the area.”
“I’ll bet a few people already saw you by that box and are talking about it,” I said.
“Oh, no doubt. Nothing gets by people in Mercy. I’m meeting a woman over there later today and she’ll open the donation box. Maybe I’ll get lucky and find a clue to this mystery in there.”
“Who’s the woman? Because I know some of the ladies who volunteer at the charity that services that box. Those people can be pretty . . . um, let’s call them talkative.”
“Her name is Rebecca Marner. You know her?”
“Oh, for sure. She’s the head of about three volunteer committees. I can see why she’d have the key to that box.”
Candace raised her eyebrows. “Busybody or know-it-all?”
“How did you—”
“Your tone, Jillian. You don’t want to say anything unkind about anyone, but don’t forget how well I understand you. So give me the skinny on this woman.”
“I’d put her in the ‘know-it-all’ category.” I whispered “know-it-all” as if Rebecca Marner might overhear me.
Candace’s shoulders sagged with disappointment. “Great. I have problems relating to know-it-alls. And Chief Baca has even told me I need to work on my people skills as he calls them. Ms. Marner’s name sounds familiar, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met her.”
“You’ll probably recognize her when you see her. I’ve run into her quite a few times when I took quilts I’ve made for soldiers’ children over to the community center. Do you know Zoe? She’s over there all the time volunteering.”
Candace nodded. “Nice woman.”
“She is,” I replied. “Anyway, she introduced me to Rebecca, who within minutes was telling me everything she does to help out in Mercy—which is nice, of course, but most folks around here don’t start conversations that way. Anyhow, her husband owns a construction company. And get this. Zoe is married to Rebecca’s first husband, yet she’s saying all this sweet stuff about her. That’s a rare thing.”
Candace’s eyes widened in surprise. “Wait a minute. Are you talking about Rhett Marner? Those women have both been married to him?”
“Zoe still is. You’d think it would make for a few awkward moments in the charity volunteer circles, but they’re quite friendly. So you know Rhett Marner?”
“Oh, yes. He builds mostly commercial stuff. Mercy is growing and he’s been pretty busy on various projects—like the new office building. We’ve had to break up a few fistfights there as well as at other sites he supervises. Some of the workers he hires must have cut their teeth on their daddies’ rifle barrels.”
“Gosh, we never had any problems like that when John and I built this house. But then, John was very hands-on and such a kind man. The atmosphere set by the people in charge can really make a difference.”
“Speaking of your late husband, is the wedding bringing up lots of . . . memories?”
“It is. But even though it sounds like a cliché, I know John would want me to be happy. Tom makes me happy.” I smiled.
She answered with a grin, “He’s a good man. If I didn’t think he was great, I wouldn’t be putting on a dress to stand by your side in church.”
“I can’t wait to see you in that dress. It looked so pretty on the hanger.”
Candace picked up the evidence bag with the locket, her cheeks pink with embarrassment. “I need to book this as evidence—of what I’m not sure yet.” Then she just stared at her shoes for several seconds.
“What’s bothering you, Candace?”
She met my gaze. “I know you’re crazy busy with your wedding preparations, so—”
“If you need my help, just ask.”
“You know this Rebecca person and I tend to suffer from foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to know-it-alls. Would you mind coming with me to meet her—not only to introduce me but to keep me in line? Maybe you can clear your throat or something when I say something I shouldn’t?”
I laughed. “Since when has anyone been able to keep you in line? But of course I’ll go with you.”
Once Candace booked the locket into the evidence room, we had thirty minutes to spare before meeting Rebecca at the donation box, so we decided to stop at Belle’s Beans and pick up coffee. The afternoon was growing chilly, bringing enough wind to knock plenty of leaves off the many trees that lined the street. Candace mumbled about her fear of any impending rain destroying potential evidence near that donation box.
Luckily for us, she found a parking spot in front of Belle’s Beans just as someone was pulling out. Main Street seemed pretty crowded for late afternoon. We both ordered coffee to go from the Belle of the Day—whose real name was Tina. Owner and good friend Belle Lowry always had her baristas wear a name tag that said “Belle.”
I suggested we also buy a coffee for Rebecca, and Candace agreed it was a good idea. We added that to the order. I’d carry sugar and creamer with me so she could doctor her own drink.
As we waited for our order to come up, I noted that Belle’s Beans buzzed with conversation. Each lacquered table was occupied and every barstool along the wall was taken. Either Mercy’s population was booming or teenagers were growing into adults way too fast. I had a feeling the cooler October weather might also have something to do with the influx of customers.
Candace’s double-shot flavor of the day was up, as well as the plain coffee for Rebecca. We were still waiting on my decaf vanilla latte when Belle walked toward us. She’d been in the back room and carried a tray of pastries to refill the display case on top of the counter. The sight of cupcakes with thick, rich-looking frosting, raspberry bars and brownies made my mouth water. She baked all these goodies herself and I wondered how the woman ever had time to sleep.
“Hey there. My girls are here.” Her smile was lopsided because of her misapplied lipstick. She wasn’t wearing her new glasses, which explained the makeup malfunction.