Sarah and Elvis can always be found at a charming secondhand shop in the village of North Harbor, Maine. Despite the small-town setting, the daring duo often find themselves wrapped up in murder, but luckily they have helpa quirky group of senior citizens runs an amateur detective agency called Charlotte's Angels out of the store.
The Angels are hired to look into who is sabotaging cat shows in the state, and they decide the best way to do that is to send Elvis the cat undercover as a contestant. But then one of the cat show volunteers is murdered just before the latest competition, and Sarah and the Angels have to catch a killer in two shakes of a cat's tail!
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"Elvis?" I said. I folded my arms over my midsection and frowned to emphasize how preposterous I thought the suggestion that Rose Jackson had just made to me was.
"Yes, dear," she replied with the same patient tone in her voice that a kindergarten teacher might use with a five-year-old still learning to tie their shoelaces.
"You want Elvis to do a cat show?"
Rose pursed her lips and studied the pale blue tablecloth that she had just spread over a chrome kitchen table. She looked at me over her shoulder. "I think those woven place mats would look better, don't you?"
So we were changing the subject. Okay. I was used to her doing that.
The retro table and chairs she was looking at, which dated from the early 1960s, were in excellent condition. "You're right. They would be a better choice," I said. "Potential buyers will be able to see what good shape the top of the table is in."
Rose had already pulled the cloth off the table. I moved to grab one end and we folded it, working in unison the way we had dozens of times before. When we were done, Rose hung the cloth over her arm and smiled at me. "Thank you, Sarah," she said. She gestured in the general direction of the storage space under the stairs leading to the second floor. "I'm going to look for those place mats."
"Hang on a minute," I said. "You didn't answer my question."
Rose Jackson was tiny, barely five feet tall depending on which shoes she was wearing. Arguing with her was like arguing with a bear over a picnic basket. There was no way it was going to end well for you. She looked at me now with guileless gray eyes-not that I was fooled for a second by her innocent gaze. "I'm sorry. I thought the answer was obvious. I wouldn't have asked you if I weren't serious. I haven't gotten that feeble yet." She smoothed a wrinkle out of the tablecloth. "And it's two shows."
"Rose, I just don't think Elvis is really a . . . performer."
"Nonsense!" she exclaimed, waving away my words with her free hand. "He has looks. He has charisma. He has talent. He has star quality." She gestured toward the white molded chair by the front window where Elvis was sprawled, a clump of dust clinging to the top of his head, one foot seemingly keeping time with a rhythm only he could hear.
He seemed to be ignoring our conversation, which didn't surprise me since he was a small black cat and not a beloved music icon. To be fair, my Elvis did command attention when he walked into a room, although in the cat's case it wasn't his swivel hips and sexy sneer, it was his adorable head tilt and scarred nose.
"Sarah, we need Elvis for this case," Rose said, her tone matter-of-fact. "We can't work it without him."
Elvis sat up, bent his head, gave a quick wash to the thick black fur on his chest and then looked expectantly at me. It was as if he'd understood the conversation.
Rose, along with her friends Liz French and Charlotte Elliot and Rose's beau, Alfred Peterson-Mr. P.-ran a detective agency known as Charlotte's Angels, the Angels for short, out of the sunporch of my store. Although I'd been skeptical when they'd decided to go into the investigation business, they had turned out to be surprisingly good at it. As Rose had explained, "No one really pays any attention when old people ask questions. Most of the time they don't pay any attention to us at all."
It didn't hurt that between the four of them they knew pretty much everyone in North Harbor-probably everyone in this part of the state of Maine. To borrow one of Rose's expressions, they were all as sharp as tacks. And they weren't above roping anyone (me) they needed help from into their cases.
Just then, two men came in the front door of the shop. One looked to be in his twenties, the other in his fifties: Father and son, I felt certain. They both had the same vivid blue eyes and dimples. They looked around as though they'd come with a purpose.
"I'll take care of these two." Rose handed me the tablecloth.
"This conversation isn't over," I said.
"Of course not." She smiled and patted my arm. Anyone with any sense would have realized that she was just humoring me.
She headed toward the two men, turning that smile on them. "Welcome to Second Chance," she said. "Are you looking for anything in particular?"
Second Chance was a repurpose shop, part secondhand store and part collectibles shop. We sold furniture, dishes, toys and some musical instruments-mostly guitars. Many things had been repurposed from their original use, like the teacups we'd turned into planters or the church pew that had become verandah seating.
Our stock came from a lot of different places: yard sales, free piles, flea markets, abandoned storage units, people looking to downsize. I bought things fairly regularly from a couple of trash pickers. We'd been hired a number of times to sort through and handle the sale of the contents of someone's home-usually because they were moving into something smaller. I'd even waded into a ditch once after a chair.
I headed for the workroom, stopping to give Elvis a scratch on the top of the head and pluck off the dust bunny. He leaned sideways to take a look at the two customers. Elvis was as much a part of the staff as anyone else. Most people were charmed by his friendliness and the way he seemed to have an opinion on what they were thinking about buying, often walking around an item with his head cocked thoughtfully to one side and then signaling his okay with a mrrr of approval.
I hung the tablecloth on the portable metal clothing rack that Mac had scavenged from a curbside pile a couple of weeks earlier. He had also come back with two folding wooden chairs, a large wicker basket and a beautiful round mirror with a bevel edge. "It looked like whoever lived in the house had moved out," he'd said as he pulled the tarp off the bed of his truck so I could look at his "finds."
On paper, Mac was my second in command; in practice, he was much more than that. I owned Second Chance, but Mac was a big part of the store's success. He could fix just about anything. He had a good sense of what would catch a customer's eye and he seemed to have an unending number of ideas for ways to give old things new life. Over the past year and a half that the store had been open, Mac had become more of a partner than an employee and now that connection had spread to our personal lives-with a little nudge forward from Rose and her merry band of matchmakers.
I walked over to the workbench where Mac had left a selection of paint cans for me. I was in the process of converting a long, low bookcase into a set of cubbies that I could envision in a mudroom or by a back door. I'd told Mac I was thinking about painting the outside of the piece some shade of gray with two different colors-I was leaning toward blue and red-for the interior. There was enough blue and red paint left over from other projects and I thought the shades of both would go well with gray, but there wasn't enough of the latter in any permutation, including a pretty blue-gray I'd used for a games and electronics cabinet. I set the blue-gray paint, which was called Winter Sky, aside. Before I bought any more of it, I wanted to try swatching it next to the red and blue.
I also had a sketch I'd done of what I was thinking about for shelves for the cubby that I wanted Mac's opinion on. I'd changed the spacing three times now. I decided to check on Rose and her customers and then head out to our workshop in the former garage space.
Rose was just coming in the front door with a very self-satisfied smile on her face.
I looked around the shop. "What did you sell?"
"Those two nightstands," she said as she walked over to join me. She gestured toward the bare area on the floor. "A birthday gift."
"I just put them out yesterday," I said. I had stained the two pieces midnight blue. The tops had been painted black and there were brass pulls on the drawers.
"Do you remember the woman who came in about half an hour after you brought them in from the workroom?"
I nodded. "I really thought she was going to buy them."
The woman had walked around the nightstands, looking at them from every angle. "What do you think?" she'd said to Elvis, who had made three of the four circuits with her. He had meowed his approval and I was certain we had a sale, but she'd left without buying anything.
Rose brushed off the front of her apron with one hand. "She did, in a sense. She went home and hinted pretty broadly, from what I could gather, to her husband and son."
"And that was them." I waved a hand in the general direction of the parking lot.
"I suggested they might want to come back in a couple of weeks and look at that tall dresser Mac has been working on. That would look lovely in a room with those two nightstands." She raised one eyebrow. "I might have pointed out that Christmas isn't that far away."
"Rose Jackson, is there anything you can't sell?" I teased.
"Fruitcake," she replied, taking my question way more seriously than I'd intended.
I knew Rose well enough to know that pursuing that comment could take us down a conversational detour that might take the rest of the morning to get through, so all I said was, "Good to know."
I looked at the empty space where the two nightstands had been. "So what should we bring in from the workroom?" I asked.
"Has Avery finished that trunk you got from Cleveland?"
Avery was my youngest employee, a smart, creative, quirky teen who was also Liz French's granddaughter. Cleveland was a picker I bought from regularly. A couple of weeks ago he'd shown up with a 1930s vintage theatrical trunk with both of the original trays inside. It was grimy, which made sense when he explained he'd found it in the basement of an old house that was slated to be torn down, but it seemed to be surface dirt and not anything deeply embedded. The price Cleveland had named was so good I didn't dicker and I didn't think twice about not paying it. Avery had spent hours meticulously cleaning the trunk, even using a toothbrush in some spots. We'd set the trunk out on a tarp during an unseasonably mild and sunny day a week ago and that had gotten rid of the last bit of mustiness that the kitty litter we'd left inside for several days hadn't removed.
"That's a good idea," I said.
Rose's gaze narrowed thoughtfully. "We could open the lid, drape a couple of quilts over it and fill the inside with those pillows Jess made."
"And what if we bring out that side table?" I asked. "The one with the pull-out shelf. We could put two or three vases on the top and fill them with branches I could get Mac to cut from those bushes next to the workshop."
"And maybe one or two of the teacup planters on that shelf."
"That would work," I said. "It would catch people's attention."
Rose beamed at me. "I'll look for some vases and I'll get those place mats as well."
I looked around. Elvis had disappeared, probably gone upstairs to sprawl on my desk and shed cat hair on every single piece of paper on it. "We didn't finish our conversation," I said.
"I don't know what more I can tell you," she said. "We have a new case and we need Elvis."
"Who's your client?"
Rose nudged her glasses up her nose. "We've been hired by the organizers of the Atlantic Coast Cat Shows. Chloe and Will Hartman."
"Atlantic Coast Cat Shows?" I said. "I've never heard of them."
"They're affiliated with the AFA, the American Feline Association. It's a fairly new group. They promote breed registration and responsible breeding, but they're far more business-oriented than, say, the ACFA, the American Cat Fanciers Association."
Business-oriented. In other words, they were looking to make a profit. "So you don't need to report to the AFA board?"
Rose waved away my words. "No. The shows are completely autonomous. The Hartmans are our clients and we report directly to them. Chloe Hartman is related to Stella Hall somehow. It's either second cousin once removed or first cousin twice removed."
We had cleared out Stella's brother's home after his death and sold much of his furniture in the shop. We'd discovered a Marklin model train set in excellent condition . . . and a dead body in the kitchen. The latter had turned into a case for the Angels.
"Why did they hire you?" I couldn't imagine why a cat show would need detectives.
"Someone had been trying to sabotage recent shows in New Hampshire." Rose shook her head. "They don't want a repeat of what happened there at the Maine shows."
I remembered seeing a poster about the cat shows in the library. "One of those shows is here in North Harbor, isn't it?"
"Yes. And the other is in Searsport."
Elvis was just coming down the stairs as if somehow he'd known that we were talking again about something that involved him. He came over to me and I bent to pick him up. "What do you mean by sabotage?" I asked. Elvis turned to look at Rose as though he wanted to hear the answer, too.
Rose straightened the front of her apron. "It's mostly been nuisance things so far. Someone set off the fire alarm and the sprinklers in one venue during the show setup. Luckily there were no cats in the building at the time. Some of the show cages have been damaged. A sound system suddenly stopped working. It's really just been vandalism up to now, but it's escalating."
"Escalating how?" I wasn't going to put Elvis into a situation where he might get hurt, even though the scars he had suggested that anyone who tried to tangle with him would have a fight on their hands.
She took a moment before she spoke. "At the most recent show a cat ended up with a pinched paw because the door of a cage had been tampered with."