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Authors: Kay Finch

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15

T
YANNE AND I
decided that two voices were better than one when it came to protesting the trapping of an innocent cat, so I swung by the bookstore and picked her up on my way to Krane’s Hardware. She looked perky in a blue-and-white tie-dyed top with royal blue slacks and matching Crocs. Saturday was her busiest day at the bookstore, but she was okay leaving Ethan and Billie Spengler, her grandmotherly part-timer, alone for a little while.

She said, “I take it you believe the cat at your place is the same cat Mr. Krane and Thomas want to capture.”

I nodded. “Right.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just know.”

“How?”

I cast a sideways glance at my friend and knew she wasn’t going to back down. “Okay, I realize this sounds crazy, but Twila saw Hitchcock sitting on my car. She called him the bad luck cat, and I think she’s right. Not that he’s bad luck, only he’s the black cat that superstitious people around here
think
is bad. I have to do something to stop them. I can’t let them take him away.”

Tyanne patted my shoulder. “It’ll be okay. You sound like the kids when they begged us to keep the fawn they found in our backyard. They named him Spot, and you’ve named this cat, huh?”

I grinned. “Yeah. I’d love for Hitchcock to stick around. Not that I’m set up for a cat yet, but I planned to pick up some supplies today.”

“I’m all for you getting a pet,” Tyanne said, “though it might be better if you found a cat that likes to sit in your lap while you write instead of such a wanderer.” She paused for a few seconds. “How many miles does this cat cover in a day anyway?”

“I’ve wondered the same thing,” I said. “I’ve read that a stray cat can travel up to five miles a day, but why would he want to?”

Did Hitchcock have a goal, I wondered, in making these trips to town to sit on my car? Was he trying to tell me something? I decided not to share with Ty the fact that Hitchcock had led me to Bobby Joe’s body in the river. Better if she believed he was a completely innocuous cat that I wanted to rescue.

We reached the hardware store in three minutes flat, and I scanned the lot.

“Thomas’s truck isn’t here.” I pulled the Accord into a narrow spot in the front row. “What if he’s already left with a truckload of traps?”

“Don’t panic.” Tyanne opened her door carefully and squeezed out. “Let’s go inside and see what we can learn. Worse comes to worst I have a customer who has a rescue group nearby. I’ll bet she could assemble a team right quick to disable any traps these jerks might have set.”

“Great idea,” I said, “and maybe they could keep an eye out for Hitchcock, too.”

“You bet.”

We pushed through the hardware store entrance. Wes Krane wasn’t in sight. Judith and Hallie Krane were each working a checkout register. Judith’s hair was fixed in a smooth bob and she wore a stylish print blouse under her green apron. Unlike her mother, Hallie looked like she’d crawled out of bed in a wrinkled gray T-shirt, her long hair fastened in a messy ponytail. Hallie chatted happily with her customer while her mother exhibited an all-business demeanor.

“Is Mr. Krane here?” I said when Judith glanced up from the customer she was waiting on.

“Not right now.” Her fingers skimmed the register keys. “He’s making an emergency delivery—customer had a water heater burst this morning.”

“That sounds serious.” I turned to Tyanne and lowered my voice. “At least he’s not doing you-know-what.”

“What’s he done now?” Judith had finished with her customer, and she had obviously heard my comment.

“We hope nothing,” Tyanne said. “Rumor has it he intends to trap a black cat.”

In spite of the fact that Hallie had customers waiting in her checkout line, Judith left her register and walked over to us, shaking her head and tsk-tsking.

“Wes got his ridiculous superstitious streak from his mama,” she said. “That man would drive five miles to avoid a black cat. I know of a few others in town like him.”

“Thomas Cortez for one,” I said. “Have you seen
him
today?”

“I have. He was here a little bit ago. Thomas and my husband are in cahoots, I’m ashamed to admit, but the traps they plan to use haven’t come in yet. Wes tracked the shipment. Due to arrive Tuesday.”

I looked at Tyanne and blew out a breath. Hitchcock might have a short reprieve. That is, unless the men rigged up some homemade traps.

“You have a pet cat you’re worried about?” Judith said.

“I’m offended on behalf of all black cats,” I said. “Something needs to change. Treating them differently from any other cat is plain wrong.”

“I don’t disagree,” Judith said, “but you sure don’t need any more on your plate right now. You must be worried sick about your aunt Rowena.”

“I’m concerned, yes.” I paused. “You mean about her broken leg?”

“The leg will heal,” Judith said. “I’m talking about the law coming down on her for, you know, what happened to her cousin.”

“She didn’t do anything.” I couldn’t keep the sharpness out of my tone. “And to my knowledge the law isn’t saying differently.”

“Good to hear, it’s just, well—” Judith paused and held a finger to her lips like she wanted to keep the wrong words from escaping. “You know how people talk. Sorry I mentioned anything.” She turned and headed toward her register.

People gossiping about what happened to Bobby Joe and jumping to conclusions about Aunt Rowe’s involvement aggravated the heck out of me. I attempted to tamp down my annoyance. The hardware store could well have been a place Bobby Joe frequented when he came to town, and I hadn’t asked the Kranes about him yet. Rather than criticize Judith for listening to idle chatter, I needed to ask her a question. She must have felt me walk up behind her because she turned around before I spoke.

Her brows rose. “Yes?”

“Did you by chance know Bobby Joe Flowers, the man who died?”

She thought for a second before replying. “Very vaguely. I wasn’t raised here in Lavender.”

“Oh.”

“I remember meeting your grandparents, though,” she added, “after Wes and I married. As I recall, they were good customers. Good people.”

“My aunt Rowe is good, too,” I said.

“Oh, I know that’s right,” Judith said. “I’m not judging Rowena. I understand tensions can get mighty high between relatives and sometimes things, well, things happen.”

Tension was about to get high between her and me if she actually believed my aunt was responsible for Bobby Joe’s death. Or maybe she was only referring to the crutch incident.

Tyanne took my arm before I could pursue the issue and said, “Let’s pick up those supplies we need so I can get back to work.”

She practically dragged me over to the shopping carts and grabbed one while still holding on to my arm. I glanced over my shoulder. Judith had returned to her register and was busy with a customer as if she hadn’t insinuated that my aunt had committed murder.

“Let’s hit the cat supplies before you hit the store owner,” Tyanne said under her breath. We headed to aisle seven, where anything and everything needed for a cat lined the shelves.

With our cart parked in front of the wide variety of cat foods, Tyanne chanced releasing my arm. She picked up a small bag of dry food and turned it over to read the back. “Any idea how old Hitchcock is?”

“No, and I can’t think about that right now. I need to figure out what really happened to Bobby Joe before half the town convicts Aunt Rowe on hearsay.”

“I thought you wanted to get supplies for the cat,” Ty said.

“I do, but—”

“Let’s concentrate on one thing at a time. You need to get back to your book, too. Don’t forget that.”

I wondered when she was going to bring that up.

“I don’t know how to guess a cat’s age,” I said. “He’s definitely full grown, twenty pounds at least, but very lean. He’s a tall cat.”

“This is a good choice,” Tyanne decided and placed the dry food in the basket. “And you should alternate it with wet food. Start out with small meals so he can adjust slowly from whatever’s been keeping him going till now.”

“Okay.” I scanned the variety of cat dishes on the shelf, and my thoughts strayed back to Vicki Palmer. “You know I haven’t been running around town blindly wasting time. I’ve done some investigating and turned up some interesting facts.”

Tyanne was holding a can of food and peering at the small print on the label. Her head turned in my direction. “What kind of facts?”

I told her what I’d learned about Vicki Palmer and about Bobby Joe giving teenagers access to the cottages when he was in high school. “That has me wondering about the rest of the Palmer family and whether they somehow blamed Bobby Joe for what happened to their daughter. His death could be a revenge killing.”

“Lower your voice.” Tyanne loaded cans of cat food into the basket. “You don’t want to start yet another line of gossip. Why would this family allegedly have waited three decades to take their revenge?”

“Not a clue.” I picked up two midsized stainless steel bowls for water—one for my porch and another for inside in hopes that Hitchcock could be coaxed indoors. I chose a smaller ceramic dish with a decorative blue stripe for the cat’s food.

Tyanne had moved down the aisle to the kitty litter section. “You need some of this?”

I hesitated.

She picked up a litter pan and put it in the cart. “If you decide no, you can return this later.”

“I want to bring him inside where he’ll be safe,” I said. “That doesn’t mean he’ll cooperate.”

“If things don’t work out between you two, my friend can help you choose a rescue cat.”

I didn’t want a different cat, at least not now while my heart was set on Hitchcock.

“There’s something to this Vicki Palmer connection,” I said. “I can feel it. Did you know the Palmers?”

“No.” Tyanne hoisted a container of litter and put it on the cart’s bottom rack. “I think you’re getting carried away. You should leave the investigating to the authorities and keep that imagination free for fiction writing.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

Tyanne scanned the cart. “I think we have the essentials.”

I grabbed a wand with multicolored feathers attached to the end. “Every cat needs one of these toys.”

At the front of the store, a different woman had taken Judith’s place at one register. We chose Hallie’s line, which was shorter. When we reached the counter, I piled our selections on the conveyor belt.

“Aww,” Hallie said. “Are you getting a new kitten?”

I shook my head. “No, I’ve found a grown cat that needs a good home.”

Hallie smiled. “I love to hear about people rescuing pets. You’re a real good-deed-doer.”

I pulled my wallet out. “No one’s ever called me that before. Thank you.”

She rang up my purchases. After hearing the larger-than-expected total, I stuffed my cash back into my wallet and pulled out a credit card.

Hallie swiped the card, looked around surreptitiously, and leaned closer to me. “I heard you asking my mom about the dead guy.”

I leaned in and said, “Did you know him?”

“Not really,” she said, “but the woman from the wine store does.”

I straightened. “You mean Claire Dubois?”

Hallie nodded. “Yeah, she and Bobby Joe Flowers seemed close. They came in here once, and I saw them together at McKetta’s Barbeque, too.”

Tyanne had been checking out a display of vegetable seeds near the exit, but she heard us and came over. “Did you mention Claire Dubois?” she asked Hallie.

“Uh-huh.” The girl nodded.

Tyanne said, “Claire’s father told me this morning she’s still missing. He and his wife are running the store in her absence.”

I looked at Hallie. “When’s the last time you saw Claire?”

The girl began bagging my purchases. “Sorry, I don’t know exactly. A couple days ago?”

She didn’t sound at all sure of herself. I said, “That’s okay. Thanks for telling me about her.”

We headed for my car with the purchases, and I punched the button on my key fob to open the trunk. Tyanne and I deposited the cat supplies inside, then slid into the front seat. Before turning the ignition, I looked at my friend.

“Say whatever you want about my imagination working overtime, but right this minute I’m wondering if Claire Dubois has left town for good and whether she committed a crime right before she disappeared.”

16

I
DROPPED TYANNE OFF
at the bookstore. Since she wouldn’t quit hounding me about the synopsis, I gave her the copy I’d been carrying around with me all day. The draft I hadn’t read since the printer spit it out. Ty would tell me the truth about my work, be it good or bad. Until then, I would go home and talk to Aunt Rowe. Claire Dubois had come by on Thursday. Her visit had struck me as odd from the moment I heard about it. Now that Claire was allegedly missing, I wanted to know more about her conversation with my aunt.

As I drove along the winding two-lane road back to the cottages, the brilliant midafternoon sun glared off my hood. I put on my cheap drugstore sunglasses and scanned the countryside for any sign of Hitchcock. Of course, the cat didn’t have to travel by road. If he cut diagonally across properties between here and town, the trek wouldn’t be as long as I had imagined. Still, it seemed odd for a cat to exert so much effort. Cats normally liked to sleep away the day in a patch of sunlight, right?

I saw no sign of Hitchcock, or any cat for that matter, and my thoughts jumped back to Claire and the odds of her involvement in Bobby Joe’s death. Not hard to imagine a relationship with him leading a woman to murderous thoughts. Acting on the emotions was a different matter entirely. Claire might not be guilty, but she could know facts that would lead to the killer. She might have witnessed something that scared the bejeebers out of her like Scarlett, my character who was on the run after witnessing a murder. The possibility worried me.

I turned onto Traveler’s Lane, hoping Aunt Rowe would remember something from Claire’s visit that could help to locate the woman. I hoped my aunt hadn’t heard the gossip around town that she had a part in her cousin’s death. If she had, she’d likely be in too foul a mood to discuss Claire. Because of those ridiculous rumors, I was even more eager to find the missing woman. I’d go straight to Aunt Rowe’s house before taking the cat purchases to my place, and find out what she knew.

I rounded the last curve, nearing my aunt’s house, and stomped on the brake when I saw horses in the road ahead of me.

My heart beat double time. I’d never seen horses on Aunt Rowe’s property before, though I knew several ranches in the area offered horseback riding to guests. There were five riders. A couple of the animals stood on the lawn next to a decorative section of split-rail fence accented by bushes filled with bright pink knockout roses. Aunt Rowe wasn’t going to like the horses tearing up her grass.

Wait a second. One of the riders
was
Aunt Rowe.

I threw my car into park and jumped out, leaving the door open behind me. I jogged toward the animals, and as I drew closer I saw Adam Lee standing next to the bay mare that carried my aunt. Lee was in a pair of snug Wranglers, a Harley T-shirt, and boots. He held his camera in one hand and pointed across the road with the other to a spot where I saw he had a tripod set up.

Aunt Rowe wore her Stetson duster with the chin cord, a chambray shirt, and her calf-length split skirt over timeworn riding boots. From this angle, I saw her good leg. How in blazes had she gotten on the horse with her cast, and why?

Lee took the lead of Aunt Rowe’s horse and directed the animal across the road to stand beneath a majestic oak.

“Y’all stay over there,” he called to the other riders. Only then did I realize they were the Hartman family—Molly, her brother, her dad, and his lady friend.

I marched over to Lee. “What on earth is going on here?”

He gave me a what-does-it-look-like expression. “I’m taking pictures.”

I walked around Aunt Rowe’s horse to get a look at her cast leg, which stuck out at an awkward angle. I removed my sunglasses and propped them on top of my head. “I doubt the doctor cleared you for horseback riding. Why are you out here?”

“Publicity shots,” she said. “Adam’s idea, and I thought it was a darn good one.”

Lee grinned up at her, then turned to me. “This nice family was heading out for a ride.” He nodded at the Hartmans. “Rowe and I discussed taking some shots for her new brochure, and they agreed to be included.”

“What new brochure?” One of my so-called duties since moving here was to help Aunt Rowe with advertising and publicity for the cottage business. I felt a twinge of guilt for not having spent much time on the job.

Aunt Rowe said, “The brochure that will demonstrate how much fun we have at Around-the-World Cottages. Right, Adam?”

“Right,” he said.

I cleared my throat. “Uh, Adam, would you mind if I had a word with my aunt? In private?”

“She’s all yours.” He took his camera and rejoined the Hartmans.

“I don’t understand why you’re in such a snit, Sabrina,” Aunt Rowe said. “I’m not actually
riding
, I’m sitting here on a horse and having my picture taken.”

“Well, this isn’t the best time for pictures showing
anyone
having fun at the cottages. Remember, there was a murder on-site.
Two
days ago.”

Aunt Rowe waved a hand. “Nobody will know the pictures were taken right after the murder.”

“The Hartmans will know, along with anyone else Adam happens to tell. I’m sure he knows about the murder.” I raised my eyebrows in question.

Aunt Rowe nodded slowly. “He may have brought it up.”

“Yeah, and he brought up he’s writing a magazine article. What magazine does he have in mind, and what’s he planning to include in his article?”

“I don’t know.” Aunt Rowe lifted her chin. “He mentioned a travel magazine.”

“Let’s hope it’s not some publication like the
National Enquirer
,” I said, “and his headline isn’t ‘Landowner Cavorts on Horseback Near Site of Slain Brother,’ uh, I mean
cousin
.”

Aunt Rowe’s eyes hardened. “There’s no need for such sarcasm.”

“I’m only looking out for you, the same as you would for me,” I said in a low voice. “As you
have
done for me in the past.”

Aunt Rowe nodded. “Understood, and of course I appreciate you having my best interests at heart.”

I smiled. “Good. Now that we’ve cleared the air I
really
need to ask you some questions about Claire Dubois.”

Aunt Rowe scowled. “Claire? What about her?”

I supported the back of my neck with a hand as I looked up to her. “I’d rather talk face-to-face instead of with you up on that horse, but for the life of me I don’t know how you’re going to get down from there with your cast.”

“Adam will help me.”

I didn’t like the familiar way she talked about this guy. I glanced at him and saw him posing the Hartmans for a family shot. Probably planned to charge them a hefty price for the print. I turned back to Aunt Rowe.

“According to Claire’s parents, she’s been missing,” I said. “You may have been one of the last people to see her. What did you two talk about when she visited?”

Aunt Rowe shifted in the saddle. She waved at a bee buzzing near her head. “Do we have to discuss this now?”

I wasn’t budging. “Yes. It’s important.”

Aunt Rowe looked thoughtful for a few seconds, like she was having to dredge information up from the depths of her memory. Finally, she said, “First off, she wanted to know why I turned down Jeb’s invitation to the chamber of commerce dance, the one right before I broke this leg.”

“The sheriff invited you to a dance?” I said.

“The dance, dinners, the chili cook-off,” she said. “He’s a very persistent man.”

This was news to me. “Sheriff Crawford wants to date you, and you’re turning him down?”

“He’s a friend,” she said. “And I’d like to keep it that way. You sound like Claire.”

“Did she ask because she’s interested in the sheriff herself?” If that were the case, I wondered how Claire’s relationship with Bobby Joe fit into the scenario.

“I don’t think so,” Aunt Rowe said. “Jeb’s quite a bit older than Claire, and they’re not at all suited for each other.”

“Has she ever visited you before?” I said.

Aunt Rowe shook her head. “No.”

“Did she say anything about leaving town?”

“Not to me.”

“Unless her visit lasted a total of two minutes, she must have talked about something else.” Or they spent the rest of the time drinking the wine Claire had brought. I wasn’t about to bring that up again.

“She asked some questions about the history of the area,” Aunt Rowe said. “Wanted to know when the cottages were built, if they were always owned by our family. Matter of fact, we chatted about family for some time.”

“Your family or hers?” I said.

“Both. Why?”

“Did she mention she was dating Bobby Joe?”

“Good Lord, no.” Aunt Rowe looked down at me. “I thought the girl was brighter than that.”

“Did Bobby Joe come up in your conversation?”

“Not specifically,” she said. “I may have mentioned that he was the shady limb on the family tree.”

“If Claire already had an inkling about Bobby Joe’s true character, that might have been enough to make her break things off and get out of Dodge for a while.”

Or she had a confrontation with Bobby Joe and ended up killing him.

I ignored my wild imagination, though I wasn’t the only one in town coming up with groundless speculations. Some people assumed Aunt Rowe had killed her cousin, for crying out loud. The sooner the truth came out, the better, and standing here wasn’t accomplishing anything.

“I need to leave, Aunt Rowe, if you’re sure you don’t need my help here. I hope Adam doesn’t plan to keep you on that horse much longer.”

“We’re riding out to the entrance,” she said. “Adam’s going to pose us by the sign. He says that will make a great shot.”

“I’m sure Adam knows best.” I rolled my eyes as I turned toward my car.

Molly Hartman waved at me as I drove slowly past the group. I waved back to the girl and studiously ignored Adam Lee. What was up with him, coming to rent a cottage and now suddenly involving himself with Aunt Rowe’s publicity? That didn’t make sense. I found his cozying up to her downright suspicious. What if he had an ulterior motive for getting close to her?

As I neared my cottage, a far more disturbing idea crossed my mind. What if Adam Lee had come to Lavender for some nefarious purpose and Bobby Joe Flowers got in his way? Was that a crazy idea, or what? I pulled to a stop next to the Monte Carlo cottage. Now, while Lee was otherwise occupied, might be a good time to see if I could learn more about the man.

I climbed out of the Accord and scanned the grounds around me to make sure there were no people or horses in sight. All clear. I set my cell phone on “Do Not Disturb” and stuffed it in my back pocket, then hurried toward Venice. Lee’s four-door Tundra was parked next to the cottage. I glanced over my shoulder. Still no one.

Perfect.

I turned back to the pickup and caught a flash of black near the front tire.

Hitchcock.

I ran over to the truck and found the cat perched in the open driver’s side window.

“Hey, boy,” I said. “Good to see you.”

He responded with a meow and then jumped into the truck.

I peered inside. Hitchcock leapt over the front seat and landed in back. A gray sweatshirt lay on the seat next to an
Austin American-Statesman
newspaper dated a week ago. The cat jumped from the seat to the floor and pawed at something. I opened the door slowly so as not to startle him and saw that a black duffel bag had attracted his attention. Hitchcock looked up at me, then moved as far as he could from me and the open door. He sat down and watched the duffel as if he expected a mouse to burst from the canvas.

“What is it? There something about this guy you don’t like?”

I patted the bag, trying to determine what Lee carried in it, but I wasn’t in a patient mood. What the heck, enough of the guessing. I unzipped the bag and looked inside.

Tennis shoes. T-shirts. An iPod. Large padded headphones.

“Nothing exciting here,” I told the cat.

Hitchcock meowed again, never taking his eyes off the duffel. I took another look, then shoved a hand deeper into the bag. Sure enough, I’d missed something. I pulled out a black device with a grip on one end and a plastic dish on the other. I’d seen a similar listening device when touring a spy museum in Houston with a group of mystery writers.

What did this guy need a high-tech listening gadget for? I put it back and zipped up the duffel.

I backed out and closed the door, then went around and opened the passenger door. Clicked the glove box and held my breath before opening it.

Whew. No gun.

Now that I’d found the listening device, I was on edge. I hoped Lee wasn’t carrying a firearm on his person. I pulled out a handful of paper along with the owner’s manual. An insurance ID card identifying the policyholder as Alvin Ledwosinski, with an Austin address, sat on top.

I placed the ID card on the passenger seat, pulled out my phone, and took a picture. Alvin Ledwosinski. Adam Lee. Huh. I couldn’t help wondering if Lee was actually Ledwosinski. I could see this obnoxious guy using a fake, more cool-sounding name.

“What are you doing in there?” The man’s voice came from behind me.

I spun around. It wasn’t Lee, thank my lucky stars. Thomas stood there, wearing work gloves and holding a shovel in one hand.

Maybe not so lucky.

I prayed his hearing wasn’t as good as mine, because I could hear Hitchcock purring not two feet away from where Thomas stood.

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