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Authors: Marian Babson

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BOOK: Canapés for the Kitties
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“I'm terribly busy right now.” She mustered her defences. “Deadline coming up and all that, you know.”

“I understand.” He nodded for emphasis. “Fortunately, we have plenty of time in hand. I was lucky enough to be able to rent this superb accommodation for my full sabbatical year. I'm anxious to get on with my research, but I can start with one of the others and come back to you when you're less pressured.”

“Yes, that would be fine.” Lorinda felt faintly dizzy. All she wanted to come back to her was the tray of canapés now being carried to the far side of the room.

“Smile,” Professor Borley warned suddenly, baring his teeth.

Too late. As she turned back to look at him, the flash bulb exploded in her face. Again, the after-brilliance and swirling black spots cut off all normal vision.

“That man is a menace,” she muttered.

“He doesn't seem the kind who'll improve on closer acquaintance,” the professor agreed. “It's a pity his wife is so talented. No one would put up with him for a minute, otherwise.”

“Please excuse me ...” The spots cleared enough for Lorinda to see a waitress emerging from the improvised caterers' pantry, bearing a fresh tray of the coveted treats. If she moved quickly enough, she could intercept the waitress before the other guests began pillaging the tray.

“Yes, and I've got to ...” Professor Borley nodded tacit agreement and slid away in the opposite direction, leaving Jack Jackley aiming his camera at thin air.

With a vague smile toward several London colleagues who were waving at her, Lorinda sidled along the marble wall until she reached an alcove suitable for lurking in to ambush the waitress. Around her, fragments of conversation rebounded off the marble walls from a group of critics standing nearby.

“Timetables, my dear, were what killed off the Golden Age. I couldn't believe it when I turned the page and found one in his latest book ...”

“And genealogy – is there anything more deadly? I always feel as though I'm going to have to face an exam on the family relationships in the morning ...”

“Series! How much longer is this mad craze for series going to continue? I could upchuck every time I pick up a new book and see it's about the same old dreary ...”

“It's all due to the fragmentation of modern life in America. All those people, always on the move. They wake up in the morning and can never be sure who's still living in the house next door. Or maybe they're on the way to a new home themselves. A nation on the move – and we feel the reverberations in fiction on the other side of the Atlantic. It gives them the only permanence they have. Series characters are always there, always the same, the community they used to be part of, but which no longer exists in reality – only in their dreams ...”

“And the books they want to read. Fine for them, but the rest of us have a lower threshold of boredom ...”

“Or a more stable home life ...”

“Of course, that's why all those wretched radio and television soap operas are so popular, too. They help provide the stability so lacking in everyday life ...”

“How much longer can it go on, one asks oneself. Sooner or later, the public is bound to become satiated and the trend will collapse, the way the Gothic boom did when so many writers jumped on the bandwagon it buckled ...”

“And horror. Don't forget horror ...”

“And private eyes. There can't be many of them left with a friend, relative or lover to call his own ...”

Shrieks of laughter hit the marble walls and splintered into brittle shards of knifepoint-lethal cacophony.

The waitress appeared and Lorinda prepared to pounce. It was pounce or scream. At least three of the Judases in that coven of critics had hailed the advent of each of Miss Petunia's adventures with cries of seeming rapture. And this was what they really thought!

No wonder Victorian bank managers had had such a reputation for omniscience. Their customers could never have suspected the acoustical betrayal of those impressive marble walls. One careless word to an accompanying spouse or friend and their doom was sealed, with foreclosure and bankruptcy proceedings in their future.

“I have two cats at home.” With a charming smile to the waitress, Lorinda shamelessly plotted to denude the tray. “And they'd never forgive me if I didn't bring home some treats for them.”

“Oh, I know.” The waitress smiled back and Lorinda vaguely recognized her as one of the assistants in the local hairdressing salon. “You've got those two lovely splashy-coloured cats.”

“That's right. The tortoiseshell is Had-I and the calico is But-Known. They're sisters.” Lorinda piled chicken, beef and even cocktail sausages into the thoughtfully provided napkin, prior to transfer into the plastic kitty-bag. For good measure, she took a couple of cheese-and-onion miniature quiches and bit into one recklessly. The cats were indifferent to pastry.

“You want to take some more of these goodies home to your little kitties,” Elsie – yes, that was her name, Elsie –  said understandingly. “There's heaps of food out back – they'll never eat it all. Look” – she thrust the tray at Lorinda – “you take this around and I'll go back and pack up a takeaway for you to bring home to your cats.”

“Oh, well ... thank you.” Lorinda caught the tray as Elsie rushed away. What a nice child. She hoped she had tipped her enough last time she'd had her hair done.

“Lorinda! They've pressed you into service, have they?”

“Aren't you kind? How good everything looks.”

The group she had so lately been eavesdropping on greeted her with enthusiasm and took their pick of her wares.

“I hope this doesn't presage a career change for you,” the scrawny female from the
Sunday Special
miaowed. “I'm
so
looking forward to the next delightful instalment from St. Waldemar Boniface.”

Lorinda bared her teeth at her, just managing to bite back a sharp retort that would betray that she knew what they had just been saying.

“Hold it! Don't move!” It was as well she had been warned or she might have dropped the tray. She clung to it grimly as the wild explosion of black dots blinded her again.
Damn!
If Karla really wanted to murder Jack, there would be no shortage of witnesses to swear that she had been sitting innocently at the bridge table with them at the crucial moment.

“Great! The murder writer as hostess! Would you take a canapé from someone who's killed as many people as Lorinda Lucas has? It will make a great caption.”

“Perhaps one of us should collapse at her feet,” the
Sunday Special
suggested acidly. “That would make a great picture, too.”

“Hey! Terrific!” Jack raised the camera, then lowered it again as no one moved. “Oh, that was a joke, huh? But it's still a great idea. Why don't we do it?”

This time Lorinda moved, sliding quietly away from the group while Jack was still looking hopefully from face to face. Really, the man was impossible! What had Karla ever seen in him in the first place?

And what was taking Elsie so long? She had to get rid of this tray before Jack came after her again. Lorinda veered over to a marble table that was so much a part of the wall that it seemed to be growing out of it and rested her tray on it, shoving aside two bowls of olives, an ashtray, a saucer of peanuts and a flower arrangement.

“Good work!” She was not alone. Macho materialized at her side, eyes gleaming as he reached for a napkin and began loading it up with chicken kebabs.

“Clever you!” Gemma appeared on her other side and reached for the medallions of beef. “Just what we needed – a tray of our own.”

“For heaven's sake!” They were shameless. Lorinda cast an anxious glance around to make sure they were unobserved – at least by their host. “Be careful!”

“I don't care who sees me,” Macho said defiantly, but he took an uneasy look over his shoulder.

“What about who photographs you?” Lorinda pointed out, as a series of flashes went off in the distance. “Talk about grounds for blackmail!”

“He'd better not try it,” Macho growled. “Anyway, there's nothing blackmailable about it. It's not a criminal offense.”

“Quite right.” Freddie appeared behind them. “It may be impolite, in bad taste and a trifle shoddy, but it's not an indictable offense.”

“It's always nice to know what your friends really think of you,” Macho said sourly.

The others regarded Freddie unmoved. It was all right for her, she was petless at the moment. There would be no hopeful little eyes to greet her when she returned home.

“Sorry you disapprove,” Gemma said. “We can't put any canapés back now though, it would look even worse – and so would they.”

“Never mind.” Freddie shrugged and turned to Lorinda. “The great Plantagenet sent me over to fetch you. Your editor wants to talk to you.”

“Where is she?” Lorinda looked around. “I didn't see her here.” A strange man was talking to Plantagenet Sutton, but the familiar face she expected to see was nowhere in sight.

“It's a New York editor, I think,” Freddie said vaguely. “A new one.”

“Oh, not another new one!” She might have guessed; the permanent tan on the stranger's face marked him out as transatlantic. “Every time I get a letter from New York, there's a different signature. Can't these people ever stay put?”

“It's happening here, too, these days,” Freddie said. “Just remember the old adage: Be nice to the people you meet on the way up, you'll meet them again on the way down – and they'll be even more in need of kindness then.”

Plantagenet Sutton and the new editor were both looking in her direction now. Lorinda waved to them and nodded to signal that the message had been received and would be acted upon as soon as possible. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Elsie approaching with a freshly laden tray and winced inwardly. She moved slightly to one side, so that Macho was shielding her, and hoped the transfer of booty could be made inconspicuously.

“There you are,” Elsie greeted her, and leaned closer to whisper in her ear. “Too many people around. I'll fill one of those little plastic tubs and leave it outside the back door. You can pick it up on your way home.”

“Wonderful!” Lorinda beamed at her gratefully and went to meet her new editor unburdened and with a moderately clear conscience.

By the time she was able to get away, the party was breaking up. Freddie and Macho were nowhere in sight. The local catering staff had also disappeared and only Betty Alvin and Gordie Crane were still on duty, looking tired and tight-lipped, collecting up the used glasses as soon as they were set down and carrying them away to the improvised pantry behind the screens. A clear signal the party was over.

Plantagenet Sutton's wavering gaze did not quite focus on Lorinda as she thanked him for a delightful party and made her escape.

Outside, she hesitated. The night seemed extraordinarily dark and a chill wind was rising. The moon was hidden behind thick clouds, presaging rain, and trees and bushes rustled ominously. She shivered involuntarily.

The streetlamp marking the turning into the narrow aperture that was Coffers Passage seemed to have burned out. No wonder the night seemed so much darker.

It took her a long moment to argue herself into taking the short cut. Yes, it was dark. Yes, it looked sinister. Yes, it was the sort of thing she groaned about when one of the colleagues sent the heroine into such a foolhardy venture. But this was real life; this was Brimful Coffers, not some urban jungle with danger lurking around every comer. Of course, it was a perfectly safe thing to do and it would enable her to pick up the cats' treats and get home so much more quickly.

She was halfway down Coffers Passage when she heard the faint echoing footsteps.

They were so faint... even furtive ... that she could not tell whether they were behind her or in front of her.

She looked over her shoulder. Nothing moved in the long dark alley behind her. Nor did anything seem to be looming menacingly in the shadows ahead.

There was a perfectly simple explanation. The last guests were still leaving the party, she was hearing their footsteps as they walked along the pavement outside Coffers Court. Sounds carried strangely in the still night air, often distorted and seeming to come from a different direction.

Nevertheless, she quickened her own steps, instinctively tilting forward onto her toes to minimize any sounds she might make. The end of the passage seemed an endless length away; she moved toward it steadily, forcing herself not to run.

As she reached the end of the passage and turned into the back street, she realized that the footsteps were no longer audible. The relief that swept over her left her feeling silly. There had never been any threat in them – why had she allowed them to disturb her so? The dark night and restless wind preying upon her imagination probably, not to mention the lavishness with which the catering staff had dispensed the champagne.

She walked purposefully along the vine-covered wall that enclosed the back garden of Coffers Court and opened the narrow wooden door set discreetly into the wall. It was usually kept locked, but not tonight; the caterers and delivery people would have needed access all evening.

The little round white plastic carton was waiting in a corner of the top step, right where Elsie had promised it would be, just visible in the dim glow of the light from the windows looking onto the garden.

It was heavier than she expected, Elsie must have crammed it full. Just as she began to pick it up, there was a sudden high-pitched burst of unamused laughter from somewhere eerily close at hand.

Lorinda nearly dropped the carton. As it slipped, she heard a faint clink – what else had she dropped? Her groping hand encountered something small and flat and cold. Automatically, she gathered up the object and squinted at it in disbelief.

BOOK: Canapés for the Kitties
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