Authors: Angela Pepper
The cat reached a gray paw through the door and waved it, as if to tell me to keep going.
“You’re right. I’m being silly. If I want to fit in here, I need to make an effort. You know, I shouldn’t speak ill of the deceased, but that’s something Mr. Michaels should have done. He isolated himself by choice. Once upon a time, I think he had a girlfriend, back before he moved to our street, but I can’t even imagine it.”
I went quiet for a minute, trying to imagine a younger version of the cranky man, going to some lady’s house with a bouquet of roses. For an instant, I saw his hopeful face clearly, and everything hit me at once.
Mr. Michaels wasn’t just part of the Misty Falls scenery, the scowling cranky guy every small town has, always complaining about the long lineups at the post office or the need for more traffic lights. He was a person, with hopes and dreams, and he liked to read old Western novels, as I recalled. Maybe he had upcoming plans for Christmas, or maybe he didn’t. Now he was gone.
The postcard view in front of me, of snow-peaked mountains framing in colorful streets, blurred as my eyes filled with tears.
Mr. Michaels wouldn’t be getting any more second chances. My heart ached for him, and I began to shiver, thinking of all that snow, packed in tightly around him. Tears flowed freely, cascading down my cheeks.
A car honked. The traffic light was green. I raised my hand in an apology wave and stepped on the gas.
The veterinary clinic was up ahead. I’d driven there without consciously thinking about it—
not that Misty Falls was large enough to get lost in, anyway
. I pulled into an empty parking space and turned off the engine.
I reached over to grab some tissues from the glove box and cleaned up my face, then I checked the time.
I took a moment to be surprised at myself. The last decade of high-stress corporate work had really prepared me for working under any kind of pressure. I’d just captured a difficult cat, discovered a body, had a personal meltdown, and still made it to the vet appointment by 11:15am.
Sirens started blaring nearby. Were they coming to nab me for leaving the crime scene? I guiltily hunched over, hiding as the police car drove past. I kept my head down, my face near the front of the pet carrier.
The cat seized this opportunity to reach through the lattices and smack me on the nose for wrongful imprisonment.
I walked into
the veterinary clinic and set the cat carrier on the counter.
“I’m here to get this cat fixed,” I said.
A rosy-cheeked redhead in her early twenties chirped back at me, “Is your cat broken?” She laughed at her joke, then quickly added, “Just a little veterinary assistant humor to lighten the mood for kitty.”
“I’m sure she appreciates the playful banter before you drug her and rip out her reproductive organs.”
The redhead frowned and held her finger to her lips. “Shh. Not in front of the patient.”
I apologized to the assistant and then to the cat. Someone behind me chuckled in a low, rumbling voice. I jerked my head to look over my shoulder, paranoid the husky mail carrier had tracked me down and was about to make a citizen’s arrest.
The chuckler was just a regular, non-uniformed guy. He looked to be in his early thirties, like me. My eyes wanted to linger on his handsome face, even though he wore a thick, lumberjack beard, and I didn’t like beards.
I tore my attention from him and turned back to the assistant, who was was frowning again.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid we can’t do the procedure you requested,” she said. “This cat is a male.”
“No, she isn’t.”
The guy behind me chuckled again. I ignored him.
The redhead opened the pet carrier door, and the cat sprang out and into her arms. Holding the cat to her chest, she pointed the animal’s back end at me with the tail lifted up.
“Ma’am, female cats don’t have these parts back here. Are you familiar with basic male anatomy?”
The guy behind me snorted, like he was trying to muffle his laughter.
“Fine,” I said through gritted teeth. “I see your point. Girl or boy, the cat still needs to be fixed.”
She gave me a joyful grin that bordered on pure evil. “Why do you keep saying
? Is your cat broken?”
The guy behind me could no longer control himself, and began laughing loudly.
“Listen, I’ve had a rough morning,” I said to the redhead. “How much extra can I pay you to deliver the, um,
deluxe pampering spa treatment
to this cat?” I winked several times to let her know I was trying.
“It’s actually cheaper for males,” she said. “Are you absolutely sure this is your cat?”
“No,” I admitted. “Let’s check the tag on the collar.”
While the veterinary assistant stared at me like I was the worst cat guardian on the planet, I reached over the counter and checked the tag on the collar. Sure enough, the cat did have my father’s address and phone number on its collar tag, but there was no name for the cat. My father, in his usual eccentric way, had listed the cat’s name as THE CAT.
I felt a sudden sense of solidarity with the cat. My father, Finnegan Day, had gone by the nickname of Fine Day when he was a teenager. When my sister and I were born, he insisted on giving us both play-on-words names. She was born on a beautiful summer day, so her name was Sunny. I was born during a storm, hence the name, Stormy Day.
It led to a lot of teasing by boyfriends, who accused me of being moody and dark like my name, but having a temperamental reputation does have some advantages. You bang your fist on the board room table a few times and people remember who you are.
The cat deserved better, though.
I looked at the dark gray cat and thought of a name: Jeffrey.
It was the perfect name.
“Hello, Jeffrey,” I said.
Jeffrey stared back at me with wide green eyes, as if to say,
please don’t make me have the deluxe pampering spa treatment.
The assistant said to me, “Please wait here while we do a preliminary examination, then we can finish Jeffrey’s paperwork.
She backed away with him in her arms.
Jeffrey meowed, as if to say,
I’ll be a good boy, I promise. Where are they taking me? What’s back here in this other room? Mom! Mommy!
The redhead disappeared into the back with Jeffrey. I battled the urge to run after them and rescue him from her evil clutches. Poor Jeffrey. I heard him meow pitifully in the other room, and something in my chest squeezed. Jeffrey and I had been through so much together, from the discovery of the body, to our little heart-to-heart in the car ride over, and now he was going on a cold examination table, and…
A big hand gently patted my shoulder.
“There, there,” said the bearded man. “You are having a rough morning, aren’t you?”
At the touch of human kindness, my icy resolve nearly melted. I wanted to burst out in tears and throw myself into this man’s strong, welcoming arms, but I didn’t. Years of business experience had helped me develop thick skin.
There’s no crying in venture capital.
“I’ll be okay,” I said with a stoic lift of my chin. “It’s Jeffrey I’m worried about. Yesterday, he was a female, and then he spontaneously changed sex overnight. Between you and me, he’s been working too many hours prowling the neighborhood. It’s a lot of stress for such a small cat.”
The mountain man walked over to the water cooler and pulled out two waxed paper cups.
“Sounds rough,” he said. “Don’t worry. He’s in good hands here. Can I buy you a drink?”
He gave me a ruggedly handsome smile that lifted my spirits and the corners of my mouth.
“Better make it a double,” I said as I took a seat.
He filled the cups to the top and came over to sit on a waiting room chair next to me.
“I’m Logan,” he said.
“Of course you are.” I swigged down half the water. “You look like a Logan,” I explained. “All woodsy and stuff, like logs.”
His blue eyes twinkled with amusement. I knew he was waiting for me to introduce myself, but I wasn’t in the mood to be teased about my name, so I just nodded politely, then pulled out my phone to check messages.
There were several alerts about people commenting on the self-portrait I took with the snowman. I nearly spat out the water that was in my mouth.
My old friends were saying things like:
What a dapper new boyfriend you have!
Looks like life in Misty Falls is treating you well.
Great to see you smiling, Stormy!
I hovered my thumb over the button to delete the photo, but paused to consider my options. Yes, it was macabre that I had taken a photo of myself grinning next to a snow-covered corpse, but it was also a great alibi. I wouldn’t have posted the photo online if I were the killer. Or would I?
A new message popped up to take my mind off the snowman picture. It was about getting a tenant for my duplex. I groaned inwardly as I opened the message.
How much worse could things get?
When I’d returned to Misty Falls, my goal was to fully invest myself in the town, so I wouldn’t be tempted back to my old life. Not only did I buy the gift shop, but I also picked up an equally unwise second anchor in the form of a falling-apart duplex near the middle of town.
Both of those purchases seemed like great deals on the surface, and I wanted so badly to believe in my fresh start, so I didn’t look into the deals closely.
It’s personally embarrassing for someone who worked for a decade brokering deals that I did such a lousy job of due diligence when I worked for myself. It’s the curse of being an expert in anything. We’re smart when working for others, but blind when it comes to our own matters. Just have a look at the odd hair some hairstylists have.
The duplex would eventually be fine after some repairs, but I hadn’t anticipated the headaches that came with being a landlady. The rental side had sat empty since I took possession and moved in. I did run some ads and interview a few tenants, but none of them were anywhere near right for the place. Between the guy who showed up wearing an offensive T-shirt about his sexual skills, and the girl who asked how many days a week she could have her band over to practice, I thought I’d never find someone I could share a wall with.
My real estate agent offered to find someone and personally guarantee them. I had little faith in the woman who’d sold me the money pit in the first place, so I expected her new text message to bear even more negativity.
To my surprise, it read:
Great news, Stormy! You have a tenant. He’s a lawyer who just moved to town. Excellent credit rating. I’ll give him the keys tonight, if that’s okay with you?
I smiled at the screen. A lawyer? That sounded like someone who wouldn’t grow his own “smoking herbs” or be late with the rent check. My luck was turning around.
I returned her message:
Yes, go ahead!
She texted back within seconds:
I’ll let him know! You won’t regret this! P.S. He’s cute, and single.
I put my phone away and glanced over at Logan, the bearded mountain man. He was focused on his phone, so he didn’t see me looking over his clothing. He wore a beat-up jacket with holes in the elbows. If I had to guess his vocation, I’d say
His phone beeped with an incoming message. “Yes!” he exclaimed as he fist-pumped the air. “I got it.”
There was nobody else in the waiting room with us, and he’d gotten me curious, so I asked, “Good news? You got a job?”
He gave me a cheeky grin. “Even better. I rented a great place. It’s a duplex in the middle of town.”
“Oh? Um. Great. Congratulations. Actually—”
Before I could tell him I was his new landlady, he leaned over and said, “It’s a total steal, too. My cousin is a real estate agent, and she’s got this nutty big city hotshot as her client.”
Big city hotshot?
What do you mean?” My stomach curdled, and I immediately regretted asking him to explain. I didn’t want to know what people in town were saying about me, if it was bad.
Logan stretched his arms out along the empty chairs on either side of him, getting comfortable.
“I’m not from around here, but I think everyone in Misty Falls knows about this hotshot lady. She’s the one who grew up here, then moved away to make a fortune. She was involved in some technology start-up companies, and she was headed toward becoming a billionaire, but she cracked under the pressure. She had some sort of public meltdown and walked away from everything.”
I swallowed hard. He wasn’t far from the truth, but he didn’t know the whole story. Nobody did.
“And she’s your new landlady?” I asked politely.
He raised his eyebrows. “For as long as I can stand it. My cousin sent me the list of rules for the house. Here, listen to this:
Tenant is responsible for fifty-five percent of the electricity bill.
Isn’t that hilarious? Why not just half? Why fifty-five percent?”
“Maybe the tenant’s square footage is fifty-five percent of the house, and she’s trying to be fair.”
He laughed. “She sounds like one of those uptight Type A ladies who needs one good night with a real man.”