Purrfect Comics (Max 84) Preview

Purrfect Comics (Max 84) Preview

This looks like a job for Max!

When the creator of the Kellys, the popular comic strip, was found murdered, it set in motion a chain of events that made me question the nature of divinity, beauty and perfection. Gran discovered that she was in actual fact a goddess, and enjoyed the adulation she received from her devotees. Marge discovered that reading can be harmful after it put her in a coma. And Dooley discovered he wasn’t Dooley but a cat named Smokey. Along the way I discovered that my success as a sleuth rubbed a member of my family the wrong way, and that I may be a lot of things, but perfect I definitely am not!

Prologue

Aubrey Allgood had been working like a madman to finish his next pages on time when he thought he heard a noise. He took off his headphones—a necessary requirement if you want to preserve your peace of mind and focus on the project at hand—and listened intently. When he didn’t hear anything, he placed the headphones back on his head and continued working on the final drawings of his new magnum opus: the continued adventures of the Kellys. He had recently been selected as the new artist to continue the comic book series made famous by Lenny Hawksley, also known as Hawk, and was stuck to a tight schedule. And since he didn’t want to disappoint his publisher, Hawk, or the reading audience, which numbered in the millions, he was determined to make this the best thing he’d ever done. And since he was modestly famous in his own right because of his creation of Jump, the series that had put him on the map and had brought him to the attention of Hawk when the latter had expressed a desire to retire and give his cult comics a new lease on life by selecting an artist to keep creating it for the next generation, this represented a huge deal to him.

He sat back and admired his own pencil work. The next step in the process was the inking, and then the last stage was to hand everything over to the colorist, to add his unique stamp on the collaborative effort. The end result would be a new installment in the beloved comics, hopefully approved not only by the original creator but also by the fans.

Aubrey glanced up when a shadow fell over his desk, and when he found himself staring into a well-known face, at first he wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Did Tisha let you in?” he asked, referring to his daughter, who, as far as he knew, wasn’t home at that moment. Unless she had returned and let this person in.

And that’s when he saw the knife. It was a big butcher’s knife and if he wasn’t mistaken, the person wasn’t wielding it as a token of his appreciation or fondness for the artist. But before he could defend himself, the man had already stuck that big knife into his throat. As he watched his own blood spurt across the pages of his version of the Kellys, the only thought that crossed his mind was that it was such a pity that the drawings were spoiled now, and that he’d have to do them all over again.

But then he slumped head-first onto the drafting table and knew no more.

 

* * *

 

The killer watched with a curiosity bordering on the morbid as the artist fell from his chair and toppled to the floor. As he scanned the drawings on the page Aubrey had been working on, a thought struck him that he found very amusing indeed: they weren’t half as bad as he had expected. Quite the contrary. They looked almost… inspired. As if the artist had been eager and excited to work on this project, and hadn’t merely seen it as his next meal ticket, as many Kelly family fans surmised.

The killer picked up a drawing and studied it. Especially the way he had portrayed the lead female character was better than he had feared. It wasn’t as good as the original, of course, but then nothing ever could be. And as he took a piece of cloth and carefully mopped up the blood, he collected all the original artwork he could find, put it in a large art folder and took off. The odd thing was that he should have felt sorry for the artist, but didn’t. It told him that he might be a psychopath after all. Or, as he liked to think, that he had done the world a favor and had carried out what thousands had hoped he would.

Chapter One

Dooley had been staring at Harriet’s tablet for the past half hour, to the extent that I was starting to get a little worried about my friend. Screen addiction is real, and I hoped he wouldn’t have fallen into that particular trap. And so I jumped down from my perch on the couch and joined him on the tabletop, where he had discovered Harriet’s gadget and had been busily checking it out. When I glanced down at the tablet and saw what he was looking at, great was my surprise when it wasn’t an Instagram page by some pet influencer or the latest news from the Gazette but the comics section of a national paper.

He looked up when he became aware of my presence and smiled. “This is so funny, Max. Did you know about this?”

“Know about what?” I asked. I have to admit that the comics section has never held a great deal of appeal to me, and even though it looked nicely drawn, it didn’t seem all that attractive even now.

“It’s about a family of five and their pets,” he said, “and together they have all kinds of adventures, some funny and some not so funny, but always exciting and interesting.”

“Is that a fact?” I said, yawning.

“You see, the dad is a professor and he works at a university, his wife runs an art gallery and meets all kinds of interesting people—artists, mostly. They also have a daughter and a son and a baby boy, and then of course there’s assorted family and friends. But the most interesting thing is that they have both a cat and a dog. Don’t you find that fascinating, Max?”

“Absolutely,” I said, not wanting to rain on his parade. When my friend is excited about something, I always feel it’s my duty to stimulate that excitement and make sure he understands that he will always have my full support, even when it concerns something as uninspired as a newspaper comic strip.

“The thing is, why doesn’t Odelia have a dog, Max? I mean, she could have easily adopted one many times, seeing as we’ve met lots and lots of dogs over the course of our own adventures. And some of those pets have owners that are now languishing in prison. She could have adopted Moochie, for instance,” he said, referring to a doggie whose owner had done a bad thing and had been duly caught and punished. “And I’m sure there are others.”

“I don’t know if that would be a good idea,” I said, horrified at the notion of having to welcome a dog into our household. Just when things were going so well. It would upset the apple cart to such an extent that I didn’t think it was advisable. And Odelia seemed to understand that, for she had never mentioned the suggestion to me, even though her husband Chase is a self-confessed dog person.

“Also, there’s Grace,” I said. “Not all dogs are safe to be around babies, Dooley.”

“Oh, but surely some of the smaller ones are perfectly safe?” he said. “And some of the bigger ones also. Take Rufus, for instance. He’s big but he’s such a sweet dog.”

“Well, that’s exactly the point,” I said. “Rufus is practically part of our family as it is, and also Fifi,” I added, referring to our neighbor’s Yorkshire Terrier. “So there’s absolutely no need for Odelia to adopt a dog.” Also, with four cats to contend with and an infant, I had a feeling that Odelia already had enough on her plate as it was, without feeling the need to add another pet to the mix.

“I think it would be a lot of fun to adopt a dog,” said Dooley stubbornly. “Like the dog in these comics, you know. Ralph, his name is. And he’s so enterprising and so goofy, and a real credit to his humans.”

“What’s the cat’s name?” I asked.

“Smokey,” he said. “He used to belong to the neighbor, but then the neighbor died and her husband wanted to get rid of him so the Kellys adopted him.”

“That’s the name of this family, is it? The Kellys?”

“Yes, that’s right. The comics have been going strong for years and years—decades, probably. But now the man who’s been drawing it is going to retire and he’s handing the comic strip over to a new artist. Wait, I’ll show you the article.” He flicked through the pages on the tablet until he had finally landed on the interview he was referring to. It looked like a nice spread, with the artist interviewed in his own home, and showing some of his new artwork that he had already completed.

“He’s been hand-picked by Lenny Hawksley to continue the Kellys, and it’s a great honor for him as he’s been a big fan of the comics since he was a kid himself and used to read it in the paper every day.”

“Great stuff,” I murmured, and already regretted having descended from my nice spot on the couch. Comics may be a lot of fun for humans, but for me they’re not all that interesting. Except Garfield, of course. He’s hilarious. “Well, good for him,” I said as I made to hop back down from the table.

As a rule, Odelia doesn’t appreciate it when her cats jump on the dinner table, especially when dinner is served, but not even when it’s not served. She seems to feel that our place is on the floor or in the spots she has selected for us. The tabletop or the kitchen counter? Definitely off-limits. Also the kitchen stove, but then I can understand why. It does get a little hot for our paws up there, as some pets have found out to their detriment when they jumped on top of a burning stove and didn’t like the experience.

“Maybe we should get down from the table,” I said therefore. “Before Odelia walks in and makes us.”

“I guess so,” said Dooley as he followed my example and hopped down onto a chair and then to the floor. “I still think we should consider adopting a dog, Max. I think it would be a lot of fun. And then we can all have adventures as a family, you know.”

“We do have adventures as a family,” I pointed out. “In fact, we’ve been having adventures as a family for a long time, and we didn’t need a dog to have them.”

“No, but you know what I mean,” he said, even though I really didn’t. “The Kellys seem to have such a great time together. That Ralph is so funny. In yesterday’s episode, he got his nose stuck in a pickle jar.” He laughed. “Can you imagine? A pickle jar! I just laughed and laughed and laughed!”

I shivered, as I didn’t think getting one’s nose stuck in a pickle jar was all that much fun. But then I guess in these comics, life is different than in reality. Comic characters can fall from an airplane and land safe and sound in some meadow, say hello to a passing cow, and move on with their day. In real life, that doesn’t often happen. And so I didn’t think having the pleasure of the presence of a dog in your life was as much fun as it was in this Kellys comic strip, but since I could sense that Dooley was in one of his wistful moods, I decided not to argue with him, since it was a moot point anyway. No way was Odelia ever going to adopt a dog, and so belaboring the point was simply a waste of energy.

And we had been lying peacefully on the couch when Dooley asked his next pertinent question, and I had a feeling it related directly to the comics he’d been perusing. “Max? Do you think Odelia and Chase will have another baby?”

“I’m sure at some point they might,” I said carefully, even though I sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be for a long time to come. One kid in the home was quite enough, I thought.

“When they do, they should have a boy,” said Dooley. “Just like the Kellys. They have a daughter who’s seventeen and a son who is twelve and a baby who’s eighteen months…” He thought some more. “Max? How old is Grace now?”

“Um… no idea,” I said. “Two months, maybe?” Though it could be two years, of course, or twenty. That’s the problem with cats: we have no conception of time!

“I think it’s time that Odelia and Chase started working on that second one,” said Dooley determinedly. “Just like the Kellys. And then a third one and a dog. That way we can have our own Kelly family, Max. Wouldn’t that be great?” He gave me such a big smile I didn’t have the heart to tell him I thought it was a pretty lousy idea. So instead I gave him two thumbs up and hoped that would suffice to make him keep his tongue long enough for me to continue my nap. Wishful thinking, of course.

“Though if Odelia and Chase are serious about becoming the Kellys, they should also change jobs,” he said. “Chase should become a professor in economics and Odelia should open an art gallery. And we should all move to Seattle, because that’s where the Kellys live.”

“And we should get rid of three cats,” I said with a yawn, “because the Kellys only have one cat named Smokey, don’t they?”

When he didn’t respond, I glanced over and saw that he was staring back at me with a look of perturbation. “But, Max!” he said. “You’re absolutely right! Which means…” He blinked a couple of times. “Which means...” He blinked some more. “Which means they’ll have to choose one of us!”

Chapter Two

Odelia was at the office when she heard the news. Even though the Gazette didn’t publish cartoons or comics, she was aware of how popular the Kellys were and what a legend its creator, Hawk, was. So when her editor stormed into her office and told her that Hawk’s chosen successor, Aubrey Allgood, had been found dead, she was as shocked as he was.

“Hasn’t your husband called you yet?” asked the aged editor. “He’ll probably be in charge of the investigation, won’t he?”

“I guess so,” she said. Which also meant that she would probably be asked to tag along, as her uncle seemed to feel that she and Chase formed a great team and had done so ever since the detective had moved to Hampton Cove from New York and had transferred from the NYPD to its much smaller and more modest local counterpart, the HCPD.

“This is such a shame,” said Dan as he took a seat at the edge of her desk. “I know the guy, you know.”

“You mean, like, personally?” she asked.

He nodded. “He’s a fishing buddy. Great guy. Absolutely wonderful. And funny! You can’t believe how many times he’s made me crack up. And you know that I don’t laugh easily unless the joke is really, really good. Jaded, I guess, after forty years in this job.”

“You must feel terrible, Dan,” she said. “My condolences.”

He looked up. “Hm? Oh, but I wasn’t talking about the dead guy. No, I was talking about Hawk, the original artist and creator of the strip. I’ve never met this new guy. Though if Hawk picked him he must be terrific at what he does. I remember him telling me as recently as last year that he didn’t think he could retire until he’d found a worthy successor who could take over the Kellys.”

“So now he’ll have to find someone else.”

“I guess so. Though I can’t imagine it’ll be easy. Finding Allgood took him two years. It’s not just the talent of the artist, you see, but you also need to have a certain facility with language, as well as the capability to create a fun story. And that’s where most artists are lacking, according to Hawk. Well, anyway, I guess he’ll figure it out. It’s his legacy, after all.” He got up from her desk. “When Chase calls, tell him I said hi. And tell him that my friend has an alibi.”

She stared at her editor. “What do you mean?”

“Just in case,” he said, as he gave her desk a tap. “I know how you detectives think: everyone is a suspect, unless you’ve got a solid alibi.”

“But what would be the motive?” asked Odelia. “Why would Hawk kill the only man who could take over his comic strip?”

“No idea,” said Dan with a shrug. “But I’m sure Chase will think of something.” He grinned. “He always does.”

And before she could ask him what this alibi of Dan’s friend consisted of, the editor had walked out and returned to his own office.

He hadn’t been mistaken, for he hadn’t even closed the door before Chase was already on the phone.

“We’ve got a case,” he told her.

“I know,” she said, surprising her hubby. “It’s Aubrey Allgood, isn’t it? Been murdered?”

“How… how did you know? Are you psychic now?”

“Dan just told me.”

“And how did he know? I only found out myself just now.”

“No clue,” she said, and figured it might not be a bad idea to wait before mentioning the fact that one of the possible suspects was a close personal friend of Dan’s until she had been apprised of all the facts pertaining to the case.

After she had hung up, she wondered if she should go home to fetch her cats, Max and Dooley, and by extension Harriet and Brutus. They were often a great help when dealing with these types of cases, since they could talk to witnesses that she didn’t have access to, most notably any pet who might have been on the premises when the murderer had struck. But then she decided against it. Chase had told her to hurry up, for the coroner was already at the scene, and they’d start asking questions when the detective assigned to the case arrived late. And so she grabbed her coat and hurried out, but not before sticking her head into her editor’s office and announcing that she was popping out to look into the death of Aubrey Allgood.

“See?” said Dan. “What did I tell you?”

Moments later she was out the door and on her way to the precinct, where her husband was already waiting in his squad car so they could tackle this case together, as they had tackled many cases together since she had made the lanky detective’s acquaintance. Back then, they’d been at each other’s throats all the time, since Chase didn’t agree with the insertion into his investigations of his boss’s niece, whom he considered a nosy parker of the first order. Now, though, they were a well-oiled team, and even though it was unorthodox for a reporter to team up with a detective, they both had their roles to play, and did them well.

“No cats?” he asked when she stepped into the vehicle and hoisted herself onto the passenger seat and buckled up.

“No cats,” she confirmed. “I figured time was of the essence, and if we need them, we can bring them in on this later.”

“Right,” he said, and put the car in gear. “I hope you’re ready for this, babe,” he said with a grim-faced expression.

“That gruesome, huh?”

“Pretty gruesome,” he agreed. “Killer stuck the knife into the victim’s throat and nearly cut his head clean off.”

“Lots of blood,” she surmised.

“You can say that again. Worst part is that he was found by his daughter, who almost had a heart attack.”

“How old is she?”

“Fifteen. Got home from school and found her dad on the floor of his office, bled out. According to the first officer at the scene, she screamed so loud that her next-door neighbors heard it and went round to check on her. That’s when they called it in and the unfortunate man was found. Turns out that the girl had tried to revive her dad, and when that didn’t work, had begged one of the neighbors, who’s a nurse, to take over. The nurse had to explain to her that nothing could bring her father back.”

“Poor kid,” said Odelia, who felt for the teenager. “What about a partner?”

“Guy was divorced and lived alone with his daughter. The mother had visitation rights but he had custody.”

“She’ll have to go and live with her mom now, I suppose.”

“Yeah, and the problem seems to be that she doesn’t get along with her mom or her mom’s new husband. Which is why she had asked to go and live with her dad after the divorce.”

“No sign of the killer?”

“Nothing,” he said, shaking his head. “Nobody saw anything. Which is odd, since it’s a regular row house and the neighbors were home both on the left and the right of the house. It’s possible that the killer gained access via the back door and also left the same way, making his way across the fence and then through a bunch of small pathways that criss-cross behind the houses and can take you anywhere in next to no time.”

“No cameras, I presume?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Not even on the street, though if it’s true that he came in through the back that wouldn’t have done us any good.”

“So there’s the daughter and the dad, and nobody else that lived at the house?”

“No, except for a dog and a cat,” he said, giving her a quick sideways glance.

She rolled her eyes. “I knew I should have picked up Max and Dooley first.”

“We can still pick them up now?” he suggested.

“But I thought you said time was of the essence?”

“It is, but even more important is that we catch the guy that did this. And if Max and Dooley can be instrumental in that happening, I say we pick them up before we drive over to the house.”

“Will my uncle agree?”

“Your uncle is not in charge of this investigation,” he reminded her. “I am. And I say we pick up our star detective and his sidekick before we get this investigation on the road, babe.”

And so it was decided: they’d pick up the cats and ask them to talk to the pet witnesses. She just hoped they’d be home, as both Max and Dooley had a habit of going walkabout when the mood struck. And if that was the case, she might not be able to find them before they returned home later that day.

Chapter Three

Vesta checked the map on her phone again and wondered if she had entered the wrong address.

“No, it should be here,” she told Scarlett.

“Are you sure?” asked her friend. “This doesn’t look like a restaurant, honey.”

It certainly didn’t. As far as she could tell, there had never even been a restaurant in the building they were looking at. “According to Google, this should be it,” she confirmed.

“Maybe it’s around the back somewhere?”

“Maybe,” she said, though what restaurant would hide its entrance from plain view? It wouldn’t attract a lot of customers if that were the case, that was for sure. But since they were there and determined to find the restaurant that was rumored to be the best restaurant in town and a hidden gem by the restaurant critic of the Times, they walked around the building in search of this elusive place. The fact that a Times critic had designated the restaurant the best one in town—their town—the town where they had lived all of their lives—was one of those mysteries they had set out to get to the bottom of.

“Oh, darn it,” said Scarlett as she tried to traverse a mountain of detritus with her high heels.

“Try not to break a leg,” Vesta told her friend. She was having a hard time navigating the uneven terrain herself, in spite of the fact that she was wearing her sensible sneakers as usual.

Moments later, they stood eyeing the back of the building, which was as broken down as the front.

“No, this is definitely not a restaurant,” she said, with a touch of disappointment. She had been looking forward to paying a visit to this place and experiencing what the Times critic described as a culinary explosion of wondrous taste and experience. Now it looked as if they’d have to go to their usual place instead, which wasn’t bad, as restaurants went, but nothing that a Times critic would describe as a feast of taste and an explosion of culinary delight.

And they were about to traverse that pile of rubble once again when suddenly she thought she saw someone observing them from one of the upstairs windows of the broken-down structure.

“Did you see that?” she asked.

“See what?” asked Scarlett, who was removing a piece of toilet paper from her shoe.

“Upstairs. I thought I saw someone looking at us from that window over there.” She pointed to the window, and just as she did, the same person now appeared in a different window on the floor just below the one he had been at before. “There!” she said. “He’s back, and looking at us again!”

This time Scarlett had looked where her friend was pointing and confirmed, “Yeah, looks like there’s someone living in that old pile of junk. Probably not the owner of the restaurant, though. Could be the chef?” she said, trying to make a joke, but the joke fell a little flat as she wasn’t really a joker by nature.

It’s not easy to tell a joke and have it land just so, and unfortunately it was not a talent that either of the two friends possessed. Stand-up comedians they would never be—not even sit-down comedians.

“Let’s take a closer look,” Vesta suggested.

“What? Are you kidding? It’s probably a squatter.”

“So? Squatters are people, too, Scarlett. And maybe he can tell us where to find this restaurant.”

And without waiting for her friend’s response, she set foot toward what had once been the back door to the house but was now helplessly dangling from its one remaining and rusty hinge. She pushed it aside in resolute fashion and entered the domicile, hoping to have a word with whoever it was that seemed to have picked this place as their home.

“This is such a bad idea,” said Scarlett.

She was probably right. If the outside had been bad, inside was even worse. Clearly over the years a host of people had resided there, but none of them had done anything to improve the general outlook of the place—quite the opposite. Whoever this squatter was, an interior decorator, he was not. And so as they passed through what must have been the kitchen at one point—an old fridge seemed to attest to that, as did a countertop that had seen better days—and into the living room, they discovered a room that had been turned into a graffiti artist’s paradise, with barely an empty spot remaining that was still pristine and hadn’t been spray-painted in riotous color. Everywhere they looked, cigarette butts were strewn about, as well as old clothes, blankets, dirty mattresses, and drug paraphernalia. All in all not a pleasant place to live in. And most certainly not the feast of culinary delight they had been looking for, unless you enjoy your restaurants off-piste.

Just then, she heard the sound of a struggle upstairs and as she exchanged a silent look with her friend, they slowly made their way to the corridor to have a look-see. The stairs that led to the second floor were as bare as the rest of the place, with the stone that had once been attached to the cement base having been torn out, with only a few remnants remaining, and the walls having been subjected to the same treatment as the living room.

“I’ll get you for this!” a voice declared.

“Not if I get you first!” a second voice announced.

“Maybe we shouldn’t get involved,” Scarlett suggested.

But just then a head peeked out at them from upstairs, and when it saw the two older ladies, it seemed incensed by their presence. “What are you people doing here!” the figure demanded loudly.

“We’re looking for the Chiltern Firehouse restaurant,” said Vesta, who was starting to get a little scared now. Especially since neither she nor Scarlett were carrying a weapon of any kind. “You wouldn’t happen to know where we can find it, would you? According to Google Maps it’s supposed to be here.”

“Don’t move! I’m coming down!” the figure now declared, gripping the banister tightly.

As promised, he started making his way down the stairs, looking at her in quite a menacing way. It certainly didn’t give her a warm and fuzzy feeling, and her next statement was a reflection of that.

“I think we better get out of here!” she told her friend. “Now!”

Scarlett didn’t need to be told twice and was already making a break for the front door, which was probably a good idea as it was a lot closer than the back door at that point. Unfortunately for them, the door had been barricaded, possibly to keep out the cops, and as both Vesta and Scarlett frantically searched around for a different escape route, the strange man had already joined them in the corridor.

He was a large fellow, with arms that seemed to descend all the way to his knees. He was dressed in a long flowing robe that had seen better days and reminded Vesta of a member of some cult, especially when a second person now joined the first one, and he also wore the same type of outfit, and in the same color, too—a vivid orange. Around their necks, the two men wore a sort of beaded necklace with a locket depicting a woman who looked oddly familiar. And as the men got ready to attack them, determined to give as good as she took, Vesta picked up the only weapon she could find in the form of a heavy brick and held it out, ready to hit the man over the head with it.

Scarlett was following the same script and also availed herself of a similar brick, and just when she thought that this was it