Purrfect Ghost (Max 71) Preview

Purrfect Ghost (Max 71) Preview

Chapter One

Holly Mitchell checked the big chest of toys in the living room for a sign of her daughter’s security blanket. Ruby, who was four, had been crying up a storm all day, wondering where her precious rabbit-shaped blankie could be. She had probably dropped it somewhere, or possibly their teacup Chihuahua Babette had taken the blanket and buried it out in the backyard. But wherever it was, she better find it. Ruby’s big brother Sylvester had been trying to comfort his little sister, but to no avail. Without Mr. Longears she simply would not be comforted.

“Here, give her this,” said Holly’s mom, and surreptitiously handed Holly a blankie that looked almost indistinguishable from the original. “I got it from the same store,” she added under her breath. The four of them had gone to the mall that evening, and had just now arrived home.

“I guess it’s worth a shot,” Holly said, and proceeded to make a big display of ‘discovering’ Mr. Longears under one of the couch cushions. “Ooh, look who I found!” she cried.

Ruby’s face lit up like a Christmas tree, but as she grabbed for her precious toy, she said, “He smells funny!”

“That’s because I washed him,” Holly explained. “Even rabbits need a bath sometimes.”

Ruby gazed up at her with those big eyes of hers, then smiled a gummy smile and proceeded to bury her face into her blankie. “I missed you, Mr. Longears!” she declared solemnly. “Don’t run away again!”

“Mission accomplished,” Holly told her mom with satisfaction. The mystery of the missing blankie hadn’t been solved, but at least Ruby was happy again, and that was all that mattered.

It wasn’t always easy to raise two kids on her own, but fortunately she got a lot of help from her mom and dad. After her husband Eric had died in a freak accident four years ago, she suddenly found herself a widow, and the adjustment, coming on top of the grief of Eric’s death, had been painful. But somehow they had all managed to find a new normal and adjust as well as they could. Even though the kids still asked about their daddy from time to time, especially Sylvester, who had been four at the time, they didn’t seem to have been adversely affected too much. They both did well in school, and Holly tried to make their home as warm and cozy and happy as she could.

“I don’t think you should go,” her mom now said.

“Why? Can’t you babysit them?” she asked.

“No, it’s not that. It’s just that…” Mom made an ineffectual gesture with her hand. “I don’t know. Maybe this is just me being silly, but I’ve just got a bad feeling about this, you know. Especially since…” She glanced over to where the kids were sitting on the couch, both admiring Mr. Longears.

“It’s not going to happen again, Mom,” Holly assured her. “Freak accidents are exactly that: freakish in their rarity. It’s not going to happen again,” she repeated, more to herself than to her mom. It was true that the same thought had entered her mind when her boss had selected her to give a sales presentation to their Boston team. Eric, too, had been on his way to an important presentation when his car suddenly veered off the road and had crashed into a ditch. No other drivers had been on the road that night, and the brakes on his car had functioned perfectly. The insurance company and the police had conducted their investigations, but neither had been able to explain what caused Eric’s car to careen off the road like that. And now she would be heading to the same hotel in the same city to give a presentation. If her boss had known about what happened to her husband, maybe he wouldn’t have selected her. But then she wasn’t the kind of person who liked to discuss her private affairs.

“Okay, so maybe you can tell them that now is not a good time,” her mom suggested. “That you need to be with your family right now? Maybe tell them that Ruby is, I don’t know, teething?”

Which wasn’t a lie, since the last of Ruby’s baby teeth had recently started appearing. In that sense she was definitely a latecomer, but according to the dentist it was nothing to worry about.

“If I did that, they’d simply select someone else to give the presentation, Mom.”

“So? Is that so bad?”

“It would also put me down a few pegs in the pecking order. Next time a big presentation comes up, they’ll think twice about asking me. And before you know it, I’ll be gently pushed toward the exit.”

“That’s a pretty inhumane way to run a company.”

“Inhumane or not, they want to know they can always rely on me.”

“It’s the anniversary of Eric’s…” She glanced over to the kids, then whispered, “Well, you know.”

“Of course I know, Mom. But if I let Eric’s death control my life like that, I’ll never go anywhere ever again. Accidents happen, and just because it happened to Eric doesn’t mean it will happen to me.”

“Maybe you could ask someone to drive you,” Mom mused. “Book an Uber, maybe?”

“It’s fine. I’ll be careful,” she promised.

“And call me every hour on the hour to let me know how you’re doing.” She frowned. “Or maybe we should turn it into a family trip? We could all join you. The kids, me, your dad. You know, we could see the city while you do whatever it is that you have to do, and then we’ll meet up at the hotel and have a good time. That way I won’t spend the whole weekend worrying about you.”

She smiled at her mom. “That’s sweet of you, Mom, but it’s really not necessary. I’ll be all right.”

“Who’s talking about you? I’ll be worried sick, and I’m not even talking about your dad. With his heart condition, he shouldn’t be put through the wringer like this.”

Holly thought about this. Her mom was right, of course. It was bad enough that Dad had lost his beloved son-in-law. If he ever lost his daughter too, that would be the end of him. But then she knew she couldn’t think like that, or she would never venture out of the house again—ever. So instead, she decided to change the topic. “So have you and Dad decided on the big move yet?”

Mom made a throwaway gesture with her hand. “Oh, forget about that. Your dad will never go along with me on that one. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he wants to keep on living in that house forever—until his dying day. I keep telling him that place is much too big for us, and we should sell and move into something smaller. But you know your dad. The man is as stubborn as a mule. He keeps telling me that when you repot a plant there’s a good chance that it will die. And so if we repot ourselves, there’s always a chance we won’t survive.”

“People aren’t plants, Mom,” she pointed out.

“I know that, and you know that, but try telling that to your dad!”

“Anyway, sooner or later you’ll have to move. That garden doesn’t take care of itself, and neither does the house.”

Mom and Dad had bought the big house anticipating they’d raise a big family. And they had. With five kids in the house, at one time it had seemed too small to accommodate them all, especially when they had hit their teens and needed a lot of personal space. But since they had all left, the house definitely was too big to maintain, and even though they had been gently pushing their dad to sell up and move into a comfortable apartment in town, with an elevator and all the comforts he and Mom needed, the man was refusing to budge.

“Until he finally sees the light,” said Mom, “I’ll have to keep paying Maria to come in twice a week, and Arturio to keep up gardening duties. At least those two are very happy with your dad’s stubbornness.”

To Holly and her siblings their parents’ marriage was the gold standard by which they measured their own relationships. Even after forty years the love and respect they had for each other was still palpable. According to Mom it hadn’t always been that way, and shortly after they were married they had hit a rough patch. But as she liked to tell the story they had worked to overcome their differences, and after having raised five kids who now all had kids of their own, their marriage was stronger than ever. Now if only Dad would let go of the old house. Holly understood, though, and secretly didn’t want them to sell the place either. After all, there were so many memories there—all happy ones.

Holly and her mother watched for a moment as the kids sat transfixed by the new and improved Mr. Longears, with Ruby giving him a million kisses and Sylvester giving his sister a big protecting cuddle. Then Holly went in search of Babette, who had been barking up a storm in the kitchen. She had almost reached the back door, assuming Babette wanted to be let out of the house—they always locked the pet door when they went out—when she almost stumbled over something lying on the floor. She switched on the light and, as she took a closer look, discovered to her horror that it was a man she had never seen before. And if she wasn’t mistaken, the man was very much dead!

Chapter Two

Mark Cooper watched the hullabaloo going on across the street from his bedroom window. There were a lot of lights flashing and police cars coming and going, and he wondered what was going on. As a retired math teacher, he knew the odds of a tragic event taking place in the same family were slim to none, so a second death taking place in the same family was highly unlikely. Probably the mother had taken a bad fall and had to be taken to the hospital, he thought. Or maybe the dad had suffered a cardiac arrest. He hoped the kids were all right. Even though he didn’t like Holly, he wouldn’t want to see any harm come to her kids. After all, they couldn’t help it if their mom was an annoying so-and-so.

The family had definitely suffered through their share of tragedy, with Eric Mitchell dying a couple of years ago. Though this idea that Holly and Eric had been a dream couple was nonsense, of course. Once he’d passed by their house late at night walking Melvin, and he’d heard the couple engaged in a screaming match that had turned his ears red and had even caused Melvin to look up in alarm. Young love, he thought at the time. One minute they’re crazy about each other, and the next they can drink each other’s blood.

According to the scuttlebutt, Eric had died in a road accident. Driven his car into a ditch. Holly had turned from a blushing young bride into a widow overnight, and now, four years on, there was still no sign of a new man in her life. Maybe there would never be one. Some women were like that. They lost the love of their lives and never wanted to remarry again. To be honest, he had also been like that. But then he and Jackie had been together fifty-five years before she passed, which was more than Holly and Eric ever had.

Next to him, Melvin also looked at the house across the street, fascinated by all the bright lights.

“What do you say if we take our walk now, Melvin?” he suggested. He could linger across the road for a while, joining the other rubberneckers and ambulance chasers, and maybe find out what was going on over there. He’d read all about it in tomorrow’s paper, of course, or on the Gazette website. For he’d already seen that Odelia Kingsley woman arrive, along with her husband Chase, the police detective. As usual, they were accompanied by their cats, which struck him as very strange indeed, but then such was life in Hampton Cove. All the eccentrics seemed to flock there. “Must be something in the water,” he told Melvin. And as if he understood what his human was saying, the poodle yapped in agreement.

***

Mae West was just on her way back from the dog park, where she had walked her Alsatian, Roger Moore, when she was struck by the presence of all those police cars on her street. When she drew closer, she saw that they had all gathered at the place where the Mitchells lived, though it was probably more accurate to say that Holly Mitchell lived there, since Eric had died a couple of years ago now, in some tragic accident she didn’t know the details about, nor did anyone else as far as she knew.

“Now what do we have here?” she asked as she approached. The police had cordoned off the area, so she couldn’t actually get close to where the action was, and she joined the other people gawking at the events as they unfolded. She found herself standing next to Mark Cooper. Mark had come out accompanied by his poodle, Melvin, and as the two dogs proceeded to sniff at each other, she and Mark exchanged a greeting. Even though she had never particularly liked Mark, she had always tried to maintain a cordial relationship with the man, if only because they were neighbors and forced to bump into each other on a regular basis, especially since they were both dog owners and met one another in the local dog park every day. All the dog owners on the block were members of the same WhatsApp group and kept in touch that way. But Mark, being one of the more overbearing neighbors she had ever encountered, liked to boss the others around to some extent, something she hated.

Her husband, Julio, had always said about Mark that if he had been a general in the army, his own soldiers would have turned against him and shot him. But since they were merely neighbors and Mark wasn’t a general but a retired math teacher, no shootings had occurred so far.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“No idea,” said Mark. “It started about an hour ago. First, one police car arrived, then an ambulance, then this whole fleet of police cars. That Kingsley reporter went in with her detective husband, so it must be something big if those two are involved.”

Mae knew just what Mark was referring to. Chase Kingsley and his wife were big on handling murder inquiries, of which there had been far too many recently. So if they had gone in, this couldn’t be Holly’s mom who had stumbled over the dog and taken a nasty tumble.

“Do you think… It’s murder?” she asked.

“Has to be,” said Mark, “if the Kingsleys are involved. And the Kingsley woman had her cats along with her, so that probably means they’ll be here all night, sniffing out clues and generally making a big spectacle of things.” He sniffed audibly, and contempt was written all over his features. Not every dog owner hates cats, but Mark sure did. In fact, it wasn’t too much to say he abhorred the species with a vengeance and wouldn’t have minded if cats became extinct at some point.

“I can’t imagine. Murder? Here on our street? But who? And why?”

“Like I said, no idea,” Mark confessed, and he sounded disappointed as he said it.

“You don’t think… Holly?” asked Mae. Even though she wasn’t overly fond of Holly Mitchell, she couldn’t help but feel some measure of sympathy for the woman. After the tragedy that had befallen her, she still did her best to give those kids of hers a good upbringing. Her parents had been a big help, of course, especially Holly’s mom, who was always there to take care of her grandkids.

“I think it must be the mother,” Mark now said. “Maybe they got into a fight and things got out of hand. I just can’t see what else it could be,” he hastened to add when Mae expressed her shock and dismay at these words.

“I just can’t believe it,” she said. “I only hope… It’s not one of those family tragedies you always hear about. You know, that she first killed her kids and then herself.”

Mark’s face contorted into a frown. “I hope you’re right,” he said. “Now that would be a tragedy.”

She glanced up at her neighbor. Rumor had it that Mark Cooper had been sweet on Holly for a while. Though he was far too old for the woman, of course. But it had to be said that Holly Mitchell was an attractive woman. Possibly too attractive for a widow. But then she had become a widow at a very young age. They had only been married a few short years when tragedy struck.

Roger Moore was straining at the leash to take a look, and now she saw what had caused him to become restless. The Kingsleys were walking out of the house, accompanied by their cats. Roger Moore barked at the cats, and so did Melvin. The cats looked a little intimidated, she thought. They were a big red cat and a small fluffy beige-gray one. Odd, she thought, that the Kingsley woman wouldn’t go anywhere without her cats in tow. Then again, she never went anywhere without Roger Moore, so maybe it wasn’t all that odd. Just that people didn’t usually take their cats with them. They might be companion animals, but not when you ventured out of the home.

One of their neighbors shouted a question at the passing detective, but Kingsley merely held up his hand. No comment, the gesture seemed to suggest.

“Who died?” she suddenly found herself piping up. But the couple passed by without deigning her with a response. Looked like they’d have to read about it in the paper or see it on their local news. And since Roger Moore had started tugging on his leash, eager to get home and have a bite to eat, she said goodbye to Mark and headed on home. On the way there, she passed Norma Parkman, the butcher’s wife, and wondered what the woman had done to her face this time.

***

Norma Parkman wondered why that Mae West woman was staring at her as if she had something stuck to her face. But then she was used to being gawked at on a regular basis. Most people she met seemed to find her fascinating to look at, and so over the years, she had begun to consider it a compliment. Her husband Mikel always said it was because she didn’t look like most people, and so they had to adjust their expectations when they first met her. He said she was exotic and had an interesting face. She knew this to be all too true, for when she looked in the mirror in the morning, she sometimes had to adjust her own expectations too. Then again, it was a tough struggle trying to remain as youthful-looking as she did. Oddly enough, it only seemed to become more difficult as the years passed. At fifty-seven, she sometimes felt she was fighting a losing battle, but then Mikel said that was nonsense and she looked every bit as lovely as she had when they first met, back when they were both fresh-faced eighteen-year-olds.

She gave Mike’s leash a light yank and wondered why it was always her who had to take the damn pug for a walk and why Mikel was inside watching television while she was out there being bored to tears while Mike took his sweet time to do his business. When she caught sight of the flashing lights and the array of police vehicles parked in front of the Mitchell place, her first thought was that Holly’s dad had had another stroke. After that first one he’d had a couple of years ago, it was only a matter of time before he suffered a second one, more debilitating this time and possibly deadly. It was always the way, wasn’t it?

She just hoped he hadn’t died. Holly had already had her share of heartache over the years. First Eric had died, and then, as a consequence, Eric’s own dad had suffered cardiac arrest and had turned into a vegetable, only to die six months to the day his son had died. And then Eric’s grief-stricken mother had also died, wilting like a flower, as one of their neighbors had described it. She was a nurse in the hospital where both Eric’s parents had been admitted and said it was as clear a death from grief as she had ever seen.

So now Holly only had her own mom and dad left, and if the good Lord took those away as well, that would be terrible.

Oh, life just wasn’t fair sometimes, was it? Just look at her. Her last boob job had been botched by that terrible surgeon, and now her left boob was slightly bigger than her right, and not only that, but it hung lower than its cousin. Mikel said he didn’t mind, but she sure as heck did. She had already made another appointment at the clinic, but if she had to go under the knife again, it would be her fifth boob job in as many years, and frankly, she was starting to wonder when this would end. And then the girl who’d done her Botox this time must have been asleep on the job, for she had ended up with excruciating pain in her left eye and an eyelid that had refused to remain in place. Almost as if the girl had hit a nerve or something. It was a ghastly sight, and for a whole three days, she had been nervous about waiting on people in the butcher shop, afraid they’d start making comments again behind her back as she knew they always did.

She joined the group of neighbors looking at the scene, and when she saw Chris Goldsworthy, she tiptoed up to him. Chris always knew what was going on in their neighborhood. The man was a veritable fountain of wisdom. Chairman of their local watch committee, he made it his business to be informed. It didn’t hurt that he was also drop-dead-gorgeous handsome. He reminded her of Don Johnson, who she always thought aged very well. “What’s going on, Chris?” she asked. “Who died?”

“I’m not sure,” said Chris, much to her surprise. “I think it must be serious, though, I just saw that detective come and go. Chase Kingsley? And also, the county coroner was in there. Abe Cornwall. So if they were here, it can’t just be a heart attack or some accident—someone falling from the stairs or cutting themselves with the kitchen knife.” He shook his head decidedly. “I think this just might be…”

She stared at him with a mixture of anticipation and dread. “What?”

He turned to her and lowered his voice. “Murder,” he said, and she had the impression he actually took relish in the ghoulish fact.

She shivered. “Murder? But how can that be?”

“Murder happens everywhere, Nonnie,” he said, using his favorite name for her, though he always made sure that Mikel didn’t hear it, since he would only get jealous. That was the problem with Chris: all women adored him, and all men hated him, exactly because of that fact. “Even on our street.”

“Maybe some burglary gone wrong,” she suggested, for she simply couldn’t imagine one member of Holly’s family murdering another member. Holly herself was always so distinguished, so kind and unruffled, in spite of the tragedies that had befallen her. And Holly’s mom was just the same. Nice, well-respected people, Charlie and Bethany Williams.

“You’re probably right,” Chris agreed. “Maybe they caught a burglar, and there was a struggle, and in the process, someone died.”

Norma stared intently at the house, hoping to catch sight of either Holly, the kids, or her parents. But nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“I better run on home,” she announced.

Chris’s lips morphed into a smirk. “To tell Mikel what’s going on?”

“Of course not,” she said, even though he had guessed right. Whenever she had big news to impart, she couldn’t wait to get home and tell her husband. He loved all the gossip from the neighborhood, and she loved supplying it to him. And this was certainly the most exciting gossip they’d had in ages. Not since old Mrs. Rutherford had fallen out with her long-time friend Mrs. Davis, and the two old ladies had engaged in a shouting match that had quickly turned physical, did they have the kind of news that earned the qualification ‘shocking.’

She just wished she could ascertain who had died. Now that would be a scoop! But if even Chris Goldsworthy didn’t know, she certainly wasn’t going to find out any time soon. Unless…

She took out her phone and opened her WhatsApp app to check the dog walkers’ group.

“Checking the dog walkers’ scuttlebutt?” asked Chris with amusement.

She nodded. Though if Chris didn’t know what was going on, chances were the other members of the WhatsApp group wouldn’t know either, since he was one of the group’s most active members.

“And? Any luck?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she said sadly. “Even Mark Cooper doesn’t seem to know what’s going on, and he lives right across the street.”

They both glanced behind them at the Cooper place. The lights were on, but of Mark, there was no trace.

“Too bad,” said Chris with a sigh. “I probably won’t be able to sleep until I know exactly what’s going on. You?”

“Yeah, I’m the same way,” she admitted. “Stuff like this keeps me up at night.”

“But not Mikel, right?”

“No, not Mikel,” she admitted with a smile. Mikel was an excellent sleeper. Her husband fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow, while she could be tossing and turning all night. Or she would finally nod off, only to be wide awake at three, not able to go back to sleep. It was very annoying, especially since they both had to get up early to open the store. But then that couldn’t be helped.

“That’s because he’s a man with a clear conscience,” Chris declared, and it could be her imagination, but he seemed to be looking at her just that little bit more intently as he said it.

“I better run,” she said. Mikel had sent her a message, she saw, asking her what was taking her so long. He was the best husband in the world, bar none, but he had the annoying habit of being very jealous. Even if a guy looked at her funnily in the store or paid her a compliment, Mikel could get worked up. Good thing he had the good sense never to act on his emotions, especially with the customers, or they could have kissed their business goodbye a long time ago. But even though he rarely said anything, knowing how much it annoyed her, she could feel it when the temperature in their otherwise cozy living room would drop to zero, and he’d sulk and mope all evening before suddenly doing a full about-face and becoming sweet like a pussy cat, showering her with kisses.

One of those psychological quirks, according to a survey in Cosmo she had once read. When you marry a guy, you take the good with the bad, and after all these years, she knew that every guy came with a flaw of some kind. Even Chris Goldsworthy, the most perfect man she had ever met.

But oh boy, did he come with a major flaw!

Chapter Three

It isn’t often that Dooley and I have to postpone our trip to join cat choir because some tragedy happened elsewhere. Mostly, murderers like to stick to business hours and make sure we don’t have to interrupt our regular schedule to mop up the unfortunate aftermath of their nefarious activities. But today was different. Odelia and Chase had already settled in for the evening and were watching some instructive program on television—Project Runway if I’m not mistaken—and Grace had retired to bed for the night, while Dooley and I were just about to step out and join our friends in the park to practice our singing voices when the call came in.

Chase was the one to pick up since he’s the designated cop in our pleasant little household. From his demeanor I could tell that something not all that pleasant had taken place. Normally, when in a resting state, Chase is mostly easygoing, warm-hearted, one might even say fun to be around. But when he turns his mind to murder and mayhem, which basically is what his profession revolves around, his brows knit together in a frown, the corners of his lips turn down, and generally, he behaves as if there’s been a shooting somewhere, which more often than not there has been.

As it turned out a shooting had, in fact, taken place, and our urgent attention was required.

The body had been found by one Holly Mitchell, who happened to live on Russell Street, which is right around the corner from Harrington Street, where we live.

As we walked over there to ascertain how truthful Mrs. Mitchell’s 911 call actually was, Chase gave us some more information to go on. “Body of an unknown male discovered by homeowner Holly Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell lives alone in the house with her two kids and had her mother over for a visit, something that happens very frequently, when she decided to go into the kitchen to let the dog out. That’s when she practically stumbled over the body of this man she had never seen before.”

“Could be a vagrant who