Purrfect Party (Max 81) Preview

Purrfect Party (Max 81) Preview

First Cats vs. First Dogs

There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Harriet sang one of her famous solos, though whether this was an expression of enjoyment or because people’s ears were bleeding has yet to be ascertained. It was the culmination of a story that began when Marge won an exclusive invitation to the president’s birthday party and ended with all of us gathered at this party and fending for ourselves when being confronted with the First Dogs, who didn’t take kindly to the presence of a clowder of cats on the premises. Somewhere along the way, I was the target of a catnapping attempt, a man was murdered in our local park, with another man being kidnapped, and as if all this wasn’t enough to contend with, Harriet expressed a fervent wish to become the First Cat. Whether she succeeded in securing this much-coveted position, you can find out in Purrfect Potus.



Chapter One

“How much longer, Max?”

“I have no idea, Dooley,” I replied honestly.

“This is just ridiculous,” said Brutus with a groan.

“It’s par for the course with these humans of ours,” said Harriet. “Or maybe with humans in general.”

We had been more or less patiently waiting for Odelia to bundle up Grace and get the little girl ready for the daycare center, but our patience was frankly wearing a little thin.

“I don’t get it,” said Brutus. “Why is it that humans always take so long to get ready?”

“It’s because they have a lot of moving parts,” Dooley answered. When we all eyed him with astonishment, he elucidated, “Their hair needs to be just so, their faces too, and don’t even get me started on the rest of their bodies.”

He had a point, of course. Before humans are ready to leave the house, there’s an awful lot of work involved. They need to take a shower, shampoo their hair and then try to make it look nice by combing and brushing it, applying a contraption called a blow-dryer in the process. Their faces need to be creamed, and their eyelashes and eyebrows accentuated with the right amount of eyeliner. There’s a certain type of deodorant that needs to be applied to mask their natural body odor, and that’s only the first part of the process. Add in clothes and shoes, and you can see why it takes them so long to get ready for anything.

“I don’t understand this obsession with personal appearance,” said Harriet, even though her own personal appearance has long been a point of personal pride. “I mean, we don’t use deodorant and yet we always manage to smell nice, don’t we? So why can’t humans be the same?”

“Because humans have this obsession about smelling bad,” Brutus pointed out. He shrugged. “I don’t know why it is, but it’s true. I happen to like smelly pits, but they don’t. The moment their pits smell funny, they go berserk. It’s as if it’s the end of the world.”

“Their pits smell funny when they engage in a lot of physical activity,” said Dooley knowingly. “Physical activity makes them sweat, and humans don’t like it when they sweat. They think it makes them smell bad. That’s why they have to spray themselves with a lot of perfume to mask the smell.”

“It’s a disgrace,” said Harriet, making a face. “They should embrace their natural scent, just like we do. There’s no point in faking it—it just makes you look like a weirdo, always sniffing at your pits.”

“I happen to like the smell of deodorant,” I said, offering the contrarian view for once. When they all offered me a look of surprise, I added, “Not all deodorant, mind you. But I like Odelia’s smell when she’s all deodoranted up.”

“It’s true that she smells sweet,” Dooley agreed. “Sweet with a hint of citrus.”

“Do babies use deodorant, Max?” asked Brutus, looking at me as if I was the world’s foremost authority on babies. “I mean, humans are always going on about how delicious babies smell, so they must use deodorant, right?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Babies seem to smell good on their own.”

“Strange,” said Harriet with a frown. “So why is it that babies smell good, and adults don’t? Maybe they lose the ability to smell good as they age?”

“I guess so,” I said, glancing in the direction of the house. Odelia had told us half an hour ago she was almost ready, but there was still no sign of her or Grace. Chase had left ages ago, but then it’s been said that the male of the species doesn’t need as much grooming as the female, and I have to say that our personal experience bears this out.

“It’s true that Grace smells very nice,” said Dooley.

“They should bottle her scent,” Harriet said. “Odelia could make a fortune if she did. People would line up to get a sample of that particular product.”

“It’s very hard to bottle the scent of a baby,” said Dooley. “I once saw a documentary about perfume, and it’s not easy to create one, you guys.”

Frankly, the topic had outstayed its welcome, as far as I was concerned, and I sort of tuned out the rest of the conversation. I mean, bottling baby scent? That was definitely taking things too far in my personal opinion. Even though it was true that Grace smelled particularly nice—even to a couple of undiscerning cats like us.

I happened to glance up at the tree we were lying under and saw that a small bird with colorful plumage had been attentively following our conversation. As a rule, I don’t pay a lot of attention to birds, but this one struck me with the way its beady little eyes seemed to exude a certain intelligence. It must have noticed that I was keeping an eye on it, for it suddenly cocked its tiny little head and looked me straight in the eyes.

“Max, is it?” it asked.

I nodded, astonished that the bird would know me. “That’s right. Have we met?”

The bird displayed a sad sort of smile. “No, we haven’t, but you must be aware by now that your reputation has spread far and wide, Max. Greatest cat detective that has ever lived and all that?”

I gave it a modest sort of smile in return. “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“Well, it’s true. I’ve heard stories about your exploits, and that’s the reason I decided that maybe…” It hesitated, and trained its eyes on the horizon for a brief moment before fixing them once more on me.

“Maybe what?” I asked.

“Maybe I have a case for you,” the bird finished its statement.

“A case? What do you mean?”

“Well, a man has been murdered, and since no one seems to be doing anything about it, I was wondering if maybe you would be willing to accept the case?”

“Nobody is doing anything about a murder?” I asked. “That can’t be right.”

“And yet that’s what happened. A man was murdered last night and nobody cares. But I do. And that’s because this was a very nice man. A kind man. A man who fed me and my friends every day, which I don’t have to tell you is especially important in wintertime, when a thick blanket of snow covers the world and food is very hard to come by. So believe it or not, but I’d grown attached to this particular person and didn’t want to see him come to any harm.”

“And then he did?” I asked, starting to get the gist. “Come to harm, I mean?”

The bird nodded and gave me that sad smile again. “My name is Warren, by the way.”

“Max,” I said, “but then you already knew that.”

“I did, yeah. So how about it, Max? Will you take the case?”

I thought about it for a moment. It was true that I hadn’t hung up my shingle yet, and that I wasn’t in the habit of accepting cases. For one thing, cats are not in a position to advertise in the paper or run Facebook ads to find customers. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been instrumental in solving the odd case from time to time, but always in conjunction with our human Odelia. Which is why I wasn’t sure I would be a big help to Warren.

He must have noticed my hesitation, for he quickly went on, “Look, I know this is all highly unusual, but you’re my last hope, Max. Like I said, our benefactor died, and nobody seems to care one bit. So if you don’t take this case, his death will go unnoticed and unavenged, and that can’t be right.”

“No, I guess you’re right,” I said. “It’s just that…” I glanced up at the house. “Mostly Odelia is the one who takes on a case, and we act as her sidekicks.”

“Well, this time you’ll have to take on a case all by yourself,” said Warren. “Because I’m not sure Odelia will be able to help you.”

“And why is that?”

“Because this man’s death hasn’t been registered. Nobody seems to have seen a thing, and so the murderer is very much at ease, knowing that he got away with it. In other words: the perfect crime.”

I had to say that the whole thing intrigued me to no end, though I wasn’t so sure that Odelia wouldn’t want to go anywhere near the case. She loves a challenge. “Okay, give me the details, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Warren seemed to buck up considerably. “You won’t regret it, Max. Though before we begin and you take me on as your client, I have to warn you that I won’t be able to pay you your usual fee. Birds don’t carry wallets, you see, nor are we in a position to open bank accounts. We can’t even hold down a paying job, apart from waking people up in the morning with our pleasant twittering. But we do that pro bono.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “You don’t have to pay me anything.”

“I could offer you nuts,” Warren suggested. “Or a juicy worm?”

“I’m fine,” I said, holding up my paw.

“Is this bird bothering you, Max?” asked Brutus, who had become aware of the conversation that had gone on between myself and the little tweety bird.

“Warren here has got a case for us,” I said. “The perfect murder.”

“Is that a fact?” said Brutus, immediately intrigued, as I was.

“Who’s the victim?” asked Harriet, getting down to business.

“And does he or she use deodorant?” asked Dooley.

“I’m not sure,” said the bird. “Though if I were to hazard a guess, I wouldn’t think so, no. He never looked as if he was too concerned about his personal appearance. He presented himself as nature intended him to, with a long beard and unkempt hair. The man was a bum, you see. A homeless person.”

“Even homeless people use deodorant,” said Dooley. “All people do.”

“What was this person’s name?” I asked, trying to get the conversation back on track and away from the whole deodorant issue.

“Karl Heyns,” said Warren. “And you could mostly find him at the park, where he seemed to have made himself a home. Second bench from the right when you entered the park. And like I said, he always shared his food with us.”

“Breadcrumbs,” said Dooley knowingly. “Birds like breadcrumbs, don’t they?”

“Well, as rule we like pretty much anything,” said Warren with an indulgent smile. “Though I’m particularly partial to a nice fat grub myself. A maggot,” he clarified when we gave him a look of confusion. “Excellent source of protein.”

“Okay, so can you tell us some more about the circumstances of Karl’s death?” I asked, trying to eradicate the image of a ‘nice fat grub’ from my mind.

“I could, but that would be overstepping the line,” said Warren, much to my surprise. “You see, I feel it’s not up to me to give you any particulars on the case. Question of privacy and all of that. But if you ask Karl’s husband, he will tell you everything you need to know.”

“Karl’s… husband?” I asked.

Warren nodded. “They shared that bench and were never apart. Until Karl died, of course. The odd thing is that the man hasn’t been seen since.”

“Do you have a name for this husband?”

“Everyone called him Butcher, since that’s what he had been in a previous life, but his real name was Martin. But like I said, he hasn’t been seen since Karl died, and that worries me.”

“And what makes you think he knows more about Karl’s death?”

“Because he was there when it happened. In fact, he may very well be the only witness to his husband’s murder.” He made a face. “Which makes his disappearance all the more suspicious.”

“Do you…” Dooley gulped. “Do you think the murderer knows that Martin witnessed his husband’s murder and decided to get rid of him also?”

Warren nodded slowly. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

“So how did you find out about this murder?” asked Harriet.

Warren took a deep breath. “Because Karl told me.”

“Karl told you?” I asked.

“A couple of days before he died, he told anyone who would listen that he thought his life was in danger, and that he might not have long to live. So when he disappeared, I knew he must have been murdered.”

“He disappeared?” I asked. “But I thought you said he died?”

“Of course he died,” said Warren. “He wouldn’t simply disappear on us. He cared for us birds.”

“So… maybe he isn’t dead?” Harriet suggested. “Maybe he simply moved to a different bench?”

“Or maybe he went shopping,” Dooley said helpfully. “To find himself a different kind of deodorant.”

“He was murdered,” said Warren stubbornly. “And the fact that Martin also disappeared proves it.”

“In fact, it doesn’t prove anything,” Harriet pointed out.

“And I’m saying it does,” said Warren, giving our friend an unfriendly look.

But Harriet persisted. “Look, a man disappeared. It happens. And the fact that his friend has also disappeared—”


“—doesn’t prove a thing. So if you really want us to take on this case, you’ll have to give us more, Warren. Some evidence, maybe? A dead body? Witness statements? The murder weapon?”

For a moment, the bird and Harriet were engaged in a staring contest, then finally Warren shrugged. “I wasn’t there when it happened, so I can’t give you any guarantees that it happened the way I think it did, but birds have an intuition about these things, so I think you’ll find that the man was murdered.” He now pointed a wing at the prissy Persian. “And if you refuse to take on this case, you’re no better than the police who don’t seem to care, or the general public who have ignored the death of our benefactor altogether.”

“I’m just saying,” said Harriet as she studied her nails. “No body—no crime.”

I could tell that Warren was getting a little worked up, so I hastened to defuse the situation. “We’ll definitely look into Karl’s disappearance, Warren,” I assured the bird. “And we’ll let you know what we find, all right?”

He seemed mollified by this, and accepted my promise in good faith, even if all he could offer me in terms of payment was a nice fat grub.

“Keep me posted,” he said as he spread his wings. “Will you, Max?”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Have a safe flight,” said Dooley as the bird took off. When Brutus grinned, he added, “Just being polite.”

“Of course,” said Brutus. He then turned to me. “So how do you suggest we go about this? A man went missing, and a bird has a hunch he may have been murdered? Not a lot to go on here.”

“I’m not sure Odelia will accept this case,” said Harriet. “And without her, there isn’t a lot we can do.”

She was right. Without Odelia, we were sunk. And as we watched our human finally step out of the house, juggling a purse, a backpack, Grace, and a bag filled with Grace’s paraphernalia, a harried look on her face, I wasn’t even sure if we should mention the whole thing to her. I got the impression she already had enough on her plate. And so I decided that maybe it behooved us to go out investigating by ourselves first. Then if—and only if—we discovered any evidence of foul play, we could always tell her about it.

And so it was decided. We’d look into this perfect murder without Odelia’s assistance. After all, Warren hadn’t offered us any actual evidence of foul play—or even that there had actually been a murder last night.

Just a hunch. And I wasn’t going to bother Odelia about a bird’s hunch.

Chapter Two

Frank Knapp was seated in his usual place: the first bench on the left when you enter Hampton Cove park, enjoying a quiet and relaxing smoke and engaging in his favorite activity of people-watching, when a butterfly went and landed on the tip of his nose. Contrary to his usual policy of swiping the offending insect away with an irritable move of his hand, he allowed it to remain seated as he tried to take a closer look at the bug. Seeing as this involved him going all cross-eyed—and even then he still didn’t see a single thing—it took him a moment to catch on to the fact that a woman of attractive aspect had suddenly appeared in front of him. She stood eyeing him with a lopsided grin on her freckled face and an insolent expression in her clear blue eyes. “Nice fashion accouterment,” she said finally, possibly referring to the butterfly, which still refused to take flight.

He finally made the bug move on to greener pastures different from his schnozz and said, “Thanks.”

“Just kidding,” said the woman, who he now recognized as the person working the counter at his sister Liv’s coffee shop. Immediately his mood turned sour and he eyed her with disgust. She held out her hand. “Friends?”

He stared at the hand, wondering if he should accept the peace offering or not. Finally, he decided that his pride had taken such a big hit he should stand firm and crossed his arms in front of his chest and raised his square chin defiantly. “Not unless you apologize to me first,” he said.

Maddy rolled her very expressive eyes. “We’ve been over this already, Frank.”

“So let’s go over it again. And this time you can offer me an apology for the way you treated me. Which was pretty lousy, if you remember.”

“You seem to have a different recollection than I do,” she said, as she also folded her arms across her chest. “If I remember correctly, it’s you who should apologize to me.”

He made a scoffing sound. “That’s rich. If you hadn’t poured that milkshake all over me, I wouldn’t have had to go home and change and miss that appointment, and I would have gotten that job for sure.”

“Liv seems to think differently.”

“Of course she does,” he said, looking the other way. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?” he asked after an awkward silence had descended upon the conversation. “Like the coffee shop or something? Spilling more drinks on customers’ pants and causing them to miss the opportunity of a lifetime?”

“If you hadn’t stuck out your elbow, I wouldn’t have stumbled, and nothing would have happened,” she pointed out. “So in a way, you could say you brought this all on yourself. And besides, according to your sister, you didn’t even want that job in the first place, so I probably did you a favor.”

“A favor!” he said. But when he saw she was smiling, he realized she was simply playing with him, drawing him out on a topic he didn’t really feel all that eager to discuss. Namely his unsuccessful attempts to land himself a new job after he’d been unceremoniously let go from the last one. “Look,” he said, getting a grip on himself. “So maybe I was partly to blame for the mishap, but you still owe me an apology, since I was the customer and you were the waitress, and as is customary in these situations, the customer is always right.” He quirked an expectant eyebrow in her direction, but she wasn’t taking it.

She shook her head with a defiant look on her pretty face. “You first.”

“Okay, I apologize if I made you spill my drink on my lap instead of putting it on the table in front of me. I’ll never do it again. How about that?”

She smiled. “And I apologize for spilling that drink.” She stuck her hand out again. “So can we be friends now?”

He reluctantly shook her hand, then immediately dropped it again. “Just don’t make a habit of it, will you? My sister may be more lenient in these matters than I am, but most customers would agree with me.”

She abruptly took a seat next to him on the bench. “So what have you been up to, Frank? Liv tells me that this was your sixth failed job interview this month?”

“No thanks to you,” he grumbled, but had to admit that it was true that he hadn’t exactly been looking forward to this particular interview anyway. The last thing he wanted was to work at a lawyer’s office as a lowly filing clerk, even if the pay wasn’t all that shabby.

“So why don’t you accept Liv’s offer and start working for her? You know you’d love to,” she added as she wiggled her eyebrows at him.

“I most certainly would not,” he assured her. It was pride that stopped him from accepting his sister’s offer to take up the vacant position of barista at her coffee shop.

“Look, come and work with us,” said Maddy. “It’ll be fun, I promise. And if you don’t like it, you can keep on applying at other places. Liv won’t mind.”

“Are you sure about that?” The offer was a tempting one, of course. It would allow him to get back on his feet after being fired from his last job after arriving five minutes late for work one morning, putting a big dent in both his savings and his ego. “The applying for other jobs part, I mean?”

“Absolutely. Hey, that’s what family is for.”

He wasn’t all that sure his sister would have shared those sentiments, but then beggars can’t be choosers. And since he didn’t have any more interviews set up at the moment, he figured he might as well accept Liv’s offer. “But on one condition.”

“What’s that?” she asked.

“I get to be behind the counter.”

“Deal,” said Maddy, and held up her hand once more.

They shook on it, and he briefly wondered if he hadn’t made a deal with the devil by accepting this offer. But since he was all out of options, what choice did he have? And as he gazed into Maddy’s smiling and triumphant face, he could tell this was probably all Liv’s doing—and by extension their parents, who had been worried sick after he’d joined the army of the unemployed six months ago.

Chapter Three

Aaron Burke looked around himself, scanning his surroundings, and when he was absolutely convinced that he wasn’t being followed, knocked on the metal door three times, then another two times, before finishing with a loud thump—the secret signal they had arranged. He didn’t have to wait long before there was a metal clanking sound as the bolt was being shoved back and the door was yanked open. For a moment, the two men sized each other up, then the hulking figure on the other side of the door gave him a curt nod, and he entered the premises. The corridor was dark, and the smell musty, but after having been there many times before, he didn’t even notice anymore. And after he had descended the metal staircase and arrived in the basement, his contact was already impatiently waiting for him to report for duty.

“And?” said the man they all simply called the Captain. “What news?”

“He’s disappeared,” he said. “Gone to ground, no doubt.”

The Captain grunted something in irritation that wasn’t fit to be repeated, then started pacing the concrete floor, his hands clasped behind his back, head ramrod straight as always, his brows knitted in utter concentration. “I’m very disappointed, Burke,” he said. He then whirled on him and fixed him with those icy blue eyes of his. “Extremely disappointed, in fact.”

Burke knew immediately what this meant. If he didn’t deliver the goods soon, he was mincemeat. “Yes, Cap,” he said. “So what do you want me to do?”

“Your orders haven’t changed. Find our man and bring him to me ASAP. Before he goes around and spreads a lot of stories that are nobody’s business.”

“The thing is, I’ve looked everywhere, and no one has seen him.”

“Soup kitchen? Homeless shelter?”

He shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Is it possible they’re lying?”

“I don’t think so, Cap.”

“Mh.” The man rubbed his chin, then touched the nasty scar on his cheek for a moment, a habit that gave Burke the creeps since he knew exactly how the Captain had acquired it. The story had been doing the rounds for years, whether it was true or not. It always ended the same way: ‘You should have seen the other guy.’ “Okay, so here’s what I want you to do. There’s a reporter who’s usually very well informed. Her name is Odelia Kingsley. She’s married to a cop, but don’t let that scare you off. Get her to talk.”

“And how do I do that?” The last thing he needed was to get in bad with the cops. And harassing a cop’s wife was a surefire way of accomplishing exactly that. He had heard of Odelia Kingsley, and if he remembered correctly, she wasn’t only married to a cop, but her uncle was the chief of police, and in turn he was married to the mayor. In other words: not the kind of people you wanted to mess with!

“Steal one of her cats. Knowing her reputation, she’d do anything for those hairy rats of hers.” He grinned malevolently. “She’s got plenty, so pick any one of them. Trust me, she’ll definitely talk then.”

“Are you sure about this, Cap? Her cop husband might come after us.”

“Make sure she doesn’t tell him about what’s going on. And if she doesn’t get the message, cut off a piece of the rat and send it to her. An ear, maybe, or a piece of tail. I’m sure she’ll do business then.”

He shivered but made sure the boss didn’t notice. It was a well-known fact that the Captain hated any sign of weakness in his underlings and could come down hard on you if he suspected you of going soft.

“Will do, boss,” he said.

“Just get me results, Burke—and fast, you hear? Time is of the essence.”

He didn’t have to tell him. “I know, boss,” he said. “I’ll get it done.”

“Please do. Cause if you don’t…” A cruel smile slid up his features. “It’ll be your ear next.”

He swallowed away a lump and nodded. “I’ll make sure she talks.”

As he mounted the stairs to the ground floor, Homer Kram, the man who had let him in, seemed eager to have speech with him. As he was about to step out into the street, he placed a heavy hand on his shoulder and brought his ugly face level with his. “Better make sure you deliver this time, Burke,” he hissed, his foul breath raking Burke’s visage and penetrating his nostrils. “Or it’s my ass on the line.”

“I know,” said Burke. “And I promised I’d get the job done, didn’t I?”

The punch came out of nowhere and made his head snap back so fast he thought he must have gotten whiplash. Blood exploded into his throat, and the pain made tears spring to his eyes.

“What did you do that for!” he bellowed, holding his injured nose.

“Just a small incentive,” said the other man with a shrug. He held up a meaty fist. “Just remember there’s more where that came from.”

And with these words, he yanked back the bolt and opened the door.

Daylight hurt Burke’s eyes, even though he’d only been down in that dungeon for a couple of minutes. But it was enough to make him question, not for the first time, the wisdom that had led him to start working for the Captain all those years ago. It might be one of the more prestigious jobs in the criminal underworld, but the drawbacks were numerous, as his injured nose could attest to. He stemmed the flow of blood with a pristine white handkerchief he always kept on hand for the occasion. Within seconds, the handkerchief was red. And as he stumbled on, he sincerely hoped the Kingsley woman would have the information he required. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt one of the lady’s cats. In his perverse genius, the Captain had picked the one man in his outfit who loved cats even more than Mrs. Kingsley did.

Chapter Four

Martin ‘Butcher’ Kenward glanced around and blinked against the bright daylight. He’d been hiding in those bushes for hours now, and knew he couldn’t stay there forever. As he looked around, he had the impression that the coast was clear, and as he started in the direction of the entrance to the park, he put some pep in his step and broke into a halfhearted run—halfhearted because his limbs felt frozen after being immobile for most of the night. And when he saw the entrance loom up in front of him, he knew he was going to make it. Which is why the impact of the bullet when it hit his right shoulder and spun him around so fast the world turned on its axis came as such a shock to him.

It had seemingly come out of nowhere, and even as he went down, he couldn’t believe this was happening to him. They should never have accepted this assignment—he should have told Karl.

For a moment, nothing happened, except that he was unable to move. Then a shadow loomed over him, then another one, and before long he was surrounded by people. And as darkness closed in on him, he whispered a silent prayer that he would be admitted to heaven and not transferred to hell where that nasty Satan ruled and where it was so very hot because of that hellfire being stoked high. He hated the heat.




Frank Knapp was still thinking about the job offer his sister had extended to him via her second-in-command Maddy and whether it had been a good idea to accept it or not when a man suddenly collapsed right in front of him. He vaguely recognized the man and knew he’d seen him at the park before. The guy clutched at his chest, his face screwed up in an expression of pain and panic, and as Frank reached for his phone to call an ambulance, he knew there was only a short window of opportunity to save his life.

And since someone else was already calling an ambulance, he decided to put that first-aid course he had once taken to good use and knelt down next to the unfortunate man, to make sure his airways weren’t blocked, his head was supported, and he wasn’t being crowded by the dozen or so onlookers who had all gathered around. The man had slipped into unconsciousness, and the color of his face told him that it would be touch and go whether he would live or not.

Now it all came down to the speed with which the paramedics would be able to reach them. For the guy’s sake, he certainly hoped they would get there in time. The sound in the distance of an ambulance on approach told him that all might not be lost, and as he directed a look to the woman who had made the call, he was surprised to find himself looking into the smiling face of Maddy once again, still on her break.

“Hello again,” she said. “I was just about to leave when I saw this guy collapse in front of me.”

“Yeah, I saw it too,” he said. “Probably a heart attack or something.”

“There’s blood on his shirt,” she pointed out.

He realized she was right. “He must have hit himself when he fell. Maybe bumped his head.”

“Yeah, I guess.” She didn’t seem entirely convinced, but since neither of them were medically trained, they’d have to leave it to the paramedics to find out what had happened to the guy.

Before long, the ambulance came swinging through the entrance to the park, then raced down along the broad path and pulled to a stop right next to them. He got up to make sure they could go to work on the man without delay, and as he watched on, he was struck by the notion that life was short and that it could end at any time. Which told him that maybe he had been wrong to be so flippant about Liv’s job offer. Maybe working with family was exactly what he needed at that moment. And as the paramedics worked on that poor guy, trying to bring him back to life, he knew that could have been him right there.

So he took his phone out of his pocket, and the moment the call connected, he said, “Liv, I want you to know I appreciate the offer.”

“I knew you would,” said his sister. “So when can you get here?”

“You mean I have to start today?”

“No time like the present, Frank. So get a move on, will you?”

And she promptly disconnected. In the background he had heard the noise of the coffee shop, which was busy as ever, and braced himself. He’d worked at the coffee shop before, to help out when Liv had first opened the place, and remembered the stress of working in such a high-pressure environment. Oddly enough, he also remembered how much he had liked it, and how energized he had always felt.

The ambulance had taken off, and he sincerely hoped the man would be all right. Maddy joined him as they watched the vehicle drive off. “I hope he’ll be fine,” she said. He saw that she looked shaken.

“Yeah, I hope so, too.”

“Did you know him?” she asked.

“I’ve seen him around. I think he actually lives here at the park. Part of the homeless community.”

“What hospital did they take him to?” she asked.

“Hampton Cove Hospital. You did a good job calling that ambulance. You may well have saved his life.”

“I don’t know about that. I think you did more for him than me. Where did you learn to do all that?”

“Oh, just a first-aid course I took once. I figured it might come in handy one day.”

“Looks like it did.” She gave him a smile. “Maybe we can pay him a visit at the hospital later today?”

He returned her smile. “I’d like that.” And since they were colleagues now, they left the park together and headed in the direction of Liv’s coffee shop. He had a feeling his sister could use a helping hand ASAP.

Chapter Five

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away, Max,” said Dooley.

He had been eyeing me with a touch of concern. “Why would I want to eat an apple?” I said. “I don’t even like apples.”

“It’s a saying,” he explained. “The more apples you eat, the better you will feel; so maybe we should try it. And with ‘we’ I mean ‘you,’ of course.”

We were in our local park, in search of clues as to the disappearance of Butcher, the husband of the man that allegedly had been murdered. So far we hadn’t discovered a whole lot, but then murder investigations after the fact are sometimes a little hard, especially when you’re a cat and don’t have access to the kind of information the police have.

“I don’t like apples either, Max,” said Brutus. “So if I were you, I wouldn’t eat them—not even if they’re good for you.”

“Dooley is right, though,” said Harriet. “You look a little peaky, Max.”

“I don’t look peaky,” I assured her. “I feel fine. Excellent, even.”

“You look pale,” said Dooley. “And I just heard you cough.”

“How would you know I look pale?” I asked. “My whole body is covered in fur.”

“A friend knows, Max,” he said. “You look pale, and you’re coughing.”

At least in that regard, he had a point. I coughed again. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Maybe some pollen that got stuck up my nose.”

“Hay fever,” said Brutus knowingly. “A lot of people suffer from hay fever.”

“I don’t suffer from hay fever,” I said. “And I’m not pale. So stop worrying, will you?”

“I wonder why apples ever acquired this reputation for being the panacea of all illnesses,” said Brutus. “I mean, it’s just a type of fruit. Why not a banana? Or an orange?”

“A banana a day keeps the doctor away,” Harriet tried. “It does have a nice ring to it.”

“I’m not sure it’s the same thing, though,” said Dooley. “Apples probably have health benefits that bananas don’t have. So let’s get you an apple, Max, and keep that doctor away.”

At least in that sense, I was fully on board with his idea. It’s never a pleasant prospect to have to pay a visit to Vena, our local vet, well-known for her brutal and, shall we say, sadistic tendencies. Any excuse is good to stick a needle in the poor victims she calls her patients.

“So this is where it happened,” I said, gesturing to the bench that seemed as innocuous as any other bench in the park. It was located close to a fountain that was giving off its best and spreading water around, much to the delight of a couple of kids who were relishing in its coolness. “Nothing special to see, as far as I can tell. And no witnesses.”

It was true that the bench didn’t look like much. Mostly when homeless people pick a bench, they festoon it with all manner of paraphernalia, such as their sleeping bags, clothes, bags filled with the remnants of their old lives. This bench was entirely devoid of all of that, and if Warren hadn’t told us that this was the bench his benefactor had presumably died on, we wouldn’t have known.

“So where is Karl’s stuff?” asked Brutus, checking underneath the bench, to no avail.

“And where is his husband’s stuff?” asked Harriet, joining her boyfriend in his search for any clue as to the tragic events that had allegedly transpired here last night.

“The park ranger must have cleaned everything up,” I suggested. “When Karl died, he must have come in and got rid of his possessions.”

“But… that’s all evidence,” said Harriet. “The murder weapon could have been part of that collection of items.” She shook her head. “Very bad form, you guys. Maybe we should talk to Odelia after all? How else are we going to find out what they did to Karl’s things?”

“Let’s first try and find out as much as we can,” I said. “Before we start bothering Odelia.”

“So maybe we could spread out,” Brutus suggested. “And talk to as many witnesses as we can find. And we’ll meet again here by this bench in, shall we say, one hour or so?”

His suggestion was unanimously accepted, and so Dooley and I went in one direction, and Brutus and Harriet in the other. If a murder had taken place in the park, someone must have seen it, and so it was up to us to find these potential witnesses and get them to spill the beans.

We had been walking for perhaps five minutes in our designated direction without meeting a single soul when we came upon a strange creature eying us from its safe perch high up in a nearby tree. Dooley saw it first and proceeded to draw my attention to the creature by whispering, “Don’t look now, Max, but there’s someone watching us!”

“Who?” I asked, immediately glancing around to ascertain who this mysterious watcher could be.

“I said, don’t look now!” he loudly whispered. “It’s a squirrel,” he clarified. “And it’s been watching us from that tall tree over there.”

I glanced up at the tree and saw that my friend was right. “We need to speak to that squirrel, Dooley,” I stressed. “Squirrels make excellent witnesses, so it may have seen something.”

“But how, Max? Squirrels are notoriously shy, and they don’t like it when they’re addressed by a pair of strangers like us.”

“Let’s just give it a shot. And if necessary, we can even scoot up that tree and interview it on the spot.”

My friend didn’t seem all that excited about this idea, but nevertheless agreed that we needed to do whatever we could to interview this possible witness. And so we took up position underneath the tree and shouted our bona fides at the squirrel.

“I’m Max!” I said.

“And I’m Dooley!” said Dooley.

“We would like to talk to you!” I added.

“About a murder that took place in the park!”

“Maybe you saw something?” I asked. “A man was murdered.”

“And his husband has disappeared, and also all of his stuff!”

The squirrel, if it did know something, wasn’t letting on. Instead, it gave us a look that didn’t give me the feeling it was about to give us an interview. “Get lost,” it said, proving my point. “I don’t talk to cats,” it added, showing a particular disdain for the feline species.

“It’s important we find this man’s killer,” said Dooley. “The bird asked us to.”

“What bird?” asked the squirrel. “What are you talking about?”

“Warren hired us to find this man’s killer,” I explained.

“And in return, he’s going to give us some prime grub,” Dooley added. More quietly, he said, “Literally.”

“Prime grub, huh?” said the squirrel, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was our in.

“Do you like grubs by any chance?” I asked, therefore. “Nice big fat maggots?”

“If you do,” said Dooley, catching on quickly, “we could always share.”

The squirrel licked its lips, and a sort of holy light had appeared in its eyes. “How many maggots are we talking about here?” it asked. “A dozen? Two dozen? More?”

“As many maggots as you like,” I said, deciding now was not the time to be stingy.

The squirrel gave this some thought, then decided that the offer was too good to refuse and came scooting down from the branch it had been perched on. “Two dozen,” it said. “Take it or leave it.”

“Deal,” I said immediately and held up my paw to shake on it. The squirrel ignored the gesture, but it did proceed to the lowest branch and for a moment sat there drinking us in.

“How do I know I can trust you guys?” it asked. “You could be pulling my paw.”

“Ask Warren,” I said. “He’ll tell you that our word is our bond.”

“Mh,” it said, and stroked its chin thoughtfully for a moment. The prospect of two dozen maggots must have sounded too good to pass up, and so it relaxed. “Okay, fine. I guess it can’t hurt to take a chance on you fellas. So what do you want to know?”

And so we repeated what Warren had told us about the man living in the park with his husband Butcher, who had unfortunately disappeared. The squirrel nodded. “I’ve seen the two of them around. Always sitting on the same bench. They used to bunk there, you know, one of them sleeping on the ground, and the other on the bench. They’d switch positions sometimes, but on the whole, they were pretty steadfast in their habits.”

“So did you see what happened last night?” I asked, getting down to brass tacks.

“Sure, I did. They both went to sleep, and one of them didn’t wake up this morning. Can’t tell which one, since all humans look the same to me, but that’s what went down.”

“So did you see how this man died?” I asked eagerly.

The squirrel thought for a moment. “Well… strictly speaking I wasn’t there when he died, no.” It then must have remembered the maggots and hastened to add, “But my cousin Freddie was, and he told me that there was a third man involved.”

“Where can we find Freddie?” I asked.

The squirrel held up its paws. “Not so fast, you guys. First, you gotta give me my maggots, then maybe—just maybe—I’ll take you to see Freddie.”

I shared a look with Dooley. “Um… how about we give you the maggots the moment we get them from our client?” I asked. The last thing I wanted was to go around rooting for maggots!

“Okay, deal,” said the squirrel. It then stuck out its paw. “Hit me, buddy.”

And so I bumped fists with a squirrel for the first—and hopefully last—time in my life.



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