Authors: Candice Speare Prentice
Spyglass Lane Mysteries presents:
The Mayhem in Maryland Series
Kitty Litter Killer
Candice Speare Prentice
Spyglass Lane Mysteries
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Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 Biblica. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
I’ve often thought it interesting how an emotion like love—or the perception of love—can make a person act irrationally and do things totally out of character.
Take this morning, for instance. I was sitting in my parked SUV, Monday midmorning, in the throes of lethargic indecision, in front of Adler’s Pet Emporium. Chris, my thirteen-month-old son, was throwing a tantrum in his car seat. I dug my nails into my palms to keep myself from banging my head on the steering wheel with the rhythm of his pounding heels. Not because I was frustrated with him. Temper tantrums were his regular mode of communication lately, so I just tried to ignore them.
No, I had to make a decision. Did I want to be selfish, break my daughter Sammie’s heart, and tell her she couldn’t have the pedigreed Siamese kitten my mother-in-law had purchased for her? Or would I put up with a house cat because I loved my daughter enough to sacrifice for her? Not to mention adoring my husband, Max, enough to allow his mother to do something like this to me without first asking my permission.
Head banging would momentarily distract me from my dilemma, but despite feeling lethargic, I could no longer avoid making the decision. As my mother would say, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”
I bit a nail and considered the possibilities. The kitten was still at the breeder’s. That meant I had time for a desperate act—like coming down with a sudden, raging cat allergy that would kill me if I inhaled enough cat dander. Of course, that would be a lie. And true love doesn’t lie.
I turned to look at Chris, whose face was tomato red. “Just hang on, grumpy.”
I buttoned my coat against the brisk November cold, got out of the car, and opened the door to the backseat. Chris immediately stopped crying, reached out his arms, and beamed at me. Let anyone tell me that babies aren’t born manipulators! I kissed both his cheeks. Then I snugged a hat over his head, zippered his little blue coat, and hefted him from the car.
The pet store occupied one end of a small strip mall in Four Oaks. My mother’s doughnut shop occupied the other end. In between were little stores that changed owners on a regular basis because our rural location can’t sustain the business. Especially with the advent of megastores that offer impossibly low prices on everything.
I sneezed when I entered Adler’s Pet Emporium, an ambitious name for the family-owned business that consisted of only two stores. Maybe I really was allergic.
“Trish Cunningham. What a nice surprise on a Monday morning. You just bring that baby right over here to me. Your mother talks about him all the time.” Jaylene Adler reached out for my son from behind the counter. Her big black beehive hair didn’t move. She’d had the same hairstyle for as long as I could remember.
I gladly obeyed. She took Chris from my arms, and he smiled broadly, the little charmer. He happily let her remove his hat and coat.
“I do so wish I had more grandbabies. My oldest is almost nine. Peggy’s daughter? She’s coming into town to visit me for a week while her mama goes on a business trip with her husband.”
I remembered Peggy. During high school, she’d attended a private boarding school in Michigan. That’s where she lived with her husband. I hadn’t seen them in a long time. “How is she doing?”
“Great. Really great. Her husband is really moving up in the world.” She tickled Chris’s tummy, and he giggled. “So what are you here for?” she asked between coochie-coos.
“Stuff for a new cat. My mother-in-law thought Sammie needed a pet now that she has a new little brother. We’re picking up the cat in the next couple of weeks. Siamese.”
“You getting it from that breeder out there near Brownsville?” Jaylene asked.
“Yes. Some friend of my mother-in-law’s. Hayley, I think her name is?”
“I order all her supplies,” Jaylene said. “Now. . .you’ll need the works.” She nodded toward the back of the store. “Row four, back right corner. You go on while I hold little Chris here, and I’ll get my lazy bum of a husband to help you.” She turned around. “Hen-ry? Little Trish Cunningham is here and needs help.”
I found it amusing that I was still Little Trish Cunningham to her. She and Henry had been friends of my family for as long as I could remember.
I wandered to the back of the store, past the dog aisle, and sighed as I glimpsed a sturdy leather collar and leash. A dog would be so much better than a cat. Maybe a border collie like my father’s dog, Buddy. Dogs were just so much less elusive and sneaky than cats.
In the back of the store, I picked up a small bag of cat litter, felt something hit my feet, and looked down to see a tiny stream of litter flowing from a hole in the bag.
Henry appeared as I tried in vain to stop the litter dribbling onto my feet and into my shoes.
“Trish, good to see you. I’m lookin’ forward to seein’ your daddy soon to do a little huntin’.”
“He’s looking forward to it, too. Keeps us all stocked up in venison.” I pointed to the floor. “Um, there’s a bit of a mess here. This has a hole in it.”
His gaze fell on the bag then on the trail of kitty litter that had fallen to the floor. He mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like a swear word as he reached out with meaty hands and took the leaking bag from my arms.
“Jaylene!” he yelled. “We got a mess back here.”
I heard her footsteps as she strode to the back of the store, still holding Chris.
“What’s wrong that you can’t handle?” she asked.
He pointed at the floor. “A hole in the kitty litter.”
“Well then, clean it up,” she snapped and whirled away. “The dustpan’s in the back. I can’t help the hole in the bag. It’s ’cause of that new WWPS delivery guy. He punched holes in two other bags, too.” She marched past a fish tank display. “I’ll call the WWPS place and complain.”
“Thanks for nothing,” he grumbled as he glared at her back.
“And while you’re at it,” she said from two aisles over, “you need to pack those boxes that have to go out before he gets here.”
Jaylene and Henry were getting along as usual, which meant they weren’t. While I often find comfort in knowing that some things never change, marital discord isn’t on my favorites list.
Henry’s paunch jiggled as he put the leaky bag aside and picked up a larger one for me. “You’ll need more than that.”
“Why? It’s only a small kitten,” I said.
“You’ll want to scoop the litter twice a day. Keep the kids from playing in it.”
That was a thought that hadn’t occurred to me, and I didn’t like the picture I got in my head. Maybe a cat wasn’t such a good idea after all. But I wouldn’t change my mind now.
“I also need a crate,” I said.
“Well, you’re in luck. We have those in stock here. Won’t have to get it from the other store.”
I made my choices, and Henry followed me, carrying the heavier items to the counter for me, where Chris burbled happily in Jaylene’s arms.
“I’ll get that crate,” Henry said as he went into the back room.
“While he gets that, you need to pick out a kitty collar.” Jaylene pointed to a rack of custom-made collars next to the counter. “This is my specialty, you know. I make these and sell them over the Internet. I also carry a line of pet toys and clothes.”
“I know,” I said. “I saw your display at the festival last Saturday.” Everyone with any kind of business rents a booth at the yearly Four Oaks Fall Festival.
I stared at the collars, thinking how much the kitten was going to hate wearing one, but to save my time and energy, I didn’t argue. I snatched a blue one from the rack.
“So I hear from your mother that Abbie Grenville is getting married,” Jaylene said. “To that police detective.”
I nodded. My best friend’s wedding was in two weeks and six days.
Jaylene handed Chris back to me as she began to ring up my purchases. “What’s the detective’s name? Scotch?”
“Scott,” I said. “Eric Scott.”
“Not a local boy, is he?”
“No,” I said.
“Well, not like her first husband, which is a good thing. Philip.” She said his name as if it were a swear word. “You know that Philip’s mama still lives near here.” She took a breath. “That Scott fellow. . .he was the one you helped solve that teacher’s killing over there at the high school last year, right?”
Obviously Jaylene had been talking to my mother, who is convinced that the cops can’t figure out a murder without me. “He solved that murder. Not me.”
“Well, that’s not how your mama tells it,” Jaylene said.
“It’s not true.” I spend way too much time denying the rumors my mother spreads about me—good and bad.
“Anyway,” Jaylene continued, “being married to a cop will certainly be handy for Abbie’s books. All that scary stuff she writes. I bought a copy of her latest book when she did that book signing thing at the festival, but I’m not going to read it.”
I didn’t think the books Abbie wrote were that scary, just typical suspense.
Jaylene glanced over her shoulder then leaned toward me. “Besides, it might give me ideas.” She said the words in a stage whisper.
I winced. “Ideas?”
“You know what her book is about. Killing somebody off.” She nodded at the door where Henry had disappeared. “Sometimes husbands just get on your nerves.”
I didn’t like the insinuation, and Abbie would be troubled to know that her book might inspire someone to kill. I balanced Chris on my hip, swaying to keep him happy. Henry stalked out of the back room. I wished she would say something nice to him to ease the tension in the room, but she just glowered at him when he started to paw through papers and receipts in a drawer under the cash register. Several fell to the floor as his search grew more intense.
“You seen that receipt for my new rifle?” he asked. “I gotta go back to the gun shop and get somethin’ fixed. Goin’ huntin’ this weekend.”
“You bought that gun?” Jaylene turned on him as though she were going to hit him.
Henry glanced at me then back at her. “We’ll discuss it later.”
“You better believe we will. And the stuff in this drawer is just pet store stuff. Why would it be here?”
“’Cause I put it here.” He kept digging.
Jaylene’s breath hissed through her teeth, and she turned her back on him. I could see her trying to pull herself together. “Your mama said she’s doing the catering for the reception even though she’s been out of the catering business for a while.”
My mother’s shop, Doris’s Doughnuts, is gossip central. I was sure everyone knew everything about the wedding since it was one of my mother’s latest favorite topics.
“Yep.” I glanced at my watch. “In fact, I’ve got to get going. I promised her I’d stop by so she could see Chris.”
Jaylene slid a hostile glance at Henry. “Take this stuff to Trish’s car.”
Since Henry was already piling my purchases in his arms, I thought maybe her orders were unnecessary. “Gimme your keys,” he growled at me.
I did, and he walked away grumbling. I set Chris on the counter for a moment while I fumbled my wallet out of my purse and started counting out money.
“Weird, Abbie gettin’ married, and her ex-husband shows up all the way from New York City,” Jaylene murmured as she watched me.
“What?” I glanced up, dropping a five-dollar bill on the floor. Then Chris shoved my purse. It fell over, and though the contents spilled all over the counter and onto the floor at Jaylene’s feet, I was too startled by her words to pay much attention. “Philip is in town?”
“Yes.” The word sounded harsh as she bent to pick up my belongings.
“Have you seen him?” I asked. I began to stuff things back into my bag.
Jaylene stood up and handed me my cell phone, some tissues, and a small pile of receipts. “Henry saw him. Haven’t seen him myself. He’s a pitiful excuse for a man.” In a way, that was a true statement. Philip had never been faithful to Abbie, which is why their marriage ended.
I wondered if Abbie knew he was in town.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Henry loading my stuff in my SUV. Chris was bouncing on my hip and kicking my thigh.
Jaylene followed my gaze and then rolled her eyes. “He says I’m a shrew, but if I don’t ride him, he’d get nothin’ done all day.”
She took my cash from my hand, and I leaned over to pick up the five-dollar bill. I still had kitty litter on my shoes. I stood up again, and Jaylene slapped my change on the counter. Then she stretched over and rubbed Chris’s head.
“Bring him back in to see me again.”
“Will do,” I said. I tucked Chris into his coat, then I slung my purse over one shoulder and my son over the other. Henry handed me my keys on my way out the door.
“You take care now,” he said.
“You, too,” I murmured.
I could barely think. I was stunned that Philip was back in town. I needed to find out more, and I knew just the place to start. I left my SUV parked where it was and ambled down the sidewalk to Doris’s Doughnuts. I was under strict orders to bring Chris by to visit my mother whenever I was running errands. I dared not disobey her. She always seemed to know when I was out and about. A stranger might think she had some sort of supernatural GPS system to keep track of me, but I knew better. She had informants. Besides, today my vehicle was parked within her sight. I had no choice.