Либрусек (книги fb2)
The Girl with the Cat Tattoo
Theresa Weir's first romance in thirteen years!
For cat lovers everywhere, this sweet, quirky, and delightful romance is about a young woman and her matchmaking cat.
A little bit of mystery, a whole lot of whimsy.
About the book:
When a matchmaking cat takes it upon himself to find his young mistress a new mate, he accidentally stirs up memories better left forgotten.
Melody’s husband was murdered by what seemed a random act of violence. Two years later, the killer hasn’t been caught, and Melody is coping in unhealthy ways. During the day she’s a mild-mannered children’s librarian, but at night she’s a party girl, hanging out in bars, drinking with new friends, and often bringing home strange men. Although acquaintances have tried to keep in touch, Melody has cut herself off from most of the people in her old life. Max, her eccentric cat, doesn’t approve of her new friends, he’s tired of the parade of losers, and he finally takes it upon himself to find Melody a new man.
Theresa Weir The Girl with the Cat Tattoo
Copyright 2012, Theresa Weir
Max had been a cat as long as he could remember, but he was pretty sure he’d been a rock star in one of his previous lives. He just had that kind of cool about him. Right now he was sitting in the middle of the floor in Saint Paul, Minnesota, feeling hostile while staring at the strange man in his mistress’s bed.
“Does your cat have a name?” the man asked. The sheet was draped across the guy’s hips, and it hurt Max’s eyes to look at so much naked flesh and hairy chest.
“Maxwell,” Max’s mistress shouted from the bathroom. Her name was Melody and she took good care of Max. He didn’t know who her dealer was, but she got him some primo stuff. Organic, no stems, and a high that kept him bouncing off the walls for a good full hour.
But Max was fed up with the strange men she kept bringing home, and they were definitely putting a damper on his relationship with Melody.
The guy held out his hand. “Here, kitty-kitty.” He smelled like sweat, cigarettes, and old beer. And Melody. Max hated that he also smelled like Melody. Max sniffed around and found a pile of clothes that gave off the same odor as the man in the bed. Without digging or circling, he squatted over the fabric. Keeping his gaze locked on the stranger, Max let go with a stream of urine. It just seemed the thing to do.
The man shouted, and Melody came running from the bathroom, toothbrush in her hand. “Max!”
Max jumped off the pile of clothes, pleased to see a wet spot on both pants and shirt.
“Goddamn cat!” The guy dove from the bed. Max flicked his tail and zoomed out of the room, skidding as he took a corner, giving a quick jump when he hit the wall, corrected, then a straight shot through the living room and kitchen, to the basement where he’d be safe. But voices carried through the floor vents.
“He pissed all over my clothes!”
“He’s never done that before,” Melody said. “I don’t know what got into him.”
“I’ll have to wear cat-piss clothes to work.”
The noise finally settled down, and Max began to wonder if he was missing out on anything. He inched his way back upstairs, each step silent and smooth. He peeked around the corner.
The guy was dressed, getting ready to leave.
“Here’s my phone number.” Melody handed him a business card. It had a picture of Max on it. A box of them had arrived at the house one day, and Melody had shown them to him. “What do you think of this handsome guy?” she’d asked. “Do you like having your face on my card?”
He’d liked it a lot.
She’d had another cat before Max. Max had seen pictures. He didn’t like to think of that other cat. It made his tummy feel funny.
“You’re a librarian?” The guy sounded disgusted.
“Children’s librarian. At the Hamline Midway Library, to be exact.”
Max wasn’t crazy about kids, but he lifted his nose in a haughty way just to demonstrate support of his mistress.
“Would it be better if I were a stripper?”
The guy nodded. “That would be hot.”
She grabbed the card. “Get out.”
“I’m trying.” He stuffed his feet into a pair of sneakers and bent to tie them. The rapidly moving laces were almost impossible for Max to resist, but he managed to control himself. As the man straightened, he spotted Max. “There you are, you idiot cat.”
Max gave him a hard stare even though his heart was pounding. Suddenly Melody scooped him up and pressed him to her chest. “Get out,” she told the man.
He looked from her to Max and back. “Crazy cat lady.” Then he was gone with a slam of the kitchen door.
“I just have one cat,” Melody shouted after him. “Just one! Cat ladies have a lot of cats!”
Max pushed his paws against her chest so he could lean back and look up at her.
“Oh, Max.” Remnants of yesterday’s mascara smudged her blue eyes, and her dark hair fell against her neck in the spot Max liked to nuzzle. She smelled like the strange stuff she drank when she was away from home. Something sweet and curious, a secret scent that drifted between them when she talked, that found a home on her skin where it would linger for days. A scent that spoke of a world Max knew nothing about, a world that scared him with its mysteries and possible dangers.
“Why do I bring these losers home?” Melody was wearing her pink pajamas. The ones with the black cats. Max smiled at her. She smiled back and massaged his head. “When am I going to realize that you’re the only guy I need in my life?”
She’d said the same thing before. Max knew that soon she would meet her friends for drinks and there would be another morning and another loser. It had been fourteen cat years since David had died, but fourteen of Max’s years translated to two of Melody’s. It was time she met a decent guy, and Max was beginning to think he’d have to take it upon himself to find one.
Max was a cat of action. The very next day after Melody left for work, he moved forward with his plan. He would go out into the world and return with a man for Melody. Leaving home was easy. All he had to do was slip out the doggy door that had been installed by the previous homeowners. When Melody and David moved into the place, there had been some discussion about the door.
“Max won’t leave the yard,” David had predicted.
He’d been right. In fact, just thinking of what might dwell beyond the solid fence scared the beejesus out of Max. Now, as he sat in the safety of his backyard kingdom, doubt crept in and he briefly wondered about the practicality of his matchmaking plan. But the trepidation didn’t last long. His spontaneous nature kicked in and he scaled the fence, then perched casually on a post, fake-licking a paw to give the impression that he had all day and was not on a mission. A cat, especially a cat like him, had to retain an outward appearance of cool at all times.
Upon occasion, he’d had the misfortune of spending time with cats that cried and begged and generally made fools of themselves. He would never be one of those cats.
With a vague plan in mind, he dove headfirst off the post, the pads of his feet contacting the rough surface of the fence boards, the ground rising to meet him. A fraction of a second later, he was upright in a clump of the neighbor’s yellow flowers.
They smelled heavenly.
He briefly forgot his mission. He touched the tip of his nose to the soft petals and sniffed, the flower’s sweet scent filling his head with the dreamiest of sensations that left him so transported that he collapsed in the deep grass.
His head gradually cleared, his awareness expanding beyond the gently bobbing yellow flowers. Daffodils? Were they daffodils? Melody had mentioned something about spring, but Max hadn’t paid much attention. He’d just been glad he could go outside without freezing his claws off, or without being greeted by a wall of snow and ice. But he had to admit if this was spring it was delightful.
Harsh sounds intruded. Those were followed by new, unpleasant odors. Terror came out of nowhere, and he almost ran back the way he’d come, but he controlled the urge to split.
He hadn’t been prepared for the sensory overload of the world beyond the fence. Foolishly, he’d thought it would be like the backyard, only bigger. But it was nothing like the backyard. Nothing.
He made his way down alleys and across streets. He stopped and sniffed, taking a reading. He could smell Como Zoo to the north. He could smell the eateries and fast-food joints on University Avenue. He could even smell his vet’s office, and, at one point, he almost thought he caught a whiff of his long-lost brother.
But it was hard when every sight and sound and smell was a distraction. As he continued on his way, he tried to divert himself from a growing sense of panic and his inability to understand why anybody would ever leave home. He tried to calm himself by redirecting his attention to the qualities he would look for in a mate for his mistress.
The new guy had to have a nice voice. Nothing deep or scary. And he couldn’t move too fast either. He couldn’t smell funny. That was a big one-smell. Nice hands. Yes, hands were important. Maybe that was selfish, but so be it. They were a family, and the new person had to fit into both Max and Melody’s life.
Max was just beginning to calm down, to think that this world beyond his backyard wasn’t too bad and that it might even be exciting and fun and he might like to come here again even after he found a guy for Melody, when suddenly all hell broke loose. Sirens shrieked, almost shattering his delicate eardrums. Tires squealed, cars pulled to a stop in the middle of the street, lights flashing. Doors slammed, people shouted, and uniformed officers threw a skinny girl against the hood of a police car while she screamed and cussed.
From off in the distance came the sound of an ice-cream truck. Max recognized the distinctive music because sometimes Melody would buy what she called a drumstick, and she would let Max lick ice cream from her finger. The happy music relaxed him a little, but instead of running, he sat frozen on the sidewalk, watching the drama unfold. Like he’d done when David was killed. He’d been unable to move. Unable to help.
So familiar. The shoes, the pants, made from fabric that was too thin, in Max’s opinion. He much preferred jeans. Easier to sink his claws into. The belt with a gun that, if shot, would be louder than the sirens.
Melody told Max a lot of things, the big one being she would never again date or marry a cop.
As quickly as it had come, the scene in the street dispersed. The cops stuffed the woman in the car, and soon there was nothing left but the ice-cream truck.
And Max got back to his mate list.
Not a cop. Definitely not a cop.
Max continued on his quest.
He liked to think he was one cool cat and everybody who was anybody knew him, but in truth he had very little street cred since he wasn’t known outside the walls of his own home. Call it antisocial, but Max preferred humans to the company of cats. Cats seemed…well, kind of stupid. That was the only way to put it. Stupid and selfish. All they thought about was their own personal comfort. A patch of sun. Favorite food. Sure, those were all good, but a cat had to look beyond that sometimes.
It didn’t take long for Max to realize that without the confines of his home his internal clock was messed up. It seemed like he’d been walking for a long time, but maybe it would be equal to a nap on the front porch, followed by a snack, a little exercise with a cat toy, and another nap. He was pondering the passage of time when the houses dropped away and an expanse of green opened up. He heard high-pitched squeals that he knew belonged to kids.
Max hated kids.
Yes, there was Melody’s librarian gig, but Max and Melody had a silent agreement. He wouldn’t talk about his day if she didn’t talk about hers. Much. That was important in a relationship.
A man sitting on a bench caught Max’s eye.
He had wild gray hair and a gray beard, big black shoes that were untied, long strings that would have been irresistible had Max been home. Although nobody else was around, the man seemed to be talking to someone.
He had a nice voice. Soothing, and not scary in the least.
Max stepped closer.
The man spotted him.
“Well, hey kitty. Look at you with them yellow eyes and that black-and-white coat. You are one handsome bastard.”
Max smiled, and for a moment he felt the uncontrollable urge to make the clicking noise he sometimes made when he saw a bird.
“Come over here and see old Jerry.” The man held out his hand in a way that wasn’t threatening. Max stepped closer until the man-Jerry-was able to touch him, patting him awkwardly on the head. Not a cat person, but he could be trained.
The man smelled like everything Max had passed on his way to the green space. The bus exhaust, hamburger grease, cigarettes. Like the organic, rotten odor that drifted from the holes at the street corners where the rats played. Like the sweet sour smell that came from the bottle in the paper bag beside the man.
Was this a mate for Melody? Had Max found him already?
“I’m getting hungry. How about you?” Jerry asked.
Now that Max thought about it, he was hungry.
The man tried to pet him again, but Max dodged the hand and circled his new friend’s legs like a nervous fish.
Jerry replaced the screw cap on his paper-bag bottle, stuck it in his grocery cart, and hefted himself to his feet. “I know a good place to eat,” he told Max. “Free food.” Jerry moseyed off.
Max couldn’t figure out if Jerry was pushing the cart or using the cart to prop himself up. Melody needed a healthy mate, not someone who drank from a paper bag and needed a cart to support himself.
Should he ditch this guy?
But he was hungry.
A mother and two kids approached.
“Kitty!” One of the children ran at Max. She was all pink clothes and red cheeks, and he knew her breath would smell like sour milk and Gummy Worms. Mom grabbed her hand and pulled her back, whispering something about a homeless man.
Max’s head shot up. Homeless? Melody had a home, so maybe a homeless man would be a good mate. But something told Max this guy, while having many of the requirements on Max’s list, might not be right for his mistress.
“Coming?” Jerry shouted over his shoulder.
Max followed, his tail with the bump in it pointing skyward, the tip bent in an awkward question mark.
He couldn’t help but notice that they were moving farther away from Max’s kingdom, and that made him nervous. He still had a strong bead on home, but the sensation of vast distance was growing, gnawing nervously at his belly. He had the overwhelming urge to stop in the middle of the sidewalk and make strange noises. He restrained himself, but it was only a matter of time before he began yowling like a baby.
The man didn’t move very fast, barely shuffling along the sidewalk, a smart technique for keeping his feet inside his shoes. Once again Max considered ditching him, but he found it hard to let go of an idea once it took hold. He also had to admit that he felt a little safer wandering around the city now that he’d found a friend. He noticed that people gave Jerry a wide berth, some even crossing to the other side of the street when they saw him coming. Max was impressed.
They turned down an alley where a cluster of people waited at a green door. Above the door were letters, and not for the first time Max wished he could read.
Melody read to him sometimes. Maybe she was reading aloud to herself, but he liked to think she was reading to him, telling him stories like the Cat in the Hat, Alice in Wonderland, and Pippi Longstocking.
“That your cat, Jerry?” The question came from a man who looked a lot like Max’s new friend.
“It’s a kitler,” someone else said.
“Kitler?” Jerry asked.
“A cat with a mustache. Kitler cats are crazy. My mother used to have a kitler and it shredded her furniture.”
Everybody had to get in on the conversation.
“I saw a kitler jump on a dog’s back and ride it like a monkey on a bicycle.”
“My aunt had a kitler, and it stole her baby’s breath,” a woman contributed. “Kid almost died.”
Oh, the garbage people believed. But Max couldn’t deny that many cats were a little high-strung. Truth be told, Max came from a family of weirdasses. When Max was still on the teat, someone told him he was a descendent of Cleopatra’s favorite cat. He didn’t know if it was true. Most of the cats he’d run into claimed the same heritage. Regardless, he and his two surviving littermates were a bit unusual. His sister, a psychic, was living somewhere in Wisconsin, and his brother…well, Max had lost touch with him a long time ago. He’d once told Max that he could read minds, and Max believed it. All things considered, Max was the slacker of the bunch with no real talent.
Before Max knew what was happening, before he could run, Jerry scooped him up and held him against the rough fabric of his baggy coat. “Egyptians worshipped cats.” He looked into Max’s eyes. “Maybe I’ll worship you.”
Okay, this was getting too weird, and Max regretted the time he’d wasted on Jerry.
Max squirmed away, his feet hitting the ground with a thud. He was feeling uncomfortable with all of the attention, when the green door opened. The crowd let out a sound of approval, and people surged forward, cat forgotten.
Max stepped lightly inside the doorway, moving to the left in order to hide behind some stacked boxes. He watched Jerry make his way to a counter where a man with rolled-up sleeves and a white apron smiled and handed out steaming bowls that smelled like chicken. Max licked his lips and felt his stomach growl. If he’d been home, he would have noshed down several small meals by now.
He focused on the man behind the counter. Not as hairy as Jerry. Not as sad. And he was handing out bowls of food. What could be better? Jerry suddenly dropped completely off Max’s radar. This new guy had food. Lots of food.
Food hadn’t even been on his list, and now Max could see the error of his novice, matchmaking ways. And Jerry-well, he’d felt uneasy about Jerry from the beginning, which was days ago in cat time. Food should have been a priority. If this man could feed all of these people, he could easily feed Max and Melody.
Joe ladled soup into white bowls and handed them to the people filing past the counter. Over half were men, the rest women and children. The children got to him the most. Children and-he did a double take. Cat. Yes, that was a cat. A black-and-white cat with a black mustache, sitting like a statue just inside the door.
A regular named Jerry reached across the counter. “Hey, Joe. How’s it going?”
They shook hands, and when they broke away Joe was left with a folded piece of paper in his palm that he slipped into his pocket. He would read it once the noon shift was over.
Jerry looked over his shoulder at the cat. “I asked him if he was hungry, and he followed me here.”
“Cat’s gotta eat too,” the woman behind him said, nodding.
The low ceiling contained the clatter and voices, making it hard to sort out people from cutlery. A wall of confusing noise, but the cat didn’t seem to mind.
“He looks pretty harmless to me.” Joe spooned a piece of chicken into a bowl and set it aside to cool. “Hungry like everybody else.”
Not all of the people who ate at Gimme Shelter were homeless. Some were simply unable to afford a decent meal. The building slept fifty, and they were seeing more families and turning away more people all the time.
Once the lunch crowd had been fed, Joe scanned the room for the cat. He was still sitting near the door, staring at him with brilliant yellow eyes. Joe picked up the bowl containing the piece of chicken, and slowly approached. The animal didn’t run. “Hungry?” Continuing to move carefully, Joe put the bowl down a couple of feet away.
The animal stepped forward, sniffed the cooked meat, and began eating with gusto. Homeless? Maybe not, because he was wearing a collar. But in this economy some owners were turning their pets loose when they could no longer care for them.
The cat licked its paws and washed its face.
“What’s your story?” Joe reached out to gently pet the animal on the head. He seemed to like that, so Joe got a little bolder and scratched the cat behind the ear, then under his chin. “That’s quite a motor you’ve got.” Joe turned the metal ID tag toward the light so he could make out the engraving. “Max. So your name is Max. That’s a good cat name.”
Below the name was a phone number, along with an address. Joe pulled out his cell phone and keyed in the number only to get a recording stating that it was no longer in service.
Joe straightened and closed the back door so the cat wouldn’t make a run for it.
Jerry shuffled over. “Gonna keep my cat?”
“I’ll drive him to the address on his collar and see if his owners still live there,” Joe said. “Kinda doubt it since the phone number is no longer in service.”
“You could use a cat here. The kids would love it.”
“A lot of people are allergic to cats. A dog would be better. But I hate to see such a nice cat end up in the animal shelter.”
“I heard all the no-kill shelters are full.”
The cat circled back to the door, stood there a moment, then began scratching with both front paws, trying to get out.
“Yeah,” Joe said. “I heard that too.”
The cat seemed frantic now.
“Weird how a little bit of food can turn a tame cat into a wild one,” Jerry said.
Joe had no place to keep the cat, so he put it in the bathroom. Inside, with the door locked, Joe pulled out the small piece of paper Jerry had given him. A name. Just a name. He memorized it and flushed the paper down the toilet.
“Sorry, old boy. Can’t take you home until I get off work.” Joe exited the bathroom. Worried about leaving the cat in the dark, he slipped his hand inside, felt along the wall for the light switch, and turned it on before firmly closing the door.
Two hours later Joe ran to the pet store for cat food. While in the checkout lane, he plucked a bag of catnip from a clip and tossed it on the counter with the canned salmon purchase. He hoped Max would like his selections.
It wasn’t until early evening that Joe could get away from the shelter long enough to pack Max in his car and look up the address on the collar. He easily found the street and house-a tiny bungalow in an area of Saint Paul called Frogtown. Carrying the cat, Joe approached the residence fully expecting to find new tenants or owners in the home.
Melody was frantic.
She’d looked through the house twice, checking the closets and cupboards searching for Max. She’d gone over every corner of her tiny backyard. No Max. A few years ago she’d accidentally locked him in a closet for a full day, and she kept hoping that’s what had happened this time. But two more trips through the house failed to turn up even the faintest meow.
People used to say Melody led a charmed life. Once she’d even found the end of a rainbow. It was the oddest thing, because there was nothing there. Nothing. Just a field. She’d never told anybody about it, not anybody but Max. She told Max a lot of things she didn’t tell anyone else. He didn’t understand, but she loved that she could tell him anything and he seemed to listen.
The idea that Max might be gone for good was too much for Melody to contemplate. Suddenly she felt the loss of David all over again, and her head was a mixed-up mess, because somehow Max almost seemed like David. He’d been David’s cat, so that was understandable, and Melody suspected she’d clung to Max even more because of the connection to her old life, her happy life when it had been the three of them. David, cooking eggs and pancakes on a Sunday morning while Melody sat cross-legged on the floor, Max diving under the open newspaper, making them both laugh.
What should she do?
Search the neighborhood. Go door-to-door. Put up fliers. Yes. All of those things.
Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
A knock at the front door had her running to the porch. Through the screen she saw a man with wavy dark hair standing on the step, Max in his arms. Melody fumbled with the latch, hardly aware that she’d burst into tears. She plucked Max from the man’s arms and buried her face in Max’s fur. Then she held him up to get a good look at him. “Oh, Max! Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“He’s fine,” the man said. “Does he do this often? Run off?”
“He disappeared once before. After-” She stopped. No need to tell a stranger about David’s murder. But after David’s death, Max vanished for three days. At first she thought he was afraid of all the people coming and going, but even after things slowed down he remained aloof and skittish. She never found out where he’d been those days, but she’d always figured he’d been hiding in the basement.
Right now Max had kind of a drugged look to his eyes.
“Did you give him catnip?” Melody asked.
“I thought it would be nice. Like offering a guest a glass of wine.”
Now she noticed that Max was heavy and limp.
“I also fed him. Chicken. And canned cat food.” The man’s voice faded, as if he wondered if he’d done the right thing. “I noticed he was fat, so I thought he must have had an owner fairly recently.”
The man was giving her that look. A look she was used to seeing. Yes, she was wearing the Pippi Longstocking costume she wore for story hour, but even when she was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, people sometimes gave her that look. A person had to be what a person had to be. And maybe she’d gotten odder since David’s death. Yes, it was true. She’d admitted that to herself more than once. But when someone died you realized the importance of being true to yourself. Of being honest. The importance of being who you are. And if that meant wearing her Pippi costume home rather than changing before she left the library… well, that was fine. That was who she was. Not Pippi, but someone who wasn’t afraid to be seen in something a bit unusual.
“He’s never left before. He’s never left the backyard.”
She lifted the limp cat so she could look at his face, her hands under his armpits. “What’s going on, Max? First the peeing, now this. You aren’t acting yourself.” But really, he hadn’t acted himself since David’s death. “What kind of catnip did you give him?”
“I don’t know. I just grabbed a bag at the pet store. Does he get special catnip? Maybe you should send him out with a set of instructions so if someone finds him they’ll know what kind of catnip or caviar to give him.”
Melody envisioned a little clear tube that could attach to Max’s collar. Inside was a rolled piece of paper outlining his diet and recreational drug preference. She nodded. “Yes.”
“I was being sarcastic.”
“I know you were, but the idea has merit.”
The man in the doorway was looking at her in kind of a confused, woozy way-much the same expression Max had displayed earlier.
The cat grew tired of being held. He squirmed out of Melody’s arms, and his feet hit the floor with a solid thud. Then he ran through the living room and down to the basement. Seconds later Melody and her guest heard him digging in the litter box.
“I wondered about that,” the man said.
He was still standing in the doorway. Should she ask him in? She didn’t feel comfortable with that. But why wasn’t he leaving? Did he expect a reward? Yes! He’d fed Max and bought him catnip, and now that she looked closer, she could see that his jeans had been patched in a couple of places, and his shirt with its snap buttons was definitely vintage, maybe thrift shop. “Let me pay you something for your trouble.”
As soon as she spoke, she knew she’d made a mistake. His green eyes lost their softness, and she could almost see his mental retreat.
“I don’t want anything.”
He began backing away, ready to turn and leave.
“Wait!” She ran to the kitchen, opened a plastic container, and pulled out one of the cupcakes she’d baked yesterday for story time at the library. She ran back to the porch and handed him the cupcake, which he took with a baffled expression.
“Everybody loves cupcakes, right?”
“Ah, well, to be honest, I’m more of a beef jerky kind of guy.”
He held the pink cupcake between fingers and thumb. He turned it and eyed it with suspicion. “It has a cat face on it.”
“The cat is supposed to be Max, but I couldn’t get the color right. A little more blue than black. That’s a jelly bean for a nose.”
“And the whiskers?”
“Black licorice. The kids love them.”
“Max must be honored.”
“Oh, he is.”
They talked about next time. Kidding, of course. There would be no next time.
“I’ll have the right catnip.”
She laughed. “I’ll have beef jerky.”
He left with his cupcake, holding it in front of him as if it were something extremely foreign and questionable.
She realized she hadn’t gotten his name, but what did it matter?
Max made a thunderous return upstairs, skidding around corners, full of energy now that he’d visited the litter box. After entertaining Melody with a lot of crazy antics, he began to strut around the small house, going from room to room.
Melody picked him up and tried to cuddle. “What would I have done if you’d never come home?” she asked. The thought terrified her. “If he hadn’t found you? What were you thinking? Don’t ever go away again, do you hear me? Never, never!”
He wriggled out of her arms to once again roam the house, finally settling on the bedroom where he sat in the middle of the floor and yowled.
If she didn’t know better, she would swear he was looking for David.
“Max, here. I made cupcakes with your face on them.”
Cats weren’t supposed to be able to see their own image, but Melody often caught Max admiring his reflection in the mirror above the dresser. Now she bent at the waist to show him a cupcake, but even the image of himself in frosting and jelly beans failed to cheer him up. If he was still acting odd tomorrow, she’d take him to the vet. “Should I make you a cupcake out of cat food and catnip? That would be adorable, don’t you think?”
He ignored her, went straight to the front door, and scratched to get out.
It didn’t seem like he missed David. It seemed like he missed the stranger who’d brought him home.
That night, long after Max’s return, Melody’s thoughts kept going back to the stranger’s visit. With a start of surprise, she found herself recalling small details that she’d missed when he’d stood in the doorway. Almost like looking at a photograph or watching a video, picking up things you were too busy to notice during real time.
Deep, but soft. Soothing.
His eyes. Kind, and when he smiled he’d had the most pleasant laugh lines at the corners. No beard, no mustache, but he’d needed to shave. Not the bad kind of needing to shave. The good kind.
How tall had he been? She hadn’t noticed that, so probably average. His sleeves had been folded up two turns to reveal nice forearms. Strong. Lean. But even as she struggled to remember, it wasn’t really the way he looked that captured her attention in recall, it was him. The feeling of who he was that intrigued her.
Replacing the lid on the cupcake container, she laughed softly to herself, thinking about how he’d held the treat, how foreign it had seemed to him. As she laughed, she felt Max brush up against her bare leg. He stepped on her fuzzy pink slippers, trying to get her attention.
“I’m mad at you.”
But she wasn’t. Not really.
“How could you run off like that? What were you thinking?” Was he lonely? Melody wondered. “Maybe I’ll start bringing you to work with me. How would you like that?”
“The kids would love you.”
He meowed again.
The day after returning Max the cat to his cupcake-baking owner, Joe heard suspicious scratching. He opened the shelter door a crack, and Max the cat shot inside and immediately began rubbing against Joe’s leg.
The noon rush was over, and Jerry was the only other person left in the room. “Looks like you got a friend,” he said, hunched over his soup, arms on the table. “Are you sure you aren’t taking a shower in pheromones? That cat’s in love with you, dude.”
As soon as Jerry spoke the words, the cat calmed down and settled on his haunches.
It was odd, Joe had to admit.
“If I’d know he was going to turn into such a pain in the ass, I wouldn’t have invited him here,” Jerry said.
“That’s okay.” Joe searched for a piece of chicken and dropped it in a bowl just as he had the day before.
“Is the owner some kind of slacker who doesn’t take care of his pets?”
“Quite the opposite. I think Max is spoiled to the extreme. And the owner is a woman, not a guy.”
“No. Well, maybe a cat lady in training.”
“Maybe late twenties.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Just, ah. Be kinda tough to get involved with anybody right now, if you know what I mean.” With no audience or witnesses, Jerry had dropped the homeless alcoholic act and was the old Jerry that Joe had worked with for the past several years.
“Your job.” Jerry looked around the empty room. “This job.”
Joe sighed and tested the temperature of the chicken with one finger. “You’re right.” The job took a toll on relationships.
“Wouldn’t be fair.”
“Wouldn’t be right.”
“So what are you going to do with the cat?”
“Take him back home, I guess.”
“What’s she like? The owner?”
Joe thought about her. He didn’t even know her name, and he had no idea of her real hair color. But he recalled her pale skin, her blue eyes. “She was dressed weird… Now that I think of it, she was dressed almost like some storybook character with red braids and fake freckles on her nose. And she had cat stuff all over the place.”
“Okay, that does not sound like somebody you should get mixed up with.”
“I’m not going to get mixed up with her. I wouldn’t have expected to see her again if this guy hadn’t come back.” He bent and placed the bowl on the floor. “Here, kitty-kitty-kitty.”
Jerry pointed his spoon at Joe. “You know who the cat lady sounds like?”
“She’s not a cat lady.”
“Pippi Longstocking.” At Joe’s blank look, he continued. “From the books. She’s this obnoxious brat who has no parents and does whatever she wants.”
Max swiped at Joe with one paw, and Joe jumped back. “Guess he didn’t like my generic cat call,” Joe said.
“Maybe you’re supposed to bow and say: ‘Dinner is served, your grace’.”
“Did Pippi Longstocking have a cat?” Joe asked.
“How the hell should I know? Wait. I think she did have a cat. No, a monkey. She had a monkey. And a horse.”
Melody answered the door to find the man from yesterday standing on her front step, Max in his arms. Relief washed over her, and she took the cat from him. “I just got home from work and found him gone again.”
“You might want to check for an escape tunnel.”
“Did you eat the cupcake?”
“Not that I didn’t want to.” He followed her inside. “It was just such a work of art that I hated to destroy it.”
“I’ll bet you threw it away.”
“It’s in a place of honor. Really.”
“The dashboard of my car, but soon, very soon, it will be in my house on a bookshelf.”
“You do know it won’t keep.”
“If the weather stays dry, maybe it’ll dehydrate and harden.”
She rolled her eyes.
“Where do you work?”
“They let you dress like that at a library?”
Today she was wearing her Alice in Wonderland costume. “I’m a children’s librarian.”
“Ah, okay. That makes sense. Kind of.”
“It’s for story hour.”
He looked relieved. “But all kidding aside, how is Max escaping?”
“Tiny doggy door. I’m going to have to seal it. I hate to do that, because he loves his outside time.” It pained her to think of depriving him of such happiness, but it had to be done.
Max jumped to the floor.
“I don’t even know your name.”
He nodded as if to say the name suited her, while Max rubbed against Joe’s legs, purring madly. Did he miss male companionship?
“Do you like football?” she asked.
Joe looked up in surprise. “Yeah, you?”
“No, but Max… Well, I think Max likes football. Do you drink beer?”
“Not a lot. I mean, I’m not an alcoholic, if that’s what you’re asking.” He was eying her with perplexity now. A little afraid.
“I think Max likes beer. Not drinking beer, but sitting on a person’s lap when he drinks beer.”
“Okay.” More perplexity. “Do you have any beer?”
“I don’t know. I’ll check.” She ran to the kitchen, dress and apron swirling. Yes, a couple of bottles in the back of the refrigerator. “It says I should have drunk these a year and a half ago!” she shouted, then turned to find the man right behind her.
“Doesn’t really matter, since this is just a test.” He slipped the bottle from her grasp. She dug an opener shaped like a cat from the silverware drawer, and handed it to Joe. He popped the top and headed back to the living room, planting himself in the corner of the couch. He put his feet on the footstool and took a timid sip of the stale beer. Max silently jumped on his lap and curled up.
Melody watched as Joe petted Max in a way Max didn’t like to be petted. But Max didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to like it. “Good grief. I don’t even know what to say. I really think Max is looking for male companionship.”
“No males around here?”
“Not for a while.”
“I see,” he said in a way that meant he understood she was no longer in a relationship. She didn’t like to tell people about David, especially strangers. It always made it seem that she was looking for sympathy, or it caused a long, awkward silence, followed by escape. “My husband died.” She waited for the awkward stuff. “Max was actually his cat.”
“I’m sorry.” Joe scratched Max behind the ear, and Max pushed into his hand and purred even louder. “I don’t know anything about cats, but he does seem to have formed an odd attachment to me.”
“But hey, I’ll bet it’s because I fed him chicken.”
She liked the way Joe didn’t ignore her dark revelation but commented, sympathized, and moved on. “I didn’t even know he ate chicken.”
Max didn’t even seem like her cat anymore. One minute he was peeing on a stranger’s clothes, the next he was snuggled up to somebody he’d never seen before yesterday. Did Max need a kitty shrink?
Joe seemed to be mulling something over in his head. “You don’t know me, but I could drop by sometimes. After I get off work.”
Melody remembered how she’d thought of him after he’d left. Even today at the library her brain had wandered back that direction.
“To hang out with Max,” Joe said, making it clear it was all about the cat.
“Kind of like a Big Brother?”
“Exactly.” He gave Max a head massage and fluff. “How does that sound, buddy? You and me? Hanging out?”
Max dove off the couch, slid under the red chair with the skirt, grabbed a catnip mouse, curled up with it in the center of the room, and clawed it madly with both back feet.
Joe stopped by the next night. And the next.
Very quickly the pretense of the visits being for Max was forgotten.
Joe told Melody he worked at a shelter, and Melody had already confessed that she was a kids’ librarian. Neither flinched or recoiled. Max took this as a very good sign. So good, in fact, that he once again found himself racing through the house and sliding under the bed to come nose to nose with his favorite toy mouse. He nipped it gently on the head and trotted back to the living room with it dangling from his mouth.
Melody laughed the way she always laughed when he appeared with the mouse. “I swear he thinks that thing’s alive.”
Of course he didn’t, but it was the next best thing to a living mouse. Confession time. He actually liked it better than a real mouse. Once he’d seen a real mouse in the basement. It squeaked and jumped out from behind a broom. Max ran like hell, and for quite some time he avoided that area.
Now, his legs weak with joy, he rolled in a strip of sunshine, the mouse between his front paws. He was that happy. The only thing that could have made his world better was if Melody hadn’t closed off the doggy door. But Max’s freedom was a small price to pay for his mistress’s happiness.
The relationship moved quickly.
Max would have preferred they take it a little slower. Max was all about caution and patience. He could wait all day for a treat, and he could wait all day for Melody to come home. Life was all about waiting, but people were dangerously spontaneous, especially Melody. Humans tended to jump into things with no thought, when in truth the most pleasurable part of life came from the anticipation of catnip, not the crazy buzz.
But he had to step back and give Melody her freedom, and giving her that freedom meant allowing her to make mistakes without his intervention. This was a different kind of love that didn’t come easily for Max. This kind of love took restraint. Sure, it would have been simple to pounce on her back when she was making dreamy eyes at Joe. Sure it would have been simple for Max to fake illness when she was preparing to go out with Joe for the third night in a row, but throwing herself too quickly into a relationship was who Melody was. It wasn’t Max’s role to try to make her more like him. That’s not what love was about.
So, when Melody and Joe came into the house, laughing and hugging, Melody’s eyes bright and her face flushed, Max tried not to worry. And he tried not to feel jealous. But he did try to make her feel guilty for forgetting to feed him any special treats. There was only so much a cat could take.
“I think Max feels neglected,” Melody said.
She and Joe were standing in the kitchen, both holding a glass of wine. Max was in the dining room watching them from a distance, wondering if Melody would think about giving him a treat from the green bag.
“I have been away more than usual, and I think he’s also upset with me for sealing the doggy door.”
Joe pulled the cork out of the wine bottle. “I have an idea.” He poured more wine into their glasses, then recorked the bottle and placed it on the counter. “Why not take him to some of your story hours? He could be kind of a mascot.”
Melody stared at Max as if seeing him in a whole new light. “Wow, I don’t know. I’m not sure he’d like that.”
“He’s pretty social. Think about how he came to the shelter two times. In fact, why not have a story hour at the shelter?”
Max was pretty sure story hour involved kids. He’d been around kids a few times in his life, and it wasn’t something he wanted to repeat. He straightened from a sitting position and rubbed against Melody’s legs, meowing, hoping to distract her, hoping she’d forget Joe’s suggestion.
Melody smiled. “I think he likes the idea!”
“I think you’re right.”
Melody and Joe laughed in shared camaraderie, as if the idea of a cat understanding the conversation was hilarious. Max hated Joe in that moment, and he wished he’d never brought him home to Melody.
Be careful what you wish for. That’s what his sister used to tell him.
It had been better when it was just the two of them-Max and Melody.
Melody said something, and Max spun around to see her smiling at Joe. She’d used the voice. The voice that was for Max and only Max. Kind of soft and sweet.
Max knew it was coming, but he’d hoped it wouldn’t be so soon. Joe and Melody disappeared into the bedroom. Max tried to follow, but the door closed in his face.
Max stood on his hind legs to scratch and paw at the doorknob, trying to turn it. From inside, Melody laughed and told him to behave.
Behave? This was his house. That was his bedroom.
Max wished he could turn back the clock to the morning he decided to find Melody a mate. Oh, how foolish he’d been that day. How naïve. He’d thought they would be a family-the three of them, the way it had been when David was alive. This-being shut out of the bedroom-was unacceptable.
Max wasn’t even sure where to sleep, because he always slept on the pillow next to Melody’s head. There he could keep an eye on her and feel her soft breath on his whiskers.
He strode through the house several times. There was the cat bed he never used. He sniffed it with distain. On the couch was the blanket that plugged into the wall on cold winter nights. The weather was warm now, and the cord lay forgotten on the floor. The blanket didn’t interest him either. Instead, he sprawled on the floor not far from the bedroom door and waited. Maybe someone would come out soon and he could slip inside.
But it wasn’t until morning that Melody shuffled out to the kitchen in her fuzzy pink slippers to get a drink of water. Max shot inside the room and hid in the closet until she went back to bed. That’s when Max began sniffing Joe’s clothes, then his backpack that had been left on the floor. The zipper was down, which made it easy for Max to dig around inside. His paw came into contact with something hard. He dug more, pulling a T-shirt out of the way. There, hidden deep in the backpack, was something Max had hoped to never see again.
For a moment, Max was too scared to move. Too scared to think.
The people in the bed were paying no attention to him. Maybe they were asleep, maybe they were cuddling. He didn’t even want to know. Max finally ran from the room, but once in the kitchen he couldn’t quit thinking about the backpack. He had to look in it again. Maybe he could scare the thing into leaving. Maybe he could pull it into the light where it might not look the same, where it might not look like what he thought it was.
He returned to the bedroom, creeping silently. He sneaked up on the backpack. He gingerly placed a paw inside, pulled hard, and jumped. Carefully, he moved forward again. The light in the room was dim, but his eyes were good. He stepped close enough to make out something metal. Something shiny. A gun, sticking out of a leather holster. Just like the gun that had killed David.
Just pretend they aren’t there.
That’s what Max kept telling himself, but how did you ignore a massive litter of screaming brats?
Today was something called Earth Day, and Melody was reading from a Dr. Seuss book at Joe’s shelter. Really, could these wild animals even grasp the odd world of some crazy old guy with a beard? Did they care about the message? Max doubted it. And quite honestly, he didn’t care either. Sure, he liked trees. He loved trees, but on his walk to the shelter he’d seen a lot of trees. And there was that big green space. A lot of trees there too. So what was the big deal?
Of course he wouldn’t have been quite as grumpy if he hadn’t been wearing something Melody called a thneed. She’d been thrilled about it last night when she’d put in on him for a test drive. Made out of yarn, with dangly appendages. He’d liked that. Oh, had he ever, but she’d gotten cross when he began shredding the outfit.
Now he was sitting on a low table, dressed in the lime-green thneed, waiting for story time to end.
And it hadn’t even started.
Joe was there. This had all been Joe’s idea. Joe, Joe, Joe. Everything was Joe now, and Max hadn’t yet figured out how to break them up, but by God he was working on it.
He felt something on his head.
He held his breath and didn’t move and didn’t blink.
“Hey, kitty.” A giant face appeared right in front of him, just inches away.
“How are you, kitty?”
He had to pull back slightly to get the face in focus. A kid. Of course. Wispy blond hair that looked like it had come from a milkweed. Rosy cheeks and lips. A sweet shyness in her eyes that took Max completely by surprise.
She smiled. With her stubby little hand, she patted him on the head. Nothing that even came close to a real pet or stroke. Just this awkward pat that he hardly felt. Could anything be more innocent or charming?
Deep inside, he felt a response he’d previously associated with Melody. A softening of his heart. And then it was gone, and he was once again wishing he were home, coming down from a catnip high while lying in a patch of sunshine.
Melody placed a chair next to the table. “Everybody sit on the floor.”
Max was surprised when the kids obeyed. They scrambled for the rug, sitting cross-legged, heads bent back, shifting and squirming the way kids do. The little girl with the milkweed hair gave him one final smile and swirled away. But she didn’t go far. She parked herself close to the table, within touching distance of Max.
He wondered if Joe would give him chicken.
Melody opened the book. It was a big book. She’d read the story to him last night for practice. A long story. Kids today didn’t have the patience to sit through a story that long. Especially a book story. No, they needed TV and games and visual sedation.
Max was mistaken.
They grew quiet and still. Melody didn’t even have to raise her voice. And what a voice she had. So soft and soothing, so compelling. Max himself was rapt, watching her face as she read, watching the soft curve of her shiny dark hair as it fell against her neck.
He heard a footfall and looked up to see Joe reaching blindly for a chair, sitting down, his expression similar to that of the kids. Oh, man. The guy was in love, and who could blame him? What a shame, because Max was going to have to put a stop to this whole thing. He hadn’t quite figured out the when and how, but he’d brought them together. He could break them up.
Even though Max was on cat time, the reading seemed to move quickly. Before he knew it, Melody was shutting the book and picking up Max, pulling him onto her lap.
“You were such a perfect gentleman,” she told him. She sounded so proud, and Max felt himself expanding a little, his head going a bit higher.
“Does anybody want to pet him before we leave?”
Good Lord. Not an open invitation.
All of the kids-every last one of them-scrambled to their feet, and suddenly Max was being mobbed by sticky hands and jostling bodies. A Beatle in their heyday couldn’t have gotten more unwanted attention. Where were the bouncers? He needed bouncers!
“Easy,” Melody said, pulling Max closer and shielding him with her arm.
“You’re scaring him!” the girl with the milkweed hair told the mob.
Melody stood with Max in her arms. Suddenly Joe was there, trying to control the out-of-control brats.
Max hoped he’d whip out his gun and tell them to get back, but he didn’t. He just told them they were being too rough.
The kids whimpered and calmed down. Some stalked away, and others stood waiting for instructions. Those with patience were allowed to pet Max. And then it was over. He would never have to endure such public humiliation again.
Without touching him, the little milkweed girl looked into his eyes and said, “I hope you come back, Max.”
Regarding him in a way that said she knew he understood every word she said. Somebody once told him that cats didn’t steal a baby’s breath. No, cats breathed souls into humans. Otherwise every kid on the planet would be a raging sociopath.
The kids ran off to get ready for bed.
“That went well,” Melody said.
Max looked around for his carrier. There it was, under the table. He hated being put in it when the carrier was on his own turf, but right now he was dying to get inside. He couldn’t wait to get home and get out of his thneed.
“What would you think about doing this once a week?” Joe asked.
Max couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
Melody pulled the pink carrier out from under the table and put Max inside, zipping it closed. Max watched them both through the mesh. He wasn’t even interested in chicken anymore; he just wanted to go home.
“I’d love to,” Melody said.
Max hated to be cynical, but were either of them thinking of the little brats that had poked and grabbed at him? Was this really about them? Or was it about hooking up? All the more reason to get rid of Joe as soon as possible. Maybe even tonight.
Outside in the car, Joe in the passenger seat, Max in back, Melody pulled away from the curb.
She liked Joe.
On one hand, she was afraid to let herself hope for something wonderful, and on the other, she wanted to open herself completely to this new person and this new chance at happiness. And just the way it had happened, the way Max had almost seemed to bring him home. Like it was meant to be.
But sometimes she would catch herself thinking about David, comparing Joe to David, worrying about what David would think. Was it too soon? All of these thoughts collided in her head, and the only real way to get rid of them was to kiss Joe again, and laugh with Joe. Immerse herself in Joe.
She didn’t want to let him out of her sight, because when he was gone doubts crept in. And maybe he felt the same, because he stayed over most of the time now. Yesterday she almost suggested he move in, but she’d caught herself just in time.
And it was too perfect. Nothing was this perfect. She knew that.
“Would you like to do something?” she asked.
“We could go to your place.”
He didn’t answer for a long moment. “That’s not a good idea. Too messy.”
“I don’t mind a mess.”
“I wouldn’t want you to see it that way. I haven’t been there much lately. No time to clean.”
She’d never been to his place. In fact, she didn’t even know where his place was. What did she know about him? Really? He’d brought Max home. He was kind. He worked at a shelter. But when she thought about it, when she tried to think of any conversation that dealt with anything beyond her job, the shelter, and Max, she couldn’t come up with much. He knew all about David and David’s murder. Melody had drunk too much wine on several occasions and blabbed on and on about her sister and her mother and her father. But Joe… She knew nothing about Joe.
He had a secret. She was sure he had a secret. He was a part of her life, but she wasn’t a part of his. Sometimes in her heart of hearts, she felt she should embrace the crazy cat lady thing and forget about men completely. Why shouldn’t a woman be able to find enough happiness in her job, baking cupcakes, and spoiling her cat? Men just complicated things. Men just disrupted the peace.
“I like hanging out at your place,” Joe said, reaching for her hand, rubbing her knuckles with his thumb. “Just the two of us.”
Melody swore she could feel Max’s disapproval coming from the backseat. Like a kid who resented the new stepdad. “Three of us,” she said.
Melody couldn’t let Joe go, not yet. She told herself she’d hang on a little longer, see if he started opening up to her, see if he finally began to share even a little bit of his own life.
After the reading at Gimme Shelter, she and Joe went to the grocery store and picked up shrimp to grill. And once they were home, they let Max roam around in the backyard where he sniffed dandelions and ate grass until he threw up.
Inside, they ate at the table with flowers in the center, flowers Melody had picked from the yard. Joe sat where David used to sit, and the wine glass he lifted to his lips had once touched David’s.
“You okay?” Joe asked.
Was he married? Was that his secret? “Sometimes I think I should move. Sometimes I think it’s not good for me to be here.”
“Move from the house, or the town?”
“The house. But maybe even the town. Maybe a fresh start would be a good thing. Leave everything behind and start over.”
Joe looked hurt that she would think of leaving. “Isn’t your family here?”
“Yes. But that’s not always a good thing. They worry…” Maybe she was fishing. Looking for some kind of declaration from him. It didn’t come.
She heard scratching and looked down to see Max digging at Joe’s backpack. “Max, stop that.” He ignored her. She repeated his name, this time louder. With a twitch of his tail, he stopped his digging.
Joe and Melody sat at the table eating the shrimp they’d cooked outside. So far, nobody had offered Max any of it, and he loved shrimp. There had been some discussion about his delicate stomach and the grass he’d eaten, but ignoring him so completely was rude, especially after what he’d put up with at the shelter. He really deserved to be the star here.
Joe’s backpack was still in the corner of the dining room, on the floor, and even though Max had been scolded once already, he couldn’t quit thinking about exposing the contents of the bag-and exposing Joe. The zipper was zipped, but not all of the way. The gap was big enough for a paw, and then a nose, and then Max’s entire head.
Melody’s voice was muffled because of the canvas backpack. Max squirmed, making the opening bigger. A chair scraped across the hardwood floor. Max dug frantically. He could smell the oil and metal of the gun. His claw snagged the leather holster, and he grasped a corner in his teeth and pulled, backing up as he went. The case caught on the zipper, and Max popped out with nothing.
Look, he has a gun. Guns are bad. Joe is bad.
But Melody was looking at Max, not the backpack. And suddenly Joe was there, zipping the bag closed, picking it up, taking it to the living room where he deposited it on top of a bookshelf.
When Joe returned, he gave Max an odd look. Almost like he was trying to figure him out. Almost like he wondered if there was more to Max than he’d originally thought.
Normally Max would have been thrilled to have someone finally see him for who he was, see him for more than your average cat. Max had spent his life trying to get people to appreciate his uniqueness, but this wasn’t the time or the place for that level of awareness.
No, let Joe think he was as dumb as that yellow cat next door who talked to people’s feet. Just thinking about it made Max’s eyes cross. But who was he to judge? A lot of cats didn’t think deeply about anything, and they were probably happier for it.
Dinner ended. Dishes were done and food was put in the refrigerator.
The night routine was one that had become familiar, with the door shutting and Max being left in the living room to fend for himself. He waited by the door, and when morning came he shot inside. But today he didn’t hide or run under the bed or into the closet. This time he marched straight to the pile of Joe’s clothes, squatted, and peed. It was a lot of pee, because he’d been saving up all night.
“Max!” Melody stood near the foot of the bed, bare legs poking out from under her nightshirt with the cats on it.
Max kept peeing until he was finished, then, with a flick of his tail and a shake of a paw, he stepped off the pile of clothes. He fully expected somebody to throw something at him. Instead, both humans stared at him in shock and worry.
“Did you ever take him to the vet?” Joe asked. He was lying in bed, head propped in one hand.
“No, he seemed to be better, so I forgot about it.”
“I think we’d better do that today.”
We. Like they were a team. That was only slightly less disturbing than a vet visit.
Max ran from the room, heading straight for the doggy door he’d forgotten was sealed until he smacked his head against it. With that escape route out of the question, he thundered down the basement steps and hid behind the clothes dryer, where Melody found him a few minutes later.
“You must be sick if you’re hiding down here in this awful place.” She tried to coax him out, but he refused to budge. Let her come and get him. Which, unfortunately, she did.
She pulled out the machine and dove for him before he could make a run for it. Then she crushed him to her racing heart and brushed the cobwebs from his face and whiskers. He felt her terror, and for a moment he couldn’t place it or understand it.
She kissed his head and rocked him against her. “You can’t be sick. I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to you.”
And then her terror made sense. She was afraid of losing him. And he suddenly felt bad about peeing on Joe’s clothes. He wanted to tell her he was fine. Instead, he squirmed away and ran upstairs. Once in the kitchen, he began meowing for food the way he did every morning, this time to demonstrate that he did indeed feel completely normal.
“Something is wrong,” Melody said.
Joe poured fresh food in Max’s bowl. “I say we get him to a vet right away. Could be a kidney infection.”
Together Joe and Melody took Max to the vet. Joe drove his car, a little black job he called a Civic, while Melody held Max on her lap in the carrier. Neither one talked, but Max could feel Melody’s tension and nervousness. He tried not to say anything or make the situation worse, but he couldn’t help but yowl several times. He was too upset to be embarrassed.
Max knew the exact number of turns from his house to the vet’s parking lot. He could smell the coffee shop on the way, and the Laundromat just up the block. And when they pulled to a stop, he could even sense the terrified animals inside, and that made him yowl even louder and longer.
“Oh, he’s a noisy one,” the woman behind the counter said.
The smell! The smell struck terror in his heart. An odd odor that he associated with hands and needles and animals in pain.
They took him to a room and closed the door. It wasn’t as bad inside the smaller space, but it was still enough to drive a cat mad. He could sense the animals that had been there before him. Some young, some old, some that never went home again.
That was all he wanted. Home. His home, his bed, his food, his catnip, his strip of sunshine.
The doctor had a nice voice, and that calmed Max some. An exam, then the doctor left, and a young girl took Max away from Melody. Max screamed when the door closed and he could no longer see his mistress. They did things with needles. He didn’t know if the needles bothered him. He didn’t think so. It was more the not knowing what was going to happen. It was more about not being in control of the situation.
After more poking and prodding and holding Max down, the doctor carried Max back to the small room and handed him to Melody. Never had Max felt so relieved. He pressed his head to her chest and closed his eyes, trying to block out the room and the doctor.
“I can’t find anything wrong with him,” the doctor said. “We did a urine tap, and that was negative. We drew some blood and will send it to the lab. I’ll call you in a few days, but I don’t expect to find anything. Sometimes cats just do weird things. Has anything changed in your life? Most cats don’t like change, and that can cause uncharacteristic behavior. If he’s urinating in odd places, you might have to retrain him to use the litter box.” That was followed by barbaric and hideous retraining instructions that Max hoped Melody would ignore.
And then they left.
“I’m not going to shut him in the bathroom for two weeks,” Melody said, her voice fretful.
“That does seem extreme,” Joe said.
“I think it’s the change in routine.”
“You mean my staying over?”
“I’m just so worried. I never thought about anything happening to Max. Not for years anyway.”
“I have the feeling everything is going to be okay.”
That was something Max had been trying unsuccessfully to tell Melody for a long time.
Joe pulled up in front of Melody and Max’s house. Max couldn’t wait to get inside. He was quiet now, calm, but full of anticipation.
“The blood tests were just a precaution,” Joe said.
Instead of breaking them up, the trip to the vet seemed to have brought them closer together. And Joe’s concern and support had Max confused about dumping him.
Max may have been unsuccessful in getting rid of Joe, but that night, after Melody got off work, things were more like the old days. She brought him a treat and a special blend of organic catnip that made him go crazy for a full thirty minutes. Afterward, he and Melody watched television on the couch. There was almost no talk of Joe, and that night Max wasn’t shut out of the bedroom. Instead, he took his rightful place on the pillow next to Melody’s head.
Melody scratched his nose the way he liked. “Just you and me.”
But she sounded a little sad. Max almost wished he’d never found the gun.
Melody dropped a pile of folded T-shirts into a cardboard box. “It’s called purging,” she told Max.
The house was still filled with David’s stuff. His shirts and pants and jackets still hung in the bedroom closet, and his jogging shoes sat on the floor in a neat row, as if he would come home at any moment.
Max meowed and circled once, arching his back, legs stiff.
“I know it’s unsettling,” Melody told him, “but it’s something I should have done a long time ago.”
It had been too hard right after David was killed. It hadn’t seemed right. Almost like she was throwing him away. And then later it was hard for a different reason, almost as if saying she’d forgotten him.
But she hadn’t.
But keeping his clothes in the closet was just plain weird. And maybe a little crazy.
Max’s health scare had been a wake-up call for Melody. It made her realize that she cared for Joe even though she hadn’t known him that long. His being there when she’d taken Max to the vet, and his support afterward, went a long way toward proving he might be the right guy for her. How many men would have been so concerned about Max? None. And how many would have called or stopped by every day until the blood tests came back negative? None.
She’d been hiding. Maybe not physically, but mentally. Burying herself in work and the occasional awful night out with friends that almost always ended up with a stranger and a hangover. That wasn’t who she was.
She had to move on.
A knock at the front door was followed by a “Hello!” and a “Just me!”
“In here!” Melody shouted over her shoulder.
“I have coffee. Oh, hi Max.” Melody’s sister sidestepped Max and offered Melody a carryout cup from the shop up the street called Java Train. “Looks like you’re making headway.” Lola was dressed in cuffed jeans and a bright print top that showed off the tattoos on her arms. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, her head wrapped in a vintage orange scarf. You knew she was an artist the moment you saw her.
“The boxes are for Goodwill,” Melody said. “The trash bags-well, trash.”
Lola didn’t say it, but Melody sensed that her sister was relieved that this day had finally come. It was a concern that had gone unspoken among the whole family. They worried that Melody might never move on, might never be able to let go of David, even a little. Now the sisters chatted a while, drank their coffee, petted Max, then got down to business.
“Everything on the top shelf can stay.” Melody pointed. “I’ve already gone through it.”
“Is that David’s old laptop?” Lola pointed.
Melody nodded. She was an Apple girl, and the laptop was a Dell. More of a business model.
“Can I borrow it?” Lola asked. “Mine is in for repair, and it looks like it might be a while. They had to order a part.”
Melody reached up and retrieved the computer. “Go ahead.” She handed it to Lola. “You’ll have to charge it. It hasn’t been turned on since David died.”
The front door slammed again, and a male voice shouted, “Anybody home?”
Lola looked guilty. “I told him we were getting rid of some things, and he wanted to help.”
Their dad appeared in the doorway of the bedroom. Ben looked rugged and handsome with his wavy, graying hair, patched jeans, and leather sandals. They were a crew of bohemians, and unbelievably Melody was the most conservative of the bunch.
“I have the band’s van,” Ben said. “We can fill it up and I’ll take everything to wherever you want it to go.” He gave Melody a hug. He smelled like incense and secondhand smoke.
“Don’t you have a gig tonight?” she asked.
“We don’t load in until late afternoon. Either of you girls coming? You might like the opening band.”
It had been a while since Melody had gone to one of her dad’s shows. He was in several bands, and sometimes it was hard to keep up. Now that she thought about it, she hadn’t seen him play since David’s death. “I might do that.”
Once the purge was in motion, things moved quickly and in a matter of two hours the van was full.
That’s when Joe showed up.
As soon as he entered the house, it was easy to see he wanted to turn around and run. “I didn’t mean to intrude,” he said, managing to pull himself together after unintentionally stepping into what was obviously a family gathering. “I stopped to see how Max was doing.”
Introductions were made. Of course father and sister were curious about Melody’s new guy, but that curiosity seemed to go especially deep for Ben who couldn’t quit staring at Joe. He finally broke down and said: “You look really familiar. Have we met somewhere?”
Joe shifted uneasily. “Not that I can recall.”
“Are you in a band?”
“Dad’s a musician,” Melody explained. “Maybe he saw you at a show.”
Melody was once again reminded that she knew very little about Joe, not even what kind of music he listened to, if any. If he like country, the bad kind of country… Wow. That would be tough.
Joe left as soon as he possibly could without coming across as rude. Hands on his hips, Ben watched the younger man’s departure through the living room window. “I’ve seen him before.”
A feeling of unease crept through Melody.
Outside a car door slammed, an engine turned over, and Joe pulled away from the curb and roared down the street.
“Remember Chris, my old bandmate?” Ben turned around. “The one whose kid got tangled up with the gang that was busted for illegal firearms? I’m pretty sure your buddy Joe was involved in that somehow. He was hanging around some of those seedy people.”
Melody’s first reaction was one of disbelief. But then she started thinking about the very things that had been bugging her about Joe. If what her dad said was true, it would explain a lot. Why Joe never talked about himself. Why she’d never gone to his place. Maybe he was a drug dealer. Maybe he was dealing out of his house.
From the kitchen, water stopped splashing in the sink. A moment later Lola appeared, drying her hand on a white towel with pink cats. Her gaze shifted from Ben to Melody. “What’s this about Joe?”
“I thought he was just a nice guy who worked at a shelter.” Melody rubbed her forehead, trying to clear the muddle there. Joe. Was his name really Joe?
“Sorry to drop a bombshell like this, then leave,” Ben said. “But I’ve got to get home in time to load equipment.” He gave both of his daughters a quick kiss on the cheek, then took off, the screen door slamming behind him.
In the silence left by his departure, Lola draped the cat towel over her shoulder, put an arm around her sister, and gave her a reassuring squeeze. “Just remember that this information is coming from the guy who once sat next to a woman he didn’t even know, thinking it was Mom.”
Lola was right. It wasn’t that their dad couldn’t see well, but he always had his head in the clouds, thinking about a song he was writing or an upcoming gig.
Lola plopped down in the red chair with the ruffle skirt. Max’s chair. “But what if Dad is right? And, what if Joe is involved in something shady? Illegal?”
Deep in thought, Melody frowned and pressed a finger to her lips. She nodded.
Melody picked up Max and gave him a good massage. “I wish you could talk. Has Joe been trying to sell you catnip?” She was kidding. Kind of.
“We could spy on Joe.” Lola wrapped an arm around her knee and pulled her foot close. “Turn the tables on him. That would be fun.”
Spying went completely against Melody’s nature, but in this case… “Maybe Max should decide. What do you think, Max?” Melody lifted Max above her head. “Should we spy on Joe?”
Max meowed in what seemed like agreement. Or maybe he just wanted down.
Lola clasped her hands under her chin, her expression decidedly wicked. “Max has spoken.”
The spy gig didn’t happen right away. First of all, Melody had to figure out where Joe lived. That required following him home one night. Turned out he lived in Midway, an area not all that far from her house. After that, there was a lot of discussion between the two sisters about a time and date for the spy gig. Max would lie in bed with Melody while she talked on the phone to Lola. Lola’s voice came out of the phone, so Max could hear both sides of the conversation.
“How can this be so hard?” Melody said, absentmindedly rubbing Max’s head. “When you work nights, it’s kind of tough to be a spy.”
“Why do we have to do it at night?” Lola said.
“We’re not going to catch him doing anything during daylight hours.”
Lola ended up having a three-hour window between her day job of waiting tables, and her evening job of deejaying at the Turf Club. They decided they would go straight from the library as soon as Melody got off for the evening. “I’ll have to bring Max,” she said.
“You can’t bring a cat to a stakeout.”
“It’s story night at the library,” Melody explained. “Max has become the star of story night. He won’t cause any trouble, will you Max?” She looked at him.
He wanted to say that she knew damn well he hated riding in the car, and she knew damn well he hated story night, but they would be going to Joe’s house, so that was okay. He’d always wanted to see Joe’s house.
“This is silly,” Melody said. “Nothing is going to happen.”
Lola’s voice came from the cell phone. “You never know. And it will be fun. And to make it more fun, we have to bring stuff.”
“Like what? A video camera?”
Max perked up. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
Two nights later, Lola, Melody, and Max were parked down the street from Joe’s house. Lola was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Melody in her Alice in Wonderland outfit, and Max was decked out in a pink-and-black striped hat and striped sweater from his library gig as the Cheshire Cat. The night air was crisp, and Melody had announced that she would leave the costume on him so he wouldn’t get cold.
Like he was some old fuddy-duddy of a cat who needed to be pampered. But he had to admit the soft garment was cozy as hell. If he came across it in a dark alley he’d feel the immediate need to milk it with both front paws. Nature.
And speaking of nature… Nobody had thought to bring his litter box. They’d been at the library for hours, and now in the car. Sometimes Max wondered who was the adult in this relationship. There they were, sisters, in the front seat, sipping the lattes they’d picked up at Ginkgo Coffeehouse. Eating candy, whispering and giggling like…well, like two girls. Not acting like spies at all. But Max would occasionally sense a wave of Melody’s sadness that probably came when she thought about why they were here. Joe.
Why had Max stuck his whiskers where they didn’t belong?
What had he been thinking?
He’d only wanted to make Melody feel better. Instead, he’d made her feel worse. And speaking of feeling bad…
His bladder was screaming. Maybe nobody would notice if he just-
“Max!” It was Melody, her voice coming from the front seat. “What are you doing?” She’d heard him digging in the corner.
“If that cat pees in my car…” Lola said.
“I was going to bring his litter box.” Melody balanced her latte on the dashboard and shifted in her seat. “Come here, Max. Do you need to go out?”
Out? As in pee in the grass? Was she crazy?
“Where’s your leash? What did I do with your leash?”
She found the wayward leash and snapped it to his collar, removed his silly hat, then scooped him up, opened the door, and stepped outside, putting him down in a nearby yard. Oh, the humiliation.
Grass. It would have to do.
Max figured the whole spy thing was just a way for Melody to come to terms with the situation. Because really, what would they see? Joe going into his house. Joe leaving his house.
Max did his business. While he was busy scratching around, Lola slipped out of the car. “Let’s walk past the house,” she whispered to Melody. For Lola, this was a party. Max wished she’d be a bit more sensitive.
To make matters more annoying, Max wasn’t much of a leash man. He hated the leash almost as much as he hated peeing outside.
“Come on, Max.” Melody gave the leash a small tug. Max considered sitting down and refusing to respond to such indignity, but in the end he decided to be a gentleman and try to make the evening easier for his mistress.
They crossed the street and clung to the shadows of the houses and trees.
“His house is kind of ordinary,” Lola whispered.
She was right. Max had always pictured Joe living in a mansion. Maybe because Max had wanted Joe to be rich. For Melody. But the house was one story, not much bigger than Melody’s house.
And then he quit thinking at all.
Because cats, even extraordinary cats like Max, stop thinking when they’re scared.
Shots. Like firecrackers or cherry bombs.
Rapid-fire, one after the other. A second later, tires squealed, and suddenly a car flew past them, no headlights, the engine roaring.
Max took off like a rocket. Airborne, he felt a brief tug at his neck, and then he was free, the leash dragging behind him as he hauled ass. The world was a blur of fences and cement steps. Grass. A road. An alley. Cars. Barking dogs.
Home. He wanted to go home. But where was home?
From somewhere behind him Melody screamed his name, but he kept running. Fright trumped everything. Fright trumped Melody and matchmaking and good behavior. He spotted a dark area and dove for it, his heart pounding.
But when Max lost his cool, he always got it back. Fast. One minute he was scared, the next he was sitting behind a metal trash can, licking his paw and washing his face.
And then he heard a sound.
He peeked out. There, under the street lamp, to the side of the alley, was a dark shape. While Max stared, the shape moaned.
Being a curious guy, Max took a step toward the shape, paused, then took another step. He sniffed.
And smelled Joe.
Joe! It was Joe!
Max ran for him, happy as hell. Happy as hell to no longer be alone. Joe would take care of everything.
But Joe didn’t respond in the expected way. Max meowed, hoping to be petted. Hoping to be fed some delicious treat of fish or chicken.
Joe moaned and touched Max’s head with a limp hand that didn’t feel like Joe’s hand. It kind of landed on Max’s head, then dropped to the ground.
And then Max smelled something that wasn’t really Joe. A smell that reminded Max of another time. Of David. Shot. Lying on the floor, the life draining from him.
Max smelled blood.
He meowed nervously. He wanted to leave, he wanted to run, but this was Joe. He shouldn’t leave Joe.
“Max…?” Joe’s voice was a thready whisper.
Like that other time, Max understood that Joe was leaving just the way David had left. Soon he would stop breathing. Soon his heart would stop beating, and he would cease to be Joe. A white van would come and Joe would be put in the back and driven away and Max would never see him again.
And Melody would cry.
Joe heard Max meow. He blinked, trying to bring the cat into focus as he pulled himself to a sitting position, his back against a brick wall. In the dim light cast by the street lamp, Joe looked down and saw blood pooling around him.
Shot in the leg. The thigh. And from the looks of things, his femoral artery had been hit. He put a hand to the waistband of his jeans, expecting to find a belt. Something to use for a tourniquet. But no. He’d taken a shower earlier and hadn’t put on a belt. His fingers fumbled for his cell phone. Checked his pocket. No phone. He’d stepped outside to throw out the trash. A car had come up the alley with no lights. He played back the past few minutes, trying to piece the details together even as his life drained away. Not a random shooting. No, this was deliberate. Someone looking for him. Someone who knew his habits.
His vision blurred.
There was the cat again.
Meowing. Pawing at him.
Joe put out his hand, his sticky, bloodstained hand, and touched the cat’s head. He tried to pet him, but his arm shook like crazy. His hand trailed down, dropping to the ground, his fingers coming in contact with a leash. Max was wearing a leash.
Joe didn’t waste time wondering about what had brought Max to this alley at this moment, a leash dangling behind him. While he still had strength, Joe fumbled, trying to unhook the clasp. His bloody fingers slipped, but he finally freed the leash from the cat’s collar. A skinny leash. Probably pink or some other pastel color. It was too dark to see, or Joe’s vision was too impaired. But skinny was good. He slipped it under his thigh, brought the two ends together and tied it off, tightened the knot.
And then he blacked out.
Joe heard voices. Female voices. Whispering. Arguing.
“We have to get out of here,” one of them said.
“I can’t leave Max.”
Ah, Melody. It was Melody’s voice.
Beside him, Max meowed.
Melody and Max.
What a pair.
What a great pair.
“Max!” The joy in Melody’s voice was something to hear. She sure loved that crazy cat.
Joe was flat on his back now. He could feel the asphalt beneath him, and he could feel the night air against his face. He could smell the pollen and the blooming trees, and he could smell the barbeque joint down the street. Big Daddy’s. They made the best barbeque.
Above him, someone let out a gasp. Maybe the biggest gasp he’d ever heard. Like someone overacting.
“Oh, my God.”
That was Melody.
Suddenly a light was shining in his face. He flinched and squinted and wished she’d shut it off.
“Lola, call 9-1-1. Call 9-1-1!”
He tried to raise a hand to block the light, but his arm wouldn’t move. It just wouldn’t move. He squinted and could see someone bending over him. He could see long hair and a blue dress. A white apron. Melody. Dressed like Alice in Wonderland. And she was wonderful. She really was.
Another head appeared-Lola’s-then spoke. “I called 9-1-1. They’re on their way.”
“Here,” Melody said. “Hold my phone.” The light shifted.
He felt Melody’s hands poking around. “There’s so much blood,” she said. “So much.” Her voice trembled. Joe was sorry about that.
From somewhere in the distance came the sound of a siren.
Saint Paul had the quickest damn 9-1-1 service. They were known for showing up at the scene before the caller even disconnected. Joe liked that.
He wished she didn’t have to witness this.
He couldn’t see her face-it was in shadow-but he could feel what she was feeling. He could sense her horror. The sirens were getting closer. Then suddenly the alley was illuminated with what seemed like a million lights, Melody’s face washed in a ghostly pallor.
Joe reached up. He wanted to comfort her. He wanted to tell her it would be okay. “S-sorry,” he managed to whisper. Somehow he was able to lift his hand and touch her face. But only for a second. Then his hand fell away, his fingers leaving a trail of blood down one ashen cheek.
With Max clutched to her chest, Lola at her side, Melody stood at a distance and watched as the paramedics worked on Joe. Police cars swarmed and lights flashed and radios squelched. Bits of conversation drifted to them.
“Should we leave?” Melody asked. Her voice was shaking, and her mouth felt numb. Then she realized her whole body was shaking. “I want to leave.” She knew it made no sense, but she wanted to run home. She wanted to get out of her bloody clothes, take a shower, and wait for Joe to come over so they could pop popcorn and watch TV. But Joe wouldn’t be coming over. Joe was at that moment being lifted into the back of the emergency vehicle in which he would be driven to Regions Medical Center.
Just like David.
And just like David, he would die. And she didn’t want to see that. She didn’t want to know about that.
Maybe she could go back to weeks ago, before Joe entered her life. Yes, that was it. She would pretend they’d never met.
“One of the officers said something about getting our statements,” Lola said. “I think we have to stick around until then.”
“Oh. Yeah. Right.” How had she forgotten that part of it? The string of cops? The questions, when all she wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep forever. Never, ever, ever waking up again?
Lola gave her a one-armed hug and briefly leaned her head on Melody’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mel. So sorry.” She didn’t have to explain, didn’t have to go on, because Melody understood all of what she meant. Lola was sorry that Joe was a criminal, but she was especially sorry that Melody had just endured a repeat of the scene enacted with David.
The emergency vehicle turned on its siren and careened away, wailing. Did that mean he was still alive? Melody hoped he was still alive.
Max let out a muffled meow, his head buried against his mistress’s chest, as if he too wanted to pretend none of this was happening.
A female cop approached, pulling out a tablet as she walked. “Melody?” she asked once she was near enough for a good visual. “Is that you?”
Melody looked up to see an officer she remembered from another life, David’s life, their life together. “Sandra?”
“Wow. Hi,” Sandra said. “You’re the last person I’d expect to see here.”
“I know. Was it drug related?”
“We aren’t sure at this point. How do you know the victim?”
“We… Well, I guess we were dating.”
“Dating? You and Joe?”
“I didn’t know who he was. I didn’t know about his secret life. He seemed like such a nice guy.”
“He is a nice guy. Well, I don’t know him very well, but everybody seems to like him.”
“I don’t understand. Is he an informant or something? I just thought he was your run-of-the-mill drug dealer.”
Sandra frowned, looked over her shoulder, then back at Melody. “Melody, Joe isn’t a criminal.”
Melody felt Max relax a little, almost as if he understood.
“He isn’t?” Melody could see her own confusion mirrored in her sister’s face. “I don’t understand.”
“I can probably tell you because his cover is blown. Joe is one of us. He’s a detective.”
Max stiffened, and for a moment Melody struggled to keep him from jumping from her arms. “A cop?” she said numbly. And now she realized he’d most likely been working undercover when her dad had seen him with the “seedy” people.
“That’s why I was so surprised to hear you were dating. After David died, I remember you saying you’d never date another cop.”
So much worse than a criminal.
Sandra took down their information, then told them they could leave.
“How will I find out if… If he’s okay? I don’t even know his real name.”
“Joe is his real name. I’m not at liberty to tell you his last name at this point. Tell you what. I’ll give you a call as soon as I know something. And there’s nothing to keep you from following the emergency vehicle to the hospital right now.”
“Yes.” Could she do it? She had to do it.
“Will you drive?” she asked her sister.
“But you have to be at work…”
“I can cancel my deejay gig.”
It was so hard to connect this world, the world of gunshots and maybe another dead lover, to the world of thirty minutes ago when the sisters were giggling together and thinking it was all some silly nonsense. A game.
Melody looked down. “I’m still Alice. Look at me. I’m still Alice.” Did anybody understand how ridiculous that was? When people were getting killed? Murdered in their homes? Murdered in their backyards? And she was wearing a blue dress with white tights and black Mary Janes? Did anybody understand how out of sync and wrong that was?
“I’ll take you home and you can change. We can drop Max off too.”
The sisters turned to walk away, back to the street and Lola’s car. Lola gave Melody another hug and said, “It’s okay to be Alice. You know that, don’t you?”
Melody shook her head. “No. No, it’s not. Where have I been for the past two years? Baking cupcakes? Dressing in costumes? Dressing poor Max in a thneed? This isn’t life. Not real life. Tonight. Tonight was real life.”
“We all need Alice and cupcakes,” Lola said. “Why do you think Joe was attracted to you in the first place? He needed some whimsy, some Alice in his life.”
A camera flashed, blinding them. Several flashes later, the man behind the camera explained himself. “I’m a reporter for the Pioneer Press. Can I get a statement from you?”
“No,” Melody said, surprised by her rudeness.
“You were witnesses, right? Did you see anything?”
The sisters kept walking.
“Can I at least get a name and phone number?” the reporter shouted after them.
“Let’s go straight to the hospital,” Melody said as soon as they were in the car. “I don’t want to take the time to drop off Max or change.” Because they might not have time. That’s what she was thinking.
Lola took Snelling Avenue to 94 E. Traffic on 94 was moving quickly, and in less than five minutes they were taking the downtown exit to Regions Hospital. Foregoing the parking ramp, Lola headed straight for the emergency lot adjoining the ER entrance. The sisters went inside the building, leaving Max alone in the car.
At least Joe had been shot within five minutes of a major trauma center, Melody thought. If there was anything good to be said about being shot.
In the past, whenever Melody visited the ER, the people at the desk had taken their sweet time gathering information. What a difference a little blood made. Before Melody could explain what had happened, or explain why they were there, trauma nurses swarmed. The next thing she knew, she was being forced onto a gurney. Then someone grabbed her arm and readied her for a blood draw. All of this in less than a minute. Melody was quite proud of them, and it was good to know they could snap to attention when the situation required it. But of course it didn’t.
“Where’s the injury?” This from someone who looked like a doctor. A young man with dark, curly hair.
Melody pushed herself up on her elbows just as a nurse began cutting at the hem of Melody’s dress.
Both she and Lola shouted at the same time.
“She’s not injured!”
“I’m not injured!”
“You’re covered in blood,” the doctor said. He didn’t believe her about the injury. Or lack thereof. She supposed they got a lot of crackheads who chewed on glass and had no idea whether or not they were hurt. And her costume didn’t really help. “It’s not my blood. I’m here to check on someone who was just brought in.”
“Name?” the nurse asked. She’d stopped cutting.
Melody bailed off the gurney. “I’m not sure.”
“How do you know the victim?”
Now, from the corner of her eye, Melody saw a hospital security guard moving closer, a hand to his belt. Saint Paul wasn’t the sweet place painted by Garrison Keillor. Saint Paul could be as nasty and as violent as any other big city, maybe worse. Melody herself had been mugged twice.
“I’m his girlfriend,” she blurted out.
“And you don’t know his last name?”
“It doesn’t make that much sense, but…” Now several people were eying her with suspicion. Lola grabbed Melody by the arm and tugged. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
The guard stepped forward. He was an older guy. Old enough to be somebody’s grandfather. “I think you’d better leave,” he said, not unkindly but with a stern tone that made Melody want to obey.
She said, “This isn’t what you think.” What did they think? That she was a stripper? Maybe. “I’m a librarian.” As if that explained everything. As if that would suddenly make them back down.
From somewhere behind them came a snicker. Two young dudes slumped into waiting room chairs were finding the whole thing extremely entertaining.
“A children’s librarian. This evening was story hour.”
“Why don’t I just go check and see if I can get an update on the gunshot victim?” the receptionist said. She took off, and the crowd dispersed.
The woman returned a short time later. “He’s in surgery.”
Which meant he was still alive.
In the bathroom, Melody washed the blood from her face and hands and removed her apron, which was covered in blood. Back in the waiting room, a cop searched them out, and Melody found herself going over the story one more time.
“They’re crediting your cat with saving the young man’s life,” the officer said.
“When the victim arrived here, he had a pink leash wrapped around his thigh. He would have died without it.”
Max’s leash. Melody hadn’t even noticed it was gone. “My cat certainly didn’t tie the leash around Joe’s thigh.”
“No, of course not, but from what I understand the cat was the first one on the scene. And he was dragging the leash behind him.”
“We heard gunshots. The noise scared him, and he ran. He got away from me.” She didn’t go into how Max had heard gunshots another time in his life. And that he’d possibly been the only witness to David’s murder. Melody had always wondered if Max had seen the murderer. He’d been in the house. But maybe he’d hidden. Maybe he’d run downstairs to hide the way he often did. But it was weird to think that if Max could talk, if Max could understand, he might be able to point out David’s killer in a lineup.
“I don’t think he could have seen anything,” Melody said. “We heard gunshots. Then a car flew past. No headlights. It was all over by the time my cat got there.”
A doctor approached them and addressed the officer. “He’s out of surgery and in recovery. You should be able to talk to him in thirty minutes or so.”
Melody’s whole body went limp. “He’s okay?” she whispered. “He’s alive?”
“He’ll be fine. We had to give him a transfusion, but he’ll be fine. If he hadn’t made a tourniquet I doubt he would have made it. Saved by a cat leash. That’s a new one.”
At that moment, Melody noticed someone just beyond the doctor. The reporter who’d taken her photo. And he was taking notes as quickly as his pen could move across the tablet.
Oh, what did it matter?
Joe was alive.
“Are you a relative?” the doctor asked.
“Girlfriend,” the receptionist piped in from her station.
“You can see him as soon as he’s out of the recovery room. We’ll let you know.”
Melody looked at Lola, communicating her fear. What now? How did she go on from this point? With this relationship? She almost wished he’d been a drug dealer, because then it would have been easier to walk away. How would he understand that she couldn’t do this? That she couldn’t be with him?
Lola, who knew her sister inside and out, said, “This will probably never happen again. I mean, how many times does someone get shot? Not that I’m trying to talk you into or out of anything, but-”
“Logically I know the odds are against it ever happening again. But what were the odds against my being involved with not one, but two men who were shot?”
He wasn’t dead.
That was Joe’s first thought when he came to in the recovery room, nurses hovering over him, making conversation, trying to figure out if he had all of his marbles. Apparently he did.
His second thought was of Melody, his third, Max. His fourth? What the hell had happened? Somehow his cover had been blown.
The recovery room was history, and he was now in a regular hospital room with a view of downtown Saint Paul. Well, he could see the tops of buildings, and he could see some stars. An officer had already talked to him, but Joe didn’t have much information to share. He hadn’t seen anything.
His cell phone, placed within reach by the nurse, beeped. He opened the message app to find a text from Jerry. Brief. Succinct. A warning. Be careful who you talk to and what you say. I suspect a mole.
Joe deleted the message and let his head drop back against the pillow. Mole. He was living a cop cliché. He thought about the cop he’d just talked to. A guy he’d seen around but didn’t know much about. He hadn’t given him any real information. He hadn’t had any information to give. But from now on he would have to be careful, and he’d have to keep a low profile. Hopefully it wasn’t a slow news night. Hopefully the story wouldn’t even merit a few sentences.
He heard a faint tap on the door, and Melody poked her head inside. “Can I come in?”
He should never have gotten involved with her. He’d known better. Not the thing for an undercover cop to do, moral implications and the fact that he could never be honest with her aside. He’d put her in danger.
She approached the bed. Her dark hair was disheveled, and her dress, her blue Alice-in-Wonderland dress, was stained with blood. His blood. Without thought, he reached for her with the hand that wasn’t tethered to the IV rack. Her fingers wrapped around his, and he gave her a firm, reassuring squeeze along with a crooked smile.
“The doctors are crediting Max with saving my life,” he said.
Some of the tenseness left her body, and she returned his smile. They were like two shy strangers, but he’d spent the night with her. He’d made love to her. He knew he should regret it. He tried to regret it.
“It’s not like he tied his leash around your leg and stopped the bleeding,” she said.
“But it’s a good story. And you like good stories.”
She thought about that and nodded. “Something the kids will like to hear when Max makes another appearance at the library.”
“And the shelter,” Joe said. “Don’t forget the shelter.” But he could sense her retreat. He could feel her pulling out of his life. Maybe he should help her.
“Lola called 9-1-1,” Melody said.
“Ah.” He’d forgotten Lola was there.
“So it was Lola and Max. I didn’t really do anything.”
But he remembered that she’d comforted him until the ambulance arrived. She’d hugged him to her and cried. That’s what he remembered.
“I have to go soon,” Melody said. “Max is in the car. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
This was goodbye, and he understood. One of them had to do it. No more waking up in her bed. No more lazy Sunday mornings with Max at the foot of the covers. No more Pippi Longstocking, or Alice, or cupcakes with pink frosting that he wished he’d tried. When he thought of her house, he thought of bright sunlight, of whimsy, of bravery.
“Did you see anything?” he asked. “Anything that might help us catch whoever did this?”
She shook her head. “A car with no headlights. That’s all. It was dark. I can’t even tell you the color or make. Max ran off, so I was thinking about him, looking for him. I wasn’t thinking about the car.”
“What were you doing there? How did you find out where I lived?” He thought about Jerry’s warning. No, not Melody. Couldn’t have been Melody. But what about how she’d come into his life? Her cat. Her cat had found him. Her cat had lured him to her house.
No. He was crazy for even entertaining the idea. That would mean everything about her was false. He would never believe that. She was real. And he was afraid he loved her. And whoever had tried to kill him was still out there. He released her hand.
“Tell Max hi for me,” Joe said.
Had she read him? Had she felt that he was closing the door too? Yes. She knew this was goodbye.
“And tell him thanks for saving my life,” Joe said.
“I’ll do that.”
She bit her lip, made a nervous gesture with one hand, and said, “I thought you were a drug dealer or something. So Lola and I decided to spy on you.”
“Ah.” That explained it. He would have laughed if the whole thing wasn’t so messed up. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you what was going on. That day you told me you’d never date a cop, I almost said something. I’m sorry.”
And maybe if he hadn’t been working undercover… Would he have kept it a secret? When telling her would have meant losing her?
“Can I get you anything? Before I leave?”
“I’m fine. And Melody?” He wanted to drive home the seriousness of the situation. “Be careful who you talk to. Be careful what you say.”
He noticed her pallor and the circles under her eyes. “Go home.” He checked the clock on the wall. “It’s 2:00 a.m.”
He got the idea that she wanted to say something. Instead, she nodded, turned, and left.
In the waiting room, Melody found Lola curled up in a corner chair, asleep. She shook her awake, and then they were shuffling their way to the car where Max was waiting.
Melody was always surprised by the amount of traffic at 2:00 a.m. People leaving bars. Going home. She held Max to her chest and pressed her face in his fur, inhaling. Yes, she would go home and take a shower. She would wash the rest of Joe’s blood away, and she would crawl into bed.
“Joe and I just broke up,” Melody confessed.
Lola put on her blinker and shifted lanes, preparing to exit onto Lexington. “Is that such a bad thing? I mean, you didn’t want to date a cop.”
“I know, but that was before. I mean, I didn’t want to date a cop to begin with. I never wanted to go out with a cop. And what is it with me and cops? Look at me. I’m not a cop kind of person, but I seem to attract them. How is it I ended up with another cop?”
“I’m sorry, hon.”
“I like him. I really like him.” She thought a moment. “I wonder if he’ll go back undercover. I wonder if they’ll send him away, to another city.”
“We should have a party.”
“What?” Melody couldn’t shift gears from sorrow to party.
“A theme party. Where we dress in fifties clothes and drink martinis.”
Lola’s solution to everything was a party.
“I’ll invite some of my guy friends.”
Most of her guy friends were unemployed musicians. “No, thanks, I don’t-”
“A tattoo party. How about that? My tattoo artist friend will come, and everybody can get drunk and get tattoos. It’ll be fun.”
Melody was all set to protest, but she didn’t. She kind of liked the idea. “Let’s do that. Maybe all of those things. Fifties clothes, martinis, and tattoos.”
“What kind of tattoo will you get?” Lola asked.
Max was purring away on Melody’s lap. She gave him an extra rub on the head and said, “I have a great idea.”
The front door slammed, and Max waited for Melody to return. She always grabbed the Sunday paper and brought it to bed so they could read it together. He heard his mistress gasp and he stopped kneading the down quilt.
And then she said, “Oh, my God.”
He wasn’t sure he wanted to know what had caused her voice to take on such a disturbed tone. He heard the snap of the newspaper, heard her bare feet as she made her way back to the bedroom. But he didn’t think there would be any lazy cuddling. She sounded too upset for that.
“Oh, Max. You should see this.”
He was waiting for her to show him the paper when her cell phone rang. She answered. “I just saw it. Haven’t finished reading it yet. Let me call you back.” She disconnected and dropped to the bed, her eyes on the newspaper she held in both hands.
Max squeezed under her arm so he could get a better look. There, on the front page of the paper, in full color, was a photo of him and Melody. She was holding him protectively to her chest, her eyes huge, her lips sad and worried, the blue of her dress and her ruffled white sleeve nicely visible. He was wearing his striped sweater.
Oh, he loved it! Loved it! Even the smear of blood down her cheek, left from that tender moment when Joe’s fingers had caressed her face-even that looked cool. And it was a great picture of him. A wonderful picture of him. Melody liked to take photos of him acting silly. Photos when his eyes were wild and he’d been doing a little too much catnip. But this was sweet. And wow did his eyes ever look yellow. What a handsome cat he was. And how beautiful Melody was. What a pair they were.
She read the article to him. “Cat saves man’s life.” She gave him a hug and a kiss on his head. “That’s you. They’re writing about you.” The article talked about how he’d bravely run into a danger zone, and, when he spotted the injured man, he’d run toward him rather than away. “A cat on a rescue mission,” Melody read. “Oh, how silly. But we don’t care, do we? It’s silly wonderful.” She continued reading, then stopped and said, “That’s not good. They’re using my full name. I don’t think I like that. I didn’t like that sneaky reporter. Maybe I should have talked to him. I suppose I made him mad by refusing to give him an interview, so now he puts his own spin on our story and it makes the front page.”
She set Max aside and grabbed her silver laptop. He didn’t like it when she messed with her laptop, petting it instead of him. He tried to step on the keyboard, but she kept elbowing him back. “Not now, Max.”
Click, click, click. Her fingers flew. Her back was against the headboard of the bed, the laptop on her thighs, her bare feet crossed at the ankles, her face intense as she examined the computer screen. “You are not only the star of the Pioneer Press, you’re also the star of the Internet,” she said, her voice full of amazement, puzzlement, and worry.
He was hungry. She usually fed him his canned food by now.
He put a tentative paw to her shoulder. She ignored him, so he did it again. And again. Then she dropped back against the headboard and stared into space.
Melody was in the kitchen feeding Max when her phone rang. It had been ringing all morning, ever since the paper hit the streets, and she was tempted to ignore it. But she picked it up to check the caller ID. Ellen DeGeneres.
How had Lola done that?
Melody would play along. She hit the answer button. “Hi, Ellen.”
She sounded just like the real Ellen.
“I was reading about Max, your wonderful cat, and I was hoping I could have you and Max and your boyfriend on my show. When he’s well enough to travel. We’ll fly you first class to California.”
She really, really, really sounded like Ellen. “Lola?”
“No, this isn’t Lola. I don’t know who Lola is, but I love the name. Lola.” She started singing.
And Melody started to think that the person on the other end of the line was truly Ellen DeGeneres. “Is this real? Is this a joke? Ellen DeGeneres wouldn’t call me. And not on a Sunday.”
“I use the phone seven days a week. And I also use the Internet every day. Weird, I know. And I love pet stories, and I wanted to talk to you before any of those New York people try to get you to come there. Not that you can’t do both, but wouldn’t you rather come to California? Have you ever been to Burbank?”
“There you go.”
“I’ve never been to New York City either.”
“Well, New York. A lot of people running around in dark clothes, drinking lattes. Wouldn’t you rather come to California where people are wearing almost no clothes and driving around in convertibles?”
This was real.
“Let me ask you-where did you get Max?”
“He came from a no-kill shelter in Saint Paul.” She didn’t go into how he’d belonged to David first.
“Okay, so how about this. I will personally donate ten thousand dollars to the shelter if you and Max come to California. And I will kick in another ten thousand if you bring your boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“For the story in my head, he’s your boyfriend. Don’t kill my buzz. So what do you say?”
Melody looked down at Max. He’d finished is organic salmon feast and was washing his face. Melody hit the mute button. “What do you think, Max? Should we go?”
“You’d have to fly,” she told him. “In an airplane.”
Max seemed to give that some thought, then meowed again.
The flight from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport took over three hours. Unfortunately someone in Ellen’s staff had purchased two seats together after Melody had requested separate seating. So now she was sitting at the curved window. Max, inside the pink, soft-sided carrier that he detested, was tucked under the seat in front of her while Joe sat beside her on the aisle. As promised, they were in first class. The seats were roomy, and their arms brushed only occasionally.
Two weeks had passed since the accident, and Melody had been unable to ignore the fact that Joe was still moving pretty slowly when she’d spotted him heading toward the waiting area for their gate. She hadn’t spoken to him since the hospital. Just thought it would be better that way. All communication about the trip had taken place through email.
The two weeks since the shooting had been enough time for her fear and worry over Joe to turn into full-blown irritation. She felt tricked by him. He was just another wrong guy in a long line of wrong guys. Max was the only guy for her. And to prove it, she’d had his likeness tattooed on her shoulder at the fifties party Lola had thrown. In the image, he wore his pink-and-black striped hat and a charmingly silly expression. All the guy she needed.
Cop, cop, cop.
Liar, liar, liar.
“Did you say something?” Joe asked.
He was wearing dark jeans and black leather shoes, a plaid cotton shirt with pearl snaps and sleeves rolled below the elbow. She could smell the fabric of his shirt and his shampoo or deodorant or cologne or something. Some smell she associated with him. A smell that used to make her feel all warm and fuzzy.
Melody shifted closer to the window. They were queued to take off, with just one plane in front of them. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Yeah, you did. You just said ‘liar’.”
“Sorry. I didn’t know I said that out loud.”
“I never lied to you.”
“A lie of omission. And when I think about how I opened up to you, how I put myself out there-” It was humiliating to think she’d been so honest with him, when everything about him had been a lie. “The first time we met, I told you I would never date a cop. Ever.” She crossed her arms over her turquoise sweater with its black cat brooch. She tugged at her black skirt and wondered if her matching turquoise tights were too much. As she did these things, she turned her back to him, pretending interest in the lines on the runway. He’d made a mockery of her. A fool of her. She was a silly girl in silly clothes; a girl who baked cute cupcakes and loved her cat. A crazy cat lady in her cat pajamas and fuzzy slippers, and now her cat tattoo that Joe would never, ever, ever see. “It doesn’t matter,” she said to the window. They were so wrong for each other anyway. She’d felt that from the beginning; she just hadn’t understood why. He worked undercover, trying to better the world. At least that was something. But his life was dark and shady and full of lies and secrets.
The doubts she’d had about herself the night Joe was shot had been a brief reaction to an ugly and horrible situation. She truly wanted sunshine and silly clothes and watching TV in bed. She didn’t want guns and blood spatter on her white tights. She didn’t want his blood on her face.
She didn’t want to cry for him. She didn’t want to miss him when he died.
She turned back to him. “You think I’m just a silly girl.”
“That’s not true.”
“There’s the problem. I will never know what is true and what isn’t.” She knew it wasn’t just the deception. She knew it was also tied to seeing him shot just the way she’d seen David shot, but why she couldn’t be with him really didn’t matter. She just couldn’t. She’d worked hard to increase the joy and whimsy in her life. She couldn’t deal with the darkness he brought.
The flight was awkward. The attendant assumed they were a couple. The ordering of drinks. The reaching across. The bumping of hands, the bumping of elbows. The not looking. The looking. Getting up to use the restroom. Returning to her seat, her heart diving when she noticed the pallor of his face and the lines of pain around his mouth. The asking if he was okay. His lie, another lie: “I’m fine.”
They landed at LAX. They departed together. He offered to carry Max. She shook her head. He walked stiffly up the walkway, and at one point he had to stop. Just stop, while it looked as if he might pass out.
“This was too soon,” she said. She’d guilted him into coming. What choice had he had? So much money for such a worthy cause.
“I’m fine,” he said again, but she heard the thread of pain in his voice, the airless quality, his words delivered on an exhale.
“Are you taking anything? Can I get you some water?”
“I’ll wait till we get to the room.”
He didn’t want to risk being out of it. And she was surprised to find that she could read him so well. Did that mean she really did know him, regardless of his deception?
She checked on Max. He looked about as miserable as Joe, and he let out a sad meow that seemed meant to reassure her.
At the luggage carousel, a chauffeur stood with a sign. Melody, Joe, and Max.
They followed the man in black to a limousine, and twenty minutes later they were pulling up in front of a hotel that was intimidating and amazing and ridiculous in its opulence.
They were given a suite with a shared door that could be locked or unlocked. It would definitely not be unlocked, Melody decided. Joe vanished into his room and Melody tended to Max, filling his litter box and putting out food and water.
On a mahogany table was a bouquet of gorgeous red roses, along with ice and champagne, strawberries, and tiny sandwiches made with dark bread and cucumbers. Included in the spread were cans of gourmet cat food for Max. While he made a perusal of the room, going from corner to corner, Melody prepared a plate for herself, then wondered about Joe. She could feel him over there, beyond the door. But he was awfully quiet.
With plate in hand, she put her ear to the suite door and gave it a light tap. “Joe?”
She heard the bed shift, then a muffled, “What?”
“Do you have food over there?”
A moment of silence, followed by a curt “Yeah.”
“Okay, I just wanted to know.”
“The door’s unlocked. On this side anyway.”
She unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door to a room that was the mirror opposite of hers. Max zipped through the opening, and ran to jump on the bed with Joe. It was almost as if Max understood all of the fuss, and understood that he was being credited with saving Joe’s life.
“Do you need anything?” Melody asked.
Joe was lying in his back, one arm draped over his face, one knee bent, one straight.
He didn’t answer.
She thought about how he’d looked on the plane. Not good. “Want me to get you a plate of food?”
“No,” he mumbled.
“Did you take anything? For the pain?”
“Is it better?”
“Why did you come if you were still feeling bad? What are you trying to prove?”
He dropped his arm, turned his head, and looked directly at her. She could see the lines of pain around his eyes, the brackets around his mouth. “What am I trying to prove? That I’m not an asshole.”
Next to the bed was a glass of water and a prescription bottle. She put down her plate and picked up the brown bottle. A strong narcotic. She returned it to the little table. “You should probably eat something.”
He sighed. “I don’t know if I can.”
She hated to say it: “And maybe get out of those pants. They can’t be helping.”
He unbuckled his black leather belt, unsnapped and unzipped his jeans, and she helped pull them down his legs and over his feet and socks. By the time he was under the covers, he had a sheen of perspiration on his face. Fifteen minutes later, he was able to eat a few pieces of fruit and one of the sandwiches. When he put the plate aside, Max curled up beside him and both of them fell asleep. The bed was massive, and Melody sat on the other side, eating and flipping through channels. Occasionally she would glance to her left, at Joe and Max, and her heart would melt in a way she didn’t want it to melt.
“What are you watching?”
“Me too.” The room was dark except for the light coming from the television screen. “How do you feel?”
He scooted up in bed and watched the end of the movie with her.
“How did you become a cop?” she asked as the credits rolled.
“My dad was a cop. His dad was a cop. It just seemed the natural thing, I guess.”
“That must have been weird, having a cop for a dad.”
“Not at all. I had a really normal childhood.”
“What are you going to do now? I mean, about the undercover stuff? Can I ask you that? Will you have to move?” She didn’t want him to move. Even though they were through, she didn’t want him to move. And she understood how conflicted her emotions were.
“I was given the option of moving to another city, or leaving undercover work. I chose to leave undercover work. I’ll just be a regular detective with a desk and a badge.”
“What about the shelter?”
“I’m staying on there. It’s part of an ongoing investigation that I’m not at liberty to go into right now, but I want to stay on. I like it. And I hope you and Max will keep coming for story hour.”
She wanted a clean cut. She didn’t want to have to see him again. He was making this so hard, but she couldn’t refuse to read stories to children who wanted to hear them.
She tossed the remote between them. “I’d better go. We have to get up early tomorrow. A driver will be downstairs at 6:00 a.m.”
He reached across the bed and fumbled for her hand. Found it. Held it. “I’m sorry. That’s all I want to say. I know I have no excuses. I knew how you felt about cops. I knew about David.”
She sensed that he wanted to say something else, that he was holding back.
“That’s all,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
She got to her feet. “Come on, Max. Let’s go.”
Max stretched, then curled his paws over his face and snuggled closer to Joe.
“He can stay,” Joe said.
“His food and litter box are in my room.”
“Leave the door open.”
Leave the door open. How had this gone from never going to unlock the door, to leave the door open? And Max. How could he do this to her? Cuddling up with Joe like that?
She tried once more. “Max?”
Joe nudged the cat in a weak attempt to get him to leave. Nothing. Sleeping with the enemy. But it was getting harder to think of Joe as the enemy.
Melody went back to her room, and she left the door open.
Max waited until Melody was settled, waited until she’d turned off the light, and then he joined her in her bed. His ploy hadn’t worked. Of course he wouldn’t stay the night with Joe if Melody wasn’t there.
He was looking forward to tomorrow. He hoped his long-lost sister or brother might see him on television, recognize him, and they could somehow reunite. He wasn’t sure how, but he hoped. Of course his plans had failed before. Look at Joe and Melody. But had it really been a failure? She’d been happy for a while, and he had saved Joe’s life.
Melody wrapped her arm around him and pulled him close. “Oh Max. I adore you.”
He purred loudly, adoring her right back.
Would his siblings recognize him through the television? Without being able to smell him? He might have to do something very Max to get their attention. Maybe his signature move.
“So how did you two meet?” Ellen asked.
Melody explained about Max. About how he’d ended up at the shelter where Joe worked. And that Melody’s address was on Max’s collar, and Joe brought Max home.
“Oh, Max again,” Ellen said.
The audience laughed. The audience laughed all the time, even when nothing was funny. But Max was okay with that. Ellen was even cuter in person than she was on TV. And she smelled good. A little like dogs, but also like soap and clean clothes. And coffee. With cream. And maybe like the sandwich she’d eaten before the show.
It was time for his signature move. Something he and his siblings had come up with years ago while watching Michael Jackson on television. Max called it the cat walk.
He jumped out of Ellen’s arms.
“Oh, I guess he’s tired of me,” Ellen said.
Max stood firmly on all fours, then began walking backward.
The audience really laughed then.
So he did it some more.
Ellen was laughing so hard, tears streamed down her face. Max didn’t understand the big deal. He jumped on the couch and nuzzled under Melody’s arm to get on her lap.
“Can we see a replay of that?” Ellen asked.
They played it back, and they slowed it down, and they sped it up. And the laughter just kept going. It hurt Max’s ears. When everybody finally calmed down, Ellen said: “That was quite remarkable.”
“I’ve never seen him do that before,” Melody said.
“My show will do that to a person. A cat. I mean a cat. My show will do that to a cat.” Ellen wiggled in her soft chair and leaned closer. “So, when are you two getting married? Not you and Max, you and Joe. When are you and Joe getting married? Because if two people were ever meant for each other…”
Melody shifted nervously, and Max could smell her fear. He meowed and ducked his face into her sweater, hoping to calm her. “We aren’t ever getting married,” she said. She glanced at Joe.
He had a silly smile on his face, and Max began to wonder at his calmness. He was so calm he almost seemed ready to melt through the couch. Kinda like Max felt once the initial buzz of catnip wore off.
“When are we getting married?” Joe asked.
Melody frowned at him. “We aren’t getting married.”
“Have you asked her?” This from Ellen. Max pulled his head out from its hiding place. He had to watch. Ellen was a better matchmaker than Max! Well, he’d brought Melody and Joe together initially, but Ellen was doing her part. They could be a team. A matchmaking team.
“No,” Joe said in a way that made him sound surprised by his own revelation.
“Do you plan to?”
Oh, Ellen was good.
Joe thought about that a moment. “Yeah.” He nodded in a way that made him sound completely firm in this new resolve.
Melody was staring at him in horror, shaking her head. They all knew what was coming next. Max just hoped and prayed Joe would do this right. And he didn’t disappoint.
Joe slipped from the couch. Careful of his injury, he eased himself down on one knee, extended a hand to Melody. She took it, but with a dazed, befuddled, I’ll-kill-you-later look in her eye.
“Melody, will you marry me?”
Max had always wondered about those public proposals. Where the guy proposed in front of an audience. Like at a football game or some such nonsense. Really, what if the girl didn’t even care about the guy? But Melody cared about Joe. Really cared. Max knew it.
“What are you doing?” Melody asked.
“Asking you to be my wife.”
“This is ridiculous.”
“Maybe Max should decide,” Ellen said. “Maybe you should propose to Max.”
Joe dropped Melody’s hand as if it were an old fish. He reached and cradled Max’s paw gently in his palm. “Max, should I take your mistress Melody’s hand in marriage?”
Max meowed in agreement.
“Max!” Melody said in shock. “Maxwell!”
“And you know what?” Ellen said. “I just happen to be an ordained minister.” On cue, bridesmaids appeared. Suddenly Ellen was decked out in some kind of official-looking white robe with gold trim. She began to recite wedding vows.
Melody put up both hands and shouted: “Stop! Stop this right now!”
Everybody stopped. The audience leaned forward.
“We are not getting married.”
“Wouldn’t it be a great thing to tell your kids and your grandkids?” Ellen said. “And just think, no need to send out wedding invitations. No need to spend months planning the event. We can do it here. Now.”
Melody scooped up Max. “Thank you, Ellen. I appreciate the offer, but Joe and I aren’t getting married.”
“Well, if you change your mind you know where to find me.”
The audience laughed.
With Max in her arms, Melody strode off the stage and headed down the narrow hall to the green room.
“What’s wrong with you?” Melody said as soon as the door shut behind them.
Joe blinked in surprised.
He did look a little funny. He grabbed her hand and pulled it to his face, kissing her palm. She jerked it away.
“I thought it seemed like a great idea,” he said.
“Are you drunk?”
He’d been so nervous before the show. Nervous and in pain. Now he seemed way too mellow.
“I had a couple of drinks. Just to relax.”
“On top of your painkillers?”
“I know. Bad idea. But I didn’t want to make a fool of myself out there.”
She laughed, and the sound seemed to encourage him. He put his arms around her and backed her up to the wall. His hands were suddenly moving up and down her sides, and his head dipped for a kiss. Which she thought about. For a second. Before slipping out from under his arm, leaving him facing a bare wall.
He swung around. “I think we should get married.”
“Marriage isn’t a joke.”
“I know.” He looked at Max. “Think about Max. We could give him the stable home life he needs.”
“He has a stable home life.”
“I know, I know.” He waved a hand, erasing his words. “I still think it’s a good idea.”
“Well, for one thing, you the same as lied to me. I could never be with someone who lies to me.”
“I couldn’t tell you the truth.”
“And for another, I can’t be with a cop. I just can’t.”
“What if I got another job?”
“What if I quit being a cop?”
“You’d do that? For me?”
“Yes.” He seemed surprised by his answer, digested it a while, then drove it home. “I would. For you, I would.”
“You’re drunk. Well, stoned. Whatever. High. And even if you weren’t, I could never ask a person to change for me. To become somebody else for me.”
“We’re talking about a job, not my core beliefs.”
“What would you do?”
“Work full time at the shelter.”
But she could already see the idea sucking the identity out of him. Her dad could never give up his music, his band, no matter what. And Melody could never give up her children’s books, or Max. Joe couldn’t give up being a cop.
“It won’t work, Joe. It just won’t work. You’d end up hating me. Resenting me.” She put Max in his pink pet carrier, zipping the zipper. “Come on. Let’s go home.” But inside she wondered… What if she hadn’t stormed off the stage? What if she’d gone along with the marriage? Maybe sometimes you just had to dive in, because if you thought about something too long… If you thought about anything too long, you could always find a millions reasons why it wouldn’t work. And sometimes life could pivot on a moment, a second, a heartbeat.
“Let’s go home,” she repeated, and this time her throat was tight, and she felt ready to cry.
A limousine took them directly from the Ellen DeGeneres Show to LAX. The ride was silent, and Melody had no idea what Joe was thinking. If he was coming down from his high, he was probably thinking he’d dodged a bullet.
The flight back to the Twin Cities was uneventful, with all three of them dozing off and on. Joe kept shifting in his seat, wincing in pain, but he was unwilling to take anything. “We’ll be home soon,” he said.
We’ll be home soon.
But they wouldn’t be going to the same homes.
The descent into the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport always seemed the longest part of the flight, especially at night. Melody leaned forward and watched for recognizable landmarks like Foshay Tower and the Metrodome, I-494 and the Mall of America. The plane circled and came in low over Saint Paul.
Joe leaned close to share the window. “We’re going right over Frogtown and Midway.”
“One of those lights could be my street, my house,” Melody said.
“Fair Grounds.” Joe pointed.
They’d talked about going to the state fair together in the fall, the Great Minnesota Get-Together. That wouldn’t be happening. In some ways, Melody wished she’d never found out about Joe. Wished she could go back in time to before she’d discovered his secret. Back when everything was wonderful between them.
Their plane landed, and pretty soon they made their way to the parking ramp where they piled into Joe’s car. Melody imagined crawling into bed with Max, maybe making a cup of hot chocolate, watching some television, trying to forget about the man in the seat beside her.
Fifteen minutes later, Joe pulled up in front of Melody’s house.
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Joe said.
She looked at him. “That’s okay. Your leg hurts. Get home. Take some painkillers.”
He didn’t listen.
He carried her small case while she carried Max. The sidewalk ran next to the house, and they followed it around to the back door.
Which stood ajar.
Melody let out a gasp, and Joe stepped in front of her, pushing her behind him. His hand went inside his jacket; he cursed under his breath. No gun.
He squeezed her arm, silently transmitting his need for her to stay where she was. He entered the house, flipping on the overhead light.
In movies, they never turned on the lights. That’s what Melody was thinking.
Her heart slammed in her chest. What if someone was inside? What if that someone had a gun? Like that other time?
She dropped Max’s cat carrier-gently-and ran into the house, shouting Joe’s name.
Joe swung around and looked at her in dismay. “Melody.” It was a warning to stay back. “Go outside. Call 9-1-1. Wait for the police to come.”
Silly, she thought, because he was the police. But he wasn’t in uniform. He didn’t have a gun. He didn’t have backup. Just a girl and her cat.
“Go outside,” Joe repeated.
“Not without you.” And then she saw the mess. The kitchen had been ransacked; broken dishes and glass littered the floor. “Oh, my cat coffee mug,” she said sadly.
Joe grabbed a broom. At first Melody thought he was going to start cleaning up. How strange. Instead, he grasped the handle in both hands and held it like a bat, moving deeper into the house. Lamps were broken, couch cushions scattered.
On to the bedroom. More of the same.
Not just ransacked but destroyed. “Why would someone do this?” Melody said.
Joe shook his head while he scanned the room, checking under the bed and in the closet. “Most thieves do very little damage. This is something else. I don’t like it.”
He moved through the house, methodically checking every area where someone could hide. Melody pulled out her cell phone and called 9-1-1.
Within minutes, sirens were blaring and lights were flashing, bouncing off the walls of the living room. Questions were asked. “Anything missing?”
“I don’t know,” Melody said. “Everything is such a mess.”
Notes were taken. And that was it.
“Someone will be getting in touch with you,” an officer said. And then the sirens and the cops were gone.
“I don’t like this,” Joe said again.
“I don’t either.”
“No, I mean it’s not your typical burglary. My guess is that the perpetrator knows you, knew you were gone, and was looking for something.”
“The whole country knew I was in California.” Melody bent to pick up a cushion.
“Don’t touch anything,” Joe said. “Let’s secure the door and leave. I’ll come back in the morning with a fingerprint kit. See if I can get anything, but I doubt it. I think this was a professional job made to look like an unprofessional job.”
Melody found a hammer. While Joe nailed the broken door closed, she wandered through the house, careful not to touch anything.
She should have moved. After David was killed, she should have moved. The house was cursed. She wandered back into the kitchen where Joe was finishing up. “My laptop is gone,” she said in a monotone voice.
He straightened, hands at his waist.
“That’s a pretty typical theft, isn’t it?” she asked. “Just kids stealing a laptop.” The theory reassured her, and the crime dropped in her mental ranking.
But she didn’t like the look on Joe’s face. “What?” she said.
“Maybe the laptop is what they wanted.”
“It’s just a laptop.” With a lot of pictures of Max inside.
They exited through the front door, collected Max, and got back in Joe’s car. He swung the car around and started heading toward his house.
“Take me to Lola’s,” Melody said.
“You can come to my place.”
“I want to go to Lola’s.” She knew Lola was probably in bed, but she needed to see her sister. And she needed to get away from Joe. Far away from Joe.
He paused at a stop sign and turned to look at her. He understood. Completely. Understood that this was it for them. The last straw. Because she had the feeling that the break-in was more about Joe than it was about her. Somebody knew he’d stayed there. Somebody knew he was her boyfriend. Or had been her boyfriend.
Let him lift his fingerprints or whatever they called it. Let him check the database to see if there were any matches. But then he needed to go away and never come back.
He nodded, looked straight ahead, and stepped on the gas.
Lola answered the door in pajama bottoms and a Roxy Music T-shirt. It took her a few seconds to process the news, but then she was pulling Melody inside, pushing Joe outside, shutting and locking the door.
“God, Melody. Oh, my God. And by the way, I saw the Ellen DeGeneres Show.” She shook her head.
“Did you think about it? Marrying Joe?”
“Not for a second.” She didn’t add that later she wondered. Later she kind of wished she’d done it. But now. Thank God she hadn’t. “A cop. Look at the bullshit he’s brought into my life.”
“There must be some reason you’re attracted to cops,” Lola said fifteen minutes later when they’d gotten Max fed and both sisters were lying in Lola’s bed, eating ice cream. “Maybe you need to stop fighting it.”
“I’m not attracted to creepy cops. Not the cops who were picked on as kids and are now on power trips.”
“Is there any other kind?”
“See, you’re defending him.”
“Some cops are sweet. Some cops care about people.”
Lola rolled her eyes. “It’s just a job. But anyway, I’m glad you weren’t hurt.”
“Joe says they knew I was gone, so I don’t think I was ever in any danger.” She tried to sound convincing.
“Maybe you should move.”
She’d said it before. Lots of times. And now Melody was thinking the same thing. But she also had so many good memories in her house. And leaving… In a way, it would mean leaving David. Abandoning David. He was so much a part of the house. They’d worked on it together. They’d fallen more deeply in love there. And David had died there. That was the strange thing that Melody didn’t know how to explain. Even though his death had been violent, there was something spiritual about the house because David had drawn his last breath in the living room. David was the house. And until tonight, she’d actually felt comforted there, felt his presence lingering in the walls and in the sheets and in the curtains.
“This ice cream is really good,” she said, realizing she’d eaten most of hers without even tasting it. But now she became aware of the dark chocolate flavor on her tongue.
Max was lying between them on the floral quilt. “What was that thing Max did on television?” Lola asked.
“I don’t know. Wasn’t that weird? I’ve never seen him do that before.”
“It was kind of like the moon walk,” Lola said.
They both laughed.
“Why don’t you stay here a few more days?” Lola asked as her sister gathered her things to head back home.
Melody zipped Max into his cat carrier, then straightened. “I’ll be fine. The door has been repaired, an alarm system installed.” Everyone had insisted upon the alarm system, and Melody had agreed. She and Lola had spent the past two days cleaning the house after Joe dusted for prints.
“No matches in the database,” he’d told her once images had been entered into the system.
“I just want my life to return to normal,” Melody told Lola. “I need to get back to work. I want to sleep in my own bed. By myself.”
Lola didn’t seem convinced. “Oh, wait. Your laptop. I mean, David’s.” She hurried to her bedroom, then returned with the laptop she’d borrowed from Melody a couple of weeks earlier. “You’ll need this.”
Melody hadn’t been able to make herself look at David’s laptop. So full of photos of them together. But now she was worried about losing them. What if his laptop had been stolen along with hers? She planned to back everything up as soon as she got home.
“Call me,” Lola said once Melody’s car was loaded. The sisters hugged, and Melody and Max took off down the street.
Once they were home, Melody tried to forget about the break-in. She settled into bed with Max and began to go through David’s old files, backing things up in cloud storage.
The doorbell rang. She peeked behind the curtain and spotted a florist’s truck. Melody opened the door to a massive bouquet of lush, pastel lilies. Tucked among the brightly colors blooms were sprigs of catnip. She thanked the deliveryman, put the flowers and their glass container on the kitchen counter, then opened the attached envelope.
“Oh, look, Max. It’s from Ellen.” She gave him a glimpse of the card before delving deeper into the message. “Thanks for visiting me in Burbank,” she read. “If you ever need someone to officiate at your wedding, let me know. XO, Ellen.” Melody pulled out a sprig of catnip and dangled it in front of Max’s nose. “That’s so sweet.”
He went wild. He ripped the green plant from her hand, chewed it, rolled on it, rolled on it some more, then raced around the house, banging into walls.
“Wow. That’s some high-powered catnip.” Melody watched Max a while to make sure he wasn’t going to injure himself, then she returned to the bedroom to continue with David’s files. Thirty minutes later she came upon a folder that said Cute Cat Photos. She smiled, clicked, and found that the folder didn’t contain jpeg files at all. Instead, it contained documents. Stranger still, they were all labeled confidential police business. So odd for David to have something like that on his personal computer.
Max jumped up beside her and stuck his nose in the screen. She elbowed him away gently. “Should I open a document, Max? It’s marked confidential. What do you think?”
Max meowed and put his paw on the keyboard.
She laughed and lifted him away. He came right back.
“It’s probably some kind of silliness. Who would mark a folder confidential? That’s like marking a door secret door. Like look here. Look in this secret door.” She stared at the screen. The desktop image was a photo of all three of them, David and Melody sitting on the couch, their bare feet on the table, with Max between them, lying upside down, his belly exposed. Lola had taken the picture while David and Melody laughed about how Max never took a bad photo.
“Hmm,” Melody said. “Maybe he wanted me to open it. Maybe that’s why he labeled it confidential. But then he would know me. I’m not the kind of person to open something that belongs to someone else.” She tapped her chin. “What to do, what to do.”
She thought about how the only thing of real value taken during the break-in was her laptop. I don’t like this. That’s what Joe had said.
What if the thief had been after David’s computer all along?
Was she being ridiculous?
She didn’t know why, but she dragged a copy of the folder into the little box on her screen, then hit upload. A few minutes later, it was saved. Then she grabbed her cell phone and searched for the name of someone she hadn’t talked to in two years. Since then, Frank Cameron had been promoted and was now just one step down from chief of police. She told him about the break-in and her suspicions about the computer, and then she called Joe.
“I know it’s silly,” she said. “It is, right? All espionage.” She laughed, but didn’t really mean it.
“Have you told anybody else?” Joe asked.
“David’s old partner.”
“Yes. He said he’d be right over to get the computer. Now I’m embarrassed. I’m being silly, right?”
“No. Lock the door, and don’t answer it when he gets there. Do you hear me? Lock the door. I’m on my way.” He disconnected.
Just then, a knocked sounded on the front door. The knob turned, and Frank Cameron stuck his head inside.
Max stared in horror at the man entering the living room. He’d seen him before. Oh, good God, how he’d seen him before. Unable to control himself, Max jumped straight up as if he had springs on his feet. He hissed, and he could feel his tail waving behind his head, three times its normal size.
“Max!” Melody scolded.
Run! Run! He tried to mentally convey the importance of the situation. She needed to get out of there, before the man pulled out a gun and shot her the way he’d shot David. Dear, dear, David.
Max could smell the man’s sweat, and the air was full of the strange electricity that came with danger. Max wanted to run and hide in the basement. Instead, he ran straight for the man, and grabbed him with all four paws, sinking in his claws. But that wasn’t enough. He opened his mouth wide and began biting as hard as he could while the man screamed and shook his leg. Max hung on, but finally the man freed himself, his face a bright red.
Max took off, skidding around the corner, pounding down the basement steps to his favorite hiding place behind the washing machine.
He heard Melody’s voice coming through the vents. “I’m so sorry!” She sounded embarrassed. Don’t be embarrassed, Melody!
“He just had some really strong catnip,” Melody said, “and it made him crazy. Are you okay? Oh, gosh. You’re bleeding! I’m so sorry. Let me get a washcloth and a Band-Aid.”
“Forget it. You need to have that monster declawed.”
“He’s never done anything like that before.”
“I hope he’s had his rabies vaccination.”
Silence. Then, “Well, I’d have to check and see if it’s up-to-date.”
“Don’t bother. Where’s the laptop?”
Max heard Melody’s footsteps above his head. He slinked out from behind the washing machine, then crept upstairs. He peeked around the corner in time to see Melody handing the man the laptop. Ordinarily he would be happy to see it go. To keep her from looking at it, and petting it instead of him.
“Did you open any of the documents?” the man asked.
“Are you sure?”
“They said confidential. Of course I didn’t open them.”
Max would have opened them. He would have opened them in a second. That was Melody’s problem. She was just too nice. But that’s why Max loved her. And that was probably why Joe loved her too. And all of those brats at the library.
“I haven’t seen you since David died,” she said. “I read where you got a promotion.”
“I meant to stop by, but I got so busy with work.”
“David was a good guy,” the man said. “We miss him.”
Oh, what a liar. What a stinking liar. Couldn’t Melody see that? But she wasn’t always a good judge of character. Max thought about the string of losers that had come and gone until he’d brought Joe home. Which just went to prove that humans didn’t always know what was best for them. Sometimes they needed their cats to give them guidance.
From outside came the sound of a familiar car and familiar tires and the familiar sound of a car door and the familiar sound of footsteps, albeit with a limp that Max considered a war wound, a badge of honor, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.
And then Joe was knocking on the screen door, and then he was shouting Melody’s name and she was moving past the bad man. Because Joe wouldn’t just barge in. No, Joe would wait like the gentleman he was.
And then Joe was there, inside. And he was putting off some of the same electricity the bad man was generating, and the whole thing made Max nervous all over again, and he was suddenly getting the two men confused even though he knew one was good and one was bad. Cat stuff.
“I just stopped by to pick up the laptop,” Joe said. “I’ll turn it in to the proper people to see if there’s anything on it we should be concerned about.”
“That’s okay,” the bad man said. “I’ve got it. I’ll make sure it ends up where it needs to go.”
“I’ll take it,” Joe said, more firmly this time.
And then the bad man did something that didn’t surprise Max at all. He pulled out a gun and aimed it at Joe.
Last time Max had watched in horror, then run away. He wouldn’t hide this time. Maybe Ellen was right. Maybe he was a hero.
Once again, he launched himself at the bad man. At the very same time, Melody charged, knocking the man to the living room floor. The gun flew from his hand, and Joe grabbed it. The man sprang to his feet, with Melody riding him and Max clawing at the man’s arm. The man shook Max off. Max hit the floor. Hard. Dazed, he shook his head, creating a million Melodys. Max’s vision cleared in time for him to see Melody slammed against the wall.
“Stop!” Joe shouted, threatening to fire the gun.
Max hated the sound of gunfire, but he hoped Joe would shoot.
The man ran.
Out the door and to his car. Joe started to follow, paused, then turned to Melody, who was sitting on the floor, against the wall like a broken doll.
From outside came the squeal of tires, and then the bad man was gone. It was over.
Max and Joe ran to Melody. Joe dropped to her side just as her eyes opened. “I’m okay,” she said, but her voice sounded funny. A little groggy. “I just hit my head.”
Joe felt around at the spot she indicated. Melody winced. “You’re already getting a lump,” he said.
“He got the laptop, didn’t he?” she asked.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s gonna be his word against mine. He has a loyal following within the department.”
“I backed it up.”
“The files. I backed up all of the files.”
“I should have shot him,” Joe said. “But I’ve never shot anybody. Ever. And I don’t like guns. I have to carry one, but I don’t like them.”
“That’s so funny,” Melody said.
Max was thinking the same thing.
“Holy hell.” Joe’s voice shook as he cradled Melody’s face in both of his hands, leaned closer, and kissed her. A lot. And before Max knew it, they were lying on the floor, and then they were tugging at clothes and kissing and laughing.
It wasn’t until much later that Melody and Joe headed to Joe’s house in order to access his computer and the cloud server Melody used for her backup files. Now they were in his cozy office with his books and albums, sitting side by side in front of his desktop computer.
Melody entered her password, then, with a series of clicks, opened the first file. “I don’t understand,” she said, squinting at the screen. “It’s just a lot of dates and names.”
Joe hit the keys, opening one file after another until he’d quickly perused them all. Then he explained: “For the past three years, confiscated drugs have gone missing from the police department. I mean a lot of drugs. Like millions of dollars worth. There were some people who thought David might actually be involved in the thefts.”
Melody gasped. “He would never-”
“I know, I know. I think he was a convenient scapegoat. A red herring, probably planted by Cameron. Another reason suspicion fell on David was that he was getting close to fingering the dirty cop. These are records of all the comings and goings in the department. Who was working, who logged in and out of the evidence room. It’s all here. He was slowly and methodically building a case against Cameron.”
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“David’s death wasn’t a random break-in gone bad. It was a hit.”
For two years, she’d thought David had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. To find out his death might have been deliberate… She felt both confused and outraged. “Why now? If Cameron was searching for David’s computer, why now?”
“I’ve been doing a little snooping of my own, looking into David’s murder. Some things just didn’t add up. My investigation stirred up a trail that led back to the night of David’s death. I actually made an inquiry about David’s personal computer, fully expecting it to have been confiscated as possible evidence. At that point, I wasn’t trying to keep it a secret within the department. Several people knew I was looking into his death. I never suspected an inside job.”
“And your shooting? Do you think it was connected?” Melody asked.
“I think I was getting too curious. But that’s just a theory at this point. I may never be able to connect Cameron to that job. But David’s death is another matter. And I’ve got Cameron’s gun. It’s a long shot, but worth pursuing.”
Joe pulled out his cell phone and keyed in a number. “Got a favor to ask,” he said once the person at the other end answered. “Need ballistics run on a gun. But I don’t want the data to go through the department.” Joe gave him the details and the match he was hoping for, then hung up. “An unorthodox request, but he owes me one.”
Two days later, just after Melody got home from work, Joe called with the ballistic results. His voice was strained and sober. “Melody, David was killed by Frank Cameron’s gun.”
She put a hand to her mouth, but didn’t say a word. So many emotions ran through her, all at the same time. Shock that someone in such a position of power could do such a thing, relief that he’d been caught, pride that David had investigated, pride that Joe had picked up the thread and carried it through to the end.
“We now have indisputable evidence,” Joe said. “The ballistics report, along with David’s files, will be enough to put Cameron away for a long time. Maybe forever.”
She bit her lip, squeezed her eyes shut, and nodded even though Joe couldn’t see her.
“Are you okay? I shouldn’t have told you over the phone, but I have to get this paperwork downtown so a warrant can be issued today. I don’t want Cameron to catch wind of this.”
“No, I understand.” She pulled in a deep breath. She straightened her shoulders. “I’m fine. Do what you have to do.”
A few hours later, Joe called to let her know that Cameron had been arrested at his home. “Handcuffed and stuffed into the back of a police car, like any other criminal.”
By 10:00 p.m., news of the arrest hit all three local stations, and by morning it was on the front page of the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press. And of course they worked Max into the story, reminding readers and listeners that the officer who’d been murdered was none other than the cat lady’s late husband and Max’s original owner.
Melody smoothed her black-and-white floral skirt, adjusted her pink sweater with red trim, knocked on Joe’s door, then stepped back and waited for him to answer. “I brought you some daisies.” She held them out with one hand. The cut ends were soaked in wet paper towels and wrapped in a plastic bag. “And a cupcake.” She handed him a pale blue cupcake with a black cat face.
“Want to come in?” Joe asked.
She followed him inside, all the way to the kitchen where he opened the cupboard, got out a glass, filled it with water, and arranged the white and yellow daisies. He placed the container in the window behind the porcelain sink.
Beautiful. If she’d had her camera, she would have taken a picture. She hadn’t taken any pictures since David’s death.
Joe rotated the cupcake in his hand. “This looks too good to eat.” He was dressed in faded jeans and a flannel shirt with sleeves rolled a couple of turns, as if he’d been doing dishes. His dark hair was disheveled, and his feet were bare.
“I want to thank you for everything,” she said. “For catching David’s killer. For endangering your life.”
“Most people would have done the same thing,” he said. “Anybody decent.”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t go dark on me,” he said with a bit of a teasing smile. But she could see the worry in his eyes. Knowing that she’d mostly likely come to tell him goodbye again.
He began peeling the paper from the cupcake, slowly, giving it much more attention than it deserved. Then he lifted the dessert to his mouth and took a bite. His eyes widened in surprise.
“You like it? It has buttered rum and cayenne pepper in it.”
He wiped a tiny bit of blue frosting from his lip. “I’m not sure what I think about it.” His brow crinkled in puzzlement. “I think I like it.” He took another bite, letting the flavor dissolve in his mouth.
“The frosting also has a little zing,” she said.
“It looks so innocent.”
“I know. Right?”
“Wanna taste?” He held it out, and she took a bite.
He laughed. She wasn’t sure why he laughed, but she liked the sound.
“The frosting is good too,” he said. “So fluffy.”
They finished off the cupcake. Then it was time for Melody to move on to the next step. And it was a big one.
“I wanted to tell you something.” She stood in the middle of the kitchen. He was leaning against the counter.
“I would never want you to give up who you are for me. I love that you made the offer and were willing to leave something you love, something you’re good at, for me. But it would never work.”
He opened his mouth to protest.
She kept talking. “You’d end up resenting me. And then you might even start to hate me. And you…you would no longer be you. So no, that won’t work. That’s nothing we should even consider.”
His shoulders dropped, and his chin dropped. And for a moment, he wouldn’t look at her. When he finally did, she saw the tears in his eyes and understood how much he loved her, and understood how much he’d been willing to sacrifice for her.
“The cupcake was good,” he said forlornly.
She laughed. She couldn’t help it. Because she finally knew her heart and her head. She wasn’t the kind of person to shut herself away and shut herself off from the people she loved. That wasn’t her.
“I want you in my life,” she said in the most straightforward way possible.
“You mean like friends? Like the letting-the-guy-down-easy thing? We’ll always be friends? It’s not you, it’s me? Because really, I’m not falling for that. Sorry.”
“No, more than friends. Let’s go back to the you and me of before. The you and me and Max of before I knew you were a cop. Let’s go back there. But this time I’ll know. I can’t say I’ll be…well, happy with it. But it will be okay. And I will be proud of you. And I will be happy for you. Yes, I will worry. Every second you are gone. But I’ll distract myself. With work. With Max. With cupcakes and costumes. And books.”
A light appeared behind the shimmer of tears in his green eyes. He pulled her into his arms, and his mouth came down on hers, and she felt like a princess who’d found her prince. And when he was done thoroughly kissing her, she pulled back so she could look at him, so she could read his face. “Do you love me?” she asked with a directness that came from her soul. “Because I love you.”
He smiled a slow smile. “You know I do.”
“Then say it.”
“I’ll say it when I’m good and ready.”
“I don’t need to hear the words anyway.” But she did.
“Maybe I want you to beg,” he said.
“I never beg.”
“I love everything about you. The way your hair smells. Your laugh. Your feet. Your clothes. Your cupcakes. Your smell. Oh, I already said that. Your joy. I need your joy. Is that enough?”
She smiled, waiting.
And then his face became serious. “I love you. You know that.”
She took his hand. She brought it to her lips. She kissed his knuckles, then looked up at him. “Let’s go tell Max.”
Sunday morning and all was well in Max’s world. Joe and Melody were slowly waking up, and Max was lying on top of Joe’s clothes, which were in a pile on the floor, right in the sun. That perfect patch of sunlight that felt so good. In a few more minutes Max would begin to get annoyed. He might have to start walking across the bed and pawing at some faces, but right now… Right now was perfect.
Thirty minutes later, Melody and Joe were in the kitchen. Melody wore her pink cat pajama bottoms and a tank top that exposed the shoulder tattoo of Max. It was a wonderful tattoo.
Joe wore a gray T-shirt and plaid pajama bottoms. Coffee was percolating, eggs were sizzling in the pan on the stove, and Max had just finished off a can of cat food. He was ready to watch the activity on the street, but the door to the screened-in porch was closed. He scratched and meowed.
Melody unlocked the door, and Max slipped through the opening. “Oh, wow. Come see this, Joe.”
Joe appeared at her elbow, and pretty soon both humans were looking at something beyond the front door.
“That cat looks exactly like Max,” Joe said.
“I know.” Melody took a quiet step closer to the screen door. “If Max wasn’t right here next to me, I’d swear it was him. Same black mustache and all.”
Max jumped up on the windowsill so he could see what they were talking about. And there she was. Max’s sister. The Ellen gig had paid off. Life was good.
Theresa Weir (a.k.a. Anne Frasier) is an award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of twenty-one books and numerous short stories that have spanned the genres of suspense, mystery, thriller, romantic suspense, paranormal, and memoir. Her titles have been printed in both hardcover and paperback and translated into twenty languages. Her memoir, The Orchard, was a 2011 Oprah Magazine Fall Pick, Number Two on the Indie Next list, a featured B+ review in Entertainment Weekly, and a Librarians’ Best Books of 2011. Going back to 1988, Weir’s debut title was the cult phenomenon AMAZON LILY, initially published by Pocket Books and later reissued by Bantam Books. Writing as Theresa Weir she won a RITA for romantic suspense (COOL SHADE), and a year later the Daphne du Maurier for paranormal romance (BAD KARMA). In her more recent Anne Frasier career, her thriller and suspense titles hit the USA Today list (HUSH, SLEEP TIGHT, PLAY DEAD) and were featured in Mystery Guild, Literary Guild, and Book of the Month Club. HUSH was both a RITA and Daphne du Maurier finalist. Well-known in the mystery community, she served as hardcover judge for the Thriller presented by International Thriller Writers, and was guest of honor at the Diversicon 16 mystery/science fiction conference held in Minneapolis in 2008. Frasier books have received high praise from print publications such as Publishers Weekly, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Crimespree, as well as online praise from Spinetingler, Book Loons, Armchair Interviews, Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, and Ali Karim’s Shots Magazine. Her books have featured cover quotes from Lisa Gardner, Jane Ann Krentz, Linda Howard, Kay Hooper, and J.A. Konrath. Her short stories and poetry can be found in DISCOUNT NOIR, ONCE UPON A CRIME, and THE LINEUP, POEMS ON CRIME. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers.