Black Cat Crossing by Kay Finch is the debut cozy in the Bad Luck Cat Mystery Series (available September 1, 2015).
Sabrina has never been the superstitious type. Still, when she moves to Lavender, Texas, to write her first novel and help her Aunt Rowe manage her vacation rental business, Sabrina can’t avoid listening to the rumors that a local black cat is a jinx—especially after the stray in question leads her directly to the scene of a murder.
The deceased turns out to be none other than her Aunt Rowe’s awful cousin Bobby Joe Flowers, a known cheat and womanizer who had no shortage of enemies. The only problem is that Aunt Rowe and Bobby Joe had quarreled just before the cousin turned up dead, leaving Rowe at the top of the long list of suspects. Now it’s up to Sabrina to clear her aunt’s name. Luckily for her, she’s got a new sidekick, Hitchcock the Bad Luck Cat, to help her sniff out clues and stalk a killer before Aunt Rowe winds up the victim of even more misfortune…
I laced my fingers, cracked my knuckles, and stared at the few words on my laptop screen. Behind me, the hum of early morning conversation in Hot Stuff Coffee Shop went on as usual. Back when I was a kid visiting my aunt Rowena, the shop was called Das Kaffeehaus, in keeping with the German heritage here in Lavender, heart of the Texas Hill Country. Then a transplant from San Antonio bought the place and changed the name to Hot Stuff. He traded the old oom-pah-pah background music for seventies disco tunes. I’d choose listening to Donna Summer over any polka band in history, but I had to wonder why he didn’t go with a country music theme. After all, this was Texas.
Boot Scootin’ Coffee, perhaps.
Or, if he had his heart set on Hot Stuff, he could stream songs by today’s up-and-coming hunky performers. More good-looking guys than I can keep up with, but dang it, thinking about country singers wasn’t supposed to be on my agenda this morning.
I yanked off one of the ponytail holders I wear on my wrist like extra bracelets and gathered my mop of hair at the nape of my neck. After fastening the hair with the pink elastic band, I tried to concentrate on my story. In the real world, I listened to the peaceful clinking of spoons against heavy crockery mugs and the Bee Gees crooning “How Deep Is Your Love,” but on the pages of my novel in progress, all hell had broken loose. Scarlett Olson and her toddler Melody were on the run from a killer, having barely escaped plunging into an icy river in Calgary, which would have meant their sudden death.
I sat back and nibbled my lower lip. Would this plot line fly? Should Scarlett have had more sense than to leave the safety of their hideout? She’d seen the weather forecast for torrential rain on TV that morning. She knew the killer was nearby. Would the reader rag on my character for not calling the authorities, even though she couldn’t risk turning on her cell phone for fear the villain would track her signal?
I blew out a breath and stared at the poster of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever on the wall near me. I supposed he was considered “hot stuff” back in the day—around the time I’d been born. I rubbed my neck, feeling Scarlett’s predicament in every tendon, but did it come across on the page? For the millionth time I wondered whether I’d ever finish this book or if I was destined to the status of wannabe mystery author forever. I lifted my cup and took a whiff of the heavenly vanilla-and-almond-scented coffee—a house blend called Lavender’s Sunrise.
Try to relax, Sabrina. For God’s sake, focus.
Before I could get back into the story, the shop’s bell tinkled and the door thwacked open into the table behind it. I turned and saw Thomas Cortez marching straight for me. He wore a wide-brimmed straw hat, jeans over work boots, and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. I’d seen him—the handyman for Aunt Rowe’s rental cottages and her most loyal friend— tackling an overgrown hedge when I’d left this morning. His grim expression told me he wasn’t here for a great cup of coffee.
My heart leapt to my throat and I stood, fearing the worst. “Is Aunt Rowe okay?”
“She’s fine, Miss Sabrina.” Thomas pulled out a chair and plunked himself down.
“Thank goodness.” I eased back into my seat.
Thomas took his hat off and placed it on the chair across from me. “Your aunt’s having a good day so far. Glenda got her settled on the patio chaise so she can enjoy some sun before the day gets too hot. The physical therapist should be there shortly.”
My aunt, Rowena Flowers, took a nasty fall in early spring and was recovering from a concussion and a broken leg. Which was my impetus for finally quitting my Houston paralegal job and accepting her offer to come live with her for a while. In addition to keeping my aunt company, I was helping Thomas and Glenda, the housekeeper, manage the cottages during Aunt Rowe’s recuperation.
Thomas lifted his arm to check his watch, and I spotted a bloody cut on his forearm. Looked to me like he might need stitches.
“What happened to you?” I pulled a fresh napkin from the dispenser and handed it to him.
He accepted the napkin and dabbed at the wound. “El Gato Diablo is what. Gosh-darned cat crossed my path, next thing my toe caught on the curb, and I fell flat out. Arm caught the edge of one of them fancy metal planters in front of the wine shop. Better’n smacking my head, I guess.”
“A devil cat?” My forehead creased. “What are you talking about?”
“The black cat,” he said. “Big fella. Been around these parts since I was a kid.”
Since he was a kid?
“You’re what?” I said. “Thirtysomething?” “Close enough.”
The coffee shop’s owner, Max Dieter, came up with a mug for Thomas in one hand and a steaming coffeepot in the other. The big man had a fringe of strawberry blond hair surrounding a bald crown and always offered a jolly smile. Without asking what Thomas wanted, he filled the fresh mug with a flourish.
“Heard you talking about the bad luck cat,” he said. “Legend around town. I thought we’d seen the last of him when Wes Krane loaded him up and carted him off to Nolan County.”
I’d met the crotchety Mr. Krane, owner of the local hardware store, and wasn’t surprised that he’d drive across the state just because a cat annoyed him.
Thomas lifted his arm to show Max his injury. “The cat’s here in Lavender. Did this to me.”
Max shook his head. “The animal better steer clear of my place. I remodeled to bring in more business. Don’t need bad luck scaring people away.”
I stifled a giggle. If you asked me, Max’s baby-blue leisure-suit-like pants and polyester print shirt were enough to drive customers away.
“Y’all be serious,” I said. “Cats don’t bring bad luck. And there’s no black cat that’s like thirty years old.”
Thomas said, “Remember, cats have nine lives.”
“Uh-huh.” I rolled my eyes. “You took a fall this morning, that’s all. It was an accident.”
“You’ll run into that cat one of these days,” Max said. “Most folks do sooner or later. You’ve been warned.”
“Right.” Thomas nodded. “El Gato Diablo.”
“We’ll see,” I said. “But you didn’t come to talk about a cat.”
Max took the hint and walked back to the counter, but that didn’t mean he’d quit listening in on our conversation.
Thomas leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Weekend guests start arriving tonight.”
I picked up my mug and sipped my coffee. “We discussed that earlier. Is there a problem?”
Thomas nodded. “Heard through a friend of my sister-in-law’s neighbor that Bobby Joe Flowers is on his way here, too.”
I frowned. “He was my dad’s cousin.”
“I know,” Thomas said. “And Rowena’s. She won’t be glad to see him.”
“Okay.” My shoulders tightened, and this time my tension had nothing to do with fiction. “Dad had plenty of stories about cousin Bobby Joe, none of them good. He was the rowdy one in the family, the risk taker, the womanizer, the drinker. I never met the man. Maybe he’s settled down by now.”
“He hasn’t.” Thomas drained his mug in one long swallow and put it back on the table. “We can try to keep him away from Rowena, but she likes to face problems head-on, and he usually makes a beeline to her door.”
I cocked my head. “Why is that?”
“Always lookin’ for a handout,” Thomas said. “Never has a dime to his name to hear him tell it. Rowena’s done good for herself. But last time Bobby Joe didn’t ask. Stole a couple thousand in cash from her safe.”
My jaw dropped. “That’s despicable. Did Aunt Rowe report him to the police?”
“Nope.” Thomas placed his elbows on the table and folded his hands as if in prayer. “You know how she is about family.”
“Did she get the money back?”
“What he hadn’t already spent,” Thomas said. “I mean to see nothing like that ever happens again. Expect he’ll be here by dinnertime. We need to be ready.”
The thought of anyone, family or not, treating Aunt Rowe so badly made the coffee in my gut churn. “What can I do to help?”
“Glad you asked.” Thomas pulled a list from his pocket and handed it to me. “I’m runnin’ over to Emerald Springs to pick up rosebushes Rowena special ordered. She wants ’em planted by tomorrow. You could get these lock kits at Krane’s Hardware on your way back. Put them on the company account. I’ll install them later in the main house. I’m betting ol’ Bobby Joe hung on to a key.”
I wasn’t looking forward to meeting this relative whom, for some reason, I’d never laid eyes on—not even at Dad’s funeral.
“Where does Bobby Joe stay when he’s in town?” I said. “Not with Aunt Rowe, I hope.”
“Too close for comfort,” he said. “She usually gives him the Monte Carlo cottage, but now you’re in there. Ought to send him off to the nearest La Quinta, but she won’t. Since we’re not fully booked, she’ll probably put him up in one of the other cottages.” Thomas stood abruptly and picked up his hat. “We need to be ready,” he said again, then left me with the list.
I watched him go and wondered what his being “ready” entailed and whether it involved firearms. His acting like we were the Texans hunkering down inside the Alamo as Santa Anna’s army approached made me plenty nervous.
Good Lord, there was no way I could come up with a creative thought now. The writing would have to wait for another day. I shut down my computer and slid it into my carrying case, then felt around under the table with my feet until I found my flip-flops.
I waved bye to Max, wondering how much of our conversation he’d heard. I hadn’t been around long enough to know whether he’d keep private information to himself. Assuming that everyone in town didn’t already know our family’s business.
Outside, the sky was brilliant blue, the air thick with humidity that was nothing compared to what we’d have in another couple of weeks. I hurried to my Accord, which was parked under the shade of a live oak, and stopped short when I spotted a huge, coal-black cat sitting on the car, still as a hood ornament. The feline sat tall, with its vivid green eyes focused on me.
This had to be the cat Thomas and Max referred to as the bad luck cat, but I didn’t buy that for a second. I smiled at the animal and held out a nonthreatening hand as I took baby steps toward the car.
“Aren’t you gorgeous?” I said, and that’s when the cat took off through the flowering white oleander bushes that separated Hot Stuff’s parking lot from the wine shop’s lot next door.
I shrugged and climbed into the car. Technically, the cat had not crossed my path, so I should be good to go.
Krane’s Hardware sat on the outskirts of Lavender town proper and, as evidenced by the row of vehicles parked out front, the store did a bang-up business. I pulled my small car into a space between a couple of 4×4 pickups and climbed out, feeling like I’d arrived in the land of the giants.
Hardware made up only a portion of Krane’s inventory. With departments devoted to household goods, hunting and fishing, plants, and pets, the place drew customers who didn’t feel the need to drive an hour to the nearest Walmart. I pulled Thomas’s list from my shorts pocket and headed inside, hoping they had the locks he wanted.
I was looking at the piece of paper in my hand while stepping up to the entrance and nearly got clobbered by a humongous bag of dog food perched on a cowboy’s shoulder as he headed out. I ducked in the nick of time, and he went on to his truck without ever seeing me. I pushed through the swinging glass door and walked into the store.
A heavyset young woman in a green bib apron with “Krane’s” embroidered on the breast pocket stood at the front window, staring into the parking lot. She glanced at me and said, “Isn’t he dreamy?”
I walked over to her and followed her gaze. The cowboy who’d almost taken me down hefted the dog food from his shoulder into the bed of his white pickup. When he turned toward the driver’s door, I got a good look at him.
“Pretty cute,” I agreed, though that was an understatement. The man looked to be a little over six feet, late thirties or so, with dark hair and a five-o’clock shadow several days old. The rugged, outdoorsy type. Definitely dreamy. He wore a belt with the requisite Texas-sized belt buckle and jeans that fit him ever so well. The yellow Lab riding shotgun in his passenger seat was super cute, too.
“Who is he?” I asked the clerk.
“Luke Griffin,” she said. “Lives on the Kauffman ranch.” I didn’t know where that was, and I might have asked except that my attention was drawn to a fiftyish man getting out of a cherry red SUV. He approached Griffin, who sure didn’t look happy to see him. In fact, he seemed downright perturbed. The two erupted into what looked like a verbal battle with a lot of waving arms and finger-pointing.
The store clerk and I exchanged glances. “Who’s that guy?” I said.
She shrugged. Behind us a loud voice snapped. “Hallie, where the devil are you? You have customers to take care of.”
We turned away from the window in unison. At the U-shaped checkout counter, one cashier was efficiently ringing up an order while five people waited in line to check out. The second cash register stood unused.
“Sorry, Dad.” Hallie hurried over to her register and said, “I’ll take the next customer over here.”
Until now, I hadn’t known the clerk was related to the store’s owner, though I had seen her a couple of times before. I approached Krane, who looked like he’d had a rough morning. The sleeves of his off-white shirt were soiled with dark, wet stains. His face and neck dripped sweat, and his sparse salt-and-pepper hair needed combing.
“Sorry,” I said. “My fault. I distracted your daughter.” “Did she help you find what you came for?” He looked pointedly at my empty hands.
“No, not yet.” I handed him Thomas’s list. “I need to get these.” “She wasn’t gonna find any deadbolt locks by staring into space,” he said. “What to do with that girl, daydreaming one minute, listening to that noise she calls music the next? This way.” He turned and strode down an aisle.
The man was so grumpy I wouldn’t blame customers for driving to Walmart to avoid him. I needed the locks sooner rather than later, though, so I followed Krane. He stopped midway down an aisle, near another woman wearing a Krane’s apron. She was unpacking a box of fire ant poison and stocking the shelf in front of her.
The woman gave Krane a once-over and said, “You go Dumpster diving?”
He scowled at her. “Stupid cat got in the garbage again. Dragged stuff all over the place.”
“El Gato Diablo?” she said. “Who else?” Krane said.
The woman looked at me. “Did he get you, too?” “Gosh, do I look like I’ve been in a fight with a cat?”
She grinned. “No, I meant has the cat caused you bad luck?” “Not yet,” I said, playing along rather than pointing out that cats do not affect luck.
“Good for you,” she said. “Just this morning the mailman came by and said he’d spotted the black cat. Next thing he knew a gust of wind ripped the mail he was about to deliver right out of his hand. Blew it into the street, and he nearly got plastered by a truck hauling a load of hay when he chased after the envelopes that got away.”
The cat controlled the wind. Right.
“Lucky he wasn’t hurt,” I said.
“A miracle,” she said with a touch of sarcasm.
Krane was focused on finding my locks and obviously didn’t want to talk about the cat. He ran a finger down a row of packages and pulled one off the rack to check against the list. “These deadbolts for Rowena’s place?”
“Yes,” I said, “Thomas sent me for them.”
“Having trouble out there?” He turned to me, and his brows drew together.
“No trouble.” I wasn’t about to give either of these people something else to blame on an innocent cat.
“Huh.” He picked up four identical packages. “I’ll take these to the checkout for you. Need anything else?”
I followed him to the front of the store, where he recorded the purchase on Aunt Rowe’s account. He bagged the locks and handed them to me.
“Thanks, Mr. Krane. Have a good day.” “Yeah,” he muttered. “You, too.”
I left the store and found myself disappointed that Luke Griffin and the angry stranger were gone. The brief conflict I’d seen between the two men was interesting and mysterious. Maybe I could use a confrontation like theirs somewhere in my book. I tucked the thought into the overstuffed “ideas” section of my brain, the section that could stand to have its files better organized.
I climbed in my car, backtracked into town, and hung a left on Gazebo Street. The short drive from there to Aunt Rowe’s property took me over rolling hills and past sparkling spring-fed creeks. My shoulders relaxed, and I sank back into my seat as I enjoyed the scenic drive. Two miles out of town, I turned again on Traveler’s Lane, the driveway to Aunt Rowe’s house and her Around-the-World cottages. I headed for my place first, the Monte Carlo cottage.
Guests who valued beauty over practicality chose to stay here rather than rent a typical Hill Country wood-sided, tinroofed cabin. Aunt Rowe had designed each cottage in a style reminiscent of her trip to a particular city. In Monte Carlo, she had avoided overpriced lodging along the coastline and opted to rent a charming Tudor cottage.
I walked up the stone walkway, entered the cottage, and set my laptop on the small table in the combination kitchen/ dining/living room. I opened the blinds on the window next to the stone fireplace to give myself a view of the steps leading down the steep incline to the river. Maybe creativity would flow better here today than it had at the coffee shop. I’d give the writing another try after checking in with my aunt. Thomas hadn’t said whether she knew about Bobby Joe Flowers’s impending visit, and I decided I wouldn’t bring him up unless she did.
I grabbed a bottle of water from the mini-fridge in the kitchenette and took a long swig as I walked into the living area. Even though I’d never met Flowers, I wondered why he usually stayed in this cottage with its decidedly feminine decor, all pastels and lace. Aunt Rowe had decorated the Monte Carlo with posters and photographs of the French Riviera, casinos, and palaces. A framed photograph of her on a sailboat with one of the James Bond actors who had lived there when she visited stood on the mantel. A picture book from the Princess Grace Gardens sat on the coffee table next to a photo album of Aunt Rowe’s shots from her trip, alongside a journal she kept there for all guests in the Monte Carlo cottage to record thoughts about their stay if they so desired.
I pulled off my ponytail holder and ran my fingers through my hair, then retrieved the new locks from my car and walked the short distance up a gravel lane to Aunt Rowe’s house. I went in through the back door of her rambling one-story and left the locks in the utility room for Thomas.
Salsa music was playing, way too loud. I followed the music to the screened porch and found my aunt sitting on an oversized wicker chair surrounded by blue-striped pillows, her leg cast propped on a matching pillow atop a wicker ottoman. She wore a bright red off-one-shoulder top and a big yellow flower clipped in her dyed auburn hair.
“Wow,” I shouted for her to hear me over the music. “What’s the occasion?”
She looked up and gave me a big smile, then grabbed a remote and lowered the volume on her Bose sound system. “Sabrina, you’re back early. How do you like my Zumba workout music?”
“Zumba?” The woman was closing in on seventy and had a cast on her leg.
I sat in a chair across from Aunt Rowe and watched with amusement as she started moving her arms and snapping her fingers in time with the music.
“Zumba’s a workout without the work. More like dancing. And this—” She paused to run a hand across the fabric of her red top. “I bought in Paris and wore one night that I spent dancing with a special gentleman. It brings back good memories.” She was in a happy mood, a rarity in the six weeks since
I’d moved here. “That’s nice, but you might have to put the
Zumba on the back burner for a few more months.”
“It won’t be months,” she said. “I’m on a new quick-healing program.”
“Oh? You saw your doctor today?”
“No. Claire Dubois came to visit and told me all about foods that promote bone healing. Glenda is off to the market as we speak, to make sure I’m stocked up on green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified orange juice, sweet potatoes, yada yada yada.”
“Claire from the wine shop?”
Aunt Rowe smiled. “The very one.”
Odd that Claire would come here. She never seemed especially friendly, and Aunt Rowe had never mentioned her before. But now I was beginning to suspect the real reason for my aunt’s better mood.
“I didn’t know you and Claire were close,” I said. “Did she tell you about the Zumba workouts, too?”
“No, the Zumba was my idea. I’m sick to death of crosswords and daytime TV.”
“Did Claire happen to bring something with her to help you heal?”
Her smile disappeared. “For Pete’s sake, Sabrina, so she brought me some wine. I knew you’d start nagging when you found out, but I didn’t take any pain meds today, at least not after I started drinking.”
“But, Aunt Rowe—”
“Don’t ‘but’ me,” she said. “If you’d rather have me grousing about my circulatory problems, the fact that I can’t sleep worth a darn, or those flippin’ crutches, I will. At least the wine made me forget about that crap for a little bit.”
“Okay, okay.” The wine had messed with whatever meds were still in her system. Aunt Rowe didn’t normally fly off the handle so easily.
“I want to be up and about, ready to greet my new weekend guests,” she said. “I live for that, you know.”
“I know you do.” Feeling sorry for getting on her about the wine, I moved from my chair and perched carefully on the edge of the ottoman supporting her cast. “I ran through the Barcelona, Florence, and Madrid cottages this morning and left your welcome baskets. Maybe you should try to take a nap this afternoon before the new guests arrive.”
She nodded. “A nap might be the thing. The wine made me a bit drowsy.”
We both started at the sound of a car on the gravel outside. I looked over Aunt Rowe’s shoulder to the driveway and the vehicle that pulled up to the closed garage doors.
The red SUV looked awfully familiar.
“Is Glenda back?” She was trying to turn and look, but her rigid leg kept her from finding the right position.
“No, it’s not her.” The man who climbed out of the SUV was the guy from Krane’s parking lot. “Then who is it?” Aunt Rowe said.
“I’ll go see.” I walked over to the screen door, which was where the man immediately headed.
Was he one of the weekend guests? But why wouldn’t he go to the front door of the house?
I opened the door before he reached it. Definitely the guy who’d argued with the cowboy. He wore khakis with a crease, a green golf shirt, and brown ostrich-skin boots that looked brand new. His longish hair was gray and thinning on top, and he sported a sparse beard.
“Hello,” I said. “May I help you?”
He looked me up and down with a leer that would have made J. R. Ewing proud. “I’ll sure bet you could, darlin’. I’m Bobby Joe Flowers.”
Copyright © 2015 Kay Finch.
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Kay Finch grew up on a Pennsylvania farm, but she got to Texas as fast as she could and discovered her favorite vacation spot, the Texas Hill Country. Kay is the author of the Corie McKenna, Houston PI mysteries and the Poppy Cartwright Klutter Killer mysteries. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the State Bar of Texas Paralegal Division. Kay lives with her husband, a rescue cat, and two wild and crazy rescue dogs in a Houston suburb.