Cat Among the Pumpkins by Mandy Morton is the second book in the Hettie Bagshot Mystery series (available October 10, 2017).
Cat lovers, rejoice! The second installment in Mandy Morton's cat-driven series has arrived with Cat Among the Pumpkins, where crime-solving is in the capable paws of felines. And these cats haven't been declawed.
As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, Hettie Bagshot of The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency has more than just a ghost and warlock tart on her plate. Along with her faithful sidekick, Tilly, the tabby duo set out to investigate an old crime and a spate of new murders.
Why is Mavis Spitforce dressed as a pumpkin? Can Irene Peggledrip really talk to cats from the spirit world? Did Milky Myers murder his family on Halloween, longer ago than anyone can remember? All questions the pair must answer before the case can be solved. As the November fog closes in, where will the killer strike next—and will there be enough catnip to go around?
The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency had closed early so that Hettie and Tilly could prepare for their spooky night in – although no one would have noticed, as their business premises were tucked away in the back room of Betty and Beryl Butter’s high street pie and pastry shop. The room had become a sanctuary, first for Hettie after her shed with a bed was taken in a storm, and then for Tilly, an arthritic tabby whom Hettie had befriended and who had fallen on hard times. The two had set up a comfortable home together, and thanks to Hettie’s eye for an opportunity, they now ran a moderately successful detective agency, more by luck than judgement.
The room came cheap and the tenancy included a daily luncheon voucher to be spent in the Butters’ shop, as much coal as their small fire could consume, and a garden shed for the storage of Hettie’s other lives. Of those there had been many, including an almost triumphant music career which had dissolved in a haze of catnip more years ago than she cared to remember. In fact, Hettie’s lives had been dominated by words like ‘almost’, ‘nearly’ and ‘moderate’, and the way she kept reinventing herself had only to be admired.
Of the two cats, Tilly was definitely the homemaker, with an eye for comfort and an unshakable loyalty towards Hettie and her needs. In spite of her advanced years, she had begun their friendship as Hettie’s office junior and had spent many months making tea, laying fires and dusting, while Hettie sat and thought about what their office might be for and how they might make ends meet. Even in the early days, Tilly had performed the daily ritual of transforming their cosy bed sitter into a place of work. Every morning, the cloth from the table was folded away in the drawer to reveal Hettie’s desk, where the business of the day was conducted; sometimes, the business of the day consisted solely of getting the cloth out again at lunchtime for the midday meal, then returning it to drawer status ready to retrieve at dinner time.
The idea of running a detective agency stemmed from Tilly’s voracious appetite for murder mysteries, which she seemed to untangle long before the various authors had finished laying down their clues. Hettie had listened with growing interest to Tilly’s critique of the incompetent detectives who bumbled their way through one investigation after another, and decided that they would venture into the seamy world of the gum shoe. Her latest scheme showed very promising signs of floundering before the newly printed business cards had been distributed, and had it not been for the high-profile Furcross case – which Hettie had solved by mistake – life would have been very different.
The cats now busied themselves in preparation for their Halloween supper and scary film night. Tilly had spent the afternoon excavating two large pumpkins, while Hettie put the finishing touches to a talk she had been invited to give to the local Methodist group on how to keep their valuables safe. It had proved an impossible task, as all she could come up with was the suggestion of deep pockets or padlocks, but she knew that all they really wanted to hear about was the famous Furcross case and her heroic role in bringing justice to the small town.
‘That’s it. I’ve had enough for one day,’ she said, burying her notepad under a cushion. ‘What’s for supper? I’m starving.’
Tilly’s reply came from inside one of the pumpkins as she launched a final pawful of pale orange flesh over the side and into a bucket. ‘I’ve ordered Beryl’s Halloween pie. It’s topped with a witch’s hat made of pastry and comes with an extra jug of gravy. Then we’re having Betty’s ghost and warlock tarts for afters, and I’ve got a huge bag of Malkin and Sprinkle’s toffee popcorn to eat later with the video.’
Hettie purred with satisfaction at the prospect of such a feast and helped her friend out of the pumpkin. ‘I think you’d better clean yourself up. You look like you’ve just hatched from a sticky monster’s egg. I’ll get rid of all this gooey stuff and go round to the shop to fetch the pie.’ She dragged the bucket of pumpkin flesh out into the backyard, leaving Tilly to immerse herself in the sink.
The daylight had disappeared, replaced now by a thickening icy fog which descended on cue to make the town’s Halloween a night to remember. Kittens were dressed in ghoulish sheets and witches’ cloaks, ready to be trotted out for tricks or treats, and as Hettie made her way round to the welcoming lights of the Butters’ shop, the air was fast filling with the smoke of sitting room fires. The townsfolk settled in front of their hearths, comfortably oblivious to the fact that by the time daylight came one of them would be dead – and Hettie and her official sidekick would be bucketed into a case that the town had thought solved many years before.
The Butters’ shop was filled with excited, chattering kittens, all parading their Halloween outfits. A sea of orange and black cloaks, punctuated by the occasional white sheet, swirled this way and that as Betty handed out miniature pumpkin cakes and toffee broomsticks. Her sister Beryl manned the pie end of the shop, and mothers queued for the sought-after savouries that would grace their Halloween supper tables once the young witches and warlocks were safely tucked up in their beds.
Hettie joined the grown-ups’ queue, not entirely taken with the traditional art of begging that had sprung up in the town over the last few years. To her, Halloween seemed the perfect excuse to turn offspring loose on the neighbourhood, threatening tricks to extort sweets or money, whilst parents stood at gates to collect the bounty brought triumphantly back by gangs of marauding infants. No doubt the town’s economy would be boosted by the yards of orange material, black felt and tins of sweets that were sold over the counter, but it irritated Hettie to have to queue for her dinner on a cold foggy night when the only rational place to be was by a fireside.
‘What a bloody nightmare!’ she said as she fell over the doorstep, laden down with a giant pie, a bag of themed tarts and a jug of gravy balanced precariously on top. Tilly snatched the jug just in time, allowing Hettie to bring the pie to a crash landing on the table. ‘Why we have to put up with all this nonsense every year, I’ll never understand. They’ll be back on the streets for Guy Fawkes Night next week. More begging, fireworks going off everywhere as soon as they get their sticky little paws on them, and no thought for those of us who can’t stand the sight of kittens. They’re the scourge of society as we know it, and they should all be drowned at birth.’
Tilly giggled. She was more than used to Hettie’s tirades and recognised that the origins of this particular outburst lay in its being half an hour past their usual dinner time. ‘Let’s have the pie while it’s still warm,’ she said diplomatically, cutting into the pastry to release a jet of delicious-smelling vapour which seemed to calm the angry flow of infant abuse. The friends divided the pie onto plates and took two large napkins as protection from stray gravy, then settled contentedly to what Hettie liked to call ‘the best bit of the day’.
It was some time before the enthusiastic licking and chewing was replaced by conversation. Satisfied at last, Hettie sat back to take in their room, marvelling at the candle-lit pumpkins in the grate and the orange and black paper chains that Tilly had hung from the picture rails. She had spent a couple of hours licking and sticking the chains that morning, and had acquired a taste for the gum on the paper – so much so that a number of the strips had lost their stickiness altogether and had been discarded in the coal scuttle.
‘You’ve done us up a treat,’ Hettie said in a rare moment of praise, hauling herself onto her fireside armchair and settling to a leisurely cleaning of ears, paws and whiskers. ‘What have you chosen for our scary movie? You were ages in the library van. I was beginning to think that Turner Page had press-ganged you into joining one of his reading groups.’
‘Actually, he was doing one of those storytelling sessions where he dresses up and bangs a tambourine every so often. He was surrounded by kittens and I couldn’t get to the videos until the end, so I sat and listened instead. It frightened me a bit because it was a true story.’
‘Well, it can’t have been any worse than the stuff you usually read,’ said Hettie, glancing at the pile of library books on the edge of Tilly’s blanket. Every one of them boasted the word ‘murder’ in the title.
‘No, but this was different. He was telling the story of Milky Myers.’
‘Milky Myers! I haven’t heard that name for years. But it’s not really true – it’s just a spooky legend made up to stop kittens hanging round the old Peggledrip house.’
‘Ah, but it’s back in the news again. Marmite Sprat has included the story in her latest collection of Strange But Trues. Look – Turner Page gave me one to read.’
Hettie reached over and took the slim volume, one of many penned by the town’s local and completely self-appointed historian, whose ‘little books’ seemed to dominate any gathering where a sale could be made. The lurid cover and cheap paper added to the charm of a gazetteer bursting with incorrect facts and finished off with the author’s untrained pen and ink drawings, and she opened the book at the contents page, noting that there were four Strange But Trues to be had. The subjects had all been well thought out to capture the Halloween market.
‘Just listen to this,’ she said, holding the book to the fire for more light. ‘“The Headless Cat of Sheba Gardens”, “Miss Pilchard’s Magic Letter Box”, “The Ghost of Muzzle Hill” and finally “The Legend of Milky Myers”. Who wants to know about any of those stupid tales? All it does is stir up gossip, and the only strange thing about it is that anyone can be bothered to put it in a book at all.’ Hettie tossed the volume back onto Tilly’s pile of library books, looking suddenly thoughtful. She filled her catnip pipe while Tilly wrestled with the video machine, which eventually sprang into life with the promise of a horror double bill: Devil Cat Rides Out and Don’t Look At All, both featuring all-star casts.
‘Which one would you like first?’ Tilly asked as she collected the next course and the popcorn from the table.
‘The one where that dwarf cat wears a red mac’ said Hettie, blowing smoke rings into the air and eyeing up a warlock tart.
Tilly clapped her paws with delight and fast-forwarded the tape to the second film. She put a generous lump of coal onto the fire and settled back on her blanket to enjoy the opening titles. The film had barely established itself when Hettie – encouraged by the catnip and a second warlock tart – interrupted her concentration. ‘So what does she say about Milky Myers? Have you read it?’
Tilly sat up, more interested in Hettie’s question than in the film’s gondola funeral procession. ‘I’ve had a quick flick through but Turner Page made it much more frightening. He said it all happened longer ago than any of us could remember.’
‘Well that’s a good start,’ muttered Hettie. ‘So much for a factual account if no one can remember. That smacks to me of making it up as you go along.’
Tilly ignored the interjection and continued. ‘As you said earlier, it all happened around Miss Peggledrip’s house on the outskirts of the town, where the road leads out to Much-Purring-on-the-Rug. Back then, the Myers family lived in that house. There were five of them – Mr and Mrs Myers and their three kittens, two boys and a little girl. Milky was the oldest and he helped his father with the milk round, which is how he got his name.’
Hettie began to fidget. ‘That’s not even interesting. Get to the good bit – weren’t there lots of murders?’
‘Yes, I’m getting to that, but I thought you’d like some background on the case first.’
‘Oh look! There’s the dwarf! Nasty little creature – wait till it turns round.’
The two cats watched as the creature in the red mac ran amok, and it was some time before they returned to the Milky Myers story.
‘Now where was I?’ asked Tilly, opening the toffee popcorn with such force that it scattered itself across the room. Reluctant to leave the fire, she made a mental note to gather up the stray bits in the morning and pushed on with her story as the credits rolled on Don’t Look At All. ‘They say that Milky was a bit touched.’
‘Who does?’ chimed in Hettie, getting irritated.
‘I just did,’ sighed Tilly, her patience wearing a little thin. ‘Anyway, that’s why he worked with his father. He couldn’t be trusted to behave himself.’
Wanting to comment further but realising that Tilly wouldn’t appreciate it, Hettie forced a large pawful of popcorn into her mouth and chewed as quietly as she could while her friend continued. ‘One cold October morning, Milky and his father set out with their milk float to Much-Purring-on-the-Rug but they never got there, even though it was only two miles down the road. The milk float was found later that day down a farm track, with milk and broken bottles everywhere. Milky’s father lay dead inside with a half empty milk bottle forced into his mouth. There was no sign of Milky, and they thought he must have been kidnapped. One of the cats from Much-Purring went to the Myers house to deliver the bad news and found the kitchen door wide open. He went in and discovered Mrs Myers and two of her kittens sitting round their breakfast table, all dead with milk bottles forced into their mouths, then he ran from the house shouting “Murder!” all the way back to Much-Purring-on-the-Rug.’
Hettie really couldn’t hold herself back any longer. ‘Well, that’s just ridiculous! Why didn’t he get help from the town? You mean to tell me that he left a dead cat in a milk float and a kitchen full of similar dead cats and ran two miles back to his village shouting “murder”? Who was this helpful bystander, or was it longer ago than anyone can remember?’
Tilly agreed that the story had wandered a little in the telling over the years, but the facts of the case were no less interesting and she pressed on. ‘Later that day, Milky’s aunt and uncle were discovered in the Myers dairy at the back of the house, where they worked, drowned in a large milk churn with bottles shoved in their mouths. There was still no sign of Milky. The town buried its dead and searched for months and months to find Milky, who was never seen again – well, not until years later, when a couple of kittens were playing in the garden of the empty Myers house. One of them saw a face at the window and went in to investigate. The kitten was later found dead in the back garden with a scotch egg jammed in her little mouth. To this day, no one has ever found out what happened to Milky Myers, but on Halloween his ghost returns to haunt his old house, the dairy and the farm track where the milk float was discovered, and he’s also been seen in the graveyard where the Myers family were laid to rest.’
Hettie refilled her pipe and Tilly – sensing that a good conversation was about to be had – added more coal to the fire and put a pan of milk on. She noticed that a considerable amount of gravy had attached itself to the front of her cardigan; it would have to be sponged down in the morning, so while the milk came to the boil she struggled out of her day clothes into her pyjamas, returning to the fire with two steaming mugs of cocoa and Hettie’s dressing gown, which she draped across the arm of her chair. Hettie kicked off her at-home slacks and jumper, and – wrapped warmly in her dressing gown – returned to her catnip.
Tilly had never been able to get on with catnip, which was a shame because the numbing properties would have helped her arthritic paws; on the rare occasions when she had taken a puff from Hettie’s pipe, it just made her cough or feel sick. Hettie, on the other hand, thrived on the possibilities brought about by the mind-expanding qualities of her evening pipe, a habit gained from time on the road with her band in that almost-famous life. Her folk country-rock treatment of traditional music had left her fans spellbound, although it had to be said that most of them indulged in an evening pipe – or in some cases an all-day one – and none of her keenest followers would have considered listening to Hettie’s music without the added bonus of blowing some smoke first.
The cats sipped their cocoa thoughtfully and it was Hettie who broke the silence. ‘What I find odd is that everyone assumes Milky Myers murdered his own family and just disappeared, never to be seen again except as a ghost on Halloween or by a stray kitten who happened to glance up at the window of an empty house. And Irene Peggledrip has lived in that old house for as long as I can remember – she doesn’t seem too worried about its history, in spite of her weird parties. And what about this cat from Much-Purring? That’s a strange village at the best of times, full of halfwits with their trousers tied up with string. He had the opportunity to kill the whole of the Myers family and still be home in time for a big lunch. Maybe he killed Milky as well and no one has found the body, or even bothered to look for it.’
‘Do you think he ate a scotch egg for lunch?’ asked Tilly, trying to keep pace. ‘That would liven the evidence up a bit.’ They laughed at the ridiculous turn the story was taking, and the clock on the staff sideboard ticked towards midnight, the magical hour on Halloween when the dead rose from their graves and purveyors of dark arts stepped into the light. If there was any truth in the legend, Milky Myers would be having a very busy night.
Tilly banked up the fire, ate the last warlock tart and settled down on the fireside rug, pulling her blanket over her to keep the draught out. Hettie knocked her pipe out on the hearth, then settled back in her arm chair to watch the flames dance in the grate and cast their shadows round the room. All was well in the confines of their cosy world, and within minutes the only sound to break the silence was the contented snoring of two warm and well-fed tabby cats.
Copyright © 2017 Mandy Morton.
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Mandy Morton began her professional life as a musician. More recently, she has worked as a freelance arts journalist for national and local radio. The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency series was inspired by her own cats, Hettie and Tilly.