The Cat Sitter's Whiskers is the 10th cozy in Blaize Clement's series, now written by her son John, following Dixie Hemingway, a retired cop turned pet sitter (available March 31, 2015).
Set in the sleepy beach-side town of Siesta Key, Florida, Dixie Hemingway heads off for work as a pet sitter one morning in the dimly lit hours before sunrise.
Her very first client of the morning is Barney Feldman, a Maine coon cat with a reputation for mischief who's guarding his vacationing owner's valuable collection of decidedly creepy antique masks. But someone's hiding in the house when she arrives, and they sneak up and knock her out cold. When the cops arrive at the house, there's just one problem: no one has broken in and nothing is missing.
Searching for answers, Dixie soon finds herself hopelessly trapped in a murky world of black market antiques, dark-hearted secrets, and murderous revenge… a mystery only she can solve.
It was a little after 5:00 on Monday morning when I pulled my bike out and brushed off the dewy cobwebs that had appeared between the spokes overnight. The sky was coal-black except for the vaguest hint of pale pink breaking at the horizon to the east. I knew once the sun got herself situated it would be hot as blue blazes, but for now there was a cool breeze riding in on the waves from the ocean, so I zipped up my hoodie before I rolled across the courtyard.
It was still pretty dark and there was a blanket of fog covering everything. Anybody else would’ve needed a bike light—the driveway twists and turns through the jungle that separates my place from the main road—but I’ve been riding up and down this narrow lane since I was a little girl. I know it like the back of my hand. Plus, my bike light burned out two years ago.
The crunching sound the bike’s wheels made in the crushed shell sent the yellow parakeets in the treetops bouncing around like kernels of corn on a hot skillet. I mouthed a silent, sorry, for waking them up so early.
I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you-know-who (as far as I know). I’m a cat sitter. I live on Siesta Key, a sliver of sand that hugs the shoreline of Sarasota, Florida, about midway down the state on the Gulf side. On a map, our little island looks like a prehistoric heron—a slender, feathered dinosaur with long, graceful legs hanging south and a scraggly neck stretching north, with Bay Island as its beak pointing east toward the mainland. I like to imagine it’s a faithful sentry, keeping an eye on Sarasota and all its suburbs, guarding it from angry sea dragons and marauding pirates (or at the very least absorbing blows from the occasional hurricane).
I mostly take care of cats, but I do have a few dog clients here and there. In fact, I’ll pretty much take care of anything—hamsters, lizards, parrots, iguanas, rabbits … but not snakes. If I get a call from somebody with a snake that needs looking after, I politely decline and refer them to someone else. First of all, I hate snakes. Second of all, I hate snakes.
Yes, I know we’re all God’s creatures and everything, but I’m not sure God was thinking straight when she came up with the idea of a fanged, slithering cylinder of scale-encrusted muscle that goes around swallowing whole animals alive. Just the thought of it makes me want to jump up on a chair and stay there for the rest of my life.
At the end of the driveway I looked both ways—mostly out of habit. At this hour, Midnight Pass is pretty much deserted except for maybe a few early-bird scrub lizards skittering back and forth in search of breakfast, hoping to get a head start on their less ambitious friends. The fog was moving along the road, and as I rolled to a stop little wisps of it curled up around me like baby ghosts.
I took a moment to breathe in the cool, salty air, imagining it filling my entire body all the way down to my toes. This is my favorite time of day, when there’s not a soul in sight and the world is all mine. I’m not really the type to wake up and loll around in bed half the day reading magazines and eating donuts … well, actually that’s exactly the type I am, but I’d go broke in two seconds flat if I let myself do that, so I always get up early. It’s the only way I can manage to fit all my clients in.
I was just about to lean on the pedals and take off into town when something stopped me. I inched the bike out into the road and peered down toward the end of the island, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. At first all I could see was the faded lines on the asphalt disappearing into the mist, but then something dark floated into my vision on the right.
There, at some indiscernible distance—it could have been a hundred feet, it could have been twenty inches—was a looming, motionless field of darkness, just slightly darker than the black shadows around it. My heart started racing. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew one thing for certain: it wasn’t supposed to be there.
Slowly, I let my backpack slide off my shoulders and zipped it open with trembling hands. I whispered, “Stop shaking, you idiot. It’s probably just a…” But I couldn’t come up with anything good.
A few weeks earlier, a woman outside Sarasota had opened her back door to find a six-hundred-pound black bear helping himself to the bird feeders on her patio. The first thing she’d done was scream bloody murder. Then she slammed the door shut and called animal control while the bear lumbered off into the woods.
He hadn’t been seen since.
As I fumbled around in my backpack for a flashlight, I reminded myself that in order to get to this island, a bear would have to walk over one of the two bridges from the mainland, either that or swim clear across the bay, both of which seemed pretty unlikely. Just as my fingers closed around the cold metal of my flashlight, the entire road beyond the dark shape filled with white light, and a moment later two glowing orbs of red appeared at its center.
Well, I thought, it’s finally happening. They’ve come to take me to their mother planet.
I’d read about it. Innocent country folk sucked out of a cornfield and flown to a research lab in another galaxy, where they’re probed and prodded by slimy, mute aliens with eyes big as bowling balls. Then they’re flown home and released back to the field they disappeared from, with their memories erased and nothing to show for their journey except some sore spots in various embarrassing places on their bodies.
As I saw myself being interviewed by Oprah, describing my vivid memories of being a human guinea pig in space, I heard the sound of an engine start up and rumble softly.
The black shape was a car, a dark brown four-door sedan parked on the side of the road about fifty feet past my driveway. I dropped the flashlight down in the side pocket of my cargo shorts and let out a sigh of relief … with maybe just a smidgen of disappointment mixed in.
At this end of the island most of the houses are the kind you only get to see in movies or on old reruns of Lifestyles of the Filthy Rich and Annoyingly Fabulous. They’re hidden behind manicured hedges and meticulously kept gardens, which of course you can’t see because those are hidden behind big iron gates and stucco walls painted shell-coral or lemon-yellow and overflowing with masses of flowering bougainvillea. The walls are mostly a security measure—sometimes there’s even a coil of razor ribbon hidden beneath those innocent-looking vines—but they also serve a more practical purpose: keeping the riffraff like me from being able to stand around and gawk and upload pictures to Twitter and Facebook.
In other words, it’s not the kind of neighborhood where people park their cars on the street. They house them in garages bigger and nicer than my whole apartment. Hell, some of their cars >are bigger and nicer than my whole apartment, so I knew there was only one person who could have been parked on the side of the road this early in the morning: Levi Radcliff, the paperboy.
Well, boy isn’t exactly the right word.
Levi’s about thirty-five, the same age as me. We went to high school and junior high together, but I still call him the paperboy because he’s been delivering the Herald-Tribune for about as long as I can remember. He couldn’t have been much older than twelve when he started.
He was a big shot in high school—good-looking, blond, star of the baseball team. After we graduated there was talk of sports scholarships and professional recruiters, but nothing ever came of it. I’d heard rumors of drinking getting in the way, but I never really found out what happened. He’d started spending a lot of time hanging out with friends and surfing, and I figured he’d just decided a life at the beach was good enough.
And anyway, people’s dreams don’t always pan out. Believe me. I know.
I guess I should mention that Levi was the first boy I ever kissed. Yep … it sounds like a big deal, and in a way I guess it was, but it wasn’t like we had some big hot and heavy romance. It was ninth grade, after all. I guess we were old enough to know what we were doing, and yet still young enough to have absolutely no clue. It happened in Hallway B in the old Sarasota High building, just outside Mrs. White’s history class.
We were playing “Who Am I?” a game that Mrs. White claimed to have invented herself, where two people were sent out of the classroom, one boy and one girl, and then the class chose two prominent figures from history. Then whoever had been sent out was called back in, and they each took turns asking the class questions about their secret identity. Whoever guessed right first was the winner.
There was only one rule. While you waited in the hallway and the class chose your identity, you were supposed to stand with your back against the lockers so you couldn’t hear, but of course we always cheated. I was on my hands and knees with my right ear pressed against the door, and Levi was crouched down just in front of me, cupping his left ear against the gap of the doorjamb. I can still feel the giddy rush of adrenaline at the prospect of getting caught, and of course we couldn’t really hear a thing because all the kids were talking at once, and then the next thing I knew Levi leaned forward and kissed me—not on the cheek or forehead or anything like that. Right on the lips. And I didn’t move, I just stayed there, perfectly still, with my lips slightly puckered. His eyes were closed, but mine were wide open, like a deer in the headlights.
I remember thinking it was a little rude of him not to ask first, like he didn’t even care one bit if I wanted to be kissed or not, but I was so overcome with the excitement of it all that I didn’t dwell on it. At the clicking sound of Mrs. White’s high heels approaching, we both leapt up and threw ourselves against the lockers, just in time for Mrs. White to swing the door open and call us back in.
I was in such shock that I could barely concentrate, and I don’t remember which of us won, just that it turned out I was Rosa Parks and Levi was Amerigo Vespucci. After class, Levi must have bragged to his friends about what had happened, because by the time the school bell rang at the end of the day we were officially a couple.
Everybody was talking about it—well … everybody except me and Levi. We just continued on as if nothing had happened, and within a few weeks the whole thing was forgotten.
Of course, I should have recognized his car—a lovingly restored Buick LeSabre convertible that he’d bought senior year with money he’d saved from his paper route—but it was too dark and foggy. I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder and waited. He had probably pulled over to look at his delivery list or make a quick phone call, but I noticed the engine was making a funny hiccuping noise every once in a while—as if it might stall any minute—so I figured I’d better check on him just in case he was having car trouble.
I wheeled my bike around, but when I got about even with the back bumper he pulled forward and headed off down the Key, leaving me in a cloud of sooty exhaust.
So much for being a good Samaritan. I pulled my phone out to check the time. It was already 5:15.
In the dead of summer, when it feels like the Florida sun has a personal beef with you, a lot of full-time residents hop on a plane and escape to cooler climates for as long as their bank accounts allow, but since most pets, especially those of the feline persuasion, aren’t exactly thrilled by the idea of air travel, that means it’s usually the busiest time of year for me. I knew if I didn’t get a move on I’d never stay on schedule, plus I figured if Levi was having car trouble he certainly didn’t need me. He was a big boy and could take care of himself.
The parakeets had quieted down again, but I knew any minute there’d be a chorus of birds announcing the new day. For now, though, they were probably still snoozing away in their leafy beds.
Looking back, if I’d known what was right around the corner I would have gone back to bed myself. In fact, if I’d known what was coming my way I’d have gladly hopped aboard a spaceship, flown clear across the universe, and submitted myself to any and all experiments those slimy aliens could come up with.
But that’s not what I did. Instead, I slipped my phone down in my back pocket, stood up on the pedals, and headed out for a brand-new day.
I hate the word widow. It makes me think of black spiders or gaunt-faced spinsters wasting away in a decrepit old shack down by the river, but I might as well tell you right off the bat that I am one. My husband Todd and my daughter Christy were both killed in a freak car accident about five years ago. I could tell you the exact number of months, weeks, days and hours that have passed since then, but I know I’d come off a little “tetched,” as my grandmother used to say, so let’s just pretend the numbers are getting mushy around the edges.
Christy was three years old. You’d think my memory would be frozen, that I’d still see her as the same scrawny, independent, headstrong little girl she was on the day she died. But no. In my mind, she’s almost nine now. She has a burgeoning collection of silver dollars—one for every baby tooth she’s lost—and any day now she’ll put in a request for her own smartphone. We have words like widow and orphan to describe people who’ve lost loved ones, but there’s no word for a mother who’s lost a child.
That’s because it never stops.
Up until the day my world shattered, five years, blah-blah months, so-and-so days, and whatchamacallit hours ago, I was a deputy with the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department. I was good at my job. Real good. I traveled the streets in my patrol cruiser, my mirrored sunglasses perched on my nose, my department-issued SIG Sauer 9mm handgun tucked securely in my side holster. Protecting children, catching criminals, rescuing tree-bound kittens … you know the type. Just another blond badass, making the world a better place.
But the day Todd and Christy died, a little switch flipped in my head—a crazy switch. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say all parties involved agreed it would be best if I took a little break from law enforcement. This is Florida. There are enough maniacs walking around with guns as it is.
After wallowing in my own wacko for about a year, I finally managed to stand upright and fraternize with the human race again. I have Michael, my older brother, to thank for that. He’d always taken care of me, even when we were little kids, but that whole year he barely left my side. I remember watching his hands as he laid out lunch for me and set the tray down on my bed. I remember him gently waving a spoonful of homemade soup under my nose and whispering, “Mmmm, soup!” as if I were a brain-addled infant barely capable of feeding myself … which basically is what I was.
I don’t know what I would have done without him.
The sky had lightened by the time I biked into the village, enough that all the leaves were glittering with dew. There’d only been one other car on the road the whole way into town, but it had stayed back at least half a mile, not going much faster than I was, which meant it was probably Levi. I knew he started his route on the south end of the Key and worked his way up.
I didn’t have much farther to go, just a couple more blocks and left on Island Circle Road to my first client of the day: Barney Feldman, an eight-year-old Maine Coon. Mr. Feldman (only his closest friends call him Barney) lords over the two thousand square feet of his domain like a pirate guarding a treasure ship, which makes sense when you consider that Maine Coons are believed to have descended from cats that traveled around the world on Viking ships in the eleventh century.
He lives with his owners, Buster and Linda Keller, in a decidedly nondescript three-bedroom ranch house. It’s all white stucco, with a simple lean-to carport off the right side and a poured concrete driveway in front, cracked and buckling in its old age. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume it was just an old tear-down waiting for somebody to snatch it up for a few thousand dollars and put a proper house in its place. But this is Siesta Key, and the beach is only a two-minute walk away. The Kellers bought their home ten years ago for roughly half a million dollars. There’s no telling what it’s worth today.
As I rolled up the driveway, I didn’t think Levi had beat me there, but I glanced around for the newspaper just in case. Then I remembered Mrs. Keller saying that, like a lot of people, they got all their news online now, which was bad for the Herald-Tribune but great for me, since it meant I wouldn’t have to worry about collecting the newspapers while they were away.
I propped the bike up next to the front door and fished around in my backpack for my chatelaine, the big brass ring I keep all my keys on. It seems like every client I’ve ever had wants me to keep a key to their home just in case there’s an emergency. I’ve never sat down and done an official count, but there must be at least a couple hundred keys on it, if not more. It’s about as heavy as a bucket of clams. At first it was hard to keep track of them all, but eventually I worked out a system. Each key is individually numbered with a permanent marker, and then I have a list that matches each key to its owner, which I keep in the same notebook where I write down all my alarm codes and pet instructions.
There was a time when I carried that notebook around with me, but after a while it just seemed too risky. If the wrong person got their hands on both my chatelaine and my notes, they could make off with half the valuables on this island, so I keep it hidden in my apartment for now. I’d tell you where, but then you’d be suspect number one if it ever went missing, so let’s just say it’s in a safe place.
As I was unlocking the door, I thought I heard a car in the street behind me, but by the time I had the door open and looked back, it was gone. I punched in the code for the alarm system, dropped my stuff on the white leather bench next to the front door, and knelt down to untie my sneakers.
The Kellers have a strict no-shoes policy, which I thought was kind of silly until I saw the inside of their house. You wouldn’t think a place so drab and boring on the outside could be so elegantly stunning on the inside, but it is. The furniture is all sleek and modern and covered in soothing shades of sand and fawn and bird’s-egg-blue, with bleached hardwood floors buffed to a shiny gloss and walls painted a soft milky gray. It’s like walking through the dunes at dusk.
As I kicked my sneakers off, hopping around on one foot and then the other, I noticed there was a small box on the floor, tucked back under the bench at the far end. It had a white address label on top, but no postage, and there were some red FRAGILE stickers on both ends. I made a mental note to ask Mrs. Keller if she’d meant to mail it. I knew they’d been in a rush when they left the night before because she’d called to apologize for leaving the house in such a mess.
Of course, for Mrs. Keller, mess probably just meant a couple of unwashed coffee cups in the sink.
I didn’t exactly expect him to come running. Dogs like to greet you at the door and dance around your feet, bouncing this way and that while they tell you how absolutely fabulous you are, how absolutely overwhelmed with excitement they are, and how they absolutely adore you. Cats are a little different. They’re glad you’ve arrived, but they’re certainly not about to embarrass themselves with such demeaning displays of subservience.
Instead, they’ll allow you to give them a few good scritches between the ears while they stretch themselves into a scary-cat shape, and then maybe they’ll circle around your legs, purring loudly to let you know that you are indeed loved. I smiled to myself. Barney has his own particular way of greeting visitors. As I pulled my socks up around my ankles, I gave a little nod to the room.
“Good morning, everybody.”
That wasn’t meant for Barney. That was my customary greeting for what was hanging on the walls all around me—Mrs. Keller’s passion, or, as Mr. Keller refers to it, his “financial ruin.”
Masks. All kinds of masks. Big masks. Small masks. Wooden masks from India, sequined masks from New Orleans, feathered masks from Siberia, healing masks, ceremonial masks, tribal masks, voodoo masks, and dozens of other masks from parts of the world I’ve never even heard of.
They’re all artfully arranged on the walls in every room of the house, including the laundry room, the hallways, the bathrooms—even the walk-in closet off the master bedroom. Some of them are quite simple, like the stone masks with blank oval mouths frozen in a perpetual OH! like a shocked smiley face. Others are more fancy affairs, with seashells for teeth and marbles for eyes, and headdresses adorned with brightly colored feathers and painted beads.
Mrs. Keller’s latest addition was a big wooden mask from the Himalayas, hanging dead center in the middle of the wall facing the front door. I remembered how her voice had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper when she told me where she’d found it—in a “charming little gallery” on the outskirts of Tampa. She’d said the owner of the shop had had no idea how rare it was, and that it was probably worth a small fortune.
It was a man’s face, intricately carved out of wood and painted with bright splashes of red, green, and banana-yellow, with gnashing teeth, arched eyebrows, and a string of tiny bleached-white bird skulls perched on the top of its head like a crown. Mrs. Keller said it was from a region in Tibet called Aroomy Choo Pinky, or something like that, but I just called him “Dick Cheney.”
The expression on his face was either a mischievous grin or a gruesome snarl, depending on the angle, and his sinister eyes seemed to follow me around the room, watching my every move.
I tipped my chin in his direction. “Hey, Mr. Cheney. How’s it hangin’?”
He didn’t answer.
Mrs. Keller had told me that when her husband found out how much she had paid for Dick Cheney, he nearly had a nervous breakdown. He accused her of systematically wasting away their retirement fund, and if she didn’t get ahold of herself they’d end up living in an old refrigerator box down on the beach. To make up with him, she’d made a solemn promise: no more masks, which, I have to say, I was a little sorry to hear.
You’d think it would have been kind of creepy walking around with all those soulless faces staring out from the walls, but over time they’ve grown on me. Every time I take care of Mr. Feldman, I look forward to seeing Mrs. Keller’s latest purchase. Each mask is stunning and beautiful in its own peculiar way, and I can see why she loves them so much. I’m not sure I could live with them 24/7, but they’re wonderful to visit every once in a while.
I padded into the kitchen to get Barney Feldman’s breakfast ready, taking care to steer clear of the credenza in the hallway just in case he was hiding underneath it. Maine Coons are known for their sweet disposition, but Mr. Feldman is not your typical Maine Coon. Don’t get me wrong, he’s an angel most of the time, but just like those Vikings his ancestors used to hang out with, he’s got a mischievous streak of savagery in him.
Occasionally he likes to set up camp under the furniture and take sharp-clawed swipes at innocent passersby, which was why I had pulled my socks up, naively hopeful that they’d protect my ankles. The six-inch space under the hall credenza isn’t exactly Barney’s favorite staging ground, but I wasn’t taking any chances. As I went by, I hugged the wall.
In the kitchen, I cleaned out his water bowl and filled it with fresh water, and as soon as he heard the silverware drawer open and the clunk of the can opener on the countertop, he came running in with a couple of chirps, as innocent as can be, and greeted me with an excited, “Thrrrrrip!”
I said, “Oh, Mr. Feldman! What a coweenky-dink. I was just about to serve your breakfast.”
He trotted over and rubbed his cheek against my ankles, pointing his tail straight up like an exclamation point and wriggling it in anticipation. He’s long and muscular, with thick chocolate fur soft as velvet and ticked with undulating bands of cream and gold. All four of his paws are dipped in pure black, and his wise old-soul eyes sparkle like point-cut aquamarines.
“We’ve got a special treat on the menu today, just so you know.”
I mixed a couple of spoonfuls of tuna in the bowl with his allotted breakfast portion of kibble—about half a cup—and then laid it down on his plastic-coated place mat at the foot of the dishwasher. The place mat is there because Barney Feldman is not a tidy eater. He likes to pull pieces of food out and line them up on the floor around his dish like trophies from a hunting expedition. Then he pounces on them one by one, making a complete mess of everything in the process.
I figured while he ate I’d take a spin around the house just to make sure nothing was out of order. I always do an inspection of all my clients’ houses, even if I’m just taking care of a bowl of goldfish. You never know what you might find: a leak in the roof or a houseplant that needs a little TLC. Plus, with cats there’s always the very real possibility that they might have woken up in the middle of the night with the best idea ever, like applying a fringed edge to the arms of your favorite love seat, or maybe peeing in the middle of your pillow so you’ll always have a memento of your time away. Barney Feldman is usually on his best behavior, though, so I wasn’t expecting any surprises.
When I got back to the kitchen, he was nowhere in sight, but he’d eaten every bit of his breakfast. I took his bowl and place mat over to the sink and scrubbed them both with a soapy sponge, then I went back over to the antique cupboard and pulled open one of its heavy wooden drawers. Inside was a bundle of plastic grocery bags wrapped in a rubber band. As I loosened one of the bags, there were some lightning-fast paw swipes at the space where my feet should have been.
I said, “Nice try.”
I pictured him wearing a horned Viking helmet and swinging his paws back and forth like two battleaxes, but I was standing a good three feet away and stretching my arms out to reach the drawer, so my ankles were safe.
I dropped the tuna lid down in the bag and wrapped it up. The Kellers wouldn’t be home for a week, so I didn’t want to leave anything smelly in the garbage under the sink. The laundry room is just off the kitchen, and beyond that is a short hallway leading out to the carport where the garbage cans are kept. The side door locks automatically with a spring that pulls it shut, so I always prop it open with an old tin flower bucket that the Kellers keep nearby for umbrellas.
It’s not the best system in the world, mainly because given half a chance Barney will sprint out any open door as if his life depends on it, but also because the flower bucket is pretty top-heavy. It can easily tip over from the weight of the door, and then, click … you’re locked out. I found that out the hard way, so I always leave the front door unlocked when I come in, just in case.
I propped the door open and padded over to the garbage cans, which are enclosed in a cedar-paneled bin to fend off marauding raccoons. Keeping an eye on the door just in case Barney tried to escape, I lifted up the door on top of the bin, dropped the bag down in the garbage, and then hustled back inside, sliding the flower bucket back in place with my foot as the door pulled itself closed.
When I turned around to head back into the kitchen, I came face-to-face with none other than Dick Cheney.
The first thing I thought was, Hey, you’re not supposed to be here. But then I noticed something different. He seemed to have arms and legs. He wore a long-sleeved black sweatshirt and dark track pants. My lips formed into a W with the intention of saying, What the f…? But I never got that far. It was like watching a movie projected onto a screen right in front of me.
He raised one of his arms up over his crown of tiny bird skulls, and I saw he was holding something about the size of a softball in his black-gloved fist. It was a white stone figurine, like a Buddha, except naked, with voluminous breasts and a bald head as smooth as a river stone. It hovered in the air for a moment, and then, as if in slow motion, came down right on top of my head.
Just before it hit me, I noticed its little naked feet. The toes were painted bright crimson red.
After that, the movie screen went completely dark.
Copyright © 2015 John and Blaize Clement.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
John Clement is the son of Blaize Clement (1932-2011), who originated the Dixie Hemingway mystery series and collaborated with her son on the plots and characters for forthcoming novels. Blaize is the author of Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter, Duplicity Dogged the Dachshund, Even Cat Sitters Get the Blues, Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof, Raining Cat Sitters and Dogs, Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons, and The Cat Sitter's Pajamas.