During a 2:00 A.M. feeding for her four-month-old twins, Meg Langslow hears an odd noise and goes downstairs to find her living room filled with dozens of animals—cats, dogs, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, guinea pigs, and a stunningly foul-mouthed macaw. She soon learns that financial woes have caused the local animal shelter to repeal its no-kill policy.
Her kindhearted father, her zoologist grandfather, and other like-minded citizens have stolen all the shelter’s animals, both as a gesture of protest and to protect them until the hated policy can be repealed. But the volunteer who was to transport the animals to new homes has been murdered. Was it the victim’s tangled love life that drove someone to murder? Or the dark secrets behind local politics? And will Meg ever succeed in finding homes for all the animals that have landed in her life?
“Stop!” I hissed. “Bad dog! Don’t you dare bite me!”
Spike, aka the Small Evil One, froze with his tiny, sharp teeth a few inches from my ankle. He looked up and growled slightly.
From one of the cribs across the room I heard another of the faint, cranky whimpers I’d detected over the baby monitor Jamie always woke up slowly and fussed softly for a few minutes, which gave us a fighting chance of getting to the nurser to feed him before he revved up to cry so loudly that he woke his twin brother. Josh never bothered with any kind of warning going from fast asleep to wailing like a banshee in two seconds or less.
“I mean it,” I said to Spike. “No more treats. No more sleeping in your basket here in the nursery. If you bite me again, you’r out of here. Back to the barn.”
Do animals understand our words or do they just pick up meaning from our tone of voice? Either way, Spike got the message.
He sniffed at my ankle. Pretending to recognize my scent he wagged his tail perfunctorily. Then he trotted back to his basket, turned around the regulation three times, curled up, and appeared to fall asleep.
I tiptoed over to Jamie’s crib in time to pick him up and shove the bottle in his mouth a split second before he began shrieking.
I settled down in the recliner and leaned back slightly. Not for the first time, I felt a surge of gratitude to my grandfather, who had given us the recliner and helped me fight off all Mother’s attempts to banish it as an eyesore from the nursery she had decorated so elegantly in soft tones of lavender and moss green.
Eventually, Jamie finished his milk and fell asleep. I gazed down at him with maternal affection—and maybe just a guilty hint of gratitude that he and his noisier brother were, for the moment, both fast asleep and not demanding anything of me.
I pondered whether to get up, put him in his crib, and go back to bed, or whether it would be just as efficient to doze here until Josh woke up for his next bottle. If I dozed here, I could turn off the baby monitor and make sure Michael got a full night’s sleep, so he’d be well rested for teaching his Friday classes.
Or should I rouse myself to pump some milk for the boys’ next meal? I glanced at the clock—a little after 2:00 a.m. Dozing was winning when an unfamiliar noise woke me up.
It was a dog barking. And not Spike’s bark, either. At eight and a half pounds, Spike tried his best, but could never have produced the deep basso “woof!” I’d just heard.
Or had I just imagined it? I wriggled upright and stared over at Spike.
He was sitting up and looking at me.
“Did you hear anything?” I whispered.
He cocked his head, almost as if he understood.
We both listened in silence for a moment. Well, almost silence. I could still hear the faint, almost restful sounds of the white noise machine we ran at night to minimize the chances of some stray sound waking up the boys.
Just as I was about to relax back into the recliner, I heard another noise. This time it sounded more like a cat meowing.
Spike lifted his head and growled slightly.
“Shush,” I said.
There was a time when shushing Spike would have egged him on. But almost as soon as we’d brought the twins home, he had appointed himself their watchdog and guardian. His self assigned duties—barking whenever he thought they needed anything, and then biting anyone who showed up to take care of their needs—were made all the more strenuous by the fact that in spite of our efforts, the boys maintained completely opposite sleep schedules, so there was nearly always at least one twin awake and requiring Spike’s attention. After four months, like Michael and me, he’d learned to grab every second of sleep he could.
He curled back up on the lavender and moss-green cushion in his bed and appeared to doze off. He looked so innocent when asleep. An adorable eight-and-a-half-pound furball. What would happen when the boys started crawling, and mistook him for a stuffed animal?
I’d worry about that later.
I sat up carefully to avoid waking Jamie, and managed to deposit him, still sleeping, on the soft, lavender flannel sheet in his crib. I glanced over to make sure Josh was still snoozing in his own little moss-green nest. Then I tiptoed over to the nursery door, opened it, and listened.
I could hear rustling sounds that weren’t coming from the white noise machine. Soft whines. An occasional bark. Meows. Cat hisses.
Probably only someone in the living room watching Animal Planet on the big-screen TV and being inconsiderate about the volume. Most likely my brother Rob, and it was just that sort of behavior that had inspired us to get the white noise machine.
But white noise wouldn’t keep the growing commotion downstairs from waking Michael, who had to work tomorrow. Or five-year-old Timmy, our newly acquired long-term house-guest, who needed to be up early for kindergarten.
Unless of course Timmy was downstairs with Rob, watching television on a school night again.
Definitely a dog, and not Spike, and it sounded a little too immediate to be coming from the television. Had Rob, miffed that Spike had deserted him for the twins, acquired a new four-legged friend? Or perhaps the local burglars were celebrating Bring Your Dog to Work Day.
I turned the monitor back on, slipped out of the nursery, and closed the door behind me. Now that I didn’t have the white noise machine to mask it, I could hear rather a lot of animal noises. A few barks and yelps. And an occasional howl that sounded more like a cat. Definitely not burglars, unless they’d stopped in mid-crime to watch Animal Planet. Time to go downstairs and see what was up. I didn’t exactly tiptoe, but I moved as quietly as possible. If someone had smuggled in a contraband menagerie, I wanted to catch them red-handed.
I stopped long enough to peek into the guest room that had become, for the time being, Timmy’s room. He was fast asleep with his stuffed black cat clutched under one chubby arm. Under any other circumstances, I’d have been tempted to fetch the digital camera and take a photo I could e-mail to his mother to prove that yes, he’d settled in fine and was enjoying his stay And maybe ask again if she knew just how long that stay would be. But that could wait. I shut his door to keep out the increasing din and crept downstairs to track the din to its source.
No dogs festooning the tall oak staircase or lurking in the front hall. I even glanced up at the double-height ceiling, because my first martial arts teacher had railed about how most people never looked up and were thus remarkably easy to ambush from above. No dogs or cats perched on the exposed beams and no bats or ninjas hanging from the chandelier.
I stopped outside the wide archway to the living room, reached inside to flip on the light switch, and stepped into the room.
“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed.
The room was entirely filled with animals.
A dozen or so dogs, ranging in size from terriers to some thing not much smaller than a horse, were in the middle of th floor, lapping up water from several serving dishes from my best china set. Bevies of cats were perched on the oak mantel and on the tops of the bookshelves, some gobbling cat food from antique china dishes while others spit and hissed at the dogs and uttered unearthly howling noises. One irritable-faced Persian was hawking strenuously, apparently trying to launch hairball at our wedding photo.
Several rows of crates and animal carriers were ranged up and down both sides of the room, some empty, while in others I could see eyes and noses of dogs and cats peering out at their liberated brethren and perhaps wondering when their turn for the food and drink would come
A tiny black kitten was licking the oriental rug—had we spilled milk there or did he just like the taste of rug?
A Siamese cat had ventured down from the mantel and sat atop a leather photo album on our coffee table, fixedly eyeing a cage in which a small brown hamster was running frantically in his wheel, as if hoping that he could propel the cage away from the cat with enough effort. Several less anxious hamsters and guinea pigs gazed down from cages perched on other bits of furniture.
On our new sofa, an Afghan hound sprawled with careless elegance, like a model artfully posing for a photographer, its white fur vivid against the deep turquoise fabric.
“Hiya, babe! How’s about it?”
A bright blue parrot was fluttering in a cage just inside the door. I eyed him sternly, and he responded with a wolf whistle.
“Meg! Uh . . . what are you doing awake at this hour?”
My father had popped up from behind the sofa. He was holding a small beagle puppy in each hand. The two puppies were struggling to get at each other, and from the soprano growling that erupted from behind the sofa, I suspected there were other juvenile beagles still on the floor, tussling.
“I was feeding the boys,” I said. “What the hell are you and all these animals doing here?”
Dad looked uncomfortable. His eyes scanned the room as if seeking a safe place to set down the beagles, though I suspected he was merely avoiding meeting my eyes.
“We won’t be here long,” said a voice behind me.
The tall, lanky form of my grandfather appeared in the hall. He was carrying two Limoges soup tureens full of water.
“If you were thinking of giving those to the dogs, think again,” I said. “They belong to Mother, who will eviscerate you if you break them.”
“Oh,” he said. “They were just stuck on a high shelf in the pantry—I thought they were things you didn’t use much.”
“We don’t use them much, mainly because they’re expensive antiques that Mother lent us for that big christening party we threw last weekend,” I said. “And they were on a high shelf in the pantry to keep them as safe as possible until we got a chance to return them. I can show you some crockery you can use, but first I want to know what all these animals are doing here.”
“It’s no use,” came another voice. “The window’s too small.“
I turned to see the enormous leather-clad form of Clarence Rutledge, the local veterinarian. Since Grandfather was an avid animal welfare activist and Dad a sucker for anything on four legs, the menagerie in our living room was beginning to make a little more sense. But only a little.
“You were trying to break into the barn, I suppose.” They all looked a little startled at what I assumed was a correct guess “We keep it locked, since all my expensive blacksmithing equipment is out there. But I might be persuaded to unlock it, if somebody could just tell me what the hell is going on.”
They all exchanged looks. One of the beagles Dad was stil holding began peeing on him. He rushed to deposit the offender on a nest of newspapers in a corner.
I fixed my gaze on Grandfather.
“It’s all Parker’s fault,” he said. “If he’d showed up on time we never would have come here. I’m going to call him again.”
As if that had explained everything, he stumped over to our living room phone.
“Want to use this?” My father held out his beloved iPhone
“No, I want a real phone,” Grandfather said. He began dialing a number from memory.
I looked at Clarence.
“It’s a matter of life or death!” he exclaimed. He clasped his hands as if pleading for mercy, clenching them so hard that the tattooed ferrets on his burly forearms writhed.
I looked at Dad. The weather was mild, not warm, and yet his bald head glistened. Nerves, probably. A trickle of sweat began running down his face, and he dabbed at it absentmindedly with the puppy.
“Just why is our living room filled with dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, hamsters, guinea pigs, and parrots?”
“Only the one parrot,” he said. “A macaw, actually—very interesting species.”
“Hiya, babe!” the macaw said.
“Whatever,” I said. “Why are they here?”
“It’s because of that new county manager,” Dad said.
“Horrible man,” Clarence muttered.
“You mean Terence Mann?” I asked.
“Dammit, Parker, answer your bloody phone!” Grandfather snarled into the receiver.
“Hey, Clarence!” My brother, Rob, bounced into the room. “There’s a window open on the second story of the barn! So if you can help me haul the ladder over, we can— Oh. Hi, Meg.”
“Hi,” I said. “What’s your version?”
“My version?” Rob looked guilty for a moment. He fiddled with the black knit cap that concealed his shaggy blond hair, then his face cleared. “I was helping Dad and Granddad.”
“Helping them do what?”
“Foil the new county manager,” Dad repeated. “That Mann fellow. He’s cutting the budget right and left.”
“Probably because the town of Caerphilly will go bankrupt if he doesn’t,” I said.
“And most of his cuts we can understand, no matter how much we hate them,” Clarence said. “Cutting back on the library hours.”
“And the free clinic hours,” Dad added.
“Postponing the teachers’ raises,” Rob said.
“But then he decided that the town animal shelter was too expensive,” Grandfather said. “So he said the town could no longer afford for it to be a no-kill shelter.”
“Can he do that?” I asked.
“Well, in the long run, probably not,” Clarence said. “Public opinion is against it, about four to one. But we were afraid tha some of the animals might be harmed before we could convince him to reverse his policy.”
“So you adopted all of the animals from the shelter?” I asked
“No, actually we burgled the place and stole them,” Rob said
“Wonderful,” I said. “Our living room isn’t just filled with animals. It’s filled with stolen animals.”
“Rescued animals,” Grandfather said.
A burglary. Well, at least that explained why all four of them were dressed completely in black. Individually, none of them looked particularly odd, but anyone who saw the four of them skulking about together in their inky garb would be instantly suspicious.
“Did you really think you could get away with it?” I asked aloud.
“We don’t care if we get away with it,” Grandfather said, striking his noblest pose.
“Once the animals are safely out of his clutches, we don’t care what happens to us,” Dad said, following suit.
“And we knew Mann would quickly figure out that prosecuting us wouldn’t do him much good in the eyes of the public,” the more practical Clarence added.
I looked around. Okay, the animals were refugees. They might have been saved from an untimely death. Of course, that didn’t make it any less annoying to see them lying on, shedding on, and in a few cases, chewing or peeing on our rugs and furniture. At least, thanks to the child gates we’d recently put up in all the doorways in case the boys started crawling early, the livestock weren’t free to roam the whole house.
“The problem is that they’re not safely out of his clutches,” I said. “What now? Were you planning on hiding them in our barn until you change the county manager’s mind?”
“We weren’t going to bring them here at all.” Dad plopped down on the sofa with a sigh. The Afghan hound scrambled over to put its head in his lap. The patch of upholstery it had vacated was covered with so much shed fur that it looked like tweed. “We’d arranged to have them taken to new permanent or foster homes outside the county,” Dad went on.
“Outside the state, in fact,” Grandfather said. “Parker Blair made the arrangements.”
“He has that big truck he uses to make deliveries from his furniture store,” Dad explained.
“We were going to meet Parker at midnight down by the haunted graveyard, load all the animals on his truck, and there you have it!” Rob exclaimed “Like The Great Escape, with poodles ”
“Unfortunately, Parker hasn’t shown up,” Grandfather said “I’ve been leaving messages for nearly two hours now. Not sure what the holdup is, but as soon as he gets here, we can load th animals and have them out of your hair. But in the mean time—”
“Shhh!” Clarence hissed. He was peering out one of our front windows. “It’s the cops!”
Everyone froze—even the animals, who seemed to sense danger.
I strolled over to the window and looked out.
“It’s only Chief Burke,” I said.
“Oh, no!” Dad wailed.
“We’re lost,” Clarence muttered.
“Get rid of him,” my grandfather said.
The chief was getting out of his car. I hadn’t heard a siren, but I could see that he had the little portable flashing ligh stuck on his dashboard.
“If he were just calling to see the babies, maybe I could.” I glanced at my watch. “But the chief doesn’t usually make social calls at two thirty in the morning.”
“Then stall him while we move the animals,” Dad said.
“Move them how?” Clarence asked. “All the pickups are out front where he’s probably already seen them.”
“Put the animals in the barn till Parker gets here,” my grandfather said. “I’ll call him again.”
He grabbed our phone and began dialing. Dad leaped off the sofa, picked up a puppy in one hand, and grabbed the macaw’s cage with the other.
“All gone!” the bird trilled.
“I wish,” Clarence muttered
The windows were cracked slightly, to let in a little of the mild April air—or possibly to prevent the smell of the animals from becoming overwhelming. I could hear the staccato sounds the chief’s shoes made on our front walk.
“There is no way in the world I can stall the chief while you move all these animals to the barn,” I said. “And even if I could, do you think they’d go quietly?”
As if to prove my point, one of the dogs uttered a mournful howl, and several others whimpered in sympathy. I even heard a faint bark from the porch.
“Besides,” I added, “the chief has probably already spotted the dog you left outside.”
“What dog?” Dad asked.
“I thought they were all accounted for.” Clarence was fishing in his pockets for something. “We have an inventory.”
“Dammit, Parker, pick up!” Grandfather muttered.
The dog on the porch barked again.
“Just let me handle it,” I said. “The chief’s an animal lover. He probably won’t approve of your methods, but I’m sure he shares your concerns. Let me assess what kind of a mood he’s in. Maybe we can work something out.”
Clarence and my father looked at each other, then back at me.
“What else can we do?” Dad said.
The dog outside barked.
The doorbell rang.
Upstairs, Josh erupted into howls.
“Damn,” I said, pausing halfway to the door. “I was trying to let Michael sleep.”
“I’ll take care of the baby,” Clarence said, bolting for the stairs. “You deal with the chief ”
“Why doesn’t the bastard answer his phone?” Grandfather growled.
“Hiya, babe!” the macaw said.
“Put a lid on him,” I said to Dad, as I turned back to th door.
He scrambled to pull a tarp over the cage.
Upstairs, Jamie joined the concert.
“I’ve got it,” Michael called from upstairs.
“I’m almost there,” Clarence called, from halfway up the stairs.
I opened the door. The dog outside barked again, but I pretended not to hear him and didn’t look around to see where he was.
“Good morning, Chief,” I said. “What are you doing up a this hour, and more important, what can we do for you?”
The chief held up a cell phone. I looked at it for a moment.
The cell phone barked. Clearly it belonged to a dog lover. No one else would choose such an annoying custom ring tone.
“I’m investigating a murder,” Chief Burke said. “And I came over to ask why for the last couple of hours, you’ve been trying to call the dead guy’s cell phone.”
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Tried to, anyway.
Upstairs, the babies were wailing, and Michael had begun reciting “The Hunting of the Snark” to them. I hoped his trained actor’s voice would have its usual calming effect.
“Ms. Langslow?” the chief said.
Ms. Langslow. As if I didn’t already know this wasn’t a social call. These days, the chief usually just called me Meg. Reverting to formality was his way of signaling that he was on a case.
Spike had begun to bark, and the dogs downstairs joined in, accompanied by frantic shushing noises.
“Dammit!” I heard my grandfather say. “Pick up, you damned fool.”
I heard an unearthly howl and opened my eyes to see what had caused it. A gray tabby cat streaked out of the living room and toward the kitchen, caterwauling all the way, with two beagles in pursuit and Rob bringing up the rear, hissing, “Shh! Stop that! Come back here!”
The cell phone barked again.
I took a deep breath.
“It’s Parker Blair, isn’t it?” I asked. “Your murder victim with the barking cell phone.”
“How do you know Parker?” the chief asked.
“I don’t ” I said “Grandfather’s the one who’s been trying to call him. Though I have no idea how he could have been calling from our phone for two hours. I thought he just got here.”
“I beg your pardon,” the chief said. “You’re correct. The call were originally coming from Dr. Blake’s cell phone. Apparently he switched to your home phone approximately twenty minute ago. That’s when we headed over here.”
“Makes sense. I’ll let Grandfather explain.” The nosy part of my brain noted that the crime scene must be no more than twenty minutes’ drive away and began trying to figure out where it was. I tried to squelch those thoughts. Odds were I’d find out soon enough. I stepped aside and gestured for the chief to enter.
I also squelched a pang of guilt at betraying the animal rescuers. This was a murder. Grandfather and his accomplices couldn’t very well expect me to lie to the chief in the middle of a homicide investigation.
Maybe the chief would be too busy solving Parker’s murder to worry about their raid on the animal shelter. Or if not, a least it sounded as if they’d all been trooping around together for the last several hours, and would be alibied for the murder. Not that I suspected them of murdering their wayward getaway driver but the chief couldn’t be expected to share my confidence in them.
I followed the chief into the living room, where my grandfather was still muttering at the phone.
Grandfather looked up to see the chief holding the cell phone. It barked again.
“That’s Parker’s phone,” Grandfather said. “How did you get his phone? Is he under arrest?”
“No,” the chief said. “He’s dead.”
Grandfather slowly hung up the phone. His face fell, and for a moment he looked every one of his ninety-some years. The chief turned Parker’s cell phone off and put it into an evidence bag. Grandfather heaved himself up and glared back at the chair he’d been sitting in. I’d had to negotiate with Mother for weeks when she decorated the living room, but except for that one chair, every piece of furniture was either comfortable or practical or both. I’d only allowed her to get away with the small, elegant, backbreaking side chair by the phone because I figured it would discourage visitors from settling in for long, leisurely calls.
“What the hell happened to Parker?” Grandfather sat on the sofa and thumped the Afghan hound on the rump a couple of times. “The fellow wasn’t even forty. Healthy as a horse. Did he wreck that damned truck?”
The chief was stripping off the gloves he’d been wearing to handle the phone. He stuffed them into his pocket as he took a few steps toward the front door.
“Sammy!” he shouted.
“Yes, sir!” Heavy footsteps raced up our walk and clomped across the front porch. Deputy Sammy Wendell appeared in the foyer. Unlike the chief, who appeared perfectly normal and wide awake, Sammy had clearly been roused from a sound sleep and hadn’t yet combed his hair, which was sticking out in all directions.
“Ms. Langslow,” the chief said. “I gather you and Mr. Waterston have been home with the babies?”
“And your grandfather and his party arrived about twenty minutes ago?”
“No idea,” I said. “We were all either asleep or upstairs feeding the kids with the white noise machine on. It was about fifteen or twenty minutes ago that the racket from the animals got loud enough for me to hear it.”
“Who else is here?”
“Well, apart from Rob, I expect Dad is out in the barn,” said. “Clarence Rutledge is upstairs helping Michael with the babies. My cousin, Rose Noire, and our houseguest, Timmy Walker, are upstairs asleep, unless the noise woke them. That’s all I know about.”
I was assuming, of course, that “who else” didn’t include four-legged visitors.
“Dr. Blake, Dr. Langslow, Dr. Rutledge, and Mr. Langslow.” The chief had taken out his notepad and was scribbling in it. “Dr. Blake, was there anyone else with you?”
“No,” Grandfather said. “Damn! I guess I should take back some of the harsh things I’ve been saying about Parker for the last couple of hours, when I thought he was just being feckless.”
“Sammy,” the chief said. “Round them up and keep them in the kitchen.” He looked at me. “If that’s acceptable.”
“Or you can use the library, if you like,” I said. “Or both.”
“Keep them in the kitchen, Sammy.” The chief glanced down at his notebook and appeared to be studying something. “I’l just talk to them here. Now, Dr. Blake. Where—”
He stopped and glanced down. One of the kittens was loose and had begun climbing the crisply pressed left leg of his uniform trousers as if it were a tree. He blinked, then forced his eyes back to Grandfather.
“Dr. Blake, where were you for the last couple of hours?”
“It wasn’t just an accident, was it?” Grandfather asked. “Someone knocked him off.”
The chief nodded. He winced as the kitten’s razor-sharp little claws dug into his skin. The chief shook his leg slightly in an attempt to dislodge his attacker. The kitten thought this was fun, and scrambled a little higher.
“And you want to know if we have alibis,” Grandfather said. He glowered for a moment. Clearly he was reluctant to admit what they’d been up to. Understandable, but this was not the time to clam up.
“Clarence, Rob, James, and I were all together,” Grandfather said finally. He glared at the chief as if daring him to ask where.
I realized I’d been holding my breath. I let it out as quietly as I could.
“During what time period?” the chief asked.
Another kitten had joined its brother or sister in scaling the chief’s pants leg.
“Since about ten o’clock,” Grandfather said. “We were supposed to meet Parker at midnight at the intersection of Little Creek Road and the Clay County Road.”
“By the old churchyard?”
“We got there about five minutes to midnight, and stayed until maybe one forty-five a.m.”
The chief was trying to shoo the kittens—three of them by now—off his trouser legs without looking at them. I suddenly realized why. He was trying not to look at the kittens because if he took notice of them, he might have to deal with the whole shelter burglary thing. And right now he didn’t want to do that Maybe he was in sympathy with Grandfather’s protest, or maybe he just felt the murder was more important and didn’t want to be sidetracked.
I decided to help him.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Rose Noire’s new kittens aren’t very well trained yet.”
“Trained?” Grandfather snorted at the thought. “You can’t train cats.”
“You can make sure they know that climbing on people is not acceptable,” I said as I plucked one of the kittens off. “And you could help me with this. I’ve only got two hands.”
We finished plucking the kittens off the chief and returned them to the large cardboard box where they belonged.
As I stood up from depositing the kittens, I jarred the macaw’s cage. The tarp that had been partly covering it fell all the way off .
“Hiya, babe!” the macaw squawked. “How’s about it? Just you and me.”
“Put a lid on it, bird,” I said.
The macaw responded with several rude remarks in language so blue they’d probably have bleeped the entire sentence on network television.
I stood staring at the macaw for a few moments, speechless.
When I looked around, everyone else in the room was also speechless and staring.
“Do that again, featherbrain, and I’ll wash your beak out with soap,” I said.
The bird responded with another string of off-color insults.
“No crackers for you, Polly.” I pulled the cover over the macaw’s cage. I could hear him muttering a few more four-letter words as he settled down for a nap. At least I hoped the cover would have that effect.
The chief—who always apologized if, under extreme provocation, he uttered the occasional “hell” or “damn” in front of a lady—was frowning severely at the shrouded cage.
“He’s new here,” I said. “And not staying.”
“I should hope not.” He glanced around the living room and shuddered. Mother would probably shudder, too, if she saw the room in its current state.
“I think I will take you up on that offer of the library,” the chief said. “Assuming it’s empty.”
“Of animals? Yes,” I said. “And it’s going to stay that way,” I added, looking pointedly at my grandfather.
“Could you send Clarence down to the kitchen when he’s finished babysitting?” the chief asked.
“Now, if you don’t mind, Dr. Blake.”
Grandfather and the chief disappeared into the long hall that led to our library.
I tried to shove some of the cats and dogs into crates and cages but gave up after a few minutes.
“Let sleeping dogs lie,” I said. “And sleeping cats, too.”
At least until I could task someone else with waking them up to crate them. I went upstairs to the nursery.
I peered in to see a heartwarming domestic scene. Michael, in boxer shorts and a tattered Caerphilly College T-shirt, was sprawled on the recliner, half-asleep, feeding Josh.
Heartwarming wasn’t exactly what I’d call the vision of Clarence in his full leather and denim biker’s outfit stretched out on the moss-green rug with Jamie sleeping on his well padded stomach, but it was rather entertaining. I hoped Michael had captured the scene on the digital camera that he’d taken to carrying everywhere since the boys arrived. Yes, the camera was lying on the arm of the recliner.
Clarence looked up when I entered, his face anxious.
“The chief’s not here about the animals,” I said.
“It’s Parker, isn’t it?” he said. “Did he wreck the truck, or did some jealous husband catch up with him? Is he just injured or . . .?”
“He’s dead.” I reached down to take Jamie. “You’re very quick to assume that Parker met a violent end. Why is that?”
“Obviously you didn’t know him.” Clarence was trying to loosen the death grip Jamie had on one of the many chains dangling from his vest. “Parker was passionate about animal welfare. He’d never just blow off an animal rescue mission. So something serious must have happened. And the chief wouldn’t be coming here in the middle of the night if he’d died in his sleep, or just had an accident.”
Jamie woke up enough to release his grip, fussed a little, and dozed off again.
“Speaking of the chief,” I said. “He’d like you to go down and wait in the kitchen with Dad and Rob and Deputy Sammy.
I eased Jamie into his crib.
“If you could stop by the living room on your way and make sure all the animals are secured, I’d appreciate it,” I said to Clarence. “I’d really like them out in the barn, but just having them caged or crated would do for now.”
He nodded again and went downstairs.
“All the animals?” Michael said, opening one eye. “You mean there really is a herd of animals downstairs?”
“You couldn’t hear them?”
“I was hoping maybe it was your grandfather watching some kind of animal video on the big-screen TV with the sound cranked up. How many dogs and cats?”
“I didn’t count.”
“Only half a dozen guinea pigs and hamsters, though,” I said. “And only one macaw.”
“What did they do—rob a pet store?”
“Not a bad guess.” I explained about the animal shelter.
He shook his head.
“I don’t like the change in policy, either, but aren’t they overreacting a little?” he said. “They couldn’t just picket the place?”
I shrugged. It was too late—or maybe too early—to get into a discussion about why my relatives did what they did.
“Well, I don’t want to kick the animals out if there’s no place else for them tonight, but we can’t keep them here indefinitely,” he said. “Not even out in our barn. You’re going to want to get back to your blacksmithing eventually.”
“I already want to get back to it,” I said. “But I think it will still be a while before I have the time. And—”
I interrupted myself with a gigantic yawn.
“Go to bed,” he said. “That’s what I plan to do when I finish feeding Josh. If the animals aren’t in the barn by breakfast time I’ll lay down the law to everyone. Meanwhile, let’s both get some sleep.”
“I will,” I said. “As soon as I pump some more milk for the boys’ next meal.”
Unfortunately, by the time I finished that, Jamie was hungry again. And by the time I’d fed him, I was wide awake. Dog tired, but wide awake.
It was 5:00 A.M. The smart thing to do would be to lie down and rest even if I couldn’t sleep.
Instead, I went downstairs to see what was happening.
Copyright © 2011 by Donna Andrews
Donna Andrews is a winner of the Agatha, Anthony, and Barry Awards, a Romantic Times Award for best first novel, and two Lefty and two Toby Bromberg awards for funniest mystery. She spends her free time gardening at her home in Reston, Virginia.