Authors: Delia James
Double, Double, Paws, and TroubleÂ .Â .Â .
I looked at the cat. The cat looked at me. We both blinked.
“Shoo?” I suggested.
The gray cat yawned, displaying a curling pink tongue and a whole lot of very white teeth.
I folded my arms. “All right. What do you want?”
The cat blinked his (her?) slanting blue eyes at me again. It looked uncomfortably like he/she was waiting for me to say something sensible.
“Okay. We're gonna do this the hard way.”
I lunged forward as if to make a grab. With a rolling growl of feline contempt, the cat flowed away from my hands. Victory! Or so I thought, until I realized the cat was now pressed against the pavement, under the Jeep, and right beside my front tire.
I swore. The cat hugged asphalt and put his/her ears back.
“Hey. Everything okay out here?” called a man's voice from behind me.
It was Sean the bartender. He was strolling out from the Pale Ale, wiping his hands on a side towel.
I sighed and sat back on my heels. “I seem to have a cat.”
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To my feline inspirations: Buttercup, Isis, Kuzbean and most of all, Buffy the Vermin Slayer
No piece of work is written in a vacuum. I'd like to thank my fabulous editor and my equally fabulous agent, as well as the people, cats and city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who inspired these mysteries. As always, I need to thank my husband, who has supported me in so many ways through the writing process, and the fabulous members of the Untitled Writer's Group who, as always, offered honest and firm advice about the writing. Thank you
I WANT TO
be really clear about a few things. I don't chase after stray cats, I don't break into houses and I most definitely do not steal valuable antiques from dead people.
At least, I didn't used to.
My name is Annabelle Amelia Blessingsound Britton. My well-meaning parents settled this bit of nom de overkill on me at the request of my grandmother Annabelle Mercy Blessingsound Britton back when she declared that her dying wish was to have a namesake granddaughter. I was already on the way, and it was only after they filled out the birth certificate that my folks realized Grandma B.B. wasn't departing this vale of tears anytime soon. Or ever.
Some other pertinent facts and figures about yours truly:
Profession: Freelance artist and illustrator.
Relationship Status: Emphatically single.
Skin: Exceptionally pale, except when burned lobster red.
Eyes: Goldy-browny-amberish, kinda.
Hair: Medium brown, shoulder length, with either too much curl or not enough, depending on the day.
Location: On the road with most of what I owned crammed into two jumbo-sized red suitcases tossed in the back of my Jeep Wrangler, heading up I-95 from Boston to the quaint seacoast town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for a couple of weeks to visit my best friend, Martine.
Technically, it's about an hour from Boston to Portsmouth, but thanks to a pileup on the interstate, it was already going on four o'clock when I eased my Wrangler off I-95 and past the car dealerships and motels that clustered near the Route 1 roundabout. The two-lane highway snaked under a railroad bridge and bent to the left, becoming Lennox Avenue, and just like that, the scenery ceased to look like an off-ramp town and became beautiful New England.
I followed shady twists and turns past old homes that ranged from stately to eclectic. Another turn, and the homes gave way to converted brick warehouses lining the banks of the Piscataqua River. I put the windows down and breathed in the late-June air filled with freshwater, seaweed and a hint of diesel fuel from the massive black-and-white tanker chugging under the huge steel-girder bridge. My shoulders, tense from the drive, too much caffeine and not enough food, finally began to relax. Portsmouth was not a place I had visited before, though I knew my grandmother had lived there for some time. But I already had a feeling I was going to like it here, and my feelings about places tended to be surprisingly accurate. Spookily accurate, in fact, but that was not something I liked to go into.
My initial destination in town was a three-story Colonial-era brick box of a building with a peaked slate roof and a sign declaring it to be
THE PALE ALE INN, EST. 1768
. As I turned the key to shut off the Jeep's engine, the inn's door
opened and an African American woman in a scarlet chef's coat strode out.
“Martine!” I shouted.
“Anna!” My friend wrapped me in one of her patented spine-crushing embraces. Martine Devereux was almost six feet tall, with deep brown skin and arms like a major league slugger. A professional chef, as well as my best friend since forever, Martine spent her life wielding knives and fire in confined spaces, not to mention barking orders with a force and speed that would put a drill sergeant to shame. “I was starting to wonder if you'd make it!”
“Traffic,” I said, and Martine groaned in deep Bostonian sympathy. She also took my arm and gestured grandly to the saltbox tavern with its weathered shutters and wood-framed windows.
“Welcome to my castle!” Martine gazed on her restaurant with open pride. She'd been over the moon when she got this job. The Pale Ale was a Portsmouth institution. The tavern had been around since before certain radicals met there over tankards of the namesake beer to plot revolution. Now it was the kind of landmark restaurant that got stars in the guides and on the Web sites. My friend had been handed the mission of modernizing the cuisine while keeping true to its New Hampshire heritage. I had no idea how she did that, but I knew Martine was up to the challenge.
“We just finished the family meal, and we open back up in about an hour, so I haven't got time to do the total girlfriend reunion right now, but I really wanted you to check the place out.” She gave me a significant look and I winced. I couldn't help it.
Sometimes, some placesâhomes, buildings, vacant lots, doesn't matterâgive meÂ .Â .Â . call it a Vibe. Everybody else can find the place perfectly comfortable, but it will leave me cold, or even sick. Other places that might look ready to be condemned can make me instantly cheerful, even bubbly.
Thankfully, the Vibe was not a constant, or I wouldn't be able to walk into a grocery store without doubling over. In fact, I really wished I could just brush the Vibe off as part of that overactive imagination common to us artistic types. I would have, too, if it wasn't for the times I couldn't make myself walk into a place and afterward I'd find out there'd been a recent death or a divorce or some other disaster. Or maybe it was a birth or a marriage. The good impressions could be just as freaky as the bad ones.
I took a deep breath. “You know I can't control the thing, Martine.”
“You will tell me if you pick up anything, though? This is important.”
Martine was one of the few people I'd told about my Vibe. I didn't talk about it partly because I didn't want to give people extra reasons to think that Anna the Crazy Artist was actually, well, crazy. Partly because I had no control over when I'd get the impressions or how strong they would be. When they hit, if they hit, the feeling could be anything from a mild sensation in the back of my brain to a tidal wave that left me shaking.
Martine had held my hand through a couple of those shaky times, and if she ever thought I was crazy, she kept it to herself. The least I could do was let her know if her dream-job restaurant hit me with the karma stick. So I smiled and gave her an extra hug. “Okay. I promise.”
“Great. Come on in.”
Thankfully, when I crossed the Pale Ale threshold, nothing hit me except a wave of mouthwatering aromas reminding me I'd missed lunch. Servers dressed in immaculate black and white bustled around a spare but elegant dining room, lining up silverware on blue napkins and adjusting the white tablecloths. The clatter and bang of a kitchen in full swing drifted out from the swinging doors.
Martine was watching me, so I shook my head. She mimed letting out a deep breath as she steered us to a table
by the windows. “Sean,” she called to the man working behind the bar. “I need a plate of the brisket tacos for my friend, who is about dead of starvation.”
“Yes, Chef!” he answered promptly and headed for the kitchen.
“I'm not about dead,” I muttered. Okay, I was hungry, but still. Martine was a wonderful person and an amazing chef. She also had distinct mother-hen issues.
“You are. You've been up since six.”
“I'm a morning person, and I ate breakfast. Pinkie-promise.”
“Maybe, but you skipped lunch.”
How in the heck did she always know? Her instincts about food were almost as spooky as my feelings about places.
“So, how's Portsmouth treating you, Martine?” I said, changing the subject with my usual level of subtlety.
“Practically rolled out the red carpet.” She gestured around her dining room. “We've got a great staff, and there's some local farmers who have been able to supply us with heirloom ingredients andÂ .Â .Â .”
I let Martine's talk of converting the Pale Ale to a farm-to-table restaurant wash over me and couldn't help grinning. Maybe I wasn't getting a Vibe from the building, but I got one from Martine. She'd found her place, and I was happy for her. Also a little jealous. I had been something of a drifter since I got out of college, and if I was honest with myself, it had started to get a little tiring.
Martine's talk about ramping up the restaurant's catering department and the upcoming luncheon they were putting together for some city bigwigs had faltered and I realized I hadn't been paying attention.
“And then there's this morningÂ .Â .Â .”
“This morning? What happened this morning?”
She frowned at me. “This is what happens when you skip
meals. You can't concentrate. I was telling you how the boiler in my building burst this morning.”
“Yeah, ouch. I tried to call to warn you, but you must have been on the road.” Since my one way-too-close call with an eighteen-wheeler, I always turned off my phone when I was driving. “Anyway, the building's flooded, and they're saying no hot water until Monday. My sous chef, Beverly, is letting me stay with her, but, wellÂ .Â .Â .”
I held up my hands. “Don't worry about it. I saw a bunch of vacancy signs when I passed the motels by the highway.”
“Actually, I got you covered.” Martine pulled a business card out of her jacket pocket. “McDermott's Bed & Breakfast, over on Summer Street. A friend of mine and her husband run the place. They're expecting you, and there's a discount since you're a friend of the âfamily,'” she added, with air quotes. “Things should be all fixed by Monday.”
“Thanks, Martine. I appreciate it.” I dropped the card into my purse without looking at it. If Martine liked the place, it would be fine, and the food would be outstanding. What more could a girl ask for? Yes, the budget was a little tight right now. I hadn't been working much over the past few months. I'd been staying with my oldest brother, Bob, and his wife to help take care of Dad while he recovered from his heart attack. Despite this, I could handle a few days of B and B pampering before settling down on Martine's couch for the remainder of my two weeks.
“Here you go, miss.” Sean set a plate of fresh tacos and a martini glass full of pale golden liquid in front of me. “Enjoy.”
Sean the bartender was very tall. He looked to be somewhere in his late twenties and wore his golden brown hair pulled back into a ponytail that was long enough to brush the collar of his white shirt. His beard was full and neatly trimmed, and it worked well on his round face.
“What's this?” I lifted the glass.
“That's a Ginger Lady, the Pale Ale's latest custom âmocktail.'” He paused to make the air quotes. “Seltzer, lime, ginger, of course, bitters and some orange blossom water for the perfume. Seemed a little early for the hard stuff.”
I sipped the drink. It was bright gold and slightly fizzy. I got spice, lime and something warm and clean, with just a tiny bit of sweet, which was perfect. I hate drinks, even soft drinks, that taste like sugar water.
“It's delicious.” I sipped again.
“Glad you like it.” Sean gave a little waiter bow and, catching his boss's not entirely approving stare, beat a strategic retreat back to the safety of the bar.
“New?” I guessed. “Still trying to show off for the chef?”
“Trying to show off for somebody.” Martine lifted an eloquent, and not very subtle, eyebrow.
“No,” I said, or rather mumbled, because my mouth was now full of a delicious and spicy brisket that had been wrapped in a fresh corn tortilla. “Family meal” was when the restaurant staff all ate together before their shift started, and Martine made sure her staff ate well. “Plus, no,” I added. “I'm off men for the duration.”
Martine sighed. “Anna, that thing with Truman was approximately forever ago.”
“That âthing' you're referring to was when the nineteen-year-old, exceptionally perky blond woman arrived on our doorstep at three in the morning.” Sometimes what happens in Vegas just won't stay in Vegas. This was a life lesson Truman, my now very much ex, learned just a little too late. “And it wasn't forever ago. It was eight months, two weeks and six days.”
“But who's counting? You need to get back on the horse.”
“I'm thinking about getting a cat. Does that count?”
Martine sighed heavily. She also looked like she was about to add something, but I was spared any further
assessment of my social life when the dining room door opened behind us.