Authors: Elaine Orr
Tags: #Mystery: Cozy - Real Estate Appraiser - New Jersey
“You want anyone to unpack your bloomers?” Scoobie asked as he carried a tub into the house.
“Only if you put a picture in the paper.”
“You need to get some curtains,” Ramona said a few minutes later.
“She’s got blinds,” Bill said. “So no huge rush.”
“There’s still that Peeping Tom,” Ramona said.
“Why does Tom peep? Tom peep?” Max asked.
“It’s an expression,” Renée said.
“It means someone who looks in a window when it’s not their house. Not a good thing.”
This was apparently all the explanation Max needed, as he stood and wandered back to the kitchen to get part of a sub sandwich.
“Someone told me about that. Maybe George,” Bill said. “Why the hell can’t they catch him?”
“Kind of hard to know where to look until they get a call, and by the time the cops get there, he’s gone,” Scoobie said.
He took a bottle of water from the full-sized fridge I had just had delivered.
“Are you comfortable being here alone at night?”
“You offering to stay?” Ramona grinned.
Bill flushed. “You’re a pain, Ramona.”
“What you need is a couch,” Scoobie said, “so I have a place to watch the Discovery Channel.”
He sat on one of the dinette chairs.
“You know, kid, you got that great cedar closet and the kitchen’s not bad.
You put in new windows and enclose that back porch, you could sell it in a year and get double what you paid for this place.” Lester was leaning against the door jamb that opened to the kitchen, surveying the house as if he was planning to list it.
“Except I’m looking for a place to live in, not an investment.”
“Yeah, but…” Lester began.
My sister and I said this together.
“Give up while you’re only a little bit behind,” Scoobie advised.
HOURS LATER, I WAS ABOUT to fall asleep when I realized I still didn’t know the name of the friend Max said had stopped by just before we arrived with the furniture. They’ll come back.
I HAD SLEPT IN twenty minute increments the first night Jazz and I were in our new house.
I had expected the smell of fresh paint to be a bother, but it wasn’t that. Every time I got Jazz settled down and I fell asleep, Jazz was awake and rushing through the house in no time at all. I called the vet and had an appointment for eight-thirty Monday morning. I’d be tired all day, but I’d know she was getting care for whatever illness this was.
Dr. Holly was a kind man of about sixty.
I had not met him until I brought Jazz in for an annual check-up a few months ago but, of course, Aunt Madge had known him for years. He had deftly wrapped all but Jazz’s head in a towel and I was now holding her while he peered into her ears. She objected strongly, but was in no position to scratch me.
“She certainly looks healthy, and I don’t detect an elevated temperature.
She’s been eating, and drinking plenty of water?” He put his thumb on one side of Jazz’s jaw and forefinger on the other and forced her mouth open. I had no idea a cat could growl so deeply without having control of its mouth. He shone a small pen light down her throat and let go of her.
“Judging by her water bowl, I’d say she’s drinking normally.
I gave her a more expensive brand of food last night, and she gobbled it.”
“Special occasion?” he asked, as he shone the pen light into her eyes.
Jazz aimed her mouth at his finger, but missed.
“We just moved into my new house.”
I felt almost silly saying “we,” as if Jazz was a person.
Dr. Holly looked at me directly.
“Did she used to live with other pets?”
“Yes, Aunt Madge’s…”
“Retrievers, yes, of course. She seemed to get along with them?”
“The last year, especially.
She sometimes slept between them.” It had never occurred to me that Jazz might miss the dogs that much. I’d had her for several years before we moved in with Aunt Madge. She was used to being alone when I was working, and I had never had other pets.
“Unless the blood work shows something, my diagnosis would be that she is simply very upset.”
He put my cat carrier on the exam table and opened the door. It took me about fifteen seconds to wrestle Jazz out of the towel and into the cage. She gave a really long hiss and then tried to swat my fingers while I locked the carrier.
“So, what do I do?” I asked.
“You could give it a week or two to see if she calms down, maybe take her back to the B&B for a visit. I don’t attribute true thinking skills to animals, but seeing the dogs might reassure her that they aren’t gone forever.”
I thanked him and carried Jazz to the car.
Aunt Madge had let me bring Jazz and been kind to her, but she is not a big fan of cats. Jazz tried to wander through the B&B, and Aunt Madge did not want her hair or dander to be a source of allergens for guests. Jazz was relegated to my bedroom unless she was with me in the great room.
I drove to the Cozy Corner, an idea slowly taking form.
Jazz seemed more fond of Mr. Rogers than Miss Piggy. She wound herself around his legs if he stood still for more than a minute, and she followed him around like a puppy. Miss Piggy is more laid back than Mr. Rogers. I figured Jazz could take or leave Miss Piggy. And two retrievers would take up a lot of room in my small cottage if we planned an overnight visit.
I parked in the B&B’s small lot and left Jazz in the car in her carrier. It was only about fifty degrees, and I left the windows down.
Her yowl carried to the side door of the B&B as I inserted my key. I could hear the vacuum above me.
Aunt Madge is technically my great aunt.
Her late sister Alva was my grandmother. My mother visited Aunt Madge every summer until she was old enough to want to spend all her time with her friends. She often said the bungalow Aunt Madge and her late husband, Uncle Gordon, lived in at that time was always so clean you never saw as much as a grain of sand on the door mat. The B&B is also spotless, but she tolerates a bit of mess from guests. Not too much from me.
I went up the main stairway, which is in the foyer, and yelled hello.
I didn’t want to startle her.
“Good morning, Jolie,” she said as she wrapped the cord around her vacuum.
“Surprised to see you this time of day.”
“I have a special request that involves Mr. Rogers.”
As we walked down the back stairs into her great room, she listened as I recounted my conversation with Dr. Holly. “So, I wondered if I could borrow him, maybe over night. If she sleeps when he’s there, I’ll know she’s not sick.”
I never thought of the dogs as diagnostic tools, but I suppose it’s worth a try.” She turned on her electric kettle. “I reserve the right to call you at three in the morning if Miss Piggy starts running through this house.”
I RACED THROUGH an appraisal at a house in the popsicle district. It was as if I wanted it to be nighttime so I could see if Jazz really would sleep when Mister Rogers was in my house.
I was on the courthouse steps when my phone chirped.
“Where you at?” Sergeant Morehouse almost growled.
“In my favorite building.”
“So, you’re here then?” He actually chuckled.
Did you get my note?”
You sure you had the card in it? Evidence people here said the purse was out of your possession for such a short time they didn’t look at your camera. Didn’t even dust it.”
I stopped on the courthouse steps and a man almost ran into me.
I waved him a sorry. “I rarely take it out. I just plug the camera into Harry’s or my computer. You know what this means?”
“I hope that your memory ain’t so good.”
“It means someone, somehow, wanted to see if there were any pictures of that jewelry on the camera.”
I waited a couple of seconds, and then asked, “Now what?”
“Now I check to see if the damn camera card is here somewhere.” He hung up with his trademark lack of goodbye.
I sat on a bench just inside the courthouse.
Before I further insisted that the card had been in the camera I owed it to whatever evidence tech might be getting his tailbone chewed to be sure it had been in the camera. I couldn’t remember taking it out since I developed Christmas pictures at the drug store in early January. It definitely was in there.
I looked around the main floor of the courthouse wishing that one of the two police officers who just came in would walk up and hand me my camera card.
The Miller County Courthouse is not large, in keeping with its status as the smallest county in the state. The hardwood floors needed to be refinished, but a recent coat of paint made it look if not modern, at least fresh.
The previous courthouse on the site burned in 1919 or thereabouts. Uncle Gordon’s mother was the county elections clerk at the time.
She snuck into the burning building and shut a couple of heavy oak doors. It kept the fire from spreading to the area of the building that housed most of the records. Everyone who has to pay for a title search or does family history research owes her thanks.
My thoughts went back to the camera.
After another minute I decided to put some of the Twelve Step teachings to work and stop thinking about something I could do nothing about. I walked into the Register of Deeds Office not having much luck with that. Ten minutes later, I was concentrating so hard on the folder the Register of Deeds keeps on recent sales that I didn’t hear George sidle next to me.
“It can’t be that interesting,” he said, when I jumped.
“Just disappointing. The buyer agreed to what seems like a fair price, but I can’t find any comparable sales to support it.”
“Other sales are for a lot less, you mean?” he asked.
“By several thousand dollars.”
“Do you have to do it today?”
I turned to fully face him. “You doing an article on housing prices?”
“I was just thinking, with so many houses on the market, there could be a few sales in the next week or ten days that would let you support the price.”
He studied the thin spiral notebook he uses to make notes as he talks to people.
“That’s not a bad idea.
Maybe I’ll wait until Friday.” I felt like a sixteen year old waiting to get asked to prom.
“I wanted to see what you thought of a story idea,” he said.
From the other side of the Formica counter, there was a decided cough. The clerk met my eyes and gave a tiny jerk of her head, indicating the office behind her, where the Register of Deeds sat. I nodded thanks and got off my stool. George followed me into the hall.
“It’s like a Kindergarten class in there.
You open your mouth and they tell you to pipe down.” He opened his notebook. “There’re a couple of stories that maybe got short shrift during Sandy.”
Of course. His idea about things that may have been neglected because of the storm.
“One was a fire on Sand Castle Way, and the other was a pick pocket that paid visits to the last two auctions that Fitzgerald held just before Sandy.” George cleared his throat. “You hear anything about either of those?”
“I remember the fire. What’s so special about that?” I asked.
“Cause wasn’t determined. State fire marshal thought it looked suspicious, but they couldn’t document any accelerants or anything.”
“Suspicious, how?” I asked.
“It started in the kitchen, which is pretty common. But they couldn’t link it to a faulty stove or anything. In fact, the gas was off. Then a lot of what was left got blown away by the hurricane the next day, so they couldn’t do as full an investigation as they normally would.”
I couldn’t imagine why he’d think I would have heard anything about the fire.
“I don’t even remember anyone talking about it, just that there were a couple paragraphs in the paper the morning of the day Sandy came ashore. And it was vacant, right?”
“And you didn’t see anything in other vacant houses you appraised?” he asked.
I looked at him directly. “Like what?”
“Like when you found cigarette butts and soft drink cans in a house one time.”
“Nope. What are you thinking?”
“There was a fire in another vacant house just last week.
Usually the fire marshal can figure out a lot more than he can with these two. All he can tell is where they started, and there’s no reason for a fire to start there either time.”
“What part of the recent house?” I asked.
“That time in the living room, with curtains probably being the point of origin. There were curtains above the stove in the other house.” He flipped a page in his notebook. “The fire marshal said the houses burned because they were old and frame. In a newer house, the curtains probably would have burned and then the fire might not have found any other fuel.”
“Insurance, you think?” I mused.
I had read about several suspicious house fires further south of us, but they were in houses that Sandy severely damaged. There were media speculations, never proven, that owners were wary of rebuilding and were trying to get insurance money.
“Didn’t seem likely,” he said, looking at a nearby wooden bench that was meant to hold people waiting to enter the small courtroom down the hall.
“Hey, why were there curtains if the houses were vacant?”
“The first home was for sale, and they had taken out almost all the furniture, but they were leaving blinds and curtains.
Sandy damaged the second one and they didn’t bother to take everything out.”
“It doesn’t seem like a lot to go on, especially with so much time between the fires.”
“Yeah, that’s what the local firefighters think. Still…”
“Unanswered questions,” I said, smiling.
“You hate those.”
He flushed and started to say something, but I cut him off.
“If I see anything I’ll let you know.”
George turned and walked quickly toward the large oak doors that led to the street.
He was out the door before I could ask him about auction thefts, or whatever it was.
Nothing he knew would likely explain why someone took my empty drawer, or whether he thought a purse thief took my camera card. I decided to keep that to myself for now.
I turned to go back to my notes, which I’d left in the Register of Deeds’ office, when a thought occurred to me.
This was the first time George had initiated a conversation with me in months.
He must really want something, and I’m not crazy enough to think it’s me.
MISTER ROGERS WAS very uncertain about getting in my car without Miss Piggy. They have ridden with me to go to the vet for shots or for a drive to the dog park at the edge of town. Always together. He gave me what I interpreted to be a questioning look.
“No vet, no shots.”
He didn’t move. “You want to see Jazz?” He wagged his tail and gave a short bark.