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Leann Sweeney

The Cat, the Quilt and the Corpse

This book is for Maddie

Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Acknowledgments

A huge thanks to my critique group for their inspiration and keen eyes: Kay, Amy, Laura, Bob, Charlie, Millie, Dean and Joe, as well as Susie and Isabella. I am grateful to Felicia Donovan for her wonderful computer forensic knowledge and to the online “cozies” who have carried me along as a friend—you know who you are and I love you. My family—Mike, Shawn, Jillian, Jeffrey, Allison, Maddie, and to my sister Candy and my great friend Lydia—thank you all for your love and support. To my agent, Carol Mann—I am so glad you keep sticking by me. And to my editor, Claire, who encouraged me to write this book and stood by patiently during a year of challenges—I can never thank you enough. You are amazing. 

One

My cat is allergic to people—yes, odd, I know—so when I came in the back door and heard Chablis sneeze, I stopped dead. Why was she sneezing? This couldn’t be a reaction to me. I use special shampoo, take precautions. Chablis and I are cool.

Besides, she hadn’t been near any humans for more than twenty-four hours, since I was just arriving back from an overnight business trip to Spartanburg, a two-hour drive from my upstate South Carolina home. I’d left her and my two other cats, Merlot and Syrah, alone in the house, as I’d done many times before when I took short trips out of town. So how did human dander, better known as dandruff, find its way up her nose?

I released my grip on the rolling suitcase and started for the living room, thinking there could be a simple explanation for a sneezing cat other than allergies. Like an illness.

The thought of a sick Chablis pushed logic down to the hippocampus or wherever common sense goes when you have more important matters to attend to. I dropped my tote on the counter and hurried past the teak dining table. Since my kitchen, dining area and living room all blend together, the trip to where I’d heard Chablis sneeze wasn’t more than twenty feet. But before I’d taken five steps, I stopped again. Something else besides a sneezing cat now had my attention.

Silence. No background noise. No Animal Planet playing on the television. I always leave the TV tuned to that station when I go away. If the cats were entertained by The Jeff Corwin Experience or Heroes or E-Vet, I’d convinced myself, my absences were more tolerable. Okay, I’m neurotic about my three friends. Not cat-lady neurotic. At forty-one I’m a little young for that. But cats have been my best friends for as long as I can remember, and the ones that live with me now have been amazing since my husband, John, died ten months ago. They take care of me. So I try my best to take care of them.

Could the TV be off because of a power failure?

Glancing back at the microwave, I saw that the clock showed the correct time—one p.m. Perhaps the high- def plasma TV blew up in a cloud of electronic smoke? Maybe. Didn’t matter, though. Not now. I’d only heard from Chablis, and none of my cats had shown their faces. I was getting a bad vibe—and I can usually rely on my intuition.

“Chablis, I’m home,” I called. I kept walking, slowly now—didn’t want to panic them if I was overreacting— and went into the living area. “Syrah, where are you? Merlot, I missed you.”

I breathed a sigh of relief when I found Chablis sitting on the olive chenille sofa, her blue eyes gazing up at me. Himalayans look like long-haired Siamese cats and Chablis was no different. Her gorgeous crystal blue eyes and her champagne fur were accented by deep brown feet, and she had a precious dark face and a fluffy wand of a tail.

Her nose was running and she seemed awfully puffed out—even for an already puffy cat. Was she totally swollen up by an allergen other than dandruff?

I knelt and stroked the side of her cheek with the back of my fingers, ran my hands over her body, looking for the mass of giant hives I was sure I’d find.

Nothing. She was simply all bloated fur and loud purrs.

“I am truly sorry for leaving you overnight. Are you telling me you have feline separation anxiety?”

Chablis blinked slowly, opened her mouth and squeaked. How pitiful. She’d lost her voice. She had to be sick. With a virus? Or leukemia? Cats do get leukemia.

Quit it, Jillian. Call the vet.

When I stood to pull my phone from my jeans pocket, I heard Merlot’s deep, loud meow and saw him perched on the seat cushions that line the dining area’s bay window—a spot that provides a spectacular view of Mercy Lake. He knows the entire lake belongs to him, despite never having been closer than the window. But he hadn’t been sitting there when I first came in, and he wasn’t gazing out on the water. No, Merlot was looking right at me and his fur was all wild and big, too.

Since he isn’t allergic to anything, dumb me finally realized that they were both scared.

And then I saw why.

Broken glass glittered near Merlot’s paws—paws that could each substitute for a Swiffer duster.

My heart skipped. Broken glass . . . a broken window. “Merlot! Be careful.” Fear escaped with my words. I attempted to mask my distress by smiling as I walked over to him.

Yeah, like Mr. Brainiac Cat would buy this fakery.

I petted his broad orange and white tiger-striped head while making sure none of his paws was bleeding. He seemed fine other than that he reminded me more than ever of one of those huge, shaggy stuffed animals at a carnival.

I hefted him off the cushions—he’s a Maine coon, a breed that weighs four times more than the smallest felines. Merlot stays lean, usually hovers around twenty pounds. I was hoping to keep him clear of the glass, but he was having none of that. He squirmed free and jumped right back on the window seat and proved himself amazingly nimble by staying away from any shards. While I examined the damaged window, he intently examined me as if to ask, “How will you rectify this now that you’re finally home, Miss Gadabout?”

The jagged hole in the lowest pane was large enough for a hand to reach in and unlatch that window. And it was unlatched.

“Someone’s broken in. Someone’s been in our house.” But stating the obvious couldn’t help them explain what had happened. Figuring this out was human territory. For a millisecond, I wondered if this—this intruder might still be here. I shook my head no. My cats are not fools. They’d be in the basement or under a bed if any danger still remained.

And exactly where was Syrah? My Abyssinian hadn’t made an appearance yet. I supposed he could have been frightened enough to stay in hiding, but no. He was the alpha cat of my little pack.

Okay, I decided. This break-in had upset him. That was why he wasn’t making an appearance. Either that or

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