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Cynthia Baxter is a native of Long Island, New York. She is the author of the Reigning Cats & Dogs mystery series, featuring vet-turned-sleuth Jessie Popper, and the Murder Packs a Suitcase mystery series, featuring travel writer Mallory Marlowe. Baxter currently resides on the North Shore, where she is at work on her next mysteries in both series.
"A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way."—Mark Twain
Cassandra's cat. He just stared at me. . . . There was blood everywhere, and she was lying on the floor, not moving--" Suzanne Fox's voice broke off in a hoarse choke. We were sitting in her living room, less than forty-eight hours after she'd first called me with the news.
"Start at the beginning," I instructed her, struggling to keep my voice even. I'd done the same thing hundreds of times before--usually while trying to calm an alarmed animal owner. "Slow down, take a deep breath, and tell me exactly what happened."
She let out what sounded more like a desperate gasp than a deep breath. "Jessie, the police think I murdered my ex-husband's fiancée. Her name is--was--Cassandra Thorndike. What am I going to do?"
"Thorndike--as in Thorndike Vineyards?" I asked, naming one of the most successful and best-known wineries on Long Island.
"Exactly. She was found stabbed to death at her house in Cuttituck, out on the North Fork." Suzanne paused, as if she was trying to find the strength to go on. "Apparently her next-door neighbor dropped by for a visit. But Cassandra didn't come to the door, even though it was wide open. The neighbor noticed her car was in the driveway and the TV was on. So she dialed 911. The police showed up, expecting to find some senior citizen with an overly active imagination and too much time on her hands." In a strained voice, she added, "Except it turned out she was right."
"But why would the police think you had anything to do with it?" I asked.
"They have witnesses, people who live in the neighborhood, who claim they saw a car the same make and color as mine drive up to her house not long before her next-door neighbor called. They said the driver had bright orange-red hair."
"Were you there?"
"Yes." She let out a little choking sound before adding, "I--I saw her body, Jess. So I wasn't really surprised when the cops showed up on my doorstep a couple of days ago and said Cassandra had been murdered."
"You told them what happened, right?"
She waited for what seemed a very long time before answering. "Not exactly."
"What do you mean, 'not exactly'?" My mouth had suddenly become very dry.
"I--I told the police they had the wrong person. That I'd never even been to Cassandra's house." Before I had a chance to react, she cried, "Jessie, you've got to help me!"
It's not easy staying calm when you've just found out one of your best friends is a murder suspect. I liked to think my decade of working as a veterinarian had taught me to handle all kinds of situations, especially the past few years of traveling around Long Island with my clinic-on-wheels. But this . . . well, this was something new.
I just stared at Suzanne for a few seconds, not wanting to seem too horrified by her situation but not quite able to take it all in. Even though she sat in a wooden rocking chair, she remained motionless. The fact that I always think of her as one of those people who never sits still made the image especially peculiar.
It was late morning, yet the blinds were drawn and the lights were off, casting the room in shadow. Even in the dim light, I could see that her huge, round eyes, the same shade of blue as cornflowers, were swollen and rimmed in red, as if crying had become as much a part of her routine as breathing. Her nose and cheeks were also puffy, and they'd taken on a pinkish tinge. Her remarkable orange-red hair looked surprisingly lackluster. While she had tamed her wild, wavy mane during our college years by wearing it in a waist-length braid, she'd recently gotten it cut into layers. Somehow, through either physics or chemistry, she'd also made it dead straight. It was usually stunning. Today, however, it hung limply about her face, looking as dejected as she did.
"I'm still not getting this," I told her. "Why were you at Cassandra's house in the first place?"
She glanced at me warily. "You know how upset I was when I heard Robert was engaged. For heaven's sake, we'd only been divorced for a few months! The body that was our marriage was still warm."
I cringed at the metaphor. Somehow, the image of anything dead, even a relationship, hit a raw nerve.
"I do remember you telling me how painful it was for you," I commented.
" 'Painful' is an understatement," she replied. "I felt worse than I did when my impacted wisdom tooth got infected. Anyway, I decided that meeting her might make me feel better. I figured that once I saw for myself that she was just another person, maybe even someone I could be friends with, the idea that Robert had chosen her over me wouldn't hurt as much."
Frankly, I thought that sounded like a really bad plan. But at this juncture, it seemed kinder to keep my opinions to myself.
"So I found out where she lived," Suzanne continued. "On Tuesday afternoon, I went over to her house and rang her doorbell. I figured I'd introduce myself and that maybe she'd offer me coffee or something. I was hoping that by the time I got out of there, I'd have the closure I was looking for." She shook her head sadly. "I mean, she couldn't have been an ogre. She was probably a very nice person, someone I would have liked if we'd met under different circumstances."
"Probably," I replied unconvincingly.
"Anyway, when I got there, I was pretty sure she was home. But she wouldn't come to the door."
"Why did you think she was in the house?" I asked.
"Her car was parked in the driveway."
"How did you know it was hers?"
Suzanne rolled her eyes. "Jess, it was a red Miata with the license plate CASSLASS. Who else could it belong to?"
"Good deduction," I said, nodding.
"Besides, the front door was open. That wasn't surprising, since it was one of those gorgeous October days. And the TV was on."
"So you rang the bell?" I prompted.
"Two or three times. Then I knocked, really loudly." Frowning, she noted, "My first thought was that she knew perfectly well who was on her doorstep. I figured she'd looked out the window and recognized me from Robert's description, or photos he had.
"Anyway, the idea that she was holed up inside her house, hoping I'd just go away, got me mad." Suzanne hesitated. "Finally, I opened the screen door and walked in."
I guess a look of surprise crossed my face, because she quickly added, "It's not like I barged in or anything. I just stepped inside and called her name. You know, like, 'Cassandra? Are you here? Anybody home?'
"I could hear the television blaring from the back of the house. So I followed the sound. But I kept calling her name. I mean, I wasn't trying to sneak up on her or anything.
"Then I reached a room that looked like a home office. It had a computer and a fax machine and a little TV, stuck up on a shelf. I got as far as the doorway. And then, and then--" Her voice broke off. "I saw her."
"Exactly what did you see, Suzanne?" I asked gently.
She paused to take a couple of deep breaths. "She was . . . she was on the floor, facedown. But she was crumpled up, as if she'd fallen. There was blood everywhere. Most of it had soaked into the carpet, I guess. And there was plenty of blood on the desk. Everything on top was in chaos. Papers were lying all over the place, and the pencil mug was on its side with pens and pencils scattered.
"The whole scene was horrible, Jess! And what made it even more disturbing was the fact that, right in the middle of this grotesque scene, there was one single sign of life."
I blinked. "What are you talking about?"
"Like I told you: Cassandra's cat. He was lying on the floor next to her, acting as if he was just waiting for someone to come and help. He looked up at me and blinked, then let out a loud meow. It was really creepy. I almost got the feeling he was trying to tell me what had happened. Or that maybe he was asking me why it happened."
The idea of someone's poor pussycat witnessing such a horrendous event broke my heart. I immediately thought of my own two cats. Cat--Catherine the Great--was a longtime companion who had often picked up on my bad moods, everything from sadness to grumpiness. She seemed to have a sixth sense about what was going on with me, and she seemed to long to comfort me. Tinkerbell was still just a kitten, but I'd even caught her staring at me, wide-eyed, at times when I was upset, as if she had also noticed that something was amiss.
"Anyway, I panicked," Suzanne continued. "I just turned and ran. I got in my car and drove off." Her shoulders slumped. "That's what happened. But somehow, I couldn't bring myself to tell the police."
The face of Lieutenant Anthony Falcone, Norfolk County's chief of homicide, flashed before my eyes like one of the bursts of light that often precede a migraine. Even in my imagination, he didn't look happy.
"Why not, Suzanne?" I demanded, trying not to sound exasperated. "Why didn't you just tell them the truth?" I realized I was perched so far on the edge of the couch that I was close to toppling onto the floor. I also noticed that the brightly colored fabric, splashed with cheerful flowers, looked painfully out of place in the somber room.
"Jess, when they showed up at my house, I just freaked! All these thoughts started racing around in my head, like, They're going to think I killed Cassandra Thorndike because I was jealous! and I can't let them know I was there!" The tears that had pooled in her eyes began streaming down her cheeks. "I didn't want to get involved. I was afraid they'd suspect me."
In a choked voice, she added, "But I didn't do it, Jessie! You believe me, don't you?"
"Of course I do!" I cried.
In fact, I was one hundred percent convinced that she was innocent. Suzanne Fox and I had been friends since our freshman year of college, when the fact that we both wanted to become veterinarians had instantly bonded us. We'd memorized the periodic table together, filled out our vet-school applications together, and even opened our letters of acceptance together. Even though we lost touch for a few years after she went to vet school at Purdue University and I went to Cornell, the previous June we had reconnected when I discovered that she, too, was living on Long Island. She was someone I'd been friends with for more than a decade and a half. As far as I was concerned, that was more than enough time to be certain of her true character.
"What did the police say when you told them it wasn't you their witnesses had spotted?" I asked.
Suzanne's lip trembled. "I'm not sure they believed me. When they left, they told me not to leave the New York area. In fact, they said I'd be wise to stay on Long Island."
"Suzanne, listen to me," I said, doing my best to remain calm. "You've got to tell them the truth. Sooner or later, the cops are going to--"
"Don't you see?" she cried. "I can't change my story now. It'll only make things look worse."
"But don't you think that sooner or later they're going to figure out you really were at Cassandra's house that day? That they'll find your hair or your fingerprints or . . . or some other proof?"
She shook her head hard. "I'm not even going to think about that right now," she insisted. "If that ever happens--and I don't see any reason why it should--I'll deal with it then."
Her capacity for denial was truly remarkable. Then again, she'd already astounded me with it through her choice of boyfriend.
I decided to try a different tack. "Have you contacted an attorney?" I asked. "Someone who can give you advice?"
She nodded. "Marcus put me in touch with somebody. A guy he went to college with. I think they were in the same fraternity."
Great, I thought as a wave of dismay swept over me. I hoped that, whoever he was, he'd turn out not to have gotten through school the same way as that boyfriend of hers, Marcus Scruggs: by majoring in Girls and Beer. "Who is he?"
"Jerry Keeler," she replied. "He's got an office right across from the Norfolk County Courthouse."
I made a mental note of his name.
"Is there anything you can do, Jessie? Can you talk to that obnoxious guy in homicide? You know him, don't you? What's his name--Vulture or something?"
"Falcone," I corrected her. "Lieutenant Falcone."
"If he hurries up and finds the real murderer, I'll be off the hook, right?" she asked anxiously. "Besides, aren't you two friends?"
I hesitated before replying, "Actually, he and I are not exactly on the best of terms."
That was an understatement. Not only was the man utterly convinced that I spent way too much time investigating murders; the fact that I occasionally turned out to be better at it than he was only furthered the damage. Given our history, I suspected that alerting him to my connection to this case would only aggravate what was already an appalling situation.
But I had to take action. Especially since Suzanne didn't seem to realize that she'd made a bad situation a hundred times worse by lying to the police about having been at Cassandra Thorndike's house the day she was murdered. Despite my feelings about Falcone, he was sharp enough that such a blatant lie was bound to raise red flags.
And when Falcone was seeing red, there was no telling what he might do.
* * *
Before I drove off, I took a long look at Suzanne's house, a small West Brompton Beach bungalow that had clearly been built as a summer home. It looked ridiculously cheerful and full of hope for the future, despite the fact that whoever designed it had clearly been influenced by the Shoe Box Movement. Suzanne had done a valiant job of making the best of it. Its white shingles had been painted recently, probably around the time she and her then-husband, Robert Reese, moved in two years ago, when they'd relocated to Long Island so he could open his own restaurant. Back then, of course, Suzanne didn't realize their marriage had already gotten to dessert.