Meow Mayhem, first chapter

Ivy Preston keeps other people’s secrets for a living. When a small town mayor invites Ivy Preston and True Thompson to move their businesses to Apple Grove, can their love survive the sudden rise in crime?

“If you have a message of encouragement for these people, please speak.”
–Acts 13:15, NIV


Chapter One

 
    The alarm next to my ear shrieked me awake at two forty-eight a.m. I scrambled upstairs to my home office to catch the urgent summons. My messenger service board light sputtered an angry red, signaling an incoming call for one of my clients—ID code, the mayor’s office. I frowned. In the middle of the night? This had to be a crank call. I hoped it wasn’t one of those angry at the world verbal abusers. I was tired and not in the mood to be professionally pleasant. I held the headpiece next to my ear and answered. “Office of the mayor.”
“Mm—get—call—mmm—”
I couldn’t make anything out through the crackling static and so I boosted the gain. I tried to turn the outside antenna with the automatic control, but another burst of static rocketed me out of the chair. I whipped off my earpiece. “Oww!”
I sat down again slowly. The light blinked balefully now. I checked the caller ID. Chicago. Summersby Building. “Hello? Can I help you?” I flicked a switch up and down. All I heard now was a soft buzz. Then a distinct click. At least the recorder had been on. I yawned. Summersby Building was probably a construction company doing work for one of the new businesses coming to Apple Grove. That’s why I was here, too, invited on behalf of the mayor’s new community growth incentive. I yawned again and hung my earpiece on a hook. Maybe some cleaning crew accidentally hit redial. I went back to bed.
The next evening, after my third attempt to reach my friend Donald, the mayor of Apple Grove, Illinois, I ran my fingers across the rows of red and yellow and green blinking lights of my servers. I usually found them cheerful. Comforting. But sometimes my system of eight blinking bubbles reminded me of all I hated about Christmas. In the gloomy twilight of early fall, they felt sinister.
When I moved here two months ago, April Fool’s Day, to be exact, the phone and cable companies had wondered about how I could make McTeague’s Messenger Service work with my three servers. I showed them Donald’s letter of reference and the preliminary approval of the exception to the zoning ordinance in this quiet little neighborhood. 
Usually, I took messages. This evening, I needed to give one. One that I dreaded. I took a deep breath, plugged in my headset, and dialed.
“Apple Grove Police. Officer Ripple. How can I help you?”
    “Hello, hello? I need to report a kidnapping.”
    “Kidnapping? Name?”
    “Ivy Preston.”
    “Right. High Vee? Could you spell that, please?”
    “I-V-Y. Preston.”
    “And where are you now, ma’am? Can you see any weapons? Do you know the name of your kidnappers?”
    “Oh, no, Officer. It’s not me. It’s the mayor.”
    “Mayor? Got that. First name?”
    “Donald.”
    “Donald Mayor. And is he a relative? Is there a note?”
    “No…you’ve got it all mixed up. I’m calling about somebody kidnapping Mayor Donald Conklin.”
    “You think someone’s going to kidnap the mayor? That’s a pretty serious charge.”
    “Not going to. I think they already did.”
“We’ll send someone over to talk to you. What’s your address?”
    “Three-twelve Marigold.”
    “Ah, yes. The Pagner house. And you have some sort of evidence?”
    “Well, I received the strangest message last night and now he won’t answer his private number. I’m worried.”
“Message?”
“I’m the new messenger service in town. McTeague’s. Donald invited me.”
    “Okay. Sit tight. I’m sending Officer Dow over to you to take your statement.”
    “Thank you.” I hung up and wondered what kind of a statement I was expected to give. I had the recording, but unless one knew the context, it could mean anything. Maybe I should call someone. How did I know I could trust the police here? You saw it all the time on TV. Sometimes, the bad guys aren’t who you thought. My mental contact list was pretty slim. My neighbors, who I didn’t know all well. Mom, who lived a couple of hours away.
A knock on the door saved me from a slide into self-pity. I let in Officer Ann Dow. And smiled politely at the little wisp of a blond who looked like the east wind would carry her away if she hadn’t been anchored by her sturdy shoes and even sturdier holstered shiny black weapon. “Thank you for coming.” I wasn’t huge, but I looked down a couple of inches on her.
    “So, tell me about this alleged kidnapping.” The officer got out her pad and pen. She shushed her shoulder mic.
    “I believe the mayor is missing.”
She didn’t say anything at first. “And you believe that because…?”
“I received this strange message late last night. On my business line. You know, I’m hired to reroute phone, fax, and electronic mail service from the mayor’s office while he’s out?”
“I’m not privy to the mayor’s office practices,” she said, straight-faced.
I ignored her implication and instead led her to my office, explaining she could hear for herself. “This message came in, cued for the mayor’s office, but it was all staticky and garbled. I couldn’t make anything out, except ‘get’ and ‘call.’”
She listened. “Get what? And you think it came from the mayor?”

“I don’t know for sure. The caller ID said Summersby Building in Chicago. I just thought you should check it out.”
Officer Dow tapped her pen on her pad. She shook her head and returned to the kitchen, me following like a lost puppy. “I’ll make a report,” she said, reaching for the door. “Maybe you should notify the FCC. If you get threatening calls, you should call the telephone company. We’ll talk to Mrs. Bader-Conklin, who’s been in the office all week covering for her husband. If that’s all, I’ll let you get back to…what you were doing.”
    “Thank you. But—”
    Click. She shut my door.
And I thought Apple Grove seemed like such a nice town.
I let out a sigh of pure exasperation and tapped my size seven-and-a-half sandal on the tile floor. Last night’s message…I just couldn’t get it out of my head. I get mistaken numbers, of course, but I had a funny feeling. And that was a new one—Donald’s wife had been in the office? Why did he need me? Calling the police wasn’t the best first move. But what else could I have done?
    Donald, or the city I guess, hired me to take messages this week while he went to court another incubator business to start up in Apple Grove. He was nice like that, paving the way for other people to trust my business, just like he did.
    Maybe I should have been mad at him instead of concerned. With my ringless fingers, I tucked a loose spiral of my dishy-blah hair back into its sloppy bun. Donald would never have ignored me this long. And he’d want to talk about the next CAT convention coming up. That was Cat Association Titlists—the group where we met years and years ago. We both had silver Egyptian Maus.
    I have never been a whimsical person, and this was a big deal in my life, but I’ll get to that later. Let’s just say his request, that I move McTeague’s—that’s me, Ivy Amanda McTeague Preston—Message Service to Apple Grove happened to fall at a good time. Pun intended.
    If the police thought Donald was perfectly safe, I should just wait until tomorrow and then see if Mrs. Bader-Conklin had some notion about what was going on. I could go visit her at the office and ask, casual-like, if she’d heard from him. And offer to leave his messages.

***

My next hint that something was wrong was that Donald’s secretary, Marion Green, was not at her usual post. If the mayor’s office was open for business, Marion at least should be here, even if she supposedly had the week off. Donald joked that she was the one who really ran the town. The stern-looking black-haired woman who infringed on Marion’s space made me wait fifteen minutes. Donald usually came out of his office when he heard my voice. The light was on; I could see it shining under his door. I suppose Margaret—Mrs. Bader-Conklin—could have been making an urgent call.
I heard a distinct sneeze from inside the office. Then the tap of high heels.
Why had I waited so long before getting concerned enough about Donald to call the police? Final registration for CAT was in two days. Donald never missed. He hadn’t registered yet—I checked. And he told me before he left town that it was the one thing he looked forward to all summer. He could take his cat, Tut, out of his wife’s hair for awhile, and since she claimed she was allergic to animals, she didn’t insist on coming along. He never said anything negative, but I got the impression the vacation was a three-way blessing between him, his wife, and Tut.
A woman opened the door to the mayor’s office. I recognized her from a photo that Donald had showed me—Margaret. She studied me over half-glasses perched on a razor-thin nose; Joan Crawford eyebrows raised toward her curled-under bangs. I shivered.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Preston. Please.” She gestured to me to follow her. And then she invited me to sit in the ugly straight-back chair on the opposite side of Donald’s desk instead of the comfy one in front of the computer. Donald had never done that.
I warily started a conversation. “I hope Marion isn’t sick.”
“I gave Mrs. Green the week off. My personal assistant is with me.” The wife of the mayor of Apple Grove leaned back in her husband’s leather chair. “Now, what can I do for you, Miss…Preston?”
I swallowed hard. “Uh, well, Don—the mayor asked me to take messages as he was going to be out of the office all week. I wondered…if you’ve heard from him?” Dang, I tried hard not to squeak with nerves at the end. I couldn’t help it, yet instinct told me that I must not show fear. I hoped she wouldn’t get the wrong impression.
“May I know the nature of your business with the mayor?”
No wonder Donald needed an annual break from this woman. Did she act like such an iceberg at home, too? Margaret sneezed again and took out a dainty lace handkerchief. “Something in the air,” she muttered, sniffling. “You must have a cat or a dog at home. I’m allergic.”
“Oh?” I said, stopping before I mentioned I already knew that. Wrong impressions and all.
“I recall Donald speaking of you,” she said. “From that little group he goes to, right? So, did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Bring the messages you’ve been supposedly taking.”
“Sorry.” I handed over eight yellow and green carbons. I kept the pink copies locked in a safe for three months, per contractual agreement. “Mrs. Lendler wants her neighbor’s box elder tree cut down as a public menace because of the bugs—”
“Thank you. I can read. Was there anything else?”
“So, am I still on the job for the rest of the week? And Don—the mayor—will be back on Saturday? He’s all right?”
“Of course he’s all right. Why wouldn’t he be? Letty can handle business.”
Letty must be the battleaxe up front. Margaret stood and I had to follow suit. She was taller than me. I supposed if I had on heels instead of tennies, I could have looked at her nose instead of her chin. She had three black hairs sprouting under her makeup. I pressed my lips tight to hold in the grin while she turned to open the door to her office.
“How’s Tut these days?” I asked, testing her out on a whim.
“Tut? Oh—fine, just fine.”
Mmhmm. “Mem’s just fine, too.”
“Mem? Memo? I don’t underst—” She looked over my shoulder. “Oh, ah, good to know. Excuse me while I, ah….”
I followed her line of sight to see Letty in the doorway, frowning, while her left hand came to rest on her folded elbow. We locked brown-eyed stares. Her irises had weird little gold flecks in them. She blinked first. She went back to her desk.
“I’ll be glad to care for Tut,” I said, a bit giddy with my victory in the stare down, “since you’re allergic and all, while the mayor’s away. Our cats get along swell.”
She bit the corner of her lip, just for an instant, but enough to give me the feeling that something was amiss.

“Tut’s all right, isn’t he? Or is he with Donald?”
She frowned when I said Donald. Oops. “I mean, the mayor.”
She pushed forward, forcing me to move to the door. “Of course. If you’ll excuse me, we have a great deal of work. Good-bye, now. Take care.”
I nodded to Letty on my way out. I got turned around in the maze of staircases and hallways and ended up leaving city hall by the back door. In my muse, I had to dodge a dark-colored delivery van squealing right up to the back door before I found the walk that went around to the side parking lot where I had left my car. What on earth would Mrs. Bader-Conklin do in her husband’s office?
How I got home, I’m not sure. I don’t think I ran into anyone on the way. I paced my tiny kitchen, three steps forward and back, as the evening wore on, deciding how much further to get involved in this business.
Judging by the officer’s response to my initial phone call, I wondered if I would ever rate any respect for my theory that the mayor needed help. I only hoped it would not be too late for Donald. I needed to find a better way to explain my dilemma to the police if I felt like I had to call again.
I could talk to someone else. Of course! Someone else. True! He’d know what to do. How could I have forgotten Truesdale Thompson, Donald’s other pet project? I grinned. True had moved to Apple Grove not long after me. Mea Cuppa, his little bookshop and fancy coffee joint, needed more prep time than my machines, so he’d only recently opened. I spent my odd hours helping him sort merchandise and stock shelves.
I drove through downtown, chased by an occasional scrap of newspaper or leaf swirling in the spring breeze riffling up from the river through alleys. I knocked on the front door of the closed shop. I didn’t think True heard me at first, as he took some time coming down from his apartment.
“Ivy. What’s wrong? Come on in. Sit down.”
A solid comfort, True. I babbled. “I don’t know where else to turn. Please, listen to me!
“Of course I will.”
I looked around, feeling vulnerable through the huge plate glass window. Any passerby could see us clearly. “Not here.”
He seemed unfazed. “Okay. Come on up. I wasn’t exactly expecting visitors, though.”
And clearly, he wasn’t. He tossed aside a pile of towels and picture hangers and bade me sit on his recliner while he went to fix tea. I felt antsy and couldn’t sit still. There was little room to pace with the floor so covered with boxes and bubble wrap. I could barely tell the color of the carpet.
He smiled and put a steaming cup of ginger tea in my hand. “I told you it was a mess.”
I inhaled. “Thank you.”
He looked around the room and grimaced. “Let’s go in the kitchen, shall we?”
His kitchen was a different world. Neat and cozy. I could see where True felt most comfortable. We sat. I sipped while appreciating his patience. I mulled over a couple of ways to tell my tale and decided direct was best.
“Donald’s missing. I think he’s in trouble.” I stopped, and took a deep, whimpery breath. True put one of his gigantic warm hands over mine and anchored me with his calming gray stare. I had no idea what he thought, but I knew I trusted him.

“Ivy. Donald told us that he was going on a business trip. In fact, I thought you were on the job.”
“I thought that too. Until the police told me that Margaret was in the mayor’s office.”
True’s eyebrows went up with comforting incredulity. He shook his head; his eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“When I called the police, he said he saw the mayor’s car leaving the parking lot. Wouldn’t he have taken his car on his trip?”
“Not if he was flying. Ivy, you called the police? Based on what?”
I twisted my mouth to the side and jiggled my foot. “Um, well. A feeling, I guess. Donald hadn’t registered for CAT yet. I knew he wanted to go, so I tried his emergency number. Three times. To remind him. He didn’t answer. Then, later, I started putting this strange garbled message—I could only make out what sounded like ‘get,’ and ‘call,’ I think, from some number in Chicago—together with Donald’s absence, and wondered if the two might be related. So, what do you think it means?”
True sat back, not saying anything. Then he got up and walked over to the sink. I admired his height and flexed back muscles, the efficient way he moved and the deliberate way he thought before speaking—so unlike my scrambling around and blurting out the first thing I thought. He was older than me—I’m almost thirty-two and single, thank you to my ex-fiancĂ© Stanley—but I wasn’t sure how much. His wavy black hair was slightly salted at the temples, and his nose looked like it had been broken at one time and fixed, but best of all, he wasn’t married. “Donald’s business wasn’t in Chicago.” The tone of his voice made me feel that he wanted to take me seriously but was finding it difficult.
“I suppose he’s just busy,” I said. “Or out of cell range. And the other call could have been some wrong number or something. It happens.”
“What do you think might be going on?”
“I don’t know. Donald is my friend. If he’s in trouble, I want to help.”
True’s mouth twitched. “What kind of help?”
I sighed, thinking how ludicrous my actions had been. “I thought I’d just go over to city hall and visit Margaret. You know, just ask if she’d heard from Donald. So I did. But Margaret wasn’t talking. Marion wasn’t even there.”
“She might not spend all day in the office if Donald was out,” True reminded me.
I took another deep breath. “But there was someone else there. Someone I didn’t know sitting at Marion’s desk.”
“Ivy, you wouldn’t know many people here anyway, remember? We just moved.”
I liked the “we” part of his comment. “Right. But did you know that Margaret’s allergic to cats? I thought she just hated them.”
“That’s one of the reasons Donald was so interested in that new company. Happy Hearts Bioengineering? They’re working to produce a hypoallergenic breed of animal.”
“I thought he was…well, maybe I hadn’t been paying attention. I thought he was going after a pet food company. Fel-feli—”
“Feli-Mix. He told me they signed an ‘intent to build’ contract based on getting the zoning approval.”
“Oh. Good.” I scratched my ear. Isis wandered in from a dark hallway to curl around True’s ankles. True’s Mau smoke female was daintier in looks than disposition. My Mem had been at the receiving end of her ferocity since they’d been introduced two years ago at a convention. Poor Mem had only tried to be polite.
True nudged me back to the present topic at hand. “What did Margaret say?”
“She wouldn’t talk to me.” I saw him wipe a hand over his face. “I didn’t think I was nosy. So I asked her if I was supposed to continue taking messages. She said her assistant could handle it.”
“Oh?”
“Then I asked Margaret about Tut. You know. I was concerned. She said he was fine. I asked if I could take care of him while Donald was gone. She didn’t answer me. Not really.” I looked toward the lopsided drape that hung over the kitchen sink.
“But you’re still worried.”
“Yes, about both of them. I wish now I hadn’t called the police first.”
“What exactly did you say to them?”
My lip protruded again. “That I wanted to report a…a kidnapping.” My voice had dropped to a too-low whisper on the last word. I sounded perfectly ridiculous and I knew it.
“Based on a message you couldn’t understand? And after the police officer stopped laughing?”
“He didn’t laugh at all! He sent a lady cop to check on me.”
“And?”
“She said she’d report it.”
True uncrossed his arms and got up from the table. He gently removed the mug from my hands and raised me to my feet. I liked the feel of those hands. I liked the confidence he exuded even more. “Ivy, I can tell you’re concerned about this. Why don’t you let me go talk to Margaret tomorrow, see what I think. Okay? I’m not dismissing you, but I have to think about this.”
I nodded. “I know it sounds wild, True. I need to do something, but I’m not sure what.”
True walked me to the door and down the steps. The moccasins he wore silenced his path across the floor of the shop. “You drove. You want me to take you home?”
I appreciated his thoughtfulness. “I’m all right.” I caught my reflection in the window of the door. Shoulder-length corkscrew hair in all directions, eyes wide—I looked like a nutcase. No wonder he had been concerned I couldn’t drive. I stopped and turned. The top of my head came to his shoulder, giving me a good view of his throat. His turtleneck shirt hid most of the scar that I knew snaked around his neck and across his right shoulder. I never asked about it and I was too shy around him yet to pry, but I hoped that would change in the near future. “Thank you, True, for listening. I hope it’s just some kind of mental lapse on my part.”
“We both care about Donald. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” He flashed a grin and closed the door behind me, staying at the window to watch until I sat safely in my car.
I did not expect to sleep much, so after checking my client list and the current work orders in my office, I settled on the couch with my pet Memnet nearby and popped a movie into my player.
Mau owners give their friends names popular in ancient Egypt for obvious reasons. Mem was a beautiful black-spotted registered silver male running past middle age. We garnered tons of compliments for his personality and outstanding looks, and he was as devoted to me as I was to him. He had been a staunch friend when Stanley decided he did not want to marry me—after we’d ordered the invitations and my dress and rented the hall.
Memnet’s scratching woke me sometime later. Cold and stiff, I came to my senses abruptly when I heard a loud crack and tinkling sound from the kitchen. Mem was not as cautious as me and streaked toward the sound, a silver shadow in the blue glow of the television screen. His screech was primeval.
My hand shook as I dialed the number of the police department with a legitimate complaint this time. After being assured they would send someone immediately, I peered into the kitchen to see the broken window panel of the door and the swinging chain. Mem sat guard, his tail twitching and ears forward, his paw resting on top of a stone with something tied to it.
“What have you got, Mem?” I crouched, wary of glass. With a low growl pulsing from his furry throat, he reluctantly let me examine the rock. I supposed it was evidence, but it was in my house. And Ripple had laughed at me earlier, after all. With one eye watching for the police car, I hurriedly untied the string and read the attached note.
“Busy-body’s don’t belong in our town.”
I hated misused apostrophes.