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Authors: Kay Finch

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BOOK: Black Cat Crossing
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11

G
LENDA PEERED AROUND
the door at us.

“Y’all are darn lucky the deputy left,” she said. “We don’t need her hearing your fool talk about killing nobody.”

I slumped in my chair and willed my heart rate to slow down. “Thank goodness it’s only you.”

“I’ll ignore that jab,” Glenda said. “Who wants enchilada casserole? It’s way past ready.”

“Count me in,” Aunt Rowe said. With some effort and a grimace, she pushed herself up from the desk and grabbed her crutches, which were leaning against the file cabinet behind her. At least Rosales hadn’t confiscated the crutches as evidence. Yet.

Aunt Rowe maneuvered herself out from behind the desk and followed Glenda down the hall. I hung back, wishing I could be as relaxed about the situation as my aunt was. Or was she? I shook my head to clear that line of thought and followed the others.

In the kitchen, Glenda had set the table for two.

“You’re not joining us?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I ate leftovers earlier. Sandra’s having issues with her youngest, and I promised I’d call her tonight. That’ll take up the next couple hours.”

Glenda’s sister was notorious for her long-winded phone conversations.

Aunt Rowe settled herself at the table and didn’t waste any time digging into what looked like a double helping of casserole. She’d piled tortilla chips on the edge of her plate. I doubted this meal fit into the bone-healing eating program she’d mentioned the day before, but decided not to bring that up. This was good comfort food, and at this point we could use an extra helping.

I went to the window and looked out at the driveway to be sure the deputy had left. She had, thank goodness.

I took the seat across from Aunt Rowe, and Glenda brought us each a glass of iced tea.

“How’d your talk with Deputy Rosales go?” I asked Glenda.

“Short and sweet. I didn’t have much of anything to report. Hey, you meet the new guy? He’s a writer.”

“What new guy?” I said around a bite of casserole.

“The one in Venice,” she said.

“Good-looking fella,” Aunt Rowe said. “Came in from Austin. You might want to get to know him, Sabrina.”

Since I’d come to live in Lavender, Aunt Rowe had refrained from trying to set me up, and I was fine with that. I finished chewing my food and swallowed. “Adam Lee? He’s a photographer, and I thought he came from Houston.”

Glenda wiped the flat cooktop surface with a damp cloth. “Photographer. Writer. Could be both. Told me he’s working on something for a travel magazine. I thought he said Austin. He stopped in today, hoping we’d have a vacancy, and we did.”

“Yesterday.” Rowe crunched into a large chip.

“He checked in today,” Glenda said.

Rowe nodded. “Right, but he was here yesterday asking whether we’d have a vacancy beginning tonight.”

“Huh.” Glenda shrugged. “You ladies need anything else before I make my call?”

We both declined, and she took off down the hall to the guest room.

“Let’s not go on about Adam Lee,” I said when Glenda was out of earshot. “We have more important things to discuss.”

“Like what?” Aunt Rowe said.

Lord, give me strength.

“Did Deputy Rosales ask what you were doing outside last night after dark?” I said.

Aunt Rowe picked up her napkin, unfolded it, and placed it in her lap. “Outside?”

“You heard me. You might have thought no one saw you, but you were spotted out there.”

She hesitated, and I wondered if she would continue on her path of denial.

Finally, she said, “Who saw me?”

“Does that really matter? What were you doing?”

My mental list of possibilities had grown. A guest might have called to ask for extra towels. She could have gone to open a door for someone who’d accidentally locked themselves out. Or maybe she’d decided to do some star gazing.

Aunt Rowe took her time drinking her tea, then put the glass down and twirled it in the ring of condensation left on her coaster before answering. “I was looking for Bobby Joe.”

My heart sank. “Did you tell the deputy?”

Aunt Rowe sat up straighter. “She didn’t ask, and I decided I was only answering exactly what she asked, nothing more, nothing less. That’s what they tell people to do on those cop shows.”

She’d held back information. Good grief.

“We’re not in a cop show,” I said. “Now tell me, why did you go looking for him? That wasn’t the best idea you ever had, and keeping this little fact to yourself might backfire.”

“How so?”

“If the deputy finds out later, she’ll wonder why you didn’t mention it. You’ll look suspicious, and suspicious people end up on suspect lists.”

“You’re being melodramatic,” Aunt Rowe said. “Guess that goes with being a fiction writer.”

I sighed. “Believe me, I’m not planning to turn this into a script for a TV movie.
Why
did you go looking for Bobby Joe?”

Aunt Rowe puffed out a breath. “For one thing, I live here, and I can do what I want. Bobby Joe
said
he was staying with a friend, but I didn’t believe that BS. I figured he’d break into a cottage when he thought I wasn’t looking.”

Okay, maybe that wasn’t far-fetched, but in my opinion she should have told Rosales.

“Did you see him?” I said.

“No.”

“Did you see his SUV parked behind the Paris cottage?”

“No.”

“How long were you outside?”

“Thirty minutes? An hour? Heck, I don’t know. I wasn’t running a stopwatch.”

“Don’t get mad at me. I didn’t create this problem.”

“I didn’t either.”

We had a stare-down lasting all of five seconds. I gave in first and shoved a bite of casserole in my mouth. This stuff was impossible to resist. Ground beef layered between chunks of flour tortillas with a creamy sauce in between, enchilada sauce and melted cheese on top. Yum. Aunt Rowe must have felt the same, because she attacked her dinner with a vengeance. I cleared my plate, thought about seconds, then put down my fork and looked at Aunt Rowe.

“Why didn’t you tell Deputy Rosales you were out there?” I said.

Aunt Rowe dabbed her napkin at melted cheese on her mouth. “Like I said, she didn’t ask and there was nothing to tell. I didn’t see Bobby Joe anywhere. I came back in. Period.”

I sure hoped that was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

“We probably haven’t seen the last of the deputy,” I said. “It would be great if we had new information to report when that happens.”

“I don’t have any information.” Aunt Rowe shoveled her last bite of food into her mouth. “Jeb and his people can do their own work.”

She simply wasn’t concerned about being a suspect. I was worried enough for both of us.

“Who else does Bobby Joe know in town?”

Rowe shrugged, still chewing.

“Any idea who his friend was? The one he claimed to be staying with?”

“Of course not. I’m the one who thought he was lying about the friend and squatting in one of my cottages.”

“You think Becky or J. T. would know his friends?” I wondered how much information the sheriff had gotten from the brother and sister. Even if he’d learned something important, though, he wouldn’t be sharing his knowledge with us.

Aunt Rowe sat back in her chair. “I can’t see Bobby Joe keeping up with his siblings. Hard to imagine him having a friend at all, unless it’s somebody he’s trying to scam who hasn’t caught on to his shenanigans.”

I put my elbows on the table and propped my chin on my fists. Bobby Joe, the known scammer. How many people had he taken advantage of over the years?

“Bobby Joe grew up here in Lavender, didn’t he?” I said.

“Stayed till high school graduation,” Aunt Rowe said. “I was living in London about that time. Mom and Dad were running the cottage business.”

I nodded, remembering that Aunt Rowe had lived abroad with her second husband for several years.

Or was it her third husband? Whichever
.

I wiped my mouth and balled up my napkin. “I hope the sheriff plans to get Bobby Joe’s phone records and check his credit card charges to see where he’s been lately. Maybe then he’ll have some clues to go by.”

Aunt Rowe pushed her chair away from the table. “This has been one heck of a day, Sabrina, and I’m through talking about Bobby Joe. I vote for some mindless TV watching.”

I considered asking her about the girl who had died in the river, but Vicki Palmer’s death had most likely happened when Aunt Rowe lived in London, too. She might not know anything about it, and she obviously didn’t want to talk. I could find a better time to bring that up.

I went with her to the den and helped her get comfortable in an easy chair with her cast propped on an ottoman. She turned the TV to one of those reality shows that don’t even tempt me to watch. I told her I would clean up the kitchen before heading back to my cottage, and we said good night.

Back in the kitchen, I cleared the table and loaded our dishes into the dishwasher. I refrigerated the leftover casserole and spent a few minutes scanning other containers in hopes of finding something I could feed to Hitchcock. Leftover chicken strips looked promising, so I snatched two of them and found some foil to wrap them up. I checked the pantry for cans of tuna but came up empty.

I’d go to Krane’s in the morning and pick up cat food and some treats. Stray cats were not all that predictable, but I had a feeling I’d be seeing a lot more of Hitchcock. The thought made me smile.

When I left the house, though, the vision of Bobby Joe’s body in the river crowded into my head. The sheriff might be Aunt Rowe’s friend, but that wouldn’t affect Rosales’s attitude about the investigation. I wondered if she’d been told about Aunt Rowe’s nighttime escapade and what she made of that information, given that Aunt Rowe hadn’t mentioned it herself.

If I wanted to keep Aunt Rowe off the top of the suspect list, I had a lot more to do in town tomorrow than pick up things for the cat. I needed to search for answers about Bobby Joe, his friends, and especially his enemies.

12

I
SLEPT LIKE THE
dead and woke when the first sliver of light fell across the crimson-and-cream silk duvet that Aunt Rowe had brought back from her Monaco trip. My thoughts instantly went to Hitchcock. I hurried to the back door and pushed it open to check the dishes I’d left out on the deck for him the night before. The chicken was gone, but that only meant some critter had come by—could have been a raccoon as easily as a cat.

I knew it was futile to search for Hitchcock. Even well-behaved cats do what they want to when they want to. I’d feel a lot better if I had him contained inside my cottage. For now, I could only hope he’d watch his back while he was out and about. Good advice for anyone, actually, human or feline.

Shortly after seven, I slid into a booth at Hot Stuff. “Knock on Wood” played on the jukebox, and Max did a solo line dance behind the bar, pausing to do quick mug fill-ups for the customers seated there. The coffee shop had a good crowd, many of them locals, which was why I’d come in so early. These were the folks who knew a neighbor from an out-of-towner. They noticed everything and gossiped like crazy. Bobby Joe Flowers had not been invisible in his red SUV, and I was betting a good number of people would know whom I was talking about when I began asking questions.

Or maybe I wouldn’t even need to ask—information was headed my way in the form of Amos Whittle, a seventysomething man who’d lived in Lavender all his life. Amos didn’t have a shy bone in his body, and he loved to talk. I’d met the man on my first visit to Hot Stuff when he’d introduced himself and promptly given me a summary of his life story. Then he proceeded to ask me everything from where I was born to why I wanted to write books since there were already so many books out there to be read.

Amos took the chair across from me and plunked his coffee mug on the table. He tipped his John Deere cap farther back on his head. “How’s our local author doing this morning?”

“I’ll let you know after I wake up.”

Lacy Colter, a college student who worked part-time for Max, filled mugs at a nearby table and gave me a be-with-you-shortly signal. I smiled at her and nodded.

“No laptop?” Amos said.

“Not today.” I’d stuck a copy of my synopsis in my tote, though, with the thought that I’d read over it at some point and mark up the draft. I was enjoying the afterglow of having written and preferred thinking my words were genius. Rereading would tell me the truth, and I wasn’t ready for that stage yet.

“Heard you had some excitement over at your place,” Amos said.

“I could do without that sort of excitement. What have you heard?”

“Nothin’ much, ’cept Rowe’s in trouble for tryin’ to kill her cousin.”

I frowned at him. “She didn’t try to kill anyone.”

Lacy came up behind me with her coffeepot, and she’d obviously heard us. “You talking about that dude who’s like older than my dad and acted like I should be interested in dating him?” She wrinkled her nose in distaste.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Am I?”

She gave a fairly accurate description of Bobby Joe, and when she got to the part about his red vehicle, I knew we had the same man. She ended with, “I heard he died.”

“That’s right,” I said. “When he talked to you, did he tell you anything about himself?”

“Only that he was single, loads of fun, and looking for a good time.”

I wasn’t surprised that Bobby Joe would come on to the cute blonde with freckled cheeks and a nice tan. “Guess you turned him down?”

“For sure,” Lacy said. “And next day I saw him with a woman more his age. Probably his wife.”

I sat up straighter. “What did she look like?”

Lacy shrugged. “I wasn’t all that interested, you know? Lady had dark hair, that’s all I remember.”

“Where did you see them?”

“Sitting in his SUV,” she said. “They were parked on the street, couple blocks down.”

The bell over the door jangled and more customers streamed in. Lacy glanced that way and said, “Here comes the Saturday rush. What can I get you?”

I ordered a vanilla latte and a cinnamon cruller, then turned back to Amos when Lacy walked away.

“Where were we?” I snapped my fingers. “I remember. You were accusing my aunt of trying to kill a man.”

“Just tellin’ what I heard,” Amos said. “Not that I blame Rowe. Man threatens someone’s property, there’s gonna be trouble. Hard as we worked to pay off our mortgage, I could see my Edith taking out a man if he tried to stake a claim to our place.”

“That sounds pretty drastic.”

“Lucky for us we don’t have relatives the likes of Bobby Joe Flowers.”

“So you knew Bobby Joe?”

“Everybody who lived here back when Bobby Joe was in high school knew that rascal. He was impossible to miss.”

“What do you mean?”

“Lights shot out at the courthouse, ask Bobby Joe,” he said. “The 4-H steers let loose in the school gym, Bobby Joe was in on it. Principal gets up in the morning, finds his car on its roof. I could make you a list.”

“Might be why Bobby Joe’s been living elsewhere,” I said. “You know anyone who’s kept up with him all these years?”

Amos shook his head. “Most folks were glad to see him go.”

“When’s the last time you saw him?”

“Maybe a week ago.”

Interesting. Bobby Joe was in town and hadn’t told anyone. Or Aunt Rowe knew he was around and didn’t mention it.

“Where did you see him?”

“Once on the street, near the bakery.” Amos rubbed his gray whiskers. “Another time I passed him on the road. He was headed out of town.”

“Anyone with him?”

He shook his head. “Nope. He was alone both times.”

“He told us he was staying with a friend. Any idea who that might be?”

“Nah, all I heard is he’d been pretty free with the cash lately. Heard he bought a round of drinks out at The Wild Pony Saloon a couple times.”

The Wild Pony was a local beer joint that featured live country music on weekends. “Who told you that?”

“I think it was Twila, over at the antiques store.” He checked his watch. “Edith is expecting me home. We’re sitting for the four grandkids today. Wish us luck.”

“Enjoy,” I said and watched him go. I was processing the information I’d learned from Amos when I noticed Luke Griffin stride into the shop.

Lacy brought my order and apologized for the wait time. She glanced Griffin’s way. He looked very official wearing his game warden uniform and a stern expression.

“Now there’s an older man I wouldn’t mind dating,” she said and hurried over to the counter where Griffin was waiting for someone to take his order.

Guess Griffin appealed to all the young women in town. I remembered Hallie Krane’s reaction to the man the other day. He
was
pretty dang attractive, but I reminded myself that Griffin had argued with Bobby Joe Flowers. He might have had a hand in Bobby Joe’s death, and this was my chance to ask the man what they had fought about.

My mind raced as I tried to decide on the best way to broach the subject. Should I be straightforward with my questioning? “I saw you arguing with the murder victim” didn’t seem like a good start if I wanted to get information. Chances were he was ordering a coffee to go. I grabbed my cruller and slung my tote over my shoulder, ready to follow him outside where I could casually waylay him with questions in relative privacy.

Lacy handed the warden his coffee. He turned, but didn’t head for the door. Instead, he walked in my direction. I dropped my cruller on the table. Yanked the tote off my shoulder and reached into it. Grabbed the pages of my synopsis and slapped the paper down on the table. I bent over the pages and tried to look inconspicuous as I watched Griffin through the fringe of my lashes.

He passed the bar and approached a booth catty-corner from mine. He stopped with his back to me and addressed two men seated in the booth, though I couldn’t quite make out his words. One of the men, a heavyset guy wearing dusty jeans with suspenders over a T-shirt, looked up at Griffin and said, “I didn’t do nothin’, Warden. You got the wrong man.”

“No, Bart, I don’t.” Griffin spoke louder now. “You’re the right man with the wrong gear in your truck.”

What did he mean? I leaned to my left to get a better view of the guy with Bart. He was about half Bart’s size with long, stringy hair, his attention trained on his coffee cup.

“C’mon, Warden,” Bart responded. “I clean out my truck but once every couple a years. Got everything in there I need from now till three years from now.”

“You’re poaching deer,” Griffin said in a low voice. “You don’t want me to catch you red-handed ’cause I’ll make sure you’re justly punished and, trust me, you don’t want to go there. If I were you, I’d store that deer hunting gear in your house till the fall and quit poaching while the quitting’s good. You hear what I’m telling you, Bart?”

My attention had been riveted on the men from the moment Bart said he was the wrong man. He stared at Griffin like an alligator homing in on its next meal. His muscles tensed, and I felt sure Bart was about to haul off and punch Griffin in the face. I didn’t want to witness a fistfight. Why didn’t the game warden walk away? It seemed like he’d delivered the message he’d come to give.

Without much thought, I popped up from my booth and crossed the aisle to stand next to Griffin. I put a hand on his sleeve and tried not to think about the feel of his forearm beneath my fingers.

“Excuse me, Warden?” I said. “Could I speak with you for a moment?”

I didn’t look at Bart or his friend, though I could feel them staring. Griffin turned to me with a glimmer of humor in his eyes.

“Yes, ma’am. What can I do for you?”

“Could I have a word, please?” I turned and went back to my booth. Griffin followed and slid in across from me. I held my breath for a moment in hopes that Bart and his friend would go back to whatever they were doing before Griffin showed up, then breathed a sigh of relief when they stood and left the shop.

Luke Griffin smiled at me as if we met here for coffee on a regular basis, but his tone was anything but friendly. “So, you’re the woman who sicced the sheriff on me.”

“I, uh—” So much for plotting a casual way to begin the conversation. “That’s not exactly what happened.”

“Okay. Why don’t you set me straight?” He wrapped his hands around the tall to-go cup and leaned forward. His brown eyes glinted as if he wasn’t entirely serious, and his tone didn’t sound nearly as severe as it had during his conversation with Bart. Was he making fun of me?

I sipped my coffee, then cleared my throat. “I saw you the other day. Thursday. At Krane’s, in the parking lot. You were there with your dog.”

He nodded. “Angie.”

“Excuse me?”

“Her name’s Angie. She’s out in the truck now if you’d like to come out and meet her.”

“What? You mean now?”

“Sure,” he said.

“No. I mean, I’d love to meet her, but not right now. Angie? That’s a cute name.”

Not very manly, though. I wondered if a woman had named the warden’s dog for him. I glanced at Griffin’s left hand. No ring. No tan line.

What are you doing, Sabrina? Ask your questions.

“You saw us at Krane’s,” Griffin prompted.

“Right. And you were arguing with a man. The same man who ended up dead in the river, and I was wondering—”

“Whether I killed him?” Griffin said.

“No.” I hesitated briefly. “Well, did you?”

He shook his head. “I’m not a fan of killing. I don’t even hunt, and as you may have heard, I don’t cut poachers any slack.”

“But you didn’t like Bobby Joe Flowers.”

“Not especially.”

“Why?”

Griffin sipped his coffee, then said, “I don’t like people who break the rules or those who go outside the boundaries of what’s good and decent.”

I didn’t either. I’d had a very short acquaintance with Bobby Joe Flowers, but I couldn’t imagine the words “good” or “decent” ever applying to him. “Did Sheriff Crawford seriously question you about what I told him?”

“He did,” Griffin said.

“Were you reprimanding Bobby Joe Flowers for breaking rules when I saw you?”

“In a manner of speaking.”

“And would you say the sheriff is convinced you weren’t involved in Flowers’s death?”

“I would.”

I stared at Griffin, thinking how I hadn’t gotten straight answers out of him. I needed to ask more specific questions.

“So I’m free to go?” Griffin said. “Or did you want Deputy Rosales here to arrest me?”

Huh?

I followed Griffin’s gaze to Deputy Rosales, who was approaching us at a fast clip. Of all the bad luck. I wasn’t finished with Luke Griffin, and now I wouldn’t be able to continue the conversation. Not in front of Rosales.

She was out of uniform and looking attractive with her silky black hair down around her shoulders. She wore white slacks with platform espadrilles and a red sleeveless top that showed off her well-toned arms. I wondered if she had expected to see Luke Griffin when she dressed for the day.

Rosales reached our table with a big smile for the game warden. Sheriff Crawford had mentioned her crush on Griffin, and I could see from the woman’s face that was the truth.

“Luke,” she said in greeting.

He nodded. “Morning, Patricia.”

Then Rosales turned to me, and I feared her scathing expression would singe the eyebrows right off my face.

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