Authors: Anna Kern
“Meow is like aloha––it can mean anything.”
: A Welcome Diversion
Alyx looked tired and for good reason. First, someone had broken into the store, and now a threatening note had been left on her truck. Clearly fascinated by Jonathan Steele, she hadn’t hesitated to accept his dinner invitation, but now she seemed to be having second thoughts, as I watched her move slowly around her bedroom. She pulled an outfit out of the closet and then put it back, she dialed a number and then disconnected it before it rang. In the end, she stepped into the shower. Coming out with a thick cotton towel wrapped around her, she applied color to her eyes and lips.
The female cats were no longer interested in her wardrobe, now that she’d purged her closet of all the unattractive clothes. In keeping with her more casual style, her wardrobe was now up-to-date and flattering.
The doorbell chimed and we all followed her to the door, Pooky anxious to meet the new man and ready to dislike him. As it turned out, Steele came with a bag of treats in his pocket and the two of them left for the Ethiopian restaurant having made three new friends.
As a precaution, I had asked Gemma, one of Pooky’s outdoor cat friends, to keep an eye on Alyx when she was away from me if she could.
Gemma had ingratiated herself with Hunter’s assistant, Dorinda, when I gave her a job to do that involved surveillance of the lawyer’s office. She visited Pooky on occasion, and I was glad to hear that now she had a home when she wanted one, and could depend on regular meals––no cat should have to scrounge for food.
When they returned from their date, Alyx invited Jonathan in for coffee. They engaged in small talk while she prepared the coffee and it was ready within minutes. She watched him stir three teaspoons of sugar into his cup and asked him what motivated him to start traveling.
“I was born in Africa. While in college, and against my parent’s wishes––I might add––I decided to visit my birthplace. I loved the experience and knew that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So when I graduated, I got a job with an import-export company in Chicago, and the rest is history, as they say.”
“Did you tell me that Lithuania was the last country you visited?”
“Yes, that’s right. I was there about a month ago. I met some wonderful artists whom I hope I can continue to do business with.” He shifted in his chair, moving a little closer. “That’s enough about me; now tell me about you. Are you a transplant like most of us here in Florida?”
“There’s really not much to tell. I was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan. My brother, Tom, and his family were already living in this area when I moved here. My ex and I had often talked about moving to a warmer climate and since our son was five and starting school, we thought it an appropriate time to make our move. Five years later, I found myself a single mom, on my own. I went back to school to become a designer and met Maggie. We both already had a large collection of things and talked about someday owning our own business. One day, I was walking along Ocean Street and saw a building for sale, made an offer, and as you said, the rest is history.”
They both reached for their coffee. Alyx put her cup down. “I know you’re not married now; have you ever been?” she asked.
He shook his head. “There have been significant others. I’m not seeing anyone now. How about you? I assume, since you’re here with me, there’s no one special in your life?”
She lowered her eyes before she answered. “No, there isn’t.”
The rest of the evening was devoted to general conversation––business, the area, and other light subjects.
Alyx tried to stifle a yawn and lost. She apologized and explained why she was so tired.
“Do you often conduct estate sales?”
“No, actually, we don’t. This was a special case; Althea was a friend.”
He blinked in quick succession. Alyx didn’t appear to have seen his reaction, probably due to her tiredness, but I did.
“Did the estate sale include all the contents of the house?”
“No. The better pieces we bought outright and are in our store––all together in one spot.”
“Did you find a favorite piece?”
She smiled, “Yes, the bed,” and she went on to describe it.
She yawned again, this time openly and no excuses.
“Okay, Alyx, I’d better go before you fall asleep on me. That wouldn’t be good for my ego,” he said, trying to sound hurt.
“Somehow, I don’t think that’s a problem for you.”
She walked him to the door, and he took her hand in both of his, “I’ve enjoyed your company. Maybe we can do it again, soon?”
“I’d like that.”
She locked the door, turned off the lights and went straight to bed.
“There’s no need for a piece of sculpture in a home that has a cat.”
The Problem That Wasn’t a Problem
Alyx was on the phone when I ventured into the workroom the next day.
“Maggie, where are you calling from? Is everything all right?”
“I’m home and I’m fine,” Maggie said.
“Home? What happened, sweetie? I told you I was taking care of everything. I hope you didn’t come home just because of what happened.”
“No, that’s not why I’m back,” I heard Maggie say from the receiver. “Do you have time to talk? I’ll bring lunch.”
“I’ll make the time.”
Maggie lived in a one-bedroom condominium on the ocean. Her attractive seventh-floor condominium, decorated in a sleek modern style was second only to the ocean view from the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors across the width of the living room. Traffic was usually heavy around lunchtime, and the ten-minute trip took us twenty minutes plus the time it took to pick up the lunch order at the Cuban Sandwich Shop.
After greeting each other with hugs, Alyx didn’t waste any time getting to the point.
“Okay, what’s wrong?”
“George’s son, Erik, is thinking about enrolling in college here in Florida and asked if he could stay with him for a year or two, so he can save money to pay for the next two years of school, and George told him that he can stay for as long as he wants.”
“I don’t understand. Why are you so upset about that? Granted, you won’t have the same privacy you have now, but you can work it out, can’t you?” Alyx took a sip of lemonade and set it down.
Maggie did the same, except she held on to hers and paced to the door and back.
“That’s not it. It’s that I don’t know how to behave around a nineteen-year-old. I’ve never had any kids, and I don’t really know him; I’ve only spent a few days with him. I don’t know how to be a mother; I don’t even know how to cook. What if he hates me?”
“Maggie, he’s not going to hate you. To begin with, you don’t have to mother him; he has a mother already, and, secondly, George loves you. Did he say anything that sounded like he’s changing his mind?”
She shook her head, drained her plastic cup, and dropped it in the wastebasket. “He has no idea why I wanted to come home. Since I’m the one who suggested going in the first place, he had no problem with me changing my mind.” She smiled. “Sometimes I think he’s too good to be true.”
“The old Maggie would have said he was ‘too good for
,’ and that’s why I can say I think you’re experiencing commitment jitters.”
“I should have stayed here and helped you instead of running away.”
Alyx waved away the sentiment and suggested they eat lunch. Maggie took a bite of the crunchy lunchmeat sandwich and asked if there was any new information about the break-in or the estate sale.
“The sale went fine. Nelda did a great job. Almost everything sold for the price marked.” Then, she hesitated, “Something odd did happen though.” She pulled the note from her purse and handed it to Maggie to read.
Maggie read the short note out loud: “SHE’S GONE AND SO ARE HER THINGS––LEAVE IT ALONE OR ELSE … Oh, my! Alyx! You did tell Detective Smarts about this, right?”
“Well, I tried. I left him a message but I haven’t heard back from him yet.”
She picked up her cell phone and handed it to her. “Call him again, Alyx.”
“All right, Maggie, I’ll give him a call if you promise to call George and talk to him about the changes you’ll have to make with his son coming––and be sure to tell him you’ll be joining him more often on his picking jaunts.”
Alyx made the call, and this time her message said it was urgent.
“Honest as the cat when the meat’s out of reach
––Old English Saying
A Gift From a Far Away Place
The store closed at six on Sundays, and Alyx usually had dinner with Ethan and, most times, his girlfriend, Nicki. About once a month, she and Ethan got together with her brother, Tom, and his wife Susan. I knew she was glad for any time she had with Ethan––truth was, she missed his company. At the same time, she was happy to see him settling down, looking forward to spoiling her future grandchildren in a way she hadn’t been able to spoil Ethan due to her financial situation while he was growing up.
Ethan called earlier in the day, and told her not to cook anything, since he couldn’t stay for dinner. When he arrived, the girls and I greeted him as usual at the door, looking for the treat he always brought when he visited, and he didn’t disappoint.
Ethan asked Alyx about the estate sale, and then asked about her date with Jonathan.
“Jonathan is an interesting man. He’s been to countries I’ve only heard about, and some I haven’t.”
“What about David? Are you still to seeing him?”
Alyx had never liked discussing the romantic part of her life with her son, and rarely did. She quickly changed the subject by telling him about the Ethiopian restaurant they’d been to, how they served the food all on one large platter with no utensils, with only pancake-like bread, folded like a napkin, which was used as a tool to grab the food.
“I expected the restaurant to be along the same showy lines as what you’d find at a tourist attraction––but it wasn’t. It’s small, inconspicuous and tucked away in an out-of-the-way kind of neighborhood about an hour’s drive from here. You and Nicki should go try it.”
Mom, you know she doesn’t like anything except basic food. The most exotic thing she’ll eat is spaghetti.”
“That’s not exotic; that’s American.”
He laughed. “Exactly.”
He asked her if there was anything new on Althea’s case, and she told him everything she knew about it and who she suspected––omitting, I noticed, the part about the note.
Later, Alyx made a sandwich and heated a can of tomato soup while I did some thinking about what Ethan had said earlier regarding Jonathan Steele. We evidently both thought it an odd coincidence that she could meet two people in Beachside who had both lived in the same city on another continent. She took the last bite of her chicken salad sandwich, just as the doorbell sounded its Westminster chime.
Jonathan Steele stood at the door with a grin, a bag of
and a box of
“Italy was one of the last places I visited,” he said, offering her the coffee and cookies.
“Well, thank you,” she said, hesitating a moment, not sure what to do. “Would you like to come in and have some coffee and cookies?”
“I’d love to. It’s been a long day––a very busy day.”
She prepared the coffee, put a few cookies on a plate, and carried them to the living room along with the espresso.
He took a sip from the demitasse cup, “It’s very gracious of you to invite me in without my calling you first. I took a chance, and I’m glad you didn’t disappoint me.”
“Well, I am sort of surprised. Earlier, I was telling my son about you and your store, and he mentioned the fact that you’re the second person I’ve met here in Beachside with a direct connection to Africa.”
I watched his face closely when she said that.
“Africa is a big nation.”
“Strange enough, my friend lived in Sierra Leone, where you said you were born.”
“What’s your friend’s name?” he asked, showing only polite curiosity.
“Her name is––was––Althea Burns. She died a few days before Christmas.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Was she a close friend of yours?”
The way he said that made me think that it was the right time to give Alyx the amber bead that we’d found in Althea’s condominium. I ran to the laundry room where I’d stored it for safekeeping. I realized I couldn’t drop it at her feet in front of Jonathan––I had to get her to the laundry room alone. So, I did my loud, frantic meowing routine, but unfortunately, only Misty and Pooky showed up. I told them what was going on, and soon there were three cats frantically meowing. Alyx still didn’t come right away, but eventually she did and she looked annoyed when she did. I pointed out the amber bead. I was glad to see her pocket the bead when Jonathan called out and asked if everything was all right. I was sure she got my message when she whispered, “Good job, kitty-cats.”
The three of us ran ahead to the living room where Jonathan remained seated.
“I remember hearing you say that the last place you visited was Lithuania. What are they best known for exporting?” asked Alyx.
“That would be amber,
in Lithuanian, found on the Baltic Sea shores, and considered the best variety of amber.”
“I didn’t get a chance to take a close look at the jewelry counter in your store,” said Alyx. “Did you bring back some amber jewelry?”
The question startled him. He quickly regained his composure, letting Alyx know that she’d asked one too many questions. But it was too late to change the subject.
“So, what brings you to the neighborhood?” she said.
“I wanted to see you,” he said simply. “I brought the coffee and cookies to entice you, hoping you’d ask me to stay and share.”
“It looks like it worked.”
She stood up slowly, “Will you excuse me a minute? I’ll be right back.”
I sensed the fear in her, and I meowed once, the pre-arranged signal for the felines to take their strategic places––Misty on the back of the couch, Pooky next to Steele and I had the floor.
Alyx kept a small, six-inch gun hidden among the towels in the bathroom and when she came out, the gun securely held behind her back, she said “Sorry, coffee has that effect on me.”
“You can put the gun away, Alyx,” he said. “You don’t need it. I’m not a murderer.”
Alyx brought the weapon forward and rested her hand on her lap, finger solid on the trigger.
“I don’t know how you guessed,” he said, then added, “Althea was my mother, but I didn’t kill her.”
“Your mother? Were you at her condominium before she was killed?”
He nodded. “But I didn’t kill her!” he repeated, running his fingers through his hair.
Alyx did her best to remain calm. It was clear she didn’t know what to believe and neither did I. “Tell me what happened,” she demanded of Steele.
“I learned about my kidnapping when my mother––or the woman I thought was my mother––died last year. In a deathbed confession, she told me the truth. She had been employed as a domestic in Althea’s house in Africa.
She––that is the woman who I have called mother––was appalled at what she perceived was Althea’s apparent neglect of me. She couldn’t have any children, and when her husband approached her with an idea, she agreed to the kidnapping only if they could keep the baby. She and her husband had friends in the right places, and with their help, they got out of the country with me and the ransom money.”
He paused. Alyx didn’t ask any questions, and so he continued.
“We vacationed here in Beachside every year until I graduated from high school. I’ve always loved this area, and since my father was already living here, it made sense to open my business in the area as well. He actually found the location for me, and I pretty much did everything long-distance.”
He took a sip of coffee, “I thought it a happy coincidence when I found out that Althea also lived in Beachside, thinking we could take our time to get to know one another as mother and son. However, she ignored the correspondence from the investigation firm that I’d hired to find her, and she refused to see me when I tried contacting her personally. On an impulse, I took a chance, believing that if I just showed up in person it would strike a motherly cord or something, so I went to see her and brought her a delicate necklace of amber beads. She was horrified to see me and when she opened the box that I forced on her, she immediately tried to pull the necklace apart, throwing it hard against the stairwell while she screamed at me to get out. I quickly picked up the necklace, put it back in the box and left. I was devastated. Later, I learned she was dead.”
I wasn’t sure I believed the man and everything he’d said––Althea screaming and throwing things against the wall didn’t fit the character of the woman I knew. However, it was true that Althea hadn’t told the whole truth about herself, had she?
“Have you tried to get in touch with your cousin, Carole Berth?” Alyx asked him.
He nodded, leaned back, and draped his arm across the back of the couch, invading Misty’s space. She didn’t budge, and he removed his arm.
“She refused to see me and told me not to call her again.”
“Did you know that Althea was a wealthy woman?”
“Yes, I did,” he sighed. “That gives me a solid motive, doesn’t it? Except, I have plenty of my own money and I certainly wouldn’t kill for more,” he added emphatically, if not necessarily convincingly.
“I’m never surprised at what people will do for money,” she said off-handedly.
For an instant, his eyes turned hard, and then he looked away.
“Were you angry at her when she refused to acknowledge you?” she asked.
“At first I was, but I knew about her illness, and that excused her behavior in my mind. I’m fine with it now. I have no feelings for her one-way or the other. I looked for her believing it would ease her pain of not knowing what had happened to her child, but apparently I shouldn’t have bothered.”
“I think she blocked out your existence to protect herself.”
He said he was fine with it; but I heard something different in his voice.
Alyx began in a soft tone, “I met Althea when she came into the store last spring…”
She then told him all she knew about his real mother up to the day that she’d found her body. Jonathan sat quietly and listened. After that, they ran out of things to say.
Alyx didn’t put the gun away until Steele had left the house. Then she securely locked the door behind him.