Table of Contents
While I scanned the tiny handwriting of the registrar of the 1840s, I heard snatches of conversation. I paid them scant attention, focusing on my task. But when I heard the words
, I started listening.
I found the incident oddly unsettling, though I couldn’t say why. I supposed the conversation was about Godfrey Priest, since he was
hot topic in Athena at the moment. And hearing the word
in conjunction with his name wasn’t that odd. The man did write murder mysteries. Then I heard the sound of a throat clearing on the other side of my desk. My eyes widened in surprise as I recognized the man. It was Godfrey Priest. What the heck was he doing here?
“Good morning, Godfrey,” I said, extending a hand in greeting. Diesel padded right behind me. “It’s been a long time.”
“What is that? A cat?” Godfrey asked, watching as Diesel made a slow circle around him. Evidently unimpressed, Diesel walked back to the window and jumped up to his bed. Yawning, he turned his back on both of us and settled down for a nap.
“He’s a Maine coon,” I said. “They’re larger than most cats.”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been snubbed by a cat.” Godfrey laughed, but his expression revealed annoyance. “They always love me because they can tell I’m a cat person.”
I tried not to laugh. “Diesel doesn’t take to everybody.”
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MURDER PAST DUE
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / August 2010
Copyright © 2010 by Dean James.
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My first thanks go to Michelle Vega and Natalee Rosenstein, for keeping me in the family. Their support means more than they will ever know. Nancy Yost, my agent, handles the really fun part of the business, so I don’t have to.
The Tuesday night crew gave me valuable input on the early stages of the manuscript. Thanks to Amy, Bob, Joe, Kay, Laura, Leann, and Millie for their insights and advice. A special thanks goes to Enzo, Pumpkin, Curry, and their two-legged staff, Susie, Isabella, and Charlie, for allowing us to invade their home each week to critique in such a warm and inviting venue.
I owe a very special thanks to Terry Farmer, Ph.D., proud mom of three Maine coons, Figo, Anya, and Katie, for serving as my technical advisor in all matters having to do with Maine coon cats. Any mistakes in my portrayal of Diesel and his behavior are mine and not hers. (I do have two cats of my own—but neither of them is a Maine coon.) Finally, my love and gratitude to two very dear friends who never fail to encourage me, Patricia Orr and Julie Herman.
A hurricane slammed through my kitchen this morning, and his name was Justin.
I sighed, surveying the aftermath of my boarder’s breakfast. What had gotten into the boy?
An open milk carton sat on the table, accompanied by a bowl, a spoon, and a box of cereal. Justin hadn’t closed the box, and he’d left a sprinkle of cereal on the table. Splatters of milk surrounded the bowl and an abandoned plate with a half-eaten piece of toast.
I glanced toward the counter at an open loaf of bread and an uncovered butter dish, sitting in a beam of sunlight. Two pieces of bread occupied slots in the toaster, but from what I could see, Justin had forgotten to press the lever down. I strode over and picked up my newspaper from beside the sink. Justin had somehow managed to dribble water over the paper. I was glad I’d read it earlier, because now it was stuck together.
I stared out the kitchen window into the backyard for a few seconds, calming myself. I turned back. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a hurricane. Just a minor tropical disturbance. I was not one of those neat freaks who hyperventilated at the first sign of a mess.
Like most men, I can be messy—but I’m happier when things are clean and well kept. I really shouldn’t let myself feel so annoyed over something so trivial.
Maybe Justin was in a hurry to make his first class, but the Athena College campus was only three blocks away. He could sprint there in five minutes tops.
He was acting out of character, and that’s what was really bothering me. The eighteen-year-old had been boarding with me for a couple of months and usually was careful to pick up after himself. The past few days, however, he had become increasingly careless about leaving his things lying around the house and not cleaning up in the kitchen after his meals.
Perhaps I should have expected something like this when I relaxed my rule about accepting only older students, preferably those in graduate school, as boarders. They were generally much too focused on their work to cause any disturbances, and I valued the quiet, orderly life I had created for myself these past three years.
But I had accepted Justin as a favor to an old friend. His mother, Julia Wardlaw, and I had known each other since high school and all the way through college. Justin, an only child, wasn’t ready for the rough and tumble of dorm life, she said. She wanted him to have a quieter, more homelike atmosphere for his first year in college. After the grilling Julia had put me through, I felt almost honored that she was entrusting her precious chick to my care.
A large paw pushed against my leg. Diesel, my two-year-old Maine coon cat, chirped in sympathy when I looked down at him. He withdrew his paw and stared up at me.
“I know, Diesel.” I shook my head. “Justin has a problem, or he wouldn’t be acting this way.”
Diesel responded with another chirp—many Maine coons don’t meow like other cats—and I reached down to rub his head. He still had his lighter summer coat, soft as down. His neck ruff and tail were less bushy than they would be during the colder months ahead. The tufts on the tips of his ears stood out as he stared up at me, a patient expression on his face. He was a gray tabby with dark markings, and at the age of two hadn’t reached full maturity yet, weighing in at twenty-five to thirty pounds. With their broad chests and muscular bodies, Maine coons are the defensive tackles of the cat world.
“We’ll have to have a talk with our boarder,” I said. Diesel liked Justin and often visited him in his third-floor bedroom. “Just think what Azalea would do if she came in some morning and found a mess like this. She’d skin both Justin
me.” Diesel returned my rueful glance with a solemn gaze.
Azalea Berry, the housekeeper I inherited along with the house when my beloved Aunt Dottie died, had strict notions about keeping a clean home. She also had strong opinions about large cats as house pets, but she and Diesel somehow managed to reach detente when I brought him home with me a couple of years ago. Even when he was a kitten, Diesel had been smart enough to pick up on Azalea’s basic antipathy to cats.
Azalea had more tolerance for college-age boys, but that didn’t mean she would allow Justin to get away with leaving the kitchen a mess, even a minor one. Maybe I could help him with whatever his problem was before he did it again and Azalea got after him.
I couldn’t blame Azalea for her devotion to the house. Aunt Dottie had lavished her money—and her decorating abilities—on what she considered the center of any home. The kitchen occupied the southeast corner of the house, and the morning sun poured in through the large windows on both outside walls. Light suffused the room, helped by the pale yellow paint on the walls and the white ceramic tile on the floor. The cabinets shone a delicate blue and blended well with the darker hue of the table and chairs.
I could almost smell the scent of the ginger cookies Aunt Dottie used to make when I was a boy. There were only happy memories in this room, but for a moment I ached with the loss of my dear aunt and of my beloved wife, Jackie. They both died within a few weeks of each other three years ago. I pictured them at the table together, laughing and chatting.
Coming out of my reverie, I glanced at Diesel again, and I could swear he had a sympathetic look on his face. “Enough of that,” I told him. He twitched his tail, turned, and padded off in the direction of the utility room and his litter box.
I cleared up Justin’s mess, and as I was putting the cereal box away in the cupboard, Justin popped into the kitchen.
“Mr. Charlie,” Justin said, stopping in the doorway. “I was planning to clean up.” One hand clutched a worn backpack, and the other smoothed dark hair out of his eyes. The boy needed a haircut, or else he needed a ponytail.