***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Sofie Kelly Chapter 1 The body was on the front seat of my truck, about halfway between the passenger door and the cloth grocery bag I'd left in the middle of the seat. "Not again," I muttered, setting the box of glasses I was holding in the bed of the truck. I glanced at my watch. I couldn't exactly leave the body where it was, but I didn't want to be late, either. A flash of movement registered at the edge of my vision. I let out a breath as what I'd caught a glimpse of came into focus. A second corpse, small, furry and rodentlike, just like the one on the seat, appeared to be hovering about three inches above the hood of the truck. I narrowed my eyes in the general direction of the seemingly levitating body. "Very nice, Owen," I said. "I'm sure Everett will be happy to learn that the offender who's been digging up his onion sets has been dealt with." Everett Henderson, my backyard neighbor, had been waging a war all summer long against a persistent and aggressive vole that seemed to be digging up whatever he planted just as quickly as he planted it--for sport, Everett insisted. His wife, Rebecca, had tried to convince him that if he'd just leave the vole one small area to dig in, it would leave the rest of the garden alone. But Everett wasn't willing to concede one square inch of the yard to what he called "a thieving interloper." He'd tried tenting the entire garden with netting, setting out a perimeter of mothballs, putting a large owl statue on an overturned galvanized bucket in the middle of the bed and even spraying a boundary around the garden of a pest control product that allegedly contained fox urine. The vole had been undeterred. It had, however, met its match in Owen, it seemed. Just then the small gray-and-white tabby appeared--literally--on the hood of the truck, holding the dead vole in his mouth. There had been a time when Owen's ability to appear and disappear at will had been disconcerting, now it was just something he did, a quirk, like the way he had to inspect his food before he ate it or how he loved to ride shotgun in the truck. There was a gleam of satisfaction in his golden eyes as he looked at me. I felt sorry for the dead rodent. It had never stood a chance against the cat. Owen and his brother, Hercules, had spent the early part of their lives--at least as far as I knew--out at Wisteria Hill, Everett Henderson's former family homestead. Both cats were excellent hunters, a skill that had most likely been honed during that time. I pointed toward the backyard. "We don't want to keep Ruby waiting," I said, making a hurry-up gesture with one finger. Normally, since it was Thursday, I would have already been on my way to tai chi class, but it had been canceled. My friend Maggie Adams, who was the instructor, was over at the Stratton Theatre, supervising the installation of artwork from the artists' co-op that she was past president of. Owen immediately jumped down to the driveway and headed for the backyard, the dead vole still firmly in his mouth, passing Hercules on the path that wound around the side of the house. They exchanged a silent glance, the kind of mute exchange I'd seen pass between them dozens of times. Sometimes I wondered if they used a kind of mental telepathy to communicate. Given their other skills the idea really wasn't that far-fetched. Hercules launched himself onto the hood of the truck in his brother's place. He gave himself a shake and then padded over to me. "Mrrr," he said, cocking his head to one side, and it seemed to me there was a question in the sound. I reached over to stroke the soft black fur on the top of his head. "Yes," I said. "I think Everett's garden may be safe, at least for now." I glanced at the front seat where the other furry corpse still lay. Whatever it was, it didn't look like another vole. I turned my attention back to Hercules. "We have to leave in a minute." I tipped my head toward the windshield. "Could you move that so I don't have to go get a shovel?" He craned his neck to see what I was gesturing at, then he walked through the windshield, landing lightly on the front seat. Unlike Owen, Hercules couldn't become invisible on a whim. He could, however, walk through walls, doors and windows, through pretty much any obstruction that got in his way. The first time I'd seen him do that, I thought I'd imagined it. I thought I was overtired, that my eyes were playing tricks on me or I needed glasses. My knees had started to shake so hard that I'd had to sit down on the floor before I fell down. That time Hercules had vanished into one of the library's meeting rooms. He hadn't darted past me. He had walked through the solid wooden door to the small meeting room just as though it wasn't there and it almost seemed as though there had been a faint "pop" as the end of his tail had disappeared. I remembered how I had pressed my hands on the door, pushing at the smooth wood looking for some kind of secret opening or hidden panel. But the door had been thick and unyielding. The second time I'd witnessed the cat walk through a solid wall I'd been afraid I was having some sort of mental breakdown. Now, like Owen's disappearing act, it was just Hercules being Hercules. It had never felt like a good idea for anyone to find out what the cats could do, so I'd always kept that piece of information to myself. I hadn't told anyone, including Marcus. Detective Marcus Gordon was logical, sensible and practical--and very handsome. I was crazy about him. I couldn't keep this kind of secret from him much longer, especially since I'd discovered his cat, Micah, shared Owen's talent for disappearing. The fact that all three cats came from the old Henderson estate had to have something to do with their abilities. I just had no idea what. The little black-and-white furball was sniffing Owen's second victim now. He nudged the corpse with his nose and finally picked it up in his mouth, making his way over to the open driver's door where he dropped his burden on the edge of the seat. He made a face, crinkling his nose and scraping his tongue against his teeth as though he were trying to get rid of a bad taste. He looked up at me, green eyes slightly annoyed. "What?" I said. I knew that look. He poked the body with one white-tipped paw. I leaned down for a closer look. The furry corpse wasn't a corpse at all, I realized. It was actually a large, dark gray pom-pom made out of some kind of faux fur material. "Okay, where did that come from?" I asked. I slipped a covered elastic from my wrist and smoothed my hair back off my face into a ponytail. I'd had the long, dark layers trimmed over the weekend but my hair was still long enough to pull it back when I wanted to. The cat gave me a blank stare. He didn't seem to have any idea, either. Then I remembered that last night when Maggie had stopped by, she'd had a bag of items from fiber artist Ella King that were going to the artists' co-op store that Maggie helped manage. Owen adored Maggie, he had a packrat streak that went with his natural cat inquisitiveness and he wasn't above swiping something that took his fancy. From time to time I'd caught him raiding Everett and Rebecca's recycling bin. Had he swiped the fuzzy ball from Maggie's bag? I picked up the pom-pom and leaned around the door of the truck. "Owen," I called. In a moment he poked his head around the side of the house. Part of a dried leaf was stuck to his left ear. What? his expression seemed to say. I held up my hand, the ball of gray fur dangling from between my thumb and index finger. "Explain this," I said. The cat made his way over to me, making low muttering noises in the back of his throat. He jumped up onto the front seat next to Hercules, glaring at his brother as though he thought he'd been ratted out. Hercules pointedly moved sideways onto the passenger side of the truck, lifting his chin and gazing out the window with a bit of a self-righteous attitude. I was still holding on to the pom-pom. Owen tried to grab it from me, coming up on his hind legs, but I'd seen his tail twitch from the corner of my eye just before he moved and for once I was faster. I whipped my hand behind my back. "Were you rooting around in Maggie's bag last night?" I said sternly. The little gray tabby immediately ducked his head as though he'd suddenly discovered something engrossing on the blanket that covered the bench seat. I stretched across the seat and stashed the pom-pom in the glove compartment. I was pretty sure Owen's skills didn't extend to popping that open. "I know you love Maggie," I said. I suspected that was why he'd swiped the gray ball of faux fur. In his kitty reasoning he'd expected to be caught and that we'd make a trip to return what he'd taken and he'd be adorable and contrite. Or maybe I was attributing too human a motive to a cat, albeit a pretty extraordinary cat. Maybe it was simply a case of Owen see, Owen like, Owen take. I leaned in close to his furry gray face and he tried to avoid meeting my gaze by staring down at his front paws. "You shouldn't take things that don't belong to you," I said. "We've had this discussion before, Owen." His golden eyes met mine for a moment. He made a couple more disgruntled noises then settled himself on the seat and looked out the windshield. I noticed he was careful to keep some space between himself and his brother. I grabbed the small canvas backpack I had placed on the roof of the cab along with the box of glasses that was in the bed of the truck and reached inside to set both on the floor on the passenger side, smiling at Hercules as I did so. Then I slid behind the wheel, pulled out my keys and stuck them in the ignition. We had just enough time to get downtown to meet Ruby. Hopefully, the extra traffic from the music festival wouldn't slow us down getting across town. The Wild Rose Summer Music Festival took place every year in late August here in Mayville Heights. Musicians and vocalists--both professional and amateur--came to town from all over the Midwest to work with several well-respected and increasingly well-known teachers and conductors. The highlight of the event was the closing concert, held in the restored Stratton Theatre with a massed orchestra and choir performing everything from classical pieces to rock-and-roll standards--but there were lots of other performances before that. I'd taken in one of the lunchtime events just a couple of days before. The festival brought a lot of tourists to town. Many people planned their vacations around it. We started down Mountain Road and I could see almost the entire town spread out along the river. The original settlers of Mayville Heights had taken the shortest route to get where they were going, which means the town is laid out pretty much like a grid. Streets like Mountain Road stretch, for the most part, straight up the hill to Wild Rose Bluff, which the music festival was named for. The streets that run from one end of Mayville Heights to the other all follow the shoreline of Lake Pepin, which is the largest lake on the Mississippi River. Much like Loch Ness in Scotland, there have been rumors that the lake is home to some kind of prehistoric creature. However, since most sightings of the creature seem to involve the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, it's a rumor most people take with a very big grain of salt. There was more traffic downtown on Old Main Street--not to be confused with just plain Main Street--than on a typical Thursday night, but I still made it to the Riverarts building with five minutes to spare. Ruby Blackthorne's art studio was in the big brick building. The former school had been converted into working space for Mayville Heights' artist community a number of years ago, a joint project of the artists' co-op and the town. The partnership between the co-op and the town had been good for everyone. Not only were the artists responsible for bringing more tourists to town to take workshops and buy artwork, they'd also helped reverse a trend that other small towns were seeing: populations that skewed increasingly older as young people headed for more opportunities in the city. As my friend Burtis Chapman liked to put it, those places were getting older and grayer by the day. Thanks to Ruby and Maggie and the other artists, that wasn't happening in Mayville Heights. Ruby was just coming out of the back door of Riverarts when I pulled into the small parking lot. I backed into Maggie's spot while Hercules looked out the passenger-side window and Owen craned his neck to see over the dashboard. "Stay here for a minute," I said to the boys. Hercules twitched his whiskers at me. Owen basically ignored me, starting across my lap as though he were going to go right out the driver's door--assuming he could figure out how to use his paws to open it. I put one hand on his back. "Where are you going?" I asked. "Mrr," he muttered as he tried to wriggle out of my grasp. "I want to give Ruby the glasses she asked to borrow and find out where she wants to shoot. You can wait for a minute." He lifted his head to look at me, ears twitching in annoyance. Ruby was on her way over to the truck, smiling. I bent my head close to the cat. "I know what you're thinking," I whispered, in case Ruby somehow had bionic hearing. "It wouldn't be good if this whole photo session had to disappear." I put a little emphasis on the last word. Hercules meowed at his brother. A warning maybe to just let it go? Owen made a huffy sound through his nose, his way of letting me know that he was doing what I wanted under duress. But he did sit back down on the seat. "Thank you," I said. I leaned over, grabbed the box of glasses and got out of the truck. Ruby smiled. "Oh, hey, you remembered," she said. "Thanks." She took the box from me, peering inside. "Are you sure those will be enough?" "Yeah, this is great," she said. "How did you end up with so many drinking glasses, anyway? Did you go a little crazy at a yard sale or something?" I smiled back at her. "I didn't. It had to be the person who lived in my house before me--or maybe it was Lita." Lita was Everett Henderson's assistant. Not only was Everett my neighbor, he had also hired me to supervise the renovations at the library for its centennial. My little farmhouse was one of the benefits that came with the job. It was almost four years now since I'd come to Mayville Heights. The head librarian position had been a temporary, eighteen-month appointment, but when the time was up I found myself wanting to stay in the job. Luckily, the library board had felt the same way. "I bet it was Lita," Ruby said. "She was a Girl Scout. I think she had pretty much every badge they give out. Isn't their motto 'Be Prepared'?" "'A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed,'" I recited. "'Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency.'" Ruby raised an eyebrow at me. I felt my cheeks get warm. "It's from the Girl Scout manual. I read it somewhere." Her smile stretched into a grin. "Kathleen, you're better than the Web. I know you're always a reliable source." She leaned around me and waved at the driver's window of the truck. Owen was standing up on his back legs, front paws on the door, looking at Ruby through the side window. She held up a finger. "Give me a second," she said. I knew she was talking to Owen, not to me. I wasn't the least bit surprised when the cat bobbed his head in acknowledgement as though he'd understood--and I was certain he had--and then sat down. Ruby didn't seem surprised, either. I wasn't the only one who talked to the cats like they were . . . well, people. Everyone seemed to accept that Owen and Hercules were more than just everyday cats, although no one else new exactly how extraordinary they really were. Ruby tipped her head to one side and looked up at the sky. I'd seen her do that enough times to know she was considering the light. "It's not going to be dark for a while," she said. "I've been wanting to try some photos just before sunset. When the sun is low in the sky the shadows are softer and longer. I think I can get some really dynamic images." She held the box of glasses against her chest with one hand and gestured with the other as if she were painting in the air. "So is it okay if we do the inside shots first?" "Do whatever works for you," I said. A few weeks earlier Ruby had taken a photo of Owen and Hercules on the steps of the library, seemingly studying a map of Mayville Heights. Maggie had created the hand-drawn, incredibly detailed map of the town and it had turned out to be very popular with tourists, even more so after another artist, Ray Nightingale, posted Ruby's photo of the boys online and it went viral. Tourists actually came into the library building looking for the cats. Now Ruby was doing a series of photos with them for a calendar to promote Mayville Heights and the surrounding area. Everett Henderson was funding the project. Both cats loved having their picture taken, although Owen was by far the bigger ham. Ruby had photographed each cat in the past, using the photos as the basis for two oversized, acrylic pop-art portraits she'd painted. Both had been auctioned off as fundraisers for the cat rescue organization, Cat People. No one seemed surprised that Ruby could get Owen and Hercules to pose for her even though cats didn't exactly have a reputation for doing what you wanted them to do when you wanted them to do it--or ever doing it at all. "As long as I've known Ruby she's had a rapport with animals," Maggie had said the night before, sitting at my kitchen table, licking chocolate icing from a cheesecake brownie off her thumb while Owen sat adoringly at her feet. "And anyway, Owen and Hercules aren't regular everyday cats," she'd continued, sneaking a tiny bite of her dessert to her furry gray shadow--something that would have landed her in the doghouse, pun intended, if our friend Roma had been around. Maggie caught me watching her, and both she and Owen looked up at me, faux innocence in her green and his golden eyes. "Owen and Hercules are special," Maggie had added, an edge of self-righteousness in her voice as though that "specialness" explained everything from how photogenic they were to how Owen deserved a piece of her brownie. You don't know the half of it, I'd thought. I got both cats out of the truck now. Hercules agreeably climbed into the cat carrier. I left the top panel unzipped so he could poke his head out and slung the bag over my shoulder. I decided to carry Owen because of the two, he was the more likely to disappear--figuratively and literally. The cats had been feral and didn't like to be touched by anyone other than me, so Ruby didn't offer to help. I closed the door of the truck with my hip and we followed Ruby into the building. "How's practice going?" I asked as we headed up the stairs. As in previous years, Ruby was in the festival choir and this year she was also performing with Everett's granddaughter, Ami Lester, and cabaret singer Emme Finley. Ruby rolled her eyes. "Just like every other year. Right now we sound like crap. Nobody knows their parts and I swear there's half a dozen people who couldn't carry a tune no matter how big a bucket you gave them." "It can't be that bad," I said. The massed choir was the highlight of the final concert. In my experience it always sounded wonderful. Ruby had a dozen years of voice training and had worked as a singer and dancer at a resort for several years during college. "It can be and it is," she said as we rounded the second-floor landing. "We were doing warm-ups this morning and--I'm not making this up"--she put her free hand over her heart--"I could hear dogs howling." Owen made a face, scrunching up his whiskers. An unfortunate encounter with Harrison Taylor's German shepherd, Boris, had left him with a pretty low opinion of any and all dogs. I shot her a skeptical look. She shrugged. "Okay, so it was only one dog and in all fairness he had treed a squirrel in the parking lot, which might have been the reason he was howling, but my point is still the same. Right now we stink." She shifted the box of glasses onto her hip and tucked her hair behind her ear with her free hand. She was wearing it longer and layered, just brushing her shoulders. It was dyed a rich copper color, like a newly minted penny, instead of her usual neon-colored streaks. Hercules craned his neck in Ruby's direction and gave a murp of concern. At least that's what it sounded like to me. Last year I'd bought a CD of the final festival concert. Whenever I played it Hercules would listen with his head tipped to one side, eyes closed. I didn't think I was imagining that he liked what he heard. Hercules was much more of a music lover than Owen. He shared my love for Mr. Barry Manilow, something Owen decidedly didn't. Ruby leaned around me and smiled at Hercules. She'd once seen him "listening" to the CD in my office. "Don't worry," she said. "We'll be ready." The cat's green eyes flicked to me. "Uncle Mickey will work his magic," I said by way of reassurance. Ruby nodded. Uncle Mickey was family friend Michel Demarque, brilliant conductor, composer, pianist and world-class flirt. My mother, Thea Paulson, was an actor and director. Mom and Michel had worked together on a Stephen Sondheim musical many years ago in Vermont and stayed in touch--much to my dad's chagrin. Michel reminded me of actor Hugh Jackman--dark eyes in a wonderfully expressive face and the ability to command the attention of every room he stepped into. Ruby talked more about some of the pieces--a mix of classical and contemporary--that they were working on as we continued up the stairs to her studio. "I'm looking forward to the concert," I said. Hercules meowed loudly from my hip. I laughed. "Apparently so is Hercules." Ruby grinned at the cat. "Don't worry," she said. "I'll set aside a CD for you." Owen twisted restlessly in my arms. I had the feeling all the talk about the festival was boring him. Ruby unlocked the door to her studio and I set him down. He made a quick circuit of the space and then looked expectantly at Ruby. "There," she said, pointing at a length of counter space. The town map was spread on the paint-spattered surface. I moved to pick Owen up but he launched himself onto the counter before I could, landing lightly on the center of the map. He shook himself and began to check out the various art supplies that were spread out over the dark wood surface. I took Hercules over, lifted him out of the cat carrier bag and set him down next to his brother. He put each white-tipped paw down gingerly. "It's okay," I said softly. "I don't see any wet paint." Ruby had set the box of glasses on a chair and was bringing her tripod over to the counter. "Everything is clean and dry. I promise," she said, as much to Hercules as to me. She knew all about his distaste for wet or dirty feet. I smoothed the fur on the top of his head. "You look very handsome," I whispered. Owen's golden eyes darted in my direction. "You too," I said, reaching over to give him a little scratch between his ears. He immediately took a couple of passes at his face with a paw. I took several steps back, snagged a stool and sat down out of the way where I could watch Ruby work. Excerpted from The Cats Came Back by Sofie Kelly All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. 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