C Is For Catnip [Lucky Pierre Mystery Series Book 1]
Click on image to enlarge.
by J. D. Crayne
Description: Jeremy and Linda Austin quit their jobs, moving lock, stock and their cat Lucky Pierre to the small town of Pomo. are a nice young couple who have decided to get out of the big city rat race. There they buy a big old house, which they plan to refurbish and open as a bed and breakfast, and which Lucky Pierre considers his own. That's when things start to go wrong. First, Jeremy and Lucky Pierre find a body in the barn. The deceased has been walloped on the head and, lacking any evidence of foul play, the police call the death an accident. Next, a water pipe breaks in the Arts Commission gallery and the Commission's most ardent volunteer talks the Austins into hosting the grand finale of the silent auction. At the height of the festivities, Linda finds a local business owner murdered in an upstairs bedroom. Feeling a little shell-shocked by these events, and not very happy over the reputation that their new business is getting even before it opens, Jeremy decides to do a little investigating on his own, trying not to trip over Lucky Pierre. Between repairs at home, and investigations around town, Jeremy is soon ready for a break. When the Arts Commission finally gets its plumbing repaired and opens a new art exhibit, Linda suggests that they go to the opening. All is well until they discover another dead body, its head crushed with a component from one of the art exhibits. Linda and Jeremy have now been associated with three cadavers and the local police, in the person of Detective Mark Stoddard, are beginning to give them funny looks. Harassed by the newspapers, coughing in dusty cupboards, bedeviled by their herb-gardening neighbor, Jeremy manages to unravel the secrets in this light-hearted romp of a mystery.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner,
eBookwise Release Date: June 2007
21 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [149 KB]
Reading time: 92-129 min.
"We're here!" Jeremy Austin said, stopping his car, which had a U-Haul trailer attached, at the end of the long graveled driveway. "That is the longest three hours I have ever spent in a car." He turned off the ignition and when the engine died, the only sound was the defiant wail of their cat, Lucky Pierre, from his carrier on the back seat.
Jeremy's wife, Linda, rolled down her window and they both looked out at the big house, with its peeling paint and neglected shrubbery.
It was one of those big wood-framed Victorian homes that West Coast builders put up from the 1890s through the 1920s. Three stories tall, with a high peaked roof that held a spacious attic, it had the usual collection of wooden gingerbread decoration and some nice leaded-glass windows.
They bought it as-is, for a very comfortable price. True, it badly needed a paint job, and some of the wooden fretwork hung loose, but the termite inspection hadn't shown anything actually awful, and the original knob and tube wiring was in surprisingly good shape. It was surrounded by five acres of rolling land, and the remains of a kitchen garden stretched away from the house on both sides. There was a barn and a couple of out buildings, and the closest neighbors were a quarter of a mile away. Despite it's appearance of isolation, the house was only a fifteen minute drive from the Pomo civic center with its markets and shops.
The town of Pomo is a small, close knit, friendly, community. That is, if one believes the Chamber of Commerce. If you listen to the west coast trucking companies, they will tell you that it is an uninteresting little speed trap that cuts into their schedules. The Chamber of Commerce is looking for something that will lure people into town instead of sending them scurrying around in search of a way through it and off to somewhere more interesting. So far they have not been successful.
"I am glad that trip is finally over," Linda, said, raising her voice over the cat's strident objections. She was a petite girl of twenty-four, with a mop of curly blonde hair and a pleasantly curved figure. Her eyes were hazel, her nose tilted upward, and her face was attractive but a little too square to be beautiful.
"I am soooo stiff!"
"And Pierre is soooo pissed!" Jeremy said, grinning.
"Three hours in a plastic box would be enough to spoil anyone's disposition. I'll take him inside and set him up with his bowls and litter box in one of the back rooms, and then come out and help you unload."
"Okay, you've got a deal."
After they unloaded the trailer, which held a folding table and chairs, a couple of suitcases and a few boxes of necessities to see them through until the moving van arrived the next day, Jeremy drove into town, left the trailer at the Pomo U-Haul lot, and came back, carefully avoiding Lucky Pierre who was prowling the driveway by the barn. Jeremy opened the big double doors of the barn, intending to use the building as a garage. But when he did Pierre shot past him like a bolt into the barn, and Jeremy was assailed by that sickly sweet smell that comes from dead things which are working on their final steps to dissolution.
Jeremy swore softly, got a flash light out of the car and flicked the beam around the dim interior.He didn't find the source of the stench until he followed Pierre's meows to a small tack room at the back of the structure. There the cat was staring at a figure lying prone on the floor, dressed in the sort of dingy and ragged garments that are seen on homeless drifters and street people.
"We've got a bit of a problem," he told his wife, coming in through the back door of the house to find her standing at the kitchen drainboard, making sandwiches.
"What's that?" she asked. "Do you want mayonnaise, or mustard?"
"I don't care. There's a body in the barn."
"Is there? You know, I think ... there's WHAT?" She spun around to face him. "You mean body as in a dead opossum or raccoon?"
"No, I mean body as in cadaver, human, deceased. Have you got your phone in your purse?"
White lipped, she nodded toward the brown leather bag that was sitting on the end of the kitchen counter.
* * * *
Detective Mark Stoddard, of the Pomo Police Department, sat the Austins down in their kitchen; took their names; went out for a cursory look at the corpse; and then called for the crime scene crew and the medical examiner.
"Just moving in, are you?" he asked, observed the folding chairs and table, and the empty state of the kitchen.
"We got here about a hour before I phoned," Jeremy said. "Our furniture isn't coming until tomorrow some time."
"Escrow just closed yesterday," Linda added.
"Did you know the dead man?"
"Never saw him before in my life!" Jeremy said, and Linda nodded agreement, twisting a dish towel nervously in her hands.
"He probably picked your barn as a quiet spot for a night's sleep and died a natural death," Stoddard said, running a hand through his sandy hair. "Of course, we won't know exactly what he died of until someone opens him up and takes a look."
Jeremy nodded and Linda wrinkled her nose.
"How long do you think he's been dead?" Jeremy asked.
"Doc Viber thinks about three or four days."
"Was that the plump man in the dark suit; the one carrying the little black bag?" Linda asked.
"That's him. He's our country coroner. He thinks the deceased died sometime Tuesday or Wednesday. It's been a warm June, so things move a little faster than they would in cold weather, decomposition wise. Just for the record, where were the two of you last week?"
"We were both at work," Jeremy said. "I was finishing up a few last things at my old company, Tritanium Incorporated. They're a software house in Oakland, and I was with them for nine years."
"I was training my replacement at Knickerson Medical," Linda volunteered before the detective could ask. "It's a medical supply company, and I've been there for three years. I mean, I was there for three years before I gave notice."
"That's in Oakland too?"
"Okay," the detective said, jotting down the information in a dog-eared, pocket-sized, notebook. "Why did you two decide to move up here? Pomo is a great little town, but it's not exactly a high tech paradise, and there isn't much in the way of business opportunities around here."
"My wife's grandmother died and left her some money and a house full of furniture," Jeremy said, "so we decided to get out of the rat race and leave the big city."
"And you bought this property? It's kind of big for two people, isn't it? You'll rattle around a bit."
"We're going to turn it into a bed and breakfast!" Linda said.
"That'll will be a nice change for the old place," Stoddard said, flipping his notebook shut and stuffing it into his pocket. "It's seen its share of living. I had to pull a twenty-year-old corpse out of the old well shaft out back, just last year."
He nodded to the stunned householders and sauntered out of the kitchen and through the service porch. The screen door slammed behind him.
"Oh no," Linda said. "There was a body in the well?"
"Don't worry. He called it the old well shaft, so it's probably not where we're getting our water now."
"Ugh! I hope not. I'll be thinking I can taste it anyway!"
"Helloooo!" a cheerful voice called out.
They turned back toward the screen door to see a different figure standing outside on the stoop.
"Yes?" Jeremy asked, walking over to the doorway.
A frowsy middle-aged woman was standing there, peering at him anxiously through the screen.
"I saw the police cars here and I thought I'd just drop in and make sure that nothing was wrong, or that there wasn't anything I could do to help. I didn't realize that anyone had moved into the old place and anyway, we're neighbors !" she finished breathlessly.
Linda fixed a welcoming smile on her face. "How nice," she said. "You must come in. I was just going to fix some sandwiches and coffee for lunch. Won't you join us?"
Jeremy, with an exasperated look at his wife, held open the screen door and their neighbor came tripping in. She was scraggy, not very tall, dressed in wrinkled blue jeans and a rather grubby yellow sweat suit top, and had a mop of gray-streaked brown hair that would have been better for a few minutes with a stiff brush.
"How kind of you to offer! Thank you so much, but I just had lunch myself, and I don't drink coffee because of the caffeine. I do hope there is nothing wrong?" she asked, looking around with bright inquisitive eyes. "When I saw the police cars I was afraid that something dreadful had happened."
"Not immediately, and not recently," Jeremy said. "Unfortunately some local drifter seems to have died in the barn. I found him when I started to put the car away."
"Oh my! Just like the time they found the body in the well, but of course that was a murder and not quite the same thing."
"I hope not!" said Linda, looking stricken.
"Are you just moving in?" their guest asked, looking around at the bare kitchen.
"That's right," Jeremy said, restraining himself from saying things that were not only untrue, but very rude.
"The van is coming tomorrow with our furniture," Linda said hurriedly. "We're sleeping on an air mattress tonight."
"Ah well, you're young and you can still do that sort of thing," the woman said, rattling on. "I'm Lou Carmichael. It's Mrs. Carmichael, but my dear Larry has been gone nearly three years now. I live in the brown farm house with the yellow trim. You can just see it past that grove of oaks. And you are...?"
"The Austins," Linda said automatically. "Linda and Jeremy."
"How lovely!" Mrs. Carmichael beamed at them. "Such a sweet young couple. It's going to be so lovely to have you here. This is such a nice little town. I often think how much Larry would have loved it, but of course he was gone by the time I decided to take the house. You'll remodel, I suppose. I hope you're not going to make the dear old place look too modern. The last owner let it go sadly downhill, I'm sorry to say. She lives in a rest home in Sacramento now. Quite ga-ga, poor dear."
"We're going to fix it up and turn it into a bed and breakfast," Jeremy said, glancing at his wife, who was clutching the bread knife with white knuckles and a stricken look on her face.
"What a delightful idea!" Mrs. Carmichael said. "I must bring you some of my cuttings and transplants for your landscaping. There is nothing like a bed of sweet-smelling herb plants to give a house that old time atmosphere; especially lavender and rosemary. If the climate were warmer, you could plant lemon verbena, but..."
A muffled but horrible cry came from somewhere over their heads, like the outrage of some demon of hell stuck in a half-empty peanut butter jar.
"What was that!" Mrs. Carmichael asked in a hushed voice, putting the fingers of one hand over her lips and staring up at the ceiling.
"Our cat, Lucky Pierre," Linda said, apologetically. "He doesn't like being locked in."
"My, he gave me such a fright!" The elder woman patted herself on the chest. "I think I have palpitations. You'll have to plant some catnip for him, and catnip does make such wonderful tea too. Although, of course, people don't respond to it in the same way that cats do."
"I hope not," Jeremy said. "I'd hate to be found rolling around on the floor with a funny look in my eyes."
Mrs. Carmichael tittered. "Well, I mustn't keep you! Bye now!" She waved a friendly hand and vanished out through the screen door, letting it slam behind her.
"Jer, did you hear that! The body in the well was murdered and the woman who used to own the house is a nut case! And now there's a body in the barn!"
"Was," he corrected her. "The coroner's van took it away. Don't let it get you down, honey. With a house this old, there were bound to be a few deaths on the premises. It's probably just gossip anyway."
"When we signed the real estate papers, wasn't the seller an executor of some kind?"
"Yes, the executor for the estate, but if the last owner lived here when the house was new she must be pretty old and she's bound to be a bit vague by now. Forget it. It doesn't have anything to do with us." He cast a resentful look toward the screen door. "That old biddy didn't just drop in. The nearest house is a quarter of a mile away!"
"I'll bet she has a pair of field glasses."
"And a car!"
Jeremy walked over to the kitchen window and looked out onto the driveway. "Yep. It's an old blue square-back. She probably jumped into it and drove over as soon as she spotted the police leaving."
"This place is going to be a boon to her," his wife with determined cheerfulness. "Think of all the guests that she can spy on, coming and going."
"I hope they be interesting enough to keep her occupied and out of our hair."
"If she asks, we can always make up something," Linda said, "like telling her they've got a skin disease and are stopping over on their way to the leper asylum. Do you want another sandwich?"
* * * *
The moving van arrived the next morning, and as the Austins were sweating, mumbling, wading through mountains of boxes, and trying to stay out of the way of six burly men carrying bulky pieces of furniture, Detective Stoddard showed up with the latest news.
"I can see that you're busy," he said with commendable understatement, "but I wanted to let you know that the dead man died from a blow on the head."
Linda clutched the carton she was holding a little closer to her chest and waited.
Stoddard smiled reassuringly at her. "He probably just fell, but I need to look through the barn again. My guess is that he climbed up into the loft, lost his balance, and took a header."
"Do you know who he was?" Jeremy asked.
"Oh yeah, no problem about that. His name was Alexander Crotten," Stoddard said. "He's been hanging around for a couple of years and was sort of a fixture in town. No fixed address and no job. Some of the locals gave him handouts and found him a place to sleep in bad weather."
"Too bad the weather wasn't bad last week," Jeremy said. "Maybe he would have found some other place to cash in his chips."
"That's life for you," Stoddard said amiably, and sauntered off toward the barn.
He came back after the moving van left and accepted happily when the Austins offered him a cup of coffee and a seat at their kitchen table.
"I couldn't find any ... ah, evidence in the barn" he said, glancing at his hostess. "That's not to say that none exists, but I didn't find any marks on the floor below the loft, and none of the tools out there show any marks of discoloration."
"There's a standpipe in the barnyard," Jeremy offered. "I suppose someone could have biffed him one with a grain shovel and then washed it off outside."
He looked at his wife and shrugged. "Just a passing thought."
"Well, it's an awful one!"
Stoddard continued, "Someone could have done that, but I don't think it's worth our while to do any microscopic analysis on two grain shovels, a grub hoe, a pitchfork, four galvanized pails, a mattock, and a garden spade."
"We've got all of that?" Linda asked, awed.
"Plus some things I couldn't identify," the detective said, getting to his feet. "Unless anything else comes up, I'm treating it as an accidental death. For all we can tell, the deceased tripped out in the field, hit his head on a rock, and then staggered into your barn, where he died. The two of you are out of it anyway. We checked with your last employers, and you were right where you said you were. You can forget about it. Thanks for the coffee."
"Anytime," Linda said automatically.
Stoddard nodded to both of them and went out the back door.
The screen slammed behind him.
"He's taking a lot for granted," Jeremy remarked, checking the label on the end of a large carton.
"What do you mean?"
"Oakland is only three hours from here. We may have been finishing up at work last week, but we could have driven up here and back easily enough in one night."
"And we came up here on purpose to wallop some poor old man we never even met?"
"Who's to say we never met him?" Jeremy said, heaving the carton up onto his shoulder and starting up the stairs. "Maybe he was my long-lost Uncle Al and he's got a fortune stashed away in some safe deposit box that I'm due to inherit now that he's dead."
"But he's not!"
"No, but when I think of what it's going to cost to get this place in shape, I almost wish he was!"
There was a note in the Monday edition of the local paper saying that there would be a memorial service for Alexander Crotten on Wednesday, and that the deceased had been cremated and his cremains...
"Cremains? What an awful term!" Linda said, listening to Jeremy as he read the article aloud over breakfast. "That can't be a real word, can it?"
"It's right here, in black and white," Jeremy said, "so I suppose we have to accept it even if we don't agree with it. Anyway, whatever was left they popped into a niche at the Pomo Cemetery, by virtue of some kindly citizens who chipped in to foot the bill."
"Poor old man," Linda said, sipping at her coffee.
"He wasn't that old. According to this article he was 48."
"That's pretty old to be living a hand to mouth existence on the streets."
"True. Interesting ... he was a local man. The article goes on to say that he attended Pomo High School, then relocated, and only came back here a few years ago."
Linda looked distressed. "He came back here to die. It's like that sad old poem about the hired hand, coming back to somewhere he could call home." She reached for a Kleenex.
"He didn't exactly come back to die," Jeremy pointed out, as he folded the paper and tossed it into the recycle box. "He was here for several years, remember. He might have lived another twenty years if he hadn't gotten that knock on the head."
"It's sad, yeah. I wonder where he was all those years, and what he did with himself."
"And why he came back."
They were both silent for a moment, sipping their coffee and musing on the vagaries of fate.
"Should we go to the memorial service?" Linda asked finally, sounding rather doubtful.
"And get our pictures in the paper as owners of the death barn?"
"Good point!" she said, getting up and taking their dishes to the sink. "I'll restrain my sorrow."