To the individual working in near darkness, the place felt like a basement at midnight, illuminated only by a dim light bulb at the top of the stairway. No. Better. It felt like a mortuary in the middle of the night, the perfectionist mortician preparing a corpse for a starring role at its own funeral. An undertaker is an artist, after all, who must exult in the unveiling of the handiwork—or creative artwork—as gawkers pass by the open casket.
The lone figure’s grin appeared as grotesque as the thoughts in its wearer’s head, illuminated as it was by the dim glow from the flickering computer screen. The only other light in the room came from distant street lamps through the two small office windows. During workday hours this large room, which housed the construction company’s accounting and human resources departments, suffered from harsh fluorescent lighting and the constant noise of clicking keyboards, telephone conversations, and inner-office communication. But now—stillness, dark shadows, the circumspect use of a muted flashlight, necessary for finding the correct workspace.
Overtime work, even late into the evening hours, was common here when a big project came toward a close. All essential employees knew the door codes. But at two o’clock in the morning, no one else was likely to be around the building to observe this covert operation. To make sure, the lone operative had parked on a residential street three blocks away among autos belonging to apartment dwellers. The car wouldn’t be associated with anyone headed for Renfro Construction Company. Being discovered would require an explanation, and the prepared story might appear a little thin.
This task wouldn’t take long. The transaction had been set up earlier on a computer in a different room. All that remained to be done was to make sure the last of the payments to Master Flooring duplicated to a bogus Masters Flooring account located in a Virgin Islands bank—a slight variation in name. Brilliant. But it had to be routed before the company's annual audit began the next day.
A few final gloved keystrokes, a couple final minutes of frequenting this gloomy place during the wee hours, and all those pesky money problems would be solved. The collaborator would be set. People who cared would be impressed. A few million dollars would bring not only security, but also respect.
Oh, there might be some old so-called friends sacrificed along the way. All for the greater good, of course. Besides, people who left, who lacked loyalty, who were more concerned about their own interests—those people deserved whatever happened to them. It was a dirty shame most of them would never know the details of the careful planning or of the clear execution of this scheme. Foolproof. The money had disappeared. The getaway was assured. By the time connections were uncovered, if ever, there would be too many miles to work across and too many scapegoats to investigate.
One last check, at a different desktop. One couldn’t be too careful. Yes! The transaction would be recorded at the Kansas City bank early next morning and received in the Virgin Islands a little later in the day. Some people claimed accounting work and bookkeeping were slow and boring occupations. It might be true when dealing with someone else’s money, when working for a company and doing the same work over and over. But this clandestine bookkeeping activity sent a thrill straight through the body. Now—now, all the uncertainties, all the disappointments, and all the humdrum days were about to end.
Banging and bumping sounds reverberated through the empty building. The edgy computer user logged out and shut down while peering back and forth into the darkness and listening for noises—sounds that could be heard beyond this individual’s own thumping heartbeat. The wind. Damn. It had blown open the dumpster out back. That was all it was.
The computer screen faded like a shimmering dream interrupted by a harsh alarm clock. Its final pinpricks of gray light illuminated the thief’s deep frown, focused squint, and clenched jaw.
Chapter 1—Caterwauling Cat
“Cats are cats . . . the world over!
These intelligent, peace-loving, four-footed friends—who are without prejudice, without hate, without greed—may someday teach us something.
- James Mackintosh Qwilleran”
- Lilian Jackson Braun, The Cat Who Saw Stars
The low resonance of three low funereal organ notes reverberated throughout Beth’s body. She shuddered, stopped with a gasp, and clutched her knees in the middle of the Trolley Track Trail where she power-walked several days a week. Beth shook her head to fend off her feeling of foreboding and straightened up when she heard, or rather felt, the unnerving tones again. Then she rolled her eyes. Arnie had been switching her mobile phone ring tones again. This one was spooky. As she caught her breath and dug her cell phone out of the pocket of her windbreaker, she made a mental note to devise an evil plan to get him back. She held the phone to her ear.
“Is this Mrs. Stockwell?” the caller said in a high-pitched and shaky voice.
“Yes, this is Beth Stockwell.”
“This is Eva Standish. I live in the condo next door to your tenant Adrianna Knells. I got your number from the Condo Association.”
“How can I help you, Eva?” She bent over again to massage her left calf.
“You know about Adrianna’s cat?” Eva asked.
“Well, it has been yowling for the last two days, maybe longer. Do you know where Adrianna is? I tried calling her but got no answer and no return call. Can you do something? The Condo folks told me to ask you to handle it first before they step in and require her to get rid of the cat. I’m not normally a complainer, but I can hardly hear my television set, let alone sleep, with that noise.”
Beth looked skyward, as if asking for help from beyond, and resumed her walk on the trail at a pace more leisurely than before. The eerie phone tone was appropriate. A call from Eva definitely qualified as a creepy thing.
“Well, I’m sorry about the disturbance,” Beth said. “I’ll be right over to find out what’s ailing the kitty. He’s usually so quiet and good.” She mentally crossed the fingers of both hands—since that last part could have been a little white lie. “Thank you for calling me about this. I wouldn’t want Adrianna to lose the pet that she loves so much.”
“I hope you make it soon. My nerves can’t take this much longer.”
“It’ll only take me a few minutes to get there, dear. Thanks again for calling.”
Beth remembered other run-ins she had with Eva Standish, the tiny seventy-five-year-old with the white fly-away hair who lived next door to the rental units Beth and her husband, Arnie, owned on the sixth floor of the funky West-Gate Condos in the Brookside subdivision of Kansas City. The locals called it the Puce Goose, as it was sided with salmon-colored panels. It restricted its residents to people twenty-one and older but contained mostly senior citizens. Every time Beth saw her, Eva, a long-time resident, wore a scowling expression that made her look like a grumpy leprechaun guarding a pot of gold.
Was Eva Standish a complainer? Sheesh. When Beth was renovating the condo unit Adrianna now rented, hadn’t Eva Standish complained about the smell of paint and the noise of the power tools? When a nice computer guy lived there, didn’t Eva grumble about the young man coming in late at night? Adrianna said Eva left notes comprised of crazy predictions about how soon she would marry her boyfriend, when she might have a terrible bicycle accident, or even how a pretty girl like her might be kidnapped by some evil man she wouldn’t suspect—notes Adrianna laughed about and threw away. Now Eva complained about the pet. Well, the best bet was to find out at once what was going on with Psycho Cat, the unpredictable cat that seemed to have a sixth sense.
Erratic as a funnel cloud better described the feline. Adrianna Knells, Beth’s tenant and also her step-niece, could set the whole family rolling on the floor at family gatherings with her stories about Sylvester, dubbed Psycho Cat early on. How he could be sweet and lovable to visitors one minute and then attack with his claws bared the next, sleep without moving for hours and then charge around the apartment knocking over lamps and vases for half an hour, jump into a bathtub full of water while his unsuspecting owner was in it, and undertake any variety of other crazy antics. Maybe the yowling was merely a result of one of the cat’s moods.
Only a few blocks north of Brookside on her midtown walking trail, Beth turned and caught the toe of her running shoe on a crack. She almost fell, but only almost. She headed toward the condo building. On the way, she called Adrianna’s cell phone but got no answer. After sending a text message that she was going to check on the cat, she followed the trail past the cafés and shops of Brookside. In ten minutes, Beth stood under the awning at the entrance to the ten-story building, becoming dizzy with the sweet aroma of the blooming red azaleas and violet lilacs that bordered each side. Before she could find her front door key, Chuck, the hunky security guard, opened the door for her, greeted her with familiarity, and recorded her visit.
“Hey, Chuck,” said Beth. “I’ve got to take care of something up in my rental, but when I come back down I want to find out how your family is doing.”
Beth wanted to linger long enough to have a little chat with Chuck as usual. This time, however, she felt obligated to get up there and find out about the cat. Without thinking, she took the stairs to the sixth floor—another way she jammed exercise into her daily routines. However, she sprinted up the stairs at such a rapid pace she stumbled and fell rounding the corner on the third landing.
“Ow! What a klutz.” she said out loud. Why did she do this to herself—rush up here so fast she could have killed herself because of the convoluted whim of Adrianna’s neighbor? She knew why. She always went out of her way to avoid conflict, to appease people. Beth continued up the steps at a slower pace, favoring her skinned knee.
The yowling became audible as soon as she stepped into the sixth floor hallway. She unlocked the condo door with her landlady key, peeked inside, and came to a dead stop. Her step-niece’s usually clean neat apartment now smelled like a dirty litter box. Papers, pictures, and pillows littered the floor. Psycho Cat went bonkers when she entered, exploded toward her, hissed when she reached down to pet him, and then tried to climb her leg. She put her arms around the seventeen-pound, yellow, tiger-striped kitty and hefted him to her shoulder in an attempt to pacify him. Beth’s soothing had little effect, and he continued his plaintive meow.
When she put him down, Psycho Cat darted toward his food and water bowls in the kitchen. They were both quite empty. Beth filled the water bowl and then found the expensive cat food Adrianna preferred and poured a bunch of it into a hand-painted blue ceramic cat dish. Psycho Cat chowed down, lapped up some water, and finished by licking his chops and then his paws in prissy cat fashion. The litter box in the bathroom was foul, and it took a while to find clean-up supplies. After she scooped the box, added clean litter, and sprayed the condo with some air freshener, the atmosphere improved, as did Psycho Cat’s manner. In fact, he rubbed around her legs and purred so loud she thought Eva Standish might start complaining again.
Finally, after giving the kitty what she hoped was a reassuring pat, Beth determined to give the condo a thorough inspection. As the landlady of several properties, she normally respected her tenants’ privacy. If she, or she and her self-taught handy-man hubby, Arnie, had to go into one of the rental units to do some repair work, she would glance around and admire or disdain the decorating and housekeeping. The tidiness, especially, caught her eye because she knew how hard it was to clean a filthy apartment in order to rent it again after a tenant moved out.
This condo was different. Beth had been here several times for friendly visits, because Adrianna was her sister Meg’s step-daughter. Since childhood, Adrianna had known her as Aunt Beth and her children as cousins. Adrianna kept her one-bedroom apartment very clean and as well decorated as a twenty-seven-year-old single could afford.
Now why would she suddenly leave her cat alone so long that he would wreck the place? When she went on a vacation or a business trip, Adrianna always put her step-mom in charge of the kitty. Adrianna’s step-mother, Beth’s sister Meg Knells, had raised Adrianna and was more of a real mom than Adrianna’s birth mother, who hadn’t raised her daughter since Adrianna was about three years old.
It was ten-thirty in the morning. Meg would be at school where she taught social studies to middle school students. Since Beth had received no reply to her text message to Adrianna, she called Meg’s cell phone, knowing Meg checked her messages around noon when she had time. “Meg, call me on my cell phone, please. Nothing to worry about, but I need to ask you about Adrianna’s cat.” That wasn’t much information, but she guessed it would be enough to get a return call.
Meanwhile, what would Beth do about Psycho Cat? She picked him up. He nuzzled her ear and started purring again. There was no doubt the kitty had been left alone for several days. Beth realized she would feel bad setting the appreciative kitty down, and she couldn’t walk out and leave him there alone. Maybe she should carry him the short distance to her house. That might also avert another call from the irritated condo neighbor, Eva Standish. Beth could hand the cat over to her sister or, better yet, to Adrianna later this afternoon.
Eva Standish opened her door a crack while Beth was shuffling her load of cat and cat paraphernalia in order to lock up. Beth turned her head toward the opening and glimpsed Eva raise a shaggy eyebrow before she yanked the door closed with her tiny wrinkled hand.