Authors: Paige Sleuth
Murder in Cherry Hills
A Cozy Cat Caper Mystery
Copyright © 2015 Paige Sleuth
All rights reserved.
Published by Paige Sleuth.
This book or portions of it (excluding brief quotations) may not be reproduced without prior written permission from the publisher/author.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead), actual businesses, or actual events is purely coincidental.
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Katherine Harper knew something was wrong when she opened her front door late Tuesday morning and saw Matilda sitting outside her apartment.
Kat scrunched up her nose as she looked down at the cat. “Matty, what are you doing here? You live next door.”
Matilda stared back at her, her tail sweeping across the welcome mat.
Kat had to admit that Matty was a very striking cat. With her yellow and brown markings, white chin, and oversized green eyes, Kat thought the tortoiseshell was adorable.
But, contrary to what Matty liked to believe, she was a house cat.
Sighing, Kat brushed a brunette lock of hair away from her face before she scooped up the animal and started down the hallway to her neighbor’s unit. “You know Mrs. Tinsdale doesn’t like you out here. She fears somebody will steal you. And the landlord had a fit the last time he saw you in the common hallway. Now you’re going to be in big trouble.”
Kat shook her head, wondering why she was trying to reason with a feline. If anyone was watching, they’d assume she was desperate for companionship.
I need a boyfriend
, Kat thought. Unfortunately, securing a boyfriend was a touch more difficult than stopping by the local grocery store and adding one to her shopping cart.
Kat made it to Mrs. Tinsdale’s front door and adjusted Matilda in her arms to free one of her hands. But as she reached out to ring the doorbell, she noticed the door was already slightly ajar.
Kat froze, her pulse starting to pound. Mrs. Tinsdale never left her door open. Although Cherry Hills, Washington didn’t experience as much crime as Wenatchee, the nearest big city, leaving your front door open was still inviting trouble, even in a secured-entry building such as theirs. At the very least, nobody wanted to spend their hard-earned money running air conditioning for an entire twelve-unit apartment building in the middle of a July heat wave.
Kat looked at Matty, tempted to ask if she knew what was going on. Fortunately, she realized the ridiculousness of such a question before she voiced it aloud.
Her eyes locked back on to Mrs. Tinsdale’s door as she set the cat on the floor. Something wasn’t right about this situation, and every one of Kat’s instincts was urging her to turn around and flee. But, given that Mrs. Tinsdale could be injured and waiting for help to arrive, Kat felt she had an obligation to investigate.
Kat poked her head around the doorframe. “Mrs. Tinsdale?”
Nobody responded. For that matter, Kat didn’t hear anything at all except the hum of the air conditioner. She didn’t know if the AC would drown out the sound of a burglar climbing through a back window and down the fire escape, but, if a burglar was in the apartment, she would prefer that he duck out now. Kat didn’t care to run into anyone in the middle of committing a crime.
Stealing another peek at Matty—who watched her with that disdainful look that cats had mastered over the years—Kat pushed the door open wider.
“Mrs. Tinsdale?” Kat called out again.
She stepped over the threshold when only silence returned. Looking around, nothing struck Kat as out of place in the living room. Neither did she see Mrs. Tinsdale anywhere.
Kat moved farther into the apartment, scanning the dining area and kitchen as she circled around the coffee table. Everything looked normal in those rooms too.
Taking a deep breath, she rotated toward the hallway.
A shadow flashed on the wall, causing Kat’s stomach to leap into her throat. She whipped around, noting that Matty had followed her into the apartment unit. Her shoulders dropped three inches.
“You scared me,” she scolded. Then, remembering how silly Mrs. Tinsdale always sounded when she talked to the cat, Kat spun around and refocused on her mission.
Kat moved down the short hallway and glanced into the first room. The unoccupied bedroom appeared to be ready and waiting for Mrs. Tinsdale’s next guest. The duvet looked freshly laundered and put Kat’s own rumpled sheets and unmade bed to shame. The only off-putting touch was the patch of fur smeared across the decorative pillows piled near the top of the mattress. Matty clearly thought the guest bed looked as inviting as Kat did.
The door on the other side of the hallway led to a small bathroom. Peering inside, Kat didn’t see anything amiss there either.
She turned her attention to the closed door of what had to be the master bedroom. Assuming Mrs. Tinsdale was inside her apartment, that was the only place left where she could be.
Kat swallowed as she crept toward the end of the hallway. As much as she prayed that Mrs. Tinsdale had just popped out to do a little grocery shopping, she knew her neighbor would never have left Matty free to wander the building while she was away. Kat knew something was seriously wrong, no matter how badly she wanted to find a safe explanation for the open front door.
Kat paused when she made it to her destination. She gripped the doorknob, glancing back at Matty as if seeking the cat’s permission to enter. Matty’s eyes were huge as she stared back at her from the other end of the hall.
Kat positioned her ear closer to the door. “Mrs. Tinsdale?” she called again—fruitlessly, as she already knew there would be no response.
Left with no other options, Kat turned the doorknob. The hinges creaked as she slowly pushed the door open. She dreaded what she would find, but it wasn’t until she saw the disarray in the bedroom that she realized she was holding her breath.
The rumpled bedspread dangled halfway off the mattress. She didn’t know for sure if the mussed-up comforter had resulted from a scuffle or if Mrs. Tinsdale had simply not finished making the bed after waking up this morning, but she suspected the former. Mrs. Tinsdale struck her as the type to keep her living quarters neat and organized. Making the bed was likely one of the first things she did after waking up in the morning.
Kat’s eyes veered toward the floor, where a lamp was smashed next to the nightstand. The disorder—and what it implied—made her woozy. She leaned against the doorframe for support, envying Matty and her position in the hallway. If Kat had her own way, she would plant herself outside as well, then wait for someone else to deal with this.
But she knew she couldn’t turn around and walk away. Even if she and Mrs. Tinsdale hadn’t known each other well, she couldn’t leave a woman in potential peril simply to make things easier on herself.
Kat opened the door the rest of the way, searching the room for Mrs. Tinsdale herself. That was when she spotted the foot sticking out of the connected bathroom. The foot lay motionless on the floor, the ankle twisted at an unnatural angle.
Kat’s heart was thumping so hard now she feared she might collapse without the support of the doorframe to keep her upright. She would need all her strength to make it from this side of the bedroom to the bathroom.
Her legs shaking, Kat clutched the side of the bureau, but she pulled her hands back as soon as they made contact. Too late, she figured it would be better not to touch anything. If it turned out that Mrs. Tinsdale’s bedroom was a crime scene, Kat didn’t want to leave any more evidence of her presence here than she already had.
Mustering up what remained of her internal strength, Kat somehow made it to the bathroom without leaning on anything. She had to smother a scream when she caught sight of Mrs. Tinsdale’s face staring vacantly at the ceiling. Kat didn’t need to check for a pulse or other vital signs. Anyone could see the woman was dead.
Dashing out of the bedroom with her stomach threatening to reject the breakfast she had savored only thirty minutes ago, Kat scooped up Matty on her way out of the apartment and rushed back to her own unit to call the police.
Kat spun around, her heart jumping when she spotted Andrew Milhone approaching from the other end of her apartment building’s third-floor corridor. She hadn’t seen him since they were teenagers, and whatever he’d been doing during their years apart, he looked good. He’d always stood six inches taller than her five-and-a-half-foot frame and still kept his sandy hair styled in a way that made it prone to falling over his forehead, but his shoulders were broader and his jaw more chiseled.
“Andrew?” she asked, unsure whether to believe her eyes. Although they’d both grown up in Cherry Hills, Kat had left as soon as she could and figured Andrew had done the same. When they were kids—both of them tired of the foster system they’d been thrust into—they had often talked about escaping from this place.
The hundred-watt smile she was all too familiar with was aimed straight at her as he closed the distance between them. She was pleased to note that he hadn’t outgrown his dimples.
When he came close enough, he enveloped her in a hug. The gesture startled her at first—considering they hadn’t seen each other in fifteen years—but she soon relaxed into him as his touch evoked pleasant old memories. Perhaps the best thing she could say about her childhood was getting to spend part of it with Andrew Milhone.
Andrew pulled back from their embrace and held Kat at arm’s length. “What the heck are you doing in Cherry Hills?”
She shrugged, feeling self-conscious under his scrutiny. “I moved back a few weeks ago.”
He tilted his head. “Moved back? I thought you vowed never to return to this place.”
“I did,” Kat said. She held her tongue as she looked around. She knew Andrew wanted her to elaborate, but she didn’t feel comfortable explaining herself with so many strangers around. Between the crime-scene technicians processing Mrs. Tinsdale’s apartment and the nosy neighbors crowding behind the yellow caution tape the police had strung up to keep the public away, too many people were liable to eavesdrop on their conversation.
Andrew seemed to sense her hesitation and didn’t press for details. She was grateful for that. Even when they were kids, he had always had an uncanny knack for reading her perfectly. Of all the other foster kids she’d come in contact with while in the system, her fondest memories were those that included Andrew.
Andrew coughed, jarring Kat from her internal reminiscence. “This probably goes without saying, but I’m with the force now.”
Kat eyed him up and down. “Why aren’t you in uniform?”
“I’m a plainclothes detective.”
Kat couldn’t think of a response, too distracted by how appealing he looked in slacks and a button-down shirt. She’d never seen him dressed nice when they were kids, and didn’t know whether to attribute the attraction she felt toward him now to his outfit or how well he’d matured in the past decade and a half.
“I entered the academy after community college,” Andrew went on.
Kat forced her eyes back up to Andrew’s. “How long have you been a cop?”
“Ten years now, a detective for almost two.” He frowned, his eyes darting around. “But this will be my first homicide.”
Kat couldn’t say she was surprised. Cherry Hills didn’t get much crime, let alone violent offenses. It made sense that Mrs. Tinsdale’s case would be Andrew’s first experience with a murder.
At least he wasn’t working alone, Kat reasoned, taking in all the uniforms milling around. She wouldn’t doubt that every officer in town was here. Cherry Hills didn’t have a big force, so a felony of this magnitude would naturally command the entire department’s attention.
Andrew cleared his throat. “So, you found her, huh?”
Kat nodded. “With Matty’s help.”
Kat opened her mouth to reply, but her tongue froze when Andrew pulled a small notebook and pen out of his breast pocket. She hadn’t realized that this chat was official in nature. Him suddenly adopting the role of interrogating officer when they had been enjoying an impromptu reunion just a minute ago threw her off guard.
Andrew poised his pen over the notebook. “Does Matty have a last name?”
Kat forced her thoughts back to the conversation at hand. Of course he was here in a professional capacity, she mentally chastised herself. What was she thinking, that he’d decided to pay a social call during the town’s worst crime in who knew how many decades?
Kat gestured Andrew toward her apartment. “You can meet Matty yourself, if you’d like.”
Andrew raised his eyebrows. “He’s still here?”
“She,” Kat said as she ducked into her unit. “Matty is a she. Her full name is Matilda.” After making sure that Andrew had followed her inside, she aimed her finger at Matilda, who was lying on the couch. “That’s Matty,” Kat said. “I guess Tinsdale would be her last name. She’s Mrs. Tinsdale’s cat.”
Matty eyed Andrew through slitted eyelids as if she were torn between giving him the stink eye and ignoring him completely.
“Do you think she saw what happened?” Kat asked Andrew.
When Andrew didn’t respond right away, Kat turned to face him. His lips were crooked, and his nose was scrunched up like an accordion.
Kat coughed. “I mean, Matty likely saw what happened, right? She could be an eyewitness.”
“Kat, a cat can’t be an eyewitness,” Andrew replied.
Andrew blinked. “Because there’s no way for her to tell me what happened or to give testimony in court.”
Kat planted her hands on her hips. “That doesn’t mean she didn’t see what happened.”
Andrew’s eyes flitted to the cat. “I take it you’re going to adopt her.”
“What?” Kat hadn’t considered anything of the sort, only wanting to keep Matty confined to one area so she couldn’t interfere with the police activity next door or escape outside.
“You plan on keeping her, right?” Andrew pressed.
Kat’s hand floated to her chest. “Me? Why me?”
He shrugged. “You’ve always loved animals. Besides, she looks like she feels at home here.”
Kat bit the edge of her lip as she studied Matty. With the cat curled up on one side of the couch, her tail tucked under her chin, Kat did have to admit she already looked as though she belonged here. Still, it had never crossed Kat’s mind to adopt her permanently.
“If you don’t want her, I can call Animal Control,” Andrew offered.
Kat straightened, a cold current shooting down her spine with all the force of a lightning bolt. “Animal Control?”
Andrew sighed. “I don’t like them any more than you do, but this cat no longer has a home. She has to go somewhere.”
Kat’s gaze drifted to Matty, who started languidly licking one paw, oblivious to the discussion concerning her fate. It hadn’t occurred to Kat before now that Matilda was homeless, an orphan. The revelation sent a pang of empathy through her. If anyone knew about the pain of not having a family, Kat did.
And so did Andrew, Kat thought, looking at him as he jotted something else in his notebook. How many of the same foster families had they been placed with? At least three.
“I’ll take her,” Kat said.
Andrew nodded, not looking up. If her announcement surprised him, he didn’t show it. “So,” he said, “what can you tell me about the events of this morning?”
Kat shifted her thoughts back to the matter of Mrs. Tinsdale’s murder. “I was leaving to go grocery shopping when I saw Matty sitting on my doormat. When I went to return her, I noticed Mrs. Tinsdale’s door was open.”
“She didn’t answer when I called her name so I went in search of her. That’s when I found her in the master bathroom.” Kat shivered and wrapped her arms around her middle. The memory of Mrs. Tinsdale staring at the ceiling with unseeing eyes inspired chills.
“You didn’t hear anything suspicious before then?” Andrew asked.
Andrew moved to one side of the room and rapped on the wall with his knuckles. “The walls here aren’t very thick. I can hear the team in the hallway.”
“If she was attacked while I was in the shower, I wouldn’t have been able to hear anything,” Kat told him.
“What time were you in the shower?”
“Between nine-thirty and ten.”
“And you didn’t hear anything before or after that?”
Kat shook her head and sighed. Although she hadn’t known Mrs. Tinsdale well, they had chatted on occasion. Mrs. Tinsdale had shared Kat’s love of animals, as evidenced by her adoption of Matty and her volunteer activities for one of the local animal organizations. Who would hurt a woman as compassionate as that?
“What about the neighbors across the hall?” Andrew asked. “Do you think they might have heard something?”
“The other two units on this floor are both vacant.”
Andrew’s expression didn’t change. If he was disappointed by the lack of leads so far, he didn’t let on.
“Hey, Andrew,” someone called out from the corridor. “Where are you? We’re ready to move the vic.”
Andrew walked over to the front door and poked his head outside. “I’ll be out in a sec.” He turned to address Kat again. “I need to go join the crew. I’ll question you more later. In the meantime, here’s my business card. If you think of anything crucial to the case, call my cell or just step outside and ask around until you find me.”
Kat took the card he offered and slipped it into her jeans pocket. “I’ll be here when you’re ready.”
“I’m counting on it.” Andrew flashed her that smile again before disappearing into the hallway. Kat quietly shut the door behind him.