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Catnip: A Mystery Short Story

IN THE April 7 ISSUE

FROM THE 2018 Articles,
andMysteryrat's Maze,
andPets,
andTerrific Tales
SECTIONS

by Patricia Della Valle

Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.

“Heard you got a cat.”

I was in my bathrobe and dew-soaked slippers trying to retrieve the Sunday newspaper from my very wet lawn.newspaper

“Where’d you hear that?” Without looking up, I knew who was speaking.

“I seen it looking out your kitchen window this morning. Yesterday I seen it sunning itself in your yard. What’s its name?”

Denny James was a tall, skinny kid with freckles. I couldn’t tell the color of his hair as I had never seen him without a baseball cap.

Denny’s mother had recently died of liver problems, and he was taken in by his grandmother. It turned out to be a perfect match. Denny had a good home, and Olive had a reason to get up in the morning. She also had help with grocery shopping, carrying things, and throwing out the garbage.

“His name is Merlin after the magician in King Arthur’s court. After all, he is a magic cat.”

Denny’s eyes widened. “Waddaya mean – magic?”

“He’s helped solve many murders and other crimes for the police.”

“So, how did you get him?”

“I worked with the police and noticed how old the cat was getting. When I retired, I asked to take him home and everyone agreed. Now I have a question for you. Whose car is that in front of your house?”black and white cat

A ten-year old tan Camry had been sitting there for two days. Olive never had visitors and I was curious. Once a detective, always a detective, I thought.

“That’s my uncle Joe. He’s my mother’s brother. He’s here for my grandma’s birthday. My other uncle and aunt will be here this afternoon – and two cousins.”

“How old is your grandma?” I asked him.

“She’s ninety. That’s why I’m here. To invite you to her party. It’s at three o’clock. You can bring the cat.”

+++

At three o’clock, I left my house followed by a black and white cat who had seen better days. We walked next door, and I rang the bell. Olive greeted us, gave me a hug, and took the flowers I was carrying.

“So glad to see you, Lisa. Come in and meet my family.”

Three people were seated on the small sofa. “This is my son, Joe,” she said, and the Camry guy stood up. He was the picture of Denny – tall, skinny, freckles. His hair was sandy brown, so I assumed Denny’s was the same under his cap.

“So, this is the ‘cat lady,” he said smiling. “We’ve been hearing about you all morning. Nice to meet you.”

Next to him sat a plump woman holding the arm of the man next to her as if someone would try to take him away from her. Looking at him I didn’t think she had to worry.

“This is my other son, George,” Olive said, “and his wife, Clara.” George politely stood up, shook my hand, and said, “How do you do.” He turned to Clara. “This is the mother of the magic cat Denny was telling us about.” Clara gave me a lukewarm smile. “Charmed,” she said.

“Where is Denny?” I asked Olive.

“I think Denny and your cat are together in Denny’s room. My grandson has never had a pet, and he’s thrilled you brought Merlin with you. Now I’d like you to meet my other grandchildren. They’re older than Denny. Denny’s mother was the youngest of my children.”

As she was about to introduce us, an elderly woman came out from the kitchen. Olive beckoned her to come over to us. The woman wiped her hands on the apron she was wearing and walked over. “This is my next-door neighbor, Lisa, the owner of the cat Denny is playing with. I was just about to introduce her to Mark and Cindy.”

“This is my sister-in-law, Dora,” Olive said taking her hand. “I don’t know what I would do without her.”

“So nice to meet you,” Dora said.
“If you’ll forgive me, I’m just finishing up in the kitchen.”

“Let me help you, Aunt Dora.” Cindy jumped up from her seat, said “hi” to me and followed her aunt.

“That was my niece, Cindy,” said Olive. “Now this fine gentleman is my nephew, Mark. Mark and Cindy are George and Clara’s children. Mark is twenty-four and Cindy twenty-six.”

Mark stood up and shook my hand. “Pleasure to meet you,” he said. “I’ve already seen your ‘magic cat’,” he laughed.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Cindy carrying a tray of decorated cupcakes to the table. Dora came to the kitchen door and told everyone to come into the dining room.

“You too, Denny,” she called. The table looked festive with a centerpiece of roses brought by Joe.

When we were all seated, Dora reappeared carrying a large pink and white birthday cake with lighted candles. She started to sing Happy Birthday, and we all joined in as she placed the cake in front of Olive who blew out the candles and made the first cut.

Dora whisked the cake back to the kitchen where she cut it into portions, while Cindy took the beverage order – coffee or tea. Denny, who had Merlin on his lap, jumped up and the cat scurried away. “Wait, Aunt Dora,” he called. “I’ll bring the cake to the table.” He returned from the kitchen bearing two plates. One very large piece with a pink buttercream rose, he placed in front of his grandmother and the other piece went to Clara who was seated to her right. The next two he handed to George and me, then one at Dora’s place, one at Cindy’s, then Mark and Joe, and finally a big piece for himself.

“These lovely cupcakes were made by my niece, Cindy,” Dora said as she sat down. “I hope you’ll all make room.” She smiled at Cindy as we passed the tray.cupcakes

“The large pink one is special for Grandma Olive,” Cindy informed us. “The blue one is for my mother. Blue is her favorite color.”

We all started to eat and drink. Suddenly there was a commotion at the head of the table. Olive and George were on their feet. Clara was keeling over her plate, her face in the buttercream. Mark pushed everyone out of the way.

“He’s a paramedic,” Dora explained shakily.

Mark looked up, white as a sheet. “My mother is dead. She must have had a heart attack.”

“My wife is healthy as a horse,” George said bending over Clara. “This can’t be,” he said as he and Mark eased her onto the carpet. He tried giving her mouth-to-mouth and then banging on her chest. In the meantime, Cindy was calling 911.

The police were there in fifteen minutes accompanied by the coroner and a detective. The coroner examined the body and asked George if Clara had any heart problems in the past. “Never,” he said. ambulance

“There is a faint smell of bitter almonds on her breath,” she said. Your mother might have been poisoned. I’ll know better when she’s on my table.”

“You’re crazy,” George protested. “Who would want to kill my wife?”

The detective told one of the cops to bag the cake on Clara’s plate including the half-eaten cupcake.

“Hi, Richard,” I said.

“The detective turned and saw me. “Lisa. I didn’t know you were on this case. I thought you had retired.”

“I am retired,” I said. “Merlin and I are guests. If I can help with anything, let me know.”

“Speaking of Merlin, where is the magic cat?”

“Under the deceased’s chair. You know how he loves a murder. And Richard, if you don’t mind me butting in, I would bag the birthday girl’s plate as well.”black and white cat

I was wondering why the bigger piece of cake, the one with the rose had gone to Clara, not Olive. I asked her.

“My slice was twice as big as Clara’s, and I could never eat that much. I asked her if she would switch with me. That woman loved her sweets. I did keep the pink cupcake because my granddaughter made it especially for me.”

Joe had his arm around his mother. “I feel bad about Clara, but thank God you didn’t eat any of the cake, Mother.” He bent down and kissed her cheek.

“This looks like a case for Merlin,” I said to Richard.

“Be my guest,” he replied.

I scooped Merlin up in my arms and sat down.

“As Detective Rooney will attest to, this cat has helped solve many mysteries. Before I retired, Richard and I worked cases together, so as long as the whole family is here he’ll ask you all a few questions, and Merlin will meow once for a ‘yes’ and twice for a ‘no’.”

“This is ridiculous.” George ranted. “I’ve just lost my wife, and my children have lost their mother. We’re not in the mood for your parlor games.”

“The alternative would be to question you all individually at the precinct,” Richard replied. “This is the easy way. Now sit down.” He turned to Merlin.

“Merlin. Do you know who poisoned Clara?” The cat ‘meowed.’

“Was it a man?”

I pinched the cat. “Meow.”

Looking at our suspects, the one to gain the most would be Joe. He had a ratty old car and probably needed money. He also seemed to know the cake was poisoned. He was in the house several days before the birthday and would have access to the cake before it ever reached the table. I assumed he asked his mother for money, and she refused him. Now for a little ‘show-biz.’

Richard went around the room starting with Mark.

“Merlin. This young man is the dead woman’s son. Did he have any reason to want to kill his grandmother?” (We all knew that Clara and Olive had switched their pieces of cake). Merlin meowed twice.

Next, Richard approached George. “Merlin. This is Olive’s older son. Would he have a reason to kill his mother?”

George and Clara had driven up in a new Mercedes. It was the only car in the driveway when I arrived. Joe’s car was out front, as was Mark’s fire-engine red Honda. Only Joe appeared to be hurting.

Merlin meowed twice.

Joe was next. Richard and I were pretty sure he was the culprit. Richard asked Merlin.

“Is this the man who poisoned Olive’s cake? Is this the man who would gain the most if Olive was dead?”

Merlin meowed once.

Richard spoke to the two uniforms and instructed them to take Joe downtown for questioning. They handcuffed Joe, read him his rights, and ushered him out the door amidst Olive’s and Denny’s protestations.

+++

I was feeling very bad about everything. We were too quick to condemn Joe. Olive and Rose were crying. George was right. We were playing parlor games.

The young people followed the ambulance that took their mother, and George followed them.ambulance

I said my goodbye to Olive and told her if she needed anything at all, I was right next door. Rose, who had been picked up by Mark, was staying with her. Merlin and I went home.

+++

At eight o’clock the next morning, the phone rang. It was Richard. “Sit down, Lisa,” he said. I didn’t know what was coming. “You’ll never believe this. Neither piece of cake was poisoned.” It took me a minute to take this in. “The poison,” he continued, “was in the cupcake, the one with the blue frosting. Clara was the target. We’re bringing her husband and children in for questioning.”

“What about Joe,” I asked him.

“He’s back at his mother’s house with our sincerest apologies. I’ll call you later.”

+++

I was out in my garden fixing the flower beds. Merlin sat nearby watching me. The phone rang, and I reached into my pocket for my cell. It was Richard.beautiful flowers

“Hi, Lisa. I thought you’d like to know what’s going on. This is for the books. A young lady was waiting to see George when we brought him in. He was very angry when he saw her. “I told you not to come down here,” he yelled. To me he explained she was his secretary who he had called before we picked him up. It didn’t take long to ascertain she wasn’t there to take dictation. She was his mistress, and the reason for the poisoned cupcake.”

“So George wanted Clara out of the way.”

“Right,” he said. “It was easy for him. Cindy made the cakes at her mother’s house. George knew the one with the blue frosting was for Clara. He just had to add cyanide to the buttercream.”

“Poor Olive,” I said. “She lost a daughter-in-law and a son in one single act. I’ll be visiting her this afternoon. I owe Denny an explanation, too.”

A little later, Merlin and I went next door. Joe and Rose were there having tea with Olive. Denny came in when he heard my voice. He was happy to see Merlin.black and white cat

“Denny,” I explained. “Merlin is not a magic cat anymore. He’s just an old cat who should have been retired a long time ago.”

I turned to the others. “I apologize for yesterday’s performance, and I hope you’ll all forgive me.” They did. I assumed Denny forgave me as well, but he was too busy playing with Merlin to answer.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

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Patricia is the author of the Peter Abbott, P.I. detective series, murder with a sense of humor. She also writes short stories, many of which have won awards. She has had her work published in magazines such as OMDB, and “Catnip” is her second story to appear in Kings River Life.

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