A Twist in the Tail – Leighann Dobbs

I should have known by the unsettling tone of the cat’s meows that disaster was looming. Of course, at the time I was more worried about how the guests liked breakfast. It was only the fourth one I’d served since officially becoming owner of the Oyster Cove Guesthouse. They seemed to be enjoying it. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was nothing fancy. Bacon, scrambled eggs, sausage, and lemon poppy seed muffins were the extent of my culinary expertise. Quite frankly, I might have misjudged whether my cooking skills were up to par when entering into this agreement. Maybe I should have read the fine print in the documents I’d received from Millie Sullivan, the elderly former owner. Even though the breakfasts weren’t five-star cuisine, I hadn’t had any complaints from my first batch of guests. Well, all except one. Charles Prescott. He was the reason I was now hovering in the doorway holding an antique egg cup with a perfectly warm softboiled egg nestled inside. Charles had complained about his egg yesterday. It was too cold. He was quite loud about it, too.

Since I aimed to please, this morning I had perfectly timed the egg for his pre-announced 8 am arrival in the dining room. It was now 8:05 … where was Charles? My eyes scanned the room just in case I’d missed him. But my guest count totaled five, including Charles, and four were seated and already digging into their breakfast. It was easy to tell who was there and who was not, even in such an enormous room. Several small dining tables with white linen tablecloths sat atop a massive mossgreen and gold oriental rug. Curtains in a complimentary green and gold silk framed the ten-foot-tall windows that offered a birds-eye view of the sparkling Maine Atlantic ocean and craggy rocks of Oyster Cove. It was summer, and Flora—who I was coming to realize was the world’s worst maid—had opened one window. A soft breeze fluttered the drapes and carried in the salty scent of the ocean and the cry of gulls in the distance… or was that the cats? Ron and Iona Weatherby sat a small table located by the window. The adorable elderly couple had binoculars dangling from their necks and cameras at their sides. Ron was slathering the muffin with butter while Iona picked daintily at the fluffy scrambled eggs.

They were a delightful couple who had come here for birdwatching and photography. Perfect guests with no complaints. Near the buffet, Ava Grantham sat alone at a table for four. Ava was in her mid-60s. A society columnist, she was a thin, bird-like woman who noticed everything that went on. She was pleasant enough to talk to and told me she’d been vacationing in Oyster Cove since she was a child, even staying at the Oyster Cove Guesthouse a few times when Millie owned it. Her plate was loaded with scrambled eggs, bacon and sausages. I wondered how she stayed so thin. Over by the door was the fourth guest, Tina Reeves. She was younger than the others, probably in her mid-30s, a bubbly blonde with wide blue eyes.

She said she’d come to visit relatives, but I had suspicions that she had another agenda, of what I just wasn’t exactly sure. Nor did it matter. As long as the guests paid the bill, I didn’t care what they were up to. Tina had flawless skin and a figure like an hourglass, and no wonder. She only had about a tablespoon of scrambled eggs and three blueberries on her plate. Still no sign of Charles. I was just deciding what to do about the rapidly cooling egg in my hand when I heard the front door open. Maybe Charles had gone out for a walk before breakfast? I backed up and stuck my head into the hallway. Darn! It wasn’t Charles. It was Barbara Littlefield, the town building inspector, and the last person I wanted to deal with right now.

She’d been a thorn in my side ever since I started renovations on the old mansion. Nothing I did pleased her, and she’d already fined me for two violations that a nicer person would have overlooked. It was too late to duck back into the dining room. She’d already spotted me and was marching down the hall toward me, a sour look on her face. I stepped into the hallway to head her off so she didn’t disrupt the guests’ breakfasts. ‘Barbara, how lovely to see you,’ I lied. Barbara’s scowl deepened. ‘I just came to double-check the permit for the gazebo outside and I noticed—’ Merow! Barbara jerked her head toward the dining room. ‘Do you have cats in the dining room?’ I stepped aside to let her see in. ‘Of course not.

’ ‘Good, because that would be a health code violation.’ Merooo! Was it my imagination or were the cats’ cries getting louder and more insistent? Barbara frowned down the hallway, where it sounded like the cats’ latest cry had come from. ‘Wait a minute. That sounded like it was coming from the kitchen. That’s even worse!’ Barbara stormed down the hall. I hurried after her, still balancing the egg cup in my hand. Some things are more important than Charles Prescott and his egg – like making sure the board of health didn’t shut me down for having animals in the kitchen. ‘It’s not coming from the kitchen.’ At least, I hoped it wasn’t. It actually was coming from that direction, but I was pretty sure it was from the West wing of the mansion, which had been closed off for extensive renovations.

Not that the cats didn’t hang around in the kitchen—they did. I just hoped they weren’t in there right now. ‘I think you’re right.’ Barbara stopped and frowned at me. ‘I thought I made it clear that decrepit wing was supposed to be closed down so no one could get in there.’ See what I mean? I just couldn’t win with this woman. You’d think she’d be happy the cats weren’t in the kitchen, but no, she’d found something else to complain about. ‘It is blocked off. To people. Cats are sneaky and can get into anything.

’ Couldn’t they? I wasn’t exactly sure. I’d only owned the guesthouse, and, thus, the cats, for a short time, and had no idea what those furry little monsters could get up to. They’d been fairly wellbehaved so far, but the way they stared at me — with their luminous, intelligent eyes — always made me feel like they were up to something behind my back. I didn’t have much experience with cats, but Millie had assured me they made great companions. Thus far, I’d been too busy learning the ropes of running the guesthouse to spend time getting to know them. Feelings of guilt crept in. I promised Millie I would take good care of the cats, but judging by the sounds of their meows, they were in some sort of distress. I hoped one of them hadn’t found its way into the closed-off wing and been hurt. It was a mess in there, and not safe. Mee-yow! We continued down the hall.

It felt like it was taking a long time to traverse, but that was because it really was quite long. The place was a mansion after all. Gigantic. It had been built by shipping magnet Jedediah Biddeford 300 years ago. I’d bought it from Millie Sullivan—my mother’s best friend—whose family had owned it for the last 125 years. Judging by the looks of the West wing, that was the last time that section of the house had been updated too. Don’t even get me started on the condition of the caretakers’ cottage and carriage house. The cats were really starting to caterwaul now, and I was getting worried. Barbara surged ahead of me, then stopped at the doorway to the West wing and turned to scowl at me. ‘I thought you said this was blocked off.

’ She gestured toward the door, which was cracked open. I swore I’d locked it shut several days ago. The large black and white tuxedo cat, Nero, stood in the doorway looking up at me with his striking green eyes, as if to ask ‘what took you so long?’ The tortie, Marlowe, rubbed her face on my ankle. At least they weren’t hurt, even though the thought of hurting them myself for causing all this trouble did briefly cross my mind. ‘I don’t know how this got open. Maybe the handyman?’ The handyman was Millie’s nephew, Mike Sullivan. I’d known he was bad news since fifth grade and would never have engaged his services, but Millie had hired him to fix some things up before I’d bought the guesthouse. The work was already paid for and I couldn’t afford to turn that down. I couldn’t wait to get rid of him, though. ‘He’s probably working in here.

I’ll check.’ ‘Nice try, but this still violates code 401 of the state statute.’ Barbara whipped out her notebook, presumably to write up a violation. Great. This was just what I didn’t need. And to top it off, the stupid soft-boiled egg was now cold. I switched it to my left hand and reached out my right to shut the door. ‘Maybe you could overlook it just this once? It wasn’t open that long and—’ Nero let out a wail and launched himself at the door before I could pull it shut. The door crashed open, revealing the run-down state of the West wing. Dust mites floated in the air, cobwebs hung from the chandeliers, water stains marred the walls.

But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was what lay at the bottom of the stairway. It was a body. Charles Prescott’s to be exact. And he was deathly still. TWO I rushed over to the body. You may think most people would be put off by a body, and that the natural inclination would be to run in the opposite direction. But I’d been halfway to a promising career as a medical examiner when I’d given everything up in favor of my ex-husband’s culinary career and raising our daughter, Emma. I didn’t regret staying home for Emma. The marriage was another story.

Apparently, my old medical training had kicked in. I wanted to see if anything could be done, even though it was evident by his pasty skin tone and blankly staring eyes that it was too late. I felt for a pulse. Nothing. Charles was gone. At least he wouldn’t care that his egg had cooled, which was a good thing because it was now rolling around the floor. I must’ve dropped it in my haste to get to the body. Talk about inconvenient. Not only did I have a dilapidated mansion and no money to repair it with, two cats I barely knew how to care for and a building inspector salivating to write me up for even the most innocent of violations, I now also had a dead body on my hands. Of course, it was inconvenient for Charles too.

A wave of sadness washed over me. Sure, they guy had been a bit of a pain, but he didn’t deserve to die. I felt selfish worrying about my own problems when poor Charles had lost his life. A momentary depression descended over me as I saw my plans for success evaporating right before my eyes. And not just financial success. There was much more than money at stake here. I’d spent most of my adult life in the shadow of my exhusband, Clive Stonefield, a semi-famous chef. His parting words about how I was nothing without him still stung. I had been determined to prove him wrong. The Oyster Cove Guesthouse was my opportunity to shine.

My chance to prove that I, too, could be successful. I’d put all my money and hopes into this purchase and it had to work. At forty-six, I wasn’t getting any younger and this could be my last chance. How much could a dead body hurt business? Didn’t matter. I wasn’t going to let this signal my defeat. I was going to consider it an opportunity to prove that I could succeed no matter what. After all, my daughter was just making her way in the world and I had to be a good role model. The rustle of paper brought me out of my reverie. Barbara had whipped out her notebook and was flipping through it, probably trying to find the exact section of the building code that a dead body violated so she could write me up. ‘He’s dead.

We better call the police,’ I said. Barbara looked up from her notebook, her hawk-like gaze focusing on the stairway. ‘It’s no wonder. Look at how the stairway collapsed.’ Her eyes narrowed, she craned her neck forward, pulling her phone from her pocket. ‘Looks like dry rot to me. This place is uninhabitable.’ I glanced at the stairs as Barbara dialed the police. She had a point. Jagged edges of splintered wood stuck up where the treads had broken through.

The entire banister lay on the floor, though half of it had fallen away before I even bought the place. The stairs hadn’t been in good condition before this. Now, they were a disaster. But that was why I had this section of the house blocked off. Only a fool would try to navigate those stairs, which brought up two questions… how had Charles gotten in here? And why? I didn’t know what Jedediah Biddeford had been thinking when he built this place. It could have easily housed four families. Maybe he’d planned to raise several generations here. The place was enormous, with several staircases and two kitchens. Over the years, parts of it had fallen into disrepair. Millie had told me her family had closed off the West wing a generation ago and she’d had a hard time keeping up with the rest of it.

That’s why she’d sold it at such a discount. Well, that and the fact that she wanted more time to go gallivanting around town causing trouble with my 78-year-old mother. Keeping an eye on her was the second reason I’d been compelled to move back to my home town of Oyster Cove, the first being getting away from my ex. At least the cats had quieted down. They were now sniffing around the room as if they were furry CSIs looking for clues. Nero was paying quite a bit of attention to the globeshaped newel post that had rolled over in to the corner. Marlowe was sitting beside him and watching. ‘Well, I’ll be a monkey’s hiney. Is that Prescott?’ Ava Grantham appeared in the doorway, her eyes riveted on the body. Darn it! I was hoping to keep this from the guests, lest they flee the guesthouse demanding a refund.

‘Just a little accident,’ I trilled. ‘Go on back to the dining room. I’ll put out more muffins.’ But it was too late. The Weatherbys emerged beside Ava. Iona gasped as she fumbled with her binoculars. ‘My word! What happened?’ Ron slid his arm around her and held her tight. ‘Don’t look, dear.’ I summoned my nothings-wrong-go-on-your-way voice. ‘Just an accident folks.

Nothing to see here, really.’ ‘Not a surprise either,’ Barbara said, pointing out the broken stairs. ‘Safety hazard. You people should be careful here.’ Great. That was just what I needed, Barbara telling people that the guesthouse wasn’t safe. ‘Someone should call the police,’ Ron Weatherby said, then in a lower voice. ‘Though in a small town like this, I wonder how effective they’ll be at investigating the condition of those stairs.’ ‘I’ll do it,’ Barbara said a bit too gleefully as she whipped out her phone. ‘What’s going on I… Eek!’ Tina had come to join the crowd.

Her eyes were even bigger than usual. Her hand flew up to her mouth as she stared at Charles. The high-pitched squeak she’d emitted had the cats riveting their heads in her direction, their whiskers twitching. ‘Is that a dead body?’ Ron Weatherby transferred his attentions to Tina. He put a fatherly arm around her and patted her shoulder. ‘Now, now young lady this is nothing for you to see. Let the missus and I take you into the dining room and get you some tea.’ ‘Great idea,’ I said. ‘We’ll only be a minute here and then everyone can forget all about this.’ Finally, the area cleared out.

I closed my eyes, willing the police to hurry before anyone else happened by. No such luck. ‘What’s going on? I was up fixing the sink in the sand dollar room and I—’ Mike Sullivan skidded to a stop in front of the door, his eyes widening as they flicked from the body to my face. ‘Sunshine, what happened?’ The last person I wanted to deal with right now was Mike Sullivan. Mike and I went way back. I mean, way back. He’d been my brother Tommy’s best friend growing up. I’d known him practically since I was in diapers, and the nickname ‘Sunshine’ wasn’t a term of endearment. It had come about because I wasn’t exactly a morning person as a teenager. Mike and Tommy had teased me about my morning grumpiness by calling me Sunshine.

Not for the first time, I wished he would hurry up with the work Millie had paid him to do. I didn’t like the dimple-inducing smirk on his face when he called me Sunshine, or the way it made his whiskey-brown eyes twinkle with mischief. ‘One of the guests had an accident,’ I said. Mike came to my side. ‘Are you okay?’ My heart almost melted at the tone of genuine concern in his voice until I remembered what a pain in the neck he’d been when I was younger. Especially that time when I’d heard he was going to ask me to the junior prom. Then he changed his mind and asked slutty Stella Dumont instead. Not that I really cared that much, now. That was decades ago and I’d been married and divorced since then, but the adolescent sting of rejection never goes away. Mike never married, but who knew how many ‘Sunshines’ he’d gone through in all those years.

Since he’d spent most of his time touring the world in the Navy, I assumed it was plenty. I swatted him away. ‘Of course I’m okay. I’m not the one who had the accident.’ ‘Make way! Make way!’ voices demanded from the hallway. They belonged to my mother and Millie, proving that just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. I should’ve known they’d be here. They had a police scanner app on their cell phones and showed up at almost every crime scene, usually before the police did. ‘Glory be, Josie, is this any way to treat the guests?’ As soon as Millie stepped in the room, Nero and Marlowe swiveled their attention to their previous owner. They trotted over, winding around her ankles and purring as she bent down to pet the cats in a movement that belied her age.

Her eyes fell on the egg cup. ‘Oh, Grandma Tower’s china egg cup. Why is this on the floor?’ It was a miracle it hadn’t broken. At least I still had some luck left. ‘Not to mention the egg.’ My mother picked up the soft-boiled egg and looked from Mike to me. ‘You young people sure get up to strange things.’ ‘We weren’t up to anything. I dropped the egg when I found Charles.’ I inclined my head toward the body.

‘Oh.’ My mother’s gaze moved to Charles’ body, over which Millie was now standing. You’d think my mother and her best friend would be shocked to see a dead body, but apparently all the crime scenes they’d attended had hardened them. ‘I don’t think this will be good for business.’ Millie tore her gaze from the body and glanced back at the doorway, where Ava Grantham still stood. ‘You’re not going to put this in the paper, are you Ava?’ Ava made a face and waved her hand dismissively. ‘Of course not. I write society columns, not obituaries.’ ‘Good. Now what we need to do is secure the area.

Make sure it doesn’t get contaminated,’ Millie said. ‘And we need some gloves.’ My mother turned to me. ‘Josie do you have any gloves? Like maybe those yellow dishwashing gloves that Flora uses?’ ‘I, err…’ I’d never seen Flora wearing yellow gloves, but that might be because she refused to do dishes. ‘And paper bags,’ Millie added. Before I could say anything, there was a commotion at the front door. The police were here. ‘We’re down here!’ Millie yelled. ‘Don’t worry, we’ve secured the scene,’ Mom added. Seth Chamberlain, the Oyster Cove sheriff, appeared in the doorway.

I wasn’t sure how he kept getting elected because he was older than my mother and Millie and about as effective in fighting crime. Given the way my mom and Millie had turned into elderly CSIs, maybe that was a compliment. Anyway, rumor had it that Seth was just such a nice guy that people kept voting for him. Besides, there was hardly any crime in Oyster Cove. ‘I don’t see any prints in the dust here.’ Millie pointed at the dusty steps. ‘And we haven’t determined how the killer got in or out,’ Mom added. Killer? Surely my mother was being overly dramatic. ‘Killer? It’s obvious the guy just fell down the stairs. They’re unsafe!’ Barbara crowed.

‘Now ladies, I’m perfectly capable of determining what happened here,’ Seth’s tone was gruff, but I could tell by the way he looked at Millie that he had the hots for her and she could get away with just about anything. Millie blushed and fussed with her curly cotton-white hairdo. ‘Why, we were just trying to help.’ ‘I know. That was nice of you. Now how about everyone clear the area and give us room to work.’ Seth ushered us out. I went willingly, my mind whirling with my mother’s insinuation. I felt bad that Charles had died, but I had to wonder… would it be better for business if someone had killed him as opposed to him falling down unsafe stairs? Nero licked his paw and washed behind his ear as he watched the humans leave. Worry and guilt gnawed at him.

Death had come to the guesthouse and he hadn’t noticed until it was too late. ‘I hope Millie isn’t too disappointed in us, but we sent out the alert as soon as we smelled death. It’s not our fault Josie is slow in understanding our communications.’ Marlowe swished her tail, her eyes on Seth Chamberlain, who was inspecting the body. ‘Indeed.’ Nero continued washing. He took pains to keep his fur shiny and silky. Even a cat on his sixth life liked to look good. You never knew when a sultry Siamese or a cute Cornish Rex might be favorable to his attentions. ‘But perhaps we could have prevented this before it happened.

Murder is not good for business.’ Marlowe jerked her head in Nero’s direction. ‘Murder? But this is an accident. Look at the stairs.’ ‘Things are not always as they seem.’ Even though the situation was not ideal for the Oyster Cove Guesthouse—not to mention it not being ideal for Charles Prescott—Nero wasn’t about to pass up a chance to share some of his wisdom with the younger cat. Nero had been watching over the Guesthouse for decades now. He’d wandered past the aged estate one day and knew it should be his home. Millie’s senior memory prevented her from realizing the cat had been there much longer than any normal cat would have lived. In those decades, he’d become very protective of the Guesthouse.

Marlowe had joined more recently. Nero had to admit he had been a bit put-out when Millie had brought Marlowe home as a young kit she’d found abandoned under a bush at the shopping mall about ten years ago, but over time he’d grown found of his young protege. Besides he had to have someone to pass his wisdom on to. And she could be good company. Sometimes. Marlowe’s eyes widened. ‘You mean you’ve seen a clue that someone else was here?’ Nero simply nodded. Over at the body, Seth was taking care to leave things as undisturbed as possible for the medical examiner. The deputy, Johnnie Sanders, was taking pictures and the part-timer Sheila Watts was taking notes. Nero was glad they hadn’t noticed them and shooed them out.

Cats weren’t usually welcome at crime scenes, but he’d learned that he could make himself practically invisible to humans if he was quiet and slowly slunk around, low to the ground. It worked well for sneaking into rooms and buildings too, though getting out could be a challenge if the humans shut the doors on you. ‘You think he came through that door up there and the stairs simply gave way?’ Sheila pointed to the tops of the stairs. ‘Looks that way.’ Sheriff Chamberlain leaned closer to the broken stairway. ‘These treads are rotted and the banister must have fallen off.’ ‘That might have even happened before.’ Sheila inspected the edges of some upper treads still intact. ‘There’s dust here in the holes, so I think part of the banister might have fallen off long ago.’ ‘Even more dangerous.

’ Seth looked at the body. ‘What kind of fool would attempt these stairs, especially with no railing?’ Nero glanced at Marlowe. He wished the young cat would hurry up and find the clue before Seth Chamberlain made a faulty decision about the manner in which Charles Prescott met his maker. Honestly it was too bad that humans only had one life, otherwise Charles would be walking around in no time, and they wouldn’t have this problem on their hands. ‘Did you notice anything unusual last night?’ Nero asked. ‘I was chasing mice in the attic and cat-napping in between courses. I didn’t hear a thing.’ He was only into the early part of his sixth life, and certainly not anywhere near the age his hearing should be going. Marlowe shot him a sheepish glance. ‘I… err… I may have gone down to the wharf.

’ Nero raised a brow. ‘You don’t say?’ He didn’t want to get into Marlowe’s nightly activities. Girls would be girls. He could already see that the cat felt guilty, and he wasn’t her parent, just her mentor. ‘I just hope we haven’t let Millie down,’ Marlowe said. ‘Yes, it’s unfortunate this has happened so soon after she entrusted the future of the guesthouse to us,’ Nero said. Marlowe hung her head. ‘We have failed our first important task.’ ‘We may still be able to redeem ourselves. If we can help solve this quickly, it may not hurt things too badly.

You know what a short-term memory humans have. The sooner the case is closed, the sooner they will move their attentions to something else. Making sure the guesthouse survives is of utmost importance. Millie entrusted that task to us.’ Nero frowned. ‘I do wish it didn’t come with that human Josie. She isn’t as savvy as Millie.’ Marlowe continued sniffing the perimeter of the room. ‘Yeah, but she does come in handy for doing the menial work like a laundry, cleaning and cooking. And apparently since she came with the guesthouse, we need to be as loyal to her as we were to Millie.

’ Nero nodded. ‘I agree about the loyalty part. The cooking part needs work. She’s always burning things. Not like our Millie.’ ‘As long as she fills our dishes.’ Nero joined Marlowe in sniffing. ‘Have you picked up the scent of a stranger?’ ‘No. Just the usual people and those who were in here this morning. Josie, Millie, Charles, Mike, Barbara Littlefield.

There is something spicy, but I can’t quite place it. Oh, and Stella Dumont.’ Nero nodded sagely. Stella Dumont owned Smugglers Bay, just over the crest of the hill. They could even see the gulls that circled her deck from the side yard. Darn nuisance those gulls were. Apparently she’d been coming around the guesthouse to see Mike. ‘Yes, but we already know she comes here often.’ ‘True, but I hope it is Stella that snuck in, because that would help us immensely. She owns a rival inn, and if she was out of the way, that might mean more guests would come here.

’ Nero swished his tail thoughtfully. ‘Indeed. Perhaps Stella was thinking that a dead body marring the reputation of the Oyster Cove Guesthouse would bring more business to her place.’ Marlowe narrowed her eyes. ‘Yes, she could be the culprit.’ ‘Are you sure there is a culprit?’ Nero asked. ‘Wait, I thought you said there was.’ ‘Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. You need to investigate.’ ‘You mean look at the clues.

The stairs. The things the police are taking pictures of.’ Nero nodded. ‘But perhaps they are not looking at something they should be. They are investigating under their assumption that he fell down the stairs.’ ‘Oh right!’ Marlowe was quick on the uptake. She turned her attention away from the stairs, sniffing along the edge of the wall, where a pile of debris lay – railing for the stairs, wall paper that had fallen off the wall and a metal wall sconce. She stopped when she came to the newel post cap—a large metal ball with a point at the end.

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