It's Christmas on Madrona Island and Cait and friends have plans to embrace the magic of the season. The only dark spot on their celebration is the fact that a miserly old landlord is set on evicting an apartment building full of tenants just days before Christmas. Cait makes it her mission to save the old building and is aided by a cat named Ebenezer as they try to convince the old man to change his mind. Things look hopeless when she realizes that an unsolved mystery may be behind the man's gruff exterior. Cait vows to solve the mystery as a means of softening the man's heart and saving the apartments. An impossible task? Maybe. But Cait knows that miracles are real and anything can happen at Christmas.
Note for mystery purists: This story involves a cold case mystery which is linked to a modern day problem but does not contain a present day murder.
Release date: November 1, 2015
Publisher: Kathi Daley Books
Print pages: 158
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The Cat of Christmas Past
Wednesday, December 9
Holiday music blared through overhead speakers as I, Caitlin Hart, worked with the group of kids from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church to decorate the choir room with red and green accents for the upcoming holiday. The children had all agreed to show up early for the regularly scheduled rehearsal for Away in a Manger, the Christmas play I had written with my totally wonderful boyfriend, Cody West, for the annual church pageant.
“We need more glue,” Trinity Paulson informed me as I hung colorful wreaths on the wall.
“I gave Serenity a whole bottle.”
“I know, but it’s gone. It had a drippy top and a lot of it got on the table.”
“Why don’t you and your sister start on the windows?” I instructed the eight-year-old. “And be careful with the paint. We don’t want to get any on the floor.”
I stood back and admired our handiwork after Trinity walked away. The room really was beginning to look festive, and in spite of the glue on the table, the red and green construction paper chain the Paulson girls had been working on really did look nice draped around the piano. I was proud of the girls I was beginning to think of as honorary little sisters. Although I’d known the girls their whole lives, I’d recently gotten to know them a lot more intimately, now that their seventeen-year-old sister, Destiny, was working at Coffee Cat Books, the coffee bar/bookstore/cat lounge I owned with my best friend, Tara O’Brian.
“The ornaments aren’t balls. They’re to go on the tree,” I scolded the group of boys who were tossing the small glass balls between themselves.
Whoever had said the more hands at work the quicker the task had never worked with twenty-three kids aged six to fourteen.
“Ricky started it,” six-year-old Robby Davey tattled.
“Well, I’m ending it.”
God, I sound like my mother.
When I asked everyone to show up early to help with the chore, I’d figured Cody would be here to help me supervise, but he’d gotten held up working on an article for the Madrona Island News, the local newspaper he owns and publishes. He’d called earlier to say that he wouldn’t be able to make it to the church until just prior to the rehearsal.
“Can I put the angel on the top of the tree, Ms. Cait?” six-year-old Stephanie Collins asked.
“I’m sorry, Steph,” I answered the girl with the long dark ringlets, “but Christy already asked me if she could do it after Mass last Sunday.”
“Christy isn’t here,” Stephanie pointed out.
I looked around the room for the thirteen-year-old. Stephanie was right; Christy hadn’t shown up as planned. I frowned. I hoped she was okay. She’d been so excited about the decorating party and she was thrilled that it was her turn to play Mary in the pageant.
“Does anyone know why Christy isn’t here?” I asked the room at large.
“Her mom got a letter,” Holly Carter answered. “My mom got one too.”
“A letter?” I asked.
“Everyone living in the Bayview Apartments needs to move before the end of the month,” Matthew Wildwood informed me.
“The old guy who owns the building is kicking everyone out,” Matthew, who was the oldest choir member at fourteen, answered.
“Kicking everyone out? Why on earth would he do that?”
Matthew shrugged. “I’m not sure, but my grandma called my mom and told her that she was going to be homeless. My mom said she could move into my room and I could move in with my little brother, but I’m not sure Grandma is real happy about that, and I know I’m not happy about it. I’m a teenager. I need my space. If Grandma moves in with us we’ll all be miserable.”
“I think that’s the point,” twelve-year-old Holly informed me. “My mom said the guy who owns the apartment building is nothing more than a mean old man who’s so unhappy with his own pathetic life that he actually takes pleasure in ruining the lives of others.”
I realized Holly must be talking about Balthazar Pottage, an old recluse who lived on a private island he never left, despite the fact that he owned quite a lot of land in the area. Balthazar was as mean and miserly as he was miserable. I didn’t know the entire story, but I did seem to remember that he’d suffered a great tragedy in his past that turned him into the monster most considered him to be.
“My mom said we might have to move off the island if we can’t find another affordable place to live,” Holly added. “I don’t want to move. I like it here. All my friends are here.”
The Bayview Apartments were one of the few affordable rental properties on the island. Most of the families who lived in the rundown units were single-income families who had little choice but to deal with leaky faucets and drafty walls that did little to keep out the winter chill. Most considered Pottage to be a slum lord, but few had the means to fight the man who was as wealthy as he was mean.
“If Christy has to move can I be Mary in the play?” Serenity asked.
I looked toward the front of the room, where she and Trinity were painting snowflakes on the choir room window.
“We usually choose one of the older girls,” I answered. “I guess if Christy isn’t able to do it Noel would be next in line.”
“May as well give it to Serenity,” thirteen-year-old Noel Holiday answered. “My mom got a letter too. She’s going to look for another place we can afford, but with Timmy’s medical bills she said we have a snowball’s chance in hell of finding one.”
I considered admonishing Noel for using the word hell in a church building, but I knew her little brother was battling leukemia and that his medical expenses were the main reason the family, who actually had a decent income, was forced to live in the apartments. I imagined Noel was simply repeating what she’d heard from her overworked and overstressed mother.
“So can I be Mary?” Serenity asked.
I returned to my task with a heavy heart. I knew there were twelve apartments in the rundown building. In addition to Christy’s, Holly’s, and Noel’s family, and Matthew’s grandmother, five of the additional eight apartments were occupied by neighbors who attended St. Patrick’s on a weekly basis. Many of the families had lived on the island for more than a generation. If Balthazar Pottage kicked everyone out it was going to affect a whole lot of people I cared about.
I thought about Hazel Keller, an eighty-six-year-old woman who not only served as an active volunteer in the community but was an active member of the church. Where would she go if she were evicted? I knew she didn’t have a lot of money, but Madrona Island was her home. It would be tragic to displace her at this point in her life.
And then there was Laverne Sullivan, a retired teacher who’d spent a good portion of the money she’d saved over her life trying to keep up with her husband’s medical expenses before he died. Laverne had worked hard and provided a service to the community. In my opinion she deserved to enjoy her retirement surrounded by those whose lives she had affected.
If I remembered correctly there were two other seniors in the building besides Hazel, Laverne, and Matthew’s grandma, Rosanna. All, likewise, were long-term members of the community who I’m certain would have no desire to move.
And what about Angel Haven, a newly married friend of mine who was pregnant with her first child? Where would Angel and Jesse find another place they could afford? Angel was due to deliver any day now, and the thought of the new family being displaced from their home during a time in their lives that should be filled with joy left me unsettled.
“Anabelle won’t share the glitter,” Robby complained.
“He’s just making a mess with it,” Annabelle defended herself.
Annabelle was right. Ricky and Robby were making a mess with the glitter.
“Robby, why don’t you and Ricky start untangling the lights we plan to put on the tree?” I suggested.
“That’s boring,” Robby complained.
“It’s an important job,” I persuaded. “No matter how many pretty ornaments we put on the tree it’s really the lights that make it come to life.”
Robby looked at me like he was trying to figure out if I was attempting to trick him into the unpleasant chore.
“I usually save the lights for my very best helpers,” I added.
“Okay.” Robby smiled a toothless grin because both of his front teeth were missing. I remembered the Christmas when I was in the first grade; both my front teeth had been missing as well. My brother Danny had made fun of me, but my oldest brother Aiden, who I worshipped, thought it was cool, so I ran around town sporting my toothless grin proudly.
“Are we going to have a Santa at the church dinner this year?” Ricky asked.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. St. Patrick’s held a community dinner and a Christmas fair the Saturday before Christmas every year. I planned to help with the event this year but hadn’t heard if a Santa had been procured.
“I hope so, ’cause my mom said she’s too busy to take me to the mall in Seattle and I need to talk to Santa about my sneakers.”
“I need new shoes. My old ones are too small and they squish my toes. My mom said I could wear my big brother’s old ones, but I want sneakers of my own. Blue ones with a racing stripe like Robby has.”
I knew Ricky’s family struggled to make ends meet and really hoped Ricky would be able to receive the shoes he desired. Maybe I’d talk to Sister Mary about it. She usually organized a drive to buy gifts for families who were having a hard time making ends meet.
“I’ll talk to the committee to see if they plan to have Santa come for a visit,” I promised. “If they haven’t invited him already I’ll suggest it.”
“Thank you, Ms. Cait. If I’m real good I’m hoping to get new socks to go with the new shoes. My old ones all have holes in the toe.”
I smiled at the overactive but very sweet little boy. I planned to make sure he received the shoes and socks he wanted if I had to buy them myself. I’d heard rumors that Ricky’s family might be forced to move from the island if his dad couldn’t find work. It was getting harder and harder to make a living in the fishing industry and a lot of people whose families had lived on Madrona Island for generations had been forced to move since the cannery closed.
“Sorry I’m late,” Cody said as he hurried in through the choir room door after most of the decorations had been hung and placed.
“Have you heard about the Bayview Apartments?” I asked as I brushed snowflakes off his shoulder.
I tried to find comfort in Cody’s blue eyes, but all I saw was the same worry I felt. “I have. That’s where I was, actually. I spoke to the building manager, Bob Cranwell, who informed me that Mr. Pottage is going to tear the place down right after the first of the year. Everyone needs to be out by the end of the month.”
“Why is he tearing it down? And why now, with Christmas just around the corner?”
Cody took off his coat and hung it on the coatrack near the door. “The manager didn’t know. All he could tell me was that everyone in the building received a letter informing them that they needed to vacate by December 31.”
“Can Pottage do that?” I wondered.
“Unfortunately, he can. According to Mr. Cranwell, everyone is there on a week-to-week agreement. All that legally has to be given is a week’s notice, so Pottage seems to think that giving three weeks’ notice makes him some kind of a saint.”
“That’s insane. Where will everyone go?”
“I don’t know.”
Cody looked troubled. I’d been around him enough to know that he wasn’t the sort to be concerned unless there really was something to worry about.
“We have to do something,” I announced as Cody continued into the room.
“Like what?” he asked as he approached the piano.
“I don’t know, but there’s no way I’m going to stand by and let that old miser ruin everyone’s Christmas. It seems like a lot of our neighbors are having a hard time of it this year. Tossing twelve families out on the street is going to make things harder for everyone on the island. We’re a community and we need to support one another. There must be something we can do.”
Cody said a few words to the pair of girls who were sitting at the piano chatting about the new boy at school. They vacated the bench so Cody could sort through the sheet music he kept under the seat.
“Based on what I’ve been able to find out today,” Cody said as he sorted, “we’ll need a miracle to change the old man’s mind. According to Mr. Cranwell, he seems pretty determined to follow through with his plan.”
“Well, I guess if we need a miracle we’re in the right place to ask for one.”
I looked around the newly decorated choir room. I knew in my heart that miracles were real and Christmas was the best time to ask for one. In the grand scheme of things the destruction of a single apartment building might not seem like a big deal, but to the twelve families who lived there, it was everything.
“Cait,” Trinity said from her place near the window.
“Yes, Trinity?” I tried to smile so the kids wouldn’t pick up on my despair.
“There’s a big beige and white cat looking in the window at me. I think he wants in. I know animals aren’t allowed in the church building, but it’s snowing and he looks cold.”
I walked across the room and opened the door. In walked a large cat with a collar around its neck. I bent down and looked at the name tag. It read Ebenezer. I smiled as I realized we’d just found the help we’d need to make our miracle happen.
Thursday, December 10
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked Ebenezer.
My furry companion and I stood in front of the tall wrought-iron gate that secured the house where Balthazar Pottage lived, on the private island he owned. It had already been a long day and the resolve I’d felt earlier that day was beginning to waver. It was cold and windy and snow flurries danced in the air. I would have appreciated the seasonal weather had I not been exhausted after the rough ferry ride to San Juan Island, followed by the extremely frigid private boat ride my brother Danny had arranged for me with his friend Trevor.
Ebenezer squeezed through the opening between the bars, seemingly answering my question.
“Okay, I get the idea that you think we need to do this, but I’m never going to fit through the opening between these bars and the gate is locked. Any ideas?”
“Meow.” Ebenezer took off along the tall stone wall that surrounded the property. I could no longer see where he was, but he’d headed east, so I walked in that direction, looking for an opening of some kind.
I’d dressed warmly that morning in a thick turtleneck sweater, heavy jeans, and a down jacket, but with the steady wind the temperature had dropped to the point where even though I was dressed for the weather I was freezing. I hoped Ebenezer actually had a plan and wasn’t taking me on a wild-goose chase. I found I much preferred the thought of curling up by the fire in my little oceanside cabin with Cody and my dog Max.
The thought of Cody made me frown. He wasn’t going to be happy that I’d come on this little adventure with only a cat for protection. We’d discussed it after we went back to my place the previous evening and agreed that we’d work on the project together. Was it my fault that this pushy cat wanted to visit the old man on the same day Cody was in Seattle covering a story for the newspaper?
Surely he’d understand.
Or maybe not.
The last thing I wanted to do was get into an argument with the man I loved two weeks before Christmas.
I pulled my jacket tighter around my petite frame. It didn’t snow often in the islands, and we mostly enjoyed a mild climate, but every now and then a storm blew down from the north and blanketed the area in snow and below-average temperatures. The odds that I’d have cause to head out on a recognizance mission during such a storm were remote, or at least they would be if some unseen force hadn’t decided to make me the guardian of the cats Tansy was forever sending my way.
Tansy and her best friend, Bella, are rumored to be witches. Neither of them will confirm or deny their witchy status, but both women know things that can’t be empirically explained. Bella and Tansy lived in the touristy village of Pelican Bay, which is located on the southern end of the island. They owned and operated Herbalities, a specialty shop dealing in herbs and fortune telling. While both Bella and Tansy seemed to be more in tune with the natural rhythms of the universe than most, it was Tansy who demonstrated a level of intuition that’s downright disturbing.
I’d been pretty sure Ebenezer had been sent by Tansy due to the perfect timing of his arrival at the church, but when I’d gotten back to my cabin last night, she’d called to make certain he’d arrived safely, confirming my suspicion. I tried to pry additional information out of the taciturn woman, but all she would say was to trust Ebenezer and he would show me the way.
My relationship with Tansy’s cats began less than a year ago, when she sent me a large gray cat named Romeo to help out with the investigation of the murder of an island council member. I guess Tansy had decided the cat and I had worked well together because after Romeo left other cats began showing up. Ebenezer was the sixth one I’d worked with in this same capacity, although I worked with other cats every day because I, along with my Aunt Maggie, operate a cat sanctuary that’s dedicated to sheltering and rehabilitating the island’s feral cat population.
Now that Mayor Bradley was dead the cats might not be in the danger they once were, but that remained to be seen.
“Ebenezer, are you still there?” I called. “Can you hear me?”
I stopped walking and watched as my feline companion squeezed through a small break in the wall. The break wasn’t large enough for most adults to squeeze through, but since I’m petite I realized I’d be able to make it without a problem.
The view on the other side of the wall was much like the one on the outside: thick foliage covered with a layer of snow. I couldn’t see the house, but I suspected it was in the center of the island, where it would be the most protected from both the elements and intruders.
I could hear waves crashing in the background. I was supposed to call Trevor when I was ready for a ride home, although based on the increase in wind velocity, I wasn’t sure he’d be able to make the return trip to pick me up if we didn’t hurry.
I followed Ebenezer back to the dirt path that led to the house and then up to the front porch. I could feel my heart pounding as I worked up the courage to knock. I wasn’t sure what it was I was afraid of. The man was ancient; surely he wouldn’t, or more importantly couldn’t, hurt me.
“Last chance to back out,” I said as I stood on the cement porch, looking at the thick hardwood door.
“He might not even be here.” The house was a large stone structure that looked dark from the outside. Of course most of the windows were covered in thick drapes that would block out the light from inside the house, should there be any.
Ebenezer just looked at me. I could see he was becoming impatient with my stalling.
“Okay,” I breathed. “Here goes nothing.”
I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. The iron knocker made a deep, hollow sound that seemed to echo through the area. After less than a minute an old man, stooped with age, opened the door.
“Ebenezer.” The man looked at the cat. “Wherever had you gotten off to?”
The cat meowed and trotted inside.
“This is your cat?” I asked the emaciated old man.
“It is. Who are you? And what are you doing on my property?”
“My name is Caitlin Hart. I live on Madrona Island. I found Ebenezer last night at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and he led me here today.”
The old man, who I assumed to be Balthazar Pottage, turned and looked at the cat, who had jumped onto a table just off to the side and begun to purr.
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