The body was laying on the swing on the back deck, the wooden seat swaying slowly back and forth. Definitely dead, I decided. And it had been placed there no more than half an hour ago.
I’d stopped so suddenly Marcus almost bumped into me. He put a hand on my shoulder to steady himself. “What is it?” he asked, leaning sideways so he could see around me. He blew out a breath. “Not another one. Why does she keep doing this?”
Before I could answer, there was a loud meow and Micah, his small ginger tabby, came walking purposefully along the deck railing toward us. I reached over to stroke her fur. “Nice work,” I said. I was certain that Micah was the source of that body—a very large, very dead vole.
Marcus pulled a hand back through his hair, a sure sign he was stressed. “Don’t encourage her, Kathleen.”
“She a cat,” I said. “Cats hunt. It’s her nature.”
Marcus walked over to the swing and squinted at the dead rodent. “It’s the third dead thing this week,” he said. “I asked Roma. She said it’s her way of showing her affection for me.” He looked back over his shoulder at me. “I mean Micah’s way of showing affection, not Roma’s.”
I smiled. “I know. When Roma likes you she takes you to Meatloaf Tuesday at Fern’s Diner.” Roma Davidson was Mayville Heights’s only veterinarian and one of my closest friends. I’d originally come to town to supervise the renovations to the public library in advance of its centenary. Part of the reason I’d signed a contract to stay on as head librarian once the hundredth-anniversary celebrations were over was because of the connections I’d made. Mayville Heights had come to feel like home.
I looked down at Micah, who was intently watching Marcus as I continued to stroke her fur. Like my own cats, Owen and Hercules, Micah didn’t give her affection to just anyone. We’d discovered the little cat, abandoned, out at Wisteria Hill, where Roma lived. Although she certainly seemed to like Roma and me now, back then she wouldn’t come to either one of us. It was Marcus who had coaxed her out of hiding. Marcus who had picked her up and held her on his lap all the way to Roma’s clinic. It was his scarf she’d slept on that first night there. I thought this rash of “gifts” might be Micah’s way of showing Marcus she could pull her weight and that she deserved to stay.
Marcus glanced around the deck. I realized he was probably looking for something he could use to pick up the dead vole.
“Go get your other keys and your boots and I’ll take care of that,” I said inclining my head in the direction of the swing. Bugs, bats and furry critters didn’t bother me. I gave Micah one last scratch behind the ear and headed for the storage shed in the backyard.
I was coming across the grass with a long-handled spade just as Marcus came out the back door holding the extra set of keys to his SUV. The two of us had been headed to Wisteria Hill to feed the colony of feral cats that lived out there. When he’d arrived to pick me up, his SUV had died in my driveway. We’d pushed it out onto the street so I could back my truck out and stopped by his house to get his spare set of keys. Those he’d drop off to Thorsten Hall, who, among his many other skills, was an excellent mechanic.
“Hey, Kathleen, do you really think I need my boots?” Marcus called to me.
“Roma said the path is mud all the way around the side of the carriage house.” I stuck out one leg so he could see that I was wearing my old gum-rubber boots. “But don’t worry about it. I can feed Lucy and the others.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “My boots are right here.” He gestured to a green rubber pair sitting next to the back door, under the small overhang.
Micah jumped down from the railing and padded over to him, rubbing against his leg as Marcus took off his left shoe and shoved his foot into the corresponding boot. And immediately kicked his foot forward, yelling a word he’d never used in my presence. The boot came off and pin-wheeled up and out over the deck toward the back lawn. A second dead vole that had been dropped inside came shooting out of the open end of the boot. Micah leapt into the air and caught the furry corpse with her two front paws like Lynn Swann catching a forward pass from my dad’s favorite quarterback, Terry Bradshaw.
At the same time, the boot arced its way toward me. I sprinted forward, holding the spade ahead of me like some sort of medieval soldier with a lance, catching the boot on the end of the wooden handle. I stopped at the bottom of the steps flushed and sweaty, feeling pleased that I’d stopped the boot from ending up in Marcus’s rain barrel.
He was still standing by the back door on one foot with a scowl on his face. Micah was sitting in the middle of the deck with a paw on the vole like an African lion with the prey it had just brought down. And I was holding up the boot, impaled on the end of the spade like the leader of some kind of weird processional.
In retrospect it probably would have been better if I hadn’t laughed.
Micah wisely picked up the dead rodent, which was easily half as big as she was, and headed for the backyard without making a sound. Silently, I took the boot off the spade handle, crossed the deck and set it next to Marcus. Then I scooped the other vole off the swing with my shovel and followed Micah. It was pretty clear Marcus needed a minute—or maybe several.
By the time I put the garden spade back in the shed he was waiting at the bottom of the steps wearing his old sneakers, I noticed.
We got into the truck without speaking. I cleaned my hands with the sanitizer I kept in the glove compartment, fished my keys out of the pocket of my jeans and started for Wisteria Hill.
“Nice catch,” Marcus commented, after a minute or so of silence.
I kept my eyes on the road. “Thank you,” I said. “Harrison taught me how to play horseshoes last summer, remember? I think it helped.”
Harrison Taylor, aka Old Harry and Harry Senior, figured since I was a good road hockey player I might be good at horseshoes.
We drove in silence again. I chewed the inside of my cheek so I wouldn’t laugh. In my mind’s eye I could see Marcus sending that boot airborne, Micah leaping to pull the dead vole out of the air and me running with the spade, shouting, “I got it! I got it!” I was starting to rethink that part, too.
“Go ahead and laugh,” Marcus said from the passenger seat. “You know you want to.”
“No,” I said. “It’s not funny.” I glanced over and he was smiling at me.
“Yeah, Kathleen, it kind of is. You trying to catch that boot. You should have seen your face. It was like you were at the Super Bowl and there were only two seconds left on the clock.”
“Well if you’d gotten a little more distance you could have sent that boot right between those two maple trees in the backyard for a three-pointer.” I shot him another quick glance and grinned. “You’re not the only one who can do a football analogy.”
He laughed. Then he reached over and gave my leg a squeeze. “Aren’t you going to tell me that I shouldn’t leave my boots out on the deck?”
“Uh-uh,” I said. “I told you that the time you left them out there and it started to rain. And you gave me a small engineering lecture on how the overhang would protect them.”
“Yeah, the overhang didn’t really help this time.”
I flicked on my blinker and turned into the driveway to Wisteria Hill. “Yeah,” I said, mimicking his overly casual tone. “The overhang didn’t really help last time, either.”
“Wait a minute. You saw me pour the water out that time?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him shift sideways a little in his seat so it was easier to look at me.
“Yes, I saw you pour the water out that time,” I said.
“You didn’t say anything.”
I pulled into the gravel parking area to the left of Roma’s house and shut off the truck. “We had just started actually dating.”
It had taken a while for the relationship between the two of us to get started, even though at times it had felt like the whole town was playing matchmaker. It didn’t help that Marcus was a police detective and we’d met when I was briefly a person of interest in one of his cases.
“You volunteered to get up early on a Saturday morning to help supervise a group of teenagers pick up garbage from the side of the road,” I said. “I was so impressed you could have tied a couple of plastic bags around your feet and I wouldn’t have said anything.”
Marcus grinned. “You’re only saying that because Maggie made us wear those big orange trash bags with a giant X on the back made of yellow duct tape because there weren’t enough safety vests.
I laughed, remembering Mags putting the makeshift vest on Marcus while he stood awkwardly with his arms out at his sides. I think seeing a police officer willing to look a little silly had made points with the kids who were with us.
We got out and carried the cats’ food and dishes around to the back of the old carriage house. Because the cats were feral they weren’t socialized, although they had all learned to associate Roma’s regular volunteers with food. After we put out the food and water, Marcus and I retreated back by the door and waited. I leaned against him and he folded his arms around me. I could have happily stayed there all day.
“Do you thinking catching mice like that one is how Micah survived out here until we found her?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
“Possibly,” I said. “And that was a vole, not a mouse. Probably a meadow vole, Microtus pennsylvanicus. They have a short tail and small ears and a chunkier body type.”
“Sometimes I picture the inside of your head as a huge room with row after row of filing cabinets filled with information on pretty much everything.”
“It used to look like that.” I grinned over my shoulder at him. “But everything got digitized last year.” I held up my right thumb and forefinger about an inch apart. “It’s all on a little computer chip behind my left ear. Really. Librarian’s honor.”