The body was smack in the middle of my freshly scrubbed kitchen floor. Fred the Funky Chicken, minus his head.
"Owen!" I said, sharply.
"Owen, you little fur ball, I know you did this. Where are you?"
There was a muffled "meow" from the back door. I leaned around the cupboards. Owen was sprawled on his back in front of the screen door, a neon yellow feather sticking out of his mouth. He rolled over onto his side and looked at me with the same goofy expression I used to get from stoned students coming into the BU library.
I crouched down next to the gray-and-white tabby. "Owen, you killed Fred," I said. "That's the third chicken this week."
The cat sat up slowly and stretched. He padded over to me and put one paw on my knee. Tipping his head to one side he looked up at me with his golden eyes. I sat back against the end of the cupboard. Owen climbed onto my lap and put his two front paws on my chest. The feather was still sticking out of his mouth.
I held out my right hand. "Give me Fred's head," I said. The cat looked at me unblinkingly. "C'mon, Owen. Spit it out."
He turned his head sideways and dropped what was left of Fred the Funky Chicken's head into my hand. It was a soggy lump of cotton with that lone yellow feather stuck on the end.
"You have a problem, Owen," I told the cat. "You have a monkey on your back." I dropped what was left of the toy's head onto the floor and wiped my hand on my gray yoga pants. "Or maybe I should say you have a chicken on your back."
The cat nuzzled my chin, then laid his head against my T-shirt, closed his eyes and started to purr.
I stroked the top of his head. "That's what they all say," I told him. "You're addicted, you little fur ball, and Rebecca is your dealer."
Owen just kept on purring and ignored me. Hercules came around the corner then. "Your brother is a catnip junkie," I said to the little tuxedo cat.
Hercules climbed over my legs and sniffed the remains of Fred the Funky Chicken's head. Then he looked at Owen, rumbling like a diesel engine as I scratched the side of his head. I swear there was disdain on Hercules' furry face. Stick catnip in, on or near anything and Owen squirmed with joy. Hercules, on the other hand, was indifferent.
The stocky black-and-white cat climbed onto my lap, too. He put one white paw on my shoulder and swatted at my hair.
"Behind the ear?" I asked.
"Meow," the cat said.
I took that as a yes, and tucked the strands back behind my ear. I was used to long hair, but I'd cut mine several months ago. I was still adjusting to the change in style. At least I hadn't given in to the impulse to dye my dark brown hair blond.
"Maybe I'll ask Rebecca if she has any ideas for my hair," I said. "She's supposed to be back tonight." At the sound of Rebecca's name Owen lifted his head. He'd taken to Rebecca from the first moment he'd seen her, about two weeks after I'd brought the cats home.
Both Owen and Hercules had been feral kittens. I'd found them, or more truthfully they'd found me, about a month after I'd arrived in town. I had no idea how old they were. They were affectionate with me, but wouldn't allow anyone else to come near them, let alone touch them. That hadn't stopped Rebecca, my backyard neighbor, from trying. She'd been buying both cats little catnip toys for weeks now, but all she'd done was turn Owen into a chicken-decapitating catnip junkie. She was on vacation right now, but Owen had clearly managed to unearth Fred's head from a secret stash somewhere.
I stroked the top of his head again. "Go back to sleep," I said. "You're going cold turkey . . . or maybe I should say cold chicken. I'm telling Rebecca no more catnip toys for you. You're getting lazy."
Owen put his head down again, while Hercules used his to butt my free hand. "You want some attention, too?" I asked. I scratched the spot, almost at the top of his head, where the white fur around his mouth and up the bridge of his nose gave way to black. His green eyes narrowed to slits and he began to purr, as well. The rumbling was kind of like being in the service bay of a Volkswagen dealership.
I glanced up at the clock. "Okay, you two. Let me up. It's almost time for me to go and I have to take care of the dearly departed before I do."
I'd sold my car when I'd moved to Minnesota from Boston, and because I could walk everywhere in Mayville Heights, I still hadn't bought a new one. Since I had no car, I'd spent my first few weeks in town wandering around exploring, which is how I'd stumbled on Wisteria Hill, the abandoned Henderson estate. Everett Henderson had hired me at the library.
Owen and Hercules had peered out at me from a tumble of raspberry canes and then followed me around while I explored the overgrown English country garden behind the house. I'd seen several other full-grown cats, but they'd all disappeared as soon as I got anywhere close to them. When I left, Owen and Hercules followed me down the rutted gravel driveway. Twice I'd picked them up and carried them back to the empty house, but that didn't deter them. I looked everywhere, but I couldn't find their mother. They were so small and so determined to come with me that in the end I'd brought them home.
There were whispers around town about Wisteria Hill and the feral cats. But that didn't mean there was anything unusual about my cats. Oh no, nothing unusual at all. It didn't matter that I'd heard rumors about strange lights and ghosts. No one had lived at the estate for quite a while, but Everett refused to sell it or do anything with the property. I'd heard that he'd grown up at Wisteria Hill. Maybe that was why he didn't want to change anything.
Speaking of not wanting change, Hercules was not eager to relinquish his prime spot on my lap. But after some gentle prodding, he shook himself and got off my lap. Owen yawned a couple of times, stretched and took twice as long to get up.
I got the broom and dustpan from the porch and swept up the remains of Fred the Funky Chicken. Owen and Hercules sat in front of the refrigerator and watched. Owen made a move toward the dustpan, like he was toying with the idea of grabbing the body and making a run for it.
I glared at him. "Don't even think about it."
He sat back down, making low grumbling meows in his throat.
I flipped open the lid of the garbage can and held the pan over the top. "Fred was a good chicken," I said solemnly. "He was a funky chicken and we'll miss him."
"Meow," Owen yowled.
I flipped what was left of the catnip toy into the garbage. "Rest in peace, Fred," I said as the lid closed.
I put the broom away, brushed the cat hair off my shirt and washed my hands. I looked in the bathroom mirror. Hercules was right. My hair did look better tucked behind my ear.
My messenger bag with a towel and canvas shoes for tai chi class was in the front closet. I set it by the door and went back through the house to make sure the cats had fresh water.
"I'm leaving," I said. But both cats had disappeared and I didn't get any answer.
I stopped to grab my keys and pick up my bag. Locking the door behind me, I headed out, down Mountain Road.
The sun was yellow-orange, low on the sky over Lake Pepin. It was a warm Minnesota evening, without the sticky humidity of Boston in late July. I shifted my bag from one shoulder to the other. I wasn't going to think about Boston. Minnesota was home now—at least for the next eighteen months or so.
The street curved in toward the center of town as I headed down the hill, and the roof of the library building came into view below. It sat on the midpoint of a curve of shoreline, protected from the water by a rock wall. The brick building had a stained-glass window that dominated one end and a copper-roofed cupola, complete with its original wrought-iron weather vane.
The Mayville Heights Free Public Library was a Carnegie library, built in 1912 with money donated by the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Now it was being restored and updated to celebrate its centenary. That was why I had been in town for the last several months. And why I'd be here for the next year and a half. I was supervising the restoration—which was almost finished—as well as updating the collections, computerizing the card catalogue and setting up free Internet access for the library patrons. I was slowly learning the reading history of everyone in town. It made me feel like I knew the people a little, as well.
I paused at the bottom of the hill, looked both ways and crossed over to the same side of the street as the library.
Old Main Street followed the shore from the Stratton Theater, past the James Hotel to the marina. Main Street continued from the marina to the edge of town, where it merged with the highway. Having two Main streets made getting directions very confusing if you hadn't lived in Mayville Heights very long.
The streets that ran from one end of town to the other all followed the curve of the shoreline. The cross streets mostly ran straight up and down the hill, all the way to Wild Rose Bluff. The bluff, I'd discovered, had provided much of the stone for the foundations of the gorgeous old buildings in the downtown.
For me the best part of Mayville Heights was the riverfront, with all the big elm and black walnut trees that lined the shore, and the trail that wound its way from the old warehouses at the point, past the downtown shops and businesses, all the way out beyond the marina. Mayville was still a pretty busy Mississippi River town, but it was mostly tourists coming and going now. From the porch of the James Hotel you could watch the barges and boats go by on the water the way they had a hundred years ago.
I stopped at the bottom of the library steps. Oren Kenyon had installed the new railing. The wrought-iron spindles look like fat licorice twists. The center spindle on each side seemed to split apart into a perfect oval about the size of both my hands and then reform into a twist again. The letters M, H, F, P and L, for Mayville Heights Free Public Library, were intertwined and seemed suspended in the middle of the circles.
I climbed the stairs, stepped inside and turned to look up above the entrance. A carved and pieced wooden sun, easily three feet across, hung above the wide maple trim. Above it were stenciled the words "Let there be light." It was beautiful.
Oren had brought the sun to the library last week. He was tall and lean, in his midfifties, I guessed, with sun-bleached sandy hair, like a farm-boy version of Clint Eastwood. He'd stood silently by the temporary checkout desk for who knows how long until I'd looked up.
"Could you look at something? If you have time. Please?" he'd asked.
After I'd asked him to call me Kathleen he'd stopped calling me Miss Paulson, but he hadn't started using my first name. I'd followed him out to his ancient pickup. The sun had been lying in the truck bed, braced in a frame padded with an old wool blanket and covered with a tarp. Oren pulled back the canvas and my breath caught in my chest. I reached out to touch the wood and then stopped, as I realized the significance of the carving.
I looked at Oren. "For over the entrance?" I asked.
A carving of the sun and the words "Let there be light" were over the entrance of the first Carnegie library in Scotland. I knew that, but I was surprised Oren did. Carefully I ran my finger along one of the sun's rays. The wood was smooth and hard.
"Thank you," I whispered, my voice suddenly husky with the sting of tears. I wanted to hug Oren, but somehow I knew that would be wrong.
Looking up above the doorway I felt the prickle of tears again. Oren was quiet and gentle and wonderfully talented. Everything the library had needed done that the general contractor couldn't do, Oren had done. He'd made the new railing. He'd hand-turned trim identical to the original. He'd done the painting, carefully matching the colors to the original 1912 paint.
He never said very much, and watching him over the past several months I had the feeling that Oren had been broken somehow. He made me think of a shattered vase or cup. You carefully glue the pieces back together, so carefully that none of the cracks show. It looks beautiful again and it holds tea or water and roses from the garden, but somehow it's not quite the same. Something, somehow, is different.
I heard voices then, coming from the back of the library where the new digital card catalogue and computers were going to be located. Voices too loud for the library. Now that the major work on the building was finished we were open to the public again, but it was usually quiet in the early evening.
I walked past the new shelving units waiting for books. Susan, one of my staff members, stood with her back to me, next to the boxes of computers waiting for the new electrical outlets to be installed so they could be set up and connected.
"—do understand how frustrating this is," I heard her say in her patient-mom voice. Susan had two preschoolers at home and nothing rattled her.
"My dear, there is no conceivable way that you could fathom the depth of my frustration," the man standing opposite her said. He made a sweeping gesture with both hands. Since he was well over six feet tall the movement looked very theatrical, and maybe that's what he'd intended. "How am I supposed to work under these insufferable conditions?"
I came out from the row of bookshelves and moved to stand next to Susan. There were two pencils poking out of her Pebbles Flintstone updo. She gave a small sigh and an even smaller smile.
"Susan, is there a problem?" I asked.
"Mr. Easton was hoping to use one of our computers to send some e-mail," she said. "His BlackBerry isn't working."
Easton. Of course. Gregor Easton. The well-known composer and conductor was the guest artist for the Wild Rose Summer Music Festival at the Stratton Theater. He'd been in town practicing for about a week.
"Mr. Easton, I'm sorry," I said. "As you can see, our computer system isn't ready yet."
"Yes, I can see that," he said, making another flamboyant gesture with his arm. "And you would be?" He looked me over, taking in my plain white T-shirt, cropped yoga pants and messenger bag. I slipped the bag off my shoulder and reached up to set it on top of the metal cabinet we were using to hold most of the old card files. "I'm Kathleen Paulson," I said, offering my hand. "I'm the head librarian."
I probably didn't look like I should be in charge. I've always looked younger than my age, and my mother promised that once I was over thirty I'd be happy about that. Sometimes I was. This time I would have liked to look older and a little more imposing—hard to do when you're only five-and-a-half feet tall with a half-grown-out pixie haircut that sticks out in all the wrong places.
Easton had to be in his early seventies, but his grip was strong and his hand was smooth and uncallused. A lot smoother than mine.
"Miss Paulson, I'm sorry to say your library is in chaos."
I couldn't help a glance around. The end wall with the stained-glass window had been reinforced and the window itself repaired and cleaned. Most of the new shelves were filled with books. The walls had been plastered and painted. The circulation desk was almost finished, and Oren's sun seemed to shine over everything. So many people had spent so many hours on this building. It looked wonderful.
I swallowed to hide my annoyance.
He continued. "According to the guidebook in my hotel suite the library is supposed to provide Internet service."
"I apologize for that," I said. "The guide arrived early and our computers arrived late."
"But your computers are here now," he said. "Why couldn't one of them be connected?"
Connected? To what? Did he really expect us to unpack one of the computers right now and magically get it up and running so he could check his schedule?
Susan and I exchanged looks. Her mouth was a straight, serious line, but the eyes behind her glasses were laughing.
Easton gave me a practiced celebrity-greeting-the-little-people smile. Unpack one of those computers just for him? When pigs fly, I thought.
Unfortunately, it wasn't a pig that suddenly launched itself onto the conductor's head. It was a cat.
My cat. Owen.
© Sofie Kelly