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Cat and Mouse

Chapter 1

The shooter watched for nearly half an hour before someone appeared on the path — a figure in blue jeans and a dark green parka, the hood pulled up against the fine drizzle of rain. Settling into position behind the handy log, resting the gun over it, the shooter waited for the person to turn the bend in the path and be walking straight toward the gun’s position. No need for telescopic sites. The range would be very close with a slight downward angle, dead easy. The person was looking from side to side, warily, the shooter thought. Just a few more feet, the squeeze of the trigger, an explosion of sound, the person dropping limply onto the path, hood flying off her head and a cascade of long gray hair spreading over her face.

Shit, shit, shit, SHIT! I shot the wrong person! What was that silly old cow doing out here anyway, ruining everything? It was going so perfectly! It’s her own damn fault she’s dead. Now I’ll have to start all over again. Won’t be able to do it this way. The target won’t fall into the trap again. Should have been on time, then this bitch wouldn’t have gotten in the way and ruined everything. Better get out of here. The target won’t come now. Check everything. Haven’t left anything. No tracks. Get out of here quick and quiet.”

The shooter searched rapidly, then slid into the woods, onto the trail leading to the lower boundary, out the unlocked gate with the lock looking like it had been closed, locking the padlock onto the chain, then scurrying away.

 

Chapter 2

Dr. Erica Merrill left her veterinary clinic, located in the basement of the house in which she lived, but instead of climbing upstairs to the house to eat lunch, she made her way around to the garage and loaded her medical bag and some drugs she thought she might need into her Chevy Equinox. Driving through town, she turned onto a gravel road which climbed up to Black Bear Ridge, negotiating the switchback on the road to a sloping bench studded with small farms, then on into deep woods for another mile. She turned from the gravel road onto the paved entry road to another bench where a group of artists of several types had established a residential estate, calling it The Muse. Just off the county road was a cattle guard, this one not for the purpose of keeping livestock in, but for keeping free-roaming range cattle out. Deer could easily jump it, and several made their home in the protected woodland, often grazing between the houses. The residents of The Muse had learned early on that they could not grow tulips, which seemed to be to the deer like candy to a child. After a half-mile climb, the road split, traffic being routed onto the right-hand fork. This traveled along the lower portion of the bench before looping around to the left and climbing slightly to turn back along the upper side to rejoin the entry road. There were houses on both sides of the road, and several empty lots. The houses varied in type from log cabins to modern designs, but none were garish, all of them blending into the forested environment.

The weather was dreary, with low cloud over the tops of the surrounding hills and a fine rain falling. Water dripped from drooping tree branches. But to Erica, it did not seem as dreary here among these houses as on some of the ramshackle farms in other areas. There was a sense of comfort here, with wood fires augmenting the central heating. Smoke drifted from several chimneys and spread horizontally, giving a tang to the air.

A lone bicyclist was pedaling slowly up the road, not bothering to put up the hood of his parka. As Erica approached, he pulled over and looked around. Erica identified him as Dwayne Frobisher, who claimed to be a poet, but who Erica thought probably made most of his income ghost writing technical articles for people whose writing skills were not up to the job. As Erica passed him, she saw him pull out a cell phone and put it to his ear. He waved at her as she passed.

Stopping in front of one of the more modern houses, this one in dark brown, Erica pulled out a bag and walked up the path to the door. Before she reached the door, it was opened by the lady of the house who welcomed her with a broad smile.

“Come in, come in! I’ve got the coffee on. I bet you haven’t had lunch. You young people are always dashing around. I’ve got some pea soup with ham going in the crock pot, and some fresh-baked bread. Take off your coat and find a seat.”

As she entered the room, an enormous Great Dane lifted his head and thumped his tail. Erica stooped to give him a pat on the head. He panted happily.

“How’s Beau getting along?”

“Much better. I gave up on fancy dog beds, because he always shambled off to some place where he could flop on the hard floor. But since I got the sheepskin for him, he’s hardly been off of it, and his pressure sores are healing up. Why don’t you have a bite to eat first, then we’ll get him up and you can check him over?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

As they sat down in the kitchen to eat their lunch, a sharp sound reverberated from over the hillside below the house. A rifle shot!

“That sounded as if it was on our communal land,” Tess remarked, stepping out on a back balcony overlooking the estate’s land below the bench where the houses were built. “No one is supposed to hunt down there. We have it fenced, and there are ‘no hunting’ and ‘no trespassing’ signs all over the place.” She stood listening for several seconds. There were no further shots, so she came back in and shut the door.

As they ate, the old dog pulled himself to his feet and ambled over to the table, placing his head on Erica’s lap. “Beau seems to be able to get around still,” Erica commented.

“He does. He’s very stiff when he gets up in the morning, like some people. My mother was here last month and says he looks like she feels. But she still gets around, though she has fairly severe arthritis in her hands and feet and back. She still loves life, and I expect this old dog does also. He always goes to the door to greet my husband as he comes in, and he wants to be with us by the fire in the evenings. I let him out two or three times a day, and he seems fairly contented.”

Tess Randall was a landscape painter. Her paintings were eye-catching, done boldly with stark, angular mountains and trees, not the soft beauty of many landscape paintings. Erica had heard her explain that she saw nature not as soft and beautiful, but bold, sharp and unforgiving. Erica found the pictures to be compelling and longed to have one. But she could not yet, in only the fourth year of her new veterinary practice, afford the hefty prices Tess’ paintings brought. Furthermore, she wanted to build a real clinic on the vacant land next to the house and move out of the cramped basement area where she now had her office. All her money was going to that process.

Tess showed Erica the painting she was working on, one of the canyon of Black Bear Creek cutting a great gash as it rushed down from somewhere high in the Bitterroot Mountains. Erica thought Tess had captured the stark wildness of the canyon. A finished painting leaned against the wall. It was signed T. Thibeau. To Erica’s question, Tess explained, “I made my name before I married, so I decided to continue using my maiden name, Theresa Thibeau, on my paintings.”

The dog submitted calmly to Erica’s exam, including having blood drawn to check his failing kidney function. The pressure sores on his elbows and hips were indeed healing, and she felt she need not do anything more to them, but just let them heal on their own.

“I’m sure glad you are willing to make house calls,” Tess sighed. “Getting this big brute into a car is a real pain in the neck, and I don’t suppose it’s very good for him.”

“Any time! I love coming up here.”

As Erica was about to pack the blood sample into her bag in preparation for leaving, a young woman stumbled up the last few yards of a steep trail that came up from the woods, and ran down the road to Tess’ porch. She pounded on the door, wailing in a panic-filled voice.

“That’s Pat Nielsen! I wonder what’s happened.” Tess yanked the door open and caught the other woman as she half-fell into the house, gasping for breath.

“Helen Hall’s dead! She’s been shot!”

 

 

Chapter 3

Erica and Tess helped the exhausted woman take off her rain-soaked shoes and jacket and got her onto the living room couch. Pat was shivering, either from fear or from cold, and breathing in deep gasps after the run up the hill. Finally she found enough breath to talk in brief snatches between her still labored inhalations.

“Down on the main path…where it joins the other one…I thought she must have fallen…or had a heart attack…face down.” She took a few deep breaths then continued more fluently. “When I saw her, I ran down there and turned her over on her side and opened her coat… She wasn’t breathing… I thought I’d do CPR… But I saw the bullet hole.”

“How long after the shot?” Erica asked. “We heard it.”

“I don’t remember a shot. Or maybe I did, but I didn’t notice. But I must have, because when I saw the wound, I knew it was from a bullet.”

“You think she’s dead?”

Pat nodded.

“Tess, call the sheriff, and have them send an ambulance, too. I’m going down there.”

“Be careful. Maybe you ought to wait until the police come. That guy might still be down there.”

“I don’t think so. It’s been a while since we heard the shot.”

Erica pulled on her coat and ran to her car, where she grabbed the first aid kit. She ran down the steep trail, which wound down the hill in switchbacks. When she approached the junction with the main trail, she paused to look around. There was no one in sight, either at the junction or on down the trail toward the lower boundary. She hurried on to where the woman lay. The body was now on one side, as Pat Nielsen had half rolled her over. The parka gaped open, the blood-stained circle showing in the white blouse on the midline, just where the heart would be. A perfect heart-shot! Erica noticed the open, staring eyes, the blue mucous membranes of the mouth, and the coldness of the woman’s skin. There was no doubt that she was dead.

Expecting to find a hunting accident, Erica shivered when she realized that this victim had been out in an open area, and the shot could not have been more accurate.

There was nothing to do except wait for the police. She stayed right where she was in order to avoid contaminating the area any more. It took willpower to do so, now that she had seen the accuracy of the shot. She looked around quickly for any indication of another human presence in the woods. Would another blast from a rifle come out of the trees and find a second victim?

Tess must have told the sheriff’s dispatcher that the body was on the trail that left the road just short of the first house. Erica heard the siren stop there, and in a few minutes, Deputy Sheriff Clay Caldwell came pelting down the trail. He stopped short of the spot where the body lay. He nodded to Erica. “Is she dead?”

“Yes. She was hit right in the center of the chest.”

“How many people have been around here?”

“Two of us. The woman who found the body and myself. I’ve tried not to move around any so I wouldn’t mess things up any more, in case the guy who shot her had come over to take a look and might have left some tracks.”

“Good. Has she been moved?”

“The woman who found her thought she might have had a heart attack or been injured in a fall, so she started to roll her over. Then she saw the wound and went running for help. She said Helen was lying face down.”

“She went to the home of someone named Tess Randall?”

“That’s right.”

“Where do you come into this, Erica?”

“I was at Mrs. Randall’s house to see her dog. Pat Nielsen, who found her, ran up there. It’s the closest house, right up at the top of that trail,” Erica answered, pointing.

“Do you know who this woman is?”

“Her name is Helen Hall. She lives up here, but I don’t know her because she is about the only person up here who doesn’t use my services. Everyone here seems to have a dog except one woman who has Siamese cats. I don’t know whether Mrs. Hall has a pet.”

“So you don’t have any idea why she was walking down here in the rain?”

“No.”

They had been hearing another siren and soon the sheriff, Pete Torgeson, came hurrying down the path. By the time Clay had relayed the information to him, the ambulance crew arrived with a stretcher and carrying bags of equipment.

“I’m afraid we won’t need you. We’ll have to wait for the coroner,” Pete told them.

“Dead?”

“Very!”

They checked anyway before turning and trudging back up the trail to their transport.

“We’ll have to cordon off this area.”

“Right,” Clay answered. “And I want to go up on that hillside and see if I can find where the shot came from. Let’s hope for some tracks.”

Pete Torgeson turned to Erica. “Did anyone hear the shot?”

“Yes. Mrs. Randall and I both heard it. We thought someone was illegally hunting down here.”

“What time?”

“It must have been about twelve-thirty. I’d just gotten to the Randall’s house a few minutes before, and I left my clinic a few minutes after twelve.”

“What was the other woman, the one who found the body, doing down here?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, would you go back up there and tell both those women to stay there until we come up to get their story?” Erica nodded and set off up the steep trail to the Randall house.

Clay had brought the camera he kept in his cruiser. He took careful shots of the body from all angles, including a close-up of the hole on the victim’s white blouse, surrounded by blood.

“I’d like to go up on that hillside straight ahead and see if I can find where the shot was fired. But first, let’s look at her back and see if there’s an exit wound. Nothing shows on her parka, but if a spent bullet came out her back, it might be under the coat, and I want to get a look before the coroner gets here.” Clay grimaced and Pete nodded his acknowledgement knowing the coroner’s attitude toward the police “messing about” with what he considered to be his body. The coroner was the local undertaker, or funeral director, as he insisted on being called. Clay pulled the victim’s parka up so that he could see her back. There was no exit wound.

“Probably hit her spine,” Pete opined.

“Yeah. Anyway, I’ll go look up the hillside.”

“Okay,” Pete Torgeson replied. “I’ll stay here and wait for the coroner. I doubt whether there’s anything around here to find, but I’ll look.” He pulled his trademark light gray Stetson off his head of close-cropped gray hair and shook water from it. Replacing it, he considered, “Funny that someone out hunting could have mistaken a person in plain sight for a deer.”

“She wasn’t wearing blaze orange, and it may have been raining harder at the time,” Clay suggested.

Pete shook his head. “Still funny, don’t you think?”

“Yeah.”

“Anyway, go do your stuff.”

Mountain County was one of the few counties in Idaho with a trained forensic specialist in the sheriff’s department. Pete Torgeson continued to feel pride that Clay wanted to stay in Boulder, the county seat, a town of about three thousand people. He knew that his deputy had received offers from several larger cities, but so far had turned them all down. It’s Erica Merrill that keeps him here, he thought, and wondered if they would ever get married. He knew that Erica spent an occasional night at Clay’s cabin, and assumed that she did not sleep on the living room couch. But Clay had been very discreet and there had been no gossip, so Pete turned a blind eye. He wished that he could feel as relaxed with the other senior deputy on his force, Walt Forgey. He did not totally trust Walt, a holdover from the previous sheriff whose methods Pete abhorred.

While Pete searched the area around the body, Clay moved by a circular route around to the space behind a fallen log he had spotted from the site where Helen Hall had fallen. Coming down toward it from above, taking pictures as he did so, he could tell that it would have been a perfect location from which to fire the shot, with the fallen tree making a good place to rest the barrel of the rifle. When he moved closer, he could see that the forest floor behind the log had been packed down by someone who had been there for some time, or else had come frequently to the spot. So it hadn’t been a chance shot; the hunter had lain in wait. Some scrapes on the bark of the fallen tree showed where the hunter had rested the barrel of the rifle.

Clay searched carefully for something the hunter may have left behind – a cartridge case, a cigarette butt, a beer can. He found nothing. The guy had been careful. It looked more and more like a deliberate shooting, in enclosed private property with a high fence and locked gate, the shot taken from a carefully chosen blind, by someone who had waited for his prey. He realized he was jumping to conclusions. The hunter did not have to be a man. Half the female population of the county could shoot a rifle, though very few – fortunately, he thought – had ever shot a handgun. He wondered how many of the female artists in The Muse could shoot. The weapon wasn’t just a .22, but a big hunting rifle, judging from the looks of the wound.

From the blind, Clay followed a vague trail of broken twigs and depressed earth to a trail that went down toward a gate at the lower end of the property. None of the tracks on the pine needle covered forest floor was clear enough to give any indication of the hunter’s weight, or size of boot. The trail, covered in bark mulch, did not yield any prints. It was hard to get decent photos of vague indentations in the forest floor. The light was dim and there was no shadow to outline edges and depth of barely discernible depressions. He would have to come back later and do a much more thorough search.

The gate at the bottom of the property was locked, with the padlock on a chain on the outside. He would have to come back with his fingerprint kit, but he held no hope of finding any prints on the gate, the lock, or the chain. The guy had been careful. Clay looked along the high chain-link fence in both directions. It had been built so that cut ends of the links extended about an inch above the top pole. As good as barbed wire. Better in fact. You could cut barbed wire and get it out of the way. If anyone tried to climb the fence, they hadn’t left any incriminating bits of fabric impaled on the top of it. When he came back later he could make a more thorough search.

There was no evidence that anyone had left the trail and crashed through brush and trees on either side. Brush had grown right down to, and sometimes through, the fence. It looked more and more like an inside job, done by someone who had a key to the padlock on the gate.

When Clay returned to the site of the shooting, the coroner and his assistant were lifting the body, already incased in a body bag, onto a gurney. The assistant discreetly placed a blanket over it.

“Don’t embalm the body. We’ll need to have an autopsy done,” Pete Torgeson told the coroner.

“Don’t try to tell me my job,” the coroner snapped. There was no love lost between the sheriff’s office and the coroner. The two policemen exchanged an amused glance at the haughty little man’s reaction.

When the coroner had left, Pete said to his deputy, “Okay, let’s go talk to those women.”

 

 

Chapter 4

When Erica reached the Randall house, she found Pat Nielsen looking better, but still crying. There was a new addition, Mattie Gillespie, who with her husband Clyde lived in the next house on the outside of the turn in the road. Mattie had her arm around Pat’s shoulder and was talking in a soothing voice. Tess had brought Pat a cup of coffee and now took Erica into the kitchen to give her one. “You look chilled through.”

“I am. I didn’t dress for standing out in the rain. Thanks.”

Tess went on, “Mattie called. She said she was calling around to see if anyone had seen either Helen or Pat. It seems she called Pat, because Pat is the closest neighbor to Helen, and asked if she knew where Helen was. Pat said yes, she had seen Helen start down the trail. So Mattie told her she was trying to get hold of Helen to tell her that her little dog was over there at Mattie’s house, so Pat said she’d follow Helen down the trail and tell her.”

“I wonder why Helen was looking for the dog down there?”

“I don’t know. She usually starts calling around to the neighbors when Chipper goes missing. She starts with Lydia Bessemer and goes through the names alphabetically. I don’t know why she didn’t do that this time.”

“Maybe someone called her and told her the dog went down the trail.”

“Did you see the dog anywhere?”

“What kind of a dog?”

“Oh, sorry. I thought you probably knew all the animals up here. Little fat red dog, a cross between a Peke and a traveling salesman. His name is Chipper and he loves everyone, especially Mattie who feeds him treats.”

“No, I didn’t see any sign of a dog.”

“No, of course. What am I thinking? Because he was at Mattie’s! It seems that after a while Mattie called back to see if Pat was back. There was no answer. Then the sheriff and the ambulance turned up and those guys went down the trail, so Mattie got worried and started calling around. I told her what had happened, so she came over. Several others have called to try to find out what’s going on, but no one is standing around out in the rain gawking, unless they’re down at the start of the trail.”

“No one came down it. Maybe the ambulance crew chased them away.”

“They’ve gone indoors and relied on calling around. We’re a great group for keeping an eye out for each other, being out here in the woods like we are.”

“It’s good that you do,” Erica replied. But she felt like asking whether in this close-knit community, there was anyone who didn’t like Helen Hall. Didn’t like her enough to kill her. She had picked up on Clay’s unspoken feeling that the shooting was not an accident. Better wait till the guys get up here. They’ll ask that, she thought.

“By the way, may I use your phone to call my clinic? I don’t know whether my cell phone would work up here.”

“Sure. Go ahead. But your cell would work. We’re lucky here. There’s a cell phone tower just across the creek on the top of that mountain.”

I knew that, Erica thought. I saw Dwayne Frobisher using his phone. After making her call, to tell her receptionist that she would be late for afternoon appointments, she went back to the living room to wait with the other women for Pete and Clay to arrive.

The sheriff and his deputy scraped mud off their boots and shook the raindrops from their yellow slickers before entering the house. Pete asked, “Which one of you found the woman who was shot?”

“I did,” Pat Nielsen replied. She sat up straighter and wiped her eyes. Mattie Gillespie still kept an arm around her shoulders.

“Can you tell me why you happened to be going down that trail? Didn’t seem like weather for a stroll through the woods.” Pete said the last in a light tone, apparently to break the gloom and put the badly distressed woman at ease.

Pat swallowed hard and started her account. “My kitchen window looks down toward the lower part of the road and I can see the beginning of the trail. Helen’s house is just below mine. I saw Helen – that’s Helen Hall, the person who was shot – start down the trail. Like you said, I sort of wondered why she was out walking in the rain.”

“Could you definitely tell that it was her?”

“Yes. I saw her go out her front gate and I know she wears a dark green parka.”

“Go on.”

“A few minutes later, Mattie called me on the phone…”

“Mattie?”

“That’s me,” the older woman said.

“Anyway, Mattie asked me if I knew whether Helen was home. I said I just saw her go out, and Mattie said she had tried to call Helen to tell her that her little dog was over there at Mattie’s house. Chipper gets out and takes off every once in a while, so we’re all used to her trying to find him.”

“You think Mrs. Hall was looking for the dog down in the woods?”

“I guess so. Anyway I said I’d go after her and tell her the dog was at Mattie’s.” Pat gulped and appeared to be about to break into tears again. Her voice raised in pitch to a squeak. “And that’s when I found her.”

Mattie entered the conversation. “I don’t know why she would look for Chipper down there. He always just runs around where there are people. Someone generally finds him and takes him in. He’s a sweet little dog.”

“Maybe someone called her and told her that the dog had run down the trail,” Erica suggested.

Pete considered this. “But the dog wasn’t there.” He sat quietly in thought and Erica saw Clay Caldwell shift uncomfortably.

“They’re trying to figure out how to ask who would want to kill Helen Hall,” Erica thought.

“Who do you think might have done that? What sort of relationship was there between her and the rest of you who live up here?”

“We all know each other,” Tess Randall stated. “But Helen wasn’t one to go around visiting others and sitting around exchanging gossip.”

“She kept to herself, did she?”

“Not exactly. She was friendly with everyone, but sort of reserved.”

“How about the rest of you?”

Pat nodded and Mattie replied, “I think it’s like Tess said. I didn’t get to know her really well, except to give her dog back to her, which happened quite often.”

“Erica, do you know anything about Mrs. Hall?”

Erica shook her head. “I never met her. I didn’t even know she had a dog. But if she was walking down the trail looking for her dog, she must have been calling him as she went. Whoever did the shooting must have heard her.”

“Oh no,” Mattie exclaimed. “Chipper was stone deaf. There wasn’t any point calling him.”

“Some dogs are selectively deaf.” Pete smiled. “They hear when there’s food, but can be totally deaf when they don’t want to come.”

“Oh yeah. I know about that! Husbands can be that way too. But Chipper was really deaf. He was getting old.”

“Deafness in old dogs is quite common,” Erica explained.

“I get the impression that Mrs. Hall was living alone. She was wearing a wedding ring. Is her husband around?” Pete asked.

Mattie provided the information. “She’s a widow, has been as long as I’ve known her. She has a brother who I don’t think she was on very close terms with. He was up here one time. Obnoxious know-it-all is the impression I got.”

“Do you know his name, or where he lives? He’s undoubtedly the next of kin.”

“McBride, I think. I don’t think he lives around here anywhere.”

“We’ll have to look for his address and phone number at her house. We didn’t check to see if she had a key on her. The coroner will inventory what’s in her pockets. Does anyone else have a key to her house?”

“Oh, that’s no problem. Up here we don’t lock our doors when we’re only going somewhere around here. Try the back door. You’ll be able to walk right in.”

“Okay, that’s it for now. But we will have to take statements from all four of you and talk to all the folks who live up here. Erica, we’ll see you in town.”

“Most of the people here work in town. They won’t be home until after work,” Tess observed.

“Maybe we’d better come this evening when everyone’s home.”

When the policemen left, Pat got up from the couch and searched for the jacket she had been wearing. She remarked, “I’d better get home and feed Rumpole.”

“Who?” the other three women chorused.

“That’s what I’ve started calling that big orange stray that wandered into my place. He’s gained a lot of weight and has gotten fat, but he’s still a slob, so I call him Rumpole. I’ve been trying to get his hair mats out, but I can’t do much before he hisses at me. I don’t know why I try. He’ll just grow more mats.”

“I can recommend a cat food that will keep his fur from matting. And if you want, you could bring him in and we can shave off the mats,” Erica told her.

“I thought of cutting out the mats, but I haven’t the nerve.”

“Don’t! It’s too easy to cut off a chunk of skin also.”

“Okay. I think I’ll just keep on doing my combing.”

When Pat left, Tess remarked, “I’m glad she has gotten her mind back on something else. It must have been horrible, finding Helen like that.”

Mattie left to trudge up the road to her house, and Erica picked up her medical bag and left.

As they walked back to their cars, Clay said to Pete, “I’ll go get my equipment and come back and fingerprint that lock. I can get to it from the county road, and the lock is on the outside of the fence. I don’t have to go down through the woods, so I don’t need to get a key from anyone. I can look more closely at the top of the fence also.”

“Right. Go ahead and do your thing.”

“When you come up to interview them tonight, do you want me to come?”

“Yeah. Two heads are better than one. You’re off though. You don’t need to.”

“I’d like to hear what they all say. And I’d like to know who all had keys, and whether anyone outside that group might have one.”

Pete nodded. “If you want to. It would be a help.”

 

 

Chapter 5

It was a slow day at the clinic, and in spite of starting her afternoon appointments late, Erica finished around four-thirty. She had noted in the four years she had operated the clinic in her hometown of Boulder, Idaho, that not many clients came on days when the weather was gloomy. Her friend, Dr. Neil Considine, one of the town’s two physicians, said that the opposite was true in his practice. Everyone felt miserable when the weather was bad. Erica knew that on the first day the sun came out, pet owners would flock into her waiting room. “Oh, look at the nice weather! Let’s take the puppy to the vet!”

She climbed the stairs from the basement of the house she shared with her grandmother, Clara Merrill, known to her as Gram. At the top of the stairs she was greeted by the Siamese she had acquired when its owner had died. The cat stood on a shelf and pushed her nose into Erica’s face.

“Yow!”

“Yow, yourself,” Erica replied, stroking the cat’s sleek back.

“Is that you, Erica?” Gram called from the kitchen.

“No. It’s the Queen of Sheba,” Erica replied, going into the kitchen and giving her grandmother a kiss on the cheek.

“Oh, go away!” There was laughter in the old lady’s voice. Then in a more sober tone, she queried, “I heard that there was a hunting accident involving one of the people in that artists’ colony. Do you know anything about it? You went up there this afternoon, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I was up there. One of the residents was shot while out looking for her dog. Helen Hall. I don’t know her, since she wasn’t a client.”

“I heard that she was killed.”

“That’s right.”

“People shouldn’t go walking around in the woods during hunting season.”

“It happened in a private, fenced woodlot with ‘No hunting’ and ‘No trespassing’ signs all around.”

“Oh! I hadn’t heard that.”

Erica sighed. “I never cease to be amazed at how rapidly gossip gets around in this town.”

“It isn’t gossip. It’s news.”

Erica shrugged. “Well, whatever!”

“Supper won’t be ready for another hour.” Gram did all the cooking for the two of them, feeding Erica tasty meals that ensured a balanced diet, something Erica would probably not have done on her own. Erica did the heavier work around the house, and in the spring and summer, Gram grew a huge garden that fed not only herself and her granddaughter, but several other members of the extensive Merrill clan.

“Since I was up there when the shooting happened, and heard the shot, I have to go over to the sheriff’s office and make a statement. I won’t be long. I’ll be back in time for supper,” Erica explained as she slipped into her coat.

“Don’t get too wet!” It was now raining hard.

“I won’t.” She dearly loved her Gram, but she still resented a bit being treated as if she were a small child. And she hated being called “Hugh Merrill’s girl.” When she reminded people that she was Dr. Merrill, a person in her own right, they often called her snooty. She couldn’t win, it seemed.

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