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Lisa Lickel is
a multi-published Wisconsin author, avid book reviewer and blogger, a freelance
editor, and writing mentor. Find her at LisaLickel.com.
The alarm next to my ear shrieked me awake at two forty-eight a.m. I
scrambled upstairs to my home office to catch the urgent summons. My messenger
service board light sputtered an angry red, signaling an incoming call for one
of my clients—ID code, the mayor’s office. I frowned. In the middle of the
night? This had to be a crank call. I hoped it wasn’t one of those angry at the
world verbal abusers. I was tired and not in the mood to be professionally
pleasant. I held the headpiece next to my ear and answered. “Office of the
I couldn’t make anything out through the crackling static and so I
boosted the gain. I tried to turn the outside antenna with the automatic
control, but another burst of static rocketed me out of the chair. I whipped
off my earpiece. “Oww!”
I sat down again slowly. The light blinked balefully now. I checked the
caller ID. Chicago. Summersby Building. “Hello? Can I help you?” I flicked a
switch up and down. All I heard now was a soft buzz. Then a distinct click. At
least the recorder had been on. I yawned. Summersby Building was probably a
construction company doing work for one of the new businesses coming to Apple
Grove. That’s why I was here, too, invited on behalf of the mayor’s new
community growth incentive. I yawned again and hung my earpiece on a hook.
Maybe some cleaning crew accidentally hit redial. I went back to bed.
The next evening, after my third attempt to reach my friend Donald, the
mayor of Apple Grove, Illinois, I ran my fingers across the rows of red and
yellow and green blinking lights of my servers. I usually found them cheerful.
Comforting. But sometimes my system of eight blinking bubbles reminded me of
all I hated about Christmas. In the gloomy twilight of early fall, they felt
When I moved here two months ago, April Fool’s Day, to be exact, the
phone and cable companies had wondered
about how I could make McTeague’s
Messenger Service work with my three servers. I showed them Donald’s letter of
reference and the preliminary approval of the exception to the zoning ordinance
in this quiet little neighborhood.
Usually, I took messages. This evening, I needed to give one. One that I
dreaded. I took a deep breath, plugged in my headset, and dialed.
“Apple Grove Police. Officer Ripple. How can I help you?”
“Hello, hello? I need to
report a kidnapping.”
“Right. High Vee? Could you
spell that, please?”
“And where are you now, ma’am?
Can you see any weapons? Do you know the name of your kidnappers?”
“Oh, no, Officer. It’s not me.
It’s the mayor.”
“Mayor? Got that. First name?”
“Donald Mayor. And is he a
relative? Is there a note?”
“No…you’ve got it all mixed
up. I’m calling about somebody kidnapping Mayor Donald Conklin.”
“You think someone’s going to
kidnap the mayor? That’s a pretty serious charge.”
“Not going to. I think they
“We’ll send someone over to talk to you. What’s your address?”
“Ah, yes. The Pagner house. And
you have some sort of evidence?”
“Well, I received the
strangest message last night and now he won’t answer his private number. I’m
“I’m the new messenger service in town. McTeague’s. Donald invited me.”
“Okay. Sit tight. I’m sending
Officer Dow over to you to take your statement.”
“Thank you.” I hung up and
wondered what kind of a statement I was expected to give. I had the recording,
but unless one knew the context, it could mean anything. Maybe I should call
someone. How did I know I could trust the police here? You saw it all the time
on TV. Sometimes, the bad guys aren’t who you thought. My mental contact list
was pretty slim. My neighbors, who I didn’t know all well. Mom, who lived a
couple of hours away.
A knock on the door saved me from a slide into self-pity. I let in
Officer Ann Dow. And smiled politely at the little wisp of a blond who looked
like the east wind would carry her away if she hadn’t been anchored by her
sturdy shoes and even sturdier holstered shiny black weapon. “Thank you for
coming.” I wasn’t huge, but I looked down a couple of inches on her.
“So, tell me about this
alleged kidnapping.” The officer got out her pad and pen. She shushed her
“I believe the mayor is
She didn’t say anything at first. “And you believe that because…?”
“I received this strange message late last night. On my business line.
You know, I’m hired to reroute phone, fax, and electronic mail service from the
mayor’s office while he’s out?”
“I’m not privy to the mayor’s office practices,” she said,
I ignored her implication and instead led her to my office, explaining
she could hear for herself. “This message came in, cued for the mayor’s office,
but it was all staticky and garbled. I couldn’t make anything out, except ‘get’
She listened. “Get what? And you think it came from the mayor?”
“I don’t know for sure. The caller ID said Summersby Building in Chicago.
I just thought you should check it out.”
Officer Dow tapped her pen on her pad. She shook her head and returned to
the kitchen, me following like a lost puppy. “I’ll make a report,” she said,
reaching for the door. “Maybe you should notify the FCC. If you get threatening
calls, you should call the telephone company. We’ll talk to Mrs. Bader-Conklin,
who’s been in the office all week covering for her husband. If that’s all, I’ll
let you get back to…what you were doing.”
“Thank you. But—”
Click. She shut my door.
And I thought Apple Grove seemed like such a nice town.
I let out a sigh of pure exasperation and tapped my size seven-and-a-half
sandal on the tile floor. Last night’s message…I just couldn’t get it out of my
head. I get mistaken numbers, of course, but I had a funny feeling. And that
was a new one—Donald’s wife had been in the office? Why did he need me? Calling
the police wasn’t the best first move. But what else could I have done?
Donald, or the city I guess,
hired me to take messages this week while he went to court another incubator
business to start up in Apple Grove. He was nice like that, paving the way for
other people to trust my business, just like he did.
Maybe I should have been mad
at him instead of concerned. With my ringless fingers, I tucked a loose spiral
of my dishy-blah hair back into its sloppy bun. Donald would never have ignored
me this long. And he’d want to talk about the next CAT
convention coming up. That was Cat Association Titlists—the group where we met
years and years ago. We both had silver Egyptian Maus.
I have never been a whimsical
person, and this was a big deal in my life, but I’ll get to that later. Let’s
just say his request, that I move McTeague’s—that’s me, Ivy Amanda McTeague
Preston—Message Service to Apple Grove happened to fall at a good time. Pun
If the police thought Donald
was perfectly safe, I should just wait until tomorrow and then see if Mrs.
Bader-Conklin had some notion about what was going on. I could go visit her at
the office and ask, casual-like, if she’d heard from him. And offer to leave
My next hint that something was wrong was that Donald’s secretary, Marion
Green, was not at her usual post. If the mayor’s office was open for business,
Marion at least should be here, even if she supposedly had the week off. Donald
joked that she was the one who really ran the town. The stern-looking
black-haired woman who infringed on Marion’s space made me wait fifteen
minutes. Donald usually came out of his office when he heard my voice. The
light was on; I could see it shining under his door. I suppose Margaret—Mrs.
Bader-Conklin—could have been making an urgent call.
I heard a distinct sneeze from inside the office. Then the tap of high
Why had I waited so long before getting concerned enough about Donald to
call the police? Final registration for CAT
was in two days. Donald never missed. He hadn’t registered yet—I checked. And
he told me before he left town that it was the one thing he looked forward to
all summer. He could take his cat, Tut, out of his wife’s hair for awhile, and
since she claimed she was allergic to animals, she didn’t insist on coming
along. He never said anything negative, but I got the impression the vacation
was a three-way blessing between him, his wife, and Tut.
A woman opened the door to the mayor’s office. I recognized her from a
photo that Donald had showed me—Margaret. She studied me over half-glasses
perched on a razor-thin nose; Joan Crawford eyebrows raised toward her
curled-under bangs. I shivered.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Preston. Please.” She gestured to me to
follow her. And then she invited me to sit in the ugly straight-back chair on
the opposite side of Donald’s desk instead of the comfy one in front of the
computer. Donald had never done that.
I warily started a conversation. “I hope Marion isn’t sick.”
“I gave Mrs. Green the week off. My personal assistant is with me.” The
wife of the mayor of Apple Grove leaned back in her husband’s leather chair.
“Now, what can I do for you, Miss…Preston?”
I swallowed hard. “Uh, well, Don—the mayor asked me to take messages as
he was going to be out of the office all week. I wondered…if you’ve heard from
him?” Dang, I tried hard not to squeak with nerves at the end. I couldn’t help
it, yet instinct told me that I must not show fear. I hoped she wouldn’t get
the wrong impression.
“May I know the nature of your business with the mayor?”
No wonder Donald needed an annual break from this woman. Did she act like
such an iceberg at home, too? Margaret sneezed again and took out a dainty lace
handkerchief. “Something in the air,” she muttered, sniffling. “You must have a
cat or a dog at home. I’m allergic.”
“Oh?” I said, stopping before I mentioned I already knew that. Wrong
impressions and all.
“I recall Donald speaking of you,” she said. “From that little group he
goes to, right? So, did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Bring the messages you’ve been supposedly taking.”
“Sorry.” I handed over eight yellow and green carbons. I kept the pink
copies locked in a safe for three months, per contractual agreement. “Mrs.
Lendler wants her neighbor’s box elder tree cut down as a public menace because
of the bugs—”
“Thank you. I can read. Was there anything else?”
“So, am I still on the job for the rest of the week? And Don—the
mayor—will be back on Saturday? He’s all right?”
“Of course he’s all right. Why wouldn’t he be? Letty can handle
Letty must be the battleaxe up front. Margaret stood and I had to follow
suit. She was taller than me. I supposed if I had on heels instead of tennies,
I could have looked at her nose instead of her chin. She had three black hairs
sprouting under her makeup. I pressed my lips tight to hold in the grin while
she turned to open the door to her office.
“How’s Tut these days?” I asked, testing her out on a whim.
“Tut? Oh—fine, just fine.”
Mmhmm. “Mem’s just fine, too.”
“Mem? Memo? I don’t underst—” She looked over my shoulder. “Oh, ah, good
to know. Excuse me while I, ah….”
I followed her line of sight to see Letty in the doorway, frowning, while
her left hand came to rest on her folded elbow. We locked brown-eyed stares.
Her irises had weird little gold flecks in them. She blinked first. She went
back to her desk.
“I’ll be glad to care for Tut,” I said, a bit giddy with my victory in
the stare down, “since you’re allergic and all, while the mayor’s away. Our
cats get along swell.”
She bit the corner of her lip, just for an instant, but enough to give me
the feeling that something was amiss.
“Tut’s all right, isn’t he? Or is he with Donald?”
She frowned when I said Donald. Oops. “I mean, the mayor.”
She pushed forward, forcing me to move to the door. “Of course. If you’ll
excuse me, we have a great deal of work. Good-bye, now. Take care.”
I nodded to Letty on my way out. I got turned around in the maze of
staircases and hallways and ended up leaving city hall by the back door. In my
muse, I had to dodge a dark-colored delivery van squealing right up to the back
door before I found the walk that went around to the side parking lot where I
had left my car. What on earth would Mrs. Bader-Conklin do in her husband’s
How I got home, I’m not sure. I don’t think I ran into anyone on the way.
I paced my tiny kitchen, three steps forward and back, as the evening wore on,
deciding how much further to get involved in this business.
Judging by the officer’s response to my initial phone call, I wondered if
I would ever rate any respect for my theory that the mayor needed help. I only
hoped it would not be too late for Donald. I needed to find a better way to
explain my dilemma to the police if I felt like I had to call again.
I could talk to someone else. Of course! Someone else. True! He’d know
what to do. How could I have forgotten Truesdale Thompson, Donald’s other pet project?
I grinned. True had moved to Apple Grove not long after me. Mea Cuppa, his
little bookshop and fancy coffee joint, needed more prep time than my machines,
so he’d only recently opened. I spent my odd hours helping him sort merchandise
and stock shelves.
I drove through downtown, chased by an occasional scrap of newspaper or
leaf swirling in the spring breeze riffling up from the river through alleys. I
knocked on the front door of the closed shop. I didn’t think True heard me at
first, as he took some time coming down from his apartment.
“Ivy. What’s wrong? Come on in. Sit down.”
A solid comfort, True. I babbled. “I don’t know where else to turn.
Please, listen to me!”
“Of course I will.”
I looked around, feeling vulnerable through the huge plate glass window.
Any passerby could see us clearly. “Not here.”
He seemed unfazed. “Okay. Come on up. I wasn’t exactly expecting
And clearly, he wasn’t. He tossed aside a pile of towels and picture
hangers and bade me sit on his recliner while he went to fix tea. I felt antsy
and couldn’t sit still. There was little room to pace with the floor so covered
with boxes and bubble wrap. I could barely tell the color of the carpet.
He smiled and put a steaming cup of ginger tea in my hand. “I told you it
was a mess.”
I inhaled. “Thank you.”
He looked around the room and grimaced. “Let’s go in the kitchen, shall
His kitchen was a different world. Neat and cozy. I could see where True
felt most comfortable. We sat. I sipped while appreciating his patience. I
mulled over a couple of ways to tell my tale and decided direct was best.
“Donald’s missing. I think he’s in trouble.” I stopped, and took a deep,
whimpery breath. True put one of his gigantic warm hands over mine and anchored
me with his calming gray stare. I had no idea what he thought, but I knew I
“Ivy. Donald told us that he was going on a business trip. In fact, I
thought you were on the job.”
“I thought that too. Until the police told me that Margaret was in the
True’s eyebrows went up with comforting incredulity. He shook his head;
his eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“When I called the police, he said he saw the mayor’s car leaving the
parking lot. Wouldn’t he have taken his car on his trip?”
“Not if he was flying. Ivy, you called the police? Based on what?”
I twisted my mouth to the side and jiggled my foot. “Um, well. A feeling,
I guess. Donald hadn’t registered for CAT
yet. I knew he wanted to go, so I tried his emergency number. Three times. To
remind him. He didn’t answer. Then, later, I started putting this strange
garbled message—I could only make out what sounded like ‘get,’ and ‘call,’ I
think, from some number in Chicago—together with Donald’s absence, and wondered
if the two might be related. So, what do you think it means?”
True sat back, not saying anything. Then he got up and walked over to the
sink. I admired his height and flexed back muscles, the efficient way he moved
and the deliberate way he thought before speaking—so unlike my scrambling
around and blurting out the first thing I thought. He was older than me—I’m
almost thirty-two and single, thank you to my ex-fiancé Stanley—but I wasn’t
sure how much. His wavy black hair was slightly salted at the temples, and his
nose looked like it had been broken at one time and fixed, but best of all, he
wasn’t married. “Donald’s business wasn’t in Chicago.” The tone of his voice
made me feel that he wanted to take me seriously but was finding it difficult.
“I suppose he’s just busy,” I said. “Or out of cell range. And the other
call could have been some wrong number or something. It happens.”
“What do you think might be going on?”
“I don’t know. Donald is my friend. If he’s in trouble, I want to help.”
True’s mouth twitched. “What kind of help?”
I sighed, thinking how ludicrous my actions had been. “I thought I’d just
go over to city hall and visit Margaret. You know, just ask if she’d heard from
Donald. So I did. But Margaret wasn’t talking. Marion wasn’t even there.”
“She might not spend all day in the office if Donald was out,” True
I took another deep breath. “But there was someone else there. Someone I
didn’t know sitting at Marion’s desk.”
“Ivy, you wouldn’t know many people here anyway, remember? We just
I liked the “we” part of his comment. “Right. But did you know that
Margaret’s allergic to cats? I thought she just hated them.”
“That’s one of the reasons Donald was so interested in that new company.
Happy Hearts Bioengineering? They’re working to produce a hypoallergenic breed
“I thought he was…well, maybe I hadn’t been paying attention. I thought
he was going after a pet food company. Fel-feli—”
“Feli-Mix. He told me they signed an ‘intent to build’ contract based on
getting the zoning approval.”
“Oh. Good.” I scratched my ear. Isis wandered in from a dark hallway to
curl around True’s ankles. True’s Mau smoke female was daintier in looks than
disposition. My Mem had been at the receiving end of her ferocity since they’d
been introduced two years ago at a convention. Poor Mem had only tried to be
True nudged me back to the present topic at hand. “What did Margaret
“She wouldn’t talk to me.” I saw him wipe a hand over his face. “I didn’t
think I was nosy. So I asked her if I was supposed to continue taking messages.
She said her assistant could handle it.”
“Then I asked Margaret about Tut. You know. I was concerned. She said he
was fine. I asked if I could take care of him while Donald was gone. She didn’t
answer me. Not really.” I looked toward the lopsided drape that hung over the
“But you’re still worried.”
“Yes, about both of them. I wish now I hadn’t called the police first.”
“What exactly did you say to them?”
My lip protruded again. “That I wanted to report a…a kidnapping.” My
voice had dropped to a too-low whisper on the last word. I sounded perfectly
ridiculous and I knew it.
“Based on a message you couldn’t understand? And after the police officer
“He didn’t laugh at all! He sent a lady cop to check on me.”
“She said she’d report it.”
True uncrossed his arms and got up from the table. He gently removed the
mug from my hands and raised me to my feet. I liked the feel of those hands. I
liked the confidence he exuded even more. “Ivy, I can tell you’re concerned
about this. Why don’t you let me go talk to Margaret tomorrow, see what I
think. Okay? I’m not dismissing you, but I have to think about this.”
I nodded. “I know it sounds wild, True. I need to do something, but I’m
not sure what.”
True walked me to the door and down the steps. The moccasins he wore
silenced his path across the floor of the shop. “You drove. You want me to take
I appreciated his thoughtfulness. “I’m all right.” I caught my reflection
in the window of the door. Shoulder-length corkscrew hair in all directions,
eyes wide—I looked like a nutcase. No wonder he had been concerned I couldn’t
drive. I stopped and turned. The top of my head came to his shoulder, giving me
a good view of his throat. His turtleneck shirt hid most of the scar that I
knew snaked around his neck and across his right shoulder. I never asked about
it and I was too shy around him yet to pry, but I hoped that would change in
the near future. “Thank you, True, for listening. I hope it’s just some kind of
mental lapse on my part.”
“We both care about Donald. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” He flashed a grin
and closed the door behind me, staying at the window to watch until I sat
safely in my car.
I did not expect to sleep much, so after checking my client list and the
current work orders in my office, I settled on the couch with my pet Memnet
nearby and popped a movie into my player.
Mau owners give their friends names popular in ancient Egypt for obvious
reasons. Mem was a beautiful black-spotted registered silver male running past
middle age. We garnered tons of compliments for his personality and outstanding
looks, and he was as devoted to me as I was to him. He had been a staunch
friend when Stanley decided he did not want to marry me—after we’d ordered the
invitations and my dress and rented the hall.
Memnet’s scratching woke me sometime later. Cold and stiff, I came to my
senses abruptly when I heard a loud crack and tinkling sound from the kitchen.
Mem was not as cautious as me and streaked toward the sound, a silver shadow in
the blue glow of the television screen. His screech was primeval.
My hand shook as I dialed the number of the police department with a
legitimate complaint this time. After being assured they would send someone
immediately, I peered into the kitchen to see the broken window panel of the
door and the swinging chain. Mem sat guard, his tail twitching and ears
forward, his paw resting on top of a stone with something tied to it.
“What have you got, Mem?” I crouched, wary of glass. With a low growl
pulsing from his furry throat, he reluctantly let me examine the rock. I
supposed it was evidence, but it was in my house. And Ripple had laughed at me
earlier, after all. With one eye watching for the police car, I hurriedly untied
the string and read the attached note.