Mitch bolted upright. Roscoe leaped off the bed and ran to the closed bedroom door. He stood with his head cocked to the side, listening. Grabbing his service revolver off the nightstand, Mitch swung his legs over the side of the bed and joined Roscoe at the door.
Roscoe placed his paws on the door and began barking hysterically. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
Adrenaline coursed through Mitch as he slowly cracked open the door and glanced down the darkened hallway. Roscoe shoved past him and bolted for the kitchen. Moving quickly and cautiously, Mitch followed him.
Weapon up, he stepped into the kitchen and threw the light switch. Shards of glass from a shattered plate littered the floor. An overturned box of cereal rested in the center of the room. Roscoe stood in front of the refrigerator barking loudly.
Knowing that whatever Roscoe had cornered wasn’t human, Mitch lowered his weapon. “All right, easy, big guy,” Mitch said, stepping up to peek behind the refrigerator. Roscoe stopped barking, but continued to growl low in his throat.
A large orange cat with round, golden eyes stared up at him. It twitched its tail, but otherwise didn’t move.
“What are you doing here?” Mitch asked. He glanced around the room, looking for the cat’s entry point. The screen covering the window above the sink was torn.
He turned back to the cat and glared down at him. “You tore my screen,” he stated gruffly. The cat continued to stare up at him, seemingly unconcerned.
Mitch shook his head in consternation. He’d never been much of a cat person. He found their aloof and superior attitudes annoying. He much preferred the loving loyalty of a good dog.
Grabbing Roscoe by the collar, he half dragged him back to the bedroom. “Stay in here and keep quiet,” he commanded gruffly. He wasn’t usually so irritable, but he hadn't gotten much sleep lately, and he was extremely aggravated at having it interrupted by a cat.
Mitch Holt was a detective in the Spring Valley police department. He’d been working long hours trying to solve a homicide. He was usually pretty easy going, but the investigation wasn’t going well, and it was starting to affect him. A cat breaking into his apartment wasn’t doing anything to improve his mood. He shuffled back down the hallway, not looking forward to trying to wrestle the cat out from behind the refrigerator.
When he reached the kitchen, the cat was sitting on the counter, licking one of its paws. “How’d you get up here, anyway?” he grumbled, moving over to look through the window. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment on the third floor of an older apartment building. Mitch liked to keep his windows cracked during the early autumn. The air always seemed to be freshest at that time of the year.
His building butted up to a city park. A large oak tree grew close to the park’s fence, one branch curving out over the fence to within a few feet of his kitchen window.
“Ah,” he said, turning back to the orange tabby. “You used the tree.”
Picking up the cat, he said, “Sorry, buddy, you can’t stay here.” Mitch glanced down and saw a few drops of fresh blood on the counter. “Damn,” he muttered. “You’re hurt.”
He glanced at the clock on the microwave. It was only 5:30 a.m. It would be a few more hours before Rebecca opened her veterinary clinic. Not only was Rebecca Miller the best veterinarian in town, she was also a good friend and engaged to his best friend, Derrick Peterson.
He held the cat away from his body and looked for the source of the bleeding. A small droplet of blood fell from the cat’s right rear paw. He shifted the tabby into his left arm and lifted the injured paw for a better look. There was a small laceration across the foot’s large pad. Mitch glanced at the floor and saw tiny, bloody footprints leading away from the broken glass to the refrigerator.
He shook his head and sighed heavily. Although he was irritated at being awoken out of the longest sleep he’d had in days, he was a good guy. He wasn’t about to throw the cat out of his apartment, if it was injured. As he stood there debating what to do with it, the cat began to purr.
“What are you so happy about?” he asked, feeling some of his good humor return.
The big tabby pressed his head against Mitch’s chest and purred even louder. He chuckled and scratched the cat under his chin. Using a couple of papertowels and some tape, he wrapped a make-shift bandage around the cat’s paw.
“All right, you can hang out in here until Rebecca opens her clinic. I’m guessing you broke in because you’re hungry. Let me see what I’ve got.”
He set the cat down on the floor away from the broken glass and turned to open a cabinet. He pulled out a can of chicken. Before he had the lid off, the cat jumped onto the counter and stood waiting expectantly.
“There you go,” Mitch said, placing the can on the counter. The cat gave the chicken a few tentative licks, then opened his mouth and pulled out a large chunk. Mitch watched in fascination as he devoured the food. When the cat finished, he sat back on his haunches and licked his lips in satisfaction.
Mitch chuckled. “You’re welcome. I guess I'd better clean up this mess you made.”
A few hours later, he drove up to the Animal Friends Veterinary Clinic. He was impatient to get the cat off his hands. He really needed to get back to work on the case.
“Good morning, Mitch,” June, Rebecca’s receptionist greeted. She was a plump, middle-aged woman with short gray hair.
“Mornin’, June. How’s life treating you?” Mitch asked, giving her a charming grin, his blue eyes sparkling.
June smiled back. “Can’t complain,” she replied. “What can we do for you today?”
“I’ve got a cat with an injured paw out in the car. The darn thing broke into my apartment early this morning.”
The door to the first exam room opened. Rebecca followed a tiny, elderly woman out of the room. A bright smile lit her face when she saw Mitch standing at the receptionist’s counter.
“Remember to bring Josie back for her next set of shots in three weeks,” Rebecca told the woman.
She stepped over to Mitch and gave him a quick hug. She pulled back and grinned up at him. “It’s so good to see you. You’ve been such a stranger, lately. Is everything okay?” Although Mitch wasn’t that tall himself at only 5 feet 10, she had to tilt her head back to look up at him.
Mitch ran his eyes over Rebecca’s upturned face. She’d recovered amazingly well from the injuries she suffered when an intruder had broken into her clinic and brutally attacked her a few months previously. The only remaining sign of the attack was a small scar above her right eye that disappeared into her hairline. Mitch reached out and playfully tweaked her nose. He and Rebecca had been as close as siblings since almost immediately after they’d met each other. Before she’d gotten engaged to his best friend, he’d asked her out. They’d both recognized that they were only meant to be friends. He was thrilled when Derrick had fallen hopelessly in love with her.
“Everything’s fine. I had an intruder of the four-legged variety last night. Damned cat ripped through my window screen and knocked a plate off the kitchen counter. Then he proceeded to cut his paw on the glass. He’s out in the car. Do you have time to take a look at him?”
“Sure, do you need help bringing him in? Is he wild?”
“No, he's probably the most laid-back cat I’ve ever met. He purrs like a freight train every time I touch him.”
A minute later, Mitch joined Rebecca in the exam room. “The right back paw’s the one he cut,” he said, placing the cat on the stainless steel table. “I put a bandage on it, but he managed to pull it off almost immediately.”
Rebecca chuckled. “Cat’s hate things on their feet. How did he get into your apartment?”
Mitch shrugged. “There’s a big oak tree in the park behind my building. He must have climbed it and jumped onto the windowsill. That’s the only thing I can figure.”
“What did Roscoe think of him?” Rebecca asked.
“When I opened the bedroom door to investigate the noises we heard coming from the kitchen, he bolted out and had the cat cornered behind the fridge by the time I got there. I locked him in the bedroom for the rest of the morning. I think he might’ve tried to eat the cat if he’d caught him.”
Rebecca chuckled. “I doubt it. Usually, all it takes is a good swipe of a claw across the nose for most dogs to learn to leave a cat alone. By the way, how’s your case going? Any closer to finding the Colsons’ killer?”
Mitch shook his head. “No. So far, we’ve got nothing.”
“I’m sorry, Mitch. Something will break soon.”
“Yeah, I have no doubt that we’ll catch him. I only hope it’s before he hurts someone else. That’s the part keeping me up at night. So, how’re the wedding plans coming?”
Rebecca smiled. “Everything’s all set. I can’t believe the wedding’s only two weeks away. Do you have a date, yet?”
Mitch gave her a roguish grin and winked. “You know me, a different woman every week. I’m not sure who the lucky lady will be.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “You just wait, Mitch. Someone’s going to come along and knock you off your feet.”
Mitch shook his head. “Not likely, besides, Derrick’s marrying the only woman in town who could have tempted me to give up the single life.”
Rebecca shook her head in exasperation and brought the subject back to the reason for his visit. “The cat’s healthy other than the cut on his paw. He needs to be kept inside until it heals. No climbing trees for a while.”
Mitch recognized the look in Rebecca’s eyes. “No way,” he said, shaking his head. “He can’t come home with me. I’ve already told you that Roscoe tried to eat him. Last week, I had to hire a kid down the hall to walk Roscoe for me every day, due to the crazy hours I’m working. I don’t need another animal. Besides, I don’t like cats.”
Just then, the cat stood and started rubbing his head across Mitch’s arm, purring loudly. Rebecca laughed. “Sorry, bud, it looks like you’ve been chosen. Cats are easier to take care of than dogs, anyway. You don’t need to worry about taking him for a walk. Just get him a litter box, put out some food and water, and he’ll be happy. I predict he and Roscoe will be pals before you know it.”
Mitch sighed. He knew arguing with Rebecca was useless. She was as stubborn as they come, especially when it concerned the well-being of an animal. “Okay,” he relented. “But only until his paw heals. Then he’s out the door. Besides, he probably belongs to someone.”
Rebecca grinned with satisfaction. “I’ll let you know if anyone comes in looking for a cat that matches his description. In the meantime, you can borrow a litter box, bowls, and cat food from me.”
As Mitch was driving home, he threw his head back and laughed as he thought about how effortlessly Rebecca had convinced him to take the cat home. If she maneuvered him that smoothly, then Derrick was definitely in trouble. Somehow, he didn’t think his friend minded. He was crazy about her.
Catherine James stared hard at the photo she held in her hands. The face of a sullen, 13-year-old boy stared back at her. He had thick, black hair and dark green eyes, almost the same shade of green as Catherine’s own eyes. She felt her heart lurch at the pain she saw reflected there. She looked up at the woman sitting on the other side of the desk she faced. Stacy Shields was a social worker for the Department of Social Services, Children’s Division. Her blue eyes sparkled with intensity as she met Cat’s gaze. Short brown hair framed her plump face. She smiled encouragingly.
“When I decided to become a foster parent, I thought I’d be taking in a little girl. I never considered fostering a teenage boy,” Cat commented.
“I know,” Stacy replied. “But Ethan needs to go to a home where he’s the only child. Since his father signed away his parental rights a few months ago, he’s been in two different foster homes. They each had other kids, and they just weren’t a good fit. Ethan’s extremely bright. I really feel that given the right environment, he could blossom into a special young man. I also think he’ll do better in a home where there isn’t a man around. His father was very abusive. His mother was non-existent. She left them when Ethan was just a baby. He needs the nurturing influence of a mom.”
Catherine, “Cat” as she was called by her friends, looked down at the photo. Can I do this? she wondered. She ran a hand through her thick, red hair and sighed. She didn’t really have a choice, did she?
She’d decided a long time ago that she would offer a child the help she never received. She’d been raised by parents who had beaten her for the hell of it and then kicked her out when she was 15. She’d dropped out of school and taken any odd job she could get her hands on. When she’d turned 18, she’d gotten her GED and scored well enough on the ACT to earn a scholarship to college. It took her six years to finish school because she’d had to work full-time to make up for what the scholarship money didn’t cover. Now, at 30, she was the lead accountant for a large corporation. She liked her job. It was steady, no surprises. Working numbers was a black-and-white issue. Her life was neat and tidy, the way she liked it. She was in complete control. What would happen if she threw a troubled teenage boy into the mix? Would she be able to handle the certain chaos that would follow? She knew it wouldn’t be easy.
She looked back up. Stacy met and held her gaze. Cat slowly nodded. “Okay, I’ll take him.”
Stacy grinned. “Great!” she exclaimed. “I’ll bring him by tomorrow. What time should we get there?”
The next day was Saturday. “Any time after eight in the morning,” Cat replied.
“Okay, I’ll bring him at nine. I truly believe this will work out for both of you.” She stood and embraced Cat. They’d become close friends over the last few months as Cat had gone through the foster parenting classes. Stacy wasn’t sure why, but she felt confident Ethan and Cat would be a good match. She’d been a social worker for a long time, and she’d developed a sixth sense about these things. This felt right.
Cat awoke early the next morning. Her body was filled with a nervous tension. She scurried around the house tidying up. After the third time, she’d straightened the pillows on the sofa, she stopped and took a deep breath.
“Calm down, Cat. There’s no reason to be so nervous. He’s just a kid,” she muttered.
She jumped when the doorbell rang. She pasted a smile on her face and hurried to open the door.
“Hello, Cat,” Stacy greeted. “This is Ethan.”
“Hi, Ethan. I’m glad you’re here. Come on in.”
Ethan stood on the stoop with his shoulders hunched and his hands shoved in the pockets of his jeans. He wore a backpack slung over his right shoulder. He stared at the tops of his shoes. He didn’t look up at her when she spoke.
Cat stepped back to allow Stacy and Ethan room to enter. As they walked in, she ran her eyes quickly over the boy. His T-shirt was faded, the material worn thin. She could see the big toe of his left foot peeking through a hole in his tennis shoe.
“Why don’t we have a seat at the dining table?” Stacy suggested. “You two can get to know each other a bit before I go.”
“Sounds good,” Cat replied quickly, relieved that Stacy was going to stay for a few minutes.
After they were seated, Cat wiped her moist hands on her jeans. She cleared her throat and asked, “So, what grade are you in, Ethan?”
“Eighth,” he replied, still not looking at her.
“Do you play any sports?”
“No,” was his one-word reply.
“Ethan is really good at art,” Stacy put in.
“That’s cool. I like art, too,” Cat replied. “Do you prefer to draw or paint?”
Ethan didn’t answer. After a brief pause, Cat asked, “Is there anything you’d like to know about me?”
Ethan looked up and met her eyes for the first time. He studied her closely. Finally, he asked, “Why am I here?”
Cat knew this was an important moment. She needed to answer him honestly. “There are two parts to that answer. Why did I bring a foster child into my home? When I was 15, my parents kicked me out. I didn’t have any place to go. I swore that when I was older, I would be there for another kid, so they wouldn’t have to do it alone, like I did. Why did I pick you? Stacy thinks you have a lot of potential, and you’d have more of a chance in a home without any other kids. She seems to think that you and I will get along well together.”
She held her breath waiting for his response. Finally, he nodded, accepting her answer, then lowered his eyes back to the table.
Cat let out the breath she’d been holding. She smiled at Stacy, feeling more confident than she had before they’d arrived.
Stacy returned her smile. “Well, I guess I’d better be on my way. I’ll be back next week to check on you. Good luck.”
Cat walked Stacy to the door. Ethan stayed at the table. “Call, if you need me,” Stacy said, pulling Cat into a quick embrace.
“I will,” Cat promised.
“Don’t expect too much too soon, Cat. He’s had a rough time of it. It’s going to take a lot of love and patience to break through his guard,” Stacy whispered.
“I know,” Cat replied. “I’ve been there.”
“That’s why I’m so confident this will work,” Stacy said, giving Cat one more squeeze.