The bedroom phone shrilled at five a.m.
Phil Sagemont squinted at the caller ID through bloodshot eyes. “Uh-oh, it’s Nancie Hays,” he said. “This can’t be good.”
Helen Hawthorne groaned, reached for the lamp, and knocked over an empty wineglass. “I don’t want to go to work before dawn,” she said.
“We don’t have a choice,” Phil said. “We’re the PIs for her firm.” He put the phone on speaker, and they both winced at the lawyer’s clipped, brisk voice.
“Helen, Phil, I need you in my office now,” she said. The lawyer was barely five feet tall and a hundred pounds, but she had the authority of a four-star general.
“It’s a custody case. We think the husband’s violated the visitation agreement. We need you to get her back.”
“How old is the kid?” Phil said.
“It’s not a kid; it’s a kitten,” Nancie said. “Four months old.”
“A kitten!” Phil said. “Call Animal Rescue.”
“This isn’t any ordinary cat,” Nancie said. “It’s a pedigreed Chartreux, a show cat owned by Trish Barrymore.”
“The socialite married to Smart Mort?” Phil asked.
“His name is Mortimer Barrymore,” Nancie said. Helen could almost see the little lawyer fighting back her impatience. Nancie kept her dark hair short and practical. She’d be wearing a no-nonsense dark suit, even on a stifling September morning in South Florida.
“Trish says the cat’s bloodlines go back to prewar France,” Nancie said. “Hers go back a lot farther. She’s paying and paying well. That cat is her child and she’s upset that her baby has been kidnapped by her husband.”
“Oh, please,” Helen said. Phil snorted.
“If you two want to keep working for this firm,” the lawyer said, “you will take her problem seriously.
“Trish and Mort are in the middle of a bitter divorce. They’re fighting over everything: Who gets the two mansions, the Mercedes and the Ferrari, even the antique cigar case. It’s the biggest headache I’ve ever handled.
“The only thing they’ve agreed on is the shared custody of their cat, January’s Jubilee Justine. Trish keeps her during the week. Mort picks her up Saturday morning and returns her Sunday night. He gets Justine every holiday. Phil, if I hear another snort from you, you’re fired.
“Trish is living at their Fort Lauderdale mansion. Mort’s at their estate in Peerless Point, about five miles away. Saturday, he picked up Justine at eight o’clock, like he always does, and took her to his place. He was supposed to return her at seven o’clock Sunday night.
“When Mort didn’t show by nine, Trish was frantic. She called the Peerless Point police and wanted them to issue an Amber Alert.”
“For a cat?” Helen said.
“That’s what the cop said. When he figured out she was talking about a kitten, he laughed at her. Then Trish made it worse and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’
“ ‘Yeah, a crazy cat lady,’ the cop told her.
“Trish said, ‘I’ll have your job.’
“ ‘You’re welcome to it, lady,’ the cop said. ‘Have fun dealing with nuts like you.’
“Trish called me and I called you last night. You didn’t answer your phone. I lost track of how many messages I left.” Nancie didn’t hide her annoyance. She expected detectives on retainer to be on call around the clock.
“Uh, we unplugged the phone,” Phil said. He sounded sheepish.
“Newlyweds!” Nancie said. “You’ve been married more than a year. Aren’t you over that by now?”
“I hope not,” Phil said.
Helen felt her face flush hot with embarrassment in the dark bedroom. She slipped on her robe, as if Nancie could see she was naked.
“Why did they agree on custody of the cat, if they fight about everything else?” Helen asked, hoping to distract the lawyer.
“They care about Justine’s welfare,” Nancie said. “Pet custody is tricky. The court regards pets as property. Some judges won’t order visitation for the other pet parent. Get the wrong judge, and it’s like asking if you can visit your ex-wife’s couch. The judge will think you’re crazy.”
“I wonder why,” Phil said.
“Take this seriously, Phil. Don’t you two have a cat?” Nancie asked.
“Thumbs,” Phil said. “He’s a great cat, but he’s not our four-legged son.”
Thumbs heard his name, jumped up on the bed and rubbed his head against Phil’s hand. The detective absently scratched the cat’s ears and said, “Now that your client has destroyed any hope of police cooperation, you want us to rescue the situation?”
“She’s our client, not mine,” Nancie said. “Get your clothes on and come straight to my office. Don’t bother making coffee. I have a fresh pot and a bag of bagels. Be here before six. I want you to meet Trish, then pick up Justine at Mort’s house.” She hung up.
“Glad I plugged in the phone at three a.m.,” Helen said. She and Phil showered together to save time, but there was no romance this morning. They dressed quickly, and Helen poured breakfast for their six-toed cat. “At least you get to eat,” she told Thumbs.
He ignored her and stuck his head in his food bowl.
Phil quietly shut the jalousie door. No other lights were on at the Coronado Tropic Apartments. The two-story white art moderne building loomed over the palm trees. Window air conditioners rattled in the soft, predawn light. Helen and Phil tiptoed past the turquoise pool. The humid air was so sticky-hot, Helen felt like she was swimming to her white PT Cruiser. She was grateful for the Igloo’s air-conditioning.
“I can’t believe this,” Phil said, as he plopped resentfully into the passenger seat. “Coronado Investigations has solved murders and saved lives and now we’re rescuing kittens.”
“Hey, it pays the rent,” Helen said, starting the car.
“A kitten!” Phil said. “Not even a cat – or a dog. WWBD? What would Bogie do?”
“Take the job to pay for his scotch,” Helen said.
She admired her husband’s chiseled profile and noble nose as she listened to him grouse about the kitten rescue. She thought her man looked like a rock star, with his long silver hair tied back in a ponytail. He’d certainly performed like one last night.
She smiled at the memory, then turned into Nancie’s parking lot. The law office was a neat stripped-down charcoal cube with an imposing wooden door. The lawyer’s silver Honda was parked in back, leaving the best spots for visitors. A sleek black Mercedes brooded under a palm tree by the door. Helen parked next to it.
Inside, past the foyer, she saw Nancie at her desk. Like the lawyer, it was plain, white and strictly business. A pale blonde in a black lace dress sat in the lime green client chair.
“Bogie would definitely approve of our decorative client,” Helen whispered, as they headed for the office.
“Helen and Phil, help yourself to coffee in the conference room and join us,” Nancie said. “We’ll eat after we talk to Mrs. Barrymore. She’s anxious to get home in case Mort returns with Justine.”
Helen looked longingly at the basket of bagels and bowl of fruit as she poured two black coffees into white china cups. Phil snitched a grape. Nancie introduced them, and the private eyes took the two chairs across from Trish Barrymore.
“Now, tell Helen and Phil what happened this weekend,” Nancie said.
“My baby’s been missing almost twelve hours,” Trish Barrymore said, and dissolved into tears.
Helen Hawthorne watched the woman’s well-bred reserve crumble like a hurricane-slammed seawall. She thought Trish was overreacting, but she didn’t seem to be faking her distress. Her blonde hair straggled out of its chignon, and she’d gnawed patches of pale pink polish off her nails.
“You have to find her,” Trish said, her voice unsteady. “Nancie said you would.” She quit gulping back sobs and unleashed heart-wrenching wails.
“Now, Trish. I said Helen and Phil would try,” Nancie said, attempting to walk a line between caution and comfort. “Coronado Investigations has had amazing success, but I can only promise that Helen and Phil will do their best.”
“Justine needs her mother,” Trish said. “She’s all alone.”
“Trish, you don’t know that,” Nancie said. “We believe she’s with your husband.”
“Former husband,” Trish said. “Almost former.” She discreetly tugged on the hem of her black lace skirt and crossed her legs at the ankles.
“You know Mort would never hurt Justine,” Nancie said.
“No, he loves our baby as much as I do,” Trish said. “But she’s so tiny he could step on her. He walks around the house without his glasses. What if he accidentally hurt her?”
“Justine is a smart kitten,” Nancie said. “She won’t let herself get stepped on. If something should happen, Mort would take her straight to the hospital.”
“He’s not cruel,” Trish said, trying to reassure herself.
“You and your husband are going through a difficult divorce,” Nancie said. “You’ve instructed me to fight for everything, even your silver pickle forks.”
“Those were a present from my great-grandmother!” Trish’s temper flared like a lit match. “That Tiffany pattern was created for her. She gave us her silver. Both our homes have been in my family since they were built in 1925. The Barrymores have been social leaders for centuries. Mort came from nothing!”
But Smart Mort knew how to make money, Helen thought. And Trish knew how to spend it. Tastefully. The CPA with the boyish curly hair and lopsided grin raked in so much cash Trish could turn her crumbling family mansions into designer showcases – and there was still more to splash around.
“That’s why he married me, you know,” Trish said. “For my name.”
“Oh, I’m sure he married you for more than that,” Nancie said.
Helen was, too. Even burdened by grief, Trish had style. This morning she was mourning her potential loss in a black lace dress that cost as much as a summer vacation.
“You’re beautiful,” Nancie said. “You’re regal. You serve the community. I’ve lost count of all your civic and charity boards.”
“Twenty-three,” Trish said. “Mort’s last name was Draco! Like a Harry Potter character! What kind of name is that? He used me. He changed his name to Barrymore.”
And painted himself with the dull green patina of old money, Helen thought.
“Custody cases are always difficult,”Nancie said. “But despite your differences, you and Mort worked out an agreement for Justine.”
“We did it for the emotional well-being of our child,” Trish said. “Justine has a brilliant future as a show cat. She’s a pedigreed Chartreux. They’re known for their smoky gray fur and copper eyes.”
“Here. See for yourself.” She produced a photo from a slim black clutch. The kitten was a fluffy gray cloud with eyes like new pennies.
“That’s January’s Jubilee Justine,” Trish said.
“She’s beautiful,” Helen said, though she felt disloyal. She knew Thumbs, her big-pawed white and gray cat, wouldn’t really mind if she admired another cat. “Big name for a little cat,” Phil said.
“She was born in a J year,” Trish said. “Chartreux have their own naming system. Their names must start with a particular letter of the alphabet, depending on the year they were born. I’m lucky 2014 is a J year. I would have hated it if she’d been born last year. I don’t like the I names nearly as much.”
“So Mort didn’t return your cat on time,” Phil said, steering her back to the story. “Did you call him when he didn’t show up?”
“I gave him ten minutes’ grace time,” Trish said, “in case he was caught in traffic. Then I called his land line and his cell phone. He didn’t pick up. I called every ten minutes until nine o’clock. Then I called the police. They were no help at all. That’s when I called Nancie and she contacted you.”
“Do you think Mort left town with Justine?” Helen asked.
“No,” Trish said. “Our baby doesn’t like to fly and long car trips upset her tummy.”
“How do you transport your cat?” Helen asked. “In a pet carrier?”
“We each have a Baby Coach,” she said, producing a soft-sided carrier that looked like a small black school bus with clear mesh windows and jeweled headlights. I brought it for you. She won’t go anywhere unless she’s in her bus.”
She handed the bejeweled bus to Phil, who handled it like a live snake. Helen hid a smile.
“Continuity is so important to help Justine transition,” Trish said. “We each have a Zen Cat Tower for her to relax.”
“What’s that?” Helen said.
“It’s a graceful mahogany tower six feet tall with three levels,” Trish said, “plus a sisal scratching pad and a hideaway. It has washable suede cushions.
“Justine has the same toys, dishes and food at both places so she will always feel at home. We explained that Mommy and Daddy still love her, they just can’t live together anymore. She seems to be coping well.
“We know we’re not the only couple in this situation. Britney Spears and K-Fed and Jennifer Love Hewitt and Ross McCall fought over their fur babies.”
“So did another Barrymore,” Helen said. “I read that Drew Barrymore and Tom Green had a custody dispute over their Labrador.”
“Those Barrymores are no relation. They’re actors.” Trish spit out the word.
“I guess if you don’t have children, you have to fight about the pets,” Phil said.
“Tell that to Jon and Kate Gosselin,” Nancie said. “The reality show stars had eight kids and still fought over their dogs.”
“Please, please bring my baby home,” Trish said. “And if it’s possible, try to keep our names out of the media.”
“We’ll do our best,” Helen said.
“Here are the keys to the house where Mort is living and the alarm code,”
Trish said. “He didn’t change them in case I needed to get Justine in an emergency. Nancie and I agreed it would be better if you picked her up.”
“The situation is too volatile at this stage in the negotiations,” Nancie said.
“May I go home now?” Trish said. “In case Mort’s there with Justine?”
“Of course,” Nancie said. “You can count on Helen and Phil to handle Justine’s return discreetly.”
“Our divorce has already had too much publicity,” Trish said.
The PI pair waited until the front door closed before they attacked the bagels in the conference room, then carried their plates to the table.
“Is this case for real?” Phil asked, then bit into a garlic bagel slathered with onion cream cheese.
“Very real,” Nancie said. “I know you’d rather have a nice clean murder or civil suit. I don’t usually take divorces, but Trish and her family are good clients.
Pet custody and visitation rights are the hottest area of the law right now.”
“But it’s ridiculous,” Phil said.
“Not to Mort and Trish Barrymore. If you think they’re hard to take, you won’t believe the Laniers of Tennessee,” she said. “When they split, the wife said she deserved custody of the dog because she kept it away from ill-bred bitches – her words – and made sure the dog went to a weekly ladies’ Bible class.”
“Was it a lady dog?” Phil asked.
“I have no idea,” Nancie said, sharply. “Mrs. Lanier wouldn’t let anyone drink around the dog. Mister Lanier said he deserved custody because he taught the dog how to ride on the back of his motorcycle and never drank beer around him. The court gave the couple joint custody. Each spouse got the dog six months at a time.”
“I would have bought the dog a beer and given him to someone who wasn’t so crazy,” Phil said.
Helen saw a frown crease Nancie’s forehead. She was running out of patience. “Let’s go pick up Justine,” Helen said. “What’s Mort’s address?”
“Forty-two Peerless Point,” Nancie said. “Mort and his cat are rattling around in eight thousand square feet of prime waterfront real estate. Call me as soon as you get Justine.”
Helen and Phil made the trip in twenty minutes, slowed by morning rush hour traffic. Peerless Point was an enclave of historic waterfront homes. Mort’s estate was hidden behind a ten-foot white stucco fence. Phil punched in the code and the ornate wrought-iron gates swung open.
“Wow,” Helen said. “This looks like a silent screen star’s house.” The two stucco wings were perfectly balanced by a series of arches: arched windows, an arched portico draped with red bougainvillea, and a white arched door.
The pale rose brick drive wound through a sculpture garden. They drove past time-weathered marble statues of gods and angels.
“Mort’s at home,” Phil said. “At least his red Ferrari is. It’s parked under the arches.”
Helen parked behind it and they walked carefully to the front door.
Phil had the door keys out, but Helen tried the massive wrought-iron handle.
“It’s open,” she said. “What’s the dark red puddle on the door step? Paint?”
Phil kneeled down for a closer look, but the coppery smell and clouds of flies gave them their answer. He peered inside.
“It’s Mort,” he said. “He’s dead.”