The first book in my new Pet Whisperer P.I. series launches very, very soon! This seems like the perfect time to give you a sneak peek. I hope you’ll enjoy your introduction to Angie, Octo-Cat, Bethany, the Fultons, and the rest of the gang. Don’t forget to pre-order!
The first thing you should know about me is that I hate lawyers. The second is that I work for them.
I didn’t plan it that way. Not one bit.
I was going to be a huge star, leave Blueberry Bay behind without so much as a farewell glance over my shoulder as I booked it the heck out of there. The problem with that plan was, well, you need talent in order to be a star—and I never had much of that. At least not that I’ve discovered.
When the temp agency assigned me to work for Fulton, Thompson, and Associates as their new paralegal, I almost said no. But then I saw those dollar signs and remembered how rent is a thing that exists.
And so here I am, doing the needful to get by as I continue down that elusive path toward fame by eliminating every possible talent one at a time. Stands to reason if I keep at it long enough I’ll eventually find my true calling. Who knows? I could be the world’s best hip-hop yodeler…
Except I already tried that and I’m not.
It’s fine, really. I’m enjoying the journey, although I sure do wish the destination would hurry up and get here already.
Hi, I’m Angie Russo, and one day you’re going to see my name in lights.
You see, my nan used to be a celebrated Broadway actress back in the day. That is, until she quit at the peak of her career to retire to Glendale, Maine, and raise her family.
Before you ask, no, I can’t sing, dance, or act, but Nan assures me that I have star power in my blood. Just like she did and just like my mom.
Oh, yeah, you probably know my mom. She’s the news anchor on Channel Seven and my dad does the sports report. Seeing as they’re these huge career types, it was Nan who did most of the work raising me—and that suited me just fine.
In fact, I’d still be living with her even now if she hadn’t given me a gentle push out of the nest and told me it was time to fly.
That was about a year ago and happened just shortly after I collected my seventh consecutive associate degree from Blueberry Bay Community College. Yes, indeed, I’ve always loved learning anything I could wrap my brain around.
At least God did me a solid by making me smart, even if he made my unique talents hard to find. One of my degrees is, in fact, for paralegal studies and law administration services, which may seem like a strange thing to study for someone who hates lawyers as much as I do.
But that’s a story for another time…
This is the story of how I almost died, and it’s a good one.
* * *
I began my day by sniff-testing two blazers with the goal of choosing whichever was cleanest for a will reading at the office that day. Both smelled vaguely of sweat and gym shoes, meaning either would earn me a stern lecture from the partners. Then again, maybe that’s precisely what I deserved for putting off that trip to the dry cleaner’s for so long.
After spraying a cough-inducing fog of deodorizer into my closet, I plucked the neon pink jacket off its hanger and pushed my arms into the sleeves. A black and white polka dot blouse and stretchy leggings completed the outfit perfectly. Because I didn’t have time to wash my hair that morning, I pulled my poofy shoulder-length hair into a messy bun and accented the do with a cute barrette I picked up earlier in the week from my favorite dollar store.
And before you can ask…
No, I didn’t have time for dry cleaning.
And, yes, I always had time for the dollar store.
On that particular morning, I didn’t have time for either one, though. In fact, I’d spent so much time agonizing over which blazer to wear that I’d pretty much run out of time altogether. I’m already not a morning person, but when you add in a manic rush to get to a job I don’t even like…
Well, I could already tell just how bad this day would end up.
I raced out the door—unshowered, unfed, and uncaffeinated—hoping that I’d at least have some luck and catch all green lights on my commute that day. Instead, the longest train in the world cut me off not even two blocks from my house. The train tracks run along the only major street to serve our small coastal town, and there’s absolutely no way for me to reach the firm via backroads, which meant I found myself stuck waiting in a line of angry, honking cars for a solid fifteen minutes.
By the time I actually reached the office, I was the last one through the door and we had less than ten minutes until the will reading commenced. My hope to sneak in undetected proved unfounded as well.
“Russo!” Mr. Thompson bellowed before the door even closed all the way behind me. If you pictured an old, white guy wearing boat shoes and an ascot, you’d have a pretty good idea of how Mr. Thompson looked and an even better idea of how he acted. He was a fantastic lawyer, but not a very personable boss.
A thick, meaty vein pulsed at the side of his head, and for some reason I couldn’t stop staring at it. He pointed at me with a shaking finger and a scowl. “Late and dressed like you’re attending an 80’s themed party instead of a will reading. Nope. That’s not going to fly today. Go see if Peters has a jacket you can borrow.”
It took the strength of a thousand body builders not to roll my eyes as I slumped off to find the only female associate in the whole place.
We often got grouped together by nature of our shared gender, but Bethany Peters and I were nothing alike. She was blonde and pretty and looked like she should be sweet as pie, too—except she was actually the biggest shark of them all. I guess you have to be in order to get taken seriously in a man’s world.
But what did I know?
I was just a glorified secretary who didn’t even want to be there.
Bethany turned her nose up at me the second I entered her office, and I pinched my fingers over mine. See, Bethany had an obsession with essential oils and even sold them in these tacky online parties that she invited us all to about once per month. Even at that point I’d only worked at the firm for a few months but had already ordered more lavender bath salts than I could ever possibly need.
On the day of the will reading, Bethany’s office reeked of juniper and lemon—definitely not one of her better combinations. Still, whatever blend of restorative girl power mojo she was trying to concoct, I sincerely hoped it would work for her.
“Let me guess,” she said in that nasally, condescending tone that she always used whenever talking to me or one of the other employees without a law degree. “Fulton sent you in to borrow a jacket from me.”
A smile crept across my face. “Thompson, actually.” Call me a contrarian, but I loved getting the chance to prove her wrong, especially when a day started off as bad as this one had. It was a small and beautiful gift.
“Can’t you pick up some more appropriate work clothes for yourself so you’re not always stuck borrowing mine last minute?” She sighed before lumbering over to the other side of her office with loose arms and large, exaggerated strides. She looked like a preppy blonde gorilla, but I decided to keep that particular comparison to myself.
“Thompson… Fulton… They’re both kind of freaking out today,” Bethany confided in me. “Apparently the old lady that died is related to Fulton.”
“How do you know?” My eyes grew wide. So this was why everyone was making such an unusually large fuss that morning.
“Well for starters, her last name is Fulton, too.” She tapped on her temple to draw my attention to her superior brain power.
I tapped on my head and shot her an ugly grimace in response. Now we were both office gorillas, and what an exhibit the pair of us made.
Bethany chuckled as she handed me the most boring navy-blue blazer God ever put on this green earth. “Try to keep it together for the reading, huh?”
I nodded while switching jackets. The blazer pinched at my armpits, but I knew better than to complain. “Thanks,” I muttered, narrowly escaping Bethany’s office before she could once again remind me that Good Will or the Salvation Army were a nice place to find clothes within my budget.
“I’d lose the barrette!” she shouted after me.
Aargh, so close.
But since Bethany tended to be like a dog with a bone once she has an idea, I pulled my cute little accessory out, taking a few caught hairs with it. The bun came out next, and I quickly finger combed my hair to make it semi-presentable. Hopefully that would be enough to make everyone happy.
“Angie, is that you?” Mr. Fulton, the senior most partner called from inside the conference room. For whatever reason, Thompson always uses our last names, and Fulton sticks to our firsts. Maybe that was their way of playing good lawyer, bad lawyer, or maybe they just liked to keep us on our toes.
I put on my best smile. After all, the guy did just lose a family member. “Good morning, sir. Can I help you with something?”
His eyes lingered on my face briefly before he cleared his throat and pointed to the dusty old coffeemaker in the corner of the room. “We’re going to need lots of coffee, and since you’re a bit late this morning, I’m afraid there’s no time to make a run to the barista. You’ll have to use our backup maker. As strong as you can make it, please.”
“I’m on it!” We didn’t use the in-house coffeemaker very often and really only kept it around for code red caffeine emergencies. The fact we needed it now was definitely not a good sign.
In fact, I’d never actually used that old thing at all. The one time I’d almost had the chance, an intern burst into the office carrying a tray of Starbucks and let me off the hook. This ancient thing shouldn’t be too hard to figure out, though. After all, I had seven associate degrees.
Mr. Thompson, Bethany, and a few of the other associates entered while I was fiddling with the roast basket, which for some reason refused to line up with the necessary grooves in the machine. Normally we’d only have one or two attorneys present at a reading, but they seemed to be pulling out all the stops for this one.
Was it just because the person who died was related to one of our partners? Or was something more going on here? My curiosity had definitely been piqued by this point.
Working in my corner, I caught a few snippets of the discussion happening around the conference room table. Our day-to-day conversations at the firm were normally pretty dry, but things sounded refreshingly juicy today.
“Admittedly, it is a somewhat unusual situation,” Thompson said first.
Later, Fulton said, “Given the stipulations, I’m expecting one of the grantees to contest.”
An associate named Brad set up a tape recorder—yes, another ancient relic living in our office—and Bethany shuffled a bunch of papers around.
When the coffeemaker’s basket snapped into place, I let out a triumphant yip, drawing aggravated stares from my colleagues. “I’ll just be right back,” I promised as I rushed past the growing crowd with the empty coffee pot.
A beautiful, blonde woman wearing a matching cardigan set and a string of pink pearls stopped me before I could make it to the kitchen tap.
“Angie, I’m so glad I ran into you!” Diane Fulton—Mr. Fulton’s wife—shook her head and knitted her over-plucked brow. “Did you catch last night’s episode?”
Even though Diane dresses like a blue-blood snob, she was actually the coolest person in the entire place. She and I had a whole list of reality shows we liked to watch together and discuss whenever she came by the office to visit her husband for lunch.
Her eyes widened as she waited for my response. I may have been late to work, but I would never be late when it came to our shows.
“I couldn’t believe Trace got eliminated,” I answered with a tragic sigh as I turned on the faucet and let water fill the coffeepot. “Hopefully he’ll still get a record deal out of the whole thing.”
“Let’s catch up later,” she told me with a slight frown. “I have to…” She pointed to the conference room and knitted her brow again.
And I felt just awful for her. “I heard. My condolences. You, uh, weren’t close, were you?”
She stared at me for a moment as if she hadn’t heard the question. Her dangling earrings were so long, they hit her cheeks as she shook her head. “Ethel was Richard’s great aunt. She was very old and had been sick for a long time. I think we were all expecting her to go sooner rather than later.”
“Still, that sucks,” I offered.
Diane gave me a polite smile then excused herself.
Seriously? The best I could come up with was that sucks? Good thing none of my degrees were in counseling. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to go back to school. After all, school had always been my happy place. That was part of how I’d ended up with so many degrees to begin with.
I returned with a full carafe of water and a bag of coffee grounds that had expired some time last year but thankfully still smelled fresh. During my very brief absence, the meeting room had filled with even more folks. The Fultons must have been one big family. Either that, or Great Aunt Ethel had been one wealthy–and presumably generous—woman.
Mr. Fulton looked to me with one eyebrow raised in question.
“Almost ready,” I assured him as I rushed past the room of people to my quiet, little coffeemaker corner.
Quick as I could, I filled up the tank with my freshly gotten water, scooped some grounds into the filter, and pressed the big red button to initiate the brewing process.
So I pushed it again… and again… and another thirteen times to no effect.
“Plugging it in would help,” Bethany shouted loud enough for everyone to hear and causing them all to laugh at me and my well-meaning incompetence.
Ugh, talk about wicked embarrassing!
I groped around the back of the machine until I found the cord. Everyone was still laughing when I pushed the plug into the closet socket…
First I felt a gentle prick on my fingertips, then my entire body lit with pain. For about two milliseconds, I became hyper-conscious of my surroundings—every smell, sound, feeling, even what the air in that room tasted like just then. The individual laughs transformed into a collective gasp that tore through the room.
Then with a sharp zzzzztt it all fell away.
And I fell unconscious to the floor.
I woke up on the conference room floor. Funny, I couldn’t remember passing out, yet there I was.
My heart womped a million miles an hour, but most of my body had become fuzzy and tingly. I tried to move my arms, but they seemed content to lay splayed out at my sides. One by one, my senses started to come back online.
Mrs. Fulton’s shriek was the first thing I heard, then others in the room began to murmur amongst themselves. Some voices I recognized, but others were completely unfamiliar.
Bethany said, “It’s probably time we threw that old thing out.”
Mr. Fulton ignored her as he rushed toward me. “Angie… Angie…” His panicked voice grew closer until he’d arrived right at my side. “Are you okay?”
Meanwhile, Mr. Thompson mumbled something about liabilities and workman’s compensation—exactly as anyone who knew him would expect him to do in such a situation.
I was still trying to remember what had happened when an unexpected weight pressed down onto my chest and made it quite difficult for me to breathe. The overpowering smell of tuna filled my nostrils, and the sudden intensity of it brought on a coughing fit.
A voice I’d never heard before hovered over me. “Well, how about that? This one had more than one life, after all. People, pssh. So fragile.”
“Oh, she’s breathing!” Diane shouted.
“Of course she’s breathing, honey,” her husband responded with a note of relief in his previously panicked voice. “She’s also coughing.”
“And here I thought the car trip wouldn’t be worth it,” that same unfamiliar voice chimed in, pairing the words with an unkind chuckle. “That was, paws down, the best entertainment I’ve had all week.”
Finally, my eyes flew open, and I found a gleaming amber gaze watching me from just a few inches away. Wait… Why was there a cat in the office, and why was it on me? I struggled to sit up, but my limbs were still too heavy to lift on my own.
“Oh, honey,” that voice drawled again. “If you expect to keep walking, then you probably should have landed on your feet.”
I let out a loud groan. I could feel the activity humming all around me, but the only thing I saw was the danged cat who was definitely intruding in my personal space right about then.
“What happened?” I asked before coughing again.
“I think the coffeemaker electrocuted you when you tried to plug it in,” Diane revealed. Her shaky voice made it obvious she’d been crying. I felt so bad that my clumsiness put her through that.
“Oh, jeez. This one’s even stupider than the first. I’m really looking forward to living with her while the rest of the family figures out where to dump me. Such a pity. They don’t know greatness when it’s staring them in the face.”
I moaned and attempted to lift my head to get a better look around the room. “Who is that?” I demanded.
“It’s me, Angie,” Mrs. Fulton said, squeezing one of my hands in earnest. “You asked what happened, and I told you about the coffeemaker.”
“No, the guy who just called both of us stupid.” I wished I could sit up to see past this annoying cat, but he was the only thing that filled my vision in that moment. Of course, I had lots of questions about the coffeemaker and how such a tiny old appliance had managed to zap me unconscious, but the need to identify the unknown speaker weighed on me much more heavily.
A cruel snicker sounded nearby. “I called you stupid, because you are stupid. Honesty is the best policy, the truth will set you free, yada yada, and all that other nonsense you humans like to say.”
If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have sworn that strange, lilting voice was coming from the cat. Man, how hard had I hit my head when I fell?
The cat leaned in so close that his whiskers tickled my face. His unnervingly large eyes moved frantically from side to side as if stalking some kind of prey. Oh, how I hoped I wasn’t that prey. I’d barely escaped the coffeemaker. If something sentient set out to hurt me today, I wouldn’t even stand a chance.
“Did you… Did you really hear what I said?” the voice asked again, and again it really sounded like it was coming from the cat. Did he eat a tiny human or something? None of this made any sense.
“Yes, I hear you, and I think you’re rather mean,” I answered with a huff, giving the best attitude I could, considering my prone position.
“Angie, who are you talking to?” Diane asked with words that sounded unsure and just as worried as I felt myself.
“I’m not sure who it is, but he keeps insulting me.” I closed my eyes tight, then slowly opened them again.
The cat seemed to smile, but not in a friendly way. Once again, I wondered if he considered me easy prey. Heck, I considered me easy prey, too.
“No one’s insulting you,” Mr. Fulton insisted. “We all just want to make sure you’re okay.”
The cat smiled again, bigger this time. “Ooh, ooh, me! I’m insulting you, you big, stupid bag of skin.”
“He just called me a big, stupid flesh bag. Can you really not hear him?” I blinked half a dozen times, then pinched myself. Nothing seemed to change.
“Russo, I think maybe you should take the rest of the day off and a trip to the emergency room,” Mr. Thompson commanded after clearing his throat loudly from somewhere near the door.
“Wow, you really can hear me,” the voice said again. “By the way, hi, I’m Octavius Maxwell Ricardo Edmund Frederick Fulton, and I have some demands.”
I was having a difficult time keeping track of all the threads of conversation. I knew the partners were worried about me and about themselves, but I still couldn’t identify the mystery speaker or figure out what he wanted. “Octavius Maxwell… who?”
“Honey, are you talking about the cat?” Mrs. Fulton asked, picking the tabby off from my chest.
My straining lungs thanked her, and immediately I felt stronger.
In a cutesy baby voice, Diane held the cat up to her face and cooed, “Are you trying to help our Angie feel better? You’re such a sweet fuzzy wuzzy.”
The cat turned to me and narrowed his eyes into slits. “Heeeeelp meeeee.”
Energized at last by my need to find out what the heck was going on, I managed to sit up and look around the room.
“Oh, good. Now that you can move again, Peters will take you to the hospital,” Thompson decreed.
Bethany sighed but didn’t argue the point.
“Wait!” The tabby cat trotted up to me the second Diane set him back on the floor. “What about my demands?”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. There was absolutely no way…
The cat flicked his tail and emitted a low growl from deep in his throat. “I know you can hear me, so how about doing the polite thing and keeping up your end of the conversation, huh?”
“What do you want?” I whispered, but still everyone in the office could see and hear the crazy lady talking to the cat she’d just met.
“My owner was murdered, and I need you to help me prove it. Also of equal importance, I haven’t been fed in hours. Maybe years.” His ears fell back against his head and his eyes widened, making me feel inexplicably fond of him despite his bad attitude.
Then the first part of what he said hit me, and I gasped. “Murdered?”
Bethany tittered nervously and grabbed me by the arm. “Okay, let’s get you to the hospital. Hallucinations are not a good sign.”
“But…” I began to argue. That argument fell away when I realized I had no sane or valid reason to resist.
“Murdered!” the cat shouted after me dramatically. “She was offed before her time, and now that I know you can hear me, you’re going to help me get her the justice she deserves. It’s the least I can do to thank her for all the years she spent feeding me and arranging my pillows just as I like them. Also, did you hear the part about me needing to be fed?”
Bethany and I had almost made it to the doorway. That meant it was my last chance to talk to the cat. For all I knew, we would never see each other again. Of course, I knew it was totally crazy to assume there was even a chance any of this being real, but still, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the talking tabby needed my help.
“I want to help!” I bellowed back into the room just before the door closed behind us.
“No, you need help,” Bethany growled, sounding even more like an animal than the cat had. “Thanks a lot, by the way. This was the first time they’ve included me in something this important to the firm. Now, thanks to your little act with the coffeemaker, I’m going to miss it.”
That hurt almost as bad as the zap from the coffeemaker. “You honestly don’t think I electrocuted myself just to sabotage you, do you?”
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “No, I’m sorry. I know it’s not your fault. I just have to work twice as hard to get ahead since I’m the only female associate, and everyone wants to put me on the baby track instead of the partner track.”
“Yeah, well… at least you’re not just some glorified secretary.” I honestly couldn’t believe Bethany was complaining about her problems when I’d just had a near-death experience a few minutes earlier…
Or maybe I could. It was Bethany, after all.
She settled me into the passenger seat of her car. It was a newer model Lexus, which told me she probably didn’t have things quite as bad as she thought. Still, I felt guilty for costing her what she considered to be her big shot, so I said, “For what it’s worth, you’re the smartest one of them all.”
She laughed as she buckled her seatbelt and adjusted the rear-view mirror. “Even more than Thompson and Fulton?”
I nodded, and the movement made me dizzy. “Especially more than Thompson and Fulton.”
We shared a brief glance of camaraderie before she backed out of her spot and navigated onto the main road. Hopefully there would be no more trains passing through today, because despite our brief bond of sisterhood, I wasn’t sure how long either of us could handle being trapped in a car together.
“Thanks for taking me, even though I know you didn’t want to. You don’t have to wait around. Just drop me off and I’ll call my nan to come get me when I’m done.”
“Already planned on it. If I hurry, I can still make part of the reading.” She tapped at her temple to once again show her superior thinking.
And just like that, we were back to normal.
As for me? I wasn’t so sure.