Episode 42: A Reproachful Chat with a Cat | Scryer's Gulch
John and Annabelle reached the Hopewell Hotel's front door, both aware they might be overheard now that they stood somewhat out of the bustle of the road. "I think we should leave the topic of...our man until a more private moment," said John.
"I completely agree," said Annabelle. "Well, then, Mr Runnels. Until tomorrow, dinner? Good night." She shook his hand. He kept it in his just a hair longer than necessary, their eyes met just a hair longer than was proper, and they parted just a hair before more might be revealed one to the other.
At the foot of the stairs, Ralph Johnson stood in the doorway to the dining room lazily polishing a copper pot and keeping an eye on the front desk; where Julian Hopewell might be was anyone's guess. "Evening, Miss Duniway!" he said. "Tomorrow dinner's chicken and dumplings. I jest mention it on account of I know how much you like it. And dried peach pie! Got the peaches on to stew right now, back of the stovetop."
"Oh, Ralph, I'll be eating dinner at the Runnels's tomorrow. I will eat a little something before church, but not a full breakfast--I'm told Mrs Smith sets a groaning board," she smiled.
"Yeah, Mrs Smith is some cook," said Ralph, his face falling.
Annabelle chose a candlestick from the ranks set out at the bottom of the stairs. "I do love your pie, though. May I request you save me a piece for a late supper tomorrow night?"
"Waal, sure!" said Ralph, brightening. "Say, how was yer dinner over to the Bonham place?"
"It was quite the grand occasion. Sheriff Runnels particularly liked the duchess soup."
"Duchess soup," said Ralph, impressed. "I think I gotta a receipt fer that. Goodnight, now," he added as she lit her candle from the tinder box on the table.
She said a friendly goodnight and climbed the stairs to her apartment. The little parlor stove had been stoked. The tiny cracks of light emanating from it were the only illumination. Annabelle lit the lamp on the workstand from her candle and blew the candle out.
"So," said Misi, stretching on the hearth rug before the stove, "how was it, kiddo?"
"Hello, kitty! I'd've brought you back the scraps, but I didn't want to stain my best reticule." Annabelle untied her bonnet and put it on the tea table by the window, drawing the curtains closed while she was at it. She sank down in the rocking chair beside the workstand.
Misi jumped into her lap and butted her forehead with his own. "That's okay. Chen saved me a piece of raw pig liver. Boy, was that good."
"How's every little thing with Mamzelle?"
"She was busy tonight, thank the Dark One. I don't like the way she's acting."
"Do you think our number's up?" said Annabelle, scratching his ears.
"Mmmm...I don't think so, but watchful's the watchword. So! Tell me all the news. How grandly did the Bonhams do it up? How'd the Sheriff clean up? Did Bonham Senior and Junior get into a fistfight over the missus? Do tell!"
Annabelle skipped over how well the Sheriff had "cleaned up"--very well indeed--and recounted the party in all its absurdity. "No fistfights, I'm happy to report."
"I'm not happy. Those two could do with a fistfight. It'd be damn entertaining."
"If it's a fistfight you want, step outside," she said, jerking her head toward the window; the usual nighttime chorus of shouts, vendors, catcalls and screams was well under way.
"Only if I get to fight."
"Which you don't."
"Hmf." The black cat settled himself into a furry lump on her lap. "Any of that disgustingly foul-tasting hermetauxite lying around at the Bonham place?"
She told him about Tony Bonham's watch. "All the tainted ore so far seems to trace back to Simon Prake."
"Yeah, but who knows how he came by it?"
"True. I'm contacting Chief Howman about how he wants me to proceed. In the meantime, young Mr Prake bears close watching. I want you to keep an eye on him as much as possible."
"You mean, stop hanging around the Palace? Yes, ma'am, with pleasure! Er, what am I watching for?"
"For any signs he's being controlled by this stuff--oh, Anthony Bonham, too, what with that watch battery in his pocket."
"What kind of signs? I mean, frothing at the mouth? Running down the street naked? What?" Annabelle stopped stroking his back and lightly smacked him on the head. "Ow."
"We have to learn their usual routines and behavior. We've already got a fair understanding of Simon's, so I want you to concentrate on him. I'll be working on Anthony Bonham."
"Do tell!" said Misi. "He's interested in you, you know."
"He thinks he's subtle but the Bonham men do subtle like a freight train does subtle. They're both after me. I don't know what makes them think I'm available."
"You're a woman, that's what. Town like this, that's all it takes. I'm surprised Simon Prake's not on the doorstep along with 'em."
Annabelle sighed. "John Runnels is."
"Rreeaally," drawled the demon cat. "And he's the one I'm worried about."
"Why's that?" Misi swiveled his head around to stare her in the eye; if a cat had eyebrows, his would have been lifted high. "Oh, all right. I confess."
"Put him back, Annie. We're not sticking around, you know."
"I know." But I can't just "put him back." Or won't. She paused, toying with the soft fur heavily ruffing his neck like a black lion's mane. "I, uh, I'm going over to the Runnels place for dinner tomorrow after church. Well, he invited me!" she added at his reproachful gaze.
"You could have said no!"
"It seemed so impolite," she said. "Besides, if the Bonhams think Runnels and I are sweet on each other, maybe it'll draw off some of their steam."
"Oh, that's a miscalculation. Those two thrive on competition."
"Maybe you're right. I don't know," she muttered.
"Your head is somewhere near the moon, missy!" chided the cat. "Get yourself right!"
Annabelle ignored him. "Anyway, I'm to give Lily Bonham piano lessons at the Hotel LeFay. I can keep an eye on her brother that way."
"Isn't that convenient."
"Sure it is. And it'll be good to play! It's been months and months."
She said no more, rocking in the chair with the cat in her lap, both of them drowsing. She tried to turn her thoughts toward the case, but instead kept coming back to John as he asked her to dinner. His brown eyes, so soft and vulnerable it had almost hurt to look at him. How could she have said no to those eyes?