The body was smack in the middle of my freshly scrubbed kitchen
floor. Fred the Funky Chicken, minus his head.
“Owen!” I said, sharply.
“Owen, you little fur ball, I know you did this. Where
There was a muffled “meow” from the back door.
I leaned around the cupboards. Owen was sprawled on his back
in front of the screen door, a neon yellow feather sticking
out of his mouth. He rolled over onto his side and looked
at me with the same goofy expression I used to get from stoned
students coming into the BU library.
I crouched down next to the gray-and-white tabby. “Owen,
you killed Fred,” I said. “That’s the third
chicken this week.”
The cat sat up slowly and stretched. He padded over to me
and put one paw on my knee. Tipping his head to one side he
looked up at me with his golden eyes. I sat back against the
end of the cupboard. Owen climbed onto my lap and put his
two front paws on my chest. The feather was still sticking
out of his mouth.
I held out my right hand. “Give me Fred’s head,”
I said. The cat looked at me unblinkingly. “C’mon,
Owen. Spit it out.”
He turned his head sideways and dropped what was left of
Fred the Funky Chicken’s head into my hand. It was a
soggy lump of cotton with that lone yellow feather stuck on
“You have a problem, Owen,” I told the cat. “You
have a monkey on your back.” I dropped what was left
of the toy’s head onto the floor and wiped my hand on
my gray yoga pants. “Or maybe I should say you have
a chicken on your back.”
The cat nuzzled my chin, then laid his head against my T-shirt,
closed his eyes and started to purr.
I stroked the top of his head. “That’s what they
all say,” I told him. “You’re addicted,
you little fur ball, and Rebecca is your dealer.”
Owen just kept on purring and ignored me. Hercules came around
the corner then. “Your brother is a catnip junkie,”
I said to the little tuxedo cat.
Hercules climbed over my legs and sniffed the remains of
Fred the Funky Chicken’s head. Then he looked at Owen,
rumbling like a diesel engine as I scratched the side of his
head. I swear there was disdain on Hercules’ furry face.
Stick catnip in, on or near anything and Owen squirmed with
joy. Hercules, on the other hand, was indifferent.
The stocky black-and-white cat climbed onto my lap, too.
He put one white paw on my shoulder and swatted at my hair.
“Behind the ear?” I asked.
“Meow,” the cat said.
I took that as a yes, and tucked the strands back behind
my ear. I was used to long hair, but I’d cut mine several
months ago. I was still adjusting to the change in style.
At least I hadn’t given in to the impulse to dye my
dark brown hair blond.
“Maybe I’ll ask Rebecca if she has any ideas
for my hair,” I said. “She’s supposed to
be back tonight.” At the sound of Rebecca’s name
Owen lifted his head. He’d taken to Rebecca from the
first moment he’d seen her, about two weeks after I’d
brought the cats home.
Both Owen and Hercules had been feral kittens. I’d
found them, or more truthfully they’d found me, about
a month after I’d arrived in town. I had no idea how
old they were. They were affectionate with me, but wouldn’t
allow anyone else to come near them, let alone touch them.
That hadn’t stopped Rebecca, my backyard neighbor, from
trying. She’d been buying both cats little catnip toys
for weeks now, but all she’d done was turn Owen into
a chicken-decapitating catnip junkie. She was on vacation
right now, but Owen had clearly managed to unearth Fred’s
head from a secret stash somewhere.
stroked the top of his head again. “Go back to sleep,”
I said. “You’re going cold turkey . . . or maybe
I should say cold chicken. I’m telling Rebecca no more
catnip toys for you. You’re getting lazy.”
Owen put his head down again, while Hercules used his to
butt my free hand. “You want some attention, too?”
I asked. I scratched the spot, almost at the top of his head,
where the white fur around his mouth and up the bridge of
his nose gave way to black. His green eyes narrowed to slits
and he began to purr, as well. The rumbling was kind of like
being in the service bay of a Volkswagen dealership.
I glanced up at the clock. “Okay, you two. Let me up.
It’s almost time for me to go and I have to take care
of the dearly departed before I do.”
I’d sold my car when I’d moved to Minnesota from
Boston, and because I could walk everywhere in Mayville Heights,
I still hadn’t bought a new one. Since I had no car,
I’d spent my first few weeks in town wandering around
exploring, which is how I’d stumbled on Wisteria Hill,
the abandoned Henderson estate. Everett Henderson had hired
me at the library.
Owen and Hercules had peered out at me from a tumble of raspberry
canes and then followed me around while I explored the overgrown
English country garden behind the house. I’d seen several
other full-grown cats, but they’d all disappeared as
soon as I got anywhere close to them. When I left, Owen and
Hercules followed me down the rutted gravel driveway. Twice
I’d picked them up and carried them back to the empty
house, but that didn’t deter them. I looked everywhere,
but I couldn’t find their mother. They were so small
and so determined to come with me that in the end I’d
brought them home.
There were whispers around town about Wisteria Hill and the
feral cats. But that didn’t mean there was anything
unusual about my cats. Oh no, nothing unusual at all. It didn’t
matter that I’d heard rumors about strange lights and
ghosts. No one had lived at the estate for quite a while,
but Everett refused to sell it or do anything with the property.
I’d heard that he’d grown up at Wisteria Hill.
Maybe that was why he didn’t want to change anything.
Speaking of not wanting change, Hercules was not eager to
relinquish his prime spot on my lap. But after some gentle
prodding, he shook himself and got off my lap. Owen yawned
a couple of times, stretched and took twice as long to get
I got the broom and dustpan from the porch and swept up the
remains of Fred the Funky Chicken. Owen and Hercules sat in
front of the refrigerator and watched. Owen made a move toward
the dustpan, like he was toying with the idea of grabbing
the body and making a run for it.
I glared at him. “Don’t even think about it.”
He sat back down, making low grumbling meows in his throat.
I flipped open the lid of the garbage can and held the pan
over the top. “Fred was a good chicken,” I said
solemnly. “He was a funky chicken and we’ll miss
“Meow,” Owen yowled.
I flipped what was left of the catnip toy into the garbage.
“Rest in peace, Fred,” I said as the lid closed.
I put the broom away, brushed the cat hair off my shirt and
washed my hands. I looked in the bathroom mirror. Hercules
was right. My hair did look better tucked behind my ear.
My messenger bag with a towel and canvas shoes for tai chi
class was in the front closet. I set it by the door and went
back through the house to make sure the cats had fresh water.
“I’m leaving,” I said. But both cats had
disappeared and I didn’t get any answer.
I stopped to grab my keys and pick up my bag. Locking the
door behind me, I headed out, down Mountain Road.
sun was yellow-orange, low on the sky over Lake Pepin. It
was a warm Minnesota evening, without the sticky humidity
of Boston in late July. I shifted my bag from one shoulder
to the other. I wasn’t going to think about Boston.
Minnesota was home now—at least for the next eighteen
months or so.
The street curved in toward the center of town as I headed
down the hill, and the roof of the library building came into
view below. It sat on the midpoint of a curve of shoreline,
protected from the water by a rock wall. The brick building
had a stained-glass window that dominated one end and a copper-roofed
cupola, complete with its original wrought-iron weather vane.
The Mayville Heights Free Public Library was a Carnegie library,
built in 1912 with money donated by the industrialist and
philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Now it was being restored
and updated to celebrate its centenary. That was why I had
been in town for the last several months. And why I’d
be here for the next year and a half. I was supervising the
restoration—which was almost finished—as well
as updating the collections, computerizing the card catalogue
and setting up free Internet access for the library patrons.
I was slowly learning the reading history of everyone in town.
It made me feel like I knew the people a little, as well.
I paused at the bottom of the hill, looked both ways and
crossed over to the same side of the street as the library.
Old Main Street followed the shore from the Stratton Theater,
past the James Hotel to the marina. Main Street continued
from the marina to the edge of town, where it merged with
the highway. Having two Main streets made getting directions
very confusing if you hadn’t lived in Mayville Heights
The streets that ran from one end of town to the other all
followed the curve of the shoreline. The cross streets mostly
ran straight up and down the hill, all the way to Wild Rose
Bluff. The bluff, I’d discovered, had provided much
of the stone for the foundations of the gorgeous old buildings
in the downtown.
For me the best part of Mayville Heights was the riverfront,
with all the big elm and black walnut trees that lined the
shore, and the trail that wound its way from the old warehouses
at the point, past the downtown shops and businesses, all
the way out beyond the marina. Mayville was still a pretty
busy Mississippi River town, but it was mostly tourists coming
and going now. From the porch of the James Hotel you could
watch the barges and boats go by on the water the way they
had a hundred years ago.
I stopped at the bottom of the library steps. Oren Kenyon
had installed the new railing. The wrought-iron spindles look
like fat licorice twists. The center spindle on each side
seemed to split apart into a perfect oval about the size of
both my hands and then reform into a twist again. The letters
M, H, F, P and L, for Mayville Heights Free Public Library,
were intertwined and seemed suspended in the middle of the
I climbed the stairs, stepped inside and turned to look up
above the entrance. A carved and pieced wooden sun, easily
three feet across, hung above the wide maple trim. Above it
were stenciled the words “Let there be light.”
It was beautiful.
Oren had brought the sun to the library last week. He was
tall and lean, in his midfifties, I guessed, with sun-bleached
sandy hair, like a farm-boy version of Clint Eastwood. He’d
stood silently by the temporary checkout desk for who knows
how long until I’d looked up.
“Could you look at something? If you have time. Please?”
After I’d asked him to call me Kathleen he’d
stopped calling me Miss Paulson, but he hadn’t started
using my first name. I’d followed him out to his ancient
pickup. The sun had been lying in the truck bed, braced in
a frame padded with an old wool blanket and covered with a
tarp. Oren pulled back the canvas and my breath caught in
my chest. I reached out to touch the wood and then stopped,
as I realized the significance of the carving.
I looked at Oren. “For over the entrance?” I
A carving of the sun and the words “Let there be light”
were over the entrance of the first Carnegie library in Scotland.
I knew that, but I was surprised Oren did. Carefully I ran
my finger along one of the sun’s rays. The wood was
smooth and hard.
“Thank you,” I whispered, my voice suddenly husky
with the sting of tears. I wanted to hug Oren, but somehow
I knew that would be wrong.
Looking up above the doorway I felt the prickle of tears
again. Oren was quiet and gentle and wonderfully talented.
Everything the library had needed done that the general contractor
couldn’t do, Oren had done. He’d made the new
railing. He’d hand-turned trim identical to the original.
He’d done the painting, carefully matching the colors
to the original 1912 paint.
He never said very much, and watching him over the past several
months I had the feeling that Oren had been broken somehow.
He made me think of a shattered vase or cup. You carefully
glue the pieces back together, so carefully that none of the
cracks show. It looks beautiful again and it holds tea or
water and roses from the garden, but somehow it’s not
quite the same. Something, somehow, is different.
I heard voices then, coming from the back of the library
where the new digital card catalogue and computers were going
to be located. Voices too loud for the library. Now that the
major work on the building was finished we were open to the
public again, but it was usually quiet in the early evening.
I walked past the new shelving units waiting for books. Susan,
one of my staff members, stood with her back to me, next to
the boxes of computers waiting for the new electrical outlets
to be installed so they could be set up and connected.
“—do understand how frustrating this is,”
I heard her say in her patient-mom voice. Susan had two preschoolers
at home and nothing rattled her.
“My dear, there is no conceivable way that you could
fathom the depth of my frustration,” the man standing
opposite her said. He made a sweeping gesture with both hands.
Since he was well over six feet tall the movement looked very
theatrical, and maybe that’s what he’d intended.
“How am I supposed to work under these insufferable
I came out from the row of bookshelves and moved to stand
next to Susan. There were two pencils poking out of her Pebbles
Flintstone updo. She gave a small sigh and an even smaller
“Susan, is there a problem?” I asked.
“Mr. Easton was hoping to use one of our computers
to send some e-mail,” she said. “His BlackBerry
Easton. Of course. Gregor Easton. The well-known composer
and conductor was the guest artist for the Wild Rose Summer
Music Festival at the Stratton Theater. He’d been in
town practicing for about a week.
“Mr. Easton, I’m sorry,” I said. “As
you can see, our computer system isn’t ready yet.”
“Yes, I can see that,” he said, making another
flamboyant gesture with his arm. “And you would be?”
He looked me over, taking in my plain white T-shirt, cropped
yoga pants and messenger bag. I slipped the bag off my shoulder
and reached up to set it on top of the metal cabinet we were
using to hold most of the old card files. “I’m
Kathleen Paulson,” I said, offering my hand. “I’m
the head librarian.”
I probably didn’t look like I should be in charge.
I’ve always looked younger than my age, and my mother
promised that once I was over thirty I’d be happy about
that. Sometimes I was. This time I would have liked to look
older and a little more imposing—hard to do when you’re
only five-and-a-half feet tall with a half-grown-out pixie
haircut that sticks out in all the wrong places.
Easton had to be in his early seventies, but his grip was
strong and his hand was smooth and uncallused. A lot smoother
“Miss Paulson, I’m sorry to say your library
is in chaos.”
I couldn’t help a glance around. The end wall with
the stained-glass window had been reinforced and the window
itself repaired and cleaned. Most of the new shelves were
filled with books. The walls had been plastered and painted.
The circulation desk was almost finished, and Oren’s
sun seemed to shine over everything. So many people had spent
so many hours on this building. It looked wonderful.
I swallowed to hide my annoyance.
He continued. “According to the guidebook in my hotel
suite the library is supposed to provide Internet service.”
“I apologize for that,” I said. “The guide
arrived early and our computers arrived late.”
“But your computers are here now,” he said. “Why
couldn’t one of them be connected?”
Connected? To what? Did he really expect us to unpack one
of the computers right now and magically get it up and running
so he could check his schedule?
Susan and I exchanged looks. Her mouth was a straight, serious
line, but the eyes behind her glasses were laughing.
Easton gave me a practiced celebrity-greeting-the-little-people
smile. Unpack one of those computers just for him? When
pigs fly, I thought.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a pig that suddenly launched
itself onto the conductor’s head. It was a cat.
My cat. Owen.