I plugged in Jane's television and listened to the news with one ear while I went through Jane's papers. Apparently all the papers to do with the car had already been handed over to Parnell Engle, for there were no old inspection receipts or anything like that. It would have helped if Jane had kept all these papers in some kind of category, I told myself grumpily, trying not to think of my own jumble of papers in shoe boxes in my closet. I'd started with the earliest box, dated seven years ago. Jane had kept receipts that surely could be thrown away now; dresses she'd bought, visits by the bug-spray man, the purchase of a telephone. I began sorting as I looked, the pile of definite discards getting higher and higher. There's a certain pleasure in throwing things away. I was concentrating contentedly, so it took me awhile to realize I was hearing some kind of sound from outside. Someone seemed to be doing something to the screen door in the kitchen. I sat hunched on the living room floor, listening with every molecule. I reached over and switched off the television. Gradually I relaxed. Whatever was being done, it wasn't being done surreptitiously. Whatever the sound was, it escalated.


I stiffened my spine and went to investigate. I opened the wooden door cautiously, just as the noise repeated. Hanging spread-eagled on the screen door was a very large, very fat orange cat. This seemed to explain the funny snags I'd noticed on the screen when I went in the backyard earlier. "Madeleine?" I said in amazement.

The cat gave a dismal yowl and dropped from the screen to the top step.

Unthinkingly, I opened the door, and Madeleine was in in a flash.

"You wouldn't think a cat so fat could move so fast," I said. Madeleine was busy stalking through her house, sniffing and rubbing her side against the door frames.

To say I was in a snit would be putting it mildly. This cat was now Parnell and Leah's. Jane knew I was not partial to pets, not at all. My mother had never let me have one, and gradually her convictions about pet hygiene and inconvenience had influenced me. Now I would have to call Parnell, talk with him again, either take the cat to him or get him to come get the cat... she would probably scratch me if I tried to put her in my car... another complication in my life. I sank into one of the kitchen chairs and rested my head on my hands dismally. Madeleine completed her house tour and came and sat in front of me, her front paws neatly covered by her plumy tail. She looked up at me expectantly. Her eyes were round and gold and had a kind of stare that reminded me of Arthur Smith's. That stare said, "I am the toughest and the baddest, don't mess with me." I found myself giving a halfhearted chuckle at Madeleine's machisma. Suddenly she crouched, and in one fluid movement shifted her bulk from the floor to the table -  where Jane ate! I thought, horrified.

She could stare at me more effectively there. Growing impatient at my stupidity, Madeleine butted her golden head against my hand. I patted her uncertainly. She still seemed to be waiting for something. I tried to picture Jane with the cat, and I seemed to recall she'd scratched the animal behind the ears. I tried that. A deep rumble percolated somewhere in Madeleine's insides. The cat's eyes half-closed with pleasure. Encouraged by this response, I kept scratching her gently behind the ears, then switched to the area under her chin. This, too, was popular.

I grew tired of this after a while and stopped. Madeleine stretched, yawned, and jumped heavily down from the table. She walked over to one of the cabinets, and sat in front of it, casting a significant look over her shoulder at me. Fool that I am, it took me a few minutes to get the message. Madeleine gave a soprano yowl. I opened the bottom cabinet, and saw only the pots and pans I'd reloaded the day before. Madeleine kept her stare steady. She seemed to feel I was a slow learner. I looked in the cabinets above the counter and found some canned cat food. I looked down at Madeleine and said brightly, "This what you wanted?" She yowled again and began to pace back and forth, her eyes never leaving the black and green can. I hunted down the electric can opener, plugged it in, and used it. With a flourish, I set the can down on the floor. After a moment's dubious pause - she clearly wasn't used to eating from a can - Madeleine dived in. After a little more searching, I filled a plastic bowl with water and put it down by the can. This, too, met with the cat's approval.

I went to the phone to call Parnell, my feet dragging reluctantly. But of course I hadn't had the phone hooked up. I reminded myself again I'd have to do something about that, and looked at the cat, now grooming herself with great concentration. "What am I going to do with you?" I muttered. I decided I'd leave her here for the night and call Parnell from my place. He could come get her in the morning. Somehow I hated to put her outside; she was an inside cat for the most part, I seemed to remember Jane telling me... though frankly I'd often tuned out when Jane chatted about the cat. Pet owners could be such bores. Madeleine would need a litter box; Jane had had one tucked away beside the refrigerator. It wasn't there now. Maybe it had been taken to the vet's where Madeleine had been boarded during Jane's illness. It was probably sitting uselessly at the Engles' house now.

I poked around in the trash left in Jane's room from my cleaning out the closet. Sure enough, there was a box of the appropriate size and shape. I put it in the corner by the refrigerator in the kitchen, and as Madeleine watched with keen attention I opened cabinets until I found a half-full bag of cat litter. I felt rather proud of myself at handling the little problem the cat presented so quickly; though, when I considered, it seemed Madeleine had done all the handling. She had gotten back to her old home, gained entrance, been fed and watered, and had a toilet provided her, and now she jumped up on Jane's armchair in the living room, curled into a striped orange ball, and went to sleep. I watched her for a moment enviously, then I sighed and began sorting papers again.

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In the fourth box I found what I wanted. The carpet had been installed three years ago. So the skull had become a skull sometime before that. Suddenly I realized what should have been obvious. Of course Jane had not killed someone and put his head in the window seat fresh, so to speak. The skull had already been a skull, not a head, before Jane had sealed it up. I was willing to concede that Jane obviously had a side unknown to me, or to anyone, though whoever had searched the house must at least suspect it. But I could not believe that Jane would live in a house with a decomposing head in the window seat. Jane had not been a monster.

What had Jane been? I pulled up my knees and wrapped my arms around them. Behind me, Madeleine, who had observed Jane longer than anyone, yawned and rearranged herself.

Jane had been a woman in her late seventies with silver hair almost always done up in a regal chignon. She had never worn slacks, always dresses. She had had a lively mind - an intelligent mind -  and good manners. She had been interested in true crime, at a safe distance; her favorite cases were all Victorian or earlier. She had had a mother who was wealthy and who had held a prominent, place in Lawrenceton society, and Jane had behaved as though she herself had neither. She had inherited from somewhere, though, a strong sense of property. But as far as the liberation of women went -  well, Jane and I had had some discussions on that. Jane was a traditionalist, and though as a working woman she had believed in equal pay for equal work, some of the other tenets of the women's movement were lost on her. "Women don't have to confront men, honey," she'd told me one time.

"Women can always think their way around them." Jane had not been a forgiving person, either; if she got really angry and did not receive an adequate apology, she held a grudge a good long while. She was not even aware of grudge holding, I'd observed; if she had been, she would have fought it, like she'd fought other traits in herself she didn't think were Christian. What else had Jane been? Conventionally moral, dependable, and she'd had an unexpectedly sly sense of humor.

In fact, wherever Jane was now, I was willing to bet she was looking at me and laughing. Me, with Jane's money and Jane's house and Jane's cat and Jane's skull.

After sorting more papers (I might as well finish what I've begun, I thought), I got up to stretch. It was raining outside, I discovered to my surprise. As I sat on the window seat and looked out the blinds, the rain got heavier and heavier and the thunder started to boom. The lights came on across the street in the little white house with yellow shutters, and through the front window I could see Lynn unpacking boxes, moving slowly and awkwardly. I wondered how having a baby felt, wondered if I would ever know. Finally, for no reason that I could discern, my feeling for Arthur ended, and the pain drained away. Tired of poring over receipts left from a life that was over, I thought about my own life. Living by myself was sometimes fun, but I didn't want to do it forever, as Jane had. I thought of Robin Crusoe, the mystery writer, who had left town when my romance with Arthur had heated up. I thought of Aubrey Scott. I was tired of being alone with my bizarre problem. I was tired of being alone, period. I told myself to switch mental tracks in a hurry. There was something undeniably pleasant about being in my own house watching the rain come down outside, knowing I didn't have to go anywhere if I didn't want to. I was surrounded by books in a pretty room, I could occupy myself however I chose. Come on, I asked myself bravely, what do you choose to do? I almost chose to start crying, but instead I jumped up, found Jane's Soft Scrub, and cleaned the bathroom. A place isn't really yours until you clean it. Jane's place became mine, however temporarily, that afternoon. I cleaned and sorted and threw away and inventoried. I opened a can of soup and heated it in my saucepan on my stove. I ate it with my spoon. Madeleine came into the kitchen when she heard me bustling around and jumped up to watch me eat. This time I was not horrified. I looked over the book I'd pulled from Jane's shelves and addressed a few remarks to Madeleine while I ate.

It was still raining after I'd washed the pot and the spoon and the bowl, so I sat in Jane's chair in the living room, watching the rain and wondering what to do next. After a moment, the cat heaved herself up onto my lap. I wasn't quite sure how I felt about this liberty on the cat's part, but I decided I'd give it a try. I stroked the smooth fur tentatively and heard the deep percolation start up. What I needed, I decided, was to talk to someone who knew Lawrenceton in depth, someone who knew about Carey Osland's husband and the Rideouts' tenant. I'd been assuming the skull came from someone who lived close by, and suddenly I realized I'd better challenge that assumption.

Why had I thought that? There had to be a reason. Okay - Jane couldn't transport a body any distance. I just didn't think she'd been strong enough. But I remembered the hole in the skull and shuddered, feeling distinctly queasy for a moment. She'd been strong enough to do that. Had Jane herself cut off the head? I couldn't even picture it. Granted, Jane's bookshelves, like mine, were full of accounts about people who had done horrible things and gone unsuspected for long periods of time, but I just couldn't admit Jane might be like that. Something wasn't adding up.

It just might be my own dearly held assumptions and preconceptions. Jane, after all, was a Little Old Lady.

I was worn out physically and mentally. It was time to go back to my place. I unseated the cat, to her disgust, and filled her water dish, while making a mental note to call Parnell. I stuffed my car full of things to throw or give away, locked up, and left.

For Christmas, my mother had given me an answering machine, and its light was blinking when I let myself into my kitchen. I leaned against the counter while I punched the button to hear my messages.

"Roe, this is Aubrey. Sorry I didn't catch you in. I'll talk to you later. See you at church tomorrow?"

Ah oh. Tomorrow was Sunday. Maybe I should go to the Episcopal church. But since I didn't always go there, wouldn't it look a little pointed to show up right after I'd had a date with the pastor? On the other hand, here he was inviting me personally, and I'd hurt his feelings if I didn't show... oh hell. "Hi, honey! We're having such a good time John and I decided to stay for a few more days! Stop by the office and make sure everyone's busy, okay? I'll be calling Eileen, but I think it would impress everyone if you went yourself. Talk to you later! Wait till you see my tan!"

Everyone at Mother's office knew that I was strictly an underling, and that I didn't know jack about the real estate business, though it wasn't uninteresting. I just didn't want to work full-time for Mother. Well, I was glad she was having a great time on her second (literally) honeymoon, and I was glad she'd finally taken a vacation of any sort. Eileen Norris, her second-in-command, was probably ready for Mother to come back. Mother's force of character and charm really smoothed things over.

"Roe, this is Robin." I caught my breath and practically hugged the answering machine so I wouldn't miss a word. "I'm leaving tonight for maybe three weeks in Europe, traveling cheap and with no reservations, so I don't know where I'll be when. I won't be working at the university next year. James Artis is over his heart attack. So I'm not sure what I'll be doing. I'll get in touch when I come back. Are you doing okay? How's Arthur?"

"He's married," I said to the machine. "He married someone else." I rummaged in my junk drawer frantically. "Where's the address book? Where's the damn book?" I muttered. My scrabbling fingers finally found it, I searched through it, got the right page, punched the numbers frantically. Ring. Ring. "Hello?" a man said.


"No, this is Phil. I'm subleasing Robin's apartment. He's left for Europe."

"Oh, no," I wailed.

"Can I take a message?" the voice asked, tactfully ignoring my distress.

"So he's going to be coming back to that apartment when he returns? For sure?"

"Yep, his stuff is all here."

"Are you reliable? Can you give him a message in three weeks, or whenever he comes back?"

"I'll try," the voice said with some amusement.

"This is important," I warned him. "To me, anyway."

"Okay, shoot. I've got a pencil and paper right here."

"Tell Robin," I said, thinking as I spoke, "that Roe, R-O-E, is fine."

"Roe is fine," repeated the voice obediently.

"Also say," I continued, "that Arthur married Lynn."

"Okay, got it... anything else?"

"No, no thank you. That's all. Just as long as he knows that." "Well, this is a fresh legal pad, and I've labeled it 'Robin's Messages,' and I'll keep it here by the phone until he comes back," said Phil's voice reassuringly.

"I'm sorry to sound so - well, like I think you'll throw it in the wastebasket - but this is the only way I have to get in touch with him." "Oh, I understand," said Phil politely. "And really, he will get this."

"Thanks," I said weakly. "I appreciate it."

"Good-bye," said Phil.

"Parnell? This is Aurora Teagarden."

"Oh. Well, what can I do for you?"

"Madeleine showed up at Jane's house today."

"That dang cat! We've been looking for her high and low. We missed her two days ago, and we were feeling real bad, since Jane was so crazy about that durn animal."

"Well, she came home."

"We sure got a problem. She won't stay here, Aurora. We've caught up with her twice when she started off, but we can't keep chasing after her. As a matter of fact, we're leaving town tomorrow for two weeks, going to our summer place at Beaufort, South Carolina, and we were going to check her back in the vet's, just to make sure everything went okay. Though animals mostly take care of themselves."

Take care of themselves? The Engles expected pampered Madeleine to catch her own fish and mice for two weeks?

"Is that right?" I said, letting incredulity drip from my voice. "No, I expect she can stay at the house for that two weeks. I can feed her when I go over there and empty her litter box."

"Well," said Parnell doubtfully, "her time's almost up."

The cat was dying? Oh my Lord. "That's what the vet said?" I asked in amazement.

"Yes, ma'am," Parnell said, sounding equally amazed.

"She sure looks fat for a cat that sick," I said doubtfully. I could not understand why Parnell Engle suddenly began laughing. His laugh was a little hoarse and rusty, but it was from the belly. "Yes, ma'am," he agreed with a little wheeze of joy, "Madeleine is fat for a cat that's so sick."

"I'll keep her then," I said uncertainly.

"Oh, yes, Miss Teagarden, thanks. We'll see you when we come back." He was still barely controlling his chuckles when he hung up. I put down the receiver and shook my head. There was just no accounting for some people.

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