“. . . Couldn’t have found a better place to have your thirtieth-birthday girls’ bash . . .”
“. . . Ohmigod don’t turn around, but there’s a hot guy at your six and he’s carrying his cat in a pink bedazzled carrier—I said don’t turn around!”
But they’d all turned around. Six of them, smiling at him.
Nodding at them set off an avalanche of waves and more smiles as he walked to his place.
“Now those are buns I could sink my teeth into,” one of them murmured.
Keane resisted running up the stairs. Entering the house, he came to a shocked stop as Mason and Sass jumped apart, looking tousled and guilty.
They all stared at each other for an awkward beat and then Mason got very busy with his nail gun while Sass began thumbing through her work iPad as if it were on fire.
“What the fuck,” Keane said.
Mason accidentally discharged a nail into the floor.
Sass went hands on hips and took the Defensive Highway. “Hey, what we do behind your back is our business.”
“True,” Keane said.
“And we never let it affect work,” she said. “Never.”
“Okay,” he said.
“I wouldn’t,” Sass added, softer now. “I love this job.”
“Sass,” Keane said on a low laugh. “I don’t care what the two of you do on your off hours, as long as I don’t have to see it. What I meant by what the fuck is . . . what the fuck are you two doing here working but not picking up your phones?”
“You said last week all hands on deck until we finish,” Mason said, apparently finding his voice. “Whelp, all hands are on deck.”
“Yes, but I called you,” Keane said with what he thought was remarkable patience. “Both of you. No one answered.”
“Because you wanted a cat-sitter,” Sass said. “And much as I do love this job, evil-cat sitting is not in my job description.”
“Or mine,” Mason said.
Keane stared at them. “You didn’t know that’s what I wanted.”
Sass shifted her gaze pointedly at the cat carrier he was still carrying. “You don’t hire stupid people.”
He blew out a breath and set the cat carrier down.
“What are you doing?” Mason asked, eyes wide with horror. “Don’t let it out.”
“It’s a she.”
“It will attack me,” Mason said.
Sass rolled her eyes. “Mas here thinks the cat is Evil Incarnate.”
“It is,” Mason said.
“She rubs against his legs,” Sass said. “He’s convinced that the cat is trying to establish that she’s the dominant in their relationship.”
“She left me half a field mouse,” Mason said.
“She’s noticed your lack of hunting skills and inability to feed yourself,” Sass told him. “She’s trying to show you how to hunt. It’s a compliment.”
“Half a field mouse,” Mason repeated.
Keane shook his head and unzipped the carrier. “No one leave any doors open,” he directed. Then he got Pita a bowl of water and food, and finally did his walk-through.
Then he left Mason a list of things he wanted done and he and Pita headed back to Vallejo Street, where he strapped on his tool belt. The favorite part of any of the jobs he took on was always the woodwork. Carpentry had been his first love and it was still the thing that fulfilled him the most. On this job, he’d really gone old-school in the traditional Victorian sense, bringing back the original oak plank flooring and ornate wood trim, which was what he was working on today. Sanding and varnishing. The trim would go next.
An hour into it, he paused to pull out his vibrating phone. It was Sally finally calling him back with a FaceTime call. He answered and was treated to . . . a huge mouth. The skin around the mouth was puckered with age. The lips had been painted in red lipstick.
“Hello?” the mouth said. “Keane? Goddamn newfangled phone,” she muttered. “Can’t hear a damn thing.”
“Aunt Sally, I’m here,” he told her. “You settled in okay?”
“You don’t have to hold the phone up to your mouth like that. You can just talk normal—”
“Huh? What’s that? Speak up, boy.”
Keane sighed. “I said you can just talk normal.”
“I am talking normal,” she yelled, still holding the phone so close to her face that only her mouth showed. “I’m calling to talk to Petunia. Put her on the line.”
“You want to talk to the cat.”
“Do you have hearing problems? That’s what I said. Now put her on for me.”
“Sure.” Keane moved into the kitchen, because that’s where Pita hung out most, near her food bowl. The food bowl was empty.
No sign of Pita.
“Hang on,” he said into the phone and then pressed it against his thigh to block video and sound. “Pita,” he called. “Pita, come.” He felt ridiculous. Cats didn’t “come.” Neither did the antichrist. “Cat,” he said. “Petunia?”
Still nothing. He strode through the house and stilled in the dining room. Oh fuck, he thought, staring down at the hole in the floor. The air duct, without its grate, because it was on a sawhorse with some trim drying after being lacquered.
He dropped to his knees and peered down the open vent, but couldn’t see a thing. “Pita?”
There was a loaded silence, then a rustling, followed by a miserable-sounding “mew.”
His heart stopped. “Okay, not funny. Get your fuzzy, furry ass back up here,” he demanded, still holding the phone tight to his thigh.
This time the “mew” sounded fainter, like she’d moved further into the vent. He brought the phone back up. “Hey, Aunt Sally, I’ve got another call I have to take. I’ll call you right back, okay?”
“Is there something wrong?” the red, wrinkled lips asked.
“No worries,” Keane assured her and hung up. He retrieved Pita’s food bowl, refilled it, and then jangled the bowl above the open vent. “Hear that?” he called down the hole. “That’s your food. Come and get it.”
Nothing. Not even a rustle this time.
“Christ.” Keane got to his feet and strode into the next room, where he knew the venting system led to. He tore off that grate, flicked on the flashlight app from his phone and peered into the hole. “Pita?”