Dorothy Claes

and the Prowl of the Yule Cat

Excerpt

ONE

THE BELL ABOVE THE DOOR TO RICHARD’S Anecdotes chimed brightly. Louisville, Massachusetts’s wizened postman stepped through, stomping his boots and brushing snow from his wiry gray hair.

“Hello, Mr. Altman,” Aaron said from behind the glass counter.

The postman glanced around the little antique shop, then trudged toward the young man before him.

“Hello, Aaron. Is Ms. Claes around by chance?” The man licked his lips and tried to peer into the back
room.

“She’s upstairs at the moment, sir,” Aaron said, holding out his hand for the mail.

Mr. Altman grunted and reached into his bag. “That cursed cat still with her?” he spat.

Suddenly, the avocado-green door that led to the upper apartments opened. A black cat bounded down the steps and began circling the postman’s ankles. Mr. Altman tried to nudge the cat away, but the little cat was persistent in rubbing against him.

“Yes, Solomon is still here,” Aaron said, his hand still held out for the mail. Mr. Altman tried to set the mail in Aaron’s hand but missed. Aaron caught the stack of envelopes, bringing the wizened man’s attention back to him.

“How’s school going?” asked Mr. Altman. He licked his lips again, looking up the stairs for Dorothy.

“It’s my fnal year, sir,” said Aaron, pufng out his chest with pride.

“That’s wonderful. Congratulations. Are you spending your Christmas break with your family? I’m sure anywhere would be warmer than here at the moment.”

Aaron nodded and began sorting through the envelopes for Dorothy’s personal mail and those for the shop.

“My family is from Jamaica, sir. I’m looking forward to visiting the gran market. It’s been years since I’ve been back.” The young man’s eyes sparkled as he spoke, but Mr. Altman took no notice. His attention had turned to the shop’s owner,

Dorothy Claes, as she stepped off the floral-carpeted stairs.

“Well, don’t let this little fox work you to death,” the postman said, chuckling. Dorothy’s head snapped around, and the postman winked, giving her a flirty nod.

“Oh, no, sir,” Aaron said, handing Dorothy the now-sorted pile of mail. “Ms. Claes is very generous with my studies.”

Dorothy smiled and accepted the stack. “Thank you, Aaron,” she said.

Solomon gave Mr. Altman’s shin one last head bonk, then trotted toward the front window. He stretched and kneaded a purple pillow embroidered with an intricate S.

“Well, g’day, Aaron. Ms. Claes.” Mr. Altman pulled up his hood in preparation to face the harsh December snow and headed back into the cold.

Dorothy shuddered as she watched him close the door. “That man is barking up the wrong tree,” she whispered under her breath.

“He means well, Ms. Claes,” said Aaron with a shrug.

“Mmm, yes, and so does a snake until it gets hungry,” Dorothy muttered as she continued to sift through the mail as Aaron laughed. “You’re too good, Aaron.”

Her eyes landed on a small envelope. The word CONFIDENTIAL was stamped in red across its front. She tore into the envelope, pulling out the single piece of paper.

“It looks like another letter came from Karlee,” Aaron said, a smirk slowly forming across his face. “And one from Mr. Red.”

Dorothy raised an eyebrow at her assistant. “I take it back. You’re not that good.”

“Mr. Red is a wonderful man,” Aaron said, throwing his hands up and failing to keep his smirk from forming into a full-fledged smile.

“Have you fnished inventorying those 15th-century coins we received yesterday?”

Aaron shifted uncomfortably. “No, ma’am. I – I’ll get right on it.” He turned toward the back room, his dreadlocks bouncing as he hurried away.

Solomon pounced at the falling snow outside the window, then took off after Aaron with a series of chirps. Dorothy shook her head and returned her attention to the letter before her.

To Ms. Dorothy Virginia Shirley Claes,
This notice is in regard to your request pertaining to the release of health records concerning the late Richard Van Damme. This is to inform you that the aforementioned file has been classifed as sealed by the United States Department of Inquiry. This is the only and fnal notice you will receive.

Dorothy clenched her teeth. She stuffed the letter back into the envelope and slammed the pile of mail on the counter.

Aaron slid his chair back, craning his neck to look at her from the backroom. “Everything all right, ma’am?” he asked.

Dorothy rubbed her temples. “Yes, thank you.”

There was a pause as Dorothy stared at the incriminating envelope before her. It had taken her nearly a year to track down the correct departments to write to about her father’s health records. Destin had been absolutely no help. Now, she was back at square one.

“Ma’am, I think some of these coins are going to need to soak overnight,” Aaron said gently.

Dorothy sighed. “I’ll take a look before you do so. Sometimes they just need a bit of elbow grease.” She forced a smile and moved the envelope to the back of the pile.

“Yes, ma’am,” Aaron said, and Dorothy heard the squeak of his chair as he returned to his work.

A gust of wind pulsed against the large glass windows, sending a swirl of powdery snow into the air. Solomon darted from the backroom. He leapt onto his purple pillow, front paws plastered to the window and watched until the wind died. He turned back to Dorothy, his green eyes still dilated with excitement.

“What?” Dorothy asked him, a smile pulling at her lips. “It’s too cold for you to play outside right now. We’ll go for a walk in a few days.”

Solomon snapped back with a single, curt mew and jumped onto the counter. Dorothy pressed her forehead between the cat’s ears before scooping him up and scratching his chin.

“I’m sure Red’s enjoying himself,” she whispered to Solomon. “Should we go visit him in Australia again, hmm? You can play with Ruby again.”

Solomon purred loudly as Dorothy set him back on the counter and picked up Karlee’s and Red’s letters. The cat sniffed the envelopes and meowed incessantly until Dorothy had pulled out Karlee’s letter and allowed him to rub and roll on the now empty envelope.

Dear Ms. Dorothy,
How are you? How’s Solomon? Are you guys coming to the cat show in Paris again next month? I hope you do! We all miss you so much! Jenna wanted me to tell you that you and Solomon can share a hotel room with her. I wouldn’t, though. Don’t tell her I said it, but she
snores really loud.
Scott and I have fnally picked a wedding date, so we hope you can come! He wanted to have the wedding in Giza, but I told him I had had enough of Egypt for a while. I also wanted to tell you that I got accepted into the forensics program! You really inspired me to fgure out what kind of career I want, and I really want to help solve cases and stuff. Like you.
Anyway, I hope you and Solomon are well!
Votre amie dévouée,
Karlee

Dorothy smiled and wrestled the envelope away from Solomon.

“What is –?” She stopped putting the letter back into the envelope, noticing Karlee had sent several large catnip leaves along. She pulled one out and handed it to Solomon before picking up Red’s letter.

My Dorothy,
The summer days are growing longer here, which means winter must be holding you desperately hostage. I can only imagine you wrapped in a comforter against the cold. How I would very much like to wrap you in my arms and warm you myself, much like how we found each other in Tulsa. That is if Solomon will ever let me get close to his dear mommy. Ruby had her pups a few weeks ago, so perhaps we can distract him with keeping the litter out of trouble.
I just returned from South Africa, and I sincerely want to thank you for your help. It’s a shame D won’t let us work together more often. Please tell me how I may repay you. I am no Parisian chef, but I can assure you, the steak is fresh – very fresh.
Give Solomon a scratch from me. I await your return to the ranch with baited breath.
All my love,
Red

Dorothy swallowed and felt her cheeks flush as she read Red’s letter again. The chime of the bell as the front door opened was the only thing that pulled her attention away.
“Can I help you?” she asked her customer, trying to rub the heat from her cheeks.
“Uh, yeah. Are you Miss Class?” a plump woman asked, snapping her gum and clicking her long, painted nails together.

“It’s Claes. Like case but with an L. But, yes. What can I do for you today?”

The woman rolled her eyes at Dorothy’s correction and snapped her gum again. “I called earlier about that painting?”

Dorothy nodded. “I’ll have Aaron bring it in for us.”

She tucked Red’s letter into the pocket of her cardigan and reached for a pair of white gloves.

“Yeah, okay,” the woman replied, popping her gum again. Dorothy plastered what she hoped looked like a smile on her face. The woman had called looking to make a quick buck at the expense of her grandmother’s recent death. Not that she looked like she needed the money. The woman could have given Miss Kitty a run with all the furs she wore.

Solomon approached the woman and sniffed at her designer knockoff boots. The woman gasped and crouched so quickly, Solomon’s fur stood on end.
“Oh, my gracious! She’s so precious. Oh, come here, darling!” the woman cooed, holding out her arms to
the bewildered cat.

Solomon sniffed at her claw-like nails and took off for the backroom.

“He’s a bit particular about who he likes,” Dorothy said, the smile on her face beginning to numb her cheeks.

“Well, that’s no way to treat a customer.” The woman scoffed and crossed her arms

“Is the painting in your vehicle, ma’am?” Aaron asked, saving Dorothy from the retort that was forming on the tip of her tongue.

“Um, yeah.” The woman gave Aaron a hard look.

“Here. It’s in the backseat.” She held her keys out for him. “Don’t go stealing anything while you’re in there!”

Dorothy bit her tongue. The woman ended up huffing over her offer. The painting wasn’t an original as the woman had been led to believe. Dorothy was more than happy to give a polite goodbye and chuckled when the woman’s heel became stuck in a chunk of ice as she climbed into her car. Even Solomon relaxed again, resting his head on his paws by the window. Her workday seemed to be growing longer as the darkness of winter came sooner with each passing night. The wind whipped relentlessly, a precursor to the storm that was on its way. With a relieved sigh, she turned the sign hanging from the door to Closed.

“You’re not walking home in this,” she said as Aaron bundled up against the cold.

“I’ll be all right, ma’am,” he assured her, wrapping a second scarf around his face. Solomon batted at the tassels that hung from the ends before Aaron stuffed them into his jacket.

Dorothy shook her head and pulled out her cell phone. “Humor an old woman. I’m calling you a cab.”

Aaron didn’t argue. Instead, he pulled his scarf from his jacket and dangled it in front of the cat. Solomon pounced on the scarf so vivaciously, he nearly choked Aaron in the process.

As soon as Dorothy had seen Aaron off, she locked the door behind her and set a kettle on in her little apartment above the shop. Solomon wound around her ankles, chirping and meowing until she opened a tin of food and plopped it in his bowl. She reached for her joint cream and carefully lowered herself into the single armchair, flicking on the television.

“And here’s another look at the live weather doppler 2000. Look at that snow band coming through here, folks! I’m guessing another two inches by morning,” the newscaster exclaimed excitedly. “Flights have been canceled all across the country as The Little Blizzard That Could continues to barrel its way through the United States.”

Dorothy rolled her eyes. Had no one on the East Coast experienced snow before? She recapped the tube of joint cream and flicked the television off. Solomon jumped into her lap, still licking canned food from his whiskers. She pulled Red’s letter from her pocket, and Solomon immediately began rubbing on the envelope.

My Dorothy
The summer days are

Dorothy’s phone vibrated between her hip and the chair cushion. She started, sending Solomon to the floor. She quickly fshed out the phone and answered.

“Hello?”

“Fennec,” came Destin’s urgent voice.

Dorothy chewed her tongue. “It’s Dorothy,” she corrected. “I’m glad you called. I need to speak to you about my father’s health records.” She began pacing anxiously before the bookcase that led to the secret room beneath her shop.

“I’m sorry, Fennec. There’s no time –”

“Why are my father’s health records sealed? And what is the United States Department of Inquiry?”

“Fennec, I need to deploy you in the feld immediately,” Destin continued.

“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me why I can’t see my father’s health records.”

Solomon meowed defantly from the floor in front of Dorothy as if agreeing with her.

Destin sighed. “Fennec, Caprice is missing.”

Dorothy stopped. “What do you mean, missing?”

“She hasn’t checked in for two days. I’ve uploaded what we have to your Fox Den app. I hope you’re able
to dress warmly.”

Destin paused, but Dorothy did not immediately answer. She looked at Solomon, who pawed at her pant leg, his large green eyes staring at her with concern.

“Destin, I’m not going anywhere until you release my father’s health records to me.”

Destin sighed. “Fen – Dorothy, all of our other agents are on assignment. I have no one else to send. I cannot release Richard’s health records. I don’t have the authority to do –”

“But you know who does,” Dorothy snipped.

“Caprice could be captured, injured or worse. What’s more important? Someone’s life, or information about someone who’s already dead?”

Destin’s words cut through Dorothy, and Solomon gave a mournful mew.

Dorothy cleared her throat. “All right, but there’s a nasty storm here on the East Coast. Flights are canceled everywhere.”

“I’m well aware. Artie will get you safely there. I’m sending a taxi in an hour.”

“An hour?”

“You can pack in an hour, can’t you, Fennec?” Destin’s usually playful tone was harsh and worried.

Dorothy huffed and pulled the phone away from her ear.

“Oh, Fennec,” Destin called as Dorothy’s thumb poised above the End Call button. She returned the phone to her ear. “For your own safety, please leave your father in the past.”

The phone clicked, and Dorothy felt her stomach drop.