A laugh out loud cozy mystery by New York Times Bestseller Addison Moore and her partner in cozy crime, USA TODAY Bestseller Bellamy Bloom.
Meow for Murder #1
Addison Moore & Bellamy Bloom
“I don’t want to die!” The words rip from my throat as if they were being pulled out with barbed wire.
My name is Stella Santini. I’ve got long black hair, light brown eyes, stand at an average height of five-foot-five, and I can see the future.
Confession: I’m no psychic. Nor have I ever come close to predicting what the future might hold—not with any accuracy anyway.
You see, ever since I was a little girl, I had what my Nana Rose liked to call the shakes. Technically, it’s more of a shiver, and when you get down to it, there’s a warm, fuzzy feeling involved that makes me want to forget about the world around me for a moment and retreat to the dark recesses of my mind where a thought plays out like a movie and I see things.
And trust me when I say, I have been wrong about interpreting the things I see on more than one occasion.
Take now for instance. This morning when a scene from the West End Woods flashed through my mind and I saw myself running for my life—I thought maybe I might be running from a serial killer looking for his next victim on this odd jaunt through the woods or running from a bear looking for his first meal post-hibernation, thus the solemn decision I came to during my second cup of coffee to stay the heck away from the West End Woods for the duration of my supernatural life.
But in a twist that only fate could provide, here I am, a mere hour later, panting, ducking evergreen trees and their prickly branches that threaten to poke my eyes out as if my life were on the line, and, oddly enough, I think it is.
“Don’t kill me!” I howl once again, ducking and jiving my way through the forest as my Uncle Vinnie chases me through the woods with a bona fide weapon in his hand.
“I’m not gonna kill you for God’s sake!” he riots right back.
“Then why are you holding a gun?”
Let’s backtrack for a minute. After I enjoyed my third cup of coffee this morning, Uncle Vinnie called and said I had fifteen minutes to get dressed because we had things to discuss and he was picking me up pronto.
He sounded serious, morbid even. And I know him well enough to realize he meant business. I had an inkling about the subject he was going to prick. I happen to be what the mob likes to call a dead girl walking. Less than twenty-four hours ago, in what I and any sane person would call a very unfortunate chain of events, I managed to tick off the mob, the federal government, and break up with my idiot boyfriend of two years, Johnny Rizzo, all within a fifteen-minute span. And judging by this mad dash through the West End Woods, you could toss my Uncle Vinnie on that ticked-off list, too.
My foot catches on a buckling root system and I trip, slowing myself down enough for me to know I’ve just widened that bullseye on my back.
“Don’t shoot!” I cry out, jogging to a finish as I spin around.
Uncle Vinnie stops within feet of me, panting, the veins on his neck throbbing like a couple of angry garden snakes about to wiggle their way into his brain.
Uncle Vinnie is tall, with black hair, dark eyes, and bushy eyebrows that hover over his face, giving him that perpetually angry look he’s got going for him in life. But, by and large, he’s a good guy who stepped up to the plate once my father was put away five years ago on RICO charges. He treated my brother, sister, and me as if we were his own children while my mother got a quickie divorce and began to chase men far younger straight into her bedroom.
“Please,” I beg. “Put down the gun.”
“What?” He squints over at me. “What the heck are you talking about? This ain’t no gun.” He shoves something toward me and I turn my head in horror.
It’s not unusual for a man of my uncle’s standing within the organization to take care of his own once word gets out that their proverbial number is up. And by take care of, I mean bump off the planet in a far more humane method than the fate that awaits them otherwise. And that’s exactly why I suspect my Uncle Vinnie has dragged me out to this isolated strip of nature just outside of Hastings, New Jersey, the town in which I was born and raised.
He’s brought me here to die. My loving uncle is about to impart what the family refers to as a mercy execution.
“It’s not a gun?” I stagger for a moment. “You mean you’re going to stab me to death? My God, how could you? Is that any way to treat a girl you said you regarded as a daughter when your own brother went to prison?”
He blinks back, stunned. “Stella, look in my hand,” he growls as he rattles the instrument of death my way once again. “It’s a box of hair dye.”
“Oh God, you’re going to poison me?” I bury my face in my hands a moment. “Do you even realize how painful that will be? How much worse do you really think it will be for me at the hand of the Morettis?”
Ten years ago, after my father single-handedly unraveled the entire Fazio family in a mere weekend, the Morettis took over all of New Jersey with an iron fist, and one of their underlings happened to be my ex, Johnny Rizzo.
Johnny is the one that dragged me into that whole let’s screw the Morettis scheme while they screw the government. It involved a car wash, a donut shop, a chop shop, dirty money, and a monster profit that’s kept me in Louis Vuitton bags for the past six months, but the inner workings of Johnny’s idiotic scheme are far too complicated to dig into at the moment, nor do I care to relive them.
But my dad… I’ve spent the last five years reliving everything about that man. How I loved the way things were before everything fell apart.
My father, Angelo Santini, or The Sunday Sinner as he’s since been dubbed, is in prison on RICO charges. Prior to his incarceration, he became an informant for the feds. He wore a wire, the whole nine-weasel yards—and on a Sunday no less, thus his dishonorable new title.
Suffice it to say, he’s as good as dead if he ever gets out—and maybe on the inside, too.
My dad cut a deal. Not a good deal. The feds still managed to seize everything, from our small kitchen appliances to my mother’s minks. Yes, real minks had been sacrificed to create those furry horrors my mother loved to ensconce herself in no matter if the weather dictated their presence or not. Believe me, she is no friend of PETA.
But as soon as the government licked us clean, she was filing for divorce and out on the cougar prowl. Her preference for men younger than her own children is still something I can’t wrap my head around.
In less than twenty-four hours after my father’s incarceration, our first-class world turned into a third-world nightmare.
It turns out, Dad and his buddies were smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of drugs into the country, via Latin America, and the Fazio family distributed it right here in New Jersey.
But since Daddy’s little tap dance with the wire, that nightmare with the Fazios imploding and the Morettis stepping up to take their place led to my own aforementioned nightmare called Johnny Rizzo. And it was his bright idea to steal from the mob, which accidentally tipped off the feds to the Morettis’ felonious misgivings—that led me here, to my very own execution party sponsored by Clairol.
“Stella,” Uncle Vinnie barks my name out as if he were trying to wake me from a very bad dream, and how I wish he were. “I’m not going to kill you. I’m doing you a favor. The Morettis have already decided they want you quiet.” In the mob, quiet is code for dead. “Johnny took off last night or they’d have gotten him first.”
“He took off?” My eyes bulge at the thought. “And he left me here to fry?” Okay, confession: technically, Johnny isn’t my ex quite yet. As of yesterday, we were still together. I haven’t actually had the privilege of slapping him silly and telling him to take a hike just yet, only because we knew our lives were about to implode in far more dramatic ways than any mere breakup could bring on.
But on my way home from that fiasco, I had broken up with him a thousand times in my head. I came this close to texting him with the news but didn’t want to deny myself the pleasure of looking him in the eye when I did it—and I might have been looking forward to shoving my knee into his crotch as well.
Johnny Rizzo promised me a rose garden and instead wrapped me in thorns and threw me into a sewer.
“Yes, he took off.” Uncle Vinnie nods aggressively as if this should have been obvious. “You’re on your own, kid. And I’m not going to kill you.” His features soften. “I’m going to help you.” He hands me the box with a picture of a redhead on the front who could double as Ariel from The Little Mermaid. “I’ve got a car waiting around the corner. Sit in the back. You’ll find a large envelope filled with the paperwork you’re going to need. New driver’s license, Social Security card, passport, and car insurance. Everything you need to start a new life. My driver is taking you up to the New York border. I bought a car for you. It’s not much, but it’s yours. There’s some gas money in the glove compartment. You’ll have to be smart about how you spend it. Drive through New York, then up through Vermont until you get to Canada.” He swipes the phone out of my hand. “In the glove compartment you’ll also find a burner phone. I’ve got the number. I’ll be calling from a burner myself. You don’t call anybody else, you hear?”
“What? Give me that.” I dive for my phone, but he tosses it to the ground and quickly puts a bullet through it before putting his gun back into his pocket. “This is really happening?” Tears sting my eyes as I look to the man I’ve regarded as a second father for my entire life.
“It’s really happening.” His eyes grow glossy as well. “Goodbye, Stella. That’s the last time I will ever say your name, and the last time you’ll hear it. You got that?”
My head wobbles back and forth. “What’s my new name?” I swallow hard to keep from bawling like a baby.
“Bowie Binx, with an X.”
“Bowwow what?” I snip, highly annoyed that I had no say in this. “Are you kidding me? I’ve waited my whole life to crawl from under the name my parents gifted me and you did what to me now?”
“Bowie Binx.” He shrugs. “What can I say? I was working under a very tight time constraint. You have no idea how hard it was to put together a fictitious life in less than twenty-four hours.”
“Bowie Binx.” I try it on for size. “How in the heck did you come up with that whopper?”
“I happened to be listening to some good music. David Bowie was playing at the time, and I went with it. And as for Binx, I asked Minnie what she wanted to name her next kitten and it’s the first thing that flew from her lips.”
Minnie is Uncle Vinnie’s thee-year-old granddaughter who thinks she’s married to her stepfather because her mother, my cousin Jackie, thought it would be cute to have him put a ring on her finger, too, during their wedding ceremony.
“Great. I’m named after a legendary singer and an imaginary cat. I couldn’t have done better myself.”
“You keep up with the sharp tongue, little lady. You’re going to need it to survive. It’s a tough world out there. Even in Canada.” He wags a finger my way. “You’ll see how cold and unfeeling it is without the warm, strong arms of the family around you.”
“Yeah, well, the family wants me dead. I think I’ll take my chances with a bunch of cold, unfeeling Canadians.” I suck in my bottom lip as I look to my uncle for what feels like the very last time. “I love you.”
“I know.” He pulls me in and holds me for a small eternity, and I truly do feel the warm, strong arms of family around me. “If the burner phones don’t work out, we’ll find another way to communicate. The code word is meow.”
I make a face. “Another contribution from Minnie?”
He gives a somber nod.
And then, just like that, he turns me around and instructs me to run.
And run I do.
Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to Canada I go.
Let’s hope I don’t run into Johnny Rizzo there or I’ll kill him.
And that’s one prognostication I can guarantee will come true.