Frank Littlegood, animal lover and recluse since his retirement, had lured her to his home with murder on his mind. However, when she stood before him in the flesh, he had second thoughts. The pie waited in the oven, but he had yet to inject the final ingredient through the steam hole the in pastry crust. Should she die for her crimes? Her death by his hands. Why not let fate decide?
"Welcome, Miss Polk, do come inside. How was your flight from San Francisco?"
"Martha, please. No need for formality. I hadn't expected it to be so cold here in New England," she said, pulling up the fur collar of her coat, "especially inside. Such a curious little home you have. Did you build it yourself?"
"No, it is a Coffin-style home. Built by my ancestors, but it's grown and changed to accommodate the different generations."
"And you live here all alone?"
"Gives me more room for my rescues, like this little girl here." He patted the crate where Dolly, the rescue mutt, lay sleeping.
"But you can't keep it in a cage," Martha said, "that's inhumane."
"It," Frank said, "is a bitch. That's to say, a dog, not a human."
"What's that got to do with the price of fish."
"I don't have any rescue fish."
This did not bode well. A woman without a sense of humor was doomed to a short life.
"I meant," she said, "it's cruel to keep her in a cage."
"It's not a cage, it's a crate."
"Crate? Cage? Box? What's the difference? I'm no dog lover, but I draw the line at inflicting abuse on poor dumb animals."
"Hello, Dolly," Frank said. "Ready to come out and greet our guest?"
"There's no need for that," Martha said. "I can see her quite clearly from here."
"I thought you said it was cruel to cage her?" Maybe she was afraid of dogs. Some people were.
"I did. I do." Martha sunk her hands into her pockets. "Why don't you let her loose in the garden where she can gambol and play in freedom?"
"Okay." Maybe she could redeem herself after all.
Frank slipped the latch, and Dolly emerged, the size of a miniature pony but shaggier. She shook her whole body. Turbulent clouds of coarse black hairs wafted into the chilly air.
"Look," he said, "Dolly's grinning at you. Want to pet her?"
"I'd love to," Martha said, "but Queen Elizabeth, my cat, might notice her smell, I mean scent."
"What time is the cat show tomorrow? It's very good of you to fit me into your busy schedule."
"Well, I've enjoyed our conversations on the phone and all the emails, and since I was coming to Nashua anyway for the Cat Fanciers' Association Show, I thought, why not?"
"You look different from your profile picture at the Find Love Forever site. I always liked the shoulder pad era. Where was the photo taken?"
"I didn't know you were interested in historical sites. I like to take the dogs over to Old Benson's Animal park for some off-leash freedom. So scenic. Maybe I could take you there later."
"I'm not interested in old stuff. I was at Mount Rushmore for the Feline Convention at Deadwood. Such a busy week, we barely left the hotel."
"Did Queenie win?"
"No, I didn't have her then. That was over ... a while ago when I was still an amateur."
"I'm looking forward to meeting your pets," Frank said. Maybe that was it. Perhaps she made a beginner's mistake. Had she learned the error of her ways? How could two people have matched so perfectly until this one abominable fact came to light?
"My cats are not mere pets. They're my life, my career, my profession."
That was more like it, thought Frank. Here was the passion. He must be wrong about her.
"Perhaps I could come over to your hotel tomorrow after the show if you're up for a second date?"
"Don't keep Dolly waiting," Martha said. "She's desperate to escape."
"Perhaps she needs to pee." Frank opened the door. Dolly dashed out and bounced around the patio like an energetic kangaroo. "I think she wants to play."
Martha didn't comment, easing off each finger of her kid leather gloves.
"Still," Frank said, taking her coat, "wouldn't be fair to play with her and not with you." She didn't respond one way or the other. "I'm always up for a bit of fun. Love your spotty fur coat. Hope it's not real."
Martha stiffened. Had he caught her in another moral mishap? No one who truly loved animals could bear to wear their skins, could they?
Frank read the label on the fur coat's collar as he hung it by the door, but it meant nothing to him.
"Do I smell something tempting," she said, "from the kitchen?"
"Of course. You must be starving. You could do with some meat on your bones." He left the room and called over his shoulder, "I hope my cooking's up to scratch. I did my best to match your profile's preferences, but I don't know much about Paleolithic diets."
In the kitchen, he dithered. Should he. Shouldn't he. It was too soon to tell. Buy time. He turned down the oven's temperature, grabbed some peanuts, and dumped the contents into a bowl. Perhaps a drink would loosen her up. Move her into an admission. A confession. An appeal for forgiveness and clemency.
"Is that valuable?" she said, nodding to the antique Bunnykins, Royal Douton bowl.
"It was my mother's."
"Were you close?" Please, not a Mamma's boy. That was all she needed.
"Inseparable. Mother taught me --" he sighed, "everything I know." Then brightening, "This is one of her recipes. I hope you're enjoying it?"
He had a clean plate, wolfed it down like a boisterous boy.
"Lovely," she said, attempting another forkful.
* * *
Frank returned with a steaming-hot pie between two red chili-pepper-shaped oven-mitts. He placed it reverently in the center of the small table and took a step back in admiration. He'd reached the decision, the humane choice. Any man in his shoes would do the same. There was more than one method of skinning a cat, although in this case, Martha might prove more of a challenge. Her mind might be closed to new ideas, but where there was life there was hope. "What do you say to that?" he beamed. "Almost perfect for your Paleolithic diet -- I remembered that from your online details."
"Flakey pastry," Martha said, raising an eyebrow. "Tricky for the amateur," she said with authority. "Safer to buy shop-bought."
"Not if you have a light touch."
"And cold hands."
"Mine are hot and toasty," he said, whipping off his mitts, taking her hands, "for you."
Dolly lunged at the patio door, scrabbling muddy paws down the glass panes.
"Perhaps she's hungry too," he said. "Puppies have such voracious appetites."
"Why don't we wait, leave her outside, then she can have the leftovers."
"Leftovers?" No, that wouldn't work. That would spoil everything.
"If there are any. What is it, by the way? Chicken?"
"I'll let your taste buds tell you that." He pulled a chair out for her. "You're not vegan, are you? I should have asked, should have checked." What if she wouldn't eat it? Surely she'd taste it, even only a little bit just to be polite. "Paleolithic people lived such a nomadic existence, so I wasn't sure which grains to use." She must eat some. Everything depended upon her tasting his offering. Confusion and frustration made him stutter. "Don't tell me you're macrobiotic?"
"Macro-what? No. I'm a carnivore, through and through. Plain and simple. There's nothing I enjoy more than a hearty steak or pork."
He cut through the pie-crust with a serrated knife, sauce dribbled down the side of the cream-colored pie-dish decorated with a frieze of frolicking rabbits and bunches of bright orange carrots. His mother had used this pie-dish ever since he could remember for special occasions. Maybe that's where he got his love of animals, from all the times she read him Beatrix Potter's stories of Peter Rabbit. Now he felt like mean old Mr. McGregor, the farmer, spoiling all the fun. But it wasn't Frank's fault. She had dug her own grave.
"Duck is delicious." She shook out the napkin and smoothed it over her lap. "I'm partial to venison too. I remember having ostrich once."
Frank took a seat opposite. The tip of his carpet slippers met her peep-toe, snake-skin shoes before she withdrew them and tucked them back beneath her chair.
"Hope you like turmeric," he said. "Dig in, Martha."
He found Martha sitting by the fireplace and put the peanuts on the coffee table. "Hope you don't have allergies. A glass of wine?" He grabbed the uncorked bottle from the sideboard. "Modest, but full of potential." Nervous, he sloshed wine into two glasses. He was talking too much, more than her, dominating the conversation. "Bottom's up."
"Your good health," Martha said, turning her glass to sip and glancing at the clock on the mantel.
Frank took a guilty gulp of wine. How to force a confession? He should have tackled this issue online, not face-to-face like this.
"What shall we talk about?" You choose. Help me out here. Don't let me turn this into an interrogation. Tell me what I need to know. "No sex, religion, or politics. Isn't that what they say?"
"Definitely no sex," she said, dabbing her lips with a fingertip.
* * *
"I could show you a photograph of the Queen"
"I've seen her before."
"Oh, you!" Martha laughed. "I mean Queen Elizabeth. I have her here on my phone." She rummaged in her purse, held the phone at arm's length, and squinted at the icons.
"You can borrow my reading glasses if you've forgotten yours?"
"I don't need glasses," Martha snapped, brushing a crisp flaxen curl from her brow. "There," she said, turning the tiny screen toward him. "Isn't she just the sweetest thing you ever set eyes upon?"
"Fancy," Frank said.
"Very fancy. Himalayan. Purebred." She flipped through a series of pictures. "Pedigree, of course, like a dream of Persian with the pattern of a Siamese. That's where she won first prize for best-in-breed, although that red rosette is rather garish."
"She's like a great big puffball of cotton candy. Can't tell one end from another. You should have called her Fluffy. I bet her tail's better than a feather duster when it comes to cobwebs. I'd guess your house is a darned sight cleaner than mine."
Martha's expression was unreadable.
"I bet she loves to climb," he said. This wasn't going well. Something was wrong. Had he offended her?
"Climb? Climb what?"
"Trees," he said, "although, I suppose that coat would keep her warm in the Himalayas. Not much need for all that fur in California. Do you ever shave her?"
"Shave? Queen Elizabeth is a precious and extremely valuable creature."
"All the more reason to keep her fit and healthy."
"She's extremely healthy. Nothing but the finest meat, minced by my own fair hands."
How could he get her onto the topic? Give her a chance to tell him everything. He couldn't believe he'd ever fallen for a woman like this. They had so much potential as a couple. Or they did until he found out her guilty secret. The kind of abhorrent behavior that drove a dagger of deception between them. Their relationship was doomed. He meant to break things off when he learned what she'd done. Then, this opportunity presented itself, her visit to his hometown. He couldn't turn down the chance to meet her in person and let her explain. Even now, he wondered if he hadn't made a mistake. Could it be true? He twisted the conversation around to the burning issue.
"Then again," he said, "it's got to be tough getting to the higher branches with those abnormally short legs. But that's breeders for you. No sense of responsibility for the poor animal's health."
"Queen Elizabeth doesn't climb trees. She doesn't climb mountains. She doesn't climb. Period."
"Then how do you keep her happy?"
"She's happy to be with me. We're bosom buddies. The best of friends. Why she's dearer to me than my own family, so to speak. We're never apart."
"You're apart now."
"Not really. Queenie is outside in the car. Waiting."
"I hope you cracked open a window."
"She's in her cat carrier, and anyway, it's not hot today."
"Does she like being in the crate?"
"It's not a crate. It's a carrier."
"Why don't you bring her inside so I can meet her? I'm great with all animals."
"Queen Elizabeth is not an animal, not in the ordinary sense of the word."
"How would you describe her?"
"Bring in your companion, then. Let's get to know her."
"I don't think she'd be content in here. She prefers familiar surroundings. Anyway," she said, "if she came inside, she might need to use ... the restroom."
"I think I've got an old bag of kitty litter under the stairs."
"Oh dear, have you? Why?"
"I foster all kinds of abandoned pets. Makes no difference to me: hair, fur, or feathers. I'm not fussy."
"That's so considerate of you, but the Queen can't abide kitty litter. Hurts her paws."
This was it, her chance to come clean. Would she tell the truth, or would she lie? If only she'd show a shred of remorse, things might still work out for them. They'd have a future together, caring for the abandoned and abused creatures of the world.
"Are you sure?" he said softly, hoping his tone would allow her to know he remained open-minded. "I've never heard that before, unless of course -- she's not, is she?"
"She's not what?"
"De-clawed," he said the dreaded words aloud, his voice a rasping whisper, breathy and hoarse.
"Yes. She was de-clawed by a highly reputable physician."
Frank laid his palms flat on the table, his short square nails pressed into the tablecloth, and braced himself like a winded runner.
"Not a veterinarian?" he asked with all the patience he could muster. Dear Lord. Had the woman no sense at all? Then again, what reputable veterinarian would ever consider such a barbaric practice? Any lingering wisp of compassion evaporated. "Did the reputable physician neuter her too?"
"Of course not. Maybe at some time in the future, when the Queen bows out of the limelight and retires, she may want to breed."
"May she?" Did she notice his sarcasm? Was she impervious? Could anyone be so ignorant? "Let me see if I've got this right," he said. He refused to jump to conclusions. He would go through every point step by agonizing step. "The cat --"
"Queen Elizabeth, please."
"Queen Elizabeth has had her claws ripped out but otherwise, she's in fully working order. Is that right?"
"I wouldn't put it so crudely, but yes, she's perfect in every way." Martha poked her dinner with a fork and ate a mouthful.
He sat back in his chair. He explained how his mother was a locovore -- buying goods locally -- before the word was invented.
Placing her knife and fork together, Martha cleaned her palate with a sip of wine.
"I'm glad you liked the wine," he said. "Mother always said Urtica Dioica was the best. Great year too."
"Pardon? Urtica ...?"
"Urtica Dioica -- nettle wine. The pie was her recipe too."
"What was that, by the way? Such an interesting flavor."
"Game? I don't think I've ever had that before. So rustic."
"Mom called it Spicy Buck Pie."
"Buck? As in deer? Funny, I usually spot venison. Such a distinctive flavor."
"Actually," he said, leaning forward so that Martha noticed his prominent front teeth. "'Buck' generally refers to any male of the species."
"I suppose it does. Which is this one?"
"Can't you guess?"
He ran a bony forefinger around the rim of the dish wiping away a crusty morsel from one of the frolicking bunnies.
"Not rabbit?" she said.
He allowed the image to percolate. Adorable little bunnies with their delightful cotton-wool tails, as tame and fluffy and winsome as any cat. Surely, they were almost cousins of the cat.
"No. Say it isn't so. You served me bunny pie?"
"Yes, Honey Lamb."
"No, they're quite small without their fur."
"Innocent until proven guilty. A popular dish in rural areas."
"We're in the middle of the city you fool. I would no more eat rabbit than I'd eat the Queen."
"Horses for courses."
"I won't eat horse either. Neither is fit for human consumption. It's criminal. You should be locked up. I'll report you to the authorities. I'll probably die of food poisoning. I never want to see you again."
Frank retrieved her coat and gloves, and showed her to the door. After that, he let Dolly back into the house taking her into the warm kitchen to eat the leftovers. Scraping the rest of the pie into the dog bowl, Dolly looked at him mournfully.
"What's the matter, Dolly? You don't like it either. Never cared for vegetarian myself. Does anyone truly enjoy Curried Buckwheat Pie?"