"You would think that living two doors down from him my entire life and helping with his garden every year would put me a little higher on the list than the cousin he knows purely through social media posts." Gülay Öktem puffed as a lock of her thick black hair fell into her face. "I don't want to sound selfish or anything," she continued. "Its just, of all the things for Uncle Hector to leave for me as an inheritance, you'd think a birdhouse would be bottom of the list." She prodded the offending item with a fingertip only to flinch away when it tilted ominously sideways. Gülay glanced at the collection of cats lounging across the living room furniture watching her with varying degrees of interest. Pumpkin Belly, a dark orange neutered male, was paying the least attention, splayed on the back of the couch with his butt facing her. Sassy Pants of the Meow, a neutered male with long fluffy black fur with a white-tipped chin, toes, and a long white stripe along his belly watched her with one eye open from the armchair. Puddy Tat, a stocky, creamy orange male, hopped down from the couch to pad over to their food and nibble. He was neutered last month and was getting a nice belly Gülay couldn’t resist playing with, to the point she'd given him a complex. Her Ladyship Clawdia Meowsie, an older long-haired white female with cream points, lounged on one of the kitty walkways lining the walls. Ricky Ticky Tabby, a young male with medium-length white fur splashed with tabby colors, peered at her intently from the coffee table. Gülay has tried to break him from that habit to no avail. The final kitty border was Nemehiss, a sleek female with black fur, lorded over them all from atop the kitty condo taking up the space an elaborate entertainment center otherwise might be. Gülay wondered briefly if she could still call herself a foster cat mom when she's adopted so many of the cats she took in originally as fosters. "I didn't break it," she said defensively. "You can't really break something that's already broken." The birdhouse in question was a few inches tall and looked for all the world like a kindergartener had both made and painted it. Gülay sighed. "Who gives the cat lady a birdhouse anyway?"
"A guy who thought his mice would make great friends for Sir Whiskers." The voice made Gülay jump. Nadya Tarasova appeared in the doorway with her recently married sister Anya Stepanova behind her. The sisters were as different as night and day. Where Nadya was cautious and careful, Anya was carefree and confident. Nadya was older by two years and possessed soft brown curls that were her natural color. She was always too afraid to die it. "Uncle Hector was a special sort."
"Why did I give you a key, again?" Gülay teased, sliding from the high-backed stool placed at her counter that was originally gotten to provide extra space for entertaining but ended up being another sleeping spot for her cats. She hugged Nadya then Anya.
"In case of emergencies." Nadya picked up Sassy Pants and plopped him onto her lap when she sat. "Like feeding the cats when you work late."
"Or get the cats out in case of a fire or natural disaster," Anya added helpfully. She made a beeline for Nemehiss with her hands held out. Anya was stockier built and had fun changing hairstyles, always adding random colors. Recently she’d been sporting teal strands through dark brown. "Come here my mistress of darkness," she cooed.
"She has sharp claws," Gülay warned.
"So does Anya." Nadya hugged Sassy Pants to her chest. "Maybe you can repaint the birdhouse," she offered. She received several head butts as the cat begging for attention. She answered by stroking the soft white stripe that went down his belly.
"Fair," Gülay said. That pretty much summed Anya up.
"We are ignoring you," Anya sang as she hauled Nemehiss into her arms. "Aren't we, beautiful girl?"
"Anya," Gülay said, swaying in place. "Now that you're officially married, maybe your home has room for one more tiny resident?"
"It is entirely too soon to be asking about babies," Anya said, casting a scolding look over her shoulder.
"Even furbabies?" Gülay asked, fluttering her eyelashes sweetly.
"I thought you were too attached to them to give any up?" Nadya asked.
"Why would I suggest a real baby?" Gülay made a face, stopping just short of wrinkling her nose in distaste. "We don't need any of the hairless little two-leggers running around just yet."
Anya laughed. "I'm tempted to steal Nemehiss here."
Gülay caught Nadya's eye and gestured at Anya by way of explanation.
Nemehiss growled, the tip of her tail twitching.
"Yes, yes," Anya sighed, lifting Nemehiss so she could reclaim her place on the kitty condo. "You would murder me dead if I tried to make you leave your home. I know."
Nadya let Sassy Pants jump off her lap and turned her attention to petting Pumpkin Belly before getting up and making her way to the birdhouse. "So it's not... too bad.."
"I poked it and it leaned," Gülay said, prodding the air for emphasis. "Its obvious Uncle Hector completely forgot about me until after assigning literally everything else to everyone else."
"Maybe it was his favorite birdhouse..." Nadya picked it up and peeked through the hole. "Maybe it's where all the birds loved to go in spring to hatch their babies..."
Gülay stared at Nadya, incredulous. "Are we seeing the same birdhouse?"
"It is a little small for nesting," Anya agreed, walking up to the counter with Ricky Ticky Tabby dangling happily in her arms. "RTT here's a weirdo, Gülay, do you know that?"
"He's not weird, he's unique," Nadya protested. Then to Gülay, she said, "I see a birdhouse that's been used because it was favored." She gestured while she talked. "And that shows that Uncle Hector thought you need to -" The birdhouse slipped out of her hands and landed on the floor with a thump.
The three women exchanged surprised looks. Ricky Ticky Tabby chirped to break the silence, wagging his tail cheerfully when all eyes went to him.
"Okay," Gülay said. "So that happened."
"Well in my defense it was already broken..." Nadya pointed at it. Sassy Pants made his way over to the crumpled heap of wood and pawed at the tin on the roof. "Don't do that sweetie. You may cut yourself." She shooed the cat away from it. "What's that?" She pointed at a piece sticking out of the roof.
"I'm not sure..." Gülay crouched beside the once-birdhouse. While Anya deposited Ricky Ticky Tabby back on the coffee table, something Gülay tucked away to needle her about later, Gülay took the protruding object between thumb and forefinger and tugged it until it was loose. The tin of the roof collapsed further with it gone, but Gülay barely noticed. An ornate key fit perfectly in the small of her hand, a tag tied to it with her name scrawled in Uncle Hector's cramped handwriting. "Uh, guys?"
"So... he gave you an old key and a birdhouse?" Nadya tried.
"Why'd he stick a key in a birdhouse?" Anya asked, returning with the broom and dustpan she scampered off to fetch. "Who does that?"
"Uncle Hector, apparently," Gülay mumbled. She turned the key in her hands, but there were no further clues.
"Maybe it's a key to a very old trunk that he hid in his attic... or maybe it's a key to a trunk and he buried it and now you need to go on a treasure hunt?" Nadya suggested.
"With how itemized his will was, I doubt it," Anya said. She nudged Pumpkin Belly out of the way with the broom, which he took offense at. "Gülay," she said, exasperated, "your cat's attacking the broom again."
"He does that," Gülay sighed. She set the key on the counter and bent to scoop Pumpkin Belly up, thankful from this angle he was unable to do all the damage he wanted to her arms.
Nadya poked the key. "There has to be a reason." The key sparked at her. "Uh... guys..." She jumped back when more sparks came off the key.
"So help me, Nadya, if you broke that key..." Anya looked up peevishly. Her prettily-painted lips parted in a silent 'o'.
"If you did, I'm impressed," Gülay said, taking the broom above the bristles and sweeping the mess up. "That key felt pretty sturdy."
"Gülay," Anya said, her tone uncharacteristically serious. "You might want to look at this..."
"So help me, if Uncle Hector left a tiny scrolled-up note in that key, I am going to scream." Gülay dusted her hands off, turned her head, and stared. "That is not supposed to be there." A yawning black space the size of a closet door loomed in her kitchen.
"Think we should knock?" Nadya whispered.
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