A Taste Fur Murder

Dixie Lyle

St. Martin's Paperbacks

CHAPTER ONE


 
Ever had a job that threatened to drive you straight into a loony bin?
I’m an extremely capable, modern woman, but sometimes I feel like the mother of a dozen deranged children on a trip to the zoo, just after giving each one an espresso sundae and a megaphone. Screeching, pleading, yelling, crying; I have to deal with all of that at full volume while juggling a hundred different—and sometimes bizarre—tasks.
“No, the tiger cage goes over there. Yes, I’ll sign for that. Hello? Let me put you on hold. No, no, we don’t get that in until Tuesday. I’m sorry if the crab is fresh today, you’ll just have to wait for the asparagus. Hello? I’m sorry, Mr. Gates, the pool is being cleaned that week. I can schedule you for the seventeenth—Bishop Tutu’s going to make a soufflé. Excuse me, I told you not to put that there. Let me put you on hold—Hello? Yes, that’s not a mistake, that’s how much dry ice we need delivered. Make two trips.”
And so it goes. When you’re the Gal Friday to a crazy old lady—sorry, “eccentric senior”—with too much time on her hands, too much money, and poor impulse control, you either learn to deal with the plural of the word crisis or become one yourself.
I have learned to deal.
My name is Deidre F. Lancaster. The F stands for “Foxtrot,” which started as a little joke between my parents and eventually became what everyone called me. I’m five foot six, a hundred and cough cough pounds, my best physical feature is my dazzling smile, and my worst is my obstinate, currently brown hair. I work for a woman named Zelda Zoransky—whom everyone calls ZZ—and while my proper title is administrative assistant, I think chaos wrangler would be a better description. I keep that to myself, though.
Today was no different from any other day. I made phone calls, answered emails, delegated whenever I could—which wasn’t often—and took deliveries while sucking back my umpteenth mug of Irish breakfast tea.
ZZ lived in a big old mansion on a big old estate, with two wings, large grounds, and her own private zoo. The zoo took up a lot of space, too, because ZZ believed in giving her animals room to roam; they also had their own private live-in vet to keep them healthy and happy, and ZZ gave priority to animals who needed a place to stay. Then there were the tennis courts, the Olympic-sized swimming pool, the gardens—all that old money could buy and then some.
ZZ was a dear and I loved her to pieces, but working for her was a little like trying to ride a tornado that kept changing direction. About the only real constant were her salons—regular gatherings of interesting and eclectic people ZZ read about online or in magazines. Scientists, authors, activists, movie stars, celebrities of every stripe; she’d invite them all for a week of fine dining, lounging around the pool, and stimulating conversation. The only rule was that everybody had to attend the nightly dinners, which lasted for hours and always had an open bar. I had a standing invitation to attend anytime I wanted to. Sometimes I couldn’t resist—I mean, who wouldn’t want to be present for a debate on ethics between Stephen Hawking and Mick Jagger?
Crunch time for a salon was always just before all the guests arrived, and I had finally gotten over that hump. Or at least that’s what I thought before my boss showed up.
ZZ swept through my open door, wearing a bright, tropical caftan, sandals, and a chunky necklace of highly polished, square wooden beads. Her curly orange hair was piled on top of her head and held in place with a matching barrette. “Foxtrot! There you are, dear. How’s everything going?”
“Let’s see. Everybody’s here, nobody’s luggage is missing, the kitchen and bar are properly stocked, and the pool is clean.”
“Excellent. I just have a few last-minute details for you to take care of.”
“Shoot.”
“I want to raise that donation to the African girls’ school—make it an even fifty thousand. Spielberg is messengering me a hard-to-find film from Korea he highly recommends and I’d like to show it next week in the theater. I just finished this amazing book on the nutritional value of organic kale and I’d like to serve some this week—have Ben get some locally and do something interesting with it. Oh, and get the UPS guy something nice for his birthday, will you? It’s on Tuesday and he’s such a sweetheart.”
“How did you know it was Bernie’s birthday?”
“We’re Facebook friends.”
I smiled and made some notes. “I’ll get right on it. Anything else?”
“Yes. Has Caroline managed to find that dog yet?”
“Not yet.” For the last two days, a stray dog had been prowling around the grounds. ZZ was worried he might get hit by a car—we’re not that far from the highway—or find his way into the zoo and get into worse trouble there. We have large animals on hand, and some of them would consider a dog a tasty snack.
“He’s wily, I’ll give him that,” ZZ said. “But I’m starting to think—no, it’s ridiculous.”
“What?”
“Well, I saw him when I was out for a walk this morning. He was in the gardens, sort of crouched under a bush. Just staring at me.”
That worried me a little. ZZ described the dog as looking like a pit bull but larger and completely white; that made me nervous. Pit bulls could be aggressive. “It wasn’t threatening you, was it?”
“No, that wasn’t it at all. It seemed very alert, but not menacing. I decided I’d try to approach it, but when I got closer it darted away. It ran toward a corner of the garden where there’s a high wall—”
“ZZ. Tell me you didn’t corner a strange and possibly dangerous animal.”
“But that’s just it—I didn’t. When I got to the corner it was gone. Now, there’s a little vegetation in the way so I couldn’t see it all the time, but there’s no way it could have gotten past me. It just vanished.”
I frowned. “So what’s the explanation?”
“Depends on who you ask. I told Shondra what happened and she went to take a look.” Shondra was ZZ’s head of security. “She thinks someone could have helped the dog over the wall before I got there, though I don’t see how. And when I asked Shondra why someone would do that, she started talking about trained attack dogs and the kind of crazies that use them. She seems to think it’s a professional assassin sent here by some white supremacist meth-lab biker gang.”
“I see. You tick off any white supremacist, meth-lab biker gangs lately?”
ZZ got a thoughtful look on her face. “I don’t think so … but you know what the Internet’s like, dear. It’s so hard to tell these days.”
“Well, I kind of doubt you’re being stalked by a deranged Nazi drug dealer with a killer pit bull, but I’ll keep my eyes open.”
“Thank you, Foxtrot.” And she swept back out of the room.
It didn’t take me long to polish off ZZ’s chores. When they were out of the way, I considered what to do next: I could actually take a break, get a little fresh air, and hope my mobile didn’t start buzzing.
My office was on the second floor, in a corner parapet with big windows. I looked out over the gently rolling sweep of the perfectly mowed grass below, taking comfort in its sprawling green lawnosity—and then an ostrich tore through my placid field of vision.
A second later Caroline Durrell, the estate vet, tore after it. Oswald was loose again—he was something of an avian Houdini. I sighed, and realized there was only one place I could go if I really wanted to relax.
I made it down the grand staircase, through the atrium, and out the front doors without anyone buttonholing me. It would’ve been shorter to cut through the house, but that practically guaranteed I’d get sidetracked by a guest, a staff member, or my own slightly obsessive behavior. Instead, I skirted around the main house, ducked through the corridor that led from the front yard to the pool in back, around that, and through the gate in the hedge.
Into the graveyard.
The Zoransky family had owned this land since before the turn of last century, back when most people still got around in horse-and-buggies instead of cars. This part of the estate was undeveloped then, filled with scrubby trees and big stumps, the area logged for its timber and then unoccupied. A local from the nearby town asked Obadiah Zoransky if he could bury his dog on the land, and Obadiah said yes. Somehow, the practice spread, and after a decade or so there were hundreds of ex-pets interred among the trees.
The trees were mostly gone now—along with the stumps—though a few tall oaks and maples still stood. The family had to clear them out to make space, because over the last century the graves multiplied until they reached into five digits; over fifty thousand at last count, ranging from the smallest goldfish to full-grown horses. It wasn’t just animals here, either. More than a few human beings had elected to be laid to rest with their companions, though local regulations prevented actual burial—instead, more than five hundred sealed urns containing human ashes could be seen atop headstones throughout the cemetery.
It was an overcast day, but the spring air was warm and full of the fresh smell of plant life eager to explode pollen straight up the nostrils of allergy sufferers everywhere. I headed down my usual route, past the life-sized statue of Piotr, the Russian circus bear, then right at the grave of a parrot inexplicably named Fish Jumping. This led to a small stand of trees nicknamed the Cathedral, six big oaks that surrounded Davy’s Grave. Davy was the very first animal to be buried here, a golden retriever who loved to hunt with his owner. There were four marble benches around the plot, and it was a nice place to just sit and collect my thoughts.
I wasn’t there for long before I was interrupted, though; I heard the roar of an industrial riding mower getting closer, then saw it crest the rise of a hill with Cooper, the groundskeeper, at the wheel. When he saw me he waved and shut the mower off, then dismounted and ambled over.
“Hey, Cooper.”
“Hey, Foxtrot.” Cooper dressed like an old hippie, which was exactly what he was. Droopy gray mustache in a long but friendly face, long gray ponytail poking out from under a beat-up straw hat. Fringed buckskin vest over an ancient GRATEFUL DEAD T-shirt. Blue jeans belted around bony hips, buckled with a chrome peace symbol. Scuffed and dusty cowboy boots. “How’s things up to the house?”
“Same as always, Coop. Crazy casserole with a side of mayhem. How about you?”
A rare frown crossed his face. “Can’t complain, I guess. But something ain’t right.”
“How so?”
He shook his head. “Can’t rightly say. The boneyard’s been talking to me, though, and it don’t sound happy.” Cooper had a tendency to put things in quasi-mystical terms, even when he was talking about the most mundane subjects; he once told me that the plumbing in his caretaker’s cottage was undergoing a nasty Mercury retrograde. Took me a while to realize that he was referencing astrology and not a toxic chemical spill.
“What’s it been saying?”
“Nothing real specific. Just giving off weird vibes, you know? Had a dream last night that a catfish in a tuxedo tried to turn the place into an amusement park for crawdads. All the admission prices were in tadpoles.”
“You have to stop reading Dr. Seuss before you go to sleep, Coop.”
He grinned at me, but I could see he was still worried. “Maybe so. Hell, with everything I’ve poured into my skull, I’m lucky my dreams make any sense at all.” He paused. “Still … be careful out here, huh? Just ’cause I’m paranoid don’t mean I ain’t right.”
“No problem, Coop. I’ll keep my eyes open.”
He tipped me a nod and a smile, then ambled on back to his mower, fired it up, and rode off over the hill.
I sat on the bench and inhaled deeply through my nose, enjoying the smell of fresh-cut grass. I closed my eyes. Nice, peaceful, quiet.
And then, in the dark behind my eyelids, I saw something.
A little flash of light, somewhere in the distance. I know it doesn’t make sense, to talk about distance when you can’t see any farther than your own shut eyes, but that’s what it was like: as if I were looking out over a vast, pitch-black field, and something a hundred yards away had just lit up for the briefest second.
Random neuron firing in my brain, I told myself, and tried to ignore it.
It happened again.
This time it was as if the flash went off behind something, silhouetting it. Even though it was quite far away and there was nothing to provide scale, I had the strong impression it was something big.
I opened my eyes. Still sitting on the bench, marble cool and hard beneath my seat. Still quiet, still peaceful. “Well, that was weird,” I muttered.
I’m the curious sort. I closed my eyes again.
Another flash, this one different. It wasn’t so much a flash as a crackle, like a bolt of lightning that hung in the air for a second. It was brighter than before, and bigger. So was the shape it outlined, a kind of rounded hump.
No, not bigger. Closer.
My heart jumped and my eyes snapped open. Suddenly the graveyard didn’t seem so peaceful—or so empty. The quiet was the held breath of someone lurking just out of sight.
“Sure,” I said to myself. “Lurking in your imagination, you idiot.” I shook my head and forced a laugh.
But I didn’t close my eyes.
Coop’s managed to spook you, I thought. You’re stressed out, that’s all. Probably drank too much tea and not enough H2O today. Shake it off, lady—time to go back to work.
I got to my feet, glanced around nervously, then marched out of the Cathedral, wondering how long I’d been in there; it seemed a lot darker than when I’d entered.
Normally I kept my eyes straight ahead when I walked, but now I couldn’t stop looking side-to-side, scanning the grave sites next to the path. They weren’t always arranged in neat rows, and there were quite a few large structures: tombs, statuary, obelisks. I wouldn’t admit to myself what I was watching for—
There.
A flicker of light, the harsh kind given off by a flashbulb, behind that marble doghouse. Somebody taking a picture, has to be.
Except that for an instant I’d seen something else, and it definitely wasn’t someone with a camera. Something behind the doghouse but bigger than it—three times its size, actually, almost as big as a real house. Something massive and rounded, but not like a hill; an organic shape. The shape of something alive—or something that used to be.
I started to hurry. I hated myself for doing so, but I couldn’t wait to get out of the graveyard. It didn’t seem peaceful or relaxing or even safe, not anymore.
I didn’t close my eyes.
I got all the way back to the gate in the hedge, yanked it open—then stopped. Took a deep breath, turned around. Nothing behind me, of course, nothing except tombstones and grass and a few trees.
I closed my eyes.
For a second there was nothing, just empty blankness. Then another flash lit up that darkness, illuminating a huge, rounded mass shambling right at me. A tentacle that seemed to be made of pure shadow peeled itself away from the main bulk, reaching for me—
I shrieked and stumbled backward, tripping over my own feet and landing on my butt. My eyes flew open.
I was alone. Just me and the dead.
I got shakily to my feet, closed the gate, and walked toward the house. Backward, with my eyes wide open. I managed to make it without falling in the pool.
Then I got in my car and drove home. I’m not sure I blinked the entire way there.
*   *   *
I lived in a small bedroom community named Hartville, about three miles away from the Zoransky estate and a little over thirty from New York City. Despite its proximity to NYC, it was quiet and unassuming and mostly forgettable. I liked living there, I guess, though I couldn’t tell you why. It was ordinary and stable in a way ZZ’s estate never was, a little refuge where I could just take my time with a Lee Child novel in the local Denny’s while eating breakfast on my day off, or lounge around the house in my pajamas and shop for old mystery novels online. I was a bit of a collector when it came to books—nothing too compulsive, though, nowhere close to being a hoarder. Okay, I had a separate room for my library, but I was choosy about what I bought and choosier about what I kept.
It got dark quickly as I drove—night didn’t so much fall as dive headlong. I kept seeing shapes at the side of the road, glowing outlines that vanished if I looked directly at them. Tricks of the fading light, I told myself. Reflections of the setting sun off scraps of litter.
Sure. Except those scraps kept taking the form of animals—the humped back of a raccoon, the sharp-eared outline of a fox. A deer with a full head of antlers. By the time I pulled into my driveway, I was starting to think I was experiencing some sort of breakdown. I was having a hard time catching my breath, my heart was racing, and my eyes stung like I’d been crying. I shut off the car and just sat there, trying to get myself under control.
And I did. My breathing slowed and so did my pulse. My eyes still felt sore, but I could go in the house and rinse them with some cold water. I’m fine, I said to myself. I’m going to be okay. I got out of the car and walked to the front door, fishing my keys out of my purse.
I almost tripped over the cat.
I stopped myself just in time, teetering on my heels on the top step while the cat gazed up at me calmly from the step’s edge. It was a long-haired black-and-white, an elegant visitor in a fur tuxedo.
“Oh! Geez, kitty, you startled me. But at least you’re not glowing.” I bent down and offered my hand for her to sniff, which she did before butting her head against it and starting to purr.
“Well, aren’t you friendly?” I forgot how freaked out I’d been just a minute ago—cats had a naturally soothing effect on most people, and I was definitely one of them.
But this cat was more than friendly—it was familiar. Tuxedo cats are pretty common, but each one tends to be a little different; this one was virtually identical to a cat I had as a child, right down to the little white almost-question-mark on her forehead. Of, course, my cat was a bit odd, with six toes on both her hind feet—
I moved my hand from her back to her hind legs, first one, then the other. She didn’t try to stop me.
Yep. Six toes. Twice.
“That’s—impossible,” I whispered. “Tango’s been dead for ten years. You can’t be—”
And then I heard the raspy, weary voice inside my head.
<But I am, Toots. I’m exactly who you think I am. Now let’s go inside and maybe open a can of tuna, huh? I’ve come a long way, and I’m starving.>
*   *   *
So that’s what we did.
I didn’t scream, or faint, or run away. I’m a practical girl, and I do well under pressure. Okay, so my whole worldview was just turned upside down; what that meant to me was that now that everything was all jumbled up it was going to take a lot of work to get it straightened out, so I better get moving. You can’t get anything accomplished in a state of panic.
I unlocked the door and Tango zipped inside, down the hall and straight to the kitchen, where she waited patiently while I got a can of tuna, opened it, and dumped it in a bowl. I got her some water, too, then watched as she wolfed the food down. On closer inspection, she did seem a little worse for wear: Her coat was dusty, with a few mats and tangles in it that she never would have tolerated when I knew her.
When she was done, she glanced at me and licked her lips clean. <Damn. That beats the hell out of field mice and rest stop trash, I’m tellin’ you.>
You might be wondering why, after seeing and talking to a long-dead pet, I wasn’t reacting a little more … emotionally. Didn’t I care? Didn’t I wonder if I was losing my mind? Well, yes. To both. I’d loved Tango very much, and losing her hurt like nothing else I’d ever felt. But at the moment, I was in full-on crisis mode, where I went into this almost Zen-like state of super-efficiency and nothing could make me lose my cool. I’d had three-hundred-pound roadies high on amphetamines scream into my face from six inches away and never stopped smiling—it’s what I did, it’s what I was good at. I just mentally scheduled a breakdown for later, and added five minutes of sobbing or breaking things for every thirty seconds of hell I happened to be currently enduring.
“So. Tango. Been a while. How’s that whole dead thing working out for you?”
She cleaned a little grit from her front paw with her teeth. <Ugh. My claws are disgusting … tell you what, why don’t we go sit down on the couch and I’ll tell you all about it? I could use a good lap.>
“Sure. Super. Let’s go.”
So she padded out of the kitchen and down the hall and into the living room, me following right along behind. Part of me wondered if this was a dream or an extremely vivid hallucination, but I didn’t feel like I was asleep or under the influence of a drug. Maybe late-onset schizophrenia?
Tango jumped up on my leather sofa, but—struck by the sudden realization that I wasn’t quite ready for my dead cat to curl up in my lap—I detoured to the high-backed chair across from it.
And almost sat on the dog.
[Ahem,] rumbled a deep voice.
I froze, halfway to sitting down, straightened up, and slowly turned around. Lying on the chair was a tiny, big-eyed, very cute dog—I wasn’t sure of the breed, but it looked like a dirty dust mop with floppy ears and an underbite.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
<Oh, terrific.> I could practically hear Tango rolling her eyes.
“Hi,” I continued. “And you are?”
[Just as reluctant to be here as you two. But let’s try to make the best of it, shall we?]
I heard the voice in my head, just as I did Tango’s—but where her feline rasp sounded like a chain-smoking ex-chorus-girl, the dog’s voice was that of a barrel-chested but refined gentleman, a butler who used to box in the heavyweight division.
<I was wondering who’d show up. You’re it?> Tango eyed him with obvious skepticism. <Kinda puny, aren’tcha? Or do you just work the puppy angle, with the licking and the eyes and the piddling on everything?>
The dog drew himself up and directed what was obviously supposed to be a withering glare in Tango’s direction. [I assure you, madam, that looks can be deceiving. And I do not—under any circumstances—piddle.]
“I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. So what do I call you?”
The dog sighed. [My given name is Mr. Tiny. But I—]
It was a day for firsts, and another one suddenly arrived: I heard a cat laugh.
<Ha! Are you kiddin’ me? Mr. Tiny? What, Mr. Cutesy-Wutesy Widdlekins was already taken?>
[It wasn’t up to me.]
<What is? A grasshopper’s knee? A hunchbacked mouse? Bacteria on stilts?>
[It surprises me that someone of your persuasion would harbor such an attitude toward size.] Tiny didn’t sound offended; if anything, his voice was drily amused.
<What’s that supposed to mean?>
[That even if I were the size of a moose, you’d still be trying to get my goat. Unsuccessfully.]
There was a pause. Tango gave her head an annoyed little shake, just like she used to when I was ten and that butterfly she was chasing had gotten away, again.
Back when she was alive.
Ten years ago.
I blinked. I turned around. I walked to the bathroom. I could feel both animals watching me as I left.
<You got here too soon. I was supposed to show up first, ease her into this.>
[Don’t blame me, I just go where I’m told.]
<Right. Typical dog. Just following orders.>
[Oh, and I suppose you don’t have superiors? Nobody tells a cat what to do?]
<Knock it off, willya? She can still hear us.>
No I can’t, I thought to myself. Nope. No magic talking animal voices in my head, nosirree. I opened the medicine cabinet, found the tranquilizers, and took three of them. Appetizer, main course, and dessert. Check, please.
I left the bathroom and went upstairs. Tango followed me, but I studiously ignored her.
<Hey, Toots—you okay? I know this is a lot to take in all at once, but—>
I opened my bedroom door just wide enough to step through, and quickly closed it before she could follow me. Unless, of course, she could walk through walls—hey, that seemed to be a skill most regular cats had, so why not dead ones?
I waited, but she didn’t appear. She did, however, keep talking—and weirdly enough, even though I still heard her voice in my head, now it sounded like she was talking from the other side of a closed door. <All right, I understand. You need some time to think about all this. Get a good night’s sleep and I’ll explain everything in the morning.>
I didn’t answer. I undressed and got into bed, instead. Then I lay there, eyes wide open, trying very hard to not think about anything. After a minute or so, I sighed, then said loudly, “Attention, four-legged possibly imaginary guests! If you need to go to the bathroom, do not whine or yowl outside my door at three AM! If you can learn how to speak English, you can figure out how to use a flush toilet!”
I paused. “Non-piddling entities can ignore the preceding announcement!”
Then the tranquilizers hit my empty-stomached, overloaded nervous system, and I passed out.


 
Copyright © 2014 by Dixie Lyle