I read somewhere that if two quantum particles come into contact with each other—like if they happen to bump shoulders in the dairy aisle of a subatomic supermarket—they will be forever joined in some mysterious way that nobody completely understands. No matter how far apart they travel, what happens to one will affect the other. Not only that, but they will retain some eerie form of ineffable communication, passing information back and forth over time and space.
Ruby and I were a bit like those weird particles. From the moment I opened the door and saw her standing there holding her baby, we had a strong connection that neither of us particularly wanted. It was just there, an inevitable force we couldn’t resist.
I met Ruby the first morning I was at her grandfather’s house. Her grandfather was Mr. Stern, a name which fit him remarkably well. Slim, silver-haired, and ramrod straight, Mr. Stern had ripped his bicep playing tennis. He was not the sort of man to make a fuss about a torn muscle, but his doctor had insisted that he rest his arm in a sling until it healed. That’s where I came in. Mr. Stern lived with a big orange American Shorthair named Cheddar, so he had asked me to help twice a day with cat-care things that required two hands. When he asked and I agreed, neither of us had known that Ruby was on her way with her baby. We hadn’t known how much exquisite pain we’d both suffer in the following days, either. Not muscle pain, but heartache.
I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you-know-who. I’m a pet sitter on Siesta Key, a semitropical barrier island off Sarasota, Florida. Until almost four years ago, I was a sworn deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department. Carried a gun. Had awards for being a crack shot. Went to crime scenes with the easy self-confidence that comes with training and experience. Had faith. Faith that I could handle anything that came along because I was solid, I was tough, I had my act together, I was on top of things. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I had calm, fearless eyes. Then my world exploded into an infinity of sharp-edged fragments and I’ve never had those fearless eyes again.
But on that Thursday morning in mid-September when I met Mr. Stern and Ruby for the first time, I had dragged myself out of a cold, dark pit of despair. I wasn’t hollow anymore. I enjoyed life again. I had even thawed out enough to take the risk of loving again. I was actually happy. Maybe all that happiness was the reason I got careless and ended up in big trouble.
I usually make a preliminary visit to meet pet clients and provide their humans with written proof that I am both bonded and insured. The humans and I discuss my duties and fees, and we sign a contract. But since Mr. Stern had something of an emergency, my first trip to his house was also my first day on the job.
He lived on the north end of Siesta Key on one of the older streets where, during the mass hysteria that hit southwest Florida’s real estate market, nice houses originally valued at two hundred thousand had sold as tear-downs to be replaced with multimillion-dollar colossals.
Mr. Stern’s house was a modest one-level stucco painted a deep shade of cobalt blue. In most places in the world, a cobalt house would probably seem a bit much, but on Siesta Key, where houses nestle behind a thick growth of dark greens and reds and golds, it seemed just the way God intended houses to look. It sat too close to an ostentatious wealth-flaunting house on one side, with another overblown house on the other side that had a huge untended lawn. The lawn sported a bank foreclosure sign—a not-so-subtle reminder that the real estate boom was over and that the value of anything depends on human whim, not on any intrinsic worth.
Slim as a spike of sea oats, Mr. Stern had neatly combed thin gray hair, bushy eyebrows above fierce blue eyes, and a spine so straight he didn’t need to tell me he was a military veteran. He told me anyway. He also told me that he was not the kind of man to waste his time on a cat, and that the only reason he had one was that his granddaughter had left her cat at his house and now he was stuck with it. He told me this while he gently cradled Cheddar, the cat, in the crook of his good arm.
American Shorthairs are uniquely American cats. Their ancestors came to this country along with the first settlers. They were excellent mousers—the Shorthairs, not the colonials—and they were noted for their beautiful faces and sweet dispositions. Something you can’t say for sure about the first settlers.
Cheddar didn’t seem the least bit offended by the way Mr. Stern talked about his disdain for cats. In fact, his lips seemed to stretch toward his ears in a secret smile, and he occasionally looked at me and blinked a few times, very slowly, sort of a cat’s way of saying, Between you and me, everything he says is hooey.
Having made it clear that he was a no-nonsense kind of man, Mr. Stern gave me a quick tour of the house. Lots of dark leather, dark wood, paintings in heavy gilt frames, photographs scattered here and there, a book-lined library that smelled faintly of mildewed paper and pipe tobacco. Except for a sunny bedroom with flower-printed wallpaper and a net-sided crib rolled into one corner, the house was what you’d expect of a cultured gentleman who rarely had houseguests.
In the dining room, Mr. Stern opened a pair of french doors with a ta-da! gesture toward a large bricked courtyard. “This is our favorite place.”
I could see why. Stucco walls rose a good fifteen feet high, with flowering vines spilling down their faces. Butterflies and ruby-throated hummingbirds zoomed around coral honeysuckle, Carolina jasmine, flame vine, and trumpet vine. The perimeter was a thick tangle of sweet viburnum, orange jasmine, golden dewdrop, yellow elder, firebush, and bottlebrush. A rock-lined pond held center stage, three of its sides edged with asters, milkweed, goldenrod, lobelia, and verbena, while a smooth sheet of water slid over an artfully tumbled stack of black rocks at its back. Inside the pond, several orange fish the size of a man’s forearm languidly swam among water lilies and green aquatic plants.
Cheddar twisted out of Mr. Stern’s hold and leaped to the terrace floor, where he made a beeline to the edge of the pond and peered at the koi with the rapt intensity of a woman gazing at a sale rack of Jimmy Choos.
I said, “This is lovely.”
Mr. Stern nodded proudly. “Those gaps between the rocks make the waterfall something of a musical instrument. I can change the tone by changing the force of the water. I can make it murmur or gurgle or roar, just by turning a dial. At night, colored lights inside those openings dim or brighten on different timers. Sometimes Cheddar and I sit out here until midnight listening to the waterfall and watching the light show.”
Ordinarily, when a man talks like that, he’s referring to himself and a spouse or a lover. I found it both sad and sweet that Mr. Stern was a closet romantic who turned a stern face to the world but shared his sensitive side with a cat.
The churning sound of wings overhead caused us to look up at an osprey circling above us. It was eyeing the koi the same way Cheddar did, but with greater possibility of catching one. Ospreys are also called fish hawks, and they can swoop from the air and grab a fish out of water in a flash. As I watched the osprey, I saw a dark-haired young woman looking down from the upstairs window of the house next door. She turned her head as if something had distracted her, and in the next instant disappeared. Another woman appeared. The second woman was older, with the sleek, expertly cut hair of a professional businesswoman. When she saw me, her face took on a look of shock, and then changed to venomous fury. A second passed, and she jerked the drapes together and left me staring at shiny white drapery lining.
The hot air in the courtyard bounced from the bricked floor and climbed my bare legs, but a chill had moved in to sit on my shoulders. As unlikely as it seemed, the older woman’s animosity had seemed personal and directed straight at me.
The osprey made another circle overhead, hovered atop the wall a moment, then extended its long stick legs for a landing. But the instant its toes touched trumpet vine, it lifted and flew away.
Mr. Stern smiled. “Those birds are smart. There’s coiled razor ribbon along the top of that wall. You can’t see it because it’s hidden under the flowers, but that osprey sensed the danger.”
The osprey’s shadow had caused the koi to sense danger too. They had all disappeared under rocks and lily pads. The koi were smart to hide. In the garden paradise Mr. Stern had created, life and death teetered on a fine balance.
If I had been gifted with the ability to see into the future and know that Ruby was at that moment coming to bring danger to all of us, I would have followed the lead of the osprey and the koi. I would have hidden out of sight until the danger passed, or I would have left the place entirely and never come back. But I’m not psychic, and even though the next-door neighbor’s wicked glare had been unnerving, I wasn’t afraid of her.
At least not yet.
Copyright © 2010 by Blaize Clement