It was a few minutes past six when I got to the Powells’ house on Monday morning. A pinkish-gray sky was beginning to be brushed with apricot plumes, and wild parakeets were waking and chattering in the branches over the street. It was the last week of June, a time when everybody on Siesta Key was slow and smiling. Slow because June is so hot on the key you may keel over dead if you hurry, and smiling because the snowbirds had all gone north and we had the key to ourselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with snowbirds. We like snowbirds. We especially like the money they spend during season. But the key goes back to being a quiet laid-back place when they leave, and we all go around for weeks with sappy smiles on our faces.
I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you know who. I used to be a deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department, but something happened a little over three years ago that made the department afraid to trust me with certain parts of the population. Now I take care of pets while their owners are away. I go in their homes and feed them, groom them, and exercise them, which works out well for all of us. They don’t ask a lot of questions, and I don’t run the risk of doing something I’ll regret.
Siesta Key is an eight-mile barrier island that sits like a tropical kneecap off Sarasota, Florida. Running north and south, it lies between the Gulf of Mexico on the west and Sarasota Bay on the east. Our powdery white beach is made of quartz crystal that stays cool even when the sun sends down lava rays, and it magnetizes poets and painters and mystics who believe it’s one of the planet’s vortexes of energy. Lush with hibiscus, palms, mangrove, bougainvillea, and sea grape, Siesta Key is home to about seven thousand sun-smacked year-round residents and just about every known species of shorebirds and songbirds and butterflies. In the bay, great bovine manatees with goofy smiles on their faces move with surprising grace, eating all the vegetation in their path and keeping the waterways clear. In the Gulf, playful dolphins cavort in the waves, and occasional sharks keep swimmers alert.
There are other keys off Sarasota, but they tend to look down their proper noses at Siesta. She’s the slightly rebellious daughter whose conservative family is always afraid she’ll do something to embarrass them. Nubile maidens dance on her beach while drummers sound down the sun, tourists young and old shed their inhibitions and thread her streets with bemused smiles on their faces, and the natives don’t overly concern themselves with the histories of some incredibly wealthy residents who have no discernible talents.
I wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Judge and Mrs. Hopewell Powell had just left for their annual three-week vacation in Italy, putting Mame, their elderly miniature dachshund, in my care. Mame had a more formal official name, but when she was a puppy she had been such an inquisitive little snoop that Judge Powell—he wasn’t a judge anymore, but he’d sat on the Florida Supreme Court so long that everybody still called him Judge—had begun to sing, “Put the blame on Mame, boys, put the blame on Mame,” and the name had stuck. They still sang the song to her, and until lately Mame would stand on her hind legs and wave her front paws in the air as if she were dancing.
Siesta Key only has one main street, Midnight Pass Road, so you either live on the Gulf side or the bay side. The Powells lived near the north end, in an exclusive bayside neighborhood called Secret Cove. Secret Cove is actually a one-lane bricked street that traces an irregular north-south ellipse squeezed between Midnight Pass Road and the bay. Mossy oaks, pines, sea grape, bamboo, palm, and palmetto hide it from Midnight Pass Road, maintaining the illusion of an area unspoiled by human habitation. Live oaks form a canopy over the lane, and frequent signs warn that the street is for residents only; outsiders will presumably be drawn and quartered. In the event two cars meet, occasional bulges in the street allow the less expensive car to back up and pull aside.
A thick wild preserve fills the inside of Secret Cove’s oval, and more wild thickets separate its dozen or so houses. Narrow inlets intrude on the bay side, where scattered houses have boat docks and spectacular water views. The Powells lived on the waterless front side near the southern end where the street loops back on itself. The house was modest for the area: two-story pinkish stucco, red barrel-tile roof, attached double garage facing the street, a front door the color of eggplant, and a yard full of pebbles and tropical foliage growing so fast you could almost see it move. On the key, the unwritten rule is that the more green stuff you have surrounding your property, the less of it you have covering your yard. Places that are practically in a wilderness therefore have pebble or shell instead of grass.
Mame was behind the glassed front door watching for me. She barked to let me know that while I might have a key to her door, it was still her house.
I love those little dogs. Every miniature dachshund I’ve ever known has been affectionate and up for anything. You want to go for a walk? A miniature dachshund will head for the door with his tail wagging. You want to sit and watch TV? He’ll sit with you and look hard at the screen. You want to play Fetch-the-stuffed-Wal-Mart-toy? He’ll run after it as many times as you throw it. Except for a tenacious streak that makes them determined to explore anything that takes their fancy no matter how much you may try to talk them out of it, dachshunds are among the most amenable pets in the world.
Mame was an auburn longhair with a face blanched by age. In people years, she was pushing ninety, which made it problematic to leave her alone. But the Powells were pushing ninety too, in people years, and there comes a time when you have to make hard choices, and they’d made theirs. They wanted Mame to be at home, not in a boarding kennel, and they didn’t want anybody staying in the house with her.
I squatted to talk to her through the glass before I unlocked the door.
“Hey, Mame, can I come in?”
She stopped barking, but that’s all. In times past, she would have reared up on her hind legs and excitedly waved her front paws at me. Now arthritis and sadness made her simply watch me unlock the door and punch in the access code.
When I was growing up, nobody ever locked their doors on the key. But as more people moved here and we learned to be afraid, we began installing dead bolts and night latches. Now, thanks to slick salesmen and a general uneasiness about the world, a lot of people have security systems. After I’ve unlocked a door with my key, I have to hurry inside and punch the appropriate code on the keypad or an alarm will go off at the security company. If I’m too slow, they will call, and I have to give them my name, my security code name, which differs at each house, and my security code number.
I keep my clients’ security codes in a little black book that I guard as if it held vital secrets to the planet’s survival. To make it even more difficult for a potential code thief, I have given each client my own personal pseudonym. Anybody reading my little codebook will therefore not find a security code listed for Judge Powell. Instead, he’s listed as Flip Wilson—as in “Here come da judge, here come da judge!” It may be a goofy way to keep records, but it works for me.
After I punched in the appropriate code, I knelt to pet Mame and let her lick my hands. Then I got her leash for her morning walk. Old dachshunds don’t absolutely need walking, but I thought it was good for Mame to begin her day with a little adventure.
As Mame and I got to the end of the driveway and started to step into the narrow street, Conrad Ferrelli’s silver BMW came tearing toward us down the tree-darkened lane, going so fast that I grabbed Mame and jumped back. I recognized the car because I sometimes took care of Conrad’s Doberman pinscher, Reggie. I couldn’t actually see Conrad, but I saw the silhouette of Reggie’s triangular head, with his ears cocked up.
I liked Reggie. I liked Conrad Ferrelli. I liked his wife, Stevie. And so as the car drew even with me, I waved and smiled. I may have even chirped, “Hey!”
The car disappeared around a curve, its license plate winking in the shadows, and I led Mame out into the street as if nothing unusual had just happened.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
I heard the roar of Conrad’s car as it pulled onto Midnight Pass Road and sped south toward Crescent Beach and the village. His breakneck speed seemed odd, but then Conrad wasn’t known for being a conformist. People sucked up to him for his money, but when his back was turned they snickered and elbowed one another because of the way he dressed. He wasn’t exactly a cross-dresser, but he was a weirdly flamboyant dresser. His preferred getup was a pair of wild flowered skorts worn with a tailored coat and tie and mismatched transparent plastic slippers, maybe turquoise on one foot and yellow on the other. And he always, without fail, wore huge garish clip-on ear bobs.
Since I come from a long line of people who marched to the beat of their own drums, I’d always sort of admired Conrad for wearing whatever he damn well pleased.
That’s why I waved at Conrad’s car. That’s why I probably said, “Hey!”
That’s my excuse.
Mame and I walked slowly, because her legs were short and she was so old. We stopped to let her do her doggie business. We stopped to let her sniff at a tree. We stopped to watch a great egret take flight. At the place where the lane curves sharply to form its bayside stretch, one of my Keds had come untied, and I knelt to tie it, releasing the leash briefly to use both hands. Mame suddenly took off into the forested area, nose stretched, tail straight out, moving as if she’d dropped half her years. I made a grab for the leash but missed it. I called to her, but she ignored me and disappeared. I called again and heard a rough scratching sound behind the trees.
Mame was digging at something, and when a dachshund finds a place it wants to dig, you can’t change its mind. The word dachshund means badger dog in German, and the scent of a rabbit or a field mouse triggers their badger-seizing instincts. Mame couldn’t actually tunnel into an animal’s underground home, of course, but she could have fun thinking she might. In a way, I was pleased for her. At her age, this might be her last hunt. But I couldn’t let her dig willy-nilly in that thicket because all kinds of unfriendly critters live in places like that. I called a few more times, even though I knew it was useless, and then gritted my teeth and stepped into the dark morass of ferns, potato vines, saw grass, and palmettos under the trees.
I found Mame next to a long funky-smelling mound of pine needles and dead leaves at the base of a live oak dripping with Spanish moss. She was growling deep in her throat and tugging on something with her teeth. Gingerly, bracing myself for a rat’s tail or a baby snake, I leaned to see what she’d found. When I saw what it was, I let out an involuntary yelp.
She had a human finger in her mouth. The finger was attached to a hand. The finger was grayish blue, and so was the hand. The hand disappeared about mid-palm under the loose mulch.
I grabbed Mame’s leash and tried to jerk her back, but she stiffened her front paws and arched her head to resist me. She didn’t let go of the finger, and the hand came out higher, up to the wrist.
I whispered “Mame!” as if she and I were complicit in some kind of crime and I didn’t want anybody to hear. She growled. It was her finger and she wasn’t giving it up.
Grimacing, I lightly smacked the top of her nose.
“Let go, Mame! No!”
She growled again and shook her head angrily, but she didn’t let go. The shaking loosened the hand, creating a ring of space between wrist and pine needles.
I smacked her nose again, harder. “Mame, no! Let go!”
Along with knowing this was one of the most bizarre things I’d ever done, fighting with a dog over a corpse’s finger, was the uneasy knowledge that we were at the scene of a crime. Mame had already disturbed the covering by digging in the loose mulch, and I was trampling on it and possibly obliterating valuable evidence. There was also the possibility that whoever had covered the body was watching from behind a tree.
I squatted over Mame, took her determined jaws in both hands, and forced them open. Mame snarled and tried to snap at me, but the dead finger slid out and the hand flopped on the ground. Rigor mortis sets in quickly in a dead body, especially in hot weather, but this one was still limp. Which meant it hadn’t been dead long. Which meant the killer might still be lurking nearby.
In the murky light, I could see it was a man’s hand, large, with long fingers and manicured fingernails. Through the dark dry matter around the wrist, I caught a glimpse of gold. Mame thrashed and growled low in her throat, so angry I knew that if I let her jaws go she would nip at me. Quickly, I moved one hand to grab her collar. Keeping that arm stiff to hold her away, I felt for a pulse on the man’s blue wrist with my other hand. No doubt about it, he was dead, and the color of his skin said he’d died of asphyxiation. I jerked my hand away and duck-walked backward, still stiff-arming Mame’s collar while I scrambled in my pocket for my cell phone to dial 911.
When the dispatcher answered, I gave her my name and location.
“I’m out walking a dog, and she just dug up a dead body.”
“Your dog dug up a body?”
“Not the whole body, just a hand.”
Mame snarled over her shoulder and barked for good measure, sounding like a dog five times her real size.
It must have impressed the dispatcher, because she said, “Somebody will be right there, ma’am, but stay on the phone with me, okay?”
I knew she wanted to keep me talking until a deputy arrived in case I was reporting a crime I’d committed myself. Also, the investigating officer would want to know how I’d come upon the body, and the dispatcher didn’t want me to leave the scene.
I said, “I won’t disconnect, but I’m going to put the phone down because I need to calm the dog.”
Before she could tell me what she thought about that, I laid the phone on the ground so I could use both hands on Mame. I not only wanted to calm her, I wanted to get us both back to the street. Keeping her collar in one hand, I stroked her head with the other and talked softly to her.
“Good girl, Mame, good girl. You’re a very good girl, and everything’s okay.”
That’s what we all want to hear, that we’re good and that everything’s okay.
I kept repeating it, and she gradually stopped snarling and decided not to bite me. But when I turned her around to pick her up, her eyes were full of reproach. I had hurt her feelings and she wasn’t going to forgive me easily. I didn’t blame her. I never hit an animal, any more than I would hit a child, and I despise people who do. No matter how people may try to justify it, any time a large person uses physical punishment on a small vulnerable body, it’s despicable abuse.
But here the first time I’d caught Mame with a corpse’s finger in her mouth, I’d smacked her nose. Both of us were going to have to readjust our opinions of me.
I picked up the phone and carried Mame to the street, stepping out of the thicket just as a green-and-white patrol car cruised toward us. I told the dispatcher the deputy had arrived and turned off the phone. The patrol car pulled to a stop and the driver got out. When I saw who it was, I took a deep breath. Deputy Jesse Morgan recognized me at about the same time. I imagine he had to suck up a bit of air too. The last time we’d met had been over another dead body, in circumstances no less peculiar than this one.
He was crisp and neat in his dark green shorts and shirt, his waist bulging with all the paraphernalia of a law-enforcement officer, his muscular legs covering the ground in a confident stride. Only the diamond stud in one earlobe indicated that he had a life apart from keeping Siesta Key safe.
He nodded to me with that impassive face that all law-enforcement officers cultivate.
I nodded back. “Deputy Morgan.”
“You called about a body?”
“The dog smelled it and ran over and started digging. She had a hand pulled out before I knew what it was.” I pointed toward the thick trees and underbrush. “The body is under that big oak.”
He stepped into the thicket, walking as if he wasn’t at all concerned about poisonous snakes or spiders or fire ants. I could see his dark green back through the branches, saw him stop and stand a moment with his hands on his hips, saw him kneel for a few seconds, and then stand and turn to walk back to me, talking on his phone as he came. When he stepped onto the street, his face was unreadable. I wasn’t surprised. Only once or twice in our acquaintance had I caught him in a smile.
“What time did you find it?”
“Not more than ten minutes ago.”
“You called as soon as you saw it?”
“I had to fight the dog first. She wouldn’t let go of the finger. If it has tooth marks, they’re from Mame.”
His mouth turned down a bit. “She chewed on the finger?”
“I wouldn’t say she chewed on it exactly, more like clamped her teeth down and held on.”
He looked hard at Mame, who returned his look with an imperious tilt of her nose. It took a lot more than a uniformed deputy to intimidate Mame.
He said, “I used to have a dachshund. They’re stubborn little guys.”
“That’s just it; she doesn’t know she’s little.”
He didn’t slip up and smile, but his eyes warmed a bit and he nodded. Another car drew up, and Deputy Morgan walked over to meet Sergeant Woodrow Owens. Mame squirmed in my arms and I put her down. Like a little guided missile, she headed straight back toward the thicket. I had the leash this time, so I pulled her back and glared at her, feeling like an embarrassed parent whose child is showing unflattering traits in public.
Copyright © 2007 by Blaize Clement. All rights reserved.