It was about 3:30 Thursday afternoon when I stopped by Marilee Doerring's house to pick up a new key. I have keys to all my clients' houses. I carry them on a big round ring like a French chatelaine. If a robber broke into my apartment, it wouldn't be to rip off my Patsy Cline CDs, it would be for my key ring.
I'm Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you know who. I'm a pet-sitter. I live on Siesta Key in Sarasota, Florida, and so do all my clients. Until three years ago, when the world crashed around me, I was a deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department. Now I take care of animals. I go to their homes while their owners are away and feed them and groom them and play with them. They don't ask a lot of questions or expect much from me, and I don't have to interact with people any more than I choose to. At least most of the time. On this particular afternoon, I was about to become a lot more involved with a lot more people than I wanted to be.
Siesta Key is an eight-mile barrier island connected to the mainland by two bridges. The Gulf of Mexico laps at the west side, and Sarasota Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway are on the east. Inside the key itself, there are fifty miles of canals, so we have almost as many boats and boat docks as we have seabirds, which is a bunch. You name it, we've got it. Terns, plovers, gulls, egrets, herons, cranes, spoonbills, storks, ibis, and pelicans all happily scoop up their favorite entr‚es on our beaches and in our backyards. Offshore, manatees and dolphins play in the warm water.
Counting part-time residents, the key is home to about 24,000 suntanned people. Except for "the season," when snowbirds come down and inflict their money on us, and spring break, when college students get drunk and pee on the hibiscus, Siesta Key is a quiet, laid-back place. On the map, it looks like an alligator's head with an extremely long and skinny nose. Siesta Village and Roberts Bay form the head, with Crescent Beach where eyes would be. The nose is just wide enough for one street---Midnight Pass Road---with private lanes and tourist lodgings on each side, along with occasional undeveloped wooded areas.
Marilee's cat was a silver-blue Abyssinian named Ghost. Awful name, sweet cat. I had taken care of him several times before, and the only thing different about this time was that Marilee had called the night before to tell me she'd had her locks changed, so I would have to pick up a new key before she left town. She lived on the bay side of Midnight Pass Road, about midway between Turtle Beach and the south bridge. Her street was curvy, lushly tree-lined and short, the house a low-slung stucco with a red barrel-tile roof and deep recessed arches over doors and windows, the kind of Mexican-Mediterranean hybrid that Floridians love. Dwarf schefflerias and pittisporum and hollies made swirling patterns of ground cover in the front yard, interspersed with clumps of red geraniums and bird of paradise plants. The front door undoubtedly had once hung on a cathedral in some South American country, and the doorbell was a deep-bonging thing that sounded like it might have come from the same cathedral. As I waited, I could hear the faint sound of classical piano music from next door.
Marilee opened the door a cautious slit and peered out at me. Later, I would wonder about that, but at the time it didn't seem unusual for a cat owner. A cat can be taking a nap on its hundred-dollar kitty pillow or watching a television program especially designed for its feline pleasure, but let somebody open an outside door the narrowest bit, and it will go streaking out like it's escaping a torture chamber.
Marilee was stunningly beautiful, with glossy black hair tumbling over her shoulders in the kind of casual disarray that takes a lot of work. It framed an oval face with skin like a cosmetic commercial, only hers wasn't airbrushed, it was really that perfect. Her eyes were dark violet blue, with thick black lashes, and her mouth had the kind of moist expectancy that automatically makes you think of sex. I could smell expensive perfume, the kind I've only worn by rubbing a strip from a magazine on my wrist. She was wearing a short pink terry-cloth robe that cost more than my entire wardrobe, including the winter coat I have salted away in mothballs in case I ever travel north. Her legs were long and slim, tanned enough to look healthy but not so dark as to look like she tarted herself up in a tanning booth.
At first she looked surprised to see me, then in that breathy voice of hers, said, "Oh, you've come for the key! I was just about to jump in the shower. Hold on, I'll get it."
She closed the door and I imagined her bare feet sprinting over Mexican tile. Next door, the music stopped and a moment later the garage door opened and a white Jeep Cherokee backed out and headed toward Midnight Pass Road. As it made the turn, I could see the driver was a young man, no more than a teenager, which surprised me. Somehow, I never think of teenagers listening to classical music, which shows what a lowbrow I am.
Marilee opened the door again, wider this time, and stretched her arm out, with a loop of red silk ribbon dangling from a finger. A shiny new door key hung on the ribbon like a gold pendant on a necklace.
Feeling a bit like the upstairs maid, I held out my hand and let her drop it into my palm. I said, "Don't forget to leave me a number where I can reach you, and the date and time you'll return."
I should have whipped out my notebook and made her give me the number right then. But she knew the routine, and I already had all the pertinent information in my files---her vet's name and number, the dates of Ghost's immunization shots, his medical history, his favorite foods and toys and where they were located, and his favorite hiding place in case he decided to play Where's Ghost?
I told her to have a safe journey and not to worry about Ghost, and went on my merry way. I never saw Marilee again, at least not alive.
My alarm went off at 4:00 the next morning, and I got right up. One thing you can say for me, I wake up well. I sleep in underpants, so all I had to do was pull on khaki cargo shorts and a T-shirt and lace up my Keds. I brushed my teeth, splashed water on my face, pulled my hair into a ponytail, and I was ready. Animals don't expect you to dress up for them. I could go naked for all they care. By 4:15, I was halfway to my first stop. The sky was just beginning to pink a little around the edges, and the early April air was a balmy seventy degrees.
The sea breeze freshens in the early morning on Siesta Key, tickling the undersides of palm leaves and sending orgasmic tremors through trailing bougainvillea. Snowy egrets open their topaz eyes and stretch their blue-toed feet, and great blue herons stilt-leg it to the edge of the shore to pick up breakfast coming in on the tide. The air tastes of brine and fish and sand, and throaty chants of mourning doves underscore the squawk of seagulls rising and circling on air currents. It's my favorite time of day, a time when I have the streets almost to myself and can zoom along on my bike like a gull looking for early-waking grubs and unwary snails.
I always see to the dogs first and leave the cats and occasional birds and rabbits and hamsters for later. It isn't that I play favorites, it's just that dogs are needier than other pets. Leave a dog alone for very long and it'll start going a little nuts. Cats, on the other hand, try to give you the impression they didn't even know you were gone. "Oh, were you out?" they'll say. "I didn't notice." Then they'll raise their tails to show you their little puckered anuses and walk away.
My first stop was at Sam and Libby Grayson's, a retired couple who had gone north to visit their daughter. A wooded area separated the Graysons' street from Marilee's, and with tall trees lining the street and woods behind, it was like being in the middle of a dark forest. The Graysons' house was a two-story ultramodern built of cypress and glass, with a high vaulted cage around the lanai that gave it a look of dignified exuberance. One of the bulbs in the twin coach lights flanking their garage had burned out, and I made a mental note to replace it when I came back in the afternoon.
Until a few years ago, nobody on Siesta Key ever thought about burning security lights. But since everybody north of Georgia seems to have looked up one day and said, "By gawd, I'm moving to Florida!" we've started having break-ins here and there, even a murder now and then. So now people on Siesta Key leave night lights burning so potential burglars and rapists can see better.
I propped my bike in front of the garage and sorted through my keys. Rufus, the Grayson's schnauzer, started barking to show me he was on the job as guard dog, but he knew it was me and his heart wasn't in it. As soon as I pushed open the door, he was all over me, not the least bit ashamed to let me see how glad he was that I had come. I like that about dogs. They don't worry that you might not like them as much as they like you and hold off until they're sure, they just go ahead and declare themselves and take the chance of being rejected.
I knelt down to hug him and let him kiss my chin. "Hey, old sweet Rufus," I said, "How's my old sweet Rufus?" Dogs like you even when you say the same dumb things over and over. Cats expect you to have more self-restraint.
I got his leash out of the wicker basket in the foyer, and as soon as I opened the door, he was out like a shot. I had to hold him steady while I locked the door behind me, and then we both loped off. Rufus plunged off the pavement to pee on a palm tree, then raced on ahead of me. My Keds made smacking sounds on the asphalt, so I moved to the edge of the street where pine needles muffled the noise. I didn't want to cause some retiree to think a criminal was running down the street and haul out his handgun. Something about not having to shovel snow anymore and being surrounded by sunshine and tropical foliage 365 days of the year causes a lot of people to feel so guilty that they compensate by scaring themselves with thoughts of imminent crime. They go out and buy themselves a gun and sort of hope they'll get to shoot somebody with it, so you have to be careful.
Rufus did his business next to a hibiscus bush and I picked it up in a poop bag and kicked a cover of pine needles over the spot before I moved on. I like to be tidy. I let the leash play out so Rufus could feel independent, and he bounced into the middle of the street to check out a fluffy egret feather. He whoofed at it and nosed it around, showing off to let me see he was alert to anything new. Something caught his attention from the woods, and he raised his head and began barking loud, enough to wake everybody on the block.
I jerked the leash taut and said, "Shhhh! Quiet!"
He barked again and I turned to look over my right shoulder. I could have sworn I saw a figure slip behind a tree trunk in the murky shadows.
Any number of things could have been moving around back there in the predawn shadows. A snowy egret or a great blue heron could have dived for a baby black snake from one of the oak trees. A squirrel could have awakened early and leaped from a branch with a flash of white underbelly. Or somebody returning from a middle-of-the-night tryst might have seen me and ducked into that dark thicket. God knows, there are plenty of men and women who drift in and out of one another's beds here on the key, and some of them are married to other people. But still, the skin on my shoulders puckered and I felt uneasy, with that tingly feeling that tells you unfriendly eyes are watching.
I yanked Rufus out of the street and set off for the Graysons' house so fast, he had to do a scrambling dance to catch up. As we trotted up the driveway, the Herald Tribune delivery man turned into the street and sailed a paper into the flower bed by the front walk. I retrieved it and put it in a wooden chest outside the front door where people leave drop-offs when the Graysons aren't home. Somebody had left a stack of paperbacks rubber-banded together, and in the pale glow cast by the lone security light I could see a yellow Post-it stuck on top with a heavily scrawled "Thanx!"
I fed and brushed Rufus and put out fresh water for him. With him following me like an aide carrying a clipboard, I did a fast check of the house to make sure he hadn't gotten bored over night and chewed up something. The Graysons' latest acquisition was a full-sized carousel horse that had once been part of John Ringling's collection---Ringling practically built Sarasota, and you can't turn around here without seeing something circus-related. The horse was mounted on a floor-to-ceiling brass pole in the dining room, and it gave the room a happy, carefree look. I took a moment to admire it before I turned on the TV in the den for Rufus. I set it on Nickelodeon so he could watch Mister Ed. Then I hugged him good-bye.
"I'll be back tonight," I promised. "You be a good boy, okay?" I don't know why I ask animals questions like that. If one of them ever answers me, I'll probably freak out.
Rufus was sitting in the front hall with his head cocked to one side when I shut the door behind me. I felt guilty leaving him alone, but everybody has to come to the realization sooner or later that we're all alone in this world.
Copyright © 2005 by Blaize Clement
Blaize Clement is the author of the Dixie Hemingway mysteries: Duplicity Dogged the Dachshund, Even Cat Sitters Get the Blues, Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof, Raining Cat Sitters and Dogs, and Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime. Clement has been a stay at home mom, dressmaker, caterer, and worked as a psychologist for 25 years. She has never been a pet sitter, but has shared her home with dogs, cats, birds, fish, and neurotic gerbils. She lives in Sarasota, Florida.