Blaize and John Clement
St. Martin's Press
There are lots of good things about having a boyfriend—especially a new one. First of all, you get to do all those corny, young-love things that new couples have been doing since the dawn of time: hold hands on the beach, watch the sun set, make out like teenagers. Then there are the more practical advantages. For example, you get to mention how the trash needs to be taken out, and if you have a well-trained boyfriend, he’ll take it out. You get to look in the mirror and mutter, “I look like warmed-over toast today,” and he’ll lavish you with compliments. If you have a really well trained boyfriend, you might even get a box of chocolates now and then (my own personal weakness). At the end of the day, a boyfriend is a very good thing.
But there’s a downside.
Don’t get me wrong, Ethan is as smart as a whip, 100 percent thoughtful, and devastatingly, bewilderingly, unrelentingly hunky. But now that I have a boyfriend, I can’t really sit around all afternoon eating Fritos and ice cream and watching old reruns of Golden Girls. Not that that’s the sort of thing I do on a regular basis—at least not anymore. Ethan is under the impression that I’m the kind of girl who listens to hip music and reads the latest thought-provoking books in her spare time.
I’m not sure where he got that idea, but I have to try to live up to it as much as possible.
I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you-know-who. I used to be a deputy with the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department, until my whole world came crashing down around me and I quit the force, or to be accurate, the force quit me. I think the official words on my discharge report were “unfit for duty.” Now I’m a professional pet sitter on Siesta Key, an eight-mile barrier island that sits just off the shore of Sarasota, Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico.
I’ve built a pretty good business for myself. Most of my clients are cats, but I have a few regular dogs, too, with an occasional bird or iguana, and even recently a giant tank full of priceless exotic fish. I draw the line at snakes, though. Some people think snakes make a real neat pet. Those people are crazy.
It was a little after 5:00 P.M. when I left my last client for the day and pulled my Bronco out onto Ocean Boulevard, heading south toward the center of town. My plan was to stop by Beezy’s Bookstore on my way home and buy something impressive to read. Beezy’s is the type of place where you can find the latest blockbuster novel right next to an old, dog-eared copy of Gulliver’s Travels, complete with faded yellow highlighting and scribbled notes in the margins.
I was looking forward to it. I hadn’t been there in years, but I was a regular customer when I was a little girl. I remember sitting in the aisle with my older brother, Michael, while our grandmother was shopping at the market across the street. I loved the feeling of being surrounded by all those dusty thoughts and dreams of writers from all over the world, all with their own story to tell. I distinctly remember the moment I realized I’d never live long enough to read every book in the world. I cried for days.
The northern end of Ocean Boulevard is mostly old houses and runs along a stretch of beach, but as you get closer to the center of town, all kinds of shops start popping up on both sides. Most people just assume the street was named for its breathtaking view of the Gulf of Mexico to the west, but in fact, the man who originally bought up all the land in this area named it after his wife, whose name just happened to be Ocean.
I was keeping an eye out for a parking spot when something in the rearview mirror caught my eye. It was an old, cherry red convertible sports car right behind me, flashing its headlights and weaving from side to side. The driver was a thin-faced man with expensive-looking sunglasses perched on top of his pale, balding head. He had that blank, set-in-stone expression that only a true … well, let’s just say a true jerk can muster. He was revving his engine and drawing within inches of my back bumper, waving his hands in a frantic “Speed up!” gesture.
Now, I’m no angel. I’ve been known to drift outside of the traffic laws every once in a while. I even got pulled over once for going thirty miles per hour over the speed limit, which sounds bad enough except the speed limit was seventy. In my defense, I was twenty-one years old and dumb as a fruitcake, driving my own car for the first time in my life, not to mention I was the only car on the road for miles. I was midway along State Road 84, a sun-parched two-lane highway that cuts a straight horizontal swath right through the Florida Everglades. The only thing you have to worry about running into there (besides a cop with a speed gun) is the occasional alligator lumbering across the broiling asphalt.
But here we were in the middle of a beach town, not to mention in the middle of tourist season—shops and cafés on either side of the street, happy retirees on two-person bicycles ambling along on the shoulder, and kids skipping around with ice cream cones and listening to music on their iPods. I was already going about five miles per hour over the limit. There was no way I was speeding up just so some ember-head could get to his golf game two minutes earlier. I gently eased off the gas and slowed to the actual speed limit, which in town is only twenty-five.
I looked up in the mirror and saw the man smack his forehead in exasperation. His cheeks were beginning to turn a deep shade of plum. He leaned his head out over the striped lines in the road to see if he could pull around me. Normally, I’d stick to my guns and cruise along at exactly the posted limit just to teach him a lesson, but I was pretty sure he was about to make a run for it, and there was too much traffic to do it safely.
I decided to act like a grown-up—something I do every once in a while. I flicked on my turn signal and started to slow down, but before I’d even moved over to the side his tires screeched and he came peeling around my back bumper into the oncoming lane. I put my face in a perfect “You bald jackass” expression so he’d know exactly what I thought of his antics, but he didn’t even give me the pleasure of shooting me a dirty look as he roared by. He just glanced at me with a blank expression on his face, all business, as if nothing were wrong.
I took a deep breath. Siesta Key is home to only about three thousand full-time residents, and thanks to our sugar-white sand and bathtub-warm waters, we have another three or four thousand part-timers on top of that, but it’s a whole different story in the winter. That’s when the snowbirds descend on our little paradise, and the population swells to about twenty-four thousand. While folks up north are shoveling snow and chipping ice off their windshields, we’re sipping daiquiris out on the deck or watching dolphins frolic in the Gulf. On Christmas Day, you can find whole families headed down to the water to spread their presents out on beach blankets. The kids play in the surf with their new toys while Mom and Dad blissfully soak in the sun with a good book and a beer or two.
There are some snowbirds, though—like my friend here in the red convertible—who have a genuinely hard time smoothing out their feathers once they land. It’s as if they haven’t unpacked yet and they’re dragging all their baggage around everywhere they go, full of unpaid bills, ungrateful children, looming deadlines, and mounting household chores. Not that I’m complaining. We love our snowbirds. They spend lots of money and keep us all employed and happy. Plus, they flock here from all over the world, so it gives our little town a bit of cosmopolitan cachet.
I pulled back out on the road and told myself that once ol’ Baldy McGrumpypants had spent a few more days here, he’d settle down and all that pent-up anger and anxiety would melt away. He’d eventually nestle in and be just as happy and serene as the rest of us. At least, that’s what I hoped.
Not more than a minute later I had a sneaky feeling something wasn’t quite right. I’d been keeping an eye out for the bookstore, so I’d looked away from the road for a second, and when I looked back, coming at me like a speeding meteor was the back end of an old black Cadillac, its fin-shaped taillights glowing bright red.
I slammed on the brakes as hard as I could and heard a gut-wrenching squeal as I felt the Bronco veer slightly off kilter. I’m not completely sure, but I think at least three or four key scenes from my life flashed before my eyes as I slid to a grinding stop, just inches from the Cadillac’s rear bumper.
I looked down at my hands. They were gripping the steering wheel so tightly that my knuckles had turned chalk white, and I could literally hear my heart beating in my chest. In front of the Cadillac was a pileup of at least three more cars, and in the oncoming lane farther down was a disabled landscaping truck with a red front grille and three steeple-high palm trees swaying in the breeze in the back.
I let out a sigh of relief, which turned out to be a little premature. I glanced up, and sure enough there in the rearview mirror was a bright pink Volkswagen Beetle speeding straight for the back of my car. I had just enough time to see a young woman behind the wheel, absentmindedly twirling her long blond curls in one hand and holding a cell phone to her ear with the other. As I slammed my open palm down on the horn to get her attention, the thought flashed across my mind that she could only have been operating the steering wheel with her knees. I thought to myself, If we live through this, I’m going to kill that little bitch.
I closed my eyes and prepared for impact, but the woman must have looked up and hit the brakes at the last moment, because I heard what sounded like a pack of howler monkeys and then when she did hit me, the Bronco lurched forward only a foot or so, bumping into the Cadillac in front of me with a loud clank!
I opened my eyes and looked around. Everything seemed to be in one piece. Then I looked up in the rearview mirror, primarily to see if the woman was in good enough shape for a sound beating, and all I could see was a mass of blond curls spread out over her dashboard. Without even thinking I jumped out of the car and ran back as fast as my legs would carry me.
As I approached the car I could see her through the windshield. She was wearing a black and white striped tank top and a green barrette in her hair. Her head was lying completely still on the steering wheel, and her left arm was hanging listlessly at her side. As I approached the driver’s-side door, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the worst, and just as I reached out to try the door handle she jolted her head up, eyes wide with alarm. She rolled down the window halfway, and that’s when I realized she was still cradling the phone to her ear.
“I have to go,” she said into the phone. “I just hit somebody.”
She flicked the phone closed and dropped it down into the cup holder next to the seat and stared straight ahead. I reached out and put one hand on the hood of her car to steady myself. “Umm, are you okay?”
She looked up at the mirror in her sun visor and blinked her eyes a couple of times, like she was checking her makeup. “Yeah, I think so.”
I thought to myself, Now is the time to strangle this woman to death. Just then she looked at me, pulled her curly locks away from her face, and said, “Are you?”
She was much younger than I’d thought, probably not a day older than the legal driving age, which in Florida is eighteen. Her eyes started to well with tears.
I sighed. “Yeah, I’m fine. Why don’t you put that phone to good use and call 911.”
She touched a finger to her lip. “You’re bleeding.”
“Your lip is bleeding.”
I looked at my reflection in the backseat window. She was right. My lower lip was bleeding, but not badly, just smudged with a bit of red, as if I’d been interrupted in the middle of putting on lipstick. “I must have bit my lip when you hit me.”
Handing me a tissue, she said, “I am so sorry. I was talking on my phone and I guess I just got distracted.”
“That’s alright,” I said, dabbing at my lip. “I used to be young and stupid, too. Just call 911. I’m gonna go up and see what happened.”
But I already knew what had happened: Baldy McGrumpypants. He’d probably been weaving in and out of traffic and caused an accident. I tried to stay positive, but with so many cars and people around, it was hard not to think someone could’ve been hurt. As I headed up I glanced at my rear bumper to assess the damage.
My Bronco is pale yellow, like homemade lemon ice cream, so it shows even the slightest nick or speck of dirt, but there was hardly a scratch, just a couple of dime-sized dents on the chrome guard. The girl’s front fender was slightly concussed, but nothing a good body shop couldn’t hammer back into shape in a couple of minutes.
I looked back at the girl, who was already on the phone with 911. She was leaning her head out the window. I hate it when teenaged girls call me ma’am. She said, “What street is this?”
If she hadn’t looked so serious I would have thought she was joking. “It’s Ocean Boulevard.”
She gave me a quick thumbs-up and then got back on the phone, gesticulating wildly with her hands. I could tell she was describing the accident to the emergency dispatcher.
Okay, I thought to myself, maybe I was never that young and stupid, but I had to smile. She was just a kid, and she was lucky. We both were. Except for a bloody lip and a few tears, we’d both come out smelling like roses. I had a terrible feeling not everyone up ahead had been quite so fortunate.
I reached into the Bronco and switched off the ignition. At first I thought I’d better grab my backpack in case there were any serious injuries to contend with. I keep it stocked with all kinds of supplies for pet emergencies: scissors, bandages, rubbing alcohol, cotton balls, a pocketknife, etc. Then I told myself I was probably overreacting. I tend to have a pretty healthy imagination. Plus, every once in a while my old cop training comes bubbling up to the surface and I have to remind myself that it’s no longer my job to protect the public welfare.
I took the backpack anyway, slinging it over my shoulder as I dropped my car keys down in the hip pocket of my cargo shorts and headed toward the front of the pileup. There was a burly man with short-cropped black hair in a blue business suit standing next to the black Cadillac in front of me. He was holding a monogrammed handkerchief to his forehead and talking to an elderly woman who was sitting at the driver’s wheel.
As I got closer I heard the man say to her, “No, I’m not a cop. I said the cops are probably on their way.”
The woman wore what looked like a man’s overcoat over a white dress, with a white hat sitting atop her perfectly coiffed hair, with that wiglike, hair-sprayed look they give you at the beauty shop, and her makeup looked like it had been applied with a child’s hand—lips smeared beet red and powdery pink cheeks. She wore a lavender scarf wrapped tightly around her neck and tied in a bow at her throat, with white gloves stretched tautly over her hands.
I said, “Are you folks okay?”
I heard the woman mutter under her breath in a smoker’s growl, “Bastard!”
The burly man smiled at me as he pulled the bloody handkerchief away from his brow. There was a scratch about an inch long in the middle of his forehead. He pointed at the baby blue BMW in front of the Cadillac. “That BMW’s mine. I hit the car in front of me, and this nice lady hit me, but we’re all fine. I can’t say the same thing for those guys up there, though.”
As he said “this nice lady,” he rolled his eyes, but my attention was already focused up ahead, where a small crowd of people was forming around the green landscaping truck. There was a plume of white smoke rising up from its front grille, which was painted bright red.
The man said, “I just called 911. It ain’t pretty.”
That was when I realized—the smoke wasn’t coming from the truck, and the truck’s front grille wasn’t red. What I was looking at was the cherry red convertible that had been tailgating me, only now it was folded around the front of the landscaping truck like a piece of shiny red wrapping foil. That bald idiot must have been trying to speed around someone again and had pulled into the northbound lane and plowed into the landscaping truck head-on. It would be a miracle if he was still alive.
I ran up as fast as I could, and sure enough, there was Baldy, slumped over the air bag in a haze of smoke and fumes in the passenger seat, which was a good thing since the driver’s side was so crumpled the whole thing barely looked like a car anymore, just a triangular mess of red metal—like a giant slice of steaming pizza. Strewn all over the ground like pieces of mushroom and bits of pepperoni were hundreds of shards of glass and little strips of black plastic.
The man’s bald head was shiny with blood, but to my utter surprise his eyes were open and looking right at me. He must have somehow managed to extricate himself from the driver’s seat and climb over to the passenger side, or else he hadn’t been wearing a seat belt and the impact had tossed him right out of harm’s way. I noted that his expensive-looking sunglasses were nowhere in sight. I tried to open the passenger door, but it was stuck, and now there was more smoke pouring out from under the dashboard and a thick, syrupy smell in the air. I could hear the familiar wail of a siren approaching not very far away, but I knew there wasn’t a moment to waste.
My heart started racing like a jackhammer. I reached in and laid my hand gently on his shoulder. “Sir, my name is Dixie. I’m going to get you out of this car, okay?”
He didn’t move. I wondered if he even understood what I was saying, and yet he didn’t take his eyes off me.
He said, “I am not dead?”
“No, sir. No, you’re not dead, but I need to get you somewhere safe.”
His eyes narrowed and he smiled, almost like he’d just thought of a funny joke, and then he nodded slightly, as if considering the punchline, and said, “Safe…”
I wasn’t sure what he could possibly think was so funny at that moment, but I hoped it was a good sign as I considered my options. Normally it’s a pretty good idea to leave an accident victim completely still until paramedics arrive—moving someone with broken bones or spinal damage can cause irreparable harm—but the smoke from the car was getting heavier, and I could feel heat rising from behind the dashboard. This car was about to go up in flames, and this man needed help.
I braced myself for a fight as I hooked my arms under his shoulders. Sometimes people in accidents can go into a state of shock and resist being handled. It’s like some deeply rooted, ancient survival instinct kicks in, and they’ll fight tooth and nail before they’ll let strangers touch them no matter how bad off they are. Luckily, Baldy didn’t look the least bit fazed by the idea of being moved. In fact, the expression on his face was eerily peaceful.
Just then the burly man in the blue suit appeared behind me. He pointed at the smoke and said, “Uh, lady, I think you better get away from that car.”
I looked back at him and blew a strand of hair away from my face. “Ya think?”
I could hear creaking coming from deep inside the car as I tried to pull Baldy up enough to hook my right arm under his legs, but he was deadweight. I could barely lift him.
“Aw, goddammit.” The burly man whipped off his jacket and slipped in next to me. “I’ll get this half and you get his legs.”
I shuffled over as he reached in and locked his arms around Baldy’s chest, and just then there was a loud pop followed by an angry hiss from somewhere under the hood. I glanced over at the dashboard and gasped—there were black blisters starting to bubble up in the center. The burly man flashed me a look as if to say, “Ready?” and I nodded.
He said, “One, two, three…” and then in one swift motion we heaved Baldy up out of the car. He let out a low moan, and I felt a shiver go down my spine—I couldn’t even imagine the pain he must have been in.
As we moved away from the car it jolted backward spastically off the grille of the truck, and then a high-pitched scream started from deep inside the engine. I heard a little voice in my head say, It’s too late, and I had a vision of us all flying through the air in a ball of fire and glass and twisted metal.
Someone yelled “Run!”—for all I know it could have been me—and then we were racing with Baldy in our arms as fast as we could through the crowd of gawkers who were running, too, pushing their way past us. The screaming sound was getting louder and louder, and by the time we got beyond the row of cars parked along the sidewalk it sounded like a steam whistle going off inside my head. We got Baldy down on the sidewalk as fast as we could, and then without even thinking my old training kicked in. I covered his body with mine, clenched my eyes shut, and waited.
The explosion shook the entire street.
The high-pitched screaming was gone now, replaced with an eerie silence, but I wasn’t about to move. I stayed huddled over Baldy’s body and counted to ten. In the movies, when a car blows up, two or three other cars usually blow up too just to make it extra loud and scary, but all I could hear was Baldy’s labored breathing and the dying wail of the siren pulling up to the scene. I opened my eyes to find the burly man standing at Baldy’s feet and looking back at the accident. The firemen were already scrambling to get their hoses off the truck, so I knew they’d put the fire out before it had a chance to spread.
The burly man squatted down and sighed. “Jesus, who the hell are you? Wonder Woman?”
For a split second, I thought of how as a little girl I would sneak down to the beach in the middle of the night and let the waves wash up over my bare feet. I pretended the sea foam was magic, and if I stood there long enough, the magic would seep up my legs into my whole body. Then I’d stretch my arms out. Once my body had soaked up enough magic, I could rise off the sand and fly through the air. I’d form a picture in my mind of where I wanted to go, and then my body would take me there. I could see through walls, so I’d hover over my school and look inside all the empty classrooms, or I’d go to the firehouse and sit on the roof to watch my father inside, playing cards and dominoes with his fireman friends.
I slipped my backpack off. “No, I used to be a sheriff’s deputy.”
“Ah. That explains it.” There were beads of perspiration on his forehead, and his dress shirt was wet under the arms.
I said, “You better sit down. You look like you’re about to keel over.”
“I probably am. You nearly got us killed!”
I looked down at Baldy’s face. His eyes were closed now, and his shirt was bunched up at his neck and soaked in blood. I loosened the top buttons just in case they were restricting his breathing and then mustered up a smile for my burly accomplice. “Well, thanks for your help. I don’t think I could have gotten him out of that car by myself.”
He nodded. “You’ve got blood on your lip.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ll be okay.”
“I mean, you should probably get that off.”
I knew what he was getting at. There are all kinds of nasty blood-borne diseases, and whether or not Baldy here had any of them, I certainly didn’t want his blood anywhere near my mouth.
I pulled some gauze out of my backpack. “It’s okay. My car was at the back of the pileup. I think I bit my lip when I got rear-ended.”
He stood up and stuck his hands down in his pockets. “Oh, good. I mean, it’s not good you got rear-ended, but you might want to make sure you don’t get any of this guy’s blood on that.”
“What are you? A doctor?”
A faint look of guilt flashed across his face. He extended his hand. “Dr. Philip Dunlop.”
I shook his hand. “Oh. Dixie Hemingway. Nice to meet you.”
“Yeah. I guess I better go see what the driver of that truck looks like.”
A crowd of people had formed around us, and as he made his way through them I heard him say, “Alright, people, give ’em some air,” as if we were on some kind of TV hospital drama.
I wadded the gauze up and gently dabbed it at the blood on Baldy’s head. He opened his eyes and looked around, checking out his new surroundings.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Help is on the way.”
He looked at me and frowned, and then groaned as he lifted his head off the sidewalk to see past me into the street.
I said, “Oh, no, sir, please don’t try to move.”
His frown disappeared, and again a strange smile played across his lips. I turned to see what he was looking at, but there was nothing but the row of cars stopped in the street. I could see the young girl that had rear-ended me pacing up and down the sidewalk, holding her cell phone to her ear and gesticulating wildly with her free hand, and just opposite us was the cranky old woman in the black Cadillac. She was staring at us with a look of utter disgust, as if Baldy had ruined her entire day by nearly getting himself killed.
Just then a pair of black boots stepped into my field of vision. They were almost knee height, shined to a glossy, mirrorlike finish with steel toes and thick rubber heels. I recognized them immediately. They were the same boots I’d worn every day for years—the boots of a Sarasota County sheriff’s deputy.
I looked up to find Deputy Jesse Morgan staring down at me over the frames of his mirrored sunglasses, which he’d slid partly down the bridge of his sharp nose. He had broad shoulders, a buzzed military-type haircut, and a lone diamond stud in his left ear. I knew him, not from having worked for the department—he joined the force after I left—but from several other unfortunate occasions when our paths had crossed. He’s about as fun as a bag of rats, but I respect him.
“Dixie,” he said, his lips pursed to one side.
I looked down at my cargo shorts, which were smeared with blood. There were red splotches all over my white T-shirt, my hands were covered in blood, and there were red streaks running up and down my arms and legs. I wasn’t sure what Deputy Morgan was thinking at that particular moment, but let’s just say this wasn’t the first time he’d found me kneeling over a listless, bloody body.
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “He was like this when I found him.”
Copyright © 2014 by Blaize and John Clement
JOHN CLEMENT is the son of BLAIZE CLEMENT (1932-2011), who originated the Dixie Hemingway mystery series and collaborated with her son on the plots and characters for forthcoming novels. Blaize is the author of Curiosity Killed the Cat Sitter, Duplicity Dogged the Dachshund, Even Cat Sitters Get the Blues, Cat Sitter on a Hot Tin Roof, Raining Cat Sitters and Dogs,Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons, and The Cat Sitter’s Pajamas.