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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Purrfectly Dead

A Whiskey, Tango & Foxtrot Mystery

A Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Mystery (Volume 5)

Dixie Lyle

St. Martin's Paperbacks

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Chapter One


I’ve seen our dinner guests wind up in handcuffs before, but never until after dessert. We have standards, you know.

“I always knew this day would come,” sighed Oscar. Oscar is the son of Zelda Zoransky, whom everyone calls ZZ. She’s also my boss.

“We all did, Oscar,” I said cheerfully. “We just figured it would be you wearing these bracelets. I’m too smart to get caught.”

Oscar took a sip of his drink. “And yet, you have been. The next thing you know, Mother will have you as an exhibit in her zoo.”

“Just a second,” ZZ said, frowning in concentration as she worked on my handcuffs. “I’ve almost got it…”

ZZ’s dinner parties are legendary. They’re the centerpiece of what she dubbed her salons, an invitation-only gathering on her estate. An eclectic mix of the famous, the brilliant, and the interesting show up on our doorstep to enjoy a few days of ZZ’s generous hospitality, and the only payment she demands is that her guests attend the nightly dinners. The food is decadent, the bar is open, and the conversation is lively.

Me? I’m Foxtrot Lancaster. It’s my job to coordinate all this, which is even trickier than it sounds. I forgot to mention ZZ’s large menagerie of (formerly) homeless exotic animals, her many, ever-changing hobbies, and the extremely large animal cemetery that abuts the estate. You’d think the last one would be the easiest; I mean, how much work can overseeing a bunch of grave sites be? Make sure someone mows the grass and nobody knocks over the tombstones and you’re done, right?

Not so much.

But right at the moment, I wasn’t thinking about the graveyard. I was thinking about the handcuffs around my wrists and how long it would take ZZ to get them off. Also, the soup smelled amazing, and I really wanted to have some before it got cold.

“You’re doing fine, ZZ,” said the woman sitting to my right. The improbably named Maxine Danger smiled; the slinky cocktail dress she wore matched her hair and lips, all three as red as the bell on a fire alarm. ZZ’s current obsession was lock-picking, which explained both Maxine’s presence and my predicament: Ms. Danger was a professional escape artist. ZZ’s attempt to free me, using only a bobby pin, from the handcuffs I wore was being supervised by someone who could perform that particular trick blindfolded and hanging upside down—and no doubt had.

“Almost, almost … no. Damn it,” said ZZ. She wore a black-and-white gown that suggested a tuxedo, though she’d opted not to cover her orange curls with a top hat; she knew where the line between homage and parody was, even if she frequently ignored it.

“I am sure you can do it,” said Hironobu Masuda. “This Smith and Wesson model is the most commonly used type.” Masuda gave her an encouraging nod; while he wasn’t wearing a top hat either, his tuxedo was old-school enough to justify one. He could even have added white gloves and a walking stick and gotten away with it.

“Easy for you to say,” muttered ZZ. “You design the damn things.”

“Anybody mind if I go ahead and have my soup?” asked Amos Clay. He was a husky man in his fifties with the reddish complexion of an outdoorsman and bristly white hair. His dark-gray suit looked like it was as uncomfortable being worn as he was wearing it. “I’m starving.”

“Don’t mind me,” I said. “Leave me a little bread and water, that’s all I ask. And maybe a rat, if you can spare one.”

Clay nodded and started to eat. Despite his rough looks and demeanor, he was a scientist—a forensic scientist who worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service helping crack down on the illegal animal parts trade.

“Those will be obsolete before too long,” said Esko Karvenin. He spoke in a careful Southern drawl, every word clearly enunciated. “Flex cuffs are becoming more and more common.” Karvenin was tall and thin, with a beaky nose and a fringe of gray hair around his birdlike skull. A roundish tuft of gray beard sprouted from the end of his chin like an errant dandelion puffball. His suit coat was a brilliant green etched with thin, neon-blue lines.

“Strips of disposable, injection-molded nylon?” said Masuda. His offended tone suggested that even saying the words had contaminated his mouth. “Never. Such things can be defeated with a sharp knife or a common cigarette lighter. They cannot even be double locked, which leads to overtightening.”

“Definitely a problem,” said Keene. “In fact, I much prefer the padded kind. Prevents chafing.” Keene was our semiresident musician, a British rock star who liked the estate so much, he was practically a fixture. His tux wasn’t as elegant as Masuda’s, but Keene claimed it had once belonged to Harry Houdini and that he’d paid an extravagant amount for it on eBay.

Karvenin shook his head. “What y’all are talking about are the originals, which were really no more than ordinary cable ties. The technology has come a long, long way since those humble beginnings—they even have versions that use a key. And fireproofing them is hardly difficult.”

“Or necessary,” said Summer Coyne. She was Maxine’s assistant, a short blonde in a short, black skirt, with a dazzling smile and huge eyes. “I can show you how to get out of a pair of those in about thirty seconds. Without using a lighter, a bobby pin, or a knife.”

“Got it!” declared ZZ triumphantly. The cuffs popped open, and I was free. I picked up my soup spoon gratefully and took a mouthful before ZZ decided to demonstrate anything else.

“Well done,” said Maxine. “You’re a fast learner, ZZ.”

“With her attention span, she has to be,” said Oscar. “Summer, would you care to share your method with us?”

“For removing cable tie cuffs? Sure,” said Summer. “First, you have to be reasonably limber.”

“That leaves out my son,” said ZZ. “The only thing flexible about him is his ethics.”

“Touché,” said Oscar with a smile, raising his glass in a salute. In his spotless, white dinner jacket, he looked like he could be toasting the launching of a yacht instead of a soup course.

“Well, the limber part only matters if your hands are cuffed behind your back,” said Summer. “You need to pass your hands under your bottom and then pull your legs through so your hands are in front. Let’s just assume we’ve already done that part, and I’ll demonstrate the rest. Of course, for that, I’ll need a cable tie. Maxine? Do you have one handy?”

Maxine pretended to pat down invisible pockets in her skintight dress. “No, I don’t think I do … but I’m pretty sure I saw one in Oscar’s soup.”

Oscar frowned, dipped his spoon into his soup and lifted a strip of bright-yellow plastic tied in a loop out of the bowl. “Ah,” he said. “Well, at least it isn’t a fly.”

Maxine took it from him and wiped it off with her napkin.

“Perfect,” said Summer. She held her hands out before her, fists clenched and thumbs facing up. “Maxine, if you would?”

Maxine looped the plastic around Summer’s wrists, threaded the end through the locking mechanism, and pulled it taut.

“Good,” said Summer. “Now, this is a heavy-duty tie, rated to a hundred and seventy-five pounds. Pretty strong, right? But I’m going to show you how to break it using nothing but leverage and your own muscles.

“Now, cable ties work on a very simple system. The strip has little plastic teeth along its length, and when the strip is threaded through the locking mechanism, a tiny plastic tab lets those teeth go one way and only one way. Pull the other way, the tab jams against the teeth. That’s why they can be tightened but not loosened.”

“But you can loosen them?” asked Amos Clay.

“Nope. In fact, I’m going to do something counterintuitive—I’m going to tighten them. But first—” Summer held up her wrists. “As you can see, Maxine attached them with the locking mechanism facing down. The first thing we want to do is reverse that so the lock is on top. The easiest way is to use your teeth, like so.” She bit down on the strap and tugged, gradually making the loop rotate until the lock was centered on top of her wrists.

“Now, I make sure the tie is as tight as possible.” She grabbed the end of the strip with her teeth and pulled, tightening the loop until it dug into the skin of her wrists.

“And here’s the final step. You raise your hands high and bring them down onto your stomach as sharply as possible. At the same time, flare your elbows to the sides and flex your back muscles like you’re trying to touch your shoulder blades together. It may not work the first time, but keep trying; no cable tie is tough enough to resist for long.”

She demonstrated. It took her only two tries before the locking mechanism broke and she was free. She stood and took a little bow as we all applauded.

In the middle of the applause, the look on Summer’s face changed. She went from a big, beaming smile—she had the kind of smile that took up half her face—to a look of surprise, to a flash of panic.

Then she fell over.

We all leaped from our chairs. “I’m okay, I’m okay,” Summer said from the floor. “But can someone help me with these?”

She stuck two high-heeled feet up in the air, resting her calves against the edge of the table. Her legs were bound from ankle to knee with at least twenty bright-yellow cable ties.

“Well, well, well,” said Karvenin. “You do throw the most interesting soirees, Ms. Zoransky. Are you planning on producing a pterodactyl after dessert?”

Maxine shook her head sadly. “Summer, Summer, Summer. How many times have I told you, never show up to one of ZZ’s dinner parties unless you’re prepared…?” She reached and plucked a flower from the centerpiece, and suddenly it was a pair of wire cutters. She used it to clip apart the cable ties, one by one.

“Outstanding,” said Keene, chuckling. “What are you going to do for an encore? Should I be checking my underwear for the abrupt appearance of a chainsaw and several lobsters?”

Maxine smiled coolly at him. “From what I’ve heard, that’s just another Saturday night for you. But in any case, I wouldn’t impose that sort of cruelty on a lobster; not exactly in the spirit of the event, is it?”

The event she was talking about wasn’t the dinner—it was the upcoming fundraiser for ZZ’s charitable foundation. While there were many causes ZZ championed, the one nearest and dearest to her heart was the rescue of exotic animals from a variety of sources: roadside attractions with appalling conditions, private citizens who could no longer care for their unusual pets, bankrupt zoos or circuses. ZZ’s foundation did its best to find new homes for these animals, and when that wasn’t possible, she took in the orphans herself. The Zoransky menagerie was quite extensive, with residents that ranged from large creatures like hippos to tiny ones like lizards, and they had their own vet to look after them.

“True, very true,” Keene replied. “And since I’ve already agreed to perform at said soiree, I think I’m entitled to know what sort of act I’m expected to follow. What do you have planned in that devious but oh-so-stylish noggin? Give us a preview.”

“A preview is precisely what I have in mind,” said Maxine. “I like to test out escapes in front of a small audience before I perform them on stage, and this seems like the perfect venue. So, you unfortunate victims—I’m sorry, I meant to say lucky volunteers—get to see my latest escape before anyone else does. If everything goes well, I’ll be officially debuting it to the public at the charity gala.”

“And if it doesn’t,” said Summer, “you’re all invited to the funeral. There’ll be a buffet!”

“How dangerous is this escape in terms of bodily damage?” asked Karvenin. “Or, to put it another way—in the unfortunate instance of catastrophic failure, will an open casket become out of the question?”


Copyright © 2021 by Dixie Lyle.