MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Macayla Burkett was about as prepared as a private detective could be. At least, one who specialized in locating lost, runaway, and abducted domesticated animals. To be exact, she was a Pet Detective. Three dog leashes encircled her waist. A high-beam flashlight hung from her utility belt, along with two dog muzzles, small and large, clipped there for easy access. The pockets of her cargo pants bulged with dog treats, a Kong, and a small first-aid kit. A pair of twelve-inch-long side-cut wire clippers, Velcroed to her pant leg, bumped her thigh with every step. The canister of pepper spray fogger hung from the right side of her utility belt for protection against aggressors of both the four- and two-legged variety.
She worked as an animal recovery specialist for Jefferina Franklin, a former police officer who now owned Tampa/St. Pete Recon, a fully licensed private investigation agency. It was part-time work, depending on the number of missing animal cases that came in. So far, the job had consisted mostly of coaxing once-sheltered pets out of swampy areas or abandoned structures, or off medians in rush-hour traffic. It was hot, fatiguing, and sometimes dangerous work. Occasionally she wasn’t fast enough on the draw with the pepper fogger. This month alone she’d been bitten by an accidentally cornered squirrel and sprayed by a startled skunk.
Not a glamorous life.
Still, rescuing missing pets gave her a real sense of satisfaction. The looks on their owners’ faces would be almost thanks enough if she didn’t have rent to make. But she did have to earn a living. So this job, supplemented by the dog training classes she taught, plus the occasional pet-sitting job, made her bill collectors happy.
Mac, as she was known to her friends, was barred from real PI work until she qualified for a Class “CC” license, which would allow her to be hired as a PI intern. That meant a semester of general investigative training at the nearby community college. But Mac wasn’t at all certain the PI business was for her. Tracking men who owed child support and catching cheating spouses didn’t appeal at all. She liked the anonymity of working with animals on an assignment-by-assignment basis. Nobody owned her time, or kept track. Her responsibilities were clear and short-lived. That way she didn’t owe anything, or anybody, a full-time commitment. Life had taught her that being responsible could carry a terrible price.
Jefferina Franklin had been doubtful about her abilities until she’d offered to follow up on, for free, several requests to locate missing pets that Tampa/St. Pete Recon routinely turned down. After logging a nearly 100 percent recovery rate, she had the job. That was more than ten months ago.
Tonight, however, her assignment didn’t require her to trap or retrieve a runaway dog or cat. This was actual investigative work. Emphasis on intelligence gathering.
One week ago, the night before a big race, three racing greyhounds had disappeared from the kennels of Derby Lane racetrack, the oldest continuously operating greyhound track in the country. Their owners told police they thought the dogs were taken to keep them from competing in a big-money race. They hoped that afterward, the dogs would be returned. Not a trace of them had been seen since. Officially, the trail had gone cold.
Worried about the damage that could occur to professional animals missing their diet and training regimen, the owners had turned to Tampa/St. Pete Recon to develop and follow up on any new leads. Jefferina called Mac.
“If anyone asks, you’re just tracking missing pets. Not trying to locate dog thieves. This is still officially a police matter. I won’t have my license revoked because an unlicensed amateur screwed up. So don’t.” Jefferina was hard but fair. “You’re only to collect evidence. No contact. No actions.”
“Right,” Mac murmured to herself. She’d need hard evidence of the dogs’ whereabouts, if she found them. In this case, that meant photos.
She patted her left pants pocket. It contained her boss’s newest bit of geek gear, a thermal image attachment for a cell phone. She had never used it before, and was much more worried about losing or damaging it than any possible danger to her personal safety.
The thrill of her first real PI assignment spurred her on as she made her way under the canopy of moss-draped trees a few blocks northwest of downtown St. Petersburg, in a modest area known as West and East Lealman. She’d done her due diligence, even if the sergeant at the precinct treated her like a cub reporter as she grilled him on the details the police had gathered.
The greyhounds hadn’t bolted on their own. The padlocks had been cut through, and leashes and muzzles were missing. They had been taken. Dognapped. That was all he could, or would, tell her.
Next she’d contacted her usual missing-animal sources. Word on the street had been very slow in filtering back to her. That worried her. After months of tracking lost, abandoned, and occasionally taken pets—mostly by good people who thought the animal abandoned—she’d developed a network of people who regularly funneled information to her about stray-animal sightings. In a community that sometimes couldn’t agree on much, nearly everyone thought that a person who’d mistreat an animal was a lower order of human being.
As she crossed the grass of an empty lot, the earth beneath her booted feet squished, softened by the curtain of rain that had swept in off Tampa Bay at sunset and dampened the area before moving on to anoint more lucrative real estate. The August shower had cooled the air just enough to discourage the gnats and mosquitoes that usually hovered in the warm night air. Illuminated by the city lights from Tampa, across the bay, the sky was never completely dark. Tonight the low clouds magnified that glow so that she didn’t need her flashlight to guide her steps.
Mac paused in the shadow of a palmetto shrub to get her bearings. The sign across the road read KING OF THE ROAD MOBILE HOME PARK. Her first landmark.
Thankfully, the rain shower had driven the inhabitants inside, lessening the chance she’d be sighted. But the park wasn’t her goal. It was the source of the only clue she’d developed so far about the missing greyhounds. It had come to her via Cedric, a man who lived on the street with his dog Dougie. While turning in his weekly aluminum can collection this morning at County Sanitation, located a few blocks from here, Cedric said he’d overheard residents of this trailer park complaining about hearing dogs howling pitifully several nights ago. One resident thought she spied a greyhound when she went to investigate. But when the police came they found nothing suspicious in the neighborhood. This morning, Cedric told her one of the mobile home residents was complaining about the smell that seemed to be emanating from a house on the block directly behind them. As thanks for the information, Cedric asked for and got three hot dogs from Doc’s Haines Road Hot Dogs, one for him and two for Dougie.
Mac adjusted her belt. One complaint plus one complaint might add up to zero, but she was hoping for a solid sighting. She’d love to be the one to solve the mystery of the missing greyhounds. A high-profile case would give her legitimacy with law enforcement who, so far, seemed to see her as nothing more than an amateur dogcatcher. Emphasis on amateur.
Just get the pictures and get out, she reminded herself. Taking an animal off the premises was not authorized. This was still, technically, a police matter.
Keeping inside the line of shrubbery that ringed the area, she skirted the trailer park, and was slapped in the face with a wet palm frond twice for her efforts. Finally, she came face-to-face with the barrier between the park and the nearby neighborhood. She was prepared for wire fencing. She was unhappy to discover that it was a wood fence. Everybody was into upscaling their bit of turf.
It was times like this that she allowed herself to admit that being five foot nothin’ was a bit of a handicap. But she didn’t dwell on it. Two years of being the flyer on a middle school cheer team had left her still limber enough to scale a wall, even if her physical therapist recommended that she not do such demanding activities anymore. And mostly she didn’t.
Well, not if she discounted her so-called date last week, which involved rock climbing at Vertical Ventures.
Mac groaned under her breath. Chasing dogs was more interesting than that date had been.
Luckily, the fence wasn’t more than six feet. She was over it without much effort, despite the fact that her wire cutter handles had forked over the fence top, leaving her struggling for several seconds.
Note to self: Remove big hardware before climbing.
But once she was on the ground, her swallowed curses evaporated. The smell emanating from somewhere ahead was impossible to ignore.
Peering out through the limbs of an unpruned jacaranda tree, she could make out a block of small houses, many no larger than the double-wide trailers on the other side of the fence she’d shimmied over. She heard a dog bark, sharp and sudden, a warning that it, at least, was aware of a stranger on the street.
Hunkering down out of sheer instinct, she made her way in the deepest shadows toward the source of the stench. Why hadn’t neighbors called this in? Why hadn’t the city responded?
She reached for her cell phone, popped the infrared device into place, and held it up. The dark house was instantly rendered in vivid colors of blue and green with hints of yellow. Nothing red, which would indicate warmth and life. Not even the possibility of an electrical device like a TV or computer left on. Just to make certain it was working correctly, she swung it away from the house.
As she panned into the yard next door, two images that had been in deep shadow jumped vividly to life on her cell phone screen. Hot oranges and reds outlined two people facing off behind the yellow-green contours of a pickup truck parked in the driveway. They were arguing, the hot red ovals of their mouths issuing sounds that barely registered with her as she watched. They must have just exited the house, Mac thought.
The device’s dual imaging allowed her to see a natural image of the men overlaid on the thermal imaging, giving her enough detail to tell one wore a hoodie while the other wore a suit or sport coat.
Watching in fascination to see the gadget at work, she knew the exact second it all went wrong. She saw the man in the suit reach into the bed of the pickup. And then she was looking at the pale-blue flare of the barrel of a pistol aimed at the second man.
Unable to believe what she was seeing, she pushed the RECORD button to capture the images she couldn’t look away from.
She flinched at the brilliant flashes that exploded from a pinpoint in the middle of her screen. Yet the sound of the shots barely registered. Was that why the other man’s silhouette barely moved? His only response was a hard grunt, as if he’d been punched in the gut. Hers was to stop breathing.
The first man moved quickly, lowering the tailgate of his truck even as the neighborhood came to life with barking dogs and doors banging shut. One brave soul turned on a porch light. But no one came running over in answer to a shot fired.
The shot man tried to stagger away. His assailant wheeled and struck the man with the pistol butt, its barrel still glowing eerily bright orange on Mac’s screen from the heat generated by the bullet’s passage. As the wounded man collapsed, the gunman caught and struggled to get him up into the bed of the truck and shut the tailgate.
Mac bit down hard on her lip to stop the instinct to cry out as he jerked open the truck’s driver’s-side door. But then he paused, as if listening. With her heart banging in her chest, the need for air was pushing her hard but she resisted breathing, because the man was moving again. He closed the driver’s door, moving in quick strides past the hood to come straight in her direction. He must be wearing boots because he made little clicking sounds as he moved.
As he neared, Mac lowered her phone, effectively blinding herself. It was a childish move, as if she thought that by no longer being able to see him, he wouldn’t be able to see her, either.
Go away! she thought wildly, repeating the phrase under her breath. This couldn’t be happening. He couldn’t have seen her crouched down in the shrubbery. She wouldn’t have known he was there if not for the infrared device. All she had to do was hold still and be silent.
He came quickly toward her, moving into the shadow of shrubbery that flanked the near-side sidewalk. Though she quaked with fear, she couldn’t resist raising the camera once more to figure out what he was doing. Everything after that disappeared behind the metallic glare of that still-glowing hollow-eye pistol aimed in her direction.
No time to scream. He must have seen her, as unbelievable as that seemed.
Not again. Please, not again.
She didn’t cry out. There was only the impulse to throw herself further into the bushes. To shield, protect, and block herself from what she knew, all too well, came next.
The sound of a siren wailing in the night sounded like her own smothered scream.
Copyright © 2017 by D.D. Ayres