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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Marked Fur Murder

A Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Mystery

A Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Mystery (Volume 3)

Dixie Lyle

St. Martin's Paperbacks

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER ONE



You can't kill a Thunderbird with lightning.

That's what I desperately wanted to tell the investigating detective, a square-shouldered black man with a neatly trimmed beard at odds with his tangle of dreadlocks. His name was Officer Forrester, he was a new hire for the Hartville Police Force, and he was currently questioning me-Deidre Foxtrot Lancaster-as part of a homicide investigation.

It shouldn't even have needed to be stated. It should have been glaringly obvious that a supernatural being descended from an ancient Indian tribe of weather spirits-spirits that tossed around thunderbolts like they were baseballs-would sneer at a few hundred volts of house current.

But that was in my world, a decidedly weird place stocked with ghost pets, reincarnated cats, telepathic canines, and the occasional animal deity. Lieutenant Forrester's day-to-day existence was no doubt a bit more mundane; the only Thunderbirds he dealt with were the kind either involved in fender-benders or reported stolen.

Forrester and I were not hunched over a scarred wooden table in a windowless, locked room for our interrogation, either; no, we were seated in a large, comfortable space lit by a wall made of glass, both of us sunk into oversized beanbag chairs of neon orange and pink. ZZ was redecorating again.

"Sorry about the chairs," I said for the third time. I don't normally repeat myself, but I was kind of in shock. "My boss doesn't just embrace change, she kisses it. With tongue."

<Oh, for God's sake. Quit apologizing-it makes you look guilty as hell.>

That rough, raspy voice was Tango. She was the black-and-white tuxedo cat currently curled up and purring in my lap. She and I could communicate just by thinking-

[Don't be absurd, Tango. He's obviously a professional, and as such will shortly eliminate Foxtrot as a suspect.]

-and those deep, cultured tones belonged to Whiskey, the dog lying at my feet. He was an Australian cattle dog (though his accent was British), sometimes known as a blue heeler, and looked a little like two dogs smushed together: His chest and legs resembled those of a golden retriever, while his upper half was speckled black, white, and gray. One of his eyes was blue and the other one was brown, which added to the effect.

He was also-technically-dead. Looked, smelled, and felt like an ordinary dog, but actually made of ectoplasm. That's what allowed him to shift his shape into any other breed of dog, of any size or shape. He could communicate with me telepathically, too.

Get that look off your face. I am not crazy.

My life, however ... that's pretty much nuts. Aside from the ghost dog and the reincarnated cat (did I forget to mention that part? Life number seven, in case you were wondering), there was also what I did for a living. And the non-living, I guess.

Officer Forrester and I were in the sitting room of the Zoransky mansion, situated on the Zoransky estate, which abuts one of the largest pet cemeteries in the continental United States. The estate was home to my boss, Zelda Zoransky, her son, Oscar, and a private zoo that cares for animals who need it. I was ZZ's administrative assistant, which meant I handled not only all the day-to-day details of the estate but also the minutiae of ZZ's hobbies and interests, which were legion.

Oh, and I looked after the graveyard, too.

Not the grounds themselves-that was done by a sixties survivor named Cooper-but all the animal souls within. And by "look after," I mean protect from danger. The Great Crossroads was a mystical nexus where dead pets could leave their respective afterlives via one grave and hop, swim, trot, or crawl to the human one via another. It was sometimes called the Rainbow Bridge, but there was no actual bridge involved-just a constant swarm of the furry, scaly, or feathered formerly-alive on their way to visit the humans who loved them in this life and now love them in another. Love, it turns out, beats death.

None of which had much to do with my conversation with Officer Forrester, though. That was mostly about the body in the swimming pool.

Forrester finished writing something down on his notepad, looked up, and smiled. "All right, I think I've got everything I need about the deceased and how the body was discovered. I'd like to ask you a few questions about the people currently staying in the house. You said Ms. Zoransky is hosting a saloon?"

I nodded, then knocked back a huge gulp of Irish breakfast tea from my Three Investigators mug. "Salon. It's an old Victorian tradition-get a bunch of interesting personalities together to engage in lively discussion. ZZ invites all sorts of people to stay here, where they can eat and drink and generally indulge themselves. The amenities of the estate are provided free of charge, the only rule being that everyone has to show up for supper. She likes a nice mix of politics, popular entertainers, and science, usually."

"So I wasn't imagining things-that really was Keene?"

I nodded. "Our semi-resident rock star, yeah. He likes it here, comes back a lot. He's always an interesting dinner guest, so ZZ's given him a standing invitation." I sounded fine-calm and in control-but that was more out of sheer habit than anything else. When I'm in crisis mode, you could blow up a car fifty feet away and I'd have noted the make and model before all the wreckage had hit the ground. It has nothing to do with being brave, just years of training.

But that wasn't how I felt. Inside, I was screaming.

"Who else?" Forrester asked.

"Let's see. Teresa Firstcharger. She's an aboriginal rights activist. She contacted ZZ and asked if she could attend."

"Is that usual? People asking to attend?"

"Sure. Her salons are very popular. But the main reason ZZ said yes was because Teresa had some influential friends vouch for her. She's a rock star in the activist world, gets a lot of celebrities to endorse her cause. Johnny Depp is one of her supporters. But she has kind of a reputation, too."

Forrester tapped his pen against his knee. "What sort of reputation?"

"Well, she rubs elbows with a lot of rich and famous people. And some people claim she's all elbows."

"Any truth to that?"

I shrugged. "Some. Unfortunately, one of her elbowees was also one of our guests. Who was here with his wife."

"Things got ugly?'

"Things got deadly. You saw what we fished out of the pool." It was a glib and heartless thing to say, but I'm one of those people who use humor to deal with pain. Right then, I was doing my best to put a wall of bad jokes topped with razor-sharp wit around my feelings so I could keep functioning; on the other side of that wall was a whole lot of hurt. From the look on Forrester's face, I'm guessing he'd encountered this kind of reaction before.

"Uh-huh," he said. "So was there some sort of confrontation?"

"You could say that. The Metcalfes were talking in the lounge when Teresa arrived. She walked right up and-well, she was very blunt. Told him he could do better and she should get lost. I thought there was going to be a fistfight."

"How did Mr. Metcalfe take it?"

"He was embarrassed and angry. His wife was ... just angry."

"All right. Who else is a guest?"

"Let's see. Have you heard of Theodora Bonkle?"

"I'm afraid not."

"She's an author. Writes mysteries and children's books; I'm a fan, and so is ZZ. Theodora's an interesting person in her own right, too."

Forrester glanced at his pad, scribbled something down. "Oh? How so?"

"Well, the fact that she used to be a he is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the rest of her life. Theodora suffers from schizophrenia, which led to her being hospitalized at one point. She was placed on medication to help control her hallucinations, which worked-but as it turned out, the drugs blunted her creativity so much she couldn't write. She mounted a legal challenge to be taken off them for specific periods of time, and won."

Forrester frowned. "So the court agreed it's her right to be crazy?"

"Only now and then. And yes, this is one of the thens."

"Okay ... anybody else?"

"Dr. Efram Fimsby. He's an exotic meteorologist, an expert on unusual weather patterns. Climate change is one of ZZ's current obsessions, so he's here to talk about global warming and storm systems and things like that. Like Theodora, it's his first time here. Oh, and Rustam Gorshkov. He's an animal psychic."

Forrester raised his eyebrows. "He reads animals' minds?"

<Nobody reads a mind, Einstein,> Tango remarked. <A brain isn't a book.>

[And if it were,] Whiskey added, [yours would undoubtedly be a softcover. You do understand the inherent pointlessness in telling someone they can't read your mind by making a telepathic comment they can't hear?]

Tango yawned and stretched, extending one paw as far as she could and stretching her toes so the claws popped out. <I was being ironic.>

"That's what Mr. Gorshkov claims," I said. "But it's a little more complicated than that. See, he has a dog that paints."

"A dog that paints."

"Yes. He says it's a collaboration-he stands a short distance away and concentrates, and the dog paints what he tells her to."

"Oooookay..."

I tried for another gulp of tea, but it was empty. I set the mug down on the floor, regretfully. "And that's about it. I've already given you a list of the household staff, and who was here last night."

He nodded. "Yes, thank you. You're very organized. There's one more thing before you go, though."

I knew what he was going to ask, of course.

<Here it comes.>

[If he didn't ask, it would mean he was incompetent.]

Forrester looked up from his notes and made eye contact with me. "What exactly was your relationship with the victim?"

"We weren't close. In fact, we hadn't known each other for very long."

"But her brother works here."

"Yes. I know him ... quite a bit better."

Forrester's eyes softened. "How's he holding up?"

"Ben's sister is dead," I said. "He's not doing that well."

* * *

The victim's name was Anna Metcalfe. Ben Montain, her brother, was ZZ's head chef-and my boyfriend.

He was also a Thunderbird. So was his sister.

This wasn't the estate's first murder investigation, but it wasn't a common enough occurrence that I'd evolved a routine to deal with it. Yet. I was already making lists in my head for the next one, though:

1. Compose schedule for questioning of staff.

2. Line up possible replacement in case of incarceration or death of staff member.

3. Update résumé in case of murder of employer.

4. Find less stressful line of work.

But I very much doubted anyone on the staff had killed Anna. One of the guests, though-that was another matter.

When Forrester had left, I took Whiskey downstairs while Tango elected to nap. He trotted beside me, his nails making little clicking noises on the polished hardwood. [So. A Thunderbird, killed by electricity. Doesn't seem possible, does it?]

"Not in the least. I need to talk to Ben-" At that moment I heard the air-conditioning die. I notice little details like that, because little details like that make up my whole life-not just noticing them, but being responsible for them. And the air-conditioning should definitely have been on, since it was a hot and sunny day. I groaned and pulled out my cell phone.

As it turned out, it wasn't just the air-conditioning that had died, it was the power for the whole house. And when I went to look at the fuse box in the basement, I found out why-all the breakers had been tripped. I reset them, studied the equipment for a moment, then headed upstairs for the kitchen.

Which is where Whiskey and I found Ben, of course. He wore a crisp white apron and a look of embarrassment on his face. "Foxtrot. There's something you should probably know-"

"We just had a surge that knocked out the power. Did you notice?"

"Well, yeah-"

"Of course, the fancy new equipment ZZ just had installed told me where the surge came from."

The embarrassment on his face deepened. He's got a good face, all rugged lines and planes that show traces of his Native American heritage, though most people miss that due to the blond hair. Anyway, it's a good face, even when embarrassed. "So, yeah, about that-"

"It came from this kitchen," I said. "And on an entirely unrelated note, what's that?" I pointed.

"It's an electric hand mixer."

"It's not in very good shape."

"That's because I kind of-took it apart."

"That explains all the exposed wiring. Not so sure about that weird smell, though. Sort of like burning insulation, or maybe melting plastic? With just a touch of ozone."

His expression had gone from embarrassed to abashed to downright sheepish. "Just stop, okay? I was doing an experiment."

"Let me guess. Said experiment involved exposing a known Thunderbird to house current in order to see if it would kill him?"

"It didn't."

"I can see that. But that doesn't mean it wasn't excessively stupid."

He shook his head. "I'm sorry if I fried anything. But this proves exactly what I told you: There's no way Anna was electrocuted. A hundred and twenty volts didn't even tickle, Foxtrot. So how could it have killed her?"

"I don't know, Ben." Anna had been found floating facedown in the swimming pool, with a plugged-in electric hair dryer in the water next to the edge. Official cause of death hadn't been announced yet, but the medical examiner's opinion was that it was a case of electric shock drowning, something that usually only occurred around marinas. Docked boats connected to a power source on land formed a large, floating electrical grid; if that grid wasn't 100 percent secure, voltage could leak into the surrounding water. Anyone swimming into one of these electrified zones would find their muscles paralyzed, leading quickly to drowning.

Unless, of course, they were supernaturally immune to the effects of electricity.

"Anna wasn't electrocuted, she drowned," I said. "Which means that the hair dryer was tossed in after the fact to make her death look like something it wasn't. What we don't know is who did it or why."

[But we shall find out, Ben. I promise you.]

Ben glanced down at Whiskey and nodded. "Thanks. That means a lot."

Ben and I are the only two around here who know about Whiskey and Tango's true nature, and we try to keep it that way. Both Anna and Ben only recently learned about their Thunderbird heritage, and this was the first time they'd seen each other since Anna discovered what she was, told Ben, then bolted for another continent-Australia, to be exact. She was worried that her newfound powers would spiral out of control, causing hurricanes or tornadoes or worse, and the remoteness of the outback was the best short-term solution she could come up with. Ben could have done the same, but he decided to stay put and deal with it.

Her worries proved unfounded. Australia wasn't racked by unexpected storms, and Ben-after a bumpy start, and some help from yours truly-got his own abilities under control fairly quickly.

This was supposed to be a triumphant reunion. It hadn't turned out that way.

Oscar walked into the kitchen. Oscar Zoransky is ZZ's son, a man in his middle thirties who carries himself like an aristocrat, believes alcohol to be one of the major food groups, and has the ethics of a man always trying to invent a better snake oil. Oscar never met a scheme he didn't immediately buy a drink, take out for dinner, and wake up naked in a Vegas hotel with. He dresses well, is almost as clever as he thinks he is, and sounds a lot like Higgins from Magnum, PI.

"Ah," he said. "My condolences on the passing of your sister, chef. Foxtrot, if I might have a moment of your time?"

Ben waved a silent good-bye and vanished into his office. I did my best not to sigh. "What is it, Oscar?"

"It's the accommodations for Kaci and Rustam. They simply won't do."

"What's wrong now?"

"The bedroom you put them in isn't suitable. The view is too bland."

"Mr. Gorshkov objects to the view?"

Oscar shook his head. "No, Kaci does. She informed Rustam that it wasn't stimulating enough for one of her artistic temperament."

The sigh I was trying to suppress made another escape attempt, which I narrowly foiled. "Fine, I'll have them moved to a suite in the west wing, overlooking the gardens. Will that be satisfactory?"

Oscar raised his eyebrows. "I shall inquire forthwith. And really, Foxtrot, don't take that tone with me. We all put up with your canine companion without complaining; the least you can do is show a little professional courtesy to a fellow enthusiast."

[Fellow enthusiast? I'm a dog, not a model railroad.]

I reached down and scratched behind Whiskey's ears. "Pay no attention to the man, Whiskey. We enjoy you, we don't 'put up' with you."

<Speak for yourself, Toots.> Tango strolled up, yawning. I wasn't quite sure how she'd gotten into the kitchen, but cats have their ways. <One dog in the house is bad enough. Two verges on abuse.>

Oscar reached down and stroked Tango. She butted against his legs, purring. "A pity Rustam couldn't have found a talented feline, instead. I've always been more of a cat person."

<Tell him that's redundant. Not liking cats automatically disqualifies you from personhood.>

[Whereas liking them qualifies you for sainthood.]

<What's your point?>

[Saints are used to suffering. And being kind to the insane.]

Oscar straightened up. "Thank you, Foxtrot. I'll inform Rustam." He nodded and strolled out of the kitchen.

I went in search of Shondra, ZZ's head of security, and found her in her office, studying video footage on the bank of monitors across from her desk. Shondra was ex-military, short and lithe and lethal, dressed in plain black pants and a blue dress shirt with creases sharp enough to shave with. She flicked a glance my way when I entered, and motioned for me to sit down with the mug of coffee she held.

"Find anything?" I asked. Whiskey sat down at my feet.

"Only that no one entered or left the estate last night between ten PM and seven AM. There's no cameras out by the pool, of course."

"What do you think happened?"

Shondra scowled. "Someone died. That's all I know."

"But?"

"But who uses a hair dryer out by the pool? There wasn't even an outlet close enough-she had to plug in an extension cord. Where did she even find one?"

"There was one in the cabana. We keep it there in case we need to run power out to the pool."

"But not in the pool."

"Not usually, no."

"You think she was suicidal?"

I blinked. "I barely knew her. But nothing Ben's told me would indicate that."

"I doubt it, too. If people want to electrocute themselves, they use a bathtub. Nice and private. Nobody throws an electrical appliance into a pool and then dives in after it."

"So you think someone killed her?"

Shondra didn't reply at first, just gave me a hard stare. It's pretty much the only stare she has, and I'm used to it. After a moment she said, "I think it's a definite possibility."

"So do I. Especially after the fight she had with her husband."

"I wasn't there, but I hear it was epic."

"That it was. Firstcharger is a real piece of work. She does a lot of good for her community, but I've met bulldozers that were more sensitive to other people's feelings."

"You think she'd kill to get what she wanted?"

I frowned. "I don't know. It doesn't seem very likely, does it? Picking a public fight like that beforehand?"

"Murders aren't always elaborately planned, Foxtrot. Usually they happen in the heat of the moment and everything afterward is a desperate attempt to hide the evidence."

She had a point. Murder was most often a poorly thought-out impulse with an obvious perpetrator-unfortunately, none of those murderers seemed to know about this place. We attracted the kind who killed with an esoteric poison derived from ground-up tapeworms delivered via blowgun while disguised as a shrub.

[You forgot the part where they escape in their flying submarine.]

Sorry. Thinking too loud again?

[Perhaps a tad.]

"How's ZZ taking this?" Shondra asked.

"I don't know. She's in her room and asked not to be disturbed. But if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say not well."

Which bothered me a lot. ZZ was like a force of nature herself; she could be as unpredictable as a tornado, as relentless as a hurricane, or as brilliantly cheerful as a sunny day. Anger, grief, or a steely resolve to get to the bottom of things were all reactions I'd expect. Hiding in her room was not.

"She'll probably be down for dinner," I said. "She never misses those."

"What about Ben? How's he?"

"Shaken up but soldiering on. I told him he could take some time off if he needed it, but he refused. Needs to cook to take his mind off it, he says."

Shondra gave me a knowing look. "I hear that."

"Yeah. The more you do, the less you have to think. It can be therapeutic, give you time to process below the surface."

"As long as you don't overdo it. When my mom died, my dad started working seventy-hour weeks. Worked so hard at avoiding the grief he almost ran himself right into a grave next to her. Keep an eye on Ben, okay?"

"I will."

I told her I'd talk to her later, and Whiskey and I continued our rounds. Next up was Dr. Efram Fimsby, the meteorologist from Australia. I found him in the library, looking through one of ZZ's art books, a collection of photographs from the turn of the century.

Fimsby was a tall man in his fifties, with a round belly and a scruffy white beard. He wore a tattered brown sweater that looked like he'd mugged a scarecrow at pitchfork-point, and brown corduroy trousers. He looked up when Whiskey and I walked in and smiled. "Hello, Foxtrot! Just enjoying your esteemed employer's literary treasure trove. Eclectic, to say the least."

"True. I doubt many people have a signed copy of Madonna's Sex book and a first edition of Origin of Species. Or at least not shelved together."

He chuckled. "Well, they both ultimately deal with the same subject, don't they? Mating, and the inevitable consequences thereof. Evolution, in all her terrible glory."

"I don't think I've ever heard it put quite that way before," I said. "But I think Ms. Ciccone would approve. Or possibly make it into a music video."

"Yes, that seems likely. What can I do for you, Foxtrot?"

"I was just wondering if you'd spoken to the police yet. Lieutenant Forrester said he planned on talking to everyone, but I wasn't sure if he'd gotten to you."

"Oh, yes, the detective. He did, in fact. Turns out I was the last one to see her alive, actually."

I hadn't known that. "Really? When did you speak to her?"

"Last night, up in my room. She came to me for advice about a rather sensitive matter." He hesitated, looking solemn. "So sensitive I was forced to lie to the police. I told them I only talked to her briefly in the corridor, when she was on her way to the pool."

[Ah. Now we're getting somewhere.]

"What did she ask your advice about, Dr. Fimsby?"

"Her circumstances, Foxtrot. She'd recently undergone a rather significant change in her life, and was now worried about the consequences. So much so she thought someone might try to do her harm."

"And now she's dead. I understand you trying to protect her privacy, but-"

"It's not her I'm trying to protect, Foxtrot. It's her brother. You see, I'm worried that whoever killed her will try to kill him, too."



Copyright © 2015 by Dixie Lyle