Dec 13 2016 10:00am
The Cat Sitter and the Canary: New Excerpt
The Cat Sitter and the Canary is the 11th book in the Dixie Hemingway series (Available December 20, 2016).
This time, Dixie finds a tall, handsome tourist loitering around the home of one of her long-time clients. He tells her he’s just arrived from Scotland and that he’s lost his glasses, which presumably explains why he can’t find the house he rented for his seaside vacation. Dixie points him to the bungalow across the street (but not before rebuffing a few of the sexy Scotsman’s passes) and then continues about her business.
She doesn’t think about him again until she stumbles upon a dead body in her client’s front hall — a man in a three-piece suit with jet-black hair, delicate wrists, and a small notecard stuck to his lapel with a pearl-tipped hat pin. Right away, Dixie puts on her sleuthing cap and starts looking for clues, but when she sees what’s written on that card, she knows… this is going to be an adventure unlike any she’s ever had before.
And if she’s not careful, it just might be her last!
I don’t like surprises.
In fact, I’m a lot happier when things are downright predictable … boring I guess is the right word. Not that I’ve always been like this. Once upon a time I was as carefree and breezy as the next idiot, rolling with life’s punches like a champion fighter. But a girl can only take so many hits before she starts to go a little nuts, so if you’d prefer to stay on my good side, don’t jump out of the closet and scare me, don’t surprise me with a birthday party, and for the love of God, don’t come knocking on my door without calling first.
I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you-know-who. I live on Siesta Key, a little tadpole of an island that shimmies off the shore of Sarasota, about midway down the west coast of Florida.
In summer, when the sun drapes herself over our shoulders like a bear rug, we’ve got fewer than six or seven thousand permanent residents. But in season, while the rest of the country is avoiding overhanging roofs for fear of falling icicles, we’re wearing flip-flops and drinking cervezas down on the beach. That’s when our population swells to more than twenty thousand. We call them snowbirds. They come (with pets in tow) from all over the world to warm their weary, frost-nipped wings and relax with a daiquiri or two (or three) on one of our world-famous beaches.
It’s hard to imagine how our little island stays above water with all that extra weight, and us locals like to complain about the traffic and the tourists stepping out into the road like they own the place, but in truth it keeps our economy in the black. Besides, we’ve got a constant sea-kissed breeze floating through the palm fronds, dolphins playing in the clear blue ocean, and blooming bougainvillea scenting the air with just the slightest hint of honeysuckle. Who could ask for more?
I always say I’m a cat sitter because that’s how it started, but really I’m a whatever sitter. I’ll happily take care of whatever you’ve got: dogs, hamsters, parrots, fish, ferrets, iguanas—all God’s creatures, great and small.
Except snakes. If somebody calls up with a pet snake they need looking after, I try to keep my voice at a normal volume and politely refer them elsewhere. It’s not that I hate snakes, there’s just something about dropping little squirming mice into a snake’s open mouth that gives me the creeps. Plus, I’m not so sure it was God that came up with the whole idea of snakes in the first place.
I used to be a deputy with the Sarasota Sheriff’s Department. I wore a gun on my hip and a five-pointed star on my chest. I patrolled the streets in my cruiser like a blond badass. Or at least that’s what I told myself. In those days, things were pretty quiet around here. We had our share of criminals (what tourist town doesn’t?), but all in all, it was a pretty quiet life.
It’s funny, since I left the force and became a cat sitter, things haven’t always been so quiet …
* * *
The sun was starting to set by the time Charlie and I turned down Old Vineyard Lane and rolled to a stop in front of Caroline Greaver’s house. Charlie is a nine-year-old, fluffy-faced Lhasa apso who thinks he’s a much bigger, more athletic breed—like a greyhound or a German shepherd. Charlie’s humans, Otis and Deborah Weber, are a retired couple from Ontario who live on Bird Key, our smaller, fancier sister island just north of here. They’re big-time animal lovers, so the first thing they did when they moved here was drive over to the local pet shelter and ask for the dog nobody else wanted.
That’s how they got Charlie.
He’s a good boy, but before the Webers came along he’d been adopted seven times, shuttled in and out of seven different homes, with each new owner telling the shelter that he was just too destructive to be left alone. The Webers were volunteering at the Women’s Exchange, a giant consignment shop that donates all its proceeds to local charities and art programs, so Charlie was accompanying me on my rounds for the day.
Just as I reached into the backseat to unhook his harness, Charlie’s back went stiff as a board, and he let out a low, rumbling growl. I looked up to see a woman two houses down. She was untying a couple of balloons—one forest green and the other bright yellow—from the lamppost in front of her house, but then I realized it wasn’t the woman Charlie was growling at.
There was a man standing at Caroline’s front door.
He was tall and broad-shouldered, in an expensive-looking three-piece suit and tie, holding a giant suitcase with one hand and a slim black briefcase in the other. I got out of the car and shut the door before Charlie jumped into the driver’s seat and barked in protest.
I said, “Hi, can I help you?”
The man flashed a big-toothed smile and then ambled down the driveway, dragging his big suitcase behind him.
He said, “Ingrid?”
“No, I’m the cat sitter.”
“Oh.” He frowned. “There’s nobody home. I tried to call ahead but there was no answer.”
He had a thick Scottish brogue, so thick in fact that it took me a second or two to understand him. He was obviously speaking English, but what he’d said sounded more like, “Eh troy to cull a hate, bother was naw ants uh.”
He was as handsome as a cliché: late thirties or early forties, with curly, unkempt hair, dark brown except for an even sprinkling of premature silver, and eyes a deep black. The first thing I thought was that if they held a Mr. Scotland beauty contest somewhere, he’d be the winner in a heartbeat.
“Do you know if she’s home?”
I glanced up at the house. Caroline was away with her new boyfriend on a boat tour of the Florida Keys.
I said, “Was she expecting you?”
“Uh-oh.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his breast pocket and deftly unfolded it with one hand, holding on to his briefcase with the other. “I think I’ve made a mistake. Is this 17 Old Vineyard Lane?”
“No,” I said, pointing to the house across the street. “Seventeen’s right there. This is fifteen.”
“Ah, then. That explains it. I lost my glasses at the airport. I’m a right blind bat without ’em.” He held the note out to me. “That does say ‘seventeen,’ yeah?”
The address was scrawled in thin blue ink on what looked like a page torn from a doctor’s prescription pad. There was embossed print near the top, but the man’s thumb was in the way so I couldn’t make out what it said. In the lower left corner was a neatly drawn heart around the initials “IK” in the same scratchy handwriting.
“Terrible penmanship, right?”
I smiled. “I’ve got perfect vision and I can barely read it myself, but yes, it does say ‘seventeen.’”
He folded it back into his pocket as his eyes swept down my body. “Sorry about that. Rot gnome bah, rung hoss.”
Charlie had clambered into the cargo hold and was watching us from the rear window.
The man flashed me another smile. “Cat sitter, eh? I bet that’s an interesting profession.”
“Sometimes.” I tried to look as friendly as possible, but I was beginning to get a weird vibe from the guy, and I think it’s safe to say that Charlie was too. Just then he let loose with a barrage of vicious-sounding barks.
The man said, “Furry boots?”
He waved one hand in the air like he was erasing a chalkboard. “Sorry. I keep forgetting I’m not in Scotland. Where from?”
“Oh. Right here. Born and raised.”
He leaned over and peered into the back of the Bronco, his nose just inches from the window.
“And who’s your buddy?”
Charlie responded by lunging at the glass and gnashing his teeth. The man barely flinched. He just nodded approvingly and muttered something that sounded like, “Hats a rot goad bay.”
I said, “He’s not normally so rude.”
He winked at me. “Well, pretty little thing like you, I don’t blame him. He’s just protectin’ his booty.”
For a split second I tried to figure out what word in the English language sounded the most like “booty,” but then the smirk on the man’s face told me there was no translation needed. Slowly, I put my hands on my hips and took a deep breath. I’ve been known to have a bit of a temper. I don’t take kindly to perfect strangers referring to me as a thing, or, for that matter, as anyone’s booty. In fact, there was a time, and not so long ago, when a remark like that would have resulted in a little lunging and gnashing of my own.
He was holding out one hand and grinning. “With two f’s. The second f is for frrriendleh.”
I like a man with a firm handshake, but I never found out if Mr. Scotland’s grip was firm or not. I looked down at his black patent-leather shoes, polished to a mirrored perfection, and then I noticed his perfectly manicured nails.
I thrust my hand out and said, “Well, I’ve been cleaning litter boxes all day, so…”
His eyes widened. “Oh, have you then?”
I shrugged, “Yeah. My husband’s a little grossed out by it, but what can you do? Comes with the profession. And anyway, a little cat poop never killed anybody. Not that I know of.”
He withdrew his hand slightly. “Yes, I suppose so. Well, don’t let me keep you. We’ll meet again, yeah?”
Before I could even answer he turned on his heels, grabbed his suitcase, and made a beeline for the house across the street.
I congratulated myself as I pulled Charlie’s leash out of the backseat and snapped it on his collar, but I wasn’t happy about Charlie’s behavior one bit. I considered giving him a lengthy lecture about the dos and don’ts of proper dog etiquette, but given Mr. Scotland’s less-than-stellar behavior, I figured Charlie was probably just trying to protect me.
He looked up and blinked, as if to say, You’re welcome, and then launched another couple of warning woofs! in Mr. Scotland’s direction.
I would normally have gone in Caroline’s front door, but I didn’t want Charlie making any more noise, so we took the quicker route to the side entrance—a small covered portico with two whitewashed benches on either side and a big terra-cotta urn for umbrellas. The key I had only worked the front door, but luckily I remembered Caroline kept a side key hidden on the ledge over the door. I dropped my backpack down on one of the benches and ran my hand along the ledge, and without even thinking I let go of Charlie’s leash. In a flash he took off through the cat door, dragging his leash behind him like the tail of a runaway kite.
I unlocked the door as fast as I could.
Charlie had already raced down the long hallway toward the living room, and I could hear his high-pitched barks and something else that sounded suspiciously like scratching.
I rushed through the house yelling, “Charlie! No!” But it was too late. He was up on his hind legs at the other side of the living room, clawing at the door that opens to the front entry like a harp player on speed. I swooped him up in my arms and looked down at the door with a sigh.
There were scratches all along the bottom where his little nails had dug into the paint. I shook my finger in his face and said, “Bad!” as firmly as possible, but he just blinked and then licked the tip of my finger.
Like I said, he’s a good boy.
I slipped the end of his leash through my belt loop and tied it in a knot, and then I marched him back through the living room. For a split second, I thought about opening that scratched-up door to see what in the world he was so interested in, but I knew it would be pointless. Sometimes, there’s just no rhyme or reason to Charlie’s antics.
That turned out to be a pretty good decision on my part—not opening the hall door—because if I had, I might’ve discovered what was waiting for me on the other side.
Instead, I got to remain blissfully ignorant for just a little while longer …
Copyright © 2016 John Clement, Blaize Clement.
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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, The Cat Sitter's Pajamas, and The Cat Sitter's Whiskers.