A Deadly Tail by Dixie Lyle is the 4th book in the Whiskey, Tango & Foxtrot Mystery series that shines a light on the dark side of fame (Available February 2, 2016).
Foxtrot has seen a lot of strange things as assistant to billionaire Zelda Zoransky at her wacky mansion. And that includes her telepathic cat Tango and ectoplasmic pooch Whiskey. So it's no surprise to find a horde of zombies lurching across the lawn-even if they are just actors in a horror movie that's filming on the mansion grounds. The special effects look pretty convincing. But all that fake blood doesn't fool Whiskey, who quickly sniffs out the truth: one of those corpses is real…
Before you can say, “Lights, camera, murder,” Foxtrot and her furry partners-in-crime-solving are caught up in the drama of who-killed-who…and why. With a crazy cast of characters including a neurotic director, a star-hungry diva-even with an appearance by Lassie's ghost-it's bound to have one hell of a twist ending. But first, Foxtrot and her supernatural sidekicks have to find a killer amongst them-before the whole case is a wrap…
Let’s just get this out of the way right now: My life is weird. And I don’t mean just in the “I have weird hobbies” or “I have weird friends” kind of way. Oh, no. I mean, yes, I do have weird friends, but they only account for a certain percentage of strange in the weirdness equation that is my existence. Which, if you were going to break it down, might look a little like this: ghost dog plus reincarnated cat times graveyard haunted by animal spirits divided by rich eccentric boss with multiple oddball interests (including her own private zoo) minus any spare time for the gal who has to oversee it all and solve any problems that might crop up.
Got your head wrapped around that? Too bad, because there’s more. But maybe we should drop any attempt to define this as a mathematical problem, because pretty soon we’re gonna get into supernatural integers and crime scene algebra and then this breakdown turns into the nervous kind and I have to start all over.
Let’s just start out with the scene that greeted me and my dog as we arrived for work on Tuesday morning, at the sprawling estate that holds the Zoransky family mansion. It was October, a very chilly day, and the iron bars of the front gate that swung open for my car when I arrived were furred with frost.
The front lawn was overrun by zombies.
[I say, Foxtrot,] said a deep, cultured voice in my head. [The front lawn appears to be overrun by zombies.]
That voice was my dog, Whiskey. He looks like an Australian cattle dog, sounds like a barrel-chested butler, and is actually composed of ectoplasm—the stuff ghosts are made of. This allows him to shift his form into that of any canine breed, all of which seem to be normal dogs to any observer. He and I converse telepathically, though often I just talk out loud.
“Zombies, you say?” I answered. “How unusual. I thought they preferred the warmer weather—” And then I noticed something strange and slammed on the brakes.
[Indeed. Though the lower temperatures would no doubt help with the rate of decomposition, and Halloween is fast approaching—]
“Whiskey. Shut up for a moment about the walking dead. What the heck is that?” I stared out my window at what the animated corpses were milling around, under, and in some cases on.
At first glance it seemed the zombies were attending a yard sale. Gardening implements, power tools, bicycles, furniture—all this and more was strewn about. But it was how it was all displayedthat was truly bizarre: Rakes and shovels were lashed together into angular frameworks; bikes featured weed whackers attached to the front like some sort of jousting lance; chairs had been carefully arranged into a maze, some sections covered by tarps that turned them into tunnels. I recognized bits and pieces of ZZ’s various hobbies over the years, ranging from scuba tanks to mountain-climbing gear to snowshoes. Bright-green loops of garden hose overhead connected some pieces to others, and a path made of old roofing tiles meandered throughout.
“That,” I said, “was not there last night.”
Whiskey studied it with me. Australian cattle dogs (sometimes called blue heelers) often have one blue eye and one brown, and their coats are a combination of black-and-white brindle with yellow; Whiskey’s overall appearance gave the impression that he wasn’t so much a single dog as a transporter accident between a golden retriever and a Border collie.
[I assumed it was simply part of the set. It’s not as if I’ve read the script.]
“I have. This isn’t mentioned.” I sighed and took my foot off the brake. “Plus, I recognize a lot of that stuff as ZZ’s. How much you want to bet the director talked her into upping her contribution?”
Whiskey snorted. [Dogs do not gamble. But even if you’re correct, what is this construct supposed to represent? It looks like some sort of obstacle course. Are the zombies supposed to chase people through it? Is there some sporting aspect of undead cannibalism that I’ve failed to grasp?]
I pulled into my regular parking spot beside the house. “Well, there’s usually a lot of chasing and fleeing in zombie movies, so it almost makes sense. Except this movie is supposed to be a period piece, and most of that stuff is post-twentieth-century. I guess I’ll just have to talk to the boss and find out.”
My boss—in this case—is Zelda Zoransky, the owner of the estate and all-around bon vivant. ZZ practically invented the word eclectic, and she takes every opportunity to prove it. Her latest obsession was something called steampunk, which was mostly a reimagining of Victorian fantastic literature through a more modern lens. The indie film she’d agreed to let shoot on the grounds and in the mansion was called Sherlock Zolmbes, about Sherlock Holmes fighting off a horde of the undead while trapped at a country estate. It didn’t have a large budget, but the director was passionate about the project and ZZ thought it sounded like fun.
“Fun” for ZZ always meant plenty of headaches for me. As her personal assistant, my job meant translating whim into reality. Chaotic as that generally was, adding in a film crew tripled everything—but I was managing. It was, after all, what I was paid for.
I took another look at the undead horde before I got out of the car. They weren’t so much milling around as huddling and clutching paper cups of coffee, looking even more haggard and unhappy in the cold than zombies usually did. They must have been up awfully early to get through makeup and wardrobe, and now they had to stand around in the dawn chill dressed in nothing but rags and latex prosthetics. A couple of them were trying out some “Thriller” dance moves to keep warm, while others watched and laughed.
The first person to greet me at the door was wearing a black-and-white fur tuxedo: Tango, my feline other partner. Currently on her seventh life, she also communicated with me via thought.<Morning, Foxtrot.> Her mental voice always reminded me of an old torch singer, all raspy and worldwise. Her attitude wasn’t far off, either. <Have you noticed the front lawn?>
“Yep. Covered in zombies, just like yesterday. Only they appear to have decorated, too.”
<Oh, that wasn’t them. It was Keene.>
Keene was our semi-resident celebrity, a guest at the house so often he should have his own room. ZZ liked to host salons: She invited various interesting people—politicians, scientists, actors, musicians—to stay here and enjoy the amenities, with the only rule being everyone must attend the nightly dinners. The one thing Keene enjoyed more than being a rock star—which he was—was a lively, slightly inebriated conversation with intriguing people. Except sometimes the phrase slightly inebriated was replaced by definitely high, fairly wasted, or ohhhhh, man. Regardless of his level of intoxication, though, he was always charming, funny, intelligent, and mostly polite.
“Keene’s responsible for that?” I shook my head. “Well, better than trashing his room, I guess. Doesn’t look like he wrecked anything, though it is quite the mess. Any idea what he was trying to accomplish?”
Tango gave her head a slow shake. <You got me. It was entertaining to watch, though—for a while. Then I got bored and stopped.>
[Of course,] replied Whiskey. [I’m sure you’re echoing the words of every cat who was ever present at a significant event in history: the eruption of Vesuvius, the moon landing, the parting of the Red Sea. “The lava/stupendous feat/miracle was somewhat interesting, but then I got bored and wandered off.”]
Tango started to clean one white paw with her tongue. <Meh. Volcanoes are overrated, the astronauts didn’t even have a cat with them, and when it comes to that much water, who cares what it does? Piled up or not, it’s still wet.>
“Hang on,” I said. “The parting of the Red Sea? That actually happened?”
I looked at Whiskey. Whiskey looked at Tango. Tango rolled her eyes.
<You’re the one who brought it up,> she said to Whiskey. <You give her an answer.>
I turned my look into a stare. “Well?”
[Ahem. My reference was purely on the basis of a shared social metaphor, to wit, the parting of the Red Sea. I did not mean to imply any personal knowledge of such events, or their possible historical accuracy.]
Big surprise. Despite their post-life status, both of my two companions were extremely tight-lipped on any metaphysical subjects. I’d found out a few things on my own, but was still mostly in the dark on the true nature of the Universe.
“Good morning, dear,” said the corpse shuffling its way down the staircase that led from the main lobby to the second floor. “Slept well, I trust?”
“Better than you, from all appearances,” I said to ZZ. “Though possibly not as long.”
ZZ grinned at me with a horrible mouth. “Oh, you know how I am before I’ve had my coffee. Haven’t the makeup people done a simply gruesome job?” She did a little pirouette on the bottom step, showing off the lovely (if rotting) Victorian dress she was wearing. Lots of crushed velvet and stained lace. In return for letting them use the grounds for filming, ZZ had insisted on being cast as one of the zombies.
“They have. And speaking of gruesome jobs—what, exactly, is the explanation for that elaborate hodgepodge on the front lawn?”
“Now, Foxtrot—you knew the film crew was going to make a mess. It’s just what they do. Don’t worry, it’s all temporary.”
I took off my coat and hung it up on the coatrack just inside the door. “It’s not the movie equipment I’m worried about. It’s that bizarre thing that—well, that appears to have grown there overnight.” Only my boyfriend, Ben, knew the truth about Whiskey and Tango, so I couldn’t tell my boss that the cat had just ratted out the rock star.
A puzzled look crossed her decaying features. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about, dear. Why don’t you show me?”
I opened the door and let her look for herself. “See? I could be wrong, but I don’t really see an elliptical trainer being used as a prop in a Sherlock Holmes movie.”
ZZ took a few steps forward, stopping at the threshold. Tango rubbed against her legs, purring. “Oh, my. I have no idea what this is all about. I suppose we should talk to the director.”
“I’m on it,” I said. “Any idea where he is?”
“He popped in while I was still in makeup, said he was going to grab some breakfast. Check the dining room.”
[Foxtrot.] Whiskey’s voice inside my head was urgent. I glanced down at him and saw that he was staring through the doorway, both ears up, eyes wide and alert. [Something’s wrong. Follow me.]
He bolted outside. “Whoops,” I said. “Not the squirrel thing again? I thought you’d gotten over that.” I sighed and grabbed my coat again. “Sorry, boss. If I don’t corral him immediately, he’ll tree the damn critter and go into a barking frenzy that will last for hours. It’s like he’s convinced they’re all plotting against him.”
“Go ahead, dear. I’ll talk to Mr. Trentini.”
<They are, you know,> Tango said as I stepped back out, closing the door behind me. <Plotting against us. They’re like ninjas, only more evil and with bushy tails.>
“Yes, I’m sure that’s where they store all the extra evil, in their tails. Never trust anything that looks like a rat with a toilet brush stuck up its butt, right?”
<You’ll take me seriously when they learn how to make nunchuks. Oh, yes, you will. And I will laugh, and laugh, and laugh … >
I had to jog to catch up to Whiskey, and right about then I reached the limit of Tango’s telepathic range. Or maybe she just got bored with the conversation and wandered off; she’s like that.
Whiskey had slowed down, his nose to the ground. “What’s up, pup?” I asked as I got closer. “Little Timmy fall down the well again?”
[Please stop making that reference. It’s demeaning to a great performer.]
“What, Lassie? I’m surprised you even know who that is.”
[I have friends outside of work, you know.] He continued around the corner of the house, sniffing intently.
“Wait. You know Lassie? The actual Lassie? I thought she was—”
[Dead, yes. As am I. Though I’m considerably less fictional.]
We were beside the house now, on a little paved path with a birdbath to one side. I picked a scrap of duct tape off a rosebush, frowning; they’d been filming here yesterday, and hadn’t done a very good job of cleaning up after themselves. The fake gore they’d liberally splashed around was still evident, now in frozen lumps and rivulets that made the birdbath look more like a well-used ritual altar than a wildlife spa. The paved path was the same; a huge, reddish-brown stain covered the path and the grass on either side. I wrinkled my nose. “Yuck. If it weren’t so cold, I’d get the gardener out here with a hose. Is this what you were worked up about?”
[I’m afraid so.] Whiskey sniffed delicately at the stain, then sat back on his haunches and looked at me solemnly. [This is not what it appears to be, Foxtrot. Or—more accurately—it is.]
My eyes widened, and I took an involuntary step back. “You mean this is … real? No way. I was here when they filmed that scene, and it was just Hollywood make-believe. Nobody actually got torn to pieces.”
[Much of what I smell is corn syrup, food coloring, and cocoa powder, to be sure—a common stand-in for blood. But not all of it.]
I swallowed. “How much is…”
[Human? A great deal. All from the same person, and in quantities that mean they couldn’t possibly have survived.]
I looked around, feeling queasy. “So this is an actual, genuine murder scene?”
[Unknown. All I can guarantee is the presence of a large amount of blood.]
I took a deep breath. “Is it … anyone we know?”
[I don’t recognize it, but I spent yesterday in relative isolation.] His tone was decidedly cooler, due to the fact that he’d been shut in my office for most of the previous day; the director had insisted both Whiskey and Tango be locked away in case one of them inadvertently wandered into a shot. “Nothing ruins a zombie movie like a dog trying to lick a shambling monstrosity’s face,” he’d said. “Except maybe a cat cleaning herself while the zombie apocalypse happens a few feet away.”
I let my breath out. Nobody Whiskey knew personally (which meant, more or less, anyone I knew, too) was dead. Maybe this was some sort of zero-budget cost-cutting measure? I’d worked for a band once that seriously floated the idea of making their own fireworks out of road flares to save money on their stage show.
“How fresh is it?” I asked. “Could it maybe be—I don’t know, from a blood bank or something?”
He got to his feet, put his head down, and nosed around some more. [Definitely not. It’s only a few hours old, at most. And there are other scents, as well—scents that indicate the body was not entirely intact.]
I sighed. “Death and dismemberment? Thank you for not going into detail. So, the next obvious question is—where is the body in question?”
[I believe I know. If you examine the grass closely, you’ll see that something fairly large was dragged in that direction. The ground is too frozen to hold tracks, but there is a scent trail—one that is all too familiar.]
“You mean of the killer?”
[I mean of the one who moved the body. Come with me and I’ll show you.]
He trotted away, pausing every now and then to sniff the ground and make sure he was still on the right track. I followed.
We didn’t go far. The trail led to a low, tarped trailer beside the tennis courts, sitting on a flat area the film crew was using as a temporary parking lot.
There was a hand sticking out of the edge of the tarp.
I got closer and peered at it. “Huh,” I said. Then I grabbed the edge of the tarp and pulled it back.
The trailer was full of body parts—fake ones, that is. Arms and legs and torsos and the occasional head, all props made for the movie.
All except one.
About the only thing that gave it away was the clothes it was wearing—a nondescript black tracksuit and running shoes. The other body parts were all either in Victorian rags or unclothed, but this particular corpse seemed to have jogged through a portal from the future, just in time to be decapitated.
Whiskey stood on his hind legs and peered over the edge of the trailer’s lip. [No head or hands on the victim,] he noted.
Strangely enough, all the artificial grisliness that surrounded it made it easier to look at. “Okay, I’m no forensic pathologist, but even I can see they weren’t removed cleanly. The edges are all ragged and uneven.”
[As if they were chewed? Precisely. And not just chewed, either—but swallowed, as well.]
“You mean—oh, no. Not zombies. Not real, live—okay, not-so-much-alive—creatures that have risen from the grave with an insatiable craving for after-midnight brain-flavored snacks? Because, I’m sorry, I did not sign up for that. Supernatural weather spirits, ghosts, even the odd animal deity I can handle, but I draw the line at the zombies.”
It’s funny how demeaning it is to have a dog roll his eyes at you. I suppose it’d be worse if they actually left his skull, but the condescension was bad enough. [No, Foxtrot. Zombies, inasmuch as I know, are not real. However, you are correct on one count: The brain was in fact consumed. As was the skull itself, and the hands.]
Suddenly the scene in front of me seemed a lot less fake. I pulled the edge of the tarp back into place. “The entire head was eaten? What do we have around here that would possibly—oh.”
[Yes. I’ve already picked up his scent, which is not exactly subtle. After stashing the body here—presumably to finish later—he went in this direction.] Whiskey was already trotting away, nose to the ground, and I went after him. I knew I had to inform the authorities, but I wanted to check out our primary suspect first.
The trail led straight to the menagerie, which is what ZZ calls her private zoo. She’s always been keenly interested in the welfare of animals, so the residents here aren’t on display or for her amusement; they’re here because they have no place else to go. We do our best to rewild them whenever possible, and take good care of the ones who aren’t capable of surviving on their own. We have snakes and warthogs, big cats and small monkeys, hippos and birds and crocodiles.
Crocs are one of the few critters we house that could do that to a human body, but they like to stick their kills under rocks or submerged trees to ripen; I had a hard time imagining one pulling a body into a tarped trailer.
But it wasn’t a crocodile we were tracking. It was something much nastier—something that occasionally liked to eat crocodiles, or even chow down on other animals who ate crocodiles. As far as this beast was concerned, the words food chain and buffet meant the same thing.
“I can’t believe this,” I muttered. “If he actually got out and killed a guest, we are in big, big trouble.”
[We don’t know that for sure. It might have been a random jogger.]
I groaned. “How is that any better? A man is dead, Whiskey. He died on the grounds, and one of our animals ate him. That much seems clear.”
[I’m not so sure. Yes, he’s an opportunistic predator, but attacking and killing a human being seems … out of character.]
“Right,” I snorted. “Because he’s so genteel and refined. Just look at the name he gave himself.”
[Ah. Well, that is unfortunate. But animals do have a sense of humor, you know…]
We arrived at our destination, a sturdy, concrete-floored, high wire-fenced pen with a big mound of dirt in the middle. Our suspect was presumably inside his burrow, asleep.
“Hey, Owduttf,” I said loudly. “Get your beady-eyed little carcass out here!”
Owduttf is from South Africa, but—despite how it sounds—the name isn’t of Dutch origin. It’s an acronym for “One Who Does Unspeakable Things To Foxtrot,” and our resident honey badger refuses to answer to anything else.
Yes, we have a honey badger. For those of you unfamiliar with the species, they are basically a meaner, tougher, hungrier version of a wolverine. All a wolverine has to deal with are cougars, bears, and the occasional moose; the honey badger has to face down everything from lions to king cobras, and not only does so but will also steal food from the first one and gulp down the last. It gets its name from the fact that it likes to raid beehives to eat the larvae inside—and when I say bees, I’m talking about African killer bees, the kind that go into a murderous frenzy when anything even comes close to their nest. But hey, when you’ve got a craving, what are you gonna do?
I heard sounds of movement from inside the mouth of the burrow, and then Owduttf shuffled out. He’s not much bigger than a house cat, with a wide flat head and a broad white stripe that covers his back and the top of his skull. He stopped in the entrance and yawned, showing a mouth full of sharp teeth. Then he looked at me, blinked, and made a chuffing noise.
“Um,” I said. Having cornered my suspect, I realized one very obvious fact: I didn’t speak Honey Badger, and neither did Whiskey.
[What do you suggest we do? Search the premises for damning evidence?]
I’ve never seen Whiskey afraid, but that doesn’t mean he’s stupid, either. [Surely you jest. I may be composed of ectoplasm, but that won’t stop him from trying to eat me. In fact, he’d probably enjoy the challenge.]
“You’re probably right.” I frowned, then dug out my cell phone. “I think this is about as far as we can take this, pooch. We can come back later with Tango and question Owduttf, but right now we have to report that body.” Tango was my translator, fluent in hundreds of animal dialects. “I’ll tell the police you led me to the body, then here. We’ll sort out the details as we go along—”
And that was when I heard the explosion.
I turned, and saw a plume of black smoke rising from the roof of the mansion.
Copyright © 2016 Dixie Lyle.
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Dixie Lyle, author A Taste Fur Murder, To Die Fur, and Marked Fur Murder from the Whiskey, Tango and Foxtrot Mysteries from St. Martin's Books, loves animals, mysteries, books, reading, words, bad puns (are there any other kind?) and once had a torrid summer romance with an entire library.