Marked Fur Murder: New Excerpt

Marked Fur Murder by Dixie LyleMarked Fur Murder by Dixie Lyle is the 3rd paranormal cozy in the Whiskey, Tango & Foxtrot mystery about Deidre “Foxtrot” Lancaster, the amateur sleuth with who solves crime with her animal companaions Whiskey and Tango (available March 31, 2015).

When zillionairess Zelda Zoransky decides to throw one of her famous parties—with a guest list as colorful and diverse as her private zoo—it's up to Deirdre “Foxtrot” Lancaster, assistant extraordinaire, to pull the whole thing off. But even with the help of her telepathic cat Tango and ectoplasmic pooch Whiskey, it's one killer assignment. Especially when she finds a corpse in the pool…

The victim is the sister of Deirdre's boyfriend, Ben. The cause of death appears to be a plugged-in hair dryer that fell in the water. Ben, however, insists that a few volts couldn't have killed Ann. Like him, she's a descendent of the Cowichan tribe who, according to legend, has a way with lightning. One of the guests must have marked her for murder! But when the suspects include a Russian pet psychic, a schizophrenic writer, and a random rock star, it's more than puzzling to Whiskey, Tango, and Foxtrot. It's electrifying…

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.”

 

Chapter Two

 

I stared at Fimsby for a second before replying. “And what,” I said carefully, “makes you think she was murdered?”

“Because they shared a secret, Foxtrot. One I’m afraid I can’t reveal. But Anna told me about you and Ben, which is why I’m telling you this now. You need to convince him that he’s in danger.”

“Wait. This is all too murky and mysterious for me. Why would Anna even confide in you in the first place?”

“We didn’t meet here by chance, Foxtrot. Did you know she’d recently been to Australia? She contacted me there, asked me some very odd questions. I helped her, as best I could, and she convinced me to come here to meet with her brother, as well.”

“But—ZZ was the one who invited you.”

Fimsby looked uncomfortable. “We enlisted her aid as a ruse. She disliked lying to you, but we persuaded her it was in everyone’s best interest. I’m sure she feels terrible, now.”

“I’m sure she does. She’s retreated to her bedroom and won’t talk to anyone.”

“Not even you?”

“I haven’t tried yet. When ZZ says she wants to be alone, she means it.”

While true enough, that had more to do with respecting my boss’s wishes than any physical limitations. If it was important enough, I could reach ZZ by just pounding on her door and yelling—but it would take a dire emergency for me to resort to those measures, and this was hardly that.

But whether or not to bother ZZ was the least of my problems.

[Foxtrot. Do you think it’s possible Fimsby is aware that Anna and Ben are Thunderbirds?]

I don’t know, Whiskey. Fimsby’s a specialist in exotic weather patterns. He’s from Australia. When Anna’s abilities first manifested, she ran for the biggest, emptiest place she could think of, the Australian outback. And Fimsby said she’d come to him for advice on an unusual problem …

[But that doesn’t mean he knows. And even if he does, he doesn’t know that you know.]

I know. Which means that admitting I know is a big no-no, in case what he knows isn’t what I think he knows. You know?

[Is it just me, or has that word lost all meaning?]

“While I understand the need to respect Anna’s privacy,” I said, “we’re discussing this while she’s on the way to the coroner. If it’s true that Ben’s life is also in danger, then I think you need to be a little more forthcoming.”

I gave him my best Shondra-stare, locking eyes and projecting resolve. He stared back, his features composed but stern.

[Don’t back down, Foxtrot. Think fierce thoughts—that’s the key to winning a staredown.]

I did my best. I thought about Vikings rushing into battle waving their swords in the air. I thought about Zulus charging into the fray with their spears held aloft. I thought about Maori warriors making menacing faces as they bellowed at their foes.

The last one was a mistake, though. Maoris think sticking their tongues out makes them look scary, and they cover their faces with intricate tattoos that in my overstressed imagination looked more like the face of a dad who had fallen asleep in the presence of a toddler with a Magic Marker. Totally ruined my staredown mojo.

“I wish that I could,” Fimsby said at last. “But it’s not my place. I promised Anna I would tell no one, and I must honor that promise even in light of her death. If you knew the secret, you would understand.”

He paused. I waited. After a moment, he continued. “Please, just tell Ben what I’ve told you. I don’t want to approach him directly.”

“Why not?”

“We are not the only ones involved, Foxtrot. Discretion is called for.”

[He smells of fear. Whatever he’s talking about, he’s genuinely afraid.]

Whiskey, the nose that always knows. “I’ll let him know.”

“Thank you. And Foxtrot—tell him I’m sorry for his loss. The death of a sibling is always devastating.”

I nodded. “Excuse me. We’ll talk more later.”

“Certainly.”

Whiskey and I left.

As soon as we were out of earshot, I said, “He doesn’t know I know.”

[Are you sure?]

“Yes. That long pause? He was hoping I’d admit I was in the loop. I did my best to seem clueless instead. Think he bought it?”

[I can smell fear, not satisfaction, so I have no idea. However, you do feign innocence quite convincingly.]

“Thanks. I’ll call on you as a character witness at my trial, okay?”

[And why would you be on trial?]

I looked down at him, opened my eyes as wide as they could go, and blinked once. “Golly, mister. I have no idea. I really, really, don’t.”

[I’ll send you a cake with a file in it. It’s your only hope.]

“Didn’t know dogs could bake.”

[We can’t. You’re doomed.]

We were on our way to talk to Ben—mysterious warnings about murder and family secrets tend to jump right to the top of my to-do list—when we were interrupted by a very distinctive noise: a rhythmic grunting. Were this coming from the gym, the zoo, or even one of the bedrooms, I would have ignored it—but the sound was emanating from the breakfast nook just off the front hall. I poked my head in to see what was making it, and found Miss Theodora Bonkle.

Miss, not Ms., by her own insistence. Approximate age, mid-forties. Dressed in a peasant frock, sturdy walking shoes, and a loose-fitting white blouse. Brown, frizzy hair pulled back in a sensible bun. A wide, rugged face wearing a tad too much makeup and thick, tortoiseshell glasses.

Muscular, tattooed arms, currently pumping iron.

She was sitting on a wooden kitchen chair, brow furrowed in concentration, one manicured hand hefting a shiny silver barbell up and down. It was a bit incongruous, like finding Popeye in drag.

She noticed me and smiled, perspiration running down her face. “Oh! Hello, dear. I was just getting in a few reps before indulging in a cup of tea. Would you care to join me?”

“In the tea, sure. You know we have a fully equipped gym, don’t you?”

Theodora put down the barbell, picked up a napkin, and dabbed at her face. “Oh, I know, dear. But lifting weights helps me think; it oxygenates the blood, giving brain cells that extra little boost they sometimes need. Add a little caffeine, and voilà! A recipe for inspiration.”

“Sounds good to me,” I said. I sat down, noting that Theodora already had two cups and a teapot in a cozy on the table before her. “Are you expecting company?”

“Not exactly.” She had a slightly breathy, soft voice that seemed to be from another century. “Considering the parameters of this gathering, I figured that anyone who happened by was fair game. I find that the only thing better at stimulating creativity than tea and exercise is a good conversation.”

I laughed and sat down. “Well, I’m glad to see you’re embracing the spirit of the event.”

Whiskey stayed on his feet, his head cocked as he studied Theodora. “Hello, sweetie,” Theodora said. She put out her hand, and Whiskey sniffed it. “How are you? Some of my friends aren’t fond of dogs, but I certainly am.”

[Hmmm. She smells of rabbit.]

She probably owns one. In fact, Theodora Bonkle owned at least one, though not in the physical sense; one of her more famous creations was a character named Doc Wabbit, a trickster who spent as much time getting into trouble as he did solving mysteries. His partner was a kind and gentle soul named Very British Bear, who rescued DW as often as he needed rescuing himself. They were the heroes of a series of children’s books called We Solve Everything! where they had grand adventures while answering some of life’s Big Questions: Where do lost socks go? Why do people have to take baths? What makes air invisible?

But those weren’t the only books Theodora wrote. Oh, no.

She also wrote mysteries, under the name T. B. Kloben. They starred an investigator named Killian, a man with a dark past that is never fully explained. He seems to be seeking redemption for terrible things he’s done, though what those things are is only hinted at. None of the people he helps know him—in fact, most of them don’t want his help, at least at first. Killian’s approach is to look for trouble, insert himself into a situation he doesn’t understand, and refuse to go away until he’s made things better. He doesn’t care if people like him, he doesn’t care about consequences, he doesn’t care about rules. The one certainty he carries with him is that there is always something good to be accomplished, as long as you stick it out to the bitter end. He always does.

The first book was called The Meddler, and to date had sold two million copies. He was a classic example of an unlikable character you wound up rooting for anyway; a movie was currently in development, with Dwayne Johnson rumored to be taking on the lead role.

I loved both series, even though I didn’t have kids. I was the one who’d introduced ZZ to the books, and she was the one who told me to invite Theodora to a salon—despite Miss Bonkle’s ongoing psychiatric problems.

“How are you settling in?” I asked, pouring myself a cup of tea. What I really wanted to know, of course, was exactly how crazy she was at the moment—not that I could ask that.

“I’m fine, thank you for asking. However, Very British Bear has a question.”

The smile froze on my face. I could actually feel little icicles forming on my cheekbones.

“Yes?” I managed.

“He wants to know if you really have a honey badger here. Doc’s been telling him that honey badgers eat anything that’s overly sweet, and Very’s a bit worried.”

I studied her face. Whiskey studied her face.

[She can’t be serious.]

I think she’s serious.

[She’s pulling your leg.]

If so, feel free to start calling me Hoppy. “We do have a honey badger in the menagerie. But we keep it securely locked up, so Very has nothing to worry about.”

Theodora nodded. “Well, I’ll try to reassure him, but he tends to take Doc at his word. God knows why.” She rolled her eyes.

And then there was a pause.

It wasn’t one of those pauses where both people just happen to fall silent at the same time because neither of them knows what to say. It wasn’t one of those pauses that occur because one person has just dropped a conversational bombshell and the other person doesn’t know how to respond. No, it was an expectant pause; the kind that seems to last nine months and gets more and more uncomfortable as it grows. The kind that eventually gives birth to a response that’s more blurt than reply.

“Well,” I said weakly. “Both of them are … short.”

Theodora raised one plucked eyebrow. “Short?”

“And … furry.”

[And imaginary.]

My smile was now so firmly fixed you couldn’t have gotten it off my face with a crowbar, though I desperately wished someone would try. A nice blow to the head—at the moment, that sounded heavenly. I kept waiting for Theodora to give me a wink, a grin, anything to let me know she was kidding.

“Short and furry,” she mused. “I suppose that’s true. Can’t be easy, going through this world being their size and species. Bears get a certain amount of respect, but rabbits? It’s no wonder Doc acts the way he does.”

[Also, there’s the whole non-existence problem. By which I mean they don’t exist.]

“Then it’s a good thing they have each other. And you,” I said.

[They don’t have anything, Foxtrot. They’re fictional. One’s null, the other void. They have neither pulse, breath, nor voice. The state of their reality isn’t. If they had a family crest, it would be a zero rampant on a field of nothing. When their names are announced at roll call, only silence ensues. Their glasses are half empty and half gone. They are, to put it simply, not.]

Have you been watching Monty Python reruns late at night again?

[You know I despise television. But John Cleese is a genius.]

“I wish I could stay and chat more,” I said. “But I have some rather urgent business with our chef. If you’ll excuse me?”

“Yes, of course.” She nodded graciously and smiled. She didn’t seem crazy at all, except maybe in a Norman-Bates’s–mother sort of way. Who was, you know, actually Norman Bates in a dress. After he’d killed his mother.

Norman Bates didn’t have forearms like a stevedore, though.

* * *

“He said what?” Ben asked me. We were in the kitchen, Ben chopping vegetables for dinner.

“That Anna came to him for advice. That he knows a great big secret about Anna and you but won’t tell me what it is. That ZZ and he and Anna arranged this get-together, and that you’re in danger.”

Ben gestured with his knife. “But—that sounds like he knows about me and Anna being Thunderbirds! And ZZ, too!”

“Not necessarily. He was very cagey when I talked to him, which means he might have done the same thing with ZZ. I’m not sure how much he actually knows.”

“He’s a weather expert, Trot. I don’t think Anna went to him for fashion tips.”

“Granted. But let’s not overplay our hand here. He’s being really careful, and so should we. If someone killed Anna, that someone could very well be after you, too.”

“Let them try,” Ben said grimly. “They killed my sister. I’m going to make them pay.”

At that very instant there was a menacing rumble of thunder. It wasn’t a coincidence, ironic or otherwise—and I didn’t have to look any farther than Ben’s eyes to find the lightning that went with it. “Hold on there, cloud cowboy. I know you’re angry, but keep in mind what you are, too; lose your temper and somebody else might pay the price. Somebody like every person on the eastern seaboard.”

“All right, all right. Point taken.”

“No, I’m the one taking point. As in, I’ll find out who did this, and why. Then, if you still want to introduce them to the business end of a tornado, I’ll understand. But there’s two very important things I want you to keep in mind: One, we don’t know for sure this is related to you and Anna being Thunderbirds; and two…”

“What?”

“Two is that we’ve both learned there are some very scary things out there in the universe. And birds—even Thunderbirds—aren’t always at the top of the food chain.”

That tamped down his anger a little. He knew exactly what I was talking about. “Yeah, okay. But there are two things you should keep in mind: First of all, it’s really goddamn unlikely some big, scary supernatural being would bother throwing a hair dryer into a swimming pool to cover up a murder.”

He paused. I waited.

“What’s the second thing?”

He scowled at me. “I don’t have one. Really thought something would come to me by the time I was finished with thing one, but no go.”

I tried not to smile. He was angry and hurting and had every right to be, but he was also downright adorable. “Take it easy, sweetie. Whoever or whatever is to blame, I’ll find out what’s going on. I promise.”

“I know you will. Just be careful.”

“I will, don’t worry. You should, too—and you can start by staying away from Fimsby. Whatever he knows, he’s being cautious for a reason. It might seem like confronting him and demanding he talk is the way to go, but it’s really not. What if he’s the killer? Maybe this is just a way to draw you out, make you expose yourself.”

Ben considered this. He put the knife down on the counter, carefully. “Huh. But you said he knew about Anna and me—”

“I said he knew something about Anna and you. He didn’t specify, and I got the feeling he was fishing for information. Don’t get all worked up and jump right into his net, all right?”

He gave me a grudging nod. “Fine. I’ll avoid him. What if he approaches me?”

“Play dumb. Plead the Fifth. You know nothing, see nothing, hear nothing, and besides, you were home watching TV. Got it?”

“Jawohl, mein fraulein.”

“Was that a Hogan’s Heroes joke?”

“Don’t judge me. I watch Barney Miller and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, too.”

“Y’know, I think I’m going to pretend I’m dating a time traveler, as opposed to a senior citizen.”

“What can I say? I have a soft spot for the classics. When you said I was home watching TV, you were right.”

I sighed. “We really need to get out more, don’t we?”

“Who has the time? If we didn’t work together, we’d never see each other.”

I smiled. “Then it’s a good thing we work together, isn’t it?”

He smiled back, then pulled me in for a kiss. He was a great kisser.

But sadly, I had to focus on the aforementioned work. I regretfully ended our smooch and patted him on the chest. “I gotta go, Weatherman. Me and ZZ need to talk.”

“All right, all right. But can’t you come up with a better nickname? Weatherman makes me sound like I wear plaid sports coats and make lame jokes.”

“Thunder Boy?”

“Better, but no.”

“Stormy Bear?”

“Worse.”

“Thor Lips, Mighty Wielder of the Mystic Tongue Hammer?”

He made a face. “Forget I brought it up. Go do your thing.”

“See you later, Thor Lips.”

Then it was time to pay my boss a visit.

Zelda Zoransky had led an interesting life. She was born into money, but came of age in the sixties; that, plus a rebellious, curious, and intelligent nature led to her embracing the counterculture and rejecting her family’s more traditional values. She spent decades traveling the world and exploring whatever caught her fancy, and when her parents died—leaving her, the sole heir, all their money—she finally decided to settle down. She moved back into the Zoransky mansion, spruced the place up, and built a zoo on the grounds. She’d been filling it with animals who needed help for quite a while now, but a single cause wasn’t enough for ZZ; her globe-trotting era might be behind her, but these days the Internet can bring the world to you. And if you’ve got a few hundred million in your back pocket, it can bring all sorts of other things—and people—to your doorstep, too.

Which is why she needed me. I was the one who handled the logistics side of things, the one who lined up the experts, bought the equipment, ordered the supplies. This meant not only that ZZ and I spent a lot of time together, but also that I had to know and understand how she thought. Some of her hobbies were ephemeral, some were not. My ZZ-ometer wasn’t a precision instrument, but it could gauge the level of her interest: Momentary Whim was at the bottom, while Growing Obsession was at the top. Everything in between was a constantly shifting landscape of intrigue and consideration, and the key to navigating it lay in understanding the woman who was continually renovating the whole place. I thought I did.

But it wasn’t like her to keep things from me.

Whiskey and I stopped in front of her bedroom door, my hand raised to knock. Raised, and apparently stuck in that position. Maybe the door was radiating some kind of invisible force-field. Sure, that was it.

[Do you want me to wait outside?]

“What? Why would I want that?”

[A confrontation with the leader of the pack is always difficult. I will understand if you need to do this alone.]

I smiled. Even though he sounds like a barrel-chested butler from a century ago, Whiskey is still a dog. “It’s not that big a deal. I’m fine, really.”

[Then why aren’t you knocking?]

“Um. No reason. Just refining my plan of action, that’s all.”

[I see. One knock, or two? A light rap, or something firmer? Weighty decisions, indeed.]

“Sarcasm is not support.”

[Would it help if I accompanied you and growled menacingly in the background?]

“No.” I paused. “But you could do that stare you do—you know, when I’m eating something really greasy and forget to offer you some? Sort of accusatory and disappointed at the same time.”

[Done. Now either knock or run away—the anticipation is unbearable.]

I knocked.

“I’m busy, Foxtrot,” said ZZ from inside.

“How’d you know it was me?”

“You’re the only one who bothers me when I tell everyone I want to be left alone.”

“Yes I am. Can we have this conversation face-to-face, please? Or is it easier to be rude to me when the door is closed?”

“Kind of.” She sounded a little guilty, so I just waited. After a moment, the door unlocked and swung open.

ZZ was in her sixties, with curly, orange hair—that she refused to call red—slowly going gray. She was currently wearing purple satin pajamas and oversized bright-green slippers made to resemble three-eyed aliens trying to eat her feet. She stared at me defiantly, then turned and stalked back inside. Whiskey and I followed.

ZZ threw herself back onto the enormous, circular bed like a recalcitrant toddler. I resisted the urge to cross my arms and threaten her with a time-out.

“Very well, Foxtrot,” ZZ sighed. “What current emergency is beyond your entirely remarkable abilities?”

“It’s about Anna.”

Her face didn’t so much fall as plummet. “Ah. Whatever Ben needs, Foxtrot. Time off, funeral expenses, anything. Please, just take care of it.”

“I am. But there’s something I need your help with.”

“What?”

“Understanding why you lied to me about Efram Fimsby.”

Her eyes widened. ZZ was, by nature, honest; she was used to getting her own way by simply asking for things as opposed to being manipulative. Besides, lying took a lot of time and energy that she’d prefer to spend on other pastimes. “I’m not sure what you mean by that, Foxtrot.”

“Yes, you are. You invited him here because he asked you to, and it has something to do with a big secret Anna was keeping. I just talked to Fimsby and that’s what he told me.”

She glanced away, then back at me. “Oh. Well, then. I’m sorry, but—they swore me to secrecy, Foxtrot. Anna was very insistent. I had no choice.”

I frowned. “You’re not really helping with the whole understanding thing, ZZ. Why all the secrecy? What was Anna hiding? Why couldn’t she tell her own brother, at least?”

“I—I can’t say, Foxtrot. She told me it was important Fimsby attend the salon, and that it had to appear I invited him on my own. I wasn’t supposed to let Ben or anyone else know Fimsby and Anna were acquainted.”

[That would seem to agree with what Mr. Fimsby said to you.]

Yes, but it doesn’t tell me anything new. “But why, ZZ? Why would you agree to do that?”

Now she just looked miserable. “I wish I could tell you, Foxtrot, I truly do. But I can’t. Please, just accept that and trust me.”

Damn. Whiskey was right, confrontations with your pack leader were hard. I couldn’t exactly command my boss to ’fess up—though I could work the guilt angle mercilessly. “You know best, boss. It’s not like I expect you to trust me or anything.” I could practically see that one strike home. “I can’t, Foxtrot. It would just burden you.” “Hey,” I said gently. I sat down beside her on the bed. “It’s okay to burden me. I have strong shoulders, remember? That’s why you hired me.” She gave me a troubled look, then nodded slowly. “I suppose that’s true. All right, then.” She took a deep breath and composed herself. “There wasn’t just one secret, Foxtrot. There were two. And one of them has to do with me.”

Copyright © 2015 Dixie Lyle.

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Dixie Lyle, author of A Taste Fur Murder and To Die Fur 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.

Comments

  1. Darlene Slocum

    I read one of your books and looking forward to another one. The animals are delightful.

  2. Cairine Stade

    Haven’t read any of these books but would love to!

  3. Arlena Carter

    This sound amazing would love to read it.

  4. Arlena Carter

    This sounds amazing would love to read it.

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