To Die Fur: New Excerpt

To Die Fur by Dixie Lyle is the 2nd cozy in the Whiskey, Tango, and Foxtrot Mystery Series that mixes ghosts, spirits, shapeshifters, and of course, animals (available August 26, 2014).

Deirdre “Foxtrot” Lancaster is back. With trusted companions Whiskey and Tango, she’s on the prowl for a brand-new predator…

Deirdre has her hands full, as usual. Working as a Jill-of-all-trades for a zany billionaire like Zelda Zoransky means the daily grind is closer to a juggling act, and this week is no exception—especially when her side job is directing spiritual traffic in Zelda’s pet cemetery. With ZZ hosting a party for some of the world’s wealthiest animal collectors and a rare albino liger named Augustus in residence at the private zoo, Foxtrot is ready for trouble to take a big bite out of her schedule…

She doesn’t have to wait long. The half-ton big cat is dead, and there’s a houseful of colorful suspects, each one wackier than the next. But if they were all bidding to buy him, who would want Augustus dead? With the help of Tango’s feline telepathy and Whiskey the canine shapeshifter, Foxtrot learns that there’s much more to Augustus than meets the eye. Now they just have to sniff out a killer before any more fur flies…

Chapter One

Lots of people talked to their animals. Mine talked back.

No, I’m not crazy—well, no more than anyone who did my job would be. My name’s Foxtrot Lancaster, and I work for an eccentric billionaire named Zelda Zoransky.

ZZ, as everyone called her, was an old ex-hippie who came from even older money; she spent most of her time (and a great deal of her money) on enjoying life, having adventures, getting into passionate arguments on the Internet, and philanthropy. She was heavily involved in animal rights; a big chunk of her family estate was dedicated to a private rescue zoo where she housed exotic animals that had no other place to go, until a permanent home could be found for them. Taking care of the menagerie was a full-time occupation … but that wasn’t my job.

Right next to the Zoransky estate was one of the largest pet cemeteries in the United States. It was the final resting place of more than fifty thousand pets, and held the cremated remains of over two hundred of their former owners as well. Looking after the graveyard was also a full-time occupation … but that wasn’t my job, either.

Not exactly.

Which brings me to my own animals. Whiskey’s a blue heeler, an Australian cattle dog that’s a mix of Northumberland drover’s dog and wild dingo. He’s medium-sized, with a white-and-black-speckled body and muzzle, tan legs, chest, and throat, one brown eye, and one blue eye.

Oh, and he’s dead.

Ghost-dead, I mean, not zombie-dead. Which is to say, he’s ectoplasmic in nature as opposed to staggering around with bits falling off, searching for brains to eat. Looks, feels, and smells like a live dog, but he can shape-shift into any other breed and has access to a supernatural library of scents that lets him identify almost anything. He communicates with me telepathically, has a British accent, and doesn’t require food for nourishment. Taking care of him was a breeze … but that wasn’t my job, either.

Then there’s Tango. Tango’s a tuxedo cat—you know, one of those elegant black-and-white ones—and most definitely is not dead. In fact, she’s alive for the seventh time—out of nine, naturally—and in one of her previous incarnations was my childhood pet. She also communicates with me telepathically, is friendly but sarcastic, and speaks over three hundred animal dialects. Her, I didn’t take care of at all—Whiskey lived with me, but Tango preferred the more palatial digs of the Zoransky mansion. So taking care of her also wasn’t my job. In fact, a lot of the time Tango and Whiskey wound up taking care of me.

Which brings me to my actual job. Or, more accurately, jobs.

The first was the one I got paid for. I’m ZZ’s executive assistant, which is a fancy title for running around fulfilling her every whim. She had a lot of whims, so I was always busy; but her whims also tended toward things that were fun, or interesting, or made the world a better place, so I couldn’t complain too much. She paid me well, I got to research and experience things most people never get near, and I met famous people from every walk of life at the regular salons she hosts. Rock stars, scientists, explorers, writers, artists … ZZ invited them all to spend a week at her estate. She lavishly pampered them during the day, then held long, fascinating discussions over gourmet dinners every night, while the booze flowed and no subject was taboo. Pretty great, don’t you think?

I’ll get to my other job in a moment.

So doing my pay-the-rent job currently involved me overseeing a very special delivery to a very special place. A place I was anxiously checking out with Caroline, our staff vet, minutes before the delivery itself was going to happen. Whiskey, as usual, was by my side, and Tango was watching from a nearby tree.

“Are you sure it’s big enough?” I said. Anxiously.

Caroline gave me an amused smile. She was short, blond, and very good at her job. “It’ll be fine. We’ve housed big cats in here before.”

“Not this big…”

I heard Whiskey’s cultured voice in my head, though Caroline of course didn’t. [I’m not sure the pool is really necessary. Or the waterfall.]

“The pool! Is the pool big enough?” I asked.

Caroline shook her head and laughed. “Yes, Foxtrot, it’s big enough. We’re all stocked up on meat, we’ve got a huge enclosure for him to roam around in, and there’s a very comfortable den if he wants some privacy. You’ve provided all the amenities; now let me do my job.”

Tango’s raspy, smoke-and-bourbon voice added her own telepathic comment: Yeah, Toots, calm down. I don’t see what the big deal is.

You will, I shot back mentally. Any minute now.

The big tractor-trailer rig holding our newest guest came rumbling down the access road. It took some jockeying to get it properly turned around so the rear doors were aligned with the gate of the enclosure, but the driver was skilled and I resisted my urge to micromanage. I helped Caroline connect a kind of canvas air lock between the trailer and the enclosure, and when I’d checked and double-checked that—okay, triple-checked—it was time to transfer the cargo.

“Here we go,” Caroline said, and told the driver to open the trailer door.

It slid upward with a loud, metallic rattle. The canvas mostly blocked our view of the interior, so we couldn’t see much.

Then … nothing happened.

It kept on happening for a while, so I whispered to Caroline, “Is everything okay? Is there something we need to do to make him come out?”

“Nope,” Caroline said. She didn’t whisper. “We just wait. I put some fresh meat out, which I’m sure he can smell. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long—”

And then he appeared.

We hadn’t bothered with a ramp, so he just bounded from the trailer to the ground. He stopped, sniffing the air curiously and looking around at his new home.

His name was Augustus. He was twelve feet long from nose to haunches, weighed just over half a ton, and was the only one of his kind in existence. Augustus was a white liger, the result of a union between a white lion and a white tiger. His body was mostly white, with pale, tigery stripes and a silvery mane half the length of a normal lion’s. He looked … unearthly. Like some immense, phantom creature from myth or maybe another planet.

And then he farted.

[Well, he seems at ease,] Whiskey observed. [And I believe he had buffalo for lunch.]

“Amazing,” Caroline breathed. I don’t think she was talking about the buffalo.

I was pretty amazed, myself. As well as having one of those moments when I was incredibly grateful for having the job I did, with all the experiences that came with it. Well, Tango? I thought at her. What do you think?

Silence. I was starting to wonder if she’d gotten bored and left when she finally replied. Okay, so he’s … large. So is a cow, and they don’t impress me much, either.

[I think someone’s a bit intimidated.]

Please. Let’s not forget who’s on which side of the fence.

Augustus was investigating the pool and waterfall. Ligers behave like lions in some ways, and tigers in others. Tigers, for instance, love to swim; so do ligers.

Most domestic cats tend to side with lions. Oh, you’re kidding me, Tango said in a disgusted voice. He’s not going to—no, no, no—oh, that is just wrong on so many levels.

[He’s simply cooling off. It is a rather warm day—I wouldn’t mind a dip myself.]

Yeah, well, you I expect that kind of deviant behavior from. I watch any more of this, I’m gonna hack up a hairball. See you guys later.

Tango may have been outraged, but Augustus seemed happy and Caroline was satisfied; therefore, so was I. Which I got to enjoy for all of two seconds, and then I had a hundred other things to do. Mostly, I had a bunch of last-minute details involving the upcoming salon to attend to, none of which was urgent but all of which still needed doing.

But first, I had to check in at my other job.

I said good-bye to Caroline as she locked up the enclosure gate and headed away from the menagerie and toward the house, which wasn’t far; the liger enclosure was at the edge of the zoo grounds. I followed the path to the house but didn’t go in, cutting around the side and past the swimming pool. I wound up at the opposite end of the property, next to a tall hedge with a large wooden gate in it. I pulled it open and went through.

Into the Great Crossroads.

That’s how its denizens refer to it. And by “denizens” I mean beings that often live in dens, only now they’re not living at all. Maybe I should call them deadizens.

Anyway.

What I’m talking about are ghosts. Animal ghosts—much like Whiskey—only these ones are invisible and intangible to most people. I can see them, though, as can Whiskey and Tango. And there are a lot of them to see, because the Crossroads is much more than just a graveyard; it’s a transition point, where dead pets can leave their own afterlife via an animal grave, then scamper, flap, swim, or trot over to a human plot, where they can cross over into the human afterlife to visit someone they miss. It’s sometimes referred to (by humans, anyway) as the Rainbow Bridge, though that always makes me think of Asgard and bearded guys with horned helmets drinking mead. The Crossroads is a lot more like Grand Central Station than a Viking overpass, with animals of every kind coming and going constantly.

The rainbow part is reasonably accurate, though; ghosts are a lot more colorful than you’d think, like they’ve been run through Photoshop and illuminated from within. Watching a flock of ghost parrots take flight is like seeing an animated neon sign launch itself into the air.

I used to come here for the tranquility, just to sit on a bench and maybe sip a mug of tea and relax. Now I come here to enjoy the spectacle; the brightness of the colors and the surreality of the action makes the whole thing feel a little like a Disney cartoon. Well, a Disney cartoon on serious hallucinogens, anyway.

Which brings me, finally, to my other job.

Every town needs a sheriff. Okay, this wasn’t a town and I wasn’t a sheriff, but …

I’ll start over.

Every mall needs a security guard. Even when there are no stores and the customers are all dead pets with no money … no, that’s not working, either.

Okay, to heck with the analogies. What I did was I looked after the place. Whiskey and Tango were my partners. Together, we fought … well, whatever needed fighting. The Crossroads was an important mystical nexus, and somebody needed to keep an eye on it. We’d already stopped a plot to murder ZZ so the killer could convince her son to sell the land, and apparently supernatural threats were also within our purview. I hadn’t had to battle any otherworldly nasties yet—well, I’d stood up to a ghostly bully, but that didn’t really count—which was good, because I was really more of a negotiator than a warrior. So far, that had been enough.

So far.

A white crow soared past me and landed on a headstone. “Hey, guys.”

“Hey yourself,” I replied. Eli was the closest thing I had to a boss, though his preferred style of management was mysterious pronouncements, indirect hints, and a refusal to talk about his own boss or bosses. I was pretty sure he was more than just a dead bird.

“Anything I should know about?” I asked him.

“Sure. All kinds of things. But let’s concentrate on the here and now.”

Okay, mysterious and a little smart-ass. But overall I liked Eli; he had that balance of being dedicated to his job while not taking himself too seriously that the best bosses have. He cared about what he did, and about how it was done; he put principles before pragmatism, often letting me figure things out on my own rather than just telling me the answer. I trusted him.

“Fine by me,” I said. “How’s the prowler situation? Topsy behaving herself?” “Prowlers” was what we called restless animal spirits, ones who weren’t ready to cross over into their own afterlife but were drawn to the Crossroads; they were often zoo or circus animals, not quite pets but not wild, either. Topsy was one of these, an elephant who’d been dead for over a century. She and I had had our differences, but we’d come to an agreement and she hadn’t bothered me since.

“Topsy’s fine. She’s taken to following Two-Notch around.”

Now, that was interesting. Two-Notch was another prowler, a shark from a tourist attraction who wasn’t quite convinced she was dead. She liked to patrol the perimeter of the graveyard, seeing the fence as the glass wall of an aquarium—she wouldn’t go beyond it. Ghosts weren’t restricted to the grounds of the graveyard itself, but few ventured past its borders. “An elephant tailing a shark. Am I going to have to break up some sort of interspecies conflict?”

[It may not be a conflict at all,] said Whiskey. [Elephants are social creatures. Perhaps she’s simply lonely.]

I tried to picture that, and failed. “What possible common ground could they share? One’s a carnivore, the other’s an herbivore. One breathes air, the other water. One has legs, the other fins.”

[Don’t elephants also enjoy swimming?]

“Sure, that’s a topic that’ll last. ‘What’s your favorite stroke? I like to pachyderm-paddle with my trunk above water.’ ‘Really? I just wiggle my tail.’”

“I hate to break up this fascinating conversation,” Eli said, “but I don’t think Two-Notch and Topsy are going to be a problem. Your new guest at the zoo might be, though.”

That made me blink. “The liger? How could he be a problem?”

“He’s not. Not as long as he stays among the living.”

There’s something you need to know about me. I take pride in my work. Regardless of what it is I’ve been asked to do, I do it to the best of my ability. I like to think I take direction well, and I don’t have a problem with authority.

But.

I do resent it when someone implies that I could do better—especially when it’s a job they couldn’t do themselves. I’m fine with a talking crow giving me orders about looking after a haunted graveyard full of animal spirits; it’s when he comments on my day job that I get a little prickly. “Are you insinuating we’re not taking good care of him?” I said. “I’ve been arranging his accommodations, ordering his food, researching his history, and studying his biology. The only way I could pay more attention to him would be to do a full MRI scan and hire a professional biographer to write his memoirs.”

Eli eyed me in that skeptical way crows have, like they’re about to ask you for ID. “I’m sure you’re being very thorough. But it’s not your abilities I’m worried about. Someone may try to kill the liger.”

“What? Why?”

“I can’t tell you that. Let’s just say that his death would have certain consequences that wouldn’t be good for the Crossroads.”

Eli speaks fluent Cryptic. I’m still not used to it, and it’s always annoying as hell. “Can you be a little vaguer? I think a few stray facts might have found their way into your explanation when you weren’t looking.”

“You know I can’t. Have you talked to him yet?”

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. “He just got here. Tango took off before I could ask her to translate.”

“I see,” he said. There was both gentle amusement and the slightest tinge of disappointment in those two words. Damn, he was good.

“I’ll get right on it,” I said. “Anything else?”

“Nothing urgent.”

Like I said, mysterious and indirect. But I knew all I’d get would be frustrated if I tried questioning him further, so I just smiled, said, “Then I’ll go find Tango,” and left.

Two jobs. Two bosses. Two very different things, right?

I had no idea those two worlds were about to crash into each other.

* * *

Whiskey and I exited the graveyard and went into the mansion. Tango could be just about anywhere, but I thought I’d try her food dish first. Ben Montain, our resident chef, was the one who fed her; when I checked the kitchen, I found him but not her. Ben was staring out the window beside the big stainless-steel counter he chopped vegetables on, a dreamy look on his face. He had a good face for that, too: strong but sensitive, the kind of face you could imagine on a cowboy or a poet. Sandy-blond hair, dark eyes. The Native American blood in him wasn’t obvious, not at first, but now that I knew his ancestry I found it easier and easier to see; something about his cheekbones and how his eyes were set.

Of course, by “Native American” I don’t mean what most people do. Ben Montain’s descendants may have looked just like the Cowichan tribe they interbred with, but they were actually supernatural beings that could assume human form. Generations later, those same supernatural abilities had surfaced in Ben’s family, and he was still learning how to deal with them. Ben Montain was a Thunderbird, and not the kind you drive. The kind that could make weather sit up and beg.

“Ben?” I said. There was just a touch of worry in my voice; the last time I saw him looking all dreamy and unfocused like that, he was in danger of losing control of a freak storm he’d just whipped up.

“Hmm?” He blinked and turned to look at me, his eyes alert.

I relaxed; false alarm. “Have you seen Tango around?”

“Not since I fed her this morning. Why?” His voice was casual, but I sensed something else underneath it.

Ben, the truth, and I had an odd relationship. Even though he was a supernatural being, and I had a supernatural occupation, I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone—including him—about the details of my job. Some things he knew, others he didn’t: For instance, he knew it was my job to protect the graveyard, but not that Whiskey was a ghost or Tango a reincarnated feline. He didn’t know about Whiskey’s shape-shifting or Tango’s ability to talk to other species, or that I communicated with both of them telepathically. I was dying to tell him, but you know how it is when your boss wants one thing and you want another: You get away with as much as you can and hope you don’t get fired.

But Ben wasn’t stupid. Animal graveyard, supernatural weirdness, sudden arrival of two animals who spend a lot of time hanging around me: He knew they weren’t quite what they seemed. So far he’d been good about accepting my explanation of not being able to explain—but I could tell he was getting a little impatient.

“They’re not zombies, are they?” he asked, giving Whiskey a calculating look.

“Whiskey and Tango? No, they’re not zombies.”

[You could ask me to play dead. I can do that.]

“You sure? I mean, they don’t smell like they’re dead, but—”

“They’re not zombies, Ben.”

“Weresomethings?”

“Weresomethings? Like what? One’s a dog, one’s a cat. You think maybe they swap when the moon is full?”

He shrugged. “I was thinking more like they change into human form. I mean, that’s what my ancestors apparently did.”

“Yes, Ben, they’re werepeople. Please don’t call the police if you see a naked man rooting through the garbage or a nude woman up in a tree.”

[Please. As if I’d indulge in such boorish behavior.]

Ben shook his head and grinned ruefully. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t grill you, but—well, I’m just trying to figure this whole thing out, you know?”

I did know. Just like I knew Ben and I had skated right up to the edge of maybe seeing each other when both our lives got turned upside down and we were both too discombombulated to add a new relationship to the mix. I hadn’t even figured out if I wanted to give it another try, let alone how. Or if he felt the same.

“I’m working on that, okay? Believe me, I don’t like all this secrecy, either.”

“I know, I know. Not your call. Starting to get that, more and more.”

“Oh? How so?”

He sighed and leaned back against the counter. “Been doing some reading. And I finally tracked down my sister—she’s in Australia. We talked some.”

Anna, Ben’s sister, was the one who’d triggered his Thunderbird abilities before catching the next plane out of the country. She didn’t seem like the outback type, though—more like the slingback. “I thought she’d gone to Europe. What did she have to say for herself?”

“She apologized, for starters. For Anna, that’s a big deal—she’s not exactly what you’d call gracious. More like a get-out-of-my-way-before-I-knock-you-over kind of personality.”

“A force of nature?”

He chuckled. “Pretty much. You could pick just about any weather-related word and apply it to her at some point or another: icy, stormy, scorching, blustery … her being a Thunderbird makes a crazy kind of sense. To her, too—that’s why she took off in such a hurry. She was afraid she’d lose control and call up a hurricane or a blizzard or something.”

“So she flicked your on-switch and left?”

“That was never the plan. Her powers came to her gradually, over a period of weeks, and started when she got obsessed with the sky. She figured the same thing might happen to me, but she wasn’t sure. Thought it sounded crazy. Came here to warn me more than anything.”

“Then why’d she take off?”

Ben shook his head. “She had to. After our little visit, her powers came on stronger than ever. She panicked, took a cab straight to the airport, and tried to get as far away from me as possible. She thought distance might help both of us—all she could think of was what happens when warm and cold fronts collide in the atmosphere.”

“They turn into a storm, right. But—getting on a plane when you think you have out-of-control weather powers? That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“I said the same thing. She agreed, but told me she’s always felt safe in the air. I knew exactly what she meant; ever since we were kids, we loved flying. We used to play this game on airplanes when there was turbulence, pretend we were on a roller coaster and yell Whee! Got told by more than one flight attendant to keep it down.”

“So she ran to Australia. That’s actually pretty smart. Not a lot of weather out in the middle of the desert, and fewer people to get hurt if something goes wrong.”

Ben nodded. “Yeah, that’s what she figured. She’s going to stay for a while, experiment a little, get used to what she can do. Says she’s already real good at making it hot and dusty.”

“And how about you? How are you adjusting?”

He looked thoughtful. “Pretty good, I think. Big breakthrough when I clued in to my new senses—temperature, humidity, barometric pressure. Little intense at first, but I can tune it in and out now. Haven’t tried to do anything more than this, though.” He gestured, and a breeze sprang up out of nowhere, ruffling his blond hair and blowing some papers off the table. It died down a second later.

I laughed. “That’s great! Impressive amount of control for a newbie, don’t you think?”

He looked proud and a little embarrassed. “I guess. Thunderbirds were supposed to be able to generate storms, but that wasn’t all. They were also—”

He was interrupted by Consuela, one of the maids, hurrying through the door. “Excuse me,” she said. “Miss Foxtrot? Miss ZZ is asking for you.”

“To be continued,” I told Ben, and he waved me back to work.

Whiskey and I followed Consuela out of the kitchen and to the sitting room. ZZ could have just called me, of course, but she was always misplacing her phone. “One of the problems with modern technology,” she’d sigh. “The smaller and more portable it is, the quicker you can lose it.”

ZZ was talking to Shondra Destry, her head of security. ZZ was dressed in a flowing, tie-dyed caftan, her curly orange hair tied back with a flowered lei, while Shondra wore dark pants, a light blue long-sleeved shirt, and a scowl.

“I don’t see the problem,” ZZ said to her.

“The problem is, he’s a ghost,” Shondra replied.

I stopped dead.

 

Chapter Two

A what?” I said.

“Oh, hello, Foxtrot,” said ZZ. “Shondra was just explaining a nonexistent problem to me.”

“Nonexistence is right,” Shondra said. “And that is the problem.”

I felt a little light-headed. Whiskey, standing right beside me, said, [Steady, Foxtrot. No need to panic.]

“I don’t—that isn’t—what now?” I said, in a very non-panicky way.

“He doesn’t show up in any database,” said Shondra. “He doesn’t exist. Which means either he’s given us a phony name or he’s had his identity scrubbed clean. Either way, he’s trouble.”

“You’re being paranoid,” said ZZ.

“Yes. That’s my job description. Paranoia Specialist, First Class. It’s right there on my contract.”

“Who are we talking about?” I asked, confused but no longer worried. I was pretty sure there was no database for ghostly canines. Well, there was the supernatural scent library Whiskey had access to, but that was a completely different thing.

“Luis Navarro,” Shondra answered. One of the guests due to arrive any moment.

“Oh, him,” I said. “That’s perfectly understandable. He’s here representing the interests of an anonymous applicant. He explained to me over the phone that his employer wants his involvement completely hush-hush. No publicity at all.”

Shondra gave me an incredulous look. “And you agreed to that? Foxtrot, this guy could be any random lunatic—”

I returned her look and added just a trace of friendly backspin to my reply. “Give me a little credit, okay? His employer is a billionaire with a keen interest in the welfare of animals. Luis couldn’t provide his identity, but he offered to donate a hundred grand to any charity of ZZ’s choice for the opportunity to attend.”

“And?” said Shondra skeptically.

“And,” said ZZ, “the World Wildlife Fund is now a hundred thousand dollars richer. Not many random lunatics are willing to pony up that kind of entrance fee.”

Shondra still didn’t look happy, but she nodded. “I suppose. Any idea whom he’s representing? Seeing as how you’re the one who talked to him.”

“He was cautious, but I got the impression it might have been someone based in Dubai. Oil money is my guess.”

“Sure. A fat cat looking to acquire another fat cat.” Shondra shook her head. “You’re not seriously considering this guy, are you? He just wants an expensive toy.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” said ZZ. “Mr. Navarro will have the chance to make his employer’s case to me, just like the others. A one and five zeros earns him a listen, don’t you think?”

“That’s your call. Just remember, there are rich lunatics in the world, too. I’m going to be keeping my eye on him.”

“That’s fine, dear,” said ZZ. “Try not to shoot him until after dinner.”

At that moment the doorbell rang. “Ah, they’ve begun to arrive,” ZZ said. “Shall we go see who it is?”

“I’ve got work to do,” Shondra said. I knew she just wanted to go upstairs and monitor everything from the security feeds in her office, but that was probably better than having her scare the guests.

ZZ, Whiskey, and I met the first arrival in the foyer, where he was waiting after Consuela let him in. He was a tall, regal-looking Indian in a bright-red turban and a dark-gray suit, with a neatly trimmed beard. He had a single rolling suitcase that stood upright next to him, handle extended, its posture as straight as his own.

“Good afternoon,” he said as soon as he saw us. He gave us both separate and very formal nods. “You must be Ms. Zoransky. I am Rajiv Gunturu.”

“Mr. Gunturu,” said ZZ warmly. “So glad to see you. Call me ZZ, please—and this is Foxtrot, my personal assistant. If you need anything at all while you’re here, please let her know.”

“Hello,” I said.

“A pleasure, Miss Foxtrot. Thank you so much for all your hard work in arranging this meeting.” His accent was strong but perfectly understandable.

“Just Foxtrot is fine. I’ve put you in a bedroom on the second floor, if that’s all right?”

“That is fine. If you would excuse me, I would like to refresh myself.”

“I understand—long flight from India. Consuela will show you to your room.”

He nodded once more, grabbed his suitcase, and headed upstairs behind the maid.

“Remind me again,” said ZZ. “Which one is he?”

“From an Indian casino. Not the Native American kind, the Taj Mahal kind. Apparently his bosses think a white liger would be a big draw.”

“Ah. And why are we considering that?”

“Their brochure was very persuasive. Also, they pledged to donate a percentage of the casino’s profits to Greenpeace.”

“Oh, that’s right. I was mixing him up with that conservationist group for some reason.”

“The Nigerians? It’s probably the name of their representative—Abazu. As opposed to Gunturu. Though Abazu is a first name and Gunturu is a surname.”

“What’s the Nigerian’s last name?”

I smiled. “Chukwukadibia.”

ZZ blinked. “You’re making that up.”

“No, it’s his name. Try to keep a straight face when I introduce him, all right?”

[That’s not a strange name. I knew a terrier once named Princess Boopsie Loopsy Quimbasket Biscuit Barrel the Third.]

Quiet, you. “I was just going to go over the menu for tonight with Ben. Any last-minute requests or changes?”

“No, no, I’m sure he’ll do his usual amazing job. So, when are you and he going out again?”

My turn to blink. “Me and he what now?”

She gave me a look. “Going out. As in, you went out once and he likes you and you like him and why haven’t you done it again?”

“I just—he doesn’t—so there’s not—”

“Yes, yes. You’re very busy and you work together and you’re worried it’ll be awkward if it doesn’t work out. Nonsense. You’re both adults and life is too short. Work it out—that’s what you’re good at, are you not?”

Leave it to ZZ to cut right to the heart of the matter. “Um, it’s not quite that simple—”

Thankfully, we were interrupted by the doorbell again. This time ZZ opened it herself.

“Hello!” said the barrel-chested man with the bushy blond mustache. He had two large suitcases with him, one on either side. There was a taxi parked in the turnaround behind him, with the driver and an Asian woman hauling more luggage out of the trunk. “You must be ZZ. I’m Jaro Karst—nice to meet you!”

He stuck out a large hand, and ZZ took it. “Hello, Jaro. Do you need help with your bags?” She glanced over at the woman, who was struggling with numerous satchels and suitcases.

Jaro followed her look. “Oh! Sorry—let me give you a hand, love.” He trotted over and grabbed one of the larger bags. The woman nodded and said, “Thank you.” I grabbed two more, leaving her able to at least move. She marched up to ZZ and said. “Greetings. I am Zhen Yao, representing the Wuhan Zoo. You are Mrs. Zelda Zoransky?”

“Call me ZZ, dear.”

Zhen Yao was dressed mostly in black, and seemed a little nervous. “Ah. Zee-zee Deer. Yes. I am very pleased to be here.”

“Zhen Yao and Jaro Karst?” I said. “I didn’t expect you two to show up together.”

“Ran into each other at the airport,” said Jaro. “Complete coincidence. Wound up sharing a cab—funny how life works, eh?”

“He recognized the logo of the Wuhan Zoo on my luggage,” said Zhen. She sounded a little defensive. “It seemed the reasonable course of action.”

“What a place!” declared Jaro, looking around. “You know how to live, Ms. Zoransky, I’ll give you that!”

“Thank you, Mr. Karst,” ZZ replied. “Consuela will be back in a moment to show you to your rooms. Dinner is promptly at six, but we’ll be meeting for drinks in the sitting room at five thirty. If you need anything before then, let Foxtrot know—you all have her number, yes?—and she’ll do her best to meet your needs. Ah, here’s Consuela.”

“Let me give you a hand,” I said.

“No need, no need,” said Jaro. “Me and Ms. Yao and Consuela can manage between the three of us, right?”

“Certainly,” said Ms. Yao. “Although I would like to take this opportunity to say—”

“Come on!” boomed Jaro, grabbing the bags I’d just set down. “Can’t wait to see the new digs!” He charged through the door with Consuela in tow, and after a second a flustered Zhen followed.

“Interesting,” ZZ murmured. “He reminds me of a boat salesman I knew once. Delightful, but only in small doses. Don’t let him run you around too much, dear.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. It’s funny, he’s not at all what I imagined from his emails.”

“No? How so?”

“Well, he came across as very serious. Very dedicated to the wildlife preserve he runs.”

ZZ smiled. “He seems quite passionate to me. A man who takes life in big bites, I’d say. But there’s often quite a difference between someone’s online persona and what they’re like in person; that’s why we have these salons, after all. As good as the Internet is at connecting people, it’s still no substitute for being in the same room as the person you’re talking to.”

“Also, it’s easier to serve drinks.”

“That, too. Speaking of which—”

ZZ’s son, Oscar, was strolling toward us along the path that led from the guesthouse he lived in. Oscar was a paunchy, middle-aged man, with a wide friendly face and a tan he worked on whenever possible. He dressed well, did as little as possible, and enjoyed the occasional drink—in the sense that fish enjoyed the occasional swim. He liked his wine as dry as his wit (which was considerably) and had the ethics of a hungry eel. Despite all this, ZZ loved him; she gave him a generous allowance, did her best to keep him in line, and bailed him out when he got in trouble.

Which, sadly, happened far too often. Oscar was clever, bored, had low moral standards, and lived on a fixed (though impressive) income. Combining these qualities with a steady diet of alcohol tended to produce a variety of less-than-legal plans to fatten his wallet, though I suspected he got more enjoyment out of the scheming itself than any potential profit. If Higgins from the old TV series Magnum P.I. had a boozy, sleazy twin brother, Oscar could have played him with no effort at all.

“Good morning, all,” Oscar said. “I see the guests have begun to arrive. Please tell me they aren’t all vegetarians.”

“Don’t worry,” said ZZ. “Your intake of red meat won’t suffer—though you could do with a salad now and then.”

“As long as it arrives in the company of a tenderly cooked filet mignon, I’ll happily partake. I heard a large truck a while ago, too—does this mean our newest feline resident has also shown up?”

“Go see for yourself,” I said. “He’s quite impressive.”

Oscar nodded. “I believe I will. I’ve always identified with the lion as a personal totem; proud, majestic, fearless…”

“Spends most of his time sleeping?” I added.

“I prefer to think of it as conserving my strength. Good day, ladies.” He turned and headed off in the direction of the zoo.

“He’s in a cheerful mood,” ZZ said. “Keep an eye on him, will you?”

“Duly noted,” I answered.

Next to arrive was Abazu Chukwukadibia, a short, beaming man from Nigeria with curly gray hair, steel-rimmed glasses, and skin as dark as licorice. He wore a tattered, dark-blue suit and a white shirt with frayed cuffs, and carried a single overstuffed duffel bag slung over his shoulder. He walked from the front gate, and I got the impression he’d taken public transit from the airport.

“Hello, hello!” he said as he bustled up. “I am Abazu Chukwukadibia. A beautiful day, is it not?”

“It is,” said ZZ. She introduced herself, stressed that he should call her ZZ, and didn’t embarrass herself by attempting to pronounce his last name. He shook his head when ZZ tried to show him to his room, placing his duffel bag gently on the ground.

“Thank you, but I am fine,” he said. “Has Augustus arrived yet?”

“Yes. He’s just settling in,” I said.

“May I see him, please? I promise to be unobtrusive.”

I glanced at ZZ. She nodded. “That would be fine. Foxtrot, will you show him?”

“I’d be happy to,” I said.

Whiskey, meanwhile, had begun sniffing at Abazu’s dusty shoes. “Whiskey!” I said. “Leave the man alone, will you?”

In my head, though, I said, Smell anything interesting?

[Mmm. Yes. A species of herb indigenous to southern Africa. An industrial cleaner used by many airlines. And quite a wide array of spices, oils, and chemicals common in starchy, deep-fried snacks such as potato or corn chips, which I surmise is from crumbs caught in the cuffs of his pants.]

I wondered sometimes about the olfactory library Whiskey could access. How was it organized? What did it look like? Was it ranked from most stinky to least, or by some other factor? I always wound up picturing a huge room with floor-to-ceiling shelves and rolling ladders that went right up to the top, filled with slender volumes that emitted wavy smell lines when you opened them. And down below, dogs sat in overstuffed chairs with their legs crossed, books propped open in front of them, tiny smell-spectacles—smellacles?—positioned over their nostrils—

[Foxtrot. Focus, please.]

What? Oh, right. Sorry. “Follow me, please, Mr. Chukwukadibia.”

“I shall.”

“I’ll have your things put in your room,” said ZZ. Abazu nodded and smiled, but he was already moving.

Whiskey kept pace with me, as he usually did. “Did you have a pleasant flight?”

“Oh, my, yes. To see the sunlight on the tops of clouds is both humbling and amazing. I could watch it for hours.”

“I know what you mean.”

[I don’t. Birds are fundamentally insane.]

“How is Augustus?” Abazu asked. “Did the journey upset him? Is he eating well?”

“He seemed very calm when I saw him. Our vet, Caroline, was about to feed him when I left—we can see how it’s going for ourselves.”

It wasn’t a long walk from the house to the liger enclosure, but Abazu peppered me with half a dozen questions before we got there: How long had Augustus been on the road? What was he fed while traveling? Had he had a bowel movement since he arrived? I did my best to answer the ones I could and told him Caroline could probably give him information on the rest.

Then we arrived, and Abazu stopped talking.

Augustus’s appetite hadn’t suffered from the journey; he was tearing into a haunch of beef in one corner of the enclosure, trapping it between his paws and ripping great chunks of it out with his mouth. He glanced over at us casually, then went back to his meal.

Abazu had come to a dead stop, about ten feet away from the enclosure. The look on his face was one of wonder. “Oh, my,” he whispered. “He is … magnificent.”

“He is that,” I agreed.

[Hmmph.]

Oscar was nowhere in sight, but Caroline was still there. She walked up to us and said, “He’s settling in well. Went for a swim, checked out the pool.”

“Caroline, this is Abazu Chukwukadibia. He’s one of our guests.”

Abazu tore his gaze away from Augustus. “A pleasure, madam. You are in charge of his well-being?”

“That’s right,” Caroline said.

“He is healthy? Free of parasites, not injured?”

“I haven’t had a chance to give him a full physical, but he appears to be perfectly healthy.”

“Very good. Very good. A tremendous responsibility. You know this, yes?”

Caroline nodded. “I do, Mr. Chukwukadibia. I take it very, very seriously.”

He studied her for a second, then broke into a wide grin. “Yes, I can see that you do. That is most fine. I shall return later, yes?”

“You’re most welcome to do so.”

“But first, I have a few things I would like to ask.”

As Abazu questioned her, I caught Whiskey’s eye. He seems a little starstruck, don’t you think?

[That’s one way to put it.]

You sound less than impressed.

[Cats in general don’t impress me. The more cat there is, the more there is to be unimpressed by. I am currently confronted by a great deal of cat.]

That’s one way to put it.

When Abazu was finished his interrogation, he thanked Caroline profusely and indicated he’d like to return to the house to freshen up. He was quiet on the way back, apparently lost in his own thoughts, and didn’t even glance around his room when we got there. He told me he’d see me at dinner and closed the door.

The last guest to arrive was Luis Navarro.

He pulled up in a very new, very black Mercedes. ZZ had gone back inside by then, and I was the only one around. I walked forward, Whiskey at my side, to greet him.

He took two hard-shell suitcases out of the trunk as I approached. He was tall, broad in the shoulders, with an immaculately tailored dark suit that managed to look casual and dressy at the same time. His hair was shiny and black and cut short. He had that boyish look to him some Latin men have, his lashes just a little too long and his cheeks just a little too round, but he balanced that with a strong jaw and piercing eyes. He gave me an easy smile when he spotted me. “You must be Foxtrot,” he said. His voice was warm and deep. “Hello.”

“Hello. You must be Mr. Navarro.”

“Luis, please.”

“All right, Luis. Everyone else is already here; if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to your room.”

“Thank you.”

And that was all he said as he followed me into the house and up the stairs. I kept talking, of course, but he kept his replies to nods and polite murmurs and offered no comments of his own. I got the hint and didn’t push; some people are uncomfortable with small talk, and trying to engage them is the wrong approach.

“Dinner is at six, drinks at five thirty,” I said, opening the door to his room.

“Thank you very much, Foxtrot,” he answered. He looked around his room with a careful, considering eye as he placed his bags on the floor; it seemed to meet with his approval, because he nodded before turning back to face me.

“You have wireless Internet, of course?” he asked.

“Yes. The password is on a card on the nightstand. You have my number; call me if you need anything else.”

He frowned, ever so slightly. “Really? I would have thought you’d have staff to take care of such mundane tasks.”

“We do. But I’m something of a control freak; everything gets routed through me. You want more towels, I have to okay the color and weave before the maid brings them up.”

His frown turned into a smile. It was a nice smile, one that reached all the way up to his eyes. “That’s very diligent of you. I’ll try not to take up too much of your time.”

“Not a problem. Just doing my job.” I smiled back, gave him the professional I’m-leaving-now nod, and took a step backward.

He took the same step forward, as gracefully as if we were dancing. Stopped at the precise second I did. His smile stayed the same, but his eyes locked with mine. “And what if I required something a little more … esoteric?” he asked gently.

I blinked. Neither his voice nor the expression on his face had changed, but his body language was subtly different in a way that was hard to explain: poised, somehow, while appearing relaxed. Like some internal gear had shifted but he hadn’t stomped on the gas yet.

“That depends on what you have in mind,” I said carefully.

He gazed at me for a second before answering. “Tequila,” he said at last. “I have a fondness for it, but only particular varieties. Purely as a sipping drink, you understand; I value a well-made tequila the way some value a good scotch.”

“Give me a name and I’ll do my best.”

“Casa Dragones is my favorite, though a bottle of Milagro Unico will do. One hundred percent blue agave, both of them. The Milagro is flavorful and smooth, yet somewhat playful.”

“It sounds … intriguing.”

“Mmm. The Dragones is delicately sweet, with an underlying fire. And most satisfying—even more so if you have someone to share it with.”

Somehow, I didn’t think he was talking about tequila anymore. “I’ll see what I can do … but you may have to wait. These things can take a while.”

Oddly, he didn’t seem disappointed. “Yes, I understand. Hopefully, you will be successful before I leave.” He nodded once again, more formally, and closed his door.

“Huh,” I said to Whiskey as I walked away. “Well, I’ve been hit on aggressively before, but that was a weird combination. Full steam one second, then back down to zero without taking offense. Almost like he was just going through the motions.”

[It could be he had other things on his mind.]

“You mean like Augustus?”

[I mean like the firearms he was carrying.]

Copyright © 2014 Dixie Lyle.

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Dixie Lyle, author 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.

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