The problem with murder is that it’s messy. Not just the blood, the viscera, and what have you, but the boundaries. And when you’re trying to save a life—provide an alibi—for someone you know is innocent, well, the guilt tends to splash back onto you. Especially when there’s money involved.
That’s the problem I was facing on a perfectly fine September morning, when I’d rather have been back in bed…drinking coffee on the porch…Cleaning litter boxes. Anything rather than trying to explain why I had my hands on the bloody collar of a panicked pit bull named Lily, and why neither of us was responsible for the corpse at our feet.
It had started four months ago when Lily’s person, the mangled corpse formerly known as Charles, had first called me for a consult. As a rule, I don’t like to work with pit bulls. It’s not the breed, it’s the people. Which, come to think of it, is usually the problem. But Lily was special. Lean and tightly muscled, with a short, soft coat of creamy white and the kind of brown eyes you could lose yourself in, Lily was a youngster who had been through too much for her years. She was safe now, but the memories showed, and that’s where, in theory, I came in. I was going to help her get over those memories. Not forget them, I’m not a miracle worker. Just move on, reclaim what was left of her doggy life. Leave the past to be scooped up by some other poor slob.
People, they’re trouble. But animals? When it comes to fur and four legs, I’m a softie. That’s why I’m a behaviorist, or almost, because at some point way too long ago, I wanted to know how our fellow creatures thought, and why. If I could make a living translating that for other humans, well, I thought I’d be doing honest work. That’s all different now, but this is my job, and I’m good at it. Most of the time, of course, the so-called owners don’t want to understand what’s going on with the animals that share their lives. They just want the behavior changed. Not that they’re willing to change their own.
Which didn’t explain what I was doing here in the sun-drenched living room with a bloody dog, a cop, and Charles. I had a hard time looking at Charles, what was left of him. Before something tore his throat open, leaving him to bleed out on his own refinished white oak floor, he’d been better than most. Tall, skinny guy, more brains than brawn, he’d had some heart, coming along for Lily when she’d needed him, and she’d had enough good animal sense to know it. All things considered, she’d been doing okay, too. Some nervous tics, fear issues ingrained on her from her less-than-ideal puppyhood. We were making progress. A little less frantic barking, a lot less cringing.
It didn’t matter. Standing there, trying not to show the strain of holding back forty pounds of pure muscle, I knew how it would come down. The gore that had soaked into Charles’ faded MIT sweatshirt would make everyone jump, and the pieces would fall like dominoes. An autopsy would list cause of death as heart failure, brought about by a combination of shock and blood loss. Forensics would show canine saliva in the jagged wounds that kept drawing my eye. If I were Lily’s guardian, I could probably press for DNA that would show the shell-shocked animal had nothing to do with the raw tears in Charles’ neck. But I wasn’t, and Lily would be dead by then anyway, euthanized as a precaution. Click, click, click.
“Lily—” I’d slipped up. On her license, the three-year-old white bitch—I use that word in the technical sense—was listed as Tetris, after the game. An ugly name, but one of Charles’ little computer-nerd jokes. “I mean, Tetris is not a vicious animal.”
“And you are?” The young cop who’d gotten the call was in a bad mood. Tossing your breakfast burrito at a crime scene will do that to you.
“Marlowe. Pru Marlowe.” Usually my first name gets me a slow once over and a smile, the kind I didn’t mind missing. “I’m the behaviorist.” A blank look, blue eyes flat as slate in his unlined face. “Like a trainer. I’d been working with Charles, with this dog, for a few months.”
“Really.” I’m good with animals, but I couldn’t read this young buck. “And do you train dogs to attack?”
# # #
Half hour later, the young cop had all my info, and I didn’t like it. Anyone in town could have told him who I was. It was more the way he asked his questions. Tall and impassive, he had the cocky look of a high school stud who had kept both the muscles and the attitude, wondering out loud why I’d come back to this nowhere burg and why I seemed to be siding with the panicked beast still screaming herself hoarse in her crate.
I’d given him what I could, but there was a lot I couldn’t say. Not and stay a free woman. And pup that he was, that young cop sensed it. This was, I realized, the perfect crime. A murder disguised to look like an animal attack; poor Lily made the fall- dog for someone else’s misdeeds. And by stepping in to protest her innocence, I’d only made them interested in me. I mean, I had Charles’ key, and here I was saying I had come in to find him like this, all the while protesting that, no, the dog didn’t do it. I couldn’t explain that I knew Lily well enough to know she’d never willingly kill again. That she still had nightmares about some of the darker scenes in her past. That she was, at the moment we were speaking, telling me that she had nothing to do with Charles’ death. To do that, I would have to explain that although I was a few credits short of my certification as a behaviorist, I was a natural animal psychic. No, this young cop, all pissed off after he’d puked his guts out in front of me, would not go for that.
Best I could do was buy some time. The folks at animal control knew me, knew my record anyway, and I’d been back in town long enough to help them out of some jams. Summer people’s pets, a nuisance in season and abandoned in autumn. The occasional hoarder. Small towns tend to get the crazies. Yes, I had some credit there. Still, if I didn’t act fast, Lily would be as dead as the man who had bought her four months earlier for a hundred bucks from a busted-up gambler who’d needed cash fast. In any other hands, Lily would have been dead already. She wasn’t a fighter, not at heart. I needed her to be safe. I needed her to calm down, so I could figure out what had happened. Otherwise, she’d take the rap, and a murderer would go free.
# # #
“Dogs.” Wallis hissed out the word, as close to a curse as she comes. “They lie.”
Wallis is a thirteen-year-old tabby with whom I share my rundown old house. As a cat, and the matriarch of our little household, she holds rather firm opinions. No loud noises. No cursing, and definitely no dogs.
“Lily isn’t lying.” I was home, trying to sort out my thoughts. Wallis, sprawled across the big farm table that served as my all-purpose food and workspace, wasn’t helping. “She isn’t that bright.”
I was pandering to Wallis and she knew it, rolling back over to tuck her feet under her snowy white breast, all proud of herself with that satisfied smile. I needed a little space, a little quiet, to work things out. But what I’d said was also the truth. Lily, like most dogs, was too straightforward to lie. And although the creamy bitch didn’t have a mean bone in her muscular body, I knew she was also too inbred to plan a sentence before she spoke it. “Let go,” she’d yelped as I’d held her, leaning back against her constant forward thrust. “No! No! Let go!” She wanted to run to Charles, and I could see him as she did. Could see Charles’ face, his soft pale hands reaching out to adjust her collar or to rub the sensitive spot at the base of her ears, as they had in better times. That’s what he was to her, all smiles and pets; a series of images that was already fading. “Let go! Let go! Let go!” But I couldn’t. She’d only have dashed back to her person, and her attempts to revive him would have looked like further attacks to the young cop. More to the point, they’d have messed up the crime scene even more. “Let go!” I’d wait until she calmed down and see if I could get any sense out of her.
“Dogs.” Wallis sniffed and closed her eyes. Cats can be like three-year-olds, making you disappear when they’re finished with you. The twitch of an ear gave her away. “Dogs have fleas.” I didn’t argue. I could have. While I do have this odd gift, the ability to hear what animals are “saying,” I can’t usually converse with them in a human sense. It’s more like I eavesdrop, pick up the images or, sometimes, the meanings behind the growls and snorts. With Wallis, for some reason, the communication goes both ways. I think it’s because we’ve lived together for so long—seven years come November. She thinks it’s because she’s a cat. But as I boiled the water for another round of joe, I realized more was brewing than coffee. I’d brought the white dog over to the town pound, as I’d told that young cop I would. And even as I left her, I’d found myself second guessing my suddenly law-abiding move. I don’t like the pound. Under the jurisdiction of the police station right next door, it feels too much like a jail, all cages and rules. We have a shelter, a decent one, two towns over and less than an hour away. As a taxpayer in the same county, I probably had the right to bring an animal there, too. Unlike the pound, the shelter has a full-time vet, a real staff. Everything a traumatized animal needs. Instead, I’d toed the line, and now I was regretting it.
Partly, it was that cop. I’m not shy, far from it. But since I’d come back to my hometown I’d been laying low. And the way that young cop had looked at me made me think of small rooms with bright lights and too many questions to answer.
Partly, it was shock. Let’s be honest, even for me the morning had been tough. I’d felt for Lily; the poor girl didn’t have many resources to start with, and after whatever she had seen, she had just about lost it. I hadn’t been at my best, either. When I’d brought the poor beast in, still shaking, I’d seen the looks. I’d thought they were for Lily. Blondes always get the attention, and the only professional in the bunch—the sheriff’s animal control officer-slash-drinking buddy—was off chasing a raccoon or something. I’d refused to hand her over to the wide-eyed staring deputy. You could tell he had sweaty hands. Instead, I’d walked her back to the isolation cages myself. Locked her in with a pet and a promise. Left a bit of my heart behind me when I stood up. That’s when I caught that they were staring at me: a deputy from the cop shop next door, some dude on the desk, a file clerk. I know I’m easy on the eyes, even with my long black hair tied back and my work clothes muting what have been described as dangerous curves. Still, it had been a rough morning, any way you cut it, so it had to be the blood. I was covered in it, and without the distraction of a forty-pound case of nerves, I could feel how it stiffened the legs of my jeans and made my work shirt stick to my chest like it was silk rather than denim. I’d pulled at the sticky cloth to detach it from my body and caught the deputy’s gasp. Real weirdo. That’s when I realized I needed a change. Barring that, a bath and some more coffee would have to do.
# # #
Poor Lily. She’d been a wreck when Charles had bought her back in May, underweight and shaky. Afraid of her own shadow, literally, or of anything else that moved suddenly or made a noise. He’d seen her outside a bar, he’d told me that first day. We were sitting on the floor, me trying to avoid eye contact with the terrified pooch until she could deal with it. He’d been walking back from a meeting, something with investors, when he’d seen the skinny thing tied to a parking meter. She was whining, shivering in the chill of an early spring evening. We’re not that high up, but we get a country cool out here in the Berkshires. Too much fresh air. Whatever, he’d felt for her.
“Maybe it’s ’cause she’s white.” I could hear his voice. “She just stood out. It was dark, and there she was.”
I’d had to shush him. He tended to get worked up, and Lily didn’t need that. Not then, not now. Maybe that’s why he’d lingered, feeding her the remains of a good steak dinner until her owner came out of that bar. Three sheets to the wind, he still could spot a sucker, and Lily went home with Charles that night. A C-note was nothing to him. It meant life for Lily. Until now.
# # #
“Nuff.” Wallis’ dismissive sniff pulled me out of my thoughts, and I poured the water over the grounds. “Head case.”
“I’ll assume you mean the dog.” I don’t like taking that tone with Wallis. We live too close, even in this rambling wreck of a house. But some things are personal, and she rolled over on her tiger-striped back to look up at me. She didn’t need to say more. Noon, and I was back in my bathrobe. It had been all I could do to strip out of those clothes and shower. All I could do to throw them in the old washing machine. Even my bra had blood on it, and peeling the stiff, tacky fabric off my skin had reminded me of how I’d held Lily’s wet muzzle against my body, first to attach her lead and then simply to offer the comfort of my body. Had reminded me of Charles, what was left of him. Disposable wardrobes only go with disposable incomes, however, and I’d turned my back on that life months ago. “It was pretty bad, Wallis.”
“You turning soft?” The cat flipped one ear toward me.
I took a big hit of coffee. The bitter heat helped me focus. “He was my best paying client.”
“Not that he knew it.” We were on familiar turf here. It was true, I’d had a few gigs since coming back to Beauville, but nothing major. There was an aging bichon I walked each day for his equally aging human; once around the block did it. An aquarium at the local Chinese place. They could’ve gotten a high school student, but I must have seemed more trustworthy. Occasional cat sitting for the summer people, the ones who bought up the pricey condos in the new development. To the regulars around here the idea of cat care tended toward leaving a bowl of dry food and hoping kitty would still be around when you returned. Even my occasional “pet therapy” clients would disappear once the foliage fell. Not much to live on. I didn’t have a mortgage, but I did like to eat. Besides, even with the house coming to me free and clear, I had property taxes to pay, including some overdue notes that my mother had let slide in those last years. So, yeah, I’d pegged Charles as a newcomer and had charged him city rates. What of it? I’d been city trained.
“And your last check was?” Wallis reached out to grab my hand as she questioned me. To an outsider it must have looked cute. The kitty and the coffee cup. But I felt the claws under the velvet.
“Two months ago.” I put the mug down and stared out the window. My view was as pretty as the one from the new development, but in the first flash of autumn color I saw winter coming. Heating bills. “Shit.” What with one thing and another, I’d for- gotten my already casual bookkeeping. Charles’ account was long overdue. I’d been meaning to ask him for a check this morning…. “Well, don’t worry about me.” Wallis sat up and flicked her tail. “There’s a new colony of mice in the mud room wall, and I’m sure the squirrels will be moving into the attic for the winter.” “Cut it, Wallis.” The stout tabby might hunt for pleasure, but I knew she expected her Fancy Feast fresh and on time. “Look, I’ll try to find out what’s up.”
She shot me a glance. I downed what was left of my coffee. “The guy had money, Wallis. Someone’s got to inherit—and that means taking over the bills, too.”
“You just want to check on that…dog.” Her voice could have fixed the polar ice caps.
I shrugged and stood up. Time to get dressed again. Time to get back into the fray. “What of it? She’s connected to the account. And animals are property in this state.”
She jumped off the table and left the room without another word.