Panthers Play for Keeps: A Pru Marlowe Pet Noir #4

Panthers Play for Keeps: A Pru Marlowe Pet Noir #4

When Pru Marlowe takes a dog for a walk, she doesn’t expect to find a body. But Spot, a service dog in training, has too good a nose not to ...

About The Author

Clea Simon

Clea Simon is the author of the Pru Marlowe, Dulcie Schwartz, and Theda Krakow mystery series, as well as three ...

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Chapter One

To a dog, a dead body has some intrinsic value. To me, it was just one more hassle.

We were out for a walk, deep in the woods bordering the little town I now call home, when we found it. When he found it, actually. Spot, that is. Yes, that is a stupid name for a dog, especially a big work dog like the shepherd mix I was with that day. It wasn’t his fault; humans can be stupid, particularly about those we love.

Which would prove true often that week—but back to the body. The walk had been peaceful up till then. A late afternoon hike in the local preservation land, the last bit of forest safe from the developers who even now seem to see everything as  a marketable opportunity. Exercise for him, a break for me in what had become an increasingly hectic day, when Spot—poor fool—started in. Whining, with that softly insistent “oh, please” tone that even the best-trained canine can use. Spot has some hound in him, and he can’t help getting excited about a scent. I figured on an opossum, or maybe a deer. Whatever it was, it sure had the animal at my side excited.

I shouldn’t have encouraged him. I know that. Being a companion animal is all about discipline. And while most dogs are good about the positive training—paying attention to any signal from their person, obeying the commands—a reliable guide dog has to maintain the negative discipline also. That means ignoring other stimuli—other animals. Even intriguing scents. You don’t want Grandma’s four-legged helper dragging her after the neighbor’s cat, for example. But Spot had been working hard—too hard, maybe. So I’d let him go, giving him the nod as I unsnapped his lead. Anything out there would be more than a match for his housebroken ways, I figured. If not, it had more than a half-trained guide dog to worry about.

He’d only gone about ten yards when I heard it. An odd yap—half warning, half whine—that made me freeze. Dogs, even domesticated creatures like Spot, have more senses, more instincts than us poor bipeds will ever dream of. And the tan and black animal just visible through the bare trees was telling me that something was very, very wrong.

“Spot?” I kept my voice soft and low. Although we like to use words, the animals we work with respond more to our tone than to the syllables we utter. The dog before me would hear the question in my slight upward inflection—and in the thoughts that reached out through the shadows, where I could see him stiffen at attention. “What is it, boy?”

Another whine, one I couldn’t decipher. And no, that’s not as crazy as it sounds. I usually can get something from the animals around me: a scent, an image. Something of how they perceive the world. It’s a strange sensitivity, my so-called gift, but it’s usually reliable. Usually.

“Spot?” I took a step toward him, my own ears straining to catch whatever it was that held him. The hiss of a bobcat. The rattle of a snake. The first spring thaw had exposed the dead leaves of autumn; I didn’t know what else had come to light.

“Danger?” It’s not a question I usually ask. It’s a training word. A command that tells a guide dog to stop, to put himself in front of his person. To stay, rooted, until we humans figure out what’s what. He responded, though with that whine. I could see his tail again. It whipped once, hanging low to the ground. Not in happiness. Acknowledgment, rather, and something else, too, that I tried to read as quietly as I could while creeping up behind him. He was focused on something, all right. I could sense need—a singular drive—to go, to get something. I needed to see what it was, too.

“No! Back!” I froze as the command—his command—reached me. Listened. Somewhere, not too far off, ice melt rippled down a stream. A few late afternoon peeps and mutterings signaled bird life. Undisturbed bird life. The yell I’d heard had been in my head. A warning of sorts.

“Spot?” That whine again, high-pitched and unrelenting. But now I was getting something else, too. A scent, if that meager word can be used to describe the nearly three-dimensional sensory experience of what a dog smells. Something raucous and wild. Scared and fierce. What had the dog cornered, anyway?

The time for fear was gone. All of my own scanty senses on alert, I crept forward, slowly enough for my brain to kick in. Spot’s hindquarters were partly obscured by a large maple, but there didn’t seem to be anything in front of him. No tree. No rock or ledge. He couldn’t have anything cornered. Of course, I paused as it hit me: he’d come across something wounded.

“No!” I saw, rather than felt, the tearing, the biting. And then I knew. I hurried the last few feet to where Spot stood at attention. Body ramrod stiff, he kept guard, sniffing the air. But already his nose had told me what I’d see before me on  the ground. A woman, on her back. Arms thrown open as if to embrace the fading light, the gold and green of her long-sleeved blouse evoking the spring that had yet to come. It wouldn’t  for her; that blouse was torn, its thin fabric shredded from the collar down. The bleeding had already stopped from the blow that had torn her scalp half off, the dark hair that remained not quite covering one brown, unseeing eye.

 

Chapter Two

The woods around Beauville aren’t primordial forest. At some point, back when the town stream powered a mill or two, those original trees had been cut down. Maybe they went for lumber; those great hardwoods were once in great demand for ships as well as housing. Maybe they went for fuel. I didn’t know. But the woods we’d been walking through were what came next, if next includes some semi-negligent forestry and the occasional fire, controlled or not. That meant tall trees, but thin, lower branches losing out to the canopy in search of our scarce New England sunshine.

This time of year, the ground below was pretty bare. Small hills and hollows let you know where the big, old trees fell, and once, out walking, I came upon a rotted stump that I could have parked my GTO on. Come summer, this lower level would be knee-deep in ferns, maybe some jewelweed and skunk cabbage in the damper hollows. But although younger forests are supposed to allow for more underbrush, I didn’t see it here.

Granted, I wasn’t looking that closely. I’m not squeamish; working with animals you can’t be. But finding that body had thrown me. Some of it was the color. That blouse just looked out of place against the dull browns of the season. Some of it, to be honest, was the violence. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but that woman was no more a part of the ecosystem than I was. No more than I wanted to be, anyway, I thought, as I quickened my pace. Lying there, she barely looked human, so torn and still, and it had taken me a moment to recognize what she was, never mind who. Something about her was familiar, though, and the image of her face—what was left of it—was ricocheting through my brain as Spot led me back to the car.

As we got closer, we slowed. Down by the parking area, where more sunlight gets through, the flora changes, and I had to watch my step. We were getting to the brambles, a big hedge of them serving as a backstop to the open asphalt. Come summer, the south side of those bushes would be full of blackberries, a feast for the birds that I might muscle my way into. Now, though, they were drab and ragged, last year’s leaves still holding clumps of ice and other debris that had blown their way. With the sun behind them, the leafy accumulation looked solid. A wall, or another dead thing, lying in my path.

No, not dead. Not quite. I’d been spooked; I knew it and fought the reaction. Still, I found myself holding my breath, my heartbeat quickening as we approached. Dark, low, and large in the shadows, the compact hedge reminded me of nothing so much as a crouching animal, waiting to pounce. I panicked, just for a moment, freezing in my tracks. Spot stopped in guard position, right in front of me, senses alert.

“Command?” He waited, good dog that he is. I’d stopped so suddenly, he knew that there might be a problem.

“Walk,” I replied, keeping my voice level. I’m not the nervous type, and the moment would have embarrassed me in front of any human companion. For Spot, it was all one. I’d stopped, so he had. An animal needs no explanation for caution, I told myself. What Spot thought, he didn’t tell me. At work, he was as silent as usual, and for once I was grateful. Still, he kept himself between me and the hedge as we passed it. He would be a good service dog, if I didn’t sabotage his training. As I opened the car door, I rubbed his ears and felt his heavy tail thump against my leg.

At the very least, this had been a good test for Spot, and he’d delivered, I’ll give him that. He’d obeyed my command to return to the car and had barely whined at all as I drove back toward town, looking for a cell signal. His only utterance hadn’t  even been audible, just a low-level cry—half query, half complaint— that I picked up because it matched my mood as I steered down the highway, one eye on my cell.

“It’s okay, boy. We’ll go back.” I kept my voice soft and low as I drove. “I promise.” Animals respond to the tone of your voice, not the words, as I’ve said. With us, though, it could have been more: Just as I could pick up that soundless whine, I suspected Spot was getting more from me than audible reassurance. This thing I have, this sensitivity—call it a psychic connection—with animals means that not only can I hear what’s going on with them, but most of the time, I can reach them the same way. It’s freaky, sure. But it has its uses.

“We’ll go back.” I was still talking as the bars lit up, and I pulled over to the shoulder.

“Detective James Creighton.” Even on his cell, Jim answers like a cop.

“Hey there.” My voice dropped an octave. Yeah, I was calling with an emergency. What could I do? He gets to me that way. “Pru.” I heard a sigh. I didn’t think it was a good sigh. “Can this wait? I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

“Sure, Detective.” Spot’s head whipped around at the change in my voice. “I just thought you’d want to know about a dead body I found in the woods.”

“What? Pru…” Maybe it’s me, but it did seem odd. I tell the man in my life about a dead body, and he suddenly takes on an accusatory tone. “What did you do, Pru?” Okay, it wasn’t just me. “I called you, Jim. As soon as I could get my phone to work.” That wasn’t what he was asking, but I was no longer feeling particularly helpful. Being spooked had put me in a mood.  “Isn’t that what a responsible citizen does?”

“Pru…” Creighton was talking, but it was Spot who was commanding my attention. He was looking at me, concern   in his doggie eyes. I didn’t know if he could hear the growl in Creighton’s voice or was picking up on my own rising temper. It didn’t matter. Seeing those big sad eyes brought me back to the reality outside my own flawed romance.

“Get ahold of yourself, Jim.” I was talking fast now, eager to get the story out before he—or my own temper—could interrupt. “I was out in the preservation land with a dog I’m training. Okay? He started acting odd, and I gave him his lead. He led me to a body. A woman. She’s probably about a mile and a half from the road.”

I gave him directions to the parking area and agreed to meet him there. It wasn’t me he wanted to see, that was clear. But Spot would be able to bring him back to the body, and both the dog and the woman deserved that much closure.

He got there only a few minutes after I’d parked again and let Spot out. Flanked by two cruisers and an ambulance, he parked his unmarked car right behind mine. Anyone else, I might have thought that was coincidence.

With all those people, though, we didn’t have time for conversation. Instead, we talked as if we were on stage. “Ms. Marlowe, can you direct us to the body?”

“I can do better than that, Detective.” I matched his tone. “I—and Spot here—can lead you to it.”

I ignored the smiles. Beauville is a small town. Jim’s officers knew we were an item. The EMTs probably did, too. Instead, I knelt at Spot’s side and spoke softly in his ear. That was partly for effect. He knew what I wanted, and he wanted to get back to that poor woman, too. Even Creighton could probably see that he was quivering with anticipation, his mind focused. “Find! Find! Find!” The low-pitched whine vibrated from every fiber of his muscular body. But, theoretically, I was training him for someone who wouldn’t have such a direct connection with his canine brain.

“That’s right,” I tried to fit my words to the soundtrack in his head. “Find her, Spot. Good boy.” I stood and unclipped his lead, and he was off.

“What the—?” Creighton took a moment to glare at me before he took off after the dog whose brown and black fur was quickly fading into the growing shadows.

“Relax, Jim.” I called as I trotted after him. “Spot won’t let us lose him. And he’ll call when he finds her again.”

“He’ll call?” He’d stopped and I caught up. The others were either slow or intentionally giving us space.

“You’ll hear him.” I kept walking. “Why the attitude, Jim?”

He shook his head but adjusted his pace to mine. This early in the season, we were walking on dead leaves, and I could just make out Spot as a blur of movement up ahead.

“What?” I reached out and took his arm. He didn’t shake me off. “Jim?”

“You have, shall we say, a cavalier attitude toward death.” He spoke as much to the mulch as to me. “And to the law, which is not only what I do, Pru. It’s who I am.”

“It’s not who—” I stopped myself. I’d been about to tease him. That’s easy enough. Jim Creighton might look like a boy scout, with that close-cropped hair and those blue eyes. There was steel in his spine, though. It was part of what attracted me. The challenge. “I do respect you, Jim.” Time to be serious.

“Do you?” He flashed a look I couldn’t read, no matter how well I knew those eyes. And then we heard it. One bay, as much like a human wail as a dog’s hunting cry. Ahead and to our right. Creighton and I both broke into a run, and only his outstretched arm stopped me from stumbling over the body that Spot now guarded.

“Over here,” Creighton called to his crew. A bit unnecessary, I thought, before I realized: this was a dominance play. I looked down at Spot. He looked up at me and wagged that big flag of a tail once more. He knew it, too, and he was cool with it.

After some pets and praise, I snapped Spot’s lead back on and led him back toward the car. He’d done his job, and neither of us needed to stay as the EMTs checked out the corpse. Already, one of Creighton’s minions was cordoning off the area. They’d be here all night. Spot and I had already had a full day, and seeing it—her—there with the techies and the crime-scene tape going up was disturbing, almost as if they were all making her less of a person. Less of a woman, even as they did their job.  Letting Spot into my car, I managed to pull up onto the soft leaf mold and escape the box my sometime-boyfriend had put me in. I wasn’t going to hang around waiting. I couldn’t. Creighton knew how to reach me if he wanted more.

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