There are many uses for a knife, and just then I wasn’t thinking of my steak. In fact, I was letting a perfectly good T-bone grow cold, white droplets of fat solidifying on the plate. My appetite—normally quite healthy, thank you very much—had been quashed. Not by that fat. I’m a carnivore, and cholesterol comes with the territory. But by another useless waste of space. The large, obnoxious diner at the next table.
“What’s the matter?” He wasn’t talking to me. If he’d dared to glance over, he’d have known better than to take that tone with me. “You’re the one who wanted to come here.”
I couldn’t see the face of the woman he was addressing. Just the back of her rich auburn hair, head bowed low. I’d seen her when they came in, though. Wondered at first if she was his daughter, so perky and bright—a shiny brass penny next to his dull, dark mound.
Dull dark dollars, most likely. The man with the suspiciously thick black mane had started in on the maitre d’ right away, complaining about the parking and the conditions of the road. We don’t do valet parking here in Beauville. This time of year, we’re lucky to get through. And that was the next problem. Hardware—Main Street’s nicest eatery—was packed. This was the first Saturday in five without a major storm, the latest thaw seemed to be holding, and a bunch of us had had the same idea. March in Massachusetts, as the worst winter anyone could remember ground to a halt, and we all had cabin fever. When Jim Creighton, my main squeeze, had called to say he’d snagged a table, I didn’t hesitate. Too much time on my own had made me a little crazy, and Hardware’s grub was better than anything I could manage on my own. Only Mister Money, here, didn’t get it. He’d graced the little café with his presence, and he let it be known that this commanded star treatment.
“That’s it?” Right from the start, he’d been trouble, looking at the two-top by the window as if it were dirt. He didn’t realize how lucky he was to get it. “Don’t you know who I am?”
Maybe the maitre d’ did. At any rate, he’d had the sense to make the kind of low, soothing noises I’d use on any irate animal. But even the double martini—“Ketel One, I’ll know”—hadn’t made things easier.
“Get this out of here.” He’d grabbed the waiter as he came by—with our steaks, mind you—handing him the bread basket.
“Sir, the brioche is a—” He didn’t get a chance to finish. “Cheryl here has the self-control of an alley cat.” He nodded
to his date. I couldn’t see her face, but I’d bet it was as red as her hair. “Going to be as fat as one, too, she keeps this up. And get me another one of these.” With his other hand, he waved his cocktail glass, sloshing the remaining contents onto the floor. “She’ll have water.”
The waiter had nodded, grabbing the offending basket as soon as he’d placed our plates. The service professions are used to jerks like these, and the best you can do is defuse them.
“Teddy…” I heard her plea. The TV over the bar was on— this was Beauville, after all—but the sound was low enough for conversation. Underneath its sweet entreaty, her voice was tense. A combination of embarrassment and rage, I thought. I would have inclined toward the latter. “Baby, please…”
Creighton saw me lean forward and smiled, a bit rueful. He couldn’t blame me for eavesdropping, not after that display. Everyone in the place had heard that exchange. One beefy dude had even turned from the tube and was frankly staring, the news—some suits at a podium—less interesting than the drama up close. It didn’t matter. The woman had dropped her voice below what I could pick up. But if I couldn’t hear the rest, Jim did, his grin spreading across his face.
“You find that kind of thing amusing?” I speared a hunk of meat, and addressed my own date, keeping my voice low. “You think I should make all nicey-nice when you’re in a mood?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Creighton kept his eyes on his own plate, wise man, though his dimples did give him away. “How’s your steak?”
“Quite tasty, thank you,” I replied as he refilled my wineglass. As I’ve said, Creighton is a smart man, and a lot better mannered then the big guy at the bar.
The TV had switched focus to a painting—a woodland scene, with a rabbit in the foreground. The caption read “TRAIL GOES COLD.” But before I could ask my beau about it, he sat up with a start, bottle still in hand.
“Teddy, baby…” The woman behind him sounded near tears. That wasn’t what Creighton was responding to, though, as he stood and started to turn.
“Excuse me, sir.” He had on his cop voice. I put my cutlery down. “You can’t speak to a woman like that—”
“She’s my concern.” The red-faced man wasn’t backing down. “Bought and paid for, and if you think I’ll be taken by a little ski bunny that way—”
“Please.” The redhead was standing now, too. Facing Creighton with her hands up in a placating gesture and eyes big with tears. “Please, sir. I’m sorry. This was my fault.”
“Come on, Cheryl.” Teddy slammed a twenty down on the table and started to leave.
“You don’t have to go with him, Miss.” Creighton can be old school. “We’d be happy to escort you anywhere.”
“No, I—I do.” Her voice was a stage whisper, the pleading note in it hard to miss. “He’s not usually like this.”
Ducking past the waiter, who had arrived with the second martini, she trotted after her date in impossibly high heels. Between her gait and the short fur jacket she had grabbed from the maitre d’, she did evoke a bunny. Though a wild rabbit, like the one in that painting, would have more sense than to follow a wolf out into the dark.
“Well, that’s not going to end well.” Creighton craned to watch her hop away after her date before reclaiming his seat.
“Maybe she’ll get fed up.” I topped off his glass, willing the evening back toward normal. “The bunny turns, and all that.” “Maybe.” With a shrug, he tore into his steak, and our conversation moved on to more congenial topics: the wine, my latest client. Over at the bar, the story had shifted, too—the stolen painting replaced by a celebrity divorce. I knew the scene was weighing on my guy, though, much as it stayed with me. None of us likes to see one human dominate another, and the tired formula of a moneyed older man using his wealth to manipulate a beautiful young woman was as depressing as the month-old snowbanks.
Neither of us wanted to see that couple again, though Beauville is small enough that I suspected we would. Neither of us knew that would happen as soon as the next morning, or that Cheryl the ski bunny would be the obvious suspect when Teddy Rhinecrest was found dead, stabbed in the front hallway of his Beauville love nest.
I should have known I’d run into him again. After all, one of my gigs here in this hick town is de facto pest control.
I should explain. I’m not an exterminator. I’ve got little love for vermin of any species, and less sympathy for the human kind than most others. And I live in an omnivorous world, where predator and prey have been doing the survival polka for eons—and will be, long after I’ve become food for whatever organism finally gets me.
But the mice in your pantry? They’re just trying to get through the winter, and if you’re going to provide shelter and a good supply of edibles, well, they’re smart enough to take advantage. No, I’m not the gal you call to lay down poison or traps.
Partly, that’s ’cause I’ve got a sensitivity—a gift, some might call it—that makes this kind of one-sided slaughter particularly painful. You see, I can hear what animals are thinking. Not what they’re saying, per se. They don’t talk to me, like some Doctor Doolittle fantasy. No, what I have is the ability to eavesdrop on other species like I did on that mismatched couple. And like with that couple, I don’t always get everything—every word or thought. What I can usually glean is what an animal is feeling: the fear, the lust, the hunger. The pain, too, if I let myself—which is why I won’t wittingly allow myself to be the cause of it. But it does help me deal with the various creatures that my fellow citizens here in Beauville interact with on a daily basis. Because I can usually figure out what they really want—or why they’re scared or acting a certain way—I can intervene. Make peace, even. Not that I’d want any of my human colleagues knowing how I get my results.
This time out, I’d been called because of the rabbits. Well, Ronnie didn’t call them that, not exactly. What he said was that there was a problem out at The Pines. And since his job is to take care of problems, he did what he does best—he called someone else.
I should explain. Ronnie is a caretaker. Not in the sense of a nurturing person—more like a glorified janitor. Through some old high school connections—Beauville being, as I have said, a small town—he’d gotten himself hired at the new development. Condos—townhouses—thrown up in a hurry before the crash and now largely rented out to vacationers as eager for privacy as for the smell of evergreens. Set back in the woods, The Pines featured condos angled so that none of the entrances faced each other. Despite the fancy cedar shingles, the construction had been so shoddy that I was sure the occupants could hear each other, loud and clear. But then the development was usually half empty, so maybe that didn’t matter much.
As caretaker, Ronnie was jack of all trades there—plumber, carpenter, and groundsman. When the job wasn’t too complicated, I suspected he acted as the resident electrician, too, though I didn’t like to think about that. It wasn’t that he was industrious—far from it—but he knew that he’d been hired by the owners because he was local and he was cheap. Besides, the residents were primarily out-of-towners. City folk, and that meant they tipped. So when he phoned Albert, our local animal control officer, asking for me, I knew he had a real problem.
“It’s one of the renters. He’s been complaining about rodents. Said rats were eating through his wires. He could hear them.” Ronnie said when I took the phone. I’d dropped by Albert’s office hoping for some work. It’s nice to be treated, but a girl likes to be able to buy her own steak sometimes. “I’ve already done some repairs for him.”
I’d kept my mouth shut. Rabbits were more likely than rats, out here. But if the place had been built properly, a hungry rodent or two wouldn’t have been a problem. Besides, this late in the season, I was feeling the pinch—and the folks who stayed at The Pines could pay.
“Will you be around later today?” That was all I asked. I’d learn more about what was going on by checking it out myself than through anything Ronnie could tell me. Beauville men tended to fall into one of two camps: smart and shifty, like Mack—my ex—or big and dumb, like his buddies Vince and Earl, who both tended to think with their fists. My father had been the former. From him, I get my brains, as well as my taste for bourbon. Ronnie was the latter, as was his buddy Albert, although both were too lazy or too stupid to get in much trouble. But also unlikely to think through a problem by themselves. Which was good in that it meant more work for me. Yeah, there was a reason I was with Jim Creighton.
“Uh, not too late?” Of course, Ronnie and Albert were drink- ing buddies too.
“Before happy hour.” I hung up and turned around, quickly enough to watch Albert blush and sputter. It might not yet be spring, and my jeans were nowhere near as tight as that ski bunny’s, but Albert is a simple animal. Not that I cared about his response.
“Frank here?” I eyed Albert’s down vest, which would be part of his wardrobe until July. “I didn’t see him when I came in.”
“Oh, yeah.” He looked relieved that I’d asked a question he could answer. “He’s here.” A fumble with his desk drawers, and the masked triangular head of a ferret popped up. Frank, nominally Albert’s pet, reached two pale paws up to the desk top and began furiously sniffing the air.
“What’s up? Where’s it hidden? Who’s there?” The pink nose twitched as the curious little beast caught up on the news.
“Have you been keeping him locked up in there?” As I turned on Albert, I tried to query the poor ferret. “Has he?” I asked silently, visualizing Albert locking the small creature away in the metal desk. It didn’t help my temper.
“No sense in fighting.” The ferret fixed his black eyes on me, his advice forming into words in my head. “None at all.”
“What? No.” Albert pushed his chair back, as if afraid I would lunge. It wasn’t a bad reaction on his part, and for a moment I was distracted. It’s good to know I can inspire fear. “He’s just— he’s been acting weird lately. Kind of—frisky.”
That turned my attention back to Frank, who by now had climbed to the desk top, and the strong sense I was getting from him—a feeling I could only translate as “make love, not war.”
“Well, spring is in the air,” I said out loud as another thought hit me. “Frank’s not neutered, is he?”
“I—uh—I don’t know.” The round patches of cheek visible above the beard turned scarlet as Albert turned away. “He— maybe—at the shelter…”
“Got it.” I hadn’t known how the fat animal control officer and his sleek pet had first hooked up. There was no point in beating up on Albert, though. I do try to be gentle with dumb animals, and so I knelt in front of the desk. In the guise of making nice with a cute pet, I’d have a chance to greet the only other intelligent creature in the room.
“What’s up, Frank?” I held out my hand for him to sniff, a move as polite as it was wise. Frank’s sharp nose and even sharper eyes had frequently provided insight into my life.
“Dog, dog, that cat again…” His busy nose trembled over my fingers. I’d started my day with my usual dog-walking gigs, but underneath it all, I had no doubt the ferret was picking up the scent of Wallis, the tabby who shares my life. “Wait, wait…a bunny?” That one surprised me, and I could feel the smile starting. It didn’t matter. Albert would think I was amused by his pet. In truth, I was impressed. I hadn’t noticed any rabbits this morning. But before I’d gone out to meet Growler, the bichon with whom I had a standing date, I had made a lame attempt at dismantling the snowbank beside my front porch. It was shrinking, but not quickly enough, and the forsythia peeking through was looking bent and battered. What remained had melted and refrozen often enough to be nearly solid: a dense reminder of the winter mess. There had been a handful of small brown pellets on top of the snow—the local rabbits had found my poor forsythia, too. “Yeah, rabbits.” I kept my voice low. Albert was keeping his distance, but I couldn’t take any chances. My reputation was shaky enough in this town without talk about me communing
with a ferret. “Just trying to get by, I figure.”
“This is a dangerous season.” The black button eyes looked up at me. “Not everyone survives.”
# # #
I took the mustelid’s words to heart as I drove over to the condos. Driving is one of the great pleasures of my life. The chief consolation for leaving behind the city and returning to the small town of my birth was trading in the subway for a ’74 GTO with a retro engine and a custom paint job. And while I’ve reconciled myself to the added expense that my baby blue baby costs in gas and maintenance, I have to constantly remind myself that my muscle car wasn’t made with modern safety features—or designed to handle the black ice that invariably followed a thaw. So, as much as I wanted to open her up, let that massive engine roar, I held back—at least on the shadowed streets—as I made my way over to meet Ronnie and his rats.
“Hey, Pru!” I found him in front of the development office. Tall and heavy, he complemented the build of an autumn bear with the personal style of the awkward teen he must have been some two decades before. As he looked up, I wondered once again how someone who spends so much of his time outdoors could have such an unhealthy complexion. Some of it seemed to be a blush. I’d startled him, as he was digging through the work box in the back of his pickup. Looking for cigs, most likely, or maybe something more potent, from the way he stood with a start. As long as he wasn’t feeding anything to an animal, I didn’t much care. “You’re early.”
“You’ve got rodents?” As I’ve said, Ronnie—like his buddy Albert—isn’t necessarily the brightest tool in the shed. And if I’ve learned one thing from working with animals, it’s that the closer you can keep on message, the better results you’ll get. Not that my professors in animal behavior could have guessed just what kind of beast I’d end up training.
“Yeah. I think so.” He was actually standing up straighter as he came toward me, wiping his hands on his flannel shirt as he did so. Training 101: Ignore the behavior you want to discourage, and reward the behavior you want with attention. I did so, shaking his outstretched palm. It was disconcertingly moist, but at least he was trying to act professional. “The tenant in number six complained.”
“And?” I looked at him, curious. Usually someone in Ronnie’s position would put down poison and hope to get the credit—and any reward—himself.
He shook his head. “And nothing.” A shrug. “I set some traps—the good kind, of course.” Humane ones, he meant. I doubted it, but I didn’t interrupt. “But I didn’t get anything. And then this morning he called me from the road, saying something had eaten through his wires.”
“Did you check?” What he was saying wasn’t completely impossible. A winter like we’d had was rough on wildlife. You think you have trouble driving to the store when the drifts top three feet? Try digging through the ice pack to get at the last of the acorns or the tender bark of a sapling. As I knew from the scat by my house, anything that can be gotten at is fair game by February, and although the weather had eased up on us with the opening of March, the recent melt hadn’t made edibles more accessible yet. “Yeah, sure. I looked at where the wires come in and everything.” Another shrug. “He didn’t want to hear it.”
“Fine.” I was here. I was going to bill anyway. “So, is he here now?”
Ronnie swallowed, his wind-reddened cheeks going pale. “You don’t believe me?”
I sighed, audibly. Not that it would do any good. “If there’s a problem, I need to eliminate the obvious,” I explained. “Like that your tenant kicked the plug out or something.”
“Okay.” He didn’t sound happy. “Just—the guy has a temper.” I followed him down the walk, which looked like it had been cleared barely enough to avoid complaints. On either side of the concrete, the crusty snow had been piled thigh-high, but that was lower than it had been a week ago, and dark, damp patches of earth could be seen in the sunnier spots. Soon, I hoped, the crocuses and snowdrops would be peeking through. I’m not sentimental about spring—I’m not sentimental about anything—but even I craved color after the endless, dreary freeze. “Hello!” I was still examining the snowbank as he yelled into the mail slot. Inside, a small dog was yelping. “Anyone there?” As he knocked, I crouched to examine the pitted side of the melting drift, a possibility suggesting itself. It was hard to tell from where I was looking, but what Ronnie’s tenant had suggested could happen. The larger animals—deer and rabbits—had been scrambling, but the smaller ones—moles and voles—made good use of the snow cover. They’d be burrowing under the drifts, safe for a time from many of the local predators. I’d heard of mice that had tunneled into storage sheds under cover of snow and made off with a season’s worth of feed, unseen by hawk or human.
“Hello!” More yapping. To me it sounded like, “Rat! Rat! Rat!” I didn’t take it as evidence of a rodent infestation. The high, sharp bark sounded like toy of some sort, and they’re excitable. The doorbell and knocking were as likely to have set him off as a four-legged intruder.
I stood and turned toward Ronnie. “Should I send you my invoice, or…?”
“Hang on.” He fumbled at his belt, as I’d hoped. Sending Ronnie an invoice would be about as sensible as sending one to those mice, and that impressive ring of keys had to be more than cosmetic. Sure enough, a moment later, he had the front door of the condo open. “Hello?”
His voice was an odd mix of scared and hopeful. Me? I don’t work at the beck and call of wealthy vacationers. Pushing the door open slowly, I tried to calm the dog, forming the thought in my head: “friend, treats, friend.” Even from here, I could see evidence of Ronnie’s sloppy handiwork: one panel of the wainscoting had been replaced, a bent nail pounded flat. Out loud, I announced myself: “Pru Marlowe, animal behaviorist. I’m here about—”
And then I stopped. Because right inside the condo’s front door, sprawled across the glazed tile entranceway, lay the body of the man I’d seen the night before, his eyes already dull with death.