Authors: Lori Handeland
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For our Reggie.
Best. Dog. Ever.
I glanced up from my examination of a basset hound named Horace to discover the Three Harbors police chief in the doorway. My assistant hovered in the hall behind her.
“Can you take Horace?” I asked, but Joaquin was already scooping the dog off the exam table and releasing him onto the floor. Before I could warn him to leash the beastâmy next scheduled patient was Tigger, the catâHorace had trotted into the waiting area and found out for himself.
Since childhood, I'd heard the thoughts of animals. Call it an overactive imagination. My parents had. That I was right a good portion of the time, I'd learned to keep to myself. Crazy is as crazy does, and a veterinarian who thinks she can talk to animals would not last long in a small northern Wisconsin tourist town. I doubted she'd last long in
town. But Three Harbors was my home.
Tigger's owner emitted a stream of curses. Joaquin fled toward the ruckus.
“Kid gonna be okay out there?” Chief Deb jerked a thumb over her shoulder then shut the door.
“If he wants to keep working here, he'd better be.” The waiting room was a battleground, when it wasn't a three-ring circus.
I sprayed the table with disinfectant and set to wiping it off. “What can I do for you, Chief?”
“I've got a missing black cat.”
My hand paused mid-circle. “I didn't know you had a cat.”
She'd never brought the animal to me, and as I was the only vet within thirty miles, this was at the least worrisome, at the most insulting.
“Just because you picked up a stray,” I continued, “doesn't mean the animal doesn't need care.” Ear mites, fleas, ticks, old injuries that had festeredâand don't get me started on the necessity for being spayed or neutered. “A stray probably needs more.”
“Chill, Becca, the missing cat doesn't belong to me. Neither do the two other black cats, one black dog, and, oddly, a black rabbit that seem to be in the wind.”
I opened my mouth, shut it again, swiped an already clean table, then shrugged. “I don't have them.”
“If you did, you'd be my newest candidate for serial killer of the week.”
“IÂ â¦ what?”
“After the first two cats went poof, I suspected Angela Cordero.”
“She's eight years old.”
“Exactly,” Deb agreed. “But when the dog disappeared, I started to think maybe it was Wendell Griggs.”
“Thirteen,” I murmured.
“Missing small animals are one of the first hints of pathological behavior.”
Apparently Chief Deb liked to read that healthy and growing genre, serial killer fiction.
“Missing small animals are usually an indication of a larger predator,” I said. “Especially this close to the forest.”
Three Harbors might be bordered on one side by Lake Superior, but it was backed by a lot of trees, and in those trees all sorts of creatures lived. Perhaps even a few serial killers.
My imagination tingled. If I weren't careful I'd be writing one of those novels. Maybe I should. Writing might be good therapy for my overactive imagination. Ignoring it certainly wasn't helping.
“I know.” She sounded disappointed. Apparently the chief would prefer a serial killer to a large animal predator. Worse, she was kind of hoping that the serial killer was someone we knew, who'd yet to hit puberty.
This surprised and disturbed me, though I didn't know her well. We'd gone to school together, but Deb had occupied the top of the pyramid in high schoolâliterally. Someone of her tiny stature and blond-a-tude had been a given for cheerleader of the year.
She'd worried me when she'd danced on top of those ten-people-high pyramids. Now I was worried that she'd fallen off, once or twice, and hit her head.
“Have you had any animals in here that have been bitten, scratched, mauled, or chewed on?” she asked.
“Any farmers complain that they've seen coyotes or wolves closer to town than they should be?”
“Wouldn't they report that to you, not me?”
She tilted her head. “Good point.”
Deb had cut her blond ponytail years ago and now wore her hair in a short cap that, when combined with her tree-bark-brown police uniform, Batman-esque utility belt, and Frankenstein-like black shit-locker boots, only made her appear like a child playing dress up.
I tapped the calendar. “Less than two weeks until Halloween.”
Halloween.” Deb kicked the door, which rattled and caused Horace to yip in the waiting room. Wasn't he gone yet? “Second only to New Year's Eve for the greatest number of morons on parade.”
“You said all the missing animals were black.”
“A wolf or a coyote wouldn't know black from polka dot.”
While dogs and cats, and by extension wolves and coyotes, weren't truly color-blind, they didn't see colors the way we did. Most things were variations of black and gray and muted blue and yellow. Or so I'd heard.
“Might be kids playing around,” I continued.
“Sacrificing black animals to Satan?”
“You think we have a devil-worshipping cult or maybe a witches' coven? In Three Harbors?”
She drew herself up, which wasn't very far, but she did try. “There
“From what I understand, they're peaceful. Harm none. Which would include black animals.”
weird is going on.”
“Kids messing around,” I repeated. “Though I doubt they're stealing black animals and keeping them safe in a cage somewhere just for the hell of it.”
Which brought us right back to budding serial killer. Or two.
“Would you be able to give me a list of all the animals you treat that are black?” she asked.
“If the owners agree.”
Wisconsin statues allowed the release of veterinary records with permission from the owner.
“Why would anyone care about the release of the color of their pet's fur to the police?”
“Never can tell,” I answered.
If there was one thing I'd learned in this job it was that people were a lot stranger than animals.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
At five-thirty, Joaquin flicked the lock on the front door and turned off the waiting room lights, then followed me through the exam room to the rear exit.
Trees ringed the parking lot that backed my clinic. Only my Bronco and a waste receptacle occupied the space. However, I'd had a night-light installed, and it blazed bright as the noonday sun.
“Sorry to leave you with the Horace and Tigger problem,” I said.
“It was my fault for letting Horace run free.”
It had been, and I'd bet he'd never do it again. Between patients I'd seen him sweeping up dirt from an overturned potted plant and wiping the floor beneath one of the chairs. It was anyone's guess if Horace had peed and Tigger had knocked over the plant or vice versa.
I'd never had a better assistant than Joaquin. His long-fingered, gentle hands calmed the wildest pet. He also had the best manners of any adolescent in town, not that there'd been much of a contest. From what I'd seen of the Three Harbors youth, being a smart-mouthed
berdelinquent was the current fashion.
“You going home or did your mom work today?”
Joaquin lived in a trailer park outside of town. Not a long trip, but one that involved a sketchy stretch of two-lane highway, with only a bit of gravel on the side. I didn't want him walking it after dark, and at this time of year, dark had come a while ago.
“You're going straight to the caf
His lips curved at my concern. “If you saw where we lived before we came hereÂ â¦ This place is safe as houses, my mom says. Although I don't really know what that means beyond really safe.”
safe, at least for people, which reminded me. “Have any of the kids been talking aboutâ¦” I wasn't sure what word to use. Did they call Satanism something else these days? And if so, what? “Cults?” At his blank expression, I kept trying. “Sects? Devil worship?”
“That's why the chief wanted the list of black animals?” His voice was horrified. “Someone's killing them?”
“We don't know that.”
“What do we know?”
I hesitated, but now that I'd opened the door, I couldn't close it without freaking out Joaquin worse than he already was.
“There are several cats, a dog, and a rabbit missing. They're all black, which almost surely rules out a feral dog, coyote, or wolf.”
He nodded. The kid knew nearly as much about animals as I did.
“I was thinking that since it's so close to Halloween, maybe some kids were messing around. Hear anything?”
“No one talks to me at school.” He twitched one shoulder in an awkward, uncomfortable half shrug. “I'm Mexican.”
Three Harbors didn't have a lot of Mexican-Americans. In fact, now that Joaquin and his mom were here, we had two.
“I don't fit in,” he continued. “I'm dark and foreign and new.”
Joaquin was a beautiful boyâebony hair, ebony eyes, ridiculous lashesâalso ebonyâsmooth cinnamon skin.
“Doesn't that make you exotic and exciting?”
“Not,” he muttered.
“No one's talked to you?”
“Teachers. I heard one of the kids saying that I didn't speak English.”
“And what did you say to that?”
s mejor que usted habla Espa
“You understood me?”
“I'd have to be
not to understand
. Once I got that much, the rest wouldn't really matter. Have you been participating in class?”