Excerpts for Cat Sitter's Pajamas : A Dixie Hemingway Mystery


1


When you live in a resort area, every third person you meet on the street may be somebody famous. Here in Sarasota, which probably has more famous personalities per capita than any other city in the world, you might sit beside Toby and Itzhak Perlman in a movie theater or see Stephen King in Circle Books on St. Armands Key. We locals stay cool about it. We don't run up to them and gush like yokels. We just dip our heads in silent respect and hope they notice how generous we are to grant them privacy. If we should become friends with one of them, the way I did with Cupcake Trillin and his wife, Jancey, we don't go around bragging about it. We treat them like any other friend, but we're always aware that fate has given them an extra allotment of talent or looks or determination that the rest of us don't have.
I'm Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you-know-who, that other famous Floridian. I live on Siesta Key, which is one of the semitropical barrier islands off Sarasota--the others being Casey, Bird, Lido, St. Armands, and Longboat. Connected by two drawbridges, Siesta is the closest to the mainland, and in most respects, it's like a small town. People gather for sand-sculpting contests, Fourth of July fireworks, and Christmas tree lighting. They run with their dogs on the beach, walk to the post office inside Davidson Drugs, gossip over coffee at one of our gourmet coffee shops. So far, we've been able to keep chain stores off the island, and we're proud that all our businesses are locally owned. Except in "season," when snowbirds come, the key is home to about seven thousand people. During season, we swell to about twenty-four thousand, and traffic and tempers get a little quicker.
I live here for the same reason so many famous people have second or third or maybe eighth homes here--because it's a paradise of riotous colors, balmy sea breezes, cool talcum sand beaches, and every songbird and seabird you can think of. Snowy egrets walk around in our parking lots, great blue herons stand vigil on people's lawns, and if we look up we see the silhouette of frigate birds flying above the clouds like ships without a home.
My only claims to fame are that once I went totally bonkers while TV cameras rolled, and later I killed a man. I was a sheriff's deputy when I went crazy, but I didn't kill anybody until after I'd got myself more or less together and became a pet sitter. Pet sitting is a lot more dangerous than people think.
Cupcake Trillin's fame came from being an immovable inside linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's the size of a walk-in closet and has one of the tenderest hearts in the universe. He and I became friends when we rescued the baby of his best friend.
He and Jancey had left their two cats, Elvis and Lucy, in my care while they spent a two-week vacation in Parma, Italy. For Jancey, it was a long-planned chance to learn to make authentic Italian dishes. For Cupcake, it was a last-minute change of plans--he'd been widely reported to be attending a private meeting of fellow athletes who sponsored a camp for disadvantaged kids--but a welcome opportunity to get personal with honest-to-God prosciutto and Parmesan cheese.
The Trillins lived on the south end of the Key in an exclusive gated community called Hidden Shores. Since the famous and rich are always on guard against intruders, the main difference between Hidden Shores and a maximum security prison is that it costs big bucks to be confined in Hidden Shores. In addition to a security gate, a tall stucco wall hung with riotous bougainvillea and trumpet vine surrounds the area. Those pretty flowers conceal coiled razor ribbon.
Cupcake and Jancey had been in Italy a week on the Tuesday morning when their lives and mine took a sudden turn. It was early, with a few horsetail clouds fanning a mango sky, when I drove up to the Hidden Shores gatehouse. I punched in my temporary security code and watched the gate slide open. In our humid climate, most entry gates are built of aluminum, but this one had been powder coated to look like wrought iron. A good seven feet tall, it had sharp spikes at the top to discourage anybody rash enough to think about climbing it. As it opened, I kept one eye on the rearview mirror in case a robber or serial killer tried to whip around my Bronco and race through ahead of me--places like Hidden Shores are guaranteed to make anybody paranoid.
A human is usually at the gate, but at that hour the gate was unmanned. I guess the security people figure robbers work nine to five. As I pulled through the opened gate, my name, the time, and the date were electronically recorded at a security company's office. More than likely, my photo had also been snapped by a hidden camera.
In the Trillins' driveway, I took a moment to flip open my notebook to remind myself of my temporary house code number, then hustled up the path to the front door. I was humming under my breath when I punched in my code. I think I was still humming when I turned the doorknob and pushed the door open, but the instant I stepped into the foyer I froze.
Houses have signature odors as distinctive as a human's individual scent. I couldn't have accurately described the unique breath of the Trillins' house, but I knew it well enough to detect a change in it.
At about the same instant I realized an intruder was in the house, a willowy woman with skim-milky skin stepped from the living room into the foyer. Her long titian hair was lit by subtle hues that only occur on very small children and women with expensive colorists. She wore bright scarlet lipstick, and her fingernails and toenails were the same bright red. Except for an oversized, brightly printed man's shirt hanging unbuttoned from her narrow shoulders, she was naked.
I tried not to look, but it's not every day you run into a naked woman with a Brazilian wax job in the shape of a valentine heart. The pubic heart was red like her hair, which made the old naughty doggerel run through my head: Mix another batch and dye your snatch to match!
She gave me a gracious, hostessy smile and extended a limp hand as if she expected me to cross the foyer and shake it.
In a husky, seductive voice, she said, "I'm Briana."
Under the terms of my contract with my clients, I make it clear that I need the names of all the people who have permission to come in while they're gone. Otherwise, if I find anybody in the house, I'll take them as unlawful intruders and act accordingly.
I said, "I can't let you stay here without the owner's permission."
Her smile grew more serene. "You don't understand. I'm Cupcake's wife."
I said, "That will come as a surprise to the wife with him right now."
Her eyes clouded in momentary confusion. "Excuse me?"
My throat tightened. The woman seemed to really believe what she'd said.
From somewhere in the house, a faint noise sounded--the click a refrigerator door makes when it's surreptitiously closed, maybe, or the snick! from unlocking a glass slider to a lanai.
Without another word, I stepped backward and pulled the door shut behind me. Outside, I took out my cell phone to call the cops, and then hesitated. Ordinary people can have intruders in their house and it never makes the papers. Cupcake was famous, and reporters would salivate at a report of a naked woman in his house while he and his wife were away.
Instead of dialing 911, I called Cupcake.
Cupcake answered with a note of concern in his voice. "Dixie?"
For some reason, I was surprised that caller ID worked all the way across the Atlantic.
I said, "There's a woman in your house. She says her name is Briana. I think somebody else may be in there, too."
Cupcake said, "Oh, ma-a-a-an."
He sounded like a kid learning his ball game has been called off.
He lowered the phone to yell at his wife. "Jancey, it's Dixie. There's another woman. This one broke into the house."
Jancey took the phone. "She's in our house?"
I said, "I'm afraid so."
Cupcake said something too muffled for me to hear, and Jancey quit talking to me to talk to him.
"Are you kidding me? She's in our house, Cupcake! In our shower! Sleeping in our bed! And you want to protect her?"
I grinned. Cupcake's tender heart sometimes forces Jancey to play the heavy.
There were some more muffled sounds, probably Cupcake wresting the phone from her.
He said, "Those women that stalk us have to be some kind of sick. I feel sorry for them."
Jancey yelled, "They stalk Cupcake, not me!"
Cupcake sighed. "Call the police, but try to get them to commit her or put her in a hospital or something."
I said, "She acted like she knew you. Do you know anybody named Briana?"
"Never heard of her."
Jancey got on the phone again. "Dixie, get that woman out of my house. Are the cats okay?"
"I haven't seen them yet. I came outside to call you as soon as she told me she was Cupcake's wife."
"She said what? Oh my God!"
I could have slapped myself for telling her that. What woman wants to hear that another woman is going around claiming her husband? But it was done, and I couldn't take it back. At least I hadn't told about the woman being naked, or about the huge shirt she'd worn. I was pretty sure the shirt was one of Cupcake's.
I hurried to tell Jancey I would have the woman taken away, got off the line, and called 911.
"I'm a pet sitter, and I just walked in on an intruder in a client's house. A woman. She seemed mentally disturbed and should be handled with care. There may be another person in the house as well."
I gave the address, but when the dispatcher asked for the homeowner's name, I tried to distract her.
"It's a gated community. Whoever comes will have to use a code to get in. I guess they could use mine."
Crisply, the dispatcher said, "No problem, ma'am. We have our own code. A deputy will be there shortly."
I grinned and shut off the phone. I knew about the bar code affixed to the side of every Sarasota County emergency and law enforcement vehicle. As the vehicle approaches the gate, an electronic reader scans the code and automatically opens the gate.
I also knew that reporters with police scanners listened to 911 calls. I doubted that any of them knew Cupcake's address, and I didn't think they'd go to the effort of looking up the address I'd given the dispatcher. At least I hoped they wouldn't. I hoped they'd yawn and wait for something juicier than a cat sitter calling about an intruder. If the stars were in the right alignment for Cupcake, the woman in his house would be hustled off without the world ever knowing she'd been there.
I waited in the Bronco, imagining Briana inside the house wondering why I was still there. Or maybe she wasn't. She had seemed so spaced out that she might have forgotten me as soon as I left. Cupcake was right, the woman was mentally ill. Jancey was probably right, too. The woman had probably been in their bed and in their shower.
Deputy Jesse Morgan and an unsworn female deputy from the Community Policing unit arrived in separate cars, both parking behind me in the driveway and walking toward me with the near swagger that uniforms give both men and women. I didn't know the woman, but Morgan and I had met a few times in situations I didn't want to remember. I was never sure if he thought I was a total kook or if he thought I just had really bad luck.
Morgan is one of Siesta Key's sworn deputies, meaning he carries a gun. He's lean, with sharp cheekbones and knuckles, and hair trimmed so short as to be almost nonexistent. He wears dark mirrored shades that hide any emotion in his eyes, but one ear sports a small diamond stud. I'm not sure what that diamond says, but it's about the only thing about Morgan that indicates a personal life outside the sheriff's department. The Key has so little true crime that most of our law enforcement is done by the unsworn deputies of the Community Policing unit, like the woman with him. Community Police officers wear dark green shorts and white knit shirts. Except for a gun, their belts bristle with the same equipment used by the sworn deputies.
Morgan greeted me with the halfhearted enthusiasm with which a dog greets a vet wearing rubber gloves and holding a syringe. Civil, but pretty sure he's not going to like what's coming. He introduced Deputy Clara Beene, and she and I did a brief handshake. Beene seemed more intrigued by the house and grounds than by me, so I figured she had never heard of me. Like I said, my fame is very limited.
I said, "I'm taking care of two cats that live here. When I went in, I found a woman in the house. She claimed to be the wife of the owner, but I know she's not. I think somebody else was in there, too. I came out and called the owners. They don't know who the woman is. They think she must be mentally disturbed, and they asked for her to be committed to a hospital or something instead of put in jail."
Morgan tilted his head to peer down at me. If I'd been able to see his eyes, I imagine they would have had a sharp glint in them. We both knew how hard it is for law enforcement officers to do anything constructive about lawbreakers who are mentally ill. Under Florida law, a cop who believes a person is about to commit suicide or kill somebody can initiate the Baker Act that involuntarily commits a person for testing. The commitment period lasts only seventy-two hours, and unless two psychiatrists petition the court to extend the commitment time for involuntary treatment, the person is released.
I doubted that Briana would be considered an imminent threat to herself or anybody else. More likely, she would be considered an extreme neurotic with a delusional crush on a famous athlete.
Without commenting on what he thought about trying to get Briana hospitalized, Morgan flipped open his notebook and clicked his pen. "What made you think somebody else was in the house with the woman?"
"Just a noise I heard. Like maybe somebody unlocking the lanai slider. It could have been something else."
"But you didn't see anybody else."
"No, it was just a little clicking noise."
"What's the homeowner's name?"
"Trillin."
He lowered his pen and angled his head at me. "Cupcake Trillin?"
"I hope we can keep this out of the news."
His jawbone jutted out a bit, like he'd just bit down hard on his back teeth. "I'll just put ‘Trillin' as the owner's name. You ever see the woman inside before?"
"No. She said her name was Briana."
"Briana who?"
Beene, the Community Policing woman, said, "She just goes by Briana. That one name. She's a famous model."
Morgan and I turned to look at her, and she shrugged. "I watch Entertainment Tonight."
Morgan's nostrils flared slightly as if it might be against department policy to watch shows like that.
"So?"
"So she's here in Sarasota. I heard it on the news."
Beene looked from Morgan to me. "You must have heard of her. She was all over the news last year. You know, she's the model that caused a big stink at the fashion show in Milan."
Morgan and I shook our heads. I might have heard about somebody in a cat show who'd made the news, but fashion shows were out of my world.
As if he had heard all he could stand about fashion models, Morgan put his pen and pad away and took a deep breath. With Beene a step behind him, he strode manfully to the door and rapped on it.
He yelled, "Sarasota Sheriff's Department!"
The door didn't open. No sound came from inside.
Morgan waited a few seconds, then knocked and shouted again. Nobody answered.
I felt a little shiver of guilty relief. Briana and whoever had been in the house with her had probably slipped out the back door while I watched the front. Maybe they were halfway to Tampa by now. Maybe they would never come back. Maybe Briana had learned her lesson and would stop stalking Cupcake.
Morgan turned to look at me as if it were my fault nobody had answered the door. "You got a key?"
"I have a security code."
"Please use it."
Feeling important under their gaze, I stepped forward and punched in my special number. The lock clicked, and I turned the knob and opened the door. Morgan motioned me aside, and he and Beene went into the house.
Once again, intuition or subliminal cues made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, as if trouble was barreling toward me.
I said, "Don't let the cats out."
My sixth sense was right about trouble coming, but it wasn't two runaway cats.



Copyright © 2011 by Blaize Clement



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