"Whenever you observe an animal closely, you
feel as if a human being sitting inside were making fun of you."
–Elias Canetti, The Human Province
Jessie? I'm sorry for calling so early. I know I probably woke you. But I don't have your cell phone number, only your home number. And I wanted to make sure I got hold of you before you left for the day."
What a lot of words to be hit with at–what time was it? I forced my eyes open long enough to look at the alarm clock next to my bed.
Five-thirty. In the morning
"I'm sorry, who is this?" I asked groggily.
Whoever had dragged me out of my sleep at this ridiculous hour certainly sounded as if she knew who I was. The problem was, I had no idea who she
was. And given the fact that only seconds before I had been lost in a wonderful dream that starred both Brad Pitt and
George Clooney, I wasn't exactly in the mood to play guessing games.
"Erin Walsh," the called replied breathlessly. "Remember me? From vet school?"
It took me a few seconds to connect the name with my years at Cornell University's veterinary college. More than a decade had passed since I'd been a student there. But slowly, through the thick wad of tissue paper still wrapped around my brain, I managed to attach a face to the name. An entire identity, in fact.
"Sure, I remember you, Erin," I finally said, though my mouth still felt as if it was coated with glue. "You and I crammed for the Neuroanatomy final together, right? I seem to remember the two of us pulling an all-nighter in the basement of the vet school library. Didn't we keep ourselves awake by eating a different candy bar from one of the vending machines every hour. . . ?"
"That's right. Jessie, the reason I'm calling–"
"You married somebody else who was in our class, didn't you? Bill or Brad . . ."
"Ben Chandler," Erin corrected me. She was speaking unusually quickly. In fact, I realized that she'd sounded as if she was in a hurry ever since I'd answered the phone. "But I'm afraid I didn't call to reminisce. I need to see you. Right away. Like this morning."
The longer I talked, the more awake I became. Fortunately, I hadn't woken Nick, who was lying beside me fast asleep. The adorable man I was scheduled to marry in only four short weeks was so tangled up in the sheets, you'd have thought he'd been dreaming about alligator wrestling. Personally, I'd take the Brad Pitt-George Clooney dream any day.
By this point, my head was clear enough for me to do some calculations. I hadn't spoken to Erin Walsh in more than five years. If I remembered correctly, the last time I'd seen her was at my five-year Cornell reunion. She and Ben had both glowed like fluorescent light bulbs as they chattered away about their upcoming trip to Barbados to celebrate their wedding anniversary and their plans to open a practice together as soon as they got back.
"What's the hurry?" I asked.
"Believe me, Jessie, I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't really important. Please say you'll meet me this morning. It's crucial that I talk to somebody like you!"Somebody like me?
What did that
"Where are you?" I asked, still confused.
"On Long Island." She was still talking way too fast. "It's a long story, but Ben and I have been living in Bay Village for the past couple of years. I can meet you anywhere. Just name the time and place. A diner, a street corner . . . but the sooner, the better."
Mentally I ran through the calls I had scheduled for that morning. My first appointment was a cat spay surgery in Arborhurst at eight o'clock. Given the fact that it was still practically the middle of the night, that gave me plenty of time to meet Erin for breakfast.
"How about six-thirty at the Spartan Diner?" I suggested. "It's in Niamogue, right on Route 437."
"I know where it is. I'll be there. And Jess? Don't say anything about this to anybody, okay?"
"Erin," I asked, struck by the bizarreness of this entire conversation, "is everything okay?"
"That's the thing, Jessie," she replied with a nervous laugh. "I don't think it is."
"Can you at least give me an idea of what all this is–?"
She never answered my question. In fact, she'd already hung up.
With a loud sigh, I dragged myself out of bed and embarked on my morning pilgrimage to worship at the feet of Mr. Coffee. As usual, my two dogs, Max and Lou, were already running at full throttle, scampering around my feet with much more energy than any living being should exhibit before the sun has come up.
Max, my Westie, had an excuse, since he's a terrier. Terriers are like firefighters: They snap awake with ridiculous amounts of adrenaline rushing through their bodies. Then again, Max differs from firefighters in that his butt is in constant motion. It seems as if he never stops wagging his tail–even though it's little more than a stub, courtesy of the vile people who were his previous owners.
As for Lou, a Dalmatian, let's just say he's a follower by nature. Of course, the fact that he also has a heartbreaking past, one that left him with only one eye, may also be part of the reason.
My two cats, Catherine the Great and Tinkerbell, were also coming to life, stretching and yawning. Like my dogs, they were rescued from careless owners–in Tink's case, a wretch who callously left a box of kittens on the university campus where Nick attends law school.
As for Prometheus, he was already wide awake. He's always up with the birds, mainly because he is one. A gorgeous blue and gold macaw, in fact, with feathers as bright as the jars of paint in a kindergarten classroom. My Jackson's chameleon, Leilani, was also awake, staring at me from inside her glass tank with the eye that was on the side of her head facing me.
But I was still too busy ruminating about my strange phone call from Erin to pay much attention to any of my pets.
What's with all this cloak-and-dagger nonsense? I wondered as I shuffled through the living room.
My old vet school buddy had sounded as if she was smack in the middle of a drama. And frankly, the last thing I wanted was to be recruited for a supporting role.
Yawning loudly, I opened the front door of my cottage and let Max and Lou out. I hoped this would turn out to be one of those mornings when they actually came back inside without me having to run around like a wild woman, chasing them down. Given the wake-up call I'd just gotten, I wasn't in the mood to bodily drag two unruly canines away from sniffing every molecule within fifty yards. Not that it wasn't great living in the former gardener's cottage on a huge estate. I truly appreciated the fact that the members of my menagerie had as much room to run around as they could possibly desire. It was just that sometimes, like now, I wished they'd do a little less of it.
Once my doggies and I were back inside, I took a minute to check everybody's water bowl and get Mr. Coffee perking away as energetically as if he, too, was a terrier. Then I drifted into the bathroom and confronted the bedraggled being staring back at me from the mirror.
The image before me was that of a half-asleep woman in her mid-thirties with dull green eyes. Disheveled hair in a shade I prefer to call dark blond but which would have also answered to the name dirty blond hung down to the poor unfortunate creature's shoulders.
The sight would have been frightening if it hadn't been the exact same one I encountered every morning of my life.
I did my best to breathe life into the specter standing before me with the aid of a hairbrush, a toothbrush, and a bracing splash of cold water. It was at that point I realized I had to go back into the bedroom to retrieve some clothes. Diners may have low standards when it comes to dress codes, but even the Spartan wasn't likely to serve someone wearing nothing but a faded Led Zeppelin T-shirt and a frayed pair of pink cotton underpants.
I tiptoed into the dark room as if I was imitating a burglar in a Looney Tunes cartoon–then promptly managed to exhibit the same level of wackiness by colliding with the dresser and sending Nick's cell phone clattering to the floor.
"Jess?" he mumbled as one eye appeared from beneath the sheet. The way he was peering at me reminded me of Leilani. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," I assured him, whispering even though it was obvious I'd already done the one thing I'd tried not to do: wake him up. "Go back to sleep."
Tinkerbell interpreted the fact that conversation was going on to mean that a new day in the Popper-Burby household had officially begun. My sleek orange cat with both the looks and the self-assuredness of a tiger vaulted onto the bed, then padded up onto Nick's stomach as if she was a diva strutting onto a stage. Catherine the Great–better known as Cat–looked on enviously, as if remembering her pre-arthritic days when she, too, was capable of leaping onto a bed in a single bound.
"What time is it?" Nick asked, his question dissolving into a loud yawn.
You don't want to know. "Five-forty."
He immediately sat up, meanwhile cradling Tink in both hands. No doubt he'd spotted a glaring contradiction between the fact that I was up and around at such an obscene hour and my claim that nothing was going on.
"Are you all right?" He was doing a better job of enunciating by now, a sign that I'd not only woken him up, I'd woken him up enough that he was probably going to find it impossible to go back to sleep.
"I'm fine," I insisted. "I'm just up extra early because I'm going to meet a friend for breakfast."
I wasn't sure why I didn't mention that this friend was someone I hadn't spoken to in ages–or that she'd been strangely mysterious about her sudden need for a sunrise chat.
I guess I didn't want him to worry. Or maybe I was just feeling foolish now that the tissue paper had been removed from my brain and I realized how ridiculous this whole scenario sounded.
"Go back to sleep," I urged again, by now feeling guilty on top of feeling silly. After all, Nick had just started a summer internship at a Long Island law firm and he was still working on making a good impression. Certainly that meant showing up without bags the size of carry-ons under one's eyes, not to mention managing to get through the entire workday without taking a nap. "I'll be out of here as soon as I throw on some clothes and grab a cup of coffee."
"Nah, I'll get up," he said.
Still cradling Tink, he threw back the sheet. As soon as he did, I realized there was no way the Spartan Diner would have been willing to serve him
. In fact, the sight of him lying there in the snarl of sheets in nothing but his birthday suit produced in me the sudden impulse to join him. Not so I could grab a little more shut-eye either.
Dang, I thought, remembering my promise to Erin. Why on earth did I agree to rush out of the house in the dead of night for a rendezvous with someone I haven't even had an e-mail from in years?
But it was too late. I'd told her I'd meet her, and I was a woman of my word.
Even if, at the moment, I desperately wished that word had been no
* * *
I did tell Erin to meet me at the Spartan Diner, didn't I? I wondered crossly as I sat alone at a corner booth, nursing the second cup of coffee the waitress had poured since I'd arrived–my third cup of the day.
Glancing at my watch, I saw it was five minutes past seven. That meant I'd already spent thirty-five minutes waiting, meanwhile consuming so much caffeine that I was probably going to set a record later that morning by performing one of the fastest spays in veterinary history.
That is, assuming I manage to get out of here in time for my eight o'clock appointment, I thought, forcing down another sip of joe. The way things are going, my mysterious meeting with my long-lost friend from vet school will have to be pretty darned short if I'm going to get to Arborhurst on time.
"Ready for a refill?" the waitress asked, hovering around me with a pot of coffee in her hand and a sympathetic look on her face. She was wearing a pink dress and a white apron that made her look like an extra in a rerun of That '70's Show
. She even had her name, Donna Marie, embroidered on the left side of her chest.
"Thanks, I'm fine."
At that hour, only a few people were out and about, guzzling coffee at a diner in preparation for the day ahead. It appeared that even the truck drivers were still nestled all snug in their beds. That meant I'd become an object of concern, if not actual pity, in my waitress's eyes.
To demonstrate that I wasn't going to take being stood up lying down, I whipped out my cell phone to give Erin a call. It wasn't until I was scrolling through the list of received calls that I remembered she'd called me on my landline, not on my cell phone. Which meant I didn't even have her number.
Great, I thought, grimacing as I tossed my phone back into my purse. I can't even check to make sure there was no confusion about the correct time and place.
I could be in bed right now, I thought, grouchier than ever. With Nick. Naked
Donna Marie seemed relieved when I finally ordered some solid food, in the form of a toasted English muffin. Once she placed it in front of me, I ate it at a leisurely pace, hoping to make it last as long as I could. I also allowed her to refill my cup one more time.
As I chewed in slow motion, I kept my eyes fixed on the grimy window next to my booth, which afforded me a scenic view of the diner's nearly empty parking lot. I felt a lot like Max and Lou must whenever I leave them somewhere and they anxiously await my return, their ears pricked and their noses pulsating. At least I was able to keep my ears and nose under control.
Finally, at seven-thirty, I tucked a few bills underneath the salt shaker and mouthed thank you
to Donna Marie, who I'd practically begun to think of as my second mother. Then I slid out of the booth and took off.
Something must have come up, I rationalized as I pushed open the glass door and headed back outside to the parking lot. But I was still cranky.
Whatever that something was, Erin should have called me to tell me she'd be a no-show. Even if she didn't have my cell phone number, she could have looked up the diner in the phone book or called Information. After all, she's the one who had dragged me out of bed at an hour so early that no one besides a bread baker should be up.
Not to mention the fact that she made it sound as if whatever she was so desperate to talk to me about was really, really important.
Oh, well, I told myself as I climbed into my van. I suppose there's nothing wrong with getting a head start on the day.
Besides, I figured that sooner or later I'd find out what was so pressing that Erin needed to dredge up an old friend who, as she'd so succinctly put it, was "someone like me."
* * *
I forgot all about the rendezvous that never happened as I threw myself into a busy morning of back-to-back appointments. Unlike most veterinarians, who treat dogs and cats and all their other patients in a normal office, the kind that's inside a building, I operate out of a clinic-on-wheels. A custom-built 26-foot white van, in fact, with blue letters stenciled on the door:
REIGNING CATS & DOGS
Mobile Veterinary Services
Large and Small Animals
Inside, I have everything I need to operate a practice that's as complete as one run by any ordinary veterinarian–meaning a vet who has the bad luck to be stuck indoors all day.
On this particular day, in addition to serving as my office, my van played the role of corporate lunchroom once noontime rolled around. Since I don't have the option of buying a sandwich and a can of soda out of a vending machine, however, I usually plunder the refrigerator at home before running out the door. More often than not, my instant lunch consists of leftovers from a night or two before.
Case in point was the two-day-old moo shoo pork I'd brought along in its original cardboard container. I was shoveling it into my mouth with a plastic fork with only three tines, noticing that it contained a lot more moo shoo than pork, when my cell phone trilled.
The name of Long Island's newspaper, Newsday
, flashed on the screen. Which meant only one thing: a call from Forrester Sloan.
Ordinarily, my reaction to hearing from Forrester is wariness. But after a long, busy morning, I was ready for a break–even if it did consist of talking to a man who for some inexplicable reason could not let go of the conviction that he and I were meant to go hand in hand into the sunset. That, of course, was supposed to occur as soon as I came to my senses and realized that he, not Nick, was my Mr. Right.
"Hey, Forrester," I answered glibly. "How's my favorite reporter?"
"I'm fine," he replied, sounding surprised by my cheerful greeting. "Unfortunately, I can't say the same for everybody."
I was about to respond with something along the lines of "Huh?" when he continued in an even more somber voice.
"Jessie," he asked, "do you by any chance know a veterinarian named Erin Walsh?"
It took me a second or two to answer. I was too busy marveling over the fact that her name was coming up again
. In fact, I was about to comment on what a coincidence it was that he'd mentioned her, since that very morning she'd stood me up. But something in Forrester's tone kept me from venting.
"Yes, I know her," I replied cautiously.
"I thought you might," he said, his voice growing even more strained. "She lives here on Long Island, but that's not the only reason. She also went to vet school at Cornell, just like you. And if my calculations are correct, she might even have been there around the same time you were–"
"Forrester," I interrupted, "why are you suddenly interested in Erin Walsh?"
The long pause that followed caused my stomach to tighten. But that was nothing compared to the violent lurch my entire gut gave as he said, "Jessie, you'd better brace yourself. Early this morning, the police found Erin Walsh's body–she's been murdered."Chapter Two
"Never monkey with the truth."
No!" I cried, unable to believe what Forrester was telling me. "That can't possibly be true! There has to be some mistake!"
"No mistake," he said somberly. "I'm really sorry that I'm the one to break the bad news."
"Erin is dead
?" I couldn't believe it. A hundred questions swarmed around inside my head, all of them twisted up with at least as many denials. "But I just spoke to her a few hours ago!"
"Jessie, if there's anything I can do–wait a minute. You spoke
to her? What did she–?"
"She was murdered
?" I interrupted, still incredulous. "Are the police positive it's Erin? And . . . and even if it is, couldn't it have been an accident?"
"I'm afraid this was no accident," Forrester replied. "The cops found Erin's body this morning at around seven-thirty. The medical examiner hasn't done an autopsy yet, but it's pretty clear she was murdered. That's all they really know at this point–which brings me back to my original question. What did she say when you spoke to her this morning?"
I did some quick thinking, and decided I wasn't ready to come clean.
"Not much," I told him. "Actually, she sounded as if she was in a hurry."
"So she didn't say anything that might–?"
"Where was Erin found?" I demanded. There was no way I could bring myself to use the phrase Erin's body
"In her car. It was parked at a weird angle in a residential area in Pohasset. One of those quiet streets without much traffic. Just big houses and big lawns."
Pohasset, located on the North Shore, was one of Long Island's wealthiest communities. It also happened to be only a couple of towns away from Bay Village, where Erin had told me she and her husband were living.
"What do you mean by a 'weird angle'?" I asked.
"Like she might have been drunk when she parked. Or maybe she was in a hurry." In a strained voice, he added, "Maybe she was even running away from somebody."
"Who found her?" I asked, my head spinning so hard I could barely focus on one question at a time.
"A man who lives on the street where her car was found," Forrester said. "He told the cops he'd just come out of his house and was about to get into his car to drive to work when he noticed the car and how strangely it was parked. When he went over to look inside, he saw that she was . . . he saw the condition she was in. He immediately dialed 911 on his cell."
My stomach gave a violent lurch as the scenario he was describing took shape in my mind. Erin had been killed not long after I'd talked to her. It was even possible that while I was sitting in the diner, doing ordinary things like stirring sugar into my coffee and buttering my English muffin, she had been . . .
"Even though the medical examiner hasn't done the autopsy yet, do the police have any idea how she was killed?" I choked out the words.
"It looks as if she was strangled. But Falcone said he's not going public with that until the M.E. files his report."
"You've already spoken with him?"
"That's right," he replied. "I gave him a call as soon as Norfolk Homicide faxed the press release over to Newsday
Getting in touch with Lieutenant Anthony Falcone myself had been one of the first ideas that flashed into my mind when Forrester told me the horrible news. True, in the past, Norfolk County's chief of homicide had been anything but cooperative when it came to answering my questions about ongoing murder investigations. The fact that in some cases I'd turned out to be better at solving crimes than he was certainly didn't help.
Yet my feelings about the man aside, he was undoubtedly the best source of information. All things considered, I decided I could live with Falcone being much more inclined to update Forrester Sloan, a newspaper reporter who covered crime on Long Island, than a veterinarian he saw as meddling, bothersome, and just generally in the way.
"What else did he say?" I demanded. I needed more information, anything at all that would help me make sense of such incomprehensible news.
"That's about it. It's still too soon for the cops to know very much. Don't forget, all this just happened a few hours ago."
My head was swimming, even as I slowly began to wrap my mind around the fact that Erin was dead. That she had been murdered
And then it occurred to me that I wasn't the only one who would be devastated.
Poor Ben! I thought, picturing her husband the way he had looked in vet school. I remembered a good-looking young man with a breezy air of self-confidence that made it hard not to like him. He and Erin had started dating sometime during our second year, then gotten married right after graduation.
The two of them had seemed so happy at our five-year reunion. I could still picture them at the welcoming cocktail party, both deliriously excited about their future, working side by side as they lived out their dream of working with animals. I remembered feeling a twinge of envy, not only that they were both so happy, but also that they were moving in the exact same direction.
And now . . .
Excerpted from Monkey See, Monkey Die by Cynthia Baxter. Copyright © 2008 by Cynthia Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.