Read an Excerpt
November 30, 2009
Lake Gem, Florida
Albert Brewer had a weak chin, a low forehead, and a hooked nose, and he usually smelled like an Italian sub with too many onions on it. His petty-tyrant personality was as offensive as his insistence that everyone call him “Big Al” or “sir,” but that wasn’t why everyone avoided him.
It was the dandruff, Lilah Devereaux decided. Big Al had such a perpetual case of it that it lay like snowflakes in his sandy hair and on the shoulders of his shirts, and even speckled his bushy eyebrows. Whenever she stood near him, she always felt a terrible urge to itch her own clean scalp.
Today she simply stared at him, for once oblivious to his flakiness as she tried to process what he’d just told her. “I’m what?”
“You’re fired, Lil,” he repeated in a voice so loud it seemed to echo through the utter silence of the office. He dropped a small cardboard box on top of Lilah’s desk. “I’m giving you fifteen minutes to clear out your personal belongings before I call security to escort you off the premises.”
His soft brown eyes, which Lilah had always considered his only redeeming feature, shifted from her face to her breasts before he realized what he was doing and looked past her. With her earth-mother body, she’d grown accustomed to being ogled, but around her Big Al Brewer behaved like a pimpled freshman who’d just found his daddy’s secret stash of porn magazines.
Maybe that was the problem. No matter how conservatively Lilah dressed, she couldn’t camouflage her collection of curves. Maybe her supervisor couldn’t stand having an employee who looked more like a forties pinup girl than an animal control officer.
“I don’t understand,” she said, careful as always to keep her emotions in check. “You’re firing me for having a flat tire?”
“This is the third time you’ve punched in late for your shift,” he said, and produced an index card, from which he read: “County policy states that any employee who repeatedly refuses to adhere to their scheduled work hours is subject to immediate termination.”
This wasn’t some practical joke; Big Al was dead serious. “But, sir, I’ve only been late three times in the five years that I’ve worked here.”
“You should have known that tardies are like rollover minutes. They never go away.” He gave her breasts an insulting smile. “Be sure not to take any county property with you, or I’ll file a pilfering report.” He turned his back on her and walked off into his office.
Lilah glanced down at the empty box, and then at the little Christmas tree one of the secretaries had put on her desk. The tiny white lights blinked around the makeshift ornaments of dog biscuits, cat toys, and beribboned birdseed bells. Was it county property? “I can’t believe this. This isn’t happening.”
Sadie, the head clerk from the tax office, slipped into her cubicle. The dangling wreath earrings the big woman wore were swinging wildly, as if she’d run the entire way. “You all right, honey?”
“Not really.” She opened her drawer and took out the gym bag with her spare uniform and hiking boots. She unloaded the uniform, which didn’t belong to her, but kept the boots. “I’ve been fired.”
“I know.” The other woman lowered her voice. “Becky in resource management says it’s because of the cutbacks from the state, but I think the big poop has had it out for you from day one.”
“Mr. Brewer doesn’t even know me. He just transferred up from Miami a month ago.” Lilah removed her badge and placed it on the blotter before she picked up the little dish garden she kept by her phone. Her temper had settled, but she still felt confused. “I’m mostly on the road during my shifts. What could I have done to upset him?”
Sadie’s eyes moved to the newspaper clipping someone had pinned to Lilah’s day board. “Maybe it was all the attention.”
The call had come in from 911 dispatch back in October, and Lilah had been the closest to the neighborhood where a four-hundred-pound black bear had been reported to be rooting through garbage cans. Because the bears were an endangered species, they were protected by the state, perhaps a little too well. Their population in central Florida had swelled over the years, until Fish and Game officials estimated there were more than three thousand roaming the huge tracts of woods in the region.
The growing number of humans moving to central Florida had resulted in a parallel population explosion, as well as a building boom, one that often encroached on the wooded areas. This was not helped by the builders, who tried to preserve some of the “country” around their developments by leaving woods and brush areas intact. As a result bears were beginning to be sighted regularly, sometimes straying into residential areas, where the smell of garbage and the presence of small pets attracted them.
Although Florida black bears had never been known to attack human beings, sightings around populated areas always generated a flurry of panicked phone calls, usually from the elderly or the terrified mothers of small children.
Lilah had tracked the animal by following the noise along with a trail of chocolate cake chunks, which led her around the back of a house. There she found an enormous male black bear standing beside a swimming pool filled with screeching, thrashing teenagers.
“I’m with animal control.” She had to yell it to be heard over the kids, who instantly quieted. “Calm down. Everything is going to be okay.”
At the sound of her voice the bear swung its head around to look at her, giving her an excellent view of the white froth around his mouth. She focused on his black eyes, where her ability always found the way in.
The bear didn’t think in language, but in feelings, images, smells, tastes, and sounds, in strings like flashes. As she absorbed them, Lilah tagged them: hunger-trash-can-plastic-sweet-chewing-noise-moving-water-thirsty-noise-human-human-thirsty-water-human-human.
The bear had feasted, and now it simply wanted a drink.
“Shoot it!” one of the teens shouted.
“Calm down.” Lilah approached the bear slowly. “He’s not rabid.”
The bear licked some of the sweet substance from his muzzle before he made a low, throaty sound.
“Don’t you see it, you silly bitch?” a man’s tight, angry voice called from an open window in the house. “He’s foaming at the mouth.”
You’re yelling at me while you hide inside and let your kids face a half-ton bear. “That’s not foam, sir. It’s cake icing,” Lilah told him. “This big guy has a sweet tooth.” She had already chambered a dart in her rifle; now she aimed for a harmless spot under his chin. “Time for you to take a nap.”
Lilah heard the porch screen tear, but she didn’t expect the small terrier that raced out to stand yapping at her target. The bear broke eye contact to inspect the tiny dog, which was lunging at him, and then lifted a paw to swat at it.
A woman shrieked out, “Muffin, no!”
Instinct made Lilah drop her rifle and dive, grabbing the terrier in her arms and rolling out of the way a heartbeat before the massive claws struck the ground. Dirt and grass flew, pelting her face as the bear turned.
The kids in the pool began to scream again, but she looked up at the confused, annoyed bear and reached into him, this time sending a single, direct thought: Stay.
The bear went still.
Carefully Lilah got to her feet, still holding the struggling terrier and ignoring the sound of its barking and all the human voices shouting at her. She had to maintain eye contact to keep her control over the animal, and she wasn’t going to risk losing it again. Sit.
The bear sat on its haunches as if it were a pet.
Tucking the furious dog under her arm, Lilah backed away until she reached her rifle and picked it up. She leveled it from her waist and pulled the trigger, at the same time sending one last command into the bear’s mind: Sleep.
The dart appeared in the bear’s throat as it collapsed, closed its eyes, and went limp.
The terrier finally stopped barking and promptly peed all over Lilah’s hip.
“You’re welcome.” Gingerly she carried him to the porch to hand him to his weeping owner, who had hysterics over the dog while not giving her children in the pool even a single glance.
Lilah had intended to use the winch on the back of her truck to haul his body onto the lift gate so she could remove him from the scene quickly. Unfortunately before she could, the kids clambered out of the pool and surrounded the bear while their disgruntled father finally emerged from safety to give Lilah a piece of his mind. Neighbors also began gathering, some of the braver ones nudging the bear with their shoes before dancing backward. By the time she managed to get some control over the scene, the first of the reporters had arrived and were sticking their cameras and microphones in her face.
WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BLACK BEAR? NOT THIS LITTLE RED! The local morning edition had run the story on the front page, along with huge photos of Lilah and the tranquilized bear.
Ordinarily the capture would have been a one-day story, but it had been a particularly slow week for the local news, so the story had run every morning, noon, and night until a man donating a kidney to a woman who discovered that she was his long-lost sister finally upstaged Lilah and the bear. No video of the actual capture had been taken, thankfully, or Lilah would have been all over YouTube and made national news.
Now, as Lilah looked at the clipping, she wished for the thousandth time that she had sent the bear back into the woods.
“I didn’t ask for the attention, Sadie. Besides, why didn’t he fire me back when it happened?”
“Maybe he was waiting for it to die down.” She looked over the garland of artificial holly taped to the top of her cubicle before dropping her voice to a murmur. “You know Jan, his secretary? She told me that he was on the phone all yesterday morning. Swears she heard him say your name a couple times, too.” Sadie’s eyes softened as she watched her take an old, overstuffed envelope out of her drawer. “Oh, honey. You have to take those with you. Lord, there are so many now, aren’t there?”
Lilah opened the flap and took out a few photos from the hundreds in the envelope. The first was of a black-and-white-spotted Great Dane with a lopped ear and a toothy grin, sitting between two teen boys, both of whom had their arms slung around his strong back.
“I miss Checker,” she murmured as she went to the next photo, which was of a tiny black toy poodle sleeping on a sumptuous red velvet dog bed. “And Demon.”
She had rescued both dogs from impossibly bad situations. Checker, the Dane, had been starved by his owner in the mistaken belief that it would make him a better guard dog. Little Demon had survived being born to an unlicensed breeder and two years of miserable imprisonment in what amounted to little more than a hamster cage.
After seeing that Checker and Demon were given the medical treatment they needed, Lilah had worked hard to place both animals in good homes. Now both were lavished with love as well as the care and attention they had been denied for so long.
She looked through a few more before forcing herself to replace the photos and close the envelope. “Guess I’ll finally have some time to put these in an album.”
“You can file a protest, you know,” Sadie suggested, and put a hand on her arm. “There isn’t one person in this office that wouldn’t stand up for you, Lilah. Or you could call the papers and the TV stations. Tell them you’re getting shafted by Big A-hole. It being almost Christmas, I know people will call into the county and give them all kinds of heck.”
Lilah’s stomach shrank at the thought. “I’ve had enough publicity, Sadie.” That was the truth. And now for the lie. “I’ll find another job soon. Lots of places are hiring for the holidays.”
Security showed up in the form of Billy Ray Dobe, a young trainee who had yet to be assigned a truck. Although he’d been with the county for only a few months and he barely knew her, his thin face looked as distressed as Sadie’s. “Miz Devereaux, I’ve got to . . . Big Al says . . .”
“No problem, Bill. Oh, here.” She removed her car keys from her ring before handing it to him. “You’d better put the truck in for service before you start driving it. The engine’s been vibrating a lot, and I think the motor mounts need to be replaced.”
Sadie took Lilah’s box and shoved it into the trainee’s hands. “You be a gentleman and walk her all the way out to her car, Billy Ray.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Yes, ma’am.”
Sadie enveloped Lilah in a cloud of perfume and soft arms. “If you need anything, honey, you call me, you hear?”
“I will,” Lilah lied again, and hugged her back.
Everyone stood up as Billy followed Lilah out of the office. Their stares weighed on her shoulders almost as heavily as the loss of her job, but she kept her head up and her smile in place as she nodded to those she passed. Behind her, someone started clapping slowly, and then everyone was doing it, some whistling and others calling out her name.
Lilah glanced back to see the noise drive Big Al out of his office, a furious jack-in-the-box, and she paused to give him a smile. He jerked back a little, as if she’d slapped him.
No matter how many legs they had, some creatures never knew how to cope with kindness.
As soon as they were outside the building, Billy grinned at Lilah. “Big Al looked like he was about to bust a fuse, didn’t he?”
“Several. Here, let me have that.” She tried to take the box from him. “You don’t have to walk me out to my car, Bill.”
He put a protective arm up over the box. “Miz Sadie will tear my head off if I don’t.” He hesitated. “My mom said they’re hiring now over at the market by Maplebrook. Minimum wage, but it might tide you over till you find something else.”
Lilah’s heart melted a little. “Thanks, Bill, I appreciate it.”
“This just ain’t right, Miz Dee.” He shook his head as he followed her around the corner to the side lot where all the employees parked. “I mean, you’re never late. Heck, you usually get in earlier than anyone else.”
“Not today.” Lilah stopped by the back end of a Subaru and looked around.
He stopped beside her. “I wasn’t here for the bear, but I know what you did that time that Rottie got loose from the cage room and bit Doc Rivka, and all the ladies were shrieking and jumping on their desks. You just walked right on up to him like he was nothing but a yapping puppy, and made him sit, and put that muzzle on him without getting a scratch.”
“He was just angry and scared.” And she’d used her ability to calm him down, something she’d never put in her reports. “You should never do what I did, Bill. It was reckless.”
Billy shook his head. “You got something special, Miz Dee. No matter what those critters do, you never get mad, and they never go after you. All the guys say that’s why they like to send you out on the bad calls. Mr. Brewer’s crazy for letting you go.” He noticed her expression. “You sure you’re gonna be all right?”
“I will be.” She frowned at the empty space where she had parked twenty minutes ago. “Soon as I find out who just stole my car.”