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Every now and then you meet somebody you like on sight, even when everything about them says they’re bad news. Jaz was like that. The first time I saw the girl, she was sobbing hysterically and rushing across Dr. Layton’s parking lot with a towel-wrapped bundle in her arms. A large man trailed behind her with reluctance making heavy weights on his feet.
She looked about twelve or thirteen, with beginner breasts making plum-sized bulges under a stretchy tube top, and the thin, coltish awkwardness of adolescence. She had cocoa-colored skin and a long mop of tangled black curls. Her cutoffs were frayed and had the mulled look that clothes get when they’ve been slept in.
The man was around fifty, with pale jowls beginning to sag, and graying hair that looked more mowed than barbered. He wore a navy blue suit and a paler blue tie, both too unwrinkled to be anything except polyester. With his pulled-back shoulders and drip-dry shirt taut across his chest, he looked like a junior high school principal who had learned too late that he hated kids.
I’m Dixie Hemingway, no relation to you-know-who. I’m a pet sitter on Siesta Key, an eight-mile barrier island off Sarasota, Florida. I used to be a deputy with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department, but something happened almost four years ago that caused me to go howling mad-dog crazy for a little while, so I left with the department’s blessing. I’m still a little bit tilted, I guess, but not more than the average person. Like they say, a person who’s totally sane is just somebody you don’t know very well.
Now that I’m more or less normal, I have a pet-sitting business that I enjoy, and I end every day feeling like I matter to the world. I mostly take care of cats, with a few dogs and an occasional rabbit or hamster or bird. No snakes. I refer snakes to other sitters. Not that I’m snake-phobic. Not much, anyway. It just gives me the shivers to drop little living critters into open snake mouths.
I had come to the vet’s that morning to pick up Big Bubba, a Congo African Grey parrot who had seemed under the weather when I’d called on him the day before. When a bird sneezes and looks lethargic on his perch, I don’t take any chances. As it turned out, Big Bubba had merely been having a bad day. Dr. Layton had called the night before to tell me I could pick him up that morning, so I was there to take him home.
The crying girl and the man went in ahead of me. When I got to the reception desk, one of Dr. Layton’s assistants was taking the bundle from the girl, and the receptionist was making sympathetic sounds and patting the girl on the shoulder. She was crying so hard that her words came out slurred and broken.
The only thing I could clearly understand was, "He hit him!"
The receptionist and assistant looked up sharply at the man, who heaved a great sigh.
"It’s a wild rabbit," he said. "It ran in front of my car. It was an accident."
The girl turned and screamed at him. "But it matters! It may just be a rabbit, but it matters!"
Now that I could see her face, she was older in the eyes than I’d expected, and they a surprisingly pale aqua-marine. With her tawny skin and wild black curls, the improbable eyes testified to ancestors from all over the world, a coming together of genes that can either be a societal blessing or curse. From the set to her jaw that was both defiant and desperate, I guessed in her case it had not been a blessing.
Everything about her said, I’m young, I’m pissed, and I’m miserable.
The man said, "Okay, okay, okay," and looked around with jittery uneasiness.
Dr. Layton bustled out from the backstage labyrinth of examining rooms and boarding areas. A comfortably plump African-American woman roughly my age, which is thirty-three, Dr. Layton has the ability to soothe and command at the same time. With a quick glance at the injured rabbit lying suspiciously limp in its towel covering, she turned briskly to the man.
"It ran in front of your car?"
"It was an accident. I wasn’t going more than ten miles an hour. It wasn’t like I was speeding."
The girl seemed close to a complete meltdown. She buried her face in her hands, her whole body quivering with the intensity of her sobbing. The receptionist and the vet’s assistant looked like they might cry at any minute, just in sympathy, and people and animals in the waiting area stretched their necks to look at her.
Dr. Layton said, "What’s your name, dear?"
She said, "Jaz." At the same time, the man said, "Rosemary."
The girl shot him a hostile glare, and Dr. Layton studied him.
She said, "Are you this girl’s father?"
Too firmly, he said, "Stepfather."
Dr. Layton put a calm hand on the girl’s shoulder. "Jaz, go sit down while I check the bunny. I’ll let you know if I can do anything for it."
To me, she said, "Dixie, do you mind waiting a few minutes? I want to have a word with you."
I nodded mutely and followed the man and girl to the waiting area. His hammy hand was wrapped around her upper arm in a tight vise, while she continued to heave with sobs. When she felt the edge of the chair against her legs, she shrank into it and drew her knees up to her face, sobbing as if she had lost her closest friend.
I took a seat across from her. Around the room, a handful of people and their pets were looking at her with sympathetic eyes. Two seats away from her, Hetty Soames was there with a new puppy. She gave me a quick smile and discreet wave, the way people do when they see somebody they know at a funeral, and then turned her attention back to the crying girl.
If Hetty weren’t so busy raising future service dogs, she could be an Eileen Fisher model. An ageless take-charge woman, she has sleek silver hair and looks elegant in loose linen pants and tunics that would look like pajamas on any other woman. The new pup with her was the latest in a series of pups she raises for Southeastern Guide Dogs. Raising future service dogs isn’t like raising other puppies. They need the same love and attention, but they have to be socialized differently. Those little guys will one day need to focus solely on doing their job and not get sidetracked by things other dogs might explore out of curiosity. Raising them takes thousands of hours of patient work, not to mention a heart big enough to pour out lots of love on a puppy and then hand it over to somebody else. Hetty has been doing it for years, and the only way you can tell she’s sad when a young dog leaves is that the spark in her eyes dims for a few weeks, only to come back when a new pup comes to live with her.
The girl’s distress obviously bothered Hetty. It bothered her new pup too. A three-month-old golden Lab-shepherd mix, his little ears were up and he was watching the girl with concentrated attention. We all were.
Jaz was like the mutt you see at a shelter, the one that reason tells you is not a good choice to take home, but the one that tugs at your heart. Huddled as she was in the chair, we could see that the golden sparkles had mostly worn away from her green rubber flip-flops. Her toenails were painted black, and several of her toes wore gold or silver rings. Her ankles were amateurishly tattooed with flower bracelets, but a well-done black tattoo in the shape of a dagger ran several inches up the outside of her right ankle.
If I’d got a tattoo when I was her age, my grandmother would have sanded it off with a Brillo pad.
The man kept making uneasy shushing sounds, as if the girl’s despair embarrassed him. Teenage angst affects people the same way that a pet peeing on the furniture does—it brings out basic traits of either patience or meanness.
Hetty’s pup must have decided that since no human was going to do anything constructive, it was up to him. He darted away from Hetty’s feet, reared on his hind legs, and pawed at one of the girl’s toes. She took her hands away from her face, looked down at him, and laughed. Her laughter was a rusty, croaking sound, as if it had been jerked from her throat.
Hetty leaned forward in an anxious moment of hesitation, but the girl bent down and scooped the pup into her arms. With no hesitation whatsoever, he proceeded to lick the tears from her cheeks and to wriggle as close to her as he could get. She giggled, and everybody watching gave a collective out-breath of relief at hearing that normal adolescent sound. Jaz wasn’t so far gone that she couldn’t laugh, then, not so damaged that she couldn’t respond to love. I think we had all been unconsciously afraid she might have been.
Hetty said, "Looks like you’ve found a new friend. His name is Ben."
As if to make sure Jaz understood, Ben gave the tip of her nose a wet kiss, which made her giggle again.
Dr. Layton came from the treatment rooms and walked to stand in front of the girl. "I’m sorry, Jaz. There was nothing we could do for the rabbit. I think he died instantly. I don’t believe he suffered."
That’s what they always tell you. That’s what they told me when Todd and Christy were killed. I never knew whether I could believe them, and I could tell the girl wasn’t sure she could believe Dr. Layton, either.
She pulled Ben closer, took a deep shuddering breath, and nodded. "Okay."
The man came abruptly to his feet, digging in his hip pocket for a wallet. "How much do I owe you?"
Dr. Layton said, "There’s no charge."
As she turned to walk away, a loud male voice yelled from the vet’s inner sanctum.
"Get that man!"
The man swiveled toward the sound with his right hand diving under his suit jacket toward his left armpit.
Instinctively, all my former law enforcement training made me leap to my feet with my arm stiffened and my palm out like a traffic cop. "Hey, whoa! No need for that!"
In the voice of one who hopes to defuse a tense situation, Dr. Layton said, "That was a bird. An African Grey."
As if on cue, Dr. Layton’s assistant came out with Big Bubba inside one of my travel cages. Big Bubba hated little cages, which is probably why he swiveled his head toward me and hollered again, "Get that man!"
With an embarrassed twitch of his hand to the girl, the man said, "Come on, Rosemary."
Jaz and Ben exchanged a long sad look, which may have been the final impetus that caused Hetty to do something that made my mouth drop.
Getting to her feet and taking Ben from Jaz, she said, "I need somebody to help me with this puppy. Just a few hours a week. It doesn’t pay much, but it’s easy work and I think you’d like it."
That was probably the biggest lie Hetty Soames had ever told. Not the part about the work being easy, but the part about needing help taking care of Ben. She had simply taken a shine to the girl, knew she was in some sort of situation that wasn’t good, and wanted to give her a helping hand.
Jaz and the man spoke over each other again. He said, "She can’t do that."
She said, "Yeah, I can do that."
I tried not to grin. Anybody who knows Hetty knows she usually gets what she sets her mind on. I figured she would have the girl at her house within the hour, maybe sooner. Dr. Layton seemed to think so too. With a happier look on her face than she’d had before, she motioned me to the reception counter where Big Bubba waited in the travel cage.
At the counter, I looked over my shoulder at Jaz and her stepfather. He had jammed both hands in his trouser pockets and was gazing at the ceiling with the look of a man at the end of his rope. Jaz had moved to squat beside Ben and pet him while she talked to Hetty.
Dr. Layton said, "There was a touch of eosinophilia in Big Bubba’s tracheal wash, but I suspect he’s reacting to the red tide like everybody else. Keep him indoors until it’s over. If it gets worse, I can give him some antihistamines, but I’d rather treat it by removing the allergen."
I wasn’t surprised. A bloom of microscopic algae, red tide’s technical name is Karenia brevis, but by any name it’s nasty stuff that causes respiratory irritations and watery eyes for people and pets. We get the bloom almost every September when Gulf breezes begin coming from the west, but this year it had started a month early. I promised Dr. Layton I would keep Big Bubba indoors for the duration of the bloom and carried him out the door.
I don’t imagine Hetty or Jaz or the man noticed me leave. They were all too caught up in their own intentions.
Afterward, I would look back on that brief encounter in Dr. Layton’s waiting room and wonder if there was any way I could have prevented all the coming danger. At the time, all I knew was that a girl who called herself Jaz but was really named Rosemary was desperately unhappy, that her stepfather’s nerves were shot, and that he wore an underarm holster.
Excerpted from Raining Cat Sitters and Dogs by Blaize Clement.
Copyright © 2009 by Blaize Clement.
Published in January 2010 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.