Lots of people talked to their animals. Mine talked back.
No, I’m not crazy—well, no more than anyone who did my job would be. My name’s Foxtrot Lancaster, and I work for an eccentric billionaire named Zelda Zoransky.
ZZ, as everyone called her, was an old ex-hippie who came from even older money; she spent most of her time (and a great deal of her money) on enjoying life, having adventures, getting into passionate arguments on the Internet, and philanthropy. She was heavily involved in animal rights; a big chunk of her family estate was dedicated to a private rescue zoo where she housed exotic animals that had no other place to go, until a permanent home could be found for them. Taking care of the menagerie was a full-time occupation … but that wasn’t my job.
Right next to the Zoransky estate was one of the largest pet cemeteries in the United States. It was the final resting place of more than fifty thousand pets, and held the cremated remains of over two hundred of their former owners as well. Looking after the graveyard was also a full-time occupation … but that wasn’t my job, either.
Which brings me to my own animals. Whiskey’s a blue heeler, an Australian cattle dog that’s a mix of Northumberland drover’s dog and wild dingo. He’s medium-sized, with a white-and-black-speckled body and muzzle, tan legs, chest, and throat, one brown eye, and one blue eye.
Oh, and he’s dead.
Ghost-dead, I mean, not zombie-dead. Which is to say, he’s ectoplasmic in nature as opposed to staggering around with bits falling off, searching for brains to eat. Looks, feels, and smells like a live dog, but he can shape-shift into any other breed and has access to a supernatural library of scents that lets him identify almost anything. He communicates with me telepathically, has a British accent, and doesn’t require food for nourishment. Taking care of him was a breeze … but that wasn’t my job, either.
Then there’s Tango. Tango’s a tuxedo cat—you know, one of those elegant black-and-white ones—and most definitely is not dead. In fact, she’s alive for the seventh time—out of nine, naturally—and in one of her previous incarnations was my childhood pet. She also communicates with me telepathically, is friendly but sarcastic, and speaks over three hundred animal dialects. Her, I didn’t take care of at all—Whiskey lived with me, but Tango preferred the more palatial digs of the Zoransky mansion. So taking care of her also wasn’t my job. In fact, a lot of the time Tango and Whiskey wound up taking care of me.
Which brings me to my actual job. Or, more accurately, jobs.
The first was the one I got paid for. I’m ZZ’s executive assistant, which is a fancy title for running around fulfilling her every whim. She had a lot of whims, so I was always busy; but her whims also tended toward things that were fun, or interesting, or made the world a better place, so I couldn’t complain too much. She paid me well, I got to research and experience things most people never get near, and I met famous people from every walk of life at the regular salons she hosts. Rock stars, scientists, explorers, writers, artists … ZZ invited them all to spend a week at her estate. She lavishly pampered them during the day, then held long, fascinating discussions over gourmet dinners every night, while the booze flowed and no subject was taboo. Pretty great, don’t you think?
I’ll get to my other job in a moment.
So doing my pay-the-rent job currently involved me overseeing a very special delivery to a very special place. A place I was anxiously checking out with Caroline, our staff vet, minutes before the delivery itself was going to happen. Whiskey, as usual, was by my side, and Tango was watching from a nearby tree.
“Are you sure it’s big enough?” I said. Anxiously.
Caroline gave me an amused smile. She was short, blond, and very good at her job. “It’ll be fine. We’ve housed big cats in here before.”
“Not this big…”
I heard Whiskey’s cultured voice in my head, though Caroline of course didn’t. [I’m not sure the pool is really necessary. Or the waterfall.]
“The pool! Is the pool big enough?” I asked.
Caroline shook her head and laughed. “Yes, Foxtrot, it’s big enough. We’re all stocked up on meat, we’ve got a huge enclosure for him to roam around in, and there’s a very comfortable den if he wants some privacy. You’ve provided all the amenities; now let me do my job.”
Tango’s raspy, smoke-and-bourbon voice added her own telepathic comment: >Yeah, Toots, calm down. I don’t see what the big deal is.>
You will, I shot back mentally. Any minute now.
The big tractor-trailer rig holding our newest guest came rumbling down the access road. It took some jockeying to get it properly turned around so the rear doors were aligned with the gate of the enclosure, but the driver was skilled and I resisted my urge to micromanage. I helped Caroline connect a kind of canvas air lock between the trailer and the enclosure, and when I’d checked and double-checked that—okay, triple-checked—it was time to transfer the cargo.
“Here we go,” Caroline said, and told the driver to open the trailer door.
It slid upward with a loud, metallic rattle. The canvas mostly blocked our view of the interior, so we couldn’t see much.
Then … nothing happened.
It kept on happening for a while, so I whispered to Caroline, “Is everything okay? Is there something we need to do to make him come out?”
“Nope,” Caroline said. She didn’t whisper. “We just wait. I put some fresh meat out, which I’m sure he can smell. I don’t think we’ll have to wait long—”
And then he appeared.
We hadn’t bothered with a ramp, so he just bounded from the trailer to the ground. He stopped, sniffing the air curiously and looking around at his new home.
His name was Augustus. He was twelve feet long from nose to haunches, weighed just over half a ton, and was the only one of his kind in existence. Augustus was a white liger, the result of a union between a white lion and a white tiger. His body was mostly white, with pale, tigery stripes and a silvery mane half the length of a normal lion’s. He looked … unearthly. Like some immense, phantom creature from myth or maybe another planet.
And then he farted.
[Well, he seems at ease,] Whiskey observed. [And I believe he had buffalo for lunch.]
“Amazing,” Caroline breathed. I don’t think she was talking about the buffalo.
I was pretty amazed, myself. As well as having one of those moments when I was incredibly grateful for having the job I did, with all the experiences that came with it. Well, Tango? I thought at her. What do you think?
Silence. I was starting to wonder if she’d gotten bored and left when she finally replied. >Okay, so he’s … large. So is a cow, and they don’t impress me much, either.>
[I think someone’s a bit intimidated.]
Augustus was investigating the pool and waterfall. Ligers behave like lions in some ways, and tigers in others. Tigers, for instance, love to swim; so do ligers.
Most domestic cats tend to side with lions. >Oh, you’re kidding me,> Tango said in a disgusted voice. >He’s not going to—no, no, no—oh, that is just wrong on so many levels.>
[He’s simply cooling off. It is a rather warm day—I wouldn’t mind a dip myself.]
>Yeah, well, you I expect that kind of deviant behavior from. I watch any more of this, I’m gonna hack up a hairball. See you guys later.>
Tango may have been outraged, but Augustus seemed happy and Caroline was satisfied; therefore, so was I. Which I got to enjoy for all of two seconds, and then I had a hundred other things to do. Mostly, I had a bunch of last-minute details involving the upcoming salon to attend to, none of which was urgent but all of which still needed doing.
But first, I had to check in at my other job.
I said good-bye to Caroline as she locked up the enclosure gate and headed away from the menagerie and toward the house, which wasn’t far; the liger enclosure was at the edge of the zoo grounds. I followed the path to the house but didn’t go in, cutting around the side and past the swimming pool. I wound up at the opposite end of the property, next to a tall hedge with a large wooden gate in it. I pulled it open and went through.
Into the Great Crossroads.
That’s how its denizens refer to it. And by “denizens” I mean beings that often live in dens, only now they’re not living at all. Maybe I should call them deadizens.
What I’m talking about are ghosts. Animal ghosts—much like Whiskey—only these ones are invisible and intangible to most people. I can see them, though, as can Whiskey and Tango. And there are a lot of them to see, because the Crossroads is much more than just a graveyard; it’s a transition point, where dead pets can leave their own afterlife via an animal grave, then scamper, flap, swim, or trot over to a human plot, where they can cross over into the human afterlife to visit someone they miss. It’s sometimes referred to (by humans, anyway) as the Rainbow Bridge, though that always makes me think of Asgard and bearded guys with horned helmets drinking mead. The Crossroads is a lot more like Grand Central Station than a Viking overpass, with animals of every kind coming and going constantly.
The rainbow part is reasonably accurate, though; ghosts are a lot more colorful than you’d think, like they’ve been run through Photoshop and illuminated from within. Watching a flock of ghost parrots take flight is like seeing an animated neon sign launch itself into the air.
I used to come here for the tranquility, just to sit on a bench and maybe sip a mug of tea and relax. Now I come here to enjoy the spectacle; the brightness of the colors and the surreality of the action makes the whole thing feel a little like a Disney cartoon. Well, a Disney cartoon on serious hallucinogens, anyway.
Which brings me, finally, to my other job.
Every town needs a sheriff. Okay, this wasn’t a town and I wasn’t a sheriff, but …
I’ll start over.
Every mall needs a security guard. Even when there are no stores and the customers are all dead pets with no money … no, that’s not working, either.
Okay, to heck with the analogies. What I did was I looked after the place. Whiskey and Tango were my partners. Together, we fought … well, whatever needed fighting. The Crossroads was an important mystical nexus, and somebody needed to keep an eye on it. We’d already stopped a plot to murder ZZ so the killer could convince her son to sell the land, and apparently supernatural threats were also within our purview. I hadn’t had to battle any otherworldly nasties yet—well, I’d stood up to a ghostly bully, but that didn’t really count—which was good, because I was really more of a negotiator than a warrior. So far, that had been enough.
A white crow soared past me and landed on a headstone. “Hey, guys.”
“Hey yourself,” I replied. Eli was the closest thing I had to a boss, though his preferred style of management was mysterious pronouncements, indirect hints, and a refusal to talk about his own boss or bosses. I was pretty sure he was more than just a dead bird.
“Anything I should know about?” I asked him.
“Sure. All kinds of things. But let’s concentrate on the here and now.”
Okay, mysterious and a little smart-ass. But overall I liked Eli; he had that balance of being dedicated to his job while not taking himself too seriously that the best bosses have. He cared about what he did, and about how it was done; he put principles before pragmatism, often letting me figure things out on my own rather than just telling me the answer. I trusted him.
“Fine by me,” I said. “How’s the prowler situation? Topsy behaving herself?” “Prowlers” was what we called restless animal spirits, ones who weren’t ready to cross over into their own afterlife but were drawn to the Crossroads; they were often zoo or circus animals, not quite pets but not wild, either. Topsy was one of these, an elephant who’d been dead for over a century. She and I had had our differences, but we’d come to an agreement and she hadn’t bothered me since.
“Topsy’s fine. She’s taken to following Two-Notch around.”
Now, that was interesting. Two-Notch was another prowler, a shark from a tourist attraction who wasn’t quite convinced she was dead. She liked to patrol the perimeter of the graveyard, seeing the fence as the glass wall of an aquarium—she wouldn’t go beyond it. Ghosts weren’t restricted to the grounds of the graveyard itself, but few ventured past its borders. “An elephant tailing a shark. Am I going to have to break up some sort of interspecies conflict?”
[It may not be a conflict at all,] said Whiskey. [Elephants are social creatures. Perhaps she’s simply lonely.]
I tried to picture that, and failed. “What possible common ground could they share? One’s a carnivore, the other’s an herbivore. One breathes air, the other water. One has legs, the other fins.”
[Don’t elephants also enjoy swimming?]
“Sure, that’s a topic that’ll last. ‘What’s your favorite stroke? I like to pachyderm-paddle with my trunk above water.’ ‘Really? I just wiggle my tail.’”
“I hate to break up this fascinating conversation,” Eli said, “but I don’t think Two-Notch and Topsy are going to be a problem. Your new guest at the zoo might be, though.”
That made me blink. “The liger? How could he be a problem?”
“He’s not. Not as long as he stays among the living.”
There’s something you need to know about me. I take pride in my work. Regardless of what it is I’ve been asked to do, I do it to the best of my ability. I like to think I take direction well, and I don’t have a problem with authority.
I do resent it when someone implies that I could do better—especially when it’s a job they couldn’t do themselves. I’m fine with a talking crow giving me orders about looking after a haunted graveyard full of animal spirits; it’s when he comments on my day job that I get a little prickly. “Are you insinuating we’re not taking good care of him?” I said. “I’ve been arranging his accommodations, ordering his food, researching his history, and studying his biology. The only way I could pay more attention to him would be to do a full MRI scan and hire a professional biographer to write his memoirs.”
Eli eyed me in that skeptical way crows have, like they’re about to ask you for ID. “I’m sure you’re being very thorough. But it’s not your abilities I’m worried about. Someone may try to kill the liger.”
“I can’t tell you that. Let’s just say that his death would have certain consequences that wouldn’t be good for the Crossroads.”
Eli speaks fluent Cryptic. I’m still not used to it, and it’s always annoying as hell. “Can you be a little vaguer? I think a few stray facts might have found their way into your explanation when you weren’t looking.”
“You know I can’t. Have you talked to him yet?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. “He just got here. Tango took off before I could ask her to translate.”
“I see,” he said. There was both gentle amusement and the slightest tinge of disappointment in those two words. Damn, he was good.
“I’ll get right on it,” I said. “Anything else?”
Like I said, mysterious and indirect. But I knew all I’d get would be frustrated if I tried questioning him further, so I just smiled, said, “Then I’ll go find Tango,” and left.
Two jobs. Two bosses. Two very different things, right?
I had no idea those two worlds were about to crash into each other.
* * *
Whiskey and I exited the graveyard and went into the mansion. Tango could be just about anywhere, but I thought I’d try her food dish first. Ben Montain, our resident chef, was the one who fed her; when I checked the kitchen, I found him but not her. Ben was staring out the window beside the big stainless-steel counter he chopped vegetables on, a dreamy look on his face. He had a good face for that, too: strong but sensitive, the kind of face you could imagine on a cowboy or a poet. Sandy-blond hair, dark eyes. The Native American blood in him wasn’t obvious, not at first, but now that I knew his ancestry I found it easier and easier to see; something about his cheekbones and how his eyes were set.
Of course, by “Native American” I don’t mean what most people do. Ben Montain’s descendants may have looked just like the Cowichan tribe they interbred with, but they were actually supernatural beings that could assume human form. Generations later, those same supernatural abilities had surfaced in Ben’s family, and he was still learning how to deal with them. Ben Montain was a Thunderbird, and not the kind you drive. The kind that could make weather sit up and beg.
“Ben?” I said. There was just a touch of worry in my voice; the last time I saw him looking all dreamy and unfocused like that, he was in danger of losing control of a freak storm he’d just whipped up.
“Hmm?” He blinked and turned to look at me, his eyes alert.
I relaxed; false alarm. “Have you seen Tango around?”
“Not since I fed her this morning. Why?” His voice was casual, but I sensed something else underneath it.
Ben, the truth, and I had an odd relationship. Even though he was a supernatural being, and I had a supernatural occupation, I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone—including him—about the details of my job. Some things he knew, others he didn’t: For instance, he knew it was my job to protect the graveyard, but not that Whiskey was a ghost or Tango a reincarnated feline. He didn’t know about Whiskey’s shape-shifting or Tango’s ability to talk to other species, or that I communicated with both of them telepathically. I was dying to tell him, but you know how it is when your boss wants one thing and you want another: You get away with as much as you can and hope you don’t get fired.
But Ben wasn’t stupid. Animal graveyard, supernatural weirdness, sudden arrival of two animals who spend a lot of time hanging around me: He knew they weren’t quite what they seemed. So far he’d been good about accepting my explanation of not being able to explain—but I could tell he was getting a little impatient.
“They’re not zombies, are they?” he asked, giving Whiskey a calculating look.
“Whiskey and Tango? No, they’re not zombies.”
[You could ask me to play dead. I can do that.]
“You sure? I mean, they don’t smell like they’re dead, but—”
“They’re not zombies, Ben.”
“Weresomethings? Like what? One’s a dog, one’s a cat. You think maybe they swap when the moon is full?”
He shrugged. “I was thinking more like they change into human form. I mean, that’s what my ancestors apparently did.”
“Yes, Ben, they’re werepeople. Please don’t call the police if you see a naked man rooting through the garbage or a nude woman up in a tree.”
[Please. As if I’d indulge in such boorish behavior.]
Ben shook his head and grinned ruefully. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t grill you, but—well, I’m just trying to figure this whole thing out, you know?”
I did know. Just like I knew Ben and I had skated right up to the edge of maybe seeing each other when both our lives got turned upside down and we were both too discombombulated to add a new relationship to the mix. I hadn’t even figured out if I wanted to give it another try, let alone how. Or if he felt the same.
“I’m working on that, okay? Believe me, I don’t like all this secrecy, either.”
“I know, I know. Not your call. Starting to get that, more and more.”
“Oh? How so?”
He sighed and leaned back against the counter. “Been doing some reading. And I finally tracked down my sister—she’s in Australia. We talked some.”
Anna, Ben’s sister, was the one who’d triggered his Thunderbird abilities before catching the next plane out of the country. She didn’t seem like the outback type, though—more like the slingback. “I thought she’d gone to Europe. What did she have to say for herself?”
“She apologized, for starters. For Anna, that’s a big deal—she’s not exactly what you’d call gracious. More like a get-out-of-my-way-before-I-knock-you-over kind of personality.”
“A force of nature?”
He chuckled. “Pretty much. You could pick just about any weather-related word and apply it to her at some point or another: icy, stormy, scorching, blustery … her being a Thunderbird makes a crazy kind of sense. To her, too—that’s why she took off in such a hurry. She was afraid she’d lose control and call up a hurricane or a blizzard or something.”
“So she flicked your on-switch and left?”
“That was never the plan. Her powers came to her gradually, over a period of weeks, and started when she got obsessed with the sky. She figured the same thing might happen to me, but she wasn’t sure. Thought it sounded crazy. Came here to warn me more than anything.”
“Then why’d she take off?”
Ben shook his head. “She had to. After our little visit, her powers came on stronger than ever. She panicked, took a cab straight to the airport, and tried to get as far away from me as possible. She thought distance might help both of us—all she could think of was what happens when warm and cold fronts collide in the atmosphere.”
“They turn into a storm, right. But—getting on a plane when you think you have out-of-control weather powers? That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”
“I said the same thing. She agreed, but told me she’s always felt safe in the air. I knew exactly what she meant; ever since we were kids, we loved flying. We used to play this game on airplanes when there was turbulence, pretend we were on a roller coaster and yell Whee! Got told by more than one flight attendant to keep it down.”
“So she ran to Australia. That’s actually pretty smart. Not a lot of weather out in the middle of the desert, and fewer people to get hurt if something goes wrong.”
Ben nodded. “Yeah, that’s what she figured. She’s going to stay for a while, experiment a little, get used to what she can do. Says she’s already real good at making it hot and dusty.”
“And how about you? How are you adjusting?”
He looked thoughtful. “Pretty good, I think. Big breakthrough when I clued in to my new senses—temperature, humidity, barometric pressure. Little intense at first, but I can tune it in and out now. Haven’t tried to do anything more than this, though.” He gestured, and a breeze sprang up out of nowhere, ruffling his blond hair and blowing some papers off the table. It died down a second later.
I laughed. “That’s great! Impressive amount of control for a newbie, don’t you think?”
He looked proud and a little embarrassed. “I guess. Thunderbirds were supposed to be able to generate storms, but that wasn’t all. They were also—”
He was interrupted by Consuela, one of the maids, hurrying through the door. “Excuse me,” she said. “Miss Foxtrot? Miss ZZ is asking for you.”
“To be continued,” I told Ben, and he waved me back to work.
Whiskey and I followed Consuela out of the kitchen and to the sitting room. ZZ could have just called me, of course, but she was always misplacing her phone. “One of the problems with modern technology,” she’d sigh. “The smaller and more portable it is, the quicker you can lose it.”
ZZ was talking to Shondra Destry, her head of security. ZZ was dressed in a flowing, tie-dyed caftan, her curly orange hair tied back with a flowered lei, while Shondra wore dark pants, a light blue long-sleeved shirt, and a scowl.
“I don’t see the problem,” ZZ said to her.
“The problem is, he’s a ghost,” Shondra replied.
I stopped dead.
Copyright © 2014 by Dixie Lyle