As Elzetta attempts to track down the culprit, she faces two fateful confrontations. Each will threaten her trendy new life and the hallelujah hankering she's formed for the unlikeliest of urban white knights, but together those confrontations could do much worse. They could create in Elzetta a vengeful rage all her own.
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When meeting a Nazi dog trainer, the proper greeting is not Sieg Howdy-do.
I'd worried the night's appointment would be a mistake from the get-go. I really should have listened to myself.
Looking back, I blame it all on a sentimental hiccup in my thinking. What other excuse was there for agreeing to meet a new client after hours and out in the middle of nowhere? Now here it was, nine o'clock on a cold March night, and I was inching along the twisty rural roads northwest of Knoxville trying to find a stupid dog kennel in the dark.
My GPS had lost satellite reception long ago because of the surrounding hills, and I had to make do with the client's hand-written directions. Her chicken-scrawls would have been hard to make out in the broad light of day, much less while driving at night on narrow, unlit roads.
Finally, after making a repeat circuit through the steep and wooded area feeding Butterweed Creek, I found the place solely by the sound of dogs barking.
That uh-oh feeling flared again as I drove up a poorly graveled driveway that had enough tree roots sprouting through it to trip a semi. When I pulled in beside what had to be my client's black Volvo, I faced a small, darkened farm house obscured by shadowy, leafless trees and ankle-high grass. The place reminded me of the house I grew up in, but it didn't incite happy memories from my childhood. Instead, it gave me the willies. I kept expecting to see Freddy Krueger in overalls lurking about the side windows or a soulless boy with a banjo out front. I wasn't sure which. Maybe both.
Then, caught in the car's headlights off to the left of the house was a scene straight out of The Perils of Pauline. Two large mixed breeds and a Rottweiler had my client, Olivia Sinclair, cornered against the trunk of a withered oak tree at the edge of the makeshift parking area. It was bad enough the dogs were barking like mad at the woman, but now and then they pushed their chests low to the ground as if preparing for a three-prong attack.
Olivia, bless her heart, was a sweet if airheaded housewife and mother who had come to see me on Monday of that week. Flap-jacking between tears and self-justifying excuses as she sat across from me in my home office, she confessed to having done something "dumber than dirt," as she put it. She'd hired a professional invoker to set a revenge curse upon one Patrice Jo, the spinsterish owner-operator of Happy Dog Bones School of Charm. With wide- eyed sincerity, Olivia pleaded with me to do three things. Not report her to the police, be with her when she confessed her deed to Patrice Jo and lastly, clean the curse off the dog trainer's aura.
Granted, for most of my life I've suffered from an almost comic naiveté when it comes to people. In my pre-gift days, I rarely believed gossip and refused to accept the worst about someone, even when proof was dumped in my lap. But over the past year, my first as a state-licensed bodywasher, a lot of that naiveté has worn off faster than the shine off flea market jewelry. Most of my clients — at least the ones who were actually cursed as opposed to those who were preternatural hypochondriacs — invariably turned out to deserve, at least in part, the revenge curses aimed at them. I suppose that was why Olivia's confession earlier in the week caught me off guard. Sure, she'd admitted to hiring a curse invoker, a Class D felony, but she was willing to pay a pretty penny to make things right. Before I knew it, I'd agreed to the Thursday night house call simply because I was too confounded to do otherwise.
Right then, however, as I beheld Olivia posed in a freeze frame of terror like the heroine in a sappy melodrama, I had second thoughts for the umpteenth time that night. And I didn't think stepping out of my Metro and into the fray would be a good idea. Small-framed and barely five foot three barefoot, I wasn't what anyone would call intimidating. I worked out every day, and I liked to think I was fit, but it wasn't as though I knew canine jujitsu or something. Besides, Olivia's full-length red wool coat offered her far better protection from the dogs than my thin black leather jacket offered me.
I also worried about my car.
Friends who've seen my car — a 1962 Nash Metropolitan — said it's not much bigger than a go-cart on steroids. If I drew the attention of the dogs away from Olivia and toward me in the Metro, they'd scratch the car's powder blue paint job or put dents in its tiny door panels. I know, I know. I shouldn't put the welfare of my car before a client, but it was a painstakingly restored and damned expensive classic, for heaven's sake.
Thinking through what little I knew about dogs, I rolled down the car window far enough to shout out to Olivia over the incessant barking. "Girl, it's Elzetta Swan. Stay calm! Don't look the dogs in the eye!"
The petrified woman risked a glance in my direction. "Oh, Elzetta! You have to help me!"
By doing what? I had a lipstick-sized pepper spray tucked in the pocket of my jacket, but I didn't think the spray would reach the dogs from the car. That was just as well since I didn't want to hurt the big lugs. They weren't attack dogs; they were just doing what dogs do.
Resigned to taking my chances, I huffed the soft sigh of a sacrificial lamb and reached for the door handle. Fortunately, before I could open the car door, the house's porch light came on. Sighing a second time, this time with relief, I kept an eye on Olivia and the dogs as the front door of the house opened, followed by a squeaking screen door.
"Whiskey! Beau! Git yor asses ovah here. Now!"
The harsh twang ringing out from the front stoop of the house sounded as grating as the dogs' barking and came from a pudgy, apple-shaped woman who appeared to be anywhere between forty and sixty under the feeble glow of the porch light. Seemingly oblivious to the chill in the air, she wore an unbelted bathrobe over a knee-length nightgown and a pair of fuzzy slippers. Some of her dark hair was pulled back in a loose bun while the rest was left to fall willy-nilly about her incongruously skinny neck.
"Bootleg, iz 'at you too? All three a' y'all! Git ovah here now or thar'l be hell ta pay!" To punctuate her shrill orders she gave an equally shrill blast on a training whistle.
Almost as one, the dogs turned away from Olivia and toward the roly-poly woman. Within seconds they fell into a submissive I'm-gonna-get-it-now mode that jerked a half-choked giggle out of me.
I could only assume the woman now stepping unsteadily off the front stoop was Patrice Jo. Olivia told me she was called Miss Patrice to her face but behind her back she was known, not affectionately, as The Nazi Dog Trainer. Now, as I watched the graceless woman order the large and previously menacing dogs around like puppies — and seeing them obey in fear — I understood why.
With a tyranny that would have made any goose-stepper proud, Miss Patrice herded the dogs into a fenced-in play area set up in the front yard. She latched the chain link gate behind them with a mean whack! before fastening her Gestapo glare on Olivia. That glare soon swiveled toward me as I got out of the Metro, dragging my oversized shoulder bag with me.
Miss Patrice was obviously not pleased to see Olivia, but even in the dark I could tell she was downright pissed to see me. I'd never met her before so I didn't know where the hostility was coming from. Whatever the cause, it didn't bode well.
After a beat, Miss Patrice whirled away from Olivia and me to labor back up the few steps to the stoop. As she reached for the screen door handle, she twisted round to scowl at us over her shoulder. "Come on in, iffen ya must, but watch ya don't track dawg shit in my house!"
Oh, yeah. This had been a mistake from the get-go.
The remedy called for a smidgen of blackmail and a dollop of dog poo.
Back when I received the bodywasher's gift — which wasn't that long ago — my preterspecialist Dr. Henley gave me a firm warning: Don't let the gift overwhelm me. After all, it was one thing to know auras and curses existed but a whole other ball of wax to be among the few to deal with them every day. What the good doctor forgot to warn me about, however, was the alarming things the mundane world would be throwing at me at the same time.
A case in point was the inside of Miss Patrice's farm house at Happy Dog Bones School of Charm.
Leaving the chill of the night outside, Olivia and I stepped inside the house far enough to close the front door behind us. A nastily furnished extension of the overgrown front yard, the dimly lit interior reeked of animal hair, rotting food and yep, dog poo.
Immediately, I took shallow breaths because of the stench. While I didn't feel safe enough to take my eyes off Miss Patrice to check, I was fairly sure my client was doing the same.
As to our strategy for the evening, Olivia and I agreed she would rip the band-aid off, so to speak, making her confession up front. Then, if the dog trainer agreed — and at the time I couldn't have imagined why she wouldn't — I'd go ahead and cleanse her there in her house. I hadn't expected any problems. The moon was in adequate phase, and I'd prepped myself for an out-of-office appointment. But now, seeing the neglected state of the house and the flush on the dog trainer's doughy face, another uh-oh churned away in my stomach.
My client, on the other hand, was not to be deterred.
Visibly straightening as she stood in what passed as the foyer, Olivia attempted to follow through with our plan. "Miss Patrice, if you'll remember me, I brought Mister Snuggles here last week and —"
Only that was as far as she got.
Planted inside the doorway to the sitting room with her arms crossed over her ponderous chest, Miss Patrice scowled before interrupting Olivia without apology. "I r'call who ya are. You may think yor Miz High n' Mighty, but ya got no call ta come into my house and try ta scare me with a lawyer."
"Oh, no, Miss Patrice," Olivia said with a shake of her head. The motion set her expertly clipped blonde hair swaying about her jaw line in counterpoint to her agitation. "This is Elzetta Swan. She's not a lawyer. It's not like that. We're here so I can apologize to you for what I did after ... after that incident we had last week."
Continuing to scowl, the woman managed to add something smug and sullen into her expression. "So ya gonna pay me wa' cha owe me for workin' with yor dawg?"
Without waiting for a reply, she stomped away from us to plop down on a tattered recliner in the sitting room. In the yellow glow of a nearby lamp, I saw dog hair and dust drift up from the recliner's seat cushion like refugees fleeing a border war.
Olivia hesitantly followed.
Miss Patrice had obviously not taken Southern Hospitality 101 or she would have offered us a seat. As it was, my client, who was well-heeled and used to better treatment, showed her offense only by a slight twitching of the lips as she checked around for a place to sit. Her choice was a sofa covered with hoarded newspapers, magazines and Lord knows what else, or a rickety spindle-back chair. She chose the chair. In addition to being litter-free, it gave her the advantage of facing Miss Patrice indirectly.
When Olivia sat, she took the position known to ladies of quality everywhere: hands and purse in lap, ankles crossed. The incongruity of her designer pumps resting on Miss Patrice's foul flax-colored carpet made me stumble a bit before I too made my way into the sitting room.
Since Olivia left me the littered sofa, I decided to remain standing. I might be in jeans and western boots, but I couldn't bring myself to be contaminated by the furniture. Instead, I entered the room far enough to complete a visual triangle with the two women and let it go at that. Switching my bag to the other shoulder, I settled in for the show.
It promised to be a good one.
At Monday's consultation, Olivia told me what happened to set the whole thing off. She'd brought her puppyish Cocker spaniel to Happy Dog Bones a while back at the insistence of her husband. He was tired of the dog's ceaseless yapping, heard of Miss Patrice from somewhere and thought the trainer's "aggressive" technique might do the trick.
Dubious but at wit's end, Olivia enrolled Mister Snuggles for trial obedience lessons. When she went to the kennel to retrieve the dog at the end of the third day of training, she found the wee thing being tormented by two larger dogs in a cramped pen. Incensed, she confronted Miss Patrice who didn't seem the least apologetic. The confrontation ended with Olivia threatening to get even, and Miss Patrice calling Olivia snooty and spoiled and her dog "a noisy piece of puff."
It's my guess that left on her own the day of the incident, Olivia would have cooled off within hours. She might have decided on legal or at least more reasonable measures against the dog trainer, but no. She called a friend to vent and, instead of calming Olivia, the friend fanned the fire.
Now sitting ramrod straight in the spindle-back chair, Olivia tried once again to speak her piece.
"Miss Patrice, I think it's safe to say we both made mistakes that day. I was very upset. Mister Snuggles was bleeding, and you had to know those dogs would hurt him. The vet had to put stitches in one of his wee legs," she added, pique tingeing her tone. "Mister Snuggles is like one of my children. I'm sure you understand when I say I was very upset!"
Having no doubt rehearsed her confession, Olivia probably figured things would progress in a certain way. Unfortunately, the dog trainer wasn't cooperating. Instead of listening to Olivia, she was back to glaring at me as if I still posed some kind of threat.
Agitated by her inattention, Olivia floundered. "Miss Patrice, I wasn't thinking straight. I really wasn't thinking straight at all. When a friend suggested ... well, when she said I should get even ... well, I, uh ..."
That was when the backbone went out of my client.
Like a dog sniffing weakness, Miss Patrice swiveled her glare to Olivia who was now studying her hands intently as they clutched the purse in her lap. Worried about what I would do if Olivia chickened out entirely, I was much relieved when she finally raised her head. She obviously had to fight the urge to flinch at the other woman's predatory expression, but she did manage to keep her head level.
"As I was saying, Miss Patrice, a friend of mine talked me into going to see a curse invoker she knew about. I was just mad enough to do it." After she finished speaking, Olivia took and released a deep breath. She probably thought the worse was over.
I knew better.
The tense silence that fell over the room following Olivia's confession was to be expected, but not so the unchanged level of hostility coming off Miss Patrice. The woman continued to glare at my client as if the two of them were competing in some kind of alpha dog staring contest. But that was the extent of her reaction. When the silence went on too long, Olivia glanced over at me nervously. All I could do was shrug. I was as stymied as she was.
"Do you understand?" she said, turning to Miss Patrice. "I paid to have a curse put on you by an invoker. You let those dogs hurt Mister Snuggles, and I was so upset. I got so mad. I wasn't thinking straight and went to this man and paid him to put a curse on you."
When Olivia looked at me this time, I nodded in encouragement. As one, we returned our attention to Miss Patrice fully expecting her to bow up like a cornered cat.
She didn't. She just shook her head and smirked. "You really 'speck me ta believe that fool story, doncha, Miz High 'n Mighty?"
"It's true! I was so terribly upset!"
Silently hoping Olivia wasn't going to keep repeating herself all night, I concerned myself with the dog trainer's reaction. Perhaps I needed to take a stab at explaining things myself.
"Miss Patrice," I began, reluctantly drawing her glare back on me. "Olivia came to see me to tell me what she did. She is very sorry, and she brought me here to help you."
"And yoooo might be?"
Her catty tone and accompanying scowl made me think of a storybook witch, if said witch lived in a single-wide up the mountains near Walland Springs. Having grown up an acre shy of a rural trailer park myself, I'd heard something akin to her Appalachian accent before — albeit not one so gleefully contemptuous.
I forced myself to be civil. "I'm a bodywasher, ma'am. I can cleanse the curse from your aura."
Excerpted from "Curse Me Not"
Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Fisher.
Excerpted by permission of Champagne Book Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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