Juliette “Jules” Bridge prides herself on the tender rehabilitation she provides for injured or abused rabbits on her New Hampshire rescue farm, but she has a very special relationship with one bunny in particular. Bun is a black-and-white rabbit who happens to have the ability to communicate through mental telepathy. Once she got over the shock, Jules found her furry friend had a lot to say.
One frigid March morning on their walk together, Bun spots a body. The police identify the frozen stiff as Arthur Freeman, aka Arty the Mime. Jules and Arty knew each other on the children's party circuit, where he’d perform magic tricks and she had an educational rabbit petting pen. With Bun egging her on, Jules decides it’s time they hop to it and put their heads together to discover who silenced the mime. But their investigation leads them down a rabbit hole of more suspects and lies, while a killer sets a trap for them . . .
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"It's quite blustery today," I murmured as a fine sheen of ice-crusted snow crunched under my feet while a steady wind buffeted us. The edge of the water, glazed with shards of ice, reminded me of broken glass. Tall grasses, stiffly encrusted with snow, barely swayed in the wind coming off Lake Plantain. Frosty boulders dotted the landscape. New Hampshire in March was frigid. I stopped abruptly when Bun's voice entered my head.
Bunny, my black-and-white rabbit, snuggled against my chest in the baby sling he rode in. Bun's head protruded from the sling opening, and his ears twitched as he glanced around.
"That looks odd, like a frosty hand rising from the tall grass over there." Bun dipped his head to my left. I followed his lead, slanting a look in that direction.
Holy crap, it did look like a frozen hand reaching upward. My heart began to pound, my breath came short and fast, and I veered toward the area.
"You don't think it's real, do you?"
"I'm sure it's just the way the frost has clumped the grass together. We'll have a look."
My name is Juliette Bridge, better known as Jules. I'm the owner of Fur Bridge Farm, where I raise rabbits, find good homes for them, and care for others that have been rescued from difficult and often abominable situations. Bun, my best buddy, lives in my farmhouse as my resident housemate. He has a personality that warms my heart, that is, when he's not poking his sweet little nose where it doesn't belong.
Not your average rabbit, Bun's smart, sociable, talkative, and very talented. His specialty is pure nosiness. He communicates with me by way of mental telepathy, which adds another dimension to an ongoing list of my problems. I know, it sounds ludicrous, but when Bun talks, I've learned to listen. I never thought I'd have a talking pet, but there you have it. He's never mentioned how this ability came about, and I've never asked. Uncertain if everyone can hear him, I can only assume they aren't willing to acknowledge his ability.
We've shared the farmhouse for the past couple of years, after I rescued him from a despicable family with no respect for animals. They were glad to see him go, saying he was in league with the devil. I figure they could hear him talk.
The first time I heard his voice, a soft, lilting, somewhat musical sound, I wondered if I'd imagined it. As time went on, he kept talking to me, and I continued to ignore him. One morning, about a year ago, we were taking our usual walk, when I ran into Margery Shaw. Margery had been Bun's previous keeper and there was no love lost between us. Having seen Margery coming before I did, Bun had huddled down inside the sling, burrowing as far as he could, trying to disappear. I heard a warning to take care before there was only silence.
The woman marched up and asked if I'd heard the rabbit talk. That was the dawning realization that Bun could, and often did, communicate with me. Unwilling to admit it to Margery, I shook my head and asked if she was imagining things. Her anger evident over my remark, I left her standing on the path as I jogged off, holding Bun close to my chest.
From that day forward, Bun and I have conversed on a regular basis. I doubt I can answer him telepathically and haven't tried. I'm careful where and when I speak aloud to him. It doesn't look good to prospective rabbit owners if I'm blathering on about something to Bun when they've come to the farm in search of rabbits of their own.
My face numb from the wind, I slipped and slid our way through the snow, focused on what looked like a hand, all the while mentally denying it was one. As we drew near, Bun started to quiver, a clear sign of his excitement. Bun always likes to be right, especially under these circumstances.
I came to a stop and leaned forward. The hand, a real hand, was connected to the arm of a man lying amid grasses that arched tunnel-like over his lower extremities. He seemed to reach out, maybe in hope that someone would take hold of his hand and lift him off the ground. I trembled, and then shook, before pacing back and forth while I muttered that this must have been an accident. I pulled my cell phone from the pocket of my jacket and dialed 9-1-1.
A female dispatcher answered the call and listened as I babbled on about my find and where it was located. Finally, she asked, "Are you still at that location, ma'am?"
"Stay there, emergency services will be with you shortly. Please remain on the line until they arrive." Her voice, calm and soothing, left me less frantic, and I stopped pacing. I detest murder, or violence of any kind, though I admit I'm a curious sort, though Bun is much more inquisitive than I am. My intuitive, long-eared pal is right quite often. That's why I listen when he speaks to me.
Moments later, sirens blared, and a police cruiser slid to a halt not fifteen feet away from us. A rescue vehicle parked, and four men scrambled over the snow, closing the distance between us.
Sheriff Jack Carver gave me the once-over as he came abreast of me, Bun, and the deceased.
"When did you find the body?"
I slanted him a look, shut off my phone, and tucked it into my jacket pocket. "Just now. I walk every morning, but not usually here."
"Why come this way today?"
"I wanted to see if there was an ice buildup around the lake. It's quite beautiful, without a dead man, that is."
Carver gave our surroundings a sweeping look and shrugged. "I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All I see is frozen ground and a slippery road."
Bun popped his head out of the sling. He sniffed the air, twitched his ears, and settled against my chest. "He might have a point."
"I suppose you're right," I said, not speaking just to Carver, but also to Bun. We watched as paramedics pulled a sleigh-type basket over the snow-covered ground. They stood back until given the go-ahead to take pictures and do their job before collecting the dead guy for his ride to the morgue. Ice chips dropped off his face and clothing as the crew wrestled him into the sleigh. Once he was strapped in and tightly secured, the team took him away. All that was left on the ground where he'd lain was a dark patch of something I thought might be blood.
The sheriff noted the spot at the same time I did, leaned forward, ripped one of the mashed stalks of grass from the ground, and held it to his nose. He bagged the grass and tucked it into his coat pocket.
Who was this dead person, and what was he doing by the lake? Inwardly, I shivered at the thought of him dying in the cold, and then turned my attention to what the sheriff was saying.
He waited for an answer to the question I hadn't heard and then repeated it as he tipped his head in the dead man's direction.
"Are you familiar with him?"
"No, I don't recognize him. Do you?"
I pointed to the dark spot. "Is that blood on the ground?" "It doesn't concern you."
Bun moved around, then wiggled his head out of the sling again. He watched the sheriff with keen eyes.
Jack gave Bun a glance, then offered me a cool attitude that surely meant he'd be asking the questions. "You're certain you've never met him before? Maybe he stopped by the farm, or you ran into him in town?"
"Not that I know of. If I did come across him somewhere, he didn't make an impression. Sorry, Jack."
We walked from the beach onto the upper part of the road where his patrol car sat running.
"Do you always walk with the rabbit?"
I smiled a bit. "Every morning. It's good for us both."
With a smirk, he nodded. "If I think of anything else, I'll be in touch." Jack tipped his hat-covered head and got into the cruiser. He drove off without a backward glance as I walked on while Bun chatted up a storm.
"Why was he so insistent on you knowing that man? Do you know him? Has he been by the farm? Why didn't I see him if he did?"
"Stop talking long enough for me to answer you. I have no idea why Jack thinks I've seen the guy. He hasn't been at the farm when I've been there, and that's why you aren't familiar with him." I heaved a sigh. "And, by the way, we aren't going to get involved in the investigation, so get that idea out of your head right now."
According to my Fitbit Surge watch, we'd reached the three-mile mark. It was time to return home. My face was so cold, I wondered if it might crack and fall off. The icy dead guy came to mind as Bun asked why we couldn't check into the death.
"Because it's none of our concern. Now stop asking questions and brace yourself while I jog back to the farm."
"If I had known you were going to jostle me around like a sack of potatoes, I wouldn't have come along. Though, if I hadn't come, I wouldn't have found the corpse, nor would you have."
Ignoring his jibber-jabbering, I picked up the pace and we made it to the farm in half the usual time it took. Unbuckling the sling at my shoulder, I leaned down, and Bun jumped free. He scampered into the house and ran into his bedroom before he hopped onto his cushioned bed and settled in. I poured food into his feeder, added fruit bits and lettuce to a bowl, then added water to the one next to it before leaving for the barn.
A short breezeway connects the barn to the house to keep me and my farmhands from becoming soaked by inclement weather. I'd had it erected about a year ago, after the wettest winter I'd ever encountered. At first my workers thought it was ridiculous, but they soon changed their minds when heavy rainstorms blew in.
Halfway through the breezeway, I met Jess Plain, my right-hand helper. A breath of fresh air, Jessica was a student at a veterinary college about fifteen miles from Windermere. Willing to do just about anything I asked of her, Jess adored the rabbits, had named them all, and they became excited when she entered the barn.
Tossing my jacket onto a peg near the door, I caught sight of my windswept, burnished-copper hair and tried to bring it under control using my fingers as a comb. My facial skin had returned to its normal peach tone, rather than the redness the wind had brought to my cheeks and nose. Tears seeped from the corners of my eyes and trickled down my cheeks from the sudden change in temperature. I gave up on my hair, dried the moisture around my blue eyes, and turned to listen when Jess started talking.
"Have you heard the news? Arthur Freeman is dead. It was on the news radio station."
"Is that the man I found dead on the lakefront? Bun and I saw him when we were there. It sure didn't take Sheriff Carver long to make an identification."
A look of surprise filtered across her face. "Good grief, don't tell me you're going to investigate Freeman's murder?"
"Since I'm not familiar with Arthur Freeman, why would I bother?"
"You didn't recognize him?"
"Hardly, he was frozen like a Popsicle. His name isn't familiar to me, either."
We'd walked into the barn and moved bags of rabbit feed from the trolley. We stacked them on shelves. I handed Jess the last bag when she said, "I can't believe you don't remember him. He was known as Arty the Mime."
It only took a second for me to make the connection from Arty to the dead guy. "You're kidding, right? I never saw him without mime makeup on. That's why I didn't know who he was. Son of a gun, who'd want to kill a man whose goal in life was to do magic tricks at children's parties?"
"Did Jack ask if you knew him?"
I nodded. "He must have had an idea who the corpse was because he asked me a couple of times." I rolled my eyes and drew a deep breath. "He probably thinks I lied."
With a shrug, Jess remarked, "True, but then, it won't be the first time he's thought someone lied to him." When I glanced at her, she hastily added, "I didn't mean you, of course. You and Arty had a run-in at the fall festival last October, didn't you?"
"We had a disagreement, nothing more. It was simply a matter of different opinions. While we weren't friends, we had respect for each other."
"What was his problem?"
I thought back to that day. "We differed on whether animals should be free or kept. He wouldn't listen when I tried to explain what we do and how we rescue rabbits who have been mistreated or maimed." I considered how much more to say. "The situation became heated until I invited him to come out and visit us. He stomped away, and never mentioned it again."
Jess prepared to feed the fifteen rabbits we housed and medicate those who needed it. Finished charting the dosage information, I set the clipboard on its peg and walked back to the house.
Later in the afternoon, a car rolled into the driveway. I looked out the window and thought Jack Carver must have had more questions. I scooted across to Bun's room and murmured, "Stay in here, the sheriff has arrived. The dead guy is Arty the Mime."
One ear flipped forward, which I took as a sign of agreement. Bun remained on his bed as I closed the door to his room. With his superb hearing he'd know what Jack had to say. I didn't want Bun underfoot and blabbing while I spoke with the sheriff. I flipped the coffeepot on and opened the front door as Carver reached for the doorbell.
"Come on in, it's cold out there. Can I get you a cup of coffee?"
His nod was answer enough, and I filled two cups with steaming brew. Setting them on a tray along with a sugar bowl and creamer, I carried it to the end table next to an overstuffed armchair in the living room, where Jack was seated. I handed him a mug of coffee and added cream to my cup.
Seated across from him, I rested my elbows on my knees cupping the mug with my hands. Not giving Jack the opportunity to accuse me of misleading him, I said, "Jess mentioned the dead man was Arthur Freeman. It was announced on the news."
"You knew Mr. Freeman, didn't you?"
I nodded. "Only in a professional manner, and only as Arty the Mime. We attended many functions as the entertainment du jour. He'd do magic tricks and I had the educational rabbit petting pen. I never saw him without his mime makeup on. Honest to God." I crossed my heart.
"I'm glad you admitted that, Jules. After all, everyone is aware that you two were frequent entertainers at kids' events and public affairs the town hosts. Especially the festival last fall. Didn't you have a falling-out of sorts?"
"I didn't make the connection, sorry. Arty was great at kids' functions, and we shared a few jokes now and then. He took miming seriously and was in tune with his audiences, no matter their ages. As to the falling-out, it was actually a difference of opinion."
"Different in what way?"
Quick to explain what had caused us to disagree, I mentioned Arty had been disgruntled. I left out the fury he had shown and how he'd walked away ranting about unfairness to animals.
Jack sipped his coffee. "Are you aware of anyone who might have had a grudge against him?"
"Not that I can think of offhand. If something comes to mind, I'll gladly let you know. Have you contacted his family?"
"He doesn't have any family that I can find."
"That's a shame. He was a nice sort, we enjoyed our stints together, and parents appeared to like him."
He placed the half-empty cup on the table and rose. "If you remember anything, anything at all, call me. I don't want time to get away from us. The longer the investigation goes on, the colder the trail becomes." At the door he reached for the knob and then said over his shoulder, "I know you might want to help out because you knew this fellow, but please don't interfere."
"I have no plans to," I blustered.
"I'm glad we're clear on that. Don't poke your nose where you shouldn't, I won't stand for it."
"What was the cause of death, by the way?"
"The pathologist is doing an autopsy on Arty's body now. He said it appears Arty was stabbed with a sharp instrument that pierced his skull. He won't have a full report until he's finished, but he thinks the man might have suffered hypothermia while cranial bleeding slowly killed him. Miserable death, for sure."
The thought of such a slow, horrible death sent shivers over my body. "What kind of weapon was used?"
Heaving a sigh, Jack rolled the brim of his hat with his fingertips and then put it on. "Nothing definite on that. And, before you ask any other questions, I have nothing else to say. Good day, Jules."
The door closed with a snap as I grimaced over his attitude. Scratching sounded at Bun's door. I swung the door wide and, hands on hips, I stared down at the furry creature.
"There's no gratitude for our brilliance."
"We haven't been brilliant, not yet anyway. Besides, the sheriff doesn't want our assistance."
"I think we should investigate, if not to satisfy our curiosity, then to get justice for Arty. After all, you might still become a suspect if Sheriff Carver finds out how bad your disagreement with Arty was."
"I had thought of that. If Jack presses me, I'll have to admit the situation got out of hand. Until then, I intend to keep that information to myself." I walked away before Bun could insist we become involved.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Left Fur Dead"
Copyright © 2019 J.M. Griffin.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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