Home > Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1)(2)

Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles #1)(2)
Ilona Andrews

Ma'am? Ma'am? I was at least four years younger than him.

Mr. Byrne knelt on the grass by Brutus's body. His face went slack.

"The first two dogs were hidden, but this one is in plain view. Whatever is killing them is escalating, and it's taunting you. It's leaving its kill where everyone can see."

Sean's face gained a no-nonsense-tolerated expression. "I think you might be crazy."

Mr. Byrne looked ready to topple over.

"Excuse me." I set my grocery bag on the grass, walked around Sean, and crouched by the older man. He put his hand over his face.

"I'm so sorry."

"I don't understand," Mr. Byrne said, his voice hollow. "He was fine this morning when I let him out in the yard. I don't understand... How did he even get out?"

Margaret decided it was a good moment to escape and backed away.

"Why don't you go back to the house?" I said. "I'll get my car and bring Brutus to you."

His hand was shaking. "No, he's my dog. I've got to take him to the vet..."

"I'll help you," I promised.

"I'll get something to line the trunk with," Sean said. "Give me a minute."

"I can't..." Mr. Byrne's face stiffened.

"I'll take care of it," Sean said. "I'm sorry for your loss."

Sean returned with some clear garden plastic. It took about five minutes for us to wrap Brutus' remains and Sean carried the bundle into the back of the SUV. Mr. Byrne got in, and Sean and I watched the vehicle take off.

"I just want to avoid any misunderstandings," I said. "Since you refuse to defend your territory, I'll have to take care of it."

He leaned closer to me. "Lady, I thought I told you already --I don't know what you're talking about. Go back to your place and sweep the porch or whatever it is you do up there."

He wanted to pretend to be dense. There wasn't much I could do about that. Maybe he was a coward, although he didn't seem the type. Maybe he just didn't care. Well, I cared. It would have to be enough.

"Very well. As long as you don't get in my way, we won't have a problem. So nice to meet you, Mr. Evans."

I started up the street toward my house.

"Lady, you're crazy!" he called after me.

I might be crazy, but I was very rarely wrong, and I had a strong feeling that life in the suburbs of Red Deer, Texas, had just gotten a lot more complicated.

*** *** ***

The Gertrude Hunt Bed-and-Breakfast sat at the entrance of the Avalon Subdivision, on three acres of land, most of it taken up by the orchard and garden. Several mature oaks shaded the house, and a four foot hedge bordered the lawn along the side facing the street. The building's original fish-scale wood siding had long rotted away and been replaced by a more practical, modern version in deep hunter green. Built in the late 1880s, the three-story inn had all the overwrought American Queen Anne features: a deep wraparound porch with short Corinthian columns guarding the entrance, three small second-story balconies, overhanging eaves, and both bay and oriel windows projecting seemingly in random places. Like many of the older Victorian houses, the inn was asymmetric, and if one looked at it from the north side and then from the south, it wouldn't even look like the same house. Its eastern wall featured a small tower; its western side sported a round, protruding sunroom. It was as if a medieval castle and a Southern-belle, antebellum mansion had a baby and it had been delivered into the world by a gothic wedding-cake decorator.

The inn was lavished with spindle-work, didn't make sense, and was too elaborate, but it wasn't a monstrosity.

I walked up the porch stairs and petted the pale column. "He's a rude idiot. Don't pay him any attention. I think you're charming."

The house didn't answer.

I stepped inside and my heart made a quiet little leap in my chest as I nodded at the photograph of my parents hanging in the front room. Every time I went out, some small part of me hoped that when I came back, I would find them right there in the hallway, waiting for me.

I swallowed, turned left, climbed up the spacious staircase to the second floor, and came out onto the north balcony where Her Grace Caldenia ka ret Magren was taking her tea. She looked to be in her mid-sixties, but it was the kind of sixties one achieved after living for years in the lap of luxury. Her platinum-gray hair was pulled back from her face into a smooth knot. She had a strong profile with a classic Greek nose, pronounced cheekbones, and blue eyes that usually had a slightly forlorn look unless she found something funny. She held her teacup with utmost elegance, gazing down at the street with a slightly sardonic, melancholy demeanor.

I hid a smile. Caldenia was worldly, wise, and fashionably weary of life. Despite her detached air, she had no intentions of going gently into that good night and had gone to a great length to make sure she wouldn't pass on any time soon.

I opened the plastic shopping bag and pulled out a yellow plastic package and a yellow can. "Your Funyuns and Mello Yello, Your Grace."

"Ah!" Caldenia came to life. "Thank you."

She opened the bag with a flick of her fingers and shook a few Funyun rings onto a plate. Her long fingers plucked one up, and she bit into it and chewed with obvious pleasure.

"How did it go with the werewolf?" she asked.

I sat in the chair. "He's pretending I'm insane and that he doesn't know what I'm talking about."

"Perhaps he's repressed."

I raised my eyebrows.

Caldenia delicately chewed another Funyun. "Some of them do mentally castrate themselves in that way, dear. Controlling, religious mother; weak, passive father --you know how it goes. Genetic memory does have its limits. Personally, I was never one for denying your urges."

Yes, and several million people had paid the price.

Caldenia placed her thumbnail against the rim of the Mello Yello can and turned it. The metal squeaked. She popped the tab and neatly lifted the top off of the can. The edge of the cut was razor-sharp. She poured the contents into her teacup and drank, smiling.

"He's not repressed," I said. "He's spent the last two months marking every inch of what he considers his territory."

Caldenia raised her eyebrows. "You saw him?"

I nodded. Even in the dark Sean Evans was difficult to mistake for anyone else. It was the way he moved --a supple, powerful predator on the prowl.

"Did you get a glimpse of his equipment?"

"Honestly, now..."

Caldenia shrugged. "I just want to know if it's ample. A natural curiosity."

Sure, curiosity. "I have no idea. He was relatively modest about it and I didn't linger."

"There is your mistake." Caldenia sipped her tea. "Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero, my dear."

"I'm not interested in seizing any of Sean Evans' days. I just want him to stop the dog murderer."

"None of this is your problem, you know. The inn hasn't been threatened."

"These people are my neighbors." Yours, too. "They have no idea what they're dealing with. The killer is getting bolder. What if it kills a child next?"

Caldenia rolled her eyes. "Then whatever passes for law enforcement in this corner of the universe will deal with it. They will likely spectacularly fail, but the perpetrator either will stop to avoid attracting any more attention or perhaps the Senate will send someone to deal with it. Either way, my dear, not your problem."

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