“Mom, how do you spell puppy?”
My shoulders slumped along with my sinking heart, but I cloaked my dismay with instruction. “Sound it out, honey.”
My son, Jared, and I sat at the kitchen table. Fresh from the tub and clothed in his red and blue checked pajamas, he was working on his Christmas-wish list, my suggestion to encourage him to write. He wasn’t an enthusiastic writer, laboring, afraid to make a mistake. I wished he didn’t take it so seriously. I pretended to read the newspaper while I watched him concentrate, his tongue caught between his teeth poking out of the corner of his mouth, his fingers pressing down with enough pressure to break the point.
Jared pushed his list across the table. “Here. Tell Santa that’s all I want.” He scooted off the chair and ran into his bedroom.
“I’ll be in to read you a story,” I said.
“I can read it myself.”
Self-sufficiency. What every mother hopes for her children, but I’d miss that time snuggled together reading his favorite stories. “Okay, but I’ll tuck you in soon.”
“K.” Text-speak, but at least he’d agreed. Soon, he’d just grunt a quick “Good night” when he thought getting tucked in was too babyish.
I read his list. Just two items. A computer game and a puppee. Out of the mouth of babes. Yep, just what I wanted in my house. A pup, who would pee in every corner. Like every other baby, the puppy would need time, training, love, and nurturing—and forgiveness and patience for all the “mistakes” he would make. It didn’t seem long ago I’d heaved a sigh of relief when Jared succeeded basic training. Could I go through that again with a dog?
The next morning, I walked Jared up the road to the bus stop. After he got on, I refrained from waving goodbye, a gesture sure to embarrass him, when the bus pulled away. My shift as a Deputy Sheriff for Dare County’s District “C” Sheriff’s office on Hatteras Island started in fifteen minutes—enough time to walk back to the house, grab my gun out of the safe, and don my hat. As I passed my neighbor’s house, Ellen Potter waved to me from the upper deck.
“Sue, there’s something suspicious in the swamp. I don’t think it’s good.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are three large packages tied up in the middle of the swamp. Someone must have dumped them there. Maybe it’s garbage, but there are flies. Buzzards are circling.” She pointed up at the sky.
I looked to where she pointed. Three turkey vultures, their red heads distinctive, flew over the swamp, which bordered Ellen and Greg’s property on one side. From the road, I could see the cattails and swamp grass parted and bent over revealing a path. Jared and I had walked past the swamp on the way to the bus stop. I’d failed to notice the path due to Jared’s monologue, sounding more like a defense attorney’s closing argument, to convince me this was a “puppy” Christmas.
Someone had dragged those packages back into the swamp. A gut feeling told me they weren’t filled with garbage. I doubted I’d find footprints. Not only was the swamp wet enough to fill in any impressions, but covered in vegetation, no prints would stick. “I’m going to check in with the station and get my boots, Ellen. I’ll be back in a minute. Would you take pictures on your phone from the top deck and send them to me?” Getting an overview of the scene could reveal evidence.
“Sure,” Ellen said. She clutched her robe, turned, and disappeared into the house. I noticed she walked with a slight limp.
I radioed the dispatcher about Ellen’s summons so it would get officially on the record, and then called my boss, Sergeant Perkins, who, after I explained my task, logged me in on the timesheet. My waterproof boots and CSI kit were in the trunk of my squad car. I had a feeling I’d need both. My cell phone rang and buzzed as I parked on the road by the swamp. I answered the call first.
“Where are you?” Woody, my intended asked. He was also a Deputy Sheriff.
“Didn’t even make it out of my road this morning.” I told him what I was investigating. “May be nothing.”
“I’m on Cape Hatteras Drive. Seems someone rifled through some cars—Christmas shopping. I’ll swing by on my way to the station.”
“K.” Seemed I was adopting Jared’s text-speak.
After clicking off from Woody, I checked my messages. Ellen’s pictures had arrived and looked much as she described. Not good. I pulled on my boots and walked through Ellen and Greg’s yard laterally to where the packages lay. If there was evidence left by whoever dragged them through the swamp, I’d rather approach from the side or back to avoid obliterating it. The smell of death increased the nearer I approached as did the quantity of blowflies. I tied a handkerchief around my face and pulled on gloves. The first package held a large dead dog. The second package held another large dead dog, nearly identical to the first. The third package revealed a dead man. He looked about forty-five, Caucasian, dark hair, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt. I aborted my mission, covered the bodies, and retraced my steps to the yard.
Ellen stepped onto the grass dressed in sweats.
“Is this the first time you saw the packages in the swamp?” I asked.
Creases formed on her forehead. “Of course, Sue. I would have reported them as soon as I saw them—and I did.”
I nodded. I’d known Ellen and Greg for about eight years. They’d bought the house as a vacation home, but two years ago decided to move to Hatteras Island permanently, having retired from their mainland jobs. I knew Ellen had been an English teacher. To adapt to the island economy, they worked for a pool and spa company servicing rental homes “Did you hear any vehicles last night?”
“No, but then the wind started up after the sun went down. Our deck furniture blew around clanking. Greg came out about nine and brought a lot of it inside. After that, we conked out. I heard the garbage guys pass through about five a.m., got up around six, but I didn’t go out on the deck until just before you came by. I would have called the station if I hadn’t seen you.” She paused. “Well, what did you find?”
At sixty, Ellen had me by twenty-five years. She expected an answer, as if I were a student of hers. I deflected her question with one of my own. “Is Greg home?”
“Get him, and then wait here. I may have a few more questions for you.” She nodded and left, walking with a limp. I walked to my car, phoned in my findings, and asked for the medical examiner.
Woody tried to snap his fingers, but the plastic gloves he wore hampered the gesture. “Pool cover. Remember those?”
“Yep, don’t use them much anymore. Before pool heaters got popular, people used them at night to retain solar energy warming the water during the daylight.” It sounded like a green solution, but I’d also heard they were labor intensive. Perhaps what the pool covers saved in energy was lost in labor. I examined the cover. “Looks frayed. It’s old.” I shifted my eyes to examine the corpse. “Looks like a single shot through the heart. Close range.”
“I’d say so,” Woody concurred. His eyes shifted to something glinting on the pool cover.
I bent my knees into a squat to look closer. “Get me a tweezers and vial out of the CSI kit, Woody.”
“We’ll find out. Looks like a diamond, maybe cubic zirconia.”
“So, whose is it?”
“That’s the question, along with who is missing a pool cover.”
Ellen and Greg waited for us, sitting on the steps leading up to their first floor. I greeted and introduced them to Woody. “You work for a pool and spa company?” I asked, addressing both of them.
Ellen and Greg nodded. “Happy Island Pools and Spas,” Greg said.
“Do any of your pools use the old bubble covers?”
“One and only when the cheap owner is in residence. Wind Breeze. It’s an Avon ocean-front house on Gulls Cry.”
Ellen grimaced when Greg said the street name. I lifted my eyebrows and tilted my head.
“Oh, don’t mind me. But that street name is all wrong. It should either be ‘Gull’s Cry’ or Gulls’ Cries,’ but that just the grammarian in me.”
I had to laugh, knowing Ellen’s former profession. “Have you had any problems with dogs on your route?”
Ellen sputtered and smacked her hands on her thighs. “Problem with dogs—you betcha—just this week. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of this renter. I know the island’s leash law is only enforced in public places and that rental homes are considered the private property of the renter, but really—if the tenant rents a house with a pool and spa, wouldn’t you’d think they’d welcome the crew servicing them? We clean and make sure the chemicals provide sanitation. It’s for their protection. A few years back, an elderly man in Nags Head caught Legionnaire’s disease and died.”
“Was this at Wind Breeze?”
“Nope. We service three houses on that road. Wind Breeze has the old pool cover. The rental house with the dogs is named Ocean Annie’s,” Ellen replied.
“This past Tuesday, two days ago?” I asked.
“What happened then?”
“Greg and I decided to service the house early to avoid the tenant, but no! It was as if he anticipated us coming and was waiting for us. As soon as we got out of the car, we heard a loud crack, like someone clapping their hands together loudly—like a gunshot—the dogs ran out of the house toward us without restraint. It was like the renter purposely sicced the dogs on us. Greg went into “fight mode.” I went into “flight mode.” I dove into the car and ended up injuring my leg. I was so mad. We heard him laughing at us. Then I called our boss, Haley Zagorsky, and told her I wouldn’t service that house.”
“Did you go back?”
“Nope, I don’t know if Haley serviced the house herself or let it go. It was a midweek check, not a full service, but I bet she did. We’ll have to go back on Saturday to do a full service, but we’ll wait until the renter checks out and is gone—packed up with the dogs—and off the island.”
The rumble of the medical examiner’s van on the road broke up our questioning, but I thought we’d gotten all the information we could from Ellen and Greg. I knew my neighbors. They aren’t stupid people. Ellen wouldn’t have been so forthcoming about the dog incident on their work route if they’d been guilty. What concerned me—why had the bodies been dumped in the swamp beside Ellen and Greg’s house?
Before leaving Ellen and Greg, we received directions to Haley and Burt Zagorsky’s residence, where they ran their home-based business. We parked Woody’s cruiser at my house. Absorbed in the investigation, I asked Woody to drive, so I could think aloud. As usual, we spoke in short hand to each other mapping our way and following our instincts on what to investigate. Theft was the most common crime on the island. Murder was rare.
“We’ll have to go over that pool cover for fingerprints,” I said.
“There could be a lot of prints. None of which could point to the identity of the killer.”
“True, but if we get other evidence, maybe it will corroborate it,” I said. “Wonder if we’ll get bullets from the bodies or if they went straight through?”
“Wonder where the shootings occurred?”
“We’ll have to go over to those rental houses and scan for evidence.”
“Bet whoever did the shooting sloshed pool or spa water over the blood.”
“We can get traces.”
“Have to talk with the medical examiner about time of death. I’d guess Wednesday, maybe late Tuesday. Ellen and Greg saw the renter on Tuesday morning, and today’s Thursday. After we talk with Haley and Burt, we’ll head up to the rental houses. Find out if the pool cover to Wind Breeze is missing.”
“Is that a stupid name for a house, or what?”
I laughed. Many of the homes’ names were redundant, convoluted, or just plain corny.
Woody changed the subject when he asked, “What are you getting Jared for Christmas?”
I answered with a strangled moan. “He wants a dog! A puppy.”
Woody smiled, and I would have hit him if he hadn’t said, “Join the club. Cindy wants a puppy, too.”
His comment brought to mind an apparition I’d experienced the last few Christmases. I sure didn’t consider myself Scrooge, but for some reason Pamela, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound, visited me. I never told a soul for obvious reasons, but at this time of year whenever Christmas wishes abounded, Pam was sure to haunt me. I didn’t fear her, but I questioned my sanity. Was she a figment of my imagination or did she exist? If so, did sprites have spirits? Did she work with Santa Claus? Of course, I no longer believed in Santa, but why did she appear at Christmas? Did she work for the Big Guy? With angels? I stopped my spinning thoughts and put my mind on the case.
We slowed down on Route 12 trying to find the entrance to the Zagorsky’s home. Woody turned onto an unpaved road leading through the woods to cleared land where we found the home and the Zagorskys outside cleaning spa filters. They looked up as we parked, dropped the filters on the grass, and walked over to us.
After introducing ourselves, I told them we’d had an incident involving one of the rental houses they serviced.
Their faces inquisitive, Haley asked, “Which one?”
“Ocean Annie’s,” Woody said.
Haley inhaled and put her hands on her hips. “Did Ellen Potter make a complaint?”
“Complaint?” I asked.
“Ellen said the renter sicced his dogs on them. She wouldn’t service the house. She claimed the renter wouldn’t control his dogs, and she threatened to sue the guy. I guess reporting the incident was her way of getting a complaint on record when she sues.” Haley shook her head. “I think Ellen is paranoid of dogs.”
“Did you go to the house?”
“No. It was just a midweek chemical check. That pool hasn’t had any issues all summer, and since the temperatures are cooler now, I doubt if it’s been used at all. I let it go.”
I was about to ask her about the spa service when a car drove into the driveway. A young man got out. His eyes questioned our presence. Haley gestured him over. “This is our son, Ian.”
“Did someone turn in your missing diamond, Mom?”
After tucking Jared in for the night, I wandered out to the dock behind my house, which backed up to Pamlico Sound. I shook my head and looked out over the mirrored surface of the water illuminated under the moon’s light. The case had been solved in record time.
Out of the mouth of babes—again. Poor Ian. I wondered if he’d ever forgive himself, but the fact was that Haley hadn’t known where she’d lost the diamond so she just told him “no” without having a clue that it would implicate her.
The missing diamond was probable cause enough for the judge to sign and take a picture of the search warrant. She sent it to me via text messaging. The ring setting we found in their house matched the diamond. The old pool cover not only had Haley’s fingerprints, but the victim’s blood had also served as ink for them. The handgun we found hidden in the Zagorsky home matched the medical examiner’s statement on the bullets’ caliber.
Haley claimed Ellen was dog-phobic, but I knew that story was a lie. I’d seen Ellen give snacks to my neighbors’ dogs from the treats she kept in her car. She even gave milk bones to one neighbor’s rescued pit bulls, who I’m apprehensive about approaching.
Once confronted with the evidence, Haley was remorseful about trying to frame Ellen and Greg for the murder by dumping the bodies next to their house. Her claim of self-defense was substantiated by the bite marks on her ankles. Woody took pictures of the bites. I didn’t know if it would hold up in court, but then that wasn’t my job.
I sat down and lay back on the dock looking up at the stars. Like a gift to its residents, Hatteras Island was free of light pollution, one of the few places on the East coast left from which to view the stars. A light show of Christmas reds, greens, blues, and golds appeared in the sky. I should have been delighted, but I knew what was coming—or should I say—who.
I sat up fast. Pam, the Sprite of Pamlico Sound, descended from the sky with a zip of squiggly light. Iwas glad that the case had been solved and without Pam’s “help.” The slinky red dress she wore showed every curve and bulge. There ought to be a law, I thought—one I’d be willing to enforce. I smiled thinking about handing her a ticket. Her booties matched the dress, and on the top of her gray curls a Santa’s hat sat, complete with white pompom, but she wasn’t alone. A large dog, who reminded me of Nana from Peter Pan, alighted the dock beside Pam. She saw my smile. “Sue, glad to see you’re in a good mood.”
“Just dreaming, Pam.”
“Sugar plum fairies?”
“Nope. Who’s your friend?”
“Oh, this is Nana, the island dogs’ guardian angel.”
“Who do you think they based the character on?”
Before I could respond, Pam said, “Be a good hostess and get Nana and me some of that Evan Williams and Christmas cookies.”
“This has been an especially trying season for Nana. I’ll explain once you return with our refreshments.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I lurched off the dock wondering what fresh hell awaited me with this visit. From instructions I’d received previously from Pam, I poured Evan Williams whiskey into a shot glass, cut a straw to shorten its length and put it in the glass, then I got a bowl from the cupboard and poured two shots into it. Balancing a plate of cookies and the drinks, I reported for duty and set the treats on the dock.
Pam and Nana wasted no time diving into the cookies and slurping up the whiskey. Once they had finished, I dared to ask, “What’s up?”
“I ran into Nana at our Christmas party last night. She must place two new puppies in homes for Christmas, and since Jared and Cindy have asked for puppies for Christmas, I assured her that you and Woody would be great dog parents to these unfortunate dogs.”
I didn’t respond right away since I was imagining a Christmas Party for sprites and angels, but I expunged those thoughts with a blink. “You went out of your way to help.” I turned my back to them and hid my rolling eyes, but then spun around to face them. “Why unfortunate?”
“The puppies are old souls who had violent and disturbing deaths.”
“Here on the island?”
“Yes, just this week.”
“Oh no, those were bad dogs.” I blurted and crossed my arms.
Nana lifted her large head and started to growl. Was my statement politically incorrect or was she was a bad drunk?
Pam leaned down to Nana and gave her a reassuring pat. “Now, Sue, you know good and well there are no such things as bad dogs. Bad dogs are the result of bad owners. They may develop bad habits if they aren’t trained properly, but I know you and Woody will do great jobs as dog owners. And I know you’ll train Jared to be a good dog owner just as Woody will do with Cindy.”
“Are they the same breed as those other two dogs? They were almost identical.”
“No—new life, new bodies. I’ll leave it up to you to tell Woody of my decision. They’re so cute!”
Her decision? I shook my head. I didn’t want to see the dogs, but before I could protest Nana untucked two puppies from her legs on the dock. Cute bundles of cuddly fur pierced my defenses, and I stooped down to pet them. The German Shephard stumbled over his paws in his effort to lick my hand. Cindy would love the Corgi. I put my hands on my hips and faced Pam. “This is blackmail, you know.”
Pam smiled. “You’re so full of it, Sue. I know you’re smitten. Now be sure to get all the supplies you need for the puppies. They’ll arrive early on Christmas morning. I’ll sign you and Woody up for dog obedience training. The specifics will be in your stocking. Take the kids so you’ll all learn together. Merry Christmas!” She clapped her hands together and rose, taking on speed as she disappeared in the sky. Nana lumbered to her feet, tucked the puppies beneath her, and gave me a defiant glare. Squatting, she doused the dock before bounding into the sky like a shaggy, fat reindeer. Her editorial comment was received.
I rolled my eyes. “Merry Christmas, Pam, Nana.” I scooted around the dog pee and figured it was meant to be, a sign of the New Year. The renter’s arrogance and poor stewardship of his dogs resulted in all of their deaths. Maybe those dogs needed forgiveness and redemption. After all, wasn’t that a Christmas lesson? I walked into the house. A shot of Evan Williams awaited me.