Authors: Elaine Orr
Tags: #Mystery: Cozy - Real Estate Appraiser - New Jersey
“I’ll be darned.”
I gave his back side a small push and he clambered onto the beach towel I had placed across the back seat. He sat very regally, as only a part-retriever can, while we rode the six or eight blocks to my house.
When the car came to a stop I turned to face him.
“I have to put your leash on in here, so you don’t get spooked and run.” His tail thumped the back seat.
We were in the house in less than a minute.
Less than ten seconds after we walked in, Jazz ran into the room so fast that she skidded on the hardwood floor and ran into Mr. Rogers’ leg. He leaned over and gave her a huge lick, something she has never permitted. It was a struggle to get the leash off, because Mr. Rogers seemed as excited as Jazz was.
Jazz turned and walked toward the kitchen and he followed her.
“Giving a tour?”
Ten minutes later they were both sitting on her round cat bed so I put a plastic table cloth next to it on the floor.
Mr. Rogers got onto the tablecloth and laid his head on Jazz’s bed and Jazz settled in next to his head.
So, I knew she really missed the dogs.
The test would be when I tried to sleep the night through.
THE EXPERIMENT WAS successful. Jazz and Mister Rogers had let me sleep all of Monday night.
I couldn’t have a dog at the house every night. I had to hope that Jazz would calm down now that she knew she could continue to see the dogs.
The breakfast dishes were piled in the sink and I had the back door propped open so Jazz and Mister Rogers could wander in and out on this sunny Tuesday.
The small yard was fenced. Jazz could probably jump up to the top of the chain link fence, but she likely would not. There were enough new things to explore in the small yard. And she’s not stupid. She knows where she eats.
I blew dry my hair, still thinking about what to do to make Jazz happy.
“It’s ridiculous,” I said aloud. “She’s a cat. They adjust.”
The back door banged into the wall and I turned off the hair dryer and walked into the kitchen.
Mr. Rogers was sitting inside near the door, tail wagging. Jazz had her head in the small coat closet that was just inside the back door.
I suddenly remembered Mister Rogers’ affinity for chipmunks.
He had brought them, uninjured, into the Cozy Corner a couple of times. They stayed for quite awhile. “Nuts.” I edged Jazz out of the way with my foot and opened the closet door fully.
I didn’t think I had put a black bag on the closet floor, so I bent over to look at it.
If skunks can smile, I’d swear this one was grinning at me.
THE ANIMAL CONTROL officer did not laugh when he arrived. He said he had seen people sitting on their kitchen tables several times. He also said he thought he knew this skunk, and that she’d had her scent glands removed.
“How do you
a skunk?” I glanced at his name tag. Sam York, Animal Control.
He reached down to pet her, and I inched away.
“Her name is Pebbles, and she belonged to Mrs. Peebles,” he said.
“So…she used to live here?”
That’s all I need. A skunk that wants to reestablish residency.
“Mrs. Peebles was very sad about leaving Pebbles, so I told her I’d see if she could get acclimated to the wild again.”
He looked up at me from his position crouching next to the skunk. “She wouldn’t have her defense mechanism, and she was used to being fed, so I wasn’t sure if a release would take.”
“So, where has she been?” I asked.
Jazz tried to poke her head under the skunk’s tail, and it obligingly lifted its rump off the floor.
Mr. Rogers kept his distance, head cocked.
“I took her home with me for a few days, to be sure she’d eat, and then I dropped her at that small wildlife refuge a couple miles from town.
I went by every day and fed her once. They’re used to eating two or three times a day. I figured if she got thinner, I’d know she couldn’t hack it.”
I looked at Sam.
His worn blue jeans and multiple tattoos did not make me think of someone who made sure pets were safe. Then I looked back at the plump skunk. “Obviously she ate well.”
“One day she didn’t show up to be fed.
I went back a couple of evenings. Once I thought I saw her with another skunk, but I couldn’t be sure.”
I stared at him.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a skunk in the wild. Except after they’ve been squashed and are on the shoulder.”
“They aren’t exactly nocturnal, but they keep out of humans’ way. Anyway, Sandy came not long after that, and I was so busy trying to match dogs and cats with owners, stuff like that, that I couldn’t look for her for awhile.” He kept stroking her, and reached down so Jazz could smell his hand. Mr. Rogers kept sitting on his haunches, panting lightly. “When I went back, I figured she’d either died in the storm or found some skunk buddies.”
“So, she survived the winter.”
“Guess so. Female skunks tend to burrow together. They don’t hibernate, but they go into torpor and just come out a few times to eat.” He grinned up at me. “And then I guess she found her way back.”
“Are you saying I have to keep her?”
I realized I had almost shrieked. “Sorry.”
“No, but they can be litter trained.
Pebbles was, and I’m almost sure this is her.” He frowned. “It’s odd, because they don’t really have a homing ability. I’m amazed she found her way back here. It’s about three miles.”
“Maybe she’s been making her way slowly, or maybe she’s been here for awhile and just came in because of Jazz and Mister Rogers.”
“They often make a den under a house or shed,” he said. “You could look around.”
I made a face.
Pebbles had settled back down, sitting with her front paws in front of her. Jazz sat next to her, and I looked up at Mister Rogers. He was not as sure of the situation, but he went a bit closer and then looked up at me.
I stared at Jazz.
Could Pebbles be a solution to Jazz’s loneliness?
And what in the hell do you feed a skunk?
“Does she stay indoors all day?”
“You’d pretty much have to keep her in unless you were here and aware of her.
Kind of like today, when the door was open.” His face acquired a grim expression. “There are always people who would freak if they saw her out there. Somebody might hurt her. Mrs. Peebles always kept her in during the summer.”
“And if it doesn’t work, just take her back to the sanctuary?”
“If it doesn’t work, call me.
I kind of like her, and she didn’t seem to mind being alone while I was at work.”
“You want her?” I asked, hopeful.
“I’d rather not unless I have to. I’m always bringing some injured dog or cat home.” He stood. “If she gets scared, instinct will have her raise her tail to spray, but nothing comes out.”
“A bit of good news,” I muttered.
Sam told me that pet skunks ate a lot of vegetables and something called Skunkie Delight, which was a mixture of various grains. He also told me that it was important to keep the litter clean. “They won’t go in a dirty box. I think Mrs. Peebles kept the box in that closet.” He nodded to the closet where I had found Pebbles.
I groaned and retrieved Jazz’s very small litter box from the bathroom and put it on a plastic trash bag in the closet.
Pebbles immediately used it. Used it waaaay more than my little cat would.
“You probably need a bigger litter box for her,” Sam said, as he left.
I DECIDED TO GO for all or nothing, and drove Mr. Rogers back to the Cozy Corner.
Aunt Madge was still laughing when I left, and it honestly sounded like a cackle. Then I stopped at the store for a large litter box and a huge tub of litter. Jazz might like the skunk, but no way would she share her box.
By the time I was done I also had some unsalted rice cakes and cheap frozen vegetables.
I was not about to buy her fresh broccoli. Then I realized I had better find some articles on skunk care. Maybe they could only eat fresh food.
I yelled and pounded the steering wheel with my fists. I didn’t need a skunk traipsing through my new house.
The man in the car next to me waved, and I realized it was Bill Oliver.
Probably here visiting his parents.
We were sitting at a stop light. He used the button to roll his window down, so I did the same. “Have some kind of issue, Ms. Gentil?” he asked, looking amused.
“Other than having to adopt a skunk for Jazz to play with, no.”
Bill threw back his head and laughed. The light turned green and the car behind him honked. He was still laughing when he drove away.
At least I’d given Bill a laugh.
He lost his younger brother not long ago. And he hadn’t cackled the way Aunt Madge did.
I was anxious to see the condition of my house after Jazz and Pebbles had been alone for about forty-five minutes.
They seemed very calm with one another, so I was hopeful.
There is no garage, but I had a small off-street parking area.
It hardly qualifies as a driveway, but at least it gets my car off the street. I squinted at the porch as I took the litter and pan out of my trunk. Much of the small front porch was hidden by an overgrown honeysuckle bush. It looked as if someone was sitting on the porch swing, but at dusk I wasn’t sure who it was.
At first I thought it might be Max, but a closer look told me it was Mr. Fitzgerald, and he appeared to be dozing.
Perhaps he had decided he’d like to see how his cousin’s former house looked now that I’d fixed it up more.
I left the heavy tub of litter next to my car and went up the short set of stairs.
I was trying to think of how to awaken Mr. Fitzgerald without startling him when I saw the blood. A lot of blood. It ran down the side of his head onto the porch swing cushion.
I SAT IN MY CAR trying not to be sick. Mr. Fitzgerald’s face had not looked peaceful. His grimace led me to think the blow that killed him really hurt. Not that it made much difference. He was dead either way.
“You doing better?” a woman’s voice asked.
I looked into the concerned face of Dana Johnson. “So so, but definitely better than twenty minutes ago.”
Dana had apparently been on patrol when the call came in, because she was at my house within two minutes of my finding Mr. Fitzgerald.
By that time I’d been standing by my car, crying and trying to dial 9-1-1. My hands were shaking, and luckily someone else had beat me to the call. I supposed they heard me scream and saw me run off the porch looking freaked out.
“There’s no need for you to sit out here.
I can drive you to the station, or to your aunt’s if you want. I think Sergeant Morehouse would be willing to talk to you there.”
“I need to check on my, um, pets.”
“It’s just your cat, right?” she said this in a tone that implied there was no way I was going in my house.
“Do you know Sam, the animal control guy?”
Half the unmarried women in Ocean Alley have tried to snag him.”
“He just introduced me to a skunk that used to…”
“Oh, good! You found Pebbles.” Dana called over to Sergeant Morehouse, who seemed to be directing a patrol officer to look for something. “Pebbles showed up here.” She looked back at me. “Just today, you mean?”
Am I the only person in town who didn’t know Mrs. Peebles had had a pet skunk?
Morehouse walked over.
“You said you were only gone about forty-five minutes?”
Just enough time to drop off Mister Rogers at the B&B and get some food for the skunk.”
“Did Fitzgerald bring the skunk earlier today?”
“No. Well, if he dropped her off he didn’t tell me. She came in from the backyard with Jazz and Mister Rogers. Why would he have had her?”
“You know how on TV the cops say they’re the ones who ask questions?”
I gave him what I hope he recognized as a look full of sarcasm.
He stared at me for a few moments and I could tell he was running through potential reasons I might be angry with Mr. Fitzgerald. I was fairly sure his gut would tell him I didn’t kill the poor man, but he’d have to be sure.
“You know him well?” he asked.
“I don’t think I met him before the auction last weekend, but if Aunt Madge said I met him when I was a kid I’d believe her.”
“And you weren’t expecting him?”
“No. Can I go see about Jazz and Pebbles? And I need to give Pebbles a bigger litter box.”
He was beginning to look amused, a side of him I rarely see.
“I think Mrs. Peebles used some sort of tray she bought at the hardware store. Bigger than a litter box.”
“How come everybody knows this skunk?” I asked, irritated.
“How many other pet skunks you know in Ocean Alley? And no, you can’t go in yet, but in a few minutes you can go in the back door.”
He walked away and Dana looked at me.
“I’m going back to the guys to help look for whatever someone used to hit the poor guy. Did you call your aunt or Ramona or…somebody?”
She had been about to say George.
“I’m calmer now. I’ll call Aunt Madge.”
Of course, there was no need.
Harry’s car honked and the tires screeched as he came to a stop.
I didn’t know Aunt Madge could sprint.
She stopped a few feet shy of me and looked at me critically.
“Charlotte Evans called me. Why on earth didn’t you?”
“Thanks for coming.”
It was better than saying something like, “Would you like to know how I am?”
“I’m going back to the guys,” Dana said, and walked quickly away.
Harry walked up just as Aunt Madge moved to me and leaned down to kiss my cheek.
“You’re okay,” he said, clearly relieved.
“What on earth happened?”
I told them about finding Mr. Fitzgerald and that I’d been sitting in the car since the police arrived.
“When Charlotte called she said you were crying hard. You didn’t even cry when you broke your wrist,” Aunt Madge said.
“Which one is she, anyway?”
I nodded to the small knot of people, mostly neighbors it seemed, who were behind police tape that had hastily been run from my porch to the street and across the yard to a tree at the corner of the small lot.
In response, Aunt Madge turned to the small group and called out, “Thanks,
The woman, who looked to be in her mid-forties, was trim and very attractive, with perfect blond hair.
Her dark pink slacks and cream top looked very expensive.
Come over if you need to.” She turned and walked toward the bungalow across from mine. Except it’s not a bungalow anymore. It has a second story, with balconies in the front and back and a huge deck.
“She and her husband own that beachwear and souvenir shop just off the boardwalk,” Aunt Madge said.
“Jolie!” A short woman who looked to be in her mid-sixties waved at me from the police tape and I walked over. I thought her name was Virginia, and I knew she lived behind me and over one. “How are the pets?”
“They’re okay as far as I know.
Did you hear Pebbles came back?”
She just stared at me, and a thin boy of about twelve who stood a few feet from
Virginia said, “I thought she got snuffed in the storm.”
She showed up earlier today.”
“I fed her when Mrs. Peebles was in the hospital for a couple of days,” he said.
“Gee, I may talk to you about that sometime.” I was anxious to get closer to the house. “Maybe…”
“I bet you don’t know how she got her name, do ya?”
“I did kind of wonder.”
I looked at him more closely. He had the look of every kid who wants you to guess a secret or answer a dumb knock-knock joke.