To Die Fur (A Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Mystery)By: Dixie Lyle
A white crow soared past me and landed on a headstone. “Hey, guys.”
“Hey yourself,” I replied. Eli was the closest thing I had to a boss, though his preferred style of management was mysterious pronouncements, indirect hints, and a refusal to talk about his own boss or bosses. I was pretty sure he was more than just a dead bird.
“Anything I should know about?” I asked him.
“Sure. All kinds of things. But let’s concentrate on the here and now.”
Okay, mysterious and a little smart-ass. But overall I liked Eli; he had that balance of being dedicated to his job while not taking himself too seriously that the best bosses have. He cared about what he did, and about how it was done; he put principles before pragmatism, often letting me figure things out on my own rather than just telling me the answer. I trusted him.
“Fine by me,” I said. “How’s the prowler situation? Topsy behaving herself?” “Prowlers” was what we called restless animal spirits, ones who weren’t ready to cross over into their own afterlife but were drawn to the Crossroads; they were often zoo or circus animals, not quite pets but not wild, either. Topsy was one of these, an elephant who’d been dead for over a century. She and I had had our differences, but we’d come to an agreement and she hadn’t bothered me since.
“Topsy’s fine. She’s taken to following Two-Notch around.”
Now, that was interesting. Two-Notch was another prowler, a shark from a tourist attraction who wasn’t quite convinced she was dead. She liked to patrol the perimeter of the graveyard, seeing the fence as the glass wall of an aquarium—she wouldn’t go beyond it. Ghosts weren’t restricted to the grounds of the graveyard itself, but few ventured past its borders. “An elephant tailing a shark. Am I going to have to break up some sort of interspecies conflict?”
[It may not be a conflict at all,] said Whiskey. [Elephants are social creatures. Perhaps she’s simply lonely.]
I tried to picture that, and failed. “What possible common ground could they share? One’s a carnivore, the other’s an herbivore. One breathes air, the other water. One has legs, the other fins.”
[Don’t elephants also enjoy swimming?]
“Sure, that’s a topic that’ll last. ‘What’s your favorite stroke? I like to pachyderm-paddle with my trunk above water.’ ‘Really? I just wiggle my tail.’”
“I hate to break up this fascinating conversation,” Eli said, “but I don’t think Two-Notch and Topsy are going to be a problem. Your new guest at the zoo might be, though.”
That made me blink. “The liger? How could he be a problem?”
“He’s not. Not as long as he stays among the living.”
There’s something you need to know about me. I take pride in my work. Regardless of what it is I’ve been asked to do, I do it to the best of my ability. I like to think I take direction well, and I don’t have a problem with authority.
I do resent it when someone implies that I could do better—especially when it’s a job they couldn’t do themselves. I’m fine with a talking crow giving me orders about looking after a haunted graveyard full of animal spirits; it’s when he comments on my day job that I get a little prickly. “Are you insinuating we’re not taking good care of him?” I said. “I’ve been arranging his accommodations, ordering his food, researching his history, and studying his biology. The only way I could pay more attention to him would be to do a full MRI scan and hire a professional biographer to write his memoirs.”
Eli eyed me in that skeptical way crows have, like they’re about to ask you for ID. “I’m sure you’re being very thorough. But it’s not your abilities I’m worried about. Someone may try to kill the liger.”
“I can’t tell you that. Let’s just say that his death would have certain consequences that wouldn’t be good for the Crossroads.”
Eli speaks fluent Cryptic. I’m still not used to it, and it’s always annoying as hell. “Can you be a little vaguer? I think a few stray facts might have found their way into your explanation when you weren’t looking.”
“You know I can’t. Have you talked to him yet?”
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. “He just got here. Tango took off before I could ask her to translate.”
“I see,” he said. There was both gentle amusement and the slightest tinge of disappointment in those two words. Damn, he was good.
“I’ll get right on it,” I said. “Anything else?”
Like I said, mysterious and indirect. But I knew all I’d get would be frustrated if I tried questioning him further, so I just smiled, said, “Then I’ll go find Tango,” and left.
Two jobs. Two bosses. Two very different things, right?
I had no idea those two worlds were about to crash into each other.
* * *
Whiskey and I exited the graveyard and went into the mansion. Tango could be just about anywhere, but I thought I’d try her food dish first. Ben Montain, our resident chef, was the one who fed her; when I checked the kitchen, I found him but not her. Ben was staring out the window beside the big stainless-steel counter he chopped vegetables on, a dreamy look on his face. He had a good face for that, too: strong but sensitive, the kind of face you could imagine on a cowboy or a poet. Sandy-blond hair, dark eyes. The Native American blood in him wasn’t obvious, not at first, but now that I knew his ancestry I found it easier and easier to see; something about his cheekbones and how his eyes were set.