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       Clean Sweep, p.1

         Part #1 of Innkeeper Chronicles series by Ilona Andrews
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Clean Sweep
Page 1

 

  Chapter One

  Brutus was dead. His body lay under an oak on the Hendersons' lawn. A small group of neighbors had gathered around his corpse, their faces sad and shocked.

  It had been such a nice morning. The Texas summer had finally cooled a little, allowing for a light, happy breeze. Not a single cloud marked the blue sky, and the walk to the twenty-four-hour gas-station convenience store had turned out to be downright pleasant. Normally I didn't go shopping at the gas station at seven thirty on Friday morning, but when you run a bed-and-breakfast, it's a good policy to accommodate requests from your guests, especially if they've paid for a lifetime membership. So I gathered my blond hair in a ponytail, put on my flowered skirt and a pair of sandals, and hightailed it half a mile to the store.

  I was coming back, carrying my purchases, when I saw my neighbors gathered under the tree. And just like that, my happy day ground to a halt.

  "Hey, Dina," Margaret Pineda said.

  "Hello. " I glanced at the body. A second's worth of looking told me everything I needed to know. Just like the other two.

  Brutus hadn't been what you would call a good dog. An oversized black Chow Chow, he'd been suspicious of everyone, ornery, and often too loud for his own good. His chief activity when he'd managed to escape Mr. Byrne's yard had been hiding behind trash cans and exploding with thunderous barking at anyone who dared to walk by. But no matter how annoying he'd been, he hadn't deserved to die.

  No dog deserved to die this way.

  "Maybe it's a mountain lion," Margaret said. Tan, slight, with a fluffy cloud of dark, curly hair framing her face, Margaret was in her mid-forties. She looked at the body again and turned away, her fingers covering her mouth. "That's just terrible. "

  "Like, a real mountain lion?" Kayley Henderson raised her head from her phone. Being seventeen, Kayley lived for drama.

  David Henderson shrugged his shoulders. He was a heavy man, not fat, but thick around the middle. He and his wife owned a pool-supplies shop in town and did their best to parent Kayley, with mixed success.

  "Here? In a subdivision?" David shook his head.

  "Why not?" Margaret crossed her arms. "We've got owls. "

  "Owls fly," David pointed out.

  "Well, of course they fly. They're birds. "

  It hadn't been a mountain lion. A puma would've pinned the dog and bitten through the nape of his neck, then dragged him off or at least eaten the stomach and the insides. The thing that had killed Brutus had smashed his skull with a devastating blow. Then it had scoured the dog's sides and sliced open its abdomen, releasing the intestines, but hadn't taken a single bite. This was a territorial kill, left for everyone to find -- look how bad and clever I am.

  "That's the third dog in two weeks," Margaret said. "It has to be a mountain lion. "

  The first had been a lovable but dumb escape-artist boxer one street over. She'd been found the exact same way, disemboweled, behind the hedge by the mailboxes. The second had been a beagle named Thompson, a notorious lawn bandit who'd made it his life's mission to add a present to every patch of mowed grass. He'd been left in the shadow of a shrub. And now Brutus.

  Brutus had a lot of fur. Whatever had made those gashes in his sides had to have long claws. Long, razor-sharp, and growing from fingers with a lot of manual dexterity.

  "What do you think, Dina?" Margaret asked.

  "Oh, it's a mountain lion," I said. "Definitely. "

  David exhaled through his nose. "I'm done with this. I've got to take Kayley to school and open the store in fifteen minutes. Did anyone call Byrne?"

  Brutus was Mr. Byrne's pride and joy. He'd walk him every afternoon through the subdivision, beaming when people stopped to pay him compliments.

  "I did," Margaret told him. "He must've gone to take his grandkids to school. I left a message. "

  Hi, I'm so sorry to tell you your dog died in a horrible way. . . It had to stop. Now.

  A man strode up the street. He walked with a light spring in his step that said he could run and run very fast if he chose. Sean Evans. Just the devil I wanted to see.

  Sean Evans was a new addition to Avalon Subdivision. Rumor said he was ex-military. The rumor was probably right. In my experience, the ex-military guys came in two types. The first grew long hair, sprouted beards, and indulged in all the things they hadn't been able do while they'd been in the armed forces. The second did their best to pretend they never got out.

  Sean Evans belonged to the second category. His russet-brown hair was cut short. His square jaw was clean-shaven. Tall and broad-shouldered, he had a strong, fit body, honed by exercise to a lean, muscular precision. He looked like he could pick up a fifty-pound rucksack, run across the city with it, and then beat an ungodly number of enemies to a bloody pulp with his bare hands while things exploded dramatically in the background. He was said to be unfailingly polite, but something in his stare communicated a clear "don't mess with me" message.

  "Sean!" Margaret waved. "We've got another dead dog!"

  Sean made a slight adjustment to his course, heading straight for us.

  "He's so hot it's sick," Kayley volunteered.

  David turned purple in the face. "The man's twenty-seven years old. That's too old for you. "

  "I didn't say I wanted to date him, Dad. Jeez. "

  For me hotness was a complicated matter involving brains, humor, and some other things, but all that aside, I was willing to admit Sean Evans was nice to look at. Unfortunately, in light of the events two nights ago, he was also the prime suspect for the dog killings.

  Sean stopped and looked at Brutus. As he glanced up, I checked his eyes. They were amber, a particular shade of brown with a touch of a golden hue, almost orange in the sunlight, and they were surprised. He hadn't killed Brutus. I let out a quiet breath.

  A black SUV pulled around the bend. Mr. Byrne. Oh no.

  The Hendersons beat a strategic retreat while Margaret waved at the SUV. Sean looked at the dog some more, shook his head, and sidestepped the body. He was about to take off. Stopping him and catching his attention was a terrible idea. Getting involved in this whole dead-dog affair in any way was an even worse idea. But the alternative was to do nothing. I'd done nothing the first two times, and the serial murderer of the dogs showed no signs of stopping.

  "Mr. Evans?" I called. "A moment of your time?"

  He looked at me as if he'd never seen me before. "Do I know you?"

  "My name is Dina. I own the bed-and-breakfast. "

  He glanced past me at the old house sitting at the mouth of the subdivision. "That monstrosity?"

  Aren't you sweet? "Yes. "

  "What can I do for you?"

  In the street, the SUV screeched to a halt. Mr. Byrne stepped out. A short, older man, he seemed to shrink even more as he approached his dog's body. His face had gone white as a sheet. Both Sean and I looked at him for a brief second.

  "How long do you intend to let this continue?" I asked quietly.

  Sean frowned. "I don't follow. "

  "Something is obviously killing dogs in your territory. One would think you would want to take care of that. "

  Sean fixed me with a thousand-yard stare. "Ma'am, I don't know what the hell you're talking about. "

  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 loo
ked 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.
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