“You do exist,” I mused aloud, staring at the tailless squirrel standing in the path in front of me. I hadn’t really believed Mildred when she’d said that finding a squirrel was the reason for coming to Raven’s Nest, but now that I’d laid eyes on it myself, I realized she’d been telling the truth.
Standing on his hind legs, the grey rodent, front claws clasped atop his white pot belly, watched me intently as though he knew I was talking about him.
I smiled at the cute, furry fellow. “Hello.”
“Fuck off,” he chattered and skittered off into the underbrush.
“Well that could have gone better,” Conroy drawled.
I was tempted to hurl the owl necklace after the foul-mouthed squirrel.
Realizing Sol was studying me, I glanced over at him and offered a weak smile.
“You’ve never seen a squirrel before?” he asked.
“Never a tailless one.” I once again began walking down the path leading to the office.
“That’s Garret.” Sol matched my pace. “Tess feeds him.”
“So he’s tame?” If that was the case, catching him would be infinitely easier.
Sol shrugged. “Are any of us?”
We rounded a bend in the path, and I recognized the cobweb-draped office. Unlike when I’d been there earlier, the dilapidated building now had lights on, inside and out. The faint murmuring of voices floated to me across the night sky.
“Well, I made it,” I said to Sol, gesturing at the building. “You’ve done your job as tour guide. Thank you for helping me navigate the dangers of the wild.”
He made a slight bow in my direction as an acknowledgement of his dismissal and began to retrace his route back toward where he’d found me.
With one last sweep of my beam to see if I could spot Garret, the tailless squirrel, I turned off my flashlight and used the glow of the yellow lightbulbs to climb the steps of the office, taking care to avoid the softest spots of rotting wood. Opening the door, I was temporarily blinded against the light inside.
“Is that the smoosher?” someone called out.
“Hush,” a woman’s voice replied.
“Are you the one who smooshed Keith?” the first voice continued. “Are you the smoosher?”
I blinked until I could focus on the source of the questions.
A boy, about ten, was staring at me, waiting for my answer.
“Yes, Ronnie,” Ernie, who stood directly behind the child, said. “She’s the smoosher.”
I shot the grizzled old man a dirty look.
The boy ran up to me, wide-eyed. “Did he smoosh like a bug or a worm?”
Tearing my gaze from his, I looked around the room for some assistance in dealing with the situation. Tess was seated behind her desk and Marco was perched on a corner of it, fussing with his moustache. Joe and Norma were nowhere to be seen. I focused on the skinny, stringy-haired woman standing in the corner, arms crossed, scowling at me. I assumed the child belonged to her.
“Did he go crunch like a beetle?” Ronnie continued, cracking his fingers to mimic the sound, “or just splat like a worm?” He made a terrible moist sucking sound into his cupped palm.
I wondered if these were the kinds of questions a serial-killer-in-training would make.
I looked to the woman to intervene, but she was too busy staring daggers at me to care for her child.
The boy looked at me expectantly.
I wanted to reply “Thump, thump,” but I knew that however tempting, it wasn’t an appropriate response.
“Leave the woman alone, Ronnie,” Tess said tiredly. “She’s had an upsetting evening.”
I looked in her direction to convey my gratitude, but she was holding her head in her hands.
The door to the office opened behind me and I looked over my shoulder to see Sol entering. He moved quietly to stand in the corner opposite the kid’s mother.
Joe, who’d mercifully put on a shirt that stretched tight over his beer belly, followed him inside. “Norma is traumatized.”
“Nothing a bottle of whiskey won’t fix,” Ernie opined. “She’s good at emptying those.”
Even though he seemed to have a smart mouth, I found myself liking the grizzled old man and I had to swallow a grin.
“Don’t you start, Ernie—” Joe began, outraged. “My wife is a good woman.”
Ernie pointedly ignored him and turned his attention to me. “What’s your name, lady?”
“Smoosher!” Ronnie called out. “The Great Smoosher! The Mighty Smoosher! The Great and Mighty Smoosher. Keith’s Smoosher. Or maybe—”
“RV,” I said quickly, hoping to shut the kid up.
“As in recreational vehicle?” Ernie asked.
“Sounds like an alias or something,” Ronnie’s mother scoffed.
I gave her a hard look, not appreciating that she’d chosen to interject herself into the conversation by besmirching my character. She looked away nervously.
“Queen Smoosher,” Ronnie declared, pumping his fist into the air for emphasis.
“RV,” I corrected.
“Queen Smoosher,” the boy countered.
“I don’t believe she wants to be called that, Ronnie,” Sol said quietly from his corner of the office.
“Poof!” the boy yelled. “Why don’t you make yourself disappear, Magic Moron!”
Sol’s nose twitched and his hands curled into fists.
“Get him out of here, Karen,” Tess said through gritted teeth.
Behind me, the door behind swung open so hard, it bounced on its tired hinges.
Startled, all eyes, flew to it.
Corporal Welmont, chest puffed out like a bird performing a mating ritual, strode in and surveyed the occupants. “Where is she?”
“Who?” Marco, the astronomer, asked.
“The owner of the vehicle that sits on top of Keith Sciretta’s body,” Welmont replied, milking his grand entrance for all it was worth.
I fought the urge to roll my eyes.
“She’s standing right there, Crack Investigator,” Ernie felt the need to point out. “First you can’t see the hole in Keith’s head and now you don’t see the woman in front of your face.”
Tess made a choking noise, like she was trying to cover up a chuckle.
Welmont glared at Ernie, then at me.
I tried to keep my expression neutral, not wanting to antagonize him. The sooner he finished his investigation, the sooner I could focus on trapping Garrett. And that would put me one step closer to ridding myself of Mildred Bloodworth for eternity.
“That’s the Queen Smoosher!” Ronnie yelled, pointing me out.
“This is no place for a child,” Tess said through gritted teeth.
“But—” Karen began to protest.
“I’m sure Welmont can find you if he has any questions,” Tess bulldozed on. “Isn’t it past the boy’s bedtime?”
“I don’t have a bedtime.” Ronnie stomped his feet and stuck out his tongue at the campground’s owner.
“Get the brat out,” Tess ordered.
Karen rounded on her. “Don’t you talk about my kid like that.”
“Yeah,” Ronnie added. “You’re not the boss of me.”
Tess rose to her feet and pinned the child with a gaze so icy it sent a chill down my spine. “Careful, Ronnie,” she warned. “You’re on the verge of getting what’s coming to you.”
“Did you hear that, Corporal?” Karen asked, practically batting her eyes at Welmont. “She just threatened my son.”
“She wasn’t threatening him,” Sol said, stepping in to attempt to diffuse the situation. “Everyone’s upset about Keith’s death. Just take Ronnie home.”
“He’s in danger,” Karen insisted, wringing her hands. “I know he is, because the last words I heard Tess say to Keith were, “You’re going to get what’s coming to you” and now he’s dead.”