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.