Long-time readers of this site know I like to support and promote other writers. Today’s post introduces Deborah Taylor-French and the first in her Dog Leader mystery series. Deborah is an active arts educator, writer, and blogger. Read on to learn more about this author and her mystery series.
“Dogs, horses and a 12-year-old animal lover with justice in heart is the core of this engaging mystery.”
“Fell in love with Nevada. She’s a smart cookie!”
As an arts educator, Deborah has led over a hundred residences and teacher workshops. An active member of Redwood Writers, Deborah continues to serve as Author Support Facilitator. Redwood Writers is the largest branch of the California Writers Club.
I stood between Lee and Amy as we peered down the long driveway we believed led to Morton’s house. Enormous cypress trees lined the drive, the twisted trunks forming an opening to another world. Dead branches jutted over the dirt driveway, which seemed to go on forever. Thick dust cloaked everything as if no one had been here in ages. Dust slept on tangled tree roots and low branches. Dust clustered on top of the split-rail fence. The wood fencing stopped after four sections, giving way to rusted barbed wire strung between the trees, hammered into the aged trunks. The place had an eerie look. Broken branches like broken bones seemed to warn, Stay back—or you’ll be sorry.
“You’re wrong,” Lee grumbled. “Nobody lives here. We ran here for nothing.”
I muttered, “Um, we followed the map. Right?” I twisted the loop on Henry’s leash.
Hands on hips, Amy said, “It’s got to be the place.”
“Yep,” I said. “Lee, this matches the number on Morton’s envelope.” The numbers on the mailbox at 1505 Cider Springs had faded, and each missing numeral had left outlines in rust. That was not our problem.
On the way here, Amy had set a brisk pace. Complaining he didn’t like feeling sweaty, Lee had lagged behind the whole way. Now the three of us stood facing a sign: Private Property, No Trespassing. The freshly painted, all-caps letters had been underlined in red marker. A smaller Keep Out sign was tacked below, the letters sloppy and dripping.
In the dark cypress shade, I felt lost. Was there a house somewhere at the end of the drive? The driveway bent, leading out of sight. Then I spied tire tracks in the dirt, and my gut spun like a hamster on a wheel.
Lee ended our silence. “Too desolate. I say we go back.” He squinted at me from behind his rectangular glasses, which perched askew on his nose. “Race to the park gate?”
I snorted. “You think you might beat Amy? Or me?” I choked back a laugh because I needed his help. “Lee, aren’t you a tiny bit interested to see if Morton lives here?” I bent and gave Henry a splash of water from my bottle. “You said you wanted to have him arrested for animal abuse.”
Once I’d straightened, I smiled. “Don’t you think a no-trespassing sign is an invitation to adventure? Grand has ignored no-trespassing signs dozens of times to save abandoned pets.” Listening for any sign of interest, I noticed Amy standing motionless, squarely facing the gate. At least she was game.
Lee slouched on a gatepost. “Aw, you just made that up. No grown-up thinks that.”
I said with forced confidence, “Come on. Have a look.”
“Let’s not,” he said, flattening his stand-up hair.
Amy hissed, “Sure, stay here.” Then she ducked under the bar of the gate. “Nevada, let’s go.”
“No way am I going to stay behind,” he said hotly. “Here’s a plan: we keep to the trees and dodge out of sight if … if needed.”
“Okay, Professor. Let’s be invisible,” I said, sliding sideways under the bar of the locked gate. On leash, Henry followed under the bottom rail. Then Lee ducked low. All of us walked by the no-trespassing sign and into the trees.
I shivered in the chilly shadows as pinpricks of blue-green light dappled our faces. We wove our way around trees, over roots and dead branches. Then Amy said, “It’s odd that whoever lived or lives here didn’t take care of these …” I nodded, helping Henry around fallen tree trunks and low, sharp branches. A thicket of deadwood under old trees was a huge fire hazard. Even the fields to our left had not been mown as a fire-prevention precaution. The summer-dried grasses were as tall as Amy.
At last, the long drive ended the way I had hoped. “Hey, this is the place I told you about. Remember, I saw it from the cliff? A box-shaped house, a shed, and busted trucks. But where are the horses?” I didn’t see the starving dog or the blue van either.
Lee froze. “Did you hear that?”
“Sure,” Amy said, angling her chin toward a trickle of water that was slowly filling an old bathtub. The trickle built into a small stream and cut a gully through the pasture. As I listened to the spring, a short blowing noise made me jump.
“Ouch!” Lee yelped as I landed on his foot.
“Since when, Nevada, are you scared of horses?”
“Oh.” I turned and saw a skinny white horse. Ears pointed, riveted in our direction, the colt stood alert among the trees as if he were keeping out of sight too. After a minute, his ears flicked, and he relaxed, chewing a mouthful of grass. I gave a long exhale, relaxing too. Then I turned to my friends. They were studying the rundown house. A dense vine hung dangerously low over the front steps. I could only see the bottom of the doorway. Walls of cracked brown stucco and peeling trim boards made me think no one had been here for half a year.
Someone must have been here, though, because someone had slapped turquoise paint on a section of house trim and then left the paintbrush to stiffen. The bright color stuck out on the dead grass.
Fresh-cut firewood was stacked between the house and the shed. The shed’s door jutted open. Inside, a jumble of gas cans, stacks of junk, rags, and piles of newspaper made me gasp. “Those things—there—fire setters use them.” I pointed. “See? Right there.”
I brought Henry as I walked toward the shed to investigate.
When a dog snarled, Henry and I whipped around. Morton’s starving dog slunk out of the trees not far from the skinny white colt. The dog!
“We found the dog!” I cried.
The dog dashed toward the open front door. He made a pitiful spectacle, snarling and cringing. After circling Henry and me, he cowered. Too afraid.
Henry’s ears pricked. His nose pointed behind us.
A man charged out of the house. “What the hell?”
For a long moment, we froze in place.
Morton yelled, “Hell and damnation!” Hobbling toward the dog, he unleashed a string of swear words.
Henry burst into intense barking. The starving dog ran from Morton, cowering behind the woodpile. As the poor dog stood frozen in fear, Henry and I sprinted toward him. As we charged, I reminded myself that running at a scared dog was a stupidly dangerous thing to do. The hair on the dog’s back rose as he bared his fangs. Three feet from the woodpile we stopped. My heart banged a crazed rhythm.
Instead of biting, the starving dog flipped on his back. Whimpering, belly up, he seemed to say, Don’t hurt me.
“You can’t starve him anymore!” I yelled at Morton. “I’m rescuing him.”
Instead of answering, Morton hurried stiff-legged into the shed. When he strutted back out, he was carrying a shotgun. Red and purple lines spread over his shrunken apple of a face.
“Now I’ve got you, you little witch.” Pointing the shotgun at me, he laughed.
A part of me left my body, flying into the blue sky. This was crazy. Would Morton kill me? Over a dog? I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t budge.
“Get back,” he snapped, swinging his weapon toward Lee and Amy. Jerking the gun muzzle back at me, he said, “Get over there with them.”
“Okay.” Amy’s voice rang high-pitched. “We’ll leave now.”
“Too late. Can’t any of you morons read? This is private property.” Morton walked toward me. “Dammit. Move back, back with them.”
As he advanced, I walked backward, matching each of his steps with one of my own. Never taking my eyes from his weapon, I steadily pulled Henry’s leash. Henry was straining against the leash so much that he was suspended from his harness, his front paws hanging in the air, his muzzle fixed on Morton. My face flushed, and I stopped. Henry had the right idea.
I started walking toward Morton. “You won’t shoot.”
“Nevada,” Amy warned, “d-d-don’t be reckless.”
Morton grunted. I grunted back. Risking a sideways glance, I stumbled. Lee’s eyes stayed fixed on the shotgun. Before I knew what to do, Morton fired. The pellets hit the woodpile, sending pieces flying.
Morton chuckled as I raced to Amy and Lee. I urged, “Quick, into the woods.”
My ankle twisted, and I fell headlong into Amy and Lee. We all hit the ground together. My head landed on Lee’s arm, and my knee hit the hard pasture between Amy’s sprawled legs. The leash, looped over my wrist, dragged Henry on top of us.
Lee moaned, “Oh no, you broke my arm.” His face contorted in pain.
Again, a blast hit something. Not such a long way off.
“Don’t shoot!” I yelled. “Don’t shoot anymore.”
Amy untangled her leg from mine. Henry kept pulling tighter, struggling to get free. My ankles buckled. At last, I broke free, the leash stretched tight around my knees. Two seconds later, Morton walked out of the house, holding his weapon low in one arm. With the other hand, he pressed a phone to his ear. “Yes, I’ll wait for the officer,” he said with a crooked smirk.
Excerpt from Red Sky At Night by Deborah Taylor-French. Copyright © 2018 by Deborah Taylor- with permission of author. All rights reserved.