Too Many Skeletons To Count
Jazzi Zanders wiped sweat from her brow. They were starting to tame the overgrown yard, but it was hot work. The heat and humidity had risen steadily through the day. She’d pulled her thick, honey-colored hair up off her neck, securing it in a sloppy knot, but strands escaped and curled. Her sleeveless tee stuck to her, accenting her boobs and cleavage. Couldn’t be helped, but her boobs always distracted Ansel. The contractor had taken off his shirt, and perspiration coated his golden tan. His rippling muscles proved every bit as much of a diversion to her, but she’d known Ansel for years, and his live-in girlfriend would give them both hell if they did more than look.
Jerod walked to the cooler to grab another bottle of water. Her cousin was shirtless, too, but marriage and children had softened his rangy frame. He was as tall as Ansel, and as strong, but not as defined. His shoulders were beginning to sunburn, so he pulled on his T-shirt.
“I’ve trimmed up all the bushes. Now I’m raking up the debris.” He glanced at the saplings Jazzi and Ansel had dug out of the long hedge that ran along the back patio. George, Ansel’s pug, had supervised, as usual. Ansel took the dog everywhere with him. “I’m thinking we might as well tackle the weedy area beside the barn next.”
All three of them had stared at the huge rectangle of weeds that spread on the far side of the barn. Had someone planted a garden there at one time and then let it go wild? Wild berry bushes and maple starts mingled with golden rod and Queen Anne’s lace. They’d carted the back hoe with them today to clear out the area.
Jazzi and Jerod might have gotten this place cheap at auction, but they’d earn any profit they made when they flipped it. It was far enough from town, and the gravel drive bumpy enough, not many people bid on it. The grass was high, the landscape a mess, but the house was in decent shape. And there was a barn.
The original owner had retired to sunshine and beaches. He’d rented it out, thinking he might want to move back sometime, but winters didn’t appeal him to these days. He wanted a quick sale. The house only needed updated—fresh paint, gut the kitchen and install new cabinets and an island, and maybe a porch with a peak over the front stoop. The main work was going to be outside.
Jerod motioned to the barn. “I’m thinking someone used that as a machine shop.” There were deep grooves in the cement floor and large stains. Spotlights were attached to the beams.
There’d been stalls once, it was obvious. Someone had ripped them out. The doors were too small to use the building to store heavy machinery.
Jazzi hopped onto the seat of the back hoe, and George perked his ears when she started the engine. He glanced in her direction, then rested his head on his paws again to sleep some more. She’d clear the mess by the barn, then start work on the old, gravel driveway. The drive was so pitted and bare, they’d decided to asphalt the whole thing.
She’d made three swipes to clear the debris when sunlight sparkled on bones she’d uncovered. Lots of bones. Oh, shit. She shut off the engine and jumped down to investigate. Someone hadn’t buried these very deep. She bent over a row of them she’d scattered. Not human. The leg bones were too short. Was that a tail? She walked over to a skeleton that was still intact. Four legs. A dog? Lots of dogs? Why so many? Had someone started a pet cemetery out here?
She glanced at George. Good, he hadn’t noticed. She didn’t want to traumatize Ansel’s pug. “Hey, Jerod! Ansel! Take a look at this.”
The two men came to see what she’d found.
“What the hell?” Jerod frowned.
Ansel ran a hand through his white-blonde hair. He narrowed sky-blue eyes to study the huge plot of dirt. “Do you think the whole area’s full of these?”
Jazzi wrinkled her nose in distaste. “What do we do with them? Are there laws about bulldozing pet remains?”
“We couldn’t. It would be wrong.” Ansel glanced George’s way, too.
Jerod reached for the cellphone in his jeans pocket and scrolled for the number of Animal Control. His wife’s mom volunteered there twice a week. “Hilda, I have a problem.” He explained what they’d found.
While he talked, Jazzi bent to study the bones again.
“Do you think whoever lived here were breeders?” Ansel’s gaze drifted to the barn. “Maybe they had kennels inside.”
Jerod finished his phone conversation and let out a frustrated breath. “A guy from animal control is driving out to look this over. We might as well start on the driveway until he gets here.”
Jazzi drove the back hoe to the end of the gravel to clear it. Jerod and Ansel raked and smoothed the earth behind her. The sun slid behind the trees at the edge of the yard, so at least, they worked in some shade.
A gray van bumped toward them an hour later. The three of them were covered in sweat and dirt. Jerod walked to the house and unwrapped the hose. He held it over his head and rinsed off. Ansel did the same, soaking his tangled, blonde hair and then shaking off the excess. George pushed to his paws and came to lap up fresh water.
Jerod held the hose for Jazzi. “Come on, Pigpen, I’ll let you play in the water.”
She snorted. Like she’d trust her cousin. He’d douse her, for sure. She took the hose from him and ran the water—tepid, not cold—down her arms, then caught it in her hands to rinse off her face. They didn’t smell quite so bad by the time the man in uniform came to greet them.
In his late fifties, the man’s expression looked solemn.
“This way.” Jerod led him to the plot they’d found.
Ansel put George in the house. “I don’t want him to see this.”
The officer blinked, surprised, then looked at the bones. His lips turned down. He glanced at the barn. “Can I see inside there?”
Ansel led the way.
He looked at the patterns on the floor and the spotlights overhead. “I heard rumors, but I didn’t think they were true. I warned the shelter to be careful who they gave dogs to, but I couldn’t find this place.”
Jazzi swallowed a sour taste and braced herself. “What kind of rumors?”
“That someone in River Bend sold tickets to dog fights. Detective Gaff and I tried to track who it was, but decided it was just gossip. Guess not.”
Jazzi backed away from a dark stain in the cement. Was it blood? “You mean these are all dogs that got killed in the matches?”
“That would be my guess. Let me look at the bones again.” When he saw them, he shook his head, his eyes sad. “So many of them.”
Jazzi’s hands balled into fists. She pointed to a small skeleton. “That dog wouldn’t stand a chance against these guys.” She motioned to the large skeletons and heavy jawbones of big dogs.
“That’s the point,” the man said. “They throw little guys in the ring to get the big dogs warmed up.”
Her nails dug into her palms. “For sport?”
“And betting. A lot of money changes hands.”
Blood money. Jazzi’s hands fisted on her hips. “Who rented this house before we bought it?”
Jerod grinned at her. “You’re on the right track, cuz. Let’s make sure this guy doesn’t start up business somewhere else.”
Ansel’s voice sounded rough. “I say find this guy, then toss him in the ring and let the dogs finish him.”
The animal control officer raised his eyebrows. “Not a bad idea, but it would ruin the dogs. We’d have to put them all down. We might have to anyway.”
Jazzi led him into the house. George came to sniff his feet, then returned to his favorite spot to snooze by the French doors. Jerod brought out the property’s deed and documents to spread on the kitchen table. With the information in front of him, the man called Detective Gaff, and it didn’t take long for the detective to track down the home’s renter.
“Still in River Bend,” the officer told them. “Bought another piece of secluded land with a barn. Probably means to start up there.”
“Are you going to arrest him?” Jazzi wanted to read a newspaper headline with a photo of the guy in handcuffs.
“Not quite yet. Gaff says we’d be ahead letting him sell tickets and fill up his venue, so that a team can arrest everyone there. We might get every participant, every dog that way. In the meantime, it would help if you didn’t say anything to anyone.”
They swore themselves to silence, but the day finally came. Every Sunday, Jazzi invited her family over for a big meal. They yakked and interrupted each other like she’d seen Italians do in movies, not that they were Italian. On days Ansel’s girlfriend worked, he came, too, with George, of course. They were all gathered around the table, passing barbecued chicken, German potato salad, and sautéed green beans when Jerod spread the front page of the newspaper in front of her.
“You probably didn’t get a chance to see this yet.”
Ansel grinned. “They got him.”
“They got everyone.” Jerod pointed to a paragraph about halfway down. “. . . Every person who came to bet, every owner who brought a dog to fight, but especially, the guy who ran it.”
The entire family cheered. Jazzi celebrated by lighting candles on the lemon bars she’d made for dessert. And George got an extra serving of chicken. When everyone left, though, except Ansel, he said, “I want to drive out to the property. I want to pay my respects to the dogs that didn’t survive.”
Jazzi rode with him. George curled on the back seat. She, Jerod, and Ansel had decided not to dig up the plot and disturb the shallow, mass grave. Instead, they sprayed it with weed killer, dug out the bushes and saplings, and then planted it with crownvetch, so that the ground cover would bloom every year from June to August.
“We have to tell whoever buys this place about the graves,” Ansel said.
Jazzi nodded. “I know.”
“Someone will buy it anyway. Someone will see it as a final resting place that’s serene and beautiful.”
After the work they’d done, it was beautiful. “You okay?” Jazzi asked.
He sighed. “Emily thinks I’m too sentimental. She laughed at me.”
“She’s a nurse. She’s practical. She deals with life and death every day.”
“I guess.” He jammed his hands in his jeans pockets. “She’s not crazy about George either.”
Jazzi stared, surprised. She bent to scratch George behind his ears. “How could anyone not love George?” The pug didn’t bark. His favorite past time was napping, and he was affectionate.
Ansel’s shoulders sagged. “You can’t please everyone, I guess. Emily doesn’t like his eyes. She says they bulge.”
“All the better to see us with.” Jazzi tamped down her humor. Emily kicked Ansel out of the house when she worked nights and wanted to sleep during the day. George probably fared worse, but Ansel wasn’t in the mood to be teased about it. She tugged on his arm. “Let’s go home.”
“Then let’s go to my place. We can watch football together.”
His eyes lit up, and he called George. As they pulled away, Jazzi glanced at the house and the barn. The guy who’d organized dog fights would pay for his sins. The house Jazzi and Jerod had bought was going to make them a decent profit. Life had its good and its bad. It was what it was. But they’d keep doing their best. For now, though, it was time to kick back and relax. Beer and football. A great way to spend a Sunday.