I was sitting at Barnes & Noble one day, working on the story. I knew Petey was going to be poisoned but not fatally but didn’t know with what or how. A man behind me was talking on his cell phone and I could tell from the conversation that he was a veterinarian.
I’m no dummy.
When he hung up, I introduced myself and asked his opinion. Petey’s predicament is all thanks to him. Of course, so is Petey’s survival. I wrote the nice vet’s name down so I could properly thank him if Petey’s story ever got published, but it’s lost in the bowels of my dead PalmPilot.
So Dr. Fresno Vet: Thank you.
Cami pulled the straw out of its paper sleeve and pushed it into the red plastic cup. Grant watched her lean over and sip the cold drink and wondered what was going through her mind.
They were having lunch at Mejia’s. The visit to the police station hadn’t gone well. Detective Bermudez sympathized, but reiterated there was nothing he could do to ensure her safety. Cami had listened to him until her eyes glazed over and Grant knew she wasn’t processing the words. He ended the interview by thanking the officer for his help. She’d glanced at him as she clenched her jaw, as if he’d been joking. It did seem ironic.
They’d left the police station and walked around downtown Agua Vida. Grant followed her lead as she wandered through the park, in and out of various shops, and even into the post office where she stood and stared at the “Wanted” posters.
He’d suggested lunch after that and she’d meandered toward Mejia’s. They’d been seated right away. Chips and salsa were delivered to the table, and now they sat, Cami not meeting his eyes.
She leaned back and settled a little deeper into the booth. The laminate tabletop had some nicks along the top edge. She picked at one of them, pulling plastic away from particleboard until the notch grew and became a definite hole.
Grant reached for her hand. “Cami,” he said quietly.
“Hmmm?” She shook him off and continued to pick at the table. He handed her a menu. She stared as though seeing it for the first time.
“What is wrong with me?” She slapped the menu down on the table. “I know this by heart and I can’t remember what anything tastes like. I can’t eat. We shouldn’t be here.”
“You need to eat. And we need to talk and make some decisions.” Please let her listen to reason, he thought. Or was it a prayer?
The waitress appeared, ready to take their orders. Cami shrugged, so Grant ordered a Number Six for her. A chicken enchilada and a soft taco. He chose the Hungry Hombre for himself: two tacos, two enchiladas, two chile releños, two chimichangas, and a quesadilla.
“Talk about what?” she asked after the waitress left.
“You’re not safe at home or at work. I’d like you to stay with me for a while.”
“It’s a big house,” he said, leaning forward to look in her eyes. “You can have your own room. We’d never see each other, if that’s what you want.”
“No.” Her tone brooked no further discussion and her gaze held his.
“Can you visit your parents or your brother?” He had to come up with a place for her to stay, where she’d be safe.
“My folks are in Big Bear, Dad took a long-term substitute teaching job up there. My brother lives in a tiny apartment with his wife and two kids. I can’t impose on them.”
“Then what about Paige or Meredith? Or even my parents?” Brilliant. He leaned back and dipped a chip into the salsa. “Mom would love to fuss over you. Come to think of it, I like that idea. Maybe if you’re her project, she’ll quit smothering me.”
A smile tickled the corner of her mouth. “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think so.”
“Can I call Paige?”
“I don’t like putting my friends in danger.”
“No one would feel that way.” Exasperation tightened his voice.
She sighed. “I would.”
The waitress bustled over. “They’re very hot, be careful now,” she said, positioning plates in front of each of them. Steam wafted off the beans and rice, Cami closed her eyes and inhaled.
“Mejia’s has never failed me.” She picked up her fork. “I know you’re trying to help, but this person is after me. He’s watching where I go, who I talk to, what I do. I’m putting all my friends and family at risk by being seen with them.”
“We don’t care about that.” He wanted to enfold her in bubble wrap and take her home, so he could be sure she was safe. But she spooked so easily, just like that unbroken colt in Colorado. He’d have to go slowly, build up her trust. If that didn’t work, then he could make demands. Or call her parents maybe. He forced his attention back to her words.
“I couldn’t live with myself if someone I love got hurt.”
“Cami, listen.” Grant put his fork down and reached across the table for her hand. “I know I speak for Paige and Meredith, your family, everyone. If you’re in danger, we want to do whatever it takes to keep you safe. I don’t care about any risk to myself and I’m sure the others feel the same.”
“But I care.” Her voice grew heated and she removed her hand from his.
“Why are you getting angry with me for trying to protect you?”
She drew a deep breath and gripped the edge of the table. “I’m not angry. I know I seem ungrateful. And probably unreasonable. But I’ve learned the hard way that the only person on earth I can trust is me.”
She picked up her fork and began eating her beans and rice as though she were starving. She must have surprised herself with that. He folded his hands on the table, letting her have a moment before he approached from a different direction.
“Meredith works in a man’s world, she can take care of herself.”
That drew a half smile.
“And Paige eats nails for breakfast. I’m more afraid of her than any stalker.”
The smile became real. “You should be.”
Grant resumed eating. “Good. I’ll call them both and see if one of them can spend a few days with you.”
“I suppose it won’t hurt to ask.” The relief flooding into his legs made him glad he was sitting down.
They continued eating in companionable silence until Grant pushed his plate away. “How about if we drive your car home and you come with me to therapy?”
“You don’t sound enthused.” Was it too much, too soon?
She slipped her hand into his. “I’d like that. I don’t play hooky very often. I guess I don’t know how.”
“I’ll teach you.” He squeezed her hand gently. “First of all, we don’t call it hooky. It’s a mental health day.”
Later that afternoon, Cami and Grant returned to her house. Therapy had gone well, though he’d swallowed a couple of ibuprofen tablets on the way back. He was so stoic, it was hard to tell his pain level.
As she punched in her alarm code and opened the front door, she called out to Petey. There was no answering clatter of paws on linoleum. That was odd, he always met her at the door. She listened intently for any sound.
“Petey!” She called again.
Grant added a whistle.
Finally, she heard the pet door flap as the dog ran through it. “Hi, boy. Where have you been?” Cami rubbed Petey’s ears as he sniffed her legs. “I’ve been faithful. I haven’t been with any other dogs.” His tail wagged as he confirmed that with his nose.
Cami flopped onto the couch and Petey parked himself at her feet. A great weight settled over her. The adrenaline fueling her morning left, leaving a tiredness that burrowed into her bones, pushing her into the cushions.
“Can I get you something? Tea?” Grant offered.
“What else can I do?”
“Nothing.” The effort of replying drained her.
He sighed and disappeared into the kitchen.
She closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, a cup of tea sat on the table at her elbow. Grant was stretched out on the easy chair next to the sofa. His long legs were propped on the floor while his good arm cradled the one in the sling and his head tilted sideways. His eyes were closed.
Cami reached for the tea. Cold. She tiptoed into the kitchen, put the kettle on to boil again and poured out the cold tea. Leaning across the kitchen sink, she peered into the back yard. Petey must be out there again. What was so interesting?
She opened the back door but bent out to look around the yard before stepping onto the stoop. Her front and back yards were connected with a strip of lawn along the side of the house. The enclosing picket fence was short. Anyone who really wanted in the yard could easily hop it. She scanned the lot, even standing on tiptoes to look into the neighbor’s yard. No one and nothing moved. Then she heard it. Chewing, chomping, slobbering noises.
Petey lay at the bottom of the back stairs, gnawing something.
Remembering the baseball mitt he’d found, she stepped down to see his newest acquisition. As she got close, he picked up his find and carried it to the house.
“Not so fast, mister. Let me see what you’ve got.”
Tail wagging, Petey stood at the top of the steps. She put a hand on his thick neck and opened the other in front of his mouth.
“Spit it out.”
His tail gained momentum.
“Petey.” Her tone was firm and his reaction predictable. He ducked his head to push through the pet door.
“Petey! Drop it!” Already inside, he ignored her.
She entered the kitchen as Grant came in from the living room. “What’s going on?” he asked.
“Petey’s chewing on something and he won’t let me see it.”
“Come here, buster. What’s in there?” Grant put his good elbow over Petey’s head and tried to pry the dog’s jaws apart with the same hand. Petey’s tail continued swishing, but now a low growl accompanied it.
“Let. Me. Have it.”
Cami joined Grant and used both hands to open the dog’s mouth. “There!” She held up a plastic bone dripping with dog saliva. “Ugh.” She dropped it immediately and the dog snatched it up as he trotted into the living room.
Settling on the floor, he lowered his head to set the treasure down.
“Well?” Cami looked at Grant.
“Well, what? It’s a toy.”
“I know that.” She didn’t try to keep the irritation out of her voice. “Where did he get it?”
“No. I give him old tennis balls we collect in the park.”
“Would someone come by and give it to him?”
The ugly thought hit them at the same time and they scrambled into the living room, both talking at once.
“Petey, give it to me. Right now.” Grant’s authoritative voice caused the dog to sit and cock his head.
“Good boy. Give it to Grant, Petey,” Cami said. “I’ll buy you a new one, I promise.”
Caught in their crossfire, he dropped the treasure and jumped to his feet. He shook himself, then sat down again.
“Got it.” Grant held it up this time.
“What should we do?”
“Let’s take it and Petey to the vet. Just to be sure.”
Cami grabbed the leash and her purse while Grant found a plastic bag to carry the chew toy.
“Wait a minute,” she said as they loaded the dog into her car. “I’m trying to remember something. I read an article about a dog that ate a Christmas poinsettia. Hydrogen peroxide made her throw up. Do you think we should try that?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes that can make things worse.”
“Well, he’s not obviously sick right now. If he has been poisoned, he hasn’t digested it yet. And by the time we get him to the vet it might already be in his system. I think we should do it.” Cami was up the steps and back in the house before he responded.
She grabbed a brown bottle from the bathroom, then stopped in the kitchen for a turkey baster and a plastic garbage bag before running back to the car.
“Here, hold his muzzle.” She filled the plastic tube with hydrogen peroxide. “How much do you think?”
“I have no idea.”
“I’ll do a couple of tablespoons. If it doesn’t work, I can give him more.”
Grant held the dog’s head between his good elbow and his chest. “Hurry, he doesn’t like this.” The dog struggled to get free, but Grant managed to hold him.
Cami forced the tip of the baster into his mouth and gently wiggled it while pushing it to the back of his throat. The dog gagged but she squeezed the bulb and forced him to swallow.
“Okay, let’s go.” She climbed into the back with Petey as Grant got in the driver’s seat.
She hung onto Petey’s neck as Grant took the corner at thirty miles an hour and continued toward downtown.