I’m a normal person. Granted I have a somewhat abnormal vocation. I train service animals for PTSD sufferers, mostly combat veterans.
But other than that, I’m just a small-town, thirty-something divorcee.
My name is Marcia Banks—pronounced Mar-see-a, not Marsha. Okay, okay, so I don’t have a totally normal name.
I live in central Florida, on the outskirts of the Ocala National Forest, in a little town called Mayfair, population 258 (and a half. Agnes Baker’s pregnant. Again.)
The town sprang up in the 1960s, due to the transitory success of the Mayfair Alligator Farm (rumor has it that old Mr. Mayfair poached the gators from the Forest). Billboards plastered along the newly minted I-75 corridor drew in unsuspecting vacationers to witness the wonders of gator wrestling and to buy fake alligator skin handbags and belts. But the farm went under when Walt Disney plopped his amusement park down next to another sleepy Florida hamlet—Orlando.
Mayfair was virtually a ghost town when I moved here two years ago, shortly after the demise of my brief but disastrous marriage to a concert violinist in the Baltimore Symphony.
It’s a great place to train service animals because everybody knows everybody. It didn’t take long for the residents to learn the rules. The main one being to never, ever pet the dogs I’m training unless I say it’s okay.
The exception is my Black Lab-Rottie mix, Buddy, if he’s the only dog I’m walking at the time.
He was my first trainee, and how he came back into my possession was the beginning of my not-so-normal avocation—unwilling amateur sleuth.
One sunny day last winter, I received the most shocking phone call of my life. It even beat out the anonymous one three years ago informing me that my husband was having an affair with a cello player.
The caller said she was with the Collinsville Sheriff’s Department and wanted to know if I had trained a service dog named Buddy.
My mind scrambled for a reason why someone from a sheriff’s department would be asking me that. Had Buddy bit someone?
“Where exactly is Collinsville?” I asked, stalling for time.
“Off 33, near Polk City.”
“In Florida?” More stalling.
“Yes, ma’am, not far from Lakeland.” Her tone said she was losing patience with me. “Are you the Marcia Banks who trained Buddy?” She mispronounced my first name, of course.
I couldn’t figure out how to get around admitting it, since I had signed off on his training certificate. “Uh, yes.”
“Could ya come get the dog as soon as possible?”
“Why? What’s happened to his owner?” Jimmy Garrett was an Iraqi war veteran who’d had a close encounter with an IED. As a result, he’d come home with a prosthesis where his right leg used to be and some pretty disabling nightmares, among other PTSD symptoms.
“He’s been arrested, ma’am.”
What? Jimmy arrested?
“What about his wife?”
A long pause. “That’s why he’s been arrested. He’s bein’ held on suspicion of murder.”
“Of his wife?” My voice rose, ending on a squeak.
I was stunned. I’d spent a fair amount of time with the Garretts two years ago, teaching Jimmy the do’s and don’t’s of working with a service dog.
Mathilda Jones, the woman who had trained me to be a trainer, had drummed into me the importance of working with the client as well as the dog. “A poorly-trained human can ruin a well-trained dog” was her mantra. Humans was how Mattie referred to people, like we were a different species from herself. She seemed to feel more connected to her dogs than to two-legged homo sapiens.
I’d gotten the distinct impression that the Garretts had a stable and loving relationship. Julie, Jimmy’s wife, had confided to me privately that she was so relieved he was getting Buddy. “We just want to get on with life,” she’d said in a soft Southern accent. “His nightmares and everythin’, they just make him so miserable. Just maybe things can settle down now and we can start a family.” She’d then blushed and ducked her head.
Other than a mildly annoying predilection for the word just, she had seemed like a bright and kind person who was devoted to Jimmy, and he to her. I’d received a birth announcement eight months later. Apparently Ida Mae Garrett had already been a bun in the oven when Julie and I had that conversation.
“Are ya there, ma’am?” The woman from the sheriff’s department yanked me back to the present.
“Yeah. Uh, I can probably get down there sometime this afternoon.”
“Come to the sheriff’s department on Main Street.” She disconnected.
I shook my head, trying to wrap my brain around the whole mess.
It was a two-hour drive and who knew what red tape I might encounter, so I called and made arrangements with my neighbor’s daughter Sybil to take the dogs out for a bathroom break later.
I’d been prepared with a small fib if her mother had answered. The reigning matriarch of the only African-American family in town, Sherie Wells could sniff out gossip like a bloodhound. To her credit, however, she rarely repeated what she heard.
But Sybil asked no questions. I told her I’d leave a key under the doormat.
Yes, Mayfair is probably the safest place on the planet, but the dogs I train are valuable animals, because of that training. So I follow my Northerner city instincts and keep my doors locked.
It was a warm day for early February—seventy-five degrees and climbing. I threw on a red tank top over my jeans and grabbed my favorite cardigan, the one with a little flare at the bottom that disguises my all too ample hips. I opted to forego makeup, except for some sunscreen. Even in winter, the Florida sun could fry my fair skin in no time.
At the last minute, I crammed some clean underwear and a stick of deodorant into my purse. I couldn’t imagine I’d end up staying overnight in Collinsville, but then before today, I never would have imagined that sweet Julie Garrett would be dead and poor Jimmy arrested for her murder. So all bets were off on what to expect from the universe right now.
By the time I got to Collinsville, I was glad I’d worn a tank top. The temperature, according to the sign on the Collinsville Bank, was now eighty. The sheriff’s department wasn’t hard to find. It was the most rundown building on Main Street, with gray peeling paint and a rusty metal roof.
The inside didn’t look much better. The walls were the same gray as the exterior, although they weren’t peeling. A small waiting area contained metal folding chairs, the only wall adornment a large bulletin board plastered with mug shots of nasty-looking men and women and heartbreakingly sweet pictures of missing children. A hand-printed heading read Have You Seen These People? I suspected the wanted posters were from the whole central Florida area. Surely there weren’t that many felons on the loose in this podunk town.
An air compressor rumbled somewhere, but the building’s air conditioning was apparently as old as the paint job on the outside. The room was muggy with humidity. If the AC wasn’t keeping up today, what kind of oven did this place become in the summer?
Behind a chest-high Formica counter was a woman in a khaki sheriff’s department uniform. She either had very long legs or she was sitting on a stool. Her dark eyebrows said the blonde of her hair was out of a bottle. She was too thin, with the leathery skin of a long-term Florida resident.
“Can I help ya?” Her accent confirmed her as a Florida native, her voice beginning to take on the raspiness of a long-time smoker. She scratched absently at a forearm covered by a long khaki sleeve. Perspiration beaded on her upper lip.
I wondered why she hadn’t rolled her sleeves up, then mentally shrugged. Maybe it was against departmental rules.
“I’m Marcia Banks, Buddy’s trainer.”
“Oh yeah. Ya know where the Garretts’ house is? The mutt’s still there, last I heard.” There was a slight sneer in her voice. Not a dog person, apparently.
“Uh, I’m not sure.” The house I had delivered Buddy to two years ago wasn’t all that far from here, but it wasn’t in the town of Collinsville.
“I’ll write down the address.” She ducked her head over a pad of paper.
“Is Jimmy here? Could I see him?” I heard the words exit my mouth and wondered where the heck they had come from. Did I really want to see Jimmy Garrett? There was nothing I could do to help him.
The full ramifications of Jimmy’s situation hit me in the gut. He’d been doing so well. What happened?
The woman behind the counter was staring at me, an inscrutable expression on her face. “I guess it’d be okay.” She slid off her stool and almost disappeared behind the counter.
Her disembodied head nodded toward the left. “Go to that door over there.”
I followed instructions. A click and then she pulled the door open.
“Ya have to leave your purse here with me.”
I turned it over to her, and she placed it on a shelf under the counter.
“Follow me.” She led me down a long gray corridor that ended in the jail section of the building—two cells on the right and one larger one around a small corner on the left.
Jimmy was the only occupant. He was in the larger cell. It contained a cot and small table, both bolted to the floor, and a metal toilet.
When he caught sight of me, he raced over and grabbed the bars. “Marcia, thank God you came. You gotta take Buddy for a while.” “
I can do that.” I scraped back a long strand of hair that had escaped from my ponytail.
Jimmy wore a faded Marines T-shirt and dark running shorts. I averted my eyes from his prosthesis. Despite all the time I’d spent with combat vets, I still wasn’t used to seeing a metal contraption sticking out where bone and flesh should be.
“Doris, could I speak to Ms. Banks alone, please.” Technically it was a request, but his commanding tone hinted at the sergeant he had once been.
The woman, Doris, gave him a dirty look, then turned on her sensible oxford’s heel and stalked away.
“Marcia, I need your help. The whole town’s gonna be just like her. They’re gonna turn against me and I won’t have a chance.”
Unsure how to answer him, I stalled. “What happened?” Okay, I was also dying of curiosity.
Jimmy ran a hand over his buzz cut of light brown hair. “I wish I knew. Nobody’ll tell me nothin’ except that Julie…” His voice choked a little on his wife’s name. “That she’s dead and I’m being held for her murder.”
His face contorted, but then he shook himself, like a dog waking up from a bad dream.
“Buddy and I went for our morning run. We stopped for a bit to watch the ducks down by the pond in the park. When I got back, I came in the front door and saw Ida Mae playin’ in her pack-and-play in the corner. And that’s the last thing I remember until I woke up on the floor. Buddy was standin’ over me growlin’ and Ida Mae was cryin’. And the deputies were in the doorway yellin’ at me to control the dog.”
He scrubbed his stubbled face with a broad hand. “They said Julie was in the bedroom…” His voice caught again. “But they wouldn’t let me see her. They say I was drunk and we musta argued, but honest, I haven’t had a drink in months. Me and the beer, we were gettin’ too friendly, so I stopped completely.”
He ducked his head. “I’ve been goin’ to AA the next town over.”
I sucked in air, trying to think of something to say, and picked up a whiff of stale beer. But Jimmy didn’t act like someone who was lying. Of course, I was no expert on lying, nor on Jimmy Garrett. For all I knew he was a pathological liar.
“I can take Buddy for a while, until this mess gets resolved. But I don’t know what else I can do. I’m a dog trainer.”
Jimmy shook his head and kept talking, as if I hadn’t said anything. “This is Julie’s hometown. We moved here awhile after the baby was born, ’cause Julie had a good job at the bank. Everybody’s treated me fine, but I’m still the outsider. They’re gonna turn on me, I just know it.”
I’d always thought Jimmy was a local boy too, since he had a Southern accent. “Aren’t you from Florida?”
“Tennessee. I was in advanced training at the Naval Air Base in Pensacola when Julie and I met. She was goin’ to UWF.”
It took me a moment to decipher UWF. There’s a whole slew of universities around Florida that are U something F. Since the other abbreviations—UNF, UCF, USF—all referred to geographical locations, I deduced that UWF was University of West Florida.
“Okay, so you’re not local and this is a small town,” I said, “but I don’t think they’re going to railroad you into a murder conviction if you didn’t do it.”
The small towns I’d encountered in Florida were not nearly as insular as small towns elsewhere tended to be. There were so many transplants from other parts of the country, especially the cold north, that only about a half to three-quarters of the residents, even in rural Florida, had ancestors who’d lived here.
Jimmy’s head was hanging down, his gaze focused on the cell’s cement floor.
“Did you call a lawyer?” I asked.
He shook his head without looking at me. “I didn’t know who to call.”
So he’d asked them to call me, a dog trainer. Just great!
“Can you pay a lawyer?”
His head came up. Then he cocked it to one side as if this was the first he’d thought about that. “Yeah. We’d gotten a line of credit on our house, to remodel the kitchen. I can use that for a lawyer.”
“Okay, I’ll try to find you a lawyer before I leave town. Where’s your little girl?”
“I assume they took her to Sheila, but she’s not that fond of dogs. I knew she wouldn’t agree to take Buddy.”
“My sister-in-law.” His face puckered up like he’d sucked on a lemon.
Did he and sister-in-law Sheila dislike each other, or was Jimmy assuming she too would turn on him?
Still, this Sheila might know who was the best lawyer in town. “What’s her last name?” “Collins.”
My face must have shown my dismay because Jimmy grimaced and said, “Yeah, she’s married to Julie’s brother, the grandson of the town’s founder.”
He rubbed the back of his head and winced.
I twirled my finger in the air. “Turn around.”
He complied. There was a knot the size of a golf ball on the back of his skull.
I blew out air. Maybe Jimmy Garrett wasn’t being paranoid after all, and maybe, just maybe he hadn’t killed his wife.