Everyone followed Otter into the building and headed toward the kitchen. Eve and Elphin were in the rear.
“How do you know Otter?” Eve asked.
“He’s been my best friend since kindergarten.”
“Really? Did you grow up here?”
“My family lived in the area until I was in first grade,” Elphin said. “They kept the house when we moved out of state. I spent every school break and summer vacation here.”
“And why is he called Otter?”
“That’s probably a story best left for another ‘kitchen critter’ night.”
Otter swung open the kitchen doors and entered. The rest of the group huddled together and took a more cautious approach. They watched as Otter stood in the middle of the kitchen sniffing the air in various directions.
“Elphin,” Eve asked. “What’s he doing?”
“Tracking. I think. Don’t worry. Otter is the best tracker this side of the Smoky Mountains.”
“Shooooot,” said Otter. “Just this side?”
“I was trying to keep you humble.”
Otter’s hand shot up into the stop position. His head jerked to a hard right. He made a strange noise.
“That was the same sound the wild animal made,” Tess whispered.
Everyone took a step backward, except Otter. Otter dropped to the ground and crawled around, his face two inches from the floor. He slowly made his way over to a stack of shelves that housed large boxes on the bottom. He stood and looked back at the group. “Ma’am, are these breakables in this box?”
Eve turned and looked at Elphin. Elphin shrugged. “I don’t think so,” she said.
Otter gave the box a good kick, and a giant, fat opossum came scurrying out. It froze in the open. Its beady eyes about as wide as a ‘possum’s can get, unblinking in fear. Then the unthinkable happened. Otter jumped at it in pounce mode.
The ‘possum fell to its side then onto its back, feet straight in the air. A smell so awful that there weren’t enough scented candles in the world to fix it followed.
“No need for you folks to panic,” Otter said. “She’s not dead. Just playin’. That there smell is her natural defense mechanism. It helps finish off the illusion of death.”
Vincent pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and held it over his nose and mouth. “Bravo. A Tony Award worthy performance. This fat, bloated beast is a true thespian of the rodent world.”
“Marsupial.” Otter corrected.
“What would you ladies like me to do with her? I reckon she’d make a right tasty stew… or a hat. But you’re going to need more than just this one for a hat. For the right price I could tree you a few.”
Eve turned to Elphin. “Is he serious?”
“Oh, yeah. You’ll definitely need more than that one ‘possum to make a hat. And I would pass on the stew. You would probably only be able to make enough for one, maybe two people. You don’t want to begin your new life at The Owl’s Roost playing favorites with residents and staff.”
Eve turned back toward Otter. “Why don’t you just take it back out into the woods, where it belongs.”
“Yes ma’am. It’s your marsupial.” Otter bent over and picked up the beast by its long, stiff, prehensile tail. He held it out at arm’s length and headed for the back door. “Elphin, you comin’?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Elphin said. He turned to Eve. “Don’t worry. I’ll try to get you the friends and family discount for marsupial removal.” He grabbed a flashlight from a shelf by the door and followed Otter and the ‘possum out into the brisk evening air.
“I reckon’ the far end of the pear orchard would be a nice place for a ‘possum to live.” Otter said. “Probably can make it there before she wakes up.”
“Sounds like a plan to me.”
They walked down the driveway, following the beam of light from Elphin’s flashlight.
“She’s awful cute.” Otter remarked.
“That goes without sayin’. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the new owner of The Roost.”
“She’s okay if you like the feisty, pretty type.”
“And you do,” Otter said. “When you gonna tell miss Evie you’re actually a U.S. marshal and been filling The Roost with people in witness protection?”
“It would probably be best if I let her settle in first.”