It's summer in Connecticut, and Melanie's life has become an endless string of dog shows, soccer camp, and the antics of her energetic toddler. She hardly has time to pay much attention to her Aunt Peg's new protégé, Nick Walden, a self-proclaimed "dog whisperer" with an uncanny gift for decoding dog-speak. The well-heeled dog owners of Fairfield County are lapping up his alleged talents, anxious to discover exactly what their pampered pets are thinkingthat is until the pooches start spilling their secrets.
When Nick is discovered dead in his home, his sister Claire enlists Melanie to help track down the killer. Now, as she juggles the demands of marriage and motherhoodnot to mention her six beloved PoodlesMelanie can scarcely even begin to nose through the growing list of suspects. But just when she thinks she's barking up the wrong tree, she'll find herself face to face with a purebred murderer. . .
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Death of a Dog Whisperer
A Melanie Travis Mystery
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
Do you believe in ghosts?" asked Bob.
I stared at my ex-husband, eyes widening in surprise. Sadly I was also tempted to laugh. When Bob had asked me over to his house to talk, the last thing I'd expected was a question like that.
On the plus side, that meant that our son, Davey, eleven years old and often on the edge of mayhem, hadn't gotten into any new trouble that I didn't know about. On the minus side ... ghosts? Really?
"I don't know," I said carefully. "I grew up Catholic. So I was raised to believe in things I can't see."
"Not the Holy Ghost." Bob snorted. "You know, regular, garden-variety ghosts. Like Casper."
Casper was a cartoon. So the chances of my believing in his existence were slim. I really hoped I didn't need to point that out.
Before I could come up with a suitable reply—which at this point seemed to be just about anything that didn't involve rolling my eyes—Bob pushed back his chair and stood. We were sitting in his kitchen, a room I was intimately familiar with as my ex-husband's house had formerly belonged to me.
After the small clapboard home had changed hands several years earlier, Bob had started renovating. He'd worked room by room, doing most of the work himself. The faded kitchen wallpaper and worn linoleum that Davey and I had lived with were now gone, replaced by sunny yellow paint and a polished hardwood floor. Even the appliances were new, although I couldn't remember ever seeing Bob do any cooking.
He walked around the table, stepping carefully over Faith, my Standard Poodle, who was snoozing on the floor beside my chair. Bob isn't a dog person, but he likes Faith. Not that he's ever had any choice in the matter.
Love me, love my dog. That's my mantra.
Big, black, and beautiful, Faith embodies all the best attributes of her breed. She's intelligent, empathetic, and has a great sense of humor. She was the first dog I'd ever owned and our connection, swift and all-encompassing, had taken me by surprise. Faith had entered my life and immediately filled a void I hadn't even known existed. She'd stolen my heart and held it still.
The Poodle opened her eyes and followed Bob's progress across the room. I saw her gaze lift and realized that she was looking at Bob's chocolate point Siamese, Bosco. The cat was sitting on top of the refrigerator, gazing down at us mere mortals with an expression of disdain. Feigning similar indifference, Faith sighed softly and closed her eyes again.
"Want something to drink?" asked Bob.
"I'll take a Coke, if you have it. Or green tea?" It turned out that my ex-husband had both on hand. That was a bad sign. Bob wanted something from me, I just knew it.
He and I had been married for two years and divorced for more than a decade. We were better friends now than we'd ever been, but that didn't make me blind to his faults.
"Ghosts," I said, steering him back on topic. "Why do you ask?"
Bob flicked the cap off his soda and took a long swallow. Then he poured mine into a glass over ice, just the way I like it. Yet another bad sign.
"I think this place is haunted," he said.
Oh man. He was really going to go there.
"You've got to be kidding," I told him.
Bob shrugged disarmingly. He half smiled and quirked a brow. His sandy hair was too long and beginning to curl at the ends. He reached up and brushed it back. Once upon a time I'd fallen in love with that boyish charm.
Back when I was very, very young.
Now on the other side of thirty, I was immune to Bob's artless appeal. And experience had made me more of a skeptic than I'd been in my youth.
"Why not?" he said. "It happens."
"Not here." I shook my head. "Not in my house."
"My house," he corrected gently, retaking his seat.
"But I lived here for ten years. Surely if this place was haunted, I'd have noticed."
"Maybe the ghost is new."
I sputtered a laugh. "I don't think that's the way it works, Bob."
"You see?" he said. "You know these things. I knew I'd come to the right person."
"For what?" I stared at him suspiciously.
This isn't the first time a family member has wanted something from me. I'm working on learning to say no, but unfortunately I'm not nearly as good at it as I ought to be.
"I've been hearing things," said Bob. "Sounds in the middle of the night."
"Ghostly noises?" I asked in a hushed voice. "Woo ... wooo ... like that?"
He frowned at my response but didn't back down. "More like creaking and groaning. And maybe a thump or two."
"This is an old house, Bob. It's probably settling. Was the wind blowing when you heard these ghostly noises?"
"I'm not talking about shutters banging. It sounds like the noises are inside the house, and it's pretty creepy."
I'd be creeped out too. If I thought my ex wasn't letting his imagination run away with him.
"So here's the thing," Bob said.
The thing. Somehow, with my family, there was always a thing.
"I was thinking you might lend me a guard dog."
I sat up straight in my seat. "A what?"
"You know. A big black dog that could live here for a while and patrol the house at night. I figured you must have a spare." Bob was alluding to the fact that my second husband, Sam, and I have a houseful of Standard Poodles. Six to be exact, including Davey's new puppy, Augie. Bob flicked a hand toward the floor and said brightly, "Maybe that one."
That one? I thought with a grimace. As if Faith was just some random Poodle. Perhaps one that didn't even have a name.
Faith didn't lift her head from her paws, but she did flap her tail up and down on the floor to acknowledge the fact that we were talking about her. It's a sad thing when your dog is paying more attention to details than the other human in the room.
On the other hand, Bob could probably be forgiven for not being able to tell my dogs apart. All six were black Standard Poodles. Faith and Eve, the two that had originally been mine, were mother and daughter. Casey, Tar, and Raven—the three Poodles Sam had brought with him to the marriage—were also related. So they all shared a familial similarity.
Not only that, but Augie the puppy was the only one in show trim. The five adult Poodles were all retired champions, now maintained in practical kennel clips. Each sported a blanket of short dense curls covering her entire body. Faces and feet were shaved and there was a pom-pon on the end of the tail. Even Davey had to sometimes look twice to see who was who.
"That's Faith," I told Bob.
He managed a wounded look. "I know that."
"She's six years old."
Bob peered under the table. "She doesn't look old."
"She's not." I reached down and ruffled my fingers through the big Poodle's topknot. The bond I shared with Faith was deeper than the one I had with most people. It was certainly stronger than my feelings for my ex-husband.
"But she's no youngster either," I added. "There's no way I'm leaving her here with you to hunt ghosts."
I heard Faith blow out a fractured breath from beneath the table. Either she was snoring or she was laughing at Bob. I was betting on the latter.
"Fine," he said quickly. "It doesn't have to be that one. How about the big male? The scary-looking one."
Only Bob, whose idea of wildlife was his kitty Bosco, would think that Tar was scary. The rest of the world knew him for the playful, not-too-bright, cream puff that he really was.
"I'm not lending you a dog," I said firmly. "You don't even know how to take care of one."
"Come on, how hard can it be? Buy a couple cans of food, put water in a bowl on the floor, let the dog outside when it needs to go. Done."
"I rest my case," I said. Bracing my hands on the edge of the table, I stood up to go. "No way. It's not going to happen."
I was rather proud of that declaration. It sounded strong and definitive. Like I was a woman in charge for once.
"If you say so," Bob said easily, shrugging off my refusal. "But listen, sit down for another minute, would you? I got you over here today to ask you something."
"You just did ask me something," I pointed out. "That wasn't it?"
"Oh heck, no. That was just a spur-of-the-moment idea."
I'd known that Bob was buttering me up for something. I should have realized that sidestepping his first request had been entirely too easy. So much for being in charge. I sank back down into my seat and prepared myself for round two.
"I met a guy," said Bob.
I looked at him, deadpan. "I'm very happy for you. Is it serious?"
"What? No! Wait a minute ... what are you talking about?"
"Just kidding," I said with a smirk. "Go on."
"I'm talking about a guy who's a friend of mine," Bob began again. "His name is Nick Walden. I met him a few months ago, through James. You know, from next door?"
That got my attention. During my tenure in the house, I'd lived beside Amber Fine for more than a year. In all that time I had never even seen her husband, much less met him. My friend Alice Brickman and I had even engaged in a running debate about whether or not the man actually existed.
"You've met James?" I said.
Bob looked at me like I was daft. "Sure. He's my neighbor. He lives right there."
He was pointing toward the kitchen wall, but I knew what he meant. Just a dozen feet beyond that wall was the Fines' house.
Flower Estates was a subdivision built in the late 1940s to provide affordable housing for returning WWII veterans and their families. The homes were small, snug, and designed for practicality: row upon row of clapboard cottages situated on lots whose dimensions were measured in feet rather than acres.
The neighborhood had sidewalks, quiet roads, and plenty of charm. And compared to the rest of lower Fairfield County, the houses were reasonably affordable. Young families bought starter homes there. Retirees traded down.
The layout of the neighborhood, with houses sitting side by side and back to back, provided homeowners with a welcome feeling of security. But privacy? Not so much. Which made it all the more unusual that I'd never met my neighbor's husband.
"I know Amber," I said. "But I never met James. When I lived here he was always away. Amber said he was traveling all the time for his job. Importing, or maybe exporting. She was a little vague on the subject of what he did. To tell the truth, I wondered if she'd made him up."
"No, James is real, all right. And he's not traveling now. He lost his job when the economy tanked."
"That's too bad."
Bob nodded. "I guess he doesn't have much to do because he's around all the time now. He comes over here to hang out."
"Maybe he's trying to get away from all the cats," I said mildly.
Amber's large, unsupervised, feline population had been a niggling source of annoyance when I had lived beside her. Sam and Davey liked the cats. The Poodles found them interesting. But I was the one left with an itchy nose and claw marks down my drapes.
"Could be. Anyway, he brought Nick by one day. Nick is a dog guy." Bob beamed at me happily. Like he thought the fact that his buddy Nick liked dogs should make my day. "He's the dog guy."
"The dog guy?" I repeated. "What does that mean? He has dogs? He trains dogs? What?"
"Get this," said Bob. "Nick is a dog whisperer."
Okeydoke. I processed that. And still came up blank.
"And?" I prompted.
"He helps people who have problems with their pets. He has interventions and stuff to fix their issues. Nick talks to dogs and they talk back. It's like a real conversation."
I lifted a brow. Not that I wasn't a believer in such things. I'd been known to hold conversations with my Poodles on more than one occasion. But the words sounded strange coming out of my ex-husband's mouth.
Bear in mind that Bob thought Goofy was the best dog ever.
So when it came to judging someone's ability to communicate with canines, Bob had no frame of reference. Nick Walden might be an animal savant. Or he might be a total charlatan. There was no way to know.
"He sounds like an interesting man," I said politely.
"Is there a lot of call for dog whispering?"
"More than you'd think. It's a whole business."
"And what does that have to do with me?"
"I thought you might like to meet him."
"Sure, why not?" I agreed. I was always happy to meet a fellow dog lover.
"And I thought you might want to introduce him to Aunt Peg."
And with a deafening thud, the other shoe dropped.
"Aunt Peg. You know. She likes dogs too."
Saying that Aunt Peg liked dogs was like saying that Madame Curie had been slightly interested in science. The depth of understatement was staggering.
My aunt was Margaret Turnbull, longtime breeder of the Cedar Crest Standard Poodles, past president of the Poodle Club of America, acclaimed dog show judge, and one of only very few exhibitors in the century-plus history of the Westminster dog show to win the NonSporting Group as a breeder/owner/handler. Her devotion to the Poodle breed was second only to her love of dogs in general.
When it came to the care of the canines she adored, Aunt Peg's standards were impossibly high. She had little patience for those who fell below them and suffered fools not at all. Unfortunately she had long since delegated my ex-husband to the latter category. A recommendation from him about someone she ought to meet sounded like just the sort of thing that would set Aunt Peg's teeth on edge.
"You want me to introduce your friend to Aunt Peg," I said slowly.
"Right. I'm sure they'll get along great. And then Peg can introduce him to all her friends. An entrée to the dog community from Margaret Turnbull would really help Nick drum up new clients."
A pulse began to pound in my forehead. That was so not something I could see happening.
"I'd do it myself," said Bob. "But you know ... Peg likes you better than she likes me."
I stared at him across the table. I couldn't believe I even had to say this.
"Of course Aunt Peg likes me better. I'm a member of her family. As far as she's concerned, you're just the guy who ran off one day and left me on my own with a ten-month-old baby and a high interest mortgage."
Bob winced. "You had a job."
"A teacher's salary doesn't stretch very far. Especially not for a single parent."
"Yeah, I know. But that all happened more than a decade ago. I was a lot younger and dumber then."
"Well, Aunt Peg has a long memory."
"Which is why you ought to be the one to introduce her to Nick."
If nothing else, you had to give the guy points for perseverance. Still I shook my head.
"I've never even met Nick Walden," I said. "The only thing I know about him is that you like him. Which frankly, when it comes to dogs and dog people, doesn't count for much. Not only that, but I doubt that Aunt Peg would be happy to meet someone who apparently thinks it's a good idea to make use of her and her connections."
"That was my idea," Bob corrected. "So don't hold it against Nick. Look, he likes dogs. And you and Peg like dogs. Symbiosis, you know what I mean? It's like fate is pushing you guys together."
"More like you're the one who's pushing us together," I grumbled.
It didn't matter what I said. Bob wasn't listening to me. Along with a host of other good reasons, this was why we weren't married anymore.
"As for you two not knowing each other," Bob said brightly, "I can fix that."
As if on cue, the doorbell rang.
I looked at Bob. He smiled back.
"What did I tell you?" he said. here."
"It's fate. Nick'sCHAPTER 2
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Nick Walden said.
I had remained seated at the table in the kitchen when Bob went to answer the door. The way things had gone thus far, I was half-afraid that if I showed any enthusiasm for Bob's visitor, I might immediately find the two of us strapped into my car and on our way to Aunt Peg's house. So instead, Faith and I waited for him to come to us.
Now as he followed Bob into the room, I got my first look at the dog whisperer. Nick was slightly taller than Bob. He had a wiry build and dark, curly hair. There was a mischievous glint in his deep brown eyes and his smile lit up the room.
Well. If nothing else, he was pleasant to look at.
Excerpted from Death of a Dog Whisperer by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2014 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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