As if raising her son Davey, training her rambunctious Poodle for the show ring, and grooming fellow handler Sam Driver for romance aren’t enough, Melanie Travis’s entrée into the exclusive Belle Haven Kennel Club has been met with a grisly murder. Unfortunately, the only witnesses to the crime were the victim’s startled pair of Beagles. And they aren’t talking…
Melanie hadn’t intended to do any serious snooping, what with coping with the unexpected arrival of an ex-husband out to get joint custody of the son he’s never known. In need of some serious distraction, she's off to sniff out dangerous secrets…only to discover that everyone at Belle Haven has something damning to hide.
As the shocking truth slowly comes to light—and her own domestic drama moves center stage—Melanie finds herself eager to put the bite on a dogged killer.
“A story as controlled as a well-behaved dog on a lead.”—Publishers Weekly
“Don’t make me sit up and beg. Read this book today.”—Dorothy Cannell
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Dog Eat Dog
A Melanie Travis Mystery
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1996 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
Phone calls in the middle of the night never mean good news. Something's wrong, or somebody needs help. Otherwise they wouldn't be waking you up. The way I see it, any call you have to regain consciousness for is one you don't want to get.
I'm a mother, so when the phone began to ring on that cold March night, I was instantly awake. The fact that my son, Davey, is only five, and that I'd tucked him safely into bed right down the hall several hours earlier, didn't dull the maternal reflexes one bit. I was already reaching for the receiver before the end of the first ring.
To do that, I had to maneuver around Sam Driver, whose long, lean body lay between me and the phone on the night table. He opened one eye as I slithered across his chest and smiled appreciatively. Neither one of us had been asleep. We were just dozing contentedly; warm, satisfied, and utterly pleased with ourselves, enjoying a last few minutes of cozy harmony before Sam had to get up and go home.
I trailed a kiss across his chest and reached for the receiver. Before the phone was halfway to my ear, I could hear the insistent thump and twang of a lively country music tune. Immediately I felt better. It was a wrong number; it had to be.
"Hey Mel, guess who?"
I had no intention of guessing, nor did I have to. I hadn't heard the voice in years, but I recognized it right away. It belonged to Bob Travis, my ex-husband.
I glanced at Sam. He lifted a brow. I levered my weight up off him, yanked the cord until it stretched to the other side of the bed, then sat up and clutched the blanket to my breasts.
"Melanie? You there?"
Could I say no? I wondered. Was there any possibility of getting away with that? Probably not.
"It's been a while, huh?"
He was shouting into the phone, probably to make himself heard over the music blaring in the background. A woman, her voice tinny like it was coming from a juke box, wailed about losing her man. The Bob I remembered had been a rock and roll man. Country western? No way. But then a lot could have changed in four and a half years.
"A while," I agreed. There was a moment of silence and I let it hang.
If Bob had something to say, let him figure out how to start. I wasn't going to make it easy for him, any more than he'd made things easy for me when he'd packed up the car and run away from home one day when Davey was just ten months old. Bob had made his choices; among them, child support payments that had dried up in the first six months, and a presence in his son's life that was limited to a small framed picture on the kitchen shelf. As far as I was concerned, he was on his own.
I heard the soft pad of footsteps in the hallway and the door to the bedroom pushed open. It wasn't Davey, but rather our ten month old Standard Poodle puppy, Faith. She sleeps on Davey's bed, so I knew he was okay. If he'd been awake, she wouldn't have left him.
Faith trotted across the room and leapt up to land lightly on the bed. Sam loves dogs and has Poodles of his own. He patted the mattress beside him, where I'd been lying happily only moments before. The big black puppy turned twice, then laid down.
"Have you been missing me, darlin'?" said Bob. "I've been missing yew."
He had to be kidding. I wondered if he was drunk. And where had he gotten that accent? I'd heard he'd gone to Texas, but somehow I couldn't picture button-down Bob turning into a good old boy. Maybe after a few beers, the lyrics from the juke box had gotten stuck in his head and the only way he could think to get rid of them was by calling me up and passing them along.
Sam tugged at the blanket to get my attention. "Who is it?" he mouthed silently.
"Bob," I said.
"Right here, darlin'," the voice on the phone said cheerfully.
"Stop calling me that!" I said, irritated. This aspect of my relationship with Sam was new enough to still feel fragile. I'd hate for him to think that I made a habit of fielding late night calls from my ex-husband. "What's the matter with you? Are you sure you have the right number?"
"I could hardly be calling all the way to Connecticut by mistake, now could I?"
"I don't know, Bob. It's been a long time. I really don't know anything about you anymore."
"Well darlin', that's about to change. In fact, that's the reason for my call."
Behind him, the music subsided. "Hey Bob!" yelled a voice. "You standin' us another round?"
"Hell yes!" Bob roared and a lusty cheer went up.
Now I knew he was drunk. The Bob I'd known hadn't been much of a drinker, and certainly not one to buy a round for the house. Perversely, that made me feel better. With any luck, this call was nothing more than an alcohol induced trip down memory lane. In the morning he'd wake up and remember that we hated each other, and everything would be fine.
"Bob," I said gently. "I think maybe you've had enough to drink."
"Nah," he disagreed. "The party's just getting started. We're celebrating."
"Lucky you." It was time to wind this call down. Actually way past time, if the look on Sam's face was anything to go by. "I won't keep you from it —"
I was already inching back across the bed toward the night stand. Faith's tail thumped up and down on the blanket as I passed. "What?"
"You didn't even give me a chance to tell you my good news. I struck oil!"
I'm a teacher. I work with eight year olds, so I'm used to dealing with tall tales. This one, however, seemed a mite taller than most. My guess was that Bob was going to have one hell of a hangover in the morning.
"You couldn't have struck oil, Bob. You're an accountant."
"Well sure, but I own a well."
He owned a well. My brain received the message, but flatly refused to process it.
"Not a whole well. Actually a share of one." Bob was talking faster now, as if he was afraid I might hang up before he'd gotten out everything he wanted to say. The Texas twang was becoming less and less pronounced. "A friend of mine was buying up old mineral leases and drilling wildcat wells. Just speculating, you know? He didn't have any money, but he needed someone to do the books. So we made a deal."
He paused as if he expected me to say something. No chance of that. All the words I could think of were stuck in my throat.
"I never expected anything to come of it. I just thought I was doing a friend a favor. Then this morning Ray comes flying into town to tell me he'd brought one in. Can you beat that?"
No, I thought, I certainly couldn't.
"What's the matter?" asked Sam, looking at the expression on my face. He leaned closer, cocking an ear toward the receiver.
"It seems Bob owns an oil well."
"A share in a well," my ex corrected. I heard him take a swig of beer. It must have sharpened his perception. "Hey," he demanded, after he'd swallowed. "Who's that you're talking to?"
If there was any easy answer to that question, I certainly didn't know what it was. Nor did I owe Bob any explanations. "Nobody," I said firmly.
That went over well. Sam glared and pulled back.
Bob dropped the phone. At least that's what it sounded like. There was a loud thunk and a sudden increase in the decibel level of the music. Now a man was wailing about love gone wrong. "Hang on, darlin'!" Bob yelled.
Sure. Like I had nothing better to do.
When he didn't return in a few seconds, I put the receiver down on the blanket. Unless Bob had used a credit card, I figured the long distance operator would probably disconnect us soon anyway.
"I didn't mean that the way it sounded," I said to Sam.
"I hope not." He pushed back the covers, easing Faith gently aside, and got up.
I knew he had to go, but that didn't stop me from wanting to reach out and pull him back. Instead, I drew my legs up under the covers and wrapped my arms around them. On the bed beside me, the phone was silent.
"It was none of his business, that's all I was trying to say."
"I guess you made your point." Sam glanced at the receiver. "Where'd he go?"
I shrugged as if it wasn't important, which it wasn't. Bob was my past. I thought of him sometimes as a stage I'd gone through, like Farrah Fawcett hair or disco. If it wasn't for Davey, I'd have said we had no reason to ever speak to each other again.
Up until now, Bob had played almost no part in his son's life. That had been his choice. Mine was that he keep it that way.
Faith reached out with one large black paw and batted the receiver gently. It rolled over several times and lodged beneath a pillow. Good place for it.
Though the bedroom was dark, the moon outside was nearly full. Sam crossed the room, passing through a shaft of silvery light. He walked with the easy grace of a man who was comfortable with his body. And no wonder. A bit over six feet tall, he was trim and tightly muscled. Downy golden hairs covered his chest and legs, matching the thick, often unruly thatch on his head.
At thirty-four, he was in his prime. Three years younger, I found myself cultivating crow's feet and battling the effects of gravity. Biology's a bitch.
I watched as Sam slipped on his jeans and a long sleeved thermal tee. The weathered denim shirt he buttoned over it was the same color as his eyes. My eyes are hazel, a middle of the road shade. So's my hair. It's brown and hangs straight to my shoulders. But when Sam turned and looked at me in the moonlight, I felt beautiful.
"I wish you didn't have to go," I said.
"So do I."
He came back and sat on the edge of the bed. The mattress dipped beneath his weight. Both of us left the rest unsaid. He had dogs at home that needed to be taken care of. And I had Davey.
It wasn't that Sam and my son weren't friends. But Davey had never known his father, and I was wary of his forming too deep an attachment to Sam. Maybe I was wary of doing the same thing myself. Davey had never woken up to find a man sitting at the breakfast table. I wasn't sure either one of us was ready to start.
Sam reached over and brushed his lips across mine. I reached out my hands and ran them up over his shoulders. The blanket slipped down, pooling around my knees. The cool air made my nerve endings tingle.
"Hey Mel!" the receiver squawked suddenly. Faith cocked her ears and nudged it with her nose. "You still there?"
Sam drew back. Slowly I did the same.
"Aren't you going to pick that up?" he asked.
"I guess." I sighed and lifted the phone to my ear. Talk about a mood breaker. "Now what?"
"Sorry about that," said Bob. The twang was back. "Billie Sue just spilled a few beers. Wasn't her fault. If Jocko hadn't goosed her, she'd have been okay. I guess I've had my bath for the night."
"Now listen darlin'. There's a reason why I called."
I figured there might be.
Then he told me what it was and I felt my whole world tilt, ever so slightly, on its axis. I wanted to rant and rave and tell him no. I wanted to slam down the phone and pretend that the call had never happened. I wanted to run into Davey's room, gather him in my arms and hold him tight against whatever was to come.
Instead, I scarcely moved at all. I simply listened until Bob had finished speaking, then hung up the receiver, placing it gently back in the cradle without saying another word. Around me, all was dark. I could feel the warmth of Faith's body pressed along my leg, and the slight rise and fall of her even breathing. I wondered if I sat very still I could convince myself that it had all been nothing more than a bad dream.
"What?" Sam demanded.
Funny, I'd almost forgotten he was there.
"Here," I said quietly. "Bob's coming to Connecticut to get to know his son."CHAPTER 2
The next morning I overslept. If it hadn't been for Faith, who wandered in at seven-thirty and licked my face until she got a response, Davey and I might never have made it to school.
I ran downstairs first thing and let the puppy outside. Poodles are extremely smart and once they learn something, like housebreaking, they hate to make a mistake even if — especially if-it's not their fault. Faith is a Standard Poodle, the largest of the three varieties. She stands twenty-four inches at the withers, has a beautiful head and expression, long legs, a high tail-set, and a dense coat of long black hair. I've just started taking her to dog shows and according to my Aunt Peg, when Faith matures, she should do very well.
If anyone should know, it's Margaret Turnbull. She's Faith's breeder, and owner of the Cedar Crest Poodles, one of the top Standard Poodle kennels on the east coast. She and her husband had been involved in breeding and showing for nearly thirty years, until his death the summer before. Now Aunt Peg was carrying on alone.
She's an imposing woman, with keen intelligence and a boundless supply of common sense. She's almost sixty, but that hasn't slowed her down a bit. At half her age, I sometimes have trouble keeping up, especially when Poodles are involved.
I opened the back door and Faith bounded down the steps. There were still six inches of snow on the ground from a storm the week before. Freezing temperatures overnight had covered it with a thin film of ice. I watched long enough to make sure that the puppy could handle the footing, then turned on the coffee maker and got out a box of instant oatmeal for Davey's breakfast.
"Mom!" Davey called from upstairs. "Where are my clothes?"
At five, my son has yet to master the art of choosing an outfit. Left to his discretion, he invariably ends up dressed in the same color from head to toe. Last time it was red. He looked like a misplaced Christmas elf. I work at Hunting Ridge Elementary, where Davey goes to school, so I have to watch things like that. It's hard to inspire confidence in other parents when your own child looks to be sorely in need of adult guidance.
"Be right there!"
The coffee was starting to drip; Faith was waiting at the back door to come in. If only I'd had a third or fourth hand, I'd have switched on the TV and tried to find the weather. March in southern Connecticut always leaves you guessing. I opened the door for Faith and threw down a bowl of dry kibble, then grabbed a cup of scalding coffee and ran back upstairs. I could only hope the day's forecast wasn't critical.
Davey and I made it to school by the second bell, but just barely. The last of the big yellow buses was parked at the curb when we pulled into the already full side lot and designated our own unmarked parking space.
The ride to school had taken less than ten minutes, but in that time Davey had managed to shed both his hat and his mittens. I had his backpack on the front seat next to me or he probably would have unpacked that, too. Organization isn't a strong suit with him. He gets that from his father.
It was only a stray thought, but it stopped me where I sat. A chill washed over my head and neck. For a moment I thought it was an omen; then I realized Davey had opened the Volvo's back door.
He got out and jammed his hat on his head. "I thought we were late."
Still I didn't move, except to smile as I gazed at my impatient child. My son. In the space of an instant, his birth had transformed everything I thought I knew about love.
Davey's cheeks were pink with cold, his breath coming in small puffs of steam. He'd gotten the green knit cap on crooked, covering one ear but leaving the other bare. Sandy hair stuck out from beneath the rim. He had mink-brown eyes much like his father's. They were heavy lidded and rimmed with long dark lashes. Someday he'd be a heartbreaker, I had little doubt of that. He already held my heart in his hands.
For five years, I'd been the focus of Davey's world and he of mine. I'd always thought I wanted Davey to have the opportunity to get to know his father; but now that it seemed he would, suddenly I was apprehensive about the prospect. When Bob reappeared, everything would change. I wasn't sure I was ready for that.
"Come on," Davey said insistently. He wasn't allowed to cross the parking lot alone. "Hurry up!"
"I'm coming." I gathered up my things from the seat, got out and locked the car behind me.
"Race you to the door!"
"Davey, wait! Take my hand!"
Fat chance. We hit the school running and went inside to start the day.
Excerpted from Dog Eat Dog by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 1996 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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