As the dog days of summer turn to the playful nip of autumn’s chill, Melanie Travis is ready for a little relaxation. Her Aunt Peg has the perfect solution: a five-day symposium for dog show judges in Pennsylvania’s idyllic Pocono Mountains. While Peg and Melanie’s sister-in-law Bertie welcome the opportunity to socialize with the dog world’s elite, the very pregnant Melanie embraces the chance to simply unwind.
But when renowned judge Charles Evans delivers a keynote address that irritates many of the attendees, the symposium’s agenda takes a deadly turn. For later that evening, Charles is found floating facedown in the outdoor hot tub.
With few clues to go on, the police are baffled. But Melanie decides to take matters into her own hands, suspecting that a cold-blooded murderer may lurk among her fellow dog lovers...
“[An] always charming and clever series.”—Earlene Fowler, Agatha Award-winning author of the Benni Harper Mysteries
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Hounded to Death
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2007 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
On the road again ...
The refrain from some half-forgotten song was playing on an endless, rolling loop in my brain. It made a fitting backdrop to the day's activities, but it was slowly driving me crazy.
Anyone who was a dog show enthusiast was accustomed to spending a lot of time traveling to far-flung locations. That was the nature of the game. But this trip was different.
For one thing, there weren't any dogs in the car. None of my beloved Standard Poodles—clipped and bathed, beautified almost beyond the point of common sense—had accompanied me on this jaunt. Instead my two companions were Margaret Turnbull, my Aunt Peg, and Bertie Kennedy, my best friend and sister-in-law.
Three women on the loose—or as loose as one could be in a minivan heading down the highway toward Pennsylvania.
Aunt Peg was the one who had proposed the trip. And although I often try to fight the impulse, as usually happens I'd ended up falling in with her plans.
As for Bertie, I think she felt that five days away from the responsibilities of home and family would be just the thing to recharge her batteries. Her daughter, Maggie, was ten months old. She'd consumed most of Bertie's time and attention since her birth just before Christmas, but now she'd been left in the care of Bertie's husband, my brother Frank.
Bertie was currently riding shotgun in the front seat.
"This is going to be great," she'd said delightedly when we'd hit the road an hour earlier. "A girls' road trip. Just like Thelma and Louise. Except that we won't die in the end."
Which ... you know ... set the bar and gave us something to aspire to.
"You're being awfully quiet back there," Aunt Peg said. Her gaze found mine in the rearview mirror.
Aunt Peg was driving, of course. She plots her own course and it's left to those around her to either keep up or get left behind. The fact that we were doing better than seventy miles an hour on the Garden State Parkway was apparently not sufficient incentive for her to keep her eyes, or her mind, on the road.
"I'm singing to myself," I said.
"You are not." Bertie swiveled in her seat. "I've heard you sing. If you were singing, my ears would be hurting."
I loved Bertie dearly. That didn't stop me from reaching up and poking her.
"Maybe if you two would let me have a turn in the front seat, I'd be more likely to join in the conversation."
"We put you back there for your own good."
Peg flipped on her signal and changed lanes simultaneously. Not to worry. New Jersey drivers are used to that kind of behavior.
"To protect me from your driving?"
"My driving skills are excellent, thank you very much. I haven't had an accident since Nixon was in office."
Aunt Peg was in her early sixties, but age hadn't curtailed a single aspect of her behavior. I was three decades younger and would have considered myself lucky to possess half her drive and enthusiasm.
"Bertie and I were only thinking of your comfort. We assumed you'd be happier having the backseat all to yourself. After all, you're the one who needs the extra room."
Aunt Peg was referring to the fact that I was four months pregnant. Increasing as they used to say in earlier times, before women had minivans to cart around their expanding bodies.
Yes, I had begun to outgrow my clothing. But needing an entire bench just to sit by myself? Thankfully I wasn't expanding that fast.
"Speaking of which," said Bertie, "how are you feeling?"
Let's recap here for a minute. When my lovely redheaded sister-in-law had been pregnant the previous year, she'd sailed through that nine months with the same aplomb she brought to most endeavors. No matronly maternity clothes for her; she'd simply borrowed some of Frank's shirts and jeans, refashioned them around the slight bump in her figure, and made do. She'd eaten whatever she wanted, glowed like an angel, and handled her clients' dogs to numerous wins nearly right up until the day she delivered.
Remembering that was enough to make me feel like giving her another poke.
Bertie must have read my mind because she moved out of easy range. "Everything okay?"
"Just fine," I replied.
Which was true if you didn't count the fact that I felt grumpy, and lumpy, and had to pee every five minutes.
"I'm delighted to have your company," said Aunt Peg. "But under the circumstances, frankly I was a little surprised that Sam let you go."
Sam was my husband. We'd eloped in the spring after an extended engagement. But despite the brief duration of our marriage, not only had I not had a hard time getting away, but Sam had all but packed my bag and pushed me out the door. He'd claimed to be acting for my own good.
It was amazing how many times that phrase seemed to have popped up lately. This current pregnancy was my second. The first had taken place ten years earlier and produced my son, Davey, who had remained at home with Sam. I supposed I'd forgotten in the intervening time how involved other people tended to become when a woman was carrying a baby. Not to mention how many decisions they felt qualified to make on her behalf.
Sometimes it seemed as though the general consensus was that pregnancy was not only changing my body but also addling my brain.
Nevertheless I knew that Sam had been trying to do the right thing. He had wanted me to slow down my schedule, and somehow that solicitude on his part had morphed into my accompanying Aunt Peg on a small vacation of sorts.
During the school year, I work as a special needs tutor at a private academy in Greenwich, Connecticut. Luckily, however, Aunt Peg's proposed getaway had come up in the middle of October and coincided with fall break. Which was how I'd come to find myself in the backseat of a minivan, on my way to a dog show judges' symposium at the Rockwall Mountain Inn in the Poconos.
"Sam knew I'd be in good hands." I was careful to keep any trace of irony from my voice.
"Good luck with that," said Bertie. "Not that I don't love Maggie to bits, but taking care of a baby is a fulltime job. This trip is going to be my great escape and I intend to make the most of it."
"Really?" Aunt Peg slanted a look down her nose. "What exactly do you have planned?"
Usually those looks are aimed at me. Most times they make me squirm with discomfort. Not Bertie; she just grinned.
"You know," she said, "the usual. Sleeping until seven-thirty, wearing clothes that don't have spit-up on the shoulder, enjoying a little privacy in the bathroom. All those wild things."
"Good." Aunt Peg nodded with satisfaction. "That won't interfere. While I'm busy with lectures and such, you'll be the one taking care of Melanie."
"Taking care of Melanie?" I echoed incredulously from the backseat. If they could talk about me in the third person, so could I. "Melanie is a grown woman, thank you very much. She doesn't need to be taken care of."
"You know how she has a propensity to get herself into trouble." Aunt Peg blithely ignored my protest.
While I was busy sputtering, Bertie came to my defense.
"Funny thing about that," she said to Peg. "When it comes to trouble, I seem to recall you've found your share."
"Nonsense. That's been nothing more than a bit of bad luck and poor timing."
"And general nosiness," I said.
Aunt Peg mustered a credible show of outrage. "Perhaps you might be thinking of yourself, because you certainly can't be referring to me. I'll admit that on occasion I might feel obliged to step in and lend a hand when a problem arises unexpectedly. But mostly I keep my opinions to myself and let other people find their own way. Why, if I were a country, I'd probably be Switzerland."
"Switzerland," I said faintly.
The mind boggled. Aunt Peg thought of herself as a neutral country. And here I'd always imagined her more like an elite special forces unit. Something along the lines of Mossad.
"Don't worry," said Bertie, "I'll do my best to keep an eye on her."
She looked back and winked.
"Neither one of you needs to worry," I said firmly. "My schedule is going to be totally filled with panels and seminars. With so many events crammed into the agenda, I doubt there will be time for any of us to get into trouble."
"Amen to that," said Peg.
"This is my first symposium," said Bertie. "Tell me what to expect."
"I'm only one ahead of you," I admitted. "This is just my second."
My tenure in the dog show world was relatively new. Not like Aunt Peg, who'd been involved for decades, first as a Standard Poodle breeder, and then more recently as a judge. Initially approved for the three varieties of Poodles—Standard, Miniature, and Toy—she'd quickly moved on to add more breeds to her resume.
The surest way to judging success is to gain approval in multiple groups, and Aunt Peg was well on her way. The Non-Sporting group was already hers, and by the end of the year she would have approval for all the Toy breeds as well.
Bertie, on the other hand, was a professional handler. Her knowledge of judges and judging came from the other end of the leash. She had neither a breeding program, nor strong ties to any one particular breed.
Her forte was presentation. Breeders who lacked either the skill or the desire to handle their own dogs in the ring hired her to do it for them. She had handled hundreds of dogs to their championships and dozens to coveted group and Best in Show victories.
Part of Bertie's job was to study judges she exhibited under and figure out exactly what each one wanted to see in a dog. It was a skill she excelled at. Even so, the thought of becoming a judge herself still seemed like a foreign concept to her.
To tell the truth, it did to me too. Not that I would have dreamed of admitting as much to Aunt Peg. She would have seen such a notion as heresy.
"There was a symposium held in conjunction with Westminster last year," I said. "That was my first. It covered a bunch of breeds and ran all day Saturday and Sunday."
"I was busy showing at specialties then," Bertie said with a sigh. "Nobody plans these things with handlers in mind."
Casual spectators think of the Westminster dog show as the crown jewel of the dog world. It's the show that has the cachet, the television coverage, and Madison Square Garden. But for many of the exhibitors who come to New York, wins at the specialty shows that precede the main event are equally important.
"That's why you're in luck now," said Aunt Peg. "This should be a tremendous learning opportunity both for aspiring judges and for those of us who are already approved. Aside from the various breed lectures, there will be panels on the mechanics of the judging process, on bookkeeping, hassle-free traveling, and even on fulfilling the requirements to apply for a license. A wealth of knowledge will be offered this week and I'd be hard pressed to see why anyone wouldn't want to take full advantage of it."
"I don't know," said Bertie. "I doubt if all the attendees will have the same high-minded goals that you do."
"What do you mean?"
"I wouldn't be surprised if half of them are looking at this week as a tax-deductible excuse to party. Why else would the sponsors have chosen to hold the event at a mountaintop resort?"
Bertie had a point. Dog show exhibitors were no different than anyone else. Remove them from the boundaries and constraints of their daily lives, isolate them all together in a convivial atmosphere, and there was no telling what kinds of trouble they might get up to.
Which led me directly back to our earlier conversation.
"Switzerland," I muttered under my breath.
Now all I had to do was hold on tight to that thought.
"What, dear?" Aunt Peg asked.
"Nothing." I rubbed a hand over my stomach. The small swell I felt there gave me comfort. "I think my stomach was rumbling."
"Little Brutus must be talking to you," Bertie said.
"Little Brutus?" Aunt Peg craned her head around. "I should hope not."
"Bertie's just upset because I won't let her help Sam and me pick out names for the baby. She's taken to offering suggestions."
"Excellent suggestions," Bertie sniffed. "If I do say so myself."
"Right," I said. "This from a woman who almost named her daughter Godot."
"She was late. I got tired of waiting. I might have been a little cranky when I came up with that name."
"Might have been?" Trust me, I'd been there. There was no "might" about it.
"And anyway, now I've got all week to work on you. Without Sam to back you up, you'll never be able to withstand my influence."
"Five whole days," Bertie said with a happy sigh. "You know what's the best thing about leaving all the men home?"
"We don't have to shave our legs?"
"Not what I was thinking, but good answer."
"About that no-men thing," Aunt Peg said casually.
That stopped the conversation cold.
"That doesn't exactly apply to me," she said.
She was right in that she hadn't left a man at home. In fact, since her husband's death three years earlier, Aunt Peg had had only one relationship I'd been aware of; and that, unfortunately, hadn't lasted long.
But somehow I had a sneaking suspicion that wasn't what she was referring to.
Bertie and I exchanged glances. She shrugged slightly, apparently as baffled as I was.
"Go on," I said.
"There's actually another reason I signed up to come to the symposium. I happen to have a new boyfriend. His name is Richard Donner and he'll also be attending. I'm quite certain we're all going to get along famously."CHAPTER 2
"Wow!" cried Bertie. "Good for you." I just stared.
It wasn't the thought of Aunt Peg with a man that made my eyes widen. It was the fact that she'd apparently managed to slip this one into place in her life without my noticing his existence earlier.
Aunt Peg was sneaky, that was a given; it was one of her better attributes. But truly, I had thought I was more observant than to let something of this magnitude slide by.
Maybe the consensus was right and pregnancy had addled my brain.
"So," said Bertie, "you're going to Pennsylvania to meet up with a hot date. Tell us everything."
"His name is Richard Donner."
"We already have that much," I said impatiently. "Where did you meet him?"
"Over the Internet."
The comment was delivered with total nonchalance. As if she thought that feigned indifference on her part might ward off the anticipated outcry. It didn't.
"You must be joking!"
"Perfect." Bertie giggled. "Did you go to one of those sites like match dot com? Have you met your perfect match? This is so romantic—"
"It is not romantic," I said sternly. "In fact it might be only one step away from lunacy. What do you know about this man aside from the fact that he owns a computer?"
Peg was unruffled. "I know he likes dogs."
"Everybody likes dogs."
"Bob's next door neighbor doesn't."
Bob was my ex-husband, and Amber was a cat person. All of which was beside the point.
"Have you met him in person? Do you even know what he looks like?"
"I've seen his picture. To borrow a word from Bertie, he's hot."
"If what he showed you was the right picture," Bertie mentioned.
Peg's gaze swung her way. "What do you mean?"
"Plenty of people misrepresent themselves on the Internet. Child molesters go to chat rooms and pretend to be twelve-year-old girls—"
"You think I've gotten myself mixed up with a child molester?" Aunt Peg sounded incredulous. Also annoyed.
"I'm just using that as an example. You have to be really careful when you use those Internet dating sites—"
"How would you know?" I asked.
Bertie ignored me. "Of course everyone wants to present themselves in the best light. So you add a couple inches to your height, shave off twenty pounds, say you have a master's degree when you barely graduated from high school."
"People do that?" Aunt Peg, a woman who had never felt inadequate in her life, still sounded incredulous.
"That and more," I confirmed. "For all you know, you might have seen a picture of what this Richard person looked like ten years ago."
"Or maybe one of his next door neighbor," Bertie said.
"You're being ridiculous," Aunt Peg scoffed.
"No, we're not."
"You're mad, both of you."
"We're being cautious."
"Cynical," Peg said firmly. "With very little faith in the goodness of human nature apparently."
Excerpted from Hounded to Death by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2007 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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