This year, all Melanie wants for Christmas is a dull moment. Between her teaching job, and showing her Standard Poodle puppy, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. But when her son Davey’s usual bus driver, Henry Pruitt, disappears and is replaced by a surly, pierced twentysomething, Melanie is concerned. The elderly, amiable Henry was a friend to all in the neighborhood, so she decides to check on him…only to find that he died two days earlier, under suspicious circumstances.
As if that weren’t bad enough, Henry’s two Golden Retrievers are now bereft of both master and home. Melanie can’t just abandon them, so she brings them to her Aunt Peg, the most stubborn woman on the planet, who’s now determined to find out the truth about Henry's death, no matter what it takes. Soon, the indomitable Aunt Peg has Melanie making a list of suspects and checking it twice. And unless she sniffs out this Scrooge of a killer fast, a lump of coal in her stocking may not be the worst thing Melanie gets this Christmas…
“As ever, the author provides a captivating behind-the-scenes look at the world of show dogs.”—Publishers Weekly
"Melanie Travis is a terrific character."--Romantic Times
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Jingle Bell Bark
A Melanie Travis Mystery
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2004 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
Most people start the new year on January first. Not me, I'm a school teacher; I start out fresh in the fall. I've always found something rejuvenating about the tang of crisp autumn air, and the sound of feet shuffling through dry, fallen leaves. The coming of that new season never fails to lift my spirits and renew my enthusiasm for the year ahead.
In keeping with this renewal I've taken to making resolutions at the start of each new school year. Now that I'm a few years into my thirties, I find the demands I choose to place upon myself have simplified. That whole eat-right, exercise-more, and lose-weight thing? Not happening around here. I mean, really, aside from super models and sitcom stars, who has the time? Some days I consider myself lucky if my shoes match.
Each other, that is. Not my outfit.
So this year when September rolled around, I made a different pledge, one more in keeping with the way my life was going now. I wanted a dull moment, I decided. Just one would do. An hour, or even half of one where nothing was required of me and there was nowhere I had to be. I wanted to kick back, put my feet up, and experience a little boredom.
The idea sounded so simple. I knew other people had managed it. Why couldn't I seem to do the same?
Perhaps the fact that I was a single mother had something to do with that. Davey is the light of my life and the other half of my heart. He's also a typical eight-year-old boy: loud, boisterous, often dirty, and always entertaining. And if he wasn't enough to keep me busy, our two housemates, Standard Poodles Faith and Eve, were always ready to fill in the blanks.
The two big Poodles are mother and daughter and they share a number of traits. Both dogs are thoughtful and mischievous. They're also smarter than many people I know, which isn't necessarily a good thing when you consider that I work in education.
The other person who's been known to occasionally lead me down the path of most resistance is my Aunt Peg, also known as Margaret Turnbull of Cedar Crest Kennels, breeder of Standard Poodles par excellence, newly appointed AKC judge, and a woman who has all the finesse of a Bullmastiff with a broken toe when it comes to going after what she wants.
Aunt Peg often tries to run my life and occasionally succeeds. Recently, however, the majority of her domineering tactics had been directed toward my sister-in-law, Bertie, who was expecting her first child with my brother, Frank, in December. Never a mother herself, Aunt Peg was nevertheless a font of unsolicited advice. I knew it was selfish on my part, but still it was a relief to see Aunt Peg focus her attention on another relative for a change.
Which is a long, roundabout way of saying that of late my life had been running rather smoothly; nearly the entire fall semester had passed uneventfully. With Thanksgiving just behind us, both my students and I were looking forward to the holiday season and Christmas break.
And since he wasn't finding third grade to be too demanding, the biggest thing on Davey's agenda was the production of a Christmas play at the Long Ridge Arts Center. Davey and his best friend, Joey Brickman, had been cast as two of the three Wise Men. Not starring roles exactly, but ones that came with the incentives that they could carry props, give away presents, and didn't have to dress up as a camel.
Davey had practiced his two lines so often I could say them in my sleep, and probably did. If so, Sam Driver, my fiancé, didn't seem to mind. This was our second try at being engaged, the first attempt having come to an ignominious end eighteen months earlier when Sam had abruptly left town for parts unknown. This time, we were hoping for a better result.
This time I thought I might actually have things under control. Unfortunately, it's just that kind of overconfidence that comes back and bites you in the butt every single time. Trust me, I know these things.
There's a belief among today's parents of school-age children that any moment left unscheduled is a moment wasted. Gone are the days when kids played outside until dark, and games were designed to be fun, rather than pro mote learning and educational advancement. Now it seems as though any child who hasn't completed math and reading readiness courses by kindergarten is already off the fast track.
For Davey's sake, I tried not to get too caught up in the frenetic race-for-success mentality that was so pervasive in Fairfield County. But then I was left with the concern that my laissez-faire attitude might be responsible for allowing my child to fall behind his peers. Besides, since most of his friends were engaged in one activity after another, if Davey wanted to have any social life at all, he had to get involved.
Which brought us to the Christmas play at the arts center. With soccer season over and basketball yet to begin, the choices for December narrowed themselves down to Cotillion and the Christmas play. Faced with a choice between white gloves and a Wise Man's robes, Davey opted to try out his fledgling acting skills.
Auditions were held over Thanksgiving break. That was really just a fancy way of saying that notices had been posted at a number of likely locations around town, then the organizers had waited to see how many children might show up. In past years, I'd been told, attendance had been so light that Ms. Morehouse, the play's director, had been forced to dole out speaking parts to several of the smaller parents. I'd worn clogs with platform heels to the audition, just in case.
This time around, however, Cotillion must not have exerted its customary draw. At the appointed time, the auditorium at the arts center was filled with a battalion of kids, all seemingly high on Christmas cheer. In the chaos that ensued, Davey and Joey had been lucky to land their minor speaking roles. Parents of children who came later found themselves being sent home with directions on how to make a sheep costume. By my count, Ms. Morehouse would be lucky if the flock-to-be didn't overwhelm the small stage.
When school started up again after the break, the addition of play practice to the schedule necessitated a change in Davey's routine. Weekdays I worked as a special needs tutor at Howard Academy, a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut. Davey, who went to public school near our house in Stamford, rode the bus. His bus driver, Henry, was a kindly man, cherished by the mothers on the route, who felt safe in trusting him with their children. Lately he'd taken to carrying a box of milkbones for the Poodles.
Monday morning, as I got Davey ready for school, I kept one eye on the clock. Henry was notoriously punctual, and since I needed to speak with him about the schedule change, I wanted to be waiting outside when he arrived.
Davey had shown up in the kitchen minutes before, dragging a backpack that was at least twice as heavy as any book bag I ever remembered taking to school. Even six months earlier, he'd seemed like a little boy. Now I was struck suddenly by how much he had grown up.
It wasn't just physical development, though that was part of it. His jeans, bought a size too big, had until recently pooled around his ankles. Now they fit, which probably meant that in six weeks they'd be too small. In the months since summer, his blond hair had darkened again. The sandy brown shade gave him a more serious look. Big brown eyes, so like his father's, gazed right past me and fastened on the bowl, spoon, and box of Cheerios I'd left sitting on the table. He crossed the room with the same quick, graceful strides that served him well on the soccer field and slid into a chair.
"All set for school?" I asked.
Standing at the counter, I was putting baby carrots in a baggie to add to his lunch. I'd never been entirely sure whether Davey actually ate them or whether they were slipped surreptitiously into the cage of the class rabbit. Either way, he seemed to appreciate their addition.
"Mmmm." He poured a bowl of cereal, sloshed on some milk, and dove in.
"You have all your homework?"
His shoulders rose and fell in a weary sigh.
"What?" I said mildly.
"You ask me that every day."
"Some days you say no," I pointed out, heading toward the back door. A whine from the step outside had alerted me to the fact that Faith and Eve were ready to come in.
Having an enclosed backyard where I knew the Poodles would be safe, even when I wasn't watching, was a luxury. One I would have been hard pressed to afford if Aunt Peg hadn't taken matters into her own hands and arranged to have the four-foot cedar fence erected one day while Davey and I were at school. My aunt had her standards for responsible dog ownership, and heaven help the family that fell below them.
As usual, Faith came running inside first, while Eve hung back and followed more slowly. Since the two Poodles were nearly the same size, I hadn't yet decided whether the younger dog's deference was due to her age or her slightly more cautious temperament. Once inside, however, Eve dashed past her mother and bounded to Davey's side.
Her tail, shaved at the base and adorned by a large black pom-pon on the end, wagged back and forth. Judging by her greeting, you'd have thought it had been weeks rather than mere minutes since they'd seen each other last. I watched as Davey slipped her a handful of dry Cheerios.
"Be careful of her hair," I said, sounding like the nagging mother I try hard not to be.
I couldn't help it. In this instance it was reflex. And self-defense.
Faith, who was retired from the show ring, wore her dense black coat in a very becoming short blanket of curls. Eve, in the midst of pursuing her championship, was in a continental trim. Like Faith, her face and feet were shaved. In addition, her hindquarter and legs had also been clipped down to the skin, save for a rosette of hair over each hip and bracelets around her ankles.
The hair on the front of her body, known as her mane coat, was thick and profuse. It had been growing since she was a baby, and despite frequent trimming and shaping, was more than a foot long in some places. If Davey spilled his milk in there, I would have to devote the next hour to pain stakingly getting it out.
Ask me how I know.
"I'm not going to spill my milk," Davey said.
I opened my mouth to speak.
"Or my orange juice," my son finished for me. He knows me entirely too well.
Chewing her cereal, Eve moved away from the table and went to check out the water bowl. I slipped Faith a biscuit to make sure they were even in the treat department. The older Poodle carried it under the table and lay down to examine her prize. She has always been a finicky eater. Sometimes I think she enjoys having biscuits more than actually eating them. Eve, on the other hand, would clean out the cupboards if she could figure out how to use a can opener.
"You remember you'll be getting off the bus at the arts center this afternoon instead of coming home, right?" I said.
We'd rehearsed his route the night before, but I still needed the reassurance of running through it again. Over the years I'd found that my job as a mother consisted of endless repetition. Not only that, but it was guaranteed that the one thing I didn't mention ten times was the one my child would forget—and then make me feel guilty for not reminding him.
"Got it." Davey finished his cereal and started on his juice. I whisked up the empty bowl and rinsed it in the sink.
"And Joey will be doing the same thing. So the two of you should stay together."
"We've been to the center a thousand times," Davey said. "I'm not going to get lost."
"Yes, but this is the first time you'll be going on your own, straight from school."
"We'll be fine. Once you give Henry the note he'll make sure we get off in the right place."
He would, I thought, and felt immediately better. Henry had been driving the bus for longer than Davey had been in school. In all those years I doubted if he'd ever misplaced a single child.
Davey and I were on the front steps when the school bus turned the corner onto our road. Winter mornings, it took twice as long to get a child out the door. Davey's parka was zipped, his knit cap pulled down firmly over his ears, and there was a mitten on each hand. Though we had yet to see snow, the temperature was hovering just above the freezing mark. Our breath blew out in little puffs as we walked out to the curb and waited.
Seconds later, the bus lumbered to a stop in front of us. The door whooshed open. Warm air billowed out. Davey scrambled past me and up the steps. He was probably afraid I would try to kiss him good-bye in front of his friends.
"Cold enough for you?" Henry asked. This time of year, it was his standard greeting.
His lined face creased in an easy grin; I'd never seen Henry in a bad mood. I guessed his age to be about sixty, but he'd taken good care of himself. His jaw was freshly shaven, his eyes clear. A down parka hung over the back of his seat; a bulky green sweater kept him warm. He wore knit gloves with the fingers cut off and, as always, a baseball cap covered his thinning hair. Seeing that I wanted to talk, Henry shifted into park and reached for the mug of coffee in a holder by his knee.
"I'll say." Since I was only planning on being outside for a minute, I hadn't bothered to fasten my own coat. Now I was grateful for the heated air escaping through the doorway. I extended my hand inside with a folded note. "For the next few weeks, Davey's going to be getting off three days a week at the arts center."
Henry nodded. "Decided against Cotillion, did you? Good choice."
There wasn't much going on in the neighborhood that escaped the driver's notice. "Davey thought so, too," I said.
Henry added my permission slip to a pile of others in his tray. "Half the kids on this route went out for the Christmas play this year. You got yourself a sheep?"
"Behold a star in the east," Henry intoned.
My brow lifted.
"First line, right?"
"Things don't change much from year to year. You watch out for Rebecca, now. She runs a tight ship. Time she gets through with you, you may wish you'd signed up for white gloves and waltzing." Henry's eyes twinkled as he delivered the warning.
I didn't think twice about teasing him right back. "So she's Rebecca to you? The rest of us call her Ms. More house."
"Yeah, well." Henry shifted into gear and reached for the lever to pull the door shut. "You know what they say, age has its privileges."
The door slid shut; the brakes released. The bus groaned and rolled away. Davey had a window seat. I waved as he went by. Engrossed in talking to his friends, he didn't respond.
As I turned back to the house, I saw two black noses pressed against the front window. Four paws beat against the cold glass eagerly as the Poodles danced on their hind legs waiting for me to come and get them.
I went inside to start the week.CHAPTER 2
Once I reached Howard Academy, the day flew by. For one thing, half my tutoring sessions were canceled. Think about it: the day after Thanksgiving break, in a private school in Greenwich? Between the kids who were still schussing down the slopes and the ones who were still sunning in the Caribbean, the place was nearly empty. Even some of the teachers hadn't bothered to show up. That's life in the fast lane for you.
I worked with a few students, took Faith and Eve for several walks around the academy's spacious grounds, ate my sandwich of turkey leftovers for lunch, planned the next day's lessons in case anyone showed up, and decided to call it a day. Leaving early, I had plenty of time to drop Faith and Eve off at home before heading over to the arts center. Most afternoons I'd simply pick Davey up after play practice ended. That day, I decided to stop in early, sit in the back of the auditorium, and watch how things went.
The Long Ridge Arts Center was located in backcountry Stamford on a narrow, twisting road barely more than a single lane wide. Despite its out-of-the-way location, the families in the area flocked to the center, drawn by the diversity of its offerings. There were classes in ballet and jazz, yoga and theater, photography and cartooning. And if enough requests came in for a program that wasn't offered, chances were the center would hire a teacher and find a way to put a class together.
Privately funded and largely supported by grateful parents, the arts center was a huge asset to the community. In earlier years, Davey had attended after-school classes in speech and drawing. This was the first time he'd elected to take part in the Christmas play.
By the time I arrived, a fleet of yellow school buses was already lined up outside the building, disgorging hordes of eager students. Inside, the lobby was bustling. On other occasions, I'd stopped to admire the students' artwork adorning the walls, but now I went directly through into the auditorium.
Nearly forty children were milling around in the front of the room. It took me a minute to spot Davey. He was up on the stage, standing off to one side with Joey Brickman and several other friends. Satisfied that they'd arrived safely, I pulled off my wool coat and scarf and slipped into a seat in the back row.
Excerpted from Jingle Bell Bark by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2004 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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