Melanie Travis has added a husband and three more dogs to her already cramped home. At least she’s getting a welcome respite from the stress of house-hunting by taking her dog Faith for advanced training at The South Avenue Obedience Club.
There are enough sexual and political undercurrents in the group to power a small generator, but Melanie is enthusiastic about the opportunity to bring Faith to the program at the Winston Pumpernill Nursing Home. Club member Paul Lennox initiated the outings to please his Great Aunt Mary, and since many of the other residents are also dog lovers, the trips are now a treasured tradition.
Melanie and Faith are warmly welcomed at the home, but their very first visit ends in tragedy when Aunt Mary is found suffocated in her bed. There’s no shortage of suspects—from the wealthy victim’s ne’er-do-well son to the staff to the club members themselves. All Melanie has to do is follow the trail—and watch her back…
“Engaging…The author depicts the nursing home residents with a wise and knowing chuckle.”—Publishers Weekly
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Raining Cats & Dogs
A Melanie Travis Mystery
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
"I'll tell you the secret to happiness," said Aunt Peg. "It's this: Never grow old."
I looked at my aunt, who'd turned sixty-three on her last birthday. From my vantage point three decades younger, that seemed pretty old to me. I resisted the impulse to say what I was thinking, but my discretion didn't help. Aunt Peg was able to read minds, or something close to it.
And not just mine, either. Peg always seemed to know what her big black Standard Poodles were thinking. She had six of them, all retired show champions, all related to my two, Faith and Eve. Now she gazed pointedly in my direction and lifted a brow.
Faith, who was lying under my chair with her long muzzle resting on my foot, cringed slightly and turned her face away, as if maybe she didn't want to witness what was coming next. I think she can read minds, too. When it came to psychic ability, I seemed to be the only one who had gotten left out.
"Age," Aunt Peg said loftily, "is merely a number on a calendar. What matters is how you feel inside. The enthusiasm and curiosity with which you greet each new day. The boundless energy you devote to the things that interest you."
"Boundless energy?" I repeated. I may have sunk lower in my chair. The mere notion of trying to muster such a thing seemed like entirely too much effort.
We were having this conversation at five o'clock on a Thursday afternoon. I'd already put in a full day of work, attending to my job as a special needs tutor at Howard Academy in Greenwich. My eight-year-old son, Davey, was at spring soccer practice. My new husband, Sam, would be picking him up and bringing him home within the hour. I was supposed to be cooking dinner.
Instead, I was planted at my kitchen table, hands wrapped around an oversize mug of fully caffeinated coffee. Aunt Peg had her usual tea. Sprawled on the floor around us were five Standard Poodles of various ages. My two plus the three Sam had brought with him when he'd moved in three weeks earlier. My house was small and cozy. There wasn't nearly enough room to accommodate five large dogs, not to mention an extra adult. No matter how badly Davey and I both wanted him there.
So far, Sam's and my marriage — which had begun with a spur-of-the-moment elopement to Vermont over spring break — had all the elements of a three-ring circus: thrills, chills, laughter, and suspense. Oh, yes, and great sex.
Okay, so maybe it was better than most circuses I'd been to.
Still, it was a challenge to comprehend how this was all going to come together. And combining two households might prove to be the least of our worries. I was thirty-four and had been a single parent for most of the last eight years. Sam was two years older, previously divorced, no children. Both of us were accustomed to living life on our own terms, keeping to our own schedules, and, for the most part, answering to nobody but ourselves. Both of us were willing to compromise; we just hadn't figured out yet how to make everything work.
And the cramped living quarters, which had the eight of us — Poodles included, naturally — constantly tripping over one another, weren't helping.
"All right, maybe not boundless," Aunt Peg said. She peered at me closely. "And here I thought marriage to Sam would be good for you. Are you sure you're getting enough sleep?"
There we were, I thought, back to that great sex thing again.
"I'm fine," I chirped, straightening in my seat. "Quite fine. Positively fine."
"Well, if you don't mind my saying so, you look like hell."
As if my minding would have stopped her. As if my objections to anything Aunt Peg proposed ever slowed her down for even a minute.
"No, I'm just regrouping," I said. "Conserving my energy for later. Faith and I are going to our first obedience class tonight."
"Oh, really? I'd forgotten all about that."
Aunt Peg thinks she's a good liar. At one point in my life, when I knew her less well, I had thought so, too. Now, however, I can spot her ulterior motives a mile away. And this impromptu chat, occasioned by Peg showing up at my door with a box of cinnamon buns in her hands and an innocent expression on her face, had all the earmarks of an inquisition.
"Tell me again," she said casually, "why you decided Faith needed a second career in obedience."
This would be after the Poodle's first career as a show dog. Faith, like Aunt Peg's Standards, was a show ring champion. She had also recently become the dam of a champion when Peg had finished Zeke, a puppy from Faith's first litter. Eve was Zeke's littermate, and she was working toward her championship as well. So far, she had amassed twelve of the fifteen points necessary to earn her title. With luck, I would have her finished by summer.
"Instead of something fun," Aunt Peg continued, "like say ... agility?"
Agility — dogs and their owners racing pell-mell around a course of obstacles, trying to beat the clock while running through tunnels, in and out of weave poles, and over jumps — did look like fun. It was also currently all the rage. Obedience trials, on the other hand, had been around for decades. That sport was more disciplined and exacting. When done correctly, it did not involve any running, or yelling, or fits of helpless laughter.
Aunt Peg was doing agility with Hope, Faith's sister. And, as always, she expected me to follow in her footsteps.
Except that, for the first time, I was putting my foot down.
"Obedience," I said firmly. "Faith and I are going to have a great time."
"But she's already obedient. For one thing, she's a Standard Poodle, which means that she was born knowing ten times more than your basic retriever or terrier."
You'll have to forgive my aunt. She loves all dogs; she truly does. But in her heart of hearts, she's totally Poodlecentric.
"Plus, the very fact that she was a show dog means that she's already learned to do all sorts of things: she comes, she stands, she stays. She walks beautifully on a leash."
I nodded in agreement. "That's why we're not starting in the beginner class. I spoke with the instructor about it when I signed up. Even though Faith and I don't have any background in obedience, Steve was fairly confident that being in the novice group would bore us silly. Tonight's class is for the more advanced dog and handler teams, those who already know the basics and are working toward a degree. We'll have to play catch-up, obviously, but since Poodles are such quick learners, Steve was sure that after a couple of weeks we'd fit right in."
"You'd fit right into my agility class, too." Like a foxhound on a fresh scent, Aunt Peg hated to give up.
"But that's just it. It would be your agility class. And once again you would have excelled at something before I even had a chance to try."
It wasn't that I resented Aunt Peg's success in the dog show world. Quite the contrary, I was in awe of all she'd accomplished. Her Cedar Crest Standard Poodles were known nationwide for their wonderful quality, their superb temperaments, and their excellent health. For three decades, she had produced and managed a line of dogs with which anyone would have been proud to be associated. More recently, Aunt Peg had turned her hand toward judging, and with assignments coming in from all over the country, she was quickly making a name for herself in that arena, too.
In the dog show world, most people knew me first as Margaret Turnbull's niece. Even though I'd worked hard for the things I'd accomplished, I knew there were competitors who felt that I'd never paid my dues, that my success was due to Aunt Peg's influence. And the worst part was, I wasn't sure that the critics were entirely wrong.
Faith, my first Poodle, had come from Aunt Peg, after all. She wasn't the medium-quality dog most beginners have to contend with, but rather, a beautiful Standard Poodle who'd finished her championship easily, despite my inept handling. Aunt Peg had steered me toward the better judges and told me which ones to avoid. She'd taught me how to clip and blow-dry, then set the lines on Faith's trims, and cleaned up my fumbling attempts at scissoring.
I was enormously grateful for everything Aunt Peg had done for me. But where Poodles and dog shows were concerned, I'd been standing in her shadow from the very beginning. It was time for me to try something on my own — an enterprise where Aunt Peg's name wouldn't open any doors or smooth my way along, where Faith and my success or failure would be based solely on our own merits.
"Obedience," I said firmly.
Aunt Peg looked surprised by my conviction. That made two of us. Or three, if you counted Faith. She glanced up at me, then placed her muzzle back into position on my foot. Nothing like a gesture of support from the peanut gallery.
And the decision was made.
Which didn't prevent me from having to defend it once again over dinner. I'd had a pot roast sitting in the crock-pot all day while I was at school, so coming up with the rest of the meal was pretty easy. Aunt Peg left just as the men in my life were arriving home. I'd invited her to stay for dinner, but she declined. Having lived alone except for her Poodles since her husband, Max, had died several years earlier, I think she found the chaos inherent in our current living situation to be a little overwhelming.
Unfortunately, she wasn't the only one.
Sam and Peg greeted each other at the door, then he walked her outside to her car. Davey, predictably, raced straight for the kitchen. Since he was still wearing cleats and shin guards, the clatter he made on the wooden floors got Sam's three Poodles — who weren't used to living with a child yet — up and barking. Faith and Eve knew full well there wasn't anything to get excited about, but bowing to peer pressure, they joined in anyway.
A full minute passed before the din quieted and I could even get a word in. "How was soccer practice?" I asked, directing the question to my son's back. His head was stuck in the refrigerator.
"Great." Details weren't Davey's forte. He didn't bother to turn around. "When's dinner? I'm starving."
"Soon. Wash your hands and set the table."
"If I do, can I have a sticky bun?" His eyes lit on the remains of Aunt Peg's bounty, sitting on the counter where she'd left them behind.
"After dinner," I said.
"What's after dinner?" Sam asked. He walked up behind me and slipped his arms around my waist. I leaned back into him and our bodies fit together effortlessly.
It had always been that way between us. Right from the beginning, there'd been that frisson of awareness, that undeniable attraction, whenever we were together. It had taken us three years, one broken engagement, and a host of other complications before we'd managed to get ourselves married.
Looking back, I wondered what had taken us so long.
"Cinnamon buns," I said, prudently neglecting to mention that I'd already eaten two myself. "Aunt Peg left one for each of us."
Sam and Davey quickly set the table while I prepared the plates. The Poodles milled around our legs in a happy state of confusion. All of them, Sam's and my dogs alike, knew better than to beg for food. But that didn't stop them from wanting to be on hand in case something should happen to fall on the floor.
Like the humans in their house, the Poodles hadn't had quite enough time yet to meld into a cohesive pack. Sam's three had to be wondering about their change of abode, which had brought with it cramped living arrangements and the necessity of sharing their person with others. Faith and Eve were accustomed to having Sam around. They just weren't entirely sure about welcoming three canine interlopers into their space. But Poodles are nothing if not adaptable, and so far, the crew was making do with typical élan.
Sam and I had already begun house hunting; finding a more appropriate home for our blended family had been the first thing on our agenda upon our return from Vermont. Sam's house was bigger than mine, but it was also half an hour north in Redding. With Davey happily ensconced in a nearby Stamford elementary school, and my job in Greenwich an easy commute away, it had seemed the best decision was to wedge ourselves into Davey's and my small cape for the time being.
It was a decision I was trying not to regret more than once or twice a day.
"Don't forget I have class tonight," I said, when the pot roast had been served and eaten and we were all munching happily on warm, gooey cinnamon buns. Sam and Davey had been discussing whether there'd be time to fit a game of Scrabble in around Davey's homework.
"That's dumb," my son said.
"I'm a kid. I have to go to school. But why would anybody want to go to classes if they didn't have to?"
"They're for Faith," I told him. "It's obedience school. We're going to see if she can earn a Companion Dog degree to go along with her championship."
"Of course she can." Davey licked his fingers, a breach of etiquette both adults at the table decided to ignore. "Faith is the smartest dog ever."
The accolade was pretty much true. Until I'd become a Standard Poodle owner, I'd had no inkling of the scope of the breed's intelligence. Poodles didn't just learn by rote, they thought and reasoned things through. They also possessed a tremendous desire to please, as well as an unexpectedly well-developed sense of humor, all of which combined to make their temperaments nearly irresistible. Living with a Poodle wasn't like owning a dog, it was akin to adding another member to the family.
"Too bad Tar is still in hair," said Sam. "He could probably benefit from a few obedience classes."
As one, our gazes went to Sam's big black male Poodle. Asleep and snoring softly, he was lying flat out on the kitchen floor. His spine was pressed up against the pantry door, probably because he remembered that that was where I kept the biscuits. The profuse hair in his topknot — kept long and thick for the show ring, and confined at home in protective, colored, banded ponytails — had flopped forward over his face. They rose and fell with each breath he took.
The most notable thing about Tar, however, was that somehow he had managed to get comfortable on the floor, and then had fallen asleep with one of his hind feet resting in the water bowl. The fact that his shaved paw and the bracelet above it were wet and cold had apparently made no impression upon him. At least, I noted, he hadn't tipped the bowl over.
Not yet, at any rate.
Tar was an undeniably handsome Standard Poodle. His show career thus far had been stellar. Having recently won his fourth Best in Show, he was currently one of the top Non-Sporting dogs in the Northeast. What Tar wasn't, poor thing, was brilliant.
Oh, tell yourself the truth, I thought. Tar wasn't even terribly smart. In a household where most of the dogs' IQs approached that of the human inhabitants, Tar was an anomaly. A sweet dog, to be sure. A loving dog, even a trustworthy one. One who always tried his best to please, however limited that effort might be. Tar was a Poodle who meant well, but he couldn't think his way out of a dark corner.
When I'd only seen Tar at dog shows and at Sam's house, his limitations hadn't been that obvious. But now that I lived with him fulltime and dealt with him on a daily basis, it was hard not to compare him with his more intellectually endowed peers. And to see that he came up short.
"Tar is very sweet," I said slowly. I knew how I'd feel if someone insulted one of my Poodles, so I chose my words carefully. "But I'm not sure that obedience would necessarily be the right option for him."
"I'm not saying he would be a star," Sam said. "But taking a few lessons might teach him how to deal with new things. You know, he could learn how to learn."
"Or how to think," said Davey, shaking his head. "Because that is one dumb dog."
So much for not insulting the new family members.
To my relief, Sam chuckled. "I wondered how long it would take you two to notice. I don't know when was the last time I had a Poodle that was so lacking in brain power." His hand waved in the direction of Raven and Casey, his older females. "Those two know everything. If you told them to cook you breakfast in the morning, they'd ask how you wanted your eggs. But Tar ... well, what can I say? Everyday he wakes up to a whole new adventure, because nothing he learned the day before ever seems to stick."
Hearing his name, Tar lifted his head. His weight shifted, and his leg moved. His sodden foot slipped off the rim of the water bowl and landed on the floor with a soggy thump. Cold water splashed up onto his close-clipped hindquarter. Expression quizzical, clearly confused, Tar turned to see what had caused the spray.
Excerpted from Raining Cats & Dogs by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2005 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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