With the excitement of the spring dog show season sweeping Connecticut, prize-winning Poodle owner Melanie Travis is determined to help her son finally lead his Standard Poodle toward a championship title. But the competition is fierce.
Aunt Peg even skips the judging panel to exhibit a pup of her own, standing out from the pack with a handmade leash from elite artist Jasmine Crane. Jasmine’s handiwork is to die for—but Aunt Peg didn’t expect to find her strangled to death by one of her dazzling custom creations…
When Aunt Peg’s longtime dog sitter, a renter on Jasmine’s property, vanishes that same day, Melanie suspects a dangerous connection. Her hunch only grows as she discovers sketchy secrets about the late artist. Juggling a teaching job, the show ring, and a daunting suspect list, Melanie finds herself entangled in a mindboggling murder mystery—and hot on the trail of a desperate killer.
“For pet fans who thrive on dog-show lore, Berenson’s brand is always best in show.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Entertaining…[a] sweet series.”—Publishers Weekly
“A book everyone should collar.”—The Oklahoman
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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Standard Poodle in possession of eleven points toward a championship must be in want of a dog show.
Okay, Jane Austen didn't use those exact words. But if she had been a member of my family she might well have because dog shows are a way of life for us. I met my husband, Sam, at a dog show, and our blended canine crew currently includes five black Standard Poodles and a small, spotted mutt named Bud.
All our Poodles are retired show champions, except for one: Kirkwood's Keep Away, more casually known as Augie. He belongs to my thirteen-year-old son, Davey. A novice dog handler with plenty of other interests to keep him busy, Davey had been working on finishing Augie's championship for nearly two years.
Now we were all in agreement that it was time to finally buckle down and get the job done. Which had brought us to yet another dog show. Like all exhibitors, we were eternal optimists.
Connecticut weather in early April was notoriously fickle. Though the show scene had moved back outdoors for the spring season, the day was chilly enough for everyone to be bundled into warm jackets. Still, after a winter spent at often cramped indoor venues, we were all delighted to be outside in a spacious park. The air might have been unseasonably brisk but at least it wasn't raining. Or snowing.
Twelve large rings had been set up in the center of the big field. They were positioned in two rows of six, with a wide alleyway between them, covered by a green-and-white striped tent. At each end of the competition area was another, smaller tent where exhibitors set up their grooming equipment and completed their preshow ring preparations.
By the time we arrived midmorning, most of the available space under the grooming tent nearest the Poodle ring had already been claimed by the professional handlers who'd been at the show site since dawn. Sam pulled the SUV into the unloading area beside the tent. I got out and had a look around, hoping to find a small spot to wedge our gear in.
The scene beneath the tent was hectic. I saw dozens of wooden crates stacked on top of each other, and rows of rubber-matted grooming tables squashed into narrow aisles. I heard the loud, persistent whine of free-standing blow dryers. Some exhibitors were working on their dogs while others were dashing back and forth to the rings.
To the uninitiated, it might have looked like pandemonium. To me, it looked like home.
Suddenly a familiar head popped up. A hand lifted and waved in the air. "Melanie!" Aunt Peg called. "Over here."
Even in the midst of all that chaos, Margaret Turnbull was hard to overlook. She stood six feet tall and had a direct gaze that missed nothing. Her posture was impeccable, and her demeanor was that of a woman who knew exactly what she wanted and almost always got it.
Over the decades, Aunt Peg's successes in the dog show world had earned her a reputation for excellence and the lasting respect of her peers. Her Cedar Crest Kennel had not only produced a number of the country's best Standard Poodles, it had also provided foundation stock for those discerning breeders who'd followed in her footsteps.
Now nearing seventy, Aunt Peg had scaled back her involvement in breeding and exhibiting to concentrate on her busy career as a multi-group judge. She'd had a litter of Standard Poodle puppies the previous fall — her first in several years. I knew she'd retained the best bitch puppy for herself, but now I was surprised to see Aunt Peg standing in the middle of her own setup. The Poodle, Cedar Crest Coral, was sitting on a grooming table beside her.
It looked as though Aunt Peg would be showing today too. Somehow she'd neglected to mention that.
Aunt Peg had a word with the puppy, then left her sitting on her monogrammed towel. She slipped through the setups between us and came to help unload the SUV.
The four of us worked together with a practiced ease born of repetition. By the time Aunt Peg and I reached the vehicle, Sam already had the hatch open. He'd pulled out the dolly and he and Davey were loading Augie's crate onto it.
In my sometimes crazy world, Sam was my rock. We'd known each other for nearly a decade and been married for half that time. I loved that he was smart and perceptive. I also loved that Sam had sun-bleached blond hair, a killer smile, and a body buff enough to draw second looks from girls half our age.
As I reached around him to grab the wooden tack box, I trailed my fingers across Sam's back. He shifted slightly in my direction and winked.
Davey was threading a noose carefully through Augie's thick neck hair before hopping the big Poodle out of the car. He caught the interaction between his stepfather and me and shook his head. Thirteen was a tough age for kids and parents both.
"What about me?" asked a plaintive voice. "What should I carry?"
Our younger son, Kevin, had turned four in March. He was enrolled in preschool now. As a consequence, he was feeling very grown up. I looked around for something to hand him and settled upon a small, soft-sided cooler.
"You can take this," I said.
Kev thrust out his lower lip. "I want something big."
Aunt Peg leaned down and examined my choice. "Don't lose that, it's very important. The cooler has Augie's bait in it. Without it, Davey will be in trouble when he goes in the ring."
The thought of his brother in trouble immediately brightened my younger son's face. Kevin had his father's sandy hair and slate-blue eyes. When he smiled it was like looking at a version of Sam in miniature.
"I have Augie's bait," he echoed happily. "Cool."
We moved Aunt Peg's equipment to one side and squeezed our own stuff in next to it. Sam wedged the crate up against a tent pole. Then he and Kev went to move the SUV to the parking lot. I put the tack box within easy reach on top of the crate and stashed the cooler and Kevin's toy bag behind it.
Davey set up the grooming table. When it was ready, he lifted Augie up into place. I saw him cast a glance in Coral's direction and frown. Aunt Peg's pretty puppy had already been brushed out. With her dense black coat and soft, dark eyes, she looked like a perfect, plush doll. When Davey looked her way Coral stood up and wagged her tail.
"What's the matter?" I asked him.
"Aunt Peg is showing."
I understood his consternation. It had been a long time since I'd seen Aunt Peg in a ring with a Poodle on the end of her leash. "Now we'll have two chances to win," I said brightly.
"Now I'll have to beat her too," Davey grumbled.
"You have a dog and I have a bitch," Aunt Peg reminded him. "We won't meet in the classes. And besides, Coral is only six months old. We're just here today for the experience."
I leaned down and whispered to Davey, "You should be happy Aunt Peg has her own entry to concentrate on. That'll give her less time to worry about what you and Augie are doing."
"I heard that," Aunt Peg snapped. The woman has ears like a fox.
Ignoring her, I opened the tack box and took out the tools Davey would need to start preparing Augie for the ring. A fully mature Standard Poodle dog, Augie was wearing the continental clip, one of three trims approved for AKC breed competition. His face and throat were clipped to the skin, and he had a dense coat of long, shaped hair covering the front half of his body. His hindquarter and legs were mostly shaved as well, leaving only rounded rosettes on each of his hips, bracelets on his lower legs, and a large pompon on the end of his tail.
Beginning the grooming session required a pin brush, a slicker brush, a greyhound comb, and a water bottle for misting the coat. I lined up the equipment along the edge of the tabletop.
Davey looped his arms around Augie's legs and gently lowered the Poodle into a prone position. Augie knew what to expect. He relaxed and lay quietly on his left side. Hands moving quickly through the hair, Davey started line brushing the Poodle's mane coat.
"I see the gang's all here," said Terry Denunzio. Sweeping past me with a Japanese Chin tucked beneath each arm, he aimed an air kiss in my direction. "Finally," he added with a smirk.
That last part was a dig at Aunt Peg, who always beat us to shows, then complained vociferously that we were late, even when we had hours to spare. Assistant to top professional handler Crawford Langley, Terry was one of my best buddies. In his thirties, he was a few years younger than me and impossibly cute. He was also flamboyantly gay. Terry's antics were the perfect foil for Crawford's calm, dignified manner. The two of them made a great couple.
Terry often entertained himself by taking potshots at people. And since it wasn't unusual for me to be the target of his biting wit, now I couldn't resist having some fun at his expense. Terry's hair color seemed to change with his moods. Or maybe the time of day. But this tint was something I hadn't seen before.
"Red?" I said incredulously. "You've got to be kidding."
"What?" He stashed the two toy dogs in a pair of crates and straightened and twirled for effect. "You don't love it?"
"I don't even like it." I wrinkled my nose. "You look like Howdy Doody."
"That's what I told him." Crawford entered the neighboring setup from the other side. He was carrying another Chin and a fistful of ribbons.
"And I said" — Terry paused and looked around to make sure we were all listening — "who the heck is Howdy Doody?"
Back at her own grooming table, Aunt Peg barked out a laugh. "Good for you, Terry. It's wise to be impervious to insult."
"Who are we insulting now?" Bertie Kennedy came flying into the tent towing a Bearded Collie. Another professional handler, Bertie was married to my younger brother, Frank. The couple had two children: six-year-old Maggie and a son named Josh, who'd been born the previous September.
Crawford had been showing dogs successfully for decades. Bertie's experience comprised only a fraction of that time. But she was talented and worked hard. The fact that she was tall and gorgeous didn't hurt either. As she hopped the Beardie onto a nearby table, I leaned over to give her a hug. Apparently the setup on our other side belonged to her.
"Terry," I told her. "We're laughing at his hair."
"Hey." She pulled back and gave me a stern look. "I could be offended by that." Bertie's hair was a deep, rich shade of auburn. Terry's was flaming red.
"You tell 'em, doll." Terry plucked a Mini Poodle out of a crate and went to work. "We redheads have to stick together."
"At least until Tuesday or so," I said. "By then he'll probably be blond again."
"Somebody woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning." Terry fluttered his fingers in Aunt Peg's direction. "Competition a little tough for you today?"
"I might ask the same of you," I shot back. Davey was showing one Standard Poodle. Crawford and Terry had three. And as Aunt Peg had pointed out earlier, since the initial classes were divided by sex, it was unlikely that Augie and Coral would meet in the show ring.
"You two quit fussing." Aunt Peg was busy putting up her puppy's topknot. "Coral is a baby. She's just here to learn what dog shows are all about."
"A puppy of yours needing experience?" Sam said. He and Kev had returned from parking the SUV. "That sounds unlikely."
Sam released Kevin's hand and I handed my son the bag of toys. He sat down in the grass, took out a pair of Matchbox cars, and began to zoom them around the table legs.
"I can't believe how much I've missed this," Aunt Peg said with a smile. "It's been entirely too long since I had a Poodle to show. Judging is a wonderful way to give back to the sport, but this ..." She waved a hand to encompass all the activity under the tent and the other exhibitors around us. "This is what it's really about. The dogs, the grooming, the competition, the camaraderie —"
"The smell of hairspray in the morning?" I teased.
"Laugh if you will, but I'm perfectly serious. Judging is a fruitful occupation and agility is loads of fun. But nothing can compare with the satisfaction you feel, walking into the breed ring with a beautiful, home-bred dog on the end of your leash."
"Here, here," said Crawford.
The rest of us nodded in agreement. Dog shows had an addictive quality and we were all well aware of it. The competition was always interesting, and occasionally even rewarding. But that was only part of the equation. Exhibiting gave breeders the opportunity to form relationships, to compare notes, and to analyze the results of their efforts. We came to the shows for the dogs, but the people were every bit as important.
"Speaking of judging," said Sam. "When are you going to apply for a license, Crawford?"
The handler gave him a sideways look. "Is that your way of saying you think I'm of an age where I ought to be slowing down?"
Sam reddened. I'd rarely seen him at a loss for words, but now he looked as if he wished he'd never asked the question.
I quickly intervened. "What Sam meant, Crawford, is that the judging pool would be enriched by your experience and expertise."
"That's what I thought." The handler cracked a grin. "But the judging pool will have to wait. I'm too busy doing what I do best." He swept a Toy Poodle off a tabletop and exited the tent. Terry picked up two more ring-ready Toys and followed.
"That's my cue," said Bertie. She left with a Duck Toller.
"And mine as well," Aunt Peg announced. "Keep an eye on Coral for me, will you? I'll be back in just a few minutes."
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"I decided that a return to the ring deserved a nice new piece of equipment. I ordered a beaded show leash for Coral from Jasmine Crane. She told me it would be ready for pick up today."
Sam and I exchanged a look. We were both remembering that most of Aunt Peg's old equipment had burned up in a kennel fire the previous summer.
"That sounds perfect," I said. "Jasmine's leashes are beautiful."
Every dog show drew a variety of canine-centric concession booths, offering all manner of dog-related products. I'd seen everything from sheepskin beds and squeaky toys, to canine books and figurines. In vendor's row, there was something for every dog lover to drool over.
Jasmine Crane's specialty was canine art. Working in oils and pastels, she created original paintings and took commissions for pet portraits. Jasmine was a skilled artist, deft at capturing both her subjects' looks and their personalities. When passing by her booth, I'd often admired the merchandise she had on display.
Recently Jasmine had expanded into the growing market for custom-made collars and leashes. Her eye for color and symmetry lent her products a special flair, and her strapworks were quickly becoming as popular as her art.
Like all show Poodles, Coral was table trained. When Aunt Peg left, Coral lay down on the tabletop with her head between her front paws, patiently waiting for Aunt Peg to return.
Davey had finished line-brushing Augie and put on his slender show collar. Now Sam supervised as Davey parted the long hair on the Poodle's head and banded together the numerous ponytails that would support Augie's towering topknot. Davey and Sam were spraying up Augie's coat when Aunt Peg reappeared ten minutes later.
"Let me see." I held out my hand. "I bet it's gorgeous."
"I'd be delighted to show it to you," Aunt Peg replied unhappily, "except I don't have it. Jasmine wasn't in her booth. I even waited a few minutes, hoping she'd return, but she never showed up."
"That's odd," Sam commented. "How does she expect to make sales if she isn't there for her customers?"
"I haven't a clue." Aunt Peg sounded huffy. "And it's very disappointing. I had that leash made specially, so I could start Coral's career off right. Now we'll have to do without."
Davey looked over. "I can lend you a lead, Aunt Peg. I have extras."
"Thank you, but no." She walked over and dug around in her tack box. "I have a leash. It's just not the right leash."
Aunt Peg reveled in her dog show superstitions. Heaven forbid you wished her luck before she went in the ring. She would react as though you'd driven a dagger into her heart.
Davey looked at me and shrugged. I returned the gesture.
Aunt Peg sighed. Loudly. "There's nothing to be done for it. We shall simply have to rise above."
My sympathy for her plight was muted. Trust me, if anyone was capable of rising above, it was surely Aunt Peg.
She took out her scissors and applied the final finish to Coral's trim. Over in our setup, Sam and Davey were doing the same to Augie. Crawford and Terry came running back to the tent with their Toy Poodles. They exchanged them for the Standards and quickly got ready to leave again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ruff Justice"
Copyright © 2018 Laurien Berenson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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