Praise for the Josie Marcus, Mystery Shopper Series
Also by Elaine Viets
“A dog can’t talk,” Amelia Marcus said. Her tween scorn should have melted the TV set.
“Sure he can,” Josie Marcus said. “As soon as Uncle Bob shuts up, you’ll hear him.”
Josie, Amelia’s mother, was snuggled next to her new husband, Dr. Ted Scottsmeyer, on the comfortably squishy black leather couch in their basement family room. Amelia was sprawled in the recliner, but she wasn’t alone. Two tabby cats, brown-striped Harry and orange Marmalade, were curled in her lap. Festus, the black Lab, snored next to her chair.
The family was watching a TV commercial for Uncle Bob’s Doggy Day Camp. Uncle Bob, a pudgy, round-faced man, wore clownish blue overalls, a red flannel shirt, and a white bone for a bow tie. Bob had his arm around a curly-haired black Labradoodle, as awkward as a blind date.
“He looks like a big baby with a bad haircut,” Amelia said.
Josie frowned at the spite in her daughter’s voice, but Ted cheerfully ignored it.
“Can’t argue with you there,” Ted said.
“The dog looks smarter than he does,” Amelia said, still looking for a fight.
“Right again,” Ted said.
The black dog had more dignity than Uncle Bob, Josie thought. The odd couple sat on the steps of a rustic log cabin, Uncle Bob’s day-camp headquarters.
Uncle Bob shot out words like a machine pistol. “Don’t take my word for it,” he said. “Ask Ralph the Talking Dog. Ralph, how is life for the poor pups who don’t go to Uncle Bob’s?”
“Ruff!” Ralph the Labradoodle said.
“That’s right,” Uncle Bob said. “They’re all alone at home while the lucky dogs at Uncle Bob’s run, jump, and play with their friends and our certified Doggy Camp Counselors. So don’t let your dog live a life that’s . . .” He paused dramatically.
“Ruff!” Ralph said on cue, and wagged his tail.
“That’s just stupid,” Amelia said.
“So stupid it’s funny,” Josie said, and giggled. She couldn’t help it. Her twelve-year-old was being such a sourpuss tonight.
“All his commercials are lame,” Amelia said. “Last time he ate a peanut butter dog treat. That’s gross.”
“It did sort of turn my stomach,” Josie said. “Watching him play fetch on his hands and knees with a bunch of dogs was pretty desperate.”
What happened to my little girl’s sense of humor? she wondered. Josie studied her daughter’s blossoming figure, shoulder-length glossy brown hair, and the sprinkling of chocolate freckles across her nose, and reminded herself once again that Amelia was no little girl. Lately her daughter’s moods changed from silly to snarly to boy crazy in seconds.
This evening, she was stuck in surly mode. Worse, she tried to pick a fight with her stepfather, Ted. I’m darn lucky to find a man like Ted, especially at age thirty-four. How long will he tolerate my daughter’s rude behavior?
“Ads like Uncle Bob’s give St. Louis TV color,” Josie said. “Otherwise, all we’d watch would be bland ads for big-box stores and franchises.”
“The ads may be awful, but that’s why you remember them,” Ted said. “Bad ads help small businesses fight the giants. Remember Becky the Queen of Carpet advertising Becky’s Carpet and Tile Superstore?”
Amelia groaned. “She was even stupider than Uncle Bob.”
“But you remembered her,” Ted said. “Especially when Becky rode that corny flying carpet over the Arch.”
“Whatever happened to her friend Wanda the Princess of Tile?” Josie asked. “She used to fly with her, too.”
“Maybe she got rolled up in a carpet and dumped in the river,” Ted said.
“Hmpf!” Amelia said, and lapsed into sullen silence.
“Is Uncle Bob’s Doggy Day Camp any good?” Josie asked.
“I don’t know,” Ted said. “Most of our clinic clients take their dogs to Westminster Dog Day Care. It’s closer to our clinic.”
Ted, a vet with a small practice, was the co-owner of the St. Louis Mobo-Pet Clinic in the nearby Village of Rock Road. Their Fresno Court house was a short drive away in Maplewood, a colorful old suburb of St. Louis.
Josie was proud of their new—well, new to them—house, a pocket-sized precursor of the McMansion. Built in the thirties, the Tudor Revival cottage was a soft yellow-gold brick, a pleasant contrast to the city’s sooty red brick. The house was beautifully crafted, with art-glass windows, an arched wooden front door with wrought-iron hinges, and satiny, caramel-colored woodwork.
The basement family room was paneled in warm honey-colored knotty pine, and a braided rug made it cozy.
Josie and Ted had spent that fine September afternoon raking leaves in the yard, and now she was pleasantly tired.
“It’s eight thirty, Amelia,” Josie said. “You have school tomorrow. Time for bed.”
The expected protest didn’t materialize. Amelia shrugged and headed upstairs, striped Harry riding her shoulder and orange Marmalade draped over her arm. Festus stayed by Ted, but the big black Lab would join Amelia later.
Josie rested her head on Ted’s strong shoulder, enjoying her man. His long legs were stretched out. Ted was six feet tall, with thick brown hair. He smelled like coffee and cinnamon with a faint tang of wood smoke. He liked to cook and was kind to animals. He put up with her daughter’s bad moods. No, Ted even seemed to enjoy Amelia most of the time.
They’d be married a year in November, and Josie had never expected to be this happy. She’d been a single mom struggling to raise her daughter on a mystery shopper’s salary. She wouldn’t have made it if Jane, Josie’s mother, hadn’t let her daughter and granddaughter live in the downstairs apartment in Jane’s two-family flat at a greatly reduced rent. Josie had dated a few men, then given up on love. She didn’t have time to date. If Amelia’s cat, Harry, hadn’t needed to see a vet, she wouldn’t have met Ted.
“Thank you for putting up with Amelia,” she said, and kissed his ear.
Ted shrugged. “It’s not easy being twelve,” he said. “She’s doing a pretty good job. And Uncle Bob’s commercial was stupid.”
“And funny,” Josie said.
“Give her time to sort out her opinions,” Ted said. “She still has a lot to think about.”
Josie didn’t want to think about anything. She just wanted a quiet evening with her new husband.
After the ten o’clock news, Ted stretched and said, “I’m tired. Let’s go upstairs.”
“Amelia should be asleep by now,” Josie said hopefully.
“We’ll be very, very quiet,” Ted said.
They tiptoed upstairs and walked through the newly renovated midcentury modern kitchen, a chic turquoise with a checkerboard floor. Ted opened the back door to let Festus outside. The Lab trotted across the deck and out into the yard. Josie checked the kitchen phone for messages. Nothing.
“You look worried,” Ted said.
“I am,” she said. “I haven’t heard from Mom since Friday afternoon and we usually talk at least once a day. I left her another message at dinnertime, and she still hasn’t called back. I haven’t heard from her in two and a half days.”
“Your mom’s not alone,” he said. “If anything was wrong, we’d hear from her downstairs renter, Franklin Hyzy. She was probably out with Frank this beautiful weekend.”
“Probably,” Josie said. But a nagging voice said something was wrong. If she didn’t hear from her mother by tomorrow afternoon, she’d drive over to Jane’s house.
Ted opened the front door and the couple stepped out onto the small front porch to study their peaceful street, softly silvered with moonlight. The other three houses on Fresno Court were dark.
“Did you see the change on the empty house next door?” Josie asked. “The real estate agent’s sign with the ‘sold’ banner is finally gone. I wonder if new neighbors will be moving in soon.”
She locked the door and Ted whistled for Festus to come out of the backyard. The Lab raced by them and bounded upstairs to Amelia’s room.
Ted and Josie climbed the stairs together, hand in hand. The narrow hallway was softly lit by graceful wall sconces with amber shades, the original nineteen thirties Virden lights. Amelia’s cozy purple bedroom with its dramatically slanted ceiling was the first room.
Josie put her fingers to her lips and checked on her daughter. Amelia seemed to be asleep. Harry slept by her head, Marmalade was curled near her hip, and Festus snored on her feet.
Josie kissed her daughter on the forehead.
“There’s hardly room for her in that bed with all the animals,” she whispered to Ted and smiled. Amelia’s window overlooked the backyard of the sold house. Josie closed Amelia’s curtains and made a mental note to check them at bedtime if they had neighbors again.
Back out in the hall, she whispered, “Sure hope the new neighbors will be better than the last woman with the yappy dog.”
“Wouldn’t take much to be better than she was,” Ted said.
“I’d like a family about our age,” Josie said.
“With a quiet dog or a cat they’ll take to the clinic,” Ted said.
Amelia’s voice floated out of her purple bedroom. “I hope it’s a family with a boy my age,” she said.
Just what we don’t need, Josie thought, and tried not to sigh.
“Amelia Marcus, you are not going to school dressed like a prostitot,” Josie said. I am so not ready for this fight at seven thirty on a Monday morning, she thought.
Amelia’s red skating skirt was shockingly short, showing her long, coltish legs and nearly exposing her panties. There was more material in the girl’s white top than in her skirt.
Josie knew something was off when she saw Amelia waiting by the front door, backpack at her feet, a suspiciously innocent look on her face. Most Mondays, Josie had to remind Amelia at least three times that they had to leave for school.
“Mom,” Amelia protested, making the three-letter word four syllables.
The skimpy skirt was easily fixed. Josie used to pull that same stunt on her mother. “That skirt’s too short for school,” Josie said. “Unroll it.”
Amelia angrily yanked on her skirt and the waistband unrolled. Now the red skirt was an acceptable length.
That’s when Josie’s alert ears picked up an odd rattle, and she noticed her daughter wasn’t wearing a bra. “Let me see that top,” she said.
“Mom, it’s not low cut,” Amelia said. “It’s not sleeveless and it doesn’t show my stomach.”
“So why does it rattle?” Josie said. “White cotton doesn’t make that noise. Turn around so I can see your back.”
Amelia reluctantly swung to the right and Josie saw her daughter’s slender, pale back and more—way more. The top was backless and held together with chains. The fabric had been cut away from neck to hip, and the edges hemmed crookedly. The tarnished brass chains were too heavy for the light fabric. They sagged and dragged it down.
“Where did you get that top?” Josie asked, fighting not to sound accusing. That top must have cost more than a hundred bucks before the amateur alterations, and Josie hadn’t bought it. She braced herself for the answer. Please, please don’t let my girl be a shoplifter, she prayed.
“I made it,” Amelia said.
“I can see you’ve recycled the top,” Josie said. “But where did you get it?”
“At the garage sale next to Emma’s house last Saturday,” Amelia said. “We went to it.”
Josie felt weak with relief. Emma, Amelia’s best friend, was funny and studious, with strict parents. No way the girls would go on a shoplifting spree.
“Why did you cut it up?” Josie asked.
Amelia’s words poured out in a rush. “I got this top for seventy-five cents because it had a big stain on the back. I bought it with my own money. Emma found these chains in her mom’s sewing box and I cut out the back and sewed the chains myself.”
“I see that,” Josie said. “You made this in your room?”
“No, at Emma’s,” Amelia said. “We didn’t make a mess.”
“I’m glad you didn’t, but you’re still not wearing it to school.”
“But, Mom, there’s one just like it at Charlotte Russe,” Amelia said. “It’s twenty-three dollars.”
“Charlotte Russe, prostitot headquarters,” Josie said.
“Prostitot’s not even a word,” Amelia said. “Charlotte Russe has awesome clothes. Everybody at school wears them, and you won’t let me.”
“Oh, Amelia,” Josie said. “If everyone at school—” She skidded to a stop. Josie caught herself before she said jumped off a bridge, would you follow them?
Whew. That was close, Josie thought. Amelia is self-shortening her skirts the way I did at her age, and I’m channeling my mother.
Josie quickly switched her sentence to “—dresses like that, you’re still not wearing that top to school.”
“But it only shows my back,” Amelia said.
“And a lot of side boob when you move,” Josie said. “That’s too much skin for school. Go change. Put on a bra and another shirt.”
“But, Mom, I’m gonna be late.”
“Then you’d better rush. You should have thought of that before you sprung that outfit on me right before we’re supposed to leave for school, Amelia. You know you can’t wear that top, or you wouldn’t have sneaked it into the house.”
“I didn’t sneak it,” Amelia said. “I put it in my purse because it was easier to carry. When I got home Saturday, I fed the animals, then we ate dinner, and I forgot.”
“Fine,” Josie said. “But we’re wasting time talking. Hurry.”
Amelia ran upstairs and was back down two minutes later, in a crisp white button-down shirt, a pink scarf draped around her neck.
“Very chic,” Josie said.
Amelia’s smile was a pleasant surprise. “The white top was kinda lame.”
“Not really your style,” Josie agreed.
“YOLO,” Amelia said and shrugged.
“YOLO,” short for “you only live once,” had replaced the all-purpose teen “whatever.” Josie didn’t like the new phrase or its philosophy but hoped if she kept quiet, Amelia would find another favorite word.
“Let’s go,” Josie said, and they ran out into the sun-drenched fall day and to Josie’s beat-up gray Honda.
She navigated the back streets in tense silence, relieved that rush-hour traffic was light for a Monday. Soon she was on Lindbergh Boulevard, driving through a rich ghetto in west St. Louis County. Barring an accident, they’d be at the Barrington School for Boys and Girls in fifteen minutes.
This fall, Amelia was in ninth grade, the last year of middle school at Barrington. A late July birthday meant Amelia was nearly eight months younger than some of her classmates, but she was still bright enough to win a scholarship. By Barrington standards, Maplewood was “inner city.” Josie thought that meant it had older brick homes, real sidewalks, and an undeserved reputation for crime. Many Barrington mothers bragged they hadn’t been in “the city” for decades and saw St. Louis as hopelessly crime-ridden.
Oh well, she thought. Thanks to Barrington’s sheltered suburban view, my daughter qualifies for the school’s diversity program. It’s still a struggle to pay the stiff fees and the four-figure stipend, but my Amelia does well there.
Josie’s battered gray Honda Accord breezed past artfully landscaped multimillion-dollar homes. Many of the Barrington students lived in these mansions. Amelia pointed to a private drive leading off Lindbergh. The street’s sign, a black shield, said OAKLEIGH HEIGHTS ROAD—PRIVATE in gold script.
“Kate Rivington, the new girl in my class, lives on that street,” Amelia said. “I’m invited to a party at her house on Friday night. Can I go, Mom? Palmer’s mom will drive us.”
“Isn’t Emma going?” Josie said.
“She can’t make it,” Amelia said. “But everyone else is going. And you like Palmer and her mom.”
“I do, but I don’t know anything about this new family,” Josie said. She thought some of the Barrington trust-fund babies were poor little rich kids raised by nannies and housekeepers. Some middle schoolers were already experimenting with alcohol and sex and forming vicious cliques.
Palmer Lindell’s parents, Priscilla and Gifford, were involved and protective. Maybe a little too protective, but Josie didn’t consider that a fault at Amelia’s age.
“The Rivingtons are from Philadelphia, Mom. Kate’s dad works with Palmer’s father. He’s a C-something. CFO, COO, CEO, some kinda big deal. Kate’s older brother has a scholarship to City University. Please, Mom? I have to tell her if I’m going.”
“The Rivingtons sound good, but let me talk with Priscilla first,” Josie said. “If Mrs. Lindell says they’re okay, you can go.”
“Yes!” Amelia gave a fist pump. “Can I have a new outfit? Please?”
“I think you’re due for one,” Josie said. “We might even find something at Charlotte Russe. Not all their clothes are bad. We can look at styles online.”
She turned right off Lindbergh and was soon at Barrington School. The austere redbrick and white trim Georgian campus looked especially fine against the china blue sky, surrounded by the blazing red oaks and orange sweet gums. Josie carefully negotiated the turn into the curved driveway and parked behind a black Beemer.
“Bye, Mom,” Amelia said. She grabbed her backpack and hurried off to join her friend Emma. Josie missed the days when her little girl used to kiss her good-bye.
Back at home, Josie poured herself a cup of coffee, checked her phone messages, and saw her mother hadn’t called yet. Something was wrong. Josie knew it.
If Mom doesn’t call me by noon, I’m going to her flat, Josie thought. She called Jane again and got her voice mail. She could be out walking her dog, Josie decided.
Rather than worry about her mother, Josie called Priscilla Lindell. Palmer’s mother was as prim as her name, trophy-wife thin, and perfectly manicured, with her blond hair sprayed into submission. She was a stay-at-home mom. Many of the Barrington mothers looked down their patrician noses at Josie and her pink-collar job.
But Josie had seen Priscilla stand up to Barrington’s formidable head of school, Miss Apple, and defend her daughter. Priscilla had spirit. The two women respected each other.
Priscilla knew all about the party. “I’ll come by for Amelia about seven. I think it will be good for both our girls,” she said. “Simon and Eve Rivington are solid people. She’s already on three boards and he’s CFO of my husband’s corporate real estate agency. Eve assured me that they will both be home.”
“Good,” Josie said. “Some of these class parties can get out of hand. I’d like Amelia home by nine. Will that work for you? I can pick up the girls.”
“Would you? Gifford and I would like to go to dinner, but we’ll be home before nine.”
“My pleasure,” Josie said.
“Twelve is such a worrisome age for girls, isn’t it?” Priscilla said. “And I fear it’s only going to get worse. You heard that Jace Parkington got sent home from school last Friday?”
“What for?” Josie asked. Jace and her clique were troublemakers.
“Inappropriate dress,” Priscilla said. “She wore a pair of low-cut skinny jeans with holes in them—deliberate holes. I think they’re called ‘destroyed.’ Her teacher caught her showing off her tattoo.”
“She has a tattoo at twelve?” Josie asked.
“A rose. It was below her hipbone. Her jeans were cut so low, everyone could see the tattoo. Her teacher caught her showing it off to the high school boys and sent her home. The housekeeper had to pick her up. At least the tattoo was temporary.
“I’m so glad our girls don’t dress like that, aren’t you, Josie?”
“Amelia would never get out of this house in that outfit,” Josie said truthfully.
“Hey, Josie, you like dogs?” Crunch! Crunch!
Harry the Horrible, head of the St. Louis branch of Suttin Services, called Josie the moment she hung up from talking to Palmer’s mom.
I hope he has a mystery-shopping assignment, Josie thought. I could use the money for Amelia’s party dress.
Crack! Crunch! Harry sounded like Festus with a bone.
“Sure, I like dogs,” Josie said.
“Figured you’d have to, being married to a vet and all,” he said. “That’s why I called you first. I need a mystery shopper with a buncha dogs. You must have dogs coming out your ears.”
“Why do I need dogs for this assignment?” Josie asked warily.
“The Certified Pet Care Centers want a mystery shopper”—crack!—“to check out three dog day-care places.”
What is he eating? Josie wondered. The man is a junk-food junkie.
“CPCC is a big deal.” Slurp! “Their seal on a day-care or boarding facility is a guarantee that it has high-class pet care. It’s worth thousands in extra business each year.”
Was he chewing gravel?
“People are nuts about their dogs,” Harry said. “They’ll pay anything to make them happy. Treat them like children. Better than children. Nobody gets little Fenster a berry facial, but they’ll buy one for the dog. They feed mutts filet mignon. Board their dog in suites that are nicer than my bedroom.”
That last one wouldn’t surprise Josie. She’d seen Harry’s office, a dark, sunless cave carpeted in fast-food wrappers and crumpled take-out bags. She’d never been to Harry’s home, but he was short, hunched, and, like his name, hairy, from his ears to his toes. She knew about his hairy toes from the awful August when she saw him in shorts and sandals. The sight was seared into her brain. Only his dome was follicle-free. Harry was the only person who didn’t think that was funny.
“So what do I have to do, Harry?” she asked.
“Mystery-shop three different dog day-care centers. Treat three dogs to the best each place has to offer.”
“And the client pays for everything?”
“Yep, treats, grooming, supervised play, the whole shebang. But you have to bring a different dog to each place. They asked for different personalities and sizes. They want a big dog, sixty pounds or more, for one assignment.”
Festus, Josie thought. The black Lab was the clinic blood-donor dog. He deserved some pampering.
“And a medium dog, about fifteen, sixteen pounds.”
Stuart Little, my mother’s shih tzu, Josie thought. It will give me an excuse to call her again and go to her house.
“And a little dog that weighs ten pounds or less,” Harry said. “A small breed like a yappy or something.”
“You mean a Yorkie?” Josie asked.
“Yeah, the ones that wear the bows in their hair. They yap a lot.”
“Would a Chihuahua do?” Josie asked. My best friend, Alyce, has one named Bruiser, she thought. She loves mystery-shopping with me.
“Sure,” he said. “But no puppies.” Crunch! “They have to be adult dogs. At least one has to have hair long enough to be groomed.”
“That would be the shih tzu,” Josie said.
“Good,” he grunted. “You gotta tour the facility, talk to the owner or manager, and answer the questions on the checklist I’ll fax you. You can either leave the dog that same day or make an appointment and come back. The dog can stay a full day or a half day.
“With your husband being a vet, you should be able to get your hands on a pack of dogs.”
“I don’t think we can use Ted’s patients for this assignment,” Josie said. “But I can get you three dogs I know well. One’s mine, one is my mother’s, and the third belongs to a friend.”
“Fine with me,” he said. Crack!
“What about cats?” Josie asked. Harry didn’t like being away from his home or his pal Amelia, but laid-back Marmalade, the clinic’s feline blood donor, would love the attention. The orange tabby was a real ham.
“Nope,” he said. “Dogs only. The three day-care places are Westminster Dog Day Care in Maplewood, Bow-Wow Heaven in North County, and Uncle Bob’s Doggy Day Camp in South County.”
“I’ve seen Uncle Bob’s ads on TV,” Josie said. “I don’t know the other places.”
“Uncle Bob and Bow-Wow have a bunch of locations, but the CPCC wants you to mystery-shop only the ones on the list. I’ve seen the Web sites for these dog places. They’re like resorts, with massages, fitness training, even lap pools. Your job is to make sure they’re as good as they look.”
“Do you have a dog?” Josie asked. “Maybe I could take your pet to a day-care place.”
“Nope,” he said. “Animals are too much work. I don’t get why people are so nuts about them. Do you know people actually let dogs sleep on their beds?”
“What’s wrong with that?” Josie asked, uneasy.
Her mother-in-law, Lenore Scottsmeyer Hall, had criticized Josie for letting the family pets sleep on Amelia’s bed. She’d said it looked “Third World.” But Lenore was a rich doctor’s wife in a Boca Raton mansion—and Josie was happy Ted’s mother stayed in Florida most of the time. Harry looked like he slept under a bridge.
Crack! “Animals are dirty,” he said. “Dogs are covered with ticks and fleas.”
“Not our dog,” Josie said. “And our cats take baths all the time.”
“So they’re covered in cat spit. And they scratch around in litter boxes,” Harry said. “That’s like playing in a toilet.”
Crack! Crack! Crack! Harry sounded like he was breaking the bones of a small forest animal.
“What are you eating?” Josie asked, eager to change the subject.
“Dessert,” he said.
“At ten in the morning?”
“You know what they say: Life is short. Eat dessert first.”
Harry’s arteries had to be a lard logjam. Josie couldn’t understand why he hadn’t keeled over from a heart attack.
“I’m eating a Twinkie log,” he said.
“A frozen Twinkie dipped in white chocolate and rolled in crushed cashews.”
“For real?” Josie asked.
It sounded like he was chomping a chunk of firewood.
“Hey, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it,” Harry said. “You should have one. I get them at the Carnival Diner.”
“I’m afraid to eat a Twinkie log, Harry. I want to see my daughter grow up. Are you having another course after you eat the log?”
“White Castle pâté,” he said proudly. “The classiest way to serve my favorite burger.”
“Pâté” was one four-letter word Josie never thought she’d hear Harry use.
“Your husband would love it,” he said.
“I’m not much of a cook,” Josie said.
“Don’t have to be. The recipe is a snap.” Crack! “Here, I’ll give it to you. You grind up fifteen sliders in a blender with water.”
“Do I leave the buns on?” Josie asked.
“The whole enchilada, except it’s a hamburger,” Harry said. “Buns, pickles, onions.”
“How much water?”
“Enough to make the burgers liquid,” Harry said. “There’s a trick to it: You gotta mash up the burgers three at a time or you’ll burn out your blender. Keep scraping the sides and adding water. Then pour the glop in a greased loaf pan.”
Josie tried to block the mental picture of pulverized sliders pouring into a greased baking pan.
“You really need that extra grease with White Castles?” she asked.
“Just a touch. I like to put some raw bacon in the pan first. Then bake it at three twenty-five for forty-five minutes, take it out of the pan—that’s when you’ll be glad you greased it—and let it cool.
“Then comes the piece dee resistance,” he said in fractured French. “You ice it with half yogurt and half sour cream and sprinkle it with fresh parsley.”
“Will it still taste the same if I leave off the parsley?” Josie asked.
“You can laugh, but real men like real food,” Harry said. “You’ve been married for almost a year, and you’re no spring chicken. Kinda cute for a MILF, but—”
“Harry! This conversation is not appropriate,” Josie said.
“Sorry. Don’t say anything, okay? Or corporate will make me go to another one of those sensitivity classes.”
“My lips are sealed,” Josie said.
“I didn’t mean to get personal, but men like man food—meat—and variety. White Castle pâté will fulfill those needs. Don’t forget the candles to set the mood. I’ve got one burning now on my desk.”
“What kind of candle?” Josie asked. The mood in the office was always glum.
“A slider-scented candle, shaped like a White Castle box.” Harry took a deep breath. “I’m inhaling one now. Ambrosia.”
Josie swore she could smell onions reeking through the holes in her phone.
“Now, that’s romance,” he said. “Serve that pâté to Ted by candlelight tonight and I guarantee you’ll thank me tomorrow.”
Josie felt herself blushing. The idea of Harry even hinting at ways to improve her love life was too terrible to contemplate.
Ew, Josie thought, as she hung up the phone. After talking to Harry, I want another shower.
I could complain to Suttin headquarters about my boss’s improper conversation, but mystery-shopping assignments are scarce these days. I suspect the St. Louis office is barely hanging on: Harry is the only full-time employee. If Suttin fires my boss, it might close the local office. I can’t risk that. Ted makes good money, but he’s still paying off his share of the loan for the clinic expansion, and we have our new house. We need my small income.
Besides, I don’t actually work in the office. It’s not like I see Harry every day or he chases me around his desk.
Josie rationalized her way out of her dilemma, then tackled her next worry. She called her mother and got Jane’s voice mail. Again.
“Hi, Mom, it’s me,” Josie began her message. “Can I borrow Stuart Little? My new mystery-shopping assignment is dog day care, and we’re supposed to use real dogs. I can take Festus to one place, but they’d also like a dog who needs grooming. The client will pay for all Stuart’s beauty treatments, plus treats and supervised playtime. He’ll have fun. I’d like to scout the place this afternoon. Want to go with me? Please call. I haven’t heard from you since Friday, and I’m worried.”
She hung up. I sounded too plaintive, she decided. I’m thirty-four and whining for my mommy. Maybe Ted was right. Mom’s an adult and has an active life. If anything was wrong, Mrs. Mueller, the busybody next door, would call me to gloat—or make me feel guilty.
Josie still felt uneasy. She checked the kitchen clock. Ten thirty. At noon, I’m driving over there. Mom’s silence has gone on too long.
If Josie couldn’t wash that icky conversation with Harry out of her mind, she could clean something while she waited. She poured herself a fresh mug of coffee and headed down to the basement laundry room. Amelia’s striped cat padded after her.
“Shouldn’t you be sleeping on Amelia’s bed, dude?” she asked, scratching Harry’s warm brown ears. “That’s okay. I can use the company, Harry. It’s not your fault you have the same name as my boss the troll.”
The laundry room was plain and practical, with a washer-dryer, a white Formica sorting table, and sturdy white-painted shelves for supplies.
She sorted clothes from the basket under the laundry chute. Harry curled up on Amelia’s crumpled pastel shirts and socks, while Josie threw in a load of whites. Soon she was soothed by the wash-day sounds and smells: the rhythmic churning of the washer, the sharp sting of bleach, the clean scent of the detergent. Fifteen minutes later, the dryer was rumbling in concert.
By eleven forty-five, Josie had folded one load and shooed away Harry when he settled on the pile of towels warm from the dryer. She reloaded the washer and the dryer, then climbed the stairs to put away the clean laundry.
Josie checked her voice mail and was relieved to hear that Jane had called fifteen minutes ago and left this message:
“Josie, of course I’ll go with you this afternoon, but I don’t want to take Stuart today. I want to see this facility first before I leave him. Come by at twelve thirty, and we’ll have lunch. I made your favorite chicken salad with the grapes.”
Yes! Josie thought. Mom’s okay, and I get lunch, too. At first, the message made her smile. Mom hadn’t originally wanted Stuart Little. Ted had talked her into taking the shih tzu when his owner refused to pay the dog’s vet bills and abandoned him. Now Jane was so protective, she wouldn’t let her dog stay anyplace until she inspected it first.
But Jane’s message nagged at Josie, and she replayed it.
Mom doesn’t quite sound like herself, she decided. Well, I’ll know soon enough. She changed into a fresh blouse and clean jeans and hurried to her Honda for the short drive.
Jane’s house was a two-story redbrick flat with a white-painted porch. When Josie was nine, her father had divorced her mother and moved to Chicago, where he started another family. Jane and Josie lost their comfortable life. This flat and its small income were the only things Jane had rescued from her wrecked marriage. Her lawyer ex-husband never paid the promised child support and Jane didn’t have the money to take him to court. She took a safe, dull job at a bank to support her daughter.
Josie never saw her father again. She and her mom lived in the upstairs flat until Josie went to college. During her junior year, Josie had ended her engagement to a sweet, safe accountant. She had been dazzled by Nate. She wanted to believe the lean, brown-haired Canadian was rich, and that was why he owned his own plane and flew her to New York for dinner and the Cayman Islands for scuba diving on the weekends. Their romance was all-consuming. For Josie it was almost a form of madness.
Jane had disapproved of Nate and his effect on Josie.
Then Josie discovered she was pregnant with Amelia. She was sure they’d marry. But before she could tell Nate the happy news, her lover was arrested for smuggling drugs into the US.
Josie blamed herself for ignoring the telltale signs that Nate was dealing. She refused to bring her baby into his shadowy, dangerous world. She dropped out of college to become a mystery shopper.
Jane was deeply disappointed in Josie and refused to forgive her until she finally saw her baby granddaughter. Jane fell in love with Amelia. The downstairs flat was empty at the time, and Jane insisted Josie and Amelia move in. They stayed for the next eleven years.
For nine of those years, Josie didn’t date. Then she met such disastrous men, she resolved to live without love. Nate, Amelia’s father, had triggered Josie’s current happiness. He’d been locked away in prison until Amelia was ten. Then Nate was released from prison and showed up on Josie’s doorstep. Her handsome lover was now a hopeless alcoholic.
Josie was horrified, and tried to shelter Amelia from Nate’s drinking. She knew only her father’s good side before his sudden death. She had a photo of Nate as a brash boy with a striped tabby and wanted a cat like her father’s.
Josie and Amelia found Harry at the Humane Society. Josie knew nothing about cat care. She fed Harry only dry food, and the cat became so lethargic Amelia feared her cat was dying. Josie called the St. Louis Mobo-Pet Clinic. Ted was on duty that day and parked the clinic’s big blue van in front of her mother’s flat.
Josie was impressed by Ted’s gentleness with the skittish, frightened cat. Ted calmed Harry and examined him. Harry’s problem turned out to be minor and easily treated. A combination of canned and dried food would keep Harry healthy.
Funny how our love story started right here with a constipated cat, Josie thought as she parked her car in front of her mother’s house. The red brick was warmed by the fall sunshine and framed by fiery red and orange trees. Jane’s yellow mums made bright golden mounds in their pots on the porch.
Mom’s flowers look better than Mrs. Mueller’s, Josie thought. The neighbor’s bronze mums look straggly this year. I like the bushes Mrs. M put in to separate her front yard from Mom’s. But what’s wrong with Mom’s grass?
Josie got out of her Honda and saw deep tire tracks. From a car? she wondered. They were gouged into Jane’s velvety grass from the curb to the sidewalk, and then a good twenty feet from the sidewalk through the yard, stopping right before the vehicle plowed into the bushes.
It looked like the car had backed up and tried to follow the first set of tracks, then branched off and created a second set. A good third of the lawn was chewed up.
The tire tracks had been covered with new sod, but the scars were still raw and ugly.
I was right, Josie thought, hurrying up the sidewalk. I knew something was wrong. A car jumped the curb and drove across Mom’s yard. But who was it and why didn’t she tell me?
On her mother’s porch, Josie checked out the downstairs flat, where she’d lived with Amelia for more than eleven years. She saw no sign of Franklin Hyzy, the new tenant. She knocked on her mother’s front door and Jane called down, “Come on up, Josie.”
Woof! Stuart Little said, waving his furry flag of a tail.
Josie stopped at the top of the steep stairs to scratch the dog’s silky ears, then followed the plastic runner across her mother’s pale green wall-to-wall carpet to Jane’s kitchen, the homiest room in the flat.
Josie smelled cinnamon-apple cake and fresh coffee and saw chicken salad heaped on two rose-flowered china plates. A cut-glass vase of fall leaves was the centerpiece. Jane made even a casual lunch with her daughter an occasion.
Josie’s mother wore a comfortable blue pantsuit and a helmet of perfectly coiffed gray hair. She hugged her daughter, and Josie breathed in her scent of Estée Lauder and noticed the small spot of thinning hair on her crown was expertly hidden by Jane’s stylist. Her mother was gracefully fighting the advances of age.
“Sit down and eat your salad,” Jane said. “Have a warm roll. Coffee?”
“Please,” Josie said.
“Now, tell me about this mystery-shopping assignment,” Jane said quickly, before Josie could ask about the lawn.
Josie did, skipping Harry’s sly advice about her love life.
“I thought we could take Stuart Little to Uncle Bob’s Doggy Day Camp,” Josie said. “This is a spectacular salad, Mom. I like it even better with red grapes instead of green ones.”
“I can see,” Jane said. “Your plate’s empty already. More?”
“No, thanks,” Josie said.
“I’m not sure about taking Stuart to day care,” Jane said as she cut Josie a generous slice of apple cake and refilled her cup.
“What’s wrong?” Josie asked. “You don’t want to leave Stuart there because of the stupid TV ads?”
“No, the ads don’t bother me,” Jane said. “The problem is Frank Hyzy works there now.”
“But that’s good,” Josie said. “You like Frank. You still get along with him even though he lives downstairs, don’t you?”
Jane’s silence filled the warm kitchen.
“Don’t you?” Josie prompted. The cake was gone. Josie mashed the last crumbs with her fork and ate them.
“I’m not sure,” Jane said. “I don’t know what to think anymore, Josie. He’s an attractive man.” She took a long drink of coffee.
“He sure is,” Josie said. “He’s a senior hunk with that thick, curly white hair and those brown eyes. He has good manners and a sense of humor. He’s a widower. His grown daughter, Laura, is a vet at Ted’s clinic and she fits in well. Frank is perfect, Mom.”
“Not quite,” Jane said. “You saw that mess on my lawn?”
“Looks like a car slammed into your yard,” Josie said.
Jane put down her coffee cup with trembling hands. “It was a car,” she said. “It happened late Friday night.
“Frank was driving, Josie, and he was drunk.”
“Frank drove his car onto your lawn Friday night?” Josie said. This sounded surreal. “Was he hurt?”
“No, thank goodness,” Jane said. “It happened about three in the morning, so I guess it was really Saturday. Frank drove into my yard and then passed out. I didn’t hear him. Stuart’s barking woke me up. I looked out the window, recognized Frank’s car, threw on some clothes, and ran down there. He was snoring with his head on the steering wheel.”
Josie tried to reconcile steady, sensible Frank with an unconscious drunk on a bender. She saw his calm brown eyes, his tall body with the slightly narrow shoulders, his neat, precise style of dressing, but she couldn’t picture him passed out at the wheel of his dark blue Lincoln.
“I didn’t know he drank, Mom,” she said. “I didn’t notice any obvious signs. He has no broken veins in his face, his hands don’t shake, and I’ve never noticed alcohol on his breath.”
“I didn’t either,” Jane said. “But I did wonder if something was wrong recently. We went out twice in the last three weeks and he drank more than usual: He had almost a full bottle of wine at dinner one night, and I had to drive us home. He had four beers when we went bowling Tuesday. He said he was okay to drive, and he went very, very slow, but the police stopped him.”
“Driving too slowly is probably why he was stopped, Mom,” Josie said. “That can be one of the signs of a drunk driver.”
“The nice woman police officer didn’t test him for alcohol,” Jane said. “She told him to give me the keys, and I drove the rest of the way. Frank said he was relieved. After his wife died, he had a DUI and wrecked their car. He was afraid he’d lose his license if he got caught driving drunk again.”
“I’d never guess Frank has an alcohol problem,” Josie said.
“He doesn’t,” Jane said. “He drinks a little too much because he’s lonely. I noticed his garbage clanked when he took it out last Monday, but that could be ketchup bottles or mayonnaise jars.”