When a last-minute opportunity arises to accompany her boss to an art auction in Atlanta, Lilly throws some money at the problem of where to board her toy poodle Aggie (short for Agatha Christie). Posh Pet Haven offers the most luxurious canine accommodations in all of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The place even provides pet cams so anxious owners can check in on their pampered pooches.
But when Lilly tries to take a peek at her poodle, she gets a terrible shock-she witnesses what she's sure is a murder. She thinks the victim may be the wealthy co-owner of Pet Haven. The police follow her lead but find no body, no evidence of a crime, and no video record. Starting to feel like the dog owner who cried wolf, Lilly decides to go undercover to catch a killer who may be hiding in plain sight . . .
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"Is that a cow?"
Dixie snorted from the back seat. "Didn't you have cows in Indiana?"
I turned around in my seat and looked around the car seat's headrest. "We do have cows in Indiana in the country, but not in the city. Cows belong in the country. I'm a city girl."
Monica Jill pulled the car into the driveway and eagerly turned to face me. "It's just a few cows. They're behind a fence." She pointed to the fence across the road.
I shook my head. "Nope. No cows."
She sighed. "Cows weren't on your list."
The list my Realtor was referring to was my list of "must-haves" and "deal breakers" for my new home.
Monica Jill held up her hand and ticked items off. "No mountains or steep hills, no basement garages, no bears, coyotes, snakes, and now ... cows." She sighed. "Three bedrooms, two baths, in your price point, which aren't on a mountain or hill or near any type of wildlife, is challenging, especially in Chattanooga."
"You can afford to raise your budget," Dixie said tentatively.
This was a conversation we'd had before. Technically, I could afford a much more expensive house than the limits I'd set for myself. I'd been frugal with the money from selling the house I'd shared with my husband in Indiana. I was determined not to touch the life insurance money, preferring to create trusts for our children. Stephanie and David were both grown and on their own. Stephanie was a lawyer in Chicago, and David was an actor in New York. I couldn't help but think at some point they would marry or purchase homes and I wanted to be able to help them. However, I didn't need to look back at Dixie to know she was alluding to the million dollars my husband had socked away in an offshore bank account before he was murdered. However, I wasn't comfortable touching that money, at least not until the police investigation was over.
"The housing market here is super hot and it's not easy finding properties that meet all of your criteria and now I need to eliminate all houses that are close to cows?" Monica Jill looked at me over her tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl glasses. She was a thin woman with long, dark-brown hair and brown eyes.
"Yep. That's what I'm saying." I stared back at her.
The look on her face almost made me feel sorry for her. It had to be difficult for a Realtor to spend hours driving people like me around, burning up their gas, especially since she wouldn't get paid unless I bought a house. As of this minute, I estimated she'd shown me fifty-two houses. I'd never considered myself a difficult client, but apparently I was. Living in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains meant finding a house that wasn't on a mountain or a steep hill was challenging. Few homes had all of my must-haves.
"I'm hungry. Let's eat and talk about our next move." She backed her car out of the driveway, all the time mumbling under her breath about cows.
Monica Jill drove to a seafood restaurant in downtown Chattanooga which was known for its shrimp and grits. I'd admit, prior to moving south, shrimp and grits was not a combination that would have appealed to me. In fact, grits wasn't exactly on my top-twenty list of favorite foods. However, the spicy dish had grown on me. While we ate and sipped sweet tea, another Southern favorite, we talked about options.
Monica Jill pulled up the Multiple Listing Service app on her phone and showed me the homes that fit her filter, and I acknowledged that pickings were slim. Monica Jill Nelson was a devout Christian with an almost sickeningly optimistic disposition. We met in the dog obedience class Dixie taught at the Eastern Tennessee Dog Club. Now we were both members of the Eastern Tennessee Dog Club and were enrolled for a second round of basic training. My toy poodle, Aggie, was an exceptionally smart dog, as was Monica Jill's dog, Jac, a mutt with lots of personality and a genuine zest for life. After a relatively short period of time with Dixie, we both realized our dogs needed a firm hand and consistent training. Jac was a rambunctious puppy who, according to Dixie, needed a way to release energy to stay out of trouble. At three, Aggie was older and more devious. Her training was more to teach me than her. After a few weeks in class, I realized Monica Jill was a Realtor and enlisted her help to find a forever home for Aggie and me.
Monica Jill swiped her phone with one hand and shoveled food into her mouth with the other. "If you aren't willing to raise your budget or reduce your deal breaker list, are you willing to consider a house that needs a bit of updating?"
I thought about it for a minute. "Maybe. It depends on how much work."
She smiled. "Great. When we finish eating, we'll go take a look at another house." She picked up her phone and dialed a number.
"Wait, where is it?"
Before she could answer me, the scheduling office picked up and she arranged a showing.
Dixie and I exchanged a glance.
Dixie raised a finely arched brow and stared at Monica Jill, then shrugged and continued eating. Dixie and I had been friends in college, but we'd lost touch. After graduation, she'd moved back to Chattanooga and married her high school sweetheart, Beauregard "Beau" Jefferson. I married Albert, and after the children, Dixie and I drifted apart. A few months ago, Albert decided to trade me in like one of the cars on his used car lot for a woman named Bambi who was younger than our children. That was when I decided to make some much-needed life changes. I decided to move someplace warm and sunny and reconnected with my old friend.
Scarlett "Dixie" Jefferson was a big woman. At close to six feet, Dixie was a Southern belle with big Dolly Parton hair and a bigger personality to match, and a heart as big as the Tennessee River.
After lunch, Monica Jill drove us to what she called a "transitional neighborhood" near the last house I'd rented. Due to a series of unfortunate events, which involved a dead body and the police believing I'd murdered my landlord, I had moved out and was back in a hotel with my dog and desperate to find permanent housing.
The neighborhood was off of a major street, but unlike most of the properties I'd seen so far, this one wasn't in a subdivision or the country. I liked it. Not just because there was no association fee, but I liked the fact this was an actual neighborhood with an eclectic mixture of houses, unlike the area where I moved from in Indiana where all the houses were basically the same except with different color siding. I also liked that there was no group with the power to dictate everything from the number of pets I could have to whether or not I had a fence. Even the rental had a neighborhood association that controlled the length of the grass and the types of Christmas decorations allowed. In all fairness, most of the association's rules were fair and reasonable, but I had spent too many years listening to others — from my late husband to a neighborhood group — to allow myself to continue to be ruled by anyone else. I was now determined to find my happy place and enjoy my life once and for all.
The house we stopped at was a single-story house built in the 1980s. The inside reflected the best and the worst of the decade. From the amazing wall of windows that overlooked the backyard to the vaulted ceilings in the great room to the mauve floral wallpaper and coordinating border.
"Why did anyone think a black sunken tub was a good idea?" Dixie stared at the master bath and shook her head.
I quietly roamed from room to room.
"This carpet is unfortunate." Monica Jill frowned at the striped carpeting that had undoubtedly been picked to coordinate with the wallpaper. "Maybe there are hardwoods underneath." She perked up and walked to the corner of the room and tried to pry an edge away from the vent. After a bit of work, she dropped the carpet and replaced the vent. "Bummer."
I opened one of the three sliding glass doors that overlooked the backyard. I stepped outside onto a faded, threadbare well-worn green carpet.
The yard was large and completely fenced in by an old wooden privacy fence that was weathered and obviously had seen better days. There were gaps where boards had come off and been filled in with hog wire to prevent anything larger than a small squirrel from escaping. The grass and plantings were overgrown, and a large koi pond sat covered by leaves. Stale, stagnant water, which had accumulated over the years, sent up a pungent aroma that caused even the ever-optimistic Monica Jill to frown.
I shocked the frown off her face by saying, "I like it."
Both Monica Jill and Dixie turned to stare at me as though I'd suddenly lost my mind.
"Are you serious?" Dixie asked.
"It needs work, but —"
"That's an understatement." She laughed.
I stared at the house. "It has good potential." I spent the next twenty minutes explaining what needed to be done and what this house could become.
Both Dixie and Monica Jill were shocked, but both recognized the house had "good bones." Years of watching design shows on HGTV had made me a believer of what a house could become with a little work, and by the end, they were both not only enthusiastic, but supportive. We walked out after nearly an hour in the house with a plan for a renovation that would turn this 1980s remodel into a contemporary gem.
Monica Jill locked up while Dixie and I explored the neighborhood. When we'd arrived, I hadn't noticed that the house next door was also for sale. We took a few minutes to check it out too.
Similar to its neighbor, this house was also built in the eighties. However, a quick glance in the front window showed this contemporary home to have been renovated inside.
When Monica Jill joined us, we asked to see the inside.
"This house isn't showing up in the MLS." She swiped her cell phone and quickly dialed the listing agent whose name was on the sign. While she talked, Dixie and I walked around back. Just like the house next door, this house had a huge fenced-in backyard. However, instead of a koi pond and overgrown landscaping, this home had a massive deck that went around the side of the house and extended well out into the yard. The deck had been built around several mature trees and bore the outline of a pool, which was now gone.
"Wow." Dixie whistled.
Crepe myrtle, dogwood, Bradford pear, and crab apple trees, along with several I couldn't identify, provided a canopy of shade that would be beautiful when in bloom and a nightmare in the fall when the leaves fell.
The listing agent gave Monica Jill the okay to show us the property and the code to unlock the key box on the back door.
The house wasn't large, but unlike its neighbor, this one had undergone renovations at some point during the past few decades. Instead of the hideous striped carpet that existed next door, this house had hardwood floors in the public areas. All wallpaper had been removed, and the walls were painted a neutral gray. The three bedrooms were carpeted, and the master bedroom and bath had recently had the glass block that was still in place next door, removed. This house wasn't new construction perfect, but it was livable. While talking to Dixie and Monica Jill about the remodeling needed next door, I had gotten excited about the idea of a project and putting my own stamp on my house. Walking through this house helped me put into perspective the total amount of work needed.
"So, what do you think?" Dixie asked tentatively.
I gazed out onto the deck. "I think I want to place an offer."
Monica Jill smiled. "Great. Which house?" "This one."
Dixie let out a breath. "Thank God."
I smiled. "I thought you liked the house next door?"
She nodded. "I do like the house. I like both houses, but the other one needs a lot more work. At least, if you want to make renovations to this house, you can still live in it."
Monica Jill smiled. "Well, that's great. My office is just around the corner. Let's hightail it over there and get our offer in. According to Matt, the listing agent, he's expecting another offer and we want to get ours in as soon as possible."
She drove us the short distance to her office, and I waited while she pulled up a mountain of papers for me to sign.
"I'm going home. I've still got a lot to do before the show tomorrow." Dixie stared at Monica Jill and me. "Don't forget, you both signed up to work the dog show."
We both nodded.
In addition to teaching canine obedience classes at the Eastern Tennessee Dog Club (ETDC), Dixie's dogs had competed in various dog sports, including conformation and obedience. Now that her two standard poodles, Champion Chyna 9th Wonder of the World and Grand Champion Galactic Imperial Resistance Leader, or "Chyna" and "Leia" for short, were retired from competition, Dixie had become a judge. She was judging poodles at a large dog show, and the ETDC had signed on to work the show. Monica Jill and I, along with the other members of Dixie's dog class, had eagerly volunteered to help. Despite Dixie's warnings that it wouldn't be anything like the glamour we saw on television from the Westminster Kennel Club, we were all excited.
It took a lot longer to complete the myriad of paperwork needed to put an offer on a house than I thought it would. It was certainly a lot more than I remembered from when Albert and I bought our house, but then a lot had changed in the nearly quarter century. Eventually, everything was signed, dated, initialed, and submitted. I left Monica Jill at her office and drove the short distance to my hotel to anxiously await the owners' response and question whether or not I should have offered more, knowing I was most likely entering a potential multiple bid situation. I questioned if I should have gone in with a higher bid to entice the sellers to ignore other offers or if I should have followed Monica Jill's suggestion to leave room for negotiation. Should I have bit the bullet and not asked the sellers to pay my closing costs as Dixie had suggested and just shelled out the extra cash? I tried to ease my mind and push these thoughts away, but nothing worked. So I hoped a walk would provide a much-needed distraction from thoughts of the house and would tire out both me and my six-pound dog, Aggie, to the point that we would both sleep soundly.
I grabbed Aggie's leash and we headed outside. Chattanooga in mid-January was still sunny, but there was a chill in the air today, which made me walk faster than usual and made me impatient about lingering while Aggie sniffed every blade of grass and tracked scent trails for every creature to have crossed this path. I tugged on her leash and ignored the look in her eyes that begged to be allowed to explore a dead bird carcass.
Our extended-stay hotel was located near the interstate, which made my commute to work easy but kept me awake late into the night, listening to the sounds of cars and semis flying along Interstate 75. Options for hotels that allowed pets were limited, so the traffic noise was a trade-off for a clean room that accepted pets without requiring a nonrefundable pet fee that was the equivalent to the going rate for an organ on the black market. At least, that was what my friend Red told me. A few weeks of dating a Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Officer had provided all kinds of miscellaneous facts that would scare most people.
I walked to a nearby field, which was far enough away from the interstate and traffic that I didn't have to worry about Aggie's safety, and I took her off-leash, making sure I had the dried liver in my pocket. The pungent-smelling treat had proven over weeks of obedience classes to be the one thing that would entice her to come running whenever the small container was opened.
Leash removed and nothing but a wide-open space in front of her lit a fuse in the little black dog's soul. She ran with a reckless abandon and zeal that brought a smile to my face as I watched her run in circles for the sheer joy of running. I thought of the large fenced-in yard at the house and knew I had made the right choice. Despite the cold weather, I let Aggie run until I noticed her slow down.
She stopped and turned to look in my direction.
I took the leash out of my pocket and waited. She took one step in my direction and then lifted her nose in the air and sniffed. Even from the distance that separated us, I could tell she had gotten a whiff of something, and the look in her eyes told me it wasn't the dried liver treats.
I fumbled to remove the plastic container but wasn't quick enough. Before I could get the lid off, Aggie took off in the opposite direction with a gleam in her eyes that told me she was up to no good.
Despite the weeks of training I'd endured, during which Dixie drilled into me the importance of not repeating commands, I ran toward my dog screaming, "Aggie, come."
Aggie stopped only when she found the odor she'd detected. I was feet away when I realized what she'd smelled.
I felt like I was watching a movie in slow motion as I ran toward her. By now, Aggie was on her back and rolling with what appeared to be a smile on her face.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bark If It's Murder"
Copyright © 2019 V.M. Burns.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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