The ladies of the Wagtail Animal Guardians, WAG for short, are in town for a pet adoption charity ball, and Holly is making sure to roll out the red carpet for her special guests. She and her furry best friend Trixie are busy keeping the WAG ladies happy and preparing for the ball when they learn that a retired judge has lost his prized pup.
The venerable citizen has hired a pet detective who has some personal ties to Holly’s new guests. His presence ruffles some feathers, and when the PI is found DOA not long before the ball, Holly wonders if one of the WAG ladies had a motive for murder. To make matters worse, some pet-loving guests of the ball nearly suffer the same deadly fate. Holly and Trixie will have to sniff out the clues and leash a callous killer before they strike again....
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The trouble with whispering is that it draws the attention of everyone within earshot. I was enjoying the summer sunshine, a tall frosty glass of iced tea, and a shrimp salad when I heard Oriana Renouf whisper to Brenda McDade, "You don't think she would actually hurt him?"
There was no one else on the terrace except for three dogs. My Jack Russell terrier, Trixie, sat with Brenda's Scottish terrier, Fagan, and Oriana's saluki, Garbo, at the top of the stairs that led to the lawn. They had undoubtedly heard the unusual question, but gave no sign of it.
Brenda and Oriana were part of a group of five friends that included Louisa Twomey, Joanne Williams, and Addi Lieras. Around the town of Wagtail, the women had been dubbed the WAG Ladies, after WAG, Wagtail Animal Guardians, the rescue where they volunteered their time.
They didn't reside in Wagtail, but they had taken the town by storm. Theona Barlow, a longtime resident, had set up a satellite branch of Wagtail Animal Guardians in Raleigh, North Carolina, about a five-hour drive from Wagtail, on the theory that more animals would be adopted there by the city's burgeoning population. Not everyone had the time to travel to Wagtail, she'd reasoned. She had been right. And it was there, at the Raleigh branch of WAG, that the five very well-heeled city-slicker WAG Ladies donated their time.
They had recently arrived with ferocious intensity, turning our peaceful town on its ear. Wagtail, the place where people came to vacation with their beloved pets, was hosting the biggest, fanciest ball in its history. The gala's name, 'There's No Place Like Home,' evoked nostalgia and pulled at rescuers' heartstrings. People interested in adopting animals had sent in applications in advance, and we hoped to clear the Wagtail adoption center. The WAG Ladies had coaxed amazing donations out of people to benefit WAG rescue and adoption centers, and their affluent friends had been arriving for the ball, filling every hotel room and leasing most of the rental houses.
Oriana and Joanne had left their husbands at home while they undertook arrangements the week of the ball, but the gentlemen were expected to join them for the weekend and the big event.
I was surprised that they were friends at all, but the five women in their thirties and forties ran in the same social circles in Raleigh, North Carolina. Brenda looked the oldest, probably because her face was aged as though she had spent too much time in the sun. She wasn't unattractive but did nothing to enhance her appearance. Brenda's simplicity was accentuated by her friends Oriana and Joanne, who dressed exquisitely, even on vacation in the mountains. I didn't know their exact ages, but Addi and Joanne appeared to be the youngest. Louisa, a fair redhead, dressed conservatively. She was ladylike in style and leaned toward traditional clothes.
I had first met Addi when we were children spending summers in Wagtail with our grandmothers. I didn't know the others, but I had fun memories of Addi. She had always been game for an adventure, often stumbling over her own feet, but laughing anyway. Even then, she had been an artist, rendering sketches that I couldn't have managed as an adult. She was gifted and had since made a name for herself in the art world with gallery showings and an international following. I still had one of her pieces, drawn when we were about nine. The remarkably detailed pen-and-ink drawing depicted the Sugar Maple Inn. I had framed it and hung it in my living room.
The five of them were having a grand time staying at the Sugar Maple Inn. They often left the doors to their rooms open, as if they were in a college dorm, and wandered the hallways from room to room with glasses of wine in hand. Laughter echoed through the inn, and none of the other guests seemed to mind. Some of them even joined the fun.
The Sugar Maple Inn lent itself to the sort of freedom that one might not find in a regular hotel. Their dogs and cats wandered about freely, enjoying one another's company as they raced along the halls and sought treats from guests. Not everyone acted that way at the Sugar Maple Inn, but this particular group appeared delighted to kick up their heels a bit. At least they gave the impression of being very happy. But maybe it was just because they were away from their homes, their lives, and their troubles, in a safe place where they could let down their hair.
I was minding my own business, eating a late lunch on the terrace of the Sugar Maple Inn. I had every right to be there. After all, my grandmother and I owned the inn. It wasn't as though I was hiding or scooching closer to eavesdrop on a conversation, so I didn't feel one bit guilty for hearing their exchange.
The WAG Ladies were the kind of women I had known so well when I had been a fundraiser in Washington, DC. Smart multitaskers completely at home with themselves and the world as they saw it.
Impeccably stylish Oriana was an interesting contrast to Brenda, who generally looked as though she was planning to work in the garden. Oriana's black hair was perfectly coiffed in a short style that framed a beautiful petite face, while Brenda wore a canvas hat that seemed more appropriate for the outback and had most certainly seen better days.
Brenda, an earthy type who favored dusty colors and vintage clothes, didn't bother whispering like Oriana had. "In my experience, people do one of three things. Some take to their beds and cry for a ridiculous amount of time, and then they spend the rest of their lives feeling helpless and inadequate because of something they really should have gotten over. The second group tells all. They find their blathering cathartic, but family and friends are usually driven to drink because it's so annoying and excruciatingly repetitive. And then they wonder why they're not invited to anything anymore. The third type is the one we have to worry about. Those are the people who suffer in silence. They're stoic and keep it inside. They carry on quite well and often prosper. But deep in their hearts, they have not forgotten that which caused them great pain, and when the time is right, they strike."
"Well, now you've scared me. Thanks, Brenda," Oriana grumbled. "I suppose there's not much we can do about it." She looked at her watch. "Joanne will be wondering where we are by now."
Brenda cackled. "She has been somewhat insufferable on this trip, hasn't she? I wonder what's bugging her. I would ask who died and left her in charge, but I know the answer to that," Brenda quipped.
"You're right." Oriana collected her purse and stood up. "I should have realized that. If Theona had been here, everything would have been different. Isn't it interesting how one person can change the dynamics in a group of people?" She turned and called, "Garbo!"
They walked past me on their way into the inn. Either they had already forgotten the nature of their discussion or I blended with the inn and was simply part of the scenery. Perhaps both.
Theona Barlow's death six months earlier had cast a pall over Wagtail. The There's No Place Like Home Gala and the WAG Ladies had been her babies, and now the WAG Ladies were left to pick up the pieces. My grandmother, whom I called Oma, German for grandma, was close friends with the Barlows. She was devastated by Theona's demise. Theona hadn't been particularly young, but her death had still come as a blow.
I finished my lunch, collected all the dirty dishes left on the terrace, and called Trixie. She followed me inside and waited at the door of the commercial kitchen, the only room where no animals were allowed. They were welcome everywhere in Wagtail except in commercial kitchens. I was told that local laws allowed them to be inside areas where food was served in a business but not where it was cooked. I scrubbed the dishes and loaded them into a dishwasher.
My sweet Trixie waited loyally outside the door. I had found her, or she had found me, at a gas station at the base of Wagtail Mountain. It had been pouring rain, and the sweet little girl was ragged, hungry, and sopping wet. She had jumped into my boyfriend's car, making a mess. At the time, I didn't think I could keep her, but I knew I couldn't leave her there, eating what she could find in the trash.
As things turned out, she became my little darling. Her rough yellowish fur had changed to a silky white, accented by black ears and a black spot on her rump that went halfway up her tail. Her eyes reminded me of a seal's, and anyone who studied them for a few minutes would realize that Trixie was smart. Too smart. Her only shortcoming was a nose for trouble. Not just ordinary dog mischief like snatching cookies or chewing shoes. My Trixie's nose led her to corpses, specifically victims of murder. That curious quirk had saddled the two of us with a reputation in Wagtail, although, if pressed, most residents would have to admit their own snoopiness when it came to crime, especially murder.
It was approaching that odd time of day between lunch and afternoon tea when the inn was relatively quiet. People were out and about, enjoying the balmy weather. The inn phone rang, and I walked over to the lobby desk to answer it. "Sugar Maple Inn."
I recognized the sweet voice of my grandmother's best friend, Rose Richardson, who also happened to be the grandmother of my boyfriend, Holmes Richardson. "Hi, Rose."
"Honey, would it be possible for you to drop by Judge Barlow's house in the next half hour or so? We would very much like to speak with you."
It sounded like she was whispering.
"Yes, of course."
"Wonderful. Oh, and, honey, let's not mention this to Liesel or Holmes." The line went dead.
I hung up the phone, worried about Rose's odd call. As luck would have it, my grandmother happened to be walking across the empty lobby, straight toward me, carrying a small basket.
I held my breath, hoping she didn't need my immediate assistance with a project.
"Liebling," she said, "would you mind taking our auction donation to the WAG Ladies at the hotel? I do not want it to get lost." I hardly noticed Oma's German accent anymore. She wished she could lose it, but most people found it charming.
"No problem. I was just on my way out."
"Thank you." She checked her watch. "Have you heard from Holmes today? I thought Rose would come for tea, but she canceled."
I nearly choked. It wasn't like Rose to keep secrets from Oma. I told her the truth, sort of. "I haven't spoken to Holmes today."
"I hope nothing is wrong." She walked up to the second floor of the inn and turned right toward her quarters.
I took the basket and headed out the door before she could return to ask more questions.
My parents had sent me to stay with Oma every summer when I was a child. I had worked at the inn along with my cousin (and Rose's grandson) Holmes. But Oma made sure we had plenty of time for playing and wandering around Wagtail. They had been lovely summers of swimming in the lake, frolicking in the woods, and drinking afternoon tea with Oma from her delicate china.
Oma had prepared an apartment for me even before I'd known I would come back to Wagtail to live. She had been convinced that I would return to help her run the inn as she aged.
My apartment was lovely, with French doors that opened to a terrace overlooking Dogwood Lake. On the other side, my bedroom overlooked a plaza in front of the inn and, beyond that, the town of Wagtail. The Sugar Maple Inn anchored one end of town, and the Wagtail Springs Hotel anchored the other end. In between was a large park, known as "the green." On each side of the green, stores and restaurants lined the sidewalks. In the distance, I could see mountains curving gently against the sky.
Two hundred years ago, Wagtail had been a popular destination because of its underground springs. People had come to partake of the waters and to escape the brutal summer heat at lower elevations. Many wealthy families had built large homes to accommodate extended families. But as taking the waters lost popularity, Wagtail withered. Oma and other residents redefined the town by making it the premier destination for people who wanted to travel and vacation with their pets. Cats and dogs were welcome almost everywhere. Restaurants offered special menus for them, and there were animal masseuses, groomers, acupuncturists, and veterinary specialists. The stores sold everything a cat or dog could possibly want, from bowls and beds to clothing and toys. Much to everyone's surprise, Wagtail was booming.
Trixie and I were walking through the green when a stunning husky raced toward us, his blue leash flying in the air behind him.
"Loki, come! Loki, come! Loooookiiii!" A considerable distance behind him, Louisa Twomey loped along, wailing. Her copper hair and ivory skin made her easily recognizable, even from a distance. She carried her shoes in her hands.
Clutching the basket firmly, I rushed toward one of the enclosed dog runs. Trixie sprang along beside me and eagerly entered the double-gated dog run. I quickly closed the outer gate and opened the inner one to let her in.
As I did so, a man whom I judged to be in his early thirties opened the outer gate and stood on the outside with his arms extended as though he meant to steer the husky through the gate.
His plan worked perfectly. Loki swerved and zoomed into the enclosure with the man right behind him. I slammed the outer gate shut, and the man grabbed the husky's leash. "Gotcha, buddy," he said kindly to the dog. He patted the husky, who acted as if he knew the man who looked up at me. "Thanks for your help. This guy might have jumped the fence after a minute or two in here. Huskies are notorious jumpers."
Louisa caught up and let herself in, breathing heavily. "Loki," she choked, "what am I going to do with you?" She hugged Loki, and her eyes widened. "Seth! What are you doing here?"
"Louisa! I knew this dog looked familiar," he said. "But I thought he was-" He broke off his sentence and appeared to feel awkward.
She looked up at me. "Sorry, Holly, I didn't mean to ignore you. Without your help I would still be running in my bare feet."