Accompanied by her unflappable basset hound, Socrates, Daphne plans to take charge of Tinks the Terror and leave the crime-solving to handsome detective Jonathan Black. But while luring the prickly Persian out of hiding, she uncovers clues that might take suspicion off her own mother. Maeve Templeton already has a reputation as a killer—in real estate. How far would she go to bag Sylvan Creek’s most coveted property, the Flynt Mansion?
To expose the truth, Daphne finds herself donning a deranged clown costume on an autumnal adventure that might just be crazy enough to work—if it doesn’t get her killed.
Includes recipes for homemade pet treats!
“Doggone charming from start to finish!” —Cleo Coyle, New York Times bestselling author on Death by Chocolate Lab
About the Author
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Flynt Mansion sat high upon a hill just outside Sylvan Creek, Pennsylvania, its twin turrets stabbing at a huge October moon that was obscured now and then by passing dark clouds. Local legend said the sprawling Victorian house, which overlooked Lake Wallapawakee, was haunted, but the evening of the Fur-ever Friends Pet Rescue gala fund-raiser, the place was spirited in a different way.
"This is so cool," my best friend, Moxie Bloom, said as we passed through tall, iron gates that had concealed most of the property from the road. The gates clanged shut behind us, and I jumped, nearly dropping a big, plastic tub full of pet treats I'd cooked up for the party, which would support my favorite local charity. "Wow," Moxie added. "It's spooky gorgeous."
I had to agree. The curving stone pathway that led to the house was lined with at least fifty glowing jack-o'-lanterns, their flickering faces carved into leering grins, grimaces of agony, and threatening scowls. The twisted branches of the property's many crabapple trees were strung with twinkle lights, while three ornate, black-iron chandeliers — each holding at least twenty candles — were suspended from the sturdier oaks, so the grounds were bathed in a soft, mysterious light. More grim-faced jack-o'-lanterns were propped on the railing that surrounded the house's wraparound porch. It looked like the pumpkins were guarding the mansion, which was dark inside, with the exception of single, lit candles that burned in most of the many tall, narrow windows.
The estate was already movie-set eerie, but the Fur-ever Friends decorating committee — chaired by my perfectionist sister, Piper Templeton — wasn't finished yet. A few people still bustled around the lawn, setting up chairs and lighting even more candles.
Standing just inside the fence with Moxie and my canine sidekick, Socrates, I took a moment to drink in the scene. Then I frowned and turned to Moxie. "Umm ... Why are we the only people in costumes?"
"I'm not wearing a costume," Moxie said, sounding confused. She looked uncharacteristically demure in a vintage, mint-green, wool suit with a high-collared jacket and a pencil skirt that hit midcalf. A string of pearls circled her neck, and she'd dyed her hair from flame red to a soft blond. "Why would you think that?"
"I thought you were Tippi Hedren, from The Birds." I resumed watching the volunteers, most of whom wore sweaters and sweatshirts, then I adjusted a tall, pointed hat that kept slipping off my long, unruly, dirty-blond curls. I didn't see one other witch, not to mention any ghosts or ghouls, and I began to get a little sweaty under my polyester cape. "I'm the only person who dressed up!" I glanced down at Socrates, taking some comfort in the fact that he was also in costume — only to discover that he looked like he always did: like a contemplative, sometimes morose basset hound. "Where is your wizard hat?"
"Didn't you see that fly out the window of the van, halfway up the hill?" Moxie asked, answering on behalf of Socrates, who was pretending he hadn't heard me. He stared straight ahead. However, I noticed that the very tip of his tail twitched the way it did when he felt guilty. "I assumed you noticed," Moxie continued, "and just didn't want to turn around, because we were running late."
I'd heard Socrates shuffling around in the backseat of my distinctive 1970s, pink VW bus, which advertised my business, Lucky Paws Pet Sitting, and featured a large, hand-painted dog that was often mistaken for a misshapen pony. I'd thought he was cranky about losing the front seat to Moxie, and I'd ignored him.
"I should've known you'd never really wear the hat," I complained to Socrates, who had started snuffling. The sound was very reminiscent of a snicker. "You were far too agreeable about putting it on. I should've guessed that something was up."
Socrates finally looked up at me and blinked his droopy, brown eyes, as if to say, Indeed, you should have known that I would never deign to don a costume.
"Maybe I should go home and change," I said, starting to turn around.
"You're not going anywhere," my sister called, hurrying across the lawn. She took the tub of snacks from me, like she couldn't wait one more minute to get her hands on it. "You're a half hour late! There's no time for you to return to Winding Hill, change clothes, and come back before the gala starts."
Of course, she was right. It would take me at least twenty minutes to drive to Winding Hill Farm, where Piper — a successful veterinarian — let me live rent free in her gorgeous, restored 1860s farmhouse. Well, actually, I was moving into a cottage on the property. The adorable tiny house had recently become available when the former tenant, Winding Hill's caretaker, was arrested for the murder of Piper's ex-boyfriend. I'd solved the crime — not that anyone would give me credit.
"This is Fur-ever Friends' biggest fund-raiser of the year," Piper added. "People and pets will start arriving in less than an hour. You need to set up the snack table for the dogs...." She finally looked me up and down. "No matter how silly you look." Then she turned to Moxie and knitted her brows. "And who are you supposed to be? Tippi Hedren?"
Moxie's cheeks flushed, just slightly. "It's more of an homage than a costume," she said, lifting her chin high. "The woman was Hitchcock's muse. An icon!"
She was in costume. I'd known it.
"What happened to you?" I asked, thinking Piper was being a little judgmental for someone whose blouse was soaking wet.
My sister brushed ineffectually at a dark stain on her sleeve. "Pastor Kishbaugh and I were trying to move the apple-bobbing tub. Water sloshed everywhere."
I located Pastor Pete Kishbaugh, who was across the lawn attaching fake ravens to the branches of a crabapple. If he was also soggy, his black shirt hid the problem.
"All three of you, come with me now," Piper added, leading the way down the path. Temporary stain aside, she was dressed appropriately in dark slacks and a rust-colored top that hinted at fall, but didn't scream "Halloween," like my getup. Her straight, shiny, brown hair — the polar opposite of the chaos on my head — was smoothed back and held in place with a pretty peach and brown patterned headband. "There's still plenty to do before the guests show up," she informed Moxie and me, over her shoulder. "Let's go."
We all followed Piper, who lugged the plastic bin, while I tried to keep a grip on the billowing fabric of my cape, which kept flapping perilously close to the gauntlet of jack-o'-lanterns. The last thing I needed was to make a bigger spectacle of myself by catching on fire. The tag on the cape had warned that the fabric wasn't flame retardant.
"This is where you'll set up," Piper said, stopping in front of a table with a placard that advertised Howling Good Dog Treats in a spooky, drippy script. The tabletop was already decorated with two life-sized ceramic black cats, their backs arched high and their tails sticking straight up. Cute orange and black platters featured similar hissing felines, in a vintage design. The table was also scattered with dog-appropriate bones, all real and available for the munching. Piper set the bin on the grass. "As you can see, I did most of the work, in your absence."
"Why are you so grouchy?" I asked, because Piper, always type A, was even more tense than usual. "This is supposed to be fun."
All at once, my sister's shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry. I'm just worried because Lillian Flynt, who is supposed to be hosting this event, is nowhere to be found. I've somehow ended up in charge of the whole thing. And to make matters worse, the power is out in the house, for some reason. These candles aren't all just for show."
"Miss Flynt isn't here?" Moxie asked, looking around, like she might locate the older woman, who was semi-affectionately known as Sylvan Creek's "professional volunteer."
Gray-haired, never-married heiress Lillian didn't lack for money, so she'd made charity her life's work. The local Weekly Gazette's About Town society column almost always featured at least one photo of Miss Flynt in her signature knit cardigan, doing good things for others. One day, she'd be pictured delivering meals to folks even more elderly than she was, and the next, she'd be accepting an oversized grant check on behalf of the public library or ladling stew at a church soup kitchen. But while Lillian might have appeared kind and grandmotherly, she had a spine of steel. I'd worked with her quite a bit on behalf of Fur-ever Friends, and she always acted like she was my boss, and I was an intern.
As I bent to open the bin, I flashed back to the day she'd approached me about "volunteering" for the gala.
"You are aware of the upcoming Fur-ever Friends party, correct, Daphne?" Miss Flynt had said, stopping me on Sylvan Creek's main street by slamming a cane in my path. She couldn't have been more than sixty-five, and she was probably in better shape than me, so I didn't think she needed the stick for support. I was pretty sure it was a tool to keep others in line.
"Yes, I know about it," I'd told her. Then I'd cut right to the chase. "What do you need?"
"Treats for at least twenty dogs. From your pet bakery."
She always acted like I had a storefront, and I always corrected her. "Um, I just cook for fun, at home. I don't really have a bakery... ."
Miss Flynt had answered the way she always did. "Well, get to it, Daphne! What are you waiting for?" Then she'd nodded briskly to Socrates, nearly dislodging her wiry, gray hair from its bun. "Good day to you, wise Socrates!"
A few moments later, Miss Flynt had moved on down the street, and I'd stood there with Socrates, both of us needing a second, as usual, to recover from the very direct, almost curt, exchange. Yet, I admired Miss Flynt. She had a different approach from me, but she was a big supporter of Fur-ever Friends.
"It is odd that she's not here micromanaging," I told Piper, as I removed containers of home-made goodies from the bin. Prying the lid off one tub, I began to place Tricky Treats on a platter. The snacks were "tricky" because they looked and tasted like peanut-butter cups, but I'd substituted dog-friendly carob for the chocolate, which could be lethal to canines. "Where do you think she is?"
"I have no idea," Piper said. "And, as if things aren't bad enough, when Tamara Fox went into the house to get some matches, she accidentally let Lillian's prized Persian cat, Tinkleston, run out the door. Now we can't find him."
Moxie and I shared a look, then we both started snickering.
"What is so funny about a missing cat?" Piper demanded. "Especially since I'm sure I'll get blamed for his disappearance."
"I'm sorry," I said, slipping Socrates a Tricky Treat. He feigned disdain for a few moments, then accepted the sweet from my fingers. "But what kind of name is Tinkleston?"
"It's a horrible name for a horrible cat."
We all turned to realize that we'd been joined by none other than Tamara Fox, who made a mock shudder, so I got the impression that she wasn't upset about the feline's disappearance.
Tamara, whom we'd all known since high school, didn't bother to really greet us. Kind of like she'd snubbed us back in school, too. Tossing her long, dark hair over her shoulder, she gave Moxie and me a skeptical once-over, then didn't ask about the costumes, either. It was almost like she assumed we'd misread — or lost — our invitations, as I had done.
In my defense, though, who wouldn't assume that a "gala" held in late October at a haunted mansion would at least be costume optional?
"Have you seen the cat?" Piper asked Tamara. "I'm dreading telling Lillian that he's gone."
"I hope I never see that beast again," Tamara said. She adjusted a large tote that was slung over her shoulder, and her adorable little Maltese, Buttons, poked out her beribboned head just long enough to blink. Then the dog disappeared back into the bag, like something was spooking her. "I swear that cat was stalking Buttons and me the whole time we were inside."
"Most people think cats are aloof, but they actually like company," I told Tamara. I felt like I had some authority on the subject since I was a professional pet care expert. "He was probably just lonely in that big, dark house and wanted to be friends."
Tamara shot me a look that said she wasn't interested in my credentials or my opinions. "There's nothing friendly about that animal. It's evil."
Giving her hair one more dramatic toss with a hand smothered under heavy rings, Tamara took her leave of us without another word. We all watched her sashay off with the same hip-swaying stride she'd had back in her cheerleading days. Soon after graduation, she'd surprised all of Sylvan Creek by marrying much, much older — and very, very wealthy — attorney Larry Fox. Tamara hadn't worked a day in her life and was considered heiress-apparent to Lillian's informal title of "professional volunteer." On days Lillian wasn't in the Gazette, Tamara could usually be found smiling for the camera.
"What does she have against cats?" asked Moxie, who had a wide-eyed kitten tattooed on her wrist. "They're adorable!"
"Actually, Tinkleston — née Budgely's Sir Peridot Tinkleston — is a difficult animal, to put it mildly," Piper informed us. "I've had to give him shots, and I have the scars to prove it."
I didn't think it was fair to judge a cat based upon his behavior while getting stuck with a needle, but I didn't mention that to Piper.
"We'll keep an eye out for the runaway and finish setting up the table," I promised, waving my fingers to dismiss my sister. "You go oversee everybody else."
"Okay, thanks," Piper said. "I actually need to track down an old CD player Miss Flynt promised we could use to play spooky music. That thing's missing, too." My sister eyed the table warily as she backed away. "You two do a nice job, okay?"
I didn't dignify that with a response. I just started arranging Batty-for-Pumpkin Cookies on a plate — a task that absorbed me until Moxie tapped my shoulder.
"Hey, look," she said. "Somebody else dressed up, as a priest!"
"That's not a costume," I corrected Moxie. "That's Pastor Pete Kishbaugh, the guy Piper was just talking about. He always wears a black shirt and a clerical collar. Don't you know him?"
"No," she said. "He's completely bald. How would I know him?" Moxie was the owner of Spa and Paw, Sylvan Creek's unique salon, which catered to people and pets. She seldom met anyone who didn't have hair. Or fur.
"He's kind of cute," Moxie noted. "Some guys can pull off the shaved head."
"He's also involved in a scandal right now," I whispered. "You've probably heard the rumors about his church, Lighthouse Fellowship." Moxie might not have recognized Pastor Pete, but she was the motor that turned Sylvan Creek's busy gossip mill, and I knew she'd at least be familiar with the stories surrounding him. "I don't know the details, but I heard something about embezzlement, or misappropriated funds."
"Oh, he's that minister?" Moxie mused, just as Pastor Pete — thirty-something, with a gleaming white smile and kind eyes — noticed me and waved. I sometimes watched his golden retriever mix, Blessing, while Pete was on mission trips. He was a very peripatetic man of the cloth. "Yeah, I've heard about that mess," Moxie added. "That's probably going to be fall's big story. I can just tell."
Feeling guilty because the subject of our discussion was still smiling at us, I told Moxie, "You know, Socrates — the logician, not the dog ..." I often quoted the ancient Greek scholar, who'd been central to my doctoral dissertation, so I was always making that clarification. "Socrates once said, 'Strong minds discuss ideas'— not people. I kind of wish I hadn't even brought up the rumors."
Moxie waved off my concerns with a gloved hand.
Why had I believed for a minute that she wasn't in costume?
"I've seen pictures of that old philosopher," she informed me. "He could've used a haircut. And I bet he would've dished on Plato for hours, if he'd ever sat in my chair."
At my side, the canine Socrates lifted his big head and rolled his baleful eyes, as if he disagreed. At least, it appeared that way. Or maybe he was just sniffing the air, which smelled wonderful. The night was crisp and the breeze off the lake was fresh, but tinged with the bittersweet aroma of falling leaves. And somewhere inside the mansion, a fire burned in a fireplace. The smoke, coiling from the chimney, gave the air a distinctly autumnal tang. Raising my slightly upturned nose, I sniffed, too, and I was pretty sure I could also identify the scents of apple cider, cinnamon, and pumpkin.
Excerpted from "Dial Meow for Murder"
Copyright © 2017 Bethany Blake.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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