Mimi Lee is in over her head. There's her new Los Angeles pet grooming shop to run, her matchmaking mother to thwart, her talking cat Marshmallow to tend to—oh, and the murder of a local breeder to solve...now if only Mimi hadn't landed herself on top of the suspect list.
Mimi Lee hoped to give Los Angeles animal lovers something to talk about with her pet grooming shop, Hollywoof. She never imagined that the first cat she said hello to would talk back or be quite so, well, catty—especially about those disastrous dates Mimi's mother keeps setting up.
When Marshmallow exposes local breeder Russ Nolan for mistreating Chihuahuas, Mimi steals some of her cat's attitude to tell Russ off. The next day the police show up at Hollywoof. Russ has been found dead, and Mimi's shouting match with him has secured her top billing as the main suspect.
Hoping to clear her name and save the pups Russ left behind, Mimi enlists help from her dreamy lawyer neighbor Josh. But even with Josh on board, it'll take Mimi and Marshmallow a lot of sleuthing and more than a little sass to get back to the pet-grooming life—and off the murder scene.
"This fast-paced, light and fun read features Malaysian-Chinese food, a fun loving family, lots of animals and a solid mystery that will be a challenge to figure out – my kind of mystery!" -Esme Addison, author of A Spell for Trouble
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I stood in the warm L.A. sunshine, admiring the marquee sign above my store. "Hollywoof," it read. The tagline? "Where we treat your pets like stars."
A week ago, I'd celebrated my life's quarter-century mark. The best birthday present: this fulfillment of my lifelong dream. All those years of cat sitting, dog walking, and poop scooping had paid off. I was the new owner of a pet grooming salon.
When I entered my store, the golden bell above the door gave off a gentle chime. As the musical note faded, I found myself trapped in a deep silence. Not one bark or chitter.
Though I'd placed ads on social media, nobody had shown up. I'd even offered a special discount this week. Yesterday had been quiet, except for the arrival of Ma, Dad, and Alice. And family didn't count as real foot traffic.
Today seemed about the same. Half the day had flown by, and still no luck.
Finally, the phone rang, and I rushed to grab it. "Hollywoof. Can I help you?"
"It's Pixie," a smooth voice on the other end of the line said. "How's your business going?"
Thankfully, Pixie St. James hadn't called it "my" business, though she'd put up the capital for it. She even looked more of a businesswoman than me, with her no-nonsense cropped brunette hair and polished pantsuits.
I sighed. "Things are slow. Not a customer in sight."
She clucked her tongue, and I could imagine a flurry of ideas rushing through her brain. "Tell you what, I'll text a few friends," she said. "Maybe someone can swing by."
I heard an excited bark over the phone. "Is that Gelato?" Pixie craved Italian desserts, and her sweet tooth had inspired the shih tzu's name. That cute puppy was the reason I had my grooming business.
"Yes, he's due for his walk . . . I swear he's trying to drag me out the door right this minute."
I could imagine that. Energy on four legs, Gelato had jumped into the choppy waves off Catalina Island this past summer. I had to dive in to save him. After the rescue, Pixie had promised to invest in the grooming business . . . as long as I offered Gelato free baths for life. Deal.
The barking increased. "You better go," I said. "Thanks for checking up on me. Have a great walk."
A few minutes later, I heard a familiar happy giggle as my sister entered the store. I bet Alice had shown up at noon to match Hollywoof's hour-long lunch closure. I greeted her with a warm hug.
I didn't need to reach up for the embrace, since we had the same five-foot frame. People often mistook us for twins despite our two-year age gap. We did have the same features: oval faces, elfin ears, and small button noses. We wore our hair differently, though-she in an Amy Tan bob, complete with bangs, and me with shoulder-length black hair.
Her light brown eyes glowed. "I brought you something to celebrate your grand opening week." She held up a cardboard box . . . that purred. "Take a look at the cutie I found at the shelter."
I backed away. "Please don't tell me that's a cat."
A furry white head popped up from the box and blinked at me with ocean-colored eyes.
"Mimi," my sister said, "how can you say no to these baby blues?" Alice was a sucker for waif faces. Maybe that's how she wrangled twenty-five kindergarteners Monday through Friday and still remained smiling by the afternoon.
I frowned at the Persian cat. "Alice, you know I prefer dogs."
She gave me her peppy teacher's smile. "Maybe you just need to have the right kitty."
I hesitated, imagining sharp claws and giant hairballs.
"Please." She placed the box in my hands. "For me."
How could I say no to my baby sis? "We'll see," I said.
"You'll love him, I bet." Alice squeezed my shoulder. "Time for me to get back to class. The new principal's a real stickler about time."
I waved to her as she left.
As soon as I took the cat out of the box, he sauntered over to the plateglass window and stretched out in a sunny spot to nap. This kitty put the "cat" in catatonic. While he slept, I made a quick trip to the pet store to pick up supplies, including a carrier for the car.
When I returned, business remained stalled. Over the next hours, though, a few people dropped in from the beach to check out the store. I hoped some of them owned pets, because their visits left me with a lot of mess. Surfboards knocked into displays, flip-flops left wet marks behind, and sand was wedged into every nook and cranny.
Near closing time, I finished the cleanup. Then I looked over at the white cat, who had finally opened his eyes, and mulled over possible names. His coat was so poofy, it made him shapeless, like a giant marshmallow. Hmm, that wasn't too bad of a name.
I cocked my head at Marshmallow, and he stared back at me with piercing sapphire eyes. We maintained eye contact for so long, it felt like a staring contest. I would show him who was boss.
Okay, I blinked first. But I had an excuse. The door swished open.
A petite blonde barreled in. She wore pink on pink on pink. The woman had layered a lacy camisole under a moto jacket and paired them with a leather skirt, all in the hue of Pepto-Bismol. I wanted to snatch the sunglasses off her head to shield my eyes, but their lenses were also bubblegum bright.
Thank goodness the dog she was holding wasn't dyed to match. Instead, it seemed to be a common tan Chihuahua, albeit with a pink rhinestone collar. The owner held the little dog tight to her bosom.
The blonde swiveled her head from left to right, surveying the shop's interior. I bit my lip. Had I done it up right?
Think: Oscars meets Fido. On the floor, I'd created a Hollywood Bark of Fame, complete with golden stars featuring Lassie and Toto. A large-screen television took up one entire wall and played classic doggie movies on an endless loop. Two cream pleather benches flanked a swirled marble table in the waiting area. And a searchlight shone down on the reception table. Maybe the decor was a bit over-the-top.
But I'd wanted to attract ritzy clients from the nearby beach cities. What did I know about the rich, though? I'd been raised a few miles out in Lawndale, close enough in distance but worlds apart from golden sands and beachfront mansions.
I must have passed some sort of litmus test, because the blonde nodded at me. "Just the place to drop off my handsome Sterling," she said.
She pinched his cheek, but the dog didn't appear fazed. In fact, he snuggled deeper into her arms.
"How did you find Hollywoof?" I asked, crossing my fingers. Had the online ads worked?
"Pixie told me."
"Oh." I relaxed my hand. Pixie had helped me with the funding, and now she'd given me my first customer.
The blonde perched her sunglasses on top of her head and extended shiny manicured tips toward me. "I'm Lauren Dalton. You've probably heard of my husband? He's a famous Hollywood producer."
Was I supposed to kiss her hand? I hesitated and settled for a more professional handshake.
Lauren continued, "Sorry about the getup." She gestured at her screaming pink clothes. "I came straight from the Help the Homeless fundraiser. I love all costumed charity galas-it was a movie theme this time, and I picked Legally Blonde."
"No problem." I cared about how the animals, not their owners, looked.
"Actually, I'm in a rush." She glanced at her diamond-encrusted watch, more jewelry than timepiece. "My baby has gym class in twenty minutes."
Oh, I knew how to ensure her ongoing patronage. In my experience, parents loved gushing about their kids. "Your child must be super flexible-a real Olympic contender."
She blinked at me. "Well, Sterling is my baby. My assistant Nicola got him just last month from a local breeder, Russ Nolan."
I tugged my ear. "Of course, that's what I meant . . . Dogs are like children, but better. All the love without any of the whininess."
"Sterling is a clingy puppy, but doggie gym should energize him. And a beauty treatment might lift his spirits." She smiled at me and lowered Sterling to the ground. Bending over, she gave him a peck. "Be a good boy for Mommy."
As her short skirt rode up, I averted my eyes. "So, what would you like done for Sterling today? Something quick that would fit your schedule." A wash and dry would take longer than twenty minutes. Plus, who knew how much time it'd take to brave traffic to get to the class?
She examined me with her forest green eyes. "This is a trial run. I'd like you to get rid of all the dirt clinging to him. He needs to look his best for gym."
Sterling's coat seemed pretty clean to me. "Perhaps a quick brush?"
"Fine. I'll wait here." She strolled over to a wall rack and started fingering the glitzy collars and leashes there.
"Be back in a jiffy." I tried to coax Sterling over to the back area, but he crawled like molasses.
I turned to Lauren. "Are you sure he's okay? Maybe you should drop by the vet . . ."
"I can't fit that into his schedule as well, but he can get a brush right now."
"Fine," I said, scooping Sterling up to save time. He let out a sharp yip and wiggled in my arms. Huh. Pampered little Chihuahuas usually love being cuddled.
I entered the workstation at the rear of Hollywoof, which held two stark rooms with antiseptic white walls. They smelled of scrubbing and cleanser. I passed by the smaller room, a kennel area for holding animals. At least, I hoped I would get enough business to have pets needing to wait their turn to get shampooed.
The larger room was the grooming area. Huge industrial steel sinks took up half the space. A few drying tables covered the rest of the room. I moved toward one and placed Sterling on its textured nonslip surface.
"Okay, boy, we're going to do a simple groom." I reached for the leash hanging off an arcing metal arm and hooked his rhinestone collar to it.
"There you are. Clipped in nice and safe. Let me get my equipment." I chose a soft curry brush. When I had first heard the term, I had thought of a cooking utensil, something more fit to dole out Ma's spicy rendang than to tame fur.
I showed him the oval brush with its rubber bristles. "This soft comb won't hurt your delicate skin."
Hmm, should I start with his tail? Maybe he'd be less nervous that way. But he soon stopped trembling, so I followed my usual routine.
First, I let him sniff the brush to get familiar with it. Then I worked on his head and moved on to the body. Near his right hind leg, I hit a snag. What was that? He yelped and backed away.
I apologized and patted him in a soothing manner. Maybe I'd brushed too hard. I used gentler strokes until he displayed gleaming fur, way smoother than my own frizz-prone hair.
Sterling now had a shiny coat, but I wanted to add a finishing touch. Scrounging through the accessory box, I found the perfect item to go with his rhinestone collar. I placed a bright pink headband on top of his sweet head.
When I returned Sterling to the front, Lauren smiled. "He looks like a champ. How much do I owe you?"
We walked over to the cash register, where Lauren got distracted by the jar of doggie treats on the counter.
"Homemade," I said. "Peanut butter and bacon flavor. Two dollars a biscuit." Would anyone pay that much? I'd wanted to charge a quarter at first, but I needed to cover the rent of this extravagant business space near the pier.
"A steal," Lauren said, adding a dozen treats to her grooming bill. When I rang her up, she pulled a crisp hundred from a sparkly pink clutch.
"Keep the change," she said. "The pink sweatband is perfect. Speaking of purr-fect . . ." Lauren sauntered over to the display window. "What's the name of your adorable cat?"
"Marshmallow," I said as I joined her at the sunbathing spot.
"Too cute," Lauren said and tapped the cat's nose.
Marshmallow hissed and raised his paw up, claws out.
I pulled Lauren away from danger. "He's not quite used to company yet."
"Well, besides the unfriendly kitty, I like your place. I'm going to tell my yoga sisters, and they'll bring their animal besties here, too."
"That would be lovely." Yes. My business was picking up.
After the bell jingled on Lauren's way out, I heard a baritone male voice pipe up. "Good riddance."
I turned in a slow circle, surveying the store. "Who's there?" Had someone waltzed in while I was beautifying Sterling?
I didn't see anyone. Only Marshmallow glared at me from his perch.
The voice continued. "You let her attack my face."
I looked at Marshmallow. No way the cat was talking to me. Plus, his mouth hadn't moved. Not one whisker twitched.
"What kind of name is Marshmallow anyway?" His fur bristled. "Are you fat-shaming me?"
I rubbed my ears. They felt normal. Maybe it wasn't a physical problem. Oh no. Was I experiencing a psychotic break? I should crack open the DSM from my psych major days to find a rational explanation.
"This isn't real," I said, closing my eyes.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty. I'm not done talking to you."
Marshmallow growled at me, and I opened my eyes to find him staring me down. Then he uncurled from his spot and slinked my way.
"Are you speaking?" No, it couldn't be true. Maybe this was a hallucination. Ma had brought over herbal soup last night sprinkled with a weird Asian mushroom: cloud ear fungus. But I'd eaten that stuff before and suffered little besides a jaw ache from chewing the slippery but crunchy brown masses.
Marshmallow advanced on me, and I backed up until I got trapped at the counter.
"This isn't happening." I grabbed the treat container for defense. After all, it was made of heavy glass. Or maybe I could pelt him with dog biscuits.
He halted and sat on his haunches, seeming to consider me. The talking stopped.
Taking a deep breath to collect myself, I started closing up shop. I wiped down the counter with cleaner and turned off the lights. Then, massaging my temples, I headed toward the front door. When I reached it, I flipped the sign over to read "CLOSED." I grinned, glad that I made my own easy work schedule of ten a.m. to six p.m.