But once Puppy Fest kicks off, Leo is nowhere to be found—until Melanie discovers his current mistress crouching over his dead body. According to police, the father’s severe nut allergy went into overdrive after he accidentally consumed a contaminated cookie. However, Libby, one of Leo’s children and a friend of Melanie’s Aunt Peg, believes someone deliberately put him down for good . . .
“It’s mutts vs. purebreds as Melanie Travis investigates the death of a dog-loving philanthropist . . . Worth the price of admission.”
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Murder at the Puppy Fest
By Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Laurien Berenson
All rights reserved.
"Hey!" cried Davey. "Did you see that?"
Twelve years old and curious about everything, my son Davey doesn't miss a trick. I was driving. I had my eyes on the road ahead of us.
I was also frowning as I ran through the day's shopping list in my mind. I'd picked up Davey at soccer camp an hour earlier, and we'd since made stops at the pharmacy, the hardware store, and the dry cleaner, before grabbing dinner supplies at the supermarket. Now that we were halfway home, I was beginning to suspect that I'd forgotten something vital.
I glanced Davey's way. After a day spent running around in the hot summer sun, he'd been drowsy only moments earlier. Now he was sitting straight up in his seat, his hand thrust out the open window. To my surprise, he was gesturing frantically toward the other side of the road.
That wasn't like Davey at all. Usually I'm the frantic one in the family.
"See what?" I asked.
A dark green compact car was coming toward us in the opposite lane. As it flew past, I caught only a quick impression of a man hunched low over the steering wheel. A second person was sitting beside him in the passenger seat.
Nothing about the small sedan struck me as notable. Ours were the only two vehicles on the quiet, suburban road. Even so, if Davey hadn't said something, I wouldn't have noticed it at all.
"What about it?" I asked him.
"Those guys. Didn't you see them? They just dumped that dog!"
"What?" Suddenly, Davey wasn't the only one sitting up in his seat. He had my full attention now.
"Mom, you have to pull over."
I was already doing that. With blinker flicked on, I let the Volvo coast to the side of the road. "What dog? Where?"
"Look. He's over there."
There wasn't time for me to look at anything. Before the car had even stopped rolling, Davey was already throwing off his seat belt. With a burst of youthful agility, he opened his door and scrambled out. I hurried to follow suit.
"Wait for me," I yelled after him. "Look both ways!"
Right. Like that was happening.
I caught up to him as he reached the grassy verge on the other side of the road and I grabbed his hand.
"What?" Davey looked down in surprise.
He held his younger brother Kevin's hand all the time. Mine, never. At his age, a gesture of affection like that has been beneath his dignity for several years.
"Wait," I said quietly as I pulled Davey to a stop. "Give him a minute. We don't want to scare him."
The dog was about twenty feet away from us, sitting on the narrow strip of grass between the road and an old stone wall. His front legs were splayed wide apart. His head hung low, and a long pink tongue lolled out of the side of his mouth as he panted heavily. The poor guy must have tried to chase after the car that had left him behind; he looked exhausted.
He was small to medium in size and couldn't have weighed more than twenty pounds. His smooth coat was mostly white, dotted with black and brown spots. He had a rounded head and a skinny body. One ear stood straight up; the other hung down over his cheek. A black patch covered one eye.
It was clear that the dog had noticed us. He lifted his head and eyed us warily. Under the circumstances, his response was understandable. But I was still determined to proceed with caution.
I'd relinquished my grip on Davey's hand, but now I reached over and held my son back. He lived in a house filled with Standard Poodles. He assumed that every dog was as friendly and outgoing as the ones he knew at home.
"Tell me what you saw," I said.
"I noticed the car because it pulled over and stopped. I thought maybe something was wrong. But then a guy opened the door and threw that dog out. Just tossed him on the ground. Then the car took off again. They didn't even look to see if he was all right."
"Bastards," I said under my breath.
Davey usually calls me on any lapses in language. This time, he nodded in agreement.
"He landed on his side in the grass," he said, and I heard the quaver in his voice. "Then he jumped up and started running. Even after those idiots dumped him, he still wanted to go with them."
"They're all he knows," I said with a sigh. "He thinks he belongs with them."
This time, it was Davey who took my hand. He squeezed my fingers hard. "We have to help him. We can't just leave him here."
"Don't worry," I said. "We'll get him the help he needs."
Our hometown of Stamford, Connecticut, is a lively city situated on Long Island Sound in lower Fairfield County. North Stamford, where Davey and I live with my husband, Sam, and three-year-old Kevin, has managed to retain much of its bucolic appeal despite downtown growth in both commerce and industry. Out where we are, houses are still spaced wide apart and traffic isn't plentiful.
I had no intention of treating the little dog as heartlessly as his owners had. Davey and I would not be the second and third people that day to abandon him by the side of an empty road.
"Cool," said Davey.
It isn't every day that the mother of a preteen boy can make her son smile. That made two good reasons why we were going to be rescuing the spotted dog. Now I just had to figure out what our next move should be.
Davey lifted a hand and brushed damp, sandy-brown bangs up off his face. I knew there was a tube of sunblock in his backpack; I'd placed it there myself. But after a day spent running around in the sun, his nose and forehead were pink. There was also a smear of dirt on the back of his neck. Still dressed in his soccer gear, my son was badly in need of a shower.
"That dog looks pretty upset," he said. "Plus, I think he's scared of us."
"That's why we're going to stay here for now. We'll give him a minute to think about things before we approach him."
"Maybe we should call Aunt Peg."
Of course Davey would suggest that course of action. Faced with a canine conundrum, just about everyone I know would immediately think of consulting my Aunt Peg.
Margaret Turnbull enjoyed near-legendary status in the dog show community. A successful breeder and exhibitor of Standard Poodles for decades, she had handled numerous Cedar Crest Poodles to top year-end awards. Now in her mid- sixties, Aunt Peg had a flourishing career as a dog show judge and she hadn't lost a single step. Not only that, but she still managed to keep the rest of us on our toes as well.
In addition to her many accomplishments in the dog world, my aunt was a woman who simply gets dogs. She possessed the rare ability to understand instinctively what they were thinking and feeling. Poodles had been Aunt Peg's lifelong companions, but canines of all shapes and sizes were drawn to her, in part because she made it clear that she returned their appreciation and respect in full measure.
By contrast, I didn't even own my first dog until I was in my thirties. Which meant that I'd occasionally been known to rely on Aunt Peg's canine acumen to remedy my own shortcomings. It wasn't a perfect solution. You try living in the shadow of a legend and see how you like it.
"No," I said firmly. "We don't need Aunt Peg. You and I are perfectly capable of handling this on our own."
"Okay." Davey didn't sound convinced. "But if we're handling this, how come we're over here and he's all the way over there?"
Most days, I'm happy that I've raised a child who knows how to ask good questions. Other days, not so much.
"I just want to consider the best way to approach him," I said. "That little dog just had something terrible happen to him. The last thing we want to do is frighten him further. If he feels threatened by us, he could bite. Or he might turn around and run away."
Davey squatted down and held out a hand. "Here, pup. Come on, boy. We're nice people. We just want to help you."
The spotted dog cocked his head to one side. He was listening to us. He just wasn't sure yet that he believed what we had to say.
"A dog that skinny must be hungry," I said. "Let's try offering him some food. What do you have left over from lunch in your backpack?"
"Most of a turkey sandwich," Davey replied without taking his eyes off the dog.
"Why didn't you eat your sandwich?"
"I was too hot. The lunch break was short. I ate my cupcake."
"And all those baby carrots you always put in even though I told you I'm the only kid who gets vegetables for lunch."
I supposed that counted for something.
"You stay here and keep an eye on him," I said. "I'll be right back."
It only took me a minute to run back to the Volvo and find Davey's sandwich, squashed beneath a pair of shin guards at the bottom of his backpack. The turkey and whole wheat bread were warm and had mashed together into a soggy lump. Our offering didn't look very appetizing, but I suspected that the little dog wouldn't care.
As I trotted back across the road, I saw that while I'd been busy inside the car, Davey had moved farther down along the grassy verge. The distance between him and the dog was now cut in half. In response, the dog had risen to his feet. Though his gaze remained fixed on Davey, he appeared half-poised to flee.
"I thought I told you to stay where you were."
"You were taking too long to think about things."
"I was trying to keep you safe."
"From him?" Davey scoffed. "What could he do? That guy's tiny."
The dog wasn't that small. Although, compared to the Standard Poodles Davey was used to, I could see how he might not be impressed by this dog's size. Standards are the largest of the three varieties of Poodles. When my dogs stand next to me, their heads are level with my waist. Standard Poodles are intelligent, fun-loving dogs and a constant source of entertainment. Poodles not only make their owners laugh, they also challenge their people to out-think them.
By comparison, the skinny little spotted dog watching us intently through narrowed eyes didn't look like much.
"He may be small, but he still has sharp teeth," I said. "And he's clearly frightened. We don't want to push him into doing something he doesn't mean to do."
Davey reached over and took the baggie out of my hand. "Let's see if he likes turkey. Maybe that will convince him that we want to help."
The plastic crinkled in Davey's hands as he withdrew the sandwich. The small dog lifted his ears. Then he tipped his muzzle upward and sniffed experimentally.
He was definitely intrigued. That was good.
"Break off a piece and toss it to him," I said.
Davey did as I'd requested. The dog watched the half-sandwich fly through the air. It landed in the grass no more than a yard from where he stood. Abruptly the dog's weight shifted forward. He looked down at the morsel of food, then quickly up at us. His mouth opened slightly, his tongue flicked up and down.
The spotted dog still didn't trust us, but he was tempted.
"Go on," I said softly. "You know you want it."
Before I'd even finished speaking, the dog leapt forward. He pounced on the sandwich and gobbled it down in one swift bite. As he retreated back to where he'd been, I got my first look at his tail. It was short and thick and tipped in black.
"That worked," Davey said with satisfaction.
"Do it again," I told him. "This time, throw the food a little closer to us."
The piece of sandwich had barely landed before the dog bounded toward us and snatched it up. Instead of scooting away from us, the small dog stood his ground. He stared intently at the last piece of turkey in Davey's hand. His skinny body quivered with eagerness.
"Poor guy," said Davey. "He must really be hungry."
"Let's sit down on the grass, we'll look less threatening if we're smaller. Now put the last piece here." I indicated a spot just two feet away. "Let's see what he does."
The dog didn't even hesitate. He gobbled up the last of the sandwich and quickly swallowed. Then he raised his head and looked at us curiously, waiting to see what we would do next.
Close up, the spotted dog looked even worse than he had from afar. Most of his ribs were clearly visible, as were the points of his shoulder blades. His legs and feet were crusted with mud and his toenails were overgrown. There was a ring of red, irritated skin around his neck where much of the hair had been rubbed off. Several scrapes were raw and oozing. It looked as though he'd recently been wearing a collar that was several sizes too small for him.
I growled softly under my breath. Horrible as this day's experience had been for the poor dog, it didn't appear as though his previous life had been much better. And yet despite all he'd been through, the expression on the little guy's face was hopeful. He even gave his stubby tail a gentle wag.
A lump rose in my throat. For a moment, I couldn't seem to draw in a breath. Once again, I found myself humbled by a dog's infinite capacity to forgive and offer trust.
"I'm out of food," Davey said glumly. "Oh, wait!" He dug a hand into the pocket of his shorts and pulled out a half-eaten protein bar.
I didn't even want to know where that had come from. Or how long it had been in there.
"Hold out your hand," I said. "See if he'll take it from you."
The small dog stretched out his neck, lifted his muzzle, and whisked the food out of Davey's fingers. He swallowed it in two quick gulps. Then he took a step forward and sniffed Davey's empty hand. Realizing there was nothing more there for him to eat, he sidled over to me and had a look around. Slowly, I lifted my fingers and scratched beneath his chin.
The dog stiffened at my touch but didn't draw back. After a minute, he began to relax and lean into the caress. He even moved closer so his slender body could press up against my legs.
"I think he likes you, Mom." Davey grinned delightedly at our success.
"I think he likes both of us."
The look on my son's face was every bit as hopeful as the dog's had been. "So now what do we do with him?"
Poor skinny little thing. It wasn't as if we had a choice.
"We take him home," I said.CHAPTER 2
Once we'd overcome his initial reticence, the spotted dog attached himself to us like we were his new best friends. He followed us across the road and jumped into the car as soon as Davey opened the door. He looked around alertly as we got ourselves settled, then proceeded to make himself comfortable on Davey's lap for the ride home.
"For a scrawny dog, he's pretty cute," Davey said.
I'd barely driven a mile and the little guy was already asleep. His body was cradled by my son's legs, and Davey's hand rested comfortably on the dog's back. Beneath his fingers, the narrow rib cage rose and fell in a steady rhythm. Once again, I marveled at the fact that the dog could be so trusting, especially after the way his last car ride had turned out.
"It's not his fault he's scrawny," I said. "It looks like it's been a while since he had a good meal."
"We can fix that." Davey paused, shooting me a quick look out of the corner of his eye to gauge my response. "Can't we? Please?"
"You know we have five dogs already."
"Yeah, but ... we have room for one more."
I didn't want to make any hasty promises, but I was thinking the same thing. Until recently, our pack of Standard Poodles had numbered six. My second husband, Sam, had brought three Poodles with him to our union five years earlier. Davey and I had contributed two: Faith and Eve, a mother and daughter pair. Then we'd added Davey's show dog, Augie. But two months earlier, we'd lost Casey, Sam's oldest bitch, to a fast-acting cancer. Her passing had left a hole in all our hearts. One that none of us had been in a hurry to fill.
And now this little dog had found us.
"Besides," Davey said, "look at him. He's not even half as big as a Standard Poodle. He could fit anywhere."
I gazed at the two of them and sighed.
Davey knew I was wavering. How could I not be?
"He needs us, Mom. He doesn't have anyone else."
The dog wiggled his shoulders and curled his body into a tighter ball. Eyes still shut, he snuggled deeper into Davey's lap and looked utterly content. It was as if he knew exactly how to seduce me to his side.
"Let's see what Sam says, okay?"
"Sam will love him," Davey said happily. "Trust me."
Sam's an even softer touch than I am. I suspected Davey was right.
* * *
Our house is in a quiet neighborhood whose wide streets and well-kept lawns are shaded by mature trees and neatly trimmed hedges. Colonial in style, like most of those around it, the house is set back from the road for privacy. Fortunately, the setting also allows for a fenced backyard spacious enough to accommodate the antics of five rambunctious Standard Poodles.
When I pulled into the driveway, Aunt Peg's minivan was parked in the turnaround next to the garage. My stomach gave a small flip, a response similar to the one you might have when unexpectedly encountering a hornets' nest.
Excerpted from Murder at the Puppy Fest by Laurien Berenson. Copyright © 2017 Laurien Berenson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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