Putting on the Dog (Reigning Cats and Dogs Series #2)by Cynthia Baxter
A charity dog show has Jessica hitting the road with her faithful one-eyed Dalmatian, Lou, and her tailless Westie, Max, for the palatial summer estates of Long Island's fabled East End. When she arrives, the posh seaside community is crawling with stars eager to take best in show for their beloved pooches. But it's murder most tacky when a celebrity photographer is felled by a giant ice sculpture at a $500-a-plate fund-raiser.
Unable to resis the scent of the hunt, Jess is soon investigating a casting director's dream of potential suspects. But if Jess isn't careful, she just might become the next victim of a killer determined to prove she's barking up the wrong tree.
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"All men are intrinsically rascals, and I am only sorry that not being a dog, I can't bite them."
Damn you, Marcus Scruggs!" I grumbled, leaning closer to the windshield of my van and peering through the sheeting rain. "Be honest, guys: Am I totally nuts?"
Max and Lou, scrambling around on the seat beside me, offered no opinion about my sanity. They were too busy acting like unruly preschoolers, wrestling for the space nearest the window. It was a close contest. Lou, my one-eyed Dalmatian, had longer legs. But Max, being a terrier, was infinitely more determined.
I sighed. Somehow, this wasn't the way I'd pictured my arrival in the Bromptons, a cluster of posh seaside communities famous for their palatial summer estates, spectacular white-sanded beaches, and four-star restaurants featuring twelve-dollar desserts. Between the area's attributes and the fact that it was less than two hours from Manhattan, it wasn't surprising that the movers and shakers from New York City and Los Angeles had claimed Long Island's East End as their own. For decades, the Bromptons had been known as the summer playground of movie stars, rock legends, writers, and artists, as well as the agents, managers, and executives whose names weren't as well-known, but whose summer homes were at least as large.
So it hadn't been difficult for Marcus Scruggs, a fellow Long Island veterinarian, to sell me on the idea of spending the last week of June standing in for him at a charity dog show, answering pet owners' questions at the "Ask The Vet" booth. I could practically hear his voice, floating over the phone as low and smooth as an FM disc jockey's: "I'm telling you, Popper, I'm talking Glamour--with a capital G."
But in the pouring rain, the area's main east-west route, Sunset Highway, looked more like Main Street in a ghost town. Few cars crawled along the puddle-strewn thoroughfare, and fewer yet stood parked outside the pool-supply shops and imported-tile boutiques lining its edge. Even the scrubby trees and shrubs that dotted the two-lane highway looked pathetic.
Gritting my teeth, I veered around a body of water only slightly smaller than Lake Superior. I was no stranger to the Bromptons. As a vet who makes house calls in my clinic-on-wheels, I routinely travel all over Long Island. That includes visiting clients who live on what's popularly called the South Fork, the lower of the two fish tails that make up the Island's eastern end. And Marcus had given me detailed directions for getting to the estate of someone named Wiener, the man who'd volunteered to put me up during the weeklong event. I'd followed his directions to the letter, but I still couldn't find Darby Lane. Of course, not being able to make out the street signs through the pouring rain didn't help.
I clamped down on the brake when I spotted a yellow-and-white striped awning, a sure indication I was approaching a farm stand. Somebody around here had to know where the Wiener estate was, and it seemed as likely a place as any. I made a sharp turn, sending Max and Lou collapsing against each other in a heap.
"You guys okay?" I asked as my van rocked along a badly pitted parking lot that no one had ever bothered to pave--no doubt, a self-conscious attempt at capturing the rural charm of Tuscany or the South of France.
I didn't need an answer. By the time I pulled into a space, the two of them were already climbing all over each other again, making little yelping sounds and occasionally nipping each other playfully in the butt. I was glad somebody was having fun.
I stared out at the rain morosely, wondering why I hadn't brought along an umbrella, and with a loud sigh of resignation, I opened the door of my van.
"Stay!" I instructed my two canines. They paused in their shenanigans, both shooting me surprised looks that said they wouldn't even have considered venturing out in weather like this.
"You guys are much too smart," I muttered. "You make the humans do all the dirty work."
I picked my way across the dirt parking lot, noticing that it was quickly turning into a mud parking lot. I regretted dressing up. I'd made a few Sunday morning emergency calls in my usual work ensemble, khaki trousers and a polo shirt embroidered with "Jessica Popper, D.V.M." But before corralling Max and Lou into my twenty-six-foot van and embarking on the drive to the East End, a good hour-and-a-half trip from my hometown of Joshua's Hollow on Long Island's North Shore, I'd changed into an outfit I felt better suited my destination. I'd donned a pale blue silk blouse and black rayon trousers, the finest that Bloomingdale's "Clearance" rack had to offer. I only hoped the drops of rain that were turning them from solid colors into polka dots wouldn't have a lasting effect.
I scurried past the displays that ran along the front of the farm stand, mounds of vegetables and fruit so large and richly colored they looked like they were made of wax: bright orange-red tomatoes the size of baseballs, slick dark green cucumbers that could have doubled as baseball bats, and an impressive selection of exotic-looking fruits that had probably been flown in from so far away that they'd amassed more frequent flyer miles than I had.
"Excuse me!" I called to the clerk standing behind the displays, protected from the rain by the awning.
"Be with you in a minute," she returned coolly. She turned her attention back to her customer, a woman who'd had the good sense to bring an umbrella and wear a slicker.
I glanced around frantically, looking for some friendly local who might be willing to help. And then I let out a screech.
Before I knew what was happening, I was blasted with water. It was as if someone--someone not very nice--had suddenly turned a hose on me.
"Wha-a-a! . . ." I sputtered.
I stood frozen to the spot, gradually realizing that the front of my silk shirt was splotched with huge, grimy wet spots, while my stylishly loose pants clung damply to my thighs. I could feel cold rivulets dripping off my face and down my neck. My dark blonde hair was plastered around my head, no doubt giving me the distinctive look of a sea otter. When I ran my fingers through the soggy strands in an attempt at pushing them off my face, I actually encountered clumps of mud.
I blinked a few times, struggling to get the water out of my eyes. As soon as I did, I saw that a low-slung sports car the same color as the ripe tomatoes on display had just pulled into a parking space less than five feet in front of me. Because it was going ridiculously fast, its wheels had thrown up a tremendous spray of water.
I just stared as the door of the Ferrari opened. The driver was dressed in torn jeans and a T-shirt. A Dodgers baseball cap was pulled down low over his eyes, which were hidden behind a pair of sunglasses. With his shaggy hair and a sorry attempt at a beard, he looked like he'd stolen the car, not earned it.
I plunked myself right in front of him.
He peered up at me over his shades. "Gee, did I do that?"
"No, I'm on my way to a wet T-shirt contest," I shot back. "I thought accessorizing with mud would be a nice touch."
"Hey, I'm really sorry. I hope you'll let me pay the dry-cleaning bill."
"That's the least you can do. But if you don't mind, I'd rather not discuss this in the pouring rain."
He gestured toward the seat next to him. "Climb in."
"Thanks, but my mother taught me never to get into cars with strange men."
"Good advice. Unless you happen to be in the middle of a downpour."
I stood firm.
"Okay, have it your way." He climbed out of the car, grabbed my hand, and pulled me after him. I would have protested except for the fact that he actually seemed to know where he was going.
I was so busy following him that I didn't pay much attention to the Mercedes that had just driven up beside us. When a wiry man in tight jeans and a black silk shirt jumped out, I just assumed he'd come in search of vegetables big enough to stage a baseball game.
The Ferrari driver led me through the farm stand's side entrance, bringing us into a small room. It contained a few shelves lined with household basics like mango chutney and wasabi rice crackers.
He turned to me. "How much do you think is fair? To get your clothes cleaned, I mean."
"Isn't there something else I deserve?"
His expression tightened. "Don't tell me you're planning to hit me up for pain and suffering! Look, if you're one of those people who's going to start screaming about your lawyer--"
I tossed my head indignantly. "Actually, I was looking for an apology. Or is that too much to expect from somebody who drives like this was the Indy 500--"
Suddenly, the man I'd seen get out of the Mercedes appeared in the doorway, holding an impressively large, professional-looking camera. He immediately started snapping pictures, one after another.
I was so startled I didn't know what to think. But the Ferrari driver appeared to have figured it out immediately.
"Get the hell out of here!" he yelled. "You people are leeches--and you're the worst, Barnett! Can't I even go shopping for food without you harassing me?"
The more he screamed and waved his arms, the more the man with the camera snapped away.
The Ferrari driver finally turned his back on the photographer. "Look, I'm getting out of here," he told me. "Funny, but I've suddenly lost my appetite." He reached into his pocket, took out a wad of bills, and pulled off two twenties. "Here. This should take care of it. And I really am sorry."
He thrust the cash into my hand and dashed out. The man with the camera took off after him.
I was still trying to figure out what I'd just witnessed, when the clerk who'd blown me off earlier came over, snaking her way between the aisles.
"Did you get his autograph?" she asked, her eyes glittering excitedly.
"Shawn Elliot, of course!"
"That was him? In the Ferrari?"
She looked at me as if I'd just climbed out of a UFO. "You didn't recognize him?"
I shook my head. I knew who he was, of course. So did every other red-blooded woman between the ages of twelve and a hundred and twelve, at least if she'd been to the movies in the past five years. I stuck my head out the doorway, trying to get another look. But he'd already hightailed it out of the parking lot.
"He didn't look the way he does in the movies," I told the clerk with a sheepish shrug.
She nodded knowingly. "He does that on purpose. When he's out here, I mean. During the summer, he tries to throw off his star persona. You know, grow a beard, dress all grungy . . . act like he's a regular person."
"How do you know all this?"
"I read it in the Stargazer," she replied, looking smug. "Besides, that's exactly what I intend to do. After I get discovered, I mean." She leaned closer. "I'm not really a clerk, you know. I'm an actress, waiting for my big break."
I sighed. I'd been in the Bromptons for less than twenty minutes, and I already felt as if I'd made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Famous actors who drove Ferraris and wore ratty jeans, photographers who leaped out from behind the cucumbers, cashiers who were really movie stars in disguise . . . it was more than I could handle.
I was beginning to wonder how I'd ever get through the next few days.
As I climbed back into my van, Max and Lou predictably acted as if I'd been away on a Himalayan trek instead of spending ten minutes getting directions and getting wet.
"Hey, Maxie-Max. Come here, Louie-Lou." I patiently allowed my canines to slobber over me. As usual, Max got the best seat in the house, my lap. His four paws dug into my thighs like cleats. When you're a Westie--meaning you have the face of a teddy bear--you can get away with that kind of thing. Lou held back, nuzzling me questioningly and constantly glancing over at Max. My leggy, sixty-six-pound Dalmatian is in the habit of deferring to his twenty-pound stepbrother, even though Max is only the size of a large loaf of bread. Lou's scars from his original owner go far beyond his missing eye.
"Okay, guys," I finally said, shooing them over to their side of the front seat and shifting my van into gear. "Let's try this again."
I pulled out of the parking lot, then carefully followed the directions the clerk had scrawled on the back of a Ralph Lauren receipt. Left onto Sunset Highway, a sharp right at the Antiques Barn . . .
"Yes!" I breathed, when a road sign reading "Darby Lane" suddenly emerged from the gray mist. After making another right, I drove to the end of the street. I had no idea if the clerk at the farm stand was any good at acting, but she'd turned out to be great at directions. Thanks to her, I'd finally found the Wiener estate.
Unfortunately, a wrought-iron fence that looked like a leftover from Leavenworth separated me from it.
"Damn!" I muttered.
Through the rain splashing across my windshield, I could see something white clinging to the big lock smack in the middle of the gate. I hoped it was a note.
By that point, even the prospect of standing in the unrelenting downpour no longer fazed me, so I got out and retrieved the soggy piece of paper. The ink was so badly smeared it was barely readable.
" 'Gate is locked.' " I read aloud. "Now there's a useful bit of information. 'Use side entrance. Come to the house for the guest house key. Thanks.' "
Sure enough, the side entrance was open. As I drove along the curving driveway, I spotted a small building nestled in the trees in the back corner of the sprawling grounds. The guesthouse, no doubt. It looked like a cottage out of a fairy tale, the kind of place the Seven Dwarfs had lived in.
The main house was an entirely different story. I hadn't seen anything that grand since my high school trip to Paris, which included a day at Versailles: white columns, dramatic marble steps, and enough square footage to spark a revolution.
I parked in the driveway, gave Max and Lou the usual warning about behaving themselves or else, and tromped across the lawn. As I neared the front door, I jumped, startled by a black cat who suddenly leaped out of the bushes. He snarled at me, then skittered across my path and disappeared into a clump of rhododendrons.
Meet the Author
Cynthia Baxter is a native of Long Island, New York. She is the author of the Reigning Cats & Dogs mystery series, featuring vet-turned-sleuth Jessie Popper, and the Murder Packs a Suitcase mystery series, featuring travel writer Mallory Marlowe. Baxter currently resides on the North Shore, where she is at work on her next mysteries in both series.
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During the month of June, Jessica does a favor for a fellow veterinarian by managing the ¿Ask the Vet¿ booth at the society fundraiser to raise money for the SPCA in the Bromptoms, a rich enclave on Long Island. Since her office is a large trailer, she will also treat pets as well as offer advice. She is staying at the guest house of famous movie star Shawn Elliot who shows that he is interested in her even though her boyfriend Nick, a private investigator is staying with her.---- She also meets paparazzi Devon Barnet the most hated person attending the fundraising because he has no ethics, stalking the celebrities to take embarrassing photos of them to sell to the tabloids. When an ice sculpture falls on and kills Devon, the police conclude it is an accident, but Jessica thinks it is murder. The ice sculpture was held to the gazebo with strong wire and she doesn¿t believe that the wire could come loose by a dog bumping into it. She starts her own investigation to prove someone got away with murder and she intends to find out who it is.---- Jessica is PUTTING ON THE DOG, especially her own pets who she loves beyond measure and are an integral part of the plot. She has a tailess Welter and a one eyed Dalmatian who she lavishes with love; this endears her to any readers who has an animal companion. The mystery is simple but hard to crack because the victim had so many enemies with a motive to kill him. Cynthia Baxter knows how to write a good who-done-it complete with red herrings and enough twists and turns to keep the reader¿s interest.---- Harriet Klausner
"It's only useless if you don't try," she says quietly before padding into the forest.*Autumnpaw*