"In matters of courage, there is no bigger dog than me!"
P.I. Geri Sullivan and her talking Chihuahua, Pepe, are always hungry to sink their teeth into a new case. So if helping a hapless husband win back his wayward wife means sneaking into a cult of dog-worshippers, porque no?
Inside the believers' rural retreat, Pepe perks up his ears when the charismatic leader pegs him as the next incarnation of the spirit Dogawanda. But the discovery of a body, murdered between mantras, suggests there's more chicanery than channeling going on in this suspicious sect. While wild wolves howl, a killer is on the prowl--and it's up to Geri and her canine compadre to dig up the dirt.
Praise for the Barking Detective Mysteries
"Crafty plotting will keep you engrossed and have you eagerly awaiting the next book." --RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
"Move over, Scooby-Doo, there's a new dog in town!" --Jennie Bentley
"I look forward to Pepe's next adventure!" --Bernadette Pajer, author of A Spark of Death
"A fun twist on the typical P.I. partnership." --Simon Wood
"Readers will sit up and beg for more." --Sushi the Shih Tzu, canine star of the Trash ‘n' Treasures mysteries by Barbara Allan
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The Big Chihuahua
By Waverly Curtis
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Waverly Curtis
All rights reserved.
"Do you think our boss will like it?" I asked my dog as I reached into the backseat to grab the framed newspaper clipping.
"It does not matter what I think," said Pepe with a bitter tone in his voice. My small white Chihuahua was sitting in the passenger seat. "I am just a dog."
"Yes, but a dog that talks," I said.
"But, que lastima, you are the only one who can hear me," Pepe said. "If only I could have spoken to the reporter, I would have set her straight." He was referring to the story that had been published in the L.A. Times about the resolution of our last case. I had cut it out and framed it for our boss, Jimmy Gerrard, who was prominently featured in the article. It downplayed the part Pepe and I had played, which was fine with me. It's pretty hard to explain that your dog talks. But it galled Pepe that he didn't get more credit for taking down the bad guys.
"Maybe we'll have better luck with this new case," I said. "Jimmy G said it's perfect for us."
We had parked right in front of the run-down brick building where Jimmy G has his office. It is on the edge of downtown Seattle in a slightly seedy neighborhood, which suits our boss fine, as he likes to think of himself as a hard-boiled detective of the same ilk as Philip Marlowe.
The building always seems to be empty. I've never run into anyone in the lobby or while walking down the hall, although there are names stenciled on the frosted glass of the doors advertising the offices of a tax preparer, an importing firm, and something called Secret Star Productions. The office of the Gerrard Agency is on the third floor at the end of the hall. There was a letter-sized piece of paper obscuring the familiar gold letters spelling out Gerrard Detective Agency. It had bold red type across the top of it. As I got closer, I saw it was an eviction notice.
"Que pasa, Geri?" asked Pepe.
"It says Jimmy G has three days to pay his rent or else he will be kicked out," I said, pulling the paper off the door. I set the framed article down and tried the doorknob, but it was locked. Jimmy G had never given me a key. I rattled the doorknob and knocked on the pane of glass. To help me, Pepe uttered a few of his tiny barks.
"Hey, don't blow a gasket," came a muffled voice from inside. I heard some banging sounds, some shuffling sounds, and then the door opened, revealing a rumpled Jimmy G.
I had always suspected that Jimmy G slept in his office, and his appearance seemed to bear that out. His eyes were bleary and red, and his white shirt was wrinkled. He was still buckling the belt on his tan slacks, and his shoulder holster and gun were hanging on the coat rack by the door, along with his fedora and tan trench coat. He smelled like cheap bourbon and cigar smoke.
He has big brown eyes that are almost as soulful as Pepe's, which may be why I am so tolerant of his bad behavior. He looks like he needs someone to take care of him, which is my weakness. I had adopted Pepe from a local animal shelter when I read about all the Chihuahuas who were being flown up to Seattle from Los Angeles where they were being abandoned in record numbers.
"Look at this!" I said, slapping down the eviction notice on his desk, which was piled high with papers.
"Read it to Jimmy G, doll," he said as he reached into his desk drawer to pull out a bottle of Jim Beam—mostly empty, I noticed. He took a slug, threw back his head and gargled, swallowed, then shook his head like a dog that's wet and said, "Ah, that's better!"
"Well, this is not!" I said. I had totally forgotten about the framed article, which was still outside the door. "It's an eviction notice."
"Oh, Jimmy G thought he heard someone at the door early this morning," he said.
Jimmy G always talked about himself in the third person.
"Well, you have plenty of time to get caught up," I said. "This three-day notice is usually just a warning. As long as you catch up on your rent within three days, they won't proceed with the eviction." I know something about the real estate business because I worked as a stager before the housing market crashed. That's when I applied for and got the job working for Jimmy G. I took it on a lark, thinking it would do until I found something else, but six weeks later, I was hooked. It turns out my careful observation skills are totally useful. And my dog is in seventh heaven. Apparently Pepe has always dreamed of being a PI.
"No can do, doll," Jimmy G said. "Jimmy G is a little low on the moola."
"What happened to all the money you made on our last case?" I asked. I had been able to catch up on my mortgage payments and had made an appointment with a financial planner to determine how to invest the rest.
Jimmy G shrugged. "Owed some money to the wrong kind of guys. If Jimmy G hadn't paid up, he woulda been sleeping with the fishes."
"I told you, Geri," said Pepe. "We should start our own agency."
"Hush," I told him. "I need to get trained by a licensed PI."
"Speaking of that," said Jimmy G, "I just got a notice about renewing the agency license, too." He began tossing the papers on his desk around. "It's around here somewhere."
"You need to take care of these bills," I said.
"That's why I have a gal Friday," he said.
"How many times do I have to tell you: I am not a girl Friday."
"Administrative assistant?" asked Jimmy G with pathos in his voice.
I have to admit the politically correct term sounded ridiculous when he said it.
"Not that either. I am a private investigator in training," I said. "And we have to clear up these bills so we can keep the agency going." Which reminded me about the framed clipping I had left out in the hall. I went to get it and propped it up on one of the little wooden chairs across from Jimmy G's desk that were there for prospective clients. "Especially since the agency is in the news."
"Speaking of which, that's how Jimmy G got his new case," said Jimmy G.
"The one for me and Geri?" Pepe asked.
"The one for me and Pepe?" I asked.
"Yes, that one. The client read about our last case in the newspaper and called up Jimmy G."
"So who's the client?"
"A man named Mark Darling. His wife has joined a cult and she won't respond to his phone calls or messages. He wants us to get her out."
"Why us?" I asked.
"Because it has to do with a dog," said Jimmy G, beaming.
"Really?" Pepe's ears pricked up at that.
It's true we had solved our last case, which had to do with a dog, but again, it wasn't really on purpose. It was more like we created enough havoc so that we got the results we wanted by accident.
"I hope it involves a bitch," said Pepe.
I was about to chide him when I realized he meant a female dog.
"With a strong aroma and luscious fur," said Pepe.
"I thought Siren Song was the one for you," I told him. Siren Song was an attractive golden Pomeranian. Unfortunately, she was now in Hollywood with her owner, and Pepe's heart was aching.
"Sí, Siren Song is the first in my heart," said Pepe. "But a dog's heart is big."
"Siren Song?" Jimmy G asked. "No, the dog's name is Dogawanda. Have you heard of him?"
"Sure," I said.
"I have not," said Pepe.
"He's an ancient dog who speaks through a channeler, a woman by the name of Crystal Star. He has quite a following," I told Pepe.
"Crazy folks!" said Jimmy G, shaking his head.
"Not so loco," said Pepe. "I think all humans could learn much by listening to dogs. I would like to have a following myself."
"So what do you want me to do?" I asked Jimmy G.
"First you have to meet with this Mark Darling. But the idea is for you to go undercover in the group. Try to make contact with the woman. Deliver her husband's message. Should be simple." Jimmy G rolled his eyes. "Unless you fall for their line of BS."
"Don't worry, boss," I said. "I'm too smart to fall under the spell of a dog."
"Ha!" said Pepe. "That is sarcasm!"
Mark and Tammy Darling lived in a perfect little Craftsman bungalow in the Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle, a charming older neighborhood full of small homes set back on leafy streets. It was the sort of home I dreamed of owning, and maybe I could afford with all the money I had made on our last case. Pepe insisted that half of the money was his and we were still negotiating about how to spend it. He suggested getting a fancy new car or, at least, a year's supply of beef jerky and bacon.
The front yard looked like an English garden, with its profusion of old-fashioned flowers: hollyhocks and ruffled irises, speckled foxgloves, and bright blue delphiniums. Mirrored ornaments set here and there sparkled in the sun and a glass globe drifted in the waters of the birdbath, an iridescent bubble. Along the fence on the property line, fruit trees had been espaliered. The finishing touch: a cute little red Smart car in the driveway.
A winding brick path led us through the flowers to the front door. The house had a roomy front porch with fat pillars and wide stone steps. The porch was furnished with a swing, draped with a colorful serape. A wind chime hanging from the porch roof tinkled faintly. Pressing the doorbell triggered a sonorous chime and the appearance of a distressed man.
"Come in! Come in!" he said. "Oh, I'm so glad you agreed to help me."
Mark Darling had worried brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses and brown hair that stuck up in odd tufts all over his head. I couldn't quite tell if this was due to his running his hands through his hair or if it was an artful effect achieved with hair product. It gave him a youthful appearance, though I judged him to be in his early forties, about ten years older than me.
A little dirty white dog that might have been a mix of poodle and Yorkshire terrier came bustling up as soon as we crossed the threshold. It didn't look like anyone had groomed her for a long time. In her anxious state and unkempt hair, she resembled her owner.
"That's Fuzzy," said Mark, ushering us inside.
Fuzzy and Pepe began sniffing butts and doing that weird jumpy dance dogs do when they're getting to know each other.
"Can I get you anything to drink?" Mark asked, hurrying us through the hallway, past a spacious living room, and into the kitchen, obviously recently redone. The kitchen counters were poured concrete colored a golden hue, and the backsplash was made of translucent leaf-green tiles. Open shelves displayed a collection of orange, yellow, and green Fiesta ware plates and bowls that made me envious. "Coffee? Tea? Lemonade? Water?"
"Gracias," said Pepe, trotting over to Fuzzy's bowl and slurping down the water. He finished up with a mighty sneeze. For some reason, Pepe always inhales some water when he's drinking. Fuzzy sat nearby looking forlorn as Pepe turned his attention to Fuzzy's stainless-steel food bowl.
"Ugh!" said Pepe, turning away after a few mouthfuls. "Bargain brand." He shuddered and shook himself off as he does when something upsets him.
I asked for tea and Mark turned on a stainless-steel electric kettle that was sitting on the counter.
The kitchen was immaculate. There were no dirty dishes in the sink. No stains on the stove. It didn't look anything like my house.
"Do you have a cleaning service?" I asked.
Mark seemed startled. "Oh, you mean because the house is so clean?" He looked around. "I guess I got a little carried away. Cleaning is what I do when I'm anxious. It sucks to feel helpless—I just have to keep busy!"
When the water was hot, he poured it into a clear glass carafe and invited me to join him at the breakfast nook on one end of the kitchen. The windows looked out on a backyard that was even more precious than the front yard. Raised beds full of luxuriant vegetables. A huge state-of-the-art stainless-steel grill on a cobbled patio. Even a bread oven set among herbs.
The sky had been getting increasingly darker. As we watched, the rain began to fall, dripping from the edge of the eaves, spattering against the windows. It was June in Seattle, but we sometimes called this month Juneuary because the weather is not that much different from January. Pepe jumped up onto the bench beside me while Fuzzy lay down on the floor at Mark's feet, putting her head on her paws with a deep sigh.
"Poor Fuzzy," said Mark, taking a sip of his tea. "She's just been moping. I can't believe that Tammy would abandon her."
I found it odd that he wasn't thinking of himself, but maybe he was the kind of guy who always thought of other people first.
"Is Fuzzy particularly attached to Tammy?"
"Yes, Tammy always wanted a dog, but we couldn't have one when we lived in an apartment. So as soon as we bought the house, she went right out to the shelter and came home with that mutt." He took a sip of his tea. "I can't believe she could just walk away from her. And all this." He waved his hand at the yard. It certainly looked like a little bit of paradise.
"How long have you been married?"
"Our anniversary is June twenty-fifth. Next week. Seven years of married bliss." He took a sip of his tea and looked out the rain-smeared window at the garden.
"Do not speak, Geri," said Pepe. "That is good interviewing technique."
Actually, I wasn't going to speak anyway, since I had just helped myself to one of the giant sugar cookies Mark had set out and my mouth was full. The cookies looked and tasted like they were homemade. Was Mark baking as well as cleaning to compensate for his loss?
"I know what you're thinking. That's what the police said. The seven-year itch. She got tired of being married and ran off. But, believe me, there was nothing wrong with our marriage. I mean, we had our share of problems, but we were working on them."
"Ask about the problems," Pepe suggested.
"If you don't mind my asking, what were the problems?"
"Well, of course, that's why you're here," Mark said. He leaned forward. "We wanted children, but we couldn't get pregnant. No matter what we tried and, believe me, we tried everything. Then finally, just when we gave up, Tammy got pregnant. She was so excited."
He took his glasses off and rubbed at his eyes. "She had a miscarriage in the fifth month. It was terrible. She couldn't get over it. That's when those people got a hold of her."
"The Dogawandans?" I asked.
"Yes, she attended a seminar and they filled her head with nonsense. Said it was all meant to be. The baby was not gone but living in a different dimension. And she could be there, too, if she divested herself of all her attachments. She went away for a weeklong retreat at their compound, which is somewhere near Cle Elum, and she never came back."
"How long ago was that?" I asked.
Mark sighed. "Almost a month ago."
"And the police weren't concerned?" I found that hard to believe.
"No. Not after I showed them the note."
He set down his cup, reached into the back pocket of his jeans, and pulled out a worn wallet. He opened it and pried out a piece of much-folded paper. He handed it to me without comment and watched as I unfolded it, care- fully, because it had been folded and unfolded so many times it was about to fall apart. The message was written on pale green, lined paper, the kind you find in steno notebooks, like the one I carry for my case notes.
"Read it out loud, Geri!" ordered Pepe.
So I did. It read:
I'm not coming home.
Don't try to make me.
This is the last time you will hear from me.
I am dead to you from this point forward.
"Not good," grumbled Pepe.
"Pretty ominous!" I agreed, folding it back up and handing it to Mark. "It almost sounds like a suicide note."
He nodded. "Yes, if it weren't for the money, I might think that, too."
"A few days after I got this note in the mail, Tammy withdrew twenty-five thousand dollars from our bank account. I'm positive she gave it to the Dogawandans."
"Geri! That is mucho dinero," said Pepe. "And it is all going to a dog!"
"Not to a dog," I said. "To Crystal Star."
"Ridiculous, right?" snapped Mark. "All of our retirement money. She just wiped out our account. I'm investigating whether I can get any of that back. Of course, I immediately cashed out our other accounts and put all the money in my name. I'm not going to let that fraud get her hands on it."
Excerpted from The Big Chihuahua by Waverly Curtis. Copyright © 2013 Waverly Curtis. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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