Pet Mystery Week brings brisk business to Penelope’s Rhode Island bookshop, but a real mystery comes barking at her door when a lost dog turns up in a panic. Pen and her son Spencer follow the furry fugitive to a wooded area where the dog’s owner lies unconscious. Mrs. Cunningham is a warm-hearted widow who volunteers at the animal shelter and runs Buy the Book’s pet lovers book club. Why would anyone shoot such a sweet soul?
The police believe it’s an accident, a shot by a careless deer hunter, but Pen remains skeptical. To straighten out this doggone mess, she whistles for the ghost of PI Jack Shepard, an expert in hounding as well as haunting. Jack has a dog story of his own, a case from the 1940s that may help Pen sniff out clues to her present predicament. Yet even with Jack’s hard-boiled help, Pen may not be able to stop the killer from striking again or letting this whole case go to the dogs...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Language of Canines
People love dogs. You can never go wrong adding a dog to a story.
-Jim Butcher, White Night
Buy the Book
Quindicott, Rhode Island
"You have many fans here at my shop, Ms. Breen," I said into the phone. "They'll be thrilled to meet you. I booked a room for you at the Finch Inn, and you're scheduled to arrive tomorrow night."
"Tomorrow's flight?" Amber Breen shouted back.
"What did you say?" I replied so loudly that several customers who'd been browsing our stacks were now staring my way.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. McClure, but you'll have to speak up," Amber yelled over the sound of barking dogs-very loud and excited dogs. "You see, I'm in the shelter with my babies . . ."
(I'd already deduced that.) "Hold the line-"
After whispering my dilemma to my aunt Sadie behind the counter, I moved with all speed to the back of the bookshop and closed the stockroom door.
Now, Amber Breen was as delightful a human being as you could find on God's green earth. The prolific author of the Kennel Club Mysteries even ran her own animal shelter with a portion of profits from her book sales and the smash hit streaming series adapted from her works. But attempting to converse with the bestselling novelist by phone was clearly a challenge. The canine interference was worse than cellular static!
"Can you hear me now?" I asked forcefully.
The loudest dog in the pack suddenly took over Amber's device. Even as I yanked the phone away from my ear, I heard the author scolding-
"Down, Biscuit! Down, girl!"
When the yapping of a smaller, more belligerent canine replaced the howls of the dog called Biscuit, Amber Breen shouted-
"Mrs. McClure, I don't like airplanes! I'll be driving a rental car to your charming little town in the wee hours. I prefer night driving, far less traffic. So, you see? No need to arrange a flight for me-"
"I didn't arrange a flight! I booked you a room at our local B and B. Check your email box for the details, and-"
"I'm sorry, dear. I simply cannot hear you. My babies are too excited about lunch. Yes, Toto Seven, I know you're hungry! When I see you tomorrow, Mrs. McClure, I shall respond to any questions face-to-face."
I replied with a renewed suggestion that she check her email and text messages-though I doubted Ms. Breen heard that, either-and (with great relief) I ended the call.
Mother Machree! I haven't heard that much yapping since Lassie came home.
Hello, Jack . . .
I began the afternoon with dogs barking in my ear. Now I was hearing the bark of a disgruntled man in my head-a dead one.
A Loyal Companion
Never tease an old dog; he might have one bite left.
-Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
I know, I know. The very idea of conversing with a ghost defies rational thinking, and I sometimes did question my sanity, but I seldom questioned Jack, who had become a loyal companion to me-and almost always turned out to be right. The key word being almost . . .
Decades before I was even born, private detective Jack Shepard had trekked up to our little Rhode Island town from New York City. He'd been following a lead in a case, and he must have made a tragic misstep because he'd been gunned down on these premises.
Such was the end of his life, though clearly not his afterlife.
While our family's shop was long rumored to be haunted, no one had ever reported hearing the dead detective's voice. Not until I began working here and (in a moment of startled awareness) Jack and I discovered we had some kind of cosmic connection.
Was Jack really a ghost? Or was he simply (as any therapist would likely conclude) a figment of my overactive reader's mind? It seemed a logical conclusion. After all, I'd grown up devouring the big, bold tales of hard-boiled detectives in my late father's library. Those trench-coated knights of the noir streets always seemed larger than life to me. And so did Jack Shepard, whose actual PI files fell into the hands of an old newshound-a New York reporter from Jack's time who used the files as the basis for an internationally bestselling series of Jack Shield novels.
I read those, too.
Whatever Jack was-the spirit of a dead PI or some elaborate alter ego-he helped me cope with many of the challenges in my life. Being a widow, a single mom, and a busy bookshop owner, I had plenty.
The thing is . . . if my ghost was merely a coping mechanism, he didn't always behave like one, especially when it came to voicing strong opinions or reacting to troubling situations in our small town. While my more practical side counseled me to stay on dry land-or at least out of hot water-my PI spirit continuously pushed me to dive into the deep end. In fact, the ghost seemed to enjoy egging me on.
But that was Jack, a man who once viewed trouble as his business. Even though his spirit was confined to our quiet, little bookshop, resting in peace wasn't on his agenda. And neither was keeping his opinions to himself. Take my phone conversation with Amber Breen-
Who were you talkin' to with all that barkin' in the background? The dog pound?
No, Jack, an author with a bestselling book series about man's best friend.
Sounds to me like man's best friend needs a muzzle.
I don't believe you mean that! I told the ghost as I returned to work behind the bookshop counter. You're the one who mentioned Lassie Come Home. You have to love dogs after screening that film. Hey, would you like to see it again? I'll bet Brainert has it on his Movie Town Theater schedule this week. I haven't seen his final list, but I know he'll be programming animal-themed films.
Why? Was he brought up in a barn?
You know very well Professor Parker was brought up in an old Victorian, which he meticulously restored, along with our vintage town theater-with the help of his partners and the university, of course-
You haven't answered my question. Why all this jabbering about four-legged friends?
It's the upcoming theme week for our bookshop. Seven days and nights celebrating stories that feature animals as sleuths, partners in crime fighting, or comedy relief . . .
Considering the long, staid history of our family bookshop, the very idea of a theme week to spur sales was practically a revolutionary concept, one that I'd introduced to my aunt Sadie after joining her as a co-owner of Buy the Book.
Of course, ever since I'd relocated myself and young son to Quindicott (and used my late husband's life insurance money to help Sadie remodel and relaunch the place), we'd tried all sorts of new things to encourage reading (and book buying). Our shop had hosted reading groups, author signings, and community events. As for our theme weeks, so far we'd celebrated Edgar Allan Poe, film noir, culinary mysteries, hard-boiled pulps, and vintage cover art.
Our upcoming Pet Mystery Week wasn't my idea, but the brainchild of the Paw-some Pals, one of Buy the Book's largest and most enthusiastic reading groups.
St. Francis Day was coming up at the local university-which was named in honor of that devout lover of creatures great and small-and Jane Cunningham, the leader of the Pals, had hatched the bright idea to expand events beyond their campus to our small town.
Unfortunately, the Paw-some group members didn't always get along. Squabbles broke out about who the guest author should be. (The dog lovers ended up winning over the cat fans.) Suffice it to say, after sitting in on the first Pet Week planning meeting, Aunt Sadie dryly declared, "People who fight like cats and dogs, over dogs and cats, might consider a group name that doesn't include the word Pals."
Despite the ongoing feuds and petty spats, Jane Cunningham-an accomplished businesswoman and respected member of the community-was able to marshal a core group of the Pals into helping her arrange all sorts of events, including a shelter-pet-adoption day in the town square; complimentary dog biscuits at Coopers Family Bakery; a mobile veterinarian van offering discounted pet care; a blessing-of-the-animals service by Reverend Waterman; and a Pet Parade ending in an amateur dog-and-cat show with a big raffle and grand prizes, all of which were sure to bring (two- and four-legged) foot traffic to Cranberry, the main street of Quindicott's business district.
Everyone was excited about the upcoming week's events, including and especially the appearance of the Paw-some Pals' selected guest author, Amber Breen, whose books Sadie and I had stocked for her talk and signing.
Given the ghost's annoyed reaction to all that background barking, however, I was starting to worry less about keeping our sidewalk clean of doggy doo and more about keeping our bookshop free of hard-boiled hauntings.
While the ghost behaved most of the time, he'd been known to-shall we say, interfere with business as usual? Cold spots in the store were an ongoing problem. Sometimes shopping baskets were suddenly filled with twice as many books as customers remembered picking out-though remarkably every customer ended up liking the extra selections and buying the whole basket, anyway.
I didn't mind that particular trick since it benefited our bottom line. On the other hand, if Jack took offense at someone's rudeness to me or Sadie, his goosing them out of the shop with an icy draft wasn't out of the question.
"Unexplained" knocking, rearranged furniture, slamming doors, and the front bell ringing, without the door actually opening, had contributed to the shop's "haunted" reputation, which was also good for business (I had to admit) since amateur ghost hunters and tourists found us a curiosity-and never departed without a "souvenir" book purchase or two.
So, what do you think, Jack? I challenged, determined to get any objections to our theme week out in the open. You're an animal lover, aren't you?
Me? Sure. I bet on the ponies at least twice a week. Sometimes I even made it out to the track.
That's not what I meant.
Oh, you're wondering if I ever took care of a-
Arf-arf . . . arf-arf!
I blinked. The raucous call to Amber Breen was long over, yet I was still hearing the barking of an agitated-
Arf-arf . . . arf-arf!
Arf-arf . . . arf-arf!
"Am I crazy, or is that-"
My aunt Sadie, who'd witnessed my beeline to the backroom, replied with an amused twinkle in her eye, "You're not crazy, Pen. The barking is coming from outside. Right in front of our shop."
Sparky Always Barks Twice
The collie heard the word "lass," and barked at it. The pedlar shook his head. "Nay, that's the pity of it. Ye can understand some o' man's language, but man isn't bright enough to understand thine. And yet it's us that's supposed to be most intelligent!"
-Eric Knight, Lassie Come-Home
Sadie pulled her glasses out of her pageboy haircut and balanced them precariously on her nose. I joined her and we spied the problem immediately.
Strutting among the hardcovers and paperbacks on display inside the store window, Bookmark, our marmalade tabby, was lazily taunting an adorable, floppy-eared dog that was staring at her through the plate-glass window. Medium-sized with chocolate brown fur and big black eyes, the canine barked in mad, helpless frustration as a nonchalant Bookmark yawned and stretched, her striped tail held high.
Indifferent to the raucous dog, she cleaned her ears with a paw, then vigorously groomed her back leg. The final insult came when she brushed against the glass, setting off an intense new round of boisterous barking.
"Our little cat knows exactly what she's doing to tease that poor dog," I declared.
Sadie nodded. "I swear Bookmark has a self-satisfied smirk on her face!"
Meanwhile the dog was so agitated that it repeatedly bumped the window, leaving nose smears on the glass.
Arf-arf . . . arf-arf!
Arf-arf . . . arf-arf!
Sadie adjusted her spectacles. "That dog looks familiar."
"It does," I agreed. "Wait! Isn't that-"
"It's Sparky, Mom!"
My copper-topped young son, Spencer, appeared at my side.
Sadie blinked. "Sparky?"
"Mrs. Cunningham's dog, Aunt Sadie!"
Spencer was in a position to know. He loved dogs and was familiar with every canine that came by the store, from Mrs. Tanner's Pekingese and Harry Thorndike's beagle to Mary Lidford's Labrador service dog.
I should have recognized Sparky, because Jane Cunningham had been visiting our shop a lot lately, given her leadership role in the Paw-some Pals, and her hard work as chair of the committee of Pet Week organizers.
But the Sparky I knew was calm and well-behaved. The dog on the sidewalk seemed touched in the head. Sadie was not convinced, either.
"Are you sure that's Mrs. Cunningham's dog, Spencer? Jane didn't mention that she'd be dropping by today."
"Sure, I'm sure. Sparky always barks twice. Just listen."
"Well, if that's Sparky, then where is Jane Cunningham?" Sadie said, suddenly concerned.
"I bet the dog got loose, and Mrs. Cunningham was too slow to catch him," Spencer said. "I'd better get out there and grab him before he gets lost for good."
Spencer was out the front door in a flash. Sadie and I followed. But on the sidewalk, Sadie stopped short.
"Goodness, Pen. There's a leash attached to that dog's collar!"
"Spencer's right. Sparky must have slipped away from Jane's grip. But why did the dog come here?"
"Sparky!" Spencer called, slapping his thighs. "Come to me, boy."
The dog clearly recognized Spencer. He immediately stopped barking at the cat and whirled to focus on my son. Though Sparky's tail was slowly wagging, his head hung low, and his gaze appeared uncertain. As Spencer tried to approach, the dog backed away.
"What's the matter, Sparky?" Spencer said in a calm voice. "Don't you want to go home to Mrs. Cunningham?"
Upon hearing his owner's name, Sparky barked twice, then turned tail and bolted down the sidewalk.
"He's trying to lead us somewhere!" Spencer cried.
Though traffic was light on Cranberry Street, Sadie and I were horrified watching the dog, seemingly oblivious to the cars on the road, scamper on and off the sidewalk to dodge pedestrians.
"I'm going after him, Mom!"
Spencer had already unlocked his bicycle from the faux-Victorian lamp in front of our shop. Before I could stop him, he'd mounted the bike and shot down the sidewalk, his pedaling feet spinning faster than windmills in a storm.