From former detective turned noted author and dog trainer, Carol Lea Benjamin, comes the fifth book in the critically-lauded Rachel Alexander mystery series, for the first time in mass market.
Sophie Gordon didn't let her epilepsy get in the way of her life as a teacher of deaf children. But without her trusty canine companion, an indispensable service dog named Blanche, she wouldn't be nearly as well-off. A service dog that can perform the difficult tasks that epilepsy requiressensing when a seizure is about to occur and fetching life-saving medicationis extremely rare, so when a veterinarian's office promises that they can clone Blanche, Sophie jumps at the opportunity. Her former worries can now be put to rest, knowing that now she'll have a replacement for Blanche when the time comes.
But the puppy they provided didn't have what it takes to be a service dog, and when Sophie visits the vet to alert them of the problem, none of the staff is anywhere to be foundthey've disappeared without a trace. To get to the bottom of this clone-by-night operation, Sophie hires P.I. Rachel Alexander and Dash, her pit bull partner. And two days after meeting with Rachel, Sophie is found dead, apparently of a seizure, but it didn't take Dash's sensitive nose to tell that something doesn't smell right, and that the missing vets definitely need further examination.
About the Author
Carol Lea Benjamin is a noted author about, and trainer of, dogs. Her award-winning books on dog behavior and training include Mother Knows Best: The Natural Way to Train Your Dog, Second-Hand Dog, and Dog Training in Ten Minutes. A former detective, Benjamin blends her knowledge of dogs with her real-life experiences to create the Rachel Alexander mystery series. Recently honored by the International Association of Canine Professionals with election to their Hall of Fame, she lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and three dogs, Dexter, Flash, and Peep.
Read an Excerpt
You Can Say That Again, She Said
I was doing the acrostic when the phone rang. I let the machine pick up. The dog on the tape barked three times. Someone sighed. I knew what that meant.
"Alexander," I said into the receiver, turning the puzzle sideways so that I could take notes in the margin.
She said her name was Sophie Gordon and that someone who knew someone had given her my name. She waited then. I did, too. I turned the puzzle back the right way and filled in the answer to G, a four-letter word for the thread Theseus used to find his way out of the labyrinth.
The line was still silent. She seemed to need help getting started.
"Who's dead?" I asked.
"Sorry?" she said. "My dog was shoving her leash onto my lap and knocked the phone out of my hand."
I repeated my question.
"Oh, no one. This isn't that sort of case."
"What sort is it?"
"I need you to find someone."
"It's a rather long story, and complicated, but Bianca will drive me crazy if I don't get her to the run. I was hoping I could tell it to you there."
"The one in Washington Square Park?"
"Yes, that one."
I asked if fifteen minutes would be too soon. She said it wouldn't, it would be perfect, and told me she'd be sitting on a bench on the east side of the run.
"How will I know you?"
"You can't miss me," she said.
"Why is that?"
"I have red hair."
That narrowed it down. Half the women over forty in the city had red hair. The other half were blond.
I thought that was it, but the line was still open.
"I never thought I'd find myself hiring a private investigator."
"That's the thing about life. You never know."
"You can say that again," she said.
She must have put the radio on before she hung up the phone because suddenly I heard someone playing the piano, a haunting melody I couldn't place. Then the line went dead.
I didn't know much when I left to meet her at the park, just that her dog was probably white and that this wouldn't be one of my usual cases. It wasn't about someone dying. I'm sure Sophie believed that. She seemed sincere. Unfortunately, she was mistaken.
The park was pretty empty for a Saturday. Maybe it was the unseasonably chilly weather, the wind knocking leaves off the trees and making them eddy in great circles on the paths. Or perhaps it was simply too early for the weekend crowds, couples who might have decided to have brunch before strolling in the park, fathers reading the paper before taking their kids to the playground, bums still sleeping in doorways before convening on the benches at the south end of the park, hoping to snag a beer, a cigarette, whatever they could. And it was way too early for the drug dealers and their clientele. They wouldn't be open for business for another few hours.
A young white bull terrier bitch met us at the inner gate of the dog run, spiriting Dashiell away the second I unhooked his leash. I looked around for Sophie.
She would have looked pretty ordinary, sitting there alone, diagonally across from the gate, her skin as pale as 2-percent milk, her eyes hidden behind small, round, tinted glasses. Except for the hair. This red didn't come out of a bottle; it was the real thing. With the sun hitting it, it looked as if it were on fire. If a hundred people had been at the run, with a hundred dogs running and playing, I still would have noticed Sophie.
"It started two years ago, right here on this very bench," she said immediately after I introduced myself. I put out my hand to shake, but she left hers where it was, resting on her coat which, despite the chill in the air, was bunched up and lying to her right on the bench. She'd just nodded instead. I sat at her left, turning on the tape recorder that was in my jacket pocket.
"I'd come to the run to exercise Blanche. Shortly after I got here, a young woman, early twenties I'd guess, sat down next to me and unhooked her dog's leash to let her go and mix, only the dog, a black mutt, a little bigger than Bianca but not as big as ..."
"And not a purebred either, some terrier and God-knows-what-else, cute but sort of sad looking, too, well, she just sat there, not doing much of anything. It was almost as if she didn't know how to play with other dogs, poor thing. After a few minutes, she'd backed up to my legs and was sitting on my shoes, just watching the other dogs, as if she thought she'd been dropped on some alien planet. That was the first strange thing that happened that afternoon, but not the last, not by a long shot."
She turned to look at Bianca, who was giving Dashiell a run for his money. I looked at them, too. Bianca was young, as tall as she would get, but not yet as wide. I figured Blanche had died and now there was Bianca. But I didn't interrupt the story to ask.
"After taking a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket," Sophie said, "the woman began to talk, just dog-run talk at first, same as any other conversation you'd have here, how nice it was that the Parks Department had put in the run, how important it was for city dogs to be able to socialize and run around safely off leash, how beautiful the day was. Then she noticed Blanche's cape folded and lying on my lap. She asked me what it was and seemed really interested.
I told her that Blanche wore her cape most of the time, except when she was playing with other dogs. I told her it was a service dog cape, and I held it up and let it fall open so that she could see it, so that she could read the round patch I'd sewn on the left side.
"She read it out loudPlease don't pet me. I'm workingthen asked if it was for real.
"I told her it was. I tell everyone who asks. And they all do.
"'A service dog?' she asked. She started to bite the skin next to one of her ragged nails. I remember wondering what was making her so nervous, or if that was just her typehigh-strung, one of those people whose motor seems to run too fast.
"I pointed to the other end of the run, saying that Blanche was the white bull terrier who was teasing all the male dogs and then running away to get them to chase her. I said she was a seizure-alert dog and asked if she knew what that was?"
"That's when she told me that I was the person she'd been looking for.
"I don't know why, but for a minute there, I got scared. I thought something was wrong, that somehow I was going to lose Blanche."
"Why did you think that?"
"I don't know. It was just a feeling that came over me. But it passed quickly. When I asked her what she meant and she started to explain, well, what she told me was so fascinating that I forgot everything else. Even caution.
"She said she didn't have my name, that The School for the Deaf wouldn't give it to her when she called, but that they said they would give me her number, and that it would be up to me if I wanted to call her back."
"The School for the Deaf?" Was she lip-reading?
"I work there. I'm a teacher."
I nodded, wondering when she was going to tell me who'd gone missing.
But Dash was racing back and forth with Bianca and the sky was the kind of blue I'd always thought you'd have to live in Montana to see. So what if she took her time?
"I'd never gotten any message," Sophie told me. "Maybe they just forgot to give it to me. Sometimes they get really busy." She shrugged. "She told me her name was Lorna West. She even introduced her dog, Smitty. I thought it was a funny name for a girl dog, but the way she was sitting, with her legs straight out in front of her, her belly exposed, I had no trouble seeing she was a female. She'd turned her head then, right when Lorna said her name, and I remember how big and round and dark her eyes were, how she'd looked first at Lorna, then at me, with this astonished expression on her face.
"'Here's why I was looking for you,' Lorna said, scooting closer to me and lowering her voice. 'I work for Side by Side. Did you ever hear of it?'
"I told her I hadn't. She smiled and said she wasn't surprised. She said that the man behind it was very rich. But very private. She nodded for emphasis.
"'But what is it?' I asked her. 'What's it for?'
"And she said it was a charitable organization that supplies service dogs to disabled people who need them.
"I wondered why she was whispering. For a minute, I thought she was going to hit me up for a contribution, but I didn't say anything about that. Instead I asked her if it was like the Seeing Eye or Canine Companions for Independence.
"'Not exactly,' she said, and she took a cigarette out of the pack and lit it. I moved away a little, to get away from the smoke. It must have bothered Smitty, too. She sneezed, then moved right with me. But Lorna didn't seem to notice."
"Did she explain?"
Sophie nodded and then looked toward the part of the run where Bianca and Dashiell were rolling around, both grinning and in dead earnest, the way bull and terrier dogs love to play.
"She told me she'd called The School for the Deaf because Side by Side was looking for service dogs with gifts, you know, an inborn ability to do something."
"As opposed to dogs that are trained to help with a disability," I said.
"Exactly. She said she thought she'd find dogs like that there, dogs who knew to inform their deaf owners when someone was knocking at the door, the phone was ringing, or the alarm clock was going off. She told them Side by Side was doing a survey, some public-service thing, tracking how the owners had discovered their dogs' abilities. And whoever she spoke with told her that only a few of the kids used dogs, but that hearing-alert dogs are trained at special schools and that not every dog, but a great number of dogs, particularly lively ones, could be trained to do the work. It was a matter of education, not a matter of talent, as it were.
"So she said she thanked the woman and was about to hang up when the woman told her that one of the teachers, meaning me, had a seizure-alert dog, that seizure response could be taught to a variety of dogs but that no one had yet figured out a way to teach seizure alert. Once someone began to seizure, you could get the dog to stay with them until it was over, no problem. But as far as alerting prior to the onset of a seizure, either a dog knew when one was coming and warned his owner or he didn't.
"She said she'd gotten all excited and said that that was just what they needed for their survey and could she talk to me, and that the woman she'd spoken to said no, that I was teaching, but that she would give me Lorna's name and number and I could call if I wanted to. It would be up to me. But then Lorna said, 'That was a lie.'"
"'What was?' I asked her.
"That's exactly what I asked. 'About the survey,' she said. 'The real thing we're doing, it's top secret and we don't want it to get around.'
"That's when I got that funny feeling again. But what she told me then, well. You see, Blanche was nine at the time, and she had some arthritis in her elbows. 'Crepitus', the vet called it. What it meant was that on rainy days, and when it was cold, she limped pretty badly."
Sophie stopped and pulled a wad of tissues out of her coat pocket and blew her nose. She wore her long red hair loose, the bangs so long they covered her eyebrows, touching the frames of those small, round glasses. She looked across the run at Bianca and began shaking her head.
"Is she ...?"
"Blanche? Oh, no. She's right here."
That's when I realized that Sophie's coat wasn't bunched up. It had been spread out under and over her old dog, to keep her warm.
"She's eleven and a half," Sophie said, dropping her voice to a whisper as she peeled back a corner of the coat and showed me a glimpse of her sleeping bull terrier before carefully covering her face again. "All this running around is much too much for her, but Bianca can't get through the day without serious exercise. On workdays, it's worse, because Blanche is with me at school, so I have a dog walker who brings Bianca here for an hour or two of roughhousing. Without that, she'd keep annoying Blanche when we got home, trying to get her to play. Well, she still does, but not as much."
Dash and Bianca were standing up now, face-to-face, paws on each other's shoulders, all but breathing fire at each other. When their front feet hit the dirt, Bianca took off, Dash in hot pursuit, his tongue lolling out to the side. I thought I might have to hose him down before the afternoon was over.
"So what did Lorna tell you next?"
"Well, it got pretty amazing. She said that the founder of Side by Side was after a dog like Blanche. She turned slightly away then so that she wouldn't blow smoke right in my face. Smitty sneezed again, I remember, and I was thinking about how bad it would be for a seizure-alert dog to be around cigarette smoke. No one's one hundred percent positive, but it's thought they work on scent, you know, from chemical changes in the brain, that that's how they can tell trouble's coming."
"Then Lorna asked me how old Blanche was. The longer we talked, the more businesslike and less nervous she became.
"Nine, I told her, almost nine and a half. Then I'd looked at Blanche and she was limping over to the water bucket. All that running, getting the boys to chase her, her favorite game, but she was getting too old for it, even two years ago.
"Lorna said, 'Nine. Getting on, for a bull terrier.'
"I turned back to her then and watched as she dropped the cigarette and didn't bother to grind it out even though we were at the dog run. Her face was hard, almost masklike. For a moment, I wanted to leave, not even say good-bye, just get up and go. But when she looked back at me, her expression had changed. Her face was full of concern. It threw me. And I stayed.
"She went on. She said that what they'd like to do is make sure I always have a Blanche when I need one. She leaned toward me, talking softly, reaching out and touching my arm. She said her employer, who is a very charitable man, would like other people with epilepsy to have a dog as skilled as Blanche. 'You'd like that, too,' she said, 'wouldn't you?'
"I didn't say anything right away. I just looked at her, those gnawed nails and her nicotine-stained fingers, her scowly little face, trying to look all warm and concerned now; the way she seemed hunched into her coat, as if it was too light for the weather; and the dog, how Lorna never paid attention to her, never touched her and how Smitty sat there all that time, just watching and not playing. Maybe they're just two of a kind, I'd thought, feeling, whatever it was she wanted, I didn't want any part of it.
"'A Blanche,' she'd said. What an odd thing to say. I started thinking of some excuse I could make to get away from her. But once again, I didn't leave." She shook her head.
"What did you do?"
Sophie shrugged. "I asked her to elaborate. So she did. She asked if I'd read about some of this in the paper, about Dolly, the sheep that was'
"'You mean, you want to clone Blanche?' I said astonished to hear those words coming out of my mouth.
"'We do,' she said. Just like that. 'And what's more, we can.'"
I turned from Sophie to look at the dogs. Dashiell was at the water bucket where he'd tanked up and then laid down on the wet earth, his big mouth open, his big tongue hanging out. Bianca was leaning on him, as if he were a cushion.
When I looked back at Sophie, she was nodding.
I should have gotten up then, told her I wished her luck with whatever it was she needed me to do, but that I wasn't interested. Clearly, I should have said I wasn't the right person for this job.
Hell, I'd just gotten my arm out of a cast.
I had to get my winter clothes out of mothballs, too.
Or, at least I would have, had I bothered to put them away in the first place.
Still, who had the time?
Cloning? No way. If someone was cloning dogs, I didn't want to know about it.
That's what I should have said.
But I didn't.
What was the problem? I kept asking myself. My arm was healed, I certainly could have used the money, and, at the time, things seemed benign, not the usual scenario in my business. Most of my work comes shortly after someone's life has been snatched away, often brutally, and always before it was time. Of course there are those who would argue with that statement, who would say that if life ends, then it is time. Is is, my former employer Frank Petrie used to say. But in this case, I disagree. When a life should end is not a decision one human being should be making about another, especially when that decision is informed by vengeance, hate, possessiveness, or greed.
This was different.
Or so she said.
So I didn't walk away. I said, "Tell me more."
And she did.
Then, later, I said, "Tell me what you need me to do."
She told me that, too.
We sat there so long that dozens of dogs and their owners came and went, the dogs having run around, gotten into mild squabbles and made up, and finally gotten tired enough to leave, Sophie talking all the while, me listening and changing the tape several times so that I wouldn't miss recording anything. After a long while, even Dash and Bianca quit playing. For the last hour of our conversation, they were asleep in the space between the bench and the fence, Bianca's head on Dash's side as if they'd known each other forever.
Two more times during that long afternoon, as I sat and listened, I wanted to excuse myself and leave. It was the weirdest story I'd ever heard and one, I had the feeling, I would regret, more than once in the weeks to come, having listened to. Even then, right there at the dog run, I began thinking about issues that made me really uncomfortable, that shook me to my very soul and threatened to alter everything I ever thought I knew before this conversation took place, before I met Sophie Gordon. As she talked and I listened, I told myself it would be smarter to not get involved, to just plain quit. But, like Sophie, I couldn't walk away from it. And curiosity was only one of the reasons why.
I'd been only seven and a half when my father died. He had gone to work that day as he always did, and come home right on time. After dinner, he'd played chess with me and listened to Lili read a story she'd written for school. Later he'd come to my room to kiss me good night. Then he'd gotten into his own bed to read before going to sleepFor Whom the Bell Tolls, which he'd taken out of the library the weekend before. When his eyes had grown tired, he'd kissed my mother and turned off the lamp. In the morning, she couldn't wake him.
For several weeks, the book my father had been reading lay on his nightstand, just where he'd left it, an empty envelope holding his place. When my mother finally returned it to the library, I'd cried and cried, as if the continued presence of the book on his nightstand meant death was only a temporary condition. For the longest time, nights when I refused to let myself fall asleep for fear that, like my father, I'd never wake up, I imagined my father miraculously returning, looking for his book and feeling disappointed to find he couldn't finish what he'd started.
So now, all these years later, even if my client is dead, and there's no one to answer to, and no one to pay my fee, I'm doing what I was asked to do. Despite the fact that part of me doesn't want to know the answers I'm risking my life to find out, I have trouble leaving things unfinished, even things that, God knows, I never should have started in the first place.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
While the plot is definitely something new and fresh, the entire story seems to be dragged on for too long. I didn't find the characters very interesting either, rather 2-D. It begins very strong and I was rather interested...but as I said, it started to grow boring and I pretty much stopped caring. Maybe it picks up at the end, I'm not sure. I do know that it could be worth reading, but don't expect a grand novel of it.