Maltipoos Are Murder ONLY
a Doggie Day Spa Mystery novel by Jacqui Lane
Cara Rogers wants a fresh start after a slew of bad luck in Washington DC. Moving to Virginia to help her aunt run La Maison de Chien, a doggie spa, is just the peace of mind she needs. No stress. Just her aunt, the dogs, and wide-open country.
But when she finds Aunt Marian floating in the doggie swimming pool, the rest she so desperately needs flies out the window. The only witness to the death is Rex, an apricot maltipoo, and while he may not be able to talk, he’s communicating the only way he knows how—one paw at a time. And Rex’s clues lead to murder.
Can Cara keep the doggie spa afloat, convince Middleburg homicide detective Cole Sampson that Aunt Marian’s death was no accident, and keep Rex from the killer’s clutches before they all end up as dead as dogs?
Title: Maltipoos Are Murder
(Special Breed of Love)
Author: Jacqui Lane
Length: 210 pages
Release Date: May 2014
Pricing is not guaranteed
Maltipoos Are Murder
by Jacqui Lane
Copyright © 2014 by Jacqui Lane. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
I drove up the horseshoe driveway of the Victorian home that had been renovated into La Maison de Chien. My great-aunt’s pet spa was painted violet, but that was the least of the contrasts between my new place of employment and the modest brick building in Alexandria, Virginia, where my veterinary practice—make that my former veterinary practice—had at first struggled, then thrived. Then was ripped away from me.
Longing for my previous life swept through me, but there was no going back now.
My clinic wasn’t all I’d closed when I moved an hour west to Middleburg over the weekend. I had also ended my two-year relationship with Luke Von Hughey, an associate at a high-powered DC law firm. At this moment, he was most certainly not sitting in front of a purple building, wondering where his life had gone.
“Good morning! What’s the name of the camper?”
I jumped. A young man wearing black jeans and a black turtleneck leaned into the window of my Prius. In answer to my confusion, he pointed to a sign. Drop-offs only.
What had I let myself in for?
Once inside La Maison de Chien, I was greeted by the strains of tasteful jazz music. An angular young woman, wearing dark lipstick and a form-fitting black dress that was more Manhattan than northwest Virginia, looked up from the reception desk. “Hello, may I help you?”
“Hi. I’m the new manager.”
“Oh, you must be Ms. Dunlop’s niece.”
I was twenty-seven, and she looked early twenties. “Her great niece,” I corrected with a smile. Why did I always have to be so literal? Luke said it was the scientist in me. I took that as a compliment, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be.
She looked down at an appointment book, as if she were working at a beauty salon that charged a hundred dollars per haircut, and made a minute pencil mark. “Ms. Dunlop’s at the swimming pool right now.”
The young woman lifted her gaze. “She’s giving a swimming lesson to one of our sleepover guests.” She extended a tiny, expertly manicured hand and a warm smile. “I’m Felicia, the concierge, by the way. You’re Cara?”
I was tempted to say, “No, Dr. Rogers.” The last six months had flatlined my confidence, and I was overly sensitive about my status. I had loved being a vet, adored by furry creatures and respected by their owners. Now I would just be “the manager” as great-aunt Marian transitioned into retirement.
“Ms. Dunlop told us to expect you. Welcome!”
I felt like turning right around and running back to Alexandria, but I couldn’t do that to Aunt Marian, one of my favorite people in the world. She was trying to do me a huge favor. I had moved to Middleburg to make money—I had to finish paying back what my former employees had lost from their pension savings when my accountant embezzled me dry. I’d made a start with the proceeds from selling my practice, but there was a long way yet to go. But whatever it took, I’d pay back every penny. At the same time, I was also fighting to get my license back, which the Virginia Board of Veterinary Medicine had revoked over financial irregularities.
Felicia pointed down the hallway. I certainly needed some direction. “You’ll pass the Kindergarten Klubhouse—with a K—first, then Sunny Acres. At that point, you’ll turn left to the pool.”
“Kindergarten is where the puppies play together.” Felicia lowered her voice almost to a whisper and gave me a conspiratorial smile. “They’re too young to have been altered and need to be kept separate.” She straightened, and her tone turned to that of a tour guide. “Sunny Acres is where our senior citizens stay during the day. They don’t want to run around as much, and they can get annoyed by the friskiness of the younger dogs.”
“Gotcha.” I grinned. This was all a little too cute for words. But when I set out on my own, I found Felicia was deadly serious.
The cherry flooring in the hallway reinforced the posh ambiance created by the cool jazz. I peered in the dolphin-etched glass door to be sure this was the poolroom, but the glass was frosted. Protecting the privacy of purebreds in their embarrassing first efforts to swim?
I pushed the brass plate on the swinging door and went in. A scream burst from my mouth before my mind fully registered what I was seeing.
There was a body floating in the water.
I ran toward the pool, slipping on the deck as I called out, “Aunt Marian!” The body in the navy wet suit had to be her—the gray hair swishing around her head, the shape of a woman pushing seventy, albeit one who was incredibly fit.
Jumping in, I was surprised how fast my feet hit bottom. The water was only waist deep. I churned my legs with a nightmarish slowness and pulled her over onto her back. I dragged my aunt’s inert body to the side of the pool and struggled to hoist her out of the water. But it was a useless gesture. She was cold and still, and clearly dead.
“Help!” I called out, swallowing down my horror and despair, but I didn’t know if the woman in black at the front entrance could hear me over the music playing in the background. It was piped in here, and the effect was surreal. “Can anybody hear me?” I yelled at the closed door.
That’s when I realized I was not alone in the poolroom. A tiny dog—not more than eight pounds and soaking wet—huddled at the corner of the deck. With the usual animal’s sense, he must have known something was terribly wrong. With its scrawny legs, pink skin showing through the matted-down apricot hair, and black eyes, it had to be a Maltese puppy.
I sloshed up the steps at the end of the pool, my khaki slacks weighed down by the water.
He was waiting for a signal from me to help with his confusion. “It’s all right, boy,” I lied. “Everything’s fine.”
The little dog cowered as I approached. Was he naturally timid, had he been abused in some way, or was he terrorized by what had happened here? Thank goodness I hadn’t also found him floating in the water, and yes, he was a him, pretty obvious from his water dredge. But he wasn’t a Maltese, he was a Maltipoo.
I scooped him up and noticed he’d been sitting on something. It was my aunt’s keychain, a Day-Glo orange and blue lanyard sporting the University of Florida Gator logo—she was a fan of every team at the school. The clip on the end held a number of keys. I scooped that up, too, and hurried out of the room, shouting, “Someone call 911!”
After the flurry of panic and the emergency call, I stood amidst the chaos, shaking with cold and shock. Seeking any warmth I could get, I tucked the Maltipoo close to my chest. I could feel his heart thumping. Poor guy. He must have been about as stunned as I was. I took a closer look and estimated him to be about four or five months old. I automatically checked his heart rate. A little fast, but not alarmingly so. Next I checked his breathing and looked at his eyes. Again, normal.
Clearly, I was displacing. But old habits die hard. I would always be a vet at heart—even if I was never again able to practice.
Finally, it was all too much for me. I gave in to my tears.
The Middleburg police arrived within minutes. There was a uniformed officer, but my attention was immediately riveted on the detective—Detective Cole Sampson, as he introduced himself in a deep timbre. Even through my shock, I could see he was stunningly attractive. Washington DC was full of very smart people, but no one could say it was where the beautiful people lived. Not that I cared—my type was hairy and four-legged—but maybe it was different out here in Middleburg. Despite that, I was glad I’d gotten hold of myself and dried my tears before he arrived.
When he took off his aviator sunglasses, I saw how light the skin was around his brown eyes compared to the rest of his face, which was nicely tanned. He was probably around my age, but his no-nonsense, just the facts ma’am attitude gave the impression of someone older.
“You’re the manager?” he asked.
I didn’t know how to answer that. My great-aunt was supposed to have shown me the ropes that day so I could get used to my new role, not be thrust into it. New town, new house, new job.
A tremor moved through the little dog’s body—or was it mine?—and I squeezed him closer. “I guess that’s what you can call me.” I couldn’t decide if the detective’s hair was more red than blond or vice versa. His white dress shirt emphasized trim hips and a broad chest.
Meanwhile, my white linen blouse was transparent, and my khakis clung to my legs all the way down. He resolutely continued to hold my gaze, and I admired him for not giving in to the urge to gawk. A gentleman.
Or maybe he just didn’t think I was attractive.
But what did I care about that right now? I indicated the dog in my arms, hoping that he also blocked the view of the wet T-shirt look I was now sporting. “I found him at the side of the pool.”
He reached out his hand for the dog to sniff, then ran his fingers over an ear. I gave him points for knowing how to approach an unfamiliar dog, especially one under stress. I also noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.
My mind must have been taken over by shock. Clearly, I had been taken up with irrelevant thoughts to protect myself from the loss. Suddenly, it hit me, and my lips wobbled as I tried to speak. “I’ll need to tell my mother.”
“Who’s your mother?” he asked, pulling a small notebook from his jacket pocket.
He turned to the uniformed officer beside him, who lifted a shoulder. Neither of them recognized the name.
Why would they?
Then I remembered where I was. Middleburg was a town of only about six hundred full-time residents.
Detective Sampson gave the lobby another look, then shrugged out of his suit coat and threw it onto a ruffled armchair. My gaze was caught by the shoulder holster. Or was it the broad shoulders that went with it? Shoulders a woman could easily lean on.
Now I was the one gawking. I forced myself to turn away. “It’s this way to the pool.”
When we reached the door with the frosted-glass window, Detective Sampson held it open and waited for me to enter first. “The dogs have swimming lessons here? Aren’t dogs born knowing how to swim?”
“Depends on the breed. Some take to it easier than others. For instance, Labradors and Goldens are naturals.” I felt warmth suffuse me despite my wet clothes as I passed by him. Or was that the humidity from the pool?
There was not that much room to stand. The rectangular pool was about twenty feet long and six feet wide and took up most of the available space. And I would not go anywhere near my poor aunt’s body, slumped over the side. That’s why the detective and I were standing so close together. Feeling the heat coming off his body, I closed my eyes. I had the unexpected urge to lean into those broad shoulders and have his arms around me.
But he was all business. With his eyes trained on the water, he asked, “So what did you find when you walked in?”
I swallowed, then launched into the horrible story of that morning.
When I finished, he said, “You moved the body?” He crossed his arms in front of him. I wondered if he knew that pose accentuated his muscles even more.
“I didn’t know she was dead at the time. I was trying to help her.”
Detective Sampson gave the dog’s head a final pat, then went to kneel by Aunt Marian’s body. As I watched his broad back, I said, “I don’t understand how this could have happened—her dying in a swimming pool. She was on one of the first University of Florida women’s swim teams. I know that was years ago, but she still swam for exercise every day.” Okay, I was babbling a bit.
“Interesting.” Without looking up from his examination of the body, the detective asked, “Any history of heart disease?”
“Believe it or not, even at her age, she didn’t have heart problems.”
“Maybe she slipped and hit her head.”
“I didn’t see an obvious injury when I brought her to the side.”
The glance he threw me showed he didn’t appreciate my observations or my interference. He returned to his study of her body and started parting my great-aunt’s hair with the non-business end of his pen, presumably searching for bruises or marks. I averted my gaze, sick that she was having this indignity suffered upon her.
“The autopsy should give more information, right?”
He didn’t look up. “I don’t know if we’ll need an autopsy.”
“Isn’t it Virginia law that an autopsy is done after an unattended death?”
“If there’s not pre-existing medical problems.” He laid her carefully back down. “But she was an older woman. Heart problems are just part of the picture at that age.”
“Not her,” I said firmly. “I’d like to request that an autopsy be done to find out what happened.” I made the language official. Then I added, “After all, this dog is wet.”
The detective raised a brow at me in question.
“I found him by the wall. He was already wet. That meant she’d already taken him in the water.” When he continued to look at me without speaking, I went on. “So, Aunt Marian couldn’t have hit her head and fallen in if she was already in the pool.”
He frowned. “How does that change what happened? Maybe your aunt started to feel sick and put him on the side of the pool before she wanted to climb out, too. Her heart gave out before she could.”
I pointed at the front end of the pool. “There’s another way, too. See those steps? That’s how I got out.” Once again, going through all these scenarios of my aunt’s death, the horror of what had happened this morning hit me hard. Woozy, I needed to sit. The diving board loomed in my view.
As I lowered myself onto it, my arm still around the Maltipoo, I did wonder why dogs would need a diving board. Too late, when the board was sinking under my weight, I realized this was a special contraption to gradually lower in reluctant pooches.
I scrambled to get up before I—and the poor Maltipoo—was plunged underwater. In two quick steps, the detective had me in his arms, saving me from embarrassment and the dog from another dunking. Again, I had an unbidden urge to lean into him, feel the warmth and strength of being held.
I was definitely in shock.
Mortified and trying to save face, I explained, “This must be so dogs can ease into the water. A dog that needs swim sessions is not going to jump in for you. Of course, most of them are heavier than this guy.” I indicated the Maltipoo that I, or rather we, held, since the detective hadn’t let go of me.
I pulled away. “If you don’t have any more questions for me right now, do you mind if…?” I broke off, indicating my soaked khakis and shoes.
“Sure. I doubt I’ll need them for evidence.” This time, he allowed himself a head-to-toe inspection. But his eyes remained clinical and detached. He was solidly in professional law enforcement mode, and, of course, I wanted him that way. I wanted someone who would take my aunt’s death seriously.
“What are we going to do about La Maison today without Ms. Dunlop?” Felicia, standing at the reception desk, bit her bottom lip. “This is Aidan, by the way.”
The kid who was handling the drop-offs when I’d first arrived put up his hand in greeting. “So, it’s true—Ms. Dunlop’s dead?” He shook his head. “That’s so messed up. I called my mom and told her. I just can’t believe it.”
“Is she okay with you working today?” I asked.
“Sure, it’s not like Ms. Dunlop was murdered or anything,” Aidan said.
Now that I was away from the detective, I could think again, and my thoughts were racing. My great-aunt had been getting on in years, but she’d still been healthy and fit. But I wasn’t about to voice any suspicions to Felicia at this point. Not with the police still on the scene.
Meanwhile, I needed to decide what to do about the spa today. Great-aunt Marian hadn’t even had a chance to train me. This was such a nightmare. I’d lost my beloved career and my livelihood, which had, in turn, exposed the fact that my long-term relationship wasn’t as strong as I’d believed. We’d both been so frantically busy—me working long hours at my Old Town practice and Luke toiling away as an associate, and then both of us socializing with his partners and potential clients—it hadn’t come to light. But when I’d most needed his support, he had turned out to be so disappointing.
At the thought, I tried to seek comfort as I always did—with animals. I hitched the Maltipoo higher into my arms. “Who does this little guy belong to?”
“That’s Rex.” Felicia tucked her bobbed hair behind an ear. “He was boarded over the weekend by a new pet parent. He had a swimming lesson at seven o’clock this morning.”
“Can you dry him while I go change?” I asked.
When I tried to hand her the puppy, she shrank away. “Isn’t that going to tangle his fur? Shouldn’t he be blown dry? Damian, the master groomer, won’t be in until eleven.”
Maybe she didn’t want hair on her black dress.
“Just towel him off. He doesn’t have to be styled.” I gave Rex a reassuring pat as I transferred him to her. “Is there anything here I can change into?”
She looked dubiously at my half-wet, half-dry clothes. “We have smocks.”
“And where do we keep them?” I was getting chilled.
“They’re in Wardrobe. That’s the dressing room for employees to change into their uniforms. It also doubles as an extra storage area.”
I thanked her, then said, “The police might want to interview you when they’re done in the poolroom.”
Felicia took a step back. “I didn’t see anything. I came in at six-thirty, and I’ve been out here the whole time. I didn’t even see Miss Marian this morning.”
I paused. “How did you know she was already here?”
“She’s usually here when I arrive, so I guess I just assumed…” Her eyes went to the view out the window, where a fall garden of peonies and cabbages ran along the front porch. “Wait. I did see her car.” She pointed to the small lot out in front, where I had parked next to my aunt’s late model Volvo.
Felicia brought her gaze back to me and shook her head solemnly.
“Then that’s all you have to tell the police.”
“Dude,” Aidan said, indicating where the detective was still poking around in the office. “If they give you the third degree, just plead the fifth.”
She gave him a withering look and began flipping pages of the appointment book. “Will you be handling Miss Marian’s appointments today,” she asked me, “or do I need to call everyone to reschedule?”
“Are there many patients—I mean customers, to see today?”
Her eyes widened, and her hand shot up like a stop sign. “You mean pet parents.”
Duly admonished, I repeated the slightly ridiculous phrase. As a vet, I’d referred to pet owners as clients and the animals as patients, but this wasn’t the clinic…and when in Rome. “Pet parents, then.”
Making a decision, I said, “We’ll go ahead and keep the spa open for now. I’m sure Aunt Marian would have wanted it that way.”
I knew all too well how long it took to get a business up and running and just how quickly it could be destroyed.
“I’ll have to send an email announcement out to all our customers—sorry, pet parents—telling them what’s happened.”
Felicia studied the binder in front of her. “It looks like your first appointment is running late. Maybe Mrs. Collins already heard the news and decided not to come.”
Aidan focused on the corner of the ceiling. “Duty calls.”
I followed his gaze up to a discreetly placed monitor and saw an SUV turn into the driveway.
“And I’m happy to report it’s not her arriving,” he said. On his way out, he muttered, “That’s all we’d need today—another attack by Crazy Collins.”
I crinkled my brow, curious about his comment.
“That woman is always going off about something or another. Pat Collins has the temper of a roman candle,” Felicia said with quiet disdain.
“Really?” I couldn’t imagine what there was to be so upset about here. It seemed so peaceful. Well. Other than the dead body.
“Oh, yeah. She threw a regular hissy fit the last time she picked up,” Felicia explained. “She had all the dogs barking.”
“Why was she so angry?”
“Her schnauzer, Angela, and one of the other puppies that stays here a lot, So Baby”—I smiled at the silly name as she went on—“were wrestling in the Kindergarten Klubhouse. And So Baby took a nip of Angela’s ear.” She demonstrated with a little pinch of her fingers.
I winced. “Don’t tell me. Some of the flesh came off?”
Nodding, she was about to say more when the outside set of airlock doors at the front parted, followed by the inner set. I’d noticed the double sets of doors when I came in. Very cool. And practical. Aunt Marian must have had them installed to deal with dogs that are runners or escape artists.
Aidan came through the doors escorting a stout, middle-aged gentleman sporting suspenders and an imperious black standard poodle.
“Bon jour, Monsieur Hines et Pierre!” Felicia exclaimed in a passable French accent.
The story of the angry pet parent would have to wait. I needed dry clothes, and the smock would have to do for the drive home. I had to hurry to beat the rumor mill and break the news to my mother. Aidan said he’d already called his mom. No telling how quickly word would spread.
In Wardrobe, I found the supply of smocks the groomers and stylists wore. Surrounded by counselor lockers, training aids, toys, spare leashes, and office supplies, I took off my khakis and pulled a black—no surprise there—smock over my head. It ended a few inches shy of my knees. I was a little self-conscious and hoped to disappear before Detective Sampson emerged from the poolroom.
As I stole past the reception desk, Felicia called out “Can I give you this?” She handed me a black leather Coach shoulder bag, traditional and sturdy. “It belonged to Miss Marian.”
I opened the clasp, and the smell of the floral soap my aunt had used all my life wafted out, covering me with a wave of sadness. There was a hairbrush, lipstick, tissues, some receipts. It was so wrong, me riffling through such a personal item, until I realized it was minus one of the mainstays of any handbag. I handed the bag back to Felicia. “Actually, why don’t you give it to the detective—”
“What do you want to give me?”
I jumped at the sound of Detective Sampson’s deep voice right behind me. Turning, I pulled at the hem of my smock in a futile attempt to make it longer. “Her handbag. The wallet is missing.”
Felicia gasped. “Would she have taken it out? I can check her office.”
Detective Sampson frowned. “I’ll take care of that.”
Reaching into his pockets, he pulled out the gloves he’d been wearing. I was glad he was treating this seriously. If her wallet was missing, didn’t this put it into an entirely different arena? My vague stirrings of foul play were being confirmed, and I wondered, somewhat childishly, if he was going to acknowledge that.
“Do you know what credit cards she carried?” he asked. “You’ll have to cancel them.”
I suspected it was the usual array, but I would have to find her account numbers and make the phone calls. As I tried to imagine where she would keep her personal paperwork—probably at her house and not here at the office—I heard the detective speaking to Aidan. “The techs will be here soon. Just direct them to the back entrance.”
Too late. A white Loudoun County Forensics van was just pulling up in front. Detective Sampson moved with an easy grace to the double doors to direct the two male forensic techs in white that emerged.
When they entered the lobby, their attention was immediately riveted on my bare legs. Without looking at me—so I couldn’t tell if it was purposeful or not—Detective Sampson shifted his position, effectively moving between me and the forensics techs, blocking their view. He beckoned with his hand. “Back here, fellas.”
I was determined to follow, to ensure they were doing the right thing by my aunt. Despite my squeaking shoes, I was far enough behind them they couldn’t hear me through their banter.
“What is this?” the taller of the two techs asked.
“Early George Winston, by the sound of it.”
“This place, I mean. It’s a dog kennel, right?”
“Among other things. The deceased was the owner.” Detective Sampson was in profile toward the men as he spoke with a strong, masculine jaw.
The jazz aficionado looked around at the paintings on the walls, and said, “Kind of froufrou.”
“You moron!” said the other tech. “It’s foufou!”
“Whatever,” said the jazz fan. “It’s like my mother-in-law’s place in here.”
I stopped. These men were determined to keep a professional distance from the “deceased,” as they would refer to her, and I didn’t need to get in the way of that.
Froufrou! I thought, outraged.
But weren’t they only saying what I’d been thinking when I first saw the place? Then why was I so mad about it?