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Authors: Laurien Berenson

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Best in Show

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BEST IN DEATH
“Hope, come!” I called out firmly. “Eve! Over here.”
Neither Poodle paid any attention to me. As they began to run, Aunt Peg materialized out of the shadows, poop scoop in hand.
“What's the matter?” she asked.
“I don't know. Something—”
I never got a chance to finish. A chill slithered up my spine as a piercing scream shattered the night.
Aunt Peg dropped the scoop and ran in the direction the scream had come from. That left me free to chase after the two Poodles. Fortunately Eve and Hope had run toward the building. Aunt Peg had ended up in the corner where the two wings of the hotel building met. Several other people were standing in the shadows with her. I reached the small group and saw Aunt Peg looked grim. Cliff Spellman, the club vice president, was speaking urgently on a cell phone. I looked past them and saw a body lying crumpled on the ground. A decorative planter, part of the hotel's landscaping, partially blocked my view. I edged around the back of the group until I could see better.
The body in the shadows belonged to a woman. She looked so small that, for a moment, I thought it might be a child. Then the crimped gray hair registered in my shocked brain, followed by the red sweater and the white grooming smock. I gasped softly. Her face was turned away from me, but I still knew.
“It's Betty Jean . . .” I whispered.
Books by Laurien Berenson
A PEDIGREE TO DIE FOR
 
UNDERDOG
 
DOG EAT DOG
 
HAIR OF THE DOG
 
WATCHDOG
 
HUSH PUPPY
 
UNLEASHED
 
ONCE BITTEN
 
HOT DOG
 
BEST IN SHOW
 
JINGLE BELL BARK
 
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Best in Show
A Melanie Travis Mystery
Laurien Berenson
KENSINGTON BOOKS
Kensington Publishing Corp.
http://www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
This book is dedicated to the wonderful, hard-working members of the Poodle Club of America, whose efforts safeguard the Poodle breed and who, once a year in June, put on the greatest dog show there is.
1
T
here are those who say that life is a game of chance, and considering some of the things that have happened to me, I'd probably be inclined to agree. It wasn't serendipity, however, that took me to Maryland in mid-June to participate in the Poodle Club of America National Specialty dog show. Nor was it chance that volunteered me to work on the raffle committee. It was my Aunt Peg.
Margaret Turnbull is a formidable woman. Anyone who is involved in the dog show world will tell you that. Her Cedar Crest kennels have produced top winning Standard Poodles for three decades, nearly all of them owner-handled by Peg herself. Now in her sixties, she had cut down on the number of dogs she kept and recently added a judge's license to her already impressive arsenal of accomplishments. No one in the Poodle community would dare underestimate my Aunt Peg. Least of all me.
So when she told me that I'd been assigned to spend my week at the specialty show helping out Betty Jean and Edith Jean Boone, the cochairs of the raffle committee, I didn't argue. I didn't mention this was the first time that Sam Driver, my almost-fiancé, and I had had the opportunity to go away together and that we'd been hoping to carve out some time for just the two of us. I didn't point out that my seven-year-old son, Davey, love of my life, chaperone par excellence, had stayed behind with his father in Connecticut, leaving me free to do just as I wished for the first time since I'd become a single parent years earlier. I didn't even bring up the fact that I had my own Standard Poodle to show, which would certainly keep me busy.
No, I simply showed up at my appointed day and time, Monday morning, nine
A.M.
, and waited to be put to work.
PCA is a huge undertaking, one of the largest specialty, or single breed, dog shows held in the country each year. All three varieties of Poodles—Standards, Miniatures, and Toys—are in competition. More than a thousand dogs and several times that many Poodle fanciers travel from all over the world to enjoy and take part in the spectacle.
Originally the national specialty was simply a conformation show, but over time it had grown to embrace and celebrate all the varied talents of the Poodle breed. The activities began on Saturday with a club sponsored field event, where Miniature and Standard Poodles could earn Working Certificates. On Monday, there was an agility trial. Tuesday, the Poodle Club of America Foundation hosted a morning of seminars and symposiums on topics of interest to serious breeders and exhibitors. In the afternoon, there was an obedience trial.
Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, the arena was given over to the conformation classes. Even with three judges working almost continuously (one for each variety) it took that long for the enormous entry to be sorted through. Also included were a Parade of Champions and a veterans sweepstakes. Everything built toward Friday afternoon, when a fourth judge would choose among those Poodles that had been named top in their variety to find Best of Breed. The festivities concluded that evening with the PCA banquet.
It was an exhilarating, and often exhausting schedule. Not wanting to be away from Davey for too long, I'd skipped the field trial on Saturday, loaded my Poodle puppy in the car, and driven down to Maryland on Sunday afternoon. Aunt Peg was, of course, already in residence at the host hotel when I arrived. Sam would be coming down sometime Tuesday.
Monday morning, I presented myself at the equestrian center where the show was to take place. The enormous indoor arena was covered with turf; two big rings were landscaped with potted flowers and trees. One end of the ground-floor arena was reserved for grooming and preparation. The other two thirds contained the show rings and the tables devoted to the various show committees.
The trophy table had the best location, of course. Silver bowls and challenge trophies, several of them in competition for decades, glowed in the aura of the spotlights from above. When I had time, I loved to stop and look at those old trophies, tangible reminders of the history of the breed. I would run my fingers over their soft, shiny sides and trace the names of the past winners. Many were breed greats, dogs that I, a relative newcomer to the sport, knew only as pictures in the Poodle books.
That morning, however, time was something I didn't have. I'd brought a Standard Poodle to the specialty with me, a puppy named Eve whom I'd be showing later in the week. For the time being, until I'd found out what my duties were going to be, I'd left her resting in a crate in the grooming area. Unloading and getting the puppy settled had taken longer than I'd anticipated.
The raffle table was situated about halfway down the arena. I was almost there when someone stepped back out of the throng already congregating at ringside to watch the agility classes and blocked my path. Aunt Peg.
“You're late,” she said.
“No, I'm not.”
I had to look up to argue. Peg stands nearly six feet tall to my own five-six. It wasn't the height difference, however, that often made me feel like a recalcitrant child when I was in her presence. It was Aunt Peg's unwavering belief that she was right in her opinions. That, and the fact that she usually was.
A black Standard Poodle bitch stood at Peg's side. Hope, litter sister to Eve's dam, was at the show to compete in agility. I reached down and gave her chin a scratch, hoping to buy some goodwill. It didn't work.
“Betty Jean and Edith Jean have already been here for nearly an hour,” Aunt Peg said. I supposed that meant she'd been there for that long, too. “They've got the table all set up for the day.”
“I checked the schedule. It said the agility trial started at nine.”
“It does. But everything has to be in place and ready to go before the show opens. You'd better hurry up. I recommended you to the sisters, you know. I wouldn't want you to make a bad first impression.” Her hands were already shooing me away. “The two of them are quite a couple of old characters. I'm sure you'll enjoy working with them.”
Presumably because of my prior experience working with old characters. Wisely, I didn't voice the thought aloud.
The raffle table, as I saw when I reached it, was eight feet long, four feet wide, and stocked with all sorts of Poodle-related items. Donations received from various sponsors and club members ranged from gold and diamond jewelry to grooming supplies and a print of a New Yorker magazine cover from the fifties that featured a Miniature Poodle. There was a money tree covered in two-dollar bills, as well as such diverse articles as a lamp shade, a Christmas stocking, and tea towels, all decorated in a Poodle motif.
What, I thought, no Poodle skirt? I probably just hadn't seen it yet.
“You must be Melanie.” A compact older woman with a lined face, tightly waved gray hair, and a ready smile, stepped out from behind the table and held out her hand. Her voice was softened by the lilting cadence of a southern drawl. “I'm Edith Jean. Sister and I have been waiting for you.”
“Sorry I'm late.” I grasped her hand. Her fingers, long and thin, felt surprisingly fragile. “I didn't realize things got started so early.”
“Not to worry, you haven't missed a thing.” Edith Jean turned and swatted at the colorful tablecloth that covered the table and fell to the floor. “Betty Jean, haul your butt out here and say hello to Melanie.”
“Hold your horses,” a voice grumbled from beneath the table. “I'm trying to find the tickets. They're not in the box you said they were in.”
“Are, too,” Edith Jean snapped, then sent me an apologetic smile. “You'll have to excuse Sister. Her eyes aren't what they used to be.”
“I heard that. There's nothing wrong with my eyes, or my ears.”
I leaned down and lifted the hem of the floor-length cloth. Half a dozen boxes were piled haphazardly beneath the table. I caught a glimpse of more gray curls, then Betty Jean lifted her head and looked in my direction. She had the same sharp blue eyes, narrow nose, and thin, pursed lips as her sister. In fact, they looked remarkably alike. Maybe it was a trick of the dim lighting. Or maybe Aunt Peg had neglected to mention that the sisters were twins.
“Anything I can do to help?” I asked.
“Not a damn thing.” On her knees, Betty Jean began to inch backward. “Hold on a minute. Let me get out from under here so I can say hello properly.”
“Didn't I just tell you to do that?” Edith Jean asked.
“Maybe you did, but I don't know who you think died and left you in charge.” Betty Jean braced her hands heavily on her knees, pushed herself up, and gave me a smile. Like her sister, she was small and angular; bony, as though over time her skin had slowly deflated over the structure of her skeleton.
“I'm pleased to meet you. Peg says you're a worker, and if Peg Turnbull says you're okay, that's good enough for us. I'm Betty Jean. You can probably tell we're not from around here. North Georgia born and bred, Sister and I are. Our mama's name was Jean, and she wanted to make sure neither of her children ever forgot about her—”
“Now, Sister, we just met Melanie. She doesn't need to hear about all that.”
“But you didn't even know our mama,” Betty Jean continued, ignoring the interruption. “So if Betty Jean and Edith Jean seems like too much of a mouthful, you can just call us B.J. and E.J. We'll answer to that right enough. Hell, we'll answer to just about anything.”
“Speak for yourself,” Edith Jean said. “You don't want to give Melanie the wrong impression. Not on the first day anyways.”
The two women were like a pair of bickering bookends, bracketing the raffle table. As if their physical resemblance wasn't enough, they'd added to it by wearing the same hairstyle and dressing similarly. Both had on denim skirts, red sweaters, and sturdy shoes.
“Are you twins?” I asked.
Betty Jean cackled in reply. “Did you hear that, Sister? She wants to know if you're as old as I am.”
“Of course I heard her. I'm standing right here, aren't I?”
“Can't tell us apart, can you?” Betty Jean sounded pleased. “Happens all the time. I'm the older, though, by eleven months. Nearly a year. I guess I must look pretty good for my age.”
“You do,” I said quickly. The threat of hot coals wouldn't induce me to ask what that age was. On my other side, Edith Jean snorted loudly. I took that as my cue. “And you look great, too.”
“Little late now to go sucking up, don't you think?”
“That depends,” I said. “Is sucking up going to be required?”
Edith Jean laughed, a dry rasping cackle that sounded as though it might have been influenced by years of smoking. “Peg was right about you, Melanie. She said you'd fit right in.”
E.J. and B.J. spent the next few minutes describing my duties. They didn't sound too arduous, especially as all the advance work had already been done. The sisters had contacted past patrons and secured this year's donations. Now all that remained was to keep a watchful eye on the bounty on the table, sell lots of tickets, and hold the drawing late Friday afternoon right before the judging for Best in Show. Simple.
“You're going to be what we call our roving raffle lady,” Edith Jean explained. “Sister and I take our places here at the table. If anyone wants to buy tickets or see what the prizes are, they can come and talk to us.”
“But that still leaves a whole bunch of potential sales unmined,” Betty Jean said when her sister paused to draw a breath. “What about the people who are busy grooming in the handlers' area? Or the spectators who'd be happy to support the club and take a chance on winning something fabulous but they're watching the action in the ring and never bother to make their way over here?”
“That's where you come in.” This was E.J. again. Their tag-team style of conversation was beginning to make me dizzy. “Not everyone takes the time to come to us, so you're going to go to them. Sister and I will outfit you with a basket to carry around. You'll have tickets to sell and money to make change. All you have to do to make the raffle a success is convince every single person at the show to take a dozen tickets.”
All
I had to do . . . ?
“Now, Sister.” B.J. reached over and poked the other woman in the shoulder. “Don't go scaring her off already. Talk like that and we may never see Melanie again. She'll grab that basket and go running for the hills.”
“No, I—”
“Don't worry, you'll do just fine.” Edith Jean's voice dropped to a whisper. “Last year, there was one morning when Betty Jean managed to misplace a whole hunk of money and some raffle tickets too, and we still ended up coming out ahead.”
“I did not!” B.J. squawked.
“Did too!”
“Umm, ladies?” I was beginning to get the impression that the sisters' squabbling was going to form the backdrop for my entire PCA experience. “Don't worry about a thing. I'm sure I'll be able to sell plenty of tickets.” Even if I had to coerce Aunt Peg into taking them by the roll for getting me into this.
“See? I told you—”
“What are you talking about? I'm the one who said . . .”
Tuning them out, I let my gaze wander over the spectators around the ring. Even this early in the week, the agility trial had drawn a good sized crowd. By the time the conformation classes started on Wednesday, the arena would be filled with hundreds of potential ticket buyers, all of them fans of Poodles and friend of PCA. With any luck, getting them to lend their support to the raffle would be a breeze.
As I waited for the sisters to stop arguing and remember that they had yet to show me where the basket was, my skin began to tingle with the sudden awareness that I was being watched. Slowly I rescanned the crowd. Most people were facing the other way, intent on the Novice Class taking place in the ring.

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