Champions Dog Food Company
1066 Industrial Avenue
Norwalk, CT 06855
Dear Melanie Travis:
We are delighted to inform you that your Standard Poodle, Champion Cedar Crest Leap of Faith, has been selected as a finalist in our “All Dogs Are Champions” contest. The winner will be named the official spokesdog for our new dog food, Chow Down, and will be awarded an exclusive advertising contract in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars. The essay and pictures you submitted on your Poodle's behalf were very persuasive; we quite agree that Faith would make a superb representative for our product.
Being chosen from among the thousands of entries we received is both an honor and an achievement. As outlined in the contest rules on the entry form you submitted, each of the five remaining candidates must now make themselves available to compete in the final phases of the selection process. We appreciate your cooperation in this matter, and a representative from Champions Dog Food will be contacting you shortly so that arrangements can be made for a personal interview with Faith at your earliest convenience. Thank you for your interest in Chow Down dog food and, once again, our heartiest congratulations on being chosen as one of our finalists.
Vice President of Marketing
uh? I thought.
Not the most scintillating response, but hey, it was early. I'm never at my best before my first cup of coffee.
I stared at the letter in my hands, hoping that a second reading might help my comprehension. It didn't.
Chow Down dog food? I'd never even heard of it. And I certainly hadn't entered Faith in any contests, much less submitted an essay and photos. The Poodle in question was one of fiveâall big black Standardsâcurrently snoozing on my kitchen floor.
Faith was highly intelligent but I'd never seen her compose a letter or lick a stamp. And why would she have wanted to enter a contest? Fame? Fortune? She already had all the dog biscuits she could eat.
That brief flight of fancy was enough to send me straight to the coffee maker on the counter for what was obviously a much-needed jolt of caffeine. Summer mornings, I grab the chance to sleep late whenever I can. During the other, more productive, nine months of the year I teach at a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut. From the moment my alarm goes off at six thirty, I'm up and running. So by the time June arrives each year, I'm ready for a break and the unaccustomed luxury of a little laziness.
Sam and Davey, my husband and eight-year-old son, respectively, had risen at least an hour earlier. Over dinner the night before, there'd been talk of building a tree house in the backyard. That had led to plans for an early-morning visit to Home Depot to purchase supplies.
Sam had gotten up, let the dogs out, and started the coffee. Davey had brought in the mail and left it sitting on the counter. By the time I'd made my way downstairs at eight thirty, both had disappeared. Only the five PoodlesâSam's and my recently blended canine familiesâremained.
Faith lifted her head as I navigated my way through the obstacle course of Poodle bodies. Her dark eyes watched me with avid interest. We'd been together for four years, and our bond went far beyond that of master and pet. Faith knew my strengths and exploited my weaknesses. She read my thoughts and anticipated my moods.
Right now, she knew I needed coffee. If she'd possessed opposable thumbs, she probably would have already poured me a cup.
As it was, I had to perform that task for myself. I added a splash of milk to the mug, carried it over to the back door, and walked outside onto the deck. We'd been in our new house less than a month and I was still getting used to the unfamiliar surroundings. Having a deck to enjoy was only one positive change of many.
I sat down on a chaise, drew up my legs underneath me, and breathed in deeply. Later the day would be hot, but now the dew had yet to burn off and the morning air was fresh and cool. It smelled of honeysuckle and roses; both bushes grew wild over the fence that enclosed the large expanse of our new backyard.
I had left the screen door open. One by one, the Poodles picked themselves up and followed me outside as I'd known they would.
Faith had been part of my family since she was a puppy. So had her daughter, Eve, born two years earlier in a whelping box next to my bed. Sam and I had gotten married in the spring, and his three Standard PoodlesâRaven, Casey, and Tarâhad been added to the mix.
All five were show dogs; the three oldest were retired champions. The youngsters, Tar and Eve, were still “in hair,” which meant that they sported the highly stylized continental clip that was required for competition. The continental is the trim of pom pons, shaved legs, and big hair; the trim that makes Poodles unique, eye-catching, and sometimes a little goofy-looking; the trim that gives rise to the notionânot without due justificationâthat Poodles are clowns with a great sense of humor.
Tar was Sam's “specials” dog, a title that identified him as one of the best of the best. He'd finished his championship handily at a young age and now competed against champions in other breeds for the prestigious group and Best in Show wins. Eve, hampered by having me for an owner handler, was nearly finished herself. Only one more major win was needed to put the coveted title of champion before her name. It was a goal I was hoping to accomplish over the summer.
The thought of summer plans reminded me of the letter I'd left sitting on the counter. I wondered if it might be some sort of scam and if a request for money would follow shortly. The letter looked genuine, but how could the contest committee have gotten Faith's name, much less her photograph?
Sam wouldn't have entered one of my Poodles without my consent. Our marriage was new enough that we were still feeling things out and finding our way, but we'd been a couple for several years. I knew him well enough to be quite certain he wouldn't have done something like that without checking with me first.
Without the slightest pause, my thoughts slid directly to the next most likely culprit: my Aunt Peg. Margaret Turnbull was a force of nature; one I alternately embraced or cursed, depending on the circumstances. On good days, Aunt Peg was a blessing. On bad ones, her presence was akin to an itch that I couldn't quite reach, or a pebble lodged inside my shoe.
Peg could be imperious and demanding; living up to her expectations was a constant challenge. Never satisfied with less than anyone's best, she held herself to the same high standard. Aunt Peg had been a mainstay on the dog show scene since before I was born and she'd taught me everything in the world I knew about Poodles. Half the time she drove me crazy, but there were few people in the world that I loved more.
Might she have entered Faith in a contest on a whim? It seemed unlikely, but where Aunt Peg was concerned, I'd learned never to discount any possibility.
I got up, walked inside, and retrieved the letter and a telephone. Aunt Peg's number was first on my speed dial list, a testament to how often we spoke. I didn't even hear a single ring before she picked up. A perfect, drowsy summer morning and Aunt Peg was in a hurry. Somehow I wasn't surprised.
“What?” she barked into the phone as I carried it outside and settled back down on the chaise.
“It's me,” I said.
“I know that. I have caller ID. How's the tree house coming?”
Trust Aunt Peg to be up to speed on all current events, even those that had been decided upon only the evening before. I think she has some sort of subliminal radar that keeps her constantly apprised of what we're up to. A network of spies wouldn't surprise me, either. I know for a fact that she has ears like a bat.
Need I mention that she had accepted Sam's proposal before I did?
“It's still in the planning stages. Sam took Davey to Home Depot to buy lumber and nails. If I'm really lucky they'll come home with a general contractor.”
“Pish,” Peg scoffed. “I can't see any reason why Sam wouldn't be perfectly capable of constructing a tree house on his own.”
“That's because he's never tried to repair your ice-maker or rewire your microwave.”
I love Sam dearly, but Mr. Fix-It he isn't. I let him change my oil once. That was a learning experience. Now I've gone back to doing it myself.
“All things considered, lumber seems fairly safe,” Peg mused. She'd been at the dog show with me when my engine had seized.
“Yes, but he's not building this structure on the ground. He and Davey are going to be up in the air.”
I looked out across the yard. Davey and Sam had chosen a lovely old oak tree with a thick trunk and spreading branches for their project. A fork midway up seemed like a likely choice. “Fifteen feet?”
“I suppose someone could break a neck falling from there.”
“Go ahead,” I said, “make me feel better.”
“That's what I'm here for.” Aunt Peg sounded cheerful. “Would you like me to come and supervise?”
Heaven help us all. We'd end up with a Taj Mahal on stilts, or the Petite Trianon in a tree. Deftly I changed the subject.
“Actually I'd rather have you answer a question.”
“Excellent,” said Peg. “I'm good at that.”
“What do you know about Champions Dog Food?”
“They make a perfectly decent product and, I believe, a fairly popular one. Despite their company name, they've targeted their previous marketing mostly toward the pet owning public, though it seems they're currently looking to change their focus.”
“How do you know that?”
“I received a couple of flyers in the mail. I might even still have one lying around here someplace.”
I heard the sound of papers being shuffled, but Aunt Peg never stopped talking.
“I got the impression that the company had bought some kennel club's mailing list and done a mass mailing to local exhibitors. I'm surprised you didn't get a brochure yourself. There was a promotion for a new product with a perfectly ghastly name . . .”
“That's it,” Aunt Peg confirmed. “So you did hear about it.”
As of ten minutes earlier, yes. Though I didn't remember receiving any brochures. Which wasn't to say that one might not have been overlooked. My days were generally so busy that anything that arrived looking like junk mail was promptly disposed of unread.
“Apparently they're running a contest . . .” I let the thought dangle for a moment, just in case Aunt Peg might want to jump in and make a full confession.
“Right. That was what the new promotion was about. Although why any self-respecting breeder would want her dogs associated with a kibble with an odious name like Chow Down, I have no idea.”
“So you didn't fill out an entry form?”
“Heaven forbid.” Peg laughed. “Hope and Zeke are not about to go prancing around on television touting the virtues of anything, much less a dog food that sounds like it fell off the back of a wagon train.”
Hope was Faith's litter sister. And Zeke was Eve's brother. Our canine families, like our human one, were indelibly intertwined.
“Why the sudden interest in Champions Dog Food? Are you thinking about switching to a new brand of kibble?”
“Nothing that easy,” I admitted. “I got a letter from the company this morning. To my surprise, Faith has been named as one of five finalists in their âAll Dogs Are Champions' contest.”
Aunt Peg gasped. Or maybe she was laughing. “
has?” she sputtered. “Well, why didn't you
with that information? I would imagine you must know a great deal more about the company than I do.”
“Hardly. This is the first I've heard of them, or their contest.”
Aunt Peg moderated her tone. Like she was speaking to a child, or a particularly slow relative. “Then why did you send in an entry?”
“I didn't. I have no idea where they got Faith's name from. Or her picture.”
There was a brief pause. Then Aunt Peg said, “Oh.”
The single syllable spoke volumes.
“Maybe it's nothing.”
“I doubt it.” Years of experience backed up my reply.
“You might remember that I gave Davey a digital camera for his last birthday.”
Of course I remembered that. My son adored his present. He'd quickly become adept at capturing all of us in his photographs. We'd printed up the results on Sam's printer and stuck the best ones up on the refrigerator with magnets.
“About a month ago, Davey called and asked how to email someone a picture. I couldn't see the harm in telling him.”
Oh, indeed. “And you didn't stop to wonder why he hadn't asked me or Sam for help?”
“I just assumed you were busy.”
If Aunt Peg had been a wooden puppet, her nose would have been growing.
“Did you happen to ask where he was planning to email the pictures to?”
“No, I didn't. It seemed to me that an almost nine-year-old boy was entitled to have some secrets.”
“Not when he's on the internet he isn't,” I said firmly. “Did you help him write the essay, too?”
“I did not!”
As if I would be impressed by a show of outrage
. “I thought maybe that was another secret.”