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Authors: Donna Ball

Dog Days

BOOK: Dog Days
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DOG DAYS

 

Raine Stockton Dog Mystery #10

 

By Donna Ball

Copyright 2015 by Donna Ball, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any fashion except by the express consent of the author
.

 

Published by Blue Merle Publishing

Drawer H

Mountain City, Georgia 30562

www.bluemerlepublishing.com

 

This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, organizations and places in this book are either a product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously and no effort should be made to construe them as real. Any resemblance to any actual people, events or locations is purely coincidental.

 

Cover art: www.bigstock.com

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

W
hen I think back on that awful week, and particularly on how it ended, what I remember most is not the murder, or the whole horrible mess with Miles, or even the beautiful dog who wandered into my life that sweltering August morning. What I remember is the heat.

A lot of people don’t think it gets hot here in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, which is why this is where they come when they want to get
away
from the heat. The truth is we see our share of ninety-degree days here every summer, but I’ve got to admit, I couldn’t recall a stretch quite this hot, or this long, in years. Of course, we are talking about the dog days of summer, here: those long, hot, lazy days of July and August when heat waves ripple off the asphalt and dusty wildflowers droop in the sunshine by the side of the road. Smart dogs crawl under the porch and lie panting in the shade until sunset, and smart people grab a piece of real estate in the middle of one of the cold clear streams that tumble through this part of the Smokies, add a six pack and an inner tube, and settle in for the duration. August is the time for porch swings and county fairs, cold suppers and bright still afternoons in which your main ambition is to move as little as possible. By August, everyone is tired of summer, tired of the heat, and ready to get out of town.

But when you live in a vacation destination like Hansonville and own the only dog boarding, training, and grooming facility within a hundred miles, the term dog days takes on a whole new meaning. This, after all, is where all those people who want to get out of town in August
go
, crowding up our scenic highways with RVs, minivans, and motorcycle caravans, double-parking on our streets, filling up our restaurants, and complaining about the high-fat content of our home-style meals; snapping selfies before our sweeping vistas and exclaiming over our “quaint” mountain arts and crafts. August is also the time of year when all the locals who can afford to do so make it a point to be somewhere else, and whether they are coming in or going out, when it comes to caring for the family pet, everyone turns to me.

My name is Raine Stockton, and I own the aforementioned boarding, training, and grooming facility whose name just happens to be, well, Dog Daze. Currently, I can accommodate twenty overnight boarders, five or six in day care, and eight dogs a day for grooming, and in August we are always full. I teach two obedience classes a week, plus Monday morning puppy kindergarten and two rounds of agility on Saturdays—when I’m not off competing somewhere myself, of course. I’m also the president and sole volunteer of Mountain Golden Retriever Rescue, the local contact person for the Western North Carolina chapter of Purebred Rescue, and a member of the board of the Hanover County Humane Society, for which I had volunteered to man a booth at the county fair Saturday afternoon, as soon as I finished judging the 4-H dog show, of course.

To make matters even more hectic, in addition to my own three fantastic dogs—Cisco, Mischief, and Magic—I happened to be pet-sitting Pepper, who belongs to my boyfriend Miles’s daughter, one of the people I love most in the world. What I mean to say is that Melanie is one of the people I love most in the world; it’s entirely possible Miles might be as well, but since I’d barely gotten more than a five-word text from him since the two of them left for Brazil over a week ago, how would I know? I heard from Melanie every day, though, mostly photos of her mom, her dad, and herself at the beach, or around the pool, or in some funky outdoor cafe. Did I mention that her mother lives in Brazil? That would be Miles’s ex-wife. The one with the gorgeous tan and the bikini that you have to squint your eyes to see. The one he was at the beach with. Right now.

Pepper was doing great, though. She’s wild about my golden retriever, Cisco, who tolerates her hero-worship with good-natured indulgence, and she, by the same token, tolerates my Aussies Mischief and Magic, who steal her toys and hide them and always push her to the back of the line at treat time. The four of them were in my office now, secured by an exercise pen, happily barking their heads off. This meant that all the other dogs up and down the kennel corridor were also barking like wild hounds on a full moon, and the pop music that blared from the playroom didn’t help. To me it was all just comfortable background noise, but I could see how someone else might find it a little chaotic. That was probably why my friend Sonny couldn’t resist pointing out to me, for what must have been the fifth time in the past hour, that I really needed to hire some help.

“I have help,” I returned, a little defensively. I was putting the finishing touches on her border collie, Mystery, a working sheep dog who had had an unfortunate encounter with a muddy creek and a lot of sheep poop that morning and who was growing visibly impatient on the grooming table as I worked the slicker brush through her now shiny, sweet-smelling fur. “The kids are working out great.”

That might have been an exaggeration. I had hired two part-time high school girls for the summer; they were supposed to be full time, but since they only worked when they didn’t have anything better to do, part time was what I got. For example, at that moment, Katie and Marilee were having a great time playing with the dogs in the day care room while Taylor Swift blared in the background, but when it came time to clean the kennels they would suddenly remember they’d promised to pick up their little sisters or weed the garden for their moms.

“Besides,” I added, “I’m interviewing people. I have someone coming in this afternoon.”

“Hire her,” Sonny advised sternly.

“It’s a him.”

“Hire him,” she repeated.

“It’s not that easy. I can’t just turn my business over to anyone. He has to have training, education, experience, references, a background check. Then there’s an internship period, and a probationary period—”

Sonny pointed out dryly, “You forgot the oral and written exams.”

I scowled at her.

“Seriously, Raine, don’t you think your standards might be just a tad high? Where are you going to find someone like that around here?”

“I have a reputation to uphold. People trust me with their dogs. I have to be careful.”

Mystery gave a sudden impatient bark and Sonny rolled her eyes. “I quite agree, Mystery,” she said.

Without giving me a chance to ask what it was that she agreed with Mystery about—not that I would have, anyway—she changed the subject. “Are you sure you don’t want me to take your place at the Humane Society booth? I don’t mind, and Hero always draws a crowd.”

In addition to being a fairly well-known environmental attorney, Sonny was an animal rights advocate who had established a small animal sanctuary on her property not far from town. She wasn’t much over fifty, but degenerative rheumatoid arthritis had limited her mobility, and Hero was her service dog, a somber yellow lab who took his job very seriously. He was stretched out at Sonny’s feet now, and was the only dog in the building who hadn’t barked once in the past hour.

To show him my appreciation, I took a treat from the big jar I kept by the grooming table and tossed it to him. He caught it in midair and swallowed it in a single gulp. Mystery gave me an accusing look, so I gave her a treat as well which she munched on while I combed out the last tangle behind her ear. “Thanks, but you’ve already signed up for Friday, and I don’t mind. I have to be there anyway for the dog show, and I’m going to take Cisco.”

I loved our little county fair, which we worked hard to keep as pure and old fashioned as we could. There was a Ferris wheel and a tilt-a-whirl, carnival games and agricultural shows, bluegrass music and jam judging. I had looked forward to attending it this year with Miles and Melanie, but it was not to be, and I was a little bummed about that. The fact that I had barely heard from Miles at all since he’d been gone had nothing to do with that.

I gave Mystery a final fluff and a quick kiss on the nose, then unfastened the grooming harness. “Okay girl, you’re ready to go.” Three down, five to go.

“Thanks, Raine.” Using a cane to steady herself, Sonny got to her feet. “I wish you’d let me pay you.” Hero rose without a command and leaned in to steady her.

I waved a dismissing hand. “Don’t be silly. She’s—”

But before I could finish that sentence, the dog I’d been about to describe as “no trouble at all” sprang off the grooming table, skidded across the linoleum floor, course-corrected, and zoomed through the door. Sonny gave an exclamation of dismay, and I raced after her, not because I was afraid she’d escape the building, which was sealed tight, but because I knew exactly where she was going. I was right.

I arrived just in time to see Mystery launch herself with playful exuberance toward the ex-pen, encouraging her best buddies, Mischief and Magic, to show off their favorite trick. First one and then the other Australian shepherd sprang from a flat-footed bounce over the top of the forty-eight-inch-tall wire fence, grinning like the wicked angels they were. Unfortunately, when Cisco tried the same thing, he forgot that golden retrievers are twice the size and perhaps one-third as agile as Aussies. His back foot got caught in a wire panel, sending the entire pen toppling over to a chorus of yips and barks and some rather alarmed shrieking from Pepper, who had a tendency to overdramatize these things.

Dogs scurried away in a tangle of paws and tails. I dived to catch the ring leader, who at this point was Cisco, and overturned a box of tennis balls in the process. Cisco immediately raced after one bouncing ball, Pepper dashed through my legs after another, and my feet went out from under me. I grabbed for a shelf to stop my fall and overturned another box. I landed hard on my rear just as two hundred fifty dog biscuits scattered across the floor.

“We’re okay!” I called out, and by the time Sonny arrived, we were. All five dogs had lost interest in whatever mayhem they had been planning and were busily gobbling down dog biscuits. I hauled myself upright and started sweeping up dog biscuits and orange tennis balls with my hands. Sonny commanded sharply from the door, “Mystery, come here.”

Mystery dropped the biscuit that was in her mouth and raced to Sonny’s side. I gave Sonny a dry look over my shoulder. She couldn’t have done that
before
Mystery reached my office?

“Oh, Raine,” Sonny said, her tone dismayed. “What a mess. Do you need any help?”

I dumped an armful of tennis balls and dog biscuits into a box. “Just another morning at Dog Daze,” I said.

I caught Pepper’s collar with one hand and righted the ex-pen with the other, ushering her inside and latching the gate firmly. The Aussies, who had started the whole fray, I consigned to their crates in opposite corners of the room. I was just about to deal with Cisco when I heard a car horn blasting from outside.

“Oh dear,” Sonny said, “another customer. Raine, seriously, you have got to …”

“That’s not a customer,” I said, peering through the window. “That’s Rick.”

Rick was my boss—former boss, I should say, since budget cuts meant that I had been regulated to “off the payroll but valued volunteer” status—at the Forest Service. He was driving a green forest service pickup truck, and he wasn’t alone in the cab, which was why I grabbed a slip leash and hurried out of the office almost before I finished speaking. Cisco, thinking I’d forgotten about him, trotted happily along at my side, but I put him in a down-stay on the paw-print-painted walkway as soon as we got outside, and closed the gate firmly. Sonny followed closely behind with Mystery and Hero.

“Hey, Raine,” Rick called as he got out of the truck.

“Hey, yourself,” I replied. “What’ve you got?”

He started around to the passenger door, but already I could see the beautiful golden head regarding us all through the windshield, assessing the situation with a calm and regal gaze. “We picked her up a couple of hours ago on the west ridge of Hemlock Mountain,” Rick said. “She’s got a collar, but no tags, looks like she’s been running loose for a while. We sent out notices to all the campsites, but until somebody claims her, I was wondering if you could …”

However he finished that sentence was lost in my own soft exclamation of wonder. “Oh, my! It’s an English Cream golden!”

Actually, the term “English Cream” is something of a misnomer, since all golden retrievers, if traced back to their origin, have British ancestry, and since what we call English Cream goldens really bear little resemblance to the British standard golden retriever at all. Their lustrous cream-colored coat is somewhat unique in this part of the world, and, until a few years ago, might even be called rare. Until now, I had never seen one in person outside a major breed specialty show.

“She’s kind of a mess,” Rick apologized as he opened the door. “Who knows how long she’s been running loose, or what she got into. Looks like dried mud all over her fur.”

I edged past Rick, crooning softly, “Hello there, gorgeous.” She regarded me impassively from the front seat of the truck, her deep brown eyes revealing nothing. I stroked her head, easing the loop of the leash around her neck. “What a sweet, beautiful girl.”

Of course, at the moment, she wasn’t particularly beautiful. Her fur was tangled with leaves and dried twigs, and her chest and belly were stiff with dried mud, as though she’d slept in a mud puddle. I ran my fingers gently through the crusty coat around her throat, trying to work out some of the layers of mud that coated her fur. My Dog Daze tee shirt was still splotched with wet spots from washing Mystery, and when I brushed against the golden, the specks of mud in her coat melted, leaving streaks of red on the damp fabric.

BOOK: Dog Days
12.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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