Secret Sleuth Book 2
Paws for Murder
Far from the publishing world that once defined her, Sheila Mackey has found a new life, a new home, and a new love. The love has four legs, a plumey tail, and a lot of fur. Meet Gracie the rescue collie. Too smart for her own good – certainly too smart for Sheila’s good, when Gracie discovers a dead body during a dog park gambol.
Especially since Sheila delves into mysteries surrounding this dead body ... only to discover the new guy at the Torrid Avenue dog park is a barely retired cop. Not good for an amateur sleuth with a big secret of her own that she intends to keep. She’s not exactly who she says she is. At least, she’s not who she pretended to be for 15 years.
Will Sheila untangle the murder mystery before her secrets are untied, exposing her previous identity to her new small-town neighbors?
And will Gracie ever learn the “Quiet!” command?
~ ~ ~
This whodunit with humor is the second book in USA Today bestselling author Patricia McLinn’s new cozy mystery series, Secret Sleuth, which begins with a murder on a transatlantic cruise in Death on the Diversion. In Death on Torrid Avenue and later books, accidental investigator Sheila Mackey returns to dry land in the Midwest, where mysteries abound in her new small-town home.
The Torrid Avenue Dog Park is a meritocracy. You are not judged by what you wear, how much money you have, or what you do for a living.
Not even, entirely, on how well behaved your dog is. And certainly not by what your dog looks like.
You are judged on how you treat your dog and whether you pick up poop.
Official signs instruct owners to pick up after their dogs, but that pales compared to the peer pressure.
Among the regular dog park denizens, those who pay it forward by picking up extra poop beyond their own dog’s are the top echelon. Those scofflaws who leave their dog’s poop for the good citizens to pick up are the dregs. In between comes a wide swath of live-and-let-livers.READ MORE
At least that’s how it sorts out for most of the easy-going visitors to the Torrid Avenue Dog Park.
However, there is a small and strident subculture of vehements who divide into two warring factions having nothing to do with picking up poop: the Dwights and the Bobs.
The bad news from my point of view as Gracie and I arrived at the park Wednesday, was two of the five vehicles already there belonged to the leaders of those factions. Dwight Yagos and Bob Coble.
Judging by the generous clusters of Boston terrier bumper stickers and decals, a third vehicle belonged to Berrie Vittlow, who always brought a swarm of Boston terriers. It was impossible — at least for me — to tell if she brought the same dogs every time or a rotating crop. For a reason that will soon become apparent, we’ve never had enough conversation for me to clarify whether all the Bostons were hers or if she ran a breed-specific day care.
Since Gracie and LuLu qualified as large dogs, our dog park worlds offered minimal direct overlap with Berrie’s small dogs, but sound carries. And Berrie was a vocal member of the Bob Coble camp. Very vocal. Some of her Bostons were also vocal, especially Marcus.
The fourth vehicle belonged to an older man named Ronald, who volunteered at the shelter, conveniently located across Torrid Avenue, and frequently brought shelter dogs for exercise and — depending on the personality of the shelter dog — for socializing.
I didn’t recognize the final vehicle. A sturdy four-wheel drive with no decals or bumper stickers, but new Kentucky plates. I recognized their newness, because my plates had a similar gloss under the road spray.
Berrie — what better name for a Boston terrier devotee? — would be in the small-dog enclosure with the Bostons. Even if Ronald and the stranger had large dogs, that likely wasn’t enough population to keep Dwight and Bob adequately separated.
Clara and I might be pressed into service as buffers.
Spotting her vehicle pulling in, I buttoned, zipped, snapped, and tightened the layers I’d loosened in the relative warmth of my car.
“I’m telling you, the Dwights and Bobs are getting out of hand,” Clara said as soon as she emerged from her substantial SUV, making it clear she’d made the same assessments I had.
We waited — me more patiently than Gracie — while Clara, still talking, unloaded long-legged LuLu, whose parentage might include Great Pyrenees, greyhound, some sort of setter, or anything else making her long, tall, thin, and a true character.
“Something’s going to happen. I mean really happen.”
Clara’s foreboding was muffled, since I had the hood of my parka pulled up. “Like what?”
“Like … like a fight — a real fight! Or worse,” she said ominously. “I think we should ban Dwight and Bob. Get up a petition, have everybody sign, take it to the park district, and say we don’t want either of them here.”
Neither Dwight nor Bob would strike you as a dangerous person if you passed him on the street.
On the other hand, they’re probably fine on the street. It’s the dog park and each other that bring out their worst.
Neither is an official dog trainer. That doesn’t stop them from having opinions. Many, many opinions. They extol somewhat different methods. It’s not that one beats dogs and the other only praises. It’s more subtle. In fact, most times I can’t tell a difference.
But the vehements can and do.
Perhaps I’d have thought my short tenure as a dog owner explained why I couldn’t tell a difference. Except there’s a third group at the dog park. The Sane Middles, as Donna describes us.
No one disputed Donna’s role as the quasi-official Torrid Avenue Dog Park no-nonsense mother figure. She was a veteran dog-owner, friendly, and blunt.
Passing her inquisition the first day I brought Gracie here had been a milestone in the acceptance of my cover story. Why a cover story? That goes back to secrets, truth, and lies. We’ll get there.
For now, the focus is on the feuding parties at the dog park.
“You think the Dwights and Bobs would sign a petition to ban their leaders?” I asked Clara. “The other guy, sure, but not their own.”
She waved that off, and lost LuLu’s leash.
But with Gracie still leashed, LuLu wasn’t going anywhere, giving Clara a chance to reclaim putative control of her dog.
As we walked past the enclosure closest to the parking lot, which was also the smaller of the large-dog areas, Ronald came to the fence line to say hello.
The Torrid Avenue Dog Park is shaped like a lumpy pie with a squat wedge cut out. That wedge accommodated access from the parking lot, a PortaPotty, trash bins, and a water spout. The four dog enclosures — two for small dogs, two for large dogs — met at the narrow part of the wedge in a sort of vestibule area. Once inside the vestibule’s main gate, you could choose to enter any enclosure by way of an individual gate. A rectangle of concrete sat inside each enclosure’s gate. Beyond came patchy grass and, in this weather, mud.
“Got a young one today,” Ronald said, bypassing any chit-chat about mere humans and getting to the vital topic of dogs. “Not sure yet I can trust him with LuLu or Gracie.” He left a mini-beat of silence. “Or any other dogs around.”
Clara and I nodded solemnly, knowing full well he could have the mildest dog in the history of four paws with him and he still would avoid the other large dog area, because that’s where Bob and Dwight were.
Bob with Trevalyn, a Gordon setter registered with the American Kennel Club.
Dwight with Skeeter, a black mouth cur mix.
No slight intended with “cur” — that’s the breed’s name. Though Dwight said Skeeter had other breeds thrown in.
Now, observing the mostly black shelter dog stretched out on the cold ground happily chewing on a toy, it occurred to me Ronald might actually have the mildest dog in the history of four paws with him.
But by using this shelter dog as his excuse to escape Dwight and Bob, Ronald blocked us from joining him. Or admit we preferred exposing our dogs to an animal he’d warned us off to sharing an enclosure with Bob and Dwight.
After a few comments on the dogs (good) and the weather (lousy), he ambled off and we continued toward the vestibule’s entry.
“See,” Clara said. “Something needs to be done. When they’re scaring off a sweet guy like Ronald … As for the Dwights and Bobs not signing the petition, we don’t even ask them. We go for the normal people. Like you and me.”
“I’m touched.” She doesn’t know my history, or she might reconsider.
All she knew was I’d arrived in North Bend County without a job or family bringing me here, which was unheard of, and I had adopted a rescue dog.
I suspected that for Clara only the last fact counted.
I stopped Gracie outside the main gate, taking the opportunity to command a “sit” when she craved freedom.
She dropped her wiggling bottom toward the ground. I pretended not to notice it never made contact before she sprang up.
Our target enclosure stretched from its tip at the vestibule to outer fences forming part of the misshapen edge of that lumpy pie. The ground was mostly flat, but with a dip in what would be right field in baseball. Just beyond the fence a stand of trees partially masked a creek.
That dip inside the fence, the only spot where the dogs were out of sight, was nicknamed Las Vegas — it was a gamble letting your dog go there and even good dogs could go rogue in the riotous atmosphere of no oversight.
Dog park humor.
Past the creek and a large stand of trees sat the county sheriff’s department and jail in a relatively recent building, certainly less than two decades. Compared to much of Haines Tavern, Kentucky, the North Bend County seat, that made it brand spanking new.
“Oh, look,” Clara said in a conspiratorial whisper, masked from Berrie’s listening ears by the predicable squeak of the main gate. Berrie frequently stayed near the vestibule, allowing her to critique owners entering any enclosure. “It’s the new dog with the new guy.”
“What new dog with what new guy?”
I wasn’t in a position to look because Gracie, in her eagerness to get to the wide open spaces of the enclosure, was braiding her leash and my legs.
I got out the command as two sounds reached us.
The louder was the barking of Marcus the Boston terrier, soon backed by his brethren in the small-dog enclosure.
The Bostons, including the females, reminded me of William Powell in the Thin Man movies. None more so than Marcus, their obvious leader. The tuxedo styling of his black and white coat, the wide-set and slightly pouchy eyes, the jowly lower face.
But Powell’s Nick Charles never lost his cool the way Marcus did under one particular stimulus.
I had no idea why. Nobody did. I never harmed or teased or treated or even acknowledged the dog. First time he saw me, he went berserk. And every time since.
From the far side of the small-dog enclosure, he raced toward the vestibule, emitting the gruff bark of his breed, as if they’re rolling r’s with abandon.
Reaching the gate, he jumped straight up. It felt like he’d reach my eye level any second. In between spates of jumping, he ran in crazy circles, fancied up with shoulder rolls and spins. All the while barking.
He didn’t sound vicious, just insane.
Barely audible over Marcus came the already all-too-familiar human voice. “Don’t let her wrap around you like that. It’s what Bob says—”
Clara and I exchanged eye-rolls.
But then I had to refocus on Gracie. Not only because I’d told her to sit and it’s vital to follow through on a command — otherwise you train your dog to ignore you, according to ninety-two percent of the eighty-seven dog training books I’ve read, not to mention dozens of videos watched, plus the class we’re attending at the local pet store — but also because she’d started a boa constrictor number on my legs.
I clicked my tongue. Maybe that caught Gracie’s attention. Or my earlier words percolated through her excitement to her listening center. Or she ran out of leash and was as stuck as I was. Whatever the cause, Gracie sat and looked up at me.
“Good girl.” With one hand, I started her back the opposite direction. She made it around several times, but each revolution seemed to stretch her patience more. At the end, I pivoted to speed the process.
“If you’d listened to what Bob told you the first time you came here, you’d have much better control of your dog. He’s so generous with his knowledge and expertise. You shouldn’t—”
I ignored Berrie by bending to unhook the leash from Gracie’s collar.
“Ready?” Clara asked. She already had LuLu unhooked. LuLu had completed two training courses and although she danced a bit, she held her position. Clara’s hand was on the gate’s latch.
“Gracie, wait,” I ordered.
Clara opened the gate. We silently counted together. Right at three, and a millisecond before Gracie bolted, we both said, “Okay.”
The dogs sprang forward, leaping and twisting. Gracie emitted one ecstatic bark, and they were off at full speed.
“See you later, Berrie!” I called, as if she’d only said hello.
Still under the cover of Marcus’ noise, Clara returned to her earlier subject. “What new dog is a lab mix named Murphy loping over to meet our girls. And the new guy is the one who’s by our table.” Each enclosure held two or three roof-covered picnic tables and we favored the one farthest from the enclosure Berrie was in.
But I didn’t look at the table. I searched Bob’s and Dwight’s locations.
Bob — in his knee-high boots, tweed cap, and jacket with dark fabric across the shoulders suitable for shooting in the English countryside — was to our far left, along the fence to the other small-dog enclosure, which was empty. Dwight — with his University of Kentucky baseball cap under the hood of an aged UK blue jacket, and ever-present blue and white hand-knit scarf with foot-long fringe — was almost as far to our right, standing on the slight rise looking down into the out-of-sight Las Vegas dip.
Good news. We wouldn’t be called on for peacekeeping.
I took two steps across the concrete pad inside the enclosure. Marcus turned off like I hit the power button on his remote.
Dropping her voice as we stepped off the concrete into mud generally too churned by dog feet to freeze, Clara continued, “They were here yesterday. I met them then. Murphy’s a lab, maybe a lab mix. See? Over there. Green coat.”
To my relief, Clara meant the guy, not the dog, wore a green coat.
The dog was golden colored except for splashes of white on its toes.
The guy wasn’t by our table, he was sitting on it. That didn’t bother me any. Not only was February not the time to think about eating off its surface, but we mostly sat on the top, too, because as I’d seen when a brief warm spell brought out more dogs, the table’s lower regions were a favorite peeing target for males. Canines, that is.
“He’s just moved to the area.” Clara talked fast, getting in her information before even our lackadaisical pace brought us within the guy’s hearing. “Donna talked to him and said he has some experience with dogs and common sense. His lab mix is a sweetheart. She also said the guy’s quite nice.”
“Lab mix? Not all lab?” I asked.
“I didn’t ask specifically,” Clara said. “But he’s tall and long for lab. Plus the white on the toes probably indicates not a purebred, don’t you think?”
My knowledge of Labrador retriever DNA and breed confirmation logged in at barely above zero.
“Berrie said she encountered Murphy with the Bostons in the entry the day before yesterday and he was well behaved.”
I suspected that was more than could be said for the Bostons. They were friendly to humans — with the Marcus-and-me exception — but renowned at the dog park for bullying other dogs. In particular, mild-mannered bigger dogs. Not-so-mild-mannered bigger dogs they left alone.
They’re not stupid.
As much as Berrie critiqued other owners’ techniques, she apparently saw nothing worth commenting about in her dogs’ behavior.
That left the possibility that Berrie’s impression of good behavior on the part of this lab mix might have been abject terror.
“Oh, look,” Clara said again. “LuLu and Gracie seem to be getting along with the new dog.”
After the Hi, how are you interlude, including the requisite close and personal smelling, Gracie had bounced away, looking back over her shoulder, inviting the newcomer to her favorite game.
This could test the lab mix’s amiability. Gracie did her best to live up to her heritage as a herding dog by chasing her dog park buddies and herding them to whichever corner struck her fancy. With LuLu, she added a bit of mild neck chewing if she didn’t obey fast enough.
Yes, my dog was bossy.
But in a cute way. Really.
Not at all like the Bostons. That’s not bias. Other owners had said so.
As Donna said, Gracie waited until she was friends with a dog before bossing it around, which made it play. “Except for the German shepherd who keeps trying to mount her and she keeps telling him to knock it off — that she means,” Donna told me. “He just hasn’t caught on yet.”
Clara was kind enough to refer to Gracie as the park’s referee. And it’s true she would get between scuffling dogs, barking in reprimand, and generally trying to bring order.
In public I went along with Clara’s description of her as the referee.
Privately, I chided Gracie. When a female is already a bitch by definition, it doesn’t hurt to add a little kindness, I informed her. It might not be fair, but it’s true.
Listening to myself, I felt like I’d channeled my great-aunt Kit, with whom I’d shared a Manhattan brownstone and a secret life for the past decade and a half. Though Kit wouldn’t have waited for private to make her pronouncement.
The other dogs did not seem to mind Gracie’s bossiness, not even the German shepherd who still hadn’t accepted Gracie’s Not Interested.
Perhaps the other dogs accepted Gracie’s bossiness because she never competed for the various balls thrown around. Retrievers chased balls, Gracie chased retrievers. Seemed to work for everyone.
Clara and I halted some distance from the table to watch the dogs.
I pulled my right hand free of its glove-then-mitten covering to tighten the drawstring on my parka hood, which came loose during Gracie’s ring-around-the-owner exercise. My eyebrows had started to freeze.
“Your nails look wonderful,” Clara said.
I looked around, then saw her looking at my hand. I followed her gaze and experienced a spurt of surprise.
I have strong nails that get too long to be neat without manicures. Until becoming the public face for Abandon All, I hadn’t been able to afford manicures. After, my duties kept me busy enough that I rarely took the time.
Yes, there it is.
My big secret.
I was the person the world knew as the author of Abandon All, the biggest blockbuster novel and movie of the past couple decades. Under a different name. And under false pretenses, since my great-aunt Kit, a career novelist, actually wrote the book.
The masquerade was her idea.
So was her retirement and selling the Manhattan brownstone we’d shared this past fall. In other words, she started me on this new life.
One where I had time to contemplate Huck Finn, dog park mores, and secrets, truth, and lies. One where I also moved to Kentucky, bought my own house, adopted a rescue collie, and had a manicure.
A whole new world.
The hitch is that the now me not be outed as the Abandon All me. Or I’ll have no chance to find out who the non-Abandon All me is.
“Thank you.” I held up my hand to admire it. “I treated myself to a manicure. My nails are usually long and raggedy.”
“Mine are never too long. Good for you for getting a manicure. I tried to, too, for a while. Ned urged me to include it in the monthly budget, that sweet man. But in the last year of my mother-in-law’s illness and then with a new dog…”
As I nodded — acknowledgement both of how caring for her mother-in-law wouldn’t have allowed time for manicures and how hard dogs were on manicures — I noted a bemused half grin on the new guy’s face. He’d clearly been eavesdropping. Just as clearly, he didn’t get manicures.
Not in either sense of get — having one himself or understanding the ins and outs of them. He appeared amused by his lack of comprehension.
“Hi, Teague,” Clara called to him, raising a hand in greeting. “Looks like we might have a three-way bond forming here.”
Our gazes met for an amiable instant, then naturally shifted to our dogs.
They made quite a trio. Gracie’s coat, with variations of browns to golds, as well as white and touches of black, bridged LuLu’s pale buff and his dog’s deeper golden.
But that was temporary. They’d all be mud colored soon.
“What’s your dog’s name?” I asked as Clara and I sat on the table-top, hip-length jackets tucked carefully under derrieres, feet on the bench.
“Ah, a male.”
“Neutered,” Clara said immediately. “Stray. About two years old. He’s had him about six months. His second rescue.”
“Pretty much covers it. The collie’s yours?” he asked me.
“Uh-huh. Gracie. Rescue. Best guess is under a year old. I’ve had her a month. First dog of my own.” Answering the usual dog park questions all at once saved a lot of time.
Watching the dogs, I didn’t see his expression, but heard his grin. “Now that the important stuff is covered, I’m Teague O’Donnell.”
“Teague as in rhymes with League,” Clara said.
“Teague O’Donnell,” I repeated. “Italian, huh?”
He laughed, then tried to deadpan. “Pure Sicilian. You?”
“Oh my gosh.” Clara clapped her thickly covered hands, creating a dull whumph. “I should have introduced you two. I’m so sorry.”
“No worries, Clara. We’ll go self-service,” I said. He removed his glove and extended his hand to me. Without removing the coverings protecting my skin from frostbite, I met his grip. “Call me Sheila M.”
“Call you Sheila M.?” His mouth quirked. He also held onto my hand. No way that made a physical impression through the mitten-covered gloves I wore, yet it had an impact. I’d have to make a big deal of it to withdraw my hand. I could — would — if necessary, but for the moment, I was suspended, judging the necessity. “Sounds like an alias, as if Sheila isn’t your real name.”
Clara laughed, “She always says that — Call me Sheila M.” She laughed again. “Let me do this proper now. Sheila Mackey meet Teague O’Donnell. That’s his dog, Murphy. He’s a substitute teacher and tutor for the high school.”
I withdrew my hand.
A high school teacher.
I’d thought my cover story had been so brilliant. And here I was, barely a month into it, meeting somebody who actually did what I claimed to have retired from … from which I claimed to have retired.
To pass as an English teacher I’d have to watch my grammar. Abandon All used enough informal structures that I’d never worried about proper grammar in interviews, lectures, and appearances.
I mentally added this guy to a stay-away-from list that had been blessedly empty until now.
Unfortunately, staying away from him might be trickier than it sounded, since Gracie, LuLu, and Murphy were frolicking like they’d come from the same litter.
“Oh, aren’t they cute,” Clara cooed. “They’ll never want to be separated.”COLLAPSE
Available in Paperback ...
Gracie the Collie makes her debut in Death on Torrid Avenue. She didn’t show up in Death on the Diversion … well, cruise ship. They tend not to like collies on cruises. (Even on the poop deck. Da-dum-dum.) But when Sheila settles into her new life, Gracie becomes a major part of it.
By the way, I couldn’t name this collie Kalli, because my late beloved pet is already named after a character – Kalli, heroine of the romance Rodeo Nights. My previous rescue collie, Riley, was named after that book's hero, Walker Riley.
... and in Audio
Narrator Betsy Moore and our audiobook production team have completed Death on Torrid Avenue, and we have nearly wrapped narrations of all the Secret Sleuth books (next up: Death on Carrion Lane, Book 6). The Secret Sleuth titles in audio are available at your favorite online audiobook store, from Audible to Chirp. (A list of the most common stores where you can get Death on Torrid Avenue is on this page, under the ebook cover photo,)