Read Collared For Murder Online

Authors: Annie Knox

Collared For Murder

PRAISE FOR THE PET BOUTIQUE MYSTERIES

“Welcome to Merryville, Minnesota, and Izzy McHale’s Trendy Tails Pet Boutique. Not only will you find the cleverly designed pet togs hard to resist—you’ll soon be yearning for more adventures with Izzy; her best friend, Rena; and pet pals, Packer and Jinx. Annie Knox has created a warm, funny, flawed, but completely endearing sleuth in Izzy McHale, and I’m already panting for the next book in the series.”

—Miranda James,
New York Times
bestselling author of the Cat in the Stacks mysteries

“Five paws up! Annie Knox dazzles with four-legged friends, fashion, and foul play.
Paws for Murder
is tailor-made for the pet and mystery lover.”

—Melissa Bourbon, national bestselling author of
A Seamless Murder

“Everything you could hope for in a good cozy. . . . I spent the duration of the tale dying to know what happens next, yet simultaneously wanting to savor every word. The story is swiftly paced, the plot is tightly woven, and the mystery’s a real head scratcher.”

—Crimespree Magazine

“A witty whodunit . . . one that fans of corpses and canines, felonies and felines, will lap up.”

—Richmond Times-Dispatch

“A winning mystery series that will keep you entertained until the very end.”

—Books-n-Kisses

“Pure pleasure to read.”

—Escape with Dollycas into a Good Book

“Knox brings readers a book that will appeal to both the pet lover and the mystery buff. . . . Readers who think of their pets as one of the family will love this one, as [will] readers who are looking for a favorite heroine this year. Izzy McHale definitely fits the bill!”

—Debbie’s Book Bag

“This was a fast-paced, action-filled drama that once I started I could not put down. . . . With a lovable yet quirky cast of characters, witty and engaging dialogue, and a feel-good atmosphere, this book is full of tailor-made charm.”

—Dru’s Book Musings

“The characters you will meet in this book are strong, vibrant ones, and you will find yourself there in Merryville helping to solve the case! This was such a fantastic read! I couldn’t put it down. Annie is great at her craft, and you can see it in this book!”

—Shelley’s Book Case

“If you are a fan of cozies, you will definitely like this one. Animal lover? This is for you. Like both and you’re in for a treat.”

—BookLoons

Also by Wendy Watson Writing as Annie Knox

Pet Boutique Mysteries

Paws for Murder

Groomed for Murder

 

By Wendy Watson

Mystery à la Mode Mysteries

I Scream, You Scream

Scoop to Kill

A Parfait Murder

OBSIDIAN

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014

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A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Copyright © Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2015

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ISBN 978-0-698-15004-1

PUBLISHER

S
NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The recipes contained in this book are to be followed exactly as written. The publisher is not responsible for your specific health or allergy needs that may require medical supervision. The publisher is not responsible for any adverse reactions to the recipes contained in this book.

Version_1

Contents

Praise

Also by Wendy Watson Writing as Annie Knox

Title Page

Copyright

Acknowledgments

 

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

 

Recipes

About the Author

For Todd. You were an inspiration to us all.

Acknowledgments

As always, this book wouldn’t have been possible without the village of readers, friends, experts, and editors who have helped me along the way. A special thank-you to Dean James for being such a tremendous support to me over the years. Becky Galloway provided invaluable insight into the world of cat shows; any errors in their depiction are purely my own. Sandy Harding is simply the best editor I could hope for, providing just the right balance of encouragement and independence. Finally, I would like to thank my tremendous copy editor, whose attention to detail humbles
me.

CHAPTER

One

D
ee Dee Lahti stood in the middle of Ballroom One at the North Woods Hotel, her aqua kaftan billowing in the intermittent wind from an oscillating fan, a patient Maine coon hanging from her hands by his armpits. She cocked her frizzy head, scanning the hutches and velvet-draped cages lining the benches. Her mouth—generously outlined in mauve—moved softly as she maintained a running conversation with herself.

Without warning, she lurched forward and down, as though she were falling, and began to shove the cat into a pink leopard-print and PVC hutch.

Pamela Rawlins had been chatting idly with me as I arranged my chiffon ruffs, hand-wrought collar dangles, and delicate clips sporting rhinestones, bows, and
small beaded flowers on my vendor’s table. When Dee Dee crammed that cat into the hutch, though, she stiffened and sucked in a breath, her patrician nostrils pinching shut. “I swear, that woman has less sense than a box of hair,” she muttered.

“Dee Dee, darling,” she called. “You really must put the correct cat in the correct enclosure.” She bit off her words like a Connecticut blue blood. Or a shark.

Dee Dee looked up, her features scrunched in confusion.

“You can’t put Phantom in Charleston’s hutch.”

Dee Dee stared at the cat she had just deposited and then leaned in to look at the picture pinned to the outside of the enclosure. She stood straight and looked back at us, her expressive face slack, blank.

“You just put Phantom in Charleston’s hutch. Phantom should be in his
own
enclosure.” Nothing. “The cage with the red velvet drape.”

“Are you sure?” Dee Dee said.

Pamela took a beat. “Of course I’m sure, you . . .” She didn’t finish the sentence, but even Dee Dee knew where she was going.

Pamela was correct that Dee Dee Lahti was a few walleye short of a fish fry. Still, the residents of Merryville were one big dysfunctional family. We could harbor grudges against one another, whisper spiteful things behind one another’s backs, and, yes, even occasionally call Dee Dee Lahti “dingbat.” To her face.
But Pamela wasn’t part of the family, and I felt a surge of protectiveness when she sniped at poor Dee Dee.

I’d seen Phantom and Charleston, both silver-and-white Maine coons. “Pamela,” I said, “it’s an easy mistake to make. The cats are almost identical.”

Pamela angled her body to face me, her small birdlike eyes utterly flat and emotionless. “I’m aware of that, Ms. McHale.
Almost
identical but not
actually
identical. If she can’t tell the difference between those silver markings, how will she tell the difference between two lilac-point Himalayans?”

I raised my chin a notch.

She allowed herself a tight shake of her head. “This is all highly irregular. I told Marsha Denford that we shouldn’t vary from our usual procedures. The annual retreat for the Midwestern Cat Fanciers’ Organization has a pristine reputation precisely because we have rules and we follow them to the letter. Our silver anniversary is not the time to start bending those rules.”

I’d heard this argument a good dozen times since the M-CFO had decided to host their twenty-fifth annual retreat in our little town. Marsha Denford, wife of the organization’s president, Phillip Denford, had taken a shine to Pris Olson, owner of Prissy’s Pretty Pets. While the official rules of the organization specified that the cats were not to be handled by anyone other than the owners and the judges, Marsha had
arranged for Pris to provide grooming services in the back corner of the ballroom, right next to the service entrance. Pris had a crackerjack crew of groomers, but she’d taken pity on Dee Dee Lahti—who was unemployed and in constant misery, thanks to her habitual criminal of a husband—by allowing her to help out. Dee Dee was not crackerjack.

Apparently sensing tension in the air, Pris left off supervising her employees and floated our way. “Pamela. Izzy. Is there a problem?” she cooed. Pris sported a perfectly painted beauty-pageant smile and a practiced, formal politeness that screamed privilege.

“Practiced” is the key word here. In public Pris defined “Minnesota nice.” The term refers to the smiling openness and back-bending helpfulness that most Minnesotans seemed to exude from birth. Sometimes Minnesota nice was genuine. Sometimes it was not.

I knew firsthand that Pris’s brilliant white smile could be a trap, a colorful Amazonian flower that promised sweet nectar before clamping shut around some poor, unsuspecting insect.

No one was safe. We were all insects in Pris’s world.

Now Pris and Pamela faced each other like a photograph and its negative: both tall, elegantly slim, hair pulled back in a sleek knot, clad in figure-skimming suits. But where Pris wore baby pink that matched the soft blush of her porcelain skin, her eyes a pale Nordic blue, her hair shining the color of fresh butter,
Pamela’s olive complexion reflected the onyx black of her hair, eyes, and suit.

I took a step back. Like all the McHale sisters, I’m tall and athletic. In theory, I could snap either one of these model-thin women in half. In a physical fight, I had them licked. But this promised to be another round in the women’s months-long battle of wills, and I was hopelessly outmatched.

Pamela’s crimson mouth oozed into a smile. “Mrs. Olson—”

“Please, call me Pris.”

A heartbeat of silence.

“Pris, your assistant over there”—she waved dismissively in Dee Dee’s general direction—“was just returning Phantom to Charleston’s hutch.”

“Oh dear,” Pris gushed. “Well, those two big boys really do look alike. And I did urge Mrs. McCoy to stay with us while we gave Phantom his blowout. It’s our policy, you know. But she was far too eager to start catching up with the other breeders, so she left Phantom on his own. I’m sure she didn’t even consider the possibility that her cat would be confused for another, nearly identical cat, but that’s what policies are for!” Pris concluded, her mouth settling into a wicked little smile.

Harsh red heat roiled across Pamela’s cheeks. I took another step back. Pamela was about to blow.

Still, when she rallied enough to speak, her voice
remained as flat as Iowa. “You’re absolutely correct. That’s why we have policies. Like the policy of requiring owners to groom their own animals.”

Pris raised a single shoulder. “Well. What are you gonna do?”

The phrase was as much challenge as expression of commiseration.

I held my breath, waiting for the fireworks, but they never came; the whole situation defused when my aunt Dolly sashayed up, back from her tour around the ballroom. In typical Dolly style, she wore glittering stack-heeled sandals. Her tunic-length T-shirt, featuring a tropical sunset picked out in sequins, draped over a pair of neon-orange capris. No matter the occasion, Dolly dressed with flair.

“Ladies,” she drawled, head swiveling back and forth between Pris and Pamela like she was watching a match at Wimbledon.

“Hello, Dolly,” Pris responded.

Pamela extended a hand. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.”

My aunt took the proffered hand and gave it two vigorous shakes. “My name is Dolly,” she said, overenunciating each word. “Just like Pris said,” she added helpfully.

The tendons in Pamela’s neck stood out. “I’m Pamela Rawlins, cocoordinator of the show.”

Dolly grinned. “Well, it’s a mighty fine cat show.
Not that I’ve ever been to a cat show before. But this is terrific. I’ve never seen so much drama packed into a single room.

“That lady over there,” she said, jerking her thumb in the direction of a heavyset woman in a cobalt-blue tracksuit, “said that sometimes people poison other people’s cats.” She shivered in morbid delight.

I gasped. “Really?” I said, turning to Pamela for verification.

“Once,” she said emphatically. “That was six years ago. And the accused insists to this day she accidentally dropped those acetaminophen tablets into Betsy Blue’s bowl of kibble. Besides, she’s been permanently banned from participating in our shows.”

I was still reeling from the notion that a cat owner would poison someone else’s pet when Dolly jumped in again.

“That guy over in the corner,” she said, indicating a balding gentleman wearing an Argyle sweater-vest despite the summer heat. He glanced up, almost as though he knew we were talking about him, but then went back to methodically running a brush over the sleek coat of a caramel-colored Burmese. “He confided that one of the female judges slipped her room key under Toffee Boy”—which must have been the cat—“when she returned him to his cage.”

Pamela appeared stricken. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

“Ha! He said it happened last year.”

Pamela quirked her head to the side, frowning in confusion. Her eyes scanned the room, pausing on each judging ring. Her lips moved slightly as she counted them off.

“Well,” she finally said, “I assure you that I run a tight ship. There will be no such shenanigans under my watch.”

Dolly shook her head. “I hate to tell you, Ms. Pamela Rawlins, but I have a hunch that this week will be a hotbed of shenanigans. And my hunches are never wrong.”

*   *   *

“Are we ready?” Rena asked.

“I don’t know. Are we?” I countered.

Rena Hamilton had been my best friend since grade school. We made an unlikely pair. I was tall, clocking in at five foot ten inches when I slumped, dressed like the small-town girl that I was, and rarely made waves. Rena, on the other hand, was a giant personality in an elfin package. She’d toned herself down for the cat show, hoping she wouldn’t scare away the out-of-town guests: she’d removed most of her piercings, all tattoos were covered, she’d put away every piece of spiked jewelry, and the knee-high Doc Martens were resting comfortably at home. Still, she couldn’t do much to hide her Day-Glo-orange shock of hair or the gritty determination in her eyes.

In addition to the bond of friendship, we shared ownership of Trendy Tails. I ran the pet-boutique part of our shop, designing and hand making many of our wares, while Rena baked organic pet treats for our barkery and helped me with inventory, accounting, and manning the showroom.

“I’ve got the goodies and the doohickey that will let us process credit cards with your phone,” she said.

“And I’ve got the merch and the change for cash purchases.”

“Then I guess we’re as ready as we’ll ever be. All we’ll need is some hot coffee to hit the ground running in the morning.”

She paused to scan the ballroom of the North Woods Hotel, where, in a few short hours, the M-CFO show would kick off. At that point, the perimeter of the ballroom had been divided into cubbies—most of them rings in which cats would actually be judged, but a few, like ours, dedicated to cat-related vendors. The center of the floor was lined with rows of tables on which competitors had set up hutches for the show cats and a few for cats available for sale or adoption. While we watched, the cat owners and breeders were busy setting up their stations, and a dozen show volunteers were flitting about with clipboards and harried expressions.

“How have things been going here in the heart of the action?” Rena asked.

“Pamela is being a witch with a capital B. Dolly’s been working the crowd for gossip and information on the salacious underbelly of cat shows. And one of the breeders lost her cool when someone said her tabby’s scarab marking looked a little muddled.”

“Scarab?”

“That sort of triangular marking right on the top of tabbies’ heads. It’s supposed to be clearly defined.”

“Who knew?”

I laughed. “I sure didn’t. But the breeder, that woman with the leopard-print jumpsuit, about blew a gasket when the dude in the plaid jacket mentioned it.”

“The show’s very first catfight?” Rena looked at me with wide-eyed innocence.

Before I could call her on her terrible joke, a sharp “no” brought all the conversation in the North Woods Hotel Ballroom One to a sudden halt. Every head swiveled to the source of the sound—Pris Olson, standing in front of Phillip Denford, both of them smack in the middle of the ballroom.

Denford was rocking back on his heels, his hands clasped behind his back and a smug smile on his face. He was the calm in the storm of Pris’s ire. Denford looked every inch the man of leisure, his salt-and-pepper hair perfectly groomed and his loosely knotted tie and perfectly pressed chinos conveying that he was absolutely in charge but that he carried the burden
with ease. Phillip Denford was the spectacularly wealthy head of the Midwestern Cat Fanciers’ Organization and the person footing the bill for much of the week’s activities. He’d first made a fortune in business real estate and venture capitalism, and then he’d doubled down by opening the Web’s two most well-known sites for upscale pet products: the Dapper Dog and the Classy Cat. Denford was too important, both because of his money and because of his sway in the world of cat fanciers and canine aficionados, for anyone to call him out for his loathsome ways, but the word “letch” had been carried by a constant flurry of whispers ever since he’d arrived. Even as he and Pris argued, his eyes weren’t exactly glued to her face.

Pris generally respected wealth and power, and after years of marriage to the Midwest’s RV King, she knew how to deal with men who had wandering eyes and wayward hands. More important, she certainly wanted to stay in Denford’s good graces. Befriending anyone with money and connections offered Pris an opportunity to advance her own interests. But something he’d said or done had pushed her over the edge. I couldn’t begin to imagine what.

Pris leaned in to give Phillip what for. Even angry, Pris managed to be gorgeous. You could tell she was royally po’d by her expression, but her face didn’t get that mottled red color mine did when I was angry.
No, Pris’s cheeks just got a little rosier. I’m not usually one to get hung up on looks, but I’ll admit I resented her unfaltering beauty just a bit.

After that initial outburst, I couldn’t hear what Pris was saying, but she continued to stab at Phillip’s chest with her finger.

“Poor Pris,” I muttered.

Rena Hamilton twitched her nose. “What do you mean ‘Poor Pris’?” Her contempt for Pris Olson dripped like venom from her every word. “Pris doesn’t need your sympathy, Izzy. She’s a rich, beautiful, successful queen bee of the Methodist Ladies’ Auxiliary . . .”

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