“Hey, ranch girl,” he said, climbing down from the truck.
“Ohhhh.” I gave a long sigh when I saw what he held in his arms. “Please, let me hold it.”
He grinned at D-Daddy. “You know, if I wasn’t such a gentleman, I could take that comment completely the wrong way.” He held the drowsy puppy out to me.
“Shut up,” I said, taking the chubby, tricolored male puppy from him. “He’s adorable.” The puppy let out a large yawn and settled, without fear, into my arms. I put my face down into his downy fur, inhaling his sweet, clean puppy scent. His tiny sandpaper tongue licked my hand, causing me to coo again.
“What’s his name?” I asked, rubbing my cheek against the puppy’s head.
“Boudin,” he said.
“Boo-what?” I said.
“Boo-dan,” D-Daddy said slowly and deliberately. Then he chuckled. “It’s Cajun sausage.”
“And as D-Daddy can tell you,” Hud added, “it’s actually pronounced Boo-da, but it’s easier just to tell people Boo-dan. I’m calling him Boo for short.”
“I get it!” I said, suddenly recognizing his breed. “He’s a corgi!” He had one upright satellite ear and one floppy ear that hadn’t come up yet. “Did one of Sally’s dogs have another litter?” Sally Schuler was San Celina’s sheriff and Hud’s boss. She raised Pembroke Welsh corgis as a hobby.
“Yep,” Hud said, smiling. “She said Boo is a half brother to your daddy’s dog, so I think that makes us kinfolk.”
“In your dreams,” I said. “Did you get him for Maisie?”
“Yeah, but Laura Lee says he has to live with me. We’re doing a joint custody thing now, so Maisie has a room at both our houses. I bought a house over by Laguna Lake two blocks from them.”
Hud had come to San Celina a few years ago after his ex-wife moved here to be near her only sister. A part-Cajun native of Texas, he’d finally forged a place for himself in our community.
D-Daddy said, rolling up the hose. “I’ve got to go work on the second potting wheel. Motor’s running rough. Don’t want the potters getting all heated up.”
“D-Daddy,” I said. “What would we do without you?”
He grinned, shrugged and patted me on the back before he went inside the museum.
I turned back and looked at Hud’s suntanned, boy-next-door face. Even though he was close to my own thirty-eight years, he looked as youthful as a college senior. Considering his job at the sheriff’s department, cold case investigations, I wondered how he stayed so carefree. “So, what brings you to the folk art museum?”
He reached over and scratched under Boo’s chin. The white-chested puppy slitted his eyes in contentment. “I have a favor to ask you.”
In the past, I would have been suspicious, certain it was something not entirely seemly. He’d had a bit of a crush on me since we met, powered, I’ve always suspected, more than anything by the fact that I was absolutely unavailable.
“It’s huge,” he said, taking off his pale white Stetson. “And you’re the only one I can ask.” His face held a beseeching expression.
Now I was starting to get nervous. “I have my mother-in-law arriving for the Christmas holidays today, and I’ve got about a million things to do before Christmas day, so it can’t be something that takes up too much time.”
He kicked the dirt with his dark green lizard cowboy boot. It was one of two dozen pairs he owned. “There’s no one else in the world I trust more than you. In a nutshell, I promised Maisie and Laurie I’d go back to Texas with them for the holidays. It’s Laurie’s grandma’s ninety-fifth birthday, and Grandmama Lilly always liked me and, Laurie asked me . . .” He flashed his most winning smile.
Then it dawned on me. I held the fat little puppy out to him like it had just peed on my shirt. “Not a chance in the world! I’m not babysitting your pup. Hud, I can’t. He’s cute, but he’s a . . . puppy!”
He took two steps backward. I followed him, holding out Boo, who starting yapping, thinking we were playing a game. “Take him back right now. I mean it.” The puppy wiggled in my hands, and I pulled him back to my chest.
“Please, please,” he said, holding his hands in prayer and bowing. “I’ll do anything, pay anything. I have no place to leave him . . .”
“What about Iry?” Hud’s grandfather had moved to San Celina not long ago and lived in senior apartments near the folk art museum.
“He’s going with us.”
The puppy let out a little squeak, settling himself against my chest. He let out a big sigh and licked my forearm. I felt my resolve start to melt.
“Look, he already thinks of you as his aunt Benni,” Hud said. “I swear, I’ll pay you whatever you ask. I’ve put a thousand-dollar retainer at All Paws on Board, the doggie day care place next door. You can leave him there whenever you can’t watch him. He’s just past four months, has all his shots. But they don’t do overnight care, and he’s so little and helpless and at the vet he’d be stuck in a cage . . .”
The soft bundle of fur against my chest snuggled deeper, rested his head on my forearm and let out a little chirrup. That was the sound that did me in.
“Oh, Hud,” I said, weakening.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said, rushing over to his truck. “You are an angel, my hero, I’ll love you forever. I have all his bedding, toys, food and other stuff here in my truck. We’ll be home the day after Christmas. You’re a lifesaver. Maisie will be so happy that you are taking care of Boo. It was killing her having to leave him so soon after we got him. She was afraid he’d be lonely.”
I watched in dismay as he started unloading enough dog paraphernalia to open his own pet store. “Hud, how much have you spent on this dog?”
His face colored slightly as he put a green and white L.L.Bean bag full of plush toys in the back of my truck. The bag was personalized with Boo’s name and a picture of a corgi. “I know it seems a bit much, but this little guy’s been a godsend to Maisie . . . and I admit, to me and Laurie too. After what happened to Maisie, we needed something to take our minds off the trauma.” He lifted a dark green dog crate into my truck bed. “We’re going to counseling, and the child psychologist said she thought the puppy was a good idea, gave us all something in common to think about, concentrate on. Something that was positive and life affirming.”
I ran my finger up the white stripe on Boo’s nose. His eyes were covered with a furry black mask, and his two maple-brown eyebrows twitched. “I understand. I was told by the police psychologist at Gabe’s office that something like what we went through will possibly show itself in unpredictable emotional ways and that we should be aware of that. A kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome, he said.”
“Are you okay?” he asked, his expression concerned.
I nodded. “Gabe and I are doing all right. I have some trouble with insomnia, but . . .” I shrugged. “It’s livable. Gabe was a little down, but his mother coming for Christmas seems to have cheered him up.”
“And what’s this visit doing to you?” He crossed his arms over his chest.
I shrugged again. “You know how it goes. It’s my mother-in-law. Gabe’s her only son and her first child. I’m not sure I’m exactly who she would have chosen for him.”
“Her bad judgment then. Gabe’s a lucky man.”
I laughed at his words. “Cut the bull pucky. I’ve already agreed to puppy sit your little sausage dog. Tell Maisie that Boo is in good hands.”
He lifted a twenty-pound bag of puppy food into the back of my truck.
“Whoa,” I said. “Just how long did you say you were going to be gone?”
He grinned and leaned against the side of my truck. “Two weeks, tops. I just didn’t want you to run out of food. I don’t want this to cost you a penny.” He pulled out his wallet.
“Put that away, Clouseau.” I’d given him the nickname of the bumbling French detective because Hud was anything but bumbling when it came to his work. “We’re friends. I won’t accept money for doing this.”
“What if he needs to go to the vet?” Hud asked.
“Who’s his vet?”
“Dr. Catalina Vieira.”
“She’s Scout’s vet too. No problem. She’ll just bill you.”
“Okay, great,” he said, putting his wallet away. He took a card from the inside of his jacket. “Here’s the numbers where we’ll be if you need to contact me. My cell phone’s on there too, but the ranch is pretty far out. I’m not sure how good the service is.”
“If I need you, I’ll find you.” I took the card and smiled at him. “Don’t worry, Boo is in good hands.”
“That I know for sure, ranch girl,” he said, reaching over to stroke Boo’s head.
“Have a safe trip. Say hey to Laura Lee for me.”
He slipped his Stetson back on his head. “I’ll do that. Merry Christmas, ranch girl. And I meant it, you know.”
“Gabe’s a lucky man.”
“Merry Christmas, Clouseau.”
As Boo and I watched his red truck leave the parking lot, the sound of his horn blaring “The Yellow Rose of Texas” echoing through the stand of eucalyptus trees, another car barreled past him into the parking lot. A black Mercedes-Benz without a speck of dirt on it. The Wicked Witch of the West music reverberated through my head for the second time in a week. The car stopped a few feet from me, and Constance Sinclair, the folk museum’s personal patroness of the arts, stepped out.
“Boo, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” I whispered, rubbing my lips across the silky top of his warm puppy head.
She slammed the car door and marched toward us, her two-toned pumps making crackling sounds as they ate up the gravel parking lot. Her thin, Italian greyhound face was flushed pink with agitation. My mind frantically searched for something I could have possibly said or done to bring on this hissy fit. Nothing sprang immediately to mind. I clutched Boo closer to my chest.
“Benni Harper,” she bellowed when she reached me. “You simply have to help me. Pinky has been murdered.”
XCUSE ME?” I SAID.
“What is that?” She stared with open disgust at Boo.
“A puppy,” I replied, still dumbfounded by her declaration and a bit afraid to ask who Pinky was.
. What are
doing with it here? I hope it won’t interfere with your job.”
“Watching him for a friend.” I just realized at that moment that Hud had not told me anything about Boo’s personality, tastes, habits and most important, how far along in the toilet training process the little guy was. Typical man. I shifted the dog in my arms. “And, no, he won’t interfere with my job. Don’t forget, our new neighbors are a doggie day care facility.”
“Most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Day care for dogs.”
I might have agreed with her at one time, but holding this puppy in my arms and trying to figure out how I’ll get all the things done I need to get done in the next two weeks, doggie day care seemed a lifesaver.
Changing the subject seemed prudent at this moment. “Who is Pinky?”
“You know her as Arva Edmondson.” Constance’s bright blue eyes filmed over, displaying an emotion I’d never seen in her: sadness. “Her friends called her Pinky. She was my dearest friend. She died five days ago.” She dipped her head, leaving me to inspect the top of her teased, champagne-colored hair. “She was only sixty years old.”
“I’m so sorry, Constance,” I said, truly feeling bad for her, despite our often fractious relationship. I couldn’t imagine my life without Elvia. “Is there anything I can do?”
I’d met Arva “Pinky” Edmondson at a few museum functions and vaguely remembered a slender, dark-haired woman with a laugh that was a tad more brassy than most society ladies, not that anyone faulted her on it. She seemed to be one of the leaders of Constance’s very elite group. It was not a surprise that I didn’t know her nickname. Like most of Constance’s friends, she hadn’t had any reason to do more than ask me to fetch her another glass of champagne. She was younger than most of Constance’s friends, who tended to be closer to her own age, somewhere in the mid to late seventies.
Her head popped up, the determined and self-confident Constance back. “Yes, there is. You can find her murderer.”
I must admit, her statement gave me pause. I was thinking more along the lines of baking a pie or helping her pick out music for Pinky’s memorial service.
“Well,” I said, drawing the word out, trying to buy myself time. “That’s not exactly my job here at the folk art museum. Have you talked to the police?” Boo started to wiggle in my arms, his short nap over. I set him down on the ground, and he immediately squatted and relieved himself.
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes,” Constance said. “I hope you’ll clean that up before the museum opens.”
“Of course I will,” I said evenly. “Now, what happened to Pinky?”
“I told you,” she said, enunciating each word. “She. Was. Murdered.”
She waved her hand. “That doesn’t matter.”
I waited a second before answering, a bit shocked by her statement. “Of course it matters, Constance. How did she die?”
“Your husband,” she said, spitting the words out like they were a bite of sour orange.
I inhaled deeply, mentally counting to ten. “What about him?”
“He refuses to investigate.”
This was awkward. But, I had to admit, she’d aroused my curiosity. “What do you mean?”
refuses to investigate
my friend’s murder,” she snapped. “What part of that sentence don’t you understand?”
Boo scampered behind one of the whiskey barrel planters, and I darted after him. He was as fast as a toddler. “Back where I can see you, Mister Boo,” I said, scooping him up with one hand and placing him at my feet. He pounced on the tassel dangling from Constance’s right dress pump.
“Get away, you beast,” she said, jerking her foot. He chased after it, excited by the new game.
“Come back here, you,” I said, pulling the scrunchie from my hair and dangling it at him. Luckily, the attention span of a puppy is nanoseconds. He grabbed the scrunchie and shook it like it was captured prey. “Let’s go into my office, Constance, and talk about this in a more comfortable setting.” I scooped up Boo.