Retired high school teacher Gwen Franklin has a new pet valet business with her BFF, and a whole new leash on life. But a killer is about to come sniffing around . . .
Gwen Franklin is looking forward to spending her retirement drinking her favorite coffee and reading mystery novels. Those peaceful plans are brought to heel by her best friend, Nora. Sporting stiletto heels, leggings, and a "more is better" makeup routine, fifty-something Nora Goldstein has a penchant for marrying—and divorcing—rich men. Now that Gwen's got free time, Nora figures they should start a dog-walking and pet-sitting service together.
But it's far from a walk in the park when the corpse of Linda Fletcher is found in Nora's kitchen. Linda was Nora's nemesis, and the large knife protruding from her chest points to murder. With no doubt that her bestie's being framed, Gwen puts her sleuthing skills—acquired from reading every Agatha Christie mystery—to the test as she digs through suspects, including four disgruntled ex-husbands, ten greedy ex-stepchildren, not to mention all her exes' exes. But with death threats and another body surfacing, can Gwen curb a killer before her own (dog) days come to an end?
Release date: August 25, 2020
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 185
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Listen to a sample
What woke me wasn’t the insistent ringing of my alarm clock or the sound of the wind that blew in from the Willamette River. Instead, the first official day of my retirement began with an early morning phone call from my best friend, Nora Goldstein.
“What do you want?” I sounded as surly as I felt. I’d been looking forward to this first late morning from the moment I’d announced my intention to retire early from a wonderful but exhausting career as a high school teacher. I wanted to sleep in, get up and have coffee, and go right back to bed, preferably with a book. “This had better be really good.”
“And a good morning to you too, Gwen.” She gave a short bark of a laugh that echoed in my ear in the most irritating way. “What’s better than two besties spending some time together?”
Besties? Besties? This woman was way too awake for my liking.
“Nora, you sound like a geriatric teenager—and, in case you didn’t notice, I’m not hanging out with that particular age group anymore.”
“Oh, poo on you, spoilsport.” Again that laugh. Maybe she was on something.
I’d heard stories of seniors baking brownies with marijuana in them and passing them around to their pals. I made a mental note to check up on Nora’s latest whereabouts.
“Besides, I’ve got a great idea I want to share.”
I groaned at her words. “Fabulous. As great as the last one? Please say no.”
I could almost hear her disdainful expression.
“It’s not my fault the city wouldn’t let me start a fish pedicure salon. You’d think it’d be a slam dunk, what with all the fish we’ve got around here.”
What Nora lacked in common sense, she made up for in dollar bills. As in millions of them, all tucked securely away in various banks, thanks to a rather extensive lineup of ex-husbands.
“I’m pretty sure the fish used in those types of salons aren’t of the largemouth bass variety.” My tone was as dry as a lecture on the finer points of comma usage. “Look, I don’t want to spend my first real morning of no more school talking on the phone, even with my best friend.”
Sometimes Nora could be as thick as the pea soup fog that rolled in from the rivers. Plain talking was the only way to get through to her. To my surprise, this morning it worked on the first try.
“My thoughts exactly.” She spoke briskly, as if suddenly noticing the time. “Get yourself up and meet me at The Friendly Bean in one hour sharp.”
And with that, the phone went dead. I let it fall out of my hand onto the fluffy comforter, one arm slung across my eyes. I loved that gal like a sister—I really did—but occasionally her timing could make me crazy.
There was no going back to dreamland now. I was wide awake and, knowing Nora, she’d probably march over here and drag me out of bed if I didn’t show up. Sighing deeply, I flung the covers back and shuffled toward the bathroom.
Living in Portland suited me. I liked the climate, the surrounding mountains, the rivers. I liked hiking at Multnomah Falls, even when it was full of selfie-taking tourists. I even liked the rain—as long as I was indoors, preferably with a mug of coffee and a good book.
Being retired suited me as well. I’d planned on reading through my extensive collection of mysteries, beginning with the dame herself, Agatha Christie. Why Nora thought I needed anything else to do was as nebulous as she was, hard to pin down and always changing. It was a good thing that we were as close as we were, better than real-life sisters, as Nora had said more than once. She’d even taken to calling me “Sis” when we were much younger, something that could confuse those who didn’t know us and put a smile on my face whenever I heard it.
Except, of course, when I got pulled into one of her nutty ideas.
Within the prescribed hour, I was showered, dressed, and walking toward The Friendly Bean, our neighborhood coffee spot with some of the best blends around town. It was a coffee kind of day, no doubt about it, but most of them were here in the great Northwest. Clouds that had earlier looked like soft pillows were now turning bruised faces towards the darkening Columbia River. Rain had already begun its daily drizzle shortly before I left my small bungalow, a soft prelude to a larger battering to come.
True to their promise, the skies opened up as I walked, drenching me and every other unfortunate person who happened to be outdoors. We were in for a day of what we called “weather” here in Portland. I yanked up the hood on my jacket and scurried for cover, my Birkenstocks flapping on the wet pavement like a pair of stranded fish.
Nora was sitting near the rear of the small café, one arm draped in a proprietary fashion around the back of the only empty chair in the place. Ignoring the frowns of those having to drink their coffee standing at the various tall tables that dotted the room, I hurried toward her, flinging raindrops as I did.
“It’s already getting messy out there.” I hung my wet jacket on the back of the saved chair and slipped damply into it.
The coffee shop was full of the sound of hissing espresso machines and baristas calling out orders, almost masking the noise of the rain as it hurled itself against the windows that streamed with condensation. Portland, I’d heard one tourist say, tended to rain both inside as well as out.
“I’m glad I Ubered here.” Nora reached up to pat her hair, a smug expression on her thin face. “Rain and hairspray aren’t a good mix.” She inclined her head at the two mugs already sitting in front of me. “I got you the usual, Sis.”
“Thanks. Some days I feel like I need coffee more than food.” I took an exploratory sip and winced. The coffee was hovering somewhere near molten. “And why in the world did you use a taxi? You live closer than I do.”
“Because I didn’t want to get my new shoes wet.”
I leaned over to stare at a pair of bright pink sky-high heels, each one sporting a lacey bow on top. Typical Nora. Ostentatious and girly in one fell swoop.
“And you do know, don’t you, that fifty is the new thirty?” Taking a sip of her drink, a chocolaty concoction that could have doubled as a dessert, Nora dropped one frosted eyelid in a wink. “I mean, just look at Julia Roberts. And me.”
I couldn’t unsee her if I wanted to. Her hair, or what was left of it after a recent disastrous bout with perming rods and an overzealous hairdresser, was teased to within an inch of its blonded life and tucked underneath a hefty “fall” of fake hair. She favored clothes a few decades too young, especially the type made from the stretchy, tight material that would have been at home in a yoga studio. It always amazed me I couldn’t read the care tag stitched into the seams of her clothes. Her makeup routine was based on the “more is better” mind-set, and her shoes were usually of the stiletto heeled variety. Altogether, Nora was a conglomerate of styles that defied age and common sense, in my humble opinion.
I, on the other hand, favored a bare face and shoes as flat as I wished my stomach was. I made up in real estate what Nora lacked. I was wide where she was thin and rounded where she was angled. Life, as far as I was concerned, had been so much better before the advent of irritants such as cholesterol and calories, back when a little puppy fat never did a girl any harm.
I sighed, shook my head, and took another tentative taste of my coffee. Good to go. It was a real woman’s drink: dark roast, black as ink, and guaranteed to put hair on my chest. As if that would even matter. I glanced at my unshaven legs, where they poked out from a pair of old denim capris, scratchy with stubble and white enough to use as nighttime beacons in the harbor. Retirement chic in all its glory.
But if I was honest, I’d preferred a slap-dash approach to fashion my entire life. Nora, in contrast to my choices, had been a fashionista even in kindergarten.
“Oh, come on, you. Cheer up already. Just think, no more grading papers, no more whining parents, no more doing anything you don’t want to do.” Nora held her mug out and clinked it against mine, causing a small tidal wave of coffee to spill on the table. “Here’s to a whole new Gwen Franklin!” She gave my current ensemble a critical look, sweeping her gaze from stem to stern. “And we’ve got to do something about that wardrobe of yours.”
I cautiously waved my mug in her direction, careful to keep the dripping coffee away from my lap. On top of everything else, I didn’t want to walk around town looking like I had an issue with incontinence.
“Just because you’ve got the wherewithal to do whatever you’d like doesn’t mean I can. Really, Nora. Have you seen the size of a teacher’s paycheck these days? How big do you think my retirement checks will be?” I leaned in, catching an enticing whiff of chocolate. “And when it comes to choosing between having the lights on and buying clothes, well, let’s just say I prefer to see what I’m doing.”
Although, running around sans garments in a lighted house might not improve my standing with the neighbors. We had children in the neighborhood, for goodness’ sake.
“Whatever.” She brushed my comment aside as if it was a troublesome fly. “Look, I’ve been thinking, Gwen. What you need is a hobby.”
I snorted, earning a frown from Nora.
“And no, I don’t mean doing the daily crossword. I mean a real hobby. One that’ll make you some money.”
I had to laugh. Sometimes Nora’s thought processes were difficult to follow. And sometimes they were downright comical, like now.
“I’m pretty sure that’s called a ‘job.’” I set my still-dripping mug on the table. “And I didn’t retire from one only to get another.” I slumped back against my chair. “Besides, I can only work a few hours a week anyway before they start docking my monthly check.”
“Not if they don’t know you’re working.” Nora’s smile could have given the Cheshire Cat a run for its money. “The way I see it, we could do a few things around this place that you don’t need to report.”
That last statement had me worried. Not the fact that I wouldn’t be reporting the income of whatever it was she had in mind, but the “we” part of it. Clearing my throat, I leaned in closer, crooking one finger at her.
“And who’s this ‘we,’ if you don’t mind sharing?” My voice was a shade above a whisper, a little teacher trick I’d used whenever I needed someone’s attention. “Are you talking ‘we’ like the queen, or ‘we’ as in you and me?”
“As in us, of course.” She tossed her head, sending the faux ponytail bouncing.
I watched, fascinated, as it settled back into place, this time a good inch lower than it had been.
“I’ve been doing some thinking,” she began, and I cringed inwardly. Nora had her manicured fingers in a lot of financial pies, mostly from an investor’s standpoint, but she’d recently begun a one-woman dog walking service for some of the residents in her luxury apartment building, just to “help out the poor dears,” as she liked to say. I’d noticed, however, that her idea of “help” came with a price tag. So much for being altruistic.
If she thought that I was going to join her—well, she had another think coming.
And of course she did. My throat began itching as I listened to her enthusiastically describing our new partnership. I was allergic to all things furred and feathered, and not just a little bit. It was a full-fledged reaction to any type of dander that could begin with a runny nose and end with my eyes swollen almost shut. Benadryl was my friend, and I made sure to steer clear of anyone with a pooch or a cat. Working with them was completely out of the question.
“Nora, has it slipped that mind of yours that I’m horribly allergic to animals, especially those of the pet variety? Cats make me sneeze, dogs are worse, and even rabbits can make me break out in hives.”
“Oh. That’s right. Dang.” She looked down, tapping a long fingernail—fake, of course—against her chin and then straightened with a bright smile. “Well, you’ll just have to wear one of those mask things, the kind doctors wear when they’re getting ready to operate. Besides, it’ll keep your face hidden in case the folks from the state come looking for you. Just kidding.”
I glared at her. “Not funny.” My momentum plunged as I recalled all the dire warnings we’d been given. In every one of the pre-retirement meetings I’d attended, we’d been cautioned about The State, capitals implied, and what might happen to our annuity if we got caught working outside of the prescribed limitations. I was pretty sure that one of Dante’s infamous circles in you-know-where had been reserved for all retired teachers who tried to beat the system.
“Oh, get a sense of humor, girl. Who’s really going to check to see what you do with your time? They don’t own you anymore.” The fake hair slid another inch as she shook her head. “And besides meeting me for coffee, what else were you planning to do today?”
She had a point. And I did need something to do with all the time I’d have on my hands, besides rearranging my bookcases.
I gave a small shrug and tipped my head back, emptying the cooling coffee in one gulp. Placing the thick white mug back on the table, I looked at Nora and lifted my chin. Chins. All right, I lifted my chins. I was ready. “Okay, let’s hear it. I guess I’m in.”
The exaggerated whoop of delight Nora let fly was just this side of a sonic boom. Before I could say “boo,” she leaned across and wrapped me in her arms, rocking me back and forth like a crazed wind-up toy.
I managed to catch her ponytail as it slid from its pins, holding it in place with one hand and attempting to free myself from her grasp with the other. I’d never had a problem when thirty pairs of juvenile eyes stared at me in the classroom, but there was something uncomfortable about having a dozen grown people in a coffee shop gawking at the sight that was Nora with her arms wrapped around me, especially when I had one hand on the back of her head while she was hugging me like a long-lost friend.
“Nora, get a grip,” I hissed in her ear, a line of tiny gold loops nearly catching in my teeth. “You’ve lost your, uh, your hair, and everyone is staring at us.”
By the time we left, Nora’s hair was somewhat back in order. I’d never seen a ponytail look like that before, and, judging by the expressions on the other faces, nobody else had either. If this was going to be the start of something big, at least we were going to do it in unforgettable style.
At Nora’s insistence, we took an Uber for the short ride from The Friendly Bean to her apartment building. We needed to head for her place first, she’d decided, so we could talk about our plans for our newly hatched partnership.
“The way I see it, there are at least three pets per floor in my building, not to mention the ones I see every day at the dog park. I’ve been walking one or two a day, tops, but between the two of us, we can double that.” Nora grabbed at the sissy bar above her door as our driver took a sharp turn in front of a rather large logging truck. “If we live, that is. Young man, if you want me to give you a tip, I wouldn’t drive like that. Besides, you might give my friend here a relapse, and trust me when I say you don’t want that to happen.”
Just what it was I was supposed to relapse back into, I had no idea, but I played along, letting my eyelids hang at half-mast while I collapsed against the seat and clutched feebly at the front of my jacket. Nora looked back at me approvingly, reaching over to pat my hand as though I was really ailing.
“You hang in there, Gwennie girl. We’ll get you home and you can put your feet up if we aren’t killed first.” She twisted around to frown at the driver.
“I’m not gonna get us killed,” he protested, sounding as young as one of my high school students. “Miss Franklin, is that you back there?”
Fabulous. I bolted upright, my eyes now wide open, trying desperately to recall his name. After twenty-something years of teaching, though, most faces looked the same. Unless, of course, they’d made some sort of impression on me, usually that of the negative kind.
“Oh, hey you.” I spoke weakly, resorting to my tried and true greeting of forgotten students. “How are things?”
“I’m great.” He fixed his gaze on the rearview mirror and narrowly missed a bicyclist that had swerved into our lane. “Sorry to hear you aren’t feeling so good. Is that why you quit teaching?”
“Something along those lines.” I tried to glare at a grinning Nora and smile at the driver simultaneously. I was saved from further conversation by a cacophony of horns as we zipped into the only empty space in front of Nora’s luxury apartment building.
“Thanks for the ride. It was really good to see you again.”
“Yeah, you too. Gimme a call whenever you need to go somewhere.” He reached into the middle console and fished out a grubby card. “Use this number and I’ll let you know if I’m available, okay?”
I grabbed it out of his hand before Nora’s fingers closed on it. Brent Mayfair. That was his name. Smiling at him as I opened the back door, I waved the card at him.
“Well, thanks again, Brent.” I felt smug when I said his name. “Please say hello to your mom for me.”
“Will do, Miss F. See ya.” And with a screech of tires, he shot back into traffic millimeters ahead of a fully loaded passenger van.
“If that kid makes it to his next birthday without causing an accident, I’ll personally bake him a cake.” Nora started to shake her head but reached up one hand instead to explore the ponytail. “Well, come on, partner. We’ve got big plans to make.”
The big plans entailed making a pot of coffee, slicing a Danish pastry—cream cheese, my favorite—and thumbing through Instagram and Pinterest. By the time I’d looked at a million videos of cute kittens and puppies and commented on a handful of posts, I was ready to go home. All of that screen time, plus a few bites of pastry, and I was ready for a nap. Nora hadn’t even touched her Danish. That probably had something to do with why I was a bit broader in the beam than she was.
“Nora, it’s been a blast, but I need to get going.” I stood and stretched, stiff from sitting curled up on one of Nora’s overstuffed linen-covered sofas. “So much for our business planning session.” I stifled a yawn, glad I could fall back into bed if the spirit moved me. Maybe I did need to get a hobby.
Nora looked at me, one eyebrow lifted in that half-questioning, half-mocking way she’d perfected over the years.
“What do you mean, ‘so much for our business yadda yadda’? I got most of it done while you were playing on your phone.” Holding her iPad up so I could see the screen, she gave me a smug smile. “And here’s what I’m calling it. Two Sisters Private Services. Whaddaya think?”
“Nora, that ‘private services’ bit makes us sound, I don’t know, a tad sleazy, don’t you think?” I held out one hand for the iPad, visions of what our uniform might entail nearly giving me the heart attack I’d feigned in the Uber.
She leaned over and poked me in the arm, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “I’m just kidding, Sis. How about Two Sisters Pet Valet Services? I think that has a classy ring to it, don’t you?”
I sat back down with a relieved thump, rubbing my arm where she’d hit it. “Much better. I don’t think it would be good for my reputation to be part of a ‘private services’ gig anyway.” I glanced at the iPad, noting she’d listed her name first. Fair enough. “Any idea how we might start rounding up a few takers?”
She gave a nonchalant shrug, a too-casual dip of one shoulder that had me instantly on high alert.
“Easy enough. I’ll print up a few business cards and slide them underneath the doors in this building while you canvas the dog park across the street.” She star. . .
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