Friends and relatives immediately gather to sniff after the fortune that will go to whomever Allie picks to be Maggie's new owner. Wondering who in the pack did the deed, sleuth-hound Allie vows that Maggie and her millions will only go to a killer over her own dead body. . . .
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This was astonishing. According to the figures on my computer screen, my finances were in the black for the first time since I'd opened my dog-psychology business four months ago.
"Yes!" I pumped my fists, then pushed off against my desk to whirl my chair in a circle across the linoleum floor. Too energized to stay seated, I rose and dashed to my glass door, weighing the notion of rushing outside to do my Happy Dance on the sidewalk. Boulder being the Exercise Capital of the World, chances were that I would accidentally trip a jogger or collide head-on with a skateboarder or roller-blader.
From this angle up the concrete stairwell, I could view the sharp, angular peaks of the Flatirons. Above this small section of the Rockies, the azure sky was cloudless. I smiled at the glorious sight, aware that this sunny weather was unlikely to last through the day. Storm clouds would brew by late afternoon. Thunderphobic dogs would quake and eventually go wild with fear, and my phone would ring with new clients needing my services.
Maybe I could even afford to take Russell, my officemate and boyfriend--although he was thirty-three and I was thirty-two so the "boy" designation was a misnomer--for a celebratory lunch. I returned to my chair and scooted back to the computer screen to recheck my finances and calendar. Financially I could swing it, provided we went to a fast-food restaurant and split the fries and cola. Schedule-wise, however, my day was booked solid from ten-thirty on.
From somewhere just beyond my open windows, a man shouted, "Maggie! You come back here this minute!"
I turned. The man was standing directly in front of my window, the limitations of its view such that I could see only his brown pants from the knee down. Those pants, too short to be fashionable, revealed a pair of mismatched socks--one blue and one green--and Hush Puppy suede shoes. I could not see Maggie's shoes.
"Come here, Maggie! Get your furry little butt over here!"
That order got me out of my chair. Immediately deducing that "Maggie" was an off-leash dog, I shuddered at the thought of the busy intersection nearby. With a handler this inept at verbally controlling his dog, Maggie could run into traffic.
"Hey, get back here!" the man cried.
Just as I reached the door, a large, young-looking golden retriever came galloping down my concrete office stairs, too fast for me to swing the glass door out of her path.
"Maggie, sit!" I automatically shouted, but it was too late. She clunked her head hard against the glass. The impact staggered her. She sat down and looked at me, wearing a dog's typical oops-silly me bearing: head slightly lowered on her shoulders, the tip of her tongue showing as she panted.
The moment I pulled the door partway open to check on her, Maggie barged inside my office. By then the man with poor dog-handling skills and mismatched socks had reached the steps. While I attempted to hold the door for him, Maggie jumped up on me, her weight pushing me back from the door.
Being only five-feet tall, I'm often outsized by my canine clients, so I usually arm myself with a noisemaker to distract ill-mannered dogs. Having been caught unprepared this time, I crossed my arms and rotated so that the dog was facing my back, while I said sternly, "Maggie, down!"
Meanwhile, the large man, trying to enter, shoved the door into his dog and me, just when Maggie had dropped down on all fours. She was shoved into the back of my knees, and I was sent sprawling.
"Oh, man! Are yous all right?" he asked as I got up and turned to face him, trying hard not to greet the question with obscenities. By no means was this the first time I'd been knocked flat by a dog, but it was the first time a dog had served as the owner's battering ram.
Although he'd gotten down on his knees to examine Maggie's eyes and head, I assumed that he had meant the "yous" as plural for his dog and me, so I answered, "I'm fine."
Still focusing exclusively on the dog as he ran his palm gently over the top of her head, he said, "I meant Maggie. Can't believe how hard she bashed her head just now. She didn't see the glass." He got to his feet and looked at me. "You know, you should put up a decal at a dog's eye level. A cat sticker, or something."
"I'll take that under advisement." Though tact has never been my strong suit, this was a response I'd taught myself to use whenever a client--or, in this case, a prospective one--gave me really stupid advice.
Maggie's owner was nearly six-feet tall and broadly built. His midsection resembled a pickle barrel and stretched his teal knit shirt to its maximum. A white undershirt showed beneath the collared shirt's v-neck opening. He seemed to be in his late fifties or so and was completely bald. He chuckled. "You better be Allie Babcock, or I got myself a whole lot of explaining to do."
"I'm Allida Babcock," I said pointedly, not appreciating having my nickname used by someone I'd only just met. Especially not by someone who'd advised me to put a cat decal on my glass while he recklessly allowed his dog to run off leash. "And you are?"
"Kenneth R. Culberson. The 'R' don't stand for nothing; I just wanted a middle initial. You can call me Ken. You want I should call you Allie or Miss Babcock?"
In a clear case of canine curiosity, Maggie trotted over to me and attempted to get far too personal with her sniffing. I warded her off with my knee.
Her owner put his hands on his hips and glared at his dog. "For cryin' out loud, Maggie! Watch your manners! You don't even know this . . . this--" He paused long enough to peer into my face, and then, as if this double check had verified his suspicions, said, "--woman. Apologize to her this instant!"
Maggie jumped up on him instead of doing whatever it was he'd expected her to do--slap a paw on her forehead, perhaps, and exclaim: "Wherever are my manners!" in the King's English. Shoving his dog aside, he then stomped his foot and wagged his finger at her. "You're really testing my patience today, young lady."
Maggie did not cower or show any signs that she'd ever been struck by her owner. She merely began to enthusiastically sniff the floor to trace the scents of previous clients. My impression so far was that this was a healthy adolescent dog that happened to be in the care of someone who didn't have the first clue how to train and communicate with her.
"Are you interested in hiring me as a therapist for Maggie?"
"Thought I already did that. Di'n't you get my e-mail, asking for this appointment?"
"E-mail?" I repeated, then suddenly realized that I should have made more creative use of my computer time this morning. "Oh, no, I didn't. I only recently went online, and I really don't check it often enough to set appointments that way."
"Good thing you was here, then," Ken said, grinning affably. "That's got to be another good sign. See, I visited your Web site, and I knew right--"
He broke off when I whipped my head around, having caught sight of Russell Greene swinging open the door, his gaze focused on the magazine he carried. He has an intense fear of dogs. Nevertheless, we share this main entrance to our two-room offices; but when he sees or knows that I'll be with a large canine, he rounds the building to use the back entrance, which circumvents my office.
"No, Russ," I cried. "Go--"
It was too late. As he stepped inside, Maggie raced over and jumped up on him.
Russell shouted, "Yeiaa!" The dog knocked him sideways and pinned him against the wall in the blink of an eye.
"Turn around, Russell," I said, sweeping up my noisemaker from my desk drawer.
He did so just as I pressed a button that emits a loud, shrill noise. Maggie promptly dropped down on all fours and looked around, trying to find the source of the noise.
In a classic demonstration of poor dog-handling, Ken rushed over and threw his arms around Maggie to pat her chest. No doubt he thought this was calming her down, but to a dog's way of thinking he was rewarding her bad behavior.
The color had risen in Russell's handsome face. Though six inches taller than I, he too was easily dwarfed by a large dog, making his fear all the more acute.
"I'm sorry, Russ," I murmured. My own cheeks warmed with empathy on his behalf.
Ken stood up. I expected him to apologize to Russ for his dog's bad manners, but instead he asked, "Why do you guys do that? Turn around like that when Maggie jumps up on you?"
"A dog that jumps up only has an interest in the person's face," I answered quickly, realizing that Russell needed a moment to collect himself. He really hated having his phobia revealed to strangers, who couldn't begin to know that his earliest memory was of his brother being attacked by a German shepherd. "The dog wants to sniff your breath, which lets the dog pick up on all kinds of clues about you. Plus, sticking his face in yours gets the dog the attention that he craves. He has no interest in the back of your head."
As I'd hoped, my mini aren't-I-dog-wise lecture had done its trick. Russell had brushed himself off, regained his natural color, and now stepped forward with a proffered hand toward Ken Culberson. I blocked the dog's path to the men, then gave a rudimentary introduction while the two of them shook hands. Russell had rolled up his magazine tightly in his left hand and was keeping an eye on the golden retriever. Though too kindhearted and sensitive to strike a dog, especially in my presence, he would not hesitate to swing at the air between to prevent her from getting too close. I doubted that such a gesture would sit well with Ken. Just in case, I petted Maggie to distract her while Russell excused himself and entered his office.
Ken plopped down in a wooden chair against the wall, and Maggie immediately leapt into his lap. I winced, mentally estimating their considerable combined weight, and listened for telltale creaking noises to indicate the chair legs were on the verge of collapse. Though his face was momentarily blocked by his dog, Ken said pleasantly, "Nice guy."
"Yes, he is." I sat down in my desk chair and, though the answer was already obvious, asked, "What can I do for you, Mr. Culberson?" While I spoke, the dog spread herself across his lap, giving me full view of her owner's round, guileless face.
"Ken," he corrected. "Well, Allie, I got me an unusual problem. You see--" He broke off as Maggie sat up again in his lap and blocked our view. "Settle down there, Maggie!" We waited, and she finally dropped her chin down to rest on Ken's knees. "Maggie here is my late ex-wife. Or, rather, I should say she's--" he gestured in the air "--whatchacallit. Channeling her spirit."
My own spirits instantly sank while my heartbeat increased. Apparently Ken Culberson was not treating Maggie like a fellow human merely out of ignorance, but because he was delusional. I said calmly, "You think your dog is channeling your late ex-wife?"
"No, no. I don't think so. I know so."
I forced a smile. The city of Boulder was renowned for its tolerance of all kinds of belief systems and lifestyles, which extended to its canine population. Dog Rolfing and other varieties of massage were big business here. At the Humane Society, dog owners were now called dog guardians. The actions of FIDOS--Friends Interested in Dogs in Open Space--routinely made headlines. Suggestions, however, from potential clients that their dog possessed some person's spirit typically came from starry- or droopy-eyed individuals in their twenties.
"Mr. Culberson, I've got to warn you that I'm just a dog therapist. In other words, I don't do exorcisms on dogs, though I'm sure you--"
He held up his palms and cut me off. "I knew you wouldn't believe me. No one ever does. That's all right. I got proof."
With considerable effort, he reached back and wriggled around on his chair while Maggie kept herself balanced on his lap. He finally retrieved his wallet from his pants pocket and removed a Polaroid photo, which he held up to show me.
Curious, I rose and took the photograph from him to get a better view. It appeared to be a snapshot of a cluster of kibble on tan-colored carpeting. I looked at him, awaiting an explanation.
Ken widened his eyes and said solemnly, "Believe it or not, Maggie did that, all on her own. I di'n't move a single piece of dog chow."
"I don't understand, Mr. Culberson."
"You don't?" he asked. " 'Scuse me for a moment," he said to his dog and gently lowered her to the floor. He got up, saying to me, "Can't you see it says, 'You,' with an--" He pulled the photo out of my hand as he spoke, then flipped it around and returned it to me. "No wonder. You was looking at it upside down. See the letter u and the exclamation point?"
"It does look like the letter u," I agreed as I examined the photo a second time, "but that strikes me as nothing more than an interesting coincidence."
He shook his head, his jowls moving like gelatin with the motion. "See, that's what Mary, my ex, was always calling me . . . one of the reasons I left her. 'Hey, you, take the garbage out. When you coming home?' And like that. Never 'Ken' or 'Honey,' just 'you.' Meanwhile, right after Mary died, Maggie starts carrying her dog food toward me, piece by piece, and lays it down at my feet, just like you seen here."
"Were you sitting at the dinner table at the time? Dogs who've been treated as human members of the family often get into the habit of bringing their chow out where their owners eat. That's not at all unusual and, by the way, can be easily corrected. All you have to do is patiently tell her no and move the food back to her bowl."
"You're missing the point, Allie. Ever since she started channeling my ex, Maggie don't like to be treated like a dog."