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Most cats would have fled from all the barking and yipping. But Twinkletoes, my long-haired calico, took it in stride. She sat on top of the desk in the main lobby of the Sugar Maple Inn and yawned as if the commotion was perfectly normal. A caramel spot and a chocolate spot on top of her head looked like she had shoved sunglasses above her brow. Her green eyes almost glowed as she peered at me.
"You're very brave," I whispered to her.
She mewed and rubbed her head against my hand, twisting as if she wanted to make the most of being stroked.
My grandmother, Liesel Miller, whom I called Oma, German for grandma, joined me in the main lobby, where the grand staircase led up to the rooms. It was the hub of the inn, where guests gathered to eat in the dining area or to lounge in the Dogwood Room, which wasn't actually a room. It was all one large open space, divided by the grand staircase. Opposite the stairs was the front door, which led out to a covered porch and, beyond that, the town of Wagtail.
In the accent that I found charming but she wished to lose, Oma said, "It is Pippinmania! I have never seen such a thing."
"I guess they're not exaggerating when they call Pippin 'America's Favorite Dog.'" I had thought that was some kind of clever marketing ploy, but if these people were any indication, it was true.
In the dining area of the inn, adults and children wore fake-fur dog ears in a creamy white color. The ears stood up at the base of the headband that held them on, but the tops flopped over. They were quintessential puppy ears. The people barked. And yowled. And the dogs who were with them joined in, undoubtedly confused about their humans trying to speak canine. Fridays were always busy, but this was highly unusual.
My own Jack Russell terrier, Trixie, sat at my feet, watching and listening as if she didn't know quite what to make of it all. She would be meeting Pippin shortly when he arrived with his costars in an upcoming TV show for what had been billed as a much-deserved vacation for Pippin in Wagtail. With fans like these, I suspected he wouldn't be getting much rest.
"They say it is like this all over Wagtail. The merchants are thrilled. We aren't the only ones who have a full house. Everyone is booked." Oma smiled at the craziness. "You would think Cary Grant was coming!"
If I recalled correctly, Mr. Grant had passed away. "I think you'd get a bigger crowd than this if that happened."
Fortunately, she understood my meaning and chuckled. Her smile faded too quickly, though. In a low voice she said, "Another dog is missing."
As Oma was the mayor of Wagtail, that kind of problem fell directly into her lap. It had been odd when the Hoovers' beloved Yorkshire terrier disappeared the day before, but we hoped she had simply gotten lost and would turn up. News of a second missing dog changed everything. Now it was an ominous pattern.
"This time it's Clara Dorsey's Scottie. Two dogs in two days. We have to stop this. For the sake of the dogs, but also for the well-being of Wagtail. If this kind of news gets out, people will be afraid to bring their dogs here."
"Did anyone see anything this time?"
Oma shook her head. "He was there one moment and gone the next. Some people fear that it is a coyote. They tell me that these creatures are very wily."
I shuddered. "Has anyone seen a coyote?"
"No," she said emphatically. "They say coyotes are everywhere in the United States, but none have been spotted on Wagtail Mountain or Snowball Mountain. Some speculate that Wagtail is not a popular place for coyotes due to the number of large dogs here. No, I fear it may be something else entirely . . ."
I tried to gauge her expression. It wasn't difficult. She was clearly very upset.
"The dogs weren't wearing GPS collars?" I asked.
"The Scottie was. Officer Dave is trying to track him down right now. I am crossing my fingers that they will find him. Clara has a reputation for dipping into the cooking sherry when she makes her dinner."
"This is not gossip. It is true. I am not making it up. I hope she accidentally left the gate open and that her dog, Tavish, scampered away. The alternative would be horrific."
I swallowed hard. Trixie had taken off a few times, but luckily, she had come home or I had found her quickly. What a nightmare!
At that moment, Mr. Huckle, an elderly gentleman with a kindly face as wrinkled as an old map, rushed toward us waving something. Previously a butler for the wealthiest family in Wagtail, he still insisted on wearing his butler's uniform at the inn. Oma had hired him when he was down on his luck. Her kindness turned out to be fortunate for us. He gave the inn a touch of class and had quickly become the darling of our guests. Mr. Huckle was always available to lend a hand or take care of some little detail for guests, their dogs, and their cats. To be honest, I thought he seemed happier since he had come to work with us. He loved his previous employer, but he enjoyed meeting people and thrived on helping them.
"It's here!" Mr. Huckle presented us with a copy of Dog Life, the national magazine for dog lovers. A photo of Trixie sitting on the front steps of the Sugar Maple Inn was on the cover.
Oma took the magazine into her hands. "Little Trixie, you look beautiful! This is wonderful publicity."
At the mention of her name, Trixie gazed up at Oma. Her sweet, lively eyes didn't miss much. Trixie's fur had been yellowish when I found her, but with good nutrition it had changed to shiny white, except for her black ears and the black spot on her rump that traveled halfway up her tail. No one had docked her tail, and it was adorable, curling upward and always wagging happily.
I had found Trixie, or maybe she found me, at a gas station at the bottom of Wagtail Mountain where someone had abandoned her. She had waited for him to return to pick her up, surviving off the scraps she found in trash cans. On that fateful rainy night, she decided she had waited long enough and jumped into the car I had borrowed from my boyfriend. Dirty and wet, she promptly spilled coffee and snarfed corn chips, making a mess on the carpet with nacho cheese powder. At the time, I thought I wouldn't be able to keep her, but as things worked out, along with Twinkletoes, Trixie had become one of my little darlings.
In the beginning, Trixie was prone to taking off, which troubled me. But I soon learned that what I thought was wandering had a purpose. Most of the time Trixie stuck by me. Her main flaw was a nose that sniffed out trouble, more specifically, corpses. And that was what had brought a reporter and a photographer from Dog Life to interview Trixie.
Oma opened the magazine to the article. I peered over her arm. Twinkletoes received mention too, but Trixie was the star of the piece.
An uncanny ability to locate deceased people came naturally to her. As far as I knew, she had never been trained as a cadaver or search dog. I had certainly never received any training along those lines or in law enforcement, but Trixie had led me to enough corpses that we were getting a reputation for solving murders.
"Let's put one in each guest room. Ja?" suggested Oma. "And we should frame it and hang it somewhere." She looked around but stopped and bent to pat Trixie. "You are our star, little one!"
At that moment, the front door opened and my aunt Birdie marched in. Her dark eyes flashed, and she carried something that looked suspiciously like a rolled-up copy of Dog Life. Aunt Birdie always dressed like she was on her way someplace special. A stylish cream-colored dress with an asymmetrical neckline hung perfectly on her slender figure. Her dark hair was smartly coiffed. Her trademark white patch at the top of her forehead waved back off her face. "Have you seen this?" she demanded.
"We are very proud of our Trixie," said Oma.
The two of them didn't get along. Aunt Birdie was my mother's sister, and Oma was my father's mother. When I moved to Wagtail, Aunt Birdie had been envious of my relationship with Oma, and she still intervened regularly.
Aunt Birdie's nostrils flared. "Your mother will be mortified. Decent young women do not have a reputation for locating corpses. What were you thinking allowing a national magazine to carry such a morbid story about you?"
"Aunt Birdie, it's Trixie who finds murdered people, not me. And it's really quite remarkable that she can do that."
Aunt Birdie drew in a sharp breath. "For your information, your actions reflect on our entire family. This is such an embarrassment!" She lifted her chin in the air. "It is a stain on our family. Your ancestors are churning in their graves."
"Birdie," said Oma, "you are making a fuss for no reason. I am very proud of our Holly. And Trixie and Twinkletoes, too!"
Aunt Birdie was aghast. "You are a terrible influence on Holly. I knew my sister shouldn't have married your son."
Good grief. We were going to rehash my birth again, were we? I was in my thirties, and while both sides of the family had been dismayed by my arrival, since my parents were still in their teens, I thought enough time had passed for all of them to get used to the fact that everything had turned out fine. True, my parents had divorced and now lived on opposite sides of the country with new spouses and more children, but they were happy. Only Aunt Birdie continued to create friction wherever she could.
I checked my watch and said as sweetly as possible, "Pippin should be arriving soon. Maybe we should cordon off the reception lobby? If word gets out and these Pippinmania types rush to see him, it could be a madhouse."
Mr. Huckle, who had stood a discreet distance away during Birdie's tirade, nodded. "I'll help you bring up the stanchions and ropes. While you get the star settled in his room, I'll stand guard."
"Thanks, Mr. Huckle."
I waved at Aunt Birdie and fled toward the basement. I would certainly hear about this from my mother. Luckily, she had also suffered from Aunt Birdie's cranky nature. I wished Aunt Birdie would find a hobby that didn't involve me.
Mr. Huckle and I spent the next half hour arranging crowd-control stanchions at the hallway that led from the main part of the inn to the reception lobby.
Fortunately, in spite of the ropes, the Pippinmania crowd hadn't caught on that their favorite celebrity was about to arrive. Trixie and I left Mr. Huckle to crowd management and hurried along the corridor to the reception lobby on the west side of the inn.
At the sight of me, my normally calm Oma jumped from the desk chair in our office and rushed to join us. Her eyes shone with excitement. "Did you know that Howard Hirschtritt is a famous actor? I have seen him on television!"
Oma was always impeccably dressed in what she liked to call country chic. Today that consisted of a violet plaid skirt with a white blouse embroidered with flowers that matched the colors in her skirt. Oma never wore makeup other than lipstick, so I noticed immediately that she had gussied up a bit with blush and mascara. If I wasn't mistaken, even Gingersnap, her golden retriever who was the canine ambassador of the inn, sported a new collar embroidered with the words Best. Dog. Ever.
Gingersnap was a sweetheart and definitely deserved that kind of praise.
Zelda, the daytime desk clerk, chirped up. "I didn't realize that Howard Hirschtritt was with Pippin's entourage. He's been nominated for three Emmys! We have Hollywood royalty coming with Pippin." Zelda tweaked her cheeks for color and fluffed her long blonde hair. "They say he has given several famous actors their start in the business."
"Are you hoping he'll discover you?" I asked. It was always interesting to meet someone famous, but I had no aspirations of finding fame in Hollywood, and I hadn't known that Oma or Zelda had Hollywood dreams.
"Well," said Zelda, "if they're going to make a TV show with a dog in it, maybe it would be helpful to have a cast member who can communicate with the dog."
She had a point. Zelda fancied herself an animal psychic. I was still a little bit doubtful about her abilities, but Zelda thought she could communicate with them. She even had a side business as a pet psychic. On occasion, she had been dead-on. I wasn't so sure, but just because I couldn't read a dog's mind didn't mean she couldn't.
At that moment, Shadow, our handyman, passed through the registration lobby with his bloodhound, Elvis. "All the prizes for Pippin's Treasure Hunt are hidden on the mountain, ready to go. The guys from Chowhound are supposed to set up their tents this afternoon. I get along with Augie just fine, but one of us probably ought to go up there and check on him. I'd hate to have everyone get to the top and not have any grub."
I gave him a thumbs-up. Augie was a nice guy. Sometimes he was so generous that he overextended himself and couldn't accomplish everything he had promised. "As soon as we get Pippin and friends checked in and settled, I'll take a hike up there. It's so pretty with everything coming back to life after the winter."
Trixie and Gingersnap pricked their ears and gazed expectantly toward the sliding glass doors.
Two Wagtail taxis drove up. Golf carts were the primary means of transportation in Wagtail. All visitors left their cars in a large parking lot outside of town and were transported into town by golf carts, better known as Wagtail taxis.
"They're here," Zelda breathed.
Shadow hurried outside to help them with their luggage, and Oma straightened the belt on her skirt.
After all the preparation and anticipation, the sliding glass doors opened and a blonde fashionista wearing a leather jacket and oversize sunglasses backed into the lobby snapping photos as Pippin, America's favorite dog, walked into the Sugar Maple Inn.
An adorable border collie and yellow Labrador retriever mix with bright eyes, Pippin engaged Gingersnap in proper doggy protocol for meeting a stranger. Friendly and good-natured in spite of his long flight from the West Coast, he promptly introduced himself to Trixie, too.