Paws for Murder

A Pet Boutique Mystery

Annie Knox



Sherry Harper blew into Trendy Tails like a late summer tornado.

“It’s just plain wrong, Izzy.”

She’d marched up the steps of 801 Maple Avenue like Joan of Arc charging the English, righteous fire in her eyes . . . and a baby sling strung across her chest. As she shifted her weight to better stare me down, her guinea pig, Gandhi, poked his quivering nose out of the sling to get a look around. Like all guinea pigs, he had a perpetually startled expression on his face, an effect heightened by the forward tilt of his auburn ears and the ring of pale blond fur around his button eyes.

Little guy would be adorable in one of my hand-knit sweaters. A-dorable.

“Animals aren’t meant to wear clothes,” Sherry continued. “It isn’t natural.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that guinea pigs didn’t “naturally” travel in canvas slings. Or live in Minnesota, for that matter.

Sherry Harper, trust-fund baby and Merryville’s resident reactionary, didn’t trade in logic or reason. The woman flitted from cause to cause, most of them half-baked. If she wasn’t picketing city hall over the deplorable conditions of the town park benches, she was writing a letter to the editor of the Merryville Gazette about how city hall spent too much on frivolous things . . . like park benches. True story.

No, now that Sherry had set her sights on my brand-new pet boutique, logic wouldn’t dissuade her.

“I get where you’re coming from. Really, I do. But people are going to dress up their pets. They buy ridiculous and demeaning costumes from those big box stores. Those things are made overseas out of who-knows-what. I’m offering them a local, nontoxic alternative.”

Sherry opened her mouth to answer, but then froze, her face twitching as she fought a sneeze. With her thick auburn hair, freckled nose, and wide dark brown eyes, she bore a striking resemblance to her furry friend . . . especially when her nose quivered.

I reached behind the counter and pulled out a box of tissues, quickly handing one to her.

The sneeze arrived with enough bluster to set the tiny brass bells around her neck tinkling. She emitted a barely audible squeak as she sucked in air, and another sneeze nearly shook her out of her custom-cobbled earth shoes.

Packer, my pug-bulldog mix, whined pitifully from his fleece-lined dog bed and buried his nose beneath his paws.

“God bless,” I muttered.

Sherry honked into the tissue and, seemingly without thought, stuffed it into the baby sling.

Poor Gandhi.

“Thank you,” Sherry said. “I think I’m catching cold. Change in the weather, you know.”

We’d had an unseasonably warm spell during the first half of October, but it had finally broken. The chill that day was as crisp as a Granny Smith, and News 5 had predicted our first snowfall within the week. By Thanksgiving, we’d be buried.

“Look,” I said, trying one last time to woo Sherry to my side, “I don’t expect you to love what I’m doing here. But what’s worse: dressing a dog in a Black Watch rain coat or dipping him in flea poison like they do at Prissy’s Pretty Pets?”

I felt a twinge of remorse at deflecting Sherry’s ire onto Prissy. But Pris had made no bones about the fact she saw my boutique as a direct competitor for her pet spa . . . or that she would do anything to destroy her competition. Besides, she had a mountain of her husband’s money to cushion her, while I would be lucky to pay my rent for the next few months.

Sherry’s wide brow wrinkled in thought.

“Flea dip is definitely worse. But that doesn’t make what you’re doing right.”

“But I’m selling natural alternatives to those chemicals. And Rena’s going to be making fresh, organic pet treats.” The pastry skills of my oldest and dearest friend Rena Hamilton knew no bounds, and she could satisfy the hankerings of man and beast alike. I’d talked her into setting up shop with me, baking pupcakes and kitty canapés for our in-store “barkery.”

Sherry cocked her head the way Packer does when he spots a squirrel. “Rena? Rena Hamilton?”

“Yeah, she’s setting up shop over there.” I pointed toward a corner of the house that had once been a dining room, and still had a doorway into an old kitchen.

Eight-oh-one Maple had been built as a single-family residence, back when many Minnesotans had about a zillion children. My landlady, Ingrid Whitfield, had inherited the house when her husband, Arnold, died. She had converted the third floor into an apartment—where I happened to reside—and the first floor into a gift shop, while she continued to live on the second floor. When she renovated the house, though, she didn’t want to disturb the beautiful tiling and cabinets in the original kitchen, so she’d kept it intact. Now, Rena could use the kitchen for creating her pet treats.

“I didn’t know you were in business with Rena,” Sherry said. I thought I detected a tremor in her voice.

“Do you know Rena well?”

Merryville was a small town, and Rena had lived there for the entirety of her flamboyant life. Everyone knew Rena, but few people knew her well.

“Oh, we, uh, worked together,” Sherry said. She waved her hand dismissively. “It was a long time ago.”

Curious. I couldn’t imagine Sherry Harper engaging in any labor, much less the sort of minimum wage job Rena tended to have.

But before I could push Sherry further about her past with Rena, a violent sneeze tore through me.

“Oh dear, excuse me!” I grabbed a tissue and pressed it against my nose to stave off another sneeze.

“Are you catching cold, too?”

“I don’t know. I certainly hope not.” With the grand opening of Trendy Tails kicking off in just over twenty-four hours, I couldn’t afford to slow down.

“I’ve got just the thing,” Sherry said, her hand snaking into the baby sling and rooting around. She pulled out a black cell phone with a pink anarchy sticker on the back, its corner nicked up with tiny tooth marks; a dog-eared paperback; and a handful of crumpled tissues before finding what she wanted and stuffing everything back in the sling.

“Here,” she said, “try this.” She held out a cellophane package with a crimson paper label, covered with Chinese characters in metallic gold. One shriveled tan disk nestled at the bottom of the bag. It looked like an ancient potato chip.

“It’s ginseng,” Sherry said. “Great for your immune system.”

The nails of her short, blunt fingers were square and unpolished, but they were buffed and the cuticles trimmed, like she’d recently gotten a manicure. She shook the bag at me, and a mismatched clump of ornaments slid down her wrist to drape across her hand: two brass bangles, three macramé bracelets adorned with jade stones, and a knotted red string. A whiff of patchouli tickled another sneeze out of me.

I shook my head. “Oh, I couldn’t take your last one,” I insisted.

“Nah, go ahead. I drank some ginseng tea this morning, so I’m all set. I was just in Sprigs this morning, and they were out of dried ginseng, so if you don’t take mine you’re out of luck for a couple of days. By then, it will be too late. The cold will have set in, and the ginseng won’t help at all.”

I looked at the desiccated bit of plant matter. Mulch. It was mulch. And she wanted me to eat it.

“Are you sure?” I held my breath, hoping she’d retract the offer.

“Absolutely. It’s good Karma for me.”

Fighting a shudder, I took the bag. I didn’t want to eat the ginseng—even if it would keep me healthy—but if I turned down Sherry’s offer, I’d alienate her for sure.

And I couldn’t afford to alienate Sherry Harper.

My landlord and former boss, Ingrid Whitfield, had assured me that a pet boutique was a viable business. Only a stone’s throw from the Mississippi’s headwaters, Merryville was almost an island; it nestled between the banks of the Mississippi, the Perry River (one of the Mighty Mississippi’s tributaries), and the sloping shores of Badger Lake. Its quaint inns and rental cottages attracted all manner of tourists from Minneapolis, Madison, and even as far away as Chicago: outdoor enthusiasts, antiquers, and aficionados of the town’s peculiar blend of austere Prairie architecture and Victorian whimsy. Ingrid reasoned that the customers who’d bought folk art and tchotchkes from her Merryville Gift Haus would be delighted by canine couture and feline fashions.

I wasn’t so sure. Besides, I had a few obstacles standing in my way. Numero uno? I didn’t know diddly about how to run a business. My sisters never ceased reminding me that I bounced checks like a Harlem Globetrotter, forgetting to transfer my money from savings to checking, and I always overtipped at restaurants. I certainly didn’t have the financial savvy to negotiate with vendors, manage payroll for a couple of employees, or keep adequate records for tax season.

I also worried about getting support from the rest of the Merryville merchants. My neighbor, Richard Greene, had expressed displeasure about the possible noise and mess an animal-related business might produce. (His own German shepherd, MacArthur, had such a wicked bite he didn’t bother with barking.) Priscilla Olson, owner of Prissy’s Pretty Pets Spa and Salon, had been agitating against her perceived competition. And half the residents of Merryville thought my business partner, Rena, might be a witch.

Bottom line, I didn’t think Trendy Tails could possibly survive the winter if Sherry decided to picket the store or, worse, wage an online campaign against me by posting scathing articles and reviews on the blogs and Web sites promoting the local charm to would-be travelers.

So I took the withered chip of ginseng between two fingers. The scent of the stuff, like someone had tried to cover the smell of overheated compost by burning incense, made me gag a little. I steeled my spine, squinched my eyes, held my breath, and popped it in my mouth.

Agggh. It tasted like dirt. Bitter dirt.

I chewed it as quickly as I could and choked it down.

When I opened my eyes, I found Sherry watching me, the ghost of a smile playing at the corners of her generous mouth. “Takes some getting used to,” she said.

I managed a smile in return. “It must. But thanks.”

A measure of tension drained from her posture, and I started to think I’d talked her off the warpath.

But just then the small brass bell tied to the front door of the shop jingled merrily, and we both turned to see Ken West wiping his loafers on my welcome mat.

Thanks to the cosmopolitan tastes (and money) of our many tourists, Merryville residents had a host of wonderful restaurants to choose from, offering everything from Tex-Mex to pizza to down-home American food. We even had a fantastic Korean barbecue. Ken West, though, was the only chef in all of Perry County to have an actual degree in culinary arts. He’d moved to town a few years earlier to open a fine dining restaurant called the Blue Atlantic. I admit it took chutzpah, opening a high-end seafood restaurant when Merryville couldn’t be farther from an ocean if it tried. There’s plenty of walleye in Minnesota, but not much in the way of edible shellfish. When the business failed, he stuck around, doing informal catering and scouting for an investor to back another restaurant venture.

I’m a disaster in the kitchen, and when it comes to people food, Rena only cooks vegetarian. Despite the questionable provenance of crab served in rural Minnesota, my aunt Dolly had been a regular patron of the Blue Atlantic. As a favor to her, and likely in hopes of securing her backing for his next restaurant, Ken had agreed to cater my grand opening. He would provide suitably omnivorous nibbles for my small-town Minnesota clientele, and charge me just a smidge above cost. Ken gave me the heebie-jeebies, but I couldn’t say no to such a generous offer. Especially since Aunt Dolly—the only member of my family who seemed to consider my business a genuinely good idea—was footing the bill for the whole grand-opening shindig.

“Oh, I should have known,” Sherry spat. “You’re in league with him.”

Ken, who had been focused on his shoes, looked up in alarm. When his gaze settled on Sherry, he heaved a sigh and his lids drooped in resignation.

“Hi, Sherry.”

“What’s going on?” I asked. “You two know each other?”

Ken’s mouth quirked in a tiny smile. “Actually, we’ve never been formally introduced. But Sherry here devoted herself to picketing the Blue Atlantic for what? Three months?”

“Three and a half,” Sherry said. “And I was prepared to stay out there with my sign for as long as it took to close you down.”

I felt a little sick. I remembered Aunt Dolly lamenting the loss of the Blue Atlantic, but the restaurant had closed right around the time my boyfriend of fourteen years had announced he was riding off into the sunset without me. I’d been buried too deep in self-pity to follow local news. I hadn’t realized that Sherry had been involved with the restaurant’s demise.

“You picketed the Blue Atlantic?”

“She sure did,” Ken said. “Every afternoon at five o’clock, she showed up with a huge sign—‘murderer’ written in red dripping letters. Very catchy.”

“You were serving foie gras,” Sherry said, punctuating her statement with an accusatory finger. “Do you have any idea what they do to the geese to fatten their livers?”

I didn’t know. I didn’t particularly want to know. Like Rena, I ate vegetarian, though my meatless life had started more as a way to keep the pounds from creeping on in college, while Rena was a true believer. Still, pureed goose liver didn’t appeal to me in the slightest.

I was spared the details by Ken throwing up his hands in mock surrender. “Yes, yes, Sherry. It was a grievous sin, and grievously hath I answered it. The geese lost their lives, and I lost mine. All is right with the world once more.”

Ken came further into the store, carefully skirting Sherry’s position by the rack of kitty capelets, and propped himself against the front counter. He and I were now clearly squared off against Sherry, two against one. Whether I liked it or not, I was part of “Team Ken.”

He unbuttoned his corduroy-trimmed barn coat and let his leather knapsack slide from his shoulder. The man looked like he’d stepped out of an Orvis catalog. “I have the final menu for tomorrow night, Izzy. I just wanted to go over it and get an update on the estimated number of guests. Didn’t mean to intrude.”

“You’re not intr—”

“Well,” Sherry huffed, throwing up her hands in mock surrender, “I see how it is. You’re trying to tell me that you’re worried about the welfare of animals, but you’ve got this monster catering your party. You’re just another cog in the corporate-farming, habitat-destroying, animal-torturing machine.”

“Sherry, I really don’t thi—”

She cut off my effort to restore the peace. “Don’t even bother. You’ve shown your true colors. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

She turned on her heel, her gauzy saffron-colored skirt billowing around her tights-clad legs, auburn hair swishing dramatically about her shoulders, and stormed out of the store.

Ken chuckled. “She’s a piece of work.”

“No kidding. I thought maybe I could talk her out of protesting the grand opening.”

He shook his head. “No way. She’s like a terrier. Once she’s got hold of something, she just won’t let go.”

A terrier, maybe, but I still thought “tornado” was a more appropriate metaphor: arbitrary, unstoppable, destructive.

All I could do was take shelter and hope that her wrath would skip over my little store without doing too much damage.


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