Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
Caro Lamont—pet therapist—and her cousin Melinda Langston—owner of The Bow Wow Boutique—pamper the kitties and pooches of Laguna Beach’s elites. Unfortunately, their human clients keep turning up dead.
"We were at an art exhibition at The Montage,” I told the detective, "and Kitty asked me to take her cats home because something had come up. Something urgent. It seemed strange, but then the whole evening was strange with dogs and cats. Ones that paint, I mean. And Kitty would never leave her cats, but she did, so it must have been really urgent . . .”
Detective Judd Malone looked past me. "Are those the cats?”
"What kind are they? They’re huge.”
"They’re Bengal cats. Bengals are a hybrid. A cross between a domestic cat and an Asian Leopard Cat. It’s a relatively new breed. Most have . . .” Malone’s face said TMI. Fair enough, more info than he’d been looking for.
"I imagine you know I’m here about Ms. Bardot?” Malone was suddenly all business.
"Yes.” I held my breath and hoped for good news.
"Caro.” He paused. "She didn’t make it.”
"She—” I felt my throat close, and I swallowed hard trying to get control of my emotions. "Too many injuries?” I finally asked. Whatever her emergency had been, it had seemed to upset her. She’d been shaken, and Kitty was never shaken. I remembered her voice as she’d asked me to take care of Tobey and Minou and get them home. The cats. What would happen to the cats now? "Was she driving too fast?”
"Not exactly.” Malone’s voice was serious and grim. "We won’t know until we have a lot more information from the crime lab. It’s too soon to tell, but it may have been a case of road rage. Kitty Bardot was shot.”
Sparkle Abbey is the pseudonym of two mystery authors (Mary Lee Woods and Anita Carter). They are friends and neighbors as well as co-writers of the Pampered Pets Mystery Series. The Pen name was created by combining the names of their rescue pets – Sparkle (Mary Lee’s cat) and Abbey (Anita’s dog). They reside in central Iowa, but if they could write anywhere, you would find them on the beach with their laptops and depending on the time of day, with either an iced tea or a margarita. Visit them atwww.sparkleabbey.com.
"Caro Lamont, pet therapist extraordinaire ,and her cousin, owners of the Bow Wow Boutique are thrust into another entertaining, zany mystery. A must for both pet and mystery lovers!" -- Rosemary Smith, Netgalley
"One thing’s sure: things are getting more exciting by the minute — and they may get dangerous, too!” -- Rebecca Haden, More Than A Review
"We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” the teasing voice whispered in my ear.
The cliché would have been trite and lame had it not been delivered with such a handsome and not-at-all-lame smile. The voice belonged to Sam Gallanos, my friend, my confidant, my sometimes date.
But not tonight. Tonight I’d arrived with the esteemed Hollywood publicist, Kitty Bardot, who was my next-door neighbor and also human-mom to the famous cat-painting twins.
Now, by this, I don’t mean human siblings who paint portraits of cats. I mean two cats who paint.
Kitty’s Bengal cats, Tobey and Minou, to be specific.
The extravagant fete at the wonderful Hotel Montage was the launch of a traveling collection of animal art work. Kitty (the human one) was not only publicist to some of the top Hollywood stars, but also represented Mano, the Jack Russell terrier, a famous artist in his own right.
Mano had done solo exhibits in Milan, Brussels, Paris and New York. He was the headliner for this traveling exhibition, but Tobey and Minou were no slackers. The past year their art had been winning competitions, had been part of some west coast shows, and now the two Bengals had five paintings included in this exclusive event.
I looked around the room at the large canvases, full of life and color, and, well, paw prints. Kitty tells me they’re abstract expressionists.
I know, I know. I don’t see it either.
But back to Sam, who’d handed me a glass of champagne. "How do you think it’s going?” he asked.
"Well, I think,” I took a sip and answered, "the room is packed, champagne is flowing, people and checkbooks are loosening up.”
Usually Kitty’s partner, Franklin, attended events with her, but tonight he was under the weather, and so she’d asked me to accompany her as a favor.
Kitty had sold the idea as, "it’s good to have a pet therapist in the house,” but truly Tobey and Minou were so well behaved, I was more moral support than anything else.
I’m Caro Lamont, and though I’m a trained psychologist, my current vocation is pet therapist. I have my own business, PAWS, the Professional Animal Wellness Specialist clinic, here in Laguna Beach, California. Originally from Texas, I’d picked Laguna Beach partly because I knew the community (my family had summered here), but mostly because you couldn’t ask for a more pet-friendly corner of the world. Oh, and to get away from my overbearing Texas family and the scandal created by my ex-husband. He was the reason I was no longer a practicing "people” therapist and had instead turned my attention to the more loyal species.
Grey Donovan approached from across the room. He was alone, and I have to tell you I was a bit disappointed.
"Hey there, Carolina.” He gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then reached out to shake Sam’s hand. "Great crowd.”
"I know. Who would’ve thought?” I looked around at the packed room.
"Mostly the curious but a few collectors,” Grey noted. "From what I’ve heard, it sounds like there has been some big interest.”
Grey owns a local art gallery. As far as I know all human artists, not dogs and cats. Grey is also almost family.
"Where’s your errant fiancée?” I referred, of course, to Melinda, my cousin who Grey was engaged to. At least last I’d heard the engagement was back on. But hey, what day is this? It could be off again.
"She and Darby had some big event at the shop.” He smiled.
"Really?” It could be they really did have an event or it could be Melinda was avoiding me.
"Yeah, I think they’re calling it Yappy Hour. Mel was serving drinks and pupcakes, and Darby is taking pictures of customers’ dogs.”
Mel owned a high-end pet accessory shop called the Bow Wow Boutique and her friend, Darby, had Paw Prints, the pet photography studio next door.
"Sounds like a lot of fun. Leave it to Mel to come up with a brilliant marketing theme.” I meant the compliment. My cousin was incredibly smart, strikingly beautiful. If it weren’t for her stubborn streak... well, more than stubborn. Mule-headed, in fact. If not for her mule-headedness, we’d still be fast friends like we’d been as kids.
"I’m sure you’re disappointed she’s not here.” Grey looked pointedly at the brooch pinned to the bow on the shoulder of my basic black Kate Spade dress. I hadn’t been certain what was appropriate attire at a pet art affair. A little black dress is always a sure fire fallback.
"I am, sugar.” I smiled a smile that I have to confess was not all that sincere. "I am very disappointed.”
Just then a photographer from the Orange County News approached.
"A picture?” he asked.
I immediately perked up. Kind of like my pooch, Dogbert, when he hears the word "walk.” The idea of one-upping my cousin does the same to me.
"No problem.” I quickly slid between the two most handsome guys in the room and posed for the picture—my hand lightly touching the brooch as if to straighten it.
Yes, I’m shameless.
"Thanks so much.” He glanced down at the display on his camera. "A great shot. I can guarantee it will be in this week’s feature article on the event.”
"That will be smashing.” A feature Mel was sure to see. Super!
"You’re bad.” Smart as well as handsome, Grey hadn’t missed the significance.
"I know.” My smile was much more genuine this time.
"Well, I’d better mingle.” Many of Grey’s patrons were there, and I’m sure, like me, he felt the event was part social and part business. His gallery was very successful. I had an idea art wasn’t all he did, but whatever he was involved with he’d chosen not to share, and I respected his need for privacy. He was a stand-up guy, and so no matter what the reason, I knew it was a good one.
"Off to schmooze.” Grey gave me a hug and straightened the brooch. "You two girls and that pin.” He shook his head.
Sam watched the exchange and also shook his head.
Grey clapped Sam on the shoulder. "Nice to see you again.”
I sighed. Truly, the only way those two would be bumped out of first place for best-looking male specimens in the room was if George Clooney and Brad Pitt were in attendance, and I didn’t think they were. Even if the Ocean’s Eighteen (or whatever number they were on) duo had shown up, I’m thinking Sam and Grey would be contenders.
"So, you and your cousin are still feuding over this jewelry of your grandmother’s?”
"Actually, no. Not anymore. The brooch is in the possession of its rightful owner.”
"How did you get it this time? Breaking and entering involved?” Sam’s dark eyes danced.
"No,” I huffed. "Her brother let me into her house. Fair and square.”
"I don’t know that your cousin would agree.” Sam chuckled. "And I’ll bet her brother is in big trouble.”
I smiled, remembering how easy it had been. She’d been gone. (Granted on something pretty big, but at the time I’d had no idea.) Mitch, Mel’s brother, had let me in. I kind of felt bad about putting him in the middle of things.
The piece of jewelry under discussion was a multi-jeweled basket of fruit. It had been our Grandma Tillie’s. An amalgam of rubies, emeralds, and other gems in a gold basket. My inheritance from her—she’d left it to her favorite granddaughter—and to let Mel have it would mean admitting defeat. As you may have already guessed, Mel also thinks Grandma Tillie meant it to go to her.
I slipped my hand into the crook of Sam’s arm. "Looks like the closing ceremonies are about to begin.”
We made our way to the seating area. Virgil McKeever, the organizer and emcee, had taken the stage and was about to introduce the "artists.”
As we looked for seats, I noted several clients.
Andy and Mandy Beenerman, all dressed up in designer duds and diamonds, were the center of a circle of fitness groupies. His investment business had recently tanked, but her Yoga-Pilates-Zumba studio, Mandy’s Place, had taken off like a house afire. I’d helped them out with Nietzsche, their depressed and agoraphobic Lhasa Apso, a few months ago. Mandy’d also had another issue I sincerely hoped she had under control. She made eye-contact and waved in my direction.
Across the room, I’d also spotted retired newsman, Davis Pinter, one of my favorite clients. He had an adorable Cavalier King Charles, Huntley. Smart, classy. Both the man and the dog.
Tova Randall, a newish Laguna resident, was trying so hard to fit in that, well, she didn’t. She was over-dressed, over-botoxed, and overly-loud.
Tova had the money, thanks to a very lucrative career as a lingerie model. She had the house, a multi-million dollar abode in the hills, thanks to the aforementioned money. She had the looks, thanks to good genes and several hours a day at Mandy’s Place.
But like a new pooch who’s not accepted by the pack, the rich and famous in the exclusive community still treated her like an outsider. She’d asked me to work with her and her Yorkipoo, Kiki, but when I’d arrived at her house, she’d gone to the spa. There was a message. She’d left Kiki with a dog-nanny and told her to work with me. I left a message explaining that’s not how it works.
Then she’d sued my cousin, claiming Kiki’d gotten fleas at Mel’s boutique. I think it all got sorted out, but it didn’t matter, I was done with her. No one is allowed to pick on my family.
There were also a lot of people from the Laguna Beach art community in attendance. I recognized a few whose paintings hung in Grey’s gallery. The place was completely packed. I hoped we could find seats.
At the end of an aisle, a handsome young artist, who I’d seen talking to Kitty earlier, sat with his arms folded and his legs extended. There were some open seats just beyond.
"Excuse me. If we could just slip past you.” I touched his shoulder.
He flipped longish dark hair out of his face and glanced up. His aquamarine eyes were red-rimmed, and he covered his mouth with the silk scarf that accented his tux.
"So sorry.” He stood to let us through and then slumped back down as soon as we’d passed.
I settled in my seat and then leaned past Sam and said, "I don’t believe we’ve met, but I’ve seen you at Kitty’s house. I live next door. I’m Caro Lamont.”
"Clive.” He nodded in our direction.
Apparently like Cher or Seal or uhm... Liberace, he didn’t have a last name. I was kind of glad he didn’t offer his hand as I wasn’t wild about catching whatever he had.
"Nice to meet you, Clive.”
"Allergies?” Sam asked.
Ahh. So he might not be contagious. I hadn’t thought of allergies.
As usual, Sam was more observant than most. He had this incredible charismatic gift with people, and I loved him for it. Unfortunately so did all of the eligible (and some of the not actually eligible) females in Laguna Beach.
"Yes.” Clive dabbed his eyes with his scarf. "I’m allergic to cats.”
"Tough evening, then,” Sam noted.
"Yeah.” He nodded.
His date came back just then with some cheese and dog and cat shaped crackers on a plate.
"You know I’m lactose intolerant,” he snapped at her.
The girl popped a piece of the cheese in her mouth and stomped off.
Allergic to cats, can’t eat the hors d’oeuvres, now his date had deserted him. The guy was not having a good evening.
The lights dimmed, and the emcee acknowledged the patrons of the event. We all applauded at the appropriate times. And then the artists themselves began to take the stage. There was Mano and his human, a large bulky guy who looked more like a WWF wrestler than a dog artist enthusiast. A couple of more canine artists, and then they shifted to make room for the cats.
Kitty looked stunning in a coffee-brown sequined Michaels Kors that shone in the light of the chandeliers and perfectly completed her cats. Their tabby rosette-dappled fur was shiny and rich. They looked out at the crowd with an aloofness, like they knew they were stars. Bengal cats are beautiful animals, and Tobey and Minou were regal representatives of the breed.
And clearly, very talented felines. Their paintings received high acclaim, rivaling Mano who’d had top-billing in the past. Kitty now had her work cut out for her with her own cats as clients.
I made eye contact with Sam’s dark eyes and could see he was as amused by the whole surreal affair as I was. We were, at that moment, in tune with each other, like a close harmony. Yin and Yang. Like peanut butter and jelly. Like milk and cookies. Chips and salsa. I suddenly remembered I’d missed eating in my rush to not make Kitty late for the festivities. I wondered where that guy’s date had gone with the cheese and crackers.
Sam reached over and took my hand. His thumb stroked my wrist, and I felt a tingle in my stomach that had nothing at all to do with having missed dinner.
The lights came up, and as we stood Kitty approached from the stage area.
"Hello, Samuel. How nice to see you again.” Kitty never forgot a name or a face. It was part of what made her so incredibly good as a publicist. She made connections effortlessly.
"Caro, I need a huge favor.” She seemed a little breathless. I guess the excitement was quite a high, even for someone who mixed with big stars on a regular basis. I imagined this was probably more personal.
"Sure. What do you need, hon?” I was struck by how tiny she was. Of course, I’m tall, so a lot of people seem short. But Kitty was undeniably petite. Short in stature but definitely high in energy.
"I hate to impose, but I’ve had something urgent come up, and I must take care of it right away.”
"No problem. Don’t worry about me. I can find a ride home.”
"I can take Caro home,” Sam volunteered.
"See?” I patted her arm. "No problem.”
"I’m afraid it’s more than that.” Her voice shook a little, which made me wonder about her emergency. "Would you be able to take Tobey and Minou with you? I hate to ask and wouldn’t if this weren’t so pressing. I’ll be home in less than an hour. If you could, just take them in the house and let them out of their carriers.”
"No problem,” Sam and I answered at the same time.
"Thanks so much, you two.” She handed me her house key, relief evident on her face. "I owe you. I’ve got my two fur babies in their carriers backstage, and I’ll let Virgil know you’re taking them for me.”
Kitty disappeared into the crowd. I couldn’t imagine what type of emergency a Hollywood publicist might have, but I knew Kitty dealt with some pretty high-profile clients. Probably some wardrobe malfunction or shoplifting scandal or meltdown captured on camera. Whatever it was, it was obviously important to the client—and to Kitty.
Sam and I made our way behind the dais and located the two cats. Tobey scolded us a bit, but Minou was calm or maybe just exhausted by her big evening. Bengal cats have a high-pitched meow, almost a squawk. In fact, about the same sound a squeaky dog toy makes. Something to think about if you’re considering one of these beautiful felines as a pet.
We got the cat carriers secured in Sam’s Ferrari and headed north on Pacific Coast Highway to Laguna Beach proper.
As we neared the downtown shops, traffic slowed to a crawl. Once we turned the curve at Blue Bird Canyon we could see why.
There must have been a bad accident on the highway. There were flashing lights from police cars and emergency vehicles. Orange County rescue pulled around the line of cars and stopped, EMTs piled out.
We inched forward as one of the uniformed officers began directing traffic down a side street. As we neared the intersection I could see the late model BMW, its front end nearly destroyed by the light pole it had careened into.
I suddenly felt sick.
I knew that car.
My heart thumped in my chest, and I fought to keep control. A few hours earlier I’d been in that car.
"Sam, stop.” I finally choked out the words.
He jammed on the brakes, and I jumped out and hurried toward the accident scene. I wouldn’t get in the way, but I had to be sure.
As I got closer, I knew. It was Kitty’s car. The vanity license plate "StarPR” confirmed it. I ran faster.
"We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
Wow. Déjà vu all over again, right? Except this time the one delivering the line was Laguna Beach police detective, Judd Malone. No less handsome, but much less playful.
"What the hell are you doing, Caro?” He grabbed my arm and turned me away from the scene.
A little empathy and kindness wouldn’t be out of line.
Just as soon as I had the thought, I took it back. If he were nice, there was the distinct possibility I’d lose it. My job is handling pet problems day in and day out, not dealing with life and death. The pets I work with just want to be understood, and the people I work with just want their pets under control.
I guess I must have been standing there staring over Detective Hot-Shot’s shoulder while I sorted out the psychology of the moment.
"I don’t know. We were driving by. I recognized the car as my neighbor’s. I thought I should stop and see if she was okay.”
Malone crossed his arms and waited for me to continue.
I swallowed hard and searched his face. "She’s not okay, is she?”
"She’s not. She has very serious injuries. And, Caro, there’s nothing you can do here to help.” He laid his hands on my shoulders. I resisted the urge to bury my face in his solidness.
"It’s best for you to go on home.” He turned me away from the accident scene.
"I have Tobey and Minou,” I blurted, facing him again.
"You have who?”
"Her cats. I have her cats and her keys.”
"Wait. You were driving around with her cats?”
"No, no. We were at an art exhibition at The Montage, and Kitty asked me to take her cats home because something had come up. Something urgent. It seemed strange, but then the whole evening was strange with dogs and cats. Ones that paint, I mean. And Kitty would never leave her cats, but she did, so it must have been really urgent...”
Several emotions crossed Malone’s face, and I could almost see his brain synapses trying to decide which line of questions to follow.
"Detective?” An accident scene tech waved from a few feet away.
"Be right there.” He nodded to the young woman and then turned back to me. "Go home. Take the cats and go home. Don’t go into Ms. Bardot’s house. Stay at your house.”
"No, Caro. No buts. Go home.”
Well, hell. I knew there wasn’t anything I could do here, but what a darn helpless feeling.
I made my way back through the crowd to Sam. We walked further down PCH to a parking lot where he’d left the Ferrari. Tobey and Minou, distressed over being abandoned in their carriers, were vocal with their displeasure. Again, that crazy Bengal squawk. They were not happy kitties.
Sam held the door for me, then walked around and slid into the driver’s seat. He waited a moment before starting the car.
"A bad accident?”
"Yeah. Poor Kitty. Such a great evening, then it ends like this. I hope she’s going to be okay. I explained to Detective Malone that I had Tobey and Minou and Kitty’s keys. He asked that I not go into her house.”
"Detective Malone?” Sam started the car and put it in gear. "A homicide detective? At a car crash?”
"That is strange, isn’t it?” I guess I hadn’t thought about the fact that Malone was at an accident scene.
It took us a while to get out of the traffic jam created by all the on-lookers, rubber-neckers and people just trying to get through. Once out of the mess, Sam headed the Ferrari toward my place.
As soon as we turned onto my street, I could see a Laguna Beach police cruiser parked in the driveway next door. I guess they figured there would be members of the media coming around, as Kitty was pretty well known in Hollywood circles.
Sam helped me with the cat carriers. As soon as we got inside, I released Tobey and Minou from their cages. They roamed the room checking things out.
Dogbert, my rescue mutt, loped down the hallway and sniffed but didn’t seem too interested in our new guests. He looked up at me as if to say, "How long are they staying?” and then back at them as if asking exactly what species they were.
"Will your cats be okay with them?” Sam asked.
"I think so. We’ll find out shortly.”
Thelma and Louise, my cats, leapt down from where they’d been perched on my bookcases. I think they imagined themselves very well-read felines. Thelma approached Tobey, sniffed and then hissed in his face and walked away. Louise performed the same ritual with Minou, complete with arched back and don’t-mess-with-me ears. Then the two walked away with a swish of their tails and strolled into the kitchen for a snack.
Wow, I think my cats might be "mean girls.” I was shocked at their lack of hospitality.
"Not so wild about having company, huh?” Sam chuckled.
"Apparently not. Maybe it will just take a little time.” I reached down to pet Tobey, who seemed unfazed by the exchange.
"That hissin’ thing was really rude,” I called to my two felines.
"I’m sure it will get better.” Sam knelt to scratch Dogbert’s neck. Sam was a favorite with Dogbert, since Sam could always be counted on for a ball toss or a tummy rub.
"I sure hope so. If Kitty’s hospitalized for a while I may have to call in some help.” I knew Don Furry at the Animal Rescue League would fill in if need be. He’d love the opportunity to get to know a couple of Bengals.
"I don’t mind cat-sitting or dog-sitting for friends in a pinch, but taking care of celebrity cats is a whole different enchilada.” I immediately thought of my cousin, Mel, who’d been named the guardian of Fluffy, an Emmy-winning pooch, a month or so ago. Word was it hadn’t been exactly a walk in the dog park.
"I wonder if Kitty is the one who works with them on the paintings or if it’s someone else,” Sam mused.
"To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Really, until Kitty started talking about this big event, I had no idea her cats painted.” Like Sam, I was fascinated by how the process worked.
"I’m sorry, Sam. I’m a terrible hostess tonight. Would you like something to drink? A coffee or tea? A glass of wine?”
"No thanks,hriso mou.” Sam leaned in and kissed my forehead. Sam’s Greek, and so he often lapses into his native language. I didn’t know the words, but the tone told me it was an endearment. Sometimes I asked for the translation. Other times, like now, I just enjoyed the moment.
"It’s no trouble.”
"It’s been a big night for you. I’ll let you and your zoo here get settled and hopefully get some rest. You’ll call me if you need anything?”
"I sure will, sugar.” I walked Sam to the door and then locked it behind him. The police cruiser was still in the driveway next door, I noted.
I turned back to the roomful of four-legged friends. All looked at me expectantly.
"All right,” I said. "Let’s set some rules here. No biting, no scratching, no hissing. Be respectful of each other’s space, and let’s all just get along.”
They looked willing.
Too bad it hadn’t been that easy with some of the beauty pageant contestants I’d been in competitions with back in Texas. Whether it was Miss Texas or the Cattle Queen of Dallas County, every pageant was cutthroat, and it was pretty much always a catfight.