Authors: Patti Benning
“Oh, how nice for her,” Moira said. “I’m happy that she’s able to start on the next part of her life at last. I know what it’s like to be in a toxic relationship, and leaving it can only do her good.”
She paused, cocking her head toward the mudroom. Had she heard a noise? She set her tea down and got up to check, listening to her friend talk over the speaker phone as she went.
Sure enough, Hazel was lying on her side in the kiddie pool and next to her was a tiny black puppy.
“I’ve got to go,” Moira said quickly to Martha. “Hazel’s having her puppies.”
She hung the phone up without waiting for an answer, certain her friend would understand. Then she stepped over the baby gate and grabbed one of the soft hand towels that she had set aside for this purpose and set to drying the little puppy—a girl! —while Hazel began giving birth to the next one.
Once the little black puppy was dry and squirming, making soft noises as it wriggled around in her hand, she put it in a laundry basket with a heating pad and clean towels that she had prepared for this moment. The puppy would stay warm and safe in there while Moira and Hazel turned their attention to the next one.
Four hours later, six healthy puppies were happily nursing with their mom while Moira began a load of laundry. There were fresh clean blankets in the kiddie pool, and she had put the heating pad in the center of the pool between two blankets so the puppies could lie on it if they got cold. Hazel had been outside to relieve herself already, and had eaten a big bowl full of softened kibble mixed with a calcium supplement that the vet had said would help ensure she had enough milk. Exhausted, though probably nowhere near as tired as the mother dog was, Moira sat down next to the kiddie pool and looked at the puppies.
There were four girls and two boys. One of the boys was chocolate like Hazel, and the other was black with two white front paws. The four girls were all different colors; one was solid black, another chocolate with a white spot on her chest, a third solid chocolate, and the fourth, the runt of the litter, was yellow with four white paws and a white-tipped tail. Moira was in love with them all, and Hazel seemed to be also.
How could anyone threaten to kill such innocent beings?
she wondered. Her heart ached for the poor child forced to abandon this beautiful dog. She hoped that the kid would find her one day so she could assure them that Hazel had been in a loving environment when she gave birth to her puppies, and that all of them were alive and well.
She knew that she was looking forward to a sleepless night—well, probably a few sleepless nights—spent watching the mother dog and her puppies. The vet had suggested that she sleep near them for the first couple of nights and wake up every two hours to be sure Hazel hadn’t inadvertently smothered one of her puppies, and that the little ones hadn’t wandered to the cold side of the pool. She was hoping that Hazel would be careful with the puppies, and knew that she would never forgive herself if she didn’t check and something bad happened.
It was going to be hard to find homes for all of the puppies and the mother, but Moira was determined not to keep any of them. There was no way that she would have the time to raise a puppy—the next eight weeks were going to be hard enough. She supposed that she
keep Hazel if it came down to that or sending her to the pound, but she was hoping to find a good home for her. A single woman who lived alone and worked full time really couldn’t give enough attention to three dogs, and it wouldn’t be fair to take Keeva and Maverick’s time away for Hazel. A thought struck her suddenly. Months ago, when she and Maverick had lived in that tiny apartment after her house burned down, she had rushed him in to the emergency vet’s office late at night because he had been poisoned. While she was waiting for him to stabilize, she had met another woman who was there with her own dog. The woman had told her that she ran a rescue, and had given Moira her card. What had the woman’s name been, and where on earth had she put her card?
The woman’s name came back to her first. She was nearly certain that it had been Beth. She had seemed like a nice lady who really cared about animals. Maybe she would be able to help find homes for the puppies and Hazel… if only she could find that darned card.
After nearly half an hour of searching, she found it in the upstairs closet in her old purse. She had been right about the name. She wondered if the woman would remember her. Doubtful, but hopefully she would still be willing to help. The deli owner glanced at the clock and realized that it was far too late to call her now. It would have to wait for the morning, before she went in to work.
Shoot, I’ll have to call Candice, too,
she thought. She couldn’t very well leave the puppies home alone all day. Hopefully her daughter would be able to come over at least for a few hours before she had to go open the candy shop.
I almost wish Logan weren’t working for Candice, though I’m glad that he’s enjoying his job. It was nice to have someone able to come over and watch the dogs any time I needed it.
She yawned, cutting her own thoughts off with the sudden realization of just how tired she was.
“Time to go to bed,” she muttered to herself. “I need to get what sleep I can. It’s going to be a long night.”
Moira smiled over at David, glad that they were able to go on their date at last. It had been a crazy few days, but Hazel and her puppies seemed to be settled in. After watching the mother dog with her pups for the last couple of days, Moira was finally convinced that Hazel wouldn’t accidentally roll over and squish the poor things, but she was still glad that Candice had agreed to come over and watch them. Hazel was astoundingly gentle with the little bundles of fur, but she was so much larger that it would only take a second for something to happen.
The Redwood Grill was unusually busy that night. It made the deli owner’s heart glad to see her friend’s business doing so well. Denise had a lot on her plate between running the restaurant and taking care of Logan, her teenage nephew. Earlier in the summer, his mother—Denise’s sister—had passed away, and with his father deployed with the military, the kid had had nowhere else to go. Moira thought that the chance to take care of someone else had been good for the fiercely independent woman, and the chance to grieve together was probably beneficial to them both.
They waited until after the waitress had taken their drink order to begin their conversation. Moira could tell that the private investigator had something that he wanted to tell her, but he began by asking her how she was doing.
“How are the puppies?” he asked once she had assured him that she was fine—tired, but fine.
“They’re doing wonderfully,” she told him. “I swear; they’ve doubled in size since you saw them.”
He had come over the day after they were born to take a look at them. Moira had loved seeing his face soften as he gently held each puppy. A man that loved animals was worth his weight in gold, in her opinion.
“Did you ever hear back from that woman?”
She sighed. “Yes. She called me back that evening. She said that if it was absolutely urgent, she could come and take them, but if I could manage it, it would be best for them to stay with me, since their mom is already comfortable with me and trusts me. I told her that was fine, of course, though trying to take care of them around my work schedule is going to be interesting.”
“At least you’re the boss,” he pointed out. “No one is going to get you in trouble for leaving in the middle of the day, or taking off a few hours early.”
“That’s true,” she said. “I do try to set a good example for my employees… but I’m sure they’ll understand, given the circumstances.”
“I’m sure they will.” He smiled. “You’ve got some top-notch employees there. I don’t think you have to worry about them picking up bad habits from you. Anyway, did the lady say that she’d be able to help find them homes?”
“She said she’d try. My main concern is finding a home for Hazel. I’m sure plenty of people will want the puppies. I have no idea how to make sure the homes they end up going to are good ones. I guess I’ll ask Beth.”
“I could do background checks on all potential adopters,” he said, chuckling. “Nah. That’s probably too crazy, but if I were you, I’d definitely ask any adopters for references. Hmm…”
He trailed off, a thoughtful look in his eye.
“What is it?” she asked him.
“I just remembered, my sister was talking about maybe getting a dog once she got settled in. I’m not sure quite how long it’s supposed to take someone to ‘get settled in,’ but she might be up to it now. You should at least invite her over to see the puppies. I doubt she’ll be able to resist their cuteness for too long.”
“That’s a great idea,” she said, grinning. “I’d love it if she took one of the puppies. I’d be able to watch it grow up, and Maverick and Keeva would have another friend for play dates.”
“I’ll let you arrange that with her, then,” he said. “There was something else I wanted to talk about.”
She frowned at his serious tone, but didn’t get a chance to ask him about it right away since the waitress came back with their drinks at that moment.
“Are you ready to order, or do you need more time?” she asked.
Moira and David traded a glance.
“I think we’re ready,” he said.
“What can I get you?” she asked, turning toward Moira.
“Can I get the balsamic chicken?” she asked. “Thanks.”
“And I’ll have the surf and turf with the hasselback potatoes,” David told her.
She wrote down their orders and promised their food would be out shortly, then disappeared back into the busy restaurant. At last able to ask David what was going on, Moira turned back to him.
“What is it?” she asked. “What you wanted to talk about?”
“It’s about the barn fire.” He sighed. “I spoke to the coroner and—remember, you can’t tell anyone this—both men had suffered damage to their skulls inconsistent with their injuries from the fire. Which means…”
“They were murdered,” she finished. “Someone attacked them, knocked them out so they wouldn’t be able to escape the fire.”
David nodded. “My guess is the killer hoped that the blaze would consume any evidence of foul play, but the fire probably didn’t get as hot as he expected. The two men were found lying on the floor, and most of the heat and smoke was sucked up through the upper windows in the hay loft like a chimney. It was still enough to kill the two unconscious men, but not enough to burn their bodies.”
“That’s just terrible,” she said, not quite as hungry anymore. “Why kill both of them? Were they both targets, do you think?”
“I don’t know,” he told her. “Unless we can figure out some sort of motive, there’s no way to tell. Maybe the real killer wanted to make it look like they killed each other.”
“This is terrible,” she said. “Do the police have any leads yet?”
“Not that I know of. You knew Farmer Samwell pretty well, didn’t you?”
“Sort of,” she shrugged. “We usually only talked business.”
“Did he ever mention any competitors that he was concerned about?”
“No. Well, Mr. Franks, but he’s obviously not the killer unless his plot went horribly wrong. Besides, Mr. Samwell was planning to retire soon. If this was about business, why couldn’t the murderer have just waited until he moved and leased out his property?” she wondered.
“Perhaps whoever it was wanted to buy the property instead of leasing it,” he pointed out. “Do you know what his wife is planning on doing with the farm?”
“I have no idea,” she said. “But if she’s not going to sell it… do you think that she could be in danger too?”
He nodded. “It’s definitely something for her to be aware of. I’ll let Detective Jefferson know our ideas, so he can tell her to be aware if he thinks she might be at risk.”
“All right.” Moira sighed. “Do they know what started the barn fire?”
“The fire marshal still hasn’t said,” he told her. “Some things they want to keep secret in case the killer reveals knowledge that no one else could have.”
“That makes sense,” she said. “I hope this gets solved quickly. If I were Mrs. Samwell, I wouldn’t be able to sleep a wink until the killer was caught and behind bars.”
“I can get that, Ms. D,” Darrin said. “You should go sit down.”
Moira frowned at the pile of dishes on the bistro table in front of her. She was getting tired of people insisting on doing everything for her, but the fact was what would take her multiple trips to and from the kitchen, Darrin could do in one. She sighed.
“All right. Hopefully I’ll have this thing off my arm soon though. I hate feeling useless.”
“You’re the farthest thing from useless, Ms. D. No one would blame you if you didn’t even come in to the store for a while, but you’re still here every day. And now at least the emails are getting answered more quickly than usual. People seem pretty impressed by how quickly we get back to them.”
Back at the register, Moira sat down on the stool behind the counter and frowned at her tablet. Bored out of her mind, and unable to do much in the kitchen by way of cooking or even dish washing, she had decided to try to catch up on some of the emails sent through the deli’s website. Before the fire, she usually only answered a few each night, so she hadn’t been anywhere near caught up with them. She’d spent the last few days at the deli going through them, and took care to answer each email as pleasantly as she could. Most of them were just messages from people who were impressed with the deli’s service and food. There were a few complaints, but nothing serious. One customer was upset that they didn’t sell wine, so upset that they had even resorted to swearing to show their displeasure. Moira could only chuckle at this. Some people would be unreasonable no matter what, and it wouldn’t make sense to take it personally.