Read Woof at the Door Online

Authors: Laura Morrigan

Woof at the Door

PRAISE FOR

Woof at the Door


Woof at the Door
by Laura Morrigan is a hoot—literally! Her animal behaviorist, Grace Wilde, can talk
to the animals. When she gets involved in the death of the star quarterback of the
Jacksonville Jaguars, the fur flies. A fun read that will keep you guessing!”

—Joyce Lavene, national bestselling coauthor of the Missing Pieces Mysteries

“A sleuth who communicates with animals, a hunky crime scene investigator, and a twist-filled
plot that will keep you guessing . . . A sparkling mystery debut . . . You’ll love
taking a walk on this ‘Wilde’ side!”

—Heather Blake, national bestselling author of the Wishcraft Mysteries

“Dr. Dolittle, look out! Grace Wilde is the real deal . . . I predict a fabulous future
for the Call of the Wilde series.”

—Kari Lee Townsend, national bestselling author of the Fortune Teller Mysteries

THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP

Published by the Penguin Group

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WOOF AT THE DOOR

A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author

Copyright © 2013 by Laura Morrigan.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed
in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in
or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
Purchase only authorized editions.

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group.

BERKLEY
®
PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group
(USA) Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

ISBN:978-1-101-62440-1

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / July 2013

 

Cover illustration by Maryann Lasher.

Cover design by Diana Kolsky.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the
product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance
to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is
entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume
any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

To Blake.
Who needs Superman when I have you?

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This is my first novel and through the years I’ve amassed an avalanche of gratitude
to express. I’ll try not to ramble.

I must begin by thanking my seventh-grade English teacher (yes, really) Mrs. Sonja
F. Nichols, who was the first objective person to call my writing a talent. I still
have your letter.

Next, are the people who, by some miracle, agreed with her, starting with my agent,
Elaine English. Thank you for your guidance and enthusiasm for this story. And to
my editor, Faith Black, along with all the folks at Berkley Prime Crime who turned
this manuscript into a real, honest-to-goodness book. Your hard work is much appreciated.

To my fellow writers in GIAM, the motivation and inspiration you all provide is a
blessing. And the ladies of my uber-talented local writers group: Amelia Grey, Dolores
Monaco, Frances Hanson-Grow, Geri Buckley Borcz, Hortense Thurman, and Sandra Shanklin.
Thank you for keeping me on track. I truly could never have done it without you.

I must also thank my friends and family for all their love and support. Especially
my aunt Oma Laura, a lifelong Jacksonville resident, who tirelessly provided detailed
descriptions of random locations for this book. (Any errors or embellishments of these
are mine, of course.) My brother, Dan, for his insight into all things lawyery, and
my sister, Elizabeth, for challenging my vocabulary and never letting me give up.
My mom, Frances, who gifted me with the writer’s gene, sparked it by reading me mysteries
at bedtime, and fanned the flames with endless encouragement. Thanks for teaching
me the value of patience. (Or trying to, anyway.) And my dad, Ed, who told me I could
achieve anything I put my mind to, and taught me that being a little different and
more than a little stubborn were actually good things.

Finally, to my husband, Blake, for being brave enough to live with a novelist. Your
understanding, patience, and love have made this dream come true. Thank you.

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Though this story takes place in a real city and involves a real sheriff’s office,
in order to spin a cohesive tale, I bent the rules and fudged as needed. Locations
have been tweaked. DNA processing happens at the blink of an eye. Civilians are asked
to help secure crime scenes. I ask you, dear reader, to forgive these and other uses
of creative license. Happy reading!

Contents

Praise for Woof at the Door

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Author’s Note

 

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 1

I got the call on a Sunday.

For most people, getting a call from the cops on a Sunday afternoon would be alarming.
For me, it meant one thing—I needed to get the lemur off my head. Fast.

Not that this wasn’t already a priority. The little gremlin was pulling my hair like,
well, a panicked, four-month-old lemur who had escaped from his enclosure at the zoo
and had mistaken me for his mama. He clung to me with the fervor of a tick on speed.
To make things worse, it was July in Jacksonville, which meant I had long since sweated
through my cotton tank top. Sporting a lemur hat was going to induce heatstroke in
a matter of minutes.

My name is Grace Wilde, and technically, I’m an animal behaviorist who works with
everything from elephants to schnauzers. The reality is much more complicated.

“Hold still, Grace. I’ll get him!”

“No!” I sidestepped Hugh, the zoo’s veterinarian, who was reaching out to try and
disentangle Kiki-the-lemur from my hair. This, of course, alarmed Kiki. Whistling
in distress, he scurried for a better grip, shuffling his weight around ’til my eyes
were covered by a combination of my own dark hair and a lemur tail.

I stumbled blindly backward. “Hugh, do not try and get him off. Just . . . just . . .”
I held out my hand. “Lead me back to the enclosure. I’ll get him off once we’re inside.”

Kiki had escaped that morning. The zookeepers had been chasing him around for hours.
Like so many times before, I got called in to resolve the issue. Because I, the expert,
usually got the job done. Most of the folks at the zoo think I’m an anomaly, the outsider
who bosses them around on occasion and does crazy things like walking up to an injured
ostrich, or dealing with demented orangutans. But the truth is, it’s not so crazy,
not when you understand what’s going on in their animal minds.

Which, fortunately—or unfortunately, as the case may be—is my gift. Like Dr. Dolittle
and Ace Ventura, I can, and do, talk to animals. And more important, they talk back.

At the moment, I was trying to focus on calming, happy thoughts, in order to help
the lemur do the same. A calm, happy lemur might loosen its grip on my hair, and might
not poop himself in terror. Which, in the current position, would be worse for me
than for him.

Kiki. It’s okay
. My mind reached out to his. Soothing. Calm. Many animals who live among humans have
a wide vocabulary. Zoo animals, with some exceptions, do not. So rather than being
able to use words, I had to stick with basic emotional conveyance and imagery. Usually,
I am very good at this. Not, however, when I’m panting like a blindfolded bulldog.

No!
I felt a surge of panic from Kiki and heard someone shuffling closer. Probably Hugh
moving in to take my hand. Kiki’s hind foot found my earlobe and he gripped with a
prehensile toe that felt more like a grappling hook.

“Stop!” I raised my hands to the sides, as much a gesture to keep everyone back as
a means of balance. “No one move. I need a minute to calm him down.”

There were murmurs and more shuffling, but Kiki seemed to get that no one was moving
in to grab him so he relaxed a fraction. I still couldn’t see. My line of sight was
obscured by the black-and-white rings of his bushy tail.

I reached up slowly, to move his tail, all the while issuing gentle thoughts. I sent
him images of his enclosure, where his family was waiting for him. I envisioned bananas
and oranges and any other kind of fruit I could think of. Bit by bit, I managed to
reposition his tail under my chin. Kiki liked that, promptly snaking it around my
neck.

Great.

I didn’t want to think about how ridiculous I looked. I could see it reflected in
Hugh’s face. His lips trembled in an attempt to bite back laughter, his eyes watering
with the effort.

I scowled at him, but apparently, scowling at someone while wearing a lemur hat was
less than menacing. Hugh lost his battle and chortled loudly, which startled Kiki.

The tail tightened. I tried to focus again on being calm but my annoyance with Hugh
was making it difficult. Hugh was one of those guys—the kind that knew how to seduce
with a smile and pointed glance. The kind that women fawn over. Delicious from the
sun-kissed tips of his brown hair to the steel toes of his Red Wing boots. He looked
like the Marlboro man and saved cuddly animals. One cocky half smile and most women
were toast.

I was unaffected by his charisma. Yeah, sure I was.

“Sorry,” he said quietly, sparkling hazel eyes belying the word. “I’m sorry, but you
look like one of those Russian guys.”

I didn’t bother to say anything. Instead, I squared my shoulders and, with as much
dignity as I was capable of, walked toward the lemur house.

The zoo was quiet. I didn’t see or hear anyone. No children running around. No haggard
parents scurrying after them. And it made me wonder if they had evacuated the zoo
because of one little lemur. Probably. As much for the sake of safety as from fear
of lawsuits. I could imagine Kiki deciding to affix himself to some poor soccer mom.

The thought made me want to giggle. Kiki picked up on my altered mood and released
my ear, sliding down to perch on my shoulder. The enclosure was just ahead. I could
see one of the zookeepers and shooed him away from the door. I could slip in and talk
Kiki into reuniting with his real mama.

All right, little guy, we’ll get you back where you belong in just a second.

That’s when my phone rang. Or rather, began playing the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman.”

Kiki whistled in abject terror and plastered himself to my face. I fumbled with my
phone, unclipping it from my belt and flipping it open. With my mouth covered by lemur
belly, I had no way and no desire to try and answer, I just wanted to shut it up.
I could hear a man’s voice faintly, something that sounded like “homicide” and “police”
and “assistance.”

I ignored the words, my surprise and curiosity tossed aside until I could finish my
task. I flipped the phone closed, focusing on calming the lemur while edging in the
direction of Kiki’s home. At least I hoped I was heading that way. I wasn’t sure.
I was blind and suffocating. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been for the smell.
Lemurs, as a whole, don’t smell awful. But getting this up close and personal was
a little too much for me. My eyes watered, my throat clogged, and I tried not to gag.

Kiki up
. I patted the top of my head and sent the mental message—an image of him riding on
my head. The lemur was young, and I was pretty sure he didn’t understand much of what
I was saying. I had to stick with images. I focused and tried to breathe through my
mouth. I sucked in large amounts of fur and bumped into the side of the cage.

Home
. As always, I translated the raw impression that flashed from the animal’s mind to
mine. And I knew the lemur would head willingly back into its cage. If it would just
get off my face . . .

Air—fresh, clean air wafted into my lungs. I didn’t think it was possible for ninety
degrees to seem refreshing, but in that moment I couldn’t imagine anything better.
Kiki climbed onto my head and was reaching out to grab the cage.

In a move worthy of a ninja, I opened the door and lunged inside.

Kiki leapt up to rejoin his family. The lot of them stared at me with wide, golden-brown
eyes. If I had been anyone else, I might have thought they were critically eyeing
my Kiki-inspired hairdo. But the chorus of thoughts that streamed at me like a pulsing
wave told the truth.

Shock. Relief. Fear. Wariness. Joy.

Guess we humans are the only ones with self-image problems. Go figure.

“Witchy Woman” started up again and this time I answered.

“Wilde Kingdom, this is Grace.”

“Grace, this is Detective Nocera. I’d like to ask a favor, if you’ve got a minute.”

• • •

It doesn’t really matter who you are, what you look like, or how much money you have
in your 401k. Death, whether creeping down a back alley or waltzing through wrought
iron courtyard gates, inevitably visits us all.

Even if you are Mark Richardson, the star quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars
and son of the governor of Florida.

I could hear his dog’s frantic barks from the front yard. Deep, relentless . . . desperate.
A big guy. A guard dog. I was thinking Rottie or Dobie. Maybe a shepherd. I’d find
out soon enough.

A young patrolman motioned for me to follow him, and I walked over thick St. Augustine
lawn toward the house. The McMansion was one of those faux Mediterranean deals that
hit the mark much better than most. Lush landscaping, a warm paint scheme, and a bubbling
fountain in the entry courtyard completed the look. We walked through the open door
into the foyer. Though it was cooler inside, it wasn’t by much. I paused just inside
the door. The patrolman was called back outside, and I was left to process the situation.
The truth is, as crazy as my life might seem with the wrangling wallabies and whatnot,
I’d never been to a crime scene.

It was not what I’d expected.

The house was as nice inside as it was out. The exception being that the place was
messy. Not trashed, like there had been a fight, but there had definitely been a party.
Wineglasses and empty beer bottles mingled with hors d’oeuvre plates and other debris
on countertops and end tables. A jovial sign proclaiming
JAGUARS, ALL THE WAY!
hung above a large fireplace. The travertine tile floor was sticky, soiled with mud,
and sprinkled with glittering confetti. The lingering odor of cigars and alcohol fused
unpleasantly with the unmistakable metallic smell of blood.

That was the big difference. On TV you see all the blood and stuff, but there’s no
smell. My stomach rolled, and I stepped to the side. Two large columns flanked the
foyer. I moved behind one so it blocked my view of the body. I wasn’t ready yet. I
shut my eyes and swallowed hard. This wasn’t going to be easy. Not only was I going
to be dealing with my reaction to the murder, I would be dealing with the dog’s, too.
I pushed everything out of my mind until there was nothing but white noise. Then I
slowly opened my eyes.

Another part of my gift—one I’ve had to work really hard to hone—is that I have superior
control over my own feelings.

I disconnected as much as possible and eased out partly from behind the column. A
plump woman was bending over the body of Mark Richardson. He sat slumped on the white
leather couch; a crimson line of blood bisected his face and pooled on his bare chest.
The shot had passed through his skull, obliterating the back of his head.

Jesus.

I didn’t want to look but made myself. I had to get all the shock out of my system
so I could handle the dog.

The wall behind the couch was a gruesome splash of blood and brain matter. Two men
flanked the coffee table. One I recognized. Detective Jake Nocera, at one time an
officer with the K9 unit, whom I had worked with a while back.

Jake was a gruff, barrel-chested guy from Buffalo. Judging from the sweat beading
on his bald head, I’d say he’d yet to acclimate to Florida summers.

The other guy, the one I brilliantly deduced was from the crime scene unit because
of the
CSU
plastered across his muscular back, focused on the detective and asked, “Who found
him?”

Jake pulled out his notepad and said in a familiar accented grumble, “The maid. Julie
Martinez. Says she usually doesn’t come on Sundays, with church and all, but Mr. Richardson
offered to pay her extra if she would clean up after the party. She and her sister
arrived around eleven a.m. She had a key and the alarm code. Turns out she didn’t
need either.”

“Door wasn’t locked, alarm was off,” CSU Hunk surmised.

“Yep, looks like he knew whoever did this.” Jake glanced at the body.

“We have a list yet of the partygoers?”

“Workin’ on it.”

I watched as the men moved over to a large bookcase. Jake’s back was to me; CSU Guy
had a nice profile. A bit exotic—strong angles and high cheekbones. His eyes scanned
over the framed photographs and trophies that lined the wooden shelves.

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