“Stop!” I hissed. “Bad dog! Don’t you dare bite me!”
Spike, aka the Small Evil One, froze with his tiny, sharp teeth a few inches from my ankle. He looked up and growled slightly.
From one of the cribs across the room I heard another of the faint, cranky whimpers I’d detected over the baby monitor. Jamie always woke up slowly and fussed softly for a few minutes, which gave us a fighting chance of getting to the nursery to feed him before he revved up to cry so loudly that he woke his twin brother. Josh never bothered with any kind of warning, going from fast asleep to wailing like a banshee in two seconds or less.
“I mean it,” I said to Spike. “No more treats. No more sleeping in your basket here in the nursery. If you bite me again, you’re out of here. Back to the barn.”
Do animals understand our words or do they just pick up meaning from our tone of voice? Either way, Spike got the message.
He sniffed at my ankle. Pretending to recognize my scent, he wagged his tail perfunctorily. Then he trotted back to his basket, turned around the regulation three times, curled up, and appeared to fall asleep.
I tiptoed over to Jamie’s crib in time to pick him up and shove the bottle in his mouth a split second before he began shrieking.
I settled down in the recliner and leaned back slightly. Not for the first time, I felt a surge of gratitude to my grandfather, who had given us the recliner and helped me fight off all Mother’s attempts to banish it as an eyesore from the nursery she had decorated so elegantly in soft tones of lavender and moss green.
Eventually, Jamie finished his milk and fell asleep. I gazed down at him with maternal affection—and maybe just a guilty hint of gratitude that he and his noisier brother were, for the moment, both fast asleep and not demanding anything of me.
I pondered whether to get up, put him in his crib, and go back to bed, or whether it would be just as efficient to doze here until Josh woke up for his next bottle. If I dozed here, I could turn off the baby monitor and make sure Michael got a full night’s sleep, so he’d be well rested for teaching his Friday classes.
Or should I rouse myself to pump some milk for the boys’ next meal? I glanced at the clock—a little after 2:00 a.m. Dozing was winning when an unfamiliar noise woke me up.
It was a dog barking. And not Spike’s bark, either. At eight and a half pounds, Spike tried his best, but could never have produced the deep basso “woof!” I’d just heard.
Or had I just imagined it? I wriggled upright and stared over at Spike.
He was sitting up and looking at me.
“Did you hear anything?” I whispered.
He cocked his head, almost as if he understood.
We both listened in silence for a moment. Well, almost silence. I could still hear the faint, almost restful sounds of the white noise machine we ran at night to minimize the chances of some stray sound waking up the boys.
Just as I was about to relax back into the recliner, I heard another noise. This time it sounded more like a cat meowing.
Spike lifted his head and growled slightly.
“Shush,” I said.
There was a time when shushing Spike would have egged him on. But almost as soon as we’d brought the twins home, he had appointed himself their watchdog and guardian. His self- assigned duties—barking whenever he thought they needed anything, and then biting anyone who showed up to take care of their needs—were made all the more strenuous by the fact that in spite of our efforts, the boys maintained completely opposite sleep schedules, so there was nearly always at least one twin awake and requiring Spike’s attention. After four months, like Michael and me, he’d learned to grab every second of sleep he could.
He curled back up on the lavender and moss-green cushion in his bed and appeared to doze off. He looked so innocent when asleep. An adorable eight- and-a-half-pound furball. What would happen when the boys started crawling, and mistook him for a stuffed animal?
I’d worry about that later.
I sat up carefully to avoid waking Jamie, and managed to deposit him, still sleeping, on the soft, lavender flannel sheet in his crib. I glanced over to make sure Josh was still snoozing in his own little moss-green nest. Then I tiptoed over to the nursery door, opened it, and listened.
I could hear rustling sounds that weren’t coming from the white noise machine. Soft whines. An occasional bark. Meows. Cat hisses.
Probably only someone in the living room watching Animal Planet on the big- screen TV and being inconsiderate about the volume. Most likely my brother Rob, and it was just that sort of behavior that had inspired us to get the white noise machine.
But white noise wouldn’t keep the growing commotion downstairs from waking Michael, who had to work tomorrow. Or five-year-old Timmy, our newly acquired long-term house-guest, who needed to be up early for kindergarten.
Unless of course Timmy was downstairs with Rob, watching television on a school night again.
Definitely a dog, and not Spike, and it sounded a little too immediate to be coming from the television. Had Rob, miff ed that Spike had deserted him for the twins, acquired a new four-legged friend? Or perhaps the local burglars were celebrating Bring Your Dog to Work Day.
I turned the monitor back on, slipped out of the nursery, and closed the door behind me. Now that I didn’t have the white noise machine to mask it, I could hear rather a lot of animal noises. A few barks and yelps. And an occasional howl that sounded more like a cat. Definitely not burglars, unless they’d stopped in mid-crime to watch Animal Planet. Time to go downstairs and see what was up. I didn’t exactly tiptoe, but I moved as quietly as possible. If someone had smuggled in a contraband menagerie, I wanted to catch them red-handed.
I stopped long enough to peek into the guest room that had become, for the time being, Timmy’s room. He was fast asleep with his stuffed black cat clutched under one chubby arm. Under any other circumstances, I’d have been tempted to fetch the digital camera and take a photo I could e-mail to his mother to prove that yes, he’d settled in fine and was enjoying his stay. And maybe ask again if she knew just how long that stay would be. But that could wait. I shut his door to keep out the increasing din and crept downstairs to track the din to its source.
No dogs festooning the tall oak staircase or lurking in the front hall. I even glanced up at the double-height ceiling, because my first martial arts teacher had railed about how most people never looked up and were thus remarkably easy to ambush from above. No dogs or cats perched on the exposed beams, and no bats or ninjas hanging from the chandelier.
I stopped outside the wide archway to the living room, reached inside to flip on the light switch, and stepped into the room.
“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed.
The room was entirely filled with animals.
A dozen or so dogs, ranging in size from terriers to something not much smaller than a horse, were in the middle of the floor, lapping up water from several serving dishes from my best china set. Bevies of cats were perched on the oak mantel and on the tops of the bookshelves, some gobbling cat food from antique china dishes while others spit and hissed at the dogs and uttered unearthly howling noises. One irritable-faced Persian was hawking strenuously, apparently trying to launch a hairball at our wedding photo.
Several rows of crates and animal carriers were ranged up and down both sides of the room, some empty, while in others I could see eyes and noses of dogs and cats peering out at their liberated brethren and perhaps wondering when their turn for the food and drink would come.
A tiny black kitten was licking the oriental rug—had we spilled milk there or did he just like the taste of rug?
A Siamese cat had ventured down from the mantel and sat atop a leather photo album on our coffee table, fixedly eyeing a cage in which a small brown hamster was running frantically in his wheel, as if hoping that he could propel the cage away from the cat with enough effort. Several less anxious hamsters and guinea pigs gazed down from cages perched on other bits of furniture.
On our new sofa, an Afghan hound sprawled with careless elegance, like a model artfully posing for a photographer, its white fur vivid against the deep turquoise fabric.
“Hiya, babe! How’s about it?”
A bright blue parrot was fluttering in a cage just inside the door. I eyed him sternly, and he responded with a wolf whistle.
“Meg! Uh . . . what are you doing awake at this hour?”
My father had popped up from behind the sofa. He was holding a small bea gle puppy in each hand. The two puppies were struggling to get at each other, and from the soprano growling that erupted from behind the sofa, I suspected there were other juvenile beagles still on the floor, tussling.
“I was feeding the boys,” I said. “What the hell are you and all these animals doing here?”
Dad looked uncomfortable. His eyes scanned the room as if seeking a safe place to set down the beagles, though I suspected he was merely avoiding meeting my eyes.
“We won’t be here long,” said a voice behind me.
The tall, lanky form of my grandfather appeared in the hall. He was carrying two Limoges soup tureens full of water.
“If you were thinking of giving those to the dogs, think again,” I said. “They belong to Mother, who will eviscerate you if you break them.”
“Oh,” he said. “They were just stuck on a high shelf in the pantry—I thought they were things you didn’t use much.”
“We don’t use them much, mainly because they’re expensive antiques that Mother lent us for that big christening party we threw last weekend,” I said. “And they were on a high shelf in the pantry to keep them as safe as possible until we got a chance to return them. I can show you some crockery you can use, but first I want to know what all these animals are doing here.”
“It’s no use,” came another voice. “The window’s too small.”
I turned to see the enormous leather-clad form of Clarence Rutledge, the local veterinarian. Since Grandfather was an avid animal welfare activist and Dad a sucker for anything on four legs, the menagerie in our living room was beginning to make a little more sense. But only a little.
“You were trying to break into the barn, I suppose.” They all looked a little startled at what I assumed was a correct guess. “We keep it locked, since all my expensive blacksmithing equipment is out there. But I might be persuaded to unlock it, if somebody could just tell me what the hell is going on.”
They all exchanged looks. One of the beagles Dad was still holding began peeing on him. He rushed to deposit the off ender on a nest of newspapers in a corner.
I fixed my gaze on Grandfather.
“It’s all Parker’s fault,” he said. “If he’d showed up on time, we never would have come here. I’m going to call him again.”
As if that had explained everything, he stumped over to our living room phone.
“Want to use this?” My father held out his beloved iPhone.
“No, I want a real phone,” Grandfather said. He began dialing a number from memory.
I looked at Clarence.
“It’s a matter of life or death!” he exclaimed. He clasped his hands as if pleading for mercy, clenching them so hard that the tattooed ferrets on his burly forearms writhed.
I looked at Dad. The weather was mild, not warm, and yet his bald head glistened. Nerves, probably. A trickle of sweat began running down his face, and he dabbed at it absentmindedly with the puppy.
“Just why is our living room filled with dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, hamsters, guinea pigs, and parrots?”
“Only the one parrot,” he said. “A macaw, actually—very interesting species.”
“Hiya, babe!” the macaw said.
“What ever,” I said. “Why are they here?”
“It’s because of that new county manager,” Dad said.
“Horrible man,” Clarence muttered.
“You mean Terence Mann?” I asked.
“Dammit, Parker, answer your bloody phone!” Grandfather snarled into the receiver.
“Hey, Clarence!” My brother, Rob, bounced into the room. “There’s a window open on the second story of the barn! So if you can help me haul the ladder over, we can— Oh. Hi, Meg.”
“Hi,” I said. “What’s your version?”
“My version?” Rob looked guilty for a moment. He fiddled with the black knit cap that concealed his shaggy blond hair, then his face cleared. “I was helping Dad and Granddad.”
“Helping them do what?”
“Foil the new county manager,” Dad repeated. “That Mann fellow. He’s cutting the bud get right and left.”
“Probably because the town of Caerphilly will go bankrupt if he doesn’t,” I said.
“And most of his cuts we can understand, no matter how much we hate them,” Clarence said. “Cutting back on the library hours.”
“And the free clinic hours,” Dad added.
“Postponing the teachers’ raises,” Rob said.
“But then he decided that the town animal shelter was too expensive,” Grandfather said. “So he said the town could no longer afford for it to be a no-kill shelter.”
“Can he do that?” I asked.
“Well, in the long run, probably not,” Clarence said. “Public opinion is against it, about four to one. But we were afraid that some of the animals might be harmed before we could convince him to reverse his policy.”
“So you adopted all of the animals from the shelter?” I asked.
“No, actually we burgled the place and stole them,” Rob said.
“Wonderful,” I said. “Our living room isn’t just filled with animals. It’s filled with stolen animals.”
“Rescued animals,” Grandfather said.
A burglary. Well, at least that explained why all four of them were dressed completely in black. Individually, none of them looked particularly odd, but anyone who saw the four of them skulking about together in their inky garb would be instantly suspicious.
“Did you really think you could get away with it?” I asked aloud.
“We don’t care if we get away with it,” Grandfather said, striking his noblest pose.
“Once the animals are safely out of his clutches, we don’t care what happens to us,” Dad said, following suit.
“And we knew Mann would quickly figure out that prosecuting us wouldn’t do him much good in the eyes of the public,” the more practical Clarence added.
I looked around. Okay, the animals were refugees. They might have been saved from an untimely death. Of course, that didn’t make it any less annoying to see them lying on, shedding on, and in a few cases, chewing or peeing on our rugs and furniture. At least, thanks to the child gates we’d recently put up in all the doorways in case the boys started crawling early, the livestock weren’t free to roam the whole house.
“The problem is that they’re not safely out of his clutches,” I said. “What now? Were you planning on hiding them in our barn until you change the county manager’s mind?”
“We weren’t going to bring them here at all.” Dad plopped down on the sofa with a sigh. The Afghan hound scrambled over to put its head in his lap. The patch of upholstery it had vacated was covered with so much shed fur that it looked like tweed. “We’d arranged to have them taken to new permanent or foster homes outside the county,” Dad went on.
“Outside the state, in fact,” Grandfather said. “Parker Blair made the arrangements.”
“He has that big truck he uses to make deliveries from his furniture store,” Dad explained.
“We were going to meet Parker at midnight down by the haunted graveyard, load all the animals on his truck, and there you have it!” Rob exclaimed. “Like The Great Escape, with poodles.”
“Unfortunately, Parker hasn’t shown up,” Grandfather said. “I’ve been leaving messages for nearly two hours now. Not sure what the holdup is, but as soon as he gets here, we can load the animals and have them out of your hair. But in the meantime—”
“Shhh!” Clarence hissed. He was peering out one of our front windows. “It’s the cops!”
Everyone froze—even the animals, who seemed to sense danger.
I strolled over to the window and looked out.
“It’s only Chief Burke,” I said.
“Oh, no!” Dad wailed.
“We’re lost,” Clarence muttered.
“Get rid of him,” my grandfather said.
The chief was getting out of his car. I hadn’t heard a siren, but I could see that he had the little portable flashing light stuck on his dashboard.
“If he were just calling to see the babies, maybe I could.” I glanced at my watch. “But the chief doesn’t usually make social calls at two thirty in the morning.”
“Then stall him while we move the animals,” Dad said.
“Move them how?” Clarence asked. “All the pickups are out front where he’s probably already seen them.”
“Put the animals in the barn till Parker gets here,” my grandfather said. “I’ll call him again.”
He grabbed our phone and began dialing. Dad leaped off the sofa, picked up a puppy in one hand, and grabbed the macaw’s cage with the other.
“All gone!” the bird trilled.
“I wish,” Clarence muttered.
The windows were cracked slightly, to let in a little of the mild April air—or possibly to prevent the smell of the animals from becoming overwhelming. I could hear the staccato sounds the chief’s shoes made on our front walk.
“There is no way in the world I can stall the chief while you move all these animals to the barn,” I said. “And even if I could, do you think they’d go quietly?”
As if to prove my point, one of the dogs uttered a mournful howl, and several others whimpered in sympathy. I even heard a faint bark from the porch.
“Besides,” I added, “the chief has probably already spotted the dog you left outside.”
“What dog?” Dad asked.
“I thought they were all accounted for.” Clarence was fishing in his pockets for something. “We have an inventory.”
“Dammit, Parker, pick up!” Grandfather muttered.
The dog on the porch barked again.
“Just let me handle it,” I said. “The chief’s an animal lover. He probably won’t approve of your methods, but I’m sure he shares your concerns. Let me assess what kind of a mood he’s in. Maybe we can work something out.”
Clarence and my father looked at each other, then back at me.
“What else can we do?” Dad said.
The dog outside barked.
The doorbell rang.
Upstairs, Josh erupted into howls.
“Damn,” I said, pausing halfway to the door. “I was trying to let Michael sleep.”
“I’ll take care of the baby,” Clarence said, bolting for the stairs. “You deal with the chief.”
“Why doesn’t the bastard answer his phone?” Grandfather growled.
“Hiya, babe!” the macaw said.
“Put a lid on him,” I said to Dad, as I turned back to the door.
He scrambled to pull a tarp over the cage.
Upstairs, Jamie joined the concert.
“I’ve got it,” Michael called from upstairs.
“I’m almost there,” Clarence called, from halfway up the stairs.
I opened the door. The dog outside barked again, but I pretended not to hear him and didn’t look around to see where he was.
“Good morning, Chief,” I said. “What are you doing up at this hour, and more important, what can we do for you?”
The chief held up a cell phone. I looked at it for a moment.
The cell phone barked. Clearly it belonged to a dog lover. No one else would choose such an annoying custom ring tone.
“I’m investigating a murder,” Chief Burke said. “And I came over to ask why for the last couple of hours, you’ve been trying to call the dead guy’s cell phone.”