The heavy tick of a grandfather clock filled the parlor, as if to convince the listener that this was a serious timepiece, despite the Chihuahua toy in a fairy costume perched on its mahogany case.
Victorian-style lamps illuminated the walls, which were crowded with framed photos of costumed Chihuahuas. Looking at dogs dressed in tiny cowboy hats and sailor suits, a visitor might think he’d stumbled on a canine version of the Village People, except for the slogan at the bottom of each photo: Petey’s Closet—Where the Well-Dressed Pooch Shops.
With a preliminary click and whir, the clock struck the first chimes of 10 P.M. The bells were soon accompanied by the sound of footsteps in the hallway outside—light, heeled taps overlaid by heavy, resounding thumps.
Charlotte Baskerville trotted into the parlor, barely staying ahead of her husband. She was just shy of five feet and seventy years, her fine hair tinted champagne blond and beautifully set. In deference to Colorado’s cool evening temperature, she wore a pale pink sweater over her lilac blouse. A rhinestone Chihuahua pin rested below her collarbone.
Thomas Baskerville stalked close behind her, tall frame stooped, gray hair disarrayed, and long face angry. “For God’s sake, just give me the money.”
She turned to face him. “Thomas, I can’t. It’s going to take a lot of advertising to establish Petey’s Closet in England and Australia. Maybe if the greeting cards take off. Did I tell you about those? We’re going to dress Lila as Cupid for Valentine’s Day, and the back of each card will have a little blurb about our company.”
“Your company, not ours,” Thomas snapped.
Charlotte’s expression turned thoughtful. “I think we’ll have a contest. People can send pictures of their dogs dressed in outfits from Petey’s Closet. We’ll use the winner’s photo on a special Christmas card.” Her gaze focused on Thomas again. “If the cards make a profit, I’ll let you and Bob have that money.”
“And how long will that take? A year? Two?”
“Maybe nine months.” Her tone became tart. “If Bob hasn’t moved on to some other scheme by then, I’ll think your faith in him is a little more justified.”
Thomas drew himself up. “You make it sound like some wild scheme, but even your little rats have to eat, and high-quality dog food is a respectable business, not like … this.” His waving arm took in the entire room. “It’s pathetic. Animals aren’t meant to wear clothes.”
“Babies are animals,” Charlotte countered, “but at some point, someone decided to dress them. It’s part of the domestication process.” She walked to a chair upholstered in rose velvet and sat down.
Thomas leaned over to grip the arms of her chair, glaring down at her. “Do you hear yourself? You ought to be committed!”
Instead of withdrawing, Charlotte leaned forward until they were nose to nose. “And all those customers of mine? Are you going to have them committed, too? Face it, Thomas. Batty old women don’t run successful businesses.” Her smile went from angry to wistful. “You were a wonderful breadwinner for years—decades. Why can’t you be happy for my success, or be part of it? You could work on promotion of the new line, manufacturing contracts—”
“For the last time, no!” He straightened and walked a few steps away. “It’s a matter of dignity.”
Charlotte stood. “Jealousy is more like it,” she snapped. She went to the door and gripped the handle, then heaved a sigh and turned. “For God’s sake, Thomas. It’s not as though I’m asking you to wear the clothes.” Shaking her head, she left the room.
Thomas looked at the empty doorway for a moment, breathing heavily. Then he strode to the rear of the parlor and jerked open a door, revealing a bedroom decorated in brown and black. He entered and slammed the door shut behind him.
Charlotte was halfway up the ornate staircase when she heard the door slam. She flinched, but continued to climb. At the top of the stairs, a puppy gate blocked the hallway to the second floor. Behind this, a long-haired black Chihuahua paced, the marabou trim on her tiny pink sweater vibrating with tension. She gave a sharp yip as Charlotte came into view.
“Hush, Lila,” Charlotte whispered. She opened and closed the gate, then picked up the dog, who nestled her face against Charlotte’s chest. Charlotte’s shoulders slumped as some of the tension left them.
Doors on either side of the second-floor hallway led to bedrooms and a few bathrooms. A door on the left opened, and Ellen Froehlich emerged, wearing a blue terry cloth bathrobe. A gray headband held her brown bob away from her face, and her skin was shiny with moisturizer. She lifted a hand in greeting and headed toward her bedroom.
“Wait!” Charlotte whispered loudly.
Ellen put her hands in her pockets as Charlotte approached. “What is it?”
“Let’s move our meeting from nine to eight tomorrow morning. We’ll eat breakfast in the workshop and have a nice relaxing time.”
Ellen nodded. “Okay.”
“And you’ll have new designs to show me, right?” Charlotte smiled encouragingly.
Ellen fussed with the tie of her robe. “I have some jewelry designs worked up.”
Charlotte shook her head. “The jewelry market is swamped. We need new clothes.”
Ellen blew out a breath. “Give me a week and I’ll have something exciting for you, I promise.”
“How about four days?” Charlotte squeezed Ellen’s arm with her free hand. “You and me, kid. We built this together. Don’t stop now.”
Ellen smiled briefly. “Good night, Char.”
“Good night, sweetie.” Charlotte continued down the hall as Ellen’s door closed quietly behind her. She had almost reached her room when she heard a girlish laugh from inside one of the rooms. She tiptoed back a few steps and listened.
The sound of Ivan Blotski’s Russian-accented voice rumbled through the door, followed by the higher tones of Cheri Baskerville, Charlotte’s granddaughter.
Charlotte raised a hand to knock, then stopped herself. They were probably talking about the next catalog. Ivan trained the dogs to pose, and Cheri was currently helping with photography. There was every reason for them to talk, even if it was late. Anyway, Cheri was twenty now. There were only so many limitations Charlotte could put on her, and only one real threat to back them up.
Lila wriggled impatiently, and Charlotte went to her own bedroom.
Teeth brushed, face washed, and medication taken, Charlotte switched off the bathroom light and walked to her bed, rubbing lotion along the backs of her hands.
The four-poster was high enough that she had a wooden step next to it, although that was mostly for the dogs.
Chum lay in the middle of the duvet, where she had put him earlier. The older of her two Chihuahuas, he wore a tartan sweater vest against the cold. Cataracts clouded his eyes, but his head followed Charlotte as she turned off the overhead light and came to bed.
Lila bounded up the little stairs and onto the mattress, where she poked her nose under the edge of the spread.
“Wait a minute,” Charlotte said. She made Lila sit before taking off her tiny outfit. “All right, go ahead.”
Lila nosed at the edge of the spread, then disappeared beneath it like a mole.
Charlotte tossed Lila’s sweater on the dresser and turned off the electric blanket before sliding beneath the covers. The Tiffany-style lamp on her bedside table illuminated reading glasses and a copy of Chihuahua Connection magazine. She glanced at it, then sighed and switched off the light.
She was enjoying a floaty, almost-asleep sensation when she heard a sharp bark, ending in a sort of warble.
Charlotte sat up as Lila boiled out from beneath the covers. Even Chum raised his head. For a moment, all three of them stared, rigid, at the window.
The sound came again.
“Petey?” Charlotte whispered. Lila ran across her legs and jumped to the floor with a thump.
Charlotte slid over and groped for the step with one foot, then hurried to the window and pulled the curtains apart.
A blurred crescent moon floated behind clouds that suggested rain or snow. Black tree branches waved slightly against the cobalt sky. Directly below lay the patio, with the dark hump of a covered table and chairs. Her gaze moved farther, past Ellen’s stone workshop and the dogs’ agility course.
Lila whimpered at her feet.
Charlotte picked her up and kissed the top of her sleek head. “It was probably a raccoon.” It couldn’t have been Petey’s bark. Petey had been dead for almost a year. She looked out the window again and took a sharp, quick breath.
A small, glowing shape drifted slowly across the darkened lawn, illuminating the sere grass beneath it. After a moment, it turned sideways, and Charlotte saw the pointed ears and high, domed forehead.
She put Lila down, almost dropping her, then gripped the window and tried to lift it. When it didn’t budge, she fumbled for the catch.
Outside, the shape rose and floated onto the roof of the workshop, then pivoted and looked up at the window.
Charlotte grabbed the heavy wooden window again and lifted. Frigid air flowed into the room. “Petey!” she yelled toward the glowing shape.
From outside, the bark came again—warbling at the end, then fading away.
She turned, stumbling slightly as she grazed Lila’s warm body, then made for the door. She hurried down the hall and descended the stairs as fast as she could, hand gripping the banister.
A door opened upstairs, but she kept going, grabbing the wall as she turned the corner into the hall that led to the kitchen and the back door.
She twisted the lock above the handle and pushed open the door. “Petey-poo!” In the backyard, autumn grass crunched under her bare feet, frigid and brittle. She took a few more steps, gazing from side to side, then saw a faint glow at the edge of the workshop. “Petey, Mommy’s here!”
Charlotte made it halfway across the lawn before clouds covered the moon and she tripped on something in the dark. She went down with an “Oof!” and lay still for a moment, praying she hadn’t broken anything.
The back porch light came on, illuminating her. She pushed herself up as Ivan and Cheri came out.
Cheri’s silky black pajamas clung to her slender body. Without makeup, she looked about fifteen. “Grandma!” She ran forward and helped Charlotte stand. “What are you doing out here?”
“You won’t believe it.” Charlotte squeezed Cheri’s hand, then rubbed her hip and grimaced. “I thought I heard Petey, and then I saw something out here in the yard—something that glowed.”
Ellen joined them. “Where did you see it?”
“It went across the yard, then floated onto the workshop roof and disappeared,” Charlotte said. “When I got out here, I thought I saw something along the ground over there.” She pointed toward the workshop.
Ivan had brought a flashlight. He switched it on and walked toward the stone building, waving the light across the ground. The three women followed close behind as the flashlight’s beam cast harsh shadows across the ground. “Here?” Ivan asked.
Charlotte gestured vaguely. “Somewhere around the corner.”
“I see nothing,” Ivan rumbled. He switched off the light.
Charlotte pointed. “Look! What’s that?”
They moved in a clump, Charlotte gripping Ellen’s sleeve. “Does anyone else see that?” Her voice shook as she pointed.
The downspout of a gutter ran down the side of the stone building. In the muddy earth below, a few indentations shone faintly—the glowing tracks of a very small dog.
A sound came from behind the group, and they all turned. Charlotte gave a little gasp.
Thomas Baskerville stood there, hands in the pockets of his dressing gown. “What’s going on?”
The others exchanged looks.
Finally Cheri said, “Charlotte thinks she saw a ghost.”
Thomas’s brows rose, and a smile flickered on his thin lips. “As I said, Charlotte, I’m worried about the state of your mental health.”
Copyright © 2011 by Esri Allbritten