Bending the Paw by Diane Kelly: New Excerpt
By Crime HQNovember 30, 2020
ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE
He reached over to the wooden block of serrated steak knives on the kitchen counter and yanked one out, clutching it in his fist. He slashed and slashed, and the blood splashed and splashed. Over the walls. Over the counter-tops. Over the floor. Over skin and clothing and shoes.
When he finished his bloody business, a little brown face looked up at him from the doorway. The French bulldog’s eyes went wide as she tilted her head in question, wondering about the strange events taking place in the kitchen of her home. She issued a soft whine. He tucked the thick roll of bills into his jacket pocket, zipped the pocket closed to keep the cash secure, and reached down to give the dog a quick pat on the head. “ Don’t worry, girl. Everything’s going to be all right.”
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART STOPS
Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz
“What do you say, Megan? Shall we form a pack?” Seth, my hunky, blond, broad-shouldered firefighter boyfriend was down on one knee in the foyer outside the police chief’s office, the place where we’d first met. Our K-9 partners, Brigit and Blast, sat beside him. Brigit was an enormous German shepherd mix with an abundance of fur and even more attitude. Blast, on the other hand, was a sweet, submissive yellow Labrador. All three gazed anxiously at me, Brigit and Blast with big brown eyes, Seth with sexy green ones.
“Yes!” I burst into happy tears as Seth leaned forward and slipped the beautiful brushed-gold ring on my fin ger. It fit perfectly. The round diamond glittered in the dim after-hours light.
As he rose from the floor, I rose from my chair. We wrapped our arms around each other and held tight for a long moment, our chests pressed together, our hearts beating in syncopated rhythm. Appropriate, given that it was Valentine’s Day, a holiday in which hearts factored heavily. Not wanting to be left out of our love-fest, the dogs nudged our knees with their noses, trying to force their way between us.
I released Seth and wiped my eyes with my fingers, unable to stop smiling. I glanced at my watch: 9:15. My mom and dad would still be up. “Let’s go tell my parents.”
“They’re not out celebrating Valentine’s Day?”
“They’ve been married forever, and Mom’s got classes in the morning. They probably got each other a card and ordered a pizza.” Despite having conceived five children, my parents weren’t exactly romantic, at least not in the traditional sense. They were too busy for poetry and picnics in the park, and too budget-constrained to splurge on expensive gifts for each other. Theirs was a solid but practical kind of love, expressed through laundry services, mowed lawns, and shared laughs.
Seth eyed me. “Think we’ll take each other for granted like that someday?”
I slid him a smile. “If we’re lucky.”
We made our way to the elevator, rode down to the ground floor, and headed out to the parking lot, where we loaded our furry partners into his seventies-era blue Nova with orange flames down the sides. We aimed for my parents’ house in Arlington Heights, an older neighborhood in Fort Worth where both I and popular folk singer John Denver had graduated from high school, though he’d pre-ceded me by approximately five decades and had later escaped the brutal Texas summers by moving to Colorado. My parents’ three-bedroom, two-bath wood-frame house could use a fresh coat of paint, but no matter how many times my father looked at the house and commented that he needed to go to the hardware store for painting supplies, he always forgot about the task once he’d crossed the threshold.
I used my key to unlock the front door, and Brigit and Blast trotted in ahead of us humans. As usual, they headed straight for the kitchen, hoping to steal what remained in the bowl of kitty kibble my mother maintained for her three indistinguishable orange tabby cats.
The dogs having cued a greeting, my dad appeared in the kitchen doorway. Thanks to his Latino heritage, my father had dark hair and warm brown skin, both of which he’d passed on to me. Thanks to time, his hair bore some silver streaks, more with each passing year. “Hey, you two,” he said. “ There’s leftover pizza if you want any.”
Seth and I exchanged a knowing glance.
“Thanks,” I said. “But we’ve already eaten.”
We entered the kitchen to find the dogs with their heads shoved into the cat bowl, and my mother and my sister Gabby at the table with their homework spread out in front of them. Gabby clutched a handful of her dark hair as she struggled with pre-calculus. My red-haired, Irish-American mother was elbow deep in books on the Great Depression, working on a history paper for one of her college courses. She’d recently returned to school after taking a break of nearly three decades. She was living proof that it’s never too late to achieve your dreams and go after your goals.
While the two still had a way to go on their school-work, they’d made quick work of a large heart-shaped box of chocol ates. Only three pieces remained, and two of those had small bites taken out of them. Rejects.
I reached out with my left hand, turning it to and fro to catch the light from the fixture over the table, and grabbed the last remaining intact piece of chocolate. Neither my mother nor my sister noticed my ring. Good thing they aren’t aspiring detectives. I took a bite of the candy. Dark chocolate-covered coconut. Yum! I eyed my sister. “Is this candy from T.J.?”
“Don’t ever mention that name again!” Gabby broke down into a blubbering mass and bolted from the room.
Apparently, my question had been a wrong one to ask. I looked to my mother for answers.
“Gabby and T.J. broke up today,” she said. “He met some girl at a debate tournament and called things off.”
So my little sister had been dumped, not only on Valentine’s Day, but also on the day I’d gotten engaged. Talk about bad timing. “I’ll go talk to her.” I turned to Seth. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
Dad pulled open the fridge door. “That’ll give us guys a chance to have a beer.” He retrieved a couple of bottles of Shiner Bock and handed one to Seth.
I walked down the hall to the room Gabby and I had shared before I left for college. I rapped softly on the door. “Can I come in, Gabs?”
“Only if you promise not to tell me there’s more fish in the sea!”
While our mother and father had always tended to the physical needs of my siblings and me, they weren’t necessarily the best at responding to our emotional needs. Like many parents, they relied on stale platitudes in an attempt to quickly resolve problems they didn’t have time for rather than truly listening and empathizing. That’s why, when I’d been frustrated by my childhood stutter, I’d ended up pounding rocks with a hammer on the back patio, why I’d disappeared into books where other children suffered but found creative solutions to their problems, or didn’t solve them but learned to live with them. Biblio-therapy had done wonders for me. Still does.
I opened the door, stepped into the room, and closed the door behind me. Though my twin bed remained pushed up against the far wall, the space was all Gabby’s now and she’d covered my bed with books and rumpled clothing she’d been too lazy to toss in the hamper. My sister lay facedown on her bed, her pillow over her head. How she was getting air was anyone’s guess. I sat down on her bed next to her, and rubbed my hand up and down her back. “I’m sorry, Gabby. Breakups stink.”
She spoke into her mattress, her voice muffled. “I thought T.J. really cared about me. I’m so stupid!”
“You’re not stupid,” I said. “Teenage boys are. You have any idea how many of those idiots I deal with every day?” Between fistfights, vandalism, and car accidents, teen boys kept the Fort Worth Police Department busy, that’s for sure.
Gabby rolled onto her back. “T.J. is sort of stupid. He stayed up all night playing Fortnite a few weeks ago, and then he overslept and missed most of his shift at work. They wrote him up and said if he was late again he’d be fired.”
“See?” I said. “Total moron.” I’ll be in trouble for that statement if they reconcile.
She pushed herself up and clutched the pillow to her chest like a security blanket. She turned her red-rimmed eyes on me. “When do boys stop being stupid?”
“It takes a long time,” I told her. Seth had been stupid, too, near the beginning of our relationship. Thanks to a father he’d never known and his young mother abandoning him with her parents when he was a child, he suffered severe attachment issues. When he’d developed serious feelings for me, he’d felt vulnerable and called things off. I’d been stunned and heartbroken. Of course, he’d later grown a pair, faced his feelings, and come crawling back with his tail between his legs. In the meantime, I’d had some fun with a sexy mounted sheriff’s deputy who rode a black horse named Jack. I reminded Gabby of the incident.
“But Seth didn’t dump you for someone else,” she said. “Besides, he came to his senses and begged you to forgive him.”
“True. But if he hadn’t, I would’ve had some fun seeing who else was out there.” Okay, so that was just a variation of “there’s more fish in the sea,” but at least I’d added a personal anecdote. “You’ll want to be free once you head off to college, anyway,” I added. “You’ll meet a cute boy every time you turn around. You’ll have way more fun if you’re not stuck in a relationship.”
Her face brightened at the thought. She sniffled and blinked to dry her eyes. She reached out a hand to take mine and give it a squeeze. “You’ll be a really good mom someday.”
Her words warmed my heart. “I hope so.”
As she moved to retract her hand, her fingers brushed my engagement ring. She looked down, spotted the diamond, and sat bolt upright on the bed, her eyes wide and mouth gaping, T.J. and his betrayal promptly forgotten. “ You’re engaged? Since when?”
“Since twenty-three minutes ago. Want to help me plan the wedding?”
“For sure!” Fueled by a renewed faith in romance and a fresh sense of purpose, she bounced out of bed and bounded to the door, yanking it open to holler down the hallway. “Mom! Dad! Megan and Seth got engaged!”
I followed her as she sprinted to the kitchen.
Raising his beer in tribute, Dad put his other hand on Seth’s shoulder. “Welcome to the family, Seth. You’ll be the son I never had.”
Dad seemed to have forgotten an important fact. “You’ve already got three sons,” I reminded him.
“I know,” he said. “But none of them are handy like Seth is.”
It was true. Seth might not have received a lot of encouragement or affection from his grandfather, but at least the old coot had passed on his aptitude for fixing things.
My mother stood, a big smile on her face. She gave me a hug before embracing Seth, too. “I’m so happy for you two!”
As the news sunk in, though, her smile faltered and she bit her lip. I suspected I knew why. With two of their sons and my mother in college, my parents had no spare funds to pay for a wedding, fancy or otherwise.
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “ We’re going to have a simple ceremony and reception. Nothing big and expensive. Besides, we’re adults with jobs. We’ll pay for it ourselves.”
Seth slid me some side-eye. “We will?”
The grin tugging at his lips made it clear he’d been merely teasing, but I elbowed him gently in the ribs any-way. Might as well start this engagement off letting him know who’s boss. “Of course we will.”
My dad looked from me to Seth. “Mom and I can scrape together something to help out. Maybe cover the flowers and the cake?”
“That would be perfect.” I leaned in and gave my father a kiss on the cheek. “You’ll give me away, won’t you?”
“Heck, yeah,” he said. “I’ve been trying to get rid of you for years.”
I knew better. I’d seen his eyes grow misty when Gabby had dropped the news of my engagement.
Mom pulled out her planner and opened it, uncapping a pen. She’d never been very organized, but returning to school had forced her to develop better habits. She held her pen poised over the notebook. “What date are you planning on?”
“We haven’t gotten that far yet.” I’d been engaged less than an hour. Sheesh. I glanced over at Seth. “Maybe early fall?”
Seth shrugged. “Or we could just go down to the courthouse tomorrow.”
I’d never been the type of girl who dreamed about her wedding day but, still, I wanted my family and friends to share in the celebration. Besides, the courthouse was where people got divorced, or arraigned, or sentenced, or summoned to serve jury duty. It wasn’t exactly a romantic place. “You know that’s not happening, right?”
“It was worth a shot.”
My mom closed her planner and recapped her pen. “We don’t need a date to start looking at wedding gowns and mother-of-the-bride dresses. Why don’t we start first thing Saturday morning?”
“Works for me.”
Gabby chimed in, “Me, too.”
After another round of hugs and amid death glares from my mother’s cats, Seth and I departed and headed back to my place. I was dying to tell my roommate Frankie the exciting news, but unfortunately she was out on a date with her boyfriend Zach. Only her cat, Zoe, was home at the moment and, while I adored the sassy little beast, sharing the news with my feline housemate would not be the same as sharing it with my human one. The fluffy calico met me, Seth, and the dogs at the door with an insistent “meow?”, demanding to know where we’d been and why we weren’t petting her already. I gave her a scratch under the chin and a “Hey, girl,” before stepping inside.
In the living room, Seth pulled me to him for a soft warm, kiss that was clearly a prelude to something more. Unfortunately, that kiss was rudely interrupted by my phone blaring the “Pink Panther” theme song. It was my special ringtone for detectives Audrey Jackson and Hector Bustamente, two of the investigators from my station.
Seth groaned as I gently pushed him away. “Ignore it. You’re not on duty tonight.”
“Not officially.” But as a K-9 team with a special set of skills, Brigit and I could be called at any time to assist in police matters. Besides, the detectives had taken me under their wings and taught me lots of invaluable investigation techniques. I’d never blow them off if they needed me. I reached into my purse and retrieved my phone. The screen indicated it was Detective Jackson calling. I touched the icon to accept the call. “Hello, Detective.”
Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “I’m at a crime scene. A grisly one. Can you and Brigit get over here?”
So much for basking in the glow of my engagement. “Of course. Where are you?” I slid my hand into my purse and rummaged around for a pen and note pad. As Detective Jackson rattled off the address, I scribbled it down. “Got it. I’ll be there ASAP.”
Seth groaned again as I ended the call. “What is it this time?”
“The detective used the word ‘grisly.’”
“A murder then?”
He sighed. “I should’ve realized what I was getting myself into when I fell for an aspiring detective.”
“Right back at you.”
Seth was not only a firefighter, but also a member of the city’s bomb squad. Blast was an explosives detection dog. Like Brigit and me, Seth and Blast could be summoned any time there was an explosion or bomb threat. Being continuously on call was an occupational hazard we both faced.
I leaned in and finished our kiss. Not to be crass, but if someone had been killed, they weren’t going to be any less dead if I took four seconds to kiss my fiancé one final time.
When I pulled back, Seth reached for the doorknob. “Go get ‘em, girls.”
As he left, I ran to my bedroom and changed into my uniform at warp speed. Brigit and I were back out the door in two minutes flat and climbed into our specially designed K-9 squad car, me in the front and Brigit in her carpeted enclosure behind me. I nearly backed into Frankie and Zach as I reversed out of the driveway. I pulled my cruiser up next to them in the street, and Zach unrolled his window. Frankie leaned over from the passenger seat, putting her head next to his, her bright blue hair a contrast to his dark military cut. Though Zach had been a paratrooper in the army and served in Afghanistan like Seth, the two hadn’t met overseas. Rather, they’d been introduced when serving reserve duty at the joint base on the west side of town. Seth and I had set Zach and Frankie up, and our matchmaking attempt had proven quite successful.
“Where are you going?” Frankie called. “We were hoping you and Seth might want to hang out and watch a movie with us.”
“Detective Jackson called me and Brigit in.”
“Say no more,” she said, waving us off. She knew time was of the essence if Brigit and I had been summoned when we were supposed to be off duty. “ We’ll catch up later.”
By then, I’d have even more than my engagement to catch her up on, though girl talk and a grisly crime would make an odd combination of topics. I could only wonder what, exactly, I’d have to tell her about the investigation Detective Jackson had summoned me to. The term “grisly” could cover a lot of ground. Smashed skulls. Gaping exit wounds. Severed limbs. Eek. Every cell in my body squirmed at that last thought.
My furry partner and I headed off, and a mere five minutes later we turned onto May Street, the siren silent on our cruiser but the lights flashing. Like many of the neighborhoods in my south-central beat, the area comprised a mix of older houses in need of work, charming renovated homes, and new construction built on the proverbial gravesites of older residences that had been neglected too long to be economically updated and instead had been razed. Though it was too dark for me to easily read the house numbers, I didn’t need to look at the address I’d jotted down to tell which house Detective Jackson had called from. The yard was cordoned off with yellow crime scene tape. A Hyundai Kona SUV sat in the driveway beside a red Ford Fusion sedan. A Fort Worth PD cruiser, Detective Jackson’s unmarked sedan, and a crime scene van were parked at the curb.
After making a U-turn at the next intersection, I eased my squad car into the lineup, retrieved Brigit from the back, and attached her lead. As I turned my attention to the house and my eyes adjusted to the limited outdoor lighting, I could see the place was one of the renovated structures, a single-story house sporting a coat of paint that bordered the line between yellow and green, like the inside of a not-quite-ripe avocado. While the trim bore classic white paint, the door was painted an attractive, contrasting bright red.
My former partner, Derek “The Big Dick” Mackey, stood on the sidewalk just outside the cordon tape, a clipboard in his hand. Looked like he’d been assigned the task of maintaining the scene, documenting those who moved in and out of the perimeter. Derek had red hair, bulging muscles, and big cojones, at least in the metaphorical sense. I had no idea how big his boys were in actuality, and I had no interest in finding out. Once upon a time, I’d used my Taser to send a well-deserved jolt of electricity to his groin region. The lewd bastard had made one crude joke too many and I’d lost my cool. Luckily for me, while my use of my Taser on my partner was grounds for dismissal, so was Derek’s unprofessional language. Derek was buddy-buddy with the chief, and the chief didn’t want to see his golden boy lose his job, so he’d had no choice but to let my offense slide, too. He’d reassigned me to work with Brigit. Though I’d resisted at first, sure the dog would be a burden, I’d soon learned she was the best partner an officer could ask for. She was hardworking and incredibly intelligent. While she was a sweet pet off the job, on duty she could summon her inner wolf to convince a suspect to quickly surrender. She’d saved me time, energy, and even my life.
Derek scoffed and smirked. “Well, well,” he said, his breath creating a fog in the cold night air. “If it isn’t the hairy bitch and her dog.”
Thanks to a recent waxing at the salon, I was only as hairy as I was supposed to be and, frankly, being called a bitch by The Big Dick was an indirect compliment. It meant he considered me formidable. I didn’t bother to greet him, just gestured for him to hand me the clipboard so I could sign myself and Brigit in.
“It’s a bloodbath in there,” he said. “Someone must’ve got their throat slit from ear to ear. Probably looked like a Pez candy dispenser when it was all over.” He ran his index finger across his throat and threw his head back, imitating the device.
Though his creepy description caused fresh dread to slither up my spine, I ignored him once more. He was trying to psych me out. Jerk. Besides, from the way he’d phrased things, it sounded like he hadn’t got a good look at the victim or victims. Rather than the usual blue paper booties made to prevent officers from contaminating a crime scene, Derek handed me a white pair made of heavy-duty impermeable Tyvek intended to protect the wearer from biohazards. Not a good sign.
A bloodbath is a shocking new challenge for Megan and Brigit when Detective Audrey Jackson calls them to the scene of what could only be a brutal murder. But the one thing the nightmarish scene is missing is a victim. The frantic homeowner’s husband is gone, seemingly without a trace—and so is the money he was holding. Has a vicious killer committed what might just be the perfect crime?
Meanwhile, it’s hailing cats and dogs all over Fort Worth, and roofing contractors have descended on the city in droves. With plenty of damage and continuing storms, work delays are building up like so much runoff, but Megan is suspicious that one roofer may be a scam artist. Determined to leash every lawbreaker she and her K-9 partner find, Megan is building a case for prosecution, all while Brigit has her nose to the ground for a murderer…