Chihuahua of the Baskervilles: New Excerpt

Chihuahua of the Baskervilles by Esri Allbritten
Chihuahua of the Baskervilles by Esri Allbritte
The decidedly eccentric staff of Tripping Magazine, a low-budget periodical of the paranormal, go to Manitou Springs, Colorado, to investigate a ghostly Chihuahua spotted by the rich founder of a clothing catalog for small dogs. Is the glowing apparition really the deceased namesake of Petey’s Closet, “Where Dapper Dogs Shop”? Or is someone trying to teach a dead dog new tricks?  

One

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 fl inched, 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 offthe 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.”

 

Two

Angus MacGregor’s cell phone woke him. His futon mattress had no frame, and he groaned a little as he got to his feet. At fifty-two, a man shouldn’t have to sleep on the floor.

Two steps took him to his camel-colored corduroy jacket, hang­ing from a hook on the back of the bedroom door. He took the phone out of its pocket and flipped it open. “Hello?” Grogginess added gravel to his Scottish accent.

“Angus, it’s Pendergast. Are you busy?”

Angus hiked the waistband of his boxer shorts higher. “Not right this moment, but I  can’t talk long.” His phrasing made it sound as though an urgent appointment  were in the offing. In reality, his pay-as-you-go minutes  were running low.

“Listen, I have a lead on a story, and what a story!” Pendergast spoke with an East Coaster’s rapidity. “Plus, it’s right here in Colo­rado.”

It was cold in the room. As goose pimples  rose on his skin, Angus pulled on his jacket one-handed and buttoned it over his chest.

“You told me Tripping magazine was finished. Your exact words were ‘dead as a stinking halibut,’ as I recall.”

“We’re only a month past when the last issue should have been out. I doubt the subscribers have noticed. We’ll bring it back with a bang.”

“What’s the story?” Angus looked around for his pants.

“There’s a woman in Manitou Springs, made her family’s fortune selling designer clothing for small dogs. This is after her husband lost the family’s previous fortune with some crummy investments. Any­way, the Chihuahua who started it all, Petey, has been dead for a year, but get this—last night, his ghost appeared to her. To put a frickin’ cherry on it, the family’s last name is Baskerville!”

“Who else has covered it?”

“No one! Charlotte Baskerville and my wife, Carol, are cousins. Charlotte called Carol this morning, wanting to talk to someone sympathetic. I listened in on the extension.”

Angus put the phone on speaker and set it on the floor before pulling on his pants. “I need my first two weeks’ pay in advance. And I want a photographer.”

“I’ve got one all lined up—used to work for National Geo­graphic.”

“You’re kidding.” Angus paused with a sock in his hand. “When? In 1940?”

“No, she’s young. She got fired over some little question of ethics, but it doesn’t apply  here. I’ve also lined up a writer-slash-graphic designer.”

Angus picked up the phone and took it off speaker. “Why do we need another writer?”

“Writer-slash–graphic designer. He has some great ideas for lay­out, and he works fast. We want this issue to hit the stands before anyone scoops us. Anyway, it’s too much work for you to write everything. Michael’s a novelist.”

“A graphic-designing novelist?”

“Is there any other kind? Speaking of which, where do you want me to send your check?”

“I’ll give you my bank- account number and you can deposit it directly. End of today?”

“End of tomorrow. I’ve got four sets of braces to put on today, and one of them has a mouth that looks like a broken Chrysler grille. I’ll e-mail directions to the Baskerville  house and you can take it from there.”

“Right.” Angus hung up. He had sold Len Pendergast his first Lexus two years ago. Angus’s obvious Scottishness led to talk of the Loch Ness monster, and the two men found they had a com­mon interest. Tripping, a travel magazine for aficionados of the paranormal, was the result.

Funded by Len and written and edited by Angus, Tripping had enjoyed some local success in the New Age community of Boulder, Colorado, but sagging sales caused Len Pendergast to abandon his expensive hobby. Now they  were apparently back in business.

Filled with new purpose, Angus slipped on his loafers and squared his shoulders before stepping out of his bedroom.

In the kitchen, the three college students who rented the other bedrooms in the  house sat around the table, eating cereal. They looked up as he entered, and Christine snickered. “Is it laundry day, or is stomach fur the new thing?”

Angus resisted the urge to look down at his shirtless chest be­neath the jacket. “I had no idea young people  were so prudish.” He headed back to his room.

Three

Angus asked his new staff members to meet him at a local tea place. Retail products filled the shelves, while tea drinkers sat at small tables.

Angus took a moment to order a pot of tea with three cups and looked around for a good place to sit.

A solitary woman sat at one of the tables. Her long legs  were encased in high-heeled boots that laced to the knee, visible in the slit of a long velvet skirt. A brown leather bustier constrained a white blouse that ended in long sleeves and frothy lace cuffs.

She turned, and Angus got the full effect of her red-painted mouth, slanted eyes, and black hair, cut short beneath an improb­able velvet hat. By the look of her features, she was part Asian.

“Suki Oota?” he asked as she stood to meet him.

“I hope you didn’t ask me to a tea shop because of the Japanese thing.” Her voice was pure Los Angeles.

“No. I thought Oota might be Dutch.” He offered his hand, and she shook it. “This is a regular spot of mine. I’m a fan of the

Tung Ting oolong.” He pulled out the chair opposite her, and they both sat. “I understand you worked for National Geographic,” Angus said. “Did you bring a portfolio?”

She raised delicate eyebrows at him. “Do I need a portfolio, hav­ing worked at National Geographic?”

“Perhaps you only photographed insects. I need someone with wide scope.”

Suki bent and rummaged through a carpet-bag purse. “You can look at the pictures I’ve taken this week.” She handed him a bulky digital camera. “Use that button to scroll.”

The waitress brought the tea while Angus clicked through the pictures. Suki’s shots included candid portraits, swallows fl ying above Boulder Creek, and some night shots of the CU campus, all outstanding.

Angus handed the camera back. “You’re very good.”

“I am.” She shrugged. “I don’t actually need to work. Not that you shouldn’t pay me, but be aware that I can walk at any time.”

“What happened at National Geographic?” Angus asked, pour­ing tea for both of them. “So I can do my best to avoid losing you.”

She sighed. “Sexual impropriety on the staff’s part.”

“Ah.” Angus nodded solemnly. “Objectively speaking, you are quite attractive.”

“So was he, in a dark, loin-clothed kind of way.” She frowned. “No one told me there was a hands-off policy with the natives. I guess you’re just supposed to know. Honestly, it was so clubby there.”

“Well, Ms. Oota, carnal temptations are rare in the world of paranormal travel, so I think you’ll do fine.” Angus looked past her as someone approached the table. “And this must be our writer­-slash–graphic designer.”

The newcomer was a lean man in his late twenties with a worn messenger bag slung over the shoulder of his black leather jacket. Dark, shaggy hair touched the top of gold-wire glasses perched on his narrow face. He didn’t smile as he came over. “Angus Mac-Gregor?”

“A pleasure.” Angus stood and offered his hand. “And this is Suki Oota, our staff photographer.”

Pendergast had told him Michael’s last name was Abernathy. Angus had looked forward to having another Scot on staff , even if he  wasn’t native. But judging by Michael Abernathy’s olive- skinned good looks, the Scottish part of him was on one side only. French, Angus thought. Or Jewish.

Michael looked Suki up and down as they shook hands. “Nice outfit. Steampunk?”

“For the moment,” she said.

They sat, and Angus turned to Michael. “I understand you’re a novelist.”

Michael shook his head. “Writer. You don’t call yourself a nov­elist until you publish a book. I do sell a fair amount of magazine articles. They’re good for the résumé.” He took a battered laptop out of his bag and set it on the table. “Len said you need someone for layout, too.”

“That would be helpful, although we have a template that I use without any problems.”

“If it’s anything like the Web site, it needs updating.”

“Oolong tea?” Angus picked up the Yixing clay pot.

Michael didn’t look up from his computer. “Only if it’s For­mosa.”

“What  else?” said Angus, who had no idea. He went by smell and taste. He poured into the small, handleless cup.

Michael turned his laptop toward Angus. “This is my proposed

look  and  feel for the Web site and cover design, using stock photos. My research showed that the most active paranormal groups re­volve around UFOs, Bigfoot, and ghosts. I threw Stonehenge in there because it’s a well-known tourist destination and you’re work­ing the travel angle.” He picked up his cup and inhaled deeply be­fore sipping. After a moment he swallowed. “A little thin on the back note. Probably not spring pick.”

Angus used the laptop’s down arrow to scroll through the pro­posed site. “I like the blue.”

“I used blue because most of your readers are male, and men like blue.”

“They also like red,” Suki said.

“Blue is more calming. Good for when you’re asking someone to spend money.”

“But red incites action, so they hit that buy button.” She smiled slowly, her red lips curving.

Michael stared at her a moment. “Maybe.”

Angus turned the computer back toward Michael. “I think we have a good team. Manitou Springs is a two-hour drive, and as you know, Len told Mrs. Baskerville to expect us after lunch. We’ll take my car.”

Michael took one sip of the coffee Angus brought on the trip before sticking the plastic thermos cup out the car window and dumping it.

“You can wash that off the fender when we stop for gas, lad.” Angus stepped on the pedal of his Mitsubishi Eclipse as he merged onto I-25.

“Happy to,” Michael muttered, turning sideways in the back­seat. “You should always ask to smell the coffee before they fill the bag, to make sure it’s fresh.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Angus, who bought all his coffee at the Dollar Store. “Now let’s talk about Manitou Springs. It’s a per­fect vacation spot for paranormal fans, close to cliff dwellings and a couple of ghost towns. They have a haunted cemetery, a haunted stately home—Miramont Castle—and of course, the Emma Craw­ford Coffin Race.”

“Who is Emma Crawford, and why did she like fast coffins?” Michael asked.

“She didn’t. The poor girl died of tuberculosis in 1891. She had just gotten engaged.”

“That was wishful thinking.”

“She hoped Manitou’s healthful waters would cure her, but when it became clear she was dying, she asked her fiance to bury her at the top of Red Mountain, which  wasn’t an official cemetery by any means. A dozen men, headed by the heartbroken beau, car­ried the coffin to the peak and buried her there.”

“So it’s a race to see who can get to the top of the mountain first?” Suki asked.

“Not exactly. As I said, it wasn’t an official grave site, and her coffin was moved once to make way for the railroad. After a few years, a rainy spell unearthed Emma and sent her remains hurtling down the side of the mountain on a tide of mud. So every year, folks build coffin-shaped vehicles, someone dresses as Emma and gets inside, and they push her as fast as possible down Manitou’s main street, as a way to remember Miss Crawford.”

“Well, that is touching,” Michael said.

“So you see, Manitou is perfect for Tripping. Pendergast is lin­ing up advertisers as we speak. We’ll mention places to stay—”

“Where are we staying?” Suki asked.

“The Manitou Arms, which fits the budget of most of our readers.

But we’ll tour the full spectrum—the bed and breakfasts, deluxe. We’ll need to list places to eat, as well. There’s a haunted restaurant, the Regency.”

From the backseat, Michael asked, “Do you actually believe in ghost dogs?”

Angus glanced in the rearview mirror and frowned. “If you don’t, for God’s sake keep it to yourself.”

Michael tapped Suki’s shoulder. “You on board with astral Aire­dales and ectoplasmic Afghans?”

She lifted one shoulder. “Eh. Who knows?”

“Michael, I hope your personal beliefs won’t interfere with your professionalism,” Angus said. “We want to be very respectful of Mrs. Baskerville’s experience.”

“Don’t worry about me. It’s just the lack of real coffee talking.”

“I hope so. Suki, ghosts are notoriously hard to photograph, but at the very least, get some atmospheric shots of the yard and  house.” He hesitated. “Reflective surfaces look nice in pictures.”

“I brought a fog filter that does some cool stuff,” she said.

Angus smiled. “There’s a good lass.”

 

Copyright © 2011 by Esri Allbritten


Esri Allbritten is a former copywriter for radio and TV ads. She enjoys singing and songwriting and she lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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