Deadly Ties by Susan Holmes
DEADLY TIES (A WATERSIDE KENNELS MYSTERY)
Come to a place haunted by legends … where the search for treasure just might lead to murder.
Come to the hills of the Ozarks and meet Maggie Porter and her dogs–a champion Labrador Retriever, an aging Cocker Spaniel, and a Beagle retired from federal service. Maggie has returned home to reopen the family dog kennel business, where she’s plagued by problems from the start. Serious trouble arises when a gossip-loving employee turns up dead holding an heirloom locket belonging to Maggie’s mother.
More trouble arrives in the shape of anonymous threats and mysterious break-ins. And when a security crisis puts everything she loves at risk, Maggie realizes somebody doesn’t want Waterside back in business.
As the region sizzles in record heat, a ‘Treasure of the Ozarks” campaign disrupts her quest for answers even as it breathes new life into old tales and brings out tourists and treasure hunters alike. With her loyal dogs at her side, Maggie must dig for the truth behind the violence. Along the way, she learns that everyone has something to hide—and some secrets are worth killing for.
Deadly Ties: a tale of family, friendship, and betrayal in a mountain community where ties run deep and grudges can linger for a lifetime.
Doreen Crowley wasn’t the smart type. She’d known that since the fourth grade, which she repeated three times. Doreen’s teachers pronounced her hopeless. She left school at fifteen and pushed a broom through her uncle’s grocery store for eight years, and then she drifted from one job to the next, waiting for Lady Luck to deliver a Prince Charming who would declare her beautiful and smart. Somebody who wanted her for more than one night, more than a casual good time.
And now that she’d found one, she meant for him to stay.
Doreen paced nervously about the room, the necklace dangling from her hand as she considered her options. She’d broken her own rule, the one about not taking anything expensive, or something that might be missed right away.
To keep it would be stealing, and she wasn’t a thief. Souvenirs, that’s what she took, something she could pull out when she needed to lose herself in memories.
This was no souvenir.
She could put it back, pretend she hadn’t seen it, didn’t know whose it was, but she wouldn’t forget. Defiant, she shoved the jewelry in the small front pocket of her jeans. When the time was right she’d confront him, demand an explanation. And an apology. Let him say the woman means nothing to him.
And if she won’t back off, Doreen thought, she’d have to get in her face. This was her man, her future, and nobody’s going to say different.
She’d die before she let him go.
The unmistakable sound of trouble brewing sent Maggie Porter sprinting into the kennel office to discover two Schnauzers off leash and hell-bent on having a cat for breakfast. The dogs snarled and growled and fell over each other in their efforts to capture a tabby that crouched, hissing, within the fragile protection of a cardboard carrier. Maggie waded into the fracas, snatched the carrier out of harm’s way, and pressed the intercom button. “All staff to the office, please.”
The employment agency had promised to have someone at the kennel by eight that morning but the only person in sight was Mrs. Gruber, who appeared oblivious to the uproar her dogs had started. No newcomer appeared in response to the summons, but Maggie was relieved to see Bev Donaldson, the kennel’s master groomer, hurrying to help. Handing over the cat carrier with a grateful smile, Maggie turned and collared the Schnauzers with a practiced hand. She wished she could hand the dogs to Bev as well, but Mrs. Gruber had been adamant when she’d called. “Dr. Sheppard assured me you would personally care for my darlings.”
Angus Sheppard’s decision to close his clinic for remodeling had generated welcome business at Waterside when the kennel first opened, although Maggie fervently hoped the vet hadn’t made similar promises to all his clients—especially if they all had pets like these. She leashed the Schnauzers and held on to her temper while Mrs. Gruber fussed over each dog before signing the contract authorizing boarding, grooming, and emergency veterinary services. Departing in a flurry of tearful farewells, the woman left the door open behind her.
One of the Schnauzers strained forward but was thwarted by Maggie’s firm grip on the leash. The other stared at her ankles. “Don’t even think about it,” she warned him.
“Tabby’s just fine,” Bev reported calmly as she returned. “Whose cat is that? I didn’t see a name on the carrier.”
“Haven’t a clue. How did they get in? The door was locked.”
“Guess they dropped him off while I was setting up in the back, and I didn’t hear them. No harm done.” A single mother of two young daughters and sole caretaker for aging parents, Bev had an endless supply of patience and tended to dismiss routine irritations with a shrug.
When she’d first returned to Eagle Cove, Maggie looked for a groomer to clip her aging Cocker Spaniel, Sweet Pea, and found Bev working in a cramped, smoke-filled room at Paradise Pets. The woman handled Sweet Pea with ease (“The trick is to work fast, before she falls asleep,” she’d said). Maggie had been pleased when Bev accepted her offer to work at the newly renovated Waterside Kennels.
Her other full-time employee didn’t have much kennel experience but he was turning out to be a great asset to the small team. Garrett Johnson had the right temperament for the job, was willing to lend a hand to any project, and he handled the dogs like a pro. Customers liked him. She counted it a bonus he could pick up a Saint Bernard with ease. Maggie was grateful she’d found two such dedicated, intelligent workers. Without them, the new Waterside would still be a dream.
The only other person currently on the payroll was Jake Turner, a part-time worker long past his prime. Thinking about her staffing situation, she sighed. Record unemployment all over the region and she still couldn’t get decent help, Maggie thought irritably. At this point, she’d even give Doreen Crowley another chance if she waltzed in and asked for her receptionist job back. Okay, so the girl’s social skills were on par with Mrs. Gruber’s Schnauzers, but she had been good with the animals—at least until she’d quit without notice and left Maggie scrambling for a replacement.
Glancing up at the sound of a vehicle, Maggie saw Garrett pull into the large gravel lot that served as general parking for staff and customers. He strode whistling into the office, sidestepping quickly to avoid the Schnauzers lunging in his direction.
“Morning. Who do we have here?”
“Meet Fritz and Hauser—Mrs. Gruber’s darlings,” Maggie said dryly. “Booked in while she’s off on a cruise. Can you manage?”
“Sure. Hey, there’s a dog outside. Not one of ours.”
“I’ll take a look.” As Garrett led the Schnauzers out to the double run reserved for them, Maggie filled a bowl with kibble and set it outside with a bowl of water in plain view of the dog she saw huddled beneath one of the cars parked in the lot.
Head low, tail tucked tight against his thin body, the dog whimpered at the sight of food and edged forward. He snatched a few pieces of kibble from the bowl and retreated to gulp his prize.
Maggie was still watching him when Garrett returned to the office. “No collar, no tags. I should call Animal Control.”
“The no-kill shelter is full. They’ll have to send him over to the county, and you know what that means.”
“Well, we’ve got plenty of room here for now. Find a spot for him and I’ll ask Dr. Sheppard to check him over.”
With his clinic shut, Angus Sheppard had offered to drop by the kennel on an as-needed basis. “Save you from driving all the way down to Huntsville,” he’d said. “Keep me from being bored. Nothing on my calendar except catching up on some reading—love that Jack Reacher character—and a fishing trip or two.”
If Angus had chosen that week to go in search of striper bass or catfish, she’d have to juggle her schedule to make time for the hour-long trip through the mountains. “Don’t put him near the boarders until the vet clears him.”
At the desk, Bev was skimming through the paperwork and glanced at the dog Garrett carried in. “Better let me give him a bath first.”
“He sure needs one,” Maggie agreed. “Hey, did you figure out whose cat that was?”
“He must be Oscar, he’s the only tabby on the list. Lisa Jarrett’s the owner, but I don’t see her boarding contract.”
Maggie groaned. “Filing is not my strong suit.”
“It wasn’t Doreen’s either.”
“Darn it, why did that wretched girl quit on me?”
“Maybe she thought the job was too much for her.”
Maggie sighed. “Well, until I find somebody else, I’ll have to do a better job managing this paperwork.”
“And when are you planning to do that? You never take a day off as it is. You need more help around here.”
Garrett returned for coffee in time to hear Bev’s comment. “She’s right. And we’ll probably get busier after the open house.”
“I must have been crazy, scheduling that so soon.”
“It’s good PR,” Bev said cheerfully. “You haven’t been here long. Folks can come out, see the place, get to know you. You can meet the owners of the hotels and the B&Bs—most don’t accept pets, so they could send a lot of business your way.”
“There are still a dozen things I need to do here. I want it absolutely perfect for the open house, that’s all.”
“Sure, we can do perfect. We’ll get right on that, boss,” Garrett said, straight-faced.
Maggie laughed. “So maybe I’m obsessing a little.”
“Everything will be fine,” Bev assured her. “Great timing, too. Who wouldn’t want to be part of the ‘Treasures of the Ozarks’ fun? Pretty clever idea.”
“With the Chamber of Commerce and the Merchants League kicking in money for our open house as part of that advertising campaign, I’d be foolish to say no,” Maggie said, thinking about the precarious state of her bank account. “Now if I could just hire more staff, we’d be in good shape. I’m so desperate, I’d even welcome Doreen back.”
“Why don’t you try that new employment agency in Rogers? Maybe they’ll have better luck finding somebody who’s willing to drive out from town.”
“Hey, my brother’s got some time. He’s taking a summer class at the community college, but if you can be flexible about his hours, he could probably help out,” Garrett suggested. He refilled his coffee cup and stood. “I have to go exercise the boarders.”
“Jake’s supposed to handle that chore,” Maggie objected. “Where is he?”
Garrett shrugged. “Anybody’s guess.”
“I heard he’s digging for some relic hunters in the caverns around Rocky Branch,” Bev offered.
Jake Turner had been employed at the kennel in various capacities for years, ever since Maggie’s grandfather had owned Waterside. After her grandfather’s death, Jake had stayed on as a caretaker when Maggie’s father accepted a partnership in a veterinary practice in Florida and moved the remaining family to Tampa.
When she’d inherited Waterside from her grandmother, Maggie couldn’t afford to keep Jake on in his former role, but she had been reluctant to dismiss him outright. Once the kennel reopened she’d offered him part-time work, worried the rigors of the job might be too much for a graying man whose leanness bordered on frail. Now, imagining Jake climbing rocks and clambering around caves, she realized he must be stronger than he looked.
“Well, I hope he strikes it rich, because he won’t stay on my payroll if he doesn’t show up soon,” Maggie said tartly. “Okay, hiring just went to priority one. I’ll call the agency in Rogers and see what they can offer. Garrett, if you think your brother would be a good addition to the team, I’d like to meet him.”
“I’ll bring him by this weekend.”
TUESDAY BEGAN WITH a short rush as customers dropped off pets for boarding or grooming. Garrett handled the boarders while Bev greeted the grooming clients, many of whom had followed her from her previous job at Paradise Pets. Maggie filled in wherever she was needed, grateful she didn’t have to fit any pick-ups into the schedule. Even though the offer of pick-up and delivery had generated much-needed revenue, she was still learning her way around, and Garrett’s father, the Hogan County sheriff, had warned her about relying on GPS.
“Our Search and Rescue teams spend a lot of time finding tourists who think choosing ‘shortest route’ will get them where they want to go,” Lucas Johnson had told her. “Unfortunately, the shortest route around here can send you down a logging road, up a mountainside, and into places where cell phone service is spotty at best.” He’d handed her a map of the county. “Get a compass,” he advised, “and keep it with this map in your vehicle. I don’t want to have to send Search and Rescue after you.”
Grateful she wasn’t driving miles this morning, Maggie enjoyed her time helping customers. Once the rush subsided, she filed client records, prepared billing statements, and updated the kennel’s expense ledger. She answered emails and reviewed online reservations requests before checking for phone messages. In addition to the typical mix of customers, suppliers, and telemarketers, there were a few hang-ups and one heavy breather. She shrugged. Wrong number, maybe, or just your garden-variety jerk.
She took a break to play with her own dogs before turning them loose in the grassy meadow serving as the boarders’ exercise area. Hickory, oak, and mountain cedars provided welcome shade and a cool place to retreat as the day warmed. Her Labrador Retriever, Sam, bounded happily about, no doubt on the trail of the rabbits and other wildlife that crossed the meadow when the dogs were in their runs. Sweet Pea, her elderly Cocker Spaniel, dozed off while Mr. B, the Beagle Maggie had recently adopted, settled quietly beneath a cedar, showing little interest in his surroundings.
Leaving the dogs in the exercise area, Maggie returned to her chores. By early afternoon, she’d filed much of the paperwork and updated the computer entries. After a quick sandwich at the house, she was ready to get back to work. She was wrestling with the dead bolt key in the front door lock when she heard a vehicle approaching, moving slowly up the steep hill and twisting lane that led past her house to the kennel and continued eastward. Recognizing the veterinarian’s truck, she waved.
By the time Maggie reached the kennel, the vet was already working. Angus Sheppard was a meat-and-potato-sized man, with a waistline that suggested a preference for his own home-brewed beer. He enjoyed creating exotic brews, but his latest experiment—apricot beer—had been a disappointment. “Tasted like shampoo,” he admitted ruefully when she asked.
After a thorough exam of the stray, he declared, “Nothing a month of decent food won’t fix. Anybody else you want me to check out while I’m here?”
With his Ford F-250 four-wheel drive pick-up truck packed full of veterinary equipment and supplies, he was the only vet Maggie knew who made house calls. Maggie found it hard to believe the man was her father’s age. The difference, she decided, was attitude. Unlike her father, Angus Sheppard was a perpetual optimist.
Angus patted the stray, packed away his gear, and stretched to his full six feet. “I keep meaning to tell you, I like the way you worked around the old barn. Gave me some ideas for renovating my own place.”
“I’m glad. Want to walk through and see the modular pens we installed? They cost more than traditional versions but you get more flexibility to manage your space.”
“Lead the way.”
It had been a challenge to find an architect and a general contractor who understood her vision for the kennel, and who could be trusted to stay on schedule while Maggie remained in Florida settling her grandmother’s estate. The first architect she’d interviewed had dismissed her renovation ideas, agreeing only with the decision to gut the building. When she’d finally found the right team, she kept in regular contact by phone, email, and video chats. As the work progressed, she shuttled back and forth between Tampa and Eagle Cove to watch over the work with equal parts anxiety and anticipation.
Knowing that boarding can be a stressful experience, Maggie had designed a facility intended to pamper both owners and their pets. Anticipating that customers might enjoy a place to relax and visit with other pet owners, she’d added a customer lounge, installing comfortable sofas and armchairs in front of wide windows that framed a stunning view of Beaver Lake and the bald eagles nesting there. One wall held an oak sideboard, well-stocked with packaged snacks, hot beverages, and copies of the Pet Owners’ Bill of Rights A refrigerator to one side held soft drinks and water. An old map of Hogan County hung above the sideboard.
On the low counter separating the office and lounge, Maggie had placed treats and toys to smooth pets’ entry into the kennel. Hanging above the counter were the boarding kennel’s accreditation certificate and the industry’s code of ethics. Other documents attested to Maggie’s certification as a professional dog trainer specializing in obedience, utility, and agility work. She was also certified as a handler and trainer in tracking and retriever work.
Another wall featured framed photographs, articles, and awards that chronicled the career of Maggie’s grandfather, who trained champion retrievers in field work for thirty-one years. Maggie had grown up hearing stories about him from Gran, who had taken many of the photographs while accompanying her husband to the annual retriever championship trials.
The kennel Maggie vaguely remembered from childhood was up there, too, captured in grainy black and white. Only the outer walls of that structure remained. In addition to the office and customer lounge, she’d built grooming rooms, a compact kitchen, storage rooms, and a cattery. The rest of the interior was dedicated to training space and dog runs, with a small space for the on-site manager Maggie hoped to eventually hire.
As they walked along, a sleek black cat crossed the training arena, heading for the dog runs. “Is that a boarder?” Angus asked.
“No, that’s Momma Cat. She came with the house,” Maggie explained. “She has the run of the place. She doesn’t have much use for people, but she likes being out here with the dogs.”
They followed the cat into the open arena used for training sessions and foul-weather exercise. Collars, leashes, retrieving dummies, tracking harnesses, and portable jumps were shelved along the east wall of the arena. Another storage area held panels for additional kennel runs.
Maggie had chosen modular units for the indoor-outdoor runs along the west and south side of the barn. Doors at the end of each row led to the fenced exercise area. They stepped outside where Garrett was surrounded by a dozen dogs, prompting Angus to ask, “Do you let them all out at once?”
“It depends. If they’re sociable, and their owners approve, they can have joint play time. Otherwise, they don’t come out until the other dogs are back in their runs. And nobody’s ever out here alone, unsupervised. My own dogs spend a lot of time here, too.” She paused and then added dryly, “Those Schnauzers you sent me didn’t pass the play test, by the way.”
Angus shuddered. “They’re a menace! Watch your ankles,” he said darkly. “They’ve bitten my entire staff.”
“I’m not sure if Edith Gruber’s Schnauzers are a blessing or a curse,” Maggie teased him. “But I am grateful. Without your help, I’d still be struggling to attract customers.”
“You have a first-class operation here. Your grandfather would be proud of you.”
“I wish I remembered him.”
“Miles Raeburn was a hard man, but fair. And he was brilliant with dogs. Best I’ve ever seen.”
Maggie smiled. “Gran used to say he could turn any dog into a champion.”
“What do you think he would have said about this fellow?” Angus stopped in the shade of a pin oak where Maggie’s Beagle sat quietly, watching the other dogs in the yard.
“I wish I knew. I don’t seem to be making much progress.”
Angus ran his hands expertly, gently, along the dog’s body. The Beagle sat patiently, unmoving except to lift a paw when prompted. The vet patted the dog gently. “Physically, he’s okay. But his other wounds are going to be a long time healing.”
The Beagle had been part of a K-9 unit of a federal agency, sniffing out drug smugglers. Retired from active duty after being seriously wounded in the ambush that had killed four officers, including his handler, and without a family willing to take him in, the Beagle’s future had been grim until Maggie adopted him.
Her decision had irritated her father. “He’s never been anybody’s pet. You’re wasting your time.”
Now, as Maggie looked at the Beagle, she wondered if he was right. “My father thinks Mr. B is a lost cause,” she confided.
“Look at it from the dog’s point of view—he’s lost everything he’s ever known. That can haunt you for a long time.”
“I know what you mean.”
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Susan Holmes fell under the spell of books during her first visit to the public library, and she’s been enthralled ever since. By the fifth grade she’d progressed to reading Shakespeare, an experience that came in handy when stationed in England early in her military career. Years of writing military publications proved great training when she moved into academic publishing and then fiction. Today, she lives in northwest Arkansas where she works as a writer, editor, and college professor. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and the Dog Writers Association of America.
Her third book, Deadly Ties is the first in the Waterside Kennels mystery series. Ozark folklore and traditions are recurring themes in the series, which is set against the backdrop of the Eureka Springs area. In pursuit of authentic material, she joined Search and Rescue exercises, ventured deep into caves, and followed the trail of Ozark legends. She works closely with dog trainers, kennel owners, and veterinarians to create an environment that dog lovers are sure to recognize and appreciate.
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