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Authors: Leslie O'Kane

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“No problem. But like I said, watch your backside,” Yolanda said and then hung up.

The phone rang. I glanced at my watch, prepared to be surprised if this was Joanne Palmer calling me back so soon. It had been a long, hard day, and I found myself hoping that this would be my last appointment, calling to reschedule. I picked up the phone and said, “Hello, this is—”

“Allida,” my mother interrupted. “I just heard on the news that the police are investigating the death of a man in a trailer park. And that his body was discovered by his dog’s trainer. Please tell me that wasn’t you.”

“I wish I could,” I murmured.

“Oh, my God. Was that Maggie’s owner?”

“Yes, and that’s not the half of it. Ken left all his money to her and appointed me her temporary guardian, and now his ex-wife, who Ken thought was dead, has shown up and says that she and Ken were joint owners of Maggie before their divorce.”

“So she wants Maggie.”

“Right. And she’s this . . . horrid gold digger. She’s getting this dog over my—” I stopped myself from saying “dead body,” realizing the possibility, somewhere, of a killer who would be willing to turn that phrase into more than a figure of speech. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t even have an approximate purchase date for Maggie, and I don’t know when they divorced.”

“That might not matter, if he was smart. He could have put a clause in his divorce settlement about his having sole custody of Maggie.”

I scoffed. “You never met Ken. He was something of an idiot savant . . . totally naive and incapable in some respects.”

“Call my friend, Carol Ann Wilson. She’s a financial advisor for divorces. Maybe she can give you some insights.”

I glanced again at my watch and decided I had time to make the call and got the number from my mother. Then she said, “I take it Maggie will be living with us for a while.”

“ ’Fraid so. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not. Living with dogs is easy. For one thing, you know not to expect your
dogs
to keep you informed.”

I winced. I’d started to think I was going to get off scot-free for failing to call my mother at the first opportunity and tell her about the mess I was in. Before I could apologize, Mom said, “My student’s here. I’ll see you at home.”

“Have a good—”

She hung up. Her next student could be in for a rough flight. Mom’s a pilot and gives flying lessons part-time.

I called Carol Ann and introduced myself as “Allida Babcock, Marilyn’s daughter.”

“Hi, Allida. How are you?” she asked pleasantly.

“Fine. But something’s come up at work that I’m hoping you can help me with. A client of mine died recently, and I need to know how to find out about some of the terms of his divorce settlement.”

“Did the divorce take place in Boulder?”

“Yes, about two years ago.”

“That’s all a matter of public record. You could go to the Clerk of Court’s office at the courthouse.”

“Great. Thanks.”

“In fact, I’m going to be there with a client this afternoon anyway. If you’d like, I can look the information up for you myself.”

“Could you? That’d be great. The couple’s name was Culberson. Ken and Mary.”

There was a pause, and I assumed Carol Ann was simply writing down the names, but she said, “That’s a coincidence. Mary Culberson was a former client of mine.”

“She was?”

“Briefly. She hired me and then refused to take my advice. If memory serves, twice a year, her ex received large payments for some television circuit he’d invented. He wanted to give her half of those payments semiannually, as well. Against my advice, she insisted on demanding a one-time cash settlement. She was impossible to work with—always insistent that she knew everyone’s job better than they did. Eventually she fired both me and her lawyer. Even so, she called me afterwards, absolutely livid, to tell me how she’d made a paltry settlement, something on the order of two or three hundred thousand.”

“Did she ever claim to you that Ken had physically abused her?”

“No, and it was quite the other way around. One time, Ken came in with a black eye. He wouldn’t tell me how he got it. Then she got so irate during a meeting that she punched him, right in front of me and both lawyers.”

“Do you remember if they had a dog? Or if they ever discussed the dog’s custody?”

“No . . . I’m pretty sure the subject of a dog never came up, but I can’t say for certain. Want me to check the records for that?”

“Could you please? I need any information on the dog, including the date of purchase, as well as the date the Culbersons’ divorce was finalized.” I could see my next client approaching—a woman carrying her puppy. Maggie, too, spotted them and started barking. Uh, oh. Wrong client for such a harsh greeting. I said hurriedly, “Carol Ann, thank you so much. I’ve got to go. I’ll call you from my mom’s.” I hung up and rushed to the door.

Sally—my new client—had arrived early. I held up my palm to indicate for her to wait a moment. Sally had called to complain that the dog was afraid of nearly everything that moved. Having a large golden clawing at the other side of a door was not going to be conducive to overcoming those fears.

The woman, paling at the sight of Maggie, looked ready to flee. I shouted through the glass to her, “I’m going to put this dog in the other office. I’ll be right back.”

I grabbed a rawhide bone from a cabinet drawer, then dragged Maggie into Russell’s office with me. Moving his couch back a few inches, I then dropped the bone back there. This way she would occupy herself with trying to figure out how to retrieve the bone. Sending up a small prayer that she wouldn’t shred the upholstery in the process, I left, noting that so far, my strategy seemed to be working. Maggie was indeed transfixed by the hidden treasure and was trying to wedge herself between the wall and the back of the couch.

I returned to my office, where Sally was seated along with her mixed-breed puppy, Sebastian, though my current view of him was of his rear end as he burrowed behind her cardigan. I apologized profusely and explained that, no, their having been greeted by a large barking dog was not part of my desensitizing training, but rather an unfortunate complication. I gave her the option of rescheduling, but she declined.

Not repeating my mistake with Ken and Maggie, we began our session by filling out a full background report on Sebastian. My first impression was that Sally herself was actually much more timid and jumpy than her puppy. Fearfulness in dogs is one of the hardest problems to overcome and can be very serious, because a fearful dog is often a biter. In this case, it was clear that I would have to start by assuring the owner that her dog was picking up on her own nervousness.

Not fifteen minutes into our session, Mary barged through the door. Sally gasped and shrank back into her chair. The puppy jumped and started yipping, while cowering behind his owner’s chair.

“God! More damned barking dogs,” Mary snarled. She pointed at me. “I have to speak to you for a minute.”

“Not now. I’m with a client.”

“Suit yourself, but I’m here as a courtesy. Just wanted to tell you that you’d better get yourself a lawyer.”

I sighed in exasperation and turned to Sally. “I’m sorry. This will just take a minute.”

“That’s okay. Take your time.” She smiled nervously. It was quite obvious that, between Maggie’s greeting and Mary’s interruption, I was not making the best of impressions on my client.

I held the now-scratched-up door to Russell’s office. Maggie started barking, but at least didn’t barge through the door—yet. Mary started to follow me, then turned to Sally and said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t waste my time waiting on her. Unless you want to find yourself in my shoes, having to hire a lawyer to get your dog back.”

Incensed, I thrust my finger in Mary’s face. “You’d better ask your lawyer for a definition of the word ‘slander.’ ” I turned back to Sally, whose jaw was agape as she pressed back into her chair in horror. “Again, I’m sorry. I’ll explain everything just as soon as I handle this.”

For the sake of Maggie and my clients, I gently closed the door behind me instead of slamming it. “What?” I asked through a tight jaw.

She glanced at the fervently barking Maggie, but then returned her focus to me. “My lawyer tells me that we can get punitive damages from you for trying to keep Maggie yourself, in spite of my husband’s wishes.”

“Your
ex
-husband, you mean, and I am doing no such thing.”

“My lawyer also told me that since Ken believed his dog was channeling me, he obviously meant to leave his money to me, had he not believed that I’d already died.”

“A thought pattern which would, in turn, make you the prime suspect.”

She grinned at me. “Maybe so, but fortunately, I have an alibi.”

“Good for you.”

Mary gave me a haughty smirk. “I’m innocent of my late husband’s murder. But I want what is rightfully mine. Besides, anyone with half a brain could figure out that Ken’s last-minute change to his will wasn’t legal. You’re holding onto this dog when you have no legal rights whatsoever to do so.”

“Look, lady. Yesterday I was hired by a sweet but eccentric man to work with his sweet but badly behaved golden. I want nothing more than to see to it that Maggie is placed in a good home and to never have to hear about Ken’s inheritance again.”

“Good for you,” she fired back at me with relish. “As for me, I want what is rightfully mine. And my lawyer is going to see to it that I get every penny that’s coming to me.”

“Perhaps it’s time you let this lawyer of yours speak for himself. Up until I hear from him and the courts tell me otherwise, I’m going to do what I think is right.”

Her voice and mannerisms suddenly softened. “Maybe I can help you figure that out. See, if you give this dog to anyone but me, you’re not getting a dime of my late husband’s money, Allie; however, just to hurry this along, I’ll cut you in on a percentage or two of the inheritance. We’re talking thousands of dollars, just for you to do what the courts will eventually decide anyway. It’ll be way more money than you make in a whole month of dog duty.”

I gritted my teeth and put my hand on the doorknob. “Ms. Culberson, or whatever you wish to be called, I will see to it that you don’t get this dog if it’s the last thing I do.” I swung the door open and held it for her.

She pursed her lips and, again, narrowed her eyes at me. “Watch what you wish for.”

She marched past me, then stopped and chuckled. Sporting a big grin, she turned back to me, gesturing at her surroundings with a sweep of both arms. “By the way. Seems that your client took my advice and left.”

The phone rang, helping me to keep a caustic reply to myself. I answered. In a smoldering voice, the caller immediately said, “This is Dr. Thames. I’ve just completed a rather lengthy interview with the Boulder police.”

“Yes, I gave them your name.”

“We’re even, then. I’ve known all along that he was leaving his money to his dog. So when they asked me if I knew of anyone who might have a motive to kill Ken Culberson, your name was the first one that came to mind.”

He hung up before I could reply.

Chapter 9

Maggie fell asleep in the back seat as I drove home without needing her harness. To me, however, it felt as though a belt were tightly cinched across my rib cage. Through no fault of my own, I was making enemies of the small circle of people in Ken Culberson’s life, one of whom might very well have murdered him. I ran bits and pieces of past conversations through my head—with Ken’s therapist, Maggie’s vet, T-Rex’s owner, and his now-no-longer-late ex-wife.

Ruby had warned me about Ken, yet he had been nothing but friendly toward her. In retrospect, it seemed to me that she’d deliberately lied to me, driven by some ulterior motive to suit her own agenda. Maybe she knew about Ken’s wealth, had designs on him, and wanted to keep away the competition. Or perhaps her reasons weren’t as sinister as all that. Maybe she had been the major complainant against Maggie to Animal Control and had simply convinced herself that her actions against Ken had been justified.

Regardless, here I was having taken temporary ownership of an orphan dog who had been overly attached to her owner. Without him, she was going to be horribly insecure, which can drive dogs to such awful behaviors as self-mutilation and defecating inside the home. I shuddered at the thought of how
that
would go over with my mother.

“So,” I muttered to myself. “I’m ticking off a murderer while I try to decide who gets a millionaire dog that might crap on my mother’s carpeting. My life’s a multicolored tapestry, all right.”

I had to find a good home for Maggie soon. Maybe Ken’s brother would be the answer. I tried to cheer myself with that possibility while quieting the nagging voice in my head: if Ken had thought his brother should own Maggie, he’d have stated so in his will.

Maggie awoke as I pulled into the garage. I left her in the car until I could properly greet my dogs in their rightful order—from top dog down. This meant my German shepherd, Pavlov, followed by Sage—a male collie who was top dog when my mother entered the house but yielded authority and lagged back when I entered—and last, by my buff-and-white-colored cocker spaniel, Doppler. My mother wasn’t home yet so the totem pole consisted exclusively of four-leggers. Then I brought in Maggie.

Properly prepared, the dogs got along fine. I headed straight to the TV. Ken’s death—reported only as having been under “suspicious circumstances”—was on the evening news.

I made dinner when my mother got home, and while we ate, she expressed concern for the ordeal I’d suffered regarding Ken’s death. She’d obviously forgiven me for not calling to tell her about that “ordeal” myself. After dinner, I found Ken’s brother’s name listed in the Longmont directory and called him. The man who answered said, “Yeah?” instead of hello. His voice was eerily similar to his brother’s.

“My name is Allida Babcock. Is this Arlen Culberson?”

“Yeah.”

“Your brother hired me yesterday to work with his dog. Though I’d only just met him, I liked Ken a great deal. I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”

“Yeah. Me, too. I mean, thanks. What can I do for you?” His voice betrayed no discernible emotion but, after all, why
would
he express his feelings to a total stranger on the phone?

“Ken put me in the position of trying to determine custodianship of his dog. I was hoping that the two of us could arrange to meet in the near future so that we could discuss the matter.”

There was a pause. “He asked
you
to do that? Last time Ken spoke to me about his will, he told me he was planning on leaving all his money to Maggie. Did he go through with that?”

Bone weary, I rubbed my forehead. This again—Ken’s money first and foremost on everyone’s minds. “Yes, though I don’t know anything about the legalities of such a thing. For all I know, the courts might say the will isn’t legal and your brother’s assets are to be divided among his survivors. I’m just following through on what he asked of me. Which was to find his dog a good home.” In the corner of my vision, Mom looked up from the book she was reading and gave me a reassuring smile.

“Oh. Right. Of course. And I def’nitely want the dog. In any case. Even if the dog’s got no money. I didn’t even know Ken had kept his will that way. That was almost two years ago when we talked about it. Back when he first got the puppy and him and Mary was divorcing.”

“Do you happen to know if the divorce was finalized before or after Ken bought Maggie?”

“Before. They was already divorced,
then
he got Maggie. I seen to that myself. Tol’ Ken he’d best be careful so’s Mary wouldn’t be able to use his pup in a tug-of-war to weasel more money outta him.”

“Good advice,” I said, though I was thinking that Arlen’s recollections could be tainted by his knowledge of the dog’s inheritance. “Does Maggie know you at all?”

“Oh, sure. The dog’s a good buddy of mine.”

“Good,” I murmured, though we would have to see about that. At least Arlen was a possible candidate for adopting Maggie.

“Ken ’n’ me used to talk all the time. Course, it made it harder that he didn’t drive and RTD don’t get all that close. Nearest stop’s ten blocks away. But I’d come over to his trailer every couple of weeks.”

Then why the “falling out” that Yolanda had mentioned? Why had Ken cut his own brother out of the will? I would probably have to learn the answers, but this was not the time to ask. “Are you free tomorrow morning?”

“Yeah, sure. Name the time and place.”

I wanted to see for myself how suitable the home itself would be, so we agreed to meet at nine A.M. at his home, and he gave me directions.

After I’d hung up the phone, Mom asked, “How did—” She was interrupted when Maggie galloped into the room and leapt onto her lap. “Off!” she cried, giving Maggie a good shove. Maggie landed on all fours with a little whine. Mom said to her, “Well, sorry, but you’ve got to learn some basic manners!” She looked at me. “You’re planning on taking tomorrow off to work with Maggie. Right?”

That was more an instruction than a question, and I normally did take midweek days off and worked weekends, but business had been too demanding lately. “I’ve got some time off in the morning, but I’m too busy in the afternoon to take time off.” I looked at Maggie, who was panting and looking very insecure. I very much doubted that my mother knew how prone this made Maggie to lose basic-housebreaking skills, nor did I wish to share this particular insight. “You might want to keep her in the backyard as much as possible.”

The phone rang and I answered. It was Carol Ann Wilson. She gave me the date of the divorce decree and said, “There was no mention of a dog at all in the divorce settlement for the Culbersons.” I thanked her, thinking to myself that this, at least, was looking good. Their divorce had been finalized in early June, slightly more than two full years ago. Mary was not going to be able to claim joint ownership of Maggie.

Exhausted from the events of the last twenty-four hours, I went to bed early and fell right to sleep. During bleary, half-stages of slumber, I dreamt that someone was trying to knock down my door.

My mom called, “Wake up, Allie,” and an instant later, my door flew open and a seventy-pound golden retriever burst into the room and launched herself onto me and my bed.

While struggling to push her off me, I cried, “What’s happening?”

“The thunder,” Mom said. “She’s going nuts. Didn’t you hear it?”

“No. I . . .”

Maggie’s whole body was trembling. She’d moved to the side of me on my bed and was desperately trying to dig her way down and under it.

“I’m sorry,” Mom said. “I just haven’t been able to do anything with her, and she’s got all the other dogs worked up, too.”

There was another crack of thunder outside, and Maggie resumed clawing at the sheets and blankets with a feverish intensity. Before I could get up and get my wits together, she’d leapt onto the floor and was now squeezing herself underneath the bed.

“What do we do?” Mom asked.

“Phosphorus pills. I’ve got some in my glove box. We should also get her down into the basement where it’ll be as quiet as possible.”

Mom grabbed Maggie’s collar. “You get the pills. I’ll get the dog downstairs.”

Happy to let my mother take the more physical part, I rushed out to the garage and found the small bottle of medication. The key was to get the dog to swallow an initial dose before he or she got into the kind of frenzy that Maggie was now fraught with, though.

To my pleasant surprise, once we were in the basement and I was seated on Mom’s old couch, Maggie hopped onto my lap and settled down. Though she trembled terribly when the thunder hit, she stayed on my lap. I talked to her soothingly, and eventually we both fell asleep.

By morning, if I’d had a tail, it would have been dragging. Mom had already left for an early-morning flight instruction by the time I painfully made my way up the stairs from our basement. I’d slept in a semi-upright position and was pretty sure that the circulation had been permanently cut off from my feet and ankles from holding such a heavy dog on my lap for so long.

Maggie, on the other hand, looked fresh and ready to take on the day. She attached herself to my hip, at least to the extent that the other dogs allowed. “Time to meet your uncle,” I told her.

I got her into the car, but didn’t have the energy to get her into the seatbelt harness. She’d slept in my back seat yesterday, so she was starting to mellow a little. I gave her a rawhide bone, and she gnawed on that peacefully.

In his straw hat, plaid shirt, baggy jeans, and leather boots, Arlen Culberson was dressed like a rancher, but lived in a modest two-story home in one of the residential neighborhoods that had sprung up to surround the golf courses between Boulder and Longmont. He was a thinner, older version of his brother, and I got the perverse image of him as Ken, after having been left out in the sun to dry like a raisin. His open garage was full of television sets in various states of disrepair. He was tinkering at a workbench in the back when I pulled into his driveway. He tried to give Maggie a pat through the car window, but he quickly withdrew his hand when she barked at him. In and of itself, the barking meant nothing. Many dogs get territorial when confined in such a small enclosure as a car. For the time being I left her in the back seat and got out to talk with Arlen.

“Do you live here alone?” I asked.

“Yeah. Divorced, and the wife got the kids.” He gave a casual shrug, but his features revealed some resentment there. “Typical story.”

“Do you have a dog?”

“No, but that don’t mean I don’t like ’em. I do. I just don’t happen to own one.”

“Have you ever?”

“Oh, sure.”

“What kind?”

“A mutt.” His face had taken on a reddish hue, and I suspected he was lying.

“I love dogs, of course. Do you happen to have any pictures of yours?”

“No. My ex-wife got the photo albums, too.”

“What was your dog’s name?”

“Umm, Fido.”

I nodded, but was now convinced he was lying. Unfortunate, really, but this wasn’t in itself going to make me rule out Arlen as Maggie’s permanent guardian. “Fido is a common name, but I have to say it’s one I’ve never understood. It’s always sounded to me like an acronym an engineer might come up with—First In, Dud Out.”

I grinned, mentally patting myself on the back. Here was a man tinkering with electronic parts, and I’d managed to forge a conversational bridge between his life’s work and mine. That was as close to charming as I ever came. Arlen, however, just scratched his nose and muttered, “He was a stray. Followed my kids home from school, and that was the dog’s name on his collar.”

I nodded again, thinking I could press the issue and point out that most “strays” didn’t have collars, but decided to let it pass.

He glanced over at the car, where Maggie was watching us intently. “So if you pick me as her new owner, does that mean I inherit the money?”

“I’m honestly not sure, Mr. Culberson.”

“Arlen. Please.”

“Is inheriting your brother’s money important to you?”

It was a stupid question, I knew, but I wanted to see his reaction. He furrowed his brow and looked at me. “Of course. I surely wouldn’t turn it down. But no more so than it would be to most folks. Wouldn’t buy a yuppie estate and move up the top of the hill, either. And I got enough of a yard to let Maggie roam around a bit. Yard’s as big as Kenny’s was at the trailer, and my house is a lot nicer.”

“That’s good,” I murmured. “What’s much more important to me, though, is how good of a caretaker you’re going to be for Maggie.”

“So you’re going to give her to me, then?” Arlen asked, brightening at the prospect.

“Not necessarily. I haven’t made up my mind yet. But let’s get Maggie out of the car.”

Arlen stiffened. “She’s . . . never been here before. She’s not going to be comfortable. I can guarantee it. But that don’t mean she won’t ever feel at home here.”

“Right. I’m going to take all of that into consideration.”

“Oh, sure. Course. It’ll be good to have Maggie. She’s a good dog.”

Truth be told, I couldn’t bring myself to believe that anyone who didn’t like dogs enough to own one would call Maggie a “good dog.” Maggie leapt out the car. I kept a leash on her. She was content to sniff the floors as Arlen gave us a tour. They ignored each other almost completely.

When our tour was complete, Arlen escorted us back into the garage. “As you can see, she’ll have a lot more room in my house than she had in Ken’s. I even got a fenced yard for her.”

“Do you want to see if she’ll walk on leash with you?”

“Oh, er, you want I should take her leash?”

“You don’t have to.”

“I’d rather not, then. How ’bout we schedule another visit another time, and I’ll show you how good we get along then. I’d like a chance to . . . I got an appointment to keep. Have to leave in a few minutes.”

Arlen was looking decidedly uncomfortable now. He had taken off his hat a moment earlier and was now turning it in a slow circle with his hands.

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