Never Con a Corgi (Leigh Koslow Mystery Series), p.1
NEVER CON A CORGI
Copyright © 2012 by Edie Claire
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer's imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author.
For my friends in Novelists, Inc. (NINC), whose support and encouragement kept me writing through the dry years, and without whose optimism, professionalism, and cutting-edge business savvy the Leigh Koslow series would have ended forever in 2002.
"Chewie!" Leigh called, struck by the absence of the tawny mammal that generally remained within six inches of her ankles. "Where did you go?"
A tan and white ball of fluff burst promptly from the undergrowth, resumed its normal orbit for about five seconds, then scurried off the opposite direction.
Leigh chuckled. The dog was enjoying himself. No matter how big a yard he had at home, it was always fun to explore (and plot to destroy) new territory. She looked out at the rambling forest around her with appreciation. The woods were thick enough here, on all sides, to obscure any signs of civilization—even though the animal shelter was just a few minutes' walk away. The trail could use some work, and some new ones should be added, but overall, Warren's idea was a good one. The unused acres behind the shelter would make a fabulous off-leash dog park.
The shelter would have to charge admission, of course. But if the fence was donated (and she was quite certain her cousin Cara would help with that), they needn't charge much to make a profit, and the attraction would bring more people to the shelter, increasing its visibility and—hopefully—its donor list.
Leigh, who had joined the animal shelter board only a month ago, smiled to herself smugly. Her husband was a genius.
The corgi reappeared, his pink tongue lolling haphazardly from his oversized head as he misjudged her pace and crashed clumsily into her shins. Leigh recovered from the stumble with ease—heaven knew she had plenty of practice. Like most others of the breed, the two-year-old pup was sweet, lovable, child-tolerant, and unswervingly loyal. Unlike most others of the breed, he had the intelligence of a coat hanger.
"Personal space, Chewie," Leigh chastised. "You have this whole woods to run around in. Why don't you go dig something? Get it out of your system here instead of attacking my raspberries—"
But the dog was already gone again. Leigh continued her traipse toward the pond, keeping one ear open for the crackling of brush that indicated the dog's position. He was unlikely to go very far. He never did.
In the distance, she could hear cars driving down Nicholson Road, the occasional one going way too fast as it sped by the animal shelter and her Aunt Bess's church. Nicholson had once been a country lane, but with all the new housing plans, its character had changed dramatically. Bess's cozy hideaway, which was nestled on the other side of these same woods, had seemed to be protected from all that, being located on a private road and surrounded by only a few other residences. Until now.
Leigh cast her gaze toward the Church of the Horizon, which she was moving steadily closer to, but was unable to see through the thick summer foliage. In winter, she knew that the back of the church, its rear parking lot, and the bare foundation on which its parsonage once stood would be clearly visible from the trail on which she walked.
In winter, she would avoid looking at it.
The church was perfectly functional and above-board now, as it had been for over a decade. But there were some things, memories of certain... unsavory events, that Leigh preferred not to recall.
Actually, there were quite a few of them.
But life was different now. She was happily married, she was a mother, she was almost middle-aged (the numeric definition of "middle-aged" having gradually increased over her lifetime), and she was—all things considered—perfectly, wonderfully content.
The single, short bark drew Leigh’s attention. Chewie had his vices, but barking was not among them. The dog almost never barked, except, of course, when it came to the all-important job of alerting the family to a ringing doorbell.
"Chewie?" she called. "What's up?"
The sound had come from ahead, in the direction of the pond, but within seconds the corgi was back at her feet again. He had no tail to wag, but his bright eyes assured her that the bark was of no consequence—all was well.
Leigh pressed on toward the water. She knew the pond ahead to be a small one, and not particularly picturesque. But surely, with a little brush clearing and a few well-placed benches, it could make a nice resting spot for the dog park.
If there was a dog park.
She cast another nervous glance in the direction of the church. Last night's meeting had ended as her Aunt Bess had hoped, that much she had learned from her cousin Cara's rather animated phone call last evening. No one in the congregation wanted to sell—it was too much hassle to move, even if the money offered would cover the costs of relocation and rebuilding, which was an open question. And if the church refused to sell, and if the woman who owned the rest of the property fronting Nicholson (and leased most of it to the animal shelter), refused to sell, then the huge tract of woods on the other side of Aunt Bess's house—already bought up en masse by a speculator—could not be developed.
And Chewie could dig holes to his little heart's content.
The dog paced back and forth on the path in front of her, too excited to walk straight. "Want to dig, boy?" she prompted. "Wait till we get to the pond. There'll be softer ground there, fewer roots to stall you."
Chewie took off into the brush again—in the opposite direction.
The trees thinned immediately ahead of her, and she stepped out into the small clearing that bordered the shallow pond. It was definitely not much to look at. Just a low spot among the slightly rolling hills that otherwise drained off to the nearby creek. Her Aunt Bess dearly loved that creek. The fact that it routinely flooded out the private road that led to her house was entirely forgivable—given that it also made said road unusable for new development. The only way to reach Nicholson from the land the speculator had already bought would be to level a new access road right through the church, her Aunt Bess's house, and/or the land on which Leigh was standing.
Her aunt had no intention of letting that happen.
The corgi reappeared, circled Leigh's ankles a few times, then trotted off along the bank of the pond toward the church. Leigh followed, her mind drifting to the mundane. She had no idea what she would fix for dinner, and the laundry was already a day behind. Never mind that pesky leak in the half bath she kept meaning to ask her Aunt Lydie about—
A man in a suit was lying on the ground beside the pond. Chewie sniffed at him perfunctorily, then trotted on.
Leigh stood still for a moment, her pulse pounding in her ears. Then she rushed forward, hoping against hope for drunkenness, dizziness, or disease. Anything, anything at all, so long as the man wasn't lying there because—
She broke her run so abruptly she nearly fell forward.
The man was dressed in an expensive suit, complete with dress shoes. He was lying on his stomach in the dirt, face twisted to one side, eyes open and staring. His mouth gaped—as if in surprise. Leigh did not bend down to take a pulse, but instead, stepped back. She knew death when she saw it. She
Among other places.
Beads of sweat broke out on her brow. It was a cool day, for Pittsburgh in July, but her insides were boiling.
This could NOT be happening.
It was a trick.
She whipped her head to either side, looking for the prankster, the television cameras... the anything. There was no one else around.
She breathed in heavily. She breathed out. She extended one tentative, sneaker-clad foot. Her toe nudged one of the man's outstretched hands, still decorated with an impressive array of gold rings.
The fingers were stiff as wood.
Leigh dropped back a few more paces.
This was no trick. Of all the people on this vast, overpopulated planet—all the policemen, all the firefighters, all the doctors, pathologists, ambulance drivers, and morticians—she, Leigh Koslow the advertising copywriter, had found another body.
It was starting all over again.
Leigh corralled her dog, took his lead out of her pocket, and clipped it back on his collar.
To the extent possible in a dog with no tail, he pouted.
"Sorry, Chewie," she said distractedly. "We've got to—"
Got to what? Her cell phone, naturally, was safely stashed in her purse, which was safely stashed in her car, which was back at the animal shelter. She could walk either back there or to her Aunt Bess's, but the church was closer. It was midmorning. Someone should be there.
She took one more hopeful look in the direction of the body—hoping that in the last few seconds it might magically have disappeared.
It had not.
She let out a breath, then set off with a determined stride. The corgi raced back and forth across her path and around her ankles like a spinning spider, but Leigh, long-practiced in the art, switched the lead from hand to hand, whirled, and uncoiled herself as she moved, all without conscious thought. They reached the church all too quickly, and in the parking lot outside its office, she stopped a moment to collect herself.
There were three cars in the lot. Surely not everyone inside would think she was crazy. Maybe they wouldn't even know who she was.
That would help.
She slipped Chewie's lead over the newel post on the wrought-iron stair rail, then jogged up the side steps to the office door and walked in.
Two women looked up from their desks with smiles.
"Leigh!" said the secretary closest to her, a tiny, rail-thin woman of about fifty. "Whatever brings you here?" The woman's once ash-blonde hair was now perfectly white, but it was as devoid of style as ever, and her blue eyes gleamed at her visitor through the same overlarge plastic frames she'd been wearing as long as Leigh could remember.
"Hi, Shannon," Leigh stammered, wondering how she could have forgotten the fact that Warren's uncle—and his second wife—had rejoined the new church some years ago. She didn't know that Shannon was volunteering in the office again, but given the woman's dedication to charity work, that was no surprise.
"This is Michelle," Shannon said politely, gesturing to the younger employee who sat behind the main desk. "She's the new office manager here. Michelle, this is my niece, Leigh."
The strangers exchanged nods, but Shannon was perceptive enough to spare them further niceties. "What on earth is wrong?" she asked, studying Leigh with concern. "Do you want to sit down?"
Leigh shook her head. "I just need to use the phone, please. I've... found something in the woods behind the animal shelter, and I need to call the police."
The phone on the main desk rang, making all three jump. After a beat, Michelle hastened to pick it up. Shannon looked at Leigh intently, her pale face growing paler. She started to say something, but stifled the impulse. Silently, she led Leigh around the corner of her desk to the other phone. "Here," she said gently. "But sit down first, okay?"
Leigh complied. Her limbs felt like lead.
"You want me to dial 911?" Shannon asked, her fingers poised.
"No thanks," Leigh replied, taking the handset. "I'll just call Maura."
A shiver ran down Leigh’s spine. She had last seen Maura, her former college roommate, less than twelve hours ago, when they had waved goodbye to each other on Leigh's front porch, both Maura’s and her husband Gerry's hands full of plastic containers of pierogie casserole and pickled beets. Maura, who just happened to investigate homicides for a living, was one of her dearest, best friends in the entire world.
Perhaps she should call 911.
Leigh shook her shoulders, attempting to regroup. This was not her fault. She hadn't done anything wrong.
Since when had that ever mattered?
Her hand hovered over the phone. She couldn't remember Maura's number—she couldn't remember anybody's number. They were all in her cell. With a sigh, she dialed information, eventually getting herself routed to the Allegheny County detectives unit.
"Homicide, Polanski here."
Leigh shifted her weight in the chair. "Hi, Maura. It's me."
"Koslow!" the cheerful voice boomed merrily. "What's up? I had your beets for breakfast. Good stuff, there. You may learn to cook, yet."
"This is..." Stop spluttering! "Kind of an official call. I was walking Chewie in the woods behind the animal shelter just now, and we found a body."
Leigh winced as Shannon, beside her, drew in a sharp breath. Maura, on the other hand, exploded into a loud guffaw of laughter.
"Yeah, right, Koslow. What'd he find, a squirrel? Spare me. I'm too old for this."
Leigh pictured her solid, six-foot two-inch, two-hundred-forty pound, notoriously short-fused policewoman friend leaning casually back in her department-issue swivel chair. Age and marriage had mellowed her.
But not that much.
Leigh swallowed. "No, Maura, listen to me. I'm serious. It was a person. A dead man. Lying beside a little pond out here. And before you say—"
Too late. With a sigh, Leigh held the phone away from her ear, waiting for the expected string of exclamations, curses, and linguistically colorful references to certain previous, perhaps ill-advised actions on Leigh's part to diminish. It took a while.
"She's upset?" Shannon asked weakly, listening to the only partially muted tirade from several feet away.
Leigh nodded grimly. "She has a thing about how often my name shows up in her police reports. Petty, really."
When the noise from the receiver quieted, Leigh returned the phone tentatively to her ear. "At least I gave you a break for a while, right?"
She winced and moved it back out again.
Shannon's eyes widened.
After a suitable pause, Leigh tried again.
"Koslow!" the voice barked. "Are you listening to me?"
"Then listen to this. Stay right were you are. Don't go anywhere near that body again. And don't let anyone else go near it, either." The detective let out a breath. "Hellfire, Koslow! You know my heart can't take this."
"The doctor said your heart is perfectly fine. Besides, this really isn't something I chose—"
"I suppose I should just be thankful it's not someone you're personally involved with!" Maura continued gruffly. "At least this time, since you don't know the victim—"
Leigh's heart skipped a beat. "Um... did I say that?"
"Maura? You there?"
The brusque voice weakened to a groan. "Just spill it, Koslow."
Leigh cleared her throat. Both Shannon and Michelle, who was now off the other phone and looking as pale as her coworker, stood staring at Leigh with bugged eyes.
"It's... Brandon Lyle," she began hesitantly.
Michelle and Shannon shrieked in unison, their hands flying to their mouths.
"What was that?" Maura demanded. "Who's there? And who the hell is Brandon Lyle?"
The women slumped onto nearby desks.
Maura's voice rose. "Then this is the same church that—"
Leigh could hear muffled sounds: a chair squeak, a drawer sliding.
"Just getting my meds," the policewoman returned. "I'll be there in twenty—sending out a black and white now. And Leigh?"
She braced. "Yes?"
"Don't. Do. Anything. Stupid!"
Leigh's jaws clenched. "Now seriously, when have I ever—"
The phone line clicked off.
"Brandon Lyle!" Shannon exclaimed, her voice barely above a whisper. "But he was here last night..."
"That must be his car in the lot!" Michelle interjected. She turned to Leigh. "I wondered whose it could be; I don't know anyone in the church with a BMW convertible."
"But he left last night," Shannon insisted, her voice growing steadily stronger. "I know he did. A bunch of people saw him drive away. Right after the argument with Gil March."
"You mean the fist fight?" Michelle queried.
Leigh's stomach twisted uncomfortably. She hadn't told Maura the half of her—and her extended family's—rather unpleasant entanglement with the late Mr. Lyle. If she knew anything about police interrogations (and sadly, she did) the process was likely to take a while.
She considered, then rose with a jerk. "Shannon," she said earnestly, "I need to take my dog back to the animal shelter and let the manager know where I'll be. I'm going to walk him over by the road, but—well, if there's any suspicion that I've sneaked back to the pond, Maura really will have that coronary she's always talking about. So could you—both of you—watch me go? I'll be back in five minutes."
The women looked at each other anxiously. "Of course, Leigh," Shannon said firmly, walking with her to the door. "We'll park ourselves right here on the steps until the police come."