Former K9 Captain Dolph Kringle hooked a paw at his pack and padded through the snow to an unlit house in Dogwood Circle. No way would he singe his sleek black coat sliding down a chimney in the wintertime. Who in their right mind does that?
“Santa Paws,” whispered Donnie, the youngest of the pack.
“How do you know there’s a doggy in there?”
He tousled his fur. “Watch and learn, kid. Now, get back in line with your mother. The alpha walks alone.”
“Yes, Daddy,” he whispered, and Dolph cringed.
Damn you, Vixon. He shook a paw in the air. The way she swished her hips when he was trying to concentrate. The way her dark lashes batted ever so subtly as he taught her the latest self-defense moves. And how she always seemed to drop a bone in front of him and bend over in slow motion. How much could one dog take?
He was weak. Never again, though. The big guy entrusted him to deliver the bones, balls, and toys to all the dogs on earth, and he’d be damned if some bitch with long, lean legs and a muzzle that could break hearts for thirty miles would ruin his reputation. Let her flip her silky Afghan mane side to side. She’ll get zero reaction from him.
At the back of the house he gestured for his crew to huddle around as he peered through the window closest to the Christmas tree. Tiny white lights glinted like diamonds in the darkness.
“Comet, Blitzen, Cupid, and Vixon,” he said, “I need you to stand guard while Dasher and Twinkle Toes—”
“Hey,” scolded Prancer.
Did he say that out loud? “Just making sure you’re paying attention.”
Cupid brushed his snow-white hair against Vixon, and she tittered like a blushing bride on her wedding night.
Damn poodles think they’re so superior with their non-fur coat. “On second thought. Vixon, you’re with me.”
“What about Donnie?”
He lowered his gaze to little Donner, bouncing on his toes. “Fine, bring the kid, but keep an eye on him. We don’t need another—” he braced himself on hind legs and flashed air quotes— “incident.”
With Vixon and Donnie in toe, he crept to the back of the house and slipped through the doggie door. Vixon nudged Donnie through the opening and he sailed across the linoleum and crashed into the kitchen island with a resounding thud.
Dolph’s face snapped toward Vixon. Her neck turtled in her perfectly sculptured shoulders, and she mouthed, “Oops.”
This bitch will be the death of me.
He skulked into the family room. A lump near the tree stopped him cold, and he whirled back around. “Get Donnie outta here.”
Vixon flung a paw to her slim hip. “I will do no such thing.”
A low growl thundered in his throat.
“Don’t you dare use that tone with me, mister.”
Donnie let out a scream that could wake dogs for ten miles, and Dolph winced. The young pup belly-flopped next to the lump, whimpering, yelping; it was only a matter of time before he broke out in howl. Dolph scurried over and nudged him toward his mother.
A man’s body lay next to the tree, his larynx torn from his throat, a bloody paw print stamped on his chest. Blood had squirted from the wound and left an arch of spatter on the wood wall. A crimson pool haloed around his head.
He glanced over his shoulder at Vixon. “Didn’t you specialize in forensics?”
“Yes. So?” Donnie wailed by her side, and she scowled at Dolph. “Are you happy now?”
“Me? I told you to get him outta here.”
“No. You ordered me. There’s a difference, you know.”
Why did she have to be so damn hot?
“What’s cooking in that brain of yours?” she asked. “I hope you’re not thinking of running this investigation. We need to call the police.”
“I am the police.”
“Not anymore you’re not. You hung up your badge three years ago.”
“This happened on my watch. I’ll be damned if some rabid dog is gonna make me look like a fool. And on Christmas. I’ll never live it down. Ten years busting bad guys, and all anyone will remember is the night a human was murdered under my nose.”
She swatted her paw. “Studs, you’re all alike. Swollen egos with legs.”
Donnie belted out a long, steady bay.
“Get the kid outta here before he wakes the neighborhood.”
As though she couldn’t resist, she threw her head back and parted her lips.
Dolph warned, “Don’t. You. Dare.”
Her mouth clamped shut. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll help, but I am not shoving my son out in the cold without a responsible adult, and Lord knows after you suspended Dancer, there’s no role models left in that motley crew of yours.”
“You didn’t seem to have a problem with Cupid earlier.”
“Why, Dolph Kringle, are you jealous?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He mumbled, “Hypoallergenic coat, my ass. Damn poodles.” Grumbling under his breath, he diverted his attention to the corpse. “This a massive paw,” slipped out of his mouth. “I mean, not bigger than mine, but it’s good size. Must be from a male.”
Again, the paw flung to her hip. Only this time, her foot tapped, too. “And why can’t a female have large paws?”
He resisted rolling his eyes, but barely.
“Next, you’ll blame a Pit Bull for the crime.”
“Will you please investigate the blood spatter rather than accusing me of breed profiling?”
With a deep exhale she approached tiny dots streaked over the wall and floor. “According to the angle, the mutt stood about three feet on all fours.”
“Or another large breed.”
Dolph scrawled a mental note. “What else?”
“He lunged from about here.” She sauntered to a spot on the Oriental carpet, about four feet from the corpse. “Probably dove off the desk, because the entry wound was clearly from a downward trajectory. My guess would be the man was stuffing presents under the tree when the mutt attacked.”
A muffled whimper diverted his attention, and he grimaced at Vixon. “Does he really need to be here?”
She scampered over and tucked Donnie into her chest. “He’s frightened. Maybe if his father showed some compassion and held him, we could solve this case and get him out of here. But no. God forbid you take any responsibility.”
“I put him on my team, didn’t I? Besides, you were the one who said you weren’t in heat.”
Vixon pursed her thin lips. “Anyway, how exactly are we supposed to find this mutt and deliver all the toys in one night?”
“You let me worry about that. Finish examining the scene while I check for forced entry.”
“Then take your boy. I can only do so much alone.”
He mumbled, “You should’ve thought of that before you seduced me.”
“What was that?”
“I said, c’mon, Donnie.”
“Uh-ha,” she said, glib.
Dolph raised the young pup by the scruff of the neck and carried him upstairs. Through his teeth, he said, “Shh…we don’t want to wake the homeowner if, y’know, he’s not the dead guy by the tree.”
A sob broke from Donnie.
Probably shouldn’t have mentioned the corpse. This fatherhood crap was much harder than it looked. “Shh, shh, shhh…it’s all right.”
“B-but someone k-killed—”
Dolph set the pup on the floor and lowered to his level. “There are bad dogs in this world. The sooner you realize this, the better off you’ll be. Now suck it up. If you want on the force someday, you can’t be a cry baby.”
The tears stopped, but Donnie’s lower lip jutted and quivered.
“That’s my boy. C’mon.” He padded into the master suite and sniffed the carpet. The man downstairs left his scent all over this room. As he turned to leave he spotted an empty dog bed, round and oversized. “Watch me,” he told Donnie, and then tracked the scent into the spare room.
Into the bathroom.
Down the stairs and into the office.
To the front door, where he checked for tool marks around the lock.
To the back door.
Into the den.
Another dog bed was in the corner. This one smaller and oblong. Two dogs? Or was this his old puppy bed? Nose twitching, he scoured the plush liner.
Hmm…a bitch. What happened in this house? On the sly he chanced a peek at Donnie. Wide-eyed, he gazed at him as though he believed his father held all the answers to the universe.
Without anything else to say, he blurted, “We could have a dognapping, too.”
Donnie’s eyes welled with tears.
“Crap. I mean, don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
“I wuv you, Daddy.”
He tousled his furry head. “You’re a good boy. Don’t tell your mother I said that.”
Donnie giggled, and the familiarity of his tone instantly warmed Dolph’s heart. Maybe fatherhood wasn’t all bad. Shaping a young pup might have its reward.
They returned to the crime scene. Vixon was leaning over the body examining the neck wound, with her firm rear-end in the air. A slobbering tongue fell from Dolph’s mouth. Lightheadedness made his stomach woozy as he panted like a dying man in the Sahara.
“Check this out.” With her teeth she tugged a fiber from the blood pool. “You know what this is?”
He sucked his sloppy tongue into his mouth and shook his head to clear the image of that night in Rio.
“Cat got your tongue?”
Regaining composure, he said, “Let’s not play twenty questions in front of the boy.”
She spit the fiber on the hardwood. “Velvet. If I were to wager a guess, I’d say it’s from a Santa suit.”
“How’d you make that leap?”
“Because it’s red, for one. I found white cotton fibers, too.” Her gaze traced Dolph head to toe. “Like your outfit, for instance. Care to explain where you were around five hours ago? Because you sure as hell weren’t home with your family.”
He raised an open paw to his charcoal button. “Me?”
“If the suit fits.”
“Are you seriously accusing me of murder in front of my son?”
Fire in her eyes, she pitched forward. “Your son? Since when do you take responsibility?”
“You said you weren’t in heat!” His gaze met Donnie’s watery eyes. “Never mind that. Besides fibers, did you find anything else?”
“Well, the paw print, but you already knew that.” Her gaze roamed the room, and then settled on Dolph. “Say, for comparison sake, come set your paw next to the print.”
Stupid wasn’t his middle name, but if this would get her off his back, he was all for it. Hovering inches above the body, he steadied his paw next to the print.
“Hm,” she said. “Interesting.”
“The mutt has bigger paws than you.”
“He does like hell!”
“It’s true. Yours look tiny in comparison.”
Heat jagged up his chest. “Look. If you can’t be professional, I’ll work this case alone.”
She shrugged one shoulder, one perfect, delicate shoulder. “You’re obviously not the one we’re looking for. How’d you make out upstairs?”
“Right.” He ran one claw under his collar. “I found two dog beds, different sizes. But what I can’t figure out is why they’re gone. Canines don’t leave their humans when they’re in trouble.” He mumbled, “Well, maybe poodles do. Bunch of sissies, if you ask me.”
“Honestly, what is it with you and poodles?”
“They strut around with their perfect hair like they’re all that and a bag of chips. Since when is a thick undercoat not a good thing?” He gave his head a good hard shake so his fur stood on end. “Check out this mane. A poodle can’t do that, now can they?”’
Cupid darted into the crime scene.
“Speaking of…” he left the insinuation hanging.
“Someone’s coming, Dolph. He’s huge. The biggest dog I’ve ever seen.”
Vixon mumbled, “He probably has bigger paws than you, too.”
“Enough with the cracks about my paws, woman.”
“Donnie, stay with your pain-in-the-ass mother.” He stormed into the kitchen. Hesitated, and whirled around. Cupid was sucking up to Vixon. In the archway to the living room, he snarled loud enough for them to hear. Through gritted teeth, he ordered, “Retake your post outside, Cupid.”
In a ballsy move, Cupid raised his ridiculous painted nails. “One sec, boss.”
Searing flames shot up his hackles, and he bared his teeth. “Now.”
“All right, all right, I’m goin’.” He turned back to Vixon. “We’ll continue this later, doll.” And Dolph would swear he saw him wink.
Outside, the cold December wind whipped Dolph’s face as he firmed his stance, waiting for the canine to make his move. Tree branches cracked with force. Pine trees waved—wild and fierce—as if warning him to run. The slivered moon offered a feeble attempt at brightening the area, but with his keen perception he didn’t need the help.
Lightning fast, the shadowy figure streaked from one tree to the next.
Dolph rounded up his pack in a huddle. “Blitzon, go left. Dasher, you take the right. Twinkle toes and lover boy, you stay here and tell us if he circles back.” Without waiting for confirmation, he charged the shadowy figure head on as Blitzon and Dasher swarmed from the sides. He leaped into the air and tackled the intruder. Blitzon and Dasher jumped in. Furry legs and arms tangled in a ball.
Growls and grunts, snarls and a mess of spit later, and Dolph set his massive paws on a Great Dane’s chest, staking his claim as the alpha dog.
Back at the office, when he questioned the mutt about why he committed the murder, he remarked, “He replaced me with a poodle.”
Dolph nodded in agreement.
“Santa Paws,” he begged, “if I promise to be good, can’t you forgive this one discretion?”
“How do you feel about Afghans?”
“Ooh, they’re sexy as hell.”
“Okay, that’s it. Let’s go, pal.” He threw him against the wall and slapped shackles around his wrists and ankles. “We’ll let the big guy sort this out.” He nudged him into a cell and kicked the door closed behind him.
On his way out of the office he glimpsed the clock. Oh, no. Only five hours till Christmas morn.
As he soared into the sky to return to his pack he howled at the moon. With Santa Paws on the prowl no dog will wake without a new toy. Except, maybe, poodles if he’s short on time.
*Disclaimer: the views expressed in this story are Dolph’s and not necessarily the author’s.