Former K9 Captain Dolph Kringle hooked a paw at his pack and padded through the snow to an unlit house in Dogwood Lane. 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 dropped a bone in front of him and bent 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 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 virgin 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 tow, he crept to the back of the house and slipped through the doggy door. Vixon nudged Donnie through the opening and he sailed across the linoleum, 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. Dolph skulked into the family room. A lump near the tree stopped him cold, and he whirled around. “Get Donnie outta here.”
A paw flung to Vixon’s slim hip. “I will do no such thing.”
Snarling, 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 trotted over and nudged him toward his mother.
A man’s body lay next to the tree, the 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 his head.
He glanced back at Vixon. “Didn’t you specialize in forensics?”
“Yes. So?” Donnie wailed by her side, and she scowled at Dolph. “Happy now?”
“Me? I told you to get him outta here.”
“No. You ordered me. There’s a difference.”
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. It’s been three years since you hung up your badge. Besides, Santa’s counting on us.”
“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 got 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 neighbors.”
As though she couldn’t resist, she threw her head back to howl.
Dolph warned, “Don’t. You. Dare.”
“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 not one role model 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 hind 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.”
“Instead of accusing me of breed profiling, will you please investigate the blood spatter evidence?”
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.” About four feet from the corpse, she sauntered to a spot on the Oriental carpet. “Probably dove off the desk, because the entry wound was clearly from a downward trajectory. I bet the human was stuffing presents under the tree when the mutt attacked.”
Whimpering diverted his attention. He grimaced at Vixon. “Does the kid really need to be here?”
She scampered over and tucked Donnie into her chest. “He’s frightened. Maybe if his father showed a little compassion, we could solve this case and get him home at a decent hour. 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.”
Shooting him a glare, Vixon pursed her perfect lips. “Anyway, how do you purpose we 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 by myself.”
Under his breath, he grumbled, “Someone should’ve thought of that before she seduced me.”
“I said, c’mon, Donnie.”
“Uh-ha,” she said, glib.
By the scruff of the neck, Dolph raised the young pup and carried him upstairs. Through his clenched teeth, he said, “Shh … we don’t wanna wake the homeowner. Unless, y’know, he’s not the dead guy.”
A sob broke from somewhere deep inside 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.” Nose to the carpet, he tracked the dead human into the master suite. His scent was all over this room. As he turned to leave he spotted an empty dog bed — round and over-sized — in the corner. “Watch me,” he told the kid.
Dolph 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 small and oblong. Two dogs? Or was this an old puppy bed? Nose twitching, he scoured the plush liner. Hmm … female. What happened in this house? On the sly. he chanced a peek at Donnie. Wide-eyed, he gazed at him as if he believed his father held all the answers.
Without anything else to say, Dolph blurted out, “We could also have a dog-napping on our hands.”
Tears welled in the pup’s eyes.
“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’s mind may have its reward.
They returned to the crime scene. With her toned rear in the air, Vixon leaned over the body, examining the neck wound. A slobbering tongue flopped out the side of Dolph’s mouth. Lightheaded, he panted like a dehydrated dog in the Sahara.
“Check this out.” By her teeth she yanked a fiber from the blood pool. “Do you know what this is?”
He sucked in his sloppy tongue, shook his head to clear the image of that night in Rio.
“Well, do you?”
Regaining composure, he said, “Let’s not play twenty questions in front of the boy.”
She spit the fiber on the hardwood. “It’s 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 example. Care to explain where you were approximately 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. Other than 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. Since when is a thick undercoat not a good thing?” He gave his head a good hard shake. “Check out this mane. A poodle can’t do that, now can they?”’
Cupid dashed 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 rubbed against Vixon. In the archway to the living room, he snarled loud enough to make his point. Lip curled in a snarl, he ordered, “Retake your post outside, Lover Boy.”
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 going.” He turned back to Vixon. “We’ll continue this later, doll.”
Was that a 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 as Blitzon and Dasher swarmed from the sides. With a running leap, he 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 rightful place as alpha.
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.
As he soared into the night sky to return to his pack, he howled. With Santa Paws on the prowl, no dog would wake without a new toy. Except maybe poodles, if he’s short on time.
Wishing you and yours a safe, warm, and joyous holiday season! It’s gift wrapping day in the Coletta house. We host the day-long family Christmas Eve. Lots of preparations to be done, but we wouldn’t have any other way. With 6″ – 8″ of snow expected today, another 4″- 6″ tomorrow, and 1’+ on Christmas Day, it looks like we may need a Plan B in case Jack Frost knocks out our power. It’s all good, though. As long as we’re together, we’ll have a blast. It’ll definitely be white! LOL
What are your plans for the holidays?