Copyright © Smith & Steffens, Partners in Crime

                                                                              PASSION, POISON & PUPPY DOGS                                                                                         


                                                                                                             CHAPTER ONE

 "Hey, little girl, need a ride?" The stubbly-faced older man leaned over and peered up at me out of the pickup truck window.

But I wasn't worried—pervs were few and far between in my hometown of Danger Cove, and besides, it was just my grandfather giving me a hard time. He'd always been pretty good at teasing me, and I at teasing him back—part of the reason we'd never had the kind of problems a lot of young people and their guardians dealt with. I'd gone to live with him eleven years ago at the age of sixteen, and my parents had sold everything and moved to the Himalayas to start a school for Sherpas. I hadn't wanted to go. They hadn't wanted to stay. So my granddad had taken me in.

"So what do you think?" I kidded. "Just because you were a big deal back in the day? The famous Jimmy John Jones—international network field correspondent—that you can just pick up girls off the street?"

He grinned and ran a hand across his bristly jaw.

"Now you listen to me, Lizzie Jones. Your old granddad's retired now. Show an old man some respect, would you? And anyway, I seem to remember some young lady calling me up and begging me to come pick her up because her silly little scooter crapped out on her."

"Crapped out? What a way with words. You're a regular Dan Rather."

"Yep," he said. "That's me all right."

I began to push Jasper, my 1990 fire-engine-red Vespa that I'd bought secondhand (or maybe even third or fourth hand) my first year of college, toward the back of his truck. The poor thing was old and not as reliable as it used to be. Also poor Jasper was slow. Really, really slow.

Jimmy John got out of the truck, let down the tailgate, and pulled a two-by-eight board from the bed. "Heck, my thirty-year-old Craftsman power mower's got more get-up-and-go these days than that motorized roller skate. When are you planning on getting yourself some real transportation?"

"That would be when I win the lottery, unless you have it in mind to spot me the price of a new car."

"Hmm, wonder if I have anything in my Rulebook to cover that one?" he said.

"You can take a look while I put poor old Jasper up in the truck."

Jimmy John—which was what he'd insisted I call him from the time I could speak. Not Grandpa or Granddad or even Grandfather, not for this macho dude—lived by his own set of rules that he periodically had quoted to me as part of his "Rulebook." It had been a way for him to present values, life lessons, and moral codes to me while I was growing up. It always seemed like an excellent way to keep track of such things, so I began a so-called tome of my own and adopted it as Lizzie's Rulebook for a virtual place to store my philosophies.

I rolled Jasper up into the bed. Jimmy John hopped up—agile for a guy in his seventies—strapped it down, and we both got into the cab.

I glanced at my watch. "Seriously," I said, "thank you so much for coming to my rescue. I'm already late meeting Caroline." It really wasn't much of a big deal. My best friend was nothing if not patient.

"You know me," he said, "at your beck and call, m'lady."

"Right. Not."

He just laughed.

From the pictures and footage I'd seen of Jimmy John in action back in the seventies, he'd cut quite the figure reporting from the jungles in Nam—young and virile, down and dirty with the troops, camera slung around his neck, bent over and running for cover while never missing a word of his report.

That was years ago. But that needle-sharp brain of his still worked just fine, and every once in a while he'd get bored and scratch the itch that made him want to jump back into the thick of it all and do some research or legwork for his friends at the Cove Chronicles.

He turned the engine over and shifted into gear, but before he took his foot off the brake, he turned and asked, "You sign up for school yet?"

My grandfather was even more anxious than I for me to achieve my doctorate in veterinary sciences. I'd been picking away at it for what seemed like an eternity. My first four years had been financed by scholarship funds, which went the way of the dodo after my BS (that was the degree, not my attitude), and even though he offered to pay my ticket in full, I couldn't in good conscience let Jimmy John cash in his IRA to fund what was left of my education.

"I haven't gotten around to it yet," I said. "But I will. And yes, I know other twenty-seven-year-old veterinary students are finishing up and getting ready to make their contribution to the animal world. But I want to do this on my own, and taking off time between semesters to earn enough money to pay my way is what I have to do."

"I know," he said. "I get it."

 "According to Lizzie's Rulebook—It's a pity to enter a career weighed down with over a hundred thousand dollars in college loans." I reminded him of a philosophy I'd adopted early on in my college years.

He grimaced, and I figured he was going to offer to pay my way again, since my absentee parents couldn't afford it and I certainly couldn't just write out a check, but instead he just said, "Well, girl, you come from a long list of diehards. Our family motto's always been the same as Gloria Gaynor's: 'I Will Survive.'"

"I know." I reached across the cab and took hold of his wrist. "It'll be worth it."

"Sure it will." He hesitated a moment before adding, "But you know there's already a darn good vet in Danger Cove, and my guess is Doc Whitaker isn't in the market for a partner."

"You're worried I'll move away." It seemed obvious.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't."

"Aw, Jimmy John, I'm racking up credits at a snail's pace. We won't have to worry about where I'm going to practice for a long, long time."
                                                                                    *   *   *
It was a gorgeous March day. Temps in the midsixties. A light breeze carried the outdoors with it—salty ocean and woody, earthy scents of surrounding ancient forest. Light-jacket weather. The fog had burned off earlier, leaving clear blue skies. My grandfather dropped me off, and I walked down the pier to meet Caroline.

Ever since she got married and moved out of our shared apartment, Caroline and I had arranged to meet for lunch once a week at the Lobster Pot at the pier. Being married to one of Danger Cove's most famous residents, bodybuilder Brodie McDougal, better known as Mr. Jupiter, Caroline was always given the primo table by the deck railing.

She sat there now, looking out over the water, and knowing her as well as I did, I could tell something was wrong.

She looked up and stood as I approached the table, and we hugged before I sat down. "Sorry I'm late. Jasper…"

I didn't need to say anything else.

She nodded. "I get it. I haven't forgotten what it's like to have transportation issues."

Caroline's big Mercedes Benz SUV had custom-made tethers in the backseat for her and Brodie's spoiled adolescent boxers, Gil and Fabio. It also had a huge engine and about the same pickup as a Formula One racecar. At least that was the way it seemed to me. But then my perspective might have been a little off, seeing as how Jasper was my one and only set of wheels.

The waiter was cute, but so obsequious to Caroline, I half expected him to bow.

Caroline smiled at the flustered guy. "I'll have a salmon salad, oh, and a spring water too."

He nodded, endorsing her choice as perfect.

"I'm going for a Paulaner Oktoberfest-Märzen and the spaghetti squash with marinara and garlic-cheese bread." I thought I'd better tell him, in case he thought I was just there to admire Caroline like he seemed to be.

When the food came, she picked at the salad—probably one of the reasons she was a size two, and my size eight jeans were getting tight. You might have thought since I was the vegetarian, I'd be the slim one. Not necessarily. No meat in cheese pizza or doughnuts. And definitely none in beer.

My parents were vegetarians, and I'd grown up that way. Even when they left for the Far East and I moved in with Jimmy John, who was a carnivore from way back, I stuck with the vegetarian lifestyle.

Caroline laid down her fork, folded her hands under her chin, and stared out over the cobalt water. If she didn't let up with the frowning, it wouldn't be long before the crease between her brows turned into a nasty wrinkle.

I took a pull on my beer (Yum! The Paulaner was one of my favorites—light with a clean, dry finish, subtly sweet), then licked foam off my upper lip, and addressed my friend's melancholy. "What's up with you?"

It was as if she'd been waiting for me to ask. She probably had been. "It's that sonofabitch I married."

"Brodie?" Duh. Who else?

"Yes. Brodie." Her lower lip quivered. Her eyes filled up, and suddenly, without even knowing why, I began to cry too. We'd been best friends since the third grade, and I knew her as well as anyone. If she was sad, so was I.

"Caroline. Oh my gosh. What's wrong?"

Ten months earlier Caroline had met Brodie McDougal—Mr. Jupiter for the last three years in a row, richer than anybody I knew about in our hometown, sexy as a romance cover model. He'd asked her to dance one night over at the Smugglers' Tavern while our local trio, Jazz du Jour, covered Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love." Sexy music. Slow dancing. And seduction with a Scottish brogue. I swear he'd planned it.

I hadn't been there that particular evening—not that he would have even noticed me with Caroline around. She was slim and leggy with bosoms like cantaloupes and the kind of flowing blonde mane they used in shampoo commercials. I liked to think I was kind of cute and all, but short and not particularly buxom with long brown locks that no matter how much I used the curling iron, always went back straight—not exactly sophisticated arm candy material for the reigning Mr. Jupiter. But that was okay with me. Mr. Jupiter and my girl Caroline were a golden couple.

Caroline sighed and looked at me. I suspected the shine in her eyes was unshed tears. "That night at Smugglers' Tavern his words were like honey."

Even now the look in her eyes said that his sweet talk had been more like wine than honey.

She shook her head. "Looking back on it, I never stood a chance against him."

"You overindulged," I said. "Drunk on love. And he's got those biceps that keep popping up like inflatable beach balls. Lots of women would have fallen for him." And probably did, but I didn't say that.

They'd gotten married in Las Vegas four weeks later just before Brodie's competition circuit season began. Caroline had quit school, moved out of our eight-hundred-square-foot two-bedroom and into his fabulous place in Danger Cove's exclusive gated community to play house with her big Scotsman. Brodie had hit the competition trail the very next week and in December had returned to the town of Danger Cove, and his blushing bride, with his third Mr. Jupiter title.

"He cheated on me," she said sadly.

Gosh, it looked like the honeymoon was over for real and Mr. Jupiter turned out to be a major bonehead.

 "Oh no." Poor Caroline. I resisted the urge to lash out at him. It wasn't the time. "Are you sure?"

 "Oh yes. He told me. I've tried really hard to get him back. Victoria's Secret. Kinky toys. Nothing has worked. Thought I could ignore it and he'd get over it. Play himself out. But that didn't happen either. I don't even know how many women he has, but I bet more than one." She shrugged. "That's what you get when you marry a testosterone production plant."

I reached across the table to pat her hand, the one sporting the four-carat yellow diamond he put there when he swore to love and honor her. How dare he hurt my friend. "Oh, Caroline. I'm so sorry. He doesn't deserve you."

"And now he's serious about someone else. He won't say who. He's divorcing me, Lizzie." She defiantly swiped at the tears spilling over onto her cheeks.

"Tell me what to do. Is there anything I can do to help? You know I'm here for you, Caroline. Whatever you need."

She wiped away the last tear, and it was like watching an angry cobra rise up. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. "There is something you can do. He's leaving tomorrow to visit his parents in Scotland before the competition circuit starts again in June. He wants to tell them about the divorce in person, and they don't even know yet that he's coming. When he comes back in ten days, he's filing. I don't have much time left, but while he's gone I plan to use what I have to full advantage. Day after tomorrow I'm flying to LA, Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive. I'm giving his black Amex a good going over." Green flame burned in her eyes, and I knew she was talking epic shopping, maybe six figures or more, whatever she could manage in a week's time.

"I'm on board," I said. "You need a wing-woman? That's me." That man needed to be taught a lesson, and from the look of it, Caroline was just the woman to teach it. "He can't treat you this way and just skate free. Hitting him in the wallet sounds like as good a plan as any."

 "Do you have any pet-sitting gigs lined up for the week?"

To fund my college education and pay my rent, I had become an entrepreneur. Lizzie Jones, Full-Service Pet Sitter and Sometimes Dog Groomer Extraordinaire. Covians—from the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, to the nine-to-fivers and seniors—they all loved their pets. The people in Danger Cove who made the rules, made the money, and made things happen. When they worked, they worked hard. When they partied, they partied hard. When they traveled, they hired a pet sitter—and that was where I came in.

Caroline's admission that she was going to California on a credit-wrecking shopping spree, followed up with the pet-sitting question, gave me an idea of what she had in mind. "No," I said. "I don't have a pet-sitting job lined up for a few weeks."

"Good. Come stay at the house. Keep an eye on Fabio and Gil while I'm in Beverly Hills. I'll pay you from my and Brodie's joint account." She smiled. Utter glee. "How does four thousand dollars sound? Will that help cover your class fees? Or is that enough?"

"Holy…!" It was hard not to jump up with glee, but… "I can't let you do that. It's too much."

She laid her hand on mine. Her eyes never wavered. "Oh, sweetie, it won't be me paying you. It'll be Mr. Jupiter."

No fury like…

It was obvious she was trying to turn something unfortunate into something productive. And I was the benefactress of her planned vengeance against Brodie. She wanted to make sure her misfortune could be spun to help me out big time for my next semester.

"Caroline, I'm available." And for my best friend, if I hadn't been, I would have cancelled everything to do what she asked.