And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the 

                                      receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.

                                                                                  Kahlil Gibran

 

Chapter 1

            Natasha leaned back in her chair, feet propped on the desk, lost in reliving the prior night’s marathon with Striker. She was working herself into a fever and knew if she didn’t stop, she’d be calling him within the next half-hour, finding some excuse to see him, using him to put out the fire. She had just gotten to the really good part, where Striker finally quit playing around and got down to serious business, when bright yellow light burst into her office, conquering the inner fluorescent murk. 

            Startled, Natasha tilted back and crashed to the floor, her legs in the air. “Ope!” she grunted, staring at the ceiling, thinking that was what she got for buying second-hand office furniture. 

            As awkward as a turtle on its back, she struggled to untangle from the chair. Aware of warm, moist air tickling her ear, she turned her head. Something wet and slimy rubbed across her lips, and she drew away with a “Phhtt.” A small dog watched her, panting a smile. Was there a merry glimmer in the animal’s eyes? Was it laughing at her? Her gaze followed the dog’s leash to the person attached at the other end. Natasha rolled off the chair and lunged to her feet.

            “Can I help you?”       

            “Oh, my dear, are you all right?” an elderly woman said, one hand over her heart.

            “I’m fine. I’m afraid I just overbalanced.” Natasha snuck a glance at the dog. He was laughing at her! Talk about humiliating. After wrestling the chair into an upright position, she cleared her throat and repeated, “Can I help you?”

            “Oh, dear, I hope so.”

            Natasha extended her hand, offering as warm a smile as she could manage under the circumstances. “I’m Natasha Chamberlain.”

            The woman transferred the leash to her left hand and gave Natasha a delicate handshake. “So pleased to meet you, Ms. Chamberlain. I’m Myrtle Galbreath.”

            Natasha stooped over to pat the dog’s head but avoided looking into its eyes. She straightened and gestured toward one of the chairs beyond her desk. “Please.”  

            Myrtle took slow, measured steps in that direction, the dog waddling along beside her, and gingerly sank into the seat. Seeing its mistress had collapsed, the pooch did likewise, emitting a small grunt when he landed.

            Natasha lowered herself into her chair with caution. “Cute dog.”    

            Myrtle’s face brightened. “Thank you, dear. I think so.”

            Natasha regarded the small, wrinkled face staring lovingly into his mistress’s beaming one. “What breed is he? Pug?”

            “Yes, dear, Chumley’s a Pug,” Myrtle said, returning the dog’s affectionate gaze.

            Natasha nodded. This was the first of the breed she had ever seen up close.

            Myrtle returned her attention to Natasha. “Are you, per chance, a dog lover, dear?”

            “Oh, yes. I love dogs.”

            “Do you own any?”

            “Well, my best friend Roger and I have a Weimaraner we share.” Natasha eyed Chumley, thinking Brutus could eat him for lunch. “And my…” She paused, unsure how to refer to Striker.  Boyfriend? He was more than that and definitely not a boy. Special other? That didn’t fit either; it sounded too generic. She noticed Myrtle seemed confused by her hesitancy, so said, “My life mate and I have been talking about getting a dog together.” 

            Myrtle gave her a concerned look. “Oh, my. That’s a big commitment. I hope you’re ready to take that step.”

            Wait a minute. They were only talking about a dog here, not a kid or anything. Commitment? Yikes! Natasha hadn’t thought of it like that. She chased those thoughts away. 

            “What can I do for you, Ms. Galbreath?”

            “Well, I saw your ad in our community newspaper.”

            “Yes?”

            “And it says you offer private protection services.”

            “That’s right.”

            “My attorney tells me that would mean something along the lines of a bodyguard.”

            “Yes.”  

            “Well, I’m in need of one, I’m afraid.”

            Natasha tamped down the bubble of excitement threatening to overtake her. Oh, boy, here it was, her first client! She couldn’t wait to tell Striker. Well, maybe not. He didn’t want her to be a bodyguard. Not because his investigative firm provided private security and she would be competing with him, but because he thought it was too dangerous. Especially for Natasha, particularly after her first stint as bodyguard for her best friend, Roger. But that was another story. However, guarding an elderly lady shouldn’t be dangerous in any — hold it, back up. What did it matter, how he felt about it? This was her life, not his —

            “Ms. Chamberlain?”

            “Oh. I’m sorry, my mind kind of wandered. Please, call me Natasha.”

            The older woman gave her a matronly smile. “And you must call me Myrtle.”

            “You’re in need of a bodyguard? Might I ask the reason you would need one, Ms. Galbreath — excuse me, Myrtle?”

            “Oh, my dear, it’s not for me. It’s for Chumley.” Myrtle gave Natasha a look, as if she must be crazy if she thought Myrtle needed someone to guard her body.

            Natasha tried not to let her disappointment show. Of course, her first official job as a protection specialist would be to guard a dog. Striker would get a kick out of this one; she’d never hear the end of it.

            “Chumley’s in danger?”

            “Yes, dear, extreme danger.”

            “What kind of danger is he in?”

            “Well, I’m afraid he’s received a threatening letter.”

            Natasha’s sympathetic look betrayed her inner concern she just might have a nut case on her hands. 

            “Chumley’s a show dog, a champion,” Myrtle went on. “He’s won Best in Show regionally for the past two years, and now he’s received this terrible letter.” She reached into her purse, withdrew a folded piece of white paper, and gave it to Natasha.

            Natasha smoothed open the letter and read the typewritten statement out loud. “You show up at the Greater Tennessee Kennel Club Cluster this year, you’re dead.” She switched on her banker’s lamp and held the paper toward the light. It was as ordinary as paper could be, with no linen look or embossing, no real heaviness. She rubbed her fingers over its smooth surface, concluding it was very much like the cheap paper she used in her printer for mundane matters. 

            “How do you know this letter was meant for Chumley? Maybe it was meant for you.”

            “Oh, no, dear. It’s meant for Chumley. He’s the champion. I’m simply his owner.”

            “How was it addressed?”

            Myrtle retrieved a crumpled envelope from her pocketbook and handed it over.

            Natasha examined the plain, white mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to Chumley at what she assumed was Myrtle’s residence. Of course, there was no return address.   

            “Who would send a dog a letter? Dogs can’t read.”

            “Whoever intends to kill him, of course.”

            “And do you have any idea whom that would be?”

            “No, dear, I don’t. But I would like to hire you to look into that for me, as well.”

            Oh, man, to be offered the chance to do some actual, bona fide investigating. If only. “I’m sorry, Myrtle, but I’m not licensed as an investigator.”

            “Well, dear, surely it wouldn’t require an investigator’s license to try to find out who wrote a letter. Couldn’t you be like one of those amateur sleuths so many people are writing about nowadays?”

            Natasha thought about it. She supposed she could get Roger to help with a computer search. And if push came to shove, there was always Striker. “I could check around, maybe do some unofficial investigating.”

            “Certainly, dear. Whatever you think.”

            Natasha glanced back at the paper in her hand. “What exactly is a cluster?”

            “It’s a very large show, dear, lasting several days, usually with a different All Breed Dog Club sponsoring each day of the event.”

            “How many dog shows does Chumley participate in a year?”

            “In the past, we’ve tried to do as many as one hundred.”

            Natasha looked at her. “That many?”

            “Yes, but a regular show takes place over a weekend, which certainly makes it more convenient. However, this year, I’ve decided to be choosy about the shows Chumley attends. He won’t be showing again until this cluster.”

            “Would the person who wrote the letter know that? Is that why they threatened him with this particular one?”

            “No, dear, I wouldn’t think so. I only recently decided to show Chumley at this cluster.”

            “Why this one?”

            “Well, it’s the largest in this area, the one with the most points, the one where Chumley attained championship status.”

            Natasha eased back in her chair. “As I understand it, once a champion, always a champion; isn’t that true?”

            “Yes, dear.”

            “So that wouldn’t be a threat to Chumley if he misses the cluster this year.”

            “That’s right.”

            Natasha nodded. “Then it would stand to reason whoever wrote this letter feels Chumley’s participation will hinder or has hindered their dog’s chances at Best in Show.”

            “Yes, or might possibly affect the dog’s breed points.”

            “How does that work? The better the breed points, the greater interest by other dog owners or kennels for breeding; thus, the dog becomes more profitable?  Kind of like with horses?”

            “That’s correct, dear.”

            Natasha returned her attention to the paper in her hand. “Did you take this letter to the police?”

            “Yes, dear, first thing.”

            “And?”

            “They said there was nothing they could do about it. Apparently they don’t consider a dog’s life as important as a person’s.” Myrtle gave Natasha an indignant look, as if she found this hard to believe.           

            Natasha shrugged. “Go figure.”

            “So I would like for you to check into this and try to find out who sent this terrible letter to my Chumley.”

            “I’ll try my best.”

            “And be his bodyguard at the show.”

            “Certainly.”

            “Also, each day, I take Chumley for a walk around the block. He’s put on a little weight recently and needs to be in shape for the cluster.”

            Natasha’s eyes darted to the dog sprawled lazily on the floor. He reminded her of a short, plump Buddha.

            “So I would like for you to accompany us on our daily walks in case the person who wrote that letter might be stalking Chumley,” Myrtle continued.

            Natasha wasn’t so sure she wanted to take daily constitutionals with an elderly, arthritic woman and a miniature waddler. Shoot, it’d probably take an hour just to go twenty-five feet.

            “I’ll pay you for your time, of course,” Myrtle said in a rush, seeing Natasha’s look. “My attorney checked and said the going rate per hour for a bodyguard in this area would be one hundred ten dollars, but I’m willing to pay you one hundred fifty, and that would include traveling time to and from.”

            Natasha paper-clipped the envelope to the letter, engaged in a mental tug-of-war. The money was tempting but she didn’t consider it ethical to perform a service that wasn’t really needed and then charge for it. 

            “Natasha, dear?”

            “I’m sorry. I was just thinking that since the threat involves Chumley attending this particular cluster, I’m fairly certain he won’t need protecting for his daily walks. Are you sure you want to expend that much money?”

            “Well, dear, as I always say, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and I can certainly afford it. I’d feel much better if you escorted us.”

            Natasha grinned. A hundred fifty bucks an hour! That was more than Pit and Bigun made, and they had been bodyguards for years.  She couldn’t wait to tell her two Samoan friends. It took a little bit of the sting out of the fact that she was guarding a dog instead of a human.   

            “I’ll draw up a contract,” she said, opening her desk drawer.

            After both had signed and dated the preprinted agreement, Natasha made a copy for herself. She handed the original to Myrtle, saying, “I’ve been thinking about the envelope, Myrtle. It’s postmarked Valdosta, Georgia. Do you, by any chance, have the rosters listing the dogs and their owners from the last two years’ shows? I was thinking I could check the addresses for anyone living in or near there.”

            “Yes, dear, I think I have the rosters, but the owners won’t be listed there, they’re in the catalogs.”

            “Do you have those as well?

            “I believe I do.”

            “Could I have those?”

            “Certainly, dear. I’ll look for them this afternoon and have them ready for you tomorrow when you come for our walk.”

            “Great. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”