Year of the Dog serial novel
by Camy Tang
Mari Mutou, a professional dog trainer, is having a bad year.
While renovating her new dog kenneling and training facility, she needs to move in with her disapproving family, who have always made her feel inadequate—according to them, a job requiring her to be covered in dog hair and slobber is an embarrassment to the family. She convinces her ex-boyfriend to take her dog for a few months … but discovers that his brother is the irate security expert whose car she accidentally rear-ended a few weeks earlier.
Ashwin Keitou has enough problems. His aunt has just shown up on his doorstep, expecting to move in with him, and he can’t say no because he owes her everything—after his mother walked out on them, Auntie Nell took in Ashwin and his brother and raised them in a loving Christian home. What’s more, his brother Dusty also needs a place to stay after being kicked out of his apartment—with a dog in tow. And guess who the dog’s owner is?
But then Ashwin gets a request from an old friend, Edytha Guerrero, a private investigator who also runs a day spa on O’ahu’s north shore. A strange bit of “vandalism” at Mari's facility had led her to find a purse belonging to Edytha’s sister—who had disappeared three years ago. Worried that Mari might be in danger, and finding out that security expert Ashwin already knows her, Edytha asks him to covertly keep an eye on the busy young woman.
Ashwin is reluctantly attracted to the lively, easy-going dog trainer. She reminds him too much of his happy-go-lucky mother, whose betrayal had caused him to keep people at a distance. Mari sees past Ashwin’s cold exterior to a man who is loyal to his family, unlike her own mother and sister, who only criticize her career choice.
In the midst of Mari’s disjointed family and Ashwin’s disruptive home, danger begins to circle around them from people who want the past to remain there. Can they shed light on the secrets moving in the shadows?
Chapter Eleven - Tabby Cat, Black Cat, Gray and Brown Striped Cat
Her mother had taken something. She didn’t know what, but it revved up her metabolism and turned her into a good impression of a nervous squirrel. Mari could think of no other reason she’d forced her daughter to clean the house from top to bottom over the last few days.
After Dusty picked up Pepper, Mari moved out of her house and into her mom’s home. And she hadn’t even unpacked when her mother handed her a brush and a bucket and told her to help her take off all the screens from the windows and give them a good scrub, and then they were going to wipe down the glass and brush off all the accumulated dirt on the sills.
Okay, fine. Her mom cleaned the windows once or twice a year. It usually took all day, but it was necessary since the red dirt from the pineapple fields surrounding Wahiawa had a tendency to coat everything.
But then the next day, it was doing full cleaning of the two and a half bathrooms. And the next day it was vacuuming carpets, scrubbing linoleum, and then waxing the hardwood floor of the dining room. And the next day it was rearranging all the kitchen cabinets, wiping them down, and putting everything back in its proper place, never mind that the amount of dust on the pots and pans and dishes indicated her mother hadn’t used any of it in years.
This morning, her mom was about to tackle the attic when Mari put her foot down.
“Mom, I have to go to work. I can’t spend the whole day helping you clean the house.”
“You have plenty of time. What can you possibly do all day now that you quit your job?”
“Oh, I dunno. Renovate my new facility?”
“You’re only going to have dogs there. How much renovation do you really need?”
“It would be nice if the roof didn’t leak and the windows opened and shut. Oh, and I kind of need a floor.” Because several rooms had huge holes that revealed the crawlspace under the school building.
Her mom scowled. “Fine,” she grouched. “I guess I shouldn’t have expected my own daughter to help me with the house chores.”
Mari counted to ten. “I don’t mind helping you, Mom, but let’s try to schedule it for a day when I’m not busy with work, yeah?”
“No, no, if you’re too busy to help around the house …”
She sighed. She didn’t need to get the last word—she needed to get out of the house.
So now she was here at her facility to greet the neighbors and make a comprehensive list of what needed to be fixed. She absolutely was not trying to hide from her mother.
The abandoned school was surrounded on the left and right by old-fashioned houses, and there was a gulch behind it, thick with spindly scrub brush and a muddy trickle of a stream. Across the street stood an empty one-acre lot where apparently a house had burned down years ago but had never been rebuilt, with the rotting remains still poking out of waist-high weeds. The empty lot in front and the gulch in back had been selling points for Mari, since that meant there were only the two side neighbors who might be bothered by the sound of dogs barking. On a whole, it was a quiet street, with houses not in the best conditions but sporting colorful gardens or flower bushes in their front yards.
Mari had picked up some brownies and Chantilly cupcakes from Kilani Bakery before heading here, and she first visited the right-side house. Like many of the older houses in this area, she had to climb a few shallow steps to reach the front door and ring the doorbell.
The inner door opened almost immediately, and Mari was blasted with the strong scent of fish and oil wafting through the outer screen door. Staring up at her was an elderly Filipino lady so tiny that Mari, despite being rather short at a little over five feet, felt gargantuan.
“Hi, Auntie, my name is Mari Mukou,” she said, addressing the old woman with the friendly but respectable appellation, typical of local culture, despite the fact they weren’t related. Her mother had always insisted that Mari and Jenessa be polite to their elders. “I just bought the school next door.”
“Oh, hello! I’m Mrs. Yanos. Are you going to open a school?” The woman’s accent was thick but not too difficult to understand.
“No, I’m going to renovate it and open a dog training facility.”
“Dogs?” The woman’s expression grew concerned. “They won’t bother my cats, will they?”
As if called, a tabby suddenly trotted up to the screen door and sniffed at it, peering up at Mari.
“Uh … no, not as long as the cats stay out of the school yard.” She’d also have to try to do something to keep them outside—not because she didn’t like cats, because she did, but because dogs especially loved eating cat poo. Lana had once referred to it as almond-covered toffee for dogs.
Two more cats came up to wind around the woman’s ankles, one a black cat and the other striped in gray and brown. “I can try to keep them out, but it’s hard,” Mrs. Yanos said. “Do you know anything about propane?”
“Excuse me?” Mari felt like she’d been given whiplash from the conversational turn.
“I was frying fish out in my patio but my burner went out. I don’t like frying inside because then the house smells.”
“I can take a look at it for you,” Mari offered. She did need to catalogue all the things she’d need to do on the facility, but she could spare a few minutes to look at the woman’s propane burner, and her mother had always said to be a good, kind neighbor.
How strange that she was remembering her mother’s admonishments and instructions. Maybe because Mari was now living with her. She hadn’t realized how much she owed her for nagging her so that she would learn these social guidelines.
“Come around the side of the house to the backyard.”
There wasn’t a gate to partition her back yard from her front yard, so Mari walked along the side of the house, avoiding muddy ruts dotted with the prints of cat paws, and emerged into Mrs. Yanos's yard. Scraggly grass covered most of the large space, but there was also the weatherbeaten skeleton of a greenhouse that had long ago lost its walls and ceiling. It still held pots of various flowers on old, tilted tables and boards propped up by cinder blocks. The back of the house faced the gulch, just like the school, and between the properties stood an aluminum fence, but Mrs. Yanos had planted flower bushes running down her side of it.
The back patio was made of concrete, covered by the roof that extended from the house. No less than two refrigerators and two freezers stood against the wall of the house, but Mari wasn’t really surprised—the Filipino family who lived next door to her mom’s house had three refrigerators and two freezers in back of their house. Mom’s neighbor had told Mari it was because many Filipino families liked to cook, and they always made enough to feed an army.
In the center of the concrete stood the propane burner with a large, blackened wok sitting on top of it, filled halfway with dark oil. Heat still radiated from it, so it must not have been long since the burner went out.
“What’s wrong with it?” Mari asked.
“It was working fine, but when the phone rang, I had to turn the flame off,” Mrs. Yanos said, pointing toward the screen door back into the house. “When I came back out, it clicked but it wouldn’t start.”
Mari carefully removed the wok and set it on the ground, then looked at the outdoor gas stove. She didn’t have a huge amount of experience with burners like this, but before her father had died of a heart attack when she was ten, she had been a total daddy’s girl and helped him with everything from fixing his car to fixing appliances around the house.
He often fixed the gas stove in the kitchen when it wouldn’t light, and while this was an outdoor stove, she hoped it worked the same way. She borrowed some gardening gloves she spotted lying on the long table to one side of the patio, and carefully removed the grille and cover to the burner. “Mrs. Yanos, do you have a needle?”
The old woman returned with a sewing pin, and Mari poked it into the hole where the gas fed into the clicker, clearing away some black gunky ash that had collected. She then reassembled the stove and tried lighting it.
It clicked a few times without lighting, and Mari was about to turn the gas off again when the flame suddenly burst into life. However, she had been peering at it a little too closely and it nearly took her eyebrows off. “Whoa!”
“Ah!” Mrs. Yanos said when the gas lit, then cried out, “Careful!” as she pulled Mari away from the burner.
Well, that was kind of embarrassing, but at least she solved the burner problem.
“Oh, thank you, thank you.” Mrs. Yanos smiled, the wrinkles in her nut-brown face framing her bright smile. “Now I can finish frying my fish.” She bustled back into the house.
Mari was left a little uncertain what to do, so she put the wok of oil back on the burner to let it heat up again while she waited for the old woman to return. It didn’t take long before she exited the house with a large baking sheet upon which were floured fish, tiny little papio that were small enough to be eaten whole.
She was followed by the three cats Mari had seen earlier … no, those weren’t the same cats. The black one before had white paws, and this one did not. And this gray cat was not striped.
Then three more cats came out of the house—and they weren’t the same three from before, either. They were followed by even more felines.
Within minutes, Mari felt like she was wading in a sea of cats as a few came up to rub against her legs while others padded around the patio. They were apparently smart enough to stay away from the burner, but they sniffed at the tray of fish when Mrs. Yanos set it on the seat of a stool next to the wok.
Mari held her hand out and a few of the cats sniffed it, and one or two of those rubbed their cheeks against her hand before sauntering away. The animals were all well-cared for, with smooth coats and plump bellies, but for some reason all Mari could think of was gold foil-wrapped pieces of almond toffee scattered across the yard of her new property.
She belated remembered her Kilani Bakery box and offered it to Mrs. Yanos. “Maybe you can eat these for dessert?”
“Thank you, thank you.” She opened the box. “I love Chantilly.” She reached out and patted Mari’s arm. “You’re such a good girl. Your mama taught you well.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Yanos.” She had just been thinking about how her mother raised her and her sister. She wasn’t appreciative enough to her parent, and shame made something twist in her chest. Mari resolved to be more patient with her next time. “Well, I’ll be going now …”
But the old woman rose up halfway from her seat and flapped her hand at Mari. "No, no! Stay until I can finish frying some fish. Then you can take it with you."
"No, you don't have to …"
"No, it's no trouble. Wait a few minutes."
The oil didn't take long to reheat to the proper temperature again, since it had still been quite hot. Mari was impressed at Mrs. Yanos's frying skills. She didn't even need to use a thermometer, but poked her chopsticks in the oil and sprinkled a little flour in it, peered at the bubbles that formed, and then nodded to indicate that it was ready. As she was slipping each little fish into the oil, her hand got dangerously close to the surface, making Mari tighten her muscles in anxiety, but Mrs. Yanos wasn't bothered by the heat sizzling only millimeters away from her fingertips.
"When are you moving in?" Mrs. Yanos asked as she poked her chopsticks at the bubbling fish. “Oh, no wait, you said you were starting a business? When will you open?”
"Not for a while yet. I still need to fix the windows and doors and patch up holes in the floors and roof."
Mrs. Yanos's brows were furrowed as she turned from her oil to look at Mari. "Be careful if you're going to be at the school at night. Sometimes I hear noises and lights like flashlights." She grimaced. "I can smell pakalolo, too. I think some kids use the school to smoke."
Oh great. Mari needed to fix the windows and doors as soon as possible so that kids couldn't trespass and increase their crime coefficient. The marijuana smell could linger in rooms for a long time. She remembered going over to a friend's house in elementary school and peeking into the girl's brother's room. He’d gotten panicked and chased them out, but not before she smelled the distinctively sharp, burnt grass smell.
"Why don't I give you my phone number?" Mari asked. "If you hear noises or see lights again, give me a call." There wasn't much Mari could do, but she could at least call the police so they could send a patrol car to drive by.
"That's a good idea. Here, I'll give you my number, too."
They exchanged mobile numbers, and Mari was impressed at how adept Mrs. Yanos was in using her smart phone. Mari's mother barely knew how to make a call, and almost never remembered to bring it with her when she left the house.
The fish that Mrs. Yanos gave to her were perfectly golden brown, the fins and tail looking crispy. "Thanks, Mrs. Yanos. These look really good."
Mrs. Yanos beamed and nodded. "You enjoy."
Mari left with the paper plate covered in fish, the heat stinging her hands. She hesitated to stick it in her car, because the smell would drive dogs nuts, but she didn't want to take it with her to visit the other neighbor, and she couldn't leave the plate out in the open.
She grabbed the other box of brownies and cupcakes and walked to the other neighbor. This house was a bit newer, with a smooth concrete walkway leading to the front door, but no one answered the doorbell. Mari tried a few times before giving up. Well, her mom adored Chantilly cupcakes, although she didn't buy them often since they were bad for her triglycerides.
Mari brought the fish with her as she went to look through the rooms of the school. It had been a small private elementary school, with a schoolyard overgrown with weeds at the back and a garden in front of the main building instead of a lawn.
She started with the largest indoor space, the cafeteria, which was now devoid of any chairs or tables. The floor was linoleum older than she was, with various cracks and tears. Mari would need to have the entire floor redone, but she had known that when she bought the place.
In the adjacent kitchen, the ranges and refrigerators had long been removed, and so Mari would need to buy a stove and a refrigerator. Once she started boarding dogs, she could make their food here. She also thought it might be good to hold classes on cooking homemade dog food and homemade biscuits, and the kitchen was just large enough for a small class of six to eight people. The floor here was concrete and newer than that of the cafeteria, so Mari wouldn't need to spend money to fix it.
The school office was a free-standing building next-door to the cafeteria and kitchen, consisting of a large open room. There were three small side rooms which consisted of the principal's office, a spacious bathroom, and a kitchenette with a sink and space to hold a mini fridge.
Mari had been planning to convert the staff office area into her living quarters. She could install a partition near the door to create a small entry hall that would then lead into the main room. The principal's office would be a small bedroom, with barely room for a bed and nightstand, and a chest of drawers would need to be placed outside the room, but it would be a very large living space, almost the size of her mother's living room and dining room combined. Mari's own house hadn't been very large, either, so this would not be too much of a step down for her in terms of space.
There was some rude graffiti on the walls and door to the principal’s office, but structurally they seemed intact and would be fine with a new coat of paint. The floor also seemed solid. The glass front door had been cracked, but the windows looked to be in better shape here than in the rest of the property.
She next moved to the long building where the classrooms were situated. There were a total of eight square rooms to accommodate the small class sizes. Here, the windows were a mess, although one or two doors were still locked. Most of the rooms still held the teacher’s heavy metal desks sitting in the corners, although Mari found only one creaking and rusting chair. The students’ desks and chairs were mostly gone except for a few broken pieces. A couple classrooms also still held bookcases, although they were all broken.
One room had a locked door that couldn’t be opened by any of the keys Mari had been given. It was near the end of the row of classrooms, so she circled around the back of the building and peered in the dusty window. There was nothing inside except a heavy metal cabinet that had been toppled onto the middle of the floor.
Mari returned to the front to inspect the last classroom, which looked to have been an old storeroom, when she suddenly heard a sound from the room next door. A room that should have been locked and empty. It sounded suspiciously like the door handle rattling, then the creak of the door opening.
Someone was here. Someone with the key to the locked room.
And she was armed with nothing more threatening than a donut box.
Her heart hammered, and she wished she still had Pepper with her. The dog would have at least barked to alert her if someone entered the school grounds, although he tended to be a bit of a coward despite his aggression toward men. After barking and snapping for a few minutes to reassure the male that he was a big scary dog, he’d then typically run away and hide.
She scanned the storeroom and found only a broken mop handle. When she picked it up, she was reassured by the weight, although the rough wood threatened to jab her with countless splinters.
She stood at the closed door and took several fast breaths, then opened it and stepped outside.
The room next door was open, and she could now clearly hear footsteps inside. She brandished the mop handle as she stepped into the open doorway, and using the deep, commanding voice she used to stop German Shepherds in their tracks, she demanded, “What are you doing here?”
A man stood in the room, only a little taller than she was, with scruffy black hair that had a severely receding hairline. His large, wide eyes were trained upon her.
For a moment, his body language reminded her of an aggressive dog about to attack.
But after a few tense seconds, his shoulders slumped and his entire body seemed to deflate. He exclaimed loudly, “Haaaaaaaaa, you scared me! You scared me!”
She wasn’t sure why he needed to repeat that, but she wanted to snap back that he was the one who had scared her. Instead, she circled the mop handle menacingly, although she suspected she only looked like a baseball batter at the plate. “What are you doing here?” she repeated.
The man wasn’t even listening to her. “I was so [bleeping] surprised, you gave me a [bleeping] heart attack. [Bleepity bleep bleep] You shouldn’t [bleeping] sneak up on someone like that.” His cussing was so colorful that she didn’t understand even half of what he said.
And he still hadn’t answered her question. Annoyed, Mari brought the tip of her dangerous (mopping) weapon down on the floor with a loud smack! that made him jump. “Why. Are. You. Here?”
His eyes shifted toward the open door. “Ah, sorry. I use the place as a shortcut home.”
Mari skewered him with a glare and resisted the urge to bare her teeth. For one thing, he was inside the building. For another, there was a gulch behind the property, so there wasn’t anyplace for him to go if he cut through.
She remembered Mrs. Yanos mentioning the smell of pot, and wondered if it had been this man instead of kids. In which case, she’d be better off letting him take his drugs and leave. “Look,” she said in a firm voice, “I just bought this property. I am going to be replacing the door locks tomorrow, so you won’t be able to ‘cut through’ anymore.”
“Sure,” he said promptly, although he was looking around the room and gave the distinct impression he wasn’t actually listening to her, which peeved her even more.
She smacked the mop handle against the floor again. “Did you hear me?”
“I [bleeping] heard you, [bleepity bleep]. Sheesh.” He shot her a look as if she was the one being unreasonable wanting a stranger off her property.
But she’d spent years proving her dominance over recalcitrant dogs, and she wasn’t about to let a pothead try to push her around. She stepped aside and pointed at the open doorway with the mop handle.
He had the gall to give her a resentful sneer, then slunk out of the building. She thought she deserved a medal for not bringing her disciplinary (mopping) stick and whacking him on the butt of his sagging jeans as he left.
The first thing she was going to do was buy new locks for all the doors today so she could replace them tomorrow, like she’d told him. She had enough home repair chops to do that, at least.
And tonight, if she was lucky, the bleepity guy would creep back under cover of darkness to get his stash. Then he’d leave her alone.