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 Twelve - Battered Green Suitcases
Ashwin opened his front door and faced déjà vu-on-drugs. Instead of Auntie Nell on the doorstep with four suitcases, it was his brother, Dusty, with two battered green ones.
“Hey bro!” Dusty reached out with wide arms.
Ashwin stepped back. Dusty stank of something fishy. “I just saw you last week. What are you doing here?”
“A guy can’t visit his older brother?”
“With two suitcases on his tail?”
Without looking behind him, Dusty waved a careless hand at the overstuffed bags. “Oh, that. I just need you to store ’em for me for a while.”
“And what’s wrong with that sty you call an apartment?”
“Stop antagonizing your brother,” Auntie Nell interjected. “Hello, boyo.” She enveloped him in a hug as if she hadn’t seen him in a decade.
Uh, oh. Auntie Nell was in on this, too. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on. Why would there be anything going on? You’re so suspicious, Ashwin. Dusty, I just made shortbread cookies. You want one?” Auntie Nell ushered him inside.
As Dusty passed him, Ashwin’s head exploded in a massive sneeze. He closed the door quickly—he’d just vacuumed and didn’t need allergens wafting into his house. “Dusty, what do you need? I’m on my way out to see Yuina.”
His brother’s charming face flashed with a glint of cynicism, but then it was gone. “How is the blushing bride? I haven’t seen her in weeks.”
Yuina had finally accepted Boyd’s proposal and—via email—told Ashwin and Dusty. She told them first to prepare her cousins since she still needed to tell her mother, so Ashwin was home with Auntie Nell last week when Yuina visited to tell her in person.
Auntie Nell said all the normal things, since she wasn’t the type of person to make her daughter feel bad when delivering happy news, no matter how she felt about Boyd. She and Boyd were always polite to each other, but she wasn’t stupid and could tell that he didn’t enjoy her company.
Dusty, on the other hand, was always honest with Boyd about how he was feeling, which usually included colorful and exotic insults if the guy was getting too condescending. (He had privately predicted to Ashwin that Yuina would be divorced within a year.)
“She just got back from another build in Arizona,” Ashwin said.
“She spends more time there than here. It can’t be the weather.”
“What’s that supposed to—”
“Do I smell shortbread?” Dusty disappeared into the kitchen with Auntie Nell, leaving Ashwin at the front door.
Wasn’t it always that way? Dusty and Auntie Nell, so much alike, in on everything together. And then there was Ashwin—stodgy, uptight. The responsible black sheep in a happy-go-lucky family.
He shook his head. Why did it still bother him?
He considered opening the door again to get his brother’s suitcases … Nah. That’s why God gave Dusty two hands and an athletic build. May as well put ’em to use for something besides rock climbing. He headed to the kitchen. “What do you want, Dusty?”
His eyes widened. “What do I want? Only the unconditional love of my family.” He hugged Auntie Nell with more fake cheese than a box of Kraft macaroni.
“Oh, my sweet boyo,” Auntie Nell cooed.
Buttering up to Auntie Nell only meant one thing—he was about to ask Ashwin to do something he really wouldn’t want to do. “How much is it going to cost me, Dusty?”
“Cost you? Nothing!” His brother winced and scratched the back of his head. “Well, the truth is that ever since Jim moved out of my apartment, I had to pay rent on the entire place myself.”
Uh, oh. His brother didn’t make enough at Popo's (Uncle Popo's Recreational Equipment retail store) to pay the rent for an entire apartment in this housing market. “How much do you need?”
“No, no, I don’t need any money.”
“You don’t?” Actually, Dusty rarely asked for money—he seemed to keep afloat despite his short work week. Probably because his extracurricular activities didn’t cost much—rock faces didn’t charge by the hour for people to climb them—and he got his gear from his workplace at a discount. “So what do you need?”
“Um … a place to stay.”
“Oh, that's wonderful.” Auntie Nell clapped her hands. “Ashwin has plenty of space.”
“What about your apartment?”
“Well … I sort of forgot to pay the rent a few months.”
“Forgot? How could you forget?”
“Well, Jim always took care of that. He’d remind me and I’d give him my next paycheck, and he’d give me my change later. And he’d pay the manager for the next month.”
“After he moved out, whenever the manager came to me, it was always after I’d already spent my paycheck so I didn’t have anything to give him. I kept intending to pay him … but I just never did.”
Why was he not surprised?
“Besides, I think he wanted me out so he could rent the place for a higher price.”
Dusty was probably right about that. But the point was that he was now homeless. And he was Ashwin’s brother.
Ashwin let loose a long groan, but he said, “Fine, you can stay.”
“Of course he can stay.” Auntie Nell shook Ashwin’s arm. “You wouldn’t let your brother starve on the street. Come have a shortbread, boyo.”
Suddenly a howling rose in the air like a coyote trapped in a pit of fire. “What is that?” Ashwin asked.
“Oh.” Dusty paused, his mouth full of cookie. His face looked distinctly guilty. “That’s my car.”
“Your car? It sounds like a dying heifer. Isn’t it turned off?”
“Uh … it’s not the car itself. It’s inside.”
Ashwin’s stomach turned into a computer harddrive, whirring madly. “What. Is. Inside. Your. Car.”
“Uh … my dog.”
“Since when do you have a dog?”
“I love dogs.” Auntie Nell headed out the kitchen to the front door. “What’s her name?”
Dusty high-tailed after her as if Ashwin were throwing gas flames at him. Which he might have been—his head was feeling like an inferno.
“It’s a he, Auntie Nell,” Dusty said. "His name’s Pepper.”
“Aw, how sweet.”
“Why is he howling like that?” Ashwin demanded, following them out the front door.
A smallish black Labrador-type dog zipped back and forth over Dusty’s back seat, barking and howling enough that Ashwin was surprised the glass hadn’t shattered. Across the street, his neighbor Iseul scurried past with his young son.
“Hey there, Pepper boy, it’s only a poor guy and his kid.” Dusty tapped on the back window.
Pepper ignored him, as if his barking would make Iseul run away faster. Actually, it kind of did.
Then Pepper spied Ashwin.
He hadn’t thought the noise could get any louder, but it did. Decibels louder. Enough to make window curtains twitch across the street and on either side of the house.
It reminded Ashwin of a recurring nightmare, where he went to a work meeting, got up to give his report, and realized he was wearing his old Superman Underoos.
“Let’s get him inside,” Dusty suggested.
“Ya think?” Ashwin shouted over the fresh onslaught.
For once, Ashwin was glad of Dusty’s active lifestyle—he had the muscles to hold the dog back from lunging at Ashwin. Pepper did manage to knock over the suitcases still on the front stoop, but it only seemed to make him more determined to bark Ashwin to death.
Ashwin suddenly gave a mighty sneeze.
Pepper stopped barking for a second … then started up again.
He closed the front door after his brother wrestled Pepper inside. “Auntie Nell, stay back.”
“No, Pepper won’t hurt her,” Dusty said. “He’s a playboy. He loves girls.”
Auntie Nell tittered at being called a girl.
“Are you sure?” Pepper’s barking in the entry hall echoed sharply on the empty walls and stone floor, making Ashwin’s ears buzz.
“Absolutely.” Dusty’s expression was uncharacteristically serious, even as his arms strained to hold back Pepper. “I wouldn’t have brought a dog here that would hurt Auntie Nell.”
True. Ashwin could trust his brother would never be careless when it came to Auntie Nell.
“Do you have a room without windows facing the street?” Dusty asked.
“Middle room at the top of the stairs. That can be your room.”
“At least he’s not growling,” Dusty called over his shoulder.
“Does that make him any less likely to bite me?”
Dusty dragged Pepper up the steps, followed by a cloud of dog hair. Pepper still looked like he’d happily eat Ashwin as a late afternoon snack.
“Oh.” Auntie Nell pouted. “I wanted to pet him."
“Why is he like that with me?” Ashwin asked. "He’s not focused on Auntie Nell.”
“He was a rescue from a local shelter,” Dusty called down the stairs. The slam of a door, then blessed silence. Apparently for Pepper, out of sight was out of barking.
Dusty clumped down the stairs. “He has a problem with most men.”
“Although he’s okay with you.” Auntie Nell beamed at Dusty as if his IQ were proportional to his likability factor with dogs.
“Yeah well, he’s my old Pepper boy.”
Ashwin hadn’t noticed his headache until Pepper stopped barking. And the reality of his new roommate only made his forehead throb more.
He checked his phone for the time and found he’d missed a text from Yuina:
Sorry Ashwin, I have to cancel today because of a sudden meeting at work. Can we meet in a few days instead?
That might be better since Ashwin would be willing to bet that today would be filled with shopping for a bunch of stuff to make sure Pepper didn’t starve or pee in the house. He’d have to ask Dusty what he needed.
“Auntie Nell, Yuina had to cancel, so I won’t be going out.”
“That’s fine. That means you can eat some cookies while they’re still fresh.” Auntie Nell took Dusty’s arm and steered him toward the living room. “I’ll get our boyo settled in.” She sighed. “One big happy family again.”
Plus one big dog.
Wait. How was Yuina going to feel about Auntie Nell living with the dog?