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 Fourteen - Beige Leather Chew Toy
An alligator had chewed up his couch and spit it out.
“Ashwin!” Auntie Nell’s voice had that high-pitched tinge of guilt and panic as she hurried out of the kitchen to greet him.
He closed the front door and dropped his keys on the foyer table, his eyes not leaving the chew toy that had once been his beige leather couch. He knew he should feel something. Maybe he was in shock. “You let Pepper out, didn’t you, Auntie Nell?” That sounded quite calm. He was surprised.
“Well, I think he's lonely up in Dusty’s room. And he was so happy to be out. He sniffed all around the house.”
Great. Ashwin might need to double his dose of allergy meds. “Where is he now?”
“I couldn’t get him back up the stairs. He’s just so big—you know, he has Labrador in him—and you wouldn’t expect it, but—”
“I think he’s in the hallway.” She pointed.
Only then did he notice the faint rhythmic sound that reminded him of when he’d been stripping paint off the living room walls during renovations.
The L-shaped hallway seemed to amplify the sound, making each shrek grate down his spine. A wagging black tail peeped out from around the corner like a narrow fuzzy boa on the ground. That moved.
And then he realized that Pepper, the Ashwin-hater, was loose in his house. Without Dusty to grab his collar.
“Auntie Nell, where’s Dusty?”
“Oh, I sent him to the grocery store for more butter.”
“Butter?” Ashwin sniffed the air. “Auntie Nell, have you been making shortbread again?”
“Of course not!” She wore a look of perfect indignation. “I’m making butter mochi.”
“Auntie Nell …"
“What’s wrong with that? You and Dusty like them so much—”
“You’re not supposed to be eating them. The doctor said your diabetes is getting worse …”
The scraping sound had stopped.
His heartbeat whooshed in his ears.
Paw-steps galloped down the hallway in tandem with barking that rang off the ceiling, off the tile countertop, off the marble floors.
Ashwin backtracked into the kitchen, then froze as Pepper rushed into the foyer and spotted him. But surprisingly, the dog seemed to be guarding the house against Ashwin rather than trying to chase him. He stood and barked in the foyer, not moving, pinning Ashwin in the kitchen.
“Good Pepper, you don’t want to hurt Ashwin, now, do you?” Auntie Nell cooed, inserting herself between them.
“Auntie Nell, don’t get near him.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. I’ve been home with this dog for two weeks, and every time he barks at someone, he never hurts me.”
“Wha—? Auntie Nell, have you been letting him out?”
“Er … only a few times.” She approached the dog and patted him on the head. Pepper spared her a quick glance before continuing his audible attack on Ashwin. The dog didn’t seem to notice her now, but what if Ashwin moved and he got more excited? Would he bite? He hadn’t yet, but Ashwin didn’t want to assume he wouldn’t.
“Auntie Nell, get away from the dog.”
“I mean it, Auntie Nell.”
“Oh, all right.” She backtracked into the kitchen and planted her hip against the island. “Happy?”
What was Ashwin going to do? He couldn’t stay here in the kitchen until Dusty got home. The way his brother got distracted, that might take an hour or more.
He slowly approached the dog.
Pepper’s barking rose in pitch, but he also backed up a step. He seemed more unsure than aggressive.
Ashwin took another step forward. Pepper took another half-step back. He had enough room to dart past the dog, into the living room, and then he could rocket into his study. “Auntie Nell, I’m going to make a run for it.”
“Oh, Ashwin.” Auntie Nell rolled her eyes. “I don’t think he’s going to hurt you.”
Great. His aunt was delusional. “When I go, Pepper will probably follow me. I want you to run to your room and close the door. That way you’ll be safe.”
Auntie Nell gave him a look that said, Right now, I am allowing you to pretend to be in charge in order to indulge you.
“I mean it. You run.”
“Oh, all right.” She raised a leg and pumped her arms in a cartoonish pose. “Ready?”
He had to assume she’d obey him. For once. “Go, Auntie Nell!”
He leaped into the foyer, then into the living room. One leg clipped Pepper’s snout, but the dog didn’t bite.
Ashwin hit the ground running, losing his balance slightly before sprinting into the study and slamming the double doors shut.
He expected to hear claws scrabbling the glass-paned doors, but nothing—if he didn’t count the howling that was fit to wake Uncle Kimo from his nap clear in Hilo.
Pepper appeared on the other side of the door, still barking but only fitfully. It seemed as if the dog’s gleamed through the glass panes. Did Ashwin only imagine the reddish devil glow?
He suddenly saw movement behind the dog.
“Auntie Nell! I told you to go to your room,” Ashwin scolded.
“Oh, don’t be silly. Here, Pepper. Come here, boy.”
“Auntie Nell, just get away.”
“He’s barking because he can still see you. Draw the blinds on the doors.”
He let down the blinds the covered the glass panes, and almost magically, Pepper’s barking stopped.
Except now Ashwin couldn’t see what Auntie Nell was doing. Because she definitely was not going to her room like he told her to. Was he really surprised? Except this time, that dog might take a chunk out of her.
No, he couldn’t allow that to happen. He opened the door and walked out.
Pepper had been sitting on Auntie Nell’s foot and submitting to an ear scratch, but as soon as Ashwin appeared, he lunged and began barking again.
“I told you to stay in the office!” she scolded him. “Now go!”
He hadn’t been scolded like that since he was twelve. Without thinking, he found himself obeying her and backing into the office again. It was like a conditioned reflex.
As soon as he was out of sight, Pepper shut up as if a music player had been turned off.
“Pepper, come here … Oomph, you’re a big doggy, aren’t you? Can’t make you go where you don’t want to, that’s for sure. … No, don’t go into Grandma’s bedroom …”
Grandma? Well, he supposed Pepper was like Dusty’s child. Dusty’s unruly, destructive, earsplitting child. Which might not be far off from Dusty’s actual genetic offspring.
“Pepper … no, not there … Pepper, let’s get you up the stairs … oh, okay, I guess you don’t want to go up the stairs …”
For twenty minutes, Auntie Nell’s voice filtered to him. He yelled at her a few times to try to get her to leave off and just go to her room, but he might as well have saved his breath.
He called Dusty’s cell and left a voice mail message asking him to get home quickly. Actually, it was probably more along the lines of, “Get home now or I’m going to blow up your Playstation!”
And with each minute, the pot of chili that his gut had become bubbled higher and faster and hotter.
Finally, the front doorknob rattled and the door creaked open. “Auntie Nell? I got your—”
“Dusty!” Ashwin bellowed. “Get your dog up the stairs!”
“Oops.” The syllable was laced with humor—typical Dusty. Ashwin would wring his neck when he got out of his office.
He waited until he heard Dusty’s bedroom door upstairs close. Then Ashwin burst out of his office, breathing rage like aerosol cayenne pepper. “Where have you been? Why isn’t your cell phone on? How could you leave Pepper in the house with Auntie Nell?”
Dusty, tripping down the stairs, halted midway. “Now, hang on, bro—”
“Don’t …” Auntie Nell sank into one of the living room chairs. “Don’t yell at your brother.”
“Did you see what that dog did to my couch?”
“I’ll pay you back—”
“No, you won’t. You can barely pay for yourself to survive.”
“Boys …” Auntie Nell said.
Dusty’s eyes darkened, and he dropped down the last few steps. “Hey, I've never asked you for money—”
“Yet. Your sense of responsibility is as reliable as that dog.”
“Don’t you make judgments on me, Mr. High-and-Mighty. I’m not the one cowering in my office—”
“Boys …” And Auntie Nell’s body suddenly sagged sideways.
Blood pulsed in Ashwin’s ears. “Auntie Nell!”
They both rushed to her. She blinked at them with dazed eyes, and her lips were opening and closing.
“Are your lips numb?” Ashwin asked.
It took her a second, but she nodded.
“Auntie Nell, where’s your blood glucose meter? Get her some orange juice,” he told Dusty.
“Why would her blood sugar be low?” he asked as he sped to the kitchen.
“I didn’t even think … She’s been running around trying to get that dog back in your room for the past twenty minutes.”
Ashwin found Auntie Nell’s meter and tested her blood sugar level while she sat quietly in the chair, which was even more frightening than her rages. He held her hand, feeling the slight trembling of the muscles.
The meter read 50. Definitely hypoglycemia.
“Auntie Nell, drink this.” Dusty put a cup of juice in her hand, but when her hand moved too slowly for his taste, he guided it to her mouth.
After a few long minutes, her eyes brightened and the trembling in her hand seemed to die away. “I’m fine, now,” she said.
“Let’s take you to Urgent Care anyway,” Ashwin said.
“No, there’s no need—“
“You’re going to Urgent Care, Auntie Nell,” Dusty said, backing him up. Auntie Nell couldn’t fight against both of them.
“Fine, I’ll go,” she grumbled. “But only once the two of you stop yelling at each other.”
The brothers' eyes held across the top of Auntie Nell’s head. Ashwin looked away first. Dusty punched him lightly in the shoulder.
Yeah, they were good.
Auntie Nell rolled her eyes. “Good grief, you two are so immature.”
“Auntie Nell, where’s your purse?” Dusty stood to find it so they could leave.
Ashwin stood up, also. But in the panic of taking care of Auntie Nell, he hadn’t noticed that his nose had closed up. Allergies again. “Dusty, about Pepper—”
“I promise, I didn’t let him out—”
“I know, it’s not about that. It’s my allergies.” To punctuate, he heaved a sneeze. Then a second one. “I can’t take it anymore. I’m sorry, but you’ve got to find another home for your dog.”
Dusty gnawed the inside of his lip. “Actually … he’s not really my dog.”
It took a little while for that to sink in, but when it did, Ashwin’s jaw started to tremble. “What?” Two weeks of barking and howling, his shredded couch, the allergy meds—all for no good reason?
“He belongs to Mari.”
“My ex-girlfriend. I was her last hope.”
“And why can’t she keep the dog at her place?”
“Well, she had to move in with her mom, who said no dogs, so she begged me to take him since he likes me.”
Mari sounded like a female version of Dusty—irresponsible and flighty. After all, she somehow lost her old place and had to move in with her mother. What else could he call it?
“No, don’t send Pepper away.” Auntie Nell grabbed at his forearm.
“I’ve had enough of this dog.” He jerked his head at the forlorn couch. “After we take Auntie Nell to Urgent Care, I’m going to go talk to her.” Since Mari wasn’t family, he could give her a piece of his mind without Auntie Nell interfering.
He turned to Dusty. “Where does she work?”