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 Sixteen - Jade Green Tote Bag
Mari had left twenty-three messages on Dusty’s voicemail in three days. She’d also dropped by his workplace, Popo’s, when she had time in between her daytime clients, but he always seemed to not be working. That, or his coworkers conspired to keep him safe from her.
Because she really was going to inflict bodily harm on the idiot if she ever got hold of him. Even if it was only through the phone, she’d find some way to send lethal kung fu energy over the wireless lines to slice off his head.
She also emailed him several times, every message starting with something like, “You cowardly weasel” or “Pick up the phone, you wuss.”
Except she accidentally sent one email to her former coworker Dustina Parsons, who demanded to know what she’d done to deserve such written abuse. Mari had just sent a profusely apologetic email to Dustina from her phone as she entered the second-to-the-last classroom in the long building.
She hadn’t seen the bleepity pothead since she’d confronted him in this room about a week ago. The day after that encounter, when she was replacing the locks on the doors, she’d noticed that the metal filing cabinet lying on the floor had been pushed aside, revealing a hole in the floorboards. She guessed he’d come back and removed his stash, which had probably been hidden under the floor.
Her Auntie Vi had given her some recommended contractors, although the estimated costs made her stomach cramp like she had constipation. Before she made a decision about who to hire, she wanted to see for herself the state of everything that would need to be repaired—which was practically everything.
Mari peered into the hole in the floor. Despite the fact she worked with large mammals with teeth, bugs gave her the willies. But she couldn’t know the state of the wiring under the floors until she went into the crawlspace, and while there was an opening in the floor on the other side of the building, it would be easier to check the crawlspace on this side by using the pothead’s hole.
Armed with a flashlight, she stepped into the hole, and dust puffed up under the old sneakers she’d worn for this job. The crawlspace was enclosed on all sides, so there wasn’t enough light for many weeds to grow. Thankfully, the ground seemed dry, so there must be good grading to prevent flooding under the building when it rained.
After taking a deep breath, she crouched down to crawl under the floors.
She ignored the tickling sensations in her hair and all over her skin, because she couldn’t spot any spiderwebs around the hole—maybe she ought to thank the pothead for that. The scent of the O’ahu red dirt surrounded her, which always smelled to her like bright summer sunlight with the faint trace of pineapple. Or probably the pineapple picked up the smell from the soil it was growing on.
Casting the light of the flashlight around her, she spotted the wiring under the wall between the classrooms. She began crawling toward it on her elbows when the light flashed on something in the dimness. Mari paused and pointed the light.
The ground was almost entirely smooth, with barely any rocks to mar the fine, dry dirt, so she quickly spotted the small lumpy object. It was especially unusual because of the splash of red and pink color.
She had to crawl over toward it, and discovered it was a jade-green tote bag in a tasteful Japanese print. What was more, something hard rattled softly inside.
Ugh, did the pothead forget some of his stash? Maybe she could throw it out into the gulch behind the school grounds and pretend she hadn’t seen it. Mari tossed the bag back toward the hole, then continued checking the wiring.
As soon as she was pulling herself back out of the hole in the floor, her phone rang. It was her mother. “Hi, Mom.”
“When are you coming home?”
Mari eyed her watch. It was four o’clock—a bit later than she’d expected. It had taken her too long to check the wiring. “Uh … soon?” she said, hoping that was the answer her mother wanted to hear.
“Will you be home in the next half hour?”
Sure, if she burned rubber out of Waialua. “I guess?”
Her mother huffed a bit with impatience. “Will you or won’t you?”
“I just started frying the tonkatsu so if you get here late, they’ll be all soggy.”
Soggy fried pork cutlets weren’t the end of the world, but Mom’s tonkatsu were particularly good and she always insisted upon eating them when they were hot and crispy. And considering how things were going lately, Mari was trying to be obedient and keep the peace in the household. “I’ll be home soon.” She disconnected the call.
She glanced at the tote bag where she’d dropped it on the floor of the room. Although discolored from mold damage, it was now dry, but she wasn’t anxious to peer inside at whatever the bleepity pothead had left, so she kicked it into the corner before locking the door behind her.
Mari had pulled her car up in front of her mom’s house when Dusty finally called.
“Heeeeeey, Mari!” Dusty slurred in her ear. She could almost feel the slobber from his flabby lips.
“Dusty?” It sounded like he’d partaken of liquid courage before dialing her number. “Are you drunk?” She unlocked her front door, calling to her Mom, “I’m home.”
“No, no no no. Not at all.”
Not yet, more likely. Did she want to wait until he was sober? Hurling flaming arrows at a tipsy Dusty wasn’t very satisfying because they wouldn’t even sting, and even worse, he might not even remember anything she said the next day.
But there was also the strong possibility that he wouldn’t call her for three weeks next time. “Dusty, when I asked you to take Pepper, why didn’t you tell me you were about to be evicted?” Not that she’d had any other alternative if he had. He’d been the last piece of kibble in her bag of dog chow.
“I didn’t know myself,” he said.
Actually, she could believe that. She dropped her purse onto her bed. “I haven’t had much time to keep up my training with Pepper. You have to make him behave better—”
“You’re the dog trainer.”
“—or Ashwin will take him back to the shelter.”
“Naw, he won’t.”
“I don’t want to bet Pepper’s life on that. Have you been taking care of him?”
“Of course. He’s not starving and he’s getting lots o’ loooooove.”
“That’s the problem. You always give him affection and no discipline. Tell me you’re at least walking him twice a day.”
Silence on the line.
“Dusty! You’re not even walking him?”
“Ashwin has a huuuuuuuuuge backyard. Huge. Huge.”
“You know that’s not the same thing as a walk. He’s less than a year old, so even though he’s full grown, he’s still considered a puppy. You need to walk him to burn off energy and establish dominance as his alpha dog.”
“I’m not a dog.”
“Pack leader. Remember the Furry Friend Fixer shows we used to watch?”
“Oh, I completely forgot everything I learned,” he said flippantly.
Breathe. In through the nose, and don’t breathe out fire or you’ll melt your phone. “Dusty. Pepper is obviously still bored or he wouldn’t be destroying the house.”
“Hey, how do you know about the couch and the hallway baseboards?”
She hadn’t, but now she did. Besides, Ashwin’s mention of Pepper’s destruction had already given her a good picture of what was happening. “Do you remember how we used to run with Pepper together?”
“You ran faster than me.” Dusty’s pouting tone grated on shot nerves.
“Dusty! Pay. Attention.”
“I’m here, I’m here. Well, I’m mostly here.”
She’d get nothing out of him. She might as well have saved her vocal cords.
“Dusty, where’s Ashwin’s house?” Maybe she could run Pepper with the other dogs. She hadn’t done so when she thought the dog was with Dusty because his apartment had been in Manoa, too far away from her other clients whose dogs she ran in the mornings and evenings. She’d also erroneously assumed Dusty would walk Pepper—he had always seemed so eager to walk him when they were dating.
Hopefully Ashwin didn’t live too far away, but if he did, he might have to walk Pepper twice a day if Dusty wasn't. Everything in her quailed at the thought of asking even more from the overburdened man.
“Oh, he’s in Haleiwa,” Dusty said.
“Perfect! I need his telephone number.” She would call him and offer to run Pepper twice a day. She’d lost his business card from the fender-bender, or she wouldn’t even bother with Dusty.
She didn’t understand why Ashwin hadn’t called her even though it had seemed he understood her unsaid message about free private training sessions. That had surprised her—not even Lana would have been able to pull that off with her, but Ashwin had seemed to be able to practically read her mind.
Mari should have asked for his business card when she gave him hers. Or would he have thought she was being too forward if she had?
“Why do you need his number?” Dusty asked.
“I’ll offer to run with Pepper when I run my other clients’ dogs,” she said.
“Hey, hey. Hey hey. Pepper is my responsibility.” Dusty’s inebriated tongue almost tripped over the last word. “I’ll do better from now on, I promise."
Mari hesitated. She hated making Ashwin take care of Pepper when Dusty was the one who’d brought the dog with him. If she called Ashwin, it meant she had written off Dusty, and Ashwin would be doing all the training, all the walking, all the work.
Assuming he could even get Pepper to stop barking at him.
The doorbell rang, and Mom’s voice from the kitchen called out, “Can you get that?”
Mari headed to the front door. “Dusty, since you’re in Haleiwa, it’s really easy for me to run Pepper. If you’re also walking him, that would make him behave even better.” She flung the door open.
Jenessa stood there, her eyes red and her face harder than stone—looking like a pit bull trained for illegal dog fighting, and crazier than Cujo.