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 Eighteen - Orange Brownea Flower of the Month
“Jenessa and Mom are just too much alike. And they’re going to drive me completely lolo,” Mari said over the cell phone as she headed toward the storeroom at the end of the hallway of classrooms.
Lana, on the other end of the line, laughed. “It can’t be that bad.”
“Yes, it can.” She unlocked the storeroom while juggling the mop in her hand. “Mom and Jenessa insist on family dinner every night. Well, last night, we risked food poisoning with an underdone roast, which Jenessa put in the oven but Mom removed too early.”
“You should have just zapped it in the microwave.”
“Which Jenessa did, but she wasn’t paying attention and inputted six minutes instead of sixty seconds. Luckily, I’d gotten Mom a new fire extinguisher last week.”
“Yes, I’ve always felt that avoiding a house fire is the sensible thing to do.”
Mari dropped off the mop and locked the storeroom again. “It matched the burned potatoes, which had suffered because each assumed the other would attend to them.”
Lana gave a long sigh. “I have never heard of a meal more unsalvageable.”
“One kitchen is simply not enough for two women who have both been stay-at-home mothers for most of their lives. It’s a good thing I have no culinary aspirations.”
“Probably good for the lives of your family, too.”
“Hey, I’m not that bad, am I? No, wait, don’t answer that.” As Mari was passing the classroom next to the storeroom, she thought she smelled a stomach-churning combination of men’s cologne, Portuguese sausage, and vinegar. But as she walked beyond the door, the smell faded. “My sister and mother both trying to get dinner ready at the same time is like setting two dogs after the same bone—one will get the bone and the other will be beat up and mean-tempered.”
“They get into fights?”
“Not physical fights, but the food suffers irreparable damage.” Mari paused, staring at the closed door. She hadn’t imagined that smell.
“Mari, melodramatic much?”
“No, I’m not,” she objected. Why did it seem like Lana was trying to downplay the tension in her own home? Didn’t she believe her? “Tonight’s dinner will be the same.”
“Just eat something else.”
“That brings up another problem. They both go grocery shopping separately and we end up with too much of one thing and not enough of another—the fridge is currently bursting with four gallon jugs of milk but the pantry has no cereal.”
“Oh, boy.” But there was a hint of laughter in Lana’s voice. “Gotta go, Wayne’s home.” She disconnected the call before Mari could even say goodbye.
She stared at her cell phone. It had probably been wishful thinking that their friendship would return to normal when Lana apologized, because she knew her friend still wasn’t completely on board with Mari’s new business venture. She was only worried for her, but it was Mari’s risk to take. And yet it seemed like the dog boarding facility stood between them like a silent brick wall.
Speaking of risks … She started at the closed classroom door, then backed up a few steps. Yup, she picked up the disgusting smell again.
She shouldn’t have put away the mop. Walking quickly away from the door, she fumbled as she unlocked the storeroom again.
Surely if someone were still in the room, they’d have done something when they heard her walking around out here, talking on her cell phone, right? Hopefully she was just overreacting. She grabbed the mop and again approached the closed door.
Should she call the police or barge in? What if there was no one there? She’d feel bad if she called the Waialua police to come all the way out here simply because she smelled something strange. But she was also alone out here in this rural neighborhood.
She compromised. She called Mrs. Yanos, her neighbor on the right side.
“Hi, Mrs. Yanos. This is Mari, the owner of the school next door?”
“Uh … I hope this turns out to be nothing, but can I keep you on the phone while I check out one of the rooms? I smell something strange.”
“I was hoping those kids stopped coming around. Be careful.”
“If you hear something happening, you’ll hang up and call the police, yeah?”
“Yah. Be careful,” she repeated.
Mari’s heart beat faster the closer she got to the closed door. She reached out and turned the handle.
She started hyperventilating, but forced herself to take a deep breath, then another. It was entirely possible she’d simply forgotten to lock the door the last time she was in here. She’d been in and out of all the rooms when Lana’s recommended contractors had come to check things out and give her quotes.
Mari tightened her grip on the mop and drew it back, ready to swing. It was a bit awkward to open the door and hold the mop aloft while hunching her shoulder to keep her phone cradled close to her ear, but she prepared herself to drop the phone if she saw someone.
She flung the door open.
Nothing. The room was empty. It was a little dim due to the fading late afternoon light, and motes of dust hung in the air. The window was still closed and locked, just as she’d left it.
Mari gave a huge sigh of relief and spoke into her cell phone. “There’s nothing here, Mrs. Yanos.”
“Oh, good.” She sighed.
“I’m sorry for bothering you. Thanks for staying on the phone with me."
“No, no, you be safe.”
They said their goodbyes and Mari disconnected the call.
She stared around the room, glad her fears had been unfounded. However, there was something off about it.
Were there wide sweeping marks in the dust and dirt on the floor, or was she just being paranoid and seeing things? It was almost as if someone had dragged something over the dirty linoleum.
The metal filing cabinet was still lying on the ground, but hadn’t it been a foot or two closer to the jagged edges of the hole in the floor? It seemed to be a lot farther away than she remembered. Or was that just her imagination?
The bleepity pothead hadn’t come back, had he? He hadn’t been wearing cologne when she met him. But she thought he removed his stash right after she confronted him. That had been about three weeks ago.
She remembered the tote bag she’d found almost two weeks ago. He wouldn’t have been looking for that, would he?
When she had been showing the contractors around, she’d snatched up the bag and later stowed it in her truck. She had idly looked inside, but hadn’t found anything. Then again, she hadn’t looked very closely and the interior had been dark with dried mold splotches.
Maybe she should search it more thoroughly? Casting a last look around, she left and locked the door behind her.
Once in the truck, she scooped up the tote bag from where it had dropped onto the floor and once again peered inside. The cloth bag was handmade with a Japanese-print fabric that had once been cherry blossoms in various shades of pink and cream on a jade-green background elegant, but was now splotched with dark mold damage. It closed with zippers at the top, on the outside pocket, and on one of the inside pockets. It was difficult to tell the inner fabric color or pattern because of the mold damage.
She had heard rattling when she first found it, which was from carved wooden zipper pull charms, one attached to each of the three zippers, and despite discoloring to the wood, Mari could make out the intricate Hawaiian designs. She wondered if they were handmade, but there wasn’t an artist’s signature on any of them.
There were also two inside pockets without zippers, and she grimaced as she pulled the fabric apart to peer inside. The mold made it look like she was peering into two black holes.
She was relieved when her cell phone chimed with a text.
It was from her niece: Ur coming back for dinner, right? Right???
Mari had been kicking around the idea of stopping by Shigeru’s Saimin for a bowl of noodles, but Kendall’s desperation practically oozed out of her phone. She didn’t know why her niece would even want her there—it wasn’t as if Mari was any kind of buffer between her sister and her mother. If anything, Mari was a fellow victim. Maybe Kendall wanted company for the suffering.
This simply couldn’t go on. It might cause hellfire to rain down on herself, but she had to stand up to her family to resolve this issue or someone would head to the hospital with food poisoning sooner rather than later.
She dropped the tote bag back onto the passenger side floorboards and stared at her hands, which had turned a sickly ashen color from the mold. With a sigh, she got out of the truck to go wash them in one of the school bathrooms.
Half an hour later, she reflected that the limp green beans on her plate were the same gray color as her hands had been.
Jenessa and Mom ate—putting their lives in their own hands, in Mari’s opinion—while maintaining a polite silence between them. They wouldn’t admit this wasn’t working, but they also wouldn’t cede control over the kitchen.
Mari had decided to do something, hadn’t she? Well, it wasn’t as if the meal would become more palatable the longer she stalled.
She stood up and took down Mom’s “Wahiawa Botanical Garden Flowers of the Year” calendar from the wall, which had a bright orange brownea flower for the month.
“What are you doing?” Mom demanded.
Mari grabbed a Sharpie from a drawer and put M or J in each weekday for the rest of the month. She tossed it down on the table. “I will be in charge of meals on weekends.” She was an expert at picking up takeout. “For weekdays, I've assigned your cooking days.”
“Cooking days?” Jenessa stared at it as if it were written in Latin.
“You each do your own grocery shopping and your own cooking. The kids and I will clean up.” Mari speared both women with the same firm look she used when trying to get a dog to heed her. “In no way, shape, or form can there be interference in the kitchen by the other cook. The kitchen will be policed by me or Kendall.”
Her niece sat up straighter.
Jenessa’s eyes sparked lightning bolts. “Who are you to tell me—”
“I’m your mother. I won’t stand for—”
“Na-ah!” Mari made a sharp swiping motion with her hand, like when she was signaling a dog to stop barking. On cue, her family shut up. “You two have shown you can’t work in the kitchen together.”
Jenessa broke one of her own rules to her children and poked a finger at Mari. “You can’t tell me to stop cooking. I have cooked nutritious meals for my family since before Kendall was born.”
True, but …
“In case you haven’t noticed, this is my house,” Mom said to Mari.
She sighed, steeling herself. Neither of them was going to like what she had to say. “Mom, you have a point.”
“There.” Mom nodded.
“But you also aren’t really up to cooking for five every night of the week, even if you won’t admit it.”
Mom huffed, “Wha …”
Jenessa’s prim mouth twitched, but didn’t relax.
“Jenessa, you, on the other hand, need to learn to respect the fact this isn’t your house.”
“Rub it in, why don’t you,” she snapped.
“So both of you better start learning to cook on a schedule.” Mari pointed to the marked-up calendar, and took a deep breath before speaking in a rush. “Or I will take Kendall and Carl to McDonald’s every day until you do.”
The collective gasps sucked half the oxygen out of the dining room. Kendall and Carl’s gasps, however, were because they were ecstatic—Jenessa and Grandma hardly ever took them to fast food because it supposedly rotted their brains.
“You can’t do that. They’re my children—”
“They’re my grandchildren, and I refuse to allow—”
“We three have to live here with you two, and we’re collateral damage in this kitchen war. We, the ‘neutral territory’”—she put her arms around Kendall and Carl—“are going to secede to the big, bad Land of Fast Food if you don’t get your act together.”
Jenessa flung ice shards at her with her eyes, while Mom’s nostrils flared.
But the next night’s dinner was a perfectly edible lasagna.