by E.J. Cochrane
Matilda Smithwick (Maddie to her friends) is the proud owner of Little Guys Pet Care, a small but steadily growing dog walking company on Chicago’s North Side. Maddie loves her job and her life. Sure—she doesn’t have a girlfriend. But her best friend Dottie and her grandmother, Granny Doyle, are far more bothered about her lack of a girlfriend than Maddie is. As long as she has her rescued mutt Bart to keep her company, Maddie is perfectly happy.
That is until she returns from a walk to find one of her clients lying in a pool of his own blood. From there she finds herself thrown into a murder investigation filled with cantankerous purebred dog owners, her client’s bitter ex-wife, harassing phone calls and a police detective with no patience for Matilda’s helpful input. Throw in a lengthy hospital stay for Granny Doyle, a growing attraction for a possible murderer, and a depressed and ill-trained foster dog who refuses to eat, and Maddie’s easy, happy life seems to have fallen completely apart.
Fortunately she has Granny Doyle and Dottie to help her figure out how to save her business and her home…and to help keep her out of jail.
Matilda Smithwick Mystery Series Book One.
Lambda Literary Review
Cochrane has given us an endearing, though somewhat self-deprecating sleuth in Maddie Smithwick. She's also given us a comical and often annoying sidekick in the form of best friend Dottie. In spite of herself, Dottie is an endearing character, especially because she's loyal to Maddie. These two are definitely a mismatched pair, yet their relationship works. Sleeping Dogs Lie is an entertaining read. Parenthetical remarks throughout the story make us feel as if we are privy to little secrets about Maddie, her friends, and the subject of her probing. This offering by E.J. Cochrane is a good first effort. If this story is the introduction of a series with the loveable yet insecure Mathilda Smithwick, it promises to be a delightful one.
Matilda Smithwick stood in the lone patch of shade that fell on the sidewalk, though it made no difference. The record heat wave—now in its fifth day—had left her wilted two days earlier. Heat enveloped her, pulsating from the pavement, and the light summer breeze that stirred the leaves of the trees merely pushed the hot, humid air against her skin. Everything felt sticky, and she wanted to jump into Lake Michigan or at least find an air-conditioned building.
Goliath, the Great Dane standing immobile at the end of the six-foot leash Matilda held, didn’t seem to notice the oppressive heat. He’d been sniffing a brownish patch of grass for at least five minutes and showed no signs of shifting his focus any time soon. Matilda wondered just how fragrant dead grass could be.
“Come Goliath,” Matilda urged with a gentle tug on the leash, but as usual, Goliath ignored her. Obedience was a concept so totally foreign to him that Matilda wondered how he’d ever become a champion show dog. If Howard hadn’t shown her the humongous silver cup Goliath had won, if he hadn’t made her hold and admire it, she never would have believed that Goliath was a champion.
Certainly, he had the appearance of a champion. Like most Great Danes, he was massive—at one hundred twenty-five pounds he outweighed Matilda, and his shoulder came up to her hip. Granted, her hip was only about three feet off the ground, but his size relative to hers made him seem all the larger. He had a regal bearing as well. In his deep brown eyes, Matilda could almost see several centuries of his breed’s history. By far, though, his most impressive feature was a thick, steel-colored coat. Goliath’s owner, Howard Monk, had proudly told her that Goliath was a perfect blue, the term for that color in the breeding and showing worlds. In the bright midday sun, Goliath’s sleek fur shone like a fresh coat of enamel paint.
Still, it took more than beauty to be a champion. Even Matilda, with her limited knowledge of and interest in dog shows, understood that. So how had wispy, frail-seeming Howard Monk commanded show-winning behavior from a dog who apparently didn’t even understand the basic command “sit”? Maybe Goliath just didn’t listen to women.
After an eternity of sniffing, Goliath discharged roughly two drops of urine on the intriguing patch of grass. Then he trotted to Matilda and butted her hand with his head, apparently requiring praise for his efforts.
“Good boy,” Matilda obliged. “Finally,” she muttered. They’d been outside for ten minutes, and this was the first business Goliath had tended to. She had no illusions that her time with Goliath would be easy, but it would certainly be lucrative.
Having recently fallen down his basement stairs, Howard, with a broken arm and fractured femur, would be wheelchair-bound for at least a month. (Matilda thought that a very optimistic diagnostic estimate—Howard looked like a giant wound.) He’d offered Matilda twenty dollars per walk, three walks a day, every day until he recovered. She’d quickly done the math and decided that Howard’s money would be a great boon to her business, Little Guys Pet Care, a small but steadily growing dog walking company on Chicago’s North Side. Now that she knew what she was in for with Goliath, though, she thought she’d use some of the money to buy herself a hard-earned treat. Maybe some new running shoes.
A few feet ahead of Matilda, Goliath released a torrent of urine on a single, drooping dandelion. He’d obviously found the perfect place to relieve himself, and Matilda hoped that meant he’d find complete relief before they returned to his home. Stunned, she watched as Goliath plopped down in a curbside garden and began rolling and wiggling his massive body, flinging dirt and clumps of greenery about the area and ruining some unfortunate gardener’s flower bed. He’s never going to poop, she thought, as she used treats to lure him from his floral playground.
At the end of the alley behind Goliath’s house, he finally took care of the rest of his business, waited only ten seconds for Matilda to clean it up, then bounded, in all defiance of the heat, to his yard. The rickety gate proved no challenge for a dog Goliath’s size, and Matilda doubted it would even hold a toddler back. Once in the yard, Goliath made his way to the back door.
In the short time Matilda had been walking Goliath, he’d always made it inside the house before her. Howard ordinarily parked his wheelchair at the kitchen door, keeping watch from inside, and as Goliath barreled through the yard, Howard would open the back door with the carved ebony walking stick he’d used before his accident. By the time Matilda entered the mercifully cool kitchen, Goliath would be devouring a bone that, by its appearance, came from a brontosaurus.
Today, though, Goliath sat on the deck whining and pawing pathetically at the door.
“What’s wrong, buddy? Did your dad forget?”
Goliath whimpered and hit the door with his giant paw once more.
“Maybe he fell asleep,” she offered as she reached for the door handle. Goliath ignored her and dashed inside, presumably for his dinosaur bone, but he barely glanced at it as he ran in search of Howard. The clamor of Goliath’s footfalls on the hardwood floor filled the air and apparently drowned out the sound of her voice as she called out for her client. “Howard? Mr. Monk?”
She followed the sound of Goliath in search of Howard from room to room, down the long hallway, past the bathroom and the stairs to the basement (the ones Howard had fallen down just a few days earlier), then through the dining room. She continued to yell his name as she moved through his house, and the longer she went without seeing or hearing Howard, the more time slowed, as if she was entering the slow-motion lead-up to a car crash.
In the living room, she stopped. Goliath’s long, low, sorrowful moan penetrated the mental and emotional miasma that had enveloped her since she entered the house, and she realized she had no idea how long Goliath had been crying.
“Howard?” she squeaked. Her voice, timid and childlike, seemed to come from somewhere outside of her, as if someone else had spoken in her voice.
On the floor in front of the fireplace, Howard lay in a thick, dark pool. His empty wheelchair sat behind him, just outside the widening ring of blood. Beside him lay his walking stick and Goliath’s dog show trophy, which looked like it had fallen from the mantel. Howard’s head was twisted to the side, and his unblinking eye seemed fixed upon Matilda. She saw a deep gash on the back of his head from which blood still flowed, and she knew without question that Howard Monk was dead.
Matilda sat at the top of the stairs to Howard’s front porch. Despite the great heat, her teeth chattered, and her body shivered uncontrollably. Someone, perhaps the officer who had escorted her outside and parked her on the porch, had covered her trembling shoulders with a fusty woolen blanket, but she had no memory of this happening. At her feet, Goliath lay whimpering and occasionally howling since the police had managed to coax the poor animal away from his owner’s body. He had blood on his front paws and nose. Matilda debated about wiping it off—her stomach churned at the thought of touching Howard’s blood, and the part of her brain that still functioned wondered if that would be considered evidence tampering. But when she heard Goliath’s moaning sigh, her heart broke for the poor creature. Overcoming her own revulsion, she reached down and wiped the blood away with a corner of the blanket, which she then dropped to the ground away from her and Goliath, and resumed her shivering.
Around them, uniformed police officers moved cautiously about the scene, but Matilda barely registered their presence. She couldn’t seem to focus, and when she closed her eyes all she saw was poor Howard sprawled out in his own blood. She felt that she’d stood above him, frozen, for hours, but it must have been only a few moments before the police had arrived. How they’d known about Howard’s death, Matilda couldn’t say. Her first call, as always in times of crisis, had been to her best friend, Gwendolyn.
Matilda had grown up in the same part of the city as Gwendolyn, but they hadn’t met until they worked together as lifeguards in high school. During their first summer at work, they’d formed a friendship that thrived even after the beaches closed. Over the years, challenges at school, family drama and issues with dating (and marriages for Gwendolyn) had solidified their bond. Their closeness was such that, although Gwendolyn detested being called by a nickname (and had even divorced her second husband in part because he called her Gwen), Matilda got away with calling her Dottie.
When Matilda had decided to start Little Guys, Dottie had helped her get the company off the ground, even wrangling clients from her circle of rich, dog-loving friends. In fact, it was Dottie who had introduced Matilda to Howard, so it had seemed like the most natural thing in the world for Matilda, when she’d been confronted with the harsh reality of Howard’s dead body, to call her best friend. She’d actually been on the phone with Dottie, asking her friend what to do, when the first uniformed officer arrived. Startled, Matilda had hung up on Dottie (an offense she’d pay for later), but after that she wasn’t sure what had happened. She tried to sort out her confusion, but instead of clarity, she thought only about the disturbing scene by the fireplace: Howard, his empty wheelchair, his blood, Goliath’s dog show trophy and the walking stick which, she realized with a start, must have been used to beat Howard to death. Matilda’s stomach revolted again.
“Excuse me!” Gwendolyn’s unusually sharp voice penetrated Matilda’s thoughts. “Officer Hernandez, is it? I assure you that I have no intention of compromising your precious crime scene. At this very moment, I can think of at least a hundred venues more appealing to me than the site of a murder investigation. Be that as it may, that wretched creature, that despondent wreck of a human being seated over there has called me to her aid, and I will not abandon her in her hour of need. Now, let me pass.”
Immobile and stunned, Officer Hernandez sputtered something about his superior officer.
“Dear boy, I would worry less about that and more about what the Superintendent will have to say after I speak with him. He just hates it when I’m unhappy,” Gwendolyn added with the pouty expression that had almost always gotten her whatever she wanted. Officer Hernandez shifted uncomfortably before Gwendolyn played her next card. “Of course, my close friend the mayor, who, incidentally, has tried everything to return to my good graces since he missed my fundraiser last month, might also be interested in your efforts to prevent me from providing much needed solace to that sad little girl withering on the porch.”
Gwendolyn smiled sweetly then strode elegantly past the flustered and dumbfounded Officer Hernandez and up the walkway to Matilda. From her Lanvin handbag, Dottie extracted a lacy handkerchief and spread it on the porch before seating herself beside Matilda. Shaking his head and muttering, Officer Hernandez attempted to turn his attention back to securing the crime scene, but for a few moments he simply stood at the edge of the sidewalk, mouth agape, looking cowed and a bit shell-shocked from his encounter with Gwendolyn Hunter.
Matilda understood his dumbfounded response to Dottie’s imposing presence. She’d seen it repeatedly. Even without the stylish but not even remotely comfortable-looking heels that she preferred, Dottie was taller than the average male and stunning, with strawberry blond hair, luminous hazel eyes, full lips and remarkable breasts—a gift from her first husband and the means by which she had met her second. Add to that her rich and occasionally breathy voice, and Dottie’s paralyzing effect on most men was a given.
On the porch, Dottie draped her arm around Matilda’s shoulders and drew her old friend close. “Maddie, sweetheart, what have you gotten yourself into?”
“Poor, poor Howard,” Maddie said.
The two women sat in silence until Maddie’s shivering subsided. “Have you contacted your second in command to let him know what’s happened?” Dottie asked.
Maddie’s head snapped up. “I can’t believe I didn’t even think of that. Oh, God. I don’t know how long I’ll be here. Someone needs to cover my walks. What if no one’s available, Dottie?”
“Not to worry, kitten. I’ll take care of everything.”
Undoubtedly grateful to remove her designer-clad body from Howard’s dusty porch, Dottie grabbed Maddie’s cell phone, glided in the direction of the still apprehensive Officer Hernandez and began clearing Maddie’s schedule.
“Patrick, doll, it’s Gwendolyn Hunter. How are you?” As Dottie’s voice trailed off, Maddie felt a momentary relief. Dottie and Patrick would make sure that all of Little Guys’ business was tended to. The police would find Howard’s killer. Somehow everything would work out.
Her peace of mind ended abruptly, however, when a gravelly male voice pronounced—or rather, mispronounced—her name. Like everyone, he read it phonetically rather than smashing the middle three letters together in a “D” sound.
“It’s ‘Smiddick,’” she offered before looking up into the face of the most perfect representation of a haggard detective she’d ever seen. His craggy face was a patchwork of wrinkles. What hair he had was short and gray, and his physique, stoop-shouldered and thick in the middle, indicated that life and work had worn down a once fit body.
“I’m Detective Fitzwilliam. I need to speak with you.”
After asking innumerable questions and issuing a warning about not leaving town, Fitzwilliam sent the two friends on their way. Maddie’s relief at being dismissed lasted only until she looked at Goliath. Still whimpering, he sat trembling beside the police officer who held his leash. The thought of abandoning him with strangers filled her with sadness, but looking at the stern faces of law enforcement milling about made her doubt that she could violate some police procedure or other and ask to take Goliath with her. She sincerely hoped that someone from Howard’s family or one of his friends had a safe, loving home to share with Goliath.
Even though Maddie lived just a few blocks from Howard’s house, and even though Dottie, under normal circumstances, refused to ride in Maddie’s Jeep (citing her lifelong disinterest in taking an urban safari), Dottie insisted on driving her friend home. “You are in no condition to drive,” she declared and plucked the keys to the Wrangler from Maddie’s hand before Maddie could protest.
In under five minutes, Dottie pulled into the garage behind Maddie’s home—a two-flat greystone that Maddie had, through incredible luck, purchased as a foreclosure. Mr. Smithwick, who had spent summers in college working construction and now owned his own contracting company, had helped Maddie fix the place up in the three years since she bought it. At times she’d doubted that they would stop finding problems that demanded their immediate attention so that they could finally make the place livable. As soon as they’d revived the ancient plumbing, the roof had sprung a leak. Then there were the terrifying electrical issues. By the time they’d started refinishing the floors, they had done so much to bring the building back from the dead that she had begun referring to her house as Lazarus, but by then, she and her father were determined to see the repairs through to the end. In time, they transformed old Lazarus into a beautiful, comfortable home. Father and daughter still saw a few areas for improvement (Maddie dreamed of someday replacing the original and considerably drafty windows), and they tackled various projects as free time and surplus income presented themselves. Last year Maddie had taken on a renter on the second floor to help pay for the improvements she and her father had yet to undertake.
“Sit,” Dottie commanded as she propelled Maddie into the living room. “I will take care of everything. Just relax and recover from your ordeal.” Dottie stooped to remove her friend’s shoes.
“I’m not sick, Dottie.” Maddie sighed and allowed her feet to be hoisted, less than delicately, onto the couch.
“Nonsense.” Dottie fluttered her hand in the air, as if swatting an insect. “We have been best friends for eons, and at your darkest hour, you called me to your aid. There must be something that you need from me. So tell me what I can do for you, buttercup, and then consider it done.”
Maddie sighed once more, knowing that it would be easier to make her friend feel useful than to convince her that she needed to provide nothing other than companionship. There would be no peace until Dottie had a task. “Since you ask, I’m sure Bart needs some relief. You can just let him go in the yard to do his business.”
“Say no more.” Dottie rose, strode to the back door and called to Maddie’s rescued mutt. “Bart, angel, Aunt Dottie is here to save you from your overburdened bladder.” From beneath his shaggy gray eyebrows, Bart threw a bemused glance Maddie’s way before trotting out the door.
Dottie stayed in the kitchen, presumably to wait for Bart to finish up, but as Maddie settled more comfortably into her appointed recovery station on the couch, she heard what sounded like the start of cocktail hour. At ten forty-two a.m. Glad to have something other than Howard’s death to focus on, Maddie listened as Dottie moved about the kitchen, opening and closing cabinet doors. She heard the musical tinkle of ice cubes hitting glass, the squeaky thunk of a stopper leaving a bottle and the delightful sound of some form of alcohol moving from bottle to glass. Then the back door opened again, and in a moment, Bart and Dottie both entered the living room.
“Drink.” Dottie thrust a tumbler of amber liquid in Maddie’s face. “And don’t argue.”
“Who’s arguing? I think, unconsciously, this might be the reason I called you and not my mother,” Maddie answered before taking a grateful swallow of bourbon. “She would have made me chamomile tea.”
“Not that I don’t appreciate a compliment—backhanded or otherwise—and not to downplay my own powerful presence, but perhaps Maureen Smithwick, Legal Eagle, might have been the wiser choice under these circumstances.”
“How so? I hate chamomile tea.”
“Precious,” Dottie huffed as she pulled Maddie forward to jam a throw pillow behind her back, “you’re a suspect.”
“What are you talking about? As usual, you’re overreacting.”
“I? Overreact? You wound me.”
“Gwendolyn,” Maddie grumbled in exasperation. She knew what was coming next, knew that nothing ever stopped Dottie when she decided she had to be protective, yet Maddie tried to deter her friend from acting on her behalf.
“Don’t ‘Gwendolyn’ me. That…officer,” she uttered the word as if its foul taste sat on her tongue, “grilled you for an eternity—”
“Or forty-five minutes in Normal People Land.”
“He practically took your mug shot there on the veranda.”
“Veranda?” Maddie muttered. “Never mind. He was just doing his job, Dottie. He questioned me as a witness, nothing more. Even if you’re right, he’s sure to figure out that I wouldn’t kill anyone. Don’t give the poor man a hard time.”
“His job, sugar pie, is to find Howard’s assassin, not to harass my friends.”
“Fine. You’re absolutely right. But if you distract him by butting in, it will just take him longer to eliminate me as a suspect. Please, Dottie, just let it go.”
Dottie folded her arms across her full chest and exhaled loudly and emphatically. “You may have a point. But if his plebian mind prevents him from seeing your innocence for long, I will not remain silent.”
“Thank you.” Maddie swallowed the remainder of her drink. “Now, will you please just sit with me?” she asked. “After you get us another round.”
“I’ll be back posthaste.”
Prompted by Dottie’s overactive imagination, Maddie’s mind wandered back to her experience with Detective Fitzwilliam. She’d thought his questions totally innocuous at the time, but were they? Questions about her affiliation with the victim (a term that chilled her) and about her movements during the time of the murder took on an ominous tone in her mind. At the time her biggest fear was that she hadn’t been very helpful—her working relationship with Howard had been so short that she didn’t know much about him. She didn’t even know what he did for a living.
Her favorite question—“Are you in the habit of calling your friend rather than the police in emergencies?”—had seemed merely in keeping with the detective’s gruff, sarcastic personality. Looking back, it seemed much more damning. Even her answer (that she had panicked and thought Dottie would know how to handle the situation) sounded incriminating now.
When Dottie returned with their beverages, Maddie slowly sipped her second drink, actually taking the time to enjoy the flavor of the bourbon as Dottie chattered about things normally uninteresting to Maddie. Today, they seemed fascinating. In the middle of an amusing anecdote about an ice sculpture at some vapid high society gathering, Maddie’s cell phone rang.
“It’s probably Patrick checking in,” she offered to Dottie as she grabbed the phone from the coffee table and glanced at the screen. “No, it’s my mother.”
“Good God! She knows!” Dottie’s exclamation was met with a strenuous eye roll from Maddie.
“Hi Mom,” Maddie answered then fell silent. As she listened to her mother, her face grew more ashen, her expression more concerned, until, finally, she hung up the phone.
“Are the police coming to arrest you?” Dottie, who could apparently no longer contain herself, exclaimed.
“No,” Maddie answered dolefully. “Granny’s in the hospital. She collapsed this morning. The doctors are running tests. They don’t know what’s wrong.”
“Oh honey,” Dottie answered as she folded Maddie in a firm embrace. “This is just not your day.”