by E.J. Cochrane
In the brief time since surviving her first foray into murder investigations, dog walker Matilda Smithwick has lost a girlfriend, inherited a spare house, taken on more business than she can reasonably handle in her current location, and sworn off any and all detective work. When her old friend and client Leigh Matthews begs Maddie to prove she’s innocent of the murder she seems to be the prime suspect for, Maddie has no choice but to return to amateur sleuthing.
Along the way to finding the real killer, Maddie comes up against Leigh’s hazy, alcohol-infused memory of events, the surly and unpleasant Detective Fitzwilliam and a list of potential suspects longer than most epic poems. Meanwhile, her best friend Dottie seems to be avoiding her (in favor of her irritatingly efficient new assistant), and an ex-lover returns to complicate Maddie’s life and her investigation.
Can Maddie stay focused long enough to clear Leigh’s name and stay out of danger?
Double Dog Dare is the second book in the Matilda Smithwick Mystery Series.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"In May of 2016, I took a road trip from Chicago to Baltimore with my sisters Jennie and Heidi. We were on a quest for nipples. Heidi had spent the last few years soundly defeating breast cancer, and 3D nipple tattoos were the final step in the reconstruction process. Though we had planned some events along our route (most of them beer-related), we had nothing to fill the long stretches of driving time except for conversation and satellite radio. And since there’s only so much of the best of 80s New Wave that any person can endure in a six-day period, we turned to what we called Murder Radio (essentially the audio of the television show Forensic Files).
I’m not certain how many miles we covered while listening to the grisly details of various homicides, but thanks to Murder Radio, by the time we passed through our third state, our talk turned to foul play and all the worst ways to die. And so, somewhere between Pennsylvania and Ohio, the ugly deaths at the core of Double Dog Dare came to be.
I was working on another book at the time, so it took over a year for me to fill the pages with Maddie, Dottie and Granny Doyle’s antics. Meanwhile, Heidi’s cancer came back. Twice. Sadly, she won’t be here to see the release of this, the final book on which I put her Professional Nag services to use, but Jennie and I are planning a road trip to Pittsburgh in July. Hopefully several hours in a car plus Murder Radio and some quality sister time will result in new adventures for Maddie, Dottie and Granny Doyle."
Lindsey stepped onto her balcony, lit a cigarette and watched, fascinated, as the plume of smoke she exhaled swirled in the breeze off the lake. She didn’t know why she continued to smoke outside. Habit, she supposed, but Terry wasn’t around anymore to complain about the smell, and the kids spent more and more time at their father’s house. It was a quiet she’d have to adjust to if Ray won the custody battle. He was such a bastard. Even after Terry died, he hadn’t relented. She needed time to grieve, but he refused to give her even the tiniest break from attorneys and courtrooms. If anything he seemed to be taking pleasure in her suffering, like her current anguish was some sort of payback for ending their marriage all those years ago.
She took one last drag off her cigarette before stubbing it out on the railing and flicking the butt onto the pavement twenty stories below. She hoped Mrs. Snodgrass, the old busybody next door, wasn’t hiding behind her curtains, watching Lindsey and waiting to witness her latest infraction of the rules. That woman lived to complain about her. She probably got a kickback from the management company for all the violations she reported. Lindsey groaned at the thought of another fine she couldn’t afford. On top of the endless legal fees and the astronomical rent she had no money for. Now that she didn’t have Terry’s income to depend on, she wondered how many corners she would have to cut if she wanted to hang on to this place.
She supposed she should go back inside to the emails she’d been slogging through before Leigh’s surprise visit. Not that she’d minded the interruption. Anything was better than dealing with the correspondence she’d neglected for the past two weeks, and Leigh was so eager to please these days. She felt momentarily guilty about moving on with her life so soon after Terry’s death, though it was less a betrayal than her infidelity in the weeks beforehand, and it could eliminate her financial worries. Still, her recent activities with Leigh might raise some eyebrows, especially with the police, and since they had talked to Old Lady Snodgrass (whose favorite pastimes were eavesdropping and gossip) at least once already, she needed to be careful. She didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. She had to be patient, at least for a little while longer.
She knew Leigh had never gotten over her, and if their reconciliation stayed on track, she would be taken care of. Leigh made good money, and that kind of security was worth the potential backlash over her truncated widowhood. She would lose this place, she realized with a twinge of sadness. Even lovesick Leigh couldn’t be convinced to pay for the home she and Terry had shared. Remembering that Terry had also shared this home with her ex mitigated her sorrow considerably. A fresh start would be good for her.
Thinking she should remind Leigh of the importance of discretion, she reached for her phone and sighed when she remembered that she’d left it in the bedroom. She stepped back inside but stopped short when she saw a familiar figure standing in her living room.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to check on you. I wanted to see how you’re handling your loss.”
“How did you get in?”
“The door wasn’t locked.”
She’d meant to lock up behind her earlier visitor but had decided to languish in bed instead, a choice she now regretted. “You can’t just barge into other people’s homes.”
“You’re not really in a position to make demands.”
The trespasser stepped closer, and she backed away, again wishing her phone was nearby.
“What do you want?” She feigned boldness, but it had no effect on her unwanted guest, who took another step forward. She now stood in the open door to the balcony.
“I want to give you a present.”
Reluctantly, she opened the manila envelope the intruder handed her. She read the typed note she found inside and gasped. “This is a suicide note. I’m not going to kill myself.”
“I can work around that.”
A surprisingly strong shove sent her back into the railing, and as she struggled to regain her balance, the note slipped from her hands, and a second, more forceful blow sent her tumbling twenty stories below.
Matilda Smithwick squinted in the bright sunlight streaming through her open Jeep. If not for her adopted Great Dane Goliath deciding that her sunglasses made a perfect chew toy (for the third time) she would have been fine, but thanks to his penchant for destroying protective lenses (which he always seemed to find, no matter where she hid them), she had decided to stop wasting money on them. Until she found an alternate way to shield her eyes from the sun or figured out how to turn his tastes to something more dog appropriate, she would have to squint and hope for the best.
Searing eye pain aside, Maddie had no complaints about the day. She didn’t know how, in late October, Chicago had been blessed with a sunny, sixty-five-degree day, but she would take it. Given the city’s contentious relationship with Mother Nature, by tomorrow Chicagoans could be buried under a foot of snow (making Maddie regret waiting to put the hard top on her car), but for now she would enjoy the remainder of the lingering fall.
Finding a rare parking space in the overcrowded neighborhood where Patrick Walker, her right-hand man and favorite employee lived, she pulled in and almost wished she would be there long enough to make this victory worth celebrating. But since she was in Lakeview only long enough to pick Patrick up, this minor and short-lived stroke of luck seemed more like a cosmic tease from whatever deity ruled parking in Chicago than an actual godsend.
“What are we in for today, boss?” Patrick asked as he hopped into the passenger seat and buckled up. He focused his blue eyes on her for a moment before sliding his sunglasses into place, causing Maddie to scowl briefly before leaving her glorious spot to the next recipient of the parking god’s benevolence.
“Honestly, I’m not sure.”
Maddie blew out a frustrated breath. She so didn’t want to be squandering this gorgeous Saturday (possibly the last one until June) on a fruitless mission for real estate. Considering her entire lack of success thus far, Patrick had graciously agreed to join her for the latest installment of the hunt for a larger space to accommodate Little Guys, her rapidly growing pet care business. And even though it was partly the fault of his marketing prowess that they needed more room, she still felt bad dragging him away from outdoor fun to help her find the potential in a musty abandoned building.
“I think this place used to be a bakery. Or maybe it was a bank. Harriet sent me all the information.” It looked exactly like the information on every place she had already rejected. “I don’t remember much. This is probably going to be a giant waste of your time.”
“Or it will be perfect.” Patrick’s optimism fell on deaf ears and not only because Maddie, who was trying to merge onto Lake Shore Drive, wasn’t fully listening to him.
So far, the whole endeavor had been an exercise in disappointment and frustration, and she suspected it was for Harriet, her older sister and real estate agent, as well. Over the last month and a half, Harriet had shown Maddie no fewer than twenty spaces, all of them adequate in size, decent in price and not too far from perfect in location. She really should have found something by now, but not one of the places she’d seen had been what Maddie wanted. She couldn’t explain it to her sister except to say that none of them felt right. She knew from the second she saw the exterior and a sinking feeling in her chest told her the building was all wrong, but she still let Harriet take her inside to do the realtor thing, hoping the interior would change her mind. That strategy had yet to work, but by the fifth rejected building, Maddie had made a game of counting her sister’s use of the word “nice” to describe their surroundings. If nothing else, it distracted her from her growing annoyance.
Harriet showed no signs of losing her patience (a skill Maddie suspected she’d honed during her years of dealing with the indecisive public), but that just made Maddie feel worse about her lack of eagerness. In truth, she should have felt more enthusiastic that her business had outgrown its current home (and if not for a fear of growing too big too fast and failing, she surely would have), but a small part of her wanted to ignore the demands of her burgeoning pet care empire and devote her weekends to regular life. Things like yardwork and laundry, tending to her dogs and visiting her grandmother. But not dating. She wondered if her life would ever be that uncomplicated again.
“Is Harriet handling your new house too?” Patrick asked.
Maddie clenched her jaw and nodded as she downshifted to accommodate the timid driver in front of her (who really should stick to side streets—or public transportation—if he wasn’t willing to keep up with the vigorous flow of traffic).
“How’s that going?”
“Well, I have a renter now.” Her answer sounded clipped and harsh to her own ears.
“You’re not happy about that? I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“What I want is to get rid of it, but I can’t.”
Not long ago, she, already a perfectly content homeowner, had inherited a house from her former client. Technically, Howard Monk had left his home to Goliath, his beloved (and rather disobedient) Great Dane, but since she had been the only one willing to take Goliath in after Howard’s brutal murder in his own living room, she was now the unhappy owner of a grisly murder site. She couldn’t sell it as long as Goliath lived, and she couldn’t afford to leave it sitting empty, but she had less than zero interest in taking up residence in the place where Howard had died.
“But given my limited options of living in a house where I stumbled upon a murder scene or moving Little Guys to said murder house or leasing it so someone who doesn’t mind the gruesome history, renting seems like the way to go. Renting to my best friend and largest source of torment, however, was not what I’d hoped for.”
“Ms. Hunter is your tenant? I thought she was strictly Lincoln Park.”
“She’s ‘grown tired of that element,’” Maddie explained in her best Dottie voice.
“She doesn’t object to living where her friend was killed?”
“According to her, Howard’s ghost will protect her as thanks for catching his killer.” Not that Dottie was the one who cracked the case, but the less recognition Maddie got for her naïve and foolhardy attempt at detective work, the better.
“I like Ms. Hunter a lot, but I can’t imagine being her landlord. That’s got to be, um, interesting.”
“So far she’s been quiet—a little too quiet if you ask me. I’ve tried checking in with her, but she hasn’t answered my texts or calls. I’m expecting an itemized list of her demands any second now.”
“You really think it will be that bad?”
Compared to her, Patrick had known Dottie for roughly a nanosecond, and he wouldn’t have to deal with her ridiculous requests, so of course he could indulge his hopefulness.
“I’m anticipating a stipulation for proper grass length or that she’ll want the whole house repainted by tomorrow in whatever colors are trending in interior design right now, or she’ll tell me her acute sense of smell can still detect traces of Howard’s blood so I’ll have to replace the floors.”
“Maybe she’ll surprise you.”
“She always does,” Maddie said as she slowed with the traffic approaching the end of Lake Shore Drive. “That’s what I’m worried about.”
She turned onto Sheridan Road and a block and a half later regretted her decision. Both northbound lanes had come to a complete standstill, a not uncommon occurrence on this short stretch of road between Lake Shore Drive and Rogers Park, the neighborhood where she lived and worked. Though it was too late to turn around, and she was too far from a side street to change course, she wasn’t worried yet. They’d been making great time, so she didn’t think they’d be late. Once the congestion—probably from some considerate driver trying to turn left right next to a moving truck parked in the right lane—cleared, they’d be on their way and meet Harriet with plenty of time to spare.
And then she heard the sirens.
“What now?” she muttered and waited for any indication they would start moving again soon.
“See anything?” Maddie asked Patrick, who stood on his seat trying to get an idea of what lay ahead of them. Almost a foot taller than Maddie, Patrick’s chances of getting an accurate visual far exceeded her own.
“One ambulance, a fire truck, at least four cop cars and absolutely nothing to indicate why they’re here.” He sank back into his seat, and apparently guided by his unflagging optimism about their chances of moving before Thanksgiving, refastened his seat belt.
“And not one of them can try directing traffic?” She sighed in exasperation.
She wasn’t one of the many Chicagoans who viewed the CPD as a mostly necessary evil. The majority of her interactions with the police had been positive (bordering on enjoyable if she focused on the day the stunning Officer Murphy had strolled into her living room), and she was intelligent enough to understand that the entire police force was greater than the sum of its few unsavory parts. At this particular moment, however, she cursed their refusal to do something—anything—to alleviate her suffering.
They’d been stuck for twenty minutes, Maddie watching her generous cushion of time slipping away all the while. The last time they moved was five minutes into their ordeal, when she (oddly proud of her progress) lurched forward half a foot. Since then there hadn’t even been cause to hope they would move again, and as the automotive impasse dragged on, she contemplated turning off her car. It didn’t look like they’d be getting anywhere anytime soon. Why waste the gas?
“Should you call your sister?”
“Probably.” Even if their path were cleared by every car in front of them magically disappearing in the next thirty seconds, they still had no chance of making their appointment on time. Admitting defeat, she groaned and reached for her phone.
Normally, she refused to touch her phone when driving. Nothing was so urgent that it couldn’t wait until she pulled over. And for all she knew, she currently sat in vehicular purgatory because some fool thought a call or text was more important than operating the two-ton machine at his disposal. In her present state, however, she was as good as parked. Where was the harm?
“She’s never going to let me live this down,” she grumbled as she waited for Harriet to pick up.
“I’m walking up to the building right now, and you’re ten minutes early. Do not give me grief about being late,” Harriet said by way of greeting.
“Considering that we’re not there yet and probably won’t be for at least half an hour, I wouldn’t dare give you a hard time.”
“What?” Harriet’s sharply barked response rang in her ear, and she imagined that her sister’s purposeful stride came to an abrupt halt as she processed this extraordinary information. “You can’t be late. You’re never late. You were even born early.”
“Only by a day.”
“Well, if not for the mysterious emergency blocking our path, we would be there already, waiting for you.”
“I have to call our sister. She should know about this, maybe start stockpiling canned goods and bottled water. The end times are here.”
“You’re hilarious. I’m ignoring you now, just so you know.”
“That won’t get you here any faster.”
“Anyway,” she set the conversation back on track, “I have no clue how long it’s going to take to get out of this mess. You don’t happen to have all afternoon to sit around waiting for us, do you?”
“I have about an hour before my next appointment. I could reschedule, but my client can be a little high maintenance.”
“Dottie?” She recalled that her best friend had hired Harriet to help her “throw off the yoke” of Lincoln Park.
“You said it, not me.”
“If she feels like you’re neglecting her, she’ll kill us both,” Maddie said. “I guess we should just reschedule.”
“Actually, now that I’m here looking at this place, I’m thinking we won’t need to.”
“That bad?” She was almost grateful the traffic jam had saved her from feigning interest in yet another not quite suitable piece of real estate.
“It’s just not very you.”
“Great. Wasn’t that the last vacant building in the neighborhood?”
“I may have one more space.” Harriet spoke cautiously.
“You’ve been holding out on me?” Her voice rose an octave. She attributed her excited tone both to surprise that she somehow hadn’t trudged through every abandoned structure on the North Side and relief at the probable end of her quest for property. This building, whatever it was, would almost certainly disappoint her like all its predecessors, and once that was established, she would postpone the search for new headquarters, possibly indefinitely.
“Well, it’s a bit of a fixer-upper.”
“You sold me my house and have been to it since.” Maddie had labored with her father for months to transform a long neglected graystone two-flat into a charming living space, one she took an extra helping of pride in, considering the effort she’d made to resuscitate it. “You know I’m not afraid of a fixer-upper.”
“It’s also a little…unorthodox.”
“Unless it’s a bomb shelter or in the center of the lake, I don’t care. I just want to find something so I can go back to my regular life.”
“Why? Is your laundry piling up?”
“You know I can hire a different realtor, right?” Of course, she would never fire Harriet, but the threat was the only leverage she had in the face of her big sister’s teasing.
“And you would regret it,” Harriet countered. “Call me if you ever get to leave your car,” she said after promising to arrange a showing of her latest architectural offering.
“Don’t hold your breath.”
“Good news.” She turned to Patrick and speaking more brightly than should have been possible when face to face with a wall of immobile vehicles, filled him in on the change of plans. “The rest of the afternoon is ours.”
“I guess I’ll work on my tan while we wait.” Seemingly unfazed by this turn of events (or anything ever), Patrick stretched his arms and let his unperturbed head fall back against the headrest. Maddie didn’t want to witness it, but she did wonder if anything ever shook his good mood.
When the cars ahead of them started creeping forward twenty-five minutes later, she allowed herself to feel a glimmer of hope. Little by little they inched toward the source of their protracted ordeal. Several drivers around her blasted their horns in pointless displays of their frustration, but she tried not to succumb further to her irritation. Honking, though it might feel good in the moment, wouldn’t get anyone out of there any faster, and she could already feel the dull throb of a fledgling headache. Besides which, it seemed obvious that someone was having a much worse afternoon than she was.
As a rule, she ignored the impulse to examine the scene of an accident as she passed by—they were called gapers’ blocks for a reason, and she refused to allow her curiosity to contribute to the delay. But when she and Patrick finally neared the end of the congestion and the source of their ordeal, her eyes scanned the area without her consent (or resistance). She instantly wished she’d had the willpower not to deviate from her normal conduct.
The ambulance and fire truck had left. She didn’t remember hearing any sirens, so she hoped this had been a disastrously situated but minor occurrence, at least as far as injuries were concerned. The next sight she took in, however, told her that her proximity to Patrick’s optimism had somehow clouded her judgment. A few cop cars remained on the side of the road and in the parking lot of one of the many high-rises along Sheridan. There in the entrance to the lot stood Detective Fitzwilliam—the surly cop who had readily dismissed Maddie’s input on Howard’s murder investigation—shaking his head and frowning.
In her minimal experience, this was standard for the detective. Though he’d shown a softer side when it came to animals, nothing else about his dour personality could be considered friendly, happy or positive, a morose outlook reflected in his current grim expression. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder how much of his obvious lack of cheer was habitual and how much was the result of whatever circumstances brought him here. She didn’t know what those circumstances were (though she acknowledged a hint of curiosity), but she knew as sure as Fitzwilliam stood there that she hadn’t just endured traffic hell because of a fender bender. Someone had died, and not from a collision.
Suddenly her impatience vanished, replaced by guilt over her own selfishness. How petty to wallow in aggravation over traffic and a missed appointment (one necessitated by her own success) when for someone life had just ended, and for that person’s family, a nightmare had just begun.
Not that all that guilt prevented her from rejoicing—in a subdued way—once they escaped the horde of testy drivers.
“Free at last,” Patrick whooped.
“And now I get to turn around and take you back home. Unless you want to let me buy you dinner.”
“As much as I want to get out of this car, we should probably head back while we have a chance.”
“I can’t believe you’re going to make me keep driving.” She longed for even the tiniest break from the driver’s seat. She was starting to hate her car, and if she didn’t get away from it soon, she would renounce driving forever.
“Sorry, boss, but what are the odds that we’ll have to sit through another hour-long traffic jam?”
“A lot higher now that you said that,” she grumbled and headed back toward his neighborhood.
As it turned out, the drive back to Patrick’s apartment was blessedly incident free, and aside from the usual trouble areas, she encountered almost no traffic (by Chicago standards). The whole trip took under forty minutes, and as she neared her home, visions of a relaxing evening with her dogs—a strong drink, a good book and maybe a bubble bath (if she could tire the dogs out enough that Goliath would allow her some privacy)—danced in her head. She wanted nothing more than to unwind for a while and then fall into bed.
Unfortunately, the universe hadn’t finished toying with her yet. There in front of her garage sat a tow truck, its flashing yellow lights sending the message that she would never get home, not as long as the burly gentleman chatting on his phone and not doing his job continued obstructing her path with his giant vehicle. He didn’t look like he’d be receptive to a friendly toot of her horn (not that she trusted herself to keep it friendly this late in her exasperating day), so she didn’t even bother trying to get past him.
“I quit,” she sighed, backing out of the alley and continuing to her street. So close to the peace and comfort she craved, she was forced to retreat and hunt for street parking, which she found two blocks away.
Trudging up the sidewalk in front of her house, she glanced up at the normally welcome sight and wanted to cry. There on her front steps sat Dr. Nadia Sheridan, the cause of her most recent broken heart. The adorable puppy at Nadia’s feet alternately chewed on her leash and barked at leaves (reminding her that she needed to devote part of her Sunday to yardwork). Although she’d been dreaming of nothing but getting home since the traffic jam that wouldn’t end, she now wished she was still trapped in a sea of unmoving cars.
Nadia looked up, locked eyes with her and smiled her irresistible lopsided smile.
“A perfect ending to a perfect day.” Maddie sighed and dragged herself the rest of the way home.