Special Feature/Excerpt: Paw of the Jungle (Paw Enforcement #8) by Diane Kelly

If there is a way to tempt me with a book, it’s to slap a dog on the front cover. I adore books that feature my favorite fury friends and this book was no exception.

I thought the cover was adorable and the series sounded fun and light. I love mysteries that incorporate animals but at times it’s admittedly hard to do animal detectives well.

Diane Kelly has clearly been doing something right as this is the 8th book in the series and it has a large fan base. I am thrilled to be able to bring a special sneak peak to all of my lovely readers today!

Summary

Police officer Megan Luz and her K-9 partner in crime, Brigit, are on all fours as they try to solve their latest Lone Star mystery.

AT THE ZOO
The weather is beautiful, work is slow, and her canine colleague could use a walk. What better day for Megan to take Brigit to the Fort Worth Zoo, where they can let loose and witness the law and order of nature unfold? But what begins as a fun field trip turns serious when a pair of rare hyacinth macaws named Fabiana and Fernando goes missing. Is the new custodian, a gentle soul who happens to be an ex-convict, to blame? Or is something far more sinister afoot?

AND ON THE HUNT
The birds are worth thousands of dollars, and the list of people on the premises who might have stolen them is long. Soon other animals start disappearing. . .and Megan and Brigit have their hands and paws full of suspects. But when a rare black rhino is taken from the zoo, presumably for its black-market-friendly horn, time is of the essence. Can Megan and Brigit find out who’s behind the mystery—before they too become prey? (summary from Goodreads).

Excerpt

ONE

SECOND CHANCES

The Poacher

Please say yes.

He knew it was dumb to cross his fingers, that the child- ish gesture wouldn’t change anything, but he needed any help he could get.

The man leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, sending a pointed look over his desk. “We’ve taken chances on ex-cons before. It hardly ever works out.” The guy’s words weren’t exactly encouraging, but he wouldn’t have offered an interview to a felon if they weren’t desperate to fill their openings. Besides, he’d said hardly ever, not never. How can I convince this guy to give me

the job?

“I got early release for good behavior,” the Poacher said. “I’ll do what I’m told. I just want to earn an honest living. I’m not the same man who—”

“Stole from his employers?” The man’s brows lifted, his forehead ridged like corrugated metal.

The Poacher’s gut tightened. He’d planned to say he wasn’t the same man who’d made those stupid mistakes years ago, but there was no point in arguing with the guy— especially when he was right. Even so, the Poacher had only been trying to provide for his family, to give them the things they needed and deserved. He hadn’t done it for himself. He wasn’t a bad guy. But trying to explain him- self or excuse his behavior wouldn’t get him anywhere.

“I learned my lesson,” he said, quickly adding “sir” even though the guy interviewing him was his own age or younger. “Look. I really need this job. I’ve got a wife and three kids to take care of.” Well, he had the three kids, anyway. Despite a dozen heartfelt proposals, Vicki had never agreed to make their relationship official. Maybe she’ll change her mind if I land this job. “I promise if you hire me, I’ll work hard and won’t give you any trouble.”

The man grunted, still not fully convinced. “The job requires working outside in all kinds of weather.”

“No problem.” After eighteen months in a concrete cage, it would be a treat to be outside, even in rain or sleet or wind.

The interviewer narrowed his eyes and cocked his head. “You willing to work weekends?”

The Poacher leaned forward earnestly. “Whatever you need. I’m your man.”

The guy sat back in his chair and released a slow, long, and loud breath. “All right,” he said finally. “You can start tomorrow. But one screwup and you’ll be out on your ass. Understand me?”

“Yes, sir.” For the first time in a year, his mouth spread in a sincere smile. Things are finally turning around. He stood and offered his hand across the table. “Thank you. You won’t be sorry.”

The man took his hand, but gave him a skeptical look in return. “We’ll see.”

Vicki’s narrow face wore that same skeptical expression when she opened the door of the tiny wood-frame house.

Seemed he’d been looking at skeptical faces all his life. Ugh. In addition to the cynical scowl, she wore skintight jeans, high-heeled ankle boots, and a V-neck sweater that revealed another V formed by her cleavage. Some had called her trashy, but the Poacher had always called her beautiful. His groin tightened at the sight of her lean curves, her baby-blue eyes, and those wild copper curls. It had been far too long since they’d been together. The state of Texas didn’t allow conjugal visits. Talk about your cruel punishments. He hadn’t realized when he’d been sentenced to a year and a half in the slammer that he’d also been sen- tenced to a case of blue balls. He wondered if another man had since been meeting Vicki’s needs. The thought made him want to punch the siding. But he knew he wouldn’t win her back if he got angry.

“Hey, babe.” His breath fogged in the winter air as he offered her a grin. Hell, it was the only thing he had to of- fer her. He’d been given a mere fifty dollars on his release from prison, and he’d spent most of that on the cab ride to get here. He leaned against the door frame, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops and crooking his arms to empha- size the biceps he’d developed in the prison gym. “I’m home.”

A spotted cat twined around her ankles as she eyed his new muscles. She put her cigarette to her lips and took a deep drag before shooting smoke out the side of her mouth. “How can you be home? You’ve never lived here.”

True. When he’d left for prison, they’d been sharing a tiny two-bedroom apartment a couple miles away.

“Besides,” she added, “that’s my decision. Not yours.” She had a point. This house belonged to her. She’d somehow managed to save enough of her tip money to put a down payment on the place and convince a bank to give her a mortgage. He’d never been able to save a penny, and there was no way he’d qualify for a loan. His credit score approximated his IQ. They’d even had to put his pickup truck in her name. The car dealer wouldn’t have sold it to him otherwise. The truck was parked in her driveway now. She hung on to my truck. That says something, don’t it?

“I missed you,” he said softly, locking his gaze on hers. “You were the first thing I thought about when I woke up every morning and the last thing I thought about when I fell asleep every night.” In between, he was mostly think- ing of ways he could avoid getting the shit beat out of him . . . or worse. “I counted each second until I could see you again. It was the only thing that kept me going.” He ran his gaze down her sweater and jeans to her boots, and back up again. “Is it my imagination, or did you get even sexier while I was locked up?”

She softened ever so slightly at his sweet talk, the change perceptible only to one who knew her so well. Tak- ing a chance, he took a step toward her. She turned her head away. He recognized the gesture. It meant she was giving in, but felt ashamed of herself for it. He reached out to touch her hair but she moved like a ninja, raising her arm to block his hand. Ashes fell from her cigarette to the porch. She dropped her cigarette after them, grinding out the butt with her heel.

“Come on, Vicki,” he pleaded. “Let me come in. It’s cold out here.”

She crossed her arms over her chest, making no move to let him past. “You’ve brought me nothing but trouble. Give me one good reason why I should let you in.”

“Because I love you,” he said. “I bet you still love me, too.”

She rolled her eyes. “Been there, done that. All it got me was heartache. You’re gonna have to come up with a better reason for me to let you back into our lives.”

Our lives? A hot spark flared in him. Their children were as much his as they were hers. Despite that fact, she hadn’t once brought them to see him in prison during the year and a half he’d spent inside. But now that he was out, he could enforce visitation if he had to. Still, no sense get- ting her all riled up. “I’ve got a job.” He’d been taught some job skills in prison, ones that would help him stay on the straight and narrow. “They’re starting me tomorrow. I’ll be able to pay you that back child support I owe you.” Eventually.

She issued a derisive huff. “I’ve heard this story before.

It always ends in you getting fired.”

“Not this time!” He closed his eyes and took a breath to calm himself. When he opened his eyes, he said, “I’m going to work hard, make something of myself. Take care of you and the kids.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

A sweet little voice came from behind him. “Daddy?” He turned to see the yellow school bus rolling off down the side street and his seven-year-old daughter standing on the cracked sidewalk. She wore a puffy white jacket with black sleeves. Black ears stood up from the hood, which featured the face of a panda bear. Pandas had always been her favorite animals. Her hands gripped the front straps of the backpack slung over her shoulders. His heart soared. He knew a father wasn’t supposed to play favorites, but he couldn’t help it. He loved his two little boys, but Harper, his firstborn, had always been his pride and joy, a daddy’s girl through and through.

When she realized the man on her porch was, in fact, her father, her lips curled up in a smile that revealed a big gap between her teeth. When he’d last seen her, she’d still had all her baby teeth, and both she and her hair were several inches shorter. He’d missed out on a big part of her life, another gap for the two of them. I’ll die before I let that happen again.

“Hey, squirt!” He bent down and stretched out his arms. She ran full speed right at him, her backpack slapping against her small shoulders. She nearly knocked him over as she hurled herself into his arms, but he wouldn’t have minded if she’d broken every bone in his body. His heart filled with so much emotion it was a wonder it didn’t ex- plode. The overwhelming emotion was joy, but regret was

in the mix, too.

“I missed you so much,” he said into her hair, his voice breaking. He’d really messed things up last time. But when he’d been released, he’d vowed to be the kind of father his children needed, the kind they deserved. Seeing his pre- cious daughter only made him more determined to get things right this time.

She tried to push him back and get a look at his face. “Are you crying, Daddy?”

“’Course not.” He was, but he didn’t want Vicki to know. She’d already made him feel like half a man. He discreetly turned his head, wiping his tears on the hood of his daughter’s black-and-white coat. “How was school?” “Good!” She eased out of her backpack and unzipped

it, reaching in to retrieve a piece of wide-lined notebook paper and thrusting it in his face. “Look! I got a hundred on my spelling test.”

He took the paper. The list included some difficult words for a seven-year-old. “Because.” “Caught.” “Bright.” That last word certainly described his daughter. Although he’d like to think otherwise, he was smart enough to know she didn’t get her brains from him. He’d never done well in school, even when he tried. His father had always said he’d been born stupid and had only grown stupider since. As if that man were some kind of Einstein.

Harper blinked her hazel eyes. At least she got some- thing from me. “You done good,” he told her. “Made me and your mama proud.”

She beamed. “I made this, too.”

She pulled another paper from her backpack, this one green construction paper cut in the shape of a Christmas tree. Gold glitter drifted down to the porch like fairy dust. Harper must’ve used a whole jar of the stuff on her pic- ture. The tree featured a bunch of plastic beads, too, strung on yarn to resemble lights. She’d written her name on the back, adding a curl to the tail on the letter p as she’d done since she first learned to write in kindergarten. She said the curl made the letter prettier, and that it wasn’t fair for the lower-case g, j, and q to get a curl but not the p. Luck- ily for Harper, the teachers didn’t seem to mind.

“Come on, Daddy.” Harper grabbed his hand and pulled

him inside. “Let’s hang them on the fridge.”

Vicki frowned as they squeezed past her, but made no attempt to stop them.

He glanced around as his baby girl led him into the liv- ing room. The place was a cluttered but comfortable home. The scent of cigarettes and the morning’s cinnamon toast hung in the air. A space heater whirred in the cor- ner, warming the small den. Cheap secondhand furniture filled the room, mismatched but functional. He recognized most of it from their old apartment. A playpen sat in the corner, blankets and teethers strewn about inside. Toys in all shapes and sizes littered the scratched hardwood floors. He knew instantly which ones were Harper’s—the stuffed animals, the plastic barn complete with a set of farm ani- mals, the collectible horses.

Harper hung her backpack on a hook by the front door. As she pushed back the hood of her jacket, static electricity caused some of the shiny strands of her red hair to stick up in gravity-defying wisps. She unzipped her jacket, slid it off, and hung that on the hook, too. She’d always fol- lowed the rules, seen the world in black-and-white, just like the colors of the panda on her coat. She turned to him. “Are you going to live here, Daddy?”

He cut a glance at Vicki. Her expression said she still hadn’t made up her mind, but if anyone could convince her to let him stay it was their daughter.

“That’s up to your mother,” he said.

Vicki’s expression turned sour and she cut him an icy glare. “Thanks a lot. Now I’ll be the bad guy if I say no.”

He flashed his most charming smile. “Then don’t say no.”

“Pleeeeease, Mommy!” begged their daughter, tugging on Vicki’s sweatshirt. “Please let Daddy stay with us!” She turned to him. “You’re gonna be good this time. Right, Daddy?”

A lump of emotion clogged his throat. He gave his girl a single but definitive nod. Yes. I’ll be good this time if it kills me.

Vicki looked from him down to the little girl at her waist. “All right,” she said finally. She returned her gaze to him. “But you can only stay if you pay half the mort- gage and bills, and you’ve got to pick up your truck pay- ments. You owe me for the ones I paid while you were gone, too. And you’re sleeping on the floor in the boys’ room.”

“Fair enough.” He kept a straight face, but on the in- side he knew he had her. I’ll be back in her bed in no time.

 TWO

BLUES AND GRAYS

Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz

It was a crisp Wednesday morning in mid-December when a shrill sound stabbed into my brain. Bleep-bleep-bleep.

I reached over to the bedside table and slapped blindly at my phone until my fingers found the button to turn off the alarm. Getting up before the sun is unnatural. My eyes were still closed, but my mind slowly cleared from the fog of sleep, discerning a warm body stretched along my left leg, a furry head draped over my thigh. Brigit was taking full advantage of my body heat. When the two of us were at work, the enormous shepherd was my partner and a highly skilled tool for sniffing out illegal drugs, trailing suspects, and taking down criminals. But when we were at home, she was my playmate, my cuddle buddy, my Briggie Boo-Boo. I reached down and ruffled the dog’s ears. “Good morning, girl.”

Seeming to know the alarm meant I should be getting up, the calico cat who belonged to my roommate leaped up onto the bed and landed on my bladder like a furry kettle bell. Oof! Nothing like a sucker punch to the gut to open your eyes. As I scowled down at Zoe, she proceeded to stroll up my ribs and stopped to stand on my right breast.

Ow. She locked her laserlike feline gaze on mine. Real- izing she had my full, if irritated, attention, she placed her breakfast order. Meow.

“Fish breath.”

Ignoring my insult, she hopped down from the bed and waltzed to the bedroom door, glancing back to make sure I was moving. Bossy cat. As I sat up in bed, Brigit stretched her legs out straight, working out the kinks in her muscles. She slid off the bed and onto the floor where she shook herself fully awake, her tags jingling like Christmas bells. I climbed out of bed, tiptoed into the hall, and took a peek into Frankie’s room. Sure enough, she was fast asleep, the covers pulled up high around her face, the spiky points of her blue hair sticking out above them. Frankie had come off a twenty-four-hour shift at the fire station at four o’clock yesterday afternoon and followed it up with an evening of roller derby practice. Two physically and mentally exhaust- ing activities. Can’t say that I blamed her for sleeping in. I set about feeding the animals and myself, showered, and slipped into my Fort Worth police uniform. I wound my long, dark hair up into a tight bun on the back of my head, slapped on a quick coat of mascara and lip gloss, and performed a quick mental rundown to make sure I had all of my gear. Gun? Check. Baton? Check. Radio? Check.

Partner? I looked around. Where is that dog?

I found Brigit on her back on the living room rug, wrig- gling around playfully as Zoe swatted at her tail.

“C’mon, girl,” I called to Brigit. “Duty calls.”

She deftly leveraged herself to her feet and trotted over so I could attach her lead. Partner? Check.

Of all my tools, Brigit was by far the most useful. While I had to rely on my eyes and ears when searching for a sus- pect who’d fled or hid, she had a top-notch nose at her disposal. That skilled snout made her instrumental in finding contraband narcotics, too. No more time-sucking car searches for me. Brigit could sniff out drugs in mere sec- onds. She could also run faster and farther than me, and take down large suspects that, admittedly, the thought of wrangling with scared me to death. Since partnering with her, my arrest statistics had gone through the roof. Though she deserved the lion’s share of the credit, I received the bulk of the pay, including a small additional stipend for her care. She didn’t seem to mind that she never got a raise. She wasn’t in the law enforcement game for the glory. She was in it for the liver treats.

I slid into my jacket and gloves, and out the door we went. Another day, another dollar. Also another day closer to making detective, which was my ultimate goal.

As we headed down the porch, my boyfriend Seth pulled up to the curb in his seventies-era blue Nova com- plete with flames painted down the sides and a license plate that read kaboom. Seth worked as a firefighter. In fact, he was the one who had initially interested my room- mate in joining the department. He also served on the city’s bomb squad along with his K-9 partner, Blast, who was trained to detect explosives. Blast stood on the back- seat, looking out the window. When he spotted Brigit, his tail began to whip back and forth. The yellow Lab had an incurable crush on my partner. But who could blame him? She was smart and fun, with beautiful big brown eyes and lots of shiny fur. She could even be sweet when she wanted to be.

Seth parked and climbed out of his car. “Glad I caught you!” he called, his breath visible in the frigid air. Seth stood five feet ten and sported broad, muscular shoulders formed from countless laps swimming the butterfly stroke at the local YMCA. A former explosives ordnance specialist in the army, he continued to serve in the reserves and kept his blond hair shorn short in regulation. He had gorgeous green eyes and a manly army eagle tattoo that spanned his back and those aforementioned strong shoulders.

He turned back to reach for something inside his car and, as I approached, held a large cardboard coffee cup out to me. Steam wafted through the tiny hole in the lid.

I gave him a smile as I took the cup. What a thoughtful gesture. “This is a nice surprise.”

“Thought you could use a hot drink this morning.” He quirked his brows. “’Course I’d rather keep you warm an- other way.”

“I bet you would.” I bet I’d enjoy every minute of it, too. Though we didn’t officially live together, Seth kept clothes, a toothbrush, and a razor at my place. He also stayed here on most of the nights when my roommate was gone, and he and I were both off work. Otherwise, he lived in a patch- work house in east Fort Worth with his mother and grand- father, a surly Vietnam veteran named Ollie. Still, Ollie had been noticeably less surly since I’d introduced him to Beverly, a burglary victim I’d met on an earlier case. Noth- ing can change a man like the love of a good woman.

I took a sip of the luscious latte and moaned in bliss. Seth groaned in return. “You trying to torture me?”

I gave him a coy smile. “How was your shift?” While working as a police officer and firefighter had distinct dif- ferences, all first-responder jobs shared some similarities. Long periods of downtime broken by bursts of frenetic ac- tion. Dealing with people in highly emotional situations. A tight bond with coworkers who had your back and, like yourself, put their lives on the line each day.

“A day-care van caught fire on Rosedale this morning,” he said. “Luckily all the kids got out and there were only minor injuries. Alex had put a box of colored bandages in the ambulance. It was a great idea. Even the kids who weren’t hurt wanted one.”

“Alex?” Because Seth’s station sat within my beat, we covered the same general area and I’d met all of the fire- fighters and paramedics assigned to his station at one time or another. I didn’t remember an Alex.

“New paramedic,” he replied. “Started a few days ago.” I made a mental note to stop by the station and intro- duce myself. “Gotta go or we’ll be late.” I leaned in and gave Seth a kiss that was nearly as warm as the latte. Let the neighbors gawk and talk.

When I stepped back, he said, “I’m off the next two days. Why don’t I come by tonight? We could watch some TV, maybe order a pizza.”

“Sounds good.”

Brigit let out a bark to let us know pizza sounded good to her, too. Woof!

A half hour later, I downed the last of the latte as Bri- git and I cruised our beat in our specially equipped K-9 cruiser. The vehicle had the standard equipment in front— laptop stand, radio, dashboard-mounted camera. But, rather than the usual backseat, a carpeted platform spanned the space, enclosed by metal safety mesh. I’d added a comfy cushion for Brigit to lie on, as well as an assortment of chew toys to keep her occupied during the dull downtime. Now that the weather had grown colder, I’d added a fleece blanket to keep her cozy. With the blanket and toys strewn about, her enclosure resembled a child’s playpen.

As we meandered about our beat, waiting for a call to come across the radio, my mind pondered the irony of law enforcement driving black-and-white vehicles when the situations we dealt with every day were rarely clear-cut black-and-white, but varying shades of gray. Depending on a suspect’s mental state or abilities, the accused could be guilty of a crime or found innocent. Sometimes people did illegal things for good reasons, such as speeding to the emergency clinic with a passenger suffering a serious asthma attack. Or they violated the law, but prosecuting them would do no good for anyone, such as when two other- wise friendly neighbors get in a minor shoving match at a backyard barbecue after a few too many beers. Shake it off and shake hands, guys. People loitered about on occasion for no other reason than that they had no other place to go, or simply needed to stop and think. Though we liked to think of police work as a game of the good guys versus the bad guys, the concept of good and bad could be quite fluid. Whoa. All that caffeine had me feeling philosophical, huh?

Of course Brigit’s world was more black-and-white than mine, though not entirely so.

All dogs relied more on their noses than they did their eyes, especially dogs like Brigit who were trained to scent for drugs or lawbreakers who’d fled or were hiding. Still, it was a myth that dogs were color-blind. As I’d learned in my K-9 handler training, their color spectrum was more limited, given that their eyes had only two types of cones while human eyes had three. Their range included yellows and blues, but, thanks to evolution, filtered out common background colors like greens and browns to make other objects, such as their prey or predators, stand out more readily. And, despite their limited color range, canine eyes had much better night vision and could detect movement much better than the human eye.

My radio came to life. “Report of a fender-bender at Pennsylvania and Hemphill. Who can respond?”

I grabbed my mic from the dash and pressed the but- ton. “Officer Luz and Brigit responding.”

The wreck was resolved in twenty minutes, both vehicles dented but functioning, no tow trucks required. I issued a citation to the driver with the crumpled hood, who, according to witnesses, was looking down at her cell phone and failed to stop in time. The remainder of the morning was spent sending truant teens back to class at Paschal High School, issuing a speeding ticket to a college student near the TCU campus, and unsuccessfully scouring the area around the Shoppes at Chisholm Trail for a shoplifter who’d run off in a brand-new pair of sneakers when security had spotted her slipping her own worn shoes into the box to leave behind.

Around one o’clock, the outdoor temperature had risen

to nearly sixty degrees and my butt had grown numb from sitting in my seat. Time to get out of the cruiser and get moving. I cast a glance at Brigit in my rearview mirror. “Want to walk the zoo?”

On hearing two of her favorite words, Brigit’s ears perked up and she issued an excited arf-arf!

Minutes later, we were making our way inside. One of the perks of patrolling this beat was free admission to the zoo while we were on duty. I raised a hand in greeting to the ticket seller, a sixtyish black woman named Janelle whom I’d introduced myself and Brigit to a few months back. Janelle wore a broad smile and a yellow knit hat to keep her head warm.

“Back again?” she called through the open circle cut out of the glass in her booth.

“Brigit insisted. It’s her favorite place to patrol.” Still, the worst offense I’d witnessed on the premises was when one bonobo stole a piece of fruit from another while the latter turned his head.

“You two have fun!” Janelle called after us. “Thanks!” I called back. “We will!”

I let Brigit take the lead, determining where we’d go and what we’d see today. While we walked, I spun my night- stick. I’d been a twirler in my high school band, and old habits never die, right? Besides, I found the motion and sound soothing. Swish-swish-swish.

My partner strolled past the giraffes and gorillas, stop- ping when we reached the red wolf exhibit. As I’d learned from a zookeeper on an earlier visit, the wolves were critically endangered after being mistakenly blamed for kill- ing livestock and slaughtered indiscriminately. Brigit stared into the exhibit, making eye contact with a wolf lying under a tree. She issued a soft whimper, as if sympathizing with their plight.

As we meandered about, it dawned on me that, like my police cruiser, many of the animals here were black-and- white. The zebras, of course. The white tiger. The aptly named eastern black-and-white colobus monkey. The rock- hopper penguin and Andean condor. The zoo even had a fish called the “convict tang” that was white with four black vertical stripes.

We soon found ourselves at the black rhino exhibit. Ac- cording to an informational sign, black rhinos were critically endangered, like the red wolves, but for a different reason. Some cultures wrongfully believed rhino horn had medicinal qualities or served as a powerful aphrodisiac, fueling demand for horns. If it takes ground-up animal parts to make someone horny, maybe they should look for a partner they’re more attracted to or just read a darn book instead. The placard noted the black rhino population, once widespread and numerous in southern Africa, had decreased to a mere 3 percent of its 1970 level by 1992, nearing extinction. Due to the scarcity of the animals, their horns were more valuable than gold. Though attempts had been made to protect the animals, brutal poachers routinely killed the animals for their horns, sometimes murdering park rangers, as well. The sign noted that the loss of habitat to agriculture played a role, too, and conservationists realized too late that more of their focus should have been on preserving the habitats. When an ecosystem was disrupted and the only specimens of a species were in captivity, there was little chance the creatures could be returned to their native lands.

A thirtyish white man in a long-sleeved green T-shirt, khaki pants, and a safari-style vest worked inside the en- closure, while a zookeeper kept an eye on the rhinos lounging on the other side of their pen. This buddy system was a wise arrangement. A few years back, the zoo had been cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for safety violations after a zoo worker was injured by an elephant tusk. The practice of “free contact,” in which there were no barriers between zookeepers and animals, could be controversial. No problems today, fortunately. Though rhinos could be extremely dangerous in the wild, these enormous beasts paid the man and the overseer little mind, accustomed to humans in their environment.

While one of my duties as Brigit’s handler was to clean up after her, the droppings she produced were tiny com- pared to the cantaloupe-sized rhino poops. It was no wonder the man’s well-developed biceps strained the fabric of his sleeves as he used a flat, wide shovel to scoop the piles of excrement into a rolling bin lined with a plastic garbage bag.

Brigit looked up at me and issued a soft woof. Looked like she needed a potty break of her own. I led her over to a landscaped area where she crouched and did her business. I tugged a biodegradable bag from the dispenser on my belt and used it to retrieve the mess. As I was tying the bag closed, a gate opened and the man in the green shirt emerged, pushing the rolling bin. The name tag attached to his vest identified him as Danny L.

I smiled at the man and raised my bag. “Looks like your job description and mine have some overlap.”

He chuckled. “I’ve learned more about animal dung on this job than I ever wanted to know. At least the rhinos poop in one spot. Makes it easier to clean up.”

As I’d learned from the informational display at the exhibit, the rhinos’ communal dung piles were called “mid- dens.” The display also noted that the dung contained chemicals that rhinos could read, telling them the age, health, sex, and reproductive status of other rhinos in the area. Rhinos sniffed the dung piles for the same reasons dogs sniffed each other’s rears, fire hydrants, and light poles used as common urination spots. Though I some- times envied Brigit’s heightened senses, I was glad that, as a human, I could refrain from such sniffing. If I wanted to know someone’s age and status, I could read their Face- book profile.

“Need someplace to ditch that bag?” When the custodian raised a palm to indicate his bin, my eyes spotted a small tattoo below his thumb—five dots configured like the five sides on dice, with four dots in a square and one in the middle. The tattoo was a common prison tattoo. The shape was symbolic, the center dot representing an inmate trapped inside four walls. Most likely, the tattoo had been applied using a sewing needle or paper clip. The ink had probably been drained from a ballpoint pen. Not exactly hygienic.

I wondered what he’d been in for. It couldn’t have been a violent crime or he would never have been hired here, where he’d have contact with the public. Drugs, maybe? Some kind of theft? Those were the most common nonviolent

crimes. But whatever he’d done in the past, I was glad the guy had found work now, been given a second chance. If he was smart, he’d make the most of it, stay out of trouble. Recidivism rates for convicts with steady jobs were signifi- cantly lower than for the unemployed. Unfortunately, unskilled, convicted felons had an uphill battle finding legitimate work. Many employers assumed they’d be unre- liable and untrustworthy. Studies showed this assumption was incorrect. Offenders, especially those under supervi- sion, tended to be more productive than the average worker, especially when maintaining employment was a condition of their early release. Employers who hired ex-cons also re- ported lower turnover rates, which helped their bottom lines. Many who’d done time did whatever it took not to re- turn to the clink. I’d visited prisons myself. They were far from pleasant places.

To reduce recidivism, prisons offered work-training

programs ranging from custodial work to information technology. They also taught barbering, cooking, plumb- ing, HVAC installation and repair, welding, and other con- struction trades. Heck, there were even programs for animal training, with convicts taught how to train horses and dogs. Given the bias against former inmates, civil rights advocates were pushing “Ban the Box” or “Fair Chance” legislation to preclude employers from asking on job applications whether an applicant had a criminal rec- ord. Eleven states had adopted such laws. Texas, which prided itself on being tough on crime, was not among them. Ironically, the tough-on-crime pride didn’t extend to sexual violence. The state had a huge backlog of un- tested rape kits. Rather than pony up the money to test this critical evidence and take violent offenders off the streets, the legislature voted to allow residents to make a donation for this purpose when renewing their driver’s licenses, essentially a GoFundMe program with no guar- antee of raising a single dime. Frankly, I thought the legis- lature should go “fund” itself for showing so little regard for victims.

My curiosity got the best of me. Besides, part of com- munity policing was getting to know the people on my beat. The more I knew, the better I could do my job. “What were you in for?” I asked the man.

His cheeks reddened with what I assumed was shame. “Felony theft. I used to be an orderly at the children’s hos- pital. One of the nurses caught me taking diapers and baby formula from a supply room. My kid needed the stuff and I couldn’t afford it on my pay.”

Per the Texas Penal Code, felony theft involved prop- erty valued between $1,500 and $20,000, and carried a penalty range of 180 days to two years in prison and a fine up to $10,000. Not the worst crime a person could commit.

His eyes narrowed. “How’d you know I did time?”

I gestured to his hand. “The tattoo is a dead giveaway.”

He looked down at the tattoo and frowned. “I should get that thing removed.”

“First offense?” I asked.

“First and last. I got no interest in going back to jail.” “Don’t blame you.” I cocked my head. “I’m surprised

your sentence wasn’t probated.” Many first-time offenders were placed under supervision rather than incarcerated. Under the circumstances, it seemed a judge might go easy on him.

He shrugged. “I’d confessed to the cops. The prosecu- tor made a big deal about me stealing from a kids’ hospi- tal. Said it was heartless. I had a lousy defense attorney, too.”

Most court-appointed attorneys did a competent job, but they were paid poorly. Some took on excessive caseloads to make ends meet and didn’t have time to fully prepare each case for court. My heart squirmed in my chest. Sure, the guy had broken the law, but his reasons for doing so weren’t selfish or hateful. He’d done it out of desperation. This situation was another instance of the gray areas we in law enforcement confronted constantly.

My mind went to Jean Valjean of Les Misérables, a man forced to work on a chain gang after stealing bread to feed his starving nephew. After living as a pariah due to his status as an ex-con, Valjean assumed a fictitious identity and spent the rest of his life attempting to live honorably— not easy when he was constantly pursued by police In- spector Javert, intent on sending Valjean back to prison. I hoped Danny L. would attempt to live honorably, too, though he might find it harder given he couldn’t hide behind a fake persona like the hero of the Broadway musical.

I fished a business card out of the breast pocket of my uniform and held it out to him. “We’ve got a shared inter- est in your success. If there’s ever anything I can do, let me know.”

His expression was equal parts surprised and dubious as he took the card, read it over, and slid it into the back pocket of his pants.

Brigit lifted her head to scent the garbage can as I tossed her small bag of poop into the bin. “Thanks.” I raised my hand in good-bye to the custodian. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Brigit and I walked around for another fifteen minutes. We passed the Nubian ibex, a type of large mountain goat with a long beard and huge, curved horns. We also passed the more delicate-looking springboks, antelopes with dis- tinguishing white faces and bellies, and two small horns that curved toward each other, like a lyre. The springboks came by their names honestly, able to leap several feet into the air in a move called “pronking” intended to distract predators.

When we left the springboks, Brigit stopped to watch errant squirrels scurry about in the bushes, making a last- minute attempt to gather acorns for winter. You’d think the dog would have had enough of squirrels with the dozen or so that constantly skittered around our backyard.

After a minute or two, I urged her to move on. “Let’s go, girl. Squirrels are boring.”

Brigit gave me a look that said she wholeheartedly dis- agreed with my assessment of the entertainment value of squirrels. Nonetheless, she left them to their nut gathering. As we approached the exit, my shoulder-mounted ra- dio crackled to life, dispatch looking for an officer to handle a theft of jewelry from a residence in the adjacent Berkeley Place neighborhood. I pressed the button. “Officer Luz and Brigit responding.”

Brigit looked up at me, her eyes bright with anticipa- tion. She seemed to know that my response meant we might see some action. Brigit loved her job, lived to trail and chase suspects. I, on the other hand, was working as a beat cop only until I had four years under my belt and could apply for a detective position. Depending on the par- ticular shift, working patrol could be either incredibly slow and boring or extremely fast and frightening. To para- phrase Forrest Gump, police work was like a box of chocolates. You were sure to encounter some nuts, and things could get sticky and messy. You had to learn to stomach quite a bit to avoid getting sick.

We hurried out to the lot and I opened the back door of our cruiser. “In you go, girl.”

Brigit hopped up onto her platform. I closed her door, slid into my seat, and off we went.

Guided by my GPS, I drove to the victim’s house, pull- ing to the curb in front of it. While many of the houses in the exclusive Berkeley Place neighborhood were well kept but decades old, this house was more recently constructed, its predecessor having been razed. The home was a single- story ivory stucco, featuring a heavy wooden front door and rustic shutters in a dark finish. The diminutive bushes that lined the front bed had not yet had time to spread and fill the space, giving the house a spare look.

Brigit and I made our way to the door. I knocked and the door was promptly answered by an attractive Asian woman in her early thirties, only a few years older than me. The woman’s dark hair was worn in a low side pony- tail that draped forward over her thin shoulder. She wore sneakers along with a long-sleeved black T-shirt and a pair of teal exercise pants bearing the Lululemon logo. Cute pants. Too bad I’d never be able to afford designer athletic clothes on a cop’s salary.

In her arms was a male Shiba Inu, a smaller breed of curly-tailed spitz that had recently grown in popularity. The dog took one look down at Brigit, drew his lips back, and snarled. Brigit took one look up at the dog and seemed to realize he posed no threat whatsoever. In fact, I would swear I saw Brigit roll her eyes at the dog’s attempts to scare her.

“Come in.” The woman shifted the dog to her left arm to hold the door for us. She had long, slender fingers and a festive manicure, sparkly white snowflakes on a blue background. I seemed to have a natural affinity for detail, noting such things. Not to brag, but not much gets by me.

Brigit and I stepped into the tile foyer. I extended my hand. “Hi. I’m Officer Megan Luz.”

“Nanami Ishii,” she replied. “Call me Nan.”

The woman took my hand in hers. Wow. How does she get her skin so soft? As much as I would have liked to ask what type of lotion she used, it would be unprofessional.

Our introductions complete, I pulled out my notepad and pen. “I understand some jewelry has gone missing?” “Yes. My engagement ring and wedding band. I was feeding my dog a few minutes ago when I noticed I didn’t have my rings on. I only take them off to shower. The diamond gets tangled up in my hair when I wash it.”

I nodded. I’d had the same issue with some of my rings. Of course, I’d never had a diamond ring. But if my rela- tionship with Seth continued on its current course, I might have one in another year or two. Who knew?

She pointed behind her, down a hallway. “I always leave my rings in the dish on my vanity so they won’t acciden- tally get knocked into the sink and go down the drain. But when I went to get them, they weren’t there. A plumber was in the bathroom earlier today, installing new shower heads. He had to be the one who took them. He’s the only one who’s been in the house today other than me. My hus- band is on a ski trip in Colorado with some of his old friends from college.”

I jotted a quick note. Plumber installed shower heads. Hubby in CO/skiing with buddies. “Can you show me where they were?”

“Sure.”

Brigit and I followed Nan down the hall and into the master bedroom. The space was decorated in turquoise and chocolate brown. On the wall over the king-sized bed was a nearly life-sized wedding portrait of Nan and a man who wasn’t quite old enough to be her father, but maybe a youngish uncle. I’d put fifteen years between them. The photograph had been reprinted on canvas and showed them from the waist up. Nan’s hands were wrapped around the base of her white rose bouquet, her ring set clearly visible.

I stopped and pointed to the picture. “The rings that were stolen. They were the ones in this picture?”

“Yes.”

I walked to the head of the bed and leaned over to take a closer look at the rings in the photo. The wedding ring was a simple, wide gold band. The engagement ring was similarly understated, though the marquise-cut diamond was quite large. “Mind if I snap a photograph? It could help us identify the rings if we come across them.”

“Of course,” Nan agreed.

After I snapped a few pictures of her rings, she led me into the spacious master bath and pointed to the vanity. A variety of tubes and bottles containing expensive beauty products sat on the marble countertop, along with a box of tissue and a porcelain ring holder, essentially a small bowl with a raised center spike on which to place rings. Three other rings encircled the spike. One was silver with a heart-shaped charm dangling from it. Another was sil- ver with a large oval of turquoise. The third was gold with an intricate filigree.

She pointed to the bowl. “That’s where my rings were.

In the bowl with the others.”

My gaze moved about the cluttered countertop. “You’re certain?”

Irritation flickered across her face. “Absolutely. I go through the same routine every morning. I take off my rings, put them in the bowl, then undress and shower. After I get dressed and fix my makeup and hair, I put my rings back on.”

I hated to point out the obvious, but . . . “You don’t ap- pear to be wearing makeup.” The splayed ends of her po- nytail told me she hadn’t curled or straightened her hair before pulling it into the elastic holder, either. I had my own routines, ones I went through on autopilot, my body doing things out of habit while my mind paid little, if any, attention. But those routines could be thrown off if unusual circumstances intervened. Given that she’d forgotten to put the rings back on after her shower, it was also possible she’d never put them in the bowl to begin with. Maybe she’d lost them elsewhere earlier.

“Since the plumber was coming,” she said, “I took the day off from work. There was no reason to put on my usual makeup or fix my hair. I was just going to catch up on some cleaning. I didn’t plan to leave the house.”

“So you haven’t been out of your house today? Not for a run or an exercise class? Or maybe to check the mail?” “No. I’ve been inside all day. I let my dog into the backyard, but that was it. I didn’t go out with him.”

So much for that theory.

I turned my attention to the shower. It was a wide, walk- in style, with multiple shower heads at various heights. The heads had variable settings, everything from a soft drizzle to full-on, hurricane-force blast. Must be like showering in a car wash. “Did the plumber show you his work when he was done?”

“Yes. He demonstrated the different settings and showed me that everything was working properly so I’d sign off on the paperwork.”

“Did you ask him about the rings then?”

“No. I didn’t notice they were missing until after he was gone.”

“Have you called him?”

“Yes,” she said. “He claimed he hadn’t seen my rings, but there’s no other explanation. He has to be lying.”

Or does he? People were often too quick to blame miss- ing items on housekeepers or other service providers who’d been in their homes, when often they’d misplaced the items themselves.

I said my next thought out loud. “Any idea why he would have taken only your wedding and engagement rings and not the others?”

She glanced over at the ring holder and shrugged. “Those three aren’t as valuable. Maybe he could tell. Or maybe he thought if he left some of them it would be less obvious.”

I eyed the bowl. “How much are the missing rings worth?”

“I don’t know exactly,” she said. “My husband picked them out and surprised me with them.”

“Any chance he’s got a receipt for the rings? It would be helpful to have a copy to include with my report.” I ex- plained that the DA would also want proof of the value of the items in order to determine if the theft constituted a felony and of what degree. “You’ll need a receipt to file an insurance claim, too.”

“My husband handles our finances,” Nan said. “He scans the important documents. It might be on his com- puter.”

She led Brigit and me down the hall to a home office with French doors. She stepped over to a desk that faced the wall. An open laptop sat on it, the screen in easy view. Still holding the dog, she dropped into the rolling chair, situating the little beast on her lap. After booting up the computer and typing in the password, she ran a search for a file that included the word “ring.” Two file names popped up. One was receipt—jordan wedding ring. The other was receipt—wedding & engagement ring set.

She pointed at the latter. “That must be it.” She clicked on the file, quickly skimmed the screen when the docu- ment popped up, and dipped her head in confirmation. She ran her finger over the built-in mouse pad, clicked a couple of times to print out the receipt, and handed it to me, hot off the desktop printer.

Hmm. For someone who claimed to have little knowl- edge of their finances, she sure found the receipt quickly. Then again, her husband seemed to be well organized.

I ran my eyes over the page. The receipt was dated seven years prior and included a charge for an inscription that had been engraved inside the wedding band. Sierra and Jordan forever. Confused, I returned my attention to Nan. “Is Sierra your first name?”

“No.” Her voice was as tight as her yoga pants. “Sierra was Jordan’s girlfriend before me.”

Nan’s husband had proposed to her with an engagement ring purchased for another woman? Ouch. Still, it was hard to blame him. He’d paid over twenty grand for the engage- ment and wedding ring set. Not exactly chump change.

“Did the ring still have the inscription?” If so, it could help us identify the ring if it were recovered.

“No. Jordan must have had it removed before he gave it to me.” Nan’s eyes narrowed briefly in what was likely dis- trust, hurt, or anger—maybe all three.

“Was there a new inscription?”

Again, her answer was no. Again, her eyes narrowed. And, again, I couldn’t blame her husband. Why pay for an- other inscription when the first had been a waste of money? I wondered if Nan had known about the inscription before now, whether she’d been aware the rings were origi- nally intended for another woman, whether that fact both- ered her. “I can dust the bowl for prints, see if we get a match. Unless the plumber is already in the system or agrees to supply a print, it might not get us anywhere, but it’s worth a shot. Just to warn you, though, the dust makes

a bit of a mess.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “I can clean it up.”

I returned to my cruiser, retrieved my fingerprint kit, and the four of us headed back to the master bathroom to- gether. While a crime scene team normally handled this type of evidence collection on bigger cases, beat cops were trained to lift prints in more routine cases like this.

After brushing the black powder about the small bowl, a number of fingerprints were revealed. Some were very well defined, probably left by Nan soon after she’d applied lotion or oil. Others were less distinguishable. I applied the tape and lifted the prints, affixing the tape to the finger- print card for the lab to look at. Careful to keep out of snapping range of her dog, I also took prints from Nan so the lab could identify any that were hers.

“Cute manicure,” I said as I rolled her index finger back and forth on the card, which I’d placed on the countertop. “Thanks. I usually paint them myself, but my office holiday party is this weekend so I decided to go all out.”

We returned to the foyer, where I snapped a photo of the invoice the plumber had left with Nan. The invoice contained his name and phone number.

“I’ll get in touch with him,” I told Nan. “It’s likely he’ll tell me the same thing he told you, but we’ll see.”

She thanked me and, after one last snarl from the dog in her arms, Brigit and I headed out to the car. Once I was seated in the cruiser, I phoned the plumber. After identi- fying myself, I asked if I could come speak to him in person.

He paused a moment, processing my words. “I’m fin- ishing up a job,” he said, keeping his voice low. “If people see my van and cops coming around, they’ll jump to con- clusions.”

“I understand.” Whether he was guilty or innocent, I couldn’t blame him for not wanting me to show up on a worksite. It wouldn’t be good for his business. “Let’s meet at a public place nearby, then.” I asked for his current lo- cation, plugged it into my phone’s mapping app, and sug gested we meet at a convenience store a half mile away. He agreed.

Twenty minutes later, the plumber, Brigit, and I stood face-to-face to furry face in the side parking lot of a 7-Eleven on north University Drive. The location was slightly outside the bounds of my designated beat, yet close enough that I could still respond to emergency calls if needed.

There was no point in beating around the bush. My time was important, and so was his. Heck, at the rates plumb- ers charged, his time was more valuable than mine. “Mrs. Ishii noticed that some of her jewelry was missing after you left her residence.”

“And she told you I took it?”

I lifted a noncommittal shoulder. “She said you’re the only one who’s been in her house recently.”

He issued an indignant huff. “The nerve of that woman. Accusing me of stealing from her even after I gave her a new-customer discount. No good deed goes unpunished, huh?” He rolled his eyes before returning his focus to me. “I didn’t take anything. I installed the showerheads and that was it.” He raised his callused palms. “Don’t know what else to tell you.”

“Did you touch anything in the house other than the shower?”

He looked up in thought. “Not that I remember. She opened the front door for me on my way in and out. The bathroom door was already open so I didn’t have to touch the handle.”

“Would you be willing to provide fingerprints?” “Hell, yeah!” he replied without hesitation. “If it’ll clear my name you can have fingerprints, a blood sample, whatever.”

He certainly was being cooperative. Might as well make the most of it. “Would you let me take a look in your van?”

He swept his hand toward his vehicle. “Be my guest.” I peeked into the glove compartment, ashtrays, and console of his truck. No rings. Ditto for his toolbox and cargo bay. I did spot a well-used pair of heavy-duty work gloves, though, as well as a box of disposable latex gloves. The discovery wasn’t surprising. Given the nature of his work, gloves would be needed for some jobs. While the thick work gloves would’ve made it harder for him to snag the rings, he could’ve donned a pair of the latex gloves and snatched them without leaving a print. Hmm.

I backed out of the van and returned to my cruiser for a fingerprint kit. After obtaining his prints and handing him a wet wipe to clean the ink from his fingers, I thanked him for his cooperation.

“I hope you find her jewelry.” He gave me a pointed look. “For her sake and mine.”

“Me, too.”

Brigit and I returned to our cruiser. I made a quick call to Nan to inquire whether the plumber had worn dispos- able gloves while at her home. She said she hadn’t noticed him wearing gloves, but she’d been in the living room and kitchen while he’d been working. She made a quick round of the house and confirmed he hadn’t disposed of any gloves in the bathroom trash can or elsewhere.

By then, my shift was up. I drove Nan’s and the plumb- er’s prints back to the station, and Brigit and I headed back home for an evening of sitcoms, Seth, and snuggling.

WHERE TO BUY (AFFILIATE LINKS)

 

One thought on “Special Feature/Excerpt: Paw of the Jungle (Paw Enforcement #8) by Diane Kelly

Charming comments go here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s