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Excerpt: Of Mutts and Men by Spencer Quinn

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Spencer Quinn’s Of Mutts and Men is the latest in the New York Times and USA Today bestselling series that the Los Angeles Times called “nothing short of masterful”…

When Chet the dog, “the most lovable narrator in all of crime fiction” (Boston Globe), and his partner, PI Bernie Little of the desert-based Little Detective Agency, arrive to a meeting with hydrologist Wendell Nero, they are in for a shocking sight—Wendell has come to a violent and mysterious end. What did the hydrologist want to see them about? Is his death a random robbery, or something more? Chet and Bernie, working for nothing more than an eight-pack of Slim Jims, are on the case.

Bernie might be the only one who thinks the police have arrested the wrong man, including the perp’s own defense attorney. Chet and Bernie begin to look into Wendell’s work, a search that leads to a struggling winemaker who has received an offer he can’t refuse. Meanwhile, Chet is smelling water where there is no water, and soon Chet and Bernie are in danger like never before.

Of Mutts and Men will be available on July 7, 2020. Please enjoy the following excerpt.


One

A rooftop chase? Who’s got it better than me?

Chasing down perps is what we do, me and Bernie. We’re partners in the Little Detective Agency, Little being Bernie’s last name. I’m Chet, pure and simple. When it comes to chasing down perps, rooftop chasing is what you might call a specialty within a specialty, if you see what I mean. And if you don’t then . . . then actually I’m right there with you. The point is that rooftop chases don’t happen often, so when they do you’ve got to enjoy them with all your heart. No problem. Enjoying with all my heart is one of my best things, right up there with leaping and grabbing perps by the pant leg.

There are two kinds of perps who get involved in rooftop chases. The first kind—and most perps are the first kind—realize pretty quick that it’s game over unless you’re up for doing something daring, and they’re all dared out by that time: you can see it in their eyes. The second kind of perp believes somewhere deep down that he can fly. What we had on this particular warehouse rooftop in the most run-down section of South Pedroia, which is the most run-down part of the whole Valley, was the second kind of perp.

Our perp was tall and lean and ran very well. For a human, I should add, meaning he was in fact on the slowish side. I loped along behind him as he headed toward the edge of the roof. At the same time, I glanced back to see what was keeping Bernie. And there he was, popping up through the open hatchway from the top floor of the building. My Bernie! The sky was a fiery orange, the way the sky gets around here when the sun goes down, and so Bernie’s eyes and teeth were orange, too. There’s all kinds of beauty in life.

“Stop!” Bernie yelled. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

The perp—have I mentioned that he was carrying a painting under one arm, a gold-framed painting of old-time cowboys around a fire, stolen, of course, which was why we were all here—turned to Bernie and said, “None of your damn business.”

“You’re missing the point.” Now Bernie was running, too. A very graceful runner, in my opinion, but hampered by the old war wound in one of his legs, only coming into play in situations like this. “Which is,” Bernie went on, huffing and puffing from all those stairs we’d climbed to get up here on the roof, “that you’ve got nowhere to—”

Whatever was coming next—sure to be brilliant, since Bernie’s always the smartest human in the room—remained unsaid, because at that moment the perp reached the edge of the roof and just kept going. Yes, with his legs churning in the air, high over the alley separating this warehouse from the next one! This was something I’d seen in cartoons—of which Bernie and I had watched many in the period after his divorce from Leda—but never in real life. Nothing beats real life, amigo. I was thinking that very thought as I soared off the edge of the roof myself. Free! Free as a bird, although the tiny eyes of birds always look so angry to me, meaning all that freedom was wasted on them.

Meanwhile the perp was touching down on the next rooftop. More or less. In fact, more less than more, since he ended up a bit short. All that actually touched down were the fingers of one hand, clutching desperately at the tarpaper surface of the roof. And now his other hand was clutching desperately, too, meaning the perp had to let go of the painting. It went spinning high in the air, the golden frame turning sunset orange.

What a lot going on! No time to even think, which happens to be when I’m at my best. In a flash I snagged the painting right out of the air, landed on the roof, nice and smooth—sticking the landing, as Bernie calls it—then let the painting go, wheeled around and trotted over to the perp.

He seemed to be hanging from the roof by his fingertips. That couldn’t have been easy. I felt proud of him in a way, as though he belonged to me. Which he sort of did, although he probably didn’t realize it yet. I looked down at him. He looked up at me. His eyes were . . .how to put this? Terrified, maybe? Something like that.

“Help. Help me.”

He turned out to have a squeaky voice, not at all pleasant, especially to ears like mine, so sensitive to the tinny and the shrill.

“Chet?”

That was Bernie, calling from the first rooftop. He stood at the edge, his lovely face a bit worried, for no reason I could see.

“Be careful, big guy. Don’t take any risks.”

“Huh?” said the perp, still hanging off the roof and now kicking his legs a bit, as though . . .as though he might swim his way up. What a strange thought! Meanwhile I was trying to remember what a risk was, but it just wouldn’t come.

“Help! Help me!”

Poor guy. The swimming thing wasn’t working at all and he seemed to be slip-slip-slipping. I went to the edge with the idea of leaning over, grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, and then digging in with my paws and hoisting him up, but before I could start any of that, he flailed out with one hand and grabbed onto one of my front legs.

“Let him go!” Bernie shouted.

“But—but then I’ll fall.”

“So what?” Bernie said.

“Really?” said the perp.

Although not particularly strong-looking, he turned out to have an iron grip, at least in this particular situation. I tried to pull my leg free but got nowhere, and began sliding closer and closer to the edge.

Bernie reached into his pocket, drew the .38 Special. “Let him go or I’ll shoot,” he said.

“I’ll take my chances,” said the perp.

Whoa! Didn’t he know Bernie was a crack shot, could shoot holes through dimes spinning in midair? What other reason could there be for such a strange remark? I decided to forgive him, although Bernie didn’t look like he was in a forgiving mood. In fact, I’d never seen him so mad. His face looked almost ugly, maybe the most astonishing sight I’d seen in my whole life. He jammed the .38 Special back in his pocket, lowered his head, started running in a quick little circle, and then charged toward us across the roof.

No, Bernie, no! Not with your bad leg! Stay! Sit! Stay!

Sit stay, as I knew very well, only works some of the time. It didn’t work on Bernie, not now. He came soaring—kind of—across the gap between the warehouses, cleared it by plenty—or at least some—and stuck the landing . . . just about!

“Ouch,” he said, but not loud. Then he picked himself up and hurried over, reached down, grabbed our perp by the collar, and kind of flipped him right up and onto the roof.

The perp lay panting on his back. Between pants, he said, “Thanks, buddy. My whole life flashed before my eyes.”

“Punishment enough,” Bernie said.

The perp’s eyes widened. “You . . . you mean you’re letting me go?”

Bernie gazed down at him. His anger faded away, real fast, and he started laughing. He laughed and laughed, not in the least angry anymore, but happy. That made me happy! I was so happy I came close to prancing around on the rooftop. But that wouldn’t have been professional, so instead I grabbed the perp by the pant leg, the most professional move that came to mind. Case closed.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” said Mr. Rusk, taking the painting from Bernie. He held it up at arm’s length and gazed at those cowboys around the campfire. “Remington at the height of his powers. Did you ever dream we’d see it again, Irene?”

We stood at the front entrance to a huge house way up in the hills above High Chapparal Estates, the richest neighborhood in the whole Valley, although no neighboring houses could be seen from this spot: me, Bernie, and Mr. and Mrs. Rusk, the clients. They looked much younger than they smelled, true about a lot of the folks up here in the hills, but perhaps not something you yourself would have noticed, your sense of smell being what it is. No offense.

“Not at first,” Irene said. “But I changed my mind after meeting Bernie.” She reached out as though to take Bernie’s hand in both of hers, a handshake move I was familiar with, but ended up doing something new, namely grabbing onto his forearm and not letting go. “How can I ever repay you? Ezra would have been grouchy for the rest of his life.”

Ezra frowned. “We’re repaying by paying his requested fee, Irene. That’s how it works.”

“You take the fun out of everything,” Irene said. She tilted her head, smiled up at Bernie. “Why not throw in a bonus, Ezra? I know you give out bonuses.”

“Only at Christmas,” said Ezra. “And only to top producers.”

“You’re saying Bernie’s not a top producer?”

“Whoa,” Bernie said. “I don’t want a bonus.”

No bonus? With the state of our finances? Had Bernie forgotten about our self-storage in South Pedroia, stacked from floor to ceiling with Hawaiian pants, not one pair sold? It couldn’t have slipped his mind completely, because sometimes after a few drinks he says, “Hawaiian shirts are big, so why not Hawaiian pants? I just don’t get it.” And then there was the tin futures play. We would have been rich, except for an earthquake in Bolivia, or possibly the earthquake not happening. Bernie! Bonus! Yes!

But no.

“No bonus?” Irene said. “Did you hear that, Ezra?”

“I did.” He peered at the painting. “But what are these? They look like two little . . . punctures in the canvas.”

“Come and join our little party,” Irene said, tugging on Bernie’s arm. “It’s the least we can do, isn’t it, Ezra?”

“But . . . but these punctures. They almost look like teeth marks or something.”

“For god’s sake, stop fussing. You got your stupid painting back.”

“Stupid? It’s one of the loveliest evocations of the old West I’ve ever—”

“Give it a rest. You’re not fooled by all that old West crap, are you, Bernie?”

Irene pulled him into the house.

“Well, in fact,” Bernie began. “There’s lots to be said for—”

“And this beautiful creature’s invited, too, of course.” Irene glanced my way. “All in all, a very pleasing team to the eye.” She squeezed Bernie’s arm, her hands by now quite high up, more above his elbow than not. “Chet, wasn’t it? Does he like filet? I’ll have Emilia grind some up.”

Well, well. What a very considerate woman! For just one moment, something unpleasant, possibly having to do with teeth marks, snagged in my memory, but then it was washed away, like by a mighty river of fun flowing through my mind. A mighty river of fun in my mind? What a life!

We joined the little party, actually a very big party. The backyard was a sort of water park, with a waterfall, a stream, and lots of pools, some with fish swimming in them, and some with human swimmers. I polished off a bowl of ground filet and another, and possibly one more. Not long after that, we were alone—the usual case at big parties, Bernie being better at small parties—just the two of us at a table by a palm tree, Bernie with a glass of bourbon and me underneath, watching him through the glass tabletop. He was gazing at the waterfall.

“Water, water everywhere,” he said.

Not the first time I’d heard that. Water was often on Bernie’s mind, the aquifer being one of his biggest worries. Once I’d actually laid eyes on the aquifer, a tiny mud puddle down at the bottom of a deep construction site, which was when I finally understood the problem. We needed lots more aquifer. Was it for sale somewhere? That was as far as I could take it on my own.

Bernie took a sip of bourbon, more of a big swallow than a sip. “Probably the same water cycling round and round,” he said, “but didn’t anybody consider the evaporation effect?”

A man by himself at the nearest table sat up straight, a trim white-haired man who was also drinking bourbon, the smell impossible to miss. “You don’t know the half of it,” he said.

Bernie turned to him. “No?”

“You in the business, by any chance?” said the man. He had one of those deeply tanned and lined faces you see here in the desert, his blue eyes washed out and pale.

“What business is that?” Bernie said.

“Hydrology.”

“Meaning the study of water?”

“That, plus the practical applications of.” He made a sweeping hand gesture at the waterfall, stream, pools. “I designed all this—meaning the guts of it, the parts you don’t see.

Evaporation effect? I was worried sick about it, told these . . . these plutocrats I had no interest in their project, period.”

At that moment Irene went by, a glass of champagne in her hand. “Plutocrats, Wendell? Is that nice? Tell him we’re not plutocrats, Bernie.”

“Um, I’m not even actually sure about the exact dictionary—”

“But I’m glad you two have found each other,” Irene went on, or maybe just kept going. “This is the private eye I told you about, Wendell. Who brought home the bacon for us. Bernie Little, say hi to Wendell Nero, chairman emeritus of the geology department at Valley College. And he did end up doing our project, which is why it’s such a success. Wendell’s fierce on the outside but he’s really just a big pussycat.”

Don’t rely on me for the details of what happened next. Because: Bacon! Pussycat! There’d been no bacon whatsoever at any time during our work on the cowboy painting case. You can take that to the bank, although maybe not to our bank, where there’d been some recent issue with Ms. Mendez, the manager. As for pussycat, this white-haired dude did not smell, look, or sound at all like any pussycat on the planet, and I’d had many pussycat experiences in my career, none pleasant. I wrestled in my mind with these problems, bacon and pussycat, getting nowhere. By the time I gave up, Wendell Nero was sitting at our table, and the two glasses of bourbon, his and Bernie’s, seemed to have been topped up.

“ . . . safe bet,” Wendell was saying, “because I didn’t think they’d get to square one on the permitting. But they waltzed right through.”

“Uh-huh,” Bernie said.

“You don’t look shocked.”

Bernie smiled.

“I suppose it’s funny in a way,” Wendell said.

“A rueful way,” said Bernie.

Wendell gave him a long look, then nodded. “So I ended up doing the project after all.”

“Because anyone else would have done it worse,” Bernie said.

“Exactly. I mitigated at every turn. There’s much less volume than it appears, and the flow shuts off automatically from noon to five p.m.” He watched the waterfall, took a big drink. “But . . .” His voice trailed away. Then his gaze found me. “This your dog?”

“His name’s Chet,” Bernie said. “He did the actual recovery of the painting.”

Wendell’s snowy eyebrows rose. “Yeah?” he said.

“Chet can be very persuasive.”

How nice to hear! I tried to remember the exact meaning of persuasive, but before I could come up with it—these things take time—Wendell reached down and scratched my head, right between the ears where it’s so hard to reach. Just from how he did it, I knew he was a friend of the nation within the nation, which is what Bernie calls me and my kind.

“I’ve had a number of dogs myself,” Wendell said. “Characters, each and every one, if you know what I mean.”

“I do,” Bernie said.

“No more dogs now,” said Wendell. “All in the past.”

“Why is that?”

“The lifespan discrepancy. Couldn’t take it anymore. Like a lot of things.” He looked down, almost as though shielding his eyes from view. Bernie turned away, sat still and quiet. It felt like something was going on, but if so it went right by me.

At last Wendell looked up. “Do you handle other kinds of cases, Bernie, beside stolen

Property?”

“We do,” Bernie said. “Did you have something in mind?”

Wendell’s pale eyes got an inward look, like . . . like maybe he was trying to see into his own mind. Then he took a deep breath and said, “Can we meet tomorrow morning?”

“Where?” said Bernie.

“I’ll be on site. Do you know Dollhouse Canyon?”

“No.”

Wendell drew on a cocktail napkin, handed it to Bernie. “Ten o’clock?”

“See you then,” Bernie said.

* * *

Next morning we hit the road, Bernie behind the wheel and me riding shotgun, our usual setup. Although once we ended up doing it the other way! A rather exciting outing, but no time for that now. Our ride’s an old Porsche, not the one that went off the cliff or the other one that got blown up, but our new one, the oldest of all, and the best, mostly because of the martini glasses pattern on the front fenders.

We crossed the Rio Vista Bridge—the smells rising up from below rich and indescribable, something about a Superfund cleanup—took the West Valley freeway all the way out of town, turned onto two-lane blacktop, came to a fork with paved road in one direction, dirt track in the other. Bernie checked the cocktail napkin, followed the dirt track, and at last we were in the middle of nowhere, where we liked it best, me and Bernie. I could feel him relax inside.

“Ah,” he said.

That was Bernie. He always knows just the right word.

The dirt track led us past a huge red rock with a big black bird perched on top, then down into a long and narrow box canyon.

“Dollhouse Canyon,” Bernie said.

At the end of the canyon stood a white trailer with blue writing on the side. Bernie read the writing. “Nero Hydrological Consulting. Water Equals Life.”

We parked near the trailer and hopped out, me actually hopping. And almost landing in a thicket of jumping cholla! I’ve had a lot of experience with jumping cholla, all of it bad. Those yellow spines are capable of doing some hopping of their own, which is the whole point of jumping cholla, but hard to remember for some reason. I moved to Bernie’s other side, getting him between me and the thicket. Did that mean I’d rather he got stuck with the yellow spines instead of me? I hoped not and left it like that.

We stood side by side in front of the trailer. The day still smelled fresh and new, and so did we, Bernie because he’d taken a shower before we left, and me because . . . because I just do. He was wearing jeans, flip-flops, and the Hawaiian shirt with the laughing pineapples. I had on my everyday collar, the gator skin one I’d picked up on a case down in bayou country that there’s no time to tell you about now. Bernie knocked on the trailer door. No answer. He knocked again. No answer. “Wendell? Dr. Nero?” Zip.

Bernie turned, cupped his hands, called out, “Wendell? Wendell?”

From the sides of the box canyon, the call came back. “Wendell? Wendell?”

Then there was silence. I sniffed at the crack under the door. Uh-oh. I have this certain low, rumbly bark that’s only for Bernie. I barked it now. Bernie looked at me and stopped feeling relaxed inside. He turned the doorknob. The door opened. After a moment of confusion, we went inside. Me first.

Copyright © Spencer Quinn

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3 thoughts on “Excerpt: Of Mutts and Men by Spencer Quinn

  1. Oh wow, I love the beginning of the Bernie and Chet books, always exciting. Sucks you right in!

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