by Janice Curran
Sheriff Meg Paterson watched as the last spade of dirt fell on the tiny grave outside the Greene farmhouse.
The niece who’d phoned about the death laid the tool aside and sniffed back tears. “At least he’ll be with Aunt Tilly again. He has seemed so lost since her death last month.”
The sheriff’s deputy-in-training, Freddie Hinkle, offered her his handkerchief. “Please don’t cry, Ms. Greene.”
Dabbing at her eyes, she gave Freddie a shy smile. “The name is JoBeth, Deputy. And you’re too kind. This murder, coming so soon after Aunt Tilly’s passing, well…it’s all very upsetting.”
“Murder!” Harold Greene, Tilly’s brother, exclaimed. “How do you murder a mutt? I can’t believe you called the sheriff for this, JoBeth. What a waste of taxpayer money.”
JoBeth cast her uncle a disapproving look. “Sheriff, there were two things my aunt loved in this world—her dog Cupcake and her prize chocolate meringue pie. Uncle Harold hated both.”
“You’re forgetting to include yourself among Tilly’s favorites,” Harold corrected her. “Your aunt fussed over you as much as she fussed over that dog. What did I get? Scraps.”
JoBeth pursed her lips. “Do you call eight thousand dollars ‘scraps’? You were named sole beneficiary on her life insurance policy.” Sheriff Paterson tilted back her hat. “Is that so?”
Harold scowled. “What of it? Almost every penny went to the funeral director. Tilly left the whole danged farm to JoBeth.”
JoBeth laid her hand on Freddie’s arm. “You have to understand I helped Aunt Tilly care for the place since she took Prince and me in.” To Harold, she said, “There’s no reason you can’t continue to live here. Although, you’ll have to pitch in more now.”
Harold glared. “Do you suppose I’ve been on Easy Street? Your aunt kept me on a shorter leash than her nasty pooch. You’d think she owned stock in that fancy dog food company.”
“Cupcake was a pedigree,” JoBeth said. “He needed a special diet. You should be ashamed—jealous of that little bit of a thing. Why, he could jump no higher than my knee!”
“That’s what I would’ve thought,” Harold said. Then he shrugged. “All I know is that fleabag cost Tilly more a year than what she paid in taxes.”
Sheriff Paterson cut in to head off another round of griping. “JoBeth, you mentioned in your call that Cupcake was poisoned.”
JoBeth nodded. “I believe he was. A week ago, Cupcake was healthy—snapping and snarling, as usual—and now he’s dead.”
“Maybe he died of a broken heart,” Harold said with a snicker. “Or maybe you killed him so Prince could win that stupid competition. As long as Cupcake was alive, the best Prince could do was second place.”
JoBeth turned up her nose. “Pshaw. Why would I call the sheriff if I poisoned Cupcake?”
Harold folded his arms across his chest. “Easy—to keep suspicious minds from inquiring. You wouldn’t want to hurt ol’ Prince’s chances in the next competition.”
“I wasn’t even home when Cupcake took ill,” JoBeth said.
“Don’t you think I know you and Prince hightailed it out the kitchen door the minute our neighbor rang the bell in the front?” Harold snorted. “Sheriff, that biddy has been bringing us casseroles every Saturday for a month. And every Saturday, JoBeth and her also-ran take off.”
JoBeth inclined her head toward Freddie and said in a confiding tone, “Don’t let Uncle Harold fool you. He’s taken a fancy to ‘that biddy.’ That’s why he had a pie thawed and waiting.”
While Harold blushed and spluttered, the sheriff took the opportunity to ask, “Was Cupcake examined by a veterinarian?”
JoBeth raised an eyebrow. “Uncle Harold said he was.”
Harold collected himself. “I was getting to that. With all the business Tilly gave Doc Wood, he owed us a free house call—and I made sure I told him so. He didn’t say nothing about poison.”
Before the uncle and niece could find something else to squabble about, Sheriff Paterson quickly said to Freddie, “Let’s go talk with Doc.”
The veterinarian seemed surprised to find the law at his door. “Cupcake’s death was an unfortunate accident, Sheriff. He got into something he shouldn’t have.”
“What was that?” the sheriff asked.
“Chocolate. It contains theobromine, a substance that, if consumed in a high enough quantity, is toxic to dogs. The amount of the type chocolate Cupcake ate was deadly for a canine his size.”
Freddie looked relieved. “Neither of the Greenes killed him.”
Sheriff Paterson wasn’t so sure.
“I often see accidental ingestions around the holidays, when people bake more than usual,” Doc Wood said. “But Tilly kept her freezer stocked with chocolate meringues. When Harold left one on the counter unattended …”
“Cupcake scarfed it down,” Freddie finished for him.
“A dog enthusiast would’ve known better,” Doc Wood said. “As soon as I saw the remains of the pie on the floor, I knew what had happened. No need to waste Harold’s money on a necropsy.”
“Should we swing back to the farm, Sheriff?” Freddie asked eagerly. “JoBeth will feel better once we tell her Cupcake wasn’t poisoned.”
Sheriff Paterson shook her head. “Cupcake wasn’t poisoned in the usual way, Freddie. I suspect that, in this case, death by chocolate is a crime.”
JoBeth and the sheriff was right. A canine enthusiast like her Aunt Tilly, JoBeth understood the deadly effects chocolate could have on a dog. Harold set the pie on the counter. Knowing Cupcake couldn't jump very high, JoBeth took the pie from the counter and placed it on the floor, where its remains were later found. She then left the farmhouse with Prince, returning only after her dastardly deed was accomplished.