My second round attempt at the NYC Midnight 2019 Short Story Challenge won an Honorable Mention in its heat!
(Crash, my first place winner last round, is over here.)
The randomly assigned genre was Thriller, the character a Dog Walker, and the prompt was a Bucket List. We had three days to write 2000 words.
The Someday Dog
A dog-walker takes on a St. Bernard sized bit of intrigue.
Contains witness tampering, frozen cocktails and Milk-Bones.
The dog park nearest the state capitol has more security than the governor’s mansion. I swipe my clearance card at the gate house, and the guard pokes through my knapsack with latex gloved fingers.
I’m carrying the usual: wet wipes, plastic bags, beef sticks, three tennis balls and a veterinarian’s first aid kit. I sign in on the digital clipboard.
Dolly, the Saint Bernard at my side, thumps her tail. The last un-adopted puppy from her rogue litter tumbles over his own paws. I call him Three. He’s got his mother’s huge head and appetite, but not her brindle coloring. I’d found homes for One and Two last week.
Another guard lets us through the second interior fence. He has a tranquilizer gun on his hip. Here, the lethal weapon is the Speaker of the House’s Great Dane.
A Pharaoh hound—wearing an Armani coat and collar combo that costs more than a semester of law school—does his business in the grass, while the Lieutenant Governor’s wife chats on the phone about her villa in Aruba.
I’ve never been to the Caribbean. Every time I catch up on my student loans I dream about sandy beaches and rum drinks with fruit. Maybe someday.
My phone buzzes with the latest news alert on the latest hearing on the latest scandal. Sen. Caleb denies meeting with Saudi prince in March.
The Riyadh royal is a hot media item—his Wetterhoun took Best Rare Breed last year at Westminster, amid some controversy—only a special kind of jerk keeps a Frisian Water Dog in the middle of the desert.
After a good game of fetch, I get another text: On my way.
I gather up the slobber covered tennis balls, and call Dolly. We have plenty of time to visit the old veteran who hangs out near the entrance. He keeps a box of Milk-Bones in his wheelchair. Three loves him.
A black SUV with tinted windows pulls up to the curb, more stealth-tank than Escalade. The Secret Service driver opens the side door, and the Honorable Senator John Caleb steps from the vehicle with heavy authority.
Dolly woofs a greeting and bounds toward him, but stops at his feet and sits, ears forward. The politician, whose rivals fade into obscurity, or are found at the bottom of lakes, looks almost human as he grins at his dog and rubs her head, the aura of power dissolving into doggy-talk murmurs of “Who’s a good girl?”
He feeds her a biscuit while Three spins in circles and pees on the sidewalk. The senator frowns at him. He still hasn’t forgiven Dolly for getting knocked up by an anonymous suitor. Normally, her pedigreed progeny collect ten thousand a pup, or union favors.
“I’ve found someone for the last one,” he says, nodding to the puppy.
Damn. I’m out of time.
“A girl lost her dog in a fire,” he says. In a neighborhood where he’s campaigning, I’m guessing. “We’re going to make a media moment of it. Can you be there?”
“What time, sir?” I won’t be in any of the photos, with my muddy paw wipes and poo baggies.
“Tomorrow, at four. Shouldn’t take more than twenty minutes. We’ll pick you up here.” He ushers Dolly into the van. I place the puppy in next to her, and the driver slides the door closed. The SUV rolls away, tinted windows hiding the world’s secrets.
“I’ve always wanted a big dog like that,” the veteran says. “Maybe someday.” The senator never once looked his direction. He’s got cool tattoos, a sleeve of coyotes howling at a watercolor sunset up his arm.
“I’ve always wanted ink like that,” I say, putting a five dollar bill in his cup, for the Milk-Bones. “Maybe someday.”
Ferdy meets me at the door, puppy barks and nippy teeth and sniffy nose. He’s a bundle of energy, mottled red and white patches, curly fur and curly tail, and huge feet. He doesn’t look like a rescue, abandoned by his mother at a week old. I’d bottle-fed him back to health.
He wrestles with my shoes and brings me his sock monkey for a game of tug of war. When he flops in exhaustion, I call every pet shop in town, until I find a male eight-week-old Saint Bernard Labrador cross, with Landseer markings. Close enough.
I pay a deposit to keep him until the morning, but I don’t sleep that night.
I’ve never been inside the Darth Vader van before. The driver rolls the side door open, and I get in. Three jumps all over me. My heart pounds a million beats a second, and I’m surprised the puppy doesn’t feel my tension. Dolly would have.
The senator is in the front seat, examining his teeth in the vanity mirror. “All set?”
It’s go time. “Yes, sir,” I say, then, as the driver eases from the curb, I squawk. “Oops! Wait, no, he’s going!”
I grab Three around his middle and hold him away from my body while I fumble for the door. He fights me, kicking at my hands and his collar. “Wait, Three! Please, not in the car!”
I hop out of the van and run to the grass, adrenaline surging through my muscles. Three escapes, barreling toward his friend with the Milk-Bones. The veteran nods once at me, then spins his chair so his back is to the SUV. After a quick glance around, he scoops Three up, and says, “Go.”
I lift the blanket on his knees and take the Saint Ber-Lab puppy body double. Unlike his wiggly twin, he obediently lets me clip on the leash. I stand and tell the man, “Thank you.”
“Thank you. I love this little guy.” He hides Three under the cover, and rolls away with a casual salute.
I climb back in the van. The driver is looking at the GPS screen. The senator is digging something out of his molars.
“Sorry about that, sir.”
“Better now than when the cameras are rolling,” he says as the SUV eases off the curb again. He doesn’t notice that Three 2.0 has gained four pounds in the last thirty seconds and smells slightly fishy with the squid ink I’d used to match up their markings.
I inhale, long and slow, forcing my breathing back to normal when no one asks any questions.
The little girl is delighted. The senator beams in the photos, securing another slew of votes.
A black Escalade slides up to my duplex, blocking the driveway. The warm evening goes silent, as if the neighborhood senses a threat.
My guts twist as the driver gets out, scans up and down the street, then rolls the side door open. Ferdy whines.
My door and windows are open to screens, and my lights are on. I’m obviously home. The backdoor only leads out to the front again. I step outside, onto the porch.
Dolly gives a low woof in greeting. She’s told firmly to Stay.
The driver ignores me, but I’m very aware of the pistol holster under his sport coat. Can Secret Service agents be forced to testify? The senator walks toward my house. Beneath my fear, I’m curious if he’s ever been to this end of town.
He halts at the bottom step and looks up at me. “Do we need to have a conversation?”
I fight the reflex to glance back inside my house. “About what, Senator?”
“I found this in the van last night.” He holds up Three’s purple collar. “But in our pictures, that girl is holding a puppy with a collar exactly like this one. I don’t like mysteries, especially in my personal life.”
“I switched them,” I say, hoping to deflect him with partial truths and feigned guilt. “Three isn’t quite housebroken yet, and I’d look bad too, if he had an accident at your photo op, and I knew someone perfect so—”
His gaze skewers me. “Did you sell them?”
“No, sir.” I swallow, hoping I don’t puke on his shoes.
His eyes flick over my shoddy little house, and land back on me, now with pity. “They aren’t worth anything, without breeding documents from the sire. And we don’t know who that is.”
Dolly sniffs at the air from the open door of the SUV.
“You do. You know who fathered them.” Senator Caleb lifts his head, the way a dog scents a trail. “I wondered if it happened on your watch. You were so eager to get rid of the litter for me. Don’t tell me it’s that weird skinny Egyptian hound—“
Astonishment washes over me. He doesn’t know.
My relief lasts two heartbeats, then I’m betrayed by Dolly’s questioning bark.
A joyful answering yip erupts from my house, and Ferdy cannonballs through my screen door. Dolly jumps out of the van, and meets him in the middle of the yard. She sniffs him from tail to ears. He nips her chin and rolls while she noses his belly, her maternal instinct kicking back in, even though she hasn’t seen him for six weeks.
“That’s the runt,” John Caleb says. “I thought she rejected it.”
“She did. I took him.”
“But why all the secrecy? I’d have just given him to you.” He bends to stroke the puppy’s coat, curlier and lighter than his litter twins. Dolly nudges the man’s shoulder as he gently draws Ferdy’s tail out straight and releases it. With a wag, it curls back over the puppy’s spine. “Cute little thing,” he says. “Reminds me of—“
The senator lurches to his feet, staring from Dolly to me to Ferdy. The Secret Service agent snaps to attention as the politician takes a horrified step away from his beloved pet.
“Their sire was a Wetterhoun.” I confirm his suspicions, keeping my voice soft. “How many Frisian Water Dogs has Dolly come in contact with, sir?”
We both know the answer. Only one, and he belongs to a certain Saudi prince the Honorable Senator has sworn under oath he hasn’t met.
He’s eerily calm for a man whose credibility and career are being threatened. “Where are the other pups?”
“They’re in good homes, with people who don’t know their lineage. And that’ll stay that way while we’re safe and sound.” I pick up Ferdy, and snuggle him to my chest, more for my comfort than his. He squirms a bit, then settles in and licks my chin. He has no idea that he’s DNA evidence of collusion, conspiracy, perjury and a whole lot of other things that would land the senator in jail.
He stares at me, brows drawn together. “But why?”
“Consider it witness protection.”
“I wouldn’t hurt a dog!” He’s genuinely offended. He’d send soldiers to war, and refuse to take care of them when they came home wounded or broken, but he’d never hurt a pet.
“I also meant me.”
“Ah.” He sighs, now a man not elevated by power, but bearing the weight of it. “Dammit, Dolly.”
She moves to sit in front of him, her ears pricked forward. Like an automaton, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a kibble treat. She wolfs it down, and he rubs her head. “So what do you want?”
“Well, sir, I have a list.”
Barbados is beautiful at the holidays. I throw a driftwood stick into the waves. Ferdy barks, then jumps into the surf.
The bartender calls from the cantina, and holds up my piña colada. I wave a thanks. The bandages on my arm itch, inked outlines peeking through, waiting their turn for color.
My phone buzzes with a news alert. In a surprise deviation from party stance, Sen. John Caleb approves millions in funding for the Service Dogs for Veterans program.
Ferdy comes back with a completely different stick. I ruffle his fur and throw again. I wonder if he’d like a pal to play fetch with, a Newfoundland, or an Irish Water Spaniel. Maybe someday.