Maybe I lost my mojo. I’d always thought I had a way with dogs: They loved me and I loved them. Then I met Shandy. She was a Lhasa Apso, one of those fluffy creatures with bulgy eyes and a top-notch. We got off to a bad start, thanks to Howie, who dumped yet another of his clients on me at the last minute with no warning and no instructions. When I tried to put on Shandy’s harness, she started rattling like a toy lawnmower. I didn’t realise it was a growl until she nearly tore off my pinkie. That’s when my belief that I was some kind of dog whisperer faltered.
In hindsight, I see that I should have put my fingers on the line for the sake of the business. If I had, things would have gone a whole lot differently, and Howie and I wouldn’t now have a bounty on our young heads.
“Dude, just do it. I’m on a roll, and Shandy should have been walked two hours ago.”
“No, Howie. She’s your client.” I paused. “Anyway, I don’t know the security code; I’m already running late with my own clients…” Okay, the last part wasn’t true. I don’t run late because, unlike my business partner, I have a grip on my gaming endeavours.
He pleaded above the background rumbles and gunfire from his computer. “Come on, mate. Just this once.”
“Once? You’re kidding, right?” I nearly dropped my phone. Beatrice, Mr Darcy and Charlie were on the lead, straining to go.
“Come on, Shaun. If you’re on schedule – and you’re always on schedule – right now you’re directly across the street from the Becketts’ house. They’ll appreciate your attention to detail.”
I looked across the street, and sure enough, there was the house. I shook my head, simultaneously annoyed at his blatant manipulation and impressed with his accuracy. “What’s the code?”
“4-7-8-8, 5-9-1. The key has a yellow marker. Thanks Shaun.”
“You owe me, big time.”
“Naturally. Oh – and take off your shoes. Mrs Beckett is a neat freak.”
The Becketts’ interior was wall-to-wall white. The only thing that wasn’t white was Shandy, who was Malibu Barbie blonde. After deactivating the security system, I discovered a second item of colour, a little turd she’d deposited so close to the door that when I opened it, it had smeared a reeking brown arc over the white tiles.
“Good one, Shandy.” I sighed and went in search of paper towels. I found a note for Howie and a twenty-dollar bill on the kitchen counter. The note read:
Thanks for minding Shandy while we’re away. Would you be a sweetheart and put the bins out for me? We’ll be back tomorrow. Here’s $20 for your trouble. xx, Serena
“xx?” I said aloud. Howie was clearly onto a good thing here. I pocketed his tip before grabbing the roll of paper towels.
Shandy slunk off when I called her a bad girl. It wasn’t her fault though; it was Howie’s. My jaw tensed. We had agreed on a fifty-fifty division of customers, but it had been more like 75 per cent mine, 25 per cent his ever since he reached the elite mode on World of Warcraft. His addiction aggravated me, because our dream depended on us both. We had to keep things rolling while we finished building the website. Then we could expand from pet-sitting to selling pet products. Eventually we’d franchise WonderDogz and cha-ching! We’d be rolling in money – all before we reached the ripe age of 20. 21 max. And all the people who said we’d never do it could kiss our rich butts.
Reviewing the business plan soothed my annoyance at Howie and got me through the grim task at hand. When I jogged past the three dogs to chuck the mess in the wheelie bin, they jumped up all waggy and keen. “Hang on guys,” I said over my shoulder on the way back inside. “Gotta get Shandy.” I heard Beatrice whimper impatiently. She was my favourite client, a snuffly British Bulldog, so sooky she nearly wet herself every time she saw me.
A few minutes later, I emerged, shaken and lucky to have all ten fingers. In the end, I’d just clipped Shandy’s lead to her collar, since the harness was clearly not going to happen. She curled her lip and rattled at the other dogs when they sniffed her. I swear Beatrice rolled her eyes.
It was a routine walk until we got to the Sandgate lagoon where a magpie swooped me. I did what anyone would do: I ducked my head and ran for cover. The trouble was I dropped the leads. My three clients handled it well, especially Beatrice, who took on the magpie.
Shandy was the problem. She ran off, dragging her leash behind. I darted after her and stomped on the end of her lead just as she reached the curb. She flicked backwards, shrugged out of her collar, and pounced into the street like a fluffy ninja ferret. Cars were approaching at speed from both directions. Everything seemed to slow down, unfolding frame by frame.
One car swerved and drove off, horn blaring; the other vehicle, a beat-up blue van, slammed on its brakes and skidded to a halt, stopping inches from Shandy, who was crouched in the middle of the lane. The car door opened and a hulking man got out. A lank, grey pony tail dangled down his back and tats covered his arms. He wore a black leather vest that had no hope of ever being buttoned around his bulging gut. “That your dog?” he said pointing to Shandy.
I decided in a split second that vagueness would work in my favour. “Not exactly.”
In two strides he reached Shandy, who was creeping toward the opposite curb, and he scooped her up. He scratched under her chin and she rattled a growl at him.
I sighed, realising at last he wanted to help. “She’s a bad dog…” I said with a nervous laugh and reached for her.
“She’ll do,” he said with a shrug, and he tossed her in the van, climbed in, and peeled away, leaving swervy skid marks and a cloud of black smoke.
My mouth hung open, and I blinked to make sure I hadn’t imagined the whole scene.
“Aw, shit!” I yelled. “Did you see that?” I asked an old man who was coming down the footpath, indignation seething in my voice, and I held up the leash and empty collar.
“I did, poor dog…”
“I can’t believe it. Who does that? Who just picks up a dog off the street and drives away?” I was so fired up my arms felt like pistons and it was hard to catch my breath.
The old guy frowned. He seemed to hesitate.
“Mate, I’ve got to get that dog back. She doesn’t belong to me.” I felt sick.
“Well, I’m sorry to say you probably won’t get her back. Been a spate of dog thefts around here.”
I shook my head. “No, no. I have to get her back.” I pulled my phone out of my pocket to ring Howie.
“There’s a racket going on,” he continued. “Dog fights in the mangroves north of here. They’ve been pinching little dogs like that one for bait.”
“Bait?” I looked up from my phone.
“Yep, it gives their dogs a taste for blood.”
My face contorted in horror. Shandy was nasty but no dog deserved that.
He continued, “And they snatch big dogs for fighting. Tough breeds, you know, like that Bulldog over there.” He clicked his tongue. “People really should be more careful…”
The other dogs! I turned to collect them.
The man called after me. “Deep Water Bend. That’s where the police think the fights are held. Not that they’ve been able to prove anything… I’d stay away if I were you. Bikie gangs and thugs.” He shook his head. “Nasty lot.”
Howie very helpfully got hung up on the fact that I hadn’t used Shandy’s harness. “Dog-treat first. Then the harness, Shaun. She’s a dog of routine.”
I scrunched my eyes in aggravation. “She’s dog of hell, Howie. She nearly gnawed off my finger,” I said from his beanbag chair. “And she’s about to become a chewy toy for Pitt Bulls.”
“Not if I can stop it. We’re going to get her back or we can kiss our business plan and cushy future goodbye. You do realise who her owners are?” He gave me a ‘Hello?’ look.
I mirrored his expression. I had been rather busy, single-handedly keeping the operations happening, thank-you-very-much.
“Roland Beckett is the CFO of Futuræ Financial.” He searched for signs of recognition. “The source of investors for WonderDogz?”
“Oh,” I said roundly.
“And Serena Beckett is a major patroness of the RSPCA. Very well connected. Last time I checked, nearly a third of our business had come from word-of-mouth, specifically Mrs Beckett’s mouth.”
“Right.” I dragged my fingers down my face. “So what do we do? We’ve got everything wrapped up in this business.” I sank into angst.
Howie, on the other hand, was in his element. Problem-solving brought out his inner Jack Black. “Well… I reckon we rock up to the fights tonight as if we are going to bet – or whatever – and when no one’s looking, we grab Shandy and skedaddle.”
I looked at him. “Oh, you’re kidding.” I laughed, but he didn’t join in. “Wait. You’re serious?”
He nodded. “I did a little schnooping after you rang…” Schnooping was Howie’s word for hacking. “…and I found a forum that had a phone number, which I’ve sent a text to. When they get back to us, we’ll know when and where.” He grinned and wriggled his brows.
“Dude, I’ve got it covered. You just turn up.” He looked me up and down. “And maybe wear something different. Like, lose the glasses. And the Tardis tee.”
“You’re worried about wardrobe? Howie, in all your ‘schnooping’, did you not discover that dog fighting is linked to organised crime? Drug trafficking and stuff?”
He let out a pffft sound and waved his hand. “Only in America. It’s pretty low-key in Australia.”
“Outlaw biker gangs are not ‘low-key’. What if they track us? I can’t believe you used your personal mobile number. What if they catch us?” My mouth went dry.
He shook his head slowly. “You are making this into something it’s not. Look, Shaun: You’re great at operations. Your strength is organisation. Efficiency. Customer service. Mine is creative problem solving. You do your thing; I’ll do mine.” He paused. “What we need is cash. How much can you get your hands on?” He rubbed his hands together.
Something snapped. For once I was unmoved by his manipulation. “None. Zilch. No. There is no way we are going to ‘rock up’ to the dog fights. And we are not putting my money into illegal activity.” I set my jaw. “We’ll get Shandy back, but we’re doing it my way.”
Later that night, we stood on the landing of a high-set fibro house, tugging down the ill-fitting Chubby Checker’s Pizza uniforms we’d borrowed from Howie’s kinda-sorta girlfriend Linda. I held the hotbox and he pressed the buzzer. We waited, staring at the blue paint flaking off the door.
“I’ll do the talking, right?” he said.
“Fine.” I could barely swallow, let alone talk. Traffic noise from a distant highway droned through the mangroves, and cicadas shrilled. It could have been any old house, a rundown, lonesome place where someone’s crazy granny lived on her own. Only the van in the drive and the bunch of motorcycles parked at the side set it apart.
“Ring again,” I said after a couple minutes of waiting. He pressed the buzzer long and hard. This time we felt movement. The door opened as far as the chain allowed, revealing a sliver of a guy.
“Your pizza,” Howie said.
The guy shifted and eyeballed both of us. “I didn’t order a pizza, mate.”
“Somebody here did.” Howie cleared his throat. “It’ll be $13.50.”
The guy scratched his head. “Hang on. I’ll see if Jeff ordered it.” The door closed, and we waited. And waited.
“What the hell’s ‘Jeff’ doing?” Howie asked. He buzzed again.
The door opened and the same voice said, “Jeff reckons he didn’t order pizza.”
“Look,” Howie said, pulling out his mobile phone. He rattled off the phone number from the hacked forum. “That’s where the order came from. I’ve already had one hoax order tonight, and I don’t need another. The boss takes it out of my pay.”
The chain rattled and the door opened. “The number’s right…” He pulled out a thick wad of green bills and peeled off a note.
My eyes widened, but Howie didn’t flinch. “Mate, you can’t expect me to change a hundred.”
The guy sighed. “Hang on…” He was about to close the door.
“Uh- sorry… he needs the toilet.” Howie pushed me forward. “First night on the job… nerves… Any chance?”
The guy looked dubious. His eyes dropped to my chest, and the corners of his mouth curled. He pointed left. “End of the hall.”
Howie motioned to the glowing computer screen. “A fellow gamer,” he said to the guy. “Alliance or Horde?”
I found the toilet and relieved myself. As I washed my hands in the half basin, I saw the reason for the guy’s amused look. Embroidered across the uniform pocket in reverse script was ‘Linda’.
On my way back, I quietly peeked behind doors off the hall. Closet. Bedroom. The last one was closed. As soon as I put my hand on the knob, I heard sniffing from the crack under the door – and scratching.
The guy turned around mid-sentence and I dropped my hand and entered the lounge. “Thanks,” I said. “Did you find the change for the pizza?”
“Got side-tracked,” he said. “Be right back.” He went out through the kitchen. A screen door banged.
“Something’s in there,” I whispered. “Can you keep him busy?”
Howie nodded. He sucked in a breath and headed for the back door.
I opened the door, and dog smell wafted into my nostrils. Half a dozen dog faces looked up at me. “Far out.” I scanned the animals. Shandy’s head bobbed up and she dashed toward me. I scooped her up. “Oh man, I never thought I’d be glad to see you.” She licked my face and nuzzled me. I turned to leave but the pack of small dogs wound around my feet, jumping up and pawing at my legs. “Sorry guys,” I whispered, “I can’t.” But I couldn’t leave them to the horrible fate that awaited them. I gathered up what I could hold, a Foxie and a trembling Chihuahua, and left.
A few seconds later, I was hauling butt up the dirt road, barely containing the wriggling animals. I clambered into my sister’s 1983 Corolla and cranked the ignition, but it wouldn’t fire. “Come on!” I urged. Finally, the motor chugged to life. I reversed wildly up the street to the driveway. “Move it, Howie,” I said to no one and thumped the steering wheel.
Finally Howie burst out, taking three steps at a time. Poking out of the hotbox was a furry cluster of dogs.
He climbed in. “Step on it!”
I did and the car fishtailed up the road, kicking up gravel and backfiring at the bend in the distance.
Howie’s adrenaline-fuelled victory high ended abruptly when we pulled up at the Becketts’. Their car sat in the drive and the house was lit up.
“Weren’t they away overnight?” Howie asked.
“That’s what the note said.” We sat silently. “We are so busted. I hope you’ve got a good story.”
“I’ve got nothing,” Howie said. “Might as well face the music. Coming?”
Howie rang the bell, and I stood in the yard, holding Shandy, who’d become quite attached to me. The veranda light came on, and Mrs Beckett peered through the bevelled glass to the side of the door.
“Ah, Howard. I was just about to ring you. I think we need to have a little talk…”
“I can explain everything, Serena…”
“Hang on a minute. Roland wants a word with you, too.” She turned and called out, “Rollie, Howard is here.”
My stomach lurched and I felt light-headed. This was the part when the adult would tell us off for being irresponsible losers, hopeless dreamers. Dad was right: I just should have gone to uni.
Roland appeared behind her and said, “Howard, my boy, I need to have a word.”
“Yes sir. That’s Shaun, my business partner.” Howie motioned to me. Sweat glistened on his upper lip.
“Come on up, Shaun.”
As I walked up the stairs, Mrs Beckett did a double take to look at the dog in my arms. “Isn’t she lovely? Just like Shandy.”
Right on cue, a pale golden Lhasa Apso emerged from the house. She sniffed my foot and let out a menacing rattle.
“Shandy! Enough!” Serena scolded. “Sorry, Shaun, she does that with some people.”
Howie and I swapped wild-eyed looks.
“First, Howard, thank you for cleaning up her mess. Next time, a little air freshener wouldn’t go astray. There’s a can in the loo.” Serena put her hand on Howie’s forearm. “We are quite upset that you left Shandy in the backyard when no one was home. Bette from next door found Shandy digging under the fence.”
“I… I…” Howie stammered.
Roland said, “We can’t risk leaving Shandy outside, even if she messes in the house. There’s been a spate of dog thefts in the area.”
Serena picked up Shandy protectively. “And the thieves are brazen! I’ve heard stories of people walking right into a house to steal a pet. Can you imagine the audacity?”
Both of us shook our heads in sync.
I looked down at the dog in my arms. Oh crap…
Alison Stegert’s writer website: www.oneyearinink.wordpress.com
The Australian Literature Review