The 1st installment of Shojai's dark, female-driven domestic thriller series featuring pet-centric plots: A young woman races a Texas blizzard to save her autistic nephew from a deadly secret others will kill to protect--and the service dog she's trained finds his true purpose, when he disobeys. AN AUNT searches for her lost nephew--and dooms her sister. A MOM gambles a miracle will cure--and not kill--her child. A DOG finds his true purpose--when he disobeys. Animal behaviorist September Day has lost everything--husband murdered, career in ruins, confidence shot--and returns home with her trained Maine Coon cat Macy to Texas to recover. She's forced out of hibernation when her nephew Steven and his autism service dog Shadow disappear in a freak blizzard. When her sister trusts a maverick researcher's promise to help Steven, September has 24 hours to rescue them from a devastating medical experiment impacting millions of children, a deadly secret others will kill to protect. As September races the clock, the body count swells. Shadow does his good-dog duty but can't protect his boy. Finally September and Shadow forge a stormy partnership to rescue the missing and stop the nightmare cure. But can they also find the lost parts of themselves? PRAISE FOR THE BOOK! "Amy Shojai's Lost And Found wraps family secrets, murder, and medical miracles around the small form of an autistic child. Riveting, heart-wrenching, and brilliant, here is the debut of a stunning talent." --James Rollins, New York Times bestseller of Bloodline "Take a clever dog, an autistic boy, and toss in greed, corruption, and out-of control scientific experimentation and you have the makings of Lost And Found, a fun story filled with twists, turns, and a large dose of intrigue." -D. P. Lyle, Award-winning author of the Dub Walker Thriller Series
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A September Day and Shadow Thriller
LOST AND FOUND
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Second Print Edition, February 2017
Furry Muse Publishing
Print ISBN 978-1-944423-17-9
eBook ISBN 978-1-944423-18-6
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author or Furry Muse Publishing except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
First Published by Cool Gus Publishing
First Printing, September 2012
COPYRIGHT © Amy Shojai, 2012
P.O. Box 1904
Sherman TX 75091
HIDE AND SEEK: Prologue
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
September Day sloshed another half cup of coffee into the giant #1-Bitch mug, and glared out the frosty breakfast nook windows. North Texas didn’t get snow. That’s why she’d moved back home—well, one of several reasons. She shivered, relishing the warmth of the beverage, and toasted the storm with a curse. “Damn false advertising.” Her cat Macy meowed agreement.
The blizzard drove icy wind through cracks in the antique windows and made the just-in-case candles on the dark countertop sputter. She pulled the fuzzy bathrobe closer around her neck. Normally the kitchen’s stained glass spilled peacock-bright color into the kitchen. Not today, though. The reinforced security grills on the windows and dark clouds outside transformed the room’s slate floor, bright countertops and brushed-steel appliances into a grim cell.
Overhead lights flickered on, off and back on again. They’d done that for the past hour. Crap. More stuff for the contractors to fix. One candle guttered in the draft, and September mentally added window caulk to her list. She prayed the electricity wouldn’t go out, since the backup generator in the garage would take finagling to find, let alone to start.
She added a dollop of flavored cream to her cup, and replaced the lid that kept Macy’s paws at bay. The longhair sable and white cat sat like a furry centerpiece on the rose-patterned glass table. He mewed in frustration when September set her covered mug next to the muffin saucer he’d already licked clean. A white paw patted the cup’s lid.
September plopped into one of four wrought iron chairs, and pulled the mug out of the cat’s reach. “Nope, I know where you put your feet.”
Macy paced. His tail dry-painted September’s cheek and wove in and out of her long wavy mane. Green slanted eyes, coffee-dark hair, hidden claws and enigmatic smile—she’d been told more than once that she and the cat matched in both personality and looks. Mom wanted her to dye the white skunk streak at her left temple, but September couldn’t be bothered, not anymore. In Mom’s high-falutin’ social circles of perfectly coifed dowagers it served as a thumb-your-nose warning to keep strangers at bay.
She gave the cat’s elevator-butt pose a final pat, and opened the DayMinder. Macy made a disgusted mffft sound, gathered himself and vaulted to the top the fridge. “Sure, go ahead and sulk. You’re wired enough without caffeine.”
Outside, gusts flailed the November blooms of the Belinda’s Rose against the window beside the new steel door. At least the cold couldn’t sneak through that barrier. In fact, the temperature change had shifted the door frame so much that it took an enormous effort to latch. That was fine with her. If it was hard to latch, the door offered even more security.
The weather not only derailed her schedule, the cold hurt like a bastard. September wrapped both hands around the mug. Her fingernails had already turned blue-white, and she couldn’t feel her toes despite insulated ski socks and slippers. Not even flannel PJs, long underwear and a thick robe proved adequate against the weather.
She checked the thermostat for the third time—68 degrees—to save money, for crying out loud. “Screw it.” Some old habits she could afford to break. She cranked the dial to 78, blessing the contractors for the gas-fueled furnace and hot water tanks.
Her DayMinder was choked with appointments, notes, and prompts. She’d entered most of them on her new Blackberry, currently charging on the counter, but preferred the old-fangled paper version. “Busy is good. Except on snowy days.”
Macy mewed again. He always wanted the last word. Damn, she hated deadlines, but hated missed ones more. After convincing the contractors to work around other commitments, she had won the argument with family to host the Thanksgiving dinner in two weeks, but now weather threatened to derail everything.
Nothing she could do about drywall. Hell, she didn’t want to risk the roads in this weather either. But she could damage control other deadlines she’d have to miss. She’d already left a message with the lawyers postponing the deposition on the dog bite case since she couldn’t evaluate the dogs at the shelter until the weather settled. But fast talk and a good phone connection might allow her to keep other appointments. September dialed, sticking her free hand beneath her armpit to warm her fingers.
“WZPP, you’ve reached ZAP105 FM Radio, giving you the best easy-listening 24/7, how may I direct your call?”
“Hey, Anita, it’s September. Could you—”
“Feels more like December.”
September rolled her eyes. “Ha ha, funny lady, never heard that before. C’mon, it’s cold and I’m in a pissy mood. Could you cut the jokes for once?”
“I’ve been here all night, still wondering how to get home, so my bad mood trumps yours, kiddo.” Anita paused to blow her nose. “You want to talk to Humphrey, I guess. I’ll connect.”
Before she could say another word, September was plunged into the station’s easy-listening hell. The thirty seconds lasted a lifetime before Humphrey’s Jolly-Green-Giant voice broke in.
“ZAP, this is Humphrey Fish.”
“It’s me, September. I can’t make it to the station. We’ll have to do a phoner for the Pet Peeves program today.” Before he could protest, she added a sweetener. “I’ll do it for free. And there’ll be a bunch of calls today with everything shut down, so the sponsors won’t care.” Macy chirruped, and dove off his favorite perch to wind around her ankles.
“Did you bring this sucky weather with you?” Humphrey didn’t soften his sarcasm. September imagined him bouncing up and down, a human beach ball with legs. “I thought Hoosiers drove in snow nine months out of the year, and now you’re afraid of a little flurry?”
“There’s a reason I moved.” Let him think the move was only about the weather, she thought, swallowing a slug of the strong coffee. “Have you snuck outside your little glass box lately? It’s the freakin’ ice age out there.”
Humphrey snorted. “Never took you for a weenie, September.”
If only he knew. “I know how to drive. It’s the local amateurs that scare the crappiocca out of me. Texans hit the gas to get out of it quicker.” Macy mewed his agreement and patted her leg.
Humphrey’s exasperation made him sound like a weasel on steroids. “C’mon, in-studio was part of the deal. And you’ve only been here once. Have something against leaving home, do you?” He paused. “Can we hurry this up? There’s a live promo in thirty seconds.”
September bit back a retort. She could leave the house anytime she wanted. It wasn’t as if she lived in fear, not at all. She’d moved home to be closer to family. But when the Chicago habit of looking over her shoulder had been broken in South Bend, look what had happened.
She mentally shook herself. Once her hands and feet adjusted, she’d better tolerate the cold, and could run over to the radio station as promised. Besides, the Reynaud’s episodes never lasted for long. And she wanted the radio platform. Her breath quickened at the thought of leaving the house. She hated driving on snow, that was why—but she told herself anything worthwhile came with hurdles.
“Okay. I’ll get there. Just let me get caffeinated first. Oh, and put the state police on speed dial, ready to have them thaw me out of a drift come next May.” She heard him snort back a chuckle and her shoulders relaxed. She wouldn’t have to leave the house.
“Okay, okay already, you win. But call in five minutes before. No, make that ten minutes before air. Use a landline. Cell phones are shit on air. We’ll run with an expanded Pet Peeves, and double-up on the calls. I’ll promo between now and then to get email questions to start us off. Frog-on-a-stick, gotta run.”
The sudden dead air ended the conversation. The ten-minute weekly pet advice show got the word out better than paid ads; although the tiny stipend Humphrey called a paycheck barely covered the cost of caffeine. Her pet behavior consulting business included advice by phone, although in-person training was ideal, and the radio show and her regular column in the local paper drove more than enough clients to her subscription-only pet advice website.
Besides, she didn’t need much, and never would again. Chris had seen to that. She took a shuddering breath. Just a random thought bushwhacked her emotions. Christopher Day was supposed to have been part of her dreams, THEIR dreams.
September chugged half of the too-sweet coffee. She cradled the oversize mug, treasured for more than the warmth. Chris had bought it for her at a dog show. They’d often exchanged crap gifts for no reason, just to make each other smile. It was his last gift.
She set the mug down with a clunk. Macy grumbled and pressed his forehead against her socks. She stooped to smooth his fur, and her tight throat relaxed. “Thanks, buddy, but I’m fine.”
Macy dashed across her foot on the way to the window. Outside, a cardinal—cat toy—fluttered against the glass before it disappeared into the white swirl. The cat peered into the snow, gazed up at September, mewed and pawed the glass.
“No way, Macy. Go grab Mickey, or maybe a real mouse. Do something productive. The snow will drive critters inside, guaranteed.” She grinned, and offered a bribe. Bribes were legal with cats. “Later we’ll play laser tag, okay?”
The cat reacted to the “play” word, and leaped onto the wrap-around counter that edged three-quarters of the kitchen proper. He trotted to the corner cupboard next to the fridge, and pawed open the door. Macy scrabbled inside, his plume tail drawing figures in the air, and backed out dragging the stuffed mouse toy by one ear. He pushed the toy to the edge of the counter, dropping Mickey at her feet, and meowed with expectation.
Confinement bored the active Maine Coon cat, never mind he slept away most of the day. The Victorian house’s renovations offered too many hidey holes where Macy could disappear behind a wall. Until work was complete, she confined the cat to kitchen-jail, and pet gate barriers made the stairway and entries to her office and front parlor off limits.
Today she could spend the day with Macy in the kitchen, the warmest room in the house, especially while the nearby clothes dryer shared its heat. She stooped, caught up the Mickey, and made eye contact with Macy. She waved one finger at the cat. He sat up and “begged.”
“If you want it, then speak, Macy.” When he meowed on cue, she tossed the toy across the room. “Kill it, kill it!” Macy raced after it, grappled the toy, fell on his side and bunny-kicked Mickey into submission.
September gulped another slug of coffee and checked her watch. Time enough for a hot shower before the radio show. Before she’d shuffled halfway across the kitchen, the Blackberry chirruped. September hurried to grab the phone where it charged on the countertop before Macy decided to attack it like his toy.
September glanced at the display, sighed, and answered. “Hello, Mom.”
“Holy catfish, we’ve already got six inches and it’s still dumping everywhere! What’s the weather like there?”
“I live seven miles away from you. What do you think?” The overhead lights remained a bright, steady glow. “I’ve got a generator in the garage if it gets worse, but so far the heat and lights are good.” She watched Macy grab his Mickey and stash it back into his favorite cupboard.
“But you still have drywall to do. Doesn’t the weather have to be good for drywall work?” She hesitated before rushing on. “I know you wanted the housewarming on Thanksgiving, dear. Maybe next year instead.”
“Not a housewarming. We’ve been over this. I’m having the whole family here for Thanksgiving.” Macy left the cupboard and returned to paw September’s leg, one claw snagging the fabric. She bent to unhook the nail. “There’s two weeks to get it done, Mom.”
“I’d have Thanksgiving here except it’s our year for Christmas. I don’t want to miss the grandbabies opening their presents.” She wheedled. “Can’t have the little ones toddling through open walls at your work-in-progress.”
September ran a hand through her hair. Grandbabies trumped everything in the January clan, and since all she had were “fur-kids” she ranked low on the totem pole.
“We could gather at your brother’s, or even one of the girls’.”
“Mom, stop.” She bit her lip, and struggled to keep her temper in check.
“I’ll make some calls, honey. Don’t you worry a bit.”
“I said no.” September took a breath. “Look, Mom, let me do this. I need to do this. It’ll be fine.” She’d only been back in Heartland for a few months, but it didn’t take long to remember why she’d left home and stayed away for ten years. “I’ve got everything planned. The kitchen’s finished, plumbing and electrical passed inspection, and the security system works great. Remember, I told you and Dad the password when I gave you the extra keys?” She kept talking when her mother would have interrupted. “Dining room furniture will be here next week.” She noticed the candles dripping wax on the new granite countertop, and blew them out. “Macy’s pet gates work just as well for kids.”
“Don’t be stubborn and spoil the holiday for everyone.”
The doorbell bonged, followed by immediate pounding that made September’s pulse thrum. “Mom, someone’s at the door. Don’t worry, Thanksgiving will be great. For once, just trust me.”
She punched off the phone to stop further argument. Pounding knocks took turns with the doorbell chimes. Nobody in their right mind would be out in this mess. She carefully stepped through and latched the pet gate before hurrying to the front entry.
Three deadbolts secured the stained glass front door. September peered through wavy glass and her heart leaped with sudden nerves. This couldn’t be good.
Two uniformed cops stood on the front step, their shoulders powdered with white. September tightened the belt of her robe and smoothed unruly hair as though that would calm her racing pulse. She pressed the button beside the door to activate the speaker. “Can I help you?”
The bigger man answered. “Ma’am. I’m Officer Leonard Pike, and this is my partner, Officer Jeff Combs.” Pike was almost a foot taller than her own five-feet-six-inches. His bulky long coat didn’t camouflage his extra sixty pounds. A single black unibrow rose above horn-rimmed glasses, and his earflap hat sat too high to fully protect his bald head.
“Do you have identification?” Chris had taught her well. Unexpected visits never brought good news. Police don’t do social calls.
Both men pressed identification against the glass. “Can we come in?”
She unlocked all three deadbolts and cracked the door as far as the chain allowed, but didn’t invite them in. September shivered in the brutal wind. If she invited them in, she could close and lock the door again. But she didn’t want strangers in her house. “What can I do for you?” She hoped they’d take the hint and leave quickly.
“We’re on our way back from an accident.” Officer Combs looked half his partner’s age. Despite the youthful expression and athletic carriage, worry lines and the cleft chin relieved an otherwise too pretty face. “There’s smoke pouring out the side of your house. Over there.” He waved.
“Smoke? Oh crap! Come in already. But lock the door behind you.” She rushed back into the kitchen. “Has to be the clothes dryer.” September fumbled with the pet door into the kitchen, racing to the adjoining laundry room, one of the first rooms the contractors had finished. When she opened the door, white smoke filled the upper half of the room. “Why the hell didn’t my alarm go off?” The contractor would hear about this.
Officer Combs caught her arm to stop her rush into the room. “Do you have an extinguisher? Where’s your breaker box?” He turned to the older officer. “Call it in, why don’t you, Lenny?” He pulled off his hat, and his light brown hair crackled and stood off his head with static electricity.
September jerked away from his touch. “We’ll have it out before they get here in the snow.” She hurried into the tiny room where the clothes dryer nestled against the wall and couldn’t be easily unplugged. “Aw, hell.” She punched buttons on the dryer until it stopped, pulled open the door of the front loader, and watched with disbelief as acrid smoke flowed out. “The machine’s not even three weeks old.”
Bending low, Combs viewed September’s unmentionables. “No fire. Caught it in time.” He straightened with a grin. “I’ve been curious to see the inside of the Ulrich place since I was a kid. Didn’t want it to burn before I got the chance.”
September kicked the dryer and winced, remembering too late she was wearing slippers. “Need to call the company. At least it’s under warranty.” Just want she needed, a game of telephone gotcha with the store. Nothing was easy.
“Ma’am? Do you need us to call for assistance?” Pike leaned his oversize frame against the doorway, pulling off his gloves to fish a tissue from his pocket and honked his nose into it. “That’s some smell. Might want to open the window or crack the door.” He nodded toward the solid door in the nearby breakfast nook. “Smoke will set off your kitchen alarm if you don’t air it out.” Pike looked around the room, tossing the used tissue in the trash before adjusting his cap.
“That door stays locked.” It was too hard to mess with once it finally latched.
“Why?” Pike raised his eyebrow. “Any putz could pop that lock in sixty seconds.”
She flinched, and eyeballed the door. “That’s not what the contractor said.”
He shrugged with a “whatever” gesture. “Locks are a specialty of mine.”
September pulled a step stool out of a cupboard to reach and open the small window. At least there was no intruder danger by leaving it open. Nobody could wiggle through but a Munchkin with wings. She shivered, stepped off and folded the stool.
Combs stared at September. “Are you okay, Ms.—”
“Oh. I’m September Day.”
Pike cocked his head. “September, like the month, and—er, Day like the—uh, day of the week?” He jabbed Combs with an elbow. “Is she kidding?”
“Yes, the name’s just like the month.” September sighed. Her parents, Rose and Lysle January, cleverly named their kids for their birthday months. Her sisters born in the spring got off easy and by the time baby brother came along in March, Mom and Dad settled for the more conventional Mark. Meanwhile, she’d been stuck with September January, no middle name needed. After 28 years she’d heard every joke possible. Chris teased her that she’d married him just to change her name. She’d joked back they should name their first child Happy. At the time, it didn’t seem important, since she had no interest in starting a family. . .
Combs frowned. “Are you sure you’re all right? You can call me Jeff.” He smiled again.
She shook off the memory and forced a smile. After all, the man had saved her house. “Jeff. Thank you. I’m fine, just pissed.” She shooed them out of the laundry room into the kitchen and followed with the step stool. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got cleanup to do.”
He had kind eyes. Brown. Like Dakota’s. She caught Pike’s amused expression before he coughed into another tissue and looked away. Wasn’t that just dandy.
“You’re one of the January girls, right?” Combs wouldn’t leave it alone. “My sister Naomi went to school with one of your sisters.”
She considered him more carefully. Officer Jeff Combs might be a couple inches shorter than Pike, but his lanky frame and loose gait offered a boyish contrast to his overweight partner. Still tan from the past summer’s sun, he had crow’s feet that advertised humor, stress, or both. Combs was at least five years older than she, maybe more. “Probably May or June?” She’d skipped a couple of grades in high school, so she was younger than most in her class.
“June, that’s right.” He nodded. “You were behind us, but then you took off before graduation on that music tour thing.” He pulled on his hat. “What brings you back to Heartland?”
She urged them to the front door. “Thanks again. Sorry, but I don’t feel real sociable at the moment.” She had come home to start fresh and get away from the ghosts that stalked her—real and imagined. She had no interest in rehashed history.
Pike pulled on heavy gloves, adjusting his hat and turtling his neck down into his collar as he duck-walked to stay vertical on the slick path back to the patrol car.
Combs paused. “Listen, Ms. Day—September. Is it okay to call you September? I wondered, you being new back in town and all—”
“Officer, uhm, Jeff. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve got a phone call to make. Thanks again. You saved my bacon.” She started to close the door.
“Sure, I understand. Busy day. Maybe another time?” He handed her his card, and a twinkle lightened the shadow in his expression. “At least it’s a good day to wear hot clothes.” He turned and hurried to the car.
Despite herself, September chuckled. So Officer Combs was a wise-ass; she liked that in a person.
She shut the door, shooting the deadbolts and rattling the knob to be sure it caught. Time enough later to throw out scorched laundry. She needed to call Humphrey Fish five minutes ago, and she’d better be scintillating as hell or he’d make her pay.
September raced back to the kitchen, climbed the step stool, pried the smoke detector off the ceiling and shoved it in a drawer. She didn’t need sirens interrupting the phone call. September cut Anita off before she could say a word. “Patch me through to the studio line. I’m already late.”
“Your ass is so dead.” Anita put her on hold for ten seconds, which forced her to listen to Humphrey’s on-air introduction. She seethed at his tone.
“Why looky there, furry friends and neighbors, September just blew in. She’s finally ready to offer us the best kitty and puppy advice available. Nice of you to join us, your highness. Didja overindulge in the catnip last night?”
“Greetings and salutations your own self, Mr. Fish.” Uh oh, this would be rough. “Catnip’s not a bad idea. It’s a kitty hallucinogen and will take your cat’s mind off the nasty weather.” She hurried on before he could interrupt with another crack. “I hope all the pet parents listening out there have brought their animals indoors for the duration.”
“Hey, they’ve got fur coats, so what’s the big deal?” He laughed. “Not like some of us hair-challenged humans, right?”
She jerked the phone away from her head. He’d turned up the volume to punish her without the audience any the wiser. Two could play that game. “Scaly fish are cold blooded creatures after all.”
“Oooh, so you’re gonna be catty, are you? Pull in your claws and give us some Pet Peeves de-tails.”
“You step on my tail, I’ll hiss back, Mr. Fish.” A breath calmed and settled her into the rhythm of the show. “Even furry cats and dogs risk frostbite or hypothermia in weather like this. See, the fur helps hold body heat next to the skin to keep them toasty. Wind can strip that warmth away, and the wet keeps the fur from insulating them. Their ears, toes, tails, even the scrotum can freeze.”
“Blue balls. I love it when you talk dirty. Let’s take some calls. Hello, you’re on the air with Pet Peeves and September Day, what’s your question?”
September braced herself. God only knew what callers she’d get after that intro.
“Uh, hi, I got a wiener dog. I left him outside overnight. Now he’s a pup-sicle.” Maniacal laughter bubbled until Fish disconnected the call.
“That’s a good one. This is Humphrey Fish with September Day’s Pet Peeves. September, what do you have to say to our wiener dog fella? C’mon, I know he’s obnoxious but toss him a bone.”
She winced, but didn’t hesitate. “All jokes aside, the smaller the pet, the greater the danger. Also, y’all may end up with some hit-or-miss potty behavior as a result of the storm, because little dogs just don’t want to squat in a snow bank and get their nether regions cold.”
“We’ve got a theme going.” Fish guffawed, but it was forced. “Let’s take another caller. Hello, you’re on the air with Humphrey Fish and Pet Peeves. Do you have a question for September? Let’s make this one serious.”
“Hey there. Thanks for taking my call.” The man hesitated. “My name is Fred, and I’m worried about my mom’s cats. They pee all over the house. How do you make ‘em stop?”
“How about a cork?” Fish chortled, the best audience for his own jokes.
“Mr. Fish, not everyone’s anatomy accommodates your personal hygiene routines, but I’m sure listeners appreciate the suggestion.” She’d had just about enough of him. “As for the cats, there are several questions to answer before I could help.” She heard a beep-click on the line, and recognized the call-waiting signal. She checked caller ID, and rolled her eyes. “How many cats does your mother have?” September waited for the radio guest to respond.
“Three. She’s had them for years, but it’s only been a problem the past couple months.”
“Three cats, okay. How old are they? And how many litter boxes does she have?”
“One of them is sixteen, I think, because she got Sheba when I was a freshman at the university. The others are two or three. She got them together. They’re all boys. Does that matter?” A breath. “I don’t know how many litter boxes, but they sure ain’t using them.”
Fish broke in. “Thanks for your question. We’ve got to take a station break, but September will be right back with all the answers to your litter box woes. Keep those phone calls coming.” The music swelled and the taped commercial played. “Got you a new attitude today, do you?”
“I’ve had a hellacious morning.” September heard the beep-click again—same caller—and once more ignored it. “This won’t happen again.”
“You don’t understand. The callers love the new edginess. The phone lines lit up. They love your catty comments.”
September stared at the phone. “You’re kidding.”
“Swear to god, September. The bitchy comebacks are great. I can dish it out if you’re up for it.” He paused. “It’s great radio. Trust me. Just keep it clean. Sorta.”
“Uh, sure. Whatever you think works.” She still wasn’t convinced. “Let me get this straight. You’re going to be snide, and I’m supposed to put you down?”
“Exactly,” he said. “Now pin on your sparkly bitch pin, and turn on the wise-ass to answer that litter box question. We’re going live in five.”
A long pause filled the airspace before the Dr. Doolittle “Talk to the Animals” theme came on and faded out followed by Fish’s introduction. “We’re back with Pet Peeves. I’m Humphrey Fish trading barbs with September Day. Me-ouch.”
“Don’t get your tail in a twist.” Better start off mild. She still didn’t trust him and didn’t want to get canned. “Before the break, Fred told us about his mother’s three cats. Since they’ve not been problems before this, I’ll assume they’re neutered. Folks, ninety-eight percent of intact male kitties spray urine like its Chanel Number Five, so nipping those gonads in the bud—or butt, as Mr. Fish might say—takes care of that.”
“I resemble that remark.” Fish opened the door and waited for her comeback.
“I know you do. And I got to tell you, it’s unattractive.” The beep-click interrupted once more. September continued to ignore it. “Sixteen-year-old cats, just like aged humans, can develop health problems that cause increased urination and defecation.”
“Oh please, September, talk dirty to me again.” Fish chortled.
She smiled. This was fun.
“Enough already with the potty talk. We need to go to the next caller.”
“Sure thing. For more information listeners can click on PetPeeves.com.” There. She got in the plug since Fish wasn’t inclined.
“Caller, you’re on the air with Humphrey Fish and Pet Peeves. What’s your question?”
Quick breaths filled the long pause. “Is September there? Please, I need to talk to her.”
“I’m here. What’s your name? And do you have a pet question?” Dang, September hoped another break came before long. She needed her own litter box after so much coffee.
“September? Oh my God, September you’ve got to help me. Please, oh no oh no—”
“Calm down, I can barely understand you. Stop crying and speak up. I’ll try to help if I can.” Forget about the bitchy delivery, this one sounded serious.
“I tried and I tried to call you but your line was busy. The babysitter fell asleep, I could just kill her.” The voice broke. “I’ve looked and looked, but he’s nowhere around the house. You’ve got to track him.”
The call waiting. “April, is that you?” She’d blown off her sister three times. September’s mouth turned to dust.
“Steven’s gone,” April cried. “My baby’s out in the storm, him and the dog both are gone!”
Shadow raced off the path and buried his face deep in the drifted snow. The mouthful stung, numbing his tongue, and finally melted. He barked with surprised delight, grinned from both ends of his body and repeated the game, grabbing and tossing doggy snowballs as fast as he could munch.
He paused, black tail still churning the air, and stared at Steven. Maybe his boy would invite him closer?
But Steven never looked back, just plodded down the tree-lined trail. His boy ignored Shadow. Like always.
Snow blurred the route, but Steven followed the twists and turns with the confidence of one who has traveled the same track hundreds of times. Almost as if he could smell-sense the right foot placement with the keen skill of Shadow’s own nose.
A new game? Just the two of them to visit the happy-place with no big humans? And no itchy vest that pushed black fur the wrong way. Shadow danced his delight. He bent double to bite the snow that settled on his back like his gnawed tattered sock.
Before they had left the house, after the old woman had fallen asleep, Steven had reached for the vest. But it hung on a hook out of his boy’s reach. So his boy hung something else around Shadow’s neck. It bounced now against Shadow’s furry chest with each paw step forward. The cord wasn’t as long as the leash. Not nearly long enough for the other end to be attached to Steven’s wrist the way they practiced. And without the connection, Shadow was free to explore each side of the path, range ahead or lag behind.
Such smells. Such sounds. The cold focused every sensation until the world turned shiny bright, clean and sharp. Each white flake landed with a quiet “thpp” that made his long ears twitch, and tingled his skin at each grazed hair. Warm furry smells, rich and pungent...creatures burrowed deep out of sight tickled and teased that deep smell-place under his eyes. More, he wanted more.
Shadow raced in a tight circle, leaped high in the air to snap a withered leaf from a tree, and then dug frantically for no reason with mutters of joy. He panted, offering a happy tongue-lolling grin.
He stopped, cocked his big head to one side, and willed his boy to look at him. The white stuff clogged the air, blurring Steven’s distant figure. Wind shifted and scent—and his boy—disappeared. Another gust blew snow so hard Shadow couldn’t see, but it also brought back the familiar comfort of Steven’s signature smell.
Shadow barked, bounded ahead three leaps, and barked again. He saw Steven flinch and cover his ears with his bare hands, but continue to stomp forward. Shadow barked again, and bent low in a butt-high bow in the most blatant invitation to play he could muster.
They could chase each other. Eat the cold white stuff. Roll around on the ground until exhausted. Shadow wiggled, barely able to contain his excitement.
But his boy never turned to see. Steven stuffed his hands back into his pockets, and trudged on.
The pup’s tail slowed. He understood. The silent message shouted louder than the mouth-noise humans used. So he stood up and shook himself hard in a doggy shrug of disappointment. It wasn’t Steven’s fault. It was a good-dog’s job to teach his boy how to have fun.
Most humans didn’t dog-talk very well. So Shadow learned to watch their faces for clues to what all the mouth-noise meant. But his boy rarely varied his expressions, rarely vocalized, and spoke a different sort of body language than the adults. That was okay, though. Shadow was multilingual.
He figured out what some of the adult’s words meant, like “food” and “outside.” But more often, the big humans confused Shadow when they said one thing with their body and another with words. He never knew which to believe.
Steven wasn’t nearly so confusing.
But his boy still carried the fear-stink from earlier. Not as bad as the boy’s mother, but nasty all the same. Outside the house the cold wind washed away his fear-smell. Shadow whimpered at the thought, his ears flattened, and he hurried after Steven. A good-dog protected his boy, even if—ESPECIALLY if—scary people threatened.
Fear-stink made Shadow’s fur stand up and feel prickly. Prickly and ready to bite. But he wasn’t supposed to bite, ever. So he hated the fear-stink.
Shadow wanted to play. At the thought, his hackles smoothed. The cold, sharp day was made for play. For jumping and running, barking and peeing and digging out nose-tickling smells.
And fetching. He liked that word. The big humans never said the fetch-word enough.
Maybe they’d play when they reached the open field, the place with the metal climb objects. The happy place. His tail wagged at the thought. They visited the happy place almost every day, sometimes with the old woman and sometimes with the boy’s mother. Shadow played, and Steven made the swings move or stacked rocks. Like his boy, Shadow appreciated routine.
With renewed anticipation Shadow raced after his boy. Maybe Steven had brought the ball—that was another word he’d learned all on his own. Shadow loved his ball; it made the best fetch game ever. Almost as much fun as to grab and shake Bear-toy to kill it. Pretend kill it, anyway.
Shadow reached his boy’s side and trotted as close as possible without contact. Good-dogs stayed close to their people, and Shadow wanted to be a good-dog almost more than life itself.
Steven reached down and caught up the short cord suspended from Shadow’s neck, mimicking the leash walk connection they’d practiced so many times. The pup showed his teeth like the big humans did when they were happy. He’d practiced and learned to copy their smile. He was sad that they didn’t have tails to show joy and sadness, to warn and welcome. Shadow wondered why they never play-bowed. So Shadow learned to show happy teeth to help humans understand dog-talk better. They liked it, too.
He liked how his breath puffed white into the air. Panted breath surrounded his head in a cereal-scented white cloud. His boy’s breath did the same thing.
From the time he’d arrived at the house, Shadow had understood his world revolved around his boy. That’s how his boy’s mother wanted it. Shadow knew she was Steven’s mother because they smelled so much alike and because she treated his boy with the same ferocious care his own protective dam had shown.
But his boy’s mother was sad a lot of the time. Even when she smiled, the sorrow crept through. It confused him. Sometimes Shadow managed to make her laugh, like when he’d tripped over Bear-toy or chased his tail. Her laugh made a wonderful swell inside his chest. When she called him “good-dog-Shadow” the day Steven pushed cereal treats off the table for him to snap out of the air, that was best of all. He thought his chest would burst with happiness.
Another lady visited him every day—the treat-lady. She taught him words and special games with rules he tried to understand. Sometimes it took a long time for Shadow to figure out what she wanted. Once he did, she made him feel so smart and happy. She called him “good-dog” more than anybody. Shadow pictured her face and wagged again. Thought of the treat-smell that clung to her clothes made him drool.
The treat-lady showed him how to understand the mouth-noises people called words. Every time he guessed right, she made a “click” sound with her mouth and fed him a treat. It didn’t take Shadow long to figure out if he was a good-dog, he could make that click-treat happen. People had pockets filled up with yummy stuff for good-dogs, and hands made for scratching a dog’s hard-to-reach places.
Steven didn’t like the click noise, though. Shadow could tell, because his boy covered his ears. Shadow wished he could cover his ears sometimes, too. The big people didn’t mind the loud-hurt noises. The scary-noises today made him squat-and-pee until it stopped. Maybe only dogs and youngsters like his boy could hear those noises.
Anyway, Shadow only got to play the click-treat game when his boy stayed in the other room. Every few days the treat-lady spent a bunch of time with him, even longer than the daily visits.
He wondered why she didn’t stay all the time. He’d like that. A lot.
The treat-lady taught him what to do when she said sit or down or wait or come. Come was the hardest. Shadow always found something that smelled or sounded so wonderful that teased him to ignore the word, so he’d only gotten come right a couple of times. The treat-lady had been so excited and happy and called him “good-dog” many times. More times than he had paws—that was a lot—so he knew he’d done it right. She gave him tummy rubs and played fetch until his tongue hung to the floor and his tail was too tired to wag. But he wagged anyway. He couldn’t help wagging when she was near.
Maybe if he got everything right all the time, the treat-lady wouldn’t ever leave him. Wouldn’t that be fine?
Lately they’d practiced with his vest. He liked to race around the big room and drag the attached leash. He made it crash into the wire crate or splash into his water bowl, pretending that it chased him. But the treat-lady frowned and shook her head when he did that. She didn’t give him any treats or smile or anything. She ignored him.
Shadow hated to be ignored. It made his tummy hurt. That’s how he knew what not to do. He was smart that way.
The first time she picked up the end of the leash, he pulled hard and wagged his tail and woofed, sure they’d have a tug game like with Teddy, his bear-toy. Yet she didn’t want him to pull, either. How confusing.
But when he stood quiet and did nothing at all as Steven clipped the leash to his vest, the treat-lady laughed and rubbed his tummy, gave him a quiet “click” and a treat, and he knew he’d done something right. Imagine that—a good-dog for doing nothing at all? For walking without pulling and standing quiet until the treat-lady said “okay” which signaled Shadow to do whatever he wanted.
He liked the “okay” word almost as much as “good-dog.”
Shadow hurried along the snowy pathway, keeping pace with Steven. He didn’t pull against the makeshift tether and surge ahead or drag behind. He knew how to play this game. He’d learned the rules.
Overhanging trees and bushes bore the brunt of the wind, but Shadow’s nose and ear tips stung with the cold. He shook his head and licked his nose to warm it, and pulled the makeshift leash out of Steven’s hand. Shadow stopped and plopped his tail into the snow and waited, just as the treat-lady had taught. His boy paused, and felt along the line of Shadow’s throat and down his chest until he was able to retrieve the line. The boy’s touch thrilled the pup and made his tummy leap with happiness.
Shadow didn’t know why his boy never gave him tummy rubs, and didn’t like to play. But he figured out it was a good-dog’s job to teach his boy how to give tummy rubs and to play chase and fetch and all the other stuff that made life an adventure for human-pups and dog-pups alike.
Treat-lady hadn’t said so. Shadow figured that out all by himself. He was smart that way.
The pup wagged faster when they came out from under the trees into the open playground. He nudged his boy’s side with his muzzle. Was the ball in one of his pockets? He detected something hard, not a ball, with the acrid odor of the scary “POP-POP-POP” from the morning. Shadow wrinkled his nose.
Steven shuffled to the gate, fiddled with the latch, and entered. He dropped Shadow’s neck cord so the heavy end nestled into black fur. Nothing new here—his boy always let go once they arrived so Shadow could play and “take-a-break.” He’d learned that meant he should squat. Only after that was he allowed to play.
But either Steven’s mother or the old woman had always accompanied them before. The pup’s large pointed ears drooped and he whined. Being alone with his boy made him nervous.
The old woman helped take care of his boy. She smelled of dusty powder and bacon, and made him sneeze and drool at the same time. Her loud voice hurt Steven’s ears sometimes, but the pup knew she meant no harm. He liked her well enough, but would like her better if she shared the bacon.
Steven made a beeline for the playground equipment and didn’t shut the gate. Shadow’s unease deepened. His boy always opened it and the old woman always shut it. The gaped door looked wrong. But Shadow stepped through and slowly followed his boy anyway. Change to his routine, or to his boy’s routine was bad, scary. Deep vertical lines furrowed his brow. Shadow searched the empty playground for the old woman. Maybe she woke up from the sofa and would meet them here?
Steven trudged to the snow-filled canvas slings hung from chains that clanked in the breeze. He brushed one clear and twisted the long chains around and around. Once wound tight, he let go, watching without expression. The swing twirled, unwinding in the wind. He stared until it stopped, and again twisted the chains.
Shadow cocked his head for a moment and was comforted by the familiar game his boy played. Being alone with his boy was a new game, he decided. He needed to learn the rules. He shook himself and immediately felt better.
The pup trotted through the field to the farthest point inside the fence, and squatted without anyone to tell him to take-a-break. He told himself, “good-dog” but it wasn’t the same.
After an hour of doggy play and swing twirling, Shadow rejoined his boy’s side, like always. It was time. They always stayed just this long.
Steven held his neck cord like they always did. And they left through the street-side gate like they always did and walked two blocks to where his boy’s mother or the old woman always waited to drive them home. Shadow’s tail wagged at thought of the toasty warm car ride to come. The cold bit his nose, and he flinched and squinted into the wind. Steven stumbled, braced an arm against Shadow’s back to catch himself—and left his hand there. Shadow adjusted his pace to his boy’s.
Within minutes, the wind and snow had swept away all evidence they’d ever entered the playground at all.
September’s red Volvo slid into April’s driveway and skidded to a stop behind the yellow PT Cruiser parked in front of the blond brick ranch. Before she could climb out, April threw herself down the front steps and body slammed into the Volvo.
“He’s gone, I don’t know what to do, I looked around the house, the back gate’s open, and–”
“Calm down, slow down, I can’t understand you.” September hugged her hard to shut off the typical drama-queen babbling. April was three years older, but you’d never know it by her behavior. “Let’s get back into the house so we can talk.” September nervously scanned the landscape. She’d feel less vulnerable inside with the door locked.
Dark stains on both of April’s knees accented her soggy yellow sweats, and her frizzed hair and smeary makeup made it clear she’d been out in the weather without a coat. April, the “pretty one” of the sisters, had inherited Mom’s wavy blond hair, blue eyes and perky figure that made September feel like an awkward giraffe in comparison. September and her brother both took after their dad’s side of the family.
September urged her sister through the open door, locked it once safe inside, and immediately breathed easier. “When did you notice Steven was gone? Have you called the police?”
April twisted the ruby ring on her finger. “I left Steven with Wilma and drove to work just like always.” Her expression scorched the dainty red-haired woman who stood nearby.
“My son drove me here.” Wilma offered a half smile, before dabbing tears with a hanky.
“Really.” September turned to April, and couldn’t help the sarcasm. “You went to work in this weather? Did you expect folks to show up for jazzercise in the blizzard?”
“It’s not jazzercise.” April bulldozed on. “I had loyal clients scheduled; they’d show up on bobsleds to get there. I just left a sign on the door and a message on the machine that we closed due to weather, and I came home right away to find Wilma asleep and Steven gone.” Her voice hiccupped to silence.
Wilma hunched at the whip-hard words. Tears streaked down powdered cheeks.
“Wilma, what happened?” September stepped further into the living room. April’s house always looked ready for a photo shoot, but today a slurry of grime tracked over the bare hardwood gritted beneath her shoes. September wondered what had happened to the Persian carpet knockoff that usually covered the floor.
Wilma patted her pixie-cut hair with pudgy hands. “Cold weather makes me sleepy.” She dropped onto the charcoal sofa, and clutched a gray and yellow afghan throw to her chest. She refused to meet April’s thunderous expression. “I’m so sorry. But I’ve been praying for God to guide him home safe and sound.”
Before her sister could retort, September tried to draw the woman out. “I know it was an accident. But what happened before you fell asleep? Anything different, some clue why he’d leave or where he’d go?”
“Nothing happened. Same routine as always.” April fell into a matching chair, and then immediately bounced back to her feet. “Why are we jabbering when we could be searching? You’re the dog track expert, that’s why I called you. Find him. Please.” She whimpered the last word.
September tugged off her gloves and flexed her fingers to jump-start circulation. Wind rattled the picture window and peppered ice against its surface, and she shivered at the image of the tiny boy lost in the storm. At least the dog was with him. “We’ll run circles without some starting point.” If April hadn’t found Steven hunkered down near the house, there were infinite places to look. In this weather, a twenty minute detour in the wrong direction could be the difference between life and death.
Wilma cleared her throat. “We’ll find him. He can’t have been gone long. Like always, I fed him lunch at eleven, and turned the dog outside for a run.” She tugged the collar of her sweater and licked her lips. “I shouldn’t have napped, I know. But Steven always lets the pup back inside. You know how he insists on his little rituals. So when I heard the door open I didn’t think—”
“Didn’t think, you got that right.” April paced, the heels of her fashionable boots stabbing against the hardwood.
“I’d change things if I could.” Wilma clutched the cover like a fuzzy shield. “Anyway, when I heard the door open and close I figured Steven let the pup in. I had no idea the child would go out in this icy weather.”
“He’ll freeze, he’s going to freeze.” April hugged herself. “I should have been here, should have protected him.”
“His coat’s gone.” Wilma sounded hopeful. “It has a hood. He had on a sweater underneath and jeans with thick socks.”
“But only thin tennis shoes. They’ll soak through in no time.” April’s fierce accusation made the older woman flinch. “You know Steven hates having his hands covered; he won’t wear gloves.” She stopped at the front window. “Why are we talking about this? We have to find him!” She whirled to face September. “You have to find him.”
“You gave the police his description for the Amber Alert. There can’t be that many blond, green eyed seven year olds in yellow coats out alone in this weather, especially not with a big, black dog.” September pulled back the heavy sleeve of her coat to check her watch, grateful for the down-filled parka more appropriate to Indiana weather. “So he left sometime after eleven.” Steven’s jacket was little more than a windbreaker, but he’d stand out bumblebee bright against the snow. The little boy preferred anything yellow. “He’s been missing at least two hours, maybe longer. We can hope he’s holed up somewhere out of the wind.” Stuffing gloves into her giant pockets, she turned to April. “Where did you look? No need to waste time repeating the same search.”
“We turned the house upside down. He wasn’t in his bedroom or under the bed or in the closet where he likes to hide. Used to hide.” A fleeting look of pride lit her face. “He stopped hiding. Hasn’t for a couple of weeks now. He stopped stimming, too. Until, uhm, until this morning, and he started rocking again.”
“So what happened today?” The question was rhetorical. Nearly anything could turn a seven-year-old autistic child into a runaway, or more likely, a wander-away.
April crossed her arms. “When I couldn’t find him, I looked in the back yard. The gate was open. I went a little crazy then and ran around the outside of the house and yelled for him. The snow was only about three inches then but starting to drift, and I couldn’t see any tracks. I made a big mess around the back of the house, in and around the fence.” She paused. “I was afraid I’d mess up any way to trail him, you know, the way you do with dogs. So I stopped. That’s when I called you. Tried to, anyway. You wouldn’t pick up.” She didn’t hide the fear-fueled accusation.
“I thought Mom had put you up to bugging me about Thanksgiving.” Outside the picture window, the manicured lawn, pebbled walkways, clipped hedges and decorative stone-lined flowerbed had disappeared beneath drifts. No blemish of kid tracks marred the white. Pole lights at the end of the drive stood like glittery chess pieces.
“I called you because Steven already knows you. He’s scared of strangers. He hates change.”
September flexed achy hands. Raynaud’s was a damn nuisance and would only get worse, the numbness in hands and feet making her clumsy as hell. She couldn’t imagine how little Steven and the pup must feel. “Did the police say how long before they’d send someone?”
April shook her head. “You know all about that tracking stuff. We’re wasting time. Find my son!”
“I can’t track without a dog.” September struggled to keep her temper. “Dakota died with Chris.”
“Find my son.” Her chin jutted. “I helped you. You owe me. Do something.”
September bit back a retort. She did owe her. And April must be going crazy with worry. “I know someone who has tracking dogs. Guess we could see if they’re available.”
Wilma mopped her eyes with the afghan. “Steven sure does hate change. Took him four weeks to get used to me. He’ll throw a fit if we go off the routine. No offense.” She held up a placating hand toward April. “But he does throw fits. Little guy gave me a black eye one time, and of course I forgave him, he’s still one of God’s own creations and just can’t help it. Sometimes he’d run away so I couldn’t get close to him.” She offered a hopeful smile. “Maybe he ran away. Maybe it wasn’t my fault.”
“He’s special.” The disclaimer excused anything Steven might do, typical of a doting mother. “He hasn’t thrown a fit in weeks, if you’d paid any attention. And now he talks.”
“I do make allowances, I really do. I know he’s your son and all, but he’s not all that lovable.” Wilma’s double chins quivered. “If I don’t get out his puzzles at ten-thirty, feed him exactly at eleven o’clock, or—”
“Wilma, we’re wasting time. He’s a child. Lost. In a blizzard. We can debate shoulda-coulda-woulda later.” September could see that April was near the boiling point.
But Wilma didn’t stop. “He’s a fanatic about routine. Always wears his coat, hooks the leash on the dog before they go out.”
“That’s right, Shadow’s with him. Haven’t you trained that dog?” April aimed the next words like darts. “You trained Dakota, why couldn’t you do the same with Shadow? What good is he anyway if he can’t keep Steven safe?”
To April, the dog was a magic wand without value unless she saw instant results.
“I’m his mother. And you owe me.”
September ducked her head, again acknowledging the debt. “Shadow’s a nine-month-old German shepherd. He’s like a bright teenager distracted by shiny objects. You want to trust Steven’s safety to that?”
Her sister spoke with quiet command. “I’m his mother. I know what’s best. Either help me find my son, or get the hell out of here.”
“Great. I’ll call about the dog.” She pulled out her phone. “September to the rescue. Again.”
April crossed her arms. “You don’t want to compare messes.”
That hurt. “And you won’t let me forget.” Leave it to a big sister to always know what buttons to push. “Wait, is it Doug? Do you think he took Steven?” April and her ex-husband Doug Childress had an explosive history over their autistic son’s treatment. “Have you called him?”
“No. And don’t you call him, either. I don’t know if he’s involved.” For the first time, April’s momma-bear attitude faltered. “If he has Steven, then at least he’s safe. If he isn’t involved, Doug will use it against me. I can’t deal with him on top of everything else.”
Wilma levered herself off the sofa. “Will you listen to me? Praise God, I know where he’d go.” She beamed like she’d won the lottery.
April sucked in a breath. “Why didn’t you say so before now? Where?”
“Ten-thirty puzzles, eleven o’clock lunch, and . . .” She paused dramatically as if the words redeemed her soul. “Twelve o’clock the park. We go every day. That’s the only time we leave the gate open, when we go for our playtime in the park.”
April hurried to the closet and slammed open the door. She yanked a coat out so quickly that metal hangers jangled to the floor.
September grabbed April’s arm to stop her. “You’re wet and exhausted. It’s way past time Steven comes home from the park, right?”
April shrugged on the coat. “I always pick him up. He expected the Cruiser.”
“But what if he’s on his way home?” September pulled on her gloves. “Or somebody finds him, and gives him a ride, and you’re not here?”
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