by Marian Exall
COVID hit the Animal Farm No-Kill Shelter hard at first. Donations dried up; volunteers stayed home. For a while there was even talk of abandoning the no-kill policy. Then, everyone wanted a lockdown companion: the dogs, the cats, even the parakeets flew out of the place. When the regular fundraising events had to be cancelled, the nominal adoption fees kept the wolf from the door for a while. Post-COVID opened it wide again. This time the flow was in the opposite direction. As remote workers went back to the office and children returned to school, the cute puppy peed on the rug, the cat got fleas, and even the sweet little guinea pig lost its charm. Noah only had to deal with animals two by two; pets turned up back at Animal Farm in droves every day.
Charitable contributions failed to keep pace with the influx. During the long months at home, previous donors had put their money into outdoor kitchens or in-house saunas— creature comforts rather than creatures. Volunteers found other interests: Wordle and marathon Zoom sessions with distant relatives in New Zealand. The shelter was in trouble.
Tom Lyons was a recent recruit to Animal Farm’s dwindling volunteer ranks. He showed no interest in animal care, but his offer to help with the bookkeeping had been gratefully received. Tomaso Leone was born in Queens, New York, a few years after and two blocks over from a certain former U.S. president. Their careers had taken different trajectories. Tomaso ran a successful food wholesale business, supplying the many mom-and-pop Italian restaurants throughout the five boroughs. Several of these restaurants were patronized or even owned by mob royalty. Through these connections, Tomaso expanded his ventures into logistics and finance, or, as law enforcement agencies labeled them, trafficking and money laundering. When the Big Apple became too hot, Tomaso disappeared to the Pacific Northwest, changing his name, but, like a tiger, unable to change his stripes.
“I think we need a professional fundraiser,” he declared to the group of diehard volunteers gathered to review his report. They were assembled in the cramped office space inadequately partitioned off from the cat house. His presentation was punctuated by occasional feline screechfests, and had to be abandoned until the kitties calmed down.
“Hire a fundraiser? We can’t afford that!” Phil Pike exclaimed. He was a little resentful of the way Lyons had assumed the lead in the discussion. On the basis of a course in animal husbandry begun but not completed at the local technical college, Phil thought he was the natural person to take charge of the failing shelter. Phil was in his forties, never married, and his rental agreement precluded four-footed animals in the apartment. He owned a goldfish.
“No, we don’t need to hire anyone,” Tom explained. “There’s a cadre of contractors who do fundraising on a commission basis. They take a percentage of the total raised. My daughter is doing this work in New York. Should I ask her for a recommendation?” Tom smiled deferentially at Phil, who shrugged.
“It can’t hurt to ask,” Audrey Merino murmured, shaking her wooly white head. “I’m too old to shoulder all the donkey work required around here. We need help.” Seventy-year-old Audrey shared her life with a white standard poodle named Camilla who looked uncannily like her owner.
Lynn Bassett also nodded her agreement. Short and stocky, Lynn lived with two Great Danes and a three-legged cat. Relationships with people were more difficult. Nevertheless, with dogged determination, she had called every erstwhile volunteer in an attempt to solicit donations. Result: two hundred and thirty-one dollars—fifty from her own bank account.
“Maybe Delia can find some time in her schedule to help us out,” Tom suggested. “She’s coming to see me next weekend. I’ll explore it with her then.”
Delia Leone had grown up wanting for nothing. When she was still a baby, Tomaso had moved the family to Connecticut, but continued to spend the working week in a studio apartment over the Queens warehouse. His wife played tennis, engaged in occasional flings with younger men, and spent Tomaso’s money. Delia went to a private school where she excelled in every subject to the point where school bored her.
When she was sixteen and old enough to travel into New York by herself, she started dropping in at the Queens warehouse. It was there, behind the flagons of extra virgin olive oil and boxes of canned San Marzano tomatoes, that she began to smell a rat: she tripped over a suitcase packed with tightly wrapped bundles of $100 bills. Her father equivocated for a while before admitting he was “placing” the money for a friend in a midtown Manhattan construction project. To Delia, this sounded a lot more interesting than AP Algebra. Before long she had weaseled her way into Tomaso’s confidence, and, after she started her studies at NYU, she became a part-time mule, using her student persona to slip unnoticed into Staten Island diners and Hoboken hairdressers with a backpack that might have contained books, but didn’t.
The times they were a-changing, however. The old mafia bosses were dead, dispersed or doing time in Attica. The Russians had taken over, and they didn’t care for Tomaso. He planned his escape carefully, acquiring identification papers in a new name, and opening bank accounts in several far-flung cities. Based on the significant deposits made, these banks were happy to issue credit cards to Tom Lyons. After loading a hold-all full of cash into a used Mustang with New Hampshire plates—“Live Free or Die”—he headed west, shedding his former identity as he went. At an REI in Pittsburgh, he purchased a Patagonia down jacket and Danner boots, some all-weather hiking pants and a flannel shirt. A donation bin outside a homeless shelter received his Joseph Aboud suit and hand-made Italian loafers. At a motel near Indianapolis, the first night on the road, he shaved his silver pompadour to a grizzled half-inch buzz. By the time he reached as far west as he could go without falling into water, and as far north without crossing a border, his beard was growing in nicely and his face had taken on a weathered look from driving with the window open. He rented a nondescript apartment in a dreary town, and settled in to assess the business landscape.
The wife in Connecticut was well provided for—she wouldn’t miss him—but he had tried to persuade Delia to come with him.
“No, Daddy, I love New York and I want to finish my degree. The Russians won’t come after me, I’m sure.”
He at least persuaded her to move apartments and change her name. She chose Woolf in honor of her favorite writer. She planned to major in English.
Then came COVID. Classes went online and friends scattered to their parents’ houses upstate. The City That Never Sleeps became a Dead Man Walking. She was bored and lonely. With nothing to do but study, she completed all degree requirements in record time. Even when restrictions eased, she found herself dissatisfied. She missed the life of crime. When her father called her on the burner phone used exclusively for communication between them, she was primed.
“Honey, I’ve found the perfect location. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel—we can’t fail, but I need you to make the scheme work.” Tom wouldn’t divulge the details over the phone. It didn’t matter; Delia was hooked.
Bull McKee celebrated his first day of freedom by getting a tattoo. He had already checked in with his probation officer and dropped off a bag at the halfway house that was supposed to be his home for the next six months.
He showed a photo to the ink artist. “Will I have room for her name underneath?” he asked.
The artist surveyed Bull’s well-developed bicep, her head aslant. “I should think so; depends how many letters.”
“Cherry,” Bull replied, warm feelings rushing through him. “I surely do miss her”
An hour later, he examined the image reproduced on his upper arm: the head of a German Shepherd, tongue lolling, “Cherry” in gothic lettering curved underneath. Happy to part with most of his “gate money”—the allowance given to released prisoners—he set off to reclaim his beloved companion.
The fleabag apartment on the edge of town appeared more dilapidated than when he had left it two years before. He hammered on the door, hoping someone was home. Eventually, the door opened a crack.
“Hi, Cindy, howya been?” He was impatient to see his dog, but aware he should not antagonize his old girlfriend: she had a hard edge.
The door opened wider to reveal a beefy bare-chested man in jeans, standing close behind Cindy. Bull wasn’t surprised. Two years was a long time to stay faithful. Cindy had visited often at first, then less frequently, then not at all.
“I just came by to pick up Cherry,” he said with a grin at the new guy.
“She’s not here,” muttered Cindy.
“Whadja mean?” His fists bunched, but he reminded himself that violence was what got him incarcerated in the first place. Breathe, like the anger management teacher taught him; just breathe.
“Yeah, well, that organic kibble cost an arm and a leg. Then the landlord started complaining, and Jason here’s allergic, so I took her to the pound.”
“What?” Bull wanted to scream. “When? Where? Jesus, Cindy, why didn’t you tell me? How could you take her to the pound?”
“Keep your hair on—it’s a no-kill shelter. She’s probably still there. Who’d adopt a monster like that?”
Deep breathing wasn’t working. Bull practiced the serenity mask: smooth your facial features from top to bottom, close your eyes, then open them wide. The effect on Cindy and her new man was instantaneous.
“Look, we don’t want any trouble,” Jason stuttered. “Cherry’s at the Animal Farm Shelter out in the county. We can give you directions.”
“Give me the keys,” Bull intoned, his voice rich and deep from diaphragm inhalations.
“Wha?” Cindy was really nervous now.
“The keys to the truck I left with you,” he responded.
They couldn’t rush to find the keys fast enough. After Cindy pointed to where the truck was parked, Bull exited like a bat out of hell.
The noise was deafening. Whenever Delia Woolf (née Leone) parked her car outside the shelter, she was assailed by the sound of a pack of hungry hounds barking for their breakfast. When an organization is staffed by volunteers, there is no enforcement mechanism for punctuality. “We’ll dock your pay” doesn’t work; neither does “You’re fired!” So the shelter supporter charged with dispensing chow this week might turn up at nine, nine-thirty, or not at all.
As she let herself into the office, the cats joined in. The higher pitch of their complaints grated on Delia’s ears like nails on a chalkboard. She could feel the muscles in her neck tighten, the precursor of the headache that would arrive long before the morning volunteer and last until the afternoon feed. She put on noise-cancelling headphones and began her daily ritual of cleaning the surface of her desk and chair with Clorox wipes. No matter that she kept the office door firmly closed, each new day seemed to bring dander and drool into her workspace. In spite of her chosen name, Delia Woolf did not like animals. She wasn’t allergic; she wasn’t phobic from a traumatic childhood dog attack; she just didn’t like them. Why in God’s name had she agreed to work at Animal Farm? A question she asked herself repeatedly. She knew the answer, but didn’t want to revisit it.
Her father’s scheme had sounded fireproof. It was a sophisticated variant of the traditional money-laundering dodge: plow dirty money into a legitimate business and bring it out as untainted “profits.” Here, clean money would be “donated” to a friendly non-profit organization, earning the donor a healthy tax deduction. Then, a portion of the money would be quietly returned to the donor, with the charity—or its managers—pocketing the rest as their “commission.”
“Zero risk,” claimed Tom. “And more or less legal.”
Tom’s job was to schmooze with the billionaires who hated paying taxes. Delia’s job was to do the accounting and make the books look authentic.
“You’ve taken creative writing courses,” cajoled Tom. “This should be easy for you.”
True, it wasn’t challenging, but Delia missed New York. She was more “Sex in the City” than “Schitt’s Creek.” By early afternoon, she was scrolling through TikTok on her phone, bored to tears, when someone knocked on the office door. She considered ignoring it; probably one of the volunteers bringing wet dog smells into the room along with some question she couldn’t answer. But she needed distraction. “Come in.”
The man silhouetted in the doorway was tall and slim, with broad shoulders. He was clean shaven, his fair hair tied back in a ponytail. About thirty, Delia thought. And fit.
“Excuse me, ma’am. I’m looking for a dog.”
Delia smiled and stood up, glad she had worn her figure-flattering turtle-neck top and leopard print leggings today. “Then you’ve come to the right place. We have lots of wonderful dogs just looking for the right man—owner” she corrected herself. “Let me show you.”
“I’m looking for one particular dog. A German Shepherd. Her name is Cherry. A friend dropped her off here by mistake while I was…out of town. My name’s Bull, by the way, Bull McKee. Well, William really—Bill, but they call me Bull.”
I can see why, Delia thought. Overcoming her distaste for the smell, Delia gave Bull a tour of the kennels. Or at least attempted to: she had only a vague idea of the shelter layout.
“Can I help you find something, miss?” In the gloom of the ramshackle barn that housed the dogs, Delia hadn’t noticed a kid dispensing water to bowls fixed onto each cage’s gate.
Tim Bird came to the shelter every day. Although, at fifteen, not old enough to be an official volunteer, he had been a regular helper since the pandemic started. Remote school hadn’t worked for him. The double-wide where he lived with his mom didn’t get broadband reception, so even with the laptop the school district provided he could only join classes if he hoofed it two miles to the public library parking lot. On the way, he passed the collection of buildings that housed Animal Farm. Soon, the shelter became his destination. When in-person school resumed, he had fallen way behind and the move to high school seemed a leap too far. No one noticed he’d dropped out, not even his mom. At first, the other volunteers questioned his youth. Tim’s small stature precluded him lying about his age. “It’s practical experience as part of a high school class,” he improvised.
Appreciating Tim’s work ethic and skill with animals, the others grew to accept him—except Phil Pike, suspicious of anyone who threatened his self-appointed role as the big fish in this small pond. Audrey grandmothered him and brought him home-baked cookies. Lynn enjoyed discussing her Great Danes with him.
Delia, who avoid the animal quarters, had never even met Tim before. Bull answered Tim’s question for her. “Cherry. She’s a German Shepherd—”
“Oh, yes! What a great dog! She’s over here.” Tim led the way through the maze of cages.
The reunion between man and beast was emotional, and Delia felt moved in spite of herself. Tim stood back, torn between relief that Cherry had found her owner, and sadness at losing one of his favorites.
“She had some bad tartar when she came in, but I’ve been cleaning her teeth every other day, and she’s in good shape now.”
Gagging at the thought of putting a hand inside the mutt’s mouth, Delia took hold of Bull’s arm. “Let’s go take care of the formalities.” She had no idea what paperwork was needed to release a dog, but she wanted to detach Bull from this doggy dental hero before they became absorbed in a prolonged discussion of Cherry’s care.
In the parking lot, Bull shuffled his feet. “Thing is, Delia, I don’t have any money to pay the recovery fees,” he explained. They were on first name terms now; she’d seen him crying after all.
“I’m sure we can work out some kind of arrangement,” Delia assured him. “Come on back to my office and let me take down your personal details.”
Things are looking up, she thought. Every dog has its day.
Oh the possibilities! What a great start!
So glad Cherry is a dog!
Great setting, dynamic cast of characters, beautifully written!
Marian, your writing ranks right up there with John Straley. Your clean writing delivers the scene with no excess. Cracked up when Bull turned the tables on Cindy and Jason with his anger management exercises. Well done.
Love the name, character descriptions, puns and endless plot possibilities. Once again, you’ve written a delightful first chapter, Marian. Brava!
Another wide-ranging cast of unusual characters and possible plot lines. I love wooly-headed Audrey and her matching poodle. This start could take us anywhere and everywhere!
the bits describing the shelter impacts (inflows, outflows) of COVID are particularly good, thanks,
ken // over at the VB fiction group