By Paula Gail Benson
In some ways, it was the best time of her life. In other ways, it was the worst.
When Arleen Schuster found the mid-town red brick building with its black awning shading the sidewalk, she knew instinctively she’d found the place she’d been seeking. The wide heart of pine plank floors with their sheen like a thin layer of glass, a temptation for sliding in new soles, and the boxy dark wooden lighted display case, perfect for arranging the delicacies her customers craved, confirmed that in this spot she would transition from personal chef and caterer to restaurateur.
Only . . .
She managed food and beverages far better than entering contracts or purchasing tables and chairs. Or, hiring staff.
For so long Arleen had been a two-person show, with Reedy as her only assistant. Reedy, a tall, leggy, perpetual co-ed with long, straight blonde hair and a humorless expression, could easily have been plucked from the streets of Paris. Despite Reedy’s being all action, few words, and almost no expressed opinions, Arleen never doubted her loyalty. It would be difficult to find others who either shared Arleen’s vision or could protect and amplify her brand.
A large, bearded workman in torn tee and jeans with a roll of orange extension cord looped over his right arm and a tool kit in his left hand came in the entrance, crossing Arleen’s shop to the interior door that led to the unit below. Recently, that space had been leased to a coffee shop/brewery/comedy club called “Dregs.”
He stopped to tell Arleen, “It’ll be a bit loud for a while. We’re building the stage today.” He pointed to a round brass plate in the center of her empty floor. “May have to run a cord up here to finish our work. You’re lucky the landlord installed three prong outlets for you. It’s still the 1960’s downstairs.”
Arleen nodded as he passed, regretting that she agreed to a walk-through rental without asking more questions about neighboring tenants when she signed her lease. Wondering if the evening noise when Dregs opened would prevent her best client, Mrs. Enid Blaine, from bringing her supper club for intimate gatherings at Arleen’s . . .
She hadn’t yet settled on a name. In her head, she had the image of Le Café La Nuit, not the Van Gogh terrace painting, but its model that still operated in Arles, a tourist trap despite bad internet reviews. She knew what she wanted to convey: French chic for American foodies. But, how to say sophisticated, yet fun, nutritious, and excellent for weight loss in a few perfectly selected words?
Mrs. Blaine suggested “Pate, Baguettes, and Cheese, Oh, My,” which Arleen kindly rejected as having more letters than she could afford on the signage. Then, Mrs. Blaine came up with “Double Truffle.” Arleen promised to think about it, without specifying the kind of thought.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Blaine made another request, unfortunately not for food. Would Arleen interview her nephew Ferdy for a job?
As Mrs. Blaine’s personal chef, Arleen heard plenty about Ferdy’s misadventures in life. How he launched out, all good hearted and well meaning, and inevitably mucked things up until he had to move on. Arleen dreaded the interview.
Ferdy arrived timely, strands of his dark hair standing on end as if manipulated by his own aura of static electricity. Elbows close to his sides, he clutched a battered brown backpack over one shoulder and pushed his dark rimmed glasses to the bridge of his nose as he squinted about the room.
Arleen glanced back at Reedy who stood at the cash register. “Take care of sales while we talk?”
Reedy gave a curt nod, her eyes shifting to Ferdy.
“Shall we sit?” Arleen gestured to a built-in side booth with the paperwork for the interview. From below, she heard pounding and felt vibrations.
Ferdy slid into a seat and carefully shrugged off his backpack. “Aunt Enid said that you’re a good person, so I can be perfectly honest with you.”
Arleen sat across from him and folded her hands on the table. “Of course.”
“I’ve had difficulty holding down a job, but since I’ve gotten an emotional support animal, my confidence has really improved.”
“That’s wonderful,” Arleen replied, thankful for all the laws and regulations she had been studying. “Of course, as a food service . . .”
“You don’t have to worry about sanitation. Cosway’s very docile and stays in my backpack at all times when we’re away from home. I don’t need to handle her. I only have to look at her to receive all the assurance I need.”
Arleen eyed the backpack, which remained perfectly still. She tried to remember her options. “Isn’t that difficult on Cosway, to stay in your backpack for long periods of time?”
Ferdy smiled. “She’s trained for it. I have documentation.”
“I’m sure, but, if, due to cleanliness standards, we can’t accommodate Cosway, could you work without her?”
Ferdy took a deep breath. “Aunt Enid said I could tell you everything and absolutely trust in your discretion.”
Arleen heard the boots trudging up the steps before the workman appeared in the doorway from below. “We’re going need your plugs after all.”
“Okay.” Arleen watched as he went over to the plate on the floor, unlatched it, and shouted down, “Throw ‘er up, Charlie.” The end of the orange extension cord shot through the hole. The man caught the end and pulled it across the room to the plug, leaving enough slack so the cord snaked across the floor.
“Shouldn’t be too long,” he assured Arleen before disappearing down the stairs.
Arleen turned back to Ferdy. “Now . . .”
“I call her Cosway after Thomas Jefferson’s Paris friend, Maria Cosway. While Maria’s remembered for her beauty and skill as a painter, she had a hard life. Her husband cheated on her and her daughter died. Yet, she transcended her afflictions.”
Arleen saw she was making no headway. “What kind of animal is Cosway?”
Looking directly into Arleen’s eyes, Ferdy smiled again. “Cosway is a ferret.”
Da Vinci’s “Lady with a Ferret” flashed across Arleen’s conscious before considering what the health department might say.
Ferdy watched her, bright eyed, nose twitching. “Ferrets are actually very clean animals, mine more so than others.” He took a deep breath before continuing, “You see, Cosway is an imaginary emotional support ferret.”
Arleen blinked twice, trying to keep her expression purposely still. She wondered if an owner could take on an imaginary pet’s characteristics. Finally, she broke the silence. “And, you say she’s certified?”
“Yes. I have the letter from my therapist here.” Ferdy pulled his backpack onto the table and opened the main compartment.
Arleen felt her face assaulted by a gust of musk. She turned to sneeze into her elbow.
The front door opened. Mr. Petry, obviously on child care duty, entered with his toddler daughter riding his hip and his four year old son, in cowboy hat, bandana, and brown holster, trailing behind and waving a silver toy pistol. While Mr. Petry focused on picking up the petit fours his wife had ordered for a shower, his son noticed the aroma that still pervaded the air.
“Hey, Bud, watch Sissy while I pay for these,” Mr. Petry said, placing his charge on the floor. She began to crawl, rolling along a plastic car piloted by a smiling mouse.
“I gotta find the rat that stunk up this place,” Bud replied, searching the baseboards with his pistol drawn.
Ferdy unfolded the letter and put it on the table before Arleen. Her eyes watered at the strong odor rising from the paper, making it hard to read. From what she could see, it looked authentic.
Blinking away her tears, she noticed Reedy getting the petit fours as Mr. Petry reached for his wallet and credit card. Bud’s reconnaissance had brought him to the display case where he became distracted by the array of cookies. Meanwhile, Sissy’s car slid across the glossy pine planks, quickly moving beyond her reach. The happy mouse drove straight for the open hatch, disappearing quicker than an unsuspecting fly buzzing too close to a frog’s tongue. Intrepidly, Sissy followed, wedging her arm into the opening as the orange cord wound around her flailing leg.
Her cry drew Mr. Petry’s attention and horror. Bud turned indifferently toward Sissy, then his eyes widened. Arleen sat mired in confusion as she saw it all play out in slow motion. She imagined being shut down before she could open.
In an instant, Ferdy reached Sissy’s side, holding his backpack. “Hey, baby. Don’t cry. We’ll find your car for you. Look, look in here. Can you see Cosway? She doesn’t want you to cry. Look inside my backpack. Don’t you see her pretty eyes?”
His soft voice drew the child’s attention. She looked up into Ferdy’s eyes. Arleen could have sworn his nose twitched again. The baby laughed.
“That’s right,” Ferdy said, gently lifting her arm from the hatch. “See if you can see Cosway in my backpack and we’ll have your mouse back before you know it.”
Arleen watched as Ferdy unwound the cord from around the little girl’s leg. By that time, Mr. Petry had knelt beside him and took Sissy into his arms. As Mr. Petry and Ferdy stood, Sissy reached toward Ferdy’s backpack. The workman appeared in the door holding up the motorized mouse.
“Is anybody looking for this?”
Arleen scooted from the booth, grabbed the toy mouse from the workman’s grasp, reached for Bud’s free hand, and motioned with a head jerk for Reedy to bring the box of petit fours. “Let us help you,” she said, as she shepherded Mr. Petry and his brood to their vehicle.
Once the family drove away, Arleen glanced back through the store window. The workman had exited, leaving Ferdy standing alone, except for his backpack and Cosway.
Turning to Reedy, she asked, “What do you think?”
Arleen led the way back inside. “I appreciate how you handled that.”
Ferdy smiled. “Cosway gives me confidence.”
“Maybe some of her influence will rub off on me. How would you like to work with us?”
His smile broadened. “Awesome!” Then, he looked perplexed. “Have you decided on a name?”
“I’m still working on that,” Arleen admitted.
“Aunt Enid is always telling people, ‘You have to try Arleen’s cassoulet,’ or ‘I stock my freezer with Arleen’s leek soup.’ Everyone is always asking her, ‘How do I get in touch with Arleen?’ If you named the place after yourself, it would make it easy for Aunt Enid to tell them, and for them to find you.”
“Pretty good advice, boss,” Reedy said.
Arleen glanced from Reedy’s face back to Ferdy’s. “Café Arleen it is.”
She extended her hand to shake Ferdy’s. As he leaned forward to meet her grasp, Arleen saw inside the open backpack. Two small eyes seemed to blink back at her.
A legislative attorney and former law librarian, Paula Gail Benson’s short stories have appeared in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable; Kings River Life; Mystery Times Ten 2013; A Tall Ship, a Star, and Plunder; A Shaker of Margaritas: That Mysterious Woman; Fish or Cut Bait: a Guppy Anthology; Love in the Lowcountry; and Heartbreaks and Half-truths. She regularly blogs with others about writing mysteries at the Stiletto Gang and Writers Who Kill. Her short story, “A Matter of Honor,” co-authored with New York Times bestselling thriller writer Robert Dugoni, is in Killer Nashville Noir: Cold Blooded. In addition to short stories, she writes and directs one-act musicals for her church’s drama ministry. Her most recent effort is based on “The Man from Hooverville,” a short story by Roundtable Founding Executive Editor Carol L. Wright. You can find out more about Paula on her website.
Last But Not Leashed
By Alexandra Otto
Max reporting for duty.
Former CIA dog. Eight years.
Alias: Good Boy.
Bill (my human) and I run this joint with our Chihuahua apprentice, Snow-Pee. On the surface, House Of Showdogs (H.O.S.) is your run-of-the-mill dog grooming service and pet spa. We do haircuts, baths, nail clippings, and teeth brushing. We’re a finer establishment than that shoddy Cat Palace down the road. We even offer occasional promotions for different critters: snake exfoliation to stimulate shedding and facials for bloated pufferfish. My low point was painting the toenails of one diva of a gerbil named Frederich.
It’s a great front.
Mutts, under the surface, we’ve got the real H.O.S.: the greatest Human Obedience School the world has ever known. Okay, let’s face it. We’re spies. Where did all the tennis balls go? Wrong flea powder? Mysterious itch down there? Humans aren’t following the walk schedule? Need us to make that neutering appointment disappear from the vet’s schedule? We do all that and more.
So when Shasta the Labradoodle led her owner Amy in, it was business as usual.
At first, that is.
“Good morning, Amy and Shasta!” Bill knelt to stroke Shasta’s neck. “Which service would you like today?”
Amy smiled at Bill and read through the grooming menu. “Number 12, please.”
“Full grooming, sure,” said Bill from the reception desk.
“Number thirteen,” Shasta barked at me quietly.
My ears perked up as if I had heard a bouncing ball in the distance. Our spa menu only had twelve offerings. Number thirteen was Dog Code for requesting human surveillance.
“No need to whisper,” I barked back to Shasta. “They don’t understand us.”
“Oh, how cute!” said Amy. “I wonder what they’re saying!”
“So what do you need surveillance for?” I barked.
“We’re running low on snacks,” Shasta barked.
“Easy fix,” I barked. “Organic? Gluten-free? Vegan?”
“That’s not all.” Shasta shook her head. “I think. . . Amy’s cheating on me! With a cat!” Shasta howled and slumped on the floor.
This was serious. I needed to investigate.
I hopped onto the glass counter, leaning toward Amy and wagging my tail.
“Aww,” Amy reached out to pet me. I sniffed her hand furiously for evidence. I smelled a Game of Thrones DVD (final season — terrible choice), one coconut bath bomb, and there it was, mutts: a cat. Siamese, I think. I rubbed up against her arm, collecting a fur sample for analysis.
I had what I needed.
“Right this way,” said Bill, leading Amy and Shasta toward the bathhouse.
“Snow-Pee, help me with this new Spyware,” I barked. But my Chihuahua apprentice was nowhere to be seen. “Snow-Pee?”
I couldn’t worry about him now. I would have to get Shasta the surveillance equipment myself. When Amy and Shasta emerged from the bathhouse, I pointed to the bowl on the reception counter and howled.
“Oh, our thank-you gift!” said Bill. “Max helps me remember to give these out. A dog treat for Shasta, and a special licorice for you!”
Amy handed Shasta the treat and popped the licorice in her own mouth. But this was no ordinary licorice. Our special licorice makes humans receptive to suggestion. Ancient medicine. How do I obtain it? I know a guy who knows a guy. That’s all I can say.
Amy was already taking out her wallet to pay for the grooming. I had to work fast.
I leapt toward our sales rack and spotted my secret weapon: The Cat Cam Collar Set. Disguised as a regular flea collar and matching bracelet, this baby was actually a Russian import from the dark web, designed with secret alarms and a hidden camera.
I went into Cute Dog Operative Mode. I sat and pointed squarely at the Cat Cam Collar, making eye contact with Amy while channeling my inner canine to make puppy dog eyes.
“Oh, how cute! Look, a new collar!” Amy said, rummaging through the sparkly packages. “With a bracelet for me! Do you like that one, Shasta?”
Shasta wagged her tail furiously.
“Let’s take it. Can we add that onto the bill?” Amy put the collar on Shasta and slipped the surveillance bracelet on her wrist before paying and heading out the door.
Like taking kibbles from a pup. Soon they’d be home, and I could get all the intel I needed.
“Lunch, Max! I’m gonna go for a quick jog. Be right back!” Bill flipped the sign to “closed” and left.
Time to gather evidence.
I retreated to the back room where Bill kept the TV. I chased my tail for a while, giving them enough time to get home, and finally adjusted the station to see what the Cat Cam Bracelet revealed.
On screen I saw Amy with a cup of coffee, working at her computer with Shasta by her side. Shasta laid down and took a nap in her dog bed. Amy quietly went to the back door, then opened it and started jogging down the street. But then — what was this?
Amy jogged straight toward the Cat Palace! The bell on the door jingled as she let herself in.
“Hi again! I’ve decided to adopt that cat I’ve been visiting. I’m ready to make a forever home!” Amy said to the woman behind the counter. A cat — a Siamese — purred against Amy’s feet.
Damn, I’m good.
The woman behind the counter smiled. “Snow-Pee thought these would be good for business,” said the receptionist, offering Amy a licorice. Our licorice. Amy popped it in her mouth. A scruffy Chihuahua appeared on the screen beside the receptionist. My scruffy Chihuahua.
My apprentice. My betrayer.
I was so distraught I almost peed on the rug.
Amy grabbed the counter. “Whoa, I just got a little dizzy.”
As if on cue, cats swarmed upon Amy and purred at her heels.
“Oh! Maybe I can take more cats! And I just got a great idea! Do you have a new couch that these nice kitties can tear up? I think they would like that!”
Snow-Pee was a double agent, smuggling our licorice to the Cat Palace! That’s why he went missing earlier.
I ran out the doggy door. I had to stop this before the cats invaded Shasta’s world.
Luckily for me, I still had K9 contacts on the force. I pressed my paw to my walkie-talkie. “911. Cat Palace. They’re distributing a suspicious substance. Over and out,” I barked.
When I arrived at the Cat Palace, the narcotics unit was already there. The officer on the scene radioed his chief.
“We received an anonymous tip about narcotics-laden candy at Cat Palace. We’ve already found high doses of some kind of sedative.. A child could have gotten hold of that. ” The officer looked around in disgust. “Animals.”
The woman behind the counter was cuffed while Amy filled out a report. Animal Patrol hauled Snow-Pee into the shelter van, surrounded by the cats. From the street corner, I growled at my nemesis.
“Why, Snow-Pee?” I barked. “How could you betray us like this?”
Snow-Pee didn’t answer me. He just settled himself in among the cats. As he lifted his front legs to stretch, I caught a glimpse of a new black leather collar on him with the words “Feline Furever.” There was my answer.
Due to his small stature, Snow-Pee must have self-identified as a cat.
Where was I going to find a new apprentice? Shasta came over and wagged her tail. “Looks like you just got an opening. I’m now trained in pet spyware. Need a hand?” With that cutie Shasta as my new apprentice, we were back in business.
And that, mutts, is how I turned a cat-astrophe into a dog-gone victory.
Alexandra Otto writes flash fiction and short screenplays. She has been published in Siren’s Call, 101 Words, and the anthology 72 Hours of Insanity. She is currently working on her first novel. When Alex isn’t writing, she is outsmarting the largest bears in the world in south central Alaska. Follow her on Twitter @alexottowrites.