The sun slowly dipped behind the lofty brick apartment buildings of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Sunday afternoon crowds who browsed in the upscale boutiques or noshed on bagels in cozy cafes along Broadway thinned considerably. Another glorious autumn day in New York City was drawing to an end.
When floppy-eared Tippy’s fourteen-year old owner, Shanita, casually secured her dog’s leash to a curbside parking meter, Tippy yelped. Shanita and mother Roz looked at Tippy and grinned.
“Don’t worry doggie dear, we’ll be right out,” Shanita said. “We have to buy dinner. Mom is too tuckered out to cook.”
“That’s right,” Roz said, yawning. “I’m not used to all this exercise, but I promised Shanita I’d walk with you two to get in shape.”
Before she left, Shanita stroked Tippy’s furry head and said, “We’ll all head home soon, I promise. I’m tuckered out and I bet you are too.”
Tippy rested outside the Fairway Market near West 74th Street and Broadway, highly popular among New Yorkers for its array of fresh produce, imported cheeses, and crispy breads. Their Sunday afternoon hike through nearby Central Park drained the brown and gold spotted dog. All four paws ached. Tippy was also hungry. Hours had passed since Shanita grabbed a can of Alpo beef dinner from the kitchen cupboard and scooped it in Tippy’s dish. Sometimes Shanita added curly noodles and steamed carrots to make the dog’s mealtime special.
A sudden whiff of unfamiliar human sweat wiggled Tippy’s nose. Her hackles rose. A mystery man with ice-cold eyes nonchalantly unhooked her leash and led her towards a double-parked cargo van. Tippy yapped, but no one paid attention as the man yanked on her leash. Although scared, Tippy didn’t bite the young man wearing faded jeans and an oversized college sweatshirt. Vicious behavior was not in her nature. The boyish-looking stranger shoved the dog in the van’s rear and quickly hopped into the passenger seat.
“Move it, barf bag.” The driver pulled away and blended into the flow of traffic along the busy thoroughfare. “Hey Ronnie, it’s almost dark. Get on Riverside Drive. Look for other dogs tied to parking meters. If there ain’t none, head to the Bronx. Always strays running around up there.”
“We gotta be careful, Joe,” Ronnie said. His shifty brown eyes flickered as he glanced into the rearview mirror. “If we get nabbed, it’s back to Riker’s Island. I gotta be crazy listening to you. We’re both on parole.”
“Listen up. You think anyone cares about stolen pets?” Joe smiled a devilish grin as he counted a few crinkled dollar bills. “Stealing them leashed dogs, like the one we just got, is less work than chasing strays.”
Ronnie’s cheeks reddened. “I don’t like this. We could get caught.”
“Shut up and drive. No one asked for your opinion,” Joe said. “That Connecticut lab pays cash. No questions asked. Good for us and good for them.”
“You better be right about this,” Ronnie said, sweat trickling down the back of his neck. “After tonight, I’m gonna look for a real job. I don’t like stealing dogs, especially when they belonged to somebody.”
“Nobody hires ex-cons. That’s why we swipe animals. Hey man, we’re cleaning up the streets.” Joe sneered. “Since when do you care about other people? Remember when you tore up some old lady’s bed before you ripped off her stuff. Said the witch would really have something to worry about besides her missing pearls.”
“I promised my mother I’d do better,” Ronnie said.
“So you lied,” Joe said.
The second Shanita and her mother Roz sauntered out of the Fairway market, each lugging an over-stuffed shopping bag, she noticed the empty spot where Tippy should have been sitting. Gasping, Shanita grabbed her mother’s arm, dropping her shopping bag and spilling groceries all over the curb. Tears ran down her cheeks.
“Mom, Tippy’s gone. We have to find her.”
Knees shaking, Shanita stumbled on her way to the curb but straightened herself quickly. She looked up and down Broadway, but there was no sign of her dog with the white-tipped tail. Frantically, she started to call out for her dog. “Tippy, Tippy, where are you?” A few people on the street stared at her but most paid her no mind as she flew into a panic.
Roz stepped back to collect their spilled groceries. She stuffed the apples, salad fixings, and loaf of Italian bread into the plastic bag and rushed to her daughter’s side.
“Let’s ask around. Maybe someone has seen her,” Roz said. She handed her sobbing daughter a tissue.
“Where could she be? We were only inside for a few minutes,” Shanita said in between sniffles. “It’s all my fault. I should’ve stayed outside with her.”
Again, Shanita called out, “Tippy, Tippy.”
“Who thought we had to worry on the Upper West Side? I figured she’d be safe around here,” Roz said.
Shanita yelled out Tippy’s name so many times her mother finally convinced her it was a moot point to keep calling. The dog was nowhere around.
“Let’s look around the neighborhood,” Shanita said. “Maybe she’s still here.”
“Good idea,” Roz said.
Mother and daughter separated. Shanita asked passersby and Roz checked in with storeowners for clues to Tippy’s whereabouts. Ten stores and three blocks later, they regrouped near a Burger King and compared findings. There were no sightings of anyone walking a dog matching Tippy’s description.
A bearded young man leaving the fast food store caught Shanita’s eye. Despite cool weather, he wore shorts and sandals. After listening to Shanita describe her dog, he grimaced and said, “I heard some dude’s been stealing dogs up and down the West Side recently. A few months ago someone got caught selling stolen dogs to a surgical company in Connecticut that works on dogs. I hope they catch the no good swine.”
Shanita almost gagged. “A research lab? My Tippy involved in medical experimentation? No, that can’t happen.”
“Hey kid, I’m just telling you what I heard. Check with the cops. Other people I know reported their missing pets.”
Nudging her daughter’s arm, Roz said, “Honey, I’ll hail a cab for the ride uptown. We’ll go home and make missing dog signs. Tomorrow morning I’ll come back and spread them all over this neighborhood.”
Shanita’s lip quivered. “No Mom, let’s rent a car and drive up to Connecticut. See if they got our dog.”
“Calm down baby. It’s late and it’s Sunday. We don’t even know if Tippy is in Connecticut,” Roz said. “She could still be around here.”
“Aren’t you forgetting? How can you put up missing dog signs? Tomorrow is Monday. You have work.”
“I don’t go in until noon.”
Huddled in back of the Army green van sat a scrappy-looking dog, about the size and coloring of a Collie, but with a multi-colored face of a Beagle. The skinny dog trembled as he stared at Tippy and asked, “Will you hurt me?”
“Of course not, but I want out of here.”
“Take me with you,” the dog said.
Desperate to return to the safety and comfort of her beloved owner, Tippy’s mind worked double-time for a way out. As the van sputtered along run down streets in the South Bronx, she said, “What’s your name?”
“Wally. And yours?”
“Tippy. We’ll talk later but first I need to figure an escape.” Whimpering, the dog stared at the rear door. It was sealed tight with no windows. “Sooner or later they have to stop and open the door.”
“Yeah. Go on. I’m listening.”
“Make a run for it,” Tippy said. “Bite or scratch if you have to. Anything to get away.”
Wally chewed on his front paw. “What if they have a bat or something? We could get hurt.”
“I’d rather be dead than go with them. Somehow, I’m finding my way home. Shanita and her mom Roz loved me and I adored them. I have to get away.”
Wally’s curly tail slowly waggled back and forth. “What about me? I have no one.”
Because Shanita doted on Tippy all the time and lavished her with love, Wally’s lonely life tugged at her heart but there was no time for sympathy. “We’ll talk later.”
The driver’s sudden swerve and decrease in speed knocked Tippy off balance. She sailed across the cold floor and banged into the partition locking them in the back. Her nails clicked against the metal as she fought to regain her footing. “Get ready. When I give the word, run as fast and as hard as you can.”
Wally remained huddled in a corner. He frowned as he peeked at his hind leg and replied, “I was hit by a car. My leg didn’t heal so good.”
“Run anyway,” Tippy said, as she stole a glance at the rear door. “Stick with me. I’ll protect you.” For a small dog she possessed the determination of a Great Dane.
The driver slammed on the brakes and the van screeched to a halt. Nothing happened right away so the two dogs waited. Both dogs listened to the men who had moved outside the van.
Ronnie spotted two scraggly stray dogs crouched down by a boarded up storefront. He called out, “Here doggie doggie. Come to papa.”
“Yo stupid, toss some meat snacks at them,” Joe said. “They look hungry.”
“Quit calling me stupid,” Ronnie said.
“Oh did I hurt your feelings?” Joe said with a wicked grin. “Good, they ate the snacks. Rip open the bag and spread dried food on the ground. Surprise the morons while they’re eating. If they resist, whack’em with this bat. This lab doesn’t care if we deliver dead or alive.”
“Open the door and get ready,” Ronnie said. “I got the leashes. But Joe, don’t do nothing to hurt them.”
As soon as Tippy inhaled cool, fresh air, she gave Wally the go ahead. “Hurry. Follow me.” Tippy drew on every bit of strength she had left and lunged past the men, knocking both to the ground.
“What the heck is this,” Ronnie said as the dog’s surprise move knocked him off balance. Stumbling, he landed on the pavement. The bat slipped out of his hand and rolled into the litter-strewn gutter. Joe stood and watched all four dogs flee down the block.
“Wait till I get my hands on them,” Joe said, ramming his hand against the van. He watched Ronnie tend to a scratched knee. “Get up you fool. Our money is running away. The heck with your leg. We have to catch them.”
The men jumped into the van and took off. As the two unsuspecting strays barreled across a different street in the opposite direction, Joe said, “Ah, forget about them. We’ve got a better chance of nailing the other two. I’m ready to strangle them.”
Limping along, Wally dragged his back leg, but he held his own. He panted and struggled but he kept up with Tippy.
Hearing the van rumble around the corner, Tippy made a snap decision. No way Wally could charge through the neighborhood at her speed and elude their captors. She suspected the men wouldn’t leave them alone.
“Follow me.” Tippy led shuffling Wally through the charred remains of an apartment building gutted by fire. Broken glass dangled from decaying first floor window frames. “You go first. Be careful squeezing in.”
“OK,” Wally said. To avoid cutting himself, he sandwiched his skinny body through a rupture in the brick building.
“That should buy us a little time.” Tippy met Wally’s gaze as she slipped inside behind him. “I hope they’ll decide this building is too unsafe and leave us alone.”
“Whatever happens, don’t let them get me,” Wally said. Hollow eyes pleaded for comfort.
A few seconds passed and Tippy poked her head out a cracked window. When brakes squealed to a halt, her ears flattened against her head. The doors flew open and Joe and Ronnie sprinted towards the building.
“They went in there,” Joe said as he shoved Ronnie in the back. “Look, I see that brown and white mutt looking at us. Go in and get them.”
“Why me?” Ronnie turned up his nose. “The place is probably full of rats or who knows what else. You go.”
Shards of glass and blackened appliances littered the entrance to the darkened building. Joe kicked his boot against splintered wooden boards covering the basement windows. “I’m coming in and I’m mad.”
“No you’re not,” Ronnie said, flanked by Joe. He eyed the rubble scattered in the lobby. “This building looks too dangerous. I told you, I’m through swiping dogs and cats.”
Anger clouded Joe’s eyes. “Where’s my bat? Soon as I cream one of ‘em, we can go.” He searched for a way inside the decrepit building. “I won’t be outsmarted by some stray mutt.”
Spinning around, Ronnie stepped away. “Stay if you want. I don’t like the Bronx after dark. I’m outta here.”
An engine started. The clattering sound slowly disappeared. Then there was silence. The two dogs snuggled close. Both panted heavily. After what seemed like an endless wait, Tippy finally pushed her head outside.
“Looks like they’re gone,” Tippy said, checkking right then left.
“Gone nothing. They could be sitting on the corner waiting for us to come out,” Wally said.
“Good thinking. Let’s stay put for a while,” Tippy said. All the commotion made her mouth as dusty as stale kibble. “I’m so thirsty.”
No way could Wally dress up his distaste for street life. “I drink from puddles. Summertime without water nearly does a stray in.” He nodded at a nearby pool of dirty water and scampered towards it. “Lucky for us this building leaks. Rain water got in and formed puddles.”
Reluctantly, Tippy followed, yet the very idea disgusted her. Shanita, Tippy thought, would shudder if she knew her dog was drinking dirty water. The rancid taste almost caused Tippy to choke. For the moment, though, her thirst was quenched and she was temporarily safe along with her new companion Wally.
A few minutes slipped by.
“Wait here while I run to the corner,” Tippy said. “If they’re gone, I’ll bark and you come outside.”
“Be careful. I don’t like those men. They’ll hit me again.”
“Not with me around,” Tippy said, even though she herself barely weighed 25 pounds. Despite the bravado, she wondered how or if she could defend both Wally and herself against two sleazy men armed with baseball bats?
A lot of streetlamps were out. Only the full moon shed some light on the empty, barren streets. The only sound was a surge of cold wind blowing an empty hamburger wrapper across the cracked sidewalk.
For added protection, Tippy crept underneath parked cars to reach the corner. If the men were out there, she hoped they wouldn’t notice her. Thoughts of the cozy life she shared with Shanita temporarily warmed her. If she couldn’t find her way home, how would she survive the upcoming winter without protection, food, and water, even with Wally for company?