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The scrappy mutt named Biscuit whimpered in silence after the employees left the Denver SPCA at closing time, just after 6 p.m. She and the other animals squeaked, whined and purred, but no one was left in the kennels or offices to hear the stray cats and homeless dogs curled up in their cages. Other than the occasional dog owner who stormed out and yelled in the parking lot about the reclaim fee for lost pets, excitement rarely disturbed the tranquil neighborhood of small businesses and retail shops. Sleep came quickly to the animals. The calm lasted until the wee hours of the morning.
Two intruders burst through the kennel door, lugging old wooden crates and a handful of ropes. One man flipped on the overhead lights while the other slammed the door behind them.
Biscuit squinted in the sudden flash. She pawed sleep from her eyes then shook her head, tossing floppy brown ears into place.
The surprise interruption grabbed everyone’s attention. A chorus of barking and meowing shattered the stillness. Biscuit stared at the two strange men with grizzled faces, both dressed in army fatigues and black boots. Dark knit caps covered their heads.
Thor, a full grown Great Dane, tried to squeeze his big head through the bars to catch the action. “Gee, I don’t know these people. They’re not the ones who feed us.” He glanced at a window set high in the stone wall. “It’s dark out. Our people don’t get here until the sun comes up.”
Biscuit stood, shook herself, and pressed her nose out the bars. “This doesn’t smell right.”
“I don’t like it either,” Thor said, eyeing the intruders.
“They don’t smell familiar,” Biscuit shouted over the din of barking. “I wonder who they are.”
Thor hurled his massive frame against the steel bars and growled. “Let me at ‘em.”
“Be quiet, everyone,” Biscuit yelped. Her mouth felt dusty like stale dog kibble. “I can’t hear what the men are saying.”
A few animals quieted down but most fired off their mouths.
One intruder’s red face gleamed with sweat as he studied the list in his hand while he tried to cover an ear with the other. “Hey Joe, all this noise, someone’s gonna call the cops.”
“Won’t matter Al so long as we hurry,” Joe said.
Al yanked open dog cages and removed the unsuspecting occupants. Joe strung ropes around their necks and dragged them out the kennel’s doorway. Meanwhile Al reached in to unlatch the bar to Thor’s cage. The big dog yelped madly and ripped a chunk out of the stranger’s hand. “Leave me alone you bully,” he snarled as he backed deeper into his cage.
“Good boy Thor,” Biscuit said. “Protect yourself.”
The veins in Al’s thick neck bulged as he held up his bleeding hand and waved it wildly at the giant dog. “If I wasn’t in such a hurry, you’d be a goner.”
Joe, shoving a trunk-sized crate, said, “Forget about that dumb dog.”
Panting cats huddled near their litter trays while dogs watched with sagging tongues and drooping tails as Joe held onto the dogs’ ropes. Al stuffed cats inside a wooden crate with chipped slats. Seven abducted dogs and cats later, Al mumbled about a mistake. Joe’s mouth dropped open. “What’re you talking about, numbskull?”
“Cat was in that cage when we was in yesterday. Kennel workers must’ve moved them around.”
Biscuit suddenly recognized the pair’s scent. They had been in the kennel as community service workers. One poked fun at Biscuit’s short stubby legs while the other said she smelled like bad egg salad.
Joe wasted no time by pointing to another cage and said, “Take another animal. And step on it.”
Al ran up to Rosie, a mongrel candidate with a roly-poly figured huddled inside the cage beside Biscuit. “She’ll do.”
He dragged Rosie out, her feet sliding across the tiled floor as she struggled to maintain balance. The dog protested knowing only the other animals could understand her plea. “Hey mister, don’t haul me around like that.”
In a huff, Joe lifted his leg and kicked the Beagle sized dog in her belly. “I’ll chop you in a meat grinder if you don’t cooperate.”
“Watch it,” Biscuit cried. “She’s my friend.”
“Pick on someone your own size,” Thor said.
“Biscuit, Thor, please don’t let them hurt me,” Rosie said as she cringed in pain. Al hauled her and the rest of the animals through the rear door. Within minutes, Al and Joe disappeared into the darkness of the Mile High City along with four dogs and four cats.
Gaping at the vacant cages, Biscuit wondered who the intruders were and what would happen to her friends, especially Rosie. She shared a tight bond with her. Once Biscuit cleared a dog-bone sized lump from her throat she caught Thor’s attention. “What was that all about?”
Bewildered, Thor sat as still as a statue, drool seeping from his jaws. “They almost got me.”
Mousy the cat pressed her back against the stainless steel wall at the rear of her cage and stared blankly with light green eyes clouded by cataracts. The finicky gray and white cat, unhappy by confinement to a tiny cage, rarely shared with the others.
Biscuit wagged her tail. “Mousy, you OK?”
Mousy turned to face the dog. “No. How would you feel if you’d been abandoned by your owners?”
“I’m thinking about our friends now. Why do you think those strange men took them?” Biscuit said.
Mousy hissed impatiently. “Weren’t you listening silly dog? They’re selling them for research.”
“What’s research?” Biscuit asked.
“I heard my people say scientists study the effects of smoking on dogs and see how dangerous cigarettes are,” Mousy said.
“Dogs don’t smoke,” Biscuit said.
“Not research for us dummy,” Mousy said. “For people.” The cat licked her shoulder and said, “An old lady like me can only take so much. Leave me alone please.”
Biscuit plopped down and rested on the icy cement floor, picking at her paws as a brief diversion. Life on the streets had been unkind. Constant wandering from place to place caused her paw pads to crack open like broken glass. Her feet were still sore; shellacking them with saliva sometimes made them feel better.
“Want to know why I’m here Mousy?” Biscuit asked.
“The cops found me alone on Colfax Avenue and brought me here,” Biscuit said.
Mousy said nothing.
“Those men are bad,” Biscuit said. “Our friends must be in trouble.”
Thor puffed out his massive chest. “Especially without me to protect them.”
“Maybe Rosie or one of the others will help them escape,” Rose said.
Just then, shelter worker Buddy Kimbrough barged through the kennel door yelling, “Oh no. Look at this.” He held a hand over his mouth.
Biscuit figured Buddy arrived for work as usual and discovered the break-in. She watched the skinny worker who had more wrinkles on his nut brown face than a Shar-Pei as he surged up and down the aisles, still clutching his lunch bag.
“I better call the police right away,” Buddy said. As he spun around the brown paper bag slipped from his hands but he never noticed.
Biscuit’s nose wiggled when she detected the whiff of fresh meat. Sliding a paw underneath the cage, she snagged Buddy’s lunch, ripped open the bag and wolfed down the smoked turkey sandwich in three large bites spitting out pieces of lettuce. Biscuit didn’t care for the taste of leafy greens. “Yummy,” she said, licking mayonnaise and breadcrumbs from her whiskers and muzzle. Biscuit had settled into the once daily meal routine, yet hunger pangs lingered from her long days as a stray. Before the police rescued her from the streets, she nearly starved from lack of regular nutrition.
Thor and the other dogs and cats stared at her with envious eyes. Sensing resentment, she averted her glance.
Buddy returned, looking somewhat calmer. Biscuit yipped a welcome to her favorite employee. He stood in front of her cage, checking out the number of stolen animals or perhaps looking for his lunch. A smile warmed his swarthy face as he bent down to pat her head.
“I see breadcrumbs and lettuce in your cage. I guess you enjoyed my lunch.”
Flapping her tail, Biscuit showered his callused hand with doggy kisses. She loved visits from the employees, especially Buddy.
“Two men, Al and Joe, took the others away. Gosh, I wish you could understand me,” Biscuit said, barking for Buddy’s attention.
Thor piped in. “Yeah, we can’t track them down if we’re locked up in here.”
Biscuit heard Dr. Quinn McCoy, the shelter veterinarian and general manager, enter the kennel. “What’s going on?” the round faced woman asked. “The back door is broken. We had a robbery didn’t we?”
“Overnight I guess,” Buddy said. “Someone got in.”
“What’d they take?” the vet asked.
“Dogs and cats.”
“I don’t know yet,” Buddy said.
“Did you call the police?”
“Should be on the way,” he said.
“Wonder if it’s related to the city council’s pound seizure proposal?” Dr. McCoy folded both arms around her thin waist and sighed. “Lots of Denver residents are unhappy about Proposition 202. They think we’re the enemy.”
“The City Council doesn’t want to allocate money for pet overpopulation,” Buddy said. “They say pound seizures will defray the cost of animal control.”
“Let’s hope the citizens vote down Prop. 202 on Election day,” Dr. McCoy said. A tear slowly crawled down the vet’s cheek. “What’ll happen to our stolen animals?”
“I’m upset too,” Buddy said as he lightly touched Dr. McCoy’s arm. “Want a glass of water?”
With a hanky, the vet dabbed her eyes. “No thanks Let’s walk around the shelter and do a complete headcount. Were any of my favorites stolen?”
A knot gripped Buddy’s stomach. “Yep, they got Rosie.”
“Not Rosie. Such an unlucky dog,” Dr. McCoy said. “Her owner has a heart attack after taking Rosie for a walk. The owner’s children only want her money, not her dog. And now she ends up stolen.” The vet turned and pointed at the window. “What about Connie and the farm animals?”
Located on a sliver of land within city limits, the shelter was large enough to accommodate a small barn and a drinking pond. A few goats, horses and pigs ended up as unwanted too.
“Connie, you must be kidding,” Buddy said, laughing. “How would anyone swipe a 700 lb. pig without a forklift? No one came looking for ham or bacon.”
Outside the small smudge stained window Dr. McCoy noticed the revolving beacons. “Cops are here Buddy. I’ll talk to them but don’t get lost. They’ll want you too since you were the first one in today.”
“No problem,” Buddy said as he headed for the kennels.
“Call the repair people and get the staff together for an emergency meeting,” Dr. McCoy said as she walked away.
“You hear that?” Biscuit said to Thor. “You think the cops will find our friends?”
“If they don’t, who will?” Thor said.
Tied in the van with the three other dogs, Rosie yipped and yammered, knowing the men couldn’t understand her. “I have to squat and there’s no room to move around.”
Mother Nature forced the dog to relieve herself, dripping urine and feces down her spotted hind legs. The stench made Rosie’s nose twitch and she apologized to her neighbors. None objected, since nature called on them as well.
Ending the feline silence, a large male cat yowled. “Cats are unhappy too.”
Rosie craned her neck to meet the cat’s brown, half-moon eyes. “Who are you?”
“ Guffey.” The orange-striped cat peered between splintered slats from inside the wooden crate holding him and three other cats. “Looks like we got big problems.”
Rosie tipped her moist noise in the air then wiggled it. “Guffey, strange name for a cat.”
“You’re worried about my name when we’re trapped like rats,” Guffey said. “OK, Guffey’s a small town in Colorado. Folks elected a cat as mayor. Now quit bothering me so I can figure out what to do. I doubt we’re on the way to a comfy pet resort.”
In spite of cool temperatures Al perspired like it was July. The van cruised along fog shrouded roads. A rag covered Al’s bloodied hand. “Stupid dog, deserved to be knocked off for biting me like that.”
“Qui the whining,” Joe said. “Hand don’t look that bad.”
“It hurts,” Al said with gnarled face from the animal’s yips and yowls. “All that racket giving me a headache.”
Joe turned to look through the metal screen separating the front seats from the back of the van. With a devilish grin, he waved crumpled bills in the air. “You guys gonna make us money.” He opened a soda can, emptied it in three quick gulps and tossed behind. He laughed as it bounced off the crates.
“We almost there yet?” Al asked. “Didn’t have such a hassle last time.”
Joe belched and glanced at his accomplice. “Fool contact guy in Colorado got arrested selling dogs to a hospital. New guy deals with labs in Nebraska so we gotta do the exchange in Wyoming. Near the westbound entrance to the I-80. Shouldn’t be too long before these animals are dead meat.”
“And we get the heck out of here and spend our money,” Al said.
Rosie’s limp tail hung between her hind legs. “Mister please don’t hurt us,” she whimpered.
“It’s just us now,” Guffey said.
“What’d you think will happen?”
Buddy entered the kennel, pushing a flimsy metal cart with a large plastic bucket on top. Biscuit’s twitching nose caught the welcome aroma of dog food. She danced and pranced, her nails clicking on the concrete floor.
In front of Thor’s cage Buddy stopped and sighed. “I’d have thought they’d want a big dog like you. You give them a hard time or what?”
“Sounds like he wanted me to be stolen,” Thor said to Biscuit. His sore feelings soon disappeared when Buddy slid a hefty bowl of food underneath his cage. Thor gulped the kibble down his gut and barked for more, to no avail. “I need another bowl.”
“Thor, meal time is once a day,” Biscuit said. “Stop complaining and be glad we eat.”
Thor, wailing, “get me out of here,” cast his big body against the steel bars, flopping onto the floor.
Buddy laughed as he continued to dish out food. “Only a crazy food would steal that maniac.”
Thor was an impulse purchase by a man with an eye for a bargain but no clue about behavior training, especially for a Great Dane. Thor’s owner confined the pup to the backyard, serving food and fresh water every day but otherwise ignoring the growing puppy. And grow he did. Thor now weighed almost 125 lbs. and stood over six feet tall on his hind legs.
As soon as Buddy served Biscuit’s food she wolfed down the entire serving, licking the bowl in hopes more would appear. Compared to hardships of the streets, her stay at the shelter was like royalty, even though she looked like a battered bag of bones.
Beside Biscuit’s cage sat Mousy and she snubbed the feline cuisine. Biscuit suspected she didn’t care for the food. Maybe she expects fresh fish, Biscuit thought, sniffing her own empty food bowl.
Giving up hope for a second helping, Biscuit barked for the cat’s attention. When Mousy picked her head up to make eye contact, Biscuit said, “You should eat something.”
Stone-faced, the cat turned away. “Leave me alone.” Then she hissed.
“I was only trying to be nice,” Biscuit said. “I was scared when I first came in too.”
With feline fury, Mousy swatted at her food bowl and kicked at the kibble so hard it flew out of her cage. “I can’t stand this place,” she said. The cat curled her feeble body into a ball and pressed it against the back of her cage.
“I’m here if you want to talk,” Biscuit said.
As he collected dirty food bowls, Buddy stopped in front of Biscuit’s cage, grinned and reached in between the bars to stroke her head. “You know what I’m saying sometimes, don’t you girl.”
“Good dogs tune in when their owners are upset,” Biscuit said of course knowing Buddy didn’t understand. “The ones lucky enough to have owners.”
“He never does that to me,” Thor said, nibbling on his toes. “Nobody does.”
“Act like a good dog and you’ll win friends,” Biscuit said, wishing her advice would really work.
“OK, I’ll try,” Thor said, dropping his face on his paws.
Confined in cages, the animals barked, spun in circles or licked themselves to pass the time. Sometimes they slept. Rarely were there enough volunteers or staff to take them outside. Undignified, perhaps, but a full bladder and bowels forced Biscuit to relieve herself in the corner of her cage. The smell of dog waste sickened her. At least cats had litter boxes.
Thor dragged his claws across the hard floor, trying to dig his way out. He finally gave up when he stubbed his paws on the steel bars. Yelping in pain, he turned his mournful eyes to Biscuit and said, “I miss the nice lady next door. I slept on her porch.”
“You never mentioned a nice lady. Who is she?” Biscuit asked.
“One night, I was asleep in my dog house when my owner dragged me through the yard, kicking me in the side. He stepped on my paws with his boots and that hurt. Then he whacked my winkie.”
“What for?” Biscuit asked.
“I dug holes near my dog house and I guess he was mad because I ruined his flowers. Nobody played with me so I got bored. My owner kept yelling that I was a bad dog. I was so scared that when he went inside I jumped over the fence and crawled onto the lady’s porch. I slept there a lot.” Thor licked his paws. “I wonder if my owner misses me.”
“He didn’t think much about you while he had you,” Biscuit said. “I wonder what happened to our friends. I hope they’re safe.”
“Why should I care? I’m stuck here,” Thor said.
“We can’t forget them,” Biscuit said. “Rosie will save the day, she’s that kind of dog.”
“At her age?”
“She has a big mouth like me. That should help.”
Packed like a dill pickle besides the cat’s crate Rosie strained at the rope to rear onto her hind legs. She gazed out the back window at endless plains stretching from the road. Rugged mountain peaks draped in snow glistened in the distance. Inside, the stench of vomit and waste sickened the cats and dogs. Joe and Al needed fresh air too.
Just over the Wyoming border, the pair pulled off at an empty rest station. Joe told Al to hurry because a van full of barking dogs might attract attention.
Al jumped out and dumped loose change into a vending machine. He ran back with a handful of candy bars which the men shoved into their mouths. Using his sleeve, Joe wiped chocolate from his mouth.
“Wait here,” Joe said. “I gotta go.”
“Step on it. We gotta get out of here before someone comes,” Al said.
Joe returned, stuffing his shirt inside his tattered trousers and climbed in. “How much you think we’ll get this time?”
“Not sure but business is good lately.”
Rosie groaned as the van pulled away. “I can’t take this much longer.”
Guffey, in a small crate with three other cats, spit like an attacking mountain lion. With his front paw, he swatted the inside of the crate to attract Rosie’s attention. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. We have to make a move.”
“Too bad Thor isn’t here to help,” Biscuit said.
“He’s not and we have to help ourselves,” Guffey said. “It’s up to us. If we don’t try, we’re gone.”
Except for Guffey, the other cats hunkered down in silence but the dogs moaned with such intensity it sounded like a truck load of dog bones crushed them.
“Can’t wait for a big thick piece of juicy steak,” Al said as he patted his stomach with his sore hand. “Baked potato with sour cream. And a slice of bread and butter.”
“You got aspirin?” Joe asked. “Dog yapping gave me a headache.”
“I look like a medicine cabinet?”
Coaxing the engine to kick over three or four times Joe eased onto the highway while Al stared out the window. The van’s sputtering movement silenced the dogs. An eternity later, Joe turned onto another highway.
Teeth chattering with cold and fear, Rosie asked, “Where we going now?”
A railroad crossing loomed ahead. As the van rumbled over the tracks the animals bounced and banged into each other. Guffey was the first to regain his balance. “You heard them say there’s a contract for us. They plan to sell us for money.”
“Why’d they pick us?” Rosie asked.
Guffey blinked slowly and said nothing.
“Poor Pip,” Rosie said, sidling next to a tiny dog with wiry fur the color of eggshells. “He’s barely budged since those men threw us in here.”
Guffey’s tail lashed. “There’s eight of us. Worry about us all.”