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The volunteer at the front counter smiled awkwardly at the two of them. This was the tenth animal shelter they had visited and by the second shelter, they discovered that ‘large, black dog with a wiggly tail and a big, pink tongue’ wasn’t a whole lot to go on. They had seen plenty of black dogs but none of them were Muffin.

“Well, this one needs a home. Maybe you could have your mommy and daddy come down and adopt him,” suggested a woman at the fourth shelter. “We don’t have any black dogs but how about a cat? We have several black cats that would love to go home with you!” encouraged a man at the seventh shelter. “Can I interest you in a black goldfish?” asked an old lady at the ninth shelter. A black goldfish? That didn’t even make sense to Beatrix.

So here they were at the Happy Tails Animal Shelter, hopeful that they would finally find a clue to the location of their family pet. Early on, they had been able to track down the kennel where their dog had been boarded. When their parents did not pick up Muffin at the end of the month as agreed, they had held onto the animal for a few weeks longer. However, with no one to contact, they eventually surrendered the pet to a local shelter. The first problem was that they no longer had records from four years back and didn’t remember which shelter they had sent Muffin to. The second problem was that there were approximately a billion-trillion-gazillion shelters in the city. They had started with the one closest to the kennel and worked outward from there.

“Why don’t you have a seat? The shelter director will be out to see you shortly,” the volunteer told them, motioning to a set of plastic chairs bolted to the wall. She was a pretty girl of about 20 with sandy brown hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail, dark brown eyes and a nose dusted with freckles. The name tag she wore read ‘Carolina’ which Bea thought was a very nice name. She led her brother over to the seats and they settled there, Bea with her hands folded neatly in her lap and Bart with his legs swinging back and forth.

“Would you two like a glass of water? One for each of you, of course. I wouldn’t make you share a glass between you!” Carolina called over to them, gesturing to a door behind her. “I was going to go get a drink for myself so it would be no trouble.” Beatrix said that would be very nice, thanked her and the volunteer disappeared into what she guessed was the kitchen.

As they waited for her to return, a woman entered the shelter lobby. She looked like she would have been right at home at Uncle Horace and Aunt Hildegard’s fancy party: her ink black hair was piled high in an elegant beehive that had strands of pearls woven in amongst her locks, her eyes were hidden behind large, dark sunglasses and her feet were jammed into a pair of pointy high heels that gave her at least five extra inches of height. The woman’s dress was tight and exquisitely tailored with a v-shaped dip in the front that showcased her necklace, a piece of jewelry that was positively dripping with diamonds. She did not walk. She glided and she glided right over to the front counter. Lifting a hand covered in rings glittering with gemstones, she banged on the reception bell.

“Carolina? CAROLINA! Where are you?!” she bellowed in a shrill, rude tone that did not match her elegant appearance. The volunteer came rushing out from the kitchen when she heard her name being screeched. Looking terrified when she saw who it was, the poor girl dropped the glass of water she had been holding and it shattered at her feet.

“Miss Shackleford! I am so sorry to have kept you waiting,” said Carolina, her voice a-quiver with dismay and worry. Beatrix cocked her head as she watched this exchange, wondering how the passage of mere seconds qualified as being ‘kept waiting’. “How can I help you today?”

Miss Shackleford sighed dramatically, draping a wrist across her brow. “Carolina, your stupidity makes my soul weep for the future. What do you think I want? It is the same thing I want every single time I come here, every single week I visit. Take me to the dogs!” The volunteer made a dismayed squeaking sound as she rushed out from behind the counter, the visitor’s cruel words making her dark eyes well up with tears, and she ushered the woman down the hall. Click-click-click went Miss Shackleford’s heels, the sound fading as the pair disappeared down the hall. Bea and Bart gave each other a look and both released breaths that they hadn’t even realized they had been holding.

After a time, Carolina returned alone and the girl began to mop up the water she dropped earlier. “I’m sorry,” she told the children, her voice still unsteady from her run-in with the imperious Miss Shackleford. “I am afraid the shelter director is going to be tied up for some time. You could come back tomorrow or… maybe I could help you?” She went over and crouched down before Bea and Bart, looking expectantly up into their faces.

“We’re looking for our dog, Muffin,” Bea explained. “He’s about this big,” continued Bart, holding his arms out as wide as he could. “Our parents went away on a trip to Africa and left him in a kennel. But something happened and they never came back. So the kennel sent Muffin to shelter but we don’t know which one,” said Bea, taking over for her brother. “He has fluffy black fur and floppy ears and when he wags his tail, his whole butt goes back and forth like this,” interjected Bart, hopping down from his seat to waggle his backside back and forth as fast as he could. This display made Carolina giggle and she gave Bart a scratch behind the ear; Bea was relieved to see some happiness return to the volunteer.

“How long ago did this happen?” the young woman asked, rising up to her feet and returning to the front desk. Pulling open a drawer, she started to finger through various files but she stopped when the children told her that Muffin would have been given up approximately four years ago.

“Oh dear,” she murmured under her breath and then shook her head. “I am afraid we have received no dogs that fit that description. I’m sorry. But here,” Carolina grabbed a business card and wrote something on the back before handing it to Beatrix. “This is another shelter you might try.”

Bea’s heart sank and she could feel the warm sting of tears collecting in her eyes. It was so frustrating! Everywhere they went, everyone they spoke to, they all just turned out to be dead ends. With each disappointment, she lost a little more hope and a dark thought began to take hold. What if they never found Muffin? If they couldn’t even find Muffin who was presumably in the city, how would they ever find their parents all the way over in Africa? Dejected, Beatrix shoved the card into her pocket without looking at it, mumbled some half-hearted thanks and led her brother out the door.

“Are we going to another shelter,” asked Bart as they walked along the sidewalk. Beatrix shook her head. “Well, are we going to get something to eat? I’m hungry,” he continued, whining a little to stress to his sister how grumbly his tummy was getting. Beatrix shook her head again. “What are we going to do then?” She came to a dead stop, balled up her fists and screamed at the heavens: “I DON’T KNOW!”

Bart didn’t ask any more questions.

They wandered in silence for quite some time, not having anywhere to go now that they did not have a home. Bart’s stomach growled a bit but he did not dare say anything, not when Beatrix was in such a foul mood. Coming upon a park, they settled down on a bench to rest their legs. They watched young people playing with their dogs, mommies pushing their babies around in strollers and daddies playing catch with their kids. None of it seemed fair.

“What did the card say?” ventured Bart, the boy’s tone cautious since upset sisters are dangerous things — one must always tread lightly around them. “Oh, it’s probably just another place for us to try. I’m sure they won’t know where Muffin is either,” answered Bea bitterly but she pulled out the card anyway. She was right. It was a business card for another shelter – Wooftopia was the name – but when she turned it over, Bea noticed that there was a note written on the back:

I think I know where your dog is. Meet me at the Sugar Shack Café at 6p. –Carolina

“Bart!” Bea cried, jumping to her feet. Her brother was so startled by her sudden outburst that he toppled off the bench in surprise, landing in a heap of tangled arms and legs. “What time is it?!” Alas, Bart had no watch so he could not answer her question. Luckily, an old woman strolling by heard Beatrix’s shout and answered kindly: “It’s about 5:45, dear.” Grabbing her brother’s hand and pulling him to his feet, she called out her thanks as they dashed out of the park and headed in the direction of the restaurant where they would find Carolina. They had 20 blocks to cover in 15 minutes and Bart had short little legs.

They made a good go of it for seven blocks before Bart started to slow down. Their run turned into a jog and their jog turned into a brisk walk and their brisk walk turned into a slow plod. “I’m so tired,” he complained, dragging his feet with each step taken. “My legs hurt and I need a drink of water.” Bea sighed heavily, imagining Carolina sitting in the café waiting for them and growing increasingly impatient. Crouching down, she motioned for her brother to climb onto her back. If she had to carry him piggyback for the remaining 13 blocks, if that is what it would take to get their dog back, that’s what she was going to do. Unfortunately, Bart was heavier than she expected and she began to lose steam only three blocks later.

“We’re never going to make it,” she wailed, letting Bart slide off her back so they could both sit down on the bench at the bus stop. They asked the time of a businessman walking by and both children began to cry when he informed that that it was 6:07. Unaccustomed and ill-prepared to deal with sobbing kids, he rushed off with hurried words about having a meeting he needed to get to. “Do you think she will wait for us?” asked Bart between sniffles. “No,” answered Bea with a hiccup. “She probably is mad that we stood her up.” Why didn’t she look at the card sooner?! Beatrix shook her little fists at the sky, cursing their rotten luck and poor stamina.

Just as all hope seemed to be lost, a fellow on a bicycle pulled up to the curb and jerked his chin at the children. “Oy! What’s got you two so down that you need to sit around caterwauling to high heaven, disturbing the peace and tranquility of this fine evening?” he asked them, leaning forward to fold his arms across his handlebars. He was odd looking to say the least and his appearance stunned the children into temporary silence. His hair was bright yellow – not blonde but yellow – and it sprayed out around his face like rays of the sun. The color of his eyes was a mystery since he wore a large pair of goggles perched on the longest, pointiest nose either one of them had ever seen on a person. Beneath them he sported a fancy mustache, each end waxed into curlicues to compliment the fine point of his goatee. His clothing was a mish-mash of colors, patterns and styles: red velvet coat, black pin-striped vest, green plaid shirt, pink ascot, brown trousers that ended at the knees, purple and orange polka-dotted socks and soccer cleats.

“Have you lost your ability to talk? Have you no tongues? Have you suffered some kind of injury that prevents you from communicating in anything other than howls of heart-broken agony? What are you both so sad about anyway?” he prodded some more when the children remained locked in amazed silence. Bart, surprisingly, was the first to recover his capacity for speech. “We are late for an appointment,” he explained before blurting out: “Why are you dressed like that?!” The man chuckled and smoothed a hand down the front of his coat. “My mother tells me that I should dress to impress and I always listen to my mother. So where’s this appointment you’re late for?” Bea, having finally stopped gawking herself, pointed up the street. “The Sugar Shack Café. We were supposed to be there at 6 so we don’t know if the person we were supposed to meet is even there anymore.” The fellow gave the back of his seat a pat. “Well, there’s only one way to find out. Here, you sit behind me,” he said to Bea. “..and your companion there can ride on the handlebars. I’ll get you to where you need to be if only to save the neighborhood’s ears from your mournful sobbing. Up you go!” Before they knew it, they were on their way to meet Carolina, flying down the street on the man’s bike with the wind blowing through their hair.

“I’m Jack,” the fellow told them as his pedaled along. “What are your names and what’s so important about this meeting?” For the next 10 blocks, they shared with him their tale of woe. Jack took it all in, nodding here, ‘ah-ha’ing there and gasping at all the right places. “So this Carolina girl is going to help you find your dog? I wish you the best of luck with that. I had a dog when I was a young boy, a beagle named Tommy T. Thomas and he was the best friend I’ve ever had,” he mused as they rode in and out of traffic, his yellow hair fluttering in the breeze. Pulling up to a little restaurant shaped like a cupcake, he steered his bicycle toward the entrance, came to a stop and put down his kickstand with the heel of his cleats. “Here we are! And you are only…” He pulled out a pocket watch and gave it a look. “…20 minutes late.” As they scrambled off his bicycle, he hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his trousers and followed them inside, explaining that he had a hankering for some pie and the conclusion to their story.

Amazingly enough, Carolina was still there and she waved them over from the back booth she was sitting in. She already had a cup of something warm in front of her, the steam rising up and curling in the air before dissipating. “I thought you weren’t going to make it. I was just getting ready to leave,” she told the children as she gave Jack a sidelong glance. A lopsided smile took over his face and he pushed his goggles up onto his forehead – revealing a pair of kindly, crinkled grey eyes — before offering the young lady his hand. “Jack Juniper, bicycle taxi-driver to the downtrodden and unfortunate. How do you do, fair lady?” The shelter volunteer smiled shyly and blushed as he kissed her hand when she went to shake his. “Carolina Cotton. It is nice to meet you.” Bart watched this exchange,  looked at his sister and then heaved an exasperated sigh, rolling his eyes for extra measure. He was pretty sure that Jack was flirting with Carolina and that was, in his opinion, pretty gross. They had important business to attend to! There was no time for romance when the fate of their missing dog was hanging in the balance.

“So, you know where Muffin is?” he interjected before Jack could lob any more flowery words at Carolina. The shelter volunteer nodded slowly, nibbling on her lower lip nervously before giving verbal confirmation. “I think so. You remember that lady who came in while you were waiting for the director? I think she has your dog.” The children felt a rush of elation mixed with dread upon receiving this news. On one hand, they had a solid lead on the location of their beloved pet. On the other hand, it was likely that he was in the possession of one of the rudest, meanest, most self-centered people in the city. Things were looking good and bad.

Carolina went on to explain that a little less than four years ago, one of the local kennels surrendered a big, black dog that had been abandoned by his owner. He quickly became a favorite at the shelter, allowed to hang out in the lobby to greet the guests and keep the volunteers company. Small children would visit and ask to ride on his back, something the dog always seemed very pleased to allow. He would plod in circles around the reception area as the children hooted and hollered, covering their faces with sloppy kisses when they were done riding him. Little old ladies would bring him treats, giggling little old lady giggles at how gently he’d take the tidbits from their hands. Several members of the local high school football team made it a habit to stop by every week to take him out to the park to play catch and he would always come back tired and happy, spending the rest of the day sleeping on his back with all four paws in the air and his tail lazily thump-thump-thumping against the floor. Everyone loved the big black dog that had come to the shelter but, knowing his story, no one dared adopt him because they all hoped that whoever his owner was would come for him. It was clear to all who met him that he was a very special pet and a beloved member of someone’s family.

One day, he caught the attention of Miss Shackleford, the shelter’s most generous – and most entitled – patron. She only adopted animals from the shelter which, admittedly, was a point in her favor. Most rich ladies spend thousands and thousands of dollars on special, fancy designer pets, dogs that are bred to have fluffy pink fur or cats who can meow opera in perfect tune, all the while animals who need good homes wallow unloved in cages. However, even though there were good intentions down there somewhere in her heart, Miss Shackleford was pushy, mean and rude. When she would see an animal she wanted at the shelter, it would be her’s — no ifs, ands or buts. It wouldn’t matter if someone else was interested in adopting the pet. In fact, once she even snatched a kitten from a little girl because its eyes were the perfect shade of blue that matched a new purse she had bought. It was Miss Shackleford’s goal to adopt an animal of every color, every size and every breed from the Happy Tails shelter. So when she saw the big, black dog that precisely complimented the new vase in her sitting room, she didn’t care that everyone was holding out hope that his family would come for him. “Nonsense!” she shrieked at the shelter director as he explained the dog’s situation. “If his family cared for him at all, they wouldn’t have abandoned him in the first place!”

“But what if he belongs to someone who was in an accident or got sick? They might be lying in a hospital bed right now, trying to get better so that someday they might be reunited with their dog,” the director offered feebly – to be entirely truthful, he was rather intimidated by Miss Shackleford. Everyone was. “Well, then they should have taken better care of their health and not gotten sick in the first place!” she shouted in reply. Reaching down, she attached the leash to the dog’s collar and that was the last time anyone in the shelter saw Muffin.

“So, you probably won’t get your dog back,” Carolina said in a deeply apologetic tone, taking a sip of her drink. She had ordered hot chocolate for herself and when the children arrived with Jack, she ordered some for everyone else too. “But if it is any comfort, you can be assured that he is getting the best care. Miss Shackleford treats her pets very well and they want for nothing.”

“But Muffin wants us!” Bart countered with an anguished cry, the whipped cream from his cocoa still clinging to his upper lip. “We have to get him back! He’s part of our family and he’ll help us find our parents!” Bea reached over and gave her brother a one-armed hug. Jack considered all this with a thoughtful stroke of his goatee and then took a dainty sip of his drink, pinky raised as that is the only proper way to consume anything that comes in a mug.

“It seems to me that this Miss Shackleford person should be happy to reunite these children with their lost pet. I mean, just look at those faces!” He flourished a gesture at the children and they donned their very saddest expressions, complete with tear-glistening eyes and quivering lips. “The woman would have to be downright cold-hearted to refuse them.” Carolina sighed and shook her head. “She is cold-hearted other than having affection for her pets. Her pets. I fear she will not hand Muffin over willingly.” A mischievous gleam twinkled in Jack’s eyes and he leaned forward to speak is a low, conspiratorial tone.

“Then there’s only one thing to do. We need to break him out!”