The Darkest Evening of the Year Page 12

“I thought it might be time.”

“It’s ten years overdue.”

He says, “When the burning’s done…”

Moongirl meets his eyes.

“…who leaves here and how?” he finishes.

“Me,” she says. “And you. Together.”

He thinks she means it. He will be wary nonetheless.

“White sky pressing down on flat white sand,” she says. “All that heat.”

He watches her for a while as she blows on her wet nails. Then he asks, “Have you fed her?”

“It’s a waste of food now.”

“We may need her in good shape.”


“Show and tell. He’ll want to see her.”

“To lure him in.”


“So we’ll feed her.”

He starts to get up.

She says, “When my nails are dry.”

Harrow settles to the grass once more, to watch her blow.

After a while, he gazes at the sea, which is now so sun-silvered that it appears to be almost white.

He can’t locate either the northbound or the southbound ship. Perhaps they are hidden in the solar glare.

Chapter 26

The Land Rover left while Amy and the kids were enjoying the meadow. Later, when she drove to the south-county animal shelter to keep an appointment, no one followed her.

“What was that about?” she asked the dogs, but they had no idea.

At the shelter, she locked her kids in the Expedition, leaving four windows down a couple of inches for air circulation.

Neither Fred nor Ethel, nor Nickie, expressed any desire to accompany her. They knew what kind of place this was. All three were subdued.

Her accountant, Danielle Chiboku, also a Golden Heart volunteer, waited for her in the dreary reception area.

“You bought that rescue last night for two thousand bucks?” Dani asked first thing.

“Kind of, sort of, if you want to see it that way, I guess you could say maybe I did, in a manner of speaking.”

“What am I going to do with you?” Dani asked.

“Gee, Mom, I guess you’ll have to send me to a military school to straighten me out.”

“If I were your mother, you’d know the value of a dollar.”

“You’re only five years older than I am. You couldn’t be my mom. You could be my stepmother if you married my father.”


“But since I’ve never known who my father was, I’m not able to introduce you. Anyway, the two thousand bucks wasn’t Golden Heart’s money. It was mine.”

“Yes, and every year when the organization doesn’t quite raise enough donations to cover its work, you make up the difference.”

“I always expect Batman, in his Bruce Wayne identity, to write me a check, but he never comes through.”

“If you keep this up, you’ll be broke in five years.”

“You’re my accountant. You can’t let that happen. Put me in some investment with a two-hundred-percent return.”

“I’m dead serious, Amy. Five years.”

“Five years is an eternity. Anything could happen in five years. The dogs need me now. Did I ever tell you how much you look like Audrey Hepburn?”

“Don’t try to change the subject. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t half Japanese and half Norwegian.”

“How did your parents meet, anyway? Working on a whaling ship? Blubber and ambergris and love at first sight? Hey, did Mookie meet with Janet Brockman yet?”

Mukai Chiboku-Mookie to his friends-was Dani’s husband and Golden Heart’s attorney.

“He’s going to handle her divorce pro bono,” Dani said. “The little boy and girl half broke his heart.”

Mookie, specializing in real-estate law, had offices in a plain two-story building in Corona del Mar. Few passersby would imagine he had six clients whose combined holdings exceeded a billion dollars.

Dogs were welcome in his office. He went to work every day with his golden, Baiko, who had been named after a master of haiku, and he always greeted Fred and Ethel by exclaiming “Sweet babies!”

“You ready for this?” Amy asked.


“Me neither.”

The shelter workers knew them well. She and Dani walked this facility at least once a week.

An animal-control officer named Luther Osteen led them out of reception, past the shelter offices, into the kennels at the back of the building.

Small but clean cages flanked a concrete run, and all of them contained dogs. Larger animals were housed one to a space. Sometimes the smaller individuals shared a cage.

A few were so depressed, they lay staring at nothing, and did not raise their heads.

Most came to the doors of their cages. Some appeared forlorn, but others wagged their tails and seemed tentatively hopeful.

Occasionally one of the smaller dogs barked, but most of the inmates were quiet, as if aware that their fate-adoption or death-depended in part on their demeanor.

The majority were mutts. About a quarter looked like purebreds. Every dog here was beautiful, each in its own way, and the clock was running out for all of them.

Because the volume of abandoned and abused dogs far exceeded the resources of all the rescue groups combined, each organization had to limit itself to a single breed.

The shelter worked hard to place the mixed breeds, the mutts. Yet thousands every year would have to be euthanized.

Amy wanted to stop at every cage, scratch and cuddle each dog, but raising their hopes would have been cruel, and leaving them behind after making their acquaintance would have devastated her.

Luther Osteen had two dogs for their consideration, the first a pure golden named Mandy. She was a sweet girl, nine years old, her face mostly white with age.

Mandy’s owners had retired. They wanted to spend a few years traveling through Europe. Mandy no longer fit their lifestyle.

“She’s got some arthritis,” Luther said, “and her teeth haven’t been so well cared for, but she has a few good years in her yet. Hard for us to place an older dog like her. She’s probably given back ten times the love she’s gotten over the years, so it’d be right if she had a chance to be with someone who’d give her a better deal.”

“We’ll take her,” Dani said.

The second orphan was a male, part golden, part something else not easily identified, perhaps Australian shepherd. He’d been running loose in an industrial park, wearing a collar with no license.

“Looks like he was abandoned there,” Luther said, “must’ve been fending for himself a couple weeks, he’s so thin.”

The nameless dog stood at the cage door, pressing its black nose through a gap in the wire grid.

“How old, you think?” Dani asked.

“Figure he’s maybe three or four years. No obvious disease.”

“Fixed?” Amy asked.

“No. But you take him, we’ll pay for that. He’s got some ticks, but not a lot.”

Finding forever homes for hundreds of purebreds a year was hard enough. The mixed breeds were more difficult to place.

The tail moved continuously. The ears were raised. The brown eyes pleaded.

“The boy’s housebroken,” Luther said, “and he knows some basic commands like sit and down.”

That the dog had some training made him easier to place, so with relief, Amy said, “We’ll take him.”

“You go deal with the paperwork,” Luther said. “I’ll bring them both out to you.”

Returning along the kennel run, between the rows of cages, Dani took Amy’s hand. She always did. Her eyes were full of unshed tears, which Amy saw before her own vision blurred.

Coming in past all these dogs, most of whom would be euthanized, always proved to be a tough walk, but the return trip, leaving them to their fate, was brutal.

Sometimes, Amy despaired for the human race, and never more so than on those days when she visited the county shelter.

Some repay loyalty with faithlessness and give no thought to their own final hours, when they might have to ask another to grant them the mercy that they withheld from those who trusted them.

Chapter 27

Harrow makes a ham-and-cheese sandwich, adds two sweet pickles to the plate, and puts the plate on a tray with a container of deli potato salad. He adds two lunchbox bags of potato chips and a small bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies. She likes root beer, so he puts two cold cans on the tray.

Just as he finishes, Moongirl enters the kitchen. She has dressed in black slacks and a black sweater. She still wears the diamond necklace that he gave her, but the diamond bracelet is a gift from some man before him.

Regarding the laden tray, she says, “I would’ve done this.”

“Saved you the trouble.”

Her green gaze is as sharp as a broken bottle. “Always doing things for me.”

He knows this wire well. He has walked it with her many times before.

“I enjoy it,” he says.

“Doing things for me.”


“What about her?”

“What about her?” he asks.

“You give her what she likes.”

He shrugged. “It’s what we have.”

“Which you bought.”

“Next time give me a list.”

“Then you’ll buy what I want her to have.”

“Of course.”

She takes the lid off the container of potato salad and smells it. “You pity her, don’t you?”


“Don’t you?”

“Why should I?”

She spits in the potato salad. “You shouldn’t.”

He says nothing.

Again she spits in the potato salad.

She stares at him, reading his reaction.

Unlike her, he is in control not just of his body and intellect but also of his emotions. He meets her stare unwaveringly.

“Save your sympathy for me,” she says.

“I feel nothing for her.”

“Not even disgust?”

“She’s just a thing,” he says.

Moongirl can maintain a stare halfway to forever. Finally she holds out the container of potato salad and says, “You too.”

Without hesitation, he spits in it.

She smiles at him.

He dares not return the smile. She will take it as mockery.

A third time, she spits in the potato salad, then returns the lid to the container and places the container on the tray.

She says, “Maybe I’ll let you strike the match.”

He is not sure of the safe reply, so he says nothing.

“Tomorrow night,” she says.

“You’ll want to do it.”

“You won’t?”

“I will if it’s what you want.”

“What do you want?” she asks.



“What else is there.”

“Boredom,” she says.


She picks up the tray.

“I’ll carry that for you,” he says.

“No. You go ahead, unlock the door.”

He precedes her through the house.

Behind him, she says, “We’ll have a little fun now.”

Chapter 28

From the back of Amy’s Expedition, Fred and Ethel and Nickie watched solemnly as Mandy and the nameless dog were loaded into Dani Chiboku’s SUV.

A few clouds had materialized. Although at ground level the air hung as still as old clothes in the back of a closet, at the higher altitude white cloaks were flung across the sky, billowing eastward, tattering to the west.

With the dogs safely aboard, Dani closed the tailgate and said, “Seriously, Amy, five years.”

“Something will happen. We’ll have more and better fund-raisers. I’m applying everywhere for grants.”

“But the number of dogs that need to be rescued keeps rising in direct proportion to the amount of money you generate.”

“So far, yeah, but it’s not an economic law. Eventually the need and the resources are gonna come into balance. People just can’t keep throwing so many dogs away.”

“Look around, girl. The world’s never been meaner. It’s going to get worse.”

“No. I’ve known it worse than this.”

Amy seldom spoke of her past and always with circumspection. She sometimes wondered if friends accepted her as merely a private person or if instead they suspected her of having secrets.

The sharp interest in Dani’s eyes and the curiosity that pinched and dimpled every feature of her face answered that question.

When Amy offered nothing more, Dani said, “You should start to think about getting a job.”

“This is my job. The dogs.”

“It may be a passion. It may even be a calling. But, girl, it isn’t a job. A job pays you.”

“There’s nothing else I can do, Dani. I’ve been doing just this for like ten years. I’m unemployable.”

“I don’t believe that. You’re smart, you’ve got drive-”

“I’m a spoiled little rich girl living off an inheritance.”

“You’re not rich anymore, if you ever were, and you don’t know what spoiled is.” Dani shook her head. “Love you like a sister, Amy.”

Amy nodded. “Me too.”

“Maybe someday you’ll open up to me like a sister would.”

“I’m afraid what you see is what you get. Nothing to open up.” She kissed Dani on the cheek. “I’m not a book, I’m a pamphlet.”

Buttering her words with sarcasm, Dani said, “Yeah, right.”

“Tell Mookie I’m grateful for him taking Janet Brockman’s case.”

Opening the driver’s door of her SUV, Dani said, “What’s the story with the little girl?”

“Theresa? I don’t know. She may be some kind of autistic or just traumatized from…the way it was in that house.”

“Mookie says a strange thing happened at the office.”

Amy raised one hand to the locket at her throat. The pendant featured a cameo carved from soapstone, but instead of the classic profile of a woman, the subject was a golden retriever. She never wore other jewelry, nor owned any.

“The girl goes straight to Baiko,” Dani said, “sits on the floor with him, pets him.”

The previous night, as Amy had carried the sleepy child into Lottie Augustine’s house, Theresa had reached up and touched the locket.

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