Flipping up the collar of her tan, belted trench coat, Isabelle Lopez couldn’t deny that her latest task was a just a teensy bit thrilling. She looked down at the street below and took another surreptitious photograph of the buildings on the next block. She was like a spy gathering classified intel. Or a private eye getting the dirt on a no-good cheating husband. She was Carmen Miranda and Sherlock Holmes all rolled into one pint-sized package.
A city bus rumbled past, and Izzy’s own face smiled up at her from the glossy advertisement plastered on the bus’s side. A stark reminder that this spy was in actuality . . . a real estate agent, scoping out property for a client who prized secrecy over efficiency.
Mission accomplished, she retraced her steps to the rear entrance of the abandoned apartment complex and flipped the dead bolt open. She felt a bit guilty that she’d be leaving the building unlocked. Just because her little stint of B&E had only been to snap some elevated shots of the nearby properties, that didn’t mean the next person to come along would act so innocently. She should leave the same way she’d entered, through an unlatched window she’d managed to haul her butt through. But she already had one bruised knee from that window. She didn’t need another. Besides, the building was deserted. Nothing in it to steal. And in Crook County, Michigan, the crime rate was so low it could be underwater.
Just then, a low wail met her ears, the ghostly sound echoing down the hall. She paused, one foot out the door, the hair on the back of her neck rising. The sound came again, low and plaintive, and creepy as hell. Her legs bustled her out the door and halfway through the parking lot before her brain registered the second noise she’d heard. A faint yip.
Heart thudding, she turned back to the apartment building. No crazed maniac chased after her. No phantasm floated across the lobby. But the building definitely wasn’t vacant.
She shifted on her two-inch pumps. She wasn’t supposed to be here. Not only had she broken into a building, but no one could know that she was assessing the neighboring properties for sale. It had been tough enough getting to this position: one of the top two sellers for her firm, finally having enough money to take her daughter out to eat once in a while, to pay for Ana’s soccer camp. An arrest wouldn’t get her any new clients.
As a single mother, she’d thought real estate would be the perfect career—flexible hours, high commissions, and a job that didn’t require a college degree. Easy. She’d been wrong. It wasn’t easy. But it was finally starting to pay off. And she didn’t need to blow it by getting caught poking around where she didn’t belong.
“Dammit,” she swore under her breath. Shoulders slumped, she trudged back into the building. Everything was silent.
“Hey, doggy,” she singsonged. “Where’re you hiding?”
She searched through the first floor, checking apartments and whistling. Maybe she’d imagined the noises. How would a stray have found its way inside the building, after all? She’d almost convinced herself it had been her imagination when the mournful howl sounded again.
Izzy knocked on the door to the apartment the sound had come from, then rolled her eyes. No one lived here. She stepped into the entry and paused. Could someone be living here? A vagrant who’d broken in as she had and liked to keep an attack dog at the ready? Cautiously, she tiptoed inside. The stench of ammonia and ripe dog assaulted her nostrils. Peering around the hallway wall into the living room, she saw nothing.
She stole to the bedroom and pushed open the door. Huddled in the far corner, a large dog struggled to her feet, positioning herself between Izzy and the litter of puppies that slept on the floor. She growled.
“Easy, girl.” Izzy blinked, her eyes burning. From the stench of urine, she told herself. She wasn’t an animal person, never had been. Certainly wouldn’t be caught crying over one.
But the poor thing was nothing but skin and bones. And some bastard had left her and her babies here to die. Without taking her gaze from the mama dog, she dug in her boho bag, finding a plastic baggie. She pulled out the stash of goldfish crackers she never left home without and poured out a handful. She edged a few steps closer and placed the pile on the carpet. Slowly, she backed away.
Wary, the dog stepped forward and sniffed at the snack. Her pink tongue rolled out, and she licked up a single fish. Obviously satisfied it was edible, she gobbled the rest of the pile in two bites and looked up at Izzy expectantly.
Izzy knelt and poured more crackers onto the floor in front of her. The dog, a bit smaller than the golden retriever that lived next door to her but still too big for Izzy’s comfort, lurched forward and eagerly chomped down. Her thin frame shook, and her hair was matted and clumped with something Izzy didn’t want to identify.
She pulled a bottle of water from her bag and poured some into her cupped hand. The dog got a couple of good slurps in before the water seeped through Izzy’s fingers. She poured another handful. Her mind raced. She couldn’t call the police. Going to jail wasn’t on her list of things to do today. She couldn’t leave the poor things here. But there was a private animal shelter just a block and a half away. If she left the animals on its doorstep, the shelter people would have to take care of them.
A puppy that looked nothing like the rest of the litter yawned and climbed over the head of his sleeping sibling to investigate. All of the puppies were small enough to fit in Izzy’s hand. But they looked plump and healthy. Mama had provided, nursing her little ones even as she’d gone hungry. Izzy’s heart pinched, and she rubbed her breastbone.
The dog nudged her puppy with her muzzle, and he landed spread-eagled on the floor. She licked him down his short back.
Izzy counted. Five puppies, and one large dog. Her car was two blocks away. “I’ll be right back,” she told the dog. She stood, refusing to let the big toffee-colored eyes of the mutt, full of disappointment and recrimination, tug at her heart. “I promise. Two minutes, no longer.”
Three minutes later, she was pulling into the back parking lot. She popped open the rear door of her SUV and took stock. She drove clients around in her car and needed to keep it tidy, so she kept two plastic milk crates in the back that she tossed all her junk into, giving her the appearance of being organized when in reality it was just two contained piles of chaos. She pawed through the crate full of Ana’s assorted crap—an old pair of cleats, a grass-stained towel, toys she no longer played with. Another crate was packed full of Izzy’s real estate tools—a staple gun, For Sale signs, and old flyers that needed to be recycled.
No rope. Nothing that could be used as collars or leashes. Emptying her purse on the passenger seat, she hurried back inside.
The dogs were still all there. Izzy inched toward the pile of puppies in the corner. “Okay, Mama. I’m going to put your babies in my bag, and you’re going to follow us out to my car. Easy peasy, right?” Izzy knew a person didn’t get between a bear and her cubs without suffering the consequences. She didn’t know if that held true for dogs. The animal was emaciated and weak, so she probably couldn’t do much damage. Izzy hoped.
The mother dog stumbled toward her pups. Most of her body was a mix of black and brown hair, but her nose was white as snow. She nuzzled the pile of fur, giving an occasional lick, her long tongue bunching the skin of the little ones.
Kneeling, Izzy tentatively reached out and stroked her finger down the spine of a puppy. The fur was as soft as the finest silk. The mother watched, not growling but not looking particularly happy about Izzy’s interference, either. Izzy opened the top flaps of her bag. “I’m just going to put the puppy right in here,” she said, carefully lifting the wriggling bundle and laying him on the floor of her purse. She glanced at the mom. No objections. Izzy quickly bundled the rest of the litter inside her bag. They all had their mother’s black-and-brown fur and her slightly flattened face and floppy ears. None of them weighed more than a couple of pounds.
Izzy stood and carefully picked up her bag, making sure none of the puppies was getting smothered. “Let’s go,” she said to the mom. She took two steps, and a low growl cut through the bedroom. She turned back. “You’re coming, too. I’m not dognapping them.” She jerked her head to the door. “Let’s go,” she repeated. She was anxious to get the dogs off her hands—and wondering why in the world she was talking to one as if it could understand her.
Head low, the dog lumbered along the wall. When she reached a half-open closet door, she huffed and stuck her head inside. She came back out with a puppy in her mouth.
“Shoot, I forgot about you.” It was the one that had come over earlier to investigate. His face was longer and narrower than his siblings’, his fur almost all black except for small patches of white along his body and paws. The only thing he had in common with the other dogs was the long, floppy ears. She gently pried him from his mom’s mouth, and settled him in with his siblings. She made a quick search of the rest of the apartment. No more hiding dogs. “Now can we go?”
Pushing into the apartment building’s hall, she waited for the dog to follow. Each step the dog took was laborious, a struggle, but she seemed determined to stay near her pups. Izzy opened the back door of the lobby, and she and the dog walked to her SUV. Placing her purse on the floor of her backseat, she pushed open the top flaps of her bag as wide as possible and counted five heads. She turned to the grown dog. “Okay, jump in.”
The mutt put a paw on the car’s floor, her back legs shaking. She lifted one hind leg, then the other, but got no closer to climbing inside.
The back of Izzy’s throat burned, and she swallowed hard. It was just an animal, she told herself. Nothing to get worked up over. The sooner she got this done, the sooner she could say goodbye to that sad, smooshy, adorable face. The dog was trying to emotionally manipulate her, and Izzy wouldn’t fall for it.
Placing her hands on the dog’s back haunches, she lifted. The dog turned her head and bared her teeth, but Izzy wasn’t having it. Keeping her face away from the dog’s muzzle, she hefted and prodded and eventually got her onto the backseat.
She drove slowly down Route 84. The Newgate Apartments sat on the corner of 84 and Plum. The road west of the apartments curved into dense forest, and to the east there were a couple of blocks of strip malls before the road again disappeared into pine trees. Route 84 connected the neighboring towns of Pineville and Clarion Township, but whereas those downtowns had been revitalized and burst with small-town charm, this small commercial patch looked as worn out as a five-year-old after a day at Disney World.
She passed a bakery she knew to be Bert’s, although the elements had worn away the “T” and half of the “S” on its sign. The hair salon next to it had a faded image of a woman styled with a bouffant painted on the front. She crossed the intersection and passed a fitness studio on her left with a row of stationary bicycles in the front window. The animal shelter was across from the gym, and it shared a parking lot with a used car dealership. A sign reading “Forever Friends” was hung over the shelter’s front door. A group of women wearing yoga pants and holding paper cups of coffee chatted underneath it.
Izzy clenched the steering wheel. The women looked friendly. Too friendly. There would be lots of oohing and aahing over the dogs. Questions about where Izzy had found them. Why she’d been in the abandoned building. What she’d been doing in this neighborhood in the first place. All questions she couldn’t answer.
She kept driving. She turned the corner and eased into the narrow alley that ran behind the block. Her SUV squeezed past a dumpster. She turned off her car and jumped out. Swinging open the back door, she reached for the dog and lowered her to the ground. Grabbing her purse, she strode to the back door of the shelter and set her bag down. Mama dog stuck her nose inside, checking her pups.
Izzy chewed on her thumbnail. Damn it. She couldn’t just leave the puppies on the cold cement. Popping open her SUV’s rear door, she dumped out the contents of Ana’s milk crate. She padded it with the old towel. Returning to the puppies, she pulled them from her bag and laid them in the crate. Setting it to the side of the shelter’s back door, she brushed her hands together. There. She’d drive down the block, make a call, and someone from the shelter would come out back and find the dogs, giving the animals the help they needed. Problem solved.
Flicking dirt off her skirt, Izzy turned to the mother. “Stay right here, and you’ll be fed and bathed soon.” The dog stared at her, her large brown eyes fathomless. Izzy lowered her own gaze and scuffed her toe along the ground. “There’s nothing wrong with me leaving. I did my part. Now you just sit right there and everything will be fine.”
Ignoring the tightness in her chest, Izzy turned to go. And spun back. She peered into the crate and saw four black and brown bundles of fur. She counted again. She looked inside her empty bag. “Where the devil did that one go?” Hands on her hips, she glared at the dog. “You were supposed to watch your babies.”
The dog lay down on her stomach and stretched out her legs, seemingly unconcerned she was down a pup.
Izzy checked her SUV. No puppy. She knew the troublemaker had gone in there. He hadn’t been left at the apartments. He must have escaped her purse when she’d set it down by the shelter’s back door. She searched the alley, toeing aside empty cardboard boxes, worrying over the bits of broken glass that could stick into little doggy paws.
A tiny black tail disappeared under a dumpster.
Izzy strode to the industrial bin. Squatting, she tapped her nails on the pavement. “No more hide-and-seek. Time to come out.” Nothing. Going to her SUV, she came back with a handful of goldfish and placed them by her feet. “I’ve got yummy food for you, you little brat,” she said in her most soothing voice. “Come on out.” Still nothing.
A car backfired one street over, and Izzy glanced down the alley. Growling, she clambered down onto her hands and knees, peering under the dumpster. She didn’t have time for this. Thank God she’d put her foot down when Ana had pleaded for a pet. Nothing but pains in the ass, every one of them.
A pair of eyes glittered in the dim light. Reaching out as far as her arm would allow, Izzy felt the soft swipe of a tongue on her finger. A pebble dug into the knee of her nylons, and she winced. She pressed her shoulders lower to the ground, her skirt riding up her thighs, and stretched farther under the dumpster. She gently encircled the warm body. “Got you.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” a deep voice bellowed.
With a squeak, Izzy pulled the puppy out and toppled to her butt. Heart pounding, she looked up, over worn jeans stretched taut across muscled thighs. Up over a faded T-shirt that spanned a wide chest and broad shoulders. Up over full lips and narrowed eyes. The man carried a bag of garbage in his hand and a thunderous expression on his face.
He chucked the bag over her head into the open dumpster. Leaving his large hands free to clench into fists. “Where do you get off dumping your dogs like they’re garbage? You think you can abandon an animal without there being consequences?” Slapping one hand on the dumpster, he leaned over her, his frame blocking out the sun. “Not on my watch, you won’t.”
Clutching the puppy to her chest, Izzy opened her mouth, ready to come up with a good story. Something that would explain how she’d found the dogs without mentioning her illegal entry or just what she was doing in the neighborhood. She was a salesperson, after all. Getting people to believe in her was what she did.
No words came. The man’s eyes turned to slits, and her stomach hardened to lead. A burst of energy rocketed through her body, making her limbs tingle and clouding her brain. Shoving the puppy at the man’s stomach so he had no choice but to grab it, Izzy jumped to her feet and ran.