Monday, February 24, 2020

The Luck of the Draw by Leona Upton Illig

Phoebe's grandfather has quit taking his prize dog Lucky to dog shows, but he has one last outing in store; by Leona Upton Illig.

"So... tell me again why your grandfather quit?"

She lifted the washcloth from her forehead and looked at him. He was settled down, deep in the faded paisley armchair, with his feet up. She could just make out his curly hair above the newspaper he held in front of his face.

It was just like Jack to change the subject. But she was in no mood to argue.

"He said that it'd become - oh, I don't know - a silly game, and that he was tired of it - tired of the pettiness and the underhanded tricks. But I think that it was Nana more than anything else. After she died, he lost interest in a lot of things. That's why Mom and Dad were so pleased when Pop Pop decided to visit Uncle in Edinburgh. They hoped it would... make him happy again, somehow."

"Huh."

Phoebe sat up and propped a pillow behind her head. "But now, when he comes home from Scotland next Sunday, I have to tell him that the Mustang is wrecked. He bought that car for Nana."

"I'll be the one to tell him."

"No, you won't. I was supposed to take care of the house and the grounds while he was away. If I hadn't asked you to mow the lawn - if I'd done it myself like I should have -"

Jack folded up the newspaper. "And if the mower hadn't been in front of the Mustang, and the garage hadn't been small, and if I hadn't backed the car into the fence - would of, could of, should of." He grinned. "Hey, he never liked me anyway."

Her headache was beginning to throb again. She considered taking some aspirin. She hated the taste of medicine of any kind, but she was about to get up and get some when Jack said, "Look. Maybe I can make this right."

"Please. Where are you - or I - going to get the rest of the eleven hundred dollars to repair the fender? Do you realize that school starts in three weeks? Senior year was supposed to be our victory lap. Now I'll probably be grounded until Christmas."

Jack went over and sat beside her on the sofa. "Lucky was still winning when your grandfather quit, wasn't he? Still winning prizes for his coat?"

"What?"

"Lucky. He was still winning, right?"

"Sure. Pop Pop always said that he was his best dog, and his favorite. Maybe because he knew that he would be his last."

"That's it, then. I know how to get the rest of the money."

"What are you talking about?"

"The newspaper says that the Wickham Country Club is sponsoring a dog show at their county fair. They're giving cash prizes. There's a special prize - $500 - for 'Best in Coat.' We can win it."

"How?"

"It'll be easy! Today's Thursday. The entries close at five o'clock. I still have time to call. We drive down to northern Virginia Saturday morning; show Lucky in the class; win the prize; drive back Saturday night; add the $500 to the $600 we've already scraped together; take the Mustang to the garage on Monday; get the fender fixed. Grandpop arrives back home next Sunday, and mirabile dictu! All's well that ends well."

"Are you insane?" She looked at him in disbelief. "First we wreck Pop Pop's car. Now we're going to steal his dog?"

"My dear girl, we're not stealing Lucky. We're merely taking him for a pleasant ride in the country. We'll text your parents that we decided to go to the Wickham County Fair, and because we didn't want to leave Lucky all alone, we took him with us. It'll be fine. Nil desperandum, as they say."

"Oh, God."

"Hey, we can do this! We won't lie about anything. We just won't tell them everything. It will all be sub rosa, you see?"

"That is lying, Mr. High School Latin Champion. It's called the sin of omission."

"Omission, commission, revision... If we win, we make everything right. If we don't, at least we tried. What do you say?"

She covered her face with the washcloth again, but it was cold now. In fact, her face, her hands, even her mind felt cold. All she could see was the image of her grandfather, sitting in his old recliner, alone in his study, staring out the window at nothing at all.

She was responsible for wrecking Nana's mustang.

"We couldn't drive down on Saturday morning," she said slowly. "Lucky would need time to rest before the show. We'd have to leave tomorrow. We'd need a place for Lucky to sleep. We could sleep in the car, I guess." She could scarcely believe what she was saying.

"That's a girl!"

She shook her head and wondered who was crazier, Jack or herself. But if this plan succeeded... "Listen to me. There's a lot we have to do. I've been hearing Pop Pop talk about dogs and dog shows since I was six. If we try this, you have to let me lead the way. I know how these things work. Let me see that article."

As they sat hunched over the newspaper, the dog in the middle of the living room dozed restlessly. His lips moved, and once in a while he yelped, dreaming some unfathomable dream. His golden coat gleamed as the late summer sunlight poured through the bay window and into the room.

Champion Lochinvar's Gold Coin opened his eyes and gazed steadily at the teenagers sitting on the sofa. He got up, stretched, and walked over to them, wagging his tail. But the two people were too deeply engrossed in their newspaper to notice him; or to see the bright, yellow hairs that had just fallen on the carpet.



Jack had lost some of his enthusiasm after two hours on the road. Specifically, he had lost it on Interstate 495.

They had hit heavy traffic. He had forgotten about rush hour. He had thought that he knew the way to the fairgrounds, so he had not programed the GPS. Now it was dark, and raining, and it was hard for him to see the road.

He was feeling less like a knight-errant and more like a fool.

Reflecting on his current malaise, he decided that it stemmed entirely from his encounter with the dog show registration officials. They had been disagreeable.

First, they had wanted him to provide the dog's full, registered name.

He had tried to bluster his way out of it. After all, "Lucky" was what everyone called him, wasn't it? But he had finally given in. At least, sort of. And "Lucky's Gold Coin" did have a certain provenance to it, even if not completely accurate.

Then the snooty bores had wanted the owner's name. But that had turned out to be fortuitous. P. McGahee could be Phoebe McGahee or Peter McGahee, couldn't it?

Lastly, there was the issue of the entry fee. Fifty bloody dollars. No wonder the Country Club was offering cash prizes - they were making the owners pay for everything, and probably stashing what was left over into a private slush fund. Maybe Phoebe's grandfather had been right about the dog show underworld after all.

He took his hand off the wheel and felt for his wallet. He knew he had it, but he needed to reassure himself. He had decided to pay the entry fee in cash. That would leave him with less than thirty dollars. Not much to cover them if something went wrong. But he wouldn't use his credit card: that was his ace in the hole. If the trip was a bust, he would take the car in himself and pay for the repairs with his card. Of course, that would put him over his limit, his parents would find out - and mala tempora currunt, lights out for him, and one less knight-errant in the arena.

He sighed. So much trouble, all because of a geezer grandfather and a stupid car. It was nuts.

He glanced at Phoebe. She had spent the last twenty-four hours researching competitions and chatting non-stop on the web, and had finally gone to sleep. Her seat had been moved forward to make room for Lucky's crate in the back, and her spine was curled in an awkward position that was sure to cause painful aches in the morning.

He bit his lip. Maybe it wasn't so nuts after all.

He had recovered some of his good humor when he saw a sign for the fairgrounds and made a sharp, bumpy turn onto a dirt road.

"Phoebe. I'm sorry, but can you wake up? We're here."

"What time is it?"

"A little after ten. Just sit there. I'll handle everything."

He pulled up next to a wooden gatehouse and put down his window. He could hear a radio playing as a security guard came out.

"Hi, there!" Inspiration did not fail him, and he said, as casually as he could, "I'm the driver for McGahee. This dog has been registered for the show tomorrow morning. There's supposed to be a stall waiting for us."

"Just a minute." The man disappeared inside the gatehouse.

Jack looked around. The area was muddy and deserted. His windshield wipers had slowed down. The rabbit's foot, hanging from his rear-view mirror, swung in the breeze from the open window. What was the guard doing in there all this time?

As if in answer, the man shouted from inside his station, "Excuse me, what did you say your name was?"

He had hoped to avoid giving his name. What now?

But Phoebe, in a firm voice from the other side of the car, said, "I'm McGahee and we were told that you'd have accommodations for my dog when we arrived. He's a late entry. We were held up by traffic. Which way is our stall?"

The guard peered through the window at Phoebe and at the big retriever in the back seat, now fully awake, sitting up, and growling. The guard frowned and pulled his plastic rain hood down over his forehead. "The boss told me that there'd be a couple of late arrivals. I'll see where we can put you. McGahee, right?"

The next time he emerged from the gatehouse he brought a clipboard and a card for Jack. "This has your stall number on it. Go down this road and make the first left turn. You'll pass some show rings. Keep going straight. In about five minutes you'll be at the end of the fairgrounds and you'll see two barns with stalls. The stalls are numbered. Sign here. I need the owner's name and the dog's name."

"Thanks." As he signed the paper, Jack wondered what the sentence was for falsifying information. And then thought: whatever it is, it's too late now.

"And try to be quiet, okay? A lot of the owners are camped out with their dogs. They don't want to be disturbed, especially on a rotten night like this."

"Absolutely!" Jack tipped his cap. Totally unnecessary, he thought, but a nice gesture of noblesse oblige on his part.

He was beginning to feel good again.

There were only a few roadside lights and he had to drive slowly to make sure he didn't run off the road. When he arrived at the outskirts of the fair grounds he saw the two barns, just as the guard had described.

"Where are we located?" Phoebe asked.

"Good question. I think - yeah, the stall numbers are painted on the barns. See over there? The barn on the left has stalls 1-17, and the one on the right has 18-22. We're in 19."

"You park the car and get our gear. I'll take Lucky for a walk."

"Don't go too far away, okay?" The area around the barns was quiet now that the rain was stopping.

"I won't. Give me the extra flashlight." She waved it at him. "Don't worry. No one ever bothers a woman with a dog."

"I was thinking more about me!" He laughed.

The tins of food and grooming equipment were lightweight, but the sleeping bags were awkward to carry, and he was glad when he pushed open the door of the barn and was able to drop everything on the floor. He fumbled along the inside wall and found a light switch that illuminated the entry.

There was no one else in the barn. On either side were stalls, and with his flashlight he walked over to number 19. It was large and filled with clean straw and some buckets. The barn's tin roof had kept everything dry, and it was not uncomfortable inside. The straw smelled fresh.

This'll do just fine, he thought with satisfaction.

He began rearranging the buckets, and thinking about where to put the sleeping bags, when he saw a wooden stool near the back wall. There was a plastic sealed bag on the seat, with something rolled up in gauze inside. He picked it up. On the outside of the bag the words, "For You," were written in black magic marker.

He was still looking at the bag when Phoebe came in. Lucky trotted behind her, shaking rain off his coat.

"I talked to one of the owners in the other barn," she said. "Would you believe it? They're actually awarding points for this show, and there are a few professional handlers here. We'll have to be careful; we don't want to run into anyone who might remember Pop Pop and Lucky. The other barn's not full. There were some cancellations because of the weather. That'll work in our favor." She glanced around. "Are we the only ones in here?"

"So far. Yeah. Maybe some other people will show up later."

He turned the bag over, and, without looking at her, said, "Somebody put this in our stall. It was on the stool over there."

"What is it?"

"Don't know. Let's see." He opened the bag and took out the roll of gauze. He unwrapped it as Phoebe pointed her flashlight over his shoulder. Inside the gauze was a syringe. He held it up to the light. It was filled with a liquid.

Neither of them spoke. Lucky, sniffing the straw, turned around several times and lay down.

"Oh my God," Phoebe said.

"What?"

"It's a syringe filled with - something."

His chest tightened. "Why would anyone leave it for us?"

"Was there a note?"

"Yeah. It says, "For You."

"It couldn't have been meant for us. How could - what stall number is this?"

But Phoebe had already snatched the security guard's card from his pocket. "Oh my God, Jack! We're supposed to be in stall 17!"

"No!" But as he took the card from her, he could see that she was right. In the darkness he had misread 17 as 19.

"Jack, we're in the wrong stall. In the wrong barn. And we've intercepted a package meant for someone else."

They both started talking until Phoebe grabbed his shoulder and hissed, "Stop! We've got to think." Her face was pale.

"Right," he said. "Take it easy. This syringe - possibly containing some kind of suspicious substance - has nothing to do with us."

"But it does have something to do with the real occupants of stall 19. Pop Pop talked about things like this - crooked handlers doping dogs."

"Okay. But we're not involved."

"We are now."

"Not anymore. We're getting out of here."

"What are you saying?"

"We're leaving!"

"Wait a minute! We can't just forget this."

"Phoebe," he said, summoning his most convincing voice, "you just said that we had to think. Well, I'm thinking that we don't have any options. I'm putting the stuff back. We need to get out of here."

"And let some innocent dog get injected with that syringe?"

"We can't help that!"

Phoebe's eyes widened. "I told the guy in the other barn that we were in stall 19. If they connect us with the dope - "

"They won't!"

"Your fingerprints are all over the bag."

"Okay. Then we take the package and throw it in the nearest dumpster."

"And when the real occupants of stall 19 turn up and find that their drug isn't here - how soon do you think they're going to start asking questions and come looking for us?"

He groaned. "Fine. What do you think we should do?"

"We need to find the show judge. He's probably staying in the motel that we passed, but the guard will know. We'll tell him the whole story and let him decide what to do."

"And when he finds out who we really are, and who Lucky is, and who he belongs to, and that we've stolen a dog, what happens then?"

His teeth were chattering, from the cold and not from his nerves, he hoped. "I only know one thing, Phoebe. We need to get out of here before anyone else shows up. And I mean now!"



The image in the bathroom mirror frowned at her. Steel gray hair; cold gray eyes. If I get any grayer, she thought, I may simply fade away like Caesar's ghost. She straightened her neck scarf and pulled down the bottom of her green suit jacket. She had never been satisfied with her appearance at the best of times, and now, at two o'clock in the morning... She took her purse and locked the room behind her. This had better be worth it, she told herself. If it's a scam, or, God help them, a prank, they are going to be very sorry.

She saw them as soon as she got off the elevator. The lobby was empty except for them. The young man looked as if he hadn't combed his hair in days. The young woman was hunched over in an unseemly position on the loveseat. Both wore wrinkled attire. Just annoying examples of the human race, she concluded, better left to suffer on their own the consequences of self-inflicted wounds. She was on the point of returning to her room when she saw a dog lying at their feet.

The head was the first thing that she noticed. It was broad. The eyes, dark and brown, were set far apart. The lip line was square; the muzzle, straight. The nose was jet black. The shoulder blades were long and the hindquarters muscled. The double coat had only the slightest trace of a wave, and it was of a rare, golden hue. There was not an off-color hair on him.

She walked toward the dog and extended her hand. Without hesitation the animal sat up and rested his chin in it. She rubbed his head and felt for the teeth; they met in a perfect scissors bite, but she already knew that they would. She dropped the dog's head and stepped back quickly, but he remained immobile, alert, waiting for her next move, his eyes shining.

Here, on the other hand, was a specimen worthy of her time.

She took a seat facing the two teenagers and crossed her legs.

"What is this all about?"

The young man cleared his throat. "Judge Daley?"

"Judge Anne Daley. I presume that you are Mr. Jack Faraday and Miss Phoebe McGahee?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Your drivers' licenses, please." When they hesitated, she added, "Our interview ends without them."

They exchanged glances but handed their identifications to her. She looked at their photographs briefly before setting the IDs on the arm of her chair. For collateral, she thought, just in case.

"It's not often that I receive telephone calls at one o'clock in the morning. Especially one informing me that the dog show that I am about to judge today may be compromised."

The young man swallowed. "I can explain."

"I'm sure you can, Mr. Faraday, but I prefer to hear what Miss McGahee has to say. And don't take too long to get to the point, miss. I'd like to get a few more hours sleep before the judging begins."

The girl sat up straighter, but with obvious difficulty. She began her story, haltingly at first and then more urgently. Anne sensed that an instinct to sob was not very far beneath the surface.

When the young woman had finished, Anne turned to the young man. "Anything to add?"

"No." He paused. "Well, yes. Everything was my fault, right from the beginning."

"No doubt. Damaging a car and kidnapping a championship dog are not matters I take lightly."

They seemed to wither under her judgment. Neither protested.

She nodded. "Repentant, are you? Good. A demonstration of remorse is in your favor - unless you are trying to play upon my sympathies, which are famously limited, in case you are interested."

"No, ma'am. I mean - I know how much trouble I'm in. But Phoebe's not part of this. I made her do everything."

"And you agree with that, Miss McGahee?"

The girl turned to her companion. There was weariness in her voice. "Please, Jack. No more heroics." She faced Anne. "I do not agree with Mr. Faraday. Because of my own laziness, the car was damaged. Because I didn't want Pop Pop to find out, I brought Lucky here to win the best-in-coat prize money to fix the car. I'm responsible."

"Well. Quite the contretemps we have here." Anne's eyes returned to the retriever at their feet. He had gotten up to stretch, and his long tail arched upward and waved back and forth.

"This is what we shall do. Give me the evidence."

Jack handed the package to her. She examined the contents. "Probably a sedative or narcotic." She looked up at the two teenagers. "Such a drug could produce drowsiness or illness in a dog. It could possibly kill an animal, if administered incorrectly.

"I will alert the fair grounds' security now. I will tell them that I received an anonymous tip and that I found the bag in Barn Two. Then I will inform the show officials. I will instruct them to publicize the matter immediately." She frowned. "This is probably just a one-off bid to sabotage a rival. But we won't take any risks."

"But what about the criminals?"

"Ha! Knowing that there is an ongoing police investigation should scare them away. In any case, it is highly unlikely that they'll turn up - or that anyone will be arrested. The dog show world can be oddly lax toward the scoundrels prowling around in it." She removed her glasses and studied the lenses for a minute before putting them back on. "Your grandfather would have understood, Miss McGahee. He was a consummate professional, and intolerant of those who were not. Pity he stopped competing."

"As for the two of you... take Lochinvar back to his stall - the right one this time - and let the animal get some sleep. It goes without saying that you will withdraw him from the 'Best in Coat' class or any other class with cash prizes. I will not allow you to sully the registration process with, to put it mildly, inaccurate information.

"Miss McGahee, Mr. Faraday, you have made a series of extremely poor decisions."

The young man and woman stared at the floor.

"However, I am not unaware that it took some integrity and courage for you to come to me. I assume that you are aware of what might have happened if the wrong people had showed up when you were holding the bag - literally."

She tapped her fingers on the chair and bent down to stoke Lucky. He wore an irrepressible grin, characteristic of the breed and totally inappropriate for the moment. "So we are done here. Except for one thing. I am requiring you to enter the last class on the program."

"But you just told us - "

"There's no money involved. You are to enter Class Ten. That's the final class of the day." She took two business cards from her purse and wrote instructions on the back of each. "Give this one to the security guard at the fairgrounds. Give the other to the registrar in the morning. If they have any questions they are to call me. And use your full names, the real ones, this time." She handed the cards, and their drivers' licenses, to the girl, and ran her hand one more time over the dog, from his head to the tip of his tail.

She studied the two young people in front of her. "He probably wouldn't have won anyway. They will shed when they want to, won't they?" She opened her hand, and tufts of the dog's golden coat floated to the floor.

As she waited for the elevator, she checked her watch. Three o'clock. She had to be up at six. There would be no going back to bed. A full slate of excellent classes awaited her, but she already knew that the last one would be the most interesting.

She wondered if the two of them, and their purloined dog, would show up.



He stretched out his legs and eased back into the recliner, the corduroy cushion rough and familiar underneath his hands. It felt good after the eight-hour flight across the Atlantic. He was glad that he had switched his booking to an earlier flight. He had enjoyed the visit, despite his brother's fussing over him, but it had been time to come home. He leaned over to ruffle the ears of the retriever who had just deposited a ragged stuffed animal at his feet.

True, his early arrival had unearthed a mystery or two. Champion Lochinvar's Gold Coin had been bathed and his coat conditioned; his nails were clipped, his ears cleaned, and he was impeccably groomed. McGahee wondered where Phoebe had gotten the idea to do that. Phoebe. Well, she hadn't known that he was coming home a day early. He hadn't told anybody. He considered it a minor victory that he had gotten home without the family's help. It was Saturday, and Phoebe's car was gone. She was probably shopping or out with friends. Or perhaps she was with that unkempt boyfriend of hers. He frowned in disapproval.

But the Mustang - what had happened to it? The right back fender was badly crumpled, and various tools in the garage were out of place.

He thought back to their anniversary three years ago. The Mustang had been his present to Margorie. He remembered her delight, coming out of the house and seeing the car for the first time. Ten months later she was gone; "a sarcoma," was what the doctors had said.

He hadn't driven the car much since. Now it was damaged. A car he hardly used: ugly and defective. It was an unwelcome turn of events.

It occurred to him that he could donate the car; give it away. What use did he have for it? He didn't need it. Marge had always hated excess - and waste. She wouldn't have wanted him to keep a silly car, not for her sake. He'd get rid of it immediately.

He almost laughed at the suddenness of his decision.

He looked around the study, his favorite room in the house. He felt as if he were seeing it for the first time. The furniture was old and overstuffed, which was why he liked it: he realized that now. Two tall glass cabinets stood opposite him. One was filled with china animals. There were all kinds: horses; dogs, of course; and elephants. He walked over to the cabinet and looked at the knickknacks crowded onto the shelves. Some of the animals he recognized. Some, he knew, were expensive. Most were not. In amongst all of them was a dilapidated papier-mâché donkey. He smiled. It must have meant something to Margorie for her to put it in there.

He would keep all of them, he decided. They would go to Phoebe one day.

With a more appreciative eye, he examined the second cabinet. This one was his, but he had avoided it for a long time. There was dust in the corners. The top shelves were filled with ribbons and framed photographs of himself and his many dogs, triumphs from years gone by. The bottom shelves were stuffed with trophies, and silver and gold cups, many of them from top dog shows in the mid-Atlantic. Some were immense, and engraved with the names and dates . . .

He looked closer. A small, unfamiliar trophy in the very front of the shelf was staring at him.

He unlatched the cabinet door and took it out. A small sculpture of a man and a dog was mounted on the top. The base was made of mahogany. A gold plaque was attached to the front of it. The first line, etched in an elegant font, read, "Outstanding Sportsmanship," and below that, "Wickham County Club Dog Show, Wickham County Fair."

He had never been to the Wickham County Dog Show.

The car. The trophy. The dog, now resting near his chair, looking up at him with ridiculously happy eyes.

"Very good, old chum." He addressed his companion in low, soothing tones. "Some games have been afoot. Are you winning prizes without me?" He turned the little trophy around and ran his fingers over the engraved letters. They seemed to shimmer under his touch.

"Well... perhaps it's time I retake my seat at the table. Perhaps there is a hand, or two, left for us to play?"

Champion Lochinvar's Gold Coin thumped his tale as golden hairs, shedding furiously from his coat, swirled through the air.

4 comments:

  1. The grandfather wasn't particularly upset by the car in the end... an alls well that ends well tale, very positive reminds me of "The Hardy Boys" kind of style.

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  2. A feel-good story in an interesting setting with a happy, hopeful ending for all parties involved. Wonder if the authorities managed to catch the cheaters...

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  3. i am a dog lover and I really enjoyed this story. I couldn’t stop reading it and would love for it to continue in a sequel. It’s a great story and very original.

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  4. A cracking tale, well told! Clever to present it from the viewpoint of four different people. Most enjoyable.
    Beryl.

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