I kept an eye on my incoming email for Ludwig’s reply while I explained to Wylie how to do any updates at the computer and what to watch out for. Much faster than I had expected, Ludwig answered me. He was ready for a meeting right away.
I cut off my instructions to Wylie, and he gave me a blank stare.
“What?” I asked.
“You can’t leave me hanging like this. I have a lot of questions.”
“You can handle it, and I won’t be gone long. Just make sure Thomas and Tiger do their job. Don’t let them dawdle.”
“You’re always on their backs. If they just take a short snack break and you notice it, you bark at them to go back to work. But Sabrina can snooze all day, and you don’t say a word.”
“I told you, she’s still wet behind the ears. I’m trying to break her in gently. But I don’t have time to argue about this now. Ludwig might already be waiting for me.”
I pushed Wylie out of the way so I could reach the computer’s USB port and got ready to upload myself. I logged on to the Internet, punched my ID code into the address bar and jumped back down to the computer. I held my tag close to the USB port, called out to Wylie, “See you,” and was on my way.
As usual, a wind with the force of a hurricane made me close my eyes and battered my ears. Feeling like a beach ball tossed around and around, I lost all sensation of direction but landed smoothly only a minute or two later in the Internet tunnel in front of my door.
I couldn’t remember ever having experienced a hard landing on the one-of-a kind floor all the Internet tunnels had. Ludwig always went bonkers over its surface, firm and soft at the same time while providing the perfect traction for our paws. I hoped he had resisted his urge to run back and forth through the tunnels and I didn’t have to chase him down this time.
It was the reason why I suggested meeting him in the relay station, the one close to Ludwig’s and my doors. Even though more and more relay stations had sprung up lately, there weren’t enough by far to serve the whole Internet. The improvements to them, however, were enormous. The Internet traveler now could also use them to move around inside the Internet instead of having to walk through tunnel after tunnel to find the wanted exit door. And compared to a roller coaster ride through hell traveling through the Internet to the outside, an inside trip felt like a heavenly boat ride.
I trotted to the fork of the tunnel which led to the left to Ludwig’s door and to the right to the relay station. Looking each way, I didn’t see a sign of Ludwig, but I could have sworn there was a noise somewhere. I held my breath and listened.
All I heard was the normal sound inside the Internet, the sound of silence. I looked in both directions in front of me again and also behind me, squinting my eyes to pick up anybody in the distance, but nobody was there.
With my ears pricked up, I made my way to the relay station. The big red X on its door became visible the same moment as I heard a noise, this time for sure. It sounded like some kind of croaking, coming from straight ahead.
I slowed down to a snail’s pace and approached the relay station door. The closer I came the louder the noise became, and I finally recognized it as the barking of two dogs. It came from inside the relay station. I couldn’t tell if it was friendly or hostile, but one of the voices was Ludwig’s.
Why was Ludwig fussing with another dog inside the relay station? He usually didn’t talk to other travelers in the Internet tunnels, seldom even acknowledging them at all, and everybody using the relay station kept quiet and without speaking to each other.
I wished I could hear what was going on behind the closed door, but it was too well insulated. I started to put my ear against it, but quickly stepped backward remembering a good friend’s advice to always stay at a safe distance from any door in the Internet if you don’t want to enter it.
I had to open it, and I had to do it fast. Ludwig was in there, and he might be in danger. I took a jump at the door handle.
Ludwig and I bickered back and forth about his going to Russia to check out the warehouse. He finally agreed to do it.
“But I can’t leave right away,” he said. “I’ve to go back home and tell Gato what to do and how to take care of our mom. I hope my sister will be able to distract Mom enough so she won’t ask for me.”
“That’s fine, but listen carefully,” I said and rattled down letters and numbers. “This is the URL address for the warehouse in Russia. Memorize it and you can leave straight from your home instead of coming back here searching for it in the directory. There’s always the danger of mixing up the destination. I’ll go home, too, and let Olaf know right off that you’re on your way so he’ll be expecting you.”
Ludwig looked at me with his big brown eyes. “I don’t know about this. I wish we could go together. But, I’ll do it for you.”
I patted him on the head. “You’ll be OK. Just think before you do anything stupid.”
“Oh, that’s encouraging, but I’ll keep it in mind. If I hurry, I’ll be back soon, right?”
Ludwig didn’t wait for my answer, but his remark would haunt me in the hours to come. As he turned around and scurried over to Kojak, I followed him, and we all said our goodbyes.
While Ludwig got ready to upload himself from the computer to head home, Kojak whispered into my ear, “You know, Hobo, I don’t want to interfere with what you’re doing there in Russia, but let me give you a friendly piece of advice: Don’t trust those Russians, no matter who they are. Here, everyone is too gullible, they all believe everything they see and read. In Russia, it’s different. Everything is regulated or forbidden, and the punishments are severe. So, everyone over there is very sneaky to get around it. Be careful.”
“Yeah, my brother Wylie already warned me about them. But as I told him, I’ve taken extra precautions.” Noticing that Ludwig had taken off, I stepped in front of the computer and said, “Well, I’ll better be going, too.”
I logged on to the Internet, entered my URL in the address bar and less than a minute later exited the computer at home.
Nobody else was in the office. I jumped on the desk to make the call to Olaf but didn’t see the phone on the console or anywhere else. I rummage through all the papers and folders on the desk and found everything else but the phone. Where in the heck was it?
And why wasn’t Wylie here to do the work I’d delegated to him? I looked at the clock on the wall. It was 10 minutes past 9 a.m. So, I was only gone maybe an hour, and it should have taken Wylie longer to finish the assigned job.
In the midst of losing my temper, I couldn’t shake off Kojak’s warnings about Russia. I started to ask myself if I’d made a big mistake sending Ludwig to that country. His impulsiveness wasn’t a good match for the mind-set of Russian nationals.
Another thought hit me. It was seven hours later in Russia, and they closed up the warehouse for the day at 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening. I had to get in contact with Olaf as soon as possible. I had to find the darn phone.
I stomped out of the office and into the hallway. I heard Dad talking in the living room, but nobody commented or answered him. Oh no. With my tail and ears dropped, I rushed around the corner. Dad was leaning back in his easy chair holding the phone to his ear and chattering away.
I planted myself in front of him and waited, staring into his face. He ignored me even after I gave out a few barks and put my front paws on his legs. Apparently, he was tied up in a lengthy conversation, and there was nothing I could do to cut it short, but I needed the phone.
Wylie’s suggestion sounded good and made a lot of sense. If Ludwig hadn’t left home yet, I didn’t have to worry about him and would just cancel his trip to Russia until I talked to Olaf again and found out something about the escalating situation at the warehouse.
I tapped Ludwig’s home phone number in Dad’s iPhone. It only rang twice, and a female voice answered. “Yes?”
With all my might, I barked and yowled into the receiver. It was so deafening that I heard my own echo, somehow distorted, but someone was breathing down my neck, and I realized Wylie had chimed into my clamor with his own piercing whine.
“What the hell?”
While Wylie and I continued singing our wild songs, I could barely make out the rest of words the woman was blaring into my ear from the other end of the line. “Don’t you people have better things to do than to annoy others? Get off my phone.”
When nothing but silence followed, Wylie and I fell silent, too. I listened for Dad or Sabrina again to stomp into the office, but everything remained quiet.
“This should have been loud and long enough for Ludwig or Gato to pick up on,” Wylie said.
“And now what?” I started to get antsy. Precious time was slipping away. “We just sit around here and wait for their phone call? Have you thought about that?”
“Nah, we shouldn’t do that, but …”
“Let me finish my sentence. Go and check your email. If Gato heard us, she might have already sent you a message, even before Ludwig has a chance to get on the phone. You know, she’s good at that emailing stuff.”
Now, I started to get mad at myself. Why did Wylie have to tell me what I should have been doing without even thinking? Gato had become an expert in using email when she stayed in contact with Ludwig and me before Ludwig’s parents adopted her. We had briefly taught her how it worked, and she embraced it. Somehow, she had always found a way to sneak up on someone’s computer or iPhone in her native land and email us a short note, usually vague to camouflage it, or track down and read the one from us to her, written in the same way.
While we dogs, together with our cat friends, had an international language to converse and understand one another, we lacked the script to it. I always wished we had a way to write and read something which only we could make sense out of. As it was, we had to use the human script and mask it in some way to keep people in the dark about the real message.
With the phone between my teeth, I wiggled around Wylie and jumped on the office chair to reach the computer keyboard. Quickly, I accessed Dad’s email. Lo and behold, the last incoming email had a funky subject line only Gato could come up with: Want more fish? Go fishing!
I opened it, and my jaw dropped. Her message was concise and discreet: If you want to talk to the other one, he left for a certain place an hour ago.
With his front paws grabbing the edge of the desk, Wylie poked his nose at the computer screen. “What did the email …”
I interrupted him. “I have to leave. As soon as I’m gone, you delete Gato’s email.” In one fell swoop, I logged out of the email account, entered my Internet ID code and somersaulted down to the computer.
As I was aligning my dog tag with the USB port, I heard Wylie hollering, “What the hell are you doing. Don’t …” and then, I was out of his earshot.
Wylie bared his teeth. “I’m not doing this Internet traveling, Hobo, we agreed on that. I do the stuff here at home, and you visit the places that need our attention. That was the deal.”
“I can’t afford to take off right now, and you’re so skilled in handling cats, no one can do it better than you, and all the cats fall for your charm, immediately. You’re the dog for this.”
“Why don’t you send one of our kitty siblings? It would be easy for Thomas or Tiger to talk to those cats and figure out the problem. Even Sabrina could do it. She has a knack for dealing with troublemakers, having been one herself not that long ago.”
“Sabrina is still wet behind the ears. She’s just an intern and can’t deal on her own with the business affairs. But anyway, it won’t work. Cats have just started as Internet travelers after the permission finally went through. As far as I know, there are only two who have set their paws into the Internet tunnels.”
Wylie yawned and leaned back in his chair. “Isn’t it about time then to break ours in? I think they know all about it already.”
“You talk as if there’s nothing to it, but you refuse to travel in the Internet. Sooner or later you have to do it, there’s no way around it.”
“Then let Thomas or Tiger be the guinea pig. I go next, after I hear from them how it is. I trust them more in telling me the truth about it than you.”
“This isn’t some kind of new endeavor anymore.” I sneered at Wylie. “And now isn’t the time to introduce the cats to it. And before I do it, I first have to clear it with the Internet management. That’s the last thing on my mind right now. It would be better anyway if a dog deals with the situation. There might be something wrong on the dog couriers’ end that has spilled over to the cats’ job.”
“What about letting your friend—what’s his name?—help out. You always give me an ear-full about how fast and enthusiastically he embraced that Internet traveling after you taught him about it.”
“You mean Ludwig?”
“Yeah, that’s him, the one you met at doggy camp, and who later brought back a cat from one of your adventures you got caught up in travelling through the Internet.”
“Yeah, good old Gato who rid Ludwig of his fear of cats. He’s now her devoted doggy brother. By the way, she was the first cat allowed inside the Internet. But back to the issue. No, Ludwig is not a business dog and wouldn’t know how to tackle the problem. Besides, I wouldn’t want to bother him right now anyway. He’s busy taking care of his mom. She fell and broke her leg, and he’s learning to assist her in every way he can, fetching stuff she needs or wants, snuggling up with her and keeping an eye on her well-being.”
Wylie cocked his head. “Now, that sounds more like a job I’d like to do, going into health care, not having to deal with any of your weird ideas that are bound to cause trouble. But why don’t you let one of the dog representatives in Russia look into it?”
“Oh, come on, you don’t believe we can trust …"
The phone rang, and I jumped. As I answered the call, I put it on speaker. The message from Russia echoing through the room was not encouraging.
It was a turbulent ride, and while the swooshing noise of the whirlwind propelling me along usually blocked my sense of hearing, I could have sworn I heard gunshots on and off. At the warehouse in Russia, I popped out of a computer like a rocket, even with a loud boom thrown in as an extra.
I slammed onto the hard concrete floor and skidded several feet. Another kaboom, now sounding like a bang, bang, bang, followed. I panicked and started to clamber to my paws to run to safety. What I had heard a minute ago had not been a boom sparked by my exiting the computer. It was a volley of gunshots.
Something grazed my ear, quickly like lightning, and I landed flat on my belly. Frantically, I shoved my paws back and forth to find traction. Before I could struggle to my feet to run, my mind cleared and common sense took over, and I stayed put.
For sharpshooters I would make the perfect target racing though the warehouse. Those thugs probably got a bigger kick out of blowing away a moving object, whatever it was, than a stationary one.
My eyes darted around the room. Besides conveyor belts, all leading to a huge table, much, much longer than wide, covered with a bunch of electronic devices for sorting the packages of caviar for their destinations, there were several computer stations, scattered through the rest of the vast space.
I blinked my eyes several times, not believing what I was seeing. Underneath the open area of the computer stations, people huddled together, quavering with each gunshot. At the rate and speed of the fired bullets, those sitting ducks should have been all dead by now. Then again, my theory about the shooters might not have been that far-fetched.
Where were the shooters and what were they aiming at? OMD, where were the courier dogs? And where the hell was Ludwig?
With a fleeting look, I swept the floor of the warehouse. No, no downed dogs. I swept the floor a second time. No, no shoes or boots on the feet of potential gunmen either.
This time, however, I spied a row of cardboard boxes, stacked close to the wall opposite the main door. There wasn’t enough room behind them for people to hide who would have to lie flat on their stomach in order to not stick out from behind the boxes. It was a perfect cover for me if I made it to it.
I crawled toward the table and underneath along it, heading for the row of cardboard boxes. While the gun fire was still blaring into my ears, I didn’t feel any more bullets whizzing by me, and, still in one piece, I reached the end of the table. The first box to conceal me was just a good jump away to my right.
One paw at a time, I straightened up. I peeked around me to make sure a shooter hadn’t sneaked up from wherever, and as everything looked clear, I shifted my body to the right.
Gauging the narrow space between the box and the wall, I took a deep breath, tightened my leg muscles and waited for one of the now sporadic gunshots. The moment I heard the kaboom, I took the jump.
Everything happened so fast that the only thought zapping through my mind was that I’d jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. But it couldn’t have been a bullet that hit me. Bullets didn’t snarl, though they might howl, and while they might bite, they didn’t scratch without end.
On instinct, I growled and bit back. What was all that fur, now stuck between my teeth? Something tried to pin me down, and I kicked and wiggled to break away, but then a heavy load squashed my body.
Unable to move and running out of breath, I closed my eyes, accepting but cursing my imminent fate. As I slowly drifted off into oblivion, my body felt light, free of any burden. I went with the flow.
I tapped Olaf on his rear end with my paw. Nothing. I tapped again and again, each time harder until I gave him a good kick. Olaf didn’t budge. I clambered on top of him and pulled myself along to his neck, and holding my muzzle close to his ear, I opened my mouth and gave out a bark.
The sudden shaking of his head made me slide from side to side, and growling, I dug my paws into his fur to stay on top of him.
“Psst, be quiet,” Olaf hissed. “I want to hear what those people are saying.”
The nails of my paws dug deeper. Unfortunately, Olaf didn’t seem to feel it, but it gave me some satisfaction because I was mad at him for having ignored me. At the same time, I was relieved that he was very much OK.
With my nerves calmed down, I whispered at him, “What’s going on?”
“Didn’t you hear the man’s announcement?”
“I heard him shouting all right, but it was all Greek, I mean Russian, to me.”
“Oh … I forgot you don’t speak Russian. Wait just a second, and I’ll fill you in.”
Quietly, I pushed myself inch by inch backward to slide off Olaf. Before I reached his butt, he leaped forward, and I tumbled down.
“Hey, wait,” I hollered as he disappeared in front of me.
I scrambled onto all fours and staggered past the end of the row of boxes. Olaf was already at the open door, and without looking back, he scurried through it.
Everybody else must have left in a hurry, too. I didn’t see, hear or smell any humans, and I headed for the door, looking around me. Bullet holes were all over the warehouse, in the walls and in the floor, but the computers seemed to be undamaged. At least I hoped so because the moment I found Ludwig, we’d need one of them to get back home.
I sneaked a glance at the outside. Nobody was in the vicinity, but I could make out humans and even a couple of dogs at the fish house in the distance. Not sure if the shooters were still lying in ambush, I slunk through the door and along the building, almost touching it, to the nearest corner.
With my nose up in the air, I sniffed for humans. They were somewhere at the other end, but their scent was drifting away. In front of me, however, I got a good whiff of a dog, and a familiar one. Without giving him time to detect me, I leaped around the corner.
Caught by surprise, Olaf lurched forward and lost his footing, and I grabbed him by his rear leg.
Holding on to it with a firm pressure of my teeth for a few seconds and then letting go, I barked, “What are you doing? Running away from me? I don’t have time for these games. I have to know what happened here, and I have to find Ludwig.”
“I didn’t feel comfortable inside, all closed up,” Olaf said, turning around. “Sit down, I’ll tell you.”
I nodded. “But you better don’t take off on me again.”
Olaf gave his leg baring my tooth marks a good lick and sat down across from me. “The man you heard shouting coming into the warehouse was the overseer of the caviar processing facility. He told everybody that the men in black suits had come back, caught the shooters and hauled them off and that everything was clear again.”
I waited for more details, especially about the shooters, but Olaf remained silent. My fur bristled. This was turning into a nightmare. Instead of pulling Ludwig out of harm’s way, I felt as if I’d sunk deeper and deeper into the quagmire myself.
I poked my nose into Olaf’s face. “Listen, I know you’re not telling me everything. I thought all the time you were holding something back. Now, spit it out, who were those last shooters?”
Olaf turned his head right and left and then hanging it, he said, almost whispering, “They were a mob of four or five angry local customers who didn’t receive their orders of caviar.”
I cocked my head. “So, they just went on a shooting spree? Why didn’t they complain to the people in charge here?”
“They did.” Olaf looked up at me and back down again. “I’d heard their complaints and threats for some time now and saw the invoices. The packages of caviar in question were all the ones the cats intercepted and gave to the courier dogs to be sent to the customers in your country.”
The dog at the other end of the phone was Olaf, my company’s general manager in Russia in charge of collecting the caviar orders and sending the cats out to pick up the delivery. He notified us about unfamiliar humans, clothed in black suits and wearing dark glasses, visiting the caviar processing area and inspecting the invoices.
“What about your place, any strange things happening there?” I asked Olaf.
“Early this morning, two courier dogs took off into the Internet, each with one order heading for your country. That was routine. But we still have one shipment sitting here. We’re waiting for one of the couriers to return from the Internet.”
“Hold on, you don’t have couriers as standbys? There should always be a dog available to leave right away as soon as a cat shows up with the merchandise. I thought I made that clear.”
“We worked it that way until this morning when we never received the latest shipment. Then, no other dog reported for duty. I thought it was just a coincidence, but I kept having this crawling feel in my fur. That’s why I called you.”
“OK, let’s not discuss it any further. All you need to know for now is that there’s another shipment coming. Process it as fast as you can, so there won’t be any inquiries from the buyer’s side. I’ll be in touch with you.”
I waited for Olaf to hang up and then disconnected my phone.
“Wylie, get up. I’ll show you what you’ve to do here.”
“Why? What are you up to?”
“I have to go to …”
“You’re not going to Russia, are you?”
“You heard Olaf, something is going on over there, and I don’t like it.”
”This manager of yours, he’s Russian, isn’t he?”
“Why in the world did you hire a Russian instead of sending one of our dogs to do the managing job over there?”
“A business friend of mine highly recommended this guy, and he looked smart and streetwise. I scrutinized his résumé, and I personally interviewed him when he came over here and checked out his past. He was clean. I even had Thomas vet him and consult with Tiger, and both of them agreed with my findings.”
“That was a good move, asking for both their help. Cats have kind of a seventh sense and can feel instantly if someone tries to double-cross them.”
“Yeah, and Thomas is also excellent in detecting the slightest flaws in whatever we deal with. I knew he was a gem the moment he moved in with us.”
“So, there was nothing fishy about that Russian guy?” Wylie grinned. “Except for having his paws in the caviar trade?”
“I liked what I saw and what we found out about him. But still, trusting 100 percent … trusting anybody from over there …"
“So why didn’t you hire a dog from here to work over there?”
“As you know, we needed someone who would be familiar with the Russian law. Nobody I could have found here would have known anything about it.”
“So, when are you leaving?”
“I’ll try to get Ludwig to meet me in the Internet as soon as possible. I’ve decided to send him to Russia after all.”
“Why do you have to meet him then? Why not just tell him over the phone?”
“It doesn’t work with Ludwig that way. He has trouble intercepting any phone calls at home, and it would take too long to explain our situation in Russia over the phone.”
Slowly, Wylie stretched and shook himself before stumbling over to me. As he put his nose on my shoulder, I emailed Ludwig asking if he could take off and see me for something important in the Internet tunnel. To make it easy for the both of us, I suggested we meet at the relay station located between both of our Internet doors.
I paced back and forth in front of Dad’s chair. Instead of annoying Dad, it made me all hot and bothered. I stopped and took a deep breath, and my eyes hit Dad’s iPhone lying on top of the side table next to his chair. How could I grab it without Dad chasing me away? I let my eyes wander around the room, and they came to a rest on my kitty sister, Sabrina, snoozing on the couch.
Quickly, I hopped on top of her, sure she would wake up with a start, but she kept on snoring away. I had to shake her out of her dreams.
“Hey, Sabrina,” I barked into her ear,” get up, you have to help me.”
She blinked her eyes several times and gave out a big yawn. “Can’t it wait ‘til later, after my nap?”
“No, it can’t, and you’re already awake now. Jump on the table next to Dad’s chair and push the iPhone down to the floor. But make sure he doesn’t notice you.”
“You know, Hobo, I would do anything for you, but I do need my beauty sleep. Why don’t you jump up there yourself?”
“You’re much lighter on your paws. I would make such a racket that Dad would chase me off before I get to the phone.”
“I’ll do it later.” Sabrina closed her eyes and curled into a ball of fur.
Losing my patience, I nipped at her ear, the only part of her sticking out. Her head popped up, and she glared at me.
I glared back at her. “Are you going to help me? You have to get me that phone now. It’s a life and death situation.”
That hit a nerve. While Sabrina had been roaming the streets, she had reached the gate to the Rainbow Bridge, and Wylie and I had talked our parents into adopting her just in time for her to receive life-saving medical treatments.
Sabrina leaped to her paws. “I’m all yours. What do you want me to do?”
“Just push Dad’s iPhone from the little table, over there by his side, onto the floor. But as I said, make sure he doesn’t notice what you’re doing.”
Without further delay, Sabrina bounced down from the sofa, cased out the recliner Dad was sitting in, and in one bold move, jumped on his lap. My mouth fell open. Oh my cat, she wasn’t thinking of pushing down the phone he was holding in his hand, was she?
Dad briefly looked at her and absentmindedly patted her back a couple of times. Afraid to watch what would happen next, I closed my eyes. When I opened them a second later, Sabrina was standing on top of the recliner above Dad’s head.
Like a feather, she floated down onto the side table, instantly finding her balance. She nosed a wad of papers out of the way, and then, as if waving a magic wand over the tabletop, her paw brushed the iPhone, and it slid onto the carpet.
Not wasting another second, I dived from the sofa, grabbed the phone with my teeth and hotfooted into the office. With my rear legs, I kicked the door just enough for it to touch its frame and scurried under the desk to make my call. I thought this would also be a good place to ditch the phone, making Dad believe by the time he found it that he had dropped it there, thus preventing him from becoming suspicious.
With my right paw on the phone, I deeply inhaled to concentrate on the phone number of the warehouse where Olaf would most likely be. It took me three tries to enter the string of numbers correctly.
No one answered. Using the redial over and over again, I kept on calling. Where the heck was he? … Yeah, that was it. While I was trying to find a way to get to the phone, Ludwig must have tied up the loose ends at home and already taken off for Russia. Now, Olaf was showing him around, explaining everything, and didn’t want to be interrupted by a phone call, but once he was done, he would pick up.
I continued pushing the redial button. Finally, I heard a click.
“Olaf here, who’s there?”
“It’s me again, Hobo. You got Ludwig up-to-date on everything?”
“I sent my friend Ludwig, you know the one I told you about a while ago, over to assist you. I assumed he made it over there by now.”
“No, not here yet.”
Thrown for a loop, I stalled. Getting my thoughts in order, I said, “Anyway, he should be there any minute now. Fill him in about any new details. He’ll talk to the cats and see what he can do.”
Olaf agreed, and I was ready to hang up. I lifted my paw to press the exit button on the phone. The pop of a gunshot coming from the other end of the line made me stop in midair. I shouted into the phone, “Olaf, Olaf, are you there? Olaf? Say something. Hello, hello.”
As my barking echoed through the room, the line went dead.
The door to the relay station flew open, and a howl roared through the room. At the farthest corner, next to a computer stand, a huge black figure was doubling over.
Before I could take cover, the figure straightened up, and I saw who it was.
“There’s my dog.” Kojak, still rolling with laughter, came running toward me and gave me a bearhug. “How’s it going, Hobo?”
Completely thrown for a loss, I peeked around him looking for Ludwig. He was right behind Kojak.
“Look who I ran into,” Ludwig said with a big smile on his face.
“And look who I caught,” Kojak barked. “Our good friend Ludwig, fooling around in the Internet tunnels again, racing like a lunatic. But he can tell the most hilarious jokes.”
I wiggled out of Kojak’s legs. “So, you’re still patrolling the tunnels and giving travelers a hard time? I thought I heard you’d advanced to pursuing and harassing the bigger fish?”
Kojak laughed. “Nah, I was just kidding. Ludwig and I happened to be in here at the same time. But you’re right, I climbed the corporate ladder all the way to cyberspace security. I have nothing to do anymore with policing the Internet tunnels.”
“I remember the first time Ludwig and I bumped into you or better you into us,” I said. “Ludwig was pretty sure you were a fraud, and I could have kicked myself for believing you were a real Internet police dog.”
“Ha, ha.” Kojak nodded and then shook his head. “No, I was very real, too much, though. Luckily, Lorelei cured me from being a stickler for the law …”
“That’s exactly what she called you,” Ludwig said, snickering. “But she also said you were very ambitious and competitive.”
“Well, I’m still always trying to do my best, but Lorelei has shown me a more sensible path to success. By the way, I’d dragged that sweet little dog from being an Internet kiosk assistant with me on my way up the ladder, and we’re now both partners in the cyberspace security department.”
“I’m glad it worked out so well for both of you,” I said.
“Thanks.” Kojak turned to Ludwig. “See, someone is happy for me. But now that you told me you have a kitty sister you adore, I’m sure you forgive me for stealing Lorelei away from you.”
“Nah, you didn’t steal her at all. I don’t think Lorelei even knew that I had an instant crush on her when Hobo and I met her at the kiosk.”
“So, Hobo,” Kojak asked, “what are you up to? Ludwig tells me you asked him over here to discuss something important? Something on your adventure list?”
“Something on my business list,” I answered.
Ludwig furrowed his brow. “I don’t know if I can help you with it. I don’t have that business mentality of yours. But what is it about?”
“I need you to go to Russia to check up on my caviar deals over there. It’s really more an investigation gig than a business matter.”
“Then maybe, you should hire Kojak for the job. He’s the perfect fit.”
“Oh no.” Kojak shook his head vigorously. “You’re not getting me involved in something like that. In fact, I’ll turn around and close my ears while you two make the necessary arrangements.”
“You don’t need to,” I said. “I trust you, and you’re not a tattletale.”
“It’s not about trust or keeping secrets. But, I’m sure your dealings have to involve the Internet, and it might put me into a precarious situation if any of them lead to a security breach and I’m aware of it.”
While Kojak went back to the computer at the other side of the room, I filled Ludwig in about my caviar operation in Russia and the latest developments. Most of it was old news for him since I always bragged about it whenever we met. “First, you have to meet with Olaf,” I said, “and then you need to get to the bottom of why the cats had gone berserk. Have them confess or clear things up.”
Now, that Ludwig felt at ease with cats, I was certain they’d cooperate with him if he was able to win them over. He was good at it with humans, it came naturally to him. It might even be an additional advantage regarding the men in black Olaf had mentioned.
A bark hit my ears from far away. The closer it came, the more it sounded like gobbledygook. Then, something wet dabbed my nose, and I realized I could breathe without gasping for air.
To get away from the slobber around my face, I carefully moved my head, and it again turned easily. I gave my legs a tryout, and they were working again, too.
The barks now became familiar, and straining my ears, I made out the words.
“Hobo? … OMD … What are you doing here?”
Slowly, I opened my eyes, and I opened them wider and wider. Finally, I found my voice. “Olaf? Wow, I’m glad to see you. Is this the Russian way employees greet their boss?”
Olaf chuckled. “Barking out loud, no. If anything, it would be the other way around. Sorry about attacking you, Hobo. I thought you were a drone that they were releasing through one of the chutes, the way you came flying through the air, and I wanted to put it out of action before it exploded.”
“Drone? Chutes? What are you talking about?”
“They’re shooting through the chutes, you know the one where the packages of caviar come in onto the conveyor belt and the four outgoing ones that send the package onto the trucks going to the local customers.”
I squinted at Olaf. “But the chutes are too small for a human to crawl into.”
“It’s easy to take the chute off on the outside. So, they’re standing there and aiming the guns through the inside chutes and firing away.”
“Wait, that doesn’t make much sense, they won’t hit anybody that way.”
“I guess that’s their objective, just to frighten people and do a lot of damage. That’s why those people in here are still alive. Maybe you noticed them when you arrived.”
“Yeah, it struck me as odd to see them crouching under the open computer stations.”
“That’s where the bullets can’t reach them.”
“Who the hell is doing the shooting?”
Olaf pricked up his ears. “Listen … I think the shooting has stopped. I haven’t heard anything all the time while we were talking. Let’s get out of here and find a safer place.”
“What if they come charging in through the door just as we’re leaving, or wait outside for whoever comes out?”
“I doubt they’ll shoot at us dogs, they’re interested in the people employed here.”
“So, tell me, who are they?”
For a second time, Olaf dodged giving me an answer, and he only shook his head.
I stared at him. “You don’t have any idea? I was expecting to see the men in black suits you were mentioning earlier raiding the warehouse and doing the firing.”
“You’re right. Those suits have been here. They came charging in here, gave out two or three warning shots …”
“That must have been one of the shots I heard on the phone just before it went dead.”
“Probably. I dropped it when I ran to safety. Anyway, they shouted something about breaking up a planned riot and frisked all the employees for weapons. We have a very strict gun law here. They didn’t find any and left as quickly as they’d come. But then …”
Without finishing his sentence, Olaf climbed over me with his long legs, and stepping to the end of the row of boxes, he peeked in the direction of the door.
Before I could turn around to follow him, he bounced backward, almost squashing me again. I slithered forward to give us more room, but the shouts of a man, stifling Olaf’s heavy panting, stopped me short.
Not understanding a single word of the man’s tirade, I ducked my head and braced myself for another salvo of gunshots. It never came, not even one single shot.
Instead, after the man’s shouting had died out, there were a lot of feet shuffling and noises like chitchatting and happy laughter. I wiggled around to face Olaf.
He wasn’t panting any longer. In fact, his body was still as if it was lifeless. OMD, he didn’t have a heart attack, did he?
Olaf was no spring chicken anymore. All that excitement could have been too much for him, or he might have seen something peeking around the box that pushed him over the edge. For all I knew, I could have misinterpreted the good cheer, and it was the bad guys’ hullabaloo.
I glared at Olaf with my mouth open. A blatant oversight in my caviar delivery operation had caused an unforeseen domino effect. Having the Russian government on my back and the Russian security forces breathing down my neck was the last thing I needed, and from the beginning, I had taken extra precaution to avoid it.
Swallowing hard, I finally yelled at Olaf, “And you didn’t bother to tell me about it then? Why in hell do you think I hired you? Did you even try to remedy the situation?”
“I didn’t think it was a big deal. Those customers would have paid for the caviar on delivery, so they didn’t lose anything. Their only loss was the enjoyment of a luxury.”
“That’s not the point.” I was still yelling. “We’d arranged it so the cats would only intercept the original orders of caviar for the local customers and leave any replacements alone. Did you make sure about that?”
“I thought I did. But maybe the caviar company stopped refunding the lost orders.”
“You just don’t get it,” I screamed, having lost my patience. “It’s not about screwing the seller or the buyer, it’s all about the black market, about cutting into its profit. Half of the caviar going through all these facilities has to do with the black market, and a bunch of the people in charge here play a role in it, all under the cover of a legal business. Did I make myself clear?”
“All right, all right. I had no idea it would escalate, and not this way.”
“But the suits were hanging around here for a while. Why didn’t you …”
“No, no. Today was the first time, just as I told you on the phone. They showed up here a few hours before they raided the warehouse.”
I knitted my brow. “I wonder if someone bullshitted them and gave them the wrong info.”
“Yeah, that was also my thought.” Olaf was looking straight at me. “Those security guards were mostly looking for illegal weapons and less prepared to prevent a riot, and they were barking up the wrong tree. I could have told them that all the employees here were clean.”
“One of the courier dogs is a retired sniffer dog. He would have told me if he detected a gun or ammunition around here at any time.”
My ears perked up. Pushing my outrage at Olaf aside, I switched gears.
“Whoa. Do you think that dog could sniff out Ludwig? There has to be a way to find him.”
Olaf squinted before he answered. “I doubt it. His training was very specialized. Besides, he would need something with Ludwig’s smell on it if he could do it.”
“I might still have some of his scent on me. I met with him only a couple of hours ago. But I think you’re right. It would be out of his expertise to find someone who vanished into thin air. What about the employees in the warehouse? You said you were listening to them when they talked with the overseer, what did they say?”
Olaf’s lips twitched. After moving his butt from side to side, he asked, “You mean what they said about the …?”
“BOL, did any of them mention a dog they’d never seen before?” Despite my biting off his head, Olaf’s jaw relaxed, and he gave me a swift answer.
“The overseer was merely telling them that he and his crew and the people from the packing house were watching the drama unfolding while they were ready to scoot the moment the shooters would come their way.”
“So, they might have seen an unfamiliar dog come running out of the warehouse.” Then as an afterthought, I said more to myself than to Olaf, “That doesn’t help me much. There’s no way I could make myself understood by humans through barking at them if they’d seen Ludwig.”
I stared at the phone in front of me, my body trembling. That had been a gunshot, no doubt about it. I’d heard enough shots on Ludwig’s and my last adventure to distinguish them from other kinds of bangs.
Pulling myself together to keep my paw steady on the phone, I punched in the warehouse number. The call went right through, but I waited and waited for an answer. I hung up and redialed, and hung up and redialed, on and on, losing track of the total.
While my tapping the phone came to nothing, my earlier bellowing into it came to a head, and I regretted the blunder I had made.
The office door squeaked, and Sabrina, meowing, came rushing into the office. “I heard you yelling. What’s the matter? Where are you?”
“I’m under the desk. Did Mom hear my barking?”
“I don’t think so, but I heard it all right, and Wylie, too. We both heard it, loud and clear. I should’ve known, you’re hiding. Are you making a phone call down there? Why don’t you …?”
“Can’t you shut up for a moment? Yes, I’m trying to place a call. You’re making me nervous, and I don’t want Mom to come in here to find out what all the meowing is about.”
“She won’t. She knows I like to talk.”
“Why are you always yapping so much anyway?”
“It’s in my genes. Siamese enjoy talking.”
“So, go and talk in the other room. I need to concentrate and some privacy here.”
“OK, if you insist.” Mumbling something under her whiskers, Sabrina stomped away but didn’t go far.
Before I could focus on the phone again, she hollered, in defiance to my admonition that she kept it quiet, “I’m leaving, but you won’t get any privacy. Here comes Wylie.”
I gritted my teeth and listened for the door to squeak again. When I heard Wylie push it open a tad more to squeeze through, I whispered to him to come under the desk. “Did anyone follow you, Mom or Dad?”
“Not that I know of,” Wylie said, whispering also. “Sabrina came out of here, moaning and groaning, but no one else was moving around. Mom took off with the car after she came back from the walk with me, and Dad is still engrossed in his phone call.”
“That’s why I didn’t see you anywhere when I came back from meeting Ludwig.”
“So, what’s going on? What’s all this secrecy?”
“Well, we have a big problem on our paws.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s why you met with Ludwig. He can’t go to Russia?”
“No, he agreed to do it right away. There might be a much more serious problem now. What we’re up against could be a disaster.”
Wylie furrowed his brow. “I don’t know if I want to hear this.”
“There was a shooting in the warehouse in Russia and …”
“Oh no, what happened? Did some of the humans kill one another? I hope they didn’t hit any of the dogs and cats.”
”I don’t know anything. I just heard a gunshot while I was on the phone with Olaf, and then, the line went dead.”
“So, you don’t know if someone fired a gun. Are you sure it was a shot you heard? Maybe it was an electrical mishap, something like a transformer blowing up.”
“Trust me, it was a gunshot. But the worst thing is that Ludwig should have already been at the warehouse when I talked to Olaf, but Olaf hadn’t seen him, so Ludwig could have arrived just as the gun went off.”
“OMD, you don’t think he ran into the line of fire?”
I slipped out from under the desk. “I have to go over there and make sure he’s OK and see …”
“Are you out of your mind? Do you want to get shot?” Wylie nipped my tail to hold me down.
“I’ve sent Ludwig into harm’s way, and I have to get him out of it. Now, let go of my tail.”
Obeying, Wylie asked, “Why do you think he already left home? He could still be there. He might still be getting everything in order before taking off. Call his home and find out.”
“Are you even listening? Tell me, how do I reach him by phone?”
Wylie coughed. “Try this …” He coughed again and then cleared his throat. “Make the call, and when his mom or dad answers, spew out some thunderous barks to catch Ludwig’s attention if he’s still home. Otherwise, with any luck, Gato will get the message and contact you.”
“But what about Dad, hearing me barking so loud?”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. In case he comes in here to check things out, we’ll start barking at each other as if we’re having a fight, and he’ll just tell us to give it a rest.”
Foreign business affairs
A fable by Bruny Hudson
The more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.
My fur bristled and my ears sprang backward. I clutched the phone and squeezed it between my paws.
“What?” I barked to the dog at the other end of the line. “The cats ate the caviar?”
With my teeth bared, I glared at Wylie, my doggy brother and right paw, lounging on the easy chair across from the desk I was occupying while our dad was running an errand. Wylie shrugged his shoulders but didn’t stir a facial muscle.
“I want a written report, ASAP, and in detail,” I shouted into the phone. “This is outrageous. Whatever happened, somebody will pay for it. The caviar was supposed to be delivered early this morning. Go, get another order ready, but make sure a different cat delivers it to the courier.” I slammed the phone onto the console.
“Can you believe that,” I said to Wylie, my voice boiling with rage.
“I told you dealing with Russia and using Russian cats as go-betweens was asking for trouble,” Wylie said, leaning forward. “But you never believe me. You’re all gung ho about making as many kibbles as you can.”
“Well, the business is flourishing, and we’re faster delivering the food than any other company. It just so happens that Russia produces the best caviar.”
“You could have chosen any other fresh products, and we still would have beaten any competitors in speedy delivery. Maybe even something within the country, and we wouldn’t have to deal with foreign rules and regulations and strange behaviors.”
“It’s not only the speed that counts anymore, now that some companies are trying to get approval to use drones for fast delivery. It’s the uniqueness of the goods we deliver. Our customers crave the out-of-the-ordinary, the something they can impress their friends and business partners with.”
My fur started to flatten down and my ears pricked up. Wylie often had that effect on me, calming me down, if he didn’t first made me climb up the walls with his laid-back attitude.
“Every business deal has its ups and downs,” I said, “and so far everything has gone smoothly. It’s just so unbelievable, the cats devouring the very product that sustains the company they’re working for.”
“Yeah, it’s almost déjà vu, you know, the problems you told me about that you had with the cat employees before I moved in with you.”
Knitting my brow, I said, “That’s true, but it was a strike they were instigating for an imprudent comment my former attorney, Ms. Foley Monster, had made. What these Russian cats have done almost borders on cannibalism.”
“Maybe they had a good reason for going berserk all of a sudden.”
I leaned back in my chair and thought about Wylie’s remark. What if there was more to it than the cats foolishly destroying their own livelihood?
“You have to go to Russia, Wylie, and talk to them, the cats, and find out what happened.”
“You’re kidding me, aren’t you?”
“I’m dead serious. We can’t solve this over the phone. Someone has to go there and assess the situation.”