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Authors: Leslie Margolis

Girl's Best Friend

BOOK: Girl's Best Friend
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For Leo

Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!

—Henry James

Prologue

♦     ♦     ♦

Mitsy wasn’t his, but he wished she were. The dog was his favorite thing about his dad’s new girlfriend. Something about the way she carried herself—chin up, tongue out, black fur mussed, puny but determined—warmed his heart.

If only he hadn’t offered to walk her that scorching hot Saturday in July. He’d do anything for the chance to go back. Change one tiny detail—the weather, his thirst, even the time of day—and things might’ve been different.

These thoughts kept him up at night. Tortured him. But the facts remained: It was hot. He got thirsty and ducked into a deli for a drink.

The owner balked and pointed to the sign, which read
TWO-LEGGED CREATURES ONLY.

So he led Mitsy to the sidewalk and triple-knot tied her to a parking meter.

“I’ll be back in a few seconds,” he promised, not realizing that a few seconds were all it would take.

The problem was too many choices: Black cherry or cream soda? Lemonade or lime? Strawberry flavored or mango? Sparkling or flat?

Nothing stood out.

When he checked on Mitsy she stared right back at him, dark eyes anxious. Like she smelled something dangerous.

So he grabbed an iced tea, plain and simple. Headed for the cash register. Paid. Stepped back outside and gasped.

Mitsy’s leash still dangled from the meter, the knot tied tight.

But Mitsy? She was gone.

Chapter 1

♦     ♦     ♦

I am going to talk to Milo Sanchez today.

Today I’m going to talk to Milo.

I must talk to him.

Now.

Okay, now-ish.

Unless I wait until tomorrow. Maybe today I should just buy a slice of pizza and head home.

No, that would be insane. No one comes to the Pizza Den for the pizza. Their crust is way soggy and the service stinks. When you order a slice of pepperoni, there’s a very good chance you’ll get sausage instead. Its atmosphere is even worse. The place is so dark and musty, they should change their name to Animal Den.

Still, practically every seventh grader at Fiske Street Junior High hangs out at the Pizza Den after school because that’s where everyone goes. It’s where things happen. And I had just realized something.

There are people who make things happen, people to whom things happen, and then there’s everyone else: those who hang around and watch. I’ve been watching for too long and that’s got to change—now.

Well, soon.

I glanced across the room at Milo, leaning against the post that holds up the sagging ceiling in the corner. Arms crossed, head tilted, dark hair falling over his big brown eyes, Milo leans better than any boy I know. He’s probably the best leaner in all of Brooklyn, or at least in Park Slope, which is the neighborhood where we live.

He could win a gold medal for it. Nike would offer him sponsorship if they knew, but Milo would refuse because he’s not a sellout. I don’t think so, anyway. I don’t know him all that well.

Okay, fine—we haven’t actually spoken. Except for once, last month when I followed him too closely and accidentally stepped on the heel of his left sneaker and it came off and he stumbled and turned around to look at me. Not annoyed, like he thought I’d done it on purpose. More like confused, and I said, “Sorry,” and he said, “ ’sokay.” And he smiled.

I think. It’s entirely possible that I imagined the smile part. It happened so long ago I can’t be certain, but none of that matters. All that counts is now—this very moment—because we’re about to have a real conversation.

We have to, because the hole in his navy blue sweater is huge. I sit behind Milo in science, and three weeks ago his sweater looked almost new, with just one loose thread at the seam near his shoulder. But then he pulled at it during Mrs. Gander’s lecture on isotopes and it ripped. That rip turned into a hole and I’ve watched it grow every single day. Inch by inch, or, as Madame Curie would say (before she died of radiation poisoning), centimeter by centimeter. I promised myself I’d talk to Milo before his sweater unraveled completely.

I just couldn’t figure out what to say.

What’s the homework in science?
Too obvious.

Congrats on winning the all-school speed chess match?
Too nerdy.

I saw you heading into Southpaw last Saturday with a guitar strapped to your back. Are you in a band?
Too stalkery. I don’t want him to think I followed him, because I didn’t. I only went three blocks out of my way, in the pouring rain, because I felt like taking a walk that day. It’s not pathetic because I had an umbrella.

Nothing seemed right, but then last night it finally came to me: the perfect in. So simple it’s brilliant.

I walked over, fast, before I could wimp out.

“Hey, guess what? I walk a dog named Milo.” There, I said it. Blurted it out, if you want to get technical. “He’s a puggle, which is a cross between a pug and a beagle.”

Milo didn’t respond.

He didn’t even look up.

“He’s got that smushed-in pug face but a thinner body and longer legs,” I went on, stupidly, as if there were nothing more captivating than this new hybrid dog breed.

Milo said nothing.

Then he went on to say nothing some more.

As a cold panic spread through me, I wondered if maybe I should run. Or hide. Or act like I was talking to the person behind him. Except there was no person behind him—only the grease-stained wall. Could I pretend like I was talking to myself? No, that would be worse.

I began to turn away when Milo raised his head and scrunched his eyebrows together.

I stopped and smiled what I hoped was a tiny and extremely casual smile.

A smile that told him I didn’t care one way or the other if he replied.

A smile that didn’t hint at the fact that I’d been having pretend conversations with him in my head all week—and that not one of them sounded anything like this.

Suddenly he moved—raised one hand to his ear and tugged out an earbud.

Milo had been listening to his iPod. He wasn’t ignoring me. He just didn’t hear.

I let out my breath, not realizing I’d been holding it, and waited.

So did Milo.

Oh, right. Now I had to start all over again.

I paused so he could take out his second earbud, but he didn’t. Which got me thinking—why only one? Does he think whatever I’m about to say isn’t important enough for both ears?

I tried not to take it personally.

“I walk a puggle named Milo.” I spoke louder this time, since I had to compete with his music.

“Um, what?” Milo tilted his head.

Progress.

True, Milo had no idea what I was talking about, but at least he acknowledged me. And he didn’t seem horrified or anything. He squinted a friendly sort of squint. Like he was smiling with his eyes.

Big beautiful brown eyes—the kind that, gazing into them, made my stomach flip over like a half-cooked pancake.

“I walk this—”

“Um, Maggie.” Someone interrupted me. “You don’t have a dog.”

I cringed. The way she said it—all accusing, like my
not
having a dog was some horrible offense—told me, without a doubt, that my least favorite person heard everything.

And in case I needed the confirmation, Milo looked over my shoulder and said, “Hey, Ivy.”

So I had no choice but to turn around and face her: Ivy Jeffries. She’s got shiny dark hair that’s parted in the middle, falls just below her ears, and always stays in place. No bangs. Her big blue eyes, dusting of freckles across her nose, and tendency to wear pastels make her seem sweet and innocent, but I know the truth. I know because she used to be my best friend.

“I never said I had a dog,” I told her, standing up straighter. “I said I walk dogs. It’s my after-school job.” I still felt cool, since not a lot of kids I know have jobs, and mine is a good one. Much better than babysitting. That’s what every other seventh grader who works does, unless you count Lucy, who knits hats to sell on Etsy—but I don’t because her only client is her grandmother.

Ivy pressed her lips together like that was the only way to keep from cracking up, but I knew it was just an act.

“You’re a dog walker?” she asked, as if it were absurd, and burst out laughing.

So did Eve and Katie, her current best friends.

Not that I was about to let them get to me. “Yes, I’m a dog walker. So what?”

Ivy raised her voice so everyone in the Pizza Den could hear. Probably people outside, too. “So you, like, follow random dogs around and pick up their poop? That’s worse than being a garbage collector. You’re, like, a janitor to dogs.”

“Maggie Brooklyn Sinclair, Dog Janitor,” Eve said in this low, official-sounding voice, which made the three of them crack up all over again.

The thing is, I never thought about my job in those terms. I clean up after dogs because it’s common courtesy and because it’s the law. Break it and you get fined $250—at least in New York City. But picking up after dogs is a very small part of what I do.

Really, my job is about giving animals fresh air and exercise. And I love it.

Dogs are awesome and you always know where you stand with them. Dogs don’t suddenly ditch you for no reason, then trash-talk you behind your back—things Ivy would understand all too well. But before I could point this out, she went off.

“Seriously, Maggs? I hope you wash your hands really well after. Because animals carry all kinds of icky diseases.” She shuddered an exaggerated—and completely fake—shudder. As if she hadn’t been cleaning up after her own dog, Kermit, for years!

Too flustered to point this out, and too humiliated to even look at Milo, I spun around and ran for the door.

Once outside, I turned the corner fast and smacked right into someone.

Pink paper flew through the air, then fluttered to my feet.

“I’m so sorry!” I said.

The woman I’d hit seemed stunned—dark eyes wide behind big glasses. Her red hair was pulled into a tight ponytail. She wore a narrow gray suit and spiky black heels so high they looked hard to walk in.

“Here, let me help.” I bent down and she did, too.

And that’s when I heard her purse whimper.

I stared at it, puzzled.

It was black and bulky and there it went again—three squeaks. Like she had something alive inside.

Alive and wanting out.

The woman slowly raised her gaze—as if checking to see if I’d noticed.

“Um … Is there something—”

“No,” she snapped, and she stood up fast. Then she snatched the remaining pages, shouldered her bag, and took off, walking as fast as she could without actually running away.

Chapter 2

♦     ♦     ♦

When I’m working, I’m all business: Enter apartment. Greet dog. Put on leash. Exit apartment. Lock door. Walk dog. Return dog. Write note. Lock door. Head to the next apartment and repeat from the beginning.

I’m all about efficiency because I need to be. I only have a two-hour window between when school gets out and when I’m expected home.

That’s why I didn’t follow the red-haired woman. That, and because she wasn’t doing anything wrong, exactly.

Yes, she appeared to be carrying a small animal in her bag. Strange? Of course. Cruel? I think so. But a crime? Not really. It didn’t even seem suspicious once I read one of the flyers she’d left behind.

BOUTIQUE BREEDS BY BRENDA
was printed in block letters across the top. Below it were sketches of some fancy-looking dogs, then a phone number.

The flyer explained everything. Brenda was a dog breeder and obviously she had a puppy in her purse. I just hoped she wasn’t planning on keeping it in there for long—and that her bag had some air holes.

Tossing the flyer into the trash, I headed to work.

Five minutes later I knocked, yelled “Hello!” and let myself into Isabel Rose Franini’s apartment.

Isabel was home and on her couch as usual. Her leg was propped up on two red velvet pillows and her crutches lay beside her. Isabel tore something in her knee while salsa dancing last summer. She’d had surgery soon after and still couldn’t get around very well, which made taking care of her enormous Irish wolfhound extra hard.

“Maggie, is that you?” she called.

It’s pretty much always me, but I’d never say so. “Hi, Isabel. What’s new?” I asked as I scratched her dog, Preston, behind the ears. His black and tan fur shined like he’d just been brushed.

“I’ve lost my glasses and my favorite ring,” Isabel said. “The ring’s got diamonds and sapphires and emeralds the size of grapes. Loads of sentimental value, too. It was given to me by my first husband, Henry. Or was it my third husband, John? Yes, John. The one who left me for his yoga instructor. I never could trust that man, but his taste in jewelry was divine!”

Isabel is what my dad calls “eccentric.” My twin brother, Finn, thinks she’s crazy, and my mom says she’s lonely. I know the truth—she’s simply Isabel, and there’s no point in trying to sum her up in one word because it can’t be done. Loud in every way possible, from her voice to her clothes to her purple-and-silver-streaked hair to the way she moves—amplified like she’s onstage and performing for the back row. Something she’s used to from so many years of singing and dancing on Broadway. She’s also warm and funny (both intentionally and not) and scatterbrained and grand and old. Just how old no one knows, because she’s been calling herself fifty for at least ten years.

But there’s one thing we cannot dispute about Isabel: she’s our landlady. We live in her big old brownstone, which is a row house built with large bricks made out of sandstone. Brooklyn is full of them. From the outside, brownstones look like tall single-family townhouses, but actually lots of them are broken up into different apartments. Ours is four stories high, with a wide set of steps leading up to the front door. It contains four separate apartments and my family lives in the one on top.

“Which pair did you lose?” I asked. “Bifocals or distance?”

“Bifocals.”

“You’re wearing them,” I informed her.

She waved her magazine at me—one of my mom’s old issues of
O
that she’d probably snagged from the recycling bin out back. “If I’m wearing my glasses, then how come this is all blurry?”

“I mean, you’re wearing them on your head.”

“Oh dear.” Isabel plucked her glasses from her puffed-up do and frowned. “It’s the ring that I really need, though. It’s quite valuable.”

“When did you last see it?”

“Yesterday morning, when I was in the middle of hiding my jewelry.”

I nodded.

Isabel hides her jewelry at least once a week. Even the costume stuff. She’s convinced that everyone in town is desperate for her old brooches and hundred-year-old engagement rings. And also that they’ll find a way to break into her apartment because it’s on the ground floor—even though she’s got steel bars on the windows and four locks on the door and a dog the size of a small horse. And it’s not like our neighborhood is dangerous.

I glanced around her cluttered living room, taking in the mess of old feathered boas and stacks of yellowed newspaper clippings—reviews from her old shows, probably. Her bookshelves could use a good dusting and one of the glass panes of her Tiffany lamp was cracked, but nothing looked out of place.

“The rest of your jewelry is where it’s supposed to be?” I asked.

“Every single strand of pearls and opal-studded cuff link is accounted for.”

“So tell me what happened.” I sat down in the faded yellow armchair, shifting my weight to avoid the broken spring. Preston licked my elbow. I scratched him behind his ears and whispered that we’d leave in a minute. (I don’t talk to all my dog clients, but Preston is super smart and I have this sneaking suspicion that he actually understands me.)

“Well, as I mentioned, I was changing hiding places when I was seized with hunger. And you know how I get when I have to eat. So I put everything on the kitchen counter and made myself a peanut butter and banana sandwich, which some people—”

I stood up and coughed. “On second thought, I don’t want to keep Preston waiting.” I didn’t mean to be rude, but if I’m not careful, I could get stuck at Isabel’s for hours. “I’ll help you look after our walk,” I promised.

Isabel smiled. “You know, of course, that twenty years ago I’d have just picked up a new one. I used to buy jewelry the way you kids buy gumdrops.”

“I can’t remember the last time I bought a gumdrop,” I replied as I put on Preston’s diamond-studded leash. (Fake stones, I hoped.) “Oh wait. Maybe it was the Friday before never.”

“Very funny. My point is, if Henry knew how far I’ve fallen, he’d be heartbroken.”

Isabel says stuff like this constantly. She claims that she and her first husband, Henry, “lived in style,” which means they had this big old brownstone all to themselves and threw grand parties every weekend. But that was a long time ago. Henry died young. A truck hit him while he was bicycling down Union Street. A few years later, Isabel married a composer named Salvatore. But he left Isabel for a dancer, which she didn’t mind because by then she’d fallen in love with John, a chef at some fancy French restaurant on Smith Street. But then John took up yoga and that was the end of that.

Although Isabel loses stuff all the time—glasses, jewelry, cell phones, husbands—she’s managed to hang on to her brownstone for years, but just barely. When John left, he borrowed a lot of money from Isabel, and when I say borrowed, I actually mean stole. By then, Isabel’s Broadway career was over. She had nothing left but her house, so she carved it up into apartments and rented them out one by one.

Ours was the first. My parents moved in as soon as they found out they were having me and Finn. Before that they lived in Manhattan, which is just over the bridge but is too expensive for twins. That’s why Brooklyn is my middle name, and Finn’s as well. It’s a running joke between my parents. Had twins, had to move to Brooklyn. I guess it’s funny to them.

“I used to get lost in this house,” Isabel said, like she could read my mind. “And now I’m crammed into the first floor.”

“It’s a nice place,” I said as I opened the door. “See you later.”

“Ciao, bella.”
Isabel knows about ten words in Italian and uses them whenever possible.

Once outside, I blinked in the afternoon sun. Our brownstone is on Garfield Place, just half a block away from Prospect Park, and that’s where I took Preston. It was a bright and crisp apple-crunching sort of day, perfect for strolling through the park with a really cool dog.

And if you’re my brother, it was the perfect day for kicking around a soccer ball, which is what he was doing with his best friends, Otto and Red. It’s kind of funny that I ran into them since the park stretches on for miles and it’s got rolling hills, winding paths, a wooded nature trail, and plenty of places to get lost. Then again, they were playing on the Long Meadow pretty close to the nearest park entrance, so it wasn’t that crazy.

Anyway, I waved, and once Finn noticed me he called a time-out and jogged over. Otto and Red ignored me, but that was okay. Otto is way into comic books and looks it. Red has black hair and ironic parents. They’ve all been friends since kindergarten and they hang around our apartment so much, they don’t seem like real boys to me. Or at least not the kind I find myself thinking about late at night.

And in the morning.

Afternoon, too.

“Hey,” said Finn. He kept his hands in the pockets of his faded green cords so he wouldn’t be tempted to pet Preston. Poor guy breaks out in hives every time he touches animal fur, which is a shame since he loves dogs so much.

Finn and I aren’t identical twins, obviously. But we do have a lot in common—wavy brown hair, eyes that are green or hazel depending on the light, and a complexion that people call olive, like our dad’s, who’s Greek. We’re both fairly tall for our age, although Finn is tall and skinny and I’m a little curvy. And we’re both kind of quiet, but with Finn it comes across as intriguing. Girls always wonder what he’s thinking about. My kind of quiet makes me invisible sometimes.

Except not when it really matters.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

“He has a meeting in the city. Said he’d be back by six.”

I checked my watch. It was only three thirty. “Cool, thanks.”

“He wants us to make a salad for dinner, but will you do it?” Finn’s question sounded more like an order.

“The whole thing?” I asked. “Isn’t that blackmail?”

“No, I’m just saying—you’ve gotta be nice to your lookout.” Finn headed back to his friends. Then he turned around to yell, “We can’t just have grape tomatoes. That’s cheating. You’ve gotta cut stuff up.”

“I wasn’t going to just do tomatoes!”

Finn didn’t bother to reply. Not that he needed to. We both knew I couldn’t be a dog walker without his help.

My mom isn’t the problem. She’s a lawyer in Manhattan and usually doesn’t get home until after six. It’s my dad I have to look out for. He makes documentaries, which are movies about things that are true, and they’re usually too boring to see in a movie theater so people watch them at home on TV for free. It also means that sometimes—like now—he’s unemployed. Or as he calls it, “in between jobs.” So he hangs around the neighborhood a lot, and if he saw me walking some strange dog, well, it wouldn’t be good.

My parents don’t know I’m a dog walker. Sure, they know I walk Isabel’s dog, but that was their idea and I do it as a favor. Meaning I don’t get paid.

Mom and Dad don’t know that I walk other dogs, like, in a professional capacity. And if they knew, they wouldn’t like it because they’re convinced that Finn and I are too young for jobs. They want us to focus on school and a few extracurricular activities of their choosing: kung fu on Saturdays, oil painting at the art museum on Sundays, and Italian-immersion class (including food, language, and art) in the summer.

It’s not like I set out to lie to them exactly. I didn’t even mean to start this business. The whole thing just kind of happened accidentally.

A few weeks ago, while I was out walking Preston, I ran into my old third grade teacher, Ms. Patel.

“Cute dog,” she’d said as she bent down to scratch him behind his ears. “He must be a big eater.”

“Don’t know. I just walk him,” I replied.

“So you’re a dog walker?” she asked, and I told her yeah.

And before I could explain that I actually walk only Preston, Ms. Patel told me to call her Parminder and asked if I could fit her puggle into my schedule. She practically shoved her spare keys into my hands and I couldn’t say no. Not because she was my favorite elementary school teacher, super generous with smiles and gold star stickers when that kind of thing actually mattered. And not just because she offered to pay me so well. I couldn’t say no because her dog’s name was Milo.

Aargh!

I tried not to think about the Pizza Den disaster as Preston and I continued on through the park. We walked past the picnic grounds and along the edge of the baseball fields, stopping at the dog beach, which is actually just a slab of concrete leading into an artificial pond. A few lost-looking ducks floated on the murky surface.

Not being much of a water dog, Preston didn’t seem to notice. He sniffed a nearby tree instead. Then he stalked a pigeon. I pulled him away and we kept walking. And walking.

“Let’s go, Preston. I’ve still got two more dogs today.”

Preston ignored me. Every time he paused to squat, he changed his mind. I was starting to lose patience when he found the perfect place. As he did his thing, I placed the plastic poop bag over my hand and got ready to scoop it up, hoping that Ivy—or worse, Milo—didn’t walk by.

Luckily, the path was deserted except for two tired-looking moms, each pushing gigantic strollers up the hill. One of the strollers had twins in it. Girls, I assumed from their pink fleece jackets and purple booties. They were too young to protest over the matching outfits, but they’d do so eventually. This is a fact. And here’s another one: Park Slope is crawling with twins. Sometimes literally.

When Preston finished, I bent down to scoop up his mess and noticed something strange. It glittered in the afternoon sun. I don’t normally study poop. Who would? But something about it struck me as odd. Odd as in blue and green and sparkly.

Sighing, I picked it up and put it in the bag. Mystery solved.

When we got back to Isabel’s apartment I called, “How badly do you want that ring?”

But no one answered.

“Isabel?” I looked around but couldn’t find her.

Weird, but I didn’t give it much thought as I took off Preston’s leash and placed it on the coatrack by the door.

Then I took out one of my note cards and a pen:

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