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Authors: Norah McClintock

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BOOK: Last Chance
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I was thinking about what to do—what I
could
do, given that I wasn't even sure what had happened—when Kathy came back into the building. I asked her how Mr. Schuster was.

“I don't know yet,” she said. “I'm going to call the hospital in a little while. I should have insisted on taking him there on Friday after his accident. I know he has a heart condition.” She sighed. “He can be pretty stubborn, but he sure knows dogs. Loves them too.”

“I saw him working with Orion last week,” I said.

“Yes, well, that's another story,” Kathy said. A story that she didn't go on to tell me. Someone called her from down the hall, and she excused herself.

After Kathy left, I kept thinking about the money. I finished sorting the coins into piles. I stacked the bills again and then stared at the stacks, trying to decide if they were the same size as they had been before or if they were smaller. I wasn't sure. Kathy returned with three women who all seemed to know one another well. After nodding at me, they pulled up some chairs, settled in and started rolling coins, chattering to one another the whole time.

I went back to my office and looked out the window. After the RAD group worked with their dogs, they usually took a break before reporting to another room in the shelter complex where they talked about what they had learned and, according to Kathy, how the lessons applied to their own lives. I waited until I saw Nick,Antoine, and the rest of the group come out of the animal wing and claim the picnic table.

By the time I approached them, the picnic table was littered with chip bags and candy wrappers. Three or four of the RAD guys were talking at the same time, each one shouting to be heard over the others. A couple of others were laughing. They reminded me of the gang of boys at my school who always held down the same table in the same corner of the cafeteria and always made more noise than everyone else combined. Guys who thought they were so cool. Guys who were overcompensating, according to Morgan.

I hesitated.Then I told myself that I was not the least bit intimidated by these boys, even though that wasn't, strictly speaking, true. I drew in a deep breath, just like I do when I have to get up in front of the whole class and do a presentation or—
shudder
—give a speech.

“Excuse me,” I said.The words came out of my mouth at the exact moment that one of the guys said something uproariously funny—or so his buddies seemed to think. They all exploded in laughter. I waited until they settled down a little.

“Excuse me,” I said again. This time I tapped Nick on the shoulder.

Every guy at the table turned to look at me. Every guy except Nick.

“Hello?” I said, tapping him harder this time, feeling the bone of his shoulder.

The guy sitting next to Nick nudged him and said something about me that made my cheeks turn red. He grinned up at me and then slowly licked his lips. I gave him the imperious,“just who do you think you are?” look that Morgan had perfected. Then I turned my attention to Nick.

“Can I speak with you for a minute?” I said.

He looked up at me.

“Go for it,” he said.

“Alone,” I said. “I'd like to talk to you alone.”

This provoked a chorus from his friends:
“Oooooooh!”
They sounded like a bunch of kindergarten kids, but they leered at me like a pack of wolves. Dougie, who was sitting closest to Nick, slapped him on the back.

“All
right,
man,” he said.

Nick didn't move. He just sat there, maybe looking at the can of Coke in front him, maybe looking at the tabletop, maybe just looking at the insides of his eyelids. He sure didn't look at me. I had a pretty good idea of how Morgan would have summed up the situation: classic passive-aggressive behavior. That's how Morgan summed up a lot of situations.

Finally, in one surprisingly graceful motion, Nick swung his legs over the bench of the picnic table, got up, and turned to face me. He stood so close that I had to tilt my head to meet his eyes. He'd done that to me once before. He was probably in the habit of doing it, to intimidate whomever he was talking to. This time I didn't back up. He jerked his head to the left. I followed him away from the picnic table. When we were out of range of the others, he said, “What do you want?”

When I had decided to talk to him, I'd struggled with what to say. What I'd settled on was: “If you give it back right now, I won't say anything to Kathy.”

The skin around his eyes tightened. “Give
what
back?”

“I saw you in the office,” I said. Straight-and-narrow people, like my mother, would have called that a lie. More creative people, like my father, would have called it a bluff.

“What office?” Nick said.

He didn't look or sound like he cared one way or the other about me or what I was saying. Maybe he was a better liar than I was. Or a better bluffer.

“The office where all the money is,” I said. “I know you took some. If you give it back right now, I won't tell Kathy.”

He reacted by not reacting—he just stood there. He didn't say a word. He didn't give any indication that he had even heard me.

“I'm not kidding,” I said.

He shook his head in disgust. “Man, and they say people change. You sure haven't.”

“Neither have you.”

He looked at me—
studied
me—before finally saying, “You didn't see me in that office.” He said it as if it were a fact, as if he had no doubts about it. “If you had, you would have gone to Kathy already. You probably would have called the cops too. People like you, if they think they've got something on you, they go straight to the cops. The only time they ever try to make a deal is when they have no proof, when they're trying to make you trip yourself up. But this time you got nothing on me.”

This time.

“Yeah? Well, I'm going to talk to Kathy right now,” I said.

“You do that,” Nick said. He sauntered back to the picnic table and sat down again. The rest of the guys were all over him, probably trying to find out what I had said. Antoine turned and looked at me. I couldn't read his expression any better than I could read Nick's.

I strode back inside, trying to look determined. But Nick was right. I hadn't seen him in the office. I hadn't even seen him in the building.All I had were suspicions—and Nick's track record or, rather, his criminal record. And—this really bothered me—that he hadn't denied it. When an innocent person is accused of stealing, he denies it. At the very least, he becomes indignant. Nick had done neither. Instead, he'd just taunted me.

I hesitated outside my office door and reviewed what facts I had.

Fact: Someone had been in that office and had at least touched that money. There was a good chance that whoever it was had taken some of it.

Fact: The money had been raised for charity. What kind of person would take money that had been raised for a good cause? That was easy—Nick D'Angelo. He'd done it once before.

I walked past my office door and knocked on the one next to it—Kathy's door.

Kathy's expression changed from cheery to expectant to concerned as I spoke. Her shoulders gradually slumped. She caved back in her chair. She asked me a few questions. Finally, she said, “I'll talk to Nick.”

“But he's not going to admit it,” I said.

Kathy gave me a long, weary look. She seemed disappointed. What shook me was that I wasn't sure who she was disappointed in—Nick, for maybe doing something terrible, or me, for telling her something she clearly did not want to hear. I wished that I hadn't said anything.

“I
would have done the same thing,” Morgan said when I phoned her at her cottage.“I mean, he's done it before, right? And leopards don't change their spots, right?”

“I guess,” I said.

“There's a lesson to be learned here,” Morgan said.

There sure was: “Next time I'll lock the door when I leave a room full of money,” I said.

She sighed. “Repeat after me, Robyn: I will never,
ever,
participate in one of Billy's crazy animal rights protests again. No good ever comes of them. Animals are still losing the war with people. And it sounds like you're not exactly having the time of your life.
And
I'm bored out of my skull up here without you.”

Morgan's endorsement of what I had done should have made me feel better. But it didn't. Morgan tended to be quick to judge others—and her judgments were often harsh. So I sought a second opinion.

“How much did he take?” Billy said, sounding horrified that someone had actually been greedy enough—twice!—to steal money that was intended to help our four-legged friends (and some two-legged ones, if you counted the ducks I had seen on my first day).

“I'm not exactly sure,” I said. “That's the point, Billy. I'm not even sure that any money was stolen. But I know that someone was in that office and that someone touched the money.” I explained to him exactly what had happened.

There was a long silence on the other end of the phone.

“Billy?”

“I'm still here,” he said. More silence. “So you reported this guy, Nick, even though you didn't see him take anything, you didn't even see him in the room or see him come out of the room, and you don't actually know if any money is missing because it hadn't been counted.” He sounded doubtful. “But you're pretty sure he stole some of it because it looks like someone touched it and he did something similar back in junior high. Right?”

“Morgan says she would have done the same thing I did.”

“Oh,” Billy said. Another pause. “Well, maybe she's right.”

Maybe.

“What would you have done, Billy? Would you have reported him?”

More agonizing silence.

“I don't know,” he said at last. “But you've seen the guy in action. You've talked to him. So if you're sure he did it . . . ”

Which, of course, was the problem. But I was sure that
someone
had been in the office and that whoever it was had touched that money. I told myself that Morgan was right—leopards don't change their spots.

 

. . .

After lunch the next day, Janet came into my office and announced that she had an assignment for me. I followed her to a large meeting room where a group of people I didn't know were unpacking boxes of printed materials onto two long tables.

“Welcome to our bimonthly stuff-a-thon,” Janet said.

“Stuff-a-thon?”

“We're assembling information kits—tip sheets for pet owners, information about the work we do and, most importantly, a coupon that people can use to send us a donation. We send a kit to anyone who phones or writes asking for information. We also take them with us when we do presentations and displays. Every couple of months we get a group of volunteers together to assemble a few hundred more,” she said. When we settled in to work, Janet bustled away. The staff at the shelter always seemed so busy.

It took us a couple of hours to stuff all the information sheets into the animal shelter's colorful folders. I was just tidying up after the rest of the volunteers had left when Kathy appeared. She had a small group of men and women with her. They were all dressed as though they had just stepped out of one of the office towers downtown. Kathy was telling them about some of the shelter's programs. I wondered if they were important donors. Or maybe they were from the government. According to the information kits that I had just finished assembling, the shelter relied on government grants for some of its programs. Kathy was telling the group about how much the shelter relied on volunteers—volunteer dog walkers, volunteer fund-raisers, and volunteer pet-adoption counselors. While she was talking, she glanced out the window. The friendly expression on her face gave way to barely contained fury. She excused herself from her group and came over to me.

“I need you to do something for me, Robyn,” she said. “Nick is over there by the fence.” She nodded toward the window. “Go and tell him I want to see him in my office
now,
okay? Tell him to wait for me there.”

Taken aback by her anger, I hurried outside to fetch Nick. I wondered if Kathy wanted to talk to him about the money. Maybe the volunteers at the mall had had a rough idea of how much they had collected. Maybe Kathy had talked to them and figured out that some of the money was missing.

As soon as I got outside, I saw that Nick wasn't alone. He was talking to someone on the other side of the fence. As I started toward them, he took something out of his backpack and pushed it through the chain-link. Even from where I was standing, I could see what it was. Money. A roll of it.

Nick had passed the roll to a guy with reddish hair who looked vaguely familiar, although I couldn't remember where I had seen him before. He took the money and stuffed it into his jeans pocket.

BOOK: Last Chance
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