At home I stashed all my packages, including the beautifully wrapped coffee service, in the front closet away from inquisitive collies. While I was near the phone, I dialed the first of the Brightons' two numbers, not expecting an answer. To my surprise, a remembered voice said, "Brighton Residence."
"Is this Mrs. Brighton?" I asked.
"I saw your ad on The Trading Post. Is the collie who looks like Lassie still available?"
With a deep sigh that could convey exasperation or relief, she said, "Yes, she is. For six hundred dollars."
I'd decided not to reveal my identity until we met again in case, for some reason, Marguerite wouldn't let me have Gemmy.
"I'm interested in buying her," I said. "I'll bring a check..."
"Sorry," she broke in. "This is a cash-only transaction."
"I can do that."
"You're willing to take her sight unseen?"
I detected a note of suspicion in her voice. Quickly, before she could mull over my offer and perhaps recognize my voice, I said, "If she's as pretty as her picture, yes. I intend to give her to a friend of mine who just lost her collie. Gemini is going to be a Christmas present, so I'll want to pick her up today."
If a prospective customer had said that to me, I'd have insisted she wait until after the holiday. Christmas and new dogs can be an unfortunate combination, and not everyone who loses a beloved pet is eager to welcome a replacement. But Mrs. Brighton didn't question my motive, which was good.
"Come over this afternoon--with the cash," she said. "Say around three. She'll be ready. That'll be thirty dollars extra for her collar and leash, and I'll throw in a complimentary bag of dog food."
I might have anticipated that tacked-on amount.
Quickly I calculated the contents of my wallet and emergency fund. If I didn't have enough money to buy Gemmy's freedom, I'd borrow from Camille until Crane came home. Then I'd ask Terra to make out a new check to me for six hundred and thirty dollars.
I agreed and said I'd see her at three. In my excitement over finally getting Gemmy back, I'd forgotten the snow and slippery roads.
The Taurus skidded on ice that hid beneath the snow just waiting for a set of vulnerable tires to come by. Thank heavens no one had parked on the street. Straightening the wheel, I regained control of the car and let it start up a steep incline in the middle of the block. Ice and gravity sent it sliding backwards.
I tried again, stepping down hard on the accelerator, and skidded again, this time coming perilously close to a high snowdrift.
Dear God in heaven! Was there no limit to what I would do to rescue a collie?
Chestnut Drive hadn't been plowed or even, apparently, driven on since the snow began this morning. On my third attempt, I went over the incline, and the next several yards on the other side were cleared.
The Brighton house was ahead on my left, barely visible through the falling snow. I pulled in the driveway behind a station wagon and stepped out onto the walkway. It had been shoveled once but was covered with new snow. From inside I heard a dog barking.
It was the boy who opened the door. I didn't remember his name.
"Hey, mom!" he yelled. "The lady's here." He glanced at my snow-covered boots. "Do you wanna come in?"
I stepped inside and beheld a spacious room that was an extension of the outside. With cold white walls and bland, modernistic furnishings, it reminded me of a builder's model living room, minimally staged and utterly devoid of color and warmth. Unwilling to track snow on the ivory carpet, I stood in the vestibule.
Marguerite Brighton came around a corner, a winter vision in a short beige shirtdress with three fine gold chains around her neck. Not exactly an outfit for a snowy Saturday afternoon at home, but perhaps she was going out.
When she saw me, her congenial expression underwent a perceptible change. She came to a stop, and a flush darkened her fair complexion. "You," she said above the sound of a dog's frantic barking. "What are you doing here?" She didn't invite me into her pristine living room, but that didn't matter.
"Answering your ad for the collie," I said. "I have the money in cash." I pulled an envelope out of my shoulder bag. It contained five hundred dollar bills; the rest in twenties and tens.
She took it and counted each bill. "Fine. She's on the landing. Bring the dog in, Jerrod," she said to her son.
I glanced at the small package of dog food on the glass-topped coffee table. With its chartreuse and brown triangles, it looked like Nuggets, one of the cheaper brands, filled with meat by-products, sugar and unhealthy additives.
"May I ask what went wrong with you and Gemmy?" I asked.
Marguerite seemed to have recovered from her surprise at seeing me but obviously wasn't prepared for such a question. After a pause, she shrugged. "It just didn't work out. A dog doesn't fit in with our lifestyle. She ties us down."
"She barks," the boy said.
Apparently realizing her reasons didn't impress me, Marguerite added, "We had a chance to fly up to Connecticut for a vacation. It was unexpected, too good to pass up. Naturally we couldn't take a big dog with us. You know how it is."
I did. "What did you do with Gemmy while you were gone?" I asked.
"We boarded her at a nice kennel."
The little boy led Gemmy out onto the ivory carpet. She strained on the leash, ears flattened, tail wagging, the picture of a joyous collie about to be reunited with her loved one.
"Gemmy girl." I stared at her in disbelief.
Her once shining coat was dull and unkempt, and she seemed thinner. All in two weeks? On Nuggets and neglect?
The boy dropped the leash, and Gemmy bounded into the vestibule. She jumped up, nearly knocking me to the floor.
Marguerite gasped and moved a crystal lamp to the back of a side table, a needless precaution since we were nowhere near it.
"We're going home, Gemmy," I told her. To Marguerite, I said, "You can keep the food and leash." I pulled one of my own leashes out of my pocket. Marguerite watched sullenly as I made the transfer. "I'd like Gemmy's papers back, though."
Seeing her blank expression, I added, "They're in the manila folder I gave you."
"Oh. I thought that was just her feeding schedule. Wait a minute."
I felt sure she'd intended to hold on to the documents for her next scam. Another collie would go to a new home with Gemmy's pedigree and health history and, of course, her name. Those papers would add tremendously to the worth of a dog with a less stellar background. With luck, Marguerite would have another six hundred and thirty dollars in her purse.
She returned and shoved the folder at me. It didn't surprise me. I'd spoiled her plan. Her resentment was a tangible force, burning into me. Slowly I examined the documents inside, surprised to find they were all there and in their original order.
I made a mental note to have Terra add Marguerite Brighton and her family to the list of undesirables.
"I guess that's it then," I said.
Business concluded. Collie saved. Enemy made.
Taking Gemmy's leash, I left the Brighton house forever, I hoped, feeling as if I'd safely exited a land mine. I couldn't have imagined a more unpleasant woman or a more volatile situation.
Now, another ride in the treacherous winter weather, and we'd all recuperate in front of the fireplace.