The long-haired man kneeled down to catch the dog as he leaped up into his arms. “Goblin!” he said, relief in his voice. “Where have you been, you little scoundrel?”
Standing there amidst a cluster of the three other dogs, Lucas tensed up as the Doberman sniffed curiously at his shoes. Ali, on the other hand, looked like he was going on melt-down mode, cringing and fidgeting as the other two dogs sniffed and nuzzled his legs.
“Bummer! Talon! Ghost!” came from the lean man as he gently placed Goblin on the ground. “Leave the boys alone, you guys. A cold nose up their butts is not the way to make friends!”
At this, Lucas couldn’t help himself. He laughed.
The Dobie sidled up to him, arching her back and placing her head up against Lucas’s stomach, whining for attention. “That’s Bummer,” the man said. “The Chow is Ghost, and the Husky is Talon. And you already know Goblin. I’m so glad you brought him home.”
The man had shoulder-length dark hair and a neatly-trimmed goatee. He wasn’t particularly tall, but had broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and filled out his well-worn jeans and black T-shirt with a rather muscular build.
“Johnny Mason,” he said, sticking out his right hand for Lucas to shake. He did so, surprised when the man by-passed the traditional dry-fish shake, and instead gripped the back of his palm in an over-handed grasp as he stared at him with his intense blue-eyed gaze.
“Come over here,” Johnny said to Ali. “I can tell you’re not comfortable with dogs, kid. Your back is ramrod straight. And you look like you swallowed a Sour Lemon Jawbreaker!”
Ali actually gasped as Johnny took hold of him by one arm and sat him on the porch, then shielded him from all four rambunctious dogs to keep them from nosing the little kid. When the dogs got the message, they instead swarmed around Lucas, Ghost and Talon vying for the attention that Bummer had garnered a few seconds ago.
Johnny looked over at Lucas. “Looks like you love dogs, right?”
Lucas kneeled down to accept wet kisses on both of his cheeks. He chuckled, closing his eyes and basking in the attention that Talon and Ghost were doling out.
Johnny said, “I’ve been watching over Goblin for the past two days. He was placed with me by the Star Project’s put bull rescue service. I’d never figured he would run away. But hell, the second I wasn’t watching him he went into brain-dead dog mode and was gone with the wind!”
Lucas smiled rather sadly. “You sound like my dad. He once said that about my uncle’s pit, that he went into brain-dead dog mode, and then was gone with the wind. Funny you should say that.”
Ali said, “Lucas? We should get going, right?”
Johnny suddenly went very still.
“Lucas? Is that your name? Lucas Holland?”
Busted! thought Lucas, afraid that the man knew about his dad’s arrest and that he himself was on run from the cops. Why is he asking about my name? Just what does he know about me?
Johnny took a seat on his porch steps, all four of his dogs settling down on at his feet. For a moment, the words, Celtic Houndmaster came to Lucas, for the long-haired man reminded him of a character out of a Fantasy book that his sister was always reading to him to put him to sleep. That is when she was home. Celeste had been gone for the past four months, sentenced by Judge Sully at juvenile court to drug treatment up in Omaha. Still, something about the manner in which these dogs reacted to Johnny sitting there looking so casual reminded him of the Wolf Lord in one of Celeste’s books.
“Sorry,” Johnny said, “we had to meet this way, Lucas. But you haven’t been remaining in school like you’re supposed to.”
Lucas took a defensive stance. “How would you know this?”
Johnny laughed. “I just got assigned to your case this week. I’m your new truancy tracker. I tried to visit your dad earlier, but unfortunately, he was arrested and you had flown the coop. I never did find out what you did to piss off some lady named Agent Raynes. She would like to see you locked away until you’re a very old man!”
Lucas said, “So, you know why my dad was arrested, right?”
“No,” Johnny said, “I told Agent Raynes that I was your court ordered truancy tracker, and asked her if there was anything I could do to help you. She refused to talk to me, playing Officer Hard Butt. All she told me is, if I saw you, I was to turn you in.”
Lucas said, “So, is that your plan then? To turn me in?”
Johnny narrowed his eyes slightly. “Are you a danger to yourself, or a threat to your community?”
Lucas narrowed his own eyes. “Is this a trick question?”
Johnny said, “My role is to see you make it to school the rest of this week. Your business with Raynes has nothing to do with me. Certainly, you’ve heard about me from your sister, Celeste? I’m sure she had a lot of choice things to say about me when I turned in my report that got her sent to treatment, right?”
His eyes going wide, Lucas said, “So, you’re the Park Narc? The Snitch Bitch? The Patron Saint of Havelock’s Stoners? You’re that Johnny Mason? Celeste hates you with a passion, dude!”
Johnny nodded. “I imagine she does. How about you and I get off to a good start? In the morning, you don’t ditch me as your sister was always doing. You be ready for me to pick you up, and I’ll buy you Micky D’s before escorting you to school. Deal?”
A strange look then came to Johnny’s face. “If your dad was recently arrested, where are you staying? Oh, I get it. Agent Raynes was determined to place you in emergency foster care, right? That is why she was so pissed that you ran on her, correct?”
Lucas said, “No. Dad knew he was getting arrested, so he made plans with the cops to have me placed with Ali’s dad. Right, Ali?”
Johnny looked over at Ali, who looked like he was about to faint. “Uh,” said Ali. “Uh, right. My father would approve of that.”
Johnny looked back over at Lucas. “Which cop went along with this plan? Not usually cops who make this decision.”
Determined to lie his way out of this, Lucas said, “Dad is friends with Officer Beef Tory, the K9 cop. Since I returned his dog—”
Oh, shit! Lucas thought. I’ve got to watch my mouth around this guy! He’s way too smart to have me slipping up like this!
“Returned his dog?” Johnny asked, a puzzled frown on his face.
Quick on his feet from years of practice, Lucas said, “I get paid to walk his dog, so when I took him back today he made arrangements for me to stay at Ali’s place, just until Dad gets released from jail.”
Noting the way Ali was fidgeting, Johnny said, “Too bad Beef didn’t consult with me. I take in emergency stays all the time, been a foster parent for the past twelve years. You could have stayed here with me and the dogs. And they would have made sure you got out of bed on time for school. And in time for breakfast at Micky D’s.”
Lucas asked, “You know Beef?”
“Yes,” Johnny said. “Been friends since we were kids.”
Oh, Gawd! Lucas thought. Should have used some other name!
Johnny stood then, beckoning to his dogs to follow him up onto his wrap-around front porch. “Well, boys, time for you to be getting home. Thanks for bringing this little guy home. I appreciate it.”
He opened the front screen door and ushered the dogs inside. “Oh, I’ll need your address and your dad’s phone number, Ali.”
“What for?” Lucas asked, defensively.
“To pick you up for school,” Johnny said.
Lucas said, “Oh, yeah, right. Almost forgot.”
Johnny added, “I like to give wake-up calls at least fifteen minutes before I arrive. Warn him, Ali. Seven o’clock comes early to some.”
Ali rattled off both his address and his father’s cell phone number.
Johnny bid the boys a good night, and slipped inside his house.