It was almost midnight on a Friday night in October 2013, when the Heavenly Grille Café closed its doors behind the last customer of the night. Bertie locked the door behind the young man and shook her head. “Something about that young man…” she mused.
Doug was clearing the table that had just been vacated by the young man with the surly attitude. “Talking to yourself again, Bertie?” he teased.
Bertie raised her eyebrows and punched Doug on the arm as she walked past him toward the kitchen. “Watch it, handsome,” she grinned. “Besides, I’ll have you know that some of my best conversations take place with myself.” She walked into the kitchen where Max was wiping down the stove and countertops. “Isn’t that right, Maximus?”
“You’ll get no argument from me, Bertie. So…what was it about that young man that has you talking to yourself?”
Angels have an extraordinary sense of hearing, so Bertie was not surprised that Max had heard her mumbling at the front door. The three angels who currently ran the Heavenly Grille Café often read one another’s thoughts, so they really did not need to rely on their keen sense of hearing.
Bertie shrugged and reached for the broom that leaned against the refrigerator. “I’m not sure; I can’t quite put my finger on it, Max. I mean…he was here for almost an hour, he barely touched his food, and he kept looking over his shoulder…kind of like he was expecting someone to show up, you know?”
Doug strolled into the kitchen with the last of the dishes. He rolled his broad shoulders and stretched his neck from side to side. It had been a long day, and even though angels did not require food or sleep, he was looking forward to some quiet time in his small apartment above the café. “I heard him talking to someone on his cell phone,” he offered.
“About what?” Max asked.
“Something about a dog,” Doug replied. “He told whoever he was talking to that he hadn’t been able to find it, but that he would keep looking.”
“Humph…” Bertie grunted. “Who looks for a dog in the middle of nowhere, at almost midnight? Yep…there’s something fishy about that young man.”
“I’m not sure how long he’s been looking for the dog…sounded like maybe it’s been most of the day, though,” Doug said. “I did notice that his hands were trembling…a lot…while he was talking to whoever was on the phone. He seemed really nervous…or, either really angry…I’m not sure which.”
The angels were each lost in their own thoughts, so all was quiet for a few moments, until Max looked puzzled and shook his head. “He barely touched my food?”
The three angelic friends looked back and forth at one another for a few more moments until they burst out in simultaneous laughter.
The young man sat inside his pick-up truck that was still parked outside the café. He ran his hands over his dark buzz cut, reached for an Atlanta Braves baseball cap that was lying on the front seat, and slapped it on his head. He stared off into the dark wood line that surrounded the café and lit another cigarette. He pinched the bridge of his nose and absently rubbed the small two-inch scar that ran down his right cheek. He watched the wood line for the slightest movement, but everything was calm and quiet on this balmy October night. Even though the weather had cooled considerably throughout other parts of the country, the Florida nights were still a bit on the warm, humid side. He wiped a line of sweat off his brow. Suddenly, with no warning at all, the young man deliberately banged his head against the steering wheel and hissed, “Damn you to Hell, Spartacus…where are you!” It wasn’t a question.
He continued to watch while some of the lights went out inside the café, and he slid down in his seat when the muscular man who had been bussing tables exited the front door and glanced at the pick-up truck. The young man watched and stayed hidden until the busser made his way up the stairs that were located on the right side of the building. When a light came on inside the upstairs apartment, the young man finally released a deep breath. It was time to leave. He started the pick-up truck and rolled down his window while he drove slowly out of the parking lot.
His attention was once again drawn to the dark wood line that bordered the back of the café. Chills ran up and down his spine. He couldn’t shake the feeling that it felt like he was the one being hunted, rather than the other way around. He rubbed the bridge of his nose again and blew out an exasperated breath. “I know you’re out there somewhere, Spartacus, and…I will find you…”
Back inside the café, Bertie and Max were sharing a final cup of coffee for the night. Doug, who lived in one of the upstairs apartments, had left them a few minutes earlier to turn in for the night.
Bertie sighed. “Sure doesn’t feel the same since our Amanda moved back to Tampa, does it, big fella?”
Max shook his head and grinned. “No, Bertie, it doesn’t. I have to admit, I miss that girl a lot. Have you talked to her lately?”
Amanda Turner was the young woman who the angels had literally taken under their wings during the summer of 2011. She had arrived at the café homeless, jobless, and with no family to call her own. They had offered her one of the upstairs apartments, as well as a waitressing job at the café.
“As a matter of fact, I talked to our bundle of joy just after supper time tonight. She sends her love to you and Doug. I meant to mention it to you both earlier but things got hectic in here and I forgot. Hmmm…I didn’t think we angels ever forgot anything…and, when that young man came in, well…I really got side-tracked and distracted.”
“Not a problem, Bertie…but you are right…angels aren’t supposed to forget anything. Maybe it’s time I sent you Home for a tune-up!”
Bertie threw a wet dishrag at Max and feigned offense. “Tune-up, my ass! I’ll have you know I had the sharpest mind in my family, never forgot a thing.”
Max threw up his hands and laughed. “Kidding, Bertie…just kidding! So…is everything going okay for Amanda in Tampa?”
Bertie nodded. “I’m afraid so, Maximus…I don’t think there’s any chance she’ll be giving up her life in Tampa to move back to Monticello any time soon. She did have some news, though…really surprised me, too.”
Max waited a few moments and when Bertie didn’t immediately continue, he asked, “Care to elaborate on that last statement? Has she met someone special, maybe?”
Bertie pursed her lips to form a pout and raised her brows. “She’s met someone, alright, but it’s not what you’re thinking. It seems our little girl may be having a change of heart about her choice of career fields. She’s been volunteering at some animal rescue place, and said she’s thinking seriously about quitting the police force to go back to school and become a veterinarian.”
Max was dumbfounded. He had been so sure that Amanda would make a career out of law enforcement. She had breezed through the Police Academy and loved working in the area of New Tampa. “Care to run that by me again, Bertie?”
Bertie grinned. It wasn’t easy to surprise Max, but she could tell that this bit of news was definitely not what he expected to hear. “You heard me right, big fella. Seems that someone brought in a small, bullie-mix puppy to the rescue one night; whoever brought it in said it had been thrown out the window of the car in front of him and he had almost ran over the little fella. It was touch and go for a few days, but the pup made it. Needless to say…Amanda fell in love with the little fella and adopted him.”
“Amanda got herself a dog…you don’t say!” Max laughed out loud. “Well, it’s about time. I don’t think she’s had one since her dog, Sam, died a few years ago. I remember her talking about him once…I think she was around seventeen when he died…it broke her heart and she said she didn’t want to suffer that kind of loss again.”
“Yeah,” Bertie nodded. “She said it hurt too much to lose Sam, but…it looks like time has finally healed that wound. You seemed surprised about the dog, but you didn’t say anything about her wanting to quit the police force.”
Max shook his head and took a final sip of coffee. “Well, I am surprised she would consider leaving law enforcement, but, in a way…I guess I’m not really all that surprised after all. She’s good at her job, but she’s young. I don’t think she really knows what she wants to do long term, career-wise…can’t say that I’m surprised about her wanting to go to school to become a vet, though…somehow, it seems like a good fit.” He rinsed out his mug and smiled. “You know…animals are with us for such a short amount of time on earth…God means for us to open our hearts to as many as possible while we’re here, so I’m really glad that Amanda has seen fit to do that again.”
“Did you get that tidbit of information straight from the boss, Himself?” Bertie punched his shoulder and placed her own mug in the empty sink.
“Well…as a matter of fact…” Max began, but stopped when he heard a strange scratching noise coming from the back entrance.
Bertie heard the noise, too. Her posture stiffened and she whispered, “What was that, Max?”
“Probably nothing…just a raccoon or ‘possum…I’ll have a quick look.”
“I’m coming with you,” Bertie continued to whisper.
“Why are you whispering?” Max grinned down at her from his seventy-six inch height.
“Hell, I don’t know…go on…open the damn door…”
“You know He doesn’t like it when you curse, Bertie.”
“Yeah, yeah, right…but, He also knows that I’m a work in progress, so I gotta believe that He gives me a little slack in that department.”
“Guess we’ll find out on Sunday when we visit Home,” Max grinned again.
“Oh, shush, and open that door!” Bertie spoke in her normal, loud tone. She took time to grab the broom as her choice of weapon and followed Max’s lead.
“What are you going to do with that broom, Bertie? Sweep dust into the poor creature’s face?”
Bertie punched him on the back of his right shoulder.
The soft scratching noise sounded again.
The door knob became quickly lost within Max’s large, black hand; he grasped the knob and slowly pushed it outward. The light from the floating halo above the café provided a soft glow that spread across the back yard. There was a full moon out which helped to accentuate the multitude of shadows that played host to the back of the property.
Bertie gasped when she peeked from behind Max’s massive shoulders and saw the large, dark lump on the back porch. “What is it, Max? It’s too big to be a ‘possum or raccoon…”
The large, dark lump raised its head, and two soulful eyes met Max’s concerned stare. Max bent down and squatted before the matted lump that was…a dog. It was hard to tell what color the dog was since it was covered in mud and, what appeared to be, dried blood. What was left of the dog’s ears flinched when Max reached out to it, and it trembled so badly that it urinated on the old, wooden porch. Max’s touch was gentle when he lifted the dog’s chin; its trembling ceased immediately upon Max’s touch.
“I’ll be damn…” Bertie whispered once again. “Poor baby…who could have done this to him?” The dog was a broad-shouldered, black pit-bull mix with the saddest and largest brown eyes Bertie had ever seen on a dog. There were cuts and bite marks all over his head, face, shoulders, and legs. A dog this size should have easily weighed seventy to eighty pounds, but this poor soul did not appear to weigh more than fifty pounds, at the most. Every rib showcased against his dull, loose skin.
Max continued to stroke the dog while huge tears rolled down his face. He immediately recognized the dog for what it was. “I think he might be a bait dog, Bertie…”
“A what?” Bertie cried. “What the hell is a bait dog?”
The dog whimpered when Max’s thumbs rolled across its bruised ribcage, but it immediately relaxed. “They go a long, long way back,” Max sighed. “We even had them back in my Gladiator days. They were a source of entertainment for our Roman society.”
Bertie wiped the tears from her own eyes and said, “Well, you can tell me all about that later. Get that poor baby in here now and let’s get him cleaned up and something to eat.”
Max took the dog’s large head between his two hands and looked deeply into its eyes. “It’s going to be okay, boy…” He positioned himself so that he could easily lift the dog into his arms. “There should be an old blanket on the top shelf of the pantry, Bertie.”
Bertie rushed back inside. “I’ll get it,” she replied quickly. She spread the blanket out in the corner beside the back door. “Ready, Max…lay him down. I’m going to get him something to eat.”
“He needs water first, Bertie…then, please heat up some milk. I’m pretty sure milk is on a dog’s DO NOT FEED list, but it’s a quick way to get some warm nutrients in him. There are some hamburger patties in the fridge. I don’t want to give it to him raw…”
“Hey, don’t think that you’re the only one around here who knows how to cook, big fella. I’ll get it ready. Why don’t you get some old rags and see if you can clean up some of those wounds?”
While the two angels bustled about the kitchen carrying out their respective duties, the dog never took his eyes off them. He lifted his nose when he smelled the beef cooking. His eyes closed and he appeared to take a deep, repressed sigh.
Spartacus rested. This was the first time in his two years of life that he finally felt…safe.