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Safe Return

The clock on the dash said 6:30. I knew it was right; this was the much touted Lexus XS, sharpest of the class. In this neighborhood, anything less would be suspect. I looked into the rear view mirror, making sure my hair was neatly brushed and the knot in my tie was just right. The knot in the tie is the first place people look; the collar must fit and the knot must be tied to perfection. Anything less would be suspect. Two passing women glanced over at me, the eyes heavily lidded to show that they really didn't care one way or the other. The practiced look of 'no-interest' was standard here. I checked my watch, tapping my finger on the steering-wheel as I looked with obvious impatience at the house. She turned her head away with a knowing smile; some husband was being kept waiting by his wife ― again. Her smile showed that she approved. Benji Braddock would be home soon, and with him, Travis, his Jack Russell Terrier. Benji was a name for a dog, not Travis. It should have been Travis Braddock, the star of the newest and sexiest evening soap opera on television, and his annoying dog, Benji. But it was not that way. 'Benji Braddock' was the name on the back of his chair at the studio and 'Travis' was the name on the water bowl next to it. Travis would bring a pretty penny on the Celebrity-Pooch market, which I preferred to call “the Hot-Dog stand.” There were people who would pay a bunch to own the

very dog their favorite heart-throb owned. Knowing this, most stars were careful not to let their little pooch out of their sight, but Braddock was lazy, sloppy. He would let Travis out at night to run around. He felt completely OK with this because of the precaution he had taken earlier. Travis had a “Safe-Return” implant: a chip beneath the skin at the back of the dog's neck bearing his name, his owner's name, address, phone, any medic alerts and a GPS tracking unit that made the dog impossible to steal. Once reported, the unit could be traced within minutes, before the dog could be delivered to the contracting party and before the chip could be surgically removed. So stealing a celebrity mutt would be a matter of separating the dog from his owner, nearly impossible to begin with, and quieting the dog as he is removed without a ruckus. The longer the time until the beast was discovered to be missing, the better. After newly-made superstar Braddock runs up and down the Beverly Hills streets a few times, he will no doubt make the call and a search will begin; not for the dog, but for the signal ― the signal that will tell them the exact location of the stolen pet. No alarm will sound, no bells or whistles, no change in the dog's composure will be apparent; a car will simply pull up to the location from which the signal emanates and the police will step out to arrest the perpetrator. Not good theater, perhaps, but good business ― and good news. The loss and return of Travis will be all over the airwaves for the next three-to-five days. Police will be quoted, the relieved owner will be interviewed and endless shots of Travis will fill the television screens across the nation. That dog will eat up at least three days of airtime. That's 288 people who will not get their 15 minutes of fame; Travis will have already used it up.

The new Mercedes pulled up and into the driveway. I could see Travis in the shotgun seat. The day promised to be warmer, but it was getting on evening now and the chill of November had set in ― even in Southern California, it was getting cold. In front of the house, where the driveway turned, allowing the car to sit picturesquely framed by the front door and large double windows on either side, the soap-star stopped the Mercedes and turned off the engine. Benji Braddock had gone from first acting class to fame on the small screen in one wild leap, owing mainly to his baby face and lifeguard body. He dealt with stardom as if it were ordained, his birthright. No doubt when receiving his award he will thank the 'little people,' not realizing that he will also meet them later, when he is a has-been in rehab. I smiled at the thought of his mug-shot on the Internet, looking haggard and old; hair mussed, eyes tired and jaw sagging. But for now he was the fair-haired boy, darling of the paparazzi and favored guest of all the daytime talk shows where the audiences, all women, screamed as he came out. Sometimes he would come onto the shows with Travis, the faithful companion who was always with him on the set. It was in his contract, with a special girl hired just to take care of him and sit with him when the star was shooting a scene. When news of his kidnapping hits the air, her first thought will be to look for another job. Sitting in the Mercedes, the star appeared to be talking to the dog, who was responding to the attention like a true Celebrity Mutt. I could imagine Braddock saying: “Aren't you a good boy? Isn't that a pretty puppy? You're my good boy! Aren't you my good boy? Yes, you are! Yes, you are! You're my good boy!” in a voice that would embarrass any real man. Pitiful!

Then the door opened. At last! He has stopped his painful bleating! Braddock got out and held the door for Travis, who made a bee-line for the hedges off to the side of the driveway. He sniffed around as if frantically looking for a message from one of the neighborhood gang. Finding nothing, he ran back to his master, eager now to get to the waiting bowl. Braddock opened the front door and Travis bounded in before him. I looked at my notebook. Ten minutes: just enough time for Travis to polish off a bowl as Braddock looked through the mail; then Travis would be looking to leave his own messages up and down the block. Two joggers passed by without noticing me. No one notices me. I am invisible. A man in a suit in an SUV in Beverly Hills? What's new? There's one on every block. The security patrol passed looking for people who didn't belong. They nodded as they drove by. Five minutes to go. I got out of the SUV and began to stroll down the block, sauntering behind a bush two houses down from the Braddock mini-mansion. From previous days I knew that this would be the route Travis would take. His methodical marking of the neighborhood was admirable in its coordination and execution; he was a study in efficiency. As the second hand ticked up to the final seconds of the ten-minute mark, the door opened and closed. A moment later, Travis came bounding down the driveway, stopping for a moment to deliver his marker at the corner bush. “Travis lives here,” it said, “mind your manners.” A police patrol car passed by. It was just starting to get dark, partly because what sun was left couldn't penetrate the canopy of palm trees lining the street. A new SUV parked at the curb would not attract attention. A man in the bushes might, so I

backed around into the yard as they passed. The house was vacant, the owners away. I had cased the neighborhood for two months before choosing this night. It was the last night of shooting before the Thanksgiving break ― Benji's mind would be on preparations; what to pack, what to bring, who would be there and just how awesomely would he score. Travis came down the street, stopping at a number of usual spots. I stepped out and began walking toward him. Travis was used to strangers coming up to him and showering him with attention and adoration ― he thrived on it ― so it was nothing new for me to stop and admire him. I even had a treat for him. Travis gobbled the treat from my hand, wagging just a bit, as this was, after all, expected. Travis was almost as jaded as Benji. In a few moments, Travis faltered on his feet, dizzily falling into my waiting arms. I wrapped my coat around him and whisked him off to the SUV. In the back door was a large box which previously held a barbecue. The side was rigged to open completely allowing me to slide Travis fully into the box. I closed the side and heard the small click of the latch. It was done, so far. I threw my coat in beside the box, anyone looking would simply see a man putting his coat into the back of his SUV. Long ago I had mastered the fine art of not looking around to see who might be watching. It was a dead give-away that you were up to no good. No, it was easier and simpler, though against human nature, to just look innocent and not care who was watching. Driving down Santa Monica Boulevard to the carefully chosen and previously rented studio apartment, I put on my carefully practiced look of resignation, as if I was stuck in traffic day after day and was learning to live with it. At the small, unassuming neighborhood at the edge of Beverly Hills, I pulled around

to the rear of the building, to the door that opened to the hall that lead to the apartment in the back. Travis was still woozy when I opened the box. He looked at me with questioning eyes, pitifully pleading that I be gentle with him. I picked him up and cradled him lovingly in my arms, letting him know that he was going to be all right. “Aren't you a good boy! Yes, you are! Yes, you are!” I said in a low, breathy voice designed to calm him, words I was sure he had heard before. I opened the door just as a door opened down the hall. I stepped inside with Travis before I could be seen. It was all rote from here. In the corner was a familiar object for Travis, a bowl. It wasn't like the one on the set or at home, fancy with his name on it; it was just a plain bowl with dry dog food, the cheapest money could buy, slightly laced with a mild narcotic that would keep him quiet. Travis sniffed the bowl and looked at me. His look said, “This you expect me to eat?” “You'll eat it, Travis, before the night is done.” I slipped the collar and leash from a used pet-accessories store onto Travis and secured it to the bed post. I looked around the room. The bed was carefully mussed with sheets and blankets taken from a downtown flop-house by one of the residents ― it's amazing what ten bucks will get you. A few bits of clothing in the drawer from the second-hand shop by the beach; all was ready. By now Benji would be walking up and down his street calling Travis. He would be asking passers-by if they had seen a small Jack Russel Terrier and they would all shake their heads and look concerned before returning to their conversations as if nothing had happened.

I started up the SUV and drove to another vantage point, the hotel just across the boulevard with a small room on the seventh floor, rented with an assumed ID. As a visiting businessman from Las Vegas, no one would notice me or care. The credit card would be good and I tipped well ― that's all that mattered. In the room, I went to the window and raised a pair of binoculars, focusing on the rear entrance of the apartment building a block away. By now, Benji Braddock would be calling Safe Return to report that his dog is missing. Within minutes, police would be notified that the Safe Return tracking signal has put the dog in an apartment a few miles from the Braddock household. Teams of police would spring into action, the building would be surrounded and the door kicked in. Travis would be found drowsily munching cheap dog food and wouldn't even manage a wag at being rescued. The media would fill the small, palm-lined street in front of the Braddock place, photographing the bushes where the dog peed, the door he ran in and out of and the distraught owner as he pleads for the return of his only true friend. The police will pull up with Travis in hand and overwhelming joy will be known throughout the land. Travis is at home, a Safe Return. Benji Braddock will be quoted again and again on how happy he is to have the forethought to have Travis implanted with the Safe Return chip. He will soon sign a multi-million dollar contract to appear in Safe Return ads with Travis. Thousands of celebrities as well as just plain folks will pick up the phone and find the convenient location near them where they can take their pet to be implanted with the Safe Return chip. A famous news commentator will be paid large sums to say that he wouldn't mind being implanted with such a device. Soon legislation making the chip mandatory

for all pets will be passed. Similar chips for the elderly and for children will step up their advertising under different names, though by the same people who brought you Safe Return. I wondered, as I watched the police come out of the apartment carrying the drowsy Travis, if I would be commissioned to snatch a senior citizen next, or a celebrity child. Who knows, there may come a day when it becomes mandatory, for the safety of all, to have every man, woman and child implanted with the chip. If there is enough danger out there, people will demand it; there will be no opposition. I secretly hoped I would not live to see that day. Putting down the binoculars, I opened my laptop and logged onto my international banking site. A few digits and a password later I checked my balance and smiled. There was no need for me to report in to anyone, all my employer had to do was to turn on the television or radio; the news was on every channel. The world knew that Travis had been restored to his happy home. The agreed-upon amount had been deposited into my account as promised. An e-mail notice appeared. I opened the program and clicked on the new message. “Well done! Your next assignment isn't far away ― Hollywood.”

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