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Issue number eleven




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The Last of the Breed by Monica Kilian

The receptionist is a fluffy blonde. Ears pricked, a wide toothy smile under her nose, eager like a Golden Retriever. No surprises there. In my experience, most receptionists were Golden Retrievers.

"How can I help you?" She yips. Definitely not a full-grown Golden. Maybe a puppy? I'd have to check if they yip. Can't recall now.

"I have a reservation." I tell her my name, the name I will use for my book. Her forehead crinkles with concentration as she taps on the keyboard, scans the monitor. Now she looks like a Shar Pei. No, can't be, they don't have curls. What does that make her, then? I mentally go through the list.  Can't think now.

She looks up, brown eyes earnest, with a hint of a mischievous twinkle. Of course! A Cocker Spaniel. Why didn't I see that before?

"Ah, Mr. Caruthers," she says with a smile of relief, "here you are."

"Yes, here I am." I smile back. Positive reinforcement. Very important.

"And here's your room key!" she yaps with delight, as if she had just imparted a message of great joy. Do Spaniels yap? I'm trying to remember. "Say that again?" I ask.

"Your room key?" She says it with a rising inflection in the end, as if unsure. Obviously seeking approval. More like a Golden, then.

"Good girl," I say and fumble in my pockets for a treat. Dammit, I'm out of treats. But I have a coin. Maybe she can buy her own treat. Goldens are smart, aren't they? They do well in obedience.  I hold the coin up so she has to lift her head to see it.

"Sit!" I say, firmly and with authority. Gotta have authority.

She crows with laughter. A clown. Who's the clown of the dog world again? I feel anxious sweat pooling inside my armpits. Think, think!

"The elevator's just to your right," she manages to yelp. I'm sure Goldens don't yelp. No, of course they don't. I've got it all wrong! She's one of those fluffy terriers, a West Highland White.

"You're Scottish, aren't you?" I ask her.

Again she bursts out laughing. More like a hyena than a dog. I look at her suspiciously as I make my way to the elevator.

The room is nice. A big desk. And a data port. Great. I should be able to finish the final draft here and email it to the publisher. I take the manuscript from my briefcase, place it on the desk.

I look at the title page, stroke it lovingly. The Definitive Book of Dog Breeds. And then my name, in big blue letters: Daniel Caruthers. And a little lower down it says, in slightly smaller print, All you ever need to know about selecting the right dog for you. It's a fat book, and it's taken me seven years to get to this point. Everything I know is in it: my life's work distilled into three thousand pages. That's right. Three thousand.  It is the most exhaustive book there'll ever be on dogs. Because no one in the world knows more about dogs than I do. After all, I'm qualified to judge all breeds, no exceptions. And I'm good at it. I even have the ribbons and awards to prove it. Dogs are my life.

But just between you and me, this book is taking it out of me. I have the biggest block in existence, and all because I can't find a suitable subject for my last portrait. I've got a photo for each breed, except the elusive Gummelhound. The publisher is breathing down my neck, threatening me. I know, I know! I tell him. It needs to be ready for the Christmas rush. And it will be. Absolutely. I promise. And really, there's nothing to it. I just need to read it through once more, make sure everything's correct. And then all I have to do is add the pictures. Of course I have the pictures! Photographs I've taken myself, so there are no royalties to pay. Pretty clever, don't you think? Great, the publisher says. Get it in.

I turn over the title page. Table of contents. Then the introduction.  It starts off with a mushy quote from the James Herriot series. Suddenly I hate it. It's wrong, wrong, wrong!

Calm down. I need to calm down. I'll look at the introduction and the quote later. I'm sure I can find a better quote. Of course I can. No problem. Okay. I'm good now.

Ah, here's the first breed entry: Akita. I took the photo of this beautiful specimen just two months ago. A good Akita is hard to find. I had to go to the other side of the country to find this one. He was a janitor at a small, run-down motel. And just as I was taking the photo, he tried to lunge at me! Almost messed up the picture. But that's okay. Nothing's too much trouble for the book.

Ordering the breeds by name seemed a good idea when I started. But now I wonder: should I do it alphabetically, or by dog type? And should guard dogs be the same as working dogs? Are Alaskan Malamutes sporting dogs or working dogs? Can't decide, can't decide.

I start shuffling pages, rearranging the entries. What a mess. I'll never get it done! Need to relax. Relax. Breathe in, breathe out. Nose, mouth. Nice and steady. Nose, mouth. Cool and collected. Like an Afghan Hound. No, not an Afghan--they look too prissy. I need something more regal. More like--shit, can't think of it now, but it's at the tip of my tongue. It'll come to me, of course it will. Need some distraction.

I turn on the television. And there's Babe yodelling at the moon. Just what I need: a pig who thinks he's a dog. "What kind of dog do you think you are?" I yell at the screen. "Face it, you're a pig! Pig, pig, pig!"  But the more I look at Babe, the more he looks like a dog.

I turn off the TV and go to the bathroom. Nice bathroom. With smooth, cream-coloured tiles on the floor, so you can mop up easily when your new puppy arrives and disgraces itself. Exactly the kind of tile I recommend in my book. The wallpaper is also cream-coloured, with a green floral pattern. But as I stare at it, I realise it's an optical illusion. It's not floral at all. The vines entwine to form ears and necks, and the flowers turn into dog eyes and dog noses, the leaves are the spots.  Dalmatians. Green Dalmatians. Green Dalmatians, for crying out loud!

Why can't people get things right? I grab the phone and press the button with the picture of a concierge on it. "Dalmatians are black and white, don't you know that? They get disqualified when they're green!" I yell into the phone.

Something sniffles on the other end. A good nose, no doubt. Probably one of those breeds they use to search for truffles in Provence, or maybe Italy, I forget. Or maybe it's one of those airport Beagles that sniff out drugs. It is Beagles I'm thinking of, isn't it? My memory is shocking. Good thing the book is practically finished.

The sniffling in the receiver stops. "How may I be of assistance?" the voice asks coolly. Obviously not the fluffy mutt from reception. This one sounds haughtier. A Borzoi. Oh yes, definitely a Borzoi.

"Could you please get me a black felt pen? I need it right away!"

A knock at the door. I open it, and there's a maid holding up a felt pen. She looks hesitant, her tail between her legs, cowering slightly as if ready to flee.

"You wanted a felt pen?" She slicks back her ears, twitching her long, narrow nose, nostrils dilated. A Whippet.

I hold out my hand, unthreatening, so she can sniff it, get used to my scent. But her eyes widen in alarm, she drops the pen and takes off down the hallway. Typical Whippet. Too nervous for its own good.

I am in the middle of colouring the Dalmatians in the bathroom when there's another knock at the door.

A man fills the doorway. He's wearing a black badge with his name printed in gold letters, too small for me to read.  "Mr. Caruthers?" he says in a resonant voice that makes his double chin wobble.

My God! I peer up at him. Yes. Here he is at last. And a perfect specimen, at that. I used to doubt they existed, but there had been whispers at some of the top dog shows, although no one had ever produced a convincing picture. Until this moment I thought they might even be extinct.

I smile, stepping back and lowering my eyes so he won't feel threatened. The large ones can be unexpectedly skittish. Not to mention dangerous.

"My name is Allenby, and I am from hotel security. May I come in?" he asks, his voice somewhere between a growl and a whisper. Just magnificent. I can hardly believe my luck. I wish I had the voice recorder on, but you don't expect a  Gummelhound to come knocking at your door unannounced, do you?

"Of course you can. I can't tell you how delighted I am to see you." I close the door behind him.

He stands in the small entrance hall, shifting from one foot to the other. "Mr. Caruthers, this is a little embarrassing, and I hope you realise I'm only doing my job, but there has been a complaint."

"Please, take a seat." I gesture to the one and only armchair, and I am glad I haven't moved it from its original position by the wall. The set up is perfect.

I rummage in my photography bag, feeling for the familiar equipment. "Would you mind if I took a picture of you?" I say, fiddling with the lens. "It's for a book I'm writing."

He shrugs, causing the wattle on his neck to flutter slightly. "Mr. Caruthers," he says apologetically, "I really don't mean to cause you alarm, but there has been a complaint."

"Shh," I say. "Let me just get this ready." I position the camera on a tripod. I've done it so often it only takes seconds. I check the view through the lens. Perfect.

"Lovely," I tell him. "Do you have puppies?"

"What?" He looks confused.

"Progeny. Children. Offspring."

"No." He crosses his arms and looks at his feet.

"What about parents?"

"My mother died last year."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Still, you're a large breed--can't expect a long life."

He looks alarmed.

"Don't worry, veterinary medicine is making new inroads every year. Do you have litter mates?"

He knots his brows, then his face clears. "You mean brothers and sisters? No."

An only puppy. The last of his breed. I'll be the first ever to take a portrait of this amazing dog. What a coup for the book! But I need to get him to look up. I take a bone-shaped treat out of my pocket and hold it between my fingers.

"Please follow this treat with your eyes." I lift my arm with a practiced flourish, drawing spirals in the air.

His blood-shot eyes follow the movement almost involuntarily, like I knew they would. As soon as his eyes reach the apex of the spiral my arm is making, I step on the camera's foot control to release the shutter. "Good boy," I say and throw him the treat.

He catches it with one hand and holds it out in front of him, as if he'd never seen one before. Then he sniffs at it, his nostrils fluttering suspiciously, his eyes trained on me.

"It's liver flavoured," I tell him as I check the preview of the photo. It is perfect. "Beautiful," I say, "you're just gorgeous."

He looks quietly gratified. Bashful, like most hounds.

"And such a soulful expression."

"Thank you," he says, his voice choking up. "No one ever told me that before."

I smile. Dogs are so easy to please. A treat and a kind word, and they're yours for life. That's why I love them.

Monica Kilian lives in Perth, Australia, but is often on the move, writing from home, hotels, planes, trains, and automobiles. She is currently working on a novel and a collection of short stories.

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