Something didn't smell right. It smelled too good, like oatmeal cookies, or vanilla air freshener. We were standing in the foyer of a large house, one of those ostentatious mansions that sprout like mushrooms in fields that were once filled with rows of artichoke plants or almond trees.
It should have smelled like dogs. It needn't reek of dog but there would always be a certain doggie fug in the house of a breeder. Lydia and I were here on a surprise inspection. If this place was a puppy mill, as we suspected, it wouldn't smell like oatmeal cookies. It would smell like damp fur and a little bit of shit and piss. There would be the scent of animal stress, which smells the same no matter what the breed. Abused animals give off a distinctive odor that is layered over with a psychic miasma of terror.
I looked at Lydia, who is her own special breed of sensor. Lydia's face registered complete horror. She was trying to keep herself together, but her special senses also burden her with a special fragility. Lydia can empathize with other creatures with visceral accuracy. The job was hard on her. She kept working, in spite of the pain.
I showed my credentials to the oriental lady who stood squarely in front of us, just inside the door. I had a police Lieutenant's badge and an I.D. card that identified me as Lucas Holbein, Field Agent for Viera County Animal Control And Safety. I was a County Sheriff. Never mind how I got into working cases busting puppy mills and rescuing starving horses.. This was my work, my vocation. My fellow cops called me "Doogie". I didn't care.
"Mrs. Yu," I said to the tall woman who blocked our way into the house. "We're here on an informal visit. I do not have a warrant. I would appreciate your cooperation."
There was a smugness to Mrs.Yu that told me this was no surprise. Someone had tipped her that we were coming. If this was a puppy mill, it had been cleaned up and the dogs had been silenced.
"Yes, please come. You are welcome to house." She almost pranced but there was a tightness to her gait that shouted "I AM HIDING THINGS FROM YOU!"
Another glance towards Lydia. She had got her composure back but her nostrils were twitching and her eyebrows almost met at the bridge of her nose. She was very upset. Already.
The living room was dimly lit and the furniture was covered in clear plastic. There were plastic runners on the floor. Paintings on the wall were the kind purchased for ten bucks a shot at flea markets. Floral still lifes. Horses in a field. A dilapidated boat dock with picturesque little skiffs.
"I would like to look around, Mrs. Yu. I would like to see your basement, garage and back yard. I can return with a warrant if necessary."
"All you like, look. I only do not want you in my personal bedroom. That door, on left down hall." Her hand described an arc of inclusiveness. Her palm was facing downward, a gesture I had learned was an evasive "tell". Palm up: not hiding. Palm down: hiding. I heard a door open, then close. A man appeared. A big guy with very hard looking hands. A stream of Mandarin flowed from his mouth towards Mrs. Yu. Lydia's ears twitched. Lydia spoke Mandarin, Japanese and Russian. She didn't advertise this fact.
The man interposed himself between us and Mrs. Yu. I showed the man my card and badge. He nodded. "I am Mister Yu. My wife not very much English," he said. The man projected sheer cold menace. "Is complaint about dogs? You listen: not noise!"
In fact I could hear faint whimpering. This sound of distress hung like smoke draping itself across the textured ceiling. Otherwise, the place didn't sound like a breeder's premises. When breeders treat their dogs with respect there is always a cacophony of rambunctious animals. It was the quiet places that scared me. I had seen awful things in big quiet houses out in the suburbs.
"I'd like to see the back yard, please," I said. Mr. Yu went first, then Lydia and I followed. Mrs.Yu fell in behind us. All the doors were closed. The house was sepulchral. We passed through the kitchen and there was a tell tale assortment of utensils. I saw cauldrons, kettles and large ladles. A floor-standing commercial mixer stood next to a double-sized refrigerator. This house didn't look lived-in. It looked like a factory.
The door to the garage led off from the kitchen. Just as Mr. Yu was about to turn the knob, his cell phone rang. He looked at the caller I.D., then said "Ni Hao!" Our procession paused. A string of Mandarin flowed from Mr. Yu. He turned his back to us and took four steps away, into the center of the kitchen. His voice went low, private. Unfortunately for Mr. Yu, Lydia has ears like a bat. She looked off into space but I'll swear her ears became pointed.
The conversation lasted half a minute. Mr. Yu returned, smiling with feigned embarrassment. "Business call," he said. Lydia threw me a look. She had heard something important.
The large back yard was filled with stacks of black-wired cages. They were under green canvas canopies. They stood in an "L" shaped arrangement with room between each stack for a human to gain access to the cage doors. There were forty cages and about half of them were occupied. They were inhabited exclusively by toy poodles. I counted four litters of pups. They were snuggled up to their mothers' teats, some of them wiggling to get hold, some of them sound asleep. The other cages held single puppies of various shades. Black, brown, white and a few pups that were a distinctive pearly taupe.
This would have been a reasonably acceptable scene but for one odd characteristic: almost all of the dogs were asleep. They lay with their heads on their forepaws, or curled in a ball. Some showed eyes that were half open in a hynotized daze. A few cropped tails wagged. A few tongues stuck out. There was nothing of canine vitality on display. Any breeder of any stripe, anywhere, would have a yard full of barking excited dogs. Visitors! Yay! That's what I would expect from twenty dogs.
The two sets of pups were just a few days old. They lay against their bitches' bellies like they were dead. I had to get up close, just to see signs of breath, of life.
Mr.and Mrs. Yu were moving all around us, stiff like mannikins, bumping and pushing. Mr. Yu gave me a pretty good buffet, which he tried to pretend was an accident.
The grins on their faces were qualified as "shit eating", excuse my language, but there's no other way to describe the falsity of their expressions.
"What have you done to them?" Lydia spoke softly but she was nonetheless howling. I knew that Lydia already knew things that were still obscure to me. Lydia's intuition often put her two or three steps ahead of me.
"They sleep!" protested Mrs. Yu. "It just exercise. Tired dogs. Very tired." She pointed at the gear in the yard. There was the usual assortment of mesh tunnels, ramps, hurdles. Toys were scattered everywhere. The turf was almost barren of grass, with divots poking out and signs of digging and scuffling. The fence was perfect. It was a six foot high barrier of twelve inch pine slats. Each slat terminated in two points. At the base of the fence was a concrete footing, eight inches or so. Nothing was going to dig its way under this fence. None of the neighbors could see anything.
"I would like to take a blood sample," I said, and produced a syringe and a rubber tie from my coat pocket. This brought what I expected from the Yu's: protest. "No blood! Leave dogs to sleep!" Mrs. Yu did her stiff marionette dance in front of me while her husband approached from my right side. He did the "accidental" buffet again, but I was ready for him and I was so set in my stance that I didn't budge an inch. The man almost bounced off of me.
Lydia had disappeared. She had a knack for being somewhere and then not being somewhere. She possessed a native quietude that made her innately stealthy. People often overlooked her vanishing because they had barely noticed her in the first place. I walked towards one of the cages that housed a nursing female. Mr.Yu put himself in my way. Mrs. Yu laughed an empty sound. I needed to keep them busy. I put my hand on a cage latch and Mr. Yu clamped his hand around my wrist. His grip was like an iron band.
"You stop!" he said. "No warrant. No search."
"Look," I said, keeping anger out of my voice. I did not want confrontation. "I don't see anything that's a flagrant violation. Your dogs look healthy. I'm just curious about this lack of energy." In fact, the dogs did not look healthy. Their gums were pale. Their coats were dull. Some were panting, others looked almost dead. This was, to all appearances, a kennel of drugged canines. The two nursing mother dogs looked far too old to be having litters. One of them was going grey in the muzzle. The other was emaciated. I had to keep my feelinngs out of this situation. It wouldn't help me handle the Yus. I needed to give Lydia time to scope out the real kennel, the stuff behind closed doors.
Lydia had gone back through the kitchen and down the first available hallway. All the doors were locked. The bathroom door was not locked but a scan of the medicine cabinet showed empty shelves. Drawers contained some floss and a bottle of Ibuprofen.
Lydia tried a door that was narrow: a utility closet. It was locked. Under her coat she wore a photographer's field vest. From one of its pockets she produced her little pick set and had the door open in a second. There was a tiny aquarium on a shelf. It was about the size of a shoe box. Tubes ran from an IV bottle and led to the creature that was imprisoned in this tiny container. Lydia's heart was already pounding with fear. She had long ago accepted the fact that she could not separate her own emotions from the emotions that swirled around her world. It was a kind of Hell and she was doing everything possible to live and serve while in this Hell. It was also the reason for keeping her personal life simple and reserved for other humans who were emotionally stable.
She saw the creature's eyes, staring out from a ball of dark brown poodle hair. Poodles don't have fur, as such. They have distinctive curly hair that retains its growing period indefinitely. This little pup was nothing but a pair of eyes mounted on a round tumbleweed of hair. There was an IV drip descending from an upper shelf. It ran through a hole in the container's lid and was attached to the puppy, somewhere in that mass of hyperactive follicles. Lydia examined the label. It was a used drip bag, crumpled and folded, then unfolded. The label had been scrubbed but Lydia could read the letters "P-H-E", then there was a washed out place, and the script continued, revealing the letters "B-A-R-B". It was a piece of information but it was flawed as a clue. She had no idea what drug or drugs were being used on the poor little guy. In spite of the chemical cocktail it was being fed, the dog's eyes were alive with desperation. Lydia heard a voice as distinctly as if it was being spoken into her ear.
"Get me out of here!" the voice pleaded. "I'm going crazy!"
She didn't have to think about it. She peeled the lid back and groped for the place where the IV needle was attached. She knew the needle would be as fine as a copper wire. She found it, taped to the dog's right front leg. As gently as possible, she removed the tape and pulled the needle out. It started to drip and she popped it against the sheet rock wall until it bent closed. Then she picked the puppy up. It was so light! It was no heavier than a baby finch. This meshed with the phrases of Mandarin she had heard Mr. Yu speak into the telephone. "Tiny," he said it as if boasting. "Very very tiny. Fit in teacup!"
A teacup poodle. The smallest poodle breed. She knew that the oriental market prized these tiny dogs and would pay four or five thousand dollars for a poodle that weighed less than six pounds at maturity. The dog in her hand may not have weighed a pound, if that. His nose was so foreshortened that the tip of his tongue didn't fit all the way into his mouth. A little pink curl of knobbed flesh stuck out from between his teeth.
Lydia put him inside her coat. She used a blade in her lock kit to cut out an approximation of the dog made from her coat lining. She put that brown lining inside the glass cage and laid the IV tube within its curls. She replaced the lid and closed the door.
She listened carefully. She heard the whimpering, the near inaudible frequency of suffering. The dog inside her coat snugged himself to her heart and remained quiet. She felt his little warmth against her sweater, checked that he was able to breathe, and closed the closet door.
Lucas was still distracting the Yus in the back yard. Lydia looked for the basement door. It was at the end of the hall. She picked the lock, opened the door. The lights were on and there were fans turning. As she descended a few steps the contents of the basement came into view. Shelves were filled with identical glass cages. There were IV bags dripping into most of the puppies who were confined. The whole scheme revealed itself. Tiny dogs generate huge profits. Rich Chinese, Korean and Japanese competed with one another to own the smallest dogs. The Yus applied a ruthless logic. How do you prevent a puppy from growing? Deprive it of exercise, feed it drugs to keep it docile, confine it to a tiny cage. At eight weeks you clean up the dog, give it a haircut, take a photo and ship to the customer. All sales final. It's in the contract's small print. Many dogs die in transit. Those that survive are probably crazy. It was a scam.
She used her cell phone to call Lucas. He picked up, listening.
"I'm in the basement. It's unbelievable. Get a warrant. Pretend you're cool with them, or they'll be gone by tomorrow. There must be fifty puppies down here and...." she almost sobbed. "Just..just get a warrant. We have to move on these people. Now!"
Lucas kept his phone in his hand, palming it. The situation had just escalated.
In the basement, Lydia got out her digital camera and took two shots. One was a wide angle that showed the scale of the place. The other zoomed in to its limit, making an image of two glass cages that imprisoned two tiny hairy creatures that resembled nothing so much as characters from a Star Wars film. They were Ewoks. Minuscule, somnolescent Ewoks trapped in shoe-box sized aquariums and fed through IV tubes.
She sent these images to Lucas. Then she returned upstairs, moving towards the back yard, hoping she could re-insert herself into the unfolding "inspection" as if she had been there all along.
Lucas walked towards another cage, putting a few steps distance from the looming Mr. Yu. He glanced down at his phone. One image, of a large basement filled with confined tiny puppies. Another image, showing the IV drip and the two puppies who lay in their cages as if stunned, barely breathing. He put his phone back in his pocket. He returned his attention to the Yus, and saw Lydia emerge into the yard. There was no noise to her footsteps. She was, again, present. Mrs. Yu gave her a look of profound mistrust.
"You go somewhere? You go into my house?"
Lydia pointed vaguely towards her personal anatomy. "I had an emergency. I needed to use your bathroom. A female emergency." She made a circle with her hand, indicating her abdominal regions. The eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Yu locked briefly, then broke.
Lucas needed to assuage their fears. He flipped a few pages on the clipboard that he carried in an inner pocket of his rain coat. "Okay, look." He made some pen marks on the inspection form's top page. "Your dogs seem a little lethargic but I can't site you for a specific violation. How about this? Let's set up an appointment in..oh..about a week." He gave a cautionary look to Lydia. She was struggling to keep her emotions in check. The priority was to keep the Yus from bolting, from pulling a couple of trucks into the driveway, loading up the animals and gear and relocating in one swift operation. They had experience. The profits to be made were enormous and the risk far less than dealing drugs. The Yus might be, probably were, part of an organization. There might be fifty or a hundred identical puppy mills set up in California and beyond.
He tore off the top sheet on his clip-board. It was a yellow inspection form. Lucas had written the basic information: the family name, "Yu". Address, type of facility, number of dogs. He had refrained from checking off any of the boxes. Under comments he had written "Dogs display lethargic demeanor".
Lydia was turned sideways to the rest of the group. Lucas saw her glance down into her coat. It lasted a fraction of a second. A little bump moved under her breast. He didn't think it was seen by the Yus. It was time to get out of there.
"Thank you very much, Mr. and Mrs. Yu," he said. "I will give you a call some time this week and we can talk further, okay?"
The anxious couple seemed to relax. Their shoulders descended, as if they had been holding their breath and had finally let go. "They must think I'm stupid," Lucas thought. "At least I hope they think I'm stupid."
"Yes, that fine," Mr. Yu used his bulk to move everyone towards a gate that opened from the side of the yard and led to the circular driveway where Lucas had parked his grey Ford Taurus. It was a Sheriff's Department motor pool vehicle. The symbol of Viera County surrounded the universal star of Law Enforcement. Viera County was a place of lakes and vineyards. The graphic showed a paradise of up-scale agriculture and refined corridors of Redwood trees. Lucas considered the County Coat Of Arms to be a ridiculous exercise in vanity. A more appropriate assortment of Viera County's reality would have been a collage of marijuana plants, heroin syringes and half-built developments.
He drove away from the Yu's house, rounding the corner and stopping under a copse of oak trees alongside an older house surrounded by a low white picket fence. It was one of the few original dwellings that remained after the developers had bought up all the acreage along Crest Hill Road. Now there were bulldozers and back hoes, working on properties that were parceled into one acre lots. Half-built homes were in progress of becoming pretentious stucco and tile mansions identical to that in which the Yus kept their breeding enterprise.
Lucas slipped the radio microphone from its clip. Lydia opened her coat and a tiny head popped out. "Oh jeez," Lucas blurted. A female voice on the radio responded:
"Not the Christ, Lucas, sorry, just the same old Judy."
"Sorry Judy, i just saw something that was...well, a surprise."
"I hope the good kind," the dispatcher responded.
"Let's call it a mixed blessing. Do we have anyone available to do surveillance? Is there someone with a pulse out in the field that can spend a few hours watching a house?"
"In Vikacks?" She referred to acronym/nickname of Viera County Animal Control And Safety. "You kidding? Terrence is out in Santa Lucia where some horses ran all over the Pronzini Brothers vines. And... hell.." This was pronounced "hail" in Judy Fellows Compton dialect. "Hail no, but I try 'em all."
It was the reality of VCACS budget. There hadn't been any cuts because the agency had started at rock bottom after a prolonged political struggle between so-called "animal loving do-gooders" and conservative politicians