He was 26-years-old and, after only two years working at one of the most prestigious brokerage firms in the city, he was taking home more in a month than most could hope to take home in a year. Because he was still considered a young upstart by the top brass, he remained relegated to a modest office at the back of the 4th floor of the building. Behind his mahogany desk, a small window overlooked a squalid narrow alley, impossibly squashed between the abutting tall glass towers which seemed to almost glare down at it, especially when painted in the flashing oranges of the morning sun.
He looked up from a ream of papers, filled with dizzying figures and economic forecasts, which he had been poring over for several hours. He rubbed his tired eyes and swiveled around in his chair and stared out the window for a few minutes. He did this periodically throughout the day to clear his mind and digest the information he had been consuming.
In the steaming alley below, he saw Max and his old dog, Shadow, sitting in the boarded up doorway that they called home. Glancing at his watch, Orlando noticed with satisfaction that it was time for his morning smoke break with them. He snatched his coat and headed for the door.
He was almost 70 years old and had not had a roof over his head in almost 40 years. He barely stood an inch above 5 feet tall but maintained a hard, sinewy frame – almost as if beneath his weather-beaten skin he was made of twisted metal. His face was gaunt and cracked with deep lines; greasy black hair slicked back from his low forehead. Despite his small stature, he looked menacing from a distance. Up close though, his dark eyes were filled with nothing but the wondrous confusion of a young child on his first day of school.
In 1965 he had been charged with 2nd degree murder for strangling a man to death who, he had maintained at the time, was Adolf Hitler reincarnated. He sincerely believed he had saved the planet from World War III. Found unfit to stand trial, he was institutionalized in a secured psychiatric facility where he suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of the wards. In 1971, due to overcrowding, he was summarily released into the city’s unforgiving streets and long, oppressive winters. Since then, he had been homeless and mostly friendless until, one day in 1997, he woke up in the frost-tipped grass of the city’s central park to find a lost black lab puppy shivering inside his coat.
“You’re so black, you look like a shadow,” Max murmured sleepily, stroking the dog’s upturned throat.
The name stuck and Max and Shadow had been inseparable ever since.
They lived now in an alley in between the Dark Tower and the Light Tower. For the past several months a young Prince, calling himself Orlando, emerged from the Light Tower every morning, around the same time, to talk to them and share a cigarette. The Prince always smiled and looked relieved to see them, patting Shadow’s gray-grizzled face and proffering his pack of American cigarettes to Max. He would stand with them in the muck in his expensive, glittering suit, flicking away his ash from slender fingers tipped with perfectly manicured nails. He always appeared to Max as if he should be mounted atop a destrier with a Longsword in his hand. He did not fully comprehend that in this seemingly magical being he had simply found himself a friend.
“Hey man,” said Orlando affably, extending his hand to Max. “What’s your name?”
“Me?” asked Max, pointing at himself and looking over his shoulder, confused.
“Yeah, you,” laughed Orlando. “I’ve been watching you and this big guy here from my office window for ages now. What’s your name?”
“I… I’m Max…”
“Nice to meet you Max – I’m Orlando,” he said, extending his hand again. “It’s okay, I’m not going to bite you.”
“Um – nice to meet you too,” said Max, lightly touching Orlando’s hand and then quickly snatching it away and pulling Shadow closer to him. “Why – why are you talking to me?”
“I was just going to offer you a cigarette. That place starts to drive me nuts around this time in the morning. Will you smoke with me so I can relax? Here, take one!”
“Okay,” said Max, pulling a cigarette from the pack, furtively, as if he were stealing.
“See, that wasn’t so hard,” said Orlando, giving Max a light with his Zippo and straightening his silk tie. “And what’s this guy’s name?” he asked, giving the dog a pat on the head. “Jesus, he’s bigger than you are!”
“Cool name. Lab, huh? Why Shadow?”
“Well, he’s all black so I couldn’t think of anything else,” said Max, almost apologetically.
“All black?!” laughed Orlando. “This dog’s so old he’s more white than black! How old is he anyway?”
“He… well, he’s almost 14… I think…” said Max, defensively pulling the dog closer to him again.
“Holy shit! That’s what? 98 in human years? He’s almost a centenarian!”
“A centenarian. It’s when you make it to 100 years old!”
“So, you guys hang out here all day, I’ve noticed. Where do you go at night?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, where do you sleep?”
“We…” stammered Max, “we sleep here.”
“No way!” exclaimed Orlando in disbelief. “It can’t be. The cold… the rain.”
“Shadow keeps me warm when the North King comes. Shadow keeps me dry when the sky cries. This is our home.”
“How long has this been your ‘home’ Max?” whispered Orlando.
“About… about 3 years now… I think…”
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Orlando, crushing out his cigarette under his Italian loafer and turning on his heel. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow morning. Got to get back to the office now.”
“Who do you think that was?” Max asked Shadow as the Prince disappeared back into the Light Tower. The old dog yawned and nuzzled his head up against Max’s leg.
“It’s getting bloody cold, Maxy,” said Orlando, handing Max a cigarette after giving Shadow a bear hug.
“The North King is riding,” said Max, glancing up at the sky, his eyes dark pools of foreboding. “Me and Shadow can hear his horses galloping after the Light Tower goes out.”
“Damn it, Max. There’s a shelter just down the street. Why won’t you let me take you? For God’s sake, I keep telling you – I’ve talked to them. They’ll let you bring Shadow if I pay for it. The money is nothing to me, Max. I have so much money I could buy you a Goddamn house if you’d only let me! I’m begging you!”
“Ha!” scoffed Iron-Lid, another homeless man who lived over a heating grate on the other side of the alley. He was called Iron-Lid because, according to street legend, he was once smashed over the head with a hammer, the wooden shaft of which splintered in half, without so much as causing a dent in Iron-Lid’s skull. “Max is such a stubborn old coot, he gives himself a hard time for taking your fucking cigarettes. Thinks he’s taking advantage of a Prince or some shit like this.”
“Shut up, Iron-Lid,” said Orlando, curtly. “You have heat – Max doesn’t.”
“Stop fighting,” said Max, his voice thick with anxiety, as Shadow started licking his face. “All I need is Shadow.”
“Suit yourself,” said Orlando in exasperation. “I have work to do. See you tomorrow.”
Orlando rubbed his tired eyes and swiveled around in his chair and immediately leapt to his feet in alarm. Max was standing in his doorway wringing his hands and tears streaming through the creases in his leathery face. He was shivering like a leaf. The mercury had plummeted to more than minus 20 degrees over night. Shadow was gone.
“Maxy! Max!” shouted Orlando, bursting out into the alley. “Max – where is Shadow?!”
“Shadow… Shadow… Shadow…” wailed Max.
“Old dog died in the night,” muttered Iron-Lid. “City truck came and took him away a couple hours ago. Wouldn’t let Max go with them.”
“Oh my God, Max”, said Orlando, taking his friend in his arms. “I’m so sorry.”
“Shadow… Shadow… Shadow…”
Orlando guided Max over to Iron-Lid. “Listen to me Max. I want you to stay warm here with Iron-Lid. I’ll be back in 2 hours. Just give me 2 hours and I’ll be right back. Okay, Max?”
“You better share your spot, Iron-Lid,” said Orlando wagging a menacing finger at him. “I’ll be right back.”
“Whatever,” said Iron-Lid, spitting a wad of vile green phlegm onto the pavement where it steamed through the frozen air.
“I’ll be right back.”
4 hours later
Orlando dashed down the alley, struggling to keep closed his thick black woollen overcoat which flapped behind him as he ran. It had taken much longer than he had imagined. He cried out to find Max’s doorway empty.
“Old coot froze to death. The city guys just took him,” said Iron-Lid in his gravelly voice.
“Goddamn it, you son-of-a-bitch!” shouted Orlando, marching across the alley and savagely kicking Iron-Lid repeatedly. “I told you to take care of him, you evil fucking asshole!”
“Stop! Stop! I tried!!! Honest! I even hauled him over here myself! I swear! He wouldn’t have it. Stubborn old bastard said he couldn’t leave his home! He’s crazy! He was my friend too!!! Stop!!!”
Orlando relented on the kicking and, through his rage, could see the earnest sincerity in Iron-Lid’s eyes and knew he was telling the truth.
“I’m sorry,” Orlando said, contritely. “You okay?”
“Leave me alone!”
Sighing deeply, Orlando trudged slowly back and stood in Max’s abandoned doorway. He reached into his pocket for his cell phone. “Cynthia? Yeah, it’s Orlando. Yes, I know I’m AWOL. Yes… Yes… I know. Listen, Cynthia, cancel my appointments for the rest of the day and tomorrow as well. I won’t be in. What? Yes, I know. I don’t care… it’s… it’s… a family emergency.”
Hanging up the phone, Orlando opened his overcoat where the pure-bred black lab puppy squirmed in the large inside pocket, his little head poking out the top inquisitively. “Let’s go home, Shadow,” said Orlando, stroking the dog’s upturned throat, his voice cracking. “Pray I can provide you with as good a one as Max.”