“I wish I knew these guys’ names,” Gus called out to Monroe. “They don’t exactly answer to the temporary nick names we’ve bestowed upon them.”
“You talk like a prep school snob, you know that?” Monroe answered. They had been on opposite sides of the street, each calling for the scattered animals. There wasn’t a dog in sight.
“Whatever,” Gus grumbled, frustrated to be chasing a bunch of mutts around the neighborhood, some of whom were probably heading home to the people who had abandoned them in the first place.
He trudged across the street toward Monroe as another service worker named Henry ran up to them with several strong leashes.
“Here, we’re going to need these,” Henry said, handing one leash to Monroe and one to Gus.
“If we ever catch any of them,” Gus said.
“We’d better or Phoebe’s gonna skin us alive,” Monroe said, wrapping the handle around his wrist and whipping the leather leash in front of him like he was giving an imaginary enemy a flogging.
“Or worse,” Henry added. “She might call our probation officers.”
Both guys faked a shudder and gave each other fist bumps.
“What are you guys in for, anyway?” Gus asked.
“Sellin’ drugs.” Henry’s statement almost had an implied ‘duh’ at the end.
“There ain’t nothin’ else to do in this neighborhood ‘cept selling drugs,” Monroe said.
Gus regarded the neighborhood around him, noting the peeling paint on the houses, roofs badly in need of replacing, fences needing to be repaired, lawns that needed mowing.
He thought back to his comment on the first day he was here for his service work when he’d flippantly wanted to just pay to clean the dog cages. He wished there was a way to pay to get this neighborhood fixed up.
The houses looked as if they’d once been beautiful, maybe a middle-class neighborhood, teachers, doctors, lawyers. Not millionaire and billionaires like him and his family, but definitely not the type of place where the only way to make money was to sell drugs.
While he was finishing his thoughts, one of the dogs ran up to them and sat in front of Monroe, his tongue lolling from his mouth and almost a smile on his muzzle, if it were possible for a dog to smile.
“One down, eight more to go,” Gus said. “He looks thirsty. Maybe they’ll all come back when they get thirsty.”
“Good point,” Monroe said, clipping the leash to the dog’s collar. “Let’s start walkin’ back and maybe the others will follow.”
“There’s one,” Henry said as he pointed across the street. He crouched near the ground and called out, “C’mere boy!”
The dog picked up his gait and bounded across the street, running right up to someone who had been feeding him and cleaning up after him and taking him for walks. The little guy practically gave Henry a hug while Henry clicked his leash onto his collar.
By the time the sun was setting they had recovered eight of the nine missing dogs and figured the other would either hunker down, be taken in by a local resident, or come back to the shelter when he got hungry.
Having worked up a hunger themselves, Gus pulled out his cell phone and ordered a bunch of homemade burritos and tacos from the local authentic Mexican restaurant, requesting they be delivered to the shelter.
Donating food to hungry service workers was one way he could use his money to solve a problem, and they all appreciated it. Sitting around the break room greedily munching on tacos, the guys turned the questioning back onto Gus. They all knew why he was serving, but thus far they’d learned very little about Gus as a person.
“So, you really are a prince?” Henry asked. “I thought Phoebe was joking.”
“That don’t make no sense, man,” Monroe said. “You don’t got no country.”
“My family escaped the civil war that destroyed our country,” Gus said. “But we are the rightful heirs to the throne in the kingdom of Madain Saleh.”
“But that land don’t exist no more,” Monroe said.
“Just because the current world doesn’t recognize the political boundaries of a kingdom doesn’t mean it never existed. If I had a map of that region, I could draw those boundaries for you and tell you the history of my people. Not sure if world history is the topic you want to study in college.” Gus chuckled.
“I ain’t going to no college.” Henry picked at the frayed edges of his jacket. “I ain’t smart enough and ain’t got no money. You may be a billionaire prince, but the rest of us is just a buncha losers born on the wrong side of the tracks.”
Other kids around the lunchroom nodded their heads in assent and Gus’s heart thudded into the pit of his stomach.
“I tend to disagree with you on that. I’ve never seen such hard-working people. You just need an opportunity to break free of the poverty cycle. I’d hire you in a second if I owned a business.”
“Well you don’t, Your Highness.” Monroe sneered at Gus. “There ain’t no jobs around here, and there ain’t never gonna be no jobs around here.”
“But there’s so much work that needs to be done.” Gus looked around the lunchroom of the animal shelter at the peeling paint and stained ceiling caused by the roof he knew still leaked every time it rained. “Heck, every house and building in this neighborhood needs a new roof and a fresh coat of paint. Some houses need a complete remodel, or even to be torn down and rebuilt.”
“Nobody got no money to pay for all that,” Henry said. “If we had money, we’d have fixed ‘em by now.”
“If someone would pay for the new paint and construction supplies, would you be willing to do the work?” Gus asked, a plan slowly materializing in his thoughts.
“Heck yeah, I’d do just about anything to get a paycheck,” a guy named Jerome said.
“Especially if it didn’t involve sellin’ drugs or goin’ back ta jail,” another kid said.
“What if I were to pay for all that?” Gus leaned forward, meeting each of their skeptical gazes. “You said it yourself; I’m a billionaire. What else am I gonna spend my money on? Another mansion? I’ve already got one of those. Another island off the coast of Cancun? Got one of those too.”
Around the room he saw a mixture of confusion and awe combined with disbelief that Gus would actually follow through with something like this.
“My dad’s best friend is a real estate developer. I bet he could help us find some good contractors that would be willing to teach you guys as paid apprentices. You said it yourself; people would do just about anything for an honest paycheck.”
He met their gazes and saw hope in their eyes for the first time since he’d met them.
“I’ll talk to my dad. Maybe we could even start our own company and run it as entrepreneurs,” Gus thought out loud. “I could be the investor and each of you could own stock. Eventually the company would be self-sustaining. We could really do this.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Monroe said. “Put your money where your mouth is, mister billionaire prince.”
“I think that’s exactly what I’m about to do.” Gus couldn’t pull the grin from his face as he looked around at the kids who he’d very recently thought of as thugs and now saw as friends… and future business partners.