Yellow Mama Archives

Kenneth James Crist

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dogdays2.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe © 2015

The Dog Days of October

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

“Hey, Robby!” The dog speaks to me as he approaches the bus bench I’m sitting on. I always hate it when animals talk to me. Very disconcerting. But then, after all this time, I guess I should be used to it.

“Hey. What’s up?” I answer him because I know from past experience that if I don’t, he’ll either do something terrible or turn into something hideous right in front of me and then I’ll be screaming again and they may come take me away. It has happened before.

“The guy over there in the black coat has a gun.” Like most dogs, he points with his eyes and his lips. I look across the street and see the man the dog is telling me about.

“What makes ya think so? Did ya see it?”

“Naw, man. I smelled it. Hoppe’s #9 nitro powder solvent. And I smelled him. He’s a fuckin’ whacko. He’s really keyed up. Gonna shoot pretty quick.”

I’m doubled over now, my hands over my ears. I don’t wanna hear this shit. But the dog’s voice penetrates.

“It’s up to you, Robby. I’m fuckin’ outta here…” He scurries away, a small terrier with his tail tucked down, protecting his balls. He’s carrying his left back leg part of the time, running nimbly enough on three legs. Probably a touch of arthritis, he’s a pretty old dog. I hate it when they do this shit to me.

I look around for a weapon and see some steel posts holding up some sagging fence. I get up and grab the weakest-looking post and bend it back and forth. It screeches in protest. It screams, “Leave me! Leave me!” It means leave me alone, but posts rarely complete a coherent sentence.

I take the broken post and walk across the street at an angle. It has begun to rain and the drops whisper to me, but they’re not good with sentences, either. They go, Splat! Rat! Tat! Flat! Shat! And incoherent bullshit like that. I pay no attention. Leave me the fuck alone. I’m busy.

The man with the gun has stepped back into a doorway. The people on the street are queueing up for the bus that’s coming down Columbus, less than a block away. I move along the wall, so the gunman can’t see me approach. As I get close, I hear the bolt on the weapon clack as it slams home. As he steps out of the doorway, he raises the rifle, an AK-47, and I complete a full swing I’ve already started with my steel post. I aim for the cheap seats and catch him just above his eyes. The rifle flies out of his grip and clatters on the pavement. I hear someone scream and I know they’ll be frantically calling 911, their answer to everything. The gun dude is definitely fucked. His forehead is caved and one eyeball is hanging by its optic nerve. He’s all done. Pretty sure. I toss the pipe and split, headed down the street for darkness. I glance back once in time to see a cat creep up and sniff the body.

Please don’t speak to me, I think. Just fucking don’t…

“Nice shot, Slugger,” the cat says, then he fades the other direction, not liking the sirens any better than I do. They talk to me too, like screeching, bitchy wives.

I retreat, back to my place, under the 9th Street Bridge. Lucille speaks to me in her easy, southern drawl, as I slip in and under. “Hey, Robby, ssssup?” Lucille is six feet long and shiny black. She keeps me company and keeps the rats down. She tells me things, too. Things I should do to be a good citizen.

Once she told me about a man who lived under the next bridge down. You’d think that would be Tenth, but it’s not. It’s Oliver Parkway. She said, “There’s a man down there and he’s dying. You must help him.”

“How will I know him?” I asked.

“You’ll smell him,” she replied.

She was right. His feet were rotting away and there were maggots in his boots. I went and flagged down a cop, who seemed disgusted with his job and with me. They sent the man to the hospital. A crow who would know told me the man died anyway.

Back under my bridge, I shook out some blankets and wrapped up, trying to get warm. If I built a fire, I knew someone would report the smoke and then the red trucks with the whiny, bitchy sirens would come screaming, you you you you you you and why? why? why?  and alla that shit.

Fuzzy had left me a sack and I checked the contents. McDonald’s again, but it looked pretty fresh. Fuzzy is a German Shepherd and he rarely has anything to say. He definitely has nothing good to say about most people. He told me once he had been a K-9 with the cops in New York, but he got his fill of chasing and biting on command and he split. We share our food back and forth whenever we can. Whenever we have enough. Far as I know, I’m the only one he associates with. Maybe because we’re both crazy.

I was adjudicated once as being ‘dangerous to myself and others’ and they sent me away. Said I had PTSD and a couple other things…yeah, paranoia was one and I guess I’m schizophrenic, too. After a while, they got me medicated to the point where I was a zombie and I couldn’t hear the voices and they let me out. I didn’t like feeling that way. I’d rather hear the animals. Most of the time they make more sense than the doctors.

I was in pretty good shape until the roadside IED in Iraq. I was in the gunner’s seat in our Humvee and when it went off, it shot me right out of the top and over about twenty feet. I still had the M60 light machine gun in a death grip when I landed. Then all these people came running with rifles to finish off me and my buds. Men, women, kids, they all had guns and they were shooting. They never saw me until I opened up. I had about half a belt of ammo and I chewed their asses up.

If you’ve never seen a nine-year-old hit with four machine gun rounds, you haven’t lived. Or maybe I mean you haven’t served.  Wicked shit there, and it comes back on ya when you least expect it. For a long time, loud noises would make me go ape-shit and try to take cover. The same people we fought to protect sometimes think that shit’s pretty funny.

Well, now I’m just Crazy Robby and I live under a bridge and talk to dogs and cats and snakes. I get along okay, but it’s hard to keep clean. I could bathe in the river, but even I’m not that crazy. It’s so polluted, I expect it to catch fire any day. That really happened up in Cleveland. Not just once, but ten times from 1822 to 1969. The Cuyahoga River on fire. Wow!

You wouldn’t think I could find things to keep me busy, but you see how the animals help out. Just like the dude with the AK-47. Action kinda helps take the edge off, and when something’s goin’ down, I usually know it, because the strays from the neighborhood know it. Dogs have a hell of a grapevine. Just listen to ‘em sometime, barking back and forth and running around smelling each other. I call it reading the mail. They know what’s up and when it’s something bad, and it’s around here, they tell me.

Then, if I can, I do something about it. There was a hell of a wreck on the freeway a while back. The pigeons knew it was gonna happen, and they told me there would be little kids hurt and burned alive. The crows knew about it too, and they even knew where it would be. I tried to talk to Lucille about it, but she didn’t know shit that time. Breaker and Slowpoke finally clued me in on where to be. Breaker is a three-legged Pug who’s escaped from the shelter at least a dozen times. Slowpoke is a Jack Russell, or so she claims. She always looks up Breaker when she’s in the mood for pups. The rest of the time, she likes me better.

They came to me about an hour before show time and Breaker said, “That wreck’s gonna be in about an hour. Better get down there, Robby.”

“Where am I goin’?”

Slowpoke said, “Third street off-ramp. Gonna be a lotta cars and a gas truck. Big bang, Man.”

Breaker lifted his leg and peed on the concrete bridge support. “You’ll need one a them fire things…”

“An extinguisher?”

“Yeah! Be careful, Robby…” He and Slowpoke trotted away, sniffing trail.

I got moving. Near Third and Looman, I stepped into the dry cleaners’ and there was nobody at the counter. There was a ten-pound dry chemical extinguisher hanging on a hook right by the door. I liberated it and walked on. At Third and Prospect there was the WalMart neighborhood market. I latched onto another extinguisher there, from around back by their dumpster. It was a pressurized water job, but maybe better than nothing.

I humped this heavy shit for too long, and when I got to the freeway, I walked up the off-ramp toward the top, but not too close. People honked and flipped me off, cause I look like warmed-over shit, but I waited, leaning on the railing with my equipment. In about ten minutes, I heard the first screech and bang of impact and the car that was rear-ended slid almost up to me. Right after that, there were many more collisions and I was ducking debris as I headed on up the ramp.

I could already smell gasoline and I knew I had to hurry, but I also knew if I was right at the cars when the fire lit off, I could get blown over the guardrail and lose some hair and skin. The thing about gasoline is that liquid gas won’t burn. It’s the vapors that burn and by a series of perfectly-timed explosions, run your car. When gasoline vapor is mixed with just the right amount of air—not too rich, not too lean—it’s more dangerous than dynamite.

I had my extinguishers, but I knew they wouldn’t last long. I could see kids inside a black Ford Escape that was sandwiched between the back of a gasoline tanker truck and a big Dodge Ram quad cab. They were all nicely strapped into their car seats and they appeared unhurt. They were screaming bloody murder and that’s always a good sign. It’s the kid that’s pasty-white and not making any noise you really need to worry about. Behind the Ram truck was a VW convertible. Another kid in there.

In the Escape, the woman driver looked dead. Sometimes you can just tell. In the VW, the man driving was repeatedly slamming his shoulder into the door, which was jammed.

Just then, there was a quiet, “Woof,” almost like a dog when he knows there’s somebody fucking around, but he doesn’t know who or where. That was the gasoline igniting. Instantly, there was a blast of heat and the back half of the Escape was engulfed. I popped the dry chemical extinguisher and blew out the fire as quickly as I could, wrapped my shirt tail around my hand and yanked open the back door. I pulled my knife and slashed seat belts and yanked the kids out, car seats and all, tossing them far enough away to keep them from getting burned. I snatched open the front door and leaned across and checked Mom’s vitals. Zip. No breathing, no pulse.

As soon as I backed out of the car, the fire lit off again. Now there was enough gas on the ground, the Ram truck was going to burn along with the VW. Whoever had been driving the Ram had jumped out and moved well away. I ran back to the VW and stabbed the side glass with the heavy blade of my knife until it shattered. Another pause while I knocked down flames again, then I yelled to the man in the front, “Crawl out this window! Hurry!” He didn’t have to be told twice.

“My daughter’s in the back!” He was frantic, and I couldn’t blame him. He was split open across his forehead and blood was running in his eyes. The fire flashed again, and I hit it again with the dry chemical, but the extinguisher ran out. I was forced back and the kid in the back of the VW was gonna roast. Knowing water wouldn’t work on a gasoline fire and would only serve to spread it, I pulled the pin on the pressurized water extinguisher and used it to wet my clothing, face and hands and then I waded in.

I got inside the front seat and reached over into the back and snatched the little red-haired girl out, turned and backed out. She lost some hair to the flames and so did I. My clothing was steaming as I handed her to her dad.

You might have seen me that day on CNN. I was the “mystery good Samaritan” who you see calmly walking up to the two cars that were on fire and knocking down the flames and pulling kids out before the fire department even got close. When there was no more I could do, I faded back outta there and went home.

And so, this is my life. I do what I can and I mind my own business as much as possible. Once in a while, those in the know give me assignments and I do the best I can with what I have. I have my wits and I have my strength and I have my strange abilities. Or maybe I’m just bat-shit crazy…

Anyway, Guthrie, who’s a poodle from about five blocks over, said there’s a rumor about the President coming to town and some guy’s gonna try and kill him. So far, Lucille hasn’t heard a thing…




christmascity.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe © 2015

Christmas in the City

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

Fuzzy never licks me to wake me up. Usually, he just stands very close and pants until I realize he’s there and acknowledge him. He’s a German Shepherd and he’s not the licking kind. In another life, he was a K-9 with the NYPD. Had another name, too. He was Fritz von something-or-other and he didn’t like it all that well.

He also doesn’t like snakes, even though he acknowledges Lucille and he knows we’re friends. He won’t do anything to harm her, but he won’t have anything to do with her, and I understand that.

On this particular chilly morning, two days before Christmas, Lucille had slipped into my sleeping bag and was warm and comfortable. Fuzzy knew she was there, of course. Snakes have their own peculiar odor, some more than others. Lucille is a Bull Snake, about six feet long and to me, she has no particular smell. To Fuzzy, she reeks of…well, snake.

“Hey, Fuzzy,” I yawned, “wassup, Man?”

“Nothin’ shakin’ this morning, Robby. Just hungry, is all.”

“Who is that?” Lucille hissed from inside the sleeping bag.

“It’s just Fuzzy,” I whispered, “he won’t hurt ya.”

“Not unless she fucks with me,” Fuzzy growled.

“Now, don’t you two start. It’s too fuckin’ early. How ‘bout I just ease on out and we’ll go find some breakfast? Lucille, you can stay warm and surprise anybody who tries to take my sleepin’ bag.”

“Works for me,” she said, “hurry back, Lover.”

Fuzzy said, “Yuck. I don’t even wanna picture that…”

Not that Lucille and I really have a thing goin, but if it were possible, I know she’d want to mate with me. I think she loves me. Or as close as snakes ever get to the institution of love.

I eased on out and put on my boots and field jacket. Those are my leftovers from when I got my ass blown out of a Humvee in Iraq. Since then, I’ve never been right in the head and I can hear animals talk. Sometimes it drives me bat-shit, but most of the time I just deal with it. I have my place under the 9th Street Bridge and I do what I can for my community. I draw the line at bell-ringin’ at the WalMart, though. The bell-ringers were out, for sure, doin’ their thing, and that’s okay, too. Just not for me.

And there are people in the community who help me, too. Of course, I get my meds at the V.A. hospital, but they don’t feed ya, at least not every day. I have other places that help me out.

On this particular morning, Fuzzy and I went to Le Bagatelle. I know, it sounds French and all hoity-toity, but it’s really not. This guy named Slim cooks there on the morning shift. I’ve never known his real name, but it’s not important anyway. Whenever he screws up an order, instead of tossing it in the garbage, he boxes it up to go and sets it aside. Slim knows whenever he needs help with most anything, he can just mention it around any of the stray dogs he feeds and word will get to me, sometimes pretty fast.

Fuzzy sat back a little in the alley while I rapped on the back door of the restaurant. Slim came out in a minute and handed me two fairly heavy Styrofoam carry-out boxes. He lit up a cigarette and offered me one. I don’t smoke, and he knows that, but he always offers.

“You heard anything about some weird shit goin’ on, down by the docks?” Fuzzy was pacing around, impatient to get to the chow. I set one carton down for him and opened the lid before I answered. As Fuzzy set to, I looked up at Slim and said, “What kinda weird shit we talkin’ about?”

“People disappearin’, and…like that.” He seemed almost embarrassed at having to talk about his concerns.

“Haven’t heard anything about that, but I’ll put the word out and start gathering intel…”

“Put the word out, huh? Sometimes you tickle the shit outta me, Robby. You really talk to dogs and birds and alla that shit?”

“Yeah. It’s my curse. We all have our crosses to bear…”

“Okay, whatever. Anyway, my neighbor lady said her daughter was out the other night and the kid never came home. She’s worried sick. Called the cops and all. They don’t have a clue.”

“Got a description?”

“Yeah, girl’s name is Sandy Dean. She’s fifteen, red hair, freckles, kinda pretty, but not overly bright. Mom said she had on a blue skirt and blue heels. Tryin’ ta look all grown up, maybe. I hope she’s just hangin’ with friends, but I got a bad feelin’, ya know?”

“Yeah, Slim. I’ve always got a bad feelin’. I come up with anything, I’ll let ya know.”

I took my breakfast and headed back to my bridge. Fuzzy had already bolted his food and was eyeing mine as we walked.

“So, did you get all that? People going missing down along the docks?”

He looked at me like I was stupid. Sometimes he does that and it’s pretty disconcerting when he does. “Yeah. Got it. Red hair, freckles and woof woof. People disappear all the time, Robby.”

“I know, Fuzz, but just ask around, okay? So we can go back and say we tried.”

“No prob. You gonna give up any a that?” He was checking out my breakfast again. I sat down by my sleeping bag and opened it. Corned beef hash with the eggs. I hate corned beef.

“You can have this meat and then you head out and see what you can find out, okay?”

“You got it, Robby. Now gimme.”

*     *     *     *     *

Later, I took a long walk, down along the waterfront. Being homeless and scruffy and smelly gives one certain advantages. Truth is, most people don’t wanna deal with you. Some won’t even look at you. They don’t want you to even exist in their world. Makes me damn near invisible, and that’s okay with me.

Dock workers and steel workers and construction types always want to project their tough-guy image out into the world around where they work. They’ll wolf-whistle the pretty girls and make rude noises, call the guys in suits ‘honey’ and ‘darlin’, but the fact is, they’ll be the first to drag people outta burning buildings and to save little kids from creeps.

I stopped to shoot the shit with a dozen dock workers that first day, some I’d met before and some I’ll probably never see again. A couple were skeptical and stand-offish, but most were as helpful as they could be, as soon as they knew I was looking for a young missing girl and that people were disappearing. Some were even wearing Christmas stuff, whatever they could get away with. They’re all union, and they can get away with more than you’d think.

One guy, who was wearing a Santa Claus button that said, “I believe” asked, “How do I get ahold of ya, if I see somethin’?”

“Just tell any stray dog you wanna talk to Robby.”

“Yeah, right—get the fuck outta here…” He was smiling like he was waiting for the punch line.

“Or a bird. They all know me.”

“You fuckin’ with me? Cause I’ll punch yer face in right now.”

“Nope. Serious as a letter from the IRS, man. Thanks. I’m outta here.”

“Yeah, okay, whatever,” Under his breath I heard him say, “ya crazy fuck…”

I walked on. Some people believe in me and some don’t. But most of the time I sense that they all want to. Being able to communicate with animals is not new. Some guys specialize in horses and make money off it. Horse whisperers. Almost all animals talk. They just don’t use voices. Not using voices makes it very hard for them to lie.

My day was pretty much fruitless, except that I got the word out there amongst the humans. Fuzzy took care of the rest. And that evening, he brought back one blue, high-heeled shoe.

*     *     *     *     *

“Doesn’t smell like death, Robby.” Fuzzy was telling me about the shoe. “Doesn’t even smell like violence. Smells like she just lost it.”

“You think it’s hers?”

“The girl Slim told us about? Yeah, it’s hers.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“People smell different, Robby. Red-haired people smell different from everybody else. And I can tell you she’s young. Probably her…”

“Yeah, okay, I’ll go along with that. Think you could track her? From where you found the shoe?”

“I look like a fuckin’ bloodhound to you? No way. I think she got put in a car. Or got in herself. Without a struggle. See what I mean?”

“I wonder if she might have been hookin’…”

“Explain hookin’.”

“Selling herself.” He still looked puzzled. “Selling her pussy.” The light still didn’t dawn. “Screwing guys for money?”

Finally, he got it, and his tongue flopped out and he turned his head away from me. “That’s nasty, Man.”

“Yeah, I know, and only humans do it, I’m pretty sure. It’s called prostitution.”

“I dunno, could be…”

“Guess tomorrow, we’ll go back down and find out.”

“Excuse me, but wouldn’t now be a better time? I mean, it’s gonna be dark soon…”

He had me there. I stashed my stuff up under the bridge girders and we headed out. Before we left, and with Fuzzy’s permission, I put an old leash on him and grabbed a pair of sunglasses. On the way down, Fuzzy stopped and talked to three other dogs and an alley cat who had once been known as Herbert, before his people moved and left him behind. He seemed to be doing okay, but he was lonely.

*     *     *     *     *

At night, the waterfront wasn’t about dock workers and boats, cargo and noise. At night, it was about drugs and hookers. Women stood on corners, freezing their asses off in hotpants and short skirts, short tops that showed more than they covered. Cars cruised by slowly, guys checking out the merchandise. In the traffic mix, I saw more than one car with reindeer antlers and red noses stuck on the grille.

In dark doorways, men waited on customers, too, those looking for a baggie of this or that. Not a cop in sight. Probably all paid off by the people who ran the whores and drugs. No Christmas freebies there. Just addiction and misery.

I had a couple of bucks I’d been saving and I walked over to a street vendor and got us a couple of hot dogs. It wasn’t much supper, but it would hold us for a while.

I put on my shades and took up the slack in the leash. “I’m gonna make like I’m blind, and you’re my seeing-eye dog, okay?”

“Sounds like fun. What if I walk you into a truck? You gonna be pissed?”

“Most likely…”

“Just messin’ with ya, Robby, I got this.”

Fuzzy did a good job. He walked me right down where the girls were working and I managed to strike up a conversation or two. On the subject of it being dangerous out here, and, like I heard people were disappearing, they clammed up quick and moved away from us.

Later, as we were headed back home, Fuzzy said, “Lotta fear there, when you started talkin’ about folks disappearing. Could smell it on ‘em.”

“Yeah, and hookers don’t scare easy. They’re tough, usually…”

The black limo pulled up when we were almost to 9th Street. Two guys got out with guns and one said, “In the back, Motherfucker. The mutt, too.”

We piled in and the car took off, almost silently gliding up and down streets until I was thoroughly lost. Fuzzy was checking everything out and I could tell he was nervous, but not scared. Not yet. And these guys weren’t buying my blind guy act.

We reached a townhouse on the Upper East Side and cruised into an underground garage, where the driver parked and we were hustled through two levels of hallways and into a basement. There were cages on both sides of the hallway and each held a person, mostly young women who watched us with silent, frightened eyes. Fuzzy and I were placed in the last cage on the right and locked in.

“Make yourself comfortable, asshole. The boss has a party tonight. He won’t wanna deal with you until tomorrow.”

There was no food and no water. There was a bucket to do my business in. There was a hard bunk and a blanket. They left us alone.

“What now?” Fuzzy didn’t seem to blame me for anything. As far as he was concerned, whatever happened just happened.

“Guess we get some sleep.” Together, we curled up on the bunk for the night. There was just enough room.

*     *     *     *     *

Sometimes it’s hard to believe, the places a guy can actually sleep in. In the other cages, there was weeping and the occasional outcry in the night, along with muted conversations.

In spite of all that, Fuzzy and I were hardly disturbed at all. Of course, I’m used to sleeping under a bridge that has constant traffic day and night. Sometimes Fuzzy beds down with me and sometimes not, but he’s used to urban noise, too.

In the night, I dreamed of Iraq and a very different Christmas four years earlier. The American armed services are the best fed and best equipped in the world, and morale is a big deal. At my fire base, we had a real Christmas tree. We heard they flew ‘em in on C-130’s from the States. The tree didn’t last long in the dry heat, but it was a touch of home. It made some guys happier.

The next morning, we were awakened by one of the thugs we’d met the night before when he rattled the cage door and said, “Hey, Dickhead, wake the fuck up!”

He was smirking through the bars, when I said, “That sure is a pretty mouth you got there. If you don’t want me to slap it around onto the back of your head, you’d best mind your manners with me.”

“Oh, yeah? You comin’ on all badass with me?” He produced a shiny Kimber .45 semi-automatic, pimped out with pearl grips and engraving. “Just remember who’s got the gun, Fuckface!”

He unlocked the cage door and swung it wide. “Step on out here, Dipshit. And the mutt stays…”

Just then, the mutt lunged and locked onto Mr. Badmouth’s nutsack and the fight was on. While the idiot shrieked and tried to get a round chambered, I came up with a passable Karate kick that broke his wrist and sent the pretty Kimber flying. When Fuzzy turned him loose, I chopped him in the throat and it was all over. He dropped like a sack of shit.

From the other cages, I heard, “Wow!” and “Holy shit!” and “Alll right!”

I snatched up the Kimber and got the keys off the mouth with the attitude and looked up at a couple of young girls in the next cage. “Ya liked that, huh?”

“Yeah, fuckin’ bastard raped us both. He should die…”

I looked down at him and realized he was still breathing. The throat chop should have locked up his larynx, but I must have been a bit off. I sat him up and grabbed him from behind in the old patented sleeper hold. It shuts off the arteries in the neck and provides zero blood flow to the brain. Five seconds can knock you out. A minute can kill you. I held it for two minutes, just to be sure. Then I looked at all the others staring at me. “You didn’t see shit. Any questions?”

There seemed to be little or no curiosity, so I said, “We’ll be back for ya…” and Fuzzy and I headed off to see what other mayhem we could stir up. On the way up the stairs he said, “I haven’t bitten anybody in a while. Felt good.”

“You’re most likely gonna get another chance here shortly.”

Fuzzy went up the stairs easily twice as fast as I could manage, and I’m actually in pretty good shape. Sure enough, as we neared the top, a door opened and I heard a guy say, “What the fuck..?” And then a yell, as Fuzzy took him down. There was a lot of snarling and screeching and just as I got there, a second guy stepped out onto the landing, taking aim at the big Shepherd. I raised the Kimber and, just as he turned to glance at me, I fired a slug into his eye. The back of his head exploded onto the wall and all over Fuzzy. The guy he had been busy killing had stopped screaming and was gargling now as he choked on his own blood. We left the two guys there and continued to the third floor.

When we were halfway up, a shot whizzed by and clipped the newel post on the second landing. I fired back, but only once. I wasn’t wasting ammo on something I couldn’t see. The Kimber only held eight rounds. As I made it to the third floor landing, I heard someone yelling, “Boss! Boss!” Fuzzy shot past me and down the hall. I yelled at him, but I could have saved my breath. He had his blood up and he wasn’t stopping for anything.

I saw him dart into a door on the left side of the hall and I immediately heard a shot and a yelp from the dog. Then Fuzzy came out the door backwards, suddenly not quite so ready to lay it all out there. He didn’t look wounded, but he was damn sure gonna be in just another second.

I saw a gun hand come out the door, the gun pointed down, and I snapped off a shot. It missed, but it clipped the door frame and sent splinters into the hand, and spoiled the guy’s aim.

He peeked around the door frame and then stuck the gun back out and capped two rounds at me, firing blind. Then Fuzzy lunged and got his gun hand, dragging him out into the hall. Bones were popping and crackling in his hand, and in another instant, I heart-shot him and he went down. The sudden silence rang like a bell.

I checked the guy to make sure, as Fuzzy calmly walked into the room. It turned out to be an office, a very plush one, with an excellent view. When I stepped in, Fuzzy was admiring the ankles of a man who was standing on a chair. He was about fifty, with a full head of hair and the kind of smooth face you only get from plastic surgery. His nails were manicured and he was wearing an honest-to-God smoking jacket.

“Fuzzy, let the man down.” Fuzzy reluctantly backed up a bit and the man attempted to regain his composure.

“Just what is the meaning of this? Who are you? And…and what is this…this beast doing in my house?”

“Your house, huh? So that means you’re responsible for all those kids down in the basement? My name’s Robby Metcalf, by the way. And the beast is here to dine on your cojones if you choose to give me any shit.”

“I don’t like dogs. Get him out of here!”

“I see you’re used to giving orders. No, Pal, the dog stays. I imagine you’re the one who gave the order to pick us up last night, so here we are. Did you want to talk with us?”

“I…I just don’t like people snooping around in my business. But…I can be reasonable…”

“You can be reasonable? Well, I can’t. Not about sexual exploitation of underage kids.”

“Those young people all came to me. They were on the streets… homeless…and I took them in…I…”

“The fuck you did. They’re in cages down there, you nasty cocksucker!”

Suddenly, I knew exactly how this was going to go. With the Kimber, I motioned Mr. Big to his seat behind the desk. He sat, but he was eyeing the dog warily.

“Fuzzy, watch him. If he makes a move you don’t like, you can kill him.”

Fuzzy leaped up onto the desk and sat his ass right in the middle of all the papers and junk on the guy’s desk. He made himself comfortable and his lips peeled up off his teeth. I smiled at Mr. Big and said, “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back.”

I went back to the basement and opened all the cages. I fielded a lot of questions about, “What do we do now?”

I said, “The man that caused all of this is on the third floor. My dog is holding him for you. I suggest you go up there and make him pay for what he did to you. You’re all juveniles. If the law catches any of you, they won’t be able to do much. And one more thing. My dog and I were never here…”

There was a red-headed girl in the bunch, with a blue skirt. “Are you Sandy?” I asked.

She nodded her head, as tears ran down the smooth skin of her freckled cheeks. I handed her the Kimber. “Be careful where ya point that. It’s loaded and ready to go.” Then I handed her a roll of money I’d taken off the mouth earlier. “This is cab fare. Make sure all these kids make it home okay?”

I walked up with them and called Fuzzy to me as they crowded into the office. As we left, the door shut and the screaming began. Fuzzy and I headed out to go find breakfast.

As we hit the street, he said, “By the way, I’m not your dog.”

“Oh, you heard that from clear up on the third floor?”

“Yeah. I heard it. I like you, Robby, but nobody owns me.”

“Got it, my friend.”

“Yeah, I like that better…”

“Merry Christmas, Old Scout.”

He looked up at me and squinted. “Now what the hell does that mean?”



Free Association

by Kenneth James Crist

 

Free association

They call it, but

In reality there’s

Nothing free

About it. . . .

 

So molded are

We by our

Rearing and

Environment and chosen

Entertainment

 

How could our

Freely executed

Thoughts turn to

Anything but

Murder?





catwhodroppedin.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe © 2016

The Cat Who Dropped In

Kenneth James Crist

 

I awoke staring straight up at cold, gray concrete. Concrete that moved and trembled, if ever so slightly, as constant traffic hammered over it. This was my bedroom, tucked back under the 9th street overpass and I was here by choice, not by chance.

In the corner of my vision, I saw something else, something quite beautiful, certainly much more attractive than concrete. The face of Minnie Stryker leaned over me and she said, “Hey, Robby. You awake?”

“I am now. . . .” I yawned and scratched a couple personal areas.

“Is it warm in there?” She was referring to my sleeping bag, thrown out on bare dirt. I took in her clothing and realized she’d been out turning tricks again. She was in a short, light summer dress, a light sweater and two-hundred-dollar “fuck me” pumps. She definitely looked hot, but it was way too cold for that shit. Minnie is still pretty, even though at one time or another she tried about every street drug known to man. When meth started to ruin her teeth, she quit that shit and never looked back. She’s that tough. And she’s always been kind of vain about her smile. On the low side of thirty, she was a full-time waitress and part-time hooker, when the rent was due.

I said, “Yeah, it’s toasty. Want in?”

“Is that damn snake in there?” She was eyeballing the sleeping bag with a certain element of apprehension.

“Lucille? Naw, she’s hibernating by now. Most likely won’t see her till spring. She’ll be back over there, in her hidey-hole.” I glanced back toward the other end of the bridge.

Minnie quickly slipped out of her high-dollar shoes and said, “Scoot over, man, it’s cold out here!”

I unzipped the bag halfway down and she slid neatly in with me, turning her back to me so we could fit like spoons. I wrapped my arms around her and nuzzled her curly, dark hair as she shivered against me. She gathered my hands and pulled them up under her breasts and held them there. In moments, she was asleep.

*     *     *     *     *

I woke up next about three hours later and found that Minnie had turned over and was plastered against me. Her dress was hiked up to her ass and one leg was hooked over mine. Her groin area was pressed against me and I was almost painfully erect. I carefully tipped her face up to mine and gave her a damn good morning kiss. Hookers never let customers kiss their mouths. Too many chances of disease transmission there. She kissed me back and I knew that when we made love, this was one thing she always enjoyed most—being able to abandon all caution and forget about disease and pregnancy and all that entails.

Now, she broke away from my kiss and said, “Damn! We need a shower and a toothbrush. We smell. Wanna go to my place?”

“I guess we could . . . if ya don’t wanna roll in the dirt with me.” I had slipped a hand down between us and I was stroking the front panel of her panties and I could feel the start of moisture.

“Nope. Nope. Robby! Stop that, now! Oh, Gawd, stop. . . .” She pushed my hand away and scrambled out of the sleeping bag and sat to put on her shoes. I slipped out and pulled on my jeans, tucking my friend, who was wide awake but getting softer, under my shirttail.

We hiked the seven blocks down to her third-story walkup apartment on Mead. The sun was out and it had warmed up a lot. The building was old, made of red brick and mostly rundown, but not quite tenement grade. The rent was a mere eight hundred a month. Once inside, though, Minnie’s place was nicely decorated and extremely clean. It reflected her personality and her caring nature.

She put on the coffeepot and we headed for the shower. Naked, Minnie is a truly luscious woman. Her breasts are smallish and lightly freckled at the top, her waist is narrow and her butt, small and boyish. Her legs are fabulous, slim and hard-muscled. When we were together like this, I made a heroic effort to never think about how many men had touched her, loved on her, and mounted her to spew their passion.

Like any hooker, she would take anyone who had the money, but never without protection. She had never tested positive for anything nasty. She has assured me I am her only “bareback” lover, and I believe her.

Most of the time, Minnie doesn’t work the streets. A lot of her trade comes from the restaurants where she does her honest work. Guys will hit on her and then find out she is willing, but only for a price. Many are put off by this. Those who aren’t, and have the money to spend, get to enjoy Minnie’s charms.

When she and I are together, I pay a price, too, but it’s never in money. I pay with friendship and respect, and once in a while, when it’s needed, protection.

Coming out of the shower, we dried off with large, fluffy towels that smelled faintly of bleach and then we headed for the bedroom. The coffee could wait. We could not. Our lovemaking was infrequent enough that it had never become routine. We made love twice that morning, once rather quickly and frantically, just taking the edge off, then again, slower the second time and taking much longer. It became quite hot and sweaty in her bedroom, in spite of the ceiling fan. When we were sufficiently satisfied, we hit the shower again, just a quick rinse-off, then I fixed breakfast.

Among the many things I’ve done in my life, I’ve been a short order cook at several diners and fast-food places. I have a knack for making pancakes and omelets and getting hash browns just right. Minnie is not much in the kitchen. Microwave ovens were invented for gals like Minnie.

As we sat down to eat, she looked at me and said, “One of my friends died last night.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Who was it?”

“Just a girlfriend. Another street girl. She overdosed, I guess. Or whatever she took was maybe cut with something nasty. Lot of that going around. Dealers get greedier than they should and cut the dope too many times, use all kinds of shit, not just milk sugar.”

“I’m glad you’re not into that shit.”

“Me too. Jaunice was a nice girl, very compliant. Lots of guys liked her. She was a light-skinned black girl, really stacked. Had beautiful skin. She wasn’t a bitch like so many of ‘em, if you know what I mean.”

“When’s the service gonna be? Any idea yet?”

“I doubt that we’ll even hear. Her family’s not from here. They’ll probably ship her home.”

“Well, keep me up to speed on that and if ya need someone to go to the service with, I’d be glad to do that.”

“There’s one other thing. . . .”

“Yeah?”

“I know who sold her that shit. I know her connection.”

“Okay. . . .”

“I talked to the cops about him. I turned his ass in.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Yeah, ‘oh shit’ is right.”

“Street thug or big operator?”

“Well, he’s a punk, but he works for some heavy hitters.”

“And you’re not worried about them finding out you talked to the cops?”

“Yeah, of course I’m worried. The cops always say they can protect you, but you know how that is.” She was sitting with her arms folded, wearing her fluffy pink robe, her hands nervously rubbing her upper arms.

I slid over next to her and took her into my arms. “We’ll do everything we can to keep ya safe, okay?”

“We? You, and who else?”

“Me and my friends. I got lotsa friends.”

“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. Need help? Just tell any stray dog, right?”

“Yeah. Or any bird, or cat or snake. . . .”

“Okay, I get it, Dr. Doolittle.”

Then it was time to quit talking and take a nap.

*     *     *     *     *

Barnabus is a huge cat. I’m pretty sure he’s a Maine Coon, from the shape of his body and the thick, bushy, ringed tail, but he can’t confirm that. He goes about thirty-five pounds in fighting trim, and even though Maine Coons are supposed to be sociable and lovable, Barnabus apparently never read that book. His ears are scarred from constant fighting and he has one milky eye.

It took over three months before Barnabus would even speak to me, let alone come close. He still doesn’t care to be petted, but we have reached the point of grudging respect, and he no longer minds having me live under his bridge. He never comes around if Lucille is there and he barely tolerates Fuzzy.

When I got back to my place later that day, after giving Minnie another roll in the sack and stopping by one of my back-door restaurants for some supper, Barnabus was there, well back in the corner. He was having a late afternoon snack. Looked like it had been a rat or a squirrel, I couldn’t exactly tell. If I tried to get too close, he would growl and drag his prize away, so I left him alone.

Over the period of a year, we’d had some long talks, and I knew that he’d never been a family cat. Looking at him, you’d never believe he’d been born and raised in the sewers of the city. He keeps his luxurious coat tidy at all times and he never smells like sewer. He once told me, “Even though we must sometimes walk in filth, we needn’t wallow in the leavings of others.” I think he read that somewhere and he’s holding out on me.

I spoke to him as I sat down to eat and he gave me the look. The look says, don’t fuck with me right now, if you like your face the way it is. I’ve always respected the look.

Fuzzy wasn’t around, so I had more food than I could deal with. When Barnabus finished his rodent and moved over by me, I asked, “You want some of this? There’s plenty. . . .”

He approached slowly and took a delicate sniff. Here came the look again. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s Chinese. Very healthy. Except for the monosodium glutamate.”

“And you actually put that in your mouth? And swallow it?”

“Yes . . . it’s called food, Master Barney. Here, try some.” I held out my fork with a couple noodles on it.

He turned his head away and said, “You two-legs have some strange ideas about what constitutes food. Save it for your dog-friend.” The contempt in his voice was obvious.

“Okay, but yer missin’ a treat.” At this point, he realized I was deliberately fucking with him and he turned and glared at me.

“That looks like roots and snot. My rat was better.” He stalked off to go groom himself.

*     *     *     *     *

Minnie came by again the next morning and I could tell she was worried, maybe even more than the day before.

“Ya okay, Babe?”

She was clearly troubled, but she put up a brave front. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

This dope dealer around last night?”

“He’s always around. . . .”

“Tell me about him.”

“Why does it matter?”

“Because, if anything happens, I need to know where to start lookin’.”

“Name’s Deandre Wiggams. Black guy, tall, skinny, jails his pants halfway to his knees. Carries a big, pearl-handled gun.”

“Sounds like a real piece of work.”

“Yeah, somethin’ like that.” Once again, she crawled in with me and I held her as we listened to the traffic whining overhead. I didn’t try to make love to her. I sensed she wasn’t in the mood. Very perceptive of me. I knew she would tell me if Mr. Wiggams tried to hurt her, or anything. If she got the chance. She dozed off and then settled into a deeper sleep and soon I conked back out, too.

When we woke up, Fuzzy was lying beside us, packed in tightly for warmth. I didn’t speak to him, but I rubbed the scruffy fur at the base of his neck, just to let him know I was awake. I felt his tail thump against my leg and I knew we were okay.

As it got on toward noon, Minnie got up and left, kissing me quickly on the cheek before she went. “Gotta go. Gotta get cleaned up. Got a shift to do over at Harold’s.”

“Be careful, okay?”

“Always, Babe.”

After she’d gone, Fuzzy said, “She in trouble?”

“I think so, Fuzz, but she hasn’t asked for help yet.”

“And by the time she does, it may be too late. . . .”

“Well, I don’t quite know what I should do about it just yet.”

Fuzzy gave me a scathing look. “Dumbass. . . .” was all he said.

“Well, okay, Mr. Smartass, what would you do then?”

“Follow her. Keep an eye on her. See what’s goin’ on. I mean, she’s your . . . friend, right?”

“Yeah. I guess that’s right.”

“Of course, I know you’re busy . . . got lotsa shit to do. . . .”

“Okay, enough already. I live under a fucking bridge. I get it.”

He smiled his doggy grin and said, “Want some help?”

“Damn right I do, always from you, buddy.”

I rolled up my stuff and stashed it in my usual hidey-hole and we set off for Harold’s Restaurant, 4th and Providence, Great Home Cookin’ and free pie on Wednesdays.

*     *     *     *     *

Fuzzy and I watched the restaurant from the park across the street until closing. Inside we could catch a glimpse of Minnie once in a while, just enough to know she was still in there. At closing time, we moved on down the street so we could keep an eye on her, knowing she would probably go down by the docks to work the streets for a while.

Instead, she came out with her boss and they drove off in his car, obviously headed to her place. It was only about seven blocks and Fuzzy and I made it as fast as we could. When we got to her apartment house, her boss’s car was nowhere around. We watched for a while and we could see her now and again, moving around up there. When the lights went out, I told Fuzzy, “Looks like she’s in for the night. Might as well go home.”

“Go ahead. Think I’ll hang out for a while. . . .”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine, you go ahead.”

“Kay. Come around in the morning and we’ll do breakfast.”

I went back to my bridge and rolled out my sleeping bag. I had barely dropped off to sleep when I heard Fuzzy howling and raising hell. To anyone else it probably just sounded like someone’s dog going apeshit. What I heard was, “Robby! Get up, Man! They took her! Motherfuckers took Minnie! Get up!”

By the time he came dashing up to me, I was wide awake and already stashing my stuff. “Two black guys, Robby! They had guns! They’re gonna kill her, Man! Hurry!”

“Shit! What kinda car? Which way did they go?”

“They didn’t have a car! They walked her down towards the river!”

“Okay, maybe we can find ‘em! Let’s go!”

Fuzzy is a true athlete. I’m in pretty good shape, but there’s a reason cops use dogs. He kept having to slow down and let me catch up and it was killing him. Once we got to the street they took her down, he slowed so he could follow her scent and the going was easier. I could actually keep up.

*     *     *     *     *

Barnabus slid from parked car to hydrant to tree to parked car, always in shadows and as silent as outer space. He’d been in the process of stalking a sizeable rat, most of his mind on a late supper, when he’d heard Fuzzy raising hell. He didn’t speak dog-ese, but he knew Fuzzy’s bark and he knew Fuzzy was one of the quietest dogs he’d ever met. Something was definitely wrong.

He headed toward Robby’s place, but soon saw Robby and Fuzzy headed down toward the river. He kept to himself and followed along. This was much more interesting than hunting rats, which, compared to the intellect of a cat, were truly stupid creatures.

When they got near the river, he slipped on ahead, a dark form within dark shadows, always watching and ever silent.

*     *     *     *     *

We made it all the way to the riverbank and everything appeared quiet. I figured we were too late and Minnie was probably dead. There was a pinch of despair in my heart. Even though we’d never professed to be in love, we were still friends and lovers and losing her would definitely hurt.

Then Fuzzy worked the ground a little more and looked up at me. “They went down that way.” He pointed with his nose, that keen instrument of detection, and we again moved off.

This section of the river was kept in pretty good repair by the city. There was a wide promenade that was paved with concrete, the trash cans were evenly spaced and set in wrought iron cages, and about every hundred feet there was a picnic table made of steel and bolted to the concrete. The trees were in good shape and the streetlights were unbroken. The only reason nobody came down here at night was because of assholes like Deandre Wiggams. The thug ratio was just too high in the area for decent folks to deal with.

We had walked past five picnic tables when we spotted them up ahead. They had picked up a third guy, either a light-skinned black or a Latino. They had Minnie on her back on a picnic table. Deandre held a wicked-looking switchblade knife and the other two held guns. It was February and the leaves had been gone off the trees for months.

The light from the nearest street lamp filtered down through the tree above the scene and caused the knife blade to gleam and sparkle. It also allowed me to see that Minnie’s dress was rucked up above her waist and that her panties were on the ground.

Deandre stood with his back to me. With his pants jailed halfway down and belted around his thighs, getting to his business was a matter of dropping his pretty red silk drawers.

He was just doing that, standing between Minnie’s legs, as we approached. Fuzzy was well aware of the guns. I could tell in the sudden stiffness in his walk and the hair standing erect on his back that he was ready to fight and he was aware we might die in just another minute. A low growl issued from his throat and he moved to the right to start circling. “Watch your ass. . . .” I said.

All he said was, “I hate knives. . . . ”

The Latino turned and said, “Hold it right there!” I figured he wouldn’t shoot until I was much closer, so I kept coming. Most thugs like guns really well, they just can’t shoot worth shit.

Just then, from the tree overhead, a brown ball of fury, weighing thirty-five pounds, dropped directly onto Deandre’s head and all hell broke loose. Squalling, ripping, biting and clawing, Barnabus took care of the skinny dope dealer all by himself. The other two thugs turned as one and took in the astonishing sight of their leader, screaming and staggering around, his considerable privates hanging out and a wildcat riding him like a circus animal.

He tried to fight off the monster that was eating him alive and in doing so, he staggered into the river. The Maine Coon is known to be a good, strong swimmer. The average big-city dope dealer is not.

As I tried to watch the cat, I saw one of the other thugs trying to take aim at me. Fuzzy hit him so hard he bowled him over and he hit the corner of the picnic table and went down. His gun went flying and slid to within fifteen inches of my right foot. I snatched it up just as the third guy turned away from the scene in the river to look back at me. He found himself with a Beretta 9mm in his face.

 “Put it down!” I didn’t yell at him. I didn’t have to. He knew he was fucked if he tried to shoot. He lowered his gun and let it drop to the ground. In the river, Deandre went under in a burst of bubbles. I could only imagine how cold that water was. Less than a week before, it had been entirely frozen over. We’d had a warm spell and the ice had mostly disappeared.

Fuzzy was guarding his guy, ready to re-attack at any provocation. I picked up the second gun and said, “Deandre’s in trouble out there. Either of you dudes wanna jump in there and help him? No? Yeah, I didn’t think so.”

Briefly, Deandre was up again, struggling and sputtering, but each time he came up, it was like ascending into a buzz saw. He went under and came up one more time, then there was a large burst of bubbles and I knew he was trying to breathe water. If he had been pulled out at that exact moment, saving his life would have required a trained medical team and a lot of luck. There were no medical types around, and as for luck, Barnabus ran him out of that.

In another moment, all was still on the river, except for Barnabus swimming back to the shore.

I turned just in time to see Minnie slipping off the picnic table and modestly adjusting her skirt. She picked her panties off the ground, looked them over and stuffed them in her purse.

As soon as Barnabus hit the shoreline, he headed for the nearest storm sewer opening. I’d hoped he’d stay for a few minutes, but he was dripping and I knew he would spend hours getting dried out and groomed. I called after him, “Barnabus?”

He paused and looked back just before diving into the curb grate. “Thank you,” I said.

He slipped out of sight and then answered with a low “Meowl” that sounded like, “No problem.”

With one of the guns, I gestured toward the picnic table. “Have a seat, guys.”

“You gonna kill us?” The black kid, no more than sixteen, actually looked frightened. The older Latino, not so much.

They sat down on the picnic table and I said, “Deandre’s gone, fellas. In a couple days, the cops will find his body, when it decomposes enough to produce gas inside and he floats. You guys are gonna go on about your business and forget you ever knew him. You’re also gonna forget you ever saw this woman, or me or this good dog over here. If you ever decide to fuck with us, you’ll join old Deandre. Understood?”

They both nodded their heads vigorously. Then the Latino actually had balls enough to ask, “Can I get my gun back, Man?”

I reared back and threw it as far as I could out into the river and said, “Sure. It’s right out there. Go get it whenever you like.” Then I threw the second gun just a bit farther.

I turned back to them and said, “Now get the fuck outta here!”

They got up to saunter away and I turned to Fuzzy and said, “Fuzzy, would you move ‘em along?”

He jumped up and started their way with a snarl and once again his hackles were up and they took off, running as fast as they could go. Fuzzy entertained himself for a while by nipping at their heels, then he eventually came back.

I slipped my jacket off and draped it around Minnie’s shoulders and looked around at Fuzzy. “What ya think, Big Boy? Shall we walk this nice lady home?”

He paced along with us for a minute, then he said, “I dunno. She got anything to eat? I’m starvin’. . . .”



plwhitevan.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2016

Plain White Van

Kenneth James Crist

 I remember the first time a dog ever told me a joke.

Fuzzy is my best buddy. He’s a big German Shepherd and we get along really well. He was a police K-9 dog in a former life in the Big Apple. One night, while on patrol, his handler sent him into danger for about the millionth time and Fuzzy, whose police name was Fritz, just said, “Fuck this shit,” and took off into the darkness. He’s lived on his own ever since.

I always felt that dogs had a certain sense of humor, or maybe a sense of the absurd, but after I came home from being blown up in the Iraq war and I was able to hear animals speak, I found out just how far that sense of fun goes in some species.

Fuzzy has a sarcastic wit that surprises me all the time and he likes to play tricks on anyone, not just me, but anyone or anything that falls into the category of “hapless” is considered fair game.

I had known Fuzzy only a short while when he came in under my bridge one night and kind of sidled up to me, his rear end low to the ground and his tucked-in tail making short wags. In dogs, this is a clear show that they are not sure of their situation and they are afraid they’re going to be chastised for something.

I looked at him and asked, “Fuzzy? What is it, man?”

He grinned a little and kind of hung his head and said, “Wanna hear a lame joke?”

“A joke? Really? I didn’t know dogs told jokes.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t always tell ‘em real well. Sometimes I get to the punch line too quick. But this one’s bugging me. I heard it down behind Vernon’s Deli. Gotta tell it, man.”

“Okay. Go ahead.”

“Okay, a horse walks into a bar . . . and the bartender looks up and says, “Hey Buddy. Why the long face?” At this point, Fuzzy rolled completely on his back, showing me friendship and being completely submissive, and at that point, I hadn’t heard the joke before. I had a good belly laugh and Fuzzy was pleased. He said, “I’m glad that went over well. Now maybe I can quit thinkin’ about it.”

Since then, we have told each other jokes all the time, but I have to be careful and not get into stories that are too complicated. Dogs tend to take things literally and the more a story drags on, the less effective the punch line will be when joking with a dog. The short, one-liners work best with them.

One of Fuzzy’s favorites that I told him, I borrowed from Groucho Marx. It goes: “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Of course, Fuzzy doesn’t really understand the concept of reading that well. How a person can look at some marks on a page and derive any meaning from it goes beyond his capacity to understand. But the thought that inside a dog it’s too dark—well, somehow he gets that.

~     ~     ~

It was turning out to be a nice spring day and Fuzzy and I were hanging out at the park. I had a Frisbee I’d found in a dumpster and we’d played with that for a while. When you’re homeless, dumpster diving is one of the things you do. You’d be amazed at the perfectly good stuff people throw away, just because they have no use for it and they’re too lazy to take it somewhere and donate it.

I find all kinds of perfectly good food that’s thrown away every day because the “use by” label is expired. The government makes manufacturers put expiration dates on every goddamn thing nowadays, even bottled water. Is that fucked up or what? Gimme a break, water doesn’t expire.

Building materials is another pet peeve of mine. I could easily build myself a house with all the good shit I’ve found in dumpsters, but I have no land and, building codes being what they are, I could never get away with building a house outta scrap lumber and old lighting fixtures and used plumbing. Government again.

When the kid walked up to us, I wasn’t paying all that much attention. Fuzzy immediately took to him, letting the kid pet him and make a fuss over him. But then, dogs just seem to know about kids like Billy. Within just a minute or two I realized Billy was a pretty high-functioning Down Syndrome kid and I started talking to him. He didn’t seem to be with anyone and that worried me. What worried me more was that he didn’t seem to mind being alone.

“What’s your name?” Billy asked. Like many Down kids, he was very outgoing and didn’t seem to have any shyness about him.

“I’m Robby. And this great guy here is Fuzzy.”

“Fuzzy!” he laughed, “I like that name. Fuzzy is a good dog.”

“Yep. He’s a great dog.”

“Is he yours?”

“Nope, we’re just friends. Fuzzy doesn’t belong to anyone but himself.”

“That’s kinda weird. Most dogs belong to somebody.” He looked up at me, his open face shining, seeking answers.

“I know, but Fuzzy was a police dog and he ran away. He’s hiding in plain sight. What about you, Billy? Did you run away?”

Two fingers went into his mouth, even though he looked to be ten, maybe twelve years old. I’d struck a nerve there. “Billy? Did you run away from home?”

He turned to the dog and ignored the question, petting Fuzzy and crooning to him in a high, sing-song voice.

“Billy?”

“Leave him to me for a little while,” Fuzzy said, “I’ll get him to talk after while.” Fuzzy set about charming the socks off the youngster. Even though Billy wasn’t any kind of proficient with the Frisbee, Fuzzy would chase it, running it down whether it went twenty feet or twenty inches, returning it dutifully and laying it at Billy’s feet every time. Billy and Fuzzy fussed over each other and in ten minutes, it was like they’d known each other forever.

I took some change and went over to some vending machines and bought bottled water and came back. We used the Frisbee as a bowl for Fuzzy and I handed a bottle of water to Billy. We took a break on the grass and I gingerly approached the subject of whether Billy was alone.

“Fuzzy really likes you, Billy. I’ve never seen him take to anyone quite so quickly.”

“Quickly,” Billy echoed. I would soon learn that Billy might sometimes get stuck on a word and say it over and over, repeating it until another grabbed his attention, or he got interested in something else.

“Yeah, he’s probably wondering about you.”

“Wondering . . . wondering . . .”

“Where do you live, Billy? You have a house around here somewhere?”

“Yeah. Big house. Dad said it’s a brownstone. . . .”

Fuzzy moved over and bumped against Billy and the youngster’s hand reached out and sought the dog’s neck and he began petting the dog.

“I think . . . I’m pretty sure Fuzzy wants to know where you live, so . . . um, so he can come visit you sometimes. Would you like that?”

“Yeah. Visit me sometimes. That would be so cool. . . .”

“Guess you’ll hafta show us where to come to find you, huh?”

Billy stood up with a sigh and said, “Yeah. I guess. C’mon, I show you guys what happened. . . .”

“What happened? Billy, did something bad happen?”

I noticed a single tear sliding down Billy’s face and his hand was wrapped tightly in Fuzzy’s thick neck fur. He hugged the dog tightly and buried his face against his neck. I barely heard him say, “A very bad thing. Better go there now. Don’t wanna, but we gotta.”

Billy abruptly stood up and I snapped a leash on Fuzzy’s collar, then handed the leash to Billy. “Tell him ‘Heel,’ Billy, and he’ll walk beside you.”

Billy’s voice was a mere whisper as he spoke to Fuzzy. “Fuzzy, heel!” And we set off in the general direction of uptown.

~     ~     ~

We walked seven blocks up and two over to the north. Billy was very careful about the signal lights and Fuzzy was on his best behavior, sitting each time the youngster stopped, rising to heel as they moved off again. Billy kept a running stream of conversation going, but not with me. At this point, he was talking only to Fuzzy.

Fuzzy in turn was shooting me looks that spoke volumes. “Something’s very wrong here, Robby. We may be walkin into some evil kinda shit for sure. I don’t like this, Boss. This kid’s wound tighter than a cheap watch. . . .”

At last, Billy turned up a sidewalk and went up onto the porch of a fairly nice brownstone. He turned and sat on the top step and I expected Fuzzy would sit with him, but the dog paced and whined. When I reached the top step, I knew why.

“Smell it, Boss?” Fuzzy’s tail was tucked and for once I appreciated being human and having a feeble nose.

“Yeah, Fuzz, I got it. You stay here, keep Billy company, okay?”

“Yer not goin in there?”

“Yeah, buddy, I got to. Gotta know what happened here.”

Billy sat on the step, listlessly picking at some peeling paint on the handrail. Fuzzy parked on his belly beside the kid and I went up and tried the door. It was standing ajar and I carefully avoided touching the polished brass handle. Inside, the kitchen was the first room and I grabbed a dish towel off the refrigerator handle to breathe through and started working my way through the house.

I found them in the upstairs bedroom on the right. Mom and Pop had both been shot in their bed. The house had been thoroughly ransacked. I got my ass back to the kitchen where I had seen a wall phone, and shakily made the 911 call.

I had seen a lot of death in Iraq, fresh and not so fresh. I figured Billy’s parents had been dead at least four days. I was glad the weather had been mild. After the call, I went back out and sat on the step with Billy and Fuzzy until the first black and white rolled up.

The two uniforms got out and came up the sidewalk, adjusting gun belts and chomping their Juicy Fruit as they walked along. They both had the cop swagger of the streetwise officer who has figured out they can legally bully people as long as they don’t take it too far.

“You call, Sir?” I knew from talking to other officers that it was a common cop joke that “Sir” was a cop’s word for “cocksucker” and “Ma’am” was a cop’s word for “cunt.”

“Yeah. This young man’s mom and dad are upstairs. They’re dead. Looks like they been shot.”

The older cop turned to the younger one and said, “Why don’t you go have a look, Paul?”

Paul shrugged and headed inside and upstairs. “Got some ID on ya?” The older cop was eyeballing me like he’d look at dog puke in the gutter.

I silently pulled my old, battered wallet and produced an ID card.

He had his notebook out and was already taking notes. “This address current?”

“Yessir.” I was hoping he wouldn’t recognize the address as being the VA hospital.

He finished with my basic information and then looked me up and down. “How are you related to these people?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Paul come back out of the house and go to their cruiser to get crime scene tape. “Not related at all. Fuzzy and I were at the park and Billy here liked the dog. I wondered why he was out by himself and he eventually brought us here. Told me to go upstairs and look at what someone did.”

“Someone, huh?”

“Yeah. That’s pretty much all I know.”

“I think ya better come over here and have a seat.”

“Okay. . . .” I didn’t like the way this was shaping up at all. Then the second black and white rolled up. Officer Julius Tambar stepped out and called to me. “Hey Robby, wassup, Man?”

Tambar was born in Nairobi and immigrated with the rest of his family when he was four. He served in the military and was in Afghanistan. I’d run into him at the VA and he knew where I actually lived. He also knew about my knack with animals. He didn’t necessarily believe it, but he knew about it.

“You know this guy, Julie?”

A wide, white smile split Officer Tambar’s features and he said, “Naw, never saw that muthafucker before.” Then he came over and shook my hand and grabbed me in a bear hug.

I said, “Julius, you need to meet Billy over here. Somebody did his folks. They’re upstairs. I don’t think he’s got anybody else.”

“Okay, you know yer gonna hafta take a ride downtown and give a statement, right?”

“Yeah, I figured as much.”

“You can ride with me, Robby. We’ll go as soon as homicide gets out here.”

“Okay, sounds good. I’m gonna talk to Fuzzy for a minute if that’s all right.”

I stepped over to where Fuzzy was parked on the porch next to Billy. “They’re gonna take me downtown, Fuzzy. They wanna question me and I gotta give a statement. You be okay?”

“Yeah. I’m gonna hang with the boy here.”

“Well, at some point they’re gonna take him away, too.”

“What? Wait, he didn’t do nothin’. . . .”

“Yeah, I know, but he has to be cared for. He’ll probably get taken to a foster home until they can locate relatives or whatever.”

“I can take care of him. . . .”

“I know you could, Fuzz, but we’re dealin’ with the law here. They have to be sure he’s cared for and alla that. They’re responsible, so when they leave, you can head out. I should be home by supper time.”

Fuzzy laid his head back down on his paws. “Okay. But I don’t like it.”

As I got into the patrol car with Julius, he said, “Fuzzy gonna be okay?”

“Fuzzy will always be okay. He’s smarter than most people. Let’s just go get this done, okay?”

As we pulled away, I gave Fuzzy a wave and he raised his head up and his tongue flopped out in a half-smile. Then he put his head back down and continued to mourn with Billy.

~     ~     ~

Police headquarters has its own block downtown and I had only been in the place one time before. I had gone there to do a ride-along with Julius, a few weeks after I met him. We went out on the night shift and had a pretty good time, but the word soon got out that I was homeless and had a weird way with animals and suddenly I was no longer invited. I guess Julius probably caught some heat from some of his peer group. I couldn’t blame him.

The place had its own parking garage, its own cafeteria, even its own firing range in the basement. It was a pretty progressive department. The interview rooms were located on the fourth floor, in the rear. Before he put me in there, Julius was nice enough to ask if I needed to hit the restroom. I didn’t feel like I needed to, but I went anyway. Cops always make ya wait in the little room all by yourself. They’ll give you coffee or a soft drink for two reasons. The caffeine will make you hafta piss and therefore make you uncomfortable and you will leave DNA on the cup or soda can, which they will swab and send to the lab. If your profile is not in the database when you go in, it soon will be. I didn’t give a rat’s ass, I was already in enough computers worldwide that one more wouldn’t make any difference.

I sat almost an hour and I refused the coffee and soda. Eventually, two detectives came in and we got started. I signed here, initialed there and acknowledged they had read me my rights. I was aware I was being videotaped through the one-way glass that covered most of one wall.

Detectives Devon and Cargill got right to it. “Tell us how you came to be involved in this whole deal. Black and whites rolled up and yer sittin’ on the porch with this kid whose parents have been shot in their beds. How did you get to be involved?” Devon was pleasant enough and he believed in taking copious notes in his own brand of shorthand. Cargill leaned against the wall with his arms folded, chomping his gum and staring at me. I supposed he was trying to play the bad cop.

It took them the better part of fifty minutes to decide I was the real deal and not a murdering asshole who would cheerfully sit and wait for the cops with the handy-capable kid and the scruffy dog.

Before I left, they asked me straight up for a DNA swab. I felt I had nothing to hide, so I told them hell yes. They took a cheek swab and turned me loose. I had to arrange my own transportation back home. I had enough change in my pocket to ride the bus and I was home before the evening rush hour. When I slipped under my bridge, Fuzzy was there, guarding my worldly possessions and looking sad. He’d known Billy for one day and he already missed him.

“He’s gonna be okay, ya know,” I said to him as I sat down next to him. He laid his head on my knee and said, “Yeah, I know. But I gotta have something to worry about.”

“Okay, well, while yer worryin’, let’s go find some dinner.” I didn’t have to ask twice.

~     ~     ~

We didn’t hear anything about the investigation for more than a week. During that time, I visited the VA, where I get my meds and health care and we had a visit or two from my friends, both two-legged and four-legged. Fuzzy and I put the word out through the network about Billy and his parents, but for quite a while nobody seemed to know anything.

Then one morning, a police car pulled slowly in under the bridge and Julius got out. I went to his car and we sat and talked for a while. Billy had been placed in foster care, while relatives wrangled over who would take him. Julius opined that if Billy had been a “normal” kid, it would have already been settled and paperwork would be sailing through the probate court. In his opinion, it didn’t look good for Billy.

Meanwhile the murder investigation had gone nowhere. It was not a lack of suspects or motive. In fact, there were enough thugs living within a six-block radius of Billy’s house that it made it hard to even find a place to start. More than thirty tips had come in to Crime Stoppers and none had panned out. As for a motive, it appeared that simple robbery had been all it was about. When Billy’s mom and dad awoke to people in the house, they were shot for their trouble. No witnesses. By the time Billy realized that bad men were in the house, all he could do was hide and not get killed along with the others.

Finally, just before our discussion ended, Julius said, “I know you have a lot of . . . um . . . assets out there, okay? Nobody else believes you can really converse with every dog and cat that comes along, but I do. Whatever you can find out will, of course, have to be independently collaborated. We’re not gonna get the courts to put a dog or cat on the witness stand and tell all they know. But any leads you might develop, I wanna hear about soonest, okay?”

We solemnly shook hands and I agreed. He gave me his cell phone number and then handed me a phone. “This is just a cheap Cricket phone. Pay-as-you go deal. It’s charged and it’s off right now. Carry it and if you need me or you got somethin’ for me, my number’s in the speed dial.”

After he left, Fuzzy looked at my new cell phone and said, “Well, ya finally gonna join all those texting idiots that walk out in fronta buses cuz their heads are up their ass?”

I looked at him and grinned and said, “Fuck you, dog.” Then I put the cell in my pocket and we headed downtown.

Most humans, not being able to communicate very well beyond their own species, have no idea the extensive network that exists in the animal kingdom. When one takes into account the vast number of creatures in the everyday environment that are capable of at least some rudimentary form of communication, their “information highway” puts the Internet to shame.

Once upon a time, my country had sent me to get my ass blown out of a Humvee and changed me forever. I got out of the VA hospital with a terminal built into my brain that would allow me to tap into the animal information network. At first, I was scared and confused, but then I learned to turn my ability to my advantage.

Just walking around now exposed me to the constant flow of chatter, barks, yowls, screeches and every other noise animals make. For the smells, I had Fuzzy. We made our way downtown because that generally was where the thugs like to hang out. On the way, we encountered seven dogs, eleven cats and nineteen squirrels, not to mention birds too numerous to count. We spoke to each one and relayed what we needed to find out. I expected within a day or so, we’d start getting information back.

Fuzzy and I spent some time downtown, then headed back to our own end of town. We went by the Jersey Diner on Waverly and got a nice handout from a guy named Sandoval, who was an Army Ranger a couple wars before mine. We tried not to bother the various restaurants too often, allowing them to spread their charity around. Sandoval hadn’t seen us in a while. He took a break and we sat on an old picnic table someone had drug around back into the space between the back doors and the alley.

As he smoked and Fuzzy and I ate, we talked, mostly about the killing of Billy’s parents. “Eets a focking guddam chame, ees whut it ees, Man.” He’d been in the USA almost all his life and I knew he could pretty much lose the accent when he wanted to, but around here, it made him unique, so he laid it on pretty thick.

“Yeah, we’re hoping Billy gets a good home, ya know, people who’ll care for him. He’s pretty high-functioning, but still, he’ll need good folks to look out for him.

“Joo got enny idea who did dis chit?”

“Hell no. That’s what we’re doin’ now, putting the word out. Cops got nothing to go on, either.”

Abruptly, Fuzzy left his food and walked down the alley away from us. Almost a block away, a small, scruffy poodle mix lifted his leg against a light pole. Fuzzy went to him, sidling up in a non-threatening manner and they took turns walking around the pole, lifting and squirting and smelling each other. Soon, they came back down where we were. “Give this runt the rest of my food,” Fuzzy said.

I took the plate and set it down on the ground and the poodle looked up at me. “Go for it, Buddy,” I said.

“Name’s not Buddy,” he said, “It’s Sam. Thank-you-very-much.” He sniffed the food and dug in. He looked like it had been several days since food had crossed his lips. He was finished in about a minute flat and then he helped himself to some water from a dish Sandoval kept filled. When he’d finished drinking he said, “I heard a couple guys talkin’ about the killin’s the other day. Said they saw the guys did it. I wasn’t payin much attention, but I’ll get back with ‘em and find out more.”

“A couple guys. . . ?”

“He means other guys like me and him,” Fuzzy said, “ya know . . . dogs.”

“Okay, got it. Well, we appreciate it. Anything ya hear or see, okay?”

“Yup. Okay, I gotta roll. Thanks for the chow.” He trotted off, carrying his tail high and his nose low.

Sandoval looked at me and he was clearly mystified, so much so that he lost his accent. “Okay, Man, I missed alla that. Was that really conversation?”

I gave him a handshake and said, “Never doubt it, my man.” Fuzzy and I headed home.

~     ~     ~

The very next morning a stranger showed up under the bridge. Fuzzy was on the alert and I was half asleep, when I heard him whine and then say, “Boss, we got company.”

I turned over and saw a half-starved Greyhound trotting toward us. In spite of his painful thinness, he looked reasonably healthy. He just needed to be fed more. Fuzzy stood and faced him, barking out a challenge. The Greyhound answered and suddenly everything was okay. Fuzzy came back with the hound trailing at a respectful distance. “His name’s Speedy Mike,” Fuzzy said, “and he’s got information.”

“Nice to meet you, Mike,” I said, looking him over, “what’s up?”

“Sam sent me down. I saw a van leavin’ the place where that kid’s mom and pop got killed.”

“This was at night?”

“Almost morning. It was gettin’ light out. Two dark men got into the van and it left in a hurry. Almost hit me. That’s why I noticed. I smelled blood and fear and I knew it wasn’t good.”

“What kinda van are we talkin about here?”

“Vans are vans. I dunno. . . .”

“What color?” I was taking a chance here, I knew, because dogs have little or no color receptors in their eyes.

“No color. Like the clouds on a sunny day.”

“Okay, a white van and . . . what, two black guys?”

“I think so. They had guns, for sure.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah. I got the number off the back.”

Now this was unique. A dog that actually recognized numbers as being something meaningful, rather than just decoration. “Can you tell me what it was?”

“I don’t know numbers or letters, either. It looked like this. . . .” He proceeded, with much hopping around, to carefully draw in the dirt with his right front paw. He drew: JJ9-1143. It was a scrawl and messy, but it could be read. I reached down and scratched him behind the ears and said, “Fuzzy, we gotta take this guy to breakfast.”

We did that, and later that morning, I hauled out the cell phone, fired it up and called Julius. When I gave him the tag number, there was a long silence. He was in his patrol unit and I heard him key in the number on his car terminal. Another pause, and then, “Holy shit!”

“What? Did we do good?”

“You’re sure this is the right tag?”

“That’s the way I got it.”

“Okay, well I appreciate it. At least it gives us a direction to look in.”

“Wait, why did you say ‘Holy shit’?”

“I’d better not say any more right at this time. Stay cool.” He hung up. I turned the phone back off to save the battery and stuck it back in my pocket.

Fuzzy was giving me his quizzical look, ears up, mouth slightly open, but no tongue, eyes looking directly at my face. “Well?”

“I dunno, Fuzzy, Julius is suddenly being real close-mouthed about this deal. We may have just implicated someone big.”

“What’s implicated?”

“Like we may have just accused somebody that the cops already know. Wish I knew who that tag was registered to.”

He lowered his gaze and then said, “Wish we could find out where Billy is. I really like that kid.”

“Me too, Fuzz. We’ll find out. May take a while, but somebody will tell us something.”

~     ~     ~

Not the next morning, but the day after, I went down to the YMCA. I like to work out there and do some boxing and, a few years earlier, I had used my skills to locate an old dame’s lost Schnauzer. She found out I liked the “Y” and ever since, I’ve had a paid-up membership, courtesy of the grateful matron. I’m not even sure the dog is still alive, but the membership is. Besides, it’s a good place to shave and shower any time it’s open.

I’d been inside doing my thing for half an hour and Fuzzy had said he’d hang around and wait on me. We were a little over a mile from our bridge, so I knew he knew the area. I never worried much about him; he could handle himself quite well.

Next thing I knew, I heard yelling out front in the lobby and Fuzzy came charging in looking for me. The assistant manager was right behind him yelling, “Hey, get that dog outta here! He can’t be in here!”

I’d been beating the shit out of the speed bag and I stopped and stepped out where Fuzzy could see me. He came right to me and the assistant manager stopped with his hands on his hips, sort of glaring at me. “Is he yours?”

“Naw, but I know him. It’s okay, I’ll get him outside.” Fuzzy and I headed for the front doors and as I pulled off the sparring gloves, I said, “What’s up, Big Guy?”

“Think I found the van, Man.” He gave me that doggy, tell-me-I’m-a-good-boy grin and I reached down and scratched his ears.

“I thought you were gonna just lay down and wait on me. . . .”

“Yeah, well, I smelled this lady . . . and she was . . . ready, ya know?” If he could have turned red, he would have. “And I went and found her, and afterwards, I saw the van!”

“Okay, wait outside here and I’ll get a quick shower and you can show me, okay?”

As I was showering, I thought about male dogs and wondered how far away they could smell an estrus female. Probably quite a ways. . . .

It turned out to be about eleven blocks over to where Fuzzy’s new girlfriend lived. She was a Golden Retriever and I could tell they were temporarily in love. If Fuzzy hadn’t knocked her up already, he soon would. It was all I could do to get him away from her long enough to show me where the van was.

He walked me by the house, another block over and up an alley, and sure enough, there it sat, inside a dilapidated garage with the door left open. I walked straight on by as if I hadn’t seen the van, or the unmarked detective car sitting about sixty feet from the end of the alley with two cops in it. They had surveillance on the van already and I wasn’t about to screw that up.

Fuzzy and I moseyed on down the street and headed for home, cruising by the Freddy’s on MacIntyre for burgers and fries. Worst thing in the world for Fuzzy. Probably why he loved them so much.

~     ~     ~

I slept pretty late the next morning. When I woke up, I was sweating in the sleeping bag and the sun was up high enough the overpass above me was putting me back in the shade. Fuzzy was off wandering around someplace, probably gone to see his Golden girlfriend for some nookie.

I had barely gotten my sleeping bag stowed and my toothbrush out when the white van rolled up. I heard the loud rap music before it pulled in under the bridge. They parked and two guys got out. Low pants, muscle shirts, lots of tats against their dark skin. One carried a Beretta 9mm and the other a MAC-11 sub-machine gun.

“Yo, punk-ass! Where’s yo muffuckin’ dog?” That would be the spokesman and driver. He seemed to be the intelligent one. The other guy just jived and rolled his shoulders a lot.

“I’m sorry. You must have me confused with someone else. I don’t own a dog. . . .”

“Kay, wiseass. We see you round wit a big ol’ Shepherd. Hear you got a big mouth, too. Been talkin’ to da man.”

“Which “man” would that be?”

“Officah Tambar, who I’m talkin’ bout. You know him, right?”

“True. I’ve known Julius Tambar for several years.”

“What choo tell him bout me, man?”

“I don’t even know you. I didn’t tell him anything about you.”

“Well, he’s damn sure up mah ass all sudden-like, an I hear it’s because of you and yer mouth.”

Shoulders was grinning now, the gold in his grille sparkling in the slanted rays of the early morning. He was swinging the MAC-11 back and forth, dying to use it.

“Actually, it’s probably because he thinks you’re involved in a killing of two decent people. A killing that left a handicapped kid an orphan.”

“That so? Well, shit happens now, dund’t it? Muffucka’s shoulda just laid quiet like I told ‘em, steada screechin’ and tryin’ ta be all bad and shit.”

“And what did you get for two lives? Flat-screen TV? Little bit of cash? You’re a turd, buddy. I hope they give you the needle.”

From my left, Shoulders racked the slide on the MAC-11 and I figured I was down to the last minute of my life. Then Lucille, the friendly six-foot black rat snake slid around Shoulders’ ankle and all hell broke loose.

Shoulders looked down and screamed and Beretta man yelled “Snake!” Whereupon, Shoulders tried to shoot Lucille, forgetting the MAC-11 was on full automatic. He let loose about eight rounds, totally missed Lucille and managed to shoot his own foot. Lucille zipped back to her hidey hole, just as Mr. Beretta turned back toward me. There was a growl from his left and a siren blipped from behind him and Fuzzy was suddenly there. Officer Julius and his partner came out of their car and a detective car came in from the other side of the bridge.

Shoulders was on his ass, moaning over his wounded foot, the MAC-11 lying forgotten in the dirt. Mr. Beretta realized he was fucked and he turned to Julius Tambar with his Beretta dangling from his index finger by the trigger guard.

He glanced at me and said quietly, “This ain’t shit. I’ll be out in a couple days and I’ll be comin’ after yo ass.”

As Julius hooked up the cuffs, I said, “I kinda doubt that, My Man.” I pulled out the tiny digital recorder Julius had given me along with the cell phone.

“You get him to say it?” Julius asked, getting out his Miranda card.

“Sure did, no problem.”

“Was that a snake I saw?”

“Yeah, that was Lucille. We been friends a while. She keeps the rats outta my shit.”

Fuzzy bumped up against my leg and I looked down at him. “Ask about Billy. Ask him. . . .”

So I did. Billy got taken in by a recently-widowed aunt, who needed a man in her life. Billy is struggling with being the man she can count on. Fuzzy and I got to go visit them, way on the other side of town last week. And we didn’t have to walk. Julius took us in his cop car. Fuzzy said it brought back a lot of memories.

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Art by Sean O'Keefe © 2016

The Flint Hills Express

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

“Stop movin’ around, you fucker!”

The skinny little bastard was speared in the headlights of the Chrysler van, parked deep in the Flint Hills of Chase County. Kansas by night, this far out away from towns is one dark sumbitch.

Moments before, Sheila and I had drug his ass out of the van and into the headlights. It had been a hot day, but it was cooling down nicely now. The air would take a chill after midnight, and the critters would be out.

Sheila stood now as he squinted into the glare of the headlights, the .45 Glock in a two-handed combat grip, the fat black sausage of the silencer wavering just a little.

“Sheila?” He was starting to get the idea now. His ex had finally decided to do something about his worthless ass. And it was her gig. Her decision. I was just there for muscle and technical support. Tech support like the unregistered Glock in her hands. Hands that were wearing Nitrile exam gloves. Each round in the weapon had been loaded while wearing those same type of gloves, each pair of gloves stripped from the box, wearing more gloves. There would be no prints. No DNA for some slick forensic lab fuck to link either of us to this shit. Tech support like the stolen, retagged van, that would later be found a few blocks from where it was stolen, its proper tag back in place. It would appear to be a simple joyride, and I knew the cops didn’t do forensics on joyride vehicles. There were too many. They’d never get anything else done.

“Sheila, what the fuck?” His tone was whiny, irritated, almost wheedling.

“What the fuck is right, you piece of shit!” She was getting warmed up now, and I leaned against the side of the van and smoked. “This is what happens when you fuck over someone long enough. Slap them around long enough. Beat on ‘em long enough.”

“Fuck, Babe, we been divorced five years! Where’s this shit comin’ from?”

“Really? Really? You asshole, you’ve never paid one dime of child support. Everything I’ve gotten for Ralphie and Tim, I’ve had to garnish wages and tax refunds and God knows what else. Then, the fuckin’ lawyers get their cut…”

“Yeah, well, it hasn’t exactly been easy for me, either.”

“Really? Did that cut into yer drinkin’ money? Yer coke money? Or is it meth, now? Grin at me, show me your teeth. Let’s see those pearly whites, Donny.”

He weaved a bit in the headlight glare, but he didn’t grin. Not at all.

“How did you manage to pull this shit off?” His hands were zip-tied behind his back and his short-sleeved shirt was askew, the top two buttons undone, showing his hairless chest.

“Put a little somethin’ in that bottle you were pullin’ on. Bet you didn’t even know we were in the place, huh?”

“Who’d ya get to help ya? Yer new fuckin’ guy?”

“That’s right, dipshit. He’s good at shit like this.”

“Is he good in bed, too? He got a bigger dick than mine?”

“Damn right! And he knows how ta use it, too.”

“So what’s the play here? Scare the ex-husband? Where the fuck are we, anyway?”

“We’re out in the Flint Hills, Donny. No proper burial for you, dumbass. We’re gonna put ya back up in that gully over there and after the coyotes and the other critters get done, there won’t be enough left to identify, if anyone ever even finds ya.”

I looked at Donny and saw the exact moment it started to sink in through the fog of alcohol and barbiturates. When his eyes began to stare and his mouth dropped open. When he realized just how badly he was fucked. Suddenly, he sat down on the ground. It was all in one motion, as though his legs just said, ‘fuck this’ and folded.

He bowed his head and I thought, Now. Pop him now, while he’s not lookin’ at ya. Sheila, goddamn it, pop him! I didn’t say anything.

“Yeah, startin’ ta look kinda bleak, now, huh Donny?” She was enjoying this, a little too much. She was savoring the idea of having power over him. Not being in fear of him ever again.

I had done this gig several times before, but then, what the fuck. This is what I do. When the boss says, “he’s gotta go”, I’m the one that makes sure it happens. In Vegas, it’s known as the Desert Patrol. Out here we call it the Flint Hills Express. There are so many places, so many brush-choked gullies, so many uninhabited acres of prairie out here, it’s uncommonly easy to get rid of someone. I just wished Sheila would stop gabbing and get on with it.

“Hey, we had some good years…didn’t we…there at the first? Didn’t we, Babe?”

He wasn’t begging for his life yet, but he was getting there.

“Yeah, we had some good times. Then you started to resent the very things that attracted you to me in the first place. My wild nature. My lack of a filter. My ballsy attitude. Found out you couldn’t control me, so you started knockin’ me around.”

“You made me do every bit of that! You know you did! You were such a little bitch—“

“Watch it, Donny! Let’s not forget who’s holdin’ the gun, here!”

“Could you…could you point that thing somewhere’s else?” He was getting to his feet again, struggling for balance. It was hard to believe this specimen was the same guy she’d married eleven years before. He’d been a good-looking bastard back then. Just enough Native American blood to have the high cheekbones and the black, straight hair, but along with that, the piercing blue eyes of the other side: His black Irish father. He’d been a Panty-dropper in his day, but now…

I lit another Cheroot and thought, Jesus, Sheila, can ya just pop him and get it over with? I really don’t wanna be out here all fuckin’ night.

“Really, Babe, don’t do this. Think about the kids!”

Oh, fuck me! Now we’re down to the fucking kiddies. Gimme a break! Kill this asshole and let’s roll.

“The kids? Really? Now it’s all about the kids? You never gave a shit about the kids, you lowlife prick!”

“I…I…I’ve got addiction problems, I know that, but I really wanna do something about that and get back on my feet…”

There was a quiet thup sound as Sheila fired and Donny screamed and collapsed on the ground. I peered at him, but I couldn’t see any blood.

“I think ya missed, Sweetie.”

She turned and glared at me and I saw the beginning of the end for our relationship, such as it had been, just as you can see the first light in the sky a while before dawn. “Let me handle this,” she hissed. I stepped back into the shadows.

“Jesus, Baby!” Donny was wailing now. “You almost shot me. I heard it go past my ear!”

“Yeah? Good! I want you to know I’m serious, Donny! I can kill you whenever I want.”

“Yeah, okay, I get it! I’ll get help. I’ll do better! Really, I mean it Sheila.”

Donny had tears and snot on his face and now we had finally reached the blubbering part, the part I hated the most.

“Okay, well you just better—" she started to give him some more ‘what for’.

I stepped from the other side of the van, pulling my own Glock as I came around. Just as Donny looked my way, I shot him four times, in and around the heart. No silencer, either. It made quite a racket. He sprawled on his back in the weedy pasture and he never moved. I saw the crotch of his pants were wet.

“Jesus, Bill! We were still talkin’! You—you killed him!”

“Yeah,” I said, knowing it would soon be over between us now, “well, we came here to do a job. It’s done. Let’s get him up there in the brush.”

We dragged his skinny ass up there and cleaned out his pockets, then we left.

Sheila was pissed and I was starting to wonder if she ever really meant to kill him after all. Or maybe she just wanted to talk him to death.

It was really quiet all the way back to Wichita…


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Art by Kevin Duncan © 2016

Tony Boy

Kenneth James Crist

 

I awoke to a helluva hangover, a horrible taste in my mouth and a small woman with big boobs pressed against me. There was also a lot of noise, yelling, door slamming and general commotion.

I looked at the woman and realized how much trouble I was in. Stella Ramirez was Tony Boy’s old lady and as I looked at her swollen face, with its smeared makeup and puffy lips, it all started coming back to me…

The Rogues had invaded the motel and two small bars in the area last night. I was an outrider for the club and I had booked all the rooms in advance with cash, then called Tony Boy, the president of the Rogues and the road captain and told them where we would be staying that night. I knew that Stella loved his worthless ass, even though he liked to beat her up now and again.

But last night, she just wasn’t in the mood. He’d popped her a couple times and threw her out of their room, then he must have passed out. Either that or he decided he’d fuck somebody else for a while. She came down to the lower level and pecked on my door about ten after midnight.

Now, I’m as loyal as anybody else, but I’d had just enough to drink and she’d had just enough of Tony Boy’s bullshit. We wound up in bed.

She was fierce and wild, taking out her Tony Boy anger on me as we fucked each other’s brains out, then later, when she finally allowed it, I tongue-stroked her down there where all women love it until she came so hard I swore smoke came out of her ears.

Now, I grabbed her shoulder and gave her a shake, watching those honkin’ big tits sway and jiggle. Her eyes popped open and she groaned, sounding almost like she did the night before. “Wassup, Scooby?” There was a pause, and then, “Oh, fuck! What’d we do?”

“Yeah, we done the deed, Babe, and Tony Boy’s out there lookin’ for ya. We gotta get you outta here.”

“Fuck him. I ain’t goin’ back ta that cocksucker…”

“That’s up to you, okay? But right now you gotta get scarce. It’s my ass if he catches us! I don’t wanna wind up dead in some ditch somewhere!”

She hopped outta bed and started slamming herself back into her clothes, not taking time for bra or panties. She was starting to realize how much trouble she was in. Tony Bardeaux didn’t get to be the president of the Kansas City Rogues by being soft on anyone who betrayed him, not to mention fucking his woman.

I listened to all the yelling and door banging going on and it was coming closer. Tony was going door to door, looking for Stella.

I ran into the bathroom and tried the window. I struggled with the lock, which had been painted over about a thousand times. I finally took my shoe and beat on it and got it open. It looked like it might be big enough for a small biker chick with big tits to squeeze through.

Moments later, Stella was standing on the tub, her upper half barely making it out. Some pounding on the door encouraged her and she popped out into the alley like a watermelon seed. I ran back into the bedroom, grabbed her bra and panties and chucked them out behind her, slamming and latching the window again. Then I grabbed my greasy jeans and had them half on when I opened the door.

Tony Boy and Masher eyed me suspiciously as I pranced around, getting my jeans pulled up and zipped. They pushed by me and looked around the room.

“Wassup, Tony?” I had a pretty good sweat going, but I could pass that off to my pounding headache and nausea.

“Seen Stella, Scooby?”

“Yeah. Last night. She was out here bawlin’ and raisin’ hell coz you threw her out…”

“Know where she went?”

“Nah. She was makin’ noise about goin’ home. Tryin’ ta find a ride, or whatever…”

Masher was over at the bed. He pulled back the sheets and said, “Some pretty good pecker tracks here, Boss.”

Tony Boy walked over and leaned down, sniffing. “Smells like pussy, Scoob. Who you been fuckin’ in here?”

“Shit…I dunno…”

“The fuck you mean, you don’t know?” He had an evil grin pasted on his face and there was no humor in it.

“She was from over at that bar. The one with all the bamboo. Gimme a minute and maybe I can come up with her name…it’s all kinda blurry right now.”

“She that real skinny bitch with the scar?”

“Yeah, I think so…”

“Wow! You’d fuck a two-bagger like that? Hope ya wore a rubber, Man…”

Masher and Tony grinned at each other and walked out. “You see that fuckin’ Stella, I wanna see her, okay?”

“Kay, Boss. I’ll be rollin’ out pretty soon, go get started lookin’ for a place near Daytona.”

~   ~   ~

In the end, it took me too long to pack my shit and I didn’t make it outta there before Tony Boy found Stella. I heard the shouting and I heard Tony Boy screaming. He sounded almost like a woman. I guess he must have really loved Stella. His screams were the kind ya hear when some old lady’s poodle gets run over right in front of her.

I ran all the way around the motel to the alley in back, where the screaming was coming from. Stella had been face-down in the alley. She had crawled a ways, so she wasn’t directly under my window. Her bra and panties were, though. Kind of a dead giveaway, ya might say. Tony and Masher had turned her over. She was real fuckin’ dead.

When she belly-flopped in the alley, she landed on a broken wine bottle that was setting upright in all the garbage back there. It had pierced her right below her boobs, and by the look of the blood trail, probably got a major artery.

By the time I got there, Tony Boy had stopped screaming and he became very quiet. “Go ahead and call 911,” he said to Masher. He turned and glared at me, and I knew I was fucked. As he walked away, I said, “Tony. Tony, I’m sorry, man…I didn’t mean for any a this shit ta happen…” He waved me off and kept walking toward his room. I could see his shoulders shaking.

Masher said, “Dude, you need to go. Get on yer fuckin’ scoot and get on down the road. Call me later. Or don’t. I don’t give a rat’s ass, but don’t call Tony.”

I didn’t have to be told twice. Tony knew exactly what had happened and I was pretty sure he blamed me for it. As I was cranking up my bike to go, I changed my mind about that. That was when we all heard the gunshot from Tony Boy’s room…

~  ~  End  ~  ~







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Art by Kevin Duncan © 2016

Dirt Cheap

Kenneth James Crist

 

 

The six-foot black snake slid silently down the embankment of the freeway, headed back to her den, which ran under one of the bridge supports. She had fed well in the last hour and now she would rest and digest her meal. She had slipped into a burrow and found and killed several small rats, then she had also devoured a nest of baby rats, young enough that their eyes were not even open. She thought no more of this than a fat kid would think about eating corn chips.

As she reached the barren, dirt area under the bridge, she observed a sleeping bag, which was occupied by a rather scruffy sleeping man. She changed her mind about going into her burrow and eased up to the sleeping bag. She sought and found a small opening and slid inside. The man was warm and she soon settled in for a nap.

 

“That damn snake is back again. . . .” Fuzzy was breathing into my left ear and complaining about Lucille. They tolerated each other, but just barely. Fuzzy is a good-sized German Shepherd and they just seem to have a natural distrust of any and all snakes.

“She won’t eat much,” I said sleepily.

“Oh, she’s already eaten. I can smell rat all over her. . . .”

“That makin’ ya hungry, Big Guy?”

“I’d rather have some Eggs O’Brien, down at The Pit or something. Don’t mind killin’ rats. Just don’t wanna eat ‘em.”

I yawned and stretched and felt Lucille moving around, trying not to get squashed. “If you guys are getting up, I’m going home,” she said.

“Good idea,” Fuzzy said. She came out and waved her tongue at him in a dismissive manner and slithered away haughtily. Once she was at a safe distance, I heard her say, “Bite me, ya hairy fuck!” Fuzzy didn’t catch that one.

I rolled the sleeping bag and brushed my teeth with some bottled water and gave Fuzzy a drink, then we headed out. It looked like it was gonna be a gorgeous day.

 

My name, by the way, is Robby Metcalf. I was a soldier at one time and I fought in Iraq. The Humvee I was riding in got blown up by a roadside IED and after that, my head was never right. Doctors at the VA waste a lotta time and money trying to treat me, but I throw away most of the meds. The weird thing is, once I got back from the war and they let me outta the hospital, I found out I could understand and talk to animals. Dogs, cats, birds, horses, even snakes, makes no difference. I do whatever I can for my community and I live under a bridge. The animals know me and they help in any way they can. I trust them more than people. Animals don’t lie and they never try to fuck you over for money. I get a small check each month from Uncle Sam and I get along all right.

Fuzzy and I walked down eight blocks and over three to the back of a small breakfast-and-lunch place called The Pit. The former owner had named it The Grease Pit, but when he let the place go, Josť Dominguez, the new owner, decided to shorten it. Josť does not like Mexican food. He won’t eat it and he won’t cook it, either. He likes cooking on a flat-top grille, making omelets and grilled sandwiches of all kinds.

At his back door, Fuzzy and I gladly accepted a couple orders that didn’t come out just right. Josť has lived in several Central-American countries and he has seen the truly hungry and destitute. He thinks throwing away perfectly good food is a criminal act and I agree. He probably feeds at least a dozen homeless people every day and every stray dog and feral cat that comes along, too.

After we finished breakfast, Fuzzy and I walked down along the waterfront. It was the weekend, so the union guys were off spending time with their families and it was too early for picnickers and the roller-blade morons to be down by the water.

It wasn’t too early for the rats, though. As we walked along, I noticed one wizened old specimen sitting up on a picnic table, bold as you please, checking me out. As we got near enough, I heard him say, “Hold the dog, Pal. I need to talk to ya.”

“Can I kill him, Boss?” Fuzzy was pressed against my leg and ready to launch.

“Let’s wait and see what he has to say. If it’s bullshit, then you can nail his ass.”

“Seriously, man, there’s somethin’ needs yer attention. If you don’t wanna deal with it, then you need ta call the guys in the noisy cars.”

“You mean the cops?”

“Yeah, the cops. . . .” He sat up on his haunches and preened his whiskers with one front paw.

“Okay, what’s the deal?”

“Well, ya hafta go up that storm drain over there. Watch for chalk marks on the walls, pointin’ the way. Yer not gonna like what ya find, and some of my folks are takin’ advantage, too.”

“Taking advantage . . .”

“Yeah, food is food, but what they’re doin’ is just nasty. . . .”

“All right, we’ll check it out. Thanks for the info.”

Back on all fours, he bobbed his head up and down and then shot off the table, headed toward the water. I felt Fuzzy tense and I said, “Let him go. We’ll check this out and see what’s what. You up for a little adventure?”

“I guess. But I don’t really like sewers.”

“I’m gonna need ya, though. You can hear and smell things I might miss.”

“We’re gonna need light. It’s really dark back in there…”

We walked four blocks to a hardware store that was open and I bought a good lantern. One of those that throws a strong beam and is mounted right on a big six-volt battery. I had them add in a spare battery and we headed out.

The entry to the storm sewer was supposed to have a big iron grate over the end, but it had long since rusted away and the city didn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. There was a wet strip down the middle of the circular concrete tunnel and I could almost stand up straight. We were about a hundred feet back before we needed the light, and when I turned it on, the big rat was sitting up and looking at us. The tunnel branched, and he scurried away, taking the passage that went to the right.

At regular intervals we would come upon a catch basin, usually filled with trash, that we would have to negotiate. There was a certain amount of light near these, filtering down from street inlets and manhole covers. Now and again, in the distance, I would see the rat, or maybe one of his cousins, staying well ahead of us.

A quarter mile in, we started seeing chalk marks on the walls, crudely drawn arrows, pointing the way. I had noticed a lot of graffiti on the walls for the first couple hundred feet, but now there were only the arrows.

Fuzzy was walking head down, trudging along, not liking this sudden adventure one bit. He wasn’t saying anything about it, which in itself spoke volumes. Almost a half-mile in, we came to a sort of dead end. Against the blank wall was a hole about four feet in diameter going down. I shined my light down there and saw iron rungs set into the wall for service people to climb up and down. No way Fuzzy was going to get down there and it looked to be about forty feet to the bottom.

“What now, Boss?” Fuzzy was looking down and his voice was a little thin.

“I dunno, whattaya think?”

“I think it’s time to go home and take a nap. . . .”

“What, you’re not curious at all about what Mr. Rat told us?”

“I’m not curious at all. I know what’s down there, Boss.” He glanced up at me, but when I looked directly at him, he wouldn’t meet my eyes.

“What? Tell me.”

“Death. I smell death. Best walk away and call the cops.”

“Could be anything, Fuzz. Dead rat maybe . . .”

“Nope. It’s a person. Maybe more than one.”

“How do you know that, Big Guy?”

“Dead people have a smell all their own. Don’t forget, I was a cop dog. I’ve smelled it before. Remember Billy’s house? I knew it when we walked up on his porch, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you did. I remember, but I don’t smell anything right now, except sewer. I’m goin’ on down.” I took off my watch and laid it carefully beside the hole. “Look at this watch, Fuzz. See the longer of the two hands?”

His tongue was out now and he was panting. He didn’t like this shit at all. He stared at the watch face, the hands glowing in the darkness. “Yeah, got it. . . .”

“Okay, when that hand moves to the straight up position, if I’m not back, you haul ass outta here and go find Officer Julius, okay? If you raise enough hell with him, he’ll know to follow you, okay?”

“No . . . no, it’s not okay. I don’t like this at all. . . .”

“I know, but it’s only like twenty minutes and I’ll be back. Stay here and stay quiet. Keep track of the watch.”

He flopped down on his belly and moved up to where he could look down the shaft and I started down. His anxiety was apparent, but soon I was too far away to hear that almost silent whining sound he makes when he gets keyed up.

As I neared the bottom, I started to smell what Fuzzy was smelling when he started getting nervous. There was a definite stench of something rotten, and it wasn’t far away.

By the time I got to the bottom, the smell was almost overpowering. I hoped I could get a quick look and get the hell out and go call the cops. As I stepped off the ladder at the bottom, a gun barrel suddenly pressed into my ear and a low, silky voice said, “Hi, asshole. Just exactly what the fuck do you think you’re doin’ in my amusement park?”

Before I could even attempt to formulate an answer, I felt the sting of a needle in my thigh, and then everything started to get swimmy. I was barely able to put out my arms as the floor came up to swat me in the face.

~     ~     ~

Officer Earl J. Stonyer was sitting in his patrol car, near the playground area at Kellerman Park, writing his resignation letter on the car’s laptop. He was what the news media liked to call “a four-year veteran of the force,” even though he still felt like a fucking rookie every day. And he was still scared every day. He had no idea that every cop went to work every day, scared that this would be the day. The day they’d get shot. The day they’d get cut wide open. The day they’d wreck their car or motorcycle and get killed. And it really wasn’t so much the idea of getting killed that bothered most cops, Earl included. It was the thought of the embarrassment of dying because you were stupid. The thought of making yourself look bad when you died.

Earl had made the decision to quit some time back, when he began to realize that “the job” was not worth what he had invested. After four years, he had come to realize that the requirement that a person have a college degree to even apply to be a cop was patently stupid. A college degree to spend your time dealing with uneducated, drunken, dope-addled trash? What a joke. His father had done an entire career on the police force with nothing but a high school GED.

Earl was tired of cleaning up human garbage. In four years, he had yet to draw his weapon. He had never used his Taser. He had yet to punch anyone or use his service baton. He didn’t realize the lack of violence on his part actually showcased his skills as a talker, a charmer and a negotiator. Earl didn’t realize it, but in the next hour, he would enter the annals of his department’s history books and, when it was over, he’d never want to do that shit again.

~     ~     ~

Fuzzy didn’t wait for the hand on the stupid watch. He heard the faint sound from down below. Heard the man’s voice when he spoke to Robby, although he had to strain to hear it. And he heard Robby when he fell to the concrete. He knew what needed to be done, and not for the first time he wished he had been born a person. He was tempted to run as hard and fast as he could go, but he knew if he screwed up and injured himself in the dark, Robby was most likely dead. So he ran when he could and made himself slow down where he had to, where the going was treacherous and dark. He still made it back out of the storm sewer in half the time it took to go in.

Once he made the river bank, he hauled ass, dodging traffic, smoking past people so fast he was gone before they knew he was there. Most of the dummies were too intent on their cell phones to pay attention anyway. Fuzzy needed a cop. Just one would do. He knew they could talk to each other over their radios, though how that worked was still a mystery to him.

He ran past several restaurants that were cop hangouts, but it was too early for lunch and he struck out there. Finally, he tried the park and found a single cop car sitting with its motor running, the officer inside intent on doing paperwork.

When Fuzzy hit the driver’s door and bounced off, barking and raising hell, it startled the shit out of Earl Stonyer. The dog continued to hit the door, absolutely frantic, and it took Earl a minute to realize he knew this dog. Then he carefully lowered the window and reached out a hand to Fuzzy, who stood on his back legs, his front paws on the window sill, and barked in his face. Then the dog turned and raced away, halfway across the park, then turned and raced back, frantically barking and hitting the door again. This was repeated twice before Earl picked up his radio. He was a quick study for a human.

“3Mike-81, have 3Mike-20 contact me on the private channel.”

He switched to the seventh and last channel on his radio, waiting for Officer Julius Tambar to contact him. When Tambar came on, Earl told him what was going on and Tambar headed for the park.

Earl got out of the car and made every effort to calm the dog down, but Fuzzy wasn’t having any of that. It was not until Julius rolled up a few minutes later that he began to calm somewhat.

After watching Fuzzy for a short time, Tambar said, “I think it’s evident he wants us to follow him. Maybe Robby’s in trouble.”

“Oh, c’mon, really?” Earl was just a tad incredulous. “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s down the well? Are you shittin’ me?”

“Hey, what else you got to do? Let’s check it out.”

Earl thought about his unfinished resignation letter and decided, fuck it, it can wait. “Okay, what the hell, let’s go.”

Tambar knelt down beside Fuzzy and said, “Go find Robby! We’ll follow in our cars.”

Fuzzy took off like a shot, headed toward the river, and Earl and Julius scrambled to get in their cars and keep him in sight. In one or two places they used their lights and sirens to break traffic at intersections. When they arrived at the river and Fuzzy headed down the bank, Tambar and Earl parked and followed. When he started up into the storm drain, Earl stopped and said, “Okay, I don’t like this shit. We’d better check out with dispatch and tell ‘em where we are, and we’re gonna need lights.”

Tambar called the communications center on his cell phone to keep their adventure, or folly, off the air. Earl rounded up a huge flashlight from his trunk and grabbed his 12-gauge riot gun. In addition, they both checked their tactical lights, which locked onto a rail below the barrel of their service weapons. The lights were very bright, but not intended to last a long time. They were just what the name implied—tactical lights. Earl grabbed a few more items and when they were ready, they joined Fuzzy, who had been pacing in circles at the storm drain entrance.

~     ~     ~

I awoke to a pounding headache, a nasty taste in my mouth and the reek of cigar smoke. I found that I was trussed up, bound hand and foot with flex cuffs and I was lying on the cool concrete. At first, I thought I was alone, but after a bit, I was able to hear a single voice, back a ways further in the dark. The voice was that of a girl and she was mostly crying.

I tried calling out to her and the first few times, my efforts only caused her to fall silent. Then, after a while, she answered. “Be quiet! God’s sake, be quiet! If he comes back and we’re talking, he’ll beat us . . . or . . . or worse!”

“What’s your name?”

“Francie. Now be quiet!”

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen! God, you don’t get it, do you? He’ll hurt us. There’s dead people back here!”

Just then, I heard footsteps and we both fell silent. The low-pitched, calm voice again: “Awake, are we? Good. Let’s go over some rules. Down here, I am king. If you disobey me, you die. Can you smell them?”

When I said nothing, I received a vicious kick in my side and the question was repeated. “Can you smell them?”

“Yes.”

“They . . . each and every one, disobeyed me. So. You see what happens.”

“Yes.”

“What is your name, Little Piggy?”

“Robert.”

“Robert what?”

“Robert Metcalf. I prefer Robby.”

“And where do you live, Robert-Robby?” I could vaguely see the outline, the silhouette of a large man, but I could tell little else.

“I live under a bridge.”

“More specific.”

“The 9th Street bridge.”

“Are you homeless, Robert-Robby?”

“Yes.”

“By choice, or by the whim of fate?”

“By choice.”

“Where is your watch?”

“Wh . . .  what?”

“Your watch. I checked you out while you were sleeping. You wear a watch, but it’s not there now. Where is it?”

“I gave it to a dog.”

“Now, what use would a dog have for a watch? Is it a special dog?”

“Yes. He’s my best friend.”

From back behind me, I again heard crying. The man raised his voice. Not much, just a little. “Francie? Unless you want to do what we did last night, I need you to be quiet now.”

The man turned back to me and in a stage whisper, he said, “Francie is quite the little slut. I make her do things and I do things to her. She pretends not to like it, but I know better. Getting back to this watch you gave to a dog, why did you do that?”

“So he would know when to go get the cops.”

I was startled by his deep, booming laugh and the smack of his own hand slapping his knee. “That’s a good one, Robert-Robby! Trusting a dog to tell time? And go get the police? Amazing!”

Further back in the dark, the crying started up again. The man said, “Excuse me for a minute, Robert-Robby. I have to attend to this.”

He shuffled off into the darkness and in a minute, the crying stopped. Then there was a choked-off, gasping scream and I could hear him talking to Francie in a low voice, although I couldn’t make out his words.

Soon, he came back and, abruptly, there was the flare of a match and he lit a candle. He turned to me and I saw his hideously scarred and deformed face, and he said, “Now, where were we?”

~     ~     ~    

The humans were too slow and too cautious, as far as Fuzzy was concerned. He would sprint ahead, only to have to turn around and run back, to make sure he didn’t lose them. Even though the course was clearly marked, he had no way to communicate this to them and he knew Robby had only a short time to live and that the man he cared for the most in this world was depending on him. If only all humans could talk to him like Robby.

At last, Fuzzy reached the vertical shaft. Robby’s wristwatch was still there, right where he’d placed it before making the foolish decision to go down there alone. The police were still fifty yards back when Fuzzy heard Robby cry out in pain, the sound of his anguish floating up from below with an echoing quality that made Robby seem even farther away than he really was.

Fuzzy wanted badly to call out to Robby and let him know help was on the way, but he restrained himself. He still didn’t know who or what might be down there and there was no sense in alerting them. In his mind, he saw his old NYPD handler making the signs for “down” and “quiet.” His training kicked in, and when Julius Tambar and Earl Stonyer arrived, they found him lying on his belly, his head hanging over the edge of the shaft, looking down. Tambar reached out to pat him and it was like touching an electric wire. The tension was coming off the dog in waves. Tambar had the feeling if they didn’t do something quick, Fuzzy was going to dive in and most likely fall to his death.

“Can you smell that?” Earl looked at Tambar and asked. He looked a little green.

“Yeah. Decomp. We’d better get down there. We’re gonna be at a disadvantage. If there’s somebody down there and they’re armed, we could be takin’ rounds right up our asses before we know what’s happenin’.”

Earl smiled just a little and said, “Let me go first. I brought two flash-bangs with me. At the first sign of trouble, I’ll drop one and we’ll get down as fast as we can. Let’s go dark and slow until we’re right near the bottom, then I’ll decide if we need the grenades.”

Tambar nodded and said, “Sounds like a plan. Radios and cell phones off. Fuzzy, you stay quiet. Let us do this, okay?” Fuzzy’s tongue flopped out and his tail actually wagged for the first time since he hit Earl’s car door.

~     ~     ~

“So, Robert-Robby, how do you like my face? Does it look nice to you?”

I couldn’t think of anything to say, and evidently I was too slow. There was an excruciating pain, and a five-inch switchblade was suddenly sticking out of my thigh. I don’t normally consider myself a pussy, and I’ve been through a lot of pain in my life, but I screamed like a girl. I think it was the shock as much as anything, that someone would do such a thing, largely unprovoked.

The man did a good job of placement when he stuck me. He got nowhere near any major vessels or arteries, just shoving it into the meat of my thigh about ten inches above the knee.

“What’s the matter, Robert-Robby, cat got yer tongue?” He giggled and slowly, ever so slowly withdrew the blade as he said, “I believe I asked you a question . . . how do you like my face?”

“I . . . I can’t say I like it or dislike it. What happened to you?”

“My fucking father happened to me. Many years ago. This is what happened at my house if you forgot your chores. Or forgot to say “Sir” or “Ma’am” to your elders. My father was a MAN OF GOD, you see. He could justify anything he wanted with his Bible. He could rape me or my sister, he could beat our mother, whatever he wanted. There was always a . . . a scripture that would make it right somehow. Did you know, Robert-Robby, that God does not exist? Oh, he might for some people, but in my world there is only Father Satan and right now, guess what Father Satan is telling me to do? Care to guess? No?”

And there was the switchblade again, same thigh, two inches higher and on the opposite side. This time I held the scream a little better, but I felt like I was either going to puke or pass out. Or both. And then the world exploded.

~     ~     ~

Earl Stonyer was four, quiet, delicate rungs from the bottom of the steel ladder when he heard the voice asking Robby about Father Satan and the partially-stifled scream as the man used the knife again. He glanced up at Julius Tambar and held up a flash-bang stun grenade. Julius nodded, hooked his arm through a rung and covered his ears and closed his eyes.

Earl pulled the pin, dropped the grenade and likewise covered his ears and closed his eyes. The flash and sound were devastating in the enclosed space. While causing no actual damage or injury, the sound and flash were intended merely to stun and incapacitate. Earl dropped to the floor and Tambar scrambled to follow as quickly as possible.

Down in the enclosure, which was really just a larger catch basin with more sewer branches leading in and out, the smell was overpowering. Earl’s tactical light was snapped on the rail below the barrel of his Glock .40, and as he swung it around, a hulking monster was coming directly at him out of the dark, wielding a knife.

As is the case in many police shootings, it was all over in under five seconds, the target was less than three yards away, and Earl couldn’t remember making any kind of decision to pull his trigger. The decision was already made for him by years of training.

He put four rounds into the would-be assailant in two-point-one seconds and ended his miserable life.

On the floor, practically at his feet, Robby Metcalf howled in pain and blessed his furry friend all at the same time.

~     ~     ~

As I lay on the floor, smelling the reek of decomposition mixed with expended gunpowder, Julius knelt down beside me and began to fashion a tourniquet out of a towel. Earl Stonyer, whom I had met only once before, was seeing to the girl, Francie. The officers soon found that their radios would not reach central dispatch through all the concrete and steel. I was pretty sure I could walk, but the girl would need to be packed out by EMS. Tucked away further back in the dark were four bodies. They would have to wait a while longer. Julius climbed back up to use the radio and reassure Fuzzy.

The police dispatch had access to underground maps and communications with sanitation workers and it was still over an hour before help started arriving. By the time it was getting dark that evening, I had managed to walk out to a waiting ambulance. Francie and I were taken to two different hospitals, a homicide team was working down in the storm sewers and Earl and Julius were buried in paperwork and interviews with the Internal Affairs shooting team.

Later, after I’d been released, I got the scoop on what happened from Julius. At the end of five days, all but one of the dead had been identified and the homicide team felt sure there could have been dozens of victims over several years. The sanitation people said all it would take was one good rain and the catch basin would fill up and overflow, cleaning itself out. Any bodies down there would be swept out into the river and then, eventually into the ocean.

Douglas Cavenaugh, the King of the Sewer System, had no police record of any kind. He was orphaned at the age of eleven when his house mysteriously exploded in the middle of the night, killing both his parents. He happened to be away at church camp at the time. He was in and out of foster care and also a mental facility, after he began performing self-mutilation. And then, in 1999, at the age of twenty, he disappeared from all records. In an old ring binder near the bodies, police found a 45-page manifesto in which Cavenaugh pledged himself to Father Satan and repeatedly spoke of the “dirt cheapness” of human life.

~     ~     ~

Fuzzy stayed with Julius Tambar and his wife and kids until I got out of the hospital. The wife and kids were sad to see him go back to the streets.

A week later, a canine officer in New York City sent an inquiry about the German Shepherd he’d seen in the papers. Hailed as a hero, Fuzzy looked an awful lot like the police dog he’d lost a few years back. Julius Tambar assured him that I had raised him from a pup and it couldn’t possibly be the same dog.

~     ~     ~

Deep in the miles of city sewers, a wise old rat made his rounds, feasted on the leavings of the city and soon forgot all about the big dog and the man who could talk to animals.

 

 


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Art by Kevin Duncan © 2016

Not Gonna Make Christmas This Year


by Kenneth James Crist


 


The cops are up ahead. This is the third roadblock I’ve come up on. I’ve been fortunate the first two times and I was able to turn off onto side roads without arousing suspicion. This time, though, there are no side roads. I’m fourteen miles west of Greensburg, Kansas, and the traffic is backed up for half a mile. If I try to turn around, they’ll surely see that and they’ll chase me down. They have big Dodge Chargers with Hemi engines. I’ve got a fucking Chevy HHR with a two-liter engine and bad valves. Gotta do something, though, and it’s gonna hafta be quick.


Three days ago, I stopped at the post office in Rifle, Colorado, just to get stamps for postcards. I was on the first vacation I’d been able to take in nine years and I had made the decision to go by myself. I had dreamed of a long road trip. No kids, no wife, nobody but me and as many national parks as I could squeeze into two weeks of driving. I could stay in cheap motels, drink beer until all hours, sleep as late as I wanted and worry about exactly nothing. It sounded like heaven. And it was, until I walked into that post office. . . .


The car behind me has turned his lights out, or maybe he just has his park lights on. Good. I’m gonna hafta get out on foot, and that’ll make it easier. The HHR doesn’t have shit for a dome light. The owner probably hated that about it, but tonight, maybe Karma is gonna kick in and I can get to some cover without being seen. To the left is the other two lanes of the highway, steady traffic over there. The cops know I’m still west of them, so they don’t care about westbound traffic.


To my right is a good old Kansas cornfield. The corn is dry, but still standing. Some farmer is spending too much time fucking around at the Co-op in town and hasn’t got his crop in, yet. It would be better if the corn was still green—better cover and all that—however, it’s late November now. But I know if I can get far enough back into that field, I’ll have a good chance.


The clerk at the post office in Rifle was nervous as hell and I couldn’t figure out why. I smiled at him and tried to put him at ease, and he tried to cover his nervousness with his little chuckle and off-hand manner, but the sweat on his forehead and the little tic in his right cheek told me something was rotten in Denmark. I got my stamps and paid for them. He dropped part of my change because he was shaking. What the fuck?


Even with the HHR’s feeble dome light, if I open the door, the guy behind me and possibly the driver in front of me will see me get out and haul ass into the field. Then, when the HHR doesn’t move up, that’ll cause a stir and they’ll be onto me. Of course, the little Chevy isn’t the car they’re looking for. I stole this fucker at a convenience store in Woodland Park and then swapped the plates with another HHR in Cimarron Kansas, but still. . . .


Then, as I turned away from the counter, away from ol’ nervous Nellie, the amazing vibrating clerk, it all began to come together. There, on the bulletin board was my picture. I was wanted, it seemed. And not just a little bit. I was on the Ten Most Wanted list from the FBI. I didn’t have time to read what they wanted me for. I was more interested in getting out of there. I thought I did rather well. I showed no emotion at all, never even let on that I’d seen myself. I calmly walked out to my Jeep Commander and drove away, knowing fuck-face in the postal orifice was already shakily dialing the law. . . .


I run the passenger side window down and scramble over the console and into the right-hand seat. The car is still running and its lights are still on. I reach up and turn the rearview mirror to the right until I can see the car behind me. The driver is a chick. Looks to be in her twenties and it looks like there are a couple of Pablum Pirates in their widdle child seats in back. In fact, she’s turned completely around, doing something with her fucking brats. I also see there is a Rudolph nose on the front of the hood and a set of those dumbass reindeer antlers that fit in the side windows. How vewwy vewwy cute. Well, no time like the present.


I slide head-first out the window, landing on my hands and flopping over onto my hip. Hurts like a sumbitch, but I ignore it and in about three seconds I’m into the corn and headed south. I know this won’t be much of a lead, but it’s all I’ve got.


Wow. The FBI’s Ten Most Wanted. That’s a scary thing, especially when you don’t know what you did to get there. Now, I started thinking like a criminal. At first, I just drove the damn Jeep and thought a lot about how I was gonna get away. Where I was gonna go. I knew I had to get back East, into areas of the country I knew. I couldn’t do shit out West. Until this vacation, I’d never been west of the Mississippi River. Toward the eastern side of Colorado, it dawned on me that it might be wise to get the hell off the Interstate. Many miles farther, I realized I needed to change cars. Not enough money to go to a dealer and do the whole swap thing, besides, I didn’t have my title with me, anyway.


In Woodland Park, I stashed the Jeep on a side street and hiked about six blocks to a 7-Eleven store and got some coffee. Waited until the HHR driver left his car running and dashed inside. Then I dashed with his car. Probably took the cops a while to find the Jeep and realize what happened.


A cornfield in Western Kansas. Sounds like a joke, or the start of a bad Country Western tune. I never knew that the leaves on common field corn can be sharp enough to cut you. Especially when they’re dry, like now. And when you’re running, like now. In order to keep the dry leaves from catching me in the face, I have to keep my hands up, almost like you would in a boxing ring. Makes it awkward when trying to run. And, like most middle-aged American males, I’m not in the best of shape. Combine that with a chill factor in the teens, because it’s night and it’s windy, and it makes it tough going. But I need some miles before I stop to rest anywhere.


Cimarron, Kansas at four in the morning is pretty much dead. No town Marshall, no other cops and, I was pretty sure, no crime rate either. I cruised around, looking at all the pretty Christmas lights, until I found another HHR, sitting on a side street about as far as it could get from a street light. I had a pair of Vice Grips I’d bought at Ace Hardware in Pueblo, Colorado, and it only took a minute to get the tag off the car. I drove out of town and pulled off on a dirt road to switch the tags. Sailed the Colorado tag out into a wheat field, like a rectangular Frisbee. Drove on.


Half a mile off the road now, deep in the cornfield, blowing like a beached whale. I jog to a stop and bend over, hands on knees, ready to puke, but I have nothing to vomit up. Fuck, it’s really cold out here. Wouldn’t it be just goddamn perfect now, if it would snow? I think about Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and I realize it was playing in the kitchen just before I left home on vacation.


I try to remember . . . what else? There was something going on, noise over the top of the music, something high-pitched . . . but then it’s gone, and I decide I’d better move. When I look back across the field to where the HHR is parked, there are red and blue lights there, now. My lead is narrowing.


As I get about another quarter-mile, I hear a hell of a racket and I soon recognize it as the sound of a helicopter. Bell Long Ranger. Nice machine, and it’s coming my way. The corn isn’t thick enough to hide me. Not if they have a spotlight.


The thought no sooner passes through my mind than the spotlight comes on, sweeping the field. It’s one of those typical, million-candlepower lights that law enforcement agencies use to turn night into day. They probably have FLIR, too. Forward Looking Infrared. My body heat will glow against the cold ground and they’ll see me for miles. Aw, Jesus! I’m screwed! What the fuck else can go wrong now?


I look up at the chopper, shake my fist at them and scream at the top of my lungs. Over and over. Why not? They can’t fucking hear me. And I still can’t imagine what this is about.


“Ronald Lassiter! This is the FBI! Raise your hands and walk out of the field! We have the field surrounded! Surrender now!” The PA system on the chopper is more than just a bullhorn. I’m sure people in Kansas City could hear that fucker, if they would just step outside.


I turn and run at right angles to the helicopter, and it merely circles to cut me off. “Last chance, Lassiter! Stop now, or we will shoot!”


Well, maybe that’s best. I’m very tired now and I realize I haven’t been running for three days. I’ve been running ever since I left home. I just let myself believe I was on vacation.


Pain. Pain and heat. Tremendous pain on the right side of my back. Then more pain in my left shoulder and I am slapped down into the dirt and filth between the cornrows. I’m trying to crawl and something snaps into the ground right beside my head. The helicopter is almost directly over me, now. The rifleman perched on the skid has an easy target.


The pain throbs, and I can feel my blood pulsing out into the dirt. I’m all done and I know it.


And then, it all floods back. My wife screaming as I stabbed her over and over in the kitchen, the kids, too.


Here’s your goddamn Christmas! Here! And here! All ya want! Here! Have some more!


Everyone screaming until at last, there was blessed silence. And then I just went on vacation.


My vision is going dark and sparkly around the edges and it’s so damned hard to breathe.


Merry fucking Christmas. Bingle Jells and alla that . . . . I guess Christmas is a bust this year. . . . Daddy kinda spoiled it, huh? Kids?





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Art by Kevin Duncan © 2017

Death and Forsythia

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

 Once again, spring had come to the city. It was much more comfortable sleeping than it had been just a couple weeks prior and I had decided to sleep in. Being homeless and unemployed, living under a bridge and subsisting on a small government disability check and the kindness of others, there was little purpose in the “rise and shine” mentality.

My name, by the way, is Robby Metcalf. I was a soldier at one time and I fought in Iraq. The Humvee I was riding in got blown up by a roadside IED and after that, my head was never right. Doctors at the VA waste a lotta time and money trying to treat me, but I throw away most of the meds. The weird thing is, once I got back from the war and they let me outta the hospital, I found out I could understand and talk to animals. Dogs, cats, birds, horses, even snakes, makes no difference. I do whatever I can for my community and I live under a bridge. The animals know me and they help in any way they can. I trust them more than people. Animals don’t lie and they never try to screw you over for money.

On this particular morning as I yawned, stretched and farted and tried to settle down in my sleeping bag, my rest was intruded upon by a persistent squealing noise. I was used to the squealing of brakes from the bridge overhead, accompanied by the rumble of trucks and the smell of diesel exhaust, but this was different. This was what you might hear around a playground or day care when the kids were outside, just having themselves a hell of a good time.

Once that sunk in, I sat up rather quickly and looked around. What I saw, from my perspective, was nothing less than astonishing. There, a scant fifteen feet away, in the morning sunshine, was my best friend Fuzzy, a 120 lb. ex-police German Shepherd, who was herding and watching over a pretty filthy toddler wearing nothing but a sagging diaper and a winning smile. This was the source of the squealing. It was readily apparent the kid really liked the nice doggie and I already knew Fuzzy doted on kids. It seemed we had somehow inherited a child. Well, fuck me. . . .

“What the hell, Fuzzy?”

“Oh, hey Boss. Look what followed me home! Can I keep him?”

“Can you keep him? Shit man, that’s a kid! He’s not a pet. And we damn sure can’t afford one of those. The diapers alone. . . .”

“Yeah, speaking of diapers, Boss, this needs a change.” Fuzzy nosed the kid’s ass and turned away, snorting and then flopping his tongue out. Would have been comical, if the situation weren’t so dire.

“Well, I don’t happen to have a supply of Pampers here. We’ll have to go shopping. More importantly, where the hell did you find him?”

“Oh, he was just wanderin’ around down there,” Fuzzy pointed with his nose, “and as soon as he saw me, he just latched onto me.”

“He’s gotta be about freezin’ to death. Let’s find somethin’ to warm him up a bit.” I started digging around through my semi-clean clothes and came up with a flannel shirt that would have to do. I rolled the sleeves until they were half their length or less and quickly popped the kid into the shirt. It actually wrapped around twice, but that was okay. Extra layers wouldn’t hurt. All the while I was doing this, he was squirming and hollering. As soon as I set him back down, he went straight to Fuzzy and he was fine.

“I think we’re gonna need the cops for this deal, but first you’d better show me where you found him.” I picked the boy up and balanced him on my arm as we started out walking south along Ninth. He was barefoot and he was a black kid and, being white as a flock of seagulls myself, I knew this might cause some real problems if someone saw us and took the whole deal the wrong way. What do you say to the first big guy or lady who wants to know where you got that kid? ‘Honest, Dude, I’m really not a child thief/molester, please don’t shoot me in my ass. . . ?

We only went a couple of blocks when Fuzzy stopped and said, “Right there, Boss. He was playin’ in that vacant lot right there. I was just out for a mornin’ pee and he spotted me and . . . you know the rest.”

The area wasn’t all that promising. The houses on either side of the vacant lot were boarded up and the ones further away looked like crack houses. Further south, I saw one house that looked like it had been cared for in a reasonable manner and I started that way. On my arm, the kid was slobbering and making car noises. I wondered if he was trying to cut a new tooth.

I looked the house over from the street, taking in pale yellow siding and white trim on a frame that was probably built after World War II, when the soldiers came home. A dark green Pontiac Grand Prix sat in the gravel drive to the right of the house and some forsythia bushes were starting to bud out next to the porch. As soon as I started up the porch steps, the kid started wailing.

I stopped and looked at Fuzzy. He was looking up at me, his tail slowly wagging. “Just set him down here, Boss. I’ll watch him.”

I looked at the front door and noted that it was slightly ajar. Suddenly, I realized the place was too quiet. Spookily quiet, and a goose walked over my grave. “Yeah,” I said, “you watch him and I’ll just take a quick look inside here….”

“Ahhh . . . you don’t wanna do that, Robby. . . .”

I looked back at Fuzzy and he was down on his belly. The kid was trying to climb onto his back and Fuzzy, my constant pal and companion for the last several years, had just called me by my given name and he wouldn’t meet my eyes. “What’s goin’ on, Fuzz? We got trouble here?”

“Oh yeah, we got trouble. You can’t smell that?”

“Nope, sorry Bud. I got nothin’ here out of the ordinary. What is it?”

“Blood. Death. Dead people, Boss. I’d stay out and call the cops.”

“But there might be someone alive, Fuzzy. A few seconds could make all the difference . . .”

“Don’t think so, but you do whatever you gotta do. Be careful, man.”

I stepped to the door and only wished I had a pair of latex gloves. I elbowed the door open and stepped carefully through, alert for any sound from inside. I could hear something dripping, probably a faucet with a bad washer dripping into a sink. The front room was clear and the door I came through didn’t appear to have been forced. So far, so good.

There was a doorway to my left, hung with a bead curtain and directly ahead and slightly to the right was an archway to the back of the house. There was a stairway to the second floor directly in front of me. Any way I went, if there was anyone here and they were armed, they could get in behind me and I was fucked.

I chose the room to my left and stepped through the bead curtain with barely a whisper from the hanging, multi-colored plastic beads.

First body. Black male, face down, shirtless. One in the back of the head and two more in the back, all from pretty close range. This would be a good time to go the hell back out the front door and call my friend, Julius Tambar, to bring the cavalry. Julius is a city cop and a damn good one. He does a job every day that is made even more difficult because he is black. He also believes me when I tell him I can talk to animals. He’s seen it firsthand.

I carefully stepped around the blood pool and continued toward the back of the house. I stepped into the kitchen and found number two. He was still in the old, cracked kitchen chair he’d died in, somehow propped against the table. It looked like the merest touch would send him toppling to the floor. There was white residue and a pair of glass crack pipes on the table, along with a lot of other trash. Number two had taken a round in the face, just below his eye and another almost dead center in the chest. He too was a black male, black t-shirt and khaki shorts, no shoes and no more heartbeats, either. I looked to the kitchen sink, where the dripping noise was coming from. Blood was coming through the ceiling from the second floor and dripping into a pan in the sink. I shuddered and backed the fuck outta there.

From the living room, a clock started chiming and I nearly crapped my pants. I waited for my own heart to settle and moved on, back to the stairs and up to the second floor, moving on the outside edges of the treads, hoping to keep the stairs from creaking. Near the top, I stopped and peeked onto the second floor, taking quick looks and ducking back down. I could see a foot protruding from the bathroom doorway at the top of the stairs, wearing a red shoe. Number three. Black female who might have been pretty ten years and fifty pounds ago, and when she was still alive. She too had caught a round in the back and another in the head. Her head was against the side of the tub and her neck was bent at an uncomfortable angle. Her pain was long since gone, though. She was the source of the blood dripping through the floor.

I moved quietly through the two bedrooms, looking for more victims, but that seemed to be all. As I was about to leave the second bedroom, I noticed a baby bed and a stack of disposable diapers. There was a smell of urine, too, and I wondered where that was coming from.

Using my shirttail to avoid leaving prints, I opened the closet door to my left and something moved in the dark. I heard a low keening sound and then a sob of despair. Quietly, I said, “You can come out now. They’re gone. I won’t hurt you.”

A voice answered, with a quaver, “You the police?”

“No, but they’re gonna be comin’ in a few minutes. If you need to leave, I’d do it now.”

“I cain’t,” she said, as she crawled out of the closet, “they gots mah baby!”

Now I knew where the urine smell was coming from. At some point, probably at the height of the shooting, she’d pissed herself. I’d have probably done no better. I looked her over. She was light-skinned and maybe still in her twenties. She wore a black tank top and shorts that had been white until the shooting went down. She wore no shoes and no jewelry. I could tell she was pretty and I was sure her smile would light up a room.

“Is he about two years old, just wearing a diaper?”

“Oh, Jesus honey, please tell me you seen him? Is he alive?” She was standing now and the top of her head just about reached my shoulder. She was gripping my arm just above the elbow and her imploring face was inches away from mine.

“He’s fine. He’s out on the front porch with my dog. C’mon, let’s get you outta here.”

As we passed the bathroom, I saw her glance inside and I figured she’d start wailing any time now, but to my surprise, she held her cool and we made it downstairs and out of the house. On the porch, she scooped up her little boy and then the tears came. Again, I’d have probably done no better. I dragged out my cell phone and called Julius from the front sidewalk, telling him what I’d found and giving him the address.

“Robby,” he asked, as his siren started whooping in the background, “how do you manage to get into so much shit?”

“Just blessed, I guess, can ya just hurry up and get here, man?”

“On the way. . . .”

~     ~     ~

Within a minute we started hearing sirens. Soon a rescue squad and an ambulance pulled up and stopped a block away. I knew the drill. They’d be forced by their own protocol to wait until the cops arrived to secure the scene before they could move in.

In another minute, cops started showing up. Tambar was actually the third car to pull up. By that time, two other cops had moved us back to the sidewalk and they had moved into the house and checked it top to bottom. They came back out and got out the crime scene tape and went to work.

Julius parked me in the front seat of his car and the black chick and her kid went in the back seat of another. Separate the witnesses, so they don’t get their stories together. Again, standard procedure.

“They been dead a couple hours, looks like,” Julius said, “so tell me, how’d you get involved in this?”

I explained about Fuzzy finding the kid wandering around and watching over him until I woke up, then bringing me back down to the house. His only comment was, “Damn, wish I could talk to that dog like you can.”

The squad and ambulance left, but not before the medics checked out the woman and the kid, just to be sure they were okay. I knew in just a little while, the coroner’s wagon would arrive. I also knew the black woman was in trouble. As soon as the word got out that she had been in the house and she was still alive, the shooters would be looking to take her out, as a possible witness who could identify them.

And, by extension, I might be in danger too. They might figure she’d told me who they were, or at least what they looked like. It wasn’t long before we all got hauled downtown to give statements. I knew the neighborhood was watching and we might all have just shortened our lives by not walking away when we had the chance. Julius told me not to worry, that they’d stay on top of things, but I knew better. At least I didn’t have to worry about Fuzzy. He was going to spend his day riding around in a police car with Julius.

~     ~     ~

The police building downtown was a place I was all too familiar with, having been there before on a few occasions. In police-talk, they call them “interview rooms.” The term “interrogation,” you see, has become passť. Sort of like how they never arrest anyone anymore. They detain them. Or take them into custody. Same shit, different terminology.

I was placed in Interview 6 and left to stew for an hour. I didn’t stew. Fuck that. I put my head down on the hard table and took a nap. I wasn’t handcuffed, but I knew the door was locked. I didn’t even bother to check. At the end of an hour, Detectives Clerk and Beckmeyer came in to get my statement. Did I need to use the restroom? No. Did I need something to drink? No. They already had my DNA on file. Maybe they hadn’t checked on that, yet. Or maybe they were just being genuinely friendly.

“Okay, Robby. Tell us how you came to be inside the house at 714 Cleveland this morning.” I told my story. They pretty much let me run through it the first time uninterrupted. Then, they began trying to pick it apart. Why didn’t I just call the cops when I found the kid? It’s the neighborhood, I explained. You don’t call the cops over trivial shit. I figured I’d just find where the kid belonged and maybe keep some young mother out of trouble with Child Protective Services.

“How do you know Trish Bennett?”

Who? The kid’s mom. Oh, is that her name? You didn’t know her name? Nope. She probably doesn’t know mine, either.

And so it went. With a few bathroom breaks and, what the hell, one cup of hideous coffee. I was back out on the street in a mere four hours. No ride home offered, I started walking, thinking hard about Fuzzy. Sometimes that works. Somehow he knows I’m thinking about him and he’ll come find me. This time, a marked cop car pulled up and there he was, happily riding with Tambar.

“Figured you’d be off-duty by now,” I said, as I climbed in.

“Pretty close. ‘Bout fifteen minutes, if nothin’ breaks between now and then.”

“Well, we appreciate the lift. . . .” Tambar reached across and handed me something heavy and small, wrapped in a shop towel. I unwrapped it just enough to see a Beretta .25 semi-automatic, tiny, black and deadly.

“No prints on that,” he said, “I’d keep it that way, if I were you. I took that off a pimp last year and it’s unregistered.”

“Am I in that much trouble?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t know yet. If someone comes after you, I’d like you to have something in your hand more lethal than your dick. If I was sure you was in trouble, I’d make ya go get a serious firearm.”

“Well, okay, I appreciate this, too.”

“Just don’t target practice and don’t shoot yerself in the balls. . . .”

“So, is the house where everybody got shot Trish’s house?”

“Nope. Turns out she just came there with her sometimes live-in boyfriend, who happens to be little Deandre’s daddy, to buy some dope. She says while they were there, some other thugs she didn’t know showed up and the shootin’ started. She heard it goin’ down and hid in the closet. Didn’t know where the kid was and she was too scared to come out. So boyfriend is dead and the dealer and his old lady, too. We have no idea how the kid got out alive, unless the shooters figured he was too little to bother with.”

“Robbery being the motive?”

“That, and maybe turf. Maybe the scumbag that lived there was dealin’ where he shouldn’t have been.”

“So, Trish get her kid back?”

“Naw, not yet. She’s gonna hafta go to court. Show cause and alla that, since the kid was in the home of a known drug dealer and was technically endangered. Plus, a caseworker will hafta go out to wherever she lives and look over her house and all that, see if it’s a fit environment to raise a kid.”

“Okay, do me a favor?”

“Get her address for ya, right?” Tambar smiled, but only with his mouth. His eyes looked wary.

“Yeah . . . I’d like to look in on her, make sure she’s all right.”

“Trust me, you’d be better to leave it alone.” Now he wasn’t smiling at all.

“Yeah. Yer probably right. . . .”

“1220 Du Bose. It’s right off Columbus. . . .”

We were pulling in under my bridge and I realized Fuzzy and I hadn’t eaten a damn thing all day. “Thanks, Man,” I said as I opened the car door. I stepped to the back door and let Fuzzy out.

“Your funeral, Dude.” I glanced in at him and he was smiling again, “Just watch yer ass, okay?”

~     ~     ~

As it turned out, I didn’t have to go looking for Trish. She found us, later on that evening, when Fuzzy and I went out and scored some dinner. I was sitting at an old picnic table behind Big Pete’s Bar-B-Que Emporium on 12th street, and Fuzzy and I were working our way through ribs and brisket that was left from the day before. The owner, a guy I just knew as Sandusky, never threw away anything that wasn’t spoiled. He had a good following of homeless peeps and stray dogs and cats to feed.

A somewhat familiar dark green Pontiac pulled up in the alley and the driver’s window rolled down. Trish looked me and Fuzzy over, then said, “Hey, can I talk to you?”

I was about finished anyway, and I spoke to Fuzzy. “If she decides to kidnap me, I’ll be back home later, okay?”

He looked up from his meal just long enough to give me two wags and a “Be careful,” then he turned back to his grub. I sauntered over to the car, intending to talk to her through the window, but she motioned me to come around to the passenger side.

As I slipped into the car, she turned to me and reached out with both arms and I held her. “Thanks for what you did today. You coulda just walked away any time. . . .” She was breathing close to my ear for a moment and then she moved away. I watched her smooth, pretty face as two tears tracked down her cheeks.

“You’re very welcome. If there’s anything else I can do, just let me know.”

“Officer Tambar said you live under a bridge . . . is that true?”

“Yep. It’s by choice. Keeps me tough and independent.” As I spoke, I was looking her over. She was wearing a light blue blouse and a navy skirt that hit just above her knees and black two-inch heels. Her hair was cut in a short ‘fro and picked out and shaped perfectly. She cleaned up nice.

“I don’t suppose you own a suit?” She sniffed, then grabbed a Kleenex from a box on the dash.

“No, but I could probably come up with something.”

“I may need a pallbearer. Don’t know when the funeral will be. Don’t even know when they’ll release Donnie’s body.”

“Well, put my cell number in your phone and you can call me as soon as you know something. Will that work?”

“I think that would be great.” I gave her my number and she keyed it in. “Okay, well, I’d better get home, then.”

I reached over and squeezed her hand and said, “Hang in there, Trish. It’ll get better.” She made no reply and I stepped back out of the car and watched her drive off. Fuzzy was up on the bench of the picnic table, finishing off my dinner for me. He looked up with that doggie “oh shit, I’m caught” expression, and I just grinned at him and said, “Well, aren’t you a good helper?” I dumped our trash in the provided receptacle and we headed for home.

After dark, as I settled into my sleeping bag and Fuzzy moved up between me and the dangers of the world, my phone buzzed. I checked it and found a text from Trish. It said, “Good night, Robby Metcalf, wherever you are.” I answered with a smiley face and went to sleep.

~     ~     ~

“The funeral will be at Jackson’s over on 14th and Lowry, Tuesday afternoon at two. Can you make it?” Trish had finally called. It had been almost a week with no word, but I knew she hadn’t forgotten me. I got a text from her almost every day. I seemed to be hearing a lot from Julius Tambar, too. Usually he was “just checking in on me.” It told me he was worried.

“I can be there. Am I still going to assist?” I hated the term pallbearer.

“If you can, I’d appreciate it. Donnie had a few friends, but most of them are thugs. I don’t want them touching him. They’re mostly the reason he’s dead.”

“Okay, I’ll be there.”

As I went about my normal daily rounds, I watched my back. Nobody seemed particularly interested in me. Fuzzy was watching, too. We’d had a conversation about the fact that we might be in trouble. He seemed to understand, although the mechanics of revenge and retaliation seemed to escape him.

I scraped together enough money to go to the D.A.V. store and find a suit that fit reasonably well, along with a white shirt and paisley tie. I still had a pair of black leather military dress shoes that would work well enough. I stashed all my funeral gear in a locker at the YMCA, where I had a lifetime membership, courtesy of a cool old gal I’d helped once.

14th and Lowry wasn’t a very long walk and it was a fairly cool day. I did get a few looks on the way over, and I’d have to say I looked pretty sharp. I’d even brushed Fuzzy and he was on his best behavior, walking beside me at the “heel” position, without any leash.

We arrived at Jackson’s Mortuary about twenty minutes early. It was an old red-brick mansion that had once been a private residence and it was still the nicest place for several blocks. Mr. Jackson didn’t feel it would be appropriate for Fuzzy to be in the chapel and Fuzzy didn’t care for all the flowers anyway. He opted for a spot on the carpet in the lobby, back out of the way.

Donnie’s casket was front and center, a bronze job that looked like it would weigh a ton. Trish was right up front with some of her relatives and when I started to take a seat in the friends’ section, she turned and saw me and motioned me up. I stepped up and was introduced all around and then I was seated with the other five pallbearers. I was the only white boy in the bunch.

The service was not quite twice as long as it needed to be, but the preacher was in his element and he was gonna save at least one soul, it seemed. It wouldn’t be mine, but that was okay. When the service was over, I assisted with the casket and we headed for the graveyard. Fuzzy was allowed in the front seat of the limo, with the driver.  He set about making the driver nervous by smiling at him a lot, until I told him to knock it off and lay down.

The graveyard was on the southeast side of town and had been there since the Civil War. It covered about fifteen acres of prime real estate and held thousands of graves. The amount of money spent on marble and granite staggered the imagination. At the gravesite, we six again muscled the casket to its position on the contraption that lowers it into the ground. We were under a green canvas tent that was keeping the wind at bay, and the day was turning chillier. I had let Fuzzy out to go wander around. I told him, “Don’t wander off too far, Bud. Keep a sharp eye out, okay?”

He told me not to worry.

Donnie had done a hitch in the Marines, and the honor guard was there, along with a rifle squad. Nobody does a funeral like the Marine Corps. The fact that Donnie had died in some dope dealer’s house had no bearing on the honors he deserved. After the final prayer, the preacher looked across to the Gunnery Sergeant and gave an almost imperceptible nod and the Marines did the rest. The Gunny’s sword flashed in the weak sunshine, and the salute was fired with such precision that the seven guns sounded as one. The volleys echoed and rolled away across the thousands of graves and I could almost feel the old soldiers stirring underground.

The bugler who played Taps was the real deal, not using one of those new electronic horns most of the services have gone to. The Gunny and a Lance Corporal folded the casket flag and presented it to Trish, “on behalf of the President and a grateful nation.”

We were standing around, meeting and greeting, and the Marines were packing their gear into two vans, when I heard Fuzzy raising hell. He was quite a distance off, and coming like a bat out of hell, yapping up a storm. A ways behind was a Maroon Toyota Avalon with two guys in it. As they got closer, I saw a gun barrel and I started yelling, “Down! Get down! Get to cover!”

There was cover all over the place. Thick, granite tombstones make great bullet-stoppers. As the Avalon rolled by, the passenger opened up with a 9mm handgun. Like most city boys, he was all over the place, holding the weapon one-handed and sideways in typical gang-banger fashion.

Once you’ve been in combat and you’ve been shot at with serious intent enough times, you get to know when the incoming rounds are close. They have a different sound from shit that’s missing by a mile. I only heard one round that had that wicked snap that tells you it was close. Further back, behind my position, I heard a scream as somebody took a round. People who have never been in combat tend to stand and gawk when somebody yells, “incoming!” or “get down!”

The worst mistake the shooter made was ever getting up that morning. The second worst was beginning to shoot too soon. By the time he got parallel to me, he had fired his weapon dry and he was fumbling around with another magazine. That was when I stood up, with a two-handed combat grip on my measly little .25 Beretta and shot him not once, but twice, right in the face.

The result was immediate. He slumped over onto the driver, who was trying to make a speedy getaway and deal with his big, dead ass at the same time. Fifty feet on up the narrow cemetery road, he drilled a tree and took an airbag in the face. Ten seconds later, my Beretta, still holding six rounds, was screwed in his ear. I was joined in less than a minute by four plain-clothes cops, who had attended the funeral, just to see who might show up. They had been back amongst the trees and headstones, videotaping the proceedings when the shit went down.

They took away the Beretta and, once again, I got a ride downtown. We left just as the second ambulance was pulling up. Apparently, two people had been hit in the gunfire. Fuzzy rode home with Trish and her two cousins. Once again, Interview 6, and the hour-long wait. It was two different detectives this time. Where did I get the gun? Found it. Where? Under a bridge. Did I know it was illegal in this state to carry an unlicensed weapon? Of course. Charge me or cut me loose. In the end, they didn’t charge me with anything. And no, they wouldn’t give me a ride home. But, when I sent a text to Trish, she was glad to come get me. Alone. Except for Fuzzy, and he doesn’t tell tales. . . .

On the way to her place, as we passed by the house of death, I saw bright yellow against the pale yellow of the house. The forsythia was in full bloom.




snakeheaven.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2017

Snake Heaven

 

by Kenneth James Crist

 

The Eastern Black Rat Snake is common in most of the eastern United States from the Atlantic states through the Midwest and even into eastern Texas. They prefer wooded and rocky areas, but because of loss of habitat, especially in the east, it is not uncommon to find them in urban areas, especially areas with a high rodent population.

They will commonly take any rodent smaller than they are, along with lizards and frogs and the like. Depending upon availability of food, they can range over a large area, but they prefer one resting place and perhaps one or two “home” places to sun themselves.

They will often go several weeks without eating, as they are cold-blooded and their metabolism is correspondingly slow.

Being nonvenomous, they present little danger to man and in fact, make nice pets if they are captive-bred. In spite of that, they can deliver a nasty bite if approached when in a bad mood and should be handled only by persons familiar with snakes and their habits. . . .

 

The worst predator on the planet is not a jungle cat or a snake or even a shark or salt-water crocodile. The worst predator is man. He seldom hunts for food, as animals do, and he is not without conscience. Even those who profess to be mentally disturbed, usually have at least a rudimentary sense of right and wrong. In order to do what they do, human predators first must disregard all they know about love and fairness, closeness and respect for others. They use many excuses when caught, and in our own system of jurisprudence, they never truly get what they deserve. . . .

Nathan Rollie’s excuse was that he was an abused child. Even though thousands or even millions of kids grew up with daily beatings and were also commonly disrespected and mentally abused, Nathan was literally the one-in-a-million. He began torturing and killing animals at nine years old and by twelve, he had killed his first person, a sleeping homeless man. He sneaked up and cut the man’s throat and enjoyed immensely watching him die. He doted on the shock and panic when the man woke up to find himself cut nearly ear-to-ear and spurting blood. Nate dreamed at night of the man’s screams and often, after those best-of-all dreams, he would awake with an erection.

At fourteen, he began approaching and trying to molest younger kids. He was mostly fascinated with young girls, but the occasional smooth little boy would get his attention.

Now in his early 40’s, he could not remember all his adventures, and if questioned, he would not even be able to remember how many people he had killed. The basement of his home had been built into a soundproof dungeon, where he kept his little projects, some of them for months, if things worked out to his satisfaction.

The little project he had down there now probably wouldn’t go on that long. While she was one of the prettiest he’d ever caught, she wasn’t much fun. She seemed to spend most of her time crying and that wasn’t nearly as much fun as the ones who screamed. . . .

 

Lucille was an Eastern Black Rat Snake. Her territory was in an urban environment and encompassed about a square mile. She had her favorite sunning places and her own secure den, under a highway overpass. Her favorite resting place was very unusual, though. It was in a sleeping bag with a man named Robby Metcalf. Metcalf was a homeless veteran who had sustained injury in one of his country’s minor wars; specifically, he was blown out of a Humvee by a roadside IED that killed all but himself and one other of his crew. When he recovered from his wounds and was back stateside, he discovered almost by accident that he now possessed the ability to talk to animals. In his city, he was known as Crazy Robby and he was shunned by many, but that was fine by him. . . .

~     ~     ~

I woke up sweating, both because I had been involved in the dream again and because I was packed in animals. Fuzzy was on the windward side of me and the body heat of a 120-lb German Shepherd will keep you cozy. Lucille was packed against the other side. Snakes are cold-blooded and they enjoy any source of warmth. It speeds up their metabolism and makes them feisty. As I began to move around, Fuzzy scrambled and got up. I got the impression he hadn’t really been asleep anyway, and I knew he didn’t like Lucille. It wasn’t a personality thing. It was just the natural distrust that dogs and many other animals have for snakes.

Most times, when I decided to get up, Lucille would slither off to her den and I would have a discussion with Fuzzy about why he couldn’t kill her. This morning, though, she hissed at me that she needed to talk. I looked at Fuzzy and said, “Give us a minute, okay?” He snuffed out of his big nostrils and set about his morning run, checking the mail as he did every morning, finding where other dogs had peed on posts and hydrants and adding his own notifications to the grassy bulletin boards that were all over doggy-land.

I unzipped the sleeping bag and sat up, cross-legged like an Indian and Lucille slid into my lap and curled up.

“What’s on your mind, Sugar?” I asked.

If she’d had eyelashes, or eyelids for that matter, she would have been batting them at me. “When you call me Sugar, what does that mean? What is ‘sugar?’ ”

I was hard-pressed for a minute for an explanation that would make sense to a snake, but I tried. “It’s something humans put on food to make it taste better. Sweeter.”

“Awww . . . that’s nice, baby. But there’s nothin’ tastes better than a nest of baby mice.”

That was as far as I wanted that conversation to go, and I said, “What did you want to talk about?”

She curled a little tighter against the chill air of the fall morning. It wouldn’t be long and she’d be hibernating in her den and I wouldn’t see her again until Spring. “Is it common for humans to hang each other up and make each other scream?”

~     ~     ~

Nathan Rollie’s little project was awake and needing the potty. He donned his black leather mask and got the impressive black Colt semi-automatic pistol. Sometimes he used knives to intimidate her, but the Colt worked best. Like many city-dwellers, she had an innate fear of guns. Throughout her childhood she’d had it drummed into her head: guns are BAD. Guns are DANGEROUS. If you see a gun, DON’T TOUCH IT! Tell an adult . . . and blah blah blah. Rollie had to agree, the Colt was a badass-looking weapon, and if you had to shoot someone, it was a very final solution to a temporary problem. And Anne Marie nearly pissed herself every time she saw it.

It had allowed him complete control over one of the prettiest little projects he’d ever captured. Actually, she was a little old for his tastes, being twenty and a college student, but she was very small and delicate and easy to handle. The Colt allowed him to do anything he wanted to her and she remained very docile throughout every instance of rape and sodomy, throughout all the binding and whipping and various types of torture, the hot candle wax, the tiny cuts inflicted with a scalpel, the biting. And she was a good screamer, and that was always a plus.

 

Fuzzy and I went to breakfast, right after I’d had my talk with Lucille. She had agreed to show me the house where the girl screamed in the cellar later in the day, after it warmed up some more. She wanted to be able to move quickly and the autumn chill made her sluggish. It would warm into the 70s later on. Fuzzy couldn’t resist dicking with me a little.

“You and the reptile have a nice chat?”

“Hell, yeah, we did. We talked about the upcoming election and the federal trade deficit and the price of gas going up. . . .”

“Aw, c’mon, yer just pullin’ my tail now. . . .”

“Yeah, well, just ‘cause you can’t talk to her doesn’t mean you should discount her intellect.”

“Say whaaat. . . . ?”

Turning serious, I said, “She told me about a house we need to check out later today. She says there’s a girl in there, hung up in the basement and screaming a lot.”

Fuzzy stopped so quickly I almost stumbled over him. “Well . . . shouldn’t

 . . .  shouldn’t we go check that out now?”

“Nope. Gotta wait ‘til it warms up some, so Lucille can move better.”

“But . . . but Boss, if somebody’s hurt . . .”

“I know, Champ, but we’re gonna hafta wait. This could be a deal where people are just pretending. . . .” I stalled right there. How do you explain bondage and sadomasochism to a dog?

Breakfast was at Barney’s on Lindel and Second. The place had been there for years, but it had always been too hoity-toity for the likes of me and Fuzzy. Then, two months’ prior, a new guy took it over. From what I’d heard, the old guy who’d had it before was very ill and the place was going to close and then the new guy came along. He had been a cook in the Army. That’s what he told everybody. It sounded more down-to-earth. In reality, he’d been a chef in officer’s clubs all over the world. He turned a fine omelet and baked some of the best pies I’d ever had.

He didn’t like a lot of homeless people hanging around, but he took a shine to Fuzzy and me. He was about six-four and his head was shaved completely bald. He was also very black and pretty jolly most of the time.

There was an outdoor dining area behind the restaurant and that was where we got fed. We didn’t come there more than once a week, but I got the feeling we could have come there every day if we wanted.

Barney’s was just the name of the restaurant, which he had opted not to change. His name was Josie R. Malcombe. I’d bugged him about his middle name to the point that he’d finally told me one morning. He’d come at me with a cleaver and backed me up against his steam table and said, “It’s Rosebud, okay? And if you tell anyone, you little asshole, I’ll fuckin’ kill yer ass.”

His secret was safe with me. . . .

Later that morning, Fuzzy and I returned to our place under the freeway and found Lucille sunning in her favorite spot. She was maybe twelve feet from the opening to her den, which was a bad spot in the concrete apron that had cracked and washed out years ago. I hated to think what it might look like back under there and how badly compromised the actual structure of the bridge might really be. She was two feet from shade and twelve feet from safety and up high enough that anyone just walking by would hardly notice her. She was also out of the line of vision of anyone passing above on the freeway.

As we approached, she raised up and flicked her tongue at us and I felt Fuzzy press against my leg. “Steady there, big boy,” I said and then to Lucille, “You ready to show us this house?” I heard a muffled, “Follow me,” and we headed north, under the freeway, past an old warehouse and a junkyard and then into a rundown residential neighborhood. Lucille followed the paths she was used to taking and I was hard-pressed to keep her in sight. She flowed like water, over and under obstacles, through fences and around junk and litter. More than once I lost sight of her and then she would raise herself enough I would again catch sight of her shiny black head.

We travelled seven blocks and wound up in an alley behind an especially nasty old house. Lucille stopped and I told Fuzzy to sit and I walked up and knelt down, making a show of tying my shoe. As far as anyone watching was concerned, I was just a guy walking his dog. The back lot of the house was weedy and overgrown and Lucille was down in the high grass, completely invisible unless you knew right where to look.

“That’s the place,” she said, “I went in through that hole just above the ground. . . .” I looked the foundation over and spotted a missing chunk of concrete and reckoned it was big enough for Lucille to slide through.

“You were inside, then.”

“Well, yeah,” she said, as if humans were just too dumb for color TV, “you wanna catch rats, ya gotta go where the rats are.”

“Does it look like anyone actually lives there?”

“Not really, but who am I to judge where humans wanna live?”

“Okay. Fuzzy and I will come back tonight and check it out. Thanks, girl.”

“No problem, Lover.” Ten seconds later, she was gone.

~     ~     ~

Back at our digs, Fuzzy and I discussed plans for that night. He wasn’t much of a strategist. His plan would be: You kick the door in, I’ll bite anyone that gives us any shit. Too many years of being a police K-9 dog. By the time the officers put the dog in, the strategy part is long over. I decided maybe we should talk to Julius Tambar before we jumped off the deep end. I hauled my seldom-used cell phone out of my stash of valuable crap and fired it up. An hour later, Julius rolled in, driving a shiny new Dodge Charger slick-top. He was in a suit and grinning like a possum in a gum tree.

“What the fuck? They promoted you?”

“Damn right, My Man. They know who’s doin’ the job and crushin’ crime.”

We high-fived and smacked each other on the back and did the buddy-buddy shit for a minute, then I asked, “What division they got ya workin’, bicycle theft?”

“No, no, no! Big Daddy is in crimes against persons. Robbery, assault, homicide and all the good shit.”

“Oh, man! Mr. Big-time detective! All right, Mr. Big-time, gotta lead for ya.”

He abruptly turned serious. “This gonna be a he-said, she-said, or a dog-said, cat-said, or what?”

“Well . . . it’s kind of a snake-said. . . .”

“Aw, fuck! Come on, Man! Snakes now?”

“Hey, remember when Lucille crawled across that banger’s foot and he shot his toe off? Gotta give her some credit, right?”

He sighed heavily and cast his eyes up to the heavens and said, “Why me, Lawd?”

“Hey, here’s the deal. Lucille says there’s this house over north, I’ll show it to ya, and she says there’s this girl in there, hung up in the basement and she spends a lotta time crying and screaming. I think you should check it out.”

“Uh-huh. Okay, now you have my attention. Show me.”

I had Fuzzy wait. I was sure Julius didn’t really want dog hair all over the seats in his new ride. We drove over into the neighborhood and looked the house over. It looked worse from the front than from the back. The windows were all boarded up and there were signs from the health department tacked up, warning the property was unsafe and had been condemned. Julius parked, and we walked up on it and stepped up on the front porch.

“There are tracks in the dust here,” I said, pointing them out.

“Could be kids. Or Jehovah’s Witnesses, for all we know.” There was a shiny padlock and hasp securing the front door. “I can’t go in, Robby. Not without a warrant, or at least probable cause to believe someone’s in danger in there. And, no, the word of a snake is not gonna get me a warrant. Judges don’t like cops bothering them for warrants based on the word of reptiles.”

“Gotcha. Well, I just wanted to touch base with ya, so you’d be aware.”

“You’d best not go bustin’ in there, either. Although if ya did, that would only be a property crime. Not my department. . . .”

Julius dropped me back at my place and Fuzzy and I had another conference. “We’ll hafta do this on our own, Buddy. We’ll wait until dark and then go check it out.”

“Was the girl there? Was she screaming?” Fuzzy was very anxious and he kept pacing around.

“I don’t know, Fuzz. We didn’t hear anything.”

“I should have been there. I would know if she was there. . . .”

“I know you would. Funny you should suddenly believe the word of the reptile.”

“I never said she was a liar. . . .” He finally curled up and tried to rest.

~     ~     ~

When Robby and detective Tambar were standing on the porch of the nasty old house, the owner, one Nathan Rollie, was standing quietly a few feet inside watching them and listening to their conversation. The health department warnings were bogus. He had managed to get his hands on a real condemnation form and create a facsimile on his computer, which he had then posted after boarding the place up. He had managed to fit the boards just badly enough that there were small cracks he could still see out of. The electricity and gas were still on and the padlock on the front door was his. If the detective had gone to the back, he wouldn’t have seen any padlock back there. Nathan had just put his little project down to sleep when the detective and the other guy had shown up. He routinely placed a gun to her head and made her take a sleeping pill, sometimes two, if he needed to go out for a while. It allowed her to get some real sleep and it helped keep her strength up. And if he made her take two pills, he could do anything he wanted without her even waking up. . . .

~     ~