Red Rover


a novel

 

By: Nik Houser


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

1

 

 

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” said the dog, sniffing at the bloodstained grass.

“Don’t insult me,” said the cat.

A trail of small red spots led away from the abandoned swing set.  Halfway across the yard, a ravaged teddy bear sat slumped over in search of its missing button eye.

The dog was a Labrador named Goldie.  His owner Mr. Caraway was blind, which explained the bright blue Helper Dog vest that Goldie wore with both distinction and pride.  It also explained why Mr. Caraway didn’t know that Goldie was a Black Lab when he named him.

Goldie sniffed at the mauled teddy bear.  It was the only witness at hand, a tuft of fluff trailing from a gouged tear duct.

“Someone has stolen a child from here,” Goldie said.  He took another thoughtful sniff.  “A boy.  I think Baby Adam has been kidnapped.”

Adam Kelly was nine months old, and lived in the house behind Goldie and Mr. Caraway.  Their yards shared the same back fence.  Goldie had snuck onto the Kellys’ property through a loose board when the first screams roused him from sleep that morning.  The cat had arrived soon after.  The police were inside now, questioning Nanny Monica, Adam’s babysitter.  Mr. and Mrs. Kelly were not yet home.

“Hardly your concern,” said the cat, a Himalayan named Medusa.  Medusa had long white fur, orange ears, and an orange tail.  She lived alone in the great Victorian at the end of the cul-de-sac, having inherited the estate and its army of servants when her reclusive owner, the Countess Lenotchka, died six months earlier.  “What’s to mourn?  Two less hands to pull your whiskers?  One less mouth to bite your tail?”

A butterfly alighted on a nearby dandelion.  Medusa inclined her head toward it, raised a hesitant paw as though afraid to smudge its painted wing.

“Go away,” Goldie snorted.  He let his nose lead him around the yard, describing a spiral that wound down to the scene of the crime, where a solitary swing stirred in the breeze like the last ripple of a great tsunami.  Fallen leaves the color of gold and rust crunched underpaw.  “Why are you even here?”

“Boredom,” Medusa replied, and drove a claw through the butterfly’s abdomen.  “Why are you here?”

Goldie straightened his posture.  “Because I am a good dog.  And because I am a Retriever.”

“Well, presumably so.”  The cat gave the dog a sidelong glance.  It was a point of contention among the neighborhood purebreds that Goldie’s past was a mystery, even to himself, having wandered into Hope Falls three years ago with no collar, no name, and no memory of where he’d come from.  “And you intend to retrieve this stolen human, is that it?”

“If I can.”  The dog’s eyes ticked to the sliding glass door, floppy ears at attention.

“Why don’t you ask the Oracle?”

“Shush, cat.  I’m trying to listen.”  Goldie watched the house, black face growing darker.  “Oh, no.”

“What is it?” Medusa asked.

“It’s the nanny.”

“What about her?”

“She saw the kidnapper.”

“And?”

“And it wasn’t human.”

Medusa went rigid.  The wounded butterfly staggered into the air, forgotten, as the Himalayan sidled up to the Lab.  “What are you saying, dog?”

“I’m saying—”

HEY!  A police officer came around the side of the house, arms waving.  Get out of here!  Somebody get these animals out of here!  They’re contaminating the crime scene!  Go on, get!

Medusa hissed, ears back, and bolted for the other side of the house, a fluffy white streak.  Scrambling after the cat, Goldie followed her down the alley between houses, then across the street where they took shelter behind Mrs. Primrose’s hedge.  A pair of Pomeranians named Starlight and Starbright raced to the woman’s window, barking and snarling at the intruders like a pair of feral pom-poms.

Across the street, Mr. Kelly’s SUV screeched to a halt in the driveway.  A moment later, his wife’s minivan popped the curb and skidded to a stop in the center of their lawn.  A police officer met them at the door.

More screams.

“What did you mean back there?” Medusa asked.  “That the kidnapper wasn’t human?”

 “I mean Nanny Monica says Adam was taken by an animal.  She says she was attacked by one of us.”

The Labrador shut his eyes and tried to concentrate.  How many scents had he found in the Kellys’ backyard before they’d been chased away?  How many had been fresh?  The answer could lead to the kidnapper.

“Bet it was a stray,” Medusa said.  “That would make sense.”

Refusing to be baited, Goldie shook himself out from head to toe and gave the fur under his collar a long scratch.  Not only did Mr. Caraway’s flea shampoo smell like crap, but it was just as good at attracting flies.

“Could have been wild,” he agreed.  “Might have been a domestic though, for all we know.  We need to talk to Badge.”

It vexed the dog to think of leaving Mr. Caraway alone.  Goldie had not been parted from his master for more than a few minutes since Helper Dogs had first paired them together eighteen months ago.  What if Mr. Caraway thought he’d run away?

“We?” asked the cat.  “Who’s we?  You and your fleas?”

“Badge would know better than anyone if a wild animal has reported in the area.”

“Look, I know you’re a dog,” Medusa sighed, “which means you’re stupid, but are you crazy, too?  You know where that monster lives and I’ll be—”

The dog became a blurred shadow.  He lunged forward and snapped his jaws a hair’s breadth from the cat’s face.  Medusa leapt back with a yowl, tail puffed.

He’s not a monster!” Goldie snarled.  Hackles stood in spiked waves along his back, ears laid low against his skull.  He hadn’t meant to snap.  Sometimes the Lab surprised himself with his own ferocity.  Many was the night Goldie had waked to find himself in this exact posture, since his arrival in Hope Falls— shoulders high, head low, teeth bared and wild eyes fixed on the empty, shapeless dark.  Each time it was the same dream.  Shattered images of a man covered in blood, standing before Goldie with an outstretched hand.  He always said the same thing.

Good boy. . .

Goldie righted himself, felt the nail points of fur soften along his neck.

“Sorry,” he murmured.  “But don’t call him that.”

“Like I’d expect less from a stray.”  Medusa licked a paw, brushed it over an ear.  “Anyway, the point is that whatever Badge is, was, or has become, you know where they keep him now.”

“Yeah.  I know.”

“So you know what’ll happen if we’re caught there.”

“What do you mean we?”

Medusa shrugged.  She sharpened a foreclaw with her teeth.  “I suppose I could accompany you.  The butler’s buffing the marble today, so it’s paws-off till sunset anyway.  And besides, while the tick burrowed in your ear might double the amount of brains in your head, you’re still going to need help if you’re to retrieve this missing child.”

“Suit yourself.”  Goldie lifted his leg to the hedge and let go a long stream of urine.  Medusa stuck out her tongue.  A fresh eruption of yapping sounded from inside the Primrose house.

Goldie lowered his leg and disappeared around the hedge.  Medusa followed.  At the edge of the yard she stopped to lift her tail at the two yipping showpups, an insulting gesture known to cats as winking the black eye, then trotted down the sidewalk after the dog.


2

 

 

Badge was the most decorated animal in the history of the Hope Falls Police Department.  Over his unprecedented twelve year career, the talented German Shepherd had been lent, along with his owner and partner Officer Dan Oberman, to practically every city, county and state law enforcement agency in New England.

Badge had been known to smell a smuggled baggy of cocaine through a flight attendant’s belly button.  He could spot the bulge of a concealed handgun from a hundred yards away.  It was even said he’d once sniffed out an ounce of C4 in a dog food factory.  The famed police dog had pulled children from burning buildings, dragged wounded officers from shootouts (once with a lead round lodged in his own hindquarters), and dug up the unmarked graves of murder victims thought vanished forever.

“Sounds like he was your proverbial good dog,” Medusa said.  Goldie couldn’t tell if she was serious.  It was hard to know with cats, assuming they were capable of any commentary that wasn’t a joke at someone else’s expense.

Having left the old neighborhood behind, Goldie and Medusa followed the train tracks up passed Main Street, then out beyond the abandoned drive-in movie theater.  The sky overhead remained low and overcast, featureless save a few dark brushstrokes that might later turn to rain.

“He still is,” Goldie said.

Ten months ago, a madman had smuggled a grenade into a Boston airport.  Badge and Officer Dan were there at the time, sniffing luggage inbound from Moscow on a tip.  Badge had smelled trouble on the man as they passed him in the main concourse —more so the foul intent smoking from his pores than the gunpowder in his backpack— and he’d turned his attention to him accordingly.  The man bolted and Badge had pursued him, breaking protocol and leaving Officer Dan behind.  The police officer found a quicker route however, and caught up with the bomber a few seconds before his canine partner.

They would never be sure if all the right pieces had been deposited into their corresponding body bags.

“Your heart’s beating faster,” said Medusa.

“Yours isn’t?”

“This isn’t our only option.  Not even our best one.  Why not ask the Oracle where the baby is?  You’re not afraid, are you?”

“I fear nothing, cat.”

Good thing, too.  Because they were nearing their destination.

Hope Falls was a work in progress, and the work was of a deconstructive nature.  Founded along a heavily wooded stretch of Massachusetts coastline as an outpost for trappers in 1661, the town had flourished at a slow and steady clip, eventually becoming one of the most dignified townships in the state.  Business men of Roaring Twenties Boston had built sprawling summer estates there, founded a yacht club, and groomed one of the finest golf courses on the eastern seaboard.  It was an upper class playground, until the stocks crashed, investments wilted, and the town with them.

It was only through the saving grace of the second World War that Hope Falls reinvented itself in the early nineteen forties, becoming once more a place of industry rather than luxury.  The Yacht Club moved out and the shipping yards moved in.  Where once the gears of commerce had been lubricated with bullion and influence, they now ran on sweat and elbow grease.  And though most of the old manors had been torn down to make space for duplexes and tract homes, a few landmarks remained of the golden age of Hope Falls.

Unfortunately, Animal Control could not be counted among them.

ware   Dog.

Painted by hand, the faded sign hung crookedly from the compound’s fence by a single length of rusted wire.  The facility stood on a wooded rise above town.  Its sole proprietor, Edgar Fergut, was the last of the old guard of dog catchers— those who’d learned to ply their trade in the heady days before modern animal cruelty statues, when a cattle prod was as good as a choke chain, and when a man in Fergut’s position was looked upon with respect and appreciation.  Perpetually clad in fatigue pants and a Bitch Magnet t-shirt, Edgar Fergut was now sixty-eight.  Could have retired on his pension three years ago, and would have too, if passion for his work hadn’t kept the man chained to his desk, and every stray within twenty miles locked in a kennel.

Medusa’s face soured like someone was pulping lemons on her muzzle.  “Isis wept, this place stinks.  I’ve heard stories.”

Goldie grunted.  Everyone had heard stories.  Rumor had it that when the kennels got over-crowded, Fergut clubbed the surplus strays, then submitted phony receipts to the state for euthanasia drugs.

Medusa hopped the fence, then reached up and flipped the latch from the other side.  Goldie pushed the gate open.

“I heard he grinds sedatives into the big dogs’ food,” she whispered.  “And when they wake up, they feel like they’ve been mounted by a pack of Saint Bernards.”

The compound’s main building was a long, squat, white-washed structure that ran the length of the property like a bloodless, severed limb.  Every window was dark.  For a building loaded with animals, it was awfully quiet.

“Never thought I’d miss the sound of your kind barking.”

As if in response, a low, throaty rumble rose up behind them.  It was not a growl of warning; it was a request for last words.  Goldie felt his hackles rise at the sound, as though a hand of ice was brushing his fur against the grain.  In the hollow of his chest, he heard the voice of the bloody man from his dreams.

Good boy. . .

They turned as one to meet the centurion that guarded this fenced-in underworld.

“Isis preserve us,” Medusa gasped.

Its head was little more than a skull.  A snarling, lipless mouth bared yellow fangs.  Purple, mud-caked flesh curled back in uneven rows over the empty socket where a nose should have been.  A single, bloodshot eye bulged from a lid which had been partially burned away.

Goldie bent toward the mangled creature, snout lowered in a posture of submission, and took a cautious sniff.

“Badge?” he said.  “Is that you?”

The monster’s growl extinguished itself.  The sawed-off snout leaned forward, took in a hoarse, whistling snort of air.

“Goldie?” croaked a tired voice, a door on rusted hinges.  The lone red eye widened.  “Jesus, Goldie, is it really you?”

The monster fell to its belly, and began to weep.


3

 

 

Badge had survived his partner, but only just.  Having been caught at the perimeter of the blast, the German Shepherd lost his nose and most of his snout, as well as an ear, and the use of his right eye.

“Apologies, kids.  It’s the groomer’s day off.”

Badge’s home consisted of a monster truck tire half-buried in the ground, and a bowl of muddy water set at its base.  There was no food bowl, only a conspicuous constellation of brick-colored stains that dotted the earth around the tire.

Goldie betrayed no shudder of revulsion or surprise at the prospect of Fergut feeding his guard dog the remains of the animals he put down.  Just one of a hundred horror stories told around the local fire hydrants.

Badge avoided Goldie’s eyes.  The German Shepherd straightened his shoulders and gave his guests a hard look.  “Now, about this kidnapping. . .”

“Right.”  Goldie sat at attention.  Medusa tip-toed around him, unsure of where to step, already tasting the grit and grime she’d be licking from her paws for a week.  “I wondered if you’d heard any scuttlebutt about wild dogs roaming hereabouts.”

Badge shook his head.  “Not a thing.  Haven’t seen a stray for weeks.  Fergut’s been holed up in the compound with zip to do, and he’s a dangerous man to allow to be bored.”

“How do you mean?”

“He’s got these two new guard dogs he’s training, see?  Ratchet and Torque.  On slow nights, Fergut sticks them in a pen and tosses a stray cat between them and Gill Grimes comes over from the dump for them to make bets on who’ll bring the cat down first.”

Medusa shivered.  “Barbaric.”

Badge fixed her with his good eye.  “Reality.”

“So where’s that leave us?”  Goldie scratched at his collar, a habit he often returned to when trying to concentrate, as though the elusive conclusion to his thoughts lay hidden beneath the shag around his neck, dug in like a tick.

“You tell me, son.  You forget what I taught you already?”

Goldie frowned.  “Well, if the kidnapper isn’t wild, it must be a rogue domestic, right?  It’s got to be one of us.”

“Exactly.”  Badge lapped at his dirty water, then began pacing around his small encampment.  “Which means?”

“Which means we need to compile a list of suspects.”

“Yes!  Good boy!  Now we’re diggin’ for bones.  What have you got to work with?  You must have picked up some scents at the scene?”

“Not many.  I got maybe three or four fresh signatures before we had to run.”

“Better than nothing.  Who’ve you got?”

“Uh, let’s see.”  Goldie scratched at his collar.  “Samson the Great Pyrenees had been there.  His scent was freshest.”

“Samson?”  Badge shook his head.  “I doubt he’d have it in him to chase the mailman, much less kidnap a human child.  Poor dog’s got the mind of a puppy.  Always will.”

The two dogs exchanged a look which the cat tried and failed to intercept.

“Picked up Scurvy Scrounger’s scent,” Goldie said.  “Half-piss and half-rotten food, like always.  Probably so drunk he wouldn’t remember anything, anyway.”

“Unfortunate, but true.  Still, better safe than sorry.  Best see if you can round him up.”

“I’d rather round up an outhouse that’s been tipped on its side.  It’d smell nicer and make better conversation.”

“I hear that,” Badge chuckled.  “Anyone else?”

“Yeah, one more.  Master Yip.”

“The Pug?  Hell, he can barely open his eyes under all those wrinkles.  I swear that old hound couldn’t find a hydrant if he was chained to a fire fighter.  Please tell me you’ve got somebody else.”

Goldie shook his head.  The tag on his collar jingled, reminding him that Mr. Caraway would be needing him soon.  His master sold office supplies from home.  He had an appointment in town that day with a regional client and wouldn’t be able to navigate his way to the bus stop without Goldie.  “That’s it.”

Badge snorted.  He scratched behind one ear, then the other, or the space where the other should have been.  Medusa recoiled, under fire from the resulting flurry of dander.

“Well, that’s a fine list of suspects you’ve accumulated, Detective.  I think you’d have better luck tracking a fart in a hurricane.”

“I know it.”

“Seriously, though—”  Sidestepping so that both dogs stood together, muzzles in the wind with the lay of Hope Falls stretched out before them, Badge lowered his voice to the range of gravel rotating in a cement mixer.  “You’ve got the best nose of any hound I ever trained, Goldie.  You can smell a lie and hear an angry thought.  Just keep your ears open.  Talk to the free-walking domestics, but make the rounds to the house-bounds, too.  Lot of indoor pets in the old neighborhood.  Lot of windows in a lot of houses.  Somebody’s bound to have seen something.”

“You really think that’s likely?”

“I think if anyone can find this kid, it’s you.  Just start with Samson and work your way down the list.  Who’s to say you won’t get lucky?”

“All right then.”

With nothing left to say but their goodbyes, a heavy silence descended on the two dogs like a piece of chew bone caught in your throat, too big to go down until its edges dissolve.

“You shouldn’t have come, Goldie.”

The Labrador shrugged.  “I needed your help.”

“No, you didn’t.  You’re a smart dog.  Smarter than me.  Best dog I ever trained.  And I didn’t even train you, how ironic is that?  Shown up by a stray.  Ha!  Still, whoever did train you did a damn fine job.  A damn fine job.”

A cold wind found the fur in Goldie’s ears.

Good boy. . .

Badge watched a shiver pass over his old pupil.  He knew about the dreams.

“Why don’t you leave with us?” Goldie offered.  “This place is hell.”

“That it may be, but it’s my home now, and Fergut’s my master.  He told me to stay, so I stay.”

“But why?”

“Because I’m a good dog, Goldie.  That’s all I have left.  My face is gone.  My nose’s gone.  Hell, I couldn’t find bone in a butcher shop.  All I’ve got left is my dog’s honor, and I intend to keep that and take it with me on the Great Hunt when my time comes to join the Sky Pack.”

Something in the German Shepherd’s tone told Goldie that the old police dog wished that time would come sooner rather than later.

“You don’t deserve this,” he said.

“This is exactly what I deserve,” Badge replied, his tone bordering on a growl that said one hard year may have bent him, but that he was not broken, and he would brook argument to the contrary from neither man nor beast.  He retreated into the shelter of the half-buried tire.

Goldie made to follow, but thought better of it, remembering the incarnation of Badge which had greeted them at the gate.  He found Medusa crouched near the main gate, all four paws huddled together in a solitary square inch of grass surrounded on all sides by mud.

“It was the only green spot I could find,” she explained.

Goldie sniffed at the ground under her paws.  “That’s because it’s where he shits.”

She beat him out the gate by a country mile.

The Black Lab smiled.  It was time to get to work.

4

 

 

Somewhere, the sun must have been shining bright, as was its nature, because all things must eventually succumb to their nature, but it refused to shine on Hope Falls that day.  By noon, a thick veil of thunderheads had settled over the town like the North Wind’s haunches, intent on hatching winter six weeks too soon.

Following the tracks back through town, Goldie and Medusa were a hundred paw-strides down Watershed Way, a block from their first stop, before either of them broke the silence.

“So you were really a true stray?  No tags even?”

Goldie counted the wooden railroad ties that ran between the cold iron tracks.  “Haven’t you heard the gossip?”

“I don’t listen to gossip.”

The Labrador raised a single shaggy eyebrow.  As a domestic, even a free-walking one, there was little else to do besides eat, sleep, and spread slanderous word, however false.  Upon his arrival in town, eyes wide and memory blank, suggestions of Goldie’s unsavory origins had spread quicker than a bad cold.  He was rabid.  He was a fugitive.  He killed purebreds for sport.  He’d murdered his family and run away; posing by the side of the road as a lost dog, he bit out the throats of anyone who tried to pick him up.

Little did the gossipmongers know that even the Purity Association’s most jaded members would have had their fur permanently puffed on end had they but chewed a morsel of the truth of how Officer Dan had found the lost Lab— how he’d at first thought the filthy stray to be covered in mud because of the way his black coat was matted with grime and gunk.  It wasn’t until Goldie had been taken from the precinct and hosed him off in Officer Dan’s yard that the slick, foreign patina ran red as it came off the black dog in great clotted gouts, flooding the grass at his feet with what could only have been blood.  Blood that could not possibly have belonged to the somber, silent stray who boasted no visible wounds.

“So what, they just took you in?”

“Just took me in.  Taught me how to be a dog again.  Officer Dan retrained me on the simple things like not to eat the furniture and all, but it was Badge who gave me what I really needed when the Purity Association tried to kick me out because I was a stray.  He said it didn’t matter if they said I was a bad dog.  He taught me that my actions spoke louder than breeding certificates.  That I could be a good dog if I wanted to be one, and that’s all that mattered.”

The cat laughed.  “Did you have to be housebroken again?”

Goldie gave her a baleful look, like she’d caught him pissing on the couch.  His tail dropped between his legs.

“Oh, come on,” said the cat.  “I was just—”

“You know what it’s like being kenneled like a puppy who doesn’t know enough not to eat his own droppings?”

If it was possible for an animal to look down on you while staring up at you, Medusa somehow managed it.  “Dog, I am Medusa Sleeps Under The Moon, direct descendant of Most August Five Paw Fang of the Tree Top Tribe, one of the seven hundred and seventy seven Daughters of Isis.”

“That mean no?”

“I’ll have you know—”

“Shut up a second.”  Ears up, nose out; Goldie’s vision narrowed like a sniper scope.  “Heads up.  There he is.”

Samson was a giant of a dog.  Weighing at least a hundred bone, the Great Pyrenees stood a full four tails high when poised on all fours, though such was seldom the case.  More often than not, the mammoth canine could be found rolling in one of the many lush yards along Hemlock Street, taunting geese by the pond, or barking at cars as they swerved to avoid him, more out of concern for their fenders than the shaggy giant wagging his tail at them from the center lane divider.

Today they found Samson standing perfectly still at the end of his own driveway, staring into space between the mail box and an SUV parked in front of the garage.

“What’s he doing?” Medusa asked.

Goldie shrugged.  “Sometimes he thinks he’s a dog.  Sometimes he thinks he’s a mailbox.  Most people think he’s a little slow.”

“Only the ones that meet him.”

“Would you be surprised to learn he’s smarter than you and me put together?”

“Surprised wouldn’t be the word.  Appalled maybe.  Ashamed certainly.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“Then why’s he biting the fleas off his own shadow?”

“Because he’s completely insane.  Hey, Samson boy!  What do you know?”

The Great Pyrenees blinked.  His head angled toward the SUV.

“Hello?” he asked the car’s tailpipe.

“Samson, it’s me, Goldie.”

“Goldie?”  Samson stuck his eye to the rusted rim of the exhaust pipe.  He was twice Goldie’s size.  “How’d you get in there?”

Goldie cleared his throat and gave Samson a nudge to one hindquarter.  The Great Pyrenees went stiff as a board.  A low growl rumbled down his frame like a thundercloud clearing its sinuses, ready to spit lightning.

Goldie shrank back.  “Give him some room.”

“Sure thing,” Medusa replied, perched on the fence across the street.

In the next instant Samson attacked, became a whirling white blaze of teeth and hair, a carnivorous blizzard.  Goldie watched the furry behemoth spin a dozen circles in the driveway in pursuit of his own tail until he finally gave up, dizzy and exhausted, and collapsed in the grass.

“Had him on the ropes there for a minute,” Goldie smiled.  “You’ll get him next time.”

Samson looked up, uncrossed his eyes, and thumped his tail.

“Goldie!  How’d you get out of the car?  I thought sure you were stuck in there for good.  You know one time I was stuck inside the number five for a whole day?”

The two dogs sniffed each other’s hindquarters in greeting.  Nothing unusual there.  If Samson had ingested any meat, human or otherwise, Goldie would smell it on his breath or butt, neither of which put off such a distinctive smell, only the scent of Frisky’s Adult Formula, a bit of grass and. . .was that vulcanized rubber?

“Listen, Samson, I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you happened to mark the Kellys’ yard this morning?”

Samson nodded vigorously.  “Yup, sure did.  I was there because I was supposed to meet the Man in the Moon to play fetch, but he never showed.  I guess it was past his bedtime.”

“Right, well, did you happen to see anything unusual while you were there?  Meet any new animals or pick up any unusual smells?”

“Oh sure.  I picked up some really weird stuff.”

“Weird?  What kind of weird?”

“Around nine o’clock I sniffed the West Wind’s butt and found it totally covered in Wednesday.  It’s always the last place you look, isn’t it?”

 Samson squinted at the cloud cover as he spoke, then wandered out into the street, heedless of traffic which was thankfully sparse.  “You know, fish think they can have all the yellow for themselves, but I’ve got a whole earful of hello that they don’t even know about.”

“Right.”  Goldie nodded, feeling somewhat cross-eyed himself.  “Thanks Samson, I’ll see you around.”

“Okay, bye-bye.  I’m gonna go repaint the house of ouch.”

“Good luck, um, choosing a color.”

“You don’t use colors at the house of ouch, silly,” Samson called back as he trotted down the center of the road.  “You paint it with tears.”

Medusa met the Lab on the sidewalk.  “That dog’s a squeaker shy of a chew toy.  I know he’s a purebred, but I can’t believe the Association hasn’t driven him out of town by now.  That’s a train wreck of a gene pool if ever I saw one.”

Goldie felt his whiskers frost over at the mention of the Purity Association.  The Association was a neighborhood club whose only membership requirement was breeding papers that confirmed an undiluted bloodline and who didn’t take kindly to those who couldn’t provide them.  Under the guise of keeping the neighborhood safe from potentially dangerous strays (Just look at that dog and tell me there isn’t wolf blood flowing through those pointy ears!  Bury my bones if she’s not half-coyote!), Goldie had seen more than a few stray animals, cats and dogs whose only crime was a run of hard luck, adopted from shelters only to be driven from town by the Association.  Once, during a fever pitch scare of rabies, Goldie had watched a cat too brittle and lame to jump to safety get torn apart by a pack of half-grown Doberman pups.  It was only through their respect, meaning their fear, of Badge that Goldie hadn’t been hunted down and thrown out long ago.  Now that Badge was gone, there had been rumblings, anonymous to be sure, that the Black Lab should be encouraged, with extreme prejudice, to find a new place to raise a leg.  For the safety of the community, of course.

Medusa sat on the Purity Association’s board of directors.

“Samson’s owners are breeders,” Goldie explained, and put his nose into the wind.  In a honeybee’s heartbeat he had the scent he was searching for.  The rank odor of spoiled food and unwashed fur found his nostrils— dumpster dinners and trash bag pillows, the musk of desperation.  He pointed himself at the faint reek and led the way.

“So what?” Medusa said.  “My original owners were breeders.  Though I suppose that’s obvious.  What’s your point?”

“My point is that they keep pairing him with Justine.”

“And?”

“And she’s his mother.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“And successful.  Inbreeding brings out the desired traits: white fur and blue eyes.”

“And that’s why he chases invisible cars, is it?”

“Not entirely.”  Coming out of the alley, Goldie hung a left onto Leafstorm Lane.  “The problem is, Samson’s inbred, but by sheer luck he turned out fine.  It’s like his parents had no relation at all.  But his blood is still so tainted that the litters he sires with Justine come out all wrong.  Too many legs, not enough eyes, that kind of thing.”

“I’ve never heard this.”

“That’s because they get rid of them.  Samson and Justine’s owners save any pups that look okay, then sell the rest to Edgar Fergut as cheap food for the strays he captures.”  A mental flashbulb lit a corner of Goldie’s brain, showed him the brick-colored patches of earth around Badge’s tire.

Medusa stared at the Labrador accusingly, as though he’d just punished her for a crime she didn’t commit.  “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because they make him watch,” Goldie continued, nose in the wind, face impassive.  “To punish him.  Like it’ll make a difference for the next litter.  Like watching his messed-up pups get eaten alive will somehow motivate Samson to—”

ENOUGH!” Medusa hissed.  Her back warped into a high arch, her tail puffed to twice its size.  I will hear no more of this!

The wind picked up as the Himalayan slowly came to her senses.  She spoke to the sidewalk, to the leaves on the ground, reciting a mantra taught to her long ago.

“Beasts of impure or unnatural conception bear the burden of their kind,” she said.  “Sorrow is their birthright.  Death is a mercy for them, and for those who suffer their existence.”

Goldie regarded his companion.

“You know, for a cat, you’re kind of a bitch.”

“And you’re being a pussy, dog.  Why don’t you see the Oracle?  Ask it where the baby is, if you’re so worried.”

“Because I don’t need magic,” Goldie replied with a dismissive snort.  He continued down Leafstorm Lane.  Medusa kept pace beside him.  “I need facts.”

“If you think the Oracle has no power, why did your pace quicken when I mentioned it?”

The dog was still searching for an answer when he hung a sharp right into an alley and the reek of rotgut hit his nose like a rolled up newspaper.  Scurvy Scrounger stood on his hind paws midway down the alley, trying to nose open the lid of an anti-tamper trash bin which had been sealed against raccoons.

The unmistakable odor of rotten chicken bones seeped through a fissure in the side of the container.  The vagrant Greyhound whined at the opening, panting desperately.  Goldie regarded the stray’s mangy coat with its patches of bare, dry skin like a moth-bitten overcoat.  Ribs protruded from a snare drum tummy.  One of the dog’s paws stood at a crooked angle from the others.

“Howdy, Scrounger.”

The Greyhound started with a yip of surprise.  He staggered back into a corner where the bin met the wall, tail tucked between his legs.  When the anticipated attack didn’t come, he eased himself up.

“Goldie!” he said, a laugh of welcome deteriorating into a wheeze, then a wet cough.  “I ain’t seen you in ages, boy!  How you been?”

The rank Greyhound scuttled up for a friendly hindquarter sniff.  Goldie stepped up obligingly, and pretended to nose the stray’s mangy behind.  The old hobo was a walking five star resort for fleas, ticks and all manner of bloodsuckers.  Once known to the betting public as Fancy Flood, Scrounger had been the fastest racing hound in the state until the day he fell on the track and busted his leg.  Having run away before he could be put down, he had been on the run ever since.

“What’s it been, six months?”

“Longer,” Goldie nodded.  “Not since Badge’s accident.”

“That’s right, that’s right.  Damn shame, that.  Hey, you remember the time you, me and Badge was there when the pizza delivery boy hit the ice cream man’s truck and the whole feast came tumbling out in the road?”

“I sure do.”  A broad grin lit up Goldie’s face.  That had been a good day.  One of the best.

“Better days, boy, better days,” said Scrounger.  “That Badge, he was a good dog.  He was a real good dog.”

“Still is.”

“Right, yeah.”  Scrounger threw his glance elsewhere, pretended to look for where he’d dropped it.  “‘Course.”

“So, how you been?”

“Oh, you know, the usual.  Can’t complain.  Had me a rough one last night, though, I tell you what.  Can’t remember what happened.  Just woke up at the lake this morning, no idea how I got there, and the sorest balls I ever had.  I feel like I humped a cactus.”

Goldie tried not to stare at the porcupine quills that peppered the stray’s muzzle.  The Greyhound scratched at his shoulder.  Medusa leapt away for fear of being caught under a cloudburst of parasitic insects.  Scrounger nodded to her.

“What’s up with the Queen of Spays?”

“She’s with me.”

With you?  The mutt tried to laugh.  He succeeded for a moment before a cough bullied him into silence.  “She get board with palace life and decide to come slumming?”  He raised his voice to reach the end of the alley.  “Cause I got a big bone I been meanin’ to bury, if anybody’s interested.”

“What happened to your paw, Scurvy?” Goldie asked.  “I didn’t think you limped that bad.”

“Oh, that.  Had me a little dust up with the Purity Association last week.  Like I said, the usual.”

Goldie glanced over his shoulder to where Medusa was making a careful study of the sidewalk cracks.

“Listen, Scrounger, I need your help.  I’m looking for a child.  A human child.”

“Oooooh.  You’re looking for that Kelly boy, aren’t you?  I heard he was stolen away this morning.”

Goldie tried to ignore the ravenous glow behind the stray’s eyes at the thought of fresh, tender meat.  Another reason to find Adam, and soon.

“That’s right,” he said.  “I need to know if you’ve heard anything or seen anything that might help me find him.”

Scrounger shook his head.  “Nah, I ain’t seen nothin’.  You’ll be the first to hear about it if I do, though.  But you know who you should really be asking is the Oracle.”

Didn’t have to turn to see the look Medusa was giving him.

“All right, thanks Scrounger.  You hang in there.  Here’s to fat cats and one-legged mailmen.”

“Amen, brother.  Hey, Goldie, you remember that time we was there when the pizza delivery boy hit the ice cream man’s truck?”

“Yup.  Sure do,” Goldie said.  “Goodbye, Scrounger.”

He made his way out of the alley.


5

 

 

At the end of the block, Medusa judged it was safe to breath again.

“Well,” she huffed, “a fat lot of good that degenerate did us.  I bet he was picking his teeth with Baby Adam’s rib bones before we showed up.”

“He didn’t do it.”

“What?”  The cat quickened her pace.  “What are you talking about?”

“He didn’t kidnap Adam.”

“How can you say that?”  Passing in front of the dog, Medusa strode across the intersection of Leafstorm Lane and Sea Salt Way, tail held high, addressing all who would listen.  She had not noticed that Goldie was no longer with her.  “That flea-infested mongrel would steal the stink off shit if he could figure out how.  And from the smell of him, he’s working on it.”

“Medusa. . .”  Goldie stood frozen at the curb, watching in horror as the Himalayan crossed the intersection from corner to corner.

“Isis wept, Goldie.  Given the people you associate with, I’m shocked you haven’t come down with rabies or Canine Leukemia or at the very least a bad rash.  That mutt was more scab than dog!  And did you hear the way he spoke to me?  I can’t imagine what. . .hey, you coming or what?  Street’s clear.”

“Medusa.”  The Labrador spoke very slowly, and very clearly.  “Don’t.  Move.”

“What are you talking about?”

A single flap of wings was her only warning.  The muted shuuush of Death reaching into his cloak to show you something really special.

Every hair on the cat’s body bristled.  She knew.  She realized where they were.  She understood the mistake she had made.  And that it was already too late.

Two Christmases ago, one of the McKay twins of Sea Salt Way, having seen a certain movie about a certain boy wizard, decided that an owl was all she wanted for Christmas.  And as the entire neighborhood could attest from the echoes of tantrums that regularly filled the alleys between the houses, skated over the rooftops and bounced down the chimneys of Sea Salt Way, what a McCay girl wanted, a McCay girl got.

So it was that on Christmas morning, Candy McCay unwrapped a gilded cage in which she found Bottlerocket, a massive white screech owl with the wingspan of an eagle and the soul of a scud missile.

Bottlerocket escaped the day she was unwrapped.  Rending the door from her cage and slicing a bold signature across her screaming owner’s cheek, the crazed owl plunged itself through the nearest window and took off, eventually setting up residence in the Lost Hills Animal Sanctuary, a two hundred acre nature preserve which bordered Hope Falls.

The demonic bird had attacked dogs, cats, strollers, and children crossing the road.  She had once challenged a passing motorcycle, and won.  Many a call had come through Edgar Fergut’s switchboard calling him out to dispose of Bottlerocket, but even Fergut had never been stupid enough or drunk enough to venture out into Lost Hills alone, which local folklore held to be a haunted place.

Bottlerocket came out of the sky as she always did, a good two hundred tails up, with the sun (or the place where the sun should have been) at her back.  She was as soundless as the grave.  Goldie had heard thoughts louder than Bottlerocket’s descent from the clouds, eyes blazing, talons spread wide.

Across the street, Medusa had turned to stone.  Goldie made a mental note not to let her live that one down, assuming she lived at all, the likelihood of which was just higher than the Labrador dropping a solid gold turd.

“Medusa!” Goldie barked.  “The mailbox!  Get under the mailbox!”

Not so much as a twitch from the cat.  Terror plants firm roots.

The falling owl’s shadow loomed large over Medusa, an ever expanding black spot on the pavement, like the cat’s own shadow was bleeding to death.

“Hey!  Litter-breath!”

This time the cat turned.  Goldie stood on his hind legs, forepaws propped against the blue mailbox beside him.  The cat could fit under it, if she made it in time.  “Get under!”

Like that, the spell was broken.  The Himalayan moved like the Devil himself had caught her sharpening her claws on his favorite chair.

But the owl was faster.  Fifty paws away and closing fast, Bottlerocket shrieked an offended cry.  It was the sound of fingernails scraped across a chalkboard coffin lid.  It turned the slobber on Goldie’s jowls to icicles.

Come on!” Goldie barked.  Move!

A half dozen people had stopped to witness the spectacle.  Since her legendary escape and subsequent piracy of the local pet and cyclist population, Bottlerocket had become something of a celebrity.

COME ON!” Goldie howled.

Seconds stretched like taffy; time slowed its labors to watch each of the cat’s nine lives peel back and flake away as it raced toward sanctuary.  She was halfway across the road when Bottlerocket fell into Goldie’s field of vision, no more than five tails off the ground.  Her screech of triumph whittled the air down to a nub.

Medusa yowled in terror.

The humans gaped.

Goldie turned away.

He didn’t see the truck.  Felt only the vacuum of air suck his fur into its wake as it flew by.

Squealing brakes clawed at the Labrador’s ears.  The smell of burnt rubber assaulted his nose, punctuated by the dull whump! of a large predatory bird plastered across the windshield of a moving truck as it came to a grinding halt in the middle of the road.

Bottlerocket never touched the ground.  Clutching at flight with broken talons, the feathered nightmare clawed its way back into the sky, dropping a series of furious, belligerent vows in its wake as it sailed over the haunted footpaths of Lost Hills.

Medusa huddled in the street, crouched between two fresh tread marks.  Every hair stood on end.

Goldie approached.  He nudged her flattened ears with the smelling salts of his cold wet nose.

“Hey,” he said.  “You okay?”

A small voice eeked out from the bundled mass of fur.  “Is there.  Any part of you.  That doesn’t smell.  Like a dead man’s fart?”

“No, that’s just my breath,” Goldie smiled.  He helped the cat rise from the concrete on wobbly legs, a fawn taking its first tentative steps.  “The rest of me doesn’t smell as nice.  Come on, let’s go see the Pug.”


6

 

When Badge and Officer Dan had first taken Goldie in, the Labrador had spent three days under the policeman’s bed, a lump of black fur wedged between half a dozen shoe boxes filled with old photos and the wall next to the headboard, the only evidence that the sequestered stray was still alive being the empty food and water bowls Officer Dan found empty when he and Badge returned from work each night.

Badge had never smelled piss like the kind the new dog was spreading across his lawn, a fact which dealt the German Shepherd’s sense of territory no small blow.  It was sickly sweet with an acrid base, like licorice dipped in formaldehyde.  Only once had he smelled anything like it.

More than a decade ago, when Badge was still a police dog in training, he and Officer Dan had attended a dog show as a public relations promotion.  It was the most fun Badge had ever had, sniffing butts from Tokyo, tasting chew bones from Paris.  The only sour note came when they encountered a man named Le Blanc, a scientist who’d made his name cloning pets for the wealthy.

Le Blanc had set up a booth in the exhibition hall to hock his services to those few attendees who could afford them, or who dared to.  Most people derided the ‘freelance geneticist’.  Others threatened him with physical violence.  None of the saber-rattling bore fruit, however, as Le Blanc surrounded himself at all times with plainclothes bodyguards who would appear from nowhere to escort any untoward-looking attendees from the area.

It had disturbed Badge on a deep level to watch the video Le Blanc had set up featuring client testimonies.  Made him cringe to watch those cloned dogs and cats sitting at their masters’ heels.  What bothered him most, though, wasn’t the concept of a cloned canine, but that he couldn’t tell the difference between a real one and a replacement.

Until he met one.

It was the highlight of Le Blanc’s presentation.  A real-life client, a TV star who hadn’t worked in front of a camera for ten years, arrived with her cloned Yorkshire Terrier named Mimi.  Badge studied the Terrier carefully.  Watched her every move.  Mimi wagged her tail, rolled over, even licked the faces of adolescent passersby, yipping gleefully as they protested with giggles and grins.  She was a sweet dog.  She even smelled sweet.  Like licorice.  Like licorice dipped in formaldehyde.

Badge never told Goldie about the dog show.  The Labrador found out second-hand, having overheard a conversation between Badge and Scurvy Scrounger.  The two had been an unlikely pair of friends.  The Greyhound made a habit of seeking out the old police dog during his increasingly infrequent bouts of sobriety to swap stories of their travels: Badge’s being in service to the law, Scrounger’s leaning in the opposite direction.

Goldie never asked about Badge’s encounter with Le Blanc.  Never wondered aloud why, with no memory of being trained, the Black Lab already seemed to know every trick in the canine lexicon when he showed up in Hope Falls.  He could fetch, speak, roll over and shake, to name a few.  When he was registered for Helper Dogs to learn how to assist the blind, the organization’s chief trainer said Goldie had needed less schooling than any dog he’d encountered thus far.  Yet the Lab refused to respond to any names Officer Dan called out to him, only generalities such as Here Boy or Good Boy!  Officer Dan had even gone so far as to buy a book of baby names, and diligently poured over page after page, day after day, to see if the stray would respond to one of them.  He got halfway through the book, crossed 5,000 names off the list, without success.  Likewise with his command to play dead.  It was the one trick the stray could not perform.  Goldie’s response to the command was invariably the same: a low whimper, tail between his legs, and sad, confused eyes.

“I’m sorry, were you talking to me?”  Poised atop an aluminum drainpipe, Medusa brushed flecks of rust from the tip of her tail.

They were losing what little sunlight they’d had to start with.  Somewhere beyond the dense cloud cover, Apollo the Sun Cat was chasing his flaming ball of string from its midday apex.  Such was the feline cabal’s fluff-headed belief.  Every dog knew that Apollo was a Golden Retriever, and that each day’s dawn meant that once more the Great Sun Dog had dug up his golden bone from beneath the earth to play fetch with it across the sky until he buried it again at twilight.

“So,” said the cat.  “Any more brilliant ideas for finding the brat?”

Mumbling through a mouthful of plastic, Goldie rolled his eyes as he dragged a Chinese take-out bag from the gutter.  He’d tracked its scent for five blocks.

“Adam isn’t a brat,” he said, tearing the bag open with his claws.  Inside was a four day old mélange of moldy beef, moldier chicken, and orange sauce, all congealed into a heavenly mush.  “He’s just a baby.”

“Baby’s are brats.  Ugh, how can you eat that?”

The Labrador shrugged, and swallowed.  “It’s called a doggy bag for a reason.  You sure you don’t want any?”

“I’d rather eat my own vomit.  At least I’d know where it had been.”

“Hey, don’t knock vomit.”  Goldie licked the last of the orange sauce from his muzzle.  “So, what now?”

Medusa had no answer.  A visit to Master Yip’s house had yielded dividends in frustration, not answers.  They’d found the old Pug in his yard, meditating with a bone balanced on the tip of his snout.

“Why doesn’t he eat the bone?” Medusa asked.  “Doesn’t he want it?”

Goldie’s response was an awed whisper.  “Yes.  But he doesn’t want to want it.”

“No wonder he looks like a prune; he never eats.”  The cat leaned close, stared at her reflection in the Pug’s impassive eyes.  “I bet he was a Saint Bernard and just shriveled up from malnutrition.  Hey, dog!”

Medusa waved her tail under Master Yip’s nose.  The Pug sneezed, and the bone fell to the ground.

“We’re looking for a baby.  A human baby that’s been kidnapped by some kind of animal.  Was it you?  We know you were in the kid’s yard this morning.  You see anything unusual?”

“I saw nothing,” Master Yip replied, and returned the bone to his nose.  His voice was deep and soft.

“I’m so glad we came,” Medusa said.  “The Zen Raisin didn’t see a thing.  Probably couldn’t see anything through those squinty eyes.

Goldie snorted.  “Don’t be a breedist.”

“I’m not a breedist.  Look at him.  Tell me you see a pupil.”

“That’s not what I said,” said Master Yip.  “I said I saw nothing.  Therefore, that is what you should seek.”

“You’re right, that makes way more sense.  Come on Goldie.  This dog’s bought into his own hype.”

And go they did, Goldie with a bow, Medusa with a wink of the black eye.

Goldie nosed the slime-covered bag that lay empty at his feet.  It came to him then, at the memory of Master Yip’s strange epigram about seeing nothing. . .

“Mr. Caraway!”  The Black Lab slammed his paws against the ground with a snarl.  “I am so fixed!”

“Why, what’s the matter?”

A bleary, care-worn expression aimed itself at the cat.  “I forgot about the meeting!”  Goldie’s muscles tensed, ready to run all the way home, yet he didn’t move an inch.  Because it would do no good.  No amount of running could turn back the two hours which had past since he’d been due to leave the house with his master.

Goldie dropped his head and let loose a low, plaintiff whine.  No!  No!  No!  I am such a bad dog,” he moaned.  “Bad dog.  Bad dog!”

“What’s the big deal?  So the human will reschedule his precious meeting.”

Goldie paced as he spoke, had felt the same intolerant flare of anger as this morning when he’d snapped at the cat for calling Badge a monster.  “You don’t understand!  It’s not just the meeting.  I’ve never left his side for more than a few minutes.  He can’t go anywhere without me.  Can’t get groceries, can’t cross the street.  This isn’t a big city where people like him can get around easy.  He probably thinks I ran away.  That I just abandoned him or something!”

“So go back.”

“DON’T YOU GET IT, CAT?!  Even if I go back, he won’t ever be able to trust me again.  WOOF!  I just lived up to all those things people warned Officer Dan about when he registered me for Helper Dogs.  They said, He’s got no papers, you don’t know what kind of dog he is, he’ll let you down, he’s a danger to himself and others.  And I just proved them all right!  I mean, I don’t have papers or a famous family line.  I’ve got this. . .”  Goldie nosed his blue vest.  “And that’s all.  Badge always taught me that this was my shield against being called a bad dog or a worthless stray by purebred breedists like you or maniacs like Fergut who were just looking for an excuse to put me down.  And now it’s worthless!

The Labrador bit and tore at the blue vest, raked it from his hide and reduced it to shreds, crumpled and tattered at his feet.

Goldie let loose long, angry howl at the sky.  A flock of birds nesting in a nearby tree took flight.

“Listen, dog.”  Medusa cleared her throat at a respectful distance.  “You tell anybody I said this and I’ll deny I ever met you, but you’re doing the right thing, looking for this kid.  And that makes you a good dog.”

Might as well have been addressing the statue of a dog.

“I mean, you’re supposed to be Man’s Best Friend, right?  Now, to me, that’s a dubious honor at best, but what you have to understand, and I’ll talk real slow, is that when humans say things like that, they’re spelling man with a capital ‘M’.  You’re a friend to Mankind.  And which part of mankind do you think needs more help right now?  A blind man who can’t find his slippers, or a kid who can’t find his home?”

The cat stared at the dog and the dog stared at the ground.  Cars came and went along Leafstorm Lane.  Birds returned to roost in the nearby tree.

Eventually, Goldie lifted his head, belched out a fog of semi-rotted chicken, the stench of which nearly knocked Medusa off the drainpipe, and walked away without a word.

He did not know where he was going, and the cat was smart enough not to follow.  Only her words pursued him, repeating themselves in his head.  No matter how far he walked, they seemed to nip at the heels of his mind.  Down Leafstorm Lane, up Cinnamon Court, across Atlantic Park, then into an alley between a pair of ancient duplexes completely overgrown with bougainvillea.

Shouldn’t have snapped at the cat.  Again.  Even if she deserved it.  Goldie’s temper had nearly cost him his job with Helper Dogs.  He’d been spending days at the school at the time, while remaining with Badge and Officer Dan at night.  It happened on his last week of training, working with volunteers downtown, leading them across streets and into shops.  Goldie was about to take his charge onto a bus when he stopped on the first step and refused to go any further.  At the urging of his trainer, Goldie had growled and might have bitten the man if the human hadn’t wisely chosen to back away.  Turned out the driver had been drinking, dumped by his wife that very morning.  Goldie had smelled it on his breath a dozen paws away.  The Labrador was rewarded by being allowed to stay in the program, though there were those who’d been alarmed at his temper, Goldie being chief among them.

The alley was empty.  Rubbing his face along a rough patch of brickwork the momentary quietude struck a chord.  Master Yip’s statement came to Goldie, who welcomed the distraction from Medusa’s broken-record sermon.

I saw nothing.

“Nothing.”  Goldie stared down the alley.  A horn blared in the distance.  In the park behind him, a man passing on a bicycle broke wind.  “I saw nothing.  I saw nothing.  What is nothing?”

“Nothing is everything.”

Goldie started at the phantom voice.

“Or perhaps I should say that everything is nothing.”

It seemed to come from everywhere at once.

“Who’s there?” Goldie called, backing slowly toward the park-end of the alley.  “Who is that?”

“Nobody,” answered the dull, disembodied monotone.

“Says you.  But you can talk, stranger, which means you can bleed.  Care to test the theory?”

“Your threats are meaningless, dog.  I am nothing.  Therefore I care for nothing.”

There came a faint rustle to Goldie’s left.  The Labrador’s black lips curled back over white teeth, pink gums.  “Why can’t I see you?”

“Because there is nothing to see.  Because you are a victim of your senses.  I am not here, and neither are you.”

Goldie’s vision settled on a vine approximately four tails off the ground.  The leaves there appeared to both move and not move.  Colors shifted, made the dog’s eyes hurt to focus on them, troubled his ability to track things clearly.  Suddenly, Master Yip’s words made sense.  The old Pug had seen nothing.  And now, so did Goldie.

“What’s so funny?” the voice asked.

“I know you.”  Sitting back on his haunches, Goldie watched the strange shift of colors and light before him, careful not to focus too hard on it.  It made him feel carsick.  “You’re Mister Zilch.”

The chameleon preened on its branch, warming itself.  A faint sigh of malaise escaped its scaled snout.

“I suppose you’re going to eat me now,” the chameleon said.

“Hadn’t planned on it.  You say you’re nothing, and filling my stomach with nothing would be pointless, if you ask me.”

“I like you.”

“I’m a likable guy.  And I could use some help.”

“Why should I help you?  I have no reason to.”

“You have no reason not to.”

“Touché.  What is it you want?”

“A child was kidnapped from a backyard you frequented this morning.  Did you see anything?”

“I saw nothing.”

Goldie shut his eyes and took a deep breath, let it out slowly.  The smell of burning propane came to his nostrils.  Now cinnamon.  Nutmeg and squash.  Someone was baking a pumpkin pie.

“Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions here.”

“You’re asking the right questions,” the cold-blooded kaleidoscope replied.  “But you’re asking the wrong animals.  Those dogs you interviewed are nobodies.  Ask a nobody, find nobody.”

“Then who should I be asking?”

“Want to find a killer?  Ask a killer.”

“Come again?”  The dog scratched at his collar.  Talking to Mister Zilch made his head hurt.  A pinch of cloves was added to the distant baking pie.  Not too fresh, though.

“I already can’t find one killer.”  Goldie shuddered at the thought of calling the kidnapper a killer.  True enough, though, that it was no longer safe to assume that Adam Kelly was still alive.  Wild animals asked no ransom.  They sought food and shelter, in that order.  Nothing else.  “Now I’m supposed to find a second one?  How do I do that?”

“I am nothing, dog.  Ask nothing, find nothing.”  The voice came from farther down the alley.  It continued to fade as it repeated its mantra, as though rather than walking away, the chameleon was simply dematerializing.  “Ask nothing, find nothing.  Ask nothing, find nothing. . .”

Goldie found himself alone in the alley.  Thunder rumbled out beyond the Lost Hills, too soft for a human ear to detect.

“So.  You wanna meet a killer?”

Medusa stood at the street-end of the alley.  Moving out from between the houses into the overcast gloom, Goldie pretended not to notice the orange sauce that stained the tip of the cat’s whiskers.  He passed no comment on the grain of rice stuck to her nostril.

“Why?  You know one?”

The cat’s reply was a smile.

Some blocks away, the baker had forgotten their pumpkin pie, and it began to burn.


7

 

 

“So why didn’t Officer Dan just give you a name, if you didn’t respond to any of the ones he tried?”

Straddling the Freismans’ fence, Medusa watched Goldie explore the perimeter of whitewashed wood slats for a weak point.  A contractor by trade, Dale Freisman was meticulous about his property, and could not abide a loose board, a crumbling brick, or a squeaky hinge.  It was for this reason that the Lab was finally forced to circle around to the front of the house, under the watchful eye of the old collar, purebred pets that lined the windows of every home on Corona Court —members of the Purity Association all— so that Medusa could unlatch the gate and the stray dog, whom they all knew would amount to no good, because no good ever came of the stray caste, blatantly trespassed onto private property.

“I don’t know,” Goldie said.  “I think maybe he wanted to try and wake up the dog I used to be.  Like it was asleep inside me.”

“Why’d he stop?”

“What do you mean?”  He followed Medusa around back, where a strange and malodorous scent assailed him.  It was a damp, earthy tone, slippery and hard to define, as though whatever produced it did not want its presence to be known.  It was the animal equivalent of wearing a ski mask.

“You said he got halfway through the baby name book.  Why didn’t he finish?”

“I dunno.  Must have figured it best to let that particular sleeping dog lie.”

Medusa stopped under a tall gabled window on the east side of the house.  The window was open, its curtains drawn shut.  October’s cold breath pushed at the floral fabric, teased it against a large shape with hard edges and sharp corners, set just inside the sill.  The wet, earthy effluvium intensified as the hair on Goldie’s back began to rise, the curvature of his spine exaggerating itself into an almost lupine curve.  His shoulders rose up in a defensive posture, head hung low to both avoid an attack on this neck and set his muzzle at the right angle to tear out the throat of an aggressor.

These things Goldie did without thinking, without knowing what they meant on any conscious level, just that he could feel that cold, sickeningly familiar hand on his hide again, slowly stroking his fur against the grain.

Good boy. . .

“Where are we?” he asked, not entirely sure he wanted an answer.

“You wanted to talk to a killer.  I brought you to one.”

A low rumble issued from the feline’s voice box as she spoke.  Medusa was purring.  Goldie recalled something Badge had told him, how a cat might purr from satisfaction or joy, but that it made the same sound during times of extreme duress.  That they did it to calm themselves when frightened.

Who is it? The voice that dripped from the open window was smooth and sweet and thick, like honey running down your windpipe.

Medusa’s low vibrato doubled its frequency.  “Lady Churchyard.  We seek your council.”

“Mmm?  My counsel?  You seek my. . .help?

The cat tried to respond.  Her throat moved, but no sound came out.

“Yes,” Goldie offered.  “We need your help.”  It felt wrong to ask anything of this voice.  Like using the barrel of a gun to scratch an itch on the roof of your mouth.  “A baby was kidnapped this morning.  We need to find the one responsible.  We hoped you might know.”

“Step closer, dog.”

Goldie looked to Medusa, who was back on the fence.  He moved another inch toward the window.  Possibly less.

“Closer. . .Goldie.”

Goldie’s breath hitched in his chest.  The honeyed voice seemed to coat his mind, smothering any thought of retreat.  He stood directly under the window.

“Clooooser.”

Rising up on his hind legs, the Labrador set his forepaws on the window sill.  The curtains stirred.  He caught a glimmer of something shiny and black ticking back and forth behind the curtain like the surface of a giant pupil.

“I smell no fear on you, dog,” the voice offered.  “Only ash where much fear was burned away.  I smell fear on the cat.  Cats wreak of fear, trying always to lick it off.  But you have none.  At least, not for yourself.  Only a fear of yourself.  How amusing.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Oracle was right.  This will end badly.”

Goldie tried to remove his paws from the sill, but found it impossible.

“Do you remember what fear smells like, Goldie?”

A collar of ice fastened itself around the dog’s throat.

“Answer my question first,” he stammered.  “We need your—”

“You don’t need my help.  You are quite capable of following your nose to the truth.  Surrounding yourself with lies, the truth should stand out in stark relief.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“But as you’ve convinced yourself that you need my council, I shall give it.  I know the beast responsible for the evils of this day.”

“You do?”

“I can smell it,” Lady Churchyard said.  “Its confusion fills the streets like smoke.”

“Where is it?”

“I cannot tell you.”

Goldie suppressed a snarl of frustration.  “Then how can you help?”

“I can show you.”

Before the Labrador could reply, a cold wind swept the curtain aside to reveal the black python in its glass cage.  It was a coiled mass of midnight.  A dagger-shaped head rose from the slithering, listless form like a fist from a freshly dug grave.  Eyes the color of bronze stared back at the dog and through the dog, studying the dimensions of his heart.

Goldie staggered from the window.

“Set me free.”  The pronged voice was oily with calm.  Greased.  “Then count to one hundred.  At the stroke of ninety-nine, the beast’s heart will stop, and I will have stopped it.”

Goldie shook his head.  The snake’s eyes bored into his own.  “I can’t do that.”

“Who do you fear, dog?  The killer you see behind the glass, or the one reflected by it?”

Goldie’s back was to the fence.  “We shouldn’t have come here.”

“Sometimes, when a bone breaks, it heals poorly.  To fix it, you must break it again, so that it may heal correctly.  I’m afraid you’re going to have to break many bones to heal this one, Goldie.”

The reptile’s head floated toward the glass.

“Now.  Set.  Me.  Free.”

“No.”

Lady Churchyard flung herself against the glass.  Goldie reared back, slammed into the fence behind him, found purchase with his hind claws, and fled around the corner of the house.

“Hey!”  Medusa bolted after him.

“Think you can slay the monster yourself, dog?!” Lady Churchyard called.

Goldie plowed through the Freismans’ front gate.  Behind him, the cat scrabbled to keep up.

“Think you can hold back the one hiding within?”

A minute later, three blocks down and two blocks over, the Lab was still running, still panting, still biting at the air for breath, claws scratching at concrete.

“Wait!” Medusa cried.  “Damn it, why are you running?!  HEY!”

At the corner of Leafstorm Lane and Jupiter Road, the dog stopped.  His eyes stung, blurred.  A dry pink tongue lolled from his mouth.  Fire backlit his eyes.

The cat arrived a moment later, a heaving dandelion head of fluff and ire.

“The hell’s the matter with you, dog?”

“Where is it?” Goldie asked.  He scanned the street, nose in the air.  It was near dark.  Though the cloud cover masked its retreat, the setting sun felt dangerous to Goldie, like it would set fire to the horizon when they touched, like it was going to burn the whole world down.

“What?”

“Take me to it.”

“Make sense, dog!  Take you to who?”

“The Oracle!”  It came out as a snarl, half-warning, half-pleading.  “Take me now, please.  Before I change my mind.  I have to see it.”

“Oh.”  Medusa’s voice faded, a ball of string run to the end of its tether.  “Right.  Listen Goldie, I was just razzing you before.  I don’t think it’s such a good idea to ask the Oracle.  I mean, even if we could find it—”

“Do you know where it is or don’t you?!”

Medusa described a figure eight in the sidewalk grit with her paw.

“No.”

There was a slackening of air as the dog shrank by degrees.  Despair soaked his fur, combed it flat against his hide.

The cat spoke without looking up.  “I know how to find it, though.”  Deep breath.  “But you should know something, dog.  Animals who seek the Oracle come back changed.  They look at things differently.  Like they’re not sure that what they’re seeing is really there.”

“I know.”  Thunder tiptoed closer to town, though still a ways off.  “Badge saw it once, by accident.”

“Really?  What did it tell him?”

“It told him that Officer Dan was going to die.”


8

 

 

Strange things were said to happen within the confines of the Lost Hills Animal Sanctuary.

Hikers went missing.  Odd sounds were reported.  Strange lights in the sky.  The story behind these phenomena was a favorite bedtime story of the neighborhood pups and kits.  Years ago, a group of eco-terrorists broke into an animal testing lab and set its subjects free.  The technicians in the lab were supposed to have been testing cosmetics on the animals.  What the eco-terrorists found more closely resembled Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.  The facility had been a site for illegal genetic experimentation.  Gene manipulation.  Inter-species transplants.  They found dogs with human tongues.  Cats covered in fish scales.  Winged rats.  A horse with a pair of black, lifeless human arms grafted onto its chest.  Starved and tortured to the point of insanity, the animals turned on their liberators, tearing them to pieces in a mass exodus that lead them straight to Lost Hills where they have lived ever since, protected by law, along with every other creature living within its confines, a host of nightmares breeding a whole new generation of freaks, deranged and deformed, and hungry for the meat of young domestics.

It was all nonsense, of course.  Like the polar bear with red fur that flies through the sky on All Howls Eve, drawn by eight flying penguins to deliver bones and balls of string to all the good little puppies and kittens around the world.

And yet, it was hard not to dwell on the old horror stories when dusk drew its blanket over Goldie and Medusa, as they stalked ever deeper into the woods.  It was especially difficult for Goldie, knowing as he did that the story wasn’t entirely the stuff of fiction.

Leaves crunched underpaw.  Pine needles nettled the Labrador’s footpads like disturbed anemones.  Though Medusa was supposed to be his guide, Goldie lead the way with his nose to the ground, casting a broad olfactory net for the scent of steal and iron, telltale signs of bear traps concealed beneath the blazing foliage by a trespassing Edgar Fergut.

“Stop, dog.  I tire.”  It was the first time the cat had spoken in twenty minutes.  Before that, her last words had been a definitive In there, one palsy paw pointed at the vast expanse of protected woodlands that bordered Hope Falls.

Goldie felt a sudden weight settle on his hindquarters as the cat jumped up on his back.

“You may proceed.”

Goldie trudged ahead.  “How much farther?”

“As far as we need to go.”

“What a great guide.  I hope you’re not expecting a tip.”

“Go fix yourself.  You don’t find the Oracle.  It finds you.”

Goldie rolled his eyes and soldiered on.  What little warmth the veiled daylight had brought dissipated with each step he took into the deepening gloom.  Lightning crackled at the far end of the sanctuary.  Thunderclouds twisted themselves into a dense black hive.

He stepped through a rotted pumpkin hidden beneath a pile of leaves.  Cold, decayed pulp swallowed his paw, rotten innards alive with swarming maggots.  He shook it off and kept to what he judged to be a northwestern baring, toward a picture that had formed in his mind of a great dead elm, so tall that it raked the sky, black and malformed, split three ways by lightning when the world still wet its bed with magma.

Goldie stopped.

“What is it?”  Medusa hopped down from his back, stretched, and sniffed at the ground.

“There’s a trap here.”

“Where?”

“There.”  Nodding to his right.  “Smells like it’s already sprung, but you can never be too careful.”

“How can you tell?”

“Can’t you smell the blood on it?”

He urged the cat forward until a small doe’s hoof delineated itself in the darkness.  The trap had bitten clean through the yearling’s leg.  Excusing herself, Medusa lurched left and made a gacking sound behind a tree.

“Hairball,” she explained.  “Come on.”

They continued on their path.

“Tell me how Badge met the Oracle.”

“Well, you remember that story about the monsters that supposedly escaped from the animal testing lab around here?”

“My favorite story growing up.”

“You and everybody else.  Thing is, not many people know it, or want to know it, but it’s based on a real event.”

“You’re kidding.”

Goldie shook his head.  “Happened a dozen years ago.  Badge was barely out of training at the Academy.  Apparently, there really did used to be an animal testing facility around here.  A pharmaceutical lab.  And a group of humans really did break in and free all the animals.  They escaped the lab and came here and Badge, Officer Dan, and Edgar Fergut were contracted to search the woods.  They were told to search the area, but for human fugitives only.  Any animals found hereabouts were technically protected by the Sanctuary.  They found all the fugitive humans, plus a bunch of monkeys, dogs and cats, and even a horse.  Fergut went after the animals.  He didn’t care what the law said.  The lab had offered him a kick-back for every one he brought back, and Officer Dan had his hands full searching for the humans.”

Goldie veered to avoid a pitfall.  A nameless carcass, long dead, called up to him with its scent of dust and rot.

“And before you ask, no, Badge didn’t find a single winged rat or chimp with a human brain.  What he did find was a bunch of animals who’d lost their minds— crazed things scratching the fur off their faces, biting themselves, talking to animals who weren’t there.  One of the dogs told Badge that he used to work for the lab.  He said he used to be human, but they changed him.

“Anyway, the Oracle was one of the animals set loose in the woods that night.  Badge found it just standing there in the open, staring at him like it was daring him to say something.  Of course, he did.  Badge was a good dog, but he was still a dog, and he barked like crazy and dragged Officer Dan over to it.  Officer Dan walked right passed it.  Didn’t even see it.  Like it wasn’t even there.  Same with Fergut.”

Medusa cleared her throat.  “What did you say they did in that lab?”

“They claimed it was pharmaceutical testing.  But I guarantee they weren’t looking for a better-tasting cough syrup.”

“What do you think it was?”

“Couldn’t say.  But look at the Oracle.  It’s supposed to be psychic, right?  You don’t get an animal to open its third eye with a faster-acting aspirin.  All I know is that the Oracle punished Badge for trying to rat it out to Fergut and Officer Dan.”

“By telling him that Officer Dan was going to die?”

“Not only that.  It told him when he was going to die, told him how it was going to happen, and that there was nothing Badge could do about it.  And it was right.  Funny thing, though, if Badge hadn’t run off after the bomber because of what the Oracle had said, he and Officer Dan wouldn’t have split up, and things might have worked out differently.”

Medusa had no response.  She had stopped walking, had let herself fall behind.

Goldie backtracked until he stood in front of the cat.  Her eyes were open, but she did not see him.  An ant crawled over the unblinking surface of her pupil.

“Medusa?”

We have no interest in the cat.

The voice spoke into his ear.  Between his ears.  Not one voice, but three, speaking in unison, directly to Goldie’s mind.

Our interest lies solely with you, Subject Kappa.

Lightning played in the clouds above the trees; jagged and random as a drunk driver, it illuminated a clearing in the woods just beyond a line of bald maples.  A tree stood in the center of the clearing, great and black and split down the center, three equal parts clawing at the sky.  Fire had carved a black hollow into its trunk where the root structure began.  Three white rabbits with red eyes stood side by side in the hollow.

“Who are you?” Goldie asked.

We are called the Oracle.  Welcome, Subject Kappa.

Subject Kappa.  That name poked at Goldie like a scalpel.  His balance faltered as he stepped into the clearing.

“Why do you call me that?”

Would you prefer, Goldie?

He could feel them in his mind, pawing around.

If such is the case, then you’ve come a long way to be lied to.

“I’ve come for your help.”

You wish to know who took the child Adam Kelly from his home.

“Yes.  Do you know who it was?”

We do.  But do you not wish to know about yourself?  About who you really are?  Subject Kappa?

Goldie cringed.  It was that name.  The sound of it was like a claw scraped along his inner ear.  “You know about me?”

We know all about you.  We know who you are, and where you came from.

A high keening sound rang in Goldie’s his ears.  He lowered his head, eyes watering.  “D-don’t call me that.  Please.  Just tell me about the boy.”

The rabbits angled their heads in unison.

You disappoint us.  Subject Kappa.

The sharp ring became a stabbing, blaring claxon that made the dog’s teeth grind.  Mucus ran down his muzzle as he rolled on the ground, drooling into the dirt.

Nnnngghaa!  Stop it!  PLEASE!”

Goldie smashed his forehead against one of the scorched tree’s roots.  The great dead maple began to flicker, like his mind was losing reception.  He hit it again.  A heavy sigh from the red-eyed triclops blew like a gale through the Labrador’s mind, blowing thoughts and memories into a whirlwind.

Very well.  We had hoped to help you live up to your potential.  You have no idea how special you are.

Rolling in the leaves, crying, clawing at his ears.  Just needing it to stop, stop, stop, stop. . .

Go away.  Go away.  Go away.  Please, please, please.  GO!  AWAY!

You probably don’t even remember us.

Goldie opened his eyes.

He was on his feet.  The pain was gone.  The ringing in his ears faded, a dull throb left in its wake.  The clearing was empty.

“Well, I give up.”

Goldie jumped like he’d been kicked.  Medusa sat behind him, on a large black tree stump.  The cat shrugged her shoulders, licked her paw and rubbed her eyes with the dampened fur.

“I’m exhausted.”  Yawn.  “You think we should head back and talk to the Pug again?  He seemed to know what he was talking about in a weird sort of. . .hey, you okay?  You look like Toto just dropped a house on you.”

The Black Lab tried to speak.  He gagged, instead.  His mind felt like someone had plugged it into the wall and hit ‘puree’.  Random thoughts tripped on thorny images and overgrown memories gone to seed as they struggled to become words.

“I know,” he said.  “I know who did it.  I know who took Adam Kelly.”

“You do?  How?  What just happened?”

Goldie shook his head.  “The Oracle.  I saw the Oracle and they told me.  While you were gone.”

The cat absorbed this statement.  She swallowed the information like a pill meant for a much larger animal.

“Okay,” she said.  “Spit it out.  Who’s ass do we have to kick to rescue the kid and go home?”

He spat the name out:

“Bottlerocket.”


 

 (The rest of the story is available to purchase here on the Amazon Kindle.)

Website Builder