a story that didn’t make it
“Alex” has never been published, and I understand why. Saying that the story is in questionable taste would be like saying that meeting an Internet-only acquaintance in a dark alley shows questionable judgment. But I hope some people who have loved old dogs despite their faults might enjoy the story anyway.
When our dog, Alex, died, I wanted to write a tribute to him, to enshrine some memories for our family. A straight memoir didn’t feel right, so I played around with the idea of giving Alex a starring role in a mystery story. Could I find a way to transform his bad habits and sweet personality into the stuff of heroism? Could I work our cats into the story, too? I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing a story more.
I showed the story to my husband and daughters and, at their urging, submitted it to just one magazine. When the gently-worded rejection came, I wasn’t surprised, and I didn’t try again. If ever a story has screamed “self-publish,” this is the one. “If I start a website some day,” I thought, “I’ll post the story there, and that will be Alex’s tribute.”
So here it is. The first few pages may seem like pure self-indulgence, but I promise that many details in those pages will eventually prove relevant to the solution of the mystery.
This one’s for you, boy.
Alex and the old cat
Alex, the kitten, and the girl
Alex was an old dog, and he knew he was loved. He did what he damn well pleased. From time to time, he still enjoyed the ritual of relieving himself outside—the stroll into the sweet-smelling back yard, the leisurely exploration of bushes and flower beds, the pats and praises when he came back into the warm kitchen. On the whole, though, these days, he preferred the basement. He was more his own man when he just ambled down the stairs whenever the impulse took him, sniffed about a bit, and picked his spot.
His people didn’t like it, he knew. When the woman discovered something and cried out in dismay, when the girl crinkled up her nose, when the man wearily gathered the paper towels and spray cleaner and plastic grocery bags and headed down the stairs, Alex knew he’d disappointed them, and he felt sorry. But they never did anything much about it. Oh, the woman might scold, and the girl might gaze sorrowfully into his eyes when she hugged him, and the man might curse a bit. None of that was especially pleasant. But they still gave him his breakfast and his dinner right on schedule, they still called out to him joyfully whenever they came back to the house, they still took him out for his walks, they still let him sleep on their beds, they still petted him, they still plied him with the treats other dogs got only when they did tricks. Alex had never done tricks. He’d never had to.
Lately, he’d rediscovered the pleasures of overturning wastebaskets, of chomping on cellophane and rolling soft-drink cans about and chewing up Kleenex and scattering moist bits on the carpet. When he’d been a puppy, they’d sometimes slapped him lightly on the rump when he’d done that. Now, they just sighed, and cleaned up the mess, and gave him his dinner. They indulged him. He’d be a fool not to take advantage of the situation, and Alex was no fool. It wasn’t that he didn’t still enjoy pleasing them. He did. He just no longer viewed it as a necessity. He was, after all, a realist.
Then they brought the kitten home. There had been a cat in the house when Alex had first come here, a fat, slow, cranky gray thing that had hissed at him for a few days before deciding, grudgingly, to tolerate his presence. Once he’d gotten used to her, Alex had liked the cat, mostly because she never finished a meal. She always left a little something in her dish for him. It didn’t take him long to learn the routine—bolt down his own food and then wait patiently, standing three feet back from her dish, until she’d picked and licked and nibbled as much as she wanted. He mustn’t crowd her, he learned, and he mustn’t bark. Barking didn’t make her hurry; it just made her mad. Eventually, she’d finish, and stroll off for a wash and a nap. At first, the people tried to keep him from finishing the cat’s food, but they’d come to their senses fairly quickly, and his right to seconds was established. In time, he and the cat had become friends. She allowed him the second-sunniest spot on the living room carpet during nap times and didn’t mind if he sometimes curled up right next to her, warming his fur against hers.
Then the cat had gone away. He hadn’t noticed, at first, when she got slower and thinner; he just felt glad to see that she kept leaving larger portions for him in her bowl. But he noticed when the man had to start lifting her up onto the sofa, and when the woman and the girl started spending a lot of time sitting there with her, bringing her food to her, urging her to eat, even dipping their fingertips into ice cream and begging her to lick it off. Alex would have been glad to take care of the ice cream himself, but they’d shooed him away and petted the cat and sometimes cried a bit. All this had gone on for some time. And then, one day, the cat was gone. Alex had tried to find her, had wandered from room to room looking for her; whenever the woman and the girl had noticed him doing that, they’d cried again. In time, he’d gotten used to taking his naps alone, and things had settled down, and he’d almost forgotten her.
Now, the kitten had moved in, and the memories came back. The kitten was gray, too, but it was little and quick and nasty. It was never afraid of him, not for one second, not even on the first day when they brought it home in the green plastic case and it sprang right out, arching its back and flaunting its tail and snarling. When he’d walked over to check it out, it had flexed its tiny claws and swiped his nose, then paid no further attention to him and pranced off to take possession of the house. It had absolutely no respect for his seniority and never left him a single bite of anything in its food dish. For a while, Alex had hoped his people would come to appreciate its shortcomings and send it away; but they seemed, unaccountably, to like it. They gave it toys and cuddled it and laughed foolishly when it leapt at bits of dangled yarn or did other inconsequential things. At least the kitten was no threat to him: Obviously, his people still preferred him, since they never took the kitten on walks. And, all things considered, it felt good to once again have someone else in the house with him when his people left for the day.
Not that the kitten was especially interesting company. Once or twice a day, it would race about the house crazily for no particular reason, and Alex enjoyed watching that. For the most part, though, the kitten just sat on the back of the sagging yellow couch in the family room, watching the back yard. Alex couldn’t see much sense to that. It wasted valuable nap time, and there was never anything much to see—just the occasional bird or bunny or squirrel, or the silly woman from the house to the left sunning herself on her deck for hour after hour, and the silly teenaged boy from the house to the right doggedly shooting a big orange ball at the hoop attached to his garage, missing more often than not. Sometimes the woman’s husband would come out to sit with her for a while, and sometimes they’d argue—that could be mildly entertaining; sometimes the boy’s mother would walk out, offer the boy lemonade or cookies, try to start a conversation, and walk away dejected—that was unfailingly boring. On the whole, Alex preferred to ignore the kitten and nap on the second-sunniest spot on the living room carpet, dreaming about the good old days with the fat old cat.
The day he’d remember for a long time started in the usual way. He was sleeping in the room the man and the woman shared—the kitten slept in the room with the girl—when the shrill thing next to the bed made its noise. Then there was bustling, and breakfast, and a trip to the back yard, and doors opening and closing and pats and hugs and goodbyes, and then he and the kitten had the house to themselves and settled into their routines—one to nap, one to watch the yard. Mid-morning, they both roused themselves to greet the mailman—Alex and the kitten agreed about the necessity of that. At noon, the woman came home, as she always did, to take Alex for a quick trot around the block; Alex cast a smug glance at the kitten as he and the woman set out on their round. And he took the woman’s urgings seriously, and gave due consideration to each tree and bush, and accorded her some reward for her attentions. On this day, though, as on most days, he just wasn’t yet in the mood for a full effort. The woman went back to work, and Alex settled down to his afternoon nap; an hour or so later, when the mood felt right, he sauntered down to the basement, then came upstairs to nap some more.
By rights, the next thing to disturb his rest should have been the girl’s return. But on this particular day, something else happened. Right in the middle of a cozy dream about finishing off the fat cat’s dinner, there was a noise at the back door. The girl’s home already, Alex thought, and shook himself awake, and raced dutifully to the family room to greet her. But it wasn’t the girl. It was two guests.
This was unexpected. Usually, guests came in the evening; always, they came when someone in the family was home. Alex couldn’t remember the last time guests had arrived in the middle of the afternoon when everyone in the family was gone. And it was odd that both of these guests were wearing gloves on such a hot summer day. Even so, Alex knew how to behave when guests arrived—he knew what they expected. He took two steps back, lowered his hindquarters, and barked as loudly and fiercely as he could.
“Damn!” the first guest cried. “I’d forgotten about the dog. Quick—shoot him! He’ll attack us!”
“Not this dog,” the second guest said, and squatted down to Alex’s level. “This dog’s a pussycat. Aren’t you, Alex? Aren’t you, boy? Quiet, now. See what I brought you? Looks good, doesn’t it, boy?”
Now, this was an innovation. Usually, when Alex barked to greet guests, someone in the family gave him a treat to ask him to be quiet. This time, the guests had brought their own treat—unconventional, but a treat is a treat. Alex could adjust. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks be damned, he thought, and stopped barking, and accepted the treat, and let the second guest pet him. It was a very good treat—half a hot dog, not just one of those dry, bland biscuity blocks—and Alex congratulated himself on being flexible enough to accommodate a departure from tradition. The kitten, who always took a while to decide whether or not to bother greeting anyone, hung back a bit, looking the guests over and hissing softly.
“That’s a good boy,” the second guest was saying, patting Alex’s head. “And you’re a handsome boy, too, aren’t you?”
“He’s all right,” the first guest said. “What is he, anyhow—some kind of mutt?”
“Must be,” the second guest said, standing up. “Part beagle, obviously—that’s where he gets that solid body. And with those long, thin legs, the rest might be Shetland sheepdog. Anyway, his coloring’s good—nice contrast between the black body and the white on the face and the chest and the tip of the tail.”
“And the paws,” the first guest pointed out. “And with a little brown mixed in—he’s sorta cute. Anyhow, good work on getting him to shut up. And good work on getting us in here. How did you know about the key in the fake rock?”
“Because I’ve seen the girl use it,” the second guest said. “She forgets her key all the time, and she always gets home before they do—that’s probably why they decided to hide a key in the back yard.”
“The girl gets home first?” the first guest said, sounding alarmed. “When?”
“Not until 4:30—she’s got a summer job at a day camp clear across town, and she takes the bus home. That gives us plenty of time.”
“Unless someone comes home early,” the first guest said sourly. “People do come home early sometimes. Damn! Who would’ve thought—“
“Not you, obviously, since you never think of anything. Well, if anyone comes home early now, it’s just going to have to look like we’ve got a serial burglar in the neighborhood.” The second guest reached into a pocket, and took out a heavy metal thing, and tossed it significantly from hand to hand. “A serial burglar-killer. No way are we leaving any witnesses behind.”
“Hey, don’t talk like that,” the first guest said. “It’s not going to happen. We just have to find a place to stash this stuff and clear out. What do you think? Basement?”
“Probably,” the second guest said, and smiled slightly as the kitten strolled over for a sniff. “Well, look who’s decided to say hello. Now, that’s a pretty kitten.”
“It sure is,” the first guest said, and grinned, and squatted down, and held out a hand to the kitten. “Hey, pretty kitten—wanna say hi? I bet you like having your neck skritched, don’t you? Here, pretty kitten—let me skritch your neck.”
Not, Alex judged, an intelligent guest—it grabbed the kitten by the neck, and picked it up, and tried to cuddle it. Even a guest should know better than that. Kittens don’t like to be grabbed—dogs generally learn to tolerate such things, but kittens generally don’t. Certainly not this kitten. When the guest grabbed it, it snarled, and twisted its body about, and sank its claws into the guest’s arm, and leapt free. Since that first day when it had swiped at Alex’s nose, the kitten’s claws had grown considerably—no one in the family had yet worked up the courage to try to trim them—so the scratches left in the guest’s arm were long and bloody.
“Damn!” the first guest cried. “Look at what that stupid cat did to me! I’m bleeding like crazy! I better get a bandaid or something.”
“You baby,” the second guest said. “Here—take these paper towels and press down hard; that’ll stop the bleeding. And then let’s get going. No more playing around with pets.”
Grumbling, still swearing under its breath, the first guest pressed the paper towels against the wound for a few moments, then tossed them into the family room wastebasket. When the two guests headed down the stairs to the basement, Alex trotted after them. The kitten might not know how to be hospitable, but Alex understood how much guests enjoyed his company, and he wasn’t about to desert these two, even though one of them did curse too much to be entirely pleasant. The kitten came along, too—keeping a careful distance from the guests, the fur on the back of its neck still bristling with caution, its eyes still narrow with curiosity and distrust.
Most guests who came down to the basement preferred the big room right at the bottom of the stairs—the carpeted room with the wood on the walls and the big green table in the middle. Guests liked to stand around the table, knocking balls against each other with long sticks, and that was always fun to watch and to listen to; the balls were hard and made loud, crisp noises when they bumped into each other. But these guests walked right through the carpeted room and into the part of the basement that had a concrete floor. They passed the washer and the drier and the man’s work bench and stood looking at some large metal shelves stacked high with cardboard boxes.
“This looks good,” the first guest said. “Which one do we pick?”
“One that won’t be opened for a while,” the second guest said, and pointed. “There—on the top shelf, the one marked `Halloween Decorations.’ That gives us until October; that should be plenty of time. Get it down.”
The first guest obeyed with some difficulty. “So, the idea is that we just hide the stuff in the box until things cool down, then come back and get it and pawn it. Right?”
“Right,” the second guest said. “That’s our first line of defense—that’s assuming the police figure it was just a random burglary gone wrong. They’ll hassle some usual suspects for a while, give up, call the case unsolved, and forget about it.”
“Or maybe we’ll get lucky,” the first guest said, “and they’ll arrest some poor schnook and send him to prison. That would really close the case. Either way, we come back and get the stuff. That sounds pretty good. And our second line of defense?”
“That’s what happens if the police figure there was a personal motive and the burglary was a cover-up. If they start thinking that, they might decide to search neighbors’ houses for evidence—and they might just start with this house, since everyone knows these guys couldn’t stand the old man. If that happens, the cops find the stuff here, they arrest the husband or the wife or both, and that closes the case.”
“That’s not so good,” the first guest said. “We wouldn’t get to keep the stuff.”
“But at least we wouldn’t go to prison,” the second guest pointed out, “because the cops won’t find anything if they come sniffing around us. That may be the best we can hope for, given how badly you bungled things.”
“Hey—what was I supposed to do when the old man walked in on me like that? Tell him to have a nice day and just stroll on out? And you’re the one who told me that he never comes home during the day, that I shouldn’t have any problems. Anyhow, will the stuff in the box really be enough to close the case? What if the husband and the wife both have ironclad alibis?”
“There’s no such thing as an ironclad alibi,” the second guest said confidently. “The cops can break any alibi down, whether it’s legit or not. And the husband’s in real estate, so he must be in and out of the office all the time; and the wife comes home every day to walk the dog—she could’ve done it then. Here—put all the stuff at the bottom of the box, and put the cardboard skeletons on top of it. Good—the plastic pumpkins, too. Now, put the box back on the top shelf. No, more to the left—right where it was before.”
“That is right where it was before,” the first guest said. “Right in the center.”
“I don’t think so—I think it was more to the left,” the second guest said, and took a step back to get a broader perspective. And then the second guest grimaced. “Oh, damn—what did I just step in?”
The first guest looked, and sniffed, and giggled. “In something our friend Alex left behind, I bet. Oh, man—what a mess!”
“I’m glad you’re amused,” the second guest said sourly, and then both guests froze at the sound of a door opening upstairs, and footsteps on the kitchen floor.
“Alex!” the girl called out happily. “I’m home early, boy—Shannon’s mom gave me a ride. Where are you, boy?”
The two guests looked at each other sharply. “Get the box down again,” the second guest said in a harsh whisper. “We may need the gun.”
Something wasn’t right. The guests should be going upstairs to greet the girl, or calling out to her to ask her to come downstairs and knock balls around with long sticks. Instead, they were both being very quiet, and the first guest was silently taking the box down again, and reaching beneath the plastic pumpkins and the cardboard skeletons, and gripping a squat metal thing.
“Alex!” the girl cried out again. “Where are you? Oh, no—you’re not down the basement, are you? You’re not doing something bad?”
She’s going to come downstairs to look for me, Alex thought; and suddenly he felt very sure that the girl should not come downstairs. It wasn’t safe. Something was wrong about these guests. With one last look back, he bounded up the stairs as quickly as his old legs would allow, barking loudly, to tell her about it.
“There you are,” the girl said, crouching down to give Alex a hug. Her arms around his neck felt firm and comforting, and he licked her cheek affectionately. Then she stood up and took a step back from him. “What were you doing in the basement, you naughty boy? If I went downstairs to check, would I find something nasty?”
Yes, she would—she’d find something very nasty. But at least Alex didn’t have to worry that she’d really go downstairs to check; she never did, even though she always got home first and knew his habits well. She always waited until her father came home and went downstairs to check, so that he’d be the one to find the nasty things and have to clean them up. Sure enough, the girl gave him one more reproving glance, shook her head, and opened the refrigerator door. This was good. Now she’d get herself a snack, and maybe she’d slip him a piece of cheese. She often did, even though her mother had told her that she really shouldn’t, that it wasn’t really good for Alex’s digestion. The guests almost forgotten, Alex sat on his haunches and waited expectantly, slapping his tail against the floor to signal his willingness to join her in a snack.
But then there was a noise from the basement, a soft thud of something falling on the floor. Those clumsy guests, Alex thought—they must have knocked something over, or dropped the box when they tried to put it back up on the shelf again. The girl looked up slowly, turning her face toward the door to the basement.
“What was that?” she said, and looked around the kitchen. “Where’s the kitten? Was the kitten downstairs with you, Alex? Did that silly kitty knock something over and make a mess?”
She closed the refrigerator door and took a step toward the basement. No good, Alex knew—she shouldn’t go down there. He barked sharply to let her know. She glanced at him, puzzled, then looked away and took another step toward the basement. Barking wasn’t enough—she didn’t understand him, no matter how clearly he tried to explain the situation. Desperate, he tried to think of something else to do. He barked again, got her to glance at him again. And then he lifted his right rear leg.
That got her attention. “Oh, no, you don’t,” she said. “Not right in the middle of the kitchen floor! Then I’d have to clean it up. Oh, Alex—you silly, naughty old thing. Do you need to go out, boy? All right, fine. Come on.”
At least he’d distracted her for the moment. Relieved, he followed her to the family room. But when she opened the back door and motioned for him to go out into the yard, he hesitated. That wouldn’t be good enough—that might be very bad. She might let him out and then go down to the basement to check on the kitten, and he wouldn’t even be there to protect her. No, he had to get her to leave the house with him; then, maybe the guests would go away. They’d come when none of the people were at home; maybe they’d go away again if none of the people were at home. Working out the logic of all this was fairly exhausting for Alex, but he felt sure he was right. So instead of going out into the yard, he sat down, gazed longingly at the leash hanging on a hook next to the door, and whimpered.
“What’s wrong?” the girl asked, and followed his gaze. “The leash? You want to go for a walk? No, not yet, boy—Dad will take you for a walk when he gets home. He always does. Just go out in the yard and take care of your business, and then I’ll give you a treat. Okay, boy? As soon as you come in. A treat! C’mon, boy! Two treats!”
Two treats—the temptation felt almost unbearable, but Alex would not be swayed. He sat there gazing at the leash, thumping his tail against the floor, and brought the whimpering up a notch in pitch and volume.
No one in this family could withstand his whimpers for long. The girl kept urging him for another half minute, then gave up, grabbed the leash, and sighed. “Okay, fine. You want a walk, you’ll get a walk. A short walk. You spoiled, naughty old dog, you.”
He set a brisk pace, pulling the girl along insistently until they turned the corner, not letting himself pause to sniff at any of the bushes or trees so fragrant that they were usually irresistible. And then he slowed and sniffed at everything, even at hydrants that were usually beneath his notice. He wasn’t sure just why, but he wanted this walk to last a long time. The girl got impatient and begged him to hurry up; he pretended not to hear.
He dragged the walk out for a full fifteen minutes, then reluctantly let her tug him home. When they came into the family room, the kitten was there, sitting on the back of the sagging yellow couch, watching the back yard, silent and mysterious. A good sign, Alex thought—maybe things were back to normal. As soon as the girl unhooked his leash, he raced down the basement stairs to check.
“No, Alex!” the girl cried. “Not the basement! Good grief! After I took you for a walk and everything! Can’t you be good for just a few minutes, until Dad gets home?”
He checked the carpeted room with the big green table, the laundry room, the work room, the room with the metal shelves. No—no guests, and the cardboard box was back on the top shelf. Everything looked just the way it had before. It was all over. Relieved, he went back up to the kitchen, patiently endured the girl’s scolding, whimpered until she gave him a piece of cheese, and went to the living room to nap. The second-sunniest spot on the carpet was barely warm this late in the afternoon, but he settled down there anyhow, happy to have his routine restored.
Then more good things happened. The woman came home and hugged him and gave him his dinner; and then, just as he was lapping up the last savory traces of meaty juice, the man came home, too.
“What a day!” the man said, hugging first Alex, then his wife, then his daughter. “I signed up two new listings, and I showed the house on Hastings, the house on Buckingham, the house on Lancaster—I had an appointment to show the house on York, too, but the people never showed. I don’t think I was ever at my desk for more than five minutes. How were your days?”
“Really hard,” the girl said, putting down the carrot she’d been paring half-heartedly. “The kids at camp kept me running the whole time, and it was so hot. And then Shannon’s mom gave me a ride home, but the minute I got here, Alex started whining to go on a walk. I took him around the block.”
“You did?” the man said, surprised. “That was nice of you, honey.” He looked hopefully toward the basement door. “If he was so eager to go out, maybe he’d been good since noon. Maybe he didn’t make a mess today. I should really go check—“
“Why don’t you give yourself a break for once?” the woman said. “You can check after dinner. Just relax for now—you had a rough day. You want some wine?”
Before she could get it for him, the sound of a siren made them all pause. The sound grew louder for a few moments, then ended abruptly.
“Sounds like it stopped on our street,” the man said, and walked into the living room; Alex trotted faithfully behind him. These things had to be checked out.
“It’s an ambulance,” the man said, pushing the curtain aside and looking out the window. “Right across the street, in front of the old man’s house. I hope he’s all right.”
“I couldn’t care less,” the girl said. “That mean old—“
Renewed siren sounds cut her off. By now, the whole family had gathered in the living room, including the kitten; the man pushed the curtain aside again to take another look. “A cop car, too,” he reported. “No—two cop cars. I wonder what’s going on.”
“Can we go see?” the girl asked, stepping up to the window for a look.
“Certainly not,” the woman said. “Whatever the problem is, the paramedics and the police can do their jobs more efficiently without a lot of people gawking at them. We should go back in the kitchen and finish making the salad.”
“But everyone else is going out to look,” the girl pleaded. “See? There’s that tall kid from next door and his mom, and the teacher and her husband, and a whole bunch of other people. Please, Mom? This is exciting—it’s the first time anything has ever happened on this street. And maybe we could help.”
“How could we possibly help?” the man said—but it was clear from his voice that he was tempted, too. “Still, it doesn’t seem right to just sit down and eat dinner as if nothing were happening. That would seem sort of—uncaring. Hard-hearted.”
“Well,” the woman said reluctantly, “I guess we could take Alex for a walk. You’d do that after dinner anyway. I guess we could take him around the block, and when we get back, we can go across the street and ask the neighbors what’s going on.”
“And I can go, too, right?” the girl demanded.
The man smiled at her. “I thought you were exhausted after a long, hot day at work.”
“I’ve had time to rest,” the girl said, and ran to get the leash.
It didn’t take them long to round the block and join the knot of neighbors standing on the sidewalk in front of the old man’s house. Alex felt himself quivering with curiosity and a vague feeling of foreboding, especially when he began to think that two of these neighbors were the guests who had come to the house this afternoon. He couldn’t be sure—they looked different out here than they had in the house; if he could get close enough to smell them, he’d know. But for some reason he didn’t want to get closer.
“What’s going on?” the man asked one of the neighbors.
It was the husband of the woman from the house on the left—the woman who lay in her yard sunning herself all the time, the woman the girl had referred to as the teacher. “Something happened to the old man, I guess,” the teacher’s husband said. “Somebody said that he decided to go home for lunch today, and then he never came back to work. So after work his secretary stopped by his house to check on him—and then I guess something didn’t look right, so she called an ambulance and the cops. There are some detectives here, too—plain-clothes guys. They came out a few minutes ago and asked us all a bunch of questions, but they wouldn’t tell us anything.”
The front door to the old man’s house opened, and two white-coated men came out, carrying a long, narrow, table-type thing covered with a white cloth.
“Oh, my God,” the girl said. “The sheet’s pulled up over his face. Does that mean he’s, like, dead?”
“I’m afraid so, honey,” the man said. “Look, we should get you home.”
Two men in suits came out of the front door—a short, stocky young one with a blond crewcut, and a gaunt, older one thick gray hair. They conferred with each other for a moment, then walked over to the group of neighbors.
“Sad news, folks,” the gaunt one said. “Your neighbor’s deceased—shot twice in the chest, actually, and it looks like his house was burglarized. So we’re going to be looking into this, obviously, and we might as well get started right now, see if you folks can give us any information. Deceased lived alone, right? Widowed?”
“That’s right,” the tall boy’s mother said. “His wife died—oh, it must be nearly ten years ago now. Cancer. They didn’t have any children.”
The gaunt man nodded and made a note. “And when we were talking to you folks earlier, you said something about deceased owning a valuable baseball card collection.”
“That’s right,” the teacher said, flipping her long blonde hair back off her shoulder. “It was supposed to be the best in the state. There was an article about it in the newspaper several months ago.”
“Yeah, I remember reading that,” the gaunt man said. “Well, the collection’s gone, and probably some other stuff, too—somebody went through deceased’s bureau and desk drawers pretty good. Now, I don’t suppose anybody noticed anything odd in the neighborhood lately? A stranger hanging around, a car you didn’t recognize, things like that?” He waited for all the neighbors to shake their heads and make negative murmurs, then sighed. “Okay. Well, we’ll get back to at least some of you later. My partner’s going to get your names and addresses and phone numbers, and then why don’t you just go on home, let us finish up here?”
The young, stocky one took out a notebook and started circulating among the neighbors, getting information and jotting it down. When he reached Alex’s family and the man said his name, the gaunt man looked up quickly.
“I recognize that name,” he said. “When we were talking to folks earlier, one of your neighbors said you had a big fight with deceased about a year ago. Is that right?”
The man hesitated. “We had a disagreement. I wouldn’t call it a ‘big fight.’ There was certainly nothing physical. We—well, we exchanged some angry words.”
“A big disagreement, then,” the gaunt man said. “As I understand it, you got mad when deceased reported you for breaking the law.”
This time, the man flushed. “I wouldn’t call it breaking the law. I apparently violated a city ordinance. You see, our cat died, and we buried her in our back yard. I never knew there was anything wrong with that.”
“You bet there is,” the gaunt man said, nodding somberly. “It’s a health code violation. No domestic animals to be interred on residential property, only in properly licensed commercial animal interment areas.”
“Well, we didn’t know that,” the woman said, tightening her hold on Alex’s leash. “When our poor cat passed away, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to bury her in our back yard. My husband built a coffin for her, and my daughter and I sewed a little pillow and a little cover, and we had a service—we read some psalms and sang a hymn, and we made a little headstone, and our daughter put flowers on the grave every day. It was all very sweet, very nice. But I guess somebody noticed it and didn’t like it, and told the old man about it. I don’t think he noticed it on his own, not from across the street.” She cast one resentful glance at the boy and mother who lived in the house to the right, another resentful glance at the teacher and husband who lived in the house to the left. By now, the other neighbors had gone back to their houses.
“And that’s when you and deceased had the fight?” the gaunt man asked.
“The disagreement,” the man said. “He came over one night and told me I had to dig the cat up, and I said I wouldn’t, and we—well, we disagreed. And then the next day two cops—two police officers showed up at our door with a complaint, saying we had to find another way to dispose of the cat within twenty-four hours. So we had to dig our cat up and have her cremated. It was very upsetting for all of us, and especially for our daughter—she cried every night for a week.”
The gaunt man looked at him sharply. “And did you confront deceased about it again at that time?”
The man shrugged. “No. What point would there be in that? We just never spoke to him again. We’d never been really friendly anyway—he wasn’t a very nice old man. Look, why are you asking about this? What has it got to do with anything?”
“Probably nothing,” the gaunt man said. “It’s just that some of the evidence makes us think maybe this wasn’t a random burglary, maybe it was done by someone who knew deceased’s habits—someone who had a grudge against him, maybe, and got into a big fight with him today, and did something unfortunate, and stole a few things to cover up. And when I spoke to your neighbors and asked if deceased had any enemies, your names were the only ones that came up.”
Now the tall boy’s mother flushed. “You said that was in confidence.”
“It was,” the gaunt man said smoothly. “I never told him which neighbor.”
“This is ridiculous,” the woman said, tightening her hold on Alex’s leash again; he gagged once, politely, to tell her to loosen up. “Are you implying that just because he had a little disagreement with the old man a year ago, my husband—I can’t even say it. It’s too crazy.”
“I didn’t necessarily say it was your husband,” the gaunt man said. “The way I hear it, you got in on the shouting match with deceased last year, too. And I also hear you come home at noon every day to walk the dog. Is that true?”
“Don’t say anything, Mom,” the girl cut in. “He’s supposed to read you your rights first, and you can call a lawyer if you want.”
“Hey, this isn’t an interrogation,” the gaunt man said, winking at her. “Just a little friendly conversation with the neighbors to get some background information.”
“Yes, with all our friendly neighbors,” the woman said furiously. “It’s nice to know we live on such a civic-minded street, where everybody is just so eager to gossip with the police. I don’t suppose that anyone shared any information about anyone else. I don’t suppose anyone told you that I wasn’t the only person home at noon today.”
“That’s right,” the girl said, and pointed at the teacher. “She teaches at the high school, but now that it’s summer vacation, she’s home pretty much all the time. And him.” She pointed at the tall boy. “He didn’t get a job this summer, so he’s probably home pretty much all the time, too. Either one of them could have done it.”
“Calm down, sweetie,” her father said, patting her arm. “We don’t need to start tossing accusations around. Look, I think we should all calm down. Officer, if you have more questions, we’d be glad to answer them. If you want to come over to our house to talk, fine. We’ve got nothing to hide. We can give you some coffee.”
“Coffee sounds good, actually,” the gaunt man said. “This call came in just as I was starting dinner—I never got a chance to eat. And sometimes in cases like this, when we just sit around and chat with the neighbors, real casual-like, little bits of information come out, and they end up being helpful.” He looked at the tall boy and his mother, at the teacher and her husband. “You mind if your neighbors come over for coffee, too? You never know who’s going to turn out to have helpful little bits of information.”
The woman glared at her neighbors, then shrugged. “I guess we have enough cups,” she said, and led the way back to the house.
Alex felt glad to get home. He hadn’t been able to follow much of the conversation, but he knew his people were upset, so he felt upset, too. And by now he’d gotten several good sniffs in on the sly, and he was positive that two of the neighbors settling down for coffee in the living room were the two guests who had stopped by this afternoon. He wished he could tell his people that—he felt, somehow, that it might be important—but his people often had trouble understanding him when he had important things to say, and tonight they were hardly paying any attention to him at all. The kitten was, of course, no help whatsoever. For some reason, it had taken a liking to the stocky young policeman in the suit—the kitten frequently had unaccountable tastes—and was rubbing up against his pants leg and letting him skritch its neck and purring, seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. His stress level mounting, Alex found a hunk of twisted, multi-colored rope that his people had given him for his birthday, carried it to a quiet corner of the living room, and began to gnaw. That helped, but not enough.
“Well, this is nice,” the gaunt man was saying, stirring his coffee for no particular reason—he hadn’t added either sugar or milk to it, though the woman had set containers of both down on the coffee table. “This is real friendly. Now, you said you got nothing to hide, and that’s great. Frankly, considering all that we’ve heard so far about the big fight you had with deceased, we could get a search warrant in an hour or so, no problem. But since you got nothing to hide, maybe you wouldn’t mind if my partner has a look around your house while we chat, even before we get the warrant, just to rule out certain unpleasant possibilities. Don’t worry—he’ll be real neat, put everything right back where he found it. All right with you?”
“Fine,” the man said. “Let’s just clear this up as soon as possible.”
Without a word, the stocky young man headed for the kitchen, and the kitten ambled after him fondly. Great, Alex thought. That silly kitten will probably lead him right down to the basement and point him straight toward the box on the top metal shelf. Without knowing exactly why, Alex felt that it would not be a good thing if the stocky young man looked too closely at the box on the top metal shelf.
“Well, let’s see where we are,” the gaunt man said, and took a large sip of coffee. “As I understand it, most of you were at work all day—even this lovely young lady, who’s got a summer job at a day camp, right? But some of you were at home.”
“I was,” the teacher said, flipping her long blonde hair back on her shoulder again. “It’s summer break. But I didn’t see anything. I got up to fix breakfast for my husband, and then I took a shower, and then I spent most of the day in our back yard—reading, and working on my tan. I’m working on a nice, deep tan this summer. See?” She smiled, and tilted her head to the side, and pushed down the slender strap on her sundress, revealing a stark contrast between dark and pale.
“Hey, no need to start undressing in front of everybody,” her husband said, his voice suddenly sharp. “Just keep your clothes on for once, will you? Officer, when my wife says she didn’t see nothing, you can believe her. She never sees nothing—just sits around all day wrapped up in her own little world, feeling sorry for herself because she isn’t dancing on the Rivera or romping on a beach in Cancun or something, reading big, goopy romance novels because she hasn’t got anything better to do with her time.”
“Well, if you ever took me anywhere, I would have something better to do with my time,” the teacher said, her eyes flaring. “But no. You’re so cheap you never take me anywhere, and you use up all your vacation days going fishing with your idiot brother, so I’ve got to waste my whole summer break just sitting around the house.”
“Maybe you should try cleaning the house,” her husband shot back. “That would give you something to do.”
“So now I’m supposed to be a servant?” she demanded. “I’ve got a master’s in education, and you just barely made it through high school, and I’m supposed to spend my life cleaning up after you?”
“Thanks, folks,” the gaunt man cut in quickly. “Very helpful information. And you, young man—you were home today, too? You don’t have a summer job?”
The tall boy blushed and looked down at the floor, and his mother reached out to take his hand. “He won’t be eighteen for almost another three months,” she said, “and he’s very sensitive, very delicate. He was deeply traumatized when his father walked out on us six years ago, and he had a very challenging junior year. He had one sympathetic teacher, thank goodness.” And here she paused, and shot an appreciative glance at the teacher. “But most of his teachers were much too hard on him. He told me that he just didn’t feel up to looking for a job for this summer, and I agreed that it wouldn’t be wise to push things too much.”
“So you were home all day,” the gaunt man said to the boy, “but you didn’t see anything?”
The tall boy gulped, both his hands anxiously kneading the long sleeves on his turtle-neck sweater. “No. I mean, I slept in some, and then I watched Saw IV a couple of times on DVD, and then I went out back and shot some hoops, and then I played some games on the web, and then I texted some friends. It was a pretty full day. I didn’t really have time to see anything.”
“Understandable,” the gaunt man said, and looked up as his partner came back into the room.
“I found some stuff in the basement, Lieutenant,” the stocky young man said. “Maybe you’d better take a look.”
Of course the stocky young man had found some stuff in the basement. The kitten had probably led him straight to it. Alex felt his distress deepen, and the twisted-rope thing just wasn’t doing it. He needed something more comforting to chew. Not knowing what else to do, he started to follow the gaunt man and the stocky young man toward the basement; and then, as he passed the family room, he paused. The family room. That was a nice, private spot, and it had a wastebasket full of fresh things to chew. That might give him some real relief. Maybe he should spend a few minutes checking out the family room wastebasket, and let the gaunt man and the stocky man check out the basement on their own.
He tipped the wastebasket over carefully—it was plastic, so tipping it over was a reasonably quiet process—pushed aside a dirty paper- towel wad that didn’t smell quite right, found an appealingly crinkly piece of cellophane, and set to work. Moments later, the gaunt man and the stocky young man came back up the basement stairs, holding things in their hands, looking grim, followed by the absurdly affectionate kitten. Alex chewed faster as they walked past him toward the living room.
The house was so quiet that he didn’t have any trouble hearing the voices drift in from the other room. “My partner found some interesting things in the basement, folks,” the gaunt man was saying. “In a box of Halloween decorations. Maybe three hundred baseball cards in little plastic holders, a couple of hundred dollars in cash, some watches and rings—and a gun. Any idea how those things got in the box?”
“My God.” It was the man’s voice. “No. I don’t know anything about those things. I never put them in any box—I never touched them. Neither did my wife. You’ve got to believe us, Officer. Neither one of us even saw those things before—right, honey?”
“Never.” It was the woman’s voice. “I swear it. Never.”
Alex heard the gaunt man sigh. “All right. Well, I guess this isn’t just a friendly conversation any more. Sergeant, you’d better read these folks their rights.”
“Wait!” It was the girl’s voice this time. “Maybe—maybe someone planted that stuff in the basement, to make it look like we did it. I got home earlier than usual this afternoon—remember, Mom and Dad? I told you Shannon’s mom gave me a ride. And when I got home, Alex was acting all weird. I mean, at first he was down the basement, and I had to call him twice to get him to come upstairs—“
“And you didn’t go downstairs to see if he’d made a mess?” her father said.
“Well, no,” the girl said. “I mean, I was planning to, but while I was still saying hello to him, there was this noise downstairs, and I thought the kitten had knocked something over, and I was going to go downstairs to check it out. That’s when Alex started acting really weird. He started barking, and he lifted up his leg, like he was going to pee right on the kitchen floor. And when I tried to get him to go out into the back yard, he wouldn’t budge. He just sat down by the door, and stared at his leash, and whimpered like crazy until I finally gave in and took him for a walk. Remember how I said he made me take him for a walk? He never does that.”
“Good grief!” It was the woman’s voice this time. “He didn’t want you to go downstairs, and he didn’t want to leave you alone in the house. The murderer must have still been in the basement. And Alex wanted to get you out of the house, to give the murderer a chance to get away without hurting you. Oh, my God! He may have saved your life!”
“Nice theory, folks,” the gaunt man said. “But it’s all just your say-so. And why didn’t you tell me about any of this before, young lady? And when you got back from taking the dog for a walk, did you go downstairs to check out the noise?”
“No,” the girl said. “I mean, I’d sort of forgotten about it by then, and the kitten was upstairs—so I figured that if the kitten had knocked something over, my father could clean it up when he went down to clean up Alex’s mess. And I didn’t tell you about it before because I didn’t think it was important, but it is important. Don’t you see?”
“The dog does make messes in the basement, Lieutenant,” the stocky young man said. “I nearly stepped in one when I was taking the box off the shelf. It looked like somebody had already stepped in it, in fact.”
“That proves exactly nothing,” the gaunt man said. “And just how did this murderer supposedly get into your house to plant all this stuff? I haven’t noticed any signs of breaking and entering here—have you, Sergeant?”
“No one would have to break anything to enter our house,” the woman said. “We keep a spare key outside—in an artificial rock in the back yard, right next to the birdfeeder. You see, our daughter gets home from work before we do, and she sometimes forgets her key, so we keep it there for her just in case.”
The gaunt man sighed. “And just how would this supposed intruder know where to find this key?”
The woman hesitated, then rushed ahead. “Someone might have seen our daughter use it. Someone who lives near here, maybe, and spends a lot of time spying on us and noticing things and gossiping about them.”
“Hey, what the hell is that supposed to mean?” the teacher’s husband said angrily. ”Are you implying that one of us might have had something to do with this?”
“That’s disgusting,” the tall boy’s mother said. “You’re in trouble, so you try to get out of it by casting suspicion on your neighbors. You should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Simmer down, folks,” the gaunt man said. “Even if there’s a spare key outside, that doesn’t prove anybody used it today. Still, I guess we might as well check out all the details while we’re here. Sergeant? You want to go out back, see if there’s a fake rock next to the birdfeeder?”
It seemed like only a second later that the stocky young man walked into the family room, passed Alex without a glance, and went out the back door. Things were getting worse—Alex could feel it. And the cellophane had by now lost its comforting crinkle—he needed something more soothing to chew. Well, he could try the paper- towel wad. Even with a not-quite-right smell, paper-towel wads were always highly chewable. Alex had just gotten started when the stocky young man came back into the family room, cast a friendly glance his way, and paused.
“A knocked-over wastebasket,” the stocky young man said. “Maybe that’s a sign that somebody did enter the house—or did you knock that over, boy?” He crouched down to pat Alex’s head, took a closer look at him, and frowned. “What’ve you got there, boy? What are you chewing on? C’mon—let me have it.”
Alex had perhaps the mildest temper of any dog on the planet; he could bear almost any slight or indignity with patience and good humor. But he did not like it when people tried to take away things he’d started to chew. When the stocky young man tugged at the paper-towel wad, Alex growled—first just reprovingly, then with a note of real warning—and chomped down harder. But the stocky young man persisted, and stroked Alex’s head, and murmured to him in a polite, encouraging tone. Fine, then, Alex thought. If he wants it so much, let him have it. Maybe then he’ll be nicer to my people. And maybe, when he’s finished with it, he’ll give it back to me.
He loosened his lock on the paper-towel wad, the stocky young man drew it away, and Alex followed him back to the living room. The girl was crying now; the woman was sitting next to her on the sofa, obviously trying to comfort her but, just as obviously, not succeeding very well. Of course not. When people in this family needed comforting, Alex was the man for the job. He went over to the girl and put his front paws up on the sofa, thumping his tail on the floor sympathetically. Sure enough, the girl leaned forward out of her mother’s embrace and put her arms around Alex’s neck.
“I found the fake rock and the key out back, Lieutenant,” the stocky young man said. “I also found this in the family room—the dog was chewing on it. He must’ve gotten it out of the wastebasket. That looks like dried blood to me.”
The gaunt man walked over to him and took a look. “It sure as hell does,” he said, and turned to Alex’s people. “Can you explain how some bloody paper towels ended up in your family room wastebasket? Any of you cut yourself today, use paper towels to clean up?”
The man and the woman and the girl looked at each other, then shook their heads. “I don’t think any of us knows anything about those towels,” the man said.
“Looks like you folks don’t know anything about a lot of things that somehow mysteriously ended up in your house today,” the gaunt man said. “I wonder what we’d find out if we tested the blood on these towels? Would we maybe find out that it matches up with blood from the old man across the street?”
“Now you’re being silly,” the teacher said, sitting forward. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Officer, but this really is unfair. You can’t expect these people to be able to account for every scrap of paper in their wastebaskets. Why, those towels could have been in that wastebasket for days—for weeks, even. Why don’t you give these poor people a break and forget about the silly towels? I mean, you’ve got enough evidence to arrest them already, haven’t you? You don’t want to make a fool of yourself at the police station by making a big fuss about chewed-up paper towels, of all things. Just throw them away.”
The gaunt man looked at her closely. “No, I don’t think I’ll throw them away,” he said. “I think I will have them tested. Who knows? Maybe the blood won’t match up with the old man after all. Maybe it’ll match up with somebody else.” He turned to Alex’s people again. “So you think there was an intruder in your house today. Tell me this. Does your dog bite?”
“No,” the man said slowly, standing up. “But our cat scratches.” He pointed at the tall boy sitting in a straight-backed chair across the room. “Ask him why he’s wearing a long-sleeved sweater on such a hot night. Ask him to roll up his sleeves.”
“How dare you!” the boy’s mother cried, jumping up from her chair. “How dare you even think that my poor baby could have done anything wrong! He gets chilled easily—that’s why he’s wearing long sleeves. I told you he was delicate. Go ahead, sweetheart. Show them you don’t have anything to hide. Roll up your sleeves.”
The tall boy shook his head and stared at the floor. “I don’t wanna,” he said.
“He shouldn’t have to,” the teacher said. “Officer, these people are so desperate that they’ll say anything and accuse anyone. I was sunbathing in my back yard all afternoon. If anyone had gone into their house, I would have seen it. I didn’t see a thing. So why don’t you just arrest these people and leave this poor boy alone?”
“I don’t believe it,” her husband said. “You’re trying to protect him. Is he another member of your little fan club? Damn it! I knew you’d flirted with half the boys in the senior class last year—I didn’t realize you’d reached down to the juniors, too.”
That was when things got really confusing, with the teacher and her husband yelling at each other, and the boy’s mother shouting about how her innocent little baby would never have anything to do with a cheap tramp like the teacher, and the gaunt man and the stocky man trying to calm them down, and Alex’s people just sitting silently on the couch, clutching each other’s hands. And then the tall boy stood up so fast that he knocked his chair over, and glared at his mother, and rolled up his sleeves. His right arm was scored by long, angry red gashes.
“Shut up, Ma!” he said. “I’m not an innocent little baby—I’m a man. When the hell are you gonna realize that? And I didn’t want to hurt anybody, but I’d found a gun in the old man’s bureau, and when he walked in on me and started yelling about calling the cops, I panicked. I never meant to hurt him. I just wanted to snatch his baseball cards and sell them, so we’d have enough money to go to Vegas.”
The mother’s shocked face melted with tenderness. “My sweet baby!” she said, sobbing. “You wanted to take me to Vegas?”
“For cripe’s sake, Ma. Not you.” He pointed at the teacher. “Her.”
Now the teacher and the tall boy started yelling at each other—it was all his idea, it was all her idea, he didn’t want to do it, she’d begged him not to do it, he’d called her in a panic after he’d shot the old man, she had no idea of what he was talking about, she’d come up with the idea about hiding the stuff in the basement, she’d never had anything to do with it, she’d seduced him, she’d never spoken two words to him in her life.
“Oh, yeah?” the tall boy demanded. “So if you weren’t here with me this afternoon, who stepped in the dog stuff in the basement? Maybe you cops oughta check her shoes. Maybe you’d better check the dog stuff in the basement, see if it’s got a print of a size six shoe with a pointy toe and a stiletto heel.”
“I think we’ll do just that,” the gaunt man said. “Sergeant, get the lab team over here and tell them to collect the evidence.” He turned to Alex’s people and winked at the man. “I guess this is one time you won’t have to clean up the mess in the basement.”
After that, things got better. All the neighbors left, two of them holding their hands behind their backs awkwardly. Some more people came and spent a little time in the basement, but they didn’t stay long. And then the gaunt man and the stocky man left, after shaking hands with all of Alex’s people—everyone seemed to be getting along just fine now. Alex’s people stayed in the living room for a long time, talking to each other in quick, excited voices, sometimes crying a little but mostly laughing, hugging each other repeatedly, hugging Alex every few minutes; someone even tried to hug the kitten. Then somebody said something about dinner, and the man left in the car for a little while and came back with warm, fragrant bags of cheeseburgers. There were two cheeseburgers for Alex fixed just the way he preferred them—lots of ketchup, no pickle—and the girl ended up giving him most of her French fries, too, and the woman never said one word about being careful of Alex’s digestion. It was all very strange, especially since he’d had his dinner hours ago, but he was too polite and too wise to point out their mistakes.
The weeks that followed were even better. Every day, it seemed, somebody brought home special treats for Alex, or soup bones even though no one was making soup, or even a whole steak just for him. And now, when his people came home and found that he’d knocked over a wastebasket and chewed up the contents, they patted him and hugged him and didn’t say a critical word. When he started to head for the basement, no one tried to stop him; his people just pointed, and laughed, and told him to go ahead and enjoy himself. The man never complained about having to clean up messes any more, the woman never scolded, and the girl never got that sad look in her eyes. No doubt about it—Alex was now the most popular member of the household. Even the kitten started to treat him with respect.
With these pleasant additions, Alex’s life settled back into its usual routine. Only now, when he napped on the second-sunniest spot on the living room carpet, he sometimes dreamed not about the fat old cat but about the day that he and the kitten had greeted the unexpected guests.