By Nancy Kress
Tachyon Publications Copyright © 2008 Nancy Kress
All rights reserved.
The kitchen was too warm, and Dan wanted to open the door to the blessed winter air outside. However, if he did, Sue would complain. When she'd been his wife, she'd complained about everything, and now that she was his ex-wife, she complained even more. Dan tried to keep these brief meetings when he picked up the kids as non-confrontational as possible. It wasn't easy.
"Don't forget to put on her snow pants, not just the parka, when you bring her home," Sue said. She tied the bunny cap on two-year-old Jenny's head. "Last weekend you took her to the movies in just her parka."
"She only had to go as far as the car," Dan said.
"I don't care. Just listen to me, for once. You never listen to me."
"She'll wear everything. And Donnie will, too."
Donnie, slumped in a corner over his Game Boy, said, "No, I won't. It's not cold out."
"It's February!" Sue whined. "Why doesn't anybody listen to me?"
"Sue, it's February but it's forty degrees out."
"That's right, Dan, just undermine what I say. You always were an underminer. Donnie, do you have your math homework?"
"Yeah, I ... hey, there she is!" Donnie leapt up and opened the kitchen door to the welcome cold. The family dog, Princess, sped in. "Dad, she's been missing since yesterday and now here she is!"
"Hey, Principessa, hey, old girl." Dan bent to stroke the golden retriever, whom he missed. Memories flooded back: Princess curled at his feet during Monday Night Football, running at his side while he jogged, catching a Frisbee while Donnie laughed and laughed in his port-a-swing. Good old Princess!
Princess snarled deep in her throat, a sound such as Dan had never heard her make before.
"Hey, Princess ..."
The dog snarled again. Her hackles rose and her ears strained forward. Her tail lifted into the air.
Sue said, "She's never done that before!"
"Hey, Princess, down, girl, good dog —"
Princess growled loudly, lips pulled back over her teeth. Dan moved to grab her collar. He was too late. The dog sprang at Jenny.
Sue screamed. Jenny screamed, too, and Dan looked frantically around the kitchen. He grabbed a frying pan from the dish drain and whacked Princess on the back, as hard as he could. Her body shuddered but she didn't let go of Jenny. The little girl's arms flailed in her pink parka. Dan saw with stunned, sick disbelief that Princess had her by the neck. He swung the frying pan again, this time on the dog's head.
Slowly ... so slowly, it seemed to take hours ... Princess's grip on Jenny slacked a little. But the dog did not let go, and the child was no longer screaming.
Tessa Sanderson was awakened by the phone. She glanced at the clock: 6:30 A.M. Well, the alarm would have gone off in half an hour anyway. Sleepily she groped for the receiver. Probably it was Ellen, her sister often called too early, Ellen's infant son got her up at some God-awful hour ... but maybe Tessa had better check the Caller I.D. anyway. There were so many people she did not want to talk to.
Caller I.D. said the call was from the Hoover Building.
Immediately Tessa snatched her hand off the receiver. No way. No more condolence calls, no more rehashes about why she quit, no more arguments with Maddox, her former boss. No more.
Now she was irreversibly awake. Minette, the world's most spoiled toy poodle, was curled tight against Tessa's thigh and growled as Tessa pushed aside the blankets. Minette was supposed to stay on her own dog pillow at the foot end of the bed, but she never did. When Salah had been alive ...
None of that. No self-pity.
Tessa padded into the kitchen of her new house and put on the water for coffee. It was important, she had decided, to stick to a routine as much as possible. A routine filled the days, accomplished worthwhile goals, kept her from firing her Smith & Wesson into her left temple. A routine, as Ellen pointed out every morning, was vital to a regulated life. Ellen was big on regulation. Tessa was big on getting through the day in one piece.
The phone rang again. The FBI once more, but this time Bernini's direct line. Ellen stared at Caller I.D. The Assistant Director himself, at 6:30 in the morning? Didn't seem likely. Bernini had already made his condolence call, lacking either the courage or the foolhardiness, or maybe just the grace, to show up at Salah's memorial service. Of all the FBI personnel Tessa had worked with until her resignation, only two field agents and the secretaries had attended the funeral.
Tessa let the phone ring until the answering machine picked up. "This is 240-555-6289," her own voice said. "Please leave a message."
"Tessa, this is John Maddox. I very much need to talk to you. It's not about any of the things you think it's about. Please pick up." Pause. "Tessa, pick up." Longer pause. "I'm going to keep trying, so please call me this morning. It may be urgent."
And if that wasn't a typical Maddox message, Tessa would eat her new living room rug, which lay still rolled on her new hardwood floors. As she prepared her coffee, Tessa dissected the message, getting angrier with each mental point.
Point one: "It's not about any of the things you think it's about." How the hell did Maddox know what she thought his message was about? Did he think that she assumed the message was about her resignation from the Bureau three weeks ago, after she'd been passed over yet again for promotion despite a sterling record in counter-terrorism?
Damn right she assumed that.
Or did Maddox think she assumed her non-promotion was due to her late husband's ethnicity? Salah Mohammed Mahjoub, citizen of Tunisia until she'd met and married him in Paris.
Damn right she assumed that, too.
Point two: "Tessa, I'm going to keep trying." He'd have his secretary keep trying, long- suffering Mrs. Jellison, the Rosemary Woods of her generation. Maddox would sit in his office and go on with his work until Mrs. Jellison said, "Mr. Maddox, I've got Agent Sanderson on the line." By then he might even have forgotten that he'd wanted Tessa.
And for what? Point three: That "It may be urgent." What a weasel word, "may." Anything may be urgent under the right circumstances. A lemon drop may be urgent if it's stuck in your trachea. Tessa was no longer interested in Maddox's lemon drops.
She sipped the last of her coffee, put the cup in the sink, and opened a living room window. Cold February air rushed in, bracing and sweet. Tessa liked winter if it wasn't too cold, and Maryland had been having a mild run of sunny days in the 40s. The window looked out on a small backyard, the first Tessa had ever owned, edged with what the realtor had promised would be lilacs. Now, however, they were just more bare bushes, looking curiously naked and vulnerable. There were also what the realtor promised would be lilies of the valley, but Tessa planned on digging those up. They could poison a small dog. Tessa, who'd never before lived outside a city, had carefully researched all floral threats to Minette.
Beyond her yard and the little town of Tyler rose the Appalachian foothills, dull green with pine, crowned with snow. Somewhere up there Maryland turned into West Virginia.
In T-shirt and panties, Tessa sat down on her meditation mat on the hardwood floor, assumed the lotus position, and faced the brass statue that was the first thing she'd unpacked.
The phone rang again.
Breathe in, breathe out ...
"This is 240-555-6289. Please leave a message."
Breathe in, breathe out ...
"Tessa, John Maddox again. Listen, I need you to pick up. Now. We just received a second classified report. There's a lot of intelligence chatter, and it's very specific."
"It includes your name, and your late husband's."
Slowly Tessa turned her head toward the phone.
"If you don't pick up, I'm sending two agents out there to bring you in immediately."
Tessa got up off her meditation mat and picked up the phone.
Jess Langstrom walked into his office at 7:30 on Thursday morning to find six of Suzanne's pink "While You Were Out" slips on his desk. He poured himself a cup of coffee, but before he'd had even one sip, Suzanne herself emerged from the bathroom, even more breathless than usual. "Jess—did you see? Did you?"
"See what? What've we got, a whole herd of deer hit on the highway?" The way commuting was picking up, Jess wouldn't have been surprised. More and more people living in northern Maryland, or even over the state lines in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and commuting to D.C. to work. Three or four hours a day in the car. Crazy.
"No deer. They're all dog bites!"
"Six! Dogs! That bit!"
Suzanne, always inclined to hyperbole, had now puffed up with it, taller and, somehow, even bigger busted. Which was saying a lot. Twenty-two and gorgeous, Suzanne was the first member Jess had ever met of that fabled group, cop groupies. Not that an Animal Control Officer was exactly a cop, but Suzanne was resourceful enough to work with what was at hand. So far Jess had resisted her blandishments. She was twenty-two to his forty; she was his subordinate; she was an airhead. Enough said.
That she turned up in his wet dreams was not said, nor would it ever be.
He studied the six slips of paper. Suzanne was an airhead, but she gave good message: who, what, where, when. Four people had left messages overnight reporting bites from dangerous dogs; two more had called in the last twenty minutes. In all six cases, someone had sought medical attention, and in all six cases, now someone wanted Jess to do something about the dangerous dogs.
He scowled at the pink bits of paper. Four point seven million people in the United States were bitten by dogs every year, and seventeen percent of those went for medical attention. In fact, medical help was sought for a dog bite every forty seconds somewhere in the country. But six bites within twelve hours here in his own small jurisdiction—what were the odds of that?
It didn't matter what the odds were. It only mattered that he took care of each out-of-control animal. "Okay, where's Billy?"
"Not in yet."
"Get him in."
"You want me to call him, Jess?" Suzanne took one step closer to him.
"Yes, I want you to call him! And tell him if he's not here in ten minutes, he's fired. God, he only lives across the street."
"Tough guy," Suzanne murmured, gazing up at him from under her lashes. Jess retreated to his car.
Three minutes later Billy Davis—at thirty-eight, he still didn't want to be called "Bill"—tumbled into the car beside Jess. His shirt was half-buttoned and he smelled of sex. "Hi, Jess. Sorry about being late. This little lady from the Moonlight Lounge—"
"I don't want to hear about it," Jess said, and hoped that Billy knew he meant it. Both of them knew that Jess tolerated Billy, his lateness and unreliability, only for old-time's sake, although Billy was a very good animal handler when he settled down to it. One look at Jess's face and Billy settled now, buttoning his shirt and saying professionally, "What we got?"
"Six dog bites since closing last night."
"That's what the man said."
"Who? Give me the slips."
Jess did, starting the car and peeling out of the parking lot, a bit of juvenile acting out that only made him irritated with himself as well as with Billy. "You were supposed to be on call last night, Billy. How come you didn't answer any of these?"
"Never got the calls," Billy said blandly. "Telephone system must be screwed up again. You know last month it didn't route to my cell, either."
Jess said nothing, and Billy knew enough to shut up. He started making the call-backs while Jess drove to Susan Parcell's place out Old Schoolhouse Road.
It was a small country farmhouse gussied up to look a century older than it really was: new fieldstone chimney, cast-iron coach lights, faux Federalist detailing. As Jess pulled up, a man raced outside, carrying a plastic garbage bag.
"Wait!" Jess said. "We're from Animal Control, we received a call that—"
"You're too late," the man said brutally. "I shot the bitch!"
Jess and Billy glanced at each other. The man looked distraught, unshaven, wild-eyed. Billy's hand rested lightly on the gun at his hip. Jess hoped suddenly that "bitch" referred to a female dog.
The man resumed his rush toward his car. Deftly Jess stood in front of the driver's door and said soothingly, "Look, this will just take a moment, I promise. We need some basic information. Are you Mr. Parcell?"
"No, Parcell is my ex-wife's maiden name, she took it back after the divorce. I'm Daniel Kingwell. Look, I have to go back to the hospital, I just came to get some of Jenny's things, Big Pink, she never goes anywhere without it—" Abruptly he looked away.
Jess could just discern the outlines of a pink stuffed animal of some sort bulging within the plastic bag. "Jenny is your daughter, Mr. Kinwell? The dog-bite victim? Please tell me briefly what happened."
The man seemed to respond to the tone of voice. It was Jess's chief asset, that voice. Deep and soothing, it could calm when others failed, elicit information others could not. Billy was a better animal handler and, Good Ol' Boy that he was, a better shot. Jess handled that most difficult animal, Homo sapiens.
The man talked in quick, agitated bursts. "I came last night to pick up my kids for the evening ... Sue decided she wanted to live all the way out here in the country, even though driving up from D.C. is ... never mind that, I'm sorry, I'm a bit ... we were in the kitchen when Donnie, my son, let in Princess. He said she'd been gone for a day or two, she's been the family dog for years, and she was always such a sweet ... she's old, too! Nearly eleven! She attacked Jenny and bit her neck and face and ... I tried to get her off. Princess just wouldn't let go. Then Sue tried and I ran out to my car and got my gun from the glove compartment and shot Princess. We called 911 and an ambulance came and—I have to go!"
"Of course you do," Jess said. "Just three more fast questions, sir. Do you have a license for that gun?"
"Was Princess up-to-date on her rabies vaccinations?"
"And where is the dog's body now?"
Billy, making Jess's promised three questions into four, said, "Can we go in? Do we got your permission?"
Jess and Billy mounted the steps. Jess could get the rest of the information he needed from 911, county records, and Tyler Community Hospital.
The kitchen matched the outside of the house: tasteful, ersatz Early American. Copper pans hanging overhead, farmhouse table, pie safe in distressed oak. Princess lay on the kitchen floor, a hole in her side, blood and tissue spattered over the faux plank floor. Jess could imagine how the scene had looked last night, everybody screaming, the little girl's head in the dog's jaws. He pushed the picture away.
Billy said, "Funny."
"Female golden retriever, nearly eleven years old, spayed, no sign of foam on the mouth, winter months ... she don't fit the profile for a biter."
This was true. Male dogs were six times more likely to bite than females, unneutered more likely than neutered. Among serious bites, over half were inflicted by pit bulls, Rottweilers, and German shepherds. Even the season was unusual; most bites happened between April and September. The only thing that fit the profile was that fifty percent of all dog attacks were on kids.
Jess said, "What do you make of it?"
"Don't make nothin' of it," Billy said cheerfully. "I'm no vet. Let's get a tarp and get this ol' girl out of here. Doc Venters is gonna want a look at this one."
They went back outside. Daniel Kingwell had not left for the hospital after all. He stood slumped by his car, his cell phone in his hand, the tears freezing on his face in the morning winter air. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Dogs by Nancy Kress. Copyright © 2008 Nancy Kress. Excerpted by permission of Tachyon Publications.
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