by Art Rosch
Something didn’t smell right. It smelled too good, like oatmeal cookies, or vanilla fudge. We were standing in the foyer of a large house, a big ugly mansions that had sprouted in a field that was once filled with almond trees.
It should have smelled like dogs. There’s always a certain doggie fug in the house of a breeder. Lydia and I were here on a surprise inspection. If this place was a puppy mill, as we suspected, it wouldn’t smell like oatmeal cookies. It would smell like damp fur with subtle overtones of shit and piss. There would be the scent of animal stress, which smells the same no matter what the breed. Abused animals give off a distinctive odor that is layered with a psychic miasma of terror.
I looked at Lydia, who is her own special breed of sensor. Lydia’s face registered complete horror. She was trying to keep herself together, but her special senses also burden her with a special fragility. Lydia can empathize with other creatures with visceral accuracy. The job was hard on her. She kept working, in spite of the pain.
I showed my credentials to the oriental lady who stood squarely in front of us, just inside the door. I had a police Lieutenant’s badge and an I.D. card that identified me as Avi Holbein, Field Agent for Viera County Animal Control And Safety. I was a County Sheriff. Never mind how I got into working cases busting puppy mills and rescuing starving horses.. This was my work, my vocation. My fellow cops called me “Doogie”. I didn’t care.
“Mrs. Yu,” I said to the woman who blocked our way into the house. “We’re here on an informal visit. I do not have a warrant. I would appreciate your cooperation.”
There was a smugness to Mrs.Yu that told me this was no surprise. Someone had tipped her that we were coming. If this was a puppy mill, it had been cleaned up. “Yes, please come. You are welcome to house.” She almost pranced but there was a tightness to her gait that shouted “I AM HIDING THINGS FROM YOU!”
Another glance towards Lydia. She had got her composure back but her nostrils were twitching and her eyebrows almost met at the bridge of her nose. She was very upset. Already. We had walked into something powerful and evil.
The living room was dimly lit and the furniture was covered in clear plastic. There were plastic runners on the floor. Paintings on the wall were the kind purchased for ten bucks a shot at flea markets. Floral still lifes. Horses in a field. A dilapidated boat dock with picturesque little skiffs.
“I would like to look around, Mrs. Yu. I would like to see your basement, garage and back yard. I can return with a warrant if necessary.”
“All you like, look. I only do not want you in my personal bedroom. That door, on left down hall.” Her hand described an arc of inclusiveness. Her palm was facing downward, a gesture I had learned was an evasive “tell”. Palm up: not hiding. Palm down: hiding. I heard a door open, then close. A man appeared. A big guy with very hard looking hands. A stream of Mandarin flowed from his mouth towards Mrs. Yu. Lydia’s ears twitched. Lydia spoke Mandarin, Japanese and Russian. She didn’t advertise this fact.
The man interposed himself between us and Mrs. Yu. I showed the man my card and badge. He nodded. “I am Mister Yu. My wife not very much English,” he said. He projected sheer cold menace. “Is complaint about dogs? You listen: not noise!”
In fact I could hear faint whimpering. This sound of distress hung like smoke draping itself across the textured ceiling. Otherwise, the place didn’t sound like a breeder’s premises. When breeders treat their dogs with respect there is always a cacophony of rambunctious animals. It was the quiet places that scared me. I had seen awful things in big quiet houses out in the suburbs.
“I’d like to see the back yard, please,” I said. Mr. Yu went first, then Lydia and I followed. Mrs.Yu fell in behind us. All the doors were closed. The house was sepulchral. We passed through the kitchen, where there was an assortment of utensils. I saw cauldrons, kettles and large ladles. A floor-standing commercial mixer stood next to a double-sized refrigerator. This house didn’t look lived-in. It looked like a factory.
The door to the garage led off from the kitchen. Just as Mr. Yu was about to turn the knob, his cell phone rang. He looked at the caller I.D., then said “Ni Hao!” Our procession paused. A string of Mandarin flowed from Mr. Yu. He turned his back to us and took four steps away, into the center of the kitchen. His voice went low, private. Unfortunately for Mr. Yu, Lydia has ears like a bat. She looked off into space but she was listening carefully.
The conversation lasted half a minute. Mr. Yu returned, smiling with feigned humility. “Business call,” he said. Lydia threw me a look. She had heard something important.
The large back yard was filled with stacks of black-wired cages. They were under green canvas canopies. They stood in an “L” shaped arrangement with room between each stack for a human to gain access to the cage doors. There were forty cages and about half of them were occupied. They were inhabited exclusively by toy poodles. I counted four litters of pups. They were snuggled up to their mothers’ teats, some of them wiggling to get hold, some of them sound asleep. The other cages held single puppies of various shades. Black, brown, white and a few pups that were a distinctive pearly taupe.
This would have been a normal scene but for one odd characteristic: almost all of the dogs were asleep. They lay with their heads on their forepaws, or curled in a ball. Some showed eyes that were half open in a hypnotized daze. A few cropped tails wagged. A few tongues stuck out. There was nothing of canine vitality on display. Any breeder of any stripe, anywhere, would have a yard full of barking excited dogs. Visitors! Yay! That’s what I would expect from twenty dogs.
The two sets of pups were just a few days old. They lay against their bitches’ bellies like they were dead. I had to get up close, just to see signs of breath, of life.
Mr.and Mrs. Yu were moving all around us, stiff like manikins, bumping and pushing. Mr. Yu gave me a pretty good buffet, which he tried to pretend was an accident.
The grins on their faces were qualified as “shit eating”, excuse my language, but there’s no other way to describe the falsity of their expressions.
“What have you done to them?” Lydia spoke softly but she was nonetheless howling. I understood that Lydia already knew things that were still obscure to me. Lydia’s intuition often put her two or three steps ahead of me.
“They sleep!” protested Mrs. Yu. “It just exercise. Tired dogs. Very tired.” She pointed at the gear in the yard. There was the usual assortment of mesh tunnels, ramps, hurdles. Toys were scattered everywhere. The turf was almost barren of grass, with divots poking out and signs of digging and scuffling. The fence was perfect. It was a six foot high barrier of twelve inch pine slats. Each slat terminated in two points. At the base of the fence was a concrete footing, eight inches or so. Nothing was going to dig its way under this fence. None of the neighbors could see anything.
“I would like to take a blood sample,” I said, and produced a syringe and a rubber tie from my coat pocket. This brought what I expected from the Yu’s: protest. “No blood! Leave dogs to sleep!” Mrs. Yu did her stiff marionette dance in front of me while her husband approached from my right side. He did the “accidental” buffet again, but I was ready for him and I was set in my stance. I didn’t budge an inch. The man almost bounced off of me.
Lydia had disappeared. She had a knack for being somewhere and then not being there. She possessed a native quietude that made her innately stealthy. It didn’t hurt being one quarter Apache. People often overlooked her vanishing because they had barely noticed her in the first place. I walked towards one of the cages that housed a nursing female. Mr.Yu put himself in my way. Mrs. Yu laughed an empty sound. I needed to keep them busy. I put my hand on a cage latch and Mr. Yu clamped his hand around my wrist. His grip was like an iron band.
“You stop!” he said. “No warrant. No search.”
“Look,” I said, keeping anger out of my voice. I did not want confrontation. “I don’t see anything that’s a flagrant violation. Your dogs look healthy. I’m just curious about this lack of energy.” In fact, the dogs did not look healthy. Their gums were pale. Their coats were dull. Some were panting, others looked almost dead. This was, to all appearances, a kennel of drugged canines. The two nursing mother dogs looked far too old to be having litters. One of them was going grey in the muzzle. The other was emaciated. I had to keep my feelings out of this situation. They wouldn’t help me handle the Yus. I needed to give Lydia time to scope out the real kennel, the stuff behind closed doors.
Lydia had gone back through the kitchen and down the first available hallway. All the doors were locked. The bathroom door was not locked but a scan of the medicine cabinet showed empty shelves. Drawers contained some floss and a bottle of Ibuprofen.
Lydia tried a door that was narrow: a utility closet. It was locked. Under her coat she wore a photographer’s field vest. From one of its pockets she produced her little pick set and had the door open in a second. There was a tiny aquarium on a shelf. It was about the size of a shoe box. Tubes ran from an IV bottle and led to the creature that was imprisoned in this tiny container. Lydia’s heart was already pounding with fear. She had long ago accepted the fact that she could not separate her own emotions from the emotions that swirled around her world. It was a kind of Hell and she was doing everything possible to live and serve while in this Hell. It was also the reason for keeping her personal life simple and reserved for other humans who were emotionally stable.
She saw the creature’s eyes, staring out from a ball of dark brown poodle hair. Poodles don’t have fur, as such. They have distinctive curly hair that retains its growing period indefinitely. This little pup was nothing but a pair of eyes mounted on a round tumbleweed of hair. There was an IV drip descending from an aluminum stand. It ran through a hole in the container’s lid and was attached to the puppy, somewhere in that mass of hyperactive follicles. Lydia examined the label. It was a used drip bag, crumpled and folded, then unfolded. The label had been scrubbed but Lydia could read the letters “P-H-E”, then there was a washed out place, and the script continued, revealing the letters “B-A-R-B”. It was a piece of information but it was flawed as a clue. She had no idea what drug or drugs were being used on the poor little guy. In spite of the chemical cocktail it was being fed, the dog’s eyes were alive with desperation. Lydia heard a voice as distinctly as if it was being spoken into her ear.
“Get me out of here!” the voice pleaded. “I’m going crazy!”
She didn’t have to think about it. She peeled the lid back and groped for the place where the IV needle was attached. She knew the needle would be as fine as a copper wire. She found it, taped to the dog’s right front leg. As gently as possible, she removed the tape and pulled the needle out. It started to drip and she popped it against the sheet rock wall until it bent closed. Then she picked the puppy up. It was so light! It was no heavier than a baby finch. This meshed with the phrases of Mandarin she had heard Mr. Yu speak into the telephone. “Tiny,” he said it as if boasting. “Very very tiny. Fit in teacup!”
A teacup poodle. The smallest poodle breed. She knew that the oriental market prized these tiny dogs and would pay four or five thousand dollars for a poodle that weighed less than six pounds at maturity. The dog in her hand may not have weighed a pound, if that. His nose was so foreshortened that the tip of his tongue didn’t fit all the way into his mouth. A little pink curl of knobbed flesh stuck out from between his teeth.
Lydia put him inside her coat. She used a blade in her lock kit to cut out an approximation of the dog made from her coat lining. She put that brown lining inside the glass cage and laid the IV tube within its curls. She replaced the lid and closed the door.
She listened carefully. She heard the whimpering, the near inaudible frequency of suffering. The dog inside her coat snugged himself to her heart and remained quiet. She felt his little warmth against her sweater, checked that he was able to breathe, and closed the closet door.
Avi was still distracting the Yus in the back yard. Lydia looked for the basement door. It was at the end of the hall. She picked the lock, opened the door. The lights were on and there were fans turning. Tubular vents descended from air ducts and hang above the scene like tangled legs of octopus or squid. As she descended a few steps the contents of the basement came into view. Shelves were filled with identical glass cages. There were IV bags dripping into most of the puppies who were confined. The whole scheme revealed itself. Tiny dogs generate huge profits. Nouveau riche orientals compete with one another to own the smallest dogs. The Yus applied a ruthless logic. How do you prevent a puppy from growing? Deprive it of exercise, feed it drugs to keep it docile, confine it to a tiny cage. At eight weeks you clean up the dog, give it a haircut, take a photo and ship to the customer. All sales final. It’s in the contract’s small print. Many dogs die in transit. Those that survive are probably crazy. It was a scam.
She used her cell phone to call Avi. He picked up, listening.
“I’m in the basement. It’s unbelievable. Get a warrant. Pretend you’re cool with them, or they’ll be gone by tomorrow. There must be fifty puppies down here and….” she almost sobbed. “Just..just get a warrant. We have to move on these people. Now!”
Avi kept his phone in his hand, palming it. The situation had just escalated.
In the basement, Lydia got out her digital camera and took two shots. One was a wide angle that showed the scale of the place. The other zoomed in to its limit, making an image of two glass cages that imprisoned two tiny hairy creatures that resembled nothing so much as characters from a Star Wars film. They were Ewoks. Minuscule, somnolescent Ewoks trapped in shoe-box sized aquariums and fed through IV tubes.
She sent these images to Avi. Then she returned upstairs, moving towards the back yard, hoping she could re-insert herself into the unfolding “inspection” as if she had been there all along.
Avi walked towards another cage, putting a few steps distance from the looming Mr. Yu. He held his phone in his palm. When it vibrated, he opened the connection and saw the files Lydia had just sent. One image, of a large basement filled with confined tiny puppies. Another image, showing the IV drip and the two puppies who lay in their cages as if stunned, barely breathing. He put his phone back in his pocket. He returned his attention to the Yus, and saw Lydia emerge into the yard. There was no noise to her footsteps. She was, again, present. Mrs. Yu gave her a look of profound mistrust.
“You go somewhere? You go into my house?”
Lydia pointed vaguely towards her personal anatomy. “I had an emergency. I needed to use your bathroom. A female emergency.” She made a circle with her hand, indicating her abdominal regions. The eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Yu locked briefly, then broke.
Avi needed to assuage their fears. He flipped a few pages on the clipboard that he carried in an inner pocket of his rain coat. “Okay, look.” He made some pen marks on the inspection form’s top page. “Your dogs seem a little lethargic but I can’t site you for a specific violation. How about this? Let’s set up an appointment in..oh..about a week.” He gave a cautionary look to Lydia. She was struggling to keep her emotions in check. The priority was to keep the Yus from bolting, from pulling a couple of trucks into the driveway, loading up the animals and gear and relocating in one swift operation. They had experience. The profits to be made were enormous and the risk far less than dealing drugs. The Yus might be, probably were, part of an organization. There might be fifty or a hundred identical puppy mills set up in California and beyond.
He tore off the top sheet on his clip-board. It was a yellow inspection form. Avi had written the basic information: the family name, “Yu”. Address, type of facility, number of dogs. He had refrained from checking off any of the boxes. Under comments he had written “Dogs display lethargic demeanor”.
Lydia was turned sideways to the rest of the group. Avi saw her glance down into her coat.. It was time to get out of there.
“Thank you very much, Mr. and Mrs. Yu,” he said. “I will give you a call some time this week and we can talk further, okay?”
The anxious couple seemed to relax. Their shoulders descended, as if they had been holding their breath and had finally let go. “They must think I’m stupid,” Avi thought. “At least I hope they think I’m stupid.”
“Yes, that fine,” Mr. Yu used his bulk to move everyone towards a gate that opened from the side of the yard and led to the circular driveway where Avi had parked his gray Ford Taurus. It was a Sheriff’s Department motor pool vehicle. The symbol of Viera County surrounded the universal star of Law Enforcement. Viera County was a place of lakes and vineyards. The graphic showed a paradise of up-scale agriculture and refined corridors of Redwood trees. Avi considered the County Coat Of Arms to be a ridiculous exercise in vanity. A more appropriate assortment of Viera County’s reality would have been a collage of marijuana plants and half-built upscale developments. These developments were squeezing out the county’s traditional identity as a farming and wine growing region. .
He drove away from the Yu’s house, rounding the corner and stopping under a copse of oak trees alongside an older house surrounded by a low white picket fence. It was one of the few original dwellings that remained after the developers had bought up all the acreage along Crest Hill Road. Now there were bulldozers and back hoes, working on properties that were parceled into one acre lots. Half-built homes were in progress of becoming pretentious stucco and tile mansions identical to that in which the Yus kept their breeding enterprise.
Avi slipped the radio microphone from its clip. Lydia opened her coat and a tiny head popped out. “Oh jeez,” Avi blurted. A female voice on the radio responded:
“Not the Christ, Avi, sorry, just the same old Judy.”
“Sorry Judy, i just saw something that was…well, a surprise.”
“I hope the good kind,” the dispatcher responded.
“Let’s call it a mixed blessing. Do we have anyone available to do surveillance? Is there someone with a pulse out in the field that can spend a few hours watching a house?”
“In Vikacks?” She referred to acronym/nickname of Viera County Animal Control And Safety. “You kidding? Terrence is out in Santa Lucia where some horses ran all over the Pronzini Brothers grapes. And… hell..” This was pronounced “hail” in Judy Fellows Compton dialect. “Hail no, but I try ’em all.”
It was the reality of VCACS budget. There hadn’t been any cuts because the agency had started at rock bottom after a prolonged political struggle between so-called “animal loving do-gooders” and conservative politicians. Avi’s resources were tight-rope thin. If it weren’t for The Network, the alliance of animal rights activists in the county, Avi would never have been able to make VCACS work.
Avi and Lydia sat in the car, mulling their options. Lydia’s coat sneezed. “Chiss!” it said. Then twice more: “Chiss chiss”. The sound resembled the horn of a tricycle, or a clown’s bulbous honker pitched way high in the audible spectrum. A tiny head poked its way out of Lydia’s collar. A pair of eyes were barely visible within the tangle of deep brown hair. Lydia reached down and lifted the little animal to show it to her partner. “He’s a male,” she said. “He says his name is Karook. That’s Lakota for Bear.” She shrugged. “Don’t ask me how I know. I just know. He told me.”
Avi didn’t ridicule or denigrate Lydia. A stranger might perceive her as mad, delusional or given to journeys of grandiose fantasy. During the early phase of their relationship Avi himself entertained these perceptions. It took him some months to trust Lydia. She was, simply, right about everything pertaining to the world of animals. Human beings were more challenging to Lydia. However irrational, humans had the capacity to think, plan and fantasize. They had intellect and that intellect clouded the purity of emotion that she found in other species. Lydia had difficulty understanding people.
Avi took Karook from Lydia and was shocked by his lightness. Underneath that mass of fur there was…there was barely a dog at all. “My god! He must be starving.” Avi brought a brown square from his pocket, a doggie treat. The little dog lunged at it, made it disappear and looked from one human to another as if to say, “Give me more!”
Avi gave him another treat. He snarfed it up like a vacuum, barely chewing.. Then he began to tremble. His entire body vibrated; the ends of his long shaggy locks rippled. It wasn’t very cold. It was a March day in Northern California, overcast but dry. Lydia gently tucked the dog into her coat and blew warm air over his face. He was, beneath the extravagant overgrowth of hair, just skin and bones. Of course he was cold.
Avi got his cell phone and a stylus and picked his way into his list of contacts. This was The Network. “Beecham,” he spoke towards the phone. “It’s Avi. Are you available for a little volunteer surveillance?” He was calling Howard Beecham first because Howard Beecham lived nearby. If the Yus were going to do a bunk, they would already be packing. Avi wanted eyes on the Yus wherever they might go. He would shortly have the authority to slap a search warrant on them. He needed to attend to that, immediately. After Beecham agreed to drive to their location, he used the stylus to enter Judge Epstein’s cell number.
“Avi, you fucking Yid.” A sardonic, East Coast accent spoke through the phone. “Some animal is suffering or you wouldn’t be calling me.”
“Jules, you disgusting kike, it’s a 597 PC. Names are Harold and Mei Yu. 539971 Oriole Drive, Rossmoor Park, you know the Zip.”
‘Mei Yu? Really? ” The judge laughed. Then he stopped, abruptly. “Sorry, man, it isn’t funny. Are they breeding these dogs for food or to ship to idiots in Hong Kong?”
“A five pound teacup poodle is worth about five grand, so I don’t think they’re eating them.”
Judge Epstein whistled. “Five K. Wow! A grand a pound? Guess they want them to live, at least long enough to cross the Pacific. I never heard of a Teacup Poodle. They breed ’em that small?”
“You’ve got the idea. And what they do to produce tiny little poodles is not pretty.” He sent the photos Lydia had taken to the judge.
“Shit!” Judge Epstein put his phone down and began typing on his laptop.
Chiss! Little Bear sneezed inside Lydia’s coat. He was absorbing warmth and his trembling had decreased. Lydia crossed her arms over her chest and held the heat within her body. She closed her eyes and made a waking dream of a fireplace full of flaming logs. The sounds of keystrokes on a computer came across Avi’s phone. The judge was making up the warrant. “I’m sending this to you now,” he said. It took about ten seconds for the documentation to upload, then download. When it showed in Avi’s iPhone browser he wi-fi’d it to the little printer that was in the car. The page zipped out of the printer and landed in Lydia’s lap.
Howard Beecham’s old Chevy gurgled around the corner on East Rossmoor and approached the parked official car. Beecham was a retired dentist, a man who had reverted to personal sloppiness as a revolt against all things “slick”, as he put it. His vehicle wore its original forest green paint job with rust spots and peeling layers of oxidized primer on its hood and doors. Under the hood an immaculate restoration spoke of dedication to the substance of things rather than their appearance. The ’79 Impala rolled to a halt so that both driver’s windows were adjacent. Front to back, back to front, cars facing in opposite directions. Avi’s window came down with a button-push. Beecham’s shoulder went up and down as he cranked the handle to roll down his window.
“I really appreciate this, Howard,” said Avi. He noted that Lydia wriggled lower in her seat. She knew that Beecham carried a torch for her. She gave him a wan smile.
“What’s up?” Beecham sported a sandy colored head of hair that merged with a wide circle of beard. The straps of his overalls ascended from a denim bib to cross his checkered wool shirt.
“We’ve got some evil characters with a puppy mill. I just want you to keep an eye on them until I get some backup here. There’s a copse of cypress trees about thirty yards from the house. Pull in behind that and you’ll be invisible. If anyone goes anywhere, phone me. It’s the house that’s finished; the rest of them are still under construction. Third right turn, Oriole Drive. Don’t let them see you. In fact…here…” he ticked his friend’s Iphone number and moments later heard it ring: A few bars of Louis Armstrong playing “Muskrat Ramble.”
Beecham opened the connection. The phone lay on the passenger’s side of the Chevy. “Gotcha”, he said. There was a faint echo effect as a bit of feedback played between input and output, bouncing between the adjacent phones. “Gotcha.otcha.tcha….”
“Be careful, Howard. These people are cold hearted.”
“Careful it is,” the retired dentist said. He pressed his foot on the accelerator and the automobile gurgled down the street. Avi watched in his rear view mirror as Beecham turned on Oriole Drive.
Lydia hunched even lower. “Big rental truck coming our way.”
Avi huddled so that his eyes could just peer over the dashboard. The Ryder cargo hauler approached, then passed. There were three young Asian men scrunched together in the front seat.
“That can’t be good,” said Lydia.
Avi pulled the police radio microphone off its u-shaped clip and turned the dashboard knob to select Channel Six, the police band wavelength. “This is V-cacks One, Need backup A-Sap, 539971 Oriole Drive, Rossmoor Park. Making a 597 arrest and we’re outnumbered.”
Avi and Lydia waited for a response. Static hummed. Then a voice came through the speaker. “Is someone beating a poor widdle puppy dog with a stick?” It was Raymond Dellinghouse, the nearest thing Avi had to a nemesis. Another voice broke in. “Shut the fuck up, Cooch. You’re an asshole without a body. Where are you Dawg?” It was Deputy Orrin Johnson, one of Avi’s supporters in the Department.
There was a distant crack. It sounded like a tree branch splitting. Avi was fairly certain that it was .small caliber pistol shot, a .22. Another crack, then another. “Gunshots fired!” Avi spoke urgently. “All available units to 55971 Oriole Drive in RP.”
Avi started the engine. His throat was suddenly constricted and his skin became cold. What had he sent Howard into?
Lydia brought out the tiny dog from her coat. There were three animal carry crates in the car, one in the back seat, two in the trunk. She shrugged out of her overcoat and stuffed it into the crate from the back seat. She put Bear into the carrier, wrapped him in the fur lining and settled him onto the floor. He instantly began a piteous wail. He sounded like a human baby; the poignancy of his cry was almost intolerable.
“You’ll be all right, little Karook/Bear. Mama has to help your litter mates. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” The dog stopped wailing, as if he understood perfectly the meaning of Lydia’s words. He used his paws to make a bed out of Lydia’s coat. It was a comical sight. The minute dog pulled this way and that, bounced around on the furry coat lining, then settled with a sigh.
Avi swung a wide U-turn, bumped up onto the curb, bumped down and accelerated back towards the big house. He turned onto Oriole Drive. The sun had just been swallowed by a bank of clouds. It was four thirty and the temperature was dropping. He saw the Ryder truck parked in the circular driveway. Slowing to pass Beecham’s car, he looked over to see that it was empty. He felt painful regret. Beecham was impulsive and just a few millimeters this side of Crazy.. Avi had put his friend into a volatile situation, knowing that he was capable of adding more volatility. He parked his car across one end of the circular driveway.
Lydia carried a snub revolver, a .38. It rested in her lap as she prepared to exit the vehicle. Avi spread the wings of his overcoat and removed a Glock 19. There was a snapping sound, another pistol shot. Sirens sounded in the distance. He couldn’t wait for backup. Howard Beecham was nowhere to be seen. Avi looked up the street, down the street, while the siren grew louder. To his immense relief, he saw Orrin Johnson’s trooper hat as a lit-up white Sheriff’s cruiser squealed around the turn and rolled towards the house. The vehicle’s front wheels bumped across the curb and planted themselves in the freshly seeded turf. He had blocked the other end of the driveway. Johnson jumped out of the car and joined Lydia and Avi.
“So far as I know, we have four oriental males, one female and maybe a local civilian. Five shots fired from a small caliber weapon. Lydia, take the front door. Orrin, you and me need to get into the back yard. The gate’s over here.” Lydia nodded and let herself through the black iron front gate and approached the double-panel front door. The woodwork was light blue with white trim. A brass knocker hung below a little barred view port. She tried the handle and found it unlocked. She went in with her back to the wall, pistol pointing upward.
Avi and Orrin raced around the back. Before rushing through the gate he pulled himself to the top of the high wooden fence. Johnson interlaced his fingers so Avi could gain altitude as he stepped into the stirrup made by his colleagues’ hands. He didn’t like what he saw. Beecham was on the ground, holding his lower leg. His face was white. One of the younger men dragged him away from the stack of cages and tossed him next to the exercise ramp built for training dogs. “You stop that!” Beecham yelled, trying to pull himself upright. The young man punched him in the face, and he went down in a sprawl.
“Sheriff’s Department! Drop your weapons,” Avi commanded. Mr. Yu, holding a small revolver, took a shot in Avi’s direction. The bullet whacked into the fence a couple of feet from where Avi’s head poked above the pointed slats. Avi put a bullet into the ground at Mr. Yu’s feet. “Drop the fucking weapons!” he shouted. He was very angry. When some asshole fires a gun at you, for no goddam reason, or at least not a very good reason, it pisses a person off. Avi’s heart was pounding and he was aware of the fear beneath the anger. He didn’t want to have to shoot someone! For god’s sake.
Instead of complying, the Yu family scattered in every direction. One of the sons
(so he supposed them to be) produced an M4 automatic assault rifle. He sprayed bullets, looking back over his shoulder. Avi and Orrin hit the ground. Bullets exited through the fence, lines of holes erupting, splinters flying. While this chaos developed, Howard Beecham crawled into one of the tunnel structures in the canine playground. It was like an ostrich putting its head in the sand. If a bullet came in his direction, the tunnels wouldn’t help. Orrin Johnson called into his shoulder mike. “Shots fired! Shots fired!
Oriole Drive, Rossmoor Park. All available units.”
Where was Lydia? The Yus were vanishing as fast as they could move. Why would they protect these assets with assault rifles? Puppies? Even at five grand a crack, there wasn’t more than a couple hundred thousand worth of animals. Maybe there was something else in the house. Weed? Meth? A nuclear weapon?
Thoughts arose as thoughts arise so frequently in the mind. Randomly. The shooting acted as a switch to Avi’s PTSD. He was back in Fallujah . Orrin, weapon drawn, was getting ready to run through the gate.
“Let ’em go, Orrin. How far can they get? Come on, get down!” Avi rolled
away from the fence, across a gravel driveway that bounded the adjacent construction site. Orrin followed him in a crouch. Another clip of M4 ammo came randomly through the fence. Avi’s Fallujah flashback trembled through his nerves. He had to get hold of it; not let it dictate his actions. Begone, Fallujah! He painted a giant mental “X” across his memories of the vicious combat in the Iraqi town.
He found cover behind a six foot high stack of bags full of concrete. He was worried about Lydia, but she was no dummy. She would go to ground, probably find a hole in which to conceal herself.
The sound of sirens was converging. Members of the Yu family were behaving like a disturbed nest of ants. Shots came from all over; through the fence, digging divots into the gravel near Avi’s covering bags of cement. It didn’t seem like aimed fire. It seemed like cover fire. Which meant that the Yus were on the move.
“They’re trying to get out of here,” Avi said to Orrin.
The Sheriff’s Deputy agreed. “So far, they’re succeeding.” Orrin and Avi popped their heads up simultaneously, to see the backs of two young men as they jumped into the front seat of the rental truck.. The vehicle was rolling before the door was shut. The barrel of an M4 carbine poked out and fired in the direction of the policemen. The shots went high and bit chunks out of a scaffolding surrounding a nearby house. The truck’s wheels spun on gravel for a moment, then gained purchase and drove straight into Avi’s vehicle, pushed it aside and proceeded to grind down the street with part of a fender hanging from its front bumper. The fender fell off as the truck took the nearest left turn. While this was happening, the garage door at the house opened ponderously on its rollers. The Yu’s, Mister and Missus, were in a Toyota Sienna, a grey utility van. It was parked facing the street and the Yus wasted no time. They utilized the opening left by the truck and scampered through and raced down the street. When they reached the corner they turned right.
Sirens were in the air. County Sheriff, Highway Patrol, Rossmoor City Police, every cop within twenty five miles was headed towards what had become a shootout over a puppy mill.
Avi rose, looking for Lydia. Sirens grew louder. Sheriff Deputy Johnson was on the radio, describing the locations of the two vehicles and calling for an ambulance. Both of the getaway cars were on Barone Avenue, one heading north, one heading south. Avi could see both of them because the developers had cleared the adjacent lots of trees and had not begun to build. Avi ran to the front of the house, to see the rental truck screech to a halt. Two county sheriff’s cruisers blocked its way. The rental’s driver attempted to reverse direction, while the passenger fired the assault rifle.
Avi saw, with his peripheral vision, the Toyota van. Mr. Yu was in the passenger seat. He squeezed a couple shots from his .38 in the general direction of the sheriff’s cruisers.
This was insane! What were they doing? And why? All of the people in the breeders’ party were now trapped by police cruisers. There was nowhere to go. Rather than submit to arrest, they opened fire. Avi hit the turf. He saw Lydia crouching in the house’s foyer. Her pistol was drawn. She ran to the damaged vehicle in which they had driiven to the house. Avi remembered: the little dog was in the car! The dun-colored sedan had been sent in a quarter circle, its front end crushed like raked leaves. Lydia reached the car and prized open the back, reaching in for the dog carrier. She opened it and took the tiny pup in her hands. It uttered plaintive screeches, “Ow ow ow ow!”, Lydia brought its face close to her face and spoke something to the animal. Avi couildn’t hear but she said this: “Listen, Little Bear, you’re with me now. We go together. I can’t have you screaming every time something scary happens. We live in a scary world. I need for you to calm down.”
Bear seemed to understand perfectly. He said, with near human inflection,”Whu?” and Lydia replied, “All right, I’ll put you back into my coat. I know you’re cold.”
Avi turned his attention to his friend Beecham. The retired dentist was laying prone inside the dog tunnel. There was blood pooling around his leg. With a lurch of terror Avi thought of the femoral artery. If that had been hit, Beecham could be bleeding out. The action had seemed eternal but had really occurred in a span of six or seven minutes. Still, a bleeding artery could kill quickly.
“Howard, Howard!” Avi crouched to see the figure of his friend. Beecham’s hands were over his ears. He lifted them and gazed down the length of the cloth tunnel.
Avi slid the contraption away from his friend and flung it aside. The man in coveralls squinted in the sudden light. “I think they shot me in the leg and the arm. Shit. It hurts!”
Blood was coming from a crease about six inches long where a bullet had grazed through the retired dentist’s pants. Apparently it had continued its trajectory and gone through some of the flesh of Beecham’s shoulder.
“Can you sit up?” Asked Avi. Beecham patted himself all over. He rolled onto his back, patted some more, took note of his wounds and assessed the blood. “Lucky,” he said. “More like they cut me with a knife.”
There were yet more sirens, screeching of tires, followed by a clip of automatic rifle fire. Both men crouched low. Avi helped his friend get behind the pile of concrete sacks. They found Lydia there, one hand on her breast bone where the puppy lay beneath her sweater. Bullets of various caliber shattered the suburban air. It sounded like War. Rossmoor Park. War in Rossmoor Park. How crazy could things get?
The gunfire reached a crescendo. Sirens were still converging on their location. Avi, Lydia and Howard remained in their place until they were certain the action was over. Avi and the deputy got up slowly, peeking around the pile of sacks. Lydia remained where she was, hand snugged up against her chest, warming the tiny dog.
“They’re all dead, the Asians,” she said. Avi stood, looked out through the yard, into the street where police slowly converged on the vehicles. Lydia was right. Mr. and Mrs. Yu slumped in the front seat of the car, behind shattered glass. The young men lay beside the rental truck.
For what? A bunch of tiny poodles? It didn’t make sense. Maybe a thorough search of the house would reveal other things. But…even that didn’t make sense, unless there were stacks of human bodies in freezers…a situation that seemed unlikely. The Chinese family had simply committed suicide-by-cop. If that was the case, they must have been very frightened.
The air smelled like the end of a fireworks display. Wisps of smoke drifted across the bare fields and through the skeletal frameworks of houses newly under construction.
Avi saw the Chief of Police, Lawrence Perigord, standing next to the black truck that carried the SWAT team. Armored police stood without purpose, helmets, masks still in place. Star Wars, Avi thought. Star Wars Troopers in black. A stupid thought. Everyone drew that parallel. All over the world, police and paramilitary units wore the same gear, purchased from the same American, Czech and Belgian manufacturers.
A sheriff’s department deputy was making a large yellow square of crime scene tape. He had a handful of posts and a mallet. Every eight feet he pounded a stake into the ground, pulled a stapler from a belted holster and fixed the tape to the wooden upright. He continued until the fence enclosed the house.
Lydia rose with a swift bird-like movement. “I’m going into the basement. There are thirty, forty dogs down there.” Avi looked at the Chief, looked back at Lydia.
“Screw him,” she said, “Those are dogs, not evidence.”
“I’ll be there in a second. I have to talk to Perigord. I might be the senior officer; this could be my case.”
“It better be your case!” Lydia’s rage flashed as if her eyebrows were made of lightning. Then the dog in his bosom sneezed. “Chiss!” it said.
She loosened her sweater and brought the pup out into the air. “No you don’t,” she said. “Uh uh. You’re not imprinting on me. I’m not your mama.” She handed the puppy to Avi and walked away. Avi held the animal, dumbfounded. He looked into its eyes. Then, to his amazement, he fell in love. The little guy was adorable! He couldn’t help it. There had been one GREAT DOG in his life, that was Eubie. Everybody who loved dogs had one GREAT DOG but seldom did such lightning strike again. Yet it just had. Avi knew that this little guy was his second GREAT DOG and there it was: fate.
He tucked Bear into the inner pocket of his sport coat and rolled the lapel back so that it faced forward. He folded his scarf down into shirt so that everything remained in place. This way Bear could breathe and he could see. The dog seemed satisfied. He looked into Avi’s eyes and the gaze of the creature seemed to confirm that the bond was mutual.
Howard Beecham was leaking blood beside him. “You should go have that taken care of,” Avi said, gesturing toward the ambulance. “They’ll blow you off. Don’t let ’em. They’re wound-jockeys, they want blood and guts.”
“Cute dog, huh?” The dentist was also smitten. “You gonna keep him? He’ll probably have health issues and live a short dramatic life and drive you nuts. Poodles can really sing; least some of them do. I’ve got one that only growls. That’s all she can do: growl. It means ‘Yes, No, I’m Hungry, I gotta shit, I gotta pee, I gotta puke, I love you, you’re an asshole’, that growl is her entire vocabulary. Weird.” Beecham reached out to stroke the tiny dog’s shaggy ears. The puppy snapped at him with a vicious lunge. Beecham looked at his finger. The dog’s teeth were no bigger than grains of rice but they had drawn blood.
“Fucking excuse me!” Beecham looked at his finger, at the little row of tooth marks now forming a crescent below his knuckle. “Stronger than he looks,” he said grudgingly, “Like an alligator.”
Avi noticed that Chief Perigord was making a gesture, a ‘come hither’ with his index finger. Some of the units were packing up. Others were arriving. Ambulances from the County Coroner were rolling up to deal with the bodies. A helicopter from Channel Seven News rumbled overhead. Soon the other networks would dispatch choppers and the sky would roar with camera crews. This will be a media event, Avi speculated, maybe a national media event.
Avi walked to the SWAT truck. Chief Perigord wore a helmet straight out of World War One, a Doughboy saucer with shallow rim, used by the English and Americans in 1918. The rest of his uniform also sported anachronistic touches. The boots were knee-high lace-ups.. Avi could only imagine the painstaking procedure of running those laces tightly through forty or fifty eyelets, per boot, dressing them so they came to a perfect terminus at the top of each boot. The Chief wore riding breeches that tucked into the top of the boots, flaring to each side so that he resembled a motorcycle cop from the 50s.
“I missed a firefight!” Perigord was keenly disappointed. “In my own backyard, a firefight. Goddamit!” A police photographer was taking endless digital snaps of the scene. Perigord put his fists on his hips as if he were Black Jack Pershing. He relaxed as the photographer turned his lens away. His square jaw and bushy moustache lent him a resemblance to the famous World War One commander. Avi followed his superior as he inspected the scene. Bear decided to start barking at the Chief. His head popped out of Avi’s jacket and he let out a high pitched honking aimed at the strangely dressed police chief. “What the hell is that, Hobein? Shouted the chief. “Something to immobilize bad guys? Jeez what a sound! Turn it off.” He reached towards the puppy and Avi skipped away. “Not a good idea, sir.” He removed the dog from his shirt pocket, scruffing him with two fingers. “Enough!” he said. “This is a police matter.”
Bear gave one more bark and a snarl towards the Chief. Then he allowed Avi to return him to his jacket.
“You’re senior officer on this one, Holbein. It’s a can of worms. It’s all yours. I’ll give you the resources. I want to know why these people preferred to die when they could have posted bail and walked with nothing more than an animal cruelty charge.” The bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Yu were being lifted from the bullet-pocked vehicle by men in hazmat suits. The three young men were being zipped into neoprene body bags and lifted into the ambulance.
Chief Perigord picked up a bullhorn and addressed the personnel on site. “This is a crime scene under the supervision of Lieutenant Holbein. Sergeant Geist….” he looked around for Lydia. Avi did the same. He spotted her entering the house through the front door. “There she is,” he told the Chief. He felt as if he was betraying her. He had to do things by the book.
“Sergeant Geist”, the Chief began again, “will be Secondary, if she can curtail her impatience and stop hearing voices in her head. Looks like the fun’s done here. I’m going back….” he removed the bullhorn from his face and his voice resumed a normal volume . “Back to my office, where, if I’m lucky, I’ll be able to get to sleep and finish my afternoon nap. You…uh.. Holbein. I want a report this evening. What the fuck has been going on in this place?” The chief dropped the bullhorn without looking at where it was going. It landed with a clank on the gravel driveway. It was snatched up by Perigord’s assistant, Corporal Worth. The Chief crunched towards his sedan, followed by the Corporal. As he got into the car, he removed his helmet, revealing a perfect tonsure of baldness and changing his appearance from a charismatic military man to that of an accountant dressed up for Halloween. The effect was startling. Sometimes clothes DO make the man.
Avi knew the Chief was eccentric. He knew that Chief Perigord didn’t care much about the cases that fell across his desk. He cared for ratings. Avi could use that. Perigord didn’t want to be bothered with details. The office of County Sheriff was an elected position. Geoffrey Perigord had been Principal of Rossmoor High School for eighteen years. Then he was a County Supervisor, Administrator of the Vierra County Water District and head of the Board of Trustees at Vierra Hospital. He was a billionaire and his grapes were made into a popular medium-quality wine called Perigord Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc. The Chief’s lack of attention to his job gave Avi and Lydia a modicum of freedom. They just had to produce results.
Lydia stood frozen at the door of the house. There was a faint tremor in her body, which only Avi observed. He had gotten to know his partner and her intense emotional charge. She was thinking about the dogs in the basement. She could feel them in her guts. They needed help.
Avi grabbed the photographer and brought him along. A deputy had been stationed at the door. Everyone knew everyone else in this small community. The deputy, a youth named Carl Warden,, waved them into the house and resumed his position.
“Start here and get the whole layout of the house. Do that part quickly. I want you with us when we go to the kennels downstairs.” They walked with Tom, the photographer, as he systematically recorded the upstairs in all its sterile emptiness. The master bedroom was locked. Lydia produced a set of keys, picked through them and found one that worked. The door swung open. It was obvious that the room was a studio for the production of videos. The wallpaper was black and the moldings were scarlet. The curtains, too, were scarlet. The furniture was in a Victorian style. There was an armoire, a dresser, reading tables to each side of the bed. Descending from the ceiling was a rig that was intended for Sado-Masochistic games. There was a leather seat suspended by chains that were attached to sturdy rings in the ceiling. Cuffs and leather straps festooned the bed.. The scene was a cliche, perfectly banal, an archaic fantasy set. Who watched stuff like this? Avi had no answer. Porn wasn’t his thing. In the kitchen Tom shot the implements, the industrial-grade mixers and scales. Lydia opened the door to the closet where Bear had been imprisoned. He let out a howl of desperate horror and tried to dig himself deeper into Avi’s pocket. Avi backed away. He patted his lapel, “You’re safe,, little guy. Never again, never again, will that happen to you.”
A little nose poked up. The nostrils widened and closed, widened and closed. The pup mewed piteously. Lydia looked at her friend, saw the way his hand gently caressed the tiny animal in his pocket.
“I think he’s yours,” she said. “I thought he was mine, but I’ve got enough.”
“Yeah,” Avi replied. His voice was breathless and low; he was containing a sudden urge to weep. He had abruptly recognized a truth from which he had hidden his entire life. He had just learned that there is no greater emotional pleasure than love. Part of the price one paid for this great pleasure was vulnerability, grief, agony, betrayal. Yet still, it was love that conferred the greatest emotional sweetness. His life had not been a triumph where human love was concerned. No matter. First Eubie, now Bear. He could connect with animals where he had difficulty with people.
“He’s mine.” He repeated. “He’s mine.”
They had reached the door that led to the basement. The photographer opened it and took a couple photos of the stairs. Then he descended, his flash firing every second or two. At the bottom of the stairs the floor was covered by black rubber matting. Aisles of cages ran across the area. There was now sound coming from the dogs. They were howling “Ow ow ow ow!” Puppies were arranged apparently by age, with the fresh litters nearest the steps. The first cage held five puppies that were barely a week old. Lydia reached for the mama dog and discovered a cold lifeless body. Three of the five pups showed some signs of life.
“We’re going to need help!” Lydia couldn’t stop herself from wailing. There were perhaps forty dogs here. The animals who were still alive would need special care in order to survive. She pulled her phone from her pocket and hit a speed-dial number. The call was answered instantly. “Rescue”, said a female voice.
“Lydia. Wow. You need help. Where are you?”
“Can you and Lars come to my location in the panel truck?. We have forty something half dead poodle pups here. Wait.” She turned to Avi. “What’s the address here?”
Avi recited the number, then added. “This is a crime scene. They can’t come through the tape. We’ll have to bring the dogs to them. And…” he looked around, thinking through a dozen factors. The dogs were evidence but that was secondary to saving their lives. “Tell them to wait half an hour and meet us at the corner of Barone.”
Marsha Boyd was the hub of an animal rescue network. She knew people who knew people who would drop whatever they were doing and rush to the aid of any animal in distress. They were part of a rapidly changing world. Five years ago there was no such network. Now there was. To ask the question, “Why?” was to delve into a lattice of shifting paradigms and world-change that was happening under their feet, happening in the air, happening in the oceans and on the ice caps. Things were changing, fast! People were changing and their relations to their fellow creatures were changing. Ten years ago only a few people recognized that animals had feelings and were complex individuals. That awareness was now spreading. It manifested in magazines, on the internet, everywhere. A few special people, like Lydia, seemed to be magnets, or transmitters for those who were receptive to the message.
There was a damp awful smell in the basement. Tom the photographer wrapped a handkerchief around his mouth and nose.
Avi felt like he was in a surrealistic play. In fiteen minutes time he had gone from a routine investigation to a murderous firefight to a hellish scene of animal cruelty. His PTSD loomed again as images of Iraq drifted to the front of his imagination.
“Stop it! Stop it!” He commanded his imagination. He utilized the “X” technique, drawing a mental sign that forbade any such images from taking hold and influencing his emotions.
Lydia stood frozen. It seemed as if she had stopped breathing. Avi could tell from her total lack of expression that she was deep in thought. He waited. He made himself still. An interval of time passed. It was only two minutes but it seemed much longer. Then Lydia’s breathing apparently resumed. Her face wore an expression of rage and determination.
“We have to find their paperwork,” she said at last. “All these dogs will die from convulsions if we can’t figure out what drugs they’ve been fed and in what amounts.” She opened the first cage. It was Cage Number One. Each of the cages was numbered and each dog wore a small paper collar. She reached for the mother, who was laying on her side. Two tiny pups were desperately trying to coax milk from her but they were weak. Three more were lifeless. Avi, anticipating his partner’s needs, found some large cardboard boxes and a bundle of terry cloth towels. Gently, Lydia put the dead pups in a box, carefully laying them on the towels, side by side.
Avi felt the little friend in his coat pocket tremble. All the puppies were crying. The basement became a piercing lament that tried every nerve and sinew. The photographer leaned down and took images of animals in cages. His body was rigid but he continued working, making his way up and down the lines of black-wired dog crates and containers. He took still and he took videos.
The first mother dog was hooked to an IV, which meant that the pups were also being fed drugs through her milk. Lydia gently removed the tubing.
“It’s all right, baby,” she crooned, “We’ll take good care of you.” She looked at the paper tag that was affixed to her collar. The writing was in Korean. This took her by surprise. The Yus had spoken Mandarin. They did not look Korean. It was another mystery in what was becoming a box full of mysteries.
In Avi’s jacket pocket, Bear joined the canine chorus of suffering. Avi could feel the little dog trembling.
“You should take him out of here.” Lydia suggested. “He’s been through a lot of trauma.”
Avi looked at his partner with a strange expression. Lydia could read him: “PTSD?”
“So what?” said Avi. “I’m primary on a complex crime scene. Five people just died by police gunfire. Fifty dogs are suffering. I don’t have time for my PTSD.”
“Way to go,” Lydia said. She had her own issues with PTSD. Sometimes there was simply no room for personal pain.
“I need to find out what’s in these bags,” she said, indicating the clear plastic IV bags that were leaking chemicals, drop by horrid drop, into the bloodstreams of these beautiful but abused animals.
Avi checked Bear. He could not find a word that encompassed the bond that existed between himself and a puppy who might be a month old. Weird. That’s all. Just weird.
A voice came from the top of the steps. “Lieutenant? You ought to see this.”
“Comin’ up,” Said Avi. “Who is that? Tescher?”
“Yes sir,” the voice responded. He was a deputy with the Sheiff’s Department. The case, for the moment, belonged to Viera County. Avi climbed the steps. Deputy Tescher took him through the garish master bedroom with its ridiculous video set. There was a large bathroom built at the rear of the bedroom. The drawers had been pulled open to be photographed and contents inventoried. There was a door that should have opened to the outside but another room had been added to the structure. Tescher opened that door. There were flourescent lights illuminating a combination office and storage room. Two standing refrigerator/freezers occupied the room. Avi opened each , allowing the doors to stand ajar. Each freezer was full of boxes and racks of glass ampoules. Drugs. Avi bent forward to examine the labels. There were large amounts of Ketamine, liquid valium, phenobarbital, morphine, propofol,and drugs whose names Avi did not recognize and couldn’t pronounce. All drugs with veterinary applications. All required serious licenses to be used legally.
There were ranks of file cabinets alongside the big freezers. Beneath a sturdy table there was an internet server and two big desktop computers. A few laptops sat closed on top of the desk. “Here’s what I want you to do,” he instructed the deputy. “I’m looking for log books and/or computer files. Anything that looks like treatment schedules for the dogs; drugs, dosage, things like that. Every dog has a number and the cages are numbered, so look for correlations between age and weight. I’d start with the computers. They’re in there somewhere.” He looked into Tescher’s eyes, conveying his urgency. “As soon as you find what I need, let me know. Get Darren in here to help you. Okay?”
“Yes sir,” Deputy Tescher replied. As Avi straightened up to return to the basement he felt Bear stir in his pocket. “One more thing.” He reached for the puppy and withdrew the little hairy creature from the warmth and comfort of his jacket. He took off his scarf and wrapped Bear up, then handed him to the officer. As soon as he left Avi’s hands, the pup began to cry. “Ow ow ow ow ow!” He was loud. Avi looked at Tescher. He saw the man’s face soften. There were those who would respond that way; and there were those who would get annoyed or angry. Tescher was an animal lover. That was good. He probably had kids. Infant animals and infant children weren’t very much different.
“Put him in another towel, then put him in the back seat of my car.” He then spoke to Bear. “Listen, little guy…” he put his nose against the puppy’s nose. “I need for you to settle down.” The dog quieted at the sound of Avi’s voice. His eyes were intelligent. His understanding was eerie. The entire drama, the shooting and killing, the sick animals, the distress, the evil, all of it seemed like a play or a film to Avi. He was inside this unfolding tale and it was suffused with a strange magic. Nothing seemed real.
Avi returned to the basement. He stopped in the bathroom and tore off a few strips of toilet paper. He made plugs for his ears and nose. He knew he looked absurd. That was fine. With two strips hanging from his ears and two dangling out of his nostrils, he might get a laugh from Lydia.
He clomped down the steps once more. Lydia was separating live animals from still ones, silent tears slipping down her face. “Sometimes I hate feeling so much,” she said. She hadn’t yet looked at him. “I don’t know how I stand it.” She didn’t require a response. She was venting, draining pus from an open wound. Avi didn’t know how she could stand it, and he had no idea just how intense was her empathy, how much emotion invaded her psyche, day after day, She drank wine, smoked an occasional cigarette. She prayed, meditated. Truth be told, Avi didn’t know what she did in her personal life. She had no boyfriend or girlfriend. But she was loved by many, and she loved many. Perhaps that was the ultimate comfort, the redeeming pleasure, that loving and being loved.
When Lydia’s eyes finally broke away from her work with the animals she glanced at Avi and erupted with a laugh that was half jolly and half tormented.
“Clown,” she said fondly.
Together they sorted the living animals from the dead. The pups who survived would need feeding as well as detoxifying. By virtue of their youth, they could not be deeply addicted to the substances that were in their blood. There would be a difference between a puppy at six weeks and one at two: the young ones would require rudimentary weaning. The older pups would be farther along in their drug dependence. It was a complicated situation. They needed those log files!
Another deputy, Darren Kim, appeared, carrying an armload of black lined binders. He had a small box full of DVDs balanced atop his burden. “I think this is what you want, sir, ma’am. At least I hope so. The computers were password protected and some of it is in Korean. Fortunately, I am Korean and I’m some kind of nerd and I was able to get into the files. Give me a minute and I’ll bring down one of the laptops and you can see what’s on these disks.”
He took in the scene of the dogs, the cages, the starving and drugged animals.
“Aw, man!” His face drained of color. “I got a Chihuahua at home, his name is Benito. We love that dog. My kids are crazy about him. He’s like…well, he IS.. a member of the family.” His hands tensed as if he were throttling someone. “Who does shit…who does stuff like this?”
Avi’s radio fizzed on his collar. “Dawg, we got dead humans up here. You done down there?” The voice was that of Captain Bassey, Rossmoor Park’s Chief of Police. He was not one of Avi’s supporters.
“Captain, what’s down here has everything to do with the dead humans up on the street.” Avi tried to keep the irritation out of his voice. He had to get along with Bassey.
“Well send the photographer and the deputies for fuck’s sake. The place is swarming with press and I need to keep ’em back from this scene. Oh, hey, you there with Spook Lady?”
Lydia made the sign of the extended middle finger. “I’m here, Captain,” she said. Bassey pretended to be embarrassed. “Whoops, nothin’ personal, Sergeant Geist. We got a mess, a multi-jurisdictional Pandora’s Box and the two of your are saving puppies. Crap on a hot dog bun, what am I supposed to do with all this?”
“Eat it?” Lydia wanted to say , but she didn’t. Instead she spoke into her radio with a cajoling sound. She knew that Bassey had some kind of “thing” for her; hence, the hostile leakage. “Sir, with your permission, I’d like to bring two associates down here. One of them’s a vet. Lars Starrik. Then we could get these animals processed and sent to more appropriate locations. Most of the dogs are drugged and need special help.”
“Yep, drugs too. Next thing we’ll have the DEA here. Long as I don’t have to take on this case, you can do what you want.”
So. It had already become political. Strangely, or not so very strangely, this was already The Case No One Wanted. Lydia could see why. Everyone thought it was a loser, and would never be solved. She knew differently. You couldn’t let people do this kind of thing to animals. She wanted to know who scared them so much that they’d rather die than face the person or persons who were responsible for this operation.
Avi made himself take three deep breaths. He realized that his hands were shaking. He was feeling overwhelmed. There was too much information, too much imagery flashing through his mind and he couldn’t make sense of it. Maybe if he focused on a single task his emotions would settle.
Lydia’s phone rang. She pressed the button. “Marsha, where are you?”
“Corner of Barone, like you said. I’ve got Lars. What do you want us to do?”
“Is there a traffic jam up there?”
“Its nuts. Ambulances, fire trucks, county cars, city cars, news truck with big dishes…” Lydia could hear the thunk of helicopter blades through her friends’ phone. They were audible through the walls of the house but not as loud as the phone’s speaker
“I’ll come and get you. Lead you through the tape. Give me a minute.”
Avi was booting up a laptop. He had the pile of disks on the table. “I hope this will tell us what we need to know.”
“Me too. I’ll be right back.”
“Hey…” Avi’s voice went soft. “Would you…check on Bear for me? Just tell him I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Lydia cast her friend a piercing look. She knew this emotion well. Something about falling in love with an animal transcended human relationships. It was pure feeling. There was no intellect to complicate matters.
“I’ll do what I can,” she said, and touched Avi with two fingers on the inside of his elbow. Her touch was powerful. Lydia didn’t touch people casually. The simplest gesture contained meanings. Avi was grateful. He felt reassured.
Lydia cast another look around the basement. It was a torture chamber. It was a place where highly sensitive pure-bred dogs were manipulated and abused. She felt an acute need for fresh air.
When she got outside the air was tainted with vehicle fumes. Diesel clouds wafted from ambulances. A fire truck was leaving. A fireman was moving red traffic cones to allow the big vehicle to maneuver. Its engine roared. Lydia walked across the gravel of the driveway and commandeered the cones before the fireman could put them back in the truck. “Hi Mark,” she smiled. “I’ll drop these off at the station.” The fireman smiled back. “No problem, Lyd. You been okay?”
Ah, the blessings of living in a small community. “Yes, I’ve been okay.” Lydia had helped Mark’s family with a troubled cat. Now she used the cones to isolate a parking space for Lars and Marsha. All around there were official personnel: the coroner and his minions, all the chiefs from three or four jurisdictions. Even the Highway Patrol was here. Overhead, four helicopters jockeyed to avoid collision. The din was phenomenal.
“That’s good. See ya.” The young man swung up onto the fire truck’s bumper and slammed his hand twice on the paneling. The driver gunned the engine and mischievously honked the horn, which had all the penetrating power of a ship’s fog hailer. It almost knocked Lydia to her knees. She walked to the corner and saw the flat green primer of the truck that Marsha’s boyfriend drove. Lars waved to her and she raised her arm and signaled from them to drive forward. As the van came alongside, Lydia guided it through the clogged traffic and managed to get it parked in the zone she had made with the red cones. “Hang on here for a second, I’ll come and get you.”
She found the sedan in which she and Avi had arrived on the scene. The front of it was crushed. She was able to open the back seat door. Already she could hear Bear’s howls. He was terrified. She unfastened the latch and took him, swaddling and all, and held him to her face. “You’re in the middle of one hell of a weird case, little guy.” She took a few deep breaths and closed her eyes. She told herself, “be calm be calm, this is but one tiny moment in the immensity of Time.” She managed to stop the quivering of her nerves and tendons. She communicated that poise to the dog. His eyes were immense, deeply intelligent. Lydia recognized something special about this tiny pup. He was someone or some Thing that had occupied the body of a teacup poodle. Never mind the belief systems required to take that on. Her belief system was simple: Anything Is Possible. Belief is a provisional stance. Humans were not yet capable of understanding Reality, so it was better to maintain a mind that was agile and open to the dance of Fact around the Maypole of Speculation.
“Your daddy will be here when he is finished with his work, mister Bear. I know you’re scared.” The dog was screaming “Ai! Ai! Ai! Ai!”. His ears came forward to take in the sound of Lydia’s voice. Slowly the volume of his screams diminished. At last he let out a great sigh and relaxed in her hand. Lydia put him back in the carrier and closed the door. It would have to do. She returned to the gathering people at the house’s front door.
“I see the troops have arrived.” Ron Bassey, Rossmoor Park’s Chief of Police, stood inside the foyer. He was wearing his golf clothes. A red Izod T-shirt, beige slacks, a baseball cap. It was a Tiger Woods costume, right down to the Rolex watch.
“With your permission, Sir,” Lydia was deferential. She loathed the bastard but he needed to be handled with care.
“Not at all.” He glanced swiftly across Marsha and Lars. “I understand there’s some fifty dogs down there. Let the county sort them out.” His smile always came across as a smirk. The lips didn’t quite match the eyes. He gave Lydia a discordant feeling, as if he was the keeper of nasty secrets. At the moment he was blocking the way into the house. “Um…thank you, Chief. If we can….”
He backed away minutely, forcing Lydia to almost touch him. As she passed she could smell his cologne and a faint whiff of the weed he’d been smoking an hour ago. Dr. Lars and Marsha followed. The vet was a tall thin man with a short white brush of hair. His head was long and odd-shaped, with big ears. He wore a puckish expression: he knew how odd he looked and used it for comic effect, to put people at ease. He exuded a paternal authority, comforting and solid. When he reached the basement he took a long look and groaned, “Oh my god.” Marsha’s hands were splayed across her face with alarm.
Dr. Lars took charge. “For now I think it would be a good idea to keep the dogs together with their IVs. Considering how tiny these cages are, I’d guess the idea is to restrict the accumulation of mass, keep the dogs light, feed them only what they require and nothing more.” His left eye almost shut in a wince, as if he had bitten down on something bitter. “This is really sick, sick stuff. Those were the breeders, the…uh..corpses outside?”
“The people immediately responsible for this…I suppose so.” Lydia paused. She cast an inquiring look at Avi. He nodded. “There has to be another entity behind this, another business. We’re going to make sure we find out who it is and if they have more operations like this one, we’re going to shut them down!”
Avi nodded, as if to say,” That’s enough.”
“We’re at the beginning of something very strange,” he said carefully. He didn’t have anything else to impart. “If you were doing this,” he asked Lars, “If you wanted to raise tiny puppies and send them overseas, what would you do?”
There was a growing din of dog noise. The animals had begun to wake up from their sleep and an excitement was spreading from cage to cage. Avi took this is a healthy sign. This was normal dog behavior. It made conversation impossible.
“Let’s get them out of here,” said Marsha. She had two carriers, one in each hand. “I’ve got more of these in the truck.” She did a count, dipping her finger and moving her lips. She paused at the box full of dead puppies. “Shit!” she said, more to herself than to anyone listening. Then she continued. “Any more, anywhere else?”
“In the back yard,” replied Lydia. “I’ve counted up forty seven puppies. Maybe twenty are dead, another ten are in serious trouble.”
“Then we’ve got to do a triage,” the veterinarian said. “Some of these dogs need to be at the hospital.”
Somehow, they got it done. Avi and Lydia placated Chief Perigord, who actually WANTED the case, while Marsha and Lars organized the dogs and got them going in several directions. A phalanx of other volunteers met at the corner of Barone and Riegert Circle. It was now an empty lot with flagged sticks in the ground. In six months this area would be full of identical four bedroom houses. Avi knew that the breeders had chosen their site because of its isolation. He wondered how many more were spread around Viera County, or all of California.
Organized crime….and puppy mills?
The world was going crazy.
Chapter Two: Dark Light
It was two thirty a.m. by the time Avi got home. His condo was at street level in the front, and the back looked over a cliff out onto the Bay. The scaffolding that held it up had be reiinforced with iron beams. There wasn’t going to be any erosive action leading to his house dropping down the precipice and into the water.
Avi wasn’t a good sleeper. Even as a kid he wasn’t a good sleeper and since the war his sleep was a constant problem. His best friend was warm milk. A bit of honey in some warm milk: that kept the boogie man at bay.
Since Shawna had left, his condo was empty. Now there was a dog to breathe the air of the place, to add a touch of creature presence. He had put Bear in a an open crate beside the bed. They could see each other. He would have simply put the pup next to him but he was afraid he would squish the poor guy in one of his nocturnal thrashings. He slept on a futon in a wicker frame that gave him an eight inch storage space beneath the matt. It made a perfect space to keep his AR-15, his lever-action Winchester, his .303 scoped gun and various pistols that came and went.
Bear tried getting up on the bed. It was beyond his ability to jump. He used his voice to cajole Avi. The voice was both shrill and eloquent. His bark had the quality of a clown’s horn, or perhaps the squeeze-bulb on a child’s tricycle. Heenk haw! Heenk haw! It was a little obnoxious but it was funny.
Avi lay on his side, watching the pup’s head peer over the precipice of his mattress. “Let me up let me up,” the dog was saying. Avi thought it prudent to establish rules and boundaries right away. “You stay down there for now, little guy. It isn’t safe for you up here.”
As images of the day’s events raced through Avi’s mind, Bear took to exploring the bedroom. Avi could hear the tiny click click of his claws on the wooden floor. It sounded like a bag of rice grains sprinkling slowly on a bare surface.
There was a small brown bottle with an eye dropper screwed into its top. It contained a concoction that Lydia had made up, carefully measured doses of valium should Bear show any signs of withdrawal from the medication that had inhibited his growth. If he began to seize or tremble, Avi was to shake the bottle and draw up enough liquid to give Bear four drops.
Avi felt sleep coming into him, like the approach of a fog bank. It lingered on the periphery of his nerve endings, waiting, hesitant. What was keeping it back?
Thoughts. Avi was aware of his thoughts, how they ran out of control, how they repeated themselves. “I’ve failed at everything,” he thought. “I’ve failed at relationships, failed as a soldier and now I’m failing as a cop.” He focused on his breathing. That was a good way to stop the endless cycling of his internal crap. He exhaled and counted to five. Held his breath for a count of four. Inhaled for a count of five. He did it again.
He didn’t know that he had fallen asleep. He lay there under a shard of moonlight that dropped through the open curtains and crossed his body like a knife blade.
“Rrrrrrr…uh!” It was Bear. Avi clutched at the Glock under his pillow. He was fully awake. The tone of Bear’s growl was hostile. “Rrrrrrrrr….uh!” Someone was in his bedroom. The dog erupted, “Aargh! Aargh aaargh!” The squeaky sound of his little voice was extremely loud.
“What the fuck!” A voice whisper-shouted. The moon had migrated down the sky and the room was now lit only by the faintest of glows from the light on the corner of his street. Bear was at the foot of Avi’s bed, bristling and howling.
‘What is that? Some kind of alarm?” Another voice. “I never heard anything like that.”
They didn’t see the dog, Avi realized. They didn’t even know it was a dog, the sound was so improbable. Avi pulled the slide on his weapon, chambering a round , and slid across the bed, staying low. He saw one silhouette outlined in front of the curtains. Another mass crept towards the bed.
Bear went into another mode. With a tiny snarl he got the trousers of one of the intruders and started biting whatever he could get into his jaws.
“Shit! What the fuck!”. The figure lurched and then fell into the standing lamp. The lamp fell into the door and its conical shade burst into pieces. The man’s pistol went sliding under the bed. Avi rose and in one swift motion snatched Bear into his hand and kicked the man on the floor. The other man was making a hasty exit. Bear continued his racket. Avi leaned down and found the collar of the man’s jacket. He dragged him out into his living room and shut the door behind Bear. Then he threw on the light. The intruder was confused enough that Avi was able to put him in a thumb lock. While Bear continued shrieking from the bedroom, Avi attempted to get better control of the intruder. He was a big man, about fifty, wearing a gaudy blue track suit. His appearance was that of a Turk or a Greek.
The man looked around wildly as Avi struggled to get better control of his arm. Before he could turn the thumb lock into a full arm hold, the man twisted, threw all his weight backwards and got free.
Avi still had the Glock but he didn’t want to shoot. He loathed the idea of killing someone. In the flickering moments when he had the opportunity, the concept divided into two concepts: killing a man was the first concept. Killing a man in his own house was the second concept. He could accept killing in self defense. Killing in his own house, however….that was another matter. It made him pause just long enough for his enemy to come inside his defensive perimeter and grab for the gun.
Avi kicked him in the nuts. That finished him as a lethal enemy. The dark man lurched with his hands between his thighs. A look came over his face, a look of utter dread. It made Avi recoil.
With some incredible force of will, the intruder straightened his body and smashed his way right through the sliding glass door. He hobbled across the back deck and tossed himself over the railing. The drop was eighty feet, ending on the rocks in the V-shaped inlet that funneled the tide from Alexander Bay.
Another suicide. Whoever employed these people was terrifying.
Bear was howling. Avi opened the door and the pup danced around his legs with both terror and joy.
“You saved my ass, little guy.” Scooping him up, Avi held the dog under his chin. The long brown hair nearly hid Bear’s eyes. Each braid of hair twisted like a little dark flame, so that the dog looked like a creature surrounded by fire, engulfed in a tangle of primitive blazing black. His tongue licked Avi’s chin over and over. Avi remembered his dog Eubie and how much joy he got from the dog and how much grief he felt when Eubie moved on. How ridiculous it was that the loves of his life were dogs. As a mitigating factor, if he considered the family in which he’d grown up, he had little incentive to want to get close to human beings.
Both man and dog were shaking. Avi wasn’t sure who started first; whether he transferred his tremble to the dog or whether the dog was shaking on his own. Bear uttered a heart-rending sound: “Owwwwwww!” Avi held him at arm’s length to examine him. His shakes were turning into full-blown spasms. His legs were kicking, his eyes were rolling up into his head.
Avoiding the broken glass, he returned to the bedroom and opened his bedside drawer. He took out the bottle given to him by Doctor Hans. “Easy boy, easy easy,” he whispered. He put Bear in the center of the bed. He unscrewed the cap of the bottle and carefully drew up a bare few drops. He gently held the pup on his back. Bear’s tongue was hanging out. Avi was scared but he put that aside. He
counted out three drops. Fortunately, they went into the dog’s mouth without being spit back out. The result came within minutes. Bear’s tremors subsided, his spasming legs relaxed and his eyes cleared.
Avi was so exhausted that he considered leaving the attendant phone calls and crime scene investigation to the morning. He reached for the phone on the table.
The next time he woke up it was morning. The phone was in his hand. Bear was licking his chin. The phone chimed the four notes that were the theme music from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. The caller was Lydia. It was eight forty. He’d slept for about three and a half hours.
He answered the phone reflexively. He was on automatic pilot. He pressed the speaker-phone button and heard her voice.
“Avi?” He could tell by the tone that she was distressed. He knew Lydia’s voice better than anyone’s. They had been together for five years. There wasn’t much that she could conceal. Then the night’s events returned to his mind.
“Oh my God!” Avi went into the living room. The glass was spread across the floor and out onto the deck. Returning to the bedroom Avi held Bear while he put on some slippers. He returned to the railing and looked down. At first the body was hard to see. The view was south-east and the sun flashed into his eyes until they adjusted. There it was, the body. Dressed in a blue track suit, half submerged by the tide. It would be washed out if he didn’t get someone onto the site instantly.
“Avi!” Lydia’s voice held urgency.
“I’m here, I’m here. I have to call someone and I don’t know who I trust less.
There’s a body down in the cove. I was attacked last night.”
“Is Bear okay?” This question seemed entirely reasonable. Bear was more important than himself, Avi Holbein.
“Bear’s okay. He seized once. The valium drops worked almost instantly.”
“And who’s your dead guy?” She said “Who’s YOUR dead guy”, just barely emphasizing the word YOUR, but Avi caught it.
“Are YOU okay? Do you have a dead guy, too?”
Lydia was eating something. He heard a slurp slurp, like she was spooning down her favorite, Dreyer’s Butter Pecan Ice Cream. Only Dreyer’s. There was no other Butter Pecan Ice Cream in Lydia’s world.
“Shot him,” she said through a slurp. “Nobody told him you can’t surprise a psychic.”
“I thought you weren’t a psychic. You’re an Empath.”
“Last night I was a psychic…or an empath…or a Witch. I don’t know. I could feel him coming. Of course, Buddy helped me. And Iota. And Lola. And…”
“I presume that aside from Buddy, the others are puppies from Satan’s Puppy Mill.”
“Yeah..” slurp slurp. “Anyway. I shot him. He had a gun and he was going to shoot me, and Buddy jumped on his face and stuck his fangs in his eyes….” Lydia’s voice began to change. She was in shock. “Avi, I killed a man. A big dark man in a green jump suit.” The slurping stopped and a slow quiet weeping began.
Avi had killed men. He knew something of this; a nauseating sensation that came with his first kill. And his second. Third, fourth…it always returned. He’d read a lot of crap fiction about how killers were those who learned to enjoy the process. Excepting psychopaths, Avi doubted this thriller-novel nostrum. Removing the life from a fellow human’s body, that was profoundly serious.
“Lydia,” he said softly.
“I think I’m going to puke”.
Avi heard his partner chuck the ice cream she had so recently enjoyed.