The night sighed and Bethany felt the chilled touch of her dead mother’s hands on her shoulders. This cannot go on, Mireille whispered, the words a moth’s wing passage against her daughter’s cheek. Ethereal fingers brushed aside long wisps of Bethany’s dark hair, raised fine hairs on the back of her neck. You cannot stay.
“No,” Bethany said, voice so soft it barely escaped her lips. Her gaze never left the darkness of the trees just beyond the pool of light that surrounded her. The caress of her mother’s hands raised gooseflesh on Bethany’s thin body. “Angus needs me; we’re a team. I can’t… He’d be alone. I’d be alone. I miss you.”
I know, ma amour petit. Soon you will understand what I say is true. Mireille’s voice faded. Her touch left Bethany’s shoulders. Carried like a mist on the gentle wind, Bethany heard, Be strong, ma chéri. This is not what I wanted for you, ever wanted for you. I love you…
As much as she needed her mother to remain with her, Bethany learned long ago not to call for Mireille to come back. A ghost’s stay can never be measured by more than moments or summoned at will. Even by a lonely daughter.
The sound of a car pulling into the park knotted Bethany’s stomach. “Don’t stop,” she whispered to the wind. “Turn around, dar la vuelta. Just keep going. please.”
Among the shadowed cathedral pillars of old oaks, headlight beams bobbed in the night air. The car stopped in the lot at the far end of the walkway where she stood. “No, don’t stay here, por favor….”
Blue, white, red lights like enraged fireflies flashed through the trees.
“Not now. Go away I can’t stop…it.”
Bethany Lonergan studied the broad-shouldered cop coming up the walk behind a bobbing blue-tinged flashlight beam. Gooseflesh rose on Bethany’s body. Let him help you, ma chéri. The whisper came and left on a soft breeze. There was no point in looking for a source. Mireille was not there.
Bethany focused on what Angus always told her to do when a stranger approached, “Be careful what you say.”
“Hi,” the cop said, turning off his flashlight. A tall man, he squatted like a baseball catcher next to her in the yellow bubble of light dripping from the antiquish lamppost. He looked young, like Angus, though not as big. “What’s your name?”
The gold name pin on his breast pocket read Jonathan Kuttner, Bethany noted. It was shiny new. His tight shirt, black and slick looking, bulged funny. A bullet-proof vest, she thought. It might help.
She passed a looped chain leash and collar from hand to hand, the metal links clunking together tonelessly. Her bluest of eyes shifted their gaze from the darkness of the trees marching along the path’s flank to Kuttner’s face.
“What can I do for you…officer? I’m fine, you know. You can just go back to your car.” She shook her head. “I don’t need any assistance, really I don’t. Thank you very much.” She wanted to shout, “Leave, por favor,” but did not. For Angus’ sake, she did not tell the cop to run. Stay calm, she told herself.
Kuttner touched the mic clipped to his shirt. “Talking to the girl; assessing situation.” He paused to listen. “No. I don’t need back up.”
Bethany watched him closely. She shivered—her clothes a thin windbreaker, stained, over worn sweatshirt a size too big, tattered jeans, and dirty sneakers with duct tape repairs.
“I don’t need assessing. You should go, really you should.”
The night hinted at an early fall. She was cold but would not admit it. “No.” She wiped strings of black hair off her face.
“Bethany’s a lovely name.”
Bethany sighed. “I know.” She turned her attention back to the woods with its nervous shadows, deeply dark, sheltered from a crescent moon glowing above the treetops. The breeze fomented whispers from the foliage.
“Bethany, how old you are? What, fifteen, sixteen?”
“Something like that.”
“This park’s closed.”
“I know. It’s quiet. I like that. Nobody around to worry about…except you now.”
“Curfew is eleven. It’s almost one. Why are you in the park so late? Alone.”
“I’m not alone.”
Kuttner stood and looked around. “Who’s here with you, Bethany?”
“I was walking Dog.” Her voice was as placid as a lobotomy patient’s. Bethany noticed his hand rested on the black gun strapped to his belt. She was afraid for the cop, but more afraid for Angus.
“Where’s your dog now?”
She pointed to the dark trees. “He needed to run so I came here to let him.”
The radio on the cop’s shoulder chirped, “Status.”
Kuttner touched his shoulder mike and turned his head. “Juvenile female lost her dog. I’ve got it.”
“I’ll send a squad.”
“No,” the cop said with emphasis. “Not needed. I’ve got this.”
“Sure about that? Back up’s available.”
“They’re busy with that traffic mess on thirty-three. I got this. Routine, it’s just a kid and her dog.”
There was a pause before the voice responded. “Roger that.”
“Not lost,” Bethany said.
“You said Dog’s lost. He’s not lost. Dad’s out there, too.”
Kuttner glanced at the woods and flicked on his flashlight. “So you and your father were walking your dog and came into the park after curfew.”
Bethany slowly nodded. “Didn’t know about the curfew, sorry. We’ll leave in a minute, promise.” She crossed her heart. “You can go. We’re fine, igracia.”
The cop scanned the woods with his flashlight. “What’s your father’s name?”
“How long have you been alone, since your father left?”
She shrugged. “Not long, just before you parked your car back there.” She waved a leash-free hand in the direction of the lot where the cop left the squad car.
Kuttner looked over his shoulder at the mostly dark path weaving through stout trees to the parking lot.
“I saw your headlights,” Bethany said.
“Pets aren’t supposed to run loose. You and your dad and your dog aren’t supposed to be here at all this time of night.”
Bethany shrugged. Her gaze never left the shadow-blotted woods. “Dog wanted to run. We like woods at night. We don’t bother folks.”
“You and your father live near here?”
“Where do you live? Can you tell me, Bethany?”
She focused on him again. Careful what you say. “Our car, mostly. We’re just passing through.” She pointed in the direction of a not so near street in the opposite direction from the parking lot. “Campgrounds sometimes, truck stops. We move a lot. Dad doesn’t like to be in any one place too long. Staying put’s not good for you, he says. ‘Got to see the world,’ he says.”
“And you stopped in our park here in Lake Cedars?”
Bethany shrugged. “Guess so. Didn’t know the name of this place, we were just driving through. Dog doesn’t follow any clock. When he’s got to run he just…runs.”
“You and your dad have a last name, Bethany?”
She stared into the shrouded woods. “Not really. Angus says it isn’t anybody’s business but ours. Angus and Bethany is enough.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“Dead.” Bethany sighed. “Long time now.”
Kuttner aimed his flashlight into the woods. “Your dad’s in those trees.”
Bethany nodded. This was a mistake. She thought this park would be isolated enough. That nobody would be around. That Dog would finish quickly, find some animal, a cat, a stray dog, a deer maybe. So she stopped the car on the edge of this little town, in this park. She should have kept going, should have found a woods among all the farms they has passed to let Dog out. But Angus gave her no choice. Dog had to be released, he said, agony staining his voice. Dog had to run. Bethany had no doubt about that.
“He left you here to chase after the dog.”
She hesitated, and nodded.
Kuttner peered into the dark woods. Wind-motivated leaves chattered just above their heads. He didn’t speak for a long moment.
Bethany watched as his hand hovered above the radio mike clipped to his shirt. She was relieved when he lowered his arm.
A branch snapped.
“Angus? This is the police, Officer Kuttner from the Lake Cedars Police Department. I’m with your daughter. She’s okay but we need to talk, Angus. I’m not looking for any trouble, but you have to leave. This park’s closed.”
Movement rippled within the shadow-stained darkness. Something heavy loped through the underbrush with a growl, low and gurglely. The cop’s body tightened. Bethany did not react.
“What’s your dog’s name?” He popped open the strap securing his gun in its holster.
“Dog. We just call him Dog. Angus didn’t want to give him any real name.”
They heard another growl, deep-throated, primeval. Kuttner’s fingers curled around his gun’s grip. His hand hovered near the mic for a moment, then dropped to his side.
“Bethany, how big is your dog?”
“Big enough it could hurt people?”
“Muy grande—damn big. You should go, really. Dog doesn’t like strangers. He’ll come back to me soon. He listens to me. He likes me. And—and we’ll leave…the park, your city. Promise. We’re passing through. Just need a couple minutes. Por favor—I mean, please officer.”
“What breed of dog is it?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. Dad’s with him. I’m sure. He’s got him.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” Kuttner stepped closer to the woods. “Angus? If you hear me, respond please. I just want to know you’re all right. Your daughter’s worried about you.” He glanced at Bethany.
As much as she wanted to warn him, her face remained unreadable. “You should go now. We’ll leave, promise. Go away, far away. Just let us alone—please.”
Kuttner ignored her. “Angus, do you have control of your dog? Do you need assistance? Are you injured?”
Something shuffled in the leaf litter buried in the night twenty or so yards ahead of him.
“Angus?” A heartbeat later, Kuttner turned to Bethany and jabbed a finger at her. “You stay there, right here in the light. Understand? Don’t move.”
She lowered her head, the leash gripped in both hands. “Stay with me. You—”
“Don’t be afraid. I’ll be back with your father.”
“No! Don’t go….”
The cop followed the bluish beam of his flashlight through the brush and into the woods.
“Stay here. With me,” Bethany shouted. But Kuttner did not respond.
“Por favor,” she muttered.
“Angus, I’m coming to help you control your dog. If you don’t need my help come out now where I can see you. Angus?” Kuttner did not wait for an answer. Pulling out his gun and chambering a round, he stepped deeper into the woods. Bethany, in the lamplight on the walk, lost sight of him.
A cold shiver passed through Bethany as Mireille’s whispered voice returned. Ma chéri, run away. Just run, now. You can’t help him, either of them. My sweet chéri, leave him while you can.
“I can’t. He needs me.” Bethany thought she heard a crystalline sob as Mireille faded away.
Bethany bit her lip. She saw the glow of the cop’s flashlight here and there among the trees, heard his heavy footsteps in the leaf litter. She stared into the shadows. Her eyes watered and she squeezed them shut. Tears curled down her cheeks.
The cop called out once…a second time.
Bethany heard a thing big and fast crash through the brush. She held her breath.
She heard the thing slam against what could only be the cop. A grunt ended with a garbled cough, a gurgle cut short like a hose severed.
In the dark a heavy thing crashed into the leaf litter. Dog growled. Bethany gasped.
It would not be rabbits or deer or some stray pet that satiated Dog tonight.
Things ripped, other things snapped. Bethany covered her ears, the dangling chain in her hand clinking as it swayed. Dog was such a messy eater.
She felt sorry for Officer Kuttner. But she was more grateful Angus would be safe, or would be as soon as they left this place. And that would have to be quickly.
Siren calls caught her attention, distant but each wail noticeably louder.
“Dog? Dog? Come to me…por favor. Rapido.”
She wiped her eyes with the back of a hand and waited. She knew what she’d soon have to do. And that, too, knotted her stomach.
The sounds of rending continued, all sharp and suckling wet. Things cracked, snapped like green twigs. Bethany wanted to cover her ears. She wanted to cry out. But she would not let herself do either. Staring straight ahead into the darkness, she absorbed the death song of the policeman like a hot wind on her face. Her hands trembled at her sides and the chain she held rattled, a subdued background dirge.
Each second crawled like a cripple on a Dehli street. Anxiety swelled, a hard, sharp tumor in her stomach.
“Dog! We have to go!” Bethany said in a forced whisper. She willed herself to stay calm. “They’re coming, more policia.” Without leaving the pool of lamplight Bethany stepped closer to the dark wall of foliage. “Please. We’ve got to go pronto, before they get here. Dog! Angus! Por favor!”
The remorseless rending stopped with a guttural huff and for a moment all Bethany heard was the disapproving chatter of the trees as the wind rushed to leave the park. A long and slow growl wove its way from the darkness. Instinctively, Bethany stepped back to the center of the light, back pressed against the lamppost.
Heavy footsteps troubled the leaf litter behind the foliage, which began to shake then part. Bethany gasped as a chill sprinted down her back. Even after two years, fear punched her every time Dog appeared.
A short leap from Bethany, Dog strode from the darkness on long, disproportionate limbs. Oil-black flanks heaved. Blood and gobbets of flesh greased the fur of his short-muzzled head, bulky front legs and wide chest. Flecks of blood spattered his sides and sloped back. Bethany saw bits of poor Officer Kuttner on Dog’s thick hind legs, which were shorter than his forelimbs.
Dog growled a deep, garbled threat. The beast was still there, burning in his glowering eyes. Dog wanted more, the fury that drove it not yet spent.
Reflected glow from the lamp darted and flared in his eyes as Dog scanned his surroundings before targeting Bethany. Each breath it made a loud and rapid huff from a gapped mouth. Dog swept his long tongue across fangs shaped like slaughterhouse knives. Red droplets fell from Dog’s lower jaw, strands of raw meat clung to his teeth.
When the beast was still with Angus, Bethany was terrified. Impulse wanted her to scream, to run away. But she could not. She could not leave him like this, unprotected. She stood still, throat constricted, stomach churning. She felt the need to wet herself and refused to let it happen. She waited for fear to wane so she could move again.
Slowly, Bethany raised her arms shoulder high, holding the collar and chain in her palms. Her hands shook and the chain chimed. She stared into the fire-flicked eyes of her father, confronting the beast that consumed him.
“Dog. You remember me, don’t you? Angus? We must go. Come to me, por favor. I won’t hurt you. You know that. We have to go.”
Black lips curled from those wicked teeth. Dog growled, his body tense and trembling.
Bethany swallowed hard. This moment was the worst of it for her. Would he lose all control tonight?
He will never hurt me. Dog—Angus will not hurt me. Bethany hoped that was true.
Dog stepped closer. As much as instinct told her to flee Bethany dared not move or Dog would react. She knew how fast he could react.
The approaching sirens—Bethany guessed she had less than three minutes.
Bethany strained to keep her voice soothing, each word a struggle forced from her dry throat as she stared into that wild animal’s gore-smeared face. Experience taught her that staying calm herself would calm Dog out of his frenzy and let Angus wrest control again. “Dog, listen. Angus, you remember me. Bethany. I love you, Dog. You don’t want to harm me. And you love me back, Dog. You remember, Angus. I’m Bethany. I love you. I take care of you.”
He strode toward her. Wide paws each carried five curved claws, black as ebony. He walked on the knuckles of his front paws, talons protected. Dog growled, softer now but still threatening. Bethany’s knees felt weak but she would not move.
This was ritual, the way he returned. It only seemed as if he would kill her with a single swipe of a massive, bladed paw, Bethany told herself. He won’t. Dog stood in front of her now, snout to nose, the beast still in control. He reeked of blood and offal.
This was the moment…. Bethany held her breath, but did not shift her eyes away from his burning gaze. “Angus,” she whispered. In his widened eyes she saw the blood lust flare accompanied by a throaty growl. Then it flickered and with a gruntish huff, the wild beast was gone from those dark eyes. She glimpsed Angus staring back at her. His eyelids drooped, his breathing slowed.
Dog licked her face. Gently, Bethany stroked Dog’s thick neck. He tilted his head to maximize her touch. She ignored the sticky goo that mottled his fur.
Gently she slipped the collar over Dog’s head and slowly tightened it. With an unguent voice, she said, “You’re tired. Come with me. It’s time to rest.”
Bethany gave an easy tug on the chain leash and she led him from the lamppost, north away from the flashing lights on the cop’s car in the lot behind them. Within a few steps they were trotting. They left the walkway and crossed a mowed field. The smell of damp clipped grass still lingered. Bethany liked the aroma. It smelled of happier days, memories of camping with her parents that seemed so old and far away now. She had to work hard to remember them.
The sirens filled the air, only blocks away. Bethany tugged on the leash and ran.
They reached the car, an old Cadillac, parked on a dark street that edged the park’s baseball diamond. Across the street, houses with little market appeal were empty of light except one, where a thin glow emanated from deep within a dark window, flicking like a tiny flame.
Bethany pulled keys from her jacket pocket and unlocked the car, opening both front and rear door.
“Entramos, Dog,” she said with a series of tongue clicks.
She guided the creature with the leash until it climbed into the car, its bulk filling the back bench seat. A thick plastic sheet covered the flat space beneath the rear window, draped over the bench, across the floor, and up the backside of the front cushioned bench.
The sirens screamed. They must be in the park now, Bethany guessed. “Rapido!” she whispered.
Dog clumsily circled in the narrow space and plopped down on the seat. He began cleaning himself, his long tongue lapping up blood and gore from the fur on the backs of his paws, jaws snapping as he ate remnant bits of flesh.
Moving rapidly, Bethany latched the chain leash to an eye bolt in the floor beneath the door, strong enough to remind Dog to stay put. Bethany knew it was no way secured enough to stop Dog whenever he really wanted to leave the back seat.
Bethany shut the back door and slid across the front bench pulling the door closed behind her. She pulled the key from her jacket pocket and engaged the engine, not revving it too much to avoid attention. With a deep breath, Bethany steered the car away from the curb. At the corner, she waited for a couple cars to pass and turned onto Main Street. She drove at a cautious twenty-five miles an hour headed north up a long hill and out of town.
Some distance behind them more sirens cried and Bethany assumed they were gathering at the park. She nudged the accelerator and the car’s speed crept up to thirty, which she maintained until they passed the city limits and she allowed the speedometer needle to climb.
Something touched her shoulder. Bethany reached up and patted Dog’s paw, still soggy from a tongue cleaning. “Love you, too,” she said as Dog’s hot, moist breath broke against the back of her neck, raising gooseflesh.
She felt the tip of his tongue flick against her ear. Bethany giggled and patted Dog’s paw again, feeling the hard claws against the palm of her hand. “Go to sleep. I’ve got to watch the road. It’s over for tonight. You rest now, Angus. Let me drive in peace, you hear?”
“Beh-nee.” The sound was more an exhalation than word, yet Bethany found it reassuring. Angus was taking back control. The Dog relapse was ebbing and her father would return to her soon. The tightness in her stomach began to unwind.
In a few hours, she could be the kid again and Angus would take care of her for the next few weeks. That was the routine she had grown used to. Expectation buoyed hope and held weariness at bay as Bethany focused on the road ahead. She let the past few minutes evaporate from her mind. Mostly they did, although the sounds of rending flesh, growls and snapping jaws lingered in her mind like echos in a canyon. She hummed a long-remembered song to mask the memory.
From the back seat Bethany heard deep and slow breathing. Dog was asleep. She allowed herself to cautiously relax.
The night swallowed the Cadillac as Bethany followed the tunnel etched by the headlamps out on some county road beneath a crescent moon, white like the lopsided smile of a movie star.
She let the Caddie’s speed creep up to fifty-five. They headed north between fields of stoic corn stalks, wide leaves waving fare thee well as they passed.
Bethany heard her mother’s sweet voice sing with her, comfort her. Whether it was real or just a memory did not matter. Mireille stayed with her daughter all the long hours as Bethany drove her family away to safety.
Lt. Joel Kuttner shouldered past the first uniform who tried to stop him. He pushed aside a second who attempted to slow his trajectory up the hillock where a knot of people milled around a lamppost at its crown. A fiery glare stopped a sputtering sheriff’s deputy from even attempting to detain him. Others stepped aside, conceding the detective’s dominance and let him pass. A few tried to speak to him, but Kuttner never slowed to acknowledge the mumbled attempts. The sadness and confusion he saw in their eyes just enflamed Kuttner’s rage.
At the edge of the lamp light Police Chief Frank Bausch stepped into his path, a narrow man with an immovable wall of authority. Kuttner stopped.
“Don’t do this,” Bausch said. He placed a palm on Kuttner’s denim shirt. “You don’t….” He shook his head, a sadness deeply engraved on his face. “You don’t want to see him like this. I don’t want to see him like this.”
“Where is he?”
“Don’t, Frank. He’s my little brother. I can’t…no…I won’t leave—just let me through. Where is he?”
Bausch’s long fingers curled into his shirt, Kuttner felt more resistance in his boss’ arm, a futile display that stoked Kuttner’s anger. Bausch was ten years older, a good four inches shorter, fifty pounds lighter. Kuttner stared into Bausch’s eyes, red and puffy from a night’s sleep abruptly ended.
“You being here won’t do any good,” Bausch said. “Not for you. It can’t help Jonny. I’m so sorry, Joel. There’s nothing you can do here. We’ll take care of him. Go home before you do something stupid.” Bausch waited for a reaction. Kuttner did not move. “It was quick,” the chief said. “I can tell you that. My God, it had to be quick. He, he did not suffer.”
Kuttner stepped back and Bausch released his shirt. Abruptly, the rage drained from his soul. Kuttner covered his face with his hands. He turned away from Bausch, sniffed, and wiped his face, not wanting anyone to see the pain he felt, the agony. He waited for anger to retake control of his emotions, the fuel that kept him from falling to his knees and bawling like a baby.
He’s dead! My kid brother! Kuttner gulped for air, fought to compose himself, and turned back to face Bausch, anger again burned on his features.
This was Jonny’s first week alone on patrol. Doing the routine stuff every rookie started out with in this small town, the stuff least likely to turn dangerous—like patrolling the park after midnight. Kuttner had made sure dispatch mothered his little brother from afar with bits of advice, cautions from experience, and suggestions for appropriate action. He had hair-triggered dispatch to call in back up for Jonny at the slightest provocation. He had the whole department watching his little brother’s back. So much so that Jonny had complained to him yesterday about it. He said he could put up with the usual rookie hazing but he didn’t want any special treatment because his big brother was a department officer. It created harder-edged ridicule, Jonny said, hints of disrespect. He didn’t appreciate being coddled.
Kuttner didn’t care. He planned to talk to the rest of the patrol staff one by one to straighten things out. He was the big brother, the one who talked Jonny out of applying to a major metro department “where all the action was” and made sure Jonny got a job with the hometown department in Lake Cedars where the worst that ever happens was busting a few drug dealers. Kuttner knew what “all the action” meant. His little brother did not have to take chances like that. Kuttner had promised Mom and Dad he’d keep an eye out for their baby boy. He had. He did everything he could.
So what happened? What went wrong? What did I miss?
“I’ve got to see my brother, his body.” Kuttner looked around and noticed a trampled path from the walkway to the woods, heard activity coming from the same direction. He took a step toward the path and was stopped by Bausch’s hand on his arm. Instinct had Kuttner grabbing his boss’ wrist vise-like before he realized what he was doing. Kuttner held back from doing more but did not let go.
“It’s bad, Joel. You don’t want to see—remember him like this.”
“I have to see for myself.” Kuttner’s grip tightened on Bausch’s wrist. The chief winched. “Jonny’s my brother. I’m responsible for him. I won’t run and hide, if that’s what you think I should do.”
“I don’t want to have you restrained.”
“Step back, Joel. Please,” There was more plea than order in Bausch’s voice.
Bausch stared into Kuettner’s unblinking eyes for a moment. He lost the test of wills. Kuttner felt the tension in his boss’s arm dissipate and he released his grip on Bausch’s wrist, whose hand fell away from his detective’s arm.
Kuttner shook his head. “Look, Frank, I have to do this. I have to be with my brother, see him. How could I face Mom and Dad? How could I tell them he’s dead and I left him here without seeing for myself? They trusted me to take care of him. No. I have to do this.”
I never left anyone behind in Iraq. I damn well won’t leave my brother now.
Kuttner headed for the break in the thicket. Baush followed, waving off his officers. Kuttner ignored the momentary slaps from the brush and dogwoods until he entered a small clearing beneath a copse of birches. The air smelled like the back side of an old butcher shop.
The flash of a light disoriented him for a second before the sound of a man vomiting drew his attention. On the other side of the clearing, the medical examiner was turned away, bent over, hands on knees, emptying his stomach.
Another flash from a camera operated by a deputy medical examiner, who immediately turned, gulped air and looked to be struggling against emptying his own gut.
A portable lamp with tripod legs spilled white light into the clearing, raising garish black shadows from every curled leaf and semi-upright twig on the ground. A uniform, face pale, stood next to the floodlight, a hand on its thin upright, more to maintain his balance, it seemed, than to steady the lamp. Something large sprawled across the center of the clearing.
Kuttner stared at the splayed figure on the ground, unsure at first what he was looking at. The flood of white light painted everything in shades of grays and drained colors. It was only when he recognized the pair of police issued black boots that he was able to orient himself. From the boots, his eyes followed the lines of the pants legs to the belt, also department issued. He recognized the empty holster. Kuttner’s eyes widened. His stomach turned.
He had fought in Desert Storm, seen bodies charred, brutalized, exploded, been a cop for more than fifteen years, seen accident victims, murder victims, suicides. But he’d never seen anything like this. A violence was exposed here, a perverse brutality, a level of uncontrolled fury so insanely powerful Kuttner had nothing to compare it to, no way to comprehend it.
Above the belt was a maw, black shirt ripped open, protective vest shredded apart, torso gouged out, pulped organs scattered around the body, shiny yellow ribs pulled apart, one side lifted like a picket fence. The throat was gone. Kuttner saw vertebrae, which directed his sight to the body’s head. Face torn away, jaw gone, facial bones crushed.
He trembled. A hand touched his shoulder. It was Bausch. “I’m sorry,” the chief said. The words sounded as if they came from the far end of a cavern.
Kuttner was cold. He felt empty. Emotions flickered through him like panicked birds, fury, grief, sorrow, confusion. He tried to maintain a professional eye for detail, tried to view this grotesquerie as a crime scene, but found objectivity slipping away like a morning after campfire, flaring momentarily, gone the next.
“Maybe it’s not him, we can’t recognize…” His voice broke. “The body’s so torn up, he’s so torn up.” Kuttner’s words were church-service low. As he said it, he knew how lame it sounded. He recognized the impulse to deny. Same as every first reaction he’d ever heard from every family he’d ever been assigned to inform of a relative’s violent death.
Bausch’s grip tightened on his shoulder. “Joel, it’s Jonny. We found his badge, his gun—he still had it in his hand. Over there.”
Kuttner followed the police chief’s pointed finger to a bloody spot, dark as ink in the glare, staining the leaf litter a good six feet from the rest of the body.
“Jonny was patrolling the park tonight. He told dispatch he was here. It’s Jonny.”
Kuttner wanted to say something, ask questions, but his mouth didn’t want to work right. He felt his weakening limbs start to tremble. Bausch’s hand on his shoulder began to burn, like a lump of hot iron pressing him down. He looked around, saw everyone—felt everyone—staring at him. Kuttner tried to focus again on the scene, tried to do his job and realized he could no longer remember how. He wanted the rage to return. He felt hopeless without it. Rage would clear his head and focus him on what he should do next. But the rage was gone, submerged in an ocean of grief. He had to concentrate on locking his knees so he would not collapse.
Kuttner wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He turned and created his own path through the thicket, peripherally sensing the sting of striking branches cut into his cheeks, ignoring the pain.
Kuttner tripped on a root and staggered out of the brush not far from the lamp on the walkway. He kept his gaze on the grass at his feet, feeling the stares of the others upon him. He heard someone call his name not sure who it was. He ignored it and walked quickly into the darkness of the park. He kept walking until he found a fat old oak to lean against. Kuttner pressed his forehead against the deeply sundered bark. From nearby in the darkness he heard the nonsensical chatter of the tiny waterfall in the creek that drained through the park.
It took a moment. Kuttner looked around to see if anyone had followed him. Assured of his isolation, Kuttner allowed himself to cry out his anger. The sting of tears on the welts of his cheeks surprised him. Crying like a baby! But he could not stop them from flowing. Stop it! The rage returned all in a rush, his chest feeling like it would burst, and Kuttner howled into the night.
Bethany drove north through the early morning’s isolating darkness following a straight country road empty except for their Caddie and an occasional raccoon sighting. Random ugly sounds burst from the back seat as Dog slowly released Angus—bones contorted, flesh transfigured, sharp-edged moans, growls, groans, all lacquered with a high vibrato of pain. Bethany was grateful for the distraction of the noise. It kept her awake and alert through the hours she needed to concentrate on the road. The radio was busted.
At some point Bethany realized they had crossed the state line from Ohio into Michigan. She smiled, feeling she had succeeded in putting as many miles as she could between them and that poor cop in the park. She kept driving north.
Just before dawn Bethany saw a weathered wood sign next to a driveway, chipped painted lettering big and black above a red arrow.
CABINS & CAMP SITES
She turned onto the gravel and dirt drive—long and winding ruts bifurcated by a weedy strip—that led to a tired looking campground. She drove past a handful of campers and tents, most with fishing gear propped against them, and bypassed the small cabin labeled OFFICE and REGISTER HERE, parking in a vacant site in the woods a good distance from those minimal signs of civilization.
Angus was mostly human again, naked and hardly conscious. Bethany grunted as she pulled him from the back seat. She wrapped her father in a blanket and sat him on the ground beside the car. After fetching the cleaning gear from the trunk, she filled their red plastic bucket with water from a tiny creek that flowed nearby through the pine woods into a small lake. A fish splashed in the water near the shore. Pretty view, she thought, before getting back to work. It was the first of many trips for clean water.
Bethany pulled out the plastic sheet from the back seat of the car, flung it over the campsite’s wobbly, grayed wood picnic table and scrubbed it clean, dousing the sheet with a bucket of water. She let it dry while she bathed her father, who barely moved. His nakedness meant nothing to her anymore other than another piece of reality she could not control. As always, Angus mumbled things when she rewrapped the blanket around him. The words were thick and garbled. Bethany liked to think he kept saying thank you or I’m sorry.
Her chores mostly finished, Bethany returned the plastic sheet to the back seat and tucked the cleaning gear back in the truck. She helped her father dress in blue jeans and t-shirt, and guided him back to the Caddie’s back seat where he collapsed into a curled ball under the blanket and slept, as far as Bethany could tell, a dreamless, death-like sleep.
Windows rolled down to clear the car of Dog’s stink, she let herself doze in the front seat the few minutes until the gray morning light and her stomach reminded Bethany she had not eaten for most of a day. A damp breeze swirled the aromas of the pine woods through the Caddie.
Bethany gathered fallen pine cones and needles, dismembered branches, from around the campsite. She started a fire with a squirt of lighter fluid and a match as she had done many times before over these past two years. The evergreen sheddings flamed eagerly.
From the car truck Bethany dug from a tattered cardboard box a plastic jar of chunky peanut butter, a black-speckled banana, and a bright yellow plastic knife. Her fingertips playing across the knife’s serrated edge. She placed the jar and banana on the site’s gray weathered picnic table, the plastic knife laid across the jar’s red screw cap. Humming a tune Mireille used to sing to her, Bethany sat on the rickety picnic table’s bench beside the fire pit, an old tire rim, outer surface rust-encrusted, the inside mostly coated thickly in soot.
Stripping bark from a long thin stick, she waited for a good portion of the burning wood to crumble into glowing embers. Bethany impaled a slice of Wonder Bread on the greenwood stick and held the bread slice inches above the wavering red embers that now encircled the gyrating flames at the core of the fire ring.
She heard the car door creak open but did not look up, concentrating on toasting the bread. Toasting bread over a campfire was an art, Mireille taught her, requiring patience and a watchful eye or it would burn. Peripherally, Bethany saw Angus slathered with fever sweat slide out of the back seat and stand on wobbly legs.
The loose-limbed table swayed and creaked with each minor move as Bethany turned the bread slice on a stick, expertly assuring it browned but did not burn.
Angus staggered to a tree a few yards behind the picnic table and threw up.
Today was—Bethany did a quick calculation as she looked up at the morning sky—Tuesday and it looked like it was going to be a lovely day. She returned her attention to the bread slice on the stick. Bethany loved toasted peanut butter and banana sandwiches in the morning. Anticipation for her breakfast made her smile.
Angus continued to retch like a bulimic on the far side of a twin-trunked pine, hunched over, groaning, and puking out the raw and bloody contents of his stomach. Bethany thought of other things to block out the wretched noise. There was nothing more she could do for her father. This was how the fever passed.
“I’m sorry, Angus,” Bethany said. “I’m sorry what happened last night. We shouldn’t—”
“Not...y’...fault,” Angus gasped. “He shouldn’t...have been there. Left us alone. His...bad luck.” He retched again.
“I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have stopped there. Not in a park, not near people. I didn’t think it through straight. You were changing so fast—I couldn’t wait. I should have thought it through more.”
“Not...your fault, sweetie. Don’t think...about it anymore.”
His advice did not help Bethany feel any better.
The campfire chased away the morning’s chill. Its smell mingled with the morning damp, another favored thing for Bethany. It helped her remember past campsites, the ones before Angus got sick and Mireille was still with them. When they hiked the pampas of Argentina, each morning they’d drink yerba mate—“MAH-teh;” Bethany liked the sound of the word and always said it out loud, “MAH-teh”—each with their own silver bombilla straw, from a shared calabash gourd Mom carefully cleaned and stored for their long hikes to the foothills of the Andes. Angus sold the calabash gourd, the bombillas, what was left of their yerba mate, and all their camping gear to raise the money they needed to pay their way on a freighter from Buenos Aires back to the States.
Bethany missed those morning yerba mates. She tried not to think about that freighter trip back to the States. She shivered.
Besides, the thick, piney smoke from the campfire masked the stench of Augus’ vomitus.
He’s getting worse, ma chéri. The whisper seemed to waft around Bethany on a languid wisp of wind. Dog comes more often and is more violent each time.
“I know,” Bethany answered, staring into the fire, which responded with a puff of sparks and a cackle as glowing char tumbling apart. Bethany made no effort to look for the whisperer. Bethany was used to the disembodied voice, enjoyed the company of her mother, brief as it always was. Mireille spoke to her when she could, coming and going like a puff of summer breeze.
Not that morning, though. She was tired, so very tired, and there were too many things on her mind. The whisper was only an unwanted distraction. Bethany had to care for Angus until he recovered. She had to focus on that. Things would be fine—he would be fine again—if she just took care of her dad.
The sickness followed every time the beast overpowered Angus, consuming him more often these past few months than ever before. Bethany had lost count. Two years ago the change came every six weeks or so. Lately though, these past three months, it was more like every three weeks. In a way, the wretchedness of each morning-after sickness was a relief, not for Angus but for her. The sickness marked the end of an attack and meant Angus would be free of Dog for another few weeks. Meant Bethany could stop being afraid again for a little while.
She was tired to the marrow. Still, Bethany would not let herself sleep, not just yet. Not until Angus purged Dog completely. She was glad for her father that recovering from each Dog attack no longer lasted as long as it once had, hours now instead of days.
Her mood lightened as she watched the flames eat away at the twigs and branches. It wouldn’t be long now and Bethany could relax and stop worrying about her father. Not long at all now and Angus would be able to take care of her again. That thought made her smile as she watched the bread brown. Careful now, she thought, don’t let it burn.
Behind her, Angus coughed raggedly and spit, sure sign the retching was done.
Her toast nicely done, Bethany pulled it from the fire. She heard footsteps crunch on the gravel road behind her. Gingerly, she tugged the hot bread off the stick as she pivoted with a wobbly squeak of the picnic table to see who was coming.
A lean man older than Angus, wearing khaki shorts, a yellow pullover shirt with a bright red pine cone logo, and hiking boots stopped next to the Cadillac. A red “Carl” was stitched on the shirt under the pine cone. His bald head was as tanned as his muscled arms, which sported more gray hair than the close-cropped patch that horseshoed around the sides and back of his head. He carried a clipboard with papers fluttering in the breeze.
“Good morning,” Bethany said as brightly as she could.
The man squinted as he first studied their dusty car specked with yellow and green insect remains, then Bethany, then the campfire. He even studied the open jar of peanut butter and the banana on the picnic table His expression reminded her of the time she tasted lemonade before Angus added the sugar.
Bethany slowly spread peanut butter on her toast. “Morning, Carl,” she said with her automatic smile as theatrically false as any seen on a premiere’s red carpet. Be careful what you say.
Carl glanced down at his shirt. “Just ’cause you know my name don’t make you familiar to me. Not at all,” he said. Then he growled, “Most people have the courtesy to stop up at the office and pay before they squat on one of my campsites.”
Bethany placed the toast on top of the jar, picked up the banana, and began peeling it. “Sorry ’bout that. We got here really, really late. My Dad was feeling poorly.”
Carl glared at Angus.
“We didn’t want to wake people, honest. We can pay you now—Mister Carl.”
“Uh-huh. Don’t matter the time, I was around. I live here.”
Bethany stretched her smile a little wider. “Sorry, sir. We didn’t know that. We didn’t want to trouble anybody that late.”
Angus coughed as he stepped from behind the split tree wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Howdy, sir. Looking like it’s going to be a fine day, don’t it.” He leaned against the trunk to hide his unsteady legs. He looked awful, Bethany thought, pale and drawn, the skin around his eyes dark and pasty.
“Uh-huh.” The man’s tongue stretched a cheek. “You don’t look too good to me, mister. Rough night, eh? You want to go to a clinic? I can give you directions.”
Angus smiled and waved a hand. “No. Just a touch of flu. Terrible way to start a camping trip with your daughter.” He tried to laugh. “I’ll be fine. Just need a little coffee in me.”
Bethany finished slicing the banana onto her peanut butter toast, regretting it was now cold. She reached into a pocket of her jacket and pulled out Angus’s wallet. “We can pay for last night. How much is it?”
Carl’s tongue switched cheeks. He eyed Angus, whose smile was as theatrically false as Bethany’s.
“Forty bucks for the night—and another forty for not registering proper.” The old man glared at them, a challenge, his head pivoting from one to the other. “Them’s the rules.”
Angus’ fake grin wavered. “Man, that’s pretty steep.” He coughed hoarsely.
“I’m not arguing.” The old man pulled a cell phone from a back pocket of his khakis and held it up. “You’re trespassing if you don’t pay, understand? That’s stealing from me. I got nine-one-one on speed dial. I got the right to charge what I want.”
Angus coughed again. He leaned over, hands on knees as he noisily cleared his throat, turning to expel a rust-red gob risen from his gullet.
Bethany stood, pulling twenties out of the wallet. “No problem, Carl, sir. Here you go.” She walked to the man, outstretched hand holding the bills.
The old man studied the money for a few seconds before taking the eighty dollars. “Uh huh. Check out time is ten o’clock. I want you packed up and out of here by then, got it? No trouble, understand?” He held up the phone again. “The Sheriff gets deputies here in under five minutes. Know what I’m saying? No trouble, hear? This ain’t no homeless shelter for drifters like you.”
Coughing fit finished, Angus stood as tall as he could, taller than Bethany remembered, one hand propped against the tree for balance. As muscular as Carl looked, Angus’s arms bulged like footballs in his tight t-shirt. “No trouble.” Angus swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. He tried to smile. “Hey, sir, before we go. You got any odd jobs I could do for you? Maybe work off some of that eighty bucks, maybe make a few dollars. Need firewood split, a fence mended, loose roof shingles? Anything like that. Huh, how about it? I’m pretty good with my hands.”
“Uh-huh.” The old man squinted as he studied Angus, whose pale skin was tinged with green, a shade of dried moss. “Ten o’clock. Be out of here. You just go on your way and I’ll mind my own business. No trouble, eh? Understand?”
The smile disappeared from Angus’s face. He reared up to his full height and glared at the old man.
Anger compounded in her father. Bethany could see it in his tightening neck, the flexing of his arms, the curl of his fingers. She heard a faint gurgle of a growl rise in his throat.
Bethany saw that Carl was taken aback. “I want no trouble,” he said, raising his hand to display the cellphone.
Bethany held out her hand. “Nice meeting you, sir, Carl. Thanks for letting us spend the night. We’ll be moving on. Sorry about the misunderstanding.” Her smile was as big as she could make it, her hand poised to receive his. “Have a nice day.”
Carl studied Bethany’s face, then her open hand. He clasped it—his hand hard as sun-dried clay—shook once and let go. “Uh-huh. I expect you gone in an hour.” He turned and headed down the road with a crunch-crunch-crunch of gravel beneath his boots.
Angus glared at Angus’s back. His taut body told Bethany the anger had not dissipated. She circled the campfire to him, touched his hand braced against the tree.
“Some people just aren’t friendly. Not like us, huh, Angus?” she said, “His loss, right? We should get going, anyway.”
A shiver flowed down her father’s body. Angus cleared his throat and spit. The wildness in his eyes faded away. “Yeah, kiddo. Some people are like that, assholes.” A weak grin creased his face. “Not us, though. We’re gentle as a falling rain.”
Bethany patted his hand. “We got time. I’ll make coffee. You want toast for breakfast? I think there’s still one of those powdered doughnuts left. I’ll find it for you.” She took her father’s hand and began to lead him to the picnic table. “You sit. I’ll take care of everything and we’ll be out of here in plenty of time. You up to driving. I’m a bit beat. Okay? You up for that?”
“I will be.” Angus nodded and followed his daughter. The wobbly table groaned under his weight more than Bethany expected.