Jeff yawned at Allison through the storm door and scrubbed a hand over his shaggy salt and pepper locks. A mahogany bathrobe draped around his ex-jock physique, a body she adored and anticipated great delight in watching him whip back into its former glory.
“Am I bothering you?”
“Never,” he muttered, letting her in.
With the front door sealing off prying eyes, Allison tasted his stale mouth and gummy lips. “Have I ever mentioned how utterly dashing you are in the morning?”
“Sorry.” He yawned again. “Boudica kept going out all night. Driving me nuts. This is a nice wake-up call though.”
“Normally I wouldn’t risk dropping by. Today is extra special. I knew you’d be particularly happy to see me.”
“I’m already way past happy.” He drew her up against him.
A woman’s voice droned from the kitchen. “In. In. In.”
“‘Scuse me,” Jeff mumbled, sliding from her embrace.
Seconds later the back door squealed.
“Eat. Eat,” came the woman’s voice again, followed shortly by the can opener’s dutiful grind. “Eat. Eat,” the voice repeated in lifeless monotone as blobs of wetness sucked loose and splattered.
Allison strolled into the living room to wait, senses tingling from this, her first time inside the Lang residence, though her second actual visit. Six months ago, she’d dropped off contract originals for Jeff’s records–a cordial, professional, totally innocuous appointment, at least to any prying eyes watching at the time. Now the house wove an enticing tale through her casual observations. She absorbed impressions like a thirsty sponge slurping up a puddle.
Dust and dirt accumulated on every available surface–the sign of a mind too preoccupied with matters far beyond mundane concerns like basic house cleaning. Books, magazines and papers lay sprawled, several of the latter bearing the logo of her company and some of those were adorned with hasty scribbles and crossed-out notes. Unopened mail peeked like Easter eggs nestled in stray places: between empty beer bottles, atop grease-stained pizza boxes, on the marble coffee table, beside the Sony plasma, amidst scattered throw pillows and the occasional sock. Allison drank in the trappings of a life she knew to be normally quite tidy and efficient, now screeched to a crawl in a tight holding pattern.
And she approved.
“Sorry I didn’t clean up.” Jeff shuffled in, this time bearing a cheery grin for her instead of a yawn.
“Your maid needs a pep talk.”
“Or maybe a pink slip–wait a minute–I guess that would be me. Anyway, where were–”
The phone whistled, snatching away his smile.
Jeff palmed the handset. “Hello? Who? Lieutenant Fischer…” Twin furrows gouged into his brow. “It’s Saturday, right? You’ve got either really good news or very bad. So which is it?”
A fly’s pesky buzz escaped the handset, the only part of the detective’s report Allison overheard. Behind the whine lurked a paunchy middle-aged cop, a man that, five seconds upon meeting, she’d dismissed in summary order as seasoned but moronic; just another stereotypical male unable to break eye contact off a high-dollar pair of sculpted boobs. Unfortunately her one true dream–not to mention she, herself–remained unfulfilled until Fischer managed to just do his job. No more or less.
Which was really odd.
Here she stood silently cheering on the oafish turd that could actually stink up her whole life forever, should divine intervention somehow inspire the cop to overachieve. Not likely though. Fischer was that stupid.
“Oh my God!” Jeff choked.
Could it be? Heart thudding, Allison drifted over to him, mentally crossing her fingers as she did before every traumatic moment she faced.
“B-burned? Where?” A pause. “No… not where was the car burned. Where was it found? In Brownsville? But no sign of her. Uhhhmm… uhhh. Well, w-what do you think it means?”
She laid hands over his shoulders and began massaging the tense sinews wound tightly under the robe. His muscles rippled some, hinting of the hardness they longed for. Soon, apparently. Thank God the insufferable wait was nearly over.
“No, no. No! You’re wrong about that. I’m certain. She– Huh? P-p-probable homicide? No way. I don’t believe it. She’s just missing that’s all. Not even for that long. Only a few weeks. Little kids run away all the time and turn up much later, unharmed. My wife is very capable of taking care of herself. So, you’ll find her, right? I mean… alive?”
Martin Scorsese, eat your heart out.
Her hands drifted lower and discovered more rising tension, awaiting her touch. She obliged, stifling bubbles of joy brewing up the back of her throat. The annoying fly’s whine went forgotten.
“This is too much, Lieutenant. I’m sorry.” He sucked in deeply at her bolder groping. “I have to… I really need to go now. You’ll call if you learn anything else?”
She pressed up against his back, continuing her stroking. This was the second best news for them. The first still burned within her, itching to be shared.
“I understand. Goodbye, Lieutenant.” The phone beeped.
“They found the car?”
“Finally. Those idiots. I was beginning to think they couldn’t find the sun on a cloudless day. Cynthia’s now a ‘probable homicide’ and you are an evil vixen.”
A Border Collie trotted into the living room, licking its matted chops. Allison watched Boudica sit and stare, its ebony-tufted ears angling at them, two triangular radar dishes set atop twin marbles of shiny midnight. The collie froze in place, silent, looking like a taxidermist’s best work.
“Vixen? You call the woman, who’s going to make you filthy rich, names?”
He spun, snatching up her hands. “You got it through?”
“Let’s just say the policy is arranged, appropriately back-dated and clean. Upon Cynthia’s officially declared death, five hundred thousand goes to your daughter and absolutely zip to the poor, grieving widower. That should make a splendid looking headline if it ever showed up on CNN. Very magnanimous on your part too, I might add. Your daughter should lack nothing her last two years at Stanford and well afterwards.”
“Just how Cynthia would want it.”
“Too bad she wouldn’t much care for the five million that goes quietly to Geneva one month later.”
“No, but that’s how I want it.”
“We aim to please every customer.”
“Really? Here I thought I might be somewhat–what did you say?–extra special.”
“Play. Play.” A woman’s voice, matching the one in the kitchen, spoke from a small, white box on the coffee table.
“Not now, Boo,” Jeff said, bringing his lips to Allison’s. “So am I?”
“Not n… on second thought.” His grin spoke volumes. He tugged her toward the master suite. “Go ahead. Please me. We’ve got something to celebrate after all.”
“I can’t. I have appointments… clients to see, Jeff.”
“First the cop, now you. What’s this working on weekends shit? Besides, this particular client has a lot more he wants to share with you. In private.”
“We’re taking big risks, you know, the more time we spend together. I really should go.”
He stopped at the foot of the king-sized pedestal bed and fumbled open her top blouse button. “You’re worth the risk. Five million times over, actually.”
“Walk. Walk.” A white box on the dresser spoke. “Walk. Walk.”
Allison rolled her eyes. “Don’t you get sick of that?”
She inclined her head at the dresser.
“The Petalator? It’s just what Cynthia recorded during Boudica’s training. No biggie. I hardly notice it anymore.”
“You don’t notice a talking dog?”
“Boo doesn’t talk. Not really. She’s interpreted, somehow, through her collar. Brain waves associated with behavioral conditioning–crap like that.” He finished the blouse and started on her skirt. “Way too technical for me. Cynthia was pretty anxious to dive in, so I let her handle it all. But I gotta say, dealing with a five word doggy vocabulary or actually–” He looked at the ceiling, pondering. “Did she say something about Boo knowing six now? Right before….” He shook off the unpleasant thought. “Anyway, putting up with just a few unambiguous words instead of suffering any other doggy noises is a pretty sweet deal. Don’t you think?”
“Like that.” He waved his hand. “No guessing what Boo wants. Right?”
“But it’s her voice. Look, if we’re going to do this here, now, at least shut it off.”
He sighed. “Get in bed. I’ll mute the other stations and turn down this one.” He fiddled with the box on the dresser before leaving.
Allison discovered the still warm spot under the percale sheet and down comforter, a cozy present he’d unknowingly left her. A minute later the bedroom door clicked shut on just the two of them, Allison was happy to see. Jeff hung his robe beside her business suit and eagerly snuggled up to her. She hoped within her heart he’d be anxious for a few more kids, something they would start on in earnest once they got settled in Europe–something she begrudged Cynthia having done with him even just the one time.
Until then though, practice makes perfect.
“Walk,” came Cynthia’s soft flat voice.
His fingertips glided across her cheek, shadowed by his longing face. He shared a breathtaking kiss, the kind she’d become addicted to years ago in their first of many hotel encounters.
“It’s really annoying.”
“Think of it this way.” He propped up on one elbow and eyed her. “Maintaining status quo minimizes those risks you mentioned. It won’t be long. There’s the other half of the bottle in the garage waiting for Boo when this is all done and the cops don’t care anymore.”
“I mean right now. I can’t stand it.”
“What if Boo has to pee? It’s the only way she can tell me.”
“Then let the damn thing piss on the floor!”
Grimacing, he pinched the bridge of his nose before sliding toward the edge of the bed.
It was maddening, him enduring that voice daily until they could be together. Leftover photos and personal effects were one thing, but Cynthia had established a legitimate reason to keep uttering one-word demands of Jeff from morning till night. It was an infuriating, almost-perfect haunting. Down-right inspired. The damn woman must have had Nostradamus’ genes to have arranged it so. How could she have known? They’d taken every precaution.
Allison ground her teeth as Jeff seemed to slog his way over to the dresser.
Here she’d finally found him: The One. Mister Right, after years of hopeless Wrongs had paraded through her life. But her white knight was possessed–caught in a tenacious specter’s stranglehold.
She wanted Cynthia exorcised. Forever.
“Walk. Out. Out. Out.”
She squeezed her eyes tight. “SHUT UP, CYNTHIA!”
“O–” Cynthia’s voice died as Jeff reached for the Petalator.
He frowned and thumbed a button. “It’s off. Happy now?” Almost immediately, the button began blinking.
“What’s that light?”
“I muted the volume, not the dog.”
“It’s still talking?”
“Do you hear anything?”
A soft thump rattled the bedroom door. A light scratch followed.
“I thought you said the dog didn’t make other noises.”
“No, Boo! Go lay down.”
Multiple scratches raked the wood, banging it against the latch. Jeff stormed over.
“I… said… NO!” He yanked the door open.
A mass of fur sprung from the floor and smashed into his chest. As Jeff tumbled backward, Boudica’s muzzle clamped over his throat. Gurgling erupted from him before the pair hit the carpet. A sickly snap echoed in the room as Allison rolled away to the far side of the bed.
But he didn’t.
A five word vocabulary. Plus one… a new one.
She thought back to her arrival, the kitchen, the living room. Each succinct word replayed in Allison’s mind, expressed again in Cynthia’s lifeless voice. Frantic winking on the Petalator betrayed the sixth, as yet unheard, but easy enough to guess.
Keeping the bed between herself and the carnage, she stood on tiptoe and craned her neck in time to watch Jeff’s feet settle slowly back and grow still.
How wrong she’d been. Cynthia was no apparition; her vengeful form crouched mere feet away, all too real, all too ready, with the proper cues now provided, to exact retribution.
It was me, Allison sobbed with the realization. I told her to shut up. Jeff never would’ve. Mentally she crossed her fingers as she reached for the bed.
When the dog’s expected leap came, she jammed a pillow into the flailing teeth and ducked, flinging its speeding torso over her shoulder. It crashed somewhere behind her as she bolted past Jeff’s body and out of the bedroom. Naked, she ran to the front door, hurled it open and snatched at the storm door latch just as pain sizzled through her calf. She whirled and had time for one scream before the ripping, choking pressure stole it away and slammed her back into the glass.
The one time he’d met her, Lieutenant Raymond Fischer felt Allison Webber could straighten any man’s queer eye. From the tips of her lavender tinted toenails through the peaks of her perfect fake tits, the woman was built to ignite the male libido. Fischer’s pants shrank two sizes until he forced himself to stare at the shredded trachea and severed carotids that had spilled all their precious content onto the entryway berber carpet.
“What do you suppose set the dog off?” a detective video-recording the living room asked.
“How should I know?” Fischer replied. “Maybe it didn’t like the hubby poking the insurance lady.” He stood and let the stained sheet drape back over tarnished perfection. “Or maybe it suspected none of the policy money would be spent on doggy treats.”
A dusty, occasional table stood against the wall holding a pair of house keys and six recent 5×7 photos of a plain, chunky brunette kneeling, sitting and tussling with a Border Collie. Cynthia Lang might have been called pretty some time ago, but now her best photo asset would likely be summed up as a warm personality. Not that it would bother her regarding these images. The broad smiles she bore in the photos betrayed the immense happiness she shared with her animal companion. In all of the shots, the collie almost seemed to grin back at her. A true bonded pair. Living a dream.
Fischer cocked his head and listened to the sounds of crime scene processing about him. “Where’s the dog now?”
“Laundry room. Off the kitchen. Animal Control’s on its way.”
“Any troubles with it?”
“I’m gonna take a look.”
“Bad idea, Lieutenant, unless you’re wanting a new hole to breathe through.”
He nodded at the camera as he passed the detective. “Go shoot something.”
The laundry room door stood shut and silent. On the wall beside the door, a big oval button on the intercom flickered faster than a strobe light. Fischer frowned. His gloved finger stabbed the button.
“Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill,” a woman’s dull voice repeated nonstop.
Inside the laundry room, something stirred. Fischer drew his 9mm and held it at the ready as he twisted the knob. The door swung open. He snapped up the pistol.
“K– Out. Out. Out,” the intercom droned.
He glanced from the collie huddling on the blood-smeared tile to the gun to the voice emerging from the intercom, the box labeled Petalator. A thought struck him.
“Outside?” he asked.
The dog rose at the word and edged toward him. He eased back into the kitchen center, his index finger keeping a steady pressure on the trigger, ready to squeeze. Instead of leaping for his throat though, the animal angled over to the back door and waited.
“Out. Out,” the Petalator repeated.
Taking a deep breath, Fischer stretched out his free hand for the latch half a foot above the killer’s head.
The back door squealed. Nails clicked on the cedar deck. The collie took off around the pool, trotting away from the only square of immaculate turf set aside in the manicured landscape.
“Out. Kill. Out. Kill. Out. Ki….” The signal drifted out of range.
“Lieutenant, you okay in there?”
“Still breathing normally.”
“Who was talking?”
“Cynthia Lang, I think.” The collie circled back, slowing. “Hang on. She might have something else to say.”
In the garden the dog settled amidst a new bed of brilliant Gloriosa Daisies, looking like some black and white monument, stark and somber, floating within a pool of living gold rippled lightly by the hot summer breeze.
Thus the dream had ended. Not before Mrs. Lang had arranged her own unique, insurance policy though. He wished he knew how she’d pulled it off. Likely, the Petalator people would be very interested in knowing that too, he thought, glancing at the silent box while tired, old jokes came to mind about parrots cluing crime solutions.
The dog’s head sank and came to rest between two outstretched paws. Witness had become weapon of retribution as well as giver of the final epitaph. How fitting, particularly in this case. Try that with your parrot.
“Go find a shovel,” Fischer called, wondering, not for the first time, about true bonds between souls, human or otherwise.
In the micro-slices of free time permitted by his high-tech job, Todd Thorne tries to be a decent family man and a writer of dark, disturbing tales. Find more at http://toddthorne.com.