DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 17

In other news, a body that went missing during a homicide investigation in Warren has been found. The body was reported missing from a coroner van just after 1 a.m. Saturday morning, leaving only its containment bag behind. Police used K-9 units to track the body to a nearby lake this morning. The identity of the body has not been released. The Chief of the Warren police issued a statement:

“We are asking the community not to obstruct our investigations. My staff is aware of the distress caused by the presence of infected persons and we are doing everything in our power to keep our citizens safe. The infected individuals responsible for these heinous acts will be tracked down through the proper channels.”

Eight bodies were discovered Friday evening in and around the Shady Lakes apartment complex. The police believe that the murders originated in the apartment of Fred and Charlene Doogan. Both tenants are reported missing.

 

Chapter 17:

Another Man’s Treasure

Gator’s drive was coming to an end, turning onto the familiar Riggits Road. The isolated five-mile strip provided the perfect environment for deep contemplation amid the heart of the forest. It was there he felt the most clear-headed, and answers to difficult questions came easy. Riggits Road played a part in Gator deciding to join the army, to move north, to marry Char, and to keep his blood clean. Gator soon discovered that Riggits Road only worked when driving in the other direction. As the car ascended the hill, the splendor and majesty of the forest withered in the presence of his ancestral home.

The two-floor Victorian killed any thoughts of beauty. Even now he failed to recall its original color or the shape of its roof. All that came to mind was the exquisite home he might have lived in had his parents shown any interest in its upkeep. A free house in the woods and they still managed to squander it, thought Gator.

The home managed to retain one charm. Its secluded location assured privacy when such luxury could not be afforded. Tonight, Gator felt like he could afford anything. A few thousand could go a long way here. He clutched a pink duffel bag to his side as he parked on the gravel a few feet from the front door. He swung a white drawstring sac over his opposite shoulder before he climbed the porch steps. Keep your head on straight, and don’t play her game.

Gator knocked on the door. When there was no response he began to pound. I told her to be ready at four—unbelievable! The door creaked, stretching the chain bolt across a low-lit chasm.

“Is that girl with you?” said Frida.

Been married for over three years and she stills calls her ‘that girl’. “I told you on the phone, it’s just me.”

She closed the door to undo the bolt. When she let him inside she adjusted her glasses. “I saw the pink bag and thought maybe the plan had changed.  I’m always the last to know these things.”

“So if Charlene were here you wouldn’t let us in?”

“I’m not dressed for her.” She locked the door behind him. “I like your hair long; you can see its natural curl.”

“I’m shaving it soon.” Gator attempted to find a spot to rest his bags. His mother’s hoarding had encroached into the foyer. He scanned the waste that lined the floor. “I don’t see your luggage among the …what-have-you.”

She retreated to her seat at the kitchen table and lit a cigarette. “No, you don’t.” She took a puff. “Because I’m not going anywhere.”

I don’t have time for this! Gator waded through stacks of books and workout equipment to reach her bedroom.  He yanked opened each dresser drawer, hauling piles of clothes and forming a mound on her bed as she continued to speak.

“I’m not staying with Doreen. I remember the way she used to look at your father.”

“Then don’t stay with Doreen.”

“Or George. I know he has a guest room, but all those children running around, and his house smells like horse. He lives in the Lake Area. Why does it smell like horse?”

It’d be a change of pace from the smell of cat piss. “Then don’t stay with George.” Gator shoved the clothes pile into a splayed-open suitcase on the floor. “Stay anywhere you like, just not here.”

“But why, baby? You never tell me the whole story.”

You could watch it on the news if any of your TVs worked. Gator entered the kitchen with a pair of her shoes in each hand. “Which ones?”

“Those aren’t even mine.”

“Fuck this!” Gator whipped both pairs against her closet door. “Why do you keep shoes that aren’t yours!? Why do you keep any of this!?”

She sat quietly for a moment before pressing play on her remote. Her stereo came alive with Frank Sinatra’s I’ve Got You Under My Skin.

“There’s nothing wrong with my things.”

“None of this is good! I can’t even sit with you at the kitchen table there’s so much crap on the seats! You can’t even have people over in the living room. Look at this! Why is there a drawer of silverware just sitting on the coffee table? You know what that could do to Char.”

“You said it was just you,” said Frida. “Those are heirlooms, by the way. I thought it would be nice to polish them once in a while. They’re part of your inheritance.”

“Thanks to you they’re probably worth more than the fucking house at this point!”

“Don’t you talk to me like that! Lot of people aren’t entirely ‘good’, that doesn’t mean they get tossed out and destroyed. There’s still plenty of ‘good’ in here.”

“People and things aren’t the same, Mom.”

Frida tapped his hand with a smirk. “Whatever you say, baby.”

Gator left the room to finish her packing. Don’t let her get to you; just get her on that plane.

She called out to him from the kitchen. “You don’t need to tell me why, but I can probably guess—another doe-eyed girl at the asylum? What did you promise this one?”

She wasn’t doe-eyed; not like Char. She was just a child, barely out of high school. And maybe he did feel for her when she begged him to change her name in the MIR database. He liked “Sarina,” such a pretty name.

“I don’t work in an asylum!”

“You know, the looks that girl gives me are absolutely chilling.”

Gator stormed back into the kitchen. “What looks!?”

“You don’t see them, but I do. She’s …what’s the word?”

“You need to leave now to make your flight.”

“Treacherous. That’s a good word. Yes, I like that word for her.”

You should hear the word she likes for you. Gator handed her his car keys.

“What’s this?”

“I told you, I have to stay here.”

“So that’s it then? You think you can just force me out of my home, penniless, without any explanation? I swear all Doogan men are such bullies.”

Another poor choice of words, Mom. Gator handed her a roll of money the size of a double shot.

She winced at the bundle as it rested on her palm. “I thought we were done with ‘side work?’”

Gator let her believe he had fallen back into old habits, and she began to sob.

“What is it now?”

“You could have lied to me!” said Frida. “Feed me some story about how ‘everything will work out’ or that ‘you’re just helping friends!’ What kind of man walks around with rolls like this!?” She flung the cash at his chest. “Anything would be better than nothing! I’m used to the yelling, it’s when you get quiet that I know to worry!”

Sometimes quiet helps. Gator went back into her bedroom and returned with a handful of shoes that looked the cleanest. “Doreen will want to take you all over when you get there.”

Frida put out her cigarette in a coffee mug. “I’ll take the sneakers then.” She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. He placed her shoes by her chair and she slipped her feet into them without adjusting the laces. “There’s lamb in the fridge.”

Gator leaned over and hugged her from behind.

“You make everything so difficult, you know that?” said Frida. She tapped his arm and stood.

Gator wheeled her luggage out to the car. He waited by the car, gripping the case with both hands as she took her time on the steps. She popped the trunk from the driver’s seat, and he loaded the suitcase. All that was left was to say goodbye.

“When can I come back?” said Frida.

“Soon—I promise.”

“I’ll tell Doreen you said hello.” Frida turned on the ignition. “And I expect everything to still be here when I get back.” She motioned for him to come close, and he kissed her on the cheek. “Later, Gator.”

*****

The attic had shrunk since the last time he was home. His mother had accrued more “good” and he had to squeeze past worthless remnants of bad decisions. Gator sat on his old punching bag, resting his elbows on his knees. How did I let it get to this? thought Gator. They won’t quit until they get their money. He opened the duffel bag and sifted through the freshly printed bills, the sharp corners of the bound stacks scratched against his hands. It was power, unequivocal and plenty. Who could blame them?

The cash counted close to fifty grand. Who’d you put one over on, Sarina? The little pink duffel bag was all he found in her locker at the pound. Whoever murdered her must know I took it somehow.  He thought he had escaped them at the Bedlam complex, but they had found their way in and almost melted Dan’s face off. If they were willing to follow him to hell, then he would lead them to the one place he knew better than anyone.  It was his best chance to come out of this mess with a payday big enough to build a better life, with whom he would build that life was still unclear.

It wasn’t enough she let that boy fuck her, she blamed me for it, too! He had installed the manacles in their bedroom himself, but they were only built to restrain one person. When the moon had grown its brightest, all he could do was pray the chains would hold. When the transformation had subsided, Gator found them unconscious with Danny still inside her. The next morning, it took every ounce of energy not to beat that boy to death, his face aglow with that shit-eating grin.

“Fuck this!” Gator lifted the punching bag over his head and heaved it into a corner. He held it with one hand and unloaded body blows with the other. Dust escaped with each strike as his knuckles left flesh on the canvas. Soon the whole house echoed with cathartic growls.

Breathing heavy, Gator stared at the back of his shredded hand. He wanted to believe Char when she said it was all beyond her control, but it did nothing to squelch his doubts. I know there’s a part of her that let it happen. She couldn’t even look me in the eye when she cussed me out. Whatever the case, the deed was done, and he had more pressing matters that evening. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and focus. They’ll be at your door soon.

They would find it unlocked, like so many other rural homes in southern Illinois. There were six last time, thought Gator. They’ll send more, and with better weapons. He had sold most of the spoils from their last encounter, keeping the desert eagle in his drawstring sac for protection. He could only imagine what firepower they would bring this time around. He took the opportunity to prepare for the impending siege.

Gator slid his fingers underneath a loose floorboard behind a stack of lawn chairs. He pulled back to reveal a rusted metal box. Inside was a collection of hockey pucks sandwiched between trading cards, each with smudged signatures of International Hockey League players. Collecting crap must be genetic. He set them aside and dug deeper. Beneath the pucks hid a tiny green beanbag in the shape of a gator. He brushed the dust off the plush fabric and polished its bead eyes with his thumb. I was saving you for my first-born. He went to set it aside with the pucks, but stuffed it down his back pocket instead.

As the last bit of sun faded into the forest, Gator watched cars on the highway with binoculars. None so much as slowed down. Maybe I gave them too much credit. His pursuers may have gotten lucky with the rot powder. He began to think that night would be much quieter than he originally believed. His hope crumbled at the sight of headlights speeding up the hill on Riggits Road.

They rocked along in a cloud of dust and pebbles, approaching in a white van with tinted windows. He fed the last of his seven rounds into his extra magazine and tucked it down his front pocket. He removed his boots before descending the stairs to welcome his guests.

*****

Gator watched them from the front window. They appeared more organized than the hunters at Warren. They parked their van among the trees before advancing the rest of the way on foot. Eight armed hunters split into two groups of four. The first group moved towards the back of the house. They would find a padlock and an oak pantry waiting to slow them down.

The second group entered through the front. They were lead by a rotund figure that ordered them to sweep the area, their movements precise and agonizing. Gator hid amongst the dark shapes that cluttered the house and observed the hunters’ fear with each quaking step. He waited for the most imposing figure to step within a foot of the stereo before pressing play on the remote. Sinatra blared on max volume. The leader panicked and shot his man in the stomach.

The leader ordered his remaining two men to unplug the speakers as the first group began to hack away at the back door. Gator saw his opening to circle around to the foyer. From the corner, he had a clear view of the all three hunters and the quickly eroding back door. He put his shoulder into a grandfather clock and tipped it onto the leader, crushing him underneath. He leveled his magnum with both hands and opened fire on the underlings. The force of the .50 cal caught Gator by surprise as the shots ruptured their bodies apart. It almost brought a smile to his face, but he was thankful he could not see the aftermath.

Four more charged in from the kitchen. They exchanged fire. Bullets whirred into stacks of paper and trash bags. Gator found cover behind a sofa. He attempted to blind fire with one hand and almost dislocated his wrist. He clenched it, listening to the hunters reload. He also heard the sound of motorcycle engines roaring in the distance. Bedlam!? Here!? He looked out his window to find six headlights barreling towards his home. He didn’t recognize the riders—young ones; big ones.

A flurry of bullets ripped across the front of the house. Glass spewed across the furniture and bodies. The surviving hunters crouched to avoid the assault. The screeching of the motorcycles veered east, unleashing another volley. Dust plumes swirled in the radiance of the headlights as the bikes went silent. Gator crawled along the hardwood and rubble, his arms bloody from splinters left by the obliterated furniture. He never thought they would come all this way for him, and he regretted selling off the last of his silver bullets.

The Bedlam burst through the door and were met with gunfire. One biker grabbed a hunter by the throat and lifted him off his feet. The biker held him to the light before another figure unloaded his rifle into hunter and wolf alike. They’re killing my leads! Gator scanned the floor for survivors. He found one wide-eyed and trembling underneath the coffee table. Gator dove behind him, pressing one hand to the hunter’s mouth and the other hand against his jugular. He could feel the hunter’s pulse racing against his fingertips, his warm breath venting between his fingers. “I need one of you alive, just stay quiet.” They watched the bikers walk past; their boots crunched against the debris of Gator’s inheritance.

Gator looked up and spotted another hunter staring back at him from underneath a desk. The hunter shook as he pulled the hammer of his gun back with his thumb. It clicked into place, and the Bedlam were soon upon him. They bashed his head with the butt of an AK47 and took turns stomping the body into mush. The scuffle distracted the bikers long enough for Gator to reach for a silver fork from the set on the table. He whispered to his hostage not to run, but he didn’t listen.

The hostage’s body fell to the ground riddled with shots.

There were three wolves left. The floor creaked with every step, and one began to sniff the air.

“Hello, Dog Catcher,” said a deep voice. “We’re going to find you. Why don’t you make it easy on everyone and say hello?”

Howard has Jonas leading attack parties now?

“Char’s getting awfully big these days,” said Jonas. “Didn’t know you started lettin’ other guys have your woman. I’m hurt you didn’t say somethin’ sooner.”

Gator began to chuckle. “Is that Little Jonas? Congratulations on the promotion.”

“I’m movin’ up in the world,” said Jonas. “It’s easy when you kill off all my competition.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about that, Jo.”

“Police say otherwise. We know you brought in the rot powder.”

“You’re starting to believe police officers now?”

“No, but Howard sure seems convinced. He wants to cut a deal. He’ll look the other way on the rot powder if you agree to turn wolf.”

“How many times do I have to tell you people no?”

“Just crawl out from under there and come with us. We know you ain’t packin’ silver.”

“You don’t know what I’m packing.” Gator looked past the bikers’ boots to find the last hunter crawling for the door. “You fellas know there’s another hunter behind you?”

The hunter froze.

“It’s funny how desperation smells so much like cat piss,” said Jonas.

“You better turn around, he has his gun drawn.”

The hunter rolled onto his back and aimed his silver rifle.

“Enough games, Dog Catcher. Let’s go for a ride.”

As Jonas approached, the last hunter blasted the other two bikers. Jonas turned to see where the shots came from and emptied his assault rifle into their killer.

Gator rolled out from under the table and planted a bullet in Jonas’s chest. The impact knocked the wolf to the ground. Gator jumped to his feet and sprinted at him. He grabbed a fistful of hair with one hand and plunged the silver fork repeatedly into the biker’s stomach. He shouted with each stab. “I! DON’T! HAVE! TIME! FOR! THIS!!!” With a final thrust, Gator lodged the fork into Jonas’s eye socket.

Gator staggered to the only available seat in the kitchen. The night had been a complete failure. He had survived only to learn nothing about his pursuers. He was no closer to being free and the number of places he could hide were dwindling. Worst of all, he missed his wife. I should have just told her everything when I had the chance. Now she thinks I’m a monster. He pulled out the bean bag gator and dusted off the broken glass. “Now what, little guy?”

“Get me out of here!” said a voice.

Gator walked back into the living room to discover the rotund leader of the hunting party alive—pinned underneath the grandfather clock.

“Please…help me!” said the leader.

“Tell me who sent you.”

The leader grimaced and didn’t say a word.

“I can wait,” said Gator. “And by the looks of things, you have all the time in the world.”

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