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Softened in the Blood of Angels

sequel to: http://www.amazon.com/Hatful-Pain-Craig-Burton/dp/1561674702/ref=la_B001K8RB2Q_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1383135089&sr=1-1

Softened in the Blood of Angels ©
Happiness. Expect Delays.

by Craig D. Burton


Chapter 1

My iPhone rings. I am not amused. This is not my favorite way to wake up.

My terrier-sheepdog mutt, Hoover, stretches across the center of the bed. An area that I don't recall freely vacating.

"Please ignore the ringing," my left brain logically urges. "The call must be from a stranger." My friends all know that I am to be awakened only in cases of Biblical flooding, a plague of locusts, or a warm breakfast. "But who is calling me?" My curious right brain asks. I open one eye. Blackness. My bedroom is either pitch dark or my left brain has blocked the right brain's "open eye" command. Logic can be so overbearing.

I sit up. My left brain panics and turns on me swiftly, as it often does, and warns me that any further physical activity would constitute scientific proof of reincarnation – because nobody can become completely stupid in just one lifetime. I lower my bare feet onto the cold tile floor and lean over the nightstand.

Although my eyes seem to move in random directions I manage to focus on the iPhone's screen. I tap "answer".

"You awake?" Ann asks, her voice soft.

I yawn. "Not yet."

She laughs a sort of little baby snort. Her laughter is my favorite music. "Good morning," she says.

Morning? I blink at the screen. Indeed. 6:03, Tuesday, November 12.

Outside my suburban Boston home, a car alarm goes off. It sounds like mine. "Morning," I say, not willing to concede that it's "good".

"Sorry. Normally you're awake at six."

The concept of time is just now registering. In the two days since the switch to daylight savings I have gained one hour of trying to figure out what time it is, of searching for technical manuals, and of trying to figure out how to reset my clocks. Not to mention that it threw off my bio-rhythms, and yesterday I jogged into a bush.

I stretch but feel as if I haven't stretched. "The sandman under-sanded me last night."

"You didn't sleep well?"

"No. I made a few mistakes."

"Funny," she laughs, but now her voice turns fiery. "That is what I want you to teach me."

I've dodged this discussion for over six months. How can I tell her that as one approaches the age of thirty, learning curves begin to look like learning walls? I follow the enlightened advice of the shrewd wise man who once said nothing.

There is silence except for the sound of a maple tree rustling its branches against my bedroom window screen as if it wants to climb in next to Hoover and me for comfort.

My eyes adjust to the pre-dawn light. I look at the framed photograph of Ann on the nightstand, taken on her graduation day from law school. Her sparkling green eyes are set in a sprinkle of freckles. Her voice changes again, upbeat. "You'll never guess who called last night?"

Outside, not far away, a male voice wails like a carpenter hitting his thumb. I mutter, "Christ."

"No, silly."

My forced-air furnace kicks on. The troubling sounds of the outside world recede behind a curtain of warm flowing air.

Ann tells me who called her last night. There have only been two occasions in my life when I was completely, totally surprised. My birth (I babbled incoherently for a year-and-a-half). And now. I hope to recover faster this time.

"I hope you don't mind," she adds, "but I volunteered you for the gig tomorrow in California."

I pucker at both ends. Something very rude is struggling to get out one end, but I don't speak. The other end is my ex-wife thinks my soul resides.  Ann's intentions are good. I calmly extract my knuckles from my mouth and say, "You're not laughing. You've made a very funny joke, so why aren't you laughing?"

"I'm aware of the latent danger involved. But it's a prime opportunity for both our band and for animal rights."

Opportunity? To paint a deer on my chest and tease Ted Nugent? There is another moment of silence. With my silence I listen to a lonely cricket calling out for attention from somewhere in the wall. I imagine Ann on the other end of the line, waiting for my response, twirling her auburn hair.

I search to find the exact right words, and I say, "Well dress me up and call me Sally." I didn't search hard enough.

"I understand your reluctance, Clark. And, seriously, perhaps wearing a disguise is a good idea. But I don't think you can pull off a 'Sally'."

Ann probably means it as a compliment, but it feels like a condolatory pat on the back by Temple Grandin as I'm being led around the bend to slaughter. I start to swing my feet back up under the blankets, but Hoover has surreptitiously moved into my vacated warm spot. I pad around the bed and slide between the icy sheets on the other side. "Did The Bert Stevens Show happen to mention why they want to interview someone from our band now?"

"No. I mean, they don't want to interview a member of our band. They want to interview someone with a connection to the Animal Liberation Front for an animal rights perspective on the liberation at the Caucasas Lab."

Okay. That makes sense. Yesterday the Cavalry News reported that the Caucasas Animal Testing Lab was broken into. Furniture was vandalized. A testing research report was taken and five of eight beagle puppies were liberated. Rats were let loose but re-captured. The Lab claimed that as a result of this action their new anti-aging drug, Skulk, will be delayed and this will result in people needlessly suffering the painful effects of old age sooner than they would have had they taken Skulk. They suspect the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

"You know what I think?" I ask rhetorically.

"Of course I do, but tell me anyway."

Sometimes it annoys me that she can read my mind as clearly as if it is the top line on an optometrist's chart. "I think that Bert doesn't want to interview me as much as he wants to publicly grill a 'domestic terrorist'."

"Lightly grill, I hope," Ann says, as if that is a simply delightful fate. "Bert is sympathetic to the animal rights movement. Peter Singer has been his guest. Bert is a liberal."

My distressed stomach is digesting itself. I get out of bed. Shivering in the icy air of the room, I pull on my shirt and trousers. Hoover, snoring softly, doesn't seem to notice. I look out my front window. I don't hear a car alarm or anyone screaming.

"True," I agree. "Bert is a liberal, but first he's a comedian. He'll be funny and charming and he'll make me look as if I belong in a rubber room with non-toxic crayons and a giant pacifier."

"He might aim to do that, but you've got nothing to worry about. You routinely answer provocative questions about the animal rights movement."

Not on national television.

I head into the kitchen. Hoover, who can sleep soundly through frenzied drum solos, easily detects the noiseless opening of the refrigerator door. Although he is blind, he navigates smoothly to my side.

"Why don't you do the interview?" I ask. "You would look much better than me on television." Despite being six-one and maintaining a reasonable facade of my varsity wrestler strength, my baby-face and constant grin do not give me intrinsic credibility. And, I'm told, there is something naïve in my manner. The more serious I try to be, the more people dismiss my opinion the way they'd dismiss the opinion of a baby duck.

"The Bert Stevens Show is comedy, which is in your wheel house," Ann says. "Not mine."

As has always been my proclivity, I have stepped into a punch, leading with my commodious mouth.

Ann's voice remains velvet-edged, but now it is stronger. "If you had taught me to be a comedienne, as I have oftentimes appealed to you, in addition to me sharing your emcee duties, I would have gladly accepted this chance to be a guest on Bert's comedy show."

No good ending to this conversation waits on the horizon. "Very well," I agree without being in full agreement. After all, we have routinely played entire songs without reaching agreement on the question of what specific key we were in. "I will teach you to be a comedienne."

My eyes scan the contents of the refrigerator, passing over a half lemon, soy milk, egg replacer, maple syrup, a bottle of Natural Spring water, and a small paper bag containing six vegan cookies. Without searching further I select the cookies. That's just the kind of adventurous guy I am.

"Can you teach me to be a good one?" Ann asks.

Honesty is very important in a relationship. It must be avoided. "Absolutely," I say. A white lie, I tell myself, knowing even as I speak that I am going from white into somewhere between sooty and battleship gray.

I sit at the kitchen table and give Hoover one of the cookies.

"Then why have you avoided teaching me?"

Simple. Because I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know as many jokes as she thinks I know. Bits of comedy float around in my brain like tips of icebergs in a contextless sea. She has no idea that the tips of my icebergs aren't connected to anything. "I have never actually studied comedy. I don't have any 'material'."

"But you know thousands of great jokes."

"I don't exactly 'know' jokes. They just come to me."

"How is that?"

"I'm not sure. Perhaps I channel Henry Youngman."

"A baseball player?"

"Johnny Carson?"

"Johnny! How do you channel his comedy?"

"My subliminal conscious triggers it." I want my tone of voice to say that I've reached the end of my knowledge on this subject and therefore we should move on. But her silence awaits further explanation. I add, "I drift along, head empty, no technique to speak of. That's why learning comedy from me would be like learning how to swim from watching SpongeBob SquarePants."

She laughs. "When you figure out how you come up with these jokes, will you share it with me?"

"I'll try."

Hoover noses my knee gently. I give him another cookie.

"When can we start?"

Vexed, I sigh. Her breathing changes, which means that she heard my sigh. Trouble in paradise. What can I blame the sigh on? I try to think, but nothing happens. I'm seized by the desperation and panic of a drowning man (or a college football player being asked to show his bankbook). "Tomorrow," I say. "How about tomorrow? Before we go onstage. I'll share some of my most reliable bits."

"Deal. And Clark, aren't you glad that we aren't living together? I'd be nagging you 24/7."

"That wouldn't be a problem," I speculate. "It would just be like living at home when my parents were alive. My sweet ol' mom had a black belt in Nag-Fu."

Ann and I are blessed with the magic and mystery and miracle of love. But she has always declined my offer to live together. She says it's because we both have pasts with secrets that we won't discuss. She sees this as a hurdle that our relationship needs to jump over. I see it as a ditch that our relationship would plummet into.

But other than the fact that we don't live together, our relationship is like that of any married couple. I get all the products she tries and doesn't care for. Like the chocolate raspberry scented air freshener that she bought when she was hungry. And the shampoo that was so bad it came with a hat.

Hoover touches his nose to the cookie bag. I reach into the – wait – empty? He has eaten all six of them. He has beaten me again. Until now, if asked, I would have said a dog could not look smug. If I didn't have the advantage of hands, no doubt I would be the one eating from a dish on the floor.

"I'll see you tonight at seven. I'll prepare you for emceeing," I say, making a mental note to look for a loophole somewhere in my promise. Emceeing is a bigger deal to me than I let on.

"Seven o'clock. Righteo," Ann says brightly and hangs up.

I sit at the kitchen table trying to decide if the conversation was a success. I give myself a D-. At least I didn't confess my secrets and march our relationship straightaway into the ditch. I vow never again to answer my phone.

I vow never again to answer my phone. I turn it off. And on. Fiddle with my ear, fiddle with the buttons on my shirt, until finally I run out of externals and begin to fiddle with my psyche. For my relationship with Ann to progress I will need to parade out the skeletons in my closet. If taken out of context, the skeletons could appear to indicate bad judgment, such as the arrest for discharging highway flares inside a diner.

Parade them I will, I promise myself with a chuckle, when Donald Trump has a good hair day. That's a ticket that will never be punched.

I grab my synthetically filled winter coat that makes me look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I'm curious about the car alarm and the male scream. Before my coat is zipped, Hoover props up his paws on the wall, pulls down his organic hemp dog leash, and eagerly wags his tail.


Chapter 2

I snap Hoover's leash onto his collar, which is not easy because he's jumping around in his eagerness to go. I open the door. The east wind from the Atlantic is bitterly cold. I step onto the cement porch, onto the head of a chalk outline of a body.

The wind has swept clean the east side of Crinklewood Street, piling autumn leaves and Halloween candy wrappers against the west side, where I stand. It's silent, except for the wind.

My 2001 "magnetic gray" Prius hatchback is a hundred yards away on the opposite side of the street. The tires are still on it and no windows are broken. The alarm is not bleating its last electronic breath. There is no clue as to the source of the bloodcurdling scream I heard earlier. I can go back inside. But Hoover tugs at his leash. He wants to go for a walk. I go down the two porch steps to the sidewalk and turn left, but Hoover pulls hard to cross the street. He must hear or smell something.

As soon as we cross the street I notice, lying on the ground between my car and the galvanized hurricane fence of the Henderson's front yard, a crumpled human form. It wears six or seven different styles of clothes, none of which have anything to do with any other.

Hoover and I break into a run, the tags on his collar jingling like sleigh bells. When we reach the human, he finds a face and starts licking. An elderly woman. She sits up, laughing. Thank goodness.

Her jacket is tattered. Some of the damage is fresh.

She grins crookedly at me. Her face is pale except for some caked blood, brownish grass, and loose dirt around her mouth. She wears earrings that look like an international sign for some virus. I help her to her feet and she is lighter than I expect. I take off my marshmallow coat and wrap it around her.

She says something, but her chattering teeth make it unintelligible.

"I'm Clark," I say. "I live across the street."

"Arly," she chatters.

Her face looks as if she has been bobbing for earthworms. I brush away some of the dirt from around her mouth and she spews out bits of dirt and grass. "Funny," she says. "It never tastes as good as you think it will."

I laugh. "Are you okay, Arly?"

"Peachy, thanks."

When her legs are steady I help her take a dozen or so small steps toward my car. The sole of her right shoe flaps like a flat tire. We lean against the hatchback, which makes a decent wind-block.

"What happened?" I ask.

"I tried to stop two boys from taking Brutus out of the Henderson's yard."

She knows the pit bull Brutus? "Stop them?"

"I distracted them by kicking their car and setting off its alarm. Then I grabbed Brutus, shoved him towards his front door, and told him to run."

"Did he get away?"

"No. He came back, wagging his tail, and the boys grabbed him."

"Drat."

"The skinny boy was scared that Brutus might bite him," Arly says. "So he obviously didn't know Brutus. Brutus is a real sweet dog. Wouldn't hurt a flea. The boy's fear was misplaced. He kept watching Brutus closely, so he was quite surprised when I bit him." Arly's mouth curves into a slight smile. "He tasted like chicken."

Ha! That was the scream I heard. "If they didn't know Brutus," I suggest, "they may have been animal bunchers."

"Animal brunchers? They eat them?"

"Bunchers. The number of animals used in experiments exceeds the number bred for testing. So the USDA allows researchers to gather animals from 'various sources'. Animal bunchers roam the streets collecting loose dogs the way some folks collect bottles and cans, finding dogs tied up in front of stores, in parked cars with a window cracked open, and in backyards."

"That's just a big bucket of sick." Arly shakes her head.

"It was very brave of you to try to stop them. What are you doing outside this early?"

Tinges of color return to her face. Her eyes roll slowly to an overturned shopping cart and spilled blankets and cans of food ten feet away. "Oh," I say. If my I.Q. were measured in inches it would be just enough to get me up to where I could play in a toilet bowl with a long-handled spoon.

Hoover presses against Arly. I set the shopping cart upright and place her belongings back inside it. One red high-heeled shoe. Laundry soap. A formal black and white gown in a dry-cleaning bag; the date on the ticket is three years old. A pink photo album with a cutout of two dogs pasted on the cover. Why save this? Are her memories integral to her survival? A small rusty electric lamp. Several cans of dog food. Old newspapers. A green thread-bare blanket. A garbage bag of clothes.

Something among the many items stirs an ancient memory, but it remains far down in my subconscious, an amorphous blur like a giant ocean creature swimming past just below the mottled surface of a murky sea, its existence revealed only by the rippled wake of its passage. I reach out for the memory but it dives deep and vanishes.

I push the shopping cart onto the sidewalk and its right front wheel spins in a crazy dance. I survey each item in the cart as it bounces and settles. Broken images of my childhood percolate through my conscious mind. Dog food! She is the "stray dog lady". She must have kept twenty strays or more.

"Arly, you, umm, you used to live in the large house on the corner?"

She doesn't answer. Could I be wrong? I ask, "Are you homeless now?"

"I prefer 'outdoorsman'."

With my left arm around her and my right hand directing the shopping cart, I start toward my home. She doesn't move until Hoover nudges her.

At my front porch Arly stops and asks, "Why is there a chalk silhouette of a body on your doorstep?"

"I drew it there to discourage solicitors."

"Does it work?"

"Not always. When it doesn't work, I invite the solicitor inside and warn him that we may be interrupted as I'm expecting the exterminator to arrive momentarily to rid the room of lice."

Arly laughs nervously and steps cautiously inside. I direct her to the easy chair in the living room. From there she can watch me in the kitchen. Hoover curls up at her feet.

I take out the yellow phone book, look up the Henderson's number, and call them. No answer. Still sleeping probably. I leave a message.

"Arly, let me make you something to eat."

Arly is scratching Hoover and looking around the living room. I open a cupboard and bring down two clear glass bowls, a pan, flour, baking powder, vanilla, salt, sugar, and vegetable oil.

I start preheating the pan. From the refrigerator I take soy milk and egg replacer. "How did you lose your home?"

"I knew your mom," Arly says, which is interesting, although everyone on the block knew my mom. Arly is staring at a 1920s black and white 24" x 32" photograph hanging on the wall. There are three people in the photo. One is posed behind the counter in a white soda-jerk smock. He has an affrighted look, as if the photographer were holding a gun instead of a camera. Sitting at the counter are a young man and woman with their backs to the lens. My grandparents. "This room hasn't changed much," Arly says, not answering my question about how she lost her home.

Arly's been inside? "True, it hasn't changed," I confirm.

I've never replaced my parents' possessions. At an angle across from the fireplace is Scandinavian furniture in worn white pebbly material, and a big teak entertainment cabinet with an old TV, and a stereo that doesn't work. My dad's 1967 Plymouth Barracuda still sits in the garage.

"This room has always been interesting," she says.

"Thanks." Although it's not a compliment for the ages when the nicest thing a homeless person can say about your home is that it's "interesting". A cardboard box with Chinese characters is interesting. But I guess it's preferable to my last guest, who looked around the room and said, "Who installed this paneling? Vandals?"

I find the television remote and click to "Good Morning, Boston", a gossip show masquerading as a news show that I would rank, as entertainment, south of transmission repair. In a few minutes Arly will appreciate that she hasn't missed much on television.

I return to the kitchen and mix the wet ingredients in the smaller bowl, the dry ingredients in the larger one.

"Since you were a child," Arly points to the corner, "that floor lamp hasn't moved."

"Hoover, at your feet, is blind." I say. "I'm careful about keeping furniture in the same place."

Although, I probably should move more things far enough to clean behind them. When I went to move the refrigerator last month, something back there helped me.

Since Hoover gets around so well, Arly responds to this news as everyone does - she waves her hand in front of the dog's face. Hoover licks her hand.

I pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and begin mixing.

"Do you have any relatives that will take you in? I'll be happy to drive you any place. Even out of state is okay."

She half-smiles. "The only place I know that will take me in, will also put me to sleep in five days."

I don't laugh. Instincts stronger than laughter have hold of me.

"Good Morning, Boston" is making the usual media attempt to cover the Caucasas Lab story. Caucasas executives aren't giving any interviews. The local police chief, Patti York, will say only that they are investigating. So the local camera crew settles on Lacey, a secretary who was working late and saw "something suspicious" as she was leaving, which she later clarifies as "a creepy feeling that people were working later than usual in the lab". She answers a dozen questions repeating the same observation, her bubbly enthusiasm waning only slightly.

"Could the animal bunchers take Brutus to a Lab like that?" Arly asks.

"Probably not. Beagles, not pit bulls, are normally used for testing because they are so docile."

"I recall your mother telling me you were an animal activist."

"Still am." I drop ladlefuls of batter onto the preheated pan and flip over each pancake when it begins to bubble on top.

Arly stares at the television. The corner of her left eye glistens with moisture. For goodness sake, Arly. It's only a commercial. He comes back to her after she's brushed her teeth.

"I lost my home when I went into debt," Arly says. "My dogs grew older and needed medical care. When I tried to borrow money, a nice banker explained what had happened to the real estate market. I didn't mind losing the house. But taking my dogs, especially Sparks, to the shelter was the worst thing that has ever happened to me."

Memories of Arly and her dogs flood in, like remembering an old movie that I'd seen once, long ago. They were always so happy and well-behaved, even off their leashes. For a moment I'm a young man again, home from college and playing baseball in the street. We stopped when Arly walked with two dogs past our game. One was a puppy named "Sparks". The other was what seemed like a new stray dog every week. We'd throw the ball and watch Sparks chase it. "Nice throw young man," a younger Mrs. Arly McGill would say. When Mr. McGill died, my parents attended his funeral. I didn't see much of Arly after that.

I smell smoke and come back to the present with a start. Oops. The pancakes. I shut off the flame, turn on the kitchen exhaust, and wave my hands as if I can muscle away smoke.

I serve the pancakes with vegan buttery spread and maple syrup, burned side down. Arly takes the tiniest bites I have ever seen, outside of a squirrel.

Hoover cozies up next to Arly. He is adept at a quiet, effective sort of bullying. He sighs weakly as if he is meditating on man's inhumanity to dog. Arly transfers a little morsel of pancake to Hoover and he takes it gently as if he barely has enough strength to chew.

"I have a friend who works at the Cavalry House of Hope," I say. Arly stiffens. I continue, "A nice place where an 'outdoorsman' can get food and shelter. The management ..." Before I finish my suggestion, Arly opens her mouth. I wave my empty fork courteously to show that she has the floor.

"I've never been in a shelter." She looks at the crumbs on her plate as if they are her lot in life. Her eyes start closing, as if her body is smart enough to know what her mind refuses to grasp.

"I'll take you to the House of Hope," I say. "You'll like it there.

Arly inclines her head in agreement and I pretend not to notice her reluctance.

Hoover is already at the door. I kneel and scratch his ears.

"Take me," Hoover yips.

"Sorry, boy. I'll be back soon." Hoover treats me to his most profoundly pained look.

I wrestle Arly's shopping cart into my Prius, and she holds the rest of belongings in her lap as we take off for the House of Hope. In the warmth of the car, Arly falls asleep.

The suburbs change. My old Victorian neighborhood turns to tract homes, and then to a neighborhood that has been dragged into the century with no funds. Approaching the shelter most houses are abandoned, their windows boarded up or broken, and some of their entrances are closed off with concrete blocks. If a guy says that this neighborhood is getting bad, he means that his gang is losing. But the House of Hope itself is meticulously maintained, and a jewel it would be if one didn't have to get to it by traveling through somebody's colon.

When we pull up in front of it, a man in stained pants drags himself around the corner.

We approach the door and Arly points to a round hole in it, chest high. "What's that, a bullet hole?"

"Urban decay," I answer dismissively. That wasn't here last week.

I introduce Arly to the House of Hope's manager, Fergy Burble. About forty, Fergy is tall enough to gracefully carry her extra twenty pounds and pretty enough for it not to matter. She wears denim slacks with a line of gold plastic buttons on one side and a golden blouse. She has soft brown eyes that keep their tender look even as she speaks with the kind of strength that turns goats into unicorns and homeless people into royalty.

Arly is already pacing when I tell her that I will see her tomorrow. Fergy leads her toward the shelter's private sanctum. I wait in the foyer, as I always do. When Fergy returns she puts me to work repairing a bed frame, unclogging a sink, washing dishes, and caulking the bullet hole in the door. Within two hours she has drained every last ounce of energy from me.

Before I leave, a woman nicknamed "Gypsy", whom I've known for a decade, approaches me. She is mentally disabled, but to what extent I can't tell. She doesn't talk with people. I first heard her voice one day when Hoover wore bandages. She asked him, in a voice like that of a slightly confused four-year-old, how he came about his injuries. Naturally, I spoke for Hoover and explained that another car had deliberately run us off the road.

She told Hoover that she could put a "hex" on people. I played along and gave her a few names. "But," I said, "Not too much." So far all of them are still healthy and still beating me at tennis and chess. Because the hexes didn't work, to my chagrin I had to learn how to be a good loser. A good loser swears loudly, throws his sports equipment on the ground, and kicks small children nearby. If a loser doesn't do these things he deprives the winner of most of winning's pleasure.

Gypsy stands in front of me and looks at my tennis shoes like they are the most interesting things she's ever seen.

"Hoover is okay," I tell her. "I left him home today. Not enough room in my car."

She nods almost imperceptibly.

"I brought a new resident. Her name is Arly. Watch her for me, will you please?"

Gypsy nods. Fergy passes, says goodbye, and thanks me with eyes a spaniel could win Best of Breed with.

"By the way," I say to Gypsy, "remember those people I had you place a hex on and I said 'not too much'?"

Gypsy nods.

"Just a tad more."

She smiles broadly, does an about-face, and marches dutifully away.

I return home. Hoover wiggles his tail the second I enter, sniffing to learn where I've been. When he concludes that I am fine he chuffs as he did when the cookie bag was empty. Perhaps wondering where I had taken, Arly, his new easy food mark.


Chapter 3

"Tip number one to being a good comic," I say to Ann, "is to keep it light, a quick joke, smile and laugh, leave them wanting more."

Ann sits across from me at a card table in the Howling Lobster Inn. We are backstage in an all-purpose room where breaks are taken between sets, where people relax, eat snacks, and occasionally change clothes. Posters featuring rock bands are taped here and there on the walls. Jimi Hendrix, tonguing his left-handed Stratocaster. Paul McCartney, Chrissie Hynde, Goldfinger, and our band, Fluke, are faded, water-stained, and curling. Hoover, his head resting on his forepaws on a rug in the corner, is waiting as patiently as a guide dog.

"Tip number two," I say, "is to have some one-liners ready whenever there is a twenty second delay or longer. For example, after we play a jazz tune, you can fill silence with: 'I like to play jazz. If I mess up a note, I can say, 'that's the way I felt it.''

Ann tries to hide her doubt, but her eyebrows twitch, telling me that this is not 'A' material.

"Don't worry. The audience enjoys any patter more than watching us shuffle around changing instruments, adjusting amps, and thumbing through music scores. It's just a way to connect with them. The funniest bits will always be impromptu and fit the situation. These bits are just to get you going."

Ann stands up and repeats the joke. She wears a casual black dress and has the best legs I've ever seen, unless you count this one transvestite who hangs out at My Happy Place bar on Main Street. There is richness about Ann, a density of presence that makes her seem more tangible than the rest of our band. Even standing in front of me like a soldier, her jokes have warmth. She will do fine. But I hope not too fine, because I enjoy the emcee duties and I don't want to surrender them.

Our drummer, Dudley Mack, comes in through the dressing room door, followed by my brother, Bill, our lead guitarist, carrying an armful of music.

"Clark," Bill says. "I heard that you're committing suicide tomorrow. Did you watch the interview that Bert Stevens did last week with a famous chef? By the end of the interview the chef thought he was a vegetable."

"I did watch it. It was funny." Bert started the interview with, "There is more parsley in spinach than there is spinach in parsley, which is more than you can say for yourself."

Dudley asks me, "What possessed you – pun intended – to go on The Bert Stevens Show?"

It is a dash out of character for Dudley to ask serious questions. His specialty is finding the positive side of disasters. Had he been the Captain of the Titanic, he would have said they were just stopping for ice.

I cross my arms over my chest and glare at him. "Perhaps it's worth risking my life to inform the entire nation about animal rights."

Dudley says, "Play what you just said back in your head, would you?"

I do, and shrug. "Okay, that sounds a little crazy." I pause. "But you aren't helping."

"Not really trying to." Dudley smiles.

We laugh and begin gathering our instruments.

Bill says "Let's open our set with "She Likes to Laugh."

Ann says, "First let's play that difficult new song that Dudley wrote. Get it out of the way."

Bill says, "I'd prefer to start with a simple song."

Dudley says, "Get it out of the way?"

Ann says, "I like your song, Dudley, it's just that, if I'm lucky, I might remember the words for another two minutes."

I re-tune my guitar and listen to all three at once.

Dudley says, "Sorry. Maybe it should be an instrumental. I was tired when I wrote it and phrases like 'Shapeless windows emit no light' made sense. After that I just mangled sentences because I needed rhymes."

Ann laughs richly, "What was that third line, Dudley?"

Dudley is never without a smile on his face, his eyes eager to share in a laugh, even if it comes at his expense. He improvises, "Chocolate music makes my socks moody."

"Let's blow the audience away," I say. That's Hoover's cue to lead us onstage. He stands up, shakes, and waddles in a frolicsome way, as if he has sand in his bathing suit. Ann smiles, takes her saxophone, and bounces and skips behind Hoover with excitement, a sweet, girlish trait of hers.

The rest of us follow, shambling onstage as musicians do. That is, we ramble and lurch toward our destinations, bumping speakers and instruments and tripping over wires along the way. From the crowd of about two hundred people a sprinkling of applause greets us. We bow in unison and in dignity as though the rafters are being torn down by the audience's sheer joy at seeing us.

After we play three songs, I say hello to the audience. "Anyone here employed in the debt collection industry?" I pause. Behind me Dudley does a soft drum roll. 'Dudley' is a nickname that he received in grade school because his strong chiseled features and his personality bear an uncanny resemblance to that cartoon Canadian Mountie, Dudley Do-Right. "No one here in the debt collection industry? Too bad. I wanted to put a face with a voice..." Dudley thumps his bass drum.

A few chuckles rasp through the darkness.

"Who works in an office? Let me see by a show of broken spirits!" A few good laughs.

I nod to Ann. She takes her microphone, delicately holding it as if the heat from her fingertips might melt it. I step away from my microphone and hold my guitar pick in my mouth as I look through some sheets of music. Ann says, "I won't steal jokes from professional comedians. It takes a very low person to do that. However, I want you to know, that if I were a very low person, these are the jokes I would steal ..."

I laugh and spit my guitar pick. Where'd she hear that line?

The lights flicker, as they often do. The electrical wiring in the Lobster needs to be replaced. If the power goes out we fire up the backup generator that we use when we play outdoor concerts. Ann continues, "Have you heard that laboratory researchers are now going to use lawyers instead of lab rats for experimentation?" She pauses. "For three reasons: First, there are more of them. Second, lab technicians don't grow fond of them. And finally, there are some things that even a rat won't do."

Explosive laughter. Ann's poise and delivery are impeccable.

After several more songs, the electricity causes her microphone to dangerously crackle in her hands. She says, "Don't worry, while a great many musicians probably have their hands insured, we may be the first to have ours insured for fire and theft."

I feel a deliriously conflicting set of emotions. I am thrilled for her, but not thrilled that she is a better emcee than me. Would others feel this way? Or am I one creep in a million? One creep in a million. If nominated, I will have to serve.

Ann is on a roll, and she has caught its adrenaline rush. It's even evident in her music. She puts so much emotion into her saxophone it's easy to imagine she might eat it when she finishes.

The last notes of the first set die away. Ann's debut as a comic is a success. During our break, she stays backstage to work on more jokes.

Bill, Hoover, and I go to the table reserved for our band. The table is easily accessible to the audience who are encouraged to make song requests (requests which are sometimes as simple as 'play something that you know'). My sister, Corky, has ice water waiting for all three of us. Corky is not a musician or an artist, which is perhaps the reason she is the most sensible woman that I know. She doesn't confuse issues or try to compare cheese to budding relationships. She is wearing a black pant-suit and a black scarf tied around her throat.

"Why are you wearing that?" Corky teases me, flicking the rim of my baseball cap. Just one of an impressive collection that she mocks.

I shrug. "It's my style. It matches my shirt."

"It's not a style, it's a bad habit. At least your shirt is quaint."

"Yes. It's a tribute to America's sports heroes."

"Sports heroes? Like Lenny Dykstra, arrested for exposing himself to girls he met on Craig's List?"

"Yes. Lenny was setting an example for those of us thinking about doing that."

Dudley sits down and laughs.

Corky is correct, most of my outfits are haphazard. My only matching ensemble is my suit. It's a nice suit. If I brush it one way it is dark green, and if I brush it another way it is lime green.

We settle down to small talk.

Back onstage, Ann continues to come up with comic patter that has the audience waiting for her to speak. Suddenly I'm as prominent as the banjo part in Beethoven's Fifth.

At home, before bed time, I play Hoover's favorite game, taught to him by his uncle's Bill and Dudley. I tap my thigh, getting Hoover's attention. I give the command "kill", and Hoover growls ferociously and we wrestle, both of us howling.


Chapter 4

"What's on your mind?" Ann asks.

How does she do that? "I'm never too sure what 'quaint' means," I say.

"It depends on your tone of voice when you say it."

"Oh." I now understand that Corky was making fun of my sports shirt.

We pull up in front of The House of Hope. Ann stays in the car while I go inside. When I find Fergy, her face is set with a grimness that is contrary to her nature.

"How's Arly?" I ask.

Fergy raises her eyes slowly to meet mine. She is a resourceful woman, and a durable one, but now she looks touchingly vulnerable. Only her mouth moves, which has the effect of emphasizing her words. "She's gone. She left during the night."

"With her belongings? And her shopping cart?" She must have had help.

Fergy nods gloomily. "Sorry. I hope she returns."

Fergy doesn't stop me as I stride past her into a private area. I enter a room with beds and cots and a few residents tidying. I don't see Gypsy. Fergy enters right behind me.

"Where's Gypsy?" I ask. "She was watching Arly for me."

Shrugs all around.

I turn on my heels and exit the room. Behind me, Fergy coughs and says in a shaky voice, "I never thought – I mean, Gypsy has never left the House. Ever. Are you going to look for them?"

"I'll look when I return from California. I'm on my way to the airport."

Outside, I search for tracks left by a shopping cart. I see only footsteps. How is that possible?

***

Driving to Logan International Airport along the coast the scenery is breathtaking. My right brain says, "Don't you wish you could share these views with Hoover?" My left brain ignores the emotional plea and struggles with "Why would Arly leave the House of Hope?"

My thoughts of Arly are diverted when the airline stewardess demands my attention so that she can share her wisdom that we should put our heads between our legs to prepare for a crash landing. That won't save us. But it will make it easier to get more of us into a front-end-loader when they clean up. She explains the purpose of the oxygen mask. Or is it really just to muffle the screams? I know I am cynical. Statistics say that flying is safe. Safer than what? These statistics were compiled by the same mathematicians who determined that five out of six people enjoy playing Russian roulette. Flying isn't safer than staying at home. You rarely turn on your TV set to see rescue workers picking through the charred wreckage of a downed Lazy Boy looking for the flight recorder.

In the studio of The Bert Stevens Show I'm not allowed into the waiting room until I sign a contract. I'm too nervous to read it carefully. It may say "the undersigned agrees that he has not actually read the contract and just covets fifteen minutes of fame and he would in fact cheerfully sign anything placed in front of him including a document granting us the right to keep both his ears as souvenirs." I sign it.

I am directed to "the green room" supposedly painted that color to soothe the performers before a show. A television on the wall broadcasts The Bert Steven's Show live. Bert introduces his first guest, a soccer coach that set a record for losses: "Someday," Bert says, "he might be so famous that you will say, 'Gee, I saw that guy on Bert's Show, way back before he killed all those people.'" The audience howls.

I sit in a chair. I'm nervous. Don't worry. I know a lot about animal rights. I only have serious gaps in every other subject. My throat is dry, which the studio has anticipated by having a bowl of individually wrapped hard candy on the table next to me. I select a red one. The plastic wrapper says the contents are "fat free". Good. If I accidentally bite into the wrapper, I won't taste the difference. I laugh at my feeble joke. I'll be okay as long as I keep smiling – no matter how ruthless Bert's questions are.

After a few minutes a young man comes in and says, "You're on". He points toward a door with a sign in Spanish. I can't tell if the door I'm about to go through says 'Stage This Way' or 'Express Castration Service'. Perhaps either would be accurate.

I am directed to a round table. Bert leaves his chair with the suddenness of a popcorn kernel bursting off a heated pad. He bounces over to greet me, vigorously shakes my hand, sits down, props his elbows on the table, and steeples his fingers. He looks like a wise Zen master who has been forced to don the clothes of a corporate executive after getting the wrong suitcase at the airport. He turns his head to address the audience. "Mr. Baker here is an animal rights activist. Or, as the FBI prefers to call him, a 'domestic terrorist'." The audience laughs. He turns to me. "How are you, Mr. Baker?"

"I'm fine, thank you."

"I understand that there are other opinions." Bert pulls out a pair of handcuffs. More laughter. "So, why shouldn't I have you arrested right now?"

I make a strange sound as I endeavor to untie my tongue.

"I'll answer that for you," Bert smiles. "Because it would leave my show ten minutes short." Bert waits for the laughter to die. "Besides being an accomplished terrorist, you are also an accomplished musician in the rock band Fluke. When did you get started in music?"

A kindly softball question that he doubtless has read my answer to in several published interviews. "I began when I was four years old." I take a deep breath. "It was my mom's idea. She wanted me to make something of myself and after a levelheaded appraisal of my natural abilities, decided I had better start young if I was to have any chance of keeping up with the competition." The audience laughs softly.

"Something tells me that isn't an original line."

I smile. "I claim it as my own, since Russell Baker hasn't used it since 1982."

Bert tosses me another soft pitch. "What is the 'animal rights philosophy'?"

"It's the belief that animals should not be 'property.' That they should have the right to their own life. That meat is murder."

"Meat is murder?" Bert repeats.

"Yes," I say, seeing no need to disagree with myself.

"And I suppose vegetables are burglary, bread is mail fraud, and cheese is impersonating a police officer?"

The audience roars. Bert gives a hand signal to quiet them. He says, "How far should veganism go? Should we be kind to germs?"

"Why not? Even germs show compassion - it's pretty considerate of them to count all the way to five before jumping on the food we drop."

Bert laughs, followed by the audience.

"Should people refuse to consume any products that have even briefly inconvenienced an animal?"

I don't know how to answer that. Bert notices that I'm dumbfounded. To keep the interview moving, he asks, "What do you know about the liberation of the beagles from the Caucasas Laboratory in Cavalry?" He smiles into the camera. "Don't worry; this is just between you and me."

Here we go. From lobbing me softballs to throwing a fast breaking curve ball at my knees. I take a metaphorical swing at the pitch. "The animal liberators saved five of eight beagle puppies. Although I don't know exactly how Caucasas tortured those puppies, I have seen undercover film of a dog at Caucasas squirming to break free as a 'researcher' pried open his mouth and poured in a vial of drain cleaner." I look at the audience. "Drain cleaner that you buy."

There are some gasps from the audience.

"Why rescue only five of eight?"

"Honestly, it's not clear to me why they didn't take all the beagles or why they left behind lab rats. It must have been a mistake, since they found time to smash inanimate chairs. They were probably amateurs."

"So," Bert says, "your alibi is that the liberation couldn't have been done by you, because you are a professional?" More laughter.

I try to swallow. It's like trying to turn over an engine that has been out of oil for years. "No," I choke. "But the liberation was unlike most direct actions in several important ways."

"How so?"

"Besides not following animal liberation guidelines, they didn't report their action over the Internet, which most activists do."

"Why do you suppose they didn't follow terrorist protocol?" Snickers from the audience.

"One possibility is that activists didn't do it. That it was an inside job – perhaps the Testing Lab has a large insurance policy, or perhaps they need a reason to tell stockholders why their drug will be delayed."

"Has any company ever sabotaged themselves like that?"

"There was a suspicious fire at the Caucasas Lab five years ago that destroyed an empty barn over-insured for ten million dollars. And recently there have been several suspicious fires on Caucasas property. It's a large corporation and many divisions, such as the Caucasas Drug Development Center, are probably insured for more than they're worth. Of course, I encourage their destruction anyway."

"Your comment may have crossed the line to slander, Mr. Baker. But don't worry. I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the point of mild discomfort your right to say it." Laughter.

"Thank you. I don't wish to slander any single animal abuse corporation, such as The Caucasas Animal Testing Lab, L'Oreal, or Proctor and Gamble, as I realize it would be a violation of the libel laws to call them 'Sadists with Lobbyists.' Even a former director of the National Institute of Health has publicly stated that animal testing makes no sense."

"So, except for the amateur mistakes made by the beagle liberationists, you approve of them breaking the law?"

I have to be careful here. "Do you have a permit to carry that loaded question?"

Bert laughs. I answer indirectly, "ALF members believe that animals should have more rights than those which are accorded to them by current laws. People have demonstrated throughout history that laws can be immoral, and that we may be justified in breaking them. Those who object to law-breaking under all circumstances would have to condemn the Abolitionists who liberated slaves, the Tiananmen Square demonstrators, the Boston Tea Party participants, the list is long."

I look at Bert. He waits for me to dig my hole deeper.

"Laws sometimes don't reflect our moral beliefs. If one of those beagle puppies was the family pet of someone in this audience." I attempt to glare at the audience but instead I stare directly into a camera light. The result is that I begin blinking like a nervous criminal. "I imagine they would consider that saving their pet's life would take moral precedence over the destruction of the lab equipment that was torturing them."

"But those beagle puppies belonged to the lab."

"The ALF philosophy is that each animal has its own life, and it should have the same rights as your family pet."

"My family pet is the Abominable Snowman. He doesn't want rights. He wants a sauce pan and my spleen." After the laughter dies, Bert continues. "So, your philosophy is 'If you love something, set it free?'"

I nod.

"I would like to add," Bert says, "that if it mauls you as soon as it's released, stop loving crazy shit." The audience erupts with laughter. Bert continues, "Some activists claim that extreme activism gives a bad name to the animal rights movement. Are you concerned about that?"

"Moderately concerned. With any social movement, its opponents will strive to silence extremists with claims that there is a backlash that negates the advances made by more moderate voices. The appeal to the 'backlash' has historical precedent. Martin Luther King heard such warnings when he organized civil-disobedience protests against segregation. Had Dr. King yielded to this appeal, would the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts have been passed?"

Bert waits. I continue, "Radicals in the anti-Vietnam War movement were blamed for prolonging the war and for damaging the 'respectable' opposition. Yet the fear of increasingly militant demonstrations kept President Nixon from escalating the war effort, and the stridency eventually wore down the pro-war establishment. The real question to ask is: Does the added backlash outweigh the gains achieved through extreme action? The answer is sometimes not clear for years."

Bert says, "I agree that the extremists in any movement are always the loudest, Mr. Baker, but the extremists are not always correct. For example, 99% of the women's movement wants equality, and 1% thinks that all men are responsible for all women's problems." Nervous laughter is primarily in the tenor and baritone registers.

Bert asks, "Surely there are more pressing practical problems than animal rights, such as homelessness. Haven't you got better things to do?"

"The behavior asked for by the animal rights agenda involves little expenditure of energy. We ask people to not do things: to not eat meat, to not exploit animals for entertainment, and to not wear fur. These non-actions don't interfere with one's ability to care for humans. In some cases, they may actually make more time available for doing so. And many of the consequences of carrying out the animal rights agenda are beneficial to humans. For example, stopping the production of animal products would result in a significant improvement of the general health of the human population, and the destruction of the environment would be greatly reduced. And fostering compassion for animals is likely to pay dividends in terms of a general increase of compassion in human affairs." A smattering of applause.

"Before we conclude, Mr. Baker, is there any question you would like me to ask?"

I nod. "The same question that the brilliant British comedian Ricky Gervais would like reporters to ask him: 'Why did you go crazy with an Uzi in China and take out 300 people who skin dogs alive or torture bears and tigers for fake medicine?' I'd like to be asked that one day, but don't deserve the honor yet."

The audience reacts as if I've dropped my pants, crapped in the corner, and said, "Think I'll get an ax, since it's a nice day, and do away with my mother." It catches Bert off-guard for half a heartbeat, so I toss into the void, "I know how that probably sounds."

"You don't," Bert says. "Or you wouldn't have said it. Do you have any history of mental illness?"

The look on my face probably says "Yes, of course. Isn't it obvious?" I say, "No."

"Well, you do now. Congratulations, Mr. Baker. We'll send you the clip of our show for your next legal defense." Bert stands up. There is applause.

Bert shakes my hand, thanks me, and I leave through the stage door. My right brain lingers over the words 'mental illness.' My left brain reminds me that I have a red-eye flight to catch, which is the only reason that I don't sit down to brood and suck on my thumb and periodically ask for Mommy.

***

At LAX, I head for the airport gates. My eyes burn and my head hurts. I'm not certain if it's because of the stress I've been under, or if it's the LA smog.

The pestiferous phrase "Do you have any history of mental illness?" keeps circling through my head above the aborted fantasies of me being a television celebrity. My phone rings. "Clark?" Ann asks before I say hello.

"What's left of Clark."

"How did it go? Should I tell everyone to watch it tonight?"

"I suppose so," I pause. "At least our friends who already think I'm as crazy as two waltzing mice. Do you think I'm crazy?"

"If I say yes, I'd be the crazy one. Let me answer by reminding you that several days ago you entertained those of us around you by attempting to insert a bowl of beer nuts, bowl and all, into your wallet."

I laugh. "Have you found Arly and Gypsy?"

"No. Hoover and I searched several blocks around The House of Hope and then around Arly's old home. But without a scent for Hoover to follow I'm afraid he thought we were just getting exercise."

"I have an idea," I say. "See you in the morning. Time to board the plane."


Chapter 5

I sip orange juice and peruse the morning paper. There's been an armed bank robbery a few miles from me, and the President of the United States has told another lie. The stock market had a bad day and so did the Boston Celtics. I check the date of the newspaper to make sure I didn't pick one up from last week, or last month, or last year.

Ann comes over. We eat breakfast and wash the dishes. "So," Ann places the last dish into the cupboard. "What's your idea for tracking down Arly and Gypsy?"

I point vaguely into the living room behind me. "Arly sat in that chair. I'll tell you-know-who to sniff it while at the same time repeating the word 'Arly'. We'll drive to the House of Hope, turn him loose, and I'll say 'find Arly.'"

Hoover's tail is thumping, having figured out long ago that his alias is "you-know-who."

"For a dog to track someone, doesn't he need to sniff something that's been in direct contact with the person? Like an article of clothing? It seems unlikely that the chair has enough scent on it for Hoover to follow."

"You're probably right. But it's worth a try. Stranger things have happened." Granted, I can think of only one or two (and they involved a roadrunner and a coyote). "Perhaps homeless people have a more pungent odor than others?" I realize that my suggestion is not Politically Correct.

There are three sharp raps on my front door. I shiver in response. "Cripes the PC police are fast."

It is Mr. and Mrs. Henderson with their ten-year-old son, Bobby. A plain family, except that the father looks like the actor John Goodman. I picture him alternately as Babe Ruth (wearing a Boston Red Sox uniform) and as Fred Flintstone. The mother has her left arm loosely around Bobby's waist. Our conversation is sad and hopeless. They thank me for calling them and they ask me to thank Arly, should I ever encounter her again; and they appeal to me to ask her whether she remembers anything that could help them find Brutus. I almost recommend to Bobby that he go to the animal shelter and get a rescue dog, but I realize that he is the only one who doesn't understand how unlikely the return of Brutus is. We have no clues.

***

Hoover leads Ann and me from the House of Hope toward downtown Cavalry, almost a mile away. The wind grows steadily stronger. I wear a backpack filled with apples, bananas, peaches, pears, and plastic baggies with walnuts, almonds, and raisins to give to the homeless. I hope it will entice them to talk with us.

We walk down streets with rows of abandoned tenements, skeletons of buildings, padlocked doors, flaking paint, and angry graffiti. I feel the pressure of unseen angry eyes, peering out from between the slats of boarded-up windows. I notice glints of reflected light and imagine that switchblades are snicking open. We walk down alleyways that are like touring sewers in a glass bottom boat. The cold wind isn't helping because it forces most of the homeless people to stay huddled. Many are crouched in doorways and peering from behind dumpsters.

A garbage can lid pops off and rockets away like an artillery shell. The can itself rolls at high velocity along the alley and bounces against a brick wall.

A group of kids with oddly colored hair, leather jackets, pierced eyebrows, and sagging pants pass us on the opposite side of the street. Based on the rate of sagging pants, within a decade boys will just pull their pants behind them with a rope. One of them looks at us, glares, and kicks a two-week-old remnant of a jack o' lantern. Looking at his new Nike shoe, now slimy orange up to his ankle, his expression goes from "I'm a tough guy" to "How do I explain this to Mommy." I look at Ann and smile, but I don't say anything. When I think of pumpkins, which are big vegetables, I try to resist the childish temptation to make a gratuitous reference to Sarah Palin.

I don't notice a man until he steps out of the shadows holding a battered sign that says, "Will work for food." His clothing is baggy enough to contain his body plus a major kitchen appliance. He kneels down in front of Hoover. "Is he okay?"

Hoover wags his tail. "Yes. He's blind. I rescued him from an animal testing lab that exposed him to radiation."

Perhaps the homeless identify with anyone who's had bad luck in life. I hand the man an apple and say, "It's free."

He cranes his neck and looks at it from all sides before he reluctantly accepts it. He smiles. For a nanosecond I envy him. He's broke, but I owe $10K to Visa. He's even, but I'm paying for food that I ate in May, 2012.

We approach a group of ten or eleven homeless people, many with their faces wrapped in their coats. A few are bobbing to some internal fugue. We stop and talk and ask directions as if we're lost, and I casually watch for faces to peek out at us, hoping to find Arly and Gypsy. We chat about the wind and cold for nearly ten minutes. I have to admit that while standing around chatting with this group I blend in a little better than I would like.

Before we leave, one woman says, "Give me some change!" instead of asking for it.

I do it. I'm pretty sure I just got robbed.

We pass a woman dressed in a green leather miniskirt, white mesh stockings, and bright green lipstick serving as crack filler. Her perfume smells like a fruit salad. Livings have to be made, hustles have to be hustled, and body parts have to be sold both night and day, warm or cold.

"Do you think she dyes her hair?" I ask Ann.

"Oh, please. I've seen carpet stains that look more natural."

Ann and I keep walking and searching. No Arly. No Gypsy. After almost five hours I doubt that Hoover is tracking Arly.

I make a snap identification of a hawk sitting on a faraway fence, just to impress Ann. "A red-tailed hawk; male, smaller than the female," I say, pointing. "Common around here."

At that moment the hawk has the unmitigated gall to jump down to the ground and scamper away. "I didn't know that hawks had four legs," Ann says.

"Sometimes they do," I explain. "It's rare, though. Few people ever witness a hawk with four legs. This is really a special experience, something I think we should share just between the two of us and never tell anyone else about."

"I think I'll tell."

We pass a launderette. The lights are on. Several homeless people are asleep on the floor. One patron turns a page of a magazine. No Arly. No Gypsy.

My phone rings. My sister. "Hello, Corky, I'm with Ann. You're on speaker."

"Hi Ann," Corky says. "Two of the liberated beagle puppies were just turned in to the animal shelter. They're in bad condition."

"Who turned them in?" I watch the launderette window return my stare.

"Don't know. Didn't talk to anyone about it yet. Just thought you should know."

Ann leans toward the phone. A breeze catches her hair and blows a wisp of it across my face. I can smell her shampoo. Lilac. "Thanks Corky," Ann says. "That eliminates the possibility that the liberation was an inside job. The Caucasas Lab would never have turned their dogs in to a local shelter where someone might ID and return them."

Corky says, "I think it also confirms that we're dealing with amateurs. Any competent animal liberationist would have taken these dogs straight to a vet, which I'm doing now." Tires squeal in the background. When Corky is in a hurry her vehicular prowess is unique. As the saying goes, 'Women are like snowflakes. They can't drive.' Not that Corky is without skill. She once successfully passed someone whom she thought was going too slow in the drive-through lane at the bank.

"Ann and I will go to the shelter shortly," I say. "Maybe someone there will remember something that'll lead us to these amateurs before the remaining three beagles die."

"Thanks, Clark. By the way, great work on The Bert Stevens Show yesterday. Loved it."

"Thanks. Drive carefully. Bye."

"I always do."

And the devil serves Pudding Pops.

Ann looks at her reflection in the launderette window. She says, "I'm too fat." She appraises herself with that amazing dispassion women muster whenever encountering a reflective surface. When I look in the mirror, I tend to see muscle definition that isn't quite there and tend not to notice the obvious beginnings of a tummy. But Ann duly records every crease and flaw, piteously notes every lack or excess.

I'm hoping that her appraisal doesn't lead to a situation like last summer, when we were in a clothing store. She was visibly upset and said, "Is it too much to ask for to have a grief counselor on standby while I try on bathing suits?"

A few newspapers swirl by in a small gust of wind. I say, "I think ..." and Ann, as usual, already knows what I am thinking and has turned to head for home.

Hoover has a different idea. He pulls me across the street where there is a parked car and a dumpster. You can tell the difference between the two because one has a hand-lettered sign attached that says "No Radio." Crouching beside the dumpster is an emaciated Yorkshire terrier. Cold and wet and frightened. Fur matted, so dirty I can't see his color.

The Yorkie sits on his butt, huddled pathetically, and hangs his head, too exhausted or sick or weak to take advantage of it. I put my hand under his body and lift him, limp and unresisting, into the crook of my arm. I place him inside my coat and he pushes his head down to hide there.

As we return to my car at the House of Hope, daylight is fading as if the world is in a pot onto which a giant lid is being lowered. Arly and Gypsy have not returned.

After driving home and parking, we are halfway across Crinklewood Street when Ann stops walking. Hoover bumps into her, and we all stand in the middle of the street, frozen. A car passes cautiously behind us. I cannot believe my eyes. Hoover sniffs and starts to pull.

Arly and Gypsy are sitting on my doorstep. Gypsy is wearing so many different patterns it looks like she's moving toward me. There is no shopping cart nearby.

"Arly! You're here," I say profoundly.

"Heard you were looking for me."

Hoover snuggles in between the two women. The Yorkie peeks from my coat, then burrows inside again.

"I was worried. Why did you abandon Hope?" I ask, a wording which was regrettably melodramatic.

"Rules," Arly says. "Food and shelter are not everything important in life. On the street I have freedom and friends who watch out for me." I'd be willing to bet it's Arly who watches out for them. Gypsy is hanging on to Hoover like a toddler hangs on to its mother.

"And Gypsy, she wanted to leave Hope with you?"

Gypsy stares at me. Her eyebrows draw together in an agonizing expression. I have missed something obvious.

"I don't think she wanted to leave," Arly says. "She doesn't talk. But after you left she fixated on me and now she won't let me out of her sight."

"It's my fault Arly. I told her to watch you." I look to Gypsy.

Gypsy smiles broadly, letting me know that I finally got it, and that maybe next time, if I pay attention, she will teach me something else beyond my grasp, like how to use a straw.

I ask Arly, "How did you manage to leave Hope without your shopping cart leaving any tracks?" I open the door and we go inside.

"Gypsy and I carried it. I didn't want anyone to waste their time following me. In retrospect I didn't need to do that. You would have lost our tracks at the river anyway."

The Charles River? No. She is teasing.

Ann sets the Yorkie on the kitchen table and examines him. "He's not injured, just very malnourished."

I pour soy milk for the Yorkie. Ann sets him on the floor in front of the bowl and he laps it up between nervous swings of his head to look around the room.

"Well, I wish you'd stay at the House of Hope, but just the same I appreciate your letting us know that you're OK. I'll take Gypsy back to the House."

"Actually," she says while scratching Hoover behind his ears, "I wanted to let you know that a man I know named Jacob, who lives across from The Caucasas Lab, saw three men in hoodies lead out another man against his will. The man being forced out was wearing a lab coat. The hooded men were carrying crates of howling dogs. They were not in a hurry, they were laughing and joking."

"Wow Arly, thank you. Yes, they took five beagles. Two were just dropped off at an animal shelter. We're heading there soon."

Ann says, "We doubt the three men are Caucasas employees because the beagles turned up in a shelter. But if they're animal liberationists, even amateurs, what do they want with a lab technician? Something's fishy."

"Perhaps the man in the lab coat was kidnapped for a reason we don't know," I say, "and it was only made to look like an animal liberation."

Hoover moves over and snuggles against the Yorkie.

"That would explain why they dumped the beagles at a shelter," Ann says. "But it wouldn't explain why they took the beagles in the first place. Why would they need to make a kidnapping look like an ALF action?"

"Maybe it wasn't a kidnapping. There wasn't any report of a missing employee. Unless Caucasas chose not to tell the media."

"I suspect that they'd want to tell the media," Ann says. "It would make their heartless corporate public image more sympathetic."

"Arly," I say. "Are you up for a road trip to the Cavalry Animal Shelter?" Maybe, with more time, I can convince her to return to the House of Hope.

"Shelters are sad," Arly says to Gypsy. "That's where I took my dogs when I lost my home. I still miss my Sparks."

Gypsy grips Hoover tightly.

"I'm sure that the Cavalry Shelter found good homes for them. It is a 'no-kill' shelter."

"No-kill?" Arly says.

"No-kill shelters find foster homes and off-site adoptions. They follow up on adopted dogs for years."

Arly smiles, but when she lifts her eyes, pain still flickers there.

We drop Gypsy off at the House of Hope. I thank her for watching Arly. She hugs Fergy dearly and joy shines in her eyes.


Chapter 6

Arly, Ann, Hoover, the Yorkie, and I drive to the Cavalry Animal Shelter.

Arly takes Hoover's leash and I carry the Yorkie. Momma Lisa, the woman who accepted the two beagle puppies, is expecting us. Inside, at the front desk, I set the Yorkie on the counter. The tuft of sandy hair on top of his head makes him look especially pathetic. I pat it down gently to try to grant him some shred of dignity. He darts his eyes from corner to corner and whimpers. He starts to shake and wheeze.

Momma walks in and when she sees the Yorkie her eyes widen like she's just been hit in the stomach. She takes the Yorkie and signals to a volunteer who takes the dog for an examination.

Hoover wants to follow the Yorkie and tugs on his leash. Arly looks at me for advice. I shake my head and say, "In a few minutes." Hoover knows my tone and he sits.

Only now does Momma Lisa divine the people in the room. "Hello," she says. Momma is fifty, not nearly as old as it used to be. She has the wide oval face of a farm girl hiding the observant eyes of a hawk.

"Arly, meet Momma. Momma, Arly learned from her friend, Jacob, that three men were seen leaving the Caucasas Lab with the beagles. Arly," I ask, "is there anything else you can tell us about those men?"

"No," Arly says. "Jacob was awakened when a street dog barked at the sound of the beagles howling. He watched the scene, but I suspect that his eyes never left the cages." She seems to know Jacob well.

"How many dogs are on the street? Should the shelter do a sweep for strays?" Momma asks. Arly isn't listening; she's looking in the direction of where the Yorkie was taken.

"Go ahead Arly," I say. "Hoover will lead you on a tour of the shelter."

"Momma?" Ann asks. "Can you describe the guys who brought in the beagles?"

"Not kids," Momma says. "Thirtyish. One looks like a bulldog with a boot camp haircut." Momma compares everyone to some breed of dog. "He never spoke. He has a tattoo on his right biceps of a happy face with a dagger slashing through one of the eyes. A scar over his right eye might explain the tat. He wore a baseball cap backwards. It read something like 'DDA'. The other man looks like an ugly pug. He has a pit bull tattoo on his left arm and on his right arm is a tombstone tat that says 'In memory of my Dear Mother, 2010.'" I presume 2010 is the year in which he killed her. "He has missing teeth and a broken-glass expression. He asked whether the shelter had any good fighting dogs. Then he laughed."

"Great observations, Momma. Please let us know if they return any more of the beagles."

"Do you know what the acronym 'DDA' stands for?" Ann asks.

"Drug Dealing Ass-wipes," Momma muses.

"We'll ask around," I say. "Someone must know. These guys don't sound like animal rights activists. No activists joke about dogfighting."

"Perhaps Caucasas reported the kidnapping," Ann says, "but the police withheld the information from the media."

"I'll call Police Chief Patti York and ask her." Years ago the Chief and I "worked together" in solving the murder of an ALF activist. By "worked together" I mean that I delivered on a silver platter the key piece of information that led directly to my own unfortunate arrest. And, to ensure that my cuffs were crushingly tight, I had, in anger, foolishly referred to her as 'Peppermint Patti'. Fortunately the Chief is a fan of Ann's legal work – Ann is a part-time lawyer who volunteers to argue court cases on behalf of children in abusive situations.

I punch the contact photo to call the Chief's number. She is a big, muscular woman who typically has mascara flashing with metallic speckles encircling her eyes, which, inexplicably, has never been made a capital offense.

A cigarette answers the phone with a long, slow pull as the smoke is inhaled. The Chief once told me that she started smoking in the Police Academy because it made a woman police officer look tougher. When I asked her if she ever thought of quitting, she said, "Now I don't smoke to look tough or because I enjoy it, I smoke so that no one asks me to hold their cat or their baby." I assume the Chief has caller I.D. and that she is making me wait. Payback for all the times that I've annoyed her.

Finally the Chief answers, "Hello, Mr. Baker."

"Hello, Chief. I can give you information regarding the beagle liberation at the Caucasas Testing Lab."

"What do you know, if I'm not being too optimistic?"

"In addition to the beagles that were taken, an employee has been kidnapped."

"And you know this how?"

Hoover appears in the hall, his tail wagging back and forth as he trots briskly toward us with Arly right behind.

"A witness saw three men leaving the lab with the five beagles. They were also restraining a man wearing a lab coat."

"There was no report of a kidnapping. Do you know the name of the man who apparently was not kidnapped?"

"No."

"Uh huh," she says in that manner that says, I've got your number, and it's a low one. "By the way, Mr. Baker, you were a good straight man on The Bert Stevens Show. How are Miss Berlin and your blind dog?"

"Thanks. Ann and Hoover are both right here, and they're well." Hoover's tail is wagging.

Working with Ann, the Chief has come to appreciate some aspects of the animal rights' philosophy; although she has made it abundantly clear that if I break the law she will arrest me so fast that it will not tax my seriously short attention span. But at least she no longer buys into the media stereotype that animal rights activists will skip breakfast if they can't find a human baby to eat.

"Also, Chief, we have reason to believe that it was not animal rights activists who broke into the Caucasas Lab."

"Yes, I heard your speculation on Bert's show that direct actions are sometimes done by insiders for the insurance money."

"In this case we think that the kidnapping, not the beagle rescue, was the motive."

"Care to expand?"

"Not yet." I can't reveal that our 'clue' is that the liberated beagles were turned in to the shelter. The Chief will confiscate the beagles as evidence; they'll be treated as property and not given to loving homes.

"My officers are looking at local animal activists for this crime. Don't leave town or there will be hell to pay. And the police department doesn't accept MasterCard."

That's a switch. A cop telling me not to leave town. "That's a surprise," I say sarcastically. "My Chase Tin MasterCard is accepted at over two locations nationwide. But I still think you're on the wrong track."

"Perhaps. But perhaps, once again, I know more than you. Perhaps I know more than you because somewhere there is an undercover law enforcement officer involved in this." She pauses. "I'm just saying."

This surprises me. The stodgy Police Chief said, "I'm just saying." I would've been less surprised if she'd started to rap an Eminem song.

I prod the Chief, knowing my odds of getting any useful information are zero point diddily-squat, rounded off to the nearest squat. "An officer posing as an animal activist? Or an officer posing as a Caucasas employee?"

"A little free advice, Mr. Baker. You and your animal activist friends are in over your fancy skulls this time and ...." I hang up, chopping off the sentence. It gives me a zingy little thrill, as if I've managed to strangle her.

Ann asks, "What is that unusual look on your face?"

"I'm thinking."

Ann looks at me closely. I explain, "The Chief was subtly letting me know that there is an undercover cop, either acting as an animal activist or a Caucasas employee, with connections inside the Caucasas Lab."

"Perhaps that's why she is not pursuing a kidnapping," Ann says. "Perhaps the lab technician was an undercover cop."

"That was my first thought until it crossed my mind, heading the other way, that that doesn't fit. The Chief still believes it was an animal rights action, not an inside Caucasas job."

"Why don't they think it's an inside job?" Ann asks.

"I'm not sure. But I don't think the lab technician was the undercover cop. When I told the Chief about the kidnapping she didn't hesitate as she might have done if she were concocting a cover-up story. Of course, I could be wrong if she concocted the story in advance, for the media perhaps. But maybe Caucasas isn't aware that the lab tech is missing. They wouldn't know unless they received a ransom call. Maybe nobody will even look for him."

"If he's either a cop or an activist undercover, some of our friends may have encountered him."

"Let's talk with them at the AR conference in Boston."

"Good idea," Ann says. "The internet isn't secure, as we knew years before Ed Snowden got the memo."

I join Arly in scratching Hoover. "Arly, do you know what the initials 'DDA' might stand for?"

"'DDA'? No idea," she says.

"Do you think the guys who took Brutus could be the same guys Momma described? Did they have any tattoos? Daggers or tombstones?"

Arly shrugs. "There were no tattoos on the hand that I bit. Although I think the hair was reddish." Her voice drops off at the end. "Wait." Arly's eyes brighten. "Of course. Why didn't I think of them. You probably mean 'DDoA'. It stands for 'Dead Dog on Arrival'. They're a gang that runs a dogfighting ring at the south end of Boston. Pretty far from here." Her gray-blue eyes are hurt and clouded. "Brutus," she says softly.

My heart drops to my stomach. Poor sweet Brutus. Not much good to hope for. Either fight for his life against vicious dogs, or become a lab experiment.

Perhaps sensing that the conversation is depressing Arly, Ann asks her, "What do you think of the animal shelter?"

"So sad." Arly continues her downward spiraling mood. "How can you deal with all the loneliness and desperation of all those little angels, day after day? Does your heart become hardened to their suffering?"

"To avoid 'compassion fatigue'," I explain, "volunteers rotate taking care of the animals who come to us abused. It's the blood of those angels that keeps our hearts from hardening. Later, if we see animals living uneventful lives in the shelter, we remind ourselves that happiness comes slowly. We expect delays."

We start to leave. I become alive to the fact that Arly is hesitant to go.

"What's wrong Arly?"

"I wish I could care for a dog."

"You took good care of all your dogs. I remember how happy Sparky was," I say. Raising my voice I announce to all. "I need to use the men's room before we leave. Be right back."

I chase down Momma Lisa and ask her if Arly can have a dog.

"We give our dogs to good homes, Clark. Homeless people can't provide good shelter or regular meals." Momma plants one foot out wide, as if she thinks I might rush past her and try to snag a puppy. "You know that's our policy." She makes a shooing motion for me to turn around and go.

"Bear me out," I say. "Or snap my neck and feed me to the dogs."

Momma seems to consider the second option, studying my throat. "The answer is no unless you are suggesting that after Arly selects a dog that she move in with him."

"No, but I promise to monitor the health of the dog. Every third day at least."

"Well," Momma mulls it over. "We do have several dogs that are highly unlikely to be adopted. Would she accept one of those?"

"I have a dog in mind," I say.

"No," Momma says.

"No?"

"The Yorkie needs our attention. For a week, at least."

I smile. "I agree. Besides, I don't think the Yorkie has had good experiences on the street. And he wouldn't offer much protection for Arly. I was referring to 403." 403 is mostly deaf. A small German shepherd who was rescued from a lab two years ago, she was used in tax-payer funded tests to observe what would happen if you cut the nerves that connect taste buds to the brain while leaving the bitter-taste nerves intact. This involved slitting the throats of dogs and puncturing their eardrums to reach the nerves. The result: The dogs had to learn other ways of avoiding things that tasted bitter. The Cavalry Animal Shelter couldn't let her be adopted by the general public because she had a distinct laboratory test tattoo ('403') on the inside of her ear. And since the police occasionally check the shelter for stolen animals, 403 has been rotated from activist home to activist home.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

"Absolutely. 403 will have a guardian and she'll be 'undercover'."

"Well enough. 403 is currently 'undercover' in our quarantine room. I'll get her."

I return to the lobby and say hello to Arly. She doesn't answer. Her eyes are focused on Momma Lisa, who is behind me with 403. Arly stoops down. Hoover seems to understand the situation and steps aside, wagging his tail. When 403 sees Arly, she pauses, cocks her head as if debating the worth of this colorful creature, and scampers across the floor in a frolicsome way, mostly sideways, with her tail gyrating wildly. Arly launches herself onto the floor toward 403 with the exuberance of a child. Burbling baby talk, she grabs 403 who licks Arly's hand with a long black tongue.

"She likes you," Momma says.

"She's tasting me." Arly laughs repeatedly; a sound like a hen with hiccups.

"Her name is '403.' She's deaf. She's yours now, Arly."

Arly's eyes widen. Her jaw gapes slowly, as if held by a weak spring. And now her eyebrows crease. "You haven't found her family?"

"No. We tried. Too much time has passed. Animal bunchers sold her to a testing lab when she was young. She spent three years alone being tortured."

Arly hugs 403 tightly, smiles, and says, "Is she really a gift, or do I have to keep quiet about something?" Everyone laughs.

"Both, actually," I say. "She's for your protection. The city streets are dangerous. When Ann and I walked the streets we saw loonies and crazies running around all over the place."

"True," Arly says, "but we're all on a first name basis."

Everyone laughs, except Momma.

"There is one condition, Arly."

Arly's smile fades a little and her antennae start to wiggle. Her left eyebrow assumes the shape of a hunchbacked caterpillar.

"You need to tell me where you live."

"Exactly?"

"Exactly."

"Very well," Arly says with a tiny smile. "I live in the first floor of a Whirlpool packing carton that I dragged down an alley and placed under a rusty black fire escape. Can't miss it."

Ann laughs. Momma looks perturbed. Arly looks relieved.

Chapter 7

The Animal Rights Conference is held in four of the eleven conference rooms on the third floor of the Boston Marriott Hotel. Ann and I take the elevator up. It is crowded. A huge man steps on my toe, and he glares at me like it was my fault. I hope that he doesn't notice me glancing at the weight limit sign. Or clearing my throat and pointing at it.

Ann and I separate to double our coverage. I arrive at the first presentation early. The assemblage seems to be made up of animal rights advocates and news media in about equal measure, or possibly with the media having a slight edge. I talk with several activists whom I'm acquainted with. I ask them if they know anything about the activities inside the Caucasas Testing Lab.

Nobody has heard about illegal activity, undercover activists, or has any suspicion of undercover cops. I listen to a presentation on "Quantifying Sentience, the Criteria for Assigning Rights." The speaker discusses the ability to feel pain and pleasure, physical and mental, and to be subject to a life. And how sentience is a critical factor whenever there are "rights" conflicts. If one uses the ability to reason as criteria, then many animals must be given more rights than many people with brain damage.

Between presentations, I meet briefly with Ann. Neither of us have gotten any leads.

The second hour I listen to a lively discussion on the AR position on abortion rights. The consensus is against abortion if the fetus can suffer. Science says this is after the 24th week when it has a recognizable EEG pattern (neurons are connected). Doctors use the absence of this pattern to declare a person legally brain-dead and thus deprived of the rights that pertain to personhood.

Someone behind me makes a joke that, according to religious fundamentalists, a fetus is to be treated as a person from the moment of conception until the moment it says it's gay.

"Oop-oop-oop." Up goes the forefinger of a girl in the front row. "What about the 'potential' to be human?"

I'd love to tell her why that's crazy, since even sperm and skin cells and DNA strands have 'potential', but I don't want the presentation to last longer, so I settle on a 60dB facepalm from across the room.

Unfortunately the conversation drags on. Someone says that if you believe that killing a fetus is no different than murder, then every miscarriage should require a complete murder investigation to determine if the woman did anything that may have caused the death of the "unborn child?" If so, she would have to be prosecuted and suitably punished.

After the discussion ends I talk with the moderator, Rob Cohen.

Rob says, "An animal activist, Bob Parker, is working undercover in the Caucasas Lab. I was in contact with him until Monday night."

"Bob may have been kidnapped," I say. "Or not. The police chief hinted that there's an undercover cop in the mix."

"Could Bob be a double-agent, an undercover cop pretending to be an undercover activist working as a lab tech?"

"From the standpoint of Caucasas's management," I suggest, "either undercover cops or undercover animal activists would have been unwelcome."

"And motive for kidnapping," Rob adds.

"Thanks Rob. See you." If Caucasas kidnapped Bob it would explain why his kidnapping wasn't reported to the cops. Or maybe the kidnapping was reported to the cops, but if Bob is a cop they may have wanted to maintain his cover. Perhaps Chief York told me that they suspected animal activists to throw me off the trail in order to protect their undercover cop.

I leave the conference room and enter the hallway. It is lunchtime and Ann is walking very fast toward me. As she reaches me, she says in sotto voce, "The police are here. They're looking for you."

"I don't understand."

"The Caucasas Drug Development Center that you mentioned on The Bert Stevens Show just burned down. An employee died."

Yikes. I have heard of cases where sudden terror and stress have caused involuntary evacuation of the bowels, and I know without question that this moment is the nearest I have ever come to suffering that unhappy fate. "And they suspect me?"

"They may only suspect that you know something about it."

I quickly tell Ann what Pete told me, and I say, "I can't spend time in jail waiting to be cleared. I have clues to work with that the police aren't going to follow. DDoA has the beagle puppies and they kidnapped an undercover person named Bob Parker. And the cops aren't going after DDoA, they are going after activists."

"Follow me," Ann grabs my arm and pulls me toward the stair exit. As we enter the stairwell, someone behind us yells "Police!" in the kind of high-pitched voice you use to yell "Grenade!"

I follow Ann down the stairs.

When we get to the ground floor I crack open the exit door. The parking lot looks like a dealership for used police cars. I spot my Prius with a cop standing casually ten-feet behind it. He's watching the front door of the hotel. When his head turns in my direction I pull back inside like a turtle in its shell.

"That cop might spot me if I walk out of here." I hand Ann my car keys. "Go talk with him and stand on the other side so that he has to look away from the hotel. Then I'll scoot."

Ann leaves. A few seconds later the stairwell door creaks open above me. Ann has not yet reached my car. I have to take a chance. I slip out of the building and around the corner. A dozen people mark my passage. Every eye that turns my way feels like a gun-sight following me.

Sirens are nearby, but I have no idea where they are heading. I walk briskly down a street, turn right until I reach an alley, and cut over between buildings until I'm out of sight. I pick up my pace, sprinting past small clusters of people, as if my feet are trying to keep pace with my mind. Should I be running away? Five blocks and five random turns later I am breathing so fast the wind cuts my lungs. I stop to catch my breath, bending at the waist. I look left, right, and forward. This isn't a part of town I know. Where am I going to go? And I don't have a plan except that I can't return home. I can't get Hoover. Cops will be watching there.

When my mind stops swimming I realize that I should find a taxi. I stop an elderly couple whose faces are scribbled over with agreeable feelings and benevolent reactions to life. The elderly man's cap tells me he uses "Off!" bug spray. I wheeze. "Where can I catch a taxi?" My toes are cramping, so I curl and uncurl them while I bounce to keep warm.

Uneasily, the man points in the same direction that I've been going. "Two blocks toward the ocean. Downstream, as the gutters flow."

As the gutters flow? I want to ask what he meant, but the couple strides off, glancing back at me and whispering anxiously to each other about which way they will run if I come after them.

I find the line of taxi cabs, jump into the lead cab, and tell the cabbie to follow my directions. As he pulls into traffic I catch a glimpse of flashing blue lights behind us. I slide down a little. After three blocks the lights are still behind us. I tell the cabbie to turn right. I lean forward, hand him a $20-bill and say, "I might disappear in a hurry, friend. Pay no attention."

The cabbie gives a quick and startled look in the rearview mirror. He might be fifty or eighty. Apparently he reads my mind, because a little grin sneaks out from underneath his moustache. "I'll slow down," he says, "and go through the next traffic light as it turns red. I'll turn left in front of oncoming cars. I'll turn left again and stop briefly. If you cross the street and go through that bank you can catch a cab on the other side."

"You are an astute and intelligent Bostonian." I activate my iPhone and delete all the contacts.

The cabbie slows down sooner than I expected. "Now?" I ask.

"No, no," the cabbie says. "Sorry. My instincts. I saw a 'Baby on board' sign."

"That's very considerate."

"Not really. That sign is a threat. It's saying, 'I have a screaming baby and a wife. I have nothing to live for.'

I laugh. He stops. "Here we are."

I hand him the iPhone and say "It's unlimited until the account expires at the end of the month. Use it all you want. You may notice a police escort at times."

"You're not worried that I'll steal your identity?"

"No," I say. "But if you decide to become me, cops will be after you, and my sister will expect you to visit our parents' graves."

He hands me a business card. His name is John Smith. Ha. "Call me if you need another ride," he says.

"Thanks, John," I close the taxi's door. As John drives off I think he gives me a little wave. Just in case he did, I wave back.

A lot of people are entering the bank, so I go in the door marked TUO. I approach a teller who clearly has been selected for his position primarily for his ability to curl his upper lip and raise his eyebrows just that extra quarter of an inch which makes all the difference. After I hand him the required two IDs with photos, a blank check (No. 149, "Abandon Hope" series), and a stool sample, he holds up my driver's license so he can compare my face and the license photo in one view. My license photo looks like I was hit with a stun gun. Today we are a perfect match.

The teller nods and hands me new bills, not in circulation long enough to have many sins clinging to them. I might even be their first. Before I leave the bank I bend my credit card back-and-forth until it splits and drop the two pieces into the trash. One lady sees me and lightly applauds. I bow. I'm a hypocrite. I still have one more for emergencies.

Outside, I hop into a cab which starts to move even as I pull the door closed. I tell the cabbie to take me to the Robert Paine Cemetery, three blocks north of my home. My parents are buried there. They purchased the last five plots in the early 1960s. Even as children, Corky, Bill, and I always knew that our lives, and our after-lives, were well-planned. Their plan for me was solid until I said "I want to be a professional musician!" which is the worst possible outcome of making your child play an instrument.

In fairness, I persuaded them to buy my first guitar by suggesting that if they didn't I could become very bored and father a child. Bill followed my path, and a few years later we were in a band called Kkiykiuujju (pronounced "Cosmic Nomads") enjoying the thrill of being onstage, with all our friends in the front row yelling, "You stink!"

Corky is the oldest sibling. She may have been born before my parents were quite ready to have a child, as evidenced by the fact that they gave birth to an adult. Paine Cemetery is where Corky and I played because there was no park nearby. We left hidden notes for each other. It's how I hope to communicate now.

Just inside the cemetery gates, I sit on the bench across from my favorite headstone. Its epitaph reads "May the earth rest lightly on Casper Connelly's whimsical and courageous heart." I can't remember why, but Corky and I think that Casper's ghost still floats around here. We have always spoken with Casper. I close my eyes and tell Casper I am going to rescue Bob Parker. Casper's ghost rustles in response. Or maybe it is the wind.


Chapter 8

I go from the cemetery, to a hiding place, to another hiding place, advancing towards my home. When I reach my street I hear a car moving slowly. I squeeze into a row of tall shrubs. A police cruiser passes. It idles slowly toward my home, slows further, passes my home and speeds up. The same cruiser passes ten minutes later. Even if I can get in and out with Hoover, he's probably safer at home. My stomach feels like the inside of that police cruiser's exhaust pipe.

From the shrubs that cloak me I can see Arly's vacated house. I walk briskly, climb a rusty hurricane fence and drop into the mud and weeds of what once was Arly's backyard. The back door to her home is locked. The side door of the attached one-car garage is jammed shut but not locked because it is warped and doesn't close completely. I force it open. The garage is empty except for some rusty, bent garden tools and a step ladder. On the wall, hanging on a hook, is a dog bowl. I lift it so I can read the inscription on the side. It says "Sparks".

This is not the Ritz, but it beats a Whirlpool packing carton.

I find scraps of paper in the yard, courtesy of the wind, and try to write clearly on them with pieces of dried mud. The problem isn't with my tools. It's with my handwriting, which has slowly morphed from young man to eccentric artist to elephant with a paint brush. Eventually I produce a barely legible note and bask in the glow of my accomplishment: "Won't join band 4 a while." Unless, of course, they decide to play the circuit of nightclubs in Butte, Boise, and Anchorage.

I take the note to the cemetery, hide it, tell Casper's ghost to protect it for me, and return to Arly's garage.

Minutes seem like hours. Occasionally I peak outside and look down the block to see if the police or someone I know comes by. Between the slats of a wooden gate I see the moon perched in a tree. Each time I check it has climbed through a tangle of limbs until its mild pearl color is fiercely white. When the cool globe finally rests atop the tree like a Christmas ornament, it seems so close that I could reach out and touch it. Now it has climbed smoothly into its customary place among the stars.

I have no idea what to do next. I could whistle the theme to The Andy Griffith Show, but why show off when there's no one around to ooh and ahh? To avoid an attack of claustrophobia, I decide not to pass the time by thinking of the ways the garage is like a mausoleum. I chase sleep for a few darting hours. It is the equivalent of reading a sign between the cars of a passing train.

I wince in pain and come fully awake. The pain is from sitting against an open stud in the wall.

Saturday dawn. It's cold because the sun has yet to war against the darkness. I sneak back to the Robert Paine Cemetery to see if Corky got my note. It's quiet, the gardens and trees touched by fog. At the entrance, a drunk lies on one of the benches, eyes closed tightly, gray stubble on his face, clothes slept in, bottle in a brown paper sack – a stereo-type hobo. I watch him for a minute. When he opens his eyes, I'm relieved for some reason. He stares at me but I think that either he doesn't see me or I'm not here. He begins to mumble eternal truths to the universe. Something about things never being what they seem.

From the entrance I follow the path from mausoleums to weeping angels to Old Rugged Crosses. Gradually they give way to simple headstones. I stand beside the plain square headstone of my father: Here Lies MICHAEL BAKER.

Always a fair man, in his last will and testament he stipulated that at his funeral, after the eulogy was read, the crowd could have equal time for rebuttal. In the four years since his passing his memories have grown more rather than less vivid. He made all my days of life meaningful.

Three empty plots adjoin my Mom's and Dad's. I will never occupy mine. I have offered my body to medical science. When my parents were alive I could never tell them I believed that a proper burial was without your organs. Of course, I'm not entirely altruistic. I did indicate on my donor card that my organs are not, under any circumstances, to be used to save anyone who roots for the New York Yankees.

I feel guilty looking at my parents' headstones, knowing that they expect me to be by their side someday. That's why I haven't told Bill or Corky, and why I don't ever talk about it. I can discuss almost anything else. Dandruff, things wadded up in napkins, someone's last colonoscopy examination. But not burial plots.

Behind the headstone, under a small pile of dried leaves, Corky has left a short golf pencil and a message that says, "Been monitoring local animal shelters. All but one ('one' is underlined) beagle is accounted for. Hoover is fine. Eat something." The underlined 'one' is key. One beagle has either died, or he is the primary motivation for the rescue.

It's well known in animal rights circles that bonding to an animal is the most common motive for an animal liberation. Before someone breaks the law and risks their own freedom it often takes more than just an abstract philosophy of animal liberation. It takes a personal, emotional connection with an animal. If this is such a case, there is a chance that the missing beagle was taken to a local vet.

I tell Casper Connelly's ghost my plan. I sense his aura gazing at me, telling me quite clearly that I have gone round the twist. It doesn't bother me though. A lot of living people gaze at me the same way.

I walk six blocks to a YMCA. I sense someone is following me. When I turn around I hear quick movements. Paranoia.

Inside, I wash up using dispenser soap and paper towels. I use their phone to call a cab and go to the veterinary clinic nearest to The Caucasas Animal Testing Lab.

The veterinarian, Dr. Cailo, is a short, sturdily built woman with a mass of curly blond hair. With an Asian slant to her blue eyes, she seems to be an ethnic group unto herself.

"I'm looking for a beagle that needs special medical attention." I hope to make it sound as if it is a matter of life and death. "Has any beagle been brought in recently?"

"No," she eyes me suspiciously.

I ride her with my stare. First imploring. Then threatening.

She smiles at me as if I have a facial tick.

"Please contact the Cavalry Animal Shelter if any beagles are brought in."

"I will," she says. "Goodbye."

Another veterinarian, Dr. Joey Drexel, is two blocks away.

At the reception desk is a small gray-haired woman with the expression of a frightened squirrel. Her name tag reads Mrs. Bill Johnson, a lady who apparently has not only lost her maiden name but lost her first name as well. She smiles to a place a little above my right shoulder. She tells me to take a seat. I sit and study a poster depicting the life cycle of the heartworm. After a half-hour I return to the reception desk. "Mrs. Johnson, I'd like to speak with Dr. Drexel, please. It will take only a minute."

Her squirrel eyes open in alarm as if I'm trying to scare her off a bird feeder.

Matter-of-factly I say, "I assume he is in."

She shrugs her shoulders as if I've asked her the meaning of life.

"Is he with a patient?" I ask.

Her eyes dart to the door over my right shoulder, and dart around the room in frustration.

I don't hesitate. I take four quick steps to the door behind me and open it. Inside, a young man holds a pigeon with one hand, a syringe with the other. The pigeon's lower beak is broken, perhaps from hitting the ground after shaking loose from a hawk. There is no profit in providing medical attention to wild pigeons. Dr. Drexel looks at me and says sternly, "You can't come back here..."

"Have you treated any beagles recently?" I ask.

He looks elsewhere. He makes a point of looking elsewhere. He is as nervous as a politician in church. "Please leave immediately."

"I'm looking for a beagle that was rescued from The Caucasas Animal Testing Lab. Whomever brought in the beagle might lead me to an undercover animal activist who was kidnapped. His life may be in danger."

This concerns him. He plainly wavers. He does sort of a twiddly on the floor with his foot. "What exactly are you saying?" I hear the tremolo in his voice.

"I'm saying that whoever brought in the beagle might know the whereabouts of a man who was kidnapped when the beagles were liberated." I look at him. Only his eyes move back to me. His words come cautiously.

"You were on The Bert Stevens Show ...."

I have just been recognized in public! "Yes," I say proudly. I try not to beam. After all, I am far more excited about this than he is. "Yes, I was."

His words flow. "A Caucasas lab technician brought in a beagle puppy who had been subjected to cruel tests to prove the efficacy of their 'life-prolonging' drug Skulk. The tests were nihil ad rem, since the causes and effects of the life expectancy of beagles and humans do not correlate in any meaningful way. Pointless," he says and shakes his head. "Did you say that a lab technician was kidnapped?"

"Yes. But he didn't appear to be complicit in the beagle liberation, so he wouldn't have brought the beagle to you. Unless he escaped. Was his name Bob Parker?"

"No," Dr. Drexel hesitates. "I know only her first name. Jill." He strokes the pigeon, perhaps calming them both.

If Jill is a lab technician, did she know Bob? What is her affiliation with the DDoA gang? "I need to find her. What can you tell me about her? Any details. Don't rush. Take your time. You should do the same when purchasing footwear."

There is a slight but perceptible pause. He laughs. "Jill is blond, about five-eight, fine-boned, and sporting a black eye and swollen cheek she claimed was the result of a lab accident. Although she works for Caucasas she's sympathetic to the pain and suffering of the lab animals. She has brought animals to me now for several years. Animals that had been subjected to tests and that afterward were deemed 'expendable'. I always thought that she was doing it with the approval of Caucasas, until one day recently when she said that she couldn't pay me until after her next pay check."

"Thanks. If Jill is a Caucasas employee, I can locate her," I say. "Is the pigeon OK?"

"He should start recovering after these antibiotics take effect."

"You are a good man, doc. This conversation never happened. Trust me, animal activists have protected each other's secrets successfully for decades."

He smiles, turns his full attention back to the pigeon, and says, "Do you know what the word 'Caucasas' refers to?"

"A mythological mountain?"

"Mt. Caucasas is where Zeus bound Prometheus and tortured him over and over."

"Audacious name for an animal testing lab," I say.

"Audacious," he repeats.

I point to a blanket on the floor. It was probably used to catch the pigeon. "May I take this?" I ask.

"Sure," he says.

I drop $200 cash on the stainless steel table and say goodbye. He hands me a business card, looks up and says, "Call anytime. What are you going to do?"

"Capture the gang that kidnapped Bob."

He says, "You're crazy."

"Yeah," I say. "That's what Casper Connelly's ghost told me." That probably didn't help my case.

Chapter 9

I take a taxi to the Paine Cemetery and give the blanket and forty dollars to the hobo on the bench, realizing that giving money to an alcoholic may be like giving Murine to a peeping Tom. Hope I'm wrong. At my dad's grave I leave a message; "Jill somebody? @ Caucasas". I go back to Arly's garage, sit down, and involuntarily fall asleep. When I awaken I return to the cemetery. My note has been replaced with a note that says "Jill Phillips" and an address in Somerville.

Could Jill be the undercover cop, and not Bob, who is providing info to Chief York? If so, why would she be nearly broke and taking animals to a vet? Inside the funeral director's office I call another cab. I look at myself in the cabbie's rearview mirror and my hair is as tousled as my brains. I hope the cabbie doesn't notice how nervously I keep turning around, watching for a tail.

Needing toiletries, but wishing to avoid any place where the cops might be hanging out, I have the cabbie drive me to a crime-ridden part of town. I stop at a drug store. The proprietor pales a little when I walk in, but he says nothing and starts organizing his cash register just as if I am not offensive to his sight. I select a bag of Oreo's, which are vegan. As I move around the store the proprietor electronically adjusts the security mirrors. I select a "travel kit" of bath accessories.

Two people are in front of me in the checkout line. First is a lady whose cart is filled with potato chips, ice cream, cookies, and chocolate milk. I hate to imagine what her family looks like, if they're still alive. Directly in front of me is a man buying gas-x, lice treatment, and condoms. For society's sake, I hope they all work.

As my cab nears Jill's neighborhood, ineptly lettered signs offer services that have a sleazy ring to them. Checks Cashed No Questions. Drive Thru Auto Recoloring. The House of Grill Repute. There's a pigeon moping around the sidewalk that looks just as annoyed to be in this neighborhood as all of the humans.

I exit the cab and cross the street to Jill's apartment. The steps have, each in its own direction, settled slightly out of plumb. There are no listings for the tenants, but there is a piece of cardboard taped to one intercom buzzer and the initials "JP." I ring that buzzer.

I hear a crackle. A female voice asks, "Who is it?"

"Clark Baker."

"What are you selling, Mr. Baker?"

"I'm not a salesman, Jill. I want to talk with you about Bob Parker. He's missing."

Pause. "What do you mean 'he's missing'?"

"I believe he was kidnapped when the beagle puppies were liberated."

The buzzer sounds, I open the splintered wooden door and step into a dark hallway. I go up a rickety wooden stairway to the second floor. I find Jill's apartment, the number six written on it in pencil. Before I knock I listen to the sounds inside. A female whispers to somebody to be silent. An inside door quietly closes. I knock. I am greeted by what appears to be a pretty girl disguised as a walking can of Sherwin-Williams paint. She has unsuccessfully attempted to cover her swollen black eye and bruised left cheek. She looks as if she's been crying.

Her apartment has crumbling plaster walls and it's so small that you could raise quality veal in it. Yet it has the empty feeling of an abandoned warehouse and the strange briny smell of radiator steam. One step inside and I'm already in a living room-kitchen combination. A stove, sink, refrigerator, and small unpainted pinewood table line up against one wall. A damaged sofa, a bookcase with a dozen books, and a large Habitrail with white mice are against the opposite wall. Lemon disinfectant has been sprayed generously within the last few seconds. At the far end of the apartment, maybe fifteen feet away, is a closed door from which I hear weak whimpers. A beagle puppy, I presume.

Jill motions for me to sit down. I sit on a chair with a brown stain that looks like a peanut butter sandwich run over by a car. She sits, shifts in her chair, feigning relaxation, but still hasn't said anything. Mental odds are two to one her first question is going to be "How did you find me?" Even up for "How did your nose get pulled into this?"

But the dark horse comes in and she asks, "Why do you think Bob was kidnapped?"

I'm grateful I don't have to give up Dr. Drexel. "Bob is an undercover animal activist." Jill's eyebrows rise, her mouth opens, but she doesn't say anything.

I tell her the story briefly; that Arly's friend Jacob saw three men lead another man from the lab against his will. As I speak, Jill bites her lip. I stop talking. Silence lengthens. Jill sits upright, forward in her chair, her knees together, and both feet on the floor, side by side.

She clears her throat as though she's been thinking something through and says, "I work alongside Bob. We're both lab technicians. I wish I'd known he was undercover." She stands and moves to the window, her head floating like a lady in a dream. Perhaps events are moving too fast to seem real to her. She pulls back a flowery bedspread draped as a curtain. Light comes in and makes the place look worse. She looks at the blank wall of the building opposite, crosses her arms and holds herself.

After a safe and sympathetic silence, I say, "I'll listen, if you feel up to telling me about it."

A steam pipe hisses like a living thing. I want to hiss back to tell it to keep quiet.

She sits down again. Her expression changes with an unreadable emotion. She pulls her legs up underneath her. "Do you think whoever kidnapped Bob might also kidnap me?"

"We don't know the motive of the kidnappers. Do both you and Bob have valuable information, perhaps involving the Skulk drug testing?"

She nods. Shrugs. This is as clear to me as the reason yawns are catching. She inhales deeply, "Yes, we know that after a stockholder meeting last week there was pressure to get Skulk to the market immediately. Animal tests are done primarily to provide legal protection for the company, in case people die later. Management told us to stop testing the drug and to finalize our lab report by forward extrapolating a thousand pages of results."

"A thousand pages? At least it will be easy to find once we find whomever took it."

"They were supposed to give it to me. It's on a sixty-four gigabyte USB memory card. Black and red plastic."

She knows who has it. I remain still and silent. She continues, "The beagles were going to die that night. I was fond of the smallest one who I called 'Beau'. I knew it's a mistake to name them. As I've done many times before, when it was time to close the lab I stopped to say goodbye to the beagles. I caught Beau's eyes. Big, soft, brown eyes staring up at me. There was no hatred in them, but they were saying something to me, those eyes. They were saying, 'Why are you going to do this to me? I ache to live. Please get me out of here.'"

As she talks I can hear the hurt in her voice. It runs deep.

She pauses, but when she continues her voice is resigned. "I looked away to escape those softly accusing eyes that said, 'You have caused me pain, but I forgive you. You don't realize how much you hurt me. I forgive you for it, but please don't let me die.'"

Jill squirms in her seat. Her mind seems to go somewhere else. I say nothing because I'm afraid that any further interruption will discourage her from finishing what she's begun to tell me.

A car toots angrily outside on the street and Jill jumps. She takes a deep breath and continues, "I decided to rescue all the beagles and make it look like an ALF action. I had to hurry. The window to rescue them was open that night, but by morning I knew the window would be closed, locked, and aggressively caulked. I needed an alibi, so I called a man who frequently supplies lab animals to Caucasas. I figured that an animal buncher would do anything for money even on short notice." She throws up her hands in disgust. "I was correct. He stipulated $1000 up-front and $1000 upon delivery of the beagles, rats, and lab report. After I thought Bob had gone home I left, leaving the lab door unlocked. I went home, grabbed every possession of value, took them to the Saint Dismas Pawn Shop, and chatted with the owner so he'd confirm my alibi."

Jill stands up and walks back to the window. "But I certainly didn't hire the buncher to kidnap Bob. Why did Bob return?"

"As an undercover animal activist," I speculate, "Bob probably wanted to rescue the beagles like you did." I don't mention the possibility that if she is not an undercover cop then Bob might be a double agent who was at the lab to stop the rescue. "If Bob saw the bunchers' faces it would explain why they took him. If that happened they would have no interest in you. But Bob is not likely to be alive."

Jill wobbles like she was punched.

"But if Bob didn't know the bunchers were taking the beagles to you, he may have resisted, and perhaps the bunchers figured out that with so much interest in the beagles and the report that anything connected with them, including Bob, may have value. If that happened, Bob is likely to be alive and held for ransom. And to answer your earlier question – you might also be a target."

She looks at her bathroom door rather than at me. "What should we do?"

We? "Not sure. But if I were you I wouldn't go back to work. Stay home. Don't open the front door for anyone delivering packages, or anyone wearing a hockey mask."

Rather than laugh, Jill looks harder at the bathroom door from behind which the whimpering has increased a few decibels. I, too, attend the sound with interest. I realize that the "we" was not Jill and me. It was Jill and Beau.

"Can you describe the buncher that you hired?"

"Large. Strong. Called himself 'MoJo.' Had a military haircut. Scar over his right eye. A tattoo of a happy face with a knife through it. Friendly guy, actually." She looks at the whimpering door. "I'm not sure what happened to the other four beagles..."

"They were all dumped at the Cavalry Animal Shelter. They're alive."

She turns to me and beams a sunrise of a smile. "That's a nice surprise."

"Why weren't you given all five beagles and the report?"

Jill steps away from the window. Like two people in an elevator, I stand up and give her a few feet of personal space, which forces me to the window.

"I paid the animal bunchers $1000 in advance." She raises her hands and moves them up and down. She is pantomiming a person either milking a cow or laboring to steady a steering wheel. "I drove out alone to Paul Revere Park," she says, clarifying that point, "to pay them $500 of the remaining $1000. I didn't get enough money from the pawn shop for the final payment. Or to pay my rent. I was scared.

"I hoped that $500 might suffice since I knew from the newspaper account that they had taken only five of the eight beagles and no rats. But they gave me only Beau and told me that the remaining four beagles and the report would cost me $3000 more. I told them that I didn't have any money, and that I'd already pawned everything I owned worth a plug-nickel." She looks around the room. I look around the room. She is correct. The most valuable item is a frog umbrella stand that makes my eyes burn. "Apparently they thought I was lying. They gave me twenty-four hours, and one with a deep voice said that if I didn't deliver the cash, there would be 'pain for all.' Then, to demonstrate, he punched me in the face." Her face contorts before she throws her hands over it.

I wait until she peeks out. When I peek in she smiles a little. I say softly, "What can you tell me about them?"

"The buncher who I struck the deal with, MoJo, wasn't there. There were three others; tougher looking, with tombstone tattoos. Must be their club logo. One wore a cap that said 'DDoA'. I'm afraid I don't know more. I was trying not to make eye contact with them."

"'DDoA' stands for 'Dead Dog on Arrival'," I say. "It's a gang. I'm going to find them."

She looks at me with a bemused expression. "You look ready to drop; you are disintegrating."

This rattles me a little, since Fluke's promotional photograph shows me to be a man with a smooth baby face. Blond curls. An oddly lopsided grin. But no hint that I am disintegrating. I start to deny it until I catch sight of myself in a reflection in the kitchen window. I look like a wild man. I have rumpled hair and rumpled clothes, I haven't shaved, and my eyelids struggle at half-mast. I reckon in her assessment she treated me kindly. "I am a fugitive from injustice," I explain. "A person-of-interest in the arson at The Caucasas Drug Development Center – which I had nothing to do with, by the way. I hope that the police catch the real culprit soon, so that my exiled condition is fugacious."

Jill blinks as if she's been hit with an unabridged dictionary. Fugacious is not a common word. I used it in hope that it might lessen the likelihood of her suspecting that I am an actual criminal. Regrettably this reasoning is not my dumbest thought ever. But it's a candidate for the top ten, nudging out the time that I thought I'd be able to understand the movie "Porky's 2" without first having had sex with my cousin.

She continues to stare at me like I just barfed up the dictionary. "Why do the cops suspect you?"

"Sad to say, the day before the arson, I'd mentioned that I thought the Drug Development Center was worth more torched than it was left standing – and that I, too, preferred it burnt."

"You told that to the police?"

"No. Well, actually, I told everyone watching The Bert Stevens Show." I puff my chest out a little.

"Television?"

"Yes." I look around the barren room. No TV.

"If you wish, before you go back on the lam, you can take a shower." She points to the bathroom door.

"That would be wonderful."

Jill opens the door and introduces me to Beau, the liberated beagle puppy.

After Beau squirms back and forth between us nonstop for a full five minutes, Jill says, "Use the towel in the top drawer to your right."

I turn the shower handle up, spin the hot-water valve, and immediately a water cannon hits me right in the chest. It could easily be used for crowd control. I squirm away and pull myself up to the controls. The shower has only two adjustments. The other one provides an incredibly fine spray that is like washing in fog.

After a few minutes of being alternately misted and bludgeoned I feel clean and the water is an unparalleled joy. I finish showering, dress, and open the door a crack. Jill is sitting on the couch with Beau. When I come out, buttoning my shirt, Jill asks, "Do you want to stay here for a few days?"

I miss-button my shirt. I fix it right. The invitation sounds great – but the parade of skeletons from my past that Ann wants to review is already too long.

"Thanks, Jill. But Casper Connelly is letting me stay at his place. If the police snoop around there, I'll call you."

"My phone doesn't work."

"Broken?"

"Shut off. Lack of payment."

"Have you called the phone company? Sometimes they negotiate."

Inexplicably, Jill is smiling. She pushes stray tendrils of hair away from her cheek. "Yes. I tried to make a deal, as actual payment was not a possibility. Would they like a pet mouse? Are they interested in knowing what tests were done on the drugs they are taking? Would they like to know what makes me think that I have the right to regard celebrities with such marked distaste? They would not. They would like $167.13. I agreed that this was, indeed, an understandable preference, but cautioned them against the soulless quality of a life devoted to the blind pursuit of money. We never reached a settlement."

I laugh and reach for my wallet. "Do you need some money?"

"No. I'll be fine. I just need to tighten my belt a little bit," she says. "Or eat it."

We share a laugh. "I'll be in touch," I say. Assuming that DDoA doesn't tan my hide and make me into a rug.


Chapter 10

I wait almost a half hour for the microfilms of the last five years of the Beacon Hill Examiner. The librarian says, "Thank you for your patience and understanding." I have not been patient and understanding, and I resent the assumption.

"No problem," I say, as I take the tapes from her.

"Mr. Baker," cautions the librarian, "you may not take those tapes out of this area. Those are reference materials."

"But I'm going only ten feet across –"

"Nowhere," she says sternly while studying me carefully. She does not appear to be enjoying her field of study.

Now and then, a man must acknowledge defeat. Have you ever seen a bear guarding her cubs? A librarian defending her publications is far more formidable. Naturally, I capitulate and about-face with the Examiner tapes. I sit at the machine directly in front of the librarian and start to read the local police blotters for arrests of DDoA gang members. The gang is mentioned in four arrests in the past 12 months. One for being drunk and disorderly, one for harboring a stolen dog (nobody could prove that DDoA didn't find the dog loose), and two for selling crystal methamphetamine. The arrests were all near Quincy, ten miles south, in the same area of South Boston where 'Whitey' Bulger's gang operated thirty years ago.

In that same area of South Boston there are many rewards being offered for the return of missing dogs. I write down several addresses.

I take a taxi to a rental car agency located in the nearest shopping mall. Hopefully the police don't have an APB out on me. I show the rental car clerk my ID. I prepare to scamper away if she pushes a button under the counter or says, "I'll be back in a minute."

I should not have worried. She is barely engaged enough in her job to talk with me. She offers me one of three car models remaining in their stable, all three following the recent trend to name cars in a way that suggests they are good for the ecology. Dodge Rain Forest. Chevy Compost. I select a Ford Recycle. She says that I made a good choice. She hands me a twist tie and tells me that I have to inflate the air bag myself.

I work the Ford Recycle through Boston traffic. The ride is a trifle rough. It feels like I'm being dragged around town in a tin bath. A motorcyclist passes me and I notice an inscription on the side of his helmet. AB negative. I laugh. He's clearly aware of the risk he's taking. Can I say the same for me? The back of his jacket says, "I don't have to ride it 'like' I stole it."

I drive slowly. In this neighborhood, a Ford Recycle looks as conspicuous as a Rolls Royce. My eyes scan both sides of the street looking for the address of the house that had reported a dog stolen four months ago. As I approach the unfenced front yard, raking leaves is a girl with a serenely wise and beautiful face, upon which intelligence and innocence fight a battle that looks like it might last a lifetime. She has hair the color of the leaves underfoot and high cheekbones giving her a vaguely Oriental look. She has a rose-colored bow in her hair to match her outfit. As the sunlight glints through clouds, the girl gives the effect of a vision – impossibly fragile, ephemeral, so beautiful you see right through her to a better world. Her posture tells me she doesn't know how pretty she is. Not surprising. She has to be all of six years old.

I stop in front of the house and roll down the passenger window. "Good morning," I shout.

"Good morning," she says, without looking over at me.

"Did you report a missing dog?"

She turns, her face lit with expectation. "Did you find Jackson?"

"No," I say, "but I'm looking for Jackson – and for the other dogs who were stolen from this neighborhood." And I can't forget Brutus.

"How are you going to find him?" she asks.

I get out of the car and walk to her. "I have some clues," I say.

"What clues?" she asks, suspicious. I've always found it unnerving to be around intelligent children, ones who can't be fooled and haven't yet learned the social usefulness of lying. They have a way of looking directly at you and staring, as if they've spotted something so hideous that they can't take their eyes off of it.

I feel like she is going through my pockets. She frowns. It makes me uncomfortable to think I have called up such a look of affliction on the face of one so young.

In the house behind her, a window curtain falls back into place. A woman bursts out of the house and says, "What have I told you, Maria? Please go back inside."

"Yes, mum." Maria leaves. Her mother, about twenty-five with shoulder-length black hair, is in soft pinks and whites. Her hair is pulled back from her face and caught with some kind of pin at the nape of her neck. Her eyes are very dark brown. Her face, as she looks sternly at me, seems almost devoid of experience, as if it began just this morning. "I'm calling the police."

"I'm sorry. I'm looking for the gang, DDoA, which may be behind the dog thefts in this neighborhood. They may also have kidnapped a human."

She cocks her head and looks me over. "You don't look like a cop. Are you undercover?"

"Not exactly, ma'am." Short pause. "Not really." Long pause. "Not at all. The man who was kidnapped is a friend of mine." Calling Bob a 'friend' is exaggerating – like going under a train trellis, and then saying I was run over by a train.

Evidently Maria's mom takes my claim at face value. She says, "DDoA stole three other dogs in this neighborhood. They claimed the dogs were loose and they wanted rewards for the return of the dogs."

"Did you pay them for Jackson?"

"Yes. They took $2000. But they asked for $2000 more. I doubted if I'd ever see Jackson, so I decided not to pay more." Her voice quivers at what must be a painful memory. "I had to justify my decision to Maria. It was the most difficult conversation I've ever had."

"You made the correct decision. DDoA broke promises to another lady who never got the beagles she was supposed to receive. Did you report it to the police?"

"Yes. The police said that I needed proof that Jackson belonged to us and proof that I paid to get him back. The police promised they would look into it, while casually dropping the hint that they were working on more serious crimes in our neighborhood. That was four months ago."

Maria watches us with one eye from behind the window curtain. I say, "Do you have any idea where any of the DDoA gang members live?"

"Not for certain. But I suspect that one of the punks lives two blocks south. He's alive today only because I can't afford a hit man."

I don't laugh because the expression on her face says she is not joking. "That would explain the concentration of stolen dogs in this neighborhood," I suggest. "Do you know his address?"

"No, but in his front yard there's a Rottweiler chained to the trunk of a maple tree. And Christmas decorations are up all year 'round. Santa's reindeer are in sexual positions."

"I'll find it."

"What are you going to do?"

"My friends and I will rescue the dogs."

She leans closer to me. Her brown eyes look solemnly into mine and she whispers, choking slightly on the words, "Maria misses Jackson badly. She's had Jackson since she was born."

"What kind of dog is he?"

"English pug. Brown body, black ears and face, white mark on his forehead."

"I will find Jackson," I promise. Hopefully alive.

"My name is Rosalinda," she says. "Do you need help?"

"Thanks, but I'll do this. Once I understand their operation, I have excellent problem-causing skills that sometimes require clandestine operations just a smidgen outside of the law."

"I know a thing or two about clandestine ops," she smiles. "I have navigated my way out of a bowling alley crapper with the lights out using my phone as a flashlight."

I laugh. "I'll contact you if I get stuck in a crapper. The mission's secret password is 'Jackson'."

She gives me a hug.

I drive slowly down the block. After a block and a half there is a Rottweiler tied to a tree. Across the street from the Rottweiler, parking spaces abound, which is good in that I can get one, and bad in that it indicates no one in his right mind would park there. I park. I wait. Adjust the seat. Open the glove box. Close the glove box. Adjust the rearview mirror. Get out of the car and stretch like I'm sleepy. The Rottweiler looks over at me with disinterest, barely awake. I look at him. Nothing happens. I look some more. Same result. No gang member appears. I climb into the backseat, lie down, and listen. It begins raining lightly. I listen to the contrasting rhythms of the rain and the slower rumbling of passing cars.

I wasn't aware of having fallen asleep until I'm awakened by a noise that rattles my teeth. I stay low. I'm worried, so I check. Good news. I didn't soil myself.

My windows are fogged. I wipe clear a small circle and peer through the opening. The rain has stopped. In the Rottweiler's driveway, facing the street, is a 2013 blue Ford Shelby GT500. Probably worth $60K. Somebody needs to re-think the adage "Crime doesn't pay." Maybe it should be "Crime doesn't pay taxes." The Shelby is idling, shaking like an animal coming out of water. It sounds feral, hungry. Inside the car the driver adjusts a baseball cap backwards. He looks like a bulldog with a boot camp haircut. Bingo! Jill said that he called himself "MoJo". I duck down. If he lives here, why did he take the beagles back to Cavalry? Did he want the lab to find them? Or are the dog bunchers just stupid? Stupid is possible. I just read in the police blotter about a criminal arrested after he used a thumb and finger to simulate a gun, but failed to keep his hand in his pocket.

"MoJo" drives away. I scramble into the front seat of the Recycle and start the engine. The Shelby stops at a red light two blocks away.

I hope MoJo isn't in a hurry. His Shelby tops out at more than 200 mph. I need to put the Recycle into low gear to get off a wad of gum.

I follow at what I hope is a safe distance, more than a full block behind. Be cautious. If I lose MoJo I can return to his home and find him again. I trail him to the outskirts of Boston's Roxbury neighborhood and turn onto a narrow dirt road for maybe another mile. There is no traffic, which makes me nervous.

Suddenly on the horizon some enormous corrugated tin buildings rise up from the earth like an incredible lost city. One building grows to three stories tall. A ten-foot high barbed wire fence encloses warehouses and barren industrial buildings with rusted pipes running in and out of them. A railroad track ends nearby. The isolation and size of the compound lends a creepy air to the place, as if I've stumbled upon an abandoned government installation, once forbidden and now forgotten.

MoJo slows as he approaches the gate. I pull off the road and stop, hoping I'm not spotted. I'm uncomfortably close. A guard comes to the gate carrying a rifle and a look of authority. He unlocks several padlocks. MoJo drives through. The guard leaves.

I wait five minutes, and then turn around and idle the Recycle back a half a mile, where I find a secluded place with room to pull off the road.

How can I get closer without looking suspicious? I open the hood of the Recycle so that it appears I have car engine trouble. I'll walk toward the compound and claim I'm looking for assistance.

Out of nowhere, a jogger runs past. Of course! Joggers always appear miles from nowhere.

I get out of the Recycle and start stretching. I twist my neck to loosen it and so many things pop that it sounds like the Fourth of July. I take inventory of my appearance. My clothes don't look like those of a jogger. My clothes say that I've robbed a Goodwill truck.

Lacking a better plan I start jogging at an optimistic pace. After running a short distance, I need to slow down. I have reached the end of my car. At my current pace I can be caught by a reasonably spry turtle.

I reach the compound and follow a dirt path around it. On the barbed-wire fence is a security sign: Pit bulls on angel dust. Ha ha. Three-quarters of the way around I'm jogging so slowly that my left brain lampoons me with the theme song from "Chariots of Fire." Dogs are barking from inside the compound. To hear them better I stop to catch my breath. Maybe hundreds of dogs are growling and barking in a building near the edge of the compound. If Satan has a home base, it is here.

I take a coin from my pocket and toss it at the barbed wire fence. No sparks fly. It isn't electrified. It can be cut.

Nothing else I can do here today. I walk back to my car. During my drive back to Cavalry, I wonder what the compound might have been years ago. I drive to the library. On the Internet, I look up the address of the industrial complex. In August 2010, "Boston firefighting crews were called to a long-abandoned industrial complex in the city's Roxbury neighborhood to fight a fire bigger than any they had seen in 20 years. The blaze was so large that officials called in 160 firefighters from around the city to battle the 9-alarm blaze." Long-abandoned. Now squatted on by DDoA.

I search the Internet for photos of 2013 blue Ford Shelby GT500s in Massachusetts. Sure enough, a proud owner who looks like a bulldog has a Facebook page. MoJo's name is Harvey Hucklebottom. He's assembled a very respectable Facebook profile. His tattoos are never visible. His list of hobbies does not include dog bunching. His mother and grandmother are listed as friends. In many of the photos he is wearing a suit. Like most gang members, he is fooling his family. They probably think he's a banker or a real estate agent. His duplicity is common. Hunters, fur trappers, and others who kill animals cultivate a macho image with their friends, and a wholesome, often religious image with their family. ALF members find their duplicity useful by threatening to make these two worlds collide.

I create an e-mail account and then a Facebook page. I send the following message to Harvey: "I work for the Caucasas Animal Testing Lab. Inside the Lab is a video camera of which you were not aware. I have the only copy of the video camera feed of your break-in at the Lab. I can turn the film over to the police and they will arrest you, but I'd prefer to have you work on the inside of DDoA and help me rescue the dogs inside the Roxbury compound. The police won't offer you such a deal. If you refuse, or if you ignore this message, in order to demonstrate how serious I am I will send the video to your mother, Susan, and to your grandmother, Ethel. And maybe even to the police."

Chapter 11

I want to see Ann. I decide that I will sneak into the Howling Lobster for a few minutes.

At the thrift store "Every Second Counts" I select a cheap winter coat, a shirt that's too small, baggy jeans, and sunglasses. I put them on and look in a store mirror. They do not alter my appearance significantly. Thrift store clothes are no worse fitting than my everyday wardrobe. That is because I never return clothes that I purchase. If one sleeve is a little long, I walk with one shoulder higher than the other. If the color fades with the first washing, I sit in bad light. So I go back through the store and find an accouterment that can't fail to disguise me. A New York Yankees baseball cap. Anyone thinking that I bear a slight resemblance to Clark Baker will eye the Yankees cap and know immediately and without question that it is my evil twin.

At nine PM I park two blocks from the Lobster. I slip my hands into my jacket pockets, hunch my shoulders against the chilling wind with my head down, and mask my gait with a slight limp.

The bouncer, Chas, is at the door collecting the cover charge and stamping hands. He has a body like a sumo wrestler, a face like a moose, and piercing eyes sunk deep into their sockets. If you didn't know that he worked at the Lobster, you'd think that he was here to rob it.

I let a few people pass me until I fall in behind a homeless man wearing jeans and a t-shirt. He's probably going inside for the warmth. Homeless people get inside for free. I am fifth in line. Chas lets people inside only as others leave, so the Lobster is at capacity. A small group of kids exits.

From behind me, a man wearing an expensive suit proceeds to the door with a sidling gait that reminds me of a crab. It is his arms; they are held away from his body the way I do for a minute after I've applied a sticky underarm deodorant. The Crab tries to walk past Chas as if he owns the place. Chas stops him, shakes his enormous head, and points to the end of the line.

The Crab is not deterred. He fumbles with his wallet, hands Chas a bill, and smiles. Chas doesn't take the bribe. The Crab puts it back in his wallet and, as he resumes his purposeful stride forward, flaps the wallet across Chas's face. Chas stops him again.

"I don't care what the rules are," the Crab says defiantly, "I'm going inside now." Apparently he is accustomed to having his orders followed.

Chas blocks the doorway jamb to jamb with the spread of his shoulders, taking a staunch defensive stance: "If you're going to go inside, you might want to order a cola drink to help you wash down that wallet."

The Crab charges forward. Chas grabs the back of his shirt and holds him up like he's a baby kitten. He turns him in mid-air and sets him down. The Crab sidles away. I place five dollars in Chas's palm. I think he recognizes me because as I pass he looks down at my jeans to avoid eye contact.

Fluke is on their first break. My first stop is the men's room. In the wash basin mirror, after I take off my sunglasses, I realize why Chas stared at my thrift store jeans – there is a large dark stain near the crotch. It doesn't look as if I'll be called upon to give any lessons on personal hygiene. I do my best to wash the stain off. It makes matters worse. I try to seem nonchalant about my wet crotch as I look around the men's room. Hey folks, if anybody needs one, I'm available as a life coach.

People are standing three deep at the bar. The booths that line the walls are filled to bursting. I squeeze myself into a mob in the back.

Fluke returns for their second set. Hoover is the first to take the stage. Following him onstage is my replacement, Tommy, the 17-year-old cousin of Chas. Nice kid. Knows most of our songs. Seems nervous.

Ann steps to her microphone. "Have you heard the joke about the man who fell among thieves? The thieves beat him and robbed him and left him bleeding and unconscious in the gutter. Along came two sociologists who looked down on him lying there and said, the one to the other, 'The man who did this needs our help.'"

Some drunk says, "Boo." Several of his buddies join in.

Ann says, "I'm not very good with hecklers. I don't have any snappy comebacks. I did, however, take notes on which car each of you drove here today." There is some laughter. The drunk hides his face behind his upturned beer bottle.

After the chorus of the song "If He Were Alive", Ann steps back and nods to Bill. There's no hesitation or uncertainty. Bill's right hand weaves notes delicately, crisp and pure. Then Bill hits a truly nasty chord: a D dominant 7th, with a flat 9 sharp 13, and the third finger falling at random. A chord like two garbage trucks colliding, dissonance upon dissonance. Bill doesn't make mistakes. Is this a comedy bit? But Bill's face says that it isn't funny. He looks somewhere near the door. He shakes his head, sending a long light plait over one shoulder. With an impatient gesture he pushes it away. What's wrong?

On the far side of the lounge someone hollers, "Baker!"

The mindless Brownian movement of the crowd stops. Heads swivel and bob and squint, looking for the source of the voice. I follow their eyes and see Chief York and a large male police officer pushing my way. Some of the crowd turns toward me. My heart bounces around like a rubber ball and I want to shut my eyes on the ostrich principle that if I don't look I won't be seen. Instead I look toward Ann in a panic. Does she see me?

Ann taps on her microphone. Someone in the audience says, "Oh God, they're opening fire." To get full volume from her lungs, Ann takes a deep breath and masterfully says, "There is a man about to jump from the roof of the building across the street!"

In unison, the crowd seems to take a casual step toward the door, as if they each have suddenly remembered they need to get something from their car. Everyone notices the subtle shift. Suddenly the entire crowd moves as if they each remember their car is on fire, stampeding for the exit, creating a flowing river of people between the two cops and me.

I do some broken field running through the flow. The Chief's partner is young and fast and he moves to cut me off at the door. He is beating me easily until he suddenly runs into a wall named Chas and spills awkwardly on the floor. As I near them Chas says, "Oh, sorry about that." He helps the cop up, apologizing still more. "You're sure you're OK?" he asks, concern in his voice, gripping the cop's arm tightly. The cop says, "Yes, yes. I'm okay. Let me go!" As Chas turns, in order to keep his balance, the cop's feet scamper in a semicircle. As I squeeze past them, Chas glances down at the officer's purpled face, acting surprised, as if only now noticing that he's still holding on to the cop.

I clutch my Yankees cap, keep my head down and run. Outside, the crowd is pouring around the homeless man who I followed into the Lobster. He is ambling across the parking lot with his hands in the back pockets of his jeans. On the fly I peel off my winter coat and baseball cap, startling him as I wrap the coat around him and slap the cap onto his head. Hopefully the police won't shoot him.

I make it to the Ford Recycle, drive to Arly's, open the garage door, park inside, and start breathing again. An hour later I walk to the Robert Paine Cemetery. The drunk is sleeping on the bench, snug under the blanket I gave him. As I pass him he smiles. One of the unlikeliest smiles I have ever seen, because he has perfect teeth. Straight, flawless, blinding white ivories, the kind nobody is born with. Perhaps, like Arly, his economic downturn was recent.

Corky has left me a note that says, "Are you ready for Hoover?"

I leave a message: "Too soon. Visit me tomorrow at Stray Dog Lady's with recon supplies."

I fall asleep listening to the wind whistling through openings in the garage.

I am awakened by church bells. There are several churches in the neighborhood and it keeps being some denomination's turn to ring bells.

After an hour of keeping watch, Corky and Hoover appear. Hoover picks up my scent. He begins sniffing rapidly, pulling Corky toward me. From the side of the garage I wave to them that it's safe. Corky is carrying two full grocery bags. A roll of toilet paper sticks out of one, and bananas are on top of the other, perhaps to give the impression she's just been to the market.

I direct them into the garage. Hoover yips and moans and tries to crawl into my shirt. I hug him tightly. When he settles down, Corky hands me a pair of expensive night vision binoculars, curls my fingers closed, and says, "Don't drop them."

"Oh, now you've spoiled my surprise."

The grocery bags contain black clothing. Bolt cutters. A used smartphone and a netbook computer synched to the smartphone. A slingshot and BB's. Money to bribe humans. Dog treats to bribe dogs.

"This is great, Corky. Thanks."

"Is the electricity on in this garage?"

"No, but I have a new friend the cops don't know about. I'll plug in the computer there."

"Who is your new friend?" she asks, possibly worried that it's Casper Connelly.

"Safer for you and for them if nobody knows."

"If you say so." A sour concession.

Hoover is sniffing around the garage.

I tell Corky how I found DDoA's compound and how I'm blackmailing a member who may provide inside assistance. "I'll return to the compound tonight to gather details so that we can plan a liberation."

"I'll go with you."

"No thanks," I say as casually as one turns down a cookie.

"I'll be your backup."

"I don't need a backup to break into the compound. Why are you shaking your head?"

"I'm sure that you don't need help to break in, but it's like saying that you do not need a parachute to skydive. Which is true. You only need a parachute to skydive twice."

"I can do this. I'm not afraid."

"Yes, Clark, you have guts," her tone implies that I'm a little boy in first grade. "But do you really want DDoA fooling about with them?"

Hoover sits between us, cocking his head, listening to both of us carefully, as though he is a judge taking a case under advisement.

Convincing Corky that I can sing opera would be easier than getting her to believe I don't need her help. "I'm only going to do light recon. After I familiarize myself with the buildings, their security, exits, stairways, doors – I'll put it all together, analyze it, and formulate a plan that we can all work to. I like to think things through."

"Since when? I saw you eat a marshmallow while it was still on fire."

"It was falling off the stick. I had to do something." Granted, historically, my two reasons for doing things without thinking were: it looked like fun, or, I thought it would bounce.

Corky looks at Hoover. "So, you really don't want either my help, or the help of 'you-know-who'? 'You-know-who' can smell danger before you schlep into it." Hoover knows we are talking about him. He listens politely, cocking his head from side to side.

"If there's one thing I know," I say, "and I think there is, it is that it will be less complicated – safer – with one person."

"Do you believe that?"

I thought I did, until I said it out loud.

"I can stay in the car and be ready nearby," Corky says. "In case of an emergency. You know what I mean?"

I know what she means. "No," I say.

Hoover woofs.

"Hoover accepts your pathetic reasoning. I don't." Corky makes a disgusted face, as if sheep dip has just been passed beneath her nose. The image of that face is going to replace math word problems in my worst nightmares. "Besides you and canned, clinged peaches, I can't think of anybody who would be convinced it's remotely possible that you can do a better job alone than with assistance."

Somebody says "phooey." It sounds like my voice.

"I admire your self-confidence," she says, "based though it is on a failure to appreciate the danger."

Corky goes into the prepared section of her presentation, delivered whenever I'm being stubborn. I avoid her eyes, so she talks to the garage door, which seems to flinch slightly at being yanked into the conversation. Hoover shifts restlessly and looks from Corky to me, from me to Corky. Claims are refuted, allegations are hurled, and exceptions are taken.

We do not reach a conclusion. Corky starts to frown, which is like watching a tornado form. Her voice is very soft – almost as if she is talking to herself. "This isn't your local gang of teenagers, Clark. They are an organized-crime force. They probably kidnapped Bob Parker. Suppose that something like that happens to you?"

Never one to spend much time contemplating consequences, such as that of placing a flaming marshmallow on my tongue, I say, "That thought never crossed my mind."

"Thoughts can't cross your mind – the bridge is out."

And yet another thought snarkily crosses my lips without crossing my mind. "I don't want to seem stubborn but I've made up my mind. I'm done talking about this." I hope my smile offsets my words.

"Now you're acting like a jerk." She is right, of course. But she does not have the makings of a good therapist.

Hoover leans against me and whines softly in commiseration.

"There's something you're not telling me," Corky says, "probably because you think you are protecting me – isn't there?"

I nod, although I don't really have a good reason. A lie with a nod is still a lie. But it's an easy lie. "I can explain–"

"–Okay."

"Well, maybe I can't." But I can take a major conversational detour. "Sorry I messed up Fluke's set by popping into the Lobster last night. I just wanted to see how Fluke was doing."

"Don't go darting off at an angle here," she says, but the hardness in her eyes fades. "With you gone and so much still unresolved, it was tough for everyone."

"What did I miss?"

"More than once Fluke sounded as though they were banging together powerful but unfamiliar instruments. The first set was the worst they have ever sounded."

Yikes. "That's bad." When we first started, if our concerts were rated in units of entertainment, they would place between 'a visit to the dentist' and 'cleaning up after your dog.'

"Unfortunately, because of your TV interview, several local entertainment reviewers were present. One said, I'm paraphrasing here, 'The dog onstage barked several times at a drunk who was teasing him. This was the most entertaining part of the evening. The dog was poorly supported by the band.'"

"Ha ha," I say sarcastically. "Speaking of ha ha, except for the heckling, Ann's comedy seemed sharp."

"It had its moments. But not when the critics were present. Eventually she found her timing with the joke, 'My boyfriend rides a Harley. Do you know the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a Harley? With a vacuum cleaner, the dirt-bag is on the inside.'"

I laugh and ruffle Hoover's tangled coat. "It looked like a full house."

"It was. Although some of the audience didn't seem interested in the music. They were hunting for you. After you escaped, the Chief questioned Ann and me about where you were staying."

"What did you say?"

"Nothing. She caught me off guard. Instead of answering I stood there making a mental note of the distance to the nearest exit. Fortunately Ann was composed. She said, 'We're under no obligation to tell you anything.'"

"I'll bet that didn't make the Chief happy."

"No. She said, 'I can arrest you for aiding and abetting a fugitive.' Ann asked, 'Do you have an arrest warrant.'"

"Did the Chief need an arrest warrant?"

"I don't think so. But she paled as if remembering that Ann has a law degree. She said, 'If you are withholding evidence...' And Ann said, 'If you arrest us for withholding evidence that we don't have, no one ends up punished except, of course, jurors and taxpayers.'"

"Ann told the truth. At the time, neither of you knew where I was hiding."

"Correct. Anyway, the Chief left a message for you. She said, 'Please tell Clark to stop interfering with our investigation.' And Ann asked, 'Why do you assume Clark is interfering?' And the Chief said, 'We both know Clark. I'm sure that we can agree that my assumption saves time. If he continues interfering, it will cost him dearly.'"

I gulped. "Cost me dearly?"

"Yes. Parts of your anatomy were mentioned."

Ahh, Chief York. She is exaggerating. She is. "Thanks Corky. Don't worry. The Chief is only guessing that I am interfering. How could she know? If she actually did have someone watching me, they would have arrested me." But didn't York say she had a cop undercover? Could Jill be playing me?

Corky nods perfunctorily. "And a man dressed in an expensive suit asked for you. He settled for talking with Ann. He said that he was a recording executive, but that he would talk business only with you. Suspiciously he kept asking where he could find you."

"Did he walk like a crab?"

"What? A crab? Maybe. I'd say more like his tight Italian shoes forced him to walk like a pigeon-toed flamenco dancer."

"It's possible that he really is a recording executive. Most of them are pressed a little off center. While I don't think authorities could put them in mental hospitals, if they were already in, I don't believe authorities would let them out."

Corky reaches into her pocket, pulls out a business card, and hands it to me. The card is flimsy, like it was printed on glossy home-printer paper with the Milky Way as the background. There is no street address, just 'Dr. Sage Busch', 'Executive Director of Quaren Teen Music.' The fact that the card appears home made with fake names does not make it illegitimate. There is still a dollop of "Milli Vanilli" in the hearts of many record executives.

I move toward the garage door and Hoover follows me. Corky says, "Do you think it is even remotely possible that you might change your mind about ..."

"No."

"Thank you for mulling it over." As her words die away, she seems to be concentrating on some daunting image of impending doom.

"Don't worry. I'll be careful. I don't like pain."

Corky glares at me.

"Okay, I suppose that doesn't make me unusual."

"But you thought you might mention it," she says, "in case I was thinking about kicking you in the pants."

I go through the garage door sideways to prevent Corky from giving me a high-impact fanny tuck. I look over the fence. All clear. I give both Corky and Hoover a long hug.

Corky says, "Be careful." It's the kind of advice that Dad used to give us.

"I will. I promise." One says things like that so easily. Hoover and Corky leave, both of them a little confused for different reasons.

I am not entirely sure why I don't want Corky's help. Am I suddenly becoming macho? Not likely. Stupid? My left brain won't accept that, although it might blame my right brain for stalking my heart. The last time I followed my heart I ended up five hundred miles from home in a '57 Chevy outside a cheap motel in Biloxi. No. Wait. That was a dream. My left brain knows the truth: I didn't ask for help because of a major character flaw called pig-headedness.

"Why do I have to change?" My right brain asks.

My left brain shows me the petition.

I will work on my character flaws later. For now, I will have to be content with spanking my inner moffet. Ouch. Ouch. Done.

Besides, there are times that my pig-headedness is useful. Like now, as I get the slingshot and BBs ready for use. They are packaged in a container that one cannot open unless one owns a home laser cannon. With nothing except pig-headed determination, two hands, a foot, and strong teeth set in a strong jaw, I am proud to say that I have the slingshot ready within a mere twenty minutes. Okay, two hours if I count picking up all the BBs.


Chapter 12

Mildly concerned that I'm being followed, I take a circuitous route to Jill's apartment. It seems a highly untrustworthy coincidence of timing that the Chief showed up at the Lobster minutes after I arrived, spotted me right away, and knew I was "interfering" with the Caucasas case. Perhaps cops are tailing me and the only reason I've not been arrested is because they hope I'll lead them to someone bigger. But I've never actually spotted anyone tailing me.

I want to talk with Jill. After recovering from the shock of learning that Bob was undercover, she may have recalled something relevant to finding him. If she is undercover, I need to ask her the right questions to determine that. And then feed her misleading information.

While I'm at her apartment, if it still has electricity, I'll use Google Earth to "fly over" the DDoA compound and get a layout of its surrounding area.

At the curb, in front of Jill's apartment, the sun glints off a frog umbrella stand. When my eyes stop watering I see more of Jill's possessions piled near the street's curb. Jill comes out of the building holding to her chest with one arm her puppy Beau, and under her other arm, the Habitrail with mice.

I stop directly in front of her couch. She doesn't notice me. I roll down my window. "Are you moving?" I ask.

Her eyebrows shoot up in surprise. "Clark! Hi. Yes. I received some help. My landlord, Marlboro, tossed my stuff into the street. I've been evicted."

"Landlords can't just toss a tenant's belongings into the street." I get out of the Ford Recycle and slam the door, letting her know that I am angry enough to annoy a rental car. "Don't go anywhere yet. I'll go talk to him. Perhaps I can appeal to his humanity." Or threaten him, whichever works first.

"Don't bother." Jill sets the Habitrail on the couch. "Appealing to his humanity would be like telling Jeffrey Dahmer he's using the wrong fork."

"OK," I concede reluctantly. "Where are you going?"

She shakes her head, moves toward me slowly, awkwardly, as if she's wounded. I am ill at ease, uncertain what behavior is appropriate. Beau licks my cheek. I give Jill and Beau a quick hug before I back away.

"Both you and Beau can stay at the House of Hope," I say. "It's a shelter run by a friend of mine. The mice can go to the Cavalry no-kill animal shelter. We'll hold them there for you."

She thinks, as if considering my offer among her myriad of choices. "You'll drive me?"

"'Fraid not. I'm still on the lam, and the cops are probably lying in wait for me at both shelters. But I'll get someone to take you and your belongings there."

When she doesn't protest I call my old phone number. The cabbie John Smith answers like we are brothers. He accepts the assignment.

"Thank you," she says. Her stomach moans. She colors slightly.

"Do you have money for food?" I ask.

"No. But the good news is that I have reached the American dream of financial independence. The bank sent me a letter saying I'm on my own. My account actually disappeared because they've been taking out 'service charges' – as if the tellers had to take my money for walks or something."

"Sorry to hear it," I lament. "I guess the old adage is still true: 'Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank. Teach a man to be a banker and he can rob the world.'" She laughs and I hand her $100. "There is a diner called 'The Food Explosion' that I frequent. It's near the animal shelter. Mention that you are a friend of Clark Baker and you'll be rewarded with a clean stool at the counter." I smile.

She tries to return my smile, but hers falls away. "I don't know how to thank ..." Her voice trails off in a way that leaves me feeling that the talking is still going on inside her head. Softly, she says, "Are you seeing anyone?"

"Seeing someone?" I stammer. "Professionally?"

"No, I mean, are you – dating?"

"Yes, I'm in love with a saxophonist."

I must have been playing with my jacket buttons, buttoning and unbuttoning them. They are currently miss-buttoned, so I fix it right. "How about you?"

"No. I dated one guy for a year. It didn't lead anywhere. I'm as modern as the next girl, but I don't consider 'Trust me Honey' a commitment to replace marriage."

"Not your fault. Times have changed. Everlasting nowadays means approximately two weeks."

"Maybe perishable relationships should be good enough. It's just that, at times like this, I feel so . . . alone."

Filling in the awkward silence before John Smith arrives, Jill tells me about her last relationship. I listen to her while at the same time I eavesdrop on a young couple sitting at a bus stop bench ten yards away. They keep discussing which fast food restaurants have the best burgers. I stare at them until they realize what they have done.

John Smith arrives towing a small U-Haul trailer. As I give him directions to the Cavalry Animal Shelter and to the House of Hope he keeps nodding his head and his moustache waves wildly to the couple waiting for a bus. We load the U-Haul, and he drives off with a toot of the car horn.

At the library it takes me over an hour on Google Earth to memorize the DDoA compound and its surrounding area. I go over it and over it, quizzing myself. It reminds me of college, and how unnatural studying feels. There has to be something unhealthy about putting information where it doesn't want to be.

I return to Arly's garage, change into black clothing, and wait for the sun to leave for Albany and places west.

Walking along the road a mile from the DDoA compound, below a silver-white full moon on a cloudless cold night, I move into trees lining the road whenever a car approaches. A quarter mile from the compound's front gate I go deeper into the woods. Slip one hand into my jacket pocket and hunch my shoulders against the chilling wind. In my other hand are night vision binoculars that I use to follow a deer trail. I move slowly.

Behind the compound I hear a vehicle approaching. I slip into the trees. A pickup truck comes into view through light fog, slowly assembling itself around two pinpoints of white light. Someone riding in the bed is using a hand held spotlight, directing it at the fence, playing it over the barbed wire and grass.

I check the time. I pace behind the trees, staying warm. A half hour later the truck passes again. Identical routine. I go to a section of the fence where rocks abound, a section that the truck's spotlight skipped over both times. I cut the fence carefully. From the inside I use a melon-sized rock to hold the fence in its original position. I move silently and quickly to the buildings, two-hundred yards away.

From building to building, I stay in the deepest shadows, never moving more than twenty yards without stopping, squatting down, waiting, and listening for footsteps or the creaking of rooftops. Dogs bark in the distance.

A hundred yards from a three-story building I pass on the fringes of a three-foot deep by fifteen-foot square dogfighting pit surrounded by empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and other trash. There's a dog lying near one end. I kneel and take his pulse. Dead. I carry him out of the pit and set him under a tree. I continue on. Faint human voices are coming from the east side of the building, so I go west. People are approaching. I duck behind a stack of 55-gallon drums. With my binoculars I watch two overweight men enter the east end of the building.

On the west side, near the corner, I find a door that is not padlocked. I wiggle it. I back around the corner, hiding. No alarms sound. No one responds. I return to the door. It has a standard bolt lock. I slip my plastic book club membership card into the narrow opening at the edge of the door. I make sure that the part of the card with my name on it can't snap off and get stuck there, which would qualify me for the Dumb Animal Liberationist of the Year award. I slide it downward until it hits the bolt. I apply pressure gradually, the bottom edge of the card pushing against the curved face of the bolt, the card moves downward a fraction of an inch at a time, and suddenly the door pops inward.

The room is about twelve by twelve with a twelve-foot high ceiling. Small rectangular windows are eight feet from the floor, letting in some moonlight. I feel safer with peripheral vision, so I clip the night vision binoculars to my belt and wait for my eyes to adjust. Hanging from the corners of the room are webs built by spiders who don't seem to mind that all they catch are crumbling plaster and dust. The walls appear to have been painted at night, with the lights out, in drab and murky colors, brushed on with perhaps an old sneaker.

I listen. The room is not merely silent but seems to be the source of all silence, as the sun is the source of light. Spiders move with perfect stealth through the darkness of the room, and millions of dust motes drift as soundlessly as planets and asteroids in the airless void of space.

I proceed slowly down a dark corridor. I hear voices and I halt. At least four males are arguing. I make out intermittent words. "Blackmail." "Loose end." "Lab report." "Maurice." "Creamsicle Ballet." Probably wrong about that last one. I take a few more steps. I can smell smoke. It smells like they are smoking their socks. The voices grow louder. My heart stops. But they are not approaching, just arguing more vehemently.

I lean against the wall, get comfortable, and listen. What I piece together is that their business doesn't seem to be the sort that is going to be written up in the Wall Street Journal.

One man says, "We got Packer by the short hairs."

"Who's Packer?"

"Alferd Packer. The owner of Caucasas."

"What do we have on him?"

"A report from his company that says their Skulk drug is dangerous."

"How dangerous?"

"Side effects include a bunch of nasty shit." He laughs alone. "In fact, I think 'a bunch of nasty shit' was one of effects. There are too many to remember. Headache, nausea, spontaneous combustion, and death of the patient's entire extended family. Things like that."

"How much could that report be worth?"

"Maybe millions. But I called Packer and he claims the report is worthless – but my bullshit detector went off when he demanded it back immediately."

An older voice says, "I wouldn't trust Packer in the same room with my Pit Bull."

A man apparently not following the conversation adds: "An animal will roll onto his back to demonstrate his harmlessness. A man will grin. It is better to trust the animal."

"I don't trust him, but he paid us after we burned his building and made it look like an ALF action. He's offering us the same deal this time, fifty K, to burn down his vacated animal testing lab. He stressed that we need to do it now because the police will suspect the bozo animal activist who was on television."

Bozo? Moi?

"How will he pay us?"

"Same as last time. In a men's room where the stall walls don't come all the way down to the floor, making it possible to pass a suitcase full of cash underneath, from stall to stall, as God intended."

"Should we blackmail him for big bucks to return the Skulk report?"

"Not yet. Too risky. First we'll get the money for burning the lab, and then we'll blackmail him. It's the Wing-Walkers' First Law: Never let go of one thing until you have hold of something else."

An older voice says, "Unlike wing-walkers, our risk is not in letting go, but in holding on. If we keep that report, Packer could have us chased out of town with our own dogs."

There is a brief silence until a voice that sounds as though it started from the center of the earth several centuries ago and just now got here rumbles, "Don't worry. We won't ever trust Packer." This commanding deep voice without question belongs to the leader.

I am pleased. I want to blame this operation on a single evil entity. I don't want it to be a group edict. I hate bureaucracies. I can't squeeze my hands around the throat of a bureaucracy. I've tried.

"Packer will pay us another fifty K if the 'loose end' is 'inadvertently' trapped in the fire." Deep Voice says. "He stresses that he is not telling us to be proactive – but he will pay us if 'a tragic accident' happens."

The "loose end" must be Bob Parker. Unless Bob is already dead and the loose end is someone they haven't yet kidnapped, such as Jill.

A young voice says, "That seems worth more than a hundred K."

An older voice says, "If we try to blackmail Packer we risk years of profitable dogfighting and drug dealing. Packer knows too much about us. It's not smart to double-cross him."

Another old voice says, "If we get into bed with Packer, we'll be the ones getting screwed."

"Without a kiss," someone adds. They all laugh. High comedy.

A young voice says, "But the lab report could be worth millions. It's worth the risk."

Oh, the young can be so idealistic.

"We will play along with Packer, one calculated step at a time," Deep Voice says. "We have to trust some people to some degree. We can't kill everyone."

The leader is not without philosophy.

Deep voice continues, "It's like the Cannibals and the Christians."

There is a moment of silence until someone admits weakly, "What?"

"You know, Cannibals and Christians. You've got six people trying to cross a river, three cannibals and three Christians, and the boat only holds three people and you can't have one Christian left alone with two cannibals or he'll get eaten."

"I don't think it's very realistic."

"For God's sake," Deep Voice says, "it's not supposed to be realistic."

"Well, I'm Jewish," an older guy says. "Cannibals, Christians, what's the difference? Who can tell them apart?"

"Not you, evidently."

"If Packer doesn't pay us, I will break his balls," says a young voice, like it's something he does every day.

Deep Voice says, "We'll torch the vacant testing lab on Tuesday at 9 A.M., set fires simultaneously from five spots to make it more difficult for firemen. When we collect the money for the arson and the loose end, we will tell Packer that 'Oh, shucks, we forgot to bring your 'worthless' Skulk lab report.' That will call his bluff and his reaction will determine the amount we blackmail him."

There is no discussion and the meeting is adjourned. Chairs suddenly scrape. The ensuing shuffling covers my movement as I back step into the room where I'd entered the building. I press myself against the wall behind the open door. Smoke billows out of the meeting room, filling the hallway and reaching my lungs. I manage to swallow hard and I don't cough. No time to exit so I stand still. I feel like a child again, playing hide and seek with Corky in the cemetery. This has been happening to me a lot lately, memories bubbling up unexpectedly. Some as vivid as meaningless photographs, snapped by my mind for reasons of its own. I'm probably reminiscing because Ann has got me thinking about my past skeletons. Or maybe it's the product of visiting graves. As the DDoA leaders pass me I get the urge to do what I did with Corky, to jump out and say "Boo!" Hey memories, knock it off!

One guy passing asks, "What are you doing tonight? Wanna play poker?"

"Nah. I'm staying home."

Well, that's bad news for the pepper-spray industry.

The first guy chides, "Staying home? Just waiting for instructions from Keg O'?" Keg O' must be Deep Voice.

The smoke is getting deeper into my lungs. When I lower my head to stifle the cough, my shoe squeaks. Someone says, "I heard something in there." My heart stops. Nowhere to hide. I stand frozen, afraid to blink. It is movement that they will notice if they look into the room, not a stock-still shadow behind a door. Camouflage is my only defense.

Another guy says, "Probably just a rat."

"Yeah, probably." The voices recede.

I wait in the silence for several minutes. Through the same bolted door that I entered, I exit. When I push to close the door, it creaks. In the perfect silence it sounds like an Ewok in pain.

"Hello?" A male voice probes from around the corner. "Who's there?" the voice challenges. I hear a shotgun pump into readiness. Footsteps are getting closer. I am in the open.

I pull out my slingshot. It will propel BB's at a speed of up to 250 feet per second. To give you an idea of how fast that is, an ordinary BB, on its own, will rarely travel more than four feet per day, even during the height of mating season. At 250 feet per second they can severely hurt a person even if they don't hit a tender spot. I hate to hurt anyone. I load, aim, and fire. The BB's arc high over the roof and rattle and ricochet off the next building. The footsteps run quickly in that direction.

By the time I get back to the Ford Recycle, my cold hands have become two fossilized hooks with no noticeable function. I catch my breath briefly, kick over the motor, and turn the heater up full blast. It's another minute before I have enough feeling in my fingers to hold steady the phone Corky gave me.

I call Chief York to tell her about DDoA's plan to burn down the old, vacated Caucasas testing lab. I reach the Chief's answering machine. "Damn!" I say, thankfully before the beep. I hang up, realizing that I should have left a message.

"I hate talking to machines!" My right brain says.

"You say that you hate talking to machines as though it is a major philosophical position, as opposed to a description of a minor neurosis," my left brain replies. "If you have a problem like this, you shouldn't go around trumpeting it; you should stay home and practice talking to an inanimate object you already feel comfortable with, such as your toaster, until you are ready to assume your place in modern society."

I reach Arly's garage at eleven PM.

I need to concoct a bulletproof plan for rescuing the dogs. While the DDoA is preparing to set the fire at the old testing lab, around 8 AM I will return to their compound with a full animal liberation front cell. We will create a major diversion at the end of the compound farthest from the dogs to draw away DDoA members. We'll remove the dogs in vans. If it gets ugly, we'll be prepared to use tranquilizers on the two-legged animals.

Chapter 13

My laptop still has enough battery power for me to check my e-mail. Harvey Hucklebottom has responded to my Facebook message: "My family must never know about my gang affiliation. It would break their hearts. I am ready to help you. Am at peace with my decision. Meet me at Paul Revere Park, south side, midnight. We'll discuss how to proceed."

I had originally hoped that Harvey would tell me how many dogs are in the DDoA compound, whether the cages are locked, and the technicalities of their security system. Now I wonder if he was one of the leaders that I eavesdropped on, and what he knows about the "loose end".

Paul Revere Park is fifteen minutes away and I have forty-five minutes to get there. I send Harvey the message that I'll be there.

A preliminary scout around the park might be prudent to confirm that no men with tombstone tats are having a midnight picnic. I back out of Arly's driveway and pull onto Crinklewood. When I shift into forward gear, a car's headlights flip on a block behind me. I drive twenty miles per hour. The car behind me keeps its distance. It can't be tailing me. Nobody knows I'm staying at Arly's except Corky, and not even playing Jessica Simpson songs would make Corky give me up. Besides, Harvey doesn't even know what I look like. I take a few turns. The car is no longer behind me.

To be safe I pull into an Auto Sales lot decorated with crossing stringers of red, white and blue plastic pennants. In the breeze, they snap like the flapping wings of a perpetually hovering flock of buzzards over more than fifty cars that range from soon-to-die to steel carrion. After two minutes my paranoia takes a deep breath and I proceed toward the park.

After several miles the driver of an oncoming car flicks his headlights as he passes me. Maybe to warn a car behind me. No. No car behind me. Must be me. I wave in my rearview mirror and say "thanks" as if he can hear me. I turn my lights off and on. They are working. Odd. Maybe he was just testing his own lights. A few minutes later another oncoming car flicks its lights. Again, I look in the rearview mirror and wave thanks. That's when I see him. Driving with his lights out. A pickup truck tailing me. My paranoia flares up. Calm down. Probably just a typical Boston driver; a good driver in Boston is someone who honks his horn as he goes through a red light. Just to be prudent, I turn left, right, right, left. I'm back on the same road. Anyone following me should realize that the only reason for taking such an odd path would be if I suspected I was being followed. Yet, the pickup is still locked in behind me, lights off.

"It doesn't make sense," my left brain says.

"No, it doesn't," my right brain answers. "That's why it's interesting."

"Interesting?" My left brain says. "I believe your last kernel just popped."

"But not everything can be explained," my right brain insists. "The world is full of strange phenomena that cannot be explained by the laws of logic or science."

My left brain concedes. "Dennis Rodman is only one example."

I look alternately out the windshield and in the rearview mirror. The pickup stays too far back for me to recognize the driver. Flashes under street lights give me the impression it is a large person.

A half mile from the park I spot the Super Snake taillights of the Shelby, ahead of me, traveling at approximately the speed of a car wash. I slow down. What's going on? Is Harvey in cahoots with the pickup truck behind me? Have they concocted some sort of squeeze play? I drop back, letting space open up between me and the Shelby. I time the street lights so that I don't have to stop. I feel a bead of sweat on my forehead. If I stop, someone might get out of the pickup – someone whose hobby is tossing orphans into a wood chipper. Someone who is not intimidated by the fact that I used to wrestle in college and that I have at least one computer password described as "strong."

When I reach Paul Revere Park the Shelby is parked on the far side. The park has a baseball diamond, a soccer field, a stage for performances, a playground, and picnic tables. I park near the entrance with my driver's side door away from Harvey. I'm early, and Harvey doesn't appear to look my way.

I unscrew the interior light bulb so it won't go on when I open the door. I slide down my seat, ease the door open, crawl out and then behind a nearby trash can. If Harvey communicates with the pickup truck then he knows that I'm here and he might approach. I wait. I read the sign on the trash can that says "This is your park. Please keep it clean." Someone has written in below: "Will accept any reasonable offer for my share."

For ten minutes, nothing happens. The pickup that followed me never arrives. Nobody sneaks up to my car with a wood chipper. I will approach Harvey from the other side of the park. Harvey looks over his shoulder to check behind him every minute or so. It is easy for me to move from one concealed place to another in little fits and starts, keeping him in sight at all times.

I work myself behind a blueberry bush that gives me a view of the entire park. Two cars besides my Recycle are parked, another is leaving. A newspaper swirls by in a small gust of wind.

After a while, I worry that Harvey will drive away and that I'll have lost the opportunity to enlist his cooperation. What is causing the cold prickling on the back of my neck? Wind? Apprehension? I am cranky.

My ankles are numbing and my patience is thinning. Well, of course I'm cranky. I've wedged myself into a blueberry bush in thirty degree weather for a reason that escapes me!

It's past midnight. I'm officially late, but Harvey doesn't seem to be anxious or irritated. He's still vigilant. Shall I let him relax and get comfortable before I make my move? Is now the time to make my move? Wait! What IS my move? Who is in control of this situation? Judging by my current perspective of the world, frozen inside of a bush, it doesn't appear that I can make a case for myself.

I rise to a standing crouch, wriggle the numbness out of my feet, and walk behind the ghostly shadows of barren oaks that surround the park. My left brain hopes I'll introduce myself to Harvey and we'll calmly talk and that he'll give me useful information that will assist me in rescuing the beagles and Bob. My right brain toys with the fantasy that I am about to have a James Bond experience and bring down an entire ruthless gang. My left brain reacts to my right brain's fantasy by running through the woods in terror.

Directly across from the passenger side of the Shelby I step in front of a tree. Harvey is talking on a phone, but he'll see me if he turns his head.

I freeze. A car rolls into the park and slowly approaches my car. As it passes I hear metal scraping, but it sounds surreal, like a recording, and commands my attention. Why would somebody want me to think they hit my rental car? I have the briefest vision of ... something ... nothing ... a thick place in the air ... a shadow where there shouldn't be a shadow. Did something move? Probably the wind. No, the wind has stopped and an eerie calm, like that in the eye of a hurricane, hangs in the air. It has a smell. After-shave? Only if they have one named "cremating a cat".

A large man steps in front of me. I jump backwards – as though I've been splashed by a passing car – smack into a tree; which I cling to so passionately that I might very well be committing an act of photosynthesis with it.

The large man looks as if he could defeat me in hand-to-hand combat using only his earlobes. He says, in a voice softer than I expect, "You are going for a short ride. Don't make me hurt you."

I try to look menacing. I remember to narrow my eyes. To my chagrin he doesn't scamper away. Perhaps the lighting on my face is wrong and instead of looking menacing I merely look like Mr. Magoo.

Harvey steps out of the car and orders me to hand over my wallet – this is the same technique used at Disneyland. I don't recognize his voice as one of the leaders I overheard. He looks at my driver's license and hands back my wallet. He asks for my phone, politely, considering the circumstances, turns it off, and hands it to the large man who opens the trunk of the Shelby. They exchange a practiced nod. They've done this before. I am thoroughly searched and patted down.

Without so much as a 'bon voyage', Harvey launches me into the trunk the way you might launch a rocket ship. I'm going for a ride. I need to keep track of how far and in what direction the car travels. I can count the time in seconds and the direction of the turns and estimate where we are. As the trunk lid slams shut I disentangle my face from a pile of wet ropes. I smell feces, urine, and blood. I turn around. The Bonnie Tyler commercial for adult diapers echoes through my mind: "Turn around. Every now and then I get a little bit terrified and then I take a poop in my pants."

When Harvey accelerates, it's fast. When he stops, it's sudden. I'm tumbling around the trunk like a sneaker in a dryer. It's as if he's taking out his rage on me for my little joke about exposing his gang affiliation to his grandmother. I have already lost count of the turns that we made. How could I have gotten all this so completely wrong? I'm smart. I guess I used the wrong parts of my brain – the parts that said, "Trust a gang member to play fair. This is a good idea."

The Shelby stops. For a wild second I think I can coil, spring out, give Harvey a clout alongside the ear, jump into the Shelby, and take the hell off. It gives me a moment of joy.

I execute part one of my plan, although my coiling causes a cramp in my leg. Still, I'm ready. Harvey opens the trunk. Part two, springing out, is splaying like a frog in the trunk and doing a face plant.

I look up. Harvey has his gun drawn. A Smith and Wesson police special with a checkered grip. The empty circle at the front is as dark as the hole of kingdom come. I almost faint until I realize he's just making sure that I don't pounce out at him.

"On your knees, facing me," he says.

He uses three strips of cloth to blindfold, gag, and tie my hands behind my back. He pushes me down and closes the trunk.

He drives to the compound's gate, stops, waits, talks to the guard, and proceeds. No mention to the guard that he has a prisoner. Could this be his idea of how we infiltrate the compound? Maybe he is still considering working with me to bring down the gang, but we're doing it his way. If we are working together, I'd like more of a say in our plan. He turns left, drives, stops, opens the trunk, helps me climb out, and tightens my blindfold. We walk.

He opens a door, pushes me forward, and says "stairs". I snap my leg up like a good soldier and step forward. Fortunately he has a tight grip on me because the stairs go down. At the bottom, he opens another door and directs me inside where he removes my blindfold. It's dark. He pulls a string that turns on a dim bulb in the ceiling. We are in a large closet with no shelves. A faint essence of bleach suggests it was once a cleaning supply room.

Harvey slips off my gag and unties my hands. I get my first close-up look at him in light. A scar next to his right eye suggests a wild past. His matching shirt, slacks, and socks suggest an ordered present. His expression tells me that he thinks I am something not to be stepped in.

He says, "Does your friend know that you went to meet me at the park?"

I consider pointing out that the question is implicitly insulting, presuming that I have only one friend, that I am the sort of person who can't possibly have more than a single friend, that I am lucky to have one and could probably expect to be deserted by my friend when they wise up.

It takes me too long to answer so he scowls and dumbs down the question, "Is anyone looking for you?"

"Of course," I say, for no reason other than to make his day as lousy as mine. You want information? Maybe we can trade. I start with a cordial question. "How did the guy tailing me know where to pick up my trail? I was in an empty garage."

Harvey's expression darkens with an unreadable emotion. He starts shifting from foot to foot, opens his mouth as if to speak, closes it again, unused. Now he seems to yank his mind away from the conversation like a hand from a hot stove. Nuts. I broke our communication. From his jacket he pulls out his phone and photographs me.

"I don't look my best," I say. "I hope you don't post that photo on your Facebook page."

"No," Harvey smiles. "This photo is for you to give to your plastic surgeon."

Ha ha. Pretty funny. Despite the joke, Harvey seems nervous. Why is he uncomfortable? His gang has out-smarted me, why not rub it in my face? And if he doesn't know anything about the pickup truck that was following me, why not tell me that I've lost the plot.

I seem to have touched a nerve. What nerve could that be? One possibility occurs to me.

I ask, "Did you learn that I was after you by threatening Rosalinda, Maria's mom?"

Harvey's forehead puckers in puzzlement as if I have jabbered gibberish.

"Maria is the little girl whose heart you broke when you stole Jackson, her English Pug. She lives just down the street from your house."

Harvey crosses his arms and makes the huge trapezius muscles swell like a couple of demented air bladders. He says, "You have no idea how stupid you are."

"People hint."

His face spasms for a moment like a baby about to yell. It becomes passive again. He taps his phone and turns his back to me, I presume so that I can't read his lips. Very poor etiquette. I decide to let it go without critique. After all, Ann has told me that sometimes I am mistaken about the finer points of etiquette. She has pointed out that one should never drink directly from the syrup container and that at formal occasions it is never proper to wear a hat with clapping hands.

Harvey finishes his call, turns to me and says, "I'll be back in the morning with some food."

My mind latches hopefully on to his words. I will, after all, be alive in the morning. And I will be in a condition to eat something.

"I'd advise you not to make any noise. What's outside this building is more hazardous for you than what's inside."

He is considerate, more polite, I suspect, than the average gang member. Even so, I count his parting words as sarcastic.

"Sleep well," he says as he closes the door.

Harvey believes that I am safer inside this room, waiting for his return, than I would be outside this room. He might be correct. I make a major decision. That decision is: My ass.

I punch the door. It doesn't seem to notice. I kick the door with my foot; a foot not to be trifled with. Also, a door not to be trifled with. Grabbing the door handle, I grip it and squeeze and twist – my knuckles go white and thunder booms in my head. I have to remember that it does no good to inflict pain on doors.

I listen for sounds of a pickup truck, which would indicate that I'm near the perimeter of the compound. It will give me a direction to head if I escape. I hear only the occasional distant howls of dogs. It is getting cold.

I lie down to rest. The cold cement floor sucks warmth away from my body.

Chapter 14

"Good morning," Harvey says, standing over me with what I recognize as my blindfold. Resting in front of me is a green metal Coleman cooler that I hadn't heard make its landing. Harvey blindfolds me, leads me outside the closet, a few steps to the right, and into a bathroom. He removes the blindfold, I pee, and we go back to my closet where he directs me to the far corner like a dog. He opens the metal cooler and says, "Please. Eat." His words are friendly, but his expression is closer to: "I'll think of you every time I see something scurry behind my toilet."

The cooler contains bottled water, an apple, banana, orange, two peanut butter sandwiches, a bag with mixed nuts, and a deck of cards.

Harvey says, "I'll be back in an hour."

My body aches. My stomach is rumbling but food has no appeal. I nibble. I feel an itch. Poison Ivy? No. A bump. A spider bite. I have a friend. Is he still around? How long is it between the time a spider bites you and you feel it? There is so much I want to learn before I die. There are probably things other than spider trivia, but at the moment nothing comes to my mind.

What is Harvey's game? Why is he keeping me hidden?

I nibble the peanut butter sandwich. I recognize the bread manufacturer, Cobblestone Mill. Vegan bread, for which I am grateful.

I organize my wallet. I shuffle the deck of cards. I place some bread crumbs on the floor, hoping to attract a mouse or an ant, anyone I can call a friend because the spider seems to have abandoned me.

Should I try to convince Harvey that I am no threat – that I won't reveal his gang affiliation to his family? Or try to convince him that I, myself, have no value, and therefore can't be ransomed like Bob?

Knowing his motive will help me play my cards correctly. My subconscious tells me that I have missed a clue. I review my conversations with Harvey. I bring to mind his Facebook pages. Nothing seems relevant. Perhaps there is no clue and it is only my subconscious teasing me.

I eat the orange. Something goes skittering across the back of my mind so swiftly I don't catch it. A frail ghost of some kind of frail idea. I try to coax it out. I close my eyes and think of nothing at all. I succeed. But no idea appears in the nothingness.

I take the opposite tact. I rack my brain. Still, no idea appears. Instead I get one of those dull headaches like the ones I get behind my eyes when I try to remember computer passwords. I shuffle the deck of cards and play Old Sol thirty times, and he beats me every time. Lady Luck is not with me. Apparently she has other commitments. Or maybe, when last I was in Atlantic City, I shouldn't have called her a whore.

I laugh at my own poor joke. And then it dawns on me. Atlantic City. The odds. All the food that Harvey has provided for me is vegan. What are the odds? Harvey knows I'm an animal rights activist. I made a mistake. I mentioned his neighbor Rosalinda. He probably pressured her by threatening Maria. This makes me angry. I feel as if someone has dialed my nervous system up past the recommended voltage. Nearly vibrating with anxiety, I stop eating and take deep breathes so that I don't hyperventilate.

Harvey may have used my driver's license I.D. to Google my name and learn that I am a fugitive. Harvey may think that my friends will pay him to not turn me in to the police. Harvey may ransom me.

I do calisthenics to release tension. The cooler is heavy, so I lift it for exercise. I use it as a Step Master. In the passing hours my adrenalin subsides, flows, and subsides again.

The highly anticipated ants show up to share my meal and remind me of Karl Pilkington who said, "Hello. I'm Karl Pilkington." Oh, and he also said: "It's weird how me and that insect are miles apart in terms of lifestyle, yet we both like a biscuit."

I hear footsteps. Harvey opens the door. Again, with his Smith and Wesson drawn.

I open the conversation. "Thanks for the vegan food."

Harvey puts his gun away. He rubs the scar over his right eye with his fingertips. When it doesn't seem he means to say anything, I ask, "How did you know I was vegan?"

Harvey looks down at his hands for maybe five seconds; long enough for the average person to formulate a lie. "It was the food that I had handy." Harvey wrinkles his brow. "What did you do to my cooler?"

"Sorry. Calisthenics. I'll buy you a new one. Thanks for the food. I'm vegan. Better for my health and better for the environment."

Harvey nods. "Yeah, I know."

I toy with the idea that since we have concurred on a subject we are becoming friends. "A vegetarian diet cuts heart risk," I say, "and the risk of cancers including colon and prostate."

His hands brush through the air as if to clear away all previous thoughts. "Prostate?"

"Yes, eliminating certain foods reduces the risk of prostate cancer."

"Which foods?" Harvey asks, fingering his scar again.

I sense that I may have gained the upper hand. "If you tell me how many fighting dogs are captive, and how they are guarded, I will tell you which foods to avoid."

Harvey is instantly unnerved, or so I judge when he makes chortling, raucous sounds.

I am not daunted. "Tell me, or I won't give you my advice on how to become a vegan."

"Stop!" Harvey says, holding up his hand like a traffic cop. "That's too funny!" He emits a weird, loonish laugh and beats on his thigh.

"And as for my instructing you on how to make tofu rice stuffed peppers –"

"Have mercy! I'll tell!"

"Good," I say. "I really don't like having to use threats about withholding my expertise but –"

"I said I'd tell! Stop! I can't stand any more."

"So you will help me rescue the dogs?"

He catches his breath. "No."

"But you ..."

He holds up his hand, starts to respond, thinks better of it, sighs, and says, "However, I'll give you some information you'll want to hear. When I return." He falls silent. I feel as if I've missed part of the conversation.

"Okay," I say, having gained no knowledge whatsoever.

Harvey again turns toward the door to use his phone. He talks a little louder this time. I can't make out his words, but his tone is subservient. Must be his boss. Is he asking precisely where to dump my body? After the call ends, Harvey leaves in a hurry.

After many hours, Harvey returns with more vegan food and bottled water. "Don't jump on my cooler this time."

"Okay," I agree. I hope he remembers to share some information.

Harvey doesn't say anything.

"There is no reason to hold me here," I say. "I can't tell the police anything specific. I can't tie any names to any crimes. And even if you extort all my friends' money, it won't reimburse you for the food I've already eaten."

Harvey's expression is one of pained tolerance. "The information that I promised you," he says finally. "Is that everyone you know is fine. And you, if you don't do anything else stupid, you will be fine. Just sayin'."

Just sayin'? That sounds as odd coming from Harvey as it did from the Chief. I don't know what he is trying to sell me, but I believe him the same way I believe the solution to all my problems is switching phone carriers. But he knows my name. He knows where I live. And he knows where I keep my knee caps. "Okay, you know my friends and family. I will cooperate in any way that you want. But," I say defiantly, "you can't make me like it."

A little vein on Harvey's temple does push-ups, but he doesn't say anything. We look at each other with rising irritation. I stand up, wishing my wrath was backed up with some solid support, such as a hand grenade.

He lets me ramble on, so I do. "If you are not threatening to harm my friends, why are you telling me that you know who they are?"

"Don't go running off at an angle here."

I continue as boldly as if I have captured him, not vice versa. "Your fellow gang members, let's call them assholes, are into drugs, arson, and dogfighting. It's a good time for you to bail out of the gang. They are about to add murder to their list. Thus far you may be guilty of only animal abuse, which, while morally wrong, isn't prosecuted as heavily as murder." Mumbling, I add, "Although I don't know how you can abuse animals–"

"They're only animals," he says in the tone of a guilty teenage girl blocking her mother at the door of a bedroom that is full of boys and drugs, stolen jewelry, and possibly music playing backwards.

"Is the Rottweiler in your front yard 'only an animal'?" I ask, hoping to awaken him to his cognitive dissonance.

"Firebone? He's family."

Score one for the brain's ability to compartmentalize. "Firebone's no different than the dogs that you're torturing."

"God gives us dominion over animals," Harvey speaks in a slow, puzzled way, as if struggling to be interested in his own opinion. "For chrissake, we eat them."

"The Queen of England has dominion over her countrymen. Does that give her the right to eat them? And there is not just one god – there are three thousand gods. They are metaphors for that which transcends human intellectual thought. Nothing more."

"The Bible tells us that God exists."

"The Bible is not proof that God exists any more than the Quran is proof Allah exists or a comic book is proof that Spiderman exists."

"That's sacrilege," he says, "And it makes me mad." But his eyes are not particularly angry. They appear more restless, as if he would prefer thinking about something else. His voice is not hot with anger, more like cold with annoyance, like a complaint lodged more as a matter of form rather than from emotion.

But Harvey does not give up. He tries another approach. "I don't believe in evolution. I believe in 'intelligent design.'"

"So, God's intelligent plan was: Leave the earth to two naked teenagers, and then hide?"

"Well, the universe could not have come from nothing."

"Something had to come from nothing for anything to exist – and this logical dilemma transcends human intellectual thought. But that is not proof of God, it is proof that mankind is not wired at a high enough level to understand these things."

There is complication in his face. I don't recognize all of it, but puzzlement is there.

I continue. "Some things that have been proven in quantum physics experiments defy human intellectual thought. Experiments have shown that two things can be in one place at the same time. At the subatomic level, effect sometimes comes before cause. In other words, an event can happen before the reason for it ever occurs."

Harvey looks at me like his IQ just hit a pole and crashed from 120 to 0. "What?"

"Exactly. Beyond our comprehension." I gingerly step down from my soapbox.

He says, "You make some interesting points. And you may be right. But I don't care if you are."

Feeling that I picked the wrong time to travel down this dead-end road, I try to make amends. "Harvey. Let's take this gang down. If you help me, I'll see to it that the law goes easy on you."

His face almost splits. He is struggling not to laugh. Perhaps I have underestimated his involvement in the gang. Perhaps he is the equivalent of a major or a colonel, just below the generals that I eavesdropped on. Perhaps the law would never go easy on him.

His reaction makes me nervous, so I joke, "We're not so different, you and I. We are both rebels against authority. The only reason I went to high school was because of the concentration of hubcaps."

Harvey is not listening. His patience with me has run out. There is a slight smile on his mouth but none in his eyes. "Who has your dental records?" He laughs as he takes the metal cooler and closes the door on his way out.

Some hours later, Harvey returns with the metal cooler. Resting on top of it is a Bible. "You need to pee?" he asks.

"Yes. You want me to swear on a Bible?"

"No," Harvey says. "It's an early Christmas present."

Apparently he thinks I need a good talking-to from the Lord. I take the Bible, smile and say, "Thanks Harvey, but I've read it. Not a bad read. One complaint though –"

Harvey glares at me as though I have just deposited several rabbit turds in his ears.

"–They spell 'fun' as 'sin' throughout the whole thing."

Harvey spins me around and blindfolds me, a little tighter than necessary, and we go through our bathroom routine. When we return, he says "You said that the DDoA was about to add murder to their list of crimes. I assume that you think we plan to kill you."

"No, I was referring to DDoA's plan to leave the undercover lab worker, Bob, trapped at your next arson, at Caucasas's old animal testing lab."

"Why, praytell, do you think that?"

"I overheard a conversation; yesterday, I think."

"From this room?"

"No, sorry. I've lost track of time. Maybe it was the day before yesterday."

"How?"

"I broke into the compound and overheard DDoA leaders talking."

"Of course, you don't expect me to believe that?"

"No."

"Care to tell me the truth?" He places his hands on his hips. Too dramatic for my taste.

"I already have, but I don't expect you to believe it."

"Always joking. Tell me, how long did it take you to create the bizarro world that you live in?" He folds his arms across his chest. Still with the drama. "Is everyone a clown in your world?"

"They plan to set the Caucasas Lab on fire at nine A.M. Tuesday and leave the man you kidnapped, Bob, inside to collect bonus money from the Lab's owner, Alferd Packer."

Harvey's expression turns as serious as a heart attack. "Don't fuck with me, Baker."

Geez, Harv, I never realized that was an option. "One guy, with the deepest, strongest voice, Keg O' I think he is called …"

"… 'Keg O'Blood'," Harvey inserts.

"… Yes. He decided that DDoA will commit the arson and the murder, collect the bonus, and then blackmail Packer with a threat to expose the falsified lab test report. Keg O' is the alpha dog. His decision was final."

An odd look flickers across Harvey's face, like he's just taken a pan of ice water down his pants.

Realizing that I might still know things he doesn't know, I try to parlay this into a bargaining chip. "I can tell you a lot more if ..."

He cuts me off. "I always get the feeling that you can."

He pulls out his phone and turns away from me. Without thought, I hoist the metal cooler and crack it down on his head. He falls in slow motion. For a moment I feel terrible and have the need to make sure he is okay. He stirs on the floor. He's okay. I leave without saying good-bye.

I take the stairs two and three at a time. Outside it's dark. I run in a direction away from the compound's buildings, not being careful or quiet, hoping to simply outrun anything after me.

When I reach the fence I take off my coat and toss it up gently, getting it caught on the barbed wire and watching it fall back against the outside of the fence. Some barbs cut me but my adrenaline keeps pain at bay. I go directly into the woods and, using the North Star, begin a steady course toward town.

The air is not frigid, just bracing. But a coldness is in me, a gelid fear, and between the night air and the inner chill I shiver uncontrollably.

The woods are filled with the myriad sounds of nocturnal animals in motion. Chirping, creeping, and crawling. I worry that my feet and hands are less likely to be weapons than to be food.

In grade school I had become infatuated with martial arts, a philosophy that was passed down from generation to generation, and came to rest at a nearby strip mall where I joined a karate class.

I cast my mind back to the karate tournament finals, but this time not through the eyes of the greatest karate kicker the world had ever seen. No, this time I go back as one of those disaster experts who sift through train wreckage trying to piece together evidence of what went wrong. I had a pulled hamstring and I stubbornly decided to ignore the advice of everyone who told me to withdraw. With all the lessons that I had taken I felt that I was ready. I was not. As a result I learned that there is a difference between taking karate and receiving karate. The physical pain lasted only a few weeks. To this day, some of my friends still say "I told you so."

I break into a slow trot trying to outrun that painful childhood memory. It is miles back to the nearest town.

Occasionally the road behind me crackles with the sound of a car. Each time, I dive into the bushes.

After several hours my feet are sore. I jog on my ankles to favor the soles, but that doesn't help.

As dawn breaks I reach town so exhausted I can barely move. I am sure that the only way my legs will move normally again will be if an electric shock is applied, in much the same way that biologists stimulate the legs of dead frogs.

I hobble along the main street in search of a place that's open so that I can call a cab. I nervously watch for anyone following me. As I pass streetlights, my shadow precedes me, falls behind, again precedes me, flows into a pool of gloom and vanishes like a ghost into oblivion, only to swim into view again. I find comfort in the pattern until finally I see a cabbie standing next to his cab in the cold being smoked by a cigarette. We are happy to see each other.

He drives me to the Robert Paine Cemetery.

The homeless man is not on the bench. I look around but don't see him. I worry. Corky has left me a message: "Call ASAP". I leave a return message: "No phone. Returning to garage."

Chapter 15

After about two hours sleep, I hear a soft knock on the garage door.

"Clark?" Corky's voice is but a whisper of air, soft as the voices one hears in the murmur of summer wind. Something is wrong.

When I push open the warped door, wind grabs it from my hand and flings it open all the way, revealing rain, fog, Hoover, and Corky. Hoover comes in limping and wagging his tail. He has bandages around his ribs, chest, and covering his right ear. The fur on his back is oddly matted.

I bend to examine him. My lips make little jerking motions. "Wha... what happened?" Hoover puts his face to mine and looks at me with eyes that I know cannot see. I blow on my fingers to warm them and gently stroke the cold hairs of Hoover's head. He winces. I can forgive anybody for robbing a bank but never for this.

"He has bruising and a few cuts," Corky says. "No bones are broken. He was probably protecting Ann." For the first time I notice Corky's face. Her lashes are swept down across her cheekbones. Tears well in her eyes.

"What happened to Ann?" I shake as fearful images build in my mind.

"She was kidnapped. Your house was ransacked. When I went to take Hoover for a walk I found him barely conscious. Ann may have been followed from the Lobster."

The bad words pour out of me like an open fire hydrant. Anger is bad poetry. I shudder. "How do you know that Ann was kidnapped?"

"The Ransacker left a message threatening to harm Ann if you don't return the Skulk test report. Who could he be?"

"We can rule out DDoA," I say, "since they already have the test report."

Corky looks at me, confused. "Map? Flashlight? I'm in the dark here."

I realize I've skipped past a few events, so I put it in reverse. I tell her what I learned while eavesdropping at the compound. I tell her how I was viciously attacked and kidnapped and then miraculously escaped. She stares in awe and admiration. I may have improved on reality a smidgen.

Corky responds, "So, the gist of what happened is that you were duped by a gang."

I hang my head down. "That's the short version, yes."

"You think we can steal back the Skulk report when we liberate the dogs? Then trade the report for Ann?"

Hoover shifts and groans. I pat him.

"It may require two separate missions, one more urgent. The test report might, at any moment, be returned for ransom to the Caucasas owner, Alferd Packer. Once Packer has it, we lose our only leverage to negotiate with the Ransacker and to get Ann back."

"Okay. So, how do we recover the Skulk report?"

"Keg O' probably has it. We need to get it and wait for the kidnapper to contact us."

"You don't need to wait."

"Why?"

"Sorry." She reaches into her pants pocket and hands me a slip of paper. "You can contact him via e-mail."

"Where'd you get this?"

"I copied it off the ransom message, which I left in place so as not to disturb the crime scene."

"Great. Let's go disturb it. We may find other clues."

"You'll have to carry Hoover. He's still limping. I don't have my car. I wasn't sure if the cops were following me, so Hoover and I took a cab and we drove around the neighborhood, pretending I was looking to buy a house around here, and then we were dropped off at the cemetery. I carried Hoover here, but he's heavy."

"No problem." I pick up Hoover. He whines a little as I lift him. "Sorry boy," I say.

We leave the safety of the garage and walk toward my home. Wind swirls and eddies rain water on the ground and in the air. Hoover's floppy ears catch the rain. Every so often, he shakes his head. "I'm glad nobody else was home when it was ransacked."

Corky's pace slows. She is looking at the ground. "Well, I wasn't even close to here. Bill and I were on a motorboat about a quarter mile from Thompson Island."

That response is so unlikely that a little girlish squeak of surprise escapes from my mouth.

Corky continues, "The phone that I gave to you for recon had a GPS tracker, so that I could find ..."

I miss the last part of what she is saying; the gist is something about providing backup for me even though I said specifically that I didn't want it. My brain is stuck on the fact that she put a tracker on me.

When she finishes I respond, "Tsk tsk."

It takes her a moment to realize that my mind is still back at the beginning. "Sorry. It was a mistake. From what you've told me I gather it must have been Harvey who took your phone to the marina and dropped it into the motor compartment of a fishing boat heading out for the day. When you didn't answer, and when I saw that you were heading offshore, I figured someone had captured you and that they were taking you out to sea to throw you overboard. Bill and I rented a motorboat and caught the fishing boat as it anchored a quarter mile from Thompson Island. We stormed the boat like pirates. Quite an embarrassing story. For another time."

She put a tracking device on her own brother!

We approach my home and, without saying a word to each other, we walk past it. We go around the block, looking for any activity.

"I assume that you have learned your lesson about following me with GPS?"

"It was a hard lesson," Corky says, "and I apologize." She hands me her phone with a shrug of resignation and a look that says she'll understand if I toss her GPS tracking device disguised as a cell phone under the next passing car. "Keep it," she says. "I'll get another. Mine probably has most of your contacts stored on it."

"Thanks."

Corky says, "So back to the question of who thinks you have the Skulk test report? Not Caucasas. Not DDoA. Is there another player that we're missing?"

"Based on Harvey's kidnapping of me and not, as far as I can tell, informing the rest of his gang, he could be part of a splinter group from DDoA. And he has a large accomplice, who I met at my abduction. Harvey acted surprised when I told him that Keg O' was ransoming the test report. Maybe he originally thought that I could lead him to it. But I just can't figure Harvey out."

Corky says, "That would explain why he sent me on a wild boat chase – he wanted anyone tracking your cell out of the way so that he or his accomplice could search your home."

"Yes, but I can't figure why he told me that all my friends were fine. Why would he say that if he'd kidnapped Ann?"

"He also told you that he was meeting you in the park to help you. See a pattern?"

I'm having trouble figuring this out because I lost track of the order of events while I was locked up. "Harvey may have kidnapped me before he decided what to do with me. He may have learned who I was and hoped that I had the Skulk report, at which time he changed his mind about cooperating with me and instead ransacked my home."

"Why? His gang already had it."

"He was surprised when I mentioned his gang had the Skulk report. Perhaps the leaders were cutting everyone else out of the profit." Mixed feelings surge through me.

"You don't seem convinced."

"Exactly."

"Exactly?"

"My problem is Harvey himself."

"What do you mean?"

"He seems like just an ordinary, everyday guy."

"Yeah, if every day is Friday the 13th."

We stop in front of the house next to mine. I pat Hoover and adjust his collar. The neighborhood is quiet.

"I've talked with Harvey. I don't know how he got involved with a gang, but as gang members go, he's better than most."

"So, what's that mean? He can read and write, and he's never eaten a child of his own?"

"I don't have any proof he's a decent person. Only my sense that beneath his rough exterior there beats the heart of a puppy."

"Only if he swallowed one."

"Funny. But I'm serious. Under his layer of toughness there is a layer of warmth."

"And under that layer of warmth is a layer of cruelty that goes right to the core of his dog stealing, dog-fighting, kidnapping rotten heart. If he wasn't bunching dogs he'd be stealing wheelchairs."

Perhaps she is correct. When it comes to judging people I am terminally naïve. Harvey has done rotten things, so what does it matter if, once upon a time, before society worked him over, he had been a nice person. If his mother had watched him pull himself up by the crib bars and stood goo-gooing, thinking him a truly wonderful baby. It doesn't excuse his actions now.

I stand on my front porch and listen for any sound inside my home. It is quiet.

Before I open the door Corky grabs my hand in a manner that says "Are you ready for this?" I am. I open the door. I am not. I hardly recognize my home; a tornado through a flea market if it were just a little neater. My full-size ceramic greyhound is cracked open on the hearth, its head intact but lying upside down. It looks asleep. The sofa and chairs are tipped over with the bottoms slit open and the stuffing pulled out. The stereo is opened up. The back is ripped off the television set. Books are thrown across the floor.

Hoover mules unhappily. He begins frantically sniffing around. I follow him. Does he feel violated? Is he searching for Ann? Does he feel guilty that he didn't protect her? Did Ann put up a fight?

There is broken glass. I ask Corky to hold Hoover. She lifts him up and sets him down carefully on one of the rugs in the living room. She sits there with him.

In the middle of the room, I stand still and listen, as if something might speak to me. The rage of being violated merges with the frustration of not knowing who hurt Hoover and took Ann. If only I had taken Hoover with me on the recon, as Corky had suggested, neither he nor Ann would have been here. And I might not have gotten captured. If only I'd warned Ann that I was provoking a gang and that the danger of retaliation was escalating. The "if onlys" keep running through my mind. But I need to move forward. Some evil bastard kidnapped Ann. And I intend to make him pay for it.

I examine the doors and windows. No damage. No sign of forced entry. Could Ann have known her kidnapper?

The ladder to the attic is pulled down. I climb up and look inside. Whoever ransacked my home pulled up some insulation from the attic, but only a handful. Probably because the layer of dust over everything indicates that nobody has been up here in years.

Canned goods have been pulled off the shelf in my small basement. The washer and dryer are open. In the kitchen, the stove is moved away from the wall.

In the bathroom, the ceramic lid to the back of the toilet was dropped and broken on the floor and someone splashed about in the plumbing.

In the bedroom, the mattress has been cut apart and the cotton stuffing strewn about like the guts of a cloud. The dresser mirror is broken, and every drawer in the dresser was dumped in the middle of the carpet.

I pick some underwear off the floor and put it into a drawer, but the bottom has been knocked out, and my skivvies fall straight through.

I pick them up off the floor again before I figure out that I have no place to put them. I stack them as neatly as I can along one wall.

Corky says, "Any clues?"

I point to a baseball cap that was dropped in the middle of the floor. "No thief would have left this behind."

Corky's eyes widen. "Why?"

"It is a 1931 Boston Red Sox Cooperstown fitted cap."

"You seem proud to know this information–"

"I don't see the rest of my baseball hat collection," I say.

Corky says, "terrible loss that is."

There is something in her tone that arouses suspicion, but of course nothing can be proved.

I sweep up the broken mirror glass and the broken toilet tank lid. I don't see anything else on the floor that is sharp. "You can let Hoover loose now."

Corky releases her grip and Hoover resumes sniffing around the room.

"The Ransacker appears to have been looking for something that he didn't find. Kidnapping may have not been plan A, but an improvised plan B."

When Hoover gets back to where Corky and I are standing, he picks up the baseball cap, trots over to Corky, and drops it at her feet. Possibly thinking that it goes with her recently acquired collection.

"Ahh ha!" I declare.

Corky turns crimson. "Sorry, Clark. I saw an opportunity." She pats Hoover's head, leans closer and whispers, "Snitch."

I laugh. Outside, a car idles by slowly. Maybe the police. "We'd better go. It's still not safe here." I start toward the door and Hoover gets in my way. He is telling me something, but I'm not sure what.

"What's wrong Hoover?"

Hoover races to a pile of rubble and sits, tail twitching. When I don't move he comes back, sits down at my feet again. He goes back to the pile and barks. I walk over and I lift a book and pull out a ragged piece of cloth with teeth marks.

I hold it up. "This swatch must be from the Ransacker's pants," I say. "It's a clue." A deduction which, if I were taking Private Detection 101, would probably not be sufficient in itself to put me in the top half of my class.

"Not a useful clue. To match it we'll have to spot somebody wearing pants with a missing 6-inch swatch."

"Maybe a tailor in Tibet handmade the pants," I say hopefully, "and sold them to only one customer in Massachusetts."

Corky shakes her head. "That swatch is from pants made in China, and sold to any person with $7.99 and no sense of style. Or a Hawaiian golfer."

As we all head toward the door, I ask, "What time is it?"

"Eight fifty."

My breath stops on the half exhale. "What day is it?"

"Tuesday. What's wrong?"

My thoughts regroup in random configurations. When they crystallize, I feel blood drain from my face. A cold razor slides down my spine. "If I overheard correctly, the DDoA is burning down the old Caucasas test lab, with Bob inside, NOW."

"Are you sure?"

"I think that's what I heard, but I only have my own word for it. It was several mental eons ago."

"Call the police."

"They don't know the layout of the lab. I do."

"But how can we get there? I took a cab here. Should I call Bill?" Corky digs in her pockets searching for her phone, having forgotten that she gave it to me.

"No. No time. We may already be too late. We have to stop it ourselves."

I consult Corky in the language of the eyebrow. I raise one of mine. She raises one of hers. I raise my other. She raises her other. We both raise both. Corky grabs a gas mask. I stuff small wire cutters and a flashlight into my pockets. Since I don't know if the Ransacker will return, I need to take Hoover with me. I lift him. We race toward the garage and my dad's 1967 Barracuda. I still have the key on my key ring.

I put Hoover in the backseat, snap him into his dog seat belt, and roll down the rear window on the right-hand side just enough for him to poke his snout through the crack. I open the garage door. The rain has stopped. The street is washed clean, the parked cars sparkling in the sunshine, and birds wheel across the piercing blue sky. I return to the Barracuda to find Corky blocking the driver's side door.

Chapter 16

Corky says, "It's morning rush hour. I'm a better driver than you."

Better? Only if 'better' means that it's okay to go through a red light as long as you can still remember when it was yellow. "I'll drive, Corky," I insist.

She realizes the error of her thinking; that faster isn't better. She backs away half a step – and when I open the door she lunges past me.

No time to argue. As Corky fires up the Barracuda 383 engine I turn and whisper to Hoover, "Prepare for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride."

Corky, who somehow heard me over the engine roar, says, "Please stay seated until the ride comes to a complete stop."

I snap my seat belt. Wish I had a crash helmet as well. Corky tromps down on the accelerator; the tires spin, catch hold, and propel us forward with a jolt. The engine jams into overdrive and the Barracuda fishtails slightly, probably leaving most of the tires' tread on the asphalt. I think we take the first corner on two wheels.

"Hey," I yell, "didn't you see that sign? It said – and this is a verbatim quote – 'STOP'."

She leans all her weight onto the accelerator, comes up fast on other cars and changes lanes.

Corky yells at another driver, "You might drive better with that cell phone up your ..." She hits the horn – beeeeeeep.

"Please," I beg, "don't wreck dad's car."

"Okay. But just as a special favor to you."

Everything is going marginally well until she changes lanes and ignites a mad pandemonium of horns and accidentally terrifies an orange VW. The driver of the VW causes half a dozen other vehicles to brake and wheel out of his path for the unwholesome pleasure of turning to glare at me and gesture wildly. Through the glass and over our howling engine I can barely hear him say something about how we're all God's children, except for me – I was adopted.

Corky starts to babble. I have never heard her babble. She usually keeps tight control of herself. Her babbling is spooking me.

"What are you babbling about?" I bring my white-knuckled hands back from the dashboard.

"When we get there, Clark, what do we do?"

"We go by our intuition. Listen to our guts."

"Well, that might be just fine for you, but my gut doesn't usually talk to me, unless it says something like 'this quiche is too rich.'"

"I have the first step of a plan." I calm myself by taking deep breaths. "I'm betting that DDoA will lock Bob in the testing area. I'll start there."

"Why there?"

"Because the testing area has cages with locks. And because it would be symbolic." Okay, maybe criminals aren't always into symbolic gestures. Perhaps I watch too much TV. "I remember the layout of the old Caucasas testing lab from several years ago when we planned a liberation there, before the animals were transferred to the current testing lab."

"I remember." Corky raises her voice, "There's a cop car behind us. Maybe two. How many do you see? Will you kindly stop praying, or conversing with your knees, or whatever you're doing."

How can I count patrol cars? I'm too nervous to even count my kneecaps. I sit up and look behind us. A patrol car is about six cars back, passing other vehicles, driving as erratically as Corky.

"Just one," I say in a voice that is a little too shaky to sound certain.

"One?" Corky asks. "Not two? Are you sure?"

"Positive," I say. "There is just one. I counted twice. But he's gaining."

Corky looks again. The cop has already changed lanes. "Just one?"

"Yes," I confirm. "If there are two things I've learned in life, it's math."

"Okay, then we just need to outrun one cop." Corky accelerates. So does the patrol car. Our engines howl and whine as we push through traffic like shoppers racing their carts to a newly opened checkout line.

I call Bill and shout over the roar that I'm going into the vacated Caucasas Lab to look for Bob. Bill shouts something back. I look up from my phone and lament to Corky, "Look how close that maniac is driving in front of you," hoping she gets the hint.

Corky flips on the right turn-signal and quickly turns left – forcing a stream of dodging, honking cars around her. Ahead, I see the front end of a car poke out of an alley. Corky wheels rapidly to the left and just misses an old black man in a Toyota. He mouth is agape we pass him.

We turn the last corner heading toward the old Caucasas testing lab. It's on fire. The smoke is still white, which is mostly moisture and indicates that the fire has just started.

"Hang on tightly to Hoover," Corky yells.

I assimilate her thought process. The most direct route to the fire is to go over the curb. I unbuckle my belt and twist around to secure Hoover.

Corky flies over the curb and into the parking lot of the testing lab. She breaks hard and we slide sideways and squeal to a stop. I scratch Hoover, lightly press his bandages, unclip his harness, and help him into the front seat. I grab the gas mask, turn back forward and stare at two cops who have pistols ready and aimed at our heads.

Hoover and I step outside. The growing fire consumes my attention, so it's a few seconds before I notice that it also has the attention of the first cop, who has his back to me. He yells into his phone, describing the fire, perhaps to a fire station.

I yell, "There is a man trapped inside. I have a gas mask. I'm going to rescue him."

"You're not going anywhere," the second cop screams. He has dark blue eyes that are a little surprising against his jet-black hair. He pauses like he's giving me a chance to freely confess to setting the fire. I freely don't. "Hands on your heads. Do it!" His attention is split between looking at us, and waiting for his partner to finish his call.

Corky looks at me with a bemused expression. "Why do they always scream? Do they teach 'em that in cop school?"

"They must."

"Do it!" Blue Eyes repeats. Our hands are already on our heads. I wouldn't want him for a witness.

"Oh," I say. "Certainly officer."

"No wise-ass back talk." He is very irritable. "I'm going to need two ticket books for this."

The partner finishes his call and faces me. We instantly recognize each other. I stare at him in openmouthed stupefaction. He bites his tongue. He is the man who helped Harvey kidnap me. A dirty cop. It explains why Harvey carried a police pistol. Why don't I figure out these things before they happen? Since Harvey knew that Bob was probably in this fire his partner could have been here to stop it – instead the police are stopping me from saving Bob.

Dirty Cop hesitates. He probably wonders what my move will be, if I'll rat him out to his partner.

He gives me a thin smile. "You are the . . . the man that Maurice, I mean Chief York told us was a … hmm, rogue ..." It is clear the Chief used a more colorful description, but I choose not to pursue it. And who is Maurice?

I draw myself up, square my jaw, and buy some time to think by saying defiantly, "There is a dead cat in the middle of the road out near Tobin Bridge. I recommend that you do something toward earning your salary, and go there and remove the carcass from the pavement."

Dirty Cop ignores me, stays back, calling someone else on his cell phone. Probably telling DDoA that I've been recaptured.

Blue Eyes, standing in front of Corky, steps forward and holds out handcuffs, presumably for her to slip into peacefully.

Corky steps forward to meet him. "Ouch," she says and pretends she has turned her ankle and topples forward. Blue Eyes catches her. Corky shouts "Stop. Let me go."

Hoover leaps forward and grabs the leg of Blue Eyes and starts yanking and jerking. With Corky screaming and Hoover growling, Dirty Cop goes to the rescue of his blue-eyed partner.

I break toward the old Caucasas testing lab, slap on my gas mask, and turn on my flashlight. At the left end of the building the smoke has turned brownish, which indicates the wood structure at that end may be on fire. I enter the right end.

The lab is in the basement, but the stairwell billows gray smoke. I go to the elevator, push the button, and the door opens. I peer into a dark, coffin-sized space, enclosed only by a scant railing and metal screens. The shaft is exposed completely. Tempting fate, I step in and push "B". It jerks down after an initial falter, grating against the back of the shaft. After it clangs to a stop, I exit into the basement.

The smoke gets thicker and darker. The temperature rises. Running down the hall I shout "Bob! Bob!" I reach the testing lab door and enter.

"Bob!" At the far end of the lab, on a stainless steel vivisection table in the center of the room is a large dog cage. The sole of a shoe is pressed against the grating of the cage door.

Reaching the cage, I see the rear of a large man stuffed inside head-first. I tug on the cage. It is bolted to the wall.

"Bob! Can you hear me? Bob! I'm here to get you out!" Damn it! If I hadn't lost track of time I could have mobilized an ALF cell and stopped this!

I snap the lock with my bolt-cutters and open the cage. I shake Bob. He doesn't move. No sign he is alive. If he's dead, I don't want to know. I can't go on. I'll give up. Right here. He's hog-tied with rope. There's blood. I'll have to drag him out. Using all the strength that adrenaline gives me, I pull and lift while my eyes dart around the room looking for a cart or something to use to transport this big man. "Bob!" I holler. The flashlight drops out of my pocket, sending a crazy beam of light reflecting through the thickening smoke. Finally I get enough of his legs unfolded and out of the cage that I can pull him the rest of the way out. When his hips clear the cage I sense some of the movement is caused by him. This gives me hope. I lift and pull him by his belt and set him on the floor.

I roll him over. My mind is a soup of confusion. It's not Bob.

Harvey Hucklebottom? I pat his face. "Harvey!" Harvey!"

Harvey stirs. There is a large gash and a bump on his forehead. He may have a concussion. He opens his eyes. He closes them. He doesn't understand the situation, the urgency.

I take off my gas mask and say hello. There is recognition in his face. His mouth is ajar like the door to a room from which the resident had fled in haste. He is surprised, but not happy. His expression changes quickly to an expression like a man who has just been told he is going to have to swallow and pass a bowling ball, and then bowl a strike with it.

But the shock of seeing me brings with it a brief moment of lucidity. He mumbles, "After you knocked me out at the compound, DDoA figured I went rogue. My own gang did this to me."

"Crap."

"Don't blame yourself," he says.

Blame myself for escaping? He is a bit delusional. "Harvey, are you sure that DDoA decided to kill you after I knocked you out?"

Harvey has a dazed expression on his face as if a third-grade school teacher is brutally forcing him to read above his level. Now his eyes close again. He looks sleepy.

"Harvey, listen to me! If DDoA decided to kill you after I knocked you out, then that means the 'loose end' they planned on leaving in this fire was not you. It means that Bob is somewhere in this fire."

Smoke is starting to fill the room. I put my gas mask back on. "Harvey?"

Harvey is not listening. He's placing his head down. A bad sign.

"Can you walk?"

He tries to stand. "My legs ..." They are trussed up like a veal calf. The way they are bending indicates they may be broken. Possibly from being crammed into the dog cage.

I race to the other end of the lab and get a cart. I wrestle Harvey's torso onto the bottom tray, so he is below the smoke, and I pull him out into the hall and then down the hall away from the hottest flames. "Harvey, don't fall asleep. You have a concussion. I'm going to look for Bob. Count to one hundred. Don't fall asleep. If I'm not back, use your arms to move the cart to the elevator." I point down the hall. In that direction, beyond the elevator, some of the building crumbles and falls.

"No!" Harvey's voice is weak, but insistent.

"Don't worry. I'll be right back," I say.

His eyes are pleading. He looks as embarrassed as scared.

"I'm an undercover cop," he says. "I lied to you just now to protect my identity. Bob isn't here. I'm the 'loose end' being eliminated." That burst of speech takes all of Harvey's energy. He puts his head down and closes his eyes.

I want to believe you, Harvey. But I like to believe a lot of things and that doesn't necessarily make them so. I hope I'm not being conned again. "Harvey. Harvey! You have a concussion. Don't go to sleep. Talk to me. What is the name of your Rottweiler?"

His eyes open. "Firebone?"

Crouching like a football lineman in his ready stance I stay low and push the cart toward the elevator. A hot blast of smoke fills the hallway.

"How long have you had Firebone?"

"Firebone?" He looks around for Firebone.

"Firebone. Come on. Talk to me. How long have you had Firebone?" We enter the coffin-sized elevator.

"A year."

The elevator jerks up after noisy grating against the back of the shaft.

"Did you rescue Firebone? I really like him. He reminds me of Scooby Doo. You know Scooby? Come on. Sing it with me."

"I'm tired," he says.

"Scooby Dooby Doo where are you – come on – we've got some work to do now – you know it – Scooby Dooby Doo we need some help from you now."

Harvey mumbles the words along with me, "Come on Scooby Doo I see you."

When we get outside a crowd rushes toward us. The buzz and chatter of police radios fills in the background of my Scooby duet with Harvey. An ambulance medic takes the lab cart from me, puts his face close to Harvey's face and looks at his eyes. He says, "Keep singing, singing is good."

Bent over, breathing deeply to catch my breath, I turn and look at the building. It is fully engulfed in flames and smoke. I hope Bob is not inside.

If Harvey is an undercover cop, why did he capture me and incarcerate me at the compound instead of taking me to the police station? Is Harvey a double agent? A dirty undercover cop?

With my hands on my knees and my head down, out of the corner of my eye I see Harvey's dirty partner. He has his handcuffs out and is moving fast toward me. He grabs for my shoulder. I stiff-arm him back three steps. His hand creeps toward the service revolver at his side and hovers there. A voice interrupts our standoff.

"Easy, Duke," the blue-eyed cop says. "He just saved Harvey."

Duke blinks. He takes a step toward me, but the blue-eyed cop stops him midstride.

"After he catches his breath I'll handcuff him," Blue-eyes says.

I notice that Corky and Hoover are in the Barracuda, not far away. Bill and Dudley are waving from behind three police cars.

Harvey moans and draws everyone's attention. I sprint towards the Barracuda.

Chapter 17

As we pull away I watch blue dots running toward their cars, seeing the flat tires, and pounding their fists on the car roofs. They keep gesturing in frustration, but farther away. Almost out of sight. Gone.

"Are you okay?" Corky asks.

I nod and hold Hoover tightly. He licks my smoky face. "You can probably slow down now," I suggest.

Corky says, "It might be a good time to remember that old adage, that what doesn't kill you, will probably try again."

"I don't think that's the way the adage goes," I say.

"Perhaps not, but you're still a wanted man. We don't know if the police are all on the same page and we need to find Ann."

Due to all hell breaking loose I haven't thought about Ann in a while. Now my spine shivers like melting bits of sleet, trickling down a window pane. I fear what someone might do to Ann if he thinks that she knows anything about the test report. "When we get home I'll e-mail the Ransacker. Make sure he knows I don't have the Skulk report, and promise that I'll get it for him. But make it clear that if he hurts Ann, I will fasten a rope to a brick and tie it around his neck and toss him in a pond and drown him. And a few days later I'll have him fished out and buried, because I will dance on his grave."

"Tough talk, considering that you have no idea who you're threatening. Or where he's holding Ann." Corky brings me back to vexing reality.

"Doesn't matter who he is," I insist. "If he hurts Ann...." I try not to think about anyone hurting Ann. Trying not to think about it turns out to be a lot like thinking about it. "... I'll hunt for him high and low."

"You won't have to hunt high and low," Corky says. "Just low."

"Where do we begin," I say. "Ann's kidnapping makes no sense. Who would know that the Skulk report is missing, that it has value, and think that I have it? Someone is clearly screwed up."

"Good observation. Unfortunately that doesn't limit the suspects as much as you'd care to think."

She's right. I may need to search the hedgerows that include Alice and that well-known rabbit.

"You're right, Corky. What's wrong with people? The earth has been around billions years, and people suddenly crawl out from the rotting oceans, strut around as if they own the place, and kidnap musicians."

Corky and I share a little shrug that goes back two decades. She says, "We need to accept that the end result of four billion years of increasing biological complexity is a man buying a gun at Walmart."

Frankly, I for one would not be unhappy if many people reversed evolution and marched en mass into the nearest large body of water.

With my adrenaline subsiding, fatigue sets in.

"Maybe you shouldn't stay anywhere that people can find you," Corky says. "I'm not suggesting you go back to Arly's garage. Maybe stay in a hotel under an alias."

Corky is right. I should lay low.

But the only hotels in the area are either stupidly expensive or of the general ambience of a military latrine. The latter are perfect places to count the diesels going by in preparation for shooting oneself. A friend and his wife who stayed at the hotel nearest my home, the Jolly Goat Motel, reported that it had "Magic Fingers" that were supposed to vibrate the bed. He was not surprised when the only vibration was his quarters hitting other quarters. The Magic came on with a great pulsating surge at three in the morning, when he was sound asleep, scaring him and his wife into the courtyard. When he complained, they gave him a free continental breakfast – a cup of coffee and a doughnut. He wasn't sure what continent they had in mind – but he skipped it.

I am tired of not knowing who has Ann or if anyone is still after me. I'll stay home, use myself as bait, and wait for them.

"Drop Hoover and me off at the cemetery," I say. When she stops, the clang of the car door closing conceals my words. "I'll probably stay home."

I wander from room to room, looking first out my windows, and then looking around at the chaos. It seems as if I'm wandering around my own interior looking for signs of logic or purpose, finding only a mess.

Hoover finds his food bowl and brings it to me. I start making us dinner. He stands nearby to make sure nothing distracts me until I finish.

After we split a peanut butter sandwich, I start on a large platoon size bag of Oreo cookies.

I turn off all the indoor lights except my bedroom light, hopefully making it the target of anyone coming after me. Hoover and I sit in the living room.

I look outside at the next-door neighbor's yard. Their dog, Star, is outside. She is much older than Brutus and she doesn't go outside often. Star is lying at the back of the property, underneath bed sheets hanging to dry although it is raining. I watch Star until she moves. I stare blankly at the rain coming down at an angle. I remember how my father would ask me to help him fold the sheets and the smell of them was like the smell of Ann's lilac hair. I pull my gaze back to a closer point of focus and stare at my reflection in the window. It is an imperfect mirror, revealing to me a colorless transparent expression like that of a haunting spirit.

After several quiet hours I look at what I have done to the bag of Oreo's. Liquidated nearly all of them. I have to get away from the draw of crème filling. "Time for a walk." Hoover wags his tail and pulls down his leash.

I open the door a little, and Hoover sticks his nose outside. It is colder than it looked from my window and the rain is violent. Hoover backs up until I step outside, then he follows me onto the chalk silhouette. Ann could be dead. My stomach rises up and flutters in my throat. My extremities get instantly cold – the same coldness I felt when each of my parents passed away. A feeling of moving one step closer to being absolutely alone. One more of the illusions of connectedness gone. I feel part of my life breaking away like a section of an iceberg cleaving off and sliding into the sea in a shock of noise and mist. Ann is part of the superstructure that gives me a sense of time and place.

Hoover and I walk around the block. I'm in no hurry. The rain stops suddenly. I feel the whole world has turned upside down and I find it strange when birds start chirping happily as if nothing terrible has happened. Eventually it is time to go back home.

Nobody is taking my bait here. I'll make myself more visible. I'll rejoin Fluke but I won't call off my replacement in case I can't finish the gig.

Hoover is muddy and happy. But the happiness disappears when I tell him that I am giving him a bath before we go to the Lobster. I take a deep breath and review my vast repertoire of highly developed dog handling skills, most of which I can't remember if I learned by reading well-respected dog-training books – or watching reruns of the Crocodile Hunter.

Hoover survives the ordeal.

"I regret that I never told Ann everything about my past," I confess to Hoover while I dry him off. It's foolish not to make myself vulnerable to her, yet somehow I would prefer to run down the highway stark naked. Of course, it is academic, as nobody has offered me the choice.

I let Hoover go. "Okay." He shakes himself.

We go back to the kitchen where I give Hoover an Oreo for not struggling too much. "Ann wants to know me at a deeper level. Know my flaws. Dance with my skeletons. I have a jillion, Hoover, as you know. Where do I begin?" One of the jillion memories races forward and coaxes my mind to drift back in time. I am five years old. "There was the pet rock, Hoover, which my parents gave me, and that I later used in an incident I regret." I thought I had forgotten that horrid event. The mind is a deep storage place. I sit on the floor and scratch Hoover. He settles comfortably.

"And when my youth was aflower, and my temerarious attitude ablaze, I was such a troublemaker that the school crossing guard used to lure me into traffic." I laugh and Hoover tilts his head.

I stand up and go back into the bathroom. Hoover follows me in and curls up on the rug. The creature in the mirror stares, looking vaguely nettled, obscurely despondent. He regards me steadily, and begins slowly brushing his teeth.

"Another embarrassing moment occurred when I played my first season of Little League baseball. I would have enjoyed it, despite huge mutant opposition youngsters pitching baseballs into my left kidney at an estimated 425 miles per hour, except for the solitary fact that I was a lousy fielder. I was so bad that my coach put me in deep right field only because it was against the Little League rules to put me in Mozambique. I plotted a horrible revenge against that coach, but never executed the plot because it was not horrific enough to get me even with him. I'm still sore about it, Hoover, as you can see."

Hoover twists his head to one side and keeps it there, staring at me, telling me quite clearly I am off my rocker. I'm used to it. I put my toothbrush away.

I lean over the sink and carefully cup my hands under the running tap. I imagine that the first splash of cold water will wake me up from this nightmare and that Ann will be standing beside me. The first splash doesn't work. Neither does the second. Or the third.

"Does Ann really want to know those types of things? Shouldn't some secrets be kept? Like the fact that I didn't have sex until I was in my twenties because I was confused by Dr. Ruth, the sex advice guru. I listened to her on the radio, but her accent was thick and my radio was cheap. So when she said, 'Never have sex without a condom.' I thought she said, 'Never have sex without a quorum.'"

Hoover is no longer listening to me.

"Of course, every high school boy carries a condom. In chemistry class as part of a project to explain expanding gases, I dropped a couple of Alka-Seltzers into a small glass. I put a condom over the glass and the bubbles made the condom stick straight up. I got a big laugh. And two hours detention.

"At least I don't have to revisit the calamities that Ann already knows about. Like the permanent damage I've done to my relationships with a few friends after getting a little too excited about the merits of kale. Or the damage done when I decided my friends should all have nicknames like Zipper and Toad and Pickle Cheeks." Hoover is restless. His internal clock says that we should be leaving for the Lobster. I pretend I don't notice.

Anxiety spurts through me. I try to forget that I don't really know what Ann wants to hear from me. Or maybe I should stop deluding myself. I do know what she wants to hear. I just don't want to go there. I try to forget how bad that conversation could be. It is like trying to forget that I've got my foot in a bucket of ice water.

Hoover and I go to the Howling Lobster for what promises to be a lousy night without Ann. I walk onstage with all the enthusiasm of a plane crash survivor boarding a new plane.

***

Hoover and I return home. I can barely remember the evening except that it kept its gloomy promise. With Ann missing, everyone that I encountered appeared to be wasting time. Nobody came looking for me.

Sometime during the evening Bill told our band that we needed to get back on track. I don't remember the context. I remember Dudley saying that the critics hadn't been as tough on him as he had expected, that one critic had even said that his drumming was very distinguished and compared it to some kind of turd that can only be found in Texas or Egypt. Dudley was probably joking.

I told the audience, "And now for your listening pleasure, we're going to take a break." I was only half joking.

And later I misspoke, "Our next gong is ... did I say gong?" I slapped myself across the face, "That slap felt surprisingly good – our next song is ..." I continued throughout the evening making deliberate verbal errors and slapping myself. I can't remember if the audience thought it was as funny as I did.

Without turning the bedroom lights on, I throw off my sweatshirt, not caring where it falls, and lay down on the bed. Hoover rests his head on my knee. "If 'every day is a gift'," I say to Hoover, "then today was a three-pack of tube socks."

I wake from a nightmare, sweating and shaking. I can't remember exactly what it was about. The only thing I can recall is that Ann's screams awakened me.

I stay awake. Insomnia's no better. It's my mind saying, "Deal with yourself some more."

At four A.M. I try to pull my jeans off with my shoes still on. By and by, I sit up and untie the shoes, thus solving the problem.

At five A.M. my laptop beeps. I pull it off the nightstand and onto the bed. I am fully alert. An e-mail from Ann's kidnapper says, "You have until midnight Thursday to deliver the package. Ann is fine. I enjoy her company."

I attempt to lunge forward and attach my teeth to the kidnapper's neck but all I get are the hard plastic corners of my computer.

Anger won't help. I respond, "I will have the package to you ASAP."

I hit "send". I decide to say more so I re-open my email program. My judgment is clouded with anger. Everything I can think to say might further endanger Ann. I watch the cursor blinking over and over and over.

In the bathroom mirror my eyes don't blink. I stare like a stuffed owl.

Hoover and I eat breakfast. I read the newspaper. The fire at Caucasas' old lab is front page news. Several of those interviewed opine that the poor Caucasas Company is having a streak of bad luck. A few sentences further into the article I am stunned beyond belief. I blurt out a word that Ann has never heard me use.

An unidentified body was found in the fire!

It seems a long time before I come out of my shock and find myself staring stupidly into space. It must have been Bob. Harvey lied to me so that I would help him out of the fire! Are he and his partners all crooked cops, working with the gang that was paid to get rid of the "loose end"? Of course – it's obvious – cop salaries don't pay for a Shelby.

When will I learn? How many times will people play me? Remorse and anger take turns mugging my ego.

"Come on, Hoover," I say. "Let's put things in perspective."

Hoover pulls down his leash and stands by the door.

There's not much color for the first morning sunlight to find. All gray. Bleak. We take to the streets. We have been through a lot together. We have lost too many people we loved. With equal emotion, we dread being left to face life alone. I try to keep melancholy at bay. But, occasionally – after all, I'm only human – I consider jumping under a moving car and disappearing into the void.

We walk to the cemetery. Passing the bench where the homeless man slept, Hoover stops and sniffs. I sit down. This is where I communicated with Corky, which lead me to the vets, and to Jill, and to Harvey, and to the DDoA. Harvey, a dirty undercover cop, has lied to me. So he may know where to find the Skulk report. He may even know where to find Ann. He is going to tell me, even if I have to squeeze shut his feeding tube in the hospital.

It starts to rain.

Chapter 18

The rain has settled in for the day, but it hasn't turned any colder. After dropping off Hoover at Corky's condo, I park in the Genesis Hospital parking deck and cross the street through a glassed-in crossover. Below me an ambulance hurtles up the hill to the emergency room.

I follow a bandaged-up patient being brought into the hospital. He still has his sense of humor. He tells the nurse pushing his wheelchair, "I told my wife that when Monday Night Football was on television, it would take wild horses to drag me away. I still don't know where she got them." The nurse laughs.

Inside hospitals I am slightly on edge. Every moment I expect one of the people in white to attempt to puncture my body with a needle. I find Harvey's floor. A nurse tells me that Harvey is asleep, that he has a concussion and that he is in critical but stable condition. When he awakens, only family will be allowed to visit. He won't be released for at least three days, the nurse estimates. I've hit another dead-end.

As I turn to leave, Chief York marches down the hall in my direction, along with a darkly familiar cop. I stare at him. Have I spent so much time around cops they all look familiar? Perhaps. They do share a certain seen-it-all look in their eyes that says, I'm a cop, and you're a crime waiting to happen.

Twenty yards away the Chief hollers, "Mr. Baker! I need to talk to you." I look around. Trapped. No window to jump out of.

The Chief grabs my arm and pulls me away from the nurses' station. "You need to keep quiet for a week or so." She says this in a tone that implies that asking me to keep quiet is like asking a snake to put on shoes.

"The DDoA undercover operation is still ongoing," she whispers. "You may read," she pauses like presuming I can read is an outrageous hypothesis but she'll continue anyway, "that in the newspaper we, the Cavalry police, have reported a body was found in the fire. It's not true."

"There was no body?"

"No body."

I didn't leave Bob in the fire! The relief that surges through me is so powerful that it makes me feel buoyant, as if I am floating inches off the ground. Maybe Harvey was telling the truth.

"We reported it because we don't want DDoA to know that Maurice is still alive."

"Maurice?" I've heard that name recently.

"Maurice Johnson. His undercover alias was Harvey Hucklebottom. Caucasas and DDoA both want 'Harvey' dead because of his undercover work. Now they think he is.

Maurice Johnson – hence the nickname 'Mo Jo'.

"Maurice is a witness to Caucasas' crimes; arson and test fraud – and to DDoA's crimes; drug dealing, prostitution, weapon smuggling, and now attempted murder, because –"

"– and dogfighting," I remind him.

"– and that too. We are near the end of a three year sting investigation." Her gaze is so intent it pries my eyes up like a lever. "This will be the biggest bust of a crime ring in the history of Boston."

"Before I agree to keep quiet," I hold up my hand, "Is any part of your investigation still focused on arresting animal rights activists?"

"Never was," the Chief says. "I deceived you about suspecting that animal activists were responsible for the beagle liberation because I needed you and your friends to stay out of my way – which, I might add, you did not do. The 'raid' on the conference was only meant to scare any animal activists who were inclined to search for the beagles and interfere with our investigation."

"So, that's why you sent Corky on a wild-boat chase – to keep activists from looking for the beagles. And that's why Harvey, I mean Maurice, delivered the beagle puppies to the Shelter, so we'd stop looking for them, NOT so that they could get the medical attention they needed?" I say this with what I hope is righteous indignation.

"Correct. Although, to be fair, you had us chasing after the taxi cab driver John Smith."

"How is John?"

"Pretty loyal to you, considering all the things we threatened."

"Okay," I say. "I promise to keep quiet. No need to thank me –"

She takes a deep breath and adjusts her smile as if dealing with a temperamental child. "Oh, I intend to thank you. But I think I'll wait until there are no witnesses around." Her big brown eyes tell me that she means it. "And when I say 'you need to keep quiet', I mean don't even run nine miles into the woods and whisper 'Harvey is alive' to a tree slug, or..."

I interrupt, not wanting to hear the 'or.' "It can't be a coincidence that you walked in here a few seconds behind me with a message to keep quiet. Did you trail me?"

She nods to her partner. "Officer Krupke here has been keeping tabs on you."

Officer "Krupke"? Very funny. I figure that the Chief is getting even with me for the first time we met and I introduced myself as Barney Rubble. I look at Krupke. I knew he looked familiar – I must have seen him in my rearview mirror. But when? He smiles. Perfect teeth. Holy moly. He is the homeless drunk on the cemetery bench! I'm happy with this news. It means that Maurice knew who I was because of information from Officer Krupke and that nobody needed to threaten Maria's mom, Rosalinda, for info about me.

Officer Krupke shakes my hand and says, "I confess, you made it difficult for me. I read the notes that you left for your sister. At first I thought they were in code. It was a while before I realized that your handwriting looks like you wrote the notes during a fistfight on top of a moving train."

"And you are a very convincing drunken hobo." I hope that is not too much of a compliment.

"It's very kind of you to visit Maurice," Chief interrupts, curtailing the chit-chat.

"Not here to visit," I admit. "I'm here to get information from Maurice that might lead me to Ann. She's been kidnapped."

The Chief looks like she's swallowed a bottle cap. "Sorry. Hadn't heard that news. Did you report it to our station? I'll talk with the nurses and make sure you have permission to talk with Maurice when he is awake. Visitors in the ICU are limited to ten minutes every two hours, so as not to exhaust patients and interfere with the nurses."

"Thank you."

"But Maurice can't tell you everything he knows. Although he's no longer undercover, he's still working the DDoA case. Capiche?"

"I understand."

"I'd like to stress again, as dumb as it may be of me to waste my breath, that Maurice and his task force have more information than you about the local nefarions."

Nefarions? I think she made up that word. "Is Maurice's partner also undercover?"

"No, he's not. He helped Maurice kidnap you so you wouldn't blow Maurice's cover. Maurice was detaining you only until we busted the gang. Sorry about that." Her slight smile says she is more amused than sorry.

"How long has DDoA been burning buildings for profit?"

"We suspect they set the 9-alarm Roxbury fire in 2010. The owner of that outlet mall refused to pay protection. A day later the place was burned to the ground and several months later it went bankrupt. Gang leader Keegan O'Brian bought it with his daddy's money, put barbed wire on the fences, and guards at all the entrances."

Keegan O'Brian, I presume, is the real name of Keg O'Blood.

"Speaking of secure facilities," the Chief says. "How were you able to go into the burning Caucasas lab and find Maurice so quickly? It's a maze in there."

"Lucky, I guess."

"It's as if you knew the layout of that building. Yet, few people have ever been allowed inside."

True. We were able to get inside by meeting the very strict requirement of not asking for permission.

"Perhaps you are psychic?" the Chief asks sarcastically.

"Not hardly," I say. "Most of the time I can't tell what's on my own mind."

The Chief looks at Officer Krupke. "Are you buying any of this?" There is a little smile to her eye, but you'd never know it unless you knew her well.

"No," Krupke returns her smile. "He was either lucky, or he sold his soul to the Devil."

"Must've been luck." I laugh. "I already sold my soul to guarantee that the Boston Red Sox would win the 2012 World Series."

Krupke blinks in incomprehension. "But they didn't win."

"I know. In retrospect, I should have asked for a receipt. I didn't even get store credit."

The Chief tells the nurses that I have permission to visit Maurice. Before she and Krupke leave, Krupke hands me the $40 that I gave him at the cemetery. A nurse watches us. I wave off the money and smile at the nurse. "Keep the bribe," I say.

Krupke blushes, but he keeps the bills. I decide that my little joke was too expensive.

As the Chief turns to leave she says, "Remember, Mr. Baker." She pauses. "Ann will be safer if we handle the situation. And to be crystal clear, 'you' are not included in 'we'. Got it?" Her tone of voice implies that she will give good odds that I can't beat a special education chicken at tick-tac-toe.

"Got it."

I take a seat in the Critical Care Unit waiting room along with several others. We take turns pacing, each of us in turn falling in step with the subtle tempo changes of piped-in soft elevator music.

Suddenly, I have a moment of clarity. What will I do if Maurice clams up, using the excuse that busting the gang is higher priority than any one life? I will need to change his mind. Will I smother a man with a pillow in a hospital? I guess I'll find out.

Hours pass slowly until a nurse approaches me and says, "Mr. Johnson is awake. You may visit him for ten minutes."

The nurse opens the door to a small sterile room decorated with a white floor, four dead-white walls, sound-absorbent squares on the ceiling, a bed, and a cup of uneaten gelatin. No color, no sound, no flavor, and tranquilizers – all meant to ease you out of life slowly, so if you die it won't be a shock to your system.

Maurice is perched on top of the bed sheets in a white hospital gown. His legs sticking out of the gown are as white as a plucked chicken's. There are wires to his heart, his stomach, and his arms, and I assume that these are providing some of the readings dancing across the computer screens. All the wires make Maurice look like a robot coming apart. The nurse makes some marks on a sheet of paper attached to a clipboard and hangs the board on the back of the bed.

Only Maurice's eyes and mouth are visible through openings in the gauze wrapped around his head.

I sit next to him. He smiles and emits a frail gasp that sounds like "hello".

"Hello."

"Thank you for saving my life," Maurice says, perhaps prematurely.

"Are you in pain?" I ask.

"Nah. I'm told that my legs are broken, but they got me full of chemicals. Slap my face and I won't feel a thing. I haven't felt this good in years."

"Sorry about hitting you with the cooler."

"I understand." His eyes close briefly and I suddenly sense some urgency in getting information from him before he falls asleep again.

I rattle out, "Ann has been kidnapped by someone who wants me to get the Skulk test report for them."

Maurice's eyes narrow. "Kidnapped?"

"Yes." I have no time to give him details. "Who, besides the owner of the Caucasas lab, would want the Skulk test report?"

"Obviously not DDoA. They have the report."

"Who within DDoA has Bob? They also probably have the report."

"I never saw Bob, but he is probably in the secure building. It's the only building with its own generator. What's that expression on your face? Oh, you're thinking that if I never saw Bob, why did I tell you that he wasn't in the old Caucasas test lab?"

I nod.

"While I was transported to my fiery Hell, I heard Keg O' say that Bob had ransom value. That Bob and the Skulk report were 'Aces up their sleeve' in dealing with the lab owner, Packer. I knew they wouldn't kill Bob."

"So, Maurice, you know that DDoA has Bob and that he can be turned over to Packer at any time and be murdered – why aren't the cops breaking down DDoA's doors now?" I notice the blood pressure readings on the monitor spike. I lower my voice. "Are the cops so concerned about busting the gang that they have lost sight of an individual's life?"

"I shouldn't tell you this, but we are watching Mr. Packer so that he can't get his hands on Bob."

"But now, right now there are no cops inside DDoA. Watching Packer is not enough. He could pay DDoA to dispose of Bob. Or DDoA could sell Bob to a higher bidder. Like the competition of Caucasas."

"Why would their competition want the Skulk report enough to kidnap someone?"

"Billions of dollars are at stake. If the competition publishes the report showing that Skulk's side-effects are lethal, it would call into question every drug Caucasas has ever sold; every death as a result of their bogus testing. And it would be a boon for similar drugs their competition has in the pipeline."

Maurice closes his eyes. "We hadn't thought of that. We thought Packer wanted the report to expedite his drug getting to market. Nothing more. Who's the competition?"

"L'Oreal, Estee Lauder, Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson – hundreds of others. They are unscrupulous. Many of them fool the public by claiming they don't test on animals, but their suppliers test their ingredients on animals."

"Another possibility," Maurice says, "is that someone within Caucasas knows the report is missing, but doesn't know that DDoA is ransoming it to Packer."

"Who would be a likely suspect within Caucasas?"

"Nobody that I'd call 'likely', just 'remotely possible', since anyone who knew about the missing report would probably be aware of Packer's efforts to get it back. I'm guessing that at a minimum he told the three VPs with bonuses linked to profits. That could be a motive for any of them to want it back."

Maurice's eyes close again for nearly ten seconds.

I stand up. Caucasas's competition is the most likely lead. I'll need to narrow down the suspects. I'll start with any company that has a similar drug in the pipeline. Before I say goodbye to Maurice, I am compelled to ask, "Didn't it ever bother you to be undercover in a gang that steals dogs from people's families?"

Maurice doesn't answer for a moment.

He says drowsily, "It did. It does. It really does. I kept telling myself it was for 'the greater good'."

Maurice repeats 'the greater good.' He just keeps saying those three words, almost like a soft chant, and somehow the way he says them makes them sound like all the words in a whole, sad book.

Before he convinces himself that his actions were heroic, I refute, "What you did for 'the greater good' has permanently blackened your soul. You can lighten it a little if you think of anything that might lead me to Ann and then you call me."

He nods. "Clark, can I ask you something?" his tone implies a change of subject. I lower my butt slowly back down into the chair and cock my head to listen. "Are you an atheist?"

I roll my eyes around the hospital room and softly ask, "Is this the right time to question your faith?"

"Yes. Especially now."

"Yes," I say. "I'm an atheist."

"Why?"

"For the same reason that you don't believe in the other three thousand gods that mankind has created. I just don't believe in one more god than you."

He pauses. "Where do you think you will go when you die?"

"The same place I was before I was born."

"Before birth?" Maurice says as if this makes no sense.

"Yes. The concept is beyond my comprehension, too. But I refuse to make up a story to cover my ignorance. Why do you suppose religion doesn't talk about 'before life'?"

Maurice's eyes open a little wider and his head shakes slowly.

"I'll tell you why. Because it can't be used as a threat to control you. Religion is all about controlling people with threats. Do what I say, or suffer."

"Religion at least offers one possibility about afterlife. I prefer a longshot to the likelihood that I'll be remembered for about three hours after I'm gone. Then a ball game will be on, and my friends will return to more important things."

"I understand the appeal."

The nurse appears in the doorway and looks at the clock on the wall. My ten minutes is up.

"Thanks, Clark," Maurice says.

"One more thing, Maurice." I nod to the nurse. "If you want to be the nurse's favorite patient, don't make fun of their shoes." The nurse's eyes are on me like surgical tweezers.

"That easy, huh?"

"Well, you also have to eat everything on your dinner tray, never hassle them to give you massive injections of heroin without a doctor's prescription, and never ever fake cardiac arrest just to get their attention."

"Thanks."

The nurse injects pain killer into Maurice's line, and she looks at me to let me know I don't have much more time for cogent discussion.

"You're welcome."

Maurice looks at the nurse standing over him. "By the way, Clark – it was Keegan O'Brian who punched Jill. I thought you should know." He looks up from beneath half-drawn eye lids. He looks tired. Happy, but tired.

"Take care, Maurice."

The nurse shoos me out.

Chapter 19

The rain has stopped and the sun is out. A rainbow gleams in the west, reminding me of the Rainbow Health Center in Boston's Chinatown where I took karate lessons in grade school. I park my car, cross the street and before I reach the porch I notice lights are on inside my home. Has the Ransacker returned? My fight or flight response kicks in, and I check my pockets for my passport. Wait. I recognize Dudley's whistling. I listen carefully to be certain. He repeats the same melody but with slight creative variations. Dudley! Still cautious, I move to a window and peek inside. Corky, Bill, and Dudley are cleaning and arranging.

Hoover, bandaged, lies in a dog bed in the center of the living room. He shakes himself and makes a throaty sad sound. I doubt he knows that Ann has been kidnapped, but he probably smells worry and fear. Dudley pets Hoover and tells him that everything will be back to normal soon.

I open the front door. Hoover trots over to me. Dudley says "Hi." Everyone stops working.

"Hey, guys." I bend to pat Hoover.

"What did you learn from Harvey?" Dudley asks.

"Not much. Only that Harvey is Maurice."

"Well," Dudley says, "I think I speak for all of us when I say, 'Huh?'"

"'Harvey' was the undercover alias of a cop named Maurice Johnson. It's not likely he knows anything that will lead me to Ann or to the Skulk report. The cops are focused on arresting and convicting the DDoA gang for major crimes that include arson, murder, and selling drugs. They are not focused on the less punishable crimes of animal bunching, dogfighting, or Caucasas' falsifying a drug test."

"If the cops bust DDoA," Bill leans on a broom, "will that help us get Ann back?"

"Not likely. The cops wouldn't recognize the Skulk report if it bit them in the buttocks. If they raid the DDoA compound, that report and our chance to negotiate for Ann's release might disappear."

"What's our next step?"

"Either we pursue leads to Ann's kidnapper, or leads to the Skulk report."

"Those steps might be in two different directions. And time is a factor," Dudley says.

"Bingo." I open the refrigerator. "You have a full grasp of the dilemma."

Bill watches me survey the nearly empty refrigerator. "I cleaned the fridge," he explains. "Some of your food had been pawed through, so I tossed it out, along with the food that was old enough to be considered 'a friend from college.'"

"Which way are you leaning?" Corky asks.

"Well, the indirect route, going after the report, may be easiest. Keg O' probably has it. The direct route, going after whoever has Ann, is more difficult because my only lead is a swatch of discount Hawaiian pants. And there are too many suspects."

I pour bottled water for both Hoover and me.

"Okay," Dudley says, "let's take a secret vote. Thumbs-up we cancel our gigs at the Lobster until we nab Keg O'." He makes a thumbs-up gesture with one hand, wrapping his other palm around his thumb in mock-secrecy.

Corky and Bill follow suit.

"It's unanimous," Dudley says. "I saw Hoover vote."

There is optimism in the air that life will return to normal and someday be worth living. The cleaning crew is slightly more positive than I am. But so were Kafka and Edgar Allen Poe.

They return to cleaning. Bill asks, "Should I throw out things that are broken?"

I look around. Everything is broken. "No. I'll make those decisions later."

I hear snickers and look up. Corky holds up a khaki tuxedo advertised on a late night infomercial.

Dudley laughs and holds up a corduroy fork. "It goes with this."

Bill holds up an inflatable dart board. Okay, I've made some dubious purchases and they are displaying them for their amusement.

On whims, I have purchased a water polo set, a river raft, a fencing outfit, and a paint ball gun. How much of this equipment have I actually used? Zero! I do not have time for the adventurous life that I've shopped for. Many of these pathways to adventure, including a complete snowmobile ensemble, remain boxed.

Lately I haven't made as many of these bad purchases, except a toy helicopter that resisted all my attempts to get it airborne. In retrospect I should have paid more attention to the disclaimer that said "Please allow 6-8 weeks for bitter disappointment to wear off."

I crack open my laptop. On Google Earth I identify what may be a generator next to a building in the center of the compound. I stare at the dogfighting pit.

While Hoover sleeps and my friends clean, I hypothesize. Time has come to shake up the variables. According to the cops, DDoA is a large and successful criminal operation. That requires organizational skills.

I've considered that a gang member might have gone rogue and went after me for the Skulk report. But I haven't considered that Caucasas might be more discombobulated than the gang. Maurice supposed that the three Caucasas VP's were informed by Packer about the missing report and the negotiation with DDoA because they all had a vested interest in the financial loss it represented. But suppose Packer didn't tell all three VP's. Suppose one of them is not aware that DDoA has the test report, and suppose he is trying to get it back unbeknownst to Alferd Packer.

I look up the Caucasas Corporation and get the names of the three VP's. Now what? How can I find out if the torn pants swatch came from one of the VPs? Search their garbage cans? They probably did not discard evidence in their own trash. However, if I don't come up with a better idea, I'd rather paw through garbage than wait.

When everyone readies to leave, I ask Corky to stay a minute. I tell her my plan.

"That's about as likely to work as it is likely that Ann will move in with you."

"Ouch, Corky. That's a cheap shot."

"Then you shouldn't have taught it to me. But I'm sorry. It was an easy point and you don't need to be scored on right now."

Hoover settles on the couch, puts his head on his paws and cocks his head, listening, twitching his ears, in case Corky or I should suddenly try to eat something.

"I just need to update Ann on my life's bloopers, and then she'll move in."

"Do it. I'm rooting for you, that's why I mentioned it."

"Thanks for your support."

"No need to thank me. I have 'by the end of the year' in our betting pool."

"Betting pool? What do others have?"

"I'm not at liberty to reveal details. But it ranges from 'the end of the year' to 'when the Federal government creates The Bureau of Lesbian Affairs.'"

"So you think my plan to find the kidnapper is a longshot?"

"Yes. But I can't think of a better one."

"Great. Let's give it a go."

***

While I'm grocery shopping, Bill text message's me that it doesn't appear that any drug company has a drug similar to Skulk in their pipeline. No similar patents, no press announcements, no thesis papers. I text back to Bill that perhaps there is no motive for Caucasas's competitors to be after the Skulk report. He texts that he will keep investigating. I send a text message to Corky giving her the time to meet me, 4 PM, and I keep glancing at my phone to see if she has returned my text. Texting and grocery shopping don't mix. I've been down every aisle and I just realized that all I have in my cart is a head of cabbage and someone's baby. Fiddlesticks. I need another cabbage.

At 4 PM Corky and I sit in our cars, in two different Caucasas Corporation parking lots. The work whistle sounds and employees start to leave. The parking spaces for the VPs are conveniently marked for our stalking pleasure. We watch two of their three cars, a BMW M6 Coupe and a Nissan GT-R. Both dark blue. The space for the third VP is empty. Maybe because he's tending to a dog bite wound received while ransacking my home.

I set down my binoculars and call Corky. "Anything yet?"

"No."

"Me either."

We have this conversation maybe ten times.

I am on high alert whenever anyone goes near the BMW. After almost an hour, the parking lot is only a quarter full. A squat, balding man approaches the BMW, uses his key clicker to unlock the door, looks down on the ground and sees one-half of the swatch of material left behind from the pants that Hoover ripped off the Ransacker. He gets in his car and drives away.

I call Corky. "My VP is eliminated as a prime suspect."

"Shhh," Corky says. Ten seconds later, "Bingo! The Nissan owner saw the swatch, looked both ways, tossed a whole cigarette to the ground, palmed the swatch and placed it in his pocket."

"Which VP?" I ask.

"'Goot Von Krek' according to his parking space. He looks familiar, but I don't recognize the name."

***

I wave goodbye and mouth "thanks" to Corky as she pulls away, leaving me her parking spot. She's staked out Goot's place while I went home to get Hoover. If Goot ransacked our house, Hoover might react if he smells Goot. Hoover anticipates the excitement as he usually does, sound asleep in the front passenger seat.

Goot's home is a three-story Victorian spectacle with four white pillars and an immaculately tended ten-acre yard mowed as tightly as a golf course putting green. The driveway is marked with a swan statue perched on top of a marble pedestal. Trees are plentiful. No gates or fences. No security sign. No guard dogs. Idyllic.

Hoover and I wait.

"Hoover, do you think Ann is captive here? Maybe in a basement?" When I say Ann's name, Hoover woofs softly.

After an hour, a male leaves the house in a small Chevy. Probably a servant. After another hour I decide to peek in some windows. I take a tennis ball. If someone spots me, I'll claim that my dog dropped it on their property and that I took the dog to the car and went back for the ball. I will point to Hoover as proof. Is it a believable excuse? Not really. But while they are shaking their head at my ridiculous story I will execute plan "B", which is to run like the wind.

Since it's cold I leave the windows closed and the car locked. I pat the floor on the front passenger side and say "here, boy." Hoover jumps down. I tell him "stay". He puts his head on his paws. "Hoover, if I don't come back, sell the car, take the money and move to Paris! They let dogs eat in restaurants there."

I walk confidently up Goot's driveway. Once I'm out of view from passersby on the street, I head for the trees, and now I use those trees to get close to the house. No alarms sound.

I circle the house, ducking below windows, pausing to listen. After hearing nothing from beneath a half-dozen windows, I peek through one. A hallway spills out through a succession of glass doors. Walls are draped with tapestries; and enormous paintings of active whaling scenes.

At the back of the house a television is on. I sit on the ground under the window where the sound is loudest. I notice my breath is rising in the cold night and wafting past the window. I breathe down the front of my jacket. I hear the voices of several people in the room.

"That scares the hell out of me," a male voice says. What could scare kidnappers?

From the television, a voice says, "Ex-lax – works while you sleep."

I choke back a laugh.

The channel changes. An "adventure" toy is advertised. I don't know exactly what it is. Batteries and bullets are not included.

The channel changes again and a young woman is just worried sick about whether or not her kid likes the flavor of toothpaste he's using.

"What are we watching?" asks a female voice who has apparently just entered the room.

"Television, Grandma," a young girl explains.

The male says, "Giblet is searching for 'A Very Special Episode of Peter Rabbit.'"

"Nowadays," Grandma says, 'a very special episode' means they've switched nights."

The channel changes again. Grandma says, "Giblet, do you need to go through each channel?"

The male says, "She does, dear. The remote is broken."

The channel changes again. "It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and I'm wearing Milk-Bone underwear." I recognize the voice of George Wendt as 'Norm Peterson' on the Cheers show.

Giblet finds the Peter Rabbit special and the three of them are quiet until a commercial. The male says, "I'm going to the kitchen to get cookies. Anybody else want one?"

Giblet says, "Yes, please, grandpa."

I crawl back to where I have a viewing angle into the kitchen. The male, who I presume is Goot although I've never seen him, sidles into the kitchen and goes to a cookie jar. He walks with his arms away from his body! Ah ha! He is the 'Crab' who was looking for me in the Howling Lobster claiming to be a recording executive. That's why Corky recognized him. And, whoops, it is also why he will recognize me.

I have no difficulty picturing myself being captured, and Goot breaking my bones and smashing my head to bits. Time to go.

I return to my car. Before I open the door I talk to Hoover, who is still on the floor, ears alert. "Good boy," I tell him. Hoover jumps up and presses his nose to the side window, one ear pricked, one ear drooping. I walk around the car, open the door slowly and get in. "I don't think Ann is being held captive here. It would be hard to keep a hostage with his wife and granddaughter around."

Hoover looks at me, contemplating.

"If Goot is holding Ann captive, it must be somewhere else. Hopefully he will leave sometime this evening to check on Ann, and to feed her. Maybe after his wife goes to bed."

I move my Prius down the street, in the shadows of a big evergreen tree, so that I can see Goot's driveway without it appearing that I'm doing exactly what I am doing – stalking him.

"We're going to wait as long as it takes for him to come out," I tell Hoover. Hoover does not disagree. We lean back on the hours ahead. All I have to do is stay awake and I have the place covered. I give Corky updates, putting her voice on speaker so that she and Hoover can say hello. Every hour or so Hoover and I stretch our legs. Time passes slowly.

At six A.M., I hear a garage door open. Goot drives out and I follow him. Cruising on the highway, the cold outside air becomes too much for Hoover. He sits back in my lap. It's Thursday morning. My deadline to give Goot the report is in eighteen hours. Goot pulls into the Caucasas parking lot. If Goot kidnapped Ann, he must have turned her over to an accomplice so following him is a waste of time. I'm running out of options. In fact, I can think of only one. When Goot returns home I will ambush him in his own driveway and beat Ann's location out of him.

Goot sidles into work. He has a family. A Giblet. Suddenly I am halted by a sense of wrongness that I can't adequately describe; a change in the air too subtle to define; a mild tingle on my face; a quivering of the hairs in my ear canals, as if they are vibrating to a sound beyond my range of hearing. After twenty-nine years of a non-violent existence, I am on the verge of being violent.

But I don't think I am capable of hurting Goot until I'm certain that he has Ann. He might have picked up the pants swatch just because it was trash. Perhaps Corky saw what she wanted to see. Yet, he was bent on finding me the night he arrogantly tried to push past the bouncer Chas to get into the Lobster. Without doubt he's up to something more smelly than an armpit on fire. But that's not enough evidence for me to hurt him, even if his arrogance makes him more punchable than Dr. Phil.

A jumble of contradictory voices rises within me. Adding to the jumble is the frustration of trying to hear one voice above all the others. Maybe I should hold off on harming Goot, and instead let him know it's an option. Maybe I should kidnap his wife. Trade her for Ann. I look in the rearview mirror. Not so much as to survey what might be behind me as because I half-expect to see someone besides me in the mirror. As a small boy, I cared about all beings. What circumstantial chain connects that small boy with the man who finds himself considering kidnapping a lady who has done nothing to him?

Sometimes complex moral choices are decided less by reason and by right than by sentiment. Perhaps such decisions are the paving stones on the road to Hell; if so, my route is well paved, and the welcoming committee already knows my name. It's paved with enough good intentions to make a long slow loop around Jerry Falwell and return home.

With a volcano of uncertainty erupting inside me, I drive home. A block from home Corky is on roller blades; I'm coming up behind her. She is anxious. As kids, whenever she was anxious she'd roller blade around and around the block. Now I pass her and pull into my driveway. She grates to a halt, flapping her arms like a landing pelican, sweeps her earbuds off, and says "Did you learn anything?"

"Goot is the bogus record company executive who was looking for me at the Lobster."

Corky thinks. "Ahh, yes," she says. "That's where I saw him."

We go inside. She sits in a chair and starts taking her skates off. I grab a bag of vegan potato puffs from the counter, take some and hand the bag to her.

I say, "Goot is involved somehow. And my first reaction to that knowledge is to beat a little stuffing out of him and make him talk."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa whoa, whoa," Corky chants like she is trying to bring a spooked horse under control. This indicates that she does not openly embrace my idea. "Have you considered, Clark, that what you are suggesting is counter to everything we stand for? I suspect you have," she snaps, pointing a potato puff at me. "So what's going on in your head?"

Let me check. Two monkeys and a yo-yo. Hoover paces between us, trying to get our attention because he is insecure in the changed mood.

A little anger in Corky's eyes makes them snap. "Do you have another plan?"

"Plan B is to detain Goot's wife," I explain. "Perhaps it is more humane to detain her than to hammer information out of Goot." I dare say a good cross-examining counsel could make quite the flapdoodle of my logic.

"Detain? Are you seriously calling kidnapping 'detaining'?" She falls back in her chair and holds a potato puff aloft and seems to address it, not me. "Come springtime, could you spread a little of that over my front lawn?"

"What are my choices, Corky? I don't like it, but I don't see any other way. Time is running out."

We pick apart other alternatives, such as following Goot again hoping he'll lead us to Ann. The critical flaw in all these alternatives is that they require patience that I don't have. We go in circles until we are like the proverbial dog who chases his tail until he gives up. Exhausted. And it's only 9:30 AM.

At the door Corky treats me to hopeful eyes, "Goodbye. Whatever you decide, let me know how I can help."

I sit down at the kitchen table and open the box containing fencing gear. Awash in strong emotions, I feel that if I just sit here waiting, if I don't take some positive action, frustration and fear will gnaw at the seams of my mind, loosening the stitches a little. I take out a sword, stand in a fencer's stance, and jab at the air. Jab, parry, and counter nothing.

Hoover and I go for a walk to the cemetery. I stand over the grave that could be mine. I decide to amend my organ donation plan. Whoever gets my final useful organ will have to repay me by cremating my remains and throwing my ashes in Goot's face.

I sit on the bench that Officer Krupke occupied as a homeless man; a mumbling drunk whom I am pretty sure I'll be able to compete with, given a few more hours of my internal confusion. My imaginative right brain tortures me by thinking about what might be happening to Ann. If I find out that Goot hurt Ann, I fear what such a discovery will do to me. I fear what I might become, my potential for savagery, and the hideous ease with which I might embrace vengeance and call it justice.

Ironically, it was Ann who taught me that anger harms no one more than he who harbors it. That both bitterness and true happiness are choices we make, not conditions that fall upon us from the hands of fate. That peace is to be found in the acceptance of things that we are unable to change. That the purpose of existence is caring and commitment.

And she taught me to listen to my heart.

My heart says to kidnap Goot's wife before he returns home.

"Are my actions going to one day provide fertile ground for a budding psychiatric student's thesis, Hoover? Don't answer that. I'll take it better coming from me." I look at a puddle of rain on the cemetery pathway. My face glances back at me, a trifle cold, unknowing. It is the face of a man I no longer understand. "I know the bridge that connects me to him, but after I kidnap someone, the other side will have disappeared."

At home, Hoover wants to play his favorite game of "Kill". Due to his bruises I am gentle. He growls and I howl and we wrestle. He bests me easily.

Chapter 20

As my guise for entering Goot's home I will dress like a cable TV technician. My props will include a clipboard, my TV remote, and paperwork from the cable company when they repaired my system. Since Goot's remote is broken, I will tell Mrs. Von Krek that I am there to fix it.

Once I get inside, I'll survey the situation. If Mrs. Von Krek is home alone I'll draw out my plastic water pistol and walk her out the front door. If anyone else is home with her, I'll tell her the problem is with a cable connection on her roof. Then I'll get the ALF gear out of the Prius. The gear includes a small canister of anesthetic gas taken from a medical testing laboratory during an animal liberation. I will climb onto the roof and pump gas down the chimney to knock everyone out.

Hoover and I are four blocks from the Von Krek's home. We pass a grade school. Children are playing. Goot's granddaughter, Giblet, might be there. She sounded too young for school. She might be home. I can't kidnap Giblet's grandmother in front of her. It might scar her for life. Has the loss of Ann robbed me of all compassion? I change my mind about kidnapping Goot's wife and decide I will just talk; if need be, at water-gun point. She must know something useful. Maybe the Von Krek's have a remote vacation cabin, or a yacht, some place where Ann could be held hostage.

I park in front of Goot's house. Standing in the magnificent doorway, I rub the soles of my shoes on the welcome mat and I push the doorbell a half-dozen times – apparently just for the fun of it. I give up and knock on the door.

Footsteps approach and the door opens. The woman standing there looks as though at least three people are trapped inside her pink sweat suit all trying to escape in different directions. She is not going to win a beauty contest anytime soon. Nor was she ever a trophy wife, unless the trophy was last place. After she speaks, I realize that getting Miss Congeniality is probably out for her, too.

"Why the hell didn't you ring the doorbell?" she says to me like I am a mental patient who has had to have his fly buttoned after he has just peed in his pants. Nobody has spoken to me in that tone since I asked a question at the post office.

"I'm very sorry," I apologize.

She stares at me. She clearly has just had a facelift. Her eyes are still puffy and her face is moist and red and stretched as if she is an angry baby squeezing out of the womb.

"I'm here to fix your television remote," I show her the clipboard with the paperwork and my remote.

"Oh. Please come in," she says as if a kinder, gentler being has suddenly reclaimed possession of her soul. She holds out her hand a little too high to shake, a little too low to kiss, but just about the right height to pat my head if I bow down before her. "I'm Geezba," she says. "Call me Geezy."

I shake her hand. One piece of finger adornment is either a large ring or a small hubcap. Her nails are the color of Bazooka bubble gum, matching her hairdo.

Her skin has all the lovely sun-kissed glow of the underbelly of a scrod. Her eyes are dilated even though the house is dark. She is high on something at 10:30 AM. Perhaps she's testing a new Caucasas drug. I'd guess that if she makes a list of her favorite things, sunlight won't even make the cut. It's just an observation. I can't judge someone who has a drug problem considering what I recently did to a platoon-size bag of Oreo's.

Geezy leads me farther into the house. The ceilings are rimmed with moldings skillfully executed by craftsmen who have gone to their rest many generations before. Throughout the home are Oriental carpets warm woods, and brass trim. We walk down a hallway, through a living room with lacquered Louis VX furniture. The tables are gilded with leaf patterns, the chairs intricately carved and upholstered in red silk. I don't see or hear anyone else in the home.

We pass an orange tabby cat who hisses at us for no reason. We pause until he's done hissing. He crouches under a table with ceramic statues of celebrities. Marilyn Monroe. Cary Grant. James Dean. Laurel and Hardy. I notice that in an otherwise perfectly arranged room, the Laurel and Hardy statue is facing backwards towards a vase. Could the cat have moved the ceramic piece? No, it is too deliberate. Perhaps a comic touch to honor the classic comedy duo. It reminds me of Ann. A future hall-of-fame comedienne.

At the end of the hall Geezy steps aside and motions me to go on through a door leading to a room where leather furniture sprouts up out of the deep carpet. On a pedestal is a Bible big enough to weigh down the corner of a tent in a high wind. Still no sign of anyone else.

Geezy points to a painting and proudly says, "That's Dove's 'Spirit of Dawn.'"

To show her that I am really a cable guy, I say, "I thought it was Clopstein's 'Two warts on a fanny'."

Her face looks as if she has swallowed a bee. She smoothes it out with an effort and then brings the conversation down to my level. She points to the TV and explains, "That's the TV."

I pick up the remote from a coffee table. "This could take a few minutes," I inform her.

"Call me if you need anything," she says. "I'll be in the exercise room next door."

My eyebrows involuntarily rise.

I open the TV remote and remove the batteries. In the corner of the room, on the floor, is a remote controlled Barbie Corvette. I remove the batteries from Barbie's remote and exchange them with the batteries from the TV remote. I turn on the TV just in time to find out why Bayer is better than any other aspirin which contains the same ingredients. The TV remote works fine. Barbie will have to walk.

I roam around the room, changing channels from different angles and being nosy, hoping to stumble on a clue that Goot kidnapped Ann. On one shelf is a photograph of Geezy and Goot and a young woman, probably their daughter: They are all smiling, and look as though they've been smiling for days, waiting for someone to figure out how to work the camera. Yuppie magazines abound. Where to buy pretentious things. Where the rich and famous vacation. All pornographic to a rock musician. I open desk drawers. Nothing unusual.

I peek my head around the corner and into the exercise room. Geezy, looking at herself in the mirror, sees me. She must have at least bounced a few times, because her hair now has a cotton-candy-in-a-tornado look and suggests a recent dose of high voltage. I signal with a tilt of my head to follow me back into the TV room. I show her that the remote works.

"Wonderful, wonderful," she says, almost clapping her hands.

"I noticed the Barbie Corvette," I say. "I'm thinking of buying one for my niece. Does your daughter like it?"

"Oh yes." Her pupils are the size of quarters in the dimly lit room. "Little Giblet never stops playing with it. But she is with my daughter today."

All of the bricks in the road to hell are falling right into place at my feet. Goot's wife is home alone, and narcotized. A kidnapper's dream thoughtfully provided by fate.

"I always exercise before I eat lunch. Something that I've done even after I got married. Something that I will always do," she explains as if I ought to know these facts before proceeding with the rest of my life. She details for me her exercise routine as if no time is to be lost in filling in the gaps in my knowledge about her life.

I rub my hands over my face. I don't want to do this bit. I finger the butt of my plastic water pistol in my pocket to make sure I still have it. I hope it's not leaking. I draw it and point it at her, holding it in both hands as if I expect it to kick.

Her eyes on the gun, she moves away from me as though I am holding a snake out at her. She begins to bounce around so actively I check the rug for hopscotch boxes, but I see only carpet. I feel that her bouncing is an over-reaction to having a gun shoved in her face. Maybe I am wrong about this.

Geezy glances off in the general direction of the door, as if hoping the cavalry is coming. But only the terror-tabby is watching and it seems disinclined to take sides. "Geezy," I say, "look at me. Over here."

She shakes her head like a dog coming out of a pond. This seems to calm her in the same way that a smack in the face will calm a hysteric. Calmer now, she finds my eyes. She stares at me as though she wants a copy of my pedigree and a sample of my blood. Her eyes wander again, looking down this time. Maybe she hopes to be saved by that orange tabby, but I suspect it is out auditioning for a starring role in a Stephen King movie.

"Geezy, I need you to concentrate."

She gives me a longer look, and in the course of that look the expression in her eyes changes a lot, ramping up through confusion, to anger and worry, to fear and rage. In rage her eyes burn right to the base of my skull.

I ask, "What do you know about your husband's business dealings?"

She points to a photograph. Goot with President George W. Bush. "My husband and Mr. Bush are friends." Her voice is stronger and clearer than it has been up until now.

"I see that. It looks like he is scratching his balls."

She apparently doesn't want to find anything I say humorous, but my comment manages to force a chuckle out of her. Now she seems to hate herself for it.

"Your husband has connections," I concede. "But what I need to know is whether he has mentioned anything to you about the drug 'Skulk'?"

"George didn't have balls," she says, a little behind in the conversation.

"Trouble with poor test results?" I ask. "And if so, how is Goot handling that trouble?"

"He's mentioned Skulk," she's still behind.

"Has your husband ever dealt with a gang called 'Dead Dog on Arrival'?"

"He never mentioned anything about trouble with poor test results."

"Has Goot kidnapped anybody? Or does he have close associates who might do dirty deeds for him?"

"What is Dead Duck on a Rival?"

"Do you have any place where your husband could salt away a hostage? A summer cabin? A yacht?"

"Kidnap somebody? He's not –" She stops talking as though her tongue has been cut. All kinds of things float face down in the dark water of the silence, drowned but not quite dead.

"Do you have any place where Goot could store a hostage?"

Her face closes, as if guarding a secret. "Did you just ask me if my husband took a hostage?"

"I think I did. I recognize my voice. I remember vividly. It happened a few seconds ago. You were standing there as I recall. Indeed you were wearing the very same clothes which you are currently wearing, and –"

"Go to Hell!"

Well, I don't do that just yet. "Are the reservations in your name?"

"So you think my husband is a criminal?" She throws each syllable at me like stones. "Is that what you are trying to say?"

"No. That's what I'm trying not to say."

Her face turns pink, nearly matching her sweat suit and her hair. In a rapid burst of language she displays full command of the shorter, more virulent words in the dictionary. She questions the fiber of my morality, the validity of my parentage, and the quality of my tumescence, comparing my sexual organs to a plate of baby vegetables.

I wait until my teeth unclench before saying, "Well, Geezy, let me tell you something. What you ought to be doing instead of insulting me is making a note to return to your hairdresser so you can kick her ass. Whoever it was that gave you that rinse surely deserves a whipping."

Her expression suggests acute gastrointestinal distress. I notice that every time she gets angry she is perfectly cogent. Sharp, even. The transformation is quick. Too quick. It takes sane people longer to go from one emotion to another. Possibly her anger pumps adrenalin into her system and overrides her drugs. Yet, when the adrenalin subsides it's almost as if she is merely acting stoned. Maybe a defense mechanism. Maybe a strange new Caucasas drug that made mice happy. Maybe she is bamboozling me.

But if she is really this stoned, Goot could probably store a hostage here, or a Brontosaurus, and she'd never be wise to it.

"Move," I raise my pistol to her eye level. "You clearly don't know how evil your husband is. He kidnapped my girlfriend and he's stored her someplace. Do you have a wine cellar? Take me there."

Nervously, she fingers the cross around her neck and looks too scared to say a word. She looks at the pistol I'm holding with a bit more respect, even if it is only the kind of respect usually reserved for potentially violent psychopaths.

I prod her hard with the gun every step she takes, hoping the plastic feels like metal. We pass a bathroom whose centerpiece is a shredded roll of toilet paper. The tabby terrorist.

The wine cellar is beautiful. Wooden cabinets with inlaid designs. Storage racks inlaid in the ceiling so you are blanketed with wine bottles when you look up. Thousands of bottles of wine on racks. A bookshelf with books about wines and cheeses of the world. Unlike the rest of the house, the bookshelf is in complete disarray, most books catawampus. Probably the only books in the house that are actually read. I open all the storage cabinets. I call out Ann's name. My voice echoes.

"I should have paid attention to whatever my husband was doing." She makes a sound like a cough, which is actually a mouthful of strangled tears. "Once he became Vice President of animal testing, he made enemies. I never asked why. I looked the other way."

"He's the classic example of someone who has risen too far," I say.

"Beyond his level of competence?"

"No, beyond his level of evolution. He is just one small step above wood."

Anger clears Geezy's voice again. "My husband should be applauded. He's bringing valuable new drugs to market. He should be celebrated. Why do people want to rain on his parade?"

"I don't want to rain on his parade - I want to blow up all his floats."

"Are you one of his enemies?"

"I am."

"Why? What's he done that's so terrible?"

"In the last year, two of Caucasas' drugs have been approved after they did meaningless tests on animals. Animals whose physiology didn't remotely correlate to that of humans. In the last year they subjected 60,000 animals including beagle puppies to the LD50 test. The LD50 involves injecting a test substance into the stomachs of a group of animals and monitoring their suffering until 50-percent are dead. A painful death. The death of each surviving animal is equally as cruel – to save money. The animal may be held to the table by the back of its head and with a yank of the tail have its neck broken. After you've seen the LD50 test, any reminder is like having electrodes attached to your genitals.

"And after those two drugs were released, hundreds of people got sick. Some died. Yet Caucasas was safe from prosecution because they did the legally required testing. Their punishment was to take the lethal drugs off the market – after making billions of dollars. Your husband is responsible for those human and non-human deaths. And he'll be responsible for more if Caucasas is not stopped."

Geezy is squinting, as if a spotlight has shined in her eyes. My revelation of Goot's crimes does not give her pause. I should have saved my breath to whistle a silly tune.

While sporadically blinking, Geezy says, "Killing animals to save humans is an acceptable trade-off."

My hand tightens on the trigger and I struggle to not squirt her in the eye. "But killing animals doesn't save human lives. The bogus animal tests cause human deaths. They are done only to legally absolve drug companies of responsibility."

Her expression is the same expression that Hoover gets when I ask him what city he lives in. "That's not true." She pauses and then weakly adds, "It's in the Bible."

With no idea how to counter her claim I'm nonplussed. I'm sure that she is misinterpreting some passage. She looks at me like she just said something profound that any decent human being would realize was the bottom line of morality. I decide to fight fiction with fiction. "But it is true. I read it in my horoscope."

She flushes and lowers her gaze. My rebuttal apparently leaves her conflicted.

Although it is like stopping a clock to save time, I explain further. "88% of stillbirths and 61% of birth defects are caused by drugs which are passed as being safe in animal tests. Defect rates are 200 times post war levels." I am like a man trying to explain the Theory of Relativity without words, using only hand puppets. There is no way she will ever appreciate the animal rights' position. In every way that counts, we are thousands of miles apart, and there is no road between us.

She just keeps shaking her head.

Exasperated, I say, "You wouldn't know the truth if it sat next to you in church on Sunday." I am not proud to have introduced the use of ad hominems into the debate.

"How dare you!" There is a ball of anger clogging her throat, and now she has a legitimate reason to cough it up. "You are not worthy to be a dandruff flake on Goot's head." She continues with a rampage that makes her husband seem like a regular guy that believes in peace, justice, morality, culture, family life, and the obliteration of everyone associated with animal rights. All virtues, according to her.

I wave the gun towards the door. "Let's go. The mere fact that Goot is not scraping gum off Boston's streets for nickels makes me weep for my country."

Her mask of makeup empties of expression, as though the face behind it has withdrawn. Her eyes implore. "Please," she says. The word comes out with a sob. I realize that she has been maintaining her composure only with considerable effort.

"Sorry," I say for no particular reason.

She reaches out and closes both hands around my wrist, gently, as though in a request for kindness. "I will pay you," she says in a steady clear voice.

"It's not about money," I insist. "Get your coat." I prod her forward with the gun.

She gets her purse, digs a little bit, and comes out with twenty one-thousand-dollar-bills. The sight of the bills almost knocks me down. "Is this enough?" she asks.

I have no intention of taking her money and letting her go. I take out my wallet and give the Presidents a home. If I dwell on the transaction any more I'll have to ask for Pepto-Bismol.

"Keep going," I push her forward. She doesn't ask for a refund.

She selects an enormous hat that is a remarkable rather than entirely successful piece of personal decoration. It would make an elegant adornment, stylish, shapely and flattering, if the wearer were a small bedside lamp. And, of course, she selects a fur coat. A hundred little creatures that were all sensitive, vulnerable beings with distinct personalities have given their lives so that Geezy can look like the Oregon State Beaver's team mascot. The floral bonnet and fur coat are an interesting contrast to her flamingo pink jumpsuit.

I reach into her purse and pull out her cell phone so that I can use it later to contact her husband. I leave the front door unlocked when we leave. I will ask Corky to search the house thoroughly.

I get rope from the trunk, wrap one end around Geezy's hands, and tie the other end underneath the passenger seat. "If you undo the rope, my dog, Hoover, will bite you." Hoover barks, although conspicuously too friendly for the role I have assigned him.

Geezy closes her mouth with obvious difficulty. She turns to look at Hoover, her enormous hat tracking like a radar dish. She nods, without conviction it seems to me.

The road is deserted. Somehow I am more uncomfortably conscious of the large wad of cash in my pocket than I am of the kidnap victim next to me. I suppose because it seems to me that anyone who stops my car and talks to Geezy for more than a minute will understand why she is tied up.

Chapter 21

Where can I take her that's far enough off my beaten path that Goot won't find her before we trade hostages? The Jolly Goat Hotel? No, she's a hostage, not a criminal.

As I drive slowly and ponder, Geezy keeps rambling. I haven't the faintest idea what she's on about. Her mind is flying around in different directions. First I make an effort to understand her. Now I merely hope she'll find a runway and set her down.

I pull into the gravel driveway and park behind the House of Hope. Hoover barks at the familiar sounds and smells.

Fergy comes out the back door and sees me untying Geezy. "Any belongings?"

"No. Hopefully she won't stay more than one night."

Geezy watches us like we are aliens. As if what she sees does not fit into any of her visions of reality. Possibly because Fergy is so casual; a perfectly sane lady agreeing to hold another lady as a hostage as if it happened every day. Geezy doesn't know that there is a perfectly rational explanation for Fergy's behavior. What Fergy first supposed was that I'd brought to her another homeless person with Dissociative Identity Disorder of which one personality wanted my help and the other personality needed to be tied down. If Fergy had any doubt, Geezy's flamingo pink sweat suit, fur coat, and Easter bonnet confirmed her supposition.

"Did you call social services?" Fergy asks.

"No. She's a hostage who I'll be trading for Ann."

"Where's Ann?"

I give Fergy a thumbnail sketch of what has happened since the cabbie John Smith dropped off Jill to the House of Hope.

I reach the part about kidnapping Geezy to trade her for Ann. To give Fergy an idea of the nature of the hostage with whom she will be dealing, I describe my impressions of Geezy. My left brain congratulates my right brain for editing the phrase "we may have stopped burning witches too soon" out of the description. And yet, even now, the words are crawling up my throat, trying to make a break for it.

"Do you expect she will be any problem?"

"Let's put it this way: If this were the Land of Oz, a big house would drop on her." Well, I tried.

Fergy laughs. "Okay. Then exactly how does one minister to such a hostage?"

"I don't know. This is my first hostage."

"Good to hear," she nods. "I suppose that taking hostages is something most folks do only once, like being born, or like betting on the Patriots to cover a seven point spread vs. the Steelers when Pittsburgh's QB is on the DL with a shoulder injury – wait, what were we talking about?"

I laugh. "True. My only experience similar to taking a hostage is having an old friend from college come to stay at my house. The only difference, as I see it, is that when you take a hostage you've got a burdensome onerous person on your hands and you're threatening to shoot them if they DO leave."

"Yeah," Fergy laughs, "I remember college. Great fun, but sadly my philosophy degree ranks just below a degree from the American Bartender's Institute."

I look at Geezy, who is appalled by our laughter. "Geezy, are you taking any medications that we should know about? For example, any experimental drugs that Goot brought home from work?"

"No," Geezy raises her chin, assuming all the dignity she can muster. "Just your normal everyday run-of-the-mill street narcotics. I'm doing what I can to keep drugs out of the hands of our nation's young people."

"Okay, good. She may sober up." I turn to Fergy. "I will assign Hoover and Gypsy the task of guarding Geezy." Hoover barks and wags his tail. "And, by the way, how are Jill and Beau?"

"Jill is assisting us tremendously. Beau is spoiled with attention."

Fergy and I help Geezy out of the car and direct her toward the House of Hope's back door. She moves obstinately. She does not so much walk through space as defile it and toss it aside.

Gypsy opens the door and her face lights up like a child at Christmas when she sees Hoover.

Jill comes through the door with Beau marching at her side.

"Hi, Beau," I say. Beau gives a happy little bark.

"Clark," Jill says. "A funny thing happened. I'm not sure how it's related to DDoA. I called my old landlord, Marlboro, about my apartment security deposit. A recording gave me his hospital room number, 206. When I reached him, he went ballistic. Apparently, thugs had come to my apartment looking for me. They wanted access to my apartment, telling Marlboro that I stole a test report. But, thanks to Marlboro kicking me to the curb, I was already here, at the House of Hope. Only Marlboro didn't know where I was, and the men thought he was lying to protect me. He said they tortured him until he told them things he didn't even know."

"It was probably Goot's men," I nod to Geezy. "We have his wife hostage."

Jill smiles with the news that she will be holding hostage the wife of the Caucasas VP who paid to have her beaten up.

"Jill," I remind her. "Hostages are only bargaining chips if they are alive."

Jill laughs. Strangely, Geezy keeps looking at Gypsy, of all people, like she's a sane kindred spirit.

Everyone says good-bye.

Sitting in my car in the parking lot I scan through Geezy's phone contact list. The contacts are organized into groups. Medical, Family, Friends, Annoyances, Needy, Panic. Panic is probably her therapist. Good to know that Geezy hasn't slipped between the cracks of our nation's psychiatric health-care system. From what I've seen, her shrink probably has a couch named after her.

Under "Family" I find the contact titled "Goot Von Krek, VP". I call.

"Hello, Geezy. I'm busy."

"Goot. Clark Baker."

Goot is silent for a moment.

He says, "Why do you have my wife's phone?" His voice barely changes, but a new alertness colors it, a shade of wariness.

"I have your wife hostage. I want to trade her for Ann."

I remove the phone a good ten inches away and still have no difficulty in hearing him yell. He yells so rapidly I barely understand, but the gist is that he believes there are an excessive number of animal rights activists. He states that the definition of "excessive" is "more than two if dead, more than one if alive". Apparently I don't need to introduce myself.

When he's finished yelling, I say, "I'm serious. Do as I say, or I will ram all types of fiendishly blunt uneven instruments into Geezy's various orifices." This unfortunate visual image makes me a little queasy.

"What kind of a person says a sick thing like that over the phone?"

Usually people asking for a credit card number. "Meet me at Paul Revere Park, behind the baseball backstop, in three hours. Bring Ann."

Goot agrees, but only after referring to me as a particularly tasteless twelve letter word.

I have three hours. I need to think. I take deep, slow breathes. I close my eyes and clear my mind by imagining I am carrying a very full glass of water up the stairs.

I have two hours and fifty minutes, plus a plan on how to set the table for Goot.

I call Corky and tell her that I have kidnapped Geezy and that I will be exchanging her for Ann. Corky is not as surprised as I thought she would be at my change of character. I'm a little disappointed. I ask her to pick up Hoover at the House of Hope. I ask her to leave Geezy there until I call. I detail my plan. I can hear skepticism in her responses, but she knows I am desperate so she doesn't add further doubt to my mind. "I swear that this will work," I say. "If I'm wrong, roast me at a New England Patriots tailgate party and make sandwiches for the New York Giants' fans."

"If you're wrong, Goot will beat me to that."

I drive to the Animal Shelter as I promised Jill.

I walk past rows of dogs. Most of them come crowding up to the wire, yapping, whining, wagging their tails and waving their tongues at me, like they are tired of being locked up alone and they want me to get them the hell out of there. Looking into the eyes of all these animals that have been abandoned is just like looking at some of the poor people I see sleeping on the grates. It's enough to break my heart.

When I reach the Yorkie he is too afraid to throw himself all over the cage and the floor trying to catch my eye. He just sits looking at me, quivering a little, like he's thinking maybe he should make a fool out of himself, but he just can't bring himself to do it even though his happiness could depend on it. He calms down a bit at my touch and stares up at my face, his dark brown eyes questioning and hopeful. I bend down and stick my fingers through the wire so he can get a smell of somebody he knows – Hoover – but I don't tell him everything's all right because I don't know if it is.

He doesn't want to be left alone. He whines pleadingly.

"You're safer here than with me," I stand up. He gives me a look as I walk away like what's a friend who broke bread with him doing walking away and leaving him behind bars.

I call the House of Hope and leave a message for Jill that all of her mice are fine.

I drive to Dudley's apartment. He lives behind the Boston Aquarium in a small concrete bunker right on the edge of the water. It was built for people like Dudley who love the ocean. It has a spectacular view of the boat traffic in the harbor and the tiny green islands out in the bay. The airport is right across the channel and at times the airplanes seem to be lining up to land on his tiny balcony.

I ring Dudley's doorbell and interrupt him in the middle of writing a song. Sheet music is scattered everywhere. I pick up a stray page. Dudley has been scribbling on it like a poet in heat.

"Sorry for the chaos," Dudley apologizes. "I wasn't expecting company."

"I can tell. No problem," I say. "I like you in that dress."

"It's not a dress; it's a robe," Dudley protests weakly.

He plays a few bars of his new song for me, we share a few beers, and discuss melody and chord changes.

I update him on the hostage situation and my plan. He is always and unmistakably observant and alert. He moves little and never fidgets. A trait that I will count on.

"I'd like to remind you," I say, "that in the untimely occurrence of me 'being riddled with bullet holes'; my first choice is to offer my body to medical science."

"Sometimes," Dudley says, "they won't take a cadaver unless it's in perfect condition."

"Try filling in the bullet holes with some plastic wood so maybe they won't spot them."

"And if that doesn't work, what's your second choice?"

"The $96 burial policy that puts me on a public bus and takes me to the edge of town. The package includes a durable, high-quality, four-ply 'Hefty' bag. Don't let them substitute a generic bag. I'm counting on you."

I tell Dudley where I'm meeting Goot, and that Goot may have some of his hired thugs lurking around. Always the positive thinker, Dudley says, "As the old saying goes; if you find yourself surrounded, the good news is: you can attack in any direction." We laugh hard. Probably the beer. I am envious of his positive attitude. I, myself, like to think the glass is always half full. Even if the glass is actually completely full, I still think of it as half full. I'm never sure of anything.

"Game on," he says as I leave.

I arrive at Paul Revere Park. It is uncharacteristically empty and still. Even the birds are quiet as they are when a predator is lurking. Perhaps Goot's men emptied it so there won't be witnesses. I park and walk toward the baseball backstop, nervously scanning the area. Goot's dark blue Nissan GT-R drives into the park. He stops under a grove of trees, gets out and sidles quickly across the outfield toward me. He doesn't have Ann with him. Unless she is in the Nissan's trunk. I feel my blood pressure rise and try to calm myself.

I look around. I don't see Dudley, but I know he's here somewhere.

From twenty yards away Goot is resplendent in a dark pin-striped suit with a vest that has lapels. His tie is a glowing iridescent green tied in a small knot under a white pin-collar. He is at that daring outer limit where style becomes comedy. His hairpiece is a strange color and dances wildly on top of his head. Is it a toupee? The result of some unsuccessful surgical procedure? Seeing it up close, a soul less charitable than me would say it looks like cat mange. These are questions, I'm ashamed to admit, I ponder when I should be pondering whether he is carrying a loaded weapon.

"Where's Ann?" I ask.

"She's safe. I'll release her when you prove to me that Geezy is safe."

"Geezy is safe. I'll contact her custodian and have her released after you let me talk to Ann."

Goot looks at me as if I'm something he's scraped off the bottom of his shoe. "What kind of game are you playing?"

"Same game as you, apparently."

Goot takes a step back and reaches behind him into the bleacher seats. He pulls out a gun. "How would you like to be shot in the face," he comes right to the point. "My men put this here for me. What kind of idiot do you think I am?"

Is this a multiple choice question or an essay?

He holds the gun on me and takes a step forward, encroaching on my personal space, his fierce eyes popping. "Now that I have your attention, I'm gonna give you a piece of my mind."

The last one?

His lip curls in a sneer that conveys to me, roughly, that I am not a credit to my species. "You animal loving bozos are a load in my pants. If aliens from outer space ever visit us, we'll want them to think we have some intelligence. So don't blurt out stupid shit like 'animals have rights'."

Irony explosion. Aliens from outer space are likely to be a different species.

"Do you find this amusing?" he says. The topic of animal rights seems to send him into a fugue, as if he's been injected with some powerful narcotic. He launches into a polished speech, drones on and on, ending with, "I've never met an animal rights activist who's not a complete turd-fondling douche."

"And what would be the common denominator?"

"I have the gun," he reminds me. He holds it up, wiggles it directly in front of me, an action and attitude that seems to convey the fact that, in my case, a simple, bald statement will not suffice, and he needs visual aids.

"Is that one of those 'Baby Browning .25's'?" I ask.

"I believe so."

"I guess I've still got an eye," I say.

He shrugs. "Now might be the time to donate it to someone." With the gun aimed at my chest he continues his lecture by letting me in on his secret deductions about animal rights activists. In summary, he is not a fan.

I notice the gun barrel waver a little. He has probably never shot anybody. His nerves could make him pull the trigger, even if he doesn't want to. Although it looks like he does.

"You're not going to shoot me," I say. "You know why?" I tilt my head slowly and focus my eyes on the side of the gun. "You see that little button. You've got the safety on."

His eyes change. His finger comes out of the trigger guard to feel for the push button.

I reach out and grab the barrel. Both hands on it and give it a twist, snapping the weapon from his hand. "Give me that! What's wrong with you? Don't you want your wife back?"

To my surprise, Goot starts laughing. Clearly he has flipped his wig. He seems so unconcerned that suddenly I have the wild notion that he doesn't care about his wife. Or the gun is not loaded.

"Big deal," he says, "now you have the gun. It's worthless in your hands. I've read your 'animal rights' ethical guidelines, including: 'To take all necessary precautions against harming any animal, human and non-human'. So you won't hurt me." He laughs again and wiggles his fingers. "Hand me the gun, you bloody maggot."

Bloody maggot? Goot lacks certain social skills essential for making friends. When he opens his mouth, it is like a flasher opening his raincoat.

Something in his manner suggests that he might, at any moment, start beating his chest with a hollow drumming sound as gorillas do in moments of emotion. "I know about your connection with the House of Hope."

Damn. This is bad news. But he may not know for certain that Geezy is there. I need to bluff.

"You are always a step behind me, Baker, aren't you?"

"Whatever it takes to stay downwind of you." I ignore his comment about the House of Hope.

Goot turns his wrist for an anxious glance at his watch. There is a diamond set in gold on his little finger. He tilts his wrist more and the light picks up another facet of the stone. "My men are converging on the House of Hope as we speak, and Geezy will be freed. If you ever want to see Ann again, you had better get that Skulk test report to me by midnight tonight. Time is running out."

I nod slow and long. My nod is a cue. "Please look down."

I gesture to the center of his chest, and he looks. A red dot floats there, hard and brilliant even in the bright sun. It flickers. Gone. He looks up, but cannot find the rifleman. He says, "Laser sight?"

"Just so you know."

He nods his head slightly. No more than a tremor.

What I hope he doesn't know is that it is a laser pointer, used by lecturers in large auditoriums, directed today off of a mirror, by Mr. Dudley Mack. Useful only if I wish to discuss how Goot's tie doesn't go well with his suit.

"You are correct. The ALF credo prohibits me from harming any sentient being. But at the other end of the laser sight is a hunter whose mother took one of your recalled drugs. She died. Now he wants revenge."

Goot makes a false start at speech. What comes out is something like the lonely sound a bubble makes when it rises to the surface of a bathtub. Finding some bravado, he says, "If I die, Ann dies."

Did he tell his men to kill Ann if he doesn't return? Would they do it? I try to lock onto his eyes but they slide away like some slimy thing in a swamp.

I take out my cell phone and call Dudley. "What do you see?"

"One goon is squatting twenty feet from your car. Another is sitting on top of the restroom. They both look armed and clownish."

"Goot, I want your men to go home quietly now."

Goot takes out his phone, punches a few numbers and says, "Relay this message. Leave immediately."

A car enters the park, picks up two men, and leaves. Dudley says, "Clear."

"Now, where is Ann? Doesn't matter if you tell me, the police are on their way here to arrest you," I bluff.

Goot smiles. "Nice bluff, but I have known where the police were ever since I learned that they were chasing you. The drug industry has moles at AR conferences. That's how I knew you were a suspect in the Caucasas lab break in. That's when I figured that you had the Skulk report and broke into your home to get it. Finding Ann was a surprise. I didn't intend to kidnap her. I thought I could persuade her into telling me its location. But she's a strong girl, so I resorted to ransom."

"You wasted your time," I say. "The report is in the hands of a dogfighting gang that Mr. Packer hired to break into the lab."

Goot shakes his head like he can't believe that's the best story I can come up with.

My phone rings. It's Corky. After she tells me the news I ask her to repeat it. I put my phone on speaker.

Corky says, "We found Ann in Geezy's panic room. She's heavily sedated but in good spirits. There was a key to the panic room in the vase that Laurel and Hardy pointed to. Ann rotated the ceramic statue when her captors paused at that spot to get the panic room key. She had the opportunity when they were distracted by a cat hissing at them. The sound-proofed panic room is behind the bookshelf in the wine cellar. We found the room right away when Hoover smelled Ann and started barking. Ann says that Geezy administered the sedatives."

I knew it. Geezy played me all along.

"Thanks Corky. The situation is in control here," I say. Relief adds warmth to my voice. "See you soon."

This is a moment that I will remember with exceptional clarity for the rest of my life, including the expression on Goot's face. It's the same expression that a news reporter sees when he asks a popular celebrity what book they're reading.

Goot's hands start to shake and all the hard edges soften. He looks like an old man caught on the toilet. He says, "You have everything you want now. Do you really need to destroy my company with that Skulk test report?"

"Seriously? Have you ever listened to your own commercials? Over half the length of the commercials are possible side effects. I don't think you have any clue what your drugs actually do."

I call Fergy on speaker. I want to know if anyone was harmed when Goot's men freed Geezy. And I don't object to him hearing that his men have freed his wife.

"Clark!"

"Hi Fergy. You are on speaker with Goot. Did some men show up there to ...?"

Fergy laughs, almost giddy. "… to rescue Geezy? Yeah, they did." Again, laughter. I'm confused.

"Three men with guns drawn stormed in. But they met resistance they didn't expect."

"Hoover?"

"No. Geezy herself. She and Gypsy have become good friends. Actually, Geezy became friends with everyone here. They love her."

Wow, the human heart has many chambers.

"Geezy refuses to leave. The gunmen are just standing around, drinking tea and not sure whether to follow Goot's orders or Geezy's."

Goot opens his mouth once or twice in the time-honored tradition of goldfish.

"That's great news."

"It gets better."

"Better?"

"Geezy has donated fifty thousand dollars to the House of Hope."

Goot is somewhat upset when he hears this news. He yells and screams and eats his tie. I hope it tastes better than it looks.

Isn't there an old adage that says, 'living well' is the best revenge? Well, kidnapping works too.

Goot gives me a long, shuddering look. He removes his gaze as if the sight of me is more than his strength can endure, only to bring it back again and give me a short, quick glare. He closes his eyes and breathes like a bellows.

I speak softly so that he has to pay attention to hear me. "You know where your wife is. She's free to leave." His clenched teeth tell me never to name him as a personal reference.

I say goodbye and leave Goot to reflect upon the error of his ways. If his red-faced attempt to tear the baseball field's backstop from its moorings is any measure of his contrition, I believe further anger management work is going to be required.

Chapter 22

Ann's room in the Genesis Hospital is a two-patient room with an old woman asleep by the windows, and a curtain drawn between the two beds. Ann is asleep. Corky sits in the corner. She tells me that Ann will be fine, but that the doctors will keep her overnight for observation. I pull a straight chair close beside the bed and take Ann's hand. It feels dry and hot.

The room is unnervingly quiet. The heart-monitor sound is turned off, leaving only a moving line of bright green light displaying the jagged patterns of atrial and ventricular activity, which proceed without a single disruptive blip, weak but steady. The oxygen-rich air escaping through the nasal inserts hisses so faintly I can hear it only when I lean close to her, and the sound of her shallow breathing is as soft as that of a sleeping child. The loudest noise is rain drumming on the world outside, ticks and taps against the window, but that quickly becomes a gray noise, just another form of silence.

After a while, Corky leaves and I watch Ann sleep. The room is a little warmer than she likes, so I tiptoe past the old woman's bed and crack the window open to a thin stream of cool November air.

I lean back and survey the sound-absorbent squares on the ceiling. Ann is totally unaware that I am here, but that is okay. I always talk to Ann whenever I need to sort out things. Now I want to do it again. Even if she can't hear me. I am trying to decide if I should exact revenge against Goot for what he did to her and to Hoover. It gnaws at me that Goot may get away with it.

I whisper that it was unfair for this to happen to her, that it was my fault. I ramble on about possible ways to even the score. I listen to her breathing.

She breathes faster. Her hand and arm twitch as she dreams and she makes little whimpering sounds. I gently thumb the auburn hair back away from her face and see a wetness of tears leaking out of the closed lids. She is saying something. I listen intently, trying to decipher her muffled speech. She's saying "But why?" again and again. I put my hand on her shoulder and give a little shake. "Hey," I say. "What are you dreaming?"

She lets out a soft cry and thrashes for a moment in the sheets. Her eyebrows flutter up like tiny wings and she snuffles and says in a little girl voice, "But why ...." She awakens and focuses on me, snuffles again, smiles, raises herself on one elbow, and says, "Oh. Thanks Clark. They were about to bury me alive."

"My pleasure," I say.

"You're great," Ann says. Even drugged, her eyes shine like a rain forest at dawn.

"You're not the first person to say that," I claim, leaning forward over the sheet on the bed so far my chin is almost on it.

"I know," Ann says, "I've heard you say it."

A nurse comes in, stands on the other side of Ann's bed, looks at the monitors and makes some marks on a chart on her clipboard. She has a face made handsome by virtue of its very amiableness. I search that amiable face, but it reveals nothing of what that gadget is telling her.

"I brought you some flowers," I fib to Ann. "But the nurse ate them." The amiable nurse glares at me, hangs the clipboard on the foot of the bed, and leaves.

"I'm sorry that I got kidnapped," Ann says. "I opened your front door because I recognized Goot as the record executive who was looking for you. He pulled a gun, which he pointed at Hoover. He said, 'I'll shoot the mutt and say it attacked me.' Then he came inside and tied me up. When he started busting up your home, Hoover attacked him. I don't think Goot wanted to hurt Hoover, but he kicked him several times in the head, and when Hoover was woozy, Goot tied his leash to the stove handle."

That explains why the stove was moved away from the wall.

The amiable nurse brings in a vase of roses. I block Ann's view, take the vase and palm the card from Bill.

"Ah!" I say to the nurse. "You didn't eat 'em."

"I had supper at home," the nurse says. "Petunias."

Ann laughs. She asks me a few questions and I fill in a few blanks.

Reading my face she asks, "What's on your mind?"

"I want revenge against Goot for what he did to you. The world would be better off without him."

"Goot is bad. I know it. You know it. And, if Darwin was right, in about a million years, Goot's ancestors will know it. But revenge," she says, "is a childish enthusiasm. You're an adult–"

Not by choice. And if I concede that point, I'll need another motive.

"–and revenge is beneath you–"

She must be thinking of somebody else.

"–Besides, you can't hold a grudge forever."

I can try. "I want–"

"I know what you want," Ann says, "but torturing a man to death is against the law in Massachusetts."

"But–"

"I'll buy you one of those giant teddy bears, write Goot's name on it, and let you tear the guts out of it. Okay?"

Head down, I mumble, "Who the hell does Goot think he is?"

"He's unhappy, Clark, and he will be until he dies. It's his life sentence. Worse than anything you can do."

"What kind of revenge is that? You want to get even with somebody, either you whip out a gun and make a little noise or you tear into him with a baseball bat, break his bones, and beat his brains out. Something wrong?"

"Remind me never to get you mad at me."

"Why, did I sound like I was really getting into it there?" I grin. "I'm still recovering from consuming about one thousand Oreo's."

"Besides, we can get revenge without torture," Ann says.

I suppose her idea of revenge is to cross him off her Christmas card list.

Ann continues, "When I was in the panic room there was a wall safe. I had time enough between drug doses to work combinations. I guessed that it would be Giblet's birthday, so I knew the year – the last number – and the months and the days were limited to 366 combinations. I cracked it in under two hours.

"I'm surprised Goot left you in there with the safe. What did you find?"

"Goot had no reason to worry that I'd open the safe because it contained computer CD's that I couldn't read in the panic room, and I'm sure that he'd never have let me leave without searching me. But when Corky broke me out, I took the CD labeled 'legal files'. Bill read them a while ago. He called me and said that we now own Goot – and that he was sending over roses." Her eyes find the vase of flowers. She smiles and watches my face color with embarrassment.

"Sorry. 'The nurse didn't eat them' was just too good to pass up."

"Now that I'm a comedienne, I understand that behavior completely. In fact, since I've been thinking about comedy, it explains an awful lot about you that had confused me."

I change the subject back to Goot. "What benefits are there to us 'owning' a worthless piece of …?"

Ann cuts me off. "We can blackmail Caucasas to replace animal testing with more accurate alternatives – software and virtual reality, mannequins, simulators, body donation programs for ethically sourced cadavers. We can make sure Jill and Bob always have a job to monitor Caucasas. And we can keep Caucasas from donating money to politicians to pass laws to get animal activists arrested for loitering in their own bathtubs."

"That would be great," I agree. I don't remind her that Alferd Packer is still the owner of Caucasas, not Goot, and that Bob might not be alive. She doesn't need any stress.

I tell her to go back to sleep and dream and that nobody can bury her alive because I took their shovel. I kiss her goodbye. I'm going to visit Maurice.

On my way to Maurice's room I pass room 206. 206? It rings a bell. I remember. It's the room occupied by Jill's ex-landlord, Marlboro. He doesn't know me. I walk into his room and stare at his purple bloated face. So this is what a pulp looks like. Yet I'm not sure that the beating he took worsened his appearance; he has mean eyes sunk into folds of flesh, a forehead that's corrugated like an old-fashioned scrubbing board, a bunch of hair growing out of the top of his head like a weed patch.

"How did the operation go?" I ask innocently, feigning concern.

"What operation? You're in the wrong room, ass wipe." His mouth twists and turns when he talks, like he's trying to save up spit.

"I'm sorry, you haven't had it yet? I'm a medical student and this is the room where we practice sex-change operations."

"I'm not having any sex-change."

Sadistically, I twist the knife, "You might not want to fall asleep."

His face takes on a flown apart, panicked look. My cue to exit.

I stop in Maurice's room and say hello. I tell him that Ann is also in the hospital. He wants details of Ann's kidnapping and her return. Since the factual details also include me committing a felony kidnapping, I leave out most of them. In repairing the omissions, Maurice somehow falls under the same impression that the hospital did when Ann was admitted: that she overdosed on drugs. I let Maurice believe that Ann just disappeared for a few days on a bender and she doesn't remember much. And that my false report to Chief York claiming Ann was kidnapped was my over-reaction to the ransacking of my home. Maurice feels sorry for me. I graciously accept his pity.

"The police operation against the DDoA gang is on hold until I'm released."

"What about Bob?"

"Once I'm out the undercover operation should progress fast," he says. "Until then, we are going to need to exercise a little patience." Easy for him to say, stuck in the hospital. We both know who "we" is.

Busting the gang is his priority. Rescuing Bob and the dogs is mine.

Chapter 23

I go home and have lunch with Hoover. We go for a walk. We take a nap. My iPhone wakes me up, but it is a telemarketer. I tell my iPhone that a 'smart phone' should block telemarketers. I decide to leave Ann a text message saying hello. The iPhone's autocorrect changes "I'm in bed" to "I'm inbred". Touché, iPhone, touché.

By four P.M. I have some ideas. DDoA has a secure building with its own generator, a generator that I recall hearing when I escaped. I am familiar with generators. Fluke uses a generator to power giant speakers for outdoor concerts. I should be able to turn off the DDoA's generator and get them to go outside to check it out. If they leave the door unlocked, I can slip inside.

I will gather details of the secure building, learn the whereabouts of Bob and steal the Skulk memory card so that I can stop the release of the Skulk drug that may kill people. I will find out which building houses Brutus, Jackson, and the other dogs. And what the security is.

And what are my contingencies? What if only one person comes out and checks on the generator? Instead of shutting it off, maybe I should set it on fire. That will get everyone's attention. It's an idea.

I have a lot of ideas, but a bunch of ideas isn't a plan. A plan is details that mesh with one another, going from step to step like crossing a stream on a lot of little boulders sticking out, and never falling in. Ideas without a plan are usually just enough boulders to get me into the deep part of the stream, with no way to get back.

When I return to the compound this time I'll take Hoover. It is not wise to tell Corky of my not-really-a-plan plan, as debating with her will waste precious time. It should suffice to play in my head the conversation that Corky and I would've had:

Me: "I am going to the compound to do the final bit of recon to prepare for the beagle liberation."

Her: "Have you forgotten that you were held prisoner there?"

Me: "Lightening doesn't strike the same place twice."

Her: "The reason it doesn't is that the same place isn't there the second time."

Me: "I'll be more careful this time."

Her: "You're crazy."

Me: "What's that got to do with it?"

Her: "Give them up?"

Me: "What?"

Her: "The drugs. Hand them over. You're obviously taking something."

Me: "You know I'm not."

Her: "If I were you, I'd start looking after my mental health."

Me: I pull out my 'experience' card. "I know what I'm doing. I've forgotten more about animal liberation espionage than most animal activists will ever know."

Her: "Well, let's hope the stuff you've forgotten isn't the important stuff. It's too risky to do recon without backup."

Me: "Is it really that risky?"

Her: "What did I just tell you?"

Me: "What? You weren't listening either?"

She glares at me.

Me: "I've always been willing to take crazy risks. That's been my philosophy of life."

Her: "I think I'll remember that. And if you and Ann ever get married, when the judge says, "Is there any reason these two should not be wed?" I'll say, "Has she heard about his philosophy of life?"

Me: "And you call yourself my sister!"

Her: "Yes, I know; but there are limits."

Me: "Corky, I saved your life once."

Her: "When?"

Me: "Didn't I? It must have been someone else."

Her: "You're crazy."

Okay, we're going in circles. I let her have the last word.

Hoover and I pack some gear. At dusk, we head to the compound to gather information; me with my eyes, him with his nose. We've done recon together many times. We make a good team. Although I possess only an ordinary nose and mere human senses, to be fair to myself, I have a superior wardrobe and a modest bank account.

I park at the turnout just short of the compound. We walk through the woods until we reach the location where I cut the fence. I leave it open this time. If we get caught I'll say that my dog ran through the hole in the fence, and that I chased after him.

The moon is bright. Shadows are everywhere and deep. I can't make out colors but I can discern buildings that were darkened by a fire from those that are darkened by weather and age.

Hoover has an instinct for knowing when I'm searching for people, and when I'm avoiding people. Now he knows I want to avoid people. Every few steps, in rhythm like a swimmer, he turns his head over his shoulder. He's listening to make sure that I'm keeping pace. When I'm not, he slows down until I catch up.

Hoover and I cross forty yards of open space to a building. Scattered cigarettes and footprints are untouched by the recent rain. On a window next to the door I apply hydrofluoric acid in a small circle just large enough to get my hand and arm through. I let the acid etch the glass, reapplying it several times. The acid doesn't eat all the way through, but I apply a suction cup and tap the glass. It breaks cleanly at the circle. I reach through and open the door.

Inside, Hoover and I make our way down an obscure passageway that ends in a blank wall. I backtrack and find a door that leads to an inexplicable open area that must once have served a purpose but which now seems merely to be a dumping place for unwanted pieces of furniture. I find another door that takes me to a corridor with garbage piles and scattered beer cans. Hoover and I pick our way around them. At the end of the corridor is a room with a padlock. I snap it off with small bolt cutters.

Crack!

The noise echoes. Now I remember how loud metal is when it breaks.

Hoover and I run quickly outside and hide. We wait several minutes. Nobody responds. We go back into the room and poke around; it contains hundreds of guns in various stages of cleaning, serial number removal, general maintenance, and repair. And heroin. Lots of heroin being packaged to go. No Bob. Nor any indication that a prisoner was ever captive here.

Back outside Hoover immediately goes alert, ears up. I listen. Voices are coming from beyond the next building.

We move behind a stack of shipping pallets, then around electrical rigging of a temporary and dangerous appearance. I watch the area from where the voices seemed to come. "Don't see them," I whisper. "Where'd they go?"

Hoover wags his tail once. The moon no longer penetrates the clouds and it's almost totally black. I take my flashlight from the pocket of my windbreaker and cover the glass with my left hand, letting only a splinter of light come out between my slightly parted fingers.

We move back out and make our way past several buildings. I hear the soft whirring of a generator. It's enclosed inside a metal box which is also padlocked. I can't break into the box quietly, so I'll return to this generator if I can't sneak inside the building another way.

At the rear of the building I find a door, hardly visible in the darkness. I run my hands over it, groping for the knob. The door feels like metal, a heavy fire door with peeling paint that flakes on my hands. The knob doesn't turn.

We walk around the building again, slower, more carefully, looking for another entrance. There is a ladder. Occasional air vents suck air into the building. As I pass one of the vents I hear voices. Men are laughing. I tap Hoover's shoulder and we both sit.

"See," someone says, "isn't this great? Who says you have to watch dogs kill to have fun? Have a beer."

"A beer. Nobody drinks just a beer. That's why they come in six-packs." They laugh.

"I'm sorry the cop had to die in the fire, but I'm pissed that he infiltrated us and we have to move."

They're moving?

"I should have recognized him. I recall vaguely that he arrested me for drunk driving last year. He asked me for my license and insurance, and I must have pawed through the glove box for five minutes before I realized I was sitting in the front seat of his car." They laugh and pound on something.

"At least we figured out he was a phony when he wanted to take the beagles to a dog pound. We almost got busted."

Thud. Something falls hard.

"You're drunk."

"I am drunk. I'm glad I was smart enough to start drinking early."

"What's the problem?"

I keep one hand on Hoover in case I need to signal him fast.

"My old lady and her kid don't want to move with me."

"That's not right."

"What did you expect? You were abusive, man."

"Abusive? Me? Nah. I never hit her unless she forgot to applaud when I entered the room. And I always untied her when I got home."

I used to feel sorry for women who chose to be in abusive relationships, but I look at my phone and I sorta get it.

"A good thing about being single is I don't have to worry about anyone flushing while I shower. Or caring that I exist or whatever."

"I learned a lot by being married. Before that I never thought about killing myself."

"Maybe you should stay here with them."

"Maybe. I haven't decided yet."

"You're runnin' outta time."

"I hope to find the answer in this six-pack of beer."

"And if you don't?"

He'll have forgotten what the question was.

"I don't know. How about you?"

"I don't mind leaving Boston. I don't know any fun stuff to do here anymore."

That probably means the doc who writes scripts for pills out of the Koreatown mall is no longer in business.

"Pass me another beer."

"How about you? Come on, have a beer."

"No thanks. Thirty days sober. Not consecutively, but here and there over the years. I'm estimating."

"You just drank one."

"Okay. Twenty-nine days."

"Are you going with Keg O'?"

"Yeah. I need to go. Got no skills."

"Not true. You drew a pretty neat lookin' dog penis in space on that taco wrapper."

His résumé is complete.

"Moving is tough, but we should make some big bucks tonight with the last fight."

"What's it called?"

"It's 'the fight to end all fights', with a guarantee that at the end of the night only one dog will be alive.

"Then we'll set the compound on fire and flee with our guns, drugs, the surviving dog, the Skulk test report, and Bob Parker. The ransom of the report and Parker will provide us with enough money to set up shop elsewhere."

"I guess I'll go."

"Looks like you already went."

"Will you look at yourself?"

"I'll try. But I think it'll make me dizzy."

I need to get home, get an ALF cell together, and get back here before the dog fight starts. I have maybe two hours.

It is dark. As black as the inside of the devil's bowels. I put my hand on Hoover's back and I crawl away from the window. Hoover crawls with me. When we are fifty yards away I stand up. Two rapid finger snaps signals to Hoover that we are about to move. He stands in front of me. When I step sideways he moves, blocking my movement.

I whisper, "What's wrong Hoover?"

He stands alert, head cocked. I listen. Dogs are howling in the night. A truly melancholy sound, like the far-off whistle of a lonely freight train puffing its way across the great, empty windswept icy plains of North Dakota. On my way out of the compound I'll locate which building the dogs are housed in and estimate their quantity.

I follow the sound of the barking until, between buildings, the barking seems to be coming from multiple directions. I pause, not certain which way to go. Hoover understands the limitations of human hearing and takes the lead. We pass the dogfighting pit and cross a parking lot next to a building. The dogs are inside.

I find a door. The big sphere of a knob turns easily in my hand, but I have to shove hard on the door before it budges and swings in. The interior was vandalized by time and neglect. Barking is coming from below ground, in the basement. I look for a door that leads to stairs. I wander around for five minutes before I locate one. Professional detection at its finest.

In the basement a corridor stretches in front of me, over-illuminated by fluorescent tubes hanging from acoustic tile, it could be an elementary school hallway stripped of its lockers. The first few doors I come to are varnished wood, with little rectangular windows at eye level. I peer in, but the lights are out, and I can't see a thing. I guess they were offices at one time.

This door is different, sturdier than an office door, and not varnished but, like the corridor walls, painted that eggshell tan that isn't supposed to show dirt and does anyway. At the floor-line the door is sealed with rubber flaps.

The door isn't locked. When I push it I hear the settling down of animals trying to make themselves small and unseen; and I learn why the door is sealed. The smell. It hits me like a wet diaper in the face. It is indescribable, less because of its vileness than because of its complexity, though it is repulsive enough to make me ill. The nauseating smell of fresh blood and death. A smell like the septic tank of a slaughter house. Kerosene, a lot of it, and things I don't recognize. I swallow and take several deep breaths. I expand my lungs from the diaphragm and expel the air in stages from the lower lobes to the mid-lobes to the upper lobes. The smell has permeated me as if it has become a part of me.

The room reminds me of my junior high science lab, but it's narrower because of the mesh cages that line three walls. Down the center runs a stainless-steel table, something like a vet's exam table, but longer and with fresh blood on it. Overhead fluorescents wash the color out of everything. The cages, floor to ceiling, have dogs padlocked inside. I estimate a hundred dogs, most of them asleep or too hurt to lift their heads. Some growl when I pass, soft but menacing. Some are dead. Maggots are settling into wounds.

The one wall without cages has glass-fronted cabinets at chest level, and underneath them stretches a long countertop, a work area with a row of metal stools.

I start systematically looking into the cages, softly calling, "Brutus? Jackson?"

Some of the dogs cower in the back of their cages when I step near. They watch me warily. Others come forward, wagging their tails, desperate for contact.

Many of them have unattended wounds. One smooth-coated dog's face is badly swollen from puncture wounds on his cheeks and around his left eye. Another's ears hang in tatters like a shredded curtain. He eyes me with his head down; trying to figure out what new kind of torture is planned for him.

A scruffy blond mutt looks at me as if he knows something is not right with his life but he isn't sure what. I feel a horrible pang of sadness for the mutt and realize that his "life-has-me-stumped" expression and his blondness remind me of my brother Bill.

Sprawled on his back is an English pug, brown body, black ears and face, white mark on his forehead. "Jackson?" I whisper. He is still. But not dead. Not dead. Because he lifts his trembling head at the sound of his name. He inhales, and exhales, with a rasping noise. He tries to roll over, but he does not have the strength to move. He doesn't know me, but he looks at me curiously confused. His eyes. Oh, his eyes. Those brown eyes are slightly milky oozing a watery yellow discharge. Dried blood is caked in his fur and he looks like a kid who's been beaten for the first time in his life, innocence betrayed. There is a lot of swelling on his face. Visible tremors shake his flanks. He issues a low, almost inaudible pathetic whine. I reach through the bars and stroke a paw, hoping to calm and reassure him. I see a sticky discharge bubbled in his nostrils. Pressing one finger as far through the bars as I can, I touch his flank and am surprised at how cold it is. With his expressive brown eyes, Jackson tries hard to convey a complex and important message. I can only guess what it is.

A few cages down I hear the frantic scratching of a dog's claws. Brutus recognizes my voice. I move to his cage. He has fresh scars on his face. He licks me through the steel bars and he emits an exited yelp, causing my eardrums to vibrate like bongo skins during a Jamaican festival. I scratch him with two fingers. He whines happily, nuzzling my fingers in a sloppy display of affection. His barking gets louder, ear-splitting in this confined space. High and wild and desperate. He will not stop.

From somewhere outside the room comes a human noise. I slap my thigh hard for Hoover's attention – I only do that when it's important, and he knows that. I leave Brutus looking apprehensive and betrayed. Hoover and I go back out the way we came, through the corridor.

At the door I pause, heart thumping, alert as a deer. Someone is moving along a side corridor. I am confident Hoover and I can make it to the exit stairs. I almost stop to confront the footsteps. I want to get my hands on someone who is responsible for those dogs. I want to hit him so hard that when he wakes up, you can tell him he is a waitress on a gambling boat and he'll believe it.

Sometimes the universe just waits for me to get cocky. Isn't there an old saying about not wishing for anything because you just might get it? If there is a God, he must be pissing his pants right now.

The exit door opens and a large man steps inside swinging a baseball bat. I only have time to read the Louisville Slugger label before the bat strikes my forehead. There is the nasty moment when my life flashes before my eyes but I am too preoccupied with doing a three-bounce routine which includes the difficult stunt of pressing one's nose between one's shoulder blades.

Thus preoccupied, I miss the flashes of the good bits of my life. Most of the good bits have involved Ann; not being struck in the face with a bat. Those have largely been the bad bits.

Lying on the floor, the messages that one part of my brain are busy sending to another are not necessarily arriving on time or the right way up. One of the arriving messages is that my cheek has caught fire. Another is that one whole side of my face is dancing the rumba. Blood is dripping in both my eyes. I make a bid to stand. My knees feel as if they are going to give way, so I lean against the wall, head down, gulping great gasping breaths. When my trembling subsides, I look up.

A big man is laughing. He couldn't have been happier had he been lobbing grenades at crippled fawns. He is one of those genetically obese men whose fifty-pound layer of fat belies the two hundred pounds of rock-hard muscle beneath. The chili-bowl haircut and ruddy cheeks lend almost a cherubic quality to his face, as long as you don't look at the dead eyes. His eyes are like twin entrances to a deep cave. Nothing lives there. Maybe something had, once upon a time. Piles of dog bones are back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where fires had been.

Dead Eyes laughs, "You don't look so hot."

I try to hold on to the wall which keeps sliding away from me. "I always look like this."

He looks hard and says, "You being funny?"

"Not yet," I answer.

His mouth opens and shuts. "I don't need any smart answers, jackass."

"You wouldn't understand any."

"What did you say?"

"I said, 'Don't waste your third strike on me.'"

Dead Eyes kicks me in the groin.

"Ooeef," I sing an octave higher than I've ever reached, and I do the traditional crouch hop, but more agile and much faster, like a basketball being dribbled at blurring speed.

When I slow, a man is holding Hoover with a metal choke loop at the end of a pole. Hoover is snarling, trying to attack, but he chokes when he lunges forward. The man holding him has a great hawk nose and tiny eyes, and he looks like he wants to swoop down and eat someone.

Dead Eyes draws a silver automatic out from behind his back. He is to my left. I hear groaning. Somewhere to my right Hawk Nose is holding Hoover. I am overwhelmed by the mathematics of it all. Three people minus two people equal one. Now I understand. The groans are coming from me.

I let go of the wall and lurch forward a few steps. With blood in my eyes I don't see the punch that deflates my lungs, now screaming silently for air.

Someone hits me from behind. My vertebrae rattle like castanets. Now the pain is gone. A peculiar and almost peaceful numbness sets in, and I recognize that it is almost time for me to say good-bye. I see nothing but blurred images, but I hear a new sound – a sickening thudding sound that I assume is my skull giving way. I feel very little now, but the noise is very clear. I want to see stars – beautiful and imaginary – but what glows in my mind is a hideous vision of the future, just before a pool of darkness opens. I dive into it.

Chapter 24

I feel the blood draining out of my head, a sensation of coldness in my arms and feet. I am freezing; blood is congealing. Cold is good. Cold stops bleeding. Yet, somehow, I have an idea that my condition is not exactly enviable.

I open my eyes. I am naked.

Naked?

This can't be right.

I feel as if I have stood before a funhouse mirror, closed my eyes, and passed through my own reflection into lunacy. My awareness wanders in and out of gray stages, as if I am in a sailboat gliding silently through patches of fog. Foghorns speak to each other across the winter harbor like the music in a dream.

I perceive something that doesn't belong in the dream. Something nudges my naked ankle. Hoover. I stroke him and open my eyes without moving my head.

I transport my mind to every appendage, taking stock. All accounted for. My right knee throbs. My head is dripping blood; when I turn it, my eyes take a second to catch up. I'm just one more head-bump from being a potato.

I push myself up on to my knees and remain that way for a few minutes, like a sailor washed ashore after a shipwreck.

The room is similar to the room that Maurice kept me captive in, except that it is filthy. Rags, some oily, some bloody, litter the floor. I pull myself up using the door knob. I brace myself and try to turn the knob. I try until the world turns jet black with little streaks of red flickering through it. I try until my ears are full of roaring and my jaws ache. It does not turn.

I cover my head wound with the cleanest rag I can find, which is greasy and certainly not sterile. Its best chance at effectiveness is that the germs will die of overpopulation.

Hoover shudders. I stroke his back, trying to soothe him. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. How did I get us into this mess? If there are awards for poor planning, I should start preparing an acceptance speech.

The good news is that I'm alive. Perhaps they think I have value. Perhaps I will be held for ransom. Or perhaps they will harvest my organs.

I stroke my chin in a thinking gesture several times before I reach an important conclusion. I don't need a shave. This is great news! Not because I need to look sharp in order to have my organs removed. It means that not much time has passed.

"How much time has passed?" I ask Hoover. "Thirty minutes?"

Hoover's face says, "Numbers past four don't hold much meaning to me."

"Several hours?"

Sure.

"Has the dogfighting started?"

Sure.

"Shit."

Sure.

I arrange all of my nine functioning brain cells into every possible configuration. If I was unconscious for six hours or more, the dogfight would be over, the compound would be on fire, and I'd be burnt toast. So, the only question is whether the dogfighting is underway.

"Everything is going to be all right," I say. "Just fine. It's not as bad as it seems." Hoover whimpers and struggles weakly in my arms for a moment. I can feel the beat of his heart. I tell him, "Things could be worse." I'm grateful he doesn't ask me to specify how.

The door opens and Dead Eyes enters. He has on a leather cap and motorcycle boots. His ears are bent and ragged and his nose broken and flattened against his face.

I wish I looked that tough. He strikes fear. I am a baby harp seal by comparison. For toughness I have to rely solely on the nasty scar on my left foot, a gift from an amplifier that fell off a truck. But a foot is one of the worst places to have a scar. It creates a dilemma. How can I casually balance on one leg and lift my other foot high enough so the scar can be noticed? I have often been asked for such an explanation and, failing to come up with one, have on many occasions been forcibly ejected from bars.

Dead Eyes gives me a hard look. If I lie very still, he may just sniff me and leave me alone. "You're lucky," he says. "Not many people know in advance when they're going to die."

"I should warn you," I say nervously, "I know karaoke."

"I think you mean 'karate' dude."

"You haven't heard me sing. My voice could bring 'The Rock' to his knees."

He looks me over, reminding me that I am naked. "Keep it up and I'll bring your rocks to your knees."

I do believe someone is flirting with me. "Death doesn't alarm me much these days, since I have led a full life and committed nearly all the more attractive sins."

"Yeah?" Dead Eyes says. His vicious scowl reveals a mouthful of rotten teeth that tells me in no uncertain terms that he is not amused. "I'll show you a side of pain you haven't visited before. You are going to watch your mutt here fight until his bloody painful death."

My witty response to that statement is to turn chalk-white and hyperventilate. My stomach throws a tantrum that would make a good music video accompanied by the 1812 Overture.

A tall thin man with a bandaged hand and a red face enters. He looks down at me with a quizzical expression. He shifts his weight from one hip to the other and his skinny body moves around inside his clothes without disturbing them.

"How old is this intruder?" Red asks. When he speaks it's like a tomato struggling for self-expression.

"He must be older than he looks," says Dead Eyes.

"Must be," Red laughs. "He looks like a fetus."

"Yeah, but I've been warned he's still a real pistol."

"A pistol that needs a silencer."

I smile, which is a huge mistake. Dead Eyes reaches down, grabs me by the throat, and lifts me up. His tough persona proves that superficial first impressions ought not to be taken lightly.

I release Hoover to try to break Dead Eyes' choke hold. Hoover drops awkwardly to the floor. Before he gets to his feet, Red takes a leather muzzle from his coat pocket and slaps it with practiced efficiency over Hoover's face.

Dead Eyes drops me. Before I scramble to my feet they are gone with Hoover. I pound the wall with my fist. They are going to make me watch him die fighting for his life. I've never heard of blacker hearts. After today, anytime I find myself harboring retro-romantic notions regarding the compassion of my fellow man, I will conjure up the image of Dead Eyes smiling as he takes Hoover from me, and then I will immediately go out shopping for newer and better weapons.

I am pierced by fear. If my friend, a special and precious soul, should die without my hand to comfort him, without a soothing voice telling him that he is loved, I will be forever haunted by – ruined by – the thought of his solitary suffering and despair. But what can I do? If I had hope in one hand and poop in the other, I know which hand would be full.

I cry like I haven't cried since Dad died.

Chapter 25

Dead Eyes and Red return. They toss my clothes on the floor next to me.

Red asks me, "What's your name?"

I bare my teeth, hoping it will pass for a smile. "My name? Let's see. I'll get it. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. It's Packer. I'm Alferd Packer's son."

Dead Eyes says "He's lying. We'll call him Mr. Funnypants. He will watch his Funny Dog fight to the death. Since we don't want customers to think he's a prisoner, we won't hold a gun on him. He's gonna wear a shock collar."

"A what?" Red asks.

Dead Eyes says, "Sorry. I forgot you're new. The shock collar is the TriTronics 2000. Eight levels of stimulation. Highest level shocks through three inches of fur. Range of fifty yards."

Dead Eyes puts a gun to my face and says, "Be a good dog." He takes out the shock collar, cocks his fist, and his bicep jumps out of his short white sleeve like it's looking for something to hurt. He puts the collar tightly around my throat and locks it on.

He hands a remote control to Red and then twists a knob on it and says, "It works like this." Many rivers of pain burn through my body. My legs involuntarily wobble and collapse. I make a sound like Pee Wee Herman with his testicles caught in a Mixmaster.

I convulse on the floor. I miss a few paragraphs of the conversation. Dead Eyes looks down at me. "This worm will be able to stand up in a few minutes. Drag him to the pit. Front row. While we're collecting bets, you guard him."

Red asks, "And if that collar don't work?"

Dead Eyes comments as if the answer is obvious. "The shock collar won't fail. But if Mr. Funnypants somehow breaks away, simply shoot him and explain to the crowd that he reneged on a bet. A lesson for everyone. Isn't that right, Funnypants?"

Wait. A little respect please. It's Mister Funnypants?

"Reneged?" Red's facial expression gives new meaning to the term 'locally dense fog'.

The pain has stopped but I'm still twitching on the ground like a robot with a shorted-wire.

"'Reneged' means that he didn't pay," Dead Eyes says. Now Red is completely lost.

Dead Eyes adds, "We shoot people who don't pay, Red." He points to the pistol on Red's hip. Red looks at it in surprise, as if he doesn't remember how it got there. I should be able to outsmart Red; he has just about enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wants to eat, but certainly no more.

Dead Eyes points to Red's bandaged hand. "You get bit by a dog?"

"Nah," Red says. "A crazy bag lady bit me while I was collecting a dog. Don't think it was even her dog."

Arly! Good work!

"Is it true," Dead Eyes says, "that you've never been to a dogfight?"

"It's true. All's I done is capture dogs and take bodies away the day after the fights."

Can Sainthood be far behind?

Every breath sends a quiver of pain through my chest, and I feel as if my rib cage is a vice that has closed around my heart and lungs.

"You know the fight rules?"

"Nope."

"The dog pit's got 'scratch lines' marked in the corners, where the fighting dogs face fourteen feet apart. Each fighter has a handler assigned by Dead Dogs.

"The fighters are released from their corners and try to grab onto the opponent, shakin' and tearin' for max damage. Dogs get puncture wounds, lose blood, have bones crushed and broken. Handlers can't touch the fighters except when told to do so by the ref. This happens when fighters become 'fanged,' with the tooth of one stuck in the skin of the other. Becoming "fanged" takes a 'bite stick' to pry the fighters apart.

"If a fighter turns away from his opponent, the ref calls a 'turn,' and makes the fighters go to their corners and start over. If the fighter that committed the 'turn' doesn't cross the pit and grip his opponent, the match is over and the other fighter is the winner."

"But don't they fight to the death?"

My body stops convulsing and now only my head twitches like a bobble-head doll knocked on its side.

"I'm gettin' to that," Dead Eyes says. "Fights are normally not fought to the death, but today is different. If the winning dog doesn't kill the losing dog, the losing dog will be executed as part of the entertainment. Questions?"

"What makes them want to kill each other?"

"Most are just trained to make 'em mean. Jalapenos up the ass, cocaine on the nose, a diet of gun powder for irritation, steroids for 'roid rage, and bait animals – like cats – to encourage a blood lust."

"Can I bet?"

"Bets start at $100 and go to $10,000."

The bettors include Boston's wealthy. I wonder if any are celebrities, like Michael Vick. I decide not to ask. These guys are not that fond of me to start with.

"I got maybe $100 cash," Red says sadly. "One bet. I'll need to make it a good one."

"Shouldn't bet tonight," Dead Eyes says. "We're skipping town so some fights will be fixed. Don't tell anyone, but tonight Keg O's dog, DynOMite, is in the fight. He's placed a toxic substance on DynOMite's fur to sicken the opposing fighters."

"Can I bet on DynOMite?"

"No," warns Dead Eyes. "It will throw the odds off." He looks at me. "Get up."

"Kaaayy," I bleat like a lamb drawing its attention to the mother sheep.

Dead Eyes and Red watch me writhe. They smile and laugh. The entertainer part of my ego is somehow pleased. Dead Eyes turns to leave. Wait! Don't go! I will do one more monster twitch for an encore!

Due to stray electrical impulses, my knees refuse to lock in a stable position, so Red helps me stand. He pushes me outside. The night air tingles on my moist skin, making me realize that I have been sweating and my deodorant isn't working as advertised. He pushes me forward. The air is vibrant. Assuming that a herd of bison is not parading past, the customers are stomping their feet.

Barking and growling get louder. We round one building and go through a row of trees. There is a sunken pit, fifteen feet square, surrounded by benches, like park benches with backs, cemented into concrete. Maybe a hundred customers are stomping and clapping and smiling. Normal enough citizens, most of them men wearing their belts low, with outstanding bellies, some big enough to have names of their own and be formally introduced. Many are holding money and a cigar in one hand, and drinking beer with the other. Some wear dog collars similar to my shock collar.

I can see it in their eyes, in the subtle flaring of nostrils, in the way they surreptitiously lick at the dry corners of their mouths. It is the high, heady scent of blood just about to spill, simmering in the air, hanging above the mob like a canopy of cannibal musk and expectation.

Red pushes me into a corner, ten feet from the pit. People are on all sides of us. I feel sick – physically sick – and a murderous rage flows through me.

Everyone goes quiet. On the far side of the pit a man walks in slowly, with precise, arrogant steps, holding his ample torso in a militaristic, regal way. He has thin white hair, and a nose that looks like a plate of safety glass pressed against it. He says, "Good evening," in a tone of voice that says, "Bow down to me, people. I am your superior. Bow low." It is Keg O's voice.

A few of the crowd mumble "Good evening" as if they are not quite certain whether they were expected to respond.

Dead Eyes says "Nice crowd tonight, eh, Keg O'?" He pulls a beer from a cooler and tosses it underhanded to Keg O' who catches it, stubs out his cigarette and flips the butt into the pit. "Nice crowd," he says approvingly. His voice grows no louder but it rumbles, soaks into the night and works its way under the skin. "Let's begin!"

A weathered woman wearing tight shorts and a tight t-shirt parades out holding up a sign that says "1". High on her shoulder she has a tattoo of a butterfly that looks as though it is changing back into a caterpillar. She walks in a slow circle, displaying the number for everyone, her job apparently the same as that of the women between rounds at boxing matches – to remind the inebriated patrons what's going on.

As she exits, Keg O' says, "Bring out the first contestant!"

Dead Eyes leads out the first dog. He smiles, but in his eyes is an emptiness that is terribly threatening, even if I cannot say exactly why. "In this corner," Keg O' points, "weighing twenty pounds – 'Butcher'!" Butcher seems to be part terrier, not much bigger than a good-size cat, scruffy and bowlegged. Butcher looks around with a submissive, cowering glance, tail tucked under and head down.

The second dog is led out by Hawk Nose. "And in this corner, weighing twenty-two pounds – 'Wild Wendy'!" Wild Wendy is a small boxer. The tone of savage fury in her bark is unnerving.

"The betting opens at three-to-one in favor of Wild Wendy. The fight starts in two minutes."

DDoA members, wearing orange hunting vests to distinguish them from the customers, hustle around and collect money and record the bets in notebooks. Each of them has a pistol on their hip. Betting is fast and furious, people raising their hands and shouting for attention, as rabid as the action on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

When the betting concludes, Keg O'Blood says, "The fight will start now. I'm going to count to ten –"

For some idiotic reason I mumble out loud, "– that may have impressed people when you were a child, but. . . ."

Red pokes me from behind. Some of the crowd around me laughs. Keg O' looks over at us, not knowing why people are chuckling, and continues his countdown.

Dead Eyes and Hawk Nose release Butcher and Wild Wendy. While Butcher looks to voices in the crowd for help, Wild Wendy ''hits'' his neck like an attacking shark. At which point Butcher's bowels go loose, and the referee rushes in with a jaw-popping ''break stick,'' and uses it like a shoe horn to pry open Wild Wendy's mouth. They return to their corners.

Behind me someone says, ''Hear that crunch? That's bones, man! That tail between his legs. He's gonna quit soon, bet against him now." The odds are announced as changing to ten-to-one. There is a pause for DDoA to collect more bets.

Dead Eyes looks over at me and chuckles. My sorrow is a huge, painful knot inside. I let my eyes sink to the ground so he can't enjoy the pain in them.

The dogs are released again. Wild Wendy arches her back, thrusts her head down and forward, and barks so furiously that saliva flies from her mouth. She barks so hard and loud that each explosive sound hurts my ears. A tone of savage fury in her voice, Wild Wendy executes another leaping attack. She is forced to separate. With each separation the odds change and the customers get another chance to place bets.

The face of Butcher is purple and pulped, blood trickling from what appears to be three nostrils. The sunken eyes have filled up with pus. Blood sprays from wounds, a red brighter than arterial blood.

The betting has stopped. Some bettors are exulting as Butcher thrashes in panic.

Inside Butcher's long widely gaping leg wound I can easily identify the cream-colored bubbly fat tissue and the dense red muscle. I've never seen anything like it. Extraordinarily he isn't bleeding a great deal, certainly not as much as I expect.

Butcher tries to shrink himself, tries like a half-crushed bug to slink away on the appendages that still have life. Fight over.

The referee jumps into the ring, places a revolver to Butcher's head, and fires once. Dead Eyes carries away the dead body. Everyone in the crowd is either getting paid or cursing their luck. There should be outrage at this, not insouciance. When I rise to power, these people will be sterilized.

I'm trying not to explode, to get a grip. I tell myself that it is impossible for animals to understand their own mortality. But then, who does? The fact is, we're born, we live, we die, and we haven't the faintest glimmer why.

Keg O' clears his throat and the crowd goes silent. "Bring out the next contestants!"

The first dog is led out by Dead Eyes. "In this corner," Keg O' points, "weighing forty pounds – 'Bitch Slap'!" Bitch Slap is a pit bull, with scars all over her body. She growls fiercely, almost as if on cue. The mean kind of growl that warns of intent to make the bite worse than the bark. She's done this before and she seems to bask in the environment.

The second dog is led out by Hawk Nose. It's Hoover. I almost drop to my knees. Wave after wave of sorrow passes over me. I want to die. I want to kill. The first time Hoover is in trouble, regardless of the pain caused by the shock collar, I'm going to jump into the pit. An ambitious plan, considering that even now I still have to spread my feet apart just to keep from falling down.

"In this corner, weighing thirty-five pounds is 'Funny Dog'. Funny dog is our long shot of the day. Betting starts at fifteen to one. Here's your chance to make a bundle, folks." He does not mention that Hoover is blind, or that Hoover has never fought.

A flash of wild grief rips through me. I look around at the crowd, hoping to see someone I recognize, someone I can beg to stop this. Maybe an undercover cop. All I see are Dead Eyes and Keg O' watching me, enjoying my anguish.

Many bettors take the long shot. The gang figures this is easy money. They keep the betting open for almost twice as long as for the first fight.

I begin to shiver when I see that Hoover is shivering, or maybe I've been shivering all along. Hoover picks up my scent and keeps looking in my direction. He lowers his head and regards me with moist, soulful blind eyes. He gives a tiny, miffed bark. He looks at me; it is a look so piercing, so full of grief, a look so human.

All the bets are in. Hoover's head turns my way and he gives a brief wag of his tail trying to tell me it is all right.

Both dogs are released. Bitch Slap's eyes are wild. She starts flying around the ring like a large and extremely angry bee, circling counterclockwise around Hoover. I move my feet into a position to leap. My heart pounds as if in the breast of a hunted stag.

Hoover, who has always displayed a Gandhi-like attitude towards conflict, assumes the universal doggy 'let's play' pose – rump up, forelegs bent, shoulders down. Some of the crowd laughs. Some groans.

Bitch Slap looks confused. She approaches Hoover, low, stalking, snarling. Hoover rolls onto his back, baring his belly. Hoover is vulnerable. If Bitch Slap attacks Hoover I can't stop her in time. My heart pounds. Hoover is on his back, almost as if he died from shock, apparently lifeless, except his rib cage moves almost imperceptibly.

Bitch Slap turns away, perhaps confused, perhaps thinking the fight is over. Hoover springs up and jumps on her back. Bitch Slap's legs splay and she goes down. Hoover's jaws grip the back of her neck, pinning her. Bitch Slap rolls over, twists, and bites Hoover's rear leg. Hoover yelps and then rolls back on top. Bitch Slap struggles, but Hoover has a solid grip. After twenty seconds Hoover is declared the winner.

Bitch Slap is led away. Around the corner is a gunshot. Hoover stands up, wags his tail, shakes himself, and makes a throaty sound somewhere between a sigh and a question.

The long-shot bettors are whooping it up like they've won the lottery. Keg O' looks as angry as a Sumo wrestler with diaper rash.

Hoover hobbles toward a corner, dragging his wounded left hind leg. A gang member swings a net over Hoover and pulls him toward a corner.

Keg O'Blood rumbles, "Keep Funny Dog there. As a special treat for everyone, Funny Dog will take on two dogs. This time the odds will be twenty-five to one. Bring out the next two contestants."

My heart beats with such tremendous force that I feel as if it will tear loose.

Two strong pit bulls parade out, heads held high. Keg O' says, "In this corner, two dogs weighing a total of one-hundred and twenty pounds – 'DynOMite' and 'Mighty Dog'." I have trouble breathing, as though oxygen is leaving the air. DynOMite has a toxic substance on his coat. I cannot let this fight happen.

My face is heating. I need to think clearly. Calm, I warn myself, stay calm. Take a breath. I am beyond angry. I'm so far beyond angry that the light from angry will take three-billion years to reach me. How likely is it that Red remembers which button to push on the shock collar remote? I doubt he can operate anything more complicated than a small comb.

I shift my weight. When Red turns to see what I'm doing, I snap-punch the shock collar's remote from his grip. It falls to the ground and I stomp on one end of it, cracking it and flipping it behind other people. Red's face, which a moment ago looked like a pot of stewed tomatoes, now positively blazes, as though it has caught fire. Rather than come after me, he shoves past people to get to the remote control.

Keg O' sees the action and moves like a big cat toward me, closing fast. I turn my back and I execute a spinning kick, my first karate kick in a decade, which I aim at his groin, miss by several feet, and connect with his nose. It makes a sound like the snapping of a stale Saltine, mostly crisp but a little doughy in the middle. He howls in pain as blood gushes from his face. The unexpected additional length of the kick makes my groin tendon sing like a violin.

"Goddammit! Son of a bitch! Shit!" Keg O's right arm and his biceps jump out of his short white sleeve as he yanks an eight-inch stiletto from his boot. The customers back away, like giving two flashy dancers plenty of room on the dance floor to strut their stuff. Keg O' stops two yards in front of me. He shifts the knife to his left hand, back to his right, testing its balance with a threatening rhythm. A heavy professional weapon – an ominously thin blade. He swings the stiletto at me in a lazy arc, making me keep my distance. I back up and circle to his left. He wipes blood out of his eye and starts toward me and I get ready for him. I will catch that damned knife, catch it in my teeth if I have to, and feed it to him.

"See this knife?" he says. "Hop on it. Twist and Shout." I change my mind about catching it and back up, staggering a little. As I stagger, he arc's the stiletto again and catches part of my shirt. Although my groin is begging me not to, I execute another spin kick that sends Keg O' sliding. He runs through a complete catalog of obscenities and recites a short prayer before he coasts into a jolly pile of dog crap.

Someone comes from behind me so I duck. Something goes swoosh over my head and I turn and put all my weight into a right uppercut into his jaw. Dead Eyes. The contact makes a clear white whistling pain in my hand, reminding me that one almost never hits the hard parts of people with the naked hand. One hits the soft parts with the hand, and the hard parts with a utensil. Dead Eyes lets out an awful howl of pain, stumbles, half-falls, regains his feet but not his balance, windmills like a dervish to keep his balance and falls anyway. Draped over a beer cooler, he doesn't appear to be going anywhere soon.

My hand is on fire. It is connected by red-hot wires to my brain, causing throbbing inside my skull.

I jump into the ring and I toss Hoover out. DynOMite and Mighty Dog snarl, ready to attack me but uncertain because their handlers are gone. While my eyes are focused on the two dogs, the hammers of a dozen guns cock. Guns all pointed at me. I mask my fear with a defiant stance. My pulse jackhammers in my temples.

Keg O', still shouting angry curses, has a thoroughly gone-berserk air about him. He gets to his knees, brushes aside nonexistent offers of help and clutches a customer to pull himself up. For a moment, it could be the customer down or him up. Fortune smiles on him. He sneers at me and says, "Shoot him."

He becomes aware of the crowd of witnesses and says "Wait! Let Funnypants fight the two dogs. It was his choice, right? The odds are ten to one in favor of DynOMite and Mighty Dog. Fight to the death." The crowd is unfazed by this change in the agenda. Hoover, still outside the pit, digs his teeth into Keg O's ankle and shakes his head furiously causing Keg O' to fall back into the dog crap again.

Hoover jumps back into the pit next to me. We are frozen in place – like deer in a forest which is burning all around them, who lift their heads to the highest and brightest flames and look into a tunnel of white light.

Bets are placed. Excitement is in the air. In the distance is a loud and familiar sound. A crow. Except crows don't caw at night. My heart soars at such an unlikely possibility. I hope I'm not hallucinating. I strain to focus my entire consciousness on the sound.

Apparently Keg O' is not pleased with Red for letting me free. Two gang members grab him and toss him like a sack into the pit. Red rolls, then stumbles to his feet, mouth gaping. Not sure whose side he is on, Red edges toward Keg O's dogs, who growl at him. He edges back towards Hoover and me. Perhaps thinking that he still has a viable option, he plays his last card, and yells, "I quit!"

Another distant whistle. This time it isn't a bird. A song made popular by the Beatles, "Hey Jude."

Love that song, especially now.

Keg O'Blood says, "We have a new contestant–"

I place my hands over Hoover's sensitive ears and wait for it.

There is a loud explosive sound of sirens that would make the Pearl Harbor attack sound like flutes, followed by the sounds of shouting through a bullhorn. "Drop your weapons. Do not move. You are under arrest."

Chapter 26

It's a digital recording used by ALF cells to create distractions. It's coming from Fluke's "stadium" speakers, powered by a portable generator powerful enough to blast sound into the upper deck of Fenway Park.

In a panic of running, shouting, and cursing, the crowd disperses like dandelion fluff on a brisk wind. All around me there are clattering footsteps falling over themselves. The gang leaders run toward the secure building.

Keg O' hesitates, possibly torn between the desire to do great bodily harm to me and the desire to avoid going to prison. Finally he points his stomach toward the secure building and charges off after it. Hoover, who's been dragging his left hind leg, finds strength and darts in front of Keg O', snarling viciously. Keg O' grinds to a halt, then backs up against a tree. "Get him away from me," he yells, possibly trying to climb the tree backward, something I've never seen. He is strangely afraid of Hoover.

Hoover is snarling. I walk over slowly. In the distance, car hoods open and shut. It's likely that the ALF cell snipped engine wires and that most cars no longer have air in their tires. A few dogfighting patrons must have spliced together the wires because a few cars are starting, tires are thunk-thunking away.

Cars crash through the compound fence. Metal rips metal. Patrons thrash through the woods. I keep one eye on Keg O' while snapping my head from side to side. Is the ALF cell heading directly to rescue the caged dogs?

It is astonishing how quiet the night seems after all that great rackety echoing pandemonium.

From the row of trees surrounding the pit, Dudley, Corky, Bill, and a dozen ALF operatives break through. I easily recognize them even in ski masks. They are armed with guns that shoot tranquilizer darts, handcuffs, empty sacks for capturing and transporting small animals, and first aid kits.

I limp in their direction favoring my left leg.

Dudley runs toward me and others fan out past me like the Blue Angels demonstration squadron breaking from formation. "You okay?"

Good question. In truth I cannot decide. I have no precedent for what I have experienced. A giddy laugh begins to build, but now joy is frozen by a breath of cold horror. I've been in the presence of unspeakable evil. Something has happened inside me; something has burned out or been replaced. I will have to spend some time finding out about the new me. I am never going to be the same again, and I am not sure how I can deal with what I have become.

At the moment Dudley isn't concerned about my psyche. "I'm great," I answer. "How did you–"

"–You took Corky's phone with GPS tracking," he smiles. "We mobilized when your phone stayed in one location inside the compound for over one hour. Where are the dogs?"

"Two buildings over, in the basement." Dudley is already on his phone, directing ALF vans to enter the compound.

Hoover is still sharply focused on keeping Keg O' trapped. If he'd trapped him during the early Pleistocene, his focus still wouldn't have wandered since.

I pat Hoover and use Dudley's handcuffs to cuff Keg O' to one of the benches cemented into concrete. Hoover snarls.

"The leaders?" Dudley asks.

"In a secure building," I point. "Be careful. They're planning to burn down the entire compound. The kerosene is stored where the dogs are housed. The gang will want to get it, and they're heavily armed."

"How do we find Bob and the Skulk report?"

"We might have to wait until after the leaders start to escape. They'll have both Bob and the report. It's their nest egg. You'll have to pat them down; the report is on a memory disk."

"How many exits do we have to block to catch them?"

"There is only one gate. But they can drive through the fence anywhere and take dirt roads through the woods."

"Okay, that won't work," Dudley says. "Maybe I can apprehend them when they come for the kerosene." He hands me a tranquilizer gun and does a half-wave as he turns and runs.

I reach into Keg O's pocket and find his phone. It has a camera. "I know that you hit a woman, Jill, and that you terrorized and saddened many fine families. You are a bully. A scrotum with eyebrows."

Keg O' says, "I guess we're not going out for beers."

"No. It's time for you to die."

"Fine," he says. "Shoot me. I'm ready to die."

"Shoot you? That would be too easy. I'm going to let Hoover – that's his name – I'm going to let Hoover eat you alive."

I start the phone camera recording.

I slap my thigh, getting Hoover's attention. I give the command "Kill."

Hoover goes for Keg O's throat. It's the game we play. Hoover growls ferociously. Keg can't see Hoover's tail, but the camera sees it wagging vigorously. All he can do is squirm and twist. He probably thinks he is successfully fending off Hoover, but Hoover isn't trying to bite him. Well, maybe a little.

Keg begs me to call off Hoover. He confesses to anything he can think of. I believe he mentions wetting his bed when he was five. He gives up his fellow gang members, accusing them of crime after crime.

He cries big viscous tears, like egg whites surging out of a fractured shell.

I tell Hoover, "Heel." He comes to me.

Keg O' stops crying. I play a snippet of the video for him and he watches it upload to YouTube. He surprises me. Somehow he manages to cry even harder.

To Hoover, I say, "Brutus." Hoover's ears perk up and he sniffs the ground, heading toward the building with the dogs and I try to keep up. When I reach the building Hoover is waiting for me to open the door.

The liberation is well underway. The mood in the room is cheerful. To achieve the right mood, one girl is tickling another, both laughing. As a result of this charade, the injured dogs, reflecting the mood of the pack, are calmer, resulting in slower heart beats, and less loss of blood.

Dudley stands guard at the door with a dart gun filled with Sernylan. He directs an operative with a dart gun to stay with the dog crates being shuttled out to the ALF vans.

Bill uses a crow bar to snap the metal just below the cage locks.

Our cell's protocol is to do a quick check on the medical condition of each dog, if possible while leaving the dog inside his cage.

I slip on cotton gloves and smear them with dog food to calm the dogs. Before I get started, Corky asks me, "Can you catch that dog?"

A small terrier is loose and tripping people. I close in on him slowly. He back-steps out of my reach. I try again, this time moving quickly. No luck. I run stooped over in order to grab him, a posture not unlike that of a person doing a toe-touching exercise while sprinting. I catch him and return him to a cage.

I open the cage of a pit bull who shivers uncontrollably. His left leg is hot and injured, but the rest of him is freezing, as if all his body heat is draining out through the wound. Along his back are thick incisions that look as if someone had started to hatchet him apart with a machete, and then decided against it. Where the knife has left its thick mark there are stitches tied in huge black knots, making the pit bull look like a strange Christmas present. I wrap my jersey around him and try to encourage him, "You'll be as good as new." The dog whimpers and struggles weakly in my arms for a moment. I give him top priority. I hope he makes it.

I go back to the cages and one noisy terrier, at the sight of me, jumps at the bars of his cage doing a canine imitation of a homicidal maniac. It is convincing. The snarling and the saliva flying from his mouth are nice touches. At the smell of food, he stops snarling. Low priority.

Another dog shakes and tries feebly to stand. I pat his head to settle him again.

Behind me is a thud, as if someone dropped an elephant. I step back so I can see around the wall of cages. Dudley has one foot on the chest of a man, the dogfight referee who is nonchalantly laying in a puddle of his urine. There is a dart in his neck and a revolver on the floor next to him. "Never knew what hit him," Dudley says. "There may be more coming."

Two-thirds of the cages have been loaded into vans and are on their way to various vets. We can't report these dogs to the police. They would be quarantined as evidence, and go from one cage to another while waiting on city and state bureaucracies. We'll try to find their owners tomorrow.

Two things are still out of whack. First, we haven't found Bob and the Skulk report, which means that the gang can restart with ransom money from Alferd Packer. And Packer will destroy the Skulk report and innocent trusting people will die after taking the drug. Second, we haven't found evidence that ties the gang to felony misconduct. If they escape from here, we will have ruined a lengthy and expensive undercover operation. And Chief York will do unspeakable things to me.

"Hoover," I say. "Come."

Bill inspects dogs in cages three columns ahead of me. "Bill," I shout. "I'm putting Hoover in my car. Then I'll look for Bob and the Skulk report."

"Go!" Bill says. "If you don't show up before I leave, I'll take Hoover with me. Car key hidden as usual?"

"Hopefully."

Hoover and I run to my car. I don't have my car keys, but I have a spare in a magnetic case under the hood. I lock Hoover inside. From the trunk I take rope, a gas mask, a liquid vaporizer, and the gas canister of the liquid sedative Sevoflurane that I was going to use to kidnap Geezy. I tell Hoover, "Be good. Get some rest. I'll be right back." I don't think he understands the words but I say them as if he does. I use the rope to tie the gas canister to my back, and I wear the gas mask to free my hands so that I can carry the vaporizer. I run to the secure building, stopping every fifty yards to rest and to listen for anyone coming.

I locate the ladder leading to the roof. It's like the ladders used by swimmers to climb out of pools. I use one hand to hold the vaporizer and the other hand to hold the ladder railing. I go slowly and climb onto the roof.

That's when I become aware of my mistake. From the ground, due to a false wall, I couldn't see that the roof is split and there is a fifteen-foot gap between myself and the ventilation ducts.

With a running start can I clear the gap? I need to decide. My choice may make the difference between whether I spend tomorrow with or without vital signs.

To a performing wallaby, of course, a standing broad jump of fifteen feet would be child's play. Such a wallaby in my place would bow to the audience, smile at personal friends in the front row, dust off her pouch and make the leap with a careless "Allay-oop!" I do not even contemplate the possibility. I know my limitations. I am a fledgling.

My second thought is to reduce the weight of the canister, which is probably forty pounds, by releasing some of the gas. But I'm not even sure that a full canister is enough for the job.

I unstrap the canister and jump over with just the rope and vaporizer. I tie the rope tightly to rain gutter brackets, leave the vaporizer on the roof, and jump back with the loose end of the rope. I tie the loose end to the canister. If I let go of it, the canister will crash against the opposite wall and I can pull it up. But the noise might alert someone inside. I need more rope, but I don't have it. So I take off my pants and shirt, tie them to the rope, tie the rope to the canister, and slowly lower the canister over the roof until it rests against the other side.

I shiver in the cold.

I step back to get a running start. I hesitate. I stretch my toes. I want to make a soft landing. I run and jump, easily clearing the gap but leaning too far forward. I slide on my hands and knees, leaving a trail of skin and blood.

I pull up the canister and get dressed.

I move to the vent and position the portable hospital vaporizer that turns the liquid sedative Sevoflurane into an aerosol and dilutes it with a solvent gas. The central heating system, working hard on a cold November night, will pump the sedative to every room.

The sedative begins pumping. I hope it works. The ALF took the gas from a medical testing lab two years ago when Sevoflurane was implicated in neuronal degeneration in infant mice. The company hid test results that showed exposure of infant mice to inhaled Sevoflurane resulted in learning deficits and abnormal social behavior. We saved the mice. Sadly, the drug is still on the market.

If the gas isn't strong enough to knock out everyone, the gang will notice fumes and go outside looking for the source. I don't want to be trapped on the roof.

I leave the gas pumping, take the rope, climb down the ladder and hide behind a pickup truck fifty yards away.

Ten minutes pass. Maybe the gas is not working.

Twelve minutes. The door opens and Dead Eyes comes outside, takes one step and drops to the ground. I secure my gas mask and go to the side of the door where I can hear without being seen. It's quiet. I bend down and search around on Dead Eyes's neck for a pulse. Before I find it, his shallow breathing tells me that he is alive.

I look inside. Six men are on the floor, having nearly made it outside. In one's unclenched fist is a black and red memory disk. Yes! The Skulk testing report. I put the memory disk in my pocket. I will send the Skulk report to all the media.

I search each man. One man has a wad of cash and a gun. I empty the bullets, put them into my pocket, and slide the gun across the floor into the corner. Another has several packets of white powder. Another man has a logbook. I open it. It is a log of drug sales, gun sales, dogfighting receipts, and more. Tucked inside is a computer CD marked "Accounting".

The last man is unarmed. He is more slender than the others and doesn't have tattoos. His arms are cuffed behind him.

"Bob? Bob!" I lift Bob's shoulders and torso and quickly drag him outside. "Bob." I gently pat his face. "Breathe Bob. Breathe."

Bob coughs and sits up. He puts his hands on his face. His fingers grip and rub at his skin as though he's trying to find out whose face he put on by mistake. "Bob, I'll be right back."

I drag Dead Eyes back inside, cut my rope and tie the gang leaders tightly together, and to the legs of tables. I close the door so the gang leaders will breathe more gas and not awaken and kill me.

The liberation should be finished. I call Chief York. When she picks up the phone I say, "I have captured the DDoA gang leaders. I have Bob. Send an ambulance to the compound headquarters." Before I finish my sentence I hear her door slam shut. She's on her way and still yelling at me. Gently, I lower the volume of my phone. I don't want to disturb her as she curses my family tree, branch by branch.

I run back to the dogfighting pit, uncuff Keg O', and at gunpoint lock him to the outside door of DDoA headquarters. Sirens approach. Two minutes later Chief York arrives with Duke, who wanted to arrest me at the lab fire. Maybe he still does. He has his gun drawn.

Duke identifies me about the same time he identifies Keg O'. Neither of us cut much mustard with him. I concentrate on looking as innocent as possible under the circumstances. I am greatly relieved when he holsters his gun.

The Chief looks at my face. "My God, what happened?"

I press my hands to my face, afraid of what I will find, of the damage I will feel, but my hands throb so fiercely that my sense of touch isn't trustworthy. "I slipped on a rubber ducky."

"You've been in a fight."

"I got a few licks in."

"On someone's shoe?"

In the distance there is a sudden burst of gunfire. I flinch. "Hey!" Duke yells. Both he and the Chief go into a crouch, guns drawn, spinning from side to side. They both look at me standing there calmly, hands on my hips, because the sound is the result of one of the ALF crew accidentally unhooking the speakers before turning off the generator. A newbie.

I hope I am not smirking. "It's okay," I say in the patronizing tone I use with Hoover when it's thundering. "That's the sound of the good guys leaving."

I hand Chief York the gang's logbook along with the computer disk. She takes out a flashlight, opens the logbook, whistles, and says, "What's that French expression?"

"Oo la la?"

"Fait accompli. What we have here is a fait accompli. We've got 'em cold. I can win this case with a lawyer from the mall."

One of the number-carrying sign girls, still dressed in only shorts and a t-shirt, rounds the corner of the building, dazed and confused. Duke says "Freeze", sees her shaking violently in the cold night air and laughs. "I don't think I have to pat her down. If she's got a concealed weapon on her, it must hurt." The Chief waves her on.

The Chief and Duke watch me as I open the door to the secure building. I sniff. The gas seems to have dissipated enough to be safe. To be a gentleman I let the Chief step inside first. Dead Eyes is awake and almost free from his ropes.

I sit on his shoulders to restrain him. I'm tired, so it feels good to sit. He struggles and tries to speak, but his lips, misshapen against the floor, permit only inarticulate blubbering. I listen for a while before I shift my weight so he can speak.

He spouts out, "I want full amnesty. I just take orders. Ask anybody. I can give you names. Big names."

The Chief responds, "The book the judge is going to throw at you will be printed tomorrow. After that your lawyer will be given the opportunity to sweep the gutters and get your character witnesses. But God Himself is not a big enough name to get you amnesty."

He pleads, "We donate profits to a church!"

"So that's it," the Chief says. "This is a humanitarian enterprise!" She dabs an imaginary tear. "Please forgive me, sir, I misunderstood." She shakes her head in disbelief.

Dudley walks up to us, sans his ALF mask and dart pistol, as if he's just strolling through a park on a Sunday afternoon. He says, "Hello Clark, Chief, Duke is it?" Duke nods slowly while looking back and forth between Dudley and Chief York, possibly wondering why the Chief is not questioning Dudley. "Clark. Bill drove your car with Hoover to the vets. I will give you a ride."

"Should I bother having my men look for any of the fighting dogs," the Chief asks, "or have they all disappeared into thin air by now?"

"Please look around. Strays happen."

"I'll do that," the Chief says. Duke still stares at Dudley like he is a mirage in the desert.

An ambulance arrives to take Bob to the hospital.

Chapter 27

As I open the door to my home I think of Hoover and say "Hi" into the darkness. Seconds later my bathroom mirror brutally accosts me. Scratched, bruised, and swollen, my most debonair smile looks like a horror film villain. I'm going to be in for a slow mating season.

I call Ann's cell phone. Corky drove her home from the hospital an hour ago. Ann says, "We stopped at the vets. Hoover is fine. Just bruises, teeth marks, and a pulled leg tendon. He's staying overnight for observation. I will bring him with me in the morning. I'll be there for breakfast."

"Creamy avocado pasta?"

"Great."

"Over breakfast I'll give you the details of the events you missed. In summary, it was traumatic. The sheer terror of finding my house ransacked, you kidnapped, and horror of all horrors my sister absconded with my baseball hat collection." I narrow my eyes at the phone. "Are you laughing? Is that laughter I hear?"

"No, I swear."

But it is laughter. She is laughing.

"It is no laughing matter," I say. "Do you know how long it took me to collect, oh, never mind. Talk to you later."

I call Corky, who tells me, "Brutus had some stitches. He will be released tomorrow at noon. Jackson is in surgery. Doctor Drexel doesn't know if Jackson will make it. He thinks something pierced his saliva duct. To reduce the swelling he had to give Jackson steroids, even though the symptoms will be masked by them."

I picture Maria and I come as close as an atheist comes to saying a prayer for Jackson.

Corky gives me a rundown of the other dogs at other vets. They all will survive and will be "micro-chipped". Some will be handicapped. All will be loved.

I don't go to sleep right away. I look at the belongings of my parents. Belongings that were destroyed when their home was ransacked. Memories of my parents, which give me sustaining strength every day, are not related to their choice in furniture, or the brand of TV they purchased. Their belongings do not keep them vivid in my mind; my parents stay with me because of their kindness, their wit, their courage, their love, their joy in life. Yet, even after their belongings were turned to rubble, I can't throw them out. I've packed them into a corner, and I simply have to look at them. At the Scandinavian couch, at the teak entertainment cabinet. In these moments I can't escape the truth. I'm not coping with losing important people and animals from my life as well as I pretend to be.

It's raining hard outside when Ann and Hoover arrive at 7:30 AM. The green sweater Ann wears accentuates the vivid green of her eyes. Hoover walks stiffly, and wiggles his tail giving sharp yelps and flinging himself about so joyfully that when I bend to pat him, I miss. Ann and I embrace, holding each other tight for a full minute.

"There's a lump on the back of your head," Ann says. "What happened?"

I don't remember getting hit on the back of my head. "Are you sure?"

She nods.

I test my memory. Question: Which Red Sox player led his high school team to three state championships in baseball and football? Answer: Darnell McDonald. Phew.

"I'm fine."

Her hand comes up slowly and her fingers touch the lump. Surprised, I ask, "Is that part of my head? Way out there?"

"You were clobbered pretty good."

"I was in a fight. It was the first time I've ever used karate to hurt someone. It didn't feel the way I thought it would."

"You fell for the hype," Ann says, "as usual."

"Ready for some creamy avocado pasta?"

"Sounds great. I'm famished."

I place the water on the stove and make the sauce by placing the garlic cloves, lemon juice, and olive oil into a food processor. I add in a pitted avocado, basil, and salt.

"I want to tell you about my past," I say to Ann. "Everything."

Ann looks at me as if she's searching my noggin for an even larger bump that should be visible if she could just get the correct angle. She tilts her head but doesn't say anything.

I ask, "What would you like to know?"

I hope she will be specific, but my question simply falls and lays there like a tree across our path.

She raises her eyebrows skeptically.

I poke about my memory banks but remain silent as my skeletons rattle about jockeying for the last position.

I speak hesitantly and tell Ann about the night my dog, Kirby, got away, how he'd run in front of a car, and how close I was but how helpless I felt.

It was an emotional event. I ramble a bit. Ann listens more carefully than I speak.

"I felt the same helplessness when Hoover was placed in the fighting pit." The sound of my own voice scares me. This confession is leading to the one that she needs to hear. Each word like a link in one of those chains by which a roller coaster is hauled unrelentingly up the first hill and by which a gondola with a gargoyle masthead is pulled into the ghost-like darkness of a fun house.

"I can't imagine it," Ann says.

Hoover is more affectionate than usual. Rubbing against my legs. Nuzzling. Seeking by one means or another to be petted or patted or scratched. He continues to seek attention.

"Let's see," I say. "Anything else?" We both know I'm dodging the skeletons I promised to reveal.

Ann looks out impassively around the kitchen, as if she has lost interest in the conversation. Her lips push forward in a pout that I find enchanting but that also means she is Dorothy, tired of talking to the tin man.

Distressed, I feel I ought to say something. 'I'm sorry I'm alive', or something. So I say the first thing that comes to my mind. "Did I ever tell you that, after my dad's death, I had difficulty with sex?" Did I just say that out loud? She knows I'm making up stuff to avoid the truth.

At this juncture Ann probably figures that the bump on my head caused severe damage, and it's only a short time before I will be teasing shadows. Her eyes are like a wall of green, setting me off from reaching her.

"The reason for it," I continue fibbing, "is that I always envision Dad's death when I'm in bed. Because, I guess, that's where I learned about it."

She looks at me through lowered lashes and her voice drops with resignation. "You're incapable of saying anything serious." If her bottom lip comes out any farther, I can use it for a TV tray. Unfair. Flag on the play. Illegal use of facial expressions.

The pasta is done cooking. I drain and rinse it in a strainer and place it into a large bowl. I pour on the sauce and garnish it with lemon zest and black pepper. Ann and I start eating.

I gaze outside my kitchen window. Lightning is slashing open the sky, and thunder roars though the resultant wound. The first fat droplets of rain strike the window and batter against the roof.

A look of tired sadness passes over Ann's features. "What emotions are you hiding from?"

I haven't thought of an answer to that, but her eyes tell me I am going to need one. I will have to let the whole truth go out unpackaged. What I need to say to her is more difficult than my previous revelations. Less from the result of embarrassment than from an acute awareness that I am a damaged man and that she deserves someone finer than I can ever be.

"What's wrong?" Ann asks.

"Nothing."

"Tell that to your face."

I go to the fridge, get orange juice, pour it into two paper cups, and hand one to Ann.

"Well, you know that my ex-wife cheated on me–"

"Yes, you always joke that she said the bonds of your wedlock were so heavy that it took three to carry them – sometimes four."

I smile, seeing a way out of the cavern I have entered, but subconsciously knowing that Ann won't let me escape. Still, I take a stab. "You are a wonderful lawyer, but I've been angry with lawyers ever since my ex-wife left me for one. If the soul lives on after we die, mine will be sick at the very sight of lawyers. A wee baby will be born into this world spitting up whenever he sees lawyers and not knowing why."

Silence.

"Please pass the salt?" I ask.

She passes the pepper.

"I meant the salt."

She leans towards me, her green eyes hurt and clouded. Her upper lip pouts and presses back against her teeth. "Oh really?" she says, and passes me the mustard.

It's going to be this way until I answer seriously. What's the point of having defenses if they're so easily breached? A loud horn in my brain sounds general quarters. Battle stations! Look alive! This is not a drill!

Ann's hand is resting between us on the table. I pat it. She pulls away. Ah, romance.

Suddenly, a torrent of regrets and frustrations are ready to come pouring out of me, a deluge greater than that which has been released by the storm outside.

"It's true that my ex-wife cheated on me. But I've lied to everyone, including myself, blaming her infidelity as the root cause of our divorce. It was my fault. I've always known that.

"I was selfish. Maybe still am. Fluke and animal rights were taking all my time. I owed her more. A lot more. She cheated to get my attention; not because she didn't love me. And once she had my attention she wanted to go to counseling to work on our marriage. But I didn't want to face the truth.

"I suppose I was still mad at the world for taking my parents. My mom died, and my dad's intellect began to fade and for the last year of his life I was busy rescuing animals. I hadn't visited him for almost six months when he died. He lived three blocks away. For me, the sting of that moment was dreadfully hot. I shut everyone out. My ex-wife's dark world became darker. And when her hope died, she cheated.

"Before she cheated I was oblivious to the pain in her life. Her sister was getting married and we had an obligation to attend the wedding. Unfortunately, the day of the wedding she was in the middle of having a miscarriage. Possibly due to the stress of which I was the main agent. The night before the wedding she had cramps and bled all night long and in general felt like a walking corpse both physically and emotionally.

"But she knew that her family members expected us to be there for the wedding.

"She had never told anyone she was pregnant. Not even me. She phoned her mother and told her that she didn't feel well and probably wouldn't make it to her sister's wedding. She didn't have the guts to tell her mother the truth. Her mother insisted that she get dressed and be there.

"So we went. She put on the thickest pad she could find, reinforced with an old hand towel, downed a few Tylenol for the pain, stuffed her purse full of pads and an extra towel, put thick makeup on her sickly, pale skin, put on the fanciest dress she owned and we made it to the wedding.

"I remember with vivid clarity that moment of stunned shock, after our divorce, when she told me that she had lost our child. That's when my pain began, and the endless frustration of wondering where I'd failed. I still bear the scars – or will, if the wounds ever heal.

"Every year on my ex-sister's wedding anniversary I can't help but look back on that day and cringe. It's the day I lost a child, probably because I never connected enough with my wife to love her."

Emotionally spent, I raise my eyes to find Ann watching me, leaning her elbow on the table, resting her chin in her hand. Tears full of reflected light are shimmering in her eyes and I wonder for a moment why her tears should blur my vision too.

"Thank you," she says. "Now, can I count on you to be sincere with me from now on?"

"Come on. Pick something possible."

"We know now that it is possible. So let's make it mandatory." The teasing laughter is back in her voice. "Without honest communication, we can't remain the dominant species on this planet for long."

"Not sure that's a bad thing," I say. "But why are you smirking as if you've used my toothbrush to clean the toilet?"

Her eyes sparkle. "Because I knew everything that you just told me."

"When? Ho ... how?" I stammer.

"Your ex- came into the Lobster during a practice that you missed when you had the flu. Remember when I told you that she returned a box of your belongings?"

"Kinda." Not at all.

"She and I talked for several hours."

"If you knew, why did you want me –?"

"– I needed to hear it from you. I needed to know that you trusted me to love you unconditionally."

She is right. I didn't think anyone could. "I do trust you. I mean, I should have. I'm sorry."

"That's OK. There are a few things that I haven't told you." Ann shares with me some of her emotional baggage, but there is so little that it easily can fit in the overhead compartment with room left over for a piano. Her baggage includes the time I got a lousy gift and she was my secret Santa. And the time that her ex-boyfriend called her and asked for the phone number of their dry cleaner.

When she finishes, I say, "Thank you." For no reason except because that's how my parents raised me.

"When may I move in with you?" she says so soft it's almost like I believe it's my own mind speaking to me.

"Not until Hoover wags his tail," I say. Hoover, hearing his name, wags his tail as he always does. "Okay," I smile. "You're approved. All you need to bring is whipped cream. And an English saddle."

"Here's to us," Ann laughs. We raise the paper cups, touch them together, drink the orange juice and, as best we can, dash the paper cups to the floor.

Ann and I hug while Hoover hops about on his hind legs to be noticed, dancing around to get into the act. We kneel down to his level so he can.

Without doubt, Ann is the greatest person ever in the history of ever.

Chapter 28

Brutus won't be released until noon, which gives Ann and me almost three hours to find Arly. We want to give her the honor of returning Brutus to the Henderson's son, Bobby.

First we stop at the Saint Dismas Pawn Shop. The patron saint of thieves. The sign in the window says "The devil's own establishment of despair is open for business." Inside everyone seems to have pawned a shotgun or a hunting knife. We get Jill's belongings out of hock.

We drive to the House of Hope. As we pull up, a construction crew is on the roof responding to a supervisor barking instructions from the ground. When I stop, I behold the supervisor is none other than Mrs. Geezba Von Krek. In the sunlight, her facelift makes her look like a little girl whose braids are tied too tight.

Hoover is the first out of the car. I say to Ann, "Be right back."

Geezy sees me as I approach and turns toward me. Following her is a child so bundled up that its gender is a mystery and in fact its species is only a logical guess. The child is carrying a Barbie doll.

"Mr. Baker, this is my granddaughter, Giblet. She has just told her doll to be quiet. They're so cute at this age when they think the voices are coming from outside of their head."

I smile widely and lean forward toward the little girl. "Hello, Giblet."

Giblet responds by kicking me hard in the shin. The child is a curly, dimpled lunatic.

Geezy, sensing a teachable moment, says, "Giblet! First say hello to Mr. Baker!"

When Giblet refuses, Geezy wraps her in an embrace that looks suspiciously like a headlock.

I say, "I want to apolo–"

Geezy holds up her hand to stop me, and now she barks another command at construction workers who are plainly afraid of her.

"Don't apologize."

"I'd like to return the money that–"

She holds up her hand again to stop me. "Keep it."

"Thank you," I say.

"My duty," she says, very possibly blushing. I can't really tell for sure because of the heavy makeup on her face, and my own disinclination to look too closely. I sense that she has more to say. Her expression is faintly remote, as if she's listening to a whisper, barely audible, from someplace else. Something seems to flicker far back in her eyes. "God told me it was my calling to help this House of Hope."

Gee. And I was impressed when Carl Yastrzemski signed my baseball card.

"We're adding new rooms, a television, medical supplies, and two computers so these women can reach the outside world. You will give them computer classes."

"Yes, ma'am," I say obediently. But I'm not afraid of her. Well, maybe a little. Still, I need to know. "At your home, you sure did an amazing job of playing stoned and crazy."

"Playing? My dear boy, I can manage the team."

"How did you know to play stoned when you first opened the door for a 'cable TV repairman'?"

"Easy. Dozens of Caucasas employees sent us the YouTube clip of your interview on The Bert Stevens Show telling the world that Caucasas liked to burn their buildings for profit. Frankly, your baby face is kind of hard to forget. I knew you were looking for Ann and I wanted to mislead you."

"Thanks again," I say. We both smile. Giblet, the small bungle from Heaven, kicks me again. I limp back to Ann and Hoover.

Fergy comes outside and joins us. I say, "These construction improvements are amazing."

"Amazing isn't the word," Fergy says. "To think that just a week ago, for these kinds of improvements, I'd have done Bobbie Brown in front of my parents. Hey, ma – watch this!"

We all laugh.

"What made Geezy change?" I ask, hoping it is something permanent.

"I'm not positive. Her first hour as a kidnap victim she was a handful. She was arguing with me about her bed arrangement when she turned away in a snit and slipped and fell and hit her head on the floor. Hard. It scared me. I shook her. She was unconscious. I threw my glass of cold diet strawberry soda in her face. It didn't revive her."

But I'll bet it improved her complexion.

"I told Gypsy to watch Geezy while I called an ambulance. Before I got to the door, Geezy groaned. I turned and Gypsy was rocking Geezy just as you would a little baby who has had a fright and needs reassurance. Geezy was smiling. Gypsy sat with her, got her food and – the oddest thing – Gypsy talked with Geezy like she has never talked with any other human being in a decade. Then Geezy fell asleep in Gypsy's lap."

"Amazing," Ann says softly.

"So I don't really know if Geezy changed because she hit her head, or because of Gypsy's kindness."

After a reflective pause, I ask, "How is Jill doing?"

"Great. She's at work, back at the Caucasas lab."

"That's a little surprising. We have some of the stuff that she pawned. I'll bring it in."

"Set it in the kitchen."

"Is Gypsy here? We want her to help us find Arly."

"Gypsy is here."

Fergy follows me. I remove a box of Jill's possessions from the car and hand it to Ann. I take another.

Geezy comes out of the House with Giblet and Gypsy. The sun light is absorbed by Geezy's eye shadow revealing depth you could take a shovel to. Giblet goes directly to Hoover. Gypsy says in her little girlish voice, "Arly is at the Animal Shelter. She volunteers there now."

I call Hoover and approach Gypsy. While Gypsy fawns over Hoover I whisper to her. "I have another hex for you to place."

Gypsy nods.

"I want to place a hex on Geezy's husband. Not one that will strike him instantly dead but merely make all his skin fall off. Suddenly. All at once. While he is dancing. Saturday night. And just as he is winking at someone other than Geezy."

Gypsy giggles.

***

Three blocks from the animal shelter, Hoover, Ann and I stop at a bank, and at the Holiday Inn on the same block.

At the shelter, Momma Lisa greets us. "I've already found homes for some of the fighting dogs that are handicapped. Some people just love to adopt the runt of the litter, or a dog that needs extra care. Hard to explain."

"Great work, Momma. We heard that Arly is volunteering here."

"My hardest worker," Momma says. She points toward the door leading to the cages.

Before we reach Arly we stop at the Yorkie. He is a little less nervous than last time I saw him. "He remembers us," Ann says. "I've been thinking it's time for me to get a dog." We go back to Momma's office, fill out the paperwork, and return to the Yorkie. Hoover hears us open the cage door.

"This takes the biscuit!" he yaps and barks happily, full of the devil.

"What are you going to name her?" Momma asks.

Ann already knows what I am thinking. We share a smile and Ann says, "Chief Yorkie, of course."

Ann carries Chief Yorkie. We find Arly on her knees intently cleaning a cage. Hoover nudges Arly. She stops cleaning, takes off her rubber gloves, and hugs Hoover.

"How are you?" I ask.

"Wonderful."

I hand Arly a bank book and a room key.

"What's this?" she asks.

I answer the first part. "It's a bank book for an account in your name with five thousand dollars."

"Why?"

"A reward for leading us to the capture of the DDoA gang," I lie.

"I don't really need money," she says. She puts her hand to her chin and holds her elbow with her other hand, an impression of Jack Benny thinking. "Hmm. On the other hand, maybe I'll buy a race horse. Or perhaps it would be better to get the tear in my jacket fixed. The tape leaks."

We laugh.

"The key," Ann says, is for a room, booked for a week at the Holiday Inn. Pets are allowed. Where is 403 by the way? We only booked you a room for a week, because after a week you should be able to move back home."

"Thanks kindly," Arly flattens her palms against her work apron. "403 is with a friend. I know you want me to stay at the House of Hope, and I know that the people there are kind, but thanks anyway."

"I don't mean the House of Hope," Ann says, "I mean your home on Crinklewood."

Arly cocks her head. For once it's nice to see someone look at Ann like she's the crazy one.

Ann explains, "I looked into the mortgage company that foreclosed on your home. The company has been in court for years for falsely foreclosing on people whose homes were not "underwater" but only behind in their payments. Your home was one of those. The company paid home assessors to assess the houses low, forcing people out. Your house always had equity, and with the rebound in the housing market, Arly, you have about $75,000 equity. The case against the company should be out of court in a few days and you can return home."

Arly is so surprised that she sits straight down, just missing a bucket of dirty water. "Do I need a lawyer?" she asks.

"You have one." Ann taps her chest.

Suddenly excited, Arly says, "I can't wait to tell my husband."

I didn't see this coming. Senility. Her husband is dead. Maybe she talks to him the way I talk to John Connelly.

"Not my legal husband," Arly answers our concerned expressions. "I suppose I never did mention my relationship with Jacob."

"Jacob? Isn't he the man who saw the Caucasas lab tech being kidnapped?"

"Yes. We've been together for a year."

That explains why she wouldn't stay in the House of Hope. The House 'rules' weren't the issue.

"We'll take you to him."

As we walk past Momma's office, she signals me. "Just a minute," I say. "Be right back." Hoover, Ann, and Arly are so busy with Chief Yorkie I'm not sure they hear me.

Inside Momma's office she tells me about a new dog in quarantine, brought in last night.

"You're kidding?"

"No. I looked through old records and followed up on the twenty-six strays that Arly brought here. I called each new owner and asked how the dogs were doing. Two had died. Three had changed addresses and I can't find them. Twenty are doing well and loved. One man told me that he wanted to sell the dog because he said, 'It never really accepted me as his new owner'. So I purchased the dog from him. What should I do?"

I tell her about Arly getting back her home. Momma says, "That settles it."

We exit Momma's office and Momma holds out the keys to Arly and asks Arly if, before she leaves, she can do one last thing; clean up the quarantine cage area. Arly enthusiastically accepts the challenge, takes the keys, and marches away. The rest of us follow her like baby ducks.

Arly opens the quarantine area. She doesn't know she has an audience. Hoover has pushed an anticipatory muzzle in the partially open door. Chief Yorkie squeezes his snout into the doorway to see what the attraction is. Dog and human heads align in the doorway like a totem pole. Before Arly begins cleaning she says hello to the dogs. Several of them bark hello before she reaches their cage, but one dog is leaping and barking in an excited frenzy.

"Sparks?" Arly yells in the loudest voice I have ever heard from her. "Is that really you?"

She opens the door and Sparks bounds out. We all jam into the quarantine room to witness the happy reunion. Sparks laps at Arly's cheek. Arly grimaces and twists her face away, laughing. After several minutes, with Arly still hugging Sparks, Momma explains to Arly what happened to her dogs. Arly switches from Sparks to hugging Momma, who keeps saying "Just doing my job" in an effort to coax Arly to let her go. Arly does so reluctantly.

We all jam into my Prius. Hoover, Chief Yorkie, and Sparks in the hatchback area. Ann, Arly, and I in the seats. We head to pick up Jacob and 403. When we get within a block of the Caucasas Lab, Arly says, "Stop here. He'll come to us. He's not finished."

I spot an old man down the street pushing Arly's grocery cart. 403 marches alongside him like he is carrying his sword, as proud of his companion as if he were king of the world. The man stops, pulls a rag out of his coat pocket, and begins polishing the mail box. Another mentally handicapped homeless person. He pushes on and starts cleaning up a parking meter. A few feet more and he is on a newspaper box. Every few wipes he re-folds the rag to present a clean face, and diligently goes about his chore. A store owner comes out and starts talking to him. He's going to chase him off. The store owner does all the talking and Jacob does all the listening, but it is soon apparent that they are friends.

Arly steps out onto the sidewalk. Jacob sees her and his face suddenly lights up and it is younger by twenty years. 403 runs to Arly. Ann and I step out of the car, not that it mattered, since Arly introduces Jacob to Sparks and the other dogs in the car first. Jacob is a soft, sweet-faced man with a mournful quality that comes through paradoxically as a kind of radiance.

Arly gives Jacob the news about her home.

Jacob says, "That's wonderful." His voice sounds rusty, as if he doesn't get too many chances to use it.

Arly tells him about the hotel and the money. Jacob doesn't react to the news, only to Arly's face. It's obvious that whatever she wants is what he wants.

"Jacob, how did you become homeless?" Ann asks.

Jacob smiles, but Arly speaks. "He's always been homeless. His parents were alcoholics on the streets of Boston. They were poor, but happy." She laughs. "He was six years old before he found out that there was no such thing as 'Alpo Baby Food'."

We make two short trips, first driving 403 and Jacob to the Holiday Inn. Second, Hoover, Ann, Arly, and I go to Dr. Drexel's clinic.

Still manning the reception desk with the expression of a frightened squirrel, Mrs. Bill Johnson eyes me suspiciously, letting me know that she remembers me and that she knows I am not to be trusted. Feeling her gaze I take a seat and once again study the poster depicting the life cycle of the heartworm. Ann sits with me while Arly gets Brutus. I call the Hendersons. Mrs. Henderson shouts to Bobby and alternately shouts 'thank you' into the phone and shrieks "oh, thank you" somewhere in between. She is becoming so breathless that I suggest she breathe into a bag.

Arly brings out Brutus from the holding area. He's wearing a cone collar. He recognizes me and wags everything.

Dr. Drexel follows Arly out and explains that Jackson is still in intensive care with less than a fifty/fifty chance. He has been searching desperately for the cause of the swelling, anything resembling a tumor. Steroids are being administered via subcutaneous fluids at the back of the neck, and the swelling has spread under his jaw.

If Jackson dies, should I tell Maria? Would she want to know?

We thank Dr. Drexel for all he has done and drive to the Henderson's home. Brutus recognizes his neighborhood before we stop the car. Bobby is in his front yard. Arly opens the car door and Brutus bounds out as if he's never felt freedom before, leaping like a lamb in springtime.

Brutus runs around Bobby, stops, folds his front legs under him, his rump still in the air and his tail wagging on top of it. When Bobby approaches, Brutus jumps back, barks and repeats the game. Bobby laughs.

The Henderson's are both hugging Arly.

Chapter 29

Hoover likes to go to the Lobster with me and anxiously follows me around when I am getting ready. But not tonight. He stays curled next to Chief Yorkie. A loud bar is not a good place for his new friend to spend his first night out of the shelter.

I pat Hoover, "Will you take care of Chief Yorkie tonight?" He sweeps the air with his tail.

Bill goes onstage first, wearing a suit loosely over his casual performance clothes and introduces us: "Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, there are bands that are not very good, there are bands that are pretty good, and every once in a great while a band surfaces that is so good that it transcends the very definition of Rock 'n' Roll. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: a pretty good band."

The audience laughs as we take the stage, and then laughs harder when they see Bill again coming back onstage but struggling to get his jacket off and hide it.

"Personally," Ann addresses the audience, "I'm content to be in a pretty good band. I really don't want to get too famous. Because if I do, I'm afraid, someday, someone is going to publish those nude photos of me." The audience laughs and hoots.

After a song in which both my bass playing and Ann's saxophone playing are featured, we are ready to share the comedy spotlight.

"Knock-knock!" I say.

"Who's there?" Ann answers.

"Jehovah's Witness!" I say.

Ann steps away from her microphone.

"Knock-knock!" I say. "Knock-knock. KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK!"

The music, on this night, is absolute magic.

After a few more songs, Ann flips her hair, mimicking the trademark flip of Cher Bono. "You are probably wondering about the scars on the face of our bass player. Let me just say that he has a wonderful relationship with his guitar, which I'm fairly sure is unlawful in Utah and at least several Southern States."

The audience roars.

I push my hair forward, creating bangs to mimic Sonny's hairstyle. Now I get down on my knees to exaggerate Sonny's height difference to Cher. I look up at Ann. The audience laughs before I speak. "Today our saxophone player was rudely awakened from her afternoon nap by this guy who kept honking his horn. He seemed to be extremely upset, just because the light had turned green." Laughter.

After the set is finished I'm first to reach the table reserved for us. Corky is there, along with two smiling elderly people whom I don't know. Perhaps Corky doesn't know them either. Maybe they don't know that this table is reserved for Fluke. Corky has ordered beverages for us, and they are sprinkled around the table. She points to mine.

"Thanks Corky," I say, wondering if she's going to introduce me to the elderly couple. She just smiles and I sense strangeness, maybe a joke, is in the air. Moving my eyes only, I glimpse at the sleeve of the elderly woman and notice a familiar black and white pattern. That gown was in Arly's shopping cart! I almost fall out of my chair. Arly's homeless flea-market style is gone. In its stead she wears the formal black and white gown that she pushed through the streets of Cavalry. Her hair doesn't look like a mop; it is pulled back, held in place by a silver clip that allows it to flow in a gentle stream well past her shoulders. Jacob wears a suit and tie and looks like he could be a guest speaker.

"You look wonderful!" I say. Bill, Dudley, and Ann, now present, agree and hug Arly and shake Jacob's hand.

"Thanks," Arly says. "Doesn't Jacob look good enough to bury?"

Everyone laughs as they settle down at the table.

Bill asks me, "When did you and Ann add that Sonny and Cher routine?"

Ann says, "We worked on it today, while we were making room for my stuff at his house."

Corky looks at me and says, "Clark, whatever you did to deserve Ann, I assume it was in a former life."

"Have you heard from Jill?" Ann redirects the conversation.

"No. I don't think she has a phone yet," I say. "Maybe she'll call us from inside Caucasas." The other conversations at the table have mysteriously stopped and I'm not sure why.

Ann says, "I'd like to know her better. She sounds like a nice woman."

There is an uncomfortable silence. Everyone seems to be waiting for me to say something witty, so I add, "Yes, she's definitely a woman."

"You noticed that, huh?"

"Yes, I saw how she folded my shirt."

"And your pants?" Ann's eyes sparkle as though she is playing a game to which I don't know the rules.

Would it be polite, at this point in our conversation, to just run away? "What do I have to do to get out of this discussion?" I hope my embarrassment doesn't show on my face.

"Is he blushing?" Corky asks. "He's blushing, isn't he?"

"Either that, or he's been boiled."

So much for hope.

Ann struggles to keep a straight face but it's costing her dearly. Twitching through the mouth and fierce frowns betray her inner struggle.

I feel a hand on the back of my chair. Someone is standing behind me. I turn around and I'm mortified. Jill! I choke. Everyone laughs and soon the contagious laughter spreads to other tables, to people who don't even know they are laughing at me.

"Jill, how did you get here?" I ask.

"John Smith, our cabbie, gave me a ride. I invited him here tonight because I wanted to thank him for helping me move to the House of Hope. I told him he would enjoy the music, that you were very good rock musicians. He said, and I quote: 'There are no good rock musicians. Only bad parents.'"

"So he's not coming in?"

Jill accepts a glass of wine from Corky and nods. "Oh, he's definitely coming in. I told him there was free beer. He's parking now."

On cue, John Smith enters and sits down with us. He hands my old phone to me.

"Thanks, John." I make introductions all around. To keep Jill's promise I order John a beer and to make him feel comfortable I order one for myself. I rarely drink, but this seems like the time.

"Jill," Ann says, "we dropped off most of the possessions you pawned at the House of Hope."

"Thank you. Someday I will pay you back."

"Actually, your friend Geezy gave us some money to give to you. Three-thousand dollars." I hand her a wad of cash. She puts out her hand automatically, then freezes except for swallowing some wine, taking an extra second to make sure it goes down.

"Geezy?"

"Surprise, huh?" I say. "She's actually a wonderful person." I sip my beer and decide I'll leave it at that. No reason to make it sound as if Geezy can walk on water when yesterday I insinuated that she couldn't even drink it without directions.

"Thank you. And thank her," Jill says.

"So," Bill says, "you returned to work at Caucasas, no questions asked?"

Jill cups a hand beneath the ends of her hair, as if testing its weight. "Correct. Nobody there is aware that Bob Parker or I were involved in the beagle liberation. Bob's kidnapping was never mentioned in the papers because Packer was going to eliminate Bob. My co-workers thought the lab was shut down as a crime scene. Bob is returning to work tomorrow. We'll both be working undercover."

Bill asks Jill, fairly softly as if they are having a private conversation, "How is Bob doing?"

"Great. As Clark had speculated, Bob was in the Caucasas Lab the night I hired Maurice and his bunchers to liberate the beagles. I had told Maurice that all lab personnel would be gone, and that there were no cameras. Since they weren't expecting to be confronted, they didn't wear masks. When Bob saw their faces, they decided to shoot him. But Maurice, being a cop and all, convinced them that Bob might be a valuable hostage. Bob, thinking that he might not live through the night, took the Skulk report with him."

It's time to go back onstage. We play a dozen songs. We dedicate one "to John Smith, who thinks that quality entertainment would be Evel Knievel jumping over fifty rock musicians with a bull-dozer."

Cher says, "Today our bass player went to buy a condom: The lady behind the counter said, 'Save your money, buy a lottery ticket. Better odds.'"

Booming laughs. When it fades we play our last song of the set, and now return to our table. Jill sits a little closer to Bill. Bill beams like he has a flower in his buttonhole.

Behind me, toward the door, I hear "excuse me's". The crowd makes room for someone. I turn my head and see Chief York wheeling Maurice in a wheelchair.

Dudley jumps up to assist. "Please join us," he says as he hijacks the wheelchair and pushes it to our table.

"How are you, Maurice?" I ask.

"You'd all be proud of me." Maurice looks around the table. "I'm trying to become a vegetarian."

We all say "great", "wonderful", or "thanks". Ann asks, "How is it going?"

"Well, truthfully," Maurice frowns. "My wife says that I'm not there yet. She says that a true vegetarian does not go to a salad bar and attempt to make a pork chop out of all the bacon bits."

Jacob howls. Everyone laughs, and when it starts to fade, the Chief says, "I went to a vegan restaurant once. Wait, no, that was just a florist." And the laughter explodes again.

It's time for us to return to the stage.

We play our third set, with a few more melodic classics than usual for John Smith, the Chief, Maurice and any others who are not thrilled by rock 'n roll.

We return to the table.

Maurice smiles, "For a rock band, your music is less annoying than I expected."

"He didn't believe me," the Chief says. "I told him that your band is more 'normal' than other rock bands." I suspect that she doesn't realize that 'normal', like 'sane', is not considered praise in rock circles.

"We retrieved a canister of an anesthetic from the roof of the building where the leaders of DDoA where found unconscious. May I ask about it? I am always eager to expand my befuddlement. I'm guessing, Clark, that you were responsible. How did you know how much gas to pump into the building?"

I look at her. I'm not ready to confess. "I've got an air-tight alibi – that I'm working on. But I suppose that whoever pumped in the gas had a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry."

"Chemistry?" the Chief says lightly. "I suspect you know about as much chemistry as a mollusk."

"Well, maybe I do and maybe I don't. It just depends."

"Depends on what?"

"On what a mollusk is."

When the laughter fades, the Chief says, "Some of the gang members and dogfight customers that we rounded up said that you kicked Keegan O'Brian in the face. Then you landed a karate kick that sent him airborne so long that he should have been served a snack and a soft drink. Then you jumped into the pit to fight the dogs – and then, here's the part that I don't get, and then the police arrived. Yet, in fact, we had not arrived. How can this be? Are they all crazy?"

"Well, doesn't that sound crazy to you?"

The Chief shakes her head. "Still the same old Clark, huh? You never change. I'm surprised no one has wasted you yet."

"I'm not easy to kill."

"You've been lucky."

"I'm a snappy tambourine player. No one likes to kill a snappy tambourine player. There are so few of us left."

The Chief says, "One day I wouldn't mind understanding you, Mr. Baker."

"Sure," I say. "Frequently I feel the same way myself."

The Chief's phone rings. She answers it and says "When? Where, exactly? What procedures have you followed? I'll be there soon." The Chief stands up, "Thank you for the entertainment. Really."

Maurice nods agreement.

The Chief waves goodbye and says, "Thanks to all of you for whatever part you played in bringing down DDoA. As always, Clark, you displayed tenacity greater than any three normal people put together.

I nod my head proudly, and then I ask, "What do you mean by 'normal people'?" But she is gone.

***

We get home and there is a dog gift on the floor, not on the newspaper. Hardly unexpected, since we didn't house-train the Yorkie. We get a clue that the Yorkie probably lived indoors at some point in his life. He goes over to the mess and sniffs it and looks up at us as if to say, "What lowlife could have done this to our beautiful home?" His smug look suggests that he thinks his acting job is so good that Ann and I should suspect each other.

Training will come later. For now, this is one dog that I am going to enjoy scolding. "Chief Yorkie, did you poop on the floor? Why yes, yes you did. The Chief made a poop on the floor." I can't help laughing.

Ann and I play gin rummy until two A.M. There is a smile on her face that does not leave, and makes the room feel light and warm and explosive with energy. Chief Yorkie seems to have found his place. Everyone needs a place. His is between Ann and Hoover in the center of the king-size bed.

In the morning I throw on some random clothes. Ann has a pair of jeans pulled on under a nightshirt. She ties the tails of the nightshirt and pulls a loose sweater over that. We head like laundry into the morning's light drizzle. Hoover puts his nose to the ground like a small bulldozer. If he pulls on the leash too hard it makes my hand throb, a reminder that I punched someone. Chief Yorkie follows. Both haul away to another smell, Ann and me in the rear, keeping pace as best we can. The slight moisture, more like a heavy fog than rain, is refreshing and cool against our faces. It also must emphasize smells, since Hoover has to stop and investigate every tree, fence, post, and bush along the way. We don't hurry him. We are enjoying ourselves. Dr. Drexel just informed us that Jackson didn't require the full exploratory surgery (through the neck, digging around hunting for foreign substances) that he'd anticipated. He used a less invasive set of procedures. Jackson is almost ready to go home as an out-patient.

On the other side of the street we see Brutus out walking his guardian, Bobby.

"Hi, Bobby," Ann says. "I just got a new dog. Would you like to come over and meet him?"

Bobby's eyes light up as he and Brutus cross the street. He approaches Chief Yorkie and bends down. Before he extends his hand he asks, "Does he bite?"

"I don't know," Ann teases. "That's what I'm trying to find out."

We all laugh.

We arrive at Dr. Drexel's office early to pick up Jackson. He is undergoing his final checkup. My soaked athletic shoes and socks squish as I pace. My clothes are drying on me in complex wrinkles; my hair is stiff and angular.

Dr. Drexel brings out Jackson, who is reluctant. He doesn't know us. He has lost faith in human strangers. The vet is the first stranger recently who has treated him kindly, and he doesn't want to leave. He finally comes to me after five minutes of gentle coaxing from Dr. Drexel.

I don't know Rosalinda's phone number so we have to hope that she and Maria are home.

We slow in front of their house. The fallen leaves in the front yard haven't been raked in a while. Maria sits on the front step, head down. She doesn't look up when we stop. She still wears a bow in her hair. Only now it is crumpled as if she slept on it.

Jackson sees her and barks. Ann tries to hold Jackson back, but he strains forward, clambering over Hoover and Ann in his eagerness to jump out of the car, which hinders Ann from opening the car door. The door pops open and Jackson leaps out, breaks into a run, faster and faster, and hurls himself toward Maria. Maria only now looks up. Her face is still serenely wise and impossibly fragile. She lets out the happiest shriek I have ever heard.

Rosalinda hears the shriek and is outside in a flash holding a kitchen knife at her side. Upon seeing Jackson she shrieks and then turns a little and stuffs the kitchen knife into her apron.

Jackson is capering around Maria's legs, panting happily.

Rosalinda watches Maria and Jackson and turns to us every ten seconds and says "thank you, thank you".

Hoover, Ann, and I return to our car. Before I start the engine sit and watch Maria clap her hands and dance in the sunshine. Jackson jumps up and down, almost in synch.

"I like the world the way it is now," I pull into traffic. "I don't want anything to change."

"That can never happen, Clark."

She is right, of course. Dad used to say, "Life isn't stationary, it's a passing. Don't mistake life for the candle, when it's really the flame."

The end.

– Famous Last Words



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