Find It by Mary Rosenblum
The huge male Rott slammed against the front door. Miami took a step back, eyes widening as the dog hit the door again, hard enough so that it shook in the frame. White teeth raked the glass pane, smearing it with blood and drool as the dog dropped to the ground again.
"King?" She swallowed. "What the hell is going on?"
"I got to get in there." Deputy McKenzie gave her a sideways look, backed to the edge of the rickety porch. "You got any ideas?"
Ideas. No. Miami hunched her shoulders, wishing the cicadas at least would sing and fill the empty silence of this strange and awful night. No, she hadn't had an idea since Mike McKenzie's phone call had jolted her out of sleep and into this waking nightmare. "Go get into your car," she said.
"What are you gonna do?" He didn't move.
"Look, he doesn't know you."
"Don't look like he knows anybody right now," the Deputy drawled. He gave her another, troubled, look. "Maybe he knows about Jeff."
Miami shook her head. Twenty years of dog training had taught her a lot of things, and there was no way that King knew that his beloved owner lay murdered and dead ten miles from here.
Dead. Jeff. "Get in your car." Without waiting for his reply, she strode across the warped boards of the porch. Heard the creak of the stairs as Mike retreated to his car. Heard, after the solid thunk of the patrol car door closing, the click of a hammer pulled back. "Don't you shoot him, Mike," she said without turning around. Shit, she had pulled him out of Katy, her first litter as a two year old, the big male coming breech. She had rubbed him hard because he wasn't breathing, had puffed her breath into his tiny wet muzzle. "King, what's the matter with you, you idiot?" She grasped the door handle, pretending that her palm wasn't slick with sweat, winced as 120 lb of hard-muscled Rottweiler hit the door again, roaring challenge through the quivering panel. "Get down, you big fool." She turned the handle, body as relaxed as any night she dropped by, ready to drink a beer and talk about her day, Jeff's day, the dogs, his latest Search and Rescue case. Body relaxed, heart pounding. "King, what is the matter?"
The door barely cracked and he charged through, slamming her and the door aside as if they were both made of cardboard. "Mike, don't shoot!" She switched on the outdoor flood light.
The big dog circled the yard, nose down. Foam flecked his shoulders, white in the moonlight. "King! King, come here! King!"
He circled again, his flat out charge slowed now to a tracking lope, to a trot, to a slow shamble, his head rising slowly, dark eyes glinting in the wan light as he looked at her. Defeat curved every line in his body and he slunk to her, as if she'd caught him peeing on the floor.
"Oh, baby." She caught his jowls in both hands, pulling his head up, tears burning at the back of her throat. "Oh, sweetheart, you really do know, don't you?" But he wasn't looking at her, was staring at Deputy McKenzie as he gingerly opened the door of the patrol car, hair bristling on his shoulders, growl rumbling deep in his chest. "Just stay put a minute, will you?" Irritably, because it was the middle of the night and Jeff was dead and King knew it, never mind that he couldn't. "Let me put him in the run."
The dog didn't want to go. She had to take him by the collar and nearly drag him into the chain link run that Jeff used so rarely for King. As soon as she latched the door, he began to bark, a deep throated demanding bark that said 'let me out' as clearly as if he'd spoken English. Head down, Miami trudged over to where McKenzie was gingerly climbing out of the patrol car. "What the hell happened?" she asked wearily. At least he'd put the damn gun away.
"Amanda Gilroy took the cutoff over to...ah...return a spade to Bart Jones." The deputy cleared his throat.
Amanda was seeing Bart nights, while her husband worked Security for the Wildwood Mine. Everyone in Butler Park knew it.
"On her way home, she spotted Jeff's pickup off the road, down in the ditch. She didn't realize anything was wrong, at first, figured he was out with the dog, looking for someone, maybe a kid or some fool hiker, since it's the weekend." He was hurrying, his words stumbling over each other. "I guess she was kind of...ah...late coming back and it was still there. So she went over to see if something was wrong."
Went over to see if Jeff was in there with someone, Miami thought sourly. If Amanda wasn't the subject of gossip, she was spreading it.
"And she found Jeff slumped over the wheel." McKenzie looked past her, up at the starry sky. "His head was pretty bloody, so she used her cell to call 911." He still wasn't looking at her. "Paramedics...did their best. Head injury. Somebody hit him. I guess he was on his way in to the hospital before he passed out."
"Who would kill him?" She'd meant the words to come out flat and hard, but they wavered instead. As if King had heard that waver, he squatted on his broad haunches, pointed his nose at the icy stars, and howled a low, deep, heart rending note.
"I don't know." McKenzie turned to stare at the howling dog. "I plan to find out."
She didn't get any sleep that night. King refused to settle down. He stood at the door, scratching to go out, and when Miami didn't open it, he barked. Katy glared at them both in disgust and stalked off to curl up on Miami's rumpled bed. Miami made herself a pot of tea and settled down on the battered couch, finally coaxing the reluctant King to join her.
She wondered sometimes, how many people in Butler Park thought they were lovers, she and Jeff, in spite of the twenty years that separated them. They weren't. That had never been part of their friendship. He had rented her this house, when she had come back here, looking for someplace cheap where she could keep her dogs, starting over from bad choices and a bad marriage. Landlord first, he had become a friend. He had moved to Butler Park sometime after she had left. They were both outsiders in this small dying Pennsylvania mine town, never mind that she had been born here and spent her first sixteen years here. King whined, as if divining the path of her thoughts. "We'll both miss him." Her voice broke as she buried her face against his shoulder, and the first tears finally stung her eyes.
Her transmission had died on the side of the narrow county road that ran through the county woods. She had a very pregnant Katy in the cab, no money, and no prospects. Running home like a lost dog, even though there was no longer any home to run to.
He had pulled over in his muddy Toyota pickup. "Your girl looks like she's going to whelp any time," he had told her. "I just lost my dog, so I've got plenty of room." He had loaded them both into the truck, and taken them home to his small neat cottage where he had fed them both and given them the single bed. Katy had gone into labor that night and he had crouched beside Miami with towels while she worked the huge breech puppy free and delivered the other three puppies. Later, he had offered to rent her this house, which had just been vacated by a former tenant, and had loaned her enough money to get her truck fixed.
That was Jeff, she had discovered. A quiet listener, a gentle loner, living on a trust fund settled on him after he found the son of a wealthy family, he was one to offer a hand before you had to ask for help and was never too busy to listen and to hear what you were telling him, no matter how trivial it was. He had worked in Search and Rescue since he was a teenager. "Everyone liked him. How could anyone want to hurt him?" she whispered into King's thick neck. He licked her face and whined softly.
She was blearily splitting kindling when Mike showed up in his patrol car, trying not to cut her fingers off, and not caring much. He wanted her to come into town to identify the body. "Why me?" she asked, stabbed by a moment of intense terror. "Get someone else."
"You're listed as the person to notify in an emergency. In fact, you're listed as next of kin." Mike sounded just as surly as she felt. "Don't ask me why. Do you know anything about his family?"
"He was adopted. That's all I know." There was no out. Mike's solid immobility told her so. Wearily, she locked the reluctant King into a run and climbed into the patrol car, leaving Katy as regal sentry on the front porch. "Jeff never talked about his family -- real or adopted. At all." His past was the only closed subject between them and five years of close friendship hadn't changed that. She stared out at the late summer woods as Mike manhandled the patrol car along the narrow county road as it wound around the hills. The black birch and maples were just beginning to show a hint of fall color. Dark clusters of wild grapes stood out beneath a tangle of yellowing leaves as they dropped down into the narrow valley where Butler Park hugged the banks, the dingy brick buildings shabby and unkempt in the wake of the stained by decades of coal smoke.
They passed the two story brick box of the high school, with its concrete scroll above the door with Butler Park High School engraved in fake Germanic script on it. The town looked strange, as if she had just happened by here on her way to somewhere else. But it had always had an edge of unfamiliarity. Miami sometimes thought her dreamy distant mother had cursed her, when she had given her the name of a town that had symbolized all the unattainable to her -- exotic flowers, beautiful people, and warm ocean. That name had set her apart from the dark haired miners' children with their hand me down clothes, lurking shadows at the backs of their eyes, and Monday morning bruises.
Miami felt herself shutting down as they took the elevator down to the basement of the little hospital and walked down the dim corridor with its pale green walls and flickering fluorescent lights. Mike made a move as if to touch her arm in the chill of the corridor, but he didn't, merely held the double doors open for her. The man in white in the cold formaldehyde-smelling room at the end pulled out the big drawer that somehow didn't look big enough to hold a human body. Miami swallowed, glad that she hadn't eaten breakfast. She'd seen death before, but this was something other than the moment of dying. Jeff's body, white and way too still, looked like something carved from wax or plastic. A mannequin set here as a horrible practical joke. Not Jeff, she thought. It's not him.
She nodded, turned her back on the white plastic doll that had once been a man with a slow grin, a wry sense of humor, and the wisdom of a man who'd spent his life working with dogs.
"You okay?" Mike did touch her, this time, but she shook him off.
"I just need to get out of here." She fixed her eyes on the gray elevator doors. "You got any leads yet?"
"No." Mike bit off the word. He stood aside to let two young orderlies in green out of the elevator, followed her inside. "No leads. Nothing. We don't know where it happened, where he was. Nobody remembers seeing him yesterday evening at all, and that's the main road from Butler Park over to Allison. He could have gotten onto it from any of a dozen little back roads. You got hiking trails all over the hills there, too, back on the old mining land. Whoever did it could have cut cross country and be miles from here."
"The Medical Examiner says a subdural hematoma killed him. He says that kind of injury is tricky -- the victim might black out right away or walk around for a couple of hours before he collapsed. No way to tell..."
"Shut up, Mike." The elevator doors opened and Miami fled, out through the lobby full of worried friends and relatives, out into the false warm of late September Indian summer. At the edge of the parking lot she spun around so fast that she nearly collided with Mike. "Why was King home? Jeff never went anywhere without King."
"Well, this time he decided to." Mike shrugged.
He didn't get it. She shook her head. Jeff didn't leave King at home. If King couldn't come along, Jeff didn't go. Something was wrong, here.
"You ready to head back?"
"So what have you found out?" Miami met his gray eyes. "What are you doing to find the creep who killed him?"
"We're...looking for the site of the attack." Mike looked away.
Angry. The realization seeped past the wall of her grief. He was angry. Why?
"We're checking all the side roads between the house and where the truck went off the road. Asking if anyone saw him."
Those little roads wound up into the hills that had once been mine land and was now a brushy wasteland slowly returning to the oak, ash, hemlock, climax forest of Western Pennsylvania. Public land, now. Anyone could go back there. The families who struggled along in the sagging frame houses tucked back into clearings cluttered with dead cars and busted washing machines -- marginal survivors of the mine's wouldn't be too inclined to say much to a Deputy in a patrol car.
"Why didn't you tell me? We should have brought King," Miami said quickly. "We'll take him along and if Jeff set foot on the ground any time in the past week, he's going to let us know. Jeeze, Mike, he's a Search and Rescue dog . And he's Jeff's dog."
"No." Mike wouldn't look at her. "Sheriff Bauer's orders. He said it's too late for a search dog...been too much time."
Miami gaped at him. "He said what?"
"I know, I know." Mike raised a hand. "You know how he feels about dogs."
"No, I know how he feels about Jeff and King. And me, for that matter." The words nearly choked her. "He doesn't want to share TV coverage with anyone else. Mike, this is a murder. The man is stupid, but I didn't know he was that..."
"Cool it, Miami." Mike flushed. "You're right, but there's nothing I can do about it, okay? Don't come out and make trouble. Al's just looking for an excuse to put you in jail for a night or two." There was a hint of pleading in his tone. "Don't worry. We're turning over every stone up there."
If she said anything, anything at all, she was going to blow her friendship with Mike and he was a nice guy...when he wasn't working for his boss. She turned on her heel and stalked across the street to the Super Mart."
"You want a ride or not?" he yelled after her. "Damn it, Miami, can't you ask for help once in awhile?"
Startled by his words, she shook her head, shoved through the automatic door into the Super Mart, and grabbed one of the rusty metal carts.
Jeff had named her next of kin. She shoved the cart down the nearest aisle. Who would they call if she... Frowning, she stared blankly at the shelves, reached for a can of milk. Her Great Aunt Dorsey, in the Home, ninety-three this spring. Her mother had a couple of sisters, but they lived in other states and she hadn't kept track of them. That's it. Her father was an only child, dead the year she was born. She heaved a sack of dog food into the cart.
Can't you ask for help... Mike's words haunted her. She shoved the cart against the wall next to the dairy case and stalked past the curious cashier, out into the autumn morning. The Home stood on a natural shelf above town, a mere three blocks up from the store, it's windows looking out on the grimy brick spread of Butler Park. Pink chintz curtains fluttered in Aunt Dorsey's window and when she made her way up the stairs, avoiding the creaky elevator, her great aunt answered before she could know.
"Saw ya comin'." Her snowy head bobbed in a nod of greeting, but her eyes were grave in the pale crepe of her face. "I wondered if you'd come see me."
"You heard." It wasn't a question. Great Aunt Dorsey knew everything, as soon as it happened.
"Yep." The old woman nodded again. "Figured someone'd tell you, now he's dead. Town like this, someone always spills the beans. He kept his word, you know, never did tell anyone. Not even you, I guess." Her face softened. "It was for the best, honey. One of those moments that everybody regrets afterward, but then it's too late. Your Dad knew. He never let it get in his way."
Miami stared at her, all her questions, all her protests drying into one unsayable lump in her throat. She shook her head, dumb.
"They were kids, him and your Mama. He was just here for the summer. I could wish you'd stayed away another year. I suspect he'd 've picked up and left finally. He was waitin' for you to come back."
"How could you not...tell me?" She managed to get the words out in a whisper.
Her Great Aunt's face was implacable. "It was one of those moments," she repeated. "No reason to spoil good memories." But a hint of sympathy lurked in her pale dry eyes. "I'm sorry, honey."
Miami spun on her heel and fled, ignoring her aunt's call, clattering down the stairs, thinking that it had been a mistake to come back here, that she should have kept going instead of coming home, found some other hole to crawl into. She didn't even realize that she'd left the building until a Sheriff's department car pulled up beside her. "You look like you need a ride," Mike said through the open window. "Miami, get in."
She did, still numb, sat back in the seat, staring through the windshield. "I thought you were out looking for clues." The words came out flat and toneless.
"What happened?" Mike turned onto the main street. "Miami?"
"Nothing." She turned to face him, her neck so stiff that she expected to hear a rusty screech, as if her vertebrae had turned to old iron. "I thought you were out looking for clues."
"The boss has got enough in the field." Mike's voice was flat. "I'm...on patrol." He looked at her sideways, concern in his eyes. "I...I've got...Jeff's things." He cleared his throat. "I'll give you a ride home."
She merely nodded, not wanting to talk, because if she did, she'd tell him. About Aunt Dorsey, and whys and why nots that she wasn't ready to face, now or maybe forever. Mike seemed willing to honor her silence as they traversed the winding road, past the place where Jeff had died, slumped over the wheel of his truck.
When they pulled up in front of the house, she got out and went to the run where King lay flat in front of the wooden doghouse, head on his forepaws, every line of his body drooping. She was aware of Mike behind her as she lifted the latch on the door. King's head had come up and his nose worked.
"Here," Mike was saying behind her. "I brought..."
King launched from the ground, his attack silent and so unexpected that Miami had no time to block him or even to yell a No! The gate slammed into her, knocking her sideways, stumbling, and then King was on top of Mike, front feet hitting his chest, all the dense power of a breed that had been created to work with cattle and make them move slamming him backward, wad of clothes spilling, his shout seeming to hang behind him in the golden afternoon light.
"King, no!" She fell hard on her hip, scrambled because King wasn't her dog and he wasn't going to listen to her no, and... Feet miraculously under her, she flung herself onto the dog. He was on Mike's chest, snarling, and a tiny rational part of her mind wailed because he had to have teeth in Mike and that would be his death... "King, no!" Arms wrapped around his thick muscular neck she pulled, knowing that she couldn't get him off Mike, despair clawing at her.
She tumbled onto her butt as he bounded backward, felt the hard packed earth slam up through her spine to jolt her teeth together. Growling, King gave her an apologetic look.
He had backed off.
"Goddamn crazy dogs." Mike scrambled to his feet, face white, lips greenish. "Damn dog. I don't know why people...." He bit the words off, his lips working. Took a deep breath. "Can't trust a Rott."
He wasn't bleeding. She stared at him, her brain numb. Realized slowly that he was expecting a response from her. From the crease in his eyes, expecting her to exonerate King. "I...don't have a clue, Mike." Her voice trembled just a bit. "There's a reason. I don't know...what it is."
"Me, neither." He gave King a wary look. "I guess you're fine. No one's gonna mess with you, are they?" He headed for the car, watching King from the corner of his eyes. "You guys and your macho dogs."
He was okay. "That's not it." But her conviction wafted away on the breeze, not touching him. He didn't acknowledge it, flung himself onto the seat of the cruiser and slammed the door. "I'll let you know what we find out." He was cranking the ignition as he spoke, gunned the car in reverse down the driveway.
"King, you butt," she said, but her words were weak and King's ears didn't even twitch. He was busy tearing Jeff's clothes to shreds, methodically, front feet planted on the legs of the jeans, ripping denim from felled seams as if it was gauze and not strong fabric."Mike, he wasn't attacking you," she said softly, but he was long gone and probably wouldn't believe her anyway. Who would? She watched King for a mo ment, then went over and reached for a piece of the tattered jeans. King eyed her, but was busy of cocktail napkins. "What's going on?"
King ignored her.
Jeff's clothes. She recognized the jeans, with their worn knees and patch at the left pocket where he kept his dog treats. There was a flannel shirt and underwear. King started in on the shirt, and the sharp tearing sound of flannel made her wince.
Grief, she thought, but the bristle of hackles across King's shoulders denied it. Something wanted to make sense here, but she couldn't bring it together. She limped down the driveway to close the main gait, went back to the house to let Katy out. Katy turned in a brief greeting circle in front of her, then trotted over to see what King was up to. He barely looked up from his destruction. She sniffed, and the hackles bristled over her shoulders as well.
Surprise stirred Miami's gut. Katy knew Jeff well.
Slowly she walked over to the two dogs. Trust your dog. You learn that, tracking. No matter where you think that track might lie, no matter that you know it's not there, when that nose jerks around like a fish on a hook, and the dog surges forward, go with 'em. Trust them. They have a sense that us primates can't even imagine. "Who wore those clothes?" she asked softly.
Both dogs raised their heads, blinked dark amber, unreadable eyes at her.
"It wasn't Jeff, was it?"
And why would someone put on Jeff's clothes? And these had come from the ...body.
From the body.
It wasn't possible. She had seen him, Jeff, dead, waxlike and alien, but Jeff...
Trust your dog.
She ran to the house, called Mike's cell phone. It was off. Off! Well, maybe he expected her to call, to rationalize, and he didn't want to listen. She waited through the 'leave your name' message. "It wasn't Jeff," she said breathlessly. "The body. It isn't Jeff. He's out there. I don't care that it's not possible...it's true. We're going to go look. Me and the dogs. Starting where the truck was." Because that was the only place she knew where to start.
She grabbed Katy's tracking harness, collared both dogs, and loaded them into her van. They went reluctantly. King gave her a steady and intent stare, panting. She slammed the doors on the crates, opened the gate, and drove on through. The full moon had risen, harvest moon, tracking moon. The dogs wouldn't need it, but she would, scent-blind primate.
She had seen Jeff's body.
Trust your dog.
She pulled off onto the shoulder, parking on the flattened weeds where Jeff's truck had stood. They'd towed it away. It was no longer a crime scene. Numb, hear pounding, she opened Katy's crate, let her out, got the tracking harness down from it's hook and braced herself for King's launch. Caught him, struggling with his mass and power, yelling 'wait, wait'. And he did, miraculously, because he knew the command and because she was Jeff's friend. She buckled the harness over his massive chest, letting out the straps to fit, feeling his quivering heat beneath her nervous fingers. Then she had the tracking line on him. He didn't track on a line. He air scented the lost, quartering, searching. But he wouldn't wait for her, wouldn't come back to her whistle, like he came to Jeff. Not if Jeff had been here. But he had started on a line and ground scent, and she prayed he'd remember the harness.
He leaped down, onto the graveled roadside. "Find it," she yelled. She might have saved her breath.
He circled at first, casting, nose down, shoulders hunched as he trotted and sorted out the scent picture. How many cops had been here, gawkers, tow truck drivers? What if he had pulled off the road here, as Mike had guessed? Where did she go from here? King ignored her as she trotted behind, trying to keep the line from snagging beneath the van's tires as he worked. No track. Her heart sank. Jeff hadn't gotten out here. Whatever had happened had happened somewhere else.
Then...he had it.
She saw that fish-hook jerk as if some invisible fisherman had set a hook in his nose -- on track! -- barely had time to ready the line as he took off at a fast trot, head down, nose brushing the ground. Katy ran behind him, her nose down, too. Tracking. Like a spear thrown into the dark, like a missile launched, King pierced the night. Forty feet of tracking line burned through her palm. She caught the knot at the end, hung unto it, stumbling forward, nearly jerked off her feet as King...went.
It was a nightmare of blindness. He dragged her forward through the dry weeds and clawing dewberry that fringed the road, giving her a moment, as the line snagged on a hawthorn, to tie the line around her waist. The hawthorn spikes clawed her face and she ducked her head as he dragged her down a narrow path, shielding her eyes, feeling the sting of scratches on her cheeks as they emerged into the rough meadow beyond. King dragged her across it, lunging into the harness now, nose down, foam flecks gleaming white on his shoulders. Katy trotted precisely behind him, her nose down, too, her posture intense.
Jeff had come this way.
The track led up the steep slope on the far side of the meadow, through clumps of mountain laurel and sassafras, branches whipping at her, the scent of crushed black birch and churned forest earth in her nostrils, the only sound the shuush and crackle of their bodies through the underbrush and the harsh metronome rasp of King's panting breath. Up, up. She stumbled, fell, clawed for purchase as King dragged her, managed to scramble to her feet, only to fall again. She bit back his name, didn't yell at him. On the other end of this mad, blind, crazy rush was.... Jeff.
She fell again, onto scabby rock now, a low rim of shale erupting from the soil. She scrambled, the dogs scrambled, upward, upward. She slipped near the top, but King dragged her, the line cutting into her ribs, until she got purchase, made it over the lip. She was staggering now, her ribcage raw from the line which had slipped beneath her shirt, arms up to shield her face, lurching on, staggering forward with King's every lunge against the line.
He was roaring now, a guttural howl that emerged with each breath. She heard it, numb, entirely focused on staying on her feet.
The line went slack.
She fell forward, sprawling face down into a patch of wintergreen, thought dreamily of wintermint Lifesavers. Then she heaved herself to her hands and knees, squinting into the shadows, to where King pawed and moaned. Katy danced around him, whining, dodging as he whirled at her.
The moon's pale light showed Jeff, sprawled face down in the leaves, his limbs splayed as if he had been crawling when he gave out. King shoved his broad muzzle beneath Jeff's face and heaved, the slap of his tongue audible in the midnight hush.
Jeff's left hand twitched, fingers curling slightly, pale in the wash of moonlight.
Alive! He was alive. Galvanized, Miami struggled to her feet, yelling at King, laughing, crying, aware of Katy, leaping and concerned beside her. "Get off!" Her yell startled both dogs back onto their haunches and miraculously...miraculously...King sat. "Wait," she panted, with all the force she could manage. "Just wait."
They waited, both of them, ebony statues in the moonlight, silver strings of drool trailing from King's jaws. "Jeff," she whispered, her face close to his. Breath? Please, God! He moaned, just a whisper of sound, but it was there. He was alive.
For now. The dark stain on his white tee shirt began to register on her vision. Black in the moonlight, no not black, just dark. Blood. He had been shot, stabbed, she couldn't tell. She was crying, sobbing, she hadn't realized it until suddenly, two dogs were licking her face and Katy was whining, turning tight circles in distress.
Go back, she thought. Drive back and call 911. Get an ambulance out here, stretcher. A part of her mind howled like the dogs...no. Don't leave him alone. Not again. She ignored it, even as she touched his face, felt the coolness of his flesh, realized that her skin was tight with goose bumps, that it was cold. Frost tonight. Indian summer was coming to an end.
"Jeff." Her lips brushed his ear, and its chill tightened her stomach. "I'm going to go get help. King's here."
It was a breath of sound, barely a word. But she waited, cradling his head against her shoulder, willing her body heat to warm him.
She could barely make out the syllables.
"He didn't believe me...that I didn't know. I...tried to help him...clothes...he wanted more money. I didn't know. I kept telling him...but...he had a gun." He struggled to lift his head. "My fault. You...didn't know either. My fault. Miami...I should have told you..." The words trailed off.
"It's not! I know." She held him close, eyes squeezed tight. "I know, Jeff. Okay? I know and its all right, it really is."
He didn't answer, and she felt his body go limp. Panic spiked through her and she pressed her fingers against his throat, praying for the jugular's pulse. It was there, faint and thready, but there. "Good boy," she whispered hoarsely to King, who leaned over her, pushing her with his hot black mass. "Stay with him." Those words were for her comfort. King didn't need them.
Scrambling to her knees, she fumbled the harness off King and put it on Katy, too loose now, and never mind, wadded up the tracking lead to make a leash. "Let's go," she said, voice hoarse. And if he died while she was gone? Alone?
No. She glanced back at King, who had lain down against Jeff's chest, his broad black head flat on the ground beside his master's face. Not alone. "Let's go," she rasped, and pulled at the line. "Let's go home," she said, forcing her voice to a cheerful pitch. "Home, Katy." Home meant back to the van. Katy gave her a doubtful glance, looked at King, then head down, started confidently forward. She would bring them back to the van, following their track back.
In time? Miami shut that question down, buried it deep inside her.
It was a lot longer...going back. Forever. And then there would be the drive to her house...the closest phone... Mike was right. She needed a cell phone.
Ahead, she glimpsed light, a flicker barely visible through the young and thick second growth. Light? Hope surged up into her throat, turned her shouts to squeaks. Katy roared a challenge, and she heard a shout from up ahead.
He appeared from the trees and Katy bounded up to him, jumping up to plant her feet on his chest, something she never ever did.
"He's alive," Miami sobbed out, struggling for words and breath. "Jeff's alive. Up there. King's with him."
Mike had his cell phone out, was speaking tersely, angrily, and she couldn't hear the words, couldn't hear anything over the roaring in her ears. Miraculously, seemingly moments later, men appeared, paramedics with a stretcher. She led them back, and caught King around the neck as he stood to confront them. It took all her strength to hold him as he roared challenge and she felt rather than saw the nervous looks of the paramedics as they worked over Jeff, starting an IV, sliding him onto the rescue stretcher, strapping him down. "Wait, it's okay, wait," she chanted to the snarling King, arms locked around him, knowing that the only reason she held him back was because he let her, blessing him, blessing Jeff and his training, soothing him as growls rumbled in his deep chest. She looked at Mike to see if he had his gun out, but he didn't. Not this time. The men picked up the webbed stretcher, started down the slope at a fast pace.
She waited after they left, afraid to let King go. Waited, counting slowly to a thousand again and again.
Finally, she let him go and with a single deep-throated bark, he vanished.
Katy whined, nudging her hand hard, worried, bending her lithe, muscular body around her legs, worrying as only a dog can worry. "It's okay." Maybe. Her voice sounded rusty, as if she hadn't spoken for years. "Let's go home."
She didn't need the line. Katy didn't get far ahead, kept looking back at her. The trek back to the van really took forever, this time. King was there, circling the trampled pull-out space restlessly, whining, his entire body drooping with defeat. She suspected he'd tracked the ambulance up the road, had returned, when all trace of Jeff had petered out.
"Oh, sweetheart," she breathed, the words catching in her throat. She loaded Katy into her crate. King didn't resist when she went to get him, went with her, docile, his head down, climbing like an old dog into the crate. Her knee hurt and when she touched her face, her fingers encountered a crusted tracery of dried blood.
Headlights flared as she slammed the van's rear doors. She blinked, blinded, waiting for the car to pass, but instead it pulled in behind the van, headlights dying.
Mike. He bolted out of the car, halted. "I wanted to make sure you were okay." He hesitated, shadowy on the verge of the headlight path. "I think Jeff's going to be okay. The paramedics thought so, but it's not for the record."
Dizzy, she licked her lips, coppery blood-tang on her tongue. "Oh, God, I hope..." She leaned against the van because she was not going to fall down. No way. "How come you were...here?"
Mike took three long strides and was beside her, arm around her. "There was this motel key. On the floor of his truck." He was holding her up. She wanted, with part of her mind, to shake him off and stand up straight on her own. She didn't.
"Why would Jeff have a motel key?" Mike went on, his face shadowed, looking down at her. "And you said he wouldn't leave King home. So I went over there. It was a Lebanon motel. I got a search warrant. Jeff had a brother, Miami. They were twins. I don't know if Jeff even knew about him. But he knew about Jeff. He sure left plenty behind. He had notebooks full of stuff. He'd been stalking Jeff. For years, looks like. He kept a damn diary, bless him. He contacted Jeff about three weeks ago. And knew about the Heinz kid who go lost, and how the family set up that trust fund for Jeff, for finding him. This guy...Allan Gregor he went by...wrote plenty about how he felt about that. I guess he didn't make out too well in life. He got money out of Jeff, some clothes, playing for pity, but he sure hated his brother."
He didn't believe me...that I didn't know. A twin. How surreal. "Jeff didn't know," she said.
My fault. I should have told you.
We hide so much, she thought wearily. For such trivial reasons. "I think he meant to fool us all with the clothes." Not King. Clothes wouldn't fool King. "He got Jeff to leave King home. Then he pulled a gun." Jeff felt so guilty. Partly because of her. Maybe that's why he hadn't told anyone. She closed her eyes.
"My guess is that this guy meant to switch places, collect the money Jeff was getting. Silly," he said. "It wasn't much. But I remember the papers made a big deal about it -- like it was millions. I guess 'cause the family is so rich. Jeff managed to hit him with something and it was a lucky hit." Mike touched her cheek lightly. "Let me take you home. It's going to be awhile before Jeff gets out of surgery. They'll call me on my cell. You look like hell, Miami."
Lucky hit, yes. He would have killed King, after Jeff. He would have had to. "Thank you," she said, and her face hurt when she smiled.
"You want me to drive?"
She was going to say no, swallowed the word. "Yes," she said. "I would like you to drive me home. Thanks."
"You're welcome," he said, and he didn't touch her as she limped around the van to climb into the passenger seat.
Everything was a blur, like swimming in deep muddy water. Every so often she would surface, catch a vivid image of herself closing the kennel gate on a drooping and anxious King, filling his water pan from the hose, giving Katy a drink in the house. Mike was always there, in the background. No gun. There was that at least. Then his cell phone rang, and the fog retreated, leaving her stranded and cold in the front room of the house. The wood stove had long ago gone out and she shivered.
"He's going to be okay." Mike looked at her, putting the phone away as he spoke. "He's out of surgery."
"Miami, you need to go to bed."
She shook her head, lacking words, which took up too much energy. Amazingly, he didn't argue. Instead he took her arm, which earned him an alert look from Katy but no protest, guided her outside. She put Katy into the run next to King, which earned her a dirty look from Katy, but she didn't want to leave King here all by himself. Then she climbed into the passenger seat.
The road unrolled ahead of them, a ribbon of black asphalt fenced by trees, and thoughts prowled her mind like winter bobcats, wary of the light, never really coming into focus. Mike just drove, he didn't say a word.
Then they were parking, sodium lights yellow overhead. They got out and Miami winced at the twinge of frost in the air. Definitely freezing tonight. She halted, everything surreal in the too-bright light of the tall lamps. "Mike?"
He looked at her, as reluctant as King.
"Thank you," she said.
There was a hurt there, a surliness that didn't make sense. She shook her head. Figure it out later. Walked toward the emergency room entrance.
Mike did the talking. She didn't really listen, just waited, and after a period of time that might have been minutes or hours, they were walking down a corridor that smelt of disinfectant and despair. Mike halted at the door to a room full of dim light. 'Want me to wait outside? he asked.
"No." The question surprised her. But she had no energy to think about it, went in.
Jeff lay flat on his back in a white bed with rails. Tubes snaked around him, into his arms, out from beneath the sheets.
He didn't look like the corpse in the morgue.
He was alive.
She sat down by the bedside, reached tentatively to take his hand. Plastic tubing from a flat plastic bag full of clear fluid snaked down from a metal stand to disappear beneath adhesive tape on his arm. His eyelids fluttered as she curled her fingers through his. His eyes opened and he looked at her.
"Aunt Dorsey told me," she whispered. And she picked up his hand, and pressed it to her cheek.
"Sorry." The word came out a whisper, faint as a dying breath. "I wanted...to tell you." Then his eyelids fluttered again and his fingers uncurled, lax in her hands.
Miami looked at him in fear, but Mike's hand was on her shoulder. "It's all right," he said. "Look at the monitors. He's just asleep."
The monitors were nothing but blinking lights that meant nothing to her. She looked up at Mike. "He's my father," she said, and laid his hand gently back on the bed.
Mike didn't say anything, although shadows walked swiftly across his face, then vanished.
"I'm going to stay here for awhile," she told him. The dogs would be fine until morning. "I can drive myself home. Thank you," she said, wanting to hug him, not wanting to touch him.
For a moment he stood still. Then he reached out, touched her face gently. When he withdrew his fingers, crystal tears spangled his fingers. "Let me know if you need anything," he said. He started to leave, then hesitated, turned back. "Will you?"
She met his eyes, drew a deep breath. "I will." She breathed out. "I really will."
He left, and she sat down next to the bed to wait until Jeff woke up.