After military and business careers, William Locke Hauser is engaged in a third career of writing fiction. Hauser’s recent publications include titles in Rosebud Magazine, Conceit Magazine, Copperfield Review, and Stand. Originally from North Carolina, Hauser and his wife reside in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a summer home in Reston, Virginia. They have two married sons.

The Dog Lover

There was this skinny old guy who sat every day on a bench in front of the Merrill Lynch office downtown. He wasn’t much to look at, scruffy dressed and unshaven, but I figured he must be a rich eccentric, hanging around that location. So I walked my dog Girlbaby by there one day—she’s a collie and real people-friendly—and when I slowed down, sure enough she veered off and put her head in his lap.

“Please excuse Girlbaby, sir,” I said. “She’s not very polite.”

“I don’t mind,” the man said. “I love dogs.”

“That’s nice. Do you have one?”

“I did, but someone took him from me.”

“You have to be careful about thieves,” I said. “Girlbaby has one of those chips between her shoulder blades, plus a tattoo on her tummy. Even so, she could get snatched for ransom, by someone looking for a fast buck.”

“It was death took him from me. Death. Did you hear me? I said death!

This was getting weird, so I wished the man a nice day and moved on.

I asked Sergeant Antonelli (my source for the latest scoop at the police station in Town Hall), and he said the guy was a vagrant.

“Then why let him monopolize a public bench, Mario?”

“It’s a free country, Ed, so long’s he doesn’t bother anyone. Besides, he only spends the mornings there. In the afternoons, he hangs out in the alley behind Kevin’s Diner. They have a separate container for edible waste, and he grubs stuff out of it. Sometimes he goes into St. Cornelius and bums money off Father Dalton. You know what a soft touch the padre is.”

With that I didn’t agree. I’d found the old priest absolutely shut-mouthed when it came to talking about his parishioners, or anyone else for that matter. Nice guy, but no good at all as a source for my column at the Cedar County Crier.

About then, something else came up, something bad. I had taken Girlbaby to the lakeside park to play catch with a Frisbee, and she found something in the grass to eat. People are always leaving chicken bones around, and I’ve had to reach way down in her throat to pull them out. This time it was something she swallowed completely before I could stop her. When we got home, she started acting peculiar, arching her back and whining and drooling. She seemed to be in real pain, so I picked all sixty pounds of her up in my arms, threw her in the back seat of my car, and rushed her to the vet out on the road to Big Sandy.

“You made it just in time,” Dr. Berkowitz told me. “I gave her an emetic and she vomited, and it tested for strychnine. Fortunately, most of the stuff was still imbedded in a chunk of raw meat she’d bolted down without chewing. She’s one sick puppy. We need to keep her a on flushing medications for a couple days, but she’s going to be okay.”

“Who would–”

“This is the fourth case we’ve had in town this month,” he said,” but the first with a solid poison. The others were ethylene glycol.”

“What’s that?”

“Antifreeze. It tastes sweet to dogs, and they lap it up, like if someone’s radiator has leaked onto the pavement.”

“So you figure those cases were accidents.”

“Hardly. The police have found the stuff same place as your incident in plastic dog bowls.” Berkowitz looked as angry as I was feeling.

When Angela came home from school I told her what had happened. Girlbaby is her dog, and sure enough she got pissed at me as if it were my fault.

“You’re not supposed to let a dog run free in the park, you know. You’re supposed to keep them on a six-foot leash. It’s the law.”

“You ever try to throw a Frisbee to a dog on a six-foot leash?”

“That isn’t the point,” she said, and then she broke down and cried. Now, Angela’s a really pretty girl—red hair and pale skin with little-bitty freckles over the top of her little snub nose, and a build that could get her a swimsuit entry in Sports Illustrated if she were willing to pose for a cameraman. I held her in my arms and let her sob it out.

“Girlbaby’s going to be all right,” I said. “She’ll be home this weekend.”

It made me feel good—it always makes me feel good—to hold my petite Angela in my arms. I’m not all that big, five-nine and a hundred forty pounds wringing wet, but she’s tiny, and I feel absolutely huge when I get a chance to be her protector.

Girlbaby came home three days later, a bit skinnier but just as lively and goofy–happy as ever. That was a relief, though Angela was still kind of cold. Everything wasn’t back to being hunky-dory in our little household yet so I decided to play detective.

The park is alongside the lake. It’s downhill from the business district and across the water from Cedar Ridge, where the posh folks live. It stretches along a quarter mile of the lakefront and it’s maybe a hundred yards wide, with gravel paths and greenswards on both ends and a ballpark in the middle. Next to the ballpark is a flagpole and at its base the town monument, a humongous boulder set with bronze plaques to locals who’ve died in wars, starting with the French and Indian—British names only, which has always seemed to me kind of unfair—and concluding with Vietnam. None from Iraq or Afghanistan yet, but I suppose the mess over there is still going on.

Two of the bowls of antifreeze had been found in flowerbeds near the monument, and I figured that whoever did that must’ve done it by night. I mean, you’d look pretty conspicuous setting out dog bowls without a dog. So I stocked up on Red Bull to stay awake, wrapped up in my LL Bean parka, and took up position on the ballpark bleachers with night-vision binoculars I’d ordered from Amazon.

Two nights of this had me near-zonked, but on the third it seemed to finally pay off. This big guy came shambling along, and sure enough bent down toward the ground. I must have been delirious with sleep-deprivation to tackle someone his size, but I did.

“Oof!” he said, and fell over. I fell with him.

“What you doin’ to me?” he asked. “I ain’t done nothin’. You want money, I don’t have any on me.”

It was Old Dan, the town bottle-and-can collector. He’s harmless, and sweet-tempered if ever a man could be. Some call him the “village idiot,” but that’s unfair, since he’s actually quite intelligent. Just because he’s hunchbacked and has one eye that looks up while the other is directed straight ahead doesn’t mean he hasn’t got good sense. He’s a voracious reader, for one thing, and can quote Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters to you at the drop of a hat.

“It’s me, Dan,” I said. “Your friend Ed.”

“Yeah, well how about not scarin’ the crap outa me, Ed?”

I told him about the poisonings, and he promised to keep a lookout on his pre-dawn rounds. I realized what time it was, as the air began to mist up from the lake, like it usually does at sunrise. Home to bed.

I couldn’t make it there again for a week, with so much to cover in local news. First was a lawsuit brought by Franny Blake against her twin sister Patti. They were two very old ladies who lived in a ramshackle house on a side street across from the train station. It seems that Patti (“Be sure to spell it with an i,” she insisted) had stolen Franny’s boyfriend back when they were teenagers, and he’d got killed in the Korean War and left his GI insurance to Patti, but Patti was neglecting his grave in the St. Cornelius churchyard, the care of which Franny asserted was a responsibility that went with the inheritance. And then there was the automobile body shop that burned down, and when the firemen came to wet down the ashes, they all got high from the fumes of a meth lab that was apparently the shop’s only source of revenue. People had long wondered how it stayed open with so little business. I could go on, but suffice to say it was a busy week.

The next time I was able to get to the park, I caught my man.

It was a moonless night, but there were a gazillion stars in the sky, so I could make out with the binoculars that the guy was lots smaller than Old Dan. He was silhouetted against Cedar Ridge, and when he moved, he momentarily blotted out the little flickering gaslights—the folks over there don’t allow any other kind—that illuminate their streets. I saw him bend down and put something in one of the flowerbeds bordering the path along the water’s edge.

I shined my halogen flashlight on him, and he froze.

“Don’t move,” I commanded. “You’re caught this time, you bastard.”

“Don’t hurt me,” the man said.

It was that vagrant from outside Merrill Lynch!

“Okay,” I said in the most official tone I could muster, “but you’re coming with me to the police station.”

He came meekly, but when we got there, our local force’s prime lunk-head, a patrolman name of Jonas Beaulieu, was on duty. He didn’t have a clue how to handle the situation.

“Far’s I can see, Ed, the guy ain’t done nothin’ wrong.”

At my fanatical insistence—I can get real scary when I’m worked up—we waited for Sergeant Antonelli to be woken up and make it down to the station.

I heard him coming in the revolving door at the other end of Town Hall, his footsteps echoing down the hall, and then his voice, pissed off but still groggy with sleep: “What the hell, Ed? Couldn’t it wait till morning?”

Long story short, he put the vagrant in a holding cell—where, instead of protesting, the man said he appreciated “a real bed for the night”—and drove me down to the park. We found the bowl of antifreeze in the middle of a bed of marigolds, and he wrapped it in a plastic evidence bag and carried it back to the station. Then we both went home for some shuteye.

The next morning, he let me listen from behind a one-way glass partition—police procedures being kind of loose in our little burg—while he interrogated.

“Have you been warned of your rights?”

“Yes.”

“Is this your signature on this form attesting to the same?”

“Yes.”

“What is your name?”

“Doald Mackenzie.”

“You mean Donald?”

“No, I meant Doald. My mother couldn’t spell too good.”

“Did you, on or about the night between April 7, 2014 and April 8, 2014, put a plastic bowl containing antifreeze . . .”

Come to find out, the guy didn’t hate dogs. He felt sorry for the feral ones, roaming around the streets and eating out of trash cans; most of them bone-skinny and mangy, with haunted, runny eyes., He said, he was administering a “merciful death” out of love for them. As for the chunk of meat, he’d found it by chance in that dumpster behind Kevin’s, and had taken the poison from a rat trap in the same alley.

I couldn’t help myself. I burst into the interrogation room and grabbed the scrawny old jerk by the throat. “Did you ever think how painful it is to die from strychnine poisoning, you rotten bastard?”

Antonelli pulled me off him. “He said he was sorry, Ed!”

“Not as sorry as he’s gonna be . . .” I lunged at the man again, but Antonelli stopped me with a slap across the face.

“That hurt, Mario!” I protested, my head spinning. Feeling stupid, I spun on my heel and left. I was still trembling when I got home, and Angela was asleep, but hugging Girlbaby helped me calm down.

Antonelli and the guy and I met a week later in Judge Towson’s chambers, judicial procedures being also kind of loose hereabouts. The culprit was a Vietnam veteran, it turned out, and had been a dog-handler in that war. He and Goliath, his specially trained Alsatian, had been “tunnel rats,” venturing into the Viet Cong’s underground network in the jungles around an American base called Cu Chi. They had shared the most incredible adventures, until Goliath tripped a booby trap that would otherwise have eviscerated Corporal Mackenzie. The dog died in his master’s arms. Then, despite having to crawl backward on his hands and knees through a hundred yards of filthy, spider-infested tunnel, Mackenzie pulled Goliath to the surface and later saw to his cremation with full military honors.

Unable to finish his combat tour, Mackenzie had been returned to the States and discharged as mentally unstable. He was then assigned to the psychiatric ward of the veterans’ hospital in Louisville, where he was eventually pronounced cured, though he was still afflicted with compulsive handwashing “to get this tunnel dirt off.” Classified as 10% disabled, he had thereafter subsisted on a pension of $342.67 per month.

Judge Towson leaned forward in his leather swivel chair, his belly pressed against the edge of his desk, his white comb-over stirring in the breeze from a ceiling fan. “Tell you what,” he said. “I don’t think you’re going to do this stuff anymore, are you, Corporal?”

“Nossir,” Mackenzie responded. “I never would have in the first place if I’d known they would die in any pain. I watched the first one, and he seemed just to fall asleep. That rat poison, though, I shoulda known better. “I’m real sorry, Mister . . .”

“Just Ed,” I sniffled. “You can call me Ed.”

“Judge,” Antonelli ventured, his face flushing red, “you’re still going to assign some penalty, aren’t you, your Honor? The man did after all break the law.”

“You’re right, Mario. Enough of the brotherly chitchat. What do you think would be a suitable punishment, Corporal Mackenzie?”

“I want to do some good,” Mackenzie said, tears running down his haggard features. “For dogs, if I can. I love dogs.”

“And good you shall do—for dogs.”

 

Mackenzie’s a happy man now, and Antonelli’s sense of justice has been satisfied. The grizzled veteran is paroled to the town animal shelter. It’s his sad duty—which he describes to anyone who’ll listen as “a privilege”—to hold in his arms and comfort any dog that’s being injection-euthanized, whether because of illness, or old age, or failure to find a home within the county-required time limit. I bring Girlbaby by there to visit him now and then, and the two have become good buddies.

Best of all, my girlfriend Angela has forgiven me, and if any guy in Cedar County has a sweeter love life, it hasn’t come to my notice.

–William Locke Hauser

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