The phrase ‘right under your nose’ is an interesting idiom when one considers that literally no one can know what is under their nose without help. Which makes the phrase all the more appropriate when I look back on everything that happened with the Committee. You will probably figure out the ending long before I did, but regardless of my lack of cleverness I was at least productive in my ignorance. The answer is of course important- but how you arrive to it will be the real test.
It had to be nearly a decade ago when I brought that stray dog home. And by ‘stray dog,’ I mean an unshaven chimney stack of a man who answered to the name of Felix, laying down in the back in the back of my Chevy Malibu.
For him to fit in the back seat, he had to have his knees rise above my head, thumping against the back of my chair every time I hit the breaks. The rest of him was curled up in somewhat of a ball, surrounded by a nest of an army surplus jacket that was likely the source of most of his funk. Before we left, I had insisted that he shower at least once- which he did. But to get all the dirt off from him would mean more than a quick rinse in a hotel bathroom. Wrapped up in that mess of loose threads and questionable stains, his head resembled a large white egg. The fact that his face had somewhat of an avian quality didn’t help the bird analogies.
I would have had him in the front seat if that weren’t already reserved for my jade-colored peacoat, which I wanted minimal exposure to the walking ball of dirt that was my newest peon. It was a nine hour drive that I would have preferred to have flown but a certain someone lost his ID and that meant no flights. So from Chicago to Pittsburgh, nine hours, with the loudest-snoring drug addict on this half of this country and now my car smelled like cheap, stale cigarettes.
My car still, ten years later, smells like cheap, stale cigarettes.
I owned, at that point, significantly less property than I own now, however I did have a few plots of land with what could be considered ‘shelter’ for the instances that I would need it. It was a matter of picking up what other people saw as garbage. Two miles of undeveloped land covered in trees that were old and stubborn enough to refuse to be cut down? Who would want that?
Crooks. That’s who. Crooks and recluses, of which there is enough overlap to justify any confusion between the two.
Needless to say, I am not a recluse.
In years to come, the house at the end of this long and winding dirt road would be impossible to locate via GPS: an asset that I later took pride in but at the time I was simply glad that the road itself wasn’t on any map- physical road atlas or via Google, it didn’t matter. Secrecy was of the utmost importance, and with someone like Felix, the further removed from civilization the better.
His hands were shaking by the time we reached it: a one-story house that seemed as though it was trying to eat itself. Originally, I suppose, it might have been a quaint little starter home. But at some point, and I would guess by the materials and attempted construction that it had to be the 80’s, an owner had taken it upon themselves to add onto the original frame. One might guess that they had some background in architecture and construction, but not enough to build an actual house. Nor did they know enough not to build a house so close to a tree, which seemed to be growing into the aluminum siding. From the bend in the road where the house first began to be visible, just about anyone could see the damage in the roof.
It was very clear just why no one had snatched up this amazing piece of real estate.
We pulled to a stop and he sniffed himself awake. “Get out,” I said abruptly. I’d found that in the case of Felix Medhi, kindness went nowhere. He only responded if you treated him like utter shit. I pulled my coat from the passenger seat and wrapped the scarf around my neck.”We’re here.”
He blinked in the orange light of dusk, filtered by a lattice of trees. He squinted. This was probably not what he was thinking of when I told him that I would provide him with housing. When someone says ‘we’re taking you to get help,’ it conjures the mental image of a large building with everything painted white and an assigned therapist. That, I couldn’t provide. And looking back on it now, I made the right choice: he wouldn’t have responded well to an environment like that if his later adventures were any indication.
The kid needed work. Both in the sense that he was rough around the edges and in the sense that he needed something to do with his hands. He needed work that used the skills he had far more than he needed someone to listen to his troubles. As it so happened, he had skills that I needed, and badly. So began our reluctant symbiotic relationship.
The screen door creaked in a manner that pierced through the road-weary fog in my brain and brought me back down to Earth. Felix had a more physical reaction: putting his fingers in his ears and squinting.
“This will be your home now,” I explained. I flipped the switch on an old space heater and watched the coils slowly come to life. It didn’t really offer much in terms of heat, but it did cut the chill that I had no doubt was coming tonight. The worst of the winter was over and now that we had moved south it would be less deadly, but out here and away from the heat of buildings and people I would bet that the danger wasn’t over yet. “This is the living room,” I said, indicating a shag carpet that matched the dirt outside, an old red armchair, and a lamp that sat on the floor. Everything needed cleaning.
“Kitchen,” I pointed to a kitchen that had a small collection of utensils in it. My heels went from shag carpet to peeling linoleum. I recalled a few cans of food in the cupboards, but little else. Didn’t want to attract wildlife, after all. I would come back tomorrow with something more substantial. The dark stained wood made the place look slightly more updated than it was, which was more or less a result of interior design trends being cyclical.
“Dining room,” I gestured to a little nook, not really much of a room so much as the other side of the kitchen. It contained a table and two chairs that matched each other but not the finish of the cabinets He was still looking in the fridge. Admittedly, I smirked a little when his hopes were thoroughly dashed at its emptiness. Continuing the tour without him: “Down the hall there’s a study, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a closet. One of the bedrooms has holes in the roof, so you might want to take the one on the left until I can get someone out here to-”
“Just get me some spackle and I’ll take care of it myself,” he said, speaking the first words to me in a good twenty-four hours. He stared at me from the open end of the dark hall as though upon entering, a cage door would fall and he would be trapped here forever. I suppose in a way it was a little bit true.
He did, however, crane his neck to look into the bedroom I’d indicated, scratching absently at the wooly beard he seemed to be growing. I thought I saw a smile at the sight of a bed. That’s right, man-child. When was the last time you slept in a real bed? Granted, the mattress was pretty flat and I imagined that if he were to sleep in it his feet would stick out the bottom, but it had to be better than the makeshift layers of cardboard that we’d found him on.
I squared my shoulders, trying to summon all the height that I didn’t have. “Now, let’s go over the rules,” I said, and Felix’s impressive eyebrows immediately lowered. “First, you are probation for two weeks, then you will be working for me. Once you are earning a paycheck we will see about moving you to a better location with more reliable wiring. You will be given a pager. That is your direct line to me. Do not use it for anything else.” I walked past him and out into the living room. “While you are on probation we will be checking in on you daily. We expect you to keep the space liveable, so clear whatever clutter you...” Recalling that all of his belongings fit neatly in his pants pockets reminded me to skip that part. “Right. Moving on.
“While on probation, we will not allow,” I continued. “Visitors. Cops. Drugs of any sort. Alcohol.” He narrowed the already narrow slits that were his bloodshot eyes. “Leaving the premises. Any illegal activity-”
“Waaaait, wait wait wait,” he creaked. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but ain’t you runnin’ some kinda mob family thing here? I might be a little slow but like... pretty sure that’s kinda high on the list of ‘illegal activity.’” He clicked his tongue judgmentally. Don’t talk to me like that- you eat out of a dumpster.
“And that, Medhi, is precisely why we want to keep our noses clean otherwise.” I smiled vinegar at him. “Any violation will result in an extended probation. You, me, and Randall are the only people with keys to this place and we can come and go as we please. We reserve the right to kick you out if we deem you to be too much trouble than you are worth. Do not give us a reason. Any questions?”
He raised his hand like a child in school, but spoke without me addressing him, which gave me the distinct impression that teachers were not fond of him. “Does this gig come with medical?”
“I personally make sure that everyone who works for me is in their best physical condition.”
“Okay, but what about dental?”
“Brush regularly. Dental is expensive.” Oddly enough, he seemed prepared for that answer. “Anything else?”
“What exactly are you hiring me for?”
I gave a small, coy smile. “I’m sure you’ll figure that out when the time is right.” I like to give the impression that I know the future. Its actually not a difficult thing to accomplish. The key is to be as vague as possible. Felix would fill in the blanks for himself.
I kept my phone in the left side of my bra, a habit I picked up in reaction to a lack of pockets in women’s clothing. This became easier and easier as technology became smaller, but at the time it meant buying a slightly bigger bra and padding. It was now vibrating, which meant that I had to leave. “Either me or Randall will be here tomorrow to make sure you’re settling in. Don’t leave the property. Its miles to anything out here. You will get lost.”
In actuality those trees were pretty easy to navigate if you kept to the road, but this was the closest thing to a threat that I had to keep him in one place until I had something that I could actually threaten him with. I left him standing, slightly bewildered, in his living room. Well, it was my living room. He just lived in it.
“There is a body in the morgue that I think might interest you,” Randall said on the other end of the phone. For fuck’s sake, I just got back. “I have access.”
“Randall,” I sighed. “I’ve only been in town for about an hour. Can this wait?”
“The longer I stay is more time for them to ask questions that I cannot answer. This should not take long, I just need you to see this in person.”
Back to work already. I should have stayed on vacation. “I’ll be there in a moment. Who are you there so I’m not going in blind?”
“You may address me as Doctor White. You are from Animal Control.” Animal Control? Oh dear. That can’t be good.
“I’m on my way,” I told him and got into the car. As I drove off, I caught a glimpse of Felix through the open door, still standing in the middle of the living room and looking pathetically lost.
I am not a fan of the morgue. Very few people are and it stands to reason that those are people I am also not fond of. The fact that I found myself frequently in morgues, hospitals, and funeral homes is a testament to my dedication to my job, and by extension my city.
“Doctor White,” I said when I greeted Randall at the morgue. I could always pick him out in a crowd, and I highly suspected it was because he trusted me. But in a long, white labcoat with a stethoscope and clipboard, he hardly made a dent in anyone else’s awareness. He was still the same dark, rotund, jolly man that worked for me but... to everyone else he was just another doctor. It was a rare event indeed that someone would look at a man like him and say ‘you don’t belong here. This was why he was on my team.
Among other things.
“You must be Ms. Krane from Animal Control,” he said, his Caribbean French patois curiously absent, as we shook hands in our ‘first meeting ritual.’ Pretending to meet someone for the first time each time you see them in public is a habit that you have to train yourself for, especially when that person has been with you in the darkest of your hours.
You get used to it. You can get used to almost anything. “You said you have something for me,” I said.
He motioned for me to follow him and he lead me down yet another white corridor and past a set of swinging doors.
Just about every morgue looks the same and it bothers me that I know that. To my right, as predicted, was a wall of steel drawers that were presumably full of bodies. To my left, bodies covered with white tarps on stainless steel tables with bright lamps. Tiled walls, tiled floor, tiled ceiling. Tile. If the bodies in the drawers could talk, I would bet that it would take little more than a whisper for them to hear each other across the room. Sometimes I thought the abundance of ceramic tile to be for that very acoustic purpose under the guise of it being easier to clean.
Maybe I’ll prove that one day, but I digress.
Randall lead me to one of the sheet-covered stiffs and turned on the lamp. I held up my hand.
“How bad is it,” I asked, needing to mentally prepare.
He looked at me, concerned, and I knew exactly why. I wasn’t squeamish. I didn’t care about blood or insides on the outsides or infections. The queasy feeling in my stomach was a new development, and precisely why I had been out of town for the past month.
“Nothing you have not seen before,” he said. “But it was not a good death.”
I exhaled. “Show me.” He put a hand on my shoulder before slowly peeling the sheet back.
The man was in his sixties at least, with his stare transfixed on the ceiling and his jaw slightly slack. His hair had already started turning from ginger to white and I presumed that the hollow look to his cheeks was not a post mortem aesthetic. In all, I would say that he resembled Vladmir Putin, although somewhat less sickly- even while dead.
His head was attached by little more than vertebrae: his throat had been torn out entirely from his clavicle to his jaw. The skin was peeled back and pinned to expose the wound as much as possible, and since it had been a few hours since his death, the blood was starting to oxidize and turn brown. Individual sinews were visible, barely clinging to the bone. The rest of his body was intact. I had seen so much worse. So... so much worse.
I could see why he had me posing as Animal Control: the tears in the skin looked like teeth marks and I would have guessed perhaps that a vampire had done it if it hadn’t been such a messy job.
“This was Father Henderson,” Randall said, his accent returning. “He was found in a dumpster near the church.”
“In a dumpster?” He nodded. “It looks like an animal did this.”
“That is why it is our concern. A human could not rip out a man’s throat like this. An animal would not leave the body in a dumpster.”
“What’s the ‘official’ story on this,” I asked, inspecting the tooth marks along the bone. No doubt about it: this had to be some kind of creature. Human teeth could barely gnaw through stale bread and this looked like there had been a struggle. Father Henderson was still alive when they’d torn the throat out- it was not done after the fact, so going for the throat would have been for the intention to kill, unless there was some specific significance.
The thought of the symbolism of neck wounds and what they held to me was what made this so hard. It felt like someone was sending me a message. No, it had to be a coincidence, that was all. I was seeing shadows where shadows were not.
I was forcing myself to look at this and come to these conclusions. I really wanted to look away from the cavern in his neck. It was like acting a part in the play.
“They suspect that a local with a grudge sent his dog after the priest. They’re saying it was a pitbull.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Where in town?”
“Sheraden.” Admittedly, it wasn’t the safest place to live, but I highly doubted that someone would be using dogs as weapons when a gun or knife would have sufficed. The police were obviously reaching for answers that adhered to their limited knowledge. Randall was right: this looked like it was calling to me. “Last night, around midnight.”
“Was it a full moon?” He nodded. I stepped back from the body, having looked it over enough to decide what my options were. “Well, the obvious answer is that it was a werewolf,” I said quietly, trying to muffle my voice from the horrendous echo. “This had to be an orphan. The Committee makes sure that no one gets out when they’re turning.” Randall put the sheet back in place, knowing that I was already done. Something didn’t smell right here. “I think we’re done here,” I finished. “They can keep their attack dog story so long as its contained. Meet me outside and we can go over the rest.” I turned and he trailed behind me, splitting up at the end of the hallway so that no one saw us leave together.
We met again outside the hospital, out of sight of the cameras. Randall had switched out of his uniform and into street clothes with expert timing. It was just another disguise for him, though. That’s what clothes were for Randall: disguise after disguise. Wooly grey hat covering his bald head, an oversized coat that looked like you could roast a turkey inside of it. He was still wearing the scrub bottoms, but to anyone looking at us it might appear that he was just wearing a particularly poor quality pair of slacks.
“Someone had a grudge,” I said when he arrived.
“You think so?”
“A fresh pup will attack anything that moves if it doesn’t have a pack. They’ll literally maul a person on their territory. If it was as simple as that we wouldn’t have a body. We’d have part of a skeleton and a blood stain. But this one went right for the throat. Either they were provoked or they were seeking the Father out and had a lot more control than your average Wolf.”
He chewed on this for a moment, which in his case actually meant literally rolling those words around in his mouth so he could process them. He always chose his words so carefully. “Are you so sure that they weren’t provoked?”
“He didn’t look like he put up much of a fight. You’d have seen scratches or other bite marks. I say they caught Henderson off-guard.”
He mentally made a list. “So we are looking for werewolves with a grudge against Catholicism in Sheraden. That certainly makes a narrow list.” He chuckled, shaking his entire girth. When I didn’t join him, he became concerned. “Boss, its alright if you want to sit this one out,” he said. “I can handle gathering information if you would rather rest.”
I shook my head. “I’ve had a month to recuperate,” I said. “If I don’t get started again I won’t ever get back up to speed.” I wanted him to stop looking at me that way. I didn’t need his pity or his compassion. Save it for someone else: I was fine.
“You don’t have to blame yourself,” he said, bringing his voice so low that it was little more than a rumble in my ear. “You were the victim just as much as they were. You don’t need to be taking any falls for nobody. If it hadn’t been you, it’d have been someone else.”
My lips tightened. This was something that I needed to hear, but I wasn’t ready for it yet. “Nothing can bring those girls back,” I said solemnly. Before there was anything else to be said, he put an arm around me and held me tight. Normally, a hug from Randall is enough to make anyone feel strong. At that moment it only reminded me that I was weak.
He let go when I didn’t hug him back, giving me a good-natured smile that still held more worry that I had ever seen on another human being. “Meet me at the Father’s church tomorrow at noon. We need some questions answered.”
Sheraden always left me with a kind of dusty feeling, which made no sense: the town wasn’t dry or dirty or anything. And since there was still snow on the ground it just didn’t stand to reason. But something about the south west side of the area always left me feeling like little bits of it were stuck in the folds of my clothes.
I parked just behind Randall, who emerged from his comically small Geo Metro in a genuine police uniform. The badge was not counterfeit. The counterfeit one was ‘damaged in the line of duty’ and he was awarded a new one by the Pittsburgh Police Department.
The gun, however, was not genuine. He and I share an equal distaste for firearms, though for different reasons. Personally, I felt that there were much more creative and subtle ways to threaten a person and defend oneself. Randall’s reason was still a mystery to me then and it would be years before I learned the true reason. I may have a vested interest in some of their personal lives, but I have no need to know all the secrets kept by my underlings. That is a policy that would cost me dearly in years to come.
“Officer Yancy,” I greeted him, trying to keep track of his cop alias. Between the two of us, we could probably re-inact a stage production of West Side Story with all the different characters we’ve had to play. This image entertained me.
“Ms. Krane,” he said, playing the part perfectly. He really could have been an actor. It was easy for me to forget that I had only seen him twelve hours ago and that this was not a completely different person than the Doctor White at the morgue. “Doctor White told me what you said at the morgue,” he said, no doubt giggling internally if I know Randall at all. He began flipping through a note pad. “The attack happened at this church on Monday morning.”
I looked up at that thing. St Francis was a gigantic eyesore. Towering high above the rowhouses was a series of three spires that could have easily been seven stories tall and served no purpose in my eyes other than to intimidate. It was not an old building, perhaps it was ten years old at the most if I were to judge by its exterior. Certainly newer than the buildings that surrounded it, which if you blew too hard in one direction would probably topple over and send the entire block down like a set of dominoes.
I squinted. At the time, I was still reconciling some of my anger towards The Church and I can’t say now that I am much better. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is that I am more quiet about it now.
“We will be talking to Father Waters, a colleague of Father Henderson’s.”
“Is he a witness,” I asked, forcing myself to pay attention.
“There were not any witnesses, except for the man who found the body and we’ve already gotten what we can out of him. But if the attack was, as you say, intentional, then Father Waters may have insight to a motive.”
I frowned. I would have to go into the church to talk to him, wouldn’t I? I hadn’t set foot into a Christian church since I left my husband, and for a long list of very good reasons that will probably be revealed in their due time. Even walking up the long, shallow steps to the crimson doors felt like a death march to me.
I managed to walk past the threshold without bursting into flames, which surprised me. Churches always appeared to me to be a little on the dark side of interior design and this one was no exception. Heavily lacquered pews and support beams, a predisposition for old things, symbolism that I personally had no particular grasp of. Of course, I was not the audience that the architect had been trying to cater to.
The both of us were greeted with a statue of White Jesus looking down on us with... well... I wasn’t sure, exactly. It was something between sympathy and shame, I’m certain. But considering that the statue had been painted with fair skin, I think that it was a good bet that the artist had only a narrow understanding of what Christ’s face should be expressing.
Standing next to Disgruntled Christ was a man in black, white collar. He was certainly younger-looking than Henderson, but not by much. Easily, he was in his 50’s- beginning to turn a little grey around the temples but still a full head of hair. He had a stocky build, giving the impression that he was plump, and I could not see his cheekbones. He did not look like Vladmir Putin.
“Father Waters,” I said, holding out my hand to greet him. He bypassed my hand and went straight for Randall’s. I tried to withhold my surprise.
“Officer Yancy,” he said solemnly. “We spoke on the phone. Have you caught the man who did this?”
“Sir, this is Ms. Krane from Animal Control. She is actually heading the investigation.” Good old Randall. Waters immediately looked uncomfortable.
“Of course,” he said pleasantly. “But not here.” He stole a glance at Frowning White Jesus as though talking about such things in His presence would incite His wrath and cause the building to crumble, and lead us to an office to the side of the entrance.
If I were not so heavily opposed to the religious aesthetic, this is the sort of room I might one day aspire to have. Everything was heavily lacquered to follow the trend in the foyer, showing the fine and iridescent grains of old oak. I personally would have gone with a cherry stain, though I suppose walnut had its own audience. The room was lined with books, neatly stored in glass-covered cases to keep them from getting too dusty. Behind the antique oak desk was a stained-glass window that stretched high over his head, though much to my relief the image was abstract enough for my tastes. With the... I believe I counted a total of seven crucifixes in that cozy room, I think that having any more Catholic imagery would make me itch.
“Sir, where were you on Friday night at the time of the murder,” I asked, wanting to get this out of the way as quickly as possible. Father Waters seemed shocked by the question and Randall immediately whipped out a notebook.
“You aren’t implying that I had something to do with this,” he scoffed.
“Well, for such a standard question, you are taking it rather personally.” I smiled sweetly. “The autopsy suggests that this was the work of an attack dog. I don’t want to rule anything out. I understand that, as his colleague, that this means the congregation is now in your hands. I just need to know where you were on the night of the accident.”
“It was late. I was at home.”
“And home is...”
“About a block south of here.” Randall’s pen began scribbling fevered notes as he spoke.
“Can you think of any reason why Father Henderson would have been here at that time? It was awful late to be at church.”
“He often made a point of being openly available. Confessions seemed to regularly come at the wee hours of the morning here. I may have to put in some regulations about that.” I’m sure the ‘no sinning after 10pm’ rule would go over very well. “It could have been anyone in our congregation, or it could have been done afterwards. Who knows, really?”
“In which case, can you think of any reason Father Henderson might have enemies?”
Waters let out a very long sigh. “Those that liked him loved him,” he said. “And he was well-loved. He was a man of opinions, a man of action, and a man of God. Any time someone is as passionate as he is... was.... its not unlikely that he will fall out of favor with some while others honor him.” He was being vague, which either meant that he was hiding something or he was talking out of his ass. His eyes were on the space between Randall’s pen and Randall’s notebook, as though the ink could decipher his lies. “There are some people in this part of town that fit the bill. Henderson was a great man, but he was not without fault. There were certain people in the community that he felt he had to turn away.”
Well, my interest was piqued. “Certain people?”
“At least three poor, black families in the area that I can think of came here and were turned away at the door.” I felt myself getting angry. I looked to Randall for his reaction and there was none. “One of them, I know for certain, lives just on the other side of Chetopa. Perhaps two blocks from my house. I hear their dogs barking at all hours of the night.”
That, Randall did write down. “Dogs, you said?”
“I believe they are pit bulls, as the reports have said. This town has had a history of people breeding them to fight. It is likely the reason they were turned away. If that trend is starting up again, Henderson wanted nothing to do with it.” He tilted his head in a way that gave me the impression that Henderson wasn’t the only one who suspected this family. He scribbled out an address and handed it, while still staring at me, to Randall.
I heard the sound of Randall’s notebook flipping closed, a good indication that he’d already figured out where he was going to go next. “Thank you, Father Waters,” I said sweetly. “We’ll be in touch.” He held out a hand for Randall to shake in departure, which Randall ignored. I smiled.
Once we passed through the threshold of the church and out onto the concrete steps, I felt as though I had let out a breath that I had been holding since I entered. I shook it off and now I suppose I found the somewhat dusty feeling of Sheraden oddly comforting.
“Alright,” I said once we were safely away from curious ears. “I suppose our next step is to go talk to the-”
“Jo, why don’t I take this one,” he said, and I knew from his tone that it wasn’t a mere suggestion. I was a little hurt. Lately, he’d been trying to take care of me to the point where it bordered on control. He put his hands up at the demanding face I made, still holding the pen and notebook. “It is not that I do not trust you, because I do. But a white woman shows up on their doorstep askin’ questions, they’re gonna be suspicious and you’re not gonna get the whole story. They’ll open up to me,” he said.
I knew that he was right and that I should just accept it, but sincere though he was I couldn’t help but let it make me feel like a weakling. I should be able to do anything he can. The truth of the matter, however, is that I can’t. Now I understand that it was no failing of my own, but at the time I was taking nearly everything personally.
“Alright,” I said. “You win. I’ll look in on the new kid. I promised to come back with groceries today.”
He smiled at my mention of him. Randall had been a deciding factor in whether or not Felix came with me. I had tried myself to get him to quit the drugs and follow me to Pittsburgh, but he wouldn’t budge. At the time, he was holed up in an abandoned building; constantly strung out, eating out of a dumpster, stealing wallets so he could buy cigarettes. I offered him money, food, heat, a legitimate house... nothing. He wouldn’t budge.
Winter came, and I had nearly given up. But pity struck me hard and Randall volunteered to see him one more time before we deemed him a lost cause. Perhaps he was tired of us pestering him or maybe he was desperate to get out of the cold, but he took to Randall immediately. Since then, Randall has beamed with pride at the thought of Felix. You could see it in his eyes: he might be the only person in the world who thought the kid was destined for great things.
There were many reasons why I needed Randall and this one was so very important: anyone could warm up to him. Randall could befriend a block of ice while his mere company melted it.
The curve of the road took me down the long, dirt drive that lead to the house which Felix now resided in. I hesitate to call it ‘Felix’s house’ on the basic principle that it wasn’t ever really his so much as he occupied the space. The house remained mine, regardless.
I got halfway down the road before I realized that something wasn’t right.
It really was little more than a feeling at first, but a dark shape in the top of the bare trees, maybe twenty feet up, caught my attention and I pulled my car to the side of the road. I couldn’t tell if I was amused or furious, but the best reaction to display was in fact the latter.
“MEDHI,” I called up to the man cradled in the branches of the tree. He snorted himself awake. “Felix Medhi, what on Gods’ green earth are you doing?”
I’m a little surprised that he didn’t fall out of the tree when I yelled. “Uh... hangin’ out,” he said. I bet he was pleased with himself for that one. “Are they still around?”
“Are who still around?”
“Your dogs. You didn’t tell me that you’d sic the dogs on me if I tried to leave.”
My weight shifted and it was my hope that his vision was not very good because my puzzlement must have been clear as day on my face. I don’t own any dogs. Of course, I wasn’t going to deny that I had dogs. Not if they had prevented him from doing precisely what I had told him not to do. “Told you not to leave the property.”
Silence on the other end. He looked out at the tops of the trees in his range of vision as though he might consider leaving via them. The mental vision of Felix trying to swing through the trees like Tarzan was amusing to say the very least. “Something came up.”
“You were going to look for dealer, weren’t you?”
“No,” he protested, but before I could voice my disbelief he corrected himself. “Okay, okay... yeah. But I was just gonna go see if I could find some weed or something. None of the hard shit. I mean can you blame me? This is some stressful shit I’m going through here.”
I tapped my foot against the gravel, and I would not have been surprised if he could hear it all the way up there with the elephantine ears that he had. “How, exactly, were you intending on paying for your weed? You don’t have any money.”
It took him a surprisingly long time to answer, trying to figure out if honesty was, point of fact, the best policy. “Y’know... I am not above payin’ a dude in blowjobs for a dimebag.” I stifled a laugh. Normally, actions like this would end in punishment, but since he amused me I would let it slide. “So did you call ‘em off or what?”
“They are all at my house now,” I said, but I wasn’t sated. “Out of curiosity, which ones chased you? I will have to reward them.”
He sighed. “I dunno... it was dark. Huskies, maybe.” He stretched from his curled position and even down here I could hear his bones crack. He went from maybe taking up four feet of space to unfolding himself to his full height in a slow minute, feeling for the branches with his feet. The fact that he made it so high in that tree in the first place was impressive, and one of the reasons that I had considered him for our crew: he could fit into any space, hide in any shadow. If there was a way to get into anything- a building, a locked room, a hiding place- he was going to find a way if you gave him enough incentive.
My mind immediately jumped from huskies to werewolves as he slowly descended. It was a long way to the church, but that didn’t mean that they didn’t travel. Or that there wasn’t more than one. If we were having problems with multiple orphans in town, that meant that there was someone out turning them. That spelled bad news for the Committee.
My fears were dissolved, however, when I remembered that last night had not been a full moon. My tendency to always be thinking about work had saved me in the past, but that didn’t mean it was a healthy instinct to have. Maybe they were just someone’s dogs... or strays.
I opened the trunk of the car and handed him a couple of bags. “What, no ride up to the house?”
“Consider this an extension of your punishment.” He didn’t complain. Good; he was at least learning that my word is law. Mutable law, but law none the less.
It was a silent one-mile walk to the house and the silence continued as we unloaded the groceries into the kitchen. That was, of course, until he did something that warranted commentary.
“You do realize that you’re supposed to eat those warm, don’t you,” I asked him as he immediately began digging into a can of cold Spaghetti-o’s.
“Ain’t the kind that’s got meat in it, though, so its safe,” he said, thankfully after swallowing.
With the groceries put away, I handed him another bag which held a can of barbasol and a safety razor. He looked at them like they were technology from another land as I pushed him towards the tiny bathroom.
“You’re going to shave,” I told him, as though he needed to be told what these things meant. Which it appears that he did because he made a terrible face. “You’re not showing up at one of my functions looking like The Mountain Man.”
He stared at the razor, then at me, and then the door, the sink, the can of shaving cream. I sighed. “I’ll leave you to it,” I said. I never thought a kid who had spent this much time shitting in a bucket would want privacy to shave his face.
But curiosity was eating at me. “I’m going to go check on the dogs,” I said through the bathroom door. “Don’t go anywhere.”
It could have just been stray dogs, but I wanted to be sure. These woods weren’t so big: maybe two miles in either direction? But the question was where to start. I stood amongst the melting trees and closed my eyes, taking a deep breath of the cold air of spring. Something would guide me. I could hear the rustling of wet leaves as some animal popped out of its burrow. The first robin sang a song in a tree high above me, fluttered its wings. I was aware of the smell of woodsmoke and the distant rumbling of a truck going by.
And not far off, to the north, the barking of dogs. My feet turned to the north and I followed.
Dangerous? Of course it was. I had no way of knowing what I was walking into. But at the very worst, what would it be? A couple of stray dogs would more likely run away from me than attack. Someone had to live out here, which was the majority of my worry. You never knew what kinds of criminals holed themselves up in the woods. After all, I was keeping Felix hostage.
I wished I’d worn more sensible shoes. It isn’t like I was wearing a pair of pumps, but the flats I had on weren’t exactly intended to deal with the amount of mud that I was tromping through. I could feel it seeping through to my socks.
It was maybe a fifteen minute walk before I saw anything other than trees, but the sound of barking dogs did beg for me to come closer. Through a break in two oaks I saw an old, but well cared for, Volkswagen bus, and that was my first clue that I was onto something. A fence, the flash of grey and white fur. They’d stopped barking.
This house was in much better shape than the shack that I had set Felix up in. Easily as old, but it was clear that whomever owned it had invested more time in making sure that the thing stayed upright. In all honesty, I felt a little guilty about it. I probably could have given the shack a little bit more attention to make sure it was up to code.
Oh well. I’d do something about it later.
It was a two-story house, the wood paneled in a dark oak color. A porch with a roof out front, adorned with a few chairs and potted flowers. But the most striking feature of the old house was easily the stained glass windows. In the current daylight they seemed a rather dull olive green, but they were certainly a prized feature of the house.
They depicted five circles: one at the top and two rows of two. At the top was a simple star, and in the ones below were each a simple symbol of the four elements: a feather, a flame, a drop of water, a tree. I made a face and considered the elements as they are often associated with angels. Today’s theme appeared to be religion and dogs.
I put one foot on their doorstep, heard one of the dogs let out a warning bark and I immediately considered going back to the shack. But as I reached the top of the porch steps, the front door swung slowly open.
“Can I help you,” said an old woman, plump and easily in her sixties. Her hair was covered, with a tan cloth and her clothes were very plain dress in a kind of dusty blue. But despite her plainness and her age, there was a warm feeling about her. A kind of happiness that simply glowed.
“Hi,” I said, doing the best impression of a suburban soccer mom as I could given the circumstances. “I’m helping my brother... “ Hm... no. Even if I could easily persuade them that Felix was related to me, there was no way that I wanted to put myself in the same genetic pool as him. No, not even for a little lie. “...In-law move in across the way and it seems that your dogs might have gotten out last night.”
“Oh,” she said, and she looked mildly flustered. “I had no idea that we had neighbors! You must stop by for lunch sometime, Mrs.-”
“Miss. Jordana Kirkpatrick, and I don’t live next door its-”
“Well, Miss Kirkpatrick, I’m Sister Sarah.” Before I could react, two other faces appeared in the doorway: one was round and dark and the other couldn’t have been older than thirty. “This is Sister Abigail and Sister Leah. Sisters, this is Miss Kirkpatrick: our neighbor through the woods.” I was greeted with a chorus of ‘how do you do’s.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said through a smile. Nuns. I was harboring a vagrant junkie next to a gaggle of nuns. I have a pretty high tolerance for people, but religious encounters twice in one day was a little too much for me. “Well, I just left my brother in-law with a big couch to move, so I should be getting back before he tries to move it on his own.”
“Do tell your sister that you should both come in sometime for lunch,” Sister Sarah said. And before I could realize what I was saying-
“I don’t have a sister,” I said. “Brother,” I corrected. “My brother got married… that’s what I meant.” Expecting some kind of righteous shock about their fake gay neighbors, I took a step back. But Sister Sarah simply nodded sweetly.
“Well, you tell them both that they’re welcome for lunch anytime.”
They all smiled pleasantly and let me go, telling me that they would fix the hole in the fence. I tromped back to the shack to find Felix splayed out on his bare mattress, hands and feet flopping over the edges of it. I couldn’t see his face to tell if he had actually shaved or not, but the bathroom smelled like shaving cream, so I simply trusted that he did. Much to my surprise, he’d had the decency to clean out the drain.
I left him, thinking my day was over. But as I was pulling away from the house and I was back in cell phone range, I felt the gentle vibration of a voicemail in my bra and I knew my day was not over.
I ignored it. Whatever Randall had come across could wait until I was at home.
It was when I saw him on my doorstep that I knew that I should have picked up the phone. Damnit. He had a key to the house. He wouldn’t be waiting on the doorstep unless there was an emergency. As I pulled into the driveway, he approached and began speaking before I even came to a full stop.
“Did you get my message?” Randall had a worried look on his face, but that was nothing new. Worry had seeped into his skin years before I met him.
“I was out of range until just now.”
“Jo, I tried to tell them that you’d talk to them individually, but they wouldn’t go no matter what I said. And I couldn’t just have them all out on the lawn without drawing attention to us-”
“Randall,” I said tersely. “Who is in my livingroom?”
There was a pause as he considered the best way to present this to me. “The Committee.”
“Th-The Committee? The Committee of Werewolves? Unattended in my livingroom, right now?” I don’t think I had ever unbuckled my seatbelt that fast in my entire life.
“I have Jack in there keeping an eye on them and making sure they don’t go snooping around,” he said, dodging the swing of the car door. “And a handful of them couldn’t make it because of a PTA meeting.”
“There are fifteen werewolves in my living room two nights after a full moon and they want me to do what exactly?”
He had no answer. I put my hand on the doorknob and hesitated before turning it, but soon decided on the futility of the situation and opened the door to the near-rancid odor of wet dog. All eyes turned to me and I was immediately confronted with all fifteen of them speaking at once. Four of them had the nerve to move to the front and walk up the steps of the sunken living room to yell at me personally.
Unfortunately, that didn’t mean that I could understand a word of it. I held up a hand, a motion for them to stop. “One. At. A Time,” I yelled above the shouting. “Or I will not help you at all.”
Of course, the four at the front, particularly a plump woman with sparse, curly hair and an unflattering dark floral dress, presumed that this meant them. Which meant that the rest of them began murmuring again and we were back to the noise level being too high for my tastes in a matter of minutes.
I held up my hand again and they stopped talking, except for the woman in the floral who kept going. “-and what do we get out of this? Nothing from you!” Having no context whatsoever regarding what they were supposed to get out of what, I physically put my fingers to her lips to make them stop moving. She was not pleased. Good for her.
“All of you, step down,” I ordered. They stepped down. There was murder behind my eyes and I think that they could all see it. Good thing to know that they at least had common sense, if lacking in listening skills. “Which one of you is the leader,” I asked, scanning the crowd for someone who might look official.
“Ain’t got no leaders,” said a man whose layers of shabby clothes and dirt could rival Felix’s.
“We’re a democracy,” said a very pregnant brunette.
I took a deep breath, anticipating the answer already. “Appoint three representatives to talk to me, and the rest of you leave.”
“No,” they all responded predictably.
“Anything you’ve got to say to them, you can say to the rest of us.”
Unfortunately, my powers of persuasion were not going to work on a room full of angry dogs, and even so had been lacking somewhat since I went on my vacation. I wanted them out as quickly as possible before the smell soaked itself into the woodwork.
“Okay,” I said, trying not to lose my even tone. “Then I want you to talk amongst yourselves and appoint one person, ONE, to speak to me right now in front of the rest of you. Is that acceptable?”
They all looked to each other and murmured amongst themselves, which indicated to me that this was the least unfavorable option. This was not a Town Hall Meeting and I was not going to listen to every individual. It was taking this much work just to get out of them what they wanted, though given the events of the past two days I had my inklings.
I took this moment, while they were deciding on who would best represent them, to take a breath and calm down. Jack was in the back, standing like a squat, fat shadow and keeping an eye on anyone who looked like they were moving out of place. I was unable to see him while they were all standing, but now that they were huddling together it was a great comfort to know that he was there.
Randall was standing behind me like a statue. It was clear to me why people might get the impression that he was my bodyguard rather than a dear and trusted friend. At least until he smiled, then it was nearly impossible to see him as a threat.
Their huddle came to an end and a tall, young Asian man with red-rimmed glasses and a tweed suit emerged from them. He looked like he might be in his mid-twenties, judging by the remnants of an acne problem, and I wondered why they would pick someone so young to represent them. Perhaps it was the suit.
“My name is Austin Ngyuen,” he said, with his hand outstretched.
We shook. “Mister Ngyuen, why are you in my living room?”
“I assume that you’re aware of the latest ‘dog-related’ attack, which happened early Monday morning.” I nodded. “Given that the attack happened on the full moon, we want to make sure that any accusations about our community are not made public, even speculative. All known members of our community were counted the night of the incident and there were no escapees recorded. However, we know that other communities will find any reason to fuel animosity against us. Miss Krauss, you are very reputable in this area as someone without bias. We have come to ask that you speak on our behalf.”
Ah, now it made sense. This kid was probably part of a law firm. Now, I was already intending to speak on their behalf unless I had reason not to. The Committee was a highly-organized group and they moved like clockwork when they had a common goal.
But this presented a good opportunity: if I was going to be persuaded to do something that was already on my ‘to do’ list, then I might as well negotiate as though it weren’t and get something out of it.
“Well, at this time, the evidence points to werewolves,” I said. “There is very little dispute in that. I don’t know how long the police are going to believe the ‘stray dog’ story.”
“That is not what is at dispute. The fact is that they were not one of ours.”
“Apart from trusting that you are telling the truth about no one getting out, do you have any evidence of that?”
Nguyen was silent. “Other than testimony, no. We have no physical evidence.”
“And who do you think is most likely to use this information against you?”
“Demons have started organizing a little more effectively and I think that they might see this as a chink in our armor to either wage war or convince us to join their side.”
I weighed that. I’d had my suspicions, but most of them had been dead ends at my own fault. The past few months I had been too… distracted to do much of any real work and most of the crimes were too small to really take priority.
“I will help you,” I said; a collective sigh of relief from the peanut gallery. I addressed them as a unit. “However, this is not a free service. I am not a charity. If I help you, you each owe me. There will come a day when I will need a favor from one of you and you will not hesitate. If I find that a single one of you has had a hand in this murder, the deal is off and I will turn you in.” I turned back to Nguyen, hand outstretched. “Do we have deal, Mister Nguyen?”
He turned to his people, looking for an answer. They looked at him to see what he would do. Come on, boy: be a man and take the initiative. He and I clasped hands and shook on it. “We have a deal, Ms. Krauss.”
“Good. Before everyone leaves, I ask that you give your name and contact information to Mr. DeLione.” I indicated Randall by my side, who already had a pen and notepad ready. “But I do ask that you do so quickly. I don’t want the neighbors to think that there’s a party that I didn’t invite them to.”
Their complaints were but a low mumbling now that the drama of the evening passed. I like to think that I put on a good show. Convincing, in any event. As soon as the room was empty, Randall approached me, apologetic as always.
“I really am sorry, Jo. I tried to reach you, but-”
“Save it, Randall, no one is at fault here,” I said as I searched for the Febreeze. “It turned out in our favor anyhow.” Thankfully, the smell was the only thing that they had left behind them and there was no evidence of anything being taken. Still, the house needed cleaning anyway.
“Yes, about that,” he continued, looking through the stack of business cards that he’d been given. “Are you certain that it was necessary to ask that they each be in your debt?”
“We are down by three people. The new kid isn’t even close to ready for the real shit yet and it can’t be just you, me, and Jack; no offense.” I made quick work of disinfecting every surface I thought they might have touched. I’m sure that they were clean people most of the time, but you never know what they might have rolled in while the moon was full. “If I can rope one or two people into helping me, then its to our benefit.”
“I just don’t know how much help they’re going to be. Twenty-nine days out of the month they’re just normal folks. I think the scariest thing we’ve got in here is the Committee rep for Call Center Employees.”
“You never know when you’ll need someone to do tech support for you,” I said, peeking over his shoulder. Figuratively speaking, of course, since his shoulder was far over my head. It was more like peeking over his forearm. Among the list of numbers and names was a deliberate scrawl of ‘FUCK YOU.’ “Who wrote that one?”
“According to Nguyen, Craig represents the homeless werewolf population. He said that we would have to ask around if we needed to find him: he has his haunts.”
“Well, at least they’re being counted.” That was probably the surly man covered in grime. I considered adding an extra layer of disinfectant to the place that he’d been standing in.
“How is Mr. Medhi,” he asked, while we appeared to be on the subject of people with poor habits.
“Well, I found him in a tree when I got there today,” I said, figuring that I might as well lead with the most interesting part. “He tried to get off the property when some dogs belonging to the neighbors through the woods chased him. I have to give it to him: he has survival skills for a junkie.”
Randall sighed. “Don’t be too hard on him, Jo. He’s still young and he has plenty of time to make mistakes to learn from. He might be a challenge, though.” He chuckled, presumably at the idea of Felix in a tree.
I didn’t know if I wanted a challenge. I knew what I needed, and that was more people willing to follow orders. Life-lessons about judging a book by its cover were useless if we weren’t even on the same page.
“What did you find out while I was tending to our pet vagrant,” I asked, changing the subject.
“Father Henderson had a bit of a mean streak, according to the family I talked to. Wouldn’t let certain folks past the doors of the church even if they seemed like they needed him.”
“What kind of ‘certain folks?’”
He sighed. “More than I can say would be good for a man of the cloth. He wasn’t much a fan of a good number of people in the area. The family that Waters pointed me to said that he wasn’t above refusing entry to persons based on race. Particularly nasty to some of the poorer people in the area.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t priests supposed to help the poor? And not letting people in because of their race just seems like a terrible idea.” I poured myself a drink: White Russian. Normally, my drink of choice would involve tequila, but something with a milk base just seemed more appealing to me today. “From a marketing perspective, in any case. Did the family even have a dog, or was Waters just blowing smoke out of his ears?”
Randall was silent on the other side of the rim of my glass. So silent that I had every right to guess why.
I am very good at guessing.
“They were werewolves, weren’t they?” He sighed and nodded. “So I take it that’s what tipped them off that we were involved in the case.”
“I was well-disguised, but some folks in Sheraden know by now that if Officer Yancy shows up at their door then there’s something a little weird going on.”
I sighed into my ice. “Just how many werewolves are in the Pittsburgh area, anyhow?”
“Registered? It floats around two-hundred. You’ve made allies with a lot of people with that deal.”
“At the cost of my neutrality, if one of them lets it slip.”
“Well, we’ll just have to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’m sure they realize that it was just a deal and you’re not here to make friends.”
I was just full of unwanted topics tonight. Filling a hole left by fallen comrades was a lot harder than I expected. Maybe I was too hung up on it, or maybe it was getting more difficult. Who could really say? “Is there any reason to believe that the family of wolves you talked to might have had something to do with the murder?”
“Well, at this point, everyone is still a suspect. They were pretty bitter about how Henderson treated people and weren’t exactly sad that he was gone. But they did seem a little surprised at the news of his death, so I think that we can rule them out, specifically.”
My lips became a thin, flat line. I breathed in the scent of vodka and cream. “So day two and we’ve got nothing.”
“Look on the bright side, Jo,” he said, smiling. “We will have this all figured out by the next full moon.”
It was a small comfort, to know that I at least had some time to figure out the details.