Free Fiction Monday: The Disappearance of Wicked

The entire neighborhood hates Wicked the dog. Wicked, the aptly named baggage that arrived with Ike’s daughter and granddaughter after they escaped his bastard son-in-law.

Wicked barks all the time—until the day he gets kidnapped, and the entire neighborhood spirals out of control.

“The Disappearance of Wicked,” by New York Times author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here

The Disappearance of Wicked

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

First, let me preface my story by telling you that none of us liked Wicked. He was an obnoxious little yappy dog, with long curly white hair that needed trimming and a propensity for peeing on anything vaguely food-like, from a bag of groceries in the open trunk of a car to the kibble set out for the neighborhood cats. He barked most of the time he was awake. When he wasn’t barking, he was yipping, a sad little high-pitched sound that was twice as annoying as any bark could be.

Even Isabel, the dog he lived with, an elderly female mix about the size of a Lab, hated him. Isabel, who had faithfully guarded our neighborhood hilltop for the past thirteen years, would slink away whenever Wicked was outside, as if to say, Don’t look at me. I have nothing to do with that smelly, undisciplined little thing.

None of us had much to do with Wicked, not even his so-called owner, Ike Maize. Ike had inherited the dog from his daughter, Roxy, who was going through a messy divorce. Ike and his wife Stella promised to care for Wicked while Roxy went back to California to move her things to Oregon.

I had assumed Roxy would get an apartment when she got to Oregon. Instead, she showed up with the furniture and a six-month-old no one had told me about. The divorce wiped her out financially, so she moved in with her parents.

And that meant Wicked stayed too.

I work at home and am usually immune to the neighborhood noise pollution. I’m not the kind of man who investigates each blaring radio or early morning chain saw. Normally, I play my own stereo so loud that I don’t hear much during the day.

But I could hear Wicked. Nonstop. Barking, barking, yipping, and barking.

By the end of the first day, I wanted to strangle the little thing. By the end of the third day, I spent more time glaring at Wicked than I did working. By the end of the week, I was actively plotting the dog’s death.

I’m an inventive plotter. The critics say that’s one of my (only) strengths as a novelist. In fact, they claim I’ve been on the bestseller list for the past ten years because I can plot better than anyone else in the business.

Outwardly, my home does not reflect the wealth that my plotting skills have brought me. I kept the same footprint—as my realtor likes to say—and built up to make three full stories. It’s quite a redesign, but it fits into the neighborhood—or it pretends to.

And that’s all that matters to me.

Because I don’t want to leave the Crest Hill Subdivision. This house was the first house I ever bought—and I vowed not to sell it. Back then, it was a simple split-level, built in 1972, and not remodeled in twenty years. I pulled the orange and green shag carpeting, remodeled the kitchen by myself, and turned the free-standing garage into my writing office, which I still use without many modifications.

In fact, the free-standing garage/office is the problem. The walls are thin because here on the temperate Oregon Coast, houses don’t need insulation. I haven’t replaced the cheap windows I put in during my first redesign, which is why I can hear that early morning chainsaw and the blaring truck radio.

Normally, I don’t mind.

But that was before Wicked.

It was all before Wicked who, oddly enough, changed my view of the neighborhood forever.

* * *

The Crest Hill Subdivision was built on a sandy ridgeline, 700 feet above sea level, several blocks east of the Pacific Ocean. The story of the subdivision is a story of neighbors—common in most places around the country, but extremely uncommon here on the Oregon Coast. In Seavy Village, three out of four houses are vacation rentals or second homes. These houses are full every Fourth of July. Two-thirds are full on Thanksgiving. A third are full during spring break.

Seavy Village has housing for forty thousand people, and hotel rooms for twice that many, but its year-round population is seven thousand. Most neighborhoods are entirely empty most of the time or have only one year-round family residing on those quiet streets.

Crest Hill Subdivision has always been different. We are a small enclave in a sea of empty houses. All twenty houses in Crest Hill are owner-occupied.

For the most part, we get along. We have an annual barbecue at Dave the Plumber’s. When we see each other during the rest of the year, we always wave. If we have time, we stop on the street and chat.

Not a week goes by without a group of us gathered in front of the mailboxes, exchanging the village gossip, and catching up on each other’s lives. We watch out for each other as best we can, and sometimes we even babysit each other’s children or feed the pets during the occasional long weekend.

When my money started pouring it—and it did pour: one minute I was scrambling to make my mortgage, the next I was talking to my broker about various places to store excess cash—I could have built a true mansion on a cliff face overlooking the ocean. But every bare piece of property I looked at, every tumbledown house that could be replaced for something better, existed in that sea of empty houses.

I didn’t like that much isolation, so I stayed in Crest Hill, along with Ike and Stella next door, the Sandersons one house up, Old Mrs. Gailton across the street, and Annalita Carmica on the corner. We formed the foundation of the neighborhood and over time, we acquired even more full-timers. Dave the Plumber and his wife (whose name I always forget), Joyce the Hollywood Producer who retired to her dream house, and the McMillians who bought, for a song, a McMansion that lost its view to the six-plex.

We’re a pretty quiet bunch who lived in very safe place—or so I thought, in those days before Wicked moved in.

* * *

The morning Wicked disappeared seemed like any other. I had trudged through the rain from my back door to my freestanding office, a hot mug of coffee in one hand, and an offering to the Goddess in the other.

The Goddess was the elderly cat who lived alone in my office. She bit the hand that fed her each and every day. I was inordinately fond of her, enough that I put up with her nasty temper and her inability to get along with anyone, including me.

She spent that morning in the library window, watching Wicked, as she often did. She hated the barking more than I did. Once, she had seen him peeing on one of her dishes that I had set down outside. She had pushed the screen out of the window, then attacked him, beating him so badly that I had to go over to Ike and Stella’s and offer to pay for Wicked’s trip to the vet.

That’s when I learned how much Ike hated Wicked.

“Let the damn dog suffer,” he said. “He’s got to learn that the world isn’t his toilet.”

During Wicked’s stay on the hilltop, the Goddess glared out the library window—the only room in my office that had a good view of Wicked’s yard—and occasionally made little growling noises. Mostly, she seemed to believe if she stared hard enough, Wicked would feel her anger and shut up.

It spoke to my desperation that daily I wished she did have magical powers. I wanted something to shut that damn dog up.

About 11 o’clock that morning, I got my wish. Wicked let out one of his sad yips, followed by the strangest bark I’d ever heard. It was high pitched and sharp, almost sounding startled. Then he let out a long half-bark, half-yowl that seemed more like a human scream than a noise any dog was trained to make.

That sound didn’t end. It got cut off. I leaned back in my office chair and listened, waiting for the barking to begin again.

It didn’t.

Instead, I heard the squeal of truck tires against gravel. Rocks pelted my newly built fence (good fences make good neighbors; they also keep out little peeing yappy dogs).

Then silence.

After a moment, the Goddess sprinted across my desk. She landed in my lap, meowed in my face, and pawed at my hands. I hadn’t seen her that agitated since a yellow tom sprayed one of the rose bushes outside the office’s sliding glass doors. So I followed her into the library.

She jumped onto the window ledge and pressed her face against the glass.

I peered out. From this one window, I could see over the fence and into the Maize’s yard. No truck sat in the driveway, even though I had heard one. Isabel, the elderly dog, was sitting on the walkway to the back door, head tilted to one side.

I didn’t see Wicked.

The Goddess was murping, a sound she made when something in her universe was out of order. I frowned, my stomach knotting in a little ball.

I realized I recognized that sequence of sounds.

I hadn’t heard it in years, not since the Maize’s daughter was little and Ike drove up the driveway too fast one afternoon, running over one of their cats.

He scooped the bleeding, broken creature into his arms, placed it on the floor of the truck, and then backed out of the driveway, peeling away as fast as his old Ford one-ton could go.

He made it to the vet’s in record time, but it was still too late. He’d crushed his daughter’s favorite cat beneath the wheels of his truck and it took months for her to forgive him.

Now, I figured the same thing had happened. Right in the middle of her messy divorce, one that threatened to spill into a long custody battle over her own daughter, her father runs over the dog she has loved since she moved away from home.

Ike had to be devastated.

I really didn’t want to be there for him—there were some things that were beyond neighborly, even in Crest Hill Subdivision—but I knew I had to investigate, just in case my writerly imagination had leaped to the wrong conclusion.

I let myself out of the office. The morning rain had turned into a light drizzle, the kind that looks harmless but actually can soak you within five minutes.

Red and gold leaves littered my driveway. Sometime during the night, a raccoon had clearly pulled part of a white plastic trash bag through the slight hole in my garbage can’s lid, scattering plastic food containers and paper plates across the yard.

I ignored the mess and walked to the fence. It was a picket fence, painted brown, with the pickets rising over six feet, so that few people could see over the top of them. I pulled open the gate in the center and stepped into the Maize’s unpaved driveway.

The rainstorm had left the ground so wet that the retreating truck had torn up deep grooves in the muck. I walked to the edge of them, expecting to see some pieces of white curly hair ground into the dirt or maybe a bit of blood on the already wet rocks. Maybe even a smashed collar or the impression of a small dog’s body in the dirt.

To my disappointment, I saw none of that. I didn’t even see Ike’s footprints in the muddy gravel, although mine were clearly visible.

I frowned and looked up. Isabel, who was used to me, stared at me, a matching frown on her large doggy face. I couldn’t tell if she was perplexed to see me standing on her driveway or if the truck’s quick retreat had surprised her.

I clasped my hands behind my back and walked farther up the driveway, so that I could peer inside the garage. No injured Wicked lying on his side on the concrete. No impish brown eyes peering at me through the small window beside the garage door.

Nothing barked, nothing yipped.

The silence was profound.

Isabel sighed, seemingly in relief, and put her head between her paws. Again, I couldn’t understand the reason for her emotion. Relief that a human was on the case? Or relief that Wicked had finally shut up?

Or both?

I felt no relief. The depth of my Wicked hatred surprised me. Part of me really wanted to see that dog dead. I had never actively wished anything dead before, not even the raccoons who constantly defeated each garbage can I bought.

I had hoped to find evidence of that dog’s demise.

Finding none disappointed me.

But at least something had forced Wicked to become quiet. As I peered into my neighbor’s garage, I realized I should accept the gift.

I hurried back to my office—after stopping briefly to clean up after the raccoons—and had the most productive day I’d had in the month and a half since Wicked had moved in.

* * *

The silence didn’t last.

As I microwaved the take-out I picked up for dinner, someone knocked on my door. Even though our neighborhood was close, very few people knocked. The UPS guy knocked every morning, and the newspaper delivery boy knocked once a month, but almost no one else came to the door.

I pressed stop on the microwave and walked to the door. The door was solid core, with no peephole, something I’d meant to remedy. So opening it always contained, for me, a small bit of adventure.

Someday, my vivid thriller writer’s imagination told me, the person on the other side of that knock would be a serial killer, coming to attack me. My logical mind told me that serial killers didn’t knock, but my vivid imagination would counter with the fact that thieves often did, just to see if someone was home.

Fortunately, the person waiting on my stoop wasn’t a serial killer or a thief.

It was Ike.

He was a big man with long, graying hair that showed his hippy roots. He slouched on a good day, but this evening, he was nearly bent in half.

He gave me a sheepish half smile. “I don’t suppose I can ask you a question.”

“Sure,” I said. “Come on in.”

I stepped back and he walked in, careful to stay on the throw rug I put over the hardwood at the start of every rainy season. Even though we had been neighbors for more than fifteen years, we hardly went inside each other’s homes. I couldn’t remember the last time he had been in mine.

He looked at his mud-covered shoes as he said, “My daughter sent me over here. Seems Wicked is missing.”

His voice had the right combination of sincerity and loss, but he wasn’t meeting my gaze.

“Wicked stopped barking about 11 this morning,” I said.

Ike looked up, frowning at me much the way his elderly dog had when I stood in their driveway.

I told Ike the entire story, such as it was, leaving out, of course, the Goddess’s odd attack and her murping sounds, as well as my desire to see Wicked’s blood seeping into the muddy tire prints.

“A truck?” Ike repeated.

“I thought maybe it was you,” I said. “You know, that whole incident with the cat.”

He winced. “No one lets me forget that. I didn’t mean to hit the damn thing.”

“No one ever does,” I said, then realized I wasn’t being neighborly. “You want a beer?”

“I want an entire keg,” he said tiredly. Then he smiled at me. “But a bottle will do.”

I got him a Rogue Brewery Pale Ale from the fridge, then kicked out one of the dining room chairs. “Sit for a minute.”

“I’ll track all over,” he said.

“Who cares?” I said, catching myself before I added, I have a housekeeper who worries about such things. I had a lot more money than my neighbors—hell, these days, I had more money than the entire town—but I didn’t try to call attention to that.

Although it was hard not to notice in my maple and cherry kitchen, with the matching formal dining table, the brand new appliances, and every cooking gadget known to man lining the kitchen counters. Not that they saw those.

What they usually saw was my one and only toy. My late-model Jag, which I replaced each and every year.

He sat down and took a sip from the longneck bottle.

“That goddamn dog,” he said. “If my karma determined that I had to run over only one animal with my truck, why did it have to be Roxy’s kitten? Why the hell couldn’t it have been Wicked?”

“If the neighborhood had known you were looking for volunteers…” I said, letting my words trail off.

He looked up at me, startled. Then he realized I was joking. He leaned against the table, resting his elbow against the tablecloth my housekeeper insisted on changing every Tuesday.

“There were times I might’ve looked,” he said. “The Bastard—” that was his nickname for his daughter’s soon-to-be ex “—trained the little fucker, or didn’t train it, as the case may be. Wicked loves my daughter and that baby, and will guard them with his little doggy life, but other than that, he isn’t a dog at all. He’s a goddamn menace. He doesn’t shut up, he pees all over everything, he tears up the furniture.”

“He’s still a puppy,” I said, not exactly sure why I was making excuses for a dog I hated.

“A puppy?” Ike said, sitting upright. “Are you kidding? Wicked is three years old. I’ve been trying to train him all month. It’s not working.”

Obviously, I nearly said, but didn’t. No sense in causing my neighbor more pain.

“I haven’t heard Wicked since that truck,” I said. “You’d think if he got injured or snuck into the woods, we’d hear him.”

“You’d think the entire town would hear him,” Ike said. “I’m hoping the little bastard ran off.”

The little bastard, trained by the Bastard. I had never put Ike’s language together before. He hated Wicked not just because he was an uncontrollable dog, but also because the dog represented an uncontrollable soon-to-be ex-son-in-law.

“If Wicked did run off,” I said, “he did so chasing that truck. Silently.”

“That dog isn’t quiet about anything,” Ike said. Then he paused for a moment before adding, “You thought I was driving that truck?”

I nodded.

His frown grew deeper. “Not many trucks sound like mine. Did you see it?”

“Nope,” I said, taking another sip of my ale. “I heard it. It sounded big and heavy, like yours does when it comes up the driveway. But you usually don’t peel out. In fact, the only time I ever heard you peel away down the driveway was—”

“The cat incident,” he said tiredly. “I know.”

He started to take a sip from his beer, and stopped.

“The Bastard,” he said.

“Hmmm?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if he was talking about the soon-to-be ex or the little dog.

“The Bastard,” Ike said to me, slowly, like he was having a realization. “He used to peel.”

I sipped. Thought. Remembered.

He did peel. It was one of the noises I had gotten used to. Roxy had started dating the Bastard in high school. It became one of those neighborhood dramas, something everyone in Crest Hill Subdivision talked about, since the Bastard came from a family of do-nothings on the wrong side of town.

In a town of seven thousand, the wrong side is pretty low-key. We don’t have murderers, thieves or knife-wielding maniacs. Our do-nothings are well named. They’re freeloaders who try to live on county money without doing any work. If they do get a job, from an unsuspecting out-of-towner, they lose that job within the month.

The Bastard’s family was pretty notorious. Entire generations lived in a small trailer on an expensive lot near the ocean. They wouldn’t move, no matter how much developers offered them, and they wouldn’t work either. Mostly, they sat outside—rain or shine—and drank, throwing their empties into an ever-growing pile in a part of the yard that had once housed a driveway.

The Bastard had that bad-boy charm. At least, that was what fifteen-year-old Roxy had thought. She had been a straight-A student, and remained so, graduating at the top of her class, earning several partial scholarships—enough so that the Maizes could send her to the school of her choice in California.

The Bastard followed. By this point, he had dropped out of high school, lost three jobs, and had his first DUI. Yet for her, the charm remained.

For Ike, who complained about him every moment he got, the Bastard was a gigantic version of Wicked, peeing all over the neighborhood, then barking and yipping when anyone else got in his mangy little way.

When the Bastard followed Roxy to California, I stopped thinking about him.

“I thought he was still in California,” I said. That was what Stella had told me one morning when we met at the mailboxes, both of us picking up our rain-soaked copies of the Oregonian.

“He went to live with his mother in Vegas,” Ike said.

“Oh, jeez.” I didn’t even have to ask how that was working out. When you took do-nothings and gave them the opportunity to get rich quick for very little effort, they spent every dime they hadn’t earned on penny slots and the upcoming big win.

“Yeah,” Ike said. “Good riddance, I thought. But he threatened to come back and get his things. I told Roxy to get a restraining order, but she thinks he doesn’t have the balls to drive all the way up here.”

“But you think he does,” I said, trying to keep the surprise from my voice. I agreed with Roxy on this one. A third-generation do-nothing wasn’t going to drive across three states just to retrieve his things. That would take too much effort.

“Yeah, I do,” Ike said. “He’s a mean, weasly little bastard who thinks my daughter is something he owns.”

He took the final sip of his beer and sighed.

“I’m not the smartest man in the world,” he said, “but I’ve seen guys like him before. When they think they’re losing the only things they own, they get dangerous.”

I hadn’t thought of that. Ike was right; sometimes do-nothings became violent and possessive. I hadn’t seen that in the Bastard, but then I hadn’t done much more than exchange a few sentences with him in a little more than five years.

“Why would he take Wicked?” I asked.

Ike gave me a chilling glance. “Because my daughter loves that horrid little dog. Although for the life of me, I have no idea why.”

* * *

In the next few days, the Wicked saga became the focus of neighborhood gossip. From Dave the Plumber I heard that Ike had the cops searching for the Bastard’s truck. From Old Mrs. Gailton I heard that Roxy had been getting threatening phone calls. From Stella I heard that Roxy had finally hired an attorney to finalize the divorce and to get that all-important restraining order.

The whole family believed that the Bastard had stolen Wicked, although the chief of police, Dan Reilly, thought the little dog had finally run away.

“Good riddance,” he said. “The nasty thing peed on my leg one afternoon.”

We had run into each other at the local A&P. We stood in the fresh fish aisle, which smelled of both fish and cocktail sauce. Twice during our conversation, the butcher snuck us bits of a steak he was cooking up in the back.

“We’re looking for the Bastard, of course,” Reilly said. He was a big man with gym rat muscles. They made him look formidable in his gray-green uniform.

As he spoke, I smiled to myself. Ike had everyone in town calling his daughter’s soon-to-be ex the Bastard. “But I doubt we’ll find him. He knows better than to come back here.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“He’s got a bench warrant,” Reilly said. “You didn’t know that?”

“No,” I said. “Does Ike?”

“Now he does.”

“What did the Bastard do?” Even I had picked up the phrase.

“Robbed the Cruise Inn one Friday night using his father’s .45. Got away with about one hundred dollars, but the crime’s pretty serious. See, it’s—”

“Armed robbery,” I said. “A felony.”

Reilly’s eyes twinkled. “Forgot you write about this stuff.”

Usually I write about bigger things. Stockbrokers taking down entire corporations and having hit men after them; the President surviving assassination attempts; and, of course, my biggest seller, the serial killer truck driver working the Pacific Northwest who finally gets caught by the plucky female cop from the Oregon Coast.

“How come I never heard about this robbery?” I asked.

Reilly shrugged. “The Cruise Inn doesn’t want anyone to know how easy they are to rob. Or how often they do get robbed.”

“How often do they get robbed?” I asked.

“At least once a month. We leave it out of the police report as per their request.”

I shook my head, this time letting my amusement show. These things happen in small towns. In fact, when I moved to Seavy Village, Ike Maize told me that the best way to get your news was to talk to the locals. The paper didn’t cover most of the interesting stories, since we were a tourist town and we didn’t want our tiny crime waves to scare the tourists away.

“How long has he had that warrant?” I asked.

“Since before he went to California,” Reilly said.

At least a year then. “Why didn’t you tell Ike? He knew where the Bastard was.”

Reilly sighed. “I thought about it. But Ike and Roxy fought about the Bastard enough. Ike almost lost his daughter because of it. So I never said anything to Ike, although I did find out where the Bastard and Roxy lived. I tried to get someone down there to act on the warrant, but they wouldn’t. Seems a hundred dollar theft, even if the thief used a .45, is small potatoes to them.”

I wondered how much anguish it would have solved for the Maizes to have the Bastard arrested in California. But that would have been before the marriage went south, and Roxy might’ve gotten stuck, like so many women did, waiting for her man to get out of prison.

“What if he has come back to town?” I asked.

“I would’ve heard about it,” Reilly said. “Everyone’s looking out for him.”

“Now they are,” I said. “But a week ago? I had no idea this was going on. Neither did anyone else in Crest Hill. And we were the ones most likely to see him.”

“He’s not in town,” Reilly said. “You can take that to the bank.”

If I took it to the bank, I wouldn’t be able to deposit it. Much as I liked Dan Reilly, he was a placeholder chief of police, one of the local boys made good until the out-of-town replacement showed up like she was supposed to do sometime in the following spring.

Reilly, for all his certainty, really didn’t know much about police work. He knew Seavy Village, and nothing else. Usually, in this town, that was enough. But bench warrants, armed robbery, and hints of violence took the Bastard out of the local small-time range and into something much more dangerous.

Something I really didn’t want on the other side of my fence, not even for a short, dog-stealing visit.

Still, I didn’t hear any more trucks except Ike’s reliable one-ton. Occasionally Isabel barked, but those were welcome-home barks for her family or her standard warning to the UPS guy not to get too close.

The Goddess and I worked every day. I progressed on the latest book. She growled at the raccoons. We both had a productive week.

Until we heard a truck zoom its way up the Maize’s driveway. The Goddess murped at me as she ran from the double glass doors to the library window.

I didn’t go to the library window at all. I hurried out of the office, grabbing my cell phone along the way.

The truck I heard was bigger than Ike’s. It was one of those with the double-long bed. I had no idea what kind it was—trucks aren’t my specialty—but I called this kind, which stood higher, wider, and longer than most trucks, penis shrinkers. I figured any guy who wanted one of these was overcompensating for something, and the overcompensation was worse if he actually found the dough to buy one of these monsters.

I had already dialed 911 as I approached the fence. Through the slats, I could see the Bastard. He had stepped out of the truck’s cab, leaving the door open. The truck was running, and even over the roar of the diesel engine, I could hear the dinging of the warning bell, reminding us all that the keys were in the ignition.

The Bastard ignored the sound. He was one of those guys who changed from a thin, somewhat good-looking teenager to a muscular, menacing twentysomething.

As I reached for the gate’s handle, I saw Roxy step out of the garage. Isabel was barking, a strange, frightened bark I hadn’t ever heard from her. She blocked Roxy’s path, but Roxy went around her.

Roxy, still carrying baby weight around her hips and stomach. Roxy, carrying the baby—now a cute blond toddler—tightly in her arms.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” she said in a frightened voice as the 911 dispatch answered on my cell.

I stopped, softly gave my address, and said, “We need police up here immediately. We have a felon with a bench warrant against him in my neighbor’s yard, threatening everyone he sees.”

Then I pulled the phone away from my ear, opened the gate, and stepped onto the Maize’s driveway.

The Bastard whirled toward me. He had something white and bloody in his arms, and I realized that was Wicked. I couldn’t tell if the dog was alive or dead.

“Go away,” the Bastard snarled at me. “This is a family matter.”

“It’s a neighborhood matter,” I said loudly, hoping the 911 dispatch could still hear me. “You’re not supposed to be on Ike Maize’s property. There’s a restraining order against you.”

I said all of that for the 911 dispatch, not for the Bastard. Still, he glared at me with so much anger that my pulse started to race.

“Is that Wicked?” Roxy asked, her voice shaking.

“Stay back,” I said.

But her question had turned the Bastard back to her.

“Yeah.” He tossed the dog onto the driveway. The dog bounced on the gravel and then, appallingly, whimpered.

Time and time again, I had imagined horrible, hideous ways to kill that dog, but now that I saw it in front of me, I was ashamed for myself and terrified for the dog.

So was Roxy. She ran to the dog, and as she did, the Bastard ran toward her.

“Roxy, don’t!” I yelled, and I ran toward both of them.

But I was too far back. The Bastard grabbed his daughter from Roxy’s arms and raced for the truck. He cradled the toddler against his chest as he jumped into the cab, pulling the door closed.

“Noooo!” Roxy screamed, running for the truck. I ran for it to. She got there ahead of me, grabbing the door handle.

The Bastard shoved the truck into reverse and sped up, sending gravel in my direction. It hit me like sharp needles, but I kept going.

Roxy lost her grip, falling backward.

For one horrible moment, I thought he was going to back over her, but he didn’t. He put the truck into drive, and sped off down the driveway.

I reached her side a moment later. Her knees and hands were scraped and she sat there, defeated, staring at the truck down on the road.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the cell phone at her. “I’ve already called 911. Give them the license plate and the make of the truck. I’m going after the Bastard.”

I didn’t give her time to argue. As I ran back through the gate, I realized I should have told her to call her dad as well. I hoped she was smart enough to figure that out.

I ducked inside my house, grabbed my car keys and sprinted for my one indulgence. That Jag could outperform any other car in Seavy Village. And it could outperform a penis shrinker too.

I slid into the driver’s seat and started the car in the same motion. It purred into life, the engine ready to go at whatever speed I wanted.

I peeled down my driveway—something I had always wanted to do, but never dared to, not in this quiet subdivision. I turned right at the bottom of the driveway, thanking whatever developer had designed this place for the long twisty road that took us out of the subdivision to the highway.

I could just see the truck at the intersection. He didn’t come to a full stop—he was kidnapping his daughter after all—but the stupid Bastard had his signal on.

He was turning left. To the straightaway that would take him out of Seavy Village and down Highway 101, away from the police and into a kind of legal no-man’s land.

He pulled out and for the first time, I cursed the fact that I had given Roxy my phone. I wanted to tell the dispatch what direction he was going in.

Of course, in this tiny town, he only had two choices—north or south. The smart direction was south. Anyone with a brain would think of that straightaway and legal no-man’s land.

There, in the miles between Seavy Village and Whale Rock, the Seavy Village Police Department lost its jurisdiction. For ten miles, only the state police could arrest anyone. Then the Whale Rock police took over.

The state police, underfunded and undermanned, never patrolled that section of the highway. If they had to come in to make an arrest, they often had to come from another part of the county—sometimes from another part of the state.

When I reached the intersection, I didn’t stop either. I turned left, sliding behind a black Subaru and in front of a bright blue Smart Car. The Smart Car slammed on its brakes, but I was already in the other lane, heading south at 80 miles an hour, double the speed limit.

There weren’t a lot of cars on the road, but there were enough that I had to weave and dodge around them, moving from the southbound lane to the passing lane to the shoulder in the areas where I could see far enough ahead to make sure there were no cyclists on the road.

The hotels and convenience stores, the kitschy restaurants and antique stores sped by me in a blur. My engine roared as I shifted into the final gear, cranking the speed up to 100 miles per hour.

I had never driven these roads this fast. Part of me hoped someone would report me to the police—I could lead them on a goose chase to the Bastard, and then, since they were already on the scene, they could arrest him for the state police.

Part of me prayed that I wouldn’t hit anything or anyone. If I hit someone going this fast, I’d kill them. My Jag was so well built that I’d probably survive, but I wasn’t sure I could live with myself.

Then I thought of that little girl. I had only gotten a glimpse of her, even though she lived right next door for the past few weeks. Tiny, blond, quiet for someone that age, on this afternoon, she had been wearing a pink dress that showed her chubby legs.

Those legs were probably coated with Wicked’s blood, rubbed off from the Bastard’s hands.

I shuddered, gripped the steering wheel tighter, and pressed hard on the accelerator. I continued to weave, continued to pray, and finally, as the road narrowed and curved up the mountain between Seavy Village and Whale Rock, I saw the truck.

It was hard to miss with that extended back end. A lot of young men in Seavy Village loved those trucks, but most couldn’t afford them.

It had to be the Bastard.

I drove even faster.

The truck moved closer at a rapid pace.

Now if I swerved, I would hit the guardrail, maybe bounce over it and fall wheels over roof all the way to the ocean. Or if I crossed into the northbound lane, I would hit the mountainside.

I wouldn’t survive either of those.

My breath caught. I had to make myself exhale and think. I couldn’t force the Bastard off the road because he had the toddler with him.

But there was a wide area in the road about eight miles from this point, where another road—coming from the east—intersected it. I could force him down that road, away from the ocean.

That road dead-ended into a large parking lot that led to a state park.

I zoomed up to him, then around him, hoping that he was smart enough to stop or turn when he came across an obstacle. He knew these roads better than I did, and I hoped that would influence his driving as well.

When I reached the road that formed a T with the highway, I glanced east. The road was as wide as I remembered. Someone driving fast could make a quick turn—even if that someone was in an extra long truck.

I stopped only a few yards away, turned on my flashers, and blocked both lanes. I kept watching both lanes, hoping that the first vehicle to approach—on either side—was the Bastard’s truck.

Of course, it wasn’t. A minivan heading north pulled up and stopped. A middle-aged man with a paunch and graying hair got out. He walked around to the driver’s side and knocked on the window.

“You okay?”

“No,” I said. “Move away from my car.”

“You can’t block the road.”

In the distance, I saw the truck. I pointed at it.

“You see that truck? The man in there is wanted for armed robbery. He kidnapped the baby in the car with him. I’m trying to force him to stop. You got a cell phone?”

The man was looking at the truck, squinting. “Yeah.”

“Call the police. Tell them that you’ve seen the gray long-bed truck that everyone’s looking for. Tell them he’s gone into Whale Cove State Park. Can you do that?”

“Um—”

“Because I’m going after him and I need backup.”

The truck had nearly reached the T. He was at the point where he would see the car blocking the highway. At that moment, I realized it was good to have the middle-aged man alongside my Jag. The Bastard wouldn’t know I was waiting for him.

He turned east, just like I expected him to. His truck was too big to make a U-turn. The drive to the parking lot and back would allow him to drive north again.

“Move!” I said to the middle-aged man.

Smart guy, he ran behind my car, so that I could zoom after the Bastard.

My initial plan had been to follow the Bastard down to the parking lot, but as I drove the few yards, I realized that was stupid. The best thing I could do was park in front of the T. He’d have nowhere to go.

I parked over both lanes of the state park road, blocking it, my Jag facing north.

Then I shut off the ignition, set the parking brake, and got out.

I was only a few feet away when the Bastard crashed into my car. The sound was tremendous, overpowering everything, the scream of metal on metal.

His truck shoved my car toward me. I had to dive into the ditch between the highway and the mountainside to get out of the way. My car rolled and then hit the guardrail.

The Bastard turned north and drove away as if nothing happened.

I lay in the ditch. I had landed in cold brackish muddy water. I made myself climb out slowly, my heart pounding, my breath coming in short gasps.

I never expected him to hit my car, not with the toddler in his truck. I thought he’d get out, scream at me, and stay busy until the police showed up.

Maybe I’m not as good a plotter as the reviewers say I am.

I pulled myself up by my hands, then got onto the state park road and walked to the highway. I stood beside the highway, looking north, probably as forlornly as Roxy had looked as the Bastard drove off with her baby girl.

In the distance, I heard sirens.

I turned, slowly, and saw the middle-aged guy with the van. He was walking toward me, clutching a cell phone.

I refused to look at my Jag.

“That was like a monster truck rally,” he said. “I kept expecting him to drive over your car.”

He sounded almost excited. His cheeks were flushed. As he got closer, I realized he was probably younger than I was. All I had seen before was the gray hair and paunch. I’d missed the roundness to his cheeks, the brightness of his eyes.

Or maybe that came from the adrenaline brought on by witnessing an accident.

“He did enough to my car,” I said without looking at it. I didn’t want to know exactly what happened to it. I knew the moment it hit the guardrail that he had totaled it.

Because of my vivid imagination, I did not want to know what the driver’s side looked like. I didn’t want to have nightmares about what might have happened to me had I been inside.

The middle-aged guy waved the cell phone at me. “They said that they already had reports on the guy and they were heading this way. They said that they’d catch him now that he turned around. You forced him back to Seavy Village, you know?”

I knew. That hadn’t quite been my plan—I didn’t have a plan past blocking the road and waiting for the police—but it would have to do.

I would rather have the police take down the Bastard with the baby in the truck than have me do it.

“How’d you know what was going on with the guy?” the middle-aged man asked.

“I was there when he took the baby.” I suddenly felt very tired. My whole body hurt.

I wanted to go home. It meant I would leave the scene of an accident, which was a crime, but not a major one if no one got injured.

I had a hunch I could talk my way out of that one.

And even if I couldn’t, I could pay the damn fine.

“Can you give me a lift?” I asked the middle-aged guy. “I want to go home.”

The middle-aged man grinned. “I’d be happy to,” he said. “Just don’t ask me if you can drive.”

* * *

The middle-aged man, whose name was Tom Yates, chattered all the way to Crest Hill. I figured it was a nervous reaction and let him talk. I had him let me out at the bottom of Maize’s driveway—for some reason I didn’t want him to see my house—and then I waved as he drove away.

He had told me he was going to the police station to make a report. What a good citizen he was. I figured they could come to me if they wanted to talk.

As I reached the top of the driveway, I was stunned to see Ike’s truck, two police cars, and an ambulance. One of the paramedics was working hard on something on the ground.

It took me a moment to realize he was bandaging up Wicked.

Ike wasn’t around. Neither was Roxy.

But a uniformed police officer—a man I recognized but didn’t know by name—walked over to me.

“You the famous writer neighbor?”

“Yeah,” I said tiredly.

“I didn’t expect you here, sir,” he said. “I thought you’d be by Whale Cove State Park.”

“I was. But the other guy at the scene offered to drive me home.”

The policeman stuck out his hand. I stared at it a moment before taking it. He shook hard, then let go.

“You’re a real hero, sir. They have the baby. She’s fine. The Maizes have gone down to the station to get her.”

“So they caught the Bastard,” I said.

“They did. He’s going away for a long, long time.”

I hoped so. I hoped that the legal system worked the way it was supposed to. I would testify against him, that was for certain.

But I didn’t say that. I just nodded at the police officer and walked over to the paramedic.

“Didn’t know you guys worked on dogs,” I said.

“That girl,” he said, “she was hysterical. Dispatch thought she had been injured and sent me up here. She asked me to work on the dog. How could I say no?”

I looked down at the stretcher. Wicked’s eyes were glassy and he was panting. The paramedic had bandaged his back legs.

“That guy who took the dog—he cut its tendons in its back legs. Knew what he was doing too, because he stayed away from major arteries. This poor thing’ll probably never walk right again.”

Wicked’s gaze met mine. He was clearly in pain. He whimpered.

Lifting his leg was probably impossible now. He wouldn’t pee on my groceries again. He probably wouldn’t ever run again.

I never thought I could feel sorry for that dog, but I did.

“I’ve got him stabilized,” the paramedic was saying. “Can you let Ike know I’m taking the dog to Seavy Village Animal Clinic? They’ll know what to do with him.”

“Think they’ll have to put him down?” the officer said from behind me.

“No,” the paramedic said. “He’s not a horse. You don’t have to shoot him just because he’s injured his leg. Right, buddy?”

To my surprise, he put his hand gently on Wicked’s side and Wicked didn’t even try to bite him. The dog closed his eyes. His tail thumped.

“I’ll tell Ike,” I said. I wasn’t sure he’d be happy. But he would have a different dog than the one he hated. Wicked would never be the same.

Neither would Roxy. I only hoped her daughter wouldn’t have lasting scars.

Knowing the Maizes, they would do everything they could to make that little girl feel loved and wanted, not the product of some felon who had seduced their only daughter.

The paramedic wheeled the stretcher into the back of the ambulance, got in beside it, and pulled the double doors closed. The ambulance backed up in the very tracks left by the Bastard’s truck, then eased carefully down the driveway as if its cargo were as precious as an injured human being.

The officer watched from beside me. Then he looked at me and frowned. “You okay?”

“Tired,” I said.

“No kidding. You did a great thing.”

I hadn’t done anything great. If anything, I’d been reckless and stupid, letting my vivid imagination get away with me, making me think I could be as heroic as the people I wrote about.

“What do we do about my car?” I asked. “It’s crumpled on the side of the road by Whale Cove State Park.”

“I’ll take care of it,” the officer said. “And we’ll need you to make a statement whenever you’re ready.”

“I’m ready now.” I wanted this incident behind me.

I didn’t want to think about Wicked or the Bastard or Ike’s helpless hatred of both. I wanted to go back to my office and use my vivid imagination to create stories.

I thought it would be easy to go back. But I found I couldn’t shake the memories. Which is why I’m writing this.

Wicked is home. He’ll limp badly, and he’ll be a mostly indoor dog. The incident changed his temperament—or, as Ike says, being helpless has. Wicked lost all the aggression that made him the nasty little piece of work that he was.

Roxy’s divorce went through. The Bastard pled out to the minimum on both kidnapping and the armed robbery. He’ll be gone for years.

And the neighborhood has gone back to normal. Except that people ask me for advice now, as if my impulsive moment has given me some kind of wisdom.

Actually, Old Mrs. Gailton says they don’t see me as wise so much as the neighborhood leader. The mayor of Crest Hill Subdivision.

Apparently, it’s an appointed position. It’s certainly not one I want.

I blame Wicked. If it hadn’t been for the little bastard, I’d still be the mostly invisible weird writer who lives next to the Maizes, not the thriller writer who channels James Bond in his off time.

So I hide in my office with the Goddess. She hunts raccoons again, having no interest in Wicked now that he’s not barking incessantly.

I have a little more interest. Sometimes I wonder what he went through in his last days with the Bastard. Sometimes I wonder if Wicked realized he meant nothing to the man who had trained him. And I wonder if the little dog had wanted to die when the Bastard tossed him onto the driveway.

I’ll never know, and Wicked will never tell.

He’s quiet these days. Isabel actually stands guard over him, as if she understands the changes too.

Sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, when no one’s around, I go to the Maize’s yard and pet him.

I have the sense that, ever since the incident, Wicked needs comfort.

And I know that I do too.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March/April 2010
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2017 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Sommai Sommai/Dreamstime

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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