by A. B. Emrys
Behind the empty house chain links enclosed a long rectangle of dirt, shriveled grass, a pile of debris, and a dog dying by seconds.
Even from where she and Brad paused, Nollie could see staring ribs and the stuck-tight skin that says serious dehydration. As they approached, the dog managed an audible growl, though the effort made her totter. Nollie spoke to her softly through the fence, but the tall black animal was beyond any normal response, two paws over into the next world. "Jesus," Brad said. Newbie Brad blurted the same reactions over and over. Jesus. How can they be still alive? What's wrong with people?
He was saying he'd get the trank gun when Nollie saw the thing behind the starved dog. She moved closer. The long object behind the dog had been dead too long for the dog to get flesh off it. "Oh, hell," Nollie said. "It's the other leg."
The first leg had turned up in a field with an abandoned horse that could barely stand, but at least it didn't chew on the evidence. Both times, an anonymous call had come to the animal control line. The first time Nollie had been alone. The horse had been humanely put out of its misery. The leg had gone to the morgue in Pueblo.
This time she knew who to ask for, after she called her own office. Meanwhile the dog went out immediately on a tiny trank dose, but they had to leave her on the spot till the detectives combed the scene.
Officers Wayne Denby and Lieutenant Elvo Vargas eyed Brad Compton and Nollie with unjustified suspicion, as though the two were impersonating officers. "Miz Gerard," he said. "Why am I not surprised?"
The younger one grinned. "It's the kitty cops." Nollie already knew he was the jerk.
Brad said, "Hi, I'm Brad." They both ignored him.
Denby walked down the yard and looked at the dog. "It dead?"
"No," Nollie said. "We'll take her whenever you say."
"Damn," he said. "The dog ate on it."
There were more such comments, but finally they carried her away. Brad drove and Nollie called the vet to expect them. Once there, the dog was put on IV fluids and caged until she woke up. If she could eat and had no other life-threatening conditions, she might make it. After they'd logged in and checked tomorrow's schedule, Nollie sat down and did the paperwork for today's contacts.
The animal control office occupied its own desk in a corner of the police station in Piedras, way down in southeast Colorado. No mountains, just a small town with a small state college and a small hospital surrounded by big sky and dead properties. Some animals ran wild and did damage and they controlled it. Some animals got damaged, and they worked with the local vet to repair them. Nollie had volunteered at an animal shelter in Colorado Springs, where she grew up, then worked part-time for their vet, Jane Sheltin, before Jane moved to Piedras. When this full-time position was created Nollie got it on Jane's recommendation. The small building with her vet practice was only a block or so away. Stan, the sheriff, had called Pueblo for backup once they found the first leg, and Vargas and Denby had arrived.
Vargas and Denby were right behind Nollie now too, and she listened to Melody, the office manager and dispatcher, going over with Denby when the call had come in and what had been said, the answer being about ten this morning and not much. Couldn't tell if it was a man or woman. Might have been disguising the voice, sure. "Did they ask for anybody?" Denby said. Nollie looked up from her desk at that and caught Vargas watching her. "Nuh-uh," Melody said. "Just said where the dog was and hung up."
The places where the animals and legs showed up had owners long gone, the properties repoed for back taxes. Given the dates the property had been posted, they couldn't have owned either the horse or the dog or Nollie would have found skeletons, and since she worked every day and Brad only two half days, the odds are that Nollie would be there for the calls. Maybe Vargas could figure that out on his own.
She read over her schedule for the next day: follow-up visit on a elderly man's dogs, and check out a report of a dog running loose out behind a strip mall. Plus whatever came up, including anonymous phone calls. After that she picked up Domino.
Domino was a lab-rott mix, black with orange-brown eyes and splashes of white that inspired the name. She had been dumped at Jane's in a box as a half-grown puppy, and once Nollie came to work the next day it was clear what was going to happen. Now that big-footed pup weighed sixty pounds and Nollie went home at noon most days to exercise them both. If she had to be gone all day, she dropped Domino in a run at aunty Jane's for the afternoon.
Nollie let Domino bounce around, then went in the back door and through the lab to Jane's office. The vet glanced up, blond hair falling over one eye. "Nollie - hang on a second." She finished up an online report, then said, "There was another leg?"
"Vargas was here? What, did he interview the dog?"
"He didn't get a thing out of her. Setter mix, as you saw. No tags, no chips. She's starting to come out of it, by the way. The fluids are helping. I'm going to see if she'll eat."
They stared at each other a few seconds. Jane said, "What part next, do you think?"
"Why that and not arms?"
"If somebody wants to string this out, they won't leave the hands or head for ID till there's nothing else left. But why leave them at all? And why with starving animals?"
Jane turned back to her computer. "Nollie, you know there's no limit on what people may do."
"Just as long as I don't get called to the next one. Vargas is looking cross-eyed at me already."
"When's Brad on by himself?"
"Thursday. My luck, we'll get another piece tomorrow. Well, we're off for some drive-through. Come over for a drink later if you like."
"I want both right now."
"I could drop off a burger." Domino tugged on the lead. She knew the word "burger."
"No, no. Go on home. Maybe I'll see you guys later."
The drive-through was five minutes away. Nollie and Domino had both finished their meals by the time they reached the small house she had rented for not quite a year. They exited the carport and settled in for the night.
Nollie already considered several times a week when she should commute to Santa Fe for the courses to officially qualify for animal cruelty investigator. She could get the weeks off. But then she'd be overqualified for this job, and where would she go? She had asked Domino this a million times, but her dbf had no answer either. Nollie had come here more or less following Jane, who had given up her partnership in a clinic to open her own here after her brother's death overseas. She seemed in mourning still, lapsing into moments of private sorrow. Nollie resolved again to cheer her up. She called Jane later, but it went to her voicemail.
On Wednesday the stray dog turned out to be an escape-artist beagle Nollie recognized and took home. The follow-up to the old guy went as well as she could expect. The three dogs now were healthier than he was. She spoke with him about arranging care if they survived him, and he said his niece might take them. She got the niece’s name and phone number.
Thursday she actually had the morning off, in exchange for Saturday morning. When she checked in at one, Melody said, "You lucked out today." And when Nollie waited for it she added, "Brad puked."
"What part this time?
"Torso. But the cops maybe got lucky too: there's a tattoo." Brad had gone home for the day,
Melody said, her expressive face showing what she thought of him.
"Was there an animal?"
"No, honey, just an old cow skull in place of the missing head."
An improvement, of sorts. She'll have to tell Jane. Plus Nollie was out when the homicide cops swung by. Stan let her see the tattoo photo, an ordinary rose. She asked Stan if they had traced the calls. "Phone booths," he said. "All over town."
"So somebody in town is calling us."
"I figured that, or from the area. No luck with security cams, what ones we've got."
"If I knew why, I might be able to figure out who."
"I could work the animal angle, try to find out where the horse and the dog came from. Nobody's doing that, right?"
Stan grumbled about possible dangers, but he finally agreed, long as she kept him in the loop.
Friday she swung by to invite Jane for a chick flick night. Jane said she'd call Nollie in the afternoon, then asked if it was true there was a tattoo on the body. Apparently nobody'd thought to show it to her. "It was a rose," Nollie said. "Pretty ordinary."
"Just the flower?"
"Stem and a couple of leaves too."
Jane got up abruptly. "Come with me to see Stan."
Nollie followed her back to the police station, where Melody located the photo, since everyone was out. Jane tensed up again when she saw it.
"Do you recognize it?"
"When will Stan be back?"
He was just at lunch, and Nollie tracked him to the downtown diner he frequented. Stan was working on pie and coffee, but he listened to Nollie's tone more than what she said, and then he laid money on the table and followed Nollie back to his office.
"I'm sorry," Jane kept saying, "Sorry I interrupted your lunch. I should have waited."
Stan got out a notepad. "Jane, just take a breath. Okay, now tell me the name of the guy you knew."
"Brendan Verger. He was twenty-eight."
"And this was when?"
"A couple of years ago or so, in Colorado Springs. We were involved. Then he just disappeared. His stuff was gone from his apartment, his car was gone. Nobody heard from him again."
"You never heard from him."
"Or my brother either. This was before Ken shipped out in '11. I met Brendan in February, and he was gone by September. Ken was as bewildered as I was. They'd gotten to be pals." She went on to describe where he'd worked as a mechanic. Stan noted it all. She glanced at Nollie, and hesitated.
Stan said, "Nollie, you can go on now. I'll take care of Jane."
Nollie had little choice but to go on to check a report of raccoons in the attic of a house. There was only one raccoon, but it was large and irate, and it took her awhile to cage it. After that Nollie thought she might as well drive it into Pueblo to the shelter that relocated them. Make a night of it.
She stopped at home to take out Domino and pick up some other CDs, and then she headed up the highway. Pueblo was about two CDs away, and she got there in time to turn over the still angry and probably carsick raccoon. She ate Thai food and saw an early show of that French vampire movie, and started back well satisfied.
Nollie actually preferred the road back in the dark, when she couldn't see how much empty space she drove through. Sometimes she got out to look at the stars, but tonight the soundtrack from Whip It blasted into the night and a big Coke Zero sat in the slot beside her. Tonight felt lonely and loose, the night full of vampires. Tonight she could believe the local rumor about the meth runs out of Nebraska, or maybe it was marijuana up from Mexico. Lot could happen in empty corners.
Far back, a mile or three behind her yet, she saw lights. As the vehicle steadily gained on her, the flashing light appeared atop it. Nollie slowed down. Once it caught up to her, though, she recognized Denby's truck.
She felt like giving him a chase, but there was literally nothing but blacktop and desert until Piedras. She slowed, then pulled onto the gravel shoulder. She wished suddenly she had Domino with her. Or even the raccoon.
Denby walked slowly up to her window, boots crunching on gravel. She rolled it down some, the motor still running, and waited. His sly face squinted in the headlight aura. "Well, Nollie," he said. "What you doing out here all alone?"
"Nothing you needed to stop me for." And because that sounded so hostile, she added, "What's up?"
He peered at the interior as though looking for a dog. "Just want to give you a little message."
"For whoever it may concern, girl. Somebody out there is screwing with us, and I think you know who it is."
"You're wrong. It's not me, and I don't know who."
His big hand reached in and gripped her shoulder hard enough to hurt. The stink of whisky came off him like perfume. "You want to be more than a kitty cop, then be one. You tell everybody."
Nollie shook herself, but he didn't let go. "Tell them what?"
"That I'm on to them. I'm after this body snatcher -"
Nollie's right hand had gotten the lid off what remained of the big soda, and now she pitched it straight into Denby's face and gunned the engine as he staggered back. She pushed her speed up to seventy quickly, watching the mirrors. Eighty, but she saw nothing on the road behind her. Ninety, bucking on rough patches, but his lights had shrunk to pinpoints and vanished.
Who could he think she'd tell? And would it screw with Denby more if she told no one or if she told every store clerk in Piedras? Not that he'd said much. She considered her options as the lights of town appeared in the distance and finally surrounded her. At home she took the ecstatic Domino for a walk, and by the time they got back, Nollie no longer felt creepy. But that was when she checked her messages, and heard Jane's upset voice asking her to come over. It wasn't ten yet. She took Domino with her to Jane's small apartment, and her friend answered the door right away. "Nollie, thanks for coming. I just got shaky."
As usual the place looked cluttered and unlived in both, coffee table overflowing with mail and papers, kitchen counters largely bare. Over glasses of wine it all came out, how much she'd loved Brendan, and then he disappeared. She knew people just thought he'd left her. "You know I have some history with Wayne Denby, right? He used to be in the Springs. He always was kind of after me.
"Not long after Brendan vanished, he really came onto me one night." She looked away, embarrassed. "I had to fight him off." She peered into her merlot. "Thing is, I think Brendan had backed him off before. He said he had something on a cop. I assumed it was on Denby. I was trying to find out if it was him." She set down her tea. "I told Stan all this." Jane got up and brought the bottle back, and Nollie told her about the raccoon and then Denby stopping her.
"I really think he's crazy," Jane said. "Does Stan know about tonight?"
Nollie hated to roust him on a weekend for something this vague. She promised to tell him as soon as she had a chance, likely tomorrow.
And then Jane yawned, and Nollie said she'd better go. Only pulling into her driveway she realized she'd never actually passed along Denby's message. Well, screw him and his message too.
Saturday morning Melody often came in for a couple of hours in exchange for some long lunches, but not this week. Nollie checked over her own paperwork and made a follow-up list. Number one, the Maast family's dog that had nipped a neighbor on a bicycle. She'd see if they'd at least quit rough-housing with the big shepherd. Two, check with the neighbor as well. Three, call the old guy's niece about his dogs. Four, see if Smithson, who owned the road house, had licensed his two guard dogs.
The last couple of days she'd asked everyone she saw if they knew anything about the dog or the horse, without results. She realized she still hadn't asked Jane, though. She started a list of people to ask. The phone Melody usually answered rang. Nollie let the machine pick it up, but the forced, unnatural voice got her attention. "Rabid cat, 1553 Chaparral." The line clicked off. Nollie went goose-bumps down her arms. For this she bothered Stan, who swung by to pick her up.
On their way out there she told Stan about Denby last night, message and all.
"Was he drunk?"
"Some drunk. Weird, for sure."
"You know Jane thinks he maybe killed her boyfriend, that he's the one leaving the body parts."
Nollie told him as much as she could remember of what he'd said. "I'm still tracking the animals."
"Yeah, you said. You come up with any leads?"
Nollie admitted she hadn't yet, but said, "That horse wasn't already out there, so it had to come in a trailer. I'm looking for the trailer."
Chaparral petered out into a couple of shacky places and one active ranch. Beyond that, just land. The address was for land, but they found the cat easily enough, laying on the stump of a dead tree just off the road. If it had been rabid, it was mummified now. The crossed hands of two severed arms cupped it like an offering.
"Well, shit," Stan said. But he photographed the new scene while Nollie bagged the cat. Stan sent the photo to Vargas's office, and they both sat in the car until Stan's phone rang.
"Yeah, I'd guess it's the same body. Can't leave it out here. Yeah, I figured. All right." He listened. "It'll take the best part of an hour to get there. I guess so. But why? Why don't you just tell me - All right. I said all right. I'll be there."
Nollie had already put the shriveled cat in the back. Now she and Stan wordlessly bagged the arms as well. They looked leathery too. The drop had been made some time before, and the call timed, just like the others.
Stan u-turned before he spoke. "Vargas says to meet him on Denby's family land. That mean anything to you?"
Nollie shook her head no.
"Hanse is gone to Albuquerque," Stan said. "I could call Fred."
"And he'd maybe get here by afternoon." He glanced at her. "I could call Brad." They both laughed.
The upshot was, Nollie was still in the truck when they followed Vargas's directions, and so were the arms and the cat. She asked him where the land was. From Vargas's directions, that could have been where Denby was headed last night, and she said so.
"His father died about ten years ago. He doesn't run any animals on it, but he kept it. There's a livable house too. And right on the drug route."
"Is that even real?"
Stan shrugged. "I did once bust some old boys who were staking out the back roads, intending to rob the runners."
Nollie thought about it for some miles of sky and highway. She couldn't see any connection. She thought about Denby calling her the kitty cop. Maybe she could talk to Jane later today about the horse trailer.
Eventually he turned off the highway onto a dirt road. "You tell Vargas I was with you?"
He thought about it. "I don't believe I did."
"And he say where Denby is?" Negative.
They drove to the house first, and stopped. Stan honked, but nobody responded. He called Vargas, who said get over to the north field. Another road went most of the way.
But when they bumped down the rutted track as far as they could go, Stan said, "Oh, my god." He parked beside Vargas's car, Denby's truck beyond them. Thirty yards away Wayne Denby lay on the ground. Vargas stood a ways off, talking into his phone. Stan said, "He's calling for a team."
In the meantime, before a crime scene crew arrived, Vargas told them he was sick about it, but what could he do? He paced around, ran his hands through his hair over and over. He'd been worried about the boy, known his family. Knew he was drinking too much. Followed him out here and found him digging. "He drew on me, Stan. I told him not to be a fool. He fired. I only realized later he'd fired in the air."
"Or else he missed," Stan said.
"No, he meant not to kill me. I aimed for the shoulder, but he moved."
"Is the head here?"
"I haven't even looked."
Nollie, whom Vargas had acknowledged only with a glance, couldn't see anything but dirt. She was happy to hang back.
Once the team arrived and checked, they confirmed the head wasn't there, at least not where there'd been recent digging. Stan and Nollie turned over the arms to them and left.
Stan drove in silence until they'd turned back onto the highway. Then he said, "You okay?"
"I'm fine, but that story's not fine. He stood around there for over an hour and didn't even look for the head?"
Stan shrugged. "Vargas is a strange one. When his wife left him, his kids were grown. He stayed on alone in that big house in Pueblo. I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd put a gun in his mouth."
"But he didn't."
Nollie saw where this was headed. Mostly likely, Denby had planted the body parts. Maybe the head was elsewhere. They might never find it. Poor Jane, she thought.
But on Monday she still questioned her clients. Mrs. Maast claimed neither she nor her husband nor their eldest son had time to take the dog to obedience lessons, let alone the money. She surprised Nollie by saying they had all been watching It's Me or the Dog, and they kind of saw what Nollie had meant. Mrs. Maast demonstrated her new technique, turning away when the dog jumped up on her.
Nollie described the dog they'd found, so high, not a young dog, black. Starved. Nope, hadn't seen her. But if she lived, they might give her a home. The horse she knew nothing about. Nobody in town likely was going to know anything about it.
After Smithson showed Nollie paper on the dogs' shots, and after the nipped neighbor confirmed by phone she was biking another route, after Nollie called Jane yet again and got her recording again, Nollie thought of the sort-of rancher whose horse she'd helped find: Lane Henry, one of those reversible names. She called him, and he told her to come on over, he could explain better in person. Or maybe he just wanted company. Nollie drove south into the most open of lands to ask him about abandoned horses.
"By god," the guy said before she got a chance to explain. "By god, if one of them sheriffs would just get onto the dope runners, I could sleep of a night."
"You sure dope comes through here?"
"Hell, yeah. Fairly regular. I'll see dust on the road where nobody lives. They're the ones tear my fences down." That was how his horse had gotten out.
When he paused to wheeze, Nollie asked him about the abandoned horse. "Bad shape, nearly starved."
"Go down the old Cramer place and ask her. She's his niece or something." He gave her directions of the sort that included a dead tree and a broken cattle guard.
It was late afternoon when Nollie eventually pulled onto a dirt road that ended at a double-wide. A bristling pit bull on a long chain patrolled the front, so she honked. After the dog worked himself into a frenzy, a woman came out with a shotgun. Nollie rolled down her window and shouted out her business.
All at once the woman laid down the gun, screamed at the dog to shut up, which it did, and hauled out her cigarettes. She walked over to blow smoke in Nollie's face. "Wasn't mine," she said. "Some friend of the guy who owns the land next to me. He put the horse out there and then just kind of forgot about it." She described a good match for the one they'd found.
"What happened to it?"
"I called that lady vet in town. She come out here and hauled it away. You can ask her."
Nollie would damn well ask the vet about the horse, and a few other things. She called Stan on her way back and left him a message. She called Jane's office, where Lela, the part time assistant, said Jane was coming by shortly but not staying. Might catch her at home, but then she was off somewhere. Not a call, so Lela didn't know where.
Nollie should be running Domino about now. She should be cooking spaghetti and popping a beer. She should not be cruising past Jane's yet again. She should not be watching Jane peel away from the clinic in her Cherokee. Not telling herself it couldn't have been Jane, because she'd never have let those animals go on suffering.
Nollie followed at a long distance. There weren't many places to go in Piedras, and she'd figured correctly that Jane would get on the highway. From there she could go to Denby's land, which was Nollie's guess, but instead Jane kept straight on into Pueblo.
Nollie made up some of her distance, but once into Pueblo Jane turned quickly out of sight. Nollie stepped on the gas and made the same turn, but the Cherokee was no longer visible.
The street beside her held a strip mall. She turned right at the next corner. Ahead taillights showed, then vanished. She rolled down her window, and heard an engine go off, and a door open and close.
Nollie turned left a block beforehand, and parked. She texted Stan as she walked. Beyond Jane's vehicle lay a big house on a corner lot. Its street angle displayed an artful arrangement of cactus, a gleaming cow skull, and some big rocks. Jane knelt in front of it and took something from a canvas bag that she placed among the rocks. She looked a moment, still on her knees, then backed off enough to take pictures with her phone. Nollie slipped behind a massive Humvee in a neighboring carport.
"I wondered if you'd come here."
Vargas. This was the house he kept after the divorce, after his kids had moved away. Not a house for somebody home alone with guns. Or body parts.
"I already sent the photo."
"Okay. Evidence of your crime."
Jane stood up. "Brendan told me he had something on a cop. I thought it was Denby, but it was you."
Vargas walked another few steps, then stopped.
"You killed him, didn't you? Brendan. You buried him on Wayne's place."
"Wayne didn't dig him up," Vargas said. "You must have done that. I'm wondering how you knew he was there."
"My brother found out. He shipped out too fast to do anything, but he left a letter for me in case he didn't come back. When he was killed, it came."
"So this is all about dead men."
"This is all about murder. I can't believe you'd kill just to save Wayne. What was he, your son?"
Vargas laughed. "Wayne was an idiot."
"He was worse than stupid. Brendan knew about Denby and his cousin, how they were in a dog fight ring, and once they beat a losing dog to death. The cousin bragged about it."
Vargas laughed again. "Oh, my god. I can't believe it. That's all he knew?"
"What else is there? Bribes? Something like that?"
"Very, very large bribes, to ignore very large shipments of very expensive substances." The sound of a pistol being cocked carried clearly.
Nollie called out, "Don't do it."
Vargas sighed. "Miz Gerard. But you're not armed." He listened. "You don't even have your dog along."
"I have a phone along, and I just called Stan. And 911."
As Vargas hesitated, Jane dropped down and rolled behind the corner display. Nollie shouted, "Don't do it, Vargas" again, and went on shouting. Vargas disappeared into the house. Nollie came out enough to look at the corner. A shriveled head now sat in front of the white skull. It ruined the whole arrangement.
The garage opened and Vargas roared out in his SUV. Of course he wouldn't ever shoot himself. He'd been counting his drug money all those nights alone. Should she give chase? Oh hell, no. She was the animal cop, not the people cop.
On the whole, though, chasing Vargas might have been better than listening to Jane justify herself. Nollie interrupted. "How could you," she said. "let those animals hurt?"
"I gave them fluids and pain killers. They were there only a day. I'd never have left them longer."
Nollie leaned on the lamppost, disgusted, hoping for sirens. Had Vargas called them off? She dialed again and repeated that she was here with a body. Part. Unit on the way, the dispatcher said.
Nollie stared at Jane, still crouching near the head. "How'd you ever even find the body?"
"I borrowed a cadaver dog." Nollie didn't ask the obvious question, but Jane answered it. "I wanted Wayne to hurt, like I hurt when Brendan was gone."
"You got him murdered, to protect Vargas' drug money."
"But Nollie," Jane said, "I didn't know about that. Not at all. I always thought it was about the animals."
"It was," Nollie said, speaking for herself.
A. B. Emrys' short fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, most recently including Whacked! (Rainstorm Press), Danse Macabre, and Louisiana Vampires (Barnes & Nobles). Her study of two mystery writers, Wilkie Collins, Vera Caspary and the Evolution of the Casebook Novel (McFarland) was an Agatha and Macavity finalist.