The whole shit-storm started with Bruno Sinkowitz and his twin Rottweilers, Shock and Awe.
Rod had seen the two dogs before, even petted them. He was on OK terms with Bruno. No beef. But the thing was, the twins had never met Rod's two year old Pit Bull, Toby, until the evening Rod came strolling by Bruno's battered Airstream trailer, finishing up walkies. Bruno stepped out of the trailer. He looked ready for his evening run, and he had Shock and Awe on a pair of choke-chains. Which was good, because the twins started howling as soon as they caught sight of Toby. Big ropes of spit dripped from their muzzles. Bruno had to yank the chains back to keep them from leaping on the lone Pit. And Toby? He just curled up into a ball and licked himself.
Bruno raised an eyebrow. "That's some nutless wonder you got there."
Henceforth, Toby was known as Nutless Wonder throughout the park.
Man, did the nickname chafe. Rod was a skinny guy, kind of short, and despite the fortune he'd sunk into tattoos, didn't look all that intimidating when he donned a wife-beater and mesh back cap. Also, he didn't have a car. His older brother Russ had a vintage El Camino, but Rod wasn't permitted to touch it.
By all measures he rated as a loser in an area of West Texas known for producing losers, and now he had a dog called Nutless Wonder. Something had to be done. He'd briefly considered lifting weights, but decided the idea was fucked. Too much work. What he'd settled on instead was a last ditch attempt to salvage Toby's, and by extension his, reputation.
So one fine summer evening, about a month after the incident with Bruno Sinkowitz, he snapped a black leather leash to Toby's collar and set out looking for Carlos the Dog Piercer.
It was a two mile slog from the gates of the Eden Mobile Park Community to the nearest shopping center. Rod and Toby hoofed it alongside fields of high cotton. By the time they reached the strip mall, the sodium lights in the parking lot were flickering to life. A crowd had gathered outside of Pet Stop, which Rod took as a good sign.
He slipped his way through a group of VFW bikers, then a white trash family selling puppies—more Pits and Rotties, naturally—out of appliance boxes. The crowd thinned to form a little clearing around a Hispanic guy. Not too tall, maybe five seven. Thick arms. His t-shirt read 'Carlos' in stylized graffiti. A tan Boxer strutted back and forth in front of his feet, making a jangling sound like tiny wind chimes as it moved. A dozen chrome loops had been pierced through both of its ears.
"Does it hurt?" asked a sunburned woman.
Carlos shook his head. "I smeared Chato here with a topical anesthetic before we began, and washed the piercings for several days afterward, to prevent infection. There might be some residual aches, but Chato's gotten used to it. Dogs have a much higher pain threshold than people."
Chato finished trotting in a circle, and when he turned his narrow hindquarters Rod saw the piece de resistance: one of those barbell-shaped piercings, thrust through the folds just above his nutsack. The sight filled him with primitive awe. If Bruno Sinkowitz saw that dangling from Toby, he'd have to re-think his original assessment.
"Don't tell me you're actually impressed by this bullshit."
A spiky-haired brunette in jeans and a sleeveless shirt had spoken. Celtic-style tats swirled from the back of her hands up to her shoulders. Despite not having any makeup on, Rod thought she was tastiest piece he'd seen in months.
"You talk funny," he said.
"I'm not from here." She crouched and offered a hand to Toby, who snuffled at her like she was covered in peanut butter. Rod used the opportunity to peer down her shirt. No bra, he was pretty sure, but not much there. Not that he was feeling picky.
"Your dog's really gentle for a Pit Bull," she said.
"So I've been told."
The crowd had closed in around Carlos, and now he was busy shaking hands and passing out business cards. Rodney glanced at the woman, still mooning over Toby. This was a dilemma. Should he try to score? Or should he brace Carlos and ask him what the going rate was for a nut-piercing?
She straightened. "You weren't thinking of having this fine animal pierced, were you?"
"Because it's inhumane."
"Well, I thought maybe one earring, you know? That wouldn't hurt much."
She frowned. Wrong answer. For a second Rod thought she was going to hit him, the way her jaw tightened. But she walked away without another word. He stood there, watching her shapely ass recede. Fuck. Why couldn't he lie more? It'd been at least a year since he'd had any action, and that'd been sloppy seconds off his brother's jailbait girlfriend, Eileen Nesbitt. Just now a woman—a real woman—had come up and talked to him, and he'd pissed her off in less than fifteen seconds.
He turned to see if the crowd was dispersing, but instead it'd become a solid wedge of people. He tried to push through to Carlos and got shoved back by a biker with a shaved head, so hard he almost tripped over Toby's leash.
Man, Fate was fucking with him tonight.
Best thing to do, he reasoned, was track down the spiky-haired chick. Apologize. He could always find Carlos again, but a woman was a different story.
He jogged past two rows of cars and spotted her heading for a VW bug. A lanky guy leaned against the hood, smoking a cigarette. Her boyfriend? It figured. But a couple paces closer he saw it wasn't a guy at all. Just a woman dressed in overalls, with very short blond hair. She had a telephoto camera hung around her neck. Rod, out of breath, came huffing up and steadied himself against a nearby truck. Toby woofed a greeting at Spiky Hair.
"Who the hell's this?" said the tall woman. She pointed the glowing end of her cigarette at him.
"One of Carlos' fans," Spiky Hair said. "He was planning on getting an earring for his poor little dog there."
"Really?" The tall woman marched over. She had at least four inches on Rod, so when she crossed her arms and glared down at him he felt a strong compulsion to examine her feet. She wore steel-toed leather boots with little chains running up the sides.
"I changed my mind," Rod said.
"Damn straight you did."
"And I wanted to apologize to your friend."
The woman snorted. "Hear that, Daphne? The little prick apologizes. That's real white of you. Now fuck off, little prick."
"Hey," Daphne said. She was looking across the parking lot. "Carlos is leaving. He's getting into his Impala."
"Showtime." The blond lifted the camera from her neck and chucked it into the VW's open window. Daphne hustled around to the passenger's side. They both looked excited, prompting Rod to wonder what the fuck they'd been doing here, staking out the parking lot of a Pet Stop. Were they reporters?
The blond snatched keys out of her pocket. She glanced sidelong at Rod. "Wait. Daphne said you're a fan of Carlos. Do you know him?"
"I've talked to him a couple times. We're not friends or anything."
"Would he remember you?"
Something flickered behind her gray eyes. She yanked the VW's door open, and pushed the driver's seat forward. "Get in."
"Hey, I was just . . ." he started to back away.
Without thinking, Rod scooped up Toby and slipped into the back seat.
The blonde's name was Meg. She drove, following Carlos' midnight blue Impala over rural roads at such a distance she should've lost him, but didn't. The old VW had shitty suspension and jerked every time they hit a rut. Daphne argued with Meg about how close or how far back they should be following. Meg finally told her to shut the fuck up and let her concentrate, which got about three minutes of sullen silence before Daphne started in again.
Meg turned up the music. It was two women whining about feeling closer to fine, or some shit like that. Rod would've killed a stranger for a Rascal Flatts CD.
He sat hunched over Toby. Dirty clothes, empty juice bottles, and fast food wrappers hemmed them on all sides. His knee kept brushing up against a stack of papers. On impulse, he pulled one out and squinted at it in the dim light. It was a flyer, showing Carlos holding up Chato and grinning. The bottom of the paper quoted his rates and gave a contact number, but no address.
"There's the turn he took," Daphne said. "Cut the lights."
The VW lurched into a hard left and Meg switched off the headlights. She slowed. There was only a waxing moon to drive by. Rod could make out Ironwood trees on either side of the road, but not much else. A cluster of large shadows appeared ahead and to the right. The shadows resolved into a wall of Oleander bushes, about ten feet high. Midway down the bushes stood a mailbox and a narrow gap big enough to squeeze a car through.
"That's got to be it," Daphne said.
The car cruised on past for another five minutes, and Meg eased it into a shallow ditch before killing the engine. Rod cleared his throat. "Can I, ah, ask what you guys are up to?"
Meg and Daphne got out. They whispered to each other in the darkness before Meg pulled the seat back and beckoned for Rod to join them. "Bring your dog," she said. He crawled out, pulling Toby after him. The evening's heat had evaporated into black Texas sky.
"Okay," Meg said. "Here's the deal. You're going to take your dog up to Carlos' house. Knock on the door. When he answers, you tell him you want to talk about piercings, or monster trucks, or whatever it is you fucking rednecks yak about. Hopefully, he invites you inside."
"Uh-huh. And don't say anything about Daphne and me."
"What're you going to do?"
"None of your business."
"You're reporters, right? Working for some liberal newspaper out of Austin."
Meg stared at him. "We're warriors."
He started to ask what that's supposed to mean, but Daphne leaned close and wrapped an arm around his shoulder. She smelled clean, like soap. Her breath husked into his ear. "Look, this is for a higher good, okay? I can't speak for Meg, but if you help us, I'd be personally grateful." She nudged her right breast against his bicep.
The night's chill vanished. Rod felt like someone had slipped an iron bar into his pants. "Sure, sure," he said, already tugging at Toby's leash. Hell, hadn't he wanted to talk to Carlos anyways? Wasn't that how this crazy night began?
He set off towards the wall of oleander. Behind him, Meg and Daphne whispered until their voices dropped away, and the only sound was the chuff of Toby's breathing. He realized he was being used, but it didn't matter. An invisible string had been tied to his dick and it pulled him around the mailbox, through the gap in the bushes. First thing he saw on the other side was Carlos' Impala, parked several yards up a gravel drive. A one-storied farmhouse with a tin roof stood just beyond. Faint light seeped from its front windows.
He started towards the porch. Two floodlights snapped on, and all he could see was white glare.
Carlos' voice: "Who's that?" Behind him came the sound of muffled barking.
Blinking, Rod held up Toby's leash. "I came from Pet Stop."
"You followed me?"
"Can I talk to you for a second? It's business."
"Hold on." The lights snapped off, leaving massive purple blobs swimming in front of Rod's eyes. He heard Carlos yell, and a couple seconds later the barking ceased.
"You might as well come in," Carlos said. "I locked Chato in the back room, so bring your Pit."
Rod could make out a lit doorway, and the silhouette of a bald head. He stumbled towards it. His eyes cleared more; he saw Carlos looked annoyed. He was clutching something small and black, partially hidden behind the door frame. Carlos stepped back, and Rod followed him into a cramped front room. Cramped, but expensively furnished. Leather sectional sofa. Glass-topped table. Mexican tile on the floor.
Carlos sat, and motioned for Rod to do the same. He set the black object he'd been holding onto the table. It was a nine millimeter.
"Is the dog piercing business dangerous?"
"Lot of kooks, you know?" Carlos spread his hands. "I've been pretty successful, so I guess people get jealous. Make threats. Now what can I do for you?"
Rod gestured at Toby, who had draped himself across his feet. "My dog's a wuss."
"Alright. Yeah, I see what you mean. And you were thinking maybe a piercing to give him an edge, right?"
"This problem comes up a lot. You'd be surprised how many people see me about this."
"How much to pierce his balls?"
"Whoa. You're really going for the gusto here. A couple things. I don't actually pierce the testes themselves. That'd be cruel. What I do, I find some loose folds around the scrotal area, pierce that. A heavy object will cause the balls to dangle more, making them look larger."
"What's the heaviest you got?"
"Stay put. I'll show you."
Carlos left the room and came back several minutes later with two cases. Each contained an assortment of oversize studs. Rod examined each one, weighing them in his palm. He'd momentarily forgotten about Meg and Daphne, until a thump sounded from somewhere in back of the house. A dog, presumably Chato, started barking.
"You hear that?" Carlos said.
"No, there was a noise just before." His eyes narrowed. "Did you come here alone?"
Carlos stood up. He grabbed the nine millimeter off the table. Chato was barking like a maniac now, and the sound was echoing up an adjoining hallway. Getting louder. Rod had an uncomfortable thought: what if Meg and Daphne just tried to break in, and they picked the room with Chato?
Carlos pointed the gun at the hallway. Clicked the safety off.
Rod heard Meg swearing, before she burst in. Her face shone crimson. She was wrestling with Chato, holding him in a peculiar grip; one bloodied arm looped under his belly and the fingers of her other hand locked around the scruff of his neck. The boxer snapped and pawed at empty air. Daphne came stumbling in behind her. She saw Carlos and the nine millimeter the same time Meg did. Both women froze, their mouths parting in surprise.
"Wrong house," Carlos said. "Wrong guy." He leveled the gun at Meg. It looked fifty-fifty his slugs would rip through Chato before they got to her, but he seemed ready to roll the dice.
Rod did a stupid thing.
He lunged for Carlos' hands, grabbed them and yanked down. The nine went off inches from his face. This close the small round was thunder and lightning. It shattered a hole through the glass table, struck Salteco tile inches from where Toby huddled, and ricocheted up into the wall.
Something big passed over Rod's head and smacked Carlos in the chest. He fell backwards, wrenching his hands free. Rod turned, saw Chato sprawled atop his master, and lunged for the pistol again. Meg's steel-toed boot beat him to it. She stomped Carlos' wrist with a crack audible even through the ringing in Rod's ears. The pistol clattered away.
"That's for making me throw your dog at you," she said.
Chato whirled and tried to bite her ankle, but Daphne came up from behind and got him in another neck-grip. "Help me," she yelled at Rod, and together they wrestled the dog into a nearby closet and slammed the door. Meg snatched up the gun.
Rod saw blood dripping from a gouge in her forearm. Her hands trembled a little, but she managed to steady the nine on Carlos. Not that she needed to. He was too busy groaning and clutching at his now-useless right hand. "Y-you broke my wrist," he said.
"It's less than you deserve, you fucking torturer. The time it took, tracking your sorry ass down, and then you try to shoot me—"
"What is it?" said Daphne.
"I hear barking."
Rod couldn't hear dick, beyond Chato's scratching at the door, but Daphne nodded. "It's coming from outside."
"Running a mill too, huh?" Meg said to Carlos. "Where are they?"
No response. She lifted her boot an inch off the floor and Carlos blurted: "The shed. Out back." As soon as he said that he closed his eyes and swore softly. Meg and Daphne exchanged looks.
Some nasty shit was about to go down, Rod sensed. It'd been real, seeing people get their bones broken and all, but the trailer park was calling. He'd chalk Daphne up as a loss. As for piercing, maybe he could get Toby tattooed instead. There was a woman up in Big Springs who did that.
Meg saw him inch for the door. "Huh-uh."
"I don't mind walking home."
"Sorry, little prick. You're staying with us."
Well, okay. Not in a mood to argue here. "You want me to call the cops? Get the Humane Society or something?"
Meg shook her head. "No cops. No officials." She kicked Carlos to his feet. It was freaky, the way his hand flopped around like a wilted flower. Rod felt his stomach give a little hitch. Violence, that wasn't really his bag. He liked it on a screen and everything, but up close—not so much.
"What're you going to do to him?" He nodded at Carlos.
"First, this piece of shit's going to show us what he's got in that shed," Meg said. "Then we'll go from there."
She sounded way too composed. Dripping blood, gun in her hand, and she could've been talking about hitting a drive-through.
He looked at Daphne. Her face was a mask.
"Let's go," Meg said. She slapped Carlos on the shoulder. He swayed forward, lead them down the hallway and into a back room piled with boxes. There was a sliding glass door on the far wall, open and leaning crazy, off its track. It'd been forced. A crowbar lay just on the other side. Rod figured that'd been Meg and Daphne's work. They filed past the door and out onto the back porch.
Moonlight clawed long shadows over a dirt yard devoid of grass, furniture, anything. Except for the large shed about twenty feet away. It squatted on a cement slab, and silhouetted against the night sky it looked like a set from a horror movie. The Shed. Rod didn't want to go near the thing. He was getting a sliding feeling, reminding him of the gravel pit he and Russ used to play in as kids. Try to clamber up the sides and the gravel would go skittering away under his fingers, dropping him lower. Same feeling.
Carlos staggered to the shed's doors, held shut with a thick padlock.
"Keys?" Meg said.
"I lost 'em."
"The fuck you did." She thrust her hands in his pockets and came up with a ring. The first tiny key she tried fit the lock, and when she threw open the doors a torrent of barks, whines, and the smell of raw shit came boiling out, like she'd opened the Kennel of Hell. She groped around inside the doorway and a light flicked on. Rod looked away.
"No," Daphne said, putting a hand on his head and pushing it gently back. "You need to see."
First thing Rod saw was a series of steel posts sunk into the cement floor, strung with chain-link and cutting the shed's interior in two sections. The part closest to them had a worktable and a peg board bolted to the wall, the kind people use to hang tools. Only this one gleamed with hundreds of chrome studs, chains, hoops, and little barbells. What looked like a plastic toy gun with metal parts lay on the worktable. Rod guessed it was a piercing gun.
The other side of the fence . . .
He turned away. Daphne didn't stop him this time.
Meg sucked in a long breath.
He was trying to blink the image out of his eyes: a Terrier cross, her body covered with so many studs they looked like rivets on the skin of an old airplane. A length of chain had been looped through her nose, connecting her to two other dogs.
And then his hands were moving on their own, like they had with the gun, seizing Carlos by the shirt. He offered no resistance. His head hung limp. Rod closed his eyes and the Terrier was still there. The smell etched something deep inside his brain. Something he'd never get out. His fingers tightened around Carlos; he pictured Toby stashed away back there, helpless, cowering in an inch of solid filth. Trying to dig under that chain link until his paws went bloody. Poor Toby. Poor little Terrier.
"You're sick," he said to Carlos."This isn't a puppy mill. You've been practicing on those animals."
"How else was I supposed to learn? My art—"
Rod punched him. Put his shoulder behind it, and something else. Rage, maybe. He wasn't sure because he didn't get angry a lot. Not like this. His knuckles clipped Carlos' chin and jolted his head to one side. The contact felt good. He drew his fist back for another. What got him, what really flipped his switch was how much he'd been suckered by this guy. He was going to pay him, for Christ's sake.
Second punch went downstairs. Carlos folded around the impact to his stomach. His useless right hand came up, flopped against Rod's face. The shed dogs started barking again. Rod got the weird idea they were cheering him on. He bowled forward and hooked his hands behind Carlos's leg. They both went down. Rod landed on top, got his knees on Carlos's chest and then straddled him, pinning his arms against the dirt. Face wide open for short punches.
He thought about Bruno Sinkowitz; the way his lips had curled at the sight of Toby.
He thought about growing up short and weak in West Texas.
His mind went away for awhile. When it came floating back he was aware of a pressure clamped on his left shoulder, and a dull ache in the knuckles and fingers of both hands. He was breathing crazy.
"Alright," Meg said, crouching beside him, hand on his shoulder. "Alright. Get up now."
He glanced down at Carlos. The flesh around his mouth and eye sockets was swollen. A trickle of red trailed from where his lips had been smashed against his front teeth. He was still conscious, though. His eyes rolled in lazy orbits.
Meg helped Rod to his feet. She gave him an appraising look, then turned to stomp Carlos in the ribs. His face contorted like he wanted to groan, but he was all out of juice. "Thanks for softening him up," she said. "Maybe your prick's not so little after all."
Daphne nodded. "Tougher than we thought."
But he ignored them, their praise, and went stumbling back into the house to look for Toby.