The girl at the bus stop had the body of a starving alley cat and the vacant eyes of a war-crimes victim. Her leopard-print top might have worked on someone twenty pounds heavier but it only made her resemble Zombie Barbie. “What you want?” she asked.
“You’re Julie, right?” From the passenger seat of our cruiser, my partner Rufus flashed a sunny smile. “We just want to talk.”
She studied us through her cloud of menthol smoke. “About what?”
“Official business. Get in,” I said.
Julie shrugged and climbed in the backseat, puffing away at her cigarette. A detective’s badge still earns you respect around these parts. I pulled off the shoulder and merged with the traffic barreling down Highway 61, mostly workers headed for the casino. It was muggy in that way of northern Mississippi mornings, not hot enough quite yet to kill any lizards crossing the road.
“Little mama,” Rufus leaned back in his seat. “What’s your opinion on eternity?”
I rolled my eyes, making sure Julie saw me do it in the rearview mirror. “I got bigger things to worry about,” she said, grinning. “Like how I’m getting to work on time with you guys driving me the wrong way.”
“Cool your jets, let me tell you what I think,” Rufus said, working his drawl like a slide guitar. “I think you can be frail, or good, or righteous, but none of it really matters, because in the end, eternity’s just going to swallow you right up—poof—as if you never existed in the first place. If you care about little things like morality, it’s because you’re trying to deny that you’re an insignificant speck of carbon in a very big, very nasty universe. Wouldn’t it be more refreshing to just come out with it, act like you want, knowing none of it will affect anything?”
Her face lit up so bright, I could practically see the electrical storm in her skull. Here we go, I thought: Rufus expands another lady’s mind right into the sack.
Hissing smoke out the corner of her mouth, Julie said: “Yeah, but what about Kant?”
Rufus jerked like someone threw a jab at his jaw. “What about who?”
“Let’s say you do bad stuff because you’re depressed about death or whatever,” she said. “Sure, the universe won’t give a crap. But if everybody did the same bad stuff as you? The world would just be chaos, and that wouldn’t be any fun at all, would it, even for a nihilist? That’s what Kant calls the categorical imperative. What, they didn’t make you read him in cop school?”
I found it hard not to laugh as Rufus twisted in his seat, helpless while his philosophy spiel crashed and burned to ash. Rufus never went to college or studied the great thinkers; he just watched that detective show where Matthew McConaughey drives around Louisiana for eight episodes musing on life and death, decided that would prove a pretty good way to pick up girls, and started memorizing as many big words as he could between work and drunk.
“It’s okay,” Julie said. “I’m just playing. You want to talk philosophy? I majored in it. You think I’m working minimum wage ‘cause I got a choice?”
“You better quiet down,” Rufus growled.
“By the way, I might as well tell you, in the interest of time?” she said. “When we get to the station, I’m going to ask for my lawyer. I got his number and everything. Your big mistake waking up this morning, cop, was assuming every female you meet is some kind of dumbass.”
“We’re not going to the station,” I said.
The light in her eyes darkened with fear. You live around here long enough, you know what the Police can do. Not every corpse in a swamp is a mystery. I know because I’ve put a few of them there, myself.
“What you want?” she hissed.
“Your boyfriend Roy,” I said. “We’re looking for a friendly chat about his businesses. It goes well, it’ll just be a chat, you understand?”
“So where is he?” Rufus added. “We checked his house, so don’t you dare say that. He’s gone to ground somewhere.”
The girl stonewalled for two minutes, staring out the window with her bony arms crossed, so she could feel better later about snitching. “Maybe the ring.”
“We checked the ring,” I said. “Nobody was there.”
“No, the new ring,” she shot back. “Up from the crossroads a bit, gas station behind the Zero. Didn’t know to look there, did you?”
I twisted the wheel hard, skewing the big Ford onto the shoulder. “Thanks,” I said. “If you’re lying, we know where to find you. And don’t you dare tell Roy we’re coming.”
Julie made a big show of acting confused, swiveling her head to take in the empty fields on either side of road. “Gee, this isn’t my workplace.”
“Get out,” I said. “There’s another bus stop up there, see?” Trust me, I almost added. You don’t want to be anywhere near what’s about to happen.
When my marriage imploded a few years back, I would sometimes spend half the night driving up and down 61, singing along with heavy metal on the radio as my SUV plowed through low mist and swarms of bugs. I first saw Bruiser at that low time, pacing the side of the road maybe a mile from the casino. His eyes gleamed gold in my headlights, and he sank back on his haunches, patient, as I stepped on the brakes and pulled over.
He was a beautiful grey pit bull, but someone had done a real number on him: a torn ear, scars and burn marks along his ribs, a break in the back leg that had set imperfectly, leaving him with a limp. The vet charged me three hundred bucks to fix him up, including shots, and warned me about taking in strays. “Got to watch out,” he said. “Trauma, it comes out as neurosis. Introduce him slow to the family.”
I almost laughed. What family? Bruiser and I returned to an empty house. My wife had taken everything from the master bedroom except the mattress and my grandfather’s stained-oak crucifix. We spent that first night together with Bruiser’s warm bulk curled against my ribs, his heavy head on my chest, as I tried to win a staring contest with Jesus Christ.
The Zero was a dank little bar beyond the railroad tracks on the north side of town, its concrete front porch lined with shredded couches and an iron grill shaped like a pig. The sun pressed a burning hand to my face as we climbed out of the car, my forehead prickling with sweat. I debated whether to strip off my suit jacket and leave it in the car, and chose to keep it on. That decision would save me some pain and blood before the day was out.
The bar’s blessedly cool interior was old-school juke joint, the whitewashed walls scrawled with a thousand declarations of love and hate in pencil, marker, and blue pool-cue chalk. Except for the extravagantly bearded bartender cleaning glasses, and the cook banging pots in the rear kitchen, the place was empty. While Rufus ordered us a pair of pre-lunch vodkas and a basket of chili fries, I checked out some of the latest missives inked into the boards near our table, appreciating one that read: ‘GO HOME, MOM. YOU’RE DRUNK.’
When the fries came, I began shoveling them into my mouth without a word, knowing my stomach would hate me for subjecting it to a hot-sauce tsunami, but not really caring. Rufus stared at me with growing concern. “When was the last time you ate a real meal?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Got some pizza last night.”
“No, I mean a real meal. With greens, you know? We’re not twenty-five anymore, man. You got to watch your health.”
I shrugged again, my mouth stuffed with burning goodness.
“Okay, okay, new topic. How’s the thing with your ex going?” he asked.
“Not good.” I shook my head. “Judge said ‘no’ to joint custody.”
“Oof,” Rufus said, snatching the basket of fries away from me. “So your payments still the same?”
“Yeah. And I got the new mortgage on top of it.”
“Word to the wise: don’t try relocating for custody.” Maybe I should write that bit on the wall, for any other sad sacks seeking wisdom over a drink.
“Failure is nothing but flawed self-conceptualization.” Rufus chased a handful of fries with his vodka. “Anyway, what’s the plan here?”
“Like I told that girl, I’m going to ask Roy politely,” I said, downing my shot. “And if I don’t get the answers I want, I’m going to ask a little less politely.”
“I better get another drink.” Rufus waved for the bartender.
Back at the cruiser, Rufus checked the clip in his pistol—a burner, not his service weapon—while I opened the trunk and retrieved the pump-action shotgun from beneath its blanket.
A hundred yards behind the Zero, on the far side of a dirt lot, stood a boarded-up gas station. We studied it from a distance, seeing no sign of life, hearing no sound except for the clicking chorus of insects in the marshy waste to our left. After a minute, I nodded for us to move.
“I once asked someone if anything good ever came out of this place,” Rufus said, as we walked across the dirt. “He said, ‘Muddy Waters once passed through on the train.’”
“More than you can say of most towns.”
“Maybe. Want me to take the back?”
“Let’s both do the front,” I said. “Like I told the lady, friendly chat.”
“Friendly chat,” Rufus replied, raising his pistol. “Got it.”
We both knew Roy Caldwell. Calling him smarter than the average criminal around these parts was faint praise; Rufus and I sometimes nailed confessions by offering suspects a can of free beer. Roy sold guns and weed, although we never managed to catch him in the act. On his one five-year bid for robbery, he started up a cellblock book club featuring works by Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates. He dated slumming college girls. While I sort of admired Roy’s attempts to grow a brain, Rufus tried turning our every interaction with him into an intellectual pissing-match. That hatred might help explain what happened later.
The gas station’s front door was unlocked. I pushed it open, revealing darkness, and ducked inside with Rufus on my heels, his pistol aimed over my shoulder. The interior smelled like old blood and oil. I paused for a moment, so my eyes could adjust to the gloom. Someone had taken apart the aisles and piled the metal shelving into a waist-high ring in the center of the space. My heart hammering in my chest, I peered inside the enclosure, seeing dark stains, deep scratches in the dirty linoleum, a foot-long stick broken in half.
“What you got?” Rufus asked.
“Nothing good,” I said. “Let’s move.”
A door against the far wall led to the attached garage bay. I kicked it open and dove through fast, seeing flop-space: dirty blankets balled in the corner atop an air mattress, melted candles, piles of books, and a few crates stacked high with empty bottles and hubcaps filled with crushed cigarette butts. And Roy, sitting in a plastic chair like a Dixie-fried Buddha, his scabby legs crossed under him and his hands on his knees. His eyes opened, calm, as I barged into the room.
“Where is he?” I nearly screamed.
“When I was a kid?” Roy said, in a conversational tone. “We had this phrase, ‘All dog.’ It meant you were the toughest mofo out there. Like, you were such a badass, you didn’t even need to think about it.” He flashed yellow fangs. “You’re trying to be all dog, aren’t you?”
I smashed Roy in the face with the shotgun butt, hard enough to send him flying over the back of the chair.
“That’s you asking polite?” Rufus yelled behind me.
I let a wheezing Roy crawl across the concrete. “Where is he?” I asked again.
Roy coughed. “Who?”
Behind me, Rufus shrugged and searched the place, kicking over crates, bottles and hubcaps skittering across the floor. He found a backpack nestled in the blankets and flipped it upside-down, spilling its contents on the air mattress—and paused. Stooped. Picked up a gold heart pendant on a thin chain. “Partner,” he said. “You remember Angela Baker case?”
I did. Angela Baker was a thirty-year-old woman who had disappeared one night after her shift at the Neptune, a diner a couple blocks south of here. I always thought her prick of an ex-husband had killed her and dumped the body where the alligators could find it. Maybe I’d been wrong.
“I never seen that necklace before,” Roy muttered. “You’re setting me up.”
Rufus snapped the pendant open. “Picture sure looks like Baker’s kid,” he said. “Roy, why don’t you stop bullshitting, tell us why you got this?”
“Someone gave it to me.” Roy coughed and sat up.
“Wow, never heard that one before,” I said, setting aside my own quest for the moment. “Why don’t you tell us what really happened?”
Before Roy could answer, the exit door to our left burst open, the harsh daylight framing Julie, our favorite chain-smoking scarecrow. I guess she ended up skipping work. She pointed a pistol at us, her finger squeezing the trigger.
My new house had a big yard with a chain-link fence, perfect for Bruiser. I even set up a kiddie pool beside the back door, so he could cool off while I was at work. Sometimes when the house felt a little too empty I would set up a lawn chair and sit out there with him, talking about my day while we watched the stars. Bruiser had no idea what I was saying, but I felt he understood.
So imagine my horror when I came home after a nasty double-shift to find the gate open and Bruiser gone. No way he could have gotten out by himself: I had designed a special latch with looping wire, impossible to open unless you had opposable thumbs. In the grass beside the pool I uncovered a half-eaten ball of raw hamburger, dusted with blue powder. I knew what that meant. Dog-fight organizers liked stuffing sleeping pills inside meat, to knock dogs out before dragging them to hell.
For the first time since my wife announced that she was leaving me for our little town’s deputy mayor, and taking my kids with her, I had to struggle to hold back tears. Biting my cheek hard enough to draw blood, I phoned Rufus. “People running dog fights,” I said.
He shifted instantly to work mode: “Billy Billions in jail, Dennis is in jail, whole damn Sunshine crew got knocked off…”
“Leaves Roy,” I said, wiping my wet cheeks.
“That’s right. Let’s see if we can’t find that fucker.”
Julie seemed to know her guns. Her first bullet zipped past my skull close enough to snatch some hair, the gunshot booming loud against the concrete. Her second sparked off the floor by Rufus, forcing him to dive left.
I raised my shotgun, ready to return fire, when Roy darted forward and bit my forearm. His teeth snagged in my suit jacket and shirt sleeve, only grazing the skin but throwing off my aim as I squeezed the trigger, buckshot exploding the doorframe to the left of Julie’s head.
She dropped the pistol and ran.
“Ain’t love grand?” Rufus called from his prone position on the concrete.
From outside came the barking of dogs.
I placed my palm against Roy’s forehead and shoved, sending him sprawling backwards. Pumping the shotgun for a fresh shell, I trotted outside, catching a glimpse of Julie sprinting across the dirt lot. Whatever; she wasn’t the only person doing horrible things in the name of love today. Rounding the back of the garage, I saw a cage covered with a dirty sheet, which I whipped away to reveal my Bruiser, panting on his side with a snout crusted in blood. He barked again, weakly, as I slammed the butt of the shotgun against the cage’s cheap combination lock until it popped open.
Bruiser was too weak to walk on his own, so I carried him inside the garage and set him on the air mattress. While I was outside Rufus had stood and dragged Roy into the center of the room, forcing him to kneel with his hands laced behind his head.
“Look, I didn’t know the dog was yours,” Roy called, his chin still spotted with my blood. “You think I’m stupid enough to steal from a cop? We were just driving by, heard him barking, took a look, you know?”
Bruiser licked my face. He was a good dog, a tough dog. “How many times you make him fight?” I asked.
“Three last night, and he won them all, okay? And your dog’s alive, okay?” Roy said, panic in his voice for the first time. “No harm, no foul, okay?”
I ran my hands along Bruiser’s flank, feeling for anything broken, and he whined when I touched a shallow cut on his belly. Unless he had a busted organ, he would live. Please, God, let him live.
“Time will destroy everything in the end,” Rufus said, “including you.” And raising the burner, he shot Roy through the skull. Roy’s body smacked the concrete face-down.
“Thank you,” I said.
“No, that was for Baker.” Rufus wiped the smoking pistol clean with his shirt-tail before dropping it beside Roy’s twitching right hand. From his pants pocket he took a sample bottle of cologne and sprayed it on his palms.
Part of me wondered if Rufus had taken that pendant from an evidence envelope, on the outside chance that he could plant it on Roy. It meant little to me if he had. All I cared about was the dog cradled in my arms. “I’m going for the car,” I said. “I got to get my boy some help.”
While Rufus called in the crime-scene techs, I violated a half-dozen cop protocols and traffic laws by flooring it for the animal clinic. “You’ll be okay, buddy,” I told Bruiser, taking a hand off the wheel to scratch his jowls.
Bruiser snorted and licked, cleaning the dried blood off my knuckles. I buzzed down his window a few inches. On an ordinary ride he would have stuck his nose in the breeze, but after his rough night he opted to curl up and fall asleep, snoring in seconds.
Resting my hand on his flank, I blew through another red light at top speed. The clinic was just ahead. Once the vet had my dog’s health under control, I would return to the gas station and help Rufus lie us a justified shooting.
Was it worth hurting other human beings over a dog?
Absolutely. My Bruiser was nothing but a lovable bundle of primal needs. Compare that to people, who always have the choice to act righteous, but often as not decide to do bad. People like Roy, and Rufus, and Julie. And me. In our own ways, we all have it coming.