by Andrew Vachss
"Look at my Buster ... look what they did to him."
The old man pointed a shaking finger at the dog, a big German shepherd. The animal was cowering in a corner of the kitchen of the railroad flat—his fine head was lopsided, a piece of his skull missing under the ragged fur. A deep pocket of scar tissue glowed white where one eye had been, the other was cataract-milky, fire-dotted with fear. The dog's tail hung behind him at a demented angle, one front paw hung useless in a plaster cast.
"Cain" from Hard Looks
art by John Watkiss
"Who did it?"
The old man wasn't listening, not finished yet. Squeezing the wound to get the pus out. "Buster guards out back, where the chicken wire is. They tormented him, threw stuff at him, made him crazy. Then they cut the lock. Two of them. One had a baseball bat, the other had a piece of pipe. My Buster ... he wouldn't hurt anyone. They beat on him, over and over, laughing. I ran downstairs to stop them ... they just slapped me, like I was a fly. They did my Buster so bad, it even hurts him when I try and rub him."
The old man sat crying at his kitchen table.
The dog watched me, a thin whine coming from his open mouth. Half his teeth were missing.
"You know who did it," I said. It wasn't a question. He didn't know, he wouldn't have called me—I'm no private eye.
"I called ... I called the cops. 911. They never came. I went down to the precinct. The man at the desk, he said to call the ASPCA."
"You know who they are?"
"I don't know their names. Two men, young men. One has big muscles, the other's skinny."
"They're from around here?"
"I don't know. They're always together—I've seen them before. Everybody knows them. They have their heads shaved too."
"Everybody knows them?"
"Everybody. They beat other dogs too. They make the dogs bark at them, then they ... " He was crying again.
I waited, watching the dog.
"They come back. I see them walking down the alley. Almost every day. I can't leave Buster outside anymore—can't even take him for a walk. I have to clean up after him now."
"What do you want?"
"What do I want?"
"You called me. You got my name from somewhere. You know what I do."
The old man got up, knelt next to his dog. Put his hand gently on the dog's head. "Buster used to be the toughest dog in the world—wasn't afraid of nothing. I had him ever since he was a pup. He won't even look out the back window with me now."
"What do you want?" I asked him again.
They both looked at me. "You know," the old man said.
— 2 —
A freestanding brick building in Red Hook, not far from the waterfront, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. I rang the bell. A dog snarled a warning. I looked into the mirrored glass, knowing they could see me. The steel door opened. A man in a white T-shirt over floppy black trousers opened the door. He was barefoot, dark hair cropped close, body so smooth it might have been extruded from rubber. He bowed slightly. I returned his bow, followed him inside.
A rectangular room, roughened wood floor. A canvas-wrapped heavy bag swung from the ceiling in one corner. In another, a car tire was suspended from a thick rope. A pair of long wood staves hung on hooks.
"I'll get him," the man said.
I waited, standing in one spot.
He returned, leading a dog by a chain. A broad-chested pit bull, all white except for a black patch over one eye. The dog watched me, cobra-calm.
"Here he is," the man said.
"You sure he'll do it?"
"What's his name?"
I squatted down, said the dog's name, scratched him behind his erect ears when he came to me.
"You want to practice with him?"
"Yeah, I'd better. I know the commands you gave me, but ... "
I played with Cain, putting him through standard obedience paces. He was a machine, perfect.
The trainer came back into the room. Two other men with him, dressed in full agitator's suits, leather-lined and padded. Masks on their faces, like hockey goalies wear.
"Let's do it," he said.
— 3 —
I walked down the alley behind the old man's building, Cain on a thin leather leash, held lightly in my left hand. The dog knew the route by now—it was our fifth straight day.
They turned the corner fifty feet from me. The smaller one had a baseball bat over his shoulder, the muscleman slapped a piece of lead pipe into one palm.
They closed in. I stepped aside to let them pass, pulling Cain close to my leg.
They didn't walk past. The smaller one planted his feet, looking into my eyes.
"Hey, man. That's a pit bull, right? Pretty tough dogs, I heard."
"No, he's not tough," I said, a catch in my voice. "He's just a pet."
"He looks like a bad dog to me," the big guy said, poking the lead pipe into the dog's face, stabbing. Cain stepped out of the way.
"Please don't hurt my dog," I begged them, pulling up on the leash.
Cain leaped into my arms, his face against my chest. I could feel the bunched muscles in his legs, all four paws flat against me.
"Aw, is your dog scared, man?" the big one sneered, stepping close to me, slapping the dog's back with the pipe.
"Leave us alone," I said, stepping back as they closed in.
"Put the dog down, faggot!"
I put my mouth close to Cain's ear, whispered "Go!" as I threw open my arms. The pit bull launched himself off my chest without a sound, his alligator teeth locking on the big guy's face. A scream bubbled out. The big man fell to the ground, clawing at Cain's back. Pieces of his face flew off, red and white. He spasmed like he was in the electric chair, but the dog held on, wouldn't drop the bite. The smaller guy stood there, rooted, mouth open, no sound coming out, his pants turning dark at the crotch.
"Out!" I snapped at the dog. Cain stepped away, his mouth foamy with bloody gristle.
"Your turn," I said to the smaller guy. He took off, running for his life. Cain caught him, running right up his spine, locking onto the back of his neck.
I called him off when I heard a snap.
As we turned to walk back down the alley, I glanced up.
The old man was at the window. Buster next to him, the plaster cast on his paw draped over the sill.
© 1994 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
This story appears in Born Bad by Andrew Vachss and as an adapted story in the Hard Looks graphic novel.