The Concrete Puppy
"Do you know where the Red 71 poolroom is?" the woman asked, bending forward to speak through the open window of the cab.
The cabbie took in the woman's wild mane of red hair, her heavily made-up face, and her spectacular chest. He swallowed hard, looking up.
"Lady, you don't want to go there. That's not a place for—"
"Look," she interrupted, "you're the fourth driver I asked. Two didn't speak English, the other one wanted a street address. 'Red 71,' that's all I know. And you, you know where it is. Come on, be a sport. I'm a big girl," she said in a husky voice, drawing in a deep breath to showcase the proof. "I can take care of myself."
The cabbie considered for a minute, then nodded toward the back seat. "Get in."
The cab left the Loop, working its way uptown. The woman sat back, crossed her long legs. "Do you mind if I smoke?" she asked politely.
"I look like one a those kinda people to you?" the driver replied. "Go ahead, make yourself happy."
The woman fired up, inhaled gratefully, watching the neighborhood change through the back window.
"Excuse me, lady," the driver said, "I don't mean to get personal or nothing, but are you ... like an actress or something?"
"Something," the woman replied, smiling.
The cab pulled up to the curb between the rotting hulks of two abandoned cars. The driver pointed to a length of chain link fence topped by coils of rusting concertina wire.
"There it is, miss."
"Where? All I see is the fence."
"See? Over there. That's like the gate, okay?"
The woman shot the driver a dubious look, deciding. Then she reached in her clutch bag and pulled out a pair of fifties. "Look," she told the driver, "I'll never get a cab to come to this neighborhood. Here's fifty on a twenty-dollar fare—that's pretty good, right? And here's another, for coming back to pick me up in an hour."
"Lady, you don't have to ...."
"One hour, okay? I'll be right here. Thanks!"
The redhead stepped past the opening in the chain link fence and carefully picked her way through a maze of debris, well-balanced despite the spike heels, keeping her eyes on the "71" scrawled in fading red over a slab-faced metal door. When she neared the door, she could see it had no handle, and was standing slightly ajar. She pushed, and the door yielded. Inside, she found herself on a stairwell, with an another arrow in the same faded red paint pointing down.
She followed the arrow to the basement where she encountered another handleless door. She pushed gently and stepped inside. The poolroom was murky, clouds of cigarette smoke mingling with darkness to create pockets of gloom. There was no overhead lighting; the only illumination was a series of shaded bulbs hanging low over each pool table. To her left was a battered wood counter. Behind it was an elderly man, watching a small black & white TV set from under an old-fashioned green eyeshade.
The redhead approached the counter, leaning forward, resting on her elbows, offering the same view that had so entranced the cab driver, but the elderly man didn't turn his head.
"Excuse me?" she offered in a husky voice.
The elderly man turned slightly in his chair, ran his eyes quickly over the woman, then focused on the middle distance behind her. "What?"
"I'm looking for a man named Cross," she responded.
"Nobody here by that name, lady," the old man said, pressing a panel on the floor with his toe as he spoke.
"Yes, there is. I mean, I was told ...."
"Sorry," the old man said, turning back to his TV.
The woman whirled around, hands on hips, surveying the poolroom. She got a few looks in return, but nothing else. The woman held her ground but didn't attempt to move forward. Then she felt a gentle tap on her elbow and turned to see a short pudgy man with a vaguely Oriental face regarding her.
"Miss, the way you came through? To get here? It's pretty dangerous. Let me show you a safer way out, all right?"
"I'm looking for Cross," the redhead said.
The pudgy man moved his head in a gesture almost too slight to be a nod, but when he moved off, the redhead followed. As they passed between two tables, the pudgy man said something to one of the players. It sounded vaguely like Chinese, but the redhead couldn't be sure.
Near the back of the poolroom, an enormous man was patiently practicing the same shot, over and over. Despite his size, his movements were surprisingly delicate. As the redhead passed his table, the huge man turned to watch over one massive shoulder.
The pudgy man moved some strands of a steel-beaded curtain to one side, held them there for the redhead to precede him. As she stepped through, she saw a man seated on an old wooden barrel, as relaxed as if it were an easy chair. As he moved to take a drag from his cigarette, the redhead noticed a bull's-eye tattoo on the back of his right hand. He was unremarkable looking: medium height, medium build, medium face. If it weren't for the tattoo, he would be lost in any crowd.
The pudgy man held up a palm. The redhead stopped. The pudgy man rolled out another barrel from a dark corner of the room, and bowed to the redhead. She climbed onto the offered barrel, letting her skirt ride up as she did. She crossed her legs, tried a tentative smile. The man seated across from her didn't react.
"Are you ...?"
The man on the barrel made a ssshing gesture, finger to his lips. He took another drag on his cigarette, then stubbed it out in an inverted hubcap. The redhead noticed that most of the cigarette was still unsmoked. The man went off somewhere within himself.
The redhead understood this as some test of patience, pulled down the hem of her skirt slightly and sat very still.
Minutes passed. Then a man with an outrageously hyper-muscled torso, barely covered with a chartreuse tank top, poked his shaven head into the room. "Okay," he said to the man on the barrel.
The man turned to the redhead. "What do you want?" he said.
"Are you Cross?" she replied.
"Sure," he said, implying that if he wasn't, he would do.
"I have a ... problem. And I was told—"
"Who told you?" the man interrupted.
"Tabitha. She dances at the—"
"I know. Go ahead."
She took a deep breath, making her white silk blouse flutter. If the man noticed, he gave no sign. "I have a foster child. His name is Romeo. He's eight years old. I got him from ... from a girl who used to work with me. She died. Of AIDS. She knew she was going, so we worked it out in front. Romeo—I've had him for years. He's my son, now. But I wouldn't want the nosy social workers asking how—"
"What's your problem?" the man asked, cutting her off.
"We live in a nice place. In the suburbs. Romeo has ... had a puppy. Brutus. A little Rottweiler. He was run over. By a car. Romeo saw it happen. He got the license number. Brutus was just screwing around. Romeo said he ran out in the street and just laid down. Like taking a sunbath or something. It's a real quiet road, with this big hook turn, like. You can't go over maybe thirty miles an hour. Romeo said the driver had plenty of time. He saw Brutus. And then he speeded up! He hit the puppy on purpose."
"So I went to the police. With his license number. They found the man. He said he never saw the puppy. And that was that."
"What would you want me to—?"
"Romeo cried for days. Nothing I could say to him convinced him—he's sure that the driver did it on purpose."
"What difference would it make? The dog's still dead."
"It makes a difference. It makes all the difference. If he did it on purpose, he has to pay. If it was an accident, okay, but I believe my son."
"And you want me to ... what?"
"Not what you think. I want you to find out. If he did it on purpose. Can you do that?"
"I can pay. Whatever it costs."
"Buddha will show you how to get out of here, take you back to where that cab dropped you off, all right? Give him whatever you have on the guy who hit the dog. And leave a number where I can get in touch."
The redhead climbed off the barrel and followed the pudgy man through a back door out into another piece of the outside yard. If she was surprised that she'd been under observation since getting out of the cab, she gave no sign.
"What you think, boss?" Buddha asked, handing over a piece of paper covered with writing. "Looks like she already has most of it."
Cross scanned the paper, checking off points to himself in a low voice. "Jon—no H—Rangel. DOB 2/3/50. Drives a black 1998 Ford Crown Vic. Lives in the Heights. Two speeding tickets last three years. No DUIs." Cross scratched idly at his right cheekbone, where only a faint unnatural whitening of the skin revealed an old scar. "Got one of those giant street maps, Buddha? Let's see if we can find his address."
The bodybuilder parted the beaded curtain and noticed Cross and Buddha studying the huge street map they had laid out on the floor. "What's going down?" he asked.
"See this?" Cross asked Buddha, ignoring the bodybuilder. "He was only maybe a mile or so from home when he hit the puppy. Look, there's a long left-hand sweeper right about here ...." he said, pointing.
"Hey, come on, you guys," the bodybuilder pleaded.
"Cool your jets, Princess," Cross told him. "We're not done with this yet."
Princess crossed his arms, accentuating his outrageous biceps, a pouty look on his face.
Another few minutes passed. Then Cross looked up. "Princess, get Rhino back here, will you?"
The bodybuilder did an about-face and disappeared. When he came back, the huge man who had been practicing billiard shots was with him.
"We got something?" the huge man asked, his voice an improbable high-pitched squeak.
"We got something all right, Rhino," Cross told him. "We got a guy who ran over a puppy. Question is, what to do about it."
"And we're getting paid to—" Buddha said.
"He ran over a puppy on purpose?" Princess cut in, his voice gone quiet and cold.
"That's the piece we don't know," Cross said. "That's what we're getting paid for. I've got to make some phone calls first."
Two days later, the crew was gathered in a loose circle in what looked like a living room—an old living room that hadn't seen a vacuum cleaner in years. Stashed on the third floor of the Red 71 building, the windowless room was invisible from the street.
"Here's what we have so far," Cross said. "This Rangel guy is a salesman. Phone guy. Something in bonds, or penny stocks, I'm not sure. But he's got a real gift of gab, talks smooth. Two arrests as a juvenile, nothing since. Married. No kids. TRW says he's pretty much A.A. House is valued around one-fifty, mortgage for eighty-something. Lives within his means. Doesn't gamble. Doesn't drink either. Straight arrow on paper."
"On those juvenile busts—he go the same route we did?" Rhino asked.
"No, he never went inside. One Intake Adjustment, one Probation," Cross replied, an edge to his voice that only his crew would recognize.
"You get what he was beefed for, boss?" Buddha asked.
"Yeah. The first one, he shot a cat with a bow and arrow. The other one, he poured gasoline on a dog. Set it on fire."
"Fucking weasel," Princess muttered. "This guy, he started it, right? And we're getting paid too. So how about I just go over to his house tonight and snap his neck?"
"No go, brother. We're getting paid to find something out, not dust him."
"So how do we—?"
"Relax, I'm coming to that. The kid said this guy actually swerved. Went out of his way to hit the puppy. Now, maybe that's what it looked like to him, but maybe the car just got pulled to the outside of the sweeper. You know, when you're driving too fast ...."
"Centrifugal force," Buddha supplied.
"Yeah," Cross continued. "Too tough to tell. What we do first, we put a man around there. Undercover."
"Me! Me!" Princess yelped. "I never get to work undercover. Come on, Cross. You said the next time ...."
"You got it, partner," Cross told him, looking over the bodybuilder's shoulder at Rhino, who shrugged elaborately. "Now, listen close ...."
The big pink Harley rolled through the suburbs like a pit bull at an AKC dog show. The rider looked carved out of stone, his massive arms bare under a black leather vest, his face unreadable behind a black face shield. Princess gave the throttle an extra blip as he downshifted, then tore off a side road onto the highway. As he approached the left hand sweeper, he leaned the bike over until his inside boot scraped the ground.
"You were right, chief," Buddha said. He was behind the wheel of the anonymous sedan the feral teenagers who lived in the Badlands called the shark car, Cross next to him on the front seat. "It's like the cops don't patrol this sector at all. That idiot Princess was making enough racket to wake the dead."
"You think that curve pulls?" Cross asked.
"Sure. See how mild it's banked ... just that little bit? No way that's enough. Wasn't for that guard rail, you make a mistake, you could go right over the side."
"Let's take a look."
Buddha drove expertly, making the car move quickly without appearing to do so. He slid to a stop just off the road at the apex of the curve. The two men got out. The guard rail was metal, two thick bands set up parallel to the ground between posts to absorb impact. They looked past the guardrail. Looked down. It was a sheer drop, at least a couple of hundred feet. Below, the jagged rocks of a long-abandoned quarry.
"Rhino report in?" Cross asked.
"Yeah, chief. This guy drives the same route every day. Same time, same way. Clocked him for nine days now. He's never been more than a few minutes off."
"Nothing, boss. Look how long we been sitting here—you see a car go by? Only reason to use this road is if you live in that subdivision over there, see?" Buddha pointed. "And this guy, he works seven to three, all right? Rest of the commuters, they come along much later."
"So where'd the kid come from?"
"Over there," Buddha pointed again. "See that clump of trees? On the left? Just at the bottom of the hill? The kid lives on the other side. I guess he was just going down the hill when the pup got away from him."
"You took a look? From where the kid stood?"
"Perfect cover," Buddha replied. "Sniper's roost. You thinking ...?"
"No. We need answers, remember? This guy can't tell us anything dead."
"What do you see?" Cross asked his crew, pointing with one finger to a white object sitting on top of one of the pool tables, maybe thirty feet away.
"It's a puppy," Princess said. "Can I ...?"
"Hold up a minute," Cross said. "Rhino, you see the same thing?"
The huge man nodded, waiting. Cross strolled over to the puppy, the others following.
Princess stuck out a hand to pat the puppy, then drew it back like he'd touched a stove. "It's a fake," he snarled. "A stuffed dog."
"Try and pick it up," Cross told him.
The bodybuilder reached out one hand, grabbed the puppy by the back of its neck. "Ugh!" he said. "What the hell is this?"
"It's a concrete puppy," Cross told him. "With a lead core. Painted to look like a Dalmatian. Weighs almost seventy pounds. Fong did it. Nice job, huh?"
"What's it for?" Princess asked.
"It's a lie detector," Cross said.
"You understand how this is going to work?" Cross asked the boy standing next to him. They were in the copse of trees at the base of the left-hand sweeper. The redhead stood just off to one side.
"I ... think so."
"Okay, kid; listen good. We're gonna put the puppy—just a model, not a real puppy, okay?—we're gonna put the puppy in the road. But way off to the side, see? When this guy comes by, he'll have plenty of room to miss it. So, if he does miss it, you'll know it was an accident when he hit your dog."
"What if he tries to hit it?" the boy asked.
"Then we'll know that, too," Cross told him, checking his watch. He pulled a cellular phone from inside his coat. Punched in a number, waited. Then he said "T minus three. Set it up."
The motorcycle's exhausts bubbled as the pink Harley pulled around the bend, then veered off to the side. Princess dismounted, unstrapped a white object from the back of the bike, set it in place.
"It sure looks real," the boy whispered.
"Just watch," Cross told him.
Princess positioned the puppy on the shoulder of the road, about a yard off the paved portion. It looked as though the dog was injured, one foot held slightly off the ground at an odd angle. Princess checked once more, then leaped onto the bike and vanished.
A red station wagon came around the curve, its wheels over the double yellow dividing line, giving the shoulder a wide berth. The driver didn't come near the puppy. Didn't stop either.
The phone in Cross' jacket buzzed. Once. Twice.
"Next up," Cross said to the boy.
The black Ford came around the corner at a moderate speed, hugging the double yellow line as the station wagon had. Suddenly, the Ford's engine roared and the big car charged forward, its outside front wheel aimed directly at the puppy. The Ford impacted as if it had gone up a ramp; the front end launched as the rear wheels lost traction. The Ford slammed sideways into the guard rail—which immediately parted as if it had been pre-cut with an acetylene torch.
Cross and the boy ran across the road, the redhead close behind. Only the Ford's skid marks were visible. The section of guard rail still standing was smeared with black paint. The concrete puppy was cracked, lying on its side, but still intact.
Cross, the boy, and the redhead all looked down. The black Ford was a dot at the bottom of the quarry. A dot in flames.
The boy was crying. The redhead knelt next to him, a comforting arm around the child's shoulders.
"What's wrong, baby?" she asked.
"He hit my Brutus on purpose," the boy said. "He killed my puppy."
The redhead caught Cross' eye over the boy's shoulder. Cross nodded. She clasped the child to her, holding him fiercely.
When she looked up again, Cross was gone. So was the concrete puppy.
The redhead and the boy walked back up the hill together.
In a few minutes, the road was deserted again.
© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
This story appears in Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss.
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