a Cross story
by Andrew Vachss
"How come you want to give him up? He turn on you or something?"
I shifted my weight in the battered vinyl office chair, scratching the big Doberman behind his ears the way he liked. The fat man sat facing me across an old wooden desk under a painted metal sign. CENTURION GUARD DOGS—Sales and Rentals. He held a pencil in one hand, a clipboard in front of him. The sleeves of his graying T-shirt were rolled up, a tattoo of a hula dancer on his right biceps. When the flab had been muscle, the dancer would shake her butt when he flexed.
I snapped a match into flame with my thumbnail, lit my cigarette. The Doberman's ears were flat, corded neck muscles gentle against the choke collar.
"That's a lot of crap," I told the fat man. "Dobermans don't turn on you. They got a bad rep for it, but they don't deserve it. See, what happens, a guy hears all the stories, okay? He gets a Dobie as a puppy, he figures he's going to make sure the dog never turns on him when he grows up. So he beats the hell out of the dog every day. Takes control. Dominates. It's easy to make a puppy afraid of you. Makes some people feel tough, you understand? But Dobermans, one way they're different from other dogs, they got good memories. Real good. So, one day, the guy goes to beat up his dog and the dog says, 'Un huh, not today, pal.' And the dog nails him. Like he deserves. Then this guy, this guy who beat his own puppy, he says, 'The son of a bitch turned on me.' You understand what I'm telling you?"
The fat man's eyes flicked a challenge at me. Dropped it when I tossed it back. His voice was soft, sly-cored. "If he didn't turn on you, how come you're giving him up?"
My expression didn't change. "He's brain-damaged. I had to leave him at a kennel when I went away. He got hold of some virus from the other dogs. Almost died."
"He looks okay to me."
"Oh yeah. He's in great physical shape. But his mind's not right. He'll be just sitting around and all of a sudden he'll go off. He's not safe. You couldn't put him in a home or anything."
"You sure? I mean, he looks so good and all. He should be worth...."
I gave the Doberman's chain an imperceptible tug. His ears shot up. A blood-chilling snarl slipped between his flashing teeth. "Stop it!" I yelled at him, tugging again. He lunged at the fat man. I jerked the chain hard. The dog's ears went flat again like nothing had happened.
"What d'I do?" the fat man asked, rubbing his hands together.
"Nothing. You don't have to do anything. He's just nuts. It's not his fault."
"Yeah. Yeah, maybe I could use him for a warehouse job. Or something. But I can't pay much...I mean he's not trained or nothing.
"You got a mobile cage?"
"Back of the station wagon."
I walked the Doberman around the back of the joint to the cage. The fat man opened the door. I jerked the chain and the Doberman jumped inside, quiet as oil in water. The fat man slammed the cage shut. The Doberman looked at me. I reached my hand inside the cage, rubbed the side of his head. Turned my back on him.
The fat man handed me the money. "What's his name?" he asked, pencil poised.
"Devil," I told him.
The concrete processing plant stood alone in the middle of a prairie on a six-acre lot in Brooklyn. Surrounded by a six-foot chain-link fence topped with loops of razor wire. Nothing nearby but abandoned factories. No streetlights. The front gate was wide enough for the sand and gravel trucks to make their daily deliveries. The two sides of the gate were held together by a heavy padlocked chain. A white metal sign was posted on the front. Big red letters: PATROLLED BY ATTACK DOGS. It was 5:50 A.M. early in June. I watched the dogs through the binoculars. A pair of Shepherds, their coats thick and matted with the concrete dust. A barrel-bodied Rottweiler. And a sleek Doberman.
"It's gotta be an accident. This guy, he's not reasonable. We got no problems with the other partners. They understand the way things are. The way they gotta be. This guy, he's a hardnose. He gets shot or something, maybe the other partners get the message, maybe they spook and run to the federales. You know how it works."
"You pull this one off, there's a place for you with us. I told you this before."
I kept my face neutral. The way they taught me. In the place where I was raised. The man in the white silk shirt watched me, waiting. I waited too. Another thing they taught me. He shrugged his shoulders. "Half now, half when it's done?" he asked.
"Yeah." I held my hand out for the cash.
Two days later, I pulled the rented car up to the gate. The sun was just making its move, dawn coming fast. I slipped the leather gloves on my hands. They were lined with a fine chain mesh. I knelt, pointed the Polaroid camera at the plant.
I heard his car coming. Didn't look up. A squeal of rubber as his white Caddy pulled across the front of my car, blocking any escape. He charged out, waving the tire iron.
"What the hell you think you're doing?"
I tried to hide the camera under my jacket, sneak back toward my car. He cut me off. His face was twisted into frightened hate, white foam on his lips.
"You son of a bitch! You're not taking what's mine. I worked for this! You tell those bastards I'm never paying!"
"Hey! I don't know what you're talking about. I just wanted to take a picture of the dogs."
He was past talking. Charged at me, whipping the tire iron at my head. I dropped the camera, caught the first shot with my left hand, spun to face him, my back to the gate. The dogs went mad. The switchblade popped open in my hand. I dropped into a crouch, working my way to him, one hand in front to take his next blow with the tire iron.
He was a big man, block-shouldered. He'd seen knives before. He backed away from me, parallel to the gate. Raised his right hand, bluffed a swing with the tire iron, and rammed his shoulder against the gate, forcing a narrow slot open. "Get him!" he screamed. And the Doberman flowed through the opening past him in one bound, heading for me.
"Devil!" I yelled. "Hit! Hit him, boy!"
The Doberman whirled and turned on the big man like a tornado swooping up a farmhouse. Buried his teeth deep into the man's upper thigh. The man's scream hit a past-human octave as he raised the tire iron to smash down on the dog's head. I hooked him hard in the belly and he went to his knees. The Doberman ripped at his throat. A chunk of red-and-white flew into the air.
It was over fast. "Devil! Out!" I shouted. The big dog backed away, his muzzle bathed in blood. I opened the back door of my car, gave the dog the signal and he jumped inside. I slammed my shoulder against the gate, shoving the man's body inside, face first. The other dogs tore at the body. I left it where it was.
It's all in the way you raise them.
© 1994 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
This story appears in Born Bad by Andrew Vachss.