Tuesday, 16 February 2010


The Dog Returneth to His Vomit

I drove back to my office. I made coffee but I wanted a drink. Tico’s Place beckoned like divine fire to a fasting desert saint—except that I was long way from grace when I first decided to hang my p.i. shingle in this crappy resort town.

“Tomàs.” Tico grinned at me.

I had no idea why he was glad to see me. I was his worst customer and I was probably the reason for the spats he had with his plump, doe-eyed wife Marta.

“I’ve just been interviewing a charming young wife for the next issue of Country Living,” I said, “and I discovered I needed a drink of your best malt.”

The woman, in fact, was Danny Portis’ live-in girlfriend, a crackhead named Leona he bounced off the walls of his trailer whenever his own meth twitches started up. I was out there looking for a missing dog. That should tell you everything you need to know about my financial prospects.

I waited for the amber liquid to restore some equilibrium to my tilted universe.

“Tico, I need Cesar’s Jeep tonight. A little job. I’ll pay him a handsome fee.”

“I can’t just let you borrow it like that,” he said. He could be stubborn when Marta was around.

“I’m on a job,” I said happily. “I just need it for a couple hours tonight.”

He gave in to me as he always did. Tico fought his way out of the garbage dumps of Guatemala to get here.

Danny wouldn’t get started until dark, but I had to get ready for my outing in the woods. I kept a cot and an alarm clock in my office, which is where I headed next. I hadn’t carried a gun in years. I make most of my cases with legwork and phone calls. I usually chase little runaways back to their rich daddies for a living, but this was the offseason to the offseason. I was almost dead broke.

I drew the shades, shut my eyes, and slept a dreamless black sleep for three hours.

The first pickup arrived around nine-thirty. Then they came in steady intervals every few minutes. I counted twenty big engines droning along the path behind Danny’s trailer. All working trucks, a few Silverados and F-150s—Danny’s crowd—not your sporty SUV suburbanites.

I grabbed the bag and worked my way in the darkness. Truck doors slammed in the distance, loud men hooted. I heard dogs. Then lights speckled the blackness like giant fireflies. Danny had rigged some wires between posts and strung some low-watt bulbs. I had Army-issue night-vision binoculars that showed the whole layout of churned-up earth bordered by truck tires. The jerry-built cages for the fighting dogs were stacked next to a hut with chicken wire stretched across the front for the bait dogs. I discerned a squirming mass of hindquarters, muzzles, and tails in the phosphorescent glow of my lens.

I counted at least twenty-five men and five women. The women were mostly hatchet-faced skanks who chainsmoked and wore sweatshirts with goofy or obscene sayings on the front.

Danny grabbed a short-haired dog by its tail from the coop and dragged it to the center of the pit. He straddled it and wrapped duct tape around its muzzle. The dog abruptly sat down on its haunches in the center of the ring, terrified, whimpering and jerking its head around.

The shouting grew a notch and then a black blur streaked to the center of the ring. The action was too hard to follow with the glasses. Even with human eyes, you’d need the shutter speed of a fly to track its fury. The bait dog was ripped from stem to stern by the pit bull. He tore open its throat and shook it in its powerful muzzle. Even when Portis pounded the pit bull’s head to force its jaws open, it wanted to stay clamped on the dead dog’s forepaw. Its slavering fangs appeared ghostly white in my lens.

Then another dog was brought out, this time a large poodle. The end came when the attack dog rammed the poodle into the corner post like a linebacker sacking a quarterback; it worried the poodle’s hind quarters with shrugs of its bunched-up shoulder muscles. I watched the dog spasm and twitch until Danny entered to pull the dog off the carcass.

The next fight lasted fifteen long minutes. Neither dog wanted to quit but they were both cut and foaming blood and saliva by the time it was called off. I watched some redneck take his bruised warrior off to the side where a piece of tarpaulin lay on the ground near some buckets. He emptied one of the buckets over his dog to clean him of blood and drool. The dog whipped its tight body like snapping a towel and sent a shower of drizzled spray in all directions.

A commotion near the opposite side of the ring made me turn back to a cluster of men surrounding Portis. I watched him slip a long-barreled Ruger into a holster tied to a corner post. The losing dog lay dead between the legs of the men who had witnessed his coup de grâce. Danny dragged it off by the hind legs and hurled it into the weeds.

Danny’s dog won the second match. He took the congratulations and pocketed a wad of bills just like the other man. He didn’t bother to wash off his dog. He hoisted it up by its stub tail and threw it into a top cage near the ring.

My plan changed when Bruce was hauled out next. I zeroed in on his white chest markings and saw the same paint-spill splotch as in the photo. The odds of an identical dognapped Corgi winding up out here was too remote to contemplate.

I pressed my sorry face into the dirt. I had no time to call the sheriff’s because Danny was already gripping the dog’s muzzle. A loosened tail of duct tape dangling from his hand.

I had my Glock out of the bag and then I was running, stumbling through the brush toward the lights. I felt like a suicide bomber. Private eyes toast our fallen comrades at reunions for strokes and clogged arteries. It was never my goal to be the toast.

Danny’s hand was still gripping Bruce’s fur when my slug tore into the dirt at his feet. Their menacing stares told me I had just entered a shit fight without a shield.

“I’m taking the dog, Portis,” I said. I sounded like every stooge in every bad cop film who gets the shit beat out of him right after saying, “Don’t try to stop me.”

But Bruce didn’t know me from Adam. He was in such primeval fear that when I reached down to hoist him up into my arms, he jerked free, whirled around and bit me on the forearm. He put his low-slung body into high gear and bucked out of my grasp. I watched him bolt past me into the thicket. He was gone like smoke, his little alligator legs churning like wheels.

Danny threw out a fist that glanced off the side of my neck. A couple big men balled their fists and took a step toward me. I backed them off with my gun.

The first shot crinkled the air just behind my right ear. I heard the thwack of the slug bury itself in one of the plywood cages. Then the air was sizzling with rifle and pistol fire. I was standing on the edge of a lit circle about to become the target of twenty hillbillies shielded by their trucks and armed with deer rifles and .357s. I took off between the cages and ran as fast as my own legs could carry me.

Hours later, I made it back to the Jeep somehow—bedraggled, muddy, my chin smeary with dried blood from twig lashings, a dozen lacerations from stinging branches whipping at me from all directions, my clothes full of brambles and seedpods. I smelled of swamp rot and sweat. I was limping from some varmint hole and I was one boot short. Some swamp muck back there had sucked it off my foot. I ran in darkness so black it was like the bottom of a mine shaft.

I called the sheriff’s office from the highway. The dispatcher sounded bored. The adrenalin had subsided to a hot lump in my stomach.

I parked the Jeep behind Tico’s and walked across the rain-glazed street to my humble digs. I crashed on the cot, too tired to drive home and shower. In the morning, I’d go in search of Bruce and hope he hadn’t gotten hit running onto a freeway.

The alarm bell chirred at seven. I called Stuart’s house and got the house maid. When Stuart came on the line, he sounded morose. Bruce, that brave soldier, had found his way home in the dark.

“If you think you’re going to charge me for nothing, you’d better rethink your bill,” Stuart said.

“The dog didn’t find himself, Mister Stuart,” I said. “He had some help from me if you’d care to hear the details—”

“You’re getting exactly one day’s fee from me, no extras, not a penny more. My lawyer is going over every line item you submit, by the way. As it is, I’m going to have to pay some veterinary doctor to sew up the gash in his paw.”

I drove back to the Portis trailer. I saw the flashing turquoise and cherry lights of the cruisers parked in front.

A deputy knew me from the old days and let me pass. I followed the four-wheeler path behind the trailer.

Danny is well known in the way that newspapers like to say, “So-and-so is no stranger to the police.” Some scumbags won’t shoot you in the back, but they are cowards, chiselers, and they will lie their asses off to you. I used to ride with an old homicide cop who quoted this to me one night: Homo hominis lupus est. “Man is a wolf to man.”

Leona was in the pit where she’d been torn to pieces by dogs. I hoped she was stoned.

They were still snapping photos when I got to the pit. The crime scene tape was looped around some birch trees and stretched around the circle as far as the tarp where I had seen the bearded guy.

By the time the cops arrived, all the dogs were dead or dying in their cages. They were all shot in the head. The ones not dead would be euthanized because the county doesn’t have the money for surgery.

“Yo, Pete,”

“Ah shit, Tom Haftmann. You look like a drunk stumbling into traffic.”

“Where is she?”

“Over there,” he said. He pointed to a pile of muddy rags in one corner of the pit. “And over there. And there and there . . .”

Cop humor.

“Catch Portis yet?”

“No, but we’ve got a BOLO out. You know these jackoffs,” he said. “He’ll run around and then he’ll fuck up. Danny couldn’t find a skyscraper if it was standing in front of him. What brings you out here so early?”

“I was looking for a missing dog,” I said.

“You got it made,” he said. “Sleep in, no kissing asses until your tongue’s as tough as shoe leather.”

“Yep, Mister Easy Street,” I said.

I got dizzy and leaned over to vomit up yellow bile into the weeds. I badly needed coffee—something.

“Sir, can I help you?” A young cop looked at me.

“Nobody can help me,” I said. “I can’t even find a runaway dog.”

His eyes bored into my face, a cop’s auger, assessing.

I walked over to my car by concentrating on the steps.

I drove back and parked in front of my office. I was about to cadge my first drink of the day out of my last friend in this cesspool of a town where people hire me to find missing children and dogs they should have kept better eyes on in the first place.

Terry White has been writing and publishing noir and hardboiled fiction for the last five years. Among his recent publications are “My Gypsy Girl from Bluefield” in Hardluck Stories, “Siblings” in Demolition, and “Desideratum of the Adjunct Professor” in Storyglossia (July 2007). He has also published in Hardboiled (“Nocturne for Murder”) and in the British online fanzine Noir. One of his stories was named Best Of 2009 by 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. He has a full-length suspense novel represented by an agent. His main theme is the corruption of life in the Midwest. His protagonist in “Dog Returneth” is an existentialist private eye who made his first appearance ten years ago in Thrilling Detectives.


  1. Terry, I have to say that I nearly gave up on this half-way through - I'm glad I didn't! The writing is excellent, but the subject matter got to me, esp. as I own a dog called Bruce!!

    I like the character, Tom Haftmann - will he be re-appearing any time soon?

    "I was out there looking for a missing dog. That should tell you everything you need to know about my financial prospects" - classic line!!!!

  2. The subject matter was brutal, and I too am a dog lover, but that only made me want to read on to make sure the bad guys got their comeuppance.

    I loved the style, and agree there are some classic lines in there.

  3. ** NOTE **

    No animals were harmed during the production of this piece, just plenty of skanky women and smelly rednecks.

  4. White is PETA's most feared writer. Start with 2000 words, blend in a razor-sharp style and just for flavor a dash of Nietzsche--you have White's favorite recipe.

  5. I've just bought a dog so probably the wrong time to read this, but I agree that the writing was very good, especialy the distinctive voice and the scene setting.

    Welcome to TKnC, Terry.

  6. I'd like to thank you all for your kind comments. My first crime novel featuring this protagonist, Thomas Haftmann, has just been published by Grand Mal Press. It's titled Haftmann's Rules. I would be pleased to send you a complimentary copy if you're interested.
    Robert (Terry) White