THE WOLF MOVED through the trees, nose to the ground. Down from the mountain and out of the primordial darkness towards the lights of the city. It skulked through a hole in a fence, pads heavy on the worn pavement. Past a leaning stack of pallets and into a lot that stank of gasoline and men. Jaundiced light beamed from the poles haloed in the light drizzle. The rain dampened the stink of the ground and turned it sour.
It kept to the shadows, winding through the yard to avoid the lights. It wasn’t far now, the smell it was after. Prey. It caught the scent from a mile away and tracked it from the slope of the dead volcano down into the city.
It was close, the thing it tracked.
The dogs came after, a clumsy pack of pokey ribs and ravaged hide following the lead animal. A Rottweiler and three pit bulls, a Doberman and a sleek Siberian Husky. Others of no discernible breed and still more of such bastard mix they were barely dogs at all. Heads low and single file, the dogs followed the lobo’s path step by step. The pack snorted and snuffed, sometimes snapping at one another but none barked, none made any unnecessary noise. When the hunt was on, they stifled the raw instinct to bark and ran silent. The lobo taught them this and they had learned it the hard way. The pack was down in numbers because two ill-mixed breeds couldn’t help themselves and barked on a hunt. The wolf killed them both, snapping their necks in its enormous maw. The troop was learning. Dogs barked, wolves did not.
They were hungry but the wolf had taught them how to hunt as a pack. First the small woodland animals darting across the forest floor and then bigger prey. At night, always at night. But this night was different and all to an animal knew it. The wolf hunted even bigger prey bigger this night. Something slow and stupid and easy to kill.
TWO BOYS AND A GUN. How many terrible nights have started this way? The gun was an old bolt action rifle. A 303 Enfield with a walnut stock and a battered scope. Lifted quietly from its dusty rack in Owen’s grandfather’s house. Owen held the gun now, sliding the bolt forward to reveal the loading gate, showing it to the other boy.
“Just lemme shoot the fucking thing.” Justin was fifteen and impatient about all things. He drained his beer, also stolen from Owen’s grandfather, and crushed the can.
Owen looked at him with contempt. “You gotta learn how to load it first, dumbass. Maybe you ain’t big enough to wear the big boy pants.”
“Come on. Before those things run off.”
They were hunkered down under the steel bridge that spanned the Willamette, the dark riverwater moving slowly below them. Empty cans of Pabst scattered around, two fresh ones sweating cold in the plastic bag. The air was warm, pushing the stink of the river up the banks.
Owen had seen that old Enfield in his granddad’s cellar since he was seven years old. Once, when he was ten, he pushed a chair up to the wall and climbed up just to touch it. The black metal was cold to his fingers but the wood felt warm. His grandfather had caught him just as he was trying to lift it from its cradle and Owen had gotten a sharp crack over the ear for it. After that the old man kept the basement locked but Owen never forgot about the gun. Now that his grandfather rarely left his bedroom, Owen took it whenever he wanted. Justin wanted to shoot it so they got the beer and the gun and headed down to the river. There were raccoons and cats down there among the broken bikes and appliances dumped from the roadside and the boys had taken to shooting at them late at night. But tonight was different, tonight they got lucky. There were dogs.
God knows where they came from. Six, maybe seven. Hard to tell at this distance. Big and mangy looking. Strays for sure. They swarmed over something down in the weeds, scrapping over it. Teeth snapping and jaws popping. Feeding time.
Justin tossed his can away. “Lemme shoot already.”
Owen handed him the rifle. “Here”.
Justin rolled onto his belly in the dirt, aimed and fired. It was that quick. He jumped back at the recoil and whined. Owen watched the dogs bolt away then circle back. They sniffed the air then tore back into the thing in the weeds.
“Fuck are they eating down there?” Justin looked through the scope, watching them feed.
Owen took the rifle back and lay on his gut in the dirt. He put his cheek to the stock and squinted down the scope. He recalled everything he knew about firing a rifle, all of it schooled from a Punisher comic book. Draw your aim, hold your breath and squeeze the trigger slowly. Bang.
He jolted from the kick but quickly re-aligned the gun and looked down the scope. One of the dogs was flopping in the weeds, twitching in a spastic fit. “Shit,” he said. “Did I hit it?”
The dog was still by the time they walked down there. It wasn’t dead, just lying on its side, tongue flat on the ground and peppered with dirt. It panted, the ribcage undulating up and down. The boys stood over it, watching it die, neither horrified nor repulsed. Justin spat on it.
“Lucky shot, is all.”
Owen smirked, watching the dog’s legs kick. Justin moved on, trampling down the weeds. Looking to see what the dogs were scrapping over.
Justin lurched away and puked. Owen stepped up and saw what was there. Limbs. Legs and feet. An arm. The core of the body had been chewed up and eaten. There wasn’t even a face. All of it pulled apart like jerky by the hungry dogs. Owen backed away from it and looked around. The dogs were long gone.
JOHN GALLAGHER SMILED as he pushed the shitbag up against the chain link. The guy looked antsy and sweaty in his green parka, and that made Gallagher happy. Few things were as satisfying as watching the eyes of some screwhead when he realizes his world has turned instantly to shit.
Gallagher had been with the Portland Police Bureau for sixteen years, the last eight as a detective with Homicide Detail. And nothing topped working homicide. Ninety percent of the job was braindead boring but the other tiny percentage of piecing together murders and tracking down shitbags was unlike anything else. The methods one chose to pursue the job were key and John Gallagher led more with his guts than his head and that had consequences. His internal file was stuffed fat with reprimands, warnings and final warnings about his aggressive methods but all of that was balanced against a clean closure rate. The complaints and threatened lawsuits from banged-up suspects were silenced by a clean evidence trail that pinned the son of a bitch to the wall. Just like this shitbag in the parka.
“Hey man, we just wanna talk”, Detective Roberts said, holding up his palms. Roberts was older than Gallagher, clocking down this side of fifty. Cautious and methodical. He hated working with Gallagher and the feeling was mutual. Fourteen hours earlier, they had been at the hospital, looking down at a woman who had died shortly after arrival. She had been beaten and tossed down a flight of stairs in some godawful tenement in No Po. They went to work looking for the woman’s boyfriend and voila. Now the part Roberts hated, playing peacemaker off Gallagher’s wolverine schtick.
“Wasn’t me.” The man in the parka clucked his teeth with impatience. “Go piss on somebody else’s life.”
“We will, chief”. Gallagher pushed him one more time. “Soon as we’re done pissing all over yours”.
Parka Man walked away. He bumped Gallagher’s shoulder on the way and that was all it took. Gallagher smiled.
Oh Christ, thought Roberts.
Gallagher kicked the man’s knee out and he collapsed inward. Parka Man hit the sidewalk bald, found Gallagher’s knee on his throat.
“Fucking kill you, bitch”, was all Parka got out before he choked.
“See, a bitch is why we’re here, chief.” Gallagher jammed his knee into the man’s windpipe. Still smiling. “You put your woman in the hospital yesterday.”
“Fucking told you. Wasn’t me.”
“Easy, Gallagher.” Roberts scanned the alley for onlookers. “There’s people around.”
Gallagher ignored him. “Your woman died in hospital yesterday after you stomped her face to hamburger. You know what that means, chief? Your ass is mine”
The man seethed through clenched teeth. Gallagher hauled him up. “On your feet, asswipe.”
Parka Man sprang, cracking his skull into Gallagher’s nose. Blinding pain.
Roberts flinched, then reached for his service issue. Too slow, too old. The man barreled into him like a tackling sled. Roberts hit the ground hard and Parka Man stomped on his guts then ran. But he didn’t get far, hit full freight by Gallagher. Face to the pavement. Gallagher pummeled the guy mercilessly until he curled into a ball to protect himself.
Gallagher let up, caught his breath. “Roberts”, he hollered, “you want a turn?”
No response. Detective Roberts was still on the ground and he wasn’t moving.
LIEUTENANT MIKE VOGEL was trying to get off the phone but the damn thing kept ringing. He had big, meaty hands with thick fingers and his cell phone looked like a kid’s toy in his big mitt. How he pushed those little keys correctly was anyone’s guess. Vogel was a monster with Popeye forearms and a huge trunk. With his shaved head and permanent scowl, he still looked like the wrestler he was twenty years ago. He was spry and agile for such a big guy and back then, the old-timers in the amateur leagues all agreed he was the best thing to come out of Multnomah county in a long time. His professional tag was Bone Slab Vogel, which he prided himself on. It had a nice horror movie ring to it.
The Lieutenant kept a picture from his glory days, framed and hung on his office wall. Twenty-two years old with a full head of hair, spandex pants and lace-up boots, the whole deal. His press kit photo, Bone Slab posing for the camera with muscles flexed and fury in his eyes.
There was another picture of Bone Slab Vogel floating around the offices of Central Precinct. This one showed Bone Slab shaking hands with Hulk Hogan himself. Big smile, oiled biceps and locks flowing. The problem was the shiny pants Bone Slab was wearing at the time. No word of lie, they were bright red with sequins. His manager’s idea. Someone in the Homicide Detail had found this photo, framed it and now it moved mysteriously through the office. Sometimes it hung in the main hallway, other times in the kitchen, always askew like it had been hung quickly. A couple times it hung in the men’s room on the main floor and once in the women’s bathroom, where it remained undisturbed for a month. Vogel would gripe about it, threatening to smash it but then it would disappear for a while again, waiting like some phantom to reappear in some other location.
Four months after that photo was taken, Bone Slab Vogel was wrestling an unschooled amateur in Tacoma when everything went bellyup. Bone Slab took a boot to the kidneys and landed wrong. The amateur launched himself from the turnbuckle and dropped on him full tilt. Two broken cracked vertebrae and Vogel never stood straight after that. Four months convalescing and three months smoking bongweed and killing time. An uncle stopped by to talk him out of his funk. He suggested becoming a cop. Do something good.
“Come on. You’re gonna miss it.” Detective Latimer hovered in the doorway, waving at his Lieutenant to shake a leg. Latimer was a Homicide veteran and a stickler for punctuality. He personally had hung the picture of the red-sequined Bone Slab a dozen times.
Lieutenant Vogel flattened the phone to his collar bone. “Can’t you do it without me?”
“You gotta bring the cake out,” Latimer said. “Not me.”
Vogel snuffed, then finished his call. He hated these things; birthdays, promotions and retirements. The retirements most of all now. Two detectives, one Homicide, the other Fraud, had both clicked over into retirement and needed to be replaced. And here he was unpacking a cake to celebrate the last day for yet another cop. Detective Alex Papadopoulos was a solid workhorse that Vogel didn’t want to lose but Papadop’s wife was ill and he’d crossed the early retirement line three years back. So Papadopoulos needed to take care of his family and now the Lieutenant was down three bodies in one unit. Not good.
The Ouzo melted the bottoms of the Styrofoam cups. Toasts were made, the Lieutenant said a few words and Detective Papadopoulos got choked up. The retiring detective said a few words himself, admitting that he was dreading what the day after would bring. How does one not go to work after grumbling about it for thirty years?
After the cake was gone, the Lieutenant took him aside and asked about his wife. Papadopoulos said they were taking it one day at a time. The man was scared, that was plain enough. Who wouldn’t be? Vogel knew that Papadops had a huge family but he reminded him that he had family here too and if there was anything they could do, just call. Papadops thanked him
Both men’s eyes became dewy and both became ashamed but, thank God, someone was already tugging at the Lieutenant’s sleeve with a problem. It was Bingham.
Detective Bingham pulled him away to speak privately. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to spill it in front of everyone else and ruin the party. Bingham was young for a detective and good looking to boot. His nickname around the office was the Panty-Atomizer. Poof.
“What is it?”
“Roberts is in the hospital,” Bingham said, keeping his voice low. “Not sure how serious it is.”
Bingham shrugged. “He was with Gallagher.”
Gallagher. Vogel gritted the name between his molars. He was going to murder that son of a bitch.
DETECTIVE ROBERTS LAY in a hospital bed in with his left leg elevated, the kneecap shattered. He’d injured that same knee when he was seventeen playing for the Lincoln High Cardinals. That was 1975, when Ford was President and American helicopters were being pushed into the Gulf of Tonkin. Shattering the same knee thirty five years later, Roberts was screwed. What the hell was he going to tell his wife? Work would be the worst. He’d be chained to a desk and the only thing Roberts hated worse than paperwork was computers. And all of it because of one fucking prick.
“Pardon me?” The nurse leaned over him to check the ECG, her boobs at eye level. He smiled at her. “Nothing”.
Roberts forced his eyes away and cast about for something else to look at. He caught sight of a face looking in through the window. Roberts raised his fist, middle finger straight up.
GALLAGHER WATCHED THE nurse fuss over Roberts. She was pretty. When Roberts flipped him off, Gallagher waved back, all friendly like. “Fuck you too, hoss,” he said.
“I should snap your neck in two.” Lieutenant Vogel came up the hallway and looked down at Gallagher. He probably could too, one handed. Gallagher was solid and built to punish but the Lieutenant stood five inches over him and outweighed him by a hundred pounds. To Gallagher, Vogel always resembled that bad guy in the Spiderman cartoons. Not as dapper as the Kingpin of crime, but Vogel was a tank who could drop anyone. With or without the red sequined tights.
“Once, just once, I want to find you in the hospital with your head stomped in. Not your partner.” Vogel’s nostrils flared wide, something he did when he was mad. “What happened?”
“Asshole tried to rabbit. Put Roberts down pretty hard.”
“And you had nothing to do with it, izzat it?”
“I was trying to collar the shitbag.” Gallagher looked back in on his partner. Former partner, whatever. Roberts looked old, hooked up to all those machines. “How was the party?”
“Good. Too bad you missed it.”
“We were on our my way when we spotted douchebag in the parka.” Gallagher looked back at his boss. “Did Papadops have a good time?”
“He wondered why you were AWOL.”
“I’ll catch up with him later, say goodbye properly.” Gallagher chucked at Roberts. “What are you gonna do with him?”
“What can I do? Bench him for the duration. Which he’ll hate.”
“Yeah, well. Life sucks.”
Vogel felt his stomach turn to ice, that same feeling he used to get before he laid the boots to someone in the ring. “What the hell am I gonna do with you?”
“Quit saddling me with partners. Let me work alone.”
“What you need is a goddamn leash.” Vogel unwrapped a piece of gum, tossed it in his mouth. “And a psychiatrist to boot. When’s the last time you talked to the staff therapist?”
“Don’t. I will eat her alive.”
“How about early retirement? Think of it as a favor to me.”
Gallagher chinned the nurse in Roberts’s room. “What are the chances she’s single?”