Death of a Dog
A man in a wheelchair is still a man.
The dog days of summer bore me. Usually, the muggy heat keeps people lazy but that August afternoon I had the uneasy feeling of waiting for a tornado. After twenty years in uniform and more than forty in this town, I took the hunch seriously.
Standing, I stretched and looked out the window, down Main Street. It might be too small to have a Walmart but it was the county seat. It had a police force that included me.
I heard the distinctive sighing of Archie Hartfor’s wheelchair rolling along the sidewalk. His face was beet red from the heat and the exertion, not good for a man of his weight. I decided I’d better go out and see him; maybe get him a ride home. I didn’t want him popping an artery in front of the police station.
When Archie moved into town, I was finishing sixth grade. He became the object of considerable curiosity at the time. To begin with, he wasn’t from here. Even now, after thirty years, people call him ‘the new fellow.’ Besides that, he was a cripple.
He moved into a bungalow off Main Street. Everyone knew his house because of the ramp up to the front door. The story went that Archie put his contractor in a wheelchair for three hours, going all over the house.
That was Archie’s way with people and his disability. He didn’t make a big deal about it and he didn’t bluster but he had a way of pushing that persuaded people to make accommodations, like he did with Flora.
Flora’s is the restaurant on Main Street. It’s good home-style cooking at reasonable prices. It’s the sort of place you go for coffee, lunch or a quick dinner when you can’t face your own cooking. If you want to impress a date, do some dancing or let off a little steam, you don’t go to Flora’s.
A month after he moved into town, Archie rolled up to Flora’s, as far as the front steps. He sat there. After a few minutes, Flora came out and asked him how she could help.
“Well, Ma’am," he is supposed to have said, “I hear you make the best coffee in town and I sure would like a good cup of coffee. Could you bring me out one? My wheels just won’t make it through your doorway.”
She did and he came back twice a week. He would sip his coffee in his wheelchair outside her front door and chat with people coming and going. When fall came, Flora found more than a few of her customers thought she was mighty mean spirited, keeping him outside like a dog. Eventually, she broke down and had a ramp installed.
The muggy heat wilted my starched shirt in seconds despite my skinny frame. I didn’t know how Archie could stand it as he wheeled along the sidewalk.
“Take it easy, Archie,” I said as I met him in front of the building. “It’s too hot for racing.”
“I have to talk to you, in your office,” he said.
I looked back at the Police station. The county hadn’t sprung for funds to pay for a ramp. They didn’t think I would have much call for incarcerating people in wheelchairs. I didn’t think so either.
“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll treat you to a coffee and we can talk over a couple slices of apple pie at Flora’s. Where’s Red?”
"My dog is dead. Murdered."
Archie’s dog, Red Rover, as he called her, was a cross of Golden and Irish retrievers, with a flame speckled coat and the good nature of both breeds.
“Who could have done such a thing?” I asked.
“Chris Mulchuck beat her to death,” he said and looked at me, waiting for me to say something.
“How do you know Chris did it?”
“I saw him.”
Chris Mulchuck. My father would have called him a bad seed. In the last seven years, his name kept coming across my desk. Chris wasn’t a loud-mouthed donut like some kids of that age. In grade school and middle school, he had been small for his age. Then one summer he began to sprout and his father put him to work in the family construction business. He put on the muscle to match his height. He was his father’s only child and his father was the richest man in these parts.
That fall, Chris lasted four weeks on the football team before the coach suspended him. On the day he turned sixteen, he dropped out of school, much to the relief of the teachers and the principal. His father put him to work. A hard man making a mean boy into a vicious man.
Once when Flora complained to me that he’d left without paying for a meal, I gave him a talking to. The next day, her windows were smashed. No one saw a thing.
I sighed. Archie was roping himself a load of trouble. The leather seat of the wheelchair creaked as Archie waited for me to say something.
“I’ll give you a hand getting into the station Archie. Do you want to make a complaint?”
“I’ll tell you the rest of it when we’re in your office.”
With a bit of help, I managed to get him and his wheelchair up the steps, through the door and along the hallway to my office. I moved the visitor’s chair into the hall so Archie could roll in there. I brought us both some station house coffee, stale, with sugar and non-dairy milk.
“Why don’t you start from the very beginning?” I asked.
“Where is the beginning?” he said to himself. “When I lost my legs? When Chris was born? I guess it began the day he nearly ran me down. While I was crossing Main Street to go to Flora’s, he came barreling down the street doing eighty in his father’s pickup. I thought he was going to hit me. I think he would have but the pickup was brand spanking new and he’d have had to explain the dings and scratches I’d make.
“At the last second, he swerved the pickup around, nearly tipping her, stopped and jumped out of the cab and started cursing me. He told me the world would be better off without an old cripple like me. I told him, go ahead, if beating up a man in a wheelchair was his speed. For a second, I thought he was going to kick me to death, there in the middle of Main Street but instead he jumped back in the pickup and roared away.”
That sounded like Chris. Too smart to cross the line all the way. Big and intimidating but thinking a step ahead of most other people as well.
“Why didn’t you tell me about that?”
Archie snorted. “What would you do? Give him a talking to? From then on I found him watching me at the strangest times. He never said or did anything, just stood and looked at me and smiled. I knew he was biding his time. Waiting. Planning. Watching.
“Last Sunday, I let Red out in the back yard in the evening, as I always did. She’d go outside, sniff around, do her business and let herself back inside. Did you know she could pull open the screen door? I had a towel tied onto the door handle just for her. She was one smart dog.
“Only Last Sunday, she didn’t. I waited and after a while I heard her whining, as if she’d caught her collar on something. I rolled to the back door and looked. That’s when I saw Chris Mulchuck.
“He’d caught her and tied her to a fence post. When he saw me at the door, he smiled and hefted a baseball bat. He unloaded on that poor beast. He didn’t smash her over the head and kill her fast. No, he started on her legs, then her back and ribs.”
I didn’t say a word. I kept my head down, writing notes, trying not to look up. Damn! I was going to nail that sadistic bastard. On the other hand, what could I charge Chris with? Animal cruelty? Trespassing?
“Did anyone else see Chris hitting your dog?” I asked.
He didn’t answer me. Instead, he continued. ”My dog told me a thousand times that I was her reason for being: by the way she rested against my leg; by the way she thumped her tail at my smallest smile; by the way she showed her hurt when I would leave without taking her.”
“Did anyone else see Chris hitting your dog?” I asked, again.
“After Chris left, I crawled out to Red. I couldn’t get the wheelchair out the door, so I climbed out of it and crawled like a dog. She was dead. I cradled her broken head in my lap and I cried. The blood tarnished her coat. I never felt so lonesome in all my life.”
“Did anyone else see Chris hitting your dog?” I asked for the third time.
“I don’t think so. I didn’t ask anyone. Stella and her husband came out after a while. They buried Red for me. But they won’t say they saw anything.”
“Archie. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this complaint? I mean it will be your word against his.”
“And you think I’ll sound like a hateful parrot. I’m an old man, over sixty. I have type two diabetes and a bad heart. I’ve sat in this wheelchair for close to forty years.
“Do you know what’s the worst part of being a cripple? It’s the beholding. Always asking favors. Always needing other people to help you. Always sitting on the outside of the booth. Always seeing pity and contempt in other peoples’ faces.
“Maybe my dog didn’t understand enough to realize I wasn’t whole. She was my best friend and I couldn’t help her when she needed me. Every moment of the day she haunts me. Everywhere I go, I hear the sound of her four feet trotting behind. In the morning, I feel her breath on my face, waking me to let her out.”
“There’s nothing to fault you, Archie.”
“I couldn’t help Red that night but I couldn’t let it drop.”
I was going to say more but Mabel (the dispatcher) stuck her head inside the office. She gave Archie a nod and motioned to me with a jerk of her head.
“One second Archie,” I said, as I stepped out of my office and closed the door. I gave Mabel a hard glance. She had no call to barge in.
“Chief, I have a call from Dickerson. He’s down on the old Lakeshore Road.”
“He found Chris Mulchuck, in a ditch, dead.”
It took close to twenty minutes before I could get back to Archie. When I returned, he remained sitting there, smelling of the sweat he’d worked up rolling down to the station in his chair. Why had he done that? Archie had a Ford Econoline van, with a wheelchair lift and customized controls to let him drive it without pedals. He drove regularly, sometimes too fast. I’d stopped him more than once for speeding and I’d swear he enjoyed getting a ticket, just like a regular driver.
Chris had killed his dog on Sunday but Archie had waited until now to report it. Why? Chris unnerved people and perhaps Archie knew a baseball bat could hit a person as easily as a dog.
I looked at Archie as I apologized for the interruption. The way he smiled at me felt wrong. If Archie had waited three days to swear out a complaint against Chris out of fear, where was the fear? I’d known enough fear to smell it.
I looked down at the complaint I’d been writing, then back at Archie. Something clicked in my head, like an old-fashioned Teletype hammering out a single word -- ‘motive’. Certainly, Archie had one.
Perhaps it had taken him three days to find the right opportunity -- one where Chris was on foot, somewhere along a lonely stretch of road. Premeditated murder. My mind raced forward.
Had Archie come to complain or confess?
I liked Archie. No one liked Chris, except his father and maybe not even him. What should I do? I sighed. I had the same answer I`d had for more than twenty years. I’d do my duty. My job wasn’t to act as judge and jury, thank God.
First, check Archie’s van. (A forensic examination could prove if it was the murder weapon.) Second, talk to the DA. Was this complaint admissible evidence? I hadn’t read Archie his rights. Should I? There was going to be hell to pay when old man Mulchuck learned his only son was dead.
I shook myself, and took a deep breath. Make haste slowly. I didn’t want to be the dope who let Archie get off on a technicality.
“Archie,” I said. “I think you’d better talk to a lawyer before you say anything else.” I hadn’t read him his rights but I hadn’t arrested him, yet. Maybe my imagination was just too active today.
“You don’t want the rest of the story?” he asked. He smiled at me. “Maybe you’re right.”
I helped him out of my office and out of the police station. The county would have to pay for wheelchair ramps for the police station and the courthouse before this was over.
Copyright 2006, 2014 Edward McDermott. A similar story was printed in Future Mystery Anthology in 2006.
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