What was it, Herb Tyler wondered, that told a hound to wait for Saturday evening to chow down on a gun-grease rag?
It was past 1:00 AM and he was waiting to hear from the emergency vet in Robbinsville. If Floozy didn’t pass the scrap they’d do surgery. Routine procedure, nothing to worry about. They’d call and let him know.
He settled back in his recliner, rereading Zane Grey and relaxing to the pummelling of the rain on the cabin roof.
Hell! Damn phone made him jump. Hey, ease up! Floozy needs an operation, I can swing the cost. She’s a good dog. She’s worth it.
“Herb? . . . ”
Not the vet. Just that moocher Russ Henson. What’d he want this time of night? Bail?
“ . . . favor?” Bad cell connection. It figured.
“Listen, man,, you keep– ”
“ . . . last time . . . promise.”
Yeah, right. “OK, whaddya want?”
“I’m . . . swamp . . . pickup . . . ditch . . . your place . . . ?”
Was that all? “Yeah, sure, man. Come on over and dry off. You can walk here from where you are?”
“Yeah. . . soon. Last time.”
An hour passed. No Russ.
Not sending a search party after him, the fool.
Hour and a half.
Maybe he’s gone clean the other way.
Wait. That noise. Somebody out there, or just trash blowing across the porch floor? Floozy could’ve told: she barked at anything on legs. But the dog was in Robbinsville.
Herb listened, his ears straining.
What was that? “Russ, that you?”
He clutched the door knob. You chickenshit. Nothing’s out there. Nothing.
Nothing? He jerked the door open. The soaked-through body of a middle-aged man swayed, reached blindly forward, and fell face-down on the plank floor.
He helped him to a chair, got his wet clothes off him, and wrapped him in a blanket. “Shit,” he said, handing him a mug of steaming coffee, “you look nearly dead.”
“I feel d-d-dead,” said Russ, his teeth chattering against the rim.
“Why the hell’d you take the shortcut through the swamp on a night like this?”
“C-c-couldn’t see the road. F-f-followed some bastard’s t-t-taillights. Felt something was wr-wr-wrong but it was t-t-too late.”
Too late. It was too late.
Hell, no, it wasn’t! Ignorant sumbitch was sitting here safe, wasn’t he?
“F-f-frigging lights dipped down, then back up again, like the road was c-c-clear. N-next thing I know, the water’s p-pouring into my cab.”
“Shit, man, how’d you get out? You’d be fried if you hadn’t.”
“More like one wet gh-ghost,” said the figure in the chair.
“Sorry, gotta get this.”
It was the vet. Floozy would be fine.
Behind him, ceramic crashed against hardwood. He wheeled. The receiver fell from his hand.
On the chair he saw his blanket, empty; on the floor, in a puddle of mixed rainwater and coffee, the shards of the mug.
And nothing more.