Autumn brings a fresh start in academia, but there are signs that Jamie Brodie’s autumn quarter might bring trouble. First, his next door neighbors unexpectedly drop off the grid. Several days later Jamie discovers – with the help of his dog – that something very bad has happened in the neighbors’ house. When the victim is identified, Jamie briefly becomes a suspect – but something far more dangerous is lying in wait for Jamie. And he doesn’t recognize it until it’s too late.
Sunday, September 25
I was dreaming that Pete and I had returned to Jennifer’s former apartment. We knocked, but it wasn’t Jennifer that answered the door – it was Barb Simmons. Behind her, the apartment was stacked to the ceiling with thousands and thousands of books. She scowled at us. “What are you doing here?”
I said, “We came for your books.”
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Barb tried to slam the door shut. Pete stuck his foot out to block her, and Ammo began to bark…
I woke up. Ammo was on his feet, ears perked, growling. I raised my head to look at him, and he woofed. Not a full-throated bark, but enough to make his point. Something was going on.
I squinted at the clock – 3:30 am. Ammo woofed again and went to the door. Pete made a “mmph” sound and rolled over. I slipped out of bed and pulled on a pair of briefs. The windows of our bedroom were above head height, so I couldn’t see out of them. I parted the blinds in the door leading to the deck and peered out, but I couldn’t see much.
When I opened the bedroom door, Ammo shot downstairs to the back door. I tiptoed after him and went to the peephole. There was nothing on the first-floor deck or the steps leading to the pavement. Everything else was in darkness. I went to the living room; there was nothing outside the front door peephole. I cracked the blinds on our large front windows and saw nothing out of place.
Ammo stood at the back door, growling. He barked twice, sharply. I went back to the kitchen and opened the back door. Our back porch light revealed nothing. The rest of the alley was in shadow. I listened for a moment. Silence.
Ammo had his nose pressed to the screen door, sniffing and whining.
Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be a threat to us. I said, “I don’t know, big guy. Wish you could tell me what you heard.”
Ammo looked up at me and whined again.
I closed and locked the back door. “Back to bed?”
He knew the word bed. He turned reluctantly and trotted back up the steps.
When I slid back into bed Pete grunted softly. “What?”
“Ammo heard something, but everything seems quiet.”
“Sorry I woke you.”
“Was Ammo’s toenails.”
“Ah. Go back to sleep.”
He followed orders as well as Ammo did and was out again in seconds. Before I went back to sleep myself, I made a mental note to clip Ammo’s nails.
We spent the afternoon working in the garden. Remembering Ammo’s disturbance during the night, I checked outside our front gate and around the side of the building. Each of the four front yards of our building was enclosed by an eight-foot wrought iron fence. From the sidewalk, visitors entered the yards through a gate the size of a full door. The gates had decorative curlicues of wrought iron between the bars. Pete and I were screened from view when behind our fence by jasmine vines, planted by Pete’s uncle years ago, but we kept them trimmed back from the gate.
Everything appeared to be undisturbed around our house. I strolled a few feet in the other direction, to the front of the Carters’ unit, and studied their front yard. Seemed fine.
As I was standing there, a Santa Monica patrol car rolled up. It wasn’t the same female officer I’d seen before, but a middle-aged male officer with a buzz cut and overly bulky shoulders that screamed steroids to me. He frowned at me as he got out of his vehicle.
I smiled and tried to appear nonthreatening. “Hi, Officer. I was just checking the neighbors’ front yard.”
“And you are?”
“Jamie Brodie. I live right here.” I pointed to our gate, behind which Pete was thinning carrot sprouts but watching me. “Our dog heard something last night around 3:30, but nothing appears to be disturbed.”
“What did you hear?”
I spread my hands. “Not a thing. The dog’s barking woke me up. I looked out the back door, but there didn’t seem to be anything wrong.”
“We didn’t get any calls.”
“Yes, sir. It was probably nothing. Did you come to do the house check?”
“Right.” The officer rattled the gate and tried the handle; it was locked, as it should be. “I’ll go around back and check the doors. Have you been back there?”
“All right. If you see or hear anything unusual, call us.”
“Have a good day.” He went back to his car.
I said, “Thank you,” to his retreating back and rejoined Pete. “Maybe Ammo was imagining things.”
“I’m sure he heard something.”
“Maybe it was a cat. Or a car door slamming. Or nothing.”
“Maybe you should quit worrying about it and pull some weeds.”
I laughed. “Yes, sir.”
Thursday, September 29
On Thursday morning we intended to go for a short run and take Ammo with us. But when we got to the bottom of the steps, he began whining and tugging us toward the Carters’.
Ammo had been a bomb detection dog, and that’s where my mind went first. “Shit, does that mean he smells explosives?”
Pete, who was on the other end of Ammo’s leash, said, “No, he’s trained to sit and bark once he finds explosives. He’s not exactly sitting.”
Ammo was straining to go up the steps to the Carters’ back door. Pete unhooked the leash and Ammo bounded up the stairs, sniffing almost wildly at the bottom of the door. Pete followed him and said, “Okay, buddy. What’s going on?”
I was standing at the bottom of the steps. “What is going on?”
Pete had an odd expression on his face. “Call him to you. Don’t come up here.”
He glanced at me and went back to sniffing. I said, “Ammo, COME.”
He came, reluctantly, and Pete tossed me his leash. I reattached it as Pete stood at the door, sniffing, then got down on his hands and knees and lowered his nose to where Ammo’s had been. He sniffed once and stood right back up. “Fuck.”
“Decomp.” He came back down the stairs, his phone out, tapping numbers as he descended.
Well, hell. Why couldn’t this have happened yesterday? I let Ammo pee on the trash bins then dragged him up to our deck, urged him inside and retrieved my phone. I went back outside and separately emailed Dr. Loomis and the instructors of the two classes I’d had scheduled for the morning. Dr. Loomis responded immediately. Oh dear. Keep me informed.
I replied, Yes, ma’am.
One of the instructors responded as well. Good grief. Yes, we can reschedule. One week from today works for me.
I replied, Thank you. As I did, two police cars rolled up and stopped at the foot of our stairway.
One of the officers was the buzz cut with the steroid shoulders who’d questioned me the morning after Ammo’s barking had woken me. The other was the woman I’d seen checking the Carters’ house last week. She got out, speaking into her radio, then said to Pete, “Sir, you called this in?”
“We brought our dog out and he dragged me up the Carters’ stairs, sniffing at the bottom of the door. I got down there and took a whiff. Smells like decomp to me.”
The cop narrowed her eyes. “You’ve smelled decomp?”
“Yes, ma’am. Ten years with LAPD.”
She looked surprised. “Ah. All right. Did you touch anything? The door handle?”
“I was on my hands and knees sniffing at the bottom of the door. Otherwise, no. I didn’t touch the door or knob.”
While Pete and the female officer were talking, Steroid Shoulders pulled on a pair of gloves, went up the Carters’ steps, and tried the door handle. It didn’t budge. He stepped back and studied the door. “That’s a heavy duty deadbolt. We’re going to need the fire department.”
The female officer shot us a look. “You two sit tight.”
Pete said, “Yes, ma’am.”
The officer – whose last name, according to her tag, was Fox – got back on her radio. Steroid Shoulders came back down the steps and waited. I turned back to my phone – I’d gotten a response from the second instructor – and added both of the cancelled instruction sessions to my calendar. I asked Pete, “Can someone cover your classes?”
“Not with this last-minute notice. They’ll attach a sign to the door instructing the students to check the course website. Are your classes covered?”
“Rescheduled for a week from today.”
Another patrol car rolled up as we were talking. A gray-haired cop with sergeant stripes got out, glanced at us, and conferred with Fox in hushed tones. Pete said, “Patrol supervisor.”
Another few minutes and the fire truck appeared, parking behind Fox’s vehicle. By this point, Helen and Alyssa were both outside. Helen joined Alyssa on her deck and they conversed, worry on their faces.
I wondered whether Ammo’s waking me at 3:30 am on Sunday was significant, assuming there was a body in the Carters’ house.
At the moment that seemed like a sound assumption.
The firefighters piled out of the truck and talked to Fox and the supervisor for a minute, then one of them returned to the truck and retrieved an axe. He donned his helmet and face shield then climbed the Carters’ stairs and began to chop.
The Carters were going to be pissed off.
Unless it was them lying in there.
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