[In the last installment, Ella called Animal Control Officer Falk back to her neighborhood. She suspected an abused dog lived captive in 2A, the apartment next to hers. Earlier, Falk had discovered a mutilated corpse inside a trash-burner a few blocks from her building, after Ella had called him to investigate a large, frightening dog she encountered there.]
Come to think of it, I should have paid more attention to Joe’s quiet footsteps on the stairs. His big feet barely tapped the treads. He moved with feral grace toward the door of the apartment next to mine and unlocked it without a sound. The door swung open. I stepped closer to look inside, but Officer Falk threw out his log of an arm to block me and hit me squarely across my chest. I yelled out, “shit!” and I thought I heard a whimper inside Joe’s hood.
“Geesh, Mrs. Volkman, I’m sorry, but you can’t go in there. Just me.” With a slight nod toward Joe, Falk asked, “You’re the maintenance guy for this building?” Falk had whipped out an official-looking notepad and was scribbling something in it as he spoke. “Name?”
Joe whispered something I couldn’t catch and turned away. Falk grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. The hood fell back; I couldn’t miss Joe’s thick eyebrows. They reminded me of Boris Karloff when he played Frankenstein’s monster. His thick, scraggly beard covered sharp cheekbones and accentuated his large, brown eyes. After glancing at me, Joe pulled up his hood and lowered his head.
“So, Joe, my man, have you noticed anything strange in this building. Mrs. Volkman here—” Joe groaned. “You ok? Fine. Mrs. Volkman here says she’s heard strange noises in there, like…like what, Mrs. Volkman?”
“Scratching. I’ve heard scratching. And howling, or like a dog crying. Not for a while, but today, more scratching today.”
Joe looked up and stared at me. I thought I saw tears welling up in his eyes, but that didn’t make sense. He turned to Falk and shook his head.
“Okay, then. You all wait here. I’ll check it out.” He went into the apartment and closed the door part way. I wished Dave had been there. I decided to have a look anyway. I caught sight of the wall our apartments shared. It had no appliances or cabinets lined up against it. Just a couple of electric outlets interrupted the expanse but the wallpaper was peeling—or was it shredded? I saw a hole about one foot across and I realized it was opposite the soft spot I’d patched from my side when I moved in.
A shadow blocked my view. No, not a shadow, just Falk moving around the apartment. I felt a heavy hand on my arm. Joe was pulling me back. When I looked at his hand, nothing made sense. The man was big. His hoodie shaded his face except for those eyebrows and the tip of his long nose. His hand however did not match the rest of him. Long, thin, and pale, it reminded me of another hand I’d known, but I couldn’t remember whose. Anyway, I thought, shivering, I’m never going to call this guy to fix anything in my place.
I stepped back. Falk came out, told Joe to lock up, and ordered us downstairs and outside. As we left the building and walked toward the sidewalk, I turned to see Joe hadn’t followed us out.
Coming up the street with King, Dave waved and called to me. “Everything ok?” Spotting me, King pulled at his leash but before I could answer Dave, Falk approached them. King shrank back and leaned against Dave’s leg. Dave shrugged and explained, “King doesn’t like Animal Control. I rescued him from the pound.”
“Good citizen, Mr. Straybill,” said Falk. I could have sworn he was sneering, but he quickly turned to me. “Mrs. Volkman, I’m sure you will be ok. That apartment has been empty for a long time probably because of some legal mess. It needs a cleaning for sure, but I didn’t see signs of any animal intrusion. Why don’t you all contact a pest control company, say for squirrels or mice. Sometimes they move in when a place has been vacant.”
Squirrels, I thought. Well, maybe. “Do squirrels shred wallpaper? I can’t imagine. And where’s Joe? We could ask him.”
Dave and King scooted by Falk and went into the building. Moments later, Dave opened the door and shouted, “I can’t find Joe. He must have left.”
Falk poked my shoulder. “You’re spooked by my find at the trash burner. Don’t worry. We’re looking out for that dog you spotted. A stray. It’s probably across town by now. Everything’s under control. Just keep quiet about the trash-burner thing, understand?”
“But the news already–.”
He cut me off. “I haven’t seen or heard any news story about…that.”
“But Officer Ferguson…”
Falk waved his hand as if he were batting at flies. “Ferguson’s a nincompoop.”
I’d had enough of Falk. “Well, I don’t know about that, but thanks for coming out, Officer. I’m sure you have a lot to do besides this.”
Falk leered. “Any time, for a lovely lady like you.”
I didn’t smile. Instead, I thanked him again for his help and went back into the building. Dave was waiting for me under the stairwell.
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