In the last installment, Ella meets Detective Ferguson in his precinct office. The interview includes all her odd experiences in the neighborhood and disturbing incidents in the unit next door to her apartment. After calming herself at a pizza place, she returns home and puzzles over another strange sight.
I’d forgotten to tell Detective Ferguson about the runners’ pack passing my building earlier that morning. Now that I was home again, I planned to call him, but first I needed something to cut my thirst; that pizza snack was salty. I changed into a sweatshirt and pants and went to my window with a tall, sweating glass of water in hand. The sound of evenly beating footsteps caught my ear. There they were again, the same pack of runners I’d seen that morning, but rounding the corner onto my street from Pine Glen. Was this leg the end of their circuit? That would have been an hours-long run. I assumed they were training for a marathon and nearly turned away from the window when a strange sight pulled me back.
Their lead runner was barking commands, just as he had earlier in the day. His build and manner reminded me of Falk, the dog catcher, but dressed in a singlet, shorts, and runner’s tights he looked more like a Marvel Comics superhero. Anyway, it was the last runner who caught my eye.
Joe, our building handyman, was at the rear of the pack, several yards behind the next runner. He was slowing to a walk. After a few more steps, gasping he bent over with hands on his knees. The runners stopped. Their leader doubled back, on the far side of the pack. Trees hid him from view until I could see him reach Joe and slap him hard on the back. I almost dropped my water glass. It was Falk. I recognized his red hair and deep-set eyes.
Falk sprinted back to the front while bellowing some gibberish. All the runners pressed forward, elbows raised to chest height, necks extended. They sped off. Joe resumed jogging and caught up. Hiding behind my window frame, I watched the pack pass, but was surprised to see Joe break away. He ran behind a house down the street, through its backyard, and down the alley toward Pine Glen.
My thoughts went every which way. Wasn’t Falk supposed to be working? What was he doing at that hour with those runners? Did he have the day off? Why were Falk and Joe in the same pack? The other day, when he inspected 2A, Falk claimed he didn’t know Joe. Who were all those runners and why was their gait so weird?
A call to Ferguson—I had to reach him. He would help me figure this out. I phoned the precinct station and asked for him. The policewoman I had met before my appointment that morning answered my call. I told her I had some vital information to add to my report. She said Detective Ferguson had left the station soon after our meeting and had not returned yet.
“Well, I suppose I could give that information to another officer. Which detective would have access to the file?”
“Detective Pinscher, but he’s not here, either. Does Detective Ferguson have your phone number? He could text you when he gets back. But, you know, maybe I should take your number anyway, just in case.”
After giving her my contact information and thanking her, I ended the call. Restless, I walked to the window again and put my phone on the sill. A little gray cat, my “Miss Kitty,” was crossing the street, her tail rigid and parallel to the pavement. She looked like a cat on a mission. She trotted past the apartment building across the street and into the gangway leading to the alley where I’d seen Joe disappear.
My ringing phone rattled against the wooden sill. Hoping it was Ferguson, I looked at the caller ID. It was only Dave Straybill.
“Hey, Ella, Just calling to see how you are. I was going to walk you to the police station this morning, but I didn’t hear from you and I was worried.”
“Oh, thanks, Dave. I’m sorry. I was so obsessed with the interview, I just forgot.”
“But you did meet with Ferguson?”
“Oh, yes. He is nice, as you said. Respectful. A good listener. Anyway, it went well. Hey, can I ask you a question?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Have you ever noticed a strange runners group on our street? About 6:30 every morning?”
Dave took his time to answer. “No, that’s way too early for me. My coffee is set to brew at 7:30 at the earliest.” He laughed. “Anyway, what’s so strange about a bunch of runners around here?”
I felt uneasy for a moment. How well did I know Dave? How would he take this next bit? Squelching my doubts, I said, “They ran by here just now. I recognized both that Animal Control officer and our handyman Joe in the group. They run like dogs paddling in a pool.”
“Nah, can’t be. I didn’t hear them go by, but I had my headphones on. Listening to Coltrane. You like jazz?”
“Sometimes…but, Dave, it was Joe. I’m sure of it.”
“Joe? He’s not the type. He’s in terrible shape. Wait, I don’t understand. Did you say you also saw the Animal Control guy, Falk?”
“I did; but I Joe dropped out and headed for Pine Glen. I…well…I was going to—”
“You were going to check it out?”
“Yeah, I was.”
Dave chided me for putting myself at risk, but said he’d walk over to Pine Glen with me if I was determined to go there. I wasn’t sure about his offer, but I had to trust some one besides Detective Ferguson. “Give me a few minutes, Dave. This time I won’t forget to knock.”
Dave laughed again. “Good. Can King come along?”
“Absolutely. See you soon.”
I put my phone in my deepest cargo pants pocket and went to the bathroom for a quick pee and a lipstick repair.
When King lunged toward the trash burner, Dave lost his footing and fell. The dog ran ahead, his leash dragging behind him. He paced across the open doorway and, eyeing us, barked in short, loud yaps. Dave sat up, wincing at the cuts on his palms and his jeans’ ripped knees. He looked up at me, and I noticed new shadows under his eyes.
“Ella, please get King away from there.”
I reached for his arm. “Are you hurt, Dave? Can I help you up?”
Dave brushed away my hand. “I’m fine. I’m fine. Just a few cuts. Nothing serious. Maybe you could grab King’s leash to walk him back?”
“You mean, back home?” I couldn’t leave then, not when I needed to see where Joe went, but King’s barking probably warned Joe we were following him anyway. “Okay, I understand. I’ll get him.” Dave nodded, and as he struggled to stand, I called to King. “Here, boy, come.” The dog would not move. I raised my voice: “Come, King.” Instead of trotting back to me, King stood just outside the trash burner. Growling, he lowered his head and pawed the dirt under his feet.
I sighed and began to walk over to King, but I couldn’t help looking around the lot. For a moment, I thought a curtain moved in the rear window of that frame cottage, the same dimly lit window I’d noticed when I first explored Pine Glen. I heard Dave groan as he was levering himself up by one knee. I shrugged and kept going. When I reached King I squatted to pick up his leash lying among discarded wrappers and crushed beer cans. The dog was pawing at two grooves in the dirt that led into the incinerator. I glanced back at Dave who was limping toward me. Curious about the grooves, I went inside. The plastic leash handle cut into my palm as I screamed.
His head was unscathed but the rest of Detective Ferguson’s body, still in uniform, was twisted as if some giant hands had wrung him like a wet washcloth. Nauseated, I couldn’t speak, but my scream must have done the job. Dave ran to my side, his own wounds forgotten.
“What the f**k?” He shouted. “King, get back.” The dog was sniffing Ferguson’s remains. Dave pulled his cell phone from his back pocket and started to hit 911 on the screen. Stunned at first by Ferguson’s mangled body, I had not moved. I was staring at the detective’s rolled back eyes and gaping mouth. His mouth. On my knees, I lowered my cheek and hovered over his mouth and nose. No breath. His wrenched torso was still. I held his wrist. No pulse.
“He’s gone, Dave. Dead. What are you doing, calling the police?”
As if in answer, sirens pierced the strained silence following King’s desperate barking, my scream, and Dave’s profanity. “Hurry outside, Ella.” We brushed debris from our clothes and hid behind the trash burner. “I never completed the call. Why are they coming here?” He looked around, then pointed to the frame cottage. “Move, quick. To those back steps.”
We ran to the far side of the cottage and as I crouched behind the steps’ concrete support I said, “Maybe they aren’t coming here. They’re responding to a mugging or something?”
Dave whispered, “Unlikely. Except for those bodies in the incinerator, nothing ever happens around here.”
“And except for the noises next door, and whatever attacked me there, and that pack of runners.”
“Yeah, but that can all be explained. Look, we should split up. I can’t let the cops find me here, not if I want to live. What about you?”
I didn’t know what to do. Why would he leave me? Then I remembered; Dave wasn’t white. I shook my head and pointed to the spot where I was standing. “I’ll wait here just a bit, just to see if they’re responding to another 911. If not, I will wait until they’re gone, then come home.”
“OK. OK. Good. Gotta go.” The man and dog trotted down the alley and I watched them for a while until the first police cruiser pulled up. Scared, I crouched behind the stairs. My chest felt tight and I was breathing too quickly. I wished Dave were still with me. I wondered if he meant to go home or some place else. I stopped my anxious musings at the sound of a soft whistle over my head.
I looked around.
“Hey, up here.” At the top of the weathered stairs, Joe was standing in a darkened doorway. “Better come in…Mrs. Volkman. Before Pinscher spots you.”
I could just make out Detective Pinscher easing out of the car. I did not want to deal with him again. Turning to face Joe, I saw him go in and I followed.
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