20 • Mad Dog
Will drove home late, his belly full from the grill and his head full from Joe. Together they seemed to devise a sort of deep satisfaction he only partially recognized, as though he’d touched it somewhere before, or perhaps seen it, but never fully possessed it. He couldn’t wait to get home to his bed in his sparse little room in Pearl Jenkins’ sprawling house. He sensed somehow that if he could settle his mind enough to fall asleep in the first place, he would sleep through until morning for the first time since he could remember.
He drove faster, not wanting to squander such an opportunity and knowing the sheriff wouldn’t be patrolling at such a late hour on a weeknight. The Vendry Tower approached on his left and he lifted his foot off the accelerator slightly. No, Phillips, he said to himself. He pressed against his knee with his hand to put his foot back into the gas. I don’t care how good you feel. You’re not climbing tonight.
His tires crunched on the gravel parking pad behind the house around 1:30. He went softly up the back stairs so he didn’t wake Pearl. In his bedroom, Will loosened his belt and unzipped his jeans, plopping down on the bed to take off his boots. He set them on the floor and dropped backwards onto the pillow, his eyes already closed.
Moments later, he fought to open his eyes against the morning sun streaming across his bed. He slapped at his hip and shouted in what was really a low mumble, his mouth barely moving, “Shit. Mad Dog, I thought you put out traps. Damn mouse crawled up my pants.” He struck his hip again. “Don’t just stand there laughing. Give me the hammer.”
Will swung his free arm, empty-handed, and rolled off the bed, landing on his hands and knees. He forced his eyes open now and saw the oak floor. He grabbed at his hip, still tingling, and realized his phone was ringing in his pocket. He dug it out and looked at the caller id. Cameron Julian. Cameron? Calling? In the middle of the night?
He pressed his thumb against the phone to answer and put it to his ear. He rasped a garbled “Phillips, ” his tongue dry and swollen to the roof of his mouth.
Cameron sounded unsure. “Is this . . . Will?”
Will cleared his throat and rolled his tongue around his mouth. “Yesh. Yes. Will. Sorry, haven’t talked yet this morning.”
The staircase creaked and Pearl’s voice floated up the steps. “Mr. Phillips, is everything alright up here? I heard a crash.”
“Hold on a sec, Cameron, ” he said, and held the phone against his stomach. “Yes, Mrs. Jenkins. Everything is fine. I, ah . . .” He looked around the room. “I, ah, just tripped over my boots.”
“Who are you talking to up there? You didn’t bring a girl home last night now did you?”
“No, no, Mrs. Jenkins, ” Will tried to smile, hoping it would make his voice sound more convincing and his situation less ridiculous. “I didn’t bring a girl home. I’m on the phone and I’m really just fine. I’ll come down in a minute to see you. And prove it.”
“I’ll be waiting, Mr. Phillips.”
Will listened. There was no more creaking, so she had stopped coming up the stairs. But she was also not going down the stairs.
He put the phone back to his ear. “Okay, sorry about that. I’m back.”
“Listen, ” Cameron said. “I just wanted to check with you on the cable installation. I guess my crew came over to set you up yesterday but you were out.”
“Oh, umm, right.” Will rubbed the back of his neck. “I ended up working late last night. Can they try again today? I should be home around 4. And they can always talk to Mrs. Jenkins. She’d show them in.”
“Well, she sent them away yesterday. Told them they were at the wrong house because everyone knows Will Phillips doesn’t have a television set.”
“Oh, whoops.” Will chuckled. “I’ll have to make sure to let her know things are changing.”
“Alright then. I’ll send them this afternoon. Have a nice day.”
“Thanks for the follow-up, Cameron. And you too.” Will put his phone in his pocket, wondering why the regional manager would be following on installation no-shows. He listened for Pearl. She was silent. He walked into the hall and peered over the rail. She stood on the third step up, her head cocked toward the upstairs, one hand on the banister and the other on her hip.
“Good morning, Mrs. Jenkins, ” Will called down the stairs, smiling. “I’m off the phone now.”
Pearl looked up at him and scowled. “You scared me half to death with all that ruckus. Are you sure you are by yourself?”
“I’m really sorry about all the noise. I should have known to put my boots under the bed. And I was talking to Cameron Julian.”
“Cameron Julian is up there with you? Mr. Phillips! I will not have that sort of thing in my house. You two have barely met.”
“Now, Mrs. Jenkins. Do I detect a hint of jealousy?” Will started down the stairs. “Cameron called me.” He held out his phone. “Do you want to see the call log?”
He lit the display on his phone and saw seven missed texts from Mad Dog. “Good grief. What time is it, anyway?”
“It’s 10:00, Mr. Phillips. I wondered if you were ever getting up today.” Pearl scowled again as she stepped back down. “What’s this about you getting cable, anyway?”
“I bought a tv. So I can watch the Cubs play.”
“Sure you did.” Pearl shook her head.
“It’s in the truck. I need to bring it in so I can set it up. If the guys come back today, would you please let them in?”
“Oh, very well.” Pearl turned to look at Will when she reached the landing. “You could always watch your hockey games with me, you know. I have a television in the sitting room.”
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Jenkins. Sometimes a man wants to do things by himself. Listen, I should be getting to work.” He smiled. “By the way, it’s baseball.”
“Is that right?” Pearl crossed her arms. “Good to know. By the way, a new television is a pretty expensive way to meet a girl who lives across the street. But then, I suppose, sometimes a man wants to do things by himself.”
Will’s smile went flat. Pearl turned away from him and walked toward the kitchen.
He stood for a moment, then opened the texts on his phone while he walked upstairs. Mad Dog had been texting him since 8:30. The first was a new assignment for a crash scene investigation in Longville. The next six were the same, Mad Dog’s supposed heartfelt default when Will didn’t check in as expected: “u ok?”
“Note to self, ” Will said. “Don’t count on Mad Dog to actually come find me if I’m in trouble.”
He texted back. “Thanks for your concern. I’m fine. Assignment received.”
Will stood in his room, looking from the blankets tangled on the floor to the bed to his boots to the closet, needing to get ready for work but unable to orient. With half the day spent (and a night of dead-sleep he’d yet been able to appreciate) he needed to move fast. He grabbed a clean pair of Levis and a shirt from his closet, nearly identical to what he was wearing except the shirt was blue checked, not red. He pulled a matching pair of boxers and a white t-shirt from the drawer and went down the hall for a quick shower.
He wiped the shower steam off the mirror with the outside of his sleeve and ran his fingers through his hair. He brushed his teeth and took another look, realizing he hadn’t shaved. “No matter, ” he said to the mirror. “Your 5 o’clock shadow doesn’t show up until midnight a week later.” He hung his towel, smiling in his head at Pearl, and left for the office.
“Where the hell have you been?” Mad Dog demanded when he walked in. “I’ve been taking your calls all morning.”
“Yeah? Sorry. Who called?”
“Well, that Nina babe called about her fire.”
“What did she want?”
Mad Dog picked up a tablet from his desk. “I don’t know. She didn’t want to talk to me.”
“Anybody else call?” Will asked.
“Nope. Just your girlfriend Nina.”
“How many times?”
“Just that once.” Will raised an eyebrow. “Come on, Phillips. You know how it is with a girl like that. Just that one time feels like 20 when it’s over.” Mad Dog laughed.
Will picked up the newspaper from the desk and walked across the hall to his office. Mad Dog called after him. “Hey, I need you to do that accident scene. My hip’s been acting up and I shouldn’t be out playing in traffic. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, no. Of course I don’t mind.” He saw the stack of pending cases on his desk and sighed. “I’ll call Nina from the road.”
A green tennis ball bounced across the hall and rested against Will’s boot.
“Hey, throw that back, would you?” Mad Dog held up both hands, another ball in one and the other open to catch the toss. Will bent to pick up the ball.
“What are you working on today, Mike?”
“Well, I’m meeting Stu and Charlie in a few minutes for coffee.”
“Another full day, I see.” Will threw the ball, spinning it just enough to skip off a sheaf of loose papers on his partner’s desk. Mad Dog lunged from his chair to catch them as the pages fluttered to the floor.
“Oops. My bad.”
Will sat down at his desk. His pencil cup—a plastic mug with a large red C that he’d gotten at a Cubs game as a boy—was to the left of the desk phone, not where he kept it on the right. A yellow legal pad in the middle of his desk was flipped to a blank page, and the previous page had been torn out. A small torn piece was still attached at the top, left behind like a hanging chad. The hangers-on made Will uncomfortable, disordered. He always folded them over and neatly finished the tear-off. He did the same this time, rolling the small corner of the page between his fingers and then dropping it into his waste basket.
“Been in my office lately, Mike?” he called across the hall.
There was no need to ask. He could feel when someone had been in his space, even before he could see it.
“Oh, yeah. This morning. Took a call in there.”
Will shifted in his chair.
“And why was that?”
“The phone rang while I was at your desk.”
Will closed his eyes.
“Well, why would I come back here to answer it?”
Will rubbed his palm up and down along the top of his thigh.
“What were you in here for, Mike?”
“Oh, no reason, really.” Mad Dog stuck his head into Will’s doorway and grinned. “I’m heading out. I’ll tell Stu and Charlie you said Hello.”
“I didn’t say Hello.” Will scowled.
“I know. But I like people to think I work with a friendly guy. Someone not so afraid of people.”
Mad Dog flipped his keys into the air and caught them with his hand behind him as he walked away. Will saw another green tennis ball on the floor to the right of his chair. He reached for it and wound up to throw it.
“I’m not afraid of people!” he called as the door slammed.
He opened his hand and let the ball drop to the floor. It bounced under his chair and then rolled against the wall.
“I just don’t always know what to do with them, ” he said softly, his shoulders slumping.
Will scanned his desk and credenza for anything else Mad Dog may have touched. He had a way of putting his fingers on Will’s things whenever he came in to his office. No matter what it was, he just always needed to pick something up. Rarely did he put it back in the same place.
There was something about the way Mad Dog held Will’s things that seemed to make their value dissipate into nothingness. A book, a photograph, a round stone or a shell from the ocean. These were the things Will surrounded himself with at work, making the place he worked safely his own in ways he didn’t do in his room at home. Though he wouldn’t mean it as such, Mad Dog’s very presence in Will’s office could feel like a threat to his safety. Certainly to his sanity.
Except for the tablet and pencil cup, the desktop appeared otherwise untouched. His laptop was in his briefcase, the monitor on the desk used only as an extension.
He opened the top drawer.
It looked orderly enough. He picked up a pack of spearmint gum, left from the last time he thought he would stop smoking. The pack still had five pieces. He’d only chewed two before he lit up.
“Mad Dog, ” he hissed.
The fifth stick was an empty foil wrapper folded neatly and slid back into the pack.
There were things Mad Dog did for no real reason except that he could. He took a peculiar delight in working Will into an unwinnable corner: put up with his ways and endure the petty invasions, or resist them and be understood as a territorial puke. How Mad Dog ever settled a claim was a mystery when he was so adept at creating losing propositions.
Will slipped his laptop out of its black padded case and opened it to his email. He located the new assignment and printed it. A double-fatality motor vehicle accident. He was to get photos of the scene and diagram the accident, and also stop for a copy of the crash report from the courthouse. He put fresh batteries in his camera, dropped the printout into an empty manila folder and loaded his briefcase.
Halfway to the door he stopped and went back, opening the bottom drawer of his desk. He rummaged around for the key to the drawer and found a small plastic dome that looked like a tiny gray igloo. Inside the chute was a glass eye. He chuckled, remembering when his nephew had given him the portable motion sensor he’d found in a gadget shop. Alex had set it in the bathroom one night when Will was visiting Tom’s family, hoping to scare him with the alarm when he got up in the morning. It went off screeching in the middle of the night instead when Will got up to use the bathroom. Alex forgot setting it up by then and was as startled by it as anyone in the house.
Will turned on the switch and set the device in the corner between the credenza and his file cabinet, aimed so that as soon as Mad Dog would reach the desk, it would activate and hopefully his partner would need to change his shorts before his next coffee with Stu and Charlie.
Then he took his shells and stones, the two books and photograph of a blue sunset on Long Island and slid them into the top drawer. He put the gold key in the lock and clicked it.
“This is what happens when you only give people shitty choices, Mike.” He dropped the key in his pocket, picked up his briefcase and walked out the door.
(to be continued)