by Andrew Vachss
I nosed the Plymouth carefully around the corner, checking the street the way I always do when I'm heading home. The garage I use is cut into the closed-off base of an old twine factory, converted into upscale lofts years ago. Above the designer-massaged floor-through apartments is what the yuppie occupants think is crawl space. That's where I live.
A pal had tapped into their electricity lines and installed a stainless-steel sink-and-toilet combo. A fiberglass stall shower, a two-burner hot plate, a duct to the heating pipes below . . . and it turned into my home.
I've lived there for years, thanks to a deal I made with the landlord. His son got himself into a jackpot—an easy enough feat for a punk who thought ratting our his rich dope-peddling friends was a fun hobby—and ended up in the Witness Protection Program. I stumbled across him while I was looking for someone else, and I traded my silence for a special brand of rent control. Didn't cost the landlord a penny, but it bought his punk kid an anonymous life. And safe harbor for me.
Some of my life is in that building. And when I saw the pack of blue-and-white NYPD squad cars surrounding the back entrance, I knew that part of it was over.
I just sat there and took it. The way I always do-fear and rage dancing inside me, nothing showing on my face. I've had a lot of practice, from the hospital where my whore of a mother dropped me—dropped me out of her, I mean—to the orphanage to the foster homes to the juvenile joints to prison to that war in Africa to prison again and ... all of it.
It didn't matter anymore. Nothing did. Somebody had dimed me out. And the cops would find enough felony evidence up there to put me back Inside forever once they connected it up.
I watched the cops carry Pansy out on a litter, straining under the huge beast's weight. Pansy's my dog. My partner, not my pet. A Neapolitan mastiff, direct descendant of the original war dogs who crossed the Alps with Hannibal. I had dreamed of having my own dog every night in prison. They'd taken my beloved little terrier from me when I was a kid, that lying swine of a juvenile-court judge promising me there'd be another puppy in the foster home they were sentencing me to. I remember the court officer laughing then, but I didn't get the joke until they dropped me off. There was no pup there, and I had to do the time alone, without anyone who loved me.
I never saw my dog again but I did see that court officer. It was more than twenty years later, and he didn't recognize me. When I was done, nobody would recognize him either. That's the way I was then. I'm not the same now. But I've only changed my ways, not my heart.
I'd raised Pansy from a pup. Weaned her myself. She would die for me. And it looked like she had. Standing up all the way. She'd never let another human being into my place when I wasn't there.
I said goodbye the way we do down here—promising her vengeance. I was using the little monocular I always carry to get a close-up when the screen shifted focus: I saw Pansy stir on the litter. She was still alive. The cops must have waited for the EMS Unit—they carry tranquilizer guns. So I didn't need the badge numbers of the cops anymore—I needed my dog back. I U-turned the Plymouth slow and smooth and aimed it toward a place where I could make plans.
"Honey, I called around for hours. We know where she is," Michelle said, her lustrous eyes shining, reflecting the pain in me. She's my sister—my pain is hers.
"The new shelter. The one in Hunter's Point, just across the river? In Long Island City."
"Yeah, I heard about it. It's private, right? Part of the fucking Mayor's giveaway plan."
"Baby, relax, okay? Crystal Beth ran over there the second I called her. It could get a little stupid ... Pansy's got no license, no papers ... but Crystal knows how to act. Just sit tight, and—"
"When did she leave?"
"Honey, stop. You're scaring me. She's been gone almost ... three hours now. You don't expect her to haul that monster on the back of her motorcycle, do you?"
"I don't care how she—"
Michelle put her hand on my forearm, willing me to centered calmness, reminding me of all the years I'd invested in learning the path to that place.
"Can you get Max for me?" I asked Mama. She'd been hovering nearby since the minute I'd come in.
"Sure. Get Max. Come soon, okay?"
I just nodded.
"Burke, you don't need Max for this," Michelle told me. "Jesus! It's not like they're gonna care, right? So she doesn't have a license. So Crystal Beth has to pay a fine ... or whatever. It won't take long...."
I stayed inside myself, waiting. Felt Crystal Beth's small hand on my shoulder before I heard her approach. Smelled her orchid-and-dark tobacco scent. Didn't move. She came around the table and sat down across from me.
"What happened?" I cut into whatever she was going to say, already knowing it was bad.
"The ... license thing wasn't a problem. Just like Michelle said. They were willing to let me take her. But they wouldn't bring her out—they said I had to go back and get her myself."
"And ... ?"
"And she was in a cage. A big steel cage. Like a tiger or something. There was a sign on it, in red; it said: DANGEROUS! DO NOT APPROACH! The ... attendant, he told me she wouldn't take food. Even when they shoved it into the cage, she wouldn't eat. He warned me not to come near her, but I did anyway, and she..."
"She tried to kill me. She lunged at the bars, snarling and snapping her teeth, and ..."
"They don't know the word," I said, half to myself. I had poison-proofed Pansy when she was still small. Unless you said the right word, she wouldn't touch food, no matter how hungry she was.
I had a friend who ran a little auto-parts joint. He had a shepherd, a real nice one. He used the dog to guard the place at night, so nobody could help themselves. Some degenerate tossed a strychnine-laced steak over the fence. When the dog helped himself, he died. In pain.
I'd trained Pansy so that would never happen to her. And I should have known she wouldn't walk out with anyone but me.
They try and get dogs adopted at the shelter. If they can't, they gas them. Who was going to adopt a sixteen-year-old, hundred-and-fifty-pound monster who could bite the top off a fire hydrant? But Pansy wasn't going to wait to be gassed—she'd loyal herself to death first.
Not a chance. I owed her at least what I'd always promised myself. That I wouldn't die caged.
"Michelle, go find the Prof for me," I told her.
A few hours later, I was with a piece of my family, waiting on the rest.
"I can't scam her out," I told the women. "I mean, I could go there myself, and she'd come with me. But if I show up ... the cops know where they got her from, and they might be expecting that. I'm surprised they didn't try and follow Crystal Beth ...."
"I was on my bike, honey," Crystal Beth said, her face calm with assurance.
I knew what she was telling me. There wasn't a cop car made that could keep up with Crystal Beth on that motorcycle of hers, especially with the steady rain that had been falling for days. For the first time, I noticed what she was wearing—a full set of racing leathers.
"But how were you gonna get Pansy on—?"
"We had a car standing by. If I got her out, I was just going to load her in there and—"
"I don't know, Burke. The Mole lent it to us. Some big dark thing. He made me a new license plate for my scooter too. Even if the cops saw it, they won't make anything out of it."
"The Mole was gonna drive? Jesus, I—"
"Not the Mole," Michelle interrupted. "Terry."
"Yes, he is," she said, a trace of sadness in her voice. "My little boy's almost a man now. He doesn't have a license, but he can drive."
Terry. Had it really been that long since I'd pulled him away from a kiddie pimp in Times Square? Since Michelle took him for her own? Since the Mole had raised him in his junkyard? Since...?
Then the door swung open and the Prof walked in, Clarence at his heels.
"What's the plan, man? I got the word, came soon as I heard."
"We have to get her out before they—"
"I said the plan, fool. You know I'm down with the hound. So gimme the four-one-one, son. They gonna be laying in the cut, waiting on you to make your move. We gotta be quick, but we also gotta be slick. Otherwise ..."
"Let me think," I told the only father I'd ever had—the one I met behind the Walls.
"Everybody got it?" I asked. It was almost nine o'clock at night by then, more than sixteen hours since my life had been torn apart.
Everybody nodded. Nobody spoke. I looked over at the big circular table in the corner, now piled high with what we needed.
"You sure they're open twenty-four hours?" I asked Michelle.
"That's what they said, honey. But I don't know if they'll actually open the doors, even if you say it's an emergency. It's not a medical place. All they do there is keep the dogs and ..."
"Kill them," I finished for her. "It doesn't matter anyway." I turned to look at Crystal Beth. "You got the floor plan?"
"Right here," she said, unrolling it on the table in front of me.
"Mole," I called, summoning him over. Then I started to explain what I needed.
"There have to be women there," Crystal Beth said, standing to one side of the table, little hands on her big hips, face tightened against any argument.
"Look, this is—"
"You say 'man's work' and I'm going to—"
"No, girl," I said soothingly. "I wasn't saying that. It's just you don't have any experience with—"
"With what, hijacking?" Michelle interrupted. "That isn't the way to do it. You and the Prof, sure. I know you even got Max to go along sometimes on that crazy stuff you used to do, but if you think—"
"I am going too, Little Sister," Clarence said in his dignified island voice, blue-black West Indian face set and resolute. "You are not to blame Burke for this. Yes, I would follow my father, wherever he walked. But I love that great animal too. She is not going to die," he said softly, his hand caressing the 9mm semi-auto that was as much a part of his wardrobe as the peacock clothing he draped over his lean body every day.
"That's not the point. I don't want—"
"Michelle, I am going," the Mole said. Soft and gentle, like always. But not, like always, deferring to her. "Not Terry. You are right. He is my boy too, not only yours. And he is too young to risk ... whatever there is."
"Will you morons fucking listen to me?" Michelle yelled, standing up so suddenly she knocked a couple of glasses to the floor. She walked over and stood next to Crystal Beth.
"This isn't about what you imbeciles think I'm trying to tell you," her creamy complexion flushed red with anger, "it is not a hijacking, even with all those ... guns and things you have. It's still a scam, right? And they are not going to buy it unless you have a woman doing the talking, understand?"
"Girl's telling it true," the Prof said. "We don't work it right, they ain't gonna bite."
The Mole nodded, slowly and reluctantly.
"Yeah," I said, surrendering.
It was near 3 a.m. by the time we were ready to ride. Michelle and Crystal Beth were both dressed in military camofatigues, complete with combat boots. Max and I went for the generic look. Crystal Beth sat in the front seat right next to me, her left hand on my thigh, transmitting. Max and Michelle were in the back, Michelle yammering a nerve-edged blue streak, the mute Mongol warrior probably grateful he couldn't hear. I had decided the Plymouth wasn't much of a risk—I always keep the registration on me, and the car got a fresh coat of dull-cream primer last night.
I waved across to where Clarence sat behind the wheel of what would pass for a Con Ed truck if you didn't look too close. If you did, you'd be looking at the wrong end of the Prof's double-barreled sawed-off. Somewhere in the back of the truck, the Mole was preparing his potions.
We caravaned along until we got to the pull-off spot on the FDR. I pointed to a white semi-stretch limo with blacked-out glass. "That's yours," I told Crystal Beth. "The rollers won't look twice at a car like that this time of morning. It'll look like someone's coming home from clubbing. Besides, it'll hold everyone."
"I'm staying with you," she said.
"No, you are not, girl," I told her. "Max can't drive worth a damn, and the Mole would crash it for sure. Clarence is the best wheelman we got, but we need him in the truck. We're leaving the truck when we're done, and everyone can't fit in the Plymouth. You just park it where I told you to, and we'll all meet up before we hit the place."
"Crystal Beth, I swear I will throw your fat ass out of this car right now, no more playing. Drive the limo, or we'll do this without you."
She punched me hard on the right arm and got out. She walked over to the limo, opened it with the key I'd given her. I waited until I heard it start up, then I took off.
The Animal Shelter was free-standing—a long, low concrete building, T-shaped at the back end. I pointed out my window for Crystal Beth to pull over. She parked the big limo perfectly, left it with the nose aimed straight out. When she got into the front seat of the Plymouth, I said: "They're going to take the truck around the back. Mole'll stay with it. The Prof and Clarence will meet us out front. Then we do it. Ready?"
Everybody nodded. Nobody spoke.
I stashed the Plymouth just around the corner, out of sight from the front door. We all got out. The Prof and Clarence slipped around the corner and linked up with us.
"How we getting in, Schoolboy?" the Prof asked. "Scam or slam?"
"Slam," I told him, showing the handful of Semtex I was holding. "Me first. Stand back."
I walked up to the door. Put my ear to it. Nothing but a few random, doleful barks—the Captured Dog Blues—no sound of human activity. I patted the Semtex all around the knob and the lock, then made a long seam-tracer for the door's edge. I jerked the string loose and ran back around the corner.
The second the door blew off the hinges, we all charged, faces covered with dark stocking masks, hands gloved. I was first in the door. The attendant was at his desk, face slack with shock. I showed him the pistol.
"Touch the phone and you're dead," I promised him.
Max slid past me, unslinging the huge set of bolt-cutters from over one massive shoulder. The Prof stepped into a corner, his scattergun weaving, a snake looking for a passing mouse. The lights flickered, then went out—the Mole saying he was on the job.
Crystal Beth stepped up, shoving me aside, shining a halogen flashlight in the attendant's face.
"This is a message from the Wolfpack Cadre of the Canine Liberation Front," she proclaimed in a perfect liberal-twit revolutionary's voice. "You may no longer imprison our brothers and sisters without fear of consequences!"
"Silence, lackey!" Crystal Beth snarled at him. "This is a jailbreak, not a debate."
A soft explosion rocked the back of the building. Then another.
The attendant moved his lips like he was praying, but no sound came out.
I walked past him. Saw Max's broad back bent over as he severed the heavy lock on the door to the cage area. Then we both popped the cages open, one by one. The dogs milled about uncertainly, until one spotted the gaping hole in the side of the building. He ran for it, and the others followed.
Pansy was there, her cage standing open. On her feet, daring Max to come closer.
"Pansy!" I called to her. "Come here, sweetheart!"
The big beast's head shot up. She bounded over to me. "Good girl!" I told her, patting her huge head. Then I gave her the hand signal to heel and we merged with the river of dogs flowing to freedom.
As soon as she saw the car, Pansy knew what to do. I popped the trunk and she jumped inside, curled up on the mat next to the padded fuel cell, and looked up expectantly. I handed her a giant marrow bone, whispering "Speak!" at the same time. I closed the trunk lid, knowing the air holes I'd punched in it years ago would let her breathe just fine. And if anyone heard her pulverizing the bone, they'd just think the old Plymouth had a bad differential.
Even with us working the wrong side of the river, some citizen could have called the cops by then. We had to move fast. I stepped back inside the front door just as Michelle was taping up a cardboard stencil warning the world against the unlawful imprisonment of dogs. Clarence sprayed the blood-red paint with one hand, the other holding his pistol steady.
"Don't think about the phones after we're gone," I told the attendant, just to get his attention. As he looked up, Max materialized behind him and did something to his neck. He wouldn't be making any calls for hours.
"They all out?" I asked Clarence.
"All gone, mahn. Every one."
"Scoop the Mole—he's back there somewhere. Then get in the limo and fly. I'll be right behind you."
I tossed a smoke grenade into the back of the joint and dashed for the Plymouth.
I read all about it in the afternoon paper, Pansy stretched out next to me in Crystal Beth's apartment. On the top floor of her safehouse.
The papers were full of it—in all respects—for the next couple of days. The Mayor said it was terrorism. Pansy yawned when she saw his face. Even the camera was bored.
Most of the dogs made it to freedom. The waterfront's not fully developed over on the Queens side. Yet. Maybe some of them will form a pack like their counterparts had in the South Bronx—go feral, evolve their own breed.
Like we have, the Children of the Secret.
Some of them will bond. Some of them will prey on anything that crosses their path.
Some of us do that too.
I started rebuilding my life.
© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from the novel Choice of Evil by Andrew Vachss.