"I'm on my way to get it now, Bruce," Johnny Smith told his best friend Bruce Lewis. "Don't worry, it won't lose its antique shine."
"It better not," Bruce threatened. "My dealer says it's worth a fortune."
"You should have let me talk you out of seeing him."
"You'll be sorry when I'm rolling in cash."
"You'll be sorry when I see the look on your face when he says it's worth nothing."
"You'll be sorry, Johnny-"
"I got to go," Johnny interrupted. "I'm pulling up now. Here's trouble."
"Why?" Bruce inquired.
"Sarah and Walt are in the drive-way," he reported. "They look like they're arguing."
"Poor Johnny," Bruce remarked. "Just get me my bowl."
Johnny placed his Jeep his park and put his cell phone down. Grabbing his cane, he exited the Jeep and started to limp to where Walt and Sarah Bannerman were apparently fighting. Johnny didn't look forward to walking into the midst of a firestorm, and he certainly didn't want to walk into one where Walt was concerned.
He and Walt had been on edgy terms ever since Johnny had revived Walt from his coma. He suspected Walt remembered everything that had happened in his mind, but he thought they were dreams. Johnny, however, knew better. He was the only one, but that didn't mean Sarah didn't share their secret, and now Walt did too. Johnny had had no choice but to tell Walt in that crucial moment, but now he just hoped that Walt wouldn't take it too hard if he decided his dreams were based in fact.
Neither one of the couple turned their head as Johnny steadily approached. He didn't want to intrude, but they seemed to be in the thick of a hasty argument. As he neared, he suddenly became aware of a shape sitting at Walt's feet. Around its neck was leather leash that tightly was gripped in Walt's hand. Johnny stopped dead when he realized what it was.
The German shepherd dog docilely turned its head, sniffing the air innocently. Johnny exhaled, still staring at the dog. The old fear was rising in him again and he tried to push it down. He had always had a fear of dogs. He could place the roots of his fear nowhere, but it always haunted him. Even the smallest of Yorkish terriers could be a menace and deadly. It was a misplaced fear, he knew, but he couldn't expel it from his system.
Suddenly the dog began to bark. Johnny gasped and jumped.
Both Walt and Sarah turned. Sarah's eyes were distressed and Walt's were angry, but they soon turned to dismay when Johnny came into view. Johnny tried to still his beating heart as he the dog started to growl at him and break away from its leash.
"Apollo," Walt said sharply. "Stay."
The dog quieted its leaps, but continued to stare at Johnny with an angry look.
"Hey Johnny," Sarah said, with a trace of warmth, but distress ringed her voice as well as her eyes.
"Hi John," Walt said tightly, but welcomingly. Over the past few months since Johnny had woken from his coma and set into motion the crazy situation they were currently in, he and Walt had come to respect each other, even like each other. They were friends, but hostile enemies as well. Johnny had learned that from his trespassing in Walt's memories. "What brings you here?"
Johnny sputtered in his throat and still watching the dog, managed to say faintly, "I came for the bowl."
"Oh, yes," Sarah immediately said. She shot a murderous look at Walt. "I'll go get it. Don't you bring that thing into my house, Walt, don't!"
"He's harmless!" Walt shouted behind her as she stormed into the house. "He's just a dog!"
Johnny stood by, not saying a word, still scrutinizing the dog.
Shaking his head, Walt turned to Johnny and said, "She's overreacting. It's just a dog."
Johnny cleared his throat. "So . . . what's with the dog?"
"Some lady got murdered," Walt explained with length. "She was found up in the woods about two days ago and we just found out who she was. We went up to her house and found this dog here." Walt placed a friendly hand on the dog's head and Johnny flinched inwardly. "He's really sweet and we're not taking him to the shelter. None of the others would take him, so I did." He whistled lowly. "I never thought she'd get this mad."
"Why?" Johnny questioned, backing up slowly.
"She doesn't want him around little Johnny," Walt said, rolling his eyes. "She's convinced it's a monster animal and we kill her son. Plus she says Johnny's got allergies, but the funny thing is, they've never crept up until now."
"How long do you have to keep the dog?"
"I'll keep him until we find an owner," Walt said. He glanced darkly at the house. "Or until Sarah kicks him out."
Johnny looked down at the dog, who was still stalking him with his eyes. Johnny coughed and moved back. He looked up to Walt to see his surprise.
"You're not afraid of him, are you?" he asked with some humor.
"No," Johnny stammered, swallowing. "Of course not. He's harmless."
Walt was looking at Johnny with an expression of laughter. Johnny felt heat rise in him.
"He's harmless," he repeated, and killing his fear, boldly reached out and touched the dog's head.
**Panting, he stared ahead into the rain. The heavy winds and rain blocked his keen nose from picking up any scents. Whimpering in confusion, he started to run down the muddy bank. Lightning creaked overhead and he yelped in surprise. The fur on his back started to stand up straight. Fear crept into him as he continued down the bank. The ground underneath his pads was becoming sore and his claws were chipping and scraping. Water leaked into his eyes and he furiously blinked it away, keeping his muzzle down.
Suddenly he caught a scent. Stopping, he rose on one leg and inhaled deeply. She was close . . . she was right there!
Barking, he emerged from the shadows to darkly see a man running forward and dragging her down. Barking, he sprang up and as another bolt of lightning illuminated the sky, he could see him viciously clawing at her. The water poured over him, but in his hand was a viciously sharp object and it was arching downward. She was screaming and desperately struggling to escape. Howling now, he leapt forward.****
"Down Apollo! Johnny, get back!"
Johnny frantically stepped back, then immediately felt a sense of vertigo as he realized he wasn't on all fours anymore. Dizzily, he moved back, trying to clear his eyes, as though water were still leaking into them. Murkily he could see the dog leaping at him, snapping, and Walt attempting to drag him down. Swaying, Johnny continued to blink.
"Whew, he sure doesn't like you Johnny!" Walt said, winded as he finally subdued the dog. "Bad Apollo, bad dog!"
Sarah was running down the drive way, carrying the crystal bowl. Her face was furrowed in anger. "He almost killed Johnny!"
"He did not!" Walt yelled back, gripping the dog's leash tightly as he looked at Johnny. "You okay, John?"
"I'm fine," Johnny said shakily. "That's a big dog."
"Johnny, are you okay?" Sarah asked as soon as she reached them, her eyes throwing daggers at Walt. Before Johnny could answer, she continued, "No, you're not. Walt, if he almost attacked Johnny, I don't want him near my son. I don't want a large animal with large fangs anywhere near him!"
"Sarah, please, he's a good dog-"
"Then why'd he attack Johnny?" Sarah said pointedly.
Walt gaped, and then looked at Johnny wordlessly. Swallowing, his heart calming down, Johnny stared at the dog. What had happened? He had touched the dog and . . . it was a vision. He had been the dog. Johnny could barely contemplate it. A dog?
Oh, this was too much. A dog? He had become a dog? He drafted his gaze toward Sarah and Walt, who were now starting to argue again. This was too strange.
"Walt, please, listen-"
"He attacked Johnny!"
"Johnny made a big move!"
"Little Johnny will too! If an adult can startle a dog, look at a kid!"
"He's only a dog!"
"He isn't staying in my house-"
"I can take him!"
Both Walt and Sarah became silent as they looked at Johnny. He swallowed. Where had that come from?
"I can take care of him," he repeated, gazing down at Apollo.
"But you don't like dogs," Sarah said, confused. Walt looked darkly at Sarah, as if wondering how she would know such an intimate fact.
"I like dogs now," Johnny hissed, looking at Sarah meaningfully.
"I don't know, Johnny," Walt said, perplexed. "He's a strong animal and he just jumped at you. I mean, your leg . . ." he looked pointedly at Johnny's cane.
"I'm fine," Johnny protested. "Besides, it's only going to be for a few days, right?"
"We think," Walt said, still floored. "But we're not sure."
"It can't be that hard," Johnny said.
"He's a big dog," Walt still pertained. Suddenly he became aware of Sarah's pleading eyes that covered the daggers. He sighed. "If you're sure . . ."
"I'm positive," Johnny insisted, again choking back his fear of the monstrous dog gazing at him.
"Well then," Walt said, looking at Sarah angrily. Sarah only seemed satisfied and pleased. "I guess I should thank you." Johnny waited for an apology, but all he saw were fuming blades at Sarah. "I'll drive him over to your house because I have his things. Can we take your Jeep?"
"Sure," Johnny said weakly as he saw the dog stand to all fours. "Let's get moving."
"Great," Sarah said enthusiastically. "I'll get dinner started. Thanks, Johnny. I'm sure this . . . harmless dog," and she spit the word out, "will give you no trouble." Smirking at Walt, she smiled at Johnny, and handed him the bowl. "Tell Bruce I said thanks. It was quite the centerpiece at my party."
"I'll pass the word," Johnny promised, wedging the bowl in between his arm and side. "Put the dog in the back, Walt. Just pile everything in there." Walt nodded and yanked on the leash. He and the dog went over to his cruiser, which was parked a few feet away. Johnny watched them both sickly.
Sarah coughed, then smiled at Johnny again. "I know you don't like dogs. Don't you remember when we were kids? Your dad's Lab?"
"Elvis?" Johnny asked, his face turning into displeasure at the memory. "How can I not? The dog almost ripped my foot off."
"Yeah," Sarah laughed. "Your dad threatened to sue the doctors if they didn't save your foot."
"And he kept the dog after that," Johnny said, shaking his head. "He yelled at me for provoking his baby. I hated that dog."
"Just don't tease this one," Sarah said, winking.
"I did not tease that dog!" Johnny objected. "I was trying to feed it."
"Watch your kibble, Johnny," Sarah told him, starting up the drive-way. "Don't let him attack you."
"Sure thing," Johnny said sourly. "I'm really going to be able to stop him."
"You coming, John?" Walt's voice took him from Sarah. Winking at his one-time fiancée, Johnny went to his Jeep and opened the back, after quickly put the crystal bowl carefully in the front of the Jeep. Turning back towards Walt, he moved out of the way as he and the dog approached. Walt was hefting a large pet carrier in one hand, his whitened knuckles on the leash in the other. Johnny took a deep breath and went forward.
Apollo's eyes followed him as a laser on a target would.
"Walt," Johnny said. "Give me the carrier."
"Not to worry," Walt said, reaching the Jeep and heaving the carrier in the back. "We're already here. Don't worry." His voice was tight, and he wondered if Walt had wondered about the brief conversation that had transpired between Johnny and Sarah a few seconds earlier. Walt had grown a bit more suspicious lately, thought Johnny as Walt started to coax the dog up into the cage. He's suspecting something, and he's got good reason to.
Johnny almost burned with shame every time he thought about the night he had had with Sarah. He had not told anyone about it, not even Bruce. He had told Walt in the coma, but did Walt remember that? That night had been a complete and utter accident.
Sure, he suddenly thought in blazing shame, I just happened to grab her arm and pull her back, and then we just happened to sleep with each other. Yes, a complete and utter accident.
Johnny watched nauseously as the dog, in one smooth, flexing leap, was up into the cage.
"Good job," Walt praised, roughing the dog's head. "Good Apollo." He shut the cage door and latched the lock. Johnny watched closely to make sure it was latched correctly and lashed tightly. Apollo gazed at Johnny with intelligent, glittering eyes. Johnny shivered involuntarily. Did the dog know that Johnny had invaded its memories?
"I'll get his food and things," Walt said to Johnny, already heading back to his car, forgetting to slam the back closed. Hesitating, Johnny again looked at the dog. He was still staring stonily. Raising his head, grasping his cane loosely in his hand, he quickly slammed the back closed.
Apollo's barks were loud and furious, and Johnny fell back, his heart hammering in his heart.
"Be careful," Walt's voice scolded crossly as he came back, dragging thirty pound bag of food and a box. He caught sight of Johnny's pale face. "This may not be such a good idea," he whistled, wresting the bag of food over the side of the Jeep. "You look like he spooked you."
"Calm down, Walt," Johnny retorted, his heart calming, but now he became agitated. "I'm fine. Let's go."
Walt didn't reply, and Johnny limped to the driver's seat and easily hopped in, resting his cane within easy reach. He put the key in the ignition and waited impatiently for Walt to come in. Turning around, he saw painstakingly arranging the food and dog carrier in the back. Exasperatedly, Johnny took out his cell phone and dialed.
"Bruce?" he asked.
"Johnny?" Bruce said, his voice alert. "You've got my bowl, I'm taken?"
"No," Johnny replied. "It's shattered in a million pieces and the pieces are sticking me in the leg, they've my leg up, and I'm in the hospital, waiting for surgery, and they say I need a physical therapist again for a year."
"Ha ha," Bruce answered dryly. Then he turned frantic. "You're not telling the truth, are you?"
"Yes, I am. Except instead of a year of physical therapist, they want me to go for three, and they want me to pay you very badly because of your quality of work lately."
"Jeez, calm down, it's not like it's worth anything," Johnny said, chuckling. "It's quite fine. Do you want to speak to it?"
"You jerk," Bruce was repeating over and over. "You pathetic jerk!"
"Yeah, yeah," Johnny said, laughing as Walt swung in suddenly. "Listen, meet me at my place."
"You jerk," Bruce said.
"I'll give it to you then, and it will be intact."
"You jerk," Bruce told him.
"I promise. And I need your help with something else. And after that you get your bowl back."
"You pathetic jerk," Bruce alleged.
Johnny snapped the phone shut and put it back in his pocket. He saw Walt looking at him quizzically, and he said apologetically, "Uh, the bowl is Bruce's. He thinks it's worth something."
"Oh," Walt said, as if not caring.
Sighing, Johnny pushed the key back in the ignition and pressed on the gas hard. He hoped that the monster in the back felt it.
As Johnny pulled up to his formidable, mansion-sized home, he spotted Bruce standing next to his PT Cruiser. He gave a short wave, and saw his friend's confusion at Walt riding next to him. Sensing his friend's confusion, Johnny gave a short nod. Bruce would understand. One way or another.
"You got my bowl?" Bruce shouted as Johnny placed the car in park and nodded at Walt.
"Yeah," Johnny said patiently. "The pieces are in my leg."
"Hey Walt," Bruce said to Walt shortly, and then turned his attention back to Johnny. "Stop it! Where's my bowl?"
"I told you, my leg." He got down from the Jeep and looked at Walt, who was standing around, looking uncertain of what he should do.
"Hi Bruce," Walt interrupted, "How have you been?"
"Fine," Bruce told him, then shot a dirty look at Johnny. "But a certain person is denying my fortune."
"Give it up," Johnny informed him. "Okay, Bruce. I'm going to have company for a bit."
"We found a dog," Walt took over, explaining. "The owner was murdered. We figure that he was just stuck in the house all the time. I would keep him, but Sarah won't let him near her son and she's getting nasty about it. Johnny volunteered his services while getting your bowl, which, I believe, is in the backseat."
"I'm a sheriff," Walt said wickedly, and Johnny was surprised at the change in his demeanor. "It's my duty to tell the truth."
"Why, thank you Sheriff Bannerman," Bruce said immediately, sounding as if the sky had turned to gold. "I have to report a theft-"
"Yeah, yeah. Everybody's a critic." Johnny started to the back of his Jeep. "Well, guys, let's get the dog."
"When does this concern me?" Bruce asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Since your bowl pieces got stuck in my leg." He met Walt at the back and put the back of his Jeep down. Johnny saw the black mask of a face and shuddered, remembering his reason for taking the shepherd in the first place. Suddenly he was tempted to tell Walt about his vision, but when he looked at Walt, and at Bruce, his face drawn in exasperation, he unexpectedly felt a wave of anxiety. He had never held back on his visions-except, of course, for one-, but now felt different. How would they respond if he told them that he had become the dog?
"Hey Apollo," Walt said coaxingly, unlatching the cage door. Apollo's head stuck out the cage door instantly and Walt clipped his steel leash to the dog's collar. The dog turned its head sideways, to peer at Johnny, and then growled at him. "Gee, Johnny, he doesn't like you. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"I'm positive," Johnny answered, trying to sound convinced, but inside his stomach was doing flips. "Come on Bruce, help."
"My only duty is to my sacred bowl," Bruce pouted, coming forward. When he saw the monster head of the dog, he froze. "Jeez, that's one big dog!"
"Yeah," Walt said, sounding unhappy. "I don't know if you should do this, Johnny. He doesn't like you and your leg . . ."
"My leg's fine," Johnny declared, determinedly limping towards the side of his house. "Positively beautiful. We can put it in my back yard."
"Apollo," Walt corrected. "His name is Apollo."
"Fine." Johnny reached the gate and reached over to unlatch it. "He'll have a grand time digging up my backyard." He stepped lightly out of the way as Walt, holding the leash, walked into the backyard, unclipped the dog from his leash, gave him a final pat on the head, and came back out. Johnny slammed the gate shut.
"You sure you're okay with this?" Walt repeated.
"Yes, Walt, I'm positive," Johnny said again, watching as the dog put his nose between a gap in the gate and whined. "We'll get along just fine."
"There a reason you're doing this Johnny?" Walt suddenly asked and when Johnny turned his head away, Walt's eyes were hard fires. "Sarah said you hated dogs."
"And I said that I used to," Johnny said easily, starting back towards his Jeep. "You two just sounded torn up about everything and I thought I could help."
"Haven't you helped enough lately?"
Johnny turned his head at the sharpness in Walt's tone. Walt was eyeing him coldly and Johnny's mind turned at the thought. What did he mean? They stood for a moment, staring at each other.
"What do you mean, Walt?" Johnny finally asked carefully.
For a moment, Walt seemed to be on the verge of blurting something out, but then his eyes cooled, and he straightened. "Nothing, Johnny. Nothing."
"Hey you guys." Bruce was yelling at them from the driveway. "You coming or what?"
"Yes." Johnny started forward, his heart beating faster than usual. "Yes, we're coming." He looked back at Walt, who was telling the dog good-bye through the gate. This was becoming too edgy. Walt was coming dangerously close to a truth that didn't need dredging up. Johnny went to his Jeep, Walt bringing up his heels, and the dog watching them from his prison of walls.
"So why the dog, John?" Bruce asked carefully once they were inside the house. Johnny was drinking water and watching the dog from his window as Apollo sniffed the yard in interest. "Any special reasons? Visions?"
"Why, Bruce, you know me too well." Johnny turned away from the dog to his friend. He summed up Bruce in his mind quickly, and then sighed. "I guess I can tell you. You know me well enough not to laugh."
"I always laugh at you Johnny," Bruce said dutifully. "It's what I do."
"Jerk." Sighing again, Johnny's cool blue eyes went to Bruce's. "Well, here I go. To make it short and sweet, I touched the dog and had a vision."
"Well, isn't that unusual?" Bruce muttered, but Johnny appeared not to notice.
"And . . . Bruce, that dog saw the murder of his owner. He wasn't in the house all the time. He saw somebody murdering the lady." Johnny stopped and drew in his breath. Bruce was staring at him. Frustrated, Johnny threw up his hands. "Go ahead and laugh. It's stupid. I mean, a dog? What kind of vision can come from a dog?"
"Zen, my man," Bruce responded.
"That's it?" Johnny practically shouted. "I tell you about a murder and all you can say is "Zen?" What the hell is Zen anyway?"
"Calm down, Johnny," Bruce soothed. "You're getting way ahead of yourself here. You see, Johnny, I'm not sure, but I think Zen preaches that all life is capable of thinking and processing thoughts. So, really, it's not that funny, Johnny. It's really serious. You should tell Walt."
"Yeah, but Walt isn't a Zen wacko like you."
"I'm hurt," Bruce mocked, clutching at his heart. "You hit me straight in the heart with that one, Johnny. Why haven't you told Walt? He's the sheriff for heaven's sake. He's the one that gave you the dog. Did you see who murdered her?"
"No," Johnny answered truthfully, "but that's not the point. What would Walt say if I told him that the dog had told me who murdered her? Would he listen?"
"Knowing Walt, yes," Bruce said promptly, coming over to stand next to Johnny's chair. "You're being overcritical, Johnny. I know I don't have to tell you how important it is that we tell Walt who killed the lady. He could kill again. Come on, say it with me, man: tell Walt. We catch the bad guy. We all live happily ever after. See, it works out nicely. Now what's the problem?"
"I don't know," Johnny said listlessly. "Honestly, I don't know. It was just so freaky. How strange is it to tell another person, gee, you know what? Your dog doesn't like you because you don't exercise him enough. Better yet, your dog has a sudden urge to run off with the poodle next door, I suggest you keep him penned for the next couple of day."
"You're worried about becoming a pet psychic?"
"No . . ." Johnny was grasping at straws that were being pulled barely out of reach. "You don't know, Bruce. Nobody knows. It was just so strange to be . . . something considered inferior to a human."
"I still don't get your problem, Johnny," Bruce said, allowing a touch of frustration to color his voice. "I really don't. It's cut and dried. Touch the dog and find out who murdered the lady. Nobody will question your methods afterwards because, as usual, you did something that benefited all. I don't get it."
"I don't either." Johnny suddenly stood straight up and walked to the sliding glass door. "You good with dogs, Bruce?"
"I guess." Bruce went over with him.
"Can you hold him for me?"
"Are you going to touch him?"
"I'll see what I can do." Johnny unlocked the door and slid it open a fraction of an inch. "But I need you to hold him for me. He . . . hasn't taken to me much." He slid the door open another inch, very quietly.
The dog's head came up from deep within Johnny's magnolias and his face went straight to the door. He immediately began to jog over. Johnny shut the door hard. When he looked up, Bruce was staring at him.
"Okay, so it's official, I've grown another eye."
"Are you afraid of dogs, Johnny?" Bruce was watching him closely.
Johnny coughed and backed up as the dog stopped three feet from the door and started to bare his fangs. "No. ."
The dog barked and Johnny scrambled back, almost tripping over his feet, dropping his cane.
"Okay, you are seriously afraid of dogs," Bruce said, laughing. "You almost fell over."
"So what? So I'm afraid of dogs. They scare me, okay. My dad's Lab almost bit off my foot, have I ever told you that? Since then, dogs don't really ring too nice a bell." Johnny slowly came forward again. "Just hold him for me, okay Bruce?"
"Sure thing, Johnny," Bruce said, grinning at Johnny's discomfort. He slid the door open easily. "Watch me."
"Ha ha," Johnny said resentfully as Bruce went out the door, holding out his hand and cajoling the dog.
"That's a good boy. Come here, Apollo. You're a nice boy, aren't you? Good dog, come here." The dog immediately went forward to him after sniffing his hand. The bushy tail started to wag faster and faster and he was shaking his head playfully. "Nothing to it!" he shouted back at Johnny as the dog playfully started to scurry around. "He's a sweetheart, Johnny."
"Sure he is. Hold him for me. I'm right out." Johnny quietly slipped out the door, Apollo still preoccupied with Bruce's lavishing attention. He held his cane as a defense weapon. Let him get through me now. I'll whack him across the head.
Somehow, however, he doubted that his cane would do little to match 160 pounds of fur and teeth flying at him.
"I've got him, John." Bruce's hand was clasped tightly around the steel collar around the dog's neck. Apollo's tail was still wagging and he was licking Bruce's hands energetically. "Come up slowly and touch him. Just do it lightly."
His heart suddenly began to beat faster. His mouth went dry and he felt his legs seize up prematurely, and then he fought off the paralysis. Bruce had the dog's muzzle down, his eyes averted to the ground, his tail still furiously wagging.
He was little less than two feet away from the monster. His breath was starting to catch in his throat and his legs felt ready to seize up again at any moment. He felt sweat break out on his forehead, cold and hot. He realized that he was slightly trembling.
"C'mon, Johnny!" Bruce was urging loudly. "Hurry up, Johnny, just touch him! He won't hurt you!"
The dog's head started to creep up and suddenly his tail stopped wagging and his ears pricked and his black masked face leapt up.
Johnny threw out his hand and touched the dog's neck.
*****His jaws closed around something soft and fleshy and the snarl in his throat was muted. Rain was pounding in his ears and so were loud screams. This human was attacking his own. This human was violating his property. He was not allowed to let earthly harm come to his human.
He threw his weight up and against the attacker's body, his fangs going from the soft, fleshy arm and to the swollen abdomen. Something scraped against his fur, he felt sorrowing pain, and then he bit down again. More pain bit against him, but he continued to bite.
Nothing stood between this man and his human.
Something else plunged into his leg and he howled. *****
Johnny stumbled back, reaching at his leg, holding it. The dog was starting to furiously leap at him, barking madly, his fangs bared, as Bruce threw him against the wall and held on.
His world was colliding around him. His leg was in sharp, wicked pain and he could almost feel blood trickling from it. Two worlds were colliding into one: one of precise color, and one of dull, blurry black and gray. His world and the dog's were melding into one and spots broke into Johnny's vision as he still stumbled back, towards the door.
Suddenly he felt himself falling again, and he connected with the tile of his richly furnished home. He groaned in pain and clutched at his leg, remembering agony and primitive need to protect. He pushed himself across the tile floor, on his hands and the leg that was not burning in hurt.
He couldn't find the strength to lift himself up and off the floor. Dimly he heard Bruce come in and slam the glass door shut. All he could do was lie on the floor and breathe.
"Johnny, I really think that you need to go to Dr. Gibson," Bruce insisted, watching Johnny as he ran his fingers through his hair wearily. "Johnny, are you even listening?"
"No," Johnny replied, getting up from the couch, the headache pounding behind his temples almost overwhelming him. "I'm not. I should tell Walt, you think?"
"No more misgivings?" Bruce asked, raising his eyebrow as Johnny started to shuffle to the kitchen.
"No." Entering the kitchen, Johnny reached for the phone. All he wanted to do was flop down into his king sized bed and fall into blissful sleep. He wanted to forget everything. The dog was just too much. He massaged his forehead as he dialed Walt's number. Too much, everything was just too much. "Walt?"
"No," came the familiar voice. "It's Sarah. Johnny, is that you? You sound horrible."
"Thanks, Sarah. Can you get Walt for me?" He watched as Bruce came in and went to his medicine cabinet. Johnny rose his eyebrows and started to tell him something when Sarah interrupted.
"It's that dog, isn't it? Johnny, did it hurt you? Are you okay?"
"Everything's fine, Sarah. Just go and get Walt for me, it's urgent."
"Are you sure you're alright, Johnny?"
"Sarah!" He listened in satisfaction as he heard a sigh. He turned to Bruce, who was combing through his medical cabinet. "What are you doing?"
"You're bleeding," he replied. "I just noticed. Your arm."
Johnny looked down at his arm. Indeed, blood was dripping from his arm. What a good day, he thought irritably. Days were not becoming very good for him. He examined the cut. It was shallow, and hadn't been bleeding much, but now it was coming out in steady trickles.
"Oh," he said. "So you're going to fix me?"
"Johnny," Bruce said, indignantly, as he continued to fish around in the medicine cabinet. "You forget my profession. It is my duty to help the injured. It is my commitment. It is my life's goal."
"Oh, and I'm sure the money has nothing to do with it."
"I work for free."
"So the checks that come in the mail with my signature on it just happen to go to you?"
Bruce coughed. "Um . . . I'm only sending them to charity organizations."
"Nice leather jacket, Bruce."
"I know, it cost me-"Bruce suddenly stopped, realizing the trap he had fallen into. He eyed Johnny. "You suck, Johnny."
"I know. Walt?" He turned his attention back to the phone. "Walt?"
"Yeah, Johnny, it's me. What's up?" He sounded a little irritated. "You're not going to give the dog back, are you? You said you had it under controlled."
"I do," Johnny said quickly as Bruce finally closed the cabinet and started over to him with a bandage. "It's just that . . . something weird is happening." He almost closed his eyes at the lameness of his statement.
"Well, um, Johnny, whenever anything concerns you, it's always weird." Walt's voice was humor ringed, but still irritated. "So what's up, Johnny? You getting weird vibes?"
"Walt, you said the dog was locked inside the house when you found its owner, right?" Johnny blurted.
"Yes." Walt sounded surprised. "We did."
"That's not right. That's-Bruce!" His friend had grabbed his shirt sleeve and dragged it over to him on the counter.
"It's bleeding," Bruce insisted, reaching down to keep his friend's hand steady.
"What?" Walt asked, concerned.
"Nothing, Bruce is pretending to-"
Bruce's hand touched his skin.
~*~*~ The sky was dark. Rain dripped from the foliage. He ran forward, panting hard. The place he was running through was vicious, dark and silent. It was just as he liked it. Nothing stirred. A lone car was parked by the sidewalk, and the street on his left was quiet. On his right, forest stretched into forest. Lonely and desolate, his very fine running conditions.
Suddenly he heard something stirring in the brushes, something heavy and fast. He slowed, keeping his legs moving. Can't stop, he reminded himself, it will be harder to start. He started to peer into the green, which was sparkling with rain.
Suddenly a man burst through green, small and wearing a green and black beanie. Suddenly the man in the beanie careened into him, driving him backward. He felt pain in his chest from the collision.
"Watch it!" he said angrily. "Dude, where's the fire?"
"Get out of my way," the man hissed. He was dressed in tan and green Army fatigues, with a black belt tightened around his waist. He could see nametag, but couldn't read it.
"Fine!" He backed off angrily, watching the man, small and thin, get into the blue Honda parked on the street. He read the plate number in a rainy blur, ARK1 and nothing more. The car sped into the distance, exhaust coming from the back.
Disgusted, he started to run again.
Johnny blinked at Bruce, who was shaking him hard, trying to wake him up. He heard Walt's voice in his ear, "Johnny, you there?" He stared at Bruce.
Bruce jerked his hand away from Johnny's skin, frightened it seemed. "Johnny, what did you see?" he said, his voice forcefully calm. "Are you okay?"
Johnny nodded, barely. "You saw him," he said tonelessly, unaware the phone was still pressed against his ear. "Bruce, you saw him when he was trying to get away from the scene."
The car came into view, the bars breaking the crest of the street, black and white shining out. Dusk was approaching, but an hour of sunlight was still waiting. The car headed into the winding driveway and slowed at the curb.
Johnny went out to meet Walt, Bruce at his heel. He was still shaky, his head still pounding. His bad leg was starting to ache now, and he leaned more heavily on his cane when he met Walt on the stairs.
"So, Johnny," Walt said, his voice dry. "Taking animal calls now?"
Bruce gave Walt a dirty look that was hidden by his hair. Johnny knew Walt was teasing, but he still felt odd. Damn, he thought he was over that though.
"Yeah," he said, forcing cheerfulness. "I figure sooner or later I need to start working again."
"Well, you always were the animal lover."
Bruce seemed to have recovered his wit, for he answered, "He's Dr. Dolittle. The dog loved him so much he knocked him flat on the floor and wanted to play 'whoever gets the throat first wins.' It was so touching, seeing the two of them bond like that."
"Johnny is one for animals," Walt agreed.
"He'll end up marrying one someday, they're the only ones who can stand him," Bruce suggested.
"Okay," Johnny interrupted loudly. "We are not a Save the Animals convention."
"Right." Walt's voice had an amazing capability to turn from poking fun to serious. "Well, let's review, Johnny. Tell me what you saw."
Johnny told him about the two visions, the first one at the car, and then the one in the backyard.
"So you already knew about it before you left?" Walt said it like he didn't want to believe it. "Why didn't you say anything, Johnny? That's about three hours with letting a killer getting away!"
Johnny hesitated and glanced at Bruce, who was off rescuing a snail that had gotten trapped between two cracks in the pavement. Poor snail.
"Well . . . it was weird, Walt." He sighed. "It was just weird. It's the second vision from an animal, and this one for a long time, not like the first one."
"First one?" Walt raised an eyebrow.
"Bat in the cave, don't ask, and it was strange." He shook his head in frustration. "It just freaked me out, okay? I mean . . . it wasn't that I didn't think anybody would believe me or anything . . ."
"Fair enough," Walt said, "but Johnny, you know I'd believe you. If you told me I was going to be hit by a truck, I'd believe you. I'd personally lock myself in my room and chain myself to a wall to keep me from going outside."
Johnny was touched by Walt's admission, but he didn't say anything else.
"Okay, Johnny," Walt sighed. "So the dog saw the murder. We found him in the house."
"Meaning the guy must have put him back in," Johnny supplied, watching in agitation Bruce pluck the snail up and put it in Johnny's sanctuary of flowers. "Not too difficult, is it?"
"No." Walt closed his eyes. "The door was locked. We dusted the keys on the girl, but he must have cleaned them. But why would the dog go back with her killer? Why would he even bother to put the dog back? Dogs can't talk." He stopped, then looked at Johnny guiltily. "Well, John, not really."
"I never claimed they could," Johnny answered a bit harshly. "But I do know that Bruce did see the guy."
"Bruce, get over here and quit messing with the bug," Walt told him.
"It's not a bug. It's a snail. And it deserves to be rescued. Some kid could have tortured it, you know? Kids can be really mean sometimes, I know. So now it's safe, it has a nice home-"
"Eating my flowers," Johnny quipped.
"It's not like you take care of them anyway." Bruce waved a hand.
"Bruce, what did you see?" Walt raised his voice, cutting through the banter of the two friends.
Bruce looked at Johnny. "I'm not exactly sure. I remember that I was running that day. I remember the guy pushing through the bushes. It was really sudden. He bumped into me, ran to his car, and drove off like he was crazy. He wore fatigues."
"Army," Johnny said. "No name tag, or at least not one visible. He got in a blue Honda. Half of the license plate said ARK1."
"Jeez, Johnny, you should have been there," Bruce said dryly. Johnny afforded him a tight look.
"Did you get anymore?" Walt asked. "Other than the ARK1? If we had the number, it would be easier."
"No," Johnny said. "But how many blue Hondas with the plate ARK1 can there be?"
"It depends," Walt said grimly. "What kind of plates?"
"I don't know."
"So we don't know. Heck, the guy could be in Canada by now. I know ARK is popular. It could be Noah's ARK, the ARK angel, ARK is god or something. People like using nice words. The one you saw could have been an I or something. There's a lot of things."
"ARK is god?" Bruce frowned. "You hinting at something, Walt?"
"Bruce, go away," Walt said, dismissing him with a hand. "Do you have anything more?"
"No," Johnny said. "I can try the dog again . . . I guess."
"He's afraid of dogs," Bruce piped.
Walt nodded. "I know."
"Okay, that was uncalled for. I think I'll just go inside and lock you out."
Johnny leaned on his cane and started back inside the house determinedly.
"John, are you alright?" Walt's voice came from behind him, concerned. "You look a little wobbly."
"My leg hurts, but I'm fine," he replied. "You just go on talking about my phobia of canines. Heck, talk about my phobia of stuffed ones, figurine ones, glass ones, collectable ones, heck, talk about my phobia of Lassie and how I think she was the one who set Timmy up in the accidents and saved him to make herself look good."
"You have way too much time to think."
"Thank you, Walt." He continued his limp into the house. He wanted his Advil and then he wanted to sleep. A good sleep would cure him of any ailments he felt. "Guys, I'm going to go and lay down. I don't feel too well."
"Johnny!" Walt raced to catch up with him. He looked uncomfortable and Johnny's heart pitched when he realized what Walt was going to ask him.
"Walt, I thought I said this was over," he sighed. "No more touching police stuff. I know it's only a ploy to spend time with me. They're dates to you."
Walt looked at him.
"Okay, fine. What do you have? Is it at the station?"
Walt looked almost hurt. "Actually, I was wondering if you could touch the dog again, John."
Johnny tried not to glance at Walt as he led them into the house. His head was aching horribly, as if he had just woken up in bed with a hang-over and a strange woman in the other bed. Now, he though wryly as he set into the kitchen, that's only happened once.
"I hope youre treating the dog well," Walt said loudly as Johnny came to a rest besides the sliding door.
"Oh, he's a pampered prince," Johnny said sarcastically, "when he's trying to kill me."
"Johnny, dog's don't hold grudges," Walt said, smiling tensely at Johnny. "He must smell your fear."
"I don't think I'm going to do this. I think I'll kick you out now and you can find your own killer. "
Walt didnt reply; Bruce coughed a little cough and started to examine the pictures adorning the kitchens walls. The clock on the wall ticked loudly a minute farther into time. The refrigerator hummed loudly, and the ice in the ice maker crashed down. The air conditioner came to life and cool air drafted from the grille above toward the trio who stood poised as if in limbo.
Finally Johnny said angrily, "Fine! I'll touch the dog! "
Walt's eyes carefully slid away from Johnny to Bruce's face. "You know, he's all so noble, it's endearing. "
"Yes," Bruce agreed. "It's very. "
"Stop it!" Agitatedly, Johnny flicked the lock of the door up and slid it back gently. Resting on his cane, trying to ignore the pain in his head and the throb of fear in his heart, he cracked it open another notch. The dog was nowhere in view, but Johnny didnt trust first glances. The dog could be waiting just on the other side of the brambly plants his mother had planted, or just beyond the huge flower pot that he had broken as a child and his mother had been too attached to throw it away; instead, she had restored it, and now the dog was probably lurking just out of his eyes reach, claws and teeth ready to rip, tear, strip away flesh. . .
"I'll go first. "
From the corner of his eye, Johnny could see Walt watching him studiously, as if his face would hold some sort of answer to whatever question Walt had in mind. Maybe this was what they looked like every time they suspected he had a vision; he didnt know, he had never bothered to ask. Maybe now was a good time for asking. Yes, now was a very nice time. . . .
You're wasting time, Johnny told himself as Walt gracefully sidled between Johnny's hand and the door. You're wasting time and you know it. You're being a coward because youre afraid.
Wanting to scream from the lack of fairness, he pushed Walt none too gently aside. "No," he said heavily, "I need to touch the dog. "
"At least let us hold him," Walt protested.
"Yeah," Bruce chimed in. "You're scared sick of the dog, Johnny; its all over you face. "
Johnny desperately wanted to grab hold of the life raft that Walt held over his head. He wanted desperately to listen to Bruce and admit that he was scared to his stomach. The fear was a phobia, it wasn't just fear. It had to be a phobia, just had to be. He never felt fear so strongly like this before.
"Alright, I'll get Apollo. "
There was a gentle sound as the door opened and Walt stepped boldly out.
Startled, Johnny made a grab for him. "Walt, wait! "
But Walt had already gone. He bent low at the knees, his uniform puckering at the edges. He whistled lowly and called, "Here, Apollo! Here, boy!" He clapped his hands energetically.
"I'm going to hurt him," Johnny muttered silkily, dousing the small flame of anger inside him. "I am going to hurt him so bad he's not going to be able to walk . . . "
"Johnny," Bruce said, his voice gentle, as if Johnny would break if he spoke too loud. "We're trying to help you. "
Johnny didn't answer him; his eyes were trained on the brown and black fur bundle that bounded up enthusiastically from behind Johnnys flower bed. At the sight, he started to feel the fear that had become reacquainted with during the past day; it slithered up through his veins, choking his throat, his head starting to swirl dangerously. It was a deadly, violent snake that had lain dormant for years, yet to be reawakened with the thing known only as vengeance.
Walt grasped the dogs neck and collar, holding firmly. The dog was trying to lick at Walt's face, as he turned over his shoulder and called, "Alright, John. Come on and let's see what happens. "
The snake twisted around his legs and held him in a vise.
"Go on, Johnny," Bruce said from his side, and suddenly gave him a light push forward, but enough for him to stumble forward. Johnny looked back at him murderously, but he shrugged, almost noncommittally. "Hey, we tried to help you. "
Oh, just shut up.
The snake tightened, scales clicking against his legs, cool and wet skin that was vile and disgusting and danger.
"Hurry up, John, he's not going to stay up like this forever. " Clucking his tongue and cooing, Walt barely constricted the dog from jumping up and pawing at his face.
"Move. Just go forward and touch him. "
Holding the cane out protectively, but making a show as if he were only tired, Johnny took a step forward. His shoes clicked softly on the red brick carpet that made up the patio. Gritting his teeth, fighting off the snake that was cutting off his airways, he took another tentative step forward. The dog, five feet away, was busy jumping at Walt, his tongue flicking the air, his tail swishing so fast that Johnny feared that if he came into contact with it, it would send him flying.
He took another step.
The dog stiffened for a moment.
"DOWN, Apollo! DOWN! "
Apollo rigidly looked up at Walt, his dark eyes peering up at Walt's face. Johnny could see the muscles bulging beneath the skin. Compared to that, Johnny might as well be a Chihuahua. He might as well be a flea. He might as well be a cat: a ginger skinned cat, a cat whose leg was maimed, easy prey for a dog so strong and large. .
"Johnny!" Bruces voice was a harsh whisper. " Go on already! "
Ginger skinned cat, alright, move like a cat. Eat the snake.
He covered the distance between himself and the dog in a headlong lurch. His cane dragged along the brick patio, producing a loud, grating sound. Instantly the dog stiffened. His magnificent head drew up, and his perfectly shaped triangular ears moved forward. Black lips drew back to revel sharp, white cones of perfect deadliness.
Walt's hand tightened.
"Now, Johnny! "
The snake reared, opened its fanning mouth, and bit.
The ginger skinned cat shriveled, hissed, failed.
The dog lunged.
Johnny felt frozen, and for a moment, a rhyme he had heard long ago floated into his memory:oh kitty kitty cat, my darling little kitty kat, can't you just look at me? My darling kitty kat, wont you go and chase that little rat and put him to bed? Won't you go and make him dead, my little kitty
A hand clasped on Johnny's wrist.
------"Maybe we should just chuck the dog into the pound," Roscoe said doubtfully, his eyes still on the chained monster in the corner, who was watching them with intelligent eyes.
"His owners just been killed," Walt said, and Johnny felt the surrealism that came with every vision. Awkwardly, he gazed around. He was in a small house. A narrow hallway led into what looked like a living area or a bedroom. A kitchen stood immediately to his left, while a stairway to his right led up to a second floor. The kitchen was crowded with people, as well as the hallway further along. Only Deputies Fisher and Roscoe, and Sheriff Bannerman stood in the landing of the stairs. The front door was taped off by yellow police tape and there were more people racing around outside. The dog lay chained in the corner of the stairs, chained firmly to the banister, tethered by a steel chain.
Johnny glanced up the stairs, and saw nothing but emptiness. Apparently Walt had not taken the time to head up the stairs quite yet.
"We can at least show a little compassion," Walt said, and motioned outside. "Go and head off the reporters, Roscoe. We have to hurry. I want the body taken immediately into custody. You know the drill. Dust, do the usual stuff. Clean here, and then I want you to head upstairs. But dust here first. "
There was a collective sigh from Roscoe and Fisher, and then they both headed out into the crowd. Walt remained for a moment, his eyes troubled as he gazed upon the watching dog in the corner. "It's okay, fella, he said quietly. Everythings okay." Massaging his temples, he stepped into the kitchen.
Vainly, Johnny looked around. He peered up the stairs. Without realizing why he was doing it, he stepped around the dog. He felt no fear, and had few moments to contemplate why. He headed up the stairs quickly, gazing upon the blue wallpaper. Pictures lined the walls. They were pictures that had been bought, pictures that were filled with a dog and a young woman. There was one picture that contained what Johnny could guess was a family, but most of the frames were filled with the pictures a store had already put in them. It was as if the murdered woman had simply bought the picture frames, hadnt bothered to fill them with her own life memories, and put them up on the walls.
Johnny continued his trek swiftly. He stopped on the landing that lead up to the top floor. There were more store bought pictures here, stiffly placed on the wall, reflecting paid memories of life and happiness. Whatever this woman had been, it seemed she had had only her dog and her small house. There was one picture of the family, but it was old and tarnished, as if it was a picture that had been stung by water and restored; its edges had been hued with red.
The pictures here were not different. Children smiling for the camera, in stiff polo shirts, hugged by a man and woman, wearing the same kind of shirts; a woman in a field of tall grass, smiling as though she wished she were dead, a light breeze picking the tops of the grass; up-standing trees, beautiful trees, tall and red, in which a man wearing green stood, smiling lazily at the camera, holding up two fingers in the universal peace sign.
The picture of the man.
It startled Johnny. Glancing once more up the stairs, he scrutinized the picture, trying vainly to see in the dim light that filled the house. The man in the picture was veiled in shadows, veiled by the awning branches of the tall trees that filled the whole of the picture. The man seemed blended in with the green of the forest. There were darker splotches on the clothes he wore. This picture seemed store bought as well: it was made to perfection, white lining the edges, restored to its fullness, in a cheap frame.
But for some reason, Johnny sensed it was not.----
RAR! RARR! RAR!
Gasping, Johnny stumbled back as the dog leapt viciously, barely restrained by Walts arm. The hand that had loosely grasped Johnnys wrist fell off as Walt restrained the dog by both arms, yanking him back, yelling, OFF, APOLLO!
Another hand grabbed Johnny, pulled him back toward the sliding door and the house. Bruce pulled him back by the collar of his jacket, yanking him through the door and into the kitchen. Once inside, Bruce threw Johnny to the side and slid the door shut. Panting, he told Johnny, "John, that dog really does not like you. "
Johnny ignored him and gazed outside. No ginger skinned cat this time; that cat hadn't fallen prey yet to the vicious dog. But he'd seen enough. The sharp suspicion the vision had set on him rose. It wasnt the dog that had provided this crucial clue; he hadn't even had to touch the monstrous canine.
Sweet relief came first, followed closely by a wave of guilt.
The snake had coiled him, trapped him, and he had let it. He had fallen into the fear and had not been able to claw out of the coils. He had not been able to touch the dog.
Suddenly the sliding door slammed shut and Walt turned to Johnny, his face angry. "What the hell were you thinking, Johnny? You could've touched him right then and it would have been over with! "
"Walt, listen, Johnny's afraid of him," Bruce broke in. "Don't give him a hard time. "
Walt still seethed. "But there's a killer out there, and Johnny can help! Just because he's a dog doesn't mean he's different from anything else. "
"Walt," Johnny interrupted, and both Bruce and Walt looked at him. "Walt, I need to go to the house. "
"What?" Walt clearly misunderstood. "No, you're touching that damn dog if I have to cut him up and feed him to you . . . "
"That's cruelty to animals, Walt. "
"Shut up, Bruce, Johnny, please- "
"No, Walt, I had a vision when you touched me. "
There a skip of silence.
"So can we go now? " Suddenly he started talk, determined to turn the subject away from the fear cast that had snaked around him when he had been outside on the patio. "I mean, you're right, we're wasting time, we can go and get the killer now. I just have to get to that house and see. I have to go and see something. Maybe I can touch- "
"What did you see, Johnny?" Walt asked.
"I'm not sure. I'm not sure, but I can find out. "
Walt doubtfully looked outside, at the dog who was sitting delicately by the door, looking up at them. There was only a twinge of sunlight left. The sky had been painted purple and gold, but now it was a bare black.
"Its late," he said finally. "I don't know if we should now, and besides, you look tired, Johnny. I think we should wait for tomorrow. You get some rest, Johnny. "
Frustration welled inside Johnny. "Come on, Walt, theres a killer- "
"He's right, John," Bruce jumped in. "You looked pretty bad. Youre limping pretty bad. Why don't you get some sleep and then tomorrow we go? "
"No buts," Walt said sternly. "Get some sleep, have a beer, relax. I'll feed the dog and then you rest. Bruce, you stay with him until later. "
"I don't need a baby-sitter! " Johnny lashed.
"No, "Walt said, raising an eyebrow at him as he stepped away. " But you probably do need to rest and Bruce will see to that. "
"I do expect to be paid overtime," Bruce said, smiling at him as he headed away with Walt.
Growling, Johnny looked down at the dog, who was still sitting by the door, gazing up at Johnny. The snake which had briefly fallen dormant rose inside again. Shivering as he gazed into the two pupils of black, Johnny quelled his frustration with Walt and followed his two friends.