by J.R. Lindermuth
Enjoy this wonderful never before published mystery short story. Be warned this one has a bit of a dark side to it.
“I’m warning you,” Snyder snarled, “keep that dog quiet–or I will.”
Leaning in the doorway, head cocked to one side, arms folded across his chest, Elliott gave him one of those infuriating smiles. “Calm down,” he said, “it’s nothing to get so upset about.”
“No? Maybe not to you. Maybe if it was my dog making all the racket you’d see it different.”
Elliott shrugged. “Dogs bark. It’s what they do.”
“Yeah, well this is your last warning. Shut him up, or I will.”
“You really should calm down, Snyder. Keep this up and you’ll give yourself a stroke. Why don’t you come in for a cup of coffee? We’ll talk about it…”
Snyder rocked on his heels, fists clenching at his side. The sun fell warm upon his neck and shoulders and perspiration rose damply on his skin, but he was conscious only of the heat of his own anger. “I’m through talking,” he said between gritted teeth. “Just keep that damned dog quiet.” With that he turned on his heel, went out the gate and crossed the yard to his own house.
He was still fuming when he came in the kitchen where his wife was doing the breakfast dishes. “Did you talk to him?” she asked.
“For all the good it did.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“Bugger invited me in for coffee.”
Kate looked at him over her shoulder. “Did you accept?”
“I’ll drink my own coffee, thank you,” he said, pouring a cup.
“Maybe you should have. If you tried to get to know him maybe you could work things out.”
Snyder sat down at the table, stirred sugar into his coffee. “I don’t want to get to know him. I just want some peace and quiet.”
Kate dried her arms on a tea towel and sat down opposite him. “That’s always been your trouble, Tom. You want things your way, but you’re not willing to consider the other person’s side.”
The sharp tang of the bacon and eggs they’d had for breakfast mingled with the milder aromatic scent of her detergent hung like a cloud in the air between them but, over it, Snyder thought he smelled the odor of dog on his clothes as though he had picked it up in contact with Elliott. He snuffled in distaste.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, adjusting his glasses and glaring at her.
“I just mean you have to work with people to get what you want.” Her gaze met his, firm and steady, though he noted a quaver in her voice. She seldom had the courage to oppose him and this spark of defiance annoyed him.
“I’m sorry,” she said, her eyes wavering under the power of his stare. Her hands shook as she toyed with the salt and pepper shakers.
“I worked in management for 30 years. Don’t tell me I don’t know how to deal with people.”
Kate lifted her head and looked at him again. Her eyes were softer now. “This isn’t the same. He’s not used to having people around. We should try to be good neighbors.”
“I am. I don’t bother him. He’s the one causing the problem.”
“Tell me you like hearing that dog barking all the time?”
“It’s not all the time. It’s not really so bad as you make it. Mr. Elliott lives alone. The dog is his only company. Maybe if you tried to be friendly he’d do something.”
Snyder slapped the table with his hand. “I don’t want to be his friend! I don’t care if he has a hundred dogs if he keeps them quiet.”
Kate’s lip trembled. She brushed at imaginary crumbs with the tea towel to keep her hands from shaking.
Snyder swallowed the last of his coffee and stood up. “I don’t want to hear any more of your interfering. I warned him. The rest is up to him.” He turned and started toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m gonna cut the grass.”
The harsh roar of the mower intruded on Elliott’s reading. He sighed and laid aside his book. The dog, Buck, lying by his side, rose and trotted to the open window, growling.
“Easy, boy. Come on back here.”
Buck began to bark.
Elliott got up and went to the window. He pulled aside the curtain and looked out. Over the hedges he saw Snyder’s blue bucket hat gliding evenly along as the man made another pass on his riding mower. “If he cuts that grass any more there won’t be anything left,” Elliott told himself.
He patted the dog’s shoulder and felt the muscles go tense beneath his fingers. “Come on, boy. Go lay down.”
Buck gave his master a fond look, then, after a final defiant bark, ambled back to his place. The dog circled and lay down but he kept his head up, watching as Elliott paced around the room, one hand shoved deep in a pocket, the other nervously brushing back his crew-cut.
Elliott closed the window. He stood, watching Snyder’s progress around the lot. The man was so obnoxious Elliott found himself wishing again he’d bought the lot. Well, it was too late to think about that now.
Elliott had lived here for more than 20 years. He’d bought the house on the edge of the village while he was still teaching. The lot where the Snyder’s built had been part of a farm that later was sub-divided. A church stood on the opposite side of Elliott’s house. Since it wasn’t a residence he’d been spared neighbors most of the time he’d lived here. Not that he didn’t like people but, a lifelong bachelor, he valued his privacy.
A lack of money first and procrastination later prevented Elliott’s buying the lot. Besides, he hadn’t felt the need for more land or foreseen any problem in having neighbors. In fact, he’d actually looked forward to having neighbors when he heard the lot had been sold.
But, that was before.
Snyder proved to be an unreasonable boor. The wife wasn’t so bad. She always smiled and waved and, once, she’d even come over for coffee.
Mrs. Snyder told him her husband was a retired corporate executive. This was her hometown and he’d acceded to her wish to settle here though, from what she said, Elliott deduced it hadn’t been so much a desire to please her as that the land and living were cheaper than some other places they’d looked.
Elliott had tried to be a good neighbor, though he wasn’t used to having strangers so close and despised the ugly ranch house they’d built which was in such glaring contrast to the lovely old houses common to the village.
It might not have been so bad to have neighbors if the man wasn’t such a bastard. He’d tried to explain, but Snyder couldn’t understand. Buck was getting old and he wasn’t accustomed to having other people around. He was a German Shepherd, bred to be a watch dog. It was natural for him to bark at what he considered intrusion. Besides, barking was a natural sound. It was like the song of the birds, the cawing of crows, the rush of the wind through the trees and around the house. One got used to such sounds.
It wasn’t unnatural. Not grating like the incessant roar of a lawn tractor at all hours of the day, the metallic whine of a chain saw slashing down those beautiful marker trees at the front and back of the property just after dawn, or the wail and twang of the band saw in Snyder’s workshop until late at night.
“Listen,” Tom Snyder said, beaming with the biggest smile Kate had seen since he got his vice presidency. “Peace and quiet at last! Isn’t it great?”
“I can’t believe you did it,” Kate said, folding wet laundry into her basket. “How could you?”
“Very easily,” Snyder said, rubbing his hands together with a dry rasp.
“There had to be another way,” Kate said, shortly.
“What? I tried. I warned him. I even went to the sheriff. I told you what that ass said, didn’t I? Said barking dogs were something you have to put up with living in the country. Said he had more important things to do. Nerve of the man. Doesn’t he know my taxes pay his salary? Well, never mind. I took care of it.”
Kate couldn’t believe the way he was gloating. He was a cold man, but this was too much. “It was cruel, Tom. That poor man…”
“Hey, forget about him. He asked for it. I did it for us.” Tom cackled. “Stupid mutt. Couldn’t believe it. He hated my guts. But he took that chunk of meatball stuffed with strychnine like I was his best buddy.” He laughed again. “Hey, what are you doin’ anyway?”
“I’m going to hang this wash outside.”
“Whadya wanna do that for? That’s why I got you the drier.”
“They smell fresher when you hang them in the air.” She hefted the heavy basket up on her hip.
“Women. Got no sense. Give ’em all the conveniences and they still insist on doing things the old-fashioned way.” He started up the cellar stairs ahead of her without offering to take the basket. “Well, do what you want. I’m going to take a nap. If they aren’t dry before I’m ready to do the lawn, don’t blame me if they get grass all over them.”
Through a break in the hedges, Kate saw Elliott come out his back door as she finished hanging her wash. Wringing her hands, glancing back toward her own house, she hesitated. Then she walked over to the opening.
Elliott was kneeling and with his back to her, pruning a rose bush.
“Those are beautiful,” she said. Her voice quivered a little and she hoped he didn’t notice.
He turned his head slowly, then pointed with his shears at some cut flowers by his side. “Those are for my dog,” he said in a husky voice.
Kate nodded, inhaling deeply to control the tremor before she whispered, “Yes, yes.” She smelled the heady scent of the flowers mingled with the sharper odor of earth and fertilizer in the warmth of the sun.
Elliott stood up, brushing his gloved hands together. “He died, you know.”
He hovered over her, head bent, shoulders stooped. His red-rimmed eyes glistened with moisture and she saw a sheen of stubble on his cheeks in the sunlight.
“I saw you burying him.”
Elliott glanced toward the rear of the yard. “Back there, under the trees,” he said. “Buck always liked that corner. He used to hide his bones back there.” His lips twisted in a weak smile as he recalled the dog’s trait.
“Do you know…”
“Elliott shrugged. “I guess his heart just gave out.”
Poor man, Kate thought, he doesn’t know.
“He used to wake me in the morning,” Elliott said. “When he didn’t, I knew something was wrong. I found him in the kitchen.” He bent over to scratch at a grass stain on his knee so she wouldn’t see the tears filling his eyes.
“I guess you had him a long time,” Kate said. There was a tightness in her chest and she could hardly get the words out.
Elliott straightened up. He pulled off a glove and tugged an ear lobe between thumb and forefinger. “About 14 years. People think they’re only an animal but, you know, when you’ve had a dog that long–well, it’s like losing a child. Not that I ever had any, but I suppose it must be the same.”
Kate shook her head. “We never had any children, either. But, I think I know what you mean.”
Elliott’s eyes focused on her now and they were filled with a pain she couldn’t bear to see. She pulled her eyes away from that sorrow but she still felt his gaze.
“I appreciate your talking to me,” he was saying. “I don’t have anyone to share my grief with…”
“I’m sorry,” Kate croaked, “so sorry.” Then she spun around and fled back to her house.
On a sultry evening slightly more than a week later, a resolute Kate leaned in the open back doorway watching her husband as he strode down the path to his workshop. A dove cooed somewhere nearby and was answered by the call of a whip-poor-will. Fireflies flashed along the hedges and she could smell the sweet scent of new mown grass on the humid air. It was a lovely evening, she thought, and the pleasure she took in it was not marred by knowledge of the events to come and which she had precipitated.
She was resolved. There was no turning back. And now she actually found herself smiling as she saw Tom open the door and step inside the shed. A heat rose up in her like the flame of a banked fire.
A moment later she heard his choked off scream as the lights suddenly dimmed and then came back on.
Kate shut her eyes, breathed deeply of the night air. It was his own fault. She’d given him ample opportunity to repent. Instead he gloated over his meanness, rubbed it like salt into her own wounds. She’d borne her own pain for years. Taking out his spite on an innocent animal, that was too much.
She walked slowly up to the shed, fearful not of what she had done but that it might not have succeeded.
Tom was sprawled on the floor, his eyes wide open and his features contorted. An odor of singed hair rose from his body and she knew without touching him he’d never hurt anyone again.
She was almost surprised she felt no remorse. Instead, she had to suppress a perverse desire to laugh.
Cautiously, Kate skirted his body and went to the rear of the shed where she shut off the hose that had spread a thin sheen of water over the concrete floor, unseen by Tom when he knelt to plug in his saw.
Wiping her sweating palms on her apron, she glanced one more at Tom’s still figure before going back to the house.
Walking up the path, breathing in the pleasant warm scent of this lovely night, she realized that for the first time in years she felt calm and without fear.
She had things to do before she “discovered” Tom’s body and called for the paramedics. Perhaps she’d bake a cake. Elliott might like that when she called him over for coffee in the morning to console one another on their losses.
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