by Patricia Brown
Hop A Dog is an original mystery short story that has never before been published and is set in Fresno. Patricia Brown is a member of the San Joaquin Chapter of Sisters In Crime and this is her first published short story, but KRL has some more stories in this series coming up in the next couple months.
Dr. Aurora Callicoat stood out like a sore thumb. The Greyhound Bus depot in downtown Fresno was an incubator for all the festering lowlife, loose change and odorous humanity that could possibly congregate in one place at one time. Fresno had been much maligned for having the highest pocket of poverty in the U.S. and 16,000 homeless, and the good doctor thought they had all come together here to hop a dog like a Hajj to Mecca. As a physician, the fact that anyone in 2010 would still smoke managed to amaze her, but she had to admit that she had gotten used to the smell of vomit and cigarettes that naturally inhabit the bus stations as if someone had perpetually stuck a Glade Plug-In armed with the foul aromas into each and every cranny.
Although she could and did afford herself an occasional private car to ferry her around the state on what she referred to as her “Magical Mystery Tours,” the amateur sleuth still resorted to taking a Greyhound because she fancied that they were the next best thing to the English cozy and a modern version of the Orient Express–although definitely not as luxurious. Where else could thirty-two strangers climb on board a silver bullet with no escape, at the mercy of the hopefully-experienced bus driver, finding themselves on a journey like no other? Amtrak riders were a boring, homogonous lot. Ah, but “hop a doggers” as Aurora came to think of her fellow Greyhound passengers, were a cacophony of the American experience through and through.
Aurora was no Miss Marple. At 62, she looked 52 from taking her own preventative medical advice. She had a swath of grey hair, but in the stylish bob, she looked like an aging Cybill Shepherd or Christie Brinkley, complete with stunning blue eyes. Her boobs were real, but she’d had her eyelids nipped, her only homage to vanity. She loved to read, solve and breathe mysteries, and she considered the process of growing old gracefully the greatest mystery of all. Only her hands revealed her true age because, like many a seasoned broad, she had used her strong hands not just to heal, but to do real work in her garden and, yes, to occasionally even clean her own house when Alfred was on holiday. Whether a stethoscope or a spade, Dr. Callicoat loved her tools. You were only as good as your tools.
Alfred was not her English butler, but her Japanese-American assistant and confidant. Born Alfred Takaoka to a Cal Berkeley exchange student and his American tennis star of a wife, Alfred chose for some strange reason to Americanize his last name to Bond despite the protestations of his disappointed parents, but not his obsolete and quaint first name. He had a mean backhand and the glorious legs that went with a past teenage US Tennis champion. Daily early-morning volleys on her backyard court with Alfred, twelve years her junior, had kept Aurora in shape, but her passion wasn’t in the sport as his was. However, he had lovingly presented her with a top Davis racket one Christmas, and she did love her tools.
Alfred did not share her enthusiasm for hopping the dog. As a college student she had gotten on a cross-country bus from Santa Cruz to NYC to pursue a young artist who had stolen her heart and she wanted it back. She carried the artist’s notebook with studies he had made of all kinds of observed objects such as clouds and spoons. But the one drawing she coveted was the charcoal pencil sketch of the greyhound on the side of the bus. He had sent it to her parcel post with the optimistic “Hop a dog and come and see me!” scrawled in his messy left-handed script. But when she had arrived at her destination after the five-day trip, he had taken up with a prettier redhead and her heart was duly broken and never returned.
He had long disappeared from her life, but she thought of him every December 15th–they shared the same birthday. And, it wasn’t conscious, but hopping a dog still carried for Aurora the promise of a good mystery, if not the nostalgia of a lost love.
Dr. Aurora had arrived at the station early so she could be one of the first to board. That way, she could take the seat with the view of the scenery she liked during the 90-minute ride to Yosemite and could study each passenger as they came on. The French did not have a monopoly on people-watching. She crossed the great room of the station to find the ladies’ room. She was not the only one thinking like a judge who is about go on the bench for a long session and makes sure she’s emptied her bladder beforehand. Aurora stood behind a tall mulatto girl. She wondered if the three piercings in the girl’s right ear hurt. There were only two things Aurora was bigoted against in life: bigots and those with piercings. The girl jiggled nervously waiting for the next stall, but Aurora didn’t see her face. Aurora thought how lucky she was because she would bet her poodle that the girl had a strategic piercing on her nose or even in the most disgusting place–her tongue. It was too early in the morning and too early to be reminded that she was a bigot in any way.
She was saved by the availability of two stalls at the same time. The girl disappeared into the closest one. Aurora found one and was pleasantly surprised that it had just been cleaned. She could smell the faint afterthought of toilet bowl cleaner. Even with the handle of her beloved tennis racket sticking out from the front pocket of her bag, Aurora managed to maneuver everything into the stall with her. She finished before the girl, washed her hands and hurried out of the restroom past a young Latina with big, beautiful eyes to match her big, beautiful breasts, displayed for all the world to see like a pair of juicy Wawona peaches peeking out from the girl’s too-tight shirt. A necklace with a huge black cross around the
Hispanic girl’s neck pointed the way to the bounty just below the collar. Aurora heard the call for her bus departure and scurried toward the exit.
The driver’s name, “Jim”, was embroidered on his blue shirt. He had a scalp of arctic-snow hair and a matching moustache. He greeted Aurora with a country twang. To her surprise, strains of Johnny Cash were coming out of the speakers inside the bus, serenading the passengers who had gotten there before her. She
immediately noticed that it was hotter than Hades in the bus.
“Can we do something about the temperature, Jim?” she inquired.
“You can pull the shades, but I’ll have to turn a valve under the bus to see if I can make it any cooler.”
“Please do. Are you a fan of Cash’s? I heard him play at Radio City.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, that’s me singing. When I’m not driving, I sing in cowboy bars in Bakersfield.”
Aurora burned her arm against the warm metal window as she took a seat on the left. That’s the Valley in the summer, she thought. A real scorcher already in the morning hours. They had already had a record 21 days of 100 degree plus heat in a row. She was anxious to get to Yosemite Valley where it would be at least twenty degrees cooler and she could try her backhand on the new clay court at Yosemite Lodge. Alfred was already up there and had called her to come up and get out of the heat.
As she pulled the mesh shade down to cut the sun, Aurora thought about the last time she had been in Yosemite and why, despite the promise of a repast from the oppressive heat, she had hesitated when she got Alfred’s invitation to join him.
She had written an account called The Gray Matter which had become a best seller three years before. A young man named Jorge Gray had pushed his wife off the world-famous scenic turnout as you enter the park on Highway 41 from Fresno. It took months to solve the circumstantial case because there had been no witnesses despite the presence of four tourist-filled buses. The park visitors had been pointing their cameras at Half Dome and Bridal Veil Falls and not behind them in the parking lot where Mr. Gray had disposed of Mrs. Gray. Although his wife was six months pregnant, Mr. Gray had already started an affair with his girlfriend, Rosa, and polygamy was illegal in California. Gray had literally taken matters into his own hands.
It had been during her investigation of the Gray murder that she had met Harry, the handsome federal judge handing out justice in the tiny federal court in Yosemite Valley in the shadow of the magnificent Ahwahnee Lodge. Since her sleuthing had led to the break in the case, as an expert witness ethically she had to wait until after the guilty verdict against Mr. Gray to start her affair with Judge Harry in her suite at the Ahwahnee, but it had been worth waiting for. She had not just gotten royalties from her book out of the Gray matter, but a love that made her toes curl. The affair had abruptly ended after Judge Harry had become embroiled in a media frenzy over a hangman’s noose hanging in his chambers and his boss suddenly transferred him to Lassen in the north of the state. Despite her fondness for hop-a-dogging, Aurora had already discovered that long distance romances never work.
Jim was apparently under the bus losing his fight with the temperature gage and the mulatto girl had slipped into the seat across from Aurora. Her piercings were covered by a gray hoody. Strange, Aurora thought. Everyone else in the bus probably wanted to get naked, they were boiling. Cash’s—or Jim’s—rendition of “Folsom Prison” didn’t help. Aurora was ready for the pastoral ambiance of Yosemite.
Jim took his seat on the now-full bus and announced over the strains of Johnny that the air conditioning would kick in in about five minutes. There was a collective groan. As Jim fired up the engine, there was a commotion in the back between a wild-looking hairy man and an elderly Armenian man. The hairy specimen started yelling and beating on the old man, claiming the old man had failed to “tip” the bus driver, a custom common in the luxury charter buses hauling gamblers up to the nearby Indian casinos. A victim of some undiagnosed mental illness, the hairy beast hadn’t recognized that the rules for casino-bound vehicles did not apply to Greyhound.
Jim shot out of his seat, but he didn’t make it to the back of the bus to break up the fight. The addict sitting behind the mulatto girl had decided at that very moment to perfect the art of projectile vomiting and Jim went down on his back, hitting his head in a sea of hot barf. All hell broke loose. The passengers in the front tried to exit, but couldn’t push the door open. The passengers in the back tried to push themselves forward, unable to get around the unconscious Jim or the addict who had also passed out. Aurora fumbled for her cell phone to call the authorities, when the door miraculously flew open and two Fresno police officers entered, oblivious to the mayhem inside the pressure cooker of a bus.
“You all are under arrest!” one cop announced over the din. Aurora temporarily gave a sigh of relief. Just until she heard the next sentence.
“For the attempted murder of Rosa Gray. Now, we’re going to exit the bus, and one by one, I need to have each of you slowly exit where my colleague here, Ms. Nichols, will interview you about your whereabouts right before you got on the bus this morning. Please leave all your belongings on the bus. Because the bus station is a crime scene, we will be searching your bags as soon as the search warrant arrives.”
The little old lady in the front seat said it for all the passengers. “I don’t know no Rosa. What happened to her?”
Jim was coming to. The fight in the back had died down for now. Peace, if not the temperature, had been restored.
“I can’t go into the details just yet, but apparently someone threw some acid in Rosa’s face probably permanently disfiguring her. According to the janitor, we’re looking for a suspect with three ear piercings. Now, can you get up and quietly exit the bus?” pointing to the little old lady.
The mulatto girl came alive and bolted for the door. Aurora had already anticipated her response. She took her Davis out of her bag next to her and slammed her best serve across the girl’s face. The girl fell backwards on top of Jim.
Aurora never made it to Yosemite that day. She was tied up giving her report to Officer Nichols, although she had solved the mystery of who had thrown toilet cleaner in the second Mrs. Gray’s face, so she and all the other passengers had been freed to go. Well, all except the addict and the hairy beast who both did a turn in the Fresno County jail that night.
The one thing that Aurora always depended on were her tools. Like her Davis racket, which had come in handy apprehending the offender. But, more importantly, her nose.
Before the stench of the addict’s vomit, in the mighty heat on the bus, Aurora had smelled bleach on the mulatto girl. The same bleach she had smelled just ten minutes earlier in the stall in the restroom. The smell of toilet bowl cleaner. After she left the bathroom and Rosa Gray had entered, the mulatto girl had taken the gallon of cleaner from the unlocked janitor’s closet and had thrown it in Rosa’s pretty face, destroying it and Rosa’s tattoo “Jorge” on her chest for all posterity. When Aurora heard the policeman say Rosa’s last name, she figured out the motive for the crime immediately.
Voluptuous Rosa had been the mistress of Jorge Gray for whom he pushed his wife over the cliff at Yosemite. Rosa had gone to visit him at Chino prison and married him although he had gotten life without parole. Not surprisingly, the mulatto girl was the sister of the very dead first Mrs. Gray and had sought to avenge not just the death of her sister, but of her unborn nephew.
Another magical mystery had been solved by Aurora and her tools, this time without even leaving the station. Yosemite would have to wait for another day.
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