The Country/The Country

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14. He Dreamed of Fires

Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark. Oh, look who’s back in town!

He had another hypothesis to test as well. The Dormands’ dogs had been penned indoors the last time. He had skipped this walk the day before; the day of the hospital.

Now, this line of thought occurred to him, if Sir and Lady Dormand have been watching for him, surveilling him, wouldn’t they know that he failed to pass by the day before?

And if so, would that be reason enough for them to return to their preferred practice of leaving the dogs outdoors all day?

Fighting against the mind’s habitual urge to drift off, Keel spurred himself to remain fully aware of his surroundings. To look in all directions at once. If surveillance were present, could he figure out from where? Spot a half-second’s reflection of sunlight off a lens? An unexplained murmur, or suppressed buzz.

A face at a second-story window?

But fully aware, mindfully present, he simply looked at the world, registering impressions, letting them go, as he perambulated, one of the most basic of human activities (though one that some fellow bipeds appeared to avoid like the plague), down the sidewalk on Pike Street.

He took in the breaks in the sidewalk pavement, the extrusion of tree roots. He looked at the shapes of the bare trees and the houses. A woman and child on the opposite sidewalk, bodies slightly angled toward one another, coming home, presumably, from the elementary school that lay in that direction.

House front after house front, yard after yard. A remarkable series, in quantity at least, of images. Did his walk always take so long?

The Dormand house swam into sight.

He saw at once.

The dogs were there.

Now he had a problem, a decision he had postponed to this eventuality.

He wished to observe the house; but the house might be observing him. Continue on his path? Or swerve?

He slowed, hesitated, but then the dogs caught sight of him.

The large pale-yellowish one, and the small black hairy one. The big one took a few leaping steps toward the fence, paused momentarily as if to allow the nasty little one to catch up with him so they could confront the intruder together. Pack loyalty. The little one always yipping and squealing and howling, out of the great nasty happiness of its dogdom, and practically falling on its face in the anxiety to keep pace in the hypothetical chase playing inside its predatory-pack animal repertoire of instinct-necessary behaviors. His much larger, squash-tinted partner inhaled his own fury and expelled it in a red-throated bout of deep, rapid-fire barks now that the cause of his passion, the sidewalk-pedestrian Keel, was actually approaching the wire fence line.

The was the point where, Keel reflected with some rue, on previous occasions he had aimed a few metal-shaking kicks at the fence.

The dogs weren’t going to get at him, he could be certain, with the five-foot fence between them. That same impediment would save them from the force of any blows he might aim in their direction. But still both sides had ample opportunity to vent their wrath.

Keel slowed, rather than sped up his pace, trying to proceed as naturally-seeming as possible, somehow oblivious, or careless, of the racket of the dogs.

He glanced at the house, looking over the heads of the animals, ignoring them, their fury and their noise, searching for the eye of the camera, the flicker of motion in the window. First floor? Second floor? Porch roof. He faced a simple fact: he did not know what he was looking for. The eye of good peering down from the heavens?

He did not know what he was doing, Keel thought. He was ridiculous.

The Dormands were merely typical selfish big-property owners. Not the spies of some new, terrible order.

He had nothing to do but walk past their house. Ignore their dogs.

And yet: Was it pure coincidence that two days before -- the day following ‘the incident’ -- the dogs had been penned up indoors?

So the hypothesis still stood. It could be tested.

Unless they had ‘gone out’ somewhere and left the dogs in the yard, they would know from the barking that he was there. Passing by.

How could they not know? And what would they do next time?

He gave the fence a solid kick, just to make sure.


That night he dreamed of the fires.

They were coming closer. Nooz-sheet reports of suspicious fires in cities to the west, where the Pegasso campaign was said to be gaining strength. Always, or almost always, the fires were confined to the poorer parts of town. Sometimes their origin was wholly mysterious.

Sometimes showing clear evidence of arson. No one was ever seen starting them. No one was ever charged. Mayors, and city officials, and local boards wrung their hands over them in public. Blamed them on increasing public lawlessness. Some officials uttered wistful hopes that a new national administration would help restore a higher standard of public order, more respect for the law.

Karol Pegasso, Keel thought, presented himself as a strong believer in law and order. Was this plague of mysterious fires no more than a coincidentally convenient target for Pig’s denunciations? And what had Pig, whose company had a finger in every walk of national life you could think of, but had never held a public service position of any sort, done to earn his reputation as a strong ’law’n’order ′ defender?

Pinned a medal on a cop? Donated some old equipment?

Perhaps it was his speaking style, bellowing, percussive, emphatic, repetitious, hard-driving, hard-headed, that made hapless local officials take him at his word? He was not a candidate of subtleties. The nooz began reporting that Pig said that crime was too high. This was the belief attributed to him by his vociferous supporters, though Keel wracked his brain to recall any clear statement by the candidate made at his rallies, or reported by the Nooz sources, that put forward that claim. No positions, policies, promises or programs designed to address this supposed increase in crime. No concrete positions on anything, as far Keel could make out.

He offered shouting and proclaiming, volleys of thunder in which the words “new” and “change” and “the people” appeared frequently, but were not connected to any pledge of redress or action that was worthy of the name.

“There must be change! There will be change! The people demand it!”

Did the city of Monro have a plan, Keel decided to inquire the next day, to deal with the nationally reported increase in arson?

He called the city’s fire department, asked to speak to the chief. The chief was in a budget meeting; no one could say for sure when he would be available. Keel found himself talking to a deputy chief.

“What about those fires to the west?” he asked.

“No one knows how those fires started,” the deputy chief, who gave his name Macoll, replied.

“Some of those fires were reported to be arson.”

He did not wish to be adversarial, but when information was ‘reported’ he regarded it as something to be taken seriously unless the report was refuted.

“Crimes of arson tend to be the acts of people with mental problems,” Macoll said, in a conclusive tone. “You do all you can to prevent accidental fires. Use flame retardant materials. Fire alarms. Smoke alarms... But willful, criminal arson -- that’s a crime that’s almost impossible to prevent.”

“Unless it’s a conspiracy,” Keel objected. “If it’s not the work of a deranged individual. If fires are being purposely set by someone or some group.”

Some memory tugged. A few years back, a gang of troublemakers were targeting certain churches. Especially those that advertised their openness to participation by so-called ‘flexibles.’

“Don’t you remember the church fires?” he asked.

“We haven’t had any church fires.”

“They happened all over the country. Just because we didn’t have any in Monro doesn’t mean that we’re immune to intentionally targeted fires. It’s happened before. It appears to be happening again.”

“What would you like us to do, Mr. --” He searched for Keel’s name; couldn’t recall it. “Ride around all night looking for fires?”

He could think of worse ways for the department to spend its time.

Such as doing nothing. Talking to public officials sometimes nudged Keel into the role of skeptical taxpayer. How did the city fire department spend its time, he asked himself.

“I was hoping to hear that you had a plan, Mr. Macoll. A raised level of alertness. Something to raise public awareness.”

“Like that old-fashioned color system? You mean we’re gonna’ go from orange to red? Tell me, Mr. --”

“Keel.”

" -- Mr. Keel. Did that ever do any good?”

Yes, he remembered that system: the alerts. ‘Foreign elements,’ the citizens were told, were threatening to bring their violence to the country. Public transportation hubs were repeatedly searched. Nothing was ever found. A few ‘undesirables’ were rounded up and exiled to countries that didn’t want them. But during that period the idea of a ‘danger level’ had been impressed upon the public mind.

Back then some people, himself being one, had pushed back, prophesying that crying wolf too soon, too often, would result in complacency when a wolf actually did appear. Now the wolf was truly among them, Keel thought, though he came in the guise of a pig.

“No,” he had to admit, “it didn’t.”

The call ended in vague vocalizations on the notion of planning. Macoll said he would mention Keel’s concern to the chief.

But Keel’s ordinarily sluggish temper was roused now.

He could sit back no longer. He would take part, an ordinary private citizen’s part, in the events to come, for good or ill. He did not enjoy the prospect of giving up his solitude, his precious anonymity -- the kind of invisible shield that surrounded him when he ventured into the world because of the unlikelihood of running into someone he knew -- but something was gnawing at him.

Was it the woman in the woods? he asked himself. Who seemed to know him.

Who, in some inexplicable way, had called to him, summoned his mind. This confirmation by a self-described ‘witch,’ a person of some obvious perception -- a psychic, perhaps, though he did not know if he believed in psychics -- that others besides himself were sensing an impending cataclysm.

Maybe the graffiti-makers sensed it too. Something was driving them, gnawing at them, too.

Keel held the transmitter of that ancient device, the telephone, in his right hand and could not let go of it. Could not settle it back into its plastic cradle.

He had to do something.

He dialed the next number he could think of, recollecting his still-unreturned call to the animal control center. This time hearing his call go directly to the ‘message center’ and receiving the unhelpful admonition by a recorded voice that the ‘message box’ was full and could accept no further messages.

Disconnection.

He called the police line.

“Central Station.” The same dispatcher -- again?

Keel marshaled his controlled, businesslike voice to ask for the number of the animal control department.

Yes, he told the dispatcher. That was the number he’d called.

The dispatcher was silent. Nothing more to offer.

Then he asked for the name of the animal control officer. Maybe it would help him reach this officer if he could ask by name.

“Ah... Magda.”

“Magda what?”

A sigh. Were the surnames of city officers privileged information?

A mutter of voices. No, the dispatcher simply needed his memory jarred.

“Officer Dormand.”

Dormand!

“No one answers there,” he added hurriedly, to keep the man on the line. “Any idea where Officer Dormand could be?”

Brief silence. “Outside, maybe. At the cages.”

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