The Country/The Country

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15. 'When Are They Coming?'

A family member -- a daughter, maybe, of the dog-neglecting Dormands -- employed by the city as its animal control officer?

Just a small venial coincidence that enabled neglectful dog owners to be secure from consequence by city authorities. If someone wished to make a complaint about the Dormand household’s dogs, who did they make it to? A close family relation?

Perhaps there was more than one Dormand family in the city of Monro. He would have to check into that.

It was a cold night. He had a knitted hat pulled down over his ears and was wearing his thicker gloves. If you kept your head covered and your hands warm, experience told him you would be all right. All right walking, that is, when the vigorous activity would keep the rest of the body warm.

He thought he was heading for the city line again, for its view of the night sky, but changed his mind on a whim, crossed a street and reversed his course back toward the square.

This maneuver put him on a different route from his usual afternoon walk, and so he approached the Dormands’ house ten minutes later at a steady, comfortable place -- no fingers or toes yet complaining of the cold -- on a different street, the one that passed the front door of their substantial manse. A few lights glowed inside as he drew close. A low spotlight illuminated the porch steps for after-dark visitors. He wondered where they kept the dogs when they were inside. The dogs would have their own room, he thought, with toys to chew and soft places to sit on that kept their own smell. The comfortable human couple would sit in their own soft places and watch their wide-screen; maybe allowing the dogs into the room for a few minutes late in the evening for a bit of play or petting.

Keel passed by the front of the house without slowing his pace or showing any sign of increased interest in his surroundings, scanning the quiet house with peripheral vision only. If the house trained some sort of surveillance on the street, the camera would find nothing of interest in his passage. Except, perhaps, that it was he, Keel, who was passing. But why would they surveil? And if they did, why would anyone bother to review the tape? Nothing was happening.

He was almost past the house before he noticed what was unusual.

The cars.

So many vehicles, parked everywhere. The houses were close together in this residential city neighborhood, so it was not unusual to see cars parked overnight on the street. But not so many. A taller van blocked his view of the house from across the street. An upstairs room showed lights burning between the drapes when he turned the corner to Pike Street, his usual approach. More cars parked at the curb there.

The epicenter of the action certainly appeared to be the Dormands’ place. A late night card game. Poker? Bridge?

The cars’ presence might meant nothing, but he didn’t think so. He felt twitchy and uncomfortable, warm rather than cold. He walked a few blocks down Pike, then turned around, impatient -- he had intended to go farther away, let more time pass -- and walked back down Pike Street and survey it from that direction. Where, perhaps, a camera watched the dogs’ fenced-in prison. He could not say what he was hoping to accomplish. Maybe the house, or the street, would show something he was not expecting.

He walked past without varying his pace. The house a large dark mass; no sound, only a glimmer of light from inside. Nothing moving on the street. Everything just as before.

When he turned the corner passed a few houses down, someone stepped from a parked car, as dark and silent as all the others, surprising him absolutely.

Who sat in a dark, cold car? Some kind of cop? Security?

The figure blocked his passage on the sidewalk.

“Get in,” a voice said.

A man’s voice. Youngish, he thought.

“What?”

“Get in the car,” the voice repeated, softly this time. An invitation. “We’ll go get a coffee.”

“Why?”

Keel heard the tension in his voice. He was not the sort of person who strangers accosted after dark. Nor was he comfortable responding if they did.

Yet was he the kind of person who spied on a neighbor?

“Because I want to talk to you, that’s why. And you probably want to talk to me.”

“We can talk here.”

“It’s cold,” the voice objected. “C’mon, man, don’t be ridiculous. We’ll just go to Randy’s.”

“On Broad Street?”

Keel was calculating quickly. Getting over the shock of an encounter. Aside from the surprise of other man’s sudden appearance, and his unlikely invitation, nothing triggered his bodily alarms. His psychic armor had dutifully strapped itself on in the first instant, but now the brain was regaining control.

Given nature’s alarm for fight or flight, he always chose flight. Much safer. But as the seconds passed, he realized he was not afraid.

“Yeah, on Broad Street. It’s the closest. ”

“You know it?” he asked, a test question the other saw through.

“Of course. In the square. Two minutes’ drive.”

Keel counted to three. To see if anything would tell him he was doing something very stupid.

When nothing did, he muttered, “All right,” and walked around the car to the passenger’s side. The young man got back into the driver’s seat and unlocked the door for Keel.

“We should introduce ourselves,” he said, after starting the car and rolling it slowly past the Dormands’ house and around the corner. “My name is Kevin. And I suspect you’re out tonight for the same reason I was.”

“Kevin,” Keel repeated. Wondering, does that come with a second name? “I’m not sure I want to tell you my name,” he said, honestly.

“Oh, that’s all right. Just pick something we can call you by.”

We?

“Jake,” he said. It was his uncle’s name.

“Fine. Jake.” The drove in a block in silence.

“Tell me something then,” Kevin’s voice picked up. They were waiting at the Broad Street traffic light now. “What’s your interest in the Dormands?”

“I don’t know,” he answered. That was truth too.

“Well. You weren’t just hanging around there tonight for fun.”

“I wasn’t hanging around. Just passing.”

“Twice?”

Keel exhaled.

The light changed. Kevin drove two more blocks, then pulled into the parking lot for Randy’s, the sort of franchise fast-food and coffee place Keel ordinarily avoided. He followed the other man inside the glass door and looked around, as if he’d never been inside; possibly he hadn’t. But he had been inside other Randy’s coffee shops and recognized the inexpensive decor, the smell of the brew and the sugary haze that seemed to blur the outlines of the pastel counters and tables; and the air of evening somnolence. With their day-shifts, or jobless days, long over, most customers (like Kevin and himself) merely needed somewhere to go.

If the world were divided in two, where would this place ‘stand’? he asked himself.

He already knew that ‘Kevin’ (whatever his real name was) must be counted on ‘his’ side of the great divide. Those who were opposed to Pig and his new gang -- the people who, as Pig insisted, claimed to want change, but did not know, or could not say, what sort of change they wanted. Keel suspected that what they really wanted was just to be on top. They wanted their turn in the driver’s seat. To feel that their ‘side’ was in control, calling the shots, handing out the jobs if any jobs actually came along, seeing that people ‘like us’ got the contracts, did the hiring.

The few people seated in Randy’s that night were the kind of evening customers who tended to keep their backs turned. They might very well be on Pig’s side. What had life, and the long period of official prosperity overseen by Kevin O’Rhule, done for them? Given them evening hours in a cheap place to sit over a cup of coffee and a sugar snack? They sat alone, except for an older couple -- he assumed they were a couple, though the one he ID’d as female wore a man’s boots and coat -- at a half booth, shielded from outside view, but exposed to the interior.

The man who called himself Kevin guided Keel to a table as far from the silent couple as possible, and went for the coffees. A moment later a much different pair, girls, teenagers Keel thought, pushed in through the glass door, laughing over an ongoing conversation, and chattering back and forth for a minute or so until the weight of the place settled over them, and they realized theirs were the only voices to be heard.

Lucky kids, he thought. They did not have sides yet. They did not need them. Not yet.

His cup of coffee, served in mug-shaped cardboard, was in front of him. Kevin was sitting across the table, inspecting him again.

No time for dreaming.

The younger man had a long, slim nose, a narrow lower face, and a rather tulip-shaped cranium feathered with lightish hair showing some nap in it. He looked a little older than his voice and manner suggested.

“So when are they coming?”

The man’s gray eyes blinked.

Then he shook his head slightly and uttered a quiet laugh.

“You’re asking me... that?”

Keel considered. “You must be watching for something.”

Kevin tilted his head. “I could say the same about you.”

They spoke very quietly, so their voices did not carry. The teenagers were scooping up their sugary drinks and taking them outdoors somewhere far from the place’s deadening grown-up depression. Neither man wished to be overheard, or to draw any attention.

Keel noticed the other’s furtive upward glance around the interior once he had chosen a table. Looking for cameras, he thought.

“You already have,” he replied when the girls were gone. “That’s why we’re here. You said I was ‘hanging around.’ But that’s what you were doing.”

“All right. Yeah. I want to see who comes to that house.”

“Who’s there tonight?”

“If I knew, I probably wouldn’t tell anybody -- nobody I didn’t know.” He gave a quick, sardonic grin. “But I don’t know. I just know they’ve been there before.”

“And it’s not the Tuesday night poker game.”

The other face smiled. “Oh, innocent days.... I think the stakes are a little higher than that.”

“What are the ‘stakes’?”

His colleague in after-hours sneakery looked unhappy.

“We’re still talking in riddles,” Keel pointed out. He took a breath. “I was there because I thought the people who lived in that house were acting like they had something to hide. At first I thought it was just about their dogs --”

“A couple of charmers, aren’t they?”

Maybe they were watchdogs after all, Keel thought. “But then I thought it might be something more important.”

“Like?”

“The political signs. The flag. It struck me as rather aggressive.”

“You think they’re part of something? The Pig campaign?”

They looked at each other. The word was out now.

“I think,” Keel said carefully, “the people who live in that house might be likely followers to somebody who was looking to -- let’s say, ‘take over.’ Take charge, run things... They would be with the power.”

The two men held the shared look.

The younger one was not smiling. He was not relaxed or nonchalant or ironical, or any of the poses he had so far assumed. He was afraid, Keel thought, seriously afraid, and trying hard not to reveal any sign of his true state of mind. Keel’s own regard was, he supposed, much as he always looked. Glumly acceptant of the way things were. Despite his hare-brained, amateur efforts to ‘monitor’ the danger, gather intelligence, make a difference. Make a difference in what? Prevent this so-called ‘take-over’?

He wished he was imagining it. He wished he could stop hearing, or overhearing, the voices in his dreams. Dreams were just dreams -- except when they weren’t. When they were something else. Messages; warnings. He could think of fancier, more imposing terms -- shamanism, psychic transference, high-intensity inner light (sometimes known as HIIL) -- but while nomenclature was important when you studied something, it was less so when you tried to deal with it. Dreams, particularly the dark ones, engendered activity. Making calls to city services. To the police dispatcher with the tired voice. Following the news of the graffiti messages. (Were they still turning up on the church message board?)

Spying on his neighbors.

Because what if the dreams were telling him something?

“Do you know them?” Kevin asked. “These model citizens? The people with the raging dogs?”

“No.”

A sigh. Kevin shook his head. “It would be more convenient if you were just another neighbor. You could knock at the door. Ring the bell. Whatever people do. Act like neighbors. Get yourself invited in and look around.”

For what? He wanted to say, ‘I don’t think they leave the explosives out in the open.’

“No,” he replied, “I can’t do that. They may know me, but they don’t like me.”

“Why?” A sharpness in the man’s gray eyes.

“I don’t like their dogs.”

He held back the full disclosure, out of an unreasonable, impractical emotion of shame. Was he the sort of person who couldn’t be trusted not to cast the first stone? Apparently.

Did he wish to be trusted? Apparently, again, because he sat through a long silence before the other ‘watcher’ spoke.

“Well,” Kevin said, with a kind of finality, “then we’ll have to ask her. Find out what she... sees.”

It was odd, but Keel did not have to be told who ‘she’ was. He already knew.

Outside Randy’s, Kevin offered to drive him back to the street where he had found him. Or anywhere. Not all the way ‘home,’ of course, but reasonably close.

The rules of this exercise they were both part of, whatever you wished to call it, were becoming clear. Kevin should not know where he lived. It would be better if he didn’t know his real name. Keel certainly did not know the other man’s real name. He also didn’t know what ‘Kevin’ was part of. He was obviously part of something. He had knowingly revealed that much, if nothing else, when he spoke of asking ‘her.’

We’ll have to ask her. Who are ′we’?

People of the dream? People who hear voices?

“Never mind,” Keel said. “I’ll walk.”

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