The Country/The Country

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22. The House of His Enemies

The branch library on Broad Street occupied an old stone building that had once been a fraternal society house. The front door, old wood, painted a dark chocolate brown, looked like somebody had been kicking it. He saw from the posted hours in the window that the place was open for four hours that afternoon, which was fortunate if anyone -- the person, perhaps, who the dog officer apparently feared was tapping her phone -- was checking up on the call.

Just a call about a dog. A dog officer doing her job. And a man who volunteers. In some bizarre way, it was all (mostly) true.

He arrived a half-hour early, spent twenty minutes inside the building read nooz-journals that told him the candidates challenging Pig were all hopelessly behind. Why had no more worthy candidate emerged? Keel still did not know who to vote for. At ten of five he emerged from the library to sit in his car and wait for her. If there were a camera somewhere, it would see him doing exactly what he said he would be.

Magda Dormand arrived when she said she would as well.

She parked on the other end of the lot, got out and then walked behind the car to open a hatch.

It took him a moment to understand what she was doing; then he saw. She leading a little dog on a short leash over to him.

Well. That was their cover. And you couldn’t just take a dog into a library, could you? The dog officer was simply enacting a charade that would raise no red flags for a surveillance eye, but he felt himself locking up inside.

Keel had considered the possibility of a camera. But what if there were real eyes -- not camera lenses -- on them right now?

From where? He restrained a desire to scan the horizon. He felt stupid. He’d been standing here in the open, making it easy for someone to spot him. Even from far away.

He told himself to calm down.

Too late to do anything about it. Besides, here she was.

Animal Control Officer Dormand wore a light blue coat, her dark blonde hair falling below the collar. A slim, tallish woman approaching with a strained casualness masking her features, and a tight rein on a little brown dog with floppy, spaniel-like ears.

“You have something to tell me, I think, ” he said, speaking first.

“They’re coming,” she said, flatly, in a controlled, low-volume voice, lest the skies have ears. Her thin lips forced what was meant to look like a smile.

“I thought you should know.”

“I know they’re coming,” he said. “Everybody knows that. It was in the news sheets.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

She smiled her pretend smile. Her features tightened and she whispered a single word: “Smile.”

“Why?” Unsmiling.

For the hidden cameras? Or the living eyes?

Magda’s long features dropped into a scowl, then she turned the corners of her lips up. “Like this.”

Keel forced his mouth into an answering grimace.

“That’s better, sort of. Think about what dogs like to eat,” she hinted. “That’s what we’re supposed to be talking about.”

“What are we really talking about?”

“Pike Street,” she hissed, almost a whisper. “I don’t mean they’re coming to Monro, I mean to the house.”

"Your house?”

“The Dormands’ house. What?” Angry now. “You think I live there? I live with Jaff.”

“Who’s Jaff?”

“My husband! Jaff Dormand! ”

Oh. He knew that she was ‘family.’ But not how.

“And Jaff Dormand is?”

“Their son!” She looked away, as if from a judgment. “And don’t call me again.”

"You called me.”

“This time, yeah. The first time you called office, for Christ’s sake. Couldn’t you find any other way?”

“I called the dog officer,” he replied, defensively. Had he truly done something wrong?

“Well, don’t do it again. After this we don’t know each other.”

“We don’t know each other now. I wasn’t calling you. I was calling the dog officer to complain about dogs. Who did you want me to call? The dentist?”

“The dentist? Who’s talking about dentists?”

“They’re the people,” some devil made him say, “who get called to identify the bodies.”

She whitened. “You know, Mister -- Keel,” she said, “you have a weird sense of humor.”

“Tell me more,” he pressed, sensing her eagerness to leave. “What day will Pig’s people be at the house? What time?”

“How would I know that?”

“How do you know anything? Is your husband one of them?”

“I’m not saying anything about my husband. He’s made his own bed.”

And who sleeps in it? He bit back the words, a part of him asking, ‘where did that come from?’

“But if you know they’re coming to the Dormands’ --Who’s coming? Exactly?”

As soon as he spoke, he knew the answer: Pig, of course. And some of the inner circle. Maybe a few of the guys who stand around him protectively at rallies. Shielding his mystery.

Keel caught his breath. He was new at this stuff. He was a grown man, an aging man, but he was new at everything. And nervous.

The leading candidate Pegasso, and some combination of ‘them,’ would be coming to the house of his enemies, the Dormands. Who was it, he could not help trying to remember, that preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies?

Not Magda Dormand. She looked as stressed as he felt.

“OK,” he said.

She stuck out her hand. Assertively. A wordless goodbye, then. He extended his own to shake hers, but discovered it was holding the dog leash.

What? He started to pull his hand away, but how would that look to the hypothetical camera? She took advantage of his hesitation to transfer the leash into his hand and withdraw her own. A quick smile of triumph.

“What’s this?”

“Enjoy your dog.”

"My dog?”

“You’re taking care of her because the pound’s too crowded. You’re a volunteer, remember?”

“A library volunteer!”

"You started this.” The smile again, with a hint of pity this time.

She turned and walked decisively away, stopping once to call, “Her name is Balco!”

Keel held the leash in shock, the dog’s large brown eyes transferring their attention from the human who had leashed her to the man who now held the lead. The creature did not seem to care which of the two larger animals she was bound to. She was probably happy, he thought, looking back at those chocolate spaniel eyes, to be out of the cage.

“I’m bringing it back!”

The dog control officer appeared not to hear. He watched her get into her vehicle and drive off.

He had read that dogs liked sleeping in containers of some sort, and since the spaniel -- he would not call her Balco; what kind of name was that? -- was small, he went down to the basement and found a cardboard box to bring upstairs and place in the so-called ‘spare’ room next to his own bedroom. He hoped the dog would stay in it and not walk around the house at night, waking him and chewing things.

Then there was the matter of food. When he began the motions of feeding himself that evening (not particularly hungry, but he ate by routine), he became cognizant of the creature watching him.

“Don’t do that,” he said.

The unnamed dog tilted her head. She had big, down-hanging ears. She was a dog with earflaps; especially in view of the petite dimensions of the rest of her. She had a black island continent of fur crossing the ridge of her spine and hanging peninsulas down both her flanks, surrounded by a sea of light brown. Was she full grown? Her temperament struck him as mature, remarkably calm considering her last known address was a cage.

How would he make out in a cage? Keel asked himself. Was there one in his future? If so, who would get him out of it, take him home, give him a bed, something to eat?

He could not think of anyone. The little dog with big ears continued to regard him.

He rose from the table and found the leash Magda had handed him. The dog lifted her head and waited calmly while he clipped the lead to her stiff collar.

“Smile,” he announced. “We’re going shopping.”

After buying a few cans of dog food, Keel decided to extend their walk. Increasingly fearful of the prospect of surveillance, he chose a route that would take the pair of them far in the opposite direction from the Dormands’ house and the square.

It was then that the name for the dog (even temporary dogs needed a name) occurred to him: ‘Survi.’

Man and beast had reached the city line, his putative stopping point, when the even-tempered little dog did something that told him he needed to lay in a stock of plastic bags.

Subsumed with guilt, Keel looked quickly about for some piece of trash with which to gather up the dog’s droppings, and some feasible container in which to dispose it -- of which of course none existed (he would have to go to a city park to find the latter) -- when a car drove slowly past him and came to a stop on the opposite side of the street.

Kevven’s tarnished-silver car.

Now? he thought.

On instinct, he yanked the dog away from the unrecovered poop and walked fifty feet down the sidewalk before slowing. He waited, facing away from the compact, to let Kevven decide what the next move would be. When he heard the car door open and the sounds of emergence, he glanced over his shoulder and saw that it was not Kevven who was approaching.

Short, severe hair-cut.

An arc of scalp cut to the roots, while the other side of the head was neatly draped with thick, straight, black hair.

Female. She had kept this side of her head concealed from him the last time. Showed him the side with the triangular ear stud instead.

He kept his eyes on the dog; anyone driving by would see a man waiting patiently for a dog to make a decision. Survi lifted her own head, as if to ask what more was he expecting out of her.

What pretext, he wondered, could be imagined for the young woman’s approach.

Needing directions? Or were they acquaintances chance met. Hi, Uncle Jack!

The girl with the triangular earring drew up a couple of feet off and nodded, unsmiling. If he’d had a daughter she might be this age.

“You remember my name?” she asked.

From his visit to the bunker, presumably. He shook his head.

“Good. One thing less to forget.”

He did not reply.

“You remember that bit about ‘someone’?” she asked.

Casual, her voice, her stance. If anyone passed by, they would see two people standing over a dog, talking.

“Someone to help,” he said. “Are you that someone?”

“Nope. You already have her.”

“The dog?”

She laughed.

“You know who I mean.”

“But here you are, poking around in Kevven’s car.”

She waited, as if to clear a space. “Just listen.”

He listened.

“We know when Pig’s going to be there.”

“At the Dormands?”

Her features remained expressionless, but something tightened, as if to say, ‘Where else?’

“Tuesday. Midday. Got it?”

“Got what?”

“That’s when you show up. To the Dormands’ house,” she insisted, to his amazement. “When Pig is there. He may be there already. That would be best.”

Worst, he thought.

And,” her features tightening still more. “You have to speak to him.”

Keel waited for her to break out laughing. But she was not the kind of person who laughed easily.

“That’s crazy.”

“It’s not.” Another sound escaped her; frustration. “I did not come all the way here to play games, Mister Keel.”

“Just Keel,” he said, automatically. “What should I say?”

“We don’t care what you say. Really. Say you’re very impressed by his campaign. He’d like to hear that, because you’re so not his type.”

“Not his type?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make an impression. Make sure he looks at you. That’s all we need him to do.”

Stunned. Wordless.

“Do you understand?”

“We need to mark him.”

“Mark him?”

“Make a connection. Something to guide the waves. A channel.”

“A channel?” What was she talking about?

“That’s right, Mr. Keel -- Keel,” she corrected, as if placating a child. “That’s all you need to do. Get him to look at you. That’s enough.”

“Why?” he asked again.

“That’s all I can say. Now.” She shook her head, a tight gesture showing a slice of bare scalp, then retrieving it.

“But not all you know.”

She did not reply, but watched him, waiting for his acknowledgment that he would do what had been asked of him.

He took a breath, lifting his shoulders. Exhaled.

She nodded, and left.

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