“Cadaver Dog” by Bryon Quertermous

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Cadaver Dog

Blues progression in D, slowly

We work at night because it’s easier on the dogs. It doesn’t do anything for the stench of the place though. Tonight we’re searching a landfill on the northern edge of the county, about 15 miles away from the closest town. My steel rake feels like it’s melting into my hands and my back is ready to snap in half. The dog, Ranger, has boots on his feet and he’s sniffing for corpses while I shovel trash. I’m not sure which of us is worse off.

The whole place has an eerie glow from the spotlights sweeping the landfill. It’s like we’re in some sort of horrible post-snuff film. It’s approaching 2am and a gentle quiet is in the air, the sounds of bulldozers and helicopters from the day crews long faded.

There are about 20 of us and ten dogs. Three German shepherds, several golden retrievers, two Rottweilers, and my dog, a Belgian Malinois. The woman we’re looking for was a jogger and she disappeared a week and a half ago.

Ranger’s getting excited so I start moving the trash faster to give him a deeper area to work in. The more I shovel, the faster his tail moves, until I finally have to push him away to get to the area he’s interested in.

I feel bad for the dogs. If they don’t find anything they get discouraged, if they do find anything it’s usually just pieces of a person and the dogs know they found something bad. Ranger started as a search and rescue dog and was accustomed to the excitement of finding a live person before I had him retrained.

When my wife died I stopped looking for survivors.

***

Five years ago we were happy. I’d always wanted to be a cop and I’d always wanted a dog. Amy worried about me and the dogs. I never worried about her. She was an accountant. We had a house and two cars and friends on the church bowling league. My life was set up perfectly to be ripped out from underneath me.

***

Ranger’s got his paw into something but he can’t move the trash around enough to get at it. Normal dogs claw their way through things but cadaver dogs are trained to move their paws relaxed so they don’t disturb crime scenes. It makes being a dog damn near impossible.

I get excited to when I see a clump of hair and toss my rake aside. Like a garbage bin archeologist, I use small tools and careful maneuvering to claim my treasure intact and keep the surrounding area unmolested.

Ranger senses my excitement and circles behind me waiting for his treat. There won’t be a treat for him though, the hair is not attached to anything and no remains seem to be nearby. I feel responsible for getting the dog riled up though so I dig a little further hoping to find something worth while. Eventually I do.

***

We were married in the summer out in the middle of nowhere in a chapel with no air conditioning. The dog came with us on our honeymoon because I was still in the training program and he had to go everywhere with me. He watched us make love for the first time from across the room.

I tried to put him in the bathroom long enough for Amy and I to have some romance, but the dog kept squealing and finally the desk clerk called and told us to shut him up so I let him watch. He was shot in the head a month later during a drug bust and I never had another dog that squealed after that. I started playing the electric guitar later because I missed his squealing.

***

The hair we find is in several clumps mostly contained in a small plastic baggie. I finger through it wondering if Ranger knows what it is if it doesn’t smell like decomposing flesh. He takes a couple swipes at it with his nose and starts to growl. The old guy next to me figures it’s probably from a barber shop and says he’s been nailed with the same thing a few times since he’s been doing this.

"Kinda creepy when you find yourself wishing the hair in your hand was attached to a dead man’s head," he says.

I nod and Ranger continues growling.

***

The first song I ever wrote was about a woman’s hair. She was blonde and had just been promoted to detective. We met at a crime scene and she had her hair rolled up in a bun but it was bursting against the pins and clips she had holding it together and my imagination ran away with me and wondered what happened to her hair at night. I sang the song for my wife and she didn’t talk to me for a week after that.

***

It’s not the hair that piques my interest. I stuff as much of them as I can into the nearby plastic bag and hand it off to the old guy next to me. He’s got a name, but hell if I can remember what it is. Everybody calls him Old Man.

"Gonna make me a wig outta all this one of these days," he says, taking the baggie. "Can’t look any dumber than the flat cats they try and sell me now."

The front piece of a locket is clinging to the lip of an empty creamed corn can. I pick it up and run my fingers over the surface. It’s not an antique or particularly interesting for any reason other than the fact that I know the woman who used to own it.

***

I bought my wife a watch for our first anniversary. It was one of those tacky bangle watches that were in fashion at the time. She claimed to get claustrophobic when she wore watches that were tight to her wrist so I bought it as a joke. It backfired and she wore the damn watch every day until she died. She wore it in the shower, and in bed.

She was wearing the watch the first time I hit her. If she hadn’t been so shocked I think she would have clocked me across the face with that watch, taking my eye or a chunk of my nose with it.

***

The old guy knows I’ve found something. So does Ranger. I know it’s not important to this case, it didn’t belong to the woman we’re looking for so I pocket it and try to play off the find. Eventually the old guy’s boredom gets the best of him and he leaves to take the hair to our leader. Ranger’s not as easily fooled.

He nuzzles up between my legs as I’m digging around in the area looking for something else to claim as treasure. It starts as a friendly and competitive thing with him, thinking I’m going after his treat. I give up trying to cover it up when he starts biting.

***

I can’t hit Ranger. I’ve tried. He scares the hell out me. His eyes get to me. They aren’t pathetic or pleading or even friendly. They’re knowing.

***

Amy always wanted a locket, one that meant something. One year, for her birthday, I talked my mom into letting me give her one of my grandmother’s broaches. So much for it being the thought that counts. I smacked her after dinner and she gave me a lousy blowjob.

She never knew there was a locket in the family. I only found out myself shortly after our five year anniversary. My grandmother died and she left me some of her things. The locket was holding her place in the last book she read. Some inspirational romance about virtuous pioneer women. I’d already started my affair with Lacey by then and thought she might like it.

***

Ranger and I are reassigned to a 15 square foot section near the front gate of the landfill that’s already been covered twice. It’s a bullshit move and I know they’re wondering about what I found. I finger the locket as I walk Ranger over to the new site. He’s still not friendly with me, but he’s a professional and he knows what he needs to do and he knows he needs me to do it.

***

The empathy of an animal is one of nature’s great miracles. It’s a beautiful thing to see an animal internalize the pain of someone he loves unless you own the animal and it’s your wife he’s siding with.

***

There were plenty of songs about Lacey. She had beautiful skin and fiery eyes and ignited the primal needs inside of me. I was playing a lot of nights at a blues club in the city mostly to get out of the house. Those days I was mostly using a beat up old acoustic instead of my electric guitar. The scream reminded me of my first dog and that reminded me of Amy. So I switched to the old acoustic and started playing the blues.

Fire eyes and love’s gone crazy

Liquor me up and be my lady.

***

Key change, harder strumming

The rest of the guys probably assume I’m talking to myself. Lyrics are starting to come together and I’m trying to hum out the skeleton of a melody. I’m not great at it, but I’m serviceable and it makes me feel good. A good song’s just as honest emotionally as a dog but doesn’t guilt me up the same way.

We don’t last long in our new location. Ranger’s angry, I’m distracted, and the heat’s getting the best of all of us. The crew leader comes around 3 am and tells us to go home. I wander around the site a few minutes trying to gather my thoughts before I take Ranger to my truck and get the hell out of there.

I put the locket on the sunken space in the dashboard between my steering wheel and the instrument panel so I can view it and ponder it on my way home. Ranger’s too valuable to let him ride in the back of the truck so he gets the front seat and a specially made animal seatbelt. The window is down halfway in child lock mode so he doesn’t fall, or jump, out of the truck. When I drive through at McDonalds Ranger makes nice with the attendant and gets us a couple of packages of Mcdonaldland cookies. The cookies are hell on Ranger’s digestive system so I make sure he doesn’t get a hold of them.

Back at my house I give Ranger one of the treats from the cookie jar Amy bought specifically for him and put the cookies in the cupboard for my nephew if he comes back for a visit. The guitar is still on the couch where I left it to go to work.

A small pile of yellow notebook pages records my futile attempts to work out Amy’s death through song. Ranger watches me sit down and pluck at the guitar. Some blues players name their guitars and I wondered if that might help me play better, but a male name seems weird and if I name it after a woman I’d probably snap its neck.

***

Love never really had anything to do with it. Amy and I certainly connected on several levels, emotionally, physically, and sexually of course. And I suppose, if pressed to answer, I did love her in my own way, but there was always something missing. I don’t know if it would have been better if we never married or if we’d married later, but I doubt it. I never felt trapped or anything, I just eventually didn’t like being around her.

I’m not going to pretend it was her fault I hit her, or even try to justify it. I’m also not going to apologize. We’ve all got our demons. I don’t drink or smoke or do illegal drugs and I don’t lose any sleep at night over it.

***

Ranger falls asleep as I pluck away on the guitar. I’ve given up on the song about Amy; perhaps it’s just my curse to deal with it instead of being able to work through it. I know, at some level, Ranger knows what happened and it makes me wonder why he still acts the way he does. He only gets upset when I do something to directly offend him, there’s no overarching sense of him being wronged by me. Maybe that’s what he’s trying to do.

***

When I was younger my dad only hit me a couple of times. That’s all it took. After the first time he almost knocked me out, just the threat of him dealing with me was enough to keep me straight. One other time after that, my mom caught me smoking with the girl down the road and she told me that my dad would take care of me. She didn’t mention when.

For three weeks after that I was in constant fear of my dad and what he would do to me. When it eventually came, the pain was almost a relief compared to the sense of dread I’d been carrying.

***

I’ve don’t have air conditioning, never have. Something about the humidity is comforting like a gooey wet blanket wrapped around me, but it’s starting to get stuffy in the house so I move with my unnamed guitar out to the back porch and grab two cans of Labatt on the way out. I’m on the porch about five minutes when Ranger joins me.

He doesn’t look at me, just circles in front of my feet and drops into a ball next to me. My playing eventually gets Ranger so he leaves me on the porch and wanders around the backyard. He’s got the whole yard, but he stays around the middle near a bed of roses I planted after Amy died.

Cadaver dog comin’ for you

Cadaver dog knows what you do.

***

Roses said "I’m sorry" and candy said "I love you," according to Amy. I bought her roses the day she died. Subconsciously I must have known what I was going to do, though I don’t want to think I could be premeditated about something like that.

It’s always the little things that get the nastiest arguments started. Amy and I could argue about money and religion and politics civilly and never raise our voices, but damn if I didn’t incite her wrath when I popped the tab off of her pop cans.

Our last argument flared up when I made her a grilled cheese sandwich with white bread instead of wheat bread. To me, white bread is the only way to make grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly. She said it tasted like wax and refused to eat it. I yelled. She yelled. And one of us may, or may not, have thrown a hot frying pan.

***

I fall asleep on the porch with my guitar across my lap and the humidity in my system. When I wake up again, the sun is coming across the horizon and the neighbor boys are helping Ranger dig around in the rose beds. The other neighbor kids see how much fun they’re having so they join in and the digging goes into full gear.

The roses themselves aren’t in good shape so I don’t mind seeing them go, but what’s buried a little deeper might cause me some trouble. I know what’s coming and I’m just waiting for it to be done. Like with my dad and the impending whooping.

***

Amy was buried back in Arizona next to her brother and grandfather. I wasn’t able to make it to the funeral because I couldn’t fly with Ranger and he gets too sick in the car on long trips. Part of me was happy he couldn’t be there for her because I know the bond he had with Amy was stronger than the one he has for me. I want to hate him. I want to shoot him right between his knowing eyes but I can’t. He hasn’t done anything to me. Not yet at least.

***

Ranger finds a finger first, and for a minute nobody really knows what it is. It’s only when the older neighbor boy pulls out an arm that it starts to fall into place what they’re digging up. I’m still strumming on my guitar when the neighbor boys’ father comes over to see why his kids are screaming. And a melody is finally starting to come to me when the first police car arrives.

***

I was with Lacey the day they buried my wife. She was wearing the locket while we made love and that pissed me off. It seemed disrespectful considering how much Amy had wanted it. But Lacey wouldn’t budge. We were in the middle of sex when I had enough and pushed her off of me. I went to the garage and got an ax and cut her head off.

Most of the body parts along with her head went into separate garbage bags that I disposed of in dumpsters all over the county. But I kept her arms and hands and buried them when I planted the roses in honor of Amy.

***

Ranger is watching me as the officers handcuff me and lead me away. His eyes don’t scare me anymore because he doesn’t have anything to hold over me. He led them to my secret and that’s what I wanted. Now I have a reason to kill him.

Cadaver dog, poor four legged fool

Cadaver dog, they’ll never find you.

About the Author
Bryon Quertermous is the author of the novels Murder Boy and Riot Load. His short stories have appeared in a number of journals of varying repute . He was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger Award from the UK Crime Writers Association. He lives somewhere between Ann Arbor and Detroit (metaphorically as well as physically) where he can be found screaming at the TV during football and baseball season and playing Ninja Turtles and My Little Pony with his kids the rest of the time.
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