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Though set in Portland, where I was a police officer in the mid-seventies, Night Dogs is a novel, a self-contained fictional world, and I have altered streets and landscapes to serve that world. All characters, events, and dialogue are products of my imagination.
I’m proud to have been a member of the Portland Police Bureau, and I have been as honest as I know how in writing this book. Some readers may find it disturbing or “offensive.” The truth sometimes affects people that way.
Things are much worse now than they were in 1975.
EVERY JUNE 15TH out at North Precinct, “A” relief and graveyard shift started killing dogs. The police brass and local politicians only smiled if they were asked about it, shook their heads, and said it was just another one of those old myths about the precinct.
The cops at North Precinct called them “Night Dogs,” feral dogs, wild and half-wild, who roamed the districts after dark. Their ancestors had been pets, beaten and abandoned by their owners to breed and give birth on the streets. Some paused only long enough to eat the afterbirth before leaving the newborns to die. But there were others who suckled and watched over their mewling litters. Gaunt and yellow-eyed, their gums bleeding from malnutrition, they carried them, one by one, to some new safe place every few nights, out of instinct. Or out of love. You might call it love, but none of the cops at North ever used that word.
Survivors were lean and quick, pit bull and Doberman in their blood, averaging fifty or sixty pounds. Anything smaller eventually starved to death if it wasn’t first run down and killed by larger dogs, cornered by children with rocks and bats, or caught in the street by flaring headlights after the bars closed. A quick death the only good luck those dogs would ever know before they were plowed into reeking landfills or dumped in the “Dead Animal Bin” behind the Humane Society gas chamber.
Night Dogs carried a scent of fear and rot in their fur, and the cops at North Precinct claimed they could smell them in the dark — stalking the chain-link fences of restaurant parking lots on graveyard shift, prowling supermarket Dumpsters or crouched, ears back, in the shadows of McDonald’s dark arches. When the winter rains came and food got scarce, they ate their own shit and each other.
They waited for night in fire-gutted, boarded-up cellars of abandoned homes the neighborhood had used as garbage dumps, then set on fire and watched burn as they sat on their porches with quarts of Colt .45 and King Cobra Tallboys, waiting for the fire trucks.
Most of the cops would have let the dogs live their wretched lives, but too many were crazy, vicious from inbreeding, putrid food, brain damage. Some thought just the stress of everyday survival made them that way. Everybody had a theory, but in the end it didn’t matter.
When Radio sent a patrol car on a dog bite, to “check for an ambulance,” they usually found some kid too young to have been afraid. Blacks, whites, illegals up from Mexico, always lying absolutely still, trying to distance themselves from the pain that hurt them worse if they cried. Their eyes gave away nothing, pupils huge and distant in their bloody faces as if they had just seen a miracle.
Sometimes the dogs attacked grown men, even cops, as if they wanted to die, growing bolder and more dangerous in the summer, when people stayed out after dark, and rabies began to spread. It came with warm weather, carried by the night wind and nocturnal animals gone mad — prehistoric possums with pig eyes and needle teeth, squealing in the alleys. Rats out on the sidewalks at noon, sluggish and dazed. Raccoons hissing in the nettles and high grass along polluted golf course creeks. Feral cats, bats falling from the sky, dreamy-eyed skunks staggering out of the West Hills, choking on their own tongues, their hearts shuddering with the virus they carried, an evil older than cities or civilization — messengers perhaps, sent by some brooding, wounded promise we betrayed and left for dead back when the world was still only darkness and frozen seas.
Late one night at the police club, some of the cops from North were talking about it. They’d been drinking for quite a while when a cop named Hanson said you couldn’t really blame the dogs.
Well hell, who do you blame then?
Someone back in the corner slammed his beer down.
Fuck blame. Just kill ’em.
PORTLAND, OREGON MAY 1975
IT HAD BEEN raining all week, spring drizzle, almost a mist, and neither of the two cops who got out of the patrol car bothered to wear a raincoat. The dispatcher had sent them to “check on the welfare” of an old man who lived alone, to see if he was dead. One of the neighbors had called. She hadn’t seen him in a week and she was worried. She was afraid to answer her door, she said, what with all this crime.
Just above his gold police badge, Hanson wore a yellow “happy face” pin that he’d noticed in the bottom of his locker before roll call that afternoon. He’d picked it up back in December, off the body of a kid who’d OD’d in a gas station bathroom, sitting on the toilet. The needle was still in his arm, half-full of the China White heroin that was pouring in from Southeast Asia, through Vancouver, B.C., and down the freeway.
As the two cops walked around to the back of the old man’s house, Hanson kept an eye on the windows and checked the safety snap on his holster, out of habit, as he did dozens of times during the shift.
The ragged hedge of rose bushes bordering the backyard had been battered by a freak thunder-storm the night before, and the yard was covered with rose petals, pink-veined and translucent as eyelids on the wet grass. The whole yard smelled of roses.
Dana, the big cop, knocked on the door with his flashlight and shouted, “Police.” Hanson picked up a rose petal, smelled it, then put it on his tongue. “Police,” Dana shouted.
The windows were locked and warped and painted shut, but they managed to break one free and force it open an inch or two.
“I guess he isn’t just away on a trip,” Hanson said when the smell drifted out.
When Dana kicked the backdoor, the knob fell off and the little window shattered, sucking a greasy curtain out through the splinters. He kicked again and the door shuddered. A shard of glass dropped onto the concrete stoop.
“Maybe you’re too old for this,” Hanson said.
Dana smiled at him, a little out of breath, took half a step back and drove the heel of his boot into the door. The frame splintered and the door swung open in a spray of dust and paint chips.
A burner on the electric stove in the kitchen glowed sullenly, its heat touching Hanson’s cheek through the hot sweet air. Dirty dishes were piled by the sink where gray dishwater rippled with mosquito larvae.
“Police,” Hanson called, “police officers,” breathing shallowly as they walked into the living room.
Thousands of green flies covered the windows like beaded curtains, shimmering in the gray light as they beat against the glass.
The old man was in the living room, lying on his back. His chest and belly had ballooned, arching his back in a wrestler’s bridge, as if he was still struggling to raise up off the floor. His eyes and beard and shaggy hair sparkled silver-white, boiling with maggots, and broken capillaries shadowed his face like brutal makeup. He was wearing a set of one-piece long underwear that buttoned up the front, and he was so swollen that all the buttons had torn out, ripping open from neck to crotch.
The old man’s chest and belly were waxy, translucent, mottled with terrible blue bruises where the blood had pooled after he died. One foot had turned black as iron. The two cops stood over him, breathing through their mouths. The furnace hummed beneath the floor, pumping out heat. Flies droned and battered the windows. Something brushed Hanson’s leg, and he spun around, reaching for his pistol.
It was a small dog, his muzzle gray with age, the fur worn off the backs of his legs. He looked up at them without fear, with the dignity that old dogs have. Both blind eyes were milky white.
“Look here,” Dana said. “It’s just the po-lice.” He knelt down and slowly moved his hand to stroke the dog’s head. “Been hot in here, hasn’t it?” He went into the kitchen and brought back a bowl of water which the dog lapped up slowly, not stopping until it was all gone.
They turned off the furnace, then beat the flies away from the front windows and opened them. Hanson saw the envelope taped to the wall above the telephone. Where the address should be were the words, “When I die please see that my daughter, Sarah Thorgaard, gets this envelope. Her phone number is listed below. Thank you.” It was signed, “Cyrus Thorgaard.” Beneath his signature he’d written in ink, “I’d appreciate it if you’d look after my dog Truman.”
Hanson called the number and a man answered. “Hello,” Hanson said, “this is Officer Hanson from the police bureau. Could I speak to Sarah Thorgaard, please?”
“That’s my wife’s maiden name. She’s not here.”
Out on the sidewalk, a man wearing a black vinyl jacket and plaid bell-bottom pants stood looking at the house.
“What’s the problem?”
“I’m afraid her father is dead. At his house on Albina Street?”
The man on the sidewalk started to walk away, then stopped and looked at the house again. The phone droned in Hanson’s ear.
“Looks like a natural death. There’s an envelope here addressed to your wife. We could bring it by your house if you’d like, Mister…?”
“Jensen. I’ll come and get it.”
“He’s been dead for quite a while, sir. Maybe…”
“I’d rather not have a police car in my driveway. I can be there in ten minutes.”
“That’ll be fine,” Hanson said, watching the man out front walk away down the block. He hung up the phone and went into the bedroom. The covers on the bed had been thrown back, and he wondered if the old man had gotten up just so he wouldn’t die in bed. Books filled the wall-to-wall glass-fronted bookcases, and magazines were stacked on the floor beneath them — Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic, something called Science and Design, published in England, many of them dating back to the thirties. Hanson picked one up and thumbed through it. The old man had bracketed paragraphs and underlined sentences in pencil. Down the margin of one page he’d written, “This kind of easy ambiguous conclusion is the heart of the problem. They’re afraid to make the difficult decisions.”
Some of the books went back to the 1800s. Hanson picked up one with the word “STEAM” embossed in gold letters across the leather cover. A golden planet Earth spun beneath the word “STEAM,” powered through its orbits by two huge elbow pipes, one sticking out of the Pacific Ocean, the other rising from North Africa, both of them pumping golden clouds of steam. The book was filled with flow charts and numerical tables, exploded diagrams of valves and heat-return systems, fine engravings of steam boilers. It was as if the book contained all the rules for a predictable steam-driven universe, a world of order and dependability.
Photographs covered one wall, old photographs where the hands and faces of people passing in the background were streaked and blurred by their movement. The old man, alive, looked out at Hanson from them, his age changing from twenty to fifty, a mustache there, a beard in one, looking out from the beams and pipes of a power plant, standing by a Ford coupe on a dirt road, holding a stringer of trout, looking out from each one as if he had something to tell him, something that Hanson had been trying to figure out for a long time. A double-barreled Winchester shotgun with exposed hammers stood propped in the corner next to the bed. Hanson picked it up, brought it to his shoulder, then lowered it and thumbed it open. Brass-cased buckshot rounds shone in the steel receiver.
Hanson looked out through the bedroom door at the old man. He thought of the thunderstorm the night before, and imagined lightning, like flash powder for old photos, blazing through the house, lighting the room for an instant, freezing it in time. The old man, the dog, and the green and gold curtains of flies swarming the windows.
Dana’s voice came up through the floor, calling him down to the basement.
“He made this,” Dana said, spinning the chrome-silver wheel of a lathe. “Hand-ground those carbon steel blades. Look,” he said, slapping the cast-iron base, “the bearings, the bed, everything. The best craftsmen make their own tools.
“That’s a forge over there,” he said, pointing. “He could melt steel in that. In his basement. And come on over here,” he said. “Look at this work bench…”
“Hello?” It was the medical examiner at the top of the stairs, his face flushed, wearing a wrinkled gray suit. He looked like a salesman down on his luck. “It’s a ripe one all right.”
The sun had come out and the grass was steaming. Dana helped the ME unload the gurney from his station wagon, and Hanson pulled out the body bag, the acrid smell of rubberized plastic, like the dead air leaking from a tire, stunning him with memories for a moment.
They tucked the body bag under and around the old man, like a rubber sleeping bag, and zipped it closed. Hanson slipped his hands beneath the bloated shoulders and the ME took the feet.
“Real easy now,” the ME said, “easy…”
It sounded almost like someone sitting up suddenly in the bathtub. The weight shifted, pulling the body bag out of their arms and onto the gurney where it shuddered and lurched from side to side.
The ME said, “Damn.
“Damn,” he said again. “What a week. Monday I had to police up a skydiver whose chute didn’t open. That’s a stupid so-called ‘sport,’ if you ask me. And the next day there was the son of a bitch — pardon my French — out in the county, who shot himself in the kitchen and left the stove on. The body popped, exploded, before I got there. One hundred and nineteen degrees in that trailer house. That’s official. I hung a thermometer. I mean, is that some cheap, thoughtless behavior, or what? People just don’t think. If you want to kill yourself, fine. That’s your business. But show a little courtesy to others. The world goes on, you know.”
A supervisor had to cover any situation involving a death, even if it was a natural, and Sgt. Bendix was out in front of the house, standing by his patrol car, nodding and listening to the man in khaki trousers and blue dress shirt who had driven up in a gray Mercedes. The ME drove off in his county station wagon as Dana and Hanson walked over to them. Hanson’s wool uniform was still damp, heavy and hot in the sun. It would be another month, he thought, before the department switched over to short-sleeve shirts. Bendix watched them come, tapping his own chest as he looked straight at Hanson. “The happy face,” Dana said.
Hanson glanced down at the yellow face that smiled from his shirt. “Mister Happy Face says, ‘If you like everybody, everybody will like you.’ ” He took it off and dropped it in his breast pocket.
They nodded to Mr. Jensen as Bendix introduced him.
“He was a smart man,” Jensen said. “An engineer. I guess you could call him an inventor. Not that he ever made much money.
“This used to be a nice neighborhood,” he said, looking at Hanson. “My wife grew up here.”
“We had the money to move him out of this neighborhood and put him in a home. I mean a nice place. Where he could be with people his own age. He wouldn’t even talk about it,” Jensen said, looking at the house where a seedy robin in the front yard cocked his head and studied a patch of dead grass.
“In denial,” Sgt. Bendix said.
The robin pecked the grass.
“A refusal to come to terms with his own mortality,” Sgt. Bendix said. “Quite common at his age.”
The bird flew off when Aaron Allen’s bloodred Cadillac pulled out of an alley down the block, stolen radio speakers duct-taped inside all four doors booming through the neighborhood. It sat there shuddering, the tinted windows rolled up, then crossed the street and disappeared into the mouth of the opposite alley.
“He said he’d shoot anyone who tried to move him,” Jensen said.
“What about the dog?” Dana said.
“What?” Jensen said.
“An old dog, about this big.”
“That dog’s still alive?”
“Well, what about it?
“Sergeant,” he said, turning to Bendix, “can your people take care of that for me?” He looked at his watch. “I have a funeral to work out. And I’m going to have to think of something to do with that house and all the shit in it…”
“We’ll take care of it, Mister Jensen,” Sgt. Bendix said.
“Can we do that?” he said, turning to Dana and Hanson.
“Sure,” Dana said.
“I’ll get the envelope,” Hanson said.
The envelope was taped to the wall just below a large framed document that declared Cyrus Thorgaard to be a member of “The International Brotherhood of Machinists.” It was printed in color with gilt edges. The fine engraving in each corner showed men at work — turning a silver cylinder of steel on a lathe, measuring tolerances with calipers, others standing at a forge, yellow and gold clouds of heat and smoke rolling over them. The center of the document was dominated by a huge black and silver steam engine tended by powerfully built men wearing engineer’s caps.
“Do me a favor and get the rest of that asshole’s information? I’m afraid I’ll say something that’ll get me some time off.”
“You’re gettin’ awful sensitive in your old age,” Hanson said, peeling the envelope off the wall.
“You know what’s gonna happen to that?” Dana said, looking at the document. “You know what he’s gonna do with that, and the tools, and the books? All of it? If the neighborhood assholes don’t set the place on fire first. After ripping off anything they can trade for dope.”
He looked out the door at Jensen and Bendix. “He’s gonna shit-can it. He won’t even take the trouble to give it away. He’ll just pay somebody to haul it to the dump.”
The dog stood staring up at the cops, listening.
“You come on with us,” Dana said, kneeling down to stroke the dog’s head. “It’ll be okay.”
After Jensen and Sgt. Bendix left, Dana took a hammer and a handful of nails from the basement and went around back to nail the door shut and board up the window.
Hanson walked through the house turning off lights and closing the windows. He pretended not to hear the dog following behind him, trying to keep up. He took another look around the bedroom, kneeling at the bookcases to read the titles on the lower shelves, touching the spines. He looked one more time at the photos, half hoping for some revelation, but the sun had moved, throwing them into shadow, and it would only get darker. It was too late now to do anything but finish closing the house up.
After several false starts, the dog hopped stiffly onto the bed, found his place at the foot and curled up.
“I guess you think it’s all gonna be okay again tomorrow morning,” Hanson said to the dog. “One more night and when you wake up Mister Thorgaard will be asleep there just like always.” If the dog heard him, he didn’t open his eyes.
“You’re on your own now,” Hanson said, then looked away, as if he’d heard something in the other room.
“It’s a hard world out there,” he said slowly, as if he was just now remembering the words, “for dogs, too.”
Tendrils from the overgrown shrubbery covered the front window, snaking through the wooden frame into the room, jamming the window open, and Hanson had to pull the brittle vines free with his fingertips. His eyes went wide for a moment when he gashed his knuckle on the weather stripping, but that was his only reaction and he continued to clean the dead shrubbery free. He worked his hand farther into the frame and pulled out a nest of leaves, rotten sash cord, and cotton mattress stuffing. The three desiccated baby mice looked like they were wearing Halloween masks. Insects had eaten through their eyes into the tiny skulls, and the empty sockets were huge, inscrutable mummy eyes.
Hanson tossed the nest out the window, and through a gap in the shrubbery saw the man again. He had a nappy, half-assed Afro. The bell-bottoms covered his shoes, cuffs ragged from scraping the sidewalk, and the vinyl jacket was buttoned up to his neck, the cuffs snapped. To hide needle marks, Hanson thought.
The man looked up the street and took a half-smoked cigarette from behind his ear. “Just looking,” Hanson said, trying again to close the window.
“Always looking,” he said over his shoulder to the dog. “For something easy they can walk off with. Or a purse to snatch, or some old man they know they can knock down for his social security check. Whatever. The old guy eats dog food and day-old bread for the rest of the month.”
The dog listened now, his cloudy blind eyes serene in the face of Hanson’s anger.
“Unless he breaks his hip falling on the sidewalk and dies of pneumonia. Dumped in some fuckin’ charity ward. All alone. Lying there till his lungs fill up and he drowns,” he said, pulling on the window, then slamming it with the heel of his hand. The man on the sidewalk flipped the cigarette onto the yard and turned to walk away.
“Fuckin’ lookers,” Hanson grunted, “waiting for it to get dark. Walking around or sitting in their junk cars. Waiting…” he said, straining to close the window.
“God damn,” he said, spinning and stalking across the room to the doorway where he looked back at the dog.
“I’ll be right back.”
“Hey,” Hanson called. “You!” pushing through the screen door. “C’mere.
“You looking for somebody, my man?” Hanson said, walking up on him. “You lost?”
“I ain’t doing nothing.”
He had a poorly repaired harelip that gave him a slight lisp.
“New in town?”
“Maybe I can help you find an address.”
“I’m takin’ a walk.”
“I know what you’re doing. What’s your name?”
“Yeah. What do your buddies call you?”
“Curtis, man. They call me Curtis. But you’re not…”
His throat worked like he was going to throw up, choking up his own name, “Barr.”
“Let’s see some ID.”
Dana’s hammering, at the back of the house, echoed through the neighborhood. Hanson stepped in closer until their chests were almost touching, smelling marijuana smoke, old sweat, and a sour stink like rancid meat, an odor that rides the air in prison. “You want to show me some ID,” Hanson said, his eyes on him now, “or you want go to jail?”
Hanson glared at his head as if he was trying to set the lopsided Afro on fire with his eyes. The hammering stopped.
“Why you always gotta fuck with somebody,” he said, pulling up one leg of his bell-bottoms. “I mean…shit.” He unzipped his boot, pulled down his sock, and took out a wallet.
“Photo ID,” Hanson said.
He peeled off a sweaty driver’s license.
“This is expired,” Hanson said, holding it with the tips of two fingers. “What’s your current address?”
“Same as it says there.”
“Lemme see that,” Hanson said.
“See what?” Curtis said, closing the wallet. “I done showed you…”
“The property receipt,” Hanson said, indicating the yellow piece of paper just peeking out of the wallet. “Let’s see it.”
“Let’s see it.”
- On Sale
- Nov 13, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Mulholland Books