For those of you who haven't skipped ahead...
CHAPTER 4: THE BOX
Cerberus just stared at me. The dog didn’t blink, he didn’t pant, he didn’t move. He just sat in the passenger seat as I drove, relaxed, mouth hanging slightly open, looking at me the way someone examines a menu but can’t decide on the chicken or the veal.
The desert sky was on fire when the city came into view. Cerberus turned away from me and stuck his head out from the side of the jeep, his giant tongue flapping in the eighty mile an hour wind while I dialed Luna’s number. The dog pulled his head back in, then rested his chin on top of the overhead roll-bar, his fur blowing back along his head like the spines of a porcupine.
“Dingo! Are you there yet?”
“No, not yet. I’m just outside the city.” Vegas flashed and blinked under the starless sky. “You get in touch with Mr. Waciejowski?”
“Sure did. He’s at the Denny’s near the Excalibur. He’s trying to stay away from the blackjack tables.”
“Yeah, good for him. He has the box?”
I could hear Luna stuffing something disgustingly healthy in her mouth. “Mmm hmm.”
“He hasn’t opened it, has he?”
She swallowed. “Nah. I told him it was filled with old photos.”
Cerberus shifted in the seat and scratched behind his neck with such force that the whole Jeep shook; a rather unsettling motion at 80 miles an hour. “Hey Luna, I’ve got a question for you.”
I looked over to see the dog’s nostrils flared out in the wind while his lips blew back and revealed his frightening set of teeth.
“This, uh, this animal spirit guide you had me try to find. Do they ever show up, you know, in person?”
“What are you talking about?”
I switched hands and tried to speak a little more softly into the phone, but the dog’s eyes rolled toward me, fixing me with a black stare. “Do they ever show up for real? Like in corporeal form?”
“Corporeal form? Dingo, are you stoned?”
“No, no. It’s just that someone abandoned a dog at some nowhere gas station. I kinda adopted him.”
“Oooh, a puppy!” Her squeal got Cerberus’ attention. He pulled his head down and stared at me. His fur stood out in wild directions.
“Puppy. Yeah, um...nevermind. Look, I’ll call you when I have the box. In the meantime, if you talk with Rick, tell him he owes me big.”
Luna gave me the man’s cell number and then hung up. Cerberus started to wag his thick tail at the throngs of people milling the streets as we entered the city. By the time I pulled into the Denny’s parking lot, the dog was halfway out of the Jeep. I stopped and the dog jumped out and pissed on the side of a Thunderbird parked next to me. It looked like a damn good idea.
I got the dog back into the Jeep then called Mr. Waciejowski. When he answered, his voice sounded like it had been abused from years of tobacco use. “This is Pete.”
“Mr. Waciejowski, my name’s Dingo. My friend Luna called and told you I was coming. I’m in the parking lot. Yellow Jeep.” I paused. “And a big dog. Can’t miss me.”
A few seconds later, an older man with that classy touch of grey in his hair stepped out of the restaurant, scanned the lot, saw me, then waved. He was about my height, but had a slight stoop in his posture that made him seem smaller. He shirt was all palm trees and sail boats. “You’re Dingo?”
“That’s me. Sorry about all of this but my brother can be a bit absent minded.”
“Got a couple myself. They’re nothing but trouble,” he said. “I’m parked over here.”
I turned to Cerberus and said, “Stay.” The dog ignored me and turned its attention to sniffing the steering wheel. I was going to have to get a leash before this thing started to get hungry and eat one of the passersby. Eh, as long as he didn’t eat me, I guess.
As we walked to Pete’s car, I saw a man skirt us about five cars away, slowly walking parallel to us. “You got a saddle for that thing?” Pete asked.
“The dog? No.” I took a glance back at the Jeep. “Just the ferret.”
I could see Rick’s old Z about thirty feet away. I stopped, bent down and pretended to tie my shoe. Underneath the cars I could see through to the Z but couldn’t tell if anyone was standing near it or not.
“So what do you do, Dingo?”
I stood up and gave a quick scan of the parking lot. The man who had been skirting us was gone. “I solve problems for people.”
Pete’s face crinkled. “You mean like tech support or something? I got a cousin who used to work for a small software company. Did theirs until they shipped his job off to
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah, well he was a bum anyway.”
We reached the Z and Pete started fumbling for the keys. It was strange seeing this familiar car belonging to someone else. Kind of like watching a stranger fondle your ex-wife in that secretive and intimate way that only lovers do. He popped the hatchback, pulled back a black cloth to reveal the box.
It was made of walnut, roughly the size of a bread loaf, and polished to a smooth shine. Oak leaves and acorns were carved along its edges while five names were etched onto the top in rich, flowing script:
Rick Asher, Sr.
Rick Asher, Jr.
“It’s beautiful,” Pete said.
I’ve never been one for overt emotion, especially in front of strangers while standing in a Denny’s parking lot in Vegas, but sometimes these things hit you when you least expect it. I wanted to say something, take the box and leave, but I couldn’t move. I was lost in those names, the way the script flowed along the lines of the carved leaves, the way the wood grain usually hid the crease of the hinges where the box ope—
“Did you open this?”
Pete gave me another crinkled look. “Well…hey look, friend. When that Luna girl called and said that your brother left something in the car, I thought it was drugs or something. I don’t want to get mixed up in any of that. So yeah, I had to see if—“
I grabbed his shirt and pulled him close. I could smell the cheap coffee and cheaper cigarettes on his breath. “She told you not to open it! How long ago?”
“Hey man, back off.” He struggled to get away but I held him fast.
“How long ago, Pete?”
“Get your hands off me!”
Whenever a person feels threatened, it’s a natural reaction to turn and run or stand and fight. Fight or flight response. The way this joker was pulling at me, I could tell he was more of a flight kind of guy. It was disappointing. “I’m going to ask you one more time. How long ago?”
“I don’t know. Two, three hours ago.” I let go of him. He straightened his tiki shirt over his round belly. “You know, technically that box belongs to me,” he said. “I don’t have to let you have it.”
I reached in, snapped the lid completely shut, then wrapped the box in the cloth and pulled it out. “Pete, get in your new car and go home. You have no idea what you’ve done.”
“What I’ve done? I sat around here for five hours waiting to give you that thing. I think you should…”
Pete’s voice trailed off. I stopped and looked at him. He was pale and slowly creeping around the side of his car. I turned to see what he was looking at. Cerberus was there, standing like a small horse, a deep growl rumbling between his bared fangs.
“Oh, puke.” But then I noticed that the dog wasn’t growling at me. Or Pete. I turned to see what it was that had the dog on edge.
That’s when I saw the crowbar coming at me.