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The dogs climb over each other now, the smallest leaping from shoulder to shoulder and me, amid the shifting shapes, the panting, me, in the middle, this bitch one in the middle. I shoo and kick at them to drive them off. Dog after dog funnels into the kitchen. Alone in the hallway now, I edge toward the basement door. Preparing myself for the door coming open, for the descent of the stairs, for the…skritch-skritch. What? My stomach tightens. Something—no, someone—is scratching on the other side of the door. What sounded like one lone scratch is in fact soft flesh tapping and sliding down the wood. Smoothly the knob turns in my hand. A little push and I’m in. Except that I’m not. The door’s locked. Why is it still locked when all the dogs are out? Why keep in a dog? Unless, of course, it’s not a dog. I drop to the floor and prepare a few words to say through the slender crack beneath the door when a long hair wraps around my tongue. I hook it off with my nail. The strand is as fine as the hair on the head of a child. A sob rises in me.
My radio goes off. “Stero, where you at? Come in. Will you come in, mujer?”
“Pedro,” I whisper into my radio.
The overhead goes on. I get to my hands and knees. The dogs scramble out of the kitchen, jamming up the hallway. At the other end stands J.J. in a nubby robe, hand on the light switch, squinting. “Ms. Stero?”
The scratching starts again on the other side of the basement door. “J.J.,” I say, rising, radio slipping out of my hand. “On behalf of East Valley Animal Control, I demand you open that door.”
He frowns. “Ah, why?”
“I have reason to believe you hide someone.” I dangle the long human hair between my finger and thumb. It catches the light like spun gold. “Is it a child? It’s policy to ask.”
J.J.’s brow has formed a deep and guilty v. “How did you get in here?” He notices the window ajar and says, “Is that legal? I mean, don’t you need a warrant or something?”
“A child is missing.” I clasp the hair to my chest. “A little girl. Virginia was at the preschool when someone took her.” A couple of dogs tilt their heads at me.
J.J. comes on so fast the dogs separate before him in that way you picture from the Bible. As he passes me, he takes my hand. His eyes flash. The dogs close back in, getting underfoot as he leads me down the hallway. “Ms. Stero, I have been patient. I made polite talk. But, come on, you’re breaking the law.” He lifts the latch on the front door. “Time to go.”
“Not alone.” I yank my hand out of his and wade back through the dogs to the basement door. But J.J. catches me by the shoulder. I knock him off with a good shove. Arms pinwheeling, he topples back, grabbing the doorknob to brace his fall, which inadvertently throws the front door wide open. Dogs blast out the door, daft canine propulsion into the pale morning light. They scatter like jacks across the yard. A pit bull eases onto its haunches and drops a pile big as a melon onto the neighbor’s lawn.
J.J. clambers to his feet. I turn to see him brushing aside his blond hair sprung from its fastener. He inserts a key into the lock. “You missed one,” he says, red faced. He pulls open the basement door. I hesitate and squint back out his front door. Across the street the teacher skips out of the Chrysalis Preschool, cheering on the loosed dogs. All this fresh air hovering on the threshold, and I can’t get a decent breath.
The spill of daylight terminates at J.J.’s slippers, where the basement door looms open. I march through that door but halt at the top step on account of the stench. Shadows cast by a bulb swaying on a cord contour the dirt floor below. I go down. Planked pine pops and snaps with each step into this space dug out from the earth, more cooling room than basement. Sweat trickles beneath my bra. Dragging my hand along the damp wall that seems to hum, my fingers launch indolent flies. Smell has taken on a kind of pneumatic shape, scorching the hairs in my nostrils. Lining every wall are aquamarine garbage bags, three bags deep, knotted in neat bows. I taste supper at the back of my throat. Brow sweat cascades my palsied hands as I loosen the knot on one of the bags. A suck of breath. The bag blooms open. Lumped, coiled, and crumbled dog feces white-laced with mold fill the bag. I scan the other bags and recognize the outlines of dog waste in each.
What a smell. I gaze back down into the open bag and inhale.
J.J. is right. Not so bad. Even smells a bit fruity, marvelous as turned soil.
“Knock yourself out.”
I had not heard J.J. come down and quickly try to close the bag.
“Don’t be shy, Ms. Stero,” he says. “We’re all god’s creatures.”
His arms spread to encompass a long line of ceramic water bowls and a carpet of dog beds ordered and numbered. “Fifteen bowls, thirty-eight beds, sixty-six bags of poop.” His eyes shift. “But who’s counting?”
I follow his gaze to a kennel nestled in the middle of the dog beds, the puppy panting inside.
“Poor baby,” I say, dropping to my knees before the kennel and reaching through the open door. “Where’s Mommy?”
The puppy licks my knuckle, and I wiggle the tip of my finger into its mouth. “Ouch!” I say, looking up at J.J. “He bites!”