In the stretched-out moment when I heard the door open, I had plenty of time to make a decision before the first footstep creaked.
Time enough to slide the silenced pistol back into its compartment. Time enough not to push the button that would make the last five steps disappear. Any intruders who got this far might walk ninja-soft, but they wouldn’t be weightless. Easier to make the whole stairway disappear in a soft explosion, but the last thing I wanted to do was attract attention. That’s why the pistol was silenced. Even a fall from the stairs onto a concrete floor wouldn’t necessarily kill, and I had to seize any chance to learn how anyone had gotten so close.
How they had gotten past the only person on earth whose life mattered to me.
Inside that rocket-blast of thought was another one—no one could ever get that far unless Dolly had betrayed me. And if she had done that, my life was over no matter how this played out.
“I’m right here, Dolly,” I called, leaving my voice to trail behind me as I backed away to the pool of blackness that formed the entire far wall of my basement “workshop.”
My voice was still where I last used it, but I wasn’t. And I had a new weapon trained on the staircase, its scope turning blackness to greenish light. A modified FAMAS bullpup auto that people in my old line of work had called “un clarion.” If someone had forced Dolly to open the door and call my name, she was as good as dead anyway. The only job I’d have left would be to make sure that everyone else in the house followed her.
And find out who sent them.
And then take out the chain, link by link.
Her voice hadn’t sounded afraid. That could have meant a lot of things, but it stopped mattering the second I heard her misbegotten mutt woof at whatever small animal was outside the house. If there had been a human intruder, Rascal would have been inside. Growling deep in his throat. Waiting, just like I was.
“Dell, I . . . I really didn’t want to disturb you. And I’m not coming any further if you don’t want me to. But sometimes you’re down here for hours on end and I . . . I didn’t think this should wait.”
“Come on down, honey. It’s okay,” I said, watching through the scope so I could make sure Dolly was alone. When she was on the third step, hands held palms-up to tell me she was okay, I said, “Ah, never mind. Give me a second and I’ll come upstairs.”
Dolly didn’t know anything about my way of keeping her safe from some deer-killer’s bullets. And she’d never know what I’d been forced to do when something even more dangerous had wormed his way inside our home a couple of years ago.
I remember thinking, Alfred Hitchcock is dead. He’s lying there dead, and I don’t know what to do about it.
I wasn’t surprised when I found him dead on the ground. The woods behind our house are state-owned but wild—a country where Darwin makes the rules. I’ve been in enough places like that to know how they work.
Alfred Hitchcock was one of those crow-raven hybrids you see around this piece of the coast all the time—too big for a crow, but without that classic thick raven’s beak. You couldn’t miss him, even at a distance. He had a white streak along one side of his head, like the fire-scar a bullet leaves when it just kisses you on the cheek as it goes by.
He hadn’t shown up for a few days, but that didn’t worry Dolly. Though she loves all her animals, she doesn’t regard them as pets. “They have their own ways” is what she always says.
It was Dolly who named him Alfred Hitchcock. “Look how he walks,” she said to me one day, pointing out behind the house. “See how dignified he is? Not raucous like the others. You never hear a peep out of him. He just paces back and forth, like he’s deep in thought.”
I realized he did kind of look like that famous profile of Alfred Hitchcock, especially the way his head wobbled when he walked. Dolly had names for all the creatures who came to visit, and you could tell she thought about each and every one before she finally decided what to call them.
Take Winston. He’s a chipmunk, but not one of those little things they have on the East Coast; this one’s damn near the size of a squirrel. Dolly named him because he had a stance like a bulldog. And he was fearless, too. Whenever he saw Dolly on the back deck, he’d rush right up and take a peanut out of her hand. Then he’d just sit on his haunches and strip away the shell casing, the way you’d sit and share a beer with a pal.
Winston had a mate—Dolly called her Mrs. Churchill—and a whole family of little ones. They lived under one of the sheds in the backyard. The entrance to their den was marked by two jagged pieces of granite I put there, leaving just enough room between them to form a portal. It looked like they’d hired an architect to build it that way.
And something was always going on back there. Like a couple of hummingbirds fighting it out over one particularly fine fuchsia bush. Those little guys are as territorial as wolverines, and they buzz-bomb each other almost too fast for the eye to follow. Or maybe a stray cat would come visiting. Big mistake. The mutt Dolly had rescued from the shelter spent a lot of time out there, too, in this little house I built for him. Any cat that padded into the yard would launch Rascal out of his doghouse door like a feline-seeking missile.
I think that’s why we have so many birds around all the time—Rascal is hell-bent on turning the whole place into a cat-free zone. A dog is like a person: he needs a job and a family to be what he’s meant to be. Rascal always came inside for supper, and he’d stay inside until daybreak. He slept on this sheepskin mat I cut for him. I tried putting it by the back door, but Rascal kept dragging it over until it was just outside our bedroom, and finally I just left it there.
Dolly also had herself a whole flock of jays. They were a lot larger than any I’d ever seen. Out here, they’re called Steller’s jays—big-bodied thugs with black heads and high crests. Every morning, if Dolly didn’t get out there quick enough, they’d hammer on the back door with their beaks like a mob of crazed woodpeckers. And they’d keep it up until she went out with a little bucket of peanuts and just flung the whole thing into the yard.
“Slopping the jays” is what she calls it, and that’s not being unfair to them; they do act like a pack of hogs. No manners at all, wings flailing, shrieking loud enough to empty a cemetery.
Dolly doesn’t care how much noise they make, but she won’t let them fight. I know it doesn’t make sense, but the birds actually seem to mind her. Once, I saw a couple of the jays really get into it over a big fat peanut, leaping into the air and ripping at each other like spurred gamecocks. Dolly yelled, “You two just stop that!” and they did. Even looked a little ashamed of themselves.
Sometimes, one of the bolder chipmunks will charge right into the middle of a mob of jays and try to swipe a peanut for himself. But mostly they hang around by their portal, standing straight up like prairie dogs, waiting until I wind up and throw long-distance over their heads. The peanuts bounce off the shed, and the chipmunks have a private feast—the jays are too busy to take notice.
The roof of the chipmunks’ shed is where Alfred Hitchcock always waited. He had a spot all to himself, and he seemed content just to watch all the ranting and raving without getting involved.
When things got quiet enough to suit him, Alfred Hitchcock would kind of float on down to the yard. He’d go right into his back-and-forth pacing until Dolly called his name. Then it would be my job to lob a peanut close enough for him to pick it up without acting all undignified, but not so close that he thought I was trying to hit him. I got real good at it.
One day, I was out on the deck by myself, testing some new optics I was putting together, when Alfred Hitchcock showed up. He watched me from his perch on the shed for a long time before he finally dropped into the yard and started his walk.
“Alfred!” I called to him, but he just ignored me.
When Dolly came out later, I told her what had happened. “I guess he only likes you,” I said.
“It’s not that, honey. It’s what you said to him.”
“I said the same thing you do. Called his name.”
“His name is ‘Alfred Hitchcock,’ Dell. Not ‘Alfred.’ He’s a very dignified bird.”
When he came back, a few days later, we were both outside. “You try it,” Dolly insisted.
“Alfred Hitchcock!” I called.
And damned if the bird didn’t stop his walk and cock his head, like he was waiting. I tossed him a peanut. He slowly strolled over, picked it up, and lofted himself back to the shed’s roof. Dolly and I watched him eat the peanut.
That had been a fine moment.
Now Alfred Hitchcock was done—lying dead on the ground. There’s at least one bobcat working those woods. I’d seen the prints myself—way too big for a house cat, but no claws showing. If it’d been a bobcat that nailed him, I would have been okay with it. Maybe a little sad, but not all that worked up. Dolly doesn’t feed the night hunters—they have to look out for themselves.
But I know a human kill when I see one. No flesh was missing from Alfred Hitchcock’s body, and no animal could have wrapped one of his legs with a strand of wire. No animal uses gasoline. Or matches.
No animal kills for fun.