“Please don’t shoot him!” a man in his late sixties, possibly early seventies, was yelling, running and tripping through the sand and grass. “Please! He won’t hurt you! Please!”
Hildy had been staring into the powder blue eyes of the wolf, over the top of her gun sight, for at least a full minute. Possibly longer.
Without question, the animal was an immediate threat to her person, and she’d been rigorously trained for situations with wildlife. But once the wolf had seen her, had come face to face with her, it had stopped.
No movement whatsoever.
And she hesitated.
Its eyes, the way they stared at her, were practically human. They were also as terrifying as any devil could be, yes, but there was an undeniable sympathy. Like an actual soul lived behind them. And, when the animal had stopped moving, respecting her space, her life, killing it seemed an absurd thing to do.
She had learned to trust instincts like that; they fortified her actions, and denying them always led to trouble.
The old man was practically falling down the last hummock, stuttering, “P-please. He’s my dog. He’s a g-good boy. Please. He was just curious.”
Hildy didn’t look away from the wolf, but she lowered her pistol slightly, aiming at the sand below.
With the old man’s last steps between, he unbuckled his belt and yanked it from his pants. “Wally, sit.” The enormous wolf sat down and the man steadied himself at its side. He fed the tip of his belt back through the buckle and slipped the loop over the animal’s head, pulling it tight around its neck. “Good boy. You’re a good boy. What a good dog.”
Hildy lowered her gun the rest of the way, but held it with both hands still, as if she were about to take a shot, and raised an eyebrow at the old man.
The old man nodded gratefully and tried to catch his breath. “My name,” he puffed, “is Stanley Ramos. I live just there.” He pointed north, toward the end of the cape, and huffed, doubling over. “Thank you for not shooting him. My dog.”
“That is not a dog,” Hildy corrected.
“It is,” he wheezed. “He’s a Wolamute. It’s a mix. A hybrid.”
Hildy took a moment to assess. Then she took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders. With her left hand she reached back and pulled her jacket away, and slid the tiny Glock back into its holster with her right; pressing hard until she was sure the tension of the brown leather scabbard held securely. She stood on her tip toes and looked up the bluff for the house. There wasn’t one. All she could see was the top of an overgrown English Laurel that ran across, east to west, from the cliff edge.
“Do you have time for a cup of tea?” the old man offered. “I’d like to properly apologize. I’m very sorry he scared you.”
“I wasn’t scared,” Hildy lied, bending over to pick up her notepad, still not taking her eyes off the dog. She felt instantly guilty for her indignation. Obviously she had been frightened. People who aren’t frightened don’t normally threaten to shoot the things they’re not frightened of. And, just honestly, it was a terrifically terrifying animal. Enormous, in the exact shape of what you’d imagine a killer to be.
It was obvious the old man knew as much. But he said nothing. He just looked at her with kind eyes and pursed lips. And she was grateful.
“It’s the least I could do,” he insisted.
“That’s nice of you,” Hildy agreed.
“Oh good,” he said smiling. He immediately turned away and led them all back up to the road, his makeshift leash in one hand and the waistband of his pants in the other.
People were often overly nice to Hildy. Always atoning for imagined offenses and feeling it necessary to stay in her good graces, because of her position. Because of her badge. It was always uncomfortable, and sometimes even weird.
Because there was no way to differentiate between the people who couldn’t help themselves from being unreasonable accommodating and the people who might be planning to rob a bank later. They might be courting her favor to possibly aid them in some elaborate deception. She had to alert. She had to stay vigilant. So she declined every kindness. She had to. And said, “No, thank you,” over and over again, effectively alienating everyone.
But this time she said, “That’s nice of you.” This time had to say, “Yes,” if for no other reason than to make sure that ridiculous beast was properly confined, and restricted from any future wanderings.
And she did feel like tea.
Back up on the street, she could see everything that had been hidden from her down in the twisting sand trails, along with the surrounding details that had gone unnoticed upon her arrival, due to an enveloping experience with Celine Dion.
Huge tussocks of pampas grass lined the left side of the street, sand spilling over the curb at their bases, and led up to a thick laurel hedge in the distance. As they got closer, she could see that a tall wrought iron fence with beautifully ornate fleur de lis finials stood in front of the hedge, holding it at bay, so closely that the morning glory that grew throughout intertwined them both. A matching dual gate, seven feet tall, was open on both sides of a one lane blacktop drive that continued straight at the bend, north, where Vida Seca Lane turned east and led off underneath the overpass to Kincheloe State Park.
She followed behind the old man, and his dog, through the gates, past a beautifully landscaped garden. In the center of a ring of pink rose bushes sat a granite bolder that appeared to have been cut in half in. The rock was flattened and polished on the open side and bore large deeply chiseled letters that simply read VIDA SECA CEMETERY AND CHAPEL.
“That’s one of the rocks they used to build the dike that wrecked the town,” the old man said, nodding to the sign. “But it worked out so nice for us, my dad had them haul up one of the biggest stones left from when they blew the thing up. He was so happy, he used it to make the sign.”
“You’re kidding,” Hildy said, familiar with the town’s history. “That’s from the dike?”
“Sure,” the old man said, slowing down a little as the blacktop driveway began to incline. The great grey and white dog, noticing his master’s labor, gently kept going, pulling him with the leash in the direction of a stone chapel at the end of the graveyard.
“What do you mean that it worked out nicely?”
“Well, it’s a business. My family owns this cemetery. It was twenty-five acres on the edge of town with just a view of the channel, you see. Which was nice enough, I guess. But when all that land fell into the ocean, and all the buildings and things that were in the way washed out to sea, we eventually got this cliff and an ocean view,” he breathed heavily and smiled, pointing to the west, then quickly grabbing his pants before they fell.
There was a wrought iron railing that matched the outside fence, but only three or four feet high, running around the edge of the cemetery, guarding the cliff edge.
“We only lost an acre or so, and none of it had been used. So, when they were finally sure it was all safe, dad had the cliff face shored up with sand colored concrete, and word got out. Business started coming in from miles around. There’s a shortage of picturesque resting places, turns out. We started charging more for plots. And the people who could afford it didn’t mind paying a little more. So we charged a little more after that. And then a little more even. And, after a while, it got so we really only had to bury a few people a year to make a living. So it was nice. As nice as grave digging can go, anyway.”
Hildy nodded and smiled with what she imagined was her impressed face, and motioned to the backhoe parked in front of an open plot. “New clients?” she asked playfully.
The old man was crestfallen. He looked suddenly ashamed and remorseful. “I suppose there’s no hiding it. It is what it is,” he huffed. “Oh don’t look so sad. I’m fine. My father, he was a man of great faith and great wisdom, and I loved him, and the one and only thing he made me promise before he died was to never dig in the day time. It’s impolite to the grieving families.”
Hildy looked around, to gauge for herself what an imposition the old man’s backhoe and fresh pile of earth were being on the surrounding widows and orphans in their time of mourning. But she didn’t see them. She couldn’t see anyone. The entire cemetery was quiet and deserted as far as she could tell.
“Not many locals can afford to be buried here. And driving two hours over the pass, in the middle of the week, just to spend a few minutes at grandma’s grave. It just isn’t practical,” he shrugged. “We’re pretty dead around here on the weekdays.”
Hildy looked up as they walked.
The old man looked over.
She cracked a smile.
He laughed, “That was my father’s favorite joke. Made mom furious.”
Hildy laughed at him.
“No. I don’t think I’m doing anyone any harm. And, the truth is, I just can’t stay up that late anymore.”
As they walked, Hildy brushed up against the side of the great big dog between them, even laying a hand on him a time or two.
“And…” he continued, as though he needed one more explanation to account for his actions, “there was a message on the machine this morning. Must have called in the middle of the night. Terribly sad. A Richard Burton died. Suicide. No funeral. They want to get him in the ground as soon as possible. Anyway…”
The old man trailed off as they reached the chapel. Hildy followed them on a red pebble path around the side of the old stone building. All of the windows were stained-glass and the shingles on the roof were heavy black wood. On the backside of the chapel she saw the kennel that Wally had obviously escaped.
He led the dog into the cage and pulled the belt off over his head. “That’s a good dog,” he said, shutting the gate and throwing his weight into it, knocking the latch straight again. “At night, I close the outside gates and just let him roam the grounds. Not even as a kid did I sleep a night so soundly as I have with Wally walking around. He really is the best dog in the world.”
“I see that now,” Hildy agreed with a nod. She looked down at her feet. “Hey, I’m the one that needs to apologize. I almost… I came really close…”
“Don’t give it another thought,” Stan said, shaking his head as he lashed the gate shut with his belt. “I’ll get a chain for this gate. And neither one of us will ever have to worry again.”
Hildy’s cellphone rang and she smiled at the kind old man. “Thank you,” she said. “I have to go.”
“It’s the sheriff,” she said with her phone in her hand, “I have to go back.”
“Then no tea.”
“Maybe some other time,” she said, smiling at him and walking away. “Thank you for everything.”
The old man waved and turned back to his dog. Wally had stood on his back legs and put his huge paws six feet up on the kennel wall, waiting for Stan to come over to him.
As she walked away, Hildy answered. It was the medical examiner calling from the sheriff’s phone, presumably having it held to his ear while he stood there in his latex gloves. He asked her to hurry back. Hildy didn’t ask for more, but hung up the phone knowing of only one reason for a woman like her to be asked to hurry to a scene. She looked over at the backhoe and the pile of dirt, at the wrought iron railing and the horizon beyond, then took a deep breath and ran.