Pointing the tire iron at Amy now, instead of at his wife, Carl said, “What are you staring at? What’re you even doing here, you dumb bitch? I told you Get out.”
Brian put both hands on a dinette chair. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but with it, he might be able to block the tire iron.
“Sir, I’ll pay you for the dog,” Amy said.
“I’ll buy her.”
“Not for sale.”
“A thousand dollars.”
Familiar with Amy’s finances, Brian said, “Amy?”
Carl transferred the tire iron from his right hand to his left. He flexed his free hand as if he had been gripping the tool with such ferocity that his fingers had cramped.
To Brian, he said, “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m her architect.”
“Fifteen hundred,” Amy repeated.
Although the kitchen was not too warm, Carl’s face glistened with a thin film of greasy perspiration. His undershirt was damp. This was a drunkard’s sweat, the body struggling to purge toxins.
“I don’t need your money.”
“Yes, sir, I know. But you don’t need the dog, either. She’s not the only dog in the world. Seventeen hundred.”
“Yeah. I am. But it’s a good crazy. Like, I’m not a suicide bomber or anything.”
“I don’t have bodies buried in my backyard. Well, only one, but it’s a canary in a shoe box.”
“Somethin’s wrong with you,” Carl said thickly.
“His name was Leroy. I didn’t want a canary, especially not one named Leroy. A friend died, Leroy had nowhere to go, he had nothing but his shabby little cage, so I took him in, and he lived with me, and then I buried him, though I didn’t bury him until he was dead because, like I said, I’m not that kind of crazy.”
Under his brow, Carl’s eyes were deep wells with foul water glistening darkly at the bottom. “Don’t mock me.”
“I wouldn’t, sir. I can’t. I was pretty much raised by nuns. I don’t mock, don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t wear patent-leather shoes with a skirt, and I have such an enlarged guilt gland that it weighs as much as my brain. Eighteen hundred.”
As Carl transferred the tire iron from his left hand to his right, he turned it end for end, now gripping it by the lug socket. He pointed the pry end, the sharp end, at Amy, but said nothing.
Brian didn’t know if the wife-beater’s silence was a good sign or a bad one. More than once, he’d seen Amy talk an angry dog out of a snarl, into a belly rub; but he would have bet his last dollar that Carl wasn’t going to lie on his back and put all four in the air.
“Two thousand,” Amy said. “That’s as much as I have. I can’t go any higher.”
Carl took a step toward her.
“Back off,” Brian warned, raising the dinette chair as if he were a lion tamer, although a lion tamer would also have had a whip.
To Brian, Amy said, “Take it easy, Frank Lloyd Wright. This gentleman and me, we’re building some trust here.”
Carl extended his right arm, resting the tip of the pry bar in the recess between her collarbones, the blade against her throat.
As though unaware that the point of a deadly weapon was poised to puncture her esophagus, Amy said, “So-two thousand. You’re a tough negotiator, sir. I won’t be eating filet mignon for a while. That’s okay. I’m more a hamburger kind of girl, anyway.”
The wife-beater was a chimera now, only part angry bull, part coiled serpent. His gaze was sharp with sinister calculation, and although his tongue was not forked, it slipped between his lips to test the air.
Amy said, “I knew this guy, he almost choked to death on a chunk of steak. The Heimlich maneuver wouldn’t dislodge it, so a doctor cut his throat open there in the restaurant, fished the blockage out.”
As still as stone, the dog remained alert, and Brian wondered if he should take his lead from her. If the bottled violence in Carl was about to be uncorked, surely Nickie would sense it first.
“This woman at a nearby table,” Amy continued, “she was so horrified, she passed out facedown in her lobster bisque. I don’t think you can drown in a bowl of lobster bisque, it might even be good for the complexion, but I lifted her head out of it anyway.”
Carl licked his cracked lips. “You must think I’m stupid.”
“You might be ignorant,” Amy said. “I don’t know you well enough to say. But I’m totally sure you’re not stupid.”
Brian realized he was grinding his teeth.
“You give me a check for two thousand,” Carl said, “you’ll stop payment on it ten minutes after you’re out the door with the dog.”
“I don’t intend to give you a check.” From an inside jacket pocket, she withdrew a wad of folded hundred-dollar bills held together by a blue-and-yellow butterfly barrette. “I’ll pay cash.”
Brian was no longer grinding his teeth. His mouth had fallen open.
Lowering the tire iron to his side, Carl said, “Something’s for sure wrong with you.”
She pocketed the barrette, fanned the hundred-dollar bills, and said, “Deal?”
He put the weapon on the table, took the money, and counted it with the deliberateness of a man whose memory of math has been bleached pale by tequila.
Relieved, Brian put down the dinette chair.
Moving to the dog, Amy fished a red collar and a rolled-up leash from another pocket. She clipped the leash to the collar and put the collar on the dog. “Nice doing business with you, sir.”
While Carl was conducting a second count of the two thousand, Amy tugged gently on the leash. The dog rose at once and padded out of the kitchen, at her side.
With her little girl in tow, Janet followed Amy and Nickie into the hallway, and Brian went after them, glancing back because he half expected Carl to find his rage again and pick up the tire iron.
Jimmy, the keening boy, was silent now. He had moved from the hallway to the living room, where he stood at a window in the posture of a prisoner at his cell bars.
Leading the dog, Amy went to the boy. She stooped beside him, spoke to him.
Brian couldn’t hear what she said.
The front door was open, as he had left it. With the dog prancing smartly at her side, Amy soon joined him on the porch.
Standing on the threshold, Janet said, “You were…amazing. Thank you. I didn’t want the kids to see…see it happen again.”
Her face was sallow in the yellow light of the porch lamp, and the whites of her eyes had a jaundiced tint. She looked older than her years, and tired.
“You know, he’ll get another dog,” Amy said.
“Maybe I can prevent that.”
“I can try.”
“Did you really mean what you said when you first answered the door?”
Janet looked away from Amy to study the threshold at her feet, and shrugged.
Amy reminded her: “You wished that you were me. ‘Or anybody, somebody.’”
Janet shook her head. Her voice lowered almost to a murmur. “What you did in there, the money was the least of it. The way you were with him-I can never do that.”
“Then do what you can.” She leaned close to Janet and said something that Brian could not hear.
Listening intently, Janet covered her split and swollen lip with her right hand.
When Amy finished, she stepped back, and Janet met her eyes once more. They stared at each other, and although Janet didn’t say a word or even so much as nod, Amy said, “Good. All right.”
Janet retreated into the house with her daughter.
Nickie seemed to know where she was going, and moved forward on her leash, leading them off the porch, to the Expedition.
Brian said, “You always carry two thousand bucks?”
“Ever since, three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to save a dog if I hadn’t had the money on me to buy it. That first one cost me three hundred twenty-two bucks.”
“So sometimes to rescue a dog, you have to buy it.”
“Not often, thank God.”
Without command or encouragement, Nickie sprang into the cargo space of the SUV.
“Good girl,” Amy said, and the dog’s plumed tail swished.
“That was crazy, what you did.”
“It’s only money.”
“I mean letting him put the pry bar to your throat.”
“He wouldn’t have used it.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I know his type. He’s basically a pussy.”
“I don’t think he’s a pussy.”
“He beats up women and dogs.”
“You’re a woman.”
“Not his type. Believe me, sweetie, in a pinch, you’d have whupped his ass in a New York minute.”
“Hard to whup a guy’s ass after he embeds a tire iron in your skull.”
Slamming shut the tailgate, she said, “Your skull would be fine. It’s the tire iron that would’ve been bent.”
“Let’s get out of here before he decides he should have held out for three thousand.”
Flipping open her cell phone, she said, “We’re not leaving.”
Keying in three numbers, she said, “The fun’s just getting started.”
“I don’t like that look on your face.”
“What look is that?”
“Reckless is a cute look for me. Don’t I look cute?” The 911 operator answered, and Amy said, “I’m on a cell phone. A man here is beating his wife and little boy. He’s drunk.” She gave the address.
Nose to the glass, peering from the dark cargo hold of the SUV, the golden retriever had the blinkless curiosity of a resident of an aquarium bumping against the walls of its world.
Amy gave her name to the operator. “He’s beaten them before. I’m afraid this time he’s going to cripple or kill them.”
The breeze stirred faster, and the eucalyptus trees tossed their tresses as if winged swarms spiraled through them.
Staring at the house, Brian felt chaos coming. He had much hard experience of chaos. He had been born in a tornado.
“I’m a family friend,” Amy lied in answer to the 911 operator’s question. “Hurry.”
As Amy terminated the call, Brian said, “I thought you took the steam out of him.”
“No. By now he’s decided that he sold his honor with the dog. He’ll blame Janet for that. Come on.”
She started toward the house, and Brian hurried at her side. “Shouldn’t we leave it to the police?”
“They might not get here in time.”
Vague leaf shadows shuddered on the moon-silvered sidewalk, as if they were a thousand beetles quivering toward sheltering crevices.
“But a situation like this,” he said, “we don’t know what we’re doing.”
“What we’re doing is the right thing. You didn’t see the boy’s face. His left eye is swollen. His father gave him a bloody nose.”
An old anger rose in Brian. “What do you want to do to the sonofabitch?”
Climbing the porch steps, she said, “That’s up to him.”
Janet had left the front door ajar. From the back of the house rose Carl’s angry voice and hammering and crystalline shatters of sound and the sweet desperate singing of a child.
At the core of every ordered system, whether a family or a factory, is chaos. But in the whirl of every chaos lies a strange order, waiting to be found.
Amy pushed open the door. They went inside.
Ceramic salt and pepper shakers, paired dogs-sitting Airedales, quizzical beagles, grinning goldens, prancing poodles, shepherds, spaniels, terriers, noble Irish wolfhounds-waited in orderly rows on shelves beyond open cabinet doors, and others stood in disorder on a kitchen counter.
Shaking, face pale and wet with tears, Janet Brockman moved two sheep dogs from the counter to the table.
The tire iron swung high as the woman moved, descended as she put the shakers on the table, and barely missed her snatched-back hands. Salt and ceramic shrapnel sprayed from the point of impact, then pepper and sharp shards.
The double crack of iron on wood was followed by Carl’s demand: “Two more.”
Watching from the dark hallway, Amy Redwing sensed that the collection must be precious to Janet, the one example of order in her disordered life. In those small ceramic dogs, the woman found some kind of hope.
Carl apparently understood this, too. He intended to shatter both the figurines and his wife’s remaining spirit.
Clutching a ragged pink rabbit that might have been a dog toy, the little girl sheltered beside the refrigerator. Her jewel-bright eyes were focused on a landscape of the mind.
In a small but clear voice, she sang in a language that Amy did not recognize. The haunting melody sounded Celtic.
The boy, Jimmy, evidently had taken refuge elsewhere.
Alert to the fact that her husband would as soon shatter her fingers as break the salt and pepper shakers, Janet flinched at the whoosh of arcing iron. She dropped a pair of ceramic Dalmatians on the table.
Crying out as the weapon grazed her right wrist, she cowered back against the ovens, arms crossed over her breasts.
When the lug wrench rang off oak, sparing both the salt and pepper, Carl snatched up a Dalmatian and threw it at his wife’s face. The figurine ricocheted off her forehead, cracked against an oven door, and fell dismembered to the floor.
Amy stepped into the kitchen, and Brian pushed past her, saying, “Leave her alone, Carl.”
The drunkard’s head turned with crocodilian menace, eyes cold with a cruelty as old as time.
Amy had the feeling that something more than the man himself lived in Brockman’s body, as though he had opened a door to a night visitor that made of his heart a lair.
“Is she your wife now?” Carl asked Brian. “Is this your house? My Theresa there-is she your daughter now?”
The sweet song rose from the girl, her voice as clear as the air and as strange as her eyes, but mysterious in its clarity and tender in its strangeness.
“It’s your house, Carl,” said Brian. “Everything is yours. So why smash any of it?”
Carl started to speak but then sighed wearily.