Luce stopped in later than usual. She looked worried, but she wouldn’t talk about it at the shop.
“Your dog’s sleeping in back,” I pointed my head toward the kitchen as I poured coffee. I didn’t want to have her thinking that I’d let one of her charges hang out on the street all night. It might only be late October, but the nights felt like November to me.
She slid around the counter and poked her nose in the kitchen, “Dolf! Such a good boy. You haven’t been making any trouble, have you?”
She had not brought the dog by on the chance that I’d go exploring last night. She had been worried about where the animal had gotten to. She hid her true feelings well beneath a professionally neutral expression. Having a dog go missing for her would be bad business.
“Dolf come.” He ignored the command.
“He likes you.” There was that look in her eyes that said to me, this dog needs a good home.
“He’s a stray, isn’t he.” Every few months, Luce tried to get me to adopt one of her surplus charges. I don’t have the time or space to be some dog’s mother.
“More like abandoned. He showed up at my door a couple of days ago. He’s been well cared for and he has the perfect personality for a someone like you.” Her eyes looked hopeful.
I scowled. I didn’t want to admit that we’d gotten along better than I’d done with any other dog she’d tried to get me to take.
“At least keep him for a couple of days. The inn is overflowing. I’ll send Emily over with the things you’ll need.”
“Maybe you should take him for now,” I suggested, “I’m sure he’s starving and needs to take care of other business that I don’t have time for now.”
Dolf took that moment to pad out of the kitchen. As if it was a regular routine, the dog picked up the passenger end of his leash, came around from behind the counter and sat behind Luce. She picked up her “I heart dogs” travel mug freshly filled with Witches Brew and gave Dolf a little affection. Then she took the lead from his mouth and went back across the street.
I don’t have a no pets allowed policy posted, but no one ever brings them in. Still, the other customers seemed to think it was perfectly natural for the vet to be leaving the establishment accompanied by a giant german shepherd.
The dog came back an hour later with the vet’s assistant Emily hauling a wagon loaded with a pet bed, food dishes, a thirty pound bag of chow and a smaller bag of doggie vitamins or something, a rawhide thing, a toothbrush and God knows what else. I had her take it upstairs. There was no room for all of that in the shop. There wasn’t room for it upstairs, either, as I found out later.
Dolf made himself comfortable just inside the back door. He chose a spot where he wouldn’t be in the way and had a clear view of the shop proper. No one seemed to be bothered by the presence of the large canine. Or they never noticed. You never know with some people when they’re involved with their tablets and smart phones.
As morning rush ended I had more time to wonder about the old high school and what was going on up there. It seemed that Officer Vinny could not have been thorough when he checked the campus. Maybe he could have missed loose boards on one of the windows, but in broad daylight how could he not notice how easy it was to march in through the front door? As I stacked cups for the dishwasher, I thought about calling the state trooper. I decided that since he was almost a regular around here, I’d wait until his next stop by to talk about it.
George and Ernie were seated at one of the back tables. On any other day the realtor and insurance agent, grabbed take-out and only stayed to chat for a few minutes beside the community bulletin board mounted on the panel beside the front door. Today they chatted quietly and watched the group two tables over.
At that other table were Billy Martin, who was not a regular, and three other kids I didn’t recognize, another boy and two girls.
I grabbed a hot pot of Witches brew to make the rounds. Billy and his friends were drinking soft drinks, for which I do not offer table service, so I wasn’t planning to stop at their table. Still, I noticed that their voices were hushed in the presence of adults and they stopped talking to watched me with suspicion as I brought the coffee toward that side of the room. Now I wondered if he or his friends had spotted us when Luce and I hid in his yard the other night. I also wondered what a bunch of school-age kids were doing in a coffee shop this time of day, but not hard. Kids these days had so many school holidays, I never bothered to keep track. They weren’t bothering anyone, so I let them be.
Ernie was ready for another cup, George was not.
“That’s a beautiful shepherd you’ve got,” Ernie said.
“He’s only here until the doc finds a home for him,” I assured.
“A dog like that is a sensible choice for someone like you, living here alone. It’s quiet around here, yes, but with all the goings on lately, some protection is a good idea.”
“Yea, up at the old high school.” He paused to look across the room. “And those kids over there are up to something.” He smiled and waved at Billy.
“Are you spying on them?” It seemed ridiculous. From what I heard, Billy was a good kid. He didn’t hang with the wrong kind of kids.
“Something like that. They’ve got something going on tonight. The way they’re being so hush hush about it, they can’t be up to any good. I think we should ask the troopers to patrol the neighborhood closely tonight.” Ernie added half a cup of cream to his coffee. Inside, I cringed. Diluted that much, good java tasted like dirty milk.
It seems that all the insurance agents I know are pessimists. Maybe it goes with the job description. They like to point out all the possible ways things can go horribly wrong. The awful event that might happen for which you cannot be prepared. It’s an occupational hazard for them, I guess. Or just good for business.
“You know the state police aren’t going to do anything,” George said. “All they care about is what happens on the interstate.”
“Well, I’m going up there and find out what it is.”
I wanted to say with authority that there was nothing going on at the abandoned high school. I am not good at lying to make someone feel good. That’s what it felt like. To say that there was nothing going on even when the bulk of the evidence could be construed to agree with that point of view felt like a lie. My inability to tell those kinds of lies had cost my professional career dearly.
It was all a little unsettling. I thought about sharing my experiences up the hill with the two men. Ernie, however, was a busybody and gossip. Whatever I said would be taken, expanded upon and embellished until it became a legend with a life of its own. I wanted to know what was going on, but I was reluctant to collaborate with those two. The fact that they weren’t asking for my help made it easier to hold my tongue.
I completed my sweep with the hot coffee and then began prepping for lunch.
Dolf and I took the leftovers to the food bank. Gordo guarded the receptionist station while the clinic was closed for lunch. Neither the rotties nor Miss Fancy Pants were anywhere to be seen even though, as Luce had said, the kennel was at overflow capacity. I wondered what would happen when Dolf entered Gordo’s space. The two dogs looked once at each other and then turned back to their own business.
The vet treated the shepherd like a long lost friend. Dolf accepted her treats with a single gulp. Otherwise, I think he was disinterested in the overt signs of affection.
“I went back up last night,” I said. “Dolf and I.”
Luce almost dropped the sandwich she was putting into the cooler. She finished that task, stood and turned.
“Why? Wh— what did you find out?”
“The place was clean.” I handed her another sandwich. The lunch crowd was light today so we were able to make one of the shelves look like there was a little abundance; at least until supper time.
“You mean you couldn’t find anything?” She closed the door to the cooler.
“No. I mean clean. As in swept floors, tidy, spik-n-span.”
“I don’t follow.”
Neither would I if I hadn’t seen it. “I mean that the place looked like it would have when it was being used as a school.”
“I thought you said the place was trashed, on the verge of falling down.”
“It was. Or at least it used to be. And the front door was unlocked. Anyone could come and go as they please.”
“No one leaves a vacant building open like that.” Luce got out her phone. “Yea, Emily, it’s me. Sharon and I are going out for a bit. Shouldn’t be gone for more than half an hour…good…that’s fine…talk to you later.” She grabbed a leash from one of the hooks in the hallway. “C’mon Gordo, walkies.”
It was a glorious fall afternoon to be out for a walk. The sky that perfect shade of blue that only exists in New England in the fall; the sun was bright and warm despite being late October. Most folk claimed that it was an unnaturally mild fall. Of course, it was still cold to me and I bundled up like it was January. I don’t have the kind of gear they wear in Antartica so I don’t go out much that time of year.
Gordo bumped into every object lining the street on either side of our path and the pavement—trees, street lamps, mail boxes. Dolf chose a careful path staying slightly ahead of me and to the right, never once bumping or stopping to examine something until we got to the chain blocking the driveway up the hill. That he sniffed briefly, then backed up and lightly hopped over. Gordo, tall enough to step over the chain, attempted to do the same. He caught a back leg on the chain and recovered with a shoulder roll.
The place looked very different in daylight. The hill, once a grassy lawn, was covered in weeds killed by the season’s frosty nights. The building looked decrepit in the daylight. The boards covering the windows were dark and rotting; the brickwork crumbled in places giving the corners a rounded look. The limestone steps leading up to the front door were so cracked and ruined in places that we had to be extra careful going up.
That seemed so out of context from last night when the steps had felt worn in the dark, but not damaged like this. The most perplexing thing, though, was the massive padlock and chains sealing the door closed.
“I swear those weren’t there last night.” I gave the chain a tug. I couldn’t imagine how large the cutter had to be to sever one of those links.
Luce grabbed one of the massive door handles and pulled. Even without the chains in place, it would have been impossible to budge.
Dolf and I went down to check the window below the principal’s office. Though the plywood was old, there was no way I’d pry it off without a crowbar. There was no place to wriggle a finger between the edge of the board and the window frame. The window well itself was filled with trash and debris I hadn’t noticed the night before. We did a more thorough inspection of the building. Like Officer Vinny had said, the place was buttoned up tighter than a drum. It made no sense whatsoever.
“We have to get back,” Luce said, “my next appointment is in fifteen minutes.”
All the way back, Dolf and I were shaking our respective heads. It made no sense.