“I DON’T want a dog,” Charlie told the pup. Hestig looked up at her sadly, pressing against her leg, as she stood at her apartment window sipping her first cup of coffee. Beyond the window, the village rooftops, the library and shops, and the eucalyptus trees that shaded Ocean’s wide median, all were muted by the fog, as indistinct as an oriental watercolor. Putting her cup on the table beside her sweet roll, she sat down to her quick breakfast, petting Hestig when he pushed close to her chair and laid his head on her shoulder.
“You know I can’t keep you,” she said softly. “Or do you just want my breakfast?” She laughed at his sad expression. “The housing arrangement’s temporary, my dear. Three or four days, maybe a week, and back you go to Clyde.” Already the apartment looked as though Hestig had moved in for good, his folded blanket in the far corner comfortably matted with dog hairs, his water and food bowls taking up most of the floor in the small kitchenette; a huge chewbone occupied the center of the rag rug beside Charlie’s cot, his leash and choker lay on the table beside her coffee cup.
She had to admit, his manners were improved without his brother to distract him; he minded her most of the time, was turning into a solemn and loving companion. He was beginning to put on weight, too, his ribs resembling far less an ancient washboard.
But when she imagined keeping him, she shook her head. “Look around you. I’m living in one room, here. No yard, no deck, not even a balcony.”
“And in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a working girl.” She scratched under his chin. “I can’t take you on the job. What, tie you to the bumper all day? I can’t take you into the houses that I clean and repair.” She looked deep into Hestig’s brown eyes. “Clyde will find a nice home for you, just you wait and see.”
The pup sighed, his eyes sad enough to melt concrete, his black ears drooping. Gently, she touched the thick black scar that ran jagged across the top of his head. “How did that happen? What-or who-struck you so hard as to leave a scar like that?” She stroked the ropy wound. “You must have been very small; you’re not very old now, and it takes a while for such a thing to heal.”
Hestig’s tail whipped so hard it nearly toppled a dinette chair.
“Who would hit a little puppy like that? I’m surprised the blow didn’t kill you.”
Hestig smiled and wagged and snuggled closer, leaning into her shoulder with all his fifty pounds. She tried to imagine taking him to work with her. Surely, when he grew older and had more training, he would behave with impeccable manners.
But common sense prevailed. “I really can’t. I can’t keep you.”
He nuzzled her hand, finding no joy in such solemn pronouncements.
She pushed back her kinking red hair. The fog made it curl so tight. “I have a business to tend to, it takes all my time. You’ve been around on the jobs with me.” She took his long canine face in her hands. “Did you like being shut in the van all day with the ladders and mops and tools?”
Hestig’s sigh said that he’d loved it because he was near her.
“I don’t have time for a big, active dog, not and clean for people, do their household repairs and their yard work, and build up a really nice service.” She stroked his long black ears. “You should be on a ranch somewhere, like up with Max’s horses.” She sipped her coffee. “Maybe I can talk Harper into giving you a try. How would you like that?”
Hestig gazed at her sadly.
“Look at it this way. Burying bones and digging them up is top priority for you. Charlie’s Fix-It, Clean-It is top priority for me.”
He laid his head on the table, sniffing at the last bite of sweet roll. She tapped his nose gently, and he drew back. The time was six A.M., time for their walk. In half a week, Hestig had the routine down to perfection.
Picking up his leash, she triggered an explosion of ungainly leaps and pirouettes. She stood waiting for him to calm so they could leash up, then made him stay by her heel going down the steps to the little front foyer, between the antique shop and the jewelry store, and on out to the sidewalk. Stepping out into the wet, chill fog and turning south toward the sea five blocks away, she expected Hestig to dance and try to pull ahead; usually he could hardly contain himself until he reached the sand, where he could run free.
This morning he didn’t dance.
He didn’t pull the lead but moved slowly and warily ahead, pressing against her thigh. She could see nothing in the fog. He lunged suddenly into the mist, his bark a bold challenge,
Again she pulled him back to her and ran her hand down his shoulder, trying to calm him-and trying to see through the mist, listening for any scrap of sound over his barking. He lunged again, and she heard a car start-saw a dark smear move away from the curb, its tires hushing on the wet pavement. At the same moment, she saw Lucinda Greenlaw just a few feet from her, walking along the median toward the shore, her tall thin figure wavery and insubstantial-a mysterious early-morning wanderer. Later in the day Lucinda would appear perfectly ordinary, doing her errands among the village shops as sedately as any elderly lady- but now she seemed ghostlike and exotic.
Hestig had quieted; Lucinda passed them, not glancing in their direction, seeming totally lost in her own thoughts, perhaps aware only of a dog walker out in the foggy morning. Charlie knelt and hugged the pup, feeling the tension of his thin body. He was still shivering.
Who had frightened him like that? Who had been there and driven away? Rising, she tightened his lead and hurried toward the shore. Already, Lucinda had disappeared.
Hestig was quiet and obedient again, until she passed the contemporary wooden building that held the public rest rooms, an attractive redwood-and-stone structure, appealing on the outside but dank and cold within, as were most such seaside facilities, its wet concrete floor strewn with wadded paper towels and damp sand. The building stood at the edge of a small seashore park of sand dunes and cypress trees and was flanked by a variety of handsome native bushes. Hestig shied at these and backed away, staring at a pair of legs stretched out behind a bush, a newspaper over them as if for warmth-one of Molena Point’s few homeless, she supposed, sheltered within the dense foliage. Or maybe some late-night drunk sleeping it off. Like Hestig, she quickly moved away. As she turned toward the rolling breakers, she saw that Lucinda had reached the other side of the park, a thin vague shadow walking swiftly.
Heading across the soft, dry sand to where the shore was wet and hard, and turning south, Charlie let Hestig off his leash. He looked behind them once, then trotted ahead, sniffing at the sand but not straying far from her. Even when they reached the southerly beach, where the waves crashed among dark, rising boulders, and half a dozen dogs were running the shore or playing ball with their owners, Hestig remained near her. She sat on a rock watching him. She was so happy to be living in that quiet village, away from the bustle and heavy traffic of San Francisco where she’d gone to art school.
She’d not have thought to come to Molena Point if her Aunt Wilma hadn’t retired there. She had to smile, when she remembered how she had come crawling, totally defeated after two years of failing at various commercial art jobs for which she wasn’t really prepared, or talented enough.
Well, she was glad she was there. She loved the smallness of the village, loved that she could walk from the sea up into the sun-baked hills in just minutes. And, she thought, watching Hestig, one of the hundred things she liked best was that people walking their dogs could stop at any sidewalk restaurant, have a light meal while their canine companions napped beneath the table. She would see leashed dogs in the bank, in the shops-places where, in any other town, dogs would not be allowed. And the little open-air restaurants, their courtyard tables surrounded by flowers and sheltered by the old, twisted oaks, never ceased to enchant her. “When I die,” she’d told Clyde once, “this is exactly how it will be. Charming villages all crowded among the flowers, all of them beside the sea, with the smell of the sea, the crash of breakers.”
She’d met Clyde soon after she arrived; he’d been Wilma’s friend since he was eight, when Wilma was his next-door neighbor: blond, twentysomething, and beautiful; Clyde said he’d had a terrible crush on her.
Charlie’s first date with Clyde was a trip to the wrecking yard to find parts for her old van, then to a small Mexican restaurant, where no one noticed their grease-stained clothes. They’d been dating ever since, their relationship swinging from casual and easy to sometimes very warm and loving. Once in a while she thought about marrying Clyde; more often she liked the arrangement just as it was.
Around her, the fog had thinned, the dawn brightening. She called Hestig, and as they started back she heard, over the thunder of the breakers, sirens begin to scream up in the village, their ululations growing louder as they headed for the shore. She thought of someone drowning, and her frightened gaze turned quickly toward the sea.
She saw no disturbance, no one in the water-not even one surfer, and it was far too cold for swimmers. Only when she neared the little park again did she see the ambulance and police cars, their red whirling lights staining the fog like smeared blood. She thought of Lucinda, wondered if the older woman might have fallen or maybe become ill. Hurrying up to the gathering crowd, she found Lieutenants Brennan and Wendell stringing yellow police tape around the rest-room building and its adjacent bushes, out into the street and around a large portion of the sandy park.
The homeless man still lay beneath the bushes. His newspaper was gone, revealing shoes that were nearly new and looked expensive. Two paramedics knelt over him. She couldn’t see what they were doing. Three early walkers, two with dogs, stood to one side talking to an officer, answering his questions. She didn’t see Lucinda.