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A Dirty Job Chapter 14

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14

BARKING MAD

Charlie opened the door and Lily breezed by. “Jane said you have two huge black dogs up here. I need to see.

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“Lily, wait,” Charlie called, but she was across the living room and into Sophie’s room before he could stop her. There was a low growl and she came backing out.

“Oh my fucking God, dude,” she said around a huge grin. “They are so cool. Where did you get them?”

“I didn’t get them anywhere. They were just here.”

Charlie joined Lily just outside the door to Sophie’s room. She turned and grabbed his arm. “Are they, like, instruments of your death dealing or something?”

“Lily, I thought we agreed that we wouldn’t talk about that.”

And they had. In fact, Lily had been great about it. Since she’d first found out about him being a Death Merchant, she’d hardly brought it up at all. She’d also gone on to graduate from high school without getting a major criminal record and enroll in the Culinary Institute, the upside of which was that she actually wore her white chef ‘s coat, checked pants, and rubber clogs to work, which tended to soften her makeup and hair, which remained severe, dark, and a little scary.

Sophie giggled and rolled over against one of the hounds. They had been licking her and she was covered with hellish dog spit. Her hair was plastered into a dozen unlikely spikes, making her appear a little like a wide-eyed Anim?? character.

Sophie saw Lily in the doorway and waved. “Goggie, ‘Ily. Goggie,” she said.

“Hi, Sophie. Yes, those are nice doggies,” Lily said, then to Charlie: “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know what to do. They won’t let me near her.”

“That’s good, then. They’re here to protect her.”

Charlie nodded. “I think they are. Something happened last night. You know how the Great Big Book talks about the others? I think one of them came after her last night, and these guys showed up.”

“I’m impressed. I’d think you’d be more freaked out.”

Charlie didn’t want to tell her that he was worn out from freaking out the day before about his little girl killing an old man with the word kitty. Lily already knew too much, and it was obvious now that whatever lay below was dangerous. “I guess I should be, but they aren’t here to hurt her. I need to go check the library in Berkeley, see if there’s anything about them there. I need to get Sophie away from them.”

Lily laughed. “Yeah, that’s going to happen. Look, I have work and school today, but I’ll go do your research for you tomorrow. In the meantime you can try to make friends with them.”

“I don’t want to make friends with them.”

Lily looked at the hounds, one of whom Sophie was pounding on with her little fists as she laughed gleefully, then looked back at Charlie. “Yes, you do.”

“Yeah, I guess I do,” Charlie said. “Have you ever seen a dog that size before?”

“There are no dogs that size.”

“What do you call those, then?”

“Those aren’t dogs, Asher, those are hellhounds.”

“How do you know that?”

“I know that because before I started learning about herbs and reductions and stuff, I spent my free time reading about the dark side, and those guys come up from time to time.”

“If we know that, then what are you going to do research on?”

“I’m going to try to find out what sent them.” She patted his shoulder. “I have to go open the shop. You go make nice with the goggies.”

“What do I feed them?”

“Purina Hellhound Chow.”

“They make that?”

“What do you think?”

“‘Kay,” Charlie said.

It took a couple of hours, but after Sophie started smelling like diaper surprise, one of the giant dogs nosed her toward Charlie as if to say, Clean her up and bring her back. Charlie could feel them watching him as he changed his daughter, grateful that disposable diapers didn’t require pins. If he’d accidentally poked Sophie with a pin, he was sure one of the hellhounds would have bitten his head off. They watched him carefully as he moved her to the breakfast bar, and sat on either side of her high chair as he gave her breakfast.

As an experiment, he made an extra piece of toast and tossed it to one of the hounds. It snapped it out of the air and licked its chops once, eyes now locked on Charlie and the loaf of bread. So Charlie toasted four more slices and the hounds alternately snapped each out of the air so swiftly that Charlie wasn’t sure he didn’t see some sort of vapor from the pressure of their jaws clamping down.

“So, you’re hellish beasts from another dimension, and you like toast. Okay.”

Then, as Charlie started to toast four more slices, he stopped, feeling stupid. “You don’t really care if it’s toasted, do you?” He flipped a slice of bread to the closest of the dogs, who snapped it out of the air. “Okay, that will speed things up.” Charlie fed them the remainder of the loaf of bread. He spread a few slices with a thick coat of peanut butter, which did nothing whatsoever, then a half dozen more he spread with lemon dishwasher gel, which appeared to have no ill effect except that it made them burp neat, aquamarine-colored bubbles.

“Go walk, Daddy,” Sophie said.

“No walk today, sweetie. I think we’ll just stay right here in the apartment and try to figure out our new pals.”

Charlie got Sophie out of her chair, wiped the jelly off her face and out of her hair, then sat down with her on the couch to read to her from the Chronicle’s classified ads, which was where he plied a large part of his business, other than the Death stuff. But no sooner had he settled into a rhythm than one of the hellhounds came over, took his arm in its mouth, and dragged him into his bedroom, even as he protested, swore, and smacked it in the head with a brass table lamp. The big dog let him go, then stood staring at Charlie’s date book like it had been sprayed with beef gravy.

“What?” Charlie said, but then he saw. Somehow, in all the excitement, he hadn’t noticed a new name in the book. “Look, the number is thirty. I have a whole month to find this one. Leave me alone.” Charlie also noticed in passing that engraved on the hellhound’s great silver collar was the name ALVIN.

“Alvin? That’s the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.”

Charlie went back to the couch, and the dog dragged him back into the bedroom, this time by the foot. As they went through the door Charlie reached for his sword-cane. When Alvin dropped him Charlie leapt to his feet and drew the blade. The big dog rolled over on his back and whimpered. His companion appeared at the door, panting. (Mohammed was the hound’s name, according to the plate on the collar.) Charlie considered his options. He had always felt the sword-cane a pretty formidable weapon, had even been willing to take on the sewer harpies with it, but it occurred to him that these animals had obviously wiped the floor with one of those other creatures of darkness and had no problem sitting down and eating a loaf of soapy toast a couple of hours later. In short, he was out of his league. They wanted him to go retrieve the soul vessel, he would retrieve the soul vessel. But he wasn’t leaving his darling daughter alone with them. “Alvin is still a stupid name,” he said, sheathing the sword.

When Mrs. Korjev arrived, Charlie had put Sophie down for her nap, and a dark pile of hellhounds was napping by her crib – snoring great clouds of lemony-fresh dog breath into the air. It was probably part of Charlie’s rising rascal nature, but he let Mrs. Korjev enter Sophie’s room with only the warning that the little girl had a couple of new pets. He suppressed a snicker as the great Cossack grandmother backed out of the room swearing in Russian.

“Is giant dogs in there.”

“Yes, there are.”

“But not like normal giant dog. They are like extra-giant, black animal, they are – “

“Like bear?” Charlie suggested.

“No, I wasn’t going to say ‘bear,’ Mr. Smart-Alec. Not like bear. Like volf, only bigger, stronger – “

“Like bear?” Charlie ventured.

“You make your mother ashamed when you are mean, Charlie Asher.”

“Not like bear?” Charlie asked.

“Is not important now. I am just surprised. Vladlena is old woman with weak heart, but you go have good laugh and I will sit with Sophie and huge dogs.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Korjev, their names are Alvin and Mohammed. It’s on their collars.”

“You have food for them?”

“There are some steaks in the freezer. Just give each one of them a couple and stand back.”

“How they like steaks done?”

“I think frozen will be fine, they eat like – “

Mrs. Korjev raised a finger in warning; it lined it up with a large mole on the side of her nose and looked as if she was sighting down a weapon.

” – like horses. They eat like horses,” Charlie said.

Mrs. Ling did not take her introduction to Alvin and Mohammed with quite the composure of her Russian neighbor. “Aiiiiieeeeeeeeee! Giant shiksas shitting,” exclaimed Mrs. Ling as she ran down the hall after Charlie. “Come back! Shiksas shitting!”

Indeed, Charlie returned to the apartment to find great steaming baguettes of poo strewn about the living room. Alvin and Mohammed were flanking the door to Sophie’s room like massive Chinese foo dogs at the temple gates, looking not so fierce as shamefaced and contrite.

“Bad dogs,” Charlie said. “Scaring Mrs. Ling. Bad dogs.” He considered for a moment trying to rub their noses in their offense, but short of bringing in a backhoe and chaining them to it, he wasn’t sure that he could make that happen. “I mean it, you guys,” he added, in an especially stern voice.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Ling,” Charlie said to the diminutive matron. “These are Alvin and Mohammed. I should have been more specific when I said I’d gotten new pets for Sophie.” Actually, he had been vague on purpose, hoping for some sort of hysterical reaction. Not that he really wanted to frighten the old lady, it’s just that Beta Males are seldom ever in a position to frighten anyone physically, so when they get the opportunity, they sometimes lose their sense of judgment.

“Is okay,” said Mrs. Ling, staring at the hellhounds. She seemed distracted, mainly because she was. Having recovered from the initial shock, she was doing the math in her head – a rapid-fire abacus clicking off the weight and volume of each pony-sized canine, and dividing him into chops, steaks, ribs, and packages of stew meat.

“You’ll be all right, then?” Charlie asked.

“You not be late, okay?” said Mrs. Ling. “I want to go to Sears and look at chest freezer today. You have power saw I can borrow.”

“Power saw? Well, no, but I’m sure Ray has one he can lend you. I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” Charlie said. “But let me clean this up first.” He headed to the basement in hopes of finding the coal shovel that his father had once kept there.

As they parted ways that day, both Charlie and Mrs. Ling were counting on Sophie’s history of high pet mortality to quickly solve their respective poop and soup problems. Such, however, was not to be the case.

When several weeks passed with no ill effects on the hellhounds, Charlie accepted the possibility that these might, indeed, be the only pets that could survive Sophie’s attention. He was tempted, many times, to call Minty Fresh and ask his advice, but since his last call might have caused the hellhounds to appear in the first place, he resisted the urge.

Lily’s research trips yielded little more:

“They talk about them all through time,” Lily said, calling from the Berkeley library on her cell phone. “Mostly it’s about how they like to chase blues singers, and evidently there’s a German robot soccer team called the Hellhounds, but I don’t think that’s relevant. The thing that comes up again and again, in a dozen cultures, is that they guard the passage between the living and the dead.”

“Well, that makes sense,” Charlie said. “I guess. It doesn’t say where that passage is, does it? What BART station?”

“No, Asher, it doesn’t. But I found this book by a nun who had been excommunicated in the 1890s, isn’t that cool? This library is amazing. They have like nine million books.”

“Yes, that’s great, Lily, what did the ex-nun say?”

“She had found all the references for hellhounds, and the thing they all seemed to agree on was they serve directly the ruler of the Underworld.”

“She was Catholic and she called it the Underworld?”

“Well, they threw her out of the Church for writing this book, but yeah, that’s what she said.”

“She didn’t have a number we could call in case they got lost.”

“I’m over here on my day off, Asher, trying to do you a favor. Are you going to keep being a smart-ass about it?”

“No, I’m sorry, Lily. Go on.”

“That’s it. It’s not like there’s a care-and-feeding guide. Mostly, the research implies that having hellhounds around is a bad thing.”

“What’s the title of this book, The Complete Guide to the Fucking Obvious?”

“You’re paying me for this, you know? Time and travel.”

“Sorry. Yes. So I should try to get rid of them.”

“They eat people, Asher. Who’s riding the duh train now?”

So, with that, Charlie decided that he needed to take an active role in ridding himself of the monstrous canines.

Since the only thing about the hellhounds that he could be sure of was that they would go anywhere he took Sophie, he brought them along on their trip to the San Francisco Zoo, and left them locked in the van with the engine running and a shop-vac hose run from the exhaust pipe through the vent window. After what he considered to be an extraordinarily successful tour of the zoo, in which not a single animal shuffled off the mortal coil under the delighted eye of his daughter, Charlie returned to the van to find two very stoned, but otherwise unharmed hellhounds who were burping a burnt plastic vapor after having eaten his seat covers.

Various experiments revealed that Alvin and Mohammed were not only immune to most poisons, but they rather liked the taste of bug spray and consequently licked all the paint off the baseboards in Charlie’s apartment in the week following the exterminator’s quarterly service.

As time wore on, Charlie tried to measure the danger of having the giant canines around against the damage that would be done to Sophie’s psyche from witnessing their demise, as she was obviously becoming attached to them, so he backed off the more direct attacks on them and stopped throwing Snausages in front of the number 90 crosstown express bus. (This decision was also made easy when the city of San Francisco threatened to sue Charlie if his dogs wrecked another bus.)

Direct attacks, in fact, were difficult for Charlie (as the only true Beta Male martial art was based entirely on the kindness of strangers), so he turned on the hellhounds the awesome power of the Beta Male kung fu of passive aggression.

He started conservatively, taking them for a ride over to the East Bay in the van, luring them onto the Oakland mudflats with a rack of beef ribs, then driving away quickly, only to find them waiting in the apartment when he returned, having covered the entire living room with a patina of drying mud. He then tried an even more indirect approach: crating up the hounds and air-freighting them to Korea in the hope they would find themselves in an entr??e, only to find that they actually made it back to the shop before he had time to sweep the dog hair out of his apartment.

He thought that perhaps he might use their own natural instincts to chase them away, after he read on the Internet that the essence of cougar urine was sometimes sprinkled on shrubs and flowers to keep dogs from urinating on them. After a fairly exhaustive search through the phone book, he finally found the number of an outdoorsman’s supply store in South San Francisco that was a certified mountain-lion whizz dealer.

“Sure, we carry cougar urine,” the guy said. He sounded like he was wearing a buckskin jacket and had a big beard, but Charlie might have just been projecting.

“And that’s supposed to keep dogs away?” Charlie asked.

“Works like a charm. Dogs, deer, and rabbits. How much do you need?”

“I don’t know, maybe ten gallons.”

There was a pause, and Charlie was sure he could hear the guy picking flecks of elk meat out of his beard. “We sell it in one-, two-, and five-ounce bottles.”

“Well, that’s not going to do it,” Charlie said. “Can’t you get me like a large economy size – preferably from a cougar that’s been fed nothing but dog for a couple of months? I assume that this is domesticated cougar pee, right? I mean you don’t go out in the wild and collect it yourself.”

“No, sir, I believe they get it from zoos.”

“The wild stuff is probably better, huh?” Charlie asked. “If you can get it, I mean? I don’t mean you personally. I wasn’t implying that you were out in the wild following a mountain lion around with a measuring cup. I meant a professional – hello?” The bearded buckskin-sounding guy had hung up.

So Charlie sent Ray over to South San Francisco in the van to buy up all the cougar whizz they had, but in the end it achieved nothing other than making the whole second floor of Charlie’s building smell like a cat box.

When it appeared that even the most passive-aggressive attempts would not work, Charlie resorted to the ultimate Beta Male attack, which was to tolerate Alvin and Mohammed’s presence, but to resent the hell out of them and drop snide remarks whenever he had the chance.

Feeding the hellhounds was like shoveling coal into two ravenous steam engines – Charlie started having fifty pounds of dog food delivered every two days to keep up with them, which they, in turn, converted to massive torpedoes of poo that they dropped in the streets and alleys around Asher’s Secondhand like they were staging their own doggie blitzkrieg on the neighborhood.

The upside of their presence was that Charlie went for months on end without hearing a peep from the storm drains or seeing an ominous raven shadow on a wall when he was retrieving a soul vessel. And to that end, the death dealing, the hounds served their purpose as well, for whenever a new name appeared in his date book, the hounds would drag Charlie to the calendar every morning until he returned with the soul object, so he went two years without missing or being late for a retrieval. The big dogs, of course, accompanied Charlie and Sophie on their walks, which had resumed once Charlie was sure that Sophie had her “special” language skill under control. The hounds, while certainly the largest dogs that anyone had ever seen, were not so large as to be unbelievable, and everywhere they went, Charlie was asked what breed they were. Tired of trying to explain, he would simply say, “They’re hellhounds,” and when asked where he got them, he would reply, “They just showed up in my daughter’s room one night and wouldn’t go away,” after which people not only thought him a liar, but an ass as well. So he modified his response to “They’re Irish hellhounds,” which for some reason, people accepted immediately (except for one Irish football fan in a North Beach restaurant who said, “I’m Irish and those things aren’t bloody Irish.” To which Charlie replied, “Black Irish.” The football fan nodded as if he knew that all along and added to the waitress, “Can I get another fookin’ pint o’ here before I dry up and blow away, lass?”)

In a way, Charlie started to enjoy the notoriety of being the guy with the cute little girl and the two giant dogs. When you have to maintain a secret identity, you can’t help but relish a little public attention. And Charlie did, until the day he and Sophie were stopped on a side street on Russian Hill by a bearded man in a long cotton caftan and a woven hat. Sophie was old enough by then to do a lot of her own walking, although Charlie kept a piggyback kid sling with him so he could carry her when she got tired (but more often he would just balance her while she rode on the back of Alvin or Mohammed).

The bearded man passed a little too closely to Sophie and Mohammed growled and imposed himself between the man and the child.

“Mohammed, get back here,” Charlie said. It turned out the hellhounds could be trained, especially if you only told them to do things they were going to do anyway. (“Eat, Alvin. Good boy. Poop now. Excellent.”)

“Why do you call this dog Mohammed?” asked the bearded man.

“Because that’s his name.”

“You should not have called this dog Mohammed.”

“I didn’t call the dog Mohammed,” Charlie said. “His name was Mohammed when I got him. It was on his collar.”

“It is blasphemy to call a dog Mohammed.”

“I tried calling him something else, but he doesn’t listen. Watch. Steve, bite this man’s leg? See, nothing. Spot, bite off this man’s leg. Nothing. I might as well be speaking Farsi. You see where I’m going with this?”

“Well, I have named my dog Jesus. How do you feel about that?”

“Well, then I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you’d lost your dog.”

“I have not lost my dog.”

“Really? I saw these flyers all over town with ‘Have You Found Jesus?’ on them. It must be another dog named Jesus. Was there a reward? A reward helps, you know.” Charlie noted that more and more lately, he had a hard time resisting the urge to fuck with people, especially when they insisted upon behaving like idiots.

“I do not have a dog named Jesus and that doesn’t bother you because you are a godless infidel.”

“No, really, you can not name your dog anything you want and it won’t bother me. But, yes, I am a godless infidel. At least that’s how I voted in the last election.” Charlie grinned at him.

“Death to the infidel! Death to the infidel!” said the bearded man in response to Charlie’s irresistible charm. He danced around shaking his fist in the Death Merchant’s face, which scared Sophie so that she covered her eyes and started to cry.

“Stop that, you’re scaring my daughter.”

“Death to the infidel! Death to the infidel!”

Mohammed and Alvin quickly got bored watching the dance and sat down to wait for someone to tell them to eat the guy in the nightshirt.

“I mean it,” Charlie said. “You need to stop.” He looked around, feeling embarrassed, but there was no one else on the street.

“Death to the infidel. Death to the infidel,” chanted the beard.

“Have you seen the size of these dogs, Mohammed?”

“Death to – hey, how did you know my name was Mohammed? Doesn’t matter. Never mind. Death to the infidel. Death to the – “

“Wow, you certainly are brave,” Charlie said, “but she’s a little girl and you’re scaring her and you really need to stop that now.”

“Death to the infidel! Death to the infidel!”

“Kitty!” Sophie said, uncovering her eyes and pointing at the man.

“Oh, honey,” Charlie said. “I thought we weren’t going to do that.”

Charlie slung Sophie up on his shoulders and walked on, leading the hellhounds away from the bearded dead man who lay in a peaceful heap on the sidewalk. He had stuffed the man’s little woven hat in his pocket. It was glowing a dull red. Strangely, the bearded man’s name wouldn’t appear in Charlie’s date book until the next day.

“See, a sense of humor is important,” Charlie said, making a goofy face over his shoulder at his daughter.

“Silly Daddy,” Sophie said.

Later, Charlie felt bad about his daughter using the “kitty” word as a weapon, and he felt that a decent father would try to give some sort of meaning to the experience – teach some sort of lesson, so he sat Sophie down with a pair of stuffed bears, some tiny cups of invisible tea, a plate of imaginary cookies, and two giant hounds from hell, and had his first, heart-to-heart, father-daughter talk.

“Honey, you understand why Daddy told you not to ever do that again, right? Why people can’t know that you can do that?”

“We’re different than other people?” Sophie said.

“That’s right, honey, because we’re different than other people,” he said to the smartest, prettiest little girl in the world. “And you know why that is, right?”

“Because we’re Chinese and the White Devils can’t be trusted?”

“No, not because we’re Chinese.”

“Because we are Russian, and in our hearts are much sorrow?”

“No, there is not much sorrow in our hearts.”

“Because we are strong, like bear?”

“Yes, sweetie, that’s it. We’re different because we’re strong, like bear.”

“I knew it. More tea, Daddy?”

“Yes, I’d love some more tea, Sophie.”

So,” said the Emperor, “I see you have experienced the multifarious ways in which a man’s life is enriched by the company of a good brace of hounds.”

Charlie was sitting on the back step of the shop, pulling whole frozen chickens from a crate and tossing them to Alvin and Mohammed one at a time. Each chicken was snapped out of the air with so much force that the Emperor, and Bummer and Lazarus, who were crouched across the alley suspiciously eyeing the hellhounds, flinched as if a pistol was being fired nearby.

“Multifarious enrichment,” Charlie said, tossing another chicken. “That is exactly how I’d describe it.”

“There is no better, nor more loyal, friend than a good hound,” said the Emperor.

Charlie paused, having pulled not a chicken from the box, but a portable electric mixer. “A friend indeed,” he said, “a friend indeed.” Mohammed snapped down the mixer without even chewing – two feet of cord hung from the side of his mouth.

“That doesn’t hurt him?” said the Emperor.

“Roughage,” Charlie explained, throwing a frozen chicken chaser to Mohammed, who gulped it down with the rest of the mixer cord. “They’re not really my dogs. They belong to Sophie.”

“A child needs a pet,” said the Emperor. “A companion to grow up with – although these fellows seem to have done most of their growing.”

Charlie nodded, tossing the alternator from an eighty-three Buick into Alvin’s eager jaws. There was a clanking and the dog belched, but his tail thumped against the Dumpster asking for more. “Well, they have been her constant companions,” Charlie said. “At least now we have them trained so they’ll just guard whatever building she’s in. For a while they wouldn’t leave her side. Bath time was a challenge.”

The Emperor said, “I believe it was the poet Billy Collins who wrote, ‘No one here likes a wet dog.'”

“Yes, and he probably never had to get a squirming toddler and two four-hundred-pound dogs out of a bubble bath, either.”

“But they’ve mellowed, you say?”

“They had to. Sophie started school. The teacher frowned on giant dogs in class.” Charlie flipped an answering machine to Alvin, who crunched it up like a dog biscuit, shards of dog-spit-covered plastic raining down from his jaws.

“So what did you do?”

“It took us a few days, and a lot of explaining, but I trained them to just sit outside the front door of the school.”

“And the faculty relented?”

“Well, I spray-paint them with that granite-texture spray paint every morning, then tell them to sit absolutely still on either side of the door. No one seems to notice them.”

“And they obey? All day?”

“Well, it’s just a half day right now, she’s only in kindergarten. And you have to promise them a cookie.”

“There’s always a price to be paid.” The Emperor pulled a frozen chicken out of the box. “May I?”

“Please.” Charlie waved him on.

The Emperor tossed the chicken to Mohammed, who chomped it down in a single bite.

“My, that is satisfying,” said the Emperor.

“That’s nothing,” Charlie said. “If you feed them mini – propane cylinders they burp fire.”

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