Two feet padded silently across the lawn.
A long shadow danced across the surface of the mist and eerily twisted and contorted its way up the wooden steps along the front of the chalet bungalow.
It was one of those strange, silent, cloudless nights when a low, thin haze hung over the ground, cushioning sounds and painting one of a thousand canvasses over the landscape. Lower down the incline, lumps of a nearby rolling hedgerow poked in and out of the mist like the arched back of some terrible sea serpent, and to the end of the hedgerow, in a dip, a street lamp pressed its light through the haze glowing yellow like the monster’s awful eye.
Somewhere in the distance an owl called its boundaries. Then in total silence, almost inaudible was the soft foot fall on the wooden decking of the veranda.
Susie still slept but she was restless now.
A gloved hand reached out and turned the handle of the heavy wooden door but it was locked.
Susie lifted her head, tilted it slightly to one side, and listened. She was awake now, dredging the night air, trying to catch the sound that had disturbed her.
Another gloved hand placed something metallic slowly and deliberately in the lock. It made a slight clicking sound as it contacted with the levers.
This time Susie heard it clearly. Her body tensed, all her senses alerted. She knew there was danger. A ghostly and ominous chill filled the air and drifted around her like a cold damp shroud, clutching at every nerve end in her body and playing a symphony with icy fingers along her spine. She gave a little shiver but remained as silent as the blackness around her. Listening with strained ears she breathed the air gently and slowly as she tried not to make a sound. She needed to gain some advantage. There was none. All she could detect was the faintest grating noise of the mortise bolt sliding out of its socket as the bit of the skeleton key turned the levers against it.
For a split second a sound of movement in the next room distracted her. She knew it was Ben’s mother turning over in her sleep, but Susie dared not wake her; the danger was too great.
Slowly, eyes wide and her body trembling, she pulled herself forward and stood up, straining to pick up the sound of the turning handle as she moved step by step towards the door. But the sound had stopped. The black silence was endless as she stood and waited with every muscle in her body tensed.
Suddenly, the hair on the back of her neck bristled. The door was moving open as slowly, it seemed, as the hour hand sweeps itself around the face of a clock. First, the edge of the door began to show and grew thicker as it left the jamb. Then, little by little, and inevitably, a crack appeared. At first it was no thicker than a sheet of paper, a thin, grey, silver light behind it cast by the moon. She could detect no movement through the crack, just a strange smell wafting gently into the room as the warm air inside sucked it through the gap and drew it towards the open fireplace. The smell spelt danger, but more than that; she could smell the oil, a pungent odour, masking but not hiding the scent of burnt cordite. She had smelt that odour once before, not so long ago. She knew it was the smell of death.
Realising that she had to move away from the moonbeam shaft of light, she silently side stepped, stood behind the door and waited. Never had time seemed to go so slowly, but eventually and inevitably the door began to move again; more quickly this time as the intruder gained confidence. Susie was like a coiled spring wound to breaking point, yet she dared not move. She stifled the feeling of anger and frustration deep down in her chest as she waited for the seconds to drag by. How dare this person come into her home? She wanted to call out and awake everyone but knew she could give no warning, not one fraction of advantage to the man who she could smell now behind the gun; his scent too, was familiar, and that smell, also, she had only smelt once before.
Another sound came, this time, from the direction of the adjacent bedroom. This time it was the sound of Ben, her ward. He gave out a slight cough. He too was stirring in his sleep. She thought that perhaps he was dreaming, remembering the things he had seen. Susie had seen them too, but she had been sitting in the car beside the park where Ben’s mother had left her. It had been a spur of the moment thing. As she drove by, Mrs. Thompson had seen a gathering on the town green and had pulled over to get a better view. ‘You stay there,’ she had said to Susie as she unfastened Benjamin. ‘We won’t be a minute.’
Through a partially open car window Susie watched as Mrs. Thompson headed with her son towards the bustling congregation. A crowd had formed five or six deep around the podium; the folk in the centre drawing people to them like a fur of iron-filings around a magnet. All were watching a rally of some kind, eyes drawn in that one direction by a show of celebrities who were gathered in the centre of town, for what purpose, Susie did not know. All she knew was that there were a great many people gathered around them enthralled by what they were saying and watching them in keen anticipation.
But something went terribly wrong. Susie saw it first, and then Ben, who was standing behind and to the side of his mother. Mrs. Thompson had arrived at the back of the crowd, peering over it to try and get a view of the people who were the centre of attraction. Ben was too small to push his way through. ‘Don’t go away,’ his mother instructed as he pulled away and let go of her hand. There was plenty of room to play on the grass for a moment or two.
Susie watched him. She had been with him since he was born five years ago. Wisps of his curly silver blond hair fluttered across his face as the warm summer breeze wafted and stirred in eddies across the green. He drew his fingers across his forehead to clear the hair from his eyes and as he did so, his gaze fell upon a man walking casually past his mother’s car and towards the crowd. The man’s face was not familiar to Susie, although the clothes he wore were clear and distinctive; a dark ankle length smock, a white stiff collar and a large shiny cross hanging against his black cassock from a chain around his neck. She had seen priests many times before, but not one like this. This one was different somehow. As he walked, one arm swung freely by his side, the hand clenched into a fist. The other arm was motionless, the hand hidden beneath a fold in his gown. Instead of peering over the crowd to see the events going on at the centre, the priest kept looking around, watching the people whose backs were turned towards him.
There were shouts of agreement from the crowd. The people were clapping their hands together and cheering. Nobody’s attention was drawn away from them as the speakers gripped their audience with words and banter. All eyes were directed towards the podium. There were brief moments of laughter broken by more serious sounds accompanied by nodding heads and grunts of confirmation as some kind of debate took place. And that’s when it happened. Suddenly, and without any warning, the man at the centre of the podium fell forward, slumping onto the microphone and sprawling headlong into the crowd as life passed from him. No one knew what had happened. In the noise of the shouting and laughter no one had heard the shot; a silent whisper: ‘phutt’ from the back of the crowd. No one had seen the gun raised from beneath the cassock, aimed and fired, and then replaced beneath the flowing attire before anyone could even suspect what was happening.
Except Ben and Susie.
Someone screamed. Blood was flowing from the chest of the stricken victim. There was total pandemonium. ‘He’s been shot!’ someone shouted. Still everyone looked ahead in disbelief. No one was looking around; all eyes were straining to get a view of the prostrate body before them. People were clamouring to see over the members of the audience that were restricting their view. But their efforts were in vain. The casualty was surrounded by the people who had been standing close to him, and those people had crouched over his lifeless form. No-one saw the priest calmly turning away.
Except Ben and Susie.
The gunman knew he had been observed and glanced down at Ben. The child’s jaw had dropped. Unable to take a breath, he stared at the man with saucer eyes, paralysed, unable to move. Susie watched from the car. If the gunman had seen her he had taken no notice. A shadow seemed to pass across the man’s eyes as they met Ben’s and for a moment Susie feared the worst. The eyes were cold grey chips of marble in a pale granite face. But pale as it was, that face was as rugged as sea swept rocks pounded by the relentless sea, and like the sea it gave no quarter. His arm moved as if to bring his hand out of his cassock once again, but the crowd was stirring outwards now; people were beginning to look around. With a final stony glance at Ben, the gunman raised his eyes, turned, brushed past the open window of the car within inches of Susie’s face and melted into the chaos.
Within seconds, Ben’s mother had scooped him up in her arms and was heading towards the car. She hadn’t seen the look from the man that had transfixed her son. She had seen the victim fall but she hadn’t seen the predator. Now, with Ben in her arms she said: ‘Come on sweetheart, this is not for the likes of you.’
It was clear to Susie that Ben didn’t know what to say. He was ashen, frightened and shocked. But eventually, as his mother fastened him in his seat, he spoke. ‘I saw him mummy.’ That was all he said. His mother thought that he was probably referring to the man who had been shot.
‘Don’t worry darling,’ she said as she strapped herself into the driver’s seat, ‘it was just play-acting.’ She wanted to protect her child from the horrors of the reality. No child should be introduced to the adult world like this. She glanced into the back of the car at Susie before driving away, but Susie was busy looking out of the rear window. Only she saw that, in the distance, the gunman was still there, still watching as the car pulled away, following it with his stony gaze, the cold narrow slits of his eyes still fixed on Ben.
Later, Mrs Thomson would learn the whole story. It was on the television and in all the newspapers. The media were giving full coverage to the murder with every possible form of speculation that could be attributed to it. The man who had been shot had been a famous politician who was well known for his stand against corruption. According to the newspapers, he was a thorn in the side of politicians and big corporations alike. Where power or money overweighed the public interest he was the people’s voice, a beacon in the grey, murky skies of greed. Clearly, someone wanted to put an end to his protests. Someone wanted him out of the political picture all together. But no-one knew who had killed him.
Except Ben and Susie.
Ben coughed again and then, from the ensuing sounds, Susie realised he had begun to settle back into a restless sleep. She could hear him turning over with a faint sigh. She could hear him kicking the bed clothes about with his feet. He had a lot on his little mind, but he soon slept again as all tired children do.
The intruder had paused, listening to the child, getting a bearing upon which he could travel to his prey. It seemed like an eternity. Susie could sense him standing there at the other side of the door, a still shadow frozen in posture, listening, or perhaps giving his eyes time to adapt to the darkness of the interior. But inevitably, the door began to move again, a dim shaft of moonlight cutting a path across the polished floor, bending at a crooked angle over a chair and running up the opposite wall of the room. The pale grey light scraped up the edge of the door that led to the child’s bedroom.
Susie stood in pitch darkness behind the outer door, shivering and afraid. She hardly dared to breathe. She knew what she had to do. Had she been given a choice, she would have run as far away from this person as her legs would carry her. Fear makes a coward of us all, but she knew she had no choice; there was no way to escape, no way out except past this lurking malevolent figure. Nor was there any way to warn Ben or his mother.
Susie just waited, her whole body ready to act. She watched as the shadow, dark and evil, slid silently forward past the door and into the room. It shifted eerily, like a ghost as it stepped to one side so that no light fell upon its back. It moved again, raising an arm. With the gun now held waist high the fiendish form seemed in no hurry. Neither was Susie; she knew that it was a life or death moment both for her and for her ward and she wasn’t going to let anything happen to Ben, an innocent child caught up in this world of men; not without putting herself between the hunter and the hunted. But as slowly as time seemed to be passing, she was wishing it would slow down even more to never reach the inevitable end. She shivered again, the cold pangs of fear shaking her whole body. For a moment she thought she had given herself away. The figure stopped and waited again, clearly listening. She held her breath, but had he heard her? She was engulfed in a black shadow behind the man but he didn’t turn. She could hear him breathing. She could smell him; the same scent that had drifted into the car from the open window as he had strode past on that fateful day. Her face was only inches from his back.
But unexpectedly, after contemplating her options, and as the shadow began to move forward into the centre of the room, she felt no more fear. Her shivering had suddenly stopped and she felt a hot shaft of inner strength thrust up through her body as courage gripped her heart. She had remained silent as long as she could hold her breath. Long seconds passed. Just a moment longer and then, with all her pent up energy, she bounded forward, letting out a growl of anger and hatred so strong that it erupted from deep within her chest, startling the intruder as her teeth clamped with all her strength on the hand that held the gun. She felt the bones crunch as the hand jerked upwards, leaving the gun to clatter noisily to the wooden floor. Her prey let out a stifled growl but the weight of Susie’s body pushed him off balance, tumbling him over the chair. He dragged her with him as she remained firmly clamped to the hand. Now night was Susie’s friend. Her eyes were already accustomed to the darkness and, out of reach of the moonbeam, with her nails and teeth, she tore and tore again at the intruder.
Blue lights flashed outside the bungalow. Three policemen and a police woman surveyed the scene after packing the intruder off to hospital under police guard.
‘She stopped him good and proper,’ one of the officers said to Mrs. Thompson, with an affirmative nod of his head, as he looked down at Ben and his dog. Ben sat on the carpet next to Susie, his arm around her neck, his fingers playing gently in the fur upon her chest as she rested her soft muzzle against his face. No one really understood why Susie had acted so savagely. Of course, Ben’s mother was grateful she had attacked the intruder, but Susie was the kind of dog that rarely even barked, and attacking a burglar and mauling him so badly seemed so out of character. Susie usually greeted strangers with a lot of licking and a wagging tail. And, throughout the neighbourhood, she was considered something of a coward when confronted by anything larger than a rodent. Even next door’s cat would chase her back in doors.
No, nobody could work it out.
Except Ben. Ben understood, and perhaps, some day, he could explain for Susie. After all, she was his ward again now.
updated by @bryce-thomas: 01/28/16 10:40:12PM