Adventures of Cookie the Stray, Chapter 20
With dawn came a strong shift in the wind that made the four hungry dogs at the campsite uneasy. They could sense bad weather ahead and took off in pairs to scout for food before the storm. Walking next to the twin ruts of the dirt road, Rover and Buddy stopped abruptly at the sound of a vehicle rumbling in the distance.
The rattling, squeaking sound they heard reminded Cookie and Nicole of the loud boys in the car. Nicole trembled at the memory of bullets landing close to them. Rover also knew the sound and feel of gunfire. He’d run from shotguns fired off back porches by folks trying to keep strays away. His hind legs were peppered with buckshot from the times he was too slow.
The dogs pushed deeper into the thick underbrush to hide as the vehicle came closer. After it passed, Cookie caught the smell of baked goods, the aroma trailing along behind the delivery van.
“I know that smell,” she whispered. Nicole turned to look at her sister.
“What smell?” she responded. Her eyes drooped with sadness and hunger. At that moment she caught the scent. “Oh, my,” she said, her mouth already beginning to water. When they were tiny, they lived with their humans in a small apartment above a pizza parlor. The air was often rich with the fragrance of pizza rising up the stairwell and into their space.
Four sets of eyes and ears watched and listened. The brakes on the delivery van squeaked to a stop and a man wearing a dusty white apron got out of the driver’s door. He walked to the back, rolled up the door, pulled out a bag and carried it just beyond the edge of the road. When he turned the bag upside down, small round objects fell out into a lumpy pile.
“What a shame to waste these rolls,” he said to himself. “Don’t know why we can’t just change the dates on the bags.” He bent down and squeezed a couple of rolls. Choosing one, he stuffed most of it into his mouth, then, immediately spit it out. He tossed the rest of it towards the bush where Cookie was hiding.
“Hard as a rock,” he said grumbling and puffing as he made his way back to the driver’s door. He climbed in and started the truck, its exhaust spewing out a cloud of gray smoke as the van headed back the way it had come.
Within moments, dozens of birds descended from the trees and landed on the pile turning the sky black with their fluttering wings. Cookie waited until the truck was nearly out of sight before she came out to investigate. The birds scattered off as Rover and Buddy also crept closer.
“It’s bread!” Cookie exclaimed. She immediately snatched a loaf from the pile and carried it back to the brush. Ripping off a chunk from the loaf, she dropped the rest of it in front of her sister.
“This one’s for you, sis.” She returned to the pile again and grabbed another roll. All that could be heard for the next several minutes was the sound of four eager mouths devouring the pile of bread.
Afterward, the dogs regrouped around the cold ashes of the campfire. Clouds gathered overhead turning the mid-day sky nearly as dark as night. They settled into their regular places as Buddy and Rover told the new dogs the tale of the Hot Dog man and his last visit.
The wind howled and blew, snapping off smaller tree limbs and sending debris flying across the road. Rusty kept a firm grip on the steering wheel as it blasted against the side of the vehicle with rain pelting across the windshield. It was nearly impossible for the wipers to keep up with the downpour. He held the speed as fast as he dared on the paved road. As he passed the store where he normally stopped for groceries it was odd to see no cars in the parking lot and the store lights off. Lightning cracked on the horizon lending an eerie brightness to the abnormally dark afternoon. Fourteen more miles, he thought. If only I can make it in time. As he drove, he remained hopeful that the storm would pass them over and that the dogs were still at the campsite.
He turned down the weedy dirt road at the rear of the property that wound through the pecan grove. The campsite was nearly a two mile trek from the railroad tracks where he normally began the journey to the campsite. In the car he had the advantage of following the access road all the way to the main farm house before he would have to set out on foot.
The officer turned the laptop sideways to where he and Connie could both see the screen. The grainy video started out with standard footage showing cars coming and going from the gas pumps and the store. He fast forwarded to a place where Connie’s car pulled up next to pump number 7. They watched the familiar sequence of her filling the tank and replacing the gas cap. Queenie’s face was visible at the driver’s window before Connie got back inside to move the car. The camera angle jumped to a view showing the front parking spaces, all occupied with cars.
It showed her car pulling slowly around to the side of the building with no windows. Another distant camera on a pole at the front corner of the station showed Connie’s parked car and a glimpse of her and the dogs walking toward the grass behind the building. Queenie was leading the way on her leash with Connie carrying the pups. They disappeared from view and a new figure emerged. The man approached the driver’s side window of her car and dropped out of sight for a moment. The video showed the trunk pop up slightly as if the trunk hatch had been released. The driver’s door closed as if on its own before the camera showed movement behind the car. The man, his back now visible to the camera, pulled something from his jacket and placed it in the trunk before gently closing the trunk lid.
“Do you know that guy?” the officer asked. Connie was incredulous. She’d noticed nothing out of place or missing after their walk. She was shocked that someone had been inside her car.
“He looks like a guy I saw talking to Jeb once. He came up to us when we were eating at the Dairy Queen.”
“That’s Russell Robinson,” he told her. “He’s been arrested a few times for burglary and petty theft but the charges never stuck. What did he have to say when you met him?”
“We were never properly introduced,” she said. “He and Jeb walked out front and left me sitting at the table.”
“He was arrested again a few days ago wearing a watch that was part of that jewelry store inventory. The guy’s a CI, a confidential informant. He’d sell out his own grandmother to get out of jail. I think you’ll find what he had to say pretty interesting.” He drew up a list of files, clicked on another video and pushed the play button. They watched a recording of Russell Robinson in a room nearly identical to the one where Connie sat.
Russell Robinson drew deeply on the cigarette the investigator had allowed him to smoke in the interrogation room.
“What’s your involvement in the robbery?” the detective asked.
“I had nothin’ to do with it,” he said. “All I know is that Jeb asked if my ex could do him a favor.” He stopped and blew out a cloud of smoke.
“Nah, my ex-girlfriend. She has a spending problem. She spends more than she makes and always comes up short for the rent.”
“What’s that have to do with Jeb?”
“He told me he knew a way she could make some quick cash in a couple of hours, so the two of them hooked up.”
“What was the plan?”
“See, she has this big hairy Chow Chow dog that she takes with her everywhere she goes. Jeb wanted her to bring the dog with her when they got together. That’s all I know, I swear it.”
The detective paused the tape and switched to a new file. When it began, Connie saw what looked like herself and Queenie with their backs to the camera standing in a jewelry store next to Jeb.
“That’s impossible!” she said. “I’ve never even been in that store!”
“Hang on,” the detective said. “Just watch for a couple of minutes.”
As the couple made their way around inside the store, Connie noticed something about the dog wearing a diamond stud collar with a matching leash. As the dog sat patiently next to a display counter while the woman looked around, it was clear that the dog was a male.
“That’s not Queenie. She’s a girl!”
“Exactly,” the detective said with a grin.
© 2018 Peg Cole