MAN'S BEST FRIEND
Part 1 of 2
Her words were literally choked-off as the dog’s small sharp teeth sank into her old flesh. Unintelligibly, she squealed, tried warding the animal off, but the snarling Pekinese just clamped its jaws tighter onto her throat, the skin tearing. Within seconds, both Chincho and his mistress were covered in blood.
Wordlessly, Lady Elvira fell screaming to the Persian carpet, incapable of defending herself any longer, paralysed with fear. The winged chair toppled with her. Their combined weight was too great, crushing the dog beneath. Chincho let out one almighty yelp, his neck cracked resoundingly and then he was still, jaws gripping his mistress’s flesh even in death.
‘Come in, Brian, sit down, sit down,’ said Jack Daldry, Brian Pointer’s editor.
Gathering up the various unsolicited manuscripts and back-issues from the chair indicated, the journalist piled them on the threadbare carpet by the waste-basket and sat down. ‘You’ve got a nasty assignment again,’ Pointer accused.
Squinting over horn-rimmed glasses, Daldry looked chary. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘You don’t offer me a seat – unless the job’s so bad I need to hear it sitting down, that’s why.’
Daldry shrugged. ‘You may be right. I don’t know on this one. But I do know my nose seldom lets me down, and I think we’re onto something rather weird...’
‘Do I need to take notes?’ Pointer asked, fishing in his tatty suit for his dog-eared pad.
‘No, my idea is too way out even for that – yet...’
‘Go on, then, Jack. I’m intrigued. Appetite whetted...’
‘As an ex Fleet Street man yourself, I take it you’re well aware of trends in newspapers?’
‘Naturally. There always seems to be a spate of similar incidents, accidents, etc. Fires, for example. You can have one massive fire, bad safety precautions, a lot of deaths. No sooner have the embers died than the nationals are reporting other fires, front-page terror banners with pictures. It doesn’t mean there’s been a sudden upsurge of fires – they’ve just latched onto topical news. It happens all the time.’
Daldry nodded. ‘That’s true enough – though a trifle cynical, I think.’
‘You forget, Jack, that’s why I’m not working in Fleet Street now – my cynicism didn’t appeal. It makes me sick sometimes too!’
Clasping his podgy hands round a number of newspaper cuttings, Daldry’s penetrating water-blue eyes held his. ‘Brian, bearing in mind what we’ve just said, I don’t think these incidents come under that heading.’ He handed Pointer the clippings.
Each was a report, some featuring alarming, snarling pictures, concerning vicious attacks by dogs. ‘Mad, starving guard-dogs?’ He eyed Daldry sceptically. ‘What’s nasty about that – apart from their keepers needing some of their own treatment?’
‘You sympathise with the dogs, then?’
‘You forget, I’m biased – I’ve had Rik my Alsatian for four years – and he’s as gentle as a nurse with both Judy and Michael.’
‘Oh, of course. A lovely brute. How on earth did you train him?’
‘With time, patience – and kindness. Judy got jealous at times,’ Pointer laughed.
‘How old is Michael now?’
‘Well, Brian, bias or not, bear with me on this. Look at the dates of the reports. The variety. Of course we’ve had postmen attacked before. But not on this scale. To my knowledge, there has never been an incidence of so many vicious dogs attacking people in such a short space of time... And look at the distance apart they are: Luton, Manchester, Portsmouth, Glasgow and Cardiff... Even docile spaniels and Pekinese have turned on their owners.’
‘Yes, it is quite a hefty coincidence. I’ll grant you, but – ‘
‘You don’t seem very impressed.’
Pointer shrugged noncommittally. ‘It’s unusual...’ Maybe Jack Daldry was going a bit crackpot, judging by this latest hair-brained idea. But Pointer still had faith in him – he’d been a damned good editor, who had increased his paper’s circulation when others were dwindling or folding. If he hadn’t been so stupid as to dally with that press lord’s wife and subsequently get thrown out on his ear, he’d be a rich man and retired by now. Instead, he was in this backwater town, mooning over some outlandish theory of ferocious dogs with Hitchcockian terror tendencies. ‘Yes, Jack, I think it’s worth looking into.’
‘I was hoping you’d say that.’
‘I’ll get onto it right away.’ He closed the door; the hammered glass pane rattled. Pointer paused, thoughtful. The poor blighter... Still, why not get a story on the front page for a change? He’d been so wound up with the seamier side of things, producing centre-page exposes that he hadn’t had a front-page headline story in over three months.
I’m slipping, he thought, stuffing the cuttings into his jacket pocket.
'What are all those cuttings for?' Judy asked Brian after their meal. Michael was getting ready for bed, saying goodnight to all his toy soldiers. Rik cocked an ear at the tone of Judy's voice but didn't move, just lay with muzzle flat on the rug, wolf-like features relaxed.
'Been through my pockets, darling?' Pointer asked with a smile.
'This one's from the Standard - it's atrocious. If you worked for them - !'
He picked up the crumpled paper ball from where she'd flung it, glanced down. Yes, he'd heard about this particular story. The Standard, a rival paper, had been pursuing the dog-terror campaign with irresponsible fervour. Most papers fell into the trap, at one time or another; an obsession with some newsworthy sensational item.
'Why did they print such pictures for children to see?' she asked, clearly upset.
Pointer rose from the table. 'Shock tactics, love - and sometimes it works. If people treated dogs more carefully, more gently...' He sighed. 'I'll tuck Michael in, while you do the dishes.'
Judy's anger subsided. 'All right.'
Talbot, his opposite number on the Standard, had covered the story. He'd told Pointer all about it over a couple of stiff drinks, hands shaking at the memory: and Talbot had been a veteran war correspondent in Malaysia and the Middle East! The story had been pieced together from eye-witness accounts.
The Raegan family, mother, father, Grannie and young Amie had been motoring along the M6 together with their pet golden retriever, Paddy. Grannie was feeding both Annie and Paddy pieces of milk chocolate in the back when the dog suddenly went berserk and bit into Amie's wrist. The father, distracted by the screams, accidentally slewed the car into a left-hand lane, barely missing an approaching Renault. Paddy let go as the father decelerated and regained control of the car. Behind, the Renault's horn blared. Then, Paddy leapt over the seat, savaged father's ear. The car squealed as he instinctively jammed on the brakes. They veered right, into the fast lane - and collided with a speeding unattached lorry cab.
Talbot arrived on the scene at the same time as the firemen. They had to cut the only survivor out. Grannie needed a leg amputation. But what stuck in Talbot's mind, what impelled him to order numerous stiff drinks, was the sight of the heads through the shattered windscreen - mother's, father's and the dog's, its teeth still sunk into the father's jaw...
This was the shock-photo featured in the Standard.
And as Pointer tucked in his son he thought of Rik, of the times he'd rolled on the carpet, playing, his forearm lightly gripped in Rik's formidable jaws. For fleeting seconds, as the dog's hot breath warmed his face, he'd wondered about the animal ferocity behind all that muscle and bone, but only fleetingly. After all, Rik was well-trained; Mac, a police dog-handler, had said as much himself: 'No worries there, Brian.'
He switched out the lad's bedroom light. Bloody scare-mongers! he thought.
Sun streamed down onto the shopping precinct’s white paving flags. Prams and push-carts jostled amidst the crowds. Babies wailed and the rare street sellers tried eking out a living. The stomach-turning smell of hot-dogs wafted up his nostrils, onion-strong.
Pointer felt rather foolish wandering the streets, seeking evidence of insane dogs. There were certainly enough dogs around, if the soiled pavements were anything to go by. Pet poodles cuddled up against vast quantities of mammary glands and fox furs; the two guide-dogs leading blind masters he’d seen before turning into the main precinct; a stray mongrel scurrying through the milling crowd, tail wagging, on the scent of a friend or female. But not one of them appeared in the least sinister.
He did not know why exactly he stopped by the black Labrador sitting docilely next to a baby’s push-chair, its leash loosely tied to the chair’s tubular framework.
The dog’s red-circled eyes looked weary. The blonde child in the chair reached out with his chocolate-covered fingers and tugged the animal’s nearest ear. The Labrador turned slowly, a pleading look in its eyes. Pointer sympathised. Being on guard-duty – even for loved ones – wasn’t much fun, he mused.
Pointer went suddenly very chill, immobile with some unfathomable paralysis. Time seemed suspended. The animal’s hackles were up! In horrible slow-motion, the dog’s ears pricked up and its jowls peeled back from gleaming yellow-white teeth.
The child screamed, tried warding off the brute, without success.
Pointer felt his feet move, heard the drumming of his heart, and moved towards the savage beast, opening his mouth to yell and scare the creature. But his voice had lost itself somewhere.
The remarkable sensation faded, only seconds in reality, and he kicked the dog in its ribs, twice. Tail between legs, the brute whimpered and cowered away from its victim.
Ears flopping back where they had been, the Labrador looked at its handiwork and seemed to comprehend what it had done. Head bowed, the dog fled through the crowds, crying and howling.
Women passers-by shrieked. Probably they had been doing so before, but Pointer only noticed now. He was shaking from head to toe, cold with fear. Leadenly, he removed his jacket, covered the dead child just as the mother rushed out, her face changing as swiftly as a chameleon’s from rouge to white. He hadn’t seen such a look of unadulterated horror for many a year. As the police arrived, he wanted desperately to offer some crumb of comfort, but he couldn’t stay. Barging through the shop into the back room without apology, he became violently sick.
Old Ronald and his guide-dog had crossed this particular section of the High Street every day, barring Sundays, for over five years. And almost as religiously for those years, Mrs James from Ye Sweete Shoppe had chatted to him as they crossed.
This time was like any other. The elderly couple exchanged pleasantries at the kerb. Then the guide-dog rose from his haunches and led his master across the road –
‘Ronald!’ called Mrs James, grabbing the old man’s arm. ‘Wait!’
The dog instantly turned on her, bit into her ankle. To the accompaniment of tortured brakes, the No. 322 bus wailed to a halt. But, face blood-drained, the driver realised he had been too late. Afterwards, he was relieved before the bus continued on its journey; he didn’t sleep for many a night afterwards, reliving the tragic accident. He just couldn’t understand why the guide-dog should have led his master into the path of his bus… Nor why they found the dog’s teeth deeply imbedded in the old woman’s leg. For Christ’s sake, they’re supposed to be trained dogs!
'The attacks seem to be on the increase, Jack,' Pointer said, purple-ringed eyes betraying sleepless nights.
He watched the editor scowling over his latest report. It was uncanny, the way Daldry had a nose for the unusual, the extraordinary, long before anyone else... Yet, he was no sensationalist. The paper had reported on the various attacks, some of which Pointer had covered, but apart from issuing a plea to local governments to do something, he refrained from going out stronger. He had no wish to alarm the people. Meanwhile, other papers were featuring horror-pictures of mutilations caused by those deranged dogs. They were running a weighty crusade, particularly against the neglected guard dogs, usually the much-maligned Alsatians.
'MOTHER REFUSES TO HAVE DOG KILLED - and that's after the animal mutilated her little girl,' Daldry said, extracting from some clippings in the dossier Pointer had compiled. 'Twenty stitches she had, Brian. Twenty!'
He read another: 'STEER CLEAR OF ALSATIANS, THEY CAN'T BE TRUSTED' - SAYS EXPERT. Now is that sensible reporting, I ask you? We have a madman loose, do they then say, Stay clear of men, they can't be trusted?'
'Some folk never learn, you know, Jack. How many people walk up to a complete stranger's dog and immediately stroke it? A damned lot of them. Even with Alsatians. I suppose approaching someone's Alsatian and stroking it is a kind of personal dare, bravado, to show off to friends. Then they go up in arms when the poor mutt barks or growls. Maybe only sensational shock tactics will get through!'
'There's plenty of public outcry, certainly. At the moment. But what's the root cause, I'd like to know.'
'Well, a chap I was speaking to the other day told me some of the reasons. He left the British Security Industry Association two years back. He says there's no legislation; they want a licensing scheme to control all guard-dog operators...'
'Seems like a good idea.'
'Except that the Home Secretary turned it down flat. Quoted figures at them. It seems, of the 4,000-odd cases of dogs biting people reported in one year, only 81 involved guard-dogs.'
'So, are we wasting our time compiling this dossier?' There was a steely glint in Daldry's eye now.
Pointer shook his head, lips pursed. 'No, we carry on. It's not just brutal handlers turning guard-dogs vicious - the backstreet security firms - no, it's a damned sight worse than that!'
The editor smiled, pressed his dilapidated intercom's buzzer: 'Cheryl, Dan, come in, will you?' He turned. 'Brian, I want you three exclusively on this, night and day. I don't care how you go about it, but I want results.'
Fresh-skinned and slim, chestnut hair loose and long, Cheryl rushed in and pecked Pointer on his raspy cheek. 'Jack's already briefed us, Brian. We're ready when you are.'
'Good.' Heading for the door, Pointer slapped Dan Pontiferi on the back with affection. 'Keep your camera loaded, Dan - this'll be a grisly one...'
Daldry watched them go and rubbed his bloodshot eyes. He sighed, threw the latest edition savagely into the over-brimming wicker waste-basket.
The news-paragraph, 'HOUSING ESTATE TERROR DOGS' was on page three. Mostly in packs, some sixty-odd stray dogs had reportedly prowled a Newcastle housing estate, scavenging and attacking people. The Post Office had called off the regular delivery men, 'It's too dangerous,' a spokesman said. There was talk of using firearms.
'Page three!' Daldry seethed. 'One damned paragraph!' His rival news-editors were already tiring of the terror-dog story. In another week or so - short of the dismembering of an infant - the incidents wouldn't get any coverage at all. Or, just possibly, two lines alongside ads for peek-a-boo brassieres and Kung fu toilet paper...
To be continued tomorrow…