Authors: Willo Davis Roberts
The Pet-Sitting Peril
“Another smooth, tightly plotted mix of psychological unknotting and scare-surmounting.”
To my grandchildren, readers all
The hall light was out again.
Nick saw that as soon as he rounded the corner. He broke stride, though the dog continued to pull him along in spite of himself.
It was the third time in a week,
he thought uneasily. This was Thursday, and it had been out on Monday, and last week Friday. Why did that light keep going out?
It wasn't that he was afraid of the dark, like a little kid. After all, he was nearly twelve. It was only that it seemed peculiar for a lightbulb not to last more than a few days at a time; and that entry hall was sure black when the light wasn't on.
There was still a glow in Mr. Haggard's first floor apartment to the right of the double doors. The middle part of the big window was
ordinary glass, but it was surrounded by a border of multicolored glass segments that glowed like jewels when the light came through them. There was colored glass like that around the windows in the doors, too; and when the hall light was on you could read the big numbers of the house on the glass: twelve on one side, thirty on the other.
Twelve-thirty Hillsdale Street. In the daytime you could read the sign secured to one of the posts that held up the porch roof:
. Now you couldn't tell there was a sign on the porch, let alone read it, because the outside porch light was out, too.
It was almost as if someone were deliberately unscrewing the bulbs, Nick thought, stepping off the opposite curb as Rudy tugged on the leash. Only why would anyone do that? And how? Since the outside doors were locked, nobody could enter except the residents who had keys.
He wondered if Dad would let him bring a flashlight with him at night from now on, the little one that would fit in his pocket. He'd ask tomorrow.
Rudy, not in the least tired although they'd been gone for over an hour, strained to cross the street and bound up the steps onto the dark porch. Rudy was an Airedale, and he weighed eighty-five pounds, so when he pulled against Nick's small frame there wasn't much choice except to move with him.
Nick had the key ready in his hand, sorted out while he was under the streetlight. He unlocked the door and heard a short “whuff” from Rudy that might have been a warning. Nick stood still, his heart pounding unaccountably; Rudy didn't bark again, and after a few seconds there was the sound of a door closing, somewhere far back in the building.
“Is somebody here?” Nick asked, and felt silly when no one answered. Rudy was again tugging him along, toward Mr. Haggard's apartment; he could find that without any lightsâit was only a matter of putting out his free hand until he felt the doorknob. Of course nobody was in the hallway with him, or Rudy would know it. Dogs could tell that kind of thing.
Still, there had been that odd half bark when Nick first opened the front door. Rudy
had never done that before, and Nick had been walking him for almost three weeks now, twice a day, every day. There must have been some reason for it.
He had a little trouble getting the key into Mr. Haggard's door, because he couldn't see the lock and Rudy was too eager to get inside and receive his treat. He always got a bone-shaped dog biscuit when they returned from a walk.
“Sit,” Nick commanded, and was relieved when the dog obeyed so that he could finally insert the key and twist it.
It seemed bright in the big, cluttered room when they first walked into it. Mr. Haggard was seated in his chair with a blanket over his legs, reading the evening paper.
“Have a nice walk?” he asked, pushing his glasses into place on his nose.
“More of a run, it was,” Nick said, slipping the choke chain over Rudy's head so he could go for his “cookie,” as Mr. Haggard referred to the treats. “We ran all the way around the park. The light's out in the hall.”
“Again?” The old man shook his head. “They don't make anything that lasts any more. We'll
have to tell Mr. Griesner to replace it again. You in a hurry, boy? You care to make us each a cup of cocoa before you go? And there's a package of cookies on the counter, there.”
Nick liked Mr. Haggard. He seemed to be about eighty years old, and he was sort of shriveled up so that his clothes all seemed a little bit too big on him. He had wispy white hair around a pink bald spot, and there were blue veins showing in his hands. When his leg was hurting, his voice wasn't very strong. But he had a nice smile and he was kind. Anybody could see that he loved Rudy.
“Only family I got left,” Mr. Haggard had said, dropping a hand to caress the big shaggy head. “Almost ten years old. That's seventy years in man years, you know. Rudy's getting old, the same as me.”
“He doesn't seem old,” Nick said, and it was true. “He's strong enough to pull me along whether I want to go or not, especially if he takes me off guard.”
Mr. Haggard chuckled. “He'll usually mind if you tell him to
He's been through obedience school, Rudy has. Airedales are hard to
train, though, and they don't always do what you want. Not, you understand, that Airedales aren't smart. They're plenty smart. The thing is, you have to make them want to do the same thing as
want. They have to see the advantage to themselves before they do it. That's one reason I give Rudy a cookie when he comes back from a walk. To reward him for taking me along, you see?”
Nick wasn't sure he saw, but what the heck, this was a job, and he hadn't turned up anything before this. Everybody had looked at him, ignored his age, and decided he was too small for whatever they wanted done, even when the jobs didn't require any special strength. Not as much muscle as this job took, actually.
He brought the cocoa, topped by two fat marshmallows in each cup, and the package of cookies. Store-bought ones, but fairly good, nevertheless. “Rudy acted funny when we came in,” he said. He'd been debating whether or not to mention it all the time he fixed the cocoa. “He sort of âwhuffed' when I opened the front door, as if there was someone inside. And then I
heard a door close way in the back of the house. Rudy didn't bark any more, so I didn't know if there was somebody inside that didn't belong here or not. We made enough noise coming up the steps so they had plenty of warning, if anybody didn't want us to see them.”
Mr. Haggard looked at him thoughtfully, warming his hand on the cup of cocoa. “Why would anybody want to hide from you? Couldn't be anybody inside unless they had a key. The door was locked the way it's supposed to be, wasn't it?”
“Yes. Only Rudy's never made that kind of noise before. I thought he was reacting to something.”
Mr. Haggard sipped melted marshmallow off the top of his drink. “More'n likely he was reacting to one of those confounded cats. I doubt he'd actually hurt one of 'em, but he always dives for a cat when he sees one. You have to brace your feet to hold him.”
“I know. He pulled me into a stack of garbage cans in the alley, chasing a cat. Yeah, maybe that was it. One of the cats was there in the hallway.”
Later, though, walking home through the chilly night air that was typical of the Northern California coastal area where he lived, Nick wondered. If it was a cat, then who had closed the door, far back there in the dark?
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In the daytime, Hillsdale was an ordinary looking street, though quite different from the one Nick lived on only four blocks away. The Chamber of Commerce handed out brochures to tourists, telling of the interesting things to be seen in town and around it: the beaches; the museum; the fish hatchery; the magnificent house built many years ago by a millionaire in the lumber and shipping business, and Hillsdale Street, two blocks long and lined with Victorian houses, most of them nearly a hundred years old. Once they had been grand, elegant family mansions. Now most had been converted to apartments and rooming houses. The one at 1230 had been divided into five apartments, including the one at the first floor back where Mr. Griesner lived. Mr. Griesner enjoyed a reduction in his rent in exchange for maintaining the place and collecting the rents for
the owner; he was supposed to see to things like lightbulbs in the hallways.
Nick had talked to Mr. Griesner once, the first time the lower hall light went out. The man came to the door in dirty, greasy pants and a soiled undershirt, tall and skinny with a head of fuzzy gray hair and a sour expression. He wasn't very happy about having his TV viewing interrupted, but he'd fixed the light. Only it didn't seem to stay fixed very long.
A couple of Sundays ago, on their way home from church, the Reeds had driven down Hillsdale so Nick's family could see where it was he'd taken the job of caring for Rudy.
“I love these old houses,” Mrs. Reed said. “Imagine, having seven bedrooms and four bathrooms! We'd never have to line up again!”
“Imagine,” Mr. Reed said less enthusiastically, “having to pay the heating bills on one of those places. They had fourteen-foot ceilings downstairs, ten-foot ceilings upstairs, Louise. Even in this climate, it would take my whole salary to keep the place warm.”
“I know. It's only a daydream, to have all that space. Aren't they lovely old houses, though?”
Most of them were similar in style to the Hillsdale Apartments. Very tall, narrow buildings, two stories high with an attic above that made another full floor if anybody wanted to finish it. Some, like 1230, had widow's walks atop them. This was a flat area surrounded by a wrought iron fence where, Mr. Reed said, the women had paced as they watched for their men to return from the sea. “From up there, they could see the mouth of the harbor, and they recognized all the local ships, which were gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
“I wouldn't have liked that part of it,” Nick's mother admitted, craning to see the upper part of the house they were passing. “Look at the gingerbread on that one! All those fancy shapes cut in the wood, curlicues and birds and geometric designs. You know, I think the one where you work, Nick, would be among the prettiest ones, if it had a fresh coat of paint.”
The houses were certainly different from the ones on Groves Street, where the Reeds had lived ever since Nick was four years old. The houses there were modern and convenient, if not so spacious.
His family reassured about the area where he was going every day, no one said any more about it not being safe for Nick to be there after dark. It was, except for the age and size of the houses, an ordinary neighborhood like his own.
“Do you know how long this job will last?” Nick's father had asked as they turned onto their own street.
“As long as Mr. Haggard can't walk very well, I guess. His leg hurts quite a bit, I think; when I'm there, he has me get things for him instead of walking across the room for them. Rudy needs a lot of exercise, and he helps me practice my running, so it's working out all right.”
Winnie piped up from the backseat of the station wagon. “Do you think we're going to have enough money to go to Disneyland before school starts, Daddy?”
Winnie was seven, the youngest in the family, and Nick's favorite. She never made fun of him or tried to provoke him into a fight, the way Barney did, and she didn't ignore him, the way Charles and Molly often did. Winnie
thought he was clever and brave and strong. She had been talking about Disneyland for a long time.
Usually the whole family went together on great camping trips, either to the beach or to the Trinity Alps, and once they'd gone to Yosemite, though there had been too many people there to satisfy the Reeds' yearning for wilderness. This year, though, Dad said he had to paint the house and put a new roof on it, or they'd never make it through another rainy winter. And the cost of gas had risen so high that going anywhere very far from home was too expensive to think about. Dad was a teacher, and teachers didn't make all that much. Even with his mother working, funds were tight.