Wendy Davis, author of Below My Window, has previously published short fiction in Shotgun Honey, Welcome to Twin Peaks, Story and Grit, and 25 Years Later.
In Below My Window, a paralegal searches for her missing dog, but is she the one being hunted?
The sun had already set when I unlocked the door and flicked on the light. It sizzled and popped — the thread of filament burning red-hot and fading out. My fingers automatically touched the scar on my wrist — the parting gift from Michael when he left me for dead.
I waited a few seconds in silence. At first, I felt relief — no one lurking — but then I was bummed by the hollow sound. Used to, Rita would whine at the door until I opened it. She’d push through, jump and spin, and furiously wag her crooked tail.
I don’t know how she broke it — it was like that when I picked her up on the side of the road. The last thing I needed was a dog, but she was so pitiful — limping and bleeding — that I had to pull over. When she looked in my eyes — I swear she was smiling — it was a done deal. I drove her straight to a vet’s office that I’d passed on my way to work.
“You know she was probably a bait dog. Might have some behavior issues.”
“So do I.”
I took care of the bill and brought her home. She was the best dog — the protector I never had. But she wasn’t there when I needed her the most.
The last thing I needed was a dog, but she was so pitiful — limping and bleeding — that I had to pull over.
I flipped the light switch a couple more times — definitely burned out. Sighing, I knew I’d have to call Ray, the new groundskeeper for the Kentshire Apartments. I’d do it myself, but I’d need a tall ladder.
Ray was probably harmless, always quick to respond to maintenance calls, but he put off a convict vibe. Buzzcut, tattooed from head to toe, never looked you in the eye. Lots of pushups in his basement apartment. But he was kind to Rita — always brought her a Milk-Bone when he came to my place.
I dialed his number. “Hey, Ray. It’s Diane. My hallway light just burned out.”
“I’ll be right over.”
I frowned. I didn’t feel like dealing with Ray — not with all the work I had to do.
“No need to come tonight. How about in the morning?”
I ended the call, went into the kitchen, and tossed my laptop bag on the table. I filled the coffee pot with fresh water and scooped out enough grounds for a strong brew.
My phone was already buzzing. Without looking at it, I knew it was Ted. I was his paralegal assistant, and tomorrow was a court date, which meant Ted had misplaced something important. Ted’s strengths weren’t in organization, but he was a charismatic fellow and a phenomenal bullshitter. He could probably win a case by winging it but was too smart to try.
Where’s the separation agreement?
Section 3. Behind the file tab.
Got it. Thanks.
That PDF is keyword searchable, too.
He didn’t respond. I knew he wouldn’t. He hated technology and refused to believe it made life easier. Regardless, I liked working for him. He was a self-made man, unlike Michael, who had everything handed to him yet valued nothing. Even the sanctity of life.
I opened my laptop and searched the local Facebook lost and found pet pages but no posts about Rita. I still couldn’t believe that she got out. I know I locked the apartment. I was obsessive about it. But when I came home, the door was ajar, and Rita was gone.
I had two theories. One included Ms. Vaden, the hate-filled hag that lived down the hall. She had a rotten reputation for ruining people’s lives. Ray told me she’d complained to the management company, saying my pit bull was a lawsuit waiting to happen. She was terrified of Rita as if the dog was going to spring up and rip out her throat. But every time we saw her, Rita politely sat, sniffing her stale odor and giving her a curious stare.
The other theory involved Michael, but he was still locked up in the mental ward. And I was too superstitious to look him up, afraid that a psychic force might awaken and lead him to me.
I had two theories. One included Ms. Vaden, the hate-filled hag that lived down the hall. She had a rotten reputation for ruining people’s lives.
The coffee maker finally beeped, and I poured a cup. It was so hot it singed my tongue, so I let it cool while I began working on the Brown brief. Mrs. Brown was suing Mr. Brown on the grounds of impotence. However, after meeting Mrs. Brown, I could understand why. Every time she left the office, it reeked of onions. Mr. Brown was not contesting the divorce.
Time swept by, and I stood up to stretch my neck. I still had a couple more hours of work left, but I needed a break. I slid on my shoes, grabbed a dog treat — just in case — and headed out for a walk.
It was a warm spring night hinting at a muggy summer. The interstate pleasantly droned in the distance. Someone had left the courtyard gate open, and it whined in the wind. I walked around the crumbling fountain and through the gate. The lost dog flyer that I’d duct-taped to the door was gone. Probably that bitch Vaden.
Only a couple of lights warmed the windows as I crept toward the hedge that wrapped around the building. I turned on my phone’s flashlight and scoured the ground. This was a disturbing habit I picked up after Michael had stalked me. Following his arrest, police discovered that he’d been hiding below my window, watching me with the singular focus of the insane.
I rounded the corner, and a cool light flickered from Ray’s basement apartment. I knew it was wrong, but I had to look. Ever since I was a kid, I loved peering into windows that blazed at night — wondering if that world was brighter than mine.
Ray was watching some old movie — looked like Night and the City — and scrolling his phone. A bag of cheap dog food sat on the dining table.
The dog food. Was Ray getting a dog? I watched for a couple more minutes, and then Ray got out of the recliner. He stretched and twisted his torso and dropped and did twenty pushups. He hopped his feet forward, walked to the kitchenette, and poured himself a glass of water.
I waited until he went to the recliner and slowly backed away from the window. I finished my trip around the building. I found no footprints — human or canine.
Ted was still up. He’d fired off a slew of texts saying he was missing Mrs. Slocum’s affidavit. I was sure it was in the file, but after searching the PDF, I realized I had left it out. Not like me. I thought about it for a minute and remembered that Ted had been flipping through the file before I scanned it. He’d probably picked up the affidavit and left it on his desk.
Sorry, Ted. I think I know where it is. I’ll go to the office now and send you a scan.
I trotted to my beat-up Civic and hit the road. Yellow lights blinked like a metronome as I cruised the vacant streets. I rolled down the window for some fresh air and noticed headlights in the rearview. A sharp edge of fear cut through me, and I adjusted the mirror.
Dark Nissan Altima. Couldn’t be Michael, could it? I had to remind myself — Michael’s locked up. He can’t hurt you. And he wouldn’t be caught dead driving anything less than a Mercedes — even if it was twenty years old and the A/C was out.
I slowed down a little, but the car didn’t pass. Just ahead, a BP station glowed like a spacecraft. I swerved into the parking lot and watched the car move on. I waited a couple minutes before pulling out and made it to the office unfollowed.
The office was a Victorian house diced up into professional spaces. A therapist, an optometrist, an insurance agent, and a sketchy jeweler all shared the building with Ted’s law practice. In the back, a bricked patio served as an unofficial waiting room for clients who tossed cigarette butts and cheap liquor bottles on the ground. A maintenance guy swept them up every morning.
I walked across the patio and up the porch. Just as I was about to punch in the security code, the air hummed. I turned around and headlights blinded me. A second later, the lights dimmed, and someone slammed a car door. It was Ted. He jogged to the porch.
“You should have checked your phone. I texted that I was coming so you wouldn’t have to make a trip.”
I looked at my screen. Five texts from Ted after I’d already left my place.
“Well, I’m here now. I’ll help you look for the affidavit.”
His flush told me he just got laid. Ted had a wife and kids tucked away in a gated community, but he was a sought-after catch at the downtown happy hours. Thankfully, he was smart enough to chase skirts outside work. Had probably learned the hard way.
Ted flicked on the light and we entered his office. The affidavit sat on his desk. I picked it up and turned on the scanner.
“Any luck finding Rita?” Ted asked.
“Not yet. Still looking.”
“I gave Roxy a flyer last week. She said she’d call me first thing if Rita shows up at the shelter.”
It made me feel good that Ted took Roxy the flyer. She was the director of the local Humane Society. Ted had an ongoing fling with her, and he was also a major donor to the shelter — not sure which came first. He could be a wanker sometimes, but underneath that libido was a big heart.
The phone rang, and I looked at Ted. He sometimes let it go if he thought it was his wife, Catherine.
“Want me to answer it?”
He was opening his laptop and said, “Go ahead. I just called Catherine and told her I had a little more work to do before heading home.”
The phone trilled again, and I answered hello.
Wind rushed in the receiver. Someone laughed, and the line went dead. I must have looked ill because Ted was studying me like a witness on the stand.
“You O.K.?” Ted asked.
“Who was it?”
“Crank call, I guess.”
The scan completed. I uploaded the PDF to the case file and handed the original to Ted.
“Need anything else?” I asked.
“No, but let me walk you out. A buddy of mine on the force said someone’s been hanging around — like they’re casing the building. I warned the jeweler. Seems like the only business here that would have something worth stealing.”
I panicked but tried not to let it show. It felt all too familiar, but I didn’t want to tell Ted the whole story. Not if I didn’t have to.
We walked down the stairs and into the quiet parking lot. He waited while I started the car. I rolled down the window to say goodnight.
“Good luck tomorrow,” I said.
“Thanks, Diane.” He leaned in so close I could smell the bourbon and mint on his breath.
“I appreciate your hard work. My last paralegal wouldn’t have gone the extra mile to make sure I have everything I need.”
I scooted back, a little uncomfortable.
“Anyway, money talks, so you’ll see a raise on your next check.”
“You deserve it. Lock your doors and be safe.”
He backed up, and I watched his silhouette waving goodbye in the rearview.
I drove home in record time. It was close to 4 A.M. and the building was completely dark. I entered my lonely apartment, bolted the door, and collapsed on the couch. I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep until my phone started buzzing with texts. It was Marcy, the office assistant.
Have you seen Ted? His car is here but he’s not. Mrs. Slocum is waiting for him at the courthouse.
I immediately knew something was wrong. Ted wasn’t late for court dates. Even if he hooked up with someone after I left, he would have made it on time. I called Marcy.
“Hey, Marcy. What’s going on?”
“When I got here, Ted’s car was outside. But he’s not here or at the courthouse, and Mrs. Slocum is freaking out.”
“Is his laptop on his desk?”
“Hold on. I’ll look.” I heard her walking through the office.
“No, it’s not here.”
I knew that he had left for the night. As I was trying to piece together what his next steps could have been, someone rapped at the door.
“Hold on, Marcy. Someone’s here.” I called out, “Who’s there?”
“It’s Ray. I’m here to fix your light bulb.”
Marcy was repeating my name. She was growing hysterical — an unfortunate trait for an office assistant.
“Marcy, cool it for a second.”
I opened the door, and Ray walked in with his ladder. I nodded at him and pointed to my phone. He nodded back, and I walked to the kitchen.
“O.K., I’m back.”
“Should I call his wife?”
We both paused at the suggestion. It was an unspoken rule that we didn’t volunteer information to Catherine. But I thought about the crank call . . . someone casing the office . . . and then, for some reason, my dog Rita.
“You should call her. And the police.”
I needed something high-octane to get my brain going, so I filled the coffee maker to the brim. It began brewing as I paced in the kitchen, thinking about Michael and knowing I’d have to find his whereabouts right away.
I opened my laptop and searched a national criminal records database that I’d been granted access to when I started working for Ted. Michael immediately showed up with a smattering of offenses leading up to attempted murder. Mine.
But the records ended when he was admitted to that posh treatment facility. His mother, the widow of Senator Ed Burleson, pulled some strings to get Michael into a private institution — to save the taxpayers some money. His juvenile offenses weren’t in the database either. But during the investigation, a detective let me in on his troubling childhood history — violent outbursts, cutting his mother’s lingerie, starting fires, and animal cruelty.
My heart sank. Rita.
I stared out the window and didn’t notice that Ray had entered the kitchen. He peered over my shoulder and whispered, “Diane.”
I whipped around and, for the first time, looked into Ray’s vicious eyes. The tattoos, the skinny build, and the shaved head had thrown me off. Ray was Michael.
He grabbed my hair and dragged me across the kitchen. I kicked and wrestled with him, but he knocked me out. I woke up on the floor. My skull felt pulpy.
“Rise and shine, Diane,” he said with a nasty grin.
I tried to speak but could only groan.
“You always did like the rich guys. I suppose you thought you had enough class, but I’ve got news for you. You’re filthy trash. And I’m going to throw you out just like I did that chump lawyer.”
Again with the grin. “Dying a slow death.”
Adrenaline charged through me, and I wobbled upright. My fingers found the countertop, and I struggled to pull myself up. Michael laughed and drew out a knife. I staggered at the counter, trying to balance as he slowly raked the blade down my back.
My eyes landed on the coffee maker. I grabbed the pot and threw the scalding coffee in his face. He shrieked like a demon and fell to his knees, the knife tumbling from his hands. I grabbed it and slashed at his neck — the blood spilling like hot candle wax. I ran outside and called the cops.
When I let Rita out of the tiny cage in Michael’s closet, she was thin but still alive. Her entire body wagged as she rushed into my arms and covered me with kisses.
If you’ve enjoyed Below My Window by Wendy Davis, you can check our complete online collection, covering a wide range of flash and short fiction in crime, horror, mystery and thriller here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.