steel guitar madness

The Killer Dog

1994

Lance Wolford needed to get out of New York for a while. He owed too much money to the kind of people who charged 50% interest and who sent nicely dressed gorillas to collect, so he left the City on an ice-cold New Year's Day and headed back to Los Angeles to visit his aunt in a Z-28 that needed a valve job. He had all his possessions with him; two suitcases full of clothes and an old Stratocaster. Everything else had gone to finance the trip.
Four days later he was in the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset calling old friends, but everybody was married or in jail or not answering the phone, so he went down to one of his old hangouts on Hollywood Blvd, but what used to be one of the best pick‑up bars in LA was now a gangsta rap club, so he found a quieter place down the street, with only AC/DC on the sound system, half full of the kind of people who come to LA from everywhere and go nowhere, and sat down at the end of the bar and ordered a gin and tonic from a bartender who was trying to look like Tom Cruise in "Cocktail".
They got to talking about LA, and how it'd changed the last few years.
"It's been a bitch here. Riots, fires, earthquakes..." The bartender spread his hands and shrugged. "I been thinking about going back to Indiana."
Well, Lance wasn't going to leave town again. At least not just yet. Not until he'd got what he'd come for. Hell, he was too broke to leave, but he figured one more drink was in his budget, and he waved his glass at the bartender.
"Been gone awhile, have you?" the bartender asked, setting a fresh drink in front of Lance.
"Yeah, 'bout three years. I grew up here. Been in New York putting a record deal together for a new rock group."
"Oh, yeah? Who?"
"Kids On The Skids. You'll see 'em on MTV."
"You a record producer?" The bartender looked impressed.
"Yeah. And I manage a coupla groups."
The truth was, Lance had never produced anything but a few demos for out‑of‑town suckers in a friend's 2‑track basement studio in the Bronx, and the only groups he had ever managed were a couple of acid‑rock bands that he had booked into an oldies club in New Jersey that was owned by a bookie that he owed money to. Lance tended to exaggerate sometimes, but he did it elegantly.
"So what brings you back to LA?"
"Kind of a vacation. And I wanna look at a coupla new groups."
Right now he was looking at the babe in the leather outfit who was walking through the door.
"Know her?" he asked the bartender.
"Judy something-or-other. Cocktail waitress down the street somewhere."
Judy parked herself on a barstool two down from Lance and ordered a Sex On the Beach. Lance raised his eyebrows and grinned inwardly at that. When the drink came, she lit a cigarette and coolly returned Lance's appraising gaze. Ten minutes later she and Lance were talking and laughing like old friends. Lance had a talent in that direction.

* * *

The next day, after Judy had cooked him a late breakfast and eased him regretfully out the door of her North Hollywood apartment, Lance called his aunt from a drive-up phone on Lankershim.
"Harrison residence," a deep voice said.
"Hello, Battles, How are you?" Lance said cheerfully.
"Mr. Lance? Is that you?" the voice said. Battles was his aunt's butler, imported from England twenty years ago by her late husband.
"Yes, it's me. How's everything on the old estate?" His Aunt Clarice lived in a pseudo Victorian pile in Bel-Air left to her by her husband, who had made millions in real estate, with Battles, a succession of live-in maids, and her pet Pekingese, Waffles.
"Fine, sir. And you?"
"Great. How's Auntie feeling?" Auntie Clarice was in her seventies, and had a bad heart.
"She has her ups and downs, sir, but she's been quite well lately."
"Good. Can I talk to her?" The last time Lance had spoken to Clarice was a year ago when he'd been locked out of his apartment for back rent and needed three hundred dollars to get his stuff out. He never neglected to send her cards for Christmas and her birthday, though. After all, he was her only living relative.
"One moment, sir. I'll see if Madame's available."
A blonde in a red Mustang stopped at the red light at the corner and Lance gave her the eye, over the top of his sunglasses, and smiled. She tossed her head haughtily, and took off with a squeak of rubber when the light changed.
"Hello, Lance?" a quavery voice came on the line.
"Hello, Auntie! How are you?"
"Oh, just fine. Where are you?"
"I'm in Los Angeles, Auntie."
"You are? Well, why haven't you come to see me?" she said reproachfully.
"I got in late last night." He would have waived the phone call and gone right out to her house this morning, but he wasn't sure what kind of a reception he'd get. She hadn't been too pleased with him the last time they'd talked, and he wanted to approach her carefully. But everything sounded cool.
"What are you doing now?"
"Well, I just wound up some business in New York, and I'm out here trying to line something up."
"Lance... You still don't have a job, do you?" She sounded disappointed.
"Auntie, I'm a businessman. I work for myself"
"Tch, tch, I don't know what your poor mother would say." His parents had been dead for years, so his mother wouldn't be saying much.
"Auntie..."
"If I know you, you're broke, or between business deals, or something."
She was still pretty sharp for somebody in her seventies, Lance thought ruefully.
"Come on out to see me, dear. I'll tell Teresa to get a steak out of the freezer."
"Thanks, Auntie. See you shortly."
On the drive over to Bel-Air Lance wondered what Teresa was like. Young and foxy like that Maria, or Marlene, or whoever that Auntie had caught him with in one of the spare bedrooms when he was in high school, maybe? Hopefully not old and wrinkled like Martha, the one she had had the last time he had been to her house.

* * * *

The house was just as he remembered it, huge and imposing, nearly hidden behind a thick growth of cottonwoods and Carolina poplars, sitting on an acre or two of lushly landscaped prime California real estate surrounded by a ten foot high stone wall. He identified himself on the intercom and was buzzed through the black wrought-iron gate.
Battles ushered him through the massive front door into a flagstone foyer edged with eucalyptus plants.
"Good to see you again, Mister Lance," he intoned, and Lance overcome the impulse to shake hands with him. Battles was every inch the traditionally solid English butler: tall, slim, stiff, white hair combed straight back, dressed in impeccable black. "Madame is on the veranda. Walk this way, please."
His Auntie was wrapped in a comforter on a sofa, and she looked smaller and more frail than she had the last time he'd seen her. Waffles, the Pekinese, was on her lap, and he yapped at Lance as he bent down to kiss her.
"Oh, Lance, dear, it's so good of you to come to see me. You look so handsome" she said.
"I've missed you, Auntie. You look wonderful." He smiled at her and took a seat next to the sofa. Waffles, the ugly, pug-nosed little creature, continued to yap in his high-pitched way. His aunt had had this animal forever, it seemed to Lance. How long does a damn Pekinese live, anyway? Its eyes were blue with cataracts and it looked grey and feeble. He'd like to toss the irritating thing out through the window.
They had a couple of nice rib eyes for dinner, served be Teresa, a shy Mexican girl from East Los Angeles who spoke with an accent and who seemed in awe of Clarice Harrison. Lance thought her quite desirable, but kept his eyes off her; he was trying to charm his aunt, and he figured Teresa could wait until later. His aunt kept Waffles on her lap the whole meal, and fed it tid bits of her steak.
"Where are you staying, dear?" Clarice asked when the dinner plates had been cleared away and they were having coffee.
"I'll get a room at the Holiday Inn while I look for a furnished place," Lance lied. He was hoping she would ask him to stay with her; there were six bedrooms in the house, not counting the maid's quarters. If she didn't, he would have to try to look up some old friends.
"Your old room is still available, you know. You can stay there until you find something," she said, running her gnarled old fingers down Waffles' back.

* * *

When Lance was twelve years old his parents, who were anti-establishment types, split up, and the court gave his mother custody of him. Soon after, his father left town in an old school bus painted a Peter Max-inspired orange and blue with a bunch of other hippies on some sort of a Magical Mystery Tour and was never heard from again, and his mother, Clarice's younger sister, went on an acid trip that she never came back from and ended up in Camarillo. That's when he came to live with Clarice. Her husband had just died of a stroke, and she was lonesome, having no children of her own.
Clarice had very definite ideas about how children should be raised, and she was of the opinion that Lance's parents had been far too permissive with him. She made him get his hair cut, forbade him to see his old friends, bought him a whole new wardrobe, enrolled him in an expensive private school, and just generally took all the fun out of his life. She meant it all for the best, but Lance didn't see it that way, and, deeply troubled about his parents, he began to get into various kinds of trouble. He was the first kid at the Beeton School to smoke pot, and he was eventually expelled for that, and other sundry offences. Then he started hanging around with some poet types in Hollywood. From there he went on to dropping acid with psychedelic rock musicians, and when things got so bad at home with his aunt that he couldn't stand it anymore, he moved to a commune near San Francisco, vowing never to return to the straight world, and his Aunt Clarice, again.
But all that was in his past. He was well over thirty years old now, and he had long realized the opportunities he had thrown away because he wanted to grow his hair and have free love and commune with nature. What had he been thinking in those long-gone misty teenage years? What a fool he had been! You can't make a life out of smoking pot and listening to the Grateful Dead and discussing Kerouac and Ginsberg and bedding every cute hippie chick that comes along. At least Lance couldn't - not for long. Not after he got past the glow of adolescence.
But how are you going to get anything else out of life without some kind of training, or career, or job, or - MONEY. It all came down to money, in the end. If he had money he could write the Great American Novel. He could produce a Broadway play. He could get a band together. He could also afford the best cocaine, and jet around the world and hang out with Mick Jagger and Peter O'Toole and date decadent Hollywood actresses.
He remembered the private detective his aunt had hired to find him when he left home. He had tracked him down to the commune and shown up early one Sunday morning wearing a snap-brim fedora and a trenchcoat and talking out of the side of his mouth like some cheap Bogart imitation. He was disinherited unless he came back, the shamus told him, squinting and dragging on a hand-rolled cigarette, looking down at him lying in the sleeping bag with a blonde named Astral. Lance had just said he didn't care, and to please move out of the way; he couldn't see Venus, which was low on the horizon that morning. His aunt had never been shy about discussing her will; most of her money, about two million or so, was going to various charities.
Well, maybe it wasn't too late. He had gradually wormed his way back into his aunt's good graces over the last few years, between bids for financial success in other assorted areas, and now he was moving in for the big score. He had to move soon, before it was too late. Before she died. He wanted back in the will. That's why he had come back to LA.
He was ready to play his aunt's game; he had failed at everything else; this was about his last option. He should have tried it years ago, he now realized, but he was always counting on hitting the jackpot somewhere else. There was a time when a move like this would have hurt his pride, but the time for that was past, along with the idea that the world would someday reward him for his outstanding creativity and flair.

* * * *

After he had been at his aunt's a few days he admitted to her that he had no money and no prospects for any and that he needed some sort of a job.
"I'm through with all that old stuff, Auntie. I want to settle down and accomplish something; have a little security," he said, looking as sincere as he could.
She didn't really believe him; she knew what a con man he could be. But she gave him the benefit of the doubt and suggested that he move into the carriage house out back and take over the gardening chores. Gardeners had been scarce lately, and the landscaping on the estate needed constant attention. Lance didn't know a whole lot about gardening, but he was willing to learn, and he approached the job with high energy.
Clarice watched him with interest. She knew very well what kind of a guy Lance was. Lovable and charming, but, nevertheless, a wastrel, a gadabout, and a bum. But, he was her own flesh and blood, and that meant a lot to her, since he was her only living blood relative, and she loved him, despite the troubles they had had in the past. She wasn't senile; she had a pretty good idea why he had come back. But she was lonely, and it was wonderful having him with her again and she was almost willing to overlook any ulterior motives he might have just to see him doing well and trying to achieve something.
Lance got used to getting up early. Anything before noon was early to him, but now he was up around eight. He'd make himself some coffee, have a cigarette (out of sight of the main house; Auntie strongly disapproved of smoking) and set about weeding and spraying and watering. It wasn't too bad, once he got used to it. He even took pleasure in the way the place began to shape up under his care.
He did get out one or two nights a week, but he didn't stay out too late; Auntie wouldn't like that, and he was still leery of people with New York accents. He saw Judy a couple times, and when she asked him what he was doing he was noncommittal, but hinted at a vacation in Cancun with her if things went right.
And he made a new friend. A shaggy, golden-brown dog began coming around once in a while in the morning sniffing around, and Lance would play with him and give him a few breakfast scraps. Lance wondered where it had come from, and he found a tunnel he had dug under the fence. He named the dog Will. Which was why he was here - for the Will!
Will was frisky; he liked to jump around and dig, and he was always gnawing on some bone or something that he had unearthed. Lance had to fill in a few of Will's excavations, but Will was his buddy, and he didn't mind.
One day when his aunt was out in the back yard with Waffles in her arms inspecting his progress with the cypress hedge that ringed the duck pond Will jumped out of the bushes and barked a little and scared Waffles so bad that he peed on Auntie's arm. Lance thought it was pretty funny, but Auntie didn't quite see the humor, and she ordered Lance to get rid of the strange dog. Will had threatened Waffles, and in Auntie's book that was about as bad as you could get.
Lance wasn't about to put his whole plan in jeopardy for a dog, so he tried to shoo Will away for awhile, but he kept coming back, and Lance just didn't have the heart to keep running him off. He tried to keep Will out of the way when Auntie was around, but she caught Will there again a couple of times and raised hell each time.
One Spring afternoon after he'd been there a couple of months he was out back working on the red oleander bushes and Battles came rushing out, calling to him.
"Mister Lance! Hurry! It's Madame!"
Lance ran inside to find his aunt prostrate on the sofa, her hands pressed to her chest, gasping for air. Waffles was limping around, yapping, getting underfoot.
"Lance..." she murmured.
"It's her heart again," Battles said, wringing his hands nervously. "I've given her a nitro pill and called the doctor."
Lance was frantic. He got a cool washcloth and knelt at her side and dabbed at the perspiration on her brow. Don't die yet, dear Auntie, not yet, he thought.
She felt better by the time the doctor arrived, though. He said it was another angina attack, and for her to avoid any strenuous effort or any sudden shocks. Battles was so upset that he got out the brandy and they each had a drink. It was the most human Lance had ever seen Battles.

****

The next morning Clarice sent for Lance and he went to see her in her bedroom. Warm California sunshine streamed in through the open windows, and rosy-headed sparrows chirped outside. Teresa had set a vase a freshly picked flowers from the garden on her nightstand. Auntie looked older and more feeble than she had yesterday, Lance thought, as she lay propped up by big fluffy pillows with a book in her hands. Waffles, in his own bed by the window, eyed Lance sullenly as he sat down in the straight-backed chair next to her bed.
"Lance, I'm an old woman, and I won't be around forever," she said in a weak voice, taking his hand in hers.
"Oh, Auntie, don't talk like that," Lance said brightly.
"You've been such a comfort and a help to me these last few months," she said with the hint of a tear in her eye.
"You've been good to me, too, Auntie. I don't know what I would have done without your help."
Was this it? Was she going to change her will? Lance felt excitement building inside him.
"I've talked to my attorneys, and I'm going to change my will."
Yahoo!
"Mr. Emerson is coming by tomorrow morning to take care of it. I'm leaving the bulk of my estate to you, dear"
"Oh, Auntie."
"But don't think you're fooling me for one minute," she said, eyeing him narrowly.
Lance grimmed. "What do you mean?"
"It's no coincidence that you just happened to show up on my doorstep when I was about to die and was so nice to me. One might think you're after my money." She raised her eyebrows quizzically.
"Auntie, its not like that at all. You'll probably live another twenty years. (Lance hoped not.) A lot of heart patients do. We'll just take good care of you."
"Well, I'm not in very good shape, and the doctor says I could go at any time. But I didn't want you thinking you were pulling anything over on me. But you have done a good job around here, and you're my dear sister's boy, more mine than hers, nearly, and I want you to have my money when I'm gone."

****

He was back in the will! She would see her lawyer tomorrow and everything would be great. He went about his duties congratulating himself and mentally spending the money. Let's see, he' get a new Corvette, go to Vegas for a while, maybe the Bahamas... His fantasy went on and on as he worked in the garden.
Will came around and Lance played with him, out of sight of the house. While they were tossing a stick Waffles came out and peeked around the corner of a rose bush and Will barked at him and sent him scurrying away as fast as his short little legs could carry him.
"Good dog," Lance laughed, patting his head.
Later that afternoon a call came in from the house that Auntie rented out in Van Nuys. Problems with the plumbing. So Lance loaded up some tools and went off to fix it. The sun had gone down by the time he got back; the main house was dark, and he went quietly out to his place in the back.
He'd brought back a bottle of Jose Cuervo, by way of celebration, and was slicing up a lime when he heard a scratching at the door. Must be Will, he thought. He licked salt off his hand, tossed down a shot and, bit into the lime, and almost strangled on it when he opened the door.
There was Will looking up at him, wagging his tail, with Waffles lying at his feet. Waffles was covered with dirt; bloody, and not moving. A cold tingle of fear ran through Lance, mixing with the Tequila rush, and he nudged Waffles with his foot. He still didn't move. He wasn't breathing. He was dead! Will had murdered him! Will was a killer!
His first thought was to get Waffles out of sight, so he moved him inside and shut the door. Now what? His Aunt had warned him about Will. He had to do something. Hide the body? Fake the cause of death? He could be out in the cold again if his aunt found out about this.
He had another blast from the bottle and sat down and lit a cigarette to think things over, glaring at Will, who sat there looking up at him with sad brown eyes, his head cocked to one side, like he was wondering what the problem was.
Then he had it! He would clean up the corpse and put it back in its bed and she would think it just died in its sleep. After all, it was an old dog, ready to go at any time, and she realized that and shouldn't be too shocked at his death.
So he took Waffles into the bathroom and washed the dirt off him. He was already stiff, Lance wondered how long he had been dead. There wasn't much blood; just a couple of spots on the nap of his neck where Will had carried him. Then he dried him with his hair dryer and sneaked in the house up to his aunt's bedroom, and put him in his bed.
He spent a restless night, and finally drifted off to sleep just before dawn. When he awoke a couple of hours later there was an ambulance and paramedics in the driveway. He threw on a shirt and a pair of cut-offs and ran barefoot up to the house in time to see them, grim-faced, wheeling his aunt out on a gurney. She was covered with a sheet.
"Her heart, Mister Lance," Battles said, struggling to maintain his composure as Lance, horrified, watched the departing ambulance. "It's the strangest thing. I don't understand it at all ...." Battles frowned and massaged his temples with his fingers. "Madame's dog became ill yesterday after you'd left and we called the doctor, but it died before he could get here. Old age, he said. So we had a little service and I buried him in the back yard." Battles' voice sank to a whisper and he looked intently at Lance. "But this morning there he was, in his bed as usual."
Lance stared back at him, his mouth gaping open.
"The shock was too much for Madame. I just don't understand it."
The driveway gates were still open, and a grey Mercedes slid in and a distinguished grey-headed bird in a three-piece Armani suit got out carrying a monogrammed leather brief case.
"Good morning," he said in an easy voice. "I'm Mrs, Harrison's attorney. How is she feeling this morning?"
Lance lit a smoke, not caring who saw him now. There was Will, over by the red Oleander bush, happily scratching around in the dirt, digging for something else. Lance scowled at him with blood-shot eyes and wondered what the penalty was for grave robbing in California. A snazzy lawyer like this could probably send the mutt away for a long time.