Excerpt

"The Walk-In"

Harley Jane Kozak

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Walk-In, a new short story by Harley Jane Kozak, included in the anthology For the Sake of the Game, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie Klinger. In the following passage, the narrator returns to her new flat to find that her brother’s cat, against all expectations, has turned into (or, more likely, been swapped) with a dog rather reminiscent of Winston Churchill.

It’s not every day that you walk into your apartment and find that your cat has turned into a dog.

Okay, it was London, so it wasn’t an apartment but a flat; and neither the flat nor the cat was mine, they were my brother Robbie’s. But the dog was unequivocally a dog.

It was my second day in town, and because my brother’s flat was new, and lacking pretty much everything—including my brother—I’d been out buying random moving-in things: toilet paper, dish-drainer, red wine. I was in the hallway juggling these and trying to get his door open when I heard a clickety-clack on the wood floors on the other side of the door. Inside the flat.

Clickety-clack?

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I glanced at the gilt number near the keyhole: 2B. Right flat, wrong sound. Touie, Robbie’s annoying cat, padded around on silent paws. So who was this?

Setting down my packages—parcels, as the Brits would say—I worked to get the door unlocked. At which point I was assaulted by the dog. A twenty-pound bulbous-bellied dog.

He—the gender was glaringly obvious—was corpulent, gunmetal gray and so hair-free he appeared to have been skinned. His legs were stubby but his ears were large, and sticking straight up, rabbit-like. His face was all frowns and folds, a canine Winston Churchill digesting bad news. But he greeted me like a giant dog biscuit: when I bent to rescue my stuff from the floor, he launched himself at my chest, tangled himself in my crossbody bag and slathered me with saliva.

For a small dog, he had a lot of saliva.

I pushed the dog back into the flat and got the door closed behind us.

“Robbie?” I called out but my voice echoed through the bare rooms. No surprise.

Robbie was my twin; I could feel his absence like a tangible thing.

I pushed aside thoughts of Where’s Robbie? and made a grab for the dog’s tag.

“So who are you?” I asked him.

His collar looked just like the one Touie, the cat, wore: scarlet leather, the perimeter dotted with faux gems. One of Robbie’s extravagances. Strange.

“Sit still, Dog. Let me read this.” But when he did and I had, strange turned to bizarre.

The tag said, “Touie” and the number on the tag was Robbie’s cell phone.

My first thought was “WTF?” followed by “Where’s Touie?” I wasn’t her biggest fan, and she was definitely not mine, but I’d just spent five days relocating that cat from New York to London, a feat, on the misery meter, right up there with digging graves in winter. It just wasn’t possible that she’d disappeared. I went through the flat, checking under the comforter where I’d last seen her, inside closets, and even the microwave, which Touie was too fat to fit into. There were limited hiding places. The only things Robbie had brought in, before disappearing, were five boxes of books and a bed, its toxic “new mattress” smell wafting through the flat like bad air freshener.

The real Touie, like Robbie, was gone.

It’s not every day that you walk into your apartment and find that your cat has turned into a dog.

“Now what?” I asked, and the dog responded by sniffing around in a distinctive manner, suggesting a bladder situation. I unclipped the shoulder strap from my pink carryon bag, fashioning a leash, and let the dog lead me outside. He had strong opinions about our route, one block to Baker Street and then a left, and another left, until I lost track of where we were.

The October day was murky with fog. And cold. I was wearing Robbie’s red rain slicker, but it wasn’t enough. How’d I get roped into doing this favor-turned-into-an-enigma-wrapped-in-a–Twilight Zone episode? Robbie had a lifetime of practice getting me to do stuff he didn’t like doing—pet immigration in this case—but I’d had the same lifetime of practice saying no. Yet here I was, and minus the pet in question. How had it happened? What had happened? And why? And where was my damned brother? Seriously, what was I supposed to do? Call 911? Was the number even 911 in England? And then what? I wasn’t one to chalk things up to supernatural forces, but it was a stretch to assume a criminal act. What self-respecting thief would want a plump, elderly cat? And why leave in her place this wheezing dog, straining at his makeshift leash, pulling me through London?

I’d been wrong about the dog’s bladder: he was on a mission, and hardly paused to sniff, let alone pee. Oblivious to other pedestrians, he pushed onward like a horse heading for the barn at the end of a long day. Perhaps he lived around here?

The thought gave me a glimmer of hope.

Oops. The dog came to a sudden squat and was now doing the unmentionable alongside an iron gate guarding a storefront. As I hadn’t thought to bring along a plastic bag, I looked around guiltily, but no concerned citizens materialized to scold me. The storefront bore an ornate sign: the renowned mirko: psychic and card reader. This was followed by a phone number, and then, in smaller font, walkins—both sorts!—welcome. I was pondering that when I heard the tinkling of bells, and looked up to see a man standing in the shop doorway.

We stared at each other. He frowned at me, his lips set in a horizontal line. He was tall and thin, the kind of thin that makes you think, for just a second, stage four cancer, but there was a kinetic energy about him, something in his gray eyes that nixed that impression. A high forehead, made higher by a receding hairline, made him look aristocratic, and strangely attractive, as did a three-piece suit more suited to a wedding than a psychic reading. I felt very American, and not in a good way.

“Unbelievable,” he said.

“I’m sorry, Mr.—” I glanced again at the sign. “Mirko. I didn’t bring a plastic bag—satchel—whatever you call them here—okay, never mind. If you have a paper towel or something, I’ll happily clean this up for you.”

“No.”

“Okay, ‘happily’ might be overstating it,” I admitted. “But I’m willing to—hey! Dog! Stop.” The dog was greeting the Renowned Mirko like a long-lost lover and attempting to mate with his dress pants. I tugged on the leash.

“Go. Just go. Take yourself off,” Mirko snapped, and then said, to the dog.

“Not now.”

“Whoa. Hold up,” I said. “Do you know this dog?”

“No.”

“You do. You know this dog. This dog knows you.”

“Nonsense,” he said.

“It’s not nonsense. He dragged me right to you.”

“Leave.”

“I’m not leaving,” I said. “I’m walking in. A walk-in. Like the sign says. Both sorts!”

He gave me a curious look, but then glanced past me and said, “Bloody hell. Too late. Go in.”

“What?” I look over my shoulder.

“In, in, go inside, are you deaf? Quickly.” The man took my arm and yanked me—he and the dog—through the open door.

The shop was warm, and musty with the odor of antiques and incense, the signature scents of psychics the world over. The decor was Victorian clutter. I got a fast impression of chintz, wallpaper and books, books, books, as Mirko herded me across the room to a kitchenette.

“Do not let the dog make a sound. This is critically important.”

“Sit,” Mirko said, and I thought he was talking to the dog, until he pushed me into an armchair and scooped the dog into my lap. He then hauled over a rococo screen and arranged it in front of me, blocking my view of the room. He leaned in so close I could smell the damp wool of his suit. “Do not make a sound,” he said. “Do not let the dog make a sound. This is critically important.”

Before I could argue the point, the tinkling bell sounded again, signaling someone entering the shop. “If you value your brother’s life, stay quiet,” Mirko said, and walked away.

That shut me up.

The dog and I listened as Mirko said hello to someone. Actually, he said zdravstvujtye. A man responded in kind. In Russian. I knew a few words of Russian, but after the pleasantries, the newcomer told Mirko to wait. A second later came the sound of Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond singing “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” a ballad Robbie once said made him want to cut off his ears. The music source was a cell phone, was my guess, and I wondered why we were listening to it, until I realized it masked conversation. I could pick out only random words now, during the song’s lugubrious pauses, of which there were many. Then came the sound of a zipper zipping. The urge to peek around the screen was strong, but the dog began to struggle, wanting out of my arms and onto a small, narrow refrigerator next to us, on top of which sat a large frozen turkey, thawing, and a large ceramic Blessed Virgin Mary. As I thwarted his efforts to investigate the bird, the twinkling bell sounded again, and Streisand, Diamond, and Russian left the building.

“You may come out,” Mirko said.

I came around the screen to find Mirko taking off his jacket and kicking off his shoes. Alongside him was a wheelie suitcase, fully zipped.

“So how do you know my brother?” I asked, and promptly took off my own jacket, the room being hellishly hot.

“I haven’t time for this,” he said.

“But you know where he is?”

“I do not.” Now he had his vest off and was unbuttoning his dress shirt, as adroit as a stage actor doing a quick change. “I suggest you return to your flat, with the dog-who-is-not-your-dog, and sleep off the jet lag that you’re trying to ignore. It’s four in the morning Los Angeles time, and that red-eye you took did you no favors even with an exit row and a window seat. Nor does sleeping on floors agree with you.”

My eyes must’ve widened. He smiled, before whipping off his shirt and giving me a view of his naked chest. Not a bad chest, if you don’t mind skinny, which I don’t, but I wasn’t about to be distracted. “I don’t know how you know the things you know,” I said, “but all I care about is Robbie.” The dog, perhaps reacting to my tone of voice, produced a sound that was less a bark and more the yowl of a human infant. “You tell him, Churchill,” I said.

“Churchill? I’d have said Gladstone.” Mirko walked to a bureau covered with Tarot cards, opened a drawer and took out a some clothes and a pair of Converse high tops.

“Whoever that is.”

“Victoria’s Prime Minister, who more closely resembles a French bulldog.” He pulled a T-shirt over his head, followed by a hoodie, a purple Grateful Dead relic from some bygone decade.

I stooped to let Gladstone wiggle out of my arms and over to Mirko, who was pulling on his sneakers, though not bothering to lace them up. “Fine,” I said.

“But you’re pretty much the only person I know in London, not counting Pet Immigration, and I’m not leaving until—”

“Suit yourself.” He stood up, ruffled his hair and put on a pair of blackrimmed glasses. The transformation from aristocrat to geek was not just fast, it was total. From his pants pocket he withdrew a remote, which he aimed at the wall behind me.

A creaking sound like the opening of Dracula’s coffin made me turn and see a wall-sized bookcase move.

Slowly, squeakily, so disorientingly I thought, earthquake? the bookcase kept advancing into the room, as freaky as the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. I fixed my eyes at random on one frayed book called The Coming of the Fairies, willing it to stay put, but nope. It moved. When I turned my attention back to Mirko, he stepped over his pile of clothes, grabbed the handle of the wheelie suitcase and moved to a now-palpable gap between bookcase and wall.

Behind the gap was a door. Mirko opened the door and went through it.

I grabbed the dog and followed.

__________________________________

From the short story “The Walk-In” by Harley Jane Kozak. Included in the new anthology, For the Sake of the Game edited by Leslie Klinger and Laurie R. King. Used with the permission of the publisher, Pegasus. Copyright © 2018 by Harley Jane Kozak. 




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