Gina knew trouble when she saw it: A black Lab mix nearly full grown and as unmanageable as her mop of blonde curls. But Lucifer was moments away from being put down at the pound where Gina volunteered. Against all better reason, she adopted him.
Lucifer was a massive powerhouse, Gina a petite featherweight. Match made in hell sprang to mind as she leashed him for their first evening walk.
In the summer heat, the dog dragged Gina like a novice water skier in the wake of speedboat. When Lucifer met strangers, he surged forward, planted his front paws on their chests, and licked the shock right off their faces.
That had to stop, so a few blocks from her apartment, Gina managed to get Lucifer to head down an alley. High walls separated the houses, but the area seemed safe to walk since the back gates had latches, not locks.
As Lucifer stopped to lift a leg, Gina, averting her gaze to give him privacy, saw a knothole in a wooden gate and couldn’t resist peeking through it. On a backyard patio, a seriously gorgeous guy stood by a table that held a pitcher and two tall glasses. A carroty redhead sat in a recliner facing the house, so only the back of her head and a bit of turquoise dress showed. Gorgeous Guy said something too low for Gina to hear, shrugged, filled a glass, took a couple quick swallows.
His movements were stiff, self-conscious. They’ve had a fight. He wants to patch things up. But her? Nope.
Suddenly, the guy banged down his glass, turned his back to the woman, squared his shoulders. The redhead must have said something hurtful, Gina guessed.
Lucifer, ready to resume his walk, nearly jerked Gina’s arm off. She yelled “Whoa” and jogged behind the dog, hoping the couple hadn’t heard.
The next evening was so hot Gina wanted to skip Lucifer’s outing, but she caved after he put his head in her lap and first one paw, then the other, on her knees. He led her along scorching sidewalks, turned without prompting at the previously explored alley. As they passed the gate with the knothole, Gina heard an angry male voice.
“Lucifer, stop!” she whispered. For once, he obeyed.
Fixing her right eye on the knothole, Gina saw Gorgeous Guy on the patio, pacing. He pressed his fingers to his ears, shouted, “Enough! Enough! Enough!”
The carrot-haired woman, in the recliner facing the house, didn’t seem to react. Lucifer gave Gina a hard nudge so she bumped the gate, rattling it. The guy glanced toward them as Gina hissed, “Go!” Lucifer set off at full throttle.
Later, while the pup gulped chow in Gina’s kitchenette, she replayed the patio scene. Why had Gorgeous Guy shouted “Enough!” over and over? Why didn’t Carrot Hair speak up?
The next evening, Lucifer, leash in mouth, met Gina at the front door. They raced as a team to the alley, stopped on a dime at the familiar gate. When Gina gazed through the knothole, she was disappointed; the patio was empty. She was about to turn away when the sliding glass doors opened. Gorgeous Guy emerged carrying Carrot Hair, whose face was turned toward his chest. Carefully, he set her in the recliner, arranged her turquoise bathrobe. She’s an invalid, poor thing.
Gina felt guilty about watching but couldn’t stop. The table was set as before with a pitcher and glasses. Again, the guy offered the woman a drink, she declined, he poured for himself and drank. He slammed down his empty glass, paced and shouted, “Enough! Enough! Enough!” Then he grabbed hold of the woman’s throat and throttled her.
A shocked Gina pushed open the gate and yelled, “Get him, Lucifer!” The dog dashed to the patio, knocked the guy down, and slurped his face. Gina sped to the woman’s side, stared into glassy green eyes.
The guy was buried under Lucifer. “Get your dog off me!”
Gina touched the lifeless face. It was smooth but hard, like bone china. The body in the bathrobe felt rag-doll limp. “She’s not real.”
“The mannequin? Of course not.” He pushed at Lucifer and sat up, eyeing Gina warily. “She’s a stand-in until the girl playing the role gets back from her vacation.”
“You’re an actor?”
“Just community theater.” He grinned, displaying a pair of attractive dimples. “You believed I was choking the life out of her?”
“Gosh yes. Why do you do it?”
“She’s an insufferable woman. Fakes being an invalid and drives her husband over the edge. You’ll have to come see the play.”
He patted Lucifer’s head. “It’s okay to get up, right? I’m Jason, by the way.”
Her palm tingled as they shook hands.
Lucifer thumped his tail.
“Gina, may I offer you a glass of iced tea? There’s plenty. My co-star never touches the stuff.”
Rita A. Popp’s flash fiction has been published online in Mysterical-E and Postcard Shorts and has received three honorable mentions in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s “Mysterious Photograph” contests. A short story of hers is forthcoming in a 2017 Sisters in Crime/Guppy anthology. She has drafted her first mystery novel and is plotting a second. Both are set in New Mexico, where she lives with her husband, two Golden Retrievers, and two dozen goldfish.