Author's Note: This is a first draft.
It certainly wasn't how to start a mystery, but that's the way things were. The dog was barking its fool head off, and it was a matter of time until my neighbors started to complain. My wife opened a window to advise her to be quiet; the resulting blast of cold air stirred my bones awake. I put my slippers on, one at a time, as was my habit, and found my way downstairs to grope around the kitchen. I looked for a flashlight I dimly-remembered buying two Christmases ago. I stumbled about the kitchen, barking my shins against the table, then a chair before I blundered into the counter and prized the junk drawer open. I rattled around the assortment of odd-ball items that had found their way into the household equivalent of the Island of Misshapen Toys. When I finally seized the light, the batteries were on their last legs, and things were looking very dim indeed. The dog barked, and barked again. She paused, and so did I, hoping she had finished, but a fresh din made me realize I was up against it.
As often happened, a favorite literary scene rose unbidden in my mind. Sherlock Holmes had solved a mystery by noting that there had been a curious incident involving a dog in the night.
What, Watson had said, the dog did nothing in the night!
That, replied Holmes, was the curious incident.
Despite my thoughts, if that were the criteria, what happened in my backyard that night was very commonplace indeed. The dog did not do nothing in the night! The fool dog barked her fool head off. If there was an Olympic event for night-barking, the dog was the odds-on favorite for the gold. I shuffled the contents of the drawer around, hoping my fingertips would find some batteries still in their pasteboard and plastic prison, but came up empty.
I discarded my slippers and pulled on a shoe, found the second, and put it on; that completed the task. Two feet, two shoes on. Check. I glanced at the clock on the stove. At four in the morning, putting shoes on the correct feet is about as complicated a task as I can deal with. The dog continued to bark, unaware that the planet's apex predator now had shoes on and was coming out to deal with her.
“Shut up,” I said, although I was still in the kitchen and there was no way for the beast to hear. Even if she could, my wife and I disagreed on whether or not she understood English, although I was now in the mood to teach little Molly the meaning of the phrase.
Now, four o'clock in the morning is the absolute worst time of any day. How people who deliver newspapers or milk do it is beyond me. It is the soul's nadir. It is too early to stay up, but too late to go back to bed with any hope of restfulness. But the hound had zero sense of that, and she bayed again.
“Okay, okay,” I muttered. My shoes were already tied. Either I had done so without thinking, or I had forgotten to untie them the night before. I reached for the doorknob, but something made me hesitate for just an instant. I had some creep-crawly feeling that something was watching me. The dog barked again, and for the first time since waking up, I listened. I mean, I really listened. It wasn't her 'someone let me out of here' bark, nor was it 'I woke up and there was no one here but me bark.' I was familiar with each of those, and so were my neighbors.
This was a bark of fear. Someone, or something, was in the back yard.
I adjusted my thinking, and instead of the back door, I opened the closet door. I keep a selection of baseball bats in there for just such an occasion. The dog was still barking his head off. I picked out a nice, heavy wooden club with a solid barrel. I eased the door open just as my wife shouted down from upstairs.
“What's going on?”
“I don't know. I think there's something in the back yard.”
“In the back yard!”
“Are you sure?”
I thought for five seconds. “That's where the dog is.”
“She sounds scared.”
“Yeah. I'm taking a bat. Hey, if I'm not back in about five minutes, you might want to see what happened to me.” Someday, I thought, we need to get an intercom. My hearing's not what it was.
I opened the back door and switched the light on. Nothing happened. The bulb was dead. I checked my flashlight; it was better than nothing, although the weak beam barely made it to my feet.
As soon as the door opened, the dog went silent. She always did. It was tempting, but it made no sense to close the door and go back to bed; I knew from long experience that as soon as I closed the door, she would start barking again.
The back yard was empty and quiet. The dog did not make a single noise. The thought went through my mind that maybe she had actually died. Death, after all, comes to all living things. Maybe she'd barked at the approach of the Grim Reaper. Maybe. I looked around, but there were no black-robed, skull-faced, sickle-carrying creatures lurking about. I came down the steps and stepped from the deck. The grass was long and wet; the dew was already down.
I stumbled through the yard to the dog yard. I didn't trip more than, oh, five, six times, tops. I'm light on my feet. I reached the dog's house, and sucked in my breath.
There, sitting by the dog yard, was the last person in the world I ever thought to see, most of all, because he was dead: Alton “Falcon” Underhill, my old college roommate, former business partner, and my wife's first husband. He looked the same as he had the night he died, although he was wearing a different shirt.
“Alton? I thought you were dead.”
Alton stroked my dog's head. “You and many others, Jack. But I'm not. And how is the beautiful Elizabeth?”
“Elizabeth? You know about us?”
“Of course.” He rubbed the dog's ears with what seemed to be real affection. I noticed now that there was a bit more gray in his hair, and more lines on his face. There was a scar I didn't remember; it was too dark to see anything else. He was dressed in either black or very dark gray clothes; he blended into the shadows. He always had, the dapper cad. He had always been a natural.
“No hard feelings, then? After all, we thought you were dead.”
Alton brushed his hands off on his pant legs. “I can understand that, seeing as how you both tried to kill me. And I'm sure the noble Elizabeth observed a suitable mourning period.”
The situation made me feel awkward, especially since it was true. We had tried to kill him. And, until this moment, I would have sworn in open court that we had.