The Yard Dog: A Mystery
September 1, 2009
Minotaur Books
Hardcover: 304 pages
ISBN-10: 0312566700
ISBN-13: 978-0312566708

Men gathered around the reefer, their breaths rising in the morning chill. The switch engine puffed and sighed, and steam shot from her sides. Ten or so German POWs watched from atop the ice deck. A prisoner-of-war facility had been built in Alva, twenty miles north. Prisoners were assigned to the ice plant as part of their labor program. They worked no more than eight-hour shifts, as dictated by the Geneva Convention, dragging the blocks of ice into the bunkers situated atop the reefer cars. A camp guard watched on, his weapon at the ready.

Ross Ague, the night foreman at the ice plant, pushed back his hat and wallowed a cigar stump into the corner of his mouth as Hook approached.

“Itís a goddamn mess, Runyon,” he said, "and thereís cars waiting to ice. That produce goes to mush, someoneís ass is going on the line, and it ainít going to be mine.”

Leaning down, Hook looked under the car, his stomach lurching. An arm was severed and tossed against the rail, its fingers curled. Caught by the undercarriage, the torso had dragged backward down line, the skin and muscle scoured away by bed rock. There was no mistaking the frayed cuffs or the wear of Spark Duganís heels, and there was flesh on the two right forward wheels. In spite of the gruesome condition of the corpse, there was no spray of blood on the undercarriage.

When Hook bent under for a closer look, he could see Spark Duganís face, like heíd dropped off to sleep. The smell of carnage rose in the cold, and Hook leaned against the reefer to catch his breath.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Goddamn if I know,” Ague said, spitting between his feet. “We was finishing up the shift when Jake spotted him. Figure he was sleeping under the car.” Taking out a match, he snapped it against the button on his fly and lit his cigar. “Had you boys run ole Sparks Dugan off like you was supposed to, we wouldnít be sweeping him up this morning.”

Stepping back, Hook clicked off a picture and rolled up the next frame.

“Spark didnít have anyone that I know of,” he said.

“No,” Ague said. “Heís lived in that shack under the trestle for as long as I can remember, if you call it living.”

“It was damn cold last night for sleeping under the reefer car.”

“Maybe he was drunk,” Ague said. “Everyone knows Spark Dugan liked his hooch. Maybe he was jerking off for all I know. He wasnít none too bright, you know.”

Dropping down on one knee, Hook focused in on the twisted form and took another shot.

“Whatís in the reefer?”

“Reefers are sealed at the point of origin,” Ague said. “You know that. Keeps yard dogs from poking around and spoiling the goods.”

“I could check with the divisional office,” Hook said, lighting a cigarette. “Course it might take awhile. You know how efficient those bastards are.”

Ague rolled his eyes around and pulled a wad of papers from his pocket. “Cabbage, out of Oceanside, California,” he said. “Why, is being run over by cabbage better than being run over by oranges?”

“Who was working graveyard?” Hook asked, ignoring him.

“Me, and them union busters up there on the deck, and that guard, if you call sitting on your ass working. There was the switch engineer and Jake. Thatís about it. We had a grapefruit run out of Texas and didnít look up until sunrise.”

“Would those POWs have seen something?”

“Canít see squat from the deck, Runyon, not at night. Jake was checking angle cocks when he spotted ole Spark Dugan, or whatís left of him. No one even knew he was there until then.”

“You donít mind if I ask them a few questions?”

Tossing away the cold cigar, Ague said, “You can take them to Sunday school for all I care, but it ainít up to me. You want to talk to them Germans, youíll have to clear it with the commander at Camp Alva. I ainít got no say one way or the other. Besides,” he said, “they donít talk nothing but Kraut.”