It's late at night and the area around the overpass is pretty deserted. There are lights on inside the station, but the pumps are mostly self-service: the kind you where you use your credit card to pay, and no one really goes in or comes out much. The truck pulls up, and the man only opens the door long enough to slip out, but this is enough. He thought the animal was still in its drugged sleep, but it was cleverer than he gave it credit for and now it is out, past him, running into the woods.
The man grabs a loaded handgun from under the glove compartment – this isn't what he has it for, but he needs to improvise. If he loses that dog, he knows he's in big trouble.
The shots he fires go a little wide, and the dog makes it to the tree line: free.
There are a lot of animals that get dumped along this quiet stretch of highway – there are a few isolated farmsteads, but it isn't densely populated. Pretty much everyone in the area has an animal or two they've picked up from someone else's leavings. Maybe they aren't what their initial owners were hoping for – they're not good family dogs, they're too active or too destructive or they bark too much. Mostly, their people just didn't have the time or drive to help them be the dogs they wanted. But the ones who make it are okay farm dogs, running free, getting a little affection, sometimes being given real work to do.
Will Graham, of course, has taken in more than just one or two strays. His neighbours don't know him well, but they joke about him being the local dog whisperer. He's got a whole pack. And where is one more scared dog on the run going to wind up when passing that close to Wolf Trap Virginia?
The dog in question is probably a purebred German Sheppard Dog, given its general shape, size, colouring, and all the other considerations of breed standards. It's a pretty ideal specimen, even though now it is muddy and slinking as the vehicle – not the one with the badsmellman, a different one – rolls to a stop. The man who steps out smells good, like a pack, like an alpha. He crouches down, patiently extends his hand, babbles calm words. From one pocket he produces something easily identified as a treat, but the dog is still a little shy. Sometimes treats are tricks, after all, and strangers can be dangerous. But this man remains patient, edging closer slowly as the dog gets used to his presence. It wants to trust humans. It remembers one in particular, but there is no trace of that friendly smell anywhere around here. Maybe this man will be okay. It approaches, sniffing the treat and the hand that holds it. The man pets it, tells it is a good dog, waits for the dog to relax, to trust a little, before he invites it – not forces – it into the vehicle. And from there, home to the pack.
"I finally figured out what out mystery number is," Finch is saying. He looks a little incredulous as he looks up from his screen. "It’s a microchip identification number."
"A computer chip? Is the machine looking after its own now?"
"No, it's from a pet registry."
John's own incredulity was so strong that he had to tilt his head. "We're protecting someone's pet?"
"So it appears." Finch returns his attention to his screen, fingers flying over the keys. "Royal Oak's Castles In Spain, also known as Marquis, belongs – or rather belonged – to one Francis Abbot. Abbot recently died in what appears to have been a skiing accident."
Shaw shrugs. She likes animals more than most people, anyway. "An actual accident?"
"Well, I would hope that if he'd been murdered, the Machine would have been able to give us his number and not his dog's." Finch shakes his head – he doesn't know everything yet. "From what I'm seeing Abbot kept his money in various offshore accounts."
"Did he leave it all to the dog?" Shaw grins at her own suggestion.
"No, the estate is being settled still, but no one has touched the money."
"Okay, but how does the dog fit into this? And why would we be sent to protect it?"
"Those are both excellent questions, Mr. Reese..."
Despite his instincts, Will doesn’t just keep every stray dog he runs across. He'd really like to, but sometimes it's not always possible. He has a lot of animals already and he has to take their needs into consideration too. If a new arrival doesn't fit into the pack, he'll try and find it a new home. He also makes token efforts, at least, to make sure they animals are really unwanted, and more serious ones that they don't have any medical conditions that would either put his other dogs at risk or that he can't care for properly. This means that after they get cleaned and comforted, each of the dogs gets a visit from the vet.
"I've tried two different scanners, Will, and I'm not picking up a microchip." The vet says. The dog, Marquis, doesn't understand exactly what is being said, but he understands vet checkups, and slinks down to hide behind the new human as soon as he is released. "Frankly I'm a little surprised. He's in very good condition and he's not been neutered. He's even got a tattoo but it isn't clear enough that I can read it. Honestly, if anyone else had brought me this dog, I'd think they'd stolen it."
"Where did you come from, boy?" Will, the human, scratches Marquis behind the ears. Marquis knows that the humans is asking him a question, and perks his ears. 'Boy' he knows. He wags his tail tentatively and Will pats him on the head again, then looks back to the vet. "Well if you hear anyone looking for the dog, you know where to find me."
The farm is very nice. There are lots of other dogs to play with, though Marquis is still finding his place in the pack. Winston is the alpha, after Will the Human. There are a lot of beds, but the dogs don't sleep with Will and Marquis, now called Champ, finds this strange. He misses curling up on the bed with his old human, Francis. But before he never had so much space to run around, or very many other dogs to play with. Once or twice, when he was a puppy, he got to go to a big space that was all fenced in and run around with other dogs, but Francis didn't seem to like that much. They did go on a lot of walks. Will takes the pack on walks sometimes, but not on a leash. Marquis – Champ – was always very well behaved on a leash. Not being on one with Will is a little confusing, but he just follows the rest of the pack ad that seems to be okay. There are sure a lot of things to sniff on the farm!
Champ has only been there a few days when he hears a familiar engine pulling up to the house. Marquis knows that sound very well – it belongs to the people who picked him up from the kennel, and took him away. He had been expecting Francis, but two strange men came instead, and the people at the Kennel gave him to them. Champ had thought maybe they would take him to Francis, but there was nothing that smelled like the right human, and eventually he didn't recognize any of the smells at all. When he got anxious, that was when they gave him the bad treat that made him sleepy. He'd run away as soon as he could, and now he was here with Will and the pack.
He doesn't want to go back with the men who took him from the kennel. It makes his hackles stand up, and he growls. The pack understands – they have his back. They bark and growl too, when the badsmellman comes to the door. One of the other dogs, the little one called Buster, runs right up to him, barking very fiercely. Will knows his pack, and he sends the men and the vehicle away. Champ hopes they won't be back.
The next day, the vehicle and the men from the kennel come back when Will isn't home. They come right up to the door, but this makes the pack very angry. Champ is very angry too, and he almost wishes the men would come inside, but they don't. They go away again, and that's okay too.
When Will comes home, he has another dog. This one is very alpha, and even Winston defers to him right away. He greets all the other dogs, sniffing them extra carefully. He gets very excited when he greets Champ, wagging his tail. He even licks Champ on the face, and Champ feels a little better about being here with so many other dogs and with Will but without Francis. Will says the new dog is called Major, but he takes Champ with him when he takes Major to the vet.
"I don't know," she says when he comments on how similar they are. "The first one you brought in is a German Sheppard, but this one is a Malinois – a Belgian breed. They're both working dogs, not usually pets. The microchip reader is giving me an error – it might just need a different reader. They're not standard, unfortunately but they do tend to be regional."
"So someone could be stealing these dogs for some reason? Reselling them, maybe? Training them for something?" Will is worried. He doesn't trust people much to start with, and he doesn’t like to think about people mistreating animals. Champ licks his hand, and Will scratches him behind the ears.
"Maybe. Do you want me to call the police?" Will shakes his head. He's happy to keep the dogs.
When they get home, there is a woman waiting in another vehicle, with another dog. This dog is called Applesauce. The woman is called Alana, or Dr. Bloom.
"She misses having the other dogs around," she says, but really she came because she is worried about Will, or for Will, or really he just worries her. They talk a little bit, and she asks about the new additions.
"They're not your usual type," she points out. "They're guard dogs – working dogs."
"Champ's an old softie," he counters.
"And the other one?"
"He's funny. He acts like a well-trained dog, like he's waiting for me to tell him what to do, but I can't even get him to sit for me."
"Maybe he doesn’t understand English," she comments.
"Maybe. He's a good dog."
When Alana leaves, he thinks about telling her to take Major. But even if he thinks she could use a guard dog, and that Major would serve better in this role than Applesauce, he's not any use if he won't follow her commands.
Major doesn't understand English. He understands Dutch, though. When the tall alpha man comes the next day, he gives Major commands in Dutch, and Major is able to open the door for him. The pack aren't quite sure what to make of him, but he stays outside. He calls Major Bear, and Bear trusts him, and Major/Bear is very alpha, and even Buster just stays back and barks.
The alpha man knows that Champ is Marquis, and he calls him using that name. He's not Francis, but he isn't one of the badsmellmen, and Major Bear trusts him, so Marquis comes when called. The tall alpha looks him over, like he is looking for something, and then lets him go while he talks into one of those human devices – a phone.
"It is the right dog, Finch, as far as I can tell. Now what? Should I just bring them both back?"
"Normally I would say yes, but the house Bear led us to belongs to one Will Graham. He's a consultant for the FBI, recently released from the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane after being cleared of several counts of murder. He still has close ties with the Behavioral Science Unit – not the sort of people whose attention we want to attract. Besides which, there still may be people coming after Marquis."
"Right," says the alpha man. He doesn’t seem impressed. "The dog that we're protecting."
"I'm sure the Machine has a good reason for this assignment."
"I'm glad someone's sure," the alpha man counters. He rounds up the dogs and closes the house back up, and only his smell lingers to let anyone know he was ever there.
The vet calls Will the next day.
"A couple of men came by with posters of one of the dogs you brought in," she tells him. "The first one. They said his name was Marquis. I gave them your number, so they might call."
Will is looking at him now, and Champ/Marquis perks his ears, smiling, tongue lolling.
"That's what they said."
"A couple of guys came by here a few days ago, too, but Champ didn't seem very happy to see them. I think he's stolen."
"They asked me a lot of questions about you, when I said you’d brought him in. They asked about his chip too, they were very interested in that. I explained about the different systems, though. I don't know – they seemed relieved when I told them I couldn’t read it. It was a little strange, but I think you should be careful. Are you sure you don't want to call the police?"
"There's not much to tell them right now," Will says. There isn't much else to say either, and he hangs up shortly, looking down.
"So... Champ? Or Marquis?"
The dog tilts his head from one side to another. He doesn’t mind either name particularly, but he wishes the humans could decide.
Getting close to Will Graham to bluejack his phone had been difficult. They'd expected that it might have some kind of encryption on it, given his work, but it had been easier than expected to break in. Finch sat back, considering the conversation he'd just overheard. Of course, it made sense: Francis Abbot was a professional hacker – the sort of person that Root had been collecting for the Machine. Finch had managed to disable the signal on the tracker in Bear so that he wouldn't just get returned. It wouldn't be too difficult to reprogram the chip in other ways – to store a different, but crucial, piece of data for instance.... Well it might explain part of the mystery, at least, if only a small part.
"Mr. Reese," he says as he activates the proper channel on his headset. "I'm sending Miss Shaw out to meet you with some equipment. It looks like you might need to make another trip out to Mr. Graham's farm..."
When the tall alpha man comes back, he has a short woman with him, who is also very alpha. Major/Bear opens the door again. The pack is less sure about two strangers, but the woman, who is called Shaw, is very excited.
"Graham is doing it right," she says. Like Will, she doesn’t really like people, but she does like dogs. Bear is very excited to see her. She gives him treats, though the alpha man isn't happy about that. She gives some to the other dogs too, and they take them. Champ is not sure at first, but the others seem okay, and Bear trusts her. This time, they have a different human device with them. Francis had a device like it, and sometimes he would hold it close to Marquis, when he was just Marquis and not Champ, and that is what these humans do. They seem pleased, and they call the other male voice that talks in their ears, Finch, again.
They are talking to him about chips and data and some other words that Champ has heard from Francis when another vehicle comes. Champ recognizes the sound of this engine too – it belongs to the other woman, Alana, or Dr. Bloom, who came with Applesauce. She steps out of the vehicle and she is scared, but she has a gun with her.
Shaw also has a gun, and she points it back at Alana. The pack does not like this – they know Alana, and they do not know Shaw, even if she is more alpha. But Bear growls and barks at the pack, and Bear is the most alpha of the dogs, and some of them stand down and hide. Not Buster, though, and not Winston. They stand by Alana to protect her.
Champ is scared – he doesn’t like guns, and he does not know either of the women. He doesn't think that Buster and Winston know that they can't protect Alana against a gun, not if they can't get close to Shaw. Francis tried to show him what to do, to train him like Bear is trained, but he didn't understand.
The tall alpha man puts his hand on Champ's neck and pats him, and tells him he is a good boy. He puts up his hands, and gives Bear a command, so that Bear comes and sits beside him, though he is still very alert. Shaw and Alana still have guns, but Shaw puts hers down. She doesn't seem happy, but she is not afraid. Alana is still afraid, but she is also mad.
"Who are you – what are you doing here," she demands. Champ doesn't understand the words, and he looks from one group of humans to the next, ears back, eyes wide, tail thumping anxiously. "Are those your dogs?"
"This one is," the man answers, gesturing at Bear. "The man at the gas station said the guy who lives here takes in a lot of strays, so we thought we might check and see if he'd turned up." Champ knows that whatever the man is saying isn't entirely true, and Alana doesn’t seem to believe him either. "Do you live here?"
Alana shakes her head. "Did you break in?"
The tall alpha man shrugs and cocks his head towards Bear. He's still not afraid, even though Alana is pointing the gun at him now. "It was an inside job."
Finally, Alana lowers her gun. "I'm calling Will," she says.
The tall alpha man tells Alana that his name is John Randal, and that the short alpha woman is Sarah Miller, but this isn't true. The names come from Finch, the man who talks in John's ear – the John part is right, but everything else is a lie. John sits with Alana on the front porch while they wait for Will to come. Shaw finds a ball and plays fetch. At first she plays with Bear, but it is too much fun for the rest of the pack, and soon everyone is chasing the ball. Champ likes running, likes chasing, because nothing else matters other than the ball. He is taller than a lot of the other dogs, and sometimes he can get there first, and bring it back so that Shaw can throw it again. She is very good at throwing things.
Eventually Will comes, and all of the humans stand and talk. Will is not scared, but he is very alert. Alana is not scared now, but she is alert too. Bear sits on the porch with them, and so do Winston and Buster. Will calls Champ over to sit with them too, and John shows him the thing with the human device and talks about the chip. Champ knows that some of the things that John and Shaw say are lies, usually things they repeat from Finch – things like 'private investigators'. But mostly it is true. They call him Marquis, and they talk about Francis. Will and Alana are good at seeing lies too, but they accept what they are told, mostly.
Will asks them about the men who came to his house, and that is when John tells them the biggest lies. He says they have been arrested. Champ doesn't know what that means, but he knows that John isn't worried about them. He tells Will that they won't be a problem, and that is true. Will nods, and Alana looks at him, and she is worried. They both know the men were not arrested.
Now they are talking about him again, and Will calls him over and puts a hand on his head. He likes Will, and he likes playing with the pack and being Champ, even if he misses Francis. He doesn't think he will see Francis again, and it makes him sad and a little nervous, so he starts licking Will's hand hoping it will make him feel better. It does, a little.
Finch is talking into Johns ear again and telling him what to say. "Abbot actually set aside a portion of his will to make sure Marquis was taken care of." This is another lie, and Will seems suspicious. "It was meant to go to whatever shelter took him in, to make sure he went to a good home and that any of his future needs would be met."
"A bribe," says Alana. She doesn't sound happy, but she looks out at the pack. Most of the other dogs are running around the yard and playing. She sighs.
"It's strictly for veterinary care. It would have to be worked out with the local practice, since you're not officially a shelter."
"Well," Will says, "I may not know about much else, but I'm happy to take in one more stray." He looks down. "Isn't that right, Champ?"
Champ licks his hand again, but he is pretty sure that everything is going to be okay.