“Hey, does anybody know whose dog is hanging around out by the dumpster?” Amy Palavi called as she came back into the Brew Pub after the last garbage run of the night.
The bartender, the sous chef, and the other two servers who were finishing the clean-up turned and answered in choral unison, “Eliot’s!”
“Because it looks hungry,” Amy finished, glaring pointedly in the direction of the table where Alec Hardison and Eliot Spencer were calmly discussing . . . well, earnestly debating . . . okay, they were loudly disagreeing about Hardison’s newest suggested addition to the Brew Pub’s menu.
Eliot tossed his hair away from his face. “For the last time! I. Do. Not. Have. A. Dog!” he told the room. “And we are not having whatever this is . . .” he stabbed a finger at the tablet Hardison was using to illustrate his idea “. . . in my kitchen!”
Technically, it was Hardison’s kitchen, according to the legal documents. But since Eliot had no respect for the law, and Hardison had a great deal of respect for his own health and the unbrokenness of his bones, the kitchen tacitly belonged to Eliot. And frankly, Hardison admitted, food prep belonged to Eliot on a spiritual level.
Pushing his chair away from the table as if the argument had been settled, Eliot headed for the front door. “I’ll be at the gym if anything comes up.”
Hardison rolled his eyes. “Y’all got no appreciation for art,” he muttered, shutting down the tablet.
If Eliot heard him, he gave no indication. Their muscle-bound, hide-bound, never-knowing-when-it-was-time-to-call-it-a-day hitter closed the door firmly behind him and disappeared into the night.
Amy was looking mutinous. His other employees eyed him expectantly.
Hardison nodded toward the back of the restaurant. “Go on,” he said.
The staff scattered to collect a heaping plate of leftovers to set out for their uninvited guest.
Amy grinned at Hardison. “Are you sure you don’t have a brother?”
But by the time they made it out to the dumpster, the dog had gone. Probably run off after Eliot.
If he could have, Hardison would have told the dog that making friends with Eliot Spencer took a lot longer than you thought it would. Just when you’d feel like you knew the guy, you’d discover he was hiding out under a whole ’nother layer. The man’s clothes were a metaphor.
“Put the food in the fridge,” he told Amy. “Maybe the dog’ll come back.”
* * * * *
The thing with the dog had started earlier in the week when Leverage was on a job, investigating some shady real-estate dealers who worked out of offices above a restaurant in Oregon City.
Parker and Hardison were waiting in the van while Eliot checked out the location, cataloguing exits, lines of sight, and all the other paranoid stuff he always did before he would allow his team to get on with their jobs.
The existing video coverage of the front of the restaurant and the street was adequate, but there was only one security camera that allowed Hardison a view of part of the alley behind the restaurant. He’d feel better with a couple of his own devices in place.
Keeping a corner of his attention for monitoring, he set about pulling up the satellite map of the area. Perhaps if he put a camera here . . . and here . . .
“There’s Eliot,” Parker commented, poking at the screen.
Hardison swatted her hand away. “Fingerprints!” he hissed.
“Oh, right.” Parker pulled her hand back.
And there he was, slouching into view like just the sort of vagabond you didn’t want to meet in a back alley. Hardison hadn’t even had to embellish his wardrobe to achieve the desired effect. Eliot was relentless in his dedication to obscuring his not unappealing physical attributes with his absence of fashion sense.
Over Eliot’s earbud, they heard the sound of a door opening and footsteps on asphalt.
“Bogey at 2:00,” Hardison informed Eliot.
His warning was unnecessary. Eliot had already blended into the shadows and frozen still.
The unidentified intruder’s voice came clear over the speakers: “Fuck off, ya bitch!”
Which was rude and inaccurate no matter how pretty Eliot’s hair could get, Hardison started to think before a high-pitched yelp informed him that the alley contained a literal bitch.
Okay. This was going to be a problem. Eliot had a thing about guys who hurt kids or animals.
“Now Eliot,” Hardison cautioned. “Remember, we’re not supposed to attract attention . . . “
So much for his perfectly rational advice. That was the sound of bone hitting flesh. And that gasping wheeze was the sound of a man whose solar plexus had just met an Eliot Spencer fist, special delivery.
“Good way to not be memorable. Never woulda thought of that one.” Hardison shook his head. He hadn’t even seen Eliot move out of the frame. First he was there; then he was gone.
Parker was looking pleased the way she usually did when Eliot punched someone out. The two of them were always so cheerfully violent. Hardison’s Nana had raised him to use his words, so how had he ended up with two people whose primary mode of communication was body language?
Eliot was talking to the dog, now. “Hey, you okay? C’mere. Let me take a look at you. It’s okay. I won’t hurt you. That’s a good girl. Pretty girl. Well, you would be if someone gave you a bath. You kinda stink. You really wanted to get in that restaurant, didn’t you?” There was a brief pause in Eliot’s monologue. “Huh. I can feel all your ribs. Someone not been feeding you enough? You need me to go shake ‘em down? Do you belong to anyone?”
“Maybe she’s got a chip.” Hardison suggested. “And might I remind you that you are supposed to be getting in and out of there?”
A low groan interrupted them.
“And you.” Eliot’s voice acquired the tone he used for finding something disgusting on the sole of his boot. “Next time you need to get a smoke, hit something that deserves it. Like your head—on a wall.”
Hardison just rolled his eyes. This operation had better go off without a hitch, because no way was that guy not gonna remember Eliot.
Of course, Eliot had then compounded the impact of his presence by going into the restaurant and buying the dog a sandwich.
When he arrived back at the van, having completed his reconnaissance, he’d acquired a tail. A literal one. The dog, having finished the sandwich in about two gulps, had decided that Eliot was her new best friend. When Eliot opened Lucille’s side door, a scruffy, black, medium-sized mongrel with tufty, rust-colored eyebrows and legs hopped right in like she belonged.
“Look, Eliot has a dog!” Parker exclaimed. “Hi, Dog.”
“I do not have a dog,” Eliot growled, lifting the animal out of the van and plunking her on the ground. “Go on. Go home. Shoo.”
The dog rolled pleading eyes at him, but Eliot was made of sterner steel than that, and he closed the door right in front of her inquisitive nose.
“Let’s go,” he told Hardison.
“Good-bye, Not Eliot’s Dog,” Parker called out the window.
Lucille now smelled a bit like dirty dog. Nevertheless, Hardison was careful not to run over any extraneous canines as he pulled out into traffic.
* * * * *
The second event in the saga of the dog had been the same night when they returned to infiltrate the offices.
Parker had melted up the fire escape while Eliot set the cameras in the locations Hardison had chosen. He was planting the second one when the first screen showing the camera view from the entrance to the alley came to life.
“Eliot! Eliot, I’ve got 8 guys about to land on you in 5 seconds!” Hardison warned, moving the camera view that contained Eliot next to the one with the oncoming threat. And they were a threat. He wasn’t in Eliot’s league when it came to pointing out the distinctive features of various fighters, but these guys looked like trouble—the well-dressed, professional sort.
“Dammit, Hardison!” Eliot’s voice was barely audible. “I can’t get out of sight that fast! You’re supposed to give me a heads up in time.”
“I can’t help they just teleported into the alley now can I?” Hardison hated feeling helpless in the van. Not that Eliot couldn’t handle himself in pretty much any kind of a fight, but still. It felt wrong to sit in safety while his people were getting hurt.
“Eliot, you got 2 seconds to come up with a plan . . . What are you doing?”
Instead of sensibly finding a hiding place, Eliot strode right out into the middle of the alley like he owned the place.
“Cami!” he called, his voice sounding excited. “There you are, you bad dog. Where have you been?”
And there she was. The dog from that morning. You’d never know she’d only met Eliot the one time. At the sound of his voice, she launched herself in a wriggling ecstasy of happiness into his arms as he bent down to scoop her up.
“C’mere, girl. That’s a good doggie. Good doggie. Hey, sweetheart. Don’t do that again. Don’t you run away. Nearly gave me a heart attack, you did!”
The dog did her best to apologize and to tell Eliot how glad she was to see him. She let out breathy little yips and licked his cheek like he was a steak dinner. The animal was as good a grifter as Sophie.
The men filed past, scarcely glancing at the non-threatening man, crouched on the filthy pavement, caressing the equally filthy mutt.
Hardison instructed his own heart to put its attack on hold while the men turned in to the back door of the restaurant.
The one where Parker was upstairs stripping hard drives, planting bugs, and breaking into safes and file cabinets.
Okay, heart attack resume.
“Parker!” Hardison called urgently. “You got company coming!”
“No problem.” Parker’s voice was muffled. “I’m done here.”
There was a familiar zipping sound, and Parker landed in the alley not far from Eliot. He headed over to help her collect her gear, the dog sticking to his heels.
“C’mon, we gotta get out of here,” he said.
“Oh hi, Not Eliot’s Dog!” Parker said, tossing Eliot a rope to wind up. “Is she your dog now? Is her name Cami?”
“No,” Eliot said shortly. “She’s not, and it’s not. Let’s go.”
He turned to the dog, who was waiting, bouncing eagerly. “Thanks for backing my play. I owe you one.”
But when she started to follow him out of the alley, he told her, “You can’t come with us. Go home. Stay.”
The dog obviously recognized the commands. Everything about her drooped. She gave a plaintive little whine.
When Parker and Eliot piled back into Lucille, Hardison noted that the dog was still sitting where Eliot had left her, staring dejectedly in the direction he had disappeared.
* * * * *
Two days later, the dog showed up at the Brew Pub.
“Are you kidding me?” Eliot scowled at Hardison when he delivered the news. “She tracked us here all the way from Oregon City? That’s not even possible.”
“Correction.” Hardison grinned at Eliot. “She tracked you here. She didn’t mind me scratching her ears, but she’s looking for you. You got yourself a dog, brother.”
“I do not have a dog,” Eliot insisted. “Find out if anyone’s looking for her. If she doesn’t belong to anyone, she’ll have to go to an animal shelter.”
Nevertheless, he went out back to check on the dog. Hardison trailed along, curious.
The dog came running at the sound of Eliot’s footsteps, her claws an excited scrabble on the pavement. When she spotted him, she let out a high, excited bark and catapulted at his legs, standing up and pawing at him, her tail whipping so hard her whole body wagged.
“Hey there, girl.” Eliot tousled her ears and let her chew gently on his hands. “What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be this far from home.”
His movements were so natural with the dog, as though he were equally glad to see her, even going down on one knee to let her lick his face while he checked her paws that looked worn out from so much travel on hard surfaces. Hardison almost failed to notice that Eliot’s expression was the closed down one he got when he was unhappy.
Standing up again, he motioned to Hardison. “Take some pictures of her. Let’s see if we can find her people. I’ll get her some water and something to eat, and then I’ll drive her over to the Animal Rescue. I’ve got some errands to run anyway.”
The pictures Hardison got were mostly of the dog’s face plastered to the door through which Eliot had disappeared.
When Eliot returned with a metal mixing bowl filled with water and a plate of meat scraps, the dog spent a few moments rejoicing in circles that she’d found him again before she inhaled the food. Even though she was obviously famished, she never took her eyes off Eliot, her rusty eyebrows bouncing up and down as she followed his every move.
After she’d lapped up her fill of water, Eliot snapped his fingers. “C’mon,” he told her. “Let’s go find the van.”
The dog leaped to his side, and the two of them walked off, looking exactly like they belonged together.
Hardison shook his head and went back inside. He quickly posted the photos to several local Facebook groups maintained by one of his identities and to the Found Pets section of Craigslist. Then he sent ads to the Portland papers and the one for Oregon City. Probably the animal shelter would know what else could be done.
Time to get back to work. His research on their current case was turning up some strange results. He could worry about what was up with Eliot and dogs later.
* * * * *
The dog beat Eliot home.
When Hardison went up to the apartment, he found Parker lying on her stomach on the floor, propped up on her elbows with her chin in her hands, her feet waving lazily. She was having a staring contest with the dog who was also on her stomach, chin on her paws, facing Parker.
“What the hell? How did she get here? Eliot was supposed to take her to the shelter. Parker, he is not going to be happy to find her here.”
“She didn’t ask him. She asked me. And I said, yes,” Parker informed him, rolling over and flipping upright in a move that should have been physically impossible.
The dog stood up, too, looking interested in what Parker would do next.
“Apparently the Animal Rescue isn’t very escape proof.” Hardison shook his head and flopped down on the couch.
“She’s a jail breaker,” Parker approved. “Good dog, Ned.”
The dog industriously scratched her ear with her hind leg.
“Not Eliot’s Dog,” Parker explained as though it should have been obvious. “I got tired of saying it all, so I made an acronym.”
Ned seemed aware they were talking about her. Her head swung back and forth between them, and her tail waved quizzically.
“Look,” said Parker. “She puts up one eyebrow and then the other. I can’t do that. Can you?”
“No, and I don’t need to. Seriously, mama, you better get that dog out of the house. She smells like she rolled in something dead.”
Parker wrinkled her nose. “Okay, come on, Ned. Let’s go back outside.”
At that, Ned gave a happy bark and charged to the apartment door, bouncing around in front of it. As it turned out, she wasn’t excited to go out. She’d just caught the sound of Eliot’s footsteps on the stairs before the humans in the room could hear them.
Eliot was carrying mesh bags full of produce from the farmer’s market. He was not expecting to be greeted by joyful barking.
“Dammit, Hardison, what is that dog doing here?” Eliot shoved through the door and deposited his purchases on the kitchen island.
“Hey, don’t look at me. I’m not the one couldn’t take her somewhere she couldn’t get away from.”
“She was hungry,” Parker informed them. “I gave her Froot Loops.”
“You can’t . . .” Eliot pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration. “Parker, dogs can’t eat the kind of junk people eat. Actually, people can’t eat that stuff either; that just never stops you.”
“She loved them,” Parker bent down to scratch the ears of the dog winding herself around Eliot’s legs. “Didn’t you, Ned?”
“Oh, no.” Eliot shook his head. “We are not naming the dog. I’m gonna take her back as soon as I’ve finished making us supper. Out of actual food.”
“I didn’t name her,” Parker said, poking at the vegetables on the counter. “Ned stands for Not Eliot’s Dog. Oh, look! Baby cabbages!”
“Those are Brussels sprouts,” Eliot said.
“Can Ned eat them?”
“I don’t know. Hardison?”
“I’ll look it up.” Hardison pulled out his phone.
Eliot sat down to unlace his boots which resulted in him having a lapful of wriggling dog.
“Phew!” He screwed up his face. “You need a bath. They woulda given you one at the shelter if you coulda bothered to stay.”
Ned panted happily in his face.
“Brussels sprouts are a go,” Hardison informed Eliot.
* * * * *
Ned approved of the Brussels sprouts, roasted with olive oil. Parker approved of them with the lemon sauce Eliot had whipped up while they were in the oven. She ate them with her fingers, causing Eliot to wince. But since she was consuming green stuff, he was taking the win.
Hardison’s Nana had tried to make him eat Brussels sprouts to no avail, but then Nana hadn’t liked them much either, and her children had sensed the weakness in her usually iron armor. Also Nana hadn’t possessed the ability to murder him with her little finger. Under Eliot’s homicidal glare, Hardison chose to consume two entire sprouts. Which weren’t as bad as he’d feared. Eliot could generally turn a piece of cardboard with Elmer’s Glue for sauce into a gourmet meal.
Nevertheless, as vegetables, they definitely took a back seat to the Cajun Blackened Catfish. The Pinot Gris Eliot chose to accompany the meal held just the right hint of sweetness to tame the spice and heat. Mmmhmm. Damn, but the man could cook. Hardison was a lucky, lucky man.
He fed the remainder of his sprouts to Ned under the table when Eliot wasn’t looking. Ned also approved of the fish, but no way was Hardison sharing. She had her own less spiced version. He took second helpings. And thirds. And ignored the begging eyes peeking out from under the table cloth.
Afterwards, Hardison and Parker helped clear the table and succeeded in not tripping over the earnest Ned who was convinced that if her nose got further than a foot from Eliot’s heels, she’d lose him again, and who was, therefore, always in the way.
“Did you know you scratch under your arm every 37 seconds?” Parker asked Eliot. She always kept the strangest sets of statistics about each of them.
“Hey man.” Hardison laughed. “Do you have fleas?”
“Eliot’s got cooties!” Parker shrieked, making an exaggerated effort to escape contact.
Wait a minute. Ned had been scratching too. Was it possible that . . . “Did that dog give you fleas? Oh, that is so wrong!” Hardison had a totally justifiable aversion to insects of every variety. It was not a phobia, whatever certain born-in-a-barn sorts of people liked to say.
“I doubt it,” Eliot said. “But she probably has ‘em.”
“Out!” ordered Hardison. “Get that dog out! Fleas can carry tapeworms, you know. Next thing you know, we’ll all be full of two-meter-long parasites! Nuke them! Nuke them from orbit!” Had she licked his fingers when he fed her the Brussels sprouts? Oh, god, he was going to die. Soap! Water! Antibacterial hand-cleaner! Mouthwash!
“I’ll take her back to Animal Rescue,” Eliot agreed, reaching down to tousle Ned’s ears. “That way you’ll be safe from germ warfare.” He laughed at Hardison’s efforts to sanitize himself.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the Animal Rescue people had gone home for the night. Eliot hung up on the answering machine message.
“It looks like you’re staying here,” he told his flea-bitten admirer. “But not until you’ve had a bath.”
“Damn straight!” Hardison agreed.
“You do realize there are probably fleas in Lucille?” Eliot said.
Hardison gave Eliot his version of the death glare. Unfortunately, it had no more effect than it ever did.
* * * * *
Eliot made a list of supplies for Parker to “acquire,” and Hardison added diatomaceous earth to the list. Lucille was not going to have fleas, and neither was their apartment. Parker left via the window. Ned stood there and barked in concern.
“Don’t worry. Parker always does that,” Hardison reassured her.
When Parker returned, Eliot set up his pharmacy in the luxury master bathroom. Their stray dog was going to get royal spa treatment.
The only problem turned out to be Ned.
“Time for a bath!” Eliot told her in the tone of one offering a treat.
He had shed layers down to an undershirt and jeans, and damn, that was a good look on him.
Ned, however, was not impressed. She eyed Eliot with the mournful expression of the betrayed and let out a low, quavering whine.
“Come here!” Eliot commanded.
Ned prostrated her front end and waved her tail end high in the air, whining in a higher pitch that she was a good dog but he was asking too much of her.
Eliot rolled his eyes and came to get her. “Don’t take that tone with me,” he told Ned. “You’re havin’ a bath, and that’s final.”
Ned yelped and ran for the couch where she tried to bury herself in the cushions.
“That’s not gonna work, darlin’,” Eliot said, picking her up in spite of her vociferous protests.
As he carried her toward the bathroom, Ned did her best impression of Wile E Coyote running off the end of a cliff, frantically paddling in the air.
Parker went off in a giggle fit.
Hardison got out his phone to record what looked to become Oscar-quality farce.
At the bathroom door, Ned gave one final all-out resistance. She managed to get all four of her legs hooked to the door frame. Every time Eliot got one side of her loose, she’d grab on to the other. He finally outwitted her by backing into the room, but she still managed to scratch the frame with one set of claws.
“Hey!” Hardison objected. “That’s real oak, you mangy mutt!”
He and Parker followed the seething mass of man and dog into the bathroom.
“I wouldn’t miss this for a chance to steal the the Pearl of Lao Tzu!” Parker said.
“Really?” Hardison hadn’t thought there was anything Parker liked better than stealing.
“Yeah, it’s pretty ugly.” Parker perched on the toilet tank to enjoy the show.
“You two are not helping,” Eliot growled.
Eliot deposited Ned in the middle of the vast shower with its multiple heads and rainfall system. Hardison had never seen any reason to deny himself any luxury he could afford.
Ned was not impressed. She wilted into a puddle of despair.
“This ain’t gonna kill you,” Eliot informed her.
Ned did not look comforted by this assurance.
Rather than use the shower, Eliot filled a container from the tap and poured it over Ned’s neck. “See? It’s not that bad. And now the fleas won’t travel up to your face and ears.”
Ned wailed that yes, it was every bit as bad as she had expected. Worse, even. Much worse than fleas.
Eliot poured some of the special prescription anti-flea shampoo into his hand. Hardison was quite proud of that forgery.
With no appreciation for the quality of crime or chemicals, Ned began to struggle again. Eliot hung on with grim determination, soaping up her head and backside. “This’ll keep fleas from migratin’ where you don’t want ‘em,” he told Ned.
As he wet and lathered her back, Eliot ended up nearly as covered in shampoo as Ned.
“Now you won’t have fleas either,” Parker pointed out.
Eliot’s response was more of a snarl than actual words.
Hardison laughed and filmed it all.
“You better not be plannin’ on puttin’ that anywhere near YouTube!” Eliot warned him.
At that moment, Ned achieved sufficient slipperiness to shoot out of Eliot’s arms like a wet bar of soap. She skittered across the bathroom floor, shoved by Hardison, and escaped out into the master bedroom, trailing dirty water and bubbles.
“Get back here!” Eliot shouted, taking up pursuit. “Hardison, don’t just stand there like a useless lump!”
“Hey, I’m just the cameraman.” Hardison said. “I don’t do canine retrievals.”
Ned disappeared under the bed.
“I got this!” Parker went under the bed after her.
Ned came boiling out the other side and dashed out into the main room of the apartment, Eliot hot on her tail.
Parker popped out and joined the pursuit.
Hardison followed them recording the wild chase.
Ned dodged around him.
“Hardison, catch her!” Eliot shouted.
“No way.” Hardison refused.
“Whee!” Parker galloped after the dog. “Got her! Whoops! No I don’t.”
Every time Eliot or Parker would get their hands on her, Ned would slither out of their grasp.
This was going to be the best comedy show ever. Hardison was going to have blackmail material when it was all over. Eliot leaping over the back of the couch. Parker swinging on her rigging through the room like a diminutive Tarzan. Eliot crawling under the table running into Parker crawling from the other side. Ned zooming away from both of them.
When they finally succeeded in cornering Ned and pinning her down, Parker agreed to help Eliot finish the bath.
Between the two of them, they wrestled Ned back into the shower.
After much cursing (Eliot) and giggle-snorting (Parker) and whinging (Ned), the mission was accomplished, the fleas hopefully annihilated and down the drain, and Ned free of filth and bad odors.
Eliot was sprawled against the wall of the shower in exhaustion, and Parker was laughing so hard she had fallen against his chest. One of his arms held her from crashing into the tile. They were both drenched to the point of transparency. Water glistened on their arms and faces. Parkers blond hair hung in long soaked strands, while Eliot’s darker hair curled and clung to his neck.
Hardison had to catch his breath. The two of them were so beautiful.
A disgruntled Ned spoiled the moment. She stood in the middle of the bathroom and shook water over everything that hadn’t already gotten wet—mostly Hardison.
“Hey! Stop that!” Hardison held his phone high out of range of the impromptu shower.
Ned shook herself again.
This time even Eliot was laughing. Hardison decided it was worth it.
* * * * *
Later, when they were all dried and dressed again, the three of them sat on the couch, watching cartoons for Parker.
Parker was curled up against Hardison, steadily consuming Froot Loops.
Eliot was still somewhat peeved about the cereal, but for him, he was relaxed.
The dreaded bath being over, Ned had forgiven everyone and was nestled next to Eliot, her head on his leg, her thin sides rising with her snores.
It felt like home and family.
* * * * *
The next morning, Eliot took Ned to the shelter. Two hours later she was back.