“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.
They developed a routine, a kind of rhythm. Eliot took Ned to Animal Rescue. Ned escaped. Rinse and repeat. The shelter assured Eliot they had no idea how she was getting out.
The situation when Amy returned from her Architecture of East Asia study tour was at an impasse. The Brew Pub staff were endlessly amused.
Finally, Eliot insisted on putting Ned in her cage himself and overseeing the lock.
He came back to the Brew Pub in as foul a temper as Hardison had seen him in a long time. Meat got tenderized like Eliot was slaying demons. Vegetables were minced so fine they were practically dust. The entire staff were cowering the way they had done the first few months after they had started work.
Eliot even snapped at Parker. Really snapped. Like he meant it.
Parker showed up in the apartment frowning. Hardison was busy tracing some accounts for their current job when she hopped up on his desk, crossed her legs, and sighed loudly.
Placing his work on hold, Hardison looked up. “What is it, babe?”
“Eliot’s gone all prickly again,” Parker informed him. “I think he misses Ned.”
“That’s okay, then. She’ll probably be here by this evening. He can get his dog fix and go back to being his usual grumpy self.”
“No, he locked her up himself. He says she’s not getting out.”
“Oh. I suppose not.” Eliot was probably unnaturally skilled at making cages escape proof, come to think of it.
Parker stayed silent while Hardison continued working.
Finally, she asked, “Why doesn’t Eliot want a dog? He likes Ned. She likes him. We like her too. Nobody else seems to want her. He could totally have a dog.”
Hardison shook his head. “I don’t know, mama. You know Eliot. Always talking about his mental health and feelings.”
Parker screwed up her face in bewilderment. “Eliot never does that.”
“It’s sarcasm,” Hardison started to explain. “You know what? Never mind. I’ll talk to Eliot tonight. See if I can get him to tell me what’s going on.”
“That’s all right then.” Parker hopped off his desk, smiling as if he’d already solved the problem.
“You know he might not want to talk,” he cautioned.
“He’ll talk to you.” Parker was confident. “You’re good at peopling.”
Hardison wasn’t so sure.
* * * * *
Hardison spent the afternoon maneuvering Eliot into the correct frame of mind for a serious conversation. He invited himself along on Eliot’s usual run, and Hardison hated running with the flaming heat of a thousand suns. Then he demanded the most complicated of his favourite foods so that Eliot could lock himself in the kitchen to work out some of his frustrations on ingredients. Eliot went one further on him and made an entire croquembouche. Parker was enchanted with the high pile of tiny creampuffs enveloped in spun sugar. She ate herself into a sugar high that had her swinging off the rafters.
Food had the opposite effect on Hardison who had eaten himself into a torpor and barely made it to the couch where he sat like a slug watching 3 hours of football with Eliot. Well, Eliot watched 3 hours. Hardison woke up after 3 hours with his head on Eliot’s shoulder, having drooled embarrassingly on his shirt.
Hardison apologized profusely, but Eliot seemed not to mind. Most of the angry tension had dissipated out of him, and he looked tired and maybe a little lost.
There wasn’t going to be a better opportunity.
Gathering his courage, Hardison turned so he could see Eliot’s face without cranking his neck. “Hey. You gonna tell me why you don’t want a dog? I mean, you seem like the kind of guy who’d like dogs, you know?”
He wasn’t sure Eliot was going to talk. Sometimes he’d ask a personal question, and Eliot would go silent, and eventually Hardison would pull back to discussing whatever mundane job was at hand.
The television continued to rattle on about the game, and Eliot faced straight forward as if he were watching, but his eyes weren’t following the movement on screen.
“Yeah, I like dogs,” he said after the pause had become awkward. “That’s kinda the problem.”
Hardison waited, but Eliot didn’t say any more.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.”
This time Eliot looked at him, a bit of a smile touching the corner of his mouth, his eyes soft in the flickering light of the screen, like he knew what Hardison was trying to do.
“My family had a few dogs when I was a kid,” he said. “Never just my dog. ‘Cept for one. He was still the family pet, but he was mine. Big old golden retriever. Used to sleep on my bed. Didn’t leave me much room. He died the year I turned 18. Old age, nothing tragic. But that was one of the reasons I didn’t have anything to hold me home.”
The silence after this small revelation had a waiting quality to it, as though Eliot was searching for words—or trust—or both.
Hardison stayed still, projecting encouragement. He’d become good at that. Neither Eliot nor Parker could be forced into sharing anything.
Just when he was about ready to give up, Eliot shifted, looking away again, and began to speak in a voice that was more vibration than sound. Hardison eased off on the volume of the TV to make sure he could hear.
“My last dog was back when I was working for the US government, stuff that doesn’t get talked about. We’d go out in choppers with their IDs filed off. Places we never were, officially. Get done what had to be done. Get out alive if we could. We knew if we went down or were caught nobody was comin’ to get us. We didn’t exist. Couldn’t exist.” Eliot paused, staring down at his hands. Then he clenched them into fists and looked up at the screen. “The team I led had an MWD,” he continued. “A military working dog. She was a Belgian Malinois, trained to search for explosives and—other targets. One of my men, Jack, was her handler. She saved our lives more than once.”
Eliot stopped. This time he remained silent for so long Hardison thought that might be as much as he was getting.
Eliot’s military past remained an area Hardison left strictly alone after his first cursory search had turned up nothing at all beyond Eliot’s first year of service. The kid Eliot had been had enlisted at the beginning of the Gulf War. Whatever he had become after that had been buried far beneath the surface. Hardison could have pried. He wasn’t sure if he didn’t do so because he had some modicum of respect for Eliot’s privacy or because he didn’t want to know the sorts of things Eliot had done or if he just didn’t want to know that those things had been sanctioned by his country. Occasionally, Eliot would let some scrap of intelligence fall, and Hardison would silently collect it and add it to his file of things that made Eliot Spencer tick.
When Eliot started talking again, his voice was flat, like he was giving a report. But like those unsanctioned choppers, all identifying information was filed off the account.
“We were young and stupid and invincible and stuffed full of brotherhood and patriotism. And we were armed with—the kind of tech that’s still not public.”
Eliot gave a bitter breath of a laugh. “God, you know why you only ever see squirrels dead on the road in late spring? It’s because it’s the young ones think they can beat the cars. The old ones, the survivors, run across on the wires. We were a bunch of teenage squirrels. Thought we were immortal. Hadn’t learned that you can only cheat fate for so long. Sooner or later, you're flattened and dryin' out in a rut on the pavement with tire tracks imprinted on your hide.”
Hardison could hear some emotion trying to claw its way out of Eliot’s voice, but Eliot ruthlessly suppressed it and continued, “Our chopper was shot down . . . well, someplace we really weren’t supposed to be. Surface to air missile. We didn’t even have a chance to eject. The thing was on fire . . . I tried to . . . they were all dead . . . before I could . . . anyway, the dog and I were the only ones that walked away. I had to drag her off Jack’s body. She just lay there and cried. I managed to get us away, but the blast still threw us when the chopper blew. I knew it was only a matter of time before they found us. Big fireball like that is pretty visible.”
Eliot shook his head as though trying to clear his ears of the echo of a long-dead sound.
“I splinted my leg with some of the wreckage. Turns out it was broken. Too much adrenaline, and I hadn’t noticed. Then the dog and I headed out. I couldn’t be sure how badly she was hurt, but she could keep up with my limp.”
Hardison noted that Eliot’s hand was moving over his knee like he was soothing some phantom pain.
“We were on the run for something like three weeks,” Eliot continued, his voice dispassionate, as if he were talking about the plot of a movie about someone else’s life. “It was long enough for her to become my dog. As long as we had each other, we weren’t alone. She’d warn me when any searchers or locals got too close. I gave her the last water we had.
“It was 120 degrees most days. Dehydration was a bigger enemy than IEDs. Every survival trick I knew only gave us a few drops a day.”
“But you made it out,” Hardison prompted when Eliot didn’t say more.
“I did. She didn’t.”
“I got caught, sneaking into a small town to find water. We were both pretty far gone. She was just shaking, her eyes glazed. I was carrying her.”
In the low light, Eliot’s eyes shone with too many unshed tears.
“Military dogs are always targets, you know,” he said, matter-of-factly. But the deep breath he took shook a little.
“They ripped her away from me and shot her.”
There was a hairline crack in Eliot’s voice, but the rest of his story was rock solid and expressionless.
“After that, they roughed me up a bit, locked me away to figure what use to make of me. Didn’t stick around to find out though. Wasn’t anything left of me but rage and never giving a fuck again. There ain’t half that town there anymore. Stole enough weapons and gear to make it back and threw a grenade into the rest. Walked right up to our outpost without payin’ any mind to possible IEDs or enemy snipers. Coulda blown myself up, maybe been shot. Didn’t care.
“Didn’t care about anything for—for a long time.”
Hardison couldn’t even imagine. He wanted to comfort Eliot, but what could he do? Finally, he asked, “What was her name?”
Eliot smiled then. “Cami. Only name I could think of to call a dog the other night. I guess she did me one more good turn.”
He stood up. “I’m goin’ home. Thanks for the beer.”
Hardison suppressed the little twinge that always came when Eliot referred to his other place as home.
At the door, Eliot turned. “You asked why I don’t want a dog. That’s why. I ain’t goin’ through that with a dog again.”
* * * * *
The next few days felt off kilter somehow, as if the absence of Ned was a severe enough wound to need time to heal even though they had always intended for her to go.
Parker would come home from her shift at the restaurant where she was working under cover and look around as if she was missing the ticking sound of Ned’s claws as she rushed to investigate and greet any new arrival. Eliot would come home from golfing and cocktails with the marks and their trophy wives, shedding argyle and pastel like it burned his skin, and finding every little irregularity grating on his nerves. Parker and Hardison bore the brunt of his anger because they could take it. They could give him the freedom to lose control even if only a little. Hardison had to remind himself not to get his feelings hurt, but anger was Parker’s native heath, and Eliot’s words would roll off her like rain off of glass. Sometimes Hardison was convinced that Parker was being extra annoying just to provoke Eliot and draw his fire.
Then the Animal Rescue people called. Ned had been doing poorly in their care. She’d just come back from having been spayed at the vet, and she was refusing to eat or drink. They thought she would do better in a home environment. Some dogs just didn’t like being caged. Would Eliot consider fostering her until they could find her a permanent home?
Parker told them, yes, before Eliot could shake an argument out of his brain. Not that he seemed argumentative. He might even have been looking relieved that she’d taken the decision out of his hands. Certainly, he took off to fetch Ned with alacrity.
* * * * *
When Eliot walked through the door with Ned in his arms, Parker went off into a shriek of laughter.
Since Ned was reduced to her former scrawny state, Eliot and Hardison were at a loss to account for her hilarity.
When Parker finally subsided with a hiccup, she pointed at Ned. “It’s the Cone of Shame!”
Ned was wearing the plastic cone to prevent her from chewing at her stitches.
Parker promised Ned they would watch Up that evening. “You’re going to love Dug!”
That evening they all sat together on the couch, as they had on the last night Ned had been with them, watching Dug trying to catch Kevin on the big screens. Ned seemed fascinated, and Hardison wondered briefly if a collar that translated dog into human would ever be something more than fiction.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you could talk?” he asked Ned.
Parker gave him a bewildered look. “But Ned can talk,” she said.
“Um,” said Hardison, turning to Eliot for help.
Eliot shrugged. “So what is she saying now?” he asked.
Parker snorted like they were all particularly dimwitted. “She’s saying, ‘I love this couch. I love Eliot’s leg. But I do not like the Cone of Shame’.”
* * * * *
As Ned recovered, their days assumed a new kind of routine.
Health regulations kept Ned out of the Brew Pub kitchen, so she hung out with Parker (and Hardison if he got up in time) until Eliot got back from getting the morning’s food prep on its way. When he walked through the door, Ned would hurl herself at him in a paroxysm of joy.
Parker became Ned’s official translator. “She’s saying ‘Oh my god! You’re alive! I thought I’d lost you forever! Let me smell you. Are you okay? You smell like food! I’m hungry! But first rub my tummy!’”
Since Ned did roll over to present her tummy on which the fur was returning, perhaps Parker really did understand dog. Eliot obliged by giving her belly skritches. Then he’d go to their kitchen to prepare Ned’s meals. She was the most spoilt dog in the universe because she had her own personal chef.
Ned would eat her breakfast while Eliot cooked for Hardison and Parker. Then she would beg from under the table as if she were a poor starving dog who’d never had a square meal in her entire life. They all said they wouldn’t fall for that grift, but they always did.
After cleanup, Ned would go for a run with Eliot. Her favorite place was the dog park where Eliot would throw a Frisbee or a tennis ball.
Then it would be time for Eliot to prep for the lunch crowd and supervise the noon rush.
Ned would spend her Eliot-free time playing with Parker who decided that the dog could use a pal. She brought out Parker 2000, which she was still calling Hardy in spite of what was written right on its side. Hardison resigned himself that his cutting edge invention was most valued as a dog toy.
Ned hated Parker 2000 more than Parker ever had. Her one goal whenever Parker brought out the bright green monster, was to deliver her people from the demon-possessed creature. She growled. She barked. She performed her battle dance around it. She chased it from one end of the apartment to the other. She knocked it over and batted it around the floor.
Well, that was one way to stress-test the construction.
Hardison finally had to flee to his workroom to settle his nerves.
When Leverage was in full con-briefing mode, Ned would sit at Eliot’s feet and listen intently as Hardison outlined where they were in tracing the shenanigans of the marks.
Some evenings, she’d join Hardison in testing the advance copy of Final Fantasy XX which was still in its development stages and buggy as hell. Ned always watched intently, and once, she noticed an ambush before Hardison did, saving him from making a fatal error.
Eliot stayed over more often now that Ned was there, but he’d never let her in his room. Apparently that was his way of still not having a dog. Ned slept on the floor in front of Eliot’s door so that if he wasn’t paying attention he could step on her. Of course Eliot always paid attention.
Parker stole Ned a fluffy dog bed, but Ned ignored it until Parker set it in front of Eliot’s door.
Occasionally Amy would dog sit for them when they had to spend parts of the day away on Leverage business. She didn’t mind getting paid to play with Ned instead of wait on customers.
Amy was even willing to become Ned’s full-time caregiver when the case of the shady real-estate dealers sent them to Florida.
Eliot told Ned good-bye and admonished her to be a good girl, and then the three of them were off to the airport.
* * * * *
They had only been in Florida three days when the emergency phone rang, the one Hardison reserved to keep in touch with the Brew Pub.
Hardison answered it gingerly. His staff had never called him on the job before.
They were all on the line talking at once, so it took him a few moments to sort out the problem. As it transpired, every single one of his employees was trying to absolve themselves of any culpability.
Apparently Ned was missing Eliot and had fallen into deepest despair, lying by the front door of the Brew Pub and staring at the spot from which the god of her idolatry had departed.
She absolutely refused to eat. The sous chef assured Hardison that he had prepared all Ned’s favourite foods, but not even a good marrow bone with the meat still on it could tempt the mourning animal.
The bar tender had gone so far as to bring his cat to work in the hopes that a worthy opponent would renew Ned’s interest in life. His reward was a lifted head, but apparently the cat was insufficient motivation for Eliot’s small worshipper to leave her self-assigned post. And Ned had surrendered to Parker 2000 without a fight, having no one to defend anymore.
Amy had managed to get Ned to take a few sips of water, for which she was justifiably proud, but other than that, the creature seemed determined to hunger strike until Eliot returned. Which had better be soon because having a starving dog outside the establishment was not going to inspire customer satisfaction. Hardison had better send Eliot home if wanted to find the dog or the business still viable.
Hardison assured them their “business trip” was nearly complete and hung up.
Finding Eliot in order to send him home was going to be a bit complicated because he was out investigating the swamp that had been supposed to be beautiful sea-side condominiums, wrestling alligators or whatever it was people like Eliot who hadn’t the good sense to stay out of mosquito- and snake-infested jungles liked to do with themselves. If he hadn’t been eaten by a hippopotamus or whatever, Hardison would book them on the first flight out.
* * * * *
The first sound of Eliot’s voice as he stepped out of Lucille onto the pavement behind the Brew Pub set off enough frantic barking for a whole pack of dogs. Ned came flying around the corner, ran up the wall, sprang onto the dumpster, and launched herself at Eliot at a good 30 miles per hour by Parker’s estimation. Eliot was a man Hardison would put money on in a contest of strength with Superman himself, but taking a hit from 60 pounds of speeding dog right in the chest sent him staggering back against Lucille with enough force to dent the sheet metal, and Hardison planned to be having a serious conversation with Ned about that. A Serious Conversation.
Laughing and a bit winded, Eliot slid to the damp ground while Ned trampled all over him, licking his face and scolding him with sharp little barks for abandoning her to death. She punctuated her affectionate attack with exuberant dashes in circles, her tail nearly a blur. Occasionally, she would lick Parker or Hardison, too. Finally, she let Eliot scramble to his feet and head inside, but she continued to dance along beside him, occasionally jumping up on him in sheer excitement. Eliot was pretty much covered in muddy paw prints.
“Some people’s boyfriends come home with lipstick on their shirts.” Hardison laughed.
Eliot gave him a strange look.
* * * * *
It was ironic that the phone call came that night.
“It’s the Animal Rescue,” Parker said, locating Eliot’s phone in the laundry hamper where he’d thrown his muddy jeans.
“Put it on speaker,” Eliot said since his hands were covered in dough.
“Mr. Spencer, I’ve got great news,” said the voice on the phone. “We’ve found a family down in Gresham that wants to give Ned a forever home.”
“Oh,” Eliot said, a bit stunned sounding.
Parker looked at Hardison. Was this a good thing?
After a moment the phone voice queried, “Are you still there?”
“What? Oh, yeah. Um. Good. That’s great to hear.” Eliot was fumbling for his words. “She’s a good dog. She deserves a real home.”
“They seem like a nice family,” the voice went on happily. “There’s a little girl who’s 9. They’ve got a fenced yard and almost an acre of space. There’s even a bit of a stream. I’m sure she’ll be happy there.”
“That sounds nice,” Eliot said.
“They’ll be here tomorrow at 10 a.m.”
“I’ll have her there. Thank you.”
Parker hung up for him.
Eliot just stood there, with his hands in the bowl, like he didn’t remember what to do next.
* * * * *
That night, Eliot fixed Ned all the dishes she loved best, including Brussels sprouts. Then the two of them went for a run to the dog park. Ned brought her Frisbee from where she had buried all her toys in expectation of her demise, and Eliot took it along.
When the two of them were gone, Parker climbed onto Hardison’s lap, something she almost never did. She put her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder. Hardison hugged her close, feeling his pulse pick up with a little thrill the way it always did when Parker let her guard down.
“Do you think Eliot wishes Ned was his dog?” Parker murmured.
“Maybe a little.” Hardison knew he wanted Ned to be Eliot’s dog. The man needed someone who didn't see Eliot Spencer, one of the most dangerous men in the world. He needed someone like Ned who only saw Eliot, the man she loved.
“Why can’t he have Ned?” Parker asked plaintively. “We wouldn’t even have to steal her. They’re trying to give her away.”
Hardison shook his head, feeling her hair brush his cheek. “You know how it is. Eliot thinks he can’t keep her. Sometimes things happen, and you’re not the person you wish you were.”
* * * * *
The next morning every moment seemed a tiny farewell to every routine that wasn’t going to happen again. Parker brought out Parker 2000, but their laughter at Ned’s antics had a catch in it. Eliot set down Ned’s last breakfast. Ned’s begging nose peeked out from under the tablecloth for the last time. Hardison played Final Fantasy with her while Eliot packed her ball and Frisbee and bed into a duffle bag. Parker would have given her Parker 2000, but Hardison cut off that idea.
Then Eliot called Ned over to the door. Going down on one knee, he took her whiskery face between his hands and looked into her uncomprehending eyes.
“You’re going to a new home, Ned. You’ll have a little girl to play with. She can throw your ball and maybe your Frisbee. Maybe she’ll tie pretty ribbons on you. There’s a stream you can play in. You can keep her safe. You’ll like that, won’t you?”
He ran his hands through the fur on her neck and fondled her ears. “Are you ready to go?”
Ned was always ready to go out with Eliot, even when he was being strange and solemn, so when he stood up, she barked and spun around a couple of times.
“Wait!” Parker came running out of her bedroom carrying a bright green ribbon. She tied it around Ned’s neck in a fluffy bow. “Eliot said you might like pretty ribbons. Goodbye, Not Eliot’s Dog.”
It was probably a good thing the dog was going away. Hardison was developing allergies. He had to dash away the water from the stinging in his eyes with the back of his hand.
* * * * *
With Ned gone, the apartment seemed a little too quiet and a little too empty. Hardison actually volunteered to run with Eliot again, just so he didn’t have to go alone those first few days. Parker made him take her climbing. The restaurant staff even took to provoking Eliot into his favorite rants because anything was better than Eliot being quiet and efficient and not even really there. Hardison floated another molecular gastronomy novelty by him, like a red cape to a bull, and was rewarded with a true rampage of Eliot the Chef—the ornery old Luddite. But he couldn’t use that trick too frequently or Eliot would catch on.
The fact that their case heated up right away was a mercy. It turned out that the slimy real-estate guys were not only illegally selling shares to non-existent condominiums, they were also mobbed up. Eliot had located at least three shallow graves on that Florida property. So all that Leverage had to do now that they had proof of multiple crimes crossing state lines was to lay out the evidence trail and send the appropriate law enforcement in the right direction.
The night they planned the final takedown, Parker and Eliot dressed up all in black to minimize their chances of being seen. They would be breaking into the real-estate offices one last time. Putting on ordinary coats to disguise their more sinister clothing, they shouldered their packs and duffels and waited for Hardison to finish grabbing his electronics equipment. Together they piled into Lucille, and Eliot drove them to the location they’d picked to hide the van.
While Hardison set up the feeds to all the security cams, Eliot and Parker dissolved into darkness. He wouldn’t see them again until the job was over unless something went wrong. His task was to make sure the building’s own cameras didn’t see them either.
Comms were live, but Parker and Eliot never made any sound when they moved. It was downright disturbing sometimes. Hardison resisted the urge to talk to them. It was a relief to hear the familiar thuds and grunts and the clicks of a weapon being disarmed that meant Eliot was past the security guard. The whole operation took less than fifteen minutes. All evidence of their tampering with the office was removed, and Eliot and Parker were on their way out.
As soon as they were back at the van, Hardison would call in the anonymous tip and send the encrypted files to the FBI. Nothing could be easier.
He should have known better than to think that thought.
A dark car with lights off and tinted windows pulled into the mouth of the alley. They were so close to where Hardison was hiding in the concealed Lucille that he didn’t dare breathe for fear they would hear him. Six men got out of the vehicle dragging a seventh one unwillingly along with them.
He had to warn his team.
“Eliot! Parker!” Hardison whispered. “You gotta get outa there, now!”
“What’s the situation?” Eliot’s subvocalized question sounded in his ear.
“You got company incoming. They’re either the same guys we saw last time or their clones.”
“Six. And what looks like a hostage.” The minute he said that, he knew it was a mistake.
Eliot was never going to leave some stranger to the wolves when he was around to play hero.
“Parker, you get out the front,” Eliot said. “I’ll take care of this.”
At times like this, Hardison wished Parker had a smidgen more fear in her bones. But she just breathed her agreement.
“Okay, Hardison, tell me what you see,” Eliot demanded.
“Dammit, Eliot! Why you gotta do this?” Hardison complained under his breath. “There’s six guys, probably all armed but only one of ‘em’s got a gun out. At least I think he’s got a gun under his coat. They’re coming to the back door. Four of ‘em are holding back. Then there’s the one with the hostage. He’s the guy in the lighter jacket. And one is unlocking the door. Eliot what . . .”
The door opened, and the man with the key fell like he’d been hit by a sledgehammer. Which he pretty much had. Eliot came out the door like a vengeful Fury, grabbing the gun of the man holding the hostage before he could even register what was happening, and using it to knock him across the head even as Eliot ejected the magazine and unchambered the round.
“Get outa the way!” he growled at the hostage, pushing the man aside and wading into the remaining three guys who were still fumbling for their weapons.
Wait a minute. Where was the damn fourth guy?
“Eliot! Someone’s missing!” Hardison called frantically.
Over the comms, Hardison heard the sound of the slide being racked on a semi-automatic shotgun.
“Very impressive, I’m sure,” said an unimpressed voice. “Now if you would be so kind as to put up your hands.”
Eliot stood in the shadows, surrounded by the unconscious forms and empty weapons of the five goons he’d just fought. The hostage had had the good sense to crawl through the door out of sight.
Hardison had never forgotten Eliot’s little gunpoint lecture about the mistake most people made—getting too close. This gunman was not making that mistake.
Very slowly Eliot raised his hands. In the light of the street lamp, he smiled at the gunman and tilted his head in acknowledgement of a good play. Eliot Fucking Spencer. Always final boss overlord level composed.
Hardison, on the other hand, was panicking. He was simultaneously trying to access the local grid so he could blow the area lights, giving Eliot the advantage of darkness, and calling 911. As soon as Dispatch picked up, Hardison outlined the situation—active shooter, men down—and gave the address. The grid was taking too much time.
Parker was silent on the comms the way she always was when Eliot was in mortal danger. Parker knew about not joggling people’s elbows.
“I could simply shoot you,” the gunman said conversationally, “but I am possibly overly-optimistic in waiting for you to reveal the purpose of your presence here and your somewhat precipitous assumption that my people were in need of being disabled.”
“Look,” said Eliot, equally cool. “If you expect me to give you the evil speech of evil, I ain’t doin’ it. So you might as well just shoot me and get it over with.”
Hardison could hear the eye roll in Eliot’s voice.
“Ah, an intelligent opponent. How vanishingly rare. I really do hate to kill you.”
“Sorry, but I’m not here to play Princess Bride with you.”
How could Eliot sound so . . . bored! Also, great geek reference. Hardison was a little proud, on top of the terror.
The gunman laughed and pulled the trigger.
At the same moment, with a ferocious growl, a black dog sprang off the dumpster behind the gunman sinking white teeth into his wrist. The startled man gave a shout of pain and slammed the dog into the edge of the dumpster.
Eliot had stiffened when the shot went off, then he charged at the gunman, wrenching the weapon from his grasp with one hand while driving his other elbow into the man’s face.
Without even glancing at his fallen opponent, Eliot ran to the still lump of fur lying motionless on the pavement.
“Ned! Ned! Sweetie, are you okay?” Eliot knelt beside the dog. He was holding one arm tight to his right side and Hardison could see the wet glitter of blood. With his left hand, he reached out to barely brush Ned’s head.
Hardison’s mouth felt desert-dry. Not again. Eliot hadn’t wanted a dog because he didn’t want to lose one again.
Then the head lifted up ever so slightly, and Ned licked Eliot’s hand.
Hardison gave a whoop and punched Lucille’s ceiling.
“She’s not dead?” Parker’s voice sounded in his ear.
“No, she’s not!” Hardison reported jubilantly. He could hear the faint sounds of sirens now. Ugh. That meant dealing with the police.
The back door of the van opened, and he turned to see Parker hop in and begin pawing through drawers for a change of clothes.
“When you have to deal with the police, it’s best to be the police,” Parker said, sounding for all the world exactly like Nate.
“Right.” Hardison agreed. “Hell, yes.”
“And since this is going to be an FBI case . . .” Parker said, holding out a jacket for Hardison.
“Hello, Special Agents Hagen and Thomas!” Hardison finished, slipping into the uniform.
In the few minutes they had before the area was swarming with cops, Parker and Hardison ran to Eliot’s side.
“How is she?” Hardison asked.
Ned was still lying on the ground. Eliot was using his phone as a flashlight to check the color of her gums.
“Alive,” Eliot said. “But she’s not getting up. Every time she tries, she cries. I’m trying to tell if she’s got internal injuries, but this light is crap.”
“You’re shot,” Parker commented, noting the blood soaking Eliot’s shirt.
“Just a scratch.” Eliot brushed off her concern. “Plowed a groove across my ribs and just nicked under my arm. Thanks to Ned, his aim was off.”
“That’s a little more than a scratch,” Hardison objected. But this was Eliot If-I’m-Conscious-I-Don’t-Need-A-Doctor Spencer. There was next to no hope he was going to let them fuss over him.
“I’ll live,” Eliot growled. “Now we need to get Ned to a vet. I can tell if I’ve broken something, but she can’t talk. She needs x-rays.”
Hardison pulled out his phone for a quick search. “There’s a veterinary hospital with an ER and specialists open 24/7 in Clackamas.”
“Let’s get her ready to go, then.”
But their departure was complicated by the arrival of police cruisers on both ends of the alley.
“Quick,” said Parker. “Eliot lay down. You’re in need of a doctor. We’ll volunteer to take you.”
* * * * *
Special Agents Hagen and Thomas met with the Oregon City chief of police, pointed out the witness hiding in the restaurant, and assured her that all the unconscious men were wanted as part of an ongoing FBI investigation. Their second unit would be by tomorrow to take charge of the interrogations.
“Our CI was winged in the altercation,” Special Agent Hagen told the officer. “Nothing requiring an ambulance, but we’ll take him by the ER just to be sure.”
She left Agent Thomas to fluff up the ego of the local constabulary with extravagant compliments on their reaction time and handling of the situation.
By the time Hardison got back to Eliot, he and Parker had slipped Ned onto a blanket from Lucille. Since Eliot was playing the walking wounded, Hardison and Parker lifted the dog carefully between them. As gentle as they were, Ned still whimpered in pain.
Hardison winced all the way back to the van.
Eliot kept a hand on Ned’s head as he walked beside them.
In the end, Eliot had to ride in the back lying next to Ned. She got too agitated if he took his hand off her.
“Hardison, you drive,” Eliot said meaningfully.
“Oh, yeah,” Hardison agreed. “I’m pickin’ up what you’re layin’ down.”
* * * * *
Parker and Hardison carried Ned into the Veterinary ER on their makeshift stretcher. She raised her head to look around, but when she tried to move, she gave a shrill cry.
The sound twisted in Hardison’s stomach.
“Shhh. Lie still. That’s a good dog. Good doggie.” Eliot soothed as they laid the blanket on top of the examination table.
Hardison filled out paperwork, and Eliot answered the veterinary assistant’s questions while they waited.
The vet who met them introduced herself as Dr. Angkiri. “And who is this?” she asked.
“Ned. Her name’s Ned,” Eliot replied, running his hand over the dog’s head.
“What happened?” Dr. Angkiri asked as she pulled on neoprene gloves. “Hello, Ned. I’m going to be examining you to see where you’re injured.”
“She was thrown against a dumpster by a guy the police were after.” Eliot was sticking fairly close to the truth.
The doctor examined Ned, chatting as she worked. “I don’t see any signs that she’s got internal injuries. Her color is a little pale and her pulse is a little high, but that’s probably just shock. She’s got some major hematoma along her right side. But what really seems to be bothering her is her shoulder. I’m going to send you down for some x-rays so we can see what’s going on.”
They all followed Ned’s gurney down to the radiology lab. At that hour of the night they were the only ones waiting.
The technician tried to have Eliot leave the room, but Ned got too upset, so Eliot ended up donning the lead apron and joining her to keep her calm.
Parker and Hardison left Eliot and Ned back in their ER cubicle waiting for the results of Ned’s imaging and went in search of coffee and snacks. While they were gone, Dr. Angkiri returned.
“Good news,” she told Eliot. “Internally, she seems fine. Nothing is broken. She’s just got a dislocated shoulder. Hurts like hell, but we can fix her up.”
“Yes!” Hardison danced several steps down the hall. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about!”
“I don’t think she’ll need surgery,” the vet continued. “I’ll just put it in place, and we can use bandages to support the leg and shoulder. She’ll need plenty of cage rest so she can avoid injuring herself further. And you’ll want to ice both the shoulder and the bruising on her side.”
“I don’t think I want to hear this part,” Hardison told Parker.
But Ned took whatever manipulation the vet was doing like a trooper, only jarring Hardison’s nerves with one really anguished yelp.
Parker squeezed his hand comfortingly.
As they were walking back to the ER sipping blessed coffee, they heard the vet ask Eliot, “Pardon me. I don’t mean to pry, but are you going to be okay? I mean that’s not your dog’s blood.”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Eliot said. “It looks worse than it is.”
“I know I’m not a human doctor,” she persisted, “but I’d say you should get that looked at.”
“Thank you,” Eliot replied.
He didn’t bother to tell her that it wasn’t nearly cold enough in hell for him to be thinking about seeing a doctor.
Hardison just shook his head. There was nothing you could do with the guy.
* * * * *
“How do you think she just happened to be there in that alley?” Hardison asked as they were driving back to Portland.
“I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure,” Eliot said from the back where he was sitting with a drugged and drowsy Ned. “She must have run away again, and on her way through Oregon City, stopped by the place where she used to get food.”
“That family is probably pretty worried.” Hardison realized. “I’ll call Animal Rescue tomorrow, and see if they can contact them. Let ‘em know Ned’s okay.”
“Sort of okay,” put in Parker.
Eliot stayed silent.
Back at the Brew Pub, Hardison was designated to carry Ned. Eliot was looking a lot paler than usual.
When they made it to the apartment, they realized that they no longer had Ned’s bed.
“It’s okay,” Eliot said. “She can sleep on mine.”
Ned, however, still refused to be parted from Eliot, and Parker was getting that “I’m the boss, and you’re getting first aid” look about her.
They finally settled Ned in the doorway of the bathroom on a fluffy purple rug that Parker loved but that Hardison insisted looked like somebody had killed a muppet. They had to assure the water-phobic Ned that for now, she was safe from baths.
Eliot, on the other hand, was not.
“Do I get any say in this?” he asked mildly.
A mild Eliot was never a safe one.
Parker, however, lived a life of jumping where angels feared to fly. “Nope,” she told him, hauling the big first aid kit out of the closet. “Sit.” She pointed at the toilet seat.
Hardison grinned. His woman. She had the most dangerous man on the planet wrapped around her thieving little finger. He stood beside Ned in the doorway, not seeing anything he could do for Eliot that Parker wasn’t already doing.
Hardison always felt particularly helpless when people (or animals) got injured. He’d taken a course in first aid and kept up his certification ever since Nate had been shot in that bank job, and Eliot had been the only one who knew what to do. And frankly, who was gonna be the most likely to need repairing? Eliot “I don’t do hospitals” Spencer. That’s who. Not that Eliot didn’t seem to possess an inexhaustible supply of highly competent, unfairly attractive medical personnel who had dated him at one time or another and were willing to nurse him back to health. But what Hardison really didn’t know was how to keep that kind of shit from happening in the first place.
In the end, he did the one thing he was exceptionally good at—research. Leaving Eliot to Parker’s efficient if less than tender ministrations, Hardison made his way to his beloved computer. If Leverage was going to have a canine team member, how could they keep her safe?
What did the military do for their dogs?
Hardison had a picture up on screen of the SEAL dog who’d been in on the take down of Osama bin Laden, when Eliot came back into the room. Parker, with all the insouciance Hardison wished he possessed, had cut him out of his bloody shirt, helped him clean up and stitch his wounds, and plastered him with bandages. But the jeans he was wearing were still crusted with blood that had run down his side and dripped from his arm.
Damn. Hardison just wanted to the hug the man until he promised never to do that again.
Ned agreed with him. She was drowsy and limping, but she was plastered to Eliot’s leg like she never planned to let him out of her sight.
“Look up K9 Storm.” Eliot nodded at the dog in body armor on Hardison’s computer. “It’s a company in Canada where the army gets all its gear for dogs. They make vests that’ll stop a Threat Level II handgun round or a blade.”
“Got it.” Hardison said.
Eliot rested a hand on his shoulder. “Thanks, man,” he said quietly.
Parker bounced into the room looking like her clean-up strategy for Eliot had been to transfer all the gore from him to her.
“Eliot, bed,” she ordered.
Eliot rolled his eyes and made no move to comply.
Parker noticed the picture on screen. “Oh, cool! That harness system is rated for 2,500 pounds! Ned, you can rappel off skyscrapers with me! Do you need me to steal one?”
“They’re custom made, Parker,” Eliot said. “You can’t steal them.”
“Oh.” Parker looked disappointed. She eyed Eliot and the dog like they were a problem she needed to solve. Then she narrowed her eyes. “You need to lie down. Ned isn’t going to stop until you do, and the vet said she needs to spend lots of time immobile.”
Eliot knew when he’d been beaten. “I’ll just get her to sleep, and then I’ll make supper.”
“No, you will not!” Hardison objected. “You got shot, man!”
“We’ll order takeout,” Parker decided. “People who get shot don’t have to cook. They have to go to bed.”
“You see what I put up with?” Eliot asked Ned. She looked up at him in adoring agreement with whatever he said.
“Take Eliot to bed, Ned,” Parker told her. “Good dog.”
For a wonder, that worked.
Hardison gave Parker a high five as Eliot and his canine shadow trailed off in the direction of the room that was always Eliot’s when he stayed over. When Eliot slept at all in their home. If Hardison could have talked to Ned, he would have told her that loving Eliot Spencer would break your heart.
* * * * *
Later, Hardison found Parker leaning on the door frame of Eliot’s room, watching over their injured hitter and dog. Eliot lay on his bed, having actually gone to sleep. He hadn’t even bothered to get under the covers or put on a clean shirt. In the dim illumination from the door, the bandages on his ribs and arm were pale against his skin. Ned was curled up on his uninjured side, her head resting on his breastbone, staring dreamily at his face. Eliot’s arm circled her, his hand curved over her neck.
The faint light brushed over the planes of his chest and arms, soft enough to blur out the scars and the lines of his face. Hardison thought Eliot looked a bit like he must once have done as a young soldier, resting after a skirmish with his dog at his side.
Ned lifted her head and looked up at them, one cinnamon eyebrow tuft raised. Eliot’s hand tightened in her fur, but he didn’t wake.
Hardison glanced down and found Parker looking up at him, a happy smile on her face. He knew how she felt. It was good to see Eliot safe and at peace.
As they stealthily withdrew, Parker gave a silent little skip.
“I think Eliot has a dog now,” she whispered, hugging Hardison’s arm.
“Yeah, mama, pretty sure he does.”
“We can call her Ed.” Parker decided.
* * * * *