Amber’s left eye opened a crack at the sound of someone coming into the kitchen. Until the noise disturbed her, she had been happily dozing on the couch. Opening her right eye to join the left, she narrowed them both.
Where was Buster?
‘Buster is that you?’ she called out, her voice echoing through the house.
Buster’s voice came back sleepily, ‘Huh?’ It drifted in through the door to the living room, so he was out there somewhere, but she didn’t think it was him she heard. He sounded like he was by the front door.
A voice rang through the house. ‘Amber? It’s Celeste. Are you home?’
Now she knew who it was – her annoying neighbour, Celeste. Celeste had boundary issues, by which Amber meant that Celeste had no concept of boundaries. She thought it perfectly acceptable to just let herself in through the back having hopped over the fence dividing their gardens.
Amber could deal with Celeste letting herself into the back garden, but she drew the line at the house and was going to have something to say about it this time.
Performing an obligatory stretch when she got off the couch, she called out, ‘Celeste, what are you doing in my house?’
Buster eyed Amber lazily as she left the living room; he could generally be relied on to not bother moving unless there was food to be had.
Coming into the kitchen, Amber spotted Celeste lurking nervously by the back door. She was about to start tearing a shred from her when Amber noticed how on edge Celeste seemed. Instead of getting uppity, Amber narrowed her eyes.
‘What is it?’ Amber asked.
Celeste bowed her head slightly. ‘I’m sorry for barging in like this. I didn’t know where else to go and I heard the talk going around.’
‘Oh, yes?’ Amber wanted to hear more before she offered any opinion.
On the spot, and vibrating with nervous energy, Celeste acted as if Amber’s gaze had sucked all the moisture from her mouth. ‘Well, I heard that Buster has been bragging about your recent exploits. I figured he probably made a lot of it up …’
‘He did,’ Amber interrupted. Regardless of what Buster might have said, at least half of it would be exaggeration or his overactive imagination running away with itself.
Celeste continued to look uncomfortable, but finally got to the point of her visit. ‘There are men in my house. They are taking things. I think it might be those burglars we’ve been hearing about.’
Amber’s right eyebrow hitched a ride to the top of her face. This was something that piqued her interest. She hadn’t expected that. With Felicity out for the evening, her plan had been to spend some quality time on the couch, sleeping and doing little else until Felicity returned. By then, Amber would have stored up enough energy to power her main night-time sleep.
Buster appeared in the kitchen doorway behind her. ‘I heard my name,’ he announced by way of explaining his presence.
‘Celeste thinks her house is being burgled,’ supplied Amber while padding across the floor toward her neighbour.
Buster’s eyes flared and he puffed out his chest.
Amber drew level with Celeste and whispered, ‘He’s going to say something adventurous and brave now.’
Buster sucked in a deep and thoughtful breath through his nose. ‘Stand clear ladies, it’s time for me to go to work.’
Amber snorted a sad laugh and shook her head. ‘How do you propose to get out of the house, you dumb dog?’ Without sparing a look in his direction, she poked her head through the cat flap, paused to say, ‘Come along, Celeste,’ and left the house.
Half a second later, Buster’s face was pressed up against the cat sized exit, one eye squinting out.
Amber batted his nose with a paw. ‘Get out of the way. You’re blocking Celeste.’ Buster, a Bulldog with a head that looked a lot like someone drew a face on a bowling ball and then ran it over, cared not one jot that he was blocking the kitty door.
‘Help me get out, Amber,’ Buster begged. ‘You know you can operate the handle on the inside.’
The elegant Ragdoll cat sat on her haunches and licked a paw, her focus on that and nothing else.
‘Please,’ Buster begged. ‘I was born to deliver justice to the denizens of the criminal underworld.’
Amber squinted at him. ‘It’s lines like that one that make me want to leave you behind. Next you’ll claim that you are one with the darkness because it inhabits you.’
‘But I am one with …’
Amber batted his face again, stopping him mid-sentence. ‘Admit you’re a drooling idiot and I might let you out.’
Buster narrowed his eyes. There were things he wanted to say but none of them were going to get him out of the house. With a sigh, he said, ‘I’m a drooling idiot.’
Amber stopped licking her paw. ‘Well, back up then and let Celeste out,’ she commanded.
Without thinking, Buster removed his head from the cat flap which allowed the scraggly brown tabby cat from next door to slip out.
Amber’s voice came through the door. ‘And that is why you are a drooling idiot.’
She’d tricked him!
Buster’s angry ranting echoed through the neighbourhood as she leapt onto the fence and down again into Celeste’s garden. Once clear of that, she could hear Brutus yipping.
Heading for the open back door, Amber asked, ‘Where’s Brutus?’
‘Under a bowl,’ sniggered Celeste.
Brutus, the tiny chihuahua Celeste lived with, was under the washing up bowl which had a thick cookbook on the top to prevent his escape. He was yipping like crazy to no effect. They could both hear his voice echoing out from under the plastic bowl as they peered around the doorframe.
‘Move, cat!’ spat a man’s voice as a pair of boots came out carrying a bag. He didn’t shout – Amber guessed he was trying to remain unobtrusive – but he did swing a boot in her direction.
Amber darted back, zipping under the plastic table and chairs on the patio. From there she eyed the man with disdain as he made his way around the house and out of sight.
‘How many are there?’ she wanted to know.
‘Just two,’ said Celeste. ‘Shouldn’t we let Buster out? He could help to scare them off.’
Walking to the side of the house to see what the man was doing, Amber said, ‘We’re not going to scare them off.’
Celeste didn’t understand. ‘We’re not? But they are taking all my humans’ things. They will both be so upset when they come home later.’ Celeste’s humans were a young couple who moved to the village only a year ago. They were both lawyers, not that the cats had any idea what that meant, but to the burglars it meant the house was full of quality items they could easily sell.
The village of Twydhurst is a picturesque place with thatched cottages and pretty gardens. The residents fell into a couple of categories. There were those who had lived there all their lives and bought their house back when they were cheap. Then there were those who arrived in the last decade or so when the commuter belt from London expanded. They arrived with money in their pockets looking for somewhere half the price and twice as nice as what they could get in the city.
The burglars were astute enough to target the latter subset of residents.
Amber watched the man put the bag down in the back of the van. The load bed was already half full.
‘Has that all come from your house?’ she asked Celeste.
Both cats moved into a shadow thrown by a shrub as the man returned to the house to get something else. Once he passed them, Amber scooted across the gravel to jump gracefully into the back of the van.
‘I don’t recognise half of this stuff,’ said Celeste, landing next to Amber and looking around.
There were oil paintings, electronic goods such as computers and televisions, whole jewellery boxes and more besides.
‘What are we going to do, Amber?’ Celeste glanced over her shoulder to see if the humans were coming back yet. She was feeling nervous and a little sick. Normally, she would be asleep by the fire, or curled up on one of her human’s laps. She and Brutus often spent the evening on the couch with the humans who could be relied on to remain stationary for hours sometimes. Not so tonight. They went out for dinner, and now Celeste feared for what they would think when they returned.
Amber looked around the van. The burglars were taking things from multiple houses and this was the tenth incident in recent weeks that she knew about. All the neighbourhood pets were talking about it. Buster kept bragging about what he would do if the burglars were foolish enough to try it on Felicity’s house.
Arlo the Alaskan Malamute from down the street almost bit one when they tried to get into his place. Or so he bragged. Since whoever it was slammed the door and scarpered instantly, it was still debatable that it was the burglars at all.
Reaching a decision, Amber said, ‘We’re not going to scare them off. We’re going to let them finish …’
‘Let them finish?’ squeaked Celeste, interrupting Amber. This wasn’t what she wanted to hear. Talk in the village was that Amber and Buster had taken down a murderer recently. According to Buster, it was his third after helping Felicity catch two of them at Loxton Hall a few weeks ago. If Buster were to be believed, he fought one of them himself.
Tutting at her neighbour’s rudeness, Amber continued, ‘If we scare them off, they will take what they have and go on to burgle someone else tomorrow or next week or whenever it pleases them. To stop them, we need to know where they are taking it all.’ In truth, Amber didn’t care that Celeste’s humans were getting burgled; it had no impact on her. They could burgle Felicity’s house too without Amber lifting a paw to stop them because as a cat she didn’t care for possessions.
Amber wanted a warm place to keep out of the cold, a lap to sit on when it suited her, food to eat at her leisure and little else. However, Buster, the dog in her life that Felicity insisted on not only keeping but allowing into the house, was a constant source of irritation. Doing something he couldn’t would put his nose right out of joint. Catching two burglars while he was trapped in the house was just the thing.
Celeste looked at Amber. ‘Your plan is to go with them? How would we get home again?’
Amber flicked her tail, the cat equivalent of a shrug. ‘I doubt they will go far. If this is the same burglars who have been preying on homes in the area, then they must also be local.’
Celeste jumped back down to the gravel.
‘Where are you going?’ Amber wanted to know.
‘I don’t like this plan,’ Celeste began padding back to her house. ‘What if they are not local? What if they go miles? What if they catch you in the van?’
To show her disinterest, and lack of concern, Amber sat on her haunches and began to lick a paw. ‘I’ll be hidden,’ she replied to Celesta’s retreating form. ‘They won’t see me at all unless I want them to.’
Back in Felicity’s house, Buster was making his head hurt. He was achieving the pain in his skull through the twin methods of using it to ram the kitty flap to see if he could make the hole bigger – he couldn’t – and by thinking really hard about how else he might get out of the house.
Buster knew he was just a Bulldog, but also fervently believed he was destined to be so much more than his genetic makeup might suggest. Watching TV was partly to blame. He saw dogs performing incredible feats but didn’t understand that camera angles and special effects aided them to do what would otherwise be impossible. He also watched superhero movies – something Felicity was partial to – and wanted to be Batman or whatever the canine equivalent of that might be. Batman had no special powers, just his raw determination to defeat the bad guys and an abundance of courage.
Buster could be just like that. Except he couldn’t work out how to get out of the house.
Sitting on the tile in the kitchen to stare at the back door again, he was surprised to see Celeste’s head pop through the kitty flap.
‘Buster, I need your help,’ she meowled at him.
Buster twisted his head to the side a little as he got back onto his paws. ‘Where’s Amber?’
Celeste pushed her way through the flap. ‘That’s just it, she’s planning to go with the burglars. She thinks she can catch them; I just want them out of my house. Can you help?’
Buster opened his mouth but paused before he responded. He had been about to say he was the right dog for the job and would rid her house of the burglars in no time at all. But then what Celeste told him about Amber filtered into his head. Catching the burglars was much better. Arlo the Malamute had been insufferable ever since he almost bit one of them. Almost? Who cares about almost?
Buster would catch them all. That would give him some serious bragging rights. He wouldn’t even have to do the bragging. Celeste would tell everyone for him. Brutus too.
Getting ready to leave, Buster asked, ‘Where’s Tiny Dog?’
Celeste sniggered. ‘You know he hates when people mention his size.’ Celeste loved that she lived with a dog that weighed half what she did. ‘He’s in the kitchen at our place. The burglars put a bowl over him.’
Buster couldn’t visualise how that was keeping even a dog as small as Brutus captive, but the challenge of the door remained.
‘Can you open this?’ he asked. ‘Amber jumps up on the counter and leans out to turn the handle.’
Celeste rolled her eyes. ‘I’ve got it, Buster, don’t worry.’ It pained her that she had to employ a dog to help her get rid of the burglars – cats don’t need dogs, but on this occasion, she was swallowing her pride.
The door was easy enough to open, though she had to do it twice because the dumb Bulldog nudged it shut again with his head in his excitement to get out the first time.
Finally outside, Celeste crossed the garden to the fence and went over it. Buster couldn’t jump it, of course, but he didn’t need to. There was a loose panel further down which he could nudge aside. It was hidden behind a thick juniper shrub on his side and a clipped leylandii on the other.
Waiting impatiently on the garden path, Celeste still wasn’t getting the service she expected from the animals next door.
‘Come on, Buster, I thought you were going to scare them off,’ she moaned. Buster was supposed to make lots of noise and race around barking. He would drive the men from her house and probably alert the neighbours. He wasn’t doing any of that though. Buster was slinking through the shadows like a cat. ‘What are you doing?’ Celeste asked.
‘I am one with the night,’ Buster’s voice rasped out from under a bush.
‘You’re what?’ Celeste wanted to know. ‘And what happened to your voice?’
‘Nothing happened to my voice,’ lied Buster, forcing it to be even more deep and raspy. ‘I always sound like this.’
‘You never sound like that,’ said Amber. ‘You sound like you swallowed a hedgehog.’ She’d abandoned the van the moment she heard Buster coming through the fence. Turning her eyes to Celeste, she narrowed them to slits. ‘I cannot believe you let the giant slobbering doofus out. Catching the burglars requires finesse and panache, not drool and noise.’
‘I don’t want to catch them,’ replied Celeste, getting snippy. ‘I want them out of my house.’ As she said it, a man went by holding a flat screen TV in his hands. It was a different man to the one Amber saw previously. ‘Look! There’s one! Get him, Buster!’
Buster stayed in the shadows. ‘I can do finesse,’ he argued.
That he hadn’t already sped after the man barking like an idiot impressed Amber. Not that she would ever admit it.
Celeste harrumphed her annoyance. ‘Really? Neither of you is going to do anything?’
Amber narrowed her eyes again. ‘I’m going to catch them, Celeste, just like I said.’
Buster said, ‘Devil Dog is thinking.’
Celeste pulled a face, ‘Who the heck is Devil Dog?’
Amber started back toward the van. ‘It’s his latest alter ego. It sounds like a weird thing to do until you remember that he’s an idiot.’
Buster growled in the darkness.
Amber’s voice drifted back, ‘I’ll be in the van hatching an evil plot to catch the burglars if anyone wants me.’
‘My plan will be better than your plan. My plan will be heroic, not evil. I am darkness personified but my spirit is filled with the light of the sun.’
‘Dear, Lord,’ Celeste complained. ‘I’m so glad I came to you pair for help. I should have rescued Brutus from the bowl and dealt with the humans myself.’
Jolted by the mention of Brutus, Buster sprang into action. ‘There is a dog to be saved. Fear not, Brutus, Devil Dog is coming!’
To Celeste’s ears, Buster somehow managed to shout his intentions but did so quietly so no one would hear. He continued to use the rasping, deep voice too.
At the house, Buster slunk up against a wall and froze. ‘Become one with the darkness,’ he whispered to himself as the man returned, going back inside for another load.
Sneaking in behind him, Buster heard the man call out to his partner. ‘What else is there?’
A voice echoed through the house; the other man was upstairs. ‘I found a load of presents tucked in the back of a wardrobe. Looks like the bloke was buying things for his wife’s birthday. There’s jewellery and perfume and all sorts. It’s all new, in the boxes, and there’re even receipts.’
‘Easy money,’ the man downstairs chuckled. ‘Hurry up, Baz, okay? We’ve been here long enough now.’
From upstairs, Baz confirmed he was finishing up. Buster heard it too and stepped on the gas.
Brutus had given up barking each time someone came by. It was cold on the kitchen tile with the back door open and there was nothing he could do about it. The rectangular plastic bowl from the sink was big enough for him to stand up inside if he kept his head down, but he couldn’t get out from under it. Shunting it across the floor, he’d fetched up in a corner between two cabinets and there he remained.
Buster sniffed out the Chihuahua’s position within half a second of coming into the room. A second after that, one paw on the upturned lip of the bowl flipped it across the room to reveal the small dog.
‘Hey, Brutus,’ Buster rasped, wagging his tail feverishly. ‘I hear you were in need of a paw. Devil Dog at your service.’
Brutus wagged his tail and leapt at Buster’s face, showering him with grateful licks. ‘Oh, thank you, Devil Dog.’
Celeste pulled a face again. ‘What? You know he calls himself Devil Dog?’
Buster turned to face the cat. ‘Brutus wants to be my sidekick.’
Spinning like a child’s toy, Brutus leapt into the air again. ‘Oh, yes, oh yes, oh yes.’
Celeste hung her head. ‘I can’t believe I share this house with you, Brutus. You are so pathetic.’
Brutus stopped spinning to glare at the cat. ‘Pathetic? I am Devil Dog’s sidekick. Together we bring the pain train to those who would dare to commit crime in our city.’
‘Oh, brother,’ Celeste rolled her eyes. ‘We live in a village, not a city. Buster is the idiot Bulldog who lives next door, not a superhero, and you couldn’t get out from under a plastic bowl.’
Brutus yapped and ran at the cat. Celeste whacked him on the nose with a paw.
‘Dow!’ complained Brutus. ‘Dat was by dose.’
Buster started for the door. ‘The sidekick thing is a temp gig, okay, Brutus. You’re going to have to prove yourself.’
Forgetting his terrible injury, Brutus yipped and chased after the dog from next door. ‘Oh, yes, oh, yes. I will smite criminals wherever they may hide and will aid Devil Dog to deliver justice to our neighbourhood.’
Celeste watched them leave the house. ‘Where are you going?’
Buster walked out with Brutus right on his tail. ‘I’m getting in the van. There’s no way I’m going to let Amber outdo me by catching these humans.’ He nudged Brutus with a paw as they walked. ‘We are doing this for all dogkind.’
‘Wait, what?’ Celeste raced after them. ‘You’re actually going to go with Amber’s crazy plan? We could end up anywhere!’
Buster shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter. Devil Dog will dispense justice wherever he is.’
‘This is my van, go find your own,’ meowled Amber when the dogs both jumped into its loading area to join her.
‘Ha! Make me,’ rasped Buster. ‘I’m going to catch these guys, not you. I mean, what were you planning to do anyway? Idly lick a paw at them? Brutus and Devil Dog will go full medieval on their stupid human butts.’
‘What does that even mean?’ Amber asked with a frown. The dog made less and less sense every time he spoke.
‘Who cares?’ asked Buster. ‘The point is to sound totally badass.’
Amber rolled her eyes. She was sitting on top of a solid oak desk she found shoved into the back corner. The humans would never see her, but they couldn’t fail to notice two stupid dogs standing in the middle of the load bed.
Celeste jumped up to join them. ‘This is getting silly. Brutus, if you go with … Devil Dog or whatever Buster wants to call himself now, you will get lost, end up in the pound and never be seen again. Get out of the van now.’
‘What do you care?’ asked Brutus. ‘All you do is complain about me and push me off the couch when I am asleep.’
Amber sniggered. She wished she could do that to Buster.
Celeste had a reason; it was all to do with actually liking having the tiny dog around. If he went, her humans might get another dog and what if it was a Labrador, or a Pointer, or an Irish Wolfhound. There were much worse options than having to share with a dog she could beat up with one paw.
She didn’t get to say that though because Amber hissed, ‘The humans are coming.’
She was right. Both men had their hands full and were hurrying around the side of the house. They were done and ready to vacate the premises.
Buster’s eyes flared. ‘Quick hide,’ he urged.
Celeste snuck behind a painting and Brutus ran to the back of the van’s load bed where the darkness simply swallowed him. Buster was the one with the problem because he was too big to fit anywhere.
Caught in plain sight, he backed up a few paces, looking around frantically for something he could use as cover.
Amber watched with amused interest as the Bulldog began to panic. He was going to get caught and kicked out and that would end his daft ideas about beating the burglars before she could.
To her dismay, the men were so keen to get away, they didn’t even look in the back of the van. they just threw in what they were carrying, closed the door as quietly as they could and ran around to the front.
‘How did you do that?’ gasped Brutus in awe.
‘Um,’ Buster struggled to think of anything to say. ‘I made myself invisible,’ he claimed when the idea popped into his head. ‘It is one of Devil Dog’s awesome superpowers.’
‘Dear, Lord,’ muttered Amber.
The van lurched and bounced a little as it left the drive before settling into a smooth ride. The burglars, Baz Humphries and Nick Thacker, wanted to draw as little attention as they could. To anyone who cared to look their way, they would look like two plumbers on their way home. The van had all the livery displayed on the sides and they both wore matching overalls to complete the look.
They had been professional thieves for many years, both separately before they met in jail more than a decade ago, and together ever since. Proudly, they worked with a small crew of other criminals, preying on the local communities by first researching the houses most likely to contain items of value that were easy to transfer and hard to trace.
The livery on the side of the van was changed every time they used it, as was the number plate. Anyone seeing a van would ignore it, as they would the men in their everyday working clothes. And if CCTV managed to capture any images of the van, the police would then be looking for a fake company with a fake vehicle registration number. They even bought the printing machine they used to make the stickers for the van.
All in all, it was a slick set up that had been paying them dividends for over three years. They moved around the country, hiring a lockup in an out-of-the-way business estate and operating from there for several weeks before moving on. So far as they knew, the police had no clue and stood no chance of ever getting one.
In the back of their van, Buster was working on his plan to bring the humans down.
‘When the doors open, we jump out and get them. Got that, Hell Pup?’
‘Who’s Hell Pup?’ asked Brutus.
‘You are,’ replied Buster. ‘Devil Dog’s sidekick has to have a cool name too.’
Brutus puffed out his chest. ‘Cool.’
Buster echoed him, ‘Cool.’
Amber felt like smacking her head against the side of the van. ‘Cretins,’ she murmured loud enough to be sure they heard.
Buster wheeled around to look up at her. ‘You’re just jealous because your sidekick is Celeste.’
‘Hold on,’ Celeste wanted to know what that was supposed to mean.
Amber got in first. ‘Cats don’t have sidekicks. Just stupid dogs and humans.’ Pushing that discussion to the side she picked at his grand plan to foil the burglars. ‘You are going to wait until they open the door, and then leap out and … what? Get them? Is that what you said? What does that mean exactly? You’re going to bite them?’
‘I’m going to hit them like they had a freight train in the back of their van!’ rasped Buster. ‘They open the doors, and BAM! I give them Devil Dog between the eyes!’
‘And Hell Pup!’ yipped Brutus excitedly.
‘Uh-huh,’ replied Amber, making no comment. ‘Then what?’
Buster raised an eyebrow. ‘What do you mean?’
Amber gave the dog a smile. ‘It is a well thought out plan, Buster … I mean, Devil Dog. A work of genius really. Its simplicity will outfox them for sure.’
In the cab, Nick and Baz were looking at each other.
‘Did you hear that?’ asked Nick.
‘It sounded like that Chihuahua from the house,’ muttered Baz. ‘How did he get into the back of the van?’
Nick frowned and turned to stare at the steel panel that separated the cab from the cargo even though he couldn’t see through it. ‘I heard two dogs. The other one sounded bigger.’
Baz shrugged. ‘We’re nearly there and I am definitely not taking them back. We’ll catch them and kick them out on the street.’
Nick thought about that for a moment. ‘We can’t.’
It was Baz’s turn to frown. ‘Why not?’
‘Suppose they are found by someone. They might have those chips in them. Someone finds them, hands them over to a vet who finds the owners and they then figure we took them when we burgled the place. They can tell the police where they were found and … well, we don’t do risks, Baz.’
Baz saw his partner’s point. ‘No. No we do not, Nick. Okay, new plan. We kill ‘em both.’
‘Kill the dogs?’ asked Nick, horrified at the suggestion. ‘I like dogs, Baz.’
Baz blew out a frustrated breath. ‘Okay, so what do you suggest?’
Nick rubbed his nose with the index finger of his right hand. ‘We catch them. Shove them in the car, and then when we leave, we’ll drop them off somewhere. A park or something. They’ll get found. No harm done.’
Baz couldn’t be bothered to argue. ‘Okay, Nick. If that’s what you want. Let Lennie know we are coming.’
The third man on their team was the antiques specialist. They had another couple of chaps who helped them shift the stolen goods, but Lennie was a real whizz when it came down to how to make good money. Formerly an antique dealer, Baz and Nick would often send him photographs of furniture and steal that too if Lennie said it had value. Incredibly, they made more out of paintings and furniture than they did from anything else. TVs were easy to shift but they just weren’t all that valuable.
In the driver’s seat, Baz flicked on his indicator, obeying all road signs, and driving carefully as he turned off the road and into the business estate. It took them a while to find one where no one worked at night. The lockups sat at the edge of a housing estate on the outskirts of Maidstone where nothing overlooked them, and the chaps could operate in what they felt was complete safety.
Lennie pulled the roller door open as the headlights approached, stepping out of the way so the van could roll inside. The door came down again the moment the van passed into the building.
‘Everything all right, fellas?’ asked Lennie, as both Baz and Nick bailed out.
Inside the van, Buster readied himself. ‘This is it, Hell Pup. Go for the soft bits and don’t let go until we have them down.’
‘This should be good,’ said Amber, standing up to watch because she didn’t want to miss anything.
All four of the animals could hear the humans outside the rear doors of the van. They were talking about something, their voices muffled and impossible to understand.
Buster was ready though, the muscles in all four legs bunched and ready to thrust him forward, which is exactly what they did as soon as the door started to move. Buster hit the door with his head, bursting through the gap with his eyes wide. He didn’t have the time or the need to use his nose; this was up close fighting and the first thing he found was going to get bitten.
Unfortunately, because Nick and Baz knew they had dogs in the back, they were ready.
Buster exploded through the doors just as Lennie opened them and flew headfirst into the steel trashcan Baz held. Nick had the lid for it in his hand, intending to use it as a shield if the dogs inside were aggressive. Not that either man was worried about the Chihuahua. Their concern was entirely for the unknown element – the dog with the deeper sounding bark.
With Buster suddenly in the trash can, Nick swiftly slapped the lid on the top, sealing him inside before the dog had any hope of turning around to get out. Lennie leaned into the back of the van to get the tiny, yipping Mexican dog.
Brutus rewarded him by biting his hand.
‘Yowwww!’ gasped Lennie, dancing back a foot and clutching his fingers.
Nick and Baz burst out laughing. ‘Would you like one of us to get it?’ asked Nick.
Lennie grimaced, holding up his right hand to confirm he had puncture marks and was bleeding. The other two were watching him now, waiting for him to get the tiny dog.
Brutus bounced from side to side, fuelled with nervous energy and desperate to prove he was worthy.
‘Come on! Try again! I dare you, humans. Just try again.’
Muttering and swearing, with blood dripping off his fingers, Lennie crossed to a bench where he had a fish and chip supper for the three of them in carrier bag. Emptying it, he took the bag back to the still yipping dog. There he used it like a scoop.
Nick and Baz made a point of politely applauding which just made Lennie wish he’d only bought supper for himself.
‘Now what do we do with them?’ Lennie asked, holding the carrier bag by the handles and at arm’s length.
Baz started to cross the lockup. ‘We put them in the car. I’ll let ‘em out at a park later.’
Baz drove an old Ford Ranger, one of the big utility vehicles with a loadmaster cab on the back. It meant the dogs could be shoved inside and they were stuck there until someone let them out again. It was parked in one corner of the lockup.
The car had a tailgate that folded down and a glass flap on the cab body over it. The glass opened upward under pneumatic pressure, two gas struts shunting it skyward. The carrier bag with Brutus went into the load space first, dumped in roughly so the little dog rolled around disoriented until he found his feet and could run from the bag.
Yipping again, he didn’t get far because Baz upended the trash can over the tailgate. Buster slid out backward, his stumpy tail glued to his body as he fought for purchase on the rounded steel. He landed with a bump amid a shower of trash from the bottom of the can.
‘I’ll clear that out later,’ Baz commented dismissively as he slammed the boot lid down. The dogs were neutralised and instantly forgotten as the three men went back to the van to get a better look at their haul.
Brutus continued to rage at them, bouncing into the air to look out of the windows as he yipped and growled. It took him a few seconds to realise Buster wasn’t joining in. In fact, Buster wasn’t making any sound at all.
The Things Our Pets Overhear
The reason Buster wasn’t making a sound was because his mouth was full of pizza. When Brutus spun around to check on his friend, Buster stopped chewing long enough to give the Chihuahua a big grin.
‘There’s more if you want some,’ Buster managed around the half slice still hanging out one side of his mouth. ‘It’s still fresh. Can’t be more than a couple of days old,’ he added as he swallowed that slice and dug around for another.
Landing in the trashcan, his instant reaction was to panic, but the heavenly scents coming from the box his nose was pinned against prevented any other thoughts from reaching his brain.
Brutus, his tiny tail wagging madly, dug around until he too found a slice. Standing on it, he started to rip chunks off.
Across the lockup, Baz, Nick, and Lennie were starting to unload the van. Watching them were two cats. The cats were no longer in the van though, they took the chance to leave while the men were dealing with the dogs.
‘It was good of them to create a diversion, I suppose,’ commented Amber.
She and Celeste were on top of a table the chaps stole from a house two nights ago. Lennie assured them it was worth a fortune because it had a hand-carved mouse running up one of the legs.
‘So what now?’ Celeste wanted to know. She was most unhappy about her current predicament and really wanted to know the answer to a different question. Namely how they were going to get home.
Amber flicked her tail, glancing across to the Ford Ranger where Buster was being uncharacteristically quiet. She expected him to be barking, yet he was silent and though she would never admit to being worried, secretly, she couldn’t help wondering if the daft mutt had been hurt.
Either way, there wasn’t anything she could do about it yet, so she focused on the task in hand.
‘Now, we finesse,’ purred Amber, flicking her tail as she stood up, stretched, and jumped back down to the floor.
‘What exactly does that mean, Amber?’ begged Celeste.
In truth Amber never had the slightest inkling of a plan and only admitted that to herself when she arrived at the lockup. Ever since, she had been acting serene and superior while desperately hoping something would come to her.
A few seconds ago, it had.
The cats checked over their shoulders to make sure the humans were not looking their way. The criminals were in the back of the van, or rather, Baz was inside it handing items out to Nick and Lennie. The point is, they were otherwise engaged and utterly oblivious to the cats. They also had the radio on, an old Billy Joel song belting out as the men rejoiced at their haul of goodies and their criminal brilliance.
Sashaying to one corner of the lockup, Amber sat on her haunches and tilted her head up to look at the ceiling. Celeste followed suit though she had no idea why they were craning their necks or what it might be that Amber could see. All Celeste saw was the ceiling and a round dish-looking thing.
‘What are we looking at?’ she asked.
Amber allowed herself a satisfied smile. ‘That’s a smoke alarm,’ she announced confidently.
Celeste crooked an eyebrow at her neighbour. ‘Um, you’re a cat, Amber. How do you know what that thing is?’
‘Ah. Well, Felicity has one fitted inside our cottage. More than one actually and about a month ago, she forgot about something she had on the cooker. It created a whole load of smoke and when it did, that thing on the ceiling started making a horrible high-pitched noise.’ Remembering the incident, Amber explained, ‘It hurt my ears, but not as much as it seemed to bother Buster. He ran straight into the patio doors and knocked himself out. Felicity couldn’t reach the button to shut it off and kept making chicken noises.’
‘Chicken noises?’ questioned Celeste.
Amber nodded. ‘Yes, she kept saying buck, buck, buckity buck. I’m really not sure why.’
Celeste pulled a face. ‘I’m not sure that was a B you heard at the start of those words.’
Amber shrugged. ‘Whatever. The point is the alarm is connected to some people who come to check if the building is on fire. If we can set that one off, people will come. They will see the burglars and call the police. Simple.’
Celeste was not so convinced. ‘I hate to make the same point twice, Amber, but we are cats. How are we going to start a fire?’
Amber didn’t answer this time. She sauntered across to the wall instead where she stared at a thick cable running upward.
‘We don’t have to start a fire, Celeste. We only need to cut the power to the circuit feeding the smoke alarm. It will default to safety mode and operate the alarm automatically.’
Celeste stared at Amber as if she had just grown tentacles from her eyes. ‘I have no idea what you just said.’
Amber came clean, ‘Neither have I. Not really. I was in the kitchen when the men came to fix Felicity’s alarm. She used a broom handle to shut it off in the end and whacked it clean across the room. She made more chicken noises at that point too. Anyway, all I have to do, I think, is chew through the cable.’
‘Won’t you get a shock?’ asked Celeste. ‘Brutus chewed through one of those cables once. He walked backwards for a week he was so terrified afterwards.’
Amber pursed her lips. ‘Good point. You do it.’
Celeste choked. ‘Not a chance! I’m not frying myself on whatever is inside that cable.’
Frustrated, Amber sighed and accepted what she was going to have to do. ‘Fine. We’ll get the dogs. Buster can chew through it. He’s easily stupid enough.’
Across the lockup, there was no sign of the dogs, and no sound coming from the back of the utility vehicle they were shut inside. Amber didn’t like that. Buster was never this quiet for this long. Not even when he was sleeping because then he could be relied upon to snore, fart, and make daft whimpering noises as he chased things in his dreams.
Refusing to voice her concern, Amber led Celeste around the edge of the lockup. They stayed out of sight as much as possible and moved quickly when they needed to cross an open space.
At the car, they leapt on the bonnet and then the roof and padded quietly across it until they could peer down into the cargo area.
What Amber saw made her groan. ‘Good grief.’
Buster lifted his head. ‘Did you hear something?’ he asked Brutus. Both dogs were gorging on pizza and were beginning to get quite full. Not that they were slowing down. In all they found eight slices in three different boxes and were having a feast while telling themselves their adventurous lifestyles demanded such sustenance.
Brutus, his mouth full of cheese and crust mumbled, ‘Can’t talk. Eating,’ before swallowing and going in for another bite.
‘Buster!’ hissed Amber, trying to be quiet so the humans wouldn’t look their way.
Buster lifted his head and looked around again. ‘I definitely heard something that time.’
‘Buster, stop eating pizza!’
Buster froze, a slice hanging from his mouth. Refusing to spit it out just yet, he asked, ‘Is that you, conscience?’
Amber wanted to cry. Turning her head to Celeste, she asked, ‘How is it that dogs have lived this long when they are sooo stupid?’
Celeste had an answer ready. ‘Because humans are just as stupid and think dogs are cute.’
Giving up on trying to get Buster or Brutus to look up. Amber went to the boot lid and slid down to rest on the edge of the tail gate.
The sudden appearance of the cat made Buster jump, the slice of half-eaten pizza falling from his mouth. ‘Amber?’ he questioned, swallowing what was in his mouth.
‘Yes, Amber,’ said Amber glaring at the dog through the rear window of the load compartment. ‘Honestly, dog. You are dumber than a bag of rocks. I am going to open this and the pair of you need to jump out. I have a task for you. Do you understand?’
Buster bounced up and onto his paws. At least, in his head that’s what he did. Being a bulldog, what anyone looking would have seen was Buster rolling awkwardly to get his feet back under his body and then slowly pushing his carcass upward until he was standing. He was anything but agile.
‘Devil Dog is ready,’ he rasped, remembering to do the voice now that he was back in character. ‘You want us to attack the humans, yes?’
‘No,’ frowned Amber.
Confused, Buster tried again, ‘You want us to smash through the walls to create an escape route for you and Celeste and then attack the humans while you flee?’
Amber closed her eyes and prayed for the god of all cats to deliver her to anywhere that Buster wasn’t. Or to send a lightning bolt to kill her, whichever the cat god found to be the swifter solution. She was fine with either.
‘No,’ she tried again. ‘I want you to …’
Buster interrupted. ‘You want Devil Dog …’
‘And Hell Pup,’ added Brutus helpfully.’
‘And Hell Pup,’ echoed Buster, ‘to humanely trap the humans because you feel sorry for them and don’t want us to harm them?’ He was clutching at straws now, unable to grasp what task the cat might have if it didn’t involve something deadly and dangerous.
Amber slammed a paw down on the boot lid release button and ducked out of the way as it swung upward.
Leaning in she fixed Buster with a look that made his insides writhe. ‘Listen, you giant bag of wrinkles. I have a simple task that involves you eating something. But I need you to be quiet until it is done. Do you think you can manage that? I will give you part credit for bringing down the burglars, but you have to do it as I say, not do it in your usual manner.’
Turning snippy at the cat’s tone, Buster asked, ‘What’s my usual manner?’
Amber glared into his eyes. ‘You make a lot of noise and a lot of mess and run headfirst into danger with no plan and make things worse than they were before you started.’
Buster gave her claim a moment’s consideration before saying. ‘Yeah, okay. I do that sometimes.’
Amber jumped down from the tailgate, closely followed by Celeste as she leapt from the car’s roof back to the floor. Brutus followed, leaping first onto the narrow tailgate, and then down to the floor.
Buster though, well he wasn’t exactly designed for stealth. Or agility. Or athleticism. He put his front paws on the still closed tailgate, eyed his landing spot, and thrust off with his back legs.
His back paws were supposed to land on the tailgate as his front paws sailed into space, but they missed so it was his belly that hit the tailgate instead. He then flipped, rolled, and spun in mid-air.
Below him, two cats and a small dog ran for cover just before the dog hit the concrete floor.
Incredibly, Buster landed on his paws. His eyes were closed, and his teeth clenched because he expected to land on his head, but somehow upright, he chose to act like this was his plan all along.
‘Cats are not the only ones who can land on their feet. Devil Dog …’
‘Oh, shut up,’ spat Amber. ‘Follow me. I need you to bite through something.’
Back on the other side of the lockup, Buster eyed the cable sceptically. ‘You want me to chew through that?’
‘Sure,’ smiled Amber. ‘It’s got gravy running through it.’
Brutus spun on the spot. ‘Ooh, gravy! I love gravy.’
Buster twisted his head sideways. ‘I don’t think it has, Amber. I think you are lying to me.’
‘Is Devil Dog afraid?’ she taunted.
It was precisely the right thing to say, because Buster was gnawing on the cable half a second later. ‘I’ll show you, cat,’ he mumbled around the thing in his mouth. ‘Devil Dog doesn’t know the meaning of the word danger!’
‘Or hygiene,’ Amber replied with a smile.
Buster froze for a second. ‘What was that? I can’t hear properly when I am chewing.’
‘Oh, nothing, Buster. Just keep chewing.’
With Buster yanking at the cable to get a better purchase and his teeth digging into the wires already, Amber nudged Celeste and started backing away.
Celeste was impressed that her neighbour had this all worked out and at her ability to manipulate the dog, but she had a question. ‘Won’t he get hurt?’
Amber nodded gravely. ‘It could kill him.’ Celeste’s eyes flared in horror. Amber said, ‘We have to look on the bright side, Celeste.’
Gawping, Celeste asked, ‘What bright side?’
Amber frowned, thinking she had made it quite clear what the bright side was. ‘It could kill him.’
There was no time for any further discussion of that matter or any other, for in the next heartbeat two things happened.
The first thing was that Buster’s feverish and determined chewing went through the sheathing around the wires and created a short between them. Simultaneously, he created a brief path to earth for the electricity through his own body.
What Amber didn’t know was that the cable she asked Buster to chew wasn’t the one supplying the smoke alarm, it was the main feed into the building and thus carried quite a wallop.
Buster shot six feet across the room, sparks shooting from his coat.
Amber, despite her vocalised nonchalance, squealed, ‘Buster!’ and ran to check on him.
The second thing that happened though, was as a direct consequence of cutting through the cable and shorting the wires inside. All power to the building shut off and plunged them into darkness.
Half a second later, the smoke alarm, hardwired to fail safe as Amber expected, switched over to run from the battery inside and started to wail. It was also sending a message to the security company employed by the insurance firm to whom the owner of the lockups paid a premium for fire protection. The fire brigade were alerted less than thirty seconds later.
Then a third thing happened. The shorting cable started a fire.
Having lost control of his muscles when the electricity zapped him, Buster wet himself. Convincingly so since his bladder was full.
Amber was trying to find somewhere to stand that would not expose her to the ever-widening pool of pee.
‘Buster! Buster, wake up,’ she begged. She really did not want to be responsible for killing him.
Buster opened his eyes. ‘What happened?’ As his memory returned, he thought of another question. ‘Did you just nearly kill me?’ he asked with a dangerous growl to his voice.
Thinking fast, Amber said, ‘Err, no. You used some of your Devil Dog power. Um, yes, that’s what it was. You used your Devil Dog ultimate hero power to bite through the cable and your raw awesomeness created a backwash of, um, gamma radiation that shot you across the floor. No ordinary dog could have survived it.’
Buster rolled groggily onto his feet, eyeing the cat the whole time. ‘You must think I’m really stupid.’
‘The humans are coming!’ yipped Brutus.
He wasn’t wrong. The cable led directly to the fuse box which was where Baz was heading. The humans figured the main breaker must have tripped and could be easily reset.
However, the cable Buster bit through was next to a waste bin. A few sparks from the shorting wires was all it took to get the paper and detritus inside to smoulder and leap into flame. Baz saw it at the same time that he saw the pets, all four of them illuminated in the swathe of light from his phone.
‘It’s those dogs!’ he shouted unable to believe his eyes. ‘They got out of the car!’
‘What?’ shouted Nick, looking around to find the car. It was almost total blackness in the lockup, only the torches on their phones providing light. It created as many shadows as it chased away but Nick could see the back of the utility vehicle’s load bed was open.
Cursing himself for not shutting it properly, Nick grabbed a handy crowbar from the front of the van and set off to deal with the dogs. Baz had been right all along – they should have just killed them.
The still shorting cable was beginning to melt, the insulation breaking down. It was only hanging onto the wall by a thin piece of the cable’s outer core.
‘There’s a fire!’ Baz shouted.
Lennie yelled back, ‘Put it out!’
‘With what?’ shouted Baz.
On the floor, the pets were getting some distance between themselves and the fire while they argued about what to do now.
‘We should leave,’ insisted Amber. ‘The humans will come now. We don’t need to do anything else.’
‘But the burglars can run away,’ argued Buster. ‘We need to keep them here.’
The humans were arguing about a fire extinguisher and where, in fact, one might be located. The discussion became heated and quickly digressed when they began to argue about what type of extinguisher they needed.
The last of the outer sheath of the cable melted, and now that the cable was nice and warm, it was also floppy. It fell to the floor barely an inch from Buster’s still expanding pool of urine.
Making his way across the lockup to deal with the fire and thinking Baz was making a big deal out of something simple, Nick spotted a small form slinking by him at floor level.
Unable to agree on a course of action, the cats were leaving, and the dogs were staying to deal with the burglars. Devil Dog and Hell Pup were still working out their plan of attack when they heard Celeste squeal.
Nick hoisted her aloft by the scruff of her neck.
‘Put me down!’ she begged, unhappy at being handled by the strange man. ‘You already violated my home, you horrible human.’
The flames in the bin were getting higher and threatening to set fire to the bench it sat next to. Neither of his accomplices were being forthcoming with a fire extinguisher and they were going to fill the lockup with smoke soon. How long before their freshly stolen goods were ruined? How long before someone turned up to see what the alarm noise was?
Tutting at the ineptitude of his colleagues, Baz decided to deal with the bin himself. It would be hot, but he didn’t have to take it far; the door was only a few feet away.
Taking off his jacket, he used it like a pair of oven gloves and went in cautiously to get the bin. Somewhere at the back of his brain, Baz registered that he had just trodden in a puddle because he heard the sound of his shoe displacing liquid.
It was his last ever thought. The pool of Buster’s pee reached the shorting cable half a second after Baz stepped in it. Baz never got to the waste bin of flames, dying on the spot as the surge of main electricity tore into his body.
Aware that something had just happened, Nick looked up to check on Baz. Doing so meant he got to see Devil Dog and his sidekick Hell Pup running at him with snarling faces and grim expressions.
Not to be outdone, Amber flicked out a paw to extend her claws like five tiny switchblades. She sunk them into the meaty part of Nick’s right calf muscle just a heartbeat before Buster slammed into his legs.
Barking, ‘Freight train!’ Buster ran right through his target, closely followed by Brutus, who didn’t do anything but felt good because he was taking part.
Nick flipped in the air, arms flailing. Naturally, he let Celeste go, the cat landing gracefully a few feet away and just before the human returned to Earth face first with a hard thump.
The thump was his forehead hitting the concrete.
Buster went into a belly slide to slow his velocity and dug a paw in to create a turn. When he was facing back toward the felled human, he started scrambling with his paws until he was running again.
‘Forget it,’ said Amber, ‘He’s out cold. There’s a third one here somewhere though.’
‘Shouldn’t we be leaving?’ wailed Celeste. ‘There’s a fire!’
Amber nodded. ‘As soon as we can.’
Chief Inspector Quinn
When the fire brigade arrived three minutes later, they found a frightened man cornered in the doorway of the lockup with two dogs and two cats forming a semi-circle around him. Every time the man tried to step out of the building, the Bulldog tried to take his leg off. To back up the Bulldog, the Chihuahua wouldn’t stop yapping though the cats appeared to be watching the dogs’ behaviour with bored disinterest.
The lead firefighter thought he was going to have to call for animal control to assist, but upon disembarking the vehicle, the dogs and cats all gave up their sentry duty, walking over to the fire engine in an orderly line.
The man framed in the doorway stumbled out of the lockup, tears rolling down his cheeks, his hands clasped together in thanks.
‘They killed the others!’ he wailed. ‘I’m the only one left. Take me in. I’ll come quietly.’ Lennie dissolved into a fit of sobs as he fell to his knees on the rough tarmac outside.
‘What the heck?’ asked one of the firefighters.
The question jolted the lead firefighter back to reality. ‘Don’t just stand around staring, you lazy lot. Get the building open and deal with the fire.’ Quietly, to the man who asked the question, he said, ‘Find out if he was telling the truth about there being dead people inside and find something to secure these animals.’
Securing the pets turned out to be simple because they didn’t want to go anywhere. Amber saw the fire brigade as their ticket home. Or, at least, their ticket somewhere which would then lead to them getting home.
The cats and Brutus went into the cab of the fire engine, while Buster was connected to the front bumper by a handy lead they kept on the rig for occasions just like this one.
The fire in the waste basket hadn’t spread to the bench, it merely caused it to char and smoulder before the fuel in the bin ran out. The firefighters shut the power off down the street and removed the battery from the warbling alarm. In an instant, the need for the humans to shout back and forth ceased and silence claimed the air once more.
Nick was alive, though he had a cracking headache and a sizeable lump on the front of his skull. Paramedics arrived to deal with him, but not before the police turned up. They were called to the scene by the lead firefighter who took one look at the collection of goods inside the lockup and guessed it was all nicked. The crowbars together with ladies’ jewellery boxes and a plumber’s van filled with oil paintings were all good clues.
Chief Inspector Quinn had been on his way home when the call came in. It wasn’t much of a detour and he’d been getting grief from the chief constable about the recent spate of burglaries. That this might be them was too good for him to pass up. Especially since the call came from the fire brigade – it meant he could scoop in and claim the bust as his own.
He took over immediately from the firefighters, assigning officers to seal the building and arrest the men. The medical examiner was coming to look at the dead body and he had crime scene chaps inbound to start cataloguing evidence and yet more officers to go through all the stolen goods inside the lock up. However, the case was already as good as closed – Lennie gave a full confession the first chance he got.
The lead firefighter told Chief Inspector Quinn about the pets they found holding the criminals captive when he first arrived, but the words barely registered until he spotted the Bulldog shackled to the fire engine.
A tick by the chief inspector’s left eye twitched. He remembered a recent encounter with one at Loxton Hall when that awful Sashatastic debacle occurred, and then again when he tried to arrest Felicity Philips for murder. This one looked worryingly like it was the same dog.
Seeing a police officer he recognised approaching, Buster started to wag his tail.
After checking the phone number etched into the dog’s tag, Chief Inspector Quinn swore softly under his breath and pulled out his phone. When the call connected the voice at the other end was decidedly cool.
‘Chief Inspector. To what do I owe the displeasure of this call?’ asked Felicity Philips. ‘I do hope you are not calling to accuse me of anything. I am in the middle of a dress fitting and my client is having trouble deciding between Vera Wang and Chanel.’
‘Yes, very troubling, I’m sure,’ remarked Quinn flippantly. Quickly, before she could put the phone down on him, he asked, ‘Are you by any chance missing your pets?’
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