Buster had his eyes narrowed, squinting up at one of the trees in his garden. The squirrel was up there somewhere. He knew it was. It was up there, and it was taunting him by keeping quiet and still.
From her position balanced on the garden fence, Amber said, ‘It’s not there, Buster, you stupid mutt.’
Buster heard her but refused to shift his gaze. If he stared hard enough, he was sure he could create a laser beam with his eyes. That squirrel would stay out of his garden if he started lopping off branches as it ran along them.
‘Buster. Buster are you there?’
This time the voice came from the other side of the fence and belonged to the Chihuahua next door.
With a sigh, Buster said, ‘What is it Brutus? I’m on squirrel watch.’
‘Yeah, yeah, me too,’ snarled the Chihuahua, trying to sound tough.
‘Oh, please,’ begged Amber, ‘What would you do against a squirrel, Brutus? It would beat you to death while eating a hazelnut.’
Ignoring the cat, Brutus pushed his way through the shrub that hid a hole in the fence.
Arriving next to his friend, Buster the bulldog, Brutus joined him in his vigil staring up at the tree.
After a few seconds of watching the two dogs, Amber sighed and jumped down to the grass. The dogs annoyed her with their daft habits; squirrel watch was one of the worst. They never even stared at the right tree. Leaving them behind, she sauntered back to the house where she could take up one of her favourite spots in the sun that came through the front bay window.
Brutus said, ‘Um, there’s a smell in my garden.’
Bored of looking for the annoyingly elusive squirrel, Buster took his eyes off the tree to look down at the tiny dog.
‘What sort of smell?’
‘Human. Man. Smells like a human, not like a bar of soap.’ Buster knew what his sidekick meant; humans were so weird about their need to smell like other things. His own human, Felicity, insisted on bathing every single day. Just thinking about it sent a shiver down his back.
Buster’s brow creased. Why would there be a man smell in Brutus’s garden? There was nothing in his garden. It was all lawn with a withered old apple tree and a couple of badly overgrown shrubs. One of which hid the hole in the fence on their side.
Before he could ask the question forming on his lips, the distant sound of the doorbell triggered an automated response he could no more resist than taking his next breath.
Barking maniacally, he tore back down the garden path, heading for the open back door. Brutus, propelled by Buster’s excitement, flew along at his side. Keeping pace with his friend was easy enough, Buster’s top speed was approximately equal to that of a speeding cheese sandwich.
He just wasn’t built for running. His feet were too short, and his body too heavy, giving him the appearance when running of an escaped pillow with eyes and a tail.
Hitting the kitchen tile, Buster barked, ‘Death to the intruder!’
Felicity was at the front door, talking to someone outside. She wasn’t new to this game though and upon hearing the thundering steps of her approaching dog, she thanked the person on her doorstep, and closed the door.
Spinning around to face Buster, she said, ‘Ha! No attacking the nice policeman, Buster.’
Skidding to a halt before he hit Felicity’s legs, Buster looked up in question. ‘Policeman?’
‘Yes,’ replied Felicity, stepping over her dog with a sigh. ‘It’s nothing exciting, Buster. A person they are looking for was spotted in the area. The police are going door to door to ask people to keep an eye out. They wanted to know if we had a shed or something a person might hide in. Which we don’t.’
Looking down at Brutus with a frown, she asked, ‘Now how did you get in here again?’
It was an odd quirk she had that allowed her to understand the dog and cat she lived with. She’d been afflicted with it – if that is the correct term – since birth. It was just them though. Where Buster’s barks and thoughts appeared in her head as fully formed words, Brutus’s yipping sounded like nothing more than just that.
Brutus lied, ‘I came over the top of the fence. I am a clever Mexican climbing dog. All Chihuahuas can do it. There definitely isn’t a hole in your fence and you should not go looking for it.’
Felicity frowned. ‘I’m not sure if I should wish I could understand you too or if my life would be simpler if I couldn’t understand Buster.’ Muttering to herself, she wandered back to the kitchen table to finish peeling potatoes.
Buster plopped his backside onto the carpet to think. ‘There’s a person of interest in the area, Brutus. In our area. You know what that means, don’t you?’
‘Burgers?’ asked Brutus, hopping excitedly from paw to paw.
Buster tilted his head and frowned. ‘Why would it mean burgers?’
Brutus stopped his excited agitation. ‘Um, I don’t know. It was just a guess. I like burgers. There’s a barbeque going a couple of doors over and I have the scent stuck in my nostrils.’
‘Roidy’s place?’ Buster sought to confirm.
‘Yeah. Smells like burgers.’
Both dogs drooled a little.
Roidy the Rhodesian Ridgeback was as lean and muscular as a dog could get and all the lady dogs noticed him. Also, he was stupidly tall and could pee higher up than Buster could see. All the local lampposts were his by right. Worse yet, Roidy’s human was some overdeveloped bodybuilder and was always eating steaks and chicken and sharing them with his smug-faced, annoying dog.
Behind them in the living room, Amber leapt down from her sunspot and sauntered back out into the hallway.
‘You pair are as dumb as rocks,’ she dropped a passing insult as she sashayed by them on her way back into the garden.
Momentarily caught out, Buster tried to conjure a witty response. None came and he lost his train of thought.
‘What was I saying?’ he asked.
‘Burgers?’ asked Brutus hopefully.
‘Yes. What? No. Not burgers. Goodness. There is a person of interest to the police in our area, Brutus. That must mean it’s a criminal and that means it’s time for …’ Buster dropped his voice two octaves. ‘Devil Dog and Hell Pup to swing into action!’
Amber’s voice drifted back down the hallway. ‘Somebody shoot me, please.’
Brutus yipped excitedly. ‘Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!’ Then his face became thoughtful for a second. ‘Which one am I again?’
Buster flared his eyes and wondered if maybe Amber might have a point. ‘You’re Hell Pup, remember? You’re Devil Dog’s sidekick. We are denizens of the night, bringing justice to those who would willingly flout the laws and bring chaos to our neighbourhood.’
‘Um,’ said Brutus. ‘You forgot to do the voice.’
‘Aw, nuts!’ Buster repeated his lines in his best Devil Dog voice and waddled off for the hole in the garden fence. ‘Come on, Hell Pup. We are going to find this miscreant and there will be a reckoning!’
Amber watched them from the garden fence. ‘Where are you two dummies going?’
‘Somewhere there’s a crime happening, Amber,’ replied Buster without breaking stride. ‘The good humans here deserve to sleep peacefully in their beds at night.’
Rolling her eyes, Amber felt she needed to point out, ‘That wasn’t an answer, Buster.’
‘Devil Dog,’ he snapped over his shoulder.
‘Yeah, I’m not calling you that. Like … ever.’
At the hole in the fence, Buster had to crawl on his belly and shimmy to get through, but despite the fence panels either side scraping over his well-insulated ribs, he popped out the other side.
Once he’d negotiated the shrub that blocked the hole from human view to arrive in the neighbour’s garden, he was surprised to find Amber sitting on the lawn. She was inspecting a paw in a way that suggested it was infinitely more interesting than the dogs and what they might be doing.
‘Are you looking for the escaped prisoner?’ she enquired, her tone suggesting she didn’t really care what his answer was going to be.
Buster was about to give Brutus a command to go right as he went left, splitting up to cover more territory as they made sure the miscreant wasn’t hiding behind the apple tree, but Amber’s question stopped him.
‘What escaped prisoner?’
Amber licked her paw and wiped it behind her ear.
‘Amber.’ Buster prompted her.
She licked and rubbed again.
‘Amber,’ he tried again with a little more insistence. Surely her ear was clean now.
He frowned at the cat. It was bad enough that he had to share his house with a cat in the first place, but why did she have to be such a complete … cat all the time?
‘AMBER!’ he barked in her face.
Amber twitched her eyes around to look at the Bulldog. ‘Is there something wrong?’
Becoming exasperated and questioning whether Brutus’s humans would spot the freshly dug grave when he buried the cat in the middle of their lawn later, he calmy, yet through gritted teeth said, ‘Yes, there is something wrong, you can see me frowning, right?’
Amber raised one eyebrow. ‘Frowning? You’re a Bulldog, Buster. Your face looks like a hundred toilet rolls stacked side on, got left out in the rain for a week. No one could ever possibly tell if you were frowning or not. Why don’t you tell me why you are frowning?’
Buster ground his back teeth together. ‘You asked me about an escaped prisoner? I asked you what you were talking about. You then licked your paw and ignored me.’
‘Oh, yes. Well, I was waiting for you to answer my question.’
Buster was beginning to feel that Amber stood as proof that there had to be a dog heaven. If there wasn’t, how could it be fair that he was shackled with her in life. Surely his reward in death would be to not have to suffer the annoyance of a cat.
He also knew Amber was going to continue being a pain until he danced to her tune. ‘Okay, Amber. No, we are not looking for an escaped prisoner because we don’t know anything about one. Now, will you please tell me what you know?’
Brutus nudged Buster’s leg, and hissed in his ear, ‘You’re not doing the voice.’
Amber started talking before the idiot Bulldog she was forced to suffer daily started doing his ridiculous voice again.
‘It was on the news this morning,’ she explained. ‘A man escaped from Her Majesty’s Prison Borstal.’
‘That’s near here,’ yipped Brutus, helpfully.
Amber ignored the tiny dog. ‘You would have known about it too had you been paying attention, but you had chosen to spend that portion of today chasing your tail.’
‘I’m going to get it one day,’ insisted Buster. ‘I just need to go faster.’
‘Or you could try suddenly changing direction,’ suggested Amber. ‘I bet that would catch it out.’
Buster’s eyes went skyward as he tried to visualise the new tactic.
‘Anyway,’ she continued, not wanting to wait for the Bulldog to proceed down the tangent she’d inadvertently created. ‘If the police are here going door to door, it must be because the escaped prisoner is here.’
Buster’s jaw fell open. ‘An escaped prisoner,’ he murmured, his voice a hushed whisper.
Brutus tapped his partner’s leg. ‘The voice,’ he whispered.
‘Sorry, I’m so excited a little bit of wee just came out.’ Buster was already imagining the way the neighbourhood dogs would talk about him when he was the one to catch the escaped prisoner. This would finally shut up that pain-in-the-butt former police sniffer dog, Dalglish. His stories had to be made up anyway.
Snapping out of it, he dropped his voice back into Devil Dog’s harsh rasp. ‘Right, Hell Pup, we need to search the neighbourhood. Get your nose in gear and let’s find ourselves an escaped criminal before anyone else does. There’s no reward for second place.’
‘There’s a reward?’ asked Brutus, his eyes as big as saucers. ‘Is it … is it burgers?’
‘Good grief,’ Buster hung his head. ‘What’s with you and the burgers? I meant that metaphorically.’
Brutus looked at the Bulldog like he’d just grown a second head. ‘Meta …?’
Thinking, not for the first time, that when he picked a sidekick, he could not have done worse. Honestly, a dead pigeon would have been superior to Brutus the Chihuahua. Buster gave himself a silent five-count with his eyes closed. When it was done and he felt able to face the criminal underbelly of the village with a miniscule Mexican dog at his side, Buster opened his eyes again.
Brutus was no longer there.
Neither was Amber.
Momentarily confused, Buster sniffed the air. Mostly it smelled of cooking meat though there was a trace of natural male human odour on the wind just like Brutus claimed earlier.
‘Up here, dummy,’ called Amber.
Muttering under his breath, Buster looked up to find Amber sitting on top of the shed in the next garden. She was eight feet in the air, clearly climbing up there just to annoy him.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked, then remembered he was supposed to be acting as his alter ego, Devil Dog, and dropped his voice again. ‘What are you doing?’ he rasped.
Amber licked a paw, making the Bulldog wait. It backfired though because the daft Chihuahua spoiled her surprise.
‘Amber has already caught the escaped criminal!’ he yipped, spinning on the spot.
‘What? Where?’ Buster ran across the lawn to see. ‘I don’t see anything.’
Leaning over the roof of the small wooden shed, Amber peered in through the window.
‘He’s in here,’ she claimed triumphantly. ‘I win.’
Buster frowned, his fleshy face scrunching up even more than usual.
‘I don’t think so, Amber. You might have found him, but if he is in there, and I’m not saying he is, then all you have done is find him. Catching him is a whole different thing.’
A police helicopter buzzed overhead, drowning out any conversation for several seconds.
When it passed and the background noise dropped, Amber said, ‘So go get the cops, Dog. Go on. Fetch.’
Buster barked something unprintable.
‘Goodness,’ chuckled Amber, staring down from way above the dogs’ heads. ‘Someone could do with a nap. You’re a little tetchy today, Buster. Is it because Duvet Dog lost to a cat?’
Buster growled, ‘Devil Dog.’
‘But you look like a folded-up duvet, Buster,’ Amber sniggered to herself. ‘Or a giant marshmallow with paws.’
‘What’s going on?’ asked a fresh voice.
‘Oh, no you don’t, Roidy,’ rasped Buster. ‘This situation is nothing to do with you. Go back to doing press ups or something. This is official superhero and sidekick business.’
‘What situation? What’s wrong with your voice?’ asked the Rhodesian Ridgeback, his front paws on the top of the yard high fence yet one more garden over again. He was right next to a small roll-top barbeque, the smell of cooking meat and the accompanying sizzle almost enough to distract Buster from the dog’s annoyingly handsome face. ‘I can’t see you, Buster. Where are you? Pop your head up.’ Roidy laughed.
‘Pop my head up,’ Buster muttered under his breath as he backed away from the fence. ‘I’ll show you how I pop my head up.’
Two seconds later three panels in the fence from Brutus’s garden into the one with the shed exploded into kindling. In the hole left behind stood Devil Dog, grinning maniacally.
When Roidy’s surprised eyes met his, Buster spat out a piece of fence.
Brutus sprang through the gap to land at Buster’s side, yipping, ‘Dun, dun, DAHHHH!’
Amber sighed. ‘Dear Lord. If I get reincarnated, I’m coming back as a lemming. So I can kill myself!’
In his best Devil Dog voice, Buster narrowed his eyes at Roidy when he said, ‘Stand aside, citizen, Devil Dog …’
‘And Hell Pup,’ added Brutus on cue.
‘Are here to make this area safe.’
From inside the shed, came the sound of a human moving about and a head appeared at the window.
‘Go away!’ the stubbly-face man suggested. ‘Stupid animals. Go chase a stick or something.’
Roidy’s eyes popped out on stalks. ‘That’s the escaped prisoner the police are looking for. Oh, my goodness! I’ve found him! I’ve found him and I’m going to catch him! I have to get my human!’
‘You found him!?’ spat Amber, Buster, and Brutus in chorus.
There was no time for further conversation though because Roidy had already taken off, running for his house and barking madly.
From the shed, the man’s voice came again. ‘You’re gonna get me caught, you stupid flea-bitten mongrels!’
Brutus and Buster shot questioning looks at each other and then at Amber.
‘Um, we’re all pedigree,’ Buster argued, forgetting his Devil Dog voice for a moment. ‘I mean, I can take being called names, but that’s way below the belt.’
It was one of those rare occasions when Amber had a reason to agree with the Bulldog. ‘I’m a Ragdoll cat, I’ll have you know. A flea wouldn’t dare touch my fur. Buster, eat the door.’
‘Huh?’ Buster looked up at the cat with a confused expression.
To Amber his expressions all looked the same, but knowing how dumb he was, it came as no great surprise that she needed to expand on her instruction.
‘The door, Buster. The door to the shed with the human inside it who we want to catch for the police. Eat the door.’
Buster grinned at her. ‘Only if you say it.’
‘Not a chance.’
‘Oh, I think you will. I’ll tell everyone we couldn’t have done it without you.’
Brutus nudged Buster’s leg and whispered, ‘We couldn’t have done it without her. She found him.’
From the corner of his mouth, Buster said, ‘Shhh.’
Huffing, and feeling disgusted for allowing herself to be degraded, Amber refused to make eye contact with the Bulldog when she said, ‘Okay. Eat the door … Devil Dog.’
Setting his face to a snarl – not hard for a Bulldog – Buster glared at the door.
‘What are you doing now?’ Amber wanted to know.
Annoyed that the laser eyes still wouldn’t work, he gave up glaring and picked his spot. ‘Hell Pup, cue the action music.’
Driving off with his back paws, Buster exploded into a ponderous amble.
Brutus yipped as loudly as he could, ‘Dun, dun, DAHHHH!’
Using his skull as a battering ram, Buster hit the bottom left corner of the shed door at his top speed. From his vantage point at ground level, he could see what Amber could not – the bottom foot of the door was rotting.
His head didn’t go right through it, but it did cause a chunk to splinter and fall off. Shaking his head and taking a pace back to check his handywork, Buster barked at the human inside.
‘I’m just gonna keep coming, convict! Your only safe play is to surrender.’
He got a tirade of expletives from the man inside.
‘Okay then.’ Buster backed up and rammed again, this time biting a chunk off just as Amber suggested.
A third strike caused yet more of the door to disintegrate. A little more and he would be able to get his head through the gap. Then the human inside was in trouble.
It was only a small shed.
The sound of Roidy barking in the background and his human’s responses as the Ridgeback fought to get him to the garden was all the motivation Buster needed to keep going.
He hit the door again, harder this time, which brought the taste of blood to his mouth.
‘Come on, Devil Dog!’ Amber egged him on. ‘You can do better than that.’
‘Are you all right?’ asked Brutus.
Buster shook his head, ignoring the wooziness he felt. ‘I’m fine, thank you, Susan.’
Revving up for yet another hit, Buster didn’t get the chance to see if he could smash his way through the door because the human decided enough was enough.
The stupid dogs were making so much noise it had to be drawing the attention of the people living in the houses nearby. It had taken him months to plan his escape, waiting for the exact right circumstances. All he needed was to stay hidden until dark.
There was no hope now though. If he didn’t find somewhere new to stash himself, the cops would find him hiding inside a garden shed like some total amateur.
He kicked the door open with such force the top hinge snapped. The door fell awkwardly, blocking his path which saved Buster and Brutus when the man swung a garden rake at their heads.
He kicked the broken door aside the next second, advancing with a savagely murderous expression.
‘You mangy mutts! Which one of you wants to get impaled first?’
‘Banzai!’ Amber’s war cry rang through the air as she leapt from the roof to land on the man’s head. Every single claw was extended, each of them a quarter inch, razor sharp sickle.
Focused on the dogs, he heard an insane noise right behind his head and turned to face the new danger. Consequently, Amber’s claws got his face instead.
The garden rake flew from his hands in shocked terror and pain, and he tried to grab the thing which was now starting to tear his face apart.
Buster rasped, ‘Left!’ at Brutus, picking right for himself and a half second later the man had two new problems as teeth dug into his ankles.
Squealing like a schoolgirl, the escaped criminal flailed and spun. A hand found Amber’s studded diamante collar, and with two fingers hooked through it he ripped the cat from his face.
A flick of his left leg sent Brutus tumbling across the garden to fetch up painfully against the fence.
The Bulldog was too heavy and too strong to remove in a similar way, but the man was fine with that, he wanted to kill it anyway. Looking for the rake, he spun around and took a step.
Just the one.
His toes found the head of the rake, the handle found his face, and the clang as his brain reverberated inside his skull was loud enough to make Buster look up.
He let go, spitting out a loose piece of cloth from the man’s trouser leg.
Amber came to sit beside him, watching the barely conscious man stagger backward and to his side.
He hung like that for a moment, off balance and teetering, before the blackness took him and he fell sideways like a tree being cut for lumber.
Out cold, the escaped prisoner hit the fence through to Roidy’s garden, ploughing straight through it to hit the barbeque positioned on the other side.
Man, fence, rolltop barbeque, hot coals and all the food on it tumbled, bounced, and spread out over the lawn.
Brutus yipped. ‘Yay, burgers!’