Top Dog


Prologue

"Mommy, Daddy, can we get him, the six-year-old girl exclaimed, pointing at me, the caged mess of matted tan and silver fur with beady black eyes peeking from under bangs. Right off the bat I was at a disadvantage after running the streets before they caught me. Animal shelters are a little light on dog grooming facilities. I returned her gaze with my best guileless, head cocked to one side expression, as if asking a question. The mother moved a plump, cheeky face toward me for a closer look.

"Oh, he‘s so scruffy," she said. "I thought you wanted a big dog, one you could play with."

The father‘s arm remained around the girl‘s narrow shoulders. "Honey, Mom‘s right. You said you wanted a Lab like your friend Tommy has. This little guy won‘t run around in the yard with you." Then, turning to the shelter volunteer, he asked, "What kind of dog is it, anyway?"

"He‘s a Yorkie, a Yorkshire terrier, according to our vet‘s examination, a purebred and in perfect health. Clean him up and he will be beautiful." Unhitching a leash from the wall, she lifted me from the cage to the floor. "Yorkies are a popular breed and live a long time. Your daughter will be able to grow up with him." Winking at me, because I had her eating out of my paws since Monday, the volunteer added, "See how he prances around. Yorkies are so full of spirit. I just love this one to pieces. I‘d take him home myself, but we already have two cats and two dogs. My husband would leave me if I brought home another pet."

Four feet tall, sandy hair, blue eyes, and a breath smelling of lemon drops nodded, making up her mind. "He‘s the one I want."

That‘s how my life changed in a split second. I‘m Drake Martin, part-time hit man, most of the time private eye, lover, and shape shifter. This is the story of my life as a dog and the little girl named Kady Hartley who changed it forever.

After botching my last gig, I cleared out in a hurry with the sheriff hot on my trail. A local drug king pin had hired me to assist one of his dealers from the burdens of this life and into the next. Another dealer, who knew of the plan, rolled on us to lighten a pretty big distribution charge hanging over his head. The king pin split to Colombia without telling me about the trap set by the local minions of the law. To get away, I morphed to animal form. In that kind of situation, nobody pays attention to a scruffy little dog skulking along a shadowy wall. While a passel of confused cops addressed their two-volt, one cylinder deductive powers to the problem of how I slipped their trap, I put as much distance between us as my five inch legs could cover. A couple of blocks later, I felt good about my chances, only to turn a corner and damn if I didn‘t run into the town‘s dog catcher who immediately spotted the lack of collar and tags around my neck. In recent years my once lightning getaway had lost a step and no amount of terrier squirming or snarl could break his expert grip. Cooling my heels in the cage on the way to the shelter, I realized, with rising terror, that I was in my worst fix in over a century of life and regretted not morphing to human form to send this hyper-conscientious nimrod to his eternal reward.

While other shape shifters turn into formidable critters like wolves or bears, I become an eight pound Yorkie. It is a mixed blessing. I‘m not worth shit against another shifter, but except for diligent public servants of the animal control department and women, I attract only casual attention. No one perceives me as dangerous or threatening, and the girls love me to pieces. At least it‘s better than my friend Paco in Long Island who becomes a chipmunk.

The little girl named Kady and her family represented my best chance to escape. I knew the shelter‘s rules. After a week as a guest of the city‘s taxpayers, a sad little man euthanized the unfortunate creatures not adopted. As a last resort, I could return to human form, but not while in the suitcase-sized cage. The collar they fitted around my neck also presented a problem. The expansion of my neck as I turned to human couldn‘t break it, and it‘d nip off my head before I could slip out of it. When out of the cage, I was never alone, even in the dog run. If they removed the collar, imagine the staff‘s shock at discovering a six foot naked male in the dog run. After recovering their senses, they‘d cart me off to a psych ward, with little chance of escape. The drugs administered there mess up morphs. Once I teamed with other shifters to spring one of our own who came out unable to morph for months, as well as not knowing what year it was. That‘s how I met Paco.

Clearly, adoption represented the better way out.

I ratcheted up my charm, best puppy eyes along with a surfeit of face licking. As usual, it worked.

On the drive home, held in the arms of an energetic if not hyperactive six-year-old, I thought about older females and their interestingly different embraces. Adult females, when I‘m in human form, entice me to do naughty things to their bodies. Now, I sat on the lap of a considerably younger one. My stubby tail wagged in a blur while an alert face on the other end flirted outrageously with anyone who glanced my way. The gaze of blue eyes, like marbles, washed over me. In that moment, I felt the stirring of a connection with a human unlike any other. After a few minutes she hugged and kissed me with unabashed love the way little girls do with their prized dolls.

"Kady, don‘t get so close until we clean him up," Mom gently admonished from the front seat. "You don‘t know where he‘s been."

"What are you going to name him, honey?" Dad asked.

Profiled by the windshield, his head was a tan blob with sandy hair plastered across it. I remember hoping she wouldn‘t choose a stupid name like Fido or Charlie. No offense to any dudes with those names, but after all, I was a purebred and all male. I deserved a manly name befitting my proud and feisty, if diminutive stature, maybe Killer or Spike.

Kady held my face in a pair of small chubby hands. Her infectious smile, one I came to know well, melted me to slush. Gaps showed where two baby teeth had been. In another place the crown of a new tooth peeked above a gum. With a loving gaze, she looked deep into my eyes and softly said, "I think I‘m calling you Precious."

Precious. Are you effing kidding me? I was a killer, a creature of power and good looks. Women swoon after I make love to them, but none of that mattered to Kady. She set her jaw in a way I recognized as a signal her mind was made up, and there was no arguing with a six year old. The resolute expression became her trademark.

Precious it would be.

"What did you say, honey?" Mom asked.

"Precious, I‘m calling him Precious, my little puppy."

By the time we arrived home, I calmed down about the name, remembering I would soon be gone. Cooling my heels, or paws as it were, in the shelter, I promised myself if I got out, to eschew the more sociopathic aspects of my work. Kady‘s father appeared close to my build and height. After morphing to human form, I planned to borrow some of his clothes and money for bus fare. The little girl would get over my sudden disappearance. A bit of crying and she‘d be back at the shelter to get the Lab.

After a bath and trimming a little hair, I felt much better if not a little girlie from the conditioner Mom used. Thankfully, she knew to use a product suitable for canine skin and hair. Despite the allure of the loving treatment, there was no denying I was a loner and liked it that way. Living with the same people day in and day out totally cramped my style. The orphanage where I grew up hardly qualified as family life. Right after discovering my ability, upon turning thirty, I tried a family, and frankly it soured me on the whole concept, leading to my present line of work. The Carson‘s had three teenage boys whose featured interaction with me was to see how far they could slide my little dog body out on the ice pond behind the house.

It lasted two weeks, and I vowed never to try it again until the recent experience with the drug traffickers. The incident exposed modestly diminished abilities, which nearly did me in, augmented by the perspective of nearly sixty years on my own as a shifter, I realized things needed to change. No more killing unless unavoidable, even though none of my victims rose even to the level of pond scum. As I made preparations to escape, I had to admit life with this family, particularly with the little girl, held attraction and ate at my resolve to leave.

A week later the perfect opportunity to escape presented itself. After the Saturday bath, Mom forgot to collar me. I planned to slobber Kady‘s face with a good-bye before leaving. I owed her that much. Slipping into the bedroom where she seemed sound asleep, I hopped into the bed by way of a chair. For a second, I surveyed the round, cherubic face with the touch of pink in the cheeks, small straight nose, and nearly black lashes curling from the lids. Memories of the innocent love she freely gave called to me like the Sirens to a hapless Homeric sailor. Forcing myself to snap out of it, I moved in for the farewell lick, and the eyes opened.

"Precious, you came to wake me," she said with sleep besotted excitement. Locking me in an embrace, she continued, "I love you, my puppy, my precious little puppy."

A crushing hug and kiss came next. After releasing me, I did my little head cocked to one side trick that knocks the big girls dead. Kady was unimpressed, more interested in talking.

"I will tell you all my secrets, forever. You are my bestest friend."

The guileless blue eyes locked on mine. For the first time a human trusted and believed unreservedly in me, a sensation completely alien up until then. Everything came to a head in that moment. The need to respect age and take a sabbatical from my present line of work dovetailed with the proffered security and tranquility of this family, all overlaid by the unbridled love of Kady. She smiled at the tears gathering in my eyes, probably thinking it was normal for dogs, if a six year old thought of such things at all. Trapped in the innocent, azure gaze my resistance dissolved. Without saying another word she invited me into her world, and I gladly accepted.

"You are my bestest friend," she repeated and pulled me close, but more gently, convincing me that extending my stay for the foreseeable future wouldn‘t hurt.

The days piled up into months. By year‘s end I accepted the permanence of membership into the Hartley clan. For twelve years I remained Kady‘s Precious, cringing every time she used the name. We shared the milestones of life, school dances, crushes, first kiss, broken hearts, and learning to drive a car. I lost count of the number of times I sat patiently while she groomed little Precious into something like a sweet smelling dust mop, telling me her deepest, most intimate thoughts and secrets. I passed judgment on the young men she brought home. I really liked Jonathan, the rosy cheeked, chubby one whose parents moved to the West Coast. He radiated honor and a good character. Animals can pick right up on that sort of thing. She missed him deeply; I could tell. Call it canine sixth sense. After he left, we stayed together and didn‘t do much for a week. Fortunately, Kady healed quickly. A month passed and her infatuation became nothing but a faded fond memory. Life went on, burrowing its way ever deeper into time‘s fabric.

To my grateful relief while in high school, she got into the habit of calling me Little Dude, a name Dad had given me almost from the beginning. She still liked to bathe me with aromatic unguents and primp my coat into fancy arrangements, usually involving ribbons or hair clips. Thank God, no shifters of my professional acquaintance saw me at those times. I would have never lived down the humiliation.

Slowly, imperceptibly, she changed from child to adolescent to young woman. If she could shape shift, I think she would be a cygnet. Of course, that would be impossible since to the best of my knowledge, no avian shifters existed. By the time she turned eighteen, I knew her better than did any other creature on earth and found myself caring more than I had for anyone before. It wasn‘t sexual, but a devoted bond few humans understand. I would have stayed with the Hartleys forever but for one thing.

I didn‘t age.

After six or seven years people began to notice. At first they made casual remarks about my puppy like vigor. Then a new vet, Dr. Douglas, took over when Dr. Fitch retired. His fascination with my physical condition grew with each visit. The summer after Kady graduated high school, Mom and Kady dropped me off for my annual examination. Normally Kady waited, but this time the women, buzzing about the recent acceptance letter to the state university, took off for last minute shopping. Soon after they left, Dr. Douglas placed me in a special cage within his office and made a phone call.

"I have the dog I told you about," he said in a quiet confidential tone. "Yes, the Yorkshire terrier." His face took on an expectant pause while the other party spoke.

"No," the good doctor responded, "I know for a fact he‘s been with this family for twelve years, and was an adult when they got him. It‘s in the record. He has to be thirteen or fourteen years old, but has the health and energy of young dog. Coat, vital signs, all of it is perfect."

The voice on the other end spoke up enough for me to hear. "When can you make the subject available?" It asked.

"There‘s no rush. The owners apparently suspect nothing about his ability. Without arousing suspicions, I can call them to bring him in right after Labor Day for some inoculations. Then, I‘ll say he had a reaction and have to keep him over night. That should provide time for examination. Also, by then the daughter will be at college and out of the way. She watches over him like a hawk and might notice our interest."

All that night I turned the options over in my mind. If Dr. Douglas didn‘t discover the truth of why I didn‘t age, eventually another would. Recognizing the impossibility of the situation, I decided to pass from Kady‘s life. On a cold, rainy fall night, a week or so after she left for college, I carried out the plan I made twelve years before. Earlier in the day, Mom bathed me and forgot to replace the collar. It was now or never.

After everyone went to bed, I dressed in one of Dad‘s older suits, figuring he wouldn‘t miss it, and let myself out the front door. On the walk to the bus stop thunder roared and lightning zigzagged across the dark skies. I sat in the open on a concrete bench. While waiting for the bus, a deluge of cold rain splashed on my face and diluted the tears, the first I‘d shed since the day Kady stole my heart with innocent sincerity twelve years before. I kept telling myself everything would be all right.

I thought I would never see her again.

Until the house on Melrose Drive brought us together.

Oh boy!

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