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Parker’s Sanctuary

By Cooper West


Copyright © 2017 by Cooper West

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Cover design by Tiferet Design

Published by Cooper West

Tallahassee, Florida, United States of America


This is a work of fiction. Names, character, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.


www.cooper-west.com



Part I

Chapter 1

Greg Lademar answered the call, punching at the screen on his smartphone when he saw who was calling. “No.”

“I hate caller ID.” Marsha Dillard sighed heavily on the line, her twangy just-south-of-the-Georgia-border accent drawing out all the vowels.

“Whatever it is, the answer is still no.” Greg rubbed his left temple. He knew what was coming. Marsha’s resemblance to the four Cairn terriers she owned was more than superficial: she never, ever gave up when her prey was in sight, and sometimes even when it wasn’t.

“I’m desperate. You know I would never ask you otherwise.” Marsha sounded genuinely upset, and Greg knew that she was being honest, but it still surprised him.

“I saw the news story about the dog rescue. A Husky, right? I can’t believe you don’t have people lined up around the block to foster him.” Greg looked at the numbers on his monitor, then closed the spreadsheet. Even if he convinced Marsha to leave him out of the situation, chances were good he was not going to get any more work done that afternoon. He had no stomach for injured dogs anymore.

“Adopt him? Yes. Foster him? Well, sure, but no one I know and trust. It’s been a busy fall, all the usual suspects are slapped full with fosters already, and the no-kill shelter is maxed out.” She paused long enough that Greg hopefully thought she had run out of steam. But then she sighed again. “And he’s in bad shape. Really bad shape.”

Greg pursed his lips, because he saw where this was going. His stomached twisted. “No.”

“Greg, honey, it’s you or I take him myself, and I just don’t have the space or the time. Not with my schedule, not with my rambunctious pack. I need this dog with someone I trust.”

“I don’t do fosters anymore,” he protested. Despite his family’s long history of being foster owners, a tradition that went back three generations, Greg had come home from his tours in Afghanistan in 2002 with no intentions of ever living with dogs again. The memories were still too fresh, the nightmares still to sharp, for him to be the kind of person a rescue dog needed. Most people who knew the full story, including Marsha, had for the most part respected his decision to bow out. Until now.

Marsha sighed again. “Greg.” She sounded too much like his mother scolding him for getting bad grades, and Greg’s shoulders drooped instinctively.

“Marsha, it’s been over ten years since I fostered. That was my parents’ gig.”

“You all specialized in the really damaged dogs, you know the drill, don’t play with me.” Her voice softened up. “Greg, I know this is hard. You have to understand I wouldn’t ask this of you unless I was out of options.”

“Take him up to Thomasville, surely someone up there can do it.”

“Due to the nature of his rescue, I can’t take him across state lines.”

Greg stalled for a moment. “Liar.”

“Okay, I’m lying. But Greg, honey, I’m in a bind.”

“Marsha…I’m, I’m not the same guy. You know what happened.” He breathed out heavily. It was as close as he got to disclosing his PTSD to anyone, despite the fact that he was pretty sure everyone in the fairly small city of Tallahassee, Florida already knew it.

“You’re still volunteering a few weekends at the shelter to walk dogs and clean kennels. You’re the same boy.”

“I’m also thirty-two.”

“Come back to me when you hit fifty,” she said.

“Yes ma’am.” Greg sighed with a smile. “You know the reason I did not go back to fostering when I got out of the Army, Marsha.”

“I do. I respect that. Don’t mistake this for some kind of intervention, you ain’t that important to me right now. This dog, he’s in a bad way, he needs someone who can handle the breed and the damage, who doesn’t already have a houseful.” Marsha’s voice lowered, and Greg heard the slight frustration in her words. He figured he was probably last on a very long list of options.

“Damn it.”

Marsha did not miss a beat. “Thank you! He’s going to be at the vet for a day or two, but I wanted everything in place.”

He put both elbows on his desk and used his free hand to massage his temples. “I’m guessing there is going to be some wound care involved.”

Marsha whistled in his ear. “Ohhhh, yeah. Poor thing, he was hurt bad.”

Greg thought of the news story he had seen online earlier about the dog. It had been kept in a small cage for years, underfed and beaten regularly. The photo that went with the story had shown an emaciated, filthy dog being gently carried out of a run-down suburban house by a policeman who was nearly in tears. “That guy deserves life for what he did,” Greg growled, unable to not hate the dog abuser who had obviously spent a lot of time torturing the animal in his care.

“Ain’t that the truth! Jesus and all His Saints, that sumbitch needs to be treated to a bit of his own medicine.”

“You are a vengeful woman, Miss Marsha,” Greg said, smiling despite himself. Marsha was both the highest ranking officer of the Leon County Animal Control department and also president of the Leon Country Dog Rescue Society for a reason, and that reason was her total commitment to the cause. If there was one person on the planet with a more jaded, cynical attitude towards humanity than Greg, it was Marsha.

“Some folk just deserve it. I’m almost sorry that the standoff ended with an arrest and not a shooting, although Memaw might say that’s unchristian of me.”

“It probably is, but I agree with you.” Greg sighed heavily, suddenly struck with the realization of what he had just committed to. With a roiling stomach, he decided to get on with it like pulling a band-aide off a wound. “So what about the dog? He? Or, she?”

“He! And he’s a big boy, or is supposed to be: Husky, probably purebred, on the large side. I think the vet weighed him in at forty-seven pounds, but I bet he’ll be closer to sixty when he fills out. He’s a mangled mess, I don’t mind telling you that, Greg.”

“Great.”

Marsha clucked at him. “That’s why I’m asking you to do this. I know you can handle it.”

“I’m not so sure of that.”

“I am. I get where you’re coming from, I really do, but my options are limited here. This dog is too beat up to just give to any foster home for recovery, and everyone but big-dog people are skittish about Huskies. Ellen offered, but she’s dealing with those horses that got picked up a few weeks ago, and you know what her schedule is like anyway. I’ve respected your reasons for staying out of rescue; but you’ve got to come through for me this time.”

It was true, Marsha had been one of the few who had not given him shit for pulling out active involvement with the dog rescue society. Greg did not feel like he owed her, but he knew that she probably had thought seriously about asking him to do this before calling.

“Yeah, I know. I said I’d do it. But just this once, okay? I can’t…well, I can’t. Just this once.”

“Look, he won’t be tough to adopt out when he’s back in his stride, I can tell you that. Once he’s off your hands, I’ll leave you alone.”

“You’ve already got people offering to take him, don’t you?” Greg was glad to know it, even if it meant that potential adopters might start hassling him directly.

“Oh hell yeah. He’s got looks and he’s got dignity. He’s smart too. Let us pull him out of the cage nice as you please.”

“He knew you were there to rescue him.” Greg smiled again. Just thinking about how relieved the poor dog must have felt to be rescued nearly brought tears to his eyes. People criticized him for anthropomorphizing dogs, but Greg had no doubt that dogs had feelings.

“He really did. Never snapped at us once. Poor thing.”

“So what was the owner’s story?” Greg sat back in his chair. He was glad it was off-season for the accounting firm, so he would have some time to take off from work to deal with the dog.

“Seriously demented, that’s what that man’s story is. Just plain crazy. Kept yelling about how the dog was his Protector, and wasn’t obeying him, and needed to be put in his place.”

Greg’s mind reeled. “Ay dios mío.” A horrible thought struck him. “Marsha, tell me we aren’t dealing with Guardsmen—“

“No! That man is just plain crazy, ain’t never been a Handler, and that wasn’t even his dog, best we can tell. Probably stole some dog he liked thinking it was his ticket, I guess?”

“I’ve heard of people obsessed with Guardsmen but that’s extreme.” Greg played with the stapler on his desk. As a young boy, he had been one of those ‘Guardsmen junkies’ but he grew out of the phase, his youthful adoration of the specially bonded weredog and handler pairs turning into a simple, sane love of real dogs.

“Like I said, that monster is unhinged.” Marsha’s voice drooped, making her sound tired and bone-weary.

“But we’re sure about the dog?”

“Just a dog. I mean, we don’t have a Guardsman pair any closer than Atlanta that we know of, well maybe the Air Force base out by Fort Walton. Not that they’d share.” Marsha snapped the words, and it was clear to Greg that either the Tallahassee Police or Fire Department had probably asked, at some point. The military branches held their Guardsmen close. “But there are no missing Protectors on the record anywhere in the States, and if there were, you know the Institute would be all over us right now.”

“True.” Greg nodded. The Guardsman Institute of the Americas kept a very tight rein over all Guardsmen in the U.S. and Canada, not to mention that a missing Protector would have been national headline news.

“Anyway he’s a Husky.”

“Point,” Greg said, nodding. He knew that some Protectors manifested as Huskies, but it was exceptionally rare. “That man had to be really crazy to think a real dog was a Protector.”

Marsha chuckled. “I’m tellin’ you! I’ve seen people who think all kinds of things about their pets, but this guy takes the cake. Honestly? I’m surprised with the way he was screaming at the cops that he hadn’t killed the dog long ago.”

Greg blinked. In her job as an animal control officer, Marsha saw a lot of craziness when it came to animals. If she thought this guy was particularly demented, then that was a saying a lot.

“Lucky he didn’t,” Greg finally offered.

“Oh yeah. Now look, he’s at Doc Leader’s, and is going to be there for a few days. You’re on the record as the foster family, so they’ll be expecting you to call.”

“So you figured I was a sure thing, huh?” Greg couldn’t stop himself from grumbling.

The quiet pause on the other end of the line went on for a few beats. “The dog’s in a bad way, Greg, and he’s been pretty agreeable but he’s a large dog who’s been tortured. I wouldn’t put him with just anyone, only someone I know can handle it. That’s you. You’ll get him back on his feet the right way.”

Greg sighed, torn between anger and feeling flattered. “Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me until you see him,” Marsha said brusquely, the heartfelt flattery portion of the discussion over. She told him to call the vet to arrange pick up before hanging up on him.

Greg went in to talk to his business partner, Hannah Stone. She was ensconced in her office, wearing one of her many, many colorful linen pants suits and looking like an ebony-skinned version of the school secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with her prim expression and at least two pencils sticking out of her graying but still formidable chignon. Greg never asked about the pencils. She never actually used them, doing all of her work on the computer, but she carried pencils around in her hair and in her purse and had them stashed all over the office. He figured it was “a thing” and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know too much about it.

It was baby-blue day, her suit and her eye shadow and her shoes all matching and set off beautifully against her flawless, dark skin. Every day her ensemble matched, no matter what the color scheme was, and she could go weeks without wearing the same outfit twice. Greg admired her devotion to the fashion cause.

She looked over at him, resembling a blue Easter peep and not the incredibly intelligent and slightly ruthless CPA Greg knew her to be. “Yes?”

Greg sighed and plopped down into one of the nice padded chairs facing her desk. “I think I made a mistake.”

“On the Harrison accounts? I’ll flay you alive.” Her eyes narrowed. She hated the Harrisons who hated her back, but that did not extend to either side refusing to do business with each other. Greg had been running interference for years.

“No. Nothing to do with business, actually.”

Interested, she leaned back, her well-padded frame taking up the whole chair. “Don’t tell me you actually went on a date!”

“What? No!”

“Darn.” She looked thoughtful before pointing at him. “You finally decided to sell that monstrous farm house of yours. I assure you, that is not a mistake.”

Greg rolled his eyes, but didn’t answer. She huffed at him then motioned for him to get on with it.

“I’m fostering a dog.”

Her mouth opened, then closed again with a click. She fussed with some papers on her desk for a moment. “Well, that’s…nice.”

“Yeah.” He sighed and leaned back, sprawling out in the chair.

“Rather sudden decision on your part.” Her delivery was clipped and monotone.

“Marsha was desperate. Guess they are strapped for volunteers, and this dog needs special care.”

Hannah looked up at him over her glasses. “I guess so, if you agreed.” Her voice was only slightly accusing.

“No, Hannah, I didn’t call Marsha. She called me.”

“I just want some assurances here.”

“The work will get done.” Greg shifted irritably, refusing to look at her.

“Of course the work will get done!” She sounded insulted on his behalf. “I mean, I want to know you’ll be okay.”

“Awww, I didn’t know you cared.” He gave her one of his charming smiles.

She sat up straight in her chair and glared at him. “Greg, I respect your service for our country. I know it did a number on you, and I know you’ve got your issues that take you to therapy every Wednesday at 2:30 in the afternoon. I know sometimes you don’t sleep well. But the Lademars have been into dog rescue forever, your sister still does animal rescue out in Jacksonville, right?” Greg nodded, and she continued. “Last time you tried to take a foster dog, you nearly had a nervous breakdown and missed two weeks of work.” She frowned at him. “Admittedly that was when we first opened, and I can cover better for you now. But, we’ve got a business to take care of here, and more importantly, I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Greg nodded. One thing he could always count on was for Hannah to shoot straight from the hip. They had met working as accounting drones for the state department not long after Greg graduated with his master’s from Florida State University in 2007, a degree paid for by his VA Bill benefits. He didn’t have any life plans at that point, feeling lucky to have made it through the advanced degree given the number of nights he lost sleep due to nightmares and night terrors. Hannah was coming out of a nasty divorce and they bonded over many salads at Ruby Tuesday’s restaurants. When Hannah decided to use her shiny new CPA license to open her own firm later that year, she told Greg that he was going to be her partner without even asking first, not that Greg was ever going to say “no” to the woman who had basically become his second mother. Four years later, there wasn’t much either of them could hide from the other, and nothing they could say that wasn’t wrapped up in years of working together 60+ hours a week during tax season.

“I’m single, it’s one dog, and Marsha needs the help. It’s nothing personal, just a job.”

Hannah looked as convinced by that as if he had tried to tell her the moon was made of green cheese, but she opted not to say anything else about it. Changing the subject back to the Harrison accounts, she steered the conversation to safer waters, and Greg just followed along as usual. His mind, though, was already drifting to what he needed to do to prepare for his new charge.

Chapter 2

The old farmhouse that Hannah hated was actually a historic building, the last original farmhouse left among acres and acres of subdivisions on the south-east edge of Tallahassee. By the time Greg was born, his family weren’t blueberry farmers anymore. Most of the property had been sold off a generation before, with the money going towards Greg’s gambling-addicted grandfather and being lost in the process. In the end, despite all the money that changed hands in the 1970s, Greg grew up in a working white collar household, mowing the ten acres they had left using a decrepit rider mower and helping his father fix the roof almost every winter.

His parents had moved to the Villages retirement community down near Gainesville when his father retired from the state, which had been right after Greg got his undergraduate degree in 2005. They sold Greg the homestead at far below market value just to keep it in the family, since Greg’s older sister was already well established with her own kids across the state in Jacksonville. Greg was glad because he loved the place. He had let the land go a little wild, keeping up walking paths through the brambles, unkempt blueberry bushes, and small trees that dotted the property. When he was a child, his parents installed a low chicken-wire fence around it, which had cost and arm and leg and did nothing to keep the foxes out but had helped a lot back when they fostered dogs regularly and had to deal with a few escape artists, although the worst offenders had been limited to the large dog run that had been put in around the same time. Greg could not remember a time before the chicken wire, and his youth had been taken up with a rotating and sometimes obnoxious number of dogs that he was expected to help care for.

It was something he had loved doing, and sometimes he thought maybe he was part-Guardsman, due to his affinity for dogs which outstripped even that of his parents or his sister. That love and devotion was what had steered him into the Military Police when he joined the Army right out of high school. He had wanted to work with dogs, which had proven both the making and the undoing of his military career. It had been a rare, calm day outside of Kabul when his unit had been ambushed and Greg’s life torn apart. Despite physical recovery and therapy, Greg doubted he would ever really move on from April 15, 2002. Still, he knew that Marsha would not have asked unless she was strapped for help, so he reached back to the mentality he had in his teens, which had always been about putting the dogs first.

Hannah sent him home early because he was too distracted to be much use, and it was a slow Friday afternoon anyway. They arranged for him to take the following week off, since he had some vacation time to use and he was essentially his own boss anyway. Fall was their slowest season and he could always work from home if something came up that dragged down Hannah’s schedule. It was a decent compromise, and would keep Greg from getting too bored sitting around the house while also allowing him time to work on helping the dog acclimate to his new freedom and safety. While most people correctly assumed dogs were resilient, they rarely factored in the very real PTSD abused dogs suffered after being rescued. Helping extremely traumatized dogs had been his family’s specialty with foster services, years ago, and while it had been a while he knew exactly what he was in for.

He pulled up to his house, dreading getting out of his heated car. While some of his college friends from up north mocked him mercilessly for being a Florida boy, the simple fact was that sixty degrees Fahrenheit was winter to him. The early October chill had taken the whole region by surprise, and he knew the house would be like an ice box. His parents had finally sprung for central heat and air in the late 1980s, but the house had not been designed for such modern conveniences and was drafty by nature. It was a nice, large one story Florida bungalow with lots of windows and a great cross-breeze that worked against it in the colder months.

He flipped the thermostat up to seventy degrees as soon as he got inside. He realized that with bringing an injured dog home, he was probably going to have to keep the place warmer over all, at least through the rest of the season, which would significantly impact his electrical bill. Sometimes he thought it was a good thing he really didn’t have much of a life, because at least that way he had money to spare.

Greg went to his bedroom, changing out of his business clothes quickly while standing in front of the air vent. Bundled up in two layers of sweatshirts he made it to the kitchen to fix dinner, and that was when he realized that his house was in no way, shape or form dog-proof or dog-ready anymore.

He spent the evening doing an inventory of what he would have to move or batten down, and making a list of things he would need to buy. As a foster owner, he would be out of pocket for everything, but in one way he was glad to start from scratch since nothing would hold the smell of other dogs. He was pretty sure the house still smelled like some of the dogs he had fostered over the years, in crevices and corners, but for the most part those odors would be faint and old. It would be a safe retreat for the dog he was planning to bring home.

It was also a reminder that all traces of Greg’s last boyfriend were gone too. He tried to have mixed feelings about that, because he had been in love with Terry for several years and he felt that should count for something. Any sentimentalism he had was washed out by anger and betrayal, though, and after staring at his empty bed for far too long, Greg decided he was okay with never getting over those feelings. Terry didn’t deserve to be loved, and Greg was not a forgiving kind of man.

He was also very used to being single after nearly four years, and part of him enjoyed the freedom. The other part of him was horny and lonely, but given Tallahassee’s small size, the gay community outside of Florida State University was pretty incestuous and gossipy. Greg only did one-night stands when he was out of town on business or vacation. Not dating regularly was the primary reason that Hannah nagged him about being single. She assumed he just wasn’t moving on, and while he knew that was a little bit true, mostly it was because he vowed never to settle for anyone ever again. He wasn’t a Guardsman waiting for his bond-mate, but the general idea held a lot of appeal to Greg: he was going to wait until he met the man he knew complemented and completed him, not just go for any handsome dick who came swaggering into his life.

He ended up sitting in his living room sucking down a cheap bowl of ramen noodles late that night, going over the list in his head of things he would have to buy for the dog. He decided to get up early and hit up both the vet clinic and the pet supply store before either got too busy. While Tallahassee traffic was never terrible (at least according to the friends Greg had up in Atlanta), it could still suck on a busy weekend, and both locations were nowhere near his house, or each other. The vet’s was way on the other side of town on West Tharpe Street, and there was simply no easy, straightforward way to get there from way the hell on Buck Lake Road, which was just outside of the city lines on the east side of town. He put his “to buy” list into his shopping app on his phone and then hit the sack. He expected to toss and turn, kept awake by memories and stress, but instead he woke up at dawn after not remembering his head hitting the pillow. It was, at least, a minor blessing.

He walked in to Doctor Leader’s office clutching his Lucky Goat Cafe coffee and trying not to look nervous. This was not a first date, he was just there to check on the dog and possibly score an introduction. It was a busy Saturday morning at the clinic, Greg could tell that just from the traffic in the parking lot, and that calmed him down a bit. No one would make too much of scene about him showing up, they would be too busy with clients.

“Holy Hell! Greg!” Jane, the tall, white, blond former Florida State volleyball player who ran the office side of things, nearly jumped over the counter to give him a hug when he walked in. “Teesha! It’s Greg!” She screeched, yelling towards the hallway of exam rooms. One of the dogs in the waiting area started barking along.

Teesha, a small black woman who looked about forty but was the grandmother of five kids and had worked for the vet clinic for decades as lead tech, sauntered out of one of the back rooms, frowning. “Marsha got hold of your sorry ass, then?”

“Lovely to see you too, Miss Teesha. How are the boys?”

“No worse than you: never call, never stop by.” She smiled as she scolded, giving Greg a tight hug.

“You know why I’m here, then?”

“Sure do, son. Sure do. C’mon. Jane, hold the place down, I’m introducing him to Parker.” Teesha waved at Jane who smiled brightly and then turned back to the line at the reception desk.

Greg followed Teesha to the back where the large cages were. “So he’s got a name, then? Parker?”

“It’s what was on his collar, anyway.” Teesha shrugged. “We had to cut it off him. Not sure he’ll answer to it or not, but he seems aware.” She led them up to the largest cage, one that was normally used for St. Bernards or Great Danes. “Keepin’ him in here as he was pulled out of a small crate, don’t want to him to think he’s back to that.”

The emaciated Husky looked tiny in the over-sized cage. He was draped over an impressive number of blankets and towels. His coat was short, clipped back haphazardly, with splotchy areas where it was shaved down to skin to treat sores. There were a few bandages and a wrap around one of his front legs indicating that he had been on an IV for at least a little while.

Greg crouched down but kept his hands close to himself. It was tempting to reach out to put his fingers through the bars, but he wasn’t stupid. Parker looked limp and pliant but his eyes were not quite closed, and his gaze was following every movement Greg and Teesha made. Even a weak dog could do some damage if they felt threatened enough.

Teesha crouched down next to Greg. “Malnourished, dehydrated, infected ears, skin sores, and a massive case of worms. He tried to stand last night, stubborn bastard. Might make it today. Walking is out until tomorrow, at least.”

The words flowed by Greg as he studied the dog in front of him. There was something familiar about his expression, something that spoke to Greg of intelligence and self-awareness. Huskies were known as smart, clever dogs, but it was still a surprise to see such a sharp, keen personality in a dog so recently abused.

“…torture, pure and simple,” Teesha finished, startling Greg out of his thoughts.

“Why?”

“Why anyone would get crazy and hurt a dog? I don’t know, and never want to. Bad people do bad things, that’s why I’m glad Hell exists.”

“He’s smart,” Greg nodded at Parker, whose ear twitched.

“Possibly why he’s still alive, I’m guessing. Knew not to push his keeper too far. Some dogs are too stubborn to live, fight back and fight back until their abuser just finishes it. Not this one; seems he was in that hell hole for at least two years.”

“Two years?” Greg yelped. “Damn.”

“Sad part is that nutso bastard won’t get real jail time for it. Property theft, animal abuse — we’ll be lucky they sign off for time served.”

“Unbelievable. But I know you’re right.” Greg sighed as he stood up. Parker continued to track him, his eyes bright and curious. “Yeah, you’re coming home with me, as soon as Doc Leader discharges you. Hope you like my place.”

Teesha was staring at him, her head cocked.

“What?” Greg shuffled off to the side, feeling like a boy who was found stealing cookies.

“Just you talk to him differently. I’ve seen you with dogs, and this ain’t it.”

“Been a while, remember? I’m too used to just talking to people. I have to work on my puppy talk again, brush up on the basics.”

Teesha laughed. “Sure you do. Let me go get the doc, he’ll be mad as a wet hen if you run off without saying hello.”

Greg and Parker stared at each other while waiting. It did seem odd that he already thought of the dog in more human terms than he usually did, but Parker was clearly something special. For just a moment, Greg almost understood why the dog’s abuser believed he was a Protector.

“About time you came back around!” Doc Leader waddled in. A large man with large tastes, he filled a room with his height and size. He was well over sixty and had been running the same vet clinic since before Greg was born, watching generations of pet owners come and go around him. They shook hands, Greg trying simply to hold his own against the other man’s inadvertently crushing grip. There was no secret why most large-dog owners in town liked Doc Leader, because he could just sit on a 150 pound dog to get them under control. Greg had seen him do it.

“Quite a mess, isn’t he?” Doc Leader said, waving a hand at Parker. “Poor boy.”

“Doing well despite it all,” Greg said.

“Hmmmm.” Doc Leader put his hands in his lab coat pockets. “I’ll tell you right now he’s a fighter, and he’s smart. Would not surprise me at all if he pulls a runner as soon as he can walk.”

Greg glanced down at Parker, who was watching them closely. A chill went down his back, and he turned to look up at Doc Leader again. “I’ll keep him under close watch.”

“Don’t crate him if you can avoid it.”

Greg nodded, figuring he would clear out his utility room and put Parker in there when he had to leave the house. Short of eating the steel sink or the dryer, there wasn’t much damage Parker could do once the potential poisons such as laundry soap and floor wax were moved. There was also a small lever window that would let in sun. “I’ll be home Sunday and Monday, and then working some half-days. Gives us time to do trial runs with leaving him on his own.”

“Marsha said he had been crated on a back patio, mostly open to the elements, so he might not react well to thunderstorms.”

“Any clue at all where he came from?” Greg knew the chances were slim that any previous owners would know their dog had been found, years after losing him.

“Not chipped, and none of the animal rescue shelters have any record of any dog like him. Huskies stand out, and his rescue got enough news coverage that if the former owners were still in town they probably would have seen it.” He glanced down at Parker. “Doesn’t mean he might not think ‘home’ is somewhere else.”

Greg frowned. “I’ve dealt with antsy dogs before, Doc.”

“I know, buddy, I know.” Doc Leader slapped him on the shoulder and Greg tried not to stagger. The doctor went on. “I just get the feeling that this one has plans. You know when you meet the smart ones, and I’ve seen some brilliant dogs, but this one is special.”

Greg smiled. “That your professional opinion?”

“Hell no. That’s my gut instinct, telling me that you are going to have your arms full of trouble the minute that boy finds his feet.”

“Damn it, did you just jinx me?”

Behind them, Teesha laughed. “Enough socializin’, boys. Doc, you got a Chihuahua with bad teeth in room two.” She handed Greg a print out. “Care taking instructions. Nothing you don’t know, and we’ll provide the meds as usual, but thought you’d want a heads up on special care.”

Parker lifted his head, and Greg would have sworn the dog was trying to look at the instructions. Greg folded the paper and put it in his pocket. “Thanks, Teesha.”

“Now get out, we’re busy.” She turned and left. Doc nodded at Greg and wandered off.

Greg realized he had a moment alone with Parker. “Hey. Parker.” He crouched down again, and the dog tilted his head a little. “So the instructions mostly say to keep you well fed and rested. I need you to work with me, not against me, okay? Be a good boy. I’ll even get you some pig ears to chew on.”

If dogs could grimace, Greg would have sworn that is what Parker did. Disgust radiated off of him.

“Okay, not pig ears. I’ll get a selection of snacks, okay?”

The dog dropped his head, looking for all the world like he was moping. Greg sighed and smiled at him, trying to radiate trust and sincerity. Parker’s ears twitched again but he kept nosing his blankets morosely.

Shaking his head at himself for his own folly, Greg finally left to go to the pet store.

Chapter 3

Teesha called later that day to let Greg know that Parker would be ready for pick up the following morning. Since it would be Sunday, the clinic was officially closed but Doc Leader was going to be there between nine and ten in order to let Greg in. It was a little unusual, but Teesha mentioned that Parker was getting restless. Greg figured they were also worried about keeping him caged by himself in an empty clinic. If the dog panicked for any reason, he could hurt himself.

The house was as dog-ready as Greg could make it on short notice. The utility room had been stripped down to the point that the only things left were the washer, the dryer, and the sink. Greg’s parents had fostered a young Lab once who chewed straight through PVC plumbing, so he knew that nothing was truly indestructible but he hoped for the best. Things like picture frames and other breakables had been moved up out of tail-sweep radius, so most every surface in the house was empty of everything except books and coasters. The furniture was only as safe as Parker wanted it to be, in the end, but only a few items held sentimental value. He knew Doc Leader had trimmed Parker’s nails, so the damage to the wood floor would be minimal for a while. Greg had bought three large dog beds, one for the utility room and two for the house itself. He put one in the living room and one in his bed room, with the optimistic hope that Parker would not need to be “caged” in the utility room at night. That was going to be one of many things they would figure out as they went along.

The 50 lbs. of special diet dog food was locked up in the pantry, along with a ludicrous variety of snacks and chew toys, minus the loathed pig ears. Greg was fully aware that he had gone overboard, but it wasn’t like he spent much money on going out or clothes or much of anything, really, and he had a good job. As a partner in the accounting firm, he pulled in money that made his old state-job salary look like spare change. Aside from eating out with Hannah, his wardrobe, and his cable TV bill, he generally lived frugally. He felt that spending some money to buy nice treats for a dog who had probably forgotten what kindness was seemed harmless and not much of hit on his bank balance anyway.

He was at the clinic promptly at nine am the next morning, sipping his coffee and munching on a muffin. Doc Leader pulled up in his over-sized SUV and rolled out, eying Greg’s food. Greg held out a bag with another muffin in it, which Doc Leader grabbed and clutched to his chest wordlessly. They entered the clinic by the staff door. It was quiet, only Parker and a sick cat in residence. Greg finished his coffee while Leader turned on lights and ate his muffin. They stood staring at Parker, who was looking a bit livelier and staring right back.

“Can he walk?”

“His rear left paw is raw, so he’ll favor that for a few more days, and of course his stamina is down. But Jane got him out to pee in the run last night, so I think he’s good for short distances. We’ll have to pick him up to get him in your car.”

“Teesha gave me all the instructions yesterday.”

“Oh, glad you mentioned it.” Doc Leader went over to the medicine refrigerator. “Here you go. Ear drops, some antibiotics, dewormer. We gave him Capstar for the fleas, that killed them all off, and once he’s done with the current run of meds next week we can put him on a monthly flea and tick treatment.”

Greg took the bag that Leader handed over. “Got it.”

Leader opened the cage and slipped a collar on him. Greg thought they might have to drag the dog out but Parker came easily once the collar was on. It was a thick martingale style, designed as much for comfort as for control. Greg pulled out the heavy nylon leash he had purchased and clipped it to the collar’s ring, and then everyone stood around. Parker looked at them as if they were stupid while Greg and Leader waited to see if he would fight the leash.

“Well, I’m guessing he had some leash training before that asshole grabbed him,” Leader said, heading out to the parking lot.

Greg shrugged and followed at a slow pace. Parker limped along, his emaciated condition even more glaring as Greg got to see his whole body. He was holding his rear left paw up, but it wasn’t bandaged, so the damage wasn’t too bad. When they got to Greg’s Toyota FJ Cruiser, he gave Leader the leash while he popped the back open. He had made a nest of pillows and blankets, because even though it would take less than thirty minutes to get home, Parker was already in enough pain. Leader easily bent down and picked up the dog, who looked even smaller in the large man’s arms, then placed him in the nest. He unclipped the leash and gave it back to Greg.

“Good to go. Call my cell if anything comes up, especially with those sores. He might have some diarrhea with the dewormer, but don’t call me about that unless he seems to lose sphincter control.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

“He’s a good dog, Greg, and I know he’s in good hands.” Leader wandered back into the clinic.

“Well, it’s just us now,” Greg said. Parker, who had curled up in the nest but was holding his head up so he could see what was going on, huffed at him. “Right, talking to the dog again. Guess I better get used to it. Buckle up, buddy!” Greg closed up the back and then drove home, taking care to stop slowly at intersections and not jostle Parker too much.

At the house, he opened the place up first before going down the porch steps back to the car. Parker was sitting up, listing to one side, and staring out the window with wide eyes. Greg could almost feel the panic building so he opened the back up quickly. “Hey! Hey, boy, sorry. It’s okay. Sorry. Didn’t mean to trap you.” He carefully put his hand out, then ran his fingers over Parker’s head when the dog didn’t shy away. After a few moments to let Parker calm down, Greg picked him up and carried him up to the porch, not willing to see how well he’d do on stairs just yet. He put him down gently and clipped the leash on. “Just in case, for now. We’re going to stay close to each other.”

Parker took the lead, limping into the house. Greg closed the door behind them. Parker’s attention snapped to that, but when it was clear Greg wasn’t going to lock him up in a crate, Parker sagged a little.

“You’re an expressive one, aren’t you, boy?” Greg smiled.

Parker ignored him to wobble around the living room. He stopped to nose at the large dog bed. It had soft sides and was made with a foam core, and covered in plaid flannel. One paw at a time, as if testing it for booby traps, he levered himself onto the bed. He gave it one lopsided circle before flopping down. He propped his head on the edge and looked up at Greg.

Sitting down next to the bed, moving slowly to telegraph his moves, Greg started petting Parker’s head again. The dog sighed and squinted his eyes.

“It’s okay to go to sleep, you’re safe here. It’s been a long morning for you already, and you need your rest. Take it easy, boy.” Greg sat there until Parker dozed off into a deep sleep. He unsnapped the leash and rolled it up, setting on the coffee table.

He moved away quietly but Parker was out hard and didn’t stir at the noise. He stepped softly into the kitchen and made himself a fresh pot of coffee, then sat down at the kitchen table with his tablet to catch up on email and his social networks. He took a detour to read up on the latest about Alex Tyler (the “Protector Who Lived” as the press had dubbed him in morbid humor) and his surprise bonding with a new handler late last year. It had been a few years since Tyler’s original Handler died, and the new bonding had taken the Guardsmen community by storm. It was about as close to celebrity gossip as possible for Guardsmen, who were generally a secretive lot. While Greg’s fascination had dimmed with time and maturity, he still found Protectors and Handlers to be wonderful, amazing people and he couldn’t stop himself from reading up on the latest news. Apparently there had also been a “mis-identified” Protector who was a late bloomer, coming into his shifting powers at an older but unspecified age, but there was precious little information anywhere on that. There was rampant speculation in the media that Tyler was some strange “half-breed” Protector, and conspiracy theories had flooded the Internet when Tyler’s story first got out. It struck Greg that Tyler was probably just genetically unique or something, and had outlived his original Handler mostly by chance. Not that Greg could claim expert status, but he was a big believer in Occam’s Razor: the simplest answer was most likely the correct one. Alex Tyler and his new Handler had recently held a small bonding ceremony at the Institute of the Americas main campus in Missouri, and it was the first time in recorded history that a Protector had gone through the ceremony twice. Greg could not hold back his innate romanticism about the whole situation, and enjoyed reading about it, even if he felt a little guilty for being something of a stalkery fan.

After about an hour, he heard Parker crawling up out of the bed. The dog limped into the kitchen, eying it warily. The door to the utility room was open, and Parker stopped there, possibly figuring out that it was meant for him due to the dog bed that took up most of the floor. Greg frowned. If the dog did not even want to be closed up in a fairly decent sized room, it was going to be difficult to leave him alone for any length of time. There was always the option to let Parker have the run of the house, but Greg balked at that. He knew how destructive dogs could get when they were upset.

Parker backed away from the utility room door and then slowly made a circuit of the kitchen. He stopped at the water bowl and looked up at Greg.

“I didn’t put a bowl of water on the floor for myself.” Parker waved his coffee mug toward the bowl. “Have at it.”

Parker hunched up a little, as if making himself smaller, but it seemed a reflex more than a reaction. Greg thought of small cages, and the possibility that Parker had been kept in one so small there wasn’t room for his food bowl when it was given to him. With a last, quick glance at Greg, Parker finally bent his neck and gulped greedily at the water.

“Guess it’s that time, huh? Ready for breakfast?” Greg got up and Parker tensed, still crowded over his water, but all of his attention focused on Greg. “Whoa, hey, it’s okay, I’m just getting your food.” Greg slowed down his body movements. Parker kept his head down but his eyes tracked Greg as he pulled out wet and dry food, mixing them up in a large bowl. It was less than he would have normally given a dog Parker’s size, but Leader’s instructions were very clear. They were worried about Parker making himself sick eating too much, too fast. The wet/dry mix would digest easier, and had a higher fat-to-protein content in order to help rebuild Parker’s body. Greg slowly stepped up near Parker, but not within arm’s distance, and set the food bowl down.

Parker stared at him. Greg thought he could almost hear the words “are you going to watch?”

“You like your privacy, huh? Okay, I’m going to the living room.” Greg picked up his tablet, refilled his coffee mug and left. He had known more than a few dogs who did not like being watched while they ate. People thought it was weird when he talked about it, but it was in fact a natural defense for many animals since they were at their most vulnerable during the act of eating. Greg couldn’t fault a dog who had been through as harsh a hell as Parker his right to eat unmolested and in private.

The bowl itself was heavy and had a wide base, but Greg still heard it being pushed all over the kitchen floor. He kept his curiosity to himself as he continued reading the news and sipping his coffee. Finally, Parker crept out into the living room, circling around his dog bed and trying very hard to look like he wasn’t keeping Greg under surveillance. Greg bit back a chuckle and went into the kitchen. The bowl was crammed into a corner of the cabinets, licked clean to a high polish. Greg realized that Parker was not used to eating with so much room and had probably wedged the bowl into the corner to keep it from moving around.

“Smart guy, huh? Okay then.” Sighing, Greg picked up both the food and water bowls to clean them out, hoping that Parker wasn’t peeing in the living room. He decided to make quick work of the clean up, just in case Parker’s bladder was not used to such full meals.

He walked back into the living room and stalled. Parker froze where he was levered up haphazardly on the coffee table, his tongue deep into Greg’s coffee mug. Parker’s eyes were wide and scared, but he didn’t move.

“Dog, you do not get coffee! Down!” Greg spoke firmly but did not raise his voice, and pointed at the floor.

Slowly and carefully, Parker moved his front paws off the table and down to the floor. He backed up.

“I’m not going to punish you, Parker,” Greg said, keeping his voice calm and warm. “Why don’t you go lie down?”

It was ridiculous to expect that Parker understood him, but the dog danced awkwardly to the side and then hobbled over to his bed, crawling into it with his eyes glued on Greg. Sighing, Greg finally moved to get his now irrevocably tainted coffee mug. He looked down into it and realized that Parker had finished off the whole thing.

“Where in the hell did you get a taste for coffee? Weirdo!” Greg looked at Parker while pointing at the mug. Parker gave him a haughty snort and very regally looked out the front windows.

“Weirdo!” Greg repeated before walking back to the kitchen to rinse the mug and set it in the dishwasher for a thorough sanitizing. Greg was pretty used to “dog cooties” but he had his limits. He wondered just how much trouble he was going to have with the incredibly intelligent and obviously stubborn dog who was holding court in the other room.

Chapter 4

The rest of Sunday had been marked by Parker sleeping a lot while Greg made himself as non-threatening as possible by reading random stuff online and then binge-watching old episodes of Supernatural, season two. The story of the two brothers who were also a Guardsmen pair (an anomaly that was actually so rare that it was considered a “once in a generation” phenomenon) had been Greg’s favorite show for years. He loved all the silly, supernatural mumbo-jumbo and had a crush on pretty much every character, so it was his version of television “comfort food”. In between episodes three and four, he managed to leash Parker and coax him out of the house, carrying him down the steps to the back yard. Parker peed a lot but otherwise did not seem the least bit interested in the great outdoors, so Greg picked him up and brought him back inside. Other than that simple excursion, Greg lazed around watching the show and snacking all afternoon, so that by six pm he was not in the mood to cook dinner. Fixing Parker’s meal was about as far as he was going to go in regards to meal preparation, so he made another bag of microwave popcorn and finally allowed himself a beer.

Parker eyed the bottle suspiciously.

“No weapons in the house, got it,” Greg sighed, pouring the beer into a sturdy glass and putting the bottle into the recycling bag. “Okay, I’m going back into the living room now. Enjoy your meal.”

Parker sat still by his dish until Greg was out of the room, then Greg heard the bowl being pushed into the corner again. He made a note to remember to put the bowl down in the corner in the future. Parker had not been making a mess, but he was still weak and placid and there was no telling what kind of eater he was going to be when he was powered up and hungry.

Greg sat down, shaking the bag and pulling it open before hitting play on the remote. He was all the way up to episode eight, which was a pretty good indication of how he had spent his day. He kicked back, put his feet up on the ottoman, and relaxed.

Parker had seemed disinterested in the TV most of the afternoon. Some dogs loved TV, and watched it no matter what was on. Others seemed to view it as just another piece of furniture, and Greg thought Parker fell into that category. The dog had walked in front of it a few times and glanced up during scenes when the soundtrack had gone loud and dramatic, but otherwise kept his eyes out the windows when he wasn’t asleep. When he came out of the kitchen after finishing his dinner, he paced around the room a few times before settling down near the couch. He kept Greg to his left and within his peripheral vision, but focused on the TV.

They sat like that in companionable silence for three more episodes. Parker moved from point to point around the living room, never giving his back to Greg but always watching the TV. Whenever the character Dean, who was the Protector on the show, shifted into dog form, Parker whuffed at the screen. Greg shook his head in amusement, then took a photo of Parker staring at the screen. He posted to his instagram with the caption, “Dean is Parker’s fave #SPN”, which promptly got fifteen hearts from strangers who had been following the show’s hashtag.

By nine pm, Parker was asleep more than he was awake, and Greg felt the same way. It was a little early for him, as he usually stayed up until at least ten, but it had been a lazy day overall and his second beer had hit hard on a mostly-empty stomach. He shut down the entertainment system and eyeballed Parker.

“I’m going to bed.”

Parker, whose head was pillowed on his front paws, eyeballed him back.

“You’re doing well, so we’re going to risk it. You can sleep where you want. But if I hear you banging around the place or trying to break into the pantry, you’ll be locked into the utility room.”

Parker nodded, which Greg thought should have been weirder a response than it was. He blamed the beer and headed for the bathroom to start his routine. Parker didn’t follow.

Greg kept an ear open for noise from the front of the house as he got into bed. Parker seemed to be asleep or at least faking it, so Greg fluffed his mountain of pillows and settled in. This was the part of his life he hated most, the time right before sleep claimed him, when he laid in bed expecting the worst. The fact was that his nightmares had trailed off to once or twice a month events, but they always showed up at some point and it was the anticipation that was nearly as stressful as the nightmares themselves. More than once he had complained to his therapist that he wished he could schedule them for, say, the first and third Thursday of the month and be done with it. She had laughed in a knowing way, and it struck him that he probably was not the first veteran with PTSD to make that wish. So he stared up at the ceiling, making deals with God about getting a good night’s sleep while simultaneously trying to both fall asleep and not fall asleep. The problem was that he was tired and was not keen on staying awake either, and he had never quite figured out how to not fall asleep while also not staying awake. The conundrum carried him down into slumber.

Explosions went off, bright and blinding, laying waste to buildings and people. Greg tripped over bodies, screaming for Buffy, his arms covered in his own blood. In the next blink he was still stumbling and dripping blood but tripping through a poppy field, one that looked more like something from a European World War I memorial than the broad, dry poppy fields of Afghanistan. Buffy bounced over the flowers, her German Shepherd heritage making her sleek and dangerous. She wore her tailored utility vest, barking at Greg to catch up. Flush with pain and panic he kept screaming her name until she stopped and turned to look at him, putting her back to the vague figure appearing behind her who raised a gun and shot once, executing her with one loud ‘pop’ of the gun. Greg screamed again as Buffy dropped like a puppet with its strings cut, but over his hoarse yells he still heard her barking, barking loudly and desperately, barking—


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