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A Boy's Best Friend

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The begging for a dog had gone on for months, and it made Catherine's teeth hurt. The constant lobbying and arguing and complete whinging. She wanted nothing more than to dig her heels in and refuse, just on general principle. Give into whinging once, and you'd just given into whinging forevermore. And that kind of mollycoddly-catering wasn't going to happen on her watch.

Then she was out at a retirement do for one of the detectives when she found herself at the bar with Joyce and Ann on either side of her.

“You'll never guess who I ran into in market yesterday,” said Joyce.

“The pope,” replied Catherine, taking a swig of her vodka and tonic, which had considerably more tonic than she needed at the moment.

Ann giggled as Joyce elbowed Catherine into her.

“No. Smitty. The one who went to train police dogs in Sheffield.”

“How's he getting on? He was always a decent a bloke.” Catherine's tone was warm. She remembered Smitty as a gentle man who always had time for people and never let the job coarsen him.

“He's the same, just beardy now that he's retired. He's training protection dogs in Todmarten.”

“Good for him. I hope he's happy.”

“Maybe he could sort out a dog for Ryan,” said Joyce.

“Our Ryan isn't getting a dog. I haven't the time nor patience to take care of a bloody dog.”

“It's not a bad idea,” said Ann. “The dog could sleep in the conservatory.”

Catherine grimaced but the fact remained that she was still sleeping in the conservatory to keep an eye on Winnie and Illinka. Even though it had been months with no sign of anyone more malicious than a lost drunkard who had promptly pissed himself when he'd seen Catherine's cricket bat.

“A dog's for life, not just for Christmas,” grumbled Catherine.

“Now you sound like Nev,” said Ann. “I begged for a dog for three years and that was always his answer.”

“Did you get one eventually?”

“Yes.”

“And who took care of it?”

“I did,” said Ann, but her eyes were too wide and were focused on a spot in the middle of Catherine's forehead.

“You did me arse. Your mom was looking after the dog within two weeks,” said Catherine while Joyce laughed.

“It was more like a month. And then we only had him for another two or three months before someone left the gate unlatched and he got knocked over by the post van. That's what we get for naming the dog Careless.”

“Someone sure was careless,” muttered Catherine.

“Still,” said Joyce. “He gave me his card and I'm sure he'd do you a deal.”

“I don't want a bloody dog. What good would a dog be? I already pick up enough shit in the rest of my life. I do not need to be picking up literal shit in my off hours.”

“Studies have shown that children who read to dogs make substantial gains in their reading fluency,” said Ann.

“Are you having me on? Studies! Do people not have owt better to study?” Catherine rolled her eyes and motioned to the bartender for another round.

“No, it's true. Dogs listen without judging.”

“Which is more than we can say for people,” added Joyce.

Catherine rested her head on the bar. “I don't know why you're ganging up on me about this dog thing, but I hope Ryan is paying you well.”

“Friends don't let friends be inflexible tyrants,” said Joyce. “A boy needs a dog. It'd be good for him. Give him responsibility.”

“And empathy. Pets help with empathy,” said Ann.

“Oh really? Have studies shown this?” asked Catherine.

“Maybe just give Smitty a call. Have a nice catch up with an old friend,” said Joyce, tucking the card into Catherine's shirt pocket.

“Careful! You need to be buying me a drink before you go doing that,” said Catherine as they all laughed.

---//---

The sat nav had to recalculate the directions to Smitty's place in Todmarten half a dozen times, but Catherine soon found herself driving up a long winding track to a tidy yellow farmhouse that had purpose-built kennels out the back. When she stepped out the car, the noise was deafening and she wanted to flee. How did anyone think with that kind of racket going on?

Smitty stepped out of the house and let out a long low whistle that was punctuated by two sharp tone changes. The barking stopped and about half the dogs sat.

“Smitty! I see you still have the old magic.” She stepped forward and gave him a hug. Joyce was right – he was quite beardy now, but it suited him. He looked like a kindly lumberjack.

“I'll take good training over magic any day of the week. Come on into the house for some tea.”

Catherine followed him into the homey kitchen of the farmhouse where a large wolf-like dog sat in front of an Aga, watching with keen eyes.

“I don't want to put a foot wrong with that one watching me,” she said, hoping she was keeping the nervousness out of her body language.

“Pippa? She's a teddy bear. Come here, Pippa. Say hello to our visitor.”

The dog came over, sat in front of Catherine, and held out a paw, which Catherine accepted before giving the dog a gentle scratch behind the ears.

She joined Smitty at the table, where a pot and two cups awaited them.

“I was sorry to hear about your daughter.”

“You sent a lovely card. I'm sorry I never responded. It was....well, I don't like to make excuses for meself but it was an overwhelming time.” Pippa put her head on Catherine's knee. The weight was comforting, and Catherine found herself idly rubbing the dog's ears.

“I know. I figured you had a lot on at the time, what with the infant and all.”

Catherine smiled. “Would you believe the infant is 10 years old?”

“The days drag but the years do fly,” said Smitty as he poured the tea.

“Indeed they do.”

He leaned back in the chair and looked at Catherine. “So, you're looking for a dog for your lad.”

She added a splash of milk and a spoon of sugar to her tea while she nodded. “He's desperate for a dog. I'm not going to lie, I have some... reservations about this whole dog idea.”

“You don't want to be left holding the bag of shite,” said Smitty with a deep laugh. “The lad's old enough to help out. He'll have to be the main trainer here. I won't work with anyone else.”

“Is that so? Ongoing training is part of the deal?”

“Absolutely. Is that okay?”

Catherine found that it was more than okay. Having real responsibility for the dog, and getting trained in dog training, seemed nearly more important than having the dog itself.

“So, have you had dogs before?”

“Years ago. My mum had this scrappy little Jack Russell who only loved her. He'd slip into bed with her and then rip the arse out of me dad when he tried to come to bed.” She laughed as she remembered Tiger and his adversarial relationship with her father.

“Terriers can be vicious all right.”

“I have to ask...and I already know the answer, but is Pippa available? She's lovely.”

“I'm afraid I'd not part with her, not even for you. Would you believe she was seized from a dog fighting ring?”

“You're joking.” Catherine looked down at the head in her lap. The dog looked intimidating but she couldn't imagine her fighting.

“I'm not. Her father was a vicious fighting dog. He'd fight to the death, that one. I was lucky to get Pippa while she was still a pup, maybe 10, 12 weeks old. They'd not started on training her yet.”

Catherine felt a lump in her throat as she tried to form the question that had been buzzing in her head for years. “Are you not....do you not....worry... that she's going to turn at some point? Show her father's blood in her?”

“I don't. She's been with me three years and never shown so much as a tooth to me.” He gave a low whistle and Pippa came over to him and laid down, then showed him her belly. He gave her a rub and then tossed her a treat.

“But won't breeding will out? Eventually?”

“Breeding only gets you so far. I put my money on nurture over nature every time. Get 'em young, raise 'em right. Do you know what the secret of training is?”

Catherine thought of every wretched meeting she'd ever had to have with Ryan's teacher. “Clearly I don't. Tell me.”

“Reward the behavior that you want to see. And as much as possible, ignore what you don't want to see. Unless it's something dangerous, ignore it.”

“That sounds like a recipe for disaster.”

“It's a recipe for reinforcing good behavior. Did you ever realize that attention, even negative attention, is a result?”

Catherine shook her head slowly and took a sip of her tea.

“I've got a great dog picked out for you. He's two years old and was rejected from a training program in Dunbarton because he's just a shade too playful for police work. But he'll be a fine companion for your lad. I can give him to you for 150 pounds. I'll meet with Ryan – and you can be there as well, if you like – once a week for ongoing training.”

She knew that highly trained dogs went for 10 times what he was asking, even though 150 pounds was something she'd feel at the end of the month when she was waiting for pay day to roll around. But if dogs had even a tenth of the benefit that Ann Gallagher claimed they did, she'd be a fool to pass. Plus, having a positive male role model in Ryan's life could only be a benefit.

“Deal,” she said and held out a hand to shake on it.

Smitty grinned. “Finish that tea and we'll go meet your family's new best friend.”

---//---

Axel was six stone of pure muscle, and Catherine wasn't sure at first how Ryan was going to handle him. Except that Axel was as obedient as he was hairy. He walked at her heel, docile as a lamb, the lead slack in her hand as they walked up the road to the house.

Catherine hadn't given a lot of thought about how to introduce Ryan to his dog, except to show up with the dog and hope her grandson appreciated him. She wasn't sure how she'd respond if he decided to be a brat about it. She and Clare had talked about whether to take Ryan to pick the dog out, but then he'd had yet another spot of bother at the school and Catherine wasn't about to reward his bad behaviour.

“Then what are you doing marching up with the very thing he's whinging about for the last six months?” she asked herself. Then Smitty's words rung in her ears and she shook her head clear. She was doing the right thing. Somehow, this dog was exactly what Ryan needed.

She opened the front door and walked in. She could hear quiet voices in the kitchen, so she brought Axel into the front room and made him sit and stay while she went into the kitchen, where her grandson and sister were having supper.

“Ryan. How was school today?”

“Fine.” He kept his eyes on his plate.

She looked a question at Clare, who nodded.

“C'mere with me a second.”

He looked like he wanted to argue on general principle, but instead, he pushed his chair from the table and followed her into the hallway. She held up a hand and stopped Ryan in the hallway, then she gave a little whistle. Axel trotted obediently into the hallway.

“Granny! Did you really get me a dog?” squealed Ryan and the smile on his face was something that Catherine wished she could save in a bank for the days when he only scowled at her.

“I did. But this isn't just a pet. This is a lot of work and responsibility, do you understand?” It was hard to keep the smile out of her voice as Ryan rushed to the dog's side and let him sniff his hand.

“Yes, Granny. I'll walk him and pick up after him.”

“And feed and water him.”

Ryan nodded. He was crouched beside Axel, stroking his neck.

“And you're also going to do sessions every week with Smitty, the man who trained him. He'll teach you how to look after him and how to train him.”

“Has he got a name?”

“Axel. He's called Axel. Smitty told me you could change it, if you want, but it'll take some work.”

Ryan quietly repeated the name a few times, and then shook his head. “Nah, Axel suits him.”

“I mean it when I say that he's your responsibility.”

“Can he sleep in my room?”

“No, he's going to sleep in the conservatory.”

Ryan opened his mouth the complain, and Catherine shot him a look that stopped him. Instead, he stood up and launched himself at Catherine, catching her in a big hug. She squeezed back and tousled his hair.

---//---
Several months later

Catherine sat at her desk, working through the tedious paperwork for her last arrest. She heard a commotion in the hall and then Ann burst in with Ryan and Axel. She took her glasses off and thought What fresh hell might this be? as her mind jumped to conclusions. Ryan didn't appear to be under arrest, which was a positive sign, although the buzzing manic energy in the room set off an alarm in her head.

Ann and Ryan started to talk at the same time, words tumbling over words, and she couldn't make out a single one. A flash of green in Axel's mouth caught her attention.

“One at a time, please. And maybe start by telling me what Axel's got in his mouth.”

“It's the jacket sleeve off the scote we caught. It were a purse snatcher and we caught him,” said Ryan.

Catherine cocked an eyebrow and looked at Ann, who nodded.

“Shaf and I were patrolling on High Street when we heard this commotion. We were crossing the road to assist when this streak here flashed up the path, followed by Ryan. Next thing we know, the alleged scote is on the ground, Mrs. Buttershaw's purse next to him.”

“I'd seen these two looking pure dodgy, so me and Axel were keeping an eye on them. I had Axel off lead, just in case. And when I heard that old lady shout, I gave him the seize command,” added Ryan, eyes sparkling with excitement and pride.

“The seize command?”

“Yeah. It's in another language, but Smitty taught me. All police dogs can do it.”

“Which Axel most definitely is not,” chided Catherine.

“But he saved the day on this occasion,” said Ann, her wide eyes not-so-subtly communicating a message to Catherine to back off.

“Axel were brilliant, Granny! You should've seen him.”

“Sounds like you were both brilliant,” said Inspector Taylor as he stepped into the crowded room. “Shaf's filled me in. We'll need a statement from you, Ryan. And I want you to know that I'll be putting this in for a commendation.”

“Does that mean I'm in trouble?” asked Ryan, looking uneasily at his granny.

“Quite the opposite, lad,” said Inspector Taylor. “Catherine, you can sit in on the statement.”

“Just give me a minute here,” she said, gesturing them out of the room. She sat at her desk and sighed, pressing her hands into her eyes. She pulled out her mobile and made a call.

“Smitty, I don't want to sound ungrateful, but what exactly were you thinking, teaching my grandson the seize command?”

“Ah, Catherine, lovely to hear you voice as always.” The sound of barking dogs faded in the background as a door clicked shut.

Catherine could picture him standing in the kitchen of his farmhouse, Pippa at his side. She waited until finally he sighed and started to speak.

“I was thinking he'd advanced to the point that he could handle it. Was I wrong?”

“Well...no, not yet, you're not. They just caught a purse snatcher this afternoon.”

“Good for them, no?”

“It could've gone the other way, Smitty. It still could. What happens when he launches 6-stone of muscle and sharp teeth at an innocent classmate? Then what?”

“He's not going to. I only taught him because he promised to only use that command when absolutely necessary.”

“And you trust him?”

“Absolutely. Tell, me Catherine, how long's it been since he were in trouble in school?”

Catherine inhaled and glanced at the calendar on the wall. She considered the question and was surprised to find she couldn't answer it.

“Has it been weeks or months?”

“Months...I suppose, now that I stop and think about it.”

“And at home?”

“We've had the typical power struggles over bedtime, homework, whatnot, but no...no serious hassle since....since around the time Axel joined us.”

“And tell me, have you had to take care of Axel at all?”

“No. Not even that one night when Ryan had a tummy bug. He insisted.”

“He's a responsible lad, Catherine. When he's expected to be.”

“Thank you, Smitty. And I'm sorry for -”

But he cut her off. “No need to mention it. It's normal to worry about what you can't control.”

“What d'y'mean? I can control everything,” she laughed. “I better go. They're waiting on me so they can get Ryan's statement. Boss reckons he'll submit it for a commendation.”

“Well-deserved, by the sounds of it.”

“Thank you,” she said as she disconnected the call and took a deep breath.

--//--

City Hall bustled with shiny brass and everyone's best dress uniforms. Daniel, Neil, and Clare sat front and centre, nearly bursting with pride.

Catherine stood at the side with the police brass, looking on as the Mayor presented Ryan and Azel with medals and certificates. She felt overwhelming pride as she saluted with the police. Then she grinned at Ryan, who looked so formal in his despised jacket and tie.

She looked up and caught sight of Smitty, a lumberjack in a sea of blue uniforms. She smiled and mouthed “Thank you” to him before he turned and left.

/the end