Master is unhappy with me. I can tell from the way he’s tapping his pen against the newspaper. If he’s not careful he’s going to put a hole in the crossword and then there’ll be a scene.
I hope he doesn’t decide to set anyone on fire, it caused such a fuss last time.
I don’t understand why he’s so reluctant to come to the Upperworld. It’s far more interesting here than down below. There, the main smells are sulphur and burning flesh… actually, the burning flesh can be quite appetising but a hellhound can get bored of the same old same old after a few thousand millennia. Up here, even just outside this little café, I can smell thousands of different, wonderful, fascinating things. Coffee, and warm buttered toast, and shoe leather, and engine grease, and fresh fish, and…
And really terrible aftershave.
Where is that coming from? I lift my nose and search it out (so much trickier to pick out scents with only one set of nostrils to work with), only to find that I have been sought out first. Standing in the doorway of the café, the foul-smelling human is gazing at me with an extremely dopey expression, a soft smile sitting on his face. Despite his unfortunate taste in aftershave, I immediately like the look of this human; he has kind eyes, and he looks like the sort to have treats stashed in a pocket somewhere.
He is also, I think I’m right in saying, quite attractive in human terms. Pretty, even, with big blue eyes and pink lips and curly hair that reminds me of the better kind of spaniel. I slide a look towards my master. He’s had quite a dry spell of late. About 50,000 years to be exact, and that had only been a fling while a certain goddess was having her “bad god” phase. The fact that my master is (occasional trips to Tartarus for some recreational torturing of sinners aside) more polite and courteous than any of his siblings up on Olympus, soon put paid to that little affair. And though he tries to hide it, there are few things a master can keep from his closest companion, least of all a burning loneliness that fuels the screams of the eternal prison’s inhabitants through the long, dark passage of time. Perhaps a little dalliance with a pretty human would cheer him up.
It always seems to work for Zeus, after all.
I look back to the human, who rewards me with a little wave. He has to shift the trayful of flowers he is carrying in order to do so, and nearly drops them all as a result. Not the most elegant of creatures, then, but he steps a little closer as he rights himself and so I wag my tail in encouragement for him to approach. I even add in a head tilt, a move that most humans find irresistible for some reason. And, indeed, the human gets that glazed-over expression that his species make when they have fallen helplessly in love with my canine charms. Strange creatures, these mortals.
Master notices my sudden interest and casts a look towards the human, whose face goes as pink as his flowers when he realises he’s been caught. Fortunately for him, Master is far from annoyed by the human’s interest in me, the little crinkles that form around his eyes and the twitch of his lips showing that I was right about the human’s pretty face.
I hope I was also right about the treats.
Master waves a hand at the flustered human, who hesitates for a second and then shuffles forward, apparently trying to look anywhere but at us. He stops by the table, still clutching his tray of plants like a shield in front of him, and stands there awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot. Master looks half amused, half enthralled by this display. I am simply impatient for a decent belly rub.
Eventually, the human seems to gain a modicum of courage and speaks in Master’s general direction. “Sorry about the staring.” This is apparently the extent of what he wants to say, conveyed in a gruff little grumble of a voice that doesn’t add any charm to the sentiment whatsoever. This will very possibly put Master off completely – he’s a bit of a stickler for politeness.
“It’s no trouble, young man. You may say hello to him if you wish.”
Oh. Very pretty, this one then.
“Are- are you sure? Wouldn’t want to impose.” Well that’s a bit better, I suppose, and the human looks so hopeful at the prospect that, were he a dog himself, his tail would surely be wagging unrestrainedly. It is rather adorable.
“Quite sure,” Master responds, neatly folding his newspaper and setting it on his lap before nodding towards the table. “Why don’t you free yourself of your burden; you may find it hard to shake hands otherwise.”
“With him or you?”
“Both, if you so desire.” Master is practically purring now, and it gets him a flicker of a glance from the human, who seems to know that he’s being manipulated but also doesn’t seem to care much. How interesting.
“Will Graham,” he says, carefully placing his flowers as directed and then thrusting out a hand to my Master, who takes it with a motion that is more a caress than a grasp. He’s going to put all the moves on this one, I can tell already.
“Hannibal Lecter. And this,” he adds, after a moment of trying and failing to catch Will’s eye, “is Winston.”
Not my real name, of course. Master thinks it gives the wrong impression. Given that he prefers to disguise himself as a pretentious dandy more interested in bespoke tailoring than ancient mythology, I tend to agree.
Will rescues his hand from Master’s and crouches down to greet me, indeed taking the suggestion to shake paws and delighting when I perform the trick perfectly. It is so easy to please humans, I almost feel embarrassed for them sometimes.
“Hi Winston, I’m Will. You’re a handsome guy, aren’t you?” All this – including the fatuous, if correct, rhetorical question – is delivered in a warm, friendly tone, thankfully free of the baby talk some humans automatically adopt when addressing animals. Oddly, it’s not a tone anyone has ever used on me in my true form, though something tells me that if Will was confronted by a three-headed hellhound his first reaction probably would be to lament he could only pet two heads at a time.
“What breed is he?” Will asks, not lifting his gaze from me, as he scratches behind both my ears simultaneously. Evidently, he has had plenty of practice at this, his technique is exemplary. “Or is he a cross? His markings are unusual.”
“Very perceptive of you, Will.” Master seems to roll the name across his tongue, as if it tastes particularly good to him. Subtlety has never been his strong point. “Winston’s parents were an Australian Shepherd and a Chow/Retriever cross, though I suspect there is something else in his makeup to account for the brindle colouring.”
I wondered if he’d spotted the Catahoula Leopard I’d thrown in. I’ve never yet managed to slip a breed past him but a dog has to entertain himself somehow.
“A real mutt, then,” Will said, giving me an affectionate pat on the haunch. I magnanimously decide not to give him a nip for the impudent remark and instead flump down on my side so that he can get at my belly. “Sorry,” he adds, chuckling at me and applying himself to my stomach as suggested, “no offense meant. He’s a beautiful dog.”
“None taken.” Master gestures to a nearby waitress and silently requests another coffee, taking advantage of Will’s continuing refusal to look in his direction and ordering one for him as well. “I have never subscribed to ridiculous notions of pedigree. Crossbreeds are not only healthier but I also find the unpredictability of their resultant appearance to be quite delightful.”
Will smiles a little at this, but makes no attempt to respond, instead continuing to deliver what is undeniably one of the best belly rubs I’ve ever been treated to. I really must make sure that Master keeps this one around a while. I shift my head a little to look at him more closely, and catch an edge of sadness in his expression.
“Do you have a dog of your own, Will?” Master asks, apparently having also noticed the drop in Will’s mood.
“Yeah. Well… I did. A whole pack of them, actually.”
Master waits a second, evidently weighing up whether it is wise to pursue this subject. “May I ask what happened?”
Will buries his face in my fur and I’m not sure if he will answer at all. But then he turns his head enough to speak. “Bad breakup. She kept the house, I thought it was better for them to stay somewhere familiar. My new place is too small anyway. She lets me see them when I want but it’s not the same, you know?”
Will’s fingers tighten in my fur, and it’s fortunate that I can’t feel pain because otherwise I suspect this would be somewhat uncomfortable. I whine a little anyway, and shift my head to nuzzle against his hand for a moment, an uncharacteristic urge to comfort this human coursing through me.
Master watches this display with an expression I cannot quite parse, before speaking quietly. “If I may make a slightly impertinent observation, it sounds as though you miss the dogs more than your partner.”
Will snorts softly. “Not inaccurate. Hope you don’t think less of me for it.”
“Why on earth would I?”
“Lots of people think it’s weird to be more attached to animals than humans. The type of people who don’t understand why anyone would grieve a pet’s death.”
“I can assure you, Will, I quite understand that the love one bears their pets is entirely valid and deeply felt. And I have no regard for those who would so rudely belittle the grief of their fellow man. One can only hope they ultimately suffer for the error of their ways.”
“A hell reserved for dog-haters and rude people? I could get behind that.”
Oh dear, I hope Master doesn’t get any ideas. The last thing we need is an aeon of expansion work just to impress a human. Even one who just snuck me a treat behind Master’s back.
Just then the waitress returns with two cups of coffee and glances down with an amused smile at Will, who either does not see her, or chooses to ignore her (apparently this behaviour is not reserved for Master alone). Either way, the familiarity in her deep brown eyes is clear, and I wonder for a moment if Master might have competition as she turns to him with an assessing gaze. After a moment, though, she throws him a wink and sets a plate of pastries down on the (by now rather full) table. She leans in, on the pretext of removing Master’s empty cup, and tells him sotto voce, “They’re his favourite, he can’t resist. Good luck.” Then she’s gone, long dark hair streaming out behind her, the whole process having taken no more than a minute and not having distracted Will from his continuing mission to pet me into sleep (a fool’s errand, of course – hellhounds do not sleep, thought I might admit to feeling a little dozy, if forced).
Master smiles after this rather brazen guardian angel Will seems to have attending him, and then returns his attention to the human/hellhound bonding going on at his feet. “Will? I hope you don’t mind but I took the liberty of ordering you a coffee while getting one for myself, and it appears to have come with unexpected accoutrements.”
Will glances up sharply at this. “You didn’t have to-” His voice trails off as he spots the plate of pastries. “Katz,” he mutters, already sounding resigned to his fate. “Just can’t resist, can she?”
“A friend of yours?” Master asks, sliding the treats towards Will with a look like a cat playing with its prey. Not a look Will is particularly impressed by, apparently, judging by the way he rolls his eyes. He does, however, take both a seat and a pastry, ripping a bite off with his teeth. If Master were human, I’m sure I would have heard his heartbeat increase at this display. He’s leaning his chin on his hand and I suspect it’s taking every bit of his infernal strength to keep from actually manifesting little lovehearts in his eyes.
And yet… he seems to be holding back a little. Normally he’d be demanding Will’s attention, but he’s just sitting back and making small talk. Hmm… Obviously, Master is too smitten to handle things by himself. I think it’s time I help things along a little, now that Will has been distracted. Carefully, so as not to catch the attention of either him or Master, I slip my leash from where it’s hanging over the back of Master’s seat.
The major advantage of being a shapeshifting hellbeast is the optional extras. Such as, for instance, opposable thumbs. One little change later and I have one end of the leash attached to my collar – now to tie the other to Will’s chair leg without him (or anyone else) noticing.
While I’m engaged in stealthily positioning myself at his feet, Will answers Master’s question: “A client, technically. She owns this place, I supply the plants, help her out with the maintenance.” He sighs, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck. “Yeah, a friend. A good one, even if she sticks her nose in where it’s not wanted.”
Master chooses to ignore the last comment, save for a slight curl of amusement at the edge of his mouth. “You work with plants, then? A fascinating and noble profession.”
“Noble?” Will scoffs, and fiddles with his coffee cup. “Not sure how noble scratching around in the dirt all day is.”
“On the contrary, you deal in life, Will. You bring beauty into the world, deliver us from the long, cold winter, with nothing more than your hands.”
“My hands and some high-quality fertiliser.”
Master huffs a little laugh. “Just so. How did you get into this line of work?”
Will shrugs. “Was good at three things growing up: fishing, growing stuff, picking out bad guys. Tried being a cop for a while, left after I got stabbed. Plan B was a botany degree, decided I didn’t want to spend my life in research, wound up taking over the nursery I worked summers in. Everything just sort of… fell into place. I’ve been lucky, I guess.”
“It sounds to me as if you merely turned your natural talent into a professional skill. That is admirable.” Will shrugs again, his face downturned, but he’s wearing another one of his little smiles. Master has scored a point, apparently. “You said you were always good with plants?”
“Green fingers, or so I’m told.”
“You don’t agree?”
“I just always found it easy to know what the plants want, when they want it.”
“You speak of them as if they possess sentience.”
“They’re alive. Everything that’s alive wants something.”
“And what do you want, Will?”
Ah, finally, I have the leash wrapped securely around Will’s chair. I bound up, under the guise of chasing a pigeon, and the tangled leash pulls Will’s seat out from under him. As a result of which, thanks to my Master’s godly reflexes, rather than sprawling gracelessly on the floor he winds up sitting in Master’s lap, and finally making that elusive eye contact.
He stares, apparently dumbfounded, into Master’s eyes (which are, contrary to certain myths, not red but a deep, almost golden brown), before leaning in to press their lips together, his eyes only fluttering shut once they are connected. I have never quite understood the human urge to mash their faces against each other, but from the satisfied noises both Will and Master are making, they seem to be enjoying themselves. This goes on for rather a while, and I am just considering finding a pigeon to chase for real as a reward for a job well done, when they finally separate and Will gathers himself enough to utter the deathless phrase, “Oh. How ‘bout that.” He’s making the glazed expression again, but it’s not directed towards me this time.
“Found something you want, sweet Will?” I notice Master’s smirk is not the cruel one he reserves for those he plays with, but something softer and altogether more hopeful. I also notice that his hand is shamelessly cradling Will’s backside but that isn’t the kind of thing that good dogs concern themselves with, so I shall ignore it.
Will smiles and I’m quite sure that his flowers open a little wider as he does so. My master certainly does, leaning in towards Will, with an entirely ridiculous expression on his face. It occurs to me that I have truly underestimated just how attractive this human is. The look my master is giving him now is one I haven’t seen since Cupid and Psyche spent a week of their honeymoon in the underworld, mooning over each other in quite sickening fashion.
Then Will cocks an eyebrow and leans in himself, his smile turning wicked. “Did you really think Winston was the only one I was staring at?”
Oh my. At this rate, Master will be mentioning pomegranates within a week.
“Will, how do you feel about pomegranates?”
Well, I never claimed to be a psychic hellhound, and delayed gratification has never been Master’s forte.
Will shifts a little on Master’s lap, but makes no attempt to escape. “Never tried one but I’m game. Can always stop after a taste, right?”
“You may. Though I very much hope you will not want to.”
“Are you planning on feeding me, Hannibal?”
“In fact, I will be serving slow-roasted lamb with pomegranate for dinner tonight. Might I be so bold as to request your company at my home?”
“I’m not really dressed right.”
“Nonsense. I assure you, Will, you are perfectly attired for this dinner.”
“Well…” Will glances towards the café and, as I follow his gaze, I see the waitress – Katz, what an unfortunate name – making a face at Will and waving her hands encouragingly. He grins, and ducks his head shyly, as if he didn’t have his tongue in Master’s mouth just a minute ago, then looks up from under his eyelashes. “Are you a good cook?”
Will laughs. “Lead the way, then.”
They rise from the table, Will sneaking little glances at Master as if he can’t quite believe this is happening, and Master looking like the proverbial cat who got the cream (I really must train him out of these feline tendencies, they’re most unpleasant).
As Will gathers his flowers, their bright colours seeming to make his face glow (or perhaps that is just happiness), Master drops to one knee, ostensibly to check my leash is still attached to my collar, but, of course, it’s really to whisper two words of great importance into my ear.