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build them a home, a little place of their own

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It’s not like this was something Booker set out to do. He fully intended to spend a solid decade or so testing the ability of his liver to heal from alcohol poisoning; it was a classic for a reason. He knew, in a vague way, that the others must be keeping some kind of tabs on him, but he didn’t know how or where and he decided, bitterly, that that was fine and he didn’t really care.

He was a year into his project of pickling his liver when he stumbled – literally – over the dog. A yellow mutt, curled up in the shadows beside the steps that led to his front door. Booker tried and failed to keep his balance, and ended up lying on the ground next to the dog. It whined nervously and wagged it’s tail once, but didn’t move from where it was curled up against the wall.

Booker rolled onto his back and groaned. Getting up seemed insurmountable. It was summer and even now in the middle of the night it wasn’t exactly cold. This was fine. Comfy concrete. He squinted at the bottle in his hand - still a third full. Booker tilted it politely towards the dog. “Any for you? No? Well, I’ll just…I’ll finish it, then go inside.” He took a swig. The dog rested it’s head on its paws and looked at him. Booker scowled and took another drink, then another, til the bottle was empty and finally, blessedly, he passed out.

In the morning he was woken by something wet poking at his ear and side of his neck. Before he could remember where he was, he batted feebly at it, groaning at Andy to leave him alone, before he remembered with a depressing rush – as always – that he was alone, would be so for another 99 years, and the reason that he was cold, stiff and dehydrated was because he’d passed out drunk outside. Again.

The wet was – eugh – the dog, who was still curled up but who must have moved a little in the night as it was now curled up against his side, and was systematically licking the side of his neck and face. Booker rolled away and sat up with a groan, rubbing his face and scalp roughly with his hands to wake himself up, and using the dregs of the bottle to swish the foul taste out of his mouth. “All right, all right, I’m up,” he growled. The dog put its head back on its paws and just raised its eyebrows at him, tail twitching a little.

In the thin morning light, Booker could see the dog was a stray. It might have had some golden retriever in its ancestry, with fur just long enough to be dirty and unkempt. Its ribs were showing and, ew, he could see a few black fleas crawling where the fur was thin. With a groan of disgust Booker convulsively swiped his hand over his side where the dog had been lying. He felt a phantom tickle, a sudden itch, and that was enough to spur him to his feet to seek out the fitful water pressure of his cramped shower-bath.

“Adieu,” he said to the dog. Its tail wagged. Booker swore to himself, stomped up into his apartment and filled a bowl with water. His fridge only had leftovers, but the chicken fried rice was only two days old, so he dumped that onto a plate and took it back outside to put down next to the mutt. “There,” he said. “Happy?”

The dog stood slowly, and gave his hand a wary lick. Booker noticed that the fur around its muzzle was white, and thought the stiffness was as much due to age as it was neglect. He sighed. “All right, all right. Good…” He tilted his head to check. “Good girl.”

Then he could swear he felt a fucking bite, and hurried back in to take a shower.

The dog was still there that evening when Booker emerged again on his near-daily trip to a liquor store – he tried to alternate which of the several nearby options he frequented, some small shame still burning inside him. The plate of food was licked clean, and Booker had carried out a bottle of water to refill the bowl. The dog wagged her tail at him and stood to drink more.

On his way back from the liquor store, Booker ducked into a convenience store on the corner and bought a tin of dog food.

It became a habit. Booker couldn’t help feeling sorry for the thing – she was obviously good natured, and took to giving his hand a polite lick before digging into the food she so clearly needed. Liquor store, convenience store, feed the dog, then get stinking drunk.

After a week he tossed down an old blanket for the dog to lie on.

After another week, looked up pet supply stores in the area and went out to buy flea medicine. Of course, the last time he’d looked after a dog – the scrappy little terrier beloved by his sons – there had been nothing like the options available now, and he dithered a little until the sale assistant took pity and showed him how to use the little plastic ampules, and recommended a flea bath first. “If it’s as bad as you say, something like this would be good – help clean off the fleas and dirt. Strays often have skin ailments, so this is gently medicated to soothe any itches she has. Of course, the best thing would be to get a vet to look at her.”

Which is how Booker ended up using an old bit of rope as a makeshift lead to guide the dog into his apartment. She came willingly enough, sniffing at everything with a dignified curiosity that he found charming. The bath was disgusting, needing three rinses in his awkwardly cramped bathroom before the water ran clear of dirt, flea dirt, and fleas, and Booker was feeling a bit pleased with the end result until the dog shook herself and he ended up completely soaked.

Of course, now she was nice and clean, he wasn’t about to put her back outside onto that blanket, which was probably just as flea-infested as the dog had been. So he found a couple of old cushions and made a little bed for her in the living area.

He woke in the morning to her curled on his bed behind his knee, the empty bottles that had been there knocked to the floor. It was warm and comforting and Booker groaned into his pillow. He had a fucking dog now.

He decided to call her Marisol, and did, indeed, take her to the vet. She was pronounced old, but reasonably healthy, needing only a good diet and care. Booker sighed, and pulled some euros out of his thin wallet to buy some of the food specially formulated for older dogs that the vet recommended. He was making his way in the world by liquidating his book collection, one-by-one, and it seemed like it was time to take another book down to the antique seller.

Marisol was an undemanding companion, but Booker found his routine changing around her anyway. She was happy to spend her days sleeping in patches of sunlight while he read and drank, perhaps gnawing on a pig ear or gently and systematically destroying a soft toy. He did, however, think she needed regular exercise – it must be good for an old dog to keep limber, surely? – so a late-afternoon stroll became a habit. She walked slowly, both because of her old joints and because she needed to sniff everything, but Booker didn’t mind. That was a benefit of immortality – losing the need to rush and going slowly just because there wasn’t any need to go fast.

Booker still spent his evenings getting very, very drunk, but…well, Marisol needed him to get up to let her out into the courtyard in the morning, so Booker gradually drank a little less, then a little less. It was easier to get up in the morning if he wasn’t quite so hungover, and besides, there was still the option of day drinking.

It was…nice. When he was a boy his family had dogs, but they were guard dogs – they slept outside, and were tools rather than pets. Then he’d let his sons get that little terrier – a rambunctious wee thing, full of vim and vigour and perfectly happy to spend its day racing around after three energetic boys. This was the first time Booker had had a companion dog, a creature that was happy to offer its unconditional affection and company to just him.

Marisol lasted eighteen months. When her appetite faded and she just gave a pigs ear a cursory lick, Booker knew. He took her to the vet anyway, but wasn’t surprised as the vet palpated her belly and looked grim. “Tumour,” he said. “It’s not causing her pain now, but I’d expect her to decline fairly quickly, especially if she’s not eating. It’s probably been growing slowly for a while – not much we can do now except consider if it would be kindest to let her go before she is in pain.”

Booker felt his stomach drop. He’d expected it, of course – she was an old dog, but still… He swallowed thickly around the lump in his throat. “Do I…do I have do decide right now?” he said hoarsely.

The vet looked at him with professional compassion. “No, not right now. I’d recommend sooner rather than later, while she’s still comfortable. If you want, I’ve got space for an appointment tomorrow morning.”

“So soon?” asked Booker. He stroked Marisol’s head where she was leaning against him on the examining table. Her tail wagged – but it was a weak twitch compared to usual, and he knew that she was on the way out. He cleared his throat. “That sounds…okay. I’ll be back with her tomorrow morning.”

He took her home, and spent the next twelve hours feeling like he was teetering on the edge, furious and grieving and choked with the affection he felt for this animal. He tempted her with her favourite treats for dinner, and skipped the booze that night so he could stay awake for all of it, gently stroking her as she slept on his bed – he’d have liked to be able to say that was a treat, but Marisol had slept on the bed from day one. In the morning he took her back to the vet, and thought he was managing to keep it together until the syringe went in, and she was just – gone. So fucking fast. He had a pang of envy – he was sure none of the times he had died had been so effortless – but mostly he felt a surge of grief, and he had to try to stifle a gasp of a sob. The vet patted his shoulder. “Please feel free to stay here as long as you need,” he murmured, professional but with real sympathy in his voice, and Booker was left alone with Marisol’s body.

He took some shuddering breaths, trying to regain equilibrium, but it was no use – the tears came, and it was all he could do to cry quietly, heaving sobs that made his nose run and eyes burn as he rested his hands on Marisol’s fur. At the back of his head he was thinking that it was odd that this was the first time he’d grieved honestly since his mother had died just before he was caught and conscripted – his sons’ deaths he had mourned tangled up with guilt and anger that he was still alive and they weren’t, his beautiful boys were gone and there was nothing left of them on the earth except their unworthy father. And since then, he’d tried his damndest to avoid connections, to keep himself safe from feeling that way again – the team were fine, they were safe to become attached to. Until Andy…he felt keening sound under the sobs and gasped, trying to get himself together.

Eventually he used the sink in the corner to splash cold water on his face, and managed to take some deep breaths. There was a quiet tap on the door, and a vet assistant poked her head in. “Mr Booker? Is there anything I can get you?”

“No. Thank you.”

“Did you want to take her with you, or would you like us to organise cremation?”

Booker sighed. “Cremation, please.”

The young woman nodded, and went past him to unclip the smart blue woven collar from around Marisol’s neck. “Here, perhaps you’d like to keep this? We’ll have her ready to collect in a week…” She was talking about the forms he’d need to sign, but Booker was already tuning her out, signing things automatically and leaving the clinic with the collar clenched tightly in one fist.

He was fucking alone. Again.

On his way home he went to the liquor store, never mind it was still only late morning, and bought more than he had in a year. He started drinking as soon as he got home and didn’t stop for a week – barring the times he was passed out. He was pretty sure he’d actually managed to die once or twice from alcohol poisoning, but to be honest waking from that felt the same as waking hungover.

He came to with the vague awareness a week had passed. He stank and the apartment stank, of sour, stale sweat and vomit, and a slight rotten smell from the kitchen where Marisol’s meat-filled dish had been left. Booker felt the prickly heat of tears behind his eyes and his mouth quivered.

He cried in the shower, sitting under the spray until the water ran cold. Then he got up, rolled up his sleeves, and cleaned his apartment. Marisol hated it when it was dirty. For a dog he found on the streets, she’d had such a reproachful way of looking at him when things were out of place. Booker cleaned her food bowl, but couldn’t bring himself to put away her things, putting her toys and half-chewed pigs ear neatly on the cushions that she used to rest on.

He felt washed out. Exhausted and sad but it was a weird novelty to be sad in such a clean way, without guilt or relief or other emotions crowding in. The short walk to the clinic was the first fresh air he’d had in a week. Out of habit he kept slowing down when he passed the places Marisol particularly liked to stop to smell.

The staff at the vet clinic were distracted when he came in. He politely stood back from reception, waving a hand to show he was happy to wait. “What are we going to do with them?” the vet assistant was saying. “I can’t believe he just dumped them on us!”

The vet sighed. “We’ll have to surrender them to the pound, I suppose. We’re not set up for boarding here.”

Curious, Booker peered over the reception desk to see who ‘they’ were. Two huge dogs were lying on the floor, taking up much of the room behind the receptionist. She smiled tightly at him. “Sorry – their owner just passed, and his son brought these two in to us.”

“Ah,” said Booker, helpfully.

The vet was running his hand through his hair. “It’s impossible. I don’t want to take them to the pound, but who’s going to take a dog this size in the middle of Paris? Let alone both of them? They can’t stay here, we only have the hospital cages, and these boys would be bursting out of them.”

The two dogs were clearly a pair – one was long-legged and reminded Booker of a greyhound but bulkier, the other was black and woolly, like a large poodle, with a bit of a beard that put him in mind of Joe. They were lying curled up together, resting their heads on the other’s side. They sighed in unison.

“I’ll take them,” he heard himself saying.

The three staff turned to stare at him. “Sorry, I thought you lived in an apartment,” the vet said. “I’m grateful but these two need a fair amount of space-“

“I have a house and some land outside the city,” lied Booker.

“Oh! Well,” said the vet. It was clear that they were all too happy to let the problem be solved. Booker arranged to pick the two dogs up the following day, and left – with the box of Marisol’s ashes held carefully – to acquire a house and land. In a day. Shit.

A few hours later he was sitting with a pile of the books and other few antiquities he had available, and a website of real-estate listings. There was a…difference in what one could fetch and what the prices of the other. A large difference. He missed having access to the team’s bank accounts, the carefully curated system of trusts and investments and properties that he’d looked after and handed over in their entirety to Copley – all secured to Andy and the others’ biometrics for approval, of course. Usually the main challenge in acquiring property was the need to do so carefully and anonymously, not the fact that he had no resources and no way of getting a mortgage.

In the end, he looked at the box that held Marisol for courage, and send an email to an address that was, he was fairly sure, still monitored by Copley. One sentence: I want Goussainville.

Then, he thought of the mood when he’d left, and sent a follow up.

Please.

A reply came more quickly than he’d hoped to expect. Why?

Does it matter? It’s useless as a safehouse now. I assume you and Merrick would have tidied it up. Has it been used since then?

No. Why?

Booker chewed the side of his thumb, and thought. For some reason he didn’t really want to say that it was because he’d impulsively adopted two dogs because he was fucking lonely. In the end he just sent back Have you seen Paris rents these days?

There was a longer wait for a reply this time. Eventually it came, brief but to-the-point. The team have no objections. The keys and property documentation will be couriered to you. Bodies were all removed but otherwise buildings in same state as repair as last time. An account will be provided for you for the purposes of repairs and appropriate property improvements.

Booker was smiling slightly at the screen, his throat feeling tight with happiness and hope that, even at this remove, he was still being allowed this little sliver of part of the team when another reply arrived. Are you aware there are no liquor shops in walking distance? – Andy

Booker barked out laugh before he could stop himself, and blinked furiously to clear the sudden tears from his eyes. Fucking Andy.

The promised keys arrived first thing the next morning. Booker had purchased an old and beaten-up van, packed up the few belongings he cared about and left the ratty furniture. He stopped by the vet to collect the two dogs, who lumbered with the dignity of large dogs into the van, taking up a whole bench seat each, and accepted a couple of large bags of dog food and information about the dogs from the grateful vet. They were both about ten years old – not as old as Marisol had been, but larger breeds weren’t so long lived, so on the far side of middle-aged. The greyhound-like one was Jacques, the other Jehan – which was close enough to “Joe” to make Booker snort in amusement.

He arrived at the abandoned church unready for the twist of sick guilt he felt driving up. He hadn’t been back since he was killed and Nicky and Joe taken, and the place seemed to glower at him from black and broken windows. Although he hadn’t explicitly told Copley how to find them there, he knew Copley had been tracking his phone, and it was his fault entirely they’d been found in a place that had been a haven. There was no time to dwell, though. As soon as he opened the van door the dogs jumped out, rushing about the graveyard to investigate, sniffing eagerly at everything, checking in with each other then running away in opposite directions. They seemed to pull life back into the stark buildings as they ran, and Booker found himself smiling as he watched them.

The first thing Booker did was take the box of Marisol’s ashes to the graveyard. He found a tree at the edge, where it was peaceful and quiet, buried a small hole amongst the roots and buried her there. He patted the soil down again. “Good girl,” he said. “You were such a good girl.” Then he went to open up the buildings.

The logistics of cleaning up the priory enough to make it liveable took up the rest of the afternoon. Booker pressed his lips together and grimly swept up spent bullets and debris from the battle, got the water and power turned on, and set about sorting out the bedding which was still intact enough to make up a bed of his own, and which could be turned into dog beds. It was cool enough as the day turned into evening that he lit the range, and the dogs crowded in, happily crunching their biscuits and basking in the warmth. Booker had set up two dog begs, but Jacques had carefully pulled his set of blankets over to Jehan’s pile and the two lay together, snoring.

One of them farted. Booker decided to sleep with the windows cracked, despite the chill.

The next week was busier than he’d been in Paris. There, he’d had his routine – even once Marisol came along, he’d been a creature of habit. There was too much to do here – driving into the village to place orders for building supplies and furniture; going online to order supplies for installing a security system that would be up to his standards; visiting the grocer to stock his fridge, and the butcher to buy canon bones for the dogs; and yes, the local liquor store.

There was also time spent making friends with the dogs. Both were amiable creatures, and took to their new owner and environment happily, although Booker suspected a lot of this was because they could reassure one another. They really were a set – where you could find one the other would always follow, and they always slept together. It meant his own bed was safe – a relief, since both were a lot bigger than Marisol, and he was in a single bed here – but he did feel a rueful twinge at how much they really did remind him of Nicky and Joe. They went for walks – the church backed onto farmland and woods, and Booker made nodding acquaintance of farmers who were happy for ramblers to cross their fields as long as gates were closed and stock unbothered.

Booker found himself eating more, the fresh air and exercise piquing his appetite. He hadn’t realised how skinny he’d grown in Paris, where he ate only enough to keep him going til his next drink and the only exercise were leisurely strolls at elderly-dog pace. Plus, although he kept a handgun close to hand out of habit, he wasn’t doing the sparring, the continual fighting and brawling and activity that was part and parcel of being a mercenary. He found himself enjoying the peace – thought that he would always be a solider and would be happy to rejoin the team one day – but it was nice to remember that it wasn’t something he’d chosen for himself.

The season edged into summer, and he was on his hands and knees pulling weeds from around the gravestones – it seemed respectful – when the third dog found him. A grey-muzzled bulldog trotted up to him as if it owned the place, and flopped down on the cool grass in the shadow of the gravestone. “Bonjour,” said Booker, amused despite himself as it grinned at him, panting. “Do you want some water?”

The dog did want water. It also wanted food, and to take over one of the outbuildings as its own little den. Booker made enquiries in the village but no one knew of it, so he shrugged and accepted the fact that he had another dog. He christened him Alfred – it seemed very British – and he took to following him around as much as Jacques and Jehan did, although Alfred tended to prefer the outbuilding to the house. Booker accepted the inevitable and drew on the ‘repairs and improvements’ account to turn the outbuilding into a well-appointed kennel. Well, kennels. Seemed like he might as well.

He added books on dog behaviour and training to the orders he got in from several London booksellers, and his personal library grew as fast as he could buy in shelves for it. He still drank, but he found himself confining to the evening – and what would be considered a fairly reasonable amount – since he always had dogs to walk or errands to run. For the first time in two-hundred years, Booker stayed somewhere long enough to become part of a community. Not enthusiastically, but he nodded cordially at people he saw regularly, learned the names of other dogs (if not their owners) who went on the same walking tracks, and spent a fair amount of time in the vet/pet store/kennels (it was all one facility).

It was the vet who asked him to take on his fourth dog, an old black Labrador improbably named Izzadora. “If she were five years younger, I’d have no problem rehoming her,” she explained. “But she’s elderly – too old for anything but an owner who can pamper her and let her sleep in the sun and enjoy whatever time she has left.” Booker felt stricken at the idea of taking on a pet only to lose it so soon, but he felt a ghost of sensation as if Marisol were licking his hand.

“Of course,” he said.

Izzadora was with him and the other dogs for five months. She was half blind, but Jacques and Jehan would lead her around, sandwiched between them so she didn’t bump into the furniture, and she happily walked between sunny spots in the house and sunny spots in the graveyard. The vet made house calls to check on her, and when Izzadora’s arthritis was too much, Booker held her head in her lap in her favourite spot in the graveyard as she died, then buried her next to Marisol.

That was when it became a thing. First the vet, then one or two other local animal rescue charities, would call on him when they had a dog – and once, disastrously, a cat, never again – who was too old to be rehomed or adopted elsewhere. Booker’s days were filled, and he felt the part of him which could love unconditionally, that he had thought was stunted and broken after his children died, growing. Of course, it hurt every time one of them died, but Booker didn’t try to deny the grief, didn’t let it fester and twist him up. He cried, maybe drank a bit more than usual, and let whichever of the dogs were the most affectionate lick away his tears or lean against him in silent canine support.

That’s not to say Booker didn’t resent them, a little, for each death. He felt an ache of sour envy when he was there to see them relax into the peace of death – but it was difficult to stay bitter when he had others relying on him to be there to get up the next day. It became almost cathartic – each time he mourned one of his friends, it was like he was mourning for himself, a little. The ache grew smaller each time.

The back edge of the graveyard, from where Marisol and Izzadora were buried, became a new cemetery, with Booker resurrecting his old etching skills from his forging days to make little metal plaques to rest over each small grave, with a name, a date and a memory.

Izzadora, who loved the sun.

Jacques and Jehan, always together (Booker had found them one morning, three years after they’d arrived in Goussainville, cold in their bed in front of the range. Thank fuck they’d gone at the same time.)

Alfred, who did things his own way.

Bongo, always chasing rabbits.

Mr Fuzzbutt, who was a cat. And scratched me. A lot.

Hoppy, who went faster on three legs than all the others on four.

Zin, who kept me company when I read.

Marisol, who was first, and who loved me.

Booker vaguely assumed that the others had kept tabs on him. He tried not to think of what they might be up to out there – what Nile might be like as she blossomed into the potential he’d seen in her, the combination of serenity and ferocity. If Nicky and Joe might ever forgive him, if Andy was letting them keep her safe. But the account for the property was kept topped-up, so he assumed that Copley, at least, was keeping an eye on it. After a few years, he noticed that around Christmas and his birthday a few extra hundred Euros were transferred in. He used it to buy some of the good dog toys, the really tough ones.

The first concrete evidence he had that Copley knew exactly what he was doing was a phone call. Booker was expecting a call from Haille, the vet, so he wasn’t looking at the caller ID when he picked up, distracted by Rosie, who had somehow gotten into the peanut butter – again.

“Bonjour – oh, shit, drop it!”

“Mr Booker, have I reached you at a bad time?”

Booker just about dropped the phone. “Is that – Copley, is that you?”

“Indeed. I’m sorry to bother you; I know it’s not entirely part of the, ah, agreement the others have with you. But I’m in a bit of a situation, and hoped you might be able to help me.”

Booker felt sick. He’d thought Copley had changed. “I don’t do that any more-“

“No! Oh no, nothing like that. I’m aware that you’ve taken up a new hobby in canine husbandry-“ ‘Canine husbandry?!’ Booker mouthed to himself. “-and I appear to have acquired a dog – one I’m unable to care for.”

“What dog? Why not?”

Copley sighed. “My elderly neighbour – lovely old woman, but she fell at home and she’s finally moving into a care facility. Her children asked if I could take her dog – they all live in the city and I think they liked the idea of it staying close to home but unfortunately, ah, ah, oh dear, excuse me, ACHOO!”

“You’re allergic?” asked Booker wryly.

“I’m allergic,” Copley confirmed. “Never an issue day-to-day, but sharing a home with a dog is just too much for me, I’m afraid. Would it suit for me to bring her over to you?”

“I suppose, but-“

“Excellent! I’ll pop over tomorrow morning,” Copley said firmly and hung up, leaving Booker holding the phone and looking and a dog who had far too much peanut butter on her face.

“-but do the others know?” he finished weakly. Rosie wagged her tail and licked her chops.

Copley was over first thing the next morning – he must have been desperate – and Booker winced at his streaming eyes and red nose. The dog was, he was amused to see, exactly what he would have pictured for an elderly woman’s pet – an overbred Cavalier King Charles spaniel who positively flopped around the world. “Mr Booker,” said Copley, stepping forward to shake his hand as if the previous events had never occurred. Booker hastily wiped his hand on his jeans – he’d been throwing tennis balls and his hand was wet with dog saliva – and accepted the handshake. “I do appreciate this. Queenie – oh, don’t laugh – is a dear wee thing, but-“ he gestured at his face “-I simply can’t keep her.”

Booker pursed his lips in a tight smile, feeling oddly discombobulated in the company of someone who wasn’t a dog, and wasn’t a new acquaintance, and knelt down to hold his hand out to Queenie. She trotted forward and he let her sniff his fingers before happily submitting to a pat. “Not a problem – we have plenty of space here. Don’t we, girl?” Queenie wagged her tail and grinned at him, and he couldn’t resist grinning back into her sweet, good-natured face. “Would you like a cup of tea? Or something stronger?” he asked Copley, then looked up at him, to find the other man looking at him with an odd expression. “Is something wrong?”

Copley cleared his throat. “Thank you, that would be welcome – if you don’t mind sitting outside, I’m afraid your home is probably only going to exacerbate my allergies. And – no, nothing’s wrong. I just don’t remember seeing you smile like that before.”

“Oh,” said Booker, feeling awkward, and went to make the tea. He whistled for the dogs – five of them at the moment, plus the newcomer, and they ran over and past him, knowing that meant their food bowls were about to be filled. Queenie trotted politely at his heels for a moment, looking between him and the other dogs, before stretching her little legs to race after the others, joining in to an ecstasy of butt-sniffing and doggy introductions.

The tea was…nice. Topics of conversation were fairly restricted – Copley didn’t talk of his work, and Booker didn’t ask after the team, so they spoke of the dogs, the weather, the dogs again, and settled on football as a mutual passion. As he was leaving, Copley looked around at the property, taking in the neatly kept churchyard, the repaired buildings – or at least, the house and renovated kennels were well kept, the church itself Booker had largely ignored beyond patching the roof and used it as a general “throw stuff in” storage room. “Is the account sufficient for your needs?” asked Copley. “I have to admit, I never imagined this was what you’d do with the place. Feeding all these animals can’t be cheap.”

Booker shrugged. “I get by. The vet clinic passes on food and supplies when she can. And there’s a kind of community group at one of the churches, the kind where old ladies-“ of course, those old ladies could all have been his great-grand-daughters “-run bake sales to raise money for Good Causes, and I’m apparently a good cause.”

“Very good,” Copley said, looking amused. “What, The Booker Home for Strays?”

Booker snorted. “Something like that, I guess.”

Three days later, Booker was surprised to get a package in the mail. It was a neat wooden sign. The Booker Memorial Home in large text and (for incorrigible canines and Queenie) in small text at the bottom. Booker was surprised to see the letters that indicated that The Booker Memorial Home was a registered charitable trust in France, and even more surprised when he looked it up online and found that there really was such a trust, newly set up, and with a rather generous initial donation from an anonymous corporation.

Like Copley’s visit had broken something open, he started to get more mail – and realised that Copley had definitely told the others what he had been occupying himself with. A parcel with some soft dog toys from Copley, with the note that Queenie liked these kinds. (Queenie had, with glee, abandoned the life of a lapdog and taken to running around with Rufus, who was a scarred old brawler with a heart of gold. She was currently attempting to savagely chew and bury a canon bone as big as she was.)

Then, one of those little nodding dogs that one sets on the dashboard of a car. The note was unsigned but Booker recognised Andy’s handwriting. Saw this and thought of you.

Several more gifts from Andy followed, all generally hilariously tacky, useless and dog-themed – but all were accompanied by an anonymous donation to the trust.

Then one evening as Booker was about to turn in, a car pulled in, lights off. He was astonished when Nile jumped out, looking just as he remembered her, but moving with a confidence and fluidity that he recognised in anyone who Andy trained. She greeted him with a hug, already talking as quickly as she could. “Sorry for dropping in on you – I know we’re not meant to, the others don’t know I’m here. I was on my own for a bit – Nicky and Joe decided they were going on a honeymoon, Andy won’t even tell me how many honeymoons they’ve actually had, so Andy went off on her own for a bit too, just for a month, and I was just doing the whole tourist thing down near Monaco, and-“

“Nile, breathe,” Booker said, standing back and holding her shoulders.

She did and kept on. “I didn’t mean to, but I heard about this club, they did greyhound racing – that’s been banned for five years now! – so I, um. Tidied it up. And now-“

“-you have greyhounds?” Booker finished.

Nile beamed at him. “Exactly! But obviously I can’t keep them so I needed to find a home for them before I head back to the others, and Copley had mentioned your place here. So…” She looked at him hopefully. He was struck by how young she still was, how optimistic.

“So, now, I guess I have greyhounds,” he sighed.

“Oh, fantastic. I’ll just get them out, I need to be back in England tonight so I can’t stay-“

“Wait, how many…?”

“Only four!” said Nile.

“Only four,” echoed Booker flatly, mentally rearranging the occupants of the kennels. Perhaps it was finally time to build on that extension…?

The dogs piled out of the car, leggy and aristocratic, swirling around Nile and moving so fluidly that Booker counted twice to make sure there were only four. Nile gave him one last, fierce hug and hopped back in the car, leaving Booker gaping and feeling like a wave had washed over him. “What the fuck,” he whispered, looking at the greyhounds. They looked back at him. One wagged its tail. “Guess you lot are hungry? Come on, then.”

Two days later there was a donation for the trust – four times larger than he usually saw, and a book on the rehabilitation of racing dogs, signed by Andy. Saw this and through of you. Booker grinned to himself. Nile should have known you never got anything past Andy.

He remembered the time he did get something past her, and the smile twisted. God, he’d been an arsehole.

Remembering that time, he realised it had been that long since he’d died – well, unless he had succumbed to alcohol poisoning. It was the longest stretch he’d managed since the first time he died, by a long shot.

Of course, having realised that, he promptly tripped over a greyhound, broke his neck, and woke to several worried canines licking his face. And Queenie, who was definitely trying to eat his fucking fingers, god, that dog was a worry. Shows what pure-breeding gets you.

Several months later, there was another car without lights pulling in late at night, but Booker literally stumbled when it was Joe who got out, Nicky following from the passenger seat. Joe was scowling at him. “Don’t think this means I’ve fucking forgiven you,” he said, and Booker was still gaping when he realised that Joe’s black jumper was wriggling, and Joe reached into it to pull out two tiny, squirming puppies. Fucking hell, Booker didn’t do puppies! He held out his hands to take them automatically, pulling them close to his chest as Joe stalked back to the car, not looking back. Nicky came up to add a third puppy to his armful, but paused, putting his hands on Booker’s shoulders and ducking his head to study Booker’s face intently for a moment. Booker couldn’t say anything, but after a moment the corner of Nicky’s mouth quirked in something that might have been a smile, and he leaned in to press a quick kiss to Booker’s forehead before heading back to the car. It was unexpected and honest and felt like forgiveness, even as Booker watched them pull away, hearing their good-natured bickering that he hadn’t realised he missed so much.

One of the puppies managed to get its little claws caught in his jumper, and whined. Booker sighed, and looked down at them. They were old enough to have their eyes open, but definitely not old enough to be away from their mama. He went inside to fix up a box or crate with blankets and call Haille. The vet was used to calls at odd hours, and he suspected he needed to know sooner rather than later what puppies ate.

Haille arrived with cartons of pet milk and – more usefully, a tan matt whose belly had the prominent teats and soft roundness that meant she must have given birth fairly recently. “I was going to bring her over to you later anyway,” Haille explained while she examined the three little puppies. “But she’s just lost her own pups, so if we’re quick she might adopt yours.”

“What happened to her?” Booker asked.

Haille pressed her lips together. “Police brought her in, from that dog-fighting ring they broke up on that farm out of town. She’d been used for breeding but this last litter…well, they think those, those – oh, I can’t even think of a word bad enough. They used the puppies to bait the fighting dogs.”

Booker felt sick fury roar through his veins. “Ah,” he said, much more calmly than he felt. “Well, if the police have them, I’m sure that’s for the best.”

Haille didn’t look like she agreed, and to be honest Booker didn’t either.

Luckily, the mama dog was sniffing with interest at the crate with the puppies, and as soon as Haille put it on the floor she was sniffing and licking them. Haille showed Booker how to set up a nice, comfy crate and cover it with blankets, and they both watched with satisfaction as Mama carried the puppies one-by-one to her new den, the puppies squalling as they smelled milk, all settling down together happily. Booker went to sleep that night listening to the little snuffly grunts of baby animals happily eating, feeling as satisfied as he ever did following a mission.

Of course, the next day he emailed Copley to ask for a rare favour, and was quickly sent a police file. He was still reading it through it – and making a mental note of the weak spots in the security where those arseholes were being held, when he heard a car pull up. Not unusual, until he recognised, bone-deep, the footsteps on the gravel, and looked up to see Andy casually leaning in the doorway.

“Heard you might be thinking of an independent job,” she said. “Thought you might need a hand.”

Booker wasn’t too proud to admit that he cried a little when she hugged him. Then they went and fucked some shit up – which was both amazingly satisfying, and humbling, since he was abruptly reminded how out of practice he was. He died three times, and Andy laughed at him, a lot, but they also managed to deliver some very effective justice to people who thought hurting animals was fun – and worse, something to make money off.

Andy stayed for a couple of days. Booker asked her if the team knew where she was, and she shrugged. “I didn’t ask permission,” she said. “Besides, I was dying to see what you’d done with the place.”

Booker shook his head and accepted it. Andy was a force of nature. If she wanted to be here – well, he would accept the gift with as much grace as he was able to.

Besides, Andy loved dogs, and watching her wrestle and play with them was a joy. Mama had evidently decided in her little doggy brain that Andy was a Safe Person, and every time Andy sat, Mama would bring the puppies out to her, one-by-one, settling them in Andy’s lap. Andy was obviously charmed, and Booker laughed to see his tough, fierce friend cooing over puppies, letting them lick her nose and tickling their round little tummies.

He surreptitiously took a photo, and after a moment’s thought, emailed it to Nicky – or at least, the email address Nicky had last been using when Booker set it up. Andy didn’t even look up from smiling over the puppies, but called out in a cheerful tone. “I’m going to kill you!”

Booker sat back with a smile. “Worth it,” he called back.

And so it went, for years, decades. Booker looked after his dogs. He caught up on his reading. He took to ordering as much online as he could, in the name of the trust, and wore a hat and sunglasses when he did need to venture into the village. He became his own younger brother, then his own cousin, then a nephew. He would occasionally hear from one of the team or another – sometimes months between times, but always eventually something would pop up. Usually Nile or Andy, a letter or parcel or, well, a dog.

The day Booker woke and realised he was just – happy, unconditionally and uncomplicatedly looking forward to the day, and all the days to follow, he took a bottle of whiskey and went to sit at Marisol’s grave.

Haille retired, and her replacement was a quietly-spoken North African man, who was charmed when Booker was able to not only converse with him in Arabic, but in the Maghreb dialect that Joe had first taught him. Muhammed was equally happy to use Booker as a resource for the otherwise unhomeable dogs.

The little cemetery continued to grow – inevitably.

Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta – who loved to run, but loved the sofa more

Queenie – savage little bitch, you will be missed

Rosie – who loved peanut butter

Rufus – a sweetheart through-and-through

Mama – who saved many puppies, and has earned her rest

The world moved on, but The Booker Memorial Home just kept…doing what it was doing. Booker kept waiting to hear that Andy was gone, lost in a fight, watching with trepidation for the first grey hairs on the rare occasions he saw her. Finally he realised what the others must have already known, as he watched her take a scratch from an overly enthusiastic St Bernard in a wrestling match, and the scratch healed before his eyes. She saw him watching and shrugged. “It comes and goes. More often, it comes. Not enough to be sure of, but…I’ll be around for a while longer, I think.”

That was another day that Booker took a drink to Marisol’s grave.

Eventually, he began to consider rejoining the team. The lonely decades that had stretched so far in front of him were going to draw to a close. He supposed he should recruit someone to take over the church grounds, but he just… How could he trust anyone else? To look after his dogs?

One summer evening, Nile came to visit him, an odd expression on her face and a dog in the backseat. Booker went to meet her, looking in the car to see the dog, and felt a shock of déjà vu. The dog was yellow, scruffy, the spitting image of – “Her collar says she’s called Marisol,” Nile was saying.

“What-“ Booker croaked.

The dog perked up her ears at his voice, and her tail wagged, audibly thumping the seat. Now he was looking, he could see that she wasn’t the exact match – a good lot younger, for one thing, and with a gloss of good health that looked like she hadn’t missed a meal in her life.

“Sorry,” he said to Nile, still looking at the dog. “It’s just that…she looks exactly like the first dog I had.”

“That’s not the weirdest thing,” said Nile. “We found her in a car crash on the way back from a mission. The other occupants of the car were all killed, but she was sitting next to the car, calm as you please. Like she was waiting for us.” Nile took a breath. “She’d obviously been riding in the back seat. Booker, there was blood. A lot of blood, right where the dog was. But-“ she waved a hand at Marisol II. “Not a scratch.”

Booker felt his pulse quicken. “That’s impossible.”

Nile shrugged. “We tested it.”

Booker quickly frowned at her. Someone hurt his – This. This dog.

“Just a scratch!” Nile hastened to reassure him. “We googled it, it wouldn’t have hurt any more than her getting a shot.”

“And?”

“It healed. Immediately. And Andy remembered the name from your graveyard. So…”

“So, you brought her to me,” Booker said softly. He opened the door and his dog, his fucking dog leaped out. “It’s impossible,” he said, kneeling to bury her face in her fur as she happily licked as much of his face as she could reach.

“Booker, we’re impossible.”

Booked kept his face hidden in Marisol II’s fur. “You know what this means, right?”

“That God works in mysterious ways? And I’m reconsidering the meaning of that dream I had where I was a chicken?”

“Exactly. Not the chicken bit, but Nicky was right, this is some fucking destiny shit. He’s going to be insufferable.”

“He already is. But Joe – Joe said that if a dog likes you enough to come back, then he wasn’t going to stand in the way of such a good judge of character. So. If you want to come back early – we’ll make it work.”

Booker stood and looked around his home. At his dog, sitting patiently at his feet. At the kennels and the garden and the old dogs snoozing in the sun. “Yeah, maybe. I’ll think about it. Still have some books I’ve been meaning to finish, you know?”

Nile gave him a sideways hug. “I know.”

“But…maybe next time you’re through this way you could all stop in for dinner? I think I’d like that.”

Nile squeezed his ribs. “I’ll pass it on.”

Epilogue: Six months later

The dogs were barking when Booker pulled into the front of the house, Marisol, riding in the passenger seat, standing at the noise, a faint growl trembling through her. She was, as before, his shadow. He fucking loved it.

Booker immediately saw why. A woman in a red coat, a stranger, was sitting on the bench beside the door, face turned up to the sun, appearing to ignore the four dogs (and one cat, why did Booker give in on a cat again?) who were barking at her. They subsided when Booker got out and Marisol, who had immediately appointed herself boss dog, rounded them up, standing warily out of reach behind Booker.

The moment the woman opened her eyes to meet his gaze, Booker knew who she was. It wasn’t just the face that was familiar, it was the odd mixture of ferocity and detachment in her eyes, that he’d seen in his dreams until he drank them away. “Booker, I’m so glad to finally meet you,” she said calmly.

“Quynh,” he said.

“Ah! You know me. That makes things easier.”

“How did you get out? Did Andy-“

Quynh’s expression shuttered. “Andromache did not rescue me. I rescued myself. Iron rusts, and even lead must give way when it is battered, seconds at a time, for centuries. But I am looking for my old friends. I hoped you might be able to contact them, on my behalf?”

Booker decided that transparency was the best option – he suspected this woman was not in the mood for any prevarication or hint of falsehood. “They’re probably already on their way. Security cameras-“ he gestured to where they were hidden in the eaves around the courtyard. “Their intelligence guy monitors them.”

Quynh shook her head in mock sorrow. “Ah, see this is why I need my dear friends to guide me! I’m still getting to grips with all the marvels this century has to offer. Cameras! Who would ever have thought of such a thing?”

“Would you like something to drink?” Booker offered. “While you wait? It’ll be a few hours before they can get here.”

“Thank you,” said Quynh politely. Booker felt his pocket buzz as he cautiously passed her, heading in to turn on the kettle, and quickly pulled it out to check the screen. On our way. Stall her. He sighed. Stall an insanely damaged immortal with a grudge against his family? Sure.

He paused when he came back out with the tea. The fucking cat, who hated everyone and expressed it with all five pointy ends, was sitting in Quynh’s lap, eyes closed to slits in relaxation as she idly stroked its head. A couple of the braver dogs, including Marisol, had given up their alarm at the intruder after seeing Booker speak to her calmly, and had re-emerged. Quynh was watching them, a small genuine smile on her face, and talking softly in what Booker recognised as archaic Vietnamese – not something he could speak, but he could parse what she was saying. “What lovely creatures! Are you all good? I’m sure you are. You all look so good. Yes, you do!” The cat flexed its claws into her lap, and she calmly returned her attention to it. “And of course you, Master Cat. You are very good too.”

Booker cleared his throat, and the smile disappeared as she took the tea from him, resuming the arrogant, wary expression she had before.

“Say,” Booker said, feeling in his gut that this was the way to go, and that some animal therapy surely couldn’t hurt Quynh. “I’m sure you have a lot of options ahead of you now that you’re, ah, back with us. Have you ever considered a career in canine husbandry?”