This was not the kind of assignment I’d expected when I joined the FBI. It had been my dream job ever since I was a kid and I’d done everything to make it happen; I’d graduated my four-year degree course in Public Health with Honors, and completed a Masters in Cyber Security before serving five years on the front line with NYPD. I always took my job seriously. Always. Until today.Being chosen for the permanent personal protective mission for the Attorney General, Arthur Lucretti, had seemed like a step up. Sure, I also protected his wife, Laura, and their daughter, Sonia, but I had not become a Special Agent to protect Betty.
She looked up at me expectantly, her eyes soft and inviting as she licked her lips. Then she put her paws on my leg, reaching almost to my knee as her tiny tail wagged enthusiastically.
“Aw, she likes you, Sam,” smirked Aden, a guy I’d once called my buddy but now I called a raging asshole.
“You volunteered me for this detail, jerkoff?” I grumbled, scooping up the little mutt with one hand.
He didn’t even bother to deny it.
“You look so cute, Lockford,” he laughed out loud. “I’ve gotta get going—the big dawgs are heading to the UN today. You have fun at the doggie spa.”
He strode away and jumped into the black bucar with the other agents assigned to the Attorney General, and I watched as the four-car motorcade streamed out of the AG’s mansion.
I looked down at Betty who was staring up at me with googly eyes.
“Can I shoot him?” I muttered. “Or do you think that would affect my chance of promotion?”
Betty buried her head in my arm, so I took that to mean that shooting my partner wasn’t a great idea. She was probably right.
It took me nearly ten minutes to figure out how her to put her harness on. She sat patiently, her eyes soulful and her little pink tongue hanging out of her mouth as if she was laughing at me. Hell, everyone else in the Bureau would be laughing their asses off right now if they could see me, so why not her, too?
When I’d finally gotten her into her harness, I attached it to a seatbelt on the backseat of my black sedan, made sure she couldn’t wriggle free, then put the address for Pippa’s Pet Spa into the car’s GPS.
Traffic was light, so we made it there in good time. I pulled up outside, automatically ticking off my mental checklist of the surroundings: no snipers on the rooftops, no one acting suspiciously, no parked cars with the engines still running, no one obviously carrying a concealed weapon—unless I counted myself, and with what it had cost me to have this coat made-to-measure, I sure hoped no one could tell I was carrying.
I lifted Betty off the backseat and clipped on her leash. She hurried to the patch of grass outside the pet spa and proceeded to do what little dogs have to do.
“I hope you’re going to pick that up,” said a woman while Betty continued to hunch over with her eyes closed in concentration.
I wondered how long she’d been holding that in and how it was biologically possible for one small dog to poop so much.
“There’s no such thing as a poop fairy, you know!”
The woman pointed to a sign that threatened me with a $2000 fine for not picking up after my dog.
“Um, I don’t have a bag,” I admitted, frowning at Betty.
“That is very irresponsible of you,” the woman huffed. “Lucky for you, I take animal welfare seriously,” and she thrust a bright pink plastic poop bag at me.
I wondered why someone who didn’t have a dog carried poop bags. That was definitely suspicious. My eyes narrowed as I gazed at a curvy redhead whose eyes were hidden behind enormous sunglasses.
She was right, of course, and I was kicking myself for not being fully prepared for this assignment, even if it was a shitty one: literally.
I muttered my thanks and put my hand inside the plastic bag so I could pick up Betty’s still warm log. I was astonished how much the little rat managed to squeeze out. I was pretty sure she was laughing at me again. I wouldn’t blame her.
I dumped the bag in the trashcan and realized that the woman was still watching me. Did she think I was going to take it home for a souvenir?
“This is Betty, right?” she smiled. “My new customer. I’m Pippa, by the way, your furologist. I’m also a dog lover, pet magnet and magnate, owner of Pippa’s Pet Spa.”
I was taken aback by her waterfall of words, but managed to nod and agree that this was indeed Betty.
“You’re so cute!” she said, scooping Betty up and kissing her long, furry nose. “We’re gonna make your daddy very happy, aren’t we!”
“She’s not mine,” I grumbled. “I’m just … looking after her.”
“Oh, that makes more sense,” she said, pushing her sunglasses up to her hair and revealing a pair of bright blue eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t look like a dog daddy.”
“What the heck does a ‘dog daddy’ look like?” I asked even as I realized that asking her to carry on talking was probably a bad idea.
“Covered in dog hair and wearing dog walking clothes is one clue,” she grinned at me. “Prepared for poop, definitely!” and she wagged a finger at me. “And ya know, generally someone who enjoys their dog’s company.”
I looked at Betty; Betty looked at me, yawned, then snuggled into the woman’s arms.
The woman, Pippa, laughed gently. “You learn a lot about people in this job.”
“Really?” I said, not very interested.
“You, for example,” she said, smiling out of the corner of her mouth, “I’m going with … secret service.”
My eyebrows shot up. “What makes you think…?”
“It’s the haircut,” she nodded with certainty. “Your hair says ‘cop’ or ‘soldier’, but your suit is expensive and probably tailored to hide the fact that you’re carrying, we live in D.C., home to a thousand Feebs. Plus, you have that whole ‘I’m too serious to smile’ vibe. Works for you though.”
Only a decade of training stopped my jaw from landing on the floor. But I was definitely getting a refund from my tailor.
She grinned, knowing that she’d nailed it.
“Is there anything dog hair doesn’t stick to?” I grumbled, brushing a few stray hairs from my suit.
“Sure,” she said with a smirk. “Dogs. So, Mr. Tall, Dark and Dangerous,” what is it that Betty needs today?”
I frowned. Betty’s requirements hadn’t been given to me. I felt a twinge of annoyance that once again I was unprepared.
“Don’t you have that in your appointment book?”
She gave me a thoughtful look.
“Well, with a new customer I’d usually suggest starting with a deep cleansing bath, blow dry, fur de-shed, clip or trim—although that’s not needed in Betty’s case—ear clean, paws and claw treatments, and finish off with a pet friendly designer fragrance.”
I goggled at that last bit of intel. “They make perfume for dogs?”
She laughed. “Well, yeah! Where have you been living?”
I shook my head. “In a parallel universe.”
“See! You do have a sense of humor! You’d better tell me your name—I might not remember it though; I’m better at remembering pets’ names.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” I muttered. “Sam Lockford.”
“Well, Agent Lockford,” she said mischievously, “come on in to my pets’ emporium of pleasure.”
“You take your job very seriously,” I said, not bothering to hide my sarcasm.
As she put Betty on the ground, holding the leash tightly, she opened the door and threw me a hard stare.
“I do. Pets are not toys—they’re living, breathing, sensate creatures. If you make the decision to have a pet, then you should darn well make sure that you’ll love them for life.”
Her face was stony and I realized that I’d insulted her. I tried to backpedal fast.
“I can see that you love animals, so you’re in the right profession.”
“I am,” she smiled, taking the olive branch I’d offered. “I used to be a Kindergarten teacher.” She looked thoughtful. “This is quite similar in some ways,” then she flashed that smile again which I couldn’t help but return.
“Now, Betty,” she said, turning back to the little squirt. “You’re going to have a lovely time. Come this way, young lady.” She waved at the receptionist. “Bryony, this is Agent Looksgood. He’s Betty’s uncle.”
“It’s Lockford,” I mumbled to myself. “And I’m not her uncle.”
The receptionist smiled. “Don’t worry about it—all her clients get the personal touch. Do you want to come back for Betty in a couple of hours?”
“Two hours? It’s going to take two hours to shampoo a five-pound dog?”
“It’s not just a shampoo; Betty is booked in for a full spa treatment. Can I get you a beverage?”
I grudgingly accepted a black coffee thinking that this was a helluva waste of my time. I started reading emails on my phone and catching up with Bureau business when a woman clutching a Gucci purse in one hand and a sad looking Pomeranian in the other, stormed into the salon and marched up to Bryony.
“I paid $95 for Rosie Van Tutti’s spa treatment and that’s double what I was quoted. I want a full refund immediately.”
“Ma’am, I’m so sorry to hear that. Let me check,” Bryony said politely. “Yes, I can see that is the price we charged, but I’m looking at your paperwork and the price is circled. I believe these are your initials are next to it. Did you initial the price?”
“I don’t know! You probably did that.”
Bryony looked annoyed now and I didn’t envy her dealing with people like this, but she was doing a good job of staying calm, even though the old crone had just outright accused her of lying and forgery. One charge of slander and counting.
I sat up and paid attention as Pippa came back into the room, her expression polite but determined as she stood at Bryony’s side, examining the documents.
“Ma’am, I’m Pippa Beresford, the owner. And my colleague is correct—the paperwork that you signed when you came exactly matches the amount you were charged. And I can assure you that we charge by AKC standards for breeds.”
“It’s not what I was quoted over the telephone!”
“Ma’am, these are your initials.”
“Well, I want a refund—you cut my Rosie!”
Pippa looked startled.
“I was the groomer for Rosie, and I don’t believe I cut her. But we have a veterinarian on call, and I will certainly pay for any treatment required.”
The woman inflated like a rooster. “I don’t want a vet! I want my money back!”
“Ma’am, if your dog is injured and bleeding—”
She deflated a little but was still blustering. “It’s more of a red patch of skin than a cut. But you did it!”
“May I look?” Pippa asked, holding out her hands for the Pomeranian.
“You may not! You hurt my dog! I will tell all my friends not to come here.” She paused. “But if you refund my money, I won’t say another word about it.”
“Well, then we have come to an impasse, ma’am,” said Pippa, stroking the dog before dropping her hand. “Because I’m not going to refund your money without seeing the dog or a veterinarian seeing her. If she is injured, you want help for her, don’t you?”
The woman glared, clutching her dog so tightly that the poor thing squirmed. Then her eyes fixed on a poster hanging on the wall.
“Satisfaction guaranteed, that says, and I am not satisfied! You will refund my money or I’ll tell everyone about your fraudulent charges! You don’t know who I am! I will ruin you!”
I could see that Pippa was starting to get worried, and for reasons that I didn’t want to examine too closely, I wanted to help her.
At that moment, a sopping wet Betty, covered in soap suds came trotting out and sat by my foot, staring up at me. I swear she was trying to hypnotize me into helping. Then she let out a loud yap and growled at the woman.
Decision made, I stood up, towering over the Gucci troll, Pippa and Bryony.
“Special Agent Lockford, ma’am,” I said, flashing my badge and letting her see a peek of my sidearm, “and I have to tell you that return fraud is a serious offence. You claimed that this dog has been cut and she clearly hasn’t. You’re attempting to obtain a service that you had no intention of paying for—that is a serious crime: a misdemeanor conviction can lead to up to a year in a local jail, while a felony conviction can lead to multiple years in prison. Federal charges can lead to 10 years or more in federal prison. Defamation law is an equally serious offence, and do I need to tell you what the punishment is for threatening to libel this woman’s business?”
The woman gaped at me, utterly speechless. Then she turned around and swept out of the salon, passing another customer on her way in.
“Don’t go into that dog groomers, they have armed bouncers now!”
“We take the security of our customers’ pets very seriously,” said Pippa to the new customer.
The Gucci woman left looking shell-shocked, and Pippa turned to grin at me.
“Do you want a job?”
“No, the world of pet grooming is too scary,” I said, returning her smile.
She sighed and shook her head. “Most of our customers are lovely, but some people are so rude!”
“I know, right,” said Bryony joining in. “No manners, no etiquette.”
“You mean ‘Bettiquette’,” I grinned, picking up Betty in my arms and letting her little wet body snuggle against mine.
“Agent Looksgood! I think you’re a dog lover after all!”
“I have many secrets,” I grinned at her. “How about I tell you some of them over lunch?”
“I think I can work you into my schedule,” she smiled, blushing a pretty pink. “Is Betty coming, too?”
I looked at Betty and Betty looked at me. “Do you know a dog-friendly restaurant that Betty might like?”
“Funny you should ask that because I do.”
And when I looked down at Betty, I could swear that she winked at me.
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