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The unseen sun struggled to break through a sky that was covered by low, grey clouds. The first day of cold weather was also the first day of the Christmas holidays and Christmas Day itself was only ten days away. The milk float turned the corner into Terence Avenue and the vehicle groaned as it made its way up the steep hill. The milkman breathed clouds of steam onto the windscreen as he whistled softly to himself in the early morning. This was his favourite time of the day. He loved the quiet, for at this hour few had struggled out of bed and even fewer had ventured outside. The roads were empty, save for the odd vehicle that passed swiftly by as the milk float purred its way slowly on its round. The milkman loved the peace, the tranquillity and the unhurried start to the day. Now, as he prepared to make his deliveries in Terence Avenue, the float changed tone as it struggled with the steep hill.
Terence Avenue was a new estate, built right on the edge of Nailsbury. Nailsbury, a relatively new town if you could call it that, sat neatly in the middle of rural Hampshire. Once an isolated village, the ravages of time and human intrusion had slowly and steadily converted the peaceful, sleepy village, into semi-urban sprawl. Even the once-pretty railway station had long since suffered at the hands of the developers. Now the town somewhat ironically boasted a fine station linking the dwellers in the town to London and Southampton. The original part of the station had been preserved and continued to provide a service to the West Country. Indeed, the contrast between the original rural station and the building which comprised the new, brightly lit station was stark. More so because theoriginal, dusty village had maintained its rural beauty and the new station looked incongruous in its setting. As the town had evolved over several decades, so it had spread out. To start with, each new estate that had been developed was slightly more modern and slightly less-well constructed than the last. That had been the case when the town had started to sprawl. In the past decade, though, the building trend had been reversed. Now, on the perimeter of the town, there were displayed to the envy of the earlier settlers, fine houses of magnificent proportions, houses with large gardens, houses that spoke of money, riches, and even opulence; houses that belonged to the well-to-do. Terence Avenue was one such road. Built as a mini estate, the road boasted no more than ten dwellings. Set on one of the few hills in the area, each house was unique in character and oozed quality.
It was towards these dwellings the milk float groaned against the hill. The milkman, clouds of steam still pouring from his mouth as he whistled in the cold, damp, morning air, made his rounds to each of the ten properties in turn before turning the float around. The tranquil peace of the early morning returned as the milk float whined its way back down the hill and disappeared on its journey of delivering milk.
The Hammond family lived at number five and their day normally began soon after the milkman had left. This particular morning, as the milk float turned back round the corner of Terence Avenue, Mark Hammond was the first to awaken. No teenager likes to be woken early and Mark was no exception, especially when the light entering his bedroom still came from the streetlight outside. The weak, wintry rays of sunlight had barely begun to penetrate through the grey clouds. What awakened Mark was not the light, nor was it the sound of the milk float, for no sound audible to humans had penetrated the double-glazing. What awakened Mark was a paw.
Mark Hammond was fifteen years old and fast approaching his sixteenth birthday. He was of average height for his age, not stocky and he had incredibly good looks. These, combined with his mild temperament, endeared him to almost everyone who knew him. By contrast, his fourteen years old brother, James, was tall for his age--some two inches taller than Mark. James was wiry, and his narrow face and short, black hair accentuated his height. At this early hour of the morning, James lay on his bed in the room next to Mark.
The paw touched Mark gently at about waist height. It was a light touch, almost an incidental movement. The paw's owner knew the touch would be enough. It knew Mark was a very light sleeper. The paw's owner knew what the reaction would be and the owner wasn't particularly bothered.
Mark turned over in the bed, rapidly waking up, but wanting more sleep. He feigned sleep and pretended to snore. The paw made a second contact, a little more roughly than the first. Mark turned away again and moved across the bed, away from the intrusion. Suddenly there were two paws on the bed. They landed just short of the boy's body. He became aware of a faint panting sound. At the same time, though his back was turned, he knew there was a face looking very closely at his own. He knew that two, shiny brown eyes were staring at him from only a foot away and he sensed the warm breath on the back of his neck as the face got closer. Then, quite suddenly, the face got too close. A big, pink tongue bathed the side of the boy's face with slobber, from his neck, over his right ear, and up to his forehead. Mark reacted swiftly to this last intrusion.
"Go away boy, it's too early. Get off the bed and leave me to get some sleep.' Mark's voice was calm and he spoke in a loud whisper, as if determined not to awaken the rest of the household.
The owner of the tongue obediently clambered back off the bed and Mark heard him pad back out of the bedroom door. Mark rubbed away the worst of the slobber, curled up and closed his eyes. Next door, James snored rhythmically. His sounds were the genuine article, unlike his elder brother's a few minutes beforehand. To the owner of the tongue it was an intriguing sound, one which simply demanded closer investigation. The owner of the tongue had woken in a mischievous mood. This was not unusual but this morning, and perhaps it was the coldness of the air outside that had affected him, he was feeling particularly mischievous. He padded silently into the younger boy's room. The boy was facing him, his rhythmic snoring very audible to the sensitive ears of the tongue's owner. The two, big, brown eyes stared in the half-light at the sleeping boy and the pink tongue inched forward gingerly until it just touched the boy's nose. With a sudden motion the tongue licked the boy's face, in one long sweep from chin to eyebrows. Then the tongue's owner turned and started to pad out of the room.
"Whaaa ... t was that?' James stuttered as he began to wake up. 'Oh no, Archer, it's only six o'clock and we don't have to get up for two hours! What did you do that for?'
Archer, the family pet, had lived with them for nearly five years. He'd arrived as a puppy. He was a German Shepherd Dog, though more commonly called an Alsatian. His puppy days had been filled with fun and adventure and he had always had the respect from other animals that his breed demanded. But Archer was different to the supposed image of his breed. With one exception, Archer had always been as gentle as a lamb and indeed, apart from that one exception, his bark was very much worse than his bite. As James moaned his way to wakefulness, Archer stopped and turned to look back at him. A moment later, Archer let out a low whine and nuzzled his head against the boy's bed. James reached out an affectionate hand and draped it over the dog's shoulder.
"All right Archer, you can lie down here. Just let me get back to sleep, will you?'
The whine seemed to be an agreement and the canine lay down on the floor beside the boy's bed. James' hand reached down and gently stroked the dog's neck. Archer shrugged his shoulders with happiness. He knew he was greatly loved. He also knew he was very well looked after and he loved having the hairs on the back of his neck gently stroked.
In a minute James was asleep. It was a family joke that James could sleep through virtually anything. Indeed, when the family had moved to the house, they had been the second family to arrive and the builders were still busy constructing the other properties. One particular Friday, when the children had been on holiday, a very large digger had trundled its way up past the Hammond's house to start digging a few yards away. All morning it had made the most awful noise as the pneumatic controls were pushed to their limits in the earth-moving operation. James had slept all morning with his window wide open, totally oblivious to what was going on almost right outside his bedroom. The joke had remained and the way James fell back to sleep this particular morning was a perfect example of his uncanny ability to sleep..
Some time later a distant alarm clock piped the morning alarm. Instantly Archer was awake. He nuzzled the boy until he stirred before padding out of the room to repeat the action on his older brother. Then Archer went and sat at the entrance to the older boy's bedroom, looking out across the landing to the firmly closed bedroom door behind which the master and mistress of the house were audibly on the move. He waited for several minutes before he heard the telltale noise from inside the room that he was waiting for. There it was again, the second faint creak of the muffled floorboards. Archer's hearing told him it was the master's footsteps. With an almost imperceptible glint in his eyes, he braced himself.
It should be made clear to the reader at this point--Archer is a big dog. His puppy days are officially several years behind him. The trouble with Archer is he has never learned this simple fact. Nor has he learned the fact that he no longer weighs the ten kilograms he weighed as a puppy. These days his weight is more like forty kilograms. It must also be made clear that Archer has an almost maniacal relationship with the boys' father, which was why he had braced himself this particular morning. The handle of the bedroom door began to turn downwards. Archer watched it arc in a downward curve until he judged that the door would open. Then, in perfect timing with the door being opened from within, Archer made his move. He leaped from his sitting position, hunched his shoulders and sprang through the air. As always, his aim was totally accurate and his trajectory was perfect.
Archer flew through the half-open door, his body weight pushing the occupant within backwards. Archer continued, his momentum forcing the door wide open. The hapless boys' father staggered backwards, bemused and only half awake. The man tripped backwards and fell softly to the floor. In an instant the dog stood over him looking with big, brown eyes at the somewhat surprised expression on his master's face.
Dogs can't actually say good morning to people and it had long been an annoyance to Archer that he could not speak. It was also irritating that sometimes his actions were misunderstood by the humans and as a result, what had been a friendly gesture ended up with him in trouble. Even as his big pink tongue began to wash his master's face, Archer began to sense that his sentiments of joie de vivre were misunderstood.
Nevertheless, it was a wonderful position of power to be in. Standing over his master, he could do virtually what he liked. The face wash over, Archer decided it would be a good idea to play with his master. First, the left front paw was offered up to his master's right shoulder, and then the opposite paw was similarly tendered.
"Get off me, you big, ugly brute.' The master was clearly not amused by the dog's antics. 'That's the last time you'll ever do that. From now on you'll sleep downstairs, locked in the dining room.'
"Woof.' Archer didn't like the tone of what he'd heard, but he hoped his current position might give him some bargaining power.
"Mark, James, will you call the dog off?' their father called out. By way of reply, Mark, though fully awake, snored loudly, while James just continued sleeping. 'Somebody call the damned dog off.' The man's voice was getting louder as his impatience grew.
"Archer,' Mark finally called out, 'come here and leave grumpy alone.' It was well known that Mr Hammond was never cheerful in the morning and this particular morning was no exception.
"Archer,' called Mark, a little louder. 'Come here, now!'
Archer reluctantly heard the older boy's voice and looked round questioningly. He had learned to detect when the boy was serious and the tone in the boy's voice fitted the serious category. After a few seconds pause, Archer looked down at Mr Hammond one more time, gave him a final lick, and then sauntered off to Mark's bedroom. Even as Mark reached out his hand to grab Archer's collar, he heard voices from his parents' bedroom.
"That dog gets worse the older it gets.'
"I know dear, but he likes you really.'
"Likes me! God only knows why. Can't it understand, I don't like it?'
"Yes, I should think so, and that's probably why he picks on you.'
"Well from now on it sleeps downstairs, locked in the dining room.'
"Fine, but who's going to go and let him out when he tries to rip the door down?'
"It wouldn't dare do that. It's the dining room tonight for that animal and if it causes trouble then, hero or not, it goes.'
"If you say so dear, but I rather fear you are getting into one of your states over nothing.'
"Over nothing indeed! That animal has been trouble since the day we got it and I've had enough. It sleeps in the dining room tonight and no one is going to open the door.'
"All right dear, but we'll see.'
"We'll see,' said Archer to himself, as a plan began to form in his doggy brain.
Soon the family were getting ready for breakfast. The boys relished the prospect of the first day of their holidays, the first day of nearly four weeks without school. For Mr Hammond it was another day of work. His only break would be the week when the family were away over Christmas--a week at his mother's home in the countryside. But that was still three days away and for today he had much work still to complete. Mr. Hammond worked mainly from home. His field of work was officially classified but it had something to do with electronics. Indeed, on the odd occasion when the boys had ventured into his usually locked study, they had been surprised at the array of equipment they had almost literally fallen over. To anyone entering the room, it was immediately obvious Mr Hammond was a very clever man, a very clever man indeed.
The pleasant aroma of cooking wafted through the house, up the stairs and into the bedrooms. In a few minutes, Mark and James had washed and dressed and were seated round the table that occupied one end of the kitchen.
"So, what are you going to do today?' asked their mother after the breakfast had been served up.
"Hmm,' James tried to speak, though his mouth was full with a rather large piece of scrambled egg and toast. 'I thought I'd go into town. I've got some shopping I must do before the great escape to the country. Now that we're all going to be together at Gran's for Christmas, there are a couple of extra presents I have to buy. What about you, Mark?'
"Town, yes, could be.' Mark was not really paying attention at that precise moment. He had caught sight of something very funny in the making and it was occupying his entire attention. Through the open kitchen door, Mark could see the front door and behind it the silhouette of the paper delivery-boy. Now, a boy delivering papers is not in itself something that merits mirth. What did make it amusing though was the fact that Archer was standing on the other side of the door to the paper boy, his large mouth wide open, ready to receive whatever came through the letter box. At the precise moment Mark had been asked the question, the letterbox had begun to open.
In a split second Archer clamped his jaw on the paper, even while it was only part of the way through the door. Equally quickly he began a game of tug-of-war with the anonymous character outside. The game was short lived for the paperboy knew Archer well. He knew about the crazy canine's antics and so, as Archer began to pull the paper, the boy simply let go. The letterbox banged shut quite loudly as the paper completed its entry into the house. As it shut, Archer dropped the paper, only to pick it up again, leaving a great trail of slobber where his mouth had previously been. Archer repeated the action a number of times. Each time the dog picked the paper up it looked a little more the worse for wear. Finally, happy with his work, Archer picked the paper up in his mouth and walked towards the kitchen.
"Sorry, Mark, what did you say?' asked James. He had not seen what was happening behind him. Mark shot him a quick glance over his shoulder, the sort of look that indicated trouble, with a capital 'T'.
Before Mark could answer him, Archer walked into the kitchen. The newspaper, now sodden with the dog's saliva, was neatly clamped in his mouth. Archer walked up to his master, who was busy with a piece of toast, and dutifully put a paw on the chair. George Hammond looked round just in time to see Archer deposit the sodden bundle of pulp on his lap. As soon as Archer had dropped the newspaper, he fled from the room.
"Archer!' The boys' father screamed after the fleeing canine. 'You've done it again. How many more times must I tell you not to touch the newspapers or the post? After you get to them, they're useless.'
His final words were almost lost in the hoots of laughter coming from the two youths.
"Another one to Archer, I think,' laughed James.
"Yeah, another one to Archer,' Mark responded.
"Another one to Archer?' questioned the boys' father.
"Nothing Dad,' said James.
"I'll ask you again. Another one, what?' Mr Hammond was now quite stern-faced. He knew he had been the butt of another canine joke and he had taken the bait and risen to the occasion as he always did. There was something about the chemistry between himself and Archer that almost guaranteed a regular display of anger and frustration.
"Only another time that Archer's got one over on you. You should learn to ignore him. He doesn't do these things to anyone else, only to you, and he only does them because he knows how you'll react. Just ignore him and he'll stop.' James' tone of voice was suddenly very matter of fact and serious.
"It's a dog. It can't possibly think like that. It's not possible.'
"Okay then, Dad, it's not possible,' said Mark quite seriously. 'But if it's not possible, then why does he only ever pick on you for his little games?'
"I, ... I,' the boy's father stuttered, unable to immediately come up with a logical reason. 'I, ... I must get to work. Now if you're going out, take the dog with you. I shall be in my study until lunchtime and then I have to go out. I don't want to be disturbed by anyone, or any animal come to that, and that includes barking!'
With that, the boys' father got up and walked the incredibly short distance of about twenty feet to his study. Then he slammed the door shut in the familiar way he did when he was angry.
"Mother?' queried James a moment later.
"Yes, James, what is it?'
"Well,' James began, though he was still smiling from the canine antics a few moments earlier, 'I'm worried about Dad.'
"Worried dear, why?'
"Well, I don't think he gets enough exercise. I mean, twenty feet three times a day isn't very much.' James began to laugh quietly. 'I think he should get out more, perhaps take Archer for the odd walk. It would do him good.'
"Yes, more exercise would do him good, but I don't think walking Archer is the right answer, somehow.'
"Probably not, anyway it was just a thought. Must get on if I'm going to catch the bus into town. Are you coming Mark?'
"Err, no, not right now. I thought I'd go in later, got some things I want to do here first.'
"Oh yeah. Anything interesting?'
"It's nothing for you to worry about. I've just got something I want to do on the computer. Say I meet you at our favourite burger joint about half one?'
"Hmm. Okay then, half one it is.'
Breakfast was over and as the boys' mother cleared away they disappeared upstairs. James soon left the house to make his way into town. Mark sat in his room his concentration focused on the computer. He pressed a couple of buttons and watched the machine as it came to life, two green lights signifying something was happening deep within the electronics that were housed in the lower box. After a few seconds the screen lit up and was soon showing the boy a string of information.
Archer, meanwhile, had been let out into the back garden. It was not much of a place for exercise but it was better than being cooped up in Mark's bedroom, which was probably the only safe place indoors seeing as he had somehow or other managed once again to incur his master's wrath. Archer made his usual tour of the flowerbeds and then sniffed round the shed and the greenhouse. Then he returned to the shed. There was a smell here that he did not immediately recognise. It puzzled him, for it was not the usual woody, painted sort of smell he attributed to the shed. It was the kind of smell he associated with a living creature. His canine senses aroused, he began to recall all of the creature smells he could think of. It certainly wasn't rabbit, or hare. It was a stronger aroma than that. It wasn't rat, mouse, mole or badger. He knew those smells quite well from the hours of long walks in the country. This was different. It was unusual and it perplexed him.
He sniffed again and his nose began to follow the trail. After a minute he came to the fence at the back of the garden. He knew that behind the fence lay open fields, though he was never allowed into those fields, and nor could he ever hope to jump over the fence. He sniffed carefully, savouring this perplexing and somewhat pungent intrusion in his garden. Indeed, he felt that the smell simply should not have been there. In frustration he barked two short, sharp, barks at the fence. Realising he was not going to find the answer to the puzzle at the fence, he backtracked, sniffing, following the scent as it led him around the shed, then into the flower borders, over the lawn, and back up the path to the fence, where it simply disappeared. A strange, quizzical look crossed Archer's face as he tried to resolve the burning issue in his mind. Where had the scent gone?
Finally, Archer sat down at the foot of the fence and, looking upward, wondered what sort of a creature would be able to climb the fence. He even considered it might have to be a very big creature, much bigger than himself, and this made him worried. Archer lay there for quite some time, pondering the great, unknown mystery that had come his way.
Inside the house, Mark had nearly finished with the computer. He pressed a few more buttons and the machine went quiet. The whirring sound of the hard disk drive faded to silence and when he pressed one final button, the fan that cooled the electronics faded and the screen went black. Mark busied himself around the room for a few seconds before going downstairs.
"See you later, Mum. Going to town to meet James. Should be back by about five.'
"Bye, Mark, and take care. Don't forget it's your turn to walk the dog this evening.'
"I won't. Where is he now?'
"In the garden, lying down at the fence last time I saw him.'
"Okay. See you later.' Mark shut the front door and made his way to the bus stop to catch the bus into town.