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December 08, 2004

Chapter Twelve

"Eeyow," Ralph said, after I stopped hollering. "That hurt. I would have been happy with a simple 'Welcome back.'"

"Joshua?" I asked.

"Of course," Ralph/Joshua said. "But I'm also Ralph now, too. Ralphua. Joshualph. Take your pick."

"Joshua," I said, "What have you done?"

"Tom, snap out of it," Joshua said, irritably. "It's obvious what I've done. Look, I'm a dog!" Joshua barked. "Convinced? Or do you want me to hump your leg?"

I know what you are," I said. "Now I want to know why you did it. I thought you liked Ralph. I thought he was your friend, Joshua. And now look what you've done." I gesticulated, looking for the right words. None came. I used the next best. "You ate him, Joshua!"

Joshua laughed, which sounded unbelievably bizarre coming from a dog. "I'm sorry, Tom," he said, finally. "Now I know what you're getting at. You make it sound like I was waiting for the right moment to body-snatch Ralph. It didn't happen that way. I told you before that the Yherajk don't do that sort of thing. Tom, Ralph was dying. And this was the only way to save him."

"I don't understand," I said.

"Well, if you promise not to yell at me anymore, I'll tell you. All right?"

"All right," I said.

"Good," Joshua said. Let's go into the living room. Could you do me the favor of getting me a beer?"


"A beer, Tom. You know. A brew. Oat soda. Suds. I don't have any tendrils to open things with anymore. And just because I'm a dog doesn't mean I couldn't use a drink every now and then. I'll meet you in the living room." He padded out. I went to get him a beer, a bowl to drink it out of, and a couple of aspirin for myself, and then joined him in the living room, taking a seat in my lounger.

I downed the aspirin, took a slug of the beer to chase them down, and put the rest of it in the bowl. Joshua lapped it up. I reached over to pet him, but then I stopped. It didn't seem appropriate anymore. You don't pet thinking things.

"That's better," Joshua said. "Thanks, Tom."

"You're welcome," I said. "Now, what happened out there?"

"Ralph had a heart attack," Joshua said, and I watched his mouth as he spoke. His mouth hung open as the words came out -- it was like he had swallowed a radio. "We were a couple of miles from here, going up a hillside. Ralph had been fine up until then. But on the way up the hill, I heard him give a little whimper. I looked back and he had collapsed. I went back to see if there was anything wrong, but I didn't see any cuts or bone breaks. So that's when I entered his brain, and found out he had a heart attack."

"How could you tell?"

"I could read where he was feeling pain," Joshua said. "His whole chest felt like it was being squeezed. Ralph was confused, of course; he's just a dog, after all. He didn't know what was going on."

"Why didn't you call me then?" I asked. "I would have come back and taken Ralph to the vet."

"Think about it, Tom," Joshua said. "You were in Venice Beach at the time, remember? By the time you got back here and hiked out to where we were, Ralph would have been long gone. And even if you had got back in time and had taken him to a vet, the vet would've just told you there was nothing to be done. And besides, he's not really your dog. You couldn't have done anything."

That stung. Joshua must have picked up on it. "I don't mean to imply that you had done anything wrong, Tom," he said, gently. "Just that there wasn't time. Even if there was, this was a better way. Ralph deserved better than to die on a vet table with strangers over him."

"So Ralph had a heart attack," I said, my voice slightly husky. "What did you do then?"

"The first thing I did was I cut off the pain," Joshua said. "I didn't want him feeling any pain. I also cut off his motor control, so he wouldn't go bounding off because he was feeling better. Then I sent a tendril into his chest to see how bad it was, and whether or not we could make it back to the house. As it turned out, it was pretty bad. Ralph was old and his heart was in bad shape.

"By this time, Ralph was pretty much out of it -- his little brain was blipping all over the place, Tom. I didn't want him to die, so I did two things. First I called your assistant and told her that we'd be late. And then I inhabited Ralph."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"Well, look at me," Joshua said.

"I mean, how it that different from Ralph just dying?" I said. "After all, it's not Ralph in there, Joshua. It's you."

"Not quite accurate," Joshua said. "All of Ralph's memories and feelings are still here. I distinctly remember being a dog and doing doggie things."

"But you're not Ralph," I said.

"No," Joshua admitted. "But on the other hand, Ralph didn't die. His personality just...melded into mine. From Ralph's point of view, he suddenly became a lot more intelligent. He's the dog with the 180 IQ. On my end, I now know the world from a dog's eye point of view. I, being Joshua, am obviously going to be dominant. But don't be surprised when I do something that reminds you of Ralph. It's all here, in one big package. Which is why I said, 'Ralphua.'"

"What did Ralph think of this, if you don't mind me asking?"

"He was good with it," Joshua said. "Though not in any way you'd understand. I basically let him know not to worry, and he basically let me know that he trusted me. Then he and I became we. Which then became me. And I'm pleased to be alive, so there you have it."

I leaned back in my chair. "This is making my head hurt."

"Have some more aspirin," Joshua suggested.

I looked back down at Joshua. He sat there like a typical retriever. "What did you do with your old body?" I asked. "Did you leave it up there on the hillside? Do we need to go find it and bury it or something?"

"Nope," Joshua said. "It's in here. Timesharing, as it were. Right now my old body is in Ralph's digestive system and in his blood vessels. He's not eating anything that I'm not eating, obviously, and my cells are doing the role of blood, transferring oxygen to his cells. See, look at my tongue," Joshua's doggie tongue rolled out, an albino sort of pink, "not nearly as red as it used to be. Anyway, this is only short term solution.-- controlling two bodies is a lot of work, even when I have my old body more or less on autopilot."

"What's the long term solution?"

"Well, eventually my cells will take the place of all his cells," Joshua said. "It's more efficient, especially since I won't have all these damned specialized organs to deal with. The only thing I'll need to be concerned with is maintaining my shape and appearance, which won't be that difficult. It'll take about a week."

"What happens to the old cells?" I asked.

"I digest them."

"Oh, man," I said. "You are eating him."

"Tom," Joshua said. "It's not nearly as gross as you think. And anyway, it needs to be done -- I can't keep controlling both bodies, and my Yherajk body is more flexible."

"And none of this," -- I waved my hands -- "conflicts with your 'don't take over other life forms' thinking."

"Hmmmm, well," Joshua said. "It's a borderline case. The limitation is 'sentient life forms'. We could argue whether or not Ralph, character though he was, truly qualified as sentient. Now, I think he was -- a low-grade variety, you know, but that's a matter of degree, not of kind. But I also feel that he gave me consent. Sort of. It's something that could be argued. But I don't feel wrong for having done it. Besides, I like being a dog. I marked every tree on the way here, you know. It's all my territory now."

"Good thing my cat's not still alive," I said "I think you and he may have had words about that."

"Hey, that reminds me," Joshua said. "Was your cat a striped tabby?"

"He was," I said. "Orange. Big."

"Don't know about the orange part, but I've got a memory of chasing a big tabby down the road a couple of years back and seeing it get squashed by a big truck." Joshua squinted, which is a funny look on a dog. "A Ford Explorer, it looks like."

"Great. Ralph is a cat murderer. Just what I needed."

"He was just playing around with the cat, Tom," Joshua said. "He felt really guilty about it afterwards."

I slapped my hands on my legs and stood up. "On that note, I'm going to get another beer. I think I could use it."

"Could you bring me another one, too?" Joshua asked. "Can't open one myself, you know."

"Now wait a minute," I said. "If you can't make tendrils anymore, how did you make the call earlier today?"

"The cel phone has a 'redial' button, Tom. And believe me, it was a pain in the ass to try to hit it."

"Where is the cel phone?" I asked.

"Uh...." Joshua hung his head. "I left it out on the hillside. Sorry. I didn't want to have to carry it in my mouth for two miles."

"Joshua, you're a retriever," I said. "That's what you do."

"That's what I did," Joshua said. "I'm in another line of work now."


The next morning, Joshua and I visited Carl.

"Well, isn't that just the most adorable puppy!" Carl's assistant Marcella said, leaning over her desk to look at Joshua.

"Only on the outside," I said.

"Why, Tom, what a terrible thing to say," Marcella said. "You know that dogs can pick up on what you're saying about them."

"I have no doubt whatsoever about that," I said. "Is Carl in? I'd like to speak to him, if he has a moment."

"He's in," Marcella said. "Let me see if he can see you." She motioned us over to the waiting area. As we sat, Joshua put his paw on my foot, our signal for when he had something he wanted to say to me. I leaned down, very close to his mouth. "What?" I whispered.

"I just want you to know, I'm having a rough time of things at the moment," Joshua said, his voice barely above a whisper itself. "My dog nature is getting the best of me."

"What do you mean?" I said.

"I mean I have this incredible urge to stick my nose in every crotch that goes by," Joshua said. "It's driving me insane."

"Try to control yourself," I said. "After this meeting I'll take you to the park and you can sniff some other dogs' butts. Good enough?"

"You're mocking me, aren't you," Joshua said.

"Maybe," I said.

"Tom?" Marcella looked over to us. "Carl will see you now." She crinkled a smile and wiggled her fingers at Joshua. Joshua surged, as if to make a beeline for her lap. I held him by his collar and dragged him into Carl's office. Carl was at his desk, glancing at a Hollywood Reporter. He set it down as I closed the door.

"Tom," Carl said, and then glanced down at Joshua. "Is this Joshua's friend?"

"Not exactly," I said, and turned to Joshua. "Say hello, Joshua."

"Hello, Joshua," Joshua said.

Carl was momentarily startled but recovered quite a bit quicker than I did. "Cute," he finally said.

"Thanks. I love that joke," Joshua said.

"Would one of you mind telling me how Joshua got in there?" Carl said.

"His dog friend was old and had a heart attack, and Joshua decided to inhabit the body," I said.

"I've also melded with the dog's personality," Joshua said.

Carl furrowed his brow. "You mean your personality is part dog?"

"If you throw a stick, will I not fetch?" Joshua intoned. "If you scratch my backside, will I not jerk my leg? if you show me a cat, will I not chase? Sorry, Tom."

"It's all right," I said.

"Tom, "Carl said, "I'm hoping this isn't your idea of how to bring our peoples together. Joshua appears happy to be a dog, but I don't think that's the form that we want the Yherajk to take for their grand debut."

"Believe me, it's not," I said. "But I think letting him be a dog for a while has some interesting aspects."

"Explain," Carl said.

"Well, for one thing, it finally allows him to interact with humans besides you and me," I said. "I can take him places now. He's not going to get the full human experience, to be sure, but he's going to see more of the place than he would trapped in my house all the time. And maybe the interaction will give us some ideas to go on for how we finally do introduce the Yherajk."

"Joshua?" Carl said.

"Being a dog isn't optimal for observation," Joshua said. "But it's better than what I was doing, which was watching cable television and going into online chat rooms. And I'm having fun. I am the Alpha Dog of the Universe. It doesn't get much better than that."

Carl turned his attention back to me. "What is your plan?"

"I don't have one at the moment," I said. "I thought I'd just take him places and let him look around. You know, be a professional dog walker for a while."

"He's good at it," Joshua volunteered, "and he needs the exercise."

"Quiet, you," Carl said to Joshua. Joshua immediately looked like a dog who knows he's taken a dump in the wrong place in the house. I never would have told Joshua to be quiet. But then, I'm not his dad.

"I can't have you wandering around with a dog," Carl said. "That Van Doren character is still floating around out there. We have to keep you busy." Carl thought for a few moments, then turned back to Joshua.

"Can you act?" Carl asked Joshua.

"I'm pretending to be a dog, aren't I?" Joshua said.

Carl buzzed Marcella. "Get me Albert Bowen, if you please, Marcella," he said, and clicked her off. He turned to me. "You have anything going on in the next few days?"

"Not really. I got Michelle Beck a reading for Hard Memories, but that's not until next week. Amanda's handling all the rest of my clients. I'm free," I said.

"Good," Carl said. "Albert Bowen and I went to college together. He's a vet and a trainer, and handles animal casting for commercials and television. Let's see what we can do with this."

Marcella's came over the speakerphone. "Albert Bowen holding for Carl Lupo," she said, and clicked off.

"Hey, Al," Carl said.

"Wolfman!" Bowen said on the other end. Carl twitched slightly at the nickname. College familiarity was probably the only reason Carl let him get away with it. "Haven't heard from you in a while, my friend. What can I do for you?"

"I got an interesting potential client, Al," Carl said. "Animal trainer from the Yukon Territory. Trains dogs. One of my agents did a trek up the Pacific coastline about a year ago and found this guy doing a show outside of Whitehorse. Smartest damned dogs you ever saw. The agent managed to convince the guy to ship one of the dogs down for a week, to see if they might have a future in commercials and films. I think they might, and if it works out, we're going to represent the trainer."

"The trainer shipped one of the dogs?" Bowen said. "He didn't come down himself?"

"Said he didn't need to. Sent the agent a manual with hand signs. Said that's all he'd need, the dog would understand. I told you these were smart dogs, Al."

"Hmmph. I'll have to see it before I believe it," Bowen said.

"Well, Al, that's my plan. I'm going to send the agent over with the dog. The agent's name is Tom Stein, and the dog's name is Joshua. You want to give the dog a looksee and tell me what you think? And if you can use him in any commercials over the next week or so, that'd be good with us. The trainer has given us free rein for this week only."

"Who is this guy?" Bowen said.

"Not going to say, Al," Carl said. "Company secret until we have a deal signed. But if you like what you see, I think we can work out an exclusive contract for your casting company. Work for you?"

"Hell, yes, Carl," Bowen said. "Have them come up today around one. We'll put the dog through the paces and I'll get back to you by tomorrow morning. You know where my ranch is?"

"Valencia, if I'm not mistaken," Carl said.

"Right you are," Bowen said. "take the Magic Mountain exit, go left, and head into the hills for five miles. Can't miss it. We'll be looking forward to seeing them." Carl and Bowen did their good-bye pleasantries and hung up.

"Yukon Territory? Whitehorse?" I said.

Carl smiled broadly. "I'd like to see anyone check up on that whopper," he said.


Al Bowen met us in the driveway of his ranch, clearly eager to meet Joshua. That is, until he saw him.

"This is the dog?" Bowen said, after we made our introductions. It was clear that he didn't think Joshua was any great prize. But the same could be said of him; Al Bowen was one of those guys who looked like he had spent far too much of his life being a roadie for the Grateful Dead.

"That's him," I said. "He's really more intelligent than he looks."

"I hope so," Bowen said, and knelt down. "He's not a biter, is he?"

"Not that I know of," I said.

Bowen held out his hand to let Joshua sniff him. Joshua declined. Bowen took hold of Joshua's snout and took at look at his gums, then felt down Joshua's body.

"How old is this dog?" He finally asked.

"Eight years, I think," I said.

Bowen snorted. "He's twice that if he's a year, Tom," he said, straightening up. "I have to tell you, if Carl hadn't vouched for this animal, I'd turn you around right now. Come on, let's go this way." He led us past the ranch house, into the back.

"Nice place you've got here," I said.

"Thanks," Bowen said. "It's nothing big, just a couple thousand acres. Family land, you know. Been in the family since the 1800s. Thought I might have to sell it in the 70s, but then I got my vet degree and started doing this. Pays the bills. Got quite a menagerie here -- dogs, cats, pigs, horses, even some llamas. We had a herd of cattle we'd rent out for stampede scenes, but there's not much call for that recently. Had to turn most of them into cat food." We stopped at an enclosed yard that looked like an obstacle course.

"What is this?"

"Well, this is a training track," Bowen said. "If we want to have an animal do something complicated, like run through a house and open a window, we'll sort of create that here and run them through it until it gets hardwired into their brains. I figure that dog of yours has a repertoire of tricks. Tell me what they are, and we'll set up the track and run him through a couple."

"That's not the way he was trained," I said.

Bowen looked at me like I was a bad peyote flashback. "What do you mean?" he said.

"Well, as I understand it, he's sort of trained the other way. Set up the track the way you want it, and tell him what to do, and he'll do it." I was making all this up, and this sounded reasonable to me.

But apparently it didn't sound that way to Bowen. "Look, Tom," he said. "I don't know what fool chase Carl has you running, or if you've pulled a fast one on Carl. But every dog has to be trained for specific tasks. I love and respect dogs, but even the smartest ones can't just be told to do something brand new and then do it. That's just not the way their brains work."

"Mr. Bowen, before you say it can't be done, why don't we try it first?" I said. "I think you'll be surprised."

Bowen looked irritated, and then he laughed. "Fine, then," he said. "Give me a minute to prepare the track." He went into the enclosed area and began moving things around.

"'Is he a biter'," Joshua said, under his breath. "I almost nipped off his nose, just for that one."

"Behave yourself, Joshua," I said. "You think you can handle this?"

"Deep in my bowels of my intellect, I have the knowledge necessary to pilot an interstellar spacecraft," Joshua said. "I think I should be sufficiently competent to walk and jump."

"No need to get testy," I said.

"Sorry," Joshua said. "Personally, I think I'm a fine dog. Remind me to pee on this guy's shoes before we go."

Bowen came back to our side of the enclosure and opened it to let us through.

"Let me walk you through this," he said.

"You can just tell me," I said. "That should be fine."

Bowen smirked. "All right, then. Here's what I want. I want your dog to leap over that plastic fence over there, come back around this way to this" -- he motioned to a window with a shade on it -- "and grab the blind string in his mouth to open the blind. Finally, I want him to go all the way back there" -- He pointed to what looked like a kid's playhouse -- "there's a doorbell button on the right side of the door that he should be able to press. Have him press it, turn around, sit, and bark back at us."

"Is that all?" I said.

"Son," Bowen said. "It would take the better part of a year for a dog to learn something this complicated. If your dog can get just one of these things on the first try, he qualifies as the smartest dog in the history of dogs."

"Joshua," I snapped my fingers as if to make him heel. He sauntered over and sat, looking at me. I pointed to the plastic fence.

"Jump!" I said. I then moved my arm over to the blind.

"Pull!" I said. I then moved my arm over to the playhouse doorbell.

"Press!" I said. I then made a spinning motion with my hand, and mimed my hand sitting.

"Bark!" I said.

Joshua shot me a look that clearly said, give me a fucking break.

"Go!" I said. He sprinted off.

"Mary mother of God in a lobster bib," Al Bowen said, roughly twenty seconds later.

"I thought he was a little sloppy about the blinds," I said. They were, in fact, slightly crooked.

"Listen," Bowen said. "I've got a Mighty Dog commercial scheduled here for the day after tomorrow. Tell me you can make it."

"Sure," I said.

"We start shooting at 10:30," Bowen said. "Try to be here by 7. This is smartest dog I've ever seen in my life, but he's still going to need a lot of grooming work." He shook his head and walked away.

Joshua walked up. "Well?" he said.

"You're going to be in a Mighty Dog commercial," I said.

"Well, all right, then," Joshua said. "I would hate to be associated with anything that wasn't 100% pure beef, you know."

Posted by john at December 8, 2004 11:12 PM