Disclaimer: Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings: Sex and love between women
Feedback: Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Series: This follows my other stories 'Strays' and 'Wolf in Sheep's Clothing.' They're all part of a larger series with the overall title "Underdogs."
Dog with Two Bones
Copyright © 2010 Geonn Cannon
Ari shuddered as she stepped out of the restaurant. She took off her jacket and turned to block the wind as she held the jacket out to her date. The night was quiet and the street was mostly deserted. It was the first Monday of the new year, so even the hardest of partiers had gone back home to sleep off their hangovers. "Here. It must have dropped ten degrees while we were inside."
Gina Lansdowne smiled and accepted the chivalry, letting it drape over her shoulders as she held the lapels together with one hand. "Thanks. We probably should have left when the waiters started checking their watches."
The windows of the restaurant went dark behind them, the waiter who had followed them to the door turning the sign to 'closed' before retreating back to finally bus their table. "Hey, it took long enough to get this date in the first place. I didn't want to end it before I was guaranteed a second."
"Well, you're definitely getting a second date," Gina said.
Gina pressed against Ari's side, and Ari put an arm around her. Gina's apartment was just down the street, the reason she had picked the restaurant in the first place, and Ari escorted her to the front door of the building. She was wearing a white blouse with gold embroidery, and a pair of black slacks. The cold was rough without her jacket, but she'd been naked in worse weather.
"So what pushed me over the edge?" Ari said. "It's been two weeks since we met at your office; why did you finally decide to give me a call?"
Gina said, "My boss was pretty pissed about those papers you served him with. So he started taking it out on me, piling on work and badmouthing my coffee. You know, nothing enough to make me quit, but still a hassle. I didn't want to risk associating you with the ton of work I was buried under. But I got a week off for Christmas and New Years, and I had some free time to disassociate you from work, and voila..."
"Wow," Ari said. "You had to disassociate?"
"That's the word my shrink uses." Gina winced and put her free hand over her eyes. "And now you know I see a shrink. God. Three hours at dinner without mentioning it and I screw up on the walk home."
Ari laughed. "Don't worry. We all have skeletons in our closets."
Ari's smile faded slightly, but she recovered quickly. "Where would be the fun in just telling you? Besides, we need something to discuss on our second date."
Gina pointed out the front stoop of her building, and Ari went up onto the second step to let the building act as a windbreak. Gina leaned against the brick, and Ari turned so they could face each other. "I am glad you called."
"Me too," Gina said.
Her eyes dipped to Ari's lips, and Ari took the invitation. She leaned in and warmed Gina's lips with a gentle breath before they kissed. Ari's hands slipped under Gina's borrowed coat, meeting in the middle of her back. Gina put her hands on Ari's shoulders and pushed them back until they were covered by Ari's dark hair. Ari teased Gina's lips with her tongue before she pulled back, opening her eyes as Gina flattened her palm against the back of her head. Gina's eyes were still closed, her lips slightly parted.
Ari smiled. "Sorry. I always kiss on a first date."
"Good rule," Gina said. "Want to come up for some coffee?"
"If I say yes, do I actually have to drink some?"
Gina opened the door to the vestibule. "Don't worry. I don't really have any coffee."
Ari pressed Gina against the wall just inside the apartment, kissing her again as Gina pushed the door shut. She only got the barest inkling of what the rest of the apartment was like; the entry way opened onto the living room, where two windows looked out over a street lamp that turned everything on this side of the glass pale yellow. She got the impression of silhouetted furniture, but that was all she noticed before she closed her eyes to kiss Gina again.
"Bedroom?" Ari said, pushing her coat off of Gina's shoulders. Gina was wearing a sleeveless red dress, and Ari ran her palms over her bare arms as they moved across the space.
"Left," Gina said, pointing in the right general direction. She pushed away from the wall and pulled Ari with her as she moved. It was too awkward to walk while kissing, so Ari settled for holding Gina's hand so she could be guided to the bedroom. "Watch out for the table there."
Ari stepped wide, and Gina pushed open a sliding door that seemed to double the size of the living room. She stepped forward and kissed Ari again, and they fell into the bedroom with the grace of two leaves caught in an updraft. They hit the bed with Ari on top, and she straddled Gina as their kiss deepened. Gina sucked the tip of Ari's tongue when she tried to retreat, and Ari groaned as she reluctantly sat up.
Gina put her hands under Ari's shirt, stroking her stomach as Ari quickly undid the buttons of her blouse and let it fall. Gina sat up, moving her hands around to the small of Ari's back, and kissed her chest. Ari closed her eyes and wrapped her arms around Gina's head, her heart pounding as Gina's lips traced the lacy cups of her bra. Gina moved her fingers up and found the clasp, undoing it in seconds and leaning back just long enough to pull it away. She attacked again, lips closing around Ari's nipple and sucking gently.
"Oh, God, Gina..."
"Better than coffee, huh?" Gina whispered as she ran her tongue along the curve of Ari's breast.
"Any day of the week," Ari said breathlessly. She ran her hand down Gina's back until she found the zipper on her dress. She bowed her head and kissed Gina's shoulder as she pushed the strap down and off, moving her lips to Gina's neck. Gina moaned and pressed her face against Ari's shoulder.
"Wait, wait," Gina gasped. She moved, lowering Ari to the mattress and kissing her before rising. "Don't move. Just... l-let me..." She pushed the strap off her other shoulder and then let it fall. She stepped out of the dress, looked across the room, and said, "Music... we should play some music..."
"I don't care," Ari said, propped up on her elbows. She was distracted by Gina's flat stomach. "C'mere."
"No, we need music," Gina said. "Thin walls. Neighbors..."
"Hurry, then," Ari said. When Gina went across the room, Ari unfastened her slacks and pushed them down. She had just kicked them off when Gina returned, and a song by Kings of Leon was playing just loud enough to drown out any sounds they might make. Ari was sitting on the edge of the bed, and Gina stepped between her spread legs and leaned in to kiss her. Ari put her arms around Gina and pulled her forward, lying back on the mattress. She ran two fingers down the line of Gina's spine, and Gina shivered as Ari popped the catch on her bra.
Gina pushed herself up and Ari pulled her bra away. Gina hunched her shoulders, and her hair fell into her face as she brought one hand up to her mouth. She sucked them into her mouth, getting them wet before she brushed her palm down Ari's stomach to her underwear. Ari brought her left foot up and placed it on the edge of the bed, swinging her knee out to give Gina more room. She closed her eyes as Gina's hand pushed into her underwear and began to move against her sex. Two fingers, working in slow circles, and Ari arched her back. She bit her bottom lip and rolled her hips in a counterpoint to Gina's touches, both of them breathing heavily under the heavy rock music coming from the radio.
Ari didn't like having the music; she wanted to hear Gina's breathing. She pressed her hand to Gina's chest, cupping one full breast in her hand as Gina slipped one finger inside of her. She lifted her foot and hooked her leg against Gina's side, sighing as a second finger joined the first. Gina leaned down to rest her forehead against Ari's, close enough to look into her eyes if Ari could keep them open longer than a few seconds. Ari felt the skin of her face and chest growing hot, and she lifted her head to kiss Gina hungrily as her muscles tightened around Gina's twisting fingers.
"Are you coming?" Gina asked, and Ari could only nod. "Faster or slower?"
"Faster," Ari gasped, and Gina began to thrust hard. Ari cried out, trembling violently as she was pushed over the edge, grasping Gina's arm and holding it in place as she came. She put her arm around Gina's neck, pulling her down as she fell back to the mattress. The blankets and sheets were tangled underneath her, and she kissed Gina passionately as she explored the curves and plains of her body.
Kings of Leon were still singing as Ari rolled them over, settling on top of Gina's body. She broke the kiss and hooked her thumbs in the waistband of Gina's panties. "We definitely wasted too much time at the restaurant," she said with a devious grin. She slid down, kissing Gina's breasts and stomach as she moved lower. She pushed the flimsy underwear down and Gina lifted her legs so Ari could take them all the way off.
Ari pushed Gina's legs apart, wet her lips with a pass of her tongue, and looked into Gina's eyes as she lowered her head. First a kiss to the thighs, and then brushing her lips through the thin patch of dark hair between her legs. She kept her eyes locked on Gina's as much as possible, her hands on Gina's thighs, and Gina reached down and laced their fingers together as Ari finally opened her mouth and let her tongue explore.
Gina guided Ari by squeezing her hand, sighing and arching her back, using her body as a rudder guiding a sailboat on a gentle sea. Ari accepted the gentle instruction and soon Gina was rocking her lower body against her lips. Ari squeezed Gina's hand, her tongue withdrawing to flick against the erect bud of Gina's clitoris. She sucked it into her mouth, and Gina cried out and pressed herself hard against Ari's mouth.
When Gina was lying limp on the mattress, Ari kissed her way back up her body. Their lips met, and Gina wrapped her legs possessively around Ari.
"It's been a while," Ari said breathlessly. "How'd I do?"
Gina brushed her nose against Ari's cheek. "A-plus. Plus, plus, plus, plus."
Ari grinned and trailed her hand down Gina's breast. "Can I still go for extra credit?"
Gina's eyes were closed, her face flush, but she smiled. "Show me what you got."
Ari liked sleeping in other people's beds. Gina was curled up on the other side of the bed, having slipped into a doze after her third orgasm. Ari lay next to her, lightly stroking Gina's back as she stared at the ceiling. She was still naked and wrapped only in the sheet, but she wasn't cold. Being in someone else's bed was like being in a hotel room, only better. It was a chance to see how someone else lived. This was the spot where Gina Lansdowne spent her nights. This was the first place she was when she woke in the morning.
Gina rolled over, mumbled something, and then sat up quickly. "Hell."
"Hey," Ari whispered, and Gina twisted at the waist to look at her. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah. Ariadne, right." She cleared her throat and pushed her hair out of her face. "Sorry. I... weird dream, or something. Sorry. I'm just going to get some water. Want anything?"
Gina threw back the blankets and got out of bed. She found a thin robe draped over the arm of the chair in the corner, pulled it on, and shuffled out of the bedroom.
Ari saw a dim light come on in the kitchen, heard water pouring from a pitcher. A few minutes later, the light went off and Gina came back into the bedroom.
"Should I go?" Ari asked.
"No," Gina said. She took off her robe and crawled back under the blankets. "I think I'm done for the night, but stay. Until morning, please."
"Okay," Ari said. She put her arms around Gina and drew her close, letting Gina lay her head against her chest. She stroked Gina's hair until she fell asleep, and Ari dozed off a few minutes later.
The next morning, Ari woke as Gina was already out of bed and getting dressed. She sat up, pushed her hair out of her face, and blinked as she watched Gina put on a white blouse with a wide collar. "Thought you were still off for the holiday," Ari said.
Gina turned and smiled. "I am. Morning." She knelt on the edge of the bed and leaned forward to kiss Ari. Ari, aware of her morning breath, offered the corner of her closed mouth until she could get acquainted with some toothpaste. "I need to run some errands, and I prefer to get them out of the way in the morning so I have the day free. You're welcome to crash for a little bit if you want..."
Ari was shaking her head. "No. I should probably go to work. If I could borrow your shower, it would be great."
"Of course. Bathroom is right in there, and the towels are under the sink."
"I won't take long," Ari said. She wrapped the sheet around herself as she climbed out of bed. She was nearly to the bathroom door when Gina stopped her.
"I'm not much of a cook, but breakfast is pretty hard to screw up. I have eggs and stuff, oatmeal, toast. Well, I mean, I have bread. But I can make it into toast."
Ari laughed. "That would be great. Whatever you're having would be great."
Gina nodded, smiled, and Ari went into the bathroom and found the towels where Gina said. She was used to her building and the hot water that ran out after three minutes, so she luxuriated as she washed her hair and washed off the sweat from the night before. She was sore in several places where she hadn't been sore in a while, and she smiled as she let the shower massage the aches away. Her last 'night out' had been six months earlier, right before she broke up with Diana Rios.
Relationships sucked with a secret as big as Ari's. "I'm a canidae and I spend a large amount of time as a four-legged wolf" wasn't exactly a first-date kind of conversation. Then it became a matter of trying to decide when to break the news; if she waited too long, it was a bomb dropped in the middle of the relationship. If she revealed it too early, she risked running off a potential girlfriend.
And then there were the varying reactions to the news. She'd received the entire gamut, from the religious nut who tried to exorcise her to the woman whose eyes had sparkled as she started talking about collars they could buy. Ari admitted she had been a pet in her life, during a sad and desperate time during her teens, but she would never go that route again.
She washed her hair and stepped out of the bath. There was a robe hanging on the back of the door and she slipped into it to get her clothes from the bedroom. She dressed quickly and took the opportunity to examine the apartment. The bedroom was separated from the rest of the apartment by a sliding partition, which Gina had decorated with prints of sailboats. The living room and the kitchen were all part of the same space, and Gina looked up as Ari came into the main room.
"Hey. Your breakfast is right there."
"Thanks," Ari said. She picked up her plate and sat at the short counter between the kitchen and the couch. She picked up a piece of bacon, perfectly crisp, and took a bite. "Your shower is amazing."
"I'm pretty fond of it." She bit her bottom lip and leaned against the counter. "I'm never exactly sure when to bring this up. Last night obviously went pretty well."
Ari raised an eyebrow. "It went really well. A couple of times."
Gina blushed and tucked her hair behind her ear. "So. Uh... I-I guess a second date won't be out of the question?"
Ari finished chewing her bacon, wiped her hand on a napkin, and stood up. She cupped her back of Gina's head and pulled her forward for a slow kiss.
When they parted, Ari said, "I'm free on Saturday."
"Saturday would be good."
Ari smiled and sat down to finish her breakfast. She watched Gina turn back to the stove, running her eyes down Gina's body. If their second date went as well as the first, she could see herself revealing her deep dark secret much quicker than usual. She just hoped Gina didn't hear the news and run away.
Dale leaned back in her chair and tapped her bottom lip with the end of her pen. "Can I play detective for a second?"
"Sure," Ari said. She put down the take-out bag as she took off her coat.
Dale stood up, smoothing down her skirt as she rounded the edge of the desk. She crossed her arms and looked Ari over. "You're wearing a blouse that is far too nice for work. It's beautiful, by the way."
"You have breakfast from McDonalds, but it's a small sack. Only one breakfast. And you wouldn't buy something just for yourself, so it must be for me as a peace offering. I can only deduce that you're bailing on the movie this weekend."
Ari said, "Damn, you're good."
"I do work with a private detective," Dale said. She took the bag and looked inside to see what she was being bribed with.
"Are we good?"
"I didn't finish my deducing," Dale said. "You're bailing on the movies because you have other plans. That can only mean you have a date, which means that last night's date went really well. And that brings us back to the fact you're wearing the same outfit you wore on last night's date. Gina the secretary?"
"Gina Lansdowne," Ari said. "How'd you like it if people called you Dale the secretary?"
"Sometimes I request that. If we're doing a role play thing." Dale went back to her chair and sat down. Ari took the client seat in the waiting area as Dale unwrapped her breakfast biscuit. "You think she's worthy of the secret?"
Ari grunted and shook her head. "I don't know. She's worthy of a second date, at least. I'll make a decision about it sometime during the third date."
"Must be tough. Trying to decide if someone is capable of handling the truth on top of everything else you have to figure out at the start of a relationship."
Ari held her hands out palm-up. "It's my lot in life. What have we got on the docket?"
Dale picked up a handful of memo sheets as she took a bite of her biscuit. Ari took the stack and looked through them. "You could have just said 'nothing but bills.' Geez. I hate this stuff."
"You like electricity, don't you?"
"Eh," Ari said.
"That last one is a potential job. Emerald City Storage is going to shut down soon, so the past two weeks they've been having people come in and clear out their units. Turns out, a bunch of stuff has shown up missing. They hired some security guards to watch the place, but they haven't seen anything. The owner thinks it might be an inside job, so he wants to us keep an eye on things without making our presence known."
Ari nodded. "Think we can knock that out before Saturday?"
"If we start tonight, that'll give us four days to tackle it. Shouldn't be too hard." She put the Emerald City notice down to deal with later, and rested her chin on one hand. "So. Where are you taking Ms. Lansdowne on your second date?"
"We didn't talk about that. I'll give her a couple of days to call me with an idea before I come up with one on my own."
Dale shrugged. "I bought the movie tickets online, so they're not refundable. If push comes to shove, you can take those and reimburse me."
"You're a princess, Dale."
"And don't you forget it."
Ari stood up and waved the bills to show she was going to take care of them as she went into her office. Dale smiled and popped the rest of the biscuit into her mouth, turning toward her computer.
Emerald City Storage was the last storage facility on a road that had five other warehouses. They advertised their prices on the side of the building that faced the highway. Dale drove down the access road that led to the back of the property, and parked on a stretch of gravel that stood between the chain link fence and an overgrown patch of brush. She turned on the car's dome light and turned to face Ari. "You have everything you need?"
Ari picked up her bag off the floor and unzipped it. There was a change of clothes, if she needed to make a quick getaway on two feet, a flashlight, energy bars, and a first-aid kit. Her cell phone was tucked into the pocket of her folded pants. "Yeah, looks like it. You'll be around?"
"You call, I'll be back here in under five minutes."
"All right," Ari said. She opened the door and stepped outside. She shuddered in the burst of cold air and took off her trenchcoat, standing naked under the harsh security light at the back corner of the property. She put the coat on the passenger seat she'd just vacated and took her bag. She hooked it on her shoulder and said, "Okay. See you in the morning, if not before."
"I'll be fine," Ari said. "I'll have my fur coat on." She winked and shut the car door, stepping away so Dale could back up and drive back to the road.
Once she was alone, Ari stuck her emergency bag in the corner of the fence, where it would be protected from the wind and any stray animals that were wandering around in the brush. She stretched and closed her eyes, rolled her neck, and let the change come over her. She hadn't changed in over a week, since before Christmas. Her marathon of transformations during the Jordan Hawkins case had left her feeling weak, like she'd taken a nap on the Indy 500 track.
Her bones cracked, and she clenched her teeth to keep from crying out as her body was reformed. Hair sprouted from her skin, and she dropped to all fours just as her fingers contracted back against her palm to form paws.
The part of her consciousness she called her "dog brain" was strong, and it took an effort to push past it and focus on her job. There was a myriad of interesting smells around her, coming from the trees and brush that backed up against the property. There was a raccoon in there somewhere, and Ari itched to chase it. But instead she focused on the fence. There was a way in. That was why Dale had dropped her here. They planned it all out. If she could only remember.
It's been too long. The dog brain is trying to take over. Can't let it.
There was a gap between two sections of fence, and Ari slipped through it. The storage units were set up in five identical buildings, slanted at a forty-five degree angle so their doors couldn't easily be seen from the street. There were two other buildings, a front office and a garage, at the front of the property. Ari stayed near the fence and trotted south. Her nails clacked on the pavement, and she thought about getting another manicure. What was the point if she was just going to tap them against concrete?
Her mind decided to focus on Gina. How would she answer if Gina asked how work was? Oh, fine. I spent the night as a wolf wandering a storage unit that may or may not get robbed. How was your week?
The garage was where unit owners were allowed to keep their cars. Ari made her way over to that section, lifting her head to look at the cameras she passed. They were mounted on the corners of each building, turned to look down the wide aisles. The way the cameras were set up, security would have four different angles of someone trying to break into any of the units.
According to the man who called, eight units had been broken into over the course of two weeks, and the cameras hadn't seen anything. Now that she'd seen the set-up, Ari had to admit an inside job was looking like the most likely explanation. She walked past the garage, looking at the cars covered by tarps in a variety of colors. There was a light on in the front office, so she headed in that direction.
She walked around to the front of the office where a large window looked toward the facility's main entrance. The blinds were open, and Ari stood on her hind legs with her front paws on the sill so she could take a peek inside. A tall, balding man sat behind the desk, a telephone receiver pinned between his ear and shoulder. The glow of the computer screen reflected in his glasses, making it look like he had flickering round lights in place of his eyes. As he spoke, he reached over and shut off the computer monitor, then reached for the lamp.
Ari dropped back to the pavement and moved to a spot where she couldn't be seen. The manager stepped outside, locked the door, and rattled the handle before he walked to the employee parking area. His VW bug was the only car left under the awning, so Ari stayed out of sight until he drove out to the main road. He parked just long enough to go back and lock the gate behind him. He tested the chain, looked through the gate one last time, and went back to his car.
Alone, Ari stretched and looked around the property. Even if the thief was someone on-staff, she doubted they would use the front entrance for their nocturnal activities. She picked a direction at random and began walking her rounds.
All dogs can't go to heaven, because dogs are violent racists. Ari had come to the conclusion after one of her first nights spent in her wolf form. Her transformed mind was a complex thing, a mixture of wolf and dog and human, and she'd never been able to quite pinpoint what was the predominant. She knew that physically she could pass for a domestic pet, but she was technically a wolf. But it became apparent whenever the dog took over.
The racist part came in whenever a cat was in the picture. It didn't have to be doing anything wrong, it didn't have to be trespassing on a dog's property, it just had to be feline. Ari had nothing against cats when she was human, but once the wolf took over, she felt a deep-seated hatred toward anything that meowed.
She had stretched out in the garage to doze, sure that anyone breaking in would cause enough noise to wake her up. The next thing she knew, she was wide awake and running across the pavement like her life depended on it. She was snarling, a bark caught in her throat and coming out only as a low growl.
The small yellow cat she was pursuing leapt for the fence. It landed on the top bar with the precision of an acrobat, hovering underneath the first coil of barbed wire, looked over its shoulder, and leapt for the ground on the other side. It landed with a sort of harsh grace; a thick thump followed by an immediate dash toward the trees.
Ari hit the fence, her bark finally coming through loud and clear as she paced along the inside of the fence. She didn't know what she planned to do with the cat, or what the cat had done to prompt the chase. It had probably come within ten feet of her, which called for the death penalty in her dog brain.
The prey didn't have to do anything wrong, it just had to be a feline. Racist.
With the cat gone and her human brain more fully awake, she was able to push down the rage and fury to focus on her job. She patrolled the grounds again, wondering where Dale was. When Ari had to be somewhere all night, Dale liked to make sure she was available for a potential rescue. There was an all-night diner not far from the storage facility. Maybe she was having some coffee and reading the information from the customers who'd had stuff stolen from the facility so far. It would be nice if there was some kind of pattern to the thefts.
Ari's mind made the natural progression from Dale to Gina. As late as it was, she was probably already in bed. Ari really liked Gina. If their date had ended at dinner, she would have still considered it a success. Gina was smart, funny, a bit shy, self-deprecating. She sometimes apologized for things that she had no control over - the temperature of the restaurant or the slowness of the waiter - but that could be chalked up to first date jitters.
Ari was terrified of her secret. It was like disclosing that she had a disease or a bizarre fetish. There was a very small window of opportunity where she could reveal it without causing drama, and she'd pushed the limits of that window several times in the past. She didn't want to lose Gina, but she also didn't want to lie to her. She would have to use their second date to feel her out and try to gauge how she would react to the truth.
She found a spot where she could see the front gate and the access road Dale had taken to drop Ari off. She sat down, determined not to let her dog brain take over again if the cat made a return appearance, and settled down for a long night of boredom.
The next morning, Dale picked up a shivering and exhausted Ari with a steaming cup of coffee already waiting for her in the cup holder. She was dressed in the clothes from her emergency pack, and she asked Dale to drop her at home so she could change into something more professional. She also wanted to grab a few minutes of sleep before going back into the office. The entire night had been a bust, so she would have to do it all over again that night. The thought made her want to cry.
She stretched out on the couch, blessing the creation of the cushion after a night on pavement, and was asleep before she could fold the pillow under her head.
Her nap was cut short by a soft knock on the door. She frowned as she reluctantly unfolded from the couch, confused by how quiet the knock was. It sounded as if whoever was on the other side was only knocking out of courtesy and hoping against hope it wouldn't be heard so they could leave without seeing her. She pushed her hair out of her face and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror next to the door. She was still wearing the sweats from her emergency pack, and her face was creased from the couch cushion.
"Coming," she said. "Hold on."
She unlocked the door as she looked through the peephole. Her mood brightened considerably, and she pulled the door open with a smile. "Gina, hey."
"Ari? Are you okay?"
"Fine. Tired. I didn't get much sleep last night." She reached out and brushed her finger over the back of Gina's hand. "Or the night before."
Gina smiled and dipped her chin, smiling bashfully. "I was a little worried. I tried calling you a couple of times last night and you never answered."
Ari looked over her shoulder at her cell phone. She hadn't even checked it for voicemail. "Oh, sorry. I was on a job last night. Is everything okay?"
"Oh, yeah. Everything's fine. I just... missed you last night." She bit her bottom lip. "I was wondering if you wanted to come over."
Ari winced. "Normally, I'd be all over that. But I've literally gotten about five minutes of sleep--"
"No, no," Gina said. "I meant that's why I was calling. I have to go in to work today. But it's good to know we have a rain check."
Ari smiled. "Thanks for coming to check on me."
"It was on the way. I hope you sleep well."
"Thanks," Ari said. "Tonight's probably going to be another long one. I'll call you before I turn off my phone to say goodnight."
"I'd really like that. Well... I should go." She started to step forward, but stopped herself at the last second.
Ari took the initiative and stepped out of her apartment. She put her hand on Gina's shoulder to keep her from retreating and kissed her. "Thank you for coming over. I'm sure I'll have sweet dreams now."
Gina blushed. "Okay. I'll call you later?"
Ari nodded. "Yeah." She waited until Gina was down the stairs before she returned to her apartment and shut the door. She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. Gina was sweet, kind, beautiful, and the kind of person Ari could see herself falling for. But those qualities also indicated she wouldn't be able to handle Ari's secret. She ran her hand through her hair, grunted, and decided to deal with the problem when she had gotten a bit more sleep.
Ari winced, shrugging out of her jacket as she came into the office. She waved to Dale, who rolled her eyes in response and gestured at the phone. Ari felt bad for her; 'sir' meant boss. She avoided jobs with bosses, which is why she'd jumped on the idea of the agency. Unfortunately, no one ever told her that sometimes the private investigator's client became the boss. This sounded like one of those times.
"I understand that," Dale continued. "But we've had the facility under observation for the past three nights. We have no idea when the thefts occurred. Whoever was breaking in may have gotten everything they needed. No, I don't think... no. I don't think we scared him off. I can assure you, no one has seen our stake-out. Has your manager mentioned seeing us?" She sighed and mimicked choking someone with her free hand. "I assure you, we are there..."
Ari took pity. She held out her hand, and Dale closed her eyes in relief.
"Mr. Kozak, my boss just walked in and if you'd like to have a word with h-- yes, she's right here."
"Mr. Kozak? Ariadne Willow. What seems to be the problem?"
"The problem is that I seem to be paying you a nightly fee, when it appears you're doing nothing."
"My associate assured you that we've been on-site every night this week, Mr. Kozak. If you'd like us to make a spectacle of ourselves and scare away the potential thief, we'd be more than happy--"
He scoffed loudly. "It would be so easy for you to just say you're watching and then going home and sleeping while my tab runs up."
Ari rolled her eyes. "I'll skip the fact you're calling us liars and cheats and assure you that isn't the case. Your manager leaves the premises every night between 9:05 and 9:18. He drives a green Volkswagen and he hums to himself when he locks the gate. There's a yellow cat that likes to get in and harass the stray dog that's been hanging around your property."
"You are harassing it," Dale hissed.
Ari waved a hand to keep her quiet.
Dale gave in, but shook her head and muttered, "That poor kitty."
"You have sixty-five units, thirty-eight of which are currently rented. The garage has eight cars in it. I haven't had a chance to look under their tarps, but if you'd like a list of their makes and models, I'd be more than happy to--"
"No," Kozak said reluctantly. "All right. Fine. But if you don't bring me solid information on this damn thief by the end of the weekend, I'll be forced to release you from the case."
"That would be fine, Mr. Kozak. We'll be back at the job tomorrow night, and Sunday if we have to. Unfortunately, not finding anything is not a reason--"
"I know!" he snapped. "You'll be paid for your time, don't... You'll be paid."
"Thank you, Mr. Kozak. Happy n--" The sound of the call being disconnected cut her off, and she shrugged as she handed the phone back to Dale. "Happy new year. Sorry you have to deal with guys like that."
"You spend a week sleeping on the pavement, I talk to jerks like Guy Kovak. I mean, Guy? Why not just name your kid Boy? Are they pushing him to grow up to be a used car salesman?"
"I was going to say game show host."
"Either way," Dale muttered. "Thank you for taking care of him."
Ari nodded and went into her office. Dale followed. "No problem. Anything come up this morning?" A side effect of her surveillance meant that she had started sleeping away her mornings and coming in to work sometime in the afternoon. It made her days feel almost unbearably lopsided.
"We got a check from the woman who hired you to find her ring. With a nice little bonus for getting it back to her before her big party."
"I like bonuses," Ari said. "Straight to bills?"
"Straight to the bills," Dale said. "But with a little left over for a change."
Ari feigned shock. "Profit?"
"Something very similar to it, at any rate."
Ari smiled and went behind her desk.
Dale walked to the couch Ari sometimes used as a bed and sat down. "Oh. And Gina called."
"Shit," Ari said. She squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the bridge of her nose.
"You can't keep avoiding her, Ari. And you just promised Kozak we'd be working tomorrow night if the thief doesn't strike tonight. Wasn't that supposed to be your second date?"
"Yeah," Ari said.
"I thought you guys had a good thing going. The first date and those first few days--"
"It was great," Ari said. "It's borderline great. She's wonderful. But the things that make me want to keep seeing her are the same reasons I don't think she can handle the wolf."
Dale pressed her lips together and dipped her chin. "So what are you going to do? You can't just lead her on."
"I know," Ari said. She sat down and looked at her blank computer screen. "I'll call her tonight, set up a lunch date. I'll break it off with her then."
"Are you sure?" Dale said. "You seem to really like her. Maybe give it a few dates and--"
"Love me, love my dog," Ari said. "If I wait too long, it'll be a brick wall. We'll slam into it and never recover."
Dale rubbed her hands together. "Ari, when I was twenty, I dated a girl with HIV. She told me on the first date. We worked around it. We made it work."
"This isn't the same thing."
"It's a secret about a big part of who you are. It's something that will affect your entire relationship with this woman. I think it's similar."
Ari waved her hand for Dale to continue.
"We worked it out, and we dated for a year. And yeah, it ended up not working out, but it was fun while it lasted. I wouldn't trade that for anything. Don't use the wolf as an excuse to get out of the relationship. If you like Gina, if you think it's going somewhere, you deserve to give it a shot. You deserve to give her a chance to accept you for who you are. She might surprise you."
Ari nodded slowly, and the phone started to ring in the front office.
Dale rolled her eyes and pushed herself up, reluctantly going to answer it. "God, if this is that damn Kozak again..."
"Dale." She stopped at the door and turned to face Ari. "Thank you for being here for me."
Dale smiled and saluted. "All part of the job, boss."
Ari leaned back in her chair and looked at the big clock hanging on the wall. The second hand made a complete revolution, and she decided there was no point in putting it off any longer. She would call Gina, move their date to the afternoon, and prepare for one of the most difficult conversations she'd ever been a part of.
I know this is going to be hard to believe, but from time to time, I can become a wolf. Do you want me to show you?
She would almost rather have the break-up conversation. At least then she could be reasonably assured of what Gina's reaction would be. With this, there was any number of potential outcomes. Few of them good.
Ari exhaled and picked up the phone, dialing Gina's number before she chickened out.
After almost a week, Ari knew the storage facility's lot by heart. She wandered up and down the aisles, stopping occasionally to sit and stare so anyone watching the security footage would assume she was just a normal stray. She was exhausted, sick of staying up all night and sleeping the day away. Her mind wandered, bouncing from subject to subject as she moved by rote.
Hey, Gina. Listen, before we go on our next date, there's something I should probably tell you. I'm canidae, which is more commonly called a werewolf. I change into a wolf whenever the mood strikes. It breaks all my bones and reforms them, so it hurts like a son of a bitch, but it comes in handy with my job.
The manager had left the desk light on, and Ari could see the glow through the window. She rose onto her back legs and looked into the office. Seeing it was unoccupied, she continued her rounds.
She went to the back of the property to see if the cat had returned. She didn't know what the cat kept coming back for; it wasn't like there was food or anything. Maybe it had a back way into the storage units.
What if the cat is the one doing the break-ins? That'd be great. Damn cat.
Ari had some energy bars hidden, and she used her paws to pull one out of the bag. She'd gotten adept at using her nails and teeth to open wrappers, and she chewed thoughtfully on the granola as she rehearsed the next day's lunch in her head.
There's a whole range of were animals in the world. My kind is the most common, of course, since they show up in all kinds of stories and movies. But there are also werecats--
Her mind wandered again, wondering if there was any way to pin the break-ins on that dumbass stupid trespassing cat. She shook her head, knowing the wolf was influencing her thoughts. She needed to put Gina out of her mind and focus on the job at hand, no matter how boring it had gotten in the past few days. She finished the energy bar and walked back to the front of the property.
She froze when she saw a truck parked on the other side of the gate. A man was standing between the beams of the headlights, bent forward to work the lock. Ari backed up into the shadows, lowering her front legs until she was in a pouncing position. The lock came free, and the man pushed the gate open before he went back to his truck. He drove inside, stopped, and went back to shut the gate so no one would see it standing open in the middle of the night.
He left the truck idling where it was and walked to the main office. He had a key, and he let himself in without any hesitation. Ari watched from the window as the man went through the main office to a small room in the back. He was gone for less than a minute before he returned with a key ring. Ari dropped from the window and crouched in the shadows when he walked back to his truck.
He was easy to follow. He parked at the end of an aisle, pulled in close to the building so the truck would be less visible from the main road. All the unit doors had a padlock on the right hand side, and the man used the keys to unlock the latch for Unit #24. He pushed up the door and turned on the twin fluorescent lights. As he went inside, he dropped the padlock on the ground.
Ari moved close enough to see inside; there were cardboard boxes stacked on either side of the unit, leaving just enough room for the man to stand between them. He started to whistle as he took a box off the top of the stack and began to rummage through it.
Ari looked at the man's truck. It was empty, which implied he was working alone. Ari had thought so much when he opened and closed the gate on his own, but it was nice to have confirmation. She looked back at the man and saw that he had moved on to a second box. She looked up and saw there was a leather loop hanging from the bottom of the unit's door. The padlock was lying a few inches on the outside of the unit.
She didn't wait to see if a better plan formed. She rushed forward and leapt, grabbing hold of the leather loop with her teeth. When she dropped, she pulled the door down with her. At the sound of the door dropping, the man spun around from his crouched position.
"Hey!" He tried to stand, but his feet got tangled and he fell face-first onto the concrete floor as Ari got the door to the ground. Ari spun and grabbed the padlock with her teeth, standing on her hind legs to try and slip it into the hasp. She only had a few seconds, and precision wasn't her strong suit. She managed to get the padlock hooked just as the door jerked upward. The hasp rattled but, even unlocked, the padlock wouldn't let it rise more than an inch or two.
Ari eyed the padlock and tried to work out a way to get it locked in her current form. Without opposable thumbs, it would be difficult but not impossible. If she changed back into a human just to push the padlock shut, she wouldn't be able to slip through the fence to get her clothes. She decided it wouldn't be worth the trouble if the thief was trapped even without the lock being secured. She watched the door rattle, and the man shouted in futility from inside. She heard him banging on the door and then he tried lifting it again. The padlock caught on the hasp and refused to budge.
Confident he was well and truly trapped, Ari ran to the back fence and squeezed through the opening. She knelt next to her bag and closed her eyes, bowing her head as she began the change. Her skin rippled, the hair retracting and her bones cracking and groaning as they took on another shape. Her fingers curled in the dirt, and she bared her teeth from the effort of holding back a shout of pain.
Once she was fully human again, and pulled her emergency bag out of its cubby hole and found her cell phone. She leaned against the fence, holding the bag to cover herself until she had the strength to put on her clothes. She dialed Dale's number and closed her eyes as the phone rang in her ear.
"Ari? Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine," Ari said. She sighed and looked up at the sky. She could still hear the thief trying to open the door behind her. "We have ourselves a thief. Call Kozak and tell him to get down here before the guy gets away."
"Way to go, Ari. You're amazing."
Ari smiled. "Wait 'til you hear how I caught him. I'll be waiting for you."
"All right. I'll call Kozak and then I'll see you in ten."
"Okay." Ari hung up the phone and tucked it into her bag. The night was cold, but it felt good on her bare skin. She reached up and squeezed her shoulder at the point where it met her neck. She didn't know how her shoulders could hurt; when she was in the wolf form, she didn't really have shoulders to speak of. Maybe the effort of creating them was what caused the pain.
As she massaged the aching muscles, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. The small yellow cat was standing at the edge of the tree line, body tensed to run but its head raised in curiosity. Ari moved slowly, dropping her hand to the bag while holding eye contact with her former nemesis. The cat shifted its weight to the back legs, ready to flee.
"Kitty," Ari said. She held up the granola bar she'd retrieved from the bag and held it up so the cat could see what it was. Stray or not, the cat definitely knew food when it was offered. Ari carefully removed the wrapper, then tore off half the bar and tossed it gently toward the cat. The cat took a few steps back, but watched to make sure where the food landed.
"Go ahead," Ari whispered. "It's yours."
The cat moved reluctantly forward and then pounced on the food. It licked the granola, head angled so it could keep one eye on Ari.
"Go on, pal. It's all yours. Call it a truce."
She took a bite of her half of the granola bar and crossed her feet at the ankles, watching as the cat finally settled in its midnight snack.
The Emerald City thief was the manager's son, a lay-about who worked at the facility part-time helping people move stuff into their units. He kept track of which unit had what stuff, and used it as a one-stop shopping. He would put the security cameras on a loop and use the keys to get in and out of the units without leaving a trace. He'd been doing it for months and, when he discovered the facility would be shutting down in a few months, he'd panicked. He waited as long as he could before he went in for one final payday.
Fortunately, Ari had been on the scene to make sure he didn't make the getaway he had planned.
Dale arrived fifteen minutes before Kozak, giving them time to get their stories straight. According to the official story, Ari had been staked out in the back lot and spotted the truck at the front gate. She slipped inside behind the truck and followed the thief to the storage unit. Instead of confronting him, she simply locked the door with him inside and called Kozak to let him know the job was done.
While Kozak spoke with the police, Ari and Dale sat in Dale's car and waited to be told they could leave. Ari leaned back against the headrest with her eyes closed, holding the cup of coffee Dale had brought her.
"Hey," Dale said. "You want to go? I can take care of the paperwork and nonsense. You have a big talk ahead of you this afternoon."
"I'll be fine," Ari said. "Besides, the guy got caught red-handed. He put the cameras on a loop when he grabbed the keys, so no one saw that it was the wolf that locked him in. We'll be done in time for breakfast, and then I'll head home and catch some sleep before meeting Gina for lunch."
Dale said, "How do you think she'll react?"
"I don't know. I never know. I just hope for the best."
"Yeah. One of these days you need to just sleep with someone who already knows your secret."
"Someone like you?"
Dale laughed. "The one time we were in bed together, we did both end up screaming."
"In terror and surprise."
"Semantics," Dale said. She smiled and twisted to look out the back window. The manager's son was hunkered in the backseat of a police car, and Kozak was speaking to the arresting officer. Every few seconds, he jabbed his finger in the kid's direction.
"You think the manager was in on it?" Dale asked.
"The thefts? Why would he be?"
"You said he left the desk lamp on tonight, but he usually turns it off. Maybe it was some kind of signal, or maybe he knew his son was going to be stopping by."
Ari shrugged. "No way to prove it. His word against his son's, if his son tries to bring him down, too. Not our problem."
"No, it is not," Dale said. She picked up her tea and held it out. "Nice work, Detective Willow."
Ari tapped her coffee against Dale's cup. "Thank you, Dale the Secretary."
Dale chuckled and took a sip.
They had arranged to meet at a café near the office, but Ari was running late due to an impromptu nap on the couch. Dale assured her that she still looked radiant, and Ari had to take her word for it. As she crossed the street, she saw Gina sitting by the window of the café, her hands folded in front of her, looking out at the pedestrians. Ari caught her eye, and Gina's face completely changed. Her eyes brightened, and her lips pulled up into a wide grin. She straightened in her seat and lifted one hand in a meek wave.
For all of her brainstorming and rehearsal, Ari suddenly knew exactly what she was going to say. Rather than being a relief, it was a vice around her chest as she went into the café and weaved through the tables and chairs to where Gina was sitting.
"Are you usually late?" Gina asked with a twinkle in her eye. "I just need to know for future reference."
Ari remembered the mischievous twinkle when they first met, smiling wistfully as she sat down across from Gina. "Sorry. It's been a crazy week. Not a lot of sleep."
"I understand," Gina said. "I don't mind waiting. You said you had something you wanted to talk about. It sounded pretty big. Do you want something to drink?"
"No. Uh, yeah, coffee." Gina signaled the waitress, who came over and took Ari's order. When she hurried off, Ari looked down at the table and ran her thumb over a scuff mark.
Gina reached across the table and put her hand on Ari's forearm. "Hey. Whatever it is you have to say, you can tell me."
Ari took a deep breath and spoke without looking at Gina. "You're not waiting for me."
"What?" Gina said.
"Just now, when I saw you sitting here, I realized you were waiting. But it wasn't for me."
"Who else would I be waiting for?"
"I don't know. You probably don't know her yet. You're waiting for a relationship. And there's no reason you shouldn't; you deserve one. You deserve someone who won't cancel dates and who won't leave you waiting in a café. Someone you can count on. That's not me. It'll never be me." She looked up and saw that Gina's expression was hurt and confused. She winced and looked away as the waitress brought Ari's coffee. "I'm sorry. I didn't plan to say all of that."
"Maybe you shouldn't have," Gina said. "It was fucking terrible to hear."
Ari closed her eyes. "I'm sorry, Gina."
"If you just wanted to fuck, you could have said that and saved me a lot of grief."
"I didn't," Ari said. "I thought I wanted a relationship, too."
"Just not with me."
Ari shook her head. "It's not that. I thought I was ready for something like that, but I'm not. I don't know when I will be. It wouldn't be fair to string you along until I made my decision."
Gina shook her head and looked down at her hands. "So this is the fair version? God, I'd hate to see the mean-spirited one."
"You certainly are," Gina said. She picked up her handbag and opened it to pay for her drink.
"Don't... I'll pay..."
"I'm not going to owe you anything," Gina said as she tossed some singles onto the table. She stood and Ari stood with her.
Gina stopped, her head down so she couldn't look into Ari's eyes. "You just told me to go, Ariadne. I don't think anything else has to be said."
"I want you to know this isn't about you. You're beautiful, and you're funny, and I was lucky to be with you--"
"If things were different..."
Gina said, "Just cut it out. Okay? Anything you say from here on is just an excuse to make you feel better. I don't have to be here for that. So if you don't mind..."
Ari stayed where she was for another few seconds, but then she stepped out of the way. Gina brushed past her and stormed from the restaurant. Ari was suddenly aware that everyone in the café was either staring at her, or pretending they hadn't noticed the scene. Ari ignored them as she dropped some money on the table to pay for her untouched coffee and followed Gina outside. She looked up and down the street, but Gina had already disappeared into the crowd.
Dale looked up from her crossword puzzle. "Wow. That was fast... oh, God, Ari."
Ari shook her head. She'd managed to keep from crying in the café, and the entire way home. But for some reason, seeing that expression on Dale's face threatened to push her over the edge. She pressed the back of her hand against her mouth and choked back a sob as Dale came around the desk and embraced her.
Ari wanted to tell her the truth; that Gina was the one who deserved condolences. If Dale knew what had really happened, she'd be offering a slap instead of a hug. But Ari couldn't bring herself to reveal what a bitch she had been, so she put her arms around Dale and pressed her face against the shoulder of Dale's blouse before she finally let her tears fall.