Disclaimer : Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings : Sex and love between women
Feedback : Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at email@example.com
Author's Note : On the one hand, this is a standalone "Underdogs" story. It's set before the novel, so you don't have to worry about spoilers on that end. On the other hand, it serves as a missing scene/tangent from my new novel The Rise and Fall of Radiation Canary . If you haven't read it, you won't be overly spoiled by this. If you have read it, you may remember a certain scene where the band crossed paths with an "unusually large dog." This is the explanation of what that 'dog' was up to at a Radiation Canary concert, and what happened to her afterward.
Copyright © 2012 Geonn Cannon
The sound could be heard from outside. Ari prayed it was just musicians goofing around and not someone actually attempting a song. She let herself into the building and followed the sound down a claustrophobic corridor to the source of the cacophony. Her knock was drowned out by the rattle and clank, but the bass player spotted her in the doorway and singled to the others. They stopped playing and Ari whispered a prayer to the music gods. "Are you Team Mascot?"
"That's us." The bass player stepped closer, letting his guitar hang by his side like an oversized purse. "You're the private eye?"
"I prefer detective, but... yeah. I'm Ariadne Willow."
"Bitchin'. Uh, we want to hire you."
Ari smiled. "Darn. And here I was hoping you needed groupies."
He smirked and ran his eyes up and down her body. "Well, we could always use a few of those."
"Good to know." Ari looked at the drummer, a tall redhead in a fringed vest and artfully ripped blue jeans. She winked at her, pursing her lips in a blown kiss. "How you doing, beautiful?" The drummer chuckled, and the bass player's shoulders sagged. "So what's the case?" Hopefully they wanted her to find out who had stolen their ear for music.
"Someone stole our songbook. All of our songs, everything we've written over the past two years, just gone. They just got signed to a record label, and they got that contract with our songs. You gotta get 'em back."
"Can you prove they're your songs?"
The keyboard player shook his head. "If we could, we'd just go to the police. But it's just Steve's word against theirs."
The bass player said, "Me. Ike Stevens." He introduced the others; the drummer was Jennie Priestly, the keyboardist was Jim Hughes, and the lead guitarist was Albert Stark. "The lead singer of this other band, Mean Wells, she used to be in our band. We decided to go another direction and we let her go. It wasn't personal, she just didn't fit with the band's sound, you know?" Ari assumed that meant she actually had musical talent. "She got mad and stole the book to start her own band. We weren't going to make a big deal about it, but... now they're making a name for themselves and we're still playing gigs in exchange for free beer. It ain't right."
Ari felt bad for them all. "Okay."
"Yeah?" Steve looked excited, then cringed. He reached into his pocket and took out a few folded bills. "Your assistant said that you get a five hundred dollar retainer. We got most of it, but we fell a little short. And we... probably can't pay you for a lot of days."
"That's okay. We can work out an arrangement." Ari took the money, glancing at it as it disappeared into her pocket. At least a couple of fifties were in among the twenties, so that was good enough for her. "For now, why don't you tell me a little bit about who I'll be stealing the songbook back from?"
Albert Stark walked over to his bag and began rummaging. He found a piece of paper and held it out to Ari. It was a flyer for a benefit concert to raise money for breast cancer research.
"They're called the Mean Wells. Their lead singer is named Dawn Hanson, and they're going to be performing tonight at that concert. We figured she'll have the book with her, so you could maybe... grab it while she's on stage or something. I don't know... whatever."
"Do you know where she lives?"
"Oh. Yeah." He took the flyer back and wrote an address on the back. "She'll probably be at her band mate Rebecca's place for band practice most of the afternoon. She's obviously never heard that there's such a thing as too much rehearsal."
Ari folded the paper and stuck it in her pocket. "Don't believe that. You guys have a ways to go before you hit that point."
"Nothing. Call my office and Dale will work out how much this will cost. Hopefully I'll have something to report for you tomorrow."
Steve smiled. "Sweet. And hey, if we can't afford you, we could always pay you back by writing a song for you."
Ari tensed so she wouldn't cringe. "That's really unnecessary. Really. I'll let you get back to practicing." She turned and left, hurrying down the hallway in the hopes she'd be safely back in her car by the time the poor excuse for music started up again.
She used one of the band's fifties to get into the concert. The woman at the door said, "For an extra twenty dollars, you can enjoy the show topless."
Ari blinked. She had noticed a lot of women inside seemed to be lacking shirts, but she didn't realize it was a fundraising attempt. "Why?"
"To show your support! It is a breast cancer rally."
If she had to change, it would be helpful to have an excuse to be missing her shirt. She paid the extra twenty and peeled off her top. The ticket girl gave her a small green clip to put on her bra strap to indicate she'd paid extra. Ari folded her shirt length-wise and tucked it into the back of her belt so that it hung like a tail as she entered the club. There was a tiny vestibule crammed with those vending machines that produced stickers or little plastic bubbles filled with cheap gewgaws. The main room of the bar was filled with people, mostly women and mostly with bared torsos. In the cramped space, it felt like an underground version of Woodstock.
The main act was currently on stage, and she saw that the lead singer and drummer were showing solidarity with the audience by baring themselves as well. Ari started feeling bad about taking a payment to attend this concert. A blonde bumped into her and then turned to offer a silent, apologetic smile. She looked at Ari's face for a moment too long, ran her eyes from Ari's face down to her belt and then back up, and her smile became less apologetic.
"Hi. I'm... sorry." She gestured with her head and the girl lifted a shoulder and went back to enjoying the music. Ari continued through the crowd and tried to ignore the scent of naked flesh, sweat and arousal all around her. Some of the women seemed to have come prepared; SAVE THE BOOBIES was written across their upper chests in body paint, the sort normally used for fat football fans to spell out their team's name at the Super Bowl. She preferred this usage.
She crossed the room and found an unguarded door that led to the backstage area. She leaned against the wall for a moment to make sure no one was watching her, then opened the door and slipped into the shadows. She stood still for a moment to let her eyes adjust to the relative darkness. She could still hear the music, dulled by the thick walls around her. When she could make out vague shapes, she moved.
Dale had provided her with pictures of the Mean Wells, including their lead singer and purported songbook thief Dawn Hanson, by slipping into their Facebook pages through friends of friends of friends. Dawn was a pretty girl, twenty-five unless her profile was less than truthful, with long brown hair. She had pink highlights in the online pictures, but Ari was prepared for that to have changed.
There was a makeup room, filled with walls of vanities that reflected each other into infinity, and just beyond that was a triptych of dressing rooms. All three doors stood open, but voices were only coming from one of them. Ari moved closer and picked up that someone was speaking the words to a song. She stopped as soon as she could see into the room.
Dawn Hanson was sitting on the edge of a table, bent forward to watch her fingers as she picked the strings of her guitar. She was tapping the heel of her foot to keep rhythm, her lips barely moving as she spoke the song.
"Can I help you?"
Ari turned and saw a woman with horn-rimmed glasses approaching her. Her hair was short and black, and she wore a man's suit sans jacket. The sleeves of her shirt were rolled up but unbuttoned so that the cuffs flared out around her elbows like wings. Ari saw her headset and the tablet computer in her hand and decided this was Someone in Charge. She backed away from the dressing room door and smiled in what she hoped was a reassuring way.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to snoop. Unlocked doors, you know. I couldn't resist."
The Rachel Maddow look-alike nodded and held out arm out to Ari as she gestured back the way she had come from. "Uh-uh. Well, you're not supposed to be back here. So, if you don't mind..."
"Right. Of course." She followed Naomi back toward the door through which she'd gained access. As it closed behind her, she heard the woman speaking into her headset. "This is Naomi. Could I get maintenance to lock--"
The door clicked shut and Ari considered her options. She wouldn't get past Ms. Naomi, at least not in her current form. But if she was the wolf, it would severely impair her ability to search or take away the book if she managed to find it. Still, searching the dressing room might prove good for simple information gathering. She moved away from the wall and weaved through the crowd. On stage, the lead singer was holding an impromptu fundraiser to get the violinist's shirt off. Ari looked back and paused. It might be worth putting the case on hold just to see if they raised enough to make it happen.
But no. She had a job to do, unfortunately.
She went into the bathroom and checked the stalls to make sure she was alone before she went into the middle one. She undressed quickly, putting her clothes into one leg of her jeans and wrapping the other leg around the works so nothing would fall out. She wedged it between the back of the toilet tank and the wall before she straightened and rolled her shoulders. She balled her hands into fists and then stretched the fingers out. A thousand pinpricks ran up her arms and legs, and her back arched violently. She bent double at the waist, stretched her neck out in a silent growl, and then dropped to her knees.
When her hands hit the floor, they were paws. The skin rippled from her wrist up to her shoulder, flesh turning to pelt that bristled with dark hair. Ari's skull reformed itself as her body lengthened and filled out. She blinked her eyes, shook herself, and crawled under the door to the stall. She moved to stand behind the door, waiting for someone to open the door to let her out. She would be able to get back inside by leaning her shoulder against it, but her canidae form was stymied by handles.
The door opened after a few minutes, and Ari slipped out around a girl wearing knee-high boots. The girl jumped to one side. "Whoa. ...was a big dog in here."
Her senses, which she could keep under control when she was human, were in overdrive as the wolf. She moved through the shadows at the edge of the main room, slipping into the backstage area by means of a short hallway that didn't have doors due to the emergency door at the far end. God bless the fire code. She found herself on stage left, and took a moment to see that the violinist for the band had indeed lost her shirt. The audience cheered, obviously thinking it was worth the cash. Even as the wolf, Ari had to agree with them. Charity was awesome.
She moved through the maintenance access path that ran behind the stage, feeling like she'd been transported to a rain forest made up of wires and surge protectors and extension cords. She only tripped herself up a few times, praying she didn't inadvertently unplug anything, and reached the opposite side of the stage as the headliners finished their set as the Mean Wells went out to do their bit. Ari hurried across the open area between the stage and the dressing room, and heard one of them say, "Hey, there's a dog back there."
"That's not nice," the lead singer replied. "I'm sure she was perfectly attractive, just not your type."
Ari found a dark spot where she could see the dressing room doors. The main attraction went into one room, leaving the room where she'd seen Dawn Hanson empty. Naomi the gatekeeper stood in the doorway to talk to the band that had just gotten off-stage. Ari got up and moved quietly past the dressing room, slipping into Dawn's room. She nudged the door shut so she wouldn't be seen and began a quick, methodical search of the room.
There was a canvas bag slumped against the side of the couch and Ari stuck my nose into it. She scanned the table and the countertop on either side of the room. No songbook. She wasn't incredibly surprised; the band probably didn't need to carry evidence of their crimes around with them. She was doing another circuit of the room, just in case, when the door opened and Naomi stuck her head inside.
"Wow, there really is a dog running around back here." She clicked her tongue, and bent her knees, approaching Ari cautiously. "Hey, sweetie. You're not a bite-y dog, are you? No, you're a sweet dog."
Ari dipped her head, showing submission, and leaned forward. She lowered her ears and affected a pitiful whimper, and Naomi cautiously patted the flat slope of Ari's head.
"Yeah, you're a good doggie, aren't you? You probably just wanted to get out of the cold air, huh? You were just trying to be warm, huh?" She scratched the sides of Ari's head and neck, and Ari licked Naomi's cheek. Naomi chuckled and said, "God. You're lucky I'm such a soft touch. Okay. You can hang out for the rest of the concert, but I can't have you running out on stage. Come on, sweetie."
She guided Ari out of the dressing room and through a backstage door to the front office. A man was seated behind the desk, and he glanced up as Naomi entered. His eyes widened at the sight of Ari. Naomi said, "Hey, Mike. Want some company?"
"Whoa. Where'd that come from?"
"Backstage. Snuck in, apparently. Do you mind if she stays here until the concert is over?"
He hesitated, but then shrugged. "She's not dangerous, is she?"
"Nah, she's a sweetheart." She rubbed the top of Ari's head again, and Ari felt a moment of panic. "I'll pick her up before I go, promise. I just don't want her getting into anything or ending up like Les Harvey."
Mike nodded. "Okay. Do I have to feed her or anything?"
Naomi shrugged. "Your choice. Thanks, Mike."
Ari watched Naomi leave, then looked at Mike. He stared back at her, shrugged, and went back to what he'd been doing. Ari doubted she could get out the door without him dragging her back, and she wasn't about to change in front of him. Eventually she sighed and stretched out in front of the couch across from the man's desk. Since she had the free time, she decided to brainstorm. The songbook wasn't in Dawn's bag, and it wasn't anywhere in the dressing room. Obviously it was somewhere safe, which was smart. Unfortunately, it also meant Ari would most likely have to break into Dawn's house in order to find it.
She dozed, waiting patiently to be set free. Occasionally Mike would get up to deal with something in the box office, but he was never far enough out of sight for Ari to make a break for it. When the concert finally ended, and Naomi came back.
"Was she much trouble?"
"You mean the dog-skin rug you left in here?" He smiled. "She was a peach."
Naomi knelt down, and Ari stood up.
"You're not going to just leave her outside, are you? It's supposed to be pretty cold tonight."
Ari felt a pang of fear. Oh, no.
"Nah," Naomi said. "I'll take her home with me tonight and try to find out where she came from in the morning."
Oh, no no no.
Mike stood up and said, "Here." He flicked up his shirt collar and took off his tie. "She's been pretty docile, but she's been safe inside. I doubt you have a leash, so here."
"Thank you." She put the tie around Ari's neck and stood up. "I'll mail it back to you."
"Ah, don't worry about it. I'll get another hideous one on my birthday to replace it. Pretty good show tonight. Raised a lot for charity."
Naomi smiled. "We did. Okay, I have a long ferry ride ahead of me--"
Of course you fucking do. Ari rocked her head from side to side, but naturally the knot held. She wasn't going to be able to slip free.
"--so I better get going. See you later, Mike."
Ari considered making a fuss, being stubborn, but she realized it was a lost cause. She stood and let Naomi lead her out of the main office and out into the night.
Ari tried to slip away a few times during the course of the evening, but Naomi was as alert as any prison warden. Ari didn't really panic until they boarded a ferry, unsure of how far she was meant to go, but Naomi got down in front of her and held her head with both hands. "Hey, listen to me, pup. It's late, and it's cold, and I'm not going to follow you all over the city like you're Lassie just to make sure you get home okay. And I won't sleep if I just let you go off into the night. You obviously belong to someone, and I'm going to do everything I can to find them, but right now... you're stuck with me. Okay?"
There was no point in struggling further, so Ari surrendered. Naomi kissed the top of her head and scratched her neck. "Yeah, you're definitely somebody's. I'll find them for you. Don't worry. Come on." She took the makeshift leash and led Ari onto the ferry.
She spent the trip at Naomi's feet, head on her forepaws, hoping she would be able to contact Dale when they got to wherever they were going. She dozed so she wouldn't be too exhausted when she had a chance to make her move.
They arrived at Naomi's home a few minutes before two in the morning. It was a tidy little A-frame with a covered front porch. Ari was led inside, waiting in the foyer while Naomi turned on a living room lamp and then crossed to the kitchen. She opened the fridge and searched, then took out a box of leftover Chinese. She sniffed it, declared it safe, and clicked her tongue against her teeth. "Hungry?"
She was, and she had eaten far worse than old rice. She walked into the kitchen as Naomi poured the remains of her meal into a bowl and placed it on the floor. She stayed crouched next to Ari for a moment, petting her back and shoulders before she said, "Okay. You eat, and behave, and I'm going to go take a shower."
Ari waited until the bathroom door was closed before she lifted her head. She licked her chops and then looked toward the front door. This was her chance. She could take one of Naomi's jackets, head out, and find a cell phone and... what? She looked at the bathroom and knew exactly what her disappearance would do. Naomi would come out of the bathroom, find her gone, and then spend the entire night searching the neighborhood for her.
Hell of a way to repay such a kind woman. Ari huffed and looked at her meal. Just because she couldn't leave, however, didn't mean she couldn't make use of her alone time. She arched her back and transformed, her bare foot sliding over the tile of the kitchen floor as she wrapped her fingers around the edge of the counter to ride out the change. Her whole body was beaded with sweat, her chest heaving as she fought to catch her breath. She flicked her head, tossing the hair out of her eyes as she got to her feet and barely bit back a cry of pain. She pressed her palm into the small of her back and stretched gingerly.
Her entire middle back was a nimbus of tight, aching agony. Arrows of pain shot up from her heels to her knees, making it hard for her to walk. She shuffled to the living room as the shower started running. She fished through Naomi's satchel and found her cell phone. The mail was sitting on the coffee table and sent a text message with Naomi's address.
"Yes Port Townsend. Don't ask. AM SAFE. Pls come get me." She hesitated, then added, "Tomorrow morning. Too late to leave now."
She sent it to Dale's number, then erased it from the phone's outbox. She stuffed it back into the satchel and took a few sharp, short breaths. She closed her eyes and, against her better judgment, began to change again. Her entire body, from bone to tendon, protested. She dropped to her knees and inadvertently cried out, then dropped onto her side and hugged herself until her arms reshaped themselves.
She twitched, realizing only when she opened her eyes that she had finished transforming. She was the wolf again.
"Pup?" The bathroom door opened and Naomi came out. Her hair was wet from the shower, hanging down in her eyes, and she was dressed in pajama bottoms and a white T-shirt. She looked years younger without her glasses, and she knelt next to Ari.
"Hey. Did you bark or something? You okay?"
Ari sat up and twisted her head, trying to look like the picture of innocence. Naomi looked at her, looked around the house, and then looked at her bag. She narrowed her eyes and said, "Huh. You're just a snoop, aren't you? Getting into everyone's bags."
Ari huffed a quiet bark, and Naomi snickered and rubbed her head. She stood and picked up her bag, leaving it on the bookshelf as she returned to the bathroom. She had only been gone for a few minutes when the phone began to ring. Ari jumped to her feet and stared at it, panicking.
She wouldn't. Oh, Dale, tell me you're not calling me back.
Naomi came out of the bathroom again. She fished the phone out, looked at the screen, and rolled her eyes. Ari relaxed; apparently she knew whoever was calling.
"Dawn, do you have any idea what time it is? ...what? No, that's impossible. There was only one person backstage and I got rid of her before she could... no. Dawn, I'm telling you, she was only there while you were still in your dressing room. She couldn't have slipped in without you or me seeing her. I don't know why..." She turned and looked at Ari, her free hand across her stomach, and she tilted her head to the side. "Actually, I think I do know why. There was a dog backstage, and apparently it likes to snoop in people's bags. I think her owner keeps treats in there or something. Yes, a real dog. If someone was in your bag, it was probably just her looking for Milk Bone or something."
She crossed the room and sat on the couch. She pinched the phone between her ear and shoulder as she took her laptop out of her bag and tapped a key to awaken it. Ari stood and walked over to sit next to her. She hated that she couldn't hear the other side of the conversation, but even if Naomi put it on speaker, the wolf's ears couldn't quite understand the noise issued through speakers.
"They're going to give up eventually, Dawn. Unfortunately, neither of you can prove which one wrote the songs. Until you can do that, he's going to keep coming at you." She pushed her hair back from her forehead, raking through it with her fingers. "Yes, of course. I wouldn't have signed you up if I didn't believe they were your songs. I've seen the songs you've written since, and your voice is..." She sighed. "Dawn. Dawn! It's two in the morning, I'm tired, and we can deal with this in the morning. Better yet, Monday. Ike Stevens is going to have to give up eventually, and I'm not going to waste any more time on him this weekend. Okay? Yeah. Goodnight, Dawn."
She hung up and dropped the phone onto the couch next to her hip, rubbing her hand over her eyes. She cupped her hand over her mouth and looked at Ari for a moment before she poised her fingers over the keyboard and began typing. Ari turned her head to watch the words appear on the screen.
<b>"Dawn Hanson paranoid about Ike Stevens again. Thinks he's still trying to steal her songbook. I wouldn't put it past him. He's tried it in the past, of course, but I think he's starting to get the message. Those songs belong to Dawn. The handwriting in the book is all Dawn's and she's writing songs that are equal to or superior the ones in the book. Ike Stevens' band is still more sound than lyric. There is no comparison. Team Mascot died when Dawn left, and its soul went into Mean Wells. I wish there was some way to get him to back off without just throwing in the towel and making legal threats, but at this point I'm just so fucking tired of the mess."</b>
She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. She looked at Ari. Ari looked back, feeling like a traitor. A spy. A rube.
Naomi dated the entry before she put the computer back to sleep. She left it on the coffee table when she went into the kitchen to put a second bowl on the floor, using a pitcher to fill it with water. She kissed Ari on top of the head and scratched her neck. "If you need to be let out, let me know. Scratch at the door or something. Don't make a mess, please." She turned off the lamp next to the couch and went down the short hall to her bedroom. She left the door open and, a few seconds later, Ari heard the quiet squeak of the bedsprings as she settled on the mattress.
The cell phone was still on the couch, but Ari didn't want to risk another near-miss by transforming before she was certain Naomi was asleep. She walked quietly down the hall, planning to go into the room and lay by the bed until Naomi was definitely out. She had just crossed the threshold when something started buzzing, and Ari noticed that Naomi's knees were bent under the blankets.
Whoops . Ari turned and trotted back to the kitchen. The sound of the vibrator followed her, and she tried not to think about what was happening just down the hall. Naomi was a very attractive woman, in a geek-chick sort of way, and after moving through a crowd of sweaty, half-naked women at the concert, Ari didn't need further arousal.
After a few minutes, there was a quiet gasp of release and then the buzzing noise ceased. Ari could smell Naomi's orgasm in the air, but she tried to ignore it. She gave Naomi a few more minutes for her sleep aid to take effect before returning back down the hallway. She put her head around the door frame. Naomi was curled on her side, shoulder rising and falling with the gentle rhythm of sleep.
Ari went to the side of the house that was furthest from the bedroom and transformed again. Her left arm remained canine for much longer than the rest of her body, then snapped through its change in a sudden, sharp shift. Ari pressed her right hand against her mouth and bit down to keep from crying out in pain. Her back was a cross of blinding white pain, shooting across her shoulders and from her tailbone up to the base of her skull. She squeezed her eyes shut, tears breaking free until she was able to push through the pain and stand up.
She was in a laundry room, and she took a robe off a hanger on the door. She slipped into it and went back into the living room, moving like someone twice her age, shuffling her feet over the carpet. She sat on the couch with a quiet, victorious exhalation and tapped a key on Naomi's keyboard. It came to life, and she typed the password she'd seen Naomi enter earlier. The background of the desktop was a picture of Naomi and a cute blonde, cheeks reddened by the cold, their arms extending out of the frame on either side to hold the camera.
Ari found the file where Naomi had written about the Mean Wells. It wasn't an internet post, which meant it was her personal diary.
"Very nice, Ariadne," she muttered at herself. "I loathe your job sometimes."
She reversed through the entries, skimming over the writing for key buzzwords: Dawn Hanson, Ike Stevens, Mean Wells, Team Mascot. One was too short to skim, but its single sentence made Ari feel like more of a violator than listening to Naomi masturbating.
<b>I'm fine with Karen being with someone else, but I still can't handle it when I see them together.</b>
Ari assumed Karen was the blonde on the desktop. She scrolled quickly away and focused again on her mission. She found what she was looking for in an entry dated two months earlier.
<b>Dawn finally told me why she was so anxious about her former band. It seems the new lead singer claims she stole the band's songbook which included their collaborative creative efforts. They claim the songs are theirs, but Dawn says she wrote them independently. I don't know what to believe, but I know what I've seen Dawn do. I know how much heart she puts into these songs when she sings them. Not very telling, in and of itself, but she's still writing. And writing beautiful lyrics. I told her that the label was on her side, but I'm going to check out her former band just to see how they sound.</b>
Then, in an entry two days later:
<b>Saw Team Mascot performing - if that's the right word - at a dive bar. Manager was a friend, told me that he was paying them in free beer. I had to wonder if they'd taken payment before making it on stage. They can play, but they sound horrible together. Their lyrics are trite and formulaic. If these people were capable of writing the songs in Dawn's book, then they've recently suffered a traumatic brain injury that removed the instinct. Dawn has nothing to worry about.</b>
"Unless some moronic private investigator shows up and tries to steal the book." She sighed and tried to massage her own neck. Naomi was obviously biased, seeing as she represented Dawn and the Mean Wells. But why would she be so adamant in her private journal? If she had any doubts, they weren't expressed here, in a safe ( right, sure , Ari thought) and private ( not so much, thanks to me ) place?
Ari shut down the computer and walked to the window. So I'm working for the bad guy. A guy who wants to use someone else's talent to make his band's name. She didn't think even having the book would make much of a difference. Team Mascot just was not talented. She'd heard them herself, and Naomi had said as much in her journal. Naomi, whose job it was to find and contract talent for her record label. Her opinion meant more than Ari's, and that opinion was a big, unequivocal thumbs-down.
Ari took the phone out of Naomi's bag and sent Dale another text. "Bring clothes when you come pick me up." She erased the message after it was sent, returned the phone to Naomi's bag, and transformed. She went down the hall to Naomi's bedroom, curled up at the foot of her bed, and tried to get some sleep.
Naomi woke up at six despite her late night. She showered, changed into a clean white T-shirt under an unbuttoned pale blue blouse tucked into her khakis. She put the tie around Ari's neck again and said, "Sorry about this. I don't have a real collar or leash, so this will have to do for now. It's either this or keeping you locked up in the house all day. I don't really think that's an option." She grinned and led Ari out of the house, walking her down the street toward a sprawling sea of green grass and trees. Ari could smell the dirt and grass, and the wolf in her yearned to break free and run wild. Naomi seemed to sense her excitement and chuckled.
"Easy, girl. Don't run amok on these poor innocent puppies just because you're bigger than them."
The wolf was patient until they reached the grass. Ari scanned the park, getting a good sense of its layout with one sweep of her head. A walking trail, a pond, a little park where kids could play, and dogs. About half a dozen dogs scampered across the freshly-cut grass, chasing balls or Frisbees thrown by their owners. The wolf shifted its balance to the back legs and, when Naomi adjusted her grip on the tie, took advantage. It launched off its haunches and ran. Forced to choose between letting go or choking Ari, Naomi let go of the leash.
"Hey! Uh. Dog!"
Ari ran. She knew Naomi was running after her, but when she looked back she was only trotting. She knows that dogs need to run... she's just keeping me in her sight. This woman would be a great dog owner. Ari ignored that and focused on her freedom. The wolf didn't like being inside, and Ari figured the least she could do was let it run for a while.
The kids all wanted to investigate this big, unusually lupine dog in their midst, but the parents were wary. Ari showed how docile she was by rolling onto her back to expose her belly. The parents came over first, and Ari let them ruffle her fur and scratch behind her ears. Then the kids showed up. One of them held up her neck tie and the others said she was a person who got changed into a wolf by an evil witch.
Not terribly far from the truth, although Ari would have used harsher words for her mother than 'witch'.
There were benches along the perimeter of the lake, painted forest green to blend into the scenery. A woman was sitting on one, legs crossed at the knee, her hands resting idly on her lap. She wore a lightweight summer dress under a thin jacket despite the cold. Her hair was cut short in the back and longer in the front, and occasionally she would flick her hand up to move her bangs away from her eyelashes.
She was ostensibly watching the water, but Ari noticed that she would turn her head to follow people when they walked by. Not people... only couples. She was watching the couples with a longing, and she occasionally brought her hands up to rub them together, her chin down to look at her shoes as if composing herself.
Ari looked back to see Naomi trekking along behind her. Close enough to monitor, far enough way that Ari didn't feel supervised. She lowered her head and ran right for the woman on the bench. The woman looked up when Naomi shouted out, but Ari was too fast and too close. She slammed into the woman's bag and knocked it over, dumping the contents onto the foot path.
"Oh, no!" Naomi was out of breath when she finally caught up. "Oh, I am so sorry."
The woman laughed, dropping off the bench to begin gathering her things. "It's fine. The hazards of hanging out at the dog park." Naomi knelt on the opposite side of the bag and helped her gather her things up.
"I don't know what got into her. That's the first time I've seen her do anything... well, she does seem to like purses. I've known her for twelve hours and I've already seen her get into three different bags."
"Ah, a curious pup. What's her name?"
"I... don't know. I just sort of stumbled over her. I couldn't leave her out in the cold, so I brought her home until I could find a way to find out where she belongs."
"That's very sweet of you. A lot of people wouldn't go to the trouble."
Naomi shrugged. "She's obviously someone's pet. She's too well-behaved not to be. As long as you don't leave your bag unattended."
The woman laughed. "Apparently. I'm Ana."
"Hi. Naomi." They shook hands. "Which dog is yours?"
Ana turned and scanned the group of animals before she pointed. "There she is. Leela!" She whistled and a svelte black dog came running.
Naomi smiled. "Leela. Futurama ?"
"Yeah. I'm kind of a nerd."
"I wouldn't know what that's like." She made a show of adjusting her glasses.
Ana laughed and stood her bag back up. Leela came over and spotted Ari, trotting over to her. Ari withstood the animal's investigatory sniffing. She huffed and snorted and make small mewling sounds in her throat. Ari translated it. Leela. Leela. Ana? Leela.
Yes, yes, very good, Ari leaned away from her and Leela quickly lost interest. She trotted over to Ana, who bent down and rubbed the top of her head.
"Well, whatever your dog is named, I think she looks very dapper in her tie."
Naomi grinned. "Well, needs must, right? I didn't have a leash, and I don't want to commit to buying one until I at least try to find her home."
Ana said, "Oh! I have a few spare leashes. I could loan you one while you have her."
"Oh, I couldn't."
"It's no trouble. Besides, you have to keep her restrained when it comes to bags, right?"
Naomi chuckled. "You've got a point there. Okay. But you have to let me pay you back somehow. Uh. Maybe. Lunch?"
Ana tilted her head to the side, but then a slow smile spread across her face. "Yes. I think lunch would be good. Uh, my car is right over there. I think I have an extra collar and a leash in the trunk." She latched the leash to Leela's collar and led her away from the bench. Naomi bent down to pick up the end of Ari's tie, their faces level with each other for a moment.
Naomi met Ari's eye and whispered, "Did you do that on purpose?"
Ari stood up and started walking, the picture of innocence. Naomi chuckled ruefully and followed her. After spying on her all night, Ari felt it was the least she could do to apologize.
At the car, Ana handed over the supplies and helped Naomi switch out the tie for a proper collar. Leela bounded up into the back of the car and waited patiently for her owner, while Ari sat on the pavement while she was bound.
"She really is a good doggie," Ana said.
"Yeah. I'm starting to wonder if she had ulterior motives for knocking over your bag in particular." Naomi kept her head down, hiding her blush.
Ana was quiet for a moment and then said, "Well, don't punish her too harshly. No harm done." She rubbed the top of Ari's head. "Listen, uh, about lunch."
Ari could almost feel the oncoming crush of Naomi's rejection. "Hey, if it's not--"
"No, it's just that if we go to a restaurant, we'd have to drop the dogs off at our house first, and then we'd have to leave them there alone... I mean, at least mine would be alone." She tapped the back of the car. "All alone. No one to, uh, watch Leela. At my house."
"Oh. Me neither."
Ana nodded. "Right. So maybe we could just dine in. I could whip something up for you, or we could order in..."
Naomi nodded. "Oh. We could do that. I live just up the street. I think I have some food. Or we could order in. We can walk it."
She got Leela out of the back seat and locked the car. They walked together up the street, and Ari felt pretty proud of herself. Leela walked alongside Ari, huffing and grunting again.
Leela. I'm Leela. Leela's me and Ana's her. Who is you?
Ari Ari Ari. YOU SMELL LIKE PEOPLE.
Yeah how about that.
I saw a rabbit once. She sneezed.
Ari ignored her for the rest of the walk. Leela got distracted by scents, so her canine attempts at conversation faded after a while. Naomi led Ana and Leela into the house, but Ana stopped at the threshold.
"Look, we danced around it well enough back there at the pond, but I think before we do anything else, I should tell you that I'm gay. I think you're attractive. And I want this lunch to be a date."
Naomi blinked in surprise. "Oh."
"Is that okay?"
"Yes. I mean... yes, of course. That... that was my intention."
Ana grinned and came into the house. "Good. Great. I'm glad we got that out of the way."
"Can I get you something to drink?"
They assaulted the kitchen, searching for food while they got to know each other. At one point, Naomi went into the living room to put on some music. When Ana recognized the song, she smiled and began bobbing her head in time to the music.
"Oh, I love this band."
"Me too. Actually, I, uh... I represent them. I work for Cartography Records."
Ana blinked. "Really? Wow. So you're sort of like a celebrity."
"Celebrity adjacent," Naomi corrected.
They were in the middle of attempting a pizza from scratch when Ari heard a car door. Her head shot up from the floor before she processed what the sound had been, but the wolf was four steps ahead of her. She stood and faced the door, alert and still as she waited for the arrival of the guest. Naomi noticed and said, "Pup? Is something--"
Dale knocked on the door, and Ari trotted forward. Naomi came out of the kitchen and arrived at the door and blocked Ari from running outside.
"Hello. Can I help you?"
Dale smiled. "I hope so. I'm Dale Frye, and I think you unwillingly got roped into dog-sitting for me."
"Oh! Is she yours?"
Ari stepped around Naomi and jumped up on her hind legs, resting them on Dale's chest. Her canine emotions washed over her, nearly blinding her in the excitement at seeing Dale again. Dale chuckled and leaned her head back in case Ari or the wolf decided to start licking her.
"I'd say that's solid proof of ownership," Naomi said. "How on Earth did you find her?"
Ari hadn't thought of that, but apparently Dale had.
"My vet suggested on giving her a little tracking chip. All I had to do was call him up and he used some Star Trek thing to track her down for me. I gotta say, I was pretty surprised when he said she'd made it all the way to Port Townsend. Usually she stays a little more local."
"Yeah, sorry about that. I couldn't just abandon the poor thing."
"I understand. I'm glad someone like you found her. Can I repay you for--"
"No. God, no, it was no trouble at all." She started to glance over her shoulder but stopped herself. "I think she may have pulled her own weight while she was here." She rubbed the top of Ari's head. "I'm going to miss having her around, to be honest. She's an amazingly good dog. Oh! What's her name?"
"Oh, that is an amazing name." She reached out and scratched Ari's neck. "Well, I guess this is goodbye, Ari. Thanks for hanging out with me, and not causing too much trouble. And thanks for..." She glanced toward the kitchen and lowered her voice. "Well. You know. Thanks." She kissed the side of Ari's head. "Oh. The leash and collar. I borrowed those--"
"Of course." Dale unhooked the collar and handed it over. "I can't thank you enough. The trouble she gets into sometimes, I'm glad you had a nice quiet night."
"I did. Take care."
Ari let Dale guide her off the porch and into the backseat of her car. Ari looked back as they pulled away from the house, but Naomi had already gone inside and closed the door. At least she wouldn't be left alone, Ari thought, then settled on the backseat. She was going to wait until they were out of sight before she changed.
Dale picked up a plastic grocery bag from the passenger seat and reached back to toss it onto the backseat. "I brought you some clothes. Port Townsend, Ari? Seriously? One of these days you're going to end up in Canada and we'll have to quarantine you, get you shots... I mean, hell, I thought you were going downtown to snoop around some club. I look forward to hearing how you ended up in Port freaking Townsend."
Ari grunted an inadvertently kicked the back of Dale's seat as she stretched out her leg. She rolled her head from side to side and arched her back, angling to make sure her spine was straight and her legs could fully extend. She let out a sob, and Dale's eyes snapped up to the rearview mirror.
"Are you okay?" Her voice was softer, concerned, and Ari crossed an arm over her breasts and nodded.
"I'm okay. Just too many shifts."
"I'll give you a rubdown when we get back to the office."
Ari groaned and gingerly opened the bag. The idea of wiggling into a T-shirt and jeans, the sheer amount of movement required, daunted her. "Thank you, Dale. I'll fill you in on everything as soon as I feel human again. Oh... and we should probably try and get into the bar again. My clothes are still behind the toilet tank in the ladies room, along with my wallet."
"Okay. Anything else?"
Ari took a moment to put on her shirt before answering. "Yeah. It seems that this time we're working for the bad guys."
The shades were drawn, casting the afternoon sun into gloom. Ari found it soothing, lying facedown on the couch with her arms crossed under her head. Dale was sitting astride her, massaging oil into Ari's exhausted muscles with sure strokes of her fingers. Ari explained how she'd gotten to Port Townsend and what she'd learned from Naomi's computer.
"So you were hired as a thief, not a private investigator."
"Seems that way." Ari's voice was slurred by its position against her hands and the coma produced by Dale's massage. "I'm going to drop the case."
Dale's hands slowed. "Are you sure? Sounds like the band that hired you has been harassing the other band for a while now. If you quit, they might just hire someone else to steal the book and they won't be as scrupulous as you are. They might not take the time to find out if they're doing the right thing."
Ari sighed and opened her eyes. "You're right. Got any suggestions how to get them to stop?"
"No." She kneaded a tight muscle in Ari's side, and Ari exhaled sharply. "But that's why you get the big bucks."
"Right." Ari turned to rest her forehead on her hands as she considered her next step.
On Sunday morning, Ari was stationed outside the apartment building of the only Jennie Priestly listed in the phone book. Dale had done some of her computer magic to confirm it was most likely the girl they were looking for. Ari was sitting behind the wheel of her car, watching the entrance and trying to remember just what the Team Mascot's drummer had looked like. She was about to consider Plan B when the redhead appeared in an outfit similar to the one Ari had seen her wearing on Friday when she took the case. She got out of the car and moved to intercept her.
"Hey. Jennie Priestly?"
She slowed, suspicious, and then relaxed. "Oh, hey. You're the P.I., right?"
"Right. Ariadne Willow. I have a few questions about the case. I was hoping you could help me out."
Jennie adjusted the strap of her bag and looked around. "Uh. Steve would probably be able to help you out more than I would."
"Yeah, well... I'm talking to you."
"Okay, I guess. Can we talk while I'm going to practice?" She started walking, and Ari fell into step next to her. "What do you need to know?"
Ari said, "Why did you guys dump Dawn Hanson? I heard her play at the concert Friday night and she was pretty good." Better than you guys was left unsaid, but hopefully implied. "So what made you guys cut her loose?"
"Steve wanted to go in a different direction."
"Then what does it matter if she stole your songs?"
"The lyrics will be the same, but the music will be a different style." She stopped walking. "Look, I know she's better than we are. I know her band has more talent. But that doesn't mean we can just be tossed aside. She can't just use us and then get famous with someone else. Like we don't matter."
Ari nodded. "So you don't really want the songbook. You just want her to hurt."
"Yes." She sighed and closed her eyes. "No. Not really. She wrote those songs when she was a member of Team Mascot, right? So the songs are a product of the band. She's not a member of the band anymore. So they belong with us."
"Even if she's going to use them better?"
Jennie shrugged. "It doesn't matter who uses them better. It matters that... it's the principle of the thing, you know?"
"Here's what I know." Ari started walking again, and Jennie followed. "You guys are terrible. I'm sorry, but you guys just don't fit together. And having the songs in Dawn Hanson's book isn't going to change that. Dawn knew that you didn't work as a unit, so she got out and found people she could work with. If you want to be famous, stop trying to steal something that doesn't belong to you. Stop clinging to something that doesn't work. You have to choose what's more important: your career, or this particular band. Tell Steve to stop harassing Dawn Hanson. That book is her property, and he has no right to anything in it, no matter when it was written."
Jennie was hanging her head, contemplating her shoes.
"I know this isn't what you hired me for, so tell Steve there's no bill. You're paid in full with what you gave me the other day. Remember what I said. If he doesn't leave Dawn alone, I get the feeling her label is going to bring out the big guns. You bring it into a legal arena, I don't think you'll like how it ends."
"Okay... look, we didn't mean to ask you to do anything--"
"It's fine. Just make sure it ends here, okay?"
Jennie nodded, and Ari went back to her car. She took her cell phone from her shirt pocket and turned off the recorder. She had to bounce back and forth a little until she found the section she was looking for. Jennie's voice was tinny and muffled but her words were unmistakable. "-- ot really. She wrote those songs when she was a member of Team Mascot. " It might not be enough for a judge, but Ari figured it was damning enough for her purposes.
She almost got lost on the way to the house, but eventually she managed to find it. She had burned the audio file onto a CD and Dale wrote up a quick transcript with the pertinent wording highlighted in yellow. Ari carried them both onto the covered porch and knocked, stepping back to look at the street as she waited. The door opened and Ari smiled reassuringly at Naomi.
"Hi. Can I..." She furrowed her brow. "Wait, I know you, don't I? You were backstage on Friday."
"Wow. Good memory. My name is Ari Willow, and I'm a private investigator. I was hired... well, that's not important. What's important are the results of why I was hired." She held out the disc and the typed transcript. "Ike Stevens shouldn't be giving you any further problems concerning the contents of Dawn Hanson's songbook. If they do, the recording on that CD should settle any argument they try to make. It's the band's drummer saying Dawn Hanson wrote the songs, so they belong to her."
Naomi blinked and shook her head, looking at the disc as she tried to absorb everything she'd just been told. "Wait. What do you mean?"
"I mean that the Mean Wells are a good band. Team Mascot isn't. Anyone with ears knows that the only thing Dawn took away when she left was a modicum of talent. The whole matter should be at rest soon. I think Team Mascot is breaking up." Naomi gaped. "Everything will make sense once you listen to the recording."
"Wait, who are you? A, a private investigator? Who hired you?"
"I..." A dog padded up behind Naomi, distracting Ari. It was Leela. Ari stared for a moment and then smiled. "I'm sorry. Am I interrupting something?"
Naomi's emotions shifted from confused to protective. "Uh. No, not... i-it's just dinner with a friend..."
Ari grinned. "Right. Well, tell her I said hello."
"Wait. Ari? Your name is Ari?"
"Yeah. Look, I don't want to take any extra time away from your, uh, friend. I just wanted you to have that in case Team Mascot keeps making trouble. You have enough stress, you don't need them making your life more complicated."
Ana appeared, and Ari noted that she was barefoot. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine. I was just leaving." She backed away from the door. "Enjoy your dinner." She turned and walked away, ignoring the furtive conversation happening behind her. She heard the door close just before she got into her car and looked back at the house. She hoped Naomi would do the right thing and wait until after dinner to listen to the recording.
Some things were more important than business.
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