DDisclaimer : 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
Copyright © 2011 Geonn Cannon
Chapter One, Lie Down with Dogs,
The first time Ari watched Bryn transform, she was captivated by the sight. Bryn's blonde hair seemed to grow and spread until it covered her body, her arms and legs twitching and pulling in on themselves until they were a new shape. They were in the loading dock of an abandoned warehouse, blocked on three sides by the high retaining walls and on the fourth by a long sloping driveway. Ari held Bryn as she became a feline, amazed at how quickly her body compressed into the shape of an animal.
When she was finished, Ari carefully placed Bryn on the platform. She had already undressed down to her underwear, and she quickly shed them to stand completely naked in the moonlight. She smiled at the cat, who she could swear had just started purring louder. "You're kind of a pervert, babe."
Bryn yowled and rested her head on her front paws. Ari closed her eyes and went through the painful process of her own transformation. When it was finished, Bryn jumped down and circled Ari's front legs, rubbing against her to share her scent. Ari felt a surge of revulsion; her canidae mind still rebelled at the idea of spending time with a cat, but Ari was slowly getting over it.
Once they were both in animal form, Bryn hurried off at a run. It should have been easy for Ari to catch up with her, as the wolf had the longer legs, but Bryn was exceptionally fast. She ran low to the ground, her feet a blur as she raced across the empty lot next to the warehouse district. Ari caught up with her and made sure she kept the orange and white blur in her sight at all times.
Usually it was a game of follow the leader that only ended once they got home and became their human selves again. But tonight there was a purpose to their race.
When Bryn reached a fence, she executed a perfect vertical jump that placed her on the top crossbar, giving her just enough room to stand and look over the fence. Ari had to search for a break in the fence where she could scramble through. She lay flat on the dirt and pressed her face to a crack, her snout extending onto the other side of the property.
They were looking at the back of a strip mall. They were separated from it by a wide stretch of dead grass, which had been covered with windblown litter. Ari could smell the sickly sweet, thick, syrup smell of old soda and spoiled fast food and licked her lips, wondering if there were any scraps she could dig through.
They had been there for almost ten minutes when Ari spotted movement at the far end of the lot. Two canidae were moving along the back of the building, one slightly behind the other and constantly checking over its shoulder as they advanced. The lead dog had bright red fur with black tips to its tail and ears. The other was a brown boxer, slender for its size and holding its head high. A third dog, mostly white and yellow, was walking along the broken line where concrete met grass. Ari withdrew so that she couldn't be seen as easily.
The two lead dogs went to a fuse box. The red one stood on its hind legs, using its front paws to flip it open. It moved with uncanny intelligence, betraying its nature as it carefully manipulated small buttons with careful movements of its paw. The boxer watched, then turned and trotted back to the back door of one business. It stood up, closed both front paws around the knob, and twisted. The door swung open and the boxer dropped to the ground and slipped inside. The other two joined it a moment later.
Ari whined and looked up at Bryn. She was still sitting on the fence and her head twitched quickly from side to side. Ari pawed at the dirt, eager to do something about what she was watching. The lookout dog returned first, eyeing the street before disappearing back inside. The three dogs came out together, but now all three had bags on their backs. Straps ran around each dog's front legs, holding it in place as they hurried away from the building.
Ari watched them go, frustrated that she couldn't stop them. She heard a quiet thud and turned to see Bryn had jumped off the fence. Ari stood, stretched, and followed her. The high weeds of the field whipped against Ari's legs and body as they ran. Bryn reached the abandoned warehouse first, and she was mid-transformation when Ari arrived.
They transformed together, but Bryn finished first. She put her hand on Ari's back, and Ari could feel her flesh convulsing underneath Bryn's steady hand. Bryn whispered to her, stroked her hair, and Ari collapsed against her once she was completely herself again. Naked and panting, sweaty from their run, Ari eventually pulled away from Bryn and went to the stash of their clothes. She handed Bryn her bag, and they dressed without looking at each other.
"Why'd you stop me? I thought the whole point was stopping them."
"No, the point was showing you what was going on. They cut off the power so there won't be any security cameras or alarms. The locks are all electronic, so once the power goes they can come and go as they please. This is the fifth store they've hit in the past three weeks."
Ari tugged her T-shirt over her head and turned to face Bryn. "How did you know where they would hit tonight?"
"Anonymous tip. Someone on the inside grew a conscience, I guess." Bryn finished buttoning up her blouse and stepped into her jeans. "We don't know how many there are, just that there's more than one group. They're organized. If we take down one group, the others will just get smarter and become harder to catch. We need to take them all down."
Ari smiled. "You need someone on the inside."
"Yeah, ideally." Bryn smiled. "What do you say, pup?"
Ari shrugged. "I'll see what I can dig up. If it looks doable, I'll give it my best shot." She wiped her face with her hand, rubbing her finger under her nose. Sometimes the overactive nose of the canidae remained with her after transforming. It was like having a vacuum in the middle of her face sucking up every stray scent in the vicinity. She snorted and wrinkled her nose as she looked to where she had parked. "So you want to come over? I could use a massage."
"Uh, not tonight. Not to leave you in the lurch or anything, but..."
"No, it's fine." Ari smiled. "Rain check."
"Yeah, definitely." She tucked her shirt into her jeans and put her hands in the middle of her back, twisting at the waist to work out the kinks. "God. Sometimes changing for twenty or thirty minutes just isn't worth the aches. I think I'm going to walk from here."
Ari looked around. "Are you sure? This is a pretty bad neighborhood."
Bryn opened her bag and took out her service revolver. "I may not have the uniform, but I'm still a cop. I'll be fine." She kissed Ari, more on the cheek than the lips, and rested a hand on her hip. "Thanks for looking into this for me, Ari."
"I'm always happy to help the police. Give me a couple of days and I'll have a more definitive answer for you."
"Okay." She hooked the bag around her neck, tucked her revolver into her belt, and walked up the driveway to the street. She waved once more before she started walking.
Ari leaned against the concrete wall and closed her eyes. The scent of the night was starting to fade, an odd sensation. It was like hearing an orchestra and then slowly having the volume turned down until it was only barely audible. She breathed deeply and let it out, and her smelling had returned to normal.
She finally left the loading dock and tossed her bag into the backseat of her Rambler Marlin. She and Bryn had been seeing each other for a few weeks, but she wouldn't call it dating. They had sex, went on runs together in their animal forms, had the occasional meal, but it was far from a relationship. She was starting to wish they had defined it if just so she would know what to call what they were currently going through. Was it a break-up or just a drifting apart?
Whatever it was, she didn't expect to be seeing Bryn Decker much longer. She hated being in the limbo area, where they were still together but both of them knew it wasn't going anywhere. She preferred to be free. But that didn't mean she was comfortable being the one to end things. Bryn most likely felt the same way, which put them in the middle of a standoff. Hopefully doing this favor for her would lead to an amicable separation. "No hard feelings, but maybe it's time we admit this has run its course."
Ari started her car after a few false starts, coaxing the engine into a steady rumble, and then pulled away.
Whatever happened with Bryn, consulting a case with the police could pay very nicely indeed. Dale would be thrilled.
Natalie woke Dale with a kiss, sliding her hand underneath Dale's pajama top. Dale smiled as her girlfriend's hand pressed against her stomach, pulling her back until they were spooning. Natalie kissed her neck, and Dale writhed under the assault. "You got away from me," Natalie whispered. "Naughty girl."
"Mm." She shifted and turned her head so they could kiss properly. Natalie stroked Dale's stomach. "I have an early appointment. I need to be in by six-thirty."
Dale looked at the clock. It was still ten minutes to six.
"We could have sex, but we'd have to do it in the shower." She pressed a kiss to Dale's cheek just under her closed eye. "Or we could put a pin in it. Wait until this evening and really take our time."
"I'm a big fan of taking our time."
"Okay." Natalie grinned. She slid her hand down, letting her palm mold to the shape of Dale's hip. "Then you better be well-rested. I'll try not to wake you when I leave."
"Okay." She lifted her head for another kiss, whispered goodbye, and lay back down as Natalie slipped out of her bed. Dale switched her pillow with Natalie's, pressed her face against the pillowcase, and breathed in her girlfriend's scent. She drifted back into sleep with a smile, only vaguely aware of the shower turning on.
She must have drifted into a deeper sleep at some point, because the next thing she was aware of was the phone ringing on her nightstand. She sat up, hair draping her face as she looked toward the clock. She swept it back over her head with one push of her hand, grabbing the phone as she realized it was three minutes past seven. She flipped the phone open and glanced toward the bathroom. The light was off, and Natalie was long gone.
"Hey, this is me."
Ari said, "Hey. Something's weird."
Dale pushed herself up and leaned against the headboard. "Is everything okay? Did you go out last night?"
"Yeah, that's all fine. But I'm at work, and the lights are all off, and the door won't open."
"When was the last time you got to work at seven in the morning?" Dale was smiling despite her tone.
"It's a special circumstance. I managed to get a potential case last night, and I thought I would get a head start on it. But now I'm thinking you're full of it, Dale Frye. You always get in five minutes before I do, you just pretend like you've been there for hours to make me feel lazy."
"How dare you." She kicked away her blankets and one of the toys she and Natalie had used the night before hit the floor with a thud. She kicked it under the bed with her foot. "Give me a couple minutes to shower and dress, and I'll--"
"Don't rush. It can wait until eight o'clock or another reasonable time. I can hang out until then."
"Okay. I won't make you wait too long."
"Don't you think it's odd that I'm the boss and I don't have a key to my own business?"
"I think it's adorable you think you're in charge."
Ari faked a laugh. "See you soon."
"Yeah, okay." She hung up and took off her pajamas, turning on the shower and hoping the hot water had recovered since Natalie left.
Ari spent the time between the call and Dale's arrival gathering visual aids. She bought newspapers with the relevant stories, and went to the internet café at the end of the block to print out the ones she was missing. When she was done, she saw Dale's car parked in front of the office and walked back with the items in hand. The door was unlocked and standing open when she arrived. Dale was at her desk, dressed in a sleeveless pale purple top and drawstring pants. She glanced up from her computer when Ari shut the door.
Dale made a show of looking at the clock. "About time you showed up. I've been waiting here for hours."
"I'll do better next time, boss."
"See that you do. And you have a key, by the way."
Ari frowned. "No, I don't."
"If you don't, it's because you lost it. But I gave you one when we had the locks changed. I watched you put it on your keychain." She closed her laptop and stood up, gesturing to the inner office. "You said something about a case?"
"Yeah. Have a seat and let me spell it out for you." Dale sat on the couch while Ari brought her desk chair closer to the small coffee table. She had already refolded the papers to the pertinent sections. "Five robberies at jewelry and electronic stores, the latest one last night. In every instance, the security cameras and alarms were disabled before the robbery took place. The footage they have before the feeds died is confusing to the regular authorities. But to us..."
Dale had picked up one of the newspapers and was reading. "Dogs. There were stray dogs running around before the feed went out."
Ari nodded. "But the power was cut with such precision, the cops don't believe the dogs could have possibly been trained to do it."
"But we know better."
"Yep. Bryn and I saw them last night."
Dale raised an eyebrow. "They got away?"
"Bryn wanted to let them get away. She thinks they're just part of a bigger organization, and she wants them all. We had to let them go for the greater good." She shrugged. "That was her idea, anyway. Her other idea is letting someone get into the group to get as much information before she brings in the troops."
"Someone, huh?" Dale picked up one of the printouts to read about the first robbery. "That someone happen to be a canidae she's sleeping with?"
"More like one that she used to sleep with," Ari muttered.
Dale's expression softened. "I didn't know. I'm sorry."
Ari shrugged. "We're just waiting for the ref to invoke the mercy rule. It's fine. We were never really that serious anyway. This case is kind of like a break-up gift. She gave it to me so she wouldn't feel guilty, I'm going to solve it so I don't feel guilty. Clean break-up."
"Sounds like a good plan. So where do we get started?"
Ari pointed at the map she'd printed out. "These are the locations of the robberies. They all seem to be situated south of downtown. There are a couple of canidae -friendly bars around that area. I'll check them out and see what I can find. I may have to break out some of my seedier outfits so I'll fit in with the criminal element I'm looking for."
Dale looked her over. "What's wrong with what you have on?"
"You're a laugh riot. I'll take care of that tonight. For now, I'll see if the cops will give me any information they didn't put in the papers. Maybe somebody saw something they weren't comfortable putting in an official report."
"Like a dog standing on its hind legs to steal plasma TVs?"
"Something like that. Do you need to leave early for Natalie?"
Dale hesitated. "Well--"
"I'll take that as a yes. Just let me know when you have to go."
Ari gathered the newspapers and printouts. "Hey, at least one of us should be getting lucky. I like Natalie. She seems good for you."
Dale grinned. "Yeah. We're having a good time. If you need me for anything, let me know."
Ari saluted and moved her chair back behind her desk while Dale went back into the main office.
Ari let Dale go home to Natalie at five, while she went home to change clothes before she started checking out the canidae bars. She let her hair hang loose and put on a low-cut black blouse that accentuated the little cleavage she had and added a leather jacket on top of it. She completed the look with a pair of black motorcycle boots with a y-shaped buckle at the heel. An examination in the mirror revealed that she looked appropriately badass.
The first bar on her list was called the Bull and Terrier, a small basement pub north of the city. There seemed to be a larger population of used cars than people, judging by the amount of dealerships she passed, and she could only speculate about how many of the cars had actually been legally obtained. The bar was advertised with a simple wooden sign that depicted the silhouette of the bar's namesake standing at attention, its snout raised in the air as if catching a scent.
The stairs leading down to the bar were dark, but she could see the fireplug of a man standing casually next to the doorway. His skin was as black as his uniform shirt and jeans, his hands casually stuck into his pockets. He turned his head to watch her as she descended from street level. He had a head shaped like a bullet and Ari guessed English bulldog. As she approached him, she detected a faint smell coming from the wall behind him. There was a small glass enclosure with something inside that was emitting the slightest of scents. As she passed, she flared her nostrils. "Strawberries?"
He dipped his chin and let her pass without harassment. The bar had a heavy wooden door, making her feel like she was slipping into a private basement rather than a business. The bar jutted out from the wall opposite the door in a wide U, surrounded by barstools. Ari saw a few people sitting at tables throughout the room, a few more engaged in conversation at the tables. When she sniffed, she could smell a handful of people in the back room playing pool.
Not everyone in the bar was canidae or even a shifter. The centurion outside was most likely to keep the ratio as dog-friendly as possible.
Ari slid onto a stool and waited patiently until the bartender made his way over. He was slender, but with broad shoulders and a severe underbite. Ari guessed he was an American bulldog from the way he moved. He placed a mug in front of her and raised his eyebrows in question. Ari said, "Red Dog?"
He nodded and placed a bottle on a coaster next to her glass. She thanked him with a two-fingered salute and pushed the glass aside to drink directly from the bottle. She had been hoping to grill him a little about the patrons, but it was clear he wasn't the talkative type. A lot of male canidae were like that, oddly silent when they were in human form. But run into them as dogs, and good luck getting them to stop barking.
She turned around on her stool and scanned the room. Music was playing from the jukebox, but Ari didn't recognize the music or artist. A woman came up to the bar to get another drink and she met Ari's eyes, smiled, and settled on a stool three away from where Ari was sitting. Ari couldn't decide on what she was, so she focused on her human form. Slender shoulders that were shown off by the thin straps of her top, long blonde hair, and tight blue jeans. She had her elbows on the bar, her back bowed so there was a slight gap between her ass and the back of her jeans. Ari took a sip of her beer as the woman glanced over and caught her watching.
"Hi." Ari lifted her bottle in greeting and then nodded toward the door. "Does this place only hire bulldogs?"
The woman laughed. "No, just got lucky, I guess. Waiting for someone?"
Ari smiled. "Am I supposed to say, 'yeah, and you just got here' to that?"
The woman laughed. "Only if you want to see me roll my eyes."
"I'd watch your eyes do any number of things."
"Ooh, that's a new one." She ordered a Rolling Rock when the bartender returned. She subtly moved one stool closer to Ari. "I'm Rebecca."
"Hi, Rebecca. I'm Ari."
"Well. That's certainly a unique name."
Ari shrugged. "I'm a unique lady."
Rebecca laughed, made a noise of consideration, and dragged the side of her index finger down her throat. Ari watched its journey with keen interest, stopping only when it reached the curve of her chest.
"I think you're new here."
"I like to broaden my horizons every now and then."
Rebecca nodded. "Is that why you hang out with cats in empty fields?"
Ari's smile faded and she tried to cover her surprise. "I guess you were the one on point, keeping an eye out?"
"Yeah. Recognize my coat?" She ran her fingers through her blonde hair.
"How'd you recognize me?"
"Your smell, babe. I smelled you out there, but you obviously weren't interested in stopping us. So what were you doing out in that field with a pussy?"
Ari arched an eyebrow. "You know how hard it is for a dog like me to be seen with a cat? I had to go somewhere we wouldn't be seen."
"Was she worth it?"
Ari grinned. "Oh, yeah."
Rebecca laughed and took a swig of her beer.
"If I'm a cop, you just implicated yourself in a robbery."
"Am I gonna have to check you for a wire?"
Ari whistled. "God, I hope so."
"If you were a cop, you wouldn't have just sat there last night. Besides, you're much too relaxed for a cop." Rebecca turned to face her, leaving one elbow on the bar and lacing her fingers together. "So you stumble across us last night and turn up at my bar the next day. Something tells me you want in."
"Money is money." Ari shrugged. "You guys seem to have your shit together. I read the paper today and the cops are completely stumped. If you ever need an extra set of paws, I could always use the cash."
Rebecca shrugged and looked toward the jukebox. The song had ended, and there was a drawn-out silence before the next song began.
"So do I have to beg?" Ari said. "I could really use some extra money."
"Who can't, these days?" Rebecca picked up her bottle and slid off the stool. "Come back in a couple of days. I'll talk to the others and see what they have to say. But you're really hot. That's a bonus. So I'll see you Thursday. And leave the pussy at home. Just us dogs down here, understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ari said.
Rebecca walked away, moving her hips in a manner that suggested she knew Ari was watching. Ari appreciated the show, holding her bottle against her bottom lip and waiting until Rebecca was out of sight before she took a drink. She turned back to the bar and smiled. The bartender glanced over and gestured at her bottle. Ari nodded and finished off the beer she had before he brought her a replacement.
She deserved a drink; step one of her job was already done. Now all she had to do was pass the hazing and she'd be in like Flynn. All her jobs should be so easy. She spotted a cigarette machine in the corridor leading to the bathrooms and made her way over. She bought a pack and carried it outside, passing the Hulk at the door and climbing the stairs to the sunshine. She didn't smoke, but it was a reasonable enough excuse to get out of the bar long enough to make a phone call.
Ari leaned against the wall outside of the bouncer's earshot and dialed Dale's number. It rang four times, and Ari winced harder with each buzz. Finally, there was a click that she thought would be the call switching over to voicemail.
"Why, Ari. I should have known that an early day was too good to be true."
"Be honest. How poorly timed is this call?"
Dale sighed. "Well, Natalie hasn't even arrived yet, so it's kind of a grey area. What do you need?"
"Things are moving faster than I thought. I need to follow someone, but she's a canidae . She caught my scent from across a parking lot last night, and today she recognized it in a bar full of others like us. So I think she would pick up on it if I tried to follow her myself. I just need to know where she's going and if she meets up with anyone." Dale didn't answer right away. "I know where I can find her, so it's not crucial that it happen tonight. If you need to say no--"
"No, it's fine. I'll call Natalie and cancel."
"I'm sorry, Dale. I really am."
Dale chuckled. "I know, Ari. That's why I'm doing it. You didn't make it an order, and you feel bad about making me do it. That might be screwed-up logic, but it tipped things in your favor. Just don't play that card too often."
"I'll try to hold it back. Text me when you get here and I'll give you a description of the lady you're trailing. There's no rush; she's still hanging out down in the bar so I think it'll be a while before she leaves."
Dale said, "Right, but the sooner I get there, the less chance she leaves before I can start tailing. I'll be there in half an hour."
"Thank you. Hopefully it won't take all night and you can still salvage your date with Natalie."
"One can hope. I'm at a bar called the Bull and Terrier." She gave directions. "I'll see you soon."
Ari hung up and slipped the phone back into her pocket, casually tapping her unopened pack of cigarettes against her thigh. As she started down the stairs, she realized the bouncer wouldn't be able to smell smoke on her. She held up the package for him to see and smiled. "Fighting the urge. Three days without a cigarette and I'm about to lose my goddamn mind."
He managed a smile. "Longest I've gone is four hours, and I was asleep."
Ari tossed him the pack. "Be my guest. Save me from myself, man."
Ari brushed past him and went back into the bar. It was almost a shame that she was there under false pretenses; it seemed like a fun place to hang out. She got the bartender's attention and ordered another drink.
Dale was waiting by the door and opened it just after Natalie finished knocking. "Hey..."
"Ah, let me guess. Change of plans?"
She smiled apologetically. "Am I that bad?"
Natalie shrugged. "Your expression kind of gave you away. I take it there's big private investigator business going on and your boss needs you."
"Yeah. It should maybe only take an hour or two. It really depends on how long a certain woman takes in a certain bar."
Natalie stepped back to let Dale out of the apartment, and they started walking to the elevator. "Your boss really needs to get help."
"She has help. Me."
"No, I mean... professional help."
Dale rolled her eyes. "She's not the woman in the bar. And Ari isn't a drunk."
Natalie smiled. "She just calls you in the middle of the night to drive her home, and often forgets where she is or what she's been doing."
"I won't say that our business relationship is normal. But we've been through a lot together. We trust each other." They stepped into the elevator together. When the doors closed, Dale took both of Natalie's hands and turned her so they were facing each other. "Listen, go back upstairs and wait for me in my apartment. If I'm late, go to sleep. I promise I'll be home before midnight to give you a very special awakening." She leaned in and kissed her until Natalie started to respond. "Okay?"
"Can I order in?"
"Menus are on the fridge. I circled my favorites, so you can get me something too. I'll try to be back before dinnertime."
Natalie kissed her again as the doors opened. "You're lucky you're worth the aggravation, Dale Frye."
"Good to know. I'll see you soon."
Dale reluctantly left the elevator and waved goodbye as the doors closed on her girlfriend. Dale exhaled and blew her bangs out of her face before she turned and walked out of the building. "I really should have been a banker. They have reasonable hours, right? Nights and weekends free. Wonder what that would be like..."
The Bull and Terrier tavern was in Lake City, and Dale managed to use the few existing street signs and an auto club map to figure out exactly where the pub was. She saw the building, which had probably once been classy but long ago fell to seed, and parked down the street from the subterranean entrance. She texted Ari that she had arrived and, a few minutes later, Ari came up and hurried across the street. She slid into the passenger seat and held out a fifty dollar bill.
"Dinner for you and Natalie. That's also a call blocker. No calls from Ariadne Willow on a night of your choosing."
Dale folded the money and stuck it into her pocket. "You're smooth, Ari."
"I try to make up for my shortcomings however I can." She looked back toward the bar. "The woman you're following is named Rebecca. About my height, long blonde hair, black tank top and blue jeans. I'll try to text you if I see her leaving, but keep your eyes peeled. There might be a back entrance I don't know about. Keep your distance. If you lose her, I can always just see what happens when I come back on Thursday."
"You already have a meeting with the gang?"
Ari held her hands out palm-up. "What can I say, I'm a convincing lowlife."
"You got that right."
Ari slugged Dale in the shoulder. "All right. I'll head back down. If she doesn't show by eight, consider that the end of your obligation. Slide down the brontosaurus tail and head on home to your girl."
"Yabba dabba do."
Dale reached into the backseat after Ari was gone and pulled her laptop case into the front seat. She plugged in her wi-fi connection and searched the internet for any information on the robberies Ari was investigating. The shops that had been robbed were all middle of the road in terms of quality. They weren't the best establishments, but they were cheap and you got quality goods. Dale had earlier made a map of the robberies and kept it minimized on her screen so she could check it against the Bull and Terrier's location.
The robberies were getting farther away from Lake City, spreading toward downtown Seattle. The jobs that got Officer Decker's attention were most likely just rehearsals for a bigger score. If Ari could find out what it was, the police might be very grateful for their assistance. That could lead to all kinds of good things for the agency.
Her phone buzzed and she put her computer aside before she even read the message. It was from Ari, as expected, and it simply said, "Get ready."
Dale started the car and pulled farther away from the bar. As she pulled to a different spot near the corner, she checked the stairs in her rearview. A few seconds later a blonde head appeared, followed by a long and lithe body. Dale scoffed and shook her head. "No, Natalie, no reason to worry. I just need to put off our date so I can stalk a supermodel."
Rebecca walked to a Jeep and climbed behind the wheel. Dale was already driving by the time her target pulled away from the curb. She led Rebecca for three blocks, making a note of where she turned and taking the next turn in the same direction. The Jeep was yellow and easy to spot on side streets, and Dale was able to keep it in sight while staying relatively out of sight. When the Jeep seemingly vanished, Dale crossed over and spotted it in the parking lot of a grocery store.
Dale parked in a lot where she could see the car and sent a text back to Ari. "Eyes on the prize. I'll keep you updated."
A few seconds later she received a reply. "You're a rock star, D."
She tucked the phone under her thigh and used the mirrors to watch the other parking lot. Her phone rang again and she flipped it open, expecting another update from Ari. Instead, the display screen said it was from Natalie. "Please don't tell me you're going home, please don't be angry." She opened the phone and read the text.
"Your sheets feel good against my skin."
Dale whimpered and sent back a reply. "You're killing me."
Forty-five seconds later, Natalie sent. "Wanna get kinky?"
"I wouldn't be able to enjoy it."
Dale kept her eyes on the parking lot between texts, deciding this was an acceptable way to kill time until Rebecca showed up again.
"But I would," Rebecca eventually sent.
"Don't tire yourself out before I get there."
"Just getting everything warmed up."
Dale bit her bottom lip. "Nice mental picture."
"Serious: am I disturbing you from work?"
Dale sighed and shook her head. She might actually fall in love with this woman with very little effort. "I'll let you know when I have to go. What are you wearing?"
"I can't believe I just actually typed that," she said out loud, resting her phone on her thigh as she eagerly waited for a response. She felt like a teenager again, waiting by her telephone for a reply to the note she'd slipped into Nicole Benuzzi's locker. I like you. If you like me too, call, but if you don't, please don't say anything.
She still remembered how much she had been shaking when her phone actually rang, and the tremor in Nicole's voice when she said, "You... like me?"
Dale's phone vibrated and she flipped it open. "Just one of your shirts."
She groaned. "Which one?"
"That you'll have to see for yourself."
Dale hoped it was the pale purple T-shirt that clung to Natalie's body like a second skin. The wait had just become that much longer. Dale was about to send a reply when she saw the reverse lights of the Jeep glowing red. "Sorry, babe. Work beckons. Keep the home fires burning." She put the phone on her console, forcing herself to ignore it as she pulled out of the parking lot. Rebecca passed in front of her and Dale pulled out and followed her down the street. At a stop sign, Rebecca turned right and Dale continued straight.
It wasn't difficult to tail someone from side streets, but it increased the possibility of losing track of her target. Fortunately she was able to track Rebecca fairly easy. She dropped back when she reached a dead end, turning east before resuming her northward journey. Rebecca had turned down another street and Dale risked following directly behind her briefly.
The Jeep finally parked in front of a two story house with a glassed-in sunroom in place of a front porch. The yard was barricaded by a chain-link fence overgrown with decorative ivy. Dale didn't slow as she passed, turning a corner and parking out of sight in front of an empty house. She walked back to the corner on foot and saw Rebecca had already gone through the fence. She opened the sunroom door and disappeared into the house.
Dale made a note of the address and went back to where she had parked. She sent Ari the address in a text. She added a "Now what?" at the end to indicate her willingness to continue the surveillance if necessary. Ari sent back a reply immediately.
"Thank you! GO HOME."
Dale sent back a quick, "Ur the best boss" before she drove away. It was still early. Maybe she could finish what Natalie had started before they had dinner. It was a struggle to obey traffic laws on her way back home.
Ari spent the rest of the evening at the Bull and Terrier, nursing drinks starting with her third refill. She wandered into the back room and played a game of pool with a Japanese ringer who completely ran the table. Ari thanked her for the game and paid the twenty bucks she had bet on the game before she went back out into the main bar. Framed photos hung in an alcove near the front door and she pretended to casually scan the faces.
She spotted Rebecca in a handful of pictures. Usually she was alone, but in one she had her arm around a redhead who didn't look happy about being photographed. Rebecca was kissing the reluctant redhead's cheek with her eyes turned so she could look into the lens. Through the window beside the door, she saw that the bouncer was smoking, so she stepped outside. "Hey. You mind if I just stand around and inhale?"
He smiled. "Knock yourself out."
She hated the smell of smoke, but this was the character she had created. Besides, it could lead to more information. She leaned against the wall opposite the door so she wouldn't impede traffic coming in and out of the bar. "So, uh, the tall blonde who was in there a while ago. She seems to be a regular?"
"Beck Collier? Yeah, she's here a lot."
"You know if she's single? Or, you know, interested in women?"
The bouncer laughed. "I think a straight girl would make an exception for someone who looked like you." He took a drag off his cigarette. "But you're in luck, because I've only seen Beck with ladies. I think she's got someone right now, but don't let that get you down. Her relationships never seem to last very long. She likes to play the field."
"Yeah, I know how that is." She pushed away from the wall. "Thanks for letting me get a fix, and for the info on Beck."
"No problem. Hey, you got a name?"
He held out a hand. "I'm Milhous."
Ari laughed and then waved a hand in front of her face. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have laughed. It's a good name."
"S'okay. At least these days it makes more people think of that cartoon instead of the President. I can smell a lot of alcohol on you. Planning to drive?"
"Uh, yeah. I'm fine. I'm not impaired if--"
He was already shaking his head. "Can't do it. I can call you a cab, or you can walk. There're changing rooms in the back if you'd like to do it on all fours."
The thought of clearing her head with fresh air and exercise was appealing. "Changing room?"
"I'll show you." He led her inside, through the bar and past the bathrooms. There were men and women's changing rooms, as promised. Wooden partitions painted green created three stalls with the doors standing open. Milhous pushed open one of the stall doors and pointed to a bag hanging on the wall. "We like you to bring the bags back if you carry your clothes home in 'em."
"How do I put it on if I'm--"
"Set it against the wall, squat, and lean back. Slide your legs through the straps. There's a nylon strap here that tightens it so it can sit on your back without too much jostling."
Just like the bags I saw Beck and her friends using last night, Ari thought. Interesting. She hoped the bar wasn't involved in the robberies; she would hate to take Milhous down. "Wow, you guys thought of everything."
"Just trying to keep our clientele safe. Hope to see you around here again sometime. And not just for the cigs."
Ari grinned and he left her alone in the room. Once he was gone, Ari noticed there was a doggy door that would allow her out once she had changed. They really had thought of everything. She went into a stall and undressed, wishing she could say it was the first time she'd been naked in the back of a bar. She folded her clothes and placed them in the bag and then sat on the half-moon bench.
In a pinch, she could transform in under twenty seconds, but the muscle and bone strain resulted in an ache that didn't go away for days. For a far less stressful switch, she stretched it out to ninety seconds at least. She closed her eyes and felt the change starting. Her hands twitched on her thighs and she braced herself. She pressed her back to the wall, feet flat on the floor, nostrils flaring as her skull broke down the middle and she stifled a cry of pain and hunched forward in the fetal position to clutch her stomach.
Two minutes later, Ari was crouched on the floor. She examined the bag and did what Milhous had suggested. She turned her back to the bag, worked her forepaws around so they could slip through the straps, and then leaned forward. She found the nylon strap, bit down on it, and pulled until the bag felt comfortable on her spine.
Ari left the changing room through the doggy door and trotted through the bar. The bartender watched her go without comment, and Milhous was waiting at the door to let her out. He smelled of cigarettes and sweat, but it wasn't a bad smell. He smelled like a good man. He knelt down as she approached and rubbed her head. "I knew you'd be a gorgeous bitch. Stay out of trouble out there, okay?"
Ari barked in response. She knew Milhous was watching her as she went up the stairs to the street. The bag swayed a little on her back, rolling to one side of her spine or the other, but a tug on the strap secured it a little better before she continued on. The sun had gone down and the street was mostly deserted. She figured her apartment was about seven miles away from the bar. Not the longest she had ever walked in a night, but enough to make her feel a little reluctant to begin the journey.
Finally she crossed the street and started home.
In the morning, Dale drove Ari back to the Bull and Terrier to retrieve her car. When she got back to town, Ari called Bryn and set up a business lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant. They dealt with the pleasantries first, sharing a lovely meal while Bryn explained the inner politics of the police department. When they had the conversation out of the way, Ari laid out what she and Dale had managed to find out the day before.
Bryn agreed to run down the name Rebecca Collier and the address Dale had found to see what she could find out. She warned Ari to be careful when she met up with Beck again, but that was as personal as the conversation got. When the meal ended and they parted without either of them suggesting they take the meeting upstairs, Ari knew it was over between them. She didn't feel depressed, just a little sad that it had run its course so quickly.
When she got back to the office, she asked Dale what time Natalie got off work and promised to let her go a half hour before that so they could spend the entire evening together to make amends for the night before. Dale promised to put Ari's fifty bucks to good use and named one of the fancier restaurants in the city. Ari wished her a great night and told her she could come in late in the morning, which made Dale blush.
After Dale left, the office felt utterly still and abandoned. Ari spent the rest of the evening on the couch in her office. The seven mile trek home from the Bull and Terrier had been exhausting, and she'd fallen asleep immediately after she hit her bed. She'd woken stiff and sore, and a long hot shower had only partially relieved the various aches and pains. Since Dale started sleeping with Natalie, her post-transformation massages had dropped to none, and she was starting to feel the stress of not getting at least a little relief.
She knew there was a massage parlor not far from the office, but there was no middle ground. A legitimate parlor wouldn't give her everything she needed, and an adult parlor was too much. She didn't want or need to be fingered by a stranger; she just wanted to get a deep tissue massage to ease the pain of becoming the wolf.
Maybe Milhous knew of a place that catered to canidae . She supposed it was worth checking out. She was about to go home without making any significant progress on the case all day when Bryn called her with the bad news.
Another jewelry store had been robbed, bringing the total up to six. When the location was plugged into the map, it was a half mile closer to downtown than the other robberies. Dale's map had been right; they were perfecting their scheme in Lake City in preparation for a much bigger score. Ari just had to hope she had time to gain their trust so she could stop it before it happened.
The next day was Thursday, and Ari returned to the Bull and Terrier when it opened at five. Milhous was back on duty and he smiled when he saw her. She held up the bag to show she had returned it. "It's a good way to make sure you get repeat customers."
"Boss thinks it's a better way to get bags stolen. But most people seem to be honest about it. If you're a regular, you can buy a bag of your own for eighteen bucks."
Ari shrugged. "I'll consider it." She sniffed when she reached the bottom of the stairs. "Licorice."
"You don't have to do that when I know you. But you're right." Ari started to pass him, but he touched her elbow to make her stop. "Hey, you know that thing you brought up the other day about Beck Collier? Turns out she is seeing someone. Sorry."
"Eh, can't win 'em all. Thanks, Milhous."
He nodded and let go of her arm. She went into the bar to see the same bartender as the other day was behind the bar. He nodded in greeting and, by the time she had sat down, she had a bottle of Red Dog in front of her. "Thanks." She couldn't take not knowing any longer. "Listen, I'm sorry if this is rude, but do you ever speak?"
"Gus is more canidae than man." Ari turned toward the voice and smiled to see Beck standing behind her. She was wearing a white dress shirt that was slightly too big for her frame and a black skirt. "When he's not here, he's a bulldog ninety percent of the time. He prefers that form." Gus nodded in agreement and went to deal with another customer. She smiled and sat on the stool right next to Ari's. "You came back."
"You told me to. I always follow the orders of beautiful women."
"Mm. Noted." Beck motioned to Gus and he brought over her drink. "So I talked it over with the others. We could always use an extra set of eyes, someone to carry the load. You'll have to pass a bit of a hazing, of course."
Ari shrugged. "I figured. You don't know who I am, so you have to feel comfortable before you take me along. I'm game."
Beck tapped the bar with two fingers. "All right, then. Come on."
"No time like the present. The girls are waiting."
Ari paid for both her drink and Beck's before following her outside. As they passed Milhous, he raised an eyebrow. Ari shrugged and flipped up the collar of her jacket. Milhous chuckled quietly and shook his head as the ladies left. "Hope you didn't have any plans tonight."
"Nothing that can't be put off."
"Excellent. You can follow me in your own car."
Ari got into her car while Beck got into the yellow Jeep Dale had described earlier. They drove through the streets of town until they arrived at the address Ari had written on a pad back at the office. She parked behind Beck's Jeep at the curb in front of the house and looked up and down the street, wondering where Dale had parked two days earlier.
Beck led her up the front walk, and Ari took the opportunity to scan the yard for escape routes. It was a habit she'd picked up in her teens, and it hadn't failed her so far. The door to the sunroom was open and Beck went straight in. Potted flowers lined the inside of the glass, and there were even more hanging from the sloped glass ceiling. Beck led her to the inner door where Ari could hear music playing.
"Ladies, I got our new recruit here."
The door led into a very yellow kitchen. She'd heard of houses that smelled like dog, but to a canidae it was a much different comment. Walking into a house with three distinct dog smells was like a normal person walking into a room that smelled like baking cookies or brewing coffee. Ari breathed deeply and wished she was in wolf form so she could fully appreciate the varied odors.
A brunette in a sleeveless top and overalls was standing at the center island making a sandwich. She turned at Beck's greeting, putting down her butter knife as she sized Ari up. The woman's arms were lined with ropey muscles, and her shoulders were broad and thick. Her hair was brown and shoulder-length, tied back into a short braid. Ari assumed she was the boxer she'd seen the other night and made a point to stay on her good side for as long as possible.
"Ariadne, this is Pen Hurst."
Ari extended her hand. "Pen?"
"Short for Penelope. It doesn't really fit me, does it?"
Ari smiled. "Not as well as Pen does, no. Nice to meet you."
A wide arched doorway led into the living room, and movement from there caught Ari's eye. A slender, petite redhead had appeared during the introduction. Despite her small stature, she definitely had a commanding presence in the room. Her hair was cut close to her head and feathered bangs stretched down toward her arched eyebrows. Her eyes were shaded dark, but the irises were bright blue. Her skin was just a touch too pale, but it only served to highlight the color in her hair and eyes. She wore a black tank top tucked into a pair of tight blue jeans. Ari recognized her as the reluctant subject of the photo in the bar.
"Well, when you found a new recruit in the bar, I knew she'd be pretty. Didn't expect gorgeous, though."
Beck seemed awkward for the first time since Ari met her. She stood a little straighter and spoke a little clearer. "Ariadne, this is Sadie Dillon."
"Hi. Is that short for anything?" Ari asked.
Ari raised an eyebrow and held out her hand. "Good to know. You can call me Ari."
Sadie ignored her hand. "I don't know if I'm going to be calling you anything right now. You're a wolf, yes?"
"Good eye. I'd guess that you're a fox, but that sounds like a lame pick-up line."
Sadie ignored the joke. "So what do you have to bring to this little game of ours?"
Ari smiled. "The knowledge that I'm a Dixie cup."
Beck and Pen exchanged glances, and Sadie furrowed her brow slightly. "Pardon?"
"You know when you're at a picnic or something, you get one of those little paper or plastic cups for your drink. At the end of the night you just throw it away. That's me. I'm disposable." She shrugged. "You guys have a pretty good thing going on here. There's no reason for you to invite me in unless you want a fall gal. If anything goes wrong, you leave me behind so the cops will focus on me and give you time to disappear into the night.
"I'm willing to play that role for now. Until you guys get to know me and get to know what I can do, I'd be happy to be low man on the totem pole. But once you've seen what I'm capable of, I want an upgrade. I left home really young and lived on the streets. I didn't steal for fun, I stole to survive. I'm good at it because getting caught meant going to a very bad place for a very long time. All I'm asking for is that trial period, during which I'll be your Dixie cup. If you decide I don't fit in, then we'll say our goodbyes and go our separate ways."
Sadie stared at her for a long time and then snorted a laugh. "What do you know, Beck might actually have found a good one this time." She crossed the kitchen and stared up into Ari's eyes. Ari had a good five inches on Sadie, but somehow Ari felt inferior to her under that stare. "All right, Ariadne. We'll give you the trial period. But we've gone this long without the cops getting on to us. If they suddenly show up now, we'll know who talked. And we'll leave the Dixie cup behind like you said, but some people don't just throw away the Dixie cups when they're done. They crunch them up."
Ari refused to show any fear. She met Sadie's gaze without blinking, and Sadie finally let a smile play at the corners of her lips. She held out her hand. "Welcome to the pack, Ariadne."
"Happy to be here." She looked at Beck and Pen, who had been breathlessly watching the confrontation. "When do we get to do some damage?"
"After dinner. Come on, we all lend a hand."
When Sadie turned to walk away Ari saw the butt of a gun tucked into the back of her belt. She suddenly realized just how high the stakes of her 'job interview' had been, and was glad she'd apparently passed the test.
To be continued...
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