DDisclaimer : Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings : Sex and love between women
Feedback : Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2011 Geonn Cannon
Chapter Three, Junkyard Dogs ,
Dale was somewhere dark, cold, and dirty. She lifted her head and whimpered at the pain that shot down her neck. When she tried to reach up and massage the ache away, she discovered her hands were bound behind her back. She was curled on her side, knees tucked against her chest. She heard footsteps on wooden stairs behind her and twisted to look. The light at the top of the stairs were mostly blocked by her captor. The woman was tall enough, or the basement was narrow enough, that she had to bend forward slightly to avoid bumping her head on the braces that ran across it.
The sight of the woman reminded Dale of what had happened. She'd gone downstairs from the office for lunch and a woman, this hulk of a woman, had asked her where Morrison's Grill was. Dale turned to point. When she turned back, the woman had closed the distance between them. Dale had just enough time to be frightened before she was hit. Then a choking chemical smell, and nothing. She remembered the other woman asking her questions. Ari was in trouble. Somehow they had figured out who Ari really was.
"What do you want?"
"Right now, your clothes."
Dale tensed. "Go to hell."
"We need them to prove we really have you. Either you can give them to me, or I can take them from you. Your choice."
Dale rested her head on the dirt and closed her eyes. "My hands... I need my hands free."
The woman leaned closer and unlocked Dale's handcuffs. She put a hand on Dale's shoulder and squeezed until she yelped in pain. "Go ahead and try to escape. I don't like to threaten. I prefer to show people what I'll do if they cross me."
"I won't try anything."
Dale unbuttoned her blouse as quickly as possible, then twisted out of her skirt. She was left in her black bra and matching half-slip, feeling ridiculous in the fancy lingerie. She'd planned to meet up with Natalie after work. She tossed the clothes to her captor and then reluctantly presented her wrists to be handcuffed again.
"Ari's going to stop you."
The woman smiled. "Ari isn't in much of a position to stop anything right now. She's a good dog."
Dale watched her go and then dropped her head to the dirt.
Ari jerked away as Pen threw the shirt in her face. She didn't need canidae senses to recognize Dale's perfume. Sadie picked up the cloth and pressed it against Ari's face anyway, smothering her with the smell. She had been dragged from the kitchen and into the living room where she was currently tied to a desk chair in front of the couch. Sadie pulled the shirt away and Ari saw it was smeared with blood from her lip. "Recognize that? How's she smell? Good and afraid, I'll bet."
It was true. Ari could smell the stink of Dale's sweat and fear.
"Don't hurt her. What do you want?"
Sadie said, "What we told you in the kitchen. You're going to do in one night what it would take us weeks to do. You see, I'm just the leader of this particular pack. We have someone we answer to. And she has a... hm. Let's just call it an employee of the month program. Whoever makes her happy during the month gets a bonus. And I like my bonuses, Ariadne, but they're so difficult to get. Because there's a certain amount of risk involved. The greater the risk, the greater the reward.
"But now I don't have to worry about the risk. You're going to be taking the risk for me." She smiled. "Beck, Pen and I will reap the benefits. And you'll get your friend back unharmed. So everybody wins." She reached out and casually adjusted Ari's collar. "You're going to get us five hundred thousand dollars."
Sadie raised an eyebrow. "Is your friend's life not worth that? I'm surprised."
"How do you think I'm going to get that much money?"
"That's not my problem. Rob a bank. Steal cars. Rob a mansion. Get creative, because I'd love to know what you would come up with. You're such a clever little wolf." She slapped Ari's cheek. "I want the money tomorrow night. We'll be in touch with the details. In the meantime, Dale Frye will stay here with us. And we promise, we'll be perfectly proper ladies with her. We won't gain her trust through false pretenses and then fuck her." Sadie's nostrils flared, her eyes getting darker with anger.
Ari stared back. "If I do this, and Dale ends up hurt, I'll kill you all."
"Then let the games begin." She grabbed the back of Ari's head and pulled her forward for a particularly brutal kiss. When she pulled back, she gasped and shook her head. "It's a shame. You really were a great lay."
Sadie straightened and motioned for Pen and Beck to untie Ari. "Tomorrow night at nine. Either have the five hundred grand, or we'll let you watch Dale's first transformation live and in person. I wouldn't eat a heavy lunch if I were you, just in case. I promise it won't be pretty."
Pen grabbed the back of Ari's collar and hauled her to her feet. She was half-carried and mostly dragged through the kitchen and sunroom, and Pen hurled her onto the dirt of the backyard. Ari pushed herself up, digging her fingers in the dirt as she contemplated fighting.
"I wouldn't." Pen had anticipated her attack. "I give the signal, Sadie goes down to the basement and bites Dale. You think you can get there fast enough to keep it from happening? Just remember, Ari. You did this. You're the one who wormed your way into our group, you're the one who endangered your partner. None of this would be happening without you."
Ari spit into the dirt under her head, eyes closed.
"Clock's ticking. Get the hell out of here, you mutt."
Ari got to her feet and walked to the fence. She paused before going through, turning to face Pen while standing upright and untied. "If anything happens to her, it'll come back on you. Count on that."
Pen flipped her off.
Ari went out to her car, aches starting to make themselves known as she slipped behind the wheel of her car. Her first thought was what she was going to do, but that was a dumb question. Dale's life was at stake; she was going to do exactly what they told her to do. She rolled her shoulders and pinched the bridge of her nose. Five hundred thousand dollars. She didn't even know where to begin to find that kind of money.
Dale's face rose in her mind's eye, her easy smile and her laugh.
Ari would move heaven and earth for Dale. She started the car and pulled away from the house with renewed determination. If Sadie, Beck and Pen wanted to play games, fine. But Ari was going to play by her own rules.
Milhous smiled brightly when she came down the stairs. "Hey, Ari. Got anymore cigs you want me to take off your hands?"
"Yep. Here you go." She tossed the pack and it fell just short of his hand.
"Maybe you need to skip the drinking tonight." Milhous laughed as he bent down to retrieve them. His laughter stopped abruptly when Ari kicked him in the head.
He stumbled back against the brick wall, bringing his hands up to fend off her attack. Ari swept his hands out of the way, grabbed the collar of his shirt, and pulled him forward. As he fell, she kicked the back of his knee he dropped. Ari swung her arm around his neck and grabbed her wrist with the other hand, closing his windpipe.
"You're dead," he managed to gasp.
"Are you in on it?" She kept her lips right next to his ear.
The bar door swung open and Ari spun so that Milhous was blocking her with his body. The bartender took a step toward her, but retreated when he saw the situation.
"Go back inside, bulldog. This doesn't concern you yet."
He looked into her eyes and went back inside. When the door was closed, Ari pulled her arm tighter and Milhous gagged.
"Am I in... on what?" His voice was little more than a croak, and his head was rolling loosely in the loop of her arm.
Ari bared her teeth. "Sadie Dillon, Rebecca Collier and Pen Hurst. Are you part of what they're doing?"
"I got no clue what you're talking about."
Ari released him and Milhous sagged forward. He rubbed his throat and then swung backward with one fist. He punched Ari in the thigh, then grabbed her knee and tugged. She went down, and he rolled his bulk over on top of her. He put his hand on her chest to hold her down and pulled back one fist. "Tell me why I shouldn't pound your head into the pavement right now."
"They took my friend."
Milhous kept his position for a second longer, and then his face softened. He relaxed his fist but didn't let her up.
"I don't know anything about that. This is a good bar, and we don't condone any type of criminal activity." He stood up and offered her a hand. "That includes beating up the bouncer."
Ari felt like she was hovering as he pulled her to her feet. She brushed herself off, then brushed off Milhous' shirt as a peace offering. "Sorry. I had to be sure, and I didn't want to try you in a fair fight."
"Probably smart." He rubbed his jaw. "What do you mean they took your friend?"
Ari sagged against the brick wall, letting it hold her up to take the weight off her legs. "They kidnapped her. Said if I don't get them what they want, they'll... change her."
Milhous narrowed his eyes. "Change her? But if she's--"
He leaned against the wall opposite Ari. "Damn. I knew they were wild, but that's off the board crazy."
Ari pushed her hair out of her face and closed her eyes. She was counting on adrenaline and anger to get her through the next twenty-four hours, but thoughts of what was happening to Dale kept overcrowding her mind. She took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out though pursed lips. "I'm sorry if I hurt you."
"Been hurt worse. Usually by a lot bigger dudes..."
"They threatened her. I don't know how well my thinking is." She pushed away from the wall. "I'll leave you alone. Tell, uh, tell the bartender that I'm sorry for the disruption. I won't bother you guys again."
She was almost to the street before Milhous stopped her.
"You need me to do anything?"
Ari paused and considered the question. "Yeah. I do."
Beck was sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, staring out the window, when Sadie found her. Pen was downstairs with Dale, and the house was almost oppressively silent. Sadie reached out and ran her palm down the back of Beck's head, stroking her hair. She stood behind Beck's stool and guided Beck back until her shoulders were against Sadie's chest. "Are you okay?"
"She lied to us. I actually liked her."
Sadie moved her hands to Beck's shoulders for an impromptu massage. "I know you're not too thrilled about what we're doing here."
"No. She lied to us, and she put us in danger. I may not be happy about holding that woman in the basement, but Ariadne Willow should pay. If she gives us the money, I still want to hurt her."
Sadie smiled. "Yeah?"
"We'll let the redhead go, but Ari doesn't walk away in one piece. Promise me, sweetheart."
"I promise." She kissed Beck's ear. "When we get our money, we'll put her down."
Beck turned and kissed Sadie softly. Sadie was about to suggest moving upstairs when there was a loud pounding on the front door. Beck jumped, but Sadie just turned her head toward the sunroom. Her nostrils flared and she narrowed her dark eyes. "Milhous."
"The bouncer? What the hell is he doing here?"
They went to the door together and found Milhous pacing in the backyard. He was almost to the fence when they came outside. He heard the door open and spun around. "What the hell are you crazy bitches up to?"
"Watch your tone on my property, dog." Sadie stepped off the porch while Beck remained in the doorway. "What are you doing here?"
"That new bitch, Ariadne, came by the bar. Gave me this." He pointed at his swollen bottom lip. "She was crazy as hell, said that you guys were up to something shady. She wanted to see if I was part of it. She kicked my damn ass because of whatever you're up to."
Sadie remained calm. "I assume you told her the truth, so why are you here?"
"Because she's crazy , okay? I told her I didn't know anything, but she looked like she didn't care. I thought she was gonna burn the place down just to make sure." He pointed a finger at Sadie. "Whatever you're doing, keep it out of the bar. You hear me?"
"Get your finger out of my face." She didn't break eye contact with him. "The Bull and Terrier has nothing to do with this. I'm sorry that she hurt you, I'm sure that was a big blow to your pride."
"You just make sure you have your bases covered. Before she left she asked me about where she could get some weapons. I got the feeling she was going to come back here and make a statement."
Beck snorted. "She wouldn't be dumb enough to come back here and fight us."
Milhous glared at her. "She fought me ."
Beck's smile faded slowly.
"Just watch your backs, ladies, because I didn't see reasonableness in her eyes when she left. Be very careful. And stay out of our bar until we get this all settled, you understand?" He turned and shoved the gate open with one fist, walking through before it rebounded off the fence and swung shut again.
Sadie watched the boulder of a man walk back to his truck with her arms crossed over her chest.
"You think she would be dumb enough--"
"Yes." She turned and brushed past Beck. "If she wants to take Dale back by force, she'll be in for a big surprise. Tell Pen we're moving. We'll take Dale somewhere that Ariadne doesn't even know about." She went upstairs while Beck went down to the basement. Sadie went into the bathroom Ari had used and breathed deeply, picking up the faint scent of her from the night before. She went to the shower, where the smell was strongest, and closed her eyes.
Bring us the fight, little wolf. It's been a long time since the pack had a real hunt. It would be my pleasure to track you down and teach you a true lesson.
She picked up Beck's scent before Beck spoke and announced her presence. "We're ready. What are you doing?"
Ari plugged her nose and hunched down deeper in the garbage. A wide alley ran behind Sadie's house, and all the houses on the block had set out their trash for pickup. Ari was in the largest pile, blocking her scent as she watched the house. She could see into the living room, and she watched Pen and Dale walk through the living room to the back of the house. It took all her restraint to stay where she was; as long as they were close enough to bite, Ari wasn't going to chance a fight. There were three of them and, even if she could take Pen and Beck at the same time, Sadie would be free to bite Dale.
She just had to watch as Dale was hustled out of the house. Sadie and Beck followed, and moments later Ari heard the doors to Beck's Jeep slamming shut. She waited until the sound of the engine faded before she left the garbage and jumped the fence. She stayed low and out of sight as she got onto the porch and tried the door. Locked, of course. No reason to make things easy for her.
After checking to make sure she was still unobserved, she went around the side of the house to the sunroom. Her scent was going to tell them she'd been there no matter how sneaky she was, so she might as well make her presence known. She picked up a rock and shattered the glass door with it. She thought about breaking as much glass as possible, but she didn't want to harm the plants.
She let herself into the house and grabbed a garbage bag from the kitchen as she passed through. The living room looked basically the way she had envisioned it in the dark, and she made her way to the roll-top desk. The mail had accumulated in a neat pile on one corner, with the personal correspondence taking up a special place in a cubbyhole. She went through it and deemed none of it worth her time to read in full.
Ari opened the bag and shoved things into it without pausing to examine them. She emptied the drawers, grabbed a handful of ledgers, added a few pens just to be thorough. She twisted the neck of the bag and headed downstairs to the basement. She could smell Dale's fear thickly in the narrow space, stoking her anger. She searched for Dale's clothes but didn't find them. She knelt next to the spot where Dale's scent was strongest and touched the dirt.
Dale had been thrown in the dirt, half-naked, threatened... all because of her. Ari choked on her anger and guilt before she carried her bag upstairs. She took some of Sadie and Beck's perfumes in case she needed to disguise her scent later and added some of their clothes to her bag. Every little bit helped.
When she decided she had enough, she headed back downstairs. She saw the dining room chair they'd tied her to and used the legs of it to break the living room window. She wanted them to know they were dealing with a mad dog, wanted them to worry more about what they would do to her than what they planned to do with Dale. She crawled through the window and hurried across the lawn, jumping the fence and racing down the alley to where she had parked her car.
They had given back her clothes, which had been nice, but the handcuffs didn't make sitting in a car very comfortable. She was wearing a blindfold under a pair of wraparound sunglasses so it wouldn't look suspicious, other than the fact she was wearing sunglasses at dusk. She was in the cramped backseat of the Jeep pinned between the scary muscular woman and the smaller blonde. The blonde had a hand on the back of Dale's neck like a lover would, but the tension in her fingers was anything but affectionate.
The Jeep came to a stop and Dale was hauled out of the car like a bag of laundry. Her feet tripped over unfamiliar terrain, but the beefy woman kept her from falling over. She smelled a thick, unpleasant smell that she couldn't place and wondered how three canidae were able to stand it with their stronger senses.
She heard a lock being released and then chains fell to the ground. "In here," the redheaded leader said. She tried to place them from Ari's report she had typed up that morning. The leader was obviously Sadie. The blonde was Beck, she was pretty sure, and the other woman had to be Pen. Dale was shoved forward and the ambient light seeping around her glasses and blindfold disappeared entirely as she was taken inside.
"Can I ask a question?"
"Why not." Sadie's voice was flat.
"Which of you did Ari fuck? Pen doesn't really seem her type, so I'm thinking it was you and--"
Someone punched her in the stomach and Dale went down. She wasn't proud of the sound she made, or the face that she immediately started to cry. She was unaccustomed to pain, and to be hurt by someone who truly meant to do you harm was worse than she could have imagined. She wondered how Ari had dealt with it earlier as she sobbed and tried to hold her stomach.
"I can't believe you two," Pen grumbled, keeping her voice low.
"Mind your business, Penelope," Sadie said. She knelt down and slipped something around Dale's neck. She heard it click, and felt two metal prongs against her throat. "Say your name."
"Dale Fr--" Dale's entire body convulsed as an electric charge pulsed through her body. She dropped from a kneeling position to lie prone on the floor, twitching as the last remnants of the current passed through her. She gasped, reaching up to touch what she now knew was a shock collar. Her fingers trembled as she felt the latch.
"Go ahead," Sadie said. "Call for help as much as you want. Someone's bound to hear you if you yell loud enough."
Dale's hands were chained to something sturdy and she was left on the floor again. The trio left the room and Dale heard the locks being fastened again. She pressed her face against her upper arm, too frightened to even cry for fear of setting off the shock collar again.
Hurry, Ari. I don't know how much more of this I can take.
It was night before Ari got back to the office. She dumped everything she'd gotten from Sadie's house onto the couch so she could go through it later. She was feeling ragged, rushed. She dropped behind her desk and turned on the computer. While it booted up, she began sorting through her treasure trove of Sadie's possessions. She was thumbing through a ledger when there was a quiet knock on the door. She realized she'd left the main door of the office standing open and cursed herself as she spun to face the intruder.
Natalie's eyes widened when she saw the state Ari was in. "Whoa. Big case?"
"What are you doing here?" She went to her laptop.
"I was looking for Dale. She's not answering her phone." She stepped into the office. "Is everything okay? You look kind of frantic."
Ari laughed without humor and rubbed her knuckle against one eye. "Yeah. That's as good a word as any. Dale is, uh... Dale is..." She drummed her fingers against the desk, wavering between lies and the truth. She remembered what Dale had told her about their last date. "Dale's in trouble, Natalie. And I'm doing everything in my power to get her safe."
"What kind of trouble? What's... I mean, is it something to do with the... uh..."
Ari looked at her and waited for the words to form.
"Don't be angry at her. Dale didn't betray you. But it's kind of obvious if you know what to look for. My father was an alcoholic."
"What the hell does that have to do with anything?"
Natalie said, "It's okay. I know what you're going through."
Ari straightened. "You really don't. I'm not an alcoholic, and I don't have any drug problems. Dale is in very serious danger, so if you don't mind..."
Natalie stared at her for a moment and then said, "Tell me what happened."
"I couldn't begin to explain it all to you. Please, just trust me, okay? I'm not going to let anything happen to Dale."
"How can I trust you? Whatever happened, Dale is in trouble because she works here. How could you let someone--"
"Let someone?" Ari's voice was almost a growl. "You've known her for two months? How dare you talk to me like I'm some bad influence? How dare you act like you care about her more than I do? I loved Dale a long time before you came along. Don't stand there and glare at me like you're going to hurt me if something happens to her, because if it comes to that, I'll fall on my own sword long before you get a chance to do anything. Dale is my best friend. She's the only family I have in this world. So you can be damn sure I'm going to pull out all the stops getting her back. Or die trying."
Natalie backed away. "I'm calling the police."
"Do that and she dies for sure. Just let me do what I have to do. I'll get her back."
Ari started to admit she had no idea, but then she took in Natalie's outfit. Under her leather jacket, she was wearing pale blue scrubs. "You have nitrous."
"I have what ?"
"In your office. You have nitrous oxide."
Natalie started to back away. "You're insane."
"It's for Dale. I just need one tank to even the odds a little bit. Please. I'm going in there with nothing to beg for the life of my best friend. I need this. Don't do it for me, do it for Dale. Let her see what you're willing to do to keep her safe."
"That's not fair."
"Nothing about this is fair," Ari said, her voice breaking. "I realize what I'm asking you to do, but I'm asking anyway. I'm begging."
They stared at each other until Ari's phone started to ring. She didn't break eye contact as she answered. "What?"
"I'd watch my tone if I were you, Ariadne." Sadie's voice was trembling with anger. "I see you dropped by. If I'd known you would be here, I would have stuck around to greet you properly."
"Let me talk to Dale." Natalie stepped closer to the desk.
"No snide comeback? Please, Ariadne, that's the thing I liked most about you. That quick wit and your devil may care attitude. Have you given any thought to how you're going to get my money? You have less than twenty-four hours now. Even taking the easy route of stealing you're going to have to hustle to get that much money."
"I'm getting your money now. I won't need the full twenty-four hours."
"I'm not going to let you hold Dale for an entire day, damn it. I'm getting the money together now and I want to end this as soon as possible. Let me talk to Dale."
"That's not possible. We moved her to a safer location. Looks like we did it just in time, too. You'd better not be playing games, Ariadne. I am deadly serious about what I'll do to her if you cross us again. You won't find any of us in a very forgiving mood."
Ari was staring at Natalie across her desk. "Cut the scare tactics and tell me where to meet you."
"You want to end this tonight, fine. Do you know where the NEST Landfill is?"
Ari typed it onto her laptop. "I'll find it."
"Be there at two tomorrow morning. That should give you enough time to accrue the rest of your money. We'll make the exchange there. Come alone, come unarmed."
Ari looked at the clock. She had six hours. "That shouldn't be too difficult. I want proof of life before I hand over any money."
"Of course. This is just business, after all."
"Right." Ari hung up and resisted the urge to hurl the phone at the wall.
Natalie finally found her voice. "Tell me what's going on."
"They have Dale. They want half a million dollars for her. I'm willing to hand it over." She did a search and found the landfill in Northeast Seattle. Then she did a second search, looking for a name. When she found it, she copied down the information and folded the paper. She slipped it into her pocket and looked at Natalie. "The nitrous. If you want to just turn your back, I can break in and take it myself."
"No. How much..." She shook her head. "I only have a couple thousand in saving. A few hundred more in my checking account. Let me try to--"
"I'm not paying them," Ari said.
Natalie blinked at her. "They'll kill Dale."
"That's not what they threatened..."
"What, then? Maim? Torture? Rape? If they want money, then let's go get it..."
"We're meeting them at two in the morning. You know any banks that have really lax security? No? Then they're not getting their half mil."
Natalie blocked Ari when she tried to leave. She grabbed Ari's arm and squeezed. "You're toying with her life."
"Never. If I walk into that landfill with five hundred grand, I'm not leaving in one piece. I'll wind up in the trunk of some car, and Dale's body will be buried right next to mine. I'm not the one playing games. They want me running around thinking about this money. I'd be an idiot to take them at their word. Right now, Dale has until the deadline. I plan to use every second coming up with a strategy to get the upper hand."
"And you just cut your planning time in half."
"I cut down the time Dale will have to spend in whatever hellhole they've shoved her into. Get your hand off of me."
Natalie let her go.
"Look at me, Dr. Regan. Do you honestly thing I'll walk out of there without Dale? Either we both survive tonight, or I die along with her. And I would really, really like a tank of nitrous oxide to help level the playing field a little bit."
Natalie reached into the pocket of her sweater and pressed a key into Ari's palm. "In the back supply room. The big blue tanks. Be careful. It's heavy."
"Thank you." Ari turned and began gathering the things she'd taken from Sadie's house.
"If she gets hurt, I'm going to come find you to make you pay."
Ari sighed. "If she gets hurt, you won't have the chance."
Ari got the nitrous from Natalie's office and carefully loaded them into the backseat of her car. She found an all-night ATM and took out two hundred dollars, then repeated the withdrawal at different machines. When she had a few thousand dollars, she started hitting bars. She exchanged twenties for singles whenever she could, taking the occasional five or ten. When she was finished, she had a Hefty bag full of small bills that hung like it was full of a lot more. She stuffed that into the backseat and drove back to Lake City.
The NEST Landfill was on the west side of the neighborhood. Ari drove the perimeter a few times until she spotted Beck's yellow Jeep in the parking lot. She parked well away from the Jeep and grabbed her things from the backseat. She had changed into a baggy white T-shirt, vest and torn jeans. She had her hair pulled back into a ponytail to keep it out of her eyes and keep her peripheral vision clear.
She had a large duffel bag that concealed the nitrous tank, and she had it strapped to her back so she could carry the bag of money and keep one hand free. The section of the landfill she was in was home to a multitude of discarded appliances, cars in varying states of decay. Ari scanned her surroundings as she walked, not eager for a sneak attack from Pen. She reached a clearing with a small wooden shack at the far end of it. Portable lights had been set up and Ari knew she'd reached her destination.
Ari dropped the bag of money and slipped the duffel bag straps off her shoulders. She gauged the wind and opened the tank. Then she pushed the bag over, letting the wind carry the fumes away from her. "All right, I'm here." She turned in a slow circle and searched the now imposing towers of refuse all around her. "I'm a little early, but hopefully you won't hold that against me."
"Not at all." Ari turned and saw Sadie coming out of the shack. She had a gun held down by her side, but Ari knew she would be able to draw it in the blink of an eye. "I like promptness. You really would have made an excellent addition to our pack."
Ari heard footsteps on the gravel behind her, but she didn't turn. "Pen, go join Sadie over there. I don't want you behind me."
"Yeah. I bet you don't." Pen hesitated but, after a slight nod from Sadie, circled her and walked toward the other side of the clearing. She lifted her head and looked back at Ari as she walked. "What's that smell?"
"You're standing in the middle of a landfill. You really have to ask?"
"Enough games. Did you bring what I asked for?"
Ari shook her head. "No."
Sadie brought the gun up. "My mistake. I thought you liked Dale."
"Oh, I love Dale. I didn't bring what you wanted. I brought what you needed." She opened the bag with her money and took out a leather-bound ledger. She held it up so they could see it in the light. "Recognize this? Really stupid to leave one of these ledgers lying out when you have a guest in the house." Sadie's eyes widened in recognition. "I knew that you would take Dale with you if I forced you out of the house this afternoon. But I wasn't after her. I wanted these ledgers." She opened it and flipped pages. "Nice details. What did you say your boss was called? Vicki? Think she would be upset if she found out you guys had skimmed, ah..." She flipped to the back. "A hundred grand, judging from this book. I think she might be a little annoyed at all of you. Be a shame if someone told her."
"You don't know--"
"I'm talking. I said it would be a shame if someone were to drop by Victoria Fennick's home and drop off a few of these ledgers. Or put them in a package addressed to her home in Mount Baker, or her offices in Beacon Hill. Packages that are set to go out unless I call them before eight tomorrow morning and stop them."
Pen laughed and Sadie twisted to look at her. She turned back to Ari and glared. "You just killed your friend."
"No. You asked me if Dale's life was worth half a million dollars to me. She is worth so much more. She is worth your life, and Pen's, and Beck's. I will destroy all three of you if Dale is even scratched. I'll bury you all. Now put down the damn gun and go get my friend."
"I think you need to stop making demands, wolf." Ari and Sadie both turned toward Beck's voice. She came in from a second entrance, the barrel of her gun pressed against the soft flesh under Natalie's chin. Beck smiled. "Who is this lovely young thing? Your backup? Was she supposed to cover you with that peashooter she had in her car?" She sniffed Natalie's neck and said, "She smells like the redhead. Maybe Sadie and I weren't the only threesome you've had recently. Hand over the ledger, Ariadne."
Ari tossed the ledger she had been holding into the center of the clearing. She was inwardly cursing herself for saying the name of the landfill out loud while Natalie was in the room. "You shouldn't have followed me, Natalie."
Sadie moved forward and picked up the ledger. "Where are the others?"
"Give me Dale."
"You're negotiating for two now," Beck said. "Unless you want to take Dale home and let us take care of this little inconvenience for you. What do you say? You and Dale, mourning together? Falling madly in bed." Beck's lips split in an insane grin. "It might be kind of sweet, actually."
"Oh, my God." Pen was almost in hysterics. Tears were streaming down her face as she pointed at Natalie. "She's a dentist ."
Sadie said, "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Laughing gas," Beck and Pen said at the same time.
Over the next few seconds, all hell broke loose.
Sadie and Beck both aimed their guns at Ari.
Natalie, freed from gunpoint, balled both hands into fists and twisted at the waist to bury her elbow in Beck's stomach.
Beck went down, firing blindly at some point between Ari and Natalie.
Natalie nearly fell but scrambled to the relative safety of one passageway between towers of trash.
Ari dropped to all fours and began to transform, while Sadie and Pen did the same.
Transforming while clothed was like trying to run inside a sleeping bag. While the cotton tried to retain the form of a typical human, the body within it was shifting, shrinking and rearranging in a violent progression. Ari kicked her jeans away with canine legs, shaking her fur in a futile attempt to get the T-shirt off. Fortunately it was big enough that it didn't impede her movement.
Pen, in full boxer form two full seconds before Ari's transformation was done, raced across the clearing. Ari twisted to face her and ducked at the last second. She scooted under the bulk of Pen's body and bucked upward, knocking Pen off her trajectory. She landed in a heap behind Ari, who was already racing across the space toward Sadie. They collided in an explosion of brown and red fur, Ari raising on her hind legs as she swiped at Sadie's face with her forepaws.
Beck came from the right and viciously bit Ari's back leg. Ari yelped and felt blood on her fur, but she just dropped her hips and kicked with both back legs. She caught Beck on the chin and knocked her aside, a part of her brain realizing that the three of them were mimicking the position they had taken the night before.
Ari's back foot had cut open part of Beck's snout, and blood darkened her muzzle as she went in for another attack. Ari closed her teeth around Sadie's throat but didn't bite down. It was just a warning, a threat of what she could do if she wanted to. Call them off.
We'll tear you and your friend both to pieces.
Ari tightened her jaw and felt the points of her teeth sinking into soft flesh.
Get back , Sadie thought loud enough that it was like a spike in Ari's brain. Pen and Beck growled as they backed away. Ari saw her blood on Beck's muzzle, mingled with her own blood from the cut next to her nose.
Dale. Dale. Dale . It was all Ari could think, and she knew the message was getting through because Sadie began to back away.
Ari stayed with her, growling as she kept her jaw closed around Sadie's throat. It forced them to move awkwardly, Ari occasionally tripping over her hind legs as she backed toward the small shack. She turned her head as much as she could and saw Beck following at a safe distance. Pen was lagging behind, her head down as she brushed her snout with her front paws and sneezed as the gas continued to affect her functions.
The gas was starting to diffuse in the open air, but Ari could still smell it. They reached the shack and Sadie bumped the door open with the top of her head. It swung open and Ari looked inside. Dale was sitting on the floor, her hands cuffed to a wooden support beam. She was wearing a collar, and she sat up straighter when she saw who was at the door.
Ari let go of Sadie's throat to bark a greeting, unable to restrain her happiness as seeing Dale relatively uninjured.
"Ar--" It was all Dale could get out before she cried out in pain. Her body bowed and her hands fought the cuffs in an attempt to grab at the collar and pull it away from her skin. The reason for Dale's warning was Pen, who closed her jaws around Ari's tail and dragged her back out of the cabin. Ari yelped and twisted onto her back to see droplets of blood fall from Pen's mouth. Beck pounced on Ari, knocking the wind from her.
Sadie got to her feet and raced into the cabin, baring her teeth as she ran straight for Dale.
Ari panicked. Her transformation was half over before she realized it had started, and she rolled onto her hands and knees and ran for the fox. Sadie opened her mouth wide, saliva glistening on her fangs as she lunged for Dale's exposed foot.
Ari clubbed Sadie on the head, and the fox went down heavy and hard. Beck slammed into Ari from behind and the three of them fell, rolling with Sadie wrapped in her arms and Beck clinging to her back. Ari slammed Beck against the wall, her hands closed around Sadie's muzzle as she fought to get free.
Pen stalked toward Dale. Dale had pushed herself back up into a sitting position, recovered from her electrocution if a little foggy. She kicked with one foot and caught Pen on the muzzle, but Pen just shook it off. She closed her jaw around Dale's ankle.
The room became extremely still. Ari felt Beck's teeth digging into her skin, felt the blood drip. So far Pen hadn't bitten hard enough to draw blood, hadn't started the procedure. Ari licked her lips and released Sadie. Sadie slid away from Ari, shook her fur, and moved across the floor to where Dale was sitting.
The weight of Beck sitting on her was becoming uncomfortable. Sadie transformed back into her human form, rolling her neck. She was naked save for her tattered underwear and blouse. She looked between Dale and Ari. "Well. It was an admirable attempt, but look where we are. Right back where we started. Tell us how to stop the ledgers from going out, and I'll tell Beck to kill you slowly."
Beck growled; she obviously wasn't keen on that deal.
"Let Dale go now. Right now. And we'll discuss it."
Ari was shaking her head.
Sadie nodded to Pen, who released Dale's foot and backed slowly away. Once she was a safe distance from Dale, too far to lunge and bite her again, Ari reached back and grabbed a handful of Beck's pelt. She flung herself forward like she was going to do a somersault and tossed Beck over her. Beck's nails tore Ari's skin and blood flowed freely down her back, but she didn't stop to focus on the pain. As Beck tumbled through the air, Ari staggered forward and tackled Sadie. They hit the ground as Beck landed on Pen, and the two canidae yelped and twisted as they tried to get away from each other.
The door to the shack opened and Natalie stepped inside. "What the... God in..."
"Get Dale," Ari said. "Get the collar off of her and don't let anyone bite her."
Natalie stepped around Pen and Beck, whose canidae minds had taken over and caused them to start grappling. Ari only had seconds before they came back to their senses. She grabbed a handful of Sadie's short red hair and held her still before headbutting her. The impact left them both dazed, but Sadie was worse off. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she went limp. Ari looked up as Natalie got Dale's hands free and the two of them started for the door.
Beck twisted and snapped at Dale's leg as she walked past.
Dale kicked her in the head.
"Dale! What--" Natalie twisted toward Ari in time to see her transformation begin. She screamed as she watched Ari's skin ripple and tear, becoming thicker and haired as she crouched on top of Sadie's limp body. Dale pushed Natalie out into the fresh air. She shut the door behind her, the latch clicking with a sense of finality.
Ari, fully wolf now, looked at the two dogs scowling at her from the door. Just us bitches now.
Beck and Pen got to their feet and Ari climbed off Sadie's body and backed into the corner. She bared her teeth in a snarl as she thought about what they had planned to do to Dale. Behind them, she saw Sadie roll over onto her stomach and touch her forehead. It would only be a matter of seconds before she was recovered enough to transform into the fox again. Ari had that long to end the fight with the shepherd and boxer before the odds got even worse.
Bring it on.
The dogs howled as they pounced on her.
Natalie's fingers were tender, soft and cold against her neck. Dale kept her eyes closed and focused on her pulse throbbing against the collar. If she was capable of speech, it would have consisted of three words urgently repeated. "Get it off." Natalie pinched Dale's skin and whispered an apology, her voice trembling on the verge of insanity. Finally, the latch came free and the collar fell away. Dale cried out with relief and grabbed Natalie, hugging her tightly. She was sitting on the back of a junked car, with Natalie between her legs, and Dale never wanted to leave that spot although she knew she would have to.
Natalie just nodded. They held each other, Dale's grip too strong to be broken by any conventional means. She breathed deep, replacing the stink of the past day with Natalie's freshly scrubbed odor. Dale wished she had an idea what Natalie was thinking, what was in her mind. She was too afraid to ask and confirm her fears, so she just stayed silent. The adrenaline that had gotten her through the past thirteen hours was fading, leaving her exhausted and terrified. She wanted a bath. She wanted a long, long sleep. She wanted... Ari.
She lifted her head and looked back the way they'd come. "We have to help her."
"I... the gas..."
"It will have dissipated by now." She eased out of the embrace with obvious reluctance.
"No." Natalie was shaking her head vehemently. "You don't want to see what I saw. It was..." She swallowed a lump in her throat. "It was the worst hallucination you could imagine, Dale. I don't want you to see that."
Hallucination. Thank God. Dale touched Natalie's cheek. "She came for me. I have to go help her."
Natalie pressed her forehead against Dale's. She was crying when she pulled away and walked a few feet down the path. When she returned, she had a shotgun in her hand.
"Thank you. Call the police. Ask for Officer Bryn Decker, make sure she's here."
Natalie nodded. Dale slipped off the back of the car and almost fell. She righted herself against the trunk, waited until her head stopped swimming, and then set off down the path. Though Natalie had brought her down the trail only a few minutes before, she felt like she was walking somewhere she had once seen in a dream. Her mind was hazy and uncertain, and the moonlight seemed far too bright to be real. She felt nauseated when she reached the shack and put it off to remnants of the gas in the clearing. She took shallow breaths and pushed the door open with the barrel of her gun.
Three women and a dog were inside the room. All of them were covered with blood and none were moving. The gun shook in Dale's hand as she moved into the room, identifying Ari by her hair. She knelt and touched her shoulder and softly, almost too softly to be heard, she said, "Ariadne?"
Natalie appeared in the door again. "Oh, no. Dale." She looked away from the carnage. "I-I called the police. They're on the way."
"Call an ambulance, too." Dale's eyes were wet with tears. "And the coroner."
The nurse was a vixen. She was wearing green scrubs under a heavy jacket with the caduceus on the chest. Her red hair and bright blue eyes gave her away first, and Ari realized she couldn't smell. She couldn't move. She was strapped to a gurney that was being moved across rough ground, and it was the jarring that had brought her around. The fox looked down at her and smiled, lightly touching Ari's wrist. Ari looked down and saw she still had all ten fingers. Ha. I won that round, Beck. She dropped her head back to the pillow, exhausted from the strain of even lifting her head a few inches.
"Sorry about the rough ride," the nurse whispered. "We're almost there."
Ari shook her head. "Happy to be around to be bounced around."
The nurse stroked Ari's hair. "Help me get her up."
They lifted the gurney into the back of an ambulance and Ari squinted at the bright lights overhead. The doors closed with a slam and the nurse moved up toward the front of the truck. "We're going to Basin Medical Center."
"Harborview is closer."
"My name is Monica Seward, and this is a special situation. We're taking her to Basin."
The driver looked back at Ari, shrugged, and the ambulance came to life around her. Monica knelt near Ari's head and took her hand.
"How are we feeling?"
"She's the one who told me about you. She said you were special."
Ari closed her eyes. "The others..."
"Dr. Regan is fine, but she's being treated for exposure to nitrous oxide." She glanced toward the front of the cab. "You killed one of the women you were fighting. She had a record. Penelope Hurst."
Ari remembered exactly the moment Pen had died. It was going to haunt her for quite a while. But Sadie and Beck... they'd survived. The thought struck fear in her. "What about the others?"
"They're receiving treatment at the scene from some of our people. They'll be held and questioned by the police."
Ari wet her lips with her tongue. "I think I won."
Monica squeezed Ari's hand. "I think you did, too."
Ari relaxed and let herself drift off. She trusted Monica to take care of things while she took a little nap. Just long enough to clear her head and maybe forget about some of what she had done in the shack.
Bryn stayed away until Ari's third night in the hospital. It was a special hospital with a designated wing for "special patients." Ari's roommate on her second night was an elderly Great Dane with a bacterial infection. He was moved by the second day and she'd been alone since then.
Bryn was there when Ari woke up, hunched in the visitor's chair and looking forlorn and guilty. She glanced up when Ari moved, happiness and wariness vying for dominance on her face. Finally she stood and moved closer to the bed. She put her hand on Ari's arm, and Ari thought, Cat. Her sense of smell was back. Her brain was still foggy; the doctors said that was a side effect of exposure to the gas.
Ari nodded a greeting.
"I wasn't sure if you'd... if I was welcome. So I kind of stayed away as long as I could. The department cut you a check for your work. It won't cover everything you went through, but hopefully it'll... it'll make things a little more bearable."
"We should break up."
Bryn looked surprised, but only at how blunt the words had been. She nodded. "Yeah. I was kind of thinking the same thing. I didn't want... and after this..."
"Long time coming."
"Yeah," Bryn said again.
"Did you get 'em?"
The silence was so long that Ari started to get scared. If they'd gotten away, if Dale was still in trouble while she was lying here defenseless...
"We got them. Sadie Dillon and Rebecca Collier are in custody. Penelope Hurst is dead."
Somehow Ari doubted that was the full extent of the story, but she was too tired to push. As long as they were in jail, she could rest her eyes.
It was night, and raining, when Ari woke again. Dale was asleep in the empty bed next to her. Ari stared at her and fell asleep waiting for Dale to wake.
Ari was released from the hospital five days later. Dale had brought her clean clothes and she changed into them before signing the waiver that said she was leaving against medical advice. The doctor warned her not to transform for at least another week, and Ari had no problem making the promise. She wondered if she would ever willingly transform again. She took the bus home, no longer sure where her car was, and crashed in her own bed.
The next morning, she woke up early and dressed. She was careful of her bandaged wounds, moving gingerly to avoid aggravating the wounds on her calves. Beck had caused those injuries. Ari had thought she was trying to tear her apart piece by piece. Maybe she was. She ached at the memory and pushed it aside as she left her apartment.
The blood transfusion she'd gotten at the hospital had been very carefully selected. A canidae blood donor was matched on type, species, and breed. Blood from a normal person would interact badly with her canidae blood, and a transfusion from a different breed of canidae would have caused a volatile mix that would cause intense pain the next time she transformed. Smarter canidae banked their own blood, but Ari had never bothered. She nearly died of blood loss because of her oversight, and she made a vow that she would start as soon as possible.
The office was a welcome sight. It felt like home. She made a quick circuit of the space, touching the little tchotchkes and mementos she had put up but never really looked at anymore. Each one had a memory, and she realized that Sadie had been dead wrong.
She wasn't a wild animal. She wasn't a wolf. She was a person with an amazing ability. She picked up a packet of ketchup and smiled. Her first meal with Dale, a Big Mac torn apart and devoured off the street. Dale Frye, facing down three punks and then rescuing a dog that could have been wild and feral. That was the kind of person Dale was.
"You look good in here."
Ari smiled and turned around. Dale was leaning against the door frame, her hair hanging loose. She wore a lilac-colored top and a long purple skirt. There were no physical marks on her from her ordeal and, in fact, she looked like a vision.
"I was just thinking about you."
"Only good things, I hope."
"Always." She put down the ketchup and walked to her desk. "How's Natalie handling things?"
Dale sighed as she sat across from Ari. "She still insists she hallucinated most of what she saw in the landfill. All that matters is that I'm safe. And that I stay safe."
Ari had been afraid of that, and looked down at her hands. "Ah."
"Don't 'ah' me, Ariadne Willow. Don't go making my decisions for me."
Ari frowned. "But... if she wants you to leave..."
"Then maybe she doesn't love me as much as she thought she did." Her voice cracked a little. "If we can't work this out, then it's a deal-breaker."
"What if I fire you?"
"Then I'll hate you and resent her."
They were silent for a long time.
"Did you hear about Sadie?"
Ari shook her head. Bryn had tried to tell her a few times, but Ari never wanted to hear it. She could tell from Bryn's expression that whatever she was going to say was just going to make her mad.
"She made a deal."
"Motherfucker." She slapped her hand down on the desk and stood up. She faced the window and rested her forehead against the glass with her eyes closed.
Dale sighed. "She gave evidence against Victoria Fennick. They shut down her entire organization. Eighteen thieves throughout Seattle, the majority of them canidae or felidae . It was a huge thing, Ari. Bryn is getting a commendation, and we are getting the biggest check I have ever seen."
"Not worth it."
"No. We won't forget what happened any time soon, but the money will be a good start."
"What's going to happen to Sadie now?"
Dale leaned back. "Witness protection."
She'll be out there somewhere. Looking for vengeance.
Ari sat down and looked across the desk at Dale. They had both been badly beaten. Ari's relationship with Bryn had been completely destroyed. Dale's relationship with Natalie was on life support. A sadistic bitch was out there in the world somewhere with nothing but time to plot and plan and figure out how to get back at the women who had destroyed her whole life. Ari shook her head and tried not to be despondent, but it was difficult.
"We went through all of that, for what? Some money in the bank? What do we have to show for it?"
Dale shrugged. "We have each other. We went through all that, and we're still here."
Ari wanted to scoff, wanted to shake her head in refusal and claim that it only meant they were right back where they started. But it was the truth. They had gone through hell, and they'd both come out the other side. Not unscathed. But together.That would be enough. At least for the moment.
To be continued...
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