Disclaimer : Characters and situations are all from my imagination.
Warnings : Sex and love between women, drug use and a touch of non-vanilla type sexual shenanigans.
Feedback : Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at email@example.com
Copyright © 2011 Geonn Cannon
The television over the bar was turned to the late news, the anchorwoman's voice cutting through the classic rock playing through speakers in the ceiling. Hannah Webb, blonde and cheerful, thanked the weatherman for his forecast and then looked into the camera. "The so-called Christmas Spirit has struck again, this time setting his sights on the fleet of sanitation trucks parked overnight at the city lot. Workers arrived this morning to find their vehicles festooned with ribbons, tinsel and - in one case - a Rudolph nose on the hood. Police have issued an official statement to the vigilante decorator saying that while they understand holiday spirit, the boundaries of personal and private property need to be respected." A pause, and then a smile. "The holiday toy drive--"
Seth Lane tuned out the next story, since the video switched from Hannah's pretty face to file footage of a bunch of do-gooders loading up toys. A bunch of suckers, he thought, shelling out hard-earned cash for people they'd never met. His glass was nearly empty, so he motioned for the bartender. The bar was doing fine business, lit mainly by the white and blue neon signs that graced the walls. In the spirit of the season, there was a line of tinsel along the edge of the mirror behind the bar, and the peanut bowls were accented with chintzy decorations.
Seth finally noticed the person who had slid onto the stool next to his and, after a cursory glance, turned to give her his full attention.
The barfly was gorgeous, with eyes that almost seemed painted on. Her hair was tied back, but a mess of strands had fallen free to frame her face. Her leather jacket was unzipped to show off a tight V-neck shirt, and a quick lean revealed that she filled out her jeans very, very well. She noticed him looking and only smiled, a sly grin that only touched the corners of her mouth as she tapped her fingers on the bar.
The bartender approached and nodded to Seth before he faced his new customer. "What can I get for you?"
"Whatever he's having. Put it on his tab."
Seth smiled; he liked her guts. "Kind of bold, sister. I don't know you."
"Not yet, anyway. But I have the feeling we're going to get very serious very fast."
Seth chuckled and subtly nodded at the bartender to go ahead and take her order. "And another for me." The bartender set to filling their glasses and Seth turned on his stool to face her. "Seth Lane. Haven't seen you around here before."
"Ari Willow. I haven't had a reason to come to this side of town before." She thanked the bartender and sipped her beer. She wrinkled her nose. "God. Sorry. I thought you would be having a man's drink."
"Heh... man's drink? Sweetie, there's a line between teasing and mockery."
Ari looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really."
"Yeah. I'm not saying you're there yet, but you'd better be a little careful." He was still smiling, but the threat was clear. "I like you already. But you need to watch your mouth."
"Duly noted. So, you have plans for Christmas?"
He knocked on the bar with his knuckle. "Most likely be right here."
"That's so sad. No family?"
He shook his head. "Not anymore. They got took."
Ari laughed, and for a moment Seth had the feeling she was laughing at him. He didn't like that. "What, like by aliens?"
"Like by their bitch of a mother. Five good minutes in the backseat of a car, and suddenly I'm saddled with brats." He shook his head and took another drink. He focused on Hannah Webb again. The woman next to him may have been hotter than the news lady, but at least the one on TV didn't talk back. She just smiled. And he could shut her up whenever he wanted.
"Wait, I don't get it." Seth closed his eyes and resisted the urge to lash out. "You have kids, but you're going to spend Christmas in a bar? That sucks. I mean, even if your ex won't let you see them, I bet a little cash might come in handy."
Seth frowned and looked at her again. She was the picture of innocence, but suddenly he could sense she wasn't telling him the whole truth.
"Cindy sent you. Didn't she?"
He grabbed the collar of her jacket and forced her to look at him. She tensed, but she looked more angry than scared.
"You tell Cindy that she's not getting one fat dime from me. Those brats are her problem. She's the one who lied and got herself pregnant, so she can deal with 'em. You got that?"
The bartender yelled Seth's name, but Ari said, "Don't worry about it." She kept her eyes locked on Seth. "Let go of my coat."
"Maybe I'll just drag you outside, give you a full message to send back to the stupid bitch. One even she can understand."
Outside a car alarm started wailing. Seth didn't react for maybe a second, but then he recognized the tone and his eyes left Ari's and moved to the door. "What..."
Ari's fist shot into his groin like a battering ram, and he doubled over. She met his forehead with her knee, then shoved him over so that he sprawled onto the floor between the barstools and the booths. She tossed a few bills onto the bar, grabbed Seth's collar with one hand and his belt with the other, and hauled him toward the exit.
"Sorry, barkeep. We'll take this outside."
She opened the front door with Seth's head and tossed him onto the pavement. He scrambled to his feet, red-faced and furious. The woman, Ari, was still standing by the door of the bar in a defensive stance, but she made no move toward him as he got to his feet.
"You one of those equal-opportunity bitches? Wanna fight fair? Think you can take down a guy my size just 'cause you do that Pilates shit?"
"C'mon." Ari motioned him forward, turning her body so that her right hand was hidden. Seth lunged at her. Ari ducked and swung her right hand up, pressing her Taser into his throat and squeezing the trigger. Seth's body went rigid, his hands flapping uselessly against her arms until she let up and allowed him to fall. She bent down and fished in his pockets until she found the keys to his truck. She silenced the alarm and tossed the keys back to him.
"I know you're bigger than me. It's not fighting dirty to use a rifle against a lion. Well... maybe it is. But I'm not stupid enough to try to take one on unarmed. This is about child support, Mr. Lane. You have three kids. You're six months behind on your checks. So you're not only going to pay that in full, you're going to take care of the bill for hiring me, because that's just the nice kind of guy you are."
Seth had rolled over and pressed his back against the brick wall of the bar. "You're dead, lady."
Ari laughed and crouched in front of him. "Really? You think I'm scared of you? You think that I would walk into this bar, kick you in the chestnuts, humiliate you in your own bar... you think I would do all of that if I was scared of you in the slightest? The only reason you're not a has-been is because you're a never-was. Your ex told us a lot about you. Towel boy. Graduated high school by the skin of your teeth. You've only accomplished two things in your life... giving the owner of this place a steady stream of income, and having kids. And you threw those kids away. That makes me not like you."
Sirens were approaching fast. Ari moved closer and lowered her voice. "And if you think you can take out your humiliation on your wife or those kids, I would think again. Because I do like Cindy. I think she's a strong woman for kicking your ass to the curb. And if anything happens to her... I'll be back. And I won't bother playing nice."
"You're both dead."
Ari smiled. "Remember what I said about not playing fair?"
Her face suddenly changed. Briefly but unmistakably. Her jaw and nose elongated, and her lips pulled back to reveal teeth that curved inward like fangs. The skin around her eyes darkened briefly, and she snapped her jaws in Seth's face. He recoiled, hitting his head against the wall but too terrified to notice the pain immediately. When he looked again, she was a normal, gorgeous woman again. She was smiling, but now the expression terrified him.
"Sometimes I play less fair than others. Keep that in mind when you're writing the check to your kids." She slapped his cheek and stood up just as the first cop car showed up.
"Everything all right, ma'am?" the cop asked.
"Yeah. He just got a bit handsy. It's fine."
Seth stared up at her, confused by her wavering voice and scared of the way she continued to look at him.
"Ah, Mr. Lane. Nice of you to wait outside the bar for us this time. Come on. Let's take you down to sleep this off."
Ari stepped aside as the cops helped Seth up. They guided him toward the back of their car, and he looked back.
"'Tis the season, Mr. Lane. Some people think cash gifts are impersonal, but you can always make it a personalized check. See you around, Seth."
Once both cops were in the front seat, he looked out the window. Ari was still standing in front of the bar, the picture of calm. She even waved as the car pulled away from the curb.
"She's the one who assaulted me."
"Did you see her?" the driver asked. "I'd let her assault me."
His partner laughed. "Yeah, she looks like a real monster."
Seth twisted in his seat. She was gone. The cops could joke all the wanted, but he wasn't entirely convinced they were wrong.
Ari slid into the passenger seat. "Thanks for the assist with the car alarm."
"Hey, any time you want me to mess with a deadbeat douche's truck, I'm your girl." Dale glanced over at Ari as she started the car. "Hey. You all right?"
"A little headache. Nothing major." She smiled. "Worth it to see the look on that guy's face when I laid a little wolf on him."
Dale laughed. "So you think Cindy's kids are going to have a merry Christmas after all?"
"Here's hoping. You certainly went above and beyond to find this guy. And I'm pretty sure I scared him enough that he's not going to risk going after anyone."
"But if he does?"
Ari shrugged. "Beware of dog." Dale held out her fist, and Ari bumped the knuckles with her own. "On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer... take me home."
"You got it, Rudolph."
Two days later, Ari was lying on the couch in her office when someone knocked on the main door. She stood up and arrived in the waiting area as Dale let Cindy Shepherd, formerly Lane, inside. Cindy looked reinvented, her smile looking natural instead of painted on and her eyes sparkling. She brightened further when she saw Ari.
"I don't know how you did it, but... a check in the mail didn't seem appropriate." She spontaneously wrapped her arms around Ari and squeezed. Ari looked past Cindy to Dale, who looked torn between laughing and crying, and Ari awkwardly patted Cindy's back. "Thank you. Whatever you did, thank you."
"It was my pleasure. I guess, uh, your ex-husband came through?"
Cindy laughed. "I'm sorry to just attack you like that." She brushed Ari's sleeves to straighten out any wrinkles she might have caused. "But yes. He came through in a big way. All of his back child support, and he actually sent me an email to find out how much I owed you. He paid that, too."
Ari smiled. "I might have suggested he pick up our bill."
"You more than earned it. My lawyer said there was nothing she could do. This was a last ditch effort, and you... you came through."
Dale said, "It's a Hanukkah miracle!"
Ari laughed. "Don't mind her. I'm just glad we could help, Ms. Shepherd."
Cindy took an envelope out of her pocket and held it out with both hands. "Your check. I may have overestimated by a little when I told Seth how much I owed. I figured he didn't respect my bank account, why should I respect his?"
Ari took the check and handed it to Dale. "I'm glad we were able to help. Let me know if he shows up or causes you any more trouble. I kind of made him a promise that I wouldn't mind making good on. Take care of those kids now. Get them gobs of insanely pointless toys."
"I'll do my best. Thank you." She turned to Dale. "Thank you. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas. I'll see you out." Ari escorted Cindy to the front door of the building and saw her out, waiting to make sure she got safely to her car. She was about to go back in when a woman on the sidewalk hurried up to her.
"Excuse me. Are you Adrian Willow?"
"Ariadne." The woman looked familiar, but Ari couldn't quite place her. "Can I help you?"
"You're the detective for Bitches Investigations, right?" She held out her hand. "I'm--"
"You're Hannah... Hannah Webb." Her mind made the connection right before she said the name. "The, uh, newswoman from Channel 12."
Hannah put on the same smile she probably used for her headshots. "I assume you're not one of our viewers."
"No. But only because I think the weathergirl on Channel 8 is hotter than yours."
Hannah laughed. "I can't fault you there. Um, this is... an unofficial visit. I don't want you to think I'm trying to entrap you or do some sort of exposé on you. I actually want to hire you for something of a sensitive nature."
"Okay. Uh, come on inside." She tried not to look too amazed at the idea of walking one client in and immediately taking a new client inside, but it was fairly uncommon.
When she got back to the office, Dale was at her desk. "Hey, Ari. When she said she overestimated--"
"Dale. We have another potential client."
Dale adjusted her glasses and stood up. "Oh. Hello. Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea..." She wrinkled her brow. "Hey. Aren't you...?"
"I am. And, um, coffee would be wonderful. Two sugars. Thank you."
Ari gestured at her inner office door. When Hannah wasn't looking, she held up two fingers and mouthed, 'two clients.' Dale mouthed, 'I know!' and they high-fived without actually making contact. Ari reached up to make sure the top button of her blouse was buttoned and then followed Hannah into her office. She left the door open a crack for when Dale returned with the coffee.
"What can I help you with, Miss Webb?"
"Hannah. Please. It's a bit confidential. Is your secretary...?"
"Dale Frye. And assistant would be a more accurate title. And everything you tell me will eventually cross her desk. I trust her."
Ari went behind her desk and took a seat. She never failed to feel like a little kid playacting at being a grown-up when she took a client meeting. That was why she preferred to meet in coffee shops, bookstores, basically anywhere but stuck behind her desk.
"First things first. I know that you're a canidae ."
Ari went very still. She smiled and tilted her head to the side. "Really."
"I know because I'm one, too. I could demonstrate if you'd like, but I really love this outfit and I'm not known for stripping naked in the office of women I've just met."
Dale stopped in the doorway. "Uh... maybe I'll just close this..."
"No. Come on in, Dale. Hannah was just explaining how she knows I'm canidae . I'm a little curious how you know."
Hannah smiled. "I'm an investigative journalist. Just because I chirp into the camera about school bake sales doesn't mean I'm unskilled. A few weeks back, there were a string of jewelry store robberies with perpetrators that seemed to vanish into thin air. The only footage we found of anyone or anything going near the stores showed a couple of stray dogs. Of course, I figured out what was happening but I couldn't tell anyone. Then along comes this little agency. Bitches Investigations." She smiled. "I love the name, by the way."
Ari chuckled and eyed Dale, who had settled quietly on the couch after delivering the coffees.
"So I put it together. I watched you a little bit. I can see the signs of a post-transformation canidae . So when I needed help, I knew that you were the only agency I could trust."
Ari shrugged. "Well. I guess it's not so bad. I mean, if you broke my secret, you would be the news lady who accused a rinky-dink private investigator of being a werewolf. You'd suffer a hell of a lot more than us."
Hannah grinned. "Right. It's good that you understand how blackmail works." She coughed and dug into her purse. She withdrew a folded piece of paper. "This was sent to me at the studio a few days ago with a note saying they would be in touch. I, uh, cropped the photo a bit. I'm sure you'll understand."
The picture was taken from about ten feet up, looking down, and showed a nude Hannah standing on the side of a road with mussed hair. Her chest and groin had been tastefully covered, but there was no doubt she had been naked. She was looking off to the right, one foot on the roadway, obviously preparing to start walking and checking for traffic.
"That was about three weeks ago. I transformed and went on a... little jog. I wound up in the middle of nowhere, naked and tired, and I was trying to figure out where I was before I transformed back and went home in my fur coat. I have no idea who took the picture, but they recognized me. They called me at the studio and said they had video. They want fifty grand or they'll leak it to the press."
"Do they have you transforming on tape?"
Hannah shrugged. "No idea, but I doubt it. Besides, it's like you just said. There's not a lot of weight in the 'you're a werewolf' threat. But I'm a public figure. No matter what I say, there's no good excuse for me to be standing naked on the side of the road looking high. I want you to see if you can find out who is blackmailing me, and what they know, and... just stop them. Make them leave me alone." There were tears in her eyes and she looked down at her hands until they were under control.
"We'll do what we can. Did they call you on your cell phone or a landline?"
"The landline at the studio. They called the switchboard."
Ari nodded. "At least they're not close enough to you that they can reach you directly. Did you save the number?"
"Yeah. I even checked it out, but it's a dead end. A payphone outside of a discount grocery store. I didn't even realize payphones were still around." She breathed deeply. "Are you taking the case?"
"We will. Do you know exactly where you were when the video was taken?"
Hannah dug into her purse again and gave Ari another piece of paper. On it was a printed page from Google Maps with a section marked off in red. It was definitely the middle of nowhere. "What was the deadline for the payoff?"
"Sorry." Hannah shook her head and looked apologetically over her shoulder at Dale. "I just suddenly felt like I was in some thirties gangster movie. They wanted the money before December 27 or they would start sending it around."
"Not exactly in the Christmas spirit," Dale offered.
"No. So, um... I'll arrange the payment with your assistant?"
Ari nodded. "Dale, can you...?"
"Sure. We'll deal with that out at my desk. Ari doesn't like when we talk math around her."
Ari was still going through Hannah's papers. "It hurts my brain."
Hannah stood and paused before following Dale out. "I was willing to pay them. I was sitting there looking at my books trying to figure out just how huge of a hit losing fifty thousand dollars would be to my savings. I'm glad you're here. And if you want, I can spread the word to other canidae who might need your services."
"I appreciate that. But I'll understand if you wait to see what we can do before you recommend us."
"You're doing what you can. Sometimes that's all a person can ask."
She left with Dale, and Ari leaned back in her seat to look at the map again.
Ari figured that if the blackmailer saw someone snooping around in the same area Hannah had been videotaped, they would realize she'd hired someone. So she transformed into the wolf and had Dale drop her off a mile away so she could recon the area without drawing attention to herself. The neighborhood was the result of urban sprawl separated from the open field where Hannah transformed by a two-lane ribbon of road. Ari trotted along the ditch and kept her eyes on the tall fences of the houses in the relatively-new neighborhood for indications of a security system.
She only saw one other person during her walk, but it was someone so infamous that she was taken aback. The news was calling him the Christmas Spirit, a vandal who was going around town and leaving Christmas decorations in his wake. Some people thought he was just some random do-gooder, others thought he was being disrespectful to people who might not celebrate Christmas. Ari had no opinion, but she felt like she was in the presence of a celebrity as he grew closer.
He wore a canvas jacket, black gloves, and a balaclava pulled down over his face despite the fact it wasn't terribly cold out. He had a large duffel bag slung over his shoulder, hanging down so he could dig into it with his right hand. She watched as he placed a wreath on the fence, attaching it with tape, and then continued on.
Ari stepped aside as he passed. He was putting up his decorations using tape, so the victims couldn't even claim their property had been damaged by staples or tacks. The Christmas Spirit continued on with his mission, and Ari continued on hers.
She almost overlooked the birdhouse high up in a tree, but something about it drew her attention. She looked again and saw that the windows were all blocked off and the door was tinted glass. It was turned toward the field and seemed to be at the exact right angle to catch the opposite side of the road. Ari didn't stop, but she made a mental note of where the house was so she could approach it from the front when she returned to the neighborhood.
She looked back and watched the Christmas Spirit tape a paper menorah to the fence before walking on. Apparently Holiday Spirit would have been a more appropriate name for the guy. He continued on, and Ari moved along to make her rendezvous with Dale.
Ari pressed her bare foot against the back door of Dale's car, grimacing as her body reshaped itself. She arched her back off the seat, stretched her neck out, and braced one arm against the back of the driver's seat and the other against the door above her head. When she finally relaxed, she was sweating and out of breath. She grunted as she sat up, gathering her folded clothes to cover herself as Dale finally turned around in the driver's seat.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Ari pushed the hair out of her face. "Not the best way to get breathless, naked and sweaty in the backseat of a car, but I'll live."
Dale faced forward again as Ari dressed.
"The third house in, north of the intersection. It's a white house with a gray tile roof and a tall red-brick chimney. There's a tree in the backyard. Shouldn't be too hard to find it from the front." She slid into a hoodie, zipped it up, and crawled over the console into the passenger seat. Dale started the car as Ari put on her sneakers. "And I saw the Christmas Spirit. He's hanging paper menorahs now."
Dale smiled. "My bubbe would be proud. That's my one complaint about the guy... Jewish people and agnostics, they might not want a wreath or tinsel hanging off their mailbox or their trash cans. If a Muslim went around hanging lights for Ramadan, people would call him a terrorist." She shrugged. "But I guess there are worse things he could be doing. If people don't like it, they can just toss the stuff in the trash."
She drove back to the neighborhood and drove slowly down the street until Ari spotted the house. The front lawn was surrounded by a white picket fence and a string of multi-colored Christmas lights lined the eaves. Dale parked a few houses away and Ari took a clipboard out of the bag on the floor in front of her. "What do you think?"
"Church group raising money for a mission trip."
"Mumbai. It's just fun to say."
Ari nodded and took a pen from the sun visor. "See you in a few." She got out of the car and walked up the driveway of the nearest house. She rang the doorbell and, when the owner answered, plastered on her most sincere smile. "Good afternoon, ma'am, my name is Annie Winslow. I hate to take your time, but I'm raising money for our church's youth group to go on a mission building homes and schools in Mumbai..."
At the second house, there was no answer. At the third, a bored-looking man listened patiently to her spiel. "I just need your name, address and telephone number. No money at all, so you don't have to worry about that."
A dog at the fourth house barked at her until Ari presented a closed fist to its nose. The dog approached cautiously, sniffed, smelled something it approved of, and trotted on to the backyard.
When she reached the house in question, she knocked and pretended to check her clipboard while she waited for a response. She had gotten a few names and numbers, which Dale would forward to the Times when all was said and done. She tapped the clipboard against her thigh in faux impatience and then moved to one side of the porch to peek in the windows. The curtains were only open a crack, but she could see a dark living room with a large TV hanging off one wall. Behind the couch was the kitchen, and she could see the backyard through a window over the sink.
She had always wondered what a blackmailer's den would look like. She had to admit a certain disappointment at how mundane it was. She pretended to give up and walked back down the driveway. She knocked on two more doors and added a name to her list before she checked her watch and walked back to the car.
Dale spent their time apart using what Ari called the agency's magic phone to access the internet. It somehow managed to connect to the internet and, although Dale had explained it to her several times, Ari preferred to think it was simply a magic phone. It hurt her head less that way. She took off and folded the top sheet before returning the clipboard to her bag.
"The Times has a few new subscribers."
"Good for them. We should get some kind of commission."
"Full-time private eye, part time papergirl. What did you find out?"
"I did a reverse search on the address and found the owner's name. Alec Gardner. I did a little digging on the name and check out what I found."
She handed the phone to Ari, who took it carefully so she wouldn't disturb the internet. Dale tried to hide her smile at Ari's trepidation. Ari read the short bio and raised an eyebrow. Alec Gardner was listed as a photojournalist employed at Channel 12, the same local news station that employed Hannah as their on-air talent.
"Well. That's interesting."
"Yep." Dale started the car. "Miss Webb will be interested to know that the blackmailer who caught her on tape also gets paid to film her professionally."
Hannah dropped back into her seat. "No. That's impossible. Alec has always been so sweet to me. Why would he do this?" She stared at the pictures Dale had taken of the house. She was shaking her head, but her tone implied she reluctantly believed what they were saying. "Why would he do this to me?"
"I don't know." Ari was leaning against the edge of the desk with her hands in her pockets. She and Hannah were alone in the inner office, the door closed. Ari invited Dale to stay, but Dale thought it was something best shared in private."But now that we know who is doing it, we can move forward. Do you think he would be violent?"
"Violent?" She rubbed her forehead. "Until five minutes ago, I would have sworn under oath that he was incapable of blackmail."
Ari knew that feeling. "Could he have been the voice on the phone that calling about the fifty grand?"
Hannah considered it. "Yeah. I think so. He was whispering. I never would have guessed, but now that you're asking me, yes. I think it could have been him." She stood up. "I can't believe he would do this."
"If it's any consolation, it seems like it was a crime of opportunity. The security camera had been set up for a while. And if he's a camera man, he probably has a lot of camera-related hobbies. He just happened to catch you on the tape and decided to make the most of it."
"Lucky me." She sat down again, rubbed her knees, and stood up. "I'm going crazy here. Okay. What do we do now?"
Ari shrugged. "We have a couple of options. It depends on what you want the outcome to be." Hannah frowned. "Do you want him arrested, or do you just want to destroy the video?"
"Can we destroy a video in this day and age? I mean, if he's put it on his computer or the internet, then--"
"Then paying him fifty grand won't do any good and it's all a moot point."
Hannah sat down and remained seated. "I don't know. I was ready to toss him in a cage for the rest of his life. But it's Alec. I just can't imagine putting him in jail."
"But if he's threatening you, he deserves to be punished."
"Right." Her voice was soft. "Right. If he was willing to do this to me, who knows what he would do to a stranger. What do we do?"
Hannah made a call and agreed to pay the money. Gardner gave her instructions to wait in Occidental Park after the late news. She was to have the money in a duffel bag and wait in front of the Spirit of Kwakiutl totem. Ari escorted Hannah earlier in the day and they scouted the spot. The galleries nearby would be closed, the crowd would be sparse, and it would be easy to make the handoff.
Ari could tell Hannah was tense, so she bought her a coffee and guided her to a shady bench where they could sit and relax.
"Thank you for doing all of this with me. I thought it was bad enough having some stranger con me like this. Who knew it could be worse?"
"I guess you never know the people around you."
Hannah smiled. "Like your assistant?"
"Right. She can never know if she can totally trust me or not." She smiled. "All you can do is trust and have faith. There will be bad people in the world. You just can't let it affect how you react to people."
Hannah took a sip of her coffee and watched the pedestrians for a while. "I'm really glad I came to your agency, Ari. I think I would be a mess without you leading the way."
"It's my job to keep you calm." She turned toward Hannah, surprised to find Hannah leaning in. Their lips brushed together, very briefly, before Ari leaned back. "Oh. Whoa."
"Sorry. When we met you mentioned the weathergirl... I thought it meant..."
"I did. I mean, I am. But things are kind of complicated right now. Someone I care about just ended a pretty serious relationship because of me. Not because of me. But I was involved more than I'd care to admit. So I'm kind of staying abstinent until I figure out what's going on with us. I'm sorry. Any other time. Hell, if this had happened at Thanksgiving--"
Hannah held up a hand to stop her. "Listen, Ari. It's fine. I'm not offended. I know how it is to have complications." She settled against the bench again, and Ari relaxed. "But just so you know, in the future, when you're watching the news. You can kick yourself and know that you could have had me."
"I'll cry myself to sleep every night."
"That's all I ask. A little whimpering, shouting to the heavens."
Ari chuckled and squeezed Hannah's shoulder.
"What about your assistant? Dale?"
Ari winced. "Ah..."
"She's the other part of your little quandary."
"Some investigative reporter. I'll just cut my losses before I ask you for a threesome."
Ari raised an eyebrow and Hannah just laughed. She looked down at her crossed legs, sighed, and said, "Thank you again. I really needed that."
"Any time. And I'll float the threesome idea by Dale. I haven't gotten her a Hanukkah present yet, so maybe it can be win-win-win."
Hannah grinned and checked her watch. "Okay. I should get to the station and start getting ready for tonight's broadcast."
"Do you want me to be there, just to run interference for Mr. Gardner?"
"God. I can't believe I didn't think about him being there. Would it be too much to ask...?"
"Of course not. I've always wanted to see how one of those broadcasts work from behind the scenes."
Hannah nodded. "Plus, you're in for a treat. Our weathergirl is much better-looking in person."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Ari stood up and offered her hand, helping Hannah off the bench. She looked around the park one more time, gauging the threats and possible hiding places for their meeting that night. At the moment it was just an ordinary city block with some unique sculptures and artwork. But once night fell, when the other pedestrians vanished and shadows filled the doorways and alleys, it would be altered into a dangerous place.
She looked at Kwakiutl again and wondered if he was a protective god. Even if she didn't believe in him, and even if the guy they were arranging to meet was just a photojournalist, she knew they could use all the help they could get.
When they arrived at Channel 12, Hannah quietly found out that Gardner hadn't shown up for work that day. She was relieved, but she still asked Ari to stick around just in case. The producer agreed to let her stick around. Watching the news from behind the cameras was a lot different than seeing it on television. During commercials, the news desk was a flurry of activity. Hannah spoke to people in her headset and seemed to be having a conversation with an invisible person who was hovering just above the camera.
After the final commercial break, Hannah and her co-anchor bantered with the sportscaster before they wished everyone a good night. Hannah left the desk as soon as she was told they were clear. She took off her microphone and made her way to where Ari was waiting.
"I told them I had to duck out as early as possible." She put a hand on her stomach. "I'm about to throw up."
Ari took a step back and put her hands on Hannah's shoulders. "Just relax. I'm going to be there the entire time. This guy thinks he's in charge, but we're going to have all the control. He thinks we're in the dark about who he is, but right now Dale is following him from his house to the meeting place. She'll text again when he gets there. Do you want to go throw up just to get it out of your system?"
Hannah took a deep breath. "No. I'll be fine. But if you could drive--"
They stopped in Hannah's dressing room so she could change into a heavy, dark-colored coat and a baseball cap. When they got to the parking lot, Ari checked the car just to be safe and declared it free of booby-traps or people hiding in the backseat. Hannah was silent for the drive, but she kept rubbing her hands together and shifting the position of her feet.
"It's almost over, Hannah."
"It know," she said abruptly. A moment later, she added, "But thanks."
When they arrived, Ari received a text from Dale, who was waiting at the north side of the park near Alec Gardner's car. "Okay. She'll tell us when he's on the move. How do you want to play this?"
"Do I have to choose?"
Ari nodded. "He's your monster. I can help you defeat him, but if I do everything--"
"Right. Like the Three Amigos."
Ari laughed. "Yeah. The village has learn how to protect itself or the problems will just pile on. So you want to confront him head-on?"
"I want to catch him off-guard. I want him to think I'm scared and alone, and then I want you and Dale to just... scare the shit out of him."
"We can do that." She cupped the back of Hannah's head and suddenly kissed her. Hannah tensed, made a startled noise, and then relaxed. She pawed gently at the front of Ari's blouse and, when Ari pulled back, Hannah exhaled and fell back against the seat. "For luck," Ari said.
"Luck with what?" She laughed nervously. "Right. Um. Yes. For the record, you should just kiss Dale so she'll know how good you are at it. Things will get a lot less complicated after that."
"We've actually kissed."
"Of course you have. Shall we? My extortionist is waiting."
Ari took the duffel bag of newspaper out of the backseat. Hannah slung it over her shoulder after she got out of the car. "I'll be in the shadows over there. I'll be here the entire time."
Hannah nodded and they split up. Ari turned down the light of her phone until she could just barely read the screen. Dale sent her a text saying she could see Hannah at the totem and Gardner had just gotten out of the car to meet up with her. Ari texted back that she should join her in a support position and put the phone back into her pocket.
Hannah began pacing in front of Kwakiutl, clutching the bag to her side as she searched the area around her. Ari spotted Gardner and, about ten feet behind him, a silhouette that she presumed was Dale. He was a small guy with messy, light-colored hair. The light caught the lenses of his eyeglasses and made it look like he had buggy luminescent eyes. Hannah spotted Gardner just after Ari did and turned to face him.
He stopped, just for a second, and looked around him. Finally he hunched his shoulders and continued on. Hannah moved to meet him.
"Come on, Alec. Let's get this over with, all right?"
"How'd you know it was me?"
"That doesn't matter. If I'm going to pay you, I want to know that the video is completely safe. I want to know it's finished here, and now."
Gardner stopped. His shoulders were hunched and his head was bowed. "I don't want your money, Hannah. This was never about money. You want the video, it's... it's here." He reached into his jacket and held up a DVD case. "I never saved it to anything."
Dale appeared at Ari's side and put a hand on her arm.
"What the hell are you talking about, Alec?"
"You're a great person, Hannah. You're... amazing. And when I saw that footage, and I realized it was you, I knew that you were mixed up in something really awful. Drugs or drinking, I don't know. I was shocked. You hide it so well, but eventually you're gonna mess up. Someone else might have gotten that footage, and someone else could have destroyed your whole life, and I would have been horrified." He took a shaky breath and held out the disc. "Here, if you want it, you can take it. I wanted you to see what could have happened. I wanted to scare you."
Hannah stepped forward and took it from him. "That's a really shitty thing to do." Her voice was weak.
"I know. I realized after I made the call, but I couldn't find a way out of it. I couldn't even think of facing you at work today."
Hannah tapped the case against her hand. "You had my best interest at heart. You're lucky I didn't call the police."
"I am. I fully expected to see flashing lights when I showed up. I would even have turned myself in."
"You don't have to worry about me, Alec. I'm not caught up in anything bad. What you saw the other night was, was... complicated, but it wasn't bad. You just have to trust me on that."
Gardner sniffled and shuffled his feet. "You're not mad at me?"
"I'm fucking pissed at you. I want to throttle your scrawny neck." She took a deep breath and turned in a slow circle. "But I'll get over it. Go home, okay? Take down that damn camera. And just leave me alone at work, okay? At least for a little while."
"Right. I... I'm sorry."
He hurried back to his car. Hannah remained planted where she was until his car pulled away, then she scanned the shadows.
Hannah walked over, hands in her pockets. When she got closer, Ari could see that she was shaking and on the verge of tears. "He wanted to teach me a damn lesson ? Where the hell does he get off? I ought to call the cops anyway. Send them after the self-righteous little twerp." She puffed out her cheeks and shook her head. "I'm sorry I wasted you guys' time."
"We helped keep you sane," Ari said. "That's not a waste of our time. Of course, we should offer you a discount--"
"No. Hey, you guys did the job. It's not your fault there was no real job to do. You were life savers these past few days. I'd have been up the wall without you. I'll get you a check as soon as the banks open tomorrow." She held out her hand. "Thanks. Thank you both."
Ari shook her hand, and Dale did the same. "Are you good to get home?" Dale asked.
"Yeah. I think I'll take a quick walk to clear my head, but I already feel a million times better than I did this morning. You guys can go... you're job here is done."
"Let us know if you need anything else," Ari said. "And give me a call sometime. I'll tell you about how to hide stashes of clothes and cash so you don't have to wander around naked."
Hannah laughed. She sounded relieved, and she wiped a hand over her face. "Yeah. I think that would be a good lesson. I'll see you around, Ari."
"I look forward to it."
Hannah walked one way, while Ari and Dale walked the other.
"Drive you home?" Dale asked.
"Thanks. You know, Hannah invited us to have a threesome with her."
Dale laughed. "I got invited to have a threesome with you, too. A couple of months ago."
"Maybe it's a trend."
"Yeah. Maybe so."
They were silent until they got into the car. Ari lifted herself up to adjust her jacket. "Dinner first? Italian?"
"Yes. But fish."
"Italian has fish."
"No sauces. Just fish. Something salmon-y."
Ari smiled. "All right. Fish."
Dale pulled away from the park and drove toward downtown in the hopes they could find a fish restaurant in Seattle that was still open.
Ari liked their chances.
The chairs in the outer office were just comfortable enough for Ari to slump in one, her feet up on the table while she listened to the comforting tapping of Dale's keyboard. It was incredibly late, and the city seemed almost like set dressing outside the window. Occasionally a car would pass outside, the headlights illuminating the dimly-lit office for a moment before the sound faded. Ari tapped idly at the phone, tentatively surfing the internet with it.
Dale looked up, grinned, and went back to typing. "Having fun with the smartphone?"
"Don't call it that. When I can't figure it out, I feel like it having the name Smart Phone is mocking me." She scrolled down her email.
"You don't have to hang around. I'm almost finished with the write-up."
"That's okay. Where am I going to go?"
Dale shrugged and typed a few more words. She finally laced her fingers together and stretched both arms over her head. She worked her neck back and forth and sighed before relaxing. "Okay. Hannah Webb's case file is complete. I'll just wait until we get her check, add a nice little 'Paid in Full' banner to it, and print it out. Another job well done, Ariadne."
"Thanks, Dale. I couldn't have done it without you."
Dale stood up and bowed before she shut off the computer and took her coat off the back of the chair. "I'd call that a good day's work."
"Yeah." Ari stood up and handed Dale the phone. She put on her own coat and walked Dale to the front of the building. "You have big Hanukkah plans?"
"Uh, yeah. A couple of my friends are getting together. I might drop by. You?"
Ari shrugged. "I think I'll go home and crash. Then maybe catch up on my TV."
"Did you finally hook up your Tivo?"
"Right. I can't even figure out your phone." She pushed open the door to the street and a bell rang over their heads. She and Dale both looked up to see a sprig of something green and tied with ribbon hanging over their heads. "What in the world is that?"
Dale laughed. "We've been hit by the Christmas Spirit."
Ari looked and saw that a line of tinsel was running down the side of the building. It skipped over the window to Dale's office, and the tape at the far end had given way so that it drooped like the tail of some sparkly animal. Ari couldn't help smiling.
"I think you're right." She took a step away.
"Ari." Dale pointed up. "That is mistletoe."
"Right. But it's a symbol of maleness, virility... it's not... Oh, what the hell." She put an arm around Dale's waist and theatrically dipped her, smothering Dale's surprised laugh with her lips. Dale's hands pressed against Ari's shoulders and then slowly moved to the back of her neck, teasing the hairs at the base of her neck. Ari tilted her head just slightly, and their playful kiss became deeper. She felt Dale's smile falter and fade, and then the lightest touch of Dale's tongue against her lips told her they had crossed a boundary.
She pulled back and stood Dale up again. She cleared her throat and Dale made a show of fanning herself.
"Why, Miss Willow. That's quite a Christmas bonus."
Ari smiled, grateful for the levity. "I do what I can. Happy Hanukkah, Dale."
"Happy Solstice, Ari."
They went to their cars, the only two left parked at the curb this late at night and so close to a holiday. Ari got behind the wheel of her car and watched as the headlights of Dale's car came on, waving even though she knew Dale couldn't see her, and then put her head back against the seat. That kiss was going to be hard to forget. Maybe she wasn't sure she wanted to. She thought back over her reasons for not being with Dale and every excuse came up sounding like a cliché. She was scared of moving forward because she cared too much? What kind of reasoning was that?
She started her car and pulled out of the spot. It was almost New Year's, time to make resolutions and change points of view. Maybe she needed to think long and hard about the lines she was drawing for herself with Dale and decide if they needed to be erased.The new year would be full of all kinds of possibilities.
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