Disclaimer : Characters and situations all belong to other people who are not me.
Warnings : Sex and love between women
Feedback : Constructive criticism and feedback, both welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org
Note : This story is connected to the Volume 1 Underdogs story "Pack Mentality," which is available in the free Amazon/Smashwords collection "The First Stories."
Copyright © 2012 Geonn Cannon
1. Wake Up With Fleas
"Okay, smart-ass. So what is Moet en Chandon?"
"It's a wine. It's French. And since we're being so specific, who or what exactly did you think 'Amoway' was?"
Dale shrugged and pressed closer against Ari's side. "I don't know. I thought it was, like, a Civil War officer or something."
Ari laughed. "Works for me. It makes sense, too. I think a killer queen would be more likely to keep General Jedediah Amoway's shotgun in a pretty cabinet."
Ari's cell phone was in her right hand, tucked tight against her thigh and aimed at the basketball court across the park. Her left arm was wrapped around Dale's shoulder, their bodies turned toward each other to share warmth. A cold breeze swept through the park and they shivered as one. Ari snapped another picture without looking.
"So what other songs do you have trouble with?"
"Hm. 'Stairway to Heaven.'"
"That doesn't count. Bustles and hedgerows. Also out of competition, 'I am the Walrus.' That one is purposefully unintelligible. John Lennon wanted to stick it to a bunch of grade schoolers who were studying Beatle lyrics."
Ari glanced at her phone, aimed it at the courts again and snapped a picture. Four men were on the basketball court, all middle-aged and mostly acquainted with the actual rules of the game. For the most part they seemed to just randomly hurl the ball at the rim and exchanged high fives if it happened to go through. Ari snapped another picture of the man in green sweats.
"Thanks for being my decoy. A couple is much less suspicious than a single person hanging around in the park playing with her cell phone."
"No problem. But if I get a cold, you have to play nursemaid."
"Deal," Ari said. "It's also a lot more fun now that I can actually kiss you if I want." She lifted her hand off Dale's shoulder, used it to turn Dale's head toward her, and Dale chuckled as they kissed. "Mm. Yes. Decoy duty is much better with someone you're dating."
Dale chuckled. "Do you have enough yet?"
Ari lifted the phone and scrolled through the latest shots. One shot had Scott Glass bent at the waist, cradling the ball against his gut to prevent his opponent from stealing it before he could make a shot. His knees were bent, and he was grinning. In the next shot he was airborne to toss the ball in a fairly haphazard way. The rest of the pictures were more of the same. Even if they didn't show Glass engaged in anything overtly strenuous, he was definitely getting no trouble from his allegedly strained back.
"I think we're good. Unless you want to stay until they finish their game."
"No. I want to get warmed up. Hot cocoa."
"A nice hot bubble bath?"
Dale purred and rubbed against Ari's side. "Only if you're there to get some of my hard-to-reach places."
"I'll even get a few of the easy-to-reach places." Ari kissed Dale's cheek, put the phone back into her pocket and stood up. "But if I know you, you'll probably insist on finishing the case first."
"Yes. And if I know you, you'll be much more focused if we close this file before we celebrate. Not that focus has ever been a problem for you."
Ari grinned and led Dale down the path away from where the man suing their client for workman's comp pulled off another jump shot with no ill effects.
Ari still wasn't used to getting big clients like Pelly Pharmaceuticals. Since the Gavin case hit the papers, Bitches Investigations had been the go-to agency for anyone who needed a little covert work. She didn't know if there was some backroom cabal where CEOs talked about their problems, some corporate Angie's List, but word seemed to have gotten around that Ariadne Willow produced results. They were getting so much work that she'd been forced to refer a few clients to other agencies just because she didn't have the time to work them all. She'd even gotten Dale out into the field to handle a few of the less-dangerous work.
At the moment, Pelly was their only outstanding client. Scott Glass claimed he'd injured his back during a company retreat. He'd threatened to sue, prompting the company to pay for his rehab and medical bills, but someone at the top had gotten suspicious. Ari followed him for a few days as the wolf to figure out his routine. After four days of good behavior, he gave himself away by going into his attic to bring down a box for his wife. Ari only regretted that, at the time, she didn't have fingers to commemorate the moment.
The pictures of him playing basketball were damning enough. She sent them to Dale's computer, and Dale printed them out and put them in a manila envelope.
"How'd they come out?"
"Good," Dale said. "One was a little blurry, but you got more than enough."
Dale looked up. "You don't sound happy."
Ari shrugged. "The guy could have been really injured and then decided to milk it a little just to get a little cushion before going back to work. Now he's going to lose his job. I feel crummy about my part in that."
"He's cheating the system, Ari. There are people out there who are really hurt and really can't work, and they have less money available because of people like Scott Glass." She covered Ari's hand. "Even if he was really hurt at the beginning, he's not now. He shouldn't have done it, and he shouldn't get away with it."
"Yeah. Okay." She bent down and kissed Dale. "Thanks."
"Any time. Are you on your way out?"
Ari nodded and ducked back into her office to get her coat. "I can pick up something to eat and bring it by your place. Chicken?"
"That sounds great. I just have a few more things to wrap up here."
"Want me to stay?"
"No, it shouldn't take too long. I just have to call Seidel about that late check."
"Ah, good. The only thing I hate worse than invading someone's privacy is doing it for free." She kissed two fingers and held them out, and Dale did the same. They brushed together over Dale's desk. "See you at dinner."
"Get the chicken from that place with the biscuits I like."
Ari nodded and headed out. The day had been cold while they were in the park, but after dark it was downright frigid. Ari turned up the collar of her coat as she stepped out into the bracing wind. A car was parked near the curb, more in front of the antique store that shared the ground floor than the agency, and a man was rummaging in the backseat. He turned at the sound of the door opening.
"Excuse me. Could you help me move this box from my aunt's house?"
"Sorry. I don't work for the antique place."
He straightened and turned to face her. "So that must mean you work for the detective agency. Am I right?"
Ari slowed down to keep as much distance between them as possible. "Could be. Who's asking?"
"I'm Garrett Seidel. My wife is Brigit." Ari recognized the names and rolled her eyes. Great. "I want to talk to you."
"Sir, I was just doing my job. You made your wife suspicious enough to hire me, and you're the one who went home with your sales manager. I didn't invade anyone's privacy. I just took pictures of you in her car in a public parking lot, I took pictures of your car in front of her house when your wife thought you were in Tacoma. I didn't force you into that situation."
"No, you just profited off of it. Are you proud of the work you do?"
Ari shrugged and decided to answer honestly. "Not always. But as long as there are bastards like you in the world, someone has to get paid to get their hands dirty. Might as well be me." She smiled. "I am pretty good at it, after all."
Seidel snorted and rubbed his cheek with the back of his hand. "Right. Well, you'll be happy to know that she's filing for divorce. Did you know this is a community property state? 'Cause I didn't." He laughed. "Look who I'm asking. Of course you knew. This is your bread and butter. You probably get a cut of every home you've broken."
"I'm just doing my job, Mr. Seidel. Same as everyone else." She decided to use Dale's argument. "People do bad things every day. They cheat, they lie, they try to get around the system however they can. I'm just making sure that they get caught so the people who actually do play by the rules have a level playing field. Don't get pissed at me, I'm just the messenger. I would have been more than happy to take pictures of you going back and forth to work, and putting your mind at ease. I don't want to be the bearer of bad news. I'd love to brighten someone's day now and then. Tell them there's nothing to worry about. But sadly, there are too many people like you out there. Enjoy the half of your stuff you get to keep."
She started to walk away, and Seidel got in front of her. "Now hold on..."
"Sir, get out of my way, or--"
He punched her in the face. Ari was too stunned to respond, so he managed to get in two blows to her abdomen before she'd really processed what was happening. Her initial instinct was retreat, and she hit the brick wall with her shoulder. Seidel crowded her, getting his shoulder down to punch her in the stomach again. She gasped for air he wasn't letting her draw, and he slugged her again. Her tooth cut her bottom lip as she dropped down to her hands and knees, and Seidel kicked her in the side. Ari dropped, flat on the sidewalk, and covered her head with both arms as she waited for the assault to continue.
"Think about this next time you stick your nose where it doesn't belong."
Ari's jaw was sore, and her entire midsection was a map of pain. She heard Seidel walk away, the car door slamming before he started the engine. She looked up and watched as he drove off, then used the wall to prop herself up. She took a few deep breaths just to prove she could and wiped her hand along her chin. It came back bright red with blood, and she cursed quietly. She turned and walked gingerly back to the door.
Dale was facing the computer screen, the phone tucked between her ear and shoulder. She smiled when the door opened. "Did you decide to--" Her smile faded when she looked up. "Ari? What the hell happened?" She dropped the phone, almost instantly on her feet and rounding the desk as Ari dropped into one of the orange plastic chairs next to the office door. Dale knelt in front of her, holding her hands out as if unsure what she could do to help.
Ari used the collar of her T-shirt to try staunching the blood from her lip. "I think you can stop trying to collect on the Seidel case."
Aaron Frost, veterinarian and part-time canidae medic, was waiting outside his office when Dale arrived. He had an office downtown for his real practice, but most of his canidae patients retrieved treatment in the back room of his house. He walked forward and opened the door to help Dale get Ari out of the car. "What exactly happened?"
Dale had gotten most of the story from Ari on the way over. "Client's husband got pissed that he was caught. He took it out on her."
"Okay. Let's make sure everything is okay. Ms. Frye, could you please go on ahead and turn on the lights for me?"
"Sure." Dale made sure he had Ari before she let go and hurried ahead.
Dr. Frost watched her go and then lowered his voice. "Now that she's gone... how bad is it really?"
"It's not too bad, Doc. Just got the shit beat out of me." She chuckled, then winced and grabbed her side.
"Tell that to your ribs. Come along now..."
While Frost checked her over, Dale called the police and gave them a report when they arrived. They had a few questions for Ari and left to speak with Garrett Seidel at length about the incident. Once they were gone, Dr. Frost gave his diagnosis.
"No permanent damage and, you'll be happy to know, the temporary damage will be very temporary. As soon as you feel up to a transformation, your muscles and bones will do a little twist." He demonstrated with a slight movement of his hands. "Consider it an intense form of massage." He smiled and patted her gently on the shoulder. "Everything should mend itself nicely on its own but, if you have any problems, come back and we'll set it right. Fortunately you have this lovely young lady at your side to lend a hand."
Ari smiled at Dale, who managed to return it without looking too worried.
"Let me get you an ice pack or something."
"I'm fine. Just help me get to the couch."
Dale reluctantly escorted Ari into the living room and helped her sit down. She grunted and stroked Dale's arm in thanks.
"Are you sure there's nothing I can do?"
"Dale, I'm fine. Honest. I just want to relax and sleep and forget all about Garrett Seidel and his wife." She moved her hand up to Dale's neck and stroked it. "But I'm glad I have you to take care of me."
Dale smiled. "Can I kiss you?"
"On this side," Ari said, angling her head to present the unsplit part of her mouth. Dale kissed her softly, and Ari smiled. "Better than all the pills in Dr. Frost's office."
"Glad to hear it. I'm going to throw together something for dinner. If you're not going to let me be your nurse, I'll settle for being your waitress. Relax and let me take care of you, okay?"
Ari nodded. When Dale straightened to pull away, Ari caught her hand. "Hey, that 'I don't need a nurse' thing just covers actual care-giving. If you have any costumes in your closet, I'd be more than happy to let you put it on."
Dale swatted her hand away and laughed as she went into the kitchen.
They ate dinner in the living room so Ari could take advantage of the soft, fluffy chairs. Then Dale helped her undress to shower and afterward Dale gave her an extremely thorough massage. When Ari felt like her joints had been turned to jelly, she crawled into bed and pulled Dale to her. Dale pressed against Ari's side and kissed her shoulder.
"Is this okay? I'm not leaning on anything or--"
"You're fine," Ari whispered. She kissed Dale's lips in the dark and stroked her hair.
Dale was silent for a long time, but she finally spoke. "I'm not fine. You got assaulted right outside our office. That's so terrifying, Ari. What if he'd had a gun or a knife, or--"
"Hey, shh." Ari held her tighter, ignoring the twinge of pain in her side. "This isn't exactly the safest business in the world. I can take care of myself. If the guy had a weapon, he'd have fought differently."
"And you'd have fought back?"
"Yes. If push had come to shove, I would have let the wolf at him."
"Mm. It would serve him right."
Ari stroked Dale's back. "Don't worry about me, sweetheart. I'll be just fine."
Dale murmured and rested her head against the curve of Ari's shoulder. Ari listened to the sound of her breathing as it slowly steadied out, becoming slow and rhythmic with sleep. She stared at the ceiling and let her true fear come to the front of her mind. She was worried about the next time some angry 'victim' showed up at the agency, but not for the same reasons as Dale.
She had been out the door, on her way home. What if Garrett Seidel hadn't been lying in wait, what if he had just happened to get there? What if Dale had been the one to leave first? There might be other pissed-off clients waiting to get vengeance. If one of them went after Dale... She tightened her arm around Dale's shoulder to hold her closer.
It was three days before Ari's pain was low enough to risk transforming. She changed in the office just in case she needed Dale's help, but the wolf seemed to be in good health. Dale let her out and warned her to behave. The plan was that Ari would wander for a few hours, getting some exercise in a body that wasn't sore and bruised, then she would come back to the office to transform and go out to dinner with Dale.
Dale had smiled while they were making the plan. She knew it was much more likely the wolf would take over and she wouldn't hear from Ari until some late-night phone call asking for a ride. Dale promised she would wait at the office until seven, then she would head home and take care of her own dinner.
"Just enjoy your run." Ari looked back at the door, but Dale waved her on and then went back to her desk. She was still awed and discomfited by Ari's transformations. Before meeting Ari she thought werewolves were just fictional monsters. She was still trying to wrap her head around the idea they were real, let alone that she often shared her bed with one. She was very enamored with Ari, and the shape her body made under the blankets. Acknowledging that she had another body was... jarring.
And the sight of Ari changing from one to the other was horrible. It was like watching her girlfriend as she was pummeled by invisible sledgehammers. The bones broke - and Dale could hear them break with nauseating clarity - and the muscles shifted in wholly unnatural ways. Ari's beautiful face contorted and stretched, and--
Dale pushed the images out of her mind. "Stop it," she whispered to herself. Ari was Ari, and part of that tautology included the wolf and the inherent transformation. She couldn't accept one without the other, and she loved Ari too much to focus on the discomfort the change caused her. She opened her laptop, looked at her to-do list, and got to work.
It was dark. Ari cursed the wolf, but she couldn't really blame it. She hadn't changed in five days, so she had expected it to go a little crazy with its freedom. But how far had she gone? She was incredibly sore, and she was lying on something sharp. Stones, maybe. She could hear running water nearby. She shifted her weight off the stone digging into the dimple above her ass, pushed herself up on one elbow, and finally focused on her surroundings. Fences surrounded her on three sides, with the fourth taken up by the back wall of a house.
Someone's backyard. Phenomenal.
A row of fairy lights strung up on the fence allowed enough light for her to see her surroundings. She was lying on a bed of sharp white stones, and she could smell mulch and fertilizer. The running water was coming from a large stone water feature with descending platforms that guided a waterfall down into what she assumed was a tiny pond filled with koi or goldfish. She looked down at herself.
Her chest was covered with blood.
It was thick and dark, starting from her right shoulder and spreading across her breasts in a wide, gory delta. Her hands were likewise smeared.
She let out a sharp breath that came out like a stifled scream, and she looked around to see if the police had appeared in the last few seconds. Shock and adrenaline made her tremble as she moved to the soft grass and crawled to the water feature. She scooped out handfuls of water and tried to clean herself, but she only succeeded in making it look worse.
Her first instinct was to change back into the wolf and flee. But if she'd attacked someone, there might be a bevy of animal control officers on the lookout for her. Then again, how far would a naked, bloody woman get?
At least the naked, bloody woman will get the benefit of a doubt. She imagined the wolf, especially one with blood on its coat, would get the 'shoot first, let God sort them out' option. She gave herself a cursory examination to make sure the blood wasn't her own - no open wounds, she discovered with relief - and then moved through the shadows to the side of the house.
The lights were on in the kitchen, but she couldn't see anyone moving. She peeked through one of the windows to make sure no one was looking before she cut across the back porch. She could hear dogs barking a few houses over, and sirens were running from north to south. She told herself they were unrelated, that sirens could mean anything, but she wasn't quite sure she believed it.
At the side door, she tested the knob and found it unlocked. She slipped inside, finding herself in a garage, and gave her eyes time to adjust to the darkness before moving again. Directly to her right was another door with no light seeping around the corners. She opened it a crack and then a bit wider, leaning into a wall of scents. Fabric softener and detergent and soap and clothing and warmth.
She hated stealing clothes, but she couldn't exactly seek out the nearest stash while covered in blood. She took a plain white T-shirt and a pair of boxers and ducked back out into the garage. She found some old rags and used it to wipe away as much of the blood as possible. Her hands were shaking violently now, and she was finding it hard to catch her breath. Don't panic. Do not panic.
Her skin ended up streaked with what smelled like oil, but it was definitely a change for the better. She put on the T-shirt and shorts, then left the house. She needed to get her bearings and figure out where the nearest stash was. Once she was safely at home, she and Dale could worry about where all that blood had come from.
Dale was only listening to the news with half her attention. She missed Ari, but she knew it was the wolf's fault she had missed their date. Ari couldn't always be blamed for what the wolf did. Still, it would be easier if the wolf really did have some kind of tracking device that would let Dale see just where she was, what she was doing, and--
Dale turned toward the TV, a lock of hair falling over one lens of her glasses. She tucked it behind her ear as the anchor continued, Dale's mind only picking up what he said after the buzz word that caught her attention.
"--Garret Seidel was found dead outside his home tonight. Police are saying the hotel manager had an unfortunate run-in with a wild animal and foul play is not suspected at this time." A pause as he shifted from one story to the next. "Police are also looking for--"
Dale muted the TV and turned back to her laptop. Her heart was pounding as she did a local search for breaking news stories. She found the story about Seidel on the website of the channel she had just watched and clicked for the whole thing.
Garret Seidel. Girlfriend heard screams. Throat torn... bite marks...
"No." Dale tried to swallow but her mouth was suddenly dry. It wasn't possible. The wolf would not do this. No matter how far gone, no matter how pissed off, Ari would never, ever kill...
Dale rose so quickly her chair tipped back on two legs before settling back on the floor. She grabbed her cell phone and coat, stepped into her shoes, and headed out. She wanted to be on the move when Ari called so she could get to her as soon as possible.
Ari found a public restroom that seemed clean and unthreatening and went inside to wash up. She took the opportunity to induce vomiting. Sometimes the wolf ate unnatural things, and considering the circumstances, she didn't want to take any chances. When she was done, most of the blood was gone and her skin was pink from scrubbing with the coarse paper towels. She dressed again in her stolen underwear and headed out. Now that she knew where she was, she could locate the nearest stash. It would have either a cell phone or change for a payphone, and she could start putting this hellish interlude behind her.
The nearby barbeque place had their dumpsters hidden behind a tall wooden fence like all the other restaurants worried about wild animals getting into their trash, but they'd taken the time to make it aesthetically pleasing. The wooden slats were six-feet high, separated into sections by white stone pillars topped with glass globes that glowed gently in the moonlight. Ari used the drainage pipe running down the side of the building to help with her ascent and dropped into the fragrant interior. A small vent near the far side of the building had enough clearance that her duffel bag of necessities could fit inside without being an obstruction.
Ari pulled it out and dug through it for jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt. Then, like a holy relic wrapped in a Safeway bag, a prepaid cell phone. She dressed and returned the remainder of the stash back where she'd gotten it. She climbed back over the fence and dropped to the dewy grass on the other side. She dialed as she walked, looking back toward the street to see if any police cars were slowly passing by looking for suspicious behavior.
Dale answered on the first ring. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Panic gripped her. "Why? What happened?"
"You don't know?"
"No. The wolf..." She remembered going into Dale's bed during one of her fugues, the wolf part of her brain guiding her through a rough and wild sexual encounter. "Did I hurt you? Dale, please tell me I didn't--"
"No. I'm fine. I'm okay, Ariadne." Ari closed her eyes. "Where are you? We have to talk."
Ari looked around again, shivering in the cold. "I did something awful, didn't I?"
"I don't know yet. Whatever happened, we'll work it out together. Please, tell me where you are. I'm already on the road, and I can probably be there in fifteen minutes."
She arrived eight minutes after they hung up. Ari jogged to the car and slid into the passenger seat, motioning for Dale to drive before the door was closed behind her. Dale told her what she'd read on the news website and Ari went ashen as she considered the information.
"I killed him."
"We don't know that."
Ari glared at her. "Dale, I turn into the wolf and black out. A few hours later the guy who kicked my ass earlier this week ends up torn apart by a wild animal. These aren't odds I'm going to take to Vegas any time soon." She pushed her hands through her hair and eventually gripped it at the base of her skull, squeezing it into a ponytail as she watched the road through the windshield. "I know what you're going to say. I wouldn't kill someone in cold blood, right? Well. I didn't, did I? He provoked me. I just waited a few days to punch back."
"There's always another explanation."
"No. Not this time."
Dale pressed her lips together and tightened her grip on the wheel. "His wife. What's her name? Brigit? She hired us to see if her husband was cheating, right? Well, maybe she hired someone else to punish him for it. Instead of half his stuff, she gets it all."
Ari said, "And the hit man she hires just happens to be a canidae , too? And randomly chooses the one night I can't account for my actions to do the job?"
"I'm just trying to help," Dale said softly.
Ari reached out and rubbed Dale's arm. "I know, baby. I'm just trying to figure out what we do now."
"Well... you can't turn yourself in."
"If I did it--"
"No, Ari, I mean... you can't turn yourself in. Think about it. I'll drive you to the police station right now, and you can go up to the desk sergeant and confess that you are the wild animal that tore out Seidel's throat. You'll explain it by saying you're a canidae with the ability to turn into a wolf at will, and they'll nod politely and put you in the crazy file."
"What? Show them? Transform in the middle of the police station and reveal the existence of werewolves to the world? Even if you wanted to confess, Ari, no one will believe you did it."
"There are cops on the force who would listen to the whole story and then make something up for the official report. Bryn, for instance."
"Ari, it's noble. But you can't turn yourself in for this crime."
Ari slumped. "So what are my real options here? Accept that I'm probably a murderer and try to go on with my life? How could I ever transform again knowing the wolf could go crazy?"
"You've never attacked anyone before."
"I attacked you."
Dale winced. "That was different."
"Fractionally, Dale. It was fractionally different. I took what I wanted from you without any regard for your feelings. That time it was sex, this time it was murder. What's next? I don't want to find out."
Dale shook her head. "We don't have the full story. We only know what the news is saying, and they only know what the police are telling them. There is one way to get all the facts we need to move forward, but I don't think you're going to like it."
Ari sighed. "Hit me. I don't think I'm in a position to shoot down crazy ideas right now."
The next afternoon, Brigit Seidel answered Ari's knock with a confused and slightly fearful expression. "Oh." She smoothed down the front of her blouse and looked at the porch, the street beyond Ari's shoulder and then finally forced herself to make eye contact. "Ms. Willow. I didn't expect to see you again. The check--"
"I'm not here about the check, Mrs. Seidel." She paused and cleared her throat. "Although if you have it, I'd be greatly obliged. I'm actually here because of what happened to your husband last night. Can I come in?"
"I don't... I-I don't--"
"Please. I'm not angry at you for anything. I just want to talk."
Brigit seemed to relax, though her lips were still pressed into a tight line. She nodded and stepped to one side, ushering Ari into the house. She closed the door and followed Ari into a spacious living room decorated in blue and white. Brigit crossed to a wet bar that stood like a sentry next to the back door. "May I get you something to drink?"
"No, I'm fine."
"Do you mind if I have something?"
"Go ahead. It's your house." She stuck her hands in her pockets and looked outside as Brigit made herself something to steady her nerves.
Brigit took a drink and then set it down hard on the counter. "I didn't tell him."
Ari looked back at her. "Pardon me?"
"About you. I didn't tell Garret about hiring you, or where to find you. It's not my fault that he... did what he did. When he told me, I was sick. I was literally sick, Ms. Willow. And I'm terribly sorry, but if you want some sort of recompense--"
"The only money I'm interested in is what we originally agreed upon, Mrs. Seidel. Please, I really just want to talk to you about how your husband died."
"Wild animals attack people all the time," Brigit muttered around the lip of her glass. She took a long drink and then put the glass down. "Why should my husband be any different from all the other victims? The poor animal just probably smelled him and thought he was a big ham." She snorted and began to pour herself another drink. Ari crossed the room and stopped her. Brigit hesitated, then put the bottle away. "Fine."
"The police aren't investigating. I just want to make sure everything is as cut-and-dry as they think."
Brigit narrowed her eyes. "I thought you were pressing charges against him for his assault on you. Why do you even care?"
Ari shrugged. "You haven't paid me yet, so the case is technically still open. I feel like this happened on my watch. I just want to know the whole story, and not whatever gets filtered through the media. Consider it a bonus... you can just add it to whatever you already owe me and pay me when I'm satisfied the case is finished. Deal?"
Brigit considered it for a long moment and finally took a deep breath. "Okay. I'll let you look into it, and I'll tell you what you need to know, but only on one condition. If someone did do this, if someone murdered my husband... I want you to get their name and address, and write it down for me, so I can send them a big... fucking... cake." She forgot Ari's admonishment and picked up her bottle again. This time Ari didn't stop her from pouring another glass.
The news story revealed Seidel had been at his girlfriend's house when he was attacked, so Ari found the crime scene without any trouble. She had Dale drop her off a mile away from the house and transformed into the wolf, venturing into the neighborhood by cutting across backyards and slipping through hedges. The neighborhood was on the edge of a wooded area, and Ari could barely make out individual scents among the mélange of animals that had gone back and forth through the mulch.
Seidel's mistress was named Cynthia Pyne, who worked for his hotel as sales manager. Her driveway was framed by yellow crime scene tape that swung in the gentle breeze, creating a surrealistic illusion of a peaceful afternoon. Ari could smell the blood that had been washed away and tried to focus on her mission. She moved through the backyard of the house, taking the time to make sure no one was home and there weren't any cops keeping an eye on the property before she began sniffing around.
She had to be extra cautious since everyone in the neighborhood was probably on guard about a wolf attacking humans. If animal control got called it would be bad. If a neighbor decided to take matters into their own hands... She kept part of her attention on the ambient sounds of the neighborhood for any hint someone had seen her or was trying to sneak up on her.
Ari moved along the side of the driveway. Seidel had been attacked while getting into his car, which meant his attacker had come from the lawn-side, not the forest-side. She tried to imagine the scene at night, picturing herself crouched in the dark at the front of the house. Lying in wait for the chance to pounce and tear Seidel's throat out. It seemed like poetic justice since he'd ambushed her outside a place where she felt safe.
Maybe I didn't mean for it to go that far. Maybe I just wanted to bark and scare the shit out of him, and the wolf took it further.
She breathed deep again and caught the stale aroma of blood. She couldn't blame that level of aggression on the wolf. Wolves didn't just randomly attack humans.
Lowering her head, she sniffed around for any hint of a trail. To her dismay it seemed as if the troupe of policemen who spent the evening and morning trampling the crime scene had brought out their dogs to try and find the culprit. Other than discovering one of the K-9 officers in the Seattle Police Department was a canidae , she ended up just walking in circles. There were a few odors that she found vaguely familiar, but nothing she felt confident to follow. It could have just been something she recognized from her earlier surveillance.
She trekked back to the parking lot where Dale was waiting and transformed in the back seat. As she changed back into her clothes, Dale twisted in the front seat to face her.
"No luck, I guess."
"No. The cops spread too much scent around the place. I could barely even smell myself, let alone try and pick out anything else." She crawled over the console and dropped into the passenger seat. "We could speak to the neighbors and hope someone happened to see something."
Dale rested her hands on the steering wheel. "Actually, I have another idea. We don't have to prove or disprove that you were here last night, we just have to figure out where you were. And we know someone who can answer that question."
Ari thought for a moment and then realized what Dale meant. "You mean the wolf."
Dale shrugged. "It's worth a shot, at least."
Ari wanted to protest, but it seemed like the most likely plan to succeed. "All right. If you're willing, then so am I. How exactly do you plan to refresh the wolf's memory?"
"Plan? What plan? I'm making this up as I go along."
"Comforting," Ari said.
"Now you know how it feels." She squeezed Ari's hand before she started the car to drive back home.
Ari undressed and settled in the tub, her arms resting on the sides as Dale finished lighting the candles. The overhead lights were off, so the tile glowed with a gently pulsing golden shine. "A little over the top, don't you think?"
"You need to be relaxed. You can't force the memories to come back, so we need to ease your mind into accepting them." She caught Ari's skeptical look and shrugged. "I slept with a psych major in college. Some of it rubbed off."
"Hm." Ari relaxed against the edge of the tub and closed her eyes. "Dale... what if we find out I did it?"
"Then we'll deal with that."
Ari opened her eyes. "Just like that? Dale, I killed a man in cold blood."
"No. You killed a man who attacked you. You were provoked."
"And it doesn't scare you? That I have so little control over the wolf, that I could just lose my mind and..." She waved her hand, sprinkling water against the edge of the tub. "What if we have a fight? What if the wolf decides to take extreme measures with you, too? A few weeks ago I decided I wanted sex, so I took it from you. And if the wolf decides Seidel needs to pay, it runs across town and rips his throat out. What will be next? I can't risk finding out, Dale. If we find out I'm to blame, I can't risk losing control again."
"You can't just lock up the wolf, Ari. That's the only way I know to make certain the wolf goes nuts when it finally comes out." She stroked Ari's cheek. "It's not a matter of being stronger than the wolf. You are the wolf. It's a part of you and it always will be. I'm not scared of it, because it's part of the person I fell in love with."
Ari reached up and gripped Dale's wrist. "If I ever try to hurt you... if you ever get scared when I'm the wolf, do whatever you can to stop me. Understand?"
"I need you to make me that promise, Dale. I need to know you won't hesitate if it comes after you."
Dale bent down and kissed Ari's lips. "I promise."
"Okay." Dale sat up. "Close your eyes and focus on yesterday. We were in the office. It was late afternoon, and the sun was coming across the desk. I had just made tea, so you could probably smell it in the air even before you changed. We'd had a slow day because you were so anxious about getting a chance to transform after holding back for so long. So I locked the main door and you undressed, and you changed into the wolf in the front office. I opened the door and you went out. Do you remember if you turned left or right?"
Ari thought for a moment. "I went left, toward the intersection."
"Good. Down to the corner. Did you turn down any of the alleys?"
"No. I was going toward the park. I wanted to run on the hills." Ari's voice was slower now, almost dreamy. Dale dipped her fingers into the bath and drew the water up over Ari's bicep. "I took the long way to the park."
"What happened when you got there?"
Ari furrowed her brow. "I didn't. I don't... think I went to the park after all."
Dale was excited, but she didn't want Ari to push. "Okay. What do you remember about your walk toward the park? Did you go past the convenience store?"
Ari thought. "Yeah. I did. A little girl tried to pet me, but her mother stopped her. And I... went to..." Her eyes opened. "There was someone else."
"Who?" She put her hand on Ari's shoulders. "Lie back. Close your eyes, focus on yesterday."
Ari complied. "I don't remember. I just know that I stopped going toward the park because I saw something that distracted me. I started to follow it and..." She shook her head slowly. "Maybe if you really hypnotized me I would remember better."
"Maybe. But I don't know how to do that." She smiled and rubbed Ari's shoulder again. "Just picture it. You know the streets around our office better than anyone. Picture them, put yourself there yesterday. Was traffic heavy or light?"
"Light. I was able to cross the street without running."
Progress. "Why did you have to cross Orcas Street? The park is in the other direction."
"I was following someone. And then..." She was speaking faster now. "There was a truck in the parking lot. It was backed into the space. I went past it and someone got out."
"Ari, slow down. What parking lot?"
"It was the hardware store parking lot."
"Where was the truck parked? Nearer to the store or to the road?"
"The back of the parking lot. By itself, without other cars around?"
"And who were you following?"
Ari opened her eyes. "I can't remember. I don't remember passing the truck, but I know that... I was in the bed of the truck. I was muzzled." She sat up and covered her eyes with her hand, trying to focus. "They gave me something. A pill."
"I don't know. I can't see any faces. I just remember running into the parking lot, and then flashes of being the truck. I didn't kill Seidel. I couldn't have. I got grabbed and they held me while someone else--"
There was a knock on the apartment door and they both turned toward the sound.
"Why would they come here?" Dale whispered. "Stay here. I'll go see who it is."
Ari was already standing up. "No way. This is more than just some random assault. Until I know what the hell is going on, you're not leaving my sight."
Dale helped Ari towel off as their uninvited guest knocked again, more insistently this time. Ari put on her jeans and blouse before she followed Dale to the front of the apartment. Dale looked back to make sure Ari was ready, then stood with her hand on the deadbolt.
"Who is it?"
"US Marshals, Miss Frye. We need to speak with you about your boss."
Dale looked back at Ari with utter confusion and mouthed, Marshals?
Ari shrugged and gestured for her to open the door. Dale did, but only an inch.
"Could I see your badges and ID, please?" She examined something, then opened the door a little wider. "What is this all about?"
"Do you know where we can find Ariadne Willow?"
"She's right here," Ari said. "Let them in, Dale."
Dale opened the door wider and ushered them inside. Ari idly wondered if marshals were called agents, officers, or just marshal. The man who'd spoken was a slender man with what Ari liked to call Sunday School Hair: wetted down, every strand in place, parted over his right eyebrow as if someone had used a ruler for it. He wore a black dress shirt under a suit jacket and the bulge under his right arm told Ari that he was armed and left-handed. He confirmed this by holding open his wallet with his left hand to show her his badge.
The redheaded woman with him was taller and more severe, dressed in a suit despite the fact Ari didn't think marshals had a dress code. She kept her hands behind her back as she idly scanned the apartment before settling pale green eyes on Ari. Her lips were pursed, and her jaw was set firmly to indicate she really didn't care for the person she was looking at.
So Ari smiled, winked, and said, "Hi, cutie."
The woman sneered and looked at something else.
"Miss Willow, I'm Marshal Clark Duchamp, this is Katherine Matheson. You're a hard woman to find."
"I hope not." He blinked without comprehension. "My apartment, the office, and my assistant's apartment. This should have been third on your list. If you consider that hard, then maybe you shouldn't be in the 'finding people' business."
Duchamp cleared his throat. "Well. That's not pertinent. We'd like to speak with you about the Victoria Fennick case."
"Not that again." Ari groaned, ignoring the twinge at the back of her mind by letting her irritation overtake it. "You guys said that with Sadie Dillon turning state's evidence, you wouldn't need me to testify. Why..." Her mind caught up with the situation and she froze. "Oh, hell. You guys lost her, didn't you? You put Sadie in Witness Protection and she got away from you."
The marshals shifted awkwardly. Matheson decided to move on without acknowledging their screw-up. "We have reason to believe that Ms. Dillon has returned to Seattle. If she has, you and Ms. Frye may be in grave danger."
Ari sighed. "That's quite an understatement, Marshal." She had been hired to infiltrate a gang of canidae jewel thieves. When they found out she was a plant, they kidnapped Dale and threatened to bite her. An adult who was changed into a canidae couldn't survive the transformation. The idea had been horrifying at the time, but now that she and Dale were together Ari couldn't even bring herself to imagine it. She crossed the room and took Dale's hand.
She remembered a flash of red tail, the white tip flicking as the fox crossed the street, and she suddenly realized what had happened the night before. Dale saw the change in her expression but obviously couldn't read it, and she knew better than to mention it in front of the marshals.
"Ms. Willow?" Duchamp cleared his throat. "We're prepared to take you and Ms. Frye into custody until--"
"No." She looked at the marshals. "How did Sadie get away from you guys in the first place? Didn't you have people watching her?"
"Of course we did." Duchamp cleared his throat. "To be perfectly frank, we're not sure how she slipped away from her handlers."
Ari thought about that, and what little she knew about the Marshal Service. She'd looked into it when Sadie first disappeared into their ranks, and her mind had been put at ease when she learned that she would have canidae handlers that knew how to watch her properly. But if she slipped up, if she was forced to move to a new city under the watch of a new office, there might not have been time to get the right people in place.
"Look, I appreciate the offer, but Sadie got past you once. I'm not going to risk it happening again. Out of the four people in this room, Dale and I are the only ones who have successfully dealt with Sadie Dillon. But thanks for the heads up."
Duchamp said, "I really do advise against this, Ms. Willow."
"All the more reason to do it." She started ushering them toward the door. "We're not going into protective custody or whatever you have planned. We're fine right here."
They were in the hallway already, and Duchamp fumbled a card out of his wallet. "Call us if she contacts you or if you change your mind."
Ari saluted and wished them a good night, shutting the door on them.
Dale said, "Are you sure that's a good idea, Ari? Sadie was dangerous."
"You're damn right she is. She killed Seidel."
Dale's eyes widened. "What?"
"As soon as they said she was in town, I remembered who I was chasing into that parking lot. It was her, Dale. I saw her on the street, as a fox, and I chased her. She must have a new partner who knocked me out and dragged me into the truck."
"Oh, my God." Dale rubbed her face. "But how would she even know about Seidel?"
"She hacked into our files last time."
"No. I put up firewalls, I..." Dale's voice trailed off. "Shit. Okay, maybe she got around those. But the timing? She just happens to show up right after a former client beat you up and you were ripe for framing?"
Ari stopped pacing. "No. That's too much of a coincidence, which means that she had to be involved with Seidel coming here in the first place. Brigit Seidel fell all over herself to assure me she didn't tell Garrett who she had hired. He had to find us somehow." She pointed at Dale's laptop. "Sadie got back into town and hacked into our files again, found the Seidel case, and sent him after me."
"So why kill him afterward?"
"Maybe he didn't go as far as he was supposed to," Ari said. "She didn't want me beat up, she wanted me taken out. So she went to plan B."
"We have to tell the marshals about this, Ari."
"Those two? They're inept. Sadie forced the marshal service to move her somewhere that didn't have canidae agents in place, and she walked out right under their noses. We know what she's capable of, and we can stop her." She stepped forward and pulled Dale into a hug. "Don't worry. Just because I sent them away doesn't mean they're gone. They have at least half a brain between them, so they'll keep an eye on this place in case Sadie shows up. We get the same protection without having them breathing down our necks all day long."
Dale leaned back and kissed Ari's cheek. "I'd bet on you before a hundred federal agents."
Ari smiled. "Yeah? Ditto."
Dale rested her head against Ari's shoulder and sighed. "So now what? Just knowing who we're up against doesn't mean we have a chance in hell against her."
"We beat her once."
"Yeah, we really rocked that one. Ari, she nearly killed us both. I don't want to go up against her again."
Ari kissed the top of her head. "I'll keep you safe."
"I'm not worried about me. I'm worried about you going after her by yourself."
"Last time she had two cronies backing her up. Pen is dead, and Beck is in prison."
Dale said, "Yeah, and you said yourself she had a friend helping her in the parking lot. Who knows how many people she has on her side? I have faith in you, Ari. But I'm so damn terrified to let you go that I might have to hug you all night."
Ari tightened her arms around Dale and pulled her closer. "That would be okay with me."
Dale couldn't help laughing. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. I got no other plans."
Dale sagged against Ari, and they held each other as Ari tried to figure out what their next step would be.
2. Fox in the Henhouse
Ari stayed on the internet until Dale dragged her to bed, then immediately began searching again the next morning. When she finally had everything she needed, it was time for lunch. Dale stopped at a diner that promised home-cooking where Ari picked at her fries until they got cold. Dale finally reached across the table and covered Ari's hand with her own. She didn't say anything or try to put her mind at ease, and Ari turned her hand over to lace their fingers together.
"You always know the right things to say."
Dale chuckled. "Well, I don't know if it's all going to be okay, and I don't know if this plan you're putting together will work or not, so all I can do is promise I'll be here at your side no matter what happens." She kissed the back of Ari's hand. "Eat. We've got a long drive ahead of us and I'm not stopping at a drive-through."
They were back on the road by one, which Ari estimated would put their arrival just before the start of visiting hours. Ari opened Dale's laptop and did a bit more digging.
"Ari, it'll be fine."
"I don't want to go all this way to get turned away at the door."
They parked long enough to switch drivers at the two hour mark. Dale rested her head against the glass and dozed, while Ari focused on the long stretch of road. The Wenatchee National Forest hugged the road to their left, and the Snoqualmie was to the right. Mount Rainier stood watch above it all. Ari loved Rainier. Seeing it wreathed in a cloudy haze made her understand why the Greeks had placed their gods on top of a mountain. It was easy to believe all kinds of amazing things were happening on the hidden peaks.
They arrived in Connell half an hour before visiting hours began. Ari stopped at a store with a public restroom where they could both freshen up after the drive. Dale walked Ari back to the car but didn't make a move to get back in. Ari didn't want Dale to go in with her, and the authorities probably frowned on visitors loitering in the parking lot. Their plan was for Dale to stay safely in the town while Ari did what she had come to do.
"I should be back in an hour. Hopefully with some information we could use."
"Okay. Text me and I'll tell you where to pick me up. And be careful." She kissed Ari softly. "I love you."
"I love you, too. Have fun."
Dale grinned. "You too."
Ari waited until Dale was safely inside the store before she got into the car and drove to the city limits toward Coyote Ridge Correctional.
The route to the prison was clearly marked with signage, and Ari arrived just as visiting hours were set to begin. She showed her false ID at the gate, parked, and went inside. She submitted to a pat-down before she was led into a large room filled with round tables that had bench seating bolted into the concrete floor. Ari sat down, folded her hands in front of her, and waited. A few other inmates were meeting with lawyers, family members, or friends. One inmate, an emaciated woman with stringy black hair, was changing the diaper of a baby so small Ari thought it had to be a toy.
Half an hour later, the far door opened and Rebecca Collier was led inside. Her blonde hair, once long enough to hang off her shoulders, had been cut into a messy pile that barely reached her ears. Her tight jeans were replaced by baggy tan prison-issue slacks and a white V-neck shirt. She scanned the room for her visitor, tensing when she recognized Ari. She pushed her chin out and shook her head as she was led to the table. The guard waited until she sat down before he moved off.
"Boy, if I'd known you were my sister I never would have had sex with you."
She'd spent most of the night navigating the facility's visitation policy for a loophole that would allow her to drop by legally. When she came up empty, she used a less than legal program on Dale's laptop that let her peek at Rebecca's list of officially approved visitors. Two were lawyers, and one was an estranged sister who hadn't visited even once since Rebecca's incarceration. She slapped together a fake ID convincing enough to fool anyone who didn't scrutinize it too thoroughly and the rest was a cakewalk.
"Well, since we're not blood sisters, I hope you're here for a conjugal. My cell mate isn't playing along." She tilted her head to the side and ran her eyes over Ari's pale yellow blouse. "I know we didn't part on the best of terms, but the sex was good."
"I'm here about Sadie Dillon."
Rebecca sighed. "That's the problem with having a threesome. Someone always likes someone else more. Poor Beck, locked up and all alone." She pushed her bottom lip out.
Ari leaned forward. "Sadie arranged to have me killed. When the guy didn't finish the job, she killed him and set me up for it. I want to know where she is."
"Sadie turned. She gave away information and now she's off somewhere, safe in Witness Protection."
"Not anymore. She slipped away."
"That's not my problem. And neither are you." She started to stand.
Ari slapped the table. "Stay where you are, Beck."
They glared at each other across the table for a long moment before Rebecca settled back onto the bench.
"Why should I listen to you?"
Ari leaned forward and lowered her voice. "Because I'm the alpha of your pack. The three of you attacked me, and I walked out. I killed Pen." Beck's eyes flashed with anger, her jaw tightening at the memory. "I made Sadie disappear. And I put you in a cage. You're my bitch, Beck Collier, and if I ask you a question I expect you to answer me. Am I understood?"
A growl built low in Rebecca's throat. Ari narrowed her eyes and didn't flinch, her hands flat on the table as she waited out the other woman. She felt her wolf rising, felt her pelt itching underneath her skin. The flesh around Rebecca's eyes darkened, her pupils turning pale gold as her breathing became rough and bestial.
"I asked you if I was understood."
Beck stood down. "Yes."
Ari leaned back. "Good. Sadie is back in Seattle, and she's targeting me. I want to know where I can find her. You worked with her for a long time. You know where she feels comfortable, where she'd go for help. You know the names of her contacts. I want everything you have on her."
"I'll give as good as I get. I want information on you, too." She leaned forward, balancing her chin on her hand. "You've gone big-time since we tangled. Katherine freaking Gavin. I actually feel honored to have been taken down by you. Ariadne Willow, Giant Killer." She chuckled. "And your personal life must be booming. Got a girlfriend? Or did you finally start fucking that sweet little redhead of yours? What was her name, Dill? Have you tasted your little Dill Pickle, Ariadne?"
Ari remained calm. "I didn't give you permission to speak, bitch."
Rebecca showed her teeth but stopped talking. Ari refused to show how uncomfortable she was and focused on what she'd come for. "Her friends, her hangouts, anyone she would go to for help. Specifically anyone who wouldn't mind helping her with a murder." She reached into her pocket and took out a few folded bills. "I hear they let you have money in this place. I'm willing to pay you for the information, if I like what I hear. So start talking, Beck. Make your alpha happy."
Dale was waiting outside a place called the Burger Factory when Ari picked her up. She slid into the passenger seat and grunted. "Burger Factory . Is that like the Cheesecake Factory or the Spaghetti Warehouse? I don't like the implication that my food is being mass-produced. At least McDonalds is subtle about it." She sighed and looked at Ari. "How did things go at the prison?"
Ari was staring out the windshield, both hands on the steering wheel. "Can I kiss you?"
"What? What's wrong?"
"I'm just asking if I can kiss you."
Dale nodded. "Of course you can. Yeah." She leaned in and met Ari halfway. Their lips met, and Ari held the kiss for a long few seconds before she pulled back. Dale touched Ari's cheek and stroked her fingers down to her neck. "What was that about?"
"I had to play power games to get her to cooperate," Ari said. "It made me feel dirty."
"I'm sorry." They were both quiet until they reached the outskirts of town. Finally, Dale said, "I grant you permission to do whatever you want to me, whenever you want. That way neither of us is in charge and neither of us has to ask."
Ari smiled. "I give you the same permission. I'm yours, Dale. Entirely."
"Good. So... was this trip worthwhile, or did we just waste a day?"
Ari nodded. "I think we're in business."
They drove back home, switching positions at the two-hour mark as they had on the trip out. Ari dozed for a while, waking an hour outside Seattle to use Dale's laptop to organize the information she'd gotten from Rebecca. The list included three clubs, a bar, and a gym where Sadie held a membership as well as the names of people Rebecca remembered Sadie talking about. She had included addresses where she could, but a handful of them were only names. In a few instances it was just a street name like Daffy or Slow Jim. Ari looked up some of the actual names, and then used Google to map out the locations and get an idea of Sadie's territory.
"The clubs and bar will still be open when we get back to town."
"Right. And they'll be open until at least six in the morning. We'll get back to town at eleven, and that will give us time for showering, changing clothes, and napping. I don't know about you, but I need to lie down after spending eight hours on the road."
Ari reached over and gave Dale's shoulder an impromptu massage. "You're right. Do you want to go to your place or mine? I have a bigger shower, so we won't have to worry about who goes first." She pushed her hand up into Dale's hair and massaged the nape of her neck with three fingers.
Dale moaned and flexed her fingers on the steering wheel. She tilted her head back, then pulled away.
"Not while I'm driving. Too dangerous. I'll close my eyes and wreck the car."
"But what a way to go."
Dale chuckled. "Your place sounds good, though. You have that amazing bed."
They got a late dinner and drove to Ari's building. Ari held Dale's hand as they walked down the hall, but she slowed as they got closer to her door. Dale sensed her hesitation and stopped walking. Ari let Dale's hand slip from hers, inching toward the corner where the hall branched to the right. She craned her head until she could see her front door.
A piece of paper was taped to the door, folded in half, but the corridor was otherwise empty. She motioned for Dale to stay where she was and approached cautiously. She was halfway to her door before she realized she was moving in a lupine prowl, shoulders hunched, head down and eyes darting from side to side. She took the note down and unfolded it. The handwriting was small and neat, the words written in pale purple ink.
"Miss Willow. My name is Tessa Rose, and I am a United States Marshal. In fact, I am the marshal on whose watch Sadie Dillon managed to make her escape. I'm here in an attempt to rectify that error, and I would like to do so with your assistance. If you're as good as they say you are, you probably detected my scent when you approached your apartment. That was deliberate. I went a little overboard with the perfume to make sure it got your attention. I'll be at the Searchlight Diner until midnight. If you do not arrive, I'll persist until we've spoken. I know you're avoiding my compatriots and I don't blame you. I don't want to keep you from the investigation. I just want to try and undo my mistake."
Ari went back to where Dale was waiting. "Everything okay?"
"Yeah. Looks like the shower will have to wait, though." She handed Dale the note. "We have a meeting."
Marshal Rose was prepared to leave when Ari and Dale arrived at eighteen minutes past midnight. She was a few inches shorter than Dale, her black hair cut close to her skull. She gestured for Ari and Dale to sit across from her, then introduced herself. She showed her badge and ID, and then turned to the window so she could scan the parking lot. "Did Douche Champ and Muddle-son follow you?"
Ari smirked. "No. I think they gave up on following us halfway to Connell."
"Connell?" Realization dawned and she nodded her head. "You went to the prison. You spoke with Rebecca Collier."
Ari was impressed with the deduction. "Sounds like you read Sadie's file, at least."
Tessa shrugged and turned her hand palm-up. "I'm a bulldog. Once I get a case, I don't half-ass it. And I mean that literally. When Sadie was brought into WitSec, those of us in the know were fully informed about her 'special needs.' She was assigned to me because I'm a canidae . She had me fooled. Played by the rules and only screwed up in a way that made me think she was just making a silly mistake. So we moved her. We didn't have time to place her with another canidae agent, and I didn't think it mattered. I trusted her." She pressed her lips together and composed herself before continuing. "She played me. I want to take her down."
"Makes three of us," Dale said.
Tessa looked at Dale and nodded. "I read about what Sadie and her girls did to you, Ms. Frye. I'm sure Ms. Willow has already apologized for us as a species, but on behalf of all canidae --"
"It's fine," Dale said. "I'd rather not dwell on it, if it's all the same to you."
Ari said, "We have a list of places Sadie used to hang out and some names of the people she knew when she was running around robbing jewelry stores for Vicki Fennick. We were going to start checking them out tomorrow."
"I can help with that. I can also run interference on Duchamp and Matheson so they won't cause you any trouble."
Dale said, "You're asking for trouble if you go against your own people like that."
Tessa smiled. "Only if they know I'm working against them. Trust me, I can pull the wool over their eyes with the best of them. Those two wunderkind marshals out there wouldn't stand a chance even if I told them the truth about what Sadie is. I'm just betting on the players who might actually succeed against her."
"Okay, here's a question." She glanced back to make sure no one was close enough to eavesdrop. "When we do find Sadie, I don't plan to hand her over."
Dale tensed. "Ari."
"She tried to have me killed, Dale. I could forgive that, but if she came after you again--"
Tessa held up her hand. "Sorry, I don't want to interrupt, but what do you mean she tried to have you killed? When?"
Ari sighed and went through the ordeal with Garrett Seidel. Tessa leaned back when she was finished and shook her head.
"She had us totally played." She paused. "She had me totally played. I liked her. I thought she was truly repentant about what she'd done and wanted to start over with a clean slate. She was one of my favorite witnesses... never caused any trouble, never asked for more than I could give her. And then one day she sends a letter. I actually apologized for having to uproot her, but that was her plan all along. I want to make her pay for lying to me."
"No argument from us," Dale said. "But what happens to the case? You guys can't trust her now."
"We'll figure something out. We're not going to give her another chance to make fools of us no matter what promises she makes."
They made plans to meet again in the morning, then Tessa walked them out to their car. She clutched the collar of her coat against the cold. "I took the liberty of looking around your apartment building for any signs Sadie was staking you out. I didn't see or smell anything, but I wouldn't let my guard down if I were you."
Ari shook the marshal's hand. "Thanks for the warning, but it isn't necessary. Sadie's sucker punched me for the last time."
When they got back to the apartment, Ari changed into the wolf and gave the apartment a good thrice-over. She focused on the door and windows, snuffling through the closet to see if there was any indication of someone who shouldn't have been there. Dale followed along behind her to open doors and turn the lights on and off. After a half hour, Dale reached down and scratched Ari's neck.
"I think that's thorough enough, sweetie. Come on. Human-time."
Dale's first instinct when Ari changed was to look away. Partly because of the fact they started out as friends and Ari was naked when she went from one form to the other, but the main reason was that Dale couldn't stand to see Ari in such agony. But now that they were dating, she felt it was her responsibility to share the pain.
The fur receded from Ari's back like a time-lapse photograph, the contours of Ari's spine and ribs standing out against a tan pelt that turned into supple pink flesh. Ari's shoulders popped and expanded, and she cried out as her body was reshaped. Dale took an instinctive step back as Ari transformed from a standing wolf to a crouching human, her arm and leg muscles twitching uncontrollably as she hung her head and tried to catch her breath.
When the change was complete, Dale knelt next to Ari and put a hand on her shoulder. "Do you want a massage?"
Dale helped Ari stand and walked her into the bedroom. Ari gingerly stretched out facedown on the mattress while Dale undressed down to her underwear, taking the items she would need out of the bottom drawer and laying them on the bed next to Ari's hip. She put the emollient vanilla candle on the nightstand and lit it. Dale loved the candle. Rather than ordinary wax, the candle was made of shea butter, jojoba, olive oil, and soy wax. The oil melted just above body temperature so the heat was minimal when poured onto skin, and a firm massage let the oils soak into the skin.
Ari had been skeptical, but Dale repeated the sale girl's testimonial and Ari agreed to try it. Since that first experimental night, they'd gone through three of the candles.
Once the candle was flickering, Dale straddled Ari's hips, resting lightly on the curve of her ass. She moved Ari's hair out of the way and gently massaged her shoulders, moving down along her spine. She rested her hands in the small of Ari's back, shifting her weight so she was bearing down on the tight muscles with her palms.
"Want me to focus on anything in particular?"
"My hips really hurt."
Dale moved lower to settle on Ari's legs, and began to work the muscles of Ari's lower back. She thought about the early days working for Ari, when she first realized that she could relieve some of the pain caused by the change. It started as simple shoulder rubs through the clothes, but soon Dale suggested a totally professional escalation. Ari was reluctant but couldn't deny how much it helped her.
The initial massages that were awkward affairs of muttered apologies and tentative touches. She had never strayed below the equator of Ari's waist except for foot and the occasional calf massages, and she never crossed from Ari's back to her front for fear of inadvertent touching. But now, all bets were off. She moved her hand to the curve of Ari's ass and squeezed.
Ari chuckled and Dale grinned. "Just making sure you're paying attention."
Dale put her hands on either side of Ari's spine and kneaded, then pushed the heels of her hands up toward Ari's shoulders. She looked at the candle and saw enough oil had melted for her purposes, and she blew out the wick as she lifted it off the nightstand. There was a little spout on the end of the candle's porcelain holder, and she held it just above Ari's back. She poured, and Ari hissed.
Dale wrote a lower-case D across Ari's back, set the candle aside, and massaged it into Ari's skin. It was mostly spread out when Ari turned her head and looked back at her.
"I know what the stands for, by the way."
"Marking your territory?"
Dale stretched out over Ari's body, resting on top of her as she kissed Ari's cheek. "I don't know what you're talking about, boss. This is strictly a professional exchange."
"Oh. My mistake."
Dale grinned and slid her hand down Ari's back, over the curve of her ass. She casually eased her hand between Ari's legs and extended two fingers that were still wet from the oil. Her free hand stayed on Ari's hip, turning the massage into a gentle caress as she rubbed two fingers against Ari's folds. Ari squirmed underneath her and lifted her ass just a little so she could give Dale more room to work.
Dale crossed her first two fingers and moved her lips to Ari's neck, kissing and licking as she pushed inside. Ari grunted against the pillow, reaching back to stroke her hand over Dale's thigh. She kissed up to Ari's ear and whispered just loud enough for Ari to make out the words.
"Do you like this?"
"I love making you feel good, Ari."
She kissed the shell of Ari's ear and then moved her lips to Ari's hair. She pressed her hips against the heel of her hand, her knees on the mattress for leverage as she began to rock against Ari. Ari lifted to meet her, her hand moving up blindly to grip the side of Dale's panties. She tangled her fingers around the thin cotton and twisted, pulling so that the material was pulled taut between Dale's legs.
"Cheater," Dale sighed. She pulled away from Ari, her underwear slipping from Ari's grasp. Dale pushed Ari's legs apart and settled between them, pushing her up until Ari was kneeling on the bed. Dale wet her lips with a quick pass of her tongue and then kissed Ari's sex. Ari pressed her hand against the headboard, groaning as Dale's tongue pushed inside of her.
Dale's hands weren't idle. One slid up to Ari's back to keep her in position while two fingers of the other teased Ari's clit. With a final moan that wavered dramatically in pitch and intensity, Ari came. Dale kissed the curve of Ari's ass, then both of her hips, and settled on top of her. She put her arms around Ari's waist to flatten her palms against Ari's stomach. It rose and fell under her laced fingers as Ari caught her breath.
After several minutes, her voice still shaking, Ari cleared her throat and spoke over her shoulder. "Your massages have definitely improved in the past few months. This will be noted in your evaluation, Miss Frye."
"Thanks, boss." She kissed Ari's temple. "Go to sleep."
Ari whimpered. "No... your turn."
"You can take care of me tomorrow."
Ari protested a little longer, but eventually she caved due to exhaustion. Dale slid off of her, the two of them rearranging position without discussion. Dale rolled over and Ari spooned against her from behind. It was warm enough in the apartment that neither of them reached to draw the blankets up over them. Dale traced shapes on Ari's forearm, brushing her fingertips over the fine hairs that ran from Ari's wrist up to her elbow.
"Are you scared?"
Dale twitched. "I thought you were asleep."
"If you want to go away until this is all sorted, if you wanted to just fly off somewhere, I would understand. Hell, I'll drive you to the airport right now if that's what you want."
"I'm not going anywhere." She twisted so she could see Ari. "I haven't run away yet, and I don't plan to. This woman kidnapped me, threatened me with torture, held me hostage, and now she's back. And I'm not running. Because you're here, and I know that you'll take care of me." She leaned in and Ari caught her lips in a kiss. "You'll stop her, Ari."
"I'm glad you have faith in me." She stroked Dale's cheek.
"Always." She kissed Ari again. "Go to sleep. Big day tomorrow and it's already late."
Dale rolled over again and let Ari press against her from behind. Soon they were both asleep, Ari's arms wrapped tightly around Dale as if still afraid she was going to disappear.
They met Tessa Rose a few minutes before noon the next day. The marshal had changed into a purple blouse and black slacks, casual enough not to draw attention but definitely her own personal definition of uniform. She motioned for Ari and Dale to follow her and started walking without checking to make sure they complied. "After you went home, I spent some time digging into Sadie's contacts in the city. We had a fairly comprehensive list of her associates when she entered the program, so Duchamp and Matheson should have them covered. There's only so much we can expect from them, however."
Ari said, "If she was going to play you, odds are she held something back."
"That's why I hope you had a productive day at the prison. Can you trust that the information Beck Collier gave you was the whole truth?"
"Yeah. I'm positive." She glanced at Dale, who gave her a reassuring look. Ari had confessed her 'alpha dog' tactic while they were getting dressed, and Dale assured her it was nothing to be concerned about.
Dale had sat behind her on the bed and stroked her arms. "It's how they think, Ari. They were a pack. You were just using their mentality against them. But it's not how you think, and it's not who you are. Don't waste any energy worrying about it."
Now, climbing into Tessa's SUV, Ari didn't let herself dwell on the idea. "Sadie had a mentor who led her to Vicki Fennick. His name was Lucas Kerr."
Tessa shook her head. "His name never came up in her debriefing. If he's still around, odds are that's where she would run. Did Beck give you any idea where we could find this guy?"
"I'll point you in the right direction."
Tessa nodded and pulled away from the curb.
Ari felt an odd sense of homecoming when they arrived at Lucas Kerr's place of business. It was a halfway house according to his online profile but it reminded Ari of the days between leaving her home and finding Eva. She'd never truly been homeless, instead relying on the kindness and spare rooms of other people who lived their lives in less-than-legal ways. When Tessa parked at the end of the street, the trio of men loitering on the porch casually made their way to the house's front door and disappeared inside.
Ari unfastened her seatbelt. "You two stay here."
"You sure?" Dale said.
Ari nodded. "If I can't keep an eye on you, I'm happy to let a US Marshal do it for me."
Dale said, "I don't need to be babysat."
"I know you don't. But I'm not going to walk in there and risk having one of them hurt you." She looked into the backseat. "Dale, I'm not trying to coddle you. I'm just trying to protect you. There's a difference."
Dale leaned forward and kissed the corner of Ari's mouth. "Be careful."
"Always," Ari promised. To Tessa, she said, "Give me five minutes, then come in guns blazing."
"We don't actually operate like that. The whole 'guns blazing' thing isn't our style."
"You went rogue. I expect a little more rogue behavior."
Tessa shrugged. "I guess I won't make an arrest if I see you jaywalking."
Ari growled. "Just my luck. I get a federal agent who doesn't play by the rules, but she does it by the book." She left the truck and walked down the street as two new men stepped out onto the porch. Ari didn't let them intimidate her. She looked at one, then the other, then looked past them as she went through the chain-link gate and crossed the lawn. She trotted up the steps, stopping only when one of the men moved to block her from the door.
"Hi. You're in my way. Could you move?"
He glared down at her.
"Look, that little box tied to your ankle tells me you're not the boss here. You're one of the residents. And the residents of a halfway house don't have the authority to bar people from entering or exiting. So kindly step out of the way, either to let me inside or to go get the person who operates this place. I'd be happy to find him myself, but first you need to move your ass."
The other guy stepped closer and Ari held her hand out to stop him. She held eye contact with the first guy as she spoke to him. "Hey, pal. Here's what you should be thinking. You're both bigger than me, and you're probably armed despite the rules against that sort of thing in halfway houses. So knowing that I know that, you have to wonder what ace I have up my sleeve that's making me unafraid to stand up to you like this. To stand here, and tell your 'roid-rage boyfriend for the third damn time that he needs to move his ass before I knock him on it."
The big guy looked away from Ari to look at his friend.
"Really? Gotta get permission from Tweedle-Dum to move six inches to the right? I'm here to talk to Lucas Kerr, and I can do that just as easily after I kick your asses." She smiled sweetly. "You think I'm bluffing? Want to test me, risk having your ass handed to you by a girl? Or do you want to move... your goddamn ass... out of my way."
He took a step and Ari dipped her chin in thanks. "See how easy that was? See you on the way out, gentlemen."
The front door led into a living room that had been converted into a common area. A television stood in a tall entertainment center flanked by video game systems and a stereo. Games, CDs and DVD cases were stacked on every horizontal surface that wasn't covered by pizza boxes and Chinese takeout containers. A man was sprawled out on the couch watching The Price is Right, and others were positioned around the room like displays in an art gallery.
A white-haired man whose beard was still salt-and-pepper came from the back of the house in the process of rolling up the sleeves of his Oxford shirt. He paused when he saw Ari.
"Hi. Who are you?"
"Lucas Kerr? I'd like to talk to you about one of your former residents."
He crossed his arms. "My question stands."
"I'm Ariadne Willow. I'm a private investigator. I want to talk to you about Sadie Dillon."
Kerr sighed and started for the kitchen. Ari followed. "Ah. Look, once they leave here they're no longer my responsibility."
Ari was glad she'd bothered to dig around on Dale's laptop before confronting him. "Usually that's true. But you knew Sadie before she came here. You spoke on her behalf to get her out of juvie. You let her stay here, she wasn't ordered by the court. Then from the time she was eighteen until she was twenty-five, her address was listed as being half a block away from here. Then there's the fact that a woman who knew Sadie last year gave me your name as her oldest, closest friend. She was more than just a resident for you."
He smiled at her as he went out the back door. The backyard was a postage stamp of green with a tall wooden fence that backed up to an alley. The gate was open and three dumpsters were standing next to the opening.
"Well, aren't you well informed? Since you know all of that, I'll go ahead and tell you what I know: nothing. She told me that the government was putting her in WitSec. She told me she couldn't tell me where she was going, and that she couldn't contact me again once she got there. I'm sorry, Ms. Willow, but my hands are tied."
She glanced into the side yard as she followed him across the grass. "I wish I could believe that, Mr. Kerr. But there are a couple of things that work against you. I saw Sadie in town. She wouldn't come back into town without letting you know she was here. And two, the day I saw Sadie, I was drugged and thrown into the bed of that truck you have parked next to your house." He stopped walking but didn't look at her. "Is she here? In the house? Because if you were trying to draw me out, I have a US Marshal watching the front door. If Sadie tried to run, then she's already been swept up."
Kerr turned slowly. "She's not a bad person."
"She killed someone. Did she tell you about that?"
He winced and shook his head. "No. She wouldn't do that. She just wanted to prove a point."
"She proved it by ripping out a guy's throat and covering me with the blood. And she only killed him because he didn't kill me like she'd hoped he would. Right before she went into WitSec, she kidnapped my assistant and threatened to kill her. Sadie is not a good person, Mr. Kerr. I just want to make sure she answers for her crimes. You run a halfway house. You have to understand that some people can't be rehabilitated and need to be in jail. Sadie is one of them."
He finally turned around. "Sadie has a lot of problems, Ms. Willow. Problems that can't be treated in a prison. She needs help--"
"She's not getting help right now, Mr. Kerr. She's coming after me and my girlfriend. And I will do whatever is necessary to keep her safe. I know that you care for her, so help me end this without anyone else getting hurt."
Kerr rubbed his hands together and looked past Ari at the truck. "She borrowed that the other day. Told me a friend of hers had to move."
He sighed. "No matter what she's done, the girl is like a daughter to me. You understand that, right?"
"I do. I just want to protect my loved ones. I can do that a lot easier with your help."
"Come on back inside. I have the name of the friend she said she was borrowing the truck for."
Ari smiled. "That would be a big help." She followed him back into the house and saw the two guard dogs were inside the house and standing by the kitchen door. She winked at them as she followed Kerr across the living room to a roll-top desk next to the entertainment center.
"Kind of heavy security you have here."
Kerr nodded as he thumbed through a date book. "A lot of people here are trying to live good lives, get on the straight and narrow. Their old friends don't always make it easy for them, so I keep a tight rein on who gets in. I don't want anyone falling back into old habits." He turned toward the desk and wrote something down on a piece of paper. "Here. Keith Henson. I made her give me his address before she left, and I haven't seen her since that day. I just woke up yesterday and found the truck parked back where she had left it."
Ari took the paper. "Thanks for this."
"Sadie's not a bad person."
Ari remembered the look on Dale's face a year earlier, with three canidae holding her hostage and threatening to infect her with the change. "I wish I could agree with you, Mr. Kerr, but she's never bothered to show me her good side. I'll have to take your word that it exists."
"Just be kind when you bring her in. If you can."
"No promises, Mr. Kerr. It's really up to her. Thanks again." She slipped the note into her pocket and blew a goodbye kiss to the guards as she walked out of the house.
Tessa and Dale were still waiting when she returned to the SUV. Tessa had a pair of small binoculars trained on the house, and she only lowered them once Ari was back in the passenger seat.
"No one came out while you were there. Did you find her?"
"I found another name and another address."
Dale said, "And yet you still look perplexed."
Ari nodded. "Yeah. When I met Kerr, he walked me through the house to the backyard. There was no reason for him to do that except to show me the truck Sadie used to abduct me." She drummed her fingers on her thigh and watched the house. "The two guys who tried to block me from going in. How long did they stay on the porch after I went inside?"
Tessa shrugged. "Not long. They didn't follow you, but they also didn't hang around."
"Do you think Sadie's in there?" Dale asked.
Ari took out the slip of paper Kerr had given her. "I don't think so. But I also don't think Kerr is the kindly neighborhood second-chancer he's pretending to be. Rebecca said that he was Sadie's mentor. According to him, he reformed her."
"So which one is telling the truth."
"I think they both are," Ari said quietly. "Reformed could be anything. Maybe he didn't change her into a fine upstanding citizen... maybe he reformed her into the kind of criminal who wouldn't get caught."
"You think he's Fagin," Dale said.
Ari shrugged. "Anything's possible. All I know is that if he really did try to turn Sadie into a law-abiding member of the public, he failed rather spectacularly." She handed the address to Tessa and fastened her seatbelt. "He said Sadie is probably staying with someone at this address. Let's go see where Mr. Kerr was sending us."
"Actually, if you want to see if it's a trap without Sadie tripping you up in it..." Tessa smiled and raised an eyebrow. "I have a better idea."
The address Lucas Kerr claimed belonged to Keith Henson was a small rundown house on a dead-end street. The lawn was overgrown, and the fence between the tall grass and broken sidewalk was listing dangerously in the wind. US Marshal Duchamp parked in front of the house and climbed out, buttoning his jacket as Marshal Matheson joined him on the sidewalk.
Ari and Tessa watched from the field just beyond where the street dead-ended. Ari was in wolf form, while Tessa revealed she hadn't just been using a metaphor when she referred to herself as a bulldog. She was sleek and black and, though she only came up to Ari's shoulder, commanded attention. Dale was parked two streets over, their clothes neatly folded in the backseat. Before taking position in the field, Ari and Tessa had both checked out the house and picked up Sadie's scent on the front porch. There was now little doubt she'd been there since returning to Seattle, but the question remained over why. Was she staying there, or had she only stopped by to set up a trap?
Duchamp led the way up the front walk, leaning to one side to look through the window before he stepped onto the porch. Matheson walked along the front of the house and peered around the corner to the backyard as her partner knocked. They had gotten the address when Ari "inadvertently" let them overhear a phone conversation with Dale.
"I'm headed over there later this afternoon."
Dale said, "What are you wearing?"
Ari locked the office door. "Yeah. Eighteen Camden Street. Apparently she has a friend who's living there."
"Sounds sexy. Touch yourself."
Ari turned away, partially so she would have her back to the marshals and they wouldn't see her blushing. She pressed the phone tighter to her ear as she left the building.
"I'll see you around five. Hopefully we'll have something to show for all our effort."
"God, I love it when you talk dirty."
Ari hung up and walked around the corner to where Tessa was waiting. Dale was in the backseat, grinning as Ari folded herself into the passenger seat. Ari twisted and pointed at Dale.
"And I hope all you marshals aren't quite as obvious with your surveillance as Duchamp and Matheson."
Tessa snorted as she pulled out into traffic. "Please. There's a reason Sadie was able to slip away on their watch. Being canidae helped, but she could have walked past them playing the harmonica and dancing a jig. Some of us know how to surveil."
And she was proving it now, playing the part of a normal stray dog even as she kept her attention on the decrepit house where her fellow marshals were waiting for a response. Ari struggled to keep her composure, waiting to see what Sadie and her cohorts had planned for her. Dale was more than a little anxious about throwing Duchamp and Matheson at the trap, but Tessa said that they were armed and well-trained to handle situations like this one.
"And I'd rather let them trip it than risk tripping it myself."
Dale thought that was an excellent point and her protestations ceased. Now Ari was the anxious one. She kept waiting for an explosion, a gunshot, for the door to burst open and Duchamp to be riddled with bullets. But he finally stepped off the porch and motioned for Matheson to check the back of the house. She opened the fence and disappeared.
Ari huffed under her breath, and Tessa turned to look at her. Ari dipped her head down and gestured in the general direction where Dale was waiting for them. Tessa shook her head and took a few steps closer to the house before she lay down and stretched her paws out in front of her sphinx-like. The message was clear; they would stay until the other marshals left.
Matheson returned from the backyard and shook her head. Duchamp went back onto the porch, knocked once more, and then used the butt of his gun to smash a window.
Tessa shot to her feet, growling low in her throat. Apparently that isn't procedure.
He opened the window and crawled inside and, a moment later, the front door opened to admit Matheson. Tessa watched the house, but movement down the street had caught Ari's attention. A car had pulled around the corner and instantly came to a stop, rolling until the passenger side tire bumped the curb. She could see two people inside, but they made no move to get out. She chuffed to get Tessa's attention and extended her neck to point with her snout. Tessa looked and got on her feet.
Both doors opened at once and two people got out. The driver was muscular and blonde, his hair receding to form a peninsula that seemed to hang unusually low on his forehead. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, but he was carrying a pistol by his side so that it was hidden by his thigh. He crossed the street at an angle, head swiveling back and forth to look for potential witnesses. Dangerous as he might have been, he wasn't what had Ari's attention.
Sadie had lost a lot of weight, not that she had much to begin with, and her red hair was cut extremely short and spiked. She was dressed with the same derelict fashion sense as her driver, but she carried it off better. She was also carrying a gun, but she didn't seem to mind if anyone saw it. She held it with a double-handed grip, moving like a cop as she hurried to catch up with the blonde gunman.
Tessa raced off through the field, most likely to recover her clothes and make an official appearance. Ari nearly followed, but she couldn't take her eyes off Sadie. She was right there, and Ari wasn't going to risk letting her go again. She dropped low, hoping the tall grass of the field would mask her. Sadie seemed wholly focused on the car parked in front of her safe house, but a little caution never hurt anyone.
Blondie stopped next to the car and peered through the window. Whatever he saw inside was enough to form a conclusion. Ari was close enough to hear him say, "It's them."
"Go." Sadie let him lead the way through the gate. Ari slipped out of the field and crossed to the side of the street opposite the house. She was almost concealed behind a crumbling brick mailbox when she heard Duchamp shouting from inside the house.
"US Marshals! Put your weapons on the ground and show me your hands!"
Sadie went left and Blondie went right. Blondie fired at the door as he dove for the side of the house to take cover. Sadie, meanwhile, jumped the fence and started running for the car. Ari gave up her attempt to hide and instead gave chase. Sadie saw her coming, recognized her, and shouted a curse as she put on an extra burst of speed.
Blondie fired on the house again as Tessa's SUV came around the corner in a squeal of tires. The headlights flashed in an alternating pattern, a small box on the dashboard providing the expected red and blue flair. Sadie had reached the car and pressed against it, turning to fire on Tessa as she approached. The windshield cracked in a wide spider web pattern as Ari reached Sadie and slammed into her, pinning her against the car as Tessa jumped the opposite curb and slammed into a mailbox.
Sadie threw an elbow back and hit Ari in the jaw, twisting at the waist and grabbing Ari's head with both hands. Her gun was cold and sharp against the side of Ari's head, and Sadie closed her fist around Ari's muzzle to keep her from biting.
"You just don't give up, do you?" She swung her right hand out and then brought the gun down like a cudgel. Ari's legs buckled and her vision swam, and Sadie flung her against the side of the car. Ari was too dazed to try getting away as Sadie opened the door. By the time her head cleared, Sadie had grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and hauled her inside.
"I think we've played enough games, don't you?" Sadie got into the car and squealed the tires as she pulled away from the curb. She pulled a wide U-turn, slamming into Tessa's still-idle SUV as she raced back out of the cul-de-sac. Ari lunged at Sadie, biting her forearm and letting her teeth sink into the flesh in an attempt to distract her enough to wreck. Sadie growled and switched her gun to her other arm.
"I knew I should have gotten a pet carrier." She lifted the gun and brought it down hard on the slope of Ari's skull just above her eyes.
Ari dropped, the momentum of the car's turn throwing her against the back of the seat and then dumping her onto the floor. Her head hurt too much to try getting up and, before they had gone a block, her vision faded to black.
Dale touched her forehead and was relieved to find it was only bumped, not bloody. She had been thrown forward against the driver's seat during the wreck, and as far as she could tell she was still in one piece. She touched her stomach, which was sore from the seatbelt that had pulled so tight across her abdomen that she'd thought for a moment she was about to be cut in half. She coughed and unfastened it, gripping the edge of Tessa's seat to pull herself to the edge of the seat.
"How bad is it?" she asked, eyeing the cracked windshield and listening for sirens. "Tessa? Marshal Rose?"
Tessa was slumped against the steering wheel. She had been transforming as she reached the SUV, grabbing her clothes and tugging them on even as she got behind the wheel. They were on the move even as she radioed Duchamp and Matheson to warn them about the incoming hostiles, filling Dale in on the situation at the same time. Her shirt was still mostly unbuttoned, but her trousers and shoes were both on.
The bullet had entered Tessa's face just below her eye, which was now staring blindly out the side window. Her face and the front of her body were covered with blood. Dale nearly reached out to test her pulse, but it was a moot point. Instead she used two fingers to close Tessa's eyes and choked back a sob.
The gunfire had ceased, so she got out of the truck and pressed herself against the side of it. She didn't want to leave cover until she was sure the good guys had won. She was scanning the street when Marshal Matheson appeared like a ghost near the bumper of the car. Her gun was leveled at Dale's head, so Dale shot both arms into the air in a gesture of unconditional surrender.
"Miss Frye?" She looked at the car and tried to see the driver. "Whose vehicle is this?"
"Marshal Tessa Rose. She's been working with me and Ari to try and find Sadie Dillon."
Matheson's jaw tightened. "And where is Miss Willow?"
Dale tried not to let dread overtake her. "I was kind of hoping you would know the answer to that, Marshal."
3. Leader of the Pack
Ari was disoriented when she woke, her shoulder slumped against a cold bar and her legs twisted up underneath her. Her head was swimming, and her right temple throbbed with pain. She shifted to a more comfortable position, her feet erupting in pins and needles as her head hit the crossbars along the top of her prison. She finally managed to focus her vision enough to see that she was in a black cage just large enough to let her sit up but not wide enough for her to stretch her legs out all the way. She put her hands out to either side, gripping the bars but positive she wouldn't be able to move them.
It was a typical pet cage, if a little larger than most she'd seen, and under normal circumstances she would have been able to undo the latches from inside. Unfortunately someone had foreseen that possibility and added a heavy lock. The cage was in the middle of an empty garage, filled with shadows due to the apparently late hour. It had been afternoon when she and Tessa set up camp outside Keith Henson's house, but now it was twilight. She listened but heard no sounds of neighbors outside, no indication that her shouts for help would be heard by anyone except her captors. The garage had shelves and a workbench, but both were bare of any tools and thereby useless even if she could have gotten over to them.
Long minutes passed before the interior door opened and Sadie appeared. She had changed into a sleeveless white shirt and tan slacks, barefoot as she shut the door behind her and crossed to Ari's cage.
"Well. About time you woke up. I was worried I'd hit you too hard."
"Let me out of this thing."
Sadie crouched in front of the door, arms over her knees. "Now why would I do that? I went to a lot of trouble to get you into it. Ariadne Willow, trapped and helpless. Completely unable to get in my way." She tugged on the lock and clucked her tongue. "I was going to kill you once you woke up, just so we'd have a chance to say goodbye, but I don't know. I kind of like the idea of having you under lock and key. I might keep you as my pet while I'm in town and just kill you before I run."
Ari said, "So you're planning to stick around for a while?"
"I just have a few more loose ends to wrap up. You're the most stubborn one, of course. Gotta admit, Ari, I wish you'd really been a member of my gang. We could have had a lot of fun together." She ran her eyes down Ari's body. Ari fought the urge to try concealing herself, knowing that any attempt would succeed only in making her look ridiculous. "But the chips fell where they did. Shame. Sit tight. We'll get you a bowl of food and some water so you don't wither away on us."
She stood and walked to the door, but she paused before she went into the house.
"Oh, and kudos on getting together with your little assistant. If things go well, I could be tempted to let her live. I'm not completely heartless, after all." She winked and disappeared through the door.
Once she was alone again, Ari began examining the cage. They were designed to hold animals, so there had to be weaknesses a human could exploit. There was a plastic liner so the pet wouldn't have to sit on cold bars, and Ari hooked her fingers on the edge to curl it up. The space between the bars was wider underneath and formed squares instead of narrow rectangles, but they were still far too narrow to slip through even if she'd been the wolf. She dropped the liner and threaded her fingers through the bars along the top of her cage.
It was too cramped to give her much room to maneuver, but there was a chance she could use that to her advantage. She shifted position so that she was kneeling, her feet under her butt, and she put her hands against the walls. She rose like a runner at the starting line, her back against the top, and she pushed with her hands and her feet as she arched her back. She watched the corners and joints of the cage, seeing where they spread and bent wider. The curled brackets that held the pieces together to form a whole tightened and she watched them until she couldn't hold the position any longer.
Ari turned and sat down. The cage was too long for her to put her hands against the front and back, but bracing her feet against one wall and her back against the other let her stretch it again. The joints widened once more, and one of the corners groaned a protest at its treatment. Breathing hard, Ari moved to that corner and began working at the brackets with her fingers. She didn't know how many people were in the house with Sadie, but she couldn't hope she was alone. All she could hope was that Tessa Rose had gotten Dale somewhere safe.
Dale's head was down on her palms, her eyes closed as she tried unsuccessfully to nap. She had tried pacing, staring at the wall, cupping her hands to look through the mirror behind her, and her anxiety levels had only risen. Finally she decided to conserve her energy in case Ari needed her later but sitting still was proving as problematic as moving. She was about to start demanding someone to talk to, just in case the room was being monitored, when the door opened and Marshal Matheson entered.
"Coffee?" Matheson put one of the cups she was carrying down in front of Dale and then sat across from her. Matheson's hair was down and the top button of her blouse was undone. She looked like the sister of the severe, ice-cold woman Dale had originally met. She also looked very tired as she sipped her own coffee. She grimaced and shrugged. "It's sludge, but it's the best we can do. Not a lot of marshals with culinary skills."
"I want to know where my girlfriend is." Dale struggled to keep from whining, but tears filled her eyes at the thought of Ari alone with Sadie.
"We're looking for her." Matheson's voice was gentle, consoling. "This place has gone a little nuts with Marshal Rose's death. We've got three difference offices trying to put the pieces together. Marshal Duchamp and I are from Kentucky, Marshal Rose was based on Baton Rouge, and it's all boiling over here in Seattle. We have some very cranky Pacific Northwest marshals buzzing around us. We want to help you find Ms. Willow, but we have to know exactly what happened this afternoon. Why were you and Ms. Willow working with Marshal Rose? Why didn't she alert us that she was even in town? And what happened at that house?"
Dale closed her eyes and tried to organize her thoughts. "You know about Ari working for the cops last year, infiltrating Sadie's gang and--"
"Yes, we know that."
"Okay." Dale explained everything they had done since Sadie's reappearance. Visiting the prison to get information from Rebecca Collier, following that to Sadie's former mentor and halfway house operator Lucas Kerr, and his lead that Sadie borrowed his truck for a friend named Keith Henson.
"We got his address and--"
"And you set me and Duchamp up in case it was a trap."
Dale shrugged. "Tessa's idea. She said if it was a trap, you two would be better equipped to handle it."
"She was right about that. But it was a shitty way to handle it."
Dale rubbed her eyes. "There are things about this case you don't know and I can't tell you. It's very complicated."
"All I know is that Sadie Dillon is a murderer that you and your girlfriend tried to take down on your own. Because of that, Marshal Rose is dead and Ariadne Willow has been kidnapped. You should have come to us from the beginning no matter how complicated the truth may be."
Dale sighed and nodded. "I know."
"We have Keith Henson in custody. He's already told us that Sadie has been staying with him since she got back to Seattle. He doesn't know where she's gone now."
"She probably went back to Lucas Kerr's."
Matheson shook her head. "We put Seattle PD on the house this afternoon. No sign of Sadie."
Dale hesitated and then said, "Any wildlife sightings?"
Matheson blinked. "Why do you ask that?"
"It's complicated. Could you just tell them to keep their eyes out for any foxes or wolves or... any other kind of animal that's acting suspicious?"
"Suspicious foxes?" She leaned forward. "What the hell are you talking about, Miss Frye?"
"You saw a fox, didn't you? In, where was it, Kentucky? You were watching Sadie Dillon, and you saw a fox. Next thing you knew, Sadie had disappeared without a trace. If you don't take my advice, she's going to slip past you again."
Matheson sighed and looked at the mirror past Dale. She stood up and muttered, "I really hate this case."
"Will you tell them?" Dale demanded.
Matheson paused at the door. She didn't turn back, but she said, "Yes. And to answer your earlier question, yes... I saw a fox when we were watching Sadie's new apartment in Kentucky. What was it? A distraction?"
Matheson shook her head and slammed the door when she left the room. Dale covered her face with both hands and went back to waiting.
True to her word, Sadie came back twenty minutes later with food. It was a TV dinner still steaming from the microwave, and the scent of food made Ari realize how hungry she was. Sadie held up the key. "The door opens out, and I'm not an idiot. If you want this, you'll move to the back of the cage and be a good dog. Understood?"
Ari slid to the back of the cage and tucked her knees up against her chest. "Satisfied? Feel safe now?"
Sadie unlocked the door and opened it, her eyes on Ari for any twitch of forward movement. She bent into the cage to put the food down on the plastic liner just inside the door. Once she was over the threshold, Ari threw her weight backward. She grabbed the sides of the cage and pushed backward, her weight against the back wall forcing the front of the cage to swing up. Sadie was hit in the chest by the thin rail knocking the wind from her as she dropped the food. Ari let the cage fall back to the concrete with a shattering clatter and she launched herself forward. She grabbed Sadie around the shoulders and twisted to pull her out of the cage.
They fell to the concrete together, Ari's shoulder scraping painfully as Sadie tried to pull away from her. Ari brought her knee up, hitting Sadie between the breasts and keeping her from drawing breath. She rolled to the side and got to her feet, then threw herself onto Sadie's back and pinned her to the concrete.
"You'll never get past the guys in the house," Sadie wheezed.
"Oh, I'm sure that would be true if they were there." She cast a look over her shoulder just to be sure. "But the fact you haven't called for help makes me think we're all alone in here." She put her arm around Sadie's neck and tightened it. "So why don't you just go to sleep and I'll let you see just how comfortable that damn cage is?"
Sadie struggled, but the fight soon faded from her. She slapped weakly at Ari's legs and arm but finally succumbed to the lack of oxygen. Ari gave it another second in case it was a fake-out, then shifted her weight. She slipped her hands under Sadie's arms and hauled her forward, dumping her into the cage. She lifted Sadie's feet and put them into the cage, shut the door, and secured the lock again.
The TV dinner had landed on its bottom when it was dropped, and the food seemed no worse for wear so Ari left it in case Sadie got hungry before the marshals showed up.
Despite her confidence they were alone, Ari moved cautiously as she entered the house. The garage led directly into a laundry room without any appliances, and beyond that was a kitchen that seemed hardly operational. A small cooler was in the space a fridge should have stood, and Ari assumed that was where the TV dinner had come from. The house had an empty feel to it which gave her confidence to move faster through the dining room.
The living room was unfurnished except for a single corner where Sadie's sleeping bag and supplies had been set out. Ari opened the olive-drab duffel bag and pulled out a T-shirt and jeans, struggling into them and wishing Sadie was just a little closer to her size. It would have to do. The shoes were in no way going to work on her, so she stayed barefoot as she searched without success for a cell phone.
"Need to pack your stashes better, Sadie..."
She stood and moved to the hallway just to make sure she was alone. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom, all of them empty and unfurnished, so she returned to the living room and gave in to the niggling, uneasy feeling that had been working at her since Sadie neglected to call out for help.
The house should not have been empty.
Sadie came back to Seattle to reunite with Lucas Kerr. Kerr ran a halfway house that was full of beefy roughneck types who would have been ideal to back her up here. Why wouldn't she have gone to them for help?
Ari walked back through the house to the garage where Sadie was just beginning to stir. She looked up, grunted, and shifted her weight until she was leaning against the wall of her cage.
"Here for a victory lap?"
"No, I'm here for the monologuing. This doesn't make sense. I should have had to fight my way out of this house, but you're here alone. Why?"
Sadie scoffed and pushed her hand into her hair. "You're disappointed?"
"Confused. I think I deserve to know what's been going on these past couple of days. You tried to have me killed, then you framed me for murder, the least you can do is correct whatever mistake I made so I can put my mind at ease."
"Hell, you're the detective. Figure it out."
Ari sighed and crossed her arms. "You slipped away from your handlers in the marshal service and came to Seattle. But you didn't come here to reunite with your mentor, or else we'd be at Kerr's house and I'd be surrounded by his not-quite-rehabilitated army of goons. You came here to settle the score with me. So maybe you wanted to settle a different score at the same time." She narrowed her eyes. "You want to kill him, too."
Sadie laced her fingers together and rested them on her bent knees, glaring at the wall ahead of her instead of at Ari.
"Why? Rebecca said he was your mentor."
"He was. He taught me everything I know, made me who I am." She looked at Ari and raised an eyebrow. "He made me the woman who tried to kill Dale Frye. Wouldn't you want to kill him, too?"
Ari crouched down so that her face was level with Sadie's. "You weren't just pretending to be good to lull Marshal Rose into a false sense of security. You liked being in WitSec. You liked having a new life and being a new person. You got moved because you sent a letter. Was that planned, or was it really an accident?"
Sadie sighed and shook her head. "Six of one, half a dozen of the other." She shrugged. "I was trying to get in touch with Keith. I wanted him to take care of a few loose ends for me. And that included you. I wanted my old life wiped from the slate so I could really live. I was Sophie Markus. I worked in a library and I volunteered at a food pantry. I was a good citizen. When the letter got intercepted and I was moved, I saw an opportunity to do the job myself. So I got away from Duchamp and Matheson and came up here to erase Sadie Dillon once and for all."
"So Kerr is using his halfway house to build gangs of criminals."
Sadie nodded slowly. "I was just a punk kid when I got out of juvie. He showed me how to run a crew. He showed me what a canidae thief was capable of. When I got old enough to go out on my own, I started working for Vicki Fennick and..." She smiled coldly, waving her hand. "The rest you can figure out."
"Is he still doing it?"
"If you found Keith's house, then you must have visited Kerr's place. You saw the goons yourself. His latest batch of thieves in training."
Ari stood. "Where's the nearest phone?"
"I'm going to call the marshals to come pick you up, then I'm going to tell them or anyone who will listen what you just told me about Kerr. Maybe if you're lucky the marshals will let you back into WitSec."
Sadie stared at her and then waved dismissively toward the house. "My phone is charging out in my car. It's parked in the alley behind the house."
Ari nodded and stepped back into the house. She had just crossed the threshold to the kitchen when Lucas Kerr stepped away from the wall and punched her in the face.
She fell, and Kerr grabbed her shirt with both hands to haul her back out into the garage. He threw her down and she twisted on the pavement, her shoulder sending shockwaves of pain out as she rolled onto her stomach. When she looked up she saw Kerr aiming a gun at her as he looked at Sadie in the cage. She had retreated to the far corner when he appeared and now returned his stare with wide, frightened eyes.
"Well. That's convenient." He kept the gun trained on Ari as he walked over and tested the lock on the cage. "I assume Sadie put you in the cage when you arrived here, and you somehow turned the tables on her? I'd be very interested in finding out how you managed that. You could be a valuable asset on one of my crews. Assuming, of course, I let you leave this garage alive. But first, let's deal with the fact that my prodigal surrogate daughter stole my truck. Which one of us were you trying to frame, Say? Me? Her? Both of us in one fell swoop?" He laughed. "Well, I did always tell you to kill two birds with one stone if possible. Maybe you were trying to use Ariadne here to draw the police to my door. You put her in my truck just in case she remembers enough to describe it to the cops, and I get involved in this little murder scheme you have going." He pondered that. "Sounds right... using someone else to take me down. God knows you never could have pulled the trigger on me yourself."
Sadie growled. "Go to hell."
Ari pushed herself up, but she'd barely made it off the ground before Kerr's gun swung back to her. "Don't you get any ideas or I'll shove you into the cage next to your pal." He ran his eyes over her again. "What are you, anyway? Slender and muscular, you must be something quick. Greyhound?"
Kerr raised his eyebrows and nodded. "Excellent. So here's the plan, Miss Wolf. I'm going to kill Sadie, since it's better than what she had planned for the both of us. Then I'm going to let you go. You and I will never see each other again, and you'll never mention my name to any of your friends in law enforcement. Alternatively, I could just kill you both and ensure your silence. I really could go either way with it. This gun is fully loaded, so I definitely have bullets to spare."
"I have a condition," Ari said. "Let me kill her."
Kerr laughed. "You must think I'm an idiot."
"No, I think you're smart. You must be really damn smart to have run this scam for so long. And you're smart enough to know that you and I can't just walk away from this and go our separate ways. I'd have too much evidence on you. There's no way you would ever leave me out there with a ticking bomb. So you would kill me sooner or later. But if I'm the one who pulls the trigger, you have something on me. Mutually assured destruction. I can't turn you in without revealing I killed Sadie."
Kerr narrowed his eyes at Sadie.
"But all that is just an excuse. The real reason? If this bitch is going to get shot, I want to be the one who does it. She kidnapped my girlfriend last year and threatened to bite her. Held her hostage, terrified her... then she comes back, has me beaten up, then frames me for a murder. She made me afraid of my own wolf. If she's not going back to Witness Protection, if she's not going to pay for what she's done, then I at least want the satisfaction of being the one to put a bullet between her eyes. I want her to know I'm the one who is ending her life."
"Well." Kerr's voice was low and dark. "Looks like you took my lessons to heart, Say. Destroy your enemy's will to fight, and the victory will be won before the battle even begins." He looked at Ari. "I still want you in one of my gangs."
"We'll talk." Ari slowly pushed herself up and, when she was sure Kerr wasn't going to shoot her, brushed off the front of her borrowed shirt and crossed the garage. Kerr turned the gun around and handed it to her butt-first. She took it and stood in front of the cage. She aimed at Sadie. "Be a good dog, like I was when you gave me dinner. Understood?"
Sadie narrowed her eyes and gripped the side walls with both hands, bracing herself. Ari cocked the weapon.
Sadie threw her weight back, and the front of the cage shot up. When it hit Ari's hand, she made her fingers go limp so that the gun tumbled from her grip. She spun on her heel and slammed herself into Kerr. He lost his footing and Ari followed him down. She used his body to cushion her fall, knocking the wind out of him when her elbow dug into his gut. She sat up, straddling his hips, and punched him in the face as he reached up to grab her wrists. They grappled, and Ari knew that she would never be able to best him through sheer strength. She lifted herself and dropped her knees onto his stomach and he grunted. Ari sat up and let the change ripple through her, bones snapping and reforming as her body twisted and tore her clothes.
Kerr shoved away a woman, but she hit the ground as a wolf, dressed in tatters. She rolled off her back with the grace of an animal, regaining her feet and pouncing. Kerr had lunged for the gun, but Ari closed her jaw over his hand. Her teeth dug into the flesh and she wrenched her head from side to side until she heard a nauseating snap from his wrist.
"Ariadne, the key!" Sadie was shaking the cage, gesturing at the keys that were lying next to the garage door.
Ari ignored her and focused on Kerr. His dominant hand bleeding, she was crouched between him and the gun. She flattened her ears to her skull and growled, daring him to try going for the weapon. "You should have just shot me when you had a chance, wolf. You won't be safe anywhere. My people will find you, and we'll take you out with extreme prejudice. No games, no tricks or proxies. Hell, you should have just shot yourself when I handed you that gun. It amounts to the same damn thing in the end."
The wolf saw red. The wolf could see itself tearing Kerr limb from limb, blood sticking in its fur. A primal urge to bite, tear, claw, kill ran through its brain.
Ari stifled the urge and instead barked. She lunged at Kerr and he recoiled, losing his balance to fall onto his side. Ari turned and picked up the gun in her teeth, carrying it with her as she ran out of the room. She heard Kerr scrambling on the concrete, then the tear of clothing. She risked a look back and saw a black-and-white husky shaking off the remnants of Kerr's plaid shirt and jeans. Ari ran into the house, angling through the kitchen and dining room to find Kerr had left the back door open.
She was through it and halfway across the backyard before she spotted Kerr's white truck parked in the alley behind the house, blocking in Sadie's car. Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum from the halfway house were sitting in the bed, most likely awaiting orders or to come inside and clean up the bloody mess. One of them turned toward the door and tensed at the sight of her.
Kerr came out hot on Ari's heels, and both men stood at the sight of their boss. They tore off their T-shirts in a bizarre parody of Chippendale's, dropping out of sight as they transformed. Ari reached the alley and turned sharply to the right. She heard two heavy bodies hit the ground, both guard dogs grunting as they forced themselves back up to give chase.
Three dogs chasing me, all of them eager to rip my throat out, and I don't even know what neighborhood I'm in.
As Ari burst out onto the main road and chose a direction at random, she began to regret not just letting the wolf kill Kerr when the urge presented itself.
The door opened and Matheson stepped inside. "Now," she said, and disappeared. Dale stood and, assuming the marshal wanted her to follow, stood and hurried to catch up. Matheson held a cell phone at her side, a call active but apparently ignored. She turned to make sure Dale was following her before she spoke. "You said this is complicated. That you're unable or unwilling to give me anything that can help me. Is that correct?"
"A simple yes-or-no is all we have time for, Miss Frye."
"Then I'm going to just give you the information and you tell me if it makes sense to you, and then I'll let you tell me what action should be taken. Understood?"
"Local officers followed Lucas Kerr from his house this evening. He had two residents of his halfway house with him. They drove to a neighborhood where they parked behind a house that seems to be unoccupied. Kerr went inside while his friends stayed outside. A few minutes later, the locals reported sightings of..." She brought the phone up again as they descended the stairs. "Tell me again." A pause, and Matheson pushed open a door to the parking garage. "They saw a wolf, a husky, and two Doberman pincers running down an adjacent street. The wolf seemed to be carrying a handgun in its mouth. So I ask you, Dale Frye, does this make sense to you?"
Dale blinked and swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. "Yes. T-tell them to stop the dogs, but they have to let the wolf go."
Matheson stared at her for a long moment. Then she put the phone to her ear again. "Officer? Stop the dogs, but the wolf is to be left alone." Her eyes met Dale's. "No, I'm not sure. Do it anyway." She hung up and looked at Dale over the top of the car. "The wolf. What is it?"
"Complicated," Dale sighed.
"Right," Matheson muttered. "Get in the car."
A police car pulled around the corner, lights flashing so bright that Ari was momentarily blinded by it. She changed direction so she wouldn't have to stop or slow down as the car pulled to a stop at a sharp angle across the street. She launched herself at the hood, leaping off the bumper and skidding over the hood before dropping to the street on the other side. She spit out the gun, grateful to be rid of it, and kept running. To her surprise, the officers let her go. An Animal Control truck sped past her and it too didn't seem to care about her. She stopped on the far sidewalk, panting as she looked back at the trio of squad cars and the bug-like hulk of Animal Control. The officers had cut off Kerr's means of escape, and he crowded back against the two Dobermans in an attempt to prevent capture for another precious second or two.
Kerr spotted Ari through the flashing lights and began barking. Ari turned away just as Animal Control slipped a noose around Kerr's neck and tightened it, using a long pole to guide him toward the back of the truck. She started running again, but this time she was returning to the house she had just left.
The back door was still standing wide open, and Ari bumped it with her shoulder as she went through the kitchen and empty laundry room to the garage.
The cage had been pushed across the floor, a feat accomplished by lifting the liner to expose the squares on the bottom. Sadie had then inched the entire cage across the floor like a turtle with the most unwieldy shell imaginable until she could reach the keys. The padlock lay open on the concrete, and Ari didn't have to search the house to know Sadie was long gone.
On her way back out, she looked up and saw something had been scrawled on the wall in the laundry room.
"DON'T LOOK FOR ME. I WON'T LOOK FOR YOU."
When the police raided Kerr's halfway house after hearing Ari's statement, they found evidence in his office that tied him to seventeen recent robberies. His address book alone led to the discovery and arrest of seven people running their own groups of thieves. There was also evidence that he was tied into Vicki Fennick's organization, further nailing shut the lid of her coffin before her case even went to trial. Oddly, Lucas Kerr and his two most trusted associates were nowhere to be found during the raids. They didn't show up until three days later, zip-tied together and sitting on the sidewalk outside a cop bar. No one knew where they had been, and Kerr was keeping his mouth shut about how they'd ended up basically turning themselves in.
If someone had checked the Animal Control records, they probably wouldn't even have found it odd that US Marshal Katherine Matheson had collected three strays - a husky and two Dobermans - five hours before Kerr and his men were finally arrested.
Matheson looked across the bar at Marshal Duchamp, who was currently playing darts with an attractive brunette. She looked at Dale and Ari, sitting together on the other side of the booth, and then took a long swig of her beer. She shook her head as she swallowed.
"I still don't believe it. I saw you change, I saw Kerr, and... I still don't buy it. I think you two drugged my water or hypnotized me or..." She looked at Ari. "You're not a wolf. And Sadie Dillon is not a fox."
"So this is going into the X-Files. This is going to be a case that was successfully closed, the whys and hows notwithstanding. We have Kerr, we have enough evidence to secure a conviction on not only Victoria Fennick but a handful of other criminals just like her from Vancouver down to northern California, so I'm... satisfied." She considered that and then nodded definitively. "Satisfied it a good word for what I am."
Ari toasted with her bottle and took a drink. "What about Sadie?"
"In the wind. We've grilled Keith Henson backwards and forwards, but we've exhausted everything he knew about her. Safe houses, funds, everything Sadie had, we know about. She hasn't touched or gone near any of it. If she does show her face again, she's out of the program and into a jail cell. We no longer need her testimony, and now she's got a multitude of other charges facing her. Your kidnapping, the murder of Garrett Seidel... she's got too much baggage for the Marshals."
"What about Tessa?" Dale asked. "Is she going to get justice?"
Matheson nodded. "Ballistics confirmed the bullet that killed her came from Keith Henson's gun. He's going to prison for a long time."
"Good. I guess at least one person is going to pay for their crimes." She put her arm around Ari's. "And what about us?"
"You?" Matheson took a drink and held it in her mouth, letting the question hang for a long moment. Finally she swallowed, looked at Ari, and shrugged. "As near as I can tell, you were the victim in most of Sadie Dillon's crimes. You were kidnapped, framed, and threatened with bodily harm. The worst I could probably charge you with is withholding information in our investigation, but you basically just shared it with Marshal Rose instead of us. It's not worth the trouble to charge you."
Ari smiled. "That's my goal, to stay just under the line of worthwhile prosecution."
Matheson's lips twitched into what might have been a smile. "I don't suppose you want to help write my report? It's going to be pretty difficult to explain everything. The dog cage, the wolf that appeared out of nowhere at Keith Henson's house, where Lucas Kerr and his friends were while the cops were digging through his files..." She sighed. "It's going to be tough."
"The alternative is becoming infamous for having the word 'werewolf' in your report."
"Right." Matheson finished her beer and shook her head. "Weird fucking case. I'll be happy to see the end of it."
Ari nodded. "You and us both."
Matheson looked at her partner and saw he was more interested in the brunette than playing darts. "Goodbye, Ms. Willow. Ms. Frye. I hope I never see either of you again."
She left, abandoning her partner to the barfly, and Dale rested her head on Ari's shoulder. "She's going to come back."
"No, she's not. She wanted a clean slate. To get it, she had to cut her ties to Seattle. With Kerr gone and Keith Henson in jail, she doesn't have anyone here with a claim on her past. And me... I had a chance to take her out, and I risked my own life to save hers. I think that she sees me as the turning point now. The thing that separates the old her from the new her. She's not going to look for me, and I'm not going to look for her."
"She's a murderer, Ari."
Ari nodded. "I know. That's why I'm not going to chase her. I'm willing to let her go if it means she doesn't come after you." She kissed the top of Dale's head.
"I'm not sure I can live with that." She was quiet for a long moment. Then finally, "But I'm going to try."
"Me too," Ari said. "And I discovered something else thanks to her."
Ari smiled. "I can control the wolf. At its darkest, at its most bloodthirsty, I'm still in control. No matter what happens, I can hold onto that. I can have faith that the wolf is a part of me even if I'm not behind the wheel."
Dale sat up. "Good. So is this a win?"
Ari sighed and looked across the bar. Duchamp seemed to be in the process of convincing the brunette to go home with him. Ari mourned Tessa Rose, but her death hadn't been in vain and her murderer had been brought to justice. And Sadie was gone, on the run, in hiding, somewhere out in the world. Ari wasn't naïve enough to think she was actually gone for good, but she was gone for the time being. Dale was safe. That would be enough to get her to sleep that night.Well, that and the right company
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