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
The driveway curled off the main road, ending in a tall wrought-iron gate with a speaker mounted on the stone pylon. The gate was currently open and the woman who had called said she should drive on up to the house. Ari let her car idle at the mouth of the drive, staring through the deceptively inviting façade to the house that lurked further along the path. Lots of green shrubbery, pretty flowers, absolutely nothing whatsoever to cause alarm.
Just the fact it was a mansion, and Ari had been wary of mansions since the Gavin House. She'd never trusted rich people but Katherine Gavin had turned that mild dislike into a distinct phobia. She looked down and saw that it was two minutes until the scheduled meeting. She took a breath to calm her nerves before she finally made the left turn and drove onto the property. She parked under the porte-cochere and stepped out, half-expecting a valet to trot up and take her keys. No one arrived, so she straightened her tie and walked up to the door.
Ari had dressed for the part, at Dale's insistence. A new shirt, a red tie that cost more than some of the outfits in her closet, and fitted slacks. Her hair was pulled back and braided, something Dale had done for her before she left the office, and she resisted the urge to check her breath before she rang the doorbell. Her shirt collar felt too firm around her neck and she reached up to adjust the knot of her tie. She nervously dropped her hand when the door opened.
The woman who answered the door was a few inches taller than Ari, with strawberry blonde hair pulled back in a bun. She wore a charcoal gray suit over a white blouse that dipped to reveal just a hint of cleavage. Professional but flirtatious, a combination Ari which highly approved of. The woman wore a pair of horn-rim eyeglasses that magnified her green eyes very nicely. Ari managed a businesslike smile.
"Hi. I'm the private investigate. Ar--"
"Ariadne Willow. Oh, my God."
It took her a moment to look past the suit, glasses, and blonde hair, but once she broke through it seemed obvious. Ari stared in dim confusion and finally said, "Kit Kat?"
She smiled sheepishly. "Actually I prefer Kathleen here."
"Yeah, I'll bet. What are you doing here?"
Kathleen laughed. "I work for Mrs. Russo. Speaking of whom, she's probably expecting us. We can catch up after your meeting with her."
Ari nodded and stepped inside, too stunned by Kathleen's sudden appearance to do anything else. Her heart pounded, but she couldn't quite figure out how she felt. Angry? Hurt? Terrified? Overjoyed? She decided it was a mixture of all those feelings and about a dozen more as Kathleen shut the door behind her and motioned for Ari to follow her. She glanced back, running her eyes up and down Ari's outfit with a smile.
"Looks like you landed on your feet, Ari. Sorry... Ariadne."
"No. Actually, most people call me Ari now." Ari couldn't help but smile. "And I don't know about landing on my feet... I thought I was doing all right, but you're the one on Hunts Point."
Kathleen laughed. "I live in a little house out back. Wherever you live in the city is probably bigger."
"The view isn't as good, though."
"You got a point there." They arrived at a door wide enough to drive a car through, the space transforming from hallway to a sitting room at the threshold. A white-haired woman was seated across the room at a desk, head bowed over something she was writing. She didn't look up, but Ari had little doubt she knew they were there.
Kathleen stopped just inside the room and clasped her hands behind her back. "Mrs. Russo? The private investigator is here. Ariadne Willow, this is Edna Russo."
"Thank you, Kathleen." She finally looked up and examined her guest. "That will be all for now."
Kathleen dipped her head slightly. The motion was too small to be a bow, too brief to just be a nod. She turned, met Ari's eye to give a reassuring wink and then left the room. Edna stood up and motioned for Ari to enter as she stepped around the corner of the desk.
"I was pleased to hear you were available to take my case, Miss Willow. You've become quite famous in the past few months. Although you're hardly what I was expecting. None of the stories about you contained photographs."
Ari shrugged. "Kind of hard to be a private investigator if your face is all over the news."
"That is understandable. Please, have a seat." She gestured at one of the wingback chairs on either side of the fireplace. She picked up a framed photograph off the desk and held it against herself like a shield as she took her seat across from Ari. She put the picture down in her lap, covering it with her fingers and staring at the back as if she could see the image through it. "I must say found your agency's name a bit... distasteful."
"People go to private investigators for all kinds of jobs, Mrs. Russo. They might think a woman can't handle the tougher cases, so they might overlook me. But a woman who names her agency Bitches Investigations has got to have a backbone."
"And a bad bite to go with it, I presume."
Ari smiled. "Well, you read the news about Katherine Gavin."
"Indeed I did." She examined her hands. "I wish to hire you to find something that was taken from me. When I say 'find,' that is precisely what I mean. I don't want you to steal it or retrieve it, I merely wish to know where it is and that it is being properly taken care of. Do you understand?"
"Of course. Like when the police do a welfare check."
"Precisely. Unfortunately they draw the line at humans." She lifted the photo and, after another look, she leaned forward to hand it to Ari.
Ari had let her mind run rampant, filling in the blanks for what Edna Russo had hired her to find. A child, a pet, a piece of jewelry... She didn't expect what she saw when she finally looked at the picture. She stared for a long moment and then looked at Edna. She had tears in her eyes, so Ari knew it wasn't a joke, but her mind still rebelled. At first it looked like it was an aerial photograph of a town, but she could see a wall in the background. The train tracks around the perimeter revealed the true nature of what she was looking at.
"It's a model train layout."
Edna smiled and dipped her chin slightly. "Yes. It represents Merritt, the small town in Idaho where I was born and spent the first seven years of my life. My grandfather built the foundations, and my father continued adding onto it until the entire town filled the basement of our little home. When we moved here to a more stately residence, he made sure there was a room set aside for the town so we would always remember the place from whence we came. He wasn't precious about it... it was a symbol, but it was also a toy. He allowed me to play with it whenever I wished.
"When my father passed away, my mother sadly chose to sell the train set. As much as I adored it, she and my father were not... on good terms at the end. I think a part of her was afraid his ghost would haunt the trains if they remained in the house, so she got them out as quickly as possible. Any records she had of the sale were lost or thrown out years ago. The only thing I know for certain is that the buyer was local to Seattle, because the layout was delivered by truck rather than shipped. I know it isn't much to go on, but I would be grateful if you could at least attempt to find them."
Ari liked the idea of the challenge. "I'll do my best, Mrs. Russo."
"Excellent." Edna stood and walked back to her desk. She opened the top drawer and removed a ledger. "This contains a record of pieces my father purchased over the years. I added a map of Merritt so that you can see for yourself what the full train set would look like. As I said, I only want to know the set is being treated well. I want to see how it ended up after all these years. Whoever has it now owns it fair and square. I just want to know, Ms. Willow."
Edna nodded and handed over the ledger. "The check is in the book to cover your retainer and the first four days of your investigation." She pressed a button on her desk and Kathleen reappeared in the doorway almost as if she had been conjured. "Would you mind showing our guest out, please?"
"Of course, ma'am." She turned to Ari and gestured for her to lead the way.
Ari nodded a farewell to Edna and then left the library. Kathleen fell into step beside her, both women maintaining stoic expressions until they reached the door when Ari ruined it by laughing. "I still can't believe this is really happening."
Kathleen snickered. "What? You never thought you'd see the day when I escorted you out of a Hunts Point mansion?"
"I never thought I'd see you again, period."
Kathleen's smile wavered and she lowered her head. "Yeah. Well, I was a kid. Ari, I made some really stupid--"
"No. Hey." She shrugged and shook her head. "I'm not angry. You were too special to me, and I've missed you too much to waste this being angry over one bad night."
Her smile returned. "I'm glad to hear it. And things have worked out for us both, I guess."
An image of Dale flashed into Ari's mind and she couldn't resist smiling. "Yeah. And as of a few minutes ago, we're both employed by your boss."
Kathleen smiled as she opened the door and led Ari out onto the porch. "So you couldn't resist the case, even if it's a little weird?"
"I like cases that are a little weird."
"I would, too." She stared at Ari again and shook her head. "Ariadne Willow, private eye. Talk about life experiences I didn't expect. So are you seeing anyone?"
Kathleen chuckled. "Of course you are. Well, we can still catch up. Bring your boyfriend."
Ari said, "Girlfriend, actually."
Kathleen raised an eyebrow. "Really? So I wasn't just a fling?"
Ari grinned. "You helped me realize a truth."
"Well. You're welcome. We can set up dinner for some night when neither of us is on the clock for Mrs. Russo. Can I call the same number I used to schedule this appointment?"
"Sure." She started to extend her hand, but she turned it into a hug. Kathleen was surprised, but put her arms around Ari. "It's really great to see you again, Kit Kat."
"You too, Ari." She pulled back and rested her hands on Ari's shoulders. "We'll figure something out about dinner. I really want to see the woman Ariadne Willow grew up to date."
Ari laughed. "Believe me, she's going to want to meet you, too. I'm just not sure I want to be in the same room when you two start sharing stories."
Ari waited until she was back in the office before she loosened her tie. Dale was typing something into the computer and smiled without looking away from the screen. Ari walked around behind the desk and began to knead Dale's shoulders. "Did you take the case?"
"I did. But that's not the most important thing about today."
"Oh? You weren't impressed by the swimmin' pools an' movie stars in Hunts Point?"
"No, that was all amazing. But the client has a sort of personal valet. She's probably the person who called to set up the interview."
Dale clicked open a new window. "Kathleen Isaac?"
"Yeah. Before I start, are you the jealous type?"
"Hm. Normally I'd say no, but I reserve the right to change my mind after I hear the story you're starting with that question."
Ari grinned. "Don't worry. It's all ancient history." She began to massage Dale's shoulders. "It started when I was seventeen, after I'd left home but before I met Eva and she took me in. I was living on the streets, basically doing what I could to get by. For a couple of months, I was living in this sort of... halfway house where a bunch of kids who couldn't go home could be safe and off the streets."
The place was run by a former social worker named Leigh Brown. I had only been there for a few days when Kathleen arrived. I was still feeling like a guest in the house despite everyone's best efforts to make me feel welcome. I was lying on the couch watching television with a couple of other kids when Leigh brought Kathleen in. I didn't really pay attention to her then. She was just another lanky kid in a rock band T-shirt and torn jeans. I heard Leigh giving her the same routine I'd gotten when I showed up.
"You hooked on anything? Even alcohol or cigarettes."
"I'm only asking because I know how withdrawal can be, and I understand weaning yourself off. You get caught with contraband, you're outta here. But if you let me know you need something I can help you. Now are you hooked on anything?"
I watched her go into the other room and then didn't give her much thought after that until I went to bed. We had to share rooms, so I saw her sitting on the edge of the bed next to mine. I almost went back downstairs just to avoid talking to her, but she turned around and saw me so I didn't have a choice but walk forward and introduce myself.
"Ariadne. It's my name."
"Oh. Sorry. I'm Kathleen."
I sat on the bed across from her, our knees almost touching. "It's a good place. Leigh is great, and everyone is here because we want to be safe so you don't have to worry about being robbed or anything like that."
"Well, I wasn't worried about that. Until now."
She smiled. "Don't be. I'm just messing with you, Ari."
"I don't really go by Ari."
"You should. It's a lot easier than Ariadne."
I didn't feel like arguing, so I just shrugged and got into bed. She got up and turned off the lamp between our beds. "You don't have to do that. I can sleep with the lights on."
"It's okay." She got under her blankets and settled in. "I was just staring into space anyway. Start new tomorrow."
"Right." We lay in silence for a while until I said, "How'd you like it if I called you Kat?"
"Hell, call me Kit Kat. I've been called worse, Ari."
I decided I could get angry or just go with it. I needed a friend, so I went with it. It became a thing between us. She would call me Ari, I'd 'get back at her' with Kit Kat, but it was all in good fun. Since our beds were right next to each other, we would usually get up and go to bed at the same time. So it just made sense to have breakfast and dinner together, and we hung out in the media room. Eventually I was hanging out with her because I wanted to, not because it was convenient. I started inviting her out on the town.
Dale grinned. "And you fell for her."
"No. I was a virgin and I hadn't really accepted the fact I was gay. I made myself look at boys even when I got more breathless looking at girls. I just thought I'd made a friend." She moved her hands so that her thumbs met at the nape of Dale's neck, pressing together under her short red hair and massaging in twin circles. Dale murmured and lowered her head. The day was overcast, making afternoon look like dusk as Ari continued her massage, Dale's hands resting on the arms of her chair.
"Still, I bet you two caused all kinds of calamity."
Ari smiled. "We did our fair share. So, anyway. That's who I saw today."
"But you asked if I was jealous, so that means you eventually did--"
Dale twisted and looked up at her. "Your first?"
Ari took a steadying breath. "Yeah."
"Oh, I have gotta meet this woman."
Ari whimpered and closed her eyes. "That's what I was afraid of. Come on. We got a check, so I'll buy you a late lunch."
"Fantastic. You can tell me about the case on the way."
Ari explained what Edna Russo needed as they walked. Dale moved close to Ari, threading her arm around Ari's and linking their fingers together. When Ari was done with the story, Dale said, "I love those old train sets. My granddad used to have a little one in his den." She pressed tighter against Ari's side. "So how are you going to start looking?"
"There are lots of model train shops downtown. I'm drove past a couple of them on my way back to the office. I'll go around after lunch to see if anyone is adding to Merritt, Idaho."
"I'll see if I can find anything online when we get back to the office. So tell me more about you and your little Kit Kat."
Ari rolled her eyes and guided Dale into a sandwich shop. They ordered and went to a table next to the window. When they were settled, Ari said, "What do you want to know?"
"Well, you said she was your first. How'd you go from friends to more?"
Ari sipped her drink.
There were five or six other people living in the house with us at all times, but Kathleen and I didn't care about them. As far as we were concerned, we were a household of two. Well, three if you counted Leigh. Part of the deal for staying in the house rent-free was doing chores so Kathleen and I found chores we could do together. We cooked dinner for everyone, we did the dishes. She washed, I dried. Everyone else begged off grocery shopping, but we begged to do it. As long as we were together, we were happy.
We got jobs at a little taco place and we spent most of our shifts just goofing off with each other. When we got off it was so late we would be alone on the streets. One night when we passed the park, I bragged that I could always go higher on the swings than any of my friends, and she said that was before I got old and "heavy." I couldn't let that stand, so I challenged her. We went out and swung for a while trying to beat each other, but eventually we just hung there letting our feet scrape the dirt.
"I have a confession to make."
I thought she was joking, but her expression was dead serious. I waited until it was apparent she was waiting for me to give her permission so I said, "You can tell me."
"No, it's... it might change things. And I don't want to lose you as a friend."
"God, it would have to be really bad for that to happen. I'd go crazy without you, Kit Kat. Whatever it is, I'm sure I can get past it. What did you do? Steal money out of my wallet?"
She shook her head and then gasped weirdly, and I knew she was crying.
"Kathleen? Are you... God, it's okay." I got out of my swing and knelt in front of her. There was a streetlight about twenty yards away, so everything was blue and shadows. "Whatever it is, I'm not going anywhere, okay? So even if it's bad, we'll just get through it together, all right? Just tell me."
"I like you, Ariadne."
I smiled and laughed. "Yeah. I like you too."
"No." She took my hand and turned it around, pressing the palm to her cheek so I could feel how hot it was. It was wet from her crying. "I'm gay. And I like you. I have a crush on you. You don't have to worry about it, and you don't have to do anything. I'll get over it, but I thought that you should know how I feel. Just in case I start avoiding you for a while, or-or I say I don't want to hang out. It's just because it's hard, not because I'm mad at you or anything."
I didn't know what to say. "I don't want you to avoid me, Kathleen."
"But it's hard to be around you," she whispered. "It's hard to be with you and not kiss you or hold your hand."
"Don't! It's not... you're not doing anything." She sniffled and lowered her head. "You're just being you. And I'm hormonal and... crazy."
She was hurting, and I didn't know what to say to make her feel better. I'd never been with anybody, mainly because there was no one I trusted enough to take that step. But I loved Kathleen more than I'd ever loved anybody to that point. I mean, my mother was... I didn't really have experience with truly liking someone. So I sat up and pressed my hand against her cheek to push her head back, and she said my name right before our lips touched.
It wasn't my first kiss, but it might as well have been. It felt like something completely new. She made a noise and tilted her head back, and her tongue came out and brushed my top lip and I let it into my mouth. And we sat there, her in the swing and me kneeling in front of her, and we just let it take over. When we finally pulled away from each other, her cheek was burning hot under my palm.
"If it makes it easier to be around me, we can do that again."
"Okay," she whispered. "But don't do it just because I want to. If you didn't like it--"
"Oh, I liked it. I liked it a lot." To prove it I kissed her again. I stood up and held out my hand. She took it and I pulled her out of the swing. We walked home, bumping arms now and then to prove we were still on familiar ground. We brushed our teeth, changed into our pajamas, and went to bed and said goodnight to each other over the nightstand like we always did. The only difference was that I felt giddy and elated.
Ari smiled with the straw halfway to her mouth. "What?"
"Nothing?" Dale was smiling, elbows resting on the table and shoulders hunched. Their food was done, but they were still taking up the table as Ari told her story. "I just like hearing about you being all young and figuring out who you are. So what happened next?"
Ari said, "What's next is the sex."
"I told you I'm not the jealous type. Besides, I want to hear about your first time. Was it romantic?"
"Heh. Well. As romantic as two horny seventeen year olds can get."
Nothing changed as far as everyone else was concerned. And for me, it was just a minor adjustment. Kissing was just something else we could do together. And we did a lot of it. As much as we could without getting caught. Leigh almost caught us once or twice, but I don't think she would have done much about it even if we'd told her what was going on. We would hold hands when we watched movies, but we'd always been close so no one paid much attention. And then one day Kathleen told me she'd saved enough of her paychecks to take me out on a real date if I wanted.
I'd never had a real date, but this was Kathleen. No pressure. I dressed nice, and I got my hair done, and I felt like real hot shit when we rolled out of the driveway in Leigh's old beat-up station wagon. We went to dinner at Ray's, then we saw a movie. We went for a walk in the park, and she told me that she had another surprise.
"We can go home now, but... I thought that maybe it would be nice to be alone for a change. So I-I got a hotel room. It has two beds, so it would be like home." She added that quickly, breathing heavily as if she'd been practicing it through the whole movie. Maybe she had been. "But it would just be you and me."
"That would be great."
"Yeah. Let's go."
We went to the hotel and I took the opportunity to shower for as long as I wanted. No worries about camping out in the bathroom or running out the hot water. When I was done I put on one of the hotel's big fluffy robes and went out to find Kathleen sitting on one of the beds. She was fiddling with the remote control, skimming through the movies, so I sat down and scooted up to the headboard. I patted the mattress next to me and told her to slide on up, and I took the remote from her and took over searching.
"Why do you want to watch a movie?" I asked. "We just saw a movie."
"I was just looking at what they had."
I scrolled down and saw the listing for adult movies. I glanced at her, and she blushed up to her roots. I bit my lip and clicked on it.
"Wow. They weren't offering these movies at the theater." The names were hilarious, but I can't remember any of them anymore. Kathleen finally got over her embarrassment by laughing at them with me. I was incredibly aware of how close she was to me. I was out of breath and flustered, so I finally asked her if she wanted me to buy one.
"Sure." Her voice was so small, and her eyes were so wide. So I clicked on one and put down the remote control.
I didn't know what to do with my hands. My face was burning up as I watched, refusing to look at Kathleen because I knew she was probably staring at me. I don't remember anything at all about the movie except there were a lot of naked women moving rhythmically on the screen. It was like being hypnotized as all the air was sucked out of the room. At some point I moved my hand down and I found Kathleen's, and I held it as we watched.
"Turn it off, Ariadne."
I picked up the remote and the screen went black. She pushed away from the headboard, folded her legs in front of her, and framed her face with both hands so I couldn't see her. I rearranged myself so that I was sitting on my feet and I put my hand on her back.
"No, don't. This was a bad idea."
"No, it wasn't. I've never had anyone treat me like this, Kathleen. I've never felt so... hey, will you look at me?" She sniffled and shook her head. I kissed her hair and I whispered, "Please, Kathleen."
She lifted her head and I only hesitated a second before I kissed her teary cheek. She shivered and tried to push me away.
"Ari, don't tease me anymore."
"Who's teasing? Kit Kat." I made her sit up and look at me. "We're in a hotel room. I'm wearing my underwear and a robe, and I'm kissing your face, and I'm not saying stop. I'm saying... I'm saying we don't have to stop. I'm just asking to go a little slow."
She blinked at me and then said, "I think I can go slow."
I nodded and we kissed. She turned to face me and then got on her knees, and I started trembling as I stroked her arms through her thin nightshirt. She pulled away, leaving my lips parted and my face flushed as she kissed my jaw and then my neck. "Tell me if you get uncomfortable, Ari..."
"Yeah." I exhaled and closed my eyes, tilted at what felt like forty-five degrees as she moved her lips down my neck. She pushed down the collar of my fluffy robe and then ran her tongue back up. My toes curled and I put my hand on the back of her head, and she went up and down my neck for... I don't know. Three weeks? By the time she started sucking on my earlobe, I had no resistance left. I let her put me down on the mattress and then she undid the belt of my robe.
"Stop me if you want me to stop, Ari."
My eyes were closed, so I only shook my head. She bent down and kissed me just above my bra, and then she--
Ari glanced over her shoulder and then pushed Dale's cup closer to her. "Take a sip."
"Huh?" Dale blinked as if a spell had been broken.
"You're as red as your hair, babe."
Dale seemed to shrink as she looked around the shop to see if anyone had noticed. She scooped an ice cube out of her cup and ran it over her neck, letting the water trickle down to darken the collar of her undershirt. "Whoo. I guess I got a little into it. I was picturing it and, uh... whoo. Well. I can't wait to see what this girl looks like."
"She looks different now. She has glasses and she dyed her hair from red to blonde."
Dale grinned. "She was a redhead?"
"Yeah, yeah. I have a type. Come on." She pushed back her chair and Dale followed her out of the shop. They walked back to the office in companionable silence. When they were back in the privacy of the office, Dale guided Ari into the other office to put an extra door between them and the public.
"Okay. I don't expect you to tell me every minute detail of your first time with another woman. You don't want to tell it, and I don't want to hear it. But give me something. Just one thing about your night in the hotel room."
Ari sat on the couch and pulled Dale onto her lap. She linked her hands on Dale's waist and thought for a moment, then smiled.
The lights were off, but I'd left the bathroom light on. We were lying on top of the blankets, naked and holding each other, occasionally chuckling and sometimes kissing just because we weren't touching quite enough. Kathleen looked manic, drugged or something, and she kept touching my face and stroking my hair.
"For what?" I laughed. "I think I was pretty selfish. It was all about me."
"Oh, no, I got mine."
I laughed and blushed. "Yeah?"
"Yeah. I love you, Ari."
My smile faded. It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me and made me believe they meant it. I touched her face and realized I felt the same, and I told her. "I love you too, Kit Kat."
"Then we made love again, we fell asleep, and the next morning we got dressed and went back to real life." She kissed Dale's shoulder through her shirt. "Every now and then she would sneak into my bed after everyone else was asleep, or I'd slip into hers, and we found little ways to be together without anyone else finding out."
Dale stroked Ari's hair. "So what happened? Did you just grow apart?"
"No." She stared at the floor as if scenes from her past were projected there. "When we were running around together, we were keeping a secret from everyone else in the house. But I was keeping another secret."
Ari nodded slowly. "I hated that part of myself. So I kept it hidden. I could go a week without changing but then I would get twitchy and anxious... it hurt. You know what it's like when I hold myself back." Dale nodded. "So I would sneak out and change. I'd run through parks and alleys just to stretch my muscles, then I'd go back to normal." She took a deep breath and rested her cheek against Dale's shoulder.
"Keeping one secret in a house full of people is hard enough. Keeping two... one was bound to come out. I thought it was like Kathleen telling me she was gay. But I just... couldn't bring myself to say the words. At least everyone knows lesbians really exist. How do you tell your girlfriend you're a werewolf?"
Dale kissed Ari's forehead. "How did it happen?"
"It just hit me one night. I don't know why, maybe I'd been keeping it cooped up too much or it was just sick of letting me call the shots. One night when we were washing the dinner dishes, I just started having cramps. Those all-over, full-body convulsions. I tried to run away, but Kathleen wouldn't leave me alone. I ran out into the backyard..."
"Just go away, Kathleen!" I clutched my stomach, trying to take another step. My knees buckled and I went down, hugging myself as I sagged forward. Kathleen knelt next to me, her hand on my shoulder, frantic and desperate to help.
"Let me get Leigh! She can call someone, she can call a doctor--"
"No, don't tell Leigh."
Kathleen got on her knees next to me and put her arms around my head in an awkward hug. "Oh, Ariadne. What is it? Why didn't you tell me? What did you take? What are you on?"
"Nothing... nothing... I'm not sick. I'm..." My voice turned into a howl of pain as my shoulders popped and broke. I was sobbing, and Kathleen shouted as the shape of my body changed under my T-shirt. She put her hand on my shoulder, which was now poking out of the back of my shirt. Where it should have been flatly curved it was now pointed and round. She recoiled and fell back on her ass and watched as my body shifted.
Transforming is awkward in the best circumstances, but under clothing was a whole different story. I ripped my jeans, and I clawed at the dirt as my fingers turned into claws. My face felt like it was being punched from the inside, a ghostly fist pounding the inner curve of my skull to turn it into a cone.
And then, finally and blessedly, I was on all fours. My tattered clothes were wrapped around my body like a spider web. I lifted my head and saw Kathleen staring at me with horror and confusion, but the wolf didn't care. It snorted and turned its back on her, launching over the rosebushes at the edge of the lawn and racing down the street.
They were sitting together on the couch. Dale had slipped off Ari's lap to hug her properly, resting her head on Ari's shoulder. "You don't have to tell me what happened next. I think I can figure it out."
Ari turned her head and kissed Dale's cheek. "It's okay."
After I changed back, I found some clothes in one of those charity bins. I ran the entire way back to the house in these rubber boots, not caring about what an idiot I looked like. Leigh thought I'd lost my mind, barging into her house dressed like a clown and demanding to know where Kathleen was. She'd left the house without telling anybody where she was going. A part of me hoped that maybe she was looking for me, trying to find me and tell me everything was going to be okay. I almost changed back into the wolf to try tracking her, but I didn't have to.
I went back to the park where we kissed for the first time and there she was, on the swings. She looked up when she heard me coming and she... tensed. She cringed away from me, and I'll never forget that. The look of horror on her face when she saw me. To have someone you love look at you like you're a monster is... awful.
"What are you?"
"I'm your girlfriend."
"You're a... monster."
I shook my head. I think that's when I started crying. "I'm a canidae . I told you my mother did something awful to me, that it was why I left home. That was it. She made me into this to make me more like her. Nothing has changed."
"But you're a werewolf ." Her voice was shrill, almost manic, and she covered her face with her hands. "I watched you change into a monster right in front of me."
"That... u-usually I can control it, but I've been holding back. I didn't want... I don't want to be the wolf. I have to be. I have to change, but usually I can control it. I don't want to be the wolf. I--" I realized I was repeating myself and bit my bottom lip. "Nothing's changed," I said again. "I'm still the person you love."
She looked back toward the street. "You bit me."
I panicked. Had I blacked out after the transformation? Oh, God, had I just killed the first person I'd ever been in love with? "What? When?"
"A lot of times. When we're... together. You bite me. Am I going to change into one of those things, too?"
Relief flooded through me. "No. No, you're not. That was... that doesn't count. You'll be fine. I would never hurt you."
Kathleen started to push herself on the swing and I walked to the other one. She said, "You're wrong. Everything has changed, Ariadne."
"My name's Kathleen."
I broke then. I just cried. Finally she got up and kissed the top of my head, and she walked away from me.
Eventually I followed her home. She was in the living room, surrounded by some of the other kids that were staying there with us. She didn't look at me as I went upstairs and gathered my things. Everything that fit in my bag, I took with me. Everything else I just left. I took one of Kathleen's unwashed shirts and left the house through the back door. I never went back.
"I never saw Leigh again, and I hadn't seen Kathleen until today when I walked up to that mansion out on Hunts Point."
Dale tucked Ari's hair behind an ear. "Was it awful?"
"No. It was wonderful. I was in love with her, Dale, and it was the most amazing thing I'd felt in my entire life up to that point. I can't throw all that away just because she had the expected reaction to finding out her girlfriend is a werewolf. And if anyone should be angry, it's her. Maybe she could have accepted it and things would have gone back to normal, or maybe we could have gone back to just being friends, but I didn't give her an opportunity. I just turned tail and ran."
"So where'd you go?"
"The street." She shrugged. "It wasn't long after that when Eva found me and I went to live with her. And from there, you know the rest. Living as Eva's pet-slash-girlfriend, then working with Glory, then... you." She took Dale's hand and brought it to her lips. "So you see, I can't be mad about anything that happened. It put me on the road to meeting you."
"You're not... worried?"
Ari frowned. "About what?"
Dale shrugged. "Kathleen was a redhead you were best friends with, who you eventually started sleeping with, and then when you broke up everything fell apart. History repeats, Ari. Now you're dating a redhead you started out just being friends with. And if we break up--"
"Hey." Ari cupped Dale's cheek. "Kathleen and I broke up because she couldn't handle my secret. You know all my secrets, and you love me despite them. You love me warts and all."
"What about me? I may have some warts you don't know about."
"I think I've examined you pretty thoroughly."
Dale snorted. "You know what I mean. You don't know everything about me."
Ari shrugged. "I'm also not a seventeen-year-old kid anymore. What you and I have isn't a teenage fling, Dale. It's something worth working for, fighting for. Whatever secrets you have, they won't outweigh how I feel about you."
"You can't make that promise."
"I just did." She kissed Dale. "I love you. Everything that you are, makes you the woman I love."
Dale closed her eyes and leaned forward to brush her cheek against Ari's. "I love you, too, Ariadne." Ari put her arms around Dale and held her.
"Thank you for not running away when we met."
Dale chuckled. "Technically, you were the wolf when we met. Then you were a naked woman in my bed. What is there to run away from, I say?"
Ari pulled back and softly kissed Dale's lips. She let them linger for a moment before she broke the kiss by smiling.
"I'm never going to get sick of doing that."
"Good." She kissed Ari and then squeezed her arm. "You should probably get to work. We've spent way too much time reminiscing and not enough time on model trains."
Ari reluctantly agreed, and they parted. Ari went to her desk and Dale went out to hers, leaving the door between them open as always. Ari had put the information from Edna Russo on the desk before leaving for lunch so she examined the facts.
The train set had been sold fifteen years earlier. The ledger contained photographs of the layout from multiple angles, giving her an idea of what it looked like as well as the thing's scope. There were sections where the train tracks extended out to create an open space where people could stand between it and the town. Ari was amazed at the amount of detail that had gone into it. Tiny people, little cars, winding streets. She considered the photos for a moment and then turned to her computer.
She Googled Merritt, Idaho, and found a website run by the city's Chamber of Commerce. It was mostly links to city utilities like the library, the police and fire departments, City Hall, local parks, and so on. It contained dozens of pictures, but most of them were of people or specific buildings, some of which she could identify from Edna Russo's photographs of the train set. She clicked on "History Of Our Town" and scrolled down.
In 2004, the city had built a new fire department on the north side of town. The library moved from its former location to a new, larger building near City Hall. Ari found a phone number for a city planner and dialed it.
"Merritt City Planning."
"Hello, my name is Ariadne Willow. I'm a private investigator in Seattle, and I have what may be an odd question for you."
"A private investigator?" The man suddenly sounded interested. "I hope I can help."
Ari picked up a pen. "I was wondering if you could tell me about any large construction projects that have occurred in Merritt over the last fifteen years or so."
"Large construction projects? How do you mean?"
"Buildings that have been constructed or torn down, roads that have been widened or paved, anything that would affect a comprehensive map of the town."
He thought for a moment. "Hm. That's definitely an odd question. But don't worry, we like odd here. It's better than boring."
Ari smiled. "I feel the same way."
"Okay, it might be kind of a long list. Do you have a pen?"
The bell over the door jingled as Ari pushed through it. It was the second day of the investigation, and so far she had visited eight model train shops. The man behind the counter was a dwarf, perched on a stool as he leaned onto the counter to examine something in a catalogue with a jeweler's loupe. He held up a finger as she crossed the room to him, and she waited patiently until he was finished.
"Sorry about that." He put the eyepiece away and closed the catalogue, smiling at her. "Welcome to my shop. I'm Nathan. How can I help you?"
"My name is Ari Willow, and I'm trying to locate something for a client. It's a very ornate model train layout. Your ad says that you do custom pieces?"
Nathan nodded slowly. "I do, but I can't give out customer information."
"I understand. But hopefully you can just look at a few photographs and tell me if you've been commissioned to make any of them. Then you can get in contact with the person who asked for them and see if they're willing to meet up with me."
He considered it and then made a "gimme" gesture. "Let's see the pieces."
Ari put the printed pictures down in a row on the glass counter. Nathan leaned forward to examine them, scanning one before he moved to the next. Ari waited patiently, hoping that the day wouldn't be a complete waste of time. She imagined that anyone who would buy such an elaborate model would take the care to ensure it remained accurate. Merritt hadn't changed drastically in the past fifteen years, but there were eight buildings that any true-to-life model would be incomplete without.
"The person you're looking for isn't in trouble, are they?"
"No, not at all. My client is the granddaughter of the person who started the model. She just wants to be sure whoever has it now is treating it with respect."
Nathan took a deep breath and then pointed at one of the pictures. "This is the new library in Merritt, Idaho. Right?"
Ari's pulse quickened. "Yes."
"And the new fire department..." He shuffled the pictures. "You don't have any pictures of restaurant row. It's on the outskirts of town, started popping up a few years ago." He rubbed the stubble on his cheek. "Yeah. I made these for someone."
"That's fantastic." Ari took out a card and put it down on the counter. "If you could call the customer and explain what's going on, I'd be much obliged. This is my number. You can have them call me--"
"No need for that," he said. "I'll call right now. If he agrees, I can put you on the phone with him immediately."
Ari smiled. "Excellent. Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. He hasn't agreed to meet." Nathan moved down to a computer and typed something. The monitor was angled away from her, but Ari still made a point to turn her back. He was being cooperative and she didn't want him to think she was snooping. He retrieved the number and dialed his cell phone.
"Hi, this is Nathan down at the Whistle Stop Model Shop. Yes, I'm fine. I have a woman here, a private investigator, who is looking into your model of Merritt. She says her client is the original owner's granddaughter. No, nothing like that. She says she just wants to make sure it's being treated well." He paused and then said, "Sorry, what was your name again?"
"Ariadne Willow. My client's name is Edna Russo."
He repeated both names into the phone. After a moment he looked at Ari again. "Will you be able to meet him this afternoon?"
Colin Lowry came out of his house when Ari pulled into the driveway, already extending his hand as she got out of the car. He was barefoot but otherwise dressed for work in a sweater vest and khakis. He was in his mid-forties, his graying brown hair cut short. He had a strong jaw and a broad nose, but his eyes were small and hidden behind round eyeglasses. Ari took his hand and shook. "Miss Willow?"
"I'm a little flustered. I've never met a real private eye before."
Ari chuckled. "I get that all the time."
He took a small black box from his pocket and aimed it at the garage door. It started to rise and he motioned for her to follow him. "The town is in here. I don't like calling it a model, because so much care went into its creation. It really is a work of art." He led Ari into the garage, but to her surprise it was empty. He noticed her looking around and smiled. "Ah, no. I keep it in the house. Far too many temperature fluctuations and danger of animals getting in for me to feel safe keeping it in the garage."
He led Ari through a laundry room. Ari noticed that the television and a couch were in the dining room instead of the expected table and chairs, but she didn't think anything about it until they entered the living room. She stopped on the threshold and stared.
"Pictures didn't do it justice, did they?"
Merritt, Idaho, filled the living room, leaving only a narrow aisle on all sides so people could get around it. The model was so detailed that Ari felt as if she'd been transported miles into the air and was staring down at a real city. There were lights mounted on the wall which were operated by a set of switches near the dining room door. Colin smiled as he watched her stare, then tapped her elbow and motioned for her to duck under the tracks and stand in the half-moon space on the south end of town.
She did, carefully leaning close so she could look down the town's main thoroughfare. "This is spectacular."
"Isn't it? I can't take credit for it all. Ninety percent of this was done when I bought it, I just kept it up to date. Nathan is a genius."
Ari nodded. "I want you to know I'm not looking to take this away from you. My client just wants to know it's being taken care of. I don't... think... she has to worry about that."
"Thank you. I work hard to keep it in good shape."
Ari had a digital camera in her pocket. "So if I could just take a few photographs...?"
"Please! Be my guest."
Ari turned back to the model and tried to find a place to start. It was like trying to take photos of an actual town; there were just too many things vying for her attention at once. Finally she decided to focus on how the model was presented and took pictures of the lighting setup. Colin helped her, pointing out the new buildings and suggesting angles she could use to get the most accurate portrayal.
"May I ask you something that's not really related to the case?"
Colin nodded. "Sure."
"Why did you buy this? It was sold out of spite, but it can't have been cheap. And you're sacrificing a big part of your house just to display it. What's so special about Merritt, Idaho?"
He smiled. "My mother was from Merritt." He moved along the side of the model and pointed to a neighborhood. "She grew up in that house right there. We used to go back there every summer when I was a kid. Merritt sort of became my perfect place. I have to stay in Seattle because of work, but whenever I feel stressed or I need to clear my head, I can just come in here and take a walk through Merritt."
Ari smiled. "That's sweet."
"Oh. What am I thinking?" He moved toward the front hallway to the train controls. "You came all this way to see the model, you should at least get to see it in action." He pressed a button and the train began to chug along the tracks. Ari found herself grinning like a kid as the train moved past her, turning to watch as it progressed around the outskirts of the special little town. It climbed a small rise then curled around a stand of trees. The tracks ran through a tunnel cut into the side of a mountain, disappearing for a moment before breaking through the other side.
"Can I ask you something about the case? You may not be allowed to answer. I don't know what the rules are."
Ari tore her gaze away from the train. "You can ask, but if I can't answer--"
"Fair enough. The person who hired you, the granddaughter of the guy who made this. Why did she send you? I mean, why didn't she just ask to come see it herself?"
"She didn't know where it was. The record of the sale was lost."
"Oh. That's a shame. I've always wondered about the people who gave this up." He watched as the train passed in front of him. "Tell her that if the pictures aren't enough to set her mind at ease, she's more than welcome to come visit whenever she wants."
"I'm sure she'll appreciate that. I'll extend the offer to her." She turned and held the camera up, looking for something else to photograph. "I think I've got enough to assure her the set is in good hands."
He kept his arms crossed, nodding as he waited for her to say something else. Then finally he said, "Do you want to keep playing with it for a little while?"
Kathleen answered the door with a smile. Today she wore a white dress shirt with a black tie, a black pencil skirt, and high heels. Ari pursed her lips and shook her hand as if she'd touched something hot. "You've still got it, Kit Kat."
"Good to know. Come on in. Mrs. Russo is waiting." Ari entered and let Kathleen lead her back to the study. "Is everything going okay with the case?"
"Technically. It's over. I found the layout."
Kathleen stopped. "Already? It's only been three days."
"Yeah. Sorry about that. It took some time to get the pictures printed. Something wrong with my computer, I think." She held up the manila envelope she was carrying.
Kathleen shook her head. "You're amazing, Ari."
"Good to know." She winked and gestured for Kathleen to continue to the study. Edna took the seat by the fireplace and Ari sat across from her again. She explained how she had tracked down the layout and Colin Lowry's generous offer to let her visit. She handed over the pictures and Edna went through them carefully, taking the time to examine each one before moving to the next.
As she looked them over, Ari turned to see Kathleen standing in the doorway. Fourteen years had been extremely kind to her. A lovely teenager had turned into a beautiful adult. She was smiling at her employer's obvious happiness, but turned her head when she realized Ari was watching her. She smiled wider and mouthed, "Thank you."
"Did he really say I could visit it any time I wanted?"
"Yes. He was a very nice man, and he had a genuine appreciation for the train set. If it has to be with someone, you're fortunate it's with him. I have the address if you want it."
"Please. Give it to Kathleen." She looked up and smiled at Kathleen. "I think I might like to take a drive later this afternoon."
Kathleen nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
Edna straightened the pictures on her lap and then placed her hands on top of them. "Thank you, Miss Willow. I originally paid you for four days, but I'd like to provide a bonus for your expedient work. I'll send a check to your associate."
"No, Miss Willow, thank you." She looked at the pictures again and smiled sadly. "If you ladies would excuse me, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed."
Ari nodded. "Of course. I'm glad I could help." She stood and shook Edna's hand, then let Kathleen escort her back to the front door.
"That really was amazing, Ari."
"I do what I can."
Kathleen put her hand on Ari's elbow to stop her. "Listen, about... everything that happened when we were together..."
"It's in the past. You were right to freak out. I was wrong to just leave. If I'd stayed, who knows what might have happened? The blame is on me, not you." She squeezed Kathleen's hand. "Were you okay?"
"Yeah. Some of the other kids in the house got me through the whole mess. I never actually told them the whole story about who you are or what happened between us. They just knew that you were gone and we weren't friends anymore. Leigh said she'd known about us since the night in the hotel, but I think she was just covering." She smiled sadly. "I worried about you. Looked for you, for a while, but... eventually I decided you must have moved on."
Ari looked around the foyer. "Yeah. You did too."
Kathleen laughed. "I got a lucky break. She wanted someone who was live-in, who could be on call for crazy hours, and I needed a place to live. Being here gives me a sense of fulfillment. I'm doing something for someone else."
"Plus, a great view."
"A really great view." She put her hands behind her back. "So... are you still, um..."
"Yeah. There's not really a cure."
"Right. I'm glad you were able to find someone strong enough to handle it."
Ari smiled. "Me too. Seems like we both got lucky breaks."
"Listen, that dinner I mentioned. I don't know when we're going to go look at the train but Mrs. Russo generally likes to be in bed by eight. If you and your girlfriend are free tonight, we could just do it then."
"That would be great. I'll run it past Dale, but she's eager to meet you."
Kathleen faked a terrified expression. "Uh-oh. You haven't been telling her stories about us, have you?"
"Only the bare bones. I saved the good ones for you to tell."
"You always were a masochist." She led Ari outside and stopped by her car. "When Mrs. Russo decided to hire a private investigator, she said she wanted to hire the best. I don't know what made her decide on you, but she definitely got what she was looking for. I'll keep your card on file in case we ever require your services again."
Ari nodded. "Do that. But you don't have to label it as strictly business."
Kathleen smiled. "Noted."
"You know whatever you wear, you're screwed."
"How's that?" Ari finished buttoning the blouse and smoothed it over her stomach.
Dale was wearing a sleeveless dress, resting against the bedroom door. "Well, if you dress nice, you're dressing nice for your ex-girlfriend. But if you dress like a slob, your ex-girlfriend thinks you're not doing well."
"That's why I'm wearing this."
Dale hissed through her teeth. "I don't know, Ari. That looks pretty nice to me."
"It should. You bought it for me." She turned to face Dale. "I'm not dressing up for her. I'm dressing up for you. How do I look?"
"Perfect." Dale entered the room and adjusted the collar of the blouse. She slid her hands up to Ari's neck and tilted her head to the left as Ari kissed her. Ari rested her hands on Dale's waist, swaying with her as the kiss deepened. Dale spoke without breaking the kiss. "What time were we supposed to be at the restaurant?"
Dale twisted and looked at the clock as Ari kissed her neck. "It's seven-forty-five."
"Plenty of time." Ari slipped down the strap of Dale's dress and moved her toward the bed.
"Uh." Dale chuckled throatily as she let Ari continue her assault. "With traffic, it's nowhere near enough time..."
Ari shrugged and lowered Dale onto the mattress. "So we'll be a little late. The 'ex' in her title means she can wait."
Dale wanted to argue, but gave up when her motivation went on strike.She decided Kathleen could order a drink at the bar while she was waiting.
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