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Jul 22

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Cry, Wolf

Summary: Ari is summoned to the death bed of the woman who trained her to be a private investigator. (Set after Underdogs but before Beware of Wolf)

“I don’t look too stereotypical lesbian, right?”

Dale looked at Ari to see if she was joking, then looked down at her outfit. She wore a red-and-white plaid shirt tucked into low-riding skinny jeans to show off the wide leather belt, all brand-new. Dale shook her head. “What’s stereotypical about this?”

“Plaid.”

“That hasn’t been the stereotype since pre-Ellen. If you were wearing sneakers and a button-down, that would be stereotypical. With the short blonde hair.” She reached up and dragged her fingers through Ari’s long brown locks, letting it drape back onto her shoulder as they walked into the building that housed their offices. Dale spotted their guest first, the lanky young man leaning against the wall across from their door. He straightened up when she saw them coming. He was focused entirely on Ari, an odd smile playing on his lips without quite reaching his sad eyes.

“Hi,” Dale said. “Can we help you?”

“Ariadne Willow,” the man said.

Ari smiled warily. “Yeah, that’s me.”

The man’s smile widened. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”

Ari started to shake her head, but then her eyes widened and her lips parted slightly. From the slight twitch of her nose, Dale knew scent had played a part in the identification process. Whoever the man was, Ari was happily stunned to see him. “No way. Bennett?”

“In the flesh.”

Ari crossed the space in two steps and grabbed the man, lifting his feet off the ground and spinning him around. “Whoa, Ari, easy!”

“Sorry! Are you still… I mean, did you just have the surgery?”

“No, no, that was a while ago. But I do get dizzy.” He smiled and patted Ari’s shoulders. “God, look at you. All grown up and respectable.”

Dale smiled and stayed a respectful distance back until Ari remembered her. “Oh, Dale. Dale Frye, this is… uh…”

Dale laughed. “A greeting that effusive and you don’t even know the man’s name?”

“It’s not Ari’s fault,” he said, rubbing Ari’s shoulder. “She knew me as Eve. I go by Kevin now.”

“Oh… oh!” Dale’s smile widened. “The Eve? The Eve who taught Ari everything she knew about running a business?” She shook Kevin’s hand. “Nice to finally meet you. When I started working here it was all ‘Eve used to file like this’ and ‘Eve didn’t like eating at her desk’ that. You were kind of my role model for being Ari’s assistant.”

“I’m glad I had such an impact on her. And I wish I was here under, uh, better circumstances.” He looked at Ari and his smile faded to let the sorrow in his expression take over. “It’s Mama.”

“Glory?” Ari said.

Dale knew the name Glory even better than Eve. Glory Bennett was the private investigator Ari had done her training with. Four years from the age of twenty-three to twenty-seven, Ari learned the tricks of the trade and figured out how to use her wolf as a secret weapon. Dale stepped closer to Ari and put a hand on her hip for support.

Kevin was nodding. “Yeah, she got sick a while back and she’s not doing too well.”

“How bad is it?” Ari asked.

Kevin started to answer, then pressed his lips together. “Bad. If you can get away, we should probably leave right now.”

Ari looked at Dale, who was already nodding. “I’ll postpone what I can, and I’ll cancel everything else. Go. I’ll cover everything.”

“Thank you.” Ari hugged her and whispered, “I love you,” against the side of her head. Dale whispered it back, squeezed, and let her go.

“You still have a go-bag in my trunk. It’ll keep you in clean clothes for a couple of days.”

“Thanks, baby.”

Dale stepped away from her, and Kevin led Ari to the door. Ari glanced back before they left, and Dale held up her hand in farewell, then made a phone sign with her thumb and pinkie. Ari nodded that she would call and slipped out into the sunshine. Dale sighed and unlocked the office to let herself inside.

#

Ari took the bag out of Dale’s trunk and glanced back to see Kevin smiling at her. She knew the smile well and braced herself for some good-natured teasing. “Girlfriend?”

“Yeah. She’s my assistant, too.”

“She’s adorable. A redhead, too. That must have been a nice help-wanted ad. Type ninety words a minute, make coffee, blondes and brunettes need not apply.”

Ari chuckled, but it died in her throat. “How long has Glory been sick? Wait, no…” She shook her head. “How long has Glory let you know she’s sick?”

Kevin chuckled. “Yeah. It’s been about six months since she stopped being able to hide it. Since then it’s been pretty quick downhill. She was in the hospital up until recently when the doctors admitted they were just trying to make her comfortable for the end. So she made me take her home and since then we’ve just been waiting.”

“Thank you for coming to get me.”

“Sorry I waited until the last minute, but I didn’t want to drag you down there and then have you sit around for weeks waiting…”

“I understand. Glory probably fought tooth and nail about you bringing me down at all.”

“Yeah, she probably would have if I’d told her.” He shrugged. “I didn’t want to get her hopes up in case I couldn’t find you or you couldn’t get away.”

Ari nodded. “Oh. That’s fine. I’m fine with being a nice surprise.”

Kevin smiled. “She’s going to be overjoyed to see you again. Especially since you’re doing so well for yourself.” He couldn’t help himself and laughed as he unlocked his car. “Bitches Investigations.”

“That was Dale’s idea.”

“Then you definitely need to keep her around. That’s priceless.” He paused with his hand on top of the car and looked at Ari. “You did really good for yourself after we left you behind. I’m proud of you, kid. Mama’s going to be over the moon.”

Ari smiled. “I hope so.”

As she got into the car and fastened her seatbelt, she thought of the day she’d met Eve and Glory Bennett, and how that one chance encounter put her on the path to the rest of her life.

2005
Glory Bennett was writing something longhand in a journal when Ari came into the study. She held up a finger to indicate silence, then gestured at the chair in front of her desk. Ari looked at the antique furniture, the framed art prints on the walls, and the tall shelves of books on either side of the door, and tugged her hoodie closed over her Femme Reapers T-shirt. She thought about fleeing but instead crossed the plush carpet and took a seat.

Finally Glory finished what she was writing and put the pen down. She folded her hands on the page she’d just filled with elegant streaks of black ink and took in the sight before her. Ari felt judged and, even worse, as if she was found wanting. She was all too aware of the fact she hadn’t been to the laundromat lately, and that she could have used a little makeup. She’d noticed the address was in a high-falutin neighborhood but thought she would be fine. Now, though, it felt like she’d failed the first test.

“And you are?”

“Ariadne Willow.”

“Are you homeless, Ariadne Willow?”

She considered how to answer the question. “No. I’m living in a hotel, but I’m not homeless.” Not yet, anyway. She still had a large chunk of the money Eva had given her, but she was afraid it would start running out soon. Ergo this job search, and ergo sitting in the study of a mansion setting herself up for a humiliating dismissal.

“Hm.” Glory leaned back in her seat. “Why did you respond to my ad?”

Ari shrugged. “Assistant to a private investigator? Sounded better than flipping burgers for minimum wage.”

“Flipping hamburgers provides you with steady income. I can’t promise you that. Some weeks you may get a nice paycheck, other weeks you’ll go home empty-handed. This isn’t an easy job. People tend to not like private investigators. We invade their privacy and root out their secrets. You’ll be threatened with violence.”

“Can’t be any worse than living on the streets.”

“I thought you said you weren’t homeless.”

“I’m not now. I was.”

Glory pursed her lips and nodded slightly. “I’ll be frank, Miss Willow. You don’t fit in with me or my daughter. You are the antithesis of everything in this agency.”

Ari looked down at her hands, trying to fight the anger working up inside her.

“That’s why I want to hire you.”

“What?” Ari looked up, certain she’d misheard. “But if I’m the antithesis…”

She smiled. “My daughter and I don’t exactly blend into a crowd. There have been times when we are forced to venture into less elite areas of the city in pursuit of a client’s spouse or a suspect, and we’ve been forced to hang behind just because we would be too blatant. So I’ve decided to hire a second assistant, one who will be able to go where we can’t.”

Ari chuckled. “You want to slum it a little? Hire a wild child?”

“Exactly. But I didn’t want to hire someone who would be uncouth or rude. You’re sitting up straight, Ms. Willow. You quietly sat and waited for me to finish writing before we began our conversation. You may think you’re dressed inappropriately for the setting, but your shirt is clean and your jeans… those are new, aren’t they?”

Actually she’d owned this particular pair for a while, but she kept them in the closet for special occasions so they would last longer.

“You come from an affluent background, don’t you?”

“Mom… had money. Yeah.”

“You are uncomfortable here, but you’re not completely alien. I want someone who won’t be blinded by my money or, conversely, someone who isn’t just biding their time to rob me blind. You walked away from money and lived on the street. I assume there was some sort of principle involved?”

Ari hesitated to answer. Finally she just nodded.

Glory took a ledger from her desk drawer and began writing. “You will be here Monday morning at seven. You’ll stay here until five, or until Eve dismisses you for the day. If you get a case, you will remain on-duty as necessary until the case is closed. Your salary will reflect the hours you put in, so keep track of them please. Eve will take your time cards and deliver your checks. You’ll be paid on Friday. Any questions?”

Ari leaned forward. “I’m hired?”

Glory smiled and held the paper across the desk. Ari took it and saw an address written on the front. “Be there on Monday morning, Ms. Willow, and yes. You’re hired. Welcome to Bennett Private Investigation Services.”

#

Ari waited until she was back in her hotel room before she celebrated. She took the bottle of Heineken she’d been saving out of the fridge and drank it slowly. She hated wine, but the big moments in life seemed to require some sort of alcohol. So she bought the Heineken, toasted herself in the mirror, and sat on the edge of the bed to drink it in celebration. For a while she’d started worrying she was being too picky, avoiding jobs that she thought were beneath her. But she didn’t want to tend bar or wait tables. She wanted something that could serve as a launch pad for a real career.

She applied for an unpaid internship at Amazon, but she knew she might as well have just thrown the application in the trash. She scoured the internet and want ads, stopping in every diner that had a pinboard in the hopes someone would be in the market for someone without experience but a lot of potential.

At first she laughed at the “private investigator seeks assistant” listing, folding it over and moving on to see what else was available. But she kept going back to it. Private eyes snooped, they spied, and they spent the majority of their time rooting through trash to find secrets. A person doing that attracted a lot of attention, but a wolf…? People would conduct all kinds of private affairs in front of a wolf without a second thought. Plus private investigator was an honest-to-goodness career. So she decided to call and told the truth – no real job history other than a string of minimum wage crap, no resume, no experience – and got an appointment with Glory Bennett.

And now she had the job. She was an assistant to a real-life private investigator. In the grand tradition of Spenser for Hire, Jim Rockford, Dirk Gently, Sherlock Holmes… she frowned. Had there ever been a fictional female private investigator? She stretched out on the bed with her beer and thought long and hard, finally coming up with V.I. Warshawski. Kathleen Turner. That was an all right role model. And, come to think of it, Glory Bennett carried a certain resemblance to the actress.

Ari fell asleep soon after finishing the bottle, waking up at five in the morning to set her alarm so she wouldn’t be late. She ended up tossing and turning for a while, then showering, and at that point it was already late enough that she dressed to meet Eve Bennett. She found a shirt with a collar – blue, but still professional enough – and put on her “nice jeans” again. She did her hair up in a simple braid and smoothed the material of her shirt over her stomach.

“Just relax, Ari,” she muttered to herself. “You have the job, you got nothing else to prove.”

On the way to the address, she stopped at a Dollar Store to buy a necktie. The man behind the counter taught her how to tie a proper knot, and she fussed with it as she drove. “Hi,” she whispered to the empty car. “I’m Ariadne Willow.” She cleared her throat and shook her head. “Ariadne Willow. I was told to be here to– Hi. Are you, uh… shit…” She rubbed her thumbnail across her eyebrow. “Shit, what was her name?”

She’d remembered Eve’s name by the time she arrived, parking behind a small Prius and adjusting her tie as she walked upstairs. It was blue, a few shades darker than her shirt, and she worried that with the jeans she was coming off as too monochromatic. She found the door with a placard announcing it as Bennett Private Investigation Services and knocked.

The woman who answered was so gorgeous that Ari almost asked her out on the spot. Shoulder-length brown hair, a high forehead, an elegant nose, and a small mouth that curved into a blandly polite welcoming smile as her eyebrows rose. She wore a pair of eyeglasses with mottled-brown frames, and she waited nearly thirty seconds before she broke the silence herself.

“Are you the new girl?”

“Ariadne Willow. You can call me Ariadne. I mean… Ari. I’ve been going by Ari.”

She held out a hand. “Hi, Ariadne or Ari. I’m Eve. Can’t really shorten that much. Mama said you were coming by.” She stepped to one side. “Come on in.”

“Thanks.”

Eve took the opportunity to run her eyes over Ari’s outfit. “She kind of implied you were a little, uh… less formal.”

“Sorry. I wanted to make a good impression on my first day.” And she was glad she bothered, now that she saw who she would be sharing the office with. Eve wore a silk blouse and a black pencil skirt that stopped just above her knees, and she was barefoot in white stockings. Ari tore her eyes away and focused on the décor of the office. There were two desks at opposite sides of the room, a window on the far wall, and framed artwork depicting the Seattle skyline. A large clock hung on the wall behind one of the desks, the desk that Eve ushered her toward.

“That’s yours.”

“Is the clock to make sure I get here on time?”

Eve grinned. “Mama told you seven, didn’t she? I don’t really care about that. Unless we’re working on a case and time is of the essence, there’s no need to get up that early.”

“Well, just in case she’s here–”

“Mama won’t be here. Ever.” She sat on the edge of the desk and Ari tentatively sat in the chair. It was comfortable. “Mama had the money to start this place up. When I was eighteen, she hired me as her assistant. I got the necessary hours to get my own license, and then I sort of took over. Once I was doing the heavy lifting Mama didn’t bother to come in much. And now with you here, I don’t think anything will ever come down.”

“Oh. So she’s like Nero Wolfe.”

“Basically. She signs the check and, if we get stuck, we can go to her for guidance. But for the most part it’ll just be me and you.”

“I think I can handle that.”

“Sweet.” She held out her hand. “Nice to meet you, Ari.”

Eve’s palm was smooth and cool against Ari’s. “Same to you, Eve. So, um… do we have a case?”

2013
Ari glanced over at Kevin, amazed at how similar and yet completely different he looked. The nose, once so smooth and perfect, had been broken at some point in the last eight years. He had a few lines around his eyes that hadn’t been evidence on Eve’s face. Kevin caught her looking while they were stopped at a light and he smiled. “Trying to play spot the seven differences?”

“No. Although that kind of makes me sad.” She ran her finger over the bump on Kevin’s nose. “What happened there?”

“A guy took offense to me taking pictures of his love nest. I never did figure out how you were so good at surveillance.”

Ari smiled. “I gotta have some trade secrets of my own, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“So. How’s your agency doing?”

Kevin nodded. “We’re doing well. Business may not exactly be booming, but it’s steady work. Always a cheating spouse or divorce papers that need to be served. God bless America, huh?” He looked over and smiled. “Mama’s been following your agency a little bit. She knows about the whole Gavin thing. She was impressed with how you handled that.”

Ari smiled and felt pride swelling in her chest. “She was proud of me?”

“She’s always been proud of you, Ariadne. So have I, for that matter.”

“Thanks, Kevin.” She smiled. “Kevin. When exactly did this happen?”

“About a year after you left. I finally decided that all the talking in the world wasn’t making a difference. I knew who I was on the inside, and I either had to accept that or change my entire… self. So I accepted it, and I started the process.”

“You look…”

“Weird?”

“No, you look right. Don’t get me wrong, you were always beautiful. But now you…” She nodded. “You look relaxed. Comfortable. I’m not used to seeing you that way. That’s the most shocking difference. You look like you’re at peace.”

Kevin blinked rapidly and nodded. “Yeah,” he said softly. He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel. “Mama wasn’t exactly thrilled at first, but we had a few long talks… really long talks… and she’s made her peace, too. This is who I’ve always been.” He grinned. “I even let her choose my name. I mean, it’s only right. She is my mother, she has naming rights no matter what happens.”

Ari laughed. “True. Well, she chose well both times.”

“Thanks. I like Kevin.”

“I like Kevin, too,” Ari said, making sure she gave it enough inflection so he knew she didn’t just mean the name. “So what exactly does Glory have?”

“Ischemic bowel disease.”

Ari shook her head. “That’s wrong. If something is going to take Glory down, it needs to be something like…”

“Predator drones?”

Ari laughed. “Exactly. Terminator robots sent from the future.”

“Hell, even lung cancer. I would understand lung cancer.”

Ari remembered the fug in Glory’s study, the constant reek of cigarette smoke clinging to every surface of her house. She collected antique cigarette holders made of faux-ivory and pearl, taking a drag as she read over a report. She always made Ari and Eve sit and wait as she read it in case she had any questions. When she was finished they would fill in any blanks she had, deliver the check, and Glory would in turn cut them a check for their work. The first few times Ari felt cheated, doing all the work and then receiving a percentage to keep for herself. It seemed like Glory was cheating them.

2005
“Why exactly does she get a percentage?”

“Uh-oh. The peasants are revolting.” Eve stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket, the fur-lined collar lifted up against her jaw. “She gets a percentage because it’s her business. She’s the figurehead and the founder, and she taught us everything we know. Just because she sits at home while we do all the legwork doesn’t mean she’s not responsible for the work we do. If we worked at McDonalds, and we made the hamburgers and French fries and took the orders and worked the drive-thru, we’d still only get minimum wage. We wouldn’t pocket all the profits. People go to McDonalds because it’s McDonalds. And people come to us because of Glory.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Ari took out her check and looked at it again. “It’s still kind of a downer.”

Eve grinned and looped her arm around Ari’s elbow. “Come on, kid. If it’ll cheer you up, I’ll spring for dinner.”

“Deal. Anything but McDonalds.”

#

Ari took most of their surveillance jobs. Eve found them mind-numbingly dull, and Ari was able to utilize her wolf when she worked alone. As she suspected, no one thought twice about a wolf witnessing their scandalous behavior. They would eye her from the windows, call people from other rooms to come see, but usually they just let her be. One well-meaning woman, still in her lingerie and stinking of the man she was having an affair with, walked outside in bare feet and tossed a half-thawed steak onto the grass. Ari was touched enough by the offer that she actually ate it, although she threw most of it up later.

One morning, groggy and sore from her transformation, she walked into the office to find Eve waiting for her. “Where the hell were you last night?”

“The Carey case. I was watching to see if the wife had her boyfriend over while the husband was away on business.”

Eve shook her head. “No, you weren’t. I stopped by at midnight to keep you company. Your car was there, but I have no idea where you were.” She leaned forward. “You can’t just wander away from your assignment, Ariadne. I don’t care how boring it is. If her boyfriend did stop by while you were out roaming or taking a nap or–”

“He did stop by.” Ari opened her satchel and took out a few photographs. She put them on Eve’s desk and opened her notepad. “Arrived at nine-fifteen, observed the house until eleven-oh-eight when the boyfriend arrived. Approached the house at eleven-twenty and proceeded to take pictures of the boyfriend’s car and license plate… that’s that picture right there. Assumed a position closer to the house in order to get a picture of the boyfriend leaving. Which I did, at about one-thirteen in the morning.”

Eve was looking at that picture, a Dutch-angle shot from the north side of the front porch that showed their client’s wife wrapped around a man with mussed-hair who was holding his shoes as he leaned away from her.

“Well,” Eve said, “you really need to work on your photography skills.”

“I thought it was pretty good, considering.”

Eve said, “Considering what?”

Considering that I was in wolf form, crouched in a rose bush, pressing down the button with my forepaw. “I was in a rose bush and the thorns kept pricking me through my jacket. Plus I had just spent two hours crouched in a bush waiting for them to finish so I could get the money shot.”

“Poor baby. Write up your report. I’ll have Mama throw in some hazard pay so you can get some bandages.” She leaned back in her seat. “And… sorry. I didn’t mean to ream you out.”

“It was well-deserved. You showed up and saw an empty car… I would have jumped to the same conclusion. It’s fine.”

“You’ve definitely earned your place as our resident surveillance expert. I can’t believe I didn’t even see you skulking around in the dark.”

Ari shrugged. “That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”

“Very true.”

Ari sat down and smiled as she settled in for work. “You scolded me.”

“I…”

“You were such a boss right then.”

Eve wadded up a piece of scrap paper and hurled it at Ari. “Just do your paperwork, newbie. Mama’s expecting us around noon. We’ll stop for lunch on the way.”

“Sounds good to me.”

#

After working together for a year, Ari and Eve became more equal, settling into a friendly camaraderie that extended to their non-working hours. One night while they were hanging out, Eve brought out a cigar box and put it on the couch between her and Ari. “I know when you started Mama made you take a drug test, but that was only for the really hard stuff. She doesn’t care if you have a drink now and then, and she doesn’t care about…” She flipped open the top to reveal a stash of joints. “I mean, she wouldn’t care if she knew. But just the same, don’t mention it to her.”

“Sure,” Ari said.

After that they started getting high together from time to time. One night while they were smoking, Ari on the floor and Eve stretched out on her stomach on the couch, Ari watched the smoke rise from her exhalation and then examined the tip of her joint. “Can I ask you a question?” she asked as she passed it to Eve.

“Sure.” She took a hit and held it.

“Why don’t you date? I’ve been working here for a year and a half, and I’ve never even heard you talk about a boyfriend or girlfriend or even going out on a date.”

“I have very eclectic tastes.”

Ari smiled. “Don’t we all.”

“What about you? You’re not exactly blowing up the social scene.” She handed the joint back. “So what puts the kink in your hose?”

“Redheads.” Ari grinned. “Drive me wild. Come on. How eclectic can your tastes be? There’s gotta be a bar or something where like-minded individuals get their rocks off.”

Eve pulled her lips back over her teeth and shook her head as she regarded the smoke rising from her mouth. “Nope.”

Ari looked back at her. “What is it? Animals?”

Eve slapped the top of Ari’s head. “No, you sicko. It’s not… I mean, consenting adults and everything. But it’s finding someone who wants what I want. It’s awkward.”

“Anything I could help you with?”

Eve glared and narrowed her eyes. “All right. You really want to know?” She propped herself up on her elbows, her back arched. Her feet were in the air, but she hooked the ankles together as she lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “I like taking home gay guys, putting on a strap-on, and fucking them in the ass.”

Ari raised an eyebrow. “Whoa.”

“Yep.” She chuckled and shook her head. “Don’t ask me where it came from. I had a bisexual boyfriend when I was nineteen and he asked me to do it once, and the top of my head nearly came off. It was the best orgasm I ever had. Everything about it just felt right, you know? Like I’d been having sex wrong my entire life and now I knew the secret to it.”

Ari was sure she was blushing, but they were both too high to care. “So can’t you just find another bisexual guy…? I mean, they’re out there.”

“I want a gay man.” She hunched her shoulders. “It’s like if I asked you why you like redheads. You just do. It’s what I want, and if I get horny enough I’ll settle for something less. But…” She sighed and took another drag. “So that’s why I don’t date very much. What’s your excuse? I mean, at least there are lesbian bars. And it’s not like you have a hard time picking up women.”

“Sure.”

“Oh, do not play that humble-shit game with me, Ariadne Willow. I’ve been to bars with you. I’ve seen the drinks get stacked up when guys start sending them over faster than you can drink them. It can’t be different at lesbian bars. Hell, I bet guys would send over drinks at a gay bar if you went to one.”

“Well, if I ever do, I’ll be sure to hook you up with them.”

Eve laughed. “Thanks. God, I’ve never told anyone about that except for my therapist. I have to be more careful who I get high with. Come on, Ariadne. I gave you my deep dark secret. What’s yours?”

Ari had a good one, a real doozie, but the wolf had cost her someone she loved deeply. She couldn’t bear the thought of Eve calling her a monster like Kathleen had. But she knew Eve wouldn’t give up without some secret being revealed, so she chose one that she was willing to part with.

“I have a crush on you.”

Eve was quiet for a long moment and then softly said, “Oh.”

Ari looked over her shoulder to see if Eve was disgusted or offended. Eve smiled. “That’s kind of cool. Someone as pretty as you, could have anyone you want… I’m flattered. You really have a crush on me?”

“You’re hot, funny, and rich. Hell yeah.”

Eve laughed and stroked the back of Ari’s head. “Well. If I was ever going to be with a girl, I’d want to be with you.”

“Even if I wouldn’t let you fuck my ass?”

Eve laughed nervously. “God, I can’t believe I told you that.”

“I won’t use it against you. You have my word.”

“Thanks. I really do appreciate that.”

They smoked a little while longer, and after killing a second joint, Eve scooted forward. She put her hand under Ari’s chin to tilt her head back, and she lightly pressed their lips together. The smoke in her mouth swirled and spiraled around their tongues, filling their mouths until they parted and Ari exhaled. Eve was blushing and her eyes were glassy, one strand of hair falling down over her cheek as she examined Ari’s face.

“You could just… use your hand on it…”

Ari nodded, and they scrambled to the bedroom. They were undressed and under the blankets, and Ari watched Eve’s face as she stroked the length of her strap-on. Her expression left little doubt that it was a bad idea, but Ari kept it up for another minute or so before she gave up. She whispered, “This isn’t right.”

“No.” Eve blinked rapidly, but a few tears slipped free anyway. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. We were both impaired.” She smiled. “Thanks for trying. At least now I’ve seen you naked. That will fill out a few fantasies I’ve had for a while.”

Eve laughed. “You have my permission to use it as you see fit.”

“Well, that makes it a little less fun.” She chuckled and then looked down at the shapes their bodies made under the blankets. “I, um… should get dressed and go.”

“No, stay. Might as well. It’s late enough. I promise I’ll behave. I just want to spend the night with someone, even if we don’t take full advantage of our nudity.”

Ari thought about refusing, but finally she nodded and settled against the mattress. Eve rolled over and Ari embraced her from behind, kissing the back of her neck as she drifted off.

2013
“Are you seeing anyone?”

“Yeah.” Kevin smiled. “His name is Joshua. He’s a therapist. Not my therapist, though. I always feel like I have to clarify that. Our new building shares offices with his, so we met when we moved in. But he helped me through my transition, and when I was ready for a relationship we got together. It’s been really amazing.”

“I’m happy for you.”

“Same goes for you and Dale. Does she take care of you?”

“Oh, hell yeah. She saves my life on a routine basis. We’ve been together four years, almost five now.”

“So you pretty much hooked up with her right after we parted ways.”

“No, I just hired her then. We didn’t become a couple until the Gavin case. I was speaking metaphorically when I said she saves my life, but last summer it was literal. She gave me a reason to keep fighting.”

“I’m glad. I hated that we couldn’t swoop in and help you out, but by the time we heard about everything that was going on you’d already taken off.”

Ari nodded. “I appreciate that. But I had Dale. I was fine.”

“Good.”

They were silent for a few miles before Ari said, “I really did miss you guys like crazy. I can’t count the number of times I almost shut everything down and went running back to you.”

“We wouldn’t have thought any less of you.”

“But I’d have thought less of me. And I would have missed out on so much. But I don’t want you thinking I cut ties and just forgot you and everything you two did for me.”

“You did a lot for us, too. I don’t know why, but having you as a buffer for all our bullshit really helped calm a lot of rough waters. You taught us how to work together without being constantly at each other’s throats, and it led to a much more tranquil work environment even after you left. We owe you a lot, Ari.”

Ari watched him. “Are you going to be okay?”

Kevin’s smile wavered. “I don’t know. Truth is, I don’t care if Mama wants you there or not. I needed you there. When Mama goes, I’m going to need you there to prop me up a little. Just one more time, okay?”

Ari reached over and rubbed Kevin’s shoulder. “Sure. Of course.”

“Thanks, Ariadne.”

They rode on in silence and Ari looked out the window, her mind casting back into the past again. She thought about the way she’d finally left Glory’s services, and the pieces suddenly clicked together in her mind. “Oh, my God. There’s a specialist there.”

Kevin looked at her. “Where?”

“Olympia.” She banged her fist against the car door. “That’s why she randomly decided to move the business. Glory knew she was sick and there was some kind of doctor in Olympia that could help her. So she moved the business so she would be close enough that he could treat her.”

Kevin stared out the windshield. “Son of a bitch. How did I not see that?”

Ari shook her head. “I didn’t see it either. We may call ourselves private investigators, but Glory taught us both everything we know. If anyone could misdirect us, it was your mother.”

2008
Ari and Eve both looked up when the office door opened without being preceded by a knock, and they were both surprised to see it was Glory herself. She had been to the office a grand total of twice since Ari started working for her, and she seemed oddly out of place in the business she started herself. She wore a burgundy jacket open just enough to reveal a sliver of her silk turtleneck, and her hair was covered by a wide-brimmed hat.

“Surprise inspection, ladies.” She bent down and pecked Eve on the cheek. “Hope you have your foot lockers in order.”

“We just ordered some lunch. We would have ordered some for you if–”

“Oh, no. I won’t be staying that long. I just came by because I have a bit of news. The business is relocating to Olympia.”

Ari was stunned. “Relocating? Why?”

Glory walked to the window and tugged the blinds open. “It’s the capital city, darling. Politicians have secrets they’ll pay dearly to keep hidden, and other politicians will pay dearly to keep it silent. I’ve been thinking about making the leap for a few years now, but I’ve finally decided the time has come. We’re leaving just as soon as I can sell the house.”

Ari was stricken silent. She watched like an audience member at the theater as Glory and Eve discussed the move. When she found her voice, she said, “I don’t want to move to Olympia.” Glory and Eve both looked at her as if they’d forgotten she was there. “This is my home. I’ve lived in Seattle all my life, and I can’t… I don’t see myself moving anywhere else.” Tears were burning her eyes.

“Are you sure, Ariadne?” Glory asked softly.

The best job she’d ever had, but Ari was forced to nod her head. “I’m sorry.”

Glory opened her purse and took out a folded sheet of paper. She placed it on Ari’s desk and waited for her to unfold it. “I’ve recommended you to the licensing service. If you successfully pass the test, which I’m certain you will, you’ll be a licensed private investigator. I’ll give you a nice severance package to help until you’ve found your footing.”

Ari looked at the paper, then at Eve. She winked and Ari laughed incredulously. “My own agency? I’m not ready for that.”

“None of us ever are, darling. But you’re readier than most. Eve and I have made certain of that. It will be a few months, so don’t start packing your bags just yet. We’ll continue to do business for as long as possible before pulling up stakes, and I’ll go ahead to Olympia and start planting seeds for our new business so we can just pick up when we arrive.” She adjusted the purse strap on her shoulder. “Ariadne, you have done yourself very proud. I took a risk when I hired you, but you have proven yourself worthy time and again.”

“Thank you, Glory.”

“Eve, I’ll see you for supper tonight.”

“Yes, ma’am.” When she was gone, Eve got up and sat on the edge of Ari’s desk. “She’s right, you know. You’re ready. You’ve been ready for a while, but I didn’t want to see you go.”

“I don’t want to go.” She sniffled and looked at the papers Glory had given her. She had to get liability insurance. She had to get fingerprinted and prove three years of experience. She felt like she was standing on the edge of a ship getting ready to leap into the middle of the Pacific. She swallowed hard and looked up at Eve. “You really think I’m ready?”

“Yeah. You’ve gotten the experience you need. Think of it like college, and the license is your degree. You’re graduating. Everything after this is just treading water. You need to swim, Ariadne. That’s why you chose Mama instead of going to work at some dead-end job. You wanted a career.” She tapped the papers. “This is your career. You’re ready.”

Ari took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. If you think I’m ready, then I’ll make myself believe it, too. I can delude myself into all kinds of things.”

Eve laughed. “Something else I taught you, I think. But for now, come on. Put that away. Like Mama said, it’ll be a while before she sells the house. Until then you’re still at my beck-and-call.”

Ari threw a handful of paperclips at Eve.

2013
They arrived in Olympia an hour and a half after they left Seattle. The house had a very ‘cabin-in-the-woods’ feel, but its size and location near the water hinted that Glory had paid over a million dollars for the quaint and rustic look. Kevin let her in and led Ari upstairs, holding up a hand to indicate she should wait in the hall for a second. Ari nodded and leaned against the wall as Kevin knocked and stuck his head into the room. “Mama?” he said quietly as he slipped inside. “You awake?”

“Of course I’m awake. It’s the middle of the afternoon, isn’t it?” Ari had to smile, and put her fist against her lips to keep from making a sound. Glory went on: “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling you all morning. If you’re going to put the business on hiatus, then you should at least be available when I need you to run an errand for me.”

“I sort of was running an errand for you. What you said when you left the hospital, after you got the doctors to admit they were just trying to make you comfortable… do you remember what you said to me?”

“I told you to bring me back here. If I’m going to die, I want it to happen at home, with my family.”

“Right. So I brought you home, and I was here, but you didn’t have your whole family. So I took the morning off and did a bit of an off-the-books missing person investigation. You can come on in now.”

Ari pushed away from the wall and went into the bedroom. Glory’s hair had faded to pale silver, her face more lined than she remembered, but she didn’t look like a sick person. Even the machines on either side of the bed just looked like elaborate nightstands. Glory was sitting up, propped up by pillows between her body and the headboard. She looked past Kevin and recognition filled her eyes.

“Oh, my word. Ariadne.”

“Hi, Glory.”

Kevin smiled. “The prodigal daughter returns.”

Glory held out one arm. “Get over here and give me a hug. And make it a good one. Don’t worry, I won’t break in half.”

Ari bent over the bed and squeezed her hard. “Sorry, Glory. I know I should have come by to see you or just shoot the breeze, but–”

“Poppycock. You had your own life to lead. No reason to put it on hold to come back and say hi. And thank you for the occasional business you sent our way over the years. It was better than getting a card on my birthday just because it’s expected.” She patted Ari’s cheek and looked at Kevin. “You dragged this poor girl all the way down here just so she could see me wasting away in this bed?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Glory smiled. “Thank you, son.”

Kevin nodded. “I’ll let you two have some privacy. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.” He put his hand on Ari’s shoulder and squeezed as he left the room, and Ari pulled a chair over next to the bed so she could sit down and still hold Glory’s hand.

“So, I know what the papers say about you, which isn’t much. So how about you fill me in? Are you dating anyone?”

Ari smiled, as she tended to do whenever the subject of Dale came up. “I am. Her name is Dale Frye. She started out as my assistant, but we slowly fell in love and… we’re together now. I don’t see anything changing there any time soon.”

“Good. I was worried about you during the whole Gavin thing. Dear lord, if that had been Kevin in the same situation? You handled it with aplomb, Ariadne. I was so proud. The way you redeemed that girl’s character. It was one of my proudest moments.”

Ari swallowed the lump in her throat. “Thank you, Glory. I don’t think I ever told you this, but my own mother was…” She winced and looked down at her hands. “I never really had anyone I wanted to prove myself to. The adults in my life, I didn’t care if they were proud of me or not. But then you came along, and all I wanted to do was prove myself worthy. I wish I’d come back before… this. God, why didn’t I come back?”

Glory sighed. “The same reason I never made the drive up to Seattle, Ariadne. We existed in the same space for a while, but then we went off in our own directions. You have to build up momentum or else you’re just going in circles. You didn’t come back to me because it would be a retreat. I never felt slighted by you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I knew how you felt about me, and about Eve. Swinging by for Christmas and Thanksgiving wouldn’t change that.”

Ari sniffled and bent down to kiss the back of Glory’s hand. “I love you.”

“Oh, God. The sappy things people say when you start dying.” She put her other hand on Ari’s cheek. “I love you, too. You silly little girl.”

Ari laughed and suddenly knew what Glory would want to hear. “Congratulations, by the way. All those years smoking, and you’re not dying of cancer.”

Glory threw her head back and laughed. “Hell yes. I feel like I won a victory there. That’ll show those bastards slapping their warnings all over my cigarettes.” She sighed and then gestured with her free hand. “You have a phone, I bet. One of those scifi thingies. Show me a picture of your girlfriend.”

“Oh, God. Of course.” She took out her phone and found a good picture that showed Dale standing with Puget Sound behind her, curtains of red hair streaming down on either side of her face from underneath a Mariners cap. She was smiling with her head tilted to one side, reluctantly posing as they walked to dinner. Ari had wanted to capture the light of the setting sun on her face and making her hair shine like gold. “That’s her. That’s Dale.”

Glory smiled when she saw it. “Oh, my. Ariadne, she’s gorgeous. Does she keep you in line?”

“Every day. Keeps me alive, keeps me sane, keeps me safe. It took me forever to tell her I loved her, but now I never miss an opportunity.”

“Good,” Glory said softly. “Good for you, girl. Did Kevin tell you about Joshua?”

Ari nodded. “Yeah.”

“Both my kids. So lucky in life and in love. Forget the private eye stuff, that… the relationships. That’s what I’m proudest of. You both have someone to take care of you when I’m gone. That’s what matters. I don’t want you to waste time here. Go home, go to your girl, hold her–”

“Glory,” Ari said. “I’m not your employee anymore. You can’t tell me what to do. So I’m going to stay right here as long as you need me. Understood?”

Glory glared at her.

“Say it.”

“Fine. Stay. See if I care.”

Ari squeezed Glory’s hand and smiled.

2008
Ari sat on the edge of her desk and stared at Eve’s empty seat. She’d been there all night, packing her things, trying to figure out what was next. She had a storefront that she could turn into an office, and she was trying to think of names for it, but all she could think about was how much she would miss Glory and Eve. She didn’t know if she wanted to do the job without them. She loved Eve like a sister, and Glory was more of a mother than Gwen ever was. The thought of walking out was horrifying.

There was a knock on the door and Glory smiled when she jumped at the sound. “Sorry. You seemed deep in thought. I almost didn’t knock.”

“I’m glad you did. Kick me out of here.”

“No.” She stepped into the room. “You can stay as long as you want.”

“Then I’ll never leave. I need a kick in the pants.”

Glory sat next to Ari on the desk’s edge. “It’s been a long four years. You’ve learned a lot in that time.”

“Not enough.”

“No, more than enough. You’re a private investigator, Ariadne. You’re not an assistant or a trainee. You don’t deserve to answer to anyone. You are Eve’s equal. I know it’s scary. I know you think you’ll fall flat on your face. And maybe you will. You’ll only know if you take that first step. Ariadne, I’ve watched you from the moment you answered my ad, and every day I’m glad you walked through my door. You are ready. And if you deny that, you’re denying my instincts, and if you’re doing that… well, then what the hell have we been doing the past four years?”

Ari sighed. “This place was like home to me. I don’t want to start over.”

“No one ever does. But life changes, and we have to change with it. And this is a new start. And I happen to know one of the biggest private investigation agencies in town is about to pull up roots and move south, and I know you’ll have an inside track on taking over their business.” She bumped Ari’s elbow with hers. “And if something outside of your control happens, if you get lost or scared or you just can’t get your feet under you, then you’ll always have a place to go.”

“Thanks, Mama,” Ari whispered. She closed her eyes. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have–”

“No. I don’t mind, and I know Eve wouldn’t, either.” She stroked Ari’s hair out of her face. “Just remember that my door is open.”

“I will.”

She stood up and then turned, eyeing the wall before she pointed at the clock still hanging behind Ari’s head. “Take that with you when you go. I have no idea how I would get it to Olympia, so I’m not even going to try. And I can’t picture you working as a private eye without that clock watching over you. Take it and hang it in your office. It’ll remind you of where you started and that time is always, always moving forward. You gotta move with it, girl.”

Ari nodded. Somehow knowing she could take the clock would make leaving easier, so after Glory left she began trying to figure out how to get it down off the wall.

2013
Ari was in the kitchen, looking out the window at the water while Kevin was upstairs with his mother. She had called Dale with an update and they ended up talking for over an hour. Dale said that if Ari was still there at the weekend she would drive down and join her, and Ari enthusiastically agreed to the plan. She’d been invited to stay in the house as long as she wanted, and she knew Glory would want to meet Dale in person. She had just hung up, staring without thinking about anything other than dinner when Kevin came downstairs in a rush.

“Ariadne… hurry.”

Ari almost knocked the chair over on her rush to get up the stairs in time to say goodbye.

#

The funeral was set for Saturday afternoon. Ari borrowed some of Eve’s clothes that Kevin hadn’t gotten around to throwing out yet, choosing a tasteful white blouse under a charcoal jacket and a skirt. Kevin smiled when he saw the skirt, a silent reference to all the times Glory had sighed in exasperation when Ari showed up to work wearing slacks. “Call me old-fashioned, but a woman in slacks just seems so utilitarian. Horseback riding or running, sure, but when you go to work you wear a skirt.” Ari pointed out that her job occasionally required her to run, but she’d never stopped receiving the lecture.

She stood with Kevin at the graveside, Kevin’s partner at his other side. The service had been short and to the point, as Glory would have wanted, and now a girl from Glory’s church was about to perform a hymn as the casket was lowered into the ground. Ari bowed her head out of respect, hands clasped in front of her, when the wind shifted. It carried a scent on it that she would have known anywhere, and she lifted her head to seek out the source.

Dale was standing back on the little gravel road, almost hiding between two cars. Ari’s heart swelled at the sight of her, unaware of just how much she’d wanted Dale with her until she saw that she was. She held up her hand in greeting, then waved her forward. Dale started to hesitate, but ultimately walked quickly across the grass. She slipped in next to Ari, took her hand, and squeezed it as she quietly apologized to the person she was displacing.

The girl finished singing and handed the microphone back to the priest. “And now, Kevin Bennett would like to say a few words.”

Joshua rubbed Kevin’s arm as he stepped forward and took the microphone. “Um. Mama wanted this song to be played at her funeral. And I tried to talk her out of it, but somehow that turned into me having to perform it. So, um. If you’re at all offended, I apologize. Blame her, not me.” He cleared his throat, shook his head in disbelief at what he was about to do, and began to sing a cappella. “Oh, the night that Paddy Murphy died… was… a night I’ll never forget.” He seemed to choke on the words and lowered the microphone, rubbing his lips together before he tried continuing. “Suh… some of… the girls got loaded drunk… and… a-and…”

Ari waited a moment, then took a breath and sang in a thick Irish brogue: “And we ain’t been sober yet!”

Kevin’s eyes widened, and then he smiled in gratitude. “But as long as a bottle was passed around–”

“–everyone was feelin’ gay.”

Kevin’s voice took on new life. “O’Leary came with some bagpipes, some music for to play.”

Ari winked at him, and Kevin exhaled with relief as he carried on through the chorus. Ari leaned against Dale’s side as the rest of the attendees got over their surprise and began to clap and sing along with the chorus. Ari bent down and kissed Dale’s cheek, laughing quietly at her shocked and surprised expression. If anyone knew Glory, they would understand. People were clapping, singing, laughing, and sharing a silly song about people getting drunk at a wake for a man they didn’t even like.

It was exactly the sendoff Glory would have wanted.

#

Kevin put down a beer in front of Ari, and another in front of Dale. “Mama would have wanted you to have it.”

“I feel weird,” Ari said. “She gave me such a generous severance package, helped me get started with my agency. I feel like I got my inheritance five years ago.”

Kevin sat down across the table. “Well, you can’t contest the will. I mean, you can. But why would you? The majority of the money is going to Bennett Investigations. The rest is going to tie up some of her financial loose ends. There’s a little bit left after that, and she wanted you to have it.”

“You call this a little bit?” Dale said.

Ari gestured at the kitchen around them with her beer bottle. “You forget, babe. Glory was loaded.”

“How about this,” Kevin said. “You take the money, but you have Dale put it into a savings account? Lock it up tight and forget it even exists. That way if you ever get into a bind, it’ll be like Mama’s ghost coming to the rescue.”

Ari smiled. “Okay. That, I think I can handle. A safety net extended from beyond the grave. It’s fitting.” She held her bottle toward the center of the table. “To Glory Bennett. The best teacher I could have asked for.”

“To Glory Bennett,” Dale agreed, tapping her bottle’s neck against Ari’s and then Kevin’s.

Kevin said, “To Mama,” and tapped his bottle against Joshua’s. He smiled and examined the label. “After my operation, she said that I was the son she’d never had.” He looked across the table. “I think Ariadne was the daughter she never had.”

Ari blinked back tears. “I would have been honored to be her daughter.”

They drank another few toasts, and then Kevin insisted they stay in the house rather than trying to drive back to Seattle. After showering and changing into pajamas they found in the guest room closet, Dale turned off the lights and joined Ari under the covers. They cuddled together, kissed in the dark, and Dale moved her lips to Ari’s ear.

“Did I ever tell you I have a rich-woman fetish?” She nipped Ari’s earlobe.

“No. But tell me more… I did just become an heiress.”

Dale laughed. “I think the inheritance needs to be bigger before you’re considered an heiress.”

“Silence, parlor maid, or I’ll have you out on your ass before you know what’s hit you.” She rolled over, pinning Dale to the mattress. “Now do you wish to please the lady of the house or don’t you? I can be very strict when I need to be.”

Dale’s eyes shone as she listened to her list of tasks.

2007
Glory found Ari out on the deck, shuddering as she looked out at the houses up and down the street. Christmas lights were strung from every eave, the decorations putting the official city displays to shame. Glory offered her a cup of cocoa and Ari took it gratefully, sipping and then letting the steam rise up into her face. Glory enjoyed the view and the chill for a moment and then looked at Ari.

“Your mother lives in town.”

Ari twitched as if slapped. “You investigated me?”

“I wanted to know why you were so quiet about your past. So I looked her up. She lives not far from here. We have mutual friends. I’m sure she’d want to know–”

“My mother did something I could never forgive. She betrayed me. Just like you did. Stay out of my past, Glory. It’s bad enough I have to know what happened. I don’t want you to know, too.”

She started to leave, but Glory put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “You can’t run from your past forever, Ariadne. I’m not saying you have to forgive. However bad it is, whatever happened between you and your mother, you have to come to terms with it. Otherwise it will fester inside of you and it’ll become such a big part of who you are that you’ll never be able to excise it. I’m not saying now, but one day. When you’re ready. Confront her on your terms.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Ari said softly.

“I do. You’re Ariadne Willow,” she said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned since you came to work for me, it’s that you can do amazing things when you set your mind to it.”

Ari was silent for a long time, then looked over her shoulder into the house. She took a deep breath, exhaled, and then closed her eyes. “Thank you for inviting me to your house. I haven’t been to a Christmas party for a very long time.”

“Of course. You are family, after all.” She smiled and tucked Ari’s coat tighter around her. “Now don’t stay out here too long. I don’t want you to catch your death of cold.”

Ari promised she would come in soon, and watched as Glory went back inside. A family. It was such an alien concept that she almost didn’t recognize it. But her love for Glory and Eve, the comfort she felt when she was in their presence, and the way they had welcomed her into their lives flaws and all? If that wasn’t a family, then she didn’t know the meaning of the word.

She drank a little more of her cocoa and then went back inside. She didn’t want to catch a cold but, more than that, she didn’t want Glory to scold her in front of the guests.

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