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Jun 11

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Dog Fight

Summary

Ari crosses path with an unscrupulous private investigator during a case.

Wanda Isaak debated not going through with it, and multiple times she convinced herself that she was going to back out. It would be too expensive. It would end up being a waste of everyone’s time. And then there was the ridiculousness of it all. Who hired private investigators in real life? She didn’t want to be some kind of noir-movie cliché. She didn’t want some fedora-wearing square-jawed moron squinting at her through the smoky haze of his office and calling her “dame.” She admitted her references needed to be updated, but the anxiety was real.

She finally decided to take the plunge when she saw an advertisement for Bitches Investigations. The name was what drew her eye. It could be a misogynistic asshole who specialized in taking pictures of cheating girlfriends and wives, but the card she picked up made her feel it was classier than that. She drove by the offices and saw a woman through the window. Finally she parked and went into the building before she could convince herself not to. She stood in front of the fogged glass of the door, shook her head at the ludicrous thing she was about to do, and knocked.

“Come on in.”

Wanda opened the door and stepped inside. The redhead she’d seen from outside smiled from behind her desk. The door to the inner office was open, and through it Wanda saw a neat and tidy workspace. She returned her focus to the woman who was obviously the detective’s secretary.

“I’m not really sure how to do this.”

“Do you want to hire a private investigator?”

Wanda hesitated.

The woman chuckled and said, “Well, if you’re not sure, you can still come in and discuss what you need. If we’re not the right fit, then all you’ve lost is a little bit of time. I’m Dale Frye.”

“Wanda. Isaak.” She moved closer to the desk. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. This is what people do in movies, right?”

Dale said, “When I tell people I work for a ‘private eye,’ they think it’s all shootouts and existential voiceovers. I trust you, Ari isn’t like the sort of PI you see in the movies. She should be back in a few minutes if you want to wait for her.”

‘She.’ That was a relief. She was debating whether she wanted to wait when the door opened as if on cue. A slender brunette in a blue-and-white baseball shirt and jeans came inside. She kept one hand on the door and bent down to brush something off her shoe.

“Dale, remind me the next time the wolf wants–”

“Ariadne we have a client this is Wanda Isaak,” Dale snapped without taking a breath.

Ariadne stopped midsentence and straightened to face Wanda fully. She had a wide, square jaw and large eyes, too unusual features that combined to make a beautiful whole. “Hi. Sorry. I’m Ariadne Willow.” She started to offer her hand, but pulled it back and examined something on her palm. She wiped it on her jeans. “Sorry. I’m usually a bit more put-together than this.”

“It’s true,” Dale said. “Some days she even showers.”

“Shush, you.” Ari gestured at her office. “Please. We can talk in here.”

Wanda led the way. Ari followed her and shut the door behind them. Wanda could tell from the general style of the room that Ari wasn’t as slovenly as she currently appeared, but she was still unsure about the whole idea. Ari went to a small ensuite bathroom to wash her hands. She dried them on a towel and offered her now-clean hand to Wanda.

“Now we can do this properly. How can I help you?”

“It’s… my grandmother.” Wanda took a seat as Ari did the same. Now that she was actually in the office, she decided she might as well go all-in. “A few weeks ago, she and a few of her friends decided to visit a psychic. It was just a lark for her best friend’s birthday. But apparently the psychic knew so much about everyone that they decided she was the real thing. Grandma decided to go back and ask about me and my brother, my cousins, my aunt and my mom… everyone she could think of. Were we happy, would we have a fulfilling life, basically the sort of stuff we could have told her if we’d ever bothered to call her or write. I mean, we live in the same damn city, would it really be so hard…?”

She grimaced and looked down at her hands. She was glad Ari didn’t try to comfort her; she just sat silently and waited until Wanda was ready to continue on her own.

“They’re having weekly sessions now. A hundred and fifty dollars an hour to make every little decision in her life. When I called her last week and asked if she wanted to go shopping. She said she had to ask Iola first.”

Ari said, “That’s the psychic?”

“Iola Grace. She has an office near the Science Center.”

Ari made a note on her laptop, tapping quickly before she gave her attention back to Wanda. “If you were to hire me, what would you want me to do? I’m afraid there’s very little chance I could get her to give your grandmother’s money back.”

“I’m not concerned about that. Grandma probably wouldn’t even take it. She insists Iola is helping her and making her feel better. I just want to make sure she doesn’t keep throwing money at this woman. I want you to prove she’s a fraud before Grandma can’t afford her rent or medication.” She put one hand on her purse. “I don’t know if I can afford to hire you for more than a few days. Would that be enough time?”

Ari smiled reassuringly. “I’m sure we can work something out if it’s not.”

 

#

 

Ari had found a comfortable position in the passenger seat – slumped down with her foot braced against the glove compartment – by the time Dale returned with the coffee. She bent down to hand Ari her cup, placed her own cup of tea in the holder, and then straightened again. Ari watched as Dale aimed her phone at the building, snapped a picture, and returned the phone to her pocket before she got into the car.

“Pretty bird?” Ari guessed.

“Space Needle. You can see it over the parking structure.”

Ari said, “You’ve lived here for how long, and you’re still taking pictures of it?”

Dale smiled. “It’s for my father. In one of his emails he asked me how many times a day I see it, so I thought I would document each instance for him. If I ever go to Paris, I’m sure he’ll ask the same thing about the Eiffel Tower.”

“Huh.” Ari considered how often she saw the Space Needle. It was just… there. But now that the subject had been brought up, she was certain she’d be noticing it a lot more.

“Anyone interesting go into the psychic’s place while I was gone?”

Ari shook her head. “A couple of retirees went in. I’m timing it, but I’m pretty sure we’ll see them again in about ten minutes.”

They were parked on a short block of red-brick businesses – a tattoo parlor, a barber shop, and a pottery studio – with apartment buildings on each corner. Iola Grace lived in and worked out of the northern building. Ari had spotted the sign in the woman’s window as soon as they pulled up for their stakeout. So far, Dale had done the heavy lifting on the case. A few hours scouring the internet led her to the information that Iola Grace was really Margaret Gainesboro from Pocatello, Idaho. She started her fortune telling career as Seraphina Angelique, but she was forced to close up shop after a few lawsuits and accusations of fraud made it hard for her to drum up any new clients. So far the state of Washington hadn’t sniffed her out, but Ari was sure it was only a matter of time before her latest identity also ceased to exist and moved on to the next port.

Wanda Isaak’s grandmother couldn’t afford to wait that long. Staking out the building was Dale’s idea. Ari didn’t think it would be much help – people going inside could be on their way to any of the twenty-four apartments in the building – but she was willing to give it a shot. So far the only people who had gone in was an elderly couple, the mailman, and three women traveling alone who spent less than an hour inside each. Ari assumed they were clients, so she took their picture as they came out.

A man rounded the corner, speaking on a cell phone, and Ari watched him for lack of anything more interesting to look at. He walked to the entrance, stopped, and then leaned back to look up at the windows. Ari thought he was looking directly at Iola’s apartment but that might have been a case of confirmation bias. He turned and walked slowly back the way he had come, stopped, and began to pace. He wore an old blazer over a bright purple shirt that wasn’t tucked into his khakis. The outfit was just dressy enough to show he’d made an effort, but a bit too slovenly to look presentable. He was handsome in an eighties-era Chevy Chase sort of way that made Ari suspect he would be smug about his looks.

“See that guy?”

Dale looked without turning her head. Ari leaned closer to Dale and held up her phone.

“Act like we’re taking a selfie.”

Dale made a duck-face and flashed a peace sign, while Ari leaned in close and stuck out her tongue. She angled the camera so the man was centered in the frame before she snapped the picture. She sank back into her seat and made sure the picture was clear enough to use for identification if necessary.

“Oh mah God,” Dale chirped, “we look hideous. Delete it, delete it, delete it.”

“Cha. I look hideous, you look totes adorbs,” Ari said.

Dale looked back toward the building. “Are those your retirees?”

Ari said, “That’s them. An hour and five minutes on the dot. I guess Iola isn’t much for small talk with her clients.”

Mr. Purple Shirt watched the older people leave and then went inside. “What do you think?” Dale said. “Psychic lady’s partner?”

“Could be. Are you good to hang out here for another couple of hours?”

Dale nodded. “You do what you have to do. We can meet up back at the office in a few hours.”

Ari crawled between the seats. Dale scanned the street and said, “We’re clear. Just be quick about it.” The car shook gently as Ari took off her clothes. She heard a grunt and then the weight of a body falling against the seat. A second later the wolf scrambled back into the front seat. Dale reached over and scratched the top of Ari’s head. “Try not to stay out too late.”

Ari looked at her. Dale was still a bit rattled when she saw the intelligence and awareness in the animal’s eyes. It was undeniably a wolf, but it was also her boss. And her friend. She smiled and scratched behind the wolf’s ear, and Ari twisted to give her a better angle. Dale couldn’t help but laugh as she dropped her hand. She leaned across the seat and opened the passenger door so Ari could climb out.

“Be careful.”

Ari huffed, hopped out onto the sidewalk, and trotted across the street to await Mr. Purple Shirt’s return. Dale tried not to be overly worried, but she couldn’t help it. They were only a few blocks away from downtown, with all its mid-afternoon traffic. Tourists heading to board cruise ships, or to see the Space Needle, or just sightseeing. They were a few blocks from the Seattle Center and Key Arena. There were dozens of streets out there for Ariadne to cross. She watched as the wolf disappeared into the alley next to Iola Gates’ building.

“Be safe, Ariadne,” she repeated, this time almost as a prayer that nothing bad would happen to her friend.

 

#

 

Purple Shirt left the building twenty minutes after he entered. Dale took that as evidence he wasn’t one of Iola’s clients, but she was confident he had visited her. The fact he’d looked at her window and then waited until the elderly couple left before going inside was enough for her. He walked south, past the alley where Ari had settled in to wait, and she watched in her side mirror as the wolf emerged and trotted after him. They disappeared around the corner and Dale checked the time. If she waited for another client to arrive, she would be sitting there for at least another hour. Ari hadn’t promised her an exciting career, but she couldn’t imagine a more boring street for surveillance.

Dale waited fifteen minutes for someone else to arrive. In that time she finished her tea and twice sang along with the Emmylou Harris song that had been stuck in her head all day. She also came up with a plan that, depending on its success, would either piss Ari off or earn her respect. Either way it would be better than wasting time in a car. She opened the door and hurried across the street before she could talk herself out of it. She checked her clothes to make sure she looked presentable and went into the building.

Iola Gates’ apartment was on the third floor. Even without the sign in the window, she would have instantly known where the psychic lived. There were signs on either side of the door. One announced it was the home of “IOLA GATES – Psychic. Intuitive. Palmistry” and the other listed the phone number to call for an appointment. The door itself was painted a bright red, with a fringe of beads hanging from the door frame. The beads didn’t hang low enough to touch Dale’s head, but she knew someone just a few inches taller would have to either duck or pass through them in order to enter Iola’s sanctum.

Dale knocked and tried to think of a lie to tell when the psychic answered. Ari had a few fake identities ready to go, but Dale preferred to fly by the seat of her pants. There was a greater risk involved there, but she never did well with pre-written material. She would rattle it all off like she was reciting a grocery list and no one would ever buy it as the truth.

The door opened to reveal a petite blonde wearing a paisley frock that was at least three sizes too big for her. The excess of cloth made her look like a butterfly alighting on the threshold. She was barefoot and standing on her toes, but she was still a few inches shorter than Dale. A multitude of heavy bracelets and other bangles fell from her wrist to her forearm as she swept her hand through her bangs.

“Hi.” Dale gestured at the appointment board. “I’m sorry, I don’t have an appointment. But I was wondering if you had time for a walk-in…?”

Iola’s smile changed to one of professional regret. “Ooh, I’m sorry. I don’t. I have to ensure that my energy has an appropriate resting period between obligations.”

Dale managed not to roll her eyes, but it was a very near thing. Instead she looked down at her shoes and shook her head. “Right. Right, of course. I’m sorry. I was just… never mind. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” She turned to leave.

“Just a moment. I feel something. You’ve been struggling with the decision to come here for quite a while, haven’t you? I bet it took all your courage just to knock on my door.”

Dale realized Iola must have noticed the car sitting across the street all morning. Hopefully she didn’t notice that one of its occupants had disappeared and was replaced by a large brown dog.

“I’ve been thinking about it for days. I thought maybe if I just walked in, I wouldn’t chicken out.”

Iola smiled again. She had extraordinarily kind eyes, and her smile brightened her entire face. It was easy to see how someone might be swindled by this woman.

“I can’t offer you a full experience right now, but maybe I can still help. Please, step inside.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to take away from your real customers.”

Iola nodded and motioned for Dale to lead the way inside. “I’m Iola Grace. And you?”

She knew Ari would joke that the psychic should already know her name. Dale said, “I’m Emmyl– Emily. Harris.”

“Shall we get started?”

“I don’t know…”

“You’ve already come this far.” She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “You’re just a few steps from a victory today, Emily Harris. Don’t throw it away now.”

Dale supposed she shouldn’t be shocked at how charming the psychic was; every good con artist needed to disarm their marks. She looked at the stairs once more as if contemplating retreat, but she relented and went into the apartment. The living room had been converted into a small office similar to every psychic shop she’d seen on TV and in the movies. Floor-length beaded curtains blocked off the personal areas of the apartment, and the window was partially shaded to provide a soothing ambiance. Iola closed the door and brushed by Dale to take a seat behind the table. Dale sat on the padded seat across from her.

“So how does this work?” she asked. “Tarot cards, crystal balls?”

Iola smiled. “First you give me your hands. This is going to be a very rudimentary reading, so I don’t want you to feel disappointed if we don’t have any great breakthroughs. A person’s spirit is just like anything else about them. Sometimes it takes a little effort to fully open up to someone else. I just want to shake hands with yours and see if we’re compatible, okay?”

Dale said, “Sounds great.” She offered her hands, and Iola turned them so they were palm-up. She rested her fingers on the back of Dale’s wrists and pressed her thumbs against the pulse point of each hand. Dale had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from commenting on the placement. She had a fair amount of respect for the supernatural – her boss was a werewolf, for Pete’s sake – and she believed there was a chance psychics existed. She believed there was power in the tarot and that some people were able to tap into the spiritual side of the world. She also believed Iola Grace had no clue what she was doing.

“You seem to lead an interesting life, Miss Harris. And not the life one might expect when looking at you. There’s a lot of danger around you. But mostly life is quiet. Mundane, but not in a bad way. Hm.” She smiled. “You have love in your life.”

Dale chuckled. “I think you’re looking at the wrong line. I’m single.”

“Perhaps for now. But there is love. Unexpected, maybe, and unnoticed. But you’ll see it in your own time. Someone out there cares very much for you, Emily.”

“Certainly sounds nice.” And it sounds like exactly what someone would want to hear regardless of the truth. “Do you see anything about… my father?”

Iola affected a look of deep concentration. “I’m afraid not. But I’m still getting to know you. If we’re going to spread out, we’ll need a little more time than we have here.”

Dale wondered how many sessions that would amount to. “Oh. Okay.”

“You miss him.”

A clever question, designed to figure out if her father was dead or just in another state. “I do.”

Iola brushed her fingers over the back of Dale’s hands as she waited for her to elaborate. Dale let the silence linger rather than fill it with more information. Silence was a cold-reading’s best friend, and she wasn’t going to give the psychic any extra ammunition. They sat without saying anything for close to a full minute before Iola finally gave up and spoke.

“I can see that you’re being followed by darkness, Miss Harris, but it’s not becoming clear. I wish I could help you more, but it must be finessed.” She closed her hands around Dale’s. “But I understand what drove you here. You feel overwhelmed and under attack. I want to help you. I have a few open appointments early next week.”

Dale hesitated. But if Ari was against the idea, she could always cancel the appointment. “Monday would be okay, I guess. I don’t really have a lot of money…”

“That’s fine. This little introduction is free of charge. And next week I can give you the discounted rate. I just want to help you through this dark time.”

“Thank you. That’s very nice of you.”

Iola smiled and patted Dale’s hand. “I’m glad you came to me. Sometimes just taking the first step can be enough to open the door so you can make real changes.”

“I hope so.”

“I’ll schedule your appointment for Monday afternoon at two o’clock. Does that sound good? Okay. I’ll see you then. And we’ll have time to really dig in, get to know your spiritual side. I have a good feeling about this.”

Dale stood up and allowed herself to be ushered outside. She said her goodbyes to Iola and went downstairs, knowing she would actually have to leave just in case Iola was watching her car. She resisted the urge to look up at the window when she got outside. Once she was safely in the car she took out her phone and sent herself an email containing the little information she’d gleaned about the erstwhile Margaret Gainesboro. She returned the phone to her pocket and pulled away from the curb.

“Hey, Ari,” she muttered under her breath, practicing what she would say when Ari got back to the office. “So you know how you told me to watch the front of the building… no. So, Ari, I was thinking about the best way to gather information… yeah. That’s the ticket. She’ll have to understand that.”

 

#

 

“It was a stupid risk!” Ari snapped. “What if you’d slipped up? What if she figured out we were investigating her and tried to shut you up?”

Dale said, “She’s five-foot-nothing, Ari.”

“Short people can use guns.”

“I was fine.”

Ari said, “Oh, so now you’re the psychic?”

She was sitting on the couch in Ari’s office. Until her confession, Ari had been sitting next to her. She returned to the office twenty minutes earlier still in wolf form, and she’d changed into a T-shirt and shorts because they were easier to put on than her work clothes. Dale offered her a massage to ease the aches caused by her transformation, and Ari gratefully accepted. She thought that meant it was the perfect time to mention her own adventure. Now Ari was pacing the office while Dale tried to sink into the couch like a scolded student called to the principal’s office.

Dale said, “I’m sorry. I know I could have screwed up the case–”

“I don’t care about the case, Dale. I care about you walking into a potentially dangerous situation without a plan. You could’ve been hurt. Don’t do that again.”

“I should probably mention I made an appointment to see her again. Monday at two.”

Ari groaned and put her hand over her eyes.

“I can cancel.”

“Don’t do that just yet. We might find out something over the weekend that makes an appointment necessary.” She snorted derisively. “Appointment. Shouldn’t a psychic know when a client is going to show up?”

Dale said, “I don’t think it works like that.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t.” She dropped her hand to her shoulder. “Just promise me you won’t do that again. They won’t all be teeny-tiny mediums.”

“I promise. I’ll only take risks with subjects I can literally lift over my head with one hand.”

Ari cracked a smile at that and sat down again. “I worry about you, Miss Frye.”

“I can take care of myself. And I can take care of you. Take your shirt off and I’ll give you a rubdown.”

Ari twisted away from her and peeled the shirt off. Whatever awkwardness there had once been about Ari disrobing had long ago faded. Ari kept her bra on until she was lying down. Dale stood up and slung one leg over Ari’s waist so she could straddle her. She worked the oil into her hands and then began rubbing Ari’s shoulders. Ari grunted when she first began to knead the tight muscles, but soon she relaxed.

“So what did you find out?”

“Oh! Quite a bit actually. I followed Mr. Purple almost all the way to the highway. He has a little office there. Charming neighborhood. Bars on the windows. Oh, and do you know what a dumpster smells like when it’s shared by a corned beef sandwich shop and a teriyaki restaurant?”

Dale wrinkled her nose. “Thankfully, no.”

“It’s somehow even worse than you think, but luckily I had heightened wolf senses. So I got to smell it in Technicolor.”

“Yeesh. Hopefully it was worth the sacrifice.”

Ari crossed her hands under her chin, turning so Dale could see her profile. “I found out Iola’s visitor was Clark Wilcox. He’s a private investigator. He works for an agency called Bastion Private Investigations and Bail Bonds.”

“Bastion? Asshole comes before us in the phone book.”

“Yeah, but we have a nicer address.”

Dale shrugged and changed her angle of attack on a knot in Ari’s shoulder. “That’s quite a coincidence, though. Two private investigators on the same job. I always wondered what would happen if you hired two private eyes and had them follow each other.”

“We’d end up chasing our tails.” She grunted.

“Is that a sore spot?”

“Yeah. Focus there.”

Dale bore down with her fingers and Ari squirmed under her. “So there’s another private investigator in play. Maybe the two of you could team up and compare notes.”

“Maybe.”

“You don’t think so?”

Ari grunted. “I don’t know. I don’t want to be a snob. My mother is a snob, and I hate to think she’s rubbing off on me. But the guy’s office didn’t inspire confidence. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would provide good information, you know? I worry it would end up with us doing all the legwork while he sat back and collected the benefits.”

“You sound a little snobbish.”

“I know. I’ll work on that. And I guess I can consider whether or not we’ll collaborate before your appointment on Monday.”

Dale said, “Good.”

Ari furrowed her brow. “Huh.”

“What?”

“Nothing. I was just thinking about when we saw Wilcox. He waited outside until Iola’s clients left. He was on the phone with her, or someone, and he waited outside until the coast was clear. Then he went up. What if he’s not working for one of the people she conned? What if he’s working for her?”

“Why would a psychic hire a private… oh!”

“Right. The same reason I hired you. Background checks, records searches. I bet if I walked up to Iola Grace tomorrow and just started spouting off information about her life, it would look like I was psychic, too.” She sat up and held a pillow from the couch over her chest. “Someone makes an appointment, and Iola hires this Wilcox guy to dig up dirt. He hands the information over to her, and she just spouts it off like it’s coming to her through the ether.”

“That’s why the information is always so accurate.”

Ari said, “What did she say during your meeting?”

“I told you it would be good that I went in.”

“Yeah, gloat later.”

Dale said, “It was a basic cold reading. That John Edwards bullcrap. ‘I see someone with a name that starts with P,’ you know. I have love in my life, I’m surrounded by darkness. She was giving me categories that I could fill in with my answers. I bet next week she would have gotten real specific real fast. If I had given her a real name, of course.”

Ari said, “That could be a problem. If Wilcox is trying to look up whatever name you gave and comes up empty, Iola will know it was a con.”

Dale climbed off Ari and went into the front office. She took a seat at her desk and opened an application on her laptop. Ari came out of the office tugging her T-shirt back into place.

“What are you doing?”

“Well, assuming this guy does the same background searches I do, I know a few places I can seed Emily Harris. Just the basics, nothing too drastic.” She began typing as Ari moved to stand behind her chair. “I’ll make her boring enough to seem normal, but maybe a few bits of spice for Iola to focus on.”

“You can do that?”

“It’s easy. I’m already registered on a lot of these sites, so it’s mostly just filling out the right forms and hitting enter.”

Ari said, “No, I mean… just making up facts. Creating people out of thin air.”

“Oh. Yeah. Sixty percent wish fulfillment, thirty percent imaginary friends I had in elementary school, and ten percent you.”

“Me?”

“Yeah. You’re a cool person, Ari.”

Ari smiled and touched Dale’s shoulder. “Try to leave out anything incriminating.”

“Will do.” She looked back. “Sorry about cutting your massage short.”

“It’s fine. Most of the kinks got worked out. I’m going to go get dressed while you build a person out of whole cloth.”

Dale grinned. “Leave it to the maestro.”

“If you do a good job, I’m going to have you build an identity for me.”

“I couldn’t do better than the real thing.”

Ari chuckled and kicked the office door shut so she could finish getting dressed. Dale bit her bottom lip and focused on giving birth to the woman she’d made up on the fly earlier that afternoon.

 

#

 

Dale spent the rest of the work day creating Emily Harris online, then compiling a dossier on Clark Wilcox for Ari. She emailed the miniature biography to Ariadne and then went to the office door. “I’m heading out for the night. Need anything else from me?”

Ari shook her head. “I think I’m good. Thanks, Dale.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll have my cell phone on tonight if you go for a run.”

Ari grunted and twisted from side-to-side. “I’ve already been the wolf twice today. I think it will understand if I take the night off.”

“Well, just in case.”

“I appreciate it. See you tomorrow.”

On her way home, Dale stopped at City Market for some groceries and then went to Dick’s Drive In for dinner. It was there that she noticed the car she’d seen parked outside the office when she left. She thought she might have also seen it at the market, but she couldn’t be certain. She took her food and sat behind the wheel before she took out her phone. She kept it in her lap so it wouldn’t be seen if anyone actually was watching her. She dialed Ari’s number and turned it on speaker.

“If you’re calling to remind me to work on the website tonight, don’t bother. I’m doing it right now.”

“That’s great.” She kept her head forward, but her eyes were on the rearview mirror. “I think someone might have followed me from the office.”

Ari’s tone changed. “Where are you?”

“Dick’s. It’s an old silver Mazda. I’m parked in front of the comic book store next door, and he’s on the north side of the restaurant.”

“Stay right there.”

Ari hung up, and Dale disconnected the call. The office was less than half a mile away. Given Ari’s reaction, Dale figured she would arrive in under five minutes. She poked her straw into the drink, took a few fries from her bag, and tried to look casual as she ate. She tried not to look at the other car too much for fear of giving away that she’d seen him, but she did pick up a few extra details. There was only one person in the car, a man, and he didn’t seem to be in any great hurry.

Less than three minutes after she hung up with Ari, she saw movement from the alley running behind the restaurant. Ari was approaching from the alleged-stalker’s blind side, using the building to block him from seeing her. She stopped at the corner and peeked to find the car. Ari had changed into a long coat and had her hair tucked up under a baseball cap. The sunglasses she was wearing were both unnecessary due to the lateness of the hour and were so large they obscured her face.

After she took a second to examine the car, she crossed Dick’s parking lot and got into the passenger side of Dale’s car.

“It’s Wilcox.”

“You’re sure?”

“I was pretty sure based on the description of his car, but I just confirmed it.”

Dale looked in her rearview mirror and tried to identify the man she’d seen outside Iola’s building. “Why is he following me?”

“I think we just confirmed our theory about how Iola does her readings. He’s following you to get information for your appointment on Monday.”

“But how did he find me? I used a fake name.”

Ari said, “Iola must have gotten your license plate number before you left. That would mean she already has one big revelation. ‘I sense you’re not who you appear to be. I’m seeing… a ‘D’ name.’”

Dale sighed. “All that work putting Emily into the system, for nothing. Looks like you have a new cover identity if you ever need it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Can I have some fries?”

“No.”

“I ran across town to save you. I’m a freaking hero.”

“Fine, one fry.”

Ari reached into the bag and took her reward. “If we just leave him back there, he’s just going to try following you home.”

“Probably.”

“What do you want me to do? I can hop out and go back to the office, and you can let him stare at your building all night. Go through your mail, your trash, dig up all the dirt on you…”

Dale shuddered. “I don’t even want to think about that.”

“Plan B, then.” Ari licked the salt from her fingers and opened the door. “I’m going to have a conversation with our esteemed colleague.”

“Ari, wait.” She paused with one foot out on the sidewalk. “I don’t want to say I was scared about the fact this guy was following me. But maybe I was so calm about it because I knew I could call you, and you’d come running. So thanks. You really are a freaking hero.”

Ari grinned. “Any time.”

She closed the door, and Dale watched in the rearview mirror as she walked across the drive-in’s parking lot on a direct route to where Wilcox was waiting. She was almost close enough to grab the door when his lights suddenly came on and he angled away from the curb. Unfortunately for his getaway, a car was passing and he couldn’t get away before Ari pulled the door open and folded herself into the seat.

Dale smiled. “That’ll teach you to follow me.”

 

#

 

Clark Wilcox stared at Ari as she got into his car. “Sorry about this,” she said, “but it’s hell trying to catch a cab at this time of day. You don’t mind, do you?”

“I rarely mind good-looking women getting into my car. I usually appreciate a little more warning than this, but I can roll with the punches. I’m Clark.”

Ari took his hand, tensed, and squeezed her eyes shut. “Wait. Clark Raymond Wilcox? Born in Madison, Wisconsin. You were a cop. Until you resigned…” She furrowed her brow and pretended she was seeking the information Dale had emailed her. “Something about evidence going missing from the locker?”

He pulled his hand away. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m being a psychic,” she said. “Just like your pal, Iola Grace. Otherwise known as Margaret Gainesboro. Apparently she has a pretty good shtick. Very convincing. Now, either we accept that psychics exist or we try to figure out the ace up her sleeve. What do you think?”

“I think you’re insane.”

“You’re the one who let a stranger get in his car.”

Wilcox looked out the window at the back of Dale’s car. “I guess she was your mole? Sent her in to get information?”

Ari said, “I didn’t send her anywhere.”

“Uh-huh. So I was trying to figure out where she worked, since I couldn’t exactly walk up and peek through the windows. It was either the private investigator’s office or the antiques shop. I guess I have my answer now, huh?”

“I don’t know. I could own an antiques store.”

“Yeah, but you seem like the kind of person who would name her business ‘Bitches.’”

“Ouch, Clarkie. I thought we were becoming friends.”

“I don’t even know your name.”

“I’m Ariadne Willow.”

“Nice name.”

“Thanks.”

He settled back against his seat. “So, Ariadne Willow. What’s the angle? You want a piece of the action? I might be amenable to that, actually. Miss Grace is pretty popular, and I can’t really keep up with the demand. I could toss you a few cases now and then.”

Ari pretended to consider the offer, then shook her head. “You know, I’m not really that keen on being part of a fraud case. I like staying out of prison.”

“Oh, you’re one of those.”

“What? Law-abiding citizens?”

He chuckled. “We’re private eyes, Willow. We bridge the gap between civilians and police. We do what ordinary people can’t, and what the police won’t. That’s the service we provide.”

“It might be the service you provide. Not me.”

Wilcox shook his head. “You’re naïve. How long have you been doing this, a couple years? You lose that sheen of idealism real quick.”

“We’re supposed to help people when the police can’t. We cut through the red tape. If there’s too little evidence for them to get officially involved, we step in. You and Iola Grace are robbing the people who rely on us.”

“If Iola wasn’t using me to dig up this dirt, she would be using someone else. I don’t know about you, but I like having money. She pays well.”

Ari said, “She pays well because she’s emptying out bank accounts of people on fixed incomes. How can you feel good about that?”

Wilcox held his hands out. “I’m not doing anything. I’m just giving her the information. What she does with it is out of my hands.”

“That’s a cop-out and you know it.”

He smiled at her. “I don’t have to justify what I do to you. I have to justify it to myself, and I’m just fine with it.”

“Keep telling yourself that.” She opened the door. “You don’t have to follow Dale anymore. She’s not going to be keeping her appointment on Monday, so I doubt Iola will pay you for your efforts.”

“What if I don’t? I already started the job, did the legwork to find her real name and find out where she worked. Maybe I’ll stick with it and ask for a partial payment.”

Ari closed the door and leaned close, lowering her voice as if they weren’t the only people in the car. “You do that, Wilcox, and you’ll find out just how unfriendly I can be. You think she won’t notice if you follow her? You think I won’t know? Try it.”

Wilcox smirked. “What happened to law-abiding?”

“Harassment of my friend constitutes probable cause for me. I told you, we act when the cops don’t have enough evidence. So I’d just have to take care of you myself. You really want to find out why I named my agency Bitches, you just show up outside Dale’s building at any time in the next… say, twenty years.” She smiled sweetly, patted his cheek, and got out of the car. “I’ll see you around, Mr. Wilcox. Hopefully around the downtown area, or somewhere touristy. As of right now, there’s one street in Seattle that’s off-limits to you. Understood?”

He put two fingers against his eyebrow and saluted her. “Loud and clear, Miss Willow.”

Ari mimicked his salute only using one finger. She shut the door and walked back to where Dale was parked. She wasn’t sure why she had gone so berserk over what amounted to an empty threat, but she would back it up if Wilcox made it necessary. She wrote it off as the wolf being overly protective of a fellow pack member and decided not to be bothered by it.

Dale was halfway through her burger when Ari got back in the car. “Theory confirmed. He’s digging up the information and selling it to Iola.”

“Will that be enough to have her arrested for fraud?”

“I don’t know. We can definitely report her to the Federal Trade Commission. They’ll shut her down, or she’ll catch wind that they’re closing in and flee the state again. I want to at least try to get Wanda Isaak’s money back before that happens.”

Clark Wilcox revved his engine as he drove past them, flicking a half-hearted wave through the back window as he sped through the green light.

“Is there a way we can make that jackass pay at the same time?”

Ari bared her teeth in an almost unaware show of aggression. “If there is, I’m going to find it.”

 

#

 

The phone had been ringing for at least one full chorus of “Raise Your Glass” before it woke Ari. She swam across her mattress and retrieved the phone from the charger, cutting Pink off mid-verse. She didn’t bother opening her eyes as she slurred, “Th’s’s Ari.”

“Up and at ‘em.” Wilcox sounded awake and alert and she hated him. “You might want to get to Iola Grace’s apartment in the next few minutes.”

She sat up and folded her legs in front of her. “Why? What’s going on?”

“That’s all you get. Just consider me your anonymous source.”

He hung up, and Ari grimaced at the phone before she dropped it back on the mattress. She looked around her bedroom and saw the hamper had been knocked over and her dirty clothes had been scattered to the four corners of the room. Apparently at some point during the night she had transformed and the wolf found itself trapped in the apartment. She grunted and scratched her head as she stumbled to the bathroom.

“Sorry, pooch. Gotta install a doggie door one of these days.” Of course that would tip off the landlord, who had a strict no-pets policy.

She showered as quickly as she could, dressed, and headed out with her hair still wet. She called Dale from the road. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”

“No, I’m having breakfast. What’s up?”

“Wilcox called me. He said I should get to Iola Grace’s apartment right away.”

Dale said, “That sounds ominous.”

“Yeah. I’m on my way over there now. What about you? Anything to report from last night?”

“Nope. No mysterious cars parked at the corner, no guys in purple shirts hanging out in the lobby. I think you scared him off.”

“Good. I’ll let you know if this turns out to be anything worth worrying about. I’ll meet you at the office.”

“Okay.”

Ari hung up. She drove a little out of her way to stop at Street Bean Espresso for coffee and a muffin. She thought she was making Wilcox suffer by forcing him to wait for her, but as soon as she turned the corner she regretted the detour. Two squad cars were parked in front of Iola Grace’s building and a group of officers were milling about the entrance. She spotted Wilcox’s Mazda parked where she and Dale had been staked out the day before. He was out of the car and leaning against the pottery studio’s wall with his hands in his pockets.

She drove past the police and parked on the next street and walked back. He smiled as she approached and gestured at the cops.

“Big morning for the SPD Fraud division.”

“What the hell is going on?” Ari said.

Wilcox shrugged. “After you so graciously illuminated me on what Iola was doing with my work, I had an obligation to report her fraud to the proper authorities.”

Ari said, “You’re covering your own ass.”

He looked offended, but the expression collapsed into a smug grin when he looked away from her. “Sure, she hired me a lot. Mostly background checks, that sort of thing. I thought she was just an office manager looking into her employees. And quantity isn’t always a red flag. I once got hired by someone who wanted me to check out every single parent on his kid’s soccer team just to make sure there weren’t any pedos or other criminals lurking around. So no, I wasn’t overly concerned until a fellow private investigator alerted me to what was really going on.”

Ari scoffed and shook her head. “You’re unbelievable.”

“If I let you make the call, I’d go down with her. This way everyone wins. Well… except for her, of course. I get to walk away and you get to close the case for your client. You get paid, I don’t go to jail, and Iola Grace finally gets outed for her scam. There’s probably going to be a class-action lawsuit your client could get in on.”

“What about the next con artist? Or the next client who has you massage the law to get what they want? I have a feeling your morality will be taking a vacation when that day comes.”

Wilcox pushed away from the wall and started walking toward the police. “Maybe so. Maybe not. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“We’re not done, Wilcox.”

He turned to face her, walking backward. “Oh, believe me, I know. I’ve dealt with private eyes like you before, Willow. I have no doubt we’re going to run into each other again. I look forward to that day, believe it or not.” He winked and turned his back on her. One of the cops saw him coming and waved him over.

Ari watched as the cops surrounded Wilcox, unable to stop herself from envisioning a more antagonistic situation that ended with her rival investigator shackled and thrown into the back of a squad car. Going after him now would only complicate matters, and it would give him an opening to turn the attention back on her. In the short time they’d known each other, Wilcox had already proven he had a primal survival instinct. If he had to lie and say she was working with Iola, he wouldn’t hesitate.

She had to take the win – as reluctant as she was to call it that – and back off to continue the fight another day. Wanda Isaak would be happy, and her grandmother would get to keep what was left in her bank account. And Ari supposed she had technically fulfilled her part of the bargain. She just couldn’t help but feel dirty about the whole case. She also couldn’t relax and say Clark Wilcox and Bastion were out of her hair. Wilcox was the kind of sore winner who wouldn’t accept his victory and move on. She and Dale were on his radar now. He wouldn’t be satisfied with just beating them, he had to know he was superior.

Next time he popped up, Ari swore they would be ready for him.

 

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