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Jun 02

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Dogs Playing Poker

Summary

Ari infiltrates a poker game to sniff out a suspected murderer.

There were only a handful of cars in the lot, and Ari parked at the farthest edge of the lot so she could pass them all as she walked to the building. The pavement was cracked, with weeds sprouting up between the lines. The thin line of grass that separated the parking lot from the main street was overgrown and filled with litter tossed from passing cars. Ari hated areas like this. It wasn’t exactly a neighborhood where angels feared to tread, but even the local angels preferred to stay inside after dark. She swept her hair back and bound it into a ponytail as she weaved between the cars to the building.

She bypassed the front door and went around the side as per the instructions she’d received. A narrow set of concrete steps led down to a basement entrance. The basement door was standing open but, as Ari approached, a man stepped out and held out his hand. “Private party. Sorry, ma’am.”

“The name is Willow. Milhous sent me.”

He stepped aside. “I apologize. He just said Ari Willow, I was expecting a man.”

Ari grinned and stepped past him.

He followed her inside and closed the door as Ari took a look around. The basement had started life as a supply room, but the now-empty shelves that remained had all been pushed out of the way to make room for a large round table covered in a green cloth. Three people sat around the table engaged in conversation, two men and a woman. One of the men was playing with his chips, sliding them from one hand to the other without watching. A portable MP3 player was positioned on one of the shelves where it could be heard throughout the room without overpowering conversation.

The people at the table looked up at Ari’s entrance and offered polite smiles. The man who answered the door put his hand on her shoulder and stuck the other in front of her. “I’m Simon.”

“Ari.”

“We start off with a fifty-dollar chip, just to build up the pot a little.”

She nodded. “Milhous told me. It’s been a while since I played, so hopefully I won’t be too rusty.” She winked at him. “And no, that wasn’t a hustler line. I’ve really been itching to play.”

“Hopefully we won’t leave you broke. Everyone, this is Ari Willow. Ari, this is Heather, Roland, and Kent.”

Ari nodded a greeting to them and took a subtle sniff of the air as she took off her leather jacket. The air was thick with their scents; body odor and cigar smoke mixed with a whiff of perfume. She focused on identifying the people around the table. Heather was a collie, her chestnut hair cut short to her head with bangs that feathered over her right eye. She wore a red blouse and a gold chain that almost resembled a collar. Her hands were small but seemed strong as she extended it across the table. Ari shook it while she examined the two men. Roland was black, wiry, and had a long neck. He offered her a tight smile: Irish setter. Kent was a fire hydrant of a man with rounded shoulders and a chin slight enough to be non-existent. Ari identified him as a Boston terrier.

As for Simon, his hair was blonde and neatly trimmed. He was slightly taller than her, and wore a T-shirt under his blazer. She didn’t have to breathe deeply to know he was a yellow Lab. He was smiling, and friendly enough, but there was something lurking under his expression.

Ari didn’t try to hide her examinations since she knew everyone in the room was doing the same to her. She was dressed as casually as possible, in a white V-neck shirt tucked into tight blue jeans. Heather straightened slightly in her seat, and glanced at Roland who returned the look. Ari knew the look: they had just identified her as a wolf. She waited for them to accept her before she took one of the empty seats.

“Thanks for letting me in.”

“Any friend of Milhous is a friend of ours,” Heather said.

Roland gestured at the door over his shoulder. “Want a drink? Booze is in there.”

“Not yet. I want to see how much I can drink before I’m too drunk to beat you.”

Simon whistled. “Cocky. We like that.”

Chips were exchanged for cash, cards were dealt and Ari settled in. She truly hadn’t played cards in a long time, but she figured she knew enough to bluff her way through it. And what was poker if not a series of bluffs? She fanned out her cards and tossed in her ante. The liquor in the other room had come from the Bull and Terrier, delivered by the bar’s bouncer Milhous. Ari exchanged two cards and ended up with three of a kind. She raised her bet and scanned the others. She was picking up the same scent that had aroused Milhous’ suspicions.

“Yo, Ari. You do private detective sort of stuff, right?”

“You mean in my job as private detective? Yeah, I dabble.”

“So, Ari.” Kent was examining his cards before making a bet. “Milhous didn’t tell us what you did for a living.”

Heather said, “Just at a guess, supermodel?”

The men chuckled and Ari smirked. “That would be nice. Nope, just a… dental assistant.” She threw another chip onto the pile. Heather folded.

Kent whistled. “I need to stop ignoring those postcards my dentist sends me. Is the guy you work for canidae? Fold.”

“It’s a woman. And no, she’s normal. How about all of you? Are you all independently wealthy or do you have jobs?”

Simon laughed. “I fold, too. And nope, we’re all slaves to the time clock. I work for a building contractor, and Kent there is a roofer.”

Heather said, “I have a catering business.”

Ari looked at Roland. He was the last one left in the game. He stared her down before he raised his bet. “I fix problems.”

“That sounds ominous.”

Heather smiled. “He’s kind of like a private investigator.”

The hairs on the back of Ari’s neck stood up. “Really? I didn’t realize that was an actual job in the real world.” She tossed another chip onto the pile. “I call. I always liked Jim Rockford.”

Roland’s smile softened and spread wider. “Rockford’s my boy.” He laid down his cards as Ari did. “Straight.”

“Three of a kind,” Ari said. “Looks like I might need that drink after all.”

Roland chuckled and gathered his winnings. “The job isn’t as exciting as it looks on TV. Although Jimmy Rockford got it righter than most. Technically I’m not a real PI, but it’s close enough.”

Ari was irritated to think of someone moving in on her territory, but she didn’t let her feelings show.

Heather stood up. “If you were serious about that drink, I can show you where we set up the bar.”

“Sure.”

Simon said, “Heineken for me, please.”

Roland and Kent both still had half-bottles, so Ari followed Heather into the back room. Heather turned on the light and, once they were alone in the room, Ari took a deep breath and scanned the refreshments. Heather smelled of perfume applied with a practiced hand. She’d obviously expected to be around other canidae and kept it to a minimum in deference to their sensitive noses. Unfortunately it was still strong enough that it might have been masking what Ari was looking for.

“I dropped off the beer,” Milhous said, “and all-a sudden I got this real bad whiff. Gunpowder and blood. They were all standing in a group, so I couldn’t tell which one of ’em it was coming off. Couldn’t exactly stand there sniffing them all. But then Simon, the guy who is kind of in charge, asked me if I knew someone who could fill in for one of the players.” He smiled. “So what I’m asking is, do you play poker?”

Heather opened a bottle of Budweiser and poured it into a glass. “You’re a hell of a bluffer. I had three of a kind with an eight high card. I could have beaten you.”

“But Roland still would have taken you down with his straight.”

“Yeah.” There was a little beer left in the bottle when her glass was full, so she offered it to Ari. Ari filled her glass from another bottle. “So how long have you known Milhous?”

Ari shook her head. “Not long. I only discovered the Bull and Terrier a few weeks back. I don’t really hang out with other canidae.”

“Any particular reason?”

“I guess I just always saw myself as someone who occasionally spent time as a wolf. I was kind of working under the assumption I had to choose one or the other.”

Heather shrugged. “A lot of us feel that way. But the collie is a part of me. I’m a caterer, a canidae, and I’m chesty.” She thrust out her chest with a grin. “Just part of what makes me who I am.”

“That’s a good attitude.”

They went back out to the table and Ari handed Simon his beer. He opened the bottle as Roland dealt out another hand. As she went around the table, her nostrils flared as she took another deep breath. The weak gunpowder scent wasn’t centered in any particular direction. The ventilation of the room had spread it out evenly so that it was just part of the general mélange. She sat down again and took a sip of her beer before looking at her cards.

“So what is this place? I’ve passed it a couple of times, but I always thought it was shut down.”

Roland said, “It is. Been on the market for about ten months now, but the economy means no one is able to meet the asking price. So I persuaded the company who holds the deed to loan me the key.”

“Persuaded?”

“Friendly persuasion.” Roland tossed his ante into the pot, and Ari picked up her cards. She traded out two and got back a pair of tens. She fanned the cards out and saw that she had a full house. She anted and shifted in her seat as the rest of the group did the same.

“I’m lucky you guys had an opening. What happened to the other guy?”

Kent smirked. “He got sick. Terminal illness.”

Ari tensed, but Heather rolled her eyes and shook her head. “He’s getting married.”

Kent looked confused. “How is that not what I said?”

Heather ignored him. “Billy decided to elope with his girlfriend. They’re probably halfway to Vegas as we speak.”

Ari scanned the rest of the table. Simon seemed a little anxious about the topic, but that didn’t mean the story was a lie. He tossed a chip onto the pile hard enough that it clattered. “Are we going to play cards or talk about Bill?”

Kent cleared his throat. “Bill’s girlfriend and soon to be wife is Simon’s former fiancée.”

Ari hissed through her teeth. “That’s gotta suck.”

Simon thumped the table, his voice flat. “I thought we said we weren’t gonna talk about them. I thought we agreed we’d have a nice night.”

Heather and Kent both tensed slightly, but Roland seemed to be angling for a fight. He didn’t seem eager to start it, but if one started he was ready. Heather said, “Sorry, Simon.”

“I’m sorry I brought it up. If I’d known…” Simon waved her off and Ari pretended to examine her cards. She wondered if anyone else had seen Billy and his girlfriend leave, or if Simon had just told them a cover story. “I’m kind of going through the same thing with my best friend. I don’t know what is really going on between us, if we’re trying to get together or… I’ve been spending a lot of my time avoiding her.”

Heather raised an eyebrow. “Oh.”

Simon had turned to stare at her. “You’re gay?”

Ari leaned back in her seat. “Is that a problem?”

Kent shook his head. “No. It’s just… very confusing. We thought Milhous sent you here as a fix-up for Simon.”

“Milhous doesn’t know I’m gay. Maybe he did expect us to spark.”

Simon actually smiled. “Then I’ll have to thank him profusely, and he owes you an apology. Apparently he thinks you have very low standards.”

Ari rubbed his arm. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault you’re a guy.”

Kent waved his beer. “Don’t give up now. Look at her, Simon. A face like that? I’d say it’s worth a sex-change operation.”

Heather said, “Well, yeah. For you, maybe. You don’t have that much to change.”

Roland coughed into his fist and shook his head to control his laughter.

“So how do you guys all know each other?” Ari asked.

Heather split her fingers to point at Simon and Kent at the same time. “Simon’s company and Kent’s work together. Contractor and roofer. So they met on the job. Roland and Billy were neighbors.” She pointed at Kent. “Kent and I used to date way back in the Stone Age. And Simon did some work for the Bull and Terrier at cost, off the clock, so the manager lets him get a bunch of beer for a pittance. Hence poker night was born.”

“Used to date?” Ari said.

“You heard what he called marriage, right? It was fun while it lasted, but mama needs to settle down one of these days.”

Kent was smirking as he added a chip to the pile. Roland folded and slid back in his seat, his fingers laced on his stomach. Ari kept her eyes on her cards, but she knew Roland was staring at her. She raised, Simon folded again with a muttered comment about lousy cards, and Heather raised. This time Kent folded.

Heather grinned. “Looks like it’s just the girls.”

“Looks like.” Ari examined her chips. She had about thirty dollars left, so she split the stack and made her bid.

Heather whistled. “Well, I can’t let that stand. I’ll call. What do you have?”

“Full house.”

Heather winced and showed her cards. “Two pair.”

Ari laughed. “And you said I was a good bluffer. I almost feel like you earned the pot more than I did.” She stood up and swept the chips to her seat. “Almost.”

“Take it. I’m used to leaving this game broke.”

“You guys do this a lot?”

“Once a month,” Kent said. “The day depends on when we’re all free. This is the only time we really get to spend time with other canidae.”

Ari nodded. The deal fell to her, so she shuffled and began to pass out the cards. “I see the appeal. I may have to do this again.”

Simon said, “You might have your chance. I don’t think Billy will be reclaiming his seat any time soon.”

“Oh, yeah?” Ari glanced at him, but it was Heather who clarified.

“Would you want the guy who married the love of your life playing poker with you?”

“She wasn’t the love of…” Simon growled and threw back the last of his beer. He stood up and stalked out of the room. “I’m getting another.”

Ari winced. “Sorry I keep bringing up that wound.”

Kent waved her off. “Don’t worry about it. You could mention the Seahawks and he’d get all bent out of shape because they went to a game once.”

“So I guess the break-up wasn’t amiable. Was she the one who ended it?”

“Technically.” Heather sighed and rearranged her cards. “They were drifting apart and he kept trying to save the relationship. She gave up before he did, and he walked in on her and Billy.”

“Ouch.”

“Sometimes a relationship just can’t be saved,” Heather said. She carefully lined her cards up and made a bet. Ari stared at her, trying to read her facial cues.

Simon returned with his beer and dropped back into his seat. “Someone change the subject, all right?”

Roland said, “Sure. So, Ari. What do you guys charge for a cleaning?”

Ari switched her gaze from Heather to him. “The going rate. I don’t really deal with that. You’d have to ask my boss.”

“And that would be?”

“Natalie Regan.” Damn it. She wanted to avoid using the name, just in case there really was a killer in the room. “I’m thinking of going somewhere else, though.”

Roland counted off some chips and tossed them into the pile. “Why? Dr. Regan not a good boss?”

“She’s fine, but the commute is killing me.” The bet came back around to her, and she realized she hadn’t really examined her cards. She folded. “So come on. Let’s have a happy conversation topic. Not work or break-ups. I’m the new chick here, so don’t feel the need to include me in everything. I’m happy to just play cards.”

Roland smiled. “You like hearing other people talk about their business?”

“You’re one to talk, Roland.” Heather chuckled and shook her head. “If you had your way, you’d just slip into the woodwork and eavesdrop on everyone in the world.”

Ari shrugged. “Who wouldn’t? We’ve all got a little bit of voyeur in us. I just don’t want you to think I’m trying to horn in on the group. I’m just a seat-filler here. I’d like to get to know you guys. I think I’d really enjoy taking Billy’s seat.”

Simon grinned. “Serve him right, someone taking something of his.”

Kent laughed. “Well, you have Simon’s vote.”

Heather finally won the hand with a flush. Ari counted her chips and saw that she was actually up by quite a lot. The case could turn out lucrative even if she didn’t charge Milhous. If she couldn’t find any evidence of a murder, she would report back that he didn’t have anything to worry about and that would be that. If she did find something worth investigating… well.

“Why don’t you deal me out of the next hand? I’m going to see if I can’t find a ladies’ room.”

Heather and Kent both pointed.

“Thanks.” Ari went through the room with the liquor and quickly found a small unisex bathroom. There was a stained sink, a small and foggy mirror, and a toilet that made her glad she didn’t really have to use it. She took out her cell phone and leaned against the wall. One new message, from Dale. She hesitated before she opened it. How had things gotten so awkward between them? She finally opened the message and smiled when she read it.

“Getting ready for bed. Call me if you need a ride!”

Ari tried to ignore the fact that Dale was going to bed alone because of her. Dale had been forced to make a choice between staying with Ari and going forward with her new relationship. Dale had chosen Ari and seemed to be back to normal, but Ari still hadn’t forgiven herself. She’d been giving Dale time off so they wouldn’t have a chance to talk about what happened. This case had seemed like a godsend when Milhous gave it to her. She didn’t need Dale waiting outside for her, and she wouldn’t need a ride because she didn’t plan on transforming. She considered sending Dale a message wishing her sweet dreams, but the text had been sent a half hour ago. Odds were that a text would just wake her up.

Ari sent a text to Milhous instead. “In the lion’s den. Know anything about Billy & girlfriend eloping?”

She didn’t have to wait long for a response. “Eloping? Simon mst b PISSED.”

But was he pissed enough to kill? Ari put the phone back into her pocket, flushed the toilet just for show, and stepped back out into the hall.

She nearly collided with Roland, who was standing just outside the bathroom door. “Crap,” she gasped, backing up a step to increase her personal space. “A little privacy would have been nice.”

“You think I don’t know about a canidae private eye working in this town? Bitch Investigation?” His nostrils flared. “I know all about you and your little friend.”

“It’s Bitches, actually. Plural.”

Roland grabbed the collar of her T-shirt and lifted. Ari’s feet left the ground and she was shoved against the cheap paneling next to the bathroom door. Roland snarled and put his face near enough to hers that she could see his muscles trying to transform. His eyes had turned full-black. “You’re thinking that you’re a wolf. A wild animal. And I’m just a domestic dog. You think you can handle yourself around me. But you’re wrong, wolf. You’ve gone soft. You get into a dogfight and you’ll be bleeding before you have a chance to start sweating. Now you’re going to tell me who sent you.”

Ari kept herself calm. Roland was right; if it got down to a fight, she would lose. “I told you who sent me. Milhous.”

“‘Cause he thought you and Simon would be a good fit?” He chuckled. “Right. You’re here for me.”

Ari rested her head against the wall and relaxed so that he was supporting her dead weight. He shifted his balance to the balls of his feet and Ari pushed her hands against the wall. Roland stumbled and Ari swept his hands away from her. Roland snarled, and Ari boxed his ears. He swung and caught her on the jaw, and Ari took a knee. He pounced on her and wrapped both arms around her neck.

“Tell me who sent you,” he growled. “I wanna send your head to ’em in a box.”

Ari gripped his arm with both hands and jumped backward. They hit the wall and ended up in a pile with Roland on the bottom. He cursed as she twisted and pinned him to the ground, stretching her thumb and forefinger over his windpipe and bearing down on it with most of her weight. Roland gagged and bared his teeth.

Ari was breathing heavily but, at first, she didn’t realize what she wasn’t smelling. She leaned down and sniffed the air over his head. “You don’t smell like gunpowder.”

“Get off me,” he croaked.

Ari put her face over his. “I’m not here for you. Believe that, or don’t. The point is, I had no idea who you were when I walked in here and I’m not exactly keen on getting to know you. So we’ll just get up and walk back out there like nothing happened, and we’ll forget this little dust-up. Deal? Keep in mind that a tame wolf just pinned you and is a few pounds of pressure from crushing your windpipe and answer carefully.”

“Sure.”

Ari released the pressure and stood up. His attack had pushed up her T-shirt and twisted the V-neck of her collar, and she adjusted it as Roland stood up. “What was that you said about gunpowder?”

“Nothing.”

“I’ve been smelling gunpowder all night. Figured it was just something you brought in with you. You know something we don’t?”

“I know a lot of stuff you don’t, Roland.”

Kent appeared in the doorway and looked at them. “Everything okay? We kind of heard a commotion out there.”

Ari gestured at the ceiling. “I couldn’t find a light. Roland and I kind of ran into each other. You okay, Roland?”

“Jim dandy.”

He and Ari brushed past Kent and returned to the game. Simon and Heather looked up as the three of them returned. Heather was shuffling. “Are you guys all right?”

“Perfect,” Ari said. She retook her seat and glanced at Kent as he sat down. “Let’s play some cards.”

 

 

The game broke up a few minutes before midnight. Ari came out ahead by seventy-five dollars, which was a good night by anyone’s standards. Roland was the first to leave, hurrying out as if making sure Ari didn’t follow him. Or maybe he just wanted to wait for her in the parking lot. When Heather left, she whispered something to Kent and then hurried from the room like she was late for an appointment. When she was gone, Simon went to gather up the leftover liquor. Ari and Kent cleaned off the table and deposited the now-worthless chips into their caddy.

“You know, uh… the thing I said earlier about being gay.” She cleared her throat. “I just wanted to let Simon down easy. He’s not really my type.”

Kent chuckled. “The tall, good-looking, football-player guy doesn’t do it for ya?”

“I’m a long-term girl. That kind of guy, they hit a certain age and they let themselves go to seed. I prefer a little what you see is what you get.” She glanced at him. “Guy like you, I mean. Kind of an open book.”

He looked at her hands and then met her gaze. “What do you mean, guy like me?”

Ari shrugged. “People make assumptions about who I should want. They set me up on these dates with jocks. I never met a single jock who was worth my time. I don’t know. I’m just saying that if you wanted to grab a bite to eat, I’m game.”

“Uh. Sure. I’ll tell Simon we’re heading out.”

Ari smiled. “Great.”

Kent disappeared into the back room and Ari put her jacket back on. She could hear Kent talking softly, and Simon laughing in that ‘Go get ’em, son’ way guys had when they thought their friend was about to score. Kent came back and gestured at the door. “You wanna take my car, or just follow me?”

“Let’s take your car.”

She didn’t need Kent by her side if Roland was waiting for her, but his presence would add enough confusion that it would be easier for her to get the upper hand in a fight. They headed up the stairs and Ari casually scanned the parking lot. Only two other cars were left besides hers; apparently Roland had decided to keep up their truce. She doubted it would last if they met again.

Ari moved closer to Kent, breathed deep, and stuck her hands into her pockets. “You know, I was focusing on the wrong thing.”

“What do you mean, in the game? I thought you did pretty well.”

“No, I meant the thing Milhous asked me to look for. I was looking for blood and gunpowder.” She stepped away and turned around to face Kent. They both stopped walking. “When I first showed up, I smelled perfume. I just assumed it was Heather. Roland said that he only smelled the gunpowder after I showed up, so you guys had your guard down before then. Heather and the others probably thought the perfume was coming from me, too. But it’s you, Kent. You smell like perfume, gunpowder, and blood.”

Kent rolled his eyes. “Milhous did send you to spy on us. I figured it was something to do with Roland and his shit.”

“Sorry. I’m only getting paid for your shit tonight. So who was it?”

Kent rolled his shoulders. “Does it matter?”

Ari reached into the inner pocket of her jacket and withdrew the zip ties she’d stowed there. “Not really. The cops will figure it out eventually. I can get the basics from the paper.”

“You’ll have to take me in first.” He was flexing his fingers as he moved closer to her.

Ari chuckled. “Okay. What’s the story gonna be? You told Simon I was hitting on you, so tomorrow you tell him you took me home, got laid, and I was gone when you woke up. Right? Just disappeared into thin air. And when Milhous asks, what will you tell him? That I played some cards and skipped out? He won’t be as easy to convince, you know.”

“I’ll deal with him when the time comes. You want it easy?”

“Nothing else in my life has been easy. Why should my death?” She made a bring it on motion with her fingers. Kent lunged at her and Ari waited until he was within arms’ reach before she twisted at the waist. She spun, slammed her elbow into the back of his head as he passed through the empty space she had so recently occupied, and he went down. Ari jumped on top of him and fished the Taser out of her pocket. “Second guy I’ve straddled in one night. I’ve gotta find a chick to bang tonight.” She tapped Kent with the Taser. “Now do I have to use this?”

Kent tried to buck her off of him. Ari shrugged and stood up so that her body wasn’t in contact with his. Kent tried to scramble away, but Ari touched the prongs to his neck and pressed down. Kent’s body jerked and twitched, and then went limp. “I didn’t want to use it, you stupid terrier.” She swept her hair out of her face.

“What’s your next step?”

Ari sighed and turned slowly. Simon was holding a shotgun on her, its two-eyed stare unwavering.

“I don’t know what’s going on here, but–”

“That’s right, you don’t. Milhous asked me to come here and figure out which of you smelled like gunpowder and blood. It was Kent.”

Simon looked down at Kent’s dazed body. “Yeah? Who’d he kill?”

“Don’t know. Not my problem.”

“I think it just became your problem. Step away from him.”

Ari held her hands out, pinching the Taser with two fingers so he wouldn’t get jumpy. “Look, you don’t know me and you have no reason to trust me. But you know Milhous, you trust him. I may have lied about who I am, but I didn’t lie about that.”

Simon craned his neck and looked at his friend. “Kent?”

Kent could only manage a weak groan.

“You think he killed someone.”

“Yeah.”

“Then why would he have shown up for the game?”

Ari looked down at Kent. “You know, that’s a really good question. I’d love to ask him that once he wakes up. Or maybe I’ll just leave it to the cops.”

“No one is going to the police.”

Ari closed her eyes and twisted to look behind her. The passenger door of Kent’s truck was open, and Heather was standing with a Glock aimed at Ari. Unlike Simon, she had no idea how to hold a gun. It trembled despite the fact she was clutching it with both hands, her eyes wide. She kept swinging the gun from Ari to Simon.

Heather swallowed hard. “Simon, put the gun down.”

“What the hell is going on here, Heather?”

Kent was starting to get up and Ari moved away from him. He rolled over onto his rear end and touched the back of his neck where Ari had zapped him.

“He was just trying to help me.”

“Don’t say anything, Heather.”

Heather shook her head. “They have to understand. She was going to ruin me. She was going to tell everyone at work about what I was. All my clients. She was blackmailing me.”

Ari looked back and forth between Simon and Heather. Simon had moved his gun so that it was hovering between her and Heather. She didn’t want to make a move; someone as inept as Heather was as dangerous with a gun as someone who’d been shooting their whole lives. Kent wasn’t making any move to get up.

“Who was blackmailing you?” Ari said.

“My sister. She wanted money, and I was done giving it to her. But she decided to get it out of me one way or another. I wanted someone to talk to her, and Kent… I would have asked Roland, but he scares the shit out of me. Kent was willing. He talked to her, and asked her to back off and she refused. She’s the one who pulled the gun. Kent just shot her by accident. We were going to skip the game, but we were afraid you guys would come looking for us if we were both missing.”

Ari looked at the back of Kent’s truck. “That’s not why you came tonight. That’s not why you’re still here when you told us you were leaving.”

Heather sniffled. “Shut up.”

“Is her body in the back of the truck, Kent? The woman you killed, lying under a tarp? You’re going to dump her upstairs at this place, and you’re going to let the cops connect the dots back to Roland?”

“He’s got enough bodies on his conscious. Cops didn’t get him for them…” He shrugged and rested his arms across his bent knees. “Let it go, Heather. You’re not gonna kill both of them.”

“They just have to agree to let us go.”

Simon had leveled his gun at Heather. “You arranged to have your own sister killed?”

“I just wanted her gone. I worked hard to build my life, and she was going to destroy it all. She was going to ruin me. I just… I wanted her gone.”

Kent said, “And you got your wish, so stop whining about it.”

“Please, it took everything I have to hold it together for the game. Let’s just end this. Please. We all can just walk away.”

“I can’t do that,” Ari and Simon said together.

Heather brought her gun up and closed her eyes as she prepared to fire. Ari ran toward Kent’s truck as Simon jumped out of the way. Kent scrambled to get Simon’s gun as the pistol spit fire. The recoil knocked Heather back a step. Ari jumped and went over the hood of the truck, Luke Duke style, and grabbed Heather as she fell off the other side. The two of them hit the ground and Ari wrestled the gun away from her.

Heather was sobbing and wailing incoherently as a shotgun blast echoed across the pavement on the other side of the truck. Ari disarmed Heather and got to her feet. Heather, defeated, slumped against the side of the truck. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter. My life is ruined anyway. Oh, God.”

“Right. Should have thought that through.” Ari tucked the gun into her belt and looked across the hood of the truck. Simon had his hand over one ear, wincing as he pushed himself to his feet. Kent was crumpled on the ground next to him. “You good?”

“What?”

Ari held up her zip ties and Simon nodded. Ari tossed him a couple and then knelt in front of Heather. “At least one of the people I ended up on top of tonight was a woman. Give me your hands.”

Heather held out both arms without a fight.

“It wasn’t supposed to end this way.”

“Not exactly what I pictured, either.” She took out her cell phone and dialed the police as she went to check on Simon and Kent. “You okay?”

“Shotgun went off by my ear.” He grimaced. “Heather?”

Ari hooked a thumb over her shoulder and indicated she was calling the police. He nodded.

“Heather and Kent are killers. Billy stole my girl.” He kept touching his injured ear. “No wonder I never won. These guys must have the best poker faces I’ve ever seen.”

Ari patted him on the shoulder as her call connected. “This is Ariadne Willow… you might need to send a couple officers.”

 

 

The police took Heather and Kent away, and Simon was taken to a hospital to get his ear examined. Ari gave her statement and walked back to her car with the rubber-legged walk of someone who had been up for way too long. The cop stringing crime scene tape across the parking lot’s entrance paused to let her drive through, and she waved to him as she pulled back out onto the main road. She called Milhous, who told her to swing by the Bull and Terrier for a recap and to pick up her check. She only charged him twenty-five dollars, giving her a total profit of a hundred bucks. Not bad for a night’s work, even if she had been roughed up and held at gunpoint by three different people.

It was the middle of the night when Ari got home. Her building was utterly silent, and her adrenaline was wearing off. She dragged herself through the hall, unlocked her door, and stepped into her apartment just as her cell phone rang. She fished it out and looked at the display. Despite her weariness, she smiled and answered.

“Hey, you got it backward. I’m supposed to call you in the middle of the night.”

“Sorry. Did I wake you?”

Dale’s voice was soft, and Ari had a sudden memory of a girlfriend referring to it as ‘pillow voice.’ Ari sank onto the couch and put her feet up.

“No. I was just getting in, actually. What are you doing awake?”

Dale yawned, prompting Ari to do the same. “I don’t know. I woke up and I was worried. I hadn’t heard from you all night.”

“I could have gone to bed early.”

“Ha. Was your night very dangerous?”

“Very dangerous.” Dale made a noise in her throat and Ari closed her eyes. “Thanks for calling me, Dale. It-it was a crazy night. It’s great to hear your voice.”

Dale chuckled. “You’re sweet. I guess if you’re okay… I’ll let you get to sleep.”

“Wait. If you wanted to know what I was doing, I wouldn’t mind going through it all again.”

“Sure.”

Ari forgot how exhausted she was and moved a pillow behind her head. She crossed her ankles and rested her feet on the other arm of the couch, watching the moon through the balcony doors. “Milhous called me not long after I let you go home for the night. He’d just dropped off some beer at this poker game and he’d caught a weird scent…”

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