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Aug 25

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Pack Mentality

Summary: Ari infiltrates a pack of canidae thieves in order to take them down from the inside, while Dale starts to worry that Ari is getting too close to the thieves.

Chapter 1: Lie Down With Dogs

The first time Ari watched Bryn transform, she was captivated by the sight. Bryn’s blonde hair seemed to grow and spread until it covered her body, her arms and legs twitching and pulling in on themselves until they were a new shape. They were in the loading dock of an abandoned warehouse, blocked on three sides by the high retaining walls and on the fourth by a long sloping driveway. Ari held Bryn as she became a feline, amazed at how quickly her body compressed into the shape of an animal.

When she was finished, Ari carefully placed Bryn on the platform. She had already undressed down to her underwear, and she quickly shed them to stand completely naked in the moonlight. She smiled at the cat, who she could swear had just started purring louder. “You’re kind of a pervert, babe.”

Bryn yowled and rested her head on her front paws. Ari closed her eyes and went through the painful process of her own transformation. When it was finished, Bryn jumped down and circled Ari’s front legs, rubbing against her to share her scent. Ari felt a surge of revulsion; her canidae mind still rebelled at the idea of spending time with a cat, but Ari was slowly getting over it.

Once they were both in animal form, Bryn hurried off at a run. It should have been easy for Ari to catch up with her, as the wolf had the longer legs, but Bryn was exceptionally fast. She ran low to the ground, her feet a blur as she raced across the empty lot next to the warehouse district. Ari caught up with her and made sure she kept the orange and white blur in her sight at all times.

Usually it was a game of follow the leader that only ended once they got home and became their human selves again. But tonight there was a purpose to their race.

When Bryn reached a fence, she executed a perfect vertical jump that placed her on the top crossbar, giving her just enough room to stand and look over the fence. Ari had to search for a break in the fence where she could scramble through. She lay flat on the dirt and pressed her face to a crack, her snout extending onto the other side of the property.

They were looking at the back of a strip mall. They were separated from it by a wide stretch of dead grass, which had been covered with windblown litter. Ari could smell the sickly sweet, thick, syrup smell of old soda and spoiled fast food and licked her lips, wondering if there were any scraps she could dig through.

Focus. Business.

They had been there for almost ten minutes when Ari spotted movement at the far end of the lot. Two canidae were moving along the back of the building, one slightly behind the other and constantly checking over its shoulder as they advanced. The lead dog had bright red fur with black tips to its tail and ears. The other was a brown boxer, slender for its size and holding its head high. A third dog, mostly white and yellow, was walking along the broken line where concrete met grass. Ari withdrew so that she couldn’t be seen as easily.

The two lead dogs went to a fuse box. The red one stood on its hind legs, using its front paws to flip it open. It moved with uncanny intelligence, betraying its nature as it carefully manipulated small buttons with careful movements of its paw. The boxer watched, then turned and trotted back to the back door of one business. It stood up, closed both front paws around the knob, and twisted. The door swung open and the boxer dropped to the ground and slipped inside. The other two joined it a moment later.

Ari whined and looked up at Bryn. She was still sitting on the fence and her head twitched quickly from side to side. Ari pawed at the dirt, eager to do something about what she was watching. The lookout dog returned first, eyeing the street before disappearing back inside. The three dogs came out together, but now all three had bags on their backs. Straps ran around each dog’s front legs, holding it in place as they hurried away from the building.

Ari watched them go, frustrated that she couldn’t stop them. She heard a quiet thud and turned to see Bryn had jumped off the fence. Ari stood, stretched, and followed her. The high weeds of the field whipped against Ari’s legs and body as they ran. Bryn reached the abandoned warehouse first, and she was mid-transformation when Ari arrived.

They transformed together, but Bryn finished first. She put her hand on Ari’s back, and Ari could feel her flesh convulsing underneath Bryn’s steady hand. Bryn whispered to her, stroked her hair, and Ari collapsed against her once she was completely herself again. Naked and panting, sweaty from their run, Ari eventually pulled away from Bryn and went to the stash of their clothes. She handed Bryn her bag, and they dressed without looking at each other.

“Why’d you stop me? I thought the whole point was stopping them.”

“No, the point was showing you what was going on. They cut off the power so there won’t be any security cameras or alarms. The locks are all electronic, so once the power goes they can come and go as they please. This is the fifth store they’ve hit in the past three weeks.”

Ari tugged her T-shirt over her head and turned to face Bryn. “How did you know where they would hit tonight?”

“Anonymous tip. Someone on the inside grew a conscience, I guess.” Bryn finished buttoning up her blouse and stepped into her jeans. “We don’t know how many there are, just that there’s more than one group. They’re organized. If we take down one group, the others will just get smarter and become harder to catch. We need to take them all down.”

Ari smiled. “You need someone on the inside.”

“Yeah, ideally.” Bryn smiled. “What do you say, pup?”

Ari shrugged. “I’ll see what I can dig up. If it looks doable, I’ll give it my best shot.” She wiped her face with her hand, rubbing her finger under her nose. Sometimes the overactive nose of the canidae remained with her after transforming. It was like having a vacuum in the middle of her face sucking up every stray scent in the vicinity. She snorted and wrinkled her nose as she looked to where she had parked. “So you want to come over? I could use a massage.”

“Uh, not tonight. Not to leave you in the lurch or anything, but…”

“No, it’s fine.” Ari smiled. “Rain check.”

“Yeah, definitely.” She tucked her shirt into her jeans and put her hands in the middle of her back, twisting at the waist to work out the kinks. “God. Sometimes changing for twenty or thirty minutes just isn’t worth the aches. I think I’m going to walk from here.”

Ari looked around. “Are you sure? This is a pretty bad neighborhood.”

Bryn opened her bag and took out her service revolver. “I may not have the uniform, but I’m still a cop. I’ll be fine.” She kissed Ari, more on the cheek than the lips, and rested a hand on her hip. “Thanks for looking into this for me, Ari.”

“I’m always happy to help the police. Give me a couple of days and I’ll have a more definitive answer for you.”

“Okay.” She hooked the bag around her neck, tucked her revolver into her belt, and walked up the driveway to the street. She waved once more before she started walking.

Ari leaned against the concrete wall and closed her eyes. The scent of the night was starting to fade, an odd sensation. It was like hearing an orchestra and then slowly having the volume turned down until it was only barely audible. She breathed deeply and let it out, and her smelling had returned to normal.

She finally left the loading dock and tossed her bag into the backseat of her Rambler Marlin. She and Bryn had been seeing each other for a few weeks, but she wouldn’t call it dating. They had sex, went on runs together in their animal forms, had the occasional meal, but it was far from a relationship. She was starting to wish they had defined it if just so she would know what to call what they were currently going through. Was it a break-up or just a drifting apart?

Whatever it was, she didn’t expect to be seeing Bryn Decker much longer. She hated being in the limbo area, where they were still together but both of them knew it wasn’t going anywhere. She preferred to be free. But that didn’t mean she was comfortable being the one to end things. Bryn most likely felt the same way, which put them in the middle of a standoff. Hopefully doing this favor for her would lead to an amicable separation. “No hard feelings, but maybe it’s time we admit this has run its course.”

Ari started her car after a few false starts, coaxing the engine into a steady rumble, and then pulled away.

Whatever happened with Bryn, consulting a case with the police could pay very nicely indeed. Dale would be thrilled.

#

Natalie woke Dale with a kiss, sliding her hand underneath Dale’s pajama top. Dale smiled as her girlfriend’s hand pressed against her stomach, pulling her back until they were spooning. Natalie kissed her neck, and Dale writhed under the assault. “You got away from me,” Natalie whispered. “Naughty girl.”

“Mm.” She shifted and turned her head so they could kiss properly. Natalie stroked Dale’s stomach. “I have an early appointment. I need to be in by six-thirty.”

Dale looked at the clock. It was still ten minutes to six.

“We could have sex, but we’d have to do it in the shower.” She pressed a kiss to Dale’s cheek just under her closed eye. “Or we could put a pin in it. Wait until this evening and really take our time.”

“I’m a big fan of taking our time.”

“Okay.” Natalie grinned. She slid her hand down, letting her palm mold to the shape of Dale’s hip. “Then you better be well-rested. I’ll try not to wake you when I leave.”

“Okay.” She lifted her head for another kiss, whispered goodbye, and lay back down as Natalie slipped out of her bed. Dale switched her pillow with Natalie’s, pressed her face against the pillowcase, and breathed in her girlfriend’s scent. She drifted back into sleep with a smile, only vaguely aware of the shower turning on.

She must have drifted into a deeper sleep at some point, because the next thing she was aware of was the phone ringing on her nightstand. She sat up, hair draping her face as she looked toward the clock. She swept it back over her head with one push of her hand, grabbing the phone as she realized it was three minutes past seven. She flipped the phone open and glanced toward the bathroom. The light was off, and Natalie was long gone.

“Hey, this is me.”

Ari said, “Hey. Something’s weird.”

Dale pushed herself up and leaned against the headboard. “Is everything okay? Did you go out last night?”

“Yeah, that’s all fine. But I’m at work, and the lights are all off, and the door won’t open.”

“When was the last time you got to work at seven in the morning?” Dale was smiling despite her tone.

“It’s a special circumstance. I managed to get a potential case last night, and I thought I would get a head start on it. But now I’m thinking you’re full of it, Dale Frye. You always get in five minutes before I do, you just pretend like you’ve been there for hours to make me feel lazy.”

“How dare you.” She kicked away her blankets and one of the toys she and Natalie had used the night before hit the floor with a thud. She kicked it under the bed with her foot. “Give me a couple minutes to shower and dress, and I’ll–“

“Don’t rush. It can wait until eight o’clock or another reasonable time. I can hang out until then.”

“Okay. I won’t make you wait too long.”

“Dale.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Don’t you think it’s odd that I’m the boss and I don’t have a key to my own business?”

“I think it’s adorable you think you’re in charge.”

Ari faked a laugh. “See you soon.”

“Yeah, okay.” She hung up and took off her pajamas, turning on the shower and hoping the hot water had recovered since Natalie left.

#

Ari spent the time between the call and Dale’s arrival gathering visual aids. She bought newspapers with the relevant stories, and went to the internet café at the end of the block to print out the ones she was missing. When she was done, she saw Dale’s car parked in front of the office and walked back with the items in hand. The door was unlocked and standing open when she arrived. Dale was at her desk, dressed in a sleeveless pale purple top and drawstring pants. She glanced up from her computer when Ari shut the door.

Dale made a show of looking at the clock. “About time you showed up. I’ve been waiting here for hours.”

“I’ll do better next time, boss.”

“See that you do. And you have a key, by the way.”

Ari frowned. “No, I don’t.”

“If you don’t, it’s because you lost it. But I gave you one when we had the locks changed. I watched you put it on your keychain.” She closed her laptop and stood up, gesturing to the inner office. “You said something about a case?”

“Yeah. Have a seat and let me spell it out for you.” Dale sat on the couch while Ari brought her desk chair closer to the small coffee table. She had already refolded the papers to the pertinent sections. “Five robberies at jewelry and electronic stores, the latest one last night. In every instance, the security cameras and alarms were disabled before the robbery took place. The footage they have before the feeds died is confusing to the regular authorities. But to us…”

Dale had picked up one of the newspapers and was reading. “Dogs. There were stray dogs running around before the feed went out.”

Ari nodded. “But the power was cut with such precision, the cops don’t believe the dogs could have possibly been trained to do it.”

“But we know better.”

“Yep. Bryn and I saw them last night.”

Dale raised an eyebrow. “They got away?”

“Bryn wanted to let them get away. She thinks they’re just part of a bigger organization, and she wants them all. We had to let them go for the greater good.” She shrugged. “That was her idea, anyway. Her other idea is letting someone get into the group to get as much information before she brings in the troops.”

“Someone, huh?” Dale picked up one of the printouts to read about the first robbery. “That someone happen to be a canidae she’s sleeping with?”

“More like one that she used to sleep with,” Ari muttered.

Dale’s expression softened. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

Ari shrugged. “We’re just waiting for the ref to invoke the mercy rule. It’s fine. We were never really that serious anyway. This case is kind of like a break-up gift. She gave it to me so she wouldn’t feel guilty, I’m going to solve it so I don’t feel guilty. Clean break-up.”

“Sounds like a good plan. So where do we get started?”

Ari pointed at the map she’d printed out. “These are the locations of the robberies. They all seem to be situated south of downtown. There are a couple of canidae-friendly bars around that area. I’ll check them out and see what I can find. I may have to break out some of my seedier outfits so I’ll fit in with the criminal element I’m looking for.”

Dale looked her over. “What’s wrong with what you have on?”

“You’re a laugh riot. I’ll take care of that tonight. For now, I’ll see if the cops will give me any information they didn’t put in the papers. Maybe somebody saw something they weren’t comfortable putting in an official report.”

“Like a dog standing on its hind legs to steal plasma TVs?”

“Something like that. Do you need to leave early for Natalie?”

Dale hesitated. “Well–“

“I’ll take that as a yes. Just let me know when you have to go.”

“Thanks, Ari.”

Ari gathered the newspapers and printouts. “Hey, at least one of us should be getting lucky. I like Natalie. She seems good for you.”

Dale grinned. “Yeah. We’re having a good time. If you need me for anything, let me know.”

Ari saluted and moved her chair back behind her desk while Dale went back into the main office.

#

Ari let Dale go home to Natalie at five, while she went home to change clothes before she started checking out the canidae bars. She let her hair hang loose and put on a low-cut black blouse that accentuated the little cleavage she had and added a leather jacket on top of it. She completed the look with a pair of black motorcycle boots with a y-shaped buckle at the heel. An examination in the mirror revealed that she looked appropriately badass.

The first bar on her list was called the Bull and Terrier, a small basement pub north of the city. There seemed to be a larger population of used cars than people, judging by the amount of dealerships she passed, and she could only speculate about how many of the cars had actually been legally obtained. The bar was advertised with a simple wooden sign that depicted the silhouette of the bar’s namesake standing at attention, its snout raised in the air as if catching a scent.

The stairs leading down to the bar were dark, but she could see the fireplug of a man standing casually next to the doorway. His skin was as black as his uniform shirt and jeans, his hands casually stuck into his pockets. He turned his head to watch her as she descended from street level. He had a head shaped like a bullet and Ari guessed English bulldog. As she approached him, she detected a faint smell coming from the wall behind him. There was a small glass enclosure with something inside that was emitting the slightest of scents. As she passed, she flared her nostrils. “Strawberries?”

He dipped his chin and let her pass without harassment. The bar had a heavy wooden door, making her feel like she was slipping into a private basement rather than a business. The bar jutted out from the wall opposite the door in a wide U, surrounded by barstools. Ari saw a few people sitting at tables throughout the room, a few more engaged in conversation at the tables. When she sniffed, she could smell a handful of people in the back room playing pool.

Not everyone in the bar was canidae or even a shifter. The centurion outside was most likely to keep the ratio as dog-friendly as possible.

Ari slid onto a stool and waited patiently until the bartender made his way over. He was slender, but with broad shoulders and a severe underbite. Ari guessed he was an American bulldog from the way he moved. He placed a mug in front of her and raised his eyebrows in question. Ari said, “Red Dog?”

He nodded and placed a bottle on a coaster next to her glass. She thanked him with a two-fingered salute and pushed the glass aside to drink directly from the bottle. She had been hoping to grill him a little about the patrons, but it was clear he wasn’t the talkative type. A lot of malecanidae were like that, oddly silent when they were in human form. But run into them as dogs, and good luck getting them to stop barking.

She turned around on her stool and scanned the room. Music was playing from the jukebox, but Ari didn’t recognize the music or artist. A woman came up to the bar to get another drink and she met Ari’s eyes, smiled, and settled on a stool three away from where Ari was sitting. Ari couldn’t decide on what she was, so she focused on her human form. Slender shoulders that were shown off by the thin straps of her top, long blonde hair, and tight blue jeans. She had her elbows on the bar, her back bowed so there was a slight gap between her ass and the back of her jeans. Ari took a sip of her beer as the woman glanced over and caught her watching.

“Hi.” Ari lifted her bottle in greeting and then nodded toward the door. “Does this place only hire bulldogs?”

The woman laughed. “No, just got lucky, I guess. Waiting for someone?”

Ari smiled. “Am I supposed to say, ‘yeah, and you just got here’ to that?”

The woman laughed. “Only if you want to see me roll my eyes.”

“I’d watch your eyes do any number of things.”

“Ooh, that’s a new one.” She ordered a Rolling Rock when the bartender returned. She subtly moved one stool closer to Ari. “I’m Rebecca.”

“Hi, Rebecca. I’m Ari.”

“Well. That’s certainly a unique name.”

Ari shrugged. “I’m a unique lady.”

Rebecca laughed, made a noise of consideration, and dragged the side of her index finger down her throat. Ari watched its journey with keen interest, stopping only when it reached the curve of her chest.

“I think you’re new here.”

“I like to broaden my horizons every now and then.”

Rebecca nodded. “Is that why you hang out with cats in empty fields?”

Ari’s smile faded and she tried to cover her surprise. “I guess you were the one on point, keeping an eye out?”

“Yeah. Recognize my coat?” She ran her fingers through her blonde hair.

“How’d you recognize me?”

“Your smell, babe. I smelled you out there, but you obviously weren’t interested in stopping us. So what were you doing out in that field with a pussy?”

Ari arched an eyebrow. “You know how hard it is for a dog like me to be seen with a cat? I had to go somewhere we wouldn’t be seen.”

“Was she worth it?”

Ari grinned. “Oh, yeah.”

Rebecca laughed and took a swig of her beer.

“If I’m a cop, you just implicated yourself in a robbery.”

“Am I gonna have to check you for a wire?”

Ari whistled. “God, I hope so.”

“If you were a cop, you wouldn’t have just sat there last night. Besides, you’re much too relaxed for a cop.” Rebecca turned to face her, leaving one elbow on the bar and lacing her fingers together. “So you stumble across us last night and turn up at my bar the next day. Something tells me you want in.”

“Money is money.” Ari shrugged. “You guys seem to have your shit together. I read the paper today and the cops are completely stumped. If you ever need an extra set of paws, I could always use the cash.”

Rebecca shrugged and looked toward the jukebox. The song had ended, and there was a drawn-out silence before the next song began.

“So do I have to beg?” Ari said. “I could really use some extra money.”

“Who can’t, these days?” Rebecca picked up her bottle and slid off the stool. “Come back in a couple of days. I’ll talk to the others and see what they have to say. But you’re really hot. That’s a bonus. So I’ll see you Thursday. And leave the pussy at home. Just us dogs down here, understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ari said.

Rebecca walked away, moving her hips in a manner that suggested she knew Ari was watching. Ari appreciated the show, holding her bottle against her bottom lip and waiting until Rebecca was out of sight before she took a drink. She turned back to the bar and smiled. The bartender glanced over and gestured at her bottle. Ari nodded and finished off the beer she had before he brought her a replacement.

She deserved a drink; step one of her job was already done. Now all she had to do was pass the hazing and she’d be in like Flynn. All her jobs should be so easy. She spotted a cigarette machine in the corridor leading to the bathrooms and made her way over. She bought a pack and carried it outside, passing the Hulk at the door and climbing the stairs to the sunshine. She didn’t smoke, but it was a reasonable enough excuse to get out of the bar long enough to make a phone call.

Ari leaned against the wall outside of the bouncer’s earshot and dialed Dale’s number. It rang four times, and Ari winced harder with each buzz. Finally, there was a click that she thought would be the call switching over to voicemail.

“Why, Ari. I should have known that an early day was too good to be true.”

“Be honest. How poorly timed is this call?”

Dale sighed. “Well, Natalie hasn’t even arrived yet, so it’s kind of a grey area. What do you need?”

“Things are moving faster than I thought. I need to follow someone, but she’s a canidae. She caught my scent from across a parking lot last night, and today she recognized it in a bar full of others like us. So I think she would pick up on it if I tried to follow her myself. I just need to know where she’s going and if she meets up with anyone.” Dale didn’t answer right away. “I know where I can find her, so it’s not crucial that it happen tonight. If you need to say no–“

“No, it’s fine. I’ll call Natalie and cancel.”

“I’m sorry, Dale. I really am.”

Dale chuckled. “I know, Ari. That’s why I’m doing it. You didn’t make it an order, and you feel bad about making me do it. That might be screwed-up logic, but it tipped things in your favor. Just don’t play that card too often.”

“I’ll try to hold it back. Text me when you get here and I’ll give you a description of the lady you’re trailing. There’s no rush; she’s still hanging out down in the bar so I think it’ll be a while before she leaves.”

Dale said, “Right, but the sooner I get there, the less chance she leaves before I can start tailing. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

“Thank you. Hopefully it won’t take all night and you can still salvage your date with Natalie.”

“One can hope. I’m at a bar called the Bull and Terrier.” She gave directions. “I’ll see you soon.”

Ari hung up and slipped the phone back into her pocket, casually tapping her unopened pack of cigarettes against her thigh. As she started down the stairs, she realized the bouncer wouldn’t be able to smell smoke on her. She held up the package for him to see and smiled. “Fighting the urge. Three days without a cigarette and I’m about to lose my goddamn mind.”

He managed a smile. “Longest I’ve gone is four hours, and I was asleep.”

Ari tossed him the pack. “Be my guest. Save me from myself, man.”

“Much obliged.”

Ari brushed past him and went back into the bar. It was almost a shame that she was there under false pretenses; it seemed like a fun place to hang out. She got the bartender’s attention and ordered another drink.

#

Dale was waiting by the door and opened it just after Natalie finished knocking. “Hey…”

“Ah, let me guess. Change of plans?”

She smiled apologetically. “Am I that bad?”

Natalie shrugged. “Your expression kind of gave you away. I take it there’s big private investigator business going on and your boss needs you.”

“Yeah. It should maybe only take an hour or two. It really depends on how long a certain woman takes in a certain bar.”

Natalie stepped back to let Dale out of the apartment, and they started walking to the elevator. “Your boss really needs to get help.”

“She has help. Me.”

“No, I mean… professional help.”

Dale rolled her eyes. “She’s not the woman in the bar. And Ari isn’t a drunk.”

Natalie smiled. “She just calls you in the middle of the night to drive her home, and often forgets where she is or what she’s been doing.”

“I won’t say that our business relationship is normal. But we’ve been through a lot together. We trust each other.” They stepped into the elevator together. When the doors closed, Dale took both of Natalie’s hands and turned her so they were facing each other. “Listen, go back upstairs and wait for me in my apartment. If I’m late, go to sleep. I promise I’ll be home before midnight to give you a very special awakening.” She leaned in and kissed her until Natalie started to respond. “Okay?”

“Can I order in?”

“Menus are on the fridge. I circled my favorites, so you can get me something too. I’ll try to be back before dinnertime.”

Natalie kissed her again as the doors opened. “You’re lucky you’re worth the aggravation, Dale Frye.”

“Good to know. I’ll see you soon.”

“You’d better.”

Dale reluctantly left the elevator and waved goodbye as the doors closed on her girlfriend. Dale exhaled and blew her bangs out of her face before she turned and walked out of the building. “I really should have been a banker. They have reasonable hours, right? Nights and weekends free. Wonder what that would be like…”

The Bull and Terrier tavern was in Lake City, and Dale managed to use the few existing street signs and an auto club map to figure out exactly where the pub was. She saw the building, which had probably once been classy but long ago fell to seed, and parked down the street from the subterranean entrance. She texted Ari that she had arrived and, a few minutes later, Ari came up and hurried across the street. She slid into the passenger seat and held out a fifty dollar bill.

“What’s that?”

“Dinner for you and Natalie. That’s also a call blocker. No calls from Ariadne Willow on a night of your choosing.”

Dale folded the money and stuck it into her pocket. “You’re smooth, Ari.”

“I try to make up for my shortcomings however I can.” She looked back toward the bar. “The woman you’re following is named Rebecca. About my height, long blonde hair, black tank top and blue jeans. I’ll try to text you if I see her leaving, but keep your eyes peeled. There might be a back entrance I don’t know about. Keep your distance. If you lose her, I can always just see what happens when I come back on Thursday.”

“You already have a meeting with the gang?”

Ari held her hands out palm-up. “What can I say, I’m a convincing lowlife.”

“You got that right.”

Ari slugged Dale in the shoulder. “All right. I’ll head back down. If she doesn’t show by eight, consider that the end of your obligation. Slide down the brontosaurus tail and head on home to your girl.”

“Yabba dabba do.”

Dale reached into the backseat after Ari was gone and pulled her laptop case into the front seat. She plugged in her wi-fi connection and searched the internet for any information on the robberies Ari was investigating. The shops that had been robbed were all middle of the road in terms of quality. They weren’t the best establishments, but they were cheap and you got quality goods. Dale had earlier made a map of the robberies and kept it minimized on her screen so she could check it against the Bull and Terrier’s location.

The robberies were getting farther away from Lake City, spreading toward downtown Seattle. The jobs that got Officer Decker’s attention were most likely just rehearsals for a bigger score. If Ari could find out what it was, the police might be very grateful for their assistance. That could lead to all kinds of good things for the agency.

Her phone buzzed and she put her computer aside before she even read the message. It was from Ari, as expected, and it simply said, “Get ready.”

Dale started the car and pulled farther away from the bar. As she pulled to a different spot near the corner, she checked the stairs in her rearview. A few seconds later a blonde head appeared, followed by a long and lithe body. Dale scoffed and shook her head. “No, Natalie, no reason to worry. I just need to put off our date so I can stalk a supermodel.”

Rebecca walked to a Jeep and climbed behind the wheel. Dale was already driving by the time her target pulled away from the curb. She led Rebecca for three blocks, making a note of where she turned and taking the next turn in the same direction. The Jeep was yellow and easy to spot on side streets, and Dale was able to keep it in sight while staying relatively out of sight. When the Jeep seemingly vanished, Dale crossed over and spotted it in the parking lot of a grocery store.

Dale parked in a lot where she could see the car and sent a text back to Ari. “Eyes on the prize. I’ll keep you updated.”

A few seconds later she received a reply. “You’re a rock star, D.”

She tucked the phone under her thigh and used the mirrors to watch the other parking lot. Her phone rang again and she flipped it open, expecting another update from Ari. Instead, the display screen said it was from Natalie. “Please don’t tell me you’re going home, please don’t be angry.” She opened the phone and read the text.

“Your sheets feel good against my skin.”

Dale whimpered and sent back a reply. “You’re killing me.”

Forty-five seconds later, Natalie sent. “Wanna get kinky?”

“I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.”

Dale kept her eyes on the parking lot between texts, deciding this was an acceptable way to kill time until Rebecca showed up again.

“But I would,” Rebecca eventually sent.

“Don’t tire yourself out before I get there.”

“Just getting everything warmed up.”

Dale bit her bottom lip. “Nice mental picture.”

“Serious: am I disturbing you from work?”

Dale sighed and shook her head. She might actually fall in love with this woman with very little effort. “I’ll let you know when I have to go. What are you wearing?”

“I can’t believe I just actually typed that,” she said out loud, resting her phone on her thigh as she eagerly waited for a response. She felt like a teenager again, waiting by her telephone for a reply to the note she’d slipped into Nicole Benuzzi’s locker. I like you. If you like me too, call, but if you don’t, please don’t say anything.

She still remembered how much she had been shaking when her phone actually rang, and the tremor in Nicole’s voice when she said, “You… like me?”

Dale’s phone vibrated and she flipped it open. “Just one of your shirts.”

She groaned. “Which one?”

“That you’ll have to see for yourself.”

Dale hoped it was the pale purple T-shirt that clung to Natalie’s body like a second skin. The wait had just become that much longer. Dale was about to send a reply when she saw the reverse lights of the Jeep glowing red. “Sorry, babe. Work beckons. Keep the home fires burning.” She put the phone on her console, forcing herself to ignore it as she pulled out of the parking lot. Rebecca passed in front of her and Dale pulled out and followed her down the street. At a stop sign, Rebecca turned right and Dale continued straight.

It wasn’t difficult to tail someone from side streets, but it increased the possibility of losing track of her target. Fortunately she was able to track Rebecca fairly easy. She dropped back when she reached a dead end, turning east before resuming her northward journey. Rebecca had turned down another street and Dale risked following directly behind her briefly.

The Jeep finally parked in front of a two story house with a glassed-in sunroom in place of a front porch. The yard was barricaded by a chain-link fence overgrown with decorative ivy. Dale didn’t slow as she passed, turning a corner and parking out of sight in front of an empty house. She walked back to the corner on foot and saw Rebecca had already gone through the fence. She opened the sunroom door and disappeared into the house.

Dale made a note of the address and went back to where she had parked. She sent Ari the address in a text. She added a “Now what?” at the end to indicate her willingness to continue the surveillance if necessary. Ari sent back a reply immediately.

“Thank you! GO HOME.”

Dale sent back a quick, “Ur the best boss” before she drove away. It was still early. Maybe she could finish what Natalie had started before they had dinner. It was a struggle to obey traffic laws on her way back home.

#

Ari spent the rest of the evening at the Bull and Terrier, nursing drinks starting with her third refill. She wandered into the back room and played a game of pool with a Japanese ringer who completely ran the table. Ari thanked her for the game and paid the twenty bucks she had bet on the game before she went back out into the main bar. Framed photos hung in an alcove near the front door and she pretended to casually scan the faces.

She spotted Rebecca in a handful of pictures. Usually she was alone, but in one she had her arm around a redhead who didn’t look happy about being photographed. Rebecca was kissing the reluctant redhead’s cheek with her eyes turned so she could look into the lens. Through the window beside the door, she saw that the bouncer was smoking, so she stepped outside. “Hey. You mind if I just stand around and inhale?”

He smiled. “Knock yourself out.”

She hated the smell of smoke, but this was the character she had created. Besides, it could lead to more information. She leaned against the wall opposite the door so she wouldn’t impede traffic coming in and out of the bar. “So, uh, the tall blonde who was in there a while ago. She seems to be a regular?”

“Beck Collier? Yeah, she’s here a lot.”

“You know if she’s single? Or, you know, interested in women?”

The bouncer laughed. “I think a straight girl would make an exception for someone who looked like you.” He took a drag off his cigarette. “But you’re in luck, because I’ve only seen Beck with ladies. I think she’s got someone right now, but don’t let that get you down. Her relationships never seem to last very long. She likes to play the field.”

“Yeah, I know how that is.” She pushed away from the wall. “Thanks for letting me get a fix, and for the info on Beck.”

“No problem. Hey, you got a name?”

“Ari.”

He held out a hand. “I’m Milhous.”

Ari laughed and then waved a hand in front of her face. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have laughed. It’s a good name.”

“S’okay. At least these days it makes more people think of that cartoon instead of the President. I can smell a lot of alcohol on you. Planning to drive?”

“Uh, yeah. I’m fine. I’m not impaired if–“

He was already shaking his head. “Can’t do it. I can call you a cab, or you can walk. There’re changing rooms in the back if you’d like to do it on all fours.”

The thought of clearing her head with fresh air and exercise was appealing. “Changing room?”

“I’ll show you.” He led her inside, through the bar and past the bathrooms. There were men and women’s changing rooms, as promised. Wooden partitions painted green created three stalls with the doors standing open. Milhous pushed open one of the stall doors and pointed to a bag hanging on the wall. “We like you to bring the bags back if you carry your clothes home in ’em.”

“How do I put it on if I’m–“

“Set it against the wall, squat, and lean back. Slide your legs through the straps. There’s a nylon strap here that tightens it so it can sit on your back without too much jostling.”

Just like the bags I saw Beck and her friends using last night, Ari thought. Interesting. She hoped the bar wasn’t involved in the robberies; she would hate to take Milhous down. “Wow, you guys thought of everything.”

“Just trying to keep our clientele safe. Hope to see you around here again sometime. And not just for the cigs.”

Ari grinned and he left her alone in the room. Once he was gone, Ari noticed there was a doggy door that would allow her out once she had changed. They really had thought of everything. She went into a stall and undressed, wishing she could say it was the first time she’d been naked in the back of a bar. She folded her clothes and placed them in the bag and then sat on the half-moon bench.

In a pinch, she could transform in under twenty seconds, but the muscle and bone strain resulted in an ache that didn’t go away for days. For a far less stressful switch, she stretched it out to ninety seconds at least. She closed her eyes and felt the change starting. Her hands twitched on her thighs and she braced herself. She pressed her back to the wall, feet flat on the floor, nostrils flaring as her skull broke down the middle and she stifled a cry of pain and hunched forward in the fetal position to clutch her stomach.

Two minutes later, Ari was crouched on the floor. She examined the bag and did what Milhous had suggested. She turned her back to the bag, worked her forepaws around so they could slip through the straps, and then leaned forward. She found the nylon strap, bit down on it, and pulled until the bag felt comfortable on her spine.

Ari left the changing room through the doggy door and trotted through the bar. The bartender watched her go without comment, and Milhous was waiting at the door to let her out. He smelled of cigarettes and sweat, but it wasn’t a bad smell. He smelled like a good man. He knelt down as she approached and rubbed her head. “I knew you’d be a gorgeous bitch. Stay out of trouble out there, okay?”

Ari barked in response. She knew Milhous was watching her as she went up the stairs to the street. The bag swayed a little on her back, rolling to one side of her spine or the other, but a tug on the strap secured it a little better before she continued on. The sun had gone down and the street was mostly deserted. She figured her apartment was about seven miles away from the bar. Not the longest she had ever walked in a night, but enough to make her feel a little reluctant to begin the journey.

Finally she crossed the street and started home.

#

In the morning, Dale drove Ari back to the Bull and Terrier to retrieve her car. When she got back to town, Ari called Bryn and set up a business lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant. They dealt with the pleasantries first, sharing a lovely meal while Bryn explained the inner politics of the police department. When they had the conversation out of the way, Ari laid out what she and Dale had managed to find out the day before.

Bryn agreed to run down the name Rebecca Collier and the address Dale had found to see what she could find out. She warned Ari to be careful when she met up with Beck again, but that was as personal as the conversation got. When the meal ended and they parted without either of them suggesting they take the meeting upstairs, Ari knew it was over between them. She didn’t feel depressed, just a little sad that it had run its course so quickly.

When she got back to the office, she asked Dale what time Natalie got off work and promised to let her go a half hour before that so they could spend the entire evening together to make amends for the night before. Dale promised to put Ari’s fifty bucks to good use and named one of the fancier restaurants in the city. Ari wished her a great night and told her she could come in late in the morning, which made Dale blush.

After Dale left, the office felt utterly still and abandoned. Ari spent the rest of the evening on the couch in her office. The seven mile trek home from the Bull and Terrier had been exhausting, and she’d fallen asleep immediately after she hit her bed. She’d woken stiff and sore, and a long hot shower had only partially relieved the various aches and pains. Since Dale started sleeping with Natalie, her post-transformation massages had dropped to none, and she was starting to feel the stress of not getting at least a little relief.

She knew there was a massage parlor not far from the office, but there was no middle ground. A legitimate parlor wouldn’t give her everything she needed, and an adult parlor was too much. She didn’t want or need to be fingered by a stranger; she just wanted to get a deep tissue massage to ease the pain of becoming the wolf.

Maybe Milhous knew of a place that catered to canidae. She supposed it was worth checking out. She was about to go home without making any significant progress on the case all day when Bryn called her with the bad news.

Another jewelry store had been robbed, bringing the total up to six. When the location was plugged into the map, it was a half mile closer to downtown than the other robberies. Dale’s map had been right; they were perfecting their scheme in Lake City in preparation for a much bigger score. Ari just had to hope she had time to gain their trust so she could stop it before it happened.

#

The next day was Thursday, and Ari returned to the Bull and Terrier when it opened at five. Milhous was back on duty and he smiled when he saw her. She held up the bag to show she had returned it. “It’s a good way to make sure you get repeat customers.”

“Boss thinks it’s a better way to get bags stolen. But most people seem to be honest about it. If you’re a regular, you can buy a bag of your own for eighteen bucks.”

Ari shrugged. “I’ll consider it.” She sniffed when she reached the bottom of the stairs. “Licorice.”

“You don’t have to do that when I know you. But you’re right.” Ari started to pass him, but he touched her elbow to make her stop. “Hey, you know that thing you brought up the other day about Beck Collier? Turns out she is seeing someone. Sorry.”

“Eh, can’t win ’em all. Thanks, Milhous.”

He nodded and let go of her arm. She went into the bar to see the same bartender as the other day was behind the bar. He nodded in greeting and, by the time she had sat down, she had a bottle of Red Dog in front of her. “Thanks.” She couldn’t take not knowing any longer. “Listen, I’m sorry if this is rude, but do you ever speak?”

“Gus is more canidae than man.” Ari turned toward the voice and smiled to see Beck standing behind her. She was wearing a white dress shirt that was slightly too big for her frame and a black skirt. “When he’s not here, he’s a bulldog ninety percent of the time. He prefers that form.” Gus nodded in agreement and went to deal with another customer. She smiled and sat on the stool right next to Ari’s. “You came back.”

“You told me to. I always follow the orders of beautiful women.”

“Mm. Noted.” Beck motioned to Gus and he brought over her drink. “So I talked it over with the others. We could always use an extra set of eyes, someone to carry the load. You’ll have to pass a bit of a hazing, of course.”

Ari shrugged. “I figured. You don’t know who I am, so you have to feel comfortable before you take me along. I’m game.”

Beck tapped the bar with two fingers. “All right, then. Come on.”

“What? Now?”

“No time like the present. The girls are waiting.”

Ari paid for both her drink and Beck’s before following her outside. As they passed Milhous, he raised an eyebrow. Ari shrugged and flipped up the collar of her jacket. Milhous chuckled quietly and shook his head as the ladies left. Beck escorted Ari to a yellow Jeep and gestured for her to climb in. “Hope you didn’t have any plans tonight.”

“Nothing that can’t be put off.”

“Excellent.”

They drove through the streets of town until they arrived at the address Dale had tracked her to the other day. Beck led her up the front walk, and Ari took the opportunity to scan the yard for escape routes. It was a habit she’d picked up in her teens, and it hadn’t failed her so far. The door to the sunroom was open and Beck went straight in. Potted flowers lined the inside of the glass, and there were even more hanging from the sloped glass ceiling. Beck led her to the inner door where Ari could hear music playing.

“Ladies, I got our new recruit here.”

The door led into a very yellow kitchen. She’d heard of houses that smelled like dog, but to a canidae it was a much different comment. Walking into a house with three distinct dog smells was like a normal person walking into a room that smelled like baking cookies or brewing coffee. Ari breathed deeply and wished she was in wolf form so she could fully appreciate the varied odors.

A brunette in a sleeveless top and overalls was standing at the center island making a sandwich. She turned at Beck’s greeting, putting down her butter knife as she sized Ari up. The woman’s arms were lined with ropey muscles, and her shoulders were broad and thick. Her hair was brown and shoulder-length, tied back into a short braid. Ari assumed she was the boxer she’d seen the other night and made a point to stay on her good side for as long as possible.

“Ariadne, this is Pen Hurst.”

Ari extended her hand. “Pen?”

“Short for Penelope. It doesn’t really fit me, does it?”

Ari smiled. “Not as well as Pen does, no. Nice to meet you.”

A wide arched doorway led into the living room, and movement from there caught Ari’s eye. A slender, petite redhead had appeared during the introduction. Despite her small stature, she definitely had a commanding presence in the room. Her hair was cut close to her head and feathered bangs stretched down toward her arched eyebrows. Her eyes were shaded dark, but the irises were bright blue. Her skin was just a touch too pale, but it only served to highlight the color in her hair and eyes. She wore a black tank top tucked into a pair of tight blue jeans. Ari recognized her as the reluctant subject of the photo in the bar.

“Well, when you found a new recruit in the bar, I knew she’d be pretty. Didn’t expect gorgeous, though.”

Beck seemed awkward for the first time since Ari met her. She stood a little straighter and spoke a little clearer. “Ariadne, this is Sadie Dillon.”

“Hi. Is that short for anything?” Ari asked.

“Sadistic.”

Ari raised an eyebrow and held out her hand. “Good to know. You can call me Ari.”

Sadie ignored her hand. “I don’t know if I’m going to be calling you anything right now. You’re a wolf, yes?”

“Good eye. I’d guess that you’re a fox, but that sounds like a lame pick-up line.”

Sadie ignored the joke. “So what do you have to bring to this little game of ours?”

Ari smiled. “The knowledge that I’m a Dixie cup.”

Beck and Pen exchanged glances, and Sadie furrowed her brow slightly. “Pardon?”

“You know when you’re at a picnic or something, you get one of those little paper or plastic cups for your drink. At the end of the night you just throw it away. That’s me. I’m disposable.” She shrugged. “You guys have a pretty good thing going on here. There’s no reason for you to invite me in unless you want a fall gal. If anything goes wrong, you leave me behind so the cops will focus on me and give you time to disappear into the night.

“I’m willing to play that role for now. Until you guys get to know me and get to know what I can do, I’d be happy to be low man on the totem pole. But once you’ve seen what I’m capable of, I want an upgrade. I left home really young and lived on the streets. I didn’t steal for fun, I stole to survive. I’m good at it because getting caught meant going to a very bad place for a very long time. All I’m asking for is that trial period, during which I’ll be your Dixie cup. If you decide I don’t fit in, then we’ll say our goodbyes and go our separate ways.”

Sadie stared at her for a long time and then snorted a laugh. “What do you know, Beck might actually have found a good one this time.” She crossed the kitchen and stared up into Ari’s eyes. Ari had a good five inches on Sadie, but somehow Ari felt inferior to her under that stare. “All right, Ariadne. We’ll give you the trial period. But we’ve gone this long without the cops getting on to us. If they suddenly show up now, we’ll know who talked. And we’ll leave the Dixie cup behind like you said, but some people don’t just throw away the Dixie cups when they’re done. They crunch them up.”

Ari refused to show any fear. She met Sadie’s gaze without blinking, and Sadie finally let a smile play at the corners of her lips. She held out her hand. “Welcome to the pack, Ariadne.”

“Happy to be here.” She looked at Beck and Pen, who had been breathlessly watching the confrontation. “When do we get to do some damage?”

“After dinner. Come on, we all lend a hand.”

When Sadie turned to walk away Ari saw the butt of a gun tucked into the back of her belt. She suddenly realized just how high the stakes of her ‘job interview’ had been, and was glad she’d apparently passed the test.

Chapter 2: Three Dog Night

 

“I wish you’d just tell me where we’re going.”

Natalie chuckled and slid her arm tighter around Dale’s. “If I knew, I would. Don’t worry, I’m sure we won’t have to go too far.”

She didn’t sound too sure about herself, but Dale was willing to give her a little leeway. Besides, the mystery was fun. After dinner they had stopped at her car long enough to change out of her heels and put on her emergency sneakers for the walk Natalie insisted they take. Natalie had worn flats, obviously planning ahead, so she was comfortable with however long the journey took. And to be honest, Dale could think of a great many worse ways to spend an evening. Dale was still feeling heavy from their meal so, if anything, the walk would help her burn off some unnecessary calories.

The sun was gone, but the sky was painting the sky in various shades of watercolor. The buildings around them were starting to light up like Christmas, fighting back the darkness and obscuring the stars before they even had a chance to start shining. At every street corner, Natalie would pull away from Dale and look to the north before continuing on.

When they were half a mile from the restaurant, Dale was about ready to call whatever journey Natalie was on a bust and plead to go back to the car. But Natalie suddenly made a victorious sound and pumped her fist. “I knew it wouldn’t take too long.”

Dale followed her line of sight and spotted the Space Needle in the distance between the buildings. It was lit up for the night, shining like something from a futuristic television program. Natalie guided Dale until her back was against the brick wall of a building, slipped her arms around Dale’s waist, and pressed their foreheads together.

“I love those old romantic movies, black and white fantasies that never happen in the real world. And ever since I moved here, I thought about my perfect black and white moment. I decided it would be me and another woman, standing on a street corner in our very beautiful dresses, kissing with the Space Needle all shining and glorious in the background. And she would kiss me, because that would be the first time I ever said I loved her.”

Dale’s eyes widened slightly.

“I love you, Dale.”

Dale kissed her. Natalie slid her hands up Dale’s back, past the edge of her dress to touch her bare shoulders. Dale closed her eyes and clung to Natalie, leaning into the kiss. When they finally separated, Dale brushed her cheek against Natalie’s. “Definitely worth the walk.” She slid her hands up to tease the hair at the back of Natalie’s head. “I love you, too.”

“Good.” She kissed Dale’s cheek. “Glad to have that out of the way. I’ve been biting my lip the past couple of times we’ve been in bed.”

“Why?”

“I don’t like saying it at any time it can be… misconstrued. I wanted you to be sure I meant it and it hadn’t just slipped out. Can’t get more premeditated than this.”

Dale laughed and spread her fingers over Natalie’s cheek, her thumb resting on Natalie’s bottom lip. “Nope. Your place tonight?”

“I’d love to. But I have an early appointment tomorrow, so I’d have to wake up by five at the latest. I need my sleep. You’re bad for my sleep.”

“I know how you feel. Tomorrow night? Do you work Saturday?”

“I don’t. Tomorrow definitely.” They kissed again and Dale turned her head to look down the street. There were other people around, but most were ignoring the show they were putting on. “You know the downside is that now we have to walk back.”

Natalie laughed. “Yeah. I didn’t exactly think this through. Who knew you couldn’t see the Space Needle from every street in Seattle? Television has jaded us all.”

“Next thing you know, people will find out you can’t see the Eiffel Tower from every hotel room in Paris.” She took Natalie’s hand. “Come on. Walk slow. If I’m not going to spend the night with you, I want every minute with you I can get.”

“Deal.” She put her hand in the small of Dale’s back as they started the trek back to where Dale had parked.

#

Ari ate dinner in the kitchen with the three of them, dining on sandwiches and potato chips. Sadie opted to make a salad for herself, sitting on a stool at the counter while the others sat around the table. Beck offered her a beer and Ari thanked her by raising the bottle in a toast before she took a drink. Once Ari had gotten relaxed, the real interrogation began.

“You said you lived on the streets for a while.” Sadie’s voice was casual, and she was half-turned from the counter so she could eat and join in the conversation at the same time. “How’d you pull yourself up out of ’em?”

Ari had decided to be as truthful as possible with who she was. “Sugar mama. She saw me in a café and decided she liked what she saw. Let me live in her guesthouse and bought me pretty things in exchange for, ah, the pleasure of my company.”

Beck grinned. “Not a bad job, if you can get it.”

“So you were a whore,” Sadie said, just as casually.

Ari’s smile faded. “I like sex. A beautiful woman was offering me that, plus a warm place to sleep at night. You want to label it, sure. Whore is as good a name for it as any other.”

Beck was staring at Sadie. “We’ve all done things we’re not proud of in the past.”

“Who said I wasn’t proud of it?” Ari said. Now was the time to start stretching the truth. “The sex was fantastic and she had a great house. I’d go back in a heartbeat if she’d have me.”

“Why did she kick you out?”

Ari shrugged. “Got bored with me, I guess. She’s got a younger pup on her leash now.”

Pen snorted. “Oh. It was one of those. You were lucky.”

A silence fell over the room until Beck cleared her throat. “Pen was with a guy for a while who would, ah, punish her if he saw her in human form.”

“He wanted her to be in canidae form–“

“Not for sex,” Pen said quickly. Her face had gotten darker in the past few seconds. “He wanted a fighting dog. One that could understand strategy and tactics.”

Ari leaned back. She’d heard about bastards like that, but she thought it was just an urban legend or something restricted to the deep south. “Damn. How’d you get out of that?”

Pen met Ari’s eyes. “I fought him.”

“Did he live?”

“I didn’t stop long enough to check.” A pause. “But I doubt it.”

Ari didn’t feel anything about the man’s death. If Pen was a killer, then surely the murder had been justified. The man used her as a weapon, set her against defenseless animals for the express purpose of watching them die and earning money. The world would be a little lighter without a person like that in it. She picked up her bottle and held it out to Pen.

“Let’s hope it took him a long time to pass.”

Pen gave a half smile and tapped the neck of her bottle against Ari’s.

Sadie slipped off the stool and gave her lips a dainty tap with a napkin. “Come with me, Ariadne. I want to speak with you in private.”

“Sure.” Ari took another drink of her beer before she stood up, following Sadie into the living room. In the dim twilight glow coming through the curtained windows, Ari could see the vague outlines of furniture and a tall roll-top desk in next to the stairs. Sadie turned on a lamp and gestured for Ari to sit on the couch.

Sadie walked behind her, out of sight, and Ari resisted the urge to twist to watch her. Instead she faced forward and scanned the room. There was no television, but a handful of framed pictures hung on the wall. One of them showed a much-younger Sadie with long, wavy red hair. Like in the photo at the bar, Sadie wasn’t smiling in the older picture. Ari forced her focus past the photographs to see the reflection in the glass of the frame. Sadie was leaning against the wall just behind her, arms crossed, staring at the back of her head.

“We’re a tight-knit group here. Just because you’re in this house right now doesn’t mean you’re one of us. Do you know what you smell like to me?”

Ari smirked. “I’d love for you to tell me.”

“Domestic. Beck and Pen, they’re dogs. They should smell like they’ve lived in a house, pampered and cared for, but you and I? We’re wild dogs. A wolf should never smell like people. How many canidae friends do you have?”

“Ah…”

“Right. I smelled you the other night, too. Hanging out with the felidae in the field. I don’t care how cute her person form is, that’s simply not done.”

Ari’s smirk had faded. “Sorry, I didn’t get the rulebook.”

“Tonight we’re going to do a trial run. We’re going to see if you have the chops to run with us full-time. You’re not going to get a full cut at first even if we do decide to keep you around. Ten percent.”

“That’s a joke, right?”

“It leaves an even thirty percent for the rest of us. Prove yourself and we’ll see about raising it a little. But you’re definitely the Dixie cup. If something goes wrong, you’re cut. If something doesn’t smell right, you’re left behind.” Sadie began to move, circling the long way around the couch. Ari finally turned her head to watch as Sadie stopped right next to her. “So what do you say, Ariadne? Do you hear the call of the wild?” Her lips curled into a cupid’s-bow of a smile, and Ari couldn’t help returning it.

“Loud and clear.”

Sadie held out a hand to help Ari stand. “Then let’s get on with it. We’ve got a long night ahead of us.” She walked into the kitchen with Ari trailing behind her. “Okay, ladies. We’re a pack of four tonight. Pen, everything all set?”

Pen wiped her hands on a napkin as she stood. “The bags are waiting for us at Kingston Jewelers. I checked out their security this morning. Should be a piece of cake.” She looked at Ari. “I only put three bags, though.”

“That’s okay.” Sadie went into a narrow linen closet and withdrew a bag just like the one from Bull and Terrier. She tossed it to Ari. “You can take one with you. Do you know how to get into it?”

“Yeah, Milhous explained it to me the other night.”

Sadie nodded. “Beck, you ready?”

“Yep.”

To Ari’s surprise, the other three women began to undress. Sadie had peeled off her tank top before Ari knew what was happening, reaching back to unhook her bra before Ari cleared her throat. “Uh, there’s no… changing room?”

Beck laughed, and Pen raised an eyebrow. Sadie reached out and touched the side of Ari’s head like she was petting her, and Ari pulled away from the patronizing petting.

“She’s domesticated. Been around too many people.” She unhooked her bra and let it fall. “Changing isn’t dirty, Ari. A couple of bars use changing rooms because of the nudity involved, but in private and among friends…” She shrugged and unbuckled her belt. “If you’d rather change in the living room, I’m sure none of us would think any less of you.”

Beck and Pen were already down to their underwear, and Ari saw Beck was trying to suppress a smile. She had always thought her taboo about nudity was eliminated by constantly ending up naked in public, but to strip down in a kitchen with three women she’d just met was a little beyond the pale. Still, she didn’t want to be the butt of their jokes all night, so she began to undress.

Pen began to transform first, with Sadie and Beck following soon after. Ari draped her blouse over the back of a chair and arched her back as the first tremors passed through her body. Her fingers curled into claws and slipped off the back of the chair, and she dropped to all fours as her hind legs – no, just her legs – stretched out behind her and then contracted. She heard Beck moaning, and Sadie’s breathing was heavy enough for Ari to hear each harsh exhale, but Pen was remarkably restrained.

When Ari lifted her lupine head, Sadie was staring at her through small eyes. Her snout was long and narrow, her ears flared out on top of her head. She was definitely a fox in more ways than one, and she dipped her chin to Ari in greeting. Ari nodded back and slipped into the bag the way Milhous had shown her. Pen sneezed and shook her entire body, then turned and went to the door.

Beck was a gorgeous shepherd up close, prettier than she’d seemed in the parking lot. Ari pressed her snout to Beck’s head just below her ears and Beck playfully danced away from her.

Pen opened the back door the way Ari had seen her manipulate the back door of the jewelry shop earlier in the week. When they trotted out into the sunroom, Sadie used a leather strap hanging from the door to pull it closed. Beck passed Ari and she caught a flash of mental communication from her.

Just follow us.

Ari ruffed in response and the four of them left the sunroom in a single file line, Ari bringing up the rear. They leapt the chain-link fence and crossed the street. Pen and Beck crossed a neighbor’s lawn, staying close to the house where the shadows were deeper. When they reached a house with the porch light shining, they all moved at a quick lope so they weren’t exposed. Ari and Sadie were more careful than the others; a shepherd and a boxer might get a call to Animal Control, but a wolf and fox in a residential neighborhood often led to gunfire.

Sadie’s house wasn’t far from the edge of neighborhood, something Ari was sure had been intentional when the house was purchased. A rickety white fence blocked a dead-end street. Ari and Sadie went over it, while Beck went through a hole and Pen found a way around the far end. Once they hit the wide open field, Ari opened up and began to run. Sadie took a moment to catch up and then kept pace with Ari as they crossed the field.

As much as Ari bristled at being labeled domesticated, she couldn’t deny there was a certain amount of unique freedom to the moment. She glanced over and saw Sadie’s mouth was hanging open, her tongue lolling in what looked like a huge grin. Ari barked happily and put on an extra burst of speed, goading Sadie into a race. Behind her, she heard Pen or Beck barking at them, but she didn’t care. The bag bounced against her back as they moved down an incline and followed the valley to the south.

She smelled thousands of things, a parade of aromas. Smells like peanuts, salt, sugar, grease clung to the litter people had carelessly left behind, and Ari had to fight the urge to stop and inspect each and every one. The field had recently been mowed, and the fresh-cut grass scent was like a drug to her. Leaves of grass sliced in half, releasing chemicals into the air, and dirt had been churned and sent bugs and fragrantly wet earth into the atmosphere. Ari wanted to drop and roll in all of it. But she kept her mind on task, as hard as it was.

Pen broke off at one point, causing Ari to slow and watch her run a diagonal path across the field. She started to pursue, but Sadie barked a quick, quiet “wow wow wow” and Ari caught up with her again. Beck moved out to one side, forming a quarter-circle as she came up on Ari’s opposite side. Ari greeted her with a bark and Beck howled back at her.

Sadie barked at them when they reached the edge of the grass. Quiet quiet. There was a long, rectangular parking lot that was currently empty of cars. The three dogs formed a triangle with Sadie at point, trotting quickly across the pavement with their ears pricked up to the sound of any pursuers. Ari jerked her head to the side, responding to the sound before her brain even registered it, but she recognized Pen coming out of the woods to join them. There was something wet on her muzzle, and Ari wondered what she had caught. Her stomach growled.

They rarely encountered people until they reached the business district. It was late enough that there weren’t a lot of pedestrians, but there were enough to be a hassle. Ari and Sadie were forced to hang back and hide as best they could to avoid being seen. One girl, a college student who’d had too much to drink, spent five minutes coaxing Beck to come to her. Beck resisted until the student’s friend dragged her away to the car.

Kingston Jewelers was a small tan building next to an empty soccer field. There were a few lights burning inside the store, most likely so it wouldn’t be an appealing target for criminals. They circled around to the back of the building and Sadie opened the fuse box. Ari and Beck went to the front of the building and kept watch. The front of the building was all glass; if someone happened by, they would notice the lights were off and might investigate. Ari doubted anyone would bother arresting a bunch of dogs, but she could do without being dragged to a kennel. Again.

The lights went off, and the store’s parking lot was shrouded in darkness. Beck led the way to the back door, where Pen and Sadie were already waiting. Pen went inside first, turning over a trash can and dragging the bin liner out with her teeth. Three bags had been folded and stuffed into the bottom, and they each took one.

Watch. Learn.

There were three main counters in the main room of the store. Sadie, Pen and Beck each took one. Ari watched as they manipulated the locks with muzzles, teeth and claws. The shouldered open the displays and then used their paw to sweep the contents into their bags. It was a good thing the security cameras were disabled; anyone watching would think they’d wandered into a science fiction movie.

Beck barked quietly. She had been unloading from the biggest display case and her bag was full, so Ari went over to help her. They filled Ari’s bag together, Ari’s conscience twinging at what she was doing. Hopefully she would be able to keep track of where this stuff went so Bryn could eventually return it to the rightful owners. Ari brushed against Beck’s side several times, and Beck turned her head to lick Ari’s muzzle.

Thanks for the hand, new girl.

Welcome.

Beck hooked a curved claw in the zipper pull, her other forepaw holding the bag steady as she zipped it up again. Ari struggled into her bag, surprised by how light it was. Pen had finished earlier and was standing at the front of her store, her pack already on as she watched out the window. Ari became aware of a low warning growl coming from the boxer and quickly figured out what caused it.

A white patrol car had just pulled into the parking lot.

Sadie barked quietly and headed for the door. Beck and Ari followed her, and Pen lingered behind to make sure everyone got out safely. They left the door standing open and made their escape across the soccer field. They had reached the forest at the far end of the field before the cop had even gotten inside the building to begin his search.

Sadie led the others through the woods, weaving through the underbrush and ducking below low-hanging branches until they arrived at the train tracks cutting through the woods. The trees formed a canopy that the train would pass through, and it provided enough cover that the moonlight barely reached them. Ari was between Sadie and Beck, with Pen once again taking up the rear. Ari occasionally looked back and saw that she was occasionally leaving the tracks to investigate something in the woods, only to return a few minutes later and rejoin their line.

Ari didn’t know if they were going back to Sadie’s house or not, but she hoped they would stay out for a while. She felt a buzz of excitement just from being out with other canidae. Communicating with them, sharing the same experiences, knowing they were intelligent… it was a relief to her. Maybe Sadie was right and she’d been too domesticated. Dale was really her only friend. She needed to expand her circle. She needed to embrace both sides of her self, not just the human part. She’d been unfair to the wolf, and she could feel its excitement at what she was doing.

Beck moved faster and Ari moved to one side to let her pass. But once they were side by side, Beck looked at her and yipped quietly.

Sadie looked over her shoulder at them, shook her head, and kept walking.

Home? Ari asked.

Park. Play.

She tried to disguise her excitement, but she could hear a glass-like tittering noise in her head that came from Beck. Ari bumped roughly against Beck’s side as Sadie stepped off the tracks. She headed down a slope of white stones and led them into the woods. They squirmed out of their packs on Sadie’s cue, burying them under some dried leaves and twigs. Once it was covered, Pen and Sadie dropped and rolled in the debris to mark it with their scents before running out of the woods. Beck and Ari gave chase.

The dog park was magnificent. It was mainly a huge rolling park that looked like a lake had been frozen and draped with Astroturf. There were wooden constructs for them to climb, tall grass to run through, and a wide dirt pit where they could dig. Sadie let Beck and Pen run ahead and moved to stand in front of Ari.

The question was clear, and Ari watch Beck and Pen as she mulled over her answer. She had spent her entire life thinking of herself as a person who could sometimes become a wolf. Even when she was with Eva, spending five-sixths of the day in wolf form, she was always a person in her mind. It was high time she accepted her dual nature. She was a wolf. She barked and bumped Sadie’s shoulder as she joined the others in the park. A few seconds later, Sadie joined them all in the dirt pit.

#

Dale showered and changed into her comfy clothes, the baggy pajama pants and faded shirt she had yet to allow Natalie to see her in. Of course, now that she’d gotten an ‘I love you,’ she could wear whatever she wanted. She smiled at the thought as she padded barefoot into the bedroom. Her bed was beckoning, but she didn’t want to call it a night just yet. She had a police scanner that she hardly ever used due to its questionable legality, but she’d turned it on before going into the shower. Now there was a broadcast going out for backup at a jewelry store near Lake City.

Dale listened to the dispatcher and the cops long enough to determine it was definitely the same group Ari had just infiltrated. She didn’t subscribe to the trappings of religion, but she often found herself saying quiet prayers for Ari nonetheless. She closed her eyes and said, “Stay safe, Ari. Keep your guard up.”

She turned off the scanner and the overhead light, leaving the bedroom curtains open so she could see the sky. Her bed felt lonely without Natalie, and she smoothed her hand over the pillow as she thought about their black-and-white movie moment. She smiled and folded the pillow under her head, closing her eyes to dream about other movie moments they could recreate.

#

Ari and Beck spent most of an hour in the area called The Big Dig, digging and then rolling around in the dirt. At one point Ari pounced on Beck, who rolled them both and pinned Ari to the ground. Ari twisted and bit at Beck’s ears, but she stayed well out of her reach. By the time they left the pit, they were both covered with dirt and breathing heavily. Sadie and Pen had spent the time running around the perimeter fence, occasionally stopping to climb or play fight. Then, as if some internal alarm had gone off that Ari didn’t hear, it was time for them to leave. They went back to the woods where Pen dug up their bags, they slipped back into them, and returned to the train tracks.

Ari hadn’t slept in twenty hours, but the adrenaline rush was keeping her abuzz. She wanted to run some more, see if she could make the trek back home again if only to run back to Lake City. Beck stayed by Ari’s side, drawing more backward glances from Sadie as they neared home. Ari could smell Beck on her coat, and it was slightly intoxicating. When they reached the house, they leapt the fence again and Ari reluctantly sensed the night was coming to an end.

They dropped their bags in the kitchen, their clothes still lying in piles as if the people that had been in them simply disappeared into thin air. They transformed, the sounds of muffled groans and cries of pain filling the small, dark space. Ari clung to the side of the chair as she stretched her back, wiggled her fingers and toes, and crouched nude in the middle of the kitchen. She lifted her head and saw Beck sitting with her back to the kitchen island, breathing heavily. Her skin was smeared with dirt and mud, and grass had stained her arms and feet green. Beck saw Ari watching her and smiled.

They were both coated with dirt and mud, and Ari had a few scrapes on her palms. They would heal, as minor wounds always did, within a few hours of transformation.

Pen struggled into her blouse and stepped into her overalls. She left the bib down, hanging from her waist, as she stood and arched her back to work out a few remaining kinks. She picked up the backs and slung them all over her shoulder. “I’ll get these to Vicki. I’ll have that number for you in the morning.”

Sadie had stood up, naked and unashamed in the middle of the kitchen. Her eyes locked onto Pen with laser precision. “Penelope. Discretion.”

Pen glanced at Ari. “Right. Sorry. See you in the morning.”

Sadie tried to smile casually, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Not to leave you out of the loop, Ariadne, but there are some things you don’t need to know.”

“That’s fine.” She picked up her blouse, reluctant to put it on while she was still so filthy.

Sadie inferred her reasoning and hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “There’s a shower through there. Other side of the stairs. Feel free to take it. Beck, you can take the one upstairs.”

How about we conserve water and just share the downstairs one? Ari thought. Beck looked sharply at her as she stood up, and Ari realized that their mental connection was lingering a bit post-transformation. She smiled, embarrassed, but Beck just winked at her and continued out of the room. Ari gathered her clothes and tucked them under her arm. Sadie stepped between Ari and the door after Beck was gone.

“You did well tonight, wolf. There still has to be a discussion about whether or not we bring you in more permanently, but I think that conversation will be very optimistic.”

Ari smiled. “Good to know.”

Sadie stepped aside to let her pass. “Towels are in the cabinet outside the door. There’s a robe hanging on the back of the door that you can use. If you want.”

“Thanks.”

Ari crossed the dark living room and found the bathroom without trouble. A glowing digital clock on the counter told her that it was nearly midnight, and she wondered where the time had gone. She didn’t feel like she’d been the wolf for more than two hours. Of course, considering the distance they had traveled, it had to have been a lot more than that. She turned on the shower and climbed under the spray without waiting for it to get hot. She could hear water rushing in the pipes for Beck’s shower, so she didn’t hold out hope on there being much hot water left for her.

She scrubbed until the grass stains faded, the dirt swirling around her feet before seeping down the drain. She sniffed her right forearm, closed her eyes, and tried to detect Beck’s scent. She hated having to wash it off, but she wasn’t willing to walk around dirty just to preserve it. The soap smelled like Sadie, so Ari exchanged wearing one woman’s scent for the other. She didn’t bother with the shampoo, instead merely wetting her hair and running her fingers through it to–

She clutched her stomach and closed her eyes. Oh, God, I ate something. She didn’t remember anything in particular, but there were stretches of time in the dog park that she couldn’t remember. It had been all playing and having fun, so minutes had blurred together. And at some point, she must have found something and eaten it. She knelt in the shower as waves of nausea passed over her, then she pushed back the curtain and voided her stomach into the toilet.

Ari kept her eyes closed as she flushed, refusing to open them again until the water was refilling the bowl. She didn’t need to see the remnants of what she’d eaten; she’d seen enough of her late-night snacks to know that it was bad. It was a case of the reality being worse than her imagination, so she didn’t linger on it.

She shut off the water when her skin was clean and pink, then stepped out of the tub. She spread some toothpaste on her finger and rubbed it against her teeth to clean her breath. She’d left her clothes on the counter and took the opportunity to check her cell phone to see if Dale had called. No call from Dale, but one from Bryn. The time was not long after they’d left the jewelry store, so Ari could assume what the content of the call had been. She deleted the call in case anyone happened to get their hands on her phone and wondered about it.

She put on her underwear but left the rest of her clothes on the counter. The robe Sadie had told her to borrow was blood-red and short enough to show off a fair amount of Ari’s thighs. She cinched the belt at her waist and tugged on the lapels until they covered her cleavage. It seemed odd to cover herself up when they’d already been naked in the same room, but it made her feel more human. After the romp she’d just been through, anything that enhanced her humanity was to be embraced.

When Ari left the bathroom, she left the light on because the rest of the house was dark. She hadn’t noticed when they first arrived home; hercanidae night vision had lingered along with her sense of smell and the telepathy. The silence of the house, combined with the darkness, alerted her to the fact that the shower had helped settle her more completely in the correct form.

She went into the living room, pausing by the roll-top desk. She turned on a lamp and saw a leather-bound book sitting on top of the blotter. She flipped it open, letting it fall naturally to a page, and she saw that Sadie had been writing while she and Beck were cleaning up. The page was topped with the day’s date. She had quickly gone over the details of their heist. A postscript near the bottom of the page said “Wolf worked out well. Pending approval from V.”

Ari was about to close it when a fragment caught her eye. Sadie had noted the stats of the robbery, from how long it took inside the store to the amount of time they’d spent frolicking in the dog park. Already it felt more like a dream than something Ari had actually done. At the bottom, she’d written: V’s Take and Actual Take. Actual Take was filled in with an estimate of approximately six thousand dollars worth of merchandise.

Assuming V was the Vicki Pen had accidentally mentioned, Ari figured she was in charge of the operation. The only reason her take would be different from the actual take would be if Sadie and the others were skimming. She made a mental note about the book and let it fall closed, turning off the lamp and casting herself back into darkness.

“Sadie? Beck?”

“Up here.”

Ari glanced toward the stairs. She hesitated for only a moment before she started up. She would just tell them she’d had a great time, which was the truth, and then head home. There was only one open room on the second floor, and a lamp was burning inside. Ari knocked on the doorframe before she stepped inside. It was a bedroom, with a large queen-sized bed in the center of the space. Beck was facedown and naked on the mattress, chin resting on her crossed arms, and Sadie was straddling her waist to massage her shoulders. Sadie was also naked, her pink nipples standing proudly erect on her small breasts.

Beck opened her eyes and smiled sleepily. “Hey, wolfie.”

“I, uh… was going to get going.”

“Are you sure?” Sadie didn’t interrupt the rubdown, nor did she look up. “We have plenty of space here.”

Here in the house, or in that bed in particular? She cleared her throat. “Ah…”

“Rebecca tends to get pretty sore after she’s spent a few hours as a dog. So we help each other out. How about you, Ari? How are your muscles?”

Tight, achy, sore, twitchy. She hadn’t had a good post-transformation massage since Dale and Natalie started going out. The idea of getting one now made her muscles practically scream with desire.

“Come on, Ari.” Beck adjusted her head on the pillow of her hands. “You deserve it. You were great tonight.”

“Yes, she was,” Sadie said softly. “Come on. I’m almost done with her, and you can be next.”

Ari figured she’d have to visit a Sherwin-Williams store to determine just how many shades of wrong this was, but she walked into the room anyway. She didn’t hesitate when she dropped the robe. It would have been silly to, considering she’d been naked with the two women for most of the night. She stepped out of her panties before she climbed onto the bed and stretched out beside Beck. Sadie’s leg pressed against Ari’s hip, the skin warm against the curve of her body.

Sadie lifted herself and knelt between their bodies. She pulled one hand away from Beck and used it on Ari’s shoulder, massaging them both at the same time. Ari felt like she’d been injected at the spot where Sadie’s hand worked her tired muscles, and a relaxing warmth spread through her entire back. “God, that’s good.”

Beck chuckled. “She knows what’s she’s doing. Sadie, I’m good. Focus on Ari. She looks like she really needs it.”

Sadie stopped the massage briefly and stretched over Beck’s body to get something off the nightstand. She unscrewed the top of a bottle and dripped some lotion into her palm. She rubbed her hands together, spreading and warming the lotion before she threw a leg over Ari’s body and settled on her rear end.

The smell of almond oil filled the room, and Sadie closed her fingers around Ari’s trapezius, where it curved up toward her neck. She squeezed, and pressed her thumbs into the soft flesh on either side of her spine. Ari felt like her head had just been popped off her shoulders, but she didn’t particularly care. Sadie rolled her thumbs in ever-widening circles, and the muscles had no choice but relax and melt. Ari turned her head and pressed her face against the blankets. Only then did she realize that the room smelled strongly of Sadie, Beck, and their sex. The scent wasn’t new, but it was pervasive enough that she knew they’d shared this bed many, many times.

Sadie moved down Ari’s back, using her fists to work out the harder knots before she smoothed them out with her fingers. “Is that too rough?” she asked.

“No.” Ari’s voice was weak, barely loud enough to be heard, but she couldn’t make herself repeat it louder. A third hand touched her neck and she opened her eyes to see that Beck was still lying next to her and had reached out to assist in the massage. Beck smiled, and Ari smiled back at her. She was unable not to; she felt like she was high. Beck scooted closer and, after a tiny moment where Ari could have told her to stop, she leaned in and kissed her.

Ari opened her mouth and curled her tongue into Beck’s mouth, and Beck’s hand slid up and down Ari’s spine as Sadie continued to work her muscles as if nothing was happening. She moved down so that she was positioned on Ari’s knees. She gave a brief massage to Ari’s thighs, then pushed her legs apart and touched her sex with two fingers.

Ari breathed in sharply through her nose. Sadie shifted her weight and bent down, kissing Ari’s neck through the veil of her hair. Beck’s hand slipped between Ari’s body and the bed, cupping her breast and teasing one dark nipple as they continued the kiss. Sadie lifted herself off of Ari, who immediately rolled onto her side. Sadie lay down and spooned Ari from behind, while Beck moved closer and pressed her leg between Ari’s thighs.

With one arm, Ari reached back and stroked Sadie’s hip. Her other arm went around Beck’s waist and drew her closer. Sadie reached down and cupped Ari’s mound, splitting her fingers on either side of Ari’s labia and rubbing with the heel of her hand as Beck bent her knee and pressed her thigh against her center. Ari trembled and growled, biting down on Beck’s bottom lip as Sadie bit Ari’s earlobe.

An image of them playing in the park suddenly filled Ari’s mind, and she realized it had been a form of foreplay. Rolling in the dirt, nipping at each other’s necks and faces, had been a prelude to these kisses and the sweep of Sadie’s tongue down her neck. Beck pulled away and scooted down the bed, pulling her leg away from Ari as she kissed a path between her breasts. Ari vocalized her pleasure with quiet noises, baring her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut as her nipple was taken into a warm mouth and covered by an eager tongue.

Beck used two fingers on her, assisted by two of Sadie’s fingers spreading her open. Beck’s thumb found and teased Ari’s clit until she was lifting her hips off the bed in response. Sadie threaded her arms under Ari’s, pulling her back and cupping her breasts. Ari writhed and turned her head, kissing Sadie hungrily and sucking her tongue as Beck pushed her legs apart and moved her hand to kiss her.

Beck went down on her as Ari and Sadie kissed, Ari’s orgasm building with unfortunate speed. She was almost panting, her entire body sensitive to the touch as Sadie’s hands roamed over it. Ari closed her thighs around Beck’s head and thrust against her, an action Beck responded to by curling her tongue and pushing it deeper into Ari’s body.

Ari put her hand on the back of Beck’s head, holding her in place as she came. Her face was hot, her lips pulling back to bare her teeth as she thrust her hips forward. Afterward, Beck kissed and licked Ari’s thighs before sliding back up her body. She kissed Ari’s breasts, then pulled Sadie to her and kissed her hard. Ari sagged, draped across Sadie’s bare thighs as she watched them. When Beck pulled away, she smiled at Ari and touched her face. “I wanted to do that as soon as I saw you in the bar. But Sadie has this rule about how she gets to watch.” She rolled her eyes. “Perils of being in a relationship.”

“Now I get to watch you two?” Ari asked hopefully.

Beck pulled away from her. “Uh-uh. You don’t get to come and go. You have to pay us back for what we just did to you. And that massage wasn’t free, sweetwolf.” She kissed Ari’s bottom lip, linked their fingers, and pulled her up. “Lay down, Sadie.”

Sadie stretched out and Ari moved down between her legs. She pulled Sadie to her and lowered her head, wetting her lips before she used her tongue to part Sadie’s labia. When she opened her eyes, she saw Beck straddling Sadie’s face. Sadie put her arms around Beck’s legs and pulled her down. Ari reached up and teased Sadie’s nipples as her tongue went to work. She ran her eyes over Beck’s body, pausing at her breasts before making eye contact with her. Beck smiled, her tongue sticking out between her teeth, and winked at her.

Ari folded the fingers of her right hand and rolled her knuckles against the soft, wet flesh she had just wet with her tongue. Sadie moaned, and Beck jerked. Ari licked her lips and kissed Sadie’s bright red pubic hair. She closed her eyes, breathed deep, and her mind flashed on Dale. Dale, with her pale skin and red hair. She shook the image away and focused instead on how Sadie tasted and how Beck sounded.

Beck was the second to climax, followed quickly by Sadie. Ari kissed Sadie’s stomach and retreated from between her legs. Beck fell to the side, and she pulled Ari toward the headboard with her. Sadie kissed their feet, licking between the toes before moving up to her ankle. Ari shuddered and rolled her neck, eyes closed as the muscles moved without twinging.

“Nice massage.”

Beck laughed. “Yeah, she should patent her process.” She lifted her foot and brushed the arch of it down Sadie’s cheek. Sadie nuzzled it.

“You two do that a lot?”

“I wouldn’t say a lot,” Beck said. “Now and again it’s nice to spice things up.”

“With Pen?”

Sadie shook her head. “Pen is a little too rough for us in bed. She knows it, so she’s never made advances. She gets hers elsewhere.” She was now kissing the inside of Beck’s knee. Beck had one arm around Ari, and she was breathing heavily as Sadie moved higher. Ari watched with dark eyes, licking her lips as she anticipated what she was about to witness. She moved a hand between her legs.

“Listen, uh…” She cleared her throat. “I should probably…”

“You wanna go?” Sadie brushed her cheek against the curve of Beck’s hip. “We could have all kinds of fun.”

Ari smiled. “Oh, I don’t doubt that for one hot second.” She bent down and kissed Sadie’s lips, then kissed Beck’s. “But I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep the past couple of days and I’ve really exhausted my reserves. If I don’t sleep in a bed soon, I may take a nap going down the highway.”

Sadie was nodding. “I understand. Another time.” She kissed Ari again, letting the kiss linger until Ari was rethinking her need for sleep. Then she pulled away and sat up, to Beck’s disappointment. “Meet us tomorrow afternoon at the Bull and Terrier. Five o’clock. We’ll discuss your payment. You really did well tonight, Ari.”

The fact that Sadie didn’t call her Ariadne wasn’t lost on her. “Thanks, Sadie. And thanks for, uh, including me.”

“Any time,” Beck promised.

Ari slipped out of bed and left the bedroom without looking back. She knew if she saw them, she would just fall right back in next to them and sleep would be a lost cause. She pushed her hair out of her face and headed downstairs to get her clothes out of the bathroom. When she dressed, she looked in the mirror and caught a flash of Bryn’s face in her mind’s eye.

We’re done. We’re just waiting for the funeral to make it official. I didn’t cheat on her. She shook her head and closed her eyes. Yeah. You did. Twice, technically. If I needed a trick to make Bryn break up with me first, I just found it.

She dressed and left the house, going through the living room and out through the back door. Her car was waiting at the curb, and she took a moment to gather her thoughts after she got behind the wheel. She looked back at the house. The only light was coming from the bedroom window, and she tried to imagine what Beck and Sadie were doing. She licked her lips and shook her head. No. Home. Rest. Business. You shouldn’t have done that, Ari. That was a Bad Thing, and it’s only going to be worse when you have to take them down.

She started the engine, her Rambler coming to life with a steady growl.

Maybe the jail they’re going to allows conjugal visits.

She pushed the thought out of her head and pulled away from the house.

#

Something soft touched her cheek and Ari swiped at it. Her hand hit someone else’s, and she heard Dale yelp. She opened her eyes and blinked up at Dale, who was waving her right hand in the air with exaggerated pain. “Well, try to do something nice. You look terrible.”

“Thank you,” Ari grumbled. She realized the soft thing touching her cheek was the blanket that normally draped the back of the couch in her office. The couch on which she was currently sleeping. She sat up, taking the blanket with her, and whimpered at the movement. Dale backed away and pulled a chair over. “God. I didn’t mean to sleep here all night.”

“You didn’t. At least I don’t think so. What time did you get in?”

She remembered glimpsing the clock when she got out of the car. “Ugh, around… half past two. What time is it now?”

“Seven.”

Ari dropped back onto the couch and Dale laughed. “What are you even doing here?”

“I wanted to do some paperwork. Get it down before I went to sleep and forgot everything. For Bryn. I owed it to her.”

Dale went behind the desk and looked at the printout. “Wow, Ari.”

“Good work, huh?”

“This is almost more indecipherable than your usual babble.”

Ari smothered herself with the pillow. She’d spent an hour working on it, trying to keep her head from impacting the keys while her libido kept sending reminders of how stupid she had been to walk away from a warm bed with two warm bodies. Meanwhile her brain was slapping her in the face for jumping into bed with two women before she officially ended things with Bryn. She’d done some bastardly things in relationships, but she’d never been a cheater before.

“I met up with the gang and they let me tag along for one of their jobs.”

“So that was you. I heard it on the scanner and I kind of wondered.” She had opened a new Document and was transcribing Ari’s attempt at notes into something coherent to readers of English. “Is Bryn granting you immunity for that?”

Ari shrugged. “God, I don’t know. Hope so. Hopefully when we take them down we’ll be able to get the stuff back. No harm, no foul. I hope. I don’t think Bryn’s going to be in the mood to grant me any favors in the near future.”

Dale looked up. “What did you do?”

“Never mind.”

“That bad?”

Ari groaned.

“Wow. Okay, uh. Maybe we won’t let her know you participated. She’ll just be happy to take ’em down, she won’t focus on the details.”

“Fingers crossed. How did your date with Natalie go last night? Did you make up for all the cancellations?”

“Uh, kind of.” She watched the screen for a moment and then paused when she reached the end of a sentence. “She told me she loved me.”

Ari sat up straight. “Really?”

“The sun was setting, and we were standing on the street with the Space Needle behind us. And she kissed me and said she loved me for the first time.”

“Dale, that’s amazing. That’s just amazing.” She stood up and went around the desk. “Come here.” They embraced and Ari tried not to categorize her feelings. She was happy, and that was it. No loss, no sadness. Just happiness for her friend. She kissed Dale’s temple and straightened, rubbing her friend’s shoulder. “So it’s long haul for you guys?”

“Kind of looks that way at the moment. I told her I loved her, too.”

“I kind of figured.” She looked at the computer. “Thanks for making me sound literate.”

Dale chuckled. “Hey, you do the heavy lifting and I make you look pretty. Well, prettier. Anyway, I’ll take care of this and take it down to the police station. I take it you want to avoid Bryn as long as possible.”

“Yeah.”

Dale cleared her throat. “Did you sleep with someone?”

“Not someone.”

Dale frowned up at her and then realized what she meant. “Seriously?”

Ari shrugged. “Post-heist rush. What can I say?” She scratched her neck. “I didn’t plan it. Bryn and I are on the way out, but I still want to avoid that ‘I cheated on you with two other women while I was doing you a favor’ conversation as long as possible.”

“Okay, I’ll do the paperwork and you go home and get some sleep. Do you need me to drive you?”

“No, thanks.” She bent down and kissed the top of Dale’s head. “I’m proud of you, kiddo. Give my love to Natalie next time you see her.”

Ari was at the main door when Dale called to her. She turned and walked back to her office and leaned inside. “Yeah?”

“You and me… we’re good, right?” Dale looked uncomfortable. “I mean, Natalie and I are getting pretty serious. I know that you and I have kind of…” She shrugged and rubbed her lips together. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”

“Dale. You’re amazing. I want you to be happy. Just be happy, and I’ll be fine.”

Dale nodded. “Thanks, Ariadne.”

Ari winked. “Bye, Dale.” She thought of adding an ‘I love you,’ but she felt that it would just add to the awkwardness despite being platonic. She waved and left the office, dragging herself downstairs to where she had parked. She hoped she could make it home before she passed out. She stopped by the diner down the street for a cup of coffee to give her the boost she needed, and it was half-gone before she even got behind the wheel.

She made a mental note to pump up the caffeine the next time she topped off a canidae crime spree with a threesome.

#

Ari set her alarm for noon, but she slept through it. At half past, she woke up enough to stop the buzzing and rolled over. She covered her head with the pillow and drifted off again. Her dreams were disjointed memories of the night before, running through crystalline moonlight with Sadie and Beck. She remembered Beck pouncing on her, rolling together in the mud, and then the scene shifted to lying beside her in bed. In one dream, Bryn had shown up in the jewelry shop and opened fire. Beck and Sadie were both shot and killed, and the explosion of the gunshot meant for her shook her from a deep sleep.

She pushed her pillow and blanket off the bed and looked out the window. It was mid-afternoon. She rolled out of bed and went to the bathroom, where she took a long and scalding shower. She realized with despair that Bryn’s sense of smell was enhanced by being a cat. She would be able to smell Beck and Sadie on her for days. Ari scrubbed harder and realized she was doomed. She might as well confess as early as possible and hope she got points for honesty.

After the shower, she dressed in clothes from the back of her closet. She hoped they were thick enough with the smell of age and dust bunnies to hide the truth. She didn’t want Bryn to take a deep breath and put all the pieces together before Ari said two words. She pulled her hair back in a ponytail and headed out to meet Bryn.

She was halfway down the stairs when her phone rang. She was surprised to see Sadie’s number in the display. “Sadie. I thought we said five.”

“We did. Look, it’s been a really busy morning. Can you meet us at my place now?”

“Is everything okay?”

Sadie actually sounded more excited than worried. “Yeah. Everything’s fine. We just need to regroup before we make any decisions.”

“Okay. I was on my ay out anyway, so I’ll come on over.”

“Great. See you soon.”

Ari disconnected the call and dialed Dale’s number to let her know where she’d be. The call went to voicemail and she smiled. “Hey, Dale. Don’t let me interrupt whatever you’re doing with your lover. I just needed to let you know I’m going to be at Sadie Dillon’s place. I figure Pen and Beck will both be there, too. Just in case anything goes down. Talk to you soon.” She slipped the phone into her pocket as she got into her car.

Two cars were parked in front of Sadie’s house when she arrived, so she figured she was right about who would be present. She parked across the street and went through the gate. She knocked on the sunroom door as she went in. She didn’t know the etiquette when she’d only known the owner for a day but had slept with her and her girlfriend the night before. She saw Beck in the kitchen.

“Hey. What’s going on?”

Pen’s blow came out of nowhere, knocking Ari to her hands and knees out of shock as much as surprise. She had been standing next to the door, and her arm shot out like a piston as soon as Ari crossed the threshold. She looked up only to get a second punch where her shoulder met her neck. She dropped hard to the tile and Pen stepped over her. She grabbed Ari in a full nelson and hauled her up onto her knees.

Sadie came around the dining room table. Ari’s nose felt stuffed up, and something wet was trickling over her lip. Sadie crouched so she could look into Ari’s eyes, resting her arms across her knees as she leaned forward. Her nostrils flared. “You smell like her.”

“Who? What the hell is going on here?” Ari looked past Sadie. Beck was standing on the other side of the kitchen island, arms crossed and looking betrayed as hell. “Look, whatever you think…”

Sadie hit Ari in the throat. It wasn’t a hard blow, but it was enough to choke her. She gagged and lost the ability to speak.

“A couple of days ago, Beck thought someone was following her home from the bar. So she called Pen to come check it out. She went to a supermarket while Pen drove over and got the car’s license plate. She got a good look at the driver, too. This morning one of her buddies looked up the car at the DMV and found out who the car was registered to. Turns out it’s a lady named Dale Frye who works for a little firm called Bitches Investigations.” She chuckled. “I do like the name, by the way.”

Ari pulled forward, but Pen tightened her grip and held her where she was.

“So we went over after lunch and picked her up. We just wanted to let her know we don’t appreciate her snooping in our business and politely request that she stop.”

Ari’s heart was pounding against her ribs.

“So we demonstrated we meant business. You know, just a little bit of roughhousing.” Ari bared her teeth, on the verge of barking. “And do you know the first thing she asked us?”

Beck answered. “She asked what we had done with Ari.”

Sadie cupped Ari’s chin, squeezing her cheeks. “I… am not… good… with… betrayal, Ariadne. There are few things that make me lose control. Betrayal is, is at the top of the list. When were you planning to spring the police on us, mm? We got the little report your secretary was typing up for the cops, so don’t you worry about that.”

“What do you want?” Ari’s voice was barely stronger than a croak.

Sadie smiled. She leaned in and kissed Ari’s lips. Ari winced and tried to pull away, but Pen was holding her too tightly. Sadie’s tongue slipped into Ari’s mouth but retreated before she could even think to bite down on it and cause her some pain. She pulled back and ran her tongue over her lips.

“You’re going to help me out. You’re going to give us exactly what we want.”

“Where’s Dale?”

“She’s our leverage. You do what we ask or–“

“Or you’ll kill her?” She looked at Beck again. “You’re not a killer.”

Beck shook her head. “You’re right. That’s not the plan.”

Sadie leaned in again and pressed her lips to Ari’s ear. “I’ll change her.”

Ari bucked against Pen, throwing her weight back and getting just a fraction of freedom in her arms. She rolled forward and tackled Sadie, knocking her into the table. They grappled briefly, neither of them able to get a good angle for a solid punch. Ari sat up to give herself more room, but she opened herself up to a blow on the side of the head from Pen’s stone fist. Ari sprawled on the tile floor. Sadie jumped on her and pinned her with a straight arm across the back of her neck.

“She’d make a lovely fox, don’t you think? That lovely red hair, those eyes… she has such delicate features. Of course… well, that’s assuming she survives the first transformation. You know that’s why we don’t change adults, and we start changing during puberty… young bones knit so much easier. They learn and adapt. So the canidae decides that’s the perfect time to train our skeletons how to go back and forth. But Dale is all grown up, isn’t she? Why, I bet the first time she transforms, every bone in her body will break. And if she tries to be human again, she’d be crippled for life. If she–“

“Shut the fuck up.” She was on the verge of hysteria. “What do you want?”

Sadie laughed. “My dear Ariadne… I thought you’d never ask. Listen closely, wolf. Here’s what you’re going to do for your new best friends…”

Chapter 3: Junkyard Dogs

Notes:

Warning: There is some dog-on-dog and person-on-dog violence in this chapter. It’s unavoidable when dealing with werewolves and fight scenes, so hopefully it’s not too bad. But I know a lot of people have squicks when it comes to that sort of thing in movies. Ari, Sadie, Beck and Pen aren’t your typical dogs, so hopefully the violence will be a bit easier to deal with.

Dale was somewhere dark, cold, and dirty. She lifted her head and whimpered at the pain that shot down her neck. When she tried to reach up and massage the ache away, she discovered her hands were bound behind her back. She was curled on her side, knees tucked against her chest. She heard footsteps on wooden stairs behind her and twisted to look. The light at the top of the stairs were mostly blocked by her captor. The woman was tall enough, or the basement was narrow enough, that she had to bend forward slightly to avoid bumping her head on the braces that ran across it.

The sight of the woman reminded Dale of what had happened. She’d gone downstairs from the office for lunch and a woman, this hulk of a woman, had asked her where Morrison’s Grill was. Dale turned to point. When she turned back, the woman had closed the distance between them. Dale had just enough time to be frightened before she was hit. Then a choking chemical smell, and nothing. She remembered the other woman asking her questions. Ari was in trouble. Somehow they had figured out who Ari really was.

“What do you want?”

“Right now, your clothes.”

Dale tensed. “Go to hell.”

“We need them to prove we really have you. Either you can give them to me, or I can take them from you. Your choice.”

Dale rested her head on the dirt and closed her eyes. “My hands… I need my hands free.”

The woman leaned closer and unlocked Dale’s handcuffs. She put a hand on Dale’s shoulder and squeezed until she yelped in pain. “Go ahead and try to escape. I don’t like to threaten. I prefer to show people what I’ll do if they cross me.”

“I won’t try anything.”

Dale unbuttoned her blouse as quickly as possible, then twisted out of her skirt. She was left in her black bra and matching half-slip, feeling ridiculous in the fancy lingerie. She’d planned to meet up with Natalie after work. She tossed the clothes to her captor and then reluctantly presented her wrists to be handcuffed again.

“Ari’s going to stop you.”

The woman smiled. “Ari isn’t in much of a position to stop anything right now. She’s a good dog.”

Dale watched her go and then dropped her head to the dirt.

#

Ari jerked away as Pen threw the shirt in her face. She didn’t need canidae senses to recognize Dale’s perfume. Sadie picked up the cloth and pressed it against Ari’s face anyway, smothering her with the smell. She had been dragged from the kitchen and into the living room where she was currently tied to a desk chair in front of the couch. Sadie pulled the shirt away and Ari saw it was smeared with blood from her lip. “Recognize that? How’s she smell? Good and afraid, I’ll bet.”

It was true. Ari could smell the stink of Dale’s sweat and fear.

“Don’t hurt her. What do you want?”

Sadie said, “What we told you in the kitchen. You’re going to do in one night what it would take us weeks to do. You see, I’m just the leader of this particular pack. We have someone we answer to. And she has a… hm. Let’s just call it an employee of the month program. Whoever makes her happy during the month gets a bonus. And I like my bonuses, Ariadne, but they’re so difficult to get. Because there’s a certain amount of risk involved. The greater the risk, the greater the reward.

“But now I don’t have to worry about the risk. You’re going to be taking the risk for me.” She smiled. “Beck, Pen and I will reap the benefits. And you’ll get your friend back unharmed. So everybody wins.” She reached out and casually adjusted Ari’s collar. “You’re going to get us five hundred thousand dollars.”

Ari scoffed.

Sadie raised an eyebrow. “Is your friend’s life not worth that? I’m surprised.”

“How do you think I’m going to get that much money?”

“That’s not my problem. Rob a bank. Steal cars. Rob a mansion. Get creative, because I’d love to know what you would come up with. You’re such a clever little wolf.” She slapped Ari’s cheek. “I want the money tomorrow night. We’ll be in touch with the details. In the meantime, Dale Frye will stay here with us. And we promise, we’ll be perfectly proper ladies with her. We won’t gain her trust through false pretenses and then fuck her.” Sadie’s nostrils flared, her eyes getting darker with anger.

Ari stared back. “If I do this, and Dale ends up hurt, I’ll kill you all.”

“Then let the games begin.” She grabbed the back of Ari’s head and pulled her forward for a particularly brutal kiss. When she pulled back, she gasped and shook her head. “It’s a shame. You really were a great lay.”

Sadie straightened and motioned for Pen and Beck to untie Ari. “Tomorrow night at nine. Either have the five hundred grand, or we’ll let you watch Dale’s first transformation live and in person. I wouldn’t eat a heavy lunch if I were you, just in case. I promise it won’t be pretty.”

Pen grabbed the back of Ari’s collar and hauled her to her feet. She was half-carried and mostly dragged through the kitchen and sunroom, and Pen hurled her onto the dirt of the backyard. Ari pushed herself up, digging her fingers in the dirt as she contemplated fighting.

“I wouldn’t.” Pen had anticipated her attack. “I give the signal, Sadie goes down to the basement and bites Dale. You think you can get there fast enough to keep it from happening? Just remember, Ari. You did this. You’re the one who wormed your way into our group, you’re the one who endangered your partner. None of this would be happening without you.”

Ari spit into the dirt under her head, eyes closed.

“Clock’s ticking. Get the hell out of here, you mutt.”

Ari got to her feet and walked to the fence. She paused before going through, turning to face Pen while standing upright and untied. “If anything happens to her, it’ll come back on you. Count on that.”

Pen flipped her off.

Ari went out to her car, aches starting to make themselves known as she slipped behind the wheel of her car. Her first thought was what she was going to do, but that was a dumb question. Dale’s life was at stake; she was going to do exactly what they told her to do. She rolled her shoulders and pinched the bridge of her nose. Five hundred thousand dollars. She didn’t even know where to begin to find that kind of money.

For Dale.

Dale’s face rose in her mind’s eye, her easy smile and her laugh.

Ari would move heaven and earth for Dale. She started the car and pulled away from the house with renewed determination. If Sadie, Beck and Pen wanted to play games, fine. But Ari was going to play by her own rules.

#

Milhous smiled brightly when she came down the stairs. “Hey, Ari. Got anymore cigs you want me to take off your hands?”

“Yep. Here you go.” She tossed the pack and it fell just short of his hand.

“Maybe you need to skip the drinking tonight.” Milhous laughed as he bent down to retrieve them. His laughter stopped abruptly when Ari kicked him in the head.

He stumbled back against the brick wall, bringing his hands up to fend off her attack. Ari swept his hands out of the way, grabbed the collar of his shirt, and pulled him forward. As he fell, she kicked the back of his knee he dropped. Ari swung her arm around his neck and grabbed her wrist with the other hand, closing his windpipe.

“You’re dead,” he managed to gasp.

“Are you in on it?” She kept her lips right next to his ear.

The bar door swung open and Ari spun so that Milhous was blocking her with his body. The bartender took a step toward her, but retreated when he saw the situation.

“Go back inside, bulldog. This doesn’t concern you yet.”

He looked into her eyes and went back inside. When the door was closed, Ari pulled her arm tighter and Milhous gagged.

“Are you–“

“Am I in… on what?” His voice was little more than a croak, and his head was rolling loosely in the loop of her arm.

Ari bared her teeth. “Sadie Dillon, Rebecca Collier and Pen Hurst. Are you part of what they’re doing?”

“I got no clue what you’re talking about.”

Ari released him and Milhous sagged forward. He rubbed his throat and then swung backward with one fist. He punched Ari in the thigh, then grabbed her knee and tugged. She went down, and he rolled his bulk over on top of her. He put his hand on her chest to hold her down and pulled back one fist. “Tell me why I shouldn’t pound your head into the pavement right now.”

“They took my friend.”

Milhous kept his position for a second longer, and then his face softened. He relaxed his fist but didn’t let her up.

“I don’t know anything about that. This is a good bar, and we don’t condone any type of criminal activity.” He stood up and offered her a hand. “That includes beating up the bouncer.”

Ari felt like she was hovering as he pulled her to her feet. She brushed herself off, then brushed off Milhous’ shirt as a peace offering. “Sorry. I had to be sure, and I didn’t want to try you in a fair fight.”

“Probably smart.” He rubbed his jaw. “What do you mean they took your friend?”

Ari sagged against the brick wall, letting it hold her up to take the weight off her legs. “They kidnapped her. Said if I don’t get them what they want, they’ll… change her.”

Milhous narrowed his eyes. “Change her? But if she’s–“

“Yeah.”

He leaned against the wall opposite Ari. “Damn. I knew they were wild, but that’s off the board crazy.”

Ari pushed her hair out of her face and closed her eyes. She was counting on adrenaline and anger to get her through the next twenty-four hours, but thoughts of what was happening to Dale kept overcrowding her mind. She took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out though pursed lips. “I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

“Been hurt worse. Usually by a lot bigger dudes…”

“They threatened her. I don’t know how well my thinking is.” She pushed away from the wall. “I’ll leave you alone. Tell, uh, tell the bartender that I’m sorry for the disruption. I won’t bother you guys again.”

She was almost to the street before Milhous stopped her.

“You need me to do anything?”

Ari paused and considered the question. “Yeah. I do.”

#

Beck was sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee, staring out the window, when Sadie found her. Pen was downstairs with Dale, and the house was almost oppressively silent. Sadie reached out and ran her palm down the back of Beck’s head, stroking her hair. She stood behind Beck’s stool and guided Beck back until her shoulders were against Sadie’s chest. “Are you okay?”

“She lied to us. I actually liked her.”

“I know.”

Sadie moved her hands to Beck’s shoulders for an impromptu massage. “I know you’re not too thrilled about what we’re doing here.”

“No. She lied to us, and she put us in danger. I may not be happy about holding that woman in the basement, but Ariadne Willow should pay. If she gives us the money, I still want to hurt her.”

Sadie smiled. “Yeah?”

“We’ll let the redhead go, but Ari doesn’t walk away in one piece. Promise me, sweetheart.”

“I promise.” She kissed Beck’s ear. “When we get our money, we’ll put her down.”

Beck turned and kissed Sadie softly. Sadie was about to suggest moving upstairs when there was a loud pounding on the front door. Beck jumped, but Sadie just turned her head toward the sunroom. Her nostrils flared and she narrowed her dark eyes. “Milhous.”

“The bouncer? What the hell is he doing here?”

They went to the door together and found Milhous pacing in the backyard. He was almost to the fence when they came outside. He heard the door open and spun around. “What the hell are you crazy bitches up to?”

“Watch your tone on my property, dog.” Sadie stepped off the porch while Beck remained in the doorway. “What are you doing here?”

“That new bitch, Ariadne, came by the bar. Gave me this.” He pointed at his swollen bottom lip. “She was crazy as hell, said that you guys were up to something shady. She wanted to see if I was part of it. She kicked my damn ass because of whatever you’re up to.”

Sadie remained calm. “I assume you told her the truth, so why are you here?”

“Because she’s crazy, okay? I told her I didn’t know anything, but she looked like she didn’t care. I thought she was gonna burn the place down just to make sure.” He pointed a finger at Sadie. “Whatever you’re doing, keep it out of the bar. You hear me?”

“Get your finger out of my face.” She didn’t break eye contact with him. “The Bull and Terrier has nothing to do with this. I’m sorry that she hurt you, I’m sure that was a big blow to your pride.”

“You just make sure you have your bases covered. Before she left she asked me about where she could get some weapons. I got the feeling she was going to come back here and make a statement.”

Beck snorted. “She wouldn’t be dumb enough to come back here and fight us.”

Milhous glared at her. “She fought me.”

Beck’s smile faded slowly.

“Just watch your backs, ladies, because I didn’t see reasonableness in her eyes when she left. Be very careful. And stay out of our bar until we get this all settled, you understand?” He turned and shoved the gate open with one fist, walking through before it rebounded off the fence and swung shut again.

Sadie watched the boulder of a man walk back to his truck with her arms crossed over her chest.

“You think she would be dumb enough–“

“Yes.” She turned and brushed past Beck. “If she wants to take Dale back by force, she’ll be in for a big surprise. Tell Pen we’re moving. We’ll take Dale somewhere that Ariadne doesn’t even know about.” She went upstairs while Beck went down to the basement. Sadie went into the bathroom Ari had used and breathed deeply, picking up the faint scent of her from the night before. She went to the shower, where the smell was strongest, and closed her eyes.

Bring us the fight, little wolf. It’s been a long time since the pack had a real hunt. It would be my pleasure to track you down and teach you a true lesson.

She picked up Beck’s scent before Beck spoke and announced her presence. “We’re ready. What are you doing?”

“Arming myself.”

#

Ari plugged her nose and hunched down deeper in the garbage. A wide alley ran behind Sadie’s house, and all the houses on the block had set out their trash for pickup. Ari was in the largest pile, blocking her scent as she watched the house. She could see into the living room, and she watched Pen and Dale walk through the living room to the back of the house. It took all her restraint to stay where she was; as long as they were close enough to bite, Ari wasn’t going to chance a fight. There were three of them and, even if she could take Pen and Beck at the same time, Sadie would be free to bite Dale.

She just had to watch as Dale was hustled out of the house. Sadie and Beck followed, and moments later Ari heard the doors to Beck’s Jeep slamming shut. She waited until the sound of the engine faded before she left the garbage and jumped the fence. She stayed low and out of sight as she got onto the porch and tried the door. Locked, of course. No reason to make things easy for her.

After checking to make sure she was still unobserved, she went around the side of the house to the sunroom. Her scent was going to tell them she’d been there no matter how sneaky she was, so she might as well make her presence known. She picked up a rock and shattered the glass door with it. She thought about breaking as much glass as possible, but she didn’t want to harm the plants.

She let herself into the house and grabbed a garbage bag from the kitchen as she passed through. The living room looked basically the way she had envisioned it in the dark, and she made her way to the roll-top desk. The mail had accumulated in a neat pile on one corner, with the personal correspondence taking up a special place in a cubbyhole. She went through it and deemed none of it worth her time to read in full.

Ari opened the bag and shoved things into it without pausing to examine them. She emptied the drawers, grabbed a handful of ledgers, added a few pens just to be thorough. She twisted the neck of the bag and headed downstairs to the basement. She could smell Dale’s fear thickly in the narrow space, stoking her anger. She searched for Dale’s clothes but didn’t find them. She knelt next to the spot where Dale’s scent was strongest and touched the dirt.

Dale had been thrown in the dirt, half-naked, threatened… all because of her. Ari choked on her anger and guilt before she carried her bag upstairs. She took some of Sadie and Beck’s perfumes in case she needed to disguise her scent later and added some of their clothes to her bag. Every little bit helped.

When she decided she had enough, she headed back downstairs. She saw the dining room chair they’d tied her to and used the legs of it to break the living room window. She wanted them to know they were dealing with a mad dog, wanted them to worry more about what they would do to her than what they planned to do with Dale. She crawled through the window and hurried across the lawn, jumping the fence and racing down the alley to where she had parked her car.

#

They had given back her clothes, which had been nice, but the handcuffs didn’t make sitting in a car very comfortable. She was wearing a blindfold under a pair of wraparound sunglasses so it wouldn’t look suspicious, other than the fact she was wearing sunglasses at dusk. She was in the cramped backseat of the Jeep pinned between the scary muscular woman and the smaller blonde. The blonde had a hand on the back of Dale’s neck like a lover would, but the tension in her fingers was anything but affectionate.

The Jeep came to a stop and Dale was hauled out of the car like a bag of laundry. Her feet tripped over unfamiliar terrain, but the beefy woman kept her from falling over. She smelled a thick, unpleasant smell that she couldn’t place and wondered how three canidae were able to stand it with their stronger senses.

She heard a lock being released and then chains fell to the ground. “In here,” the redheaded leader said. She tried to place them from Ari’s report she had typed up that morning. The leader was obviously Sadie. The blonde was Beck, she was pretty sure, and the other woman had to be Pen. Dale was shoved forward and the ambient light seeping around her glasses and blindfold disappeared entirely as she was taken inside.

“Can I ask a question?”

“Why not.” Sadie’s voice was flat.

“Which of you did Ari fuck? Pen doesn’t really seem her type, so I’m thinking it was you and–“

Someone punched her in the stomach and Dale went down. She wasn’t proud of the sound she made, or the face that she immediately started to cry. She was unaccustomed to pain, and to be hurt by someone who truly meant to do you harm was worse than she could have imagined. She wondered how Ari had dealt with it earlier as she sobbed and tried to hold her stomach.

“I can’t believe you two,” Pen grumbled, keeping her voice low.

“Mind your business, Penelope,” Sadie said. She knelt down and slipped something around Dale’s neck. She heard it click, and felt two metal prongs against her throat. “Say your name.”

“Dale Fr–” Dale’s entire body convulsed as an electric charge pulsed through her body. She dropped from a kneeling position to lie prone on the floor, twitching as the last remnants of the current passed through her. She gasped, reaching up to touch what she now knew was a shock collar. Her fingers trembled as she felt the latch.

“Go ahead,” Sadie said. “Call for help as much as you want. Someone’s bound to hear you if you yell loud enough.”

Dale’s hands were chained to something sturdy and she was left on the floor again. The trio left the room and Dale heard the locks being fastened again. She pressed her face against her upper arm, too frightened to even cry for fear of setting off the shock collar again.

Hurry, Ari. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

#

It was night before Ari got back to the office. She dumped everything she’d gotten from Sadie’s house onto the couch so she could go through it later. She was feeling ragged, rushed. She dropped behind her desk and turned on the computer. While it booted up, she began sorting through her treasure trove of Sadie’s possessions. She was thumbing through a ledger when there was a quiet knock on the door. She realized she’d left the main door of the office standing open and cursed herself as she spun to face the intruder.

Natalie’s eyes widened when she saw the state Ari was in. “Whoa. Big case?”

“What are you doing here?” She went to her laptop.

“I was looking for Dale. She’s not answering her phone.” She stepped into the office. “Is everything okay? You look kind of frantic.”

Ari laughed without humor and rubbed her knuckle against one eye. “Yeah. That’s as good a word as any. Dale is, uh… Dale is…” She drummed her fingers against the desk, wavering between lies and the truth. She remembered what Dale had told her about their last date. “Dale’s in trouble, Natalie. And I’m doing everything in my power to get her safe.”

“What kind of trouble? What’s… I mean, is it something to do with the… uh…”

Ari looked at her and waited for the words to form.

“Don’t be angry at her. Dale didn’t betray you. But it’s kind of obvious if you know what to look for. My father was an alcoholic.”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

Natalie said, “It’s okay. I know what you’re going through.”

Ari straightened. “You really don’t. I’m not an alcoholic, and I don’t have any drug problems. Dale is in very serious danger, so if you don’t mind…”

Natalie stared at her for a moment and then said, “Tell me what happened.”

“I couldn’t begin to explain it all to you. Please, just trust me, okay? I’m not going to let anything happen to Dale.”

“How can I trust you? Whatever happened, Dale is in trouble because she works here. How could you let someone–“

“Let someone?” Ari’s voice was almost a growl. “You’ve known her for two months? How dare you talk to me like I’m some bad influence? How dare you act like you care about her more than I do? I loved Dale a long time before you came along. Don’t stand there and glare at me like you’re going to hurt me if something happens to her, because if it comes to that, I’ll fall on my own sword long before you get a chance to do anything. Dale is my best friend. She’s the only family I have in this world. So you can be damn sure I’m going to pull out all the stops getting her back. Or die trying.”

Natalie backed away. “I’m calling the police.”

“Do that and she dies for sure. Just let me do what I have to do. I’ll get her back.”

“How?”

Ari started to admit she had no idea, but then she took in Natalie’s outfit. Under her leather jacket, she was wearing pale blue scrubs. “You have nitrous.”

“I have what?”

“In your office. You have nitrous oxide.”

Natalie started to back away. “You’re insane.”

“It’s for Dale. I just need one tank to even the odds a little bit. Please. I’m going in there with nothing to beg for the life of my best friend. I need this. Don’t do it for me, do it for Dale. Let her see what you’re willing to do to keep her safe.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Nothing about this is fair,” Ari said, her voice breaking. “I realize what I’m asking you to do, but I’m asking anyway. I’m begging.”

They stared at each other until Ari’s phone started to ring. She didn’t break eye contact as she answered. “What?”

“I’d watch my tone if I were you, Ariadne.” Sadie’s voice was trembling with anger. “I see you dropped by. If I’d known you would be here, I would have stuck around to greet you properly.”

“Let me talk to Dale.” Natalie stepped closer to the desk.

“No snide comeback? Please, Ariadne, that’s the thing I liked most about you. That quick wit and your devil may care attitude. Have you given any thought to how you’re going to get my money? You have less than twenty-four hours now. Even taking the easy route of stealing you’re going to have to hustle to get that much money.”

“I’m getting your money now. I won’t need the full twenty-four hours.”

“Really.”

“I’m not going to let you hold Dale for an entire day, damn it. I’m getting the money together now and I want to end this as soon as possible. Let me talk to Dale.”

“That’s not possible. We moved her to a safer location. Looks like we did it just in time, too. You’d better not be playing games, Ariadne. I am deadly serious about what I’ll do to her if you cross us again. You won’t find any of us in a very forgiving mood.”

Ari was staring at Natalie across her desk. “Cut the scare tactics and tell me where to meet you.”

“You want to end this tonight, fine. Do you know where the NEST Landfill is?”

Ari typed it onto her laptop. “I’ll find it.”

“Be there at two tomorrow morning. That should give you enough time to accrue the rest of your money. We’ll make the exchange there. Come alone, come unarmed.”

Ari looked at the clock. She had six hours. “That shouldn’t be too difficult. I want proof of life before I hand over any money.”

“Of course. This is just business, after all.”

“Right.” Ari hung up and resisted the urge to hurl the phone at the wall.

Natalie finally found her voice. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“They have Dale. They want half a million dollars for her. I’m willing to hand it over.” She did a search and found the landfill in Northeast Seattle. Then she did a second search, looking for a name. When she found it, she copied down the information and folded the paper. She slipped it into her pocket and looked at Natalie. “The nitrous. If you want to just turn your back, I can break in and take it myself.”

“No. How much…” She shook her head. “I only have a couple thousand in saving. A few hundred more in my checking account. Let me try to–“

“I’m not paying them,” Ari said.

Natalie blinked at her. “They’ll kill Dale.”

“That’s not what they threatened…”

“What, then? Maim? Torture? Rape? If they want money, then let’s go get it…”

“We’re meeting them at two in the morning. You know any banks that have really lax security? No? Then they’re not getting their half mil.”

Natalie blocked Ari when she tried to leave. She grabbed Ari’s arm and squeezed. “You’re toying with her life.”

“Never. If I walk into that landfill with five hundred grand, I’m not leaving in one piece. I’ll wind up in the trunk of some car, and Dale’s body will be buried right next to mine. I’m not the one playing games. They want me running around thinking about this money. I’d be an idiot to take them at their word. Right now, Dale has until the deadline. I plan to use every second coming up with a strategy to get the upper hand.”

“And you just cut your planning time in half.”

“I cut down the time Dale will have to spend in whatever hellhole they’ve shoved her into. Get your hand off of me.”

Natalie let her go.

“Look at me, Dr. Regan. Do you honestly thing I’ll walk out of there without Dale? Either we both survive tonight, or I die along with her. And I would really, really like a tank of nitrous oxide to help level the playing field a little bit.”

Natalie reached into the pocket of her sweater and pressed a key into Ari’s palm. “In the back supply room. The big blue tanks. Be careful. It’s heavy.”

“Thank you.” Ari turned and began gathering the things she’d taken from Sadie’s house.

“If she gets hurt, I’m going to come find you to make you pay.”

Ari sighed. “If she gets hurt, you won’t have the chance.”

#
Ari got the nitrous from Natalie’s office and carefully loaded them into the backseat of her car. She found an all-night ATM and took out two hundred dollars, then repeated the withdrawal at different machines. When she had a few thousand dollars, she started hitting bars. She exchanged twenties for singles whenever she could, taking the occasional five or ten. When she was finished, she had a Hefty bag full of small bills that hung like it was full of a lot more. She stuffed that into the backseat and drove back to Lake City.

The NEST Landfill was on the west side of the neighborhood. Ari drove the perimeter a few times until she spotted Beck’s yellow Jeep in the parking lot. She parked well away from the Jeep and grabbed her things from the backseat. She had changed into a baggy white T-shirt, vest and torn jeans. She had her hair pulled back into a ponytail to keep it out of her eyes and keep her peripheral vision clear.

She had a large duffel bag that concealed the nitrous tank, and she had it strapped to her back so she could carry the bag of money and keep one hand free. The section of the landfill she was in was home to a multitude of discarded appliances, cars in varying states of decay. Ari scanned her surroundings as she walked, not eager for a sneak attack from Pen. She reached a clearing with a small wooden shack at the far end of it. Portable lights had been set up and Ari knew she’d reached her destination.

Ari dropped the bag of money and slipped the duffel bag straps off her shoulders. She gauged the wind and opened the tank. Then she pushed the bag over, letting the wind carry the fumes away from her. “All right, I’m here.” She turned in a slow circle and searched the now imposing towers of refuse all around her. “I’m a little early, but hopefully you won’t hold that against me.”

“Not at all.” Ari turned and saw Sadie coming out of the shack. She had a gun held down by her side, but Ari knew she would be able to draw it in the blink of an eye. “I like promptness. You really would have made an excellent addition to our pack.”

Ari heard footsteps on the gravel behind her, but she didn’t turn. “Pen, go join Sadie over there. I don’t want you behind me.”

“Yeah. I bet you don’t.” Pen hesitated but, after a slight nod from Sadie, circled her and walked toward the other side of the clearing. She lifted her head and looked back at Ari as she walked. “What’s that smell?”

“You’re standing in the middle of a landfill. You really have to ask?”

“Enough games. Did you bring what I asked for?”

Ari shook her head. “No.”

Sadie brought the gun up. “My mistake. I thought you liked Dale.”

“Oh, I love Dale. I didn’t bring what you wanted. I brought what you needed.” She opened the bag with her money and took out a leather-bound ledger. She held it up so they could see it in the light. “Recognize this? Really stupid to leave one of these ledgers lying out when you have a guest in the house.” Sadie’s eyes widened in recognition. “I knew that you would take Dale with you if I forced you out of the house this afternoon. But I wasn’t after her. I wanted these ledgers.” She opened it and flipped pages. “Nice details. What did you say your boss was called? Vicki? Think she would be upset if she found out you guys had skimmed, ah…” She flipped to the back. “A hundred grand, judging from this book. I think she might be a little annoyed at all of you. Be a shame if someone told her.”

“You don’t know–“

“I’m talking. I said it would be a shame if someone were to drop by Victoria Fennick’s home and drop off a few of these ledgers. Or put them in a package addressed to her home in Mount Baker, or her offices in Beacon Hill. Packages that are set to go out unless I call them before eight tomorrow morning and stop them.”

Pen laughed and Sadie twisted to look at her. She turned back to Ari and glared. “You just killed your friend.”

“No. You asked me if Dale’s life was worth half a million dollars to me. She is worth so much more. She is worth your life, and Pen’s, and Beck’s. I will destroy all three of you if Dale is even scratched. I’ll bury you all. Now put down the damn gun and go get my friend.”

“I think you need to stop making demands, wolf.” Ari and Sadie both turned toward Beck’s voice. She came in from a second entrance, the barrel of her gun pressed against the soft flesh under Natalie’s chin. Beck smiled. “Who is this lovely young thing? Your backup? Was she supposed to cover you with that peashooter she had in her car?” She sniffed Natalie’s neck and said, “She smells like the redhead. Maybe Sadie and I weren’t the only threesome you’ve had recently. Hand over the ledger, Ariadne.”

Ari tossed the ledger she had been holding into the center of the clearing. She was inwardly cursing herself for saying the name of the landfill out loud while Natalie was in the room. “You shouldn’t have followed me, Natalie.”

Sadie moved forward and picked up the ledger. “Where are the others?”

“Give me Dale.”

“You’re negotiating for two now,” Beck said. “Unless you want to take Dale home and let us take care of this little inconvenience for you. What do you say? You and Dale, mourning together? Falling madly in bed.” Beck’s lips split in an insane grin. “It might be kind of sweet, actually.”

“Oh, my God.” Pen was almost in hysterics. Tears were streaming down her face as she pointed at Natalie. “She’s a dentist.”

Sadie said, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Laughing gas,” Beck and Pen said at the same time.

Over the next few seconds, all hell broke loose.

Sadie and Beck both aimed their guns at Ari.

Natalie, freed from gunpoint, balled both hands into fists and twisted at the waist to bury her elbow in Beck’s stomach.

Beck went down, firing blindly at some point between Ari and Natalie.

Natalie nearly fell but scrambled to the relative safety of one passageway between towers of trash.

Ari dropped to all fours and began to transform, while Sadie and Pen did the same.

Transforming while clothed was like trying to run inside a sleeping bag. While the cotton tried to retain the form of a typical human, the body within it was shifting, shrinking and rearranging in a violent progression. Ari kicked her jeans away with canine legs, shaking her fur in a futile attempt to get the T-shirt off. Fortunately it was big enough that it didn’t impede her movement.

Pen, in full boxer form two full seconds before Ari’s transformation was done, raced across the clearing. Ari twisted to face her and ducked at the last second. She scooted under the bulk of Pen’s body and bucked upward, knocking Pen off her trajectory. She landed in a heap behind Ari, who was already racing across the space toward Sadie. They collided in an explosion of brown and red fur, Ari raising on her hind legs as she swiped at Sadie’s face with her forepaws.

Beck came from the right and viciously bit Ari’s back leg. Ari yelped and felt blood on her fur, but she just dropped her hips and kicked with both back legs. She caught Beck on the chin and knocked her aside, a part of her brain realizing that the three of them were mimicking the position they had taken the night before.

Ari’s back foot had cut open part of Beck’s snout, and blood darkened her muzzle as she went in for another attack. Ari closed her teeth around Sadie’s throat but didn’t bite down. It was just a warning, a threat of what she could do if she wanted to. Call them off.

We’ll tear you and your friend both to pieces.

Ari tightened her jaw and felt the points of her teeth sinking into soft flesh.

Get back, Sadie thought loud enough that it was like a spike in Ari’s brain. Pen and Beck growled as they backed away. Ari saw her blood on Beck’s muzzle, mingled with her own blood from the cut next to her nose.

Dale. Dale. Dale. It was all Ari could think, and she knew the message was getting through because Sadie began to back away.

Ari stayed with her, growling as she kept her jaw closed around Sadie’s throat. It forced them to move awkwardly, Ari occasionally tripping over her hind legs as she backed toward the small shack. She turned her head as much as she could and saw Beck following at a safe distance. Pen was lagging behind, her head down as she brushed her snout with her front paws and sneezed as the gas continued to affect her functions.

The gas was starting to diffuse in the open air, but Ari could still smell it. They reached the shack and Sadie bumped the door open with the top of her head. It swung open and Ari looked inside. Dale was sitting on the floor, her hands cuffed to a wooden support beam. She was wearing a collar, and she sat up straighter when she saw who was at the door.

Ari let go of Sadie’s throat to bark a greeting, unable to restrain her happiness as seeing Dale relatively uninjured.

“Ar–” It was all Dale could get out before she cried out in pain. Her body bowed and her hands fought the cuffs in an attempt to grab at the collar and pull it away from her skin. The reason for Dale’s warning was Pen, who closed her jaws around Ari’s tail and dragged her back out of the cabin. Ari yelped and twisted onto her back to see droplets of blood fall from Pen’s mouth. Beck pounced on Ari, knocking the wind from her.

Sadie got to her feet and raced into the cabin, baring her teeth as she ran straight for Dale.

Ari panicked. Her transformation was half over before she realized it had started, and she rolled onto her hands and knees and ran for the fox. Sadie opened her mouth wide, saliva glistening on her fangs as she lunged for Dale’s exposed foot.

Ari clubbed Sadie on the head, and the fox went down heavy and hard. Beck slammed into Ari from behind and the three of them fell, rolling with Sadie wrapped in her arms and Beck clinging to her back. Ari slammed Beck against the wall, her hands closed around Sadie’s muzzle as she fought to get free.

Pen stalked toward Dale. Dale had pushed herself back up into a sitting position, recovered from her electrocution if a little foggy. She kicked with one foot and caught Pen on the muzzle, but Pen just shook it off. She closed her jaw around Dale’s ankle.

The room became extremely still. Ari felt Beck’s teeth digging into her skin, felt the blood drip. So far Pen hadn’t bitten hard enough to draw blood, hadn’t started the procedure. Ari licked her lips and released Sadie. Sadie slid away from Ari, shook her fur, and moved across the floor to where Dale was sitting.

The weight of Beck sitting on her was becoming uncomfortable. Sadie transformed back into her human form, rolling her neck. She was naked save for her tattered underwear and blouse. She looked between Dale and Ari. “Well. It was an admirable attempt, but look where we are. Right back where we started. Tell us how to stop the ledgers from going out, and I’ll tell Beck to kill you slowly.”

Beck growled; she obviously wasn’t keen on that deal.

“Let Dale go now. Right now. And we’ll discuss it.”

Ari was shaking her head.

Sadie nodded to Pen, who released Dale’s foot and backed slowly away. Once she was a safe distance from Dale, too far to lunge and bite her again, Ari reached back and grabbed a handful of Beck’s pelt. She flung herself forward like she was going to do a somersault and tossed Beck over her. Beck’s nails tore Ari’s skin and blood flowed freely down her back, but she didn’t stop to focus on the pain. As Beck tumbled through the air, Ari staggered forward and tackled Sadie. They hit the ground as Beck landed on Pen, and the two canidae yelped and twisted as they tried to get away from each other.

The door to the shack opened and Natalie stepped inside. “What the… God in…”

“Get Dale,” Ari said. “Get the collar off of her and don’t let anyone bite her.”

Natalie stepped around Pen and Beck, whose canidae minds had taken over and caused them to start grappling. Ari only had seconds before they came back to their senses. She grabbed a handful of Sadie’s short red hair and held her still before headbutting her. The impact left them both dazed, but Sadie was worse off. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she went limp. Ari looked up as Natalie got Dale’s hands free and the two of them started for the door.

Beck twisted and snapped at Dale’s leg as she walked past.

Dale kicked her in the head.

“Dale! What–” Natalie twisted toward Ari in time to see her transformation begin. She screamed as she watched Ari’s skin ripple and tear, becoming thicker and haired as she crouched on top of Sadie’s limp body. Dale pushed Natalie out into the fresh air. She shut the door behind her, the latch clicking with a sense of finality.

Ari, fully wolf now, looked at the two dogs scowling at her from the door. Just us bitches now.

Beck and Pen got to their feet and Ari climbed off Sadie’s body and backed into the corner. She bared her teeth in a snarl as she thought about what they had planned to do to Dale. Behind them, she saw Sadie roll over onto her stomach and touch her forehead. It would only be a matter of seconds before she was recovered enough to transform into the fox again. Ari had that long to end the fight with the shepherd and boxer before the odds got even worse.

Bring it on.

The dogs howled as they pounced on her.

#

Natalie’s fingers were tender, soft and cold against her neck. Dale kept her eyes closed and focused on her pulse throbbing against the collar. If she was capable of speech, it would have consisted of three words urgently repeated. “Get it off.” Natalie pinched Dale’s skin and whispered an apology, her voice trembling on the verge of insanity. Finally, the latch came free and the collar fell away. Dale cried out with relief and grabbed Natalie, hugging her tightly. She was sitting on the back of a junked car, with Natalie between her legs, and Dale never wanted to leave that spot although she knew she would have to.

“Thank you.”

Natalie just nodded. They held each other, Dale’s grip too strong to be broken by any conventional means. She breathed deep, replacing the stink of the past day with Natalie’s freshly scrubbed odor. Dale wished she had an idea what Natalie was thinking, what was in her mind. She was too afraid to ask and confirm her fears, so she just stayed silent. The adrenaline that had gotten her through the past thirteen hours was fading, leaving her exhausted and terrified. She wanted a bath. She wanted a long, long sleep. She wanted… Ari.

She lifted her head and looked back the way they’d come. “We have to help her.”

“I… the gas…”

“It will have dissipated by now.” She eased out of the embrace with obvious reluctance.

“No.” Natalie was shaking her head vehemently. “You don’t want to see what I saw. It was…” She swallowed a lump in her throat. “It was the worst hallucination you could imagine, Dale. I don’t want you to see that.”

Hallucination. Thank God. Dale touched Natalie’s cheek. “She came for me. I have to go help her.”

Natalie pressed her forehead against Dale’s. She was crying when she pulled away and walked a few feet down the path. When she returned, she had a shotgun in her hand.

“Take this.”

“Thank you. Call the police. Ask for Officer Bryn Decker, make sure she’s here.”

Natalie nodded. Dale slipped off the back of the car and almost fell. She righted herself against the trunk, waited until her head stopped swimming, and then set off down the path. Though Natalie had brought her down the trail only a few minutes before, she felt like she was walking somewhere she had once seen in a dream. Her mind was hazy and uncertain, and the moonlight seemed far too bright to be real. She felt nauseated when she reached the shack and put it off to remnants of the gas in the clearing. She took shallow breaths and pushed the door open with the barrel of her gun.

Three women and a dog were inside the room. All of them were covered with blood and none were moving. The gun shook in Dale’s hand as she moved into the room, identifying Ari by her hair. She knelt and touched her shoulder and softly, almost too softly to be heard, she said, “Ariadne?”

Natalie appeared in the door again. “Oh, no. Dale.” She looked away from the carnage. “I-I called the police. They’re on the way.”

“Call an ambulance, too.” Dale’s eyes were wet with tears. “And the coroner.”

#

The nurse was a vixen. She was wearing green scrubs under a heavy jacket with the caduceus on the chest. Her red hair and bright blue eyes gave her away first, and Ari realized she couldn’t smell. She couldn’t move. She was strapped to a gurney that was being moved across rough ground, and it was the jarring that had brought her around. The fox looked down at her and smiled, lightly touching Ari’s wrist. Ari looked down and saw she still had all ten fingers. Ha. I won that round, Beck. She dropped her head back to the pillow, exhausted from the strain of even lifting her head a few inches.

“Sorry about the rough ride,” the nurse whispered. “We’re almost there.”

Ari shook her head. “Happy to be around to be bounced around.”

The nurse stroked Ari’s hair. “Help me get her up.”

They lifted the gurney into the back of an ambulance and Ari squinted at the bright lights overhead. The doors closed with a slam and the nurse moved up toward the front of the truck. “We’re going to Basin Medical Center.”

“Harborview is closer.”

“My name is Monica Seward, and this is a special situation. We’re taking her to Basin.”

The driver looked back at Ari, shrugged, and the ambulance came to life around her. Monica knelt near Ari’s head and took her hand.

“How are we feeling?”

“Where’s Dale?”

“She’s the one who told me about you. She said you were special.”

Ari closed her eyes. “The others…”

“Dr. Regan is fine, but she’s being treated for exposure to nitrous oxide.” She glanced toward the front of the cab. “You killed one of the women you were fighting. She had a record. Penelope Hurst.”

Ari remembered exactly the moment Pen had died. It was going to haunt her for quite a while. But Sadie and Beck… they’d survived. The thought struck fear in her. “What about the others?”

“They’re receiving treatment at the scene from some of our people. They’ll be held and questioned by the police.”

Ari wet her lips with her tongue. “I think I won.”

Monica squeezed Ari’s hand. “I think you did, too.”

Ari relaxed and let herself drift off. She trusted Monica to take care of things while she took a little nap. Just long enough to clear her head and maybe forget about some of what she had done in the shack.

#

Bryn stayed away until Ari’s third night in the hospital. It was a special hospital with a designated wing for “special patients.” Ari’s roommate on her second night was an elderly Great Dane with a bacterial infection. He was moved by the second day and she’d been alone since then.

Bryn was there when Ari woke up, hunched in the visitor’s chair and looking forlorn and guilty. She glanced up when Ari moved, happiness and wariness vying for dominance on her face. Finally she stood and moved closer to the bed. She put her hand on Ari’s arm, and Ari thought, Cat. Her sense of smell was back. Her brain was still foggy; the doctors said that was a side effect of exposure to the gas.

“Hey.”

Ari nodded a greeting.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d… if I was welcome. So I kind of stayed away as long as I could. The department cut you a check for your work. It won’t cover everything you went through, but hopefully it’ll… it’ll make things a little more bearable.”

“We should break up.”

Bryn looked surprised, but only at how blunt the words had been. She nodded. “Yeah. I was kind of thinking the same thing. I didn’t want… and after this…”

“Long time coming.”

“Yeah,” Bryn said again.

“Did you get ’em?”

The silence was so long that Ari started to get scared. If they’d gotten away, if Dale was still in trouble while she was lying here defenseless…

“We got them. Sadie Dillon and Rebecca Collier are in custody. Penelope Hurst is dead.”

Somehow Ari doubted that was the full extent of the story, but she was too tired to push. As long as they were in jail, she could rest her eyes.

#

It was night, and raining, when Ari woke again. Dale was asleep in the empty bed next to her. Ari stared at her and fell asleep waiting for Dale to wake.

#

Ari was released from the hospital five days later. Dale had brought her clean clothes and she changed into them before signing the waiver that said she was leaving against medical advice. The doctor warned her not to transform for at least another week, and Ari had no problem making the promise. She wondered if she would ever willingly transform again. She took the bus home, no longer sure where her car was, and crashed in her own bed.

The next morning, she woke up early and dressed. She was careful of her bandaged wounds, moving gingerly to avoid aggravating the wounds on her calves. Beck had caused those injuries. Ari had thought she was trying to tear her apart piece by piece. Maybe she was. She ached at the memory and pushed it aside as she left her apartment.

The blood transfusion she’d gotten at the hospital had been very carefully selected. A canidae blood donor was matched on type, species, and breed. Blood from a normal person would interact badly with her canidae blood, and a transfusion from a different breed of canidae would have caused a volatile mix that would cause intense pain the next time she transformed. Smarter canidae banked their own blood, but Ari had never bothered. She nearly died of blood loss because of her oversight, and she made a vow that she would start as soon as possible.

The office was a welcome sight. It felt like home. She made a quick circuit of the space, touching the little tchotchkes and mementos she had put up but never really looked at anymore. Each one had a memory, and she realized that Sadie had been dead wrong.

She wasn’t a wild animal. She wasn’t a wolf. She was a person with an amazing ability. She picked up a packet of ketchup and smiled. Her first meal with Dale, a Big Mac torn apart and devoured off the street. Dale Frye, facing down three punks and then rescuing a dog that could have been wild and feral. That was the kind of person Dale was.

“You look good in here.”

Ari smiled and turned around. Dale was leaning against the door frame, her hair hanging loose. She wore a lilac-colored top and a long purple skirt. There were no physical marks on her from her ordeal and, in fact, she looked like a vision.

“I was just thinking about you.”

“Only good things, I hope.”

“Always.” She put down the ketchup and walked to her desk. “How’s Natalie handling things?”

Dale sighed as she sat across from Ari. “She still insists she hallucinated most of what she saw in the landfill. All that matters is that I’m safe. And that I stay safe.”

Ari had been afraid of that, and looked down at her hands. “Ah.”

“Don’t ‘ah’ me, Ariadne Willow. Don’t go making my decisions for me.”

Ari frowned. “But… if she wants you to leave…”

“Then maybe she doesn’t love me as much as she thought she did.” Her voice cracked a little. “If we can’t work this out, then it’s a deal-breaker.”

“What if I fire you?”

“Then I’ll hate you and resent her.”

They were silent for a long time.

“Did you hear about Sadie?”

Ari shook her head. Bryn had tried to tell her a few times, but Ari never wanted to hear it. She could tell from Bryn’s expression that whatever she was going to say was just going to make her mad.

“She made a deal.”

“Motherfucker.” She slapped her hand down on the desk and stood up. She faced the window and rested her forehead against the glass with her eyes closed.

Dale sighed. “She gave evidence against Victoria Fennick. They shut down her entire organization. Eighteen thieves throughout Seattle, the majority of them canidae or felidae. It was a huge thing, Ari. Bryn is getting a commendation, and we are getting the biggest check I have ever seen.”

“Not worth it.”

“No. We won’t forget what happened any time soon, but the money will be a good start.”

“What’s going to happen to Sadie now?”

Dale leaned back. “Witness protection.”

She’ll be out there somewhere. Looking for vengeance.

Ari sat down and looked across the desk at Dale. They had both been badly beaten. Ari’s relationship with Bryn had been completely destroyed. Dale’s relationship with Natalie was on life support. A sadistic bitch was out there in the world somewhere with nothing but time to plot and plan and figure out how to get back at the women who had destroyed her whole life. Ari shook her head and tried not to be despondent, but it was difficult.

“We went through all of that, for what? Some money in the bank? What do we have to show for it?”

Dale shrugged. “We have each other. We went through all that, and we’re still here.”

Ari wanted to scoff, wanted to shake her head in refusal and claim that it only meant they were right back where they started. But it was the truth. They had gone through hell, and they’d both come out the other side. Not unscathed. But together.

That would be enough. At least for the moment.

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