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Jun 02

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Packs of Dogs and Cigarettes

Summary

Ari is hired to find a girl who seems to have vanished into thin air, but the investigation leads to her own past.

Ari used the key given to her by Candace’s mother. She closed the door behind her, pocketed the key, and looked around the small space. Candace Weber lived in a refurbished attic, and the peak of the roof created a slant across the right-hand side of the room. Candace’s bed was on the pinched side, with the head of her bed facing a round window that looked out over the wooded area behind the house.

Ari had waited for the owner to be at work before she snooped around so she wouldn’t have to deal with the landlord. Candace’s mother, Nora, didn’t want to alarm anyone if it turned out her daughter wasn’t really missing, so Ari was investigating her disappearance as quietly as possible. The kitchen and living room shared a space, with the dining room table stopping mere inches from the arm of the sofa. Ari slipped between them and sat on the edge of the sofa, leaning forward to go through the mail on the table.

Candace Weber was a former Seattle University student majoring in environmental studies. She stopped going to classes three months ago and, since then, her weekly visits home had dwindled to nothing. After two weeks without so much as a phone call, Nora was concerned something bad had happened.

The mail was the basic junk mail fare, with coupons and advertisements outweighing the bills and personal correspondence. The wall across from the couch was decorated with framed photographs that clustered around a stereo system. She looked around for a television, but there didn’t seem to be one in the apartment. Ari stood and examined the pictures.

Most of them were of friends, but Candace’s mother was also represented. Candace herself was only in a handful of photos: her dirty blonde hair was usually tied back, but in a few pictures it had been left loose around her face to frame the strong lines of her square jaw. Her eyes were wide, either green or blue depending on the lighting and what she was wearing, and her smile always seemed just a little too forced.

After leaving college, Candace went to work for as the receptionist for a real-estate company, but the bosses told Ari she hadn’t been to work in over a week. Ari looked away from the pictures at the tidy, quiet apartment, and began to accept she was dealing with something more serious than a girl who was just drifting away from her mother.

Ari made sure the apartment door was locked and then stripped out of her clothes. She left them draped over the back of the couch and, just under two minutes later, stood in the center of the space on four legs. She shook her body, ruffling her deep chestnut-colored fur and stretching her canidae muscles as she lifted her snout and sniffed.

The air was now alive with flavors and scents, so thick that she could almost see them swirling together in the empty space. The thickest smell was Candace, and Ari memorized it quickly. The scent would be as identifiable as a photograph. Body wash, perfume, shampoo and sweat mingled to make an odor as unique as a fingerprint. It wasn’t as simple as calling it “apples” or “vanilla and strawberries,” although that was a part of it. The smell could only be called candaceweber.

Once she had Candace’s scent isolated, she began focusing on other smells. The living room was abundant, of course, but faded with time. She could almost see three different people sitting on the couch. The armchair was apparently Candace’s spot. Someone had spent many hours stretched out on the couch, and Ari assumed it was an overnight male guest. She padded into the bedroom and was surprised to find a minimum of evidence of sexual activity. Ari stood on her hind legs and pushed around the blankets with her nose. The bedding had been freshly laundered, but the only recent activity had been solo.

She nosed open the drawer and found a few erotic novels and a vibrating egg. At the back of the drawer she found a photograph of a black-haired girl with thick eyebrows and a killer smile, wrapped in warm clothes but waving a bare hand at whomever was taking the picture. Ari pushed the drawer shut with the top of her head and wandered into the bathroom. She searched the counter, and then went to the closet.

Only a few outfits seemed to be missing, but the gaps could easily have been explained by thrift or donating clothes she didn’t wear anymore without replacing them. Still, she couldn’t discount the stale scents in the air. Ari went back into the living room and transformed back into a woman, grunting with heavy, hard breaths as her muscles pulled her bones into new shapes. Something popped in her jaw and she cried out, shaking her head as it snapped into the right position.

She cursed under her breath and rubbed her cheek, working her jaw as the soreness subsided. Her skin was clammy with sweat, and she took a second to catch her breath before she retrieved her clothes. Once she was dressed, she took out her phone and dialed Dale’s number.

“It’s me.”

“Did you have any trouble getting into the apartment?”

“No.” She looked around the empty space. “But I think we’re looking at runaway as a best-case scenario.” Runaways were a pain to deal with, but Ari still preferred it to the alternative. Even though there was no bad guy involved, convincing someone who had left home by choice to go back was sometimes impossible.

 

 

Byron’s Boatswain was a seafood restaurant that overlooked Elliott Bay. Dale was waiting outside when Ari showed up, and they walked in together. The lunch rush was over, so they were able to get a table with a view. Dale waited until they ordered and the waitress had moved out of earshot before she asked her question. “So do you think she left, or was she abducted?”

“It’s looking more like she just left. Her car wasn’t in the parking lot, and everything seemed to be in order. She might have packed some clothes, but it was kind of hard to tell. I’m going to check out some of the places where the younger runaways go. Candace is in her twenties, but she looks young. Maybe the teenagers would accept her as one of their own.”

Dale worried her lip with her teeth. “Are you going to be okay going back into that world? It’s been a while since you were a disaffected teenage runaway.”

“Not that long ago,” Ari said.

“Okay, only ten years physically. But emotionally, you’re an entirely different person than you were when you left home.”

Ari shrugged. “I can handle it. Things could be scary back then, but I have a secret weapon now that I didn’t then.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“You.”

Dale smiled. “I’ll do my best to keep you safe, then.” The waitress returned and delivered their meals. They ate in silence for a while before Dale spoke again. “You also have a secret weapon with Candace, you know. You’ve been in her shoes. You know what would have worked if someone had come looking for you, and what would have just pushed you farther away.”

“Yeah. Only difference there is that no one bothered to come looking for me.”

Dale looked down at her food.

“But you’re right. I’ll just have to approach her the way I would have wanted to be approached. And if she wants to stay gone…”

“Stay gone?”

“She’s an adult, Dale. It’s not like she climbed out of her bedroom window. I’m not going to rescue someone who doesn’t want to be rescued. Mrs. Weber hired me to make sure she was safe. I’ll do that, and I’ll talk to her about how hard it’s going to be. But if she wants to stay where she is, I won’t drag her out by her ankles.”

“I guess that makes sense. If someone had dragged you back home, who knows where you would have ended up?”

Ari nodded and looked out the window. “There’s a chance she ran for a reason. Her life seemed pretty together, but something could have caused her to run. It could get dangerous.”

Dale nodded. “I’ll still have your back.”

“Thanks.”

“How are you feeling? Did you have to change at the apartment?”

Ari nodded. “Yeah, but I’m okay. Just a quick back and forth, so it wasn’t so bad.” She sipped her water. “I’ll track down some of Candace’s friends this afternoon to see if they might know where she did. Once it starts getting later, I’ll hit the streets and see what I can find out. Could be a long night.”

“Then I’ll take a nap while you’re running around.”

Ari smiled. “Thanks, Dale. It means a lot to me.”

“It’s cool. I like it when we get to work at night. It’s like we’re on Spenser: For Hire or something.”

Ari laughed and gestured at Dale’s plate. “Then eat up, Hawk. We have a big night ahead of us.”

 

 

Chloe Jensen worked at Dumb Witness Books, a small building near the Space Needle. She was a tiny woman, standing only as high as Ari’s shoulder, and her dark skin almost made her blend in with the tall wooden shelves that filled her workplace.

She asked if she could keep working while Ari talked to her, and Ari said it was fine by her. She opened a cardboard box of books with a utility knife and knelt on the floor to restock a shelf of fantasy novels. “Candace didn’t have a lot of interests. She was kind of the tagalong of the group. If someone else wanted to go bowling, she would go bowling. But she wasn’t one to suggest stuff. The only time she really got excited was for aquariums and zoos, but I think they just made her sad. Animals in cages, right?” She shrugged, pushed her glasses up her nose with the knuckle of her middle fingers, and put another three books on the shelf.

“Sometimes she’ll go out camping by herself. Environmental studies major, right? But she always made time to call her mom.” She looked like she’d just given herself a revelation. “Oh, God. I mean. If her mom’s worried, then something might really have happened to her, huh?”

 

 

Clifford Dorsey bought Ari a cup of coffee and set it in front of her as he sat down across the narrow table. “She was a frickin’ mystery, you know? Like, I’m not at all surprised a private investigator showed up in… you know, the story of her life. Most people, it would be weird to have a PI sniffing around. What did you say your name was?” He waved away before she could answer and sipped his coffee.

“Candace and I dated for about four months, off and on. More off than on. Sometimes I got the feeling she was only dating me because… you know, that’s what people do. They date and they have boyfriends or girlfriends. But she never seemed to interested in really doing boyfriend and girlfriend stuff. We went out in groups, if we went out at all, and sometimes we would have study dates at her place. And I mean study dates. Usually that would be a euphemism, but not with this chick. I was at the table and she was on the couch, and we did… like… actual school work. We didn’t even have the same classes, so we couldn’t work together. It was like dates I had in, like, the third grade.

“But no, we weren’t broken up. I didn’t call around about her because… that’s just Candace. She disappears sometimes. And I’m used to it, you know. ‘Hey, Cliffie, you heard from Candace?’ ‘Nah, man, not for a week or two,’ you know? It’s common. I think her mom’s just being… you know… paranoid.”

Ari could see his expression change as he said the last word, and she could tell that it was wishful thinking masquerading as bravado. She knew that if something had happened to Candace, he would never forgive himself for not being more worried. She thanked him for his time and left without drinking her coffee.

 

 

Ari knew that even with the best outfit and sob story, any newcomer to the ranks of runaways would be treated with suspicion. At dusk, Dale drove Ari to a spot a near Union Square. A few blocks away was the entrance to a park where Ari had spent many nights right after leaving home, and she hoped it was still popular after recent efforts at gentrification. The park was also near Candace’s university, so it seemed like a logical place to start the search.

Ari was in the backseat in a pair of baggy jeans and an oversized T-shirt. Dale kept a lookout as Ari shed the jeans and pulled the shirt over her head. “Do I have a stash around here?”

Dale nodded and kept her face turned toward the window. “Down Seneca Street, there’s an empty business park. It has a circular copse of trees in the plaza out front. Your bag is buried under some mulch in the center of the circle.”

“Okay. Thanks, Dale. Put in your headphones.”

Dale pushed the earbuds in and turned up the volume. She always hated witnessing Ari’s transformations, but the last time she had become physically nauseated at the sounds Ari had made while in transition. After she was fully in wolf form, Ari reached her head over the front seat and nudged Dale’s head, nuzzling her cheek until she pulled the headphones free. “I’ll be waiting on Seneca in three hours. But if the cops move me along and I have to leave, give me a call and I’ll come running.”

Ari huffed her understanding. Dale twisted in the seat and reached to open the back door. Ari jumped out onto the pavement and trotted around the back of the car to the sidewalk. She looked back and saw Dale watching her, barked once, and then hurried on.

The park had more streetlights than she remembered, and they were slowly illuminating as she padded aimlessly onward. She kept her jaw loose so that her mouth hung open. A panting dog was a non-threatening dog and, before long, the pedestrians she passed were trying to call her to them and patting their thighs to draw her closer. She ignored them and followed the stone steps down into the heart of the park.

Night fell slowly, with shadows growing and combining to make darkness in the trees all around her. Concrete walls rose and curled around themselves like aborted attempts at creating a labyrinth, and it was in these nooks and crannies that Ari had bedded down for so many nights a third of her life ago. She always traveled light, just in case she had to abandon camp at a moment’s notice, but she’d had a few treasures. She figured out how to strap a sleeping bag and a small satchel of personal supplies onto her back before she transformed, and she spent most of her waking hours as the wolf.

Her paws sank into grass that was still wet from the last big rainfall, her senses alighting with the familiar atmosphere of the park. She was transported back, and fought the urge to take off running across the grass toward the sound of falling water or the cars rushing along the freeway that the park straddled. She had a mission, so she focused her human mind on it and left the wolf mind occupied with the smells of their brief long-ago home.

As the night grew deeper, the power walkers and joggers soon disappeared from the paths. There was a lull of silence when no one was visible in any direction, but then they started to come. A young man wore a knit cap despite the relatively warm weather, built himself a nest in the corner of one alcove. He used an old-fashioned oil lantern to see by, sitting with his back to the wall as he pulled out a book and started to read. He was followed by two men walking close to each other, staking out a place that would be shaded in the morning before they took off their bags and settled in for the night. They greeted the Reader, who waved politely before going back to his novel.

Ari wandered. She found people lying down on the wooden benches built into blocks of concrete, and people who casually stretched out on the steps like they were simply resting their legs for a moment if a security patrol happened by. One woman in a pageboy cap pointed at her.

“Oh, my God. Adam, it’s a wolf.”

“There aren’t any wolves in the city. It’s just a dog. A big dog…”

“No, that is… that’s a wolf.”

“It seems friendly enough. Just leave him alone. Come on.”

Ari continued on past the couple. As she moved through the thick trees, she heard the sounds of romantic entanglement. She listened long enough to know it was consensual before she moved on. She nearly passed a girl in ripped jeans without a second glance, but something about her smell was familiar. The girl’s head was down, her black hair covering her face, but when she looked up Ari recognized the thick eyebrows from the photo in Candace’s drawer.

She huffed a bark and the girl turned, frowning when she saw the dog approaching her. She backed up when Ari got too close. “No. Bad dog. Please don’t.”

Ari stopped and lifted her right paw, adding a whimper to show she wasn’t dangerous. The girl stared at her for a second and then looked around.

“A-are you lost? Do you have a collar?” She moved forward one step, and Ari remained where she was. Finally the girl crouched in front of her and tentatively touched her head. She stroked her hand down and frowned at the lack of collar. “Hi there. You’re a nice pup, huh? Did someone lose you?”

“Serena.”

The girl’s face hardened and she stroked Ari’s cheek. “Maybe you can help me out, huh? Look threatening, if you can.” She stood up and faced the gaunt, red-haired man that was approaching her. “Hey, Shaggy.”

He looked past her at Ari. “Whoa. Nice… dog.”

“Don’t worry about him.”

Ari stood up and moved to sit in front of Serena, a move that made Shaggy back up a step. He held out both hands.

“Easy. I just wanted to talk.”

“Well, talk. If I like what you say, maybe I won’t have Cujo here run you off.”

Shaggy grimaced and put his hands down, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Look, I’ve given your girl–”

“She’s not my girl.”

“Your whatever, then. Your friend. I’ve given her a lot of chances, and I’m about out of patience. I don’t want to be threatening.” He looked down at Ari and quickly away. “I have people I gotta answer to myself. It’s making me look bad. I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

Serena said, “When I find her, I’ll tell her you’re looking for her. But hassling me every time I come down here isn’t going to help you find her any faster, so just back off. All right?”

Shaggy ran his hand over his face and shook his head. “I’m not a hard-ass, Serena, but there are people above me who are. She wants to deal with me, not them, and the longer this drags out, the more likely it is they’ll cut out the middle man. They’ll just come after her themselves, and they’re not as nice as me. Got it?”

“I said I got it. I’m not going to find her standing around here watching you try to act tough. Let me look.”

“Fine.” He started backing away, one eye locked on Ari the entire time. “Hope that thing is part bloodhound.”

Once he was gone, Serena knelt next to Ari and rubbed her back. “Thanks, pal.” She glanced down and chuckled. “Oh. I guess you’re a girl. Girl bodyguard. I kind of like that.” She kissed Ari on the cheek and watched Shaggy disappear into the crowd. Hey… if you’re out here by yourself, I could use a hand. What do you say? You want to help me find my friend?”

Ari stood up and wagged her tail.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Come on.” She zipped up her coat and started up the path in the direction Ari had just come from. Serena reached into the pocket of her coat and pulled out a picture of Candace. She held it up in front of Ari’s face. “See? Isn’t she pretty? I’m ninety percent sure she’s here somewhere, but I just can’t get the timing right. And I can’t stay out here searching for her every night, because I’ve missed too much class as it is.” Her voice broke and she turned in a circle, looking helplessly at the trees on either side of the path. “Damn it, doggy.”

Ari stepped forward and bumped Serena’s free hand. Serena smoothed the palm over Ari’s skull and sniffled. “Yeah. Okay, let’s go.”

Serena spoke to at least a dozen of the people bedding down in the park, always asking the same thing. “Have you seen this woman? Do you know anyone that knows a Candace Weber?” As they talked, Ari would sniff around the campsites. Now and then she would pick up a trace of Candace’s scent, but in such a heavily-trafficked outdoor area, the pieces were nothing to get excited about and nowhere near strong enough to track.

When a pair of security officers passed on the path, Serena stepped into the shadows and waited until they passed before they continued on. If the confrontation with Shaggy was any indication, Candace was most likely in some sort of trouble. Ari let Serena lead her back to a sparsely populated area where she sat on one of the few benches not occupied by a sleeping person. She pulled her feet up onto the bench and wrapped both arms around her legs, resting her cheek against her knees in despair.

Ari joined her on the bench and rested her head on Serena’s shoulder. Serena chuckled and wiped her cheek as she turned to look at Ari. “You’re definitely someone’s pet, huh? Well, I’m glad you got out tonight. It was nice having a mascot to run around with. And you made me feel safe. I wish you were a bloodhound, though.” She put her arm around Ari’s neck and nuzzled her cheek. “I’m so worried for her, dog. I thought I’d find her the first night, but it’s been so long…”

She sniffled and let go of Ari. “I’ve gotta find her. It’s my fault she’s out here in the first place. If something happens to her, I’ll… I’ll just…” She shook her head and looked down at her shoes. “I just have to find her.”

Ari sat up straight and barked quietly. Serena looked at her and smiled.

“Offering up your services?”

Ari brushed her hand over her snout in a mimic of a salute, and Serena laughed. “I’m happy to enlist you, then. I wish you had a collar so I could stick a note under it for her in case she finds you.” She put her feet on the ground and rubbed her hands together. The night had grown chillier, and Ari pressed against Serena’s side in an effort to share her warmth. Serena stared down at her and then scratched her behind the ear.

“Maybe you’re not a message to her, maybe you’re for me. Maybe you’re here to tell me I can let go a little bit. God knows I’m sick of running into that Shaggy asshole.”

Ari chuffed and Serena twisted to face her. She looked into Ari’s eyes.

“Okay, pup. I’m going to go home and sleep. And tomorrow I’ll go to class. But I’ll swing by here on the way home. If Candace really did send you, then you tell her I haven’t given up.” She smiled and rolled her eyes. “God, I really have gone over the edge. I need to sleep. Don’t let me down, dog. I’m counting on you.”

Ari dipped her head in a nod and Serena’s eyes widened.

“You did not just nod at me.”

Ari barked, and Serena kissed her between the eyes. “Good puppy. I’m glad I met you tonight. Go on. Find Candace. Report back to me in the morning.”

Ari jumped off the bench and trotted to the stairs. She paused at the next landing and looked back to see Serena was watching her. Ari yipped and barked quietly, and Serena waved at her. Ari turned, swished her tail, and ascended the stairs like a dog on a mission. She could vaguely hear the sound of Serena laughing incredulously behind her.

When she was far enough away that Serena wouldn’t see her, Ari doubled back. Shaggy reeked of pot and unwashed male, a scent that wasn’t exactly unique in the park after sundown, but she thought she might be able to get a fix. The grass had recently been mowed, which interfered with her ability to track, but she pushed through it.

Eventually she thought she’d picked Shaggy out of the swirl of odor and followed him east toward Eighth Avenue. Someone she passed offered her a bite of hamburger, and she had to force her wolf brain to ignore the smell of red meat to focus on the trail. Up ahead, the path widened and she saw Shaggy sitting on a bench in an open area. There was a man standing in front of him, hands in his pockets, listening as Shaggy spoke.

Ari left the path and went into the woods, crouching down and crawling on her belly until she was close enough to eavesdrop without being seen.

“–you’ve had three days. Is this girl really that hard to find?”

“You’re the one who is so interested in her because of how good she is at not being seen. I thought I saw her tonight, but you know she doesn’t always look the same.”

Ari didn’t like that sound of that. If Candace had changed her look, it might be easy to look past her.

“You’re the one who brought her to my attention, Jones. So if you got my hopes up just to dash them, I’m going to take that out on you.”

“I just need a couple more days. She can’t just up and vanish.”

“You better hope not.”

The man turned and walked away, and Shaggy watched him go. Ari stayed hidden until finally Shaggy got to his feet and stormed off muttering to himself. Ari slid down the incline and shook the leaves and detritus from her coat. The only real hope she’d gotten all night was that Shaggy thought he’d seen Candace, so the odds were good she was somewhere in the park. Ari looked north and south, then picked a direction at random to begin another sweep.

 

 

She searched the various camps of runaways and homeless, letting the wolf take a few offered treats to keep her energy up. She found no evidence of Candace’s presence and was soon tired from her repeated treks up and down the length of the park. At five in the morning, when the majority of people in the park were asleep and the city had fallen silent, Ari made her way down to Seneca Street.

The plaza was deserted, and Ari easily climbed into the copse of trees Dale had mentioned to her. She dug with her forepaws to ensure the stash was there as promised, then bowed her head and changed. She wasn’t exactly sure how the change occurred; it was as natural to her as holding her breath or crossing her eyes. She decided to change, and her body responded. She felt her ears contract and flatten to their proper position on her head, her jaw receding and reshaping into its normal shape. The bones cracked and soldered back together. The muscles of her back twitched and twisted, reshaping her even as they were reshaped. Her paws spread across the ground and her fingers curled to grab thick handfuls of the aromatic mulch. The air became odorless, as if her nose had been plugged, and she gasped for air as her eyesight snapped back into viewing the full color spectrum.

She sat hunched forward, arms tight against her side and legs folded under her. Sweat poured down suddenly smooth and hairless skin, and she sucked in deep lungfuls of air until the trembling subsided. And then, of course, came the pain. She curled her fingers into fists and then stretched them out, working her neck stiffly from side to side.

Once she could move without wincing, she pulled the bag free from the hole and unzipped it. Inside she found a Seahawks jersey and a pair of running shorts. She snorted and dug until she found underwear, slipping quickly into it before she donned the unusual outfit Dale had left for her. The socks were a little loose and the Nikes a little snug, but she had managed with worse. She took a few dollars out of the hidden pocket of the bag, zipped it back up, and replaced it in the hole. She covered it with mulch and clambered back out into the open.

A man she hadn’t noticed was slumped against one of the benches, staring at her. One of his eyes was open wider than the other, and he looked more confused than anything.

“How high are you?” she asked.

“Apparently very.”

Ari winked at him and walked out of the plaza. The street was deserted, she was glad to see; she would have felt guilty if Dale spent the entire night in the car waiting for her to show up. She stuck her hands in the pockets of her shorts and began walking. If she wasn’t mistaken, there was an all-night diner nearby where she could use the phone and get something to eat while she waited for Dale to come pick her up.

 

 

Ari slipped into the passenger side of the car. “A jersey and running shorts?”

Dale grinned sleepily. “What? I thought it would be comfortable.”

“It looks like I’m not wearing pants!”

“Well, you have the legs for it.”

Ari sighed and pushed the hair out of her face. “Keep this up and I’m going to start double-checking the stashes.” She lifted her hips and pulled the jersey down under her rear end as Dale pulled away from the curb. “Candace wasn’t in the park, but I did find some pretty interesting leads.” She explained about Serena and Shaggy and the mysterious man who seemed as intent on finding Candace as her own mother.

Dale listened intently despite being half-asleep. Ari was grateful she had Dale to share things with. Often the information she learned as the wolf was fleeting and would fade from her memory with time. Trying to remember was like trying to hold on to a dream after waking up. The details were always clearest right after she transformed, so having Dale as a sounding board gave her security that important clues wouldn’t fall by the wayside.

“I’ll go back to her friends tomorrow and see if any of them know this Serena person.”

“Okay. How about you? Transformation go okay?”

Ari nodded and then rubbed her neck. “I could use a rub-down, if you’re not too tired.”

“Of course.”

“Go on to your apartment. I’ll just crash on the couch after the massage.”

Dale drove back to her apartment and Ari went directly to the couch. She stripped off the jersey but left the shorts on, hugging a pillow to her chest and resting her head on the arm of the couch until Dale returned with the massage oil. She straddled Ari’s waist with practiced ease. “Where does it hurt the worst?”

Ari thought for a moment. “Just work the spine.”

“You got it.”

Ari closed her eyes as Dale’s fingers kneaded the muscles along her spine. They seemed to work the hardest during her transformations, pushing and contracting until her ribs were back in the right alignment and stretching and fusing to form a tail. Dale spread her fingers over Ari’s back and worked her way down while pressing down with both thumbs, working wide circles over Ari’s skin.

Being back in the park brought back memories of her teen years, living in the park at night and wandering the streets during the day. She’d never had anyone to massage the kinks out of her muscles back then. Some days she ended up curled in the fetal position unable to move for hours after a particularly bad change, sobbing because she thought she was permanently crippled. Dale pushed her hands back up, squeezed Ari’s shoulders with her fingers, and then slid down over her biceps.

“How are your arms?”

“Fine. Elbows are a little sore.”

“That’s what all that running around on all fours gets you. Give me your hand.”

Ari lifted her hand and Dale held it with both of her hands, massaging the palm with her fingers while she ran her thumbs along the bones on the back. Ari thought reflexology was borderline hooey, but she admitted that she felt better all over when Dale worked her hands.

After the massage, when Ari felt boneless and exhausted, Dale bent down and kissed the top of her head. “Feel better?”

“Yeah… thank you.”

“I’ll let you sleep in. Set the alarm for ten?”

Ari nodded and Dale climbed off of her. She turned off the lamp beside the couch. “Goodnight.”

“Night.”

Ari watched Dale’s silhouette disappear down the hall. A part of her was ready to just throw caution to the wind, jump up, and follow Dale to her bedroom. Kiss her, undress her, throw her down onto the bed… She pressed her face into the couch cushion. No. For so many reasons, it would be a mistake. She pushed herself up and retrieved the Seahawks jersey. She chuckled again at Dale’s choice of clothing for the stash, pulled it on, and stretched out on the couch to grab as many hours of sleep as she could before going back to work.

 

 

Chloe blinked in surprise and put down the books she was carrying. “You know about Serena?”

Ari was standing at the front counter of Dumb Witness Books. It was almost noon, and she was feeling the effects of a near-sleepless night. “I didn’t know she was supposed to be a secret. Were she and Candace friends?”

“She’s not a secret, but Candace’s… we…” Her shoulders slumped and then she shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s a sensitive subject. They met at school, and they started hanging out a lot. Yesterday I said she was a tagalong. With Serena, she actually came alive a little bit. She was contented and more vivacious. They only knew each other for a couple of months, but Serena was like an instant best friend. But then it just… changed. Overnight. I don’t know what happened, but Candace was depressed and Serena stopped coming around.”

Ari remembered that she had found Serena’s picture in a drawer with other pornography. “Is there a chance Candace and Serena were lovers?”

Chloe raised an eyebrow. “Candace had a boyfriend.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer the question. She could have been bisexual, or she might not have known herself until she met someone she was attracted to. And according to Clifford their relationship wasn’t exactly burning hot and bright.”

“There’s an understatement.” She rolled her eyes and rested her chin on her fist as she considered the question again. “I don’t know. She wasn’t against homosexuality, per se, but I never thought she might be gay herself. I suppose it’s possible. Now that you’ve mentioned it, Serena did seem more like a girlfriend than a girl-friend, if that makes sense.”

“It does. How long ago did they start drifting apart?”

“It wasn’t a drift, it was a sudden schism. But I guess it was about three weeks before Candace stopped being around so much.”

Ari didn’t like the sound of that. “Okay. Thanks for your help. Do you happen to have an address or a last name for Serena?”

Chloe thought for a moment and then took out her iPhone. “I don’t have a number, but I’m pretty sure I have a last name.” She scrolled down and then smiled triumphantly. “Serena Baxter. I hope that helps.”

“It’ll do. Thanks for all your help.” She left the bookstore and dialed Dale’s number. “Hey. One of Candace’s friends gave me a last name: Serena Baxter.” As Dale looked it up, she explained Serena and Candace’s peculiar relationship. “Right now I’m leaning toward unrequited feelings. Serena rebuffed Candace, who was crushed. So she decided to leave to spare herself the humiliation of seeing her everyday. Serena feels guilty and takes it upon herself to find her.”

“Sounds good to me. But where do Shaggy and his boss come in?”

Ari was strolling down the street toward the Space Needle. “That, I don’t know. But it’s way too easy to get into trouble down there. You don’t even have to go looking for a criminal element to stumble over it. Candace may have just been trying to get a little cash together and went about it the wrong way.”

Dale made a noise of agreement. “Okay, I think I found Serena. Dark hair, very pretty–”

“Thick eyebrows, big black eyes.”

“That’s her. According to Facebook, she’s a photography student at SU, so I guess they met at school. Ah. Definitely the right girl. I’m looking at a picture of her and Candace on a forest trail. They both look happy.”

Ari remembered Candace’s startled and uncertain expression in her pictures. “Anything under relationship status?”

“Just ‘it’s complicated.'”

“Whose relationship isn’t?” Ari muttered. She stopped on the corner. “Anything that might help me find her?”

“Scrolling… scrolling. Uh… she works part-time at a landscaping company. Let me look up the address. All right. It’s actually pretty close to the place you just left…”

 

 

At the landscaping company, Ari was able to get Serena’s home address with alarming ease. She drove to the apartment and knocked, stepping back so she could be seen through the peephole. The glass darkened and Serena spoke from the other side. “Yes?”

“Serena Baxter? My name is Ariadne Willow. Your boss gave me your address. Candace’s mother hired me to help find her, and I was hoping you might have some information.”

She heard the chain being taken off and the door opened. Serena was dressed for bed in sweatpants and a sleeveless T-shirt, her hair loose and messy around her face. Ari understood the attraction even if Candace hadn’t been gay; Serena was a gorgeous woman. Ari had to make an effort to not-recognize her; the problem with meeting people as the wolf and then meeting them in person meant that she sometimes had to hide an unbalanced sense of familiarity. Her eyes were wide with hope as she gripped the doorknob.

“You’ve been hired… you mean, you’re looking for her, too?”

“I am. I just want to find out a little more about what she was doing before she disappeared so I can maybe figure out where she would have gone.”

Serena looked down at her bare feet. “Well, you came to the right place. It’s my fault she disappeared. Come on in.”

Ari stepped inside and Serena closed the door behind her. The apartment was a little larger than Candace’s, but just as immaculate. The only bit of untidiness came from the photographs tacked haphazardly to the walls. Strings ran from one wall to the next, forming a web just above Ari’s head, and more photographs dangled from clothespins like leaves. Ari noticed more than a few featured Candace. Serena offered her a drink, but Ari declined. They moved into the living room.

“How much do you know about, uh, me?” Serena asked.

“I know you guys were really close for a while and then it just soured overnight.”

Serena laughed humorlessly as she sat down. “I guess so. I work reception at the landscaping company, and I met Candace when she showed up with a petition. She didn’t want us tearing up some plants… I don’t really remember.” She smiled. “We got to talking, and I liked her. She was funny, and self-effacing… I made sure the guys in charge got the petition, and the plants were saved. She bought me dinner as a thank-you, and we started hanging out.

“One weekend she asked me to go camping with her. Apparently it was something she did a lot. She said there would be a lot of opportunities to take pictures, so of course I was willing. We had a great time, I took pictures and she did her environment thing. Like I said, I’m not really much up on the plants like she was. But I still liked to hear her talk about it.”

Ari smiled. “And that trip is where something went wrong?”

Serena’s smile faded and she looked up at the pictures hanging overhead. “We had dinner and I said I was going to call it a night. So I got into my tent and went to sleep. When I woke up, Candace was on top of me, kissing me. I told her to stop, and that I was straight, and she said that she was, too. She just couldn’t deny how she felt about me. I was meaner than I should have been. I was just shocked, you know? Your friend just sticks her tongue down your throat…”

She hugged herself and looked out the window. “I left in the morning. Left her in the woods. When she got back to town she tried to call me a couple of times, but I let it go to voicemail. After a while the calls stopped and I was relieved. I thought she’d taken the hint. But then one of her friends called me to ask if I’d seen her.” She blinked away her tears. “If anything happened to her…”

Ari gave her a minute to compose herself. “So you started trying to find her yourself?”

“Yeah. I would go down to the park and look around, and a couple of people recognized her. There’s a guy I call Shaggy in one of the parks, and he knows her, too. Apparently she’s disappeared while she’s disappearing, if you can even do that, and he wants to find her, too. I’m just really afraid that I pushed her away, and she got involved in something really bad. And now no one can find her.”

Ari smiled. “Don’t count me out yet. This camp you went to… could you point it out to me on a map?”

“Yeah. It was one of her favorite places. I went back there after I found out she was gone, but there was no sign of her.”

Ari shrugged. “That’s okay. I’m better at tracking than most people.”

 

 

Ari called Dale to let her know where she would be, then drove south out of town. Saltwater State Park was located halfway between Seattle and Tacoma, and Serena’s directions took her to a public parking area. Ari left her car and ventured into the wilderness with a hand-drawn map to the spot where Serena said she and Candace had set up camp a month earlier. The park was mostly deserted on a weekday, so Ari left the trail and undressed without being seen. She put her clothes into a backpack and tossed them over a high branch where any wandering wild animals wouldn’t get to them.

After another look to make sure she was alone, she crouched and put her hands on the ground before she began to transform. The forest came alive around her – bugs and dirt and water and sand and leaves and mulch and soil and trees – and the color faded from the landscape. She sniffed the air and almost immediately picked up Candace’s scent. She followed it through the underbrush to the south.

The trail led her closer to the path, and she caught glimpses of the water between the trees as she ran. She was so focused on the hunt that she nearly overlooked the campsite until she was upon it. She skidded to a stop and spotted Candace standing on the other side of the fire pit, staring at her with wide eyes. Ari barked, forgetting that her vocal cords were in wolf form, and Candace turned and sprinted into the woods.

Ari rounded the stones of the pit and raced after her. She had just crossed between two trees when she found a pair of trousers lying on the ground, and Candace’s jacket casually tossed over a branch. She paused and sniffed the discarded clothing and lifted her head just as the wolf came barreling down the path toward her.

Ari braced herself for the impact and reared up onto her hind legs just as the other animal slammed into her. Their forepaws tangled and Ari twisted at the waist. She threw her attacker onto the ground and a scent rose up to greet her. Candace!

Candace twisted underneath Ari and bucked her off. Ari tumbled, Candace got back to her feet and barked. Candace planted her feet apart and lowered her head, showing her teeth with a low, threatening growl. Ari swung her tail, lowered her head, and tried to assume a submissive posture. The wolf in her, however, was itching to fight back. She could feel it clawing at the back of her mind as Candace flattened her eats against her skull and barked loudly.

Ari’s wolf took over.

The two canidae collided in a maelstrom of snarls, yips and fur. Candace swiped at Ari with strong forepaws while her back legs kicked at the soft flesh of Ari’s stomach. Ari closed her jaws around Candace’s neck in a loose bite, and they tumbled together until Candace was on the ground. Ari forced herself to change the fur receding from her arms and hands as she held Candace down. She was still mid-change when Candace bucked her off. Ari landed on her side, fully-human as Candace pounced on her again. She blocked the wolf with her foot, inadvertently kicking her in the snout, and Candace dropped back as Ari got to her feet.

“I’m not here to hurt you, Candace. I’m–”

The wolf launched itself at her, slamming into her midsection and knocking her onto her back. Ari put her hand on the wolf’s throat and pushed up, forcing the wide jaws from closing around her face. Her feet and back slipped in the mud and crushed leaves, and she managed to get her free arm around both of Candace’s front legs. She twisted and climbed on top of Candace to hold her down.

“I’m just trying to help you.” The words came out in a growl, and Ari felt the wolf trying to take over. Her skin crawled and her muscles twitched violently as she held back an instinctual change. The body shifted underneath her, and Candace’s suddenly widened arms forced Ari to break her hold. Candace pressed both hands against the mud and, with a cry of effort, hurled Ari off of her.

Ari hit the ground hard, the wind knocked from her lungs, and she watched in a daze as Candace turned to run again. Ari got to her feet, huffing and puffing as she pursued. Her legs popped and cracked and she dropped forward, the transformation complete even before her paws hit the ground. Candace looked back, saw the wolf, and transformed as well.

She caught up with Candace easily enough. She tackled her, and Candace decided to take the advantage Ari had inadvertently taken a moment earlier. Fur changed to flesh under Ari’s paws, and Candace rolled onto her back. Her face was stained by mud, her eyes wide with a mixture of fear and anger. Ari transformed as well, soon straddling Candace in her human form. She grabbed Candace’s wrists, one in each hand, and kept her from continuing the fight. She caught her breath and found her voice.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

For a moment, the only sound in the woods was the harsh breathing of two women trying to catch their breath. They were both still shaky from adrenaline when Candace sat up. Ari met her halfway and kissed her, tightening her grip on Candace’s arms as their lips parted. Ari closed her eyes and furrowed her brow. Her knees sank into the moist earth on either side of Candace’s hips as she lowered Candace back to the ground. She let go of Candace’s wrists and slid her fingers down the inside of her arms, stopping at her shoulders. Candace put her arms around Ari, one hand on top of the other at the base of Ari’s spine.

Candace gasped as if in surprise when the kiss broke, and she ran her hands up Ari’s back as Ari sat up and looked down at her. Candace pushed herself up, one arm still looped around Ari’s hip, and stared at her. “What’s your name?”

“Ariadne.”

“Don’t stop, Ariadne.”

They kissed again. Their hands roamed, smearing mud across goosebumped skin. Ari adjusted her position and pressed her thigh between Candace’s legs. “Hold on… wait,” Ari whispered. She put her hands on Candace’s back and, with a grunt, began to thrust. Candace’s eyes were wide, her bottom lip trembling, as she met Ari thrust for thrust. Ari saw that Candace was keeping her eyes open when they kissed. Candace sucked on Ari’s tongue and, with a gasp, dropped her head onto Ari’s shoulder.

“Oh. My God. My God, don’t stop.”

Ari moved her hips faster, her head bowed to tease Candace’s neck and shoulder with her lips and tongue. She nibbled and licked, and Candace whimpered and dragged her fingernails over Ari’s hip as she came.

“Oh, shit. Did I hurt you?”

“No. You’re fine.” She kissed Candace’s cheek and then found a way to her lips. They kissed, Candace’s eyes still open, and Ari leaned back to look into her mud-stained face.

Candace blinked at her for a moment. “You’re not one of them. Are you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So who are you?”

Ari smiled. “I’m a private investigator. I was sent to find you.”

 

 

Candace crouched on a stone, the water lapping against her toes, and dipped a towel into the water. Once it was saturated, she backed up and handed the towel to Ari over her shoulder. They were in a cove near the beach, a small inlet that was mostly out of sight and seemed mostly undisturbed. Ari sat facing the bay, while Candace faced the shore. Their naked shoulders and hips touched, but neither made an attempt to move farther apart. Ari thanked Candace for the towel and wiped the caked mud and debris off her arms.

Candace apologized profusely for the attack. “There are some bad dogs chasing me, and I just assumed you were one of them. They’ve been chasing me ever since I left the city.”

“Is one of them named Shaggy?”

“He calls himself that, yeah. He’s not a canidae, though. He can’t change. He just finds the talent for Bob.”

Ari raised an eyebrow. “And Bob would be…”

Candace sighed and stretched her legs out in front of her so that her feet were underwater. “He’s a pickpocket, a thief. Like Fagin, in the book? He has a bunch of hoodlums who go around the park at night and steal stuff from people’s camps. Like they haven’t already lost enough. Anyway, through my own stupidity, he saw me change one day and now he thinks I could be his crown achievement.”

“No one suspects a dog of being a thief.”

“Yeah. Or if they do, they don’t think anything of it. No one calls security, and the dog just bounces off to the next mark, no harm done.” She lifted her foot out of the water and watched it drip. “Anyway, I did my best to avoid them in the city, but they were relentless. So I thought I would come out here until the heat died down. Then you showed up, and I thought they had found a replacement and I was a loose end or something.”

Ari remembered Shaggy saying he thought he had seen Candace the night before in the park, but he hadn’t been sure. “He meant me. I ran into Shaggy while I was looking for you. I was in my wolf form, and Shaggy thought I was you.”

Candace looked at Ari over her shoulder. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“He didn’t touch me.” She handed the towel back to Candace. “So why did you run? Was it because of Serena?”

Candace laughed without humor. “Wow. You really are a private eye, huh?” She carefully folded the towel over her thigh. “I don’t know. I was never really comfortable in the city. I ran around the woods even when I was a little girl, and I only feel like I belong out here. When Serena rejected me, I decided why not see what it was like for a little while.”

“You could have at least told your mother. She’s been worried sick about you.”

“Mom wouldn’t understand. She doesn’t even know I’m… what I am.”

Ari frowned. “She has to.”

“I never told her.”

“No, Candace, she has to know what you are. The canidae gene is passed down by the mother.”

Candace looked up toward the sky and smiled. “Oh, my God. Just like that.”

“I’m sorry if I spoke out of turn, but–”

“No. God. Since I was ten years old, I’ve felt like something was… off. I’ve suspected I was adopted, or that I wasn’t…” She shuddered and closed her eyes. “She’s not my mother.”

“She’s your mother in every way that counts. She deserves closure.”

Candace shrugged and looked out over the water. “Right. You’re right. But there comes a time when kids have to choose their own path. She’s not my blood… my family is out here. Always has been. The first time I changed, I was six years old. I was in the backyard and it ripped my clothes. I didn’t know what happened, so I told Mom I’d fallen down. After that, I found out I could control it. It was so freeing. I started looking forward to Friday night, because I would sneak out of the house and go running in the woods, nothing but freedom.”

Ari remembered the window in her attic apartment and the wooded area behind the house.

Candace was quiet for a long time. “I’ll say goodbye to Mom. She was great, and she deserves more than just disappearing. I shouldn’t have left the way I did. I just thought, after Serena turned me down, I thought that it would be easy to cut ties. Just head out. And then the whole Shaggy thing happened and I got pushed farther away faster than I expected and…” She shrugged. “I’ll… make sure she doesn’t worry.”

“And your friends?”

“Them too. I’ll come back long enough to say goodbye. But I’m not going back for good.”

Ari nodded. “I wouldn’t force you to.” She dipped her hands into the water and ran them up the outside of her thighs. Most of the mud had been washed away. “If you need help, and you don’t want to run back to your friends or people you have ties to… if you ever want to talk to someone who has been there, I’ll give you my number.”

Candace leaned her weight against Ari’s back. “Thank you, Ariadne.”

“And what about Serena?”

Candace looked away again. “Have you ever wanted someone so bad, but you just… you can’t bring yourself to say something?”

Ari pictured Dale. “You survive by telling yourself they might say yes if you finally ask. So if you do ask, and they say no… how can you go on after that?”

“Right. I asked. She said no. It hurts, but I’ll get over it. Eventually.” She reached back and touched Ari’s hip. “I’ve never… what we did back there, in the woods. I’ve never really wanted to, with a guy, so I didn’t. And the only woman I’ve wanted to was Serena. So I… that was… really nice.”

“I’m glad.”

“You don’t mind that you were a substitute?”

“Not at all. Sometimes we all have to just take what we can get.”

Candace turned on the rock, one foot tucked up between her legs. She put her arms around Ari, and Ari leaned back into her embrace.

“Can we take what we can get back at the tent?”

Ari grinned and kissed Candace’s lips.

 

 

Ari borrowed a jacket and some jeans from Candace to walk back to her car. She called Dale so she wouldn’t worry and, when she got back to the campsite, found Candace naked and waiting for her. The girl proved insatiable, recovering from one orgasm only to breathlessly describe the next thing she wanted to try. Ari was amenable to her demands and nearly toppled the tent twice while searching the nylon walls for something to hold onto as Candace explored.

They slept fitfully during the night, both waking at one point or another to discover the other one in the midst of doing something to her. In the morning, Ari and Candace lay next to each other, both exhausted and too weary to move. Candace’s head was on Ari’s left arm, their legs tangled together in the sleeping bag.

“What’s her name?” Ari looked at Candace, who rolled her eyes. “Oh, don’t be like that. You know you were Serena in my mind. Who was I in yours?”

Ari hesitated but then said, “Dale.”

Candace frowned. “A guy?”

“Woman. Dale Elizabeth Frye.”

“Oh. Like Dale Evans.”

“Yeah.”

“Is she special like you and me?”

Ari shook her head. “Nope. She’s more special.”

Candace smiled. “She sounds lovely. I hope you have a happier ending than what happened with me and Serena.”

“She really does care about you. She feels horribly guilty about your disappearance. She’s been going to the park trying to find you.” She sat up and rested her arm across her knees. “Before you answer the call of the wild, maybe you should sit down and work out what happened between the two of you. She might just be scared.”

Candace reached up and traced circles on Ari’s back.

“The woods will always be available for you to run off into them. But your mother, Serena, your friends… their bridges you might one day want to cross again. Don’t burn them.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to drag me back there.”

“I won’t. But I’ll try to talk some sense into you so you can make a fully informed decision. I ran away, too. For entirely different reasons. But you shouldn’t take the leap until you’re entirely sure it’s right.”

Candace sat up and kissed Ari’s shoulder. “Okay. Once it’s fully light out, I’ll go back to the city with you.”

“Excellent.”

“What about Shaggy and Bob? They’re still going to be looking for me.”

Ari sneered. “They’re preying on people who have nothing else. They’re messing with my family. Don’t worry about Shaggy and Bob; I’ll take care of them in my free time. I’ll consider it a public service.”

“You’re kind of a hero, aren’t you?”

Ari shrugged and they kissed again. Candace leaned heavily against Ari’s body and her hand roamed Ari’s lower back. She pulled away and brushed her lips over Ari’s cheek. “In the meantime, can we have sex again?”

Ari laughed as she lay back down. “Wow. You really are a nympho.”

“I’ve been wandering in the desert.” Candace rolled on top of Ari, bracing her arms on the bed on either side of Ari’s head. “I need something to drink.”

 

 

Ari and Dale sat on one of the red benches in the park and watched as Serena closed the distance in a dead run. She grabbed Candace around the shoulders and held her tight, sobbing quietly as she spoke into Candace’s ear. Candace tentatively returned the hug, and the two girls held each other as if afraid of the wind blowing them away. Serena eventually pulled back and brushed the hair out of Candace’s face.

“You think they have a chance?”

Ari shrugged. “Stranger things have happened. Sometimes you fall in love with the person, regardless of the gender.”

“So you could fall in love with a guy?”

Ari laughed. “Maybe a very pretty guy. With tits.”

Dale laughed. Candace turned toward them and waved, then pointed toward the park’s exit. Ari waved goodbye and the two girls walked away.

“Nora Weber’s check came in the mail this morning, by the way. Another case closed. Well done, Ariadne.”

“Thanks. I just hope Candace makes the right choice.”

“And which choice would that be?”

Ari shrugged. “Whatever choice she makes herself, instead of the one she makes because her mother or her friends or a private investigator guilts her into making.”

Dale raised her eyebrows. “You think she would be okay? Living out in the woods like the Unabomber?”

“There are packs of canidae in the woods all around here, and Idaho and Wyoming, Montana… all these mountain states. Where there are wolves, there are canidae. I’m a woman who can turn into a wolf, but Candace is a wolf that can turn into a woman. I think she’s known her whole life she doesn’t belong in a city. But that doesn’t mean she has to become a recluse.”

They watched Candace and Serena walk out of the park arm-in-arm. “I hope not. Living alone can be… heh. I don’t know. Lonely, I guess.”

“Yeah.” Ari glanced at Dale and then quickly away. “So, we’re flush again. How about I buy you lunch on the company dime?”

“Sounds good. I know a great place nearby.”

Ari stood and looked around. “What is nearby that… Dale, no… not that sandwich place again.”

“It was good. Don’t condemn the entire place just because you chose the one bad thing on the menu.”

Ari rolled her eyes and followed Dale up the stairs Candace and Serena had just taken. “You have absolutely no taste, Frye.”

“That’s no surprise. I hang out with you, don’t I?”

Ari swiped at Dale’s head, which made Dale start running. Ari smiled and chased her out of the park.

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