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Apr 10

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The Runt

Summary

Ari is confronted by a pre-teen girl who is insistent on hiring her.

It didn’t take a private investigator to spot the person following her. Ari stopped a few times to window shop just to be sure, but the little girl remained a steady distance behind her all the way to the diner. She picked up the to-go order Dale had called in and pretended to linger so she could check out any changes to the whiteboard menu. The front windows of the diner were half-covered with blinds, but Ari could still make out the shape of the girl pacing back and forth as she waited for her quarry to reappear.

She paid the clerk and took the white bag with their lunch order. “You wouldn’t happen to have a back door I could use, would you?”

“Something wrong with the front door, sweetie?”

Ari smiled. “I just want to surprise someone.”

The clerk smiled and pointed through the kitchen. “Right through there.”

“Thanks.” She stepped around the counter and walked past the grill, leaning on the push-bar and stepping out into a postage-stamp of concrete. Three sides were closed off by tall fences to keep scavengers away from the trash cans. The building side of the enclosure had a gate to the sidewalk, and Ari slipped through it as quietly as possible. She peered around the corner and saw the kid staring anxiously at the diner’s front door.

Ari walked up behind her and waited for the girl to notice her shadow. She turned slowly, eyes widening when she saw she’d been caught.

“Hi.”

The girl ducked her head and started to run, but Ari caught up with her after a couple of steps. She grabbed the back of the girl’s coat and planted her feet on the sidewalk. The girl tried to squirm out of her jacket, but she was trapped by the zipper.

“Hold on. Hold on, I’m not going to hurt you. Just relax. Stop running.”

“Let me go! Or I’ll yell child abuse.”

Ari sighed. “Kid, you’ve been following me all day. I think I deserve to know why. I’m not above taking out a restraining order on a nine-year-old.”

“I’m twelve.”

“I don’t care. Just talk.”

The girl sighed and angrily adjusted her jacket, tugging until it was back in place. Her dirty blonde hair was cut short, just barely long enough to rest on her neck, and her eyes were magnified by tortoise-shell glasses. She stepped away from Ari, but didn’t try to escape again.

“I was waiting for the private detective who works at your agency.”

“You found her.”

The girl rolled her eyes. “No, the real one.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I watch TV, and I checked you out for a couple of days. The other lady is the one who does the paperwork and walks the dog, you’re the one that is just there to look pretty, but there’s someone else doing the real detective work. You’re just the billboard.”

“That’s a really cynical outlook for someone so young. And Dale isn’t the dog walker, she’s my assistant.”

“Well, whatever. I know you’re not the real detective because you’re too pretty.”

Ari laughed. “I don’t know whether to be insulted or thank you for the compliment. Trust me, pretty has nothing to do with skills, and I am indeed the real detective. What are you doing following me around? Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“It’s Saturday.”

“We’re not doing year-round school yet? God, no wonder China’s kicking our asses.” She pushed her hair out of her face. “Okay, then. Your parents. They might not like the idea of you running around downtown following people.”

“They know where I am. And I’m not going to just go away. I’m not some little kid who is just going to get bored and move on.”

“Obviously. Okay… so do you want to waste a couple more days camped outside my office to confirm I’m the real deal, or do you want to tell me what you’re after?”

The girl considered that for a moment, shoulders still hunched and her lower lip jutted out. Finally she looked at Ari.

“You’re really the detective?”

“I really, really am. Want to see my license?”

“Yes.”

Ari stared for a moment, then rolled her eyes. “Kids… sheesh.” She moved the bag of takeout to her other hand, took out her wallet, and flipped it open to show the card. “Satisfied? Ariadne Willow, private investigator, at your service.”

The girl carefully examined the license before deciding it was kosher. “Okay. Then I want to hire you. And I know I’m a kid, but don’t patronize me and say that you only charge five dollars because you think I’m paying you with my allowance. I can afford to hire you for real, because I sold the telescope my uncle gave me for Christmas because he thought I was interested in astrology. I have one hundred dollars, and it’s yours if you take the case.”

Ari raised an eyebrow. A hundred bucks was a fraction of what she usually charged, but the kid was obviously determined.

“All right. Walk with me. What’s your name?”

“Sylvia. I was named after Sylvia Plath.”

Ari looked down at her. “Really?”

“No. Grandmother. But I like Sylvia better.”

“Huh. So you sold your uncle’s Christmas gift, you don’t want to be your grandmother’s namesake. Seems like you might have some issues with your family.”

Sylvia said, “Oh, gee, you really are a detective, aren’t ya?”

“No need to get snippy, kid. Start with why you want to hire me. I might just decide you’re not worth the trouble.”

She sighed, shoved her hands into her pockets and looked down at her shoes. “I want you to prove I’m adopted.”

Ari looked down at her. “That seems like the sort of thing you could ask your parents free of charge. Why go to all the trouble of hiring me?”

“They’d just lie.” She took out a large pink wallet with a daisy on the front and took out a photograph. “Here. Look.”

It was a family photograph, the kind churned out by studios in strip malls. Sylvia and her parents wore matching baby-blue sweaters, all smiling like the family in stock footage. Beyond the outfits, however, the family was anything but identical. The mother was sturdy, broad-shouldered and tough-looking. She had curly red hair, a strong jaw, and despite the smile, a basic don’t-screw-with-me demeanor. The father was just as broad and solid, with short black hair and a lantern jaw. His eyes were small and wrinkled by the smile that looked as if he was being instructed on how to make the expression by someone off-camera. The result was more of a scowl.

Ari looked at the mousy girl next to her again, small for her age and lightly colored.

“Got enough evidence yet, Nancy Drew?”

“Lots of kids look nothing like their parents.” She handed the picture back. “Look, even if I wanted to take the case, I can’t. You have to be eighteen to hire a private investigator.”

“That’s not a law.”

“Well, it oughta be. And if not, I’m sure there is some law out there that makes taking your case illegal. I can’t let you hire me without your parents consenting, and since that would kind of defeat the whole purpose of you hiring me…” They stopped at the corner and Ari turned to face her. “Sylvia, you’re a smart kid. Your parents care enough to have one of these goofy family portraits made. If you are adopted, maybe there’s a reason they’re waiting until you’re a little older to tell you.”

“I can handle it.”

“I know you think you can. At your age, I thought I could handle anything life threw at me. I got the rug pulled out from under me, and it took me a long time to get back on my feet.” She gestured at the picture. “You’re living with people who care about you. Try and let that be enough. Okay?”

“And what if it can’t be enough?”

“Then… come see me when you turn eighteen.” The crosswalk sign changed. “Are you allowed to cross the street by yourself?”

Sylvia glared at her. “You don’t have to condescend.”

“You’re right. I apologize. But if you’re going to follow me all the way back to the office, don’t be sneaky about it. I don’t want you to get hurt trying to stay out of sight.”

She started through the crosswalk to the other side of the street. When she turned to look back, Sylvia had already disappeared. Ari sighed and shook her head as she continued on, hoping their lunch would still be warm when she got it back to the office.

Two days later, Bonnie and Wayne Haskell called to hire Ari to find their runaway daughter.

#

Ari didn’t connect the case to her run-in with Sylvia until the people from the photograph arrived in the office for the appointment. The matching sweaters had been exchanged for a work shirt on Wayne and a floral-print dress for Bonnie. They were obviously distraught, both of them locking onto Ari as if they already expected her to have the answers they needed. Once Dale had given then tea and Ari had guided them into the office, she found out why. She stared at the picture they provided and felt a creeping dread when she recognized the mousy little girl in round glasses.

“Sylvia.”

“So you do know her?” Bonnie exhaled, relieved. “Thank God.”

“We found your number on the whiteboard in her office,” Wayne said. He was perched on the edge of the couch, his right hand curled around both of his wife’s. He seemed to be trying to control the trembling, and she was leaning against him for support. “When we found out you were a private investigator, we thought… we thought maybe you would have some information about her. The school called this morning and said she hadn’t shown up. So we looked in her room and found her books on the bed and half her closet was cleared out.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Haskell, I’m sorry. Your daughter did come to me a few days ago looking to hire me, but I didn’t take the case. I couldn’t have, due to the fact she’s a minor.”

Bonnie looked up at her. “She wanted to hire you? Why?”

Ari considered privilege, but figured it didn’t count in the case of a minor who never officially hired her. “She wanted me to find out if she was adopted.”

They looked at each other, and Bonnie quickly looked away. “Oh.”

Ari waited for her to expand on that, but the silence grew until she was forced to speak again. “There’s a chance she might have looked elsewhere for help when I turned her down. She could have gone to a detective with more of an inclination to take the case. I can call around and see if she’s contacted any of her friends.”

“And if she hasn’t? If she’s just gone?”

“Then I’ll follow whatever leads I can find until I have some answers. And speaking of answers, it would help to know the answer to her question. If she managed to find out on her own, it might have influenced where she would go.”

Wayne squeezed Bonnie’s hand, then put his hands on his knees as he stood up. “Miss Willow, would you mind terribly if I bothered your secretary for a cup of coffee? I’m not much of a tea drinker.”

“Sure.” Ari stood and opened the door. “Dale? Could you get Mr. Haskell a cup of coffee, please?”

He stepped out into the main office, and Ari closed the door behind him. Bonnie smiled. “Thank you for understanding. Wayne doesn’t particularly like what I’m going to have to say.”

“It’s fine.”

Bonnie scratched her temple and looked down at her feet. “Thirteen years ago, I had an affair with a man from work. It was basically a moment of temporary insanity. Wayne and I were married for ten years, we’d been trying to have a baby so sex wasn’t…” She winced and balled her hands into fists again. “I was lonely and bored. Hardly valiant, but it’s the truth. We had sex a few times and eventually Wayne caught us. We got through it. I transferred to a different department to get away from the other man, we went to counseling, and we were determined to get through it. But then one day I took a little test and I found out forgetting wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought.

“We discussed… choices. Adoption and other options, but we’d been trying for so long it seemed wrong to give away a baby. She was our child, regardless of where she came from. We planned to tell her when she was older, when she could understand. But how do you explain something like this to a twelve-year-old, Miss Willow?”

“It’s not my place to say this, Mrs. Haskell, but Sylvia is pretty keen for her age. I think if you sat her down and explained the situation, she would understand it. She’s obviously dedicated to finding the answers one way or another. At least by telling her you can control the fallout.”

Wayne returned, pausing nervously at the threshold before Ari motioned him in.

“I couldn’t take Sylvia’s case, but maybe if I had you wouldn’t be here right now. I’m going to need her schedule and a list of her friends…”

“A list… ah.” Wayne looked at Bonnie. “Sylvia has many friends, Miss Willow, but I’m not sure how to get in touch with… well, any of them. She interacts with them on the internet. Not the Facebook thing, because she’s too young, but there’s another site for kids her age. It’s run by her school. We posted a message for anyone who knows where she is to get in touch with us, but so far we haven’t heard anything. I suppose if she’s angry enough to run away, she might have told people not to tell us where she is.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do with that. Is there anyone else she might have gone to for help?”

“No one I can think of. She’s not really close with our extended family, and they don’t really live close enough for her to have run to them. We’ve called everyone, of course, just in case. Told them to be on the lookout.”

They gave Ari the sparse information they had, including her log-in information on CubbyHole, her school’s social network. When they left, Ari went around the desk to her computer and called up the site. It was based on the same model as Facebook, but students were required to have a student ID number to access any information and the ID was only acquired after the school received a signed letter from the parents.

Dale came in after the Haskells left. “Everything okay?”

Ari shook her head. “That kid who tried to hire me a couple of days ago ran away.”

“Oh, no.” Dale sat in the chair across from Ari. “They seemed like such sweet people.”

“The daughter is a pistol,” Ari said with a wry smile. “She claims she’s named after Sylvia Plath. And she said I was too pretty to be a real detective.”

Dale smiled. “You mentioned that.”

“Did I?”

“Couple of times now.” She rested her elbows on the front edge of the desk and craned her neck to look at the monitor. “What is CubbyHole?”

“It’s a site the school runs. Sylvia has an account. Her parents left a message, but she’s been ignoring it. So I thought maybe…” She clicked through the history and smiled. “She’s been checking her messages. These are from two hours ago and they’re already marked as read.”

“Couldn’t her parents have done that when they were leaving the messages?”

“They might have clicked around, but she wouldn’t have tagged these other entries for later. She’s definitely checking in.” She went to the message window and after a moment began to type.

“SYLVIA. Looks like I’m on the case after all. Get in touch with me. I know things might seem bleak right now, but there are very few things in life a hot bath won’t cure. – Ariadne Willow.”

Dale read it, and then looked at Ari for an explanation.

“It’s from The Bell Jar. Hopefully she’ll recognize it and consider it an olive branch and reply. In the meantime… feel like taking Tule for a walk?”

Dale smiled.

#

Ari didn’t just enjoy running loose in the city; the wolf in her demanded it. If she went too long without transforming and going on a romp, the wolf forced itself out. She’d learned to avoid these hostile takeovers by keeping up a steady regimen of “wolf time.” But as much as she enjoyed being on the loose and running wherever her nose took her, there was also something thrilling about being on a leash. At least, it was thrilling when Dale was the one holding the other end.

She had told Dale where they were going before she transformed, undressing on one side of the office door while Dale stood on the other to listen. Ari had pointed out the irony of Dale stepping out of the room considering the new sexual aspect to their relationship, but Dale insisted. “It’s one thing to see you naked when we’re in bed,” she said. “It’s another to watch you getting ready to transform.”

Ari could understand that. Transforming was ugly and the associated sound effects could turn the strongest stomachs. She still felt the dull ache in her hips as Dale waited for the lights to change. As they waited for traffic Ari bore the indignity of strangers patting her head and scratching between her ears.

“She’s a beautiful dog. What’s her name?”

“Tule.”

“Oh, what a beautiful name.”

Eventually they reached the corner where Ari and Sylvia had parted ways after their first and only meeting. Ari hoped that if the girl had dedicated an entire day to following a private eye, maybe there had been a Plan B in case of failure. She paused to sniff the ground, grateful for the two days of sunshine since Sylvia had stood on this spot. She picked up the scent like a pink string hovering under the miasma of other odors – deodorants and perfumes and body odor and salt from the water and restaurant smells and on and on – leading in a south-easterly direction.

Dale crouched down next to her. “Found something? Okay. I’m going to take you off the leash, but do not go too fast. Some of us can’t cheat and run on all fours like you do.”

Ari lifted her head so Dale could unclip the lead and then took off down the sidewalk. Behind her, she heard Dale sigh. “I’m going to make you pay for that, Ariadne.”

Ari would have shouted an apology if she could, but at the moment she was more focused on following the girl’s trail.

She ran through the forest of pedestrian legs and could hear Dale apologizing to people in her wake. Poor Dale, gaining a reputation as a bad dog owner. A few people tried to stop Ari’s forward progress but she managed to sidestep or otherwise evade them every time. The pink thread was dim and growing more so by the minute; if they’d shown up two or three hours later the scent would have been completely obliterated or overwritten. She focused and kept a bead on it, ignoring the pain in the pads of her feet as she continued her charge.

She was so focused on following it that, for a moment, she was confounded when it seemed to vanish. She stopped on the corner and looked in all four cardinal directions. Dale caught up with her, and looking up to meet Dale’s eye is what allowed her to see the bus stop sign. Dale followed her gaze.

“Ah, no.” She leaned forward with her hands on her knees, panting as she looked both ways up and down the street. “So much for following your nose, huh?”

Ari grumbled and dropped onto her haunches. Dale walked to the bus stop and patted the seat next to her. After a moment Ari joined her on the bench.

They waited twenty minutes, with two more passengers arriving to pet and fawn over Ari. When the bus arrived, Dale let the passengers go ahead before she stepped up to the open door. The driver held out a hand to stop her and waved one finger.

“No pets! Is that a helper animal?”

“It… uh, no. I’m not a passenger. I’m trying to find a little girl who ran away from home.” Dale took the picture from her coat pocket and held it out. “She would have ridden this bus two days ago around four in the afternoon. Do you recognize her?”

“Lady, I got a schedule to keep–”

Ari barked.

“Just take a look at the picture. It’ll take five seconds.”

He sighed and angled himself toward the door without leaving his seat. “I don’t know. Lot of people ride the bus, lot of ’em are kids. Especially in the afternoons. I can give you a maybe. That’s the best I can do.”

“What are your next stops?”

He sighed and handed her a route map. “Are you happy now? I’m sorry about the kid, but I’m about to have a bus full of passengers pissed at me for not getting them where they need to be.”

“All right. Thank you for your help.” She stepped back and let the driver close the door. She opened the route map and scanned the next few stops. “Looks like she could have been going to… pretty much anywhere.”

Ari made a chuffing sound.

“Right. Most likely targets within a few blocks of each stop. Uh… there’s a park. She could have gone to the Space Needle or the ferry terminal.”

Ari groaned and huffed again. Dale looked at her, and Ari moved her paw across the pavement like she was turning the pages of a book. Dale watched the mime for a moment and then shook her head without understanding. She used her paw to deliberately spell out the word BOOK.

“Bookstore? Um.” She looked again on the route map, and then took out her phone to use the map. “Ah, five bookstores. No, wait, four. I’m assuming the college bookstore wouldn’t interest her. So.” She looked at Ari. Ari tried to think of a way to express her next suggestion, but Dale made the logical leap herself. “She’s twelve. She wouldn’t go out of her way to a strange bookstore unless she had a reason, so she would go somewhere she was familiar with. And bingo. There’s only one bookstore on the route that is near her home.”

She hooked the leash back on Ari’s collar.

“Come on. I’ll take you back to the office and you can change into something a little more vocal before you check it out.”

#

The bell jingled over the door as Ari entered, and a woman emerged from between the stacks that formed shadowy aisles at the back of the store. She was just barely of a size to fit between the aisles, still forced to turn sideways so that her flowing floral blouse brushed the spines of the books she passed. She lifted her hand in greeting. “Take your time to browse around. Hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“Me too. I’m actually not here for a book. My name is Ariadne Willow. I’m trying to find someone who might come here a lot.” The woman approached the counter, and Ari held up a photo of Sylvia.

The woman looked and immediately recognized her. “Oh, she’s not here today. Most days you’d have a pretty good chance of catching her around three or four, though. She comes here after school.”

“Was she here two days ago?

“Mm. I don’t remember right off-hand. Why are you after her? You think she stole something? She’s never stolen from this store, I’ll tell you that.”

“No, she’s not in trouble. She ran away from home. Her parents hired me to find her.”

The woman’s eyes widened. “Ran away? Why on earth… well. If there’s anything I can do to help, please tell me. I haven’t noticed anything peculiar about her visits. On weekends she comes in with her parents, but mostly she’s here after school. I get the impression she doesn’t have a lot of friends, and her parents aren’t home when she gets out, so she comes here.” She smiled. “We’ve had some good conversations. She might only be twelve, but that girl knows books like no one else. When you find her, tell her that I am not happy with her. Making me worry about her and all.”

Ari smiled. “Will-do.” She took out a card. “Call me if she shows up?”

“Of course. I would say I’ll try to keep her here until you show up, but experience proves it would be harder to make her leave. But I’ll keep her here if she shows up, don’t you worry.”

“Thanks a lot.” Her phone chimed with an incoming message and she checked the display to see Dale’s photo. She thanked the clerk again and stepped outside to read the text.

“Check CubbyHole.”

Ari opened the phone’s browser and went to the school’s site. There was a new comment under her message to Sylvia.

“Congratulations! You can look up quotes online. You had your chance, and you blew it. Now leave me alone!”

The message had only been posted three minutes ago, so there was a chance Sylvia was still on the site and would see a response. Ari stood on the curb to type back a response. “Your parents are worried about you. They just want to know you’re safe.”

She kept the phone on as she crossed the street, refreshing the page as she walked back toward the bus stop. She had just arrived when refreshing produced a new result.

“Plus you feel guilty for saying no.”

“I don’t feel guilty. I couldn’t take a 12yo client even if I wanted to. But I’m on the case now, regardless of how it happened. Let’s talk somewhere. I’m near that bookstore you like. Meet me there and we’ll figure this whole thing out.”

She paced in front of a bistro, tapping her fingers on the side of her phone as she waited for a response. Finally after five minutes, one arrived.

“You found my bookstore? You might really be a detective after all.”

Ari smiled. “I’ll be there for the next hour. Leave me a message here if you’ll be late. I just want to help you and your parents.”

She closed her phone and turned around to walk back to the bookstore. Hopefully the owner wouldn’t mind letting her hand around for a little while.

#

“Vampires are lame, babe. I don’t know why you keep reading about them.” She turned the book around to look at the cover again before she returned it to the shelf and went back to browsing.

“I get all the sexy werewolves I need in my real life,” Dale said, her voice sounding flattened by the phone speaker. “Besides, there aren’t nearly enough sexy female werewolves in fiction. It’s all bare-chested young bucks.”

“Right?” Ari kept her voice low, as if the bookstore was a library. “You’d think Hollywood would be all over a franchise where the young, athletic main character has to constantly strip down and run around naked. They make those movies anyway, at least in a werewolf movie it would be justified.”

“But in a werewolf movie, the naked female would have to be the hero. No dude rushing in to save the day. Besides, the whole ‘monster romance’ franchise is about getting the bad boy without actually risking the consequences.”

“There are consequences to monster romance?”

“Tons. But in real life, they’re worth the effort.”

Ari heard the bell over the front door and moved to the head of the aisle. Sylvia, her hair covered by knit cap designed to look like a monkey, paused and gripped the straps of her backpack as she searched the space. The clerk was behind the counter.

“Afternoon, Sylvia. Heard you skipped school today. That’s not like you.”

“It’s been a bad day, Glenda. Is she here?”

Ari told Dale she had to go and slipped the phone into her pocket. Glenda gestured at her and Sylvia turned around to face her.

“Well, well, well.”

Ari blinked. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know. But you’re certainly invested now, huh?”

Ari motioned for Sylvia to follow her. “Come on. Let’s talk a little.”

Sylvia followed Ari through the stacks to a comfy reading area she’d discovered. She took one of the plush armchairs and Sylvia shrugged out of her backpack to sit on the loveseat.

“I’m not going back until I know the truth.”

“I know.” She pressed her palms together, fingers extended. “Sylvia, you’re a clever kid. Smarter than I was at your age. Hell, you’re probably smarter than me now. That’s great, but it’s also a bad thing. You think you can handle any truth that gets thrown at you. You think no matter what it is, you can be calm and rational and deal with it in a mature way. But you just can’t. You’re a kid. You’re going to be emotional and your reactions are going to be knee-jerk, and sometimes you can’t take that back.”

Sylvia started to stand up. “I knew it. You think I’m just another dumb kid.”

“No. Sit back down. I’m not patronizing you here. I’m saying that you should be smart enough that some stuff has to come with age no matter how far ahead of the curve you might be. You wouldn’t jump behind the wheel of a car and go speeding down the interstate, you wouldn’t go out and get drunk. The story of how you came to be is one of those things you’ll just have to wait until you’re ready for. This time your maturity is working against you. It won’t get you what you want, so you’ll have to use it to be content with waiting.”

“I hate waiting.”

Ari smiled. “You and me both, kid. Instant gratification is the way to go. Look, I used to jump from relationship to relationship. I wasn’t exactly interested in long-term talk. But the woman I’m with now, Dale… I knew her for four years before we changed our relationship. We waited, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“But wouldn’t you have rather had those four years with her instead of waiting?”

Ari shrugged. “Sure. But that’s not how it works. If I’d gone to bed with Dale the first day, we wouldn’t be together now. We’d never have built the foundation or learned how to rely on each other before we made it sexual. So some slight would come along, or some argument would splinter us, and she’d have gone away. Looking at it that way, four years is a small price to pay. Waiting four years got us… every year we have left. And I think that’s a fair trade.”

Sylvia looked at her shoes.

“Finding out the story of how you came to be could destroy your relationship with your parents if you’re not prepared for it. And I’m sorry, Sylvia, but that’s not something you can decide. You may be the smartest kid I’ve ever met, but you’re still a kid. Your origin story doesn’t matter. What matters is your parents are your parents. They’re the ones who raised you and took care of you and dealt with you when you were being a brat. They brought you to the bookstore instead of the toy store. They let you tell strangers you were named after Sylvia Plath.”

Sylvia grinned.

“Sounds like you got a pretty good deal. So give them some time. You’re not the only one who has to hear the story; they need to be properly prepared to tell it.”

“Can you tell me if it’s bad?”

Ari thought a moment. “It’s not great. But it’s not the worst thing in the world. It might force you to see your parents as fallible human beings, so get ready for that.”

Sylvia rolled her eyes. “I have seen their failings, Miss Willow.”

Ari smiled. “I’m sure you have. So are you going to be okay with this? Just waiting until the right time?”

“I guess I have to be.”

“And no more running away. Your parents deserve better than that.”

Sylvia nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay. You want me to take you home, or should I call your parents and have them pick you up here?”

“I’d like to stay here awhile.”

Ari nodded. “I’ll let them know.” She stood up and held out her hand. “It was nice to meet you, Sylvia.”

Sylvia shook her hand. “Thanks, Miss Willow.”

“Any time.”

She walked back to the front of the store where Glenda was feigning indifference behind the counter. She looked up and smiled nervously as Ari approached.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah. I’m going to call her parents, have them pick her up here.” She took out her wallet and put a twenty on the counter. “In case she finds something she wants. My treat.”

Glenda smiled and took the money. “I’m sure she’ll spend every penny and then some. Poor thing. I don’t know if being so intelligent at that age is a good thing or a tragic one. Sometimes the more you understand the harder you feel, and there’s an awful lot to feel at her age.”

“Yep. But I think she’ll be okay. I’m glad she has someone like you that she can talk to.”

“I’ll make sure she knows I’m available. Maybe next time she’ll come here instead of running away and givin’ everyone a fright. You did a good thing bringing her home, Miss Willow.”

“I just talked to her for a minute. Got her to sit still long enough for you and her parents to do the long-term heavy lifting. But I think you’re all up for it.”

Glenda winked. “Well, if we’re not, and if I know Sylvia, she’ll whip us into the proper shape to help her.”

Ari grinned. “Sounds like her. Good luck with her. Teenage years are going to be fun with a brain like that.”

Glenda sighed and shook her head as Ari left the bookstore. She stuck her hands in the pockets of her hoodie and considered where she would go next. She thought about what she had told Sylvia about Dale and smiled, fishing her phone out of her pocket and dialing it as she walked in the direction of the office.

“Bitches Investigations.”

Ari smiled. “Hey. Start shutting the place down. I’m taking you out when I get there.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“Love.”

Dale chuckled. “I can go with that. How long will you be?”

“Twenty-five minutes.”

“I’ll be waiting. Love you.”

“Love you, too.”

Ari was confident that Sylvia and her parents would get through the rough patch. Sylvia was a smart cookie. Not just smart, she was daring and brave. Not a lot of kids would take the risk of trailing a private investigator around town. Hell, as much as she read, Sylvia might be disappointed that the truth is something as pedestrian as an affair. Whatever happened, she knew the girl would come out the other side stronger for it. She was much better equipped than Ari had been, and the hurdles she had to overcome were tiny in comparison. She had faith. And now all Ari could do was hope for the best.

She quickened her pace, eager to get back to the office where her girlfriend was waiting for her.

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