I shook my head. “Really?”
Caleb shrugged. “What?”
Unimpressed by Caleb’s life coaching, Jerry seemed to exhaust himself thrashing and growling muffled insults at us and fell asleep. It seemed impossible to sleep in that position, but given his steady snores, he was apparently comfortable enough. I napped off and on, only feeling slightly guilty that I’d had more sleep than Caleb in the last twenty-four hours and he was the one who was driving. Since he’d sort of banned me from driving, he could just deal with it. Funny, I’d had intermittent insomnia ever since I’d filed divorce papers, but I was able to nod off in a moving vehicle with a werewolf and a fugitive.
Sometime around midnight, Caleb stopped for coffee at a run-down all-night diner halfway to our destination. I woke up enough to check on Jerry, who was still unconscious, and reassemble my hair into something like a ponytail. I offered Caleb a grateful smile when he handed me a large orange juice. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I could handle caffeine or coffee breath.
“It occurs to me that other than your upsetting fondness for plastic restraints and preserved meat, I don’t know much about you,” I said, sipping the juice and welcoming the rush of blood sugar.
“I’m an open book,” he said, and gave me a sunny smile that was just obscene at that hour.
And by the way, werewolves were anything but open and honest. The CIA could take lessons in discretion and misdirection from a werewolf pack. They tended to live in insular communities, separating themselves from the outside world. If humans noticed something “off” about a werewolf, the wolf was a master at redirecting the questioning until those humans were so confused they were no longer sure what they saw. For every odd behavior, they had a dozen plausible explanations. They shared their secrets with a few select, trusted humans, usually the ones they mated with. And for a misguided human who betrayed a werewolf clan . . . well, I don’t know what happened to them. I never saw one twice. The problem with dealing with large predators is that they usually know how to hide a body from other large predators—even if those large predators include state troopers.
“And what do you do in your spare time?” I asked.
“Hunting,” he said. “Hiking.”
“An outdoorsy type, huh?” I asked, having just a little too much fun with the I know something you don’t know game.
“You could say that,” he said. “And what about you? Any hobbies I should know about? Taxidermy? Exotic piercings?”
“How did you go from taxidermy to body piercings?” I asked. “Also, FYI, piercings are not a hobby.”
“I never know with you wild tattooed women,” he said. I shot him a dirty look. He grinned. “So what do you do for fun?”
I pursed my lips and resolved to do penance for my teasing with a healthy dollop of truth. “Dye my hair. Obtain illegal identification. Forge government paperwork.”
Caleb’s expression waffled between uh-oh and wow. I didn’t know whether he believed me or not. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to believe me or not. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, “Well, you are an interesting girl, aren’t you?” I shrugged my shoulders, all innocent eyes and fluttering lashes. “What are you running from?”
That put a damper on the fluttering lashes. “Columbia House Music Club,” I said, recovering my snarkiness quickly. “Oh, sure, they say they’ll sell you six CDs for a penny, but they’ll hunt you down like the hounds of hell if you miss the payments.”
“Stop kidding around.”
“I’m not. A Wilson Phillips CD ruined my life.”
I was treated to yet another Caleb expression to add to the catalogue, the halfhearted I’m getting really tired of your shit, woman glower. Normally, a glare like that would have me retreating a bit, at least leaning back in my seat. But there was no heat in Caleb’s stare, just frustration and a touch of irritation. Somewhere in my chest, a little pressure valve opened up, and I was able to release a breath I didn’t even know I’d been holding.
Contrite, I told him something real. “I’m not ready to talk about it yet. All you need to know is that I need to get to Anchorage to pick something up. It’s nothing illegal. I don’t have any warrants. After that, I don’t know where I will be going.”
Caleb muttered something I couldn’t make out, frowning into the distance. Well, if there was any way to kill a fun, flirtatious conversation, that was it. We rode along in silence for a mile or two.
Desperate to recover the previous mood, I said, “OK, lightning round. Siblings or only?”
“Only,” he answered. Of course, I knew that. Only children were such a rarity in the hyperproductive pack that the wolf-aunties were sure to tsk over “poor Caleb,” all alone, the last of his line, handling the details of his father’s death by himself.
Caleb’s mother, a human, had abandoned him and his father when Caleb was just a little boy, I remembered now, which had been quite the scandal in the little valley community. Did the lack of brothers and sisters make it easier for Caleb to leave the packlands and wander by himself? As a cub, he would have had plenty of kids to run around with, cousins upon cousins to keep from being lonely. But still, after his father died, I could imagine Caleb feeling his connections to his fellow wolves fading.
I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. Running with other wolves was supposed to be one of the best parts of being a werewolf. How often was he able to shift out here on his own? How did he avoid hunters and game wardens or running afoul of locals? Shifting alone was considered a big no-no in the valley. The more time a wolf spends with the pack, the clearer his memories during the phasing. There was a sort of collective memory among the wolves, which could be unfortunate, given some of the stupid stuff some of them were known to pull while on four legs. Shifting solo could lead to a werewolf waking up in human form, naked, in a grocery store parking lot two hundred miles from home. (It had happened to Maggie.) Or suspected of eating hikers. (It had happened to Cooper.)
I cast a sidelong glance at Caleb. How long had it been since he’d been able to run? Werewolves had to shift every once in a while just to get the “wolf wiggles” out. Maggie told me once that her kind tended to get pretty cranky if they went too long without phase. It would explain Caleb’s occasionally less-than-sunny demeanor.
It seemed my little mental vacation had taken longer than I thought, because Caleb was looking at me expectantly. Oh, right, I was supposed to be participating in car games, not pondering werewolf PMS. Cheeks flushing, I cleared my throat and asked, “College?”
“Past felonies?” I asked.
“Is public nudity a felony?”
Wrinkling my nose, I asked, “Biggest phobia?”
“Russian nesting dolls. I’ve always hated those.”
“Because you think the tiny baby doll inside could be made of pure evil?” I suggested.
“Yes, I do.” He managed to say it without a hint of irony.
“Rambo or Rocky?”
He scoffed. “Terminator.”
“Sorry, the correct answer was John McClane,” I told him, shaking my head. “Always.”
“I feel this quiz is unfairly skewed toward Bruce Willis fans.”
“Don’t feel bad. I stopped speaking to a friend for a month when she suggested Love, Actually was a better Christmas movie than Die Hard,” I told him. It was true. My relationship with Mo was very strained until she brought me chocolate chess squares as a peace offering.
“Springsteen or Def Leppard?”
He fist-pumped in mock triumph. “Neither. The correct answer is Garth Brooks.”
“I don’t think we can be friends anymore,” I told him.
That obscenely sunny smile made another appearance. “Well, at least you admit that we’re friends in the first place.”
I rolled my eyes. “Football or basketball?”
“Curling,” he insisted, and when I burst out laughing, he added, “I can’t help it! It’s weirdly compelling. Those poor guys out there on the ice with their little brooms.”
“I have no problem with that,” I promised him. “Chunky or creamy?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Wow, I hope you’re talking about peanut butter.”
And so it continued for almost an hour, with Caleb attempting to ask me reciprocal questions. I dodged all but the most trivial, giving him bits and pieces of information that couldn’t come back to bite me. Bruce Willis. Florence and the Machine. Born in Kansas. (A lie.) Chicago Cubs fan. (Also a lie. Go, Cardinals.) Chunky over creamy. (True. It was the only way to keep my chunk-phobic father out of my Jiffy stash.) I avoided questions about schooling, employment, past relationships, even the places I’d traveled.
“I don’t have much time for vacations,” I told him.
“Not even when you were a kid?”
I shook my head. “My family didn’t travel much.” Another lie. My relatively well-off parents had taken me on wonderful trips to Disney, the Grand Canyon, Mexico. We’d even spent a Christmas in New York City to satisfy my mother’s fascination with oversized Christmas trees. But I hadn’t talked about my parents in years. And it hurt too much to talk about it casually.
“Still not much of a sharer, huh, Rabbit?” he asked, when I’d sidestepped a question about my birthday. “See? Cagey.”
I had opened my mouth to make some excuse, when an indignant squeal sounded from the backseat. Saved by the bell . . . or the tied-up felon, as it were. Muffled by the gag, Jerry’s pleas for us to let him go plucked at my heartstrings, and I rolled around in my head the many alternatives to giving him to Caleb’s clients. Until Jerry called me a not-very-nice four-letter word beginning with C, which came across loud and clear even with the gag. And while my sympathies cooled considerably, Caleb got angry enough that he pulled over, got a black cotton bag from his serial-killer tool kit, and pulled it over Jerry’s head.
“You are really good at that,” I told him. “Truly, disturbingly efficient.”
“I briefly considered a career as a preschool teacher,” he said, chuckling when my eyes went wide.
“Try not to be too angry with him,” I told Caleb, patting his arm gently. The gesture seemed to settle him, relaxing his shoulders and smoothing the firm set of his jaw. “I would probably call me names, too, if I was in the same situation.”
“I wouldn’t let you get into this sort of situation,” he retorted. And when I gave him an amused look, he added grudgingly, “I would try.”
I snorted. He really seemed to think he could control the universe, but I found it reassuring that he didn’t seem to think he could control me. As much as he might want to lead me in one direction or the other, he seemed to have accepted that it was futile. I liked that feeling, knowing that I’d shown some backbone in this bizarre situation, that I hadn’t backslid to the faulty instincts that got Tina Campbell into trouble.
I decided to enjoy this small victory and keep quiet for the rest of the drive to the airstrip. Caleb had turned up a Tim McGraw CD to cover Jerry’s muffled curses anyway, so further conversation wasn’t necessary. I would have to list Caleb’s taste in music as the chief of his personality flaws. I could forgive the overprotectiveness and the questionable job, but I drew the line at boot-scootin’ music.
As our headlights flashed over the faded red Quonset-style hangar, Caleb motioned for me to slide low in my seat and slipped a baseball cap over my head, covering my face. He unbuckled and turned to me as Jerry noticed we had come to a stop and began thrashing violently.
“I know you don’t like being told, but trust me when I say the less these people see of you, the better. Just act like you’re taking a nap or something.”
I nodded, pulling my collapsible weapon of choice from my bag, but I kept it low and out of sight of the trio of burly men standing near the faded red metal building marked “Bird in the Bush Piloting Service.” Considering the sheer size of Caleb’s clients and the flash of what looked remarkably like a Russian mob tattoo on the tallest one’s hand, I decided that just this once, I wouldn’t be contrary. I slouched down and yawned widely, pulling the cap lower over my eyes. I would keep an ear out for any sign of trouble, but a “waking nap” didn’t sound too bad, either.
Jerry was deeply unhappy to be unloaded from the truck and marched across the frosted grass, if his colorful, anatomically unlikely insults were any indication. Even after his use of the unforgivable C-word, his whimpers and whining still struck a guilty chord within me. How could Caleb just go through the transaction as if he was dropping off a bag of laundry? And he was delivering it to people who would beat the absolute crap out of that laundry—and that was being optimistic.
While I kept low and still in the truck, I found myself getting more agitated by the minute. What if that was me? What if some bounty hunter came and packed me up like so much luggage and dropped me at some nondescript location to return me to Glenn? Would Caleb help me? Or leave me to the bounty hunter out of professional courtesy? What would become of me if the price of selling me out went higher than the price of keeping me at Caleb’s side?
I was pondering these cheerful issues when Caleb yanked the truck door open, beaming from ear to ear, and clapped an envelope into my hand. I stared down at the plain white paper, marveling at its weight. How much had he been paid for Jerry’s head? How much would Glenn be willing to pay for information about me? The thought made my stomach pitch, but Caleb seemed oblivious to my queasy distress.