“I don’t know about you, but I feel like eating a steak the size of a placemat,” he crowed, pulling out of the parking lot with all due haste. “And you, you are getting twenty percent. As much as I hate to admit it, we never would have caught up to him without your boob-showing offer.”
I frowned at that and didn’t reply, which caught his attention.
“How many of these jobs do you do a month?” I asked hesitantly.
“Depends on how big the payday is. Some catches are worth more than others. There are some months I only have to do one job. Why do you have that look on your face?” he asked.
Without realizing it, I’d been giving him a pretty healthy dose of stink-eye. I sniffed and schooled my features into a more neutral expression. I hated the timidity in my voice as I said, “I don’t feel good about what we just did.”
I expected him to get defensive or angry. In fact, his lack of reaction was unnerving.
“Other than his penchant for gender-offensive four-letter words, Jerry didn’t seem like such a bad guy. And he sounded so scared. I hate to think what those goons are going to do to him.”
“Honestly? They’re probably going to do something permanent to his kneecaps. But he’ll be able to walk away from it.” When he saw the doubtful expression on my face, he amended, “Limp away. He’ll be able to limp away. The people I look for, they’re not squeaky-clean, innocent souls. There’s a reason they end up on my radar. It’s not because they jaywalk or take more than one penny from that dish by the gas-station cash register. They’ve done something serious, and that leads me right to them.”
“You don’t know that,” I insisted. “You don’t know that the information some of your less-than-reputable clients are giving you is legit. And you don’t know what reasons these people may have had to do whatever it was they did to cross your path.”
“Reasons?” he asked, looking mildly amused, which just pissed me off.
“Yes, reasons. Life isn’t black-and-white. Sometimes decent people do the wrong thing for the right reason.”
“Like stealing a loaf of bread to feed starving orphans?”
“Yes, thank you for taking me seriously.” I narrowed my eyes so dramatically I actually felt the strain on my ocular muscles. “I’m just saying that you never know what you’re capable of until you’re in dire straits.”
“I think I’m pretty familiar with what desperate people will do.” He frowned at me, but his tone was still gentle, which was confusing.
I was questioning him, openly, so why was he being so damn nice about it? How was I supposed to predict his actions if he didn’t respond the way I expected him to?
He reached across the seat to jostle my shoulder, drawing his hand away when he saw how I tensed up. “Is there a reason that you’re taking this so personally?”
I stared out the window. There were plenty of reasons I could give him. I was taking it personally because there was someone out there looking for me. And I would want someone to take it personally if I was gagged and tagged like a freshly caught deer. Because I knew what it was like to wake up afraid. I knew what it was like to want to ask friends, family, the police—anybody—for help but being too scared.
But that was a heck of a hand to tip toward someone I barely knew.
“I just don’t like to see people hurt, that’s all,” I offered weakly.
He shifted in his seat and seemed to be choosing his words carefully as we sped toward a town called Smithville. “Well, that’s an admirable trait . . .”
I sensed an impending but.
“But get the hell over it,” he told me.
I crossed my arms over my chest with a harrumph.
“Yes, thank you, my moral quandary is completely resolved,” I retorted in a saccharine-sweet voice that had him laughing.
“Well, I know what will make you feel better,” he said. When I arched my eyebrows, he waved “our” pay envelope. “Fresh underwear.”
“Jerry’s captors gave you fresh underwear that fits in an envelope?”
Feminine-Hygiene Products: The Ultimate in Werewolf Repellent
To celebrate our big win, Caleb took me to the exotic destination of Wall-Mart.
Please note that was Wall-Mart, with two Ls.
Given the faded sign lettering still evident on the storefront, I assumed the building had been an actual licensed Wal-Mart at some point, back before they changed their official name to Walmart. When the store closed, it appeared, some enterprising souls had just added an extra L to the sign and opened up their own discount megagrocery. The color scheme, façade, and layout were the same, but all of the employees seemed careful to emphasize the extra L when they said, “Welcome to Wallllllll-Mart.” I assumed this was done on the advice of legal counsel.
Caleb seemed nearly giddy about this shopping spree, cart-surfing toward the ladies’ clothing section. The selection wasn’t exactly diverse, but I was able to find several long-sleeved T-shirts, thermals, and hoodies that I could use. I didn’t want to swerve into mom-jeans territory, so I picked some yoga pants. I tossed some plain white cotton undies into the cart without comment from my werewolf shopping partner, for which I was grateful.
I hoped that the identity Red-burn created would involve living in an area with more retail opportunities. I was sincerely looking forward to wearing clothes that were not purchased in a store where you could also buy motor oil and bagged salad. As shallow as it was, I missed open-toed shoes. I missed designer labels. Heck, I missed clothes I could wear just because they were cute, not because they would protect me from frigid winds. I wanted to wear makeup again and not worry that I was attracting too much attention.
As we passed the men’s section, I saw a triple-extra-large black T-shirt featuring a Field & Stream–style illustration of a wolf howling at the moon. I briefly considered buying it to sleep in, but I figured Caleb might find it suspiciously coincidental.
“You don’t seem to be getting a lot,” he noted, as we wandered toward the health and beauty section. He nodded toward the cartload of blues, grays, and blacks.
“I don’t like someone else paying my way,” I told him.
“Well, you helped me snag Jerry, so part of the fee is yours, OK?”
As gratifying as that was, it didn’t lessen the humiliation of buying tampons in front of him. I wouldn’t have to worry about it for a while, but I definitely didn’t want to be unprepared when it happened, particularly if it happened far from civilization. As I stood, considering the various absorbencies, Caleb seemed torn between some need to stay close to me and his excruciating embarrassment.
He cleared his throat. “I’m just going to wait at the end of the aisle.”
“I think that would be best,” I said as he moved toward the end display.
His eyes widened when he realized that display happened to contain a decorative array of Summer’s Eve products. “Maybe even in the sporting-goods section.”
He practically left one of those little cartoon puffs of dust in his wake as he ran away. Apparently, protective instincts only extended so far when feminine-hygiene products were involved.
When he was far out of sight, I pondered my options. This was my opportunity to escape. I could walk right out of the store and find a ride with some willing trucker, taking the risk of being assaulted or worse. Kindly, beer-hauling, grandfatherly types willing to give favors, no questions or reciprocity required, were a rarity in the transportation community. But walking any distance in the dark, even in this relatively mild cold, was lunacy.
OK, so Caleb’s job was a little—a lot—disturbing. And he had some strange werewolfy instincts when it came to boundaries between relative strangers. But there was something so inherently good in the way he interacted with me. He was so calm and patient and seemed to delight in even my more irritating qualities. I could handle spending time with someone who treated me like that. I doubted I would get better offers.
Right, no more getting blown around by the belches of fate. No more decisions based on panic and circumstance. I was choosing to stay with Caleb until I could make it to Anchorage.
I took a deliberate step out of the lady-maintenance aisle and toward the snack section. Caleb had snagged another cart and was filling it with pretzels, nacho chips, and, of course, venison jerky.
“So your arteries are pretty much fossilized under the weight of salt and preservatives at this point, huh?” I said, eyeing the “Around the World Jerky” megavariety pack he dropped into the cart.
“I have a strong metabolism,” he said.
“That really doesn’t affect the probability of a stroke,” I told him.
He rolled his eyes. “Well, you’re just a big pot of sunshine, aren’t ya?”
“Humor me,” I said as I added granola bars to the pile and swapped the nacho chips for pita chips. Caleb bent his mouth into a disdainful frown while making a gagging sound. “Just wait until we get to the produce section.”
Caleb slowly but surely integrated me into his life on the road. Although I disliked how he made his living, I could see why he enjoyed it. He got all the fun of being a detective, without the pesky paperwork and professional accountability. He got to see new places, meet new people . . . and handcuff them. It was like an Easter-egg hunt for people, trying to trace their routes and figure out where they were stashed. But his job was scary, too. He was all alone out here. I was his only backup, which, given my pitiful upper-body strength, was a terrifying thought. If he got hurt, there might not be someone to help him. And while he could heal himself from most injuries, the thought of him lying alone and bleeding in a parking lot made me a little ill.
We drove for what felt like days, stopping in saloons and motels along the way, talking to Caleb’s contacts, and picking up information—all while I needled him to drive a little faster, to move along so we could get to Anchorage.
Caleb’s ability to use his werewolf nature to pick up on his targets’ scents made him seem like a human bloodhound. Knowing about his heightened senses helped me figure out how they helped him to see the minute details that the average person would miss, from trash left behind in a motel room to the depth and age of tire and shoe prints outside a target’s house. And when he was interviewing people, I knew he could smell changes in their body chemistry, hormonal shifts that indicated stress or deception; he could see their eyes dilate and hear changes in their heart rates. He was a walking lie detector, which made me nervous as hell.
But he had just as many secrets to protect as I did. Caleb did his best to cover his otherworldly traits. He found reasons to be out on full-moon nights, when the urge to shift—while not obligatory for werewolves—was strong. He occasionally came back to the motel with dried blood on his clothes or a few feathers in his hair. I pretended not to notice, because there was no possible explanation for the feathers that wouldn’t send a reasonable girl running.
He might have fooled a newbie with an untrained eye. But to someone who had lived with a pack for four years, he might as well have worn a big blinking neon sign: “I’m a werewolf, ask me how.”
Mealtimes with Caleb were an adventure. Like any werewolf, he ate as if it was his job. Bacon, eggs, bacon, steak, more bacon. But he seemed anxious unless he saw that I was eating, too. Clearly, I could never put away as many calories as he was taking in, but unless he saw me consuming a steady stream of nutritious foods, he would nudge them onto my plate. He stopped short of doing airplane noises and trying to feed me, for which I was grateful. As much as I appreciated his concern, my jeans were getting tight, and I was running out of Tums.
Beyond the food issues, he was protective to the extreme, keeping an eye on me at all times. And while it made me uncomfortable—especially when he attempted to follow me into a ladies’ room—part of me was reassured that he cared. He wasn’t trying to keep me from leaving or keep me from meeting someone who might replace him. He was honestly concerned that there might be someone lurking around a corner, which turned out to be a reasonable anxiety at a rest stop in Layton. OK, so it was a porcupine trying to take a nap, but I doubted I could have fought it off on my own.
We drove and drove through the ever-changing landscape, through mountains and valleys, rolling flatlands. Radio stations were a matter of contention. He preferred country (country!), while I stuck to the classic-rock side of the dial. We finally found a Crosby, Stills, and Nash greatest-hits CD at a truck stop in Hanover, which satisfied us both for a while.
We would wake up reasonably early, pack up the truck, and drive to a location where Caleb would either check us into a motel or I would wait in the nearest diner while Caleb met with contacts or snooped around. In the afternoons, we would hit the road again for whatever new trail we were following. At night, we shared a bed. There seemed to be a terrible rash of motels with (a) no double rooms and (b) only one available room, meaning we had to share. I found this highly suspicious, but since Caleb never tried anything untoward, I stopped worrying about it. It got to the point where I doubted I could sleep without the warmth and weight of his body on the bed with me. The Glenn nightmares tapered off to nothing, and for the first time in years, I slept deeply and dreamlessly.
I endeavored to make myself as useful as possible, without actually helping him on those ethical-gray-area cases. I kept a bag of oranges and apples in the truck, which Caleb was happy to munch on. When I couldn’t get fresh fruit, we took megadoses of vitamins C and D. Getting scurvy is not all it’s cracked up to be.