I became Caleb’s personal-assistant-slash-Bluetooth, searching through files as he drove and preventing him from making phone calls that could endanger both of us. I managed to drag him kicking and screaming into the current century by finding a reasonably functional laptop and the world’s smallest printer in a pawn shop near our motel in Denali. Being married to a boastful computer genius did have its advantages. I’d managed to pick up a few tricks through the years, especially knowing of Web sites where you could obtain not-quite-legal information about citizens at large. So, with the portable wireless hot spot I persuaded him to buy from the cell-phone store, I was able to (a) help with Internet research and (b) avoid the Alaskan version of hipsters who frequented Internet cafés.
They were like regular hipsters, with more flannel.
And if I happened to find lots of information about those who committed violent felonies but none about people who just owed money to the wrong people, well, that was just too darn bad.
My new “apprenticeship” put me in frequent contact with Caleb’s “home base,” a bar in Fairbanks owned by Caleb’s improbably named friend Suds. A former Alaska State Police trooper, Suds served as a central communications hub between Caleb and the investigators (and other less reputable entities) who hired him, passing along assignments and information. Before I showed up, they communicated primarily through phone and fax. I didn’t know if Suds appreciated my “interference,” but I did manage to form some sort of bond with him when I spent the better part of three hours explaining how to scan and attach documents to e-mails. I earned his respect when I tolerated the F-word three times in one sentence without getting all delicate about his language.
Since I’d been “promoted,” Caleb got me my own prepaid cell phone at a general store in Donwell. He said he didn’t want me to have to come looking for him if he was working. But I got the idea that boredom played a factor in the purchase, particularly after he started texting me while he was “in the field” to keep himself entertained.
You know your life has taken a turn for the bizarre when a werewolf is sending you winky emoticons.
In consideration of his lack of computer skills, Caleb let me take over e-mail communications with his clients. I spent most of my nights in the motel rooms, alone, working on the laptop or reading, a simple pleasure I hadn’t had time for until recently. I wrote up progress reports, submitted invoices, and even set up a PayPal account so Caleb could collect payments immediately from investigators working in other states. This was a purely selfish gesture. More money in Caleb’s account meant a nicer class of motel room (read: motels with cable channels besides porn, but still, mysteriously, no available double rooms).
Unfortunately, Caleb took notice of my primary motive when he came back one night to find six expense reports and even more invoices ready for his signature.
“You seem to be zipping through the paperwork at an alarming rate,” he said, blinking at the sheer number of documents I had prepared.
“I just like to be efficient,” I said, all big eyes and innocence.
“And it has nothing to do with your wanting me to work toward your destination just a little bit quicker?” he asked.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He slid out of his heavy jacket and kicked off his boots. “We’ll get there when we get there, Rabbit, no sooner, no later.”
“I have business I’ve got to take care of in Anchorage. I’m anxious to get to it.”
“What kind of business?”
“Personal business, the kind that comes with a deadline,” I retorted.
“But you’re not rushing through my business so we can get to yours faster, right?”
Now was so not the time to tell him that I was punting certain files to let the lesser offenders run free and clear the road to Anchorage. “I’m not rushing,” I told him, sounding just a little more prim than I deserved to at the moment. “I’m streamlining.”
“And I appreciate that,” he said. “Just don’t streamline me out of a job.”
“I couldn’t possibly. I would hate to see what you would do with your handcuffing skills as a civilian.”
He stared at me, eyebrows raised. “I could think of a couple of things, just off the top of my head.”
I groaned. “Walked right into that one, huh?”
He nodded, chuckling to himself as he removed my phone from the charger and plugged his in. He didn’t even glance at my screen while he removed the cord. He’d never asked to see the phone. He never checked my messages or the most recent calls. He trusted me with it. Even when it was in his hands, he guarded my privacy.
And that was the moment—regardless of his weird job and supernatural status—when I fell just a little bit in love with Caleb Graham.
My reasons for getting Caleb a laptop had a third, even less altruistic layer of motivation. The private server allowed me to check in discreetly with Red-burn. When I went more than two weeks without an e-mail, I violated protocols and sent her an e-mail requesting a phone conference. She sent back a reply: “Just this once. ” Which was why I loved her so much. She gave me a late-night appointment time that coincided with Caleb’s meeting with one of his bar contacts.
Not knowing Red-burn’s first name bothered me from time to time. This was someone who had saved and changed my life. And I wasn’t allowed to know anything about her, not even the state where she was living. She could be sitting in the next building, for all I knew.
Even with Caleb safely ensconced in a bowling alley/dry goods store down the street, I felt the need to close the curtains while I waited for her call. Hearing that voice was a balm for my frazzled nerves, and for the first time in weeks, I felt that maybe everything would work out after all.
“Well, aren’t you a voice for sore ears, or something like that,” she said, giving a throaty giggle. “How are you doing?”
“Pretty well, considering. I’m just getting jumpy without updates,” I said quietly.
“No news is good news sometimes.”
“I know.” I sighed, hoping I didn’t sound too petulant. “Can you at least tell me what happened? Why’d you pull the escape hatch? Why now?”
Red-burn seemed to consider this for a long while before finally saying, “You’re famous.”
My mouth went dry. The last time someone had said that to me, it was after Glenn posted clandestine shower footage of me on YouTube. “What do you mean?”
“When we arranged your transportation to the Great Frozen North, we did it through one of our contacts who works at the Bellingham port terminal,” she said. “He’s able to hide ‘special passengers’ on the manifest as unbooked rooms on the ferry.”
I frowned. I already knew this. I had met “Captain Anonymous,” another Network operative, at the port terminal just before boarding the ferry from Washington. He was a sweet, baby-faced blond in his twenties who gave me a bag of snacks and a Nicole Peeler paperback along with my tickets and Anna Moder information packet. I’d gone straight into the ladies’ room, dyed my hair dark brown over the sink, and walked out as Anna.
The five-day ride on the Northern Sea Star from Washington State to Chenega Bay had been one of the more pleasant experiences on the run—clean sea air, the occasional whale sighting. Once I assured myself that Glenn was not, in fact, the guy selling hot dogs at the concession stand, it was practically a luxury cruise.
“Oh, no,” I groaned.
“Your picture is smack dab in the banner on their home page. It’s an adorable little boy and his daddy waving bye-bye to the Washington coast as their adventure begins. You’re not front and center or anything, just sort of lurking in the background, looking like one of those Old World malevolent spirits that foreshadow sea disasters.”
“That seems sort of harsh,” I told her.
“Two words for you, sweetie: undereye concealer.”
I snorted. It was such a normal, bitchy, girlfriend thing to say. Red-burn was caustic on occasion, but her dark humor always made me feel better somehow, as if my situation wasn’t all that insane if someone could crack a joke about it.
“Anyway, with the dark dye job and the haunting undereye circles, you looked so different from your picture that the captain didn’t even recognize you at first, and he’s on that Web site every day. So when he did realize what had happened, he went to the company’s IT guy to ask about changing the photo on the Web to some other shot. The IT guy told him, ‘You’re the second person to ask about that photo this week.’ He said some online image vendor inquired about that very same photo, hoping to acquire the rights to distribute it, then got downright hateful when the IT guy refused to give him information about when it was taken. Just that morning, the company Web site had shown signs of being hacked, but the only areas of the site that were improperly accessed were the image files and the ticketing information logged from the date of your departure. Security footage stored in a completely different server had also been tampered with.”
My stomach rolled with the only possibility. Glenn. Glenn would have the skill necessary to get into any Web site he wanted.
“But his stumbling across a ferry company’s Web site is just so random,” I said. “How would he even know to look at the port terminal Web site?”
“We’re not sure, honey. Maybe he ran a facial-recognition program set to scan cached images. It’s possible he’s figured out where our information is stored and he got in that way. He’s a persistent little bastard. Next time, try to marry someone who can’t turn on a laptop on his own.”
My fickle brain immediately went to Caleb. And I told my brain to mind its own business.
“Anyway, the good news is that you’re nowhere near that area now, and looking for you in a state that big is like looking for a needle in a . . . really large haystack with very few needles.”
I snickered. “Didn’t think that metaphor through, huh?”
Red-burn assured me that the Network was using every resource it had to get me reestablished. We ended the call with promises that she would send me e-mails regardless of new developments. I just had to stay safe and be patient.
I felt I had staying safe covered, particularly after Caleb sewed a special pocket in the lining of my coat so I would have “my baton” on hand anytime I needed it. (A werewolf with seamstress skills—who knew?) But patience was a little more complicated. I knew I was falling too easily into this routine. I got used to sharing motel rooms. I got used to sharing tiny, dingy bathrooms with a man so tall he could brush his teeth behind me and still see himself in the mirror over my head. I got used to sharing greasy meals over sticky diner tables and rickety in-room dinette sets. I got used to sleeping in a bed warmed by a large body, a definite bonus considering the daily drop in temperature as we rounded the corner into October.
I learned little things, some that endeared me to Caleb, others that made me want to throw all of his Garth Brooks CDs out of the truck window. I learned that Caleb liked having his back rubbed as we fell asleep. I learned that violin music made him edgy. Like most men, he insisted that he didn’t need directions, but I insisted even more forcefully that we keep track of our progress on a map.
Without mentioning them, he obviously was learning little things about me, too. He noticed the titles I liked to read and would pick up a mystery or romance paperback for me whenever he found a store that sold books. He would take the tomatoes off of my sandwiches without my having to say how much I hated them. He knew how to adjust the heat vents in the truck so that I stayed warm but not too hot.
I knew it would only last until I relocated, but it started to feel something like a normal existence. What could life be like if we were staying in one place? Would we become bored with each other? Would he realize that there were much more attractive, less emotionally damaged girls out there with whom he could make beautiful wolf-babies?
I wasn’t happy that it was taking so long to reach my destination, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. For now, I tried to enjoy traveling with Caleb.
Of course, there were nights when I would wake up with a warm, firm body curled around mine, and I would flinch, flipping onto my back and scooting across the bed. Caleb’s arm would wrap around my waist, his grip unrelenting despite my mattress gymnastics.
Once my sleep-sluggish brain realized I was with Caleb, I would settle down almost immediately. Caleb’s physical presence was like a magnet, constantly drawing me. No matter where he was in the room, I could feel the warmth of his skin radiating out and reaching for me.
He was deliberately giving me space, which I appreciated. I knew it was probably difficult for him. Were-creatures were demonstrative folk, reveling in public displays of affection where maybe only a handshake was called for. They maintained intimacy, from friendship to epic soul-mate romance, through touch. It was as though skin-to-skin contact confirmed the connection, a sort of unwritten, unspoken, I still love you enough to tolerate your questionable hand-washing practices memo.
It was diametrically opposed to his nature to avoid touching me, particularly, I suspect, after getting so cozy with me that first night. I appreciated his efforts, but at the same time, I felt more than a little frustrated by the situation. I was trusting Caleb more each day, growing more attracted to him, and he now seemed content to be snuggle-buddies.