Caleb let out a whuffling sound and turned onto his side, burying his face in his pillow.
The distinctly canine movement made my lips curve into a fond smile. I couldn’t do that to Caleb. I couldn’t drag him down with me, into my big bag of crazy. He belonged to the valley, with his pack, not running my ex-husband down like the proverbial dog. He deserved to go back home and find some nice wolf-girl and have furry little babies. He deserved someone who could share her whole life with him, not just carefully edited sound bites.
Just walk out, my brain commanded. Put on your coat and get the hell out before you manage to talk yourself out of this. Move your feet.
So that’s what I did. I slung my bag over my shoulder and made it all the way to the door. I looked back.
Damn it, why did I look back?
Caleb’s hair was all mussed around his face, his relaxed, nearly boyish face. His lips were parted as he breathed deeply. I was going to miss that. I wanted nothing more than to crawl back into bed, where it was warm and safe and smelled like him.
I moved closer to the bed, even as my brain lectured me about mocking the laws of common sense. I stretched out my arm, stopping just short of running my fingers along his cheek.
“Be happy.” I pressed the barest whisper of a kiss against his cheek, inhaling his spicy, woodsy scent one last time, and ran out of the motel room as if he was hot on my heels.
I Make Use of Stolen Law-Enforcement Equipment
I, for lack of a more flowery term, hauled ass up the street to a bar called Slippery Sam’s. It had been a while since I’d done any kind of running, and I ended up pulling a hamstring. But it was worth it to be able to close myself up in the dark, smoky room and hide in a booth lit only by a neon blue St. Pauli Girl sign.
The waitress wasn’t thrilled to have a nonordering freeloader taking up her booth. So when I mentioned I was looking for a ride, she was quick to point out the bar’s beer distributor, Bart, who would be departing for parts unknown within the next thirty minutes. Parts unknown sounded pretty good to me. And the rotund, grandfatherly driver’s rig was parked out back, which was even better.
Bart was willing to take me as far as a saloon about four hours away, where he happened to know of a Coca-Cola distributor who ran a regular route to Rooklin, about a hundred miles east. He vouched for Carl, the Coca-Cola man, as a noncrazy non–serial killer and promised to arrange for my transportation to Rooklin, for which I was very grateful. Even when he insisted on showing me a few dozen pictures of his kids, grandkids, and various salmon he’d caught in the past year.
Bart dutifully handed me off to Carl, who turned out to be a skinny, pimply twenty-one-year-old who couldn’t see over the steering wheel without the aid of a phone book. But he was very sweet and offered me some insights into Battlestar Galactica that I’d never considered. Despite his willingness to share his thermos of coffee, I was pretty much dead on my feet by the time we rolled into my latest destination.
Rooklin was like so many of the small Alaskan towns I’d traveled through, a tiny oasis of civilization carved out of a gap between mountains, surrounded by endless evergreen trees. Main Street consisted of a dozen wooden storefronts crammed close together, as much to save on construction materials as on the cost of heating during those long winters. There were no chain stores or fast-food restaurants, just locally owned essential businesses: a grocer’s, a bar, a medical clinic, and a combination pawn shop and office-supply store called Dudley’s Duplicates.
Carl sent me off with a plastic bag full of Oreos and a bold pat on the arm, wishing me luck as I wandered down Rooklin’s main street to Dudley’s Duplicates. It was downright painful to sell the little emerald ring my late grandmother had given me for my sweet sixteen. I’d managed to hold on to it all this time, only to sell it for a whopping eighty-five dollars to a pawn broker. But in a choice between sentiment and a roof over my head, I figured Gramma would understand. She’d been a practical woman.
I supposed this was my official rock bottom.
I had just enough money to rent a room at Rooklin Right-Price Rooms for two nights and buy a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter from the market. If I was really lucky, Red-burn might be able to arrange a ride to Anchorage for me before I ran through my meager cash stash. If not, I was going to have to make a choice between buying supplies and keeping all of my minor organs. Maybe I could contact Merl about getting a good price.
Tucked as safe as I could be in the luxurious accommodations at the Right-Price, I sat at the foot of the lumpy bed and stared at the beige-yellow walls. In danger of slipping into crippling despair, I needed to find the bright side. I was alive. I was—for the most part—unharmed. For the moment, life was pretty good. If I could get some sleep, I could face the next day.
I spent two days burning through time slots at Dudley’s Duplicates’ Internet “café,” also known as two wobbly folding chairs and a card table in the corner of the store. I contacted Red-burn through a newly established qwickmail address, using our safe word, caduceus, to verify that it was me, not Glenn posing as me. I updated her on my situation and asked for any details on my new identity, which she couldn’t provide yet. She did, however, wire me a few hundred dollars so my minor organs could remain unpawned. And because it was a better nervous habit than smoking or knuckle cracking, I reread the restraining-order laws in Alaska. While the state troopers would be willing to assist authorities close to Glenn, I still had no idea where he was. He was smart enough to cover his tracks through a fake IP address, so that wouldn’t be any help. I didn’t know if he was really getting closer to me or if he was just playing a mind game. I wasn’t willing to take the risk, either way.
While I had much better evidence of Glenn’s harassment this time, I wouldn’t be able to get any sort of legal revenge on him. And my unwillingness to dirty the pack’s collective paws cut me off from my avenues to bloody, though clearly justified, illegal revenge. My best hope now was simple escape, even if that meant long-term residence at Rooklin Right-Price Rooms.
Please, good and merciful God, don’t let it mean long-term residence at Rooklin Right-Price Rooms.
Constructed in one of those old-fashioned “open courtyard plans,” the motel had seen considerably better days. Of course, so had I. I just wanted to get out of the cold and get some sleep. I had trouble sleeping here, and it didn’t have anything to do with the cracker-thin mattress or the scratchy sheets. I’d had nightmares about Glenn every night since I’d arrived in Rooklin. The nightmare was always the same: Glenn breaking down my door and dragging me out of bed by the hair, screaming about taking me home where I belonged. But the beds changed in every dream. One night, it was in my bedroom in my cozy little house in the valley; the next, it was my motel room in McClusky; and the next, it was the first room I shared with Caleb.
The guilt, the worry, and the lack of sleep had combined into a strange buzzing sensation that settled between my eyes like a half-formed headache. It had been a mistake, leaving Caleb the way I did. It was cowardly, and Caleb deserved more than that. He deserved more than a stupid Post-it note on a lampshade. And what really sucked was that I would never be able to apologize for it, because I would never see him again. I wasn’t sure he’d want me to.
I missed Caleb. I missed his warmth and weight on the other side of the mattress. I missed the weird wolfy whuffling sounds he made in his sleep. I missed his terrible taste in road music and the faint smell of strange jerky in his truck. I missed feeling safe.
I scrubbed my hands over my face. It wasn’t like me to be so distracted, wandering around outside like this, but I was just so damn tired. I shuffled down the cracked cement patio in front of the motel-room doors, toying with the plastic key fob as I made my way to my room. There were only twelve of them, and I had rented unit eleven, at the far end of the complex.
Across the lot, two Carhartt-clad men stood hunched over an open truck hood, poking at the engine with tools while they slugged back beer. I gave it no thought when they looked up. I smiled wearily at them.
Both men straightened, two predators scenting the wind for prey. Both smiles stretched just a bit wider in an insincere parody of friendly politeness. But I’d lived with apex predators for four years. I knew that look, the overeager, hungry excitement just before the killing lunge. I had just a few seconds before—
“Hey there,” the younger of the two said with a wink. He was tall and broad, with a flat nose and muddy brown eyes.
His voice, with its cruel, teasing tone, had my stomach dropping, a cold, dead weight in the pit of my belly. Without thinking, I closed in on myself. I sank into survival mode, eyes to the ground, face set, ears attuned. I didn’t respond, didn’t acknowledge that I’d heard one of them speak. I prayed that I was wrong, that these were just a couple of guys passing their time in the parking lot, content with some harmless flirtation with a pretty girl. An available girl, at least.
Could I dash back to the motel office and stall long enough that they wouldn’t see which room I was in? Why did I smile? What was I thinking? I’d gotten soft, living with the pack, believing I was safe. I’d gotten cocky. I’d barely had any problems since moving up here. And the minute stupidity and exhaustion made me drop my guard, I landed in a big pile of slimeball.
I wished Caleb was there. It was as if my brain blurted out his name. Caleb said he would keep me safe, and suddenly, I felt like an idiot for taking that for granted. Disturbing law-enforcement-grade equipment collection or no, I felt a lot more comfortable with the way he smiled at me than with these two.
Wait, law-enforcement equipment.
I shoved my hand into my coat and slipped my fingers around the collapsible metal baton. If the parking-lot predators could see the wicked way my lips curved as my hand wound around my trusty weapon, they would have been very afraid. They certainly wouldn’t have been circling closer, making nasty comments to each other that they thought I couldn’t hear.
I didn’t have a burly werewolf to watch over me. I had this big metal stick. And Caleb wasn’t my husband or my big, strong protector. He wasn’t even my boyfriend. He was a guy who had picked me up like a stray and tucked me into his pocket. And none of this changed the fact that these guys were now standing between me and my room and the office, one on each side. So friendly parking-lot loiterers was out, it seemed.
“Hey, slow down, now, slow down, we just want to talk to you,” the younger one said as they moved behind me, toward my door. The elder had a bulky, athlete-gone-soft build and thick salt-and-pepper hair, while his counterpart was tall with wicked-looking tattoos crawling up his neck.
Without replying, I just kept moving. My hands were shaking so hard I was afraid I was going to drop my key. And it wasn’t exactly intimidating to see a woman quaking so badly it looked as if she was conducting an orchestra instead of waving a weapon in your face.
Hold it together, I told myself. Steady hands.
“Here, let us help you with that,” the older one offered solicitously, holding out his oil-stained hands as I struggled to fit my key into the lock. Was it a bad idea to open my door? Would they push me into the room and close the door before I could scream? Maybe I would be better off dodging my way to the office. I shoved the key back into my pocket and backed away
I kept my tone coolly polite. “No, thanks.”
“Hey, don’t be like that,” the older one chided through his yellowed, crooked teeth. “Don’t be rude, honey.”
“Yeah, you’re not being very friendly,” the younger one agreed, as if I owed him my time or attention, just because he decided he wanted a conversation.
I hated these guys. I hated these “nice guys” who just waited for some woman to reject their attentions, so they could act the wounded party and avenge their injured pride with slurs and swipes. I’d met far too many of them in my travels, and they never ceased to piss me off.
The younger one—Grabby Hands—tried to yank at my elbow, but I ducked out of the way and put my back to the wall.
“I don’t want any trouble. Leave me alone.” Shaky, too shaky. Damn it. Why couldn’t I get my voice to work right? The very air around me seemed to be closing in on me, the edges of my vision darkening and blurring as the men moved closer.
“Want a beer, sweetheart?” Yellow Teeth asked. “We got plenty.”
“No, thanks. Have a nice night,” I said as I gripped the handle of the baton and backed away from them.
Grabby Hands frowned. “Hey, where do you think you’re going? We’re not done talking to you.”
“Just leave me alone.” The good news was that righteous indignation gave my voice some weight, even as Grabby Hands reached up to drag his hand along my arm.
“Don’t touch me,” I said, growling now.
Grabby Hands lived up to the name I’d mentally tagged him with, poking at my side, as if he was going to tickle me. I dodged again, hissing at him like an angry cat. Yellow Teeth was no longer amused. He clamped his hand around my wrist, dragging me close enough to smell his rank, smoke-tainted breath. I whipped the baton out of my pocket with a loud zing.
Grabby Hands reacted faster and stumbled back a step. Yellow Teeth didn’t seem impressed with my little metal stick . . . until I cracked his wrist with it, aiming right for the sensitive ulnar nerve. He yowled, snatching his hand away. I went after his knees as if he was a particularly icky piñata. Grabby Hands had his arm around me from behind, lifting me and trying to drag the baton out of my hand. Yanking my arm down, I crashed my head back into his face. He yelped, and I felt the warm spurt of blood from his nose oozing down my back.