“No. That’s . . . wrong. But people who live in lampshade-note-shaped houses shouldn’t throw stones.” He tapped me on the nose with his fingertip for emphasis.
“Any other little secrets I should know about?”
He pursed his lips. “No.”
He made an alarmingly human helpless-man face, complete with flailing outstretched hands. “Any guy would hesitate in response to that question!”
“So no more surprises.”
He raised his hand in a mockery of the Boy Scout salute. “Not so much as a surprise birthday party. If you ever decide to tell me your real birthdate. I’m assuming the one I found on your ID is fake.”
I gasped. “You looked through my wallet?”
“While you were asleep that night at the motel, when we went after Jerry,” he said, wincing when I smacked him. “You didn’t think I was going to do some checking up on the woman riding in my truck and sleeping in my bed?”
“I’m not the one who’s cagey,” I muttered into his skin.
He tucked my head under his chin and hugged me tight. “Glenn—that was his name?”
I blinked, tensing up against him. Caleb rubbed circles on the small of my back to try to get me back into a relaxed state. Glenn was such an enormous part of my head space. Avoiding him was the motivation for so many aspects of my life, and I hadn’t shared anything about him with Caleb, someone who had so recently taken up another considerable chunk of my thoughts. While I didn’t want them to meet under any circumstances, it seemed unfair to shut such a big part of my life away from Caleb—especially when Glenn could be the reason I eventually left.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and resolved to tell Caleb everything.
“Have you ever had one of those moments in your life where you wish you had a time-traveling DeLorean?” I asked Caleb as he settled against my side to listen to my tale.
Foxy Boxing Is Way More Difficult Than It Looks on Those Questionable Cable Channels
Caleb listened to every word, stopping me to ask a question here or there but never judging, never demanding answers. I poured out the whole sorry story and felt better for getting it off my chest. I explained about the e-mails and how Glenn claimed to have found me. And while he still wasn’t happy with me for sneaking away instead of telling him, he dropped the subject. Exhausted by relating the sad story of my marriage, I fell asleep balanced on Caleb’s chest and woke up just before noon. Caleb had left a note by the door (as far away from the lampshade as possible) stating that he’d gone for a “run.”
I felt very sorry for the woodland creatures that might have crossed his path.
Unfortunately, this honesty seemed to have put another space bubble between us. Caleb suddenly seemed worried about rushing me physically or crowding me. He didn’t sniff me or touch me casually as much as he did before. I had to initiate kissing or any other fun-time activities. I made it a point to become even more affectionate with him, to try to snap him out of it. But the stubborn wolf was going all noble on me.
Caleb managed to get Glenn’s basic information out of me: name, last known address, birthdate. He seemed determined to find some solution for my situation, which was sort of sweet and at the same time a little insulting, as if he was going to magically find some easy fix I hadn’t thought of yet. A nearly impossible-to-file restraining order, restarting my stalled divorce proceedings, even a legal name change—all of that paperwork could be tracked and could lead Glenn right to my door. Living a little less legitimately was inconvenient, but it kept me off of Glenn’s radar. It was my choice, and it made me feel safer. So I rebuffed these suggestions—and any attempts to get personal information about Glenn—with indifference and subject changes, making Caleb restless and snappish.
We didn’t talk about my running away because we had new subjects to discuss, namely Glenn and my history with the werewolf pack. Caleb did, however, spend a lot of time talking to Suds, taking several calls out on the porch of the motel, despite temperatures dipping near the single digits. He was worried and agitated, and part of me wished I hadn’t told him about my past. He knew everything now. He knew how damaged I was, and I couldn’t be that quirky, mysterious girl who had saved him from a half-assed bullet wound.
One morning, he strode into our room and tossed me a case file. “We’re going to Goose Creek. You have twenty minutes to pack.”
“Yes,” he said. “Or at least, in twenty minutes.”
I harrumphed at this sudden change in demeanor, as if he hadn’t spent the last week in a state of grumpy old werewolf-ness. Phasing issues or no, I didn’t appreciate mood swings that left me feeling gaslighted. I flipped through the file, reading the summary. “We’re looking for a stripper named Trixie?”
Caleb cast me another smirk. “I think they prefer ‘exotic dancer.’ ”
“Why are we looking for a stripper named Trixie?”
“See, that’s a question a man would never ask.”
I gave him my best stink-eye, but he only grinned impishly at me. Holding his gator jerky over the garbage can got his attention.
“Hey!” he howled. “Trixie is the errant girlfriend of Lolo Kardakian, medium-sized hood out of Anchorage. They’ve had a disagreement.”
I inadvertently dropped the bag of jerky, more out of surprise than revenge. “We’re chasing down a woman to drag her back to her angry criminal boyfriend?”
“Do you know how hard it is to find that brand of gator jerky?” he asked, peering into the garbage can to see if the bag was salvageable.
“You have a jerky problem. Suds and I are going to have an intervention.”
“I had to order it over the Internet!” he exclaimed.
I dug a fingertip into his side, making him wince. “Caleb!”
“We’re not exactly dragging her back. Look, I know both of them pretty well. He isn’t going to hurt her, he just wants a valuable item she took with her when he and she had their last, um—”
I raised my hand to cut him off. “Let’s go with ‘date.’ ”
“OK, then. On their last date, Lolo informed Trixie that he wasn’t planning on leaving his wife. And while he was in the shower, she took his wedding ring from the nightstand.”
“Why doesn’t he just have the ring replaced?”
“Well, it’s Lolo’s father-in-law’s ring. It’s an antique and apparently pretty distinctive. Plus, Lolo’s sort of superstitious. He wants his wedding ring back. He’s afraid that without it, his marriage will be doomed.”
“Yeah, his carrying on with a stripper named Trixie won’t have any effect on it at all.”
“All we have to do is get the ring back to Lolo in Anchorage. I thought you’d be excited to finally get there.”
“I object to this job on moral grounds . . . on several levels. Quests for evil rings rarely turn out well. Too many potential Gollum issues. Also, I don’t like the idea of working for a guy whose name could belong to a Star Trek villain.”
“Them’s the breaks, sweetheart,” he said, shrugging as I pouted. “We aren’t actually taking custody of anyone, so your argument isn’t valid. And you’ve objected to most of the jobs we’ve done together on some grounds. If it was up to you, we would let everybody go with a sternly worded warning.”
“Fine,” I grumbled. “How do we find this girl?”
“My buddy Abe owns a bar down in Goose Creek—”
“Yet another member of the League of Caleb’s Barkeep Super Friends,” I interjected.
“Please don’t mix Marvel and DC references. You’re better than that,” he said, shaking his head disdainfully. “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, Abe’s on Trixie’s circuit. Most of these places can’t keep girls on full-time. You don’t find a lot of pretty girls willing to strip in a small town year-round. So these girls travel a sort of circuit a few months each year. The bar pays a flat fee, the girls keep all the tips. The male patrons see a little boob. Everybody walks away happy.”
“Except for feminists. And health inspectors.”
“Is this going to be your attitude for the entire job? Because that will make it real difficult for me to enjoy working on this with you.”
I frowned, although relief at seeing the old Caleb return was gradually setting in. “Am I supposed to try to help you enjoy a job involving strippers?”
“I honestly don’t know how to answer that without getting poked in the ribs again.”
Abe’s bar, which was just called Abe’s, was more respectable than most of the places we’d visited so far. It was an old, shopworn sports bar, but it was clean. And nobody propositioned me as I walked through the front door, which I considered a much higher recommendation than any Zagat rating.
Of course, the lack of propositions could have had something to do with Caleb’s arm being firmly wrapped around my waist, but why split hairs? The interior reminded me a lot of the Blue Glacier in Grundy: scarred pine bar, worn pine floorboards, neon beer signs, and taxidermically preserved fish specimens decorating the walls. Two obviously well-loved pool tables occupied the far corner of the room. Since one of them was marked with a little green “reserved” sign, I assumed that one would serve as Trixie’s stage for the evening.
There were plenty of perfectly respectable teetotalers in the Great North. But in some smaller towns out “in the bush,” bars and saloons served as the social hubs, sources of gossip and entertainment to break up the monotony of living in a place where a snowfall could mean being cut off from your neighbors for months. People didn’t come for the booze so much as the conversation. The problem was that some bars were “less nice” than others and attracted people who were similarly less nice than the average citizen. It all depended on what the ownership was willing to let the patrons get away with.
My opinion of the caliber of the bar changed when a tall bottled redhead with an ass you could bounce a quarter off of sidled up to us, calling out to Caleb. My werewolf paled a little and pulled at the collar of his jacket.
“Mary Ann, hi,” he said, clearly uncomfortable, which in some perverse way amused me immensely. “How are you?”
“Lonely.” She scowled at me. “This your old lady now?”
Caleb looked from her to me and back to her. And then back to me. “Uh . . .”
Part of me enjoyed watching Caleb twitch a little bit. But a much more influential part of my brain wanted this woman away from us, away from my man, before I started some Maury Povich catfight, rolling around on the floor, pulling at her hair. So I decided to step in.
“Oh, come on, Caleb, don’t try to hide our love,” I cooed, stretching my arms around him. I beamed at her, all silly and cow-eyed. “We just got matching tattoos.”
Mary Ann’s eyes widened. “Really? Can I see?”
I winked at her. “Not where we put them, no, ma’am.”
“I thought you said you didn’t want big commitments,” she said to Caleb.
And the ever-erudite werewolf responded, “Uh . . .”
She gave me one long, disdainful look. “When you figure out what you’re missing, you give me a call,” she said, turning her back on me.
“It was really nice to meet you, Mary Ann!” I chirped.
She sashayed away, her butt swishing back and forth. Caleb closed his eyes as if he was wishing the whole situation would go away. “Never going to live this down, am I?”
I shook my head. “No.”
Before he could come up with some explanation, a tall blond man came barreling up to Caleb, pulled back his fist, and punched my werewolf square in the stomach.
Seriously, I couldn’t take him anywhere.
Caleb grunted, doubling over and propping his hands against his knees to get his breath back. I hissed out a growl and yanked my trusty baton out of my bag. I flicked it to full extension, but Caleb pulled himself upright and grabbed my wrist before I could swing. “No! This is my old friend, Abe Clarkson.”
Caleb took time off from reassuring me to swing up at Abe’s gut, doubling him over. Abe gave a wheezing laugh right before using his lowered center of gravity to fly-tackle Caleb and send him toppling against a booth.
“Do any of your old friends like you?” I asked him as both men roared with laughter. None of the bar patrons seemed to notice the exchange, as if it was a regular occurrence for Abe to brawl with customers.
Caleb brought an elbow down between Abe’s shoulder blades. “No, that’s just how he says hi.”
With Abe’s grasp around Caleb’s waist weakened, Caleb shoved his alleged friend halfway across the barroom. I assumed that the abusive greeting ritual had concluded, because Abe approached me, gave me a once-over, and waggled his eyebrows. “Who is this sweet little thing, Caleb? You know, Mary Ann’s been missing you—”
Caleb interrupted him with a loud clearing of the throat. “Abe, this is my Tina. Behave yourself.”
Abe instantly straightened up, his expression more friendly than flirty now. I guessed Caleb’s calling me his held some sort of special significance. In a second, I’d gone from hanger-on to lady of significance. I felt I deserved nonflirty respect either way, but given the eager, open smile on Caleb’s face, I wasn’t going to be churlish about it.
“Well, it’s very nice to meet you, Tina,” Abe said, shaking my hand. “I was afraid he was going to end up as the male version of a crazy old cat lady.”