What the hell just happened?
Now that I could get a good look at Caleb’s truck in the daylight, I could appreciate the serviceable vehicle. While the exterior red paint was pristine, the inside showed the wear and tear of a lot of time on the road. The passenger-side floorboard was littered with meat snack packets and foam coffee cups. And while Caleb had managed not to bleed on the cushy gray upholstery, the dash was covered in gas receipts and dust. I hadn’t noticed any of that the night before, but it’s amazing what you can overlook when someone has a bleeding gut wound.
After my nuzzle embargo, Caleb gave me a pretty roomy space bubble on the ride into town. The only time he even reached across the center line dividing the front seat was to hand me some peanut butter crackers he had stashed in the console.
“So, no bullshit, what’s your real name?”
I frowned at him and repeated myself. “Anne McCaffrey.”
“I said no bullshit.” My mouth dropped open, and he smirked. “Trust me, I’m familiar with faked names. Besides, you think you’re the only person who’s stepped inside a bookstore? Now, what’s your name?”
I sighed. There was no sense in trying to continue the lie. Frankly, it was embarrassing to be caught. Just my luck to have found the only male werewolf to have read The Dragonriders of Pern. It was worth a shot, but I’d gotten used to answering to Anna, anyway. “It is Anna.”
He pressed a little bit more. “Anna what?”
“All you need to know is that you should call me Anna,” I told him.
He frowned, looking more hurt than irritated, but obviously decided to drop the subject. “So you didn’t answer my questions before. Where you from?” he asked as I tried hard to refrain from shoving the crackers into my mouth like a carb-lover on her cheat day.
“Around,” I said, barely containing the cracker bits from spewing out of my mouth. I was, as Maggie was prone to saying, a delicate flower.
“Where?” he persisted.
“Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, Texas, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon.” Let’s just say it was a long and winding road from leaving my marriage to arriving in Alaska. “I don’t like to be tied down to one place for too long. I like to explore my options.”
“As a grocery checker?” He snorted.
I stared up at him. That was the second time he’d referred to my job at Emerson’s. How the hell did he know about that? It wasn’t as if I’d introduced myself to him as a grocery checker/impromptu medical professional. My hand crept along the door, fingers curling around the handle. Because doing a Charlie’s Angels roll out of a truck onto the highway was an awesome idea. And just then, my bloodied Emerson’s Dry Goods apron caught my eye.
Oh. Right. He was capable of picking up visual cues.
Feeling very foolish for my paranoia, I countered, “Grocery checker, dog shampooer, waitress. You got a problem with that?”
“I have no problem with grocery checkers or waitresses,” he assured me, smiling cheekily. “As long as they remember the ketchup.”
“I’m guessing you get your food spit in a lot.”
“I guess you were getting off of work last night, and that’s why you happened by my, uh, discussion with Marty?”
I nodded and glanced sideways at him. “So what are you?” His brow creased, and he stared at me, as if he was trying to find some hidden meaning in the question. “What do you do for a living? Given the number of jerky wrappers and to-go cups on the floorboards, I’m guessing you spend a lot of time in this truck.”
“Have you met any other people like me?” he asked, still eyeing me carefully.
“Is there a reason you’re answering my questions with completely unrelated questions?” I asked.
“I’m trying to keep some mystery about me,” he said, his tone flat.
I crossed my arms over my chest, harrumphing as we reached the main drag of Sharpton. Caleb’s big red truck caught the attention of the handful of shopkeepers opening their doors for the day, making them stop and stare after us as we drove by. Everyone knew everyone in little settlements like these. New people attracted a lot of attention. And longtime locals weren’t particularly friendly to “outsiders.” But for the most part, they were strong little communities. Neighbors relied on one another for resources and entertainment, particularly during the long winters. Beyond my medical skills, I had been highly valuable to the pack for my ability to make homemade caramel corn. Werewolves loved caramel corn. It was the only way to make the Gilbert boys take their flu shots without biting me.
We pulled into the parking lot of a diner that looked halfway reputable. As the truck slowed, I heard something, probably one of the dozen or so ChapSticks I kept in my bag, roll under the seat into the back of the cab.
“I’ll get us a booth,” Caleb told me as I shoved the seat forward. Peering under the front seat, I felt along the hard plastic edge for my errant lip balm, but instead, my fingers closed over a strange metallic curved object tucked into a groove under the seat.
“What the—?” I pulled it out into the light. Handcuffs. I felt under the seat again and found plastic zip ties, a collapsible metal police baton, duct tape, and rope, all Velcroed to the bottom of the seat. And now that I looked at the back of the front seat, I realized that there was a collapsible metal grate attached to it, the kind that cops had in their squad cars to keep suspects contained in the back.
I dropped my bag, backing away. This guy had a serial killer’s tool kit in the back of his truck.
A strange sense of betrayal bloomed, astringent and bitter, in my chest. For a moment, I’d let myself believe in this guy. I’d wanted to trust in that promise of safety, in the prospect of being able to relax into familiar wolfy territory for just a few days, to feel that I wasn’t alone. The fact that I’d wanted it so badly, so quickly, scared me even more than the possible uses for three sets of adjustable bungee cords.
I scanned the front window of the diner. Caleb was already sitting in a booth. If I just slipped away, he probably wouldn’t notice for a while that I hadn’t followed him in. There was a bar up the main street. Maybe I could hitch a ride with someone there. I hadn’t done that in a while, and obviously, my self-preservation skills were pretty rusty. But I guessed the devil you didn’t know would likely be safer than the devil you knew had freaking duct tape and cuffs in his truck.
I had to admit the collapsible baton was cool. I supposed it was much more effective than my slapjack, not to mention having a better reach. And I rationalized that if I took it, he wouldn’t be using it on unsuspecting hitchhikers. I palmed it and dropped it into my bag.
Slinging that bag over my shoulders, I glanced back at the diner window but didn’t see Caleb. I backed away from the truck and—
“Ack!” I shouted, jumping out of my skin and cursing myself for not keeping the baton handy. No matter how much time I’d spent around them, it was always shocking to me that big, bulky werewolves could move so quietly.
While his tone was friendly, his posture was tense. He frowned down at me. “Just wanted to see what was taking so long. You OK?”
“I think this is a mistake,” I said, my fingers frantically searching through my bag for the slapjack. I stepped away from him, putting the open truck door between us. His brow furrowed, and he took a step toward me. I stepped farther away, onto the sidewalk.
“What’s a mistake?” he asked.
“This whole ‘riding together’ idea. I’ll be fine on my own, really. Thanks for getting me this far, though.” I turned, taking brisk, long steps up the sidewalk. He stood, staring at me, perplexed. “Good luck . . . with your whole Ted Bundy thing,” I muttered softly as I rushed away.
In a blink, Caleb was in front of me, holding my arms against my sides. “What did you mean by that?”
Great, I forgot that my new best friend had an advanced serial-killer kit and superhuman hearing. Oh, and healing powers. I was one lucky girl.
“What did you mean?” he demanded. His eyes followed mine back to the open truck door and the cuffs and zip ties lying out on his floorboards.
“What normal person rolls with this sort of thing in his backseat, Caleb?”
“There’s a good explanation for this.”
“I’m sure there is. I just don’t care,” I retorted.
“Look, come inside, have some breakfast with me, and I’ll explain. If you still think I’m a serial killer afterward, I’ll pay the check, and you can stay here at the motel until you figure out what you want to do.”
I shrugged. “OK.”
“Great, let’s go inside,” he said.
“I wasn’t serious!” I exclaimed. “How stupid do you think I am?”
“Look, what’s the harm in having breakfast?” he chided. And he added, “With plenty of witnesses.”
I might have objected that I was fine, not hungry in the slightest. But then my traitorous empty stomach growled, as if on cue.
He smirked at me. “I bet this place has great pancakes.”
I growled in frustration, my shoulders sagged, and I let him nudge me through the front door of the diner. There was a chubby middle-aged man cooking in the kitchen and a bored-looking teenage girl taking orders. Two burly men in plaid flannel sat at the counter, quietly eating steak and eggs. No one, including the teenager, bothered to look up when we walked in.
I might have been embarrassed by my nervous habit of cataloguing each new room’s occupants, but Caleb was equally funny about the seating arrangements. He insisted on a booth by the front window, but he seemed uncomfortable sitting with his back to the door. His safety concerns didn’t exactly increase my trust in him. And despite the fact that I needed the restroom with increasing urgency, I didn’t want to leave him unattended around my food or drink. He was paying for my French toast, but that didn’t entitle him to mickey my OJ.
The food arrived without fanfare from the apathetic teen queen. Caleb’s breakfast consisted of six strips of bacon, sausage, a bloody steak, scrambled eggs, and three pancakes, which I watched him devour with a fascination I used to reserve for Shark Week.
“OK, we’re eating, you’re paying, now spill,” I said around a mouthful of maple-soaked fried bread. “What’s with the hardware?”
He looked a bit sheepish, chewing his pancake thoughtfully while he chose his words. “I’m a sort of bounty hunter,” he said. “I track people down, people who don’t want to be found. I take them in, collect the reward. Generally, they kick and spit and scream on the long drive home, so I have to restrain them. That’s why I have the handcuffs and the bungee cords.”
My fork practically clattered to the table as a cold weight settled into my belly. Well, that certainly explained why I hadn’t seen him around the valley. He was out wandering the roads, ruining the lives of perfectly nice fugitives. A ripple of alarm skittered up my spine. I clutched the table’s edge with my right hand to calm the slight tremor there. I swallowed carefully and wished I could reach for the juice without bobbling the glass. “Show me your ID.”
His eyebrows rose. “What?”
“Bail bondsmen are required to carry ID with them when they make ‘citizen’s arrests.’ Show it to me.”
He cleared his throat and washed down half a pancake with some coffee. “Well, some of my collars are not quite . . .”
“Legal?” I suggested.
“Yeah,” he said, looking embarrassed for a millisecond.
“Do you carry a gun?”
“No, I don’t get shot at very often.”
“And if that’s not an endorsement for a profession, I don’t know what is,” I said, slowly and deliberately reaching for my juice glass. It was a miracle of concentration that held my hand steady as I sipped. Over the rim of the glass, I kept my eyes trained on his face, as if I didn’t have a care in the world. Nothing to fear. Nothing to send me running for the nearest exit.
“Normally, people don’t get the drop on me,” he said defensively. “I have a certain set of . . . skills, and they help me when I’m tracking a person. The people in my family have always been hunters. I just apply it in a different way.”
I snorted. He wasn’t kidding. Werewolves had supersensitive noses and ears, not to mention their intuitive ability to track whatever creature was unlucky enough to be targeted by an animal built for hunting.
But again, I was supposed to be playing dumb. Because if I blurted out, Yeah, I know about the whole werewolf thing that is supposed to be forbidden knowledge for a human such as myself, there would be a lot of awkward questions. More awkward than the ones currently being bandied across the table, anyway.
“I make a lot of money at something I’m good at. No questions asked, as long as someone is willing to pay me my fee. And sometimes all I have to do is get a little information and pass it along. I like those jobs. Easy money and less time spent rooting around in parking lots.”
His conversation with the guy who shot him made so much more sense now. This Marty guy had been afraid that Caleb was taking him in on money he owed, so he freaked out and started shooting. I did not need this. I did not need to hitch myself to any form of law enforcement, no matter how slipshod. Glenn had contacts in more places than I’d ever imagined—old college buddies, online gaming clubbers, and sketchy cousins I hadn’t been allowed to speak to at the wedding reception. And all it would take was a couple of opportune Google searches for Caleb to find the online message boards where Glenn had put out feelers for me.