I didn’t think Caleb would have any qualms about handing me over to my ex, “no questions asked.” Even the way he phrased it gave me chills. He sounded so cold, so calculated, so like—
Never mind! Get out! My brain screamed at me. Get away! The ladies’ room was to the immediate left of the door, offset by a small hallway. So feigning a bladder issue and sneaking out the front wouldn’t work. There was probably another exit in the back, through the kitchen, and a fire exit, but both were in Caleb’s line of sight. I willed my face to relax, first my jaw and then my cheeks, so I could speak without looking tense. I took a casual bite of my bacon.
“How do you get your assignments? How do people know how to get ahold of you?” I asked. I leaned forward, resting my chin on my hand as if he had my rapt attention. I glanced behind him. Maybe there was another way out off of the restroom area. These places always had fire exits, but I couldn’t risk setting off some alarm.
“A buddy of mine owns a bar about an hour outside Fairbanks. If people want to get ahold of me, they know to call me there. And I have contacts of my own in Anchorage, Portland, Seattle. Mostly PIs who don’t want to make the trip up here. They get a finder’s fee for hiring me,” he said.
“And you just bounce around on the road?” I asked, swiping the last bite of French toast through the golden puddle of syrup on my plate. I savored the crisp edges of the fried bread, unsure when I’d be able to get another nice, hot meal.
“Sometimes I head home to see my family. But I haven’t been there in a while. They live in the Crescent Valley near Grundy, very tight-knit.”
That explained why I’d never met him. He hadn’t been to the valley for years. I’d heard stories about a Caleb from Maggie, strange “stupid criminal” tales from her cousin the bounty hunter, who hadn’t come back home since his dad, Artie, had died of stroke complications shortly before I was hired on. The funeral service had been held just after I’d arrived, while I was off restocking the clinic’s medications and supplies. I was still so pale and shaky and skittish that Eli, the former pack leader, insisted on sending one of the distant pack cousins with me on the supply run. I only realized later that it was because he was afraid I would take off and not come back. I remembered now that Artie’s son left town before I returned two days later, and that had upset some of the older aunties.
Still, I wondered how Caleb managed to stay away from the valley for so long. Maggie’s brother, Cooper, had exiled himself for a while after a particularly violent interpack confrontation, and the separation nearly drove him insane. How could Caleb stand it?
Not that I could afford to care about that sort of thing, since I was contemplating escaping from this booth and bursting through the front window of the diner like something out of a Die Hard movie. While his being a part of Maggie’s pack was a pleasant surprise, that didn’t necessarily make Caleb a good person. As evidenced by Eli, the interim alpha who hired me just before going on a hiker-killing spree and framing Maggie’s brother, Cooper, for the maulings. Werewolves hit a lot of different points on the spectrum between “awesome guy who is occasionally an apex predator” and “furry Lord Voldemort.”
“So how about you?” he asked, forking up another massive bite of steak. “What’s a nice girl like you doing bouncing around the Great North?”
I gave him a bland smile. “I wanted to see more of the country.”
His being part of Maggie’s pack didn’t make me trust Caleb any more than I had before. I’d made a clean break with them and couldn’t let on that I knew his family. They couldn’t know where I was or where I was heading. It was safer for them and for me. Also, I was pretty sure Maggie would kick my ass for leaving the way I did. She was a stickler about policy and procedure.
“And why are you traveling south?” he asked. “Getting too cold for you?”
“I’m meeting up with a friend,” I lied smoothly.
Caleb tensed. “What sort of friend?”
“An old roommate, Cindy,” I said.
The tension drained out of Caleb’s frame, and he scooped up another bite. “Well, that’s nice. But you never know what could happen.”
I arched an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Well, plans change sometimes,” he said vaguely.
What did he mean by that? Was he going to change my plans for me? Under the table, my hand instinctively wrapped around my shoulder bag. I considered the ladies’ room again. I couldn’t remember seeing bathroom windows on the front of the building. Did that mean they opened at the sides?
He laughed. “So do you believe that I’m not, in fact, a serial killer?”
I kept my face neutral. No, he was something much more dangerous. And I had a sneaking suspicion he was probably quite good at his job.
I smiled blandly. “I’m almost convinced.” I stood and hooked my shoulder bag over my arm.
He scowled. “Where are you going?”
“The ladies’ room? I’ve had three glasses of juice.”
He gave me an apologetic little shrug, although he eyed my purse with suspicion. I turned on my heel and walked as casually as I could through the dingy restroom door. Swearing mental apologies to any other girls in the dining room, I shoved the rubber wedge stopper under the door until it couldn’t be budged.
The bathroom was a pink-tiled one-seater with a crank window just over the toilet. I stood on the seat, trying to gauge whether my shoulders would fit through. Glancing outside at the unkempt little side yard between the diner and the garage next door, I turned the window crank. Given the ungodly squealing noise it made, I guessed that it hadn’t been used in a while. Cringing, I glanced over my shoulder, waiting for the sound of Caleb the bounty hunter approaching the door.
I turned the crank again, and it gave a bit, lifting the window slowly. After a few turns, it was open just wide enough that I could squeeze my head through. After giving it one last rotation for good luck, I zipped my shoulder bag and tossed it through. I carefully stepped on top of the toilet tank, praying it would support my weight while I slithered through the opening.
I told myself it was a game, a claustrophobic version of limbo. How small could I go? Contracting my body into the most aerodynamic shape possible, I slipped my hand into the cool morning air. My head and shoulders slid out easily, but my stomach and hips caught sideways on the ledge, stealing my breath.
“Stupid French toast!” I muttered, wiggling myself free.
I looked down and realized I was a good five feet off the dirt, head down, with no clue how to land safely.
“This was a stupid plan,” I told myself, gritting my teeth against the pressure on my middle, debating if taking my chances with Caleb would have been a better option than giving myself a traumatic brain injury involving a toilet.
Suddenly, my hips worked loose, and I free-fell. I shoved my hands over my head as I flailed my legs. My ankle caught against the sill on the way down, slowing my descent, so I was able to flop down on my back instead of face-planting.
“Stupid, stupid plan.” I huffed, struggling against gravity and my lackluster upper-body strength. “Stupid gravity.”
“Is there a reason you’re hanging out of the bathroom window by your feet?” Caleb asked wryly.
“Dang it!” I cried as my feet lost their tenuous hold against the windowsill.
I dropped, rolling my shoulder against the asphalt and landing with an uhf. In a few seconds, Caleb was lifting me by my underarms, my feet barely brushing the ground.
“Well, this is embarrassing,” I grumbled, twisting out of his grip.
Reluctantly, he dropped me to the asphalt, and I yanked my rumpled clothes back into place. “What were you doing?”
“If you have to ask, you’re probably not a very good bounty hunter,” I retorted, with far more dignity than I deserved, given the whole hanging-upside-down-from-a-bathroom-window thing.
“Why the hell would you run from me?” he asked, sounding genuinely insulted. “I thought I’d made myself clear that I am not and don’t plan to be a serial killer.”
“I don’t trust you. I thought I’d made myself clear about that.”
“Why wouldn’t you trust me?”
“I don’t know you,” I shot back.
“Well, you didn’t know me last night when you drove me away from a crime scene and doctored me up. What’s different this morning? I just want to help you the way you helped me.”
“Why is it so important to you to help me? You don’t even know me.”
“Well, you helped me, didn’t you?” he countered. “I mean, I was hurt. It didn’t turn out to be as bad as you thought it was, but without you fixing me up, I would have been pretty bad off . . . right?”
His voice sounded strained, as if it was important that I believed him.
Caleb cleared his throat, interrupting my mental telemarketing tangent. “Look, you need a ride south. I am heading in that direction. I need to make a few stops along the way. I just want to know that you get there OK. In the last twenty-four hours, you’ve dodged a random shooting and slithered through a bathroom window for no reason. You need someone to watch out for you.” I arched an eyebrow, prompting him to add, “And maybe you can watch my back, too.”
I pursed my lips, considering exactly what watching Caleb’s back could entail. I would imagine it involved more than just staring at his jean-clad butt, as tempting as that prospect was. His offer would solve my selling-organs-to-obtain-transportation issue. I liked my organs where they were, so this was a much more attractive option. “What does ‘eventually’ mean?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Just a few stops.”
I brushed the gravel from my jeans, considering. All of the reasons I ran from Caleb at the diner were still very valid. And he clearly knew I didn’t trust him, which had weakened that polite façade we had going for that brief morning interlude. But he was part of Maggie’s pack. Every story I’d ever heard about “Cousin Caleb” had involved his honesty and all-around good-guy-ness. On the other hand, he could still be just as ruthless and cash-hungry as his job self-description implied . . .
Oh, screw it, it’s not like I have a better choice. I was in the middle of nowhere, without transportation, money, or supplies. I was up shit creek without a paddle. I didn’t even have a canoe at this point. But I’d be darned if I was going to admit that.
“Fine.” I sighed, gesturing toward the parking lot.
“Are you going to be this excited about everything?” Caleb asked as he hitched my bag over his shoulder and we ambled toward the truck.
“I can drive, you know,” I told him as he climbed in. “Obviously, not when I’m in exhaustion-related hysterics, but we could switch off, to make it easier on you.”
He leaned across the seat to open my door, informing me solemnly, “No one drives my truck but me.”
“Well, you didn’t seem to mind when I was hauling your ass away from explosions and gunfire,” I muttered, slamming the passenger door.
I gave him a weak glare while nudging his bag of law-enforcement equipment with my foot. “Do I get to play with your big bag of toys?”
“No, you do not.” I crossed my arms over my chest and frowned, so he added, “But you can keep the baton, as a gesture of good faith.”
“You noticed I took it, huh?”
I would have described the over-the-sunglasses eye roll he sent me as a “bitch, please” gesture, but so far, he didn’t strike me as the type of guy to use that sort of facial-expression language, so . . . I would just stick to being embarrassed at being caught so easily.
Clearly, I needed to brush up on my sleight of hand.
“Someone looking for you?”
“None of your business.”
He rolled his eyes, but continued as if I hadn’t answered. “Do you want them to find you?”
I stared at him, my expression completely flat, prompting another werewolf eye roll.
“OK, then. Well, before my little detour at Flapjack’s, I was on my way to scoop this guy, Jerry Stepanack, up from Flint Creek. That’s about two hours from here, so you didn’t cost me too much time,” he said, ignoring the way I rolled my own eyes at that statement. “Jerry’s none too bright, and there’s a pretty healthy price on him.”
“What did he do?” I asked. “And I am assuming this is not an assignment from legitimate law-enforcement authorities?”
“To answer the first question, you don’t want to know, and to answer the second, you really don’t want to know,” he said. “But a word to the wise, sweetheart. If you borrow lots of money from bad people to buy a couple of tow trucks so you can steal cars and sell them for parts, don’t default on the loan and sell the trucks for parts. It makes those bad people cranky.”
I frowned, sliding my oversized sunglasses onto my nose, and settled back into the seat. “I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
All the Best Friendships Start with Lost-and-Found Underwear
It turned out Caleb’s job was mostly driving around and talking on his cell phone.
I spent the first fifteen minutes of our “business arrangement” gathering the foam coffee cups and jerky packets from the floorboards and stuffing them into an empty grocery bag. Caleb insisted that I keep the gas receipts, as he needed them for expense reports, so I stacked them in the glove compartment.
Cue the wolfy eye roll.