A recent thunderstorm had flooded three of Ari's stashes, burying all of them in morasses of mud, soggy leaves and other detritus. Some of the clothing and the shoes could be salvaged with enough laundry soap but Dale decided it was a sign they needed to refresh the stashes. She drove Ari to Goodwill, where they spent the better part of an hour going through the clothes until they had enough to make new stashes.
When they got back to the office, Ari took the bags out of the backseat and dug through them until she found her favorite. It was a black T-shirt advertising the South Lake Union Trolley service. Written in bold across the chest were the words "Ride the S.L.U.T." with a cartoon trolley car under it. "I'd put this in my everyday wardrobe. Wear it under a nice blazer, maybe?"
Dale laughed and opened the door for her. "Very professional."
Ari was surprised to see someone sitting on the floor in front of their office door. She was even more surprised when he looked up and she realized who it was. "Dr. Frost? Hi. Am I overdue with a payment?"
Aaron Frost was Ari's doctor, a canidae who had a mainstream practice in addition to his steady supply of canidae patients like Ari. She hardly recognized him in street clothes. He stood six inches taller than Ari, and his thick white hair gave him the appearance of a mad scientist. Any hint of madness was softened by his easy smile, which he offered to them now.
"Yes, actually. But that's not technically why I'm here. I was hoping you could help me in a professional capacity."
When he looked down, Ari followed his gaze to the shirt folded over her arm. The only thing showing was S.L.U.T. She flipped the material over to hide the letters.
Dr. Frost smiled. "Don't worry. My daughter bought one of those, but I had her donate it to Goodwill."
Dale successfully covered her smile by stepping between Ari and their potential client to unlock the office door. Frost went in first, and Ari followed him. Dale took the bags, and Ari gestured for Frost to join her in the main office.
"I hope everything's okay," Ari said as she leaned against the edge of her desk.
"Oh. Yes. Everything is fine with me. The family is wonderful." He smiled and sat on the couch. He perched on the very front of the cushion, his slender elbows resting on his knees so he could wring his hands together. "I'm here on behalf of a patient. I've gotten her consent to discuss this with you, but I'll only give you her name and address if you agree to take the case. It'll be difficult."
"Let's hear it." Ari glanced at the door as Dale entered, nodding that she could stay. Dale leaned against the doorframe as Frost began to speak.
"Last night, a woman came to my office just as I was closing up. She was shaky, pale, covered with sweat. She told me she hadn't slept in almost two days. I could tell she was in great pain, so I brought her inside and examined her. She was afraid she had rabies because, a few nights before, she'd been bitten by a wild animal."
Ari tensed. Frost noticed and nodded sadly.
"I confirmed the diagnosis as quickly as I could. She was bitten by a canidae."
"Oh, no." Dale put a hand over her mouth and looked out the window. Ari remained silent and pushed her feet across the floor.
"And you know the rest. There's nothing I can do for her medically but make her comfortable."
Ari closed her eyes. She was remembering a recent threat against Dale from someone who was holding her hostage, a person with a soul dark enough to make good on the promise. She scratched her temple and forced herself to quiet her emotions to think professionally.
"What do you want me to do?"
Frost sighed. "I'm not even sure it's possible. I want you to find out who is responsible. A canidae bit her. That can't just be ignored. He's a murderer as sure as if he'd put a gun to her forehead and pulled the trigger. I don't want him to do this to anyone else. If you take the case, you can either bill me or call it an exchange of services and erase your doctor bills."
"I'll do what I can."
"That's all I ask." He reached into the pocket of his coat and held out a folded piece of paper. "This is her name, address, phone number. I told her you might be calling today, since time is... a factor." He wiped his hand over his mouth after Ari took the card. He remained standing and looked at Dale. "I thank you in advance. I know there probably won't be a lot to go on, but she truly had nowhere else to go."
Ari nodded. "I'm glad she found you."
"It wasn't exactly luck. She went to the emergency room first, and one of the doctors there recognized her symptoms, sent her to me. I wish there was more I could do for her than just... pawn her off on you."
When Dale spoke, her voice was rough with barely-contained emotion. "You did enough. Medicine won't help... maybe getting justice will make things easier for her."
"Yeah. I hope." He ruffled his hair with the palm of his hand and exhaled sharply. "I'll let you get to work. Thank you, Ari. Regardless of what you find, consider us even."
Ari managed a smile. "Thanks, Doc."
He nodded, and Dale stepped aside to let him out of the office. Ari looked at the card. The woman's name was Wendy Lake. Her address was nearby.
Dale returned after escorting Dr. Frost back to his car and Ari met her gaze. "Hey. Sorry I didn't discuss the payment with you. I know you don't really like bartering--"
"Are you kidding? I know you'd do this case for free. Besides, taking those unpaid doctor bills off our books is as good as cash." She crossed her arms over her chest. "Are you okay?"
"Me? Yeah. It's just... bastards like this make me sick. Canidae don't bite. It's the one thing every one of us is taught when we're growing up. You don't do that."
Dale shrugged. "Playing devil's advocate a little--"
"Don't." Dale blinked at Ari's tone. "There's no excuse. Letting the wolf take over, being frightened, being threatened... We attack, and we kill, but biting isn't a defensive move. It's a slow, excruciating murder." She walked around her desk and sat down, and Dale sat on the couch. Ari kept the folded paper with Wendy's information in her hand. "I want to take this guy down."
"Can I ask... what exactly happens? I know it's bad, I know I probably would be better off not knowing. But so I can have some perspective about why you're so intense--"
Ari sighed and leaned back in her seat. "I don't know exactly why a bite 'infects' people, for lack of a better word. There's a reason canidae are born, not made. Our bodies need to learn how to handle the transformation. If someone is bitten as an adult and their body tries to make such a drastic change, it rebels. It doesn't know how to go from one form to another. The result is a, a..." She rubbed her forehead. "It looks like they fell into one of those car compactors at the dump. The worst part is, it's not always fatal. Sometimes a person goes through that hell and wakes up with a mangled, twisted body."
Dale trembled, obviously remembering her ordeal as well. "Well... why can't they just choose not to change?"
"Canidae can't exist solely in one state or the other. Just like it's a struggle for me to go a long time without changing to the wolf, eventually the bitten person isn't going to be able to stop it from happening."
"How... h-how long..."
"Never more than a week."
Dale linked her fingers and pressed her joined fists against her mouth. Ari stood up and went to her. She put her arm around Dale's shoulder and pulled her close, and Dale rested her head on Ari's shoulder.
"I'll never let that happen to you, Dale. Whatever happens, whoever threatens you, I will never let it happen. Got me?"
Ari rubbed her arm until Dale sat up. She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes, sniffed, and pushed herself up. She turned and held out her hand to Ari. "Come on. Time's wasting."
"Right." Ari let Dale pull her up. She took the white trilby hat off the hook and put it on as she followed Dale to the car.
They were silent on the drive to Wendy Lake's home. Ari had only witnessed one transformation like the one her new client had in store. It wasn't an experience she wanted to repeat. The victim remained conscious throughout. She knew what a painful transformation felt like but, as bad as it was for her, the pain was never fatal. She looked at Dale, who was focused on her driving with an almost hypnotic draw. She was about to look away and let silence reign when Dale caught her looking and cleared her throat.
"What's the win here?"
"The win. Dr. Frost said we can't save her, no matter what we do. So what are we going to consider a victory?"
Ari thought for a second. "We catch the bastard who did it, and we make sure he doesn't do it again. We make sure he pays for it."
"Right." Dale was choosing her words carefully. "And by that do you mean... I mean, are we planning to... kill him?"
Ari started to say no, but she stopped herself. "I don't know, Dale. This is heinous."
Dale nodded. "I just wanted to know. If it comes to that, you don't have to worry about me backing out. I still remember that bitch Sadie threatening to bite me, do this to me. And all I can think is that if you hadn't been there..." She blinked and flexed her fingers on the steering wheel. "Whatever happens, I'm at your side."
Dale nodded and Ari considered the subject closed.
A few minutes later, they arrived at Wendy Lake's building. Her apartment was on the ground floor, across from the stairs, and Dale hung back while Ari knocked. She heard movement inside before she heard an incredibly weak voice.
"My name is Ariadne Willow. Dr. Frost sent me."
There was a rattle as the chain was removed, and the door opened so Wendy could look out. Wendy was petite, her red hair hanging around her face in an unwashed wave. She wore sweats, her feet bare and sinking into the carpet, and she clutched a comforter around her shoulders like it was a bulletproof vest. "You... the doctor said you know what happened to me."
Ari attempted a comforting smile. "Yeah. This is my partner, Dale Frye. Can we come in?"
Wendy nodded and stepped back to open the door wider. The apartment was small and tidy, with the only clutter coming in the form of books or magazines. Wendy barely picked up her feet as she walked to the couch. Her body was stiff, and Ari noticed that she was taking care not to bend her knees at all. She sank onto the cushions with a whimper of pain, and Ari took the chair closest to her.
"Did Dr. Frost explain what, uh, happened?"
"Yeah. Werewolves." Her eyes closed and she shook her head. "I think it's a sign of how sick I am that I believe him. But in the movies, the person just changes into a werewolf. It's not fatal."
"Yeah, the movies." Ari coughed into her hand. "They also tend to gloss over the fact that it might hurt to change the shape of your skeleton in under a minute."
Wendy looked Ari up and down, trying to hide that she was doing it. She pushed her hair out of her face, and Ari saw that her hand was almost vibrating. "You've done it?"
"A lot of times. I started when I was a little girl... around puberty. That's the way it's done, the way... our kind teach our bodies what to do. When it happens to a full-grown adult... well..."
Wendy swallowed. "This is so bizarre. I'm just a magazine copyeditor. I'm just a normal lady, and now I'm going to die because a werewolf bit me." She blinked back tears and ducked her chin. "I'm sorry."
"I understand. We want to do whatever we can to... make amends for this. For a canidae to bite someone is atrocious. If we can find who did this, we'll make them pay. Believe me."
"Canidae," Ari corrected. "It's what we call ourselves."
"Oh." Wendy put her fingers against her forehead and closed her eyes tightly. Tears appeared at the edges of her eyes. "Oh... God. Uh, okay. I suppose I'll tell you what I can. What do you need?"
"We need to know whatever you can remember about the night you were bitten. Even if it doesn't seem important. Whoever bit you may have felt provoked by some imagined slight as a human. It may have let the wolf take over to get revenge."
Wendy nodded. "Okay." She wet her lips and furrowed her brow as she tried to remember. "It's all really foggy, but it was my best friend Shelly's birthday, so we went to a concert with some friends and then out for drinks. By the end of the night Shelly and I were the last ones standing. We were pretty drunk so we decided to just walk back to the building here. Shelly said she thought someone was following us, but I thought she was just paranoid. She finally convinced me that we should stop somewhere for coffee or something, so we started looking for anyplace that was still open.
"I kept looking back and all I saw was this dog, but Shelly was convinced. So we found this coffee shop that was open, but before we could go inside we heard the dog barking. It was running at us, so we ran into the coffee place. Shelly made it inside, but the dog hit me from behind and knocked me down."
She shrugged the comforter off her shoulder and freed her right arm. She pushed up the sleeve of her sweatshirt to reveal a large white bandage on her forearm.
"It bit down hard. Drew blood." She sniffled. "The guy inside the coffee shop came out with a broom and hit the dog on the head. The dog just kept on biting. I thought it was going to tear my hand off. But eventually it let go, and it glared at the guy with the broom before he just turned and ran away. Shelly had called an ambulance, and the guy stopped the bleeding while we waited for it to show up."
Ari said, "Did you look for the... animal that bit you?"
"Shelly and the coffee guy did. They thought I had rabies. Still do. Hell, I still do, too. It would make more sense than werewolves." She looked at Ari. "But you really don't look like you're joking."
"No. I'm sorry."
Wendy seemed to collapse in on herself. Dale moved to sit beside her on the couch, and Wendy turned toward Dale's embrace. The apartment was quiet except for Wendy's quiet sobs. Ari was stymied. There were no assurances she could offer. She couldn't make the situation better. She waited until Wendy became still and lifted her head, wiping her eyes as she reached for a Kleenex to blow her nose.
"All I can do is find the person who did this to you. I can do what I can to make him pay."
"Like prison?" Wendy laughed incredulously. "Charged with turning a girl into a werewolf?"
Ari shook her head. "No. Canidae have lived in secrecy for centuries. That's plenty of time to come up with our own way of doing things. Justice may not look like a courtroom and prison sentence, but he'll pay. Trust me. Does Shelly live in the building?"
Wendy shook her head and pointed at the window. "Across the street. Fourth floor, apartment J."
"The coffee shop, the concert... I need to know where both of those places are and what route you took. Maybe your attacker left behind something I can use to track him down."
"Okay. Yeah, I have that."
Dale still had one arm around Wendy's shoulders. "Wendy, do you mind if I stay here with you while Ari's out running around? I can keep you company, lend you a hand if you want?"
Wendy obviously wanted, but she looked at Ari. "Don't you need--"
"I took this case to help you, Ms. Lake. Having Dale here will probably be as helpful as what I do. If you're hungry, have her make some chicken soup. It's unbelievable."
"Thank you." Wendy managed a wan smile and pointed at the counter between the kitchen and living room. "If you had me that pad, I can write down the places you need to go."
Ari retrieved the paper and a pen, handing it to Wendy before sitting back down. Wendy wrote slowly, careful to make the letters legible despite her trembling hand. When she finished, she handed the pad to Ari.
"May I ask you something... very personal? And you can refuse if you want."
"You can ask."
Wendy pressed her lips together. "Can I... see you... change? I mean, everyone is telling me there are... werewolves. And now apparently I've met two. You and Dr. Frost. But I think I would accept it a little easier if I had visual... proof."
Dale looked reluctant, but Ari didn't hesitate. "Do you have a robe or something? I should get undressed first."
"In the bathroom."
Ari went, and Dale quietly excused herself before following her. Ari left the door open a bit and stood behind it to undress.
Dale stood on the other side of the door and whispered through the gap. "Are you sure about this?"
"Yes. She needs to know we're not just lunatics." She undressed quickly, taking the robe off the back of the door and draping it over her shoulders rather than putting her arms through the sleeves. She wore it like a boxer about to enter the ring and returned to the living room, clutching it shut from the inside.
Wendy was on the couch, anxious and pale, and Ari braced herself. "It's not pretty, and it can be kind of... difficult to watch. Dale doesn't even like to watch it."
"It hurts her," Dale said. "A lot."
Wendy suddenly looked afraid. "Wait. Don't, you don't have to. I didn't know it hurt--"
"You deserve to know this is true." Ari rolled her shoulders and closed her eyes.
The first tremor passed through her arms, rising from the tips of her fingers up to her neck and gripping the back of her skull. She lifted her chin and almost immediately doubled over, her lips pulling apart with a pained gasp. Waves ran down her back, traveling along her spine and radiating out to her extremities. She felt as if snowflakes were accumulating on her skin, but she knew that it was fur spreading to cover the bare flesh. The bones of her hands snapped, her fingers curled, and they reformed into paws.
She dropped onto all fours and arched her back as her legs and feet rearranged themselves. She cried out in pain, her jaw expanding and teeth forming into fangs. Thousands upon thousands of small pins pressed through her skin and into the muscles and they were twisted and tugged into a new shape.
The transformation took less than a minute. Ari shook and flexed her new musculature before lifting her head to look at Wendy.
Other than her trembling bottom lip and the tremors still plaguing her arms and legs, she was frozen. She looked up at Dale and then blinked a few times before she found her voice.
"So that was... the non-deadly version. Good to know."
Ari huffed and twisted until the robe fell from her shoulders. She walked around the coffee table and pressed her nose into Wendy's palm. Wendy misinterpreted her intentions and cautiously stroked the back of Ari's head down her back. Ari didn't mean to offer comfort, but she was willing to let Wendy take it while she gathered a bit of intelligence. She breathed deeply.
The thick stink-sweet of sweat was heavy, naturally. Food, but very faint. She smelled Dr. Frost's office, a bus, a busy emergency room filled with blood. Her mind filled with flashes of intuition and knowledge that she couldn't put into words. She smelled, and saw, rock-bush-tree-face-rock-tree, and recognized it in a way her human mind couldn't begin to process. The wolf knew, though. The wolf smelled something else and recognized it. The scent of the canidae who bit Wendy was strong, like a stink that got trapped under her skin. Ari knew she would recognize it again, whatever form she was in.
Dale was speaking and Ari turned toward her. "--on the case immediately."
"How much time do I have?"
Dale looked at Ari, who was glad she didn't have to answer.
"Ari's not sure. A couple of days, at the most. I'm so sorry."
Wendy's expression darkened and she nodded. "There are things I want to do. Would you mind--?"
"Of course. Yes, of course."
Ari pulled her head back and walked back to the bathroom. She heard Dale following her and nudged the bathroom door shut with her shoulder. Dale remained in the hall, and Ari dropped to the floor with her head on her forepaws. It was very ill-advised to go from human to wolf and back again in such a short time, but she didn't have much of a choice. She breathed deeply, braced herself, and let the change begin.
One paw shot out, the toes stretching into fingers before it smacked against the side of the tub. The hair retracted into her flesh, a feeling of pins and needles magnified by a thousand. She closed her eyes as her skull was reshaped, pain shooting out from the top of her head down to her jaw. There was almost always a moment during a transformation when she felt like every bone in her body was disconnected from every other bone, floating free in her far-too-small body, but then they rejoined with a nearly audible snap that was a relief and unbearably painful at the same time.
Ari pressed her thighs together and arched her back, her growls of pain changing into human gasps. Sweat beaded on her skin, rolling down her cheeks and neck and dripping to the tile of Wendy's bathroom floor. The final few moments of wolf to human transition were sometimes to euphoric that they caused her to orgasm, and she exhaled sharply as the final contractions faded.
"Fine." Ari's voice was rough, her throat dry, and she pushed her hair out of her face. "I'm fine." She wet her lips and moved her hand to the lip of the tub to push herself up. She moved to the sink on her knees, turned on the tap, and twisted her head under the faucet to get a mouthful of water. She let it rest on her tongue before she swallowed, gasped, and took another drink.
"Is she all right?" Wendy's voice came from the other end of the hall, and she heard Dale move to help her.
Ari got to her feet and found a towel on a shelf. She dried her sweat and retrieved her clothes, dressing quickly. When she was presentable, she left the bathroom and saw Dale and Wendy standing at the midpoint of the hall. Wendy had tears on her cheeks.
Ari frowned. "For what?"
"I heard you in there. That must have been terrible."
"I'm used to it. You deserve to know what's going to happen. So you can be prepared."
Wendy blinked rapidly. "Thank you. For putting yourself through that for me."
"It was fine. And I think it helped give me an idea of where to start looking." She looked at Dale. "Are you good?"
"Yeah. We'll be fine here. Are you... do you need a break before you head out?"
Ari shook her head. "I want to get started. Wendy... this might become an issue, so I'll just ask you now. When I find the mongrel that did this to you, do you want to face him? Or do you just want to know he's been taken care of?"
Wendy rapidly shook her head. "I don't want to see it. I couldn't... no. I couldn't bear the thought of being in the same room with it."
"Good to know. I'll be in touch." She rubbed Dale's back as she passed, retrieving the information Wendy had written down for her before leaving the apartment. She planned to interview Shelly and the coffee shop guy eventually, if it was necessary, but she doubted either of them would provide anything useful. She needed to track down the wolf as soon as possible.
Ari drove to the Old Chord Club and walked the same route Wendy and her friend had taken the night of the attack. It was just under a mile, passing garages and auto part stores before the neighborhood gentrified to boutiques and coffeehouses. The east side of the street was taken up by a verdant park. The grass and sidewalk were separated by low hedges and rosebushes. In daylight, it looked utterly safe and ordinary, but late at night... the bushes would form hidey-holes and the shadows would be large and deep.
Ari had unbuttoned her blouse to show off the white T-shirt underneath, her hair tucked under her trilby. She doubted the canidae responsible for biting Wendy was stalking victims, but she wanted to make herself look as vulnerable as possible in case he was. She occasionally walked into the park, breathing deeply to see if she could find the scent she'd gotten at the apartment. She got a hint once or twice, but it was weak due to weather and too many people contaminating the area.
When she got to the coffeehouse, she saw the friend she'd called was already waiting. Despite his size, Milhous had found a way to fade into the background by choosing a seat in front of a red brick wall. He wore a red hoodie and jeans, his knees sticking out to either side of the small table that held his cup of coffee and a muffin. He smiled when he saw Ari, and she took the seat opposite him. There was no room under the table for both of them, so she turned sideways.
"Hey, Ariadne. You need my help for some private eye shenanigans, or you finally come to your senses and decide you need Milhous in your life. It won't make you straight, it'll just make you Milhous-sexual." He grinned and winked, but Ari's face remained stone. "Hey, you know I'm kidding you. I like my ladies with a little meat on their bones."
"Sorry, Milhous. Quality humor." She sighed. "I'm working for a client who got bitten."
The humor immediately left Milhous' face. "When?"
"A couple of nights ago. Right outside here."
"The girl is still alive?"
Ari nodded. "She's fighting the change, but her time is running out."
"What do you need?"
"You have contacts, right? People who might have heard something or know something."
Milhous nodded. "What was the name of the girl who got bit?"
"Wendy Lake. She's a copyeditor at a local music magazine. Not the kind of person who would be the target for this kind of thing..."
"You got it. I'll give you a call if I find anything."
Ari held out her hand, letting Milhous crush it in his version of a handshake. He slipped out from behind the table with surprising grace. Once he was gone, Ari went up to the counter and waited for the barista to finish with a customer before she got his attention. He walked over with a polite smile.
"Hi. My name is Ariadne Willow. I'm looking for the guy who was working here three nights ago during the night shift."
The barista's name tag said his name was Kenny. "You mean the guy who was here when that lady got attacked by the dog? Our boss doesn't want us talking to you people."
"Who are us people?"
"Lawyers." He went back to the cash register and Ari followed. "He said it happened outside the property and it had nothing to do with us. So just because Travis went out to try to help her, the lady can't sue us for damages."
Ari shook her head. "There's not going to be a lawsuit. I just want to try and find out about what happened."
Ari raised an eyebrow. "A dog attacked a full-grown woman and then ran off. You want something like that running around loose in the neighborhood? No, I just want to make sure it doesn't happen again. Did Travis tell you anything about the dog? Had he seen it around here before?"
Kenny shrugged, watching the door for more customers to save him. "I don't know. It was a stray, you know? They hang around hoping for scraps at the end of the night. One of them is the same as the next, right?"
"You might be surprised. Do you think you could give me Travis' address? I know you don't know me from the next chick, but I'm really working on a deadline here."
Kenny sighed heavily.
"Come on. Travis wakes up and sees me at his front door, you think he's going to be mad you sent me there?" She winked and put on her most seductive smile, and she saw Kenny weaken.
"All right. But don't tell him I'm the one who sent you, okay?"
"Just between you and me, Ken."
He went into the back room and returned with a piece of paper. "You swear you're not some lawyer trying to make trouble?"
"You saw the guy I met, right? The big dude in the corner? You really think we work at a law firm? I'm just trying to figure out what happened."
Kenny handed over the paper. Ari folded it in half and winked. "Thanks. As far as Travis and your boss are concerned, we never met."
"Works for me."
Ari left the coffeehouse and crossed the street to walk back to her car. She hadn't even made it to the end of the block when she picked up a familiar scent. She stopped where she was, resulting in someone knocking into her from behind. The collision buried her in a cloud of his scents - cigarette smoke, sex, sweat and coffee - and she momentarily lost the thread. She stepped aside as the man muttered for her to watch where she was going, but she ignored him and focused on the purple stain of the attacker's smell.
She couldn't literally see the scent, but it smelled purple. It was strong near the entrance of the coffeehouse, and she followed it south. She was nowhere near as talented as she would have been in wolf form, but if she focused she could follow the trail. She passed restaurants and grocery stores with their overwhelming odors, but she quickly left them behind.
The trail led her downhill, and she found herself near the waterfront when the scent began intensifying. She was deep in the stream of tourists near the waterfront when she identified a white stucco house as the smell's origin. It was tucked between two taller apartment buildings like a leftover from a past neighborhood. The windows were all covered with faded and moth-eaten drapes.
The doorway was carved and painted to resemble a totem pole, with the wolf at the top and a human face at the bottom. In between were various other Pacific Northwest animals, all of them wearing expressions of fear or resignation. The smell of Wendy's attacker permeated the air on the porch, and Ari backed up a step to escape it. Someone put a hand on her shoulder, and she spun away from him with a snarl of exposed teeth. Her fingers curled into claws, and she dropped her shoulders into an attack pose.
"I knew it." The man was smiling, his hands held up in peace. He had a satchel over one shoulder, the strap crossing his chest. "You're a wolf."
Ari relaxed, but only slightly. The smell left no doubt in her mind that she was facing Wendy's attacker. His hair was prematurely gray, and he had a dark beard with no mustache. His face was long and lean, with a nose that seemed to draw his eyes and mouth toward it like satellites. His eyes were pale blue and cold despite his smile.
"I'm Spencer. And you are?"
"Nice to meet you, Willow. I picked up your scent a few blocks away, but I didn't believe it. There aren't a lot of wolves in the city."
Ari stepped aside to let him join her on the porch. "Yeah. We tend to stay up in the mountains. What are you?"
"Husky." He smiled and unlocked the door to his house. He knocked on the totem as he passed. "How do you like that, huh? Did it myself to let people know what the food chain is in this house."
Ari kept quiet, but she knew that frequently totem poles represented the most important person on the bottom, rising up until they reached the least significant. The totem could easily have been implying humans were predators and all other animals suffered in their wake. Spencer seemed so proud of his little artwork that she simply nodded as he invited her into the house.
"So what made you hunt me down, Willow Wolf?" He took off his bag and dumped it on the couch. "Something to drink?"
"Sure. Water's fine."
She stayed in the living room. Arched doorways in front of her and to the left led into a kitchen and bedroom, respectively. There was a couch and two chairs along the living room wall, but the space was dominated by a wood carving. It looked like a wolf emerging from a fallen tree, but it might have just been a work in progress. Ari hated that she kind of liked it, but even Hitler painted some nice landscapes.
Spencer brought her water and gestured at the log. "You like?"
He watched her as she drank and ran his eyes over her body in a way that made her feel distinctly violated. She stepped back from him. "You have a problem, pup?"
"I apologize. But I was considering the other half of the work. I would love to show a woman, such as yourself, mid-transformation. For human to wolf, weak to strong."
"Calling me weak won't help win me over."
Spencer laughed. "No offense. I wasn't calling you weak. You're a canidae, and a wolf on top of that. The weakness is in humans. So-called regular people."
Ari tensed and moved so that the carving was between her and the husky. "Oh, yeah? You have a problem with humans?"
"Don't you? We're obviously the dominant species. We're the best of both sides, human and animal. Humans are just leftovers waiting to be wiped out in the next evolutionary sweep. Did you know that canidae are immune to the last few dozen epidemics? AIDS, HIV... nature is trying to wipe them out to make way for us."
Ari knew an HIV-positive canidae, but she didn't bring it up. "I guess you're right. So no love for the humans, huh?"
"Sapiens? No. I live here because I need them to sell my art in their little galleries. They're a necessary evil right now, but I know our day is coming. There was this guy in the eighteen hundreds, Simon Lehner, and he knew all about it. Unfortunately he got killed by a bunch of human soldiers coming back from the Napoleonic Wars, and his voice was silenced. But some of his literature survived. I have it around here, if you--"
"That's all right. I'm not much of a reader." Ari ran her hand over the wood. "I guess I see your point. Sometimes I transform just to remind myself I'm not one of them. I go running in the mountains."
"Yes! And hunting. You hunt, right?"
Ari tried to keep her calm. "Sure. Rabbits, deer..."
"Well, that's good for a start." He lowered his voice and stepped around the artwork to stand beside her. "Do you ever hunt... bigger game?"
"You mean General Zaroff type game?"
"'The Most Dangerous Game.' It's a short story. It... never mind. You're not talking about hunting people, are you?"
Spencer shrugged. "Why not? One day we're going to have to fight for our survival, so we might as well get used to it."
"So how many have you hunted?" Ari picked up a chisel and angled it so that the light caught its sharp edge.
"Well, so far just one. I didn't really plan it well, and she almost got away. But I got her, all right. I'm planning on going out again in a couple of nights if you want to join me."
Ari looked at him, certain he was setting her up. But he was so excited, so giddy at the thought of sharing his perversions, that she knew he thought she was a kindred spirit. She twisted the chisel in her hands so that the blade was pointing backward.
"What happens to the prey? I mean, our bites are fatal to them."
He laughed. "Yeah. One bite and they're gone. Further proof that we're superior to them."
"What was her name?" He frowned at her. "The woman you attacked."
"I never said it was a woman."
Ari rolled her eyes. "Yeah. You did. You said she almost got away. But I'm sick of playing." She swung her arm up and slammed the chisel into the carving. It sank into the wood, slicing out a considerable-sized wedge of the wolf's neck. Spencer shouted in horror and shock as Ari swung the tool around again. This time she took off the edge of the wolf's snout and it flew like shrapnel to hit Spencer in the chest.
He lunged for her, but Ari kicked out with her left leg. Her foot hit him between the stomach and crotch, and he went down with both arms crossed over his midsection. Ari dropped the chisel and turned to face him.
"Her name was Wendy Lake." She put her foot on his shoulder and kicked, and he sprawled. As he fell, his right leg shot out and kicked hers out from under her. Whether it was a lucky blow or some last-ditch effort at self-defense didn't matter. It worked, and Ari tumbled against the carving. It rocked on its base as she clung to it, righting herself just as Spencer got onto his hands and knees. He used his body as a projectile and knocked her down, his flailing fists occasionally making contact on her face and body.
"A traitor? Got a human boyfriend or some shit? Gonna make some half-breeds, huh?"
Ari punched him in the crotch and Spencer howled. She pressed her hand against his face and shoved, rocking his head back and giving her enough room to squirm away from him. He grabbed the chisel and held it like a knife as he chased after her. Ari found a discarded branch slightly smaller than a baseball bat and gripped it as such. She spun, making the swing a natural part of her movement, and the blunt head slammed into the side of Spencer's head.
His bell was well rung, and he went down again. Ari kicked the chisel away from him and then nudged his shoulder to make sure he was out before she took out her cell phone. She dialed Milhous' number and closed her eyes, letting the adrenaline dull any aches or pains that were threatening to overtake her.
"Hey." She brushed her hand under her nose and it came back bloody. "Shit. I got the bastard. He lives on--"
A low growl filled the room and Ari watched Spencer's body twist and transform where it lay. He lifted his head as the skull began to shift, his eyes surrounded by a dark mask of fur.
"Shit. Five blocks south of where I left you. White stucco house, between two big buildings. Follow the stink of husky."
She hung up just as the transformation completed. She put her hand on the ruined carving and shoved, knocking it completely off its base. Spencer tried to run, but the unfinished portion pinned his back leg. Ari knew she had only bought herself seconds. She could run, block the front door, and wait for Milhous to arrive. But if there was another exit, Spencer could slip away and recuperate for round two at his leisure. She couldn't kill him in cold blood, no matter what he had done, and at the moment he was defenseless and she had all the power. She had to even the playing field.
She stripped out of her clothes, tossing them aside as the transformation overtook her.
Spencer freed himself with a final lunge and twisted in time to see Ari pounce. She flew over the toppled carving like a ghost, all teeth and claws as she slammed into the larger body of the husky. They growled and snarled as they tangled, jaws snapping shut with bone-crushing force as claws raked down gray and brown fur. Blood spattered the floor around them, and soon both animals were yelping in pain.
Spencer closed his jaw around Ari's throat. She put her hind legs against his stomach and pushed, tearing the flesh with her claws as he fell away from her. She could feel the sting of his bite on her throat but it was only a flesh wound. She twisted and landed on all fours, her shoulders hunched as Spencer recovered for another blow. Blood dripped from his haunches and his face. Ari was holding her right front paw off the ground.
Spencer would lose a fight against her in these forms. They both knew that. He was searching for an escape and trying to look casual about it, but Ari was prepared to block him. She pictured Wendy in her mind, the pain in her eyes and the strength it had taken to survive this long. Ari had fought the urge to change before, and it was not an easy thing to hold back. Ari bared her fangs and growled. Spencer dug his claws into the floor and charged her.
Ari waited until the last possible second before she leapt.
Spencer slammed face-first into the carving. His back legs rose off the floor with the impact of the collision, and Ari heard the sharp crack of vital bones breaking. She had landed on the floor behind him and watched as he sagged to the floor with his legs splayed out on both sides. His body seized, and Ari watched as he transformed from the husky to the pale, pasty artist. She transformed as well, resisting the urge to cry out at the pain as she returned to human form.
He lay on his stomach, panting, blood speckling his lips and face. His wounds glistened, and blood began to flow freer now that it wasn't caught by thick muscles and fur. His fingers twitched, and Ari knew he would never move them much more than that ever again. His neck was cocked at a sickening angle.
Ari bent down, her hair hanging in a veil around her face. "Her name was Wendy Lake. And she is much, much stronger than you will ever be." She pinched his nostrils shut with one hand, then pressed the palm of her other hand against his mouth. He made a few weak, muffled protests and jerked his head as much as possible trying to get away from her, but he quickly succumbed.
Ari stood up and realized how lightheaded she was. She stumbled back a step and sat heavily on the carving. She touched her throat and winced; he'd bitten her, but not badly. She found his T-shirt and fashioned an ascot out of it. She was trying to determine how much of the blood on her body had actually come from her when there was a deafening crash from the front door.
She twisted, eyes wide, and saw Milhous standing where the door had once been. "Ariadne?" He looked away from her nudity. "You all right?"
"Yeah. Could you see if he has some bandages in the bathroom? Big ones." He saluted her and moved off, and Ari crossed her arms over her chest. "And my clothes should be around here somewhere."
"You sure you don't wanna go to a hospital?"
"Yeah. I just got my doctor bills taken care of. I'd hate to go back into debt."
Milhous was driving her back to Wendy's apartment, while Ari finished bandaging her wounds. When she was forced to list them, they really weren't too bad. A few scrapes on her neck from Spencer's teeth, scratches on her hip, and a pair of cuts on her arm. None of them were bad enough for stitches, and most of them would heal without visible scars. Milhous had called some of his friends over to take care of Spencer's body. They assured her that he would vanish without a trace, and she didn't ask questions.
She was wearing her T-shirt and jeans with her blouse tied around her waist to hide the bloodstains. When they arrived, Milhous pulled to the curb.
"Hey. He was trying to make us all look bad. You did a service by takin' him out."
Ari shrugged. "Self-defense." Her story was that Spencer had died immediately after hitting the log. She could tell Milhous didn't believe her, but he also didn't care. "I just did what anyone would have done in my place."
Milhous nodded. "Sure. Listen, the guys who were helpin' me, I told them about the lady. Said she was still hanging around after a couple of days, and we all know how tough that makes her." He reached into the pocket of his jeans and took out a folded envelope. "In case she needs help tying up loose ends before... well, you know."
Ari took the envelope and opened it to see a stack of cash. "You didn't have to do this, Milhous. Really."
"Hey, she's gonna meet the big guy soon. Gotta give canidae a glowing report when she gets up there, right?"
Ari grinned and put out her fist. "Right. Thanks for coming to my rescue, pal."
Milhous bumped his knuckles against hers. "Like you needed it. I'm the cleanup crew. Stay safe, Ariadne."
They both got out of the car, since it was Dale's, and Milhous crossed the street to walk back to wherever it was he'd come from. Ari watched him go and then headed upstairs. A note was stuck to the door of Wendy's apartment, and her name was written on the front with Dale's handwriting.
"A, We took Wendy's car to take care of some loose ends she had. We're going to be at the harbor around five. Hope you get things taken care of by then, and you can join us."
There were more detailed directions on where to meet them at the bottom of the note, and Ari checked her watch as she headed back downstairs. She had just enough time to get there to meet them.
Ari was only at the harbor for twenty minutes before Dale and Wendy arrived. Wendy appeared to have aged twenty years since Ari had seen her that morning. She was dressed far too warmly for the mild afternoon, and her face looked much paler. Ari was so surprised by the changes in Wendy that she didn't notice Dale until she felt a soft touch on her cheek. Her head was angled up, and Dale lightly touched the bandages on her neck.
"Are you okay? What happened?"
"I'm fine. Just some scratches." She looked at Wendy and nodded. "He's been taken care of."
Wendy's eyes widened. "What... seriously? You found him?"
"And stopped him. You outlived him."
"Wow." Wendy looked out over the water. "I feel bad about how good that makes me feel."
Ari smiled. "Don't. You're stronger than he was, and you won in the end."
Wendy nodded. "But you were hurt--"
"I'm hurt a lot. It's nothing that won't heal." She put her hand on Dale's shoulder to silence any potential contradictions. "So why are we here?"
"I wanted to see whales one more time. I don't know if we'll have any luck before the sun sets, but just being back on the water will be very nice."
Ari nodded. "Sounds good to me. I think I saw a rental place when I was driving in."
The boat they rented was named Eulalie. Wendy was able to get aboard without much trouble but then immediately sank onto one of the benches within. Dale had enough sailing experience to get them out into open water and keep them from drifting out to sea. Ari hated the water. She didn't know if it was a vestige of her wolf brain or just a simple personality trait, but she preferred to be on solid ground if at all possible. Still, every now and then, the sea could be beautiful. The light was moving across the water like a living being, like the day was retreating from the city on the waves.
The sun was just starting to set when Ari helped Wendy out onto the foredeck. She moved like an old woman, with shuffling steps and a groan every time she had to bend or stretch. Her face was a rictus of pain, and her hands formed pained claws that she kept in her lap. She had a blanket around her shoulders, as she was even colder on the water than she'd been at home, and she was holding a beer that she occasionally sipped. Ari helped her sit against the railing and then took a seat across from her.
"Hell of a day, huh?"
Ari snorted. "Yeah, you could say that. I can't imagine what you've been through these past few days. How are you holding up?"
Wendy smiled. "Much better than I thought I would be when I woke up this morning. Your friend took me in to work so I could officially give my notice."
Ari laughed. "Told a few people off, did you?"
"No, actually. Quite the opposite." She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together. "I loved my boss. She was a mentor to me. I told her just how much she meant to me, and how she gave me the strength to make something of myself in the business. I told her I loved her, and that I was glad I'd gotten to know her."
Ari smiled. "Good for you."
"Yeah. And I've decided to look at this like a blessing instead of a curse. I got killed the other night, outside that coffeehouse. But I got the time to say goodbye. I told Shelly that it wasn't her fault, that I didn't blame her for what happened. The way I see it, I got to spend my last night alive with my best friend in the world. I consider that a gift. And if I had died without telling Marjorie, my boss, how I felt... I would have probably come back as a ghost to try and make amends for that.
"But now... I feel peaceful. I feel like I'm leaving things okay. I don't want to die. But if I have to, I'm glad that I was given a few days to settle my affairs here."
"Speaking of which..." Ari took out the envelope and handed it over. "A few canidae friends of mine were pretty sickened by what happened. They didn't want the actions of one to speak for them all, so... that cash will help you with any debts or... or funeral arrangements you might have."
Wendy looked in the envelope and then closed it again. "I don't know what to say."
"You don't have to say a word. Just enjoy the sunset." She looked into the cabin and saw Dale watching them. She waved, and Wendy followed her gaze.
"Don't wait until you're dying, Ariadne."
Ari frowned. "Hm?"
Wendy smiled. "Her. Don't wait until your farewell tour. Don't waste time. You never realize you're running out until you're running dry."
"Some things are easier when you don't have a lot of time left. When there's no time for things to go bad, or no repercussions."
Wendy shook her head. "The time after is the best part. The time when you know for sure." She looked down at the bottle dancing against her thigh. "I would like another beer, please."
"Oh." She held out the envelope with the money. "Take this inside. I keep fearing I'm going to drop it. But Dr. Frost... he works with canidae a lot, right? And he helps people like me?"
"When he can, yes."
"I'm taken care of. I don't need that much money. So I want him to have that. I want him to be able to help the next one."
Ari was touched by the generosity. "He'll appreciate that." Ari took the envelope and the empty bottle. "Anything else? It's your day."
Wendy smiled and turned toward the water. "No. I just... love the ocean, so much." The breeze picked up her hair and, for a moment, Ari could see how beautiful she'd been before running into the mongrel. "Thank you, Ariadne. For everything. And thank Dale for me?"
"Sure thing. I'll be right back."
Dale smiled at her as she crossed the deck, and Ari rubbed her shoulder once she was inside the cabin. "Hey, captain."
Ari smirked and knelt next to the cooler. "She's a great person, isn't she?"
Ari nodded. "Yeah. Kind of wish I could kill that prick again." The cooler was filled with water bottles and half-melted ice, but no beer. "Do we have any more alcohol?"
Dale's answer was drowned out by a loud splash from the front of the boat. They both hesitated for only a second before they ran out onto the empty deck. They stood next to each other at the railing and looked over the side of the boat for signs of life. The water was disturbed by their passage, but Ari thought she could see a larger disturbance a few yards back.
"There. Even if she can swim, she's hurting too bad..." She started to take off her shoes, but Dale put a hand on her elbow. "Go back inside and bring us around. I'll signal when I have--"
Ari looked where Dale was pointing. The blanket that had been around Wendy's shoulders was folded neatly on the ground, its edges flapping in the breeze.
"Ari, I think she was ready."
"No, she had to have fallen." Ari got her shoes off and moved toward the railing, but Dale grabbed her collar and pulled her back. She spun Ari around and slapped her across the face.
Ari's eyes widened in surprise, but it was the wakeup call she needed. Wendy had a few hours at most before the need to transform became unbearable and she was forced to give in. At that point she would either die in unbearable pain, or be left a disfigured atrocity. If that happened, she would have to be put out of her misery, and Ari knew she didn't have it in her to do what had to be done.
"She loved the ocean," Ari whispered.
"She told me a couple of times today."
Ari put her arms around Dale and held her as they drifted away from Wendy's final resting place. Ari wasn't sure when she started to cry, only aware of it when she felt the wetness on Dale's collar. Dale was holding her just as tight, even though Ari knew they would eventually have to part so Dale could pilot them back to shore. They had a few more minutes, though, and she was going to hold the hug for as long as possible.
It really had been a hell of a day.