“Where’s Wolf? FBI Spying on Lycanthropes” read the headline of the paper that sat on the table between Rico and I. Somebody in copy editing was probably pretty pleased with themselves, but seeing my name attached to the byline beneath it made me wince.
Rico studied the page as he sipped his coffee. “Man, no wonder you’re always so worried. Turns out somebody was watching you.”
I hadn’t had time that week to meet with Rico for lunch, but now, more than I ever, I needed his advice. So the two of us were meeting for a quick breakfast at the coffee shop on the ground floor of the Wexler Building. Although technically, it was already my second meal of the day.
Who needs Atkins when you have lycanthropy?
“It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you,” I muttered over my iced tea. “It’s all connected, you know – the no fly list, the surveillance, hell, maybe even the wolf hunting thing.”
“That’s not what you said here,” he said, tapping the newspaper with his finger.
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t care if you work with a camera instead of a keyboard, you’ve been doing this long enough to know that we don’t print everything. We have to be certain.”
“Well, that’s the nice thing about a camera, you can always be certain. The lens doesn’t lie.” He tilted his head pensively. “Not unless you make it, anyways.” He took another sip of coffee, then grimaced. “So, sources not playing ball then?”
“More like they’re not playing at all. Almost no one will talk to me, and the one person who will reliably do so is lying to me by omission.” I shook my head. “This is the tip of the iceberg, Rico, I can feel it. But the rest of it’s underwater, where I can’t get to it.”
“Guess you better learn how to swim then.” He stared at his cup apprehensively and frowned. “This isn’t half and half.”
“I was never much into swimming,” I said. “At least Ash is having more luck than I am. That story today is because of her, really.” I sighed.
He looked over at me with a concerned expression. “I know that sigh, and it’s never a good sign. What happened?”
I started swirling the ice around in my drink so I wouldn’t have to look at him. “I growled at her. Pretty sure she’s not gonna forget that any time soon.”
He tapped his finger on the edge of the table. “Remember that linebacker back in college? The one you punched in the face.”
The memory gave my wolf an exhilarated rush, and I smiled just a little bit. He wouldn’t be wolf whistling again, that was certain.
I eyed Rico suspiciously, not sure where he was taking this train of thought but disliking it all the same. “Yeah, and?”
He gestured with his hand. “And, I’m just saying that your instincts aren’t always wrong. Have you misread a situation before? Sure, but so has everyone.”
“What, you’re trying to say that she had it coming? Rico, that’s insane.” I shook my head. “And that linebacker? He could have pressed assault charges if he wanted.” I paused to look him directly in the eye. “The wolf is a violent, vicious animal and I need to keep it in check.”
He held up his hands in a motion of surrender. “Maybe. I won’t tell you how to fight your inner demons, that’s on you. I’m just saying, if you snapped at Ash, there was probably a reason for it. You’d be better off dealing with that then beating yourself up over your reaction.”
I sighed. “There wasn’t any reason for it, it was just the stupid wolf mentality again. She was invading my space, my territory, and I needed to push back. That’s not a rational reaction, that’s animal.”
“Bullshit. You think wolves are the only ones who get to be territorial?” He shook his head. “Did you overreact? Probably, you do have a tendency to do that, and we both know it. But was your reaction unjustifiable? I don’t think so.” He picked up a bagel and started gesturing with it. “Your self-control issues – and let’s be clear, you do have self-control issues – are secondary to the core problem here, which is that if you and Ash are going to be working together for any length of time, you need to establish boundaries. What is and is not acceptable, how far either of you can push before the other pushes back. Do that, and you’ll have no more problems.” He paused to take a bite out of the bagel. “Also, you should definitely apologize. Preferably with food of some sort.”
Ash was at her desk when I came in, which saved me the trouble of having to look for her. She looked up at me skeptically when she saw me approaching.
“What’s in the box?” She asked, gesturing towards the carton of donuts I was carrying.
“Reparations.” I held them forward so she could see the half-dozen pastries contained within. “I didn’t know what kind you liked, so I just got some of everything.”
“Well, thank you.” She reached into the box and withdrew one at random. “This doesn’t excuse what happened yesterday, you know.”
“No, I know. I overreacted, and that’s on me.” I bit my lip as I watched her eat the donut. She wouldn’t know it, but letting someone else eat first was a lupine concession, and my wolf hated it. “Look, I don’t particularly like you.”
“Likewise,” she said.
Ignoring the interruption, I continued, “But, like it or not, we do have to work together, probably for a while. And I’d prefer if our relationship wasn’t so adversarial, if only for the sake of the story.”
“I take it you had something in mind beyond pastries and apologies?”
I nodded. “We need to clarify what the boundaries are. I’ve got a wolf riding shotgun in my head, I can’t always help how I react to things. But I can tell you what buttons not to push.”
“Think I’ve already figured out a few,” she said, pausing to nibble on the donut some more. “But if this is gonna work, it has to go both ways. Quid pro quo.”
“Of course, that’s only fair.” I wondered what I could possibly do to provoke her that she wanted to stipulate, but I doubted it would be unreasonable.
“Great.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I guess I’ll go first. I hate being interrupted, especially if I’m talking to a source. Ruins my whole rapport, you know? Didn’t say anything about it yesterday cause, well…” She gestured at me as she trailed off.
“Duly noted.” I shoved my hands into my pockets and looked down awkwardly. I can’t believe I let Rico talk me into this. “Uh, well, you’ve probably already figured out that I get pretty territorial about my space.”
She snorted. “Bit of an understatement there, Stone.”
I gritted my teeth, but continued. “Right, well, just ask before taking something off my desk, I guess.” I paused, trying to remember all the things that she had done yesterday that had put me on edge. “Oh, and whatever the hell it is you’re doing that makes it impossible for me to smell you, it’d be really nice if you could not do that. It’s… extremely disconcerting.”
“What?” She said, blinking in surprise. “Oh, you mean the glamour? I had no idea it was doing that, sorry.” She reached into her shirt and removed an intricately designed necklace. She studied it intently for a moment, then frowned. “Damn, that’s gonna be hard to fix.”
I stared at the necklace with her. It was obviously a piece of dwimmertech, but I’d never seen anything as complex as the lattice of brass and silver that Ash was holding. “So what’s it supposed to do?”
“Hmm?” She looked back up at me. “Oh, it’s just a glamour charm.” She took the necklace off and held it out in front of her. As she did so, she seemed to flicker, and suddenly a different person was standing in front of me.
No, not a different person. A different Ash. Her hair had gone from platinum blonde to earthy brown, her face had sprouted an array of freckles, and I could have sworn her ears were sharper, but she still looked like Ash. She had the same facial structure, the same posture, and the same piercingly pale eyes.
And, for the first time, I could smell her.
Seeing my astonished expression, she laughed and said, “You didn’t think I was a natural blonde, did you?”
I gaped. “That’s… where did you get that?”
“It’s a family heirloom from before the Diaspora.” Her expression darkened as she ran a finger over the delicately intertwined strands of metal. “They’re pretty rare these days, on account of Napoleon and the Collapse.” She muttered something in Faerie, almost certainly a curse.
I suddenly realized that I had no idea how old Ash actually was. Sure, she looked like she was about my age, but she could easily be twice that. Faeries lived a long time – long enough that some of them could probably still remember Napoleon first-hand. The realization made me feel very small.
There was so much I wanted to ask her, but none of my questions were likely to get answers. Not from her, not right now. That bridge needed to be rebuilt.
She slipped the necklace back on, and her appearance reverted back to her familiar blonde self. “Anyways, I don’t know how much I can alter it without breaking it. Hair color is pretty easy to tweak, but smell… I don’t even know what part of the circuit is causing that.” She shrugged in apology.
I shook my head. “Forget about it, I wouldn’t want you to damage that.”
She shrugged again. “Suit yourself.”
We talked for a while more, laying out a loose framework that we could work within. We might not like each other, but we could trust each other to do our jobs. That would have to suffice for now.
We spent most of the day following-up on unpulled threads from the day before, and while we did succeed in hashing out some further details, we didn’t break any new ground. I suspected that we’d be at this for a while, chasing leads until something dropped into our laps and then following it until it died. That’s how long-term stories usually went.
I headed over to the Silver Bullet after work. The atmosphere in the bar was unusually subdued, and it wasn’t hard to guess why. A few people stared at me cautiously as I made my way over to the back table where Tony Reyes was sitting.
He nodded a greeting as I approached. “Hey.”
“Hey yourself.” I slipped into the booth next to him. “Cheery crowd tonight.”
“Can you blame them? Everybody’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
I sighed. “And you’re waiting on me to tell you when.”
He shrugged unapologetically. “You’re the one with the answers right now.”
“God, I wish that were true,” I said with a bitter laugh. “It’s a puzzle and a scavenger hunt all-in-one, and I’ve only found a few of the pieces. And I’m beginning to suspect that they don’t all go to the same puzzle.”
“Yeah. At first I thought maybe all of this was some scheme of Kidd’s, but just today we found out that the surveillance of pack leaders is a Kerry-era program.” I drummed my fingers on the edge of the table. “Funny story about that, actually. Apparently that whole operation was intended to identify abusive alphas like Benson and stop them before they could do too much harm. A bit Orwellian, maybe, but well-intentioned. At least initially.”
He snorted. “Well, you know what they say about the road to hell and all that.”
“Indeed,” I said, drawing out the last vowel. “I suspect we’ll find a lot more paving stones with Kerry’s name on them before this is over.” I shook my head, trying to dispel the growing cloud of pessimistic thoughts. “What about you, any progress on that ‘let’s sue the United States government’ front?”
“Good news there, actually.” He took out his wallet and pulled out a business card, which he slid across the table to me. “Spoke to a lawyer today who’s expressed an interest in our case. She thinks we’ll be able to file a class-action with John and Dave as the plaintiffs.”
“That is good news,” I said, studying the card. Samantha C. Welles, Attorney-at-law. Civil Rights & Public Advocacy. There was a phone number on it, which I quickly copied into my notepad. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re not the only ones considering legal action. I talked to Carter – you know, in San Diego – today, and she told me they’re shopping for a lawyer too.” I slid the card back across the table to him.
“I’d call that a good sign. C’s usually on point when it comes to this kind of thing.” He smiled slightly as he returned the card to his wallet. “Anyways, I’m going to be meeting with her on Saturday, once John and Dave are back in town. You’re welcome to tag along, if you’d like.”
I hummed slightly and frowned. “Maybe. I want to talk to Kurt about it first.”
He raised an eyebrow curiously. “And why’s that?”
I looked down at the table. “I’m just worried about staying objective, is all. There’s a bit of a conflict-of-interest in reporting on a class-action lawsuit when you’re a member of the represented class.”
“I suppose there is.” He shrugged. “Regardless of what you decide, I want you to know that I appreciate everything you’ve done on this. I know it’s not easy, balancing work and pack obligations, especially when they start to overlap like this.”
The note of praise in his voice gave my wolf a rush, and I found myself smiling. An alpha’s approval is intoxicating on an instinctual level. It’s why the good ones – like Reyes – could run things without so much as even raising their voices.
To a certain extent, I was aware of the psychological manipulation involved, and in other circumstances I might have done more to try to resist it. But it had been a long day in an even longer week, and I knew that Tony’s intentions were genuine, so I allowed myself to enjoy the moment and bask in the compliment.
If only things were always this easy. Maybe then I’d be able to sleep at night.
Continued in Part Ten