Running. Four legs propel me along as smoothly as the Titanic cutting through the ocean–before the iceberg. The cool night breeze ruffles my fur and I lift my muzzle to scent the air. Rich, pungent odors surround me but I focus on one. I wait, frozen in the shadows of the underbrush. The clearing in front of me is lit by bone-white moonlight and my quarry enters the scene like an actor stepping into the spotlight.
All of my senses are concentrated on one point. A low growl rumbles in my throat and the fur at the nape of my neck rises. My victim, sensing danger, freezes then begins to run. I spring into the clearing, blocking him. He darts with evasive moves right and left, but I’m on him every second. My body is energized, twisting and turning effortlessly in pursuit. My roar shakes the leaves on the trees as I leap and land on my prize, ripping him apart with claws and fangs. Coppery warmth spurts in my mouth. I devour my prey in huge gulps.
Later, I lift my dripping muzzle from a pool of water and sniff the breeze again. I’m still hungry and the rest of the long night lies before me. I lope through the woods to search for more food, every cell vibrating with life. It is good to be alive and running free in the forest.
* * * *
I woke up with the sun in my eyes, a blinding headache and an extreme case of cotton mouth. Felt like I’d been on a three-day bender in Tijuana. My tongue ran over my furry teeth and I almost gagged. “Fuck!” I rolled over to my side and spit the offending object on the floor. It was white and furry and would have been really cute once … attached to a rabbit’s ass. Damn, I hated when that happened.
I blinked in the sunlight blazing through the window and looked around, trying to place myself. I recognized the industrial green carpet pressing patterns into my cheek. My office. Shards of glass were scattered around my naked body and felt like they were embedded in my skin, too. I lifted my groggy head, banging it hard on the underside of my desk. Waking up like this was always a bitch and it happened about three times a month, my own personal PMS days.
I crawled out from under the desk, and climbed to my feet, stretching my aching back until it cracked. Glancing down at my nude body, everything appeared all right except for an assortment of scratches and cuts, which was par for the course. My dangly bits were still dangling as they should. My muscles and bones worked properly together to propel me across the room to the coffeemaker in the front office. It was a fine day to be alive, almost human and solving crime in New Orleans.
As I put the coffee filter in the basket, the front door opened and my secretary, Amy Chang fought to get through the door with a shopping bag in one arm and her huge purse slipping down her left shoulder.
“Little help here,” she called when she saw me frozen with my hand poised above the ‘on’ button.
“Just a minute.” I looked around, desperate to find something to hide my groin from Amy’s view. Why couldn’t I have woken up at home or out in the woods somewhere? Why did it have to be the office?
“Now would be good.” The bag slipped from Amy’s arm and I dove to catch it before it hit the floor. My reflexes were quick despite the pounding in my head and my general exhaustion. I intercepted the bag and offered it to back to Amy.
She rolled her eyes, gesturing toward the tiny fridge in the corner near the coffeemaker with an impatient nod of her head. “Over there.” The ‘dumbass’ was understood.
I carried the bag across the room and set it on the floor by the fridge, conscious of her eyes scanning me from head to toe the entire time. My ass burned red with shame. I turned to give her full frontal just to let her know she didn’t make me nervous, only to find Amy at her desk searching through her purse for something. She didn’t even glance up.
“So, did you kill anybody last night?” Her voice was as bland as tapioca.
“Why do you say shit like that?” Amy and I have been working together almost a year. She’s known my secret for nine months. “You know my condition is perfectly safe. I’ve never killed anyone!” I thought of Mr. Rabbit and doubted he would agree.
“Not that you remember anyway.” Amy took a tube of lip balm from one of the many pockets of her purse and applied it to her mouth. “If you wanted to be sure, I could chain you up a few nights a month. I wouldn’t mind doing it.”
A picture of little Amy in dominatrix leather with a riding crop in one hand and me chained to the wall in her apartment flashed through my head.
My pause was long enough to make her lift her head lifted and glare at me. “Perv!” Her dark, almond eyes narrowed. She shook her head and her black hair brushed her shoulders. “Get your mind out of the gutter and put the groceries away.”
I sighed at the lack of respect from my employee. Grabbing a jacket some client had left on the coat tree by the door, I tied the sleeves around my waist in a makeshift loincloth then obeyed Amy’s command.
As I stuffed a package of cheese and a small container of milk into the fridge, I thought about the possibility of killing someone. It scared me that Amy might be right. Just because I hadn’t hurt anyone yet, didn’t mean it wasn’t possible. For safety’s sake, I should incarcerate myself during my monthly, but the idea of being confined was repugnant. I’d grown to crave the exhilaration of running wild in the woods, even if I woke the next day feeling like I’d been run over by a truck. Dreams of my wilder self were encroaching on my sleep more often these days. Sometimes, it was hard to separate the two halves and remember which one was really me.
I jammed the last item in the crowded fridge and forced the door shut. “Amy, will you do me a favor and go to my house for some clothes?”
She exhaled loudly as she closed a file drawer.
“Hey, sorry. I didn’t ask to wake up here.”
“Fine. But if I don’t get these bills sent out today, we don’t get paid. If we don’t have incoming cash flow soon, we won’t be able to pay the rent, we’ll lose the office and both of us will be out of a job.”
I love Amy’s eternally optimistic attitude. It brightens my day. But seriously, she is the mistress of collections. Her job title is receptionist, but I rely on her for her research skills and her amazing ability to shake money out of recalcitrant clients. Forget sending some big guy with brass knuckles. No one can stand against the piercing eyes and cleaver-sharp tongue of a five-foot-one Chinese woman with past-due accounts in hand. Amy is tres formidable.
“I suppose you want me to call the glazier, too.” She looked at the broken window above my desk. “You know, if you’re not going to lock yourself up, you should at least put some dog doors in at the office and at home. And, for God’s sake, keep some extra clothes around so I don’t have to start my day out looking at that!” She nodded toward my groin then turned and swept out of the office.
I watched her go, admiring her brisk walk and her firm ass, then grabbed a mug and filled it with coffee. Returning to my office, I risked glass shards in my bare feet as I sank down in my swivel chair. I leaned back and took my first sip of the day, propping my legs up on my desk. The aroma of coffee alone was usually enough to perk me up, but the morning after a change it barely roused me. I was lethargic and all my senses seemed dull in comparison to the vibrant impressions of the world I experienced in my other form. An aching sense of loss of that savage self coursed through me. I hated the morning-after feeling of being trapped in a limited human body. Should have been used to it after two years. Wasn’t.
Hot, moist air seeped in through the broken window. The air conditioner whined as it struggled to keep the heat and humidity at bay. I picked up the phone, called the glass repair guy and set up an appointment. It was the third time that year and I wondered if my insurance company would believe another vandalism incident.
I relaxed into my chair again and had just drifted into a doze when the front door of the office opened. My eyes flew open and my legs came down off the desk. It was too soon for Amy to be back from my apartment. It must be a client. And me without a thing to wear.
Cursing Amy for not locking up after herself, I untied the sleeves of the ugly, brown corduroy jacket from my waist, slipped my arms into them and buttoned it to cover my bare chest.
“Hello?” A woman’s voice floated from the front room.
I considered hiding until she went away, but Amy would kill me for missing out on possible business. Smoothing down my wild hair with one hand, I cleared my throat and called out, “Receptionist is out for coffee. Come on back to my office.”
My naked lower half was hidden behind my desk. The jacket looked ridiculous, but at least I was covered. I opened a file to make myself seem busy. When the client appeared at my open door, I glanced up with the distracted air of someone pulled away from important work.
“Can I help…?”
The words froze in my throat. The woman was absolutely gorgeous! Blond hair streaked with even paler gold highlights tumbled down to her shoulders. The worried crease between her perfectly arched eyebrows didn’t detract from her pure beauty but only added to her appeal, giving her a vulnerable look that turned my guts to jello. Her body was firm and lithe with high, round breasts, curvy hips and long legs. She was dressed in a light blue tank top and a pair of jeans I wanted to be peel off her like a wrapper from a candy bar. Her eyes were a pale blue that sparkled with reflected light. I was caught in their blinding rays. She was the fantasy client from detective novels, the blonde in peril who walks into a private investigator’s office seeking his help.
The blonde and the detective usually ended up in bed before the story was through.
Or she turned out to be a femme fatale and nearly got the detective killed.
I was grateful that my desk blocked not only my naked lower half but also the boner bumping against the underside of my desk. I cleared my throat and remembered my manners, gesturing toward the seat across the desk from me. “Please sit down. Can I help you?”
“I hope so.” She perched on the edge of the chair, hands clasped in her lap, mesmerizing gaze assessing me. “You are Richard Plazier?”
Those gorgeous eyes rendered me mute for a second. Was I? I started then answered, “Yes. Yes, I am. Rick. That’s me.”
“You’re younger than I expected.”
I sat up straight and tried to look older. “Um, thanks. What can I do for you, Ms…?”
“Addington. Angela Addington.”
I reached across the top of my desk to shake her hand, embarrassed I couldn’t stand up and greet my client properly. I would’ve enjoyed touching her smooth skin more if I wasn’t sweating from wearing a corduroy jacket in ninety-degree weather.
She looked curiously at the broken window and the few shards of glass glittering on the surface of my desk.
I jerked my thumb at the window. “Delinquents. It was like that when I got here this morning.”
“Oh no. Was anything stolen?”
“No. Just teen vandalism I guess. How can I help you, Ms. Addington?”
“Call me Angela.” She dropped her attention from the window and twisted her hands together, toying with a pair of rings on her left hand. “It’s my husband, Brian.” She bit her lip and fell silent.
“What’s the problem?”
“We only met a month ago, at a convention in Las Vegas. I know, ‘what happens in Vegas…’ Well, maybe I should have let it stay in Vegas.” She drew a long, shaky breath. “This is not coming out right. I sound like an idiot.”
“No. Not at all.” Usually I’d offer a cup of coffee to an upset client, but I was in no condition to get it for her.
“My husband owns a lot of real estate in and around New Orleans. ‘Trump of the bayou,’ he calls himself. He was speaking on land development at the National Realtors’ Convention at the Riviera Hotel. I was attending the convention. I used to be a dancer, but just got my realtor’s license. I had big plans to do more than push houses in the suburbs. There’s still money to be made in real estate if you have the right connections and know what you’re doing.” The woman reached into her purse then withdrew her hand, empty. She gave a little shrug and smiled. “Keep forgetting I gave up smoking.”
Her leg jiggled and her long, red fingernails tapped her purse as she continued. “After Brian spoke, a mutual acquaintance introduced us. I was attracted to him right away. We shared an instant connection, talked all night, and ended up skipping the rest of the convention.” She sighed. “At the end of three days, we were married in one of those stop ‘n’ go wedding chapels. I was excited to move to New Orleans and start a new life, but after we got here, I began to realize how little I really know Brian.”
Her story wasn’t new. After four years as a P.I., I’d heard every cheating spouse scenario. They usually started with ‘I thought I knew her/him.’
“You have some suspicions about your husband?”
“I don’t know. On one hand, he’s generous and loving.” Tears welled in Angela’s beautiful eyes and I wanted to lean forward and wipe them away. “But I think he has secrets. I don’t know if it’s another woman or some illegal involvement or maybe only a sexual kink he’s afraid to share with me, but there’s something he’s holding back. Something I can’t get him to confide in me.” She gave a harsh laugh. “Marry in haste, repent in leisure as they say.”
“Have you considered divorce? It wouldn’t be the first Vegas wedding that went sour.”
She shook her head. “I’m not ready to take that step. I still love Brian. Most of the time things are wonderful and I could be completely imagining all this. I’m just not sure.”
“So you want me to investigate, see where he goes, who he meets, that type of a thing.” I tapped a pen on the paper in front of me. “What raised your suspicions?” My clients usually reported late night phone calls or hang-ups, suspicious credit card receipts or frequent overtime at work. They were usually right in adding them up to equal a cheating spouse.
I got distracted watching Angela’s lush lips shaping words, imagining them doing other things besides speaking. When I tuned back in, she was saying, “…phone conversations late at night and hang-ups whenever I answer the phone myself. It sounds bad, doesn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. I had a client once who was convinced his wife was cheating. Turned out she was planning a surprise party for him.” It wasn’t true. I saw that plot on a sitcom once, but I sometimes used the scenario to relieve upset clients.
“Sure.” My naked, sweating ass was sticking to the faux leather seat of the chair. I was burning up in the heavy jacket and really wanted the beautiful blonde to go now. “Look, why don’t you give me all the information you can about Brian’s routine and I’ll find out if there’s anything for you to worry about.”
“All right.” She wiped her eyes and sniffed. “I feel awful doing this. If it turns out I’m imagining the whole thing, I’ll feel so guilty for not trusting him.”
I didn’t suggest she simply communicate with her spouse, asking flat out where he went and who called at night. If my clients took such a drastically simple step, I’d have no work at all.
“Just think how relieved you’ll be when it turns out to be nothing.” I paused. “And if it is another woman, well, you need to know.”
Angela showed me a wedding photo and a couple of other photos of her husband. She filled me in on his job, hobbies, and favorite restaurants, then shared details like his cell phone number, email address and the bank accounts she knew about.
I examined the photo, wondering if Brian had indulged in cosmetic surgery. It was hard to believe someone could be so blessed physically as well as financially. He was classically handsome with black hair, blue eyes and the strong jaw of a GI Joe. Together, Brian and Angela made a stunning couple–too flawless to exist in real life. The man had to have dark secrets to hide, something to counteract all that perfection.
I took notes on everything Angela told me and kept a picture of Brian for his file.
“Okay, I’ll check out everything you’ve shared with me and talk to you soon.” Sweat ran down my sides and I was ready to strip the damn jacket off right in front of Angela if she didn’t leave soon.
“Thank you.” Her smile was dazzling. “You have no idea what a relief it is to share my fears with someone, even if they turn out to be groundless. Thank you so much for helping me out, Mr. Plazier.”
“Rick,” I corrected, returning her smile. It’s been my experience that clients are always effusively grateful at first, less so after you confirm their worst fears. By the time they get my bill, their appreciation is pretty much gone. That’s where Amy and her ability to squeeze blood from a stone comes in.
“Rick,” she repeated softly, intimately. “Thank you.”
“Well, Angela, that’s my job.” I tried not to sound too pretentious, as I reached across the desk and shook her perfectly manicured hand once more.
Angela stood up. She looked puzzled when I didn’t rise to see her out. “Well … goodbye.” She crossed to the door of my cubicle and walked out into the main office.
I stared after her shapely ass swaying back and forth and let out a little sigh. Such beauty deserved to be worshipped. I already despised Brian Addington for being such an asshole as to take his beautiful wife for granted. I also hated him in advance for the hours I would spend sitting in my car eating cold pizza or sipping endless cups of coffee at café tables.
Most of my work consisted of waiting for people to do something, followed by a few exciting moments of shooting tawdry photos. Unlike the depictions of private eyes in TV shows, there really wasn’t a lot of crime-solving involved in my line of work. I’d yet to solve a single murder or case of police corruption.
The moment the office door closed behind Angela, I stripped off the heavy jacket. I went to the restroom, splashed myself with cool water and checked out last night’s bramble scratches and glass cuts on my arms and torso. The scratches were already healing–one of the few perks of my lycan affliction–but I still doused them with hydrogen peroxide from the medicine chest. It bubbled up white in the jagged lines.
I rinsed and dried off then padded back to my office. The desk and file cabinets had been purchased at a going-out-of-business sale. They were circa 1960-something, serviceable pieces that would probably outlast my business. The ancient computer took up way too much room and was as slow as molasses. But when I’d finally broken down and purchased a new one the year before, Amy had commandeered it, leaving me with the tired, older model. The only marginally attractive thing in my little office was the potted tree in the corner, but that morning its leaves were drying up and dropping from the heat invading the office.
I stared at the open window through which tropical July air poured in. Who knew how long it would be before the glass guy showed up? I decided to cut a square of cardboard to keep out the worst of the heat.
While I was balancing on my office chair, fitting the cardboard to the open window, Amy returned. She walked into my office and the chair I was standing on rolled away from the window on its casters. I pinwheeled my arms to regain balance, jumped off the moving chair and landed lightly on my feet in front of Amy.
She looked down at my sad, sleeping penis. “Jesus! What happened to the jacket?” She set the shopping bag of clothes and a styrofoam cup of coffee on my desk. “For God’s sake, put your pants on.” She turned with a flip of hair and stalked out of my office.
I looked in the bag to see what she’d brought me. It was more casual attire than I would have chosen for a day in the office, but I was glad to dress in a comfy T-shirt, jeans and broken down loafers.
I sipped the coffee as I walked out to Amy’s desk to tell her about our latest client. “Got a new job already this morning. A woman named Angela Addington. She wants her new husband followed.”
Amy raised her eyebrows. “You interviewed her naked?”
“Yes, Amy, we were both naked,” I drawled sarcastically. “I wore the jacket and kept my bottom half hidden behind my desk.”
“Did you remember to ask for half up front? Did she pay with cash, check or credit card? Did you give her a receipt? Does she understand that the rest is due after you’ve signed off on the case?” She fired off questions at the same time as her fingers flew on her computer keyboard. Amy was a multi-tasking marvel.
“I was trapped. I could hardly parade around the office to do paperwork. You’ll have to catch her later for payment.”
“Crap, Rick!” Amy picked up a handful of the bills in front of her and waved them. “See these? They’re bills. Bills we owe!” She tossed them to her desk one by one. “Electric. Phone. Gas. Plus the expense sheet you turned in for the Wiesel case. These must be paid. You have to learn to collect from the clients if I’m not in the office to do it.”
I used to hit on Amy when she first came to work for me, but after I got to know her, I wouldn’t dare. She was scary. Her sweet, heart-shaped face and tiny, compact build reminded me of a pretty little cat–a feral one that would claw your hand if you tried to pet her. I’d only tried that once.
“I’ll do better next time,” I said mildly. I’d learned it was easier to apologize than argue with her. “Thanks for picking up my clothes, by the way. And I already called the glazier. He says he’ll be in later this morning, but you know how that goes.”
Amy nodded. “What’s the lowdown on the Addington case? Does she think her husband’s cheating?”
“Maybe. Something’s up with him.”
“It always is.”
I could hear her mental addition of ‘Fucking men!’ Amy was a very angry woman.
I couldn’t help watching Rick’s ass as he walked away from my desk. God, it was a fine ass and looked just as good in a pair of jeans as it did naked. That morning wasn’t the first time I’d had the chance to make the observation. I’d seen my boss nude more than was probably appropriate for an employee, although always in an innocent context.
When Rick entered the doorway of his office, he glanced back at me. I quickly turned my eyes to my computer monitor and the spreadsheet that filled the screen. I aimlessly pointed and clicked a couple of times with the mouse to make it look like I was busy. The last thing I wanted was for Rick to think I was checking him out.
There should be a support group for women who are perpetually attracted to untrustworthy assholes–but that pretty much describes all men, doesn’t it? I could see myself at my first group meeting.
“Hello, my name is Amy Chang and I’m a recovering Ass-aholic. Actually, I’m not recovering too well. I was used and dumped by one guy, only to develop an impossible crush on my womanizing boss. Let me tell you all about it.”