“I can’t, Ma.” John stuffed the cheap earbuds deeper into his ears. They’d come with the damn prepaid, and now he saw why. Absolute shit, but beggars, choosers, and all that. “I’ve got a job.”
“Where?” Kathleen Tilney did not sound pleased, but when did she ever?
John surveyed his work so far, hands on his hips, careful to avoid the wire leading from the phone in his back pocket. “Working for a PI. Time to change things up; the gothic mysteries aren’t selling like they used to. I want to go modern, grittier. Lose some of the purple, you know?”
“Who’s the PI?” Of course she ignored everything he’d said about his work, but again, his mother was nothing if not predictable. It made him smirk to himself a little.
John knelt beside a pile of what appeared to be case files from near a decade ago. A hot mess, as with all the piles he’d already meticulously organized in the rusty, squeaking cabinets. Place was less claustrophobic now, and he was damn proud. “Name of Kanaan.”
“Of course—I’m too young to die of boredom.”
“Beast. A wolf-shifter, apparently, though I haven’t seen the wolf. Keeps to himself, I’m thinking, very stoic type. But enough with the twenty questions. I’m working right now. All day, every day.”
“Kanaan.” Kathleen hummed thoughtfully. “What’s the pack name?”
“Doesn’t have one.” John flipped through the folder, hardly paying attention. Usually she just asked him to help her with some inane project, then went on her merry way.
Her already high-pitched voice went screechy. “No pack name? Why on earth not? John, that’s not a good sign.”
“I don’t know yet, because I’m trying to do my job so he doesn’t boot me before I can get any research done. He’s a very busy man, you know.” Well, in a manner of speaking. If by busy
, John meant surly, taciturn, and always having somewhere to be that isn’t the office at the same time as me
. Though most might’ve found that disappointing, John was loving it. A challenge—and a potentially great protagonist. The quiet types were always the best when it came to these things.
Unfortunately, Kathleen cut into his mental wanderings. “You’d better find out before you get in too deep. If he’s associated with—”
“Got to go, Ma.” John reached into his back pocket for the phone. She was ruining his mental groove—an important tool for any author—as was her habit. One of the many reasons he’d quit as her research assistant some five years ago. Nice of her to call regularly and remind him that it had been a good choice. “You know I like to please the boss when I’m on a job. Thanks for the offer, though, and good luck finding another assistant. Love and all that. Talk to you later.”
“John Allen Tilney, don’t you dare—”
He hung up and shoved the earbuds into his front pocket, then went back to work. Free at last to ruminate on these odd, old cases, Kanaan himself, and how they might be his ticket to a bestseller.
It wasn’t long after that the door opened, admitting Lowell in all his gritty, noir-detective glory, the shadows playing so poetically on his dark olive skin that John wanted to break out his notebook and start writing right then. Lowell paused, glancing over the room with his usual unreadable expression, and then entered proper. Dropping a greasy white takeout bag on the desk, he said, “I brought lunch.”
“Job perks. Nice!” John unfolded his legs and stood, stretching upward. “This is hungry work. Looks great now, though, right? Really getting there.” But he knew better than to wait for a compliment, so he rolled right over his own question with another one. “What are we having?”
“Burgers and fries. I wasn’t sure what you liked, so I got extra. One with chicken, and a vegetarian.” Lowell crouched in front of the mini-fridge. “Want something to drink?”
“Please.” John pulled out the burgers. He made a mental note at the consideration there; one didn’t really expect a grouchy, hard-boiled PI, let alone one who shifted into a wolf, to care much for the sensitivities of vegetarians. Better and better all the time. “I’ll eat anything, so it all sounds good to me. Got a favorite, or shall we play roulette?” He snatched up a burger and considered it seriously.
Lowell put a can of soda and a bottled water on the desk in front of John and made a “by all means” gesture. John unwrapped his blind selection while Lowell got himself a drink, cracked the top with a happy fizzing sound, and took a sip. “What did you get?”
“Veggie burger,” John said around a mouthful of it. Fast food was a gift to humanity, praeternatural or otherwise.
Not to mention it provided the perfect moment to ask questions. They were eating, so Lowell couldn’t use his usual excuses of having somewhere else to be or a file to go over. Well, not as effectively. John popped his feet up on a nearby stool and asked, casual as could be, “Speaking of, I just filed that case, with the butcher in Dorchester. How’d you figure out he was the one behind the praeternatural extortion racket?”
“It was a few things.” Lowell lowered himself into his chair and bit into his bacony-smelling burger. For a moment, it seemed like he’d leave it at that, so John started digging around in his head for the right questions to ask. But after Lowell chased the bite down with a drink of cola, he added, “Proximity, for one. It was obvious the racketeer either lived in the area or was watching it closely. Only the local businesses were being extorted. Lack of evidence, for another. All the businesses had threatening letters sent to them. Benton said he had received them too but had thrown them away after the police said there was nothing they could do. Benton’s story—it seemed practiced. It matched, but it was vague. Like he was trying not to give anything away.”
“Ahhhh.” By the time John swallowed his next bite of burger, he had roughly several million lines of questioning in mind. That was the problem when dealing with a reticent source, though—you had to pick your battles. He’d learned that one the hard way. “That explains it, then. I was looking for some specific clue, but it was more about…like, they say if you’re going to lie, you don’t want to get too elaborate. But too vague is just as deadly.”
Which was part of why John couldn’t see why anyone would bother with lying. Too much trouble. Well, unless you counted storytelling. Which he didn’t.
“Mmm,” Lowell agreed around a mouthful of food, then swallowed. “The most convincing lie has a little bit of truth in it. People who lie like that are the ones you have to be careful of.”
John set aside his burger so fast the top bun slipped off, leaving a mess of mustard, mayo, tomato, and lettuce bare to the ceiling. He sat up to grab the phone out of his back pocket, then started typing into his Notes app frantically, recording Lowell’s last two sentences word-for-word. “Great stuff, man. That’s gonna make for one hell of a plot point.
“You ever have a partner, someone you trained or worked with?” Seemed a shame for Lowell Kanaan to keep all that light under a bushel basket.
Well, perhaps light
was a little hyperbolic, as metaphors went. There was way too much dark about the guy for that. But it was dark of the mysterious, fascinating kind, not the creepy, supervillain kind.
“Once. But not for a while.” Lowell sucked a bit of ketchup off the side of his thumb, a weirdly endearing little mannerism.
“So you’ve been—” John suddenly cracked up as the pun appeared fully formed in his head. He smacked the desk. “Ha! A lone wolf!”
Was he imagining it, or had the corner of Lowell’s mouth just twitched? Probably imagining it. Yeah, had to be, because that was definitely a cold stare right there. Lowell said, “Never heard that one before.”
“Still funny, though, innit?” John wrinkled up his nose and grinned.
“It’s a little bit funny.”
“I’ll take it.” John giggled, well pleased with managing something Lowell found even a little bit funny. He rearranged his burger so it was edible once more. “Right, fine, so lone wolf private investigator. You get better and better all the time.”
Lowell arched an eyebrow. “Better and better?”
“Of course you don’t see it, because you wouldn’t.” John popped his feet back up on the stool where they’d been. His phone rested near the bag of fries, Notes app still bright on the screen. “But to tell the truth, I think you’ve got the makings of a great hero. Not to be weird—I promise, I’ll never use anything you say to me without express permission.” He wasn’t his mother, after all. “But you’ve got some first-rate character points about you.”
Lowell broke the stare to dip a fry into ketchup. “You’re here to research my job, not me.”
“Well, yes, but you turned out to be more fascinating than expected.” The fries looked good, so John leaned forward to grab one himself. “Not some cardboard cutout, hard-boiled gumshoe and all that.”
“Huh,” Lowell said noncommittally.
John frowned. “Sounds bad? Or sounds good?”
“Neither. Just surprised, I guess.” Lowell lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “But you’d know better than me. You’re the writer.”
“And you’re the lone wolf.” John grinned and stuffed the fry into his face. Tell the truth, when he first met Lowell Kanaan, he’d had no idea the guy would be such a good sport. But John liked nothing better than a character whose layers were at once surprising and perfectly understandable. Once you knew they were there.
Katey Hawthorne & Jenna Rose