This story originally appeared in the anthology Inhuman Acts, a noir-themed anthology from FurPlanet edited by Ocean Tigrox. Inhuman Acts is available in print from FurPlanet and DRM-free ebook from Bad Dog Books.

So I’d been thinking of leaving the business.

It wasn’t that work had dropped off, or gotten much more dangerous. It wasn’t that I disliked the area. I was a North Florida native, and I loved all of this crazy state, but the Gulf Coast was my particular paradise. The ocean breeze keeps summers from being too blistering and winters from being too cold, and there’s nowhere else in the world with sunsets like these. I lived a couple blocks from the water in St. Pete Beach, mostly surrounded by retirees. I’d turned forty nearly three years ago, and I admit I liked being the neighborhood spring chicken.

But the thing was: I’d turned forty nearly three years ago.

I started fixing things—tough things—for people the day I turned twenty-one, four years after V-J day, and I fancied my talents would make me a superhero. They didn’t. What they made me was the cleanup lady for people who stood square on the wrong side of heroic. Erasing stains. Masking scents. Giving the right people just the right gift at just the right time. That was thrilling for a while, too, but it wears on you. You know that even if you never cross any of your personal lines—and I had mine—the people you’re working with cross those lines every day, and you’re helping them do it.

Everybody else might retire to St. Petersburg, but I’d decided to retire away from it. Maybe find a nice little beach shack somewhere south of here, somewhere less built up. Maybe I’d be able to start helping the right kind of people. Maybe I’d just collect conch shells. I like conch shells.

To be fair, as far as criminals went most of the ones I dealt with around Tampa Bay were easy to deal with. Jimmy Espinoza, a recent transplant from Ybor City, wasn’t one of the easy ones. I’ve done favors for—and received favors from—a lot of lowlifes; Jimmy wasn’t the lowest, but he’d settled at a comfortable viewing distance from the bottom. He wanted to be a major drug lord and he had enough crazy to get there, but he didn’t have enough brains. He’d settled for minor. I’d met worse people. But I never liked the way he looked at me. I never liked the way he looked at any woman.

I caught him out of the corner of my eye as I paid for my Strawberry Shortcake bar, this morning’s nutritious brunch. I didn’t clue in that he was looking for me until I stepped out of the convenience store and saw him waiting halfway across the pitted asphalt lot. The wolf had hit fifty, but he had the body of someone a quarter-century younger, and dressed to make sure you knew it: tight jeans, tight T-shirt, unbuttoned casual blazer.

“Jimmy.” I raised my ice cream in acknowledgement.

He grinned in his more sly than sociable way. “It’s been a while, Miss Fixer. You’re as beautiful as ever.”

I couldn’t help but snort. At my age, five foot five and two hundred pounds, I most assuredly wasn’t as beautiful as ever. I was still cute—fox squirrels stay cute until their fur starts falling out—but that’s about it. “How’d you know I’d be here?”

“I didn’t.” He shrugged, turning around and waving for me to follow. “But I know you live somewhere in the area. People see you around here.” He waved a hand expansively, taking in the corner shops around the intersection. “And, they see you at this bodega almost every morning. So I waited.”

“It’s a Seven-Eleven, Jimmy, not a bodega.” I followed at a casual pace, doing a quick sweep of the area. Nobody who looked like they were watching for either him or me. “What’s up?”

“I have a problem.”

“I figured. But you’ve heard I’m retiring, right?”

“Yeah, I have.” He spread his huge hands wide, tail wagging, and flashed me a vixen-bait grin. “But retiring isn’t retired, and I have a little emergency I know you can help with.”

Of course. People didn’t come to me with non-emergencies. I just gave him a raised brow and waited.

“It’s my wife.” He lowered his voice. “A party last night at her beach house got kind of wild. Too much booze, maybe a little too much snow. A mink girl decided to go for a little post-midnight swim and drowned.” He sounded genuinely surprised, like he’d never have guessed that you shouldn’t take a refreshing swim when you’re drunk and hopped up on coke.

Wife? I didn’t know he’d remarried after Gina’s boating accident a few years ago. And “her” beach house? I’d heard Jimmy lived in a penthouse overlooking the Bay, and I’d wondered how he paid for it, since his business didn’t seem that good. I guess he’d married into money. “Pool or ocean?”


“Who knows about the body?”

He snarled. “I found out about this shit-fest when she called me a couple hours ago because the cops were banging on her door. They’d already found it.”

“So much for just dragging it a half-mile down the beach, then.” I sighed. “How much have they seen?”

“Just the body. I think. They didn’t have a search warrant so my guy didn’t let ‘em in, but one’s gotta be on the way. Ed should be doing some cleaning, but…he ain’t a pro. I can’t get anyone else in there with the police hanging ‘round.”

“You want me to find a way to get a bunch of incriminating evidence out of the house while it’s under surveillance.”

“You got it.” He nodded. “And get Marie—my wife—out of there, too. The cops didn’t see her, so I want you to make it look like she was never there.”

I knew a Marie, once, a decade ago. I knew her very well. I shook off the memories and sighed heavily. “Better and better. Were you at this party?”

“I left early.”

“You don’t think it’s going to be suspicious if you make it look like neither of you were at this beach house when this went down?”

“Nah.” He shrugged. “There are people there all the time even when we’re not. Politicos and celebrities down on vacation, hangers-on, professional houseguests. You know how it is.”

I knew how it was in the abstract. I used to have a reputation for being very detail-oriented, and I suppose I am, so I knew some particulars of the lifestyles of the rich and infamous. If the surviving guests were too plowed to remember much, we could just say Marie left with Jimmy. Did I want this to be my last job? I could use the money, in the way we all can use money. But I didn’t need the money.

After I failed to respond in a few seconds, Jimmy nudged me. “Look, we both know you’re not retired yet. You still fix the kinda problems that police can’t.”

I sighed. “I mean this in the nicest possible way, Jimmy, but I’ve stopped fixing them for people like you.”

“I get it. I don’t want you to fix it for me. I want you to fix it for Marie. I love her, I need this done right, and you’re the only one who can do it.”

“I don’t know Marie, but if she’s married to you, she’s—”

“Yeah. Yeah, you do. You know her.” He looked at me with narrowed, calculating eyes.

I felt my tail droop, the blood drain out of my face. I don’t honestly remember saying yes. Maybe I just nodded.

It took under two hours to get the job arranged. I pride myself on speed, but I have to admit I’d even impressed myself this time. If I’d had a leisurely full day I wouldn’t be the one driving, though; I’d rather not deal with hometown cops as anyone but myself.

As the utility van bumped its way down a side road toward the beach, I had a clear line of sight to the house. I knew it’d be grander than my own little cinderblock shoebox, but I hadn’t expected a sprawling hacienda decked out in magnificently tacky pink stucco and Spanish roof tile. Compared to the gold-plated fence and the orange marble driveway—Jesus, a marble driveway—the house’s paint job looked restrained. I wondered how much of the look was Jimmy’s fault. He had a knack for finding pretty things and ruining them.

The police weren’t exactly out with a show of force; a single cruiser had parked just past the mailbox, at the end of a driveway that had to be a good eighty feet long. A raccoon sat in the car while a tiger, about my age, moseyed toward the road as I pulled up. He had the resigned stare of someone who really, sincerely wanted to be somewhere else. A little plot of beach had been marked off with crime scene tape wrapped around stakes driven into the sand, a third cop standing by one looking out to the ocean.

The tiger put his hands on his hips, thumbs hooked in the belt loops. “Afternoon. What are you here for, ma’am?”

Buck teeth always help with putting on a bored-dumb look. “Is this the…” I pulled a little pocket notepad out of the overalls I’d changed into. “Espinoza residence?”

“Yes, ma’am. You’re a plumber?”

He didn’t have to add the but you’re a woman! for it to come through loud and clear. “That’s what the truck says.” It did: AAA Sunshine Plumbing. They’re a real company, too. It just wasn’t their real truck. “I’m here with the new water heater. Something didn’t happen here, did it?”

He grunted. “Wait here.” Ambling back to the cruiser, he talked with the raccoon in a low voice.

The front door opened and a mouse looked out. Ed, I presumed. I don’t know what the hell kind of glandular condition Ed had been blessed with, but he looked bigger than Jimmy. After giving me a dubious once-over, he rumbled to the cops, “That’s the plumber. New water heater.”

The tiger gave him a glare that could crush granite, but kept his voice exaggeratedly polite. “Yes. Thank you, sir.” He talked another couple seconds with his partner, then walked back toward me. “You’ll have to come back tomorrow. There’s been—”

“Mr. Espinoza’s houseguests need hot water today.” Ed spoke very loudly. “He scheduled this before you guys showed up. It’s an emergency. Let the plumber do her job. She’ll stay away from the crime scene.”

Tiger Cop gritted his teeth, turning back toward the house, but his partner caught his eye and shrugged. After a second of visible mental struggle, he gave me a melodramatic sigh and waved me in. “Stay in the garage and utility room area only.”

“Thanks. I’ll be in and out in no time. I don’t wanna get involved with whatever this is.” I looked appropriately nervous, then backed the truck in, all the way down the drive. I didn’t stop until I’d gotten a foot or two away from the farthest right roll-up door on the three-car garage, at just enough of an angle that the cops couldn’t see anything we were doing without walking around the truck. Then I climbed out and banged on the garage door. Ed rolled it up with an equally loud bang, staring down at me. Damn, he was big.

“Okay. Let’s get this going. You’re sure the police don’t know Mrs. Espinoza’s here?”

“Nah, they haven’t seen her, and I said she left with Jimmy before all the shit hit the fan.”

“Will any of the guests say different?”

He cracked knuckles on a fist that looked like a fur-covered wrecking ball. “Nah.”

“Right.” I opened the back of the truck. I’d lined the floor with a plastic tarp already, and had my cleaning supplies—everything from hydrochloric acid to good old Formula 409—in a bucket by my equipment bag. “You turned off the power and drained the hot water tank?”

“Yeah.” Ed watched with crossed arms. “You’re not really gonna replace it, are you?”

“No, but if the police happen to turn on the hot water and it comes out hot, we have a problem.” I pointed at the dark corner where the tank sat. “Clean that one up so it doesn’t look like it has five years of cobwebs.”

“Jeeze. Clean this, clean that. Do I look like a maid?”

I sighed deeply enough it came out as an annoyed chitter. “No, Ed. You look like a guy who doesn’t know how to clean up a crime scene. That’s why I’m here. Since I’m going to be cleaning up in there, it’d be really helpful if you cleaned up in here.

“All right, all right.” He snorted and grabbed a dust brush from one of the garage’s shelves. I grabbed the bag and bucket and stepped on into the house proper.

The interior decor reflected a vicious fight between Postmodern Austere and Bohemian Trashpit, the latter winning out through sheer weight of numbers. Three people had passed out on the living room floor—two vixens and a tod with his muzzle lying by a puddle of vomit, hopefully his own. Empty bottles of fabulously expensive liquor had been piled up like empty fifths of Thunderbird in a hobo camp. Ashtrays lay everywhere and ash—tobacco, marijuana and God knows what else—lay everywhere but the ashtrays. It’s a good thing there hadn’t been much in the way of furniture to start with, and an even better thing that they’d gone with terrazzo flooring instead of carpeting. Even imagining the place spotless—which it’d be in about ten minutes if work went quick—I had trouble seeing it as Marie’s kind of home.

I leaned over each survivor in turn, shaking them by the closest shoulder and spraying their face with the 409 if that didn’t work. “Rise and shine, kids. Time to wash up for school.”

Both of the vixens sat up and groaned. The other fox mumbled something obscene, but woke up fast when he got a whiff of what was by his nose.

“Get yourselves cleaned up and presentable. Any of you remember when the Espinozas left the party last night?”

“Nine? Nine-thirty, maybe?” one vixen mumbled. She didn’t quite have the body to wear the dress she almost had on.

“Great answer.”

“Are they in trouble? I saw Marie leave with Jimmy then,” the other vixen said. Then she squinted at me. “Are you a mechanic?”

“Yes.” I clapped my hands. “Chop chop. Get moving. Bathrooms are…somewhere else.” I waved them on. They shuffled out with the obedience of the young and severely hung-over.

Then I started my work. I opened my bag and pulled on disposable gloves, then pulled out a leaf bag, starting to toss ashtrays and bottles into it. “Mother of Mary,” I muttered. “Did Ed do any work in here?”

“Not much, no.”

The voice. Her voice. It hadn’t changed at all.

Even though Jimmy had told me, even though I thought I’d already been inoculated against the shock of recognition, I still dropped the bottle of cleaner, staring open-mouthed at Marie. Marie, the first cacomistle I’d ever met, tall and fiery and as dazzlingly beautiful now as the last time I’d seen her: nine years ago. Nine years and seven months and if I’d taken another moment I’d be able to get it to the day. “My God. It’s…really you.”

Sighing, she walked down from the side hall to where I stood. “I don’t know whether to hug you or slap you.”

If I were her, I would have gone for the slap, but she never was like that. Instead she wrapped her arms and tail around me. “Jimmy said someone I knew was on the way, but didn’t say who. I figured you’d blown off the Sunshine State and never looked back.”

“I love this place too much in spite of itself.” I swallowed, trying to keep my throat from drying up, my voice cracking. “So. Jimmy. Your husband.”

I saw a shadow in her eyes, a reflexive flinch. “He was charming. For a while. I fell pretty hard and I thought he had, too. Now…” She shrugged, looking down and away. “I have what I want, he has what he wants.”

I couldn’t keep my ears from going down. “You…you know about people like Jimmy. You know better.”

Her eyes darkened. “Yeah, I know about people like Jimmy because I know people like you. You think I don’t have the experience to handle his kind of company?”

“No.” I winced. “Yes. I don’t know. God.” The no was the true answer. She didn’t. “He’s getting your money, but what are you getting out of it?”

“For Christ’s sake, what did you think I was going to do without you? You and I talked about this over and over. Socialites marry from money into more money. I’d have thrown that all away…” She trailed off.

She’d have thrown it all away. For me. If I’d let her.

“But…” Marie shook her head, ears splaying. “He can still be charming. He still loves me. He puts me on a pedestal, and when things are good, they’re really good. He’s…he’s my everything.” She sounded less like a woman declaring love than a hostage reciting demands at gunpoint.

I didn’t believe a word she was saying, and she didn’t, either. There was a rough edge there, a desperation, like she had to convince herself it was true. I closed my eyes, then, trying not to suddenly see it as recrimination. I’d put her on a pedestal, too—then forced myself to shove her off it. Her world wasn’t meant for people like me, and mine sure as hell wasn’t meant for people like her.

Yet here she was: married to Jimmy, surrounded by drugs, dead body a hundred yards away. Instead of hating me like she was supposed to and staying straight, she’d boomeranged back somewhere far worse than she’d have been if we’d just stayed together.

Damn it, though, I had work to finish. I tossed the last few bottles, then started wiping down the most egregious stains, using a handheld vacuum on the ash and powder. I might as well be a maid—just a maid who wouldn’t say anything to the cops. “Tell me about last night.”

“It started out as a party for Alison, a…friend. Of Jimmy and me. A birthday party. She’d just turned twenty-five. Jimmy put it all together for us. Alison’s—” Her voice caught. “She’s the one who drowned.”

Ten years younger than Marie. “That’s a shame.”

She gave me a sad look. “That’s a cold thing to say.”

I paused with the vacuum in hand. Cold? I’d meant it—it was a shame—but I’m sure I sounded blasé. I hated having an occupation where that was an occupational hazard.

“Alison was sweet. She was fun, she was smart, she was…” She closed her eyes. “I can’t believe she’s gone. Just like that. On her birthday, goddammit.” A single tear escaped to run down Marie’s muzzle, somehow just making it prettier.

“She was…more than a friend.”

She nodded once, almost imperceptibly.

I mopped up the vomit, throwing the rags in the trash bag, too. I’ve dealt with worse. “Did Jimmy know?”

She flinched again, and opened her eyes. “He—he wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble if he did, would he?”

“You know him better than I do.”

Her expression grew pleading. “I told you. He’s—not a bad guy. For what he is.”

When she said for what he is I heard he’s even worse than you thought. He had her terrified. And she’d never actually said Jimmy didn’t know. If he’d found out about Alison—and that his wife liked girls as much as he did—Marie might be in mortal danger.

“Okay, Marie.” I rinsed off the gloves and tossed them in the bag, too. “Could you keep vacuuming? I need to run out and check on something real quick.”

“I…guess, yes.” She looked lost, but started vacuuming haphazardly. That’s all I needed. The work was already done; I just wanted the cleaning noises to keep going while I ducked through the lanai onto the beach.

I hadn’t come up with a plan to get close to the body beyond playing the part of the dim plumber. The medical examiner had finally arrived at the scene—I wondered if he’d been chewed out for letting the plumber beat him—so I just walked around the side of the house, examining hose outlets like they were vitally important for the job somehow. He was an elderly rat, I suspect a little deaf given the way he projected as he knelt over the mink’s waterlogged body. I didn’t catch everything, but I got the gist.

“—of course somebody can get so…they fall over in the shallows and drown. What I’m saying is that the froth here is a sign…respiratory arrest, and it looks like…sucked in sand.”

A maddeningly soft-voiced cop spoke for a couple seconds. “I didn’t say that,” the M.E. responded. “But let’s…”

I risked a glance over as the rat rolled Alison onto her stomach and brushed through the fur on her shoulders, then got out an electric trimmer and cut away some of the fur for a closer look at the skin. “This is bruising.”

“From what?” a cop said clearly, but I didn’t need to stick around for the answer. I wandered back inside as casually as possible.

“Okay, we’re ready to go. You all set?”

She nodded. “Yes, I am.”

I poked my head back into the garage. “Ed, get the bags of trash in the truck along with the vacuum.”

“Right, boss.” He snorted, but headed into the living room, ferrying everything out as I did a spot check. It looked passable.

When I walked into the garage, Ed and Marie both waited expectantly. “So the plan is you take her and meet Jimmy under the 35th Avenue Bridge, yeah? He should already be there for you. Then you do whatever you’re gonna do with the crap in your truck.”

“Give it to the gators. Thanks, Ed.” I turned to Marie. “When I open the garage door, I’m gonna walk to the drivers’ side of the truck and get in. When I open the passenger door, you need to make a mad—but silent—dash for it and then crouch down by the floorboards. Got it?”

She nodded, beautiful grey eyes wide.

I slammed the back of the truck shut and nodded to Ed. He nodded back. Then I rolled up the garage door and moseyed around the truck, seeing where the police were. All still with the M.E., it looked like. I got in, opened the passenger side door, and waited. Marie scrambled in just a couple seconds later, squatting and curling her huge tail about herself.

“Down a little lower,” I muttered, reaching across and pulling her door shut. She pressed herself against the floor mat, and I sat up straight, starting the engine. As I rolled forward, Ed pulled the garage shut behind me.

The police didn’t give the truck so much as a single glance as I got to the end of the driveway and turned back onto the road.

I waited until we’d gone around the first curve, then the next, before exhaling. “Okay, Marie. It’s clear.”

She clambered up into the seat, taking a few ragged breaths. “So now we’re going off to meet Jimmy?”


“What?” She looked at me with genuine confusion. “But that’s—that’s the whole plan.”

“He knows, Marie. About you and Alison. It wasn’t an accidental drowning—somebody held her under.” I looked over at her. “And if he killed her—or had her killed—he’s going to kill you, too.” I was sure of that, although I was still trying to figure out why he hadn’t already; dragging me into it was an unnecessary complication. Maybe not, though. It kept there from being two bodies at the beach house.

Marie whimpered, breath suddenly jumping to double time. “Oh, God. I told him you’d find out. I told him. I told him.”

I jerked my gaze back to her so sharply I nearly ran the truck off the road. “You knew he’d killed her?”

“He didn’t kill her!” she shrieked. “I did!”

My hands tightened to a death grip on the steering wheel, even as I let the truck slow to a crawl.

“She’d—she’d been—seeing someone else. She rubbed my nose in it. She laughed at me.”

That sounded too much like movie dialogue, delivered by someone who wasn’t a very good actor. “Don’t bullshit me. Tell me what really happened.”

The cacomistle started to shake, mouth opening and closing as a dozen other lies flitted through her head. Then she slumped, sobbing. “He made me,” she choked out. “We tried to be careful but he found—he found plane tickets I’d bought, for Alison and me. I thought he was going to kill me right then. But when he calmed down, he—he acted like nothing had happened. He joked about it. He said he had his girls on the side so I could have mine.”


“Last night, he…” She pressed her tail tip against her face. “He had a gun, and he marched us both down to the water. Alison was drunk. I don’t think she knew what was happening until…” She closed her eyes. “Until he told me if I didn’t hold her down, he’d kill me. He kept the gun on me the whole time.”

We came to a stoplight, and I studied her face. If she was lying this time it was an Oscar-winning performance. “Jesus, Marie,” I said softly. “You can’t go back to him.”

“I have to go back to him.” She sniffed. “Look, he won’t kill me. It’s the same reason he won’t divorce me. He has to have me.” She made it sound pathological.

“You were planning to get away. You still can.”

“Now?” She choked out a humorless laugh. “I was planning to leave with money, with suitcases. With Alison. It’s too late now. I can’t just snap my fingers and vanish. You can’t snap yours, either.”


“Just take me to him!”

“No.” The light changed, and we rolled forward. “Look, I’m telling you this is what I do. I can—”

Then I heard the sound of the hammer being drawn back. I turned to stare at the pistol she held. Small, stereotypically feminine, but deadly enough.

“You can’t fix everything, damn you. You can’t fix this!” She took a deep breath. “I have to finish it.”

“Put the gun away.”

She didn’t. “Drive to the bridge.”

I sighed. Would she shoot me? I didn’t think so—but I didn’t think she’d have had it in her to kill her own lover on Jimmy’s command, even with a gun to her head. I thought she was strong. She was strong. But he’d broken her, and God help me, she was right. I didn’t know how to fix this. I didn’t know how to fix her.

We drove on in silence, turning at the Don CeSar hotel back toward the mainland. I don’t know what she was thinking; I was pondering whether I could grab the gun away from her and shoot Jimmy in the head before he took me out. Maybe. I wasn’t as fast as I used to be but he probably wasn’t, either. But he’d be able to get to his gun faster. I should have brought my own.

The frontage road that ran under the bridge was barely big enough for the truck until it widened out to maybe two and a half lane’s worth, less road than rocky dirt lot. Fortunately—or maybe unfortunately—nobody stood by the curb fishing today. The only person who saw us drive up was Jimmy, waiting by the side of a gleaming new gold Corvette.

I climbed out of the truck, leaving the engine running. He didn’t make any small talk. “So it’s all done?”


Marie climbed out gingerly. She clenched the gun in one hand, no attempt to hide it. I suppressed another wince. So much for taking him by surprise.

He turned to Marie, completely ignoring the gun. “You’re okay?”

She nodded dully. My hackles started to rise.

“Good. You know what to do now.”

Marie’s ears folded down, and she pointed the gun at me. When she spoke, it sounded like the words were being ripped out of her like claws yanked out by pliers. “I…can’t have…any of my…”

Jimmy’s eyes narrowed. “Say it.”

She closed her eyes, but kept the gun level. “Any of my sick whore lovers left alive.”

“You don’t own her, Jimmy.” I looked at Marie, trying to keep my voice from going too hoarse. “Marie. He only has the control you give him.”

The wolf looked at me with an equal mix of pity and contempt. “For such a smart bitch, you were too stupid to figure out I was playing you, and now you’re too stupid to see what’s right in front of your face. Yeah, Fixer. I do own her. Body and soul.”

Marie opened her eyes again, tears streaming. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

But she didn’t fire.

“Now!” Jimmy’s voice grew angrier.

The cacomistle took a deep breath and turned the gun on the wolf.

Jimmy stared, muzzle open, then started laughing. “Go on, bitch.” He walked toward her, slowly. “Do it.”

I started moving, too. Even more slowly, even more quietly, toward the closest fist-sized rock.

These were my limits. In spite of all the horrible people I’d done horrible things for, I never hurt someone innocent. I never did anything that knowingly caused collateral damage. And I never killed.

And I swear to God, I was about to bash Jimmy Espinoza’s head in.

Marie had both hands on the gun now, but it didn’t make it any steadier. She was hyperventilating as the wolf closed the distance, looming over her now. “Do it!” He pointed to the side, without looking at me. “Or do her!”

The rock felt right. I lifted it up and moved forward.

“I can’t, Jimmy!” Marie started to wail, lifting the gun up, barrel waving wildly between his neck and his forehead.

He leaned down, like he was going to bite off her head, roaring. “I said do—”

The gun fired. Blood fountained both in front of and behind the wolf. She’d shot him in the throat.

Marie’s wail turned into a terrified scream, rising in pitch as he fell, blood splashing over her blouse, then her skirt.

“Oh, my God. I killed him. I killed him.”

“You had to, honey.” I dropped the rock. “You had to.”

She looked at me in uncomprehending, incredulous horror. “I killed Jimmy. I killed Alison. I can’t—I can’t—”

I closed the gap between us, pulling her away from Jimmy. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I killed Alison!” she repeated, tone rising in self-accusation. “And—Jimmy’s blood—” She looked down at herself, and choked back a retch.

I glanced at Jimmy. He gasped, trying to get a breath that would never come. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. I’d have to figure out how to get rid of both his body and his car—no. I could just leave them here. The cops would write it off as a rival gang hit.

“I can’t go to jail.” She walked a few paces away, moving slowly.

“I can figure out something. A new identity. You can still make that escape.”

“Escape with who?” The emotion seeped out of her voice. “Alison’s gone. Jimmy’s gone. I’d be alone.”

I ran a hand through my hair. “What do you want me to do, Marie? Do you want me to go with you?”

She turned toward me. “Do you still love me?”

The words came out before I thought them through. “I never stopped.”

She nodded, seeming satisfied. “Then I just want you to forgive me.” She raised the gun again, but not to me.

“No!” I ran for her. “I’ll—”

This time her hand didn’t shake at all. She was dead before she hit my arms. “I’d have gone with you,” I finished in a whisper.

I could have saved her, physically. I know I could have. A new city, a new name, a new life. But it’d been too late to save her spirit the moment she’d married Jimmy.

Taking a deep breath, I set her down gently, arranging her limbs in a credible imitation of how she’d have fallen if I hadn’t been there to catch her. Let the police find it and record it as the murder-suicide it was. There was no one left to cover for.

But I couldn’t help cover the ruins of her face with her tail. It looked almost natural, and I couldn’t bear to see it.

Then I turned to Jimmy. He wasn’t dead yet. The wound was life-threatening but not as instantly fatal as I’d thought; if I got him to a hospital, they might be able to save him. I leaned over. “Can you hear me?” I said softly.

His eyes shifted. For what I imagine was the first time in a very long time, he looked frightened.

“I only wish I could make you hurt more.”

I stripped out of the plumbing shop uniform—it had blood on it, and I didn’t need it anymore. Then I did what I’d planned to do all along: drove the truck about thirty miles east into the marsh, set it on fire, sank it, then hitchhiked back.

I don’t know if Jimmy’s men will even come looking for me. The crime scene may not tell the whole truth, but it won’t tell any lies, either. Frankly, given the kind of bastard he was, he’s not going to be missed by anyone, and Ed’s loyalty will end the moment he realizes he’s the boss now.

It won’t matter either way, though. I’ll be gone in a day or two. I’ve made enough people disappear that making myself disappear won’t be too hard. I don’t know if I’m leaving the business, exactly, but I’m done with this side of it. I’m not going to fix problems for people like Jimmy. Not any more. But I’d be real damn happy to cause problems for them.

And maybe if I meet another Marie, I won’t be too late.