Willard Shugak was all of six feet tall, but he dodged around Jim,
keeping the trooper between him and Kate. His voice went high enough to wake
up bats. No, Kate, wait, I
You moron, Kate said, forgetting for the moment that Willard was almost
exactly that, what if Auntie Balasha came home to a cold house, her pipes
all froze up?
She reached for him and Willard backpedaled, stumbling and almost losing
his balance, both hands up, palms out, in a placating gesture totally lost
on its intended recipient. Jim watched, delaying official law enforcement
action, mostly because he was enjoying the show.
I wasnt going to take it all, honest I wasnt.
Youre not even out of oil, Kate said, cutting back around Jim and
catching the cuff of Willards jacket. I went out to your place this
morning and checked. You were going to sell it, werent you, Willard?
Willard yanked his arm free and darted back around Jim. I would have
paid Auntie back, honest I would!
Sure you would, you little weasel. Howie put you up to this because you
were behind on the rent? Kate feinted a move, Willard dodged back out of
the way, and the Darth Vader action figure peeping out of his shirt pocket
fell out and vanished into the churned-up snow.
Willard let out a cry of dismay. Anakin! He lumbered forward, his hands
pawing wildly at the snow. Kate took advantage of his distraction and
grabbed a handful of Willards dirty blond hair to haul him upright.
Ow! Kate! That hurts! Jim! Help!
Jim had less than a second to revel in the sight of a man the size of
Willard terrified by a woman the size of Kate before Mutt burst out of the
undergrowth, mistook the attempted homicide for a game and romped around the
three of them, barking madly while trying to catch the first available hem
in her teeth.
At this point Jim, tired of feeling like base in a game of kick-the-can,
grabbed Kate and Willard by the scruffs of their necks and held them apart
as far as his arms would stretch. If hed been an inch shorter, he wouldnt
have been able to pull it off with near as much aplomb. All right, you two,
knock it off.
Kate kicked out with her right foot in reply, which would have connected
in a meaningful way with Jims left knee had he not moved it smartly out of
range just in time. It threw him off balance, though, and Kate wriggled free
and was on Willard before Jim could recover. She had Willard flat on the
ground, her hands at Willards throat and a knee in Willards balls. Mutt
divined that this was not a game after all and added her two cents worth
with snaps and snarls that came entirely too close to Willards left ear for
anyones comfort. Willard was bawling, eyes squeezed shut, mouth wide open,
face wet with a river of tears, shoulders shaking with big sloppy sobs. I
confess, I confess! Jesus, Jim, couldja please just arrest me? Please?
Oh, for Gods sake. Kate let him go in disgust and rose to her feet,
brushing snow from her pants. Get up, you big baby. I didnt hurt you.
His eyes rolled toward Mutt, whose head was sunk beneath her shoulder
blades, her impressive canines bared in a manner that could only be
described as distinctly unfriendly. It was a sight made even scarier by the
bloodstains and the ptarmigan feathers adhering to her muzzle, remnants of
the lunch she had just finished in the next spruce copse over.
Kate made an impatient sound. Mutt, she said.
Graar, Mutt said to Willard, conveying a wealth of meaning in one
syllable, and trotted more or less obediently to Kates side, where she
received a compensatory scratch behind her ears in lieu of bloodshed, always
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