The Wizard and the Weaver, Chapter 24: An Irresistible Charmer

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“Where we at?” I lifted the brim of my baseball cap, blinking at the bright light that assaulted my eyes and reaching for the handle to raise the reclining seat back to its upright position.

Sissy turned the key, shutting the Silverado’s engine down. “Last truck stop in Iowa.”

“Ungh. Okay.” That would be the Flyng J at Davenport, then, since neither of us would choose a Love’s truck stop if we had any other viable choice. The Flying J chain had gone downhill by putting Denny’s restaurants in all of their stops some years back, but hey. Can’t have everything. We both stretched at the same time, bumping hands in the process, turning the bump into a brief love squeeze. I took my time, letting my senses come back to full awareness of the physical world surrounding us. Stepping out of the cab half alert would never be a good idea. “Cargo?”

“Out like a light. I checked at the last rest stop.”

“Good.” Our prisoner in the steel box, Duyi Cheng, was apparently every bit as subject to Doc Menning’s drug cocktail as any normal non-chameleon human. Which was another indication that his Talent was shallow surface stuff only, incredibly dangerous in its own right but nothing like a true were. Any of our shifters would throw off the effects in twelve hours or less, not twenty-four.

We were making incredible time on the road, nothing like the frantic race back from Michigan to Montana with a dying Wizard on board, but not bad. Every western state had an 80 mph speed limit these days. On average, we were driving four straight hours, then taking a full one hour break to refuel the truck, grab a sit-down meal at a restaurant, and hit the restrooms. We didn’t waste much time on Cheng; our average speed was holding at just a bit above 60 mph. At this rate, we should be in Connecticut by sometime tomorrow morning.

Or not. Traffic on the eastern seaboard would slow us down some, and there was the weather to consider. The meteorologists were saying a huge winter storm was expected to hit New England no later than tomorrow afternoon. We had a heavy duty four wheel drive pickup truck with studded snow tires (illegal in some states but not likely to be noticed in the middle of a blizzard), a full set of crossbar chains, a power winch on the front end, a thirty foot tow chain plus a twelve foot tow strap, and a come-along; there wasn’t much in the way of weather that could stop us cold.

But the traffic could. A highway pile-up or a street full of spun-out cars…yeah, that would do the trick.

I went in to give cash to the fuel desk. The fortyish blonde behind the counter didn’t give off any questioning vibes. After all, I’m a big black man with money in my hand. Drug dealer on his way to the Promised Land. Or something like that.

That’s something that marks us, you know. Plenty of travelers these days, they’ll go hit the restrooms and eat first, think about filling up the fuel tank later. Not us. We subscribe to the old western notion that you always take care of your horse first.

Your prisoner, not so much. Cheng would keep. We still parked wa-ay out in the lot, though, separated from any other vehicles by a good eighty feet or more. The pickup bed and camper shell were actually somewhat insulated from sound, but we weren’t taking any chances we didn’t have to take.

Once the surly hostess at Denny’s had seated us and shuffled off to tell our waitress to bring coffee and water, we were able to relax. Our booth was by a window that allowed us to keep an eye on the truck; if something hinky went down, at least we wouldn’t be caught off guard. The restaurant was moderately busy, so we decided to play Democrat or Republican, one of our favorite games. The idea was that you could tell who voted Democrat and who voted Republican by their appearance. The Independents didn’t count; we lumped everybody into those two simplistic categories. Jack Hill had introduced the game to us, claiming that he could nail the voting preference of an individual on sight, just like that. We’d tested his claim once, before Sissy’s old murder warrant had magically disappeared. Sissy didn’t vote, but Judi had been with Jack and me and the line at the polls had been long, extending out of the building and down the sidewalk. We’d tried to pull it off without being intrusive, which took skill…okay, it took my wife, a five foot three blonde bombshell with a manner that disarmed nearly all men and a surprising number of women. As voters would exit the building, Judi would get their attention and ask brightly,

“Jack here says he can guess your party affiliation. Are you Democrats? Or Republicans?”

Not all voters deigned to answer, but the vast majority of them did. Jack didn’t guess right every time, but of the test sample that day, he scored an impressive 88% correct.

We’d been playing the game ever since, though we never bothered to score ourselves. Jack was right; you really could tell, at least most of the time.

Our waitress was as pleasant as the hostess was nasty. She was efficient, too. It wasn’t long before we’d eaten, paid up, made our pit stops, and hit the road again. My turn to drive, and Sissy wasn’t ready to nod off just yet. My shape shifting warrior woman loved a good snooze as much as the next person, but she never needed more than five or six hours of rest, day in, day out. We suspected her were nature was behind that; Willow was the same way. I’d never thought to ask Chilly and Crystal if that applied to single shifters like them, being able to shift into just one animal form.

Sissy would never push. That wasn’t her way. But I was finally ready to talk. I got the ball rolling by asking, “Would you like to know why I’m so hell bent on running Tar Baby out to Hartford?”

“Tar Baby?” Her eyes crinkled in amusement. “That’s what we’re calling Cheng now?”

“Eh. He’s dark and sticky-evil, sort of tar-like. How he escaped notice all those years in his native China beats me.”

“Good point, honey. Sure; I’d very much like to know.” Her voice took on a lightly sarcastic tone, the closest she ever came to needling me. “Not that it’s a big deal one way or the other. It’s not like you’ve become obsessed with the idea or anything.”

“Heh. Point.” I paused briefly, organizing my thoughts, eyeballing the road ahead and the pure blue sky above. Wicked weather tomorrow no doubt, and we’d be driving right into it. “Basically, he’s an excuse to go to Hartford. Not because of my past there, or the Hood Rats, or any of that. Not really.” Another excuse to stop talking and pay attention; the bridge ahead showed a hint of black ice. I braked just enough to kick the Chevy out of cruise control, free-wheeled across the danger spot, then got things back up to speed. Time to spit it out.

“If we keep on going the way we’re going, we’re dead.”

“O-o-okay. You have my attention.”

“How lucky do you think we’ve been so far, Sis? Eight full years of out and out warfare with Heartbite, Talents going at it on both sides. Vams, shifters, a few ultimate vamshifters and a handful of witches on the Heartbite side. Shifters of our own, mainly you and a bit from Willow until the young werewolves came along, along with casting by Judi and little Willow, and don’t forget, the only known full blown Purple Fire Wizard on the planet. Before we were all done with it, a lot of people died, buildings were blown up, you name it, in both Michigan and Montana, with a few battles in between. And yet we seem to have managed to keep all that from the public. It’s too much. We can’t take our continued under-the-radar success for granted.”

“Makes sense.” Sissy fished around in her purse for her special file, shifted her left hand into cougar form, and began sharpening her claws. “Go on.”

“A bunch of things got me to realizing we had to change, hon. One was Philip; he’s managed to set up a secure computer link with the current Ted Kraznick’s computer whizzes. I mentioned at the last Inner Circle meeting that he was working on the project, right?”

“Right. But I didn’t know he’d succeeded.”

“He has. For about ten days before you and I headed into the mountains, our two Clans have been in touch. We’ve agreed to make a formal alliance, which I was going to discuss at Sunday’s meeting, but then we got the call from Lori Droid and the rest is, as they say, history.”

“Alliance?” Sissy stopped filing her three inch claws, suddenly alert. “Why?”

“Necessity. Ted has connections. He knows nearly everything the real Ted knew about inter-Clan politics, and the rest he’s finding out in a hurry. Of equal importance, he has connections–at least, he has them as long as his impersonation of old Leopard Tail continues to be successful, and the longer he holds the Michigan Clan together, the better his odds get. Old Ted had a fair number of law enforcement and politicians in his pocket, none of whom he deemed useful in his attempts to eradicate us, but some of which could prove mighty handy if a cover up ever seemed like a good idea.”

“But?” She turned to watch my profile; I could see her do that out of the corner of my eye, and I could feel her position as well. Her position and her curiosity. She was almighty curious. “I hear a but in there.”

“But it turns out that among the Talents of the world, there’s a grapevine that rivals the old moccasin telegraph for speed. The other Clans all know Heartbite of Michigan got its butt kicked repeatedly by some upstarts in rural western Montana. They don’t know everything. That’s not how gossip works. But some of the Clans think they know enough to see Heartbite as seriously weakened. They haven’t moved on him yet, but Ted tells me it’s just a matter of time.

“Your next question is why do I care? Well…I don’t, really, at one level. New Ted is fully human, no known Talent, but he did take Old Ted’s money for years. He must have seen a lot of cruelty during those years, and he turned a blind eye to it. Not that he necessarily had a whole lot of choice. I don’t imagine the friendly local vamleopard would let his perfect double leave his employ, and Ted II certainly never had the fighting prowess needed to take on a formidable opponent like that.

“But he’s doing surprisingly well these days, considering what he was given to work with. He’s quietly outlawed people hosting the vamvirus, getting rid of the few we missed by quietly sponsoring them to other Clans. His personal bodyguards are a mixture of shifters and witches, all fully aware of his human nature and all apparently willing to protect his secret from the rest of Talent World.”

“Talent World,” my warrior woman murmured. “When did we start calling it that?”

“Just recently.” I worked my shoulders, rolled them around a few times without letting go of the wheel. A small spike of pain threatened the left one, right where Doctor Larry had needed to do the most patching the last time around. Phantom pain? Or was I nervous about discovering my tendency to protect that area beyond all common sense? “Philip’s term.”


“Bottom line, Ted needs our support, so he was the one who proposed the alliance. There’s a prominent Clan in Connecticut with headquarters in Hartford. Not in the hood, but not that far from it, either. How to handle this trip is my idea, so don’t go blaming Kraznick, but basically, you and I need to make contact with the leaders there…without tipping them off to the fact that Heartbite gave us any coaching. Or not. My thought is to seriously damage the Hood Rats, meet the Connecticut Clan bigwigs and get in their faces without pushing it to the point of open conflict, let them know they have to deal with us if they attack Kraznick, use Tar Baby as a demonstration of our ruthlessness and also as a decoy to draw the attention of Chinese agents away from Montana, and get back home in time for our family New Year’s Eve celebration if not for Christmas.”

“Oh. Is that all?” Sissy turned to face forward again, resuming her nail filing. “And here I thought you were trying for something complex.” I held my peace; if I knew my girl, she was going to have a question or two…which she did. “You said there are Talent Clans everywhere, right? So, do we have any idea how many?”

“Not with any precision,” I admitted. “But then, Ted says he doesn’t either. That’s because Talent World is not as rigidly organized as a lot of the popular fiction out there would have you believe. Roughly speaking, there’s about one major Clan for every state, but that’s not set in concrete, either. Big old Texas has three, California has two, and no known Clan wants to claim North Dakota at all…or didn’t, anyway. There are apparently rumors floating around that the Bakken oil boom attracted a few young shifters looking to set up their own territory, and at least one vam, but nobody’s been able to pin that down.”

I could see her processing that one. It didn’t take long. “Montana?”

“Yeah. Montana. Not counting us, there is a Clan there, all right, but it’s not well known. Not even the numbers. Kraznick referred to it as the Big Sky Clan, but even he doesn’t know what they call themselves. What information he has on them is pretty sketchy. Supposedly, they operate in and around the towns along Highway 93, from Columbia Falls and Kalispell on down through Missoula and on to Hamilton and Darby. But they’re even more secretive than most Talents, hiding so effectively that other Clans haven’t bothered to try taking them over because they quite literally can’t find them. Sort of a Ghost Clan.”

“Mighty close to home, though,” she observed.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Mighty close. But not aggressive, so they’re a problem for another day. We probably worry the Hell out of them, but I doubt the reverse needs to be true, at least for the moment. But there is something else that worries me more than a little, and that is…I haven’t told this to anyone, so Judi will probably let me have it for telling you first, but…there’s another reason I didn’t want Jack with us on this run.”

“What–you’re worried about Jack?”

“No.” I swallowed hard, screwed up my courage, and plunged ahead. “I’m afraid of me.”

The quiet in the truck cab lasted a full thirty seconds before Sissy spoke. “So…what worries you about you, big man?”

“Heh. Honey, you kind of hit the nail on the head. Big man. I’m afraid I might be getting too big for my britches. See, every time I’ve been anywhere near our resident Purple Fire Wizard when he’s let rip, I’ve…I guess the best way to put it is, I’ve started more and more to feel what he’s doing when he’s doing it. Scratch that; I’m starting to feel how he’s doing it. And a part of me is starting to think, hey, I could do that. I am Wizard; hear me roar.”

I risked a glance at my partner. Her brow was furrowed. “Tree…why would that be a bad thing? It would be one more weapon in our arsenal, and it’s not like we don’t need every weapon we can get. Or…you’ve got to be kidding me. You’re afraid you might go over to the Dark Side? Become a Dark Wizard?”

“Hey,” I answered with a straight face, “I’d almost have to. Think about it. If a black man became a White Wizard, he’d never hear the end of the Ku Klux Klan jokes!”

That caught her off guard. She tried to hold it in, but her laughter sputtered right on out there anyway. I found myself grinning ear to ear; it isn’t every day I catch Sissy that way.

The awareness hit without warning. “Shit!” I yelled, my grip on the wheel threatening to rip it apart. My eyes were flared wide, my head swiveling in an attempt to locate the threat as my consciousness shot out in every direction, seeking. Sissy didn’t waste any time asking dumb questions; if I was alarmed, she knew to look for danger right now. Part of me realized she was head-shifting rapidly, moving from one form to another, bear to eagle to cougar to long eared giant rabbit–nothing hears better than a giant bunny, believe me–and back to human. I was hyperventilating, on the verge of a panic attack.

I finally got it under control, though. “Can’t spot it yet. You?”

“Nothing,” she replied calmly. The road ahead was clear, the asphalt a clean strip between the white fields on either side. Not a cloud in the sky. No ambush that either of us could sense.

Time to explain. “We just passed the second dead skunk on the right shoulder in the last three miles.”

“Got it,” she said, and I knew she did. The skunk was not exactly my totem, but skunks and I did have strong connections. We always had, ever since a rabid young skunk came to me in the mountains to die in my arms, protected and loved at her passing, and had then reincarnated as our precious black and white Ruby kitten. Ruby cat these days, the mature queen of our household, adored by one and all but especially by me…and vice versa. Besides which, I read the Bullboards better than anybody else. That’s what my ex had called these signs from the Universe, signs that often shouted loudly to me but were ignored by others. Unless or until I pointed one out, at which point everybody in our current Inner Circle knew to pay attention.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know the full interpretation of two dead skunks, but I knew it was a warning. Two cute little stinkers had been smashed flat by speeding vehicles, both of them on the right? In the right? Something bad, some sort of bad news, was coming at us like a speeding bullet.

There was an exit coming up. I took it. There was a strip mall on one side, a gas station and restaurant on the other. We parked in the mall parking lot where we’d be less conspicuous while we tried to sort things out.

“Did you try your drone and/or satellite sensing?”

“Worth a try. I didn’t think of that.” After all, it was a new skill, hardly integrated into my skill set. Trusting my warrior woman to stand guard…okay, sit guard…I closed my eyes and settled back in the seat, sending my senses questing outward–and made contact almost immediately. “Holy–”


“Awesome suggestion, girl. I’m not sensing any satellites showing undue interest, but there’s a swarm of drones ahead. Not sure how far; I’m not that good at pinning the exact distance, but there must be…damn, it’s like a freaking cloud of mosquitoes…must be at least eight or ten of the things.”

“Stationary or moving this way?”

“Hm. Individually, they’re moving, buzzing around each other in some kind of swarming pattern, but overall…yeah, the swarm is basically hovering in one spot. I think.”

“Suggestion then, Boss. How be we move this truck on across the street and grab some coffee at that restaurant. Bet the locals will be talking about whatever that is.”

“One can hope.” The CB radio would have done it, but Jack and Philip were still working up the mil spec hardening against EMP’s before installing the blasted thing. It wasn’t going to us much good sitting back home.

At first, we were disappointed. We’d grabbed seats at the counter, which we almost never do since it puts our backs to most of the dining room. But the counter is where you hear the best gossip, both from the waitresses and the customers who can’t tell you’re listening because you’re not looking at them. I was on my second cup of coffee, Sissy still nursing her first, and had gone through most of a piece of lemon meringue pie without tasting it when we got our first break. A man in his forties breezed in, bellowing the news as he came.

“I was right, Effie! You owe me a steak dinner.”

The twenty-something who’d waited on us snapped right back. “I don’t owe you a thing, John Hollingsworth! What makes you think I do?”

“Hey,” John replied, sobering instantly and holding his palms up in mock surrender, “can’t blame me for trying. Anyway, the feds got a roadblock about nine miles down the road. Don’t know what they’re looking for, but I bet it’s terrorists. Some of those suicide vest, bomb toting Sharia types. Or maybe drugs. They got a good twenty cop cars down there, everything you can imagine. And dogs. They weren’t there when I went down to Gertie’s place, but traffic was already backed up a mile or more by the time I came back through. Suspicious bunch, too; they’re making some folks open their trunks, searching through everything.”

That got the whole room talking, but there wasn’t anything else of substance. We waited another few minutes, me slowly sipping my last cup of coffee so that we wouldn’t raise eyebrows by jumping up and leaving too quickly. Then we paid our tab, pulled back across the street into the mall parking lot, and Sissy started moving everything incriminating to the bed of the truck, being careful to shield the weapons with her body as she did so. By our normal standards, it wasn’t a difficult job. Heck, we’d left the RPG’s and C4 at home, hadn’t we?

In the meantime, I got out the magnetic signs that turned Jack’s Chevy into a Big Dog Farms company truck, attached them to both front doors, then checked the cab thoroughly one last time to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. Sissy was going to be a while, so I settled back in behind the wheel to think, projecting the aura of a typical lazy husband, letting his wife do all the real work. The federal roadblock wasn’t likely aimed at us, but that would hardly matter if they tumbled to the fact that we were toting a drugged Chinese national in a steel cage. The camper shell’s windows were tinted too darkly to reveal anything unless the people behind the badges told us to upen the hatch, but if that happened….

Worst of all, we didn’t know what kinds of dogs they had. At least we were American blacks–I was darker than Herman Cain and Sissy was usually PB, Presumed Black, though she had more Native American blood in her than African. Still, that was better than looking like Middle Eastern towel heads who prayed for the Caliphate five times a day with bombs up their butts. Then again, a bomb sniffing dog might well go on point over the ammunition, a human trafficking detector dog could possibly pick up on Cheng’s presence…the possibilities were endless.

Well, crap. If they did bust us for Cheng, we’d have to go the orange jumpsuit route and trust our hotshot Great Falls lawyers to clear us of the charges. It wouldn’t be easy, and Cheng was undoubtedly a better liar than Sissy and me put together, but we weren’t about to start shooting law enforcement officers who were simply doing their jobs. Especially with our weapons all stashed in the back, we weren’t.

Time to make a couple of calls. Surprisingly, the guy I most needed to reach was home on his day off; perhaps Lady Luck hadn’t deserted us quite yet. Sissy was ready, so I circled the truck one time to satisfy my OCD impulse, then fired the Silverado up and we hit the freeway, motoring straight into our personal version of Hell.

We could have tried hitting the back streets to sneak past the roadblock, but the odds weren’t in it. If we were locals, sure. But interstate travelers? Not a good idea. Part of that drone swarm was undoubtedly tasked with spotting exactly that sort of thing.

I was suddenly more than willing to risk going over to the Dark Side with a Wizard strike to take out those drones, but of course that was a pipe dream. You don’t go up against the A Team with a weapon you’ve never even tested. Besides, who knew? They might have Talents on site who could identify the source of a strike like that, even if I could do it.

The feds could undoubtedly smell fear, but that, at least, would be no problem. Now that we’d identified the threat, at least in general, both of us were dead calm. We’d seen so much action over the years that a possibly disastrous roadblock with jail time attached didn’t even register on our Doom Scale. In fact, we had to be careful, make sure we ginned up just the right amount of strained patience, frustration by two good American citizens (which we were, in our opinions) who understood and appreciated what our civil servants were doing but didn’t want to be late for whatever.

We’d gotten back on the freeway pretty quickly; the line was only backed up for about two miles by the time we slowed and then stopped to take our place in the queue.

Sissy wasn’t saying anything, and I didn’t have anything to say. I did keep myself busy, though, practicing my new drone sensing skill and also working with the what-if thought of a good, hard Black Fire strike at those same drones. I was careful not to aim any of those pretend strikes at a person, though; more folks can sense such thoughts than most of us realize.

The irony of picturing my potential Wizardy Talent as Black Fire when we were hauling a prisoner full of evil darkness was not lost on me.

When it was finally our turn, pulling up to the STOP area just vacated by a Cadillac Escalade, I had my window down and my shades off. Cops often hide their eyes behind shades, but they tend to get nervous and suspicious if they can’t see your eyes. I didn’t ask any dumb questions, but I didn’t avoid eye contact, either. I hadn’t spotted his agency designation and didn’t dare dart my eyes around for it. The big man who eyeballed me back was whiter than chalk on a blackboard and, I thought, might well be more than a tad biased against what he saw as an uppity nigger–but I kept my expression as mellow and helpful as I possibly could. Going all shifty-eyed was a sure way to find myself ordered out of the truck, just because.

“Where you headed?”

This guy got right down to business. “Big Dog Convention in Pennsylvania,” I replied proudly.

“That right?”

“Yes sir.” I couldn’t help the “sir” part. It just slipped out. Damned automatic reaction.

“Would that be the Big Dogs of War, the Big Dogs Electronics, or what?” His tone was just this side of snide, clearly disbelieving and clearly attempting to rattle me.

“No sir.” I pretended confusion. “Big Dog Dogs. Like, you know, Great Danes and Great Pyrenees and Newfoundlands and such. My Prince is a last minute entry, but I really think he’s got a chance.”

“Your Prince?”


“Well now, sir,” he said, hooking his thumbs in his belt in the way of law enforcement officers everywhere who opt for arrogance over training. If he did that while facing the wrong man, he’d be dead before he could de-belt his oversized thumbs. “I don’t see any big dog in the cab there with you. Would that mean you’ve got him in the back? Because if you do, sir, it’s mighty cold out here today. That might just add up to animal endangerment, and while I’m not in animal control, that could present a problem.”

“Oh, yes sir. I mean, no sir.”

His gaze sharpened. I noticed his eyes were kind of gray with blue flecks, and bloodshot. It was obvious he thought he had me now, probable cause to search the bed of the truck. “Which is it,” he demanded, “yes or no?”

“Um, sir, it’s both. I mean, yes, Prince is back there, but no, he’s not endangered. He likes it cold.”

It looked like I was going to be one of the drivers who held up the line after all. “Get out of the truck, sir,” he ordered, “and open up the hatch.” I saw marbles rolling around in his little pea brain as he added, “Please.”

“Sure.” I opened the door and stepped out, moving carefully, keeping both hands in sight. There were lots of other officers around; who knew when a guy might get shot for accidentally being black. Or white. Or green with purple polka dots. A lot of law enforcement folks are mighty twitchy these days. Not that I entirely blame them. I made a show of finding the right key for the lock, turned the latch, and lifted it open, revealing a rather unrevealing wall of black shag carpet, hung across the opening.

“Step away from the truck, sir.”

I did. His thumbs still hooked in his belt–I decided the presence of so many of his fellow law enforcement types must make him feel extra safe–he stepped forward and pushed at the carpet, interested in seeing what I was hiding behind it.


Sissy makes a mighty fine Newfoundland dog. The largest male on record weighed something like 260 pounds. She didn’t quite manage that, but with all of our ordnance strapped about her body when she shifted, she came close enough. It was a startled woof at being poked while asleep, perfectly acted, nothing hostile about it, but the officer nearly fell on his ass anyway. It’s a good thing he didn’t; the humiliation might have forced him to take drastic action against us. As it was, I was able to pretend I hadn’t notice his backward stutter-step or the way he nearly broke his own right thumb before getting it free of his belt and onto the grip of his service pistol.

Thank God he didn’t actually pull the weapon. If he’d tried to shoot my dog, I’d have had to kill him and all bets would have been off. I flashed on the headline.


“See?” I said, dripping innocence. “Prince really does like it cold. It’s when it gets hot that we have to be careful. I’m hoping to buy a van for the summer dog show circuit. One with strong air conditioning.”

The giant Newfie smiled, lolling his tongue out at us. As it turned out, that was the right thing to do.

“Now that,” the cop said–I thought his patch was Homeland Security, but it was almost too subtle to see at all–“is a dog!”

“Beautiful, isn’t he?” I grinned back at Sissy.

“He is, sir. I have to say, he really is. I’m not a longhair dog person myself, got a couple of Dobies at home. But yessir, that is as you said, one fine cold weather dog.”

We almost couldn’t get away then; the officer insisted on stepping back up to Prince and petting him, talking up a blue streak about dogs. But it never crossed his mind to ask what might be behind the dog filling the back end of the truck bed. I didn’t know how to match up the warning the skunks had given us with an arrogant yet dog loving Homeland Security cop, but by the time the massive roadblock was in our rear view mirror, I was pretty sure we were in the clear. We didn’t even see a single sniffer dog in our lane, though two German Shepherds were working the westbound lanes. I reminded myself to call the Big Dog Convention, first thing tomorrow; Prince’s entry would have to be cancelled. It had been worth the extra effort, though; the dog loving cop might have called the show to see if my story checked out.

It was another twenty-seven miles down the road to a Rest Area. Fortunately, there was a parking spot where I could let Prince out without being seen. The huge dog shifted, morphing back into my beloved–and extremely well armed–Sissy in two point three seconds. I timed her with the stopwatch. The Newfie form wasn’t one of her fastest, being pretty new; she could pretty much blur in and out of black bear, eagle, and cougar forms at this stage of the game.

“Ew-w-w-w!” She wrinkled her nose up something fierce. “He petted me!”

“What can I say,” I laughed aloud. “You’re such an irresistible charmer, who could resist you?” I wasn’t about to tell her I’d had to fight down a stab of jealousy when he’d done that.

“Yeah, well.” She shuddered but then let it go. “Good thing he wasn’t a cat person.”