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Get that needy little face away from me. I'm onto you, Rusty." Glancing at the worn-out analog watch that was never off her wrist except when she was showering, Officer Ashley St. James shook her head as she moved about her small bedroom, trying to get ready for work. "I've got just enough time to put your breakfast out, so stop dancing around trying to trip me or I'm going to be lateand I can't afford to be late again this month. The lieutenant is not a forgiving man, understand?"
Two sets of eyes looked up at her, and it seemed for all the world as if the creatures behind those eyes were hanging on her every word.
Ashley knew better.
Rusty and his cohort in crime only heard what they wanted to hear. Right now, what they both appeared to want to hear was simply the sound of her voice. They didn't want her to leave. They wanted her to stay and play with them.
She only wished she could oblige.
"Out of my way, boys," Ashley ordered, sweeping past the furry duo and making her way to the kitchen. Her entourage followed swiftly in her wake. Anticipation, Ashley could tell, was in the air.
Her routine was second nature to her. Quickly distributing equal amounts of food between two bowls, Ashley carried them over to the corner of the kitchen where the two dogs she'd rescued always ate.
Ordinarily that would be enough for Olympic-speed chewing to begin. But this morning, the two canines she shared her home with seemed far more interested in surrounding herthereby outnumbering herand loudly protesting the fact that she was just about to leave the house.
When they barked like that, they sounded more like a pack of dogs than just two.
Ashley put her hands on her hips and gave each culprit a look that was meant to silence them. "C'mon, guys, no more fooling aroundor there'll be no treats when I get home."
That, she noted with no small satisfaction, combined with her I'm-not-kidding look, seemed to do the trick. The two dogs immediately stopped barking and turned their attention to the bowls brimming with food as a consolation prize.
"It's not that I don't appreciate the love and affection, I do," she told them, rushing around the kitchen, attempting to restore it to reasonable order before she left.
If there was anything she couldn't stand, it was a messy kitchen. Coming home to one after her shift was over was downright disheartening to her. And she would only have herself to blame if it was in a total state of chaos. Initially the dogs, both of which she'd rescued once it was clear that each had been abandoned by their former owners, had no problem showing their displeasure if she did something they weren't happy about. They soon learned that pulling open the bottom drawer of her bureau and dragging it clear across the first floor, then emptying its contents and making a home in her underwear, was not acceptable.
Still, she could tell that they really wanted her to stay. That was what she got for spending the weekend catering to them and playing with them. They took to that instantly and seemed to think it was going to be like that from then on.
She only wished they were right. But life wasn't that simple.
"I know, I know, if it was up to you, we'd all hang out together and I'd never leave the house. But if that happened, how would I earn the money to feed you two gluttonous creatures, never mind getting it to the house? The pet store doesn't make deliveries."
In response to her question, the dogs just continued eating as if the food before them was about to vanish at any second.
"I swear," Ashley murmured, glancing at the empty bowls, "if I hadn't just had you two checked out by the police department's vet, I would bet anything that you're both at the mercy of a couple of tapeworms." She paused to pet the dog closest to her, a golden Labrador that looked as if he'd been deliberately shrunk in the wash. He certainly didn't look overweight. "Where do you put it, Rusty?" she mused.
Not to be left out, Dakota, a five-year-old German shepherd, ducked under her hand and pushed it with his head, moving it away from the Labrador. He took the lion's share of her hand for himself.
Ashley laughed. "Certainly make your wishes well known, don't you, boy?" she asked.
In response, the German shepherd continued nuzzling her. Not to be outdone, the Labrador circled around to her other side. He was definitely lobbying for a space beside her.
Time to go, she thought, rising to her feet.
"Okay, guys, I'm serious now. You heard me. Back up." The German shepherd responded to her sharp tone while the Labrador, as if convinced that she was only being blustery for form's sake, not only didn't back up out of her way, but licked her fingertips.
"Sorry, not going to work this time, Dakota. If I'm ever going to work my way out of the Animal Control Division and into some kind of investigative department, I can't show up late. Can you just hear the excuse if they ask me why I didn't come in when I was supposed to?
"'Why are you late, Officer St. James?' 'Because my dogs wouldn't let me leave my house.'" She pressed her lips together, attempting to look as if she was frowningas if she could ever be mad at her pets. "Not exactly something someone working in Animal Control should really admit to, is it?" she asked her dogs.
The German shepherd barked as if he agreed with her. At least, that was the way she wanted to interpret his bark. For once, Rusty abstained from the debate.
Ashley grinned. "I know why you're doing it, you know. You're trying to keep me home because you're just afraid I'm going to bring home another stray." She ran a hand over each of the dogs. They constituted her only family, as well as her best friends. "Even if I did, that doesn't mean I'd stop caring about you two. You're my whole world. Now take those cute little butts and get them out of my way," Ashley instructed.
One more glance at her watch told her that she was really going to have to hustle to get to the police station on time.
"See you guys tonight," she called over her shoulder as she went out the front door. "And don't give the mail carrier a heart attack if he comes up to the front door to leave a package," she warned. "The poor guy's just doing his job."
Leaving, Ashley paused to lock the front door. Not that she really had to. For its size, Aurora was deemed to be one of the safer cities in the country, but even if it wasn't, she was confident that the sound of Dakota barking up a storm would be more than enough to convince any would-be burglar that it would be a lot smarter to break into another house instead of this one.
Still, it was a habit she'd developed years ago, making sure that whatever was hersthough at the time her possessions had been less than meagerremained hers.
Back then, the only thing she'd had of any worth, really, was the watch she still wore. The old Timex was the only link she had to her pastthe only thing she had to prove she even had a past. The woman who'd run the home that she'd continuously been sent back to from the time she was four had told her that they'd thought the watch belonged to her father, but that they weren't certain. The only thing they'd known was that when they'd found her, she was playing with it.
She'd been discovered sitting on the ground, near the charred remains of a vehicle that had gone off the road, killing the other two occupants of the car, presumably before the car burst into flames. The only reason she had survived was that she'd been thrown clear of the vehicle, sustaining a head injury that had knocked her out for the worst of the fire.
Another couple had called the police to report the accident. The responding officers had taken her to social services. She actually thought she had a vague recollection of a tall officer picking her up and carrying her to the squad car. She recalled the scent of something that smelled like mint.
Since she'd obviously survived the fire untouched, someone at social services had thought it might be clever to call her AshleyAsh for short. She had no real surname because no ID of any kind had been found on either of the two victims in the car, both of whom had been burned beyond recognition. Consequently, social services had whimsically bestowed a surname on her. She'd been discovered on the last day of March, so she'd become Ashley March.
The moment she'd turned eighteenor what someone at social services believed might be her eighteenth birthdayshe'd left the system, and her surname, behind. Having grown accustomed to her first name, she'd christened herself Ashley St. James, James from the name engraved on the back of the oversize watch she was never without.
Squaring her shoulders, Ashley hurried to her used car, ready to face her day.
There were days when she did nothing but drive up and down the peaceful streets of Aurora, searching for strays, birds that had fallen out of nests and couldn't fly and the occasional unlucky animal that had discovered it didn't pay to cross the road when a car was coming.
This morning, however, right after she'd consumed her first cup of tea, her superior, Lieutenant Rener, summoned her into his office.
Wondering if she was about to be given a lecture on the virtues of arriving on timeshe had made it by the skin of her teeth, but it was close and the lieutenant was a stickler for disciplineAshley crossed the threshold with a warm, friendly smile on her face. She'd learned a long time ago to mask every thought, every feeling she had with a smile.
"Officer St. James reporting, sir," she announced the moment she stepped into the lieutenant's rather small office.
Lieutenant Rener barely looked in her direction, acknowledging her presence with a curt nod. He held out an address for her. When she took it, he told her, "Someone called in a disturbance."
That seemed like it should be more under the jurisdiction of the police department that dealt with people, not animals. But for the time being, Ashley held her peace, confident that if an explanation for rerouting this to animal services was in the offing, she would hear it soon enough.
"A woman called to complain about a barking dog," Rener told her.
She glanced at the address. It was for an apartment complex nearby. They were garden apartments, if she recalled correctly. Garden or not, it was still people living on top of each other, she thought, suppressing a shiver. She'd had all she could stand of close quarters during her foster family dayswhich was why every penny she'd earned had gone toward buying a house. She'd lived on ketchup soup and mustard sandwiches until she could finally afford to put down a down payment on a place of her own. Her house was tinya forty-five-year-old house with three small bedrooms and a postage-stamp-size backyard. It was clear that the place needed work. But it was all hers.
"How long has it been barking?" she asked her supervisor.
"According to the woman who called in with the complaint, all morning." He looked up from the report he was going over. "Go see what you can find out. If the owner's there and the dog's been abused or looks like he's been badly neglected, put the fear of God into them. Tell the owner if you have to come out again, the dog comes back with you," he told her as if she was a rookie and didn't know the drill by heart. "Can't have the good citizens of Aurora listening to nonstop barking."
Ashley couldn't tell if the lieutenant was being sarcastic, droll or was actually on the level with his comment.
"Yes, sir," she said, beginning to ease out of the office. "Anything else?"
She said it for form's sake. She really didn't expect the man to say anything more. But he did and it was equally as unnecessary as what he'd just told her.
"Yeah. If the owner's not around, have the complex manager unlock the apartment for you and bring the animal in with you."
Ashley resisted the very real temptation to roll her eyes at the instruction, which she found to be rather insulting. At the very least, it told her that the lieutenant was not paying any attention to her as an employee. She was good at her job, needed next to no instructions and animals seemed to respond to her because she got along better with them than she did the people she had to work with.
People had secrets, they had petty jealousies, they had agendas. With animals, what she saw was what she got. She liked that a lot better.
"Yes, sir," she murmured as she left Rener's office and closed the door behind her.