Arianna was enthralled by the opera. The tragedy had reached its peak and the poor man center stage was wailing. His voice sounded as though it had been carved from the trunk of a burnished oak tree and those sobs as she could catch gushing in its margins were raindrops gliding down his outstretched branches. She was perched on the edge of her seat, drinking it all in, when she choked. Sheltered under the moan of the singer below, the man rooting around in her purse was practically silent. But the clink of her handcuffs were too familiar, too frighteningly foreign in this cultured place. She whirled on the man, her hands become claws, only to have them locked inside her own handcuffs. The man put a finger to his grinning lips and ushered her out of the box.

Once they were ensconced in one of the hall’s various drawing rooms, the man took his hands off the chain that bound her wrists and slid her purse onto a tall table of wilting flowers. “I apologize for this interruption, Miss Thoomesto,” he said.

“Really, Mr. Studdard!” she said in as violent a whisper as she dared.

He flourished the key to her handcuffs in his dirty fingernails. “Ma’am, believe me, I hate to see a client in handcuffs, and I certainly hate to be the one to snap ’em on. However,” he let the key disappear inside his tight fist, “what exactly you’re doing with a set of bracelets like these is a question that bears answering.”

“Give me the key at once!” she hissed.

“Those sigils engraved in the metal, do you know what they mean?” Charlie Ben Studdard pointed to the whorls and eyes that ran round the clasps.

“The key!” she hissed. Her glare was insolent and seemed capable of igniting all manner of refuse in the detective’s pockets. But he stood his wary ground and his tobacco and receipts remained cool as old coffee. Finally the girl bit her lip and seated herself on a striped settee. “Fine,” she said. “Yes, the sigils make the metal unbreakable, even for wild creatures. As I’m sure you know.”

“Oh really,” said Charlie amiably. He tossed her the key. “Like if, say, a young woman were to misplace her anti-curse amulet and needed a way to restrain herself on the next full moon.”

Arianna unlocked her handcuffs in gruff silence.

“Miss Thoomesto, you’re still my client and I’m still on the case. That is, if you’ll consider this tête-à-tête a justifiable expense – opera ushers tend to consider themselves above common bribes. But I need the facts. I’m not good enough to do this on my lonesome.”

Her heels scuffed over the carpet and she tossed the cuffs inside her purse, along with the key, and snapped it shut. She tucked the purse under her arm and addressed every corner of the room before she’d meet his eyes. “If you consider kidnapping your own client and hurling such accusations at her professional behavior, Mr. Studdard, I’m inclined to agree. You can keep the retainer and consider yourself excused from this case.” She whirled on her heel and went to reenter the hall.

He caught her elbow and she whirled back, locked into his arms and pinned under his mud-stained fedora. He smelled of old and new tobacco and in his eyes was the last mischievous gleam of a dying joke. “No, I’m not known for my professional behavior,” he said.

She didn’t slap him for she could not remove her arms from his grasp, but she looked very near to biting the nose off his face. “Unhand me,” she said.

“What’s between you and Senator Kinbote?”

“We were lovers,” she said.

“Is that true?”

“There are few ways to become a werewolf, Mr. Studdard. I didn’t bite the man out of caprice.”

Charlie held her tight to him until the heat in her chest grew wings that spread out his back. “That doesn’t answer my question in the slightest,” he said.

“I just admitted to you that I’m a werewolf,” she said. “You know the senator is, otherwise you wouldn’t be here with what passes for your straight face. I have the handcuffs, I have a basement with a padlock, but every month I become something so awful no prison in the city is sure to keep me from hurting someone. And I have spent several years without having to lock myself in a cage like some animal. So, Mr. Studdard, if it’s more money you want, if you’re still on the case, in your unprofessional capacity, fine. I want my necklace back. Whether the senator and I were lovers or he simply took what he wanted from me…isn’t your business.”

Charlie’s hands slipped from the small woman’s body and she took her time pulling her silk blouse and skirt back into their appropriate coordinates. Charlie gazed at that map with the diligence of a cartographer. “No, I don’t want more money,” he said finally. “Surprises are why I got into this business.”

“I rather expect,” she said, “it’s because no other business will have you.”

He tipped his hat to her and led the way out of the drawing room. “May I borrow your handcuffs?” he asked.

“The next full moon is in a week. Can you guarantee the talisman in my hand before then?”

“Ma’am,” said Charlie, “on my life.”

On that point he was absolutely right.

For more Charlie Ben Studdard & the Amulet Caper:

Part 4Part 5Part 6

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