Trash Queen by Mandy Rosko

 

1

"I dare you to steal his wallet."

Trisha glanced in the direction where Cindy nodded. She shouldn't have bothered, because, of course, it was Mr. Stick-Up-His-Ass. He was doing his rounds through the Furry United Coalition Academy cafeteria while Trisha and the rest of the prisoners—sorry, guests—ate their meals.

Trisha wasn't so much shocked by the dare as she was intrigued. "Do you want me to go into quarantine?" A prospect that Trisha didn't actually fear.

Cindy grinned, and the scales across her cheeks, forehead, and neck flashed like her wide eyes did. "You won't go into quarantine if you don't get caught. And if you do, it's payback for all those nights you keep the nightlight on."

"I don't turn on any nightlights." Trisha had been accused of many things, but she wasn't about to let Cindy get away with accusing her of being afraid of the dark.

"Uh-huh, sure. So, are you gonna do it?"

Trisha bit down on a smile, bringing her straw to her lips. She glanced back at the target, but she was careful to keep herself from staring too long. The wolf always seemed to know when she was looking, and she was probably already making him super suspicious.

"He keeps his wallet in his back pocket," Trisha said. Not that she knew that because she had been paying attention to his...ahem, assets, or anything like that. It was just something she’d noticed.

Cindy had noticed that Trisha noticed as well, it seemed. "Yup, I thought I would give you a treat while you did the job."

Trisha snorted then had to quickly catch the glass she nearly knocked over with the long, tough horn protruding from her face.

An unwanted and unnatural appendage that wasn't quite in the exact middle of her forehead but close enough, and it was a pain in the ass. Because of it, she was stuck in the FUC facility, unable to go out into the "normal" world. She was too obviously a cryptid.

She was starting to miss the days when the rats back at the lab would file it down for her. They hadn't been too gentle about it, but that was preferable to waking up with it bigger and bigger every day. At least, at the lab, she never had to worry about knocking something over or accidentally whacking a friend with it.

It made this wallet-snatching challenge more complicated. Trisha had yet to take something from right off someone's body.

Trisha and Cindy had made a game out of Trisha's expert thieving ability to keep themselves entertained in the lab, and it had continued after they'd been "rescued" and moved to FUCN'A. Normally, her exploits involved unlocking doors and pilfering through the trash to see if there was anything juicy left behind.

Not the smelly or slimy kind of juicy. She also didn't care about plans for world domination or anything. What she really liked was gossip that she could hold over her jailers—now FUC agents—and drop little hints here and there that she knew their secrets. It always made for fun reactions.

The second-best kind of thievery was for yummy snacks. She'd break into a kitchen and raid a pantry for much less than a dare.

She rubbed her stomach, thinking about the homemade cookies that she could always find when she was back at the lab. She'd never found out who made them, but they sure were delicious…

"Earth to Trisha," Cindy said, snapping her fingers. "You wait any longer, and your target's gonna be gone."

"I don't know if I can do it," Trisha replied, pointing to her horn.

"Come on, you know you want to. It's more exciting than your flop of a watch trick yesterday."

The last thing Trisha had taken was a pocket watch off the desk of one of the FUCN'A professors. She’d really thought excitement would follow, seeing as it was the first item of value that had gone missing, but as of yet, there had been no sign that anyone cared.

By now, back at the lab, they would have pulled everyone out of their puny cells and lined them up against the wall while they tossed everything. Then, when they found the item in Trisha's possession, they would have kicked in her head a little.

Nothing of the sort seemed to be happening at FUCN'A. Did the owner not notice it was gone yet? Or did they just think they misplaced it or left it at home? Either way, it made the whole thing uneventful.

"I was really already booked today, seeing as I need to follow up and return the watch." She hadn't stolen it because she needed it or needed to sell it for money—not like they'd let her off grounds to go to a pawnshop anyway.

No, Trisha took things to test her skills, to keep herself trained. Unless it was food, she had no interest in keeping what she'd taken.

And her desire to steal food was minimal lately, seeing how FUCN'A served much better meals than the lab did.

"Are you going to do it or not?" Cindy asked.

"I'm thinking." Trisha snuck another glance at Agent Sourpuss, pointing her horn down and using her peripheral vision while she nibbled on bacon and eggs.

"Chicken."

"I'll do it, but I'm going to finish eating first."

Cindy nodded, understanding. So far, none of the lab rescues had been punished by having their food taken away and meals withheld, but there was a first time for everything. It was important to have a full stomach before you did something that might leave you hungry for a week.

After she wolfed down the last of her cold eggs, bacon, and toast, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and stood. "Watch and learn."

"Always do," Cindy said, a satisfied shit-disturber grin settling on her face.

Cindy was a little younger than Trisha, and though the lab had strictly outlawed friendships, the two of them had somehow managed to become just that. Between the ban on idle chatter and the fact that Cindy spent the majority of her life in the lab in a giant fish tank, they had barely spoken to one another but nonetheless had formed a bond, using mostly gestures to work out Trisha's exploits.

Needless to say, when they were moved to FUCN'A and could finally speak freely, the chatter seemed to never stop.

There was another reason Trisha needed to keep her skills sharp. She needed to be able to get her and Cindy the hell out of there when the chance arose.

Just because things at the academy seemed more comfortable than at the lab didn't mean it was safe to stay there long term. Sure, there weren't guards and scientists who yelled at them, beat them, starved them, or experimented on them, but the fact that they weren't allowed to leave was a bit of a problem as far as Trisha was concerned.

Pickpocketing a wallet was good practice for when she needed to nab some keys to freedom off of someone in the future.

She went to the bathroom first to wash her hands. Her target was a wolf shifter. She was still learning about how this whole shifter thing worked, but she knew enough by now to be aware that they had a killer sense of smell.

The shampoo and soap they were given around there weren't scented, but now it was time to get the smell of eggs and bacon off her. Would the fact that the whole cafeteria smelled that way throw him off? She couldn't be sure.

Stepping out of the bathroom not two minutes later, Trisha surveyed her surroundings.

Actually, this might not be something she could do without him noticing her. She caught her reflection in the mirror. The horn went out at an angle, about the length of her hand. Super noticeable. And super in the way of the usual pickpocket strategy, which was to get up close and be unnoticed by the target.

So, she was going to have to stick her hand into his pants and steal his wallet while he was looking right at her.

She was going to have to talk to him.

Suddenly realizing the trap she'd fallen into, Trisha shot a glare to Cindy. The little brat blew a kiss her way and waved innocently. She'd been insisting for a while now that Trisha had a thing for the wolf.

Trisha could still back out. That was right. What was she so scared of? She didn't have to do anything she didn't want to anymore, and she could back out whenever she pleased. She was in control here. Not the big, bad wolf over there, not Cindy, and not the people who experimented on her—FUC had taken care of them.

Just to prove that she wasn't about to be so easily manipulated, Trisha almost said to hell with it and went back to her table to finish the last of her juice.

But then...no. Why not? If Cindy was doing this to get a reaction out of her, or even to prove that she might be too chicken to talk to the guy, then Trisha was going to have to show her who was really in charge.

Not just in charge, but confident. Cool.

Sexy.

Trisha went for it. She'd seen the way Wolfy had been looking at her, and yeah, she and Cindy might have joked about it, making guesses about whether or not he was really into her—and it was so nice to be thinking about guys in the context of being in control and not worrying about catching the attention of the wrong guard with the wandering hands—but this was going to be epic because she was actually doing it.

Shoulders back, walk like you own the place, and now he can see you, but that's all right because the horn in the middle of your forehead doesn't make you look like a freak.

It makes you look like a magical goddess.

"Hi there."

He eyed her, dark eyes curious, but his face held firm like a brick wall. "Can I help you with something?"

She didn't let her smile falter, despite being so close to his damned good looks. He walked and talked so stiffly, but it made her wonder what it would take to get him to loosen up.

"Well?"

"Oh, right, we're talking." Trisha cleared her throat, inwardly chastising herself for just a simple mistake, but she easily slipped back into character.

Which was simple enough considering she really did like flirting with him.

"I was just wondering, since I'm new to this and all, so please don't be offended if I ask anything or say something that I'm not supposed to—"

"You won't say anything that would offend me."

She paused. "Really?"

"Of course not. You're recovering from a traumatic event, and you're new to the shifter world. I would understand if you said anything untoward without intending."

"Right, well, thanks for that." It was a nice thing to hear. Not that she was overly concerned, but all the same, even when he was trying to be comforting, he came off as kind of robotic.

He was so lucky he was this good-looking. Like Chris Hemsworth had dyed his hair a darker color.

Trisha had a thing for guys with dark hair and eyes, and it wasn't that she could remember too much of her life before the lab, but being able to talk to a man, make small conversation, and feel comfortable about it felt nice.

Had she done this before? In her old life?

"Anyway," she said, getting back into it. She glanced over at Cindy, who watched the whole thing as though she were watching her favorite soap opera. "I was just wondering, are you single?"

Thatfinally got a reaction out of him. Trisha was pleased to see his dark eyes widen, brows shooting up to his hairline like they were strapped to rockets. She got the impression he was one of those guys who prided himself on not getting surprised by much of anything.

But she got him."Single?" he asked, as though unsure he'd heard her right.

Trisha bounced from heel to toe. "Yeah, single." She stepped closer, getting into his space but careful to keep her head turned away from him.

Now she was in her groove. There had been a mild hiccup at the start, but now she was in her groove.

Pressing her finger to his chest, Trisha played the part of an eager, yet inexperienced flirt.

Which was sort of true since she wasn't entirely sure what her experience was.

"I know this is a little strange, and you probably hear this all the time, but I've seen you around ever since I was brought here, and I think you're nice to look at." Trisha leaned toward him, keeping her left finger on his chest to keep his attention there while her right hand reached around to his back pocket. She looked up into his eyes, careful to keep the horn from poking him somewhere important. It wouldn't exactly be romantic if she got him in the eye with it.

All the while, he didn't move. He kept staring down at her, his attention focused, which was exactly what Trisha wanted.

"I mean it's kind of boring around here. I know everyone's trying to keep us entertained, but I was just thinking that you're cute and I wouldn't mind getting to know you better, you know? Maybe we can get a coffee some time?"

"I think I have an idea," he said and then, shockingly, smiled down at her.

Hot damn. Trisha paused for a moment to appreciate it. The shine of light off his teeth was nearly blinding.

"You want to get to know me better?"

Uh-oh. That looked like his bullshit detector was going off. Everyone had one, and some people's worked better than others, but everyone also had a look they gave off when it tingled.

Suddenly, she couldn't get any words out of her mouth.

Trisha swallowed.

"I mean, yeah, I figured I could find a way to thank you. I mean, you were on the team that helped to set us free, right?"

She reminded herself to keep her hand moving. There might be a couple other people in the cafeteria who saw what she was doing. That was fine. They were her peeps and weren't going to rat her out, but if she failed at her task, they were sure as hell going to make sure she didn't forget it either.

"No, I wasn't there," he said, shocking her. "I'm not a regular FUC agent. I'm just a security contractor."

She'd thought he had been, though she couldn't explain why.

"Oh."

"Does that disappoint you?"

She thought about it. "No. I guess not."

"So, you don't want to thank me anymore?"

Shit.

"I do. I mean you do so much for us already. You're keeping us safe, so that's something worth thanking you for."

"Then, maybe you could just thank me instead of trying to make off with my wallet."

Her hand froze. He reached back and, with an iron grip, snatched her wrist, stopping her before she could yank her hand back and pretend to be innocent.

Which didn't stop her from trying to pull away. "I wasn't trying to take your wallet."

"Yes, you were."

He looked angry. He looked really pissed off, and that made Trisha all the more fearful.

Memories of her time in the lab came flooding back. Punishments for any pranks she'd played on the guard or scientists. The beatings she'd taken for stealing cracker boxes and hiding them under her cot.

Panic rushed through her, and the man in front of her vanished, replaced with someone in a white lab coat.

They weren't in the food court of the FUC Academy anymore either. They were in a large cement room with multiple picnic tables filled with other prisoners trying to keep their heads down and stay as small and unnoticeable as possible.

She felt herself begin to tremble and knew she was shrinking down, trying to get small so the beatings had less area to hit.

"I'm sorry. I won't do it again." She tried to slide her hand out of his grip, tried to put some distance between them, but he wouldn't let her go. "I won't do it again."

Trisha felt like she was falling into something. Tunnel vision took over, and she couldn't focus on anything other than the desperate need to get away.

"If you were a regular citizen, just another shifter, I could have you arrested for trying to steal from a FUC agent."

"I know, I know. I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."

His grip was still iron tight, the same as the day she'd been taken out of her regular life and put into the lab. She could see the figure shrouded in darkness, who had a similar steely grip.

"Hey, you all right? Look at me. Come on."

"I won't do it again. I won't do it again." She knew she was speaking quickly and taking short gulps of air. She couldn't see the figures around her, but she knew everyone was looking. It would be okay... She would take her punishment and live to pull another stunt another day. She just had to brace herself for what was coming.

"Breathe. Come on. You're all right." His measured tough-guy voice had softened, his grip released her wrist, and he guided her to a chair, gently pressing her onto it.

Some of the blackness cleared, and she could see him in front of her, knelt down. As he instructed her to breathe, she started to come back to herself. It was his voice that did it. As though she was following the sound of it through a heavy fog. Finding her way back to civilization.

Odd how that worked.

She could see him. The man in front of her wasn't wearing a white lab coat. The sun was coming in through the windows in the cafeteria; they were clearly not underground in a dingy, cement bunker, though, for a few terrible seconds, she'd been convinced she was back in that place.

And the idea of it terrified her so much more than she’d thought it would.

Trisha thought she would have been braver, especially now that she was out. If anything, it seemed getting her freedom made her more terrified of the possibility of having to go back.

"Are you all right? Do you know where you are?"

She blinked and then blinked again. The floor was no longer tilting beneath her feet, and the vision of the mysterious figure who’d grabbed her faded. Not that there had been much to see. She couldn't remember his face and only recalled that he was a shadow.

But now she could see with embarrassing clarity how everyone in the cafeteria was looking at her. Cindy had gotten out of her seat. She wasn't right beside Trisha, but only a few feet away, as if she had been on her way and stopped.


Trisha looked at them and then back at the big guy in front of her.

The big bad wolf was holding both of her hands in his while kneeling in front of her, as though she were a delicate butterfly about to shudder apart.

And everyone saw it.

She did not like that.

Trisha yanked away from him, standing and backing away. This time, he didn't fight her.

"Right, well, I was just playing a prank. I wasn't actually trying to steal your stupid wallet. So can I go now?"

Not exactly smooth, but she needed to get out of there and away from all the curious, concerned, and amused stares. She'd shared a prison with them. They'd thought she was the brave one.

"Yeah, you go on ahead if you're finished eating."

She was definitely finished eating, and it was best to hightail it out of there before Wolfy changed his mind. It was strange enough that he was letting her go, but she wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Walking out of there, head held high, Trisha was just going to pretend that had gone exactly as she expected it to go, that no one watched her as she left, and that she didn't desperately want to break into a run.

And she was definitely going to ignore the fact that her wrist burned with an odd sensation where Wolfy had grabbed her.