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Unleashed, Page 2

Katie MacAlister

  He took a step back from me as if I were already contaminated by cat. “I suppose you’re right. Although it seems a shame to waste such a perfect opportunity for discussing the plans I have for your region—”

  “Another time!” I said, giving him a toothy smile as I pushed Cora through the open door and hurried through it.

  “Wow. You’re right. He is a creep. Likes Latina women, indeed!” Cora huffed as we headed out to the car lot where the state trucks were located. “You should totally be reporting his ass to the HR people for sexual harassment.”

  “So long as he’s not openly hitting on me, I can live with it,” I murmured as I signed out a truck.

  “Hrmph. So I get to see a cougar up close and personal?” she asked, plopping down into the truck.

  “Only from a distance.” I scooted in behind the steering wheel and opened my laptop to fire up an incident report, filling in the information from the voice mail. “You can stay in the truck and see the cat from there.”

  “Aw, Jas!”

  “It’s too dangerous,” I said, typing up a brief summary. “I have no idea what sort of a state the cougar is in. It could be hurt, and very dangerous for someone who doesn’t know how to handle one.”

  “Keep up that tone of superiority, and I’ll start calling you kitty, too,” she answered, crossing her arms and glaring out the window as I closed the laptop and stared at the truck.

  Luckily, Cora had never been one to hold a snit for long. She was silent for all of five minutes. “Right, so you’re a cat whisperer. Got that.”

  “I’m not any such thing.”

  “And you go out and rescue people who have been attacked by bears and cougars and stuff. Got that, too.”

  “More like I rescue the animals from people.”

  “But what I don’t get is why they’re calling you in for an animal shelter. Yes, it’s a cougar, but I mean, can’t they just open the door and shoo it out?”

  “It’s part of my job to deal with any sort of a nuisance animal, be it deer and elk grazing on valuable crops, or the more dangerous beasties that end up in human areas due to encroaching development on the little habitat left to them. So no, they can’t just open the door and shoo it. I will have to sedate it, and, after an examination, will take it to a release area deep in the mountains where it will hopefully keep away from further contact with humans.”

  “Bet that drives your PETA group nuts.”

  “We don’t have PETA here; just the Leshy group, and they’re enough, thank you.”

  “So what other kind of animals do you have to rescue from people?” she asked, opening the case for my digital camera.

  “The big four are bears, cougars, lynx, and bobcats. Those are the dangerous ones, and put that back before you drop it. I need to take pictures of the cougar for the incident report.”

  “What’s a cougar doing at an animal shelter, anyway? It didn’t, like, break in to eat the other animals, did it?”

  “No, of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. Cougars normally stay far away from people. But what this one is doing in the shelter is a very good question,” I answered, wondering the same thing. Luckily, we didn’t have long to wait. Allison, the manager of the Cupid Cats Shelter, was waiting in the back of the building with three other women, all huddled around together and each clutching a paper latte cup.

  “Jacintha! I’m so glad you’re here!” Allison said, separating from the pack to hurry toward me. “We can’t even get in because he’s awake. Oh, hello. Are you another ranger?”

  “This is my sister, Cora.” I clipped the tranquilizing gun to my belt, making sure the cartridge was loaded.

  “I’m a secretary, not a wildlife control person,” Cora said as she climbed out of the truck. “This is so exciting! I’ve never seen a cougar up close before. Did it eat any of your animals?”

  “Merciful heavens, I hope not,” Allison replied, looking horrified. “I never even thought of that. Jo?”

  Jo was Allison’s partner, a no-nonsense woman who handled all the unpleasantries that came with running a cat shelter, leaving Allison to charm patrons and contributors. She frowned. “Didn’t see any signs that he’d eaten anyone.”

  “You said it was a cougar with melanistic coloring? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black cougar before. How badly is it hurt?” I asked, glancing at my watch and making a note of the time in my pocket notebook.

  “I don’t think it’s a cougar,” Allison answered, her hands fluttering. She was a petite woman, prone to soft, gauzy materials, with a halo of burnished gold curls. Her face bore testimony to having lived at least a handful of decades, but it was unlined, somehow ageless. “He’s big, though, and there are markings in his black coat.”

  “Markings?” I pulled on my leather gloves, the heavy ones I wore to deal with wounded animals. “Like a leopard, you mean?”

  “Yes, just like that. Wouldn’t you say so, Jo?”

  “A leopard!” Cora said in a delighted tone. “Wow! Can I take the pictures? I’d like to get a couple for me to show the ladies at work. They aren’t going to believe I came to Washington and saw a leopard.”

  Jo’s face scrunched into a thoughtful expression. “Looked like one of those spotty cats to me. He’s a big boy, so you be careful in there with him, Jas.”

  “You’re going to stay out here where it’s safe,” I told Cora, taking the camera from her and putting it back into the truck. “If the leopard is awake, as Allison says, he is probably very frightened and possibly injured.”

  “You are such a party pooper,” she told me.

  I turned to Allison. “You said you found him inside, with the doors locked? No signs of a break-in?”

  “None,” Jo said. “I came in to check on the medical cases and opened up the office, and there he was, big as life, lying right in the middle of the hallway. Looked drugged to me, not injured, although he lifted his head and growled at me when I came into the room. Almost stepped on him, in fact. Gave me quite a start. Al thought we should wait for you to take care of him rather than try to shift him ourselves.”

  “That’s always a good idea when it comes to wildlife, although if it really is a leopard, it must be from someone’s private collection. Someone’s illegal private collection,” I mused. “But how he ended up here . . . Well, perhaps the answer is inside.”

  “Jas, are you sure I can’t just come in and have a peek?”

  “No. Stay out here where it’s safe.”

  Allison looked worried as I gathered up my things and headed for the heavy metal door that led to the kennel area of the shelter. “You’ll be careful, won’t you, Jas? I don’t think he knows where he is, and he may be confused enough that he lashes out without thinking.”

  “Oh, don’t worry,” I said as I opened the door and paused to toss a smile back to them. “I know my way around a big cat. There’s nothing your visitor can do that will take me by surprise.”

  Chapter 2

  “Hello, kitty. Ah, not a leopard, but a jaguar. How very interesting. Where did you come from, I wonder? There’s a jaguar colony in Arizona, but you are way out of your territory. What on earth are you doing in Washington State, of all places?”

  The big cat lying smack-dab in the middle of the hallway lifted his head and peered groggily at me. Even though he was a rich black, I could see the faint rosette pattern in his coat, and the stockier, heavier frame that, combined with a shorter tail, told me this cat originated in South America, not Africa, as the leopard did.

  “Well, well, well. You look healthy, at least,” I said, pulling out my mini tape recorder as I slowly approached the cat. “Incident report #3421, Jacintha Ferreira, investigating officer. Location is the Cupid Cats Shelter. Subject is a male melanistic jaguar, approximately one hundred kilograms, about seventy-five centimeters at the sh
oulder, and length slightly under two meters.”

  I’m six foot two, actually.

  I spun around at the sound of the male voice, but there was no one in the hallway with me. “Hello? Who’s there? Cora, is that you?”

  Behind me, the cat growled huskily as he scrabbled on the floor with long, wicked claws until he managed to heave himself onto his chest, his heavy head bobbing as he tried to hold it up.

  “Cora, damn it, I told you to stay outside!”

  Silence filled the building. It had a thick quality to it, the kind you get when you are the only person in the place. “Cora?”

  Only the faint sound of a logging truck rumbling down the highway filtered through the dense silence. “That wasn’t Cora,” I said to myself, keeping one eye on the cat. It was a man. “Whoever you are, please stay back. I don’t need the cat frightened,” I said in a louder voice, but no one answered me.

  “Great. Now I’m imagining voices.” I watched the cat warily for a moment, assessing just how drugged he was. Cats coming out of sedation will sometimes strike at a keeper, not in anger, but purely as a protection response. The big cat’s head bobbled a bit more until he finally laid it down between his paws, his big blue eyes unfocused.

  “Blue eyes?” I said aloud, dropping to my haunches in order to appear less dominating to the cat. “I’ve never seen a jaguar with blue eyes.” I flipped my voice recorder back on. “Subject appears to have been sedated and is aware of his surroundings, but mostly unable to control primary motor functions. Subject also exhibits unusual coloring of the irises.”

  I get my eyes from my mother.

  “Please, whoever you are, this is no place for frivolity!” I glared over my shoulder down the hallway behind me, making sure to keep my voice level and calm, lest the cat pick up on my anger. “I must insist that you leave right now.”

  All right, but I think you’re going to have to help me up off the floor. I should never have had that last drink. It’s given me a hell of a hangover.

  “Look, here, Mr. Smart-Ass,” I said, my voice tightening as I got to my feet. The cat’s tail twitched irritably. I made an effort to move slowly and speak with a placidity that was belied by my words. “I am an officer of the fish and wildlife department. If you do not leave the premises, I will arrest you for interfering with the duty of a peace officer. Got that? Good. Now scram.”

  Oh, man. My head is killing me. I mean seriously killing me. It’s like someone is pounding right here.

  The jaguar growled and rubbed one paw over its face.

  “That’s it. No more nice guy,” I said, gritting my teeth slightly as I edged my way down the hall.

  A tendril of cold air wrapped around me. “Jas? You okay in there? You’ve been awfully quiet. Aren’t you supposed to let us know you’re all right?”

  Cora’s head poked around the doorjamb.

  “Do you see anyone back there?” I demanded.

  “Where? Here?” She slid into the room and turned three hundred sixty degrees. “Nope, just me. Why?”

  “Because a man keeps talking, and I don’t know where he is.”

  “Want me to look—oh, wow! Is that him? He’s black!”

  I am?

  “He’s not a leopard; he’s a jaguar—and what are you doing in here?” I asked, worry about the unknown stranger in the building having driven out concern for my sister. “Go back outside where it’s safe.”

  “Stop hogging all the fun. He doesn’t look like he could hurt a fly, let alone attack two grown women.”

  Appearances are deceiving. I’m quite dangerous when I want to be. Rawr.

  “Look, whoever you are, just get the hell out of here!” I said, spinning around to throw open the door to the front area of the shelter.

  “Who are you talking to?”

  “The man! Didn’t you just hear him? He’s boasting about being dangerous.”

  I never boast.

  “There! He just did it again!”

  Well, almost never.

  Cora pursed her lips. “Um . . . okay. I didn’t hear anyone, Jas.”

  “Don’t you play games with me, missy,” I told her in my most obnoxious older-sister voice. “Of course you heard him. He spoke just as clearly as anything.”

  “Uh-uh. I don’t hear anyone talking but you.”

  I gritted my teeth, determined to find the jokester. Cora followed me as I stormed through the reception area, Allison’s office, Jo’s office, and the small hospital area before returning to the corridor leading to the cattery.


  “This is ridiculous. I could hear him. I know someone else is here.”

  “I don’t think so, Jas, not unless he’s disappeared into thin air. We’ve looked everywhere. Unless you really are a cat talker, and you’re hearing Midnight, there,” Cora said, waving at the groggy jaguar.

  Christ, I didn’t think it was possible to have a hangover this bad.

  I looked with animosity at my sister. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you didn’t hear that?”

  “Hear what?”

  I felt like banging my head on the wall I leaned against, but that wouldn’t help the drugged jaguar. “It’s only a little after ten in the morning, and already I’m tired of this day.”

  You and me both. Would you mind helping me up off the floor . . . er . . . What did you say your name was? Jacintha? Pretty. I seem to be a bit out of it.

  The jaguar grumbled and tried to get to his feet, heaving himself up until his four legs were splayed out, barely supporting him as he weaved back and forth. He looked down at his feet for a moment, then up at me, his eyes wide with shock.

  What the hell?

  “Wow, he’s really pretty, isn’t he? Can I pet him?”

  I stared at the cat, my flesh crawling.

  What the hell?

  “Do you think he’d bite me if I got close enough for you to get a picture of us together? I’d love a shot of us so I could put it up on my Facebook page.”

  Two things struck me at that moment—the first was that no one else was in the building other than Cora, and the second was that it was the cat who was talking.

  “Holy Mary and all the little saints,” I swore, staring at the cat as goose bumps trotted up and down my arms and legs.

  “No? Damn. That’d be a picture to end all pictures,” Cora said, looking from the jaguar to me. “What’s wrong? Why do you have such a weird look on your face?”

  “Did you just . . . uh . . . talk?”

  I’m a panther?

  “Of course I just talked. I’ve been talking the whole time.” She squinted at me. “You’re not having some sort of a nervous breakdown or something, are you?”

  “Not you. The . . . er . . . cat.”

  A panther?

  The cat’s voice sounded wild with horror and shock and surprise, which pretty much mirrored my own feelings. It was then I realized he was speaking without moving his lips.

  “Holy shit! You really can cat whisper? How cool is that!” Cora exclaimed, looking utterly delighted. “What’s he saying?”

  “He appears to be upset he’s a jaguar,” I said slowly, narrowing my gaze on the cat, looking for a radio transmitter. “How are you doing that? Are you some sort of ventriloquist? Oh God, what am I saying? He’s a cat, Jas. He’s not a ventriloquist. He’s not talking. Someone else is. You must have a radio on you somewhere, kitty, although I’ll be damned if I know where.”

  Avery. My name is Avery, Avery Scott, and how the hell did I get changed into a black panther? What did you do to me?

  “So it’s the cat who’s been talking to you all along? This is so cool!”

  “I didn’t do anything to you,” I told the cat slowly. “Cora, this is . . . this is really strange. You don
’t think my mind has snapped, do you? You don’t think I’m really insane? Holy Mary! I’m an insane cat whisperer. Make it stop, Cora! I don’t want to be crazy!”

  Well, I don’t want to be a black panther, either, the voice in my head answered, in a somewhat surly tone that irritated me. Of the two of us, I think I have more grounds for complaint.

  “I don’t think you’re crazy,” Cora said, eyeing me closely. “I think you can just talk to cats.” She glanced at the wobbly jaguar. “Really big cats. Is he talking now? What’s he talking about? Does he have a Spanish accent?”

  “No, he has an English accent.”


  “Correction, Scottish.”

  “You’re talking to a Scottish jaguar?” Cora’s incredulity was great, but it was nothing on what I was feeling.

  What the hell did you do to turn me into a panther?

  “Look,” I told the cat, my hands on my hips, distracted by his ignorance. “You’re a melanistic jaguar, not a black panther. There is no such thing as a black panther. So stop calling yourself that, and lie back down before you fall over and hurt yourself. Now, let me think. . . . When did I go insane? I was fine this morning. . . .”

  “Weren’t the black panthers some sort of radical rights group?” Cora asked, taking a step back as the jaguar weaved toward her. “You’re talking to an extremist, politically agendaed Scottish jaguar? Man! I’ve heard about some of those South American political groups. They kidnap people.”

  “I don’t think he’s a Scottish jaguar,” I said softly, unnerved by the look in the strange blue eyes.

  For the love of all that’s holy, woman, I’m not a jaguar! No Moravian has ever been a shape-shifter, and I don’t intend to start a new trend.

  “Moravian? Isn’t that somewhere in Russia? I thought you said you had a Scottish accent?”