“…they ran right over me, and my head came off. I kid you not, Jas, my head came right off! There I was, lying in the mud without a head, and a herd of oxen stomping all over me. It was surreal! No, more than surreal. Well, it was a past life regression, so I expect there is a certain amount of surreal is bound to be there, but still, my head! In the mud! And cows all over me! Well! You’re not going to believe what happened next!”
“That’s hardly surprising, given that I don’t believe what you’re telling me now,” I murmured, squinting at the computer screen.
“Then the woman who ran me over with her ox cart got down and tried to put my head back on, just like it was a cartoon or something, but of course that didn’t work.”
“Of course.” I frowned as I scanned the latest memo to come from my supervisor. “Greg can’t possibly be serious. The entire department will use his guts for garters if he thinks cutting the release-to-wild program will ease budget concerns.”
“So then this guy comes along, and he sees the crazy ox woman with my head, and after all sorts of misadventures, he bites her!” my sister continued, obviously too caught up in the bizarre dream she was telling me about to pay attention to anything else. She picked up a pen and spun it around her fingers.
I shook my head at my e-mail inbox, and sighing, took my favorite pen from Corazon and went back to deciphering the latest governmental mandate regarding the proposed hatchery and fishery reform policy, listening with half my attention as she yammered on.
“He was kind of cute, although all that blood…urgh. I tell you, Jas, it was freaky, downright freaky.”
“Dreams often are,” I said without thinking, giving up on the policy. Although it was a bit out of my bailiwick, concerned as I was with the enforcement of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife laws, and not policy, as an officer of that department, it behooved me to stay current on anything that might affect my job.
“It wasn’t a dream!” She whacked me on the arm. “Aren’t you listening? It was a past life regression! It was all real! Well, it was real in the past, but I was reliving it. Anyway, I came a bit unglued at the vampire, so I made Barbara, the hypnotherapist, bring me out of it. And then Patsy told us about her gorgeous neighbor who swims naked, and we went over, only she had to wee, and he was the vampire.”
That last word caught my attention. I turned to look in astonishment at her. Although she was eighteen months younger than me, we looked enough alike to frequently be confused as twins. Her hair was the exact shade of amber as mine, although her eyes were a darker brown, while mine waffled toward hazel. “You were a vampire in your past life? Do Mom and Dad know?”
“Will you listen to me?” Cora’s expression was rife with annoyance. “I wasn’t the vampire, he was—Patsy’s neighbor.”
“Patsy your friend? She has a neighbor who is a vampire?”
“Yes! At least, she didn’t seem to think he was one, but I haven’t had a chance to talk to her since she and Terri brought me home last night because I had to fly up here first thing this morning. But, Jas—vampires! They exist!”
“Nonsense,” I scoffed. “You were probably just lit up and imagined all of it.”
“Oh, we were drunk all right,” she admitted, opening the top drawer of my desk and absently poking through it. “But there’s nothing like a vampire to sober you up right away. I didn’t imagine either the past life thingie or Patsy’s neighbor. Oh my god, did you kill this bear?”
I took the picture from her and tucked it away in my drawer again. “You know I don’t kill animals unless they are severely injured and too far gone to be transported to a vet. That bear was just sedated.”
“You have the best job,” she said with more than a dollop of envy in her voice. “Beats being a secretary to hell and back again.”
I caught sight of a familiar figure in the doorway to the office, and ducked low over my desk, pulling Cora down with me as I prayed Greg wouldn’t stroll back to this part of the room. “Hide!”
“It’s Greg. I don’t want him to see us.”
“Oh, your evil boss?” She hunkered down with me. “Is he still hitting on you?”
“He backed off after I mentioned the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ to him, but that’s not why I’d prefer not seeing him. The latest worm in his brain is to go out in the field with all the officers and evaluate their work. Not for promotion purposes, but because he’s kissing up to the lieutenant governor’s butt by proposing all sorts of departmental cuts, and he’s looking for people to axe.”
“Morning, Kitty,” one of my co-workers said as she strolled past me, carefully setting down a latte cup on the desk of the cubicle next to mine. Still hunched over, I rolled backward in my chair enough to glare at her. She giggled.
“Why did she call you Kitty?” Cora asked in an exaggerated whisper. “Oh my god, Jas, you’re not undercover, are you? Some sort of animal spy?”
“You are watching way too much of the espionage channel,” I told her with a quelling look. “I am a simple wildlife officer, nothing more.”
“Hey, Kitty,” Joe, an officer who worked the graveyard shift in the region next to mine, tossed a manila file folder on my desk. “While you were getting your beauty sleep we caught the cougar that attacked the kid. Looks like you’re off the hook for whispering, eh?”
I tried to punch him, but he deftly sidestepped my attack and laughed as he walked away.
Cora raised a questioning eyebrow at me.
“I’m not undercover. It’s just that people here…” I ground my teeth for a moment. “They call me the kitty whisperer.”
“Kitty whisperer. Because I work with big cats. It’s just a joke, nothing more. A very irritating joke,” I said loudly as I glared toward Jane, my coffee-bearing neighbor.
“Your coworkers think you have the psychic ability to talk to cats?” Cora asked with blank incredulity before bursting into a ripple of laughter. “You! Psychic! You’re the least psychic person I know!”
“Hush!” I said, pinching her wrist as I carefully poked my head over the cubicle wall to look for Greg. He stood at the door, talking with some poor victim who’d been unwary enough to enter the room without first checking if the coast was clear. “It’s bad enough without you adding to it.”
“You don’t believe in anything paranormal,” Cora said, in a more quiet tone, but mirth still filled her voice. “I can tell you don’t even believe in my vampire.”
“That’s because they don’t exist any more than people can psychically talk to animals. The skills I have in understanding the feline mind comes from years of work, not from any woo-woo source. Oh, hell, what now?”
I’d glanced at my computer screen while talking and saw the new e-mail in my inbox, groaning at the subject line.
“What are you oh helling about?” Cora asked, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “Is it something to do with you taking me out into the bush today? Because I only have four days here before my cruise to Alaska starts, and you promised me a day of nature and hiking and all sorts of exciting wildlife.”
“I’m taking you out in the field, not bush.” I quickly turned off the e-mail client without reading the e-mail. “And I promised you nothing of the sort. I said you could come along with me while I made my rounds, but if anything dangerous came up, you’d have to stay in the truck. Before you ask again, no, the e-mail isn’t going to cancel our outing. It’s just from the owner of a sheep farm complaining yet again about the regional crackpot, Albert Baum.”
“Hunter?” she asked, knowing how much grief we in the Game and Wildlife Department have with irresponsible hunters.
“No, just the opposite—very anti-hunting. Albert Baum heads up the Leshies, an animal rights collective up in the mountains.”
“That sounds like it’s right up your alley,” Cora said, shifting backwards so I could get into the bottom drawer of my desk to pull out my gun and holster.
“Well, I admire their goals of preserving endangered animals, but it’s the method they use that gets on my nerves. They go around scaring non-endangered animals away from hunters, which sends the latter screaming at us to stop them. We’ve also caught them setting man traps to injure hunters, but that ended after we tossed a couple of Baum’s group in jail. The latest bee in Baum’s bonnet is the way we release animals captured into the wild. He wants us to release them on his land, so he and his group can protect them.”
“That doesn’t seem too bad,” Cora said, watching with interested eyes as I packed my field case with a mini first aid kit, notebook, tranquilizing gun and darts, and assorted measuring equipment.
“It’s a matter of what’s legal and what isn’t. The Leshies have almost ten thousand acres scattered around three states that they call preserves. But neither the land or the group are recognized by the government as being such, so we can’t release animals to their custody.” I peered over the cubicle wall again. “Oh, good, he’s gone. Come on, let’s make a dash for it.”
I snagged my car mug as we skulked out of the office, hustling Cora before me to the latte cart in the lobby of the building. As I was looking for money, my cell phone burbled indicating I’d received a voice mail.
“Phone,” Cora said helpfully. “So, if people think you are a kitty whisperer, does that mean I’m a vampire whisperer?”
I goggled at her as I punched in the code that would bring up my voice mail. “What?”
“Well, you said you can talk to cats because you spent all that time in Africa studying lions and cheetahs and things like that, so maybe I’m a vampire whisperer, because I had that past life thing going on with Patsy’s gorgeous bloodsucking neighbor.”
“We seriously need to investigate the possibility of getting you some counseling,” I told her before holding up my hand so I could listen to the message.
“Pot, kettle, black,” she said, digging out money to pay for our lattes.
“Jacintha! Just the person I was looking for.”
I groaned to myself as I accepted the travel mug now filled with a latte. “Dammit. He walks as softly as a cat,” I muttered to Cora before turning to greet my boss with a polite smile. “Morning, Greg.”
“Coming in or going out?” he asked me, giving me one of his quasi-leering once-overs before he turned his attention to Cora. “Ah, this must be your sister that I’ve heard so much about.”
Cora blinked in surprise at him.
“We’re just heading out, and yes, this is Corazon.”
Greg shook her hand as he said in what I’m sure he thought was a seductive voice, “Two such pretty sisters. I’ve always had a fondness for Latina women, you know.”
“Do you,” she said with only the faintest hint of a twitch around her mouth. “Whereas I just can’t get enough of pasty-assed WASP guys. Not that I’m implying your ass is pale. But you know what I mean.”
It was my turn to stifle a smile. I did my best to ignore my outspoken little sister, giving her a shove toward the door. “Sorry, Greg, we’re in a bit of a hurry. Just got a call.”
“Ah. Excellent. I’ll tag along with you, if you don’t mind. A morning’s hike in the mountains will do me good,” he said, holding the door open for us.
Cora shot me a horrified glance.
“Oh, Greg, that is too bad.” I summoned up what I hoped passed for an expression of regret. “I wish I could ask you along for the survey, but I just got a call for a pick-up of a cat over at the animal shelter, and I know your allergies would make it hell for you to be in the truck with one.”
“A cat at an animal shelter?” he asked, squinting slightly. Greg Morrison was tall, blond, handsome, and extremely suave—too suave for my tastes. That he was my boss, I could live with, but there was something about him that I didn’t trust. He was too handsome, his smile just a bit too charming, his eyes entirely too innocent. Most of the women in the department were in love with him, all but the ones in my office, who knew he was looking to cut positions in order to plump up the budget. “Surely they don’t need an officer for that?”
“This is a big kitty,” I said, smiling.
“Not another cougar?” he asked, dismay visible in his clear blue eyes.
“Sounds like it,” I said, crossing my fingers against the little white lie.
“Oh.” His face fell. I could see him struggling with the desire to spend the day shadowing me, and the unwillingness to put his raging fur allergies on edge. He rubbed his nose as if just thinking about it made him itch. “Perhaps if I was to take an extra shot—”
“I wouldn’t dream of putting you through so much physical discomfort,” I said swiftly, edging around him toward the front doors. “I’ll have to spend some time with the cat, examining it, taking measurements, trying to locate where it came from, and so on, and I know how even the hint of dander on someone’s clothes can make your face swell up.”
He took a step back from me as if I was 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 the 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 as she plopped 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.”
“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 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, 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 that 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 open up the office, and there he was, big as life, laying 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 get 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.”