Authors: Katie MacAlister
New American Library
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Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Previously published in
First New American Library E-Book Printing, September 2011
Copyright Â© Katie MacAlister, 2010
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Lest anyone be confused by the sudden appearance of this novella, I will take a moment to say “Hi, how are you? Everything copacetic?” before promptly moving on to a brief explanation of why you are, at this very moment, preparing to read a novella of which you may not have heard.
was written as part of the
anthology, originally published in July 2010. Because the heroine in this story, Jacintha, is the sister of the heroine in
Much Ado About Vampires
(October 2011), the folks at New American Library thought we could bring everyone up to speed by releasing this novella on its own a month before
Much Ado About Vampires
Do you feel up to speed yet? Me neither. So let me try to briefly run down the pertinent facts:
There. Now, don't you feel much more in the know? I sure do. Although, perhaps, I should tell you about how a Moravian who has a soul can end up with a Beloved. Naw, I'll let Avery do that. He's got that delicious Scottish accent, after all.Â .Â .Â .
“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
a past-life regression, so I expect 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 in 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.
Shaking my head at my e-mail in-box and sighing, I 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 bloodÂ .Â .Â . urgh. I tell you, Jas, it was freaky, downright freaky.”
“Dreams often are,” I said absently, 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, it behooved me as an officer of that department 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
was the vampire.”
That last word caught my attention. I turned to look in astonishment at her. Although she was eighteen months younger than I, we looked enough alike to frequently be confused as twins. Her hair was the exact same shade of amber as mine, although her eyes were a darker brown, mine waffling 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 wasâPatsy'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 because I had to fly up here first thing this morning, I haven't had a chance to talk to her since she and Terri brought me home last night. But, Jasâvampires! 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 thingy 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.”
Catching sight of a familiar figure in the doorway to the office, I 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 âsexual 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 ax.”
“Morning, kitty,” one of my coworkers 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 hereÂ .Â .Â .” 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 whether the coast was clear. “It's bad enough without your adding to it.”
“You don't believe in anything paranormal,” Cora said in a quieter tone, although 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 come 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 in-box. I groaned at the subject line.
“What are you âoh, hell'ing about?” Cora asked, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. “Is it something to do with your taking me out into the bush today? Because I have only 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 the 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 comes up, you'll 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 Fish and Wildlife Department have with irresponsible hunters.
“No, just the oppositeâvery antihunting. 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 backward 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 nonendangered animals away from hunters, which sends the hunters screaming at us to stop them. We've also caught them setting mantraps to injure folks, 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 captured animals 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 they call preserves scattered around three states. But neither the preserves nor the group is recognized by the government as being such, so we can't release animals into the Leshies' custody.” I peered over the cubicle wall again. “Oh, good, he's gone. Come onâlet'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. “Damn it. 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, giving me one of his quasi-leering once-overs before he turned his attention to Cora. “Ah, this must be your sister 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.”
“Have 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 pickup 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 suaveâtoo suave for my tastes. That he was my boss, I could live with, but there was something about him 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 those 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 took an extra shotâ”
“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 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 regionâ”
“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.”