| Story © 2000-2004 by Keith Dickinson.
All rights reserved. Characters Sabrina the Skunkette, Amy the Squirrel,
Tabitha, Carli, Tammy Vixen Shiela Vixen, Clarisse, and Carrie Squirrel
© Eric W. Schwartz. Character Thomas Woolfe © Michael Higgs. Characters
Chris Foxx, Susan Felin, Cindy Lapine, Debbye Squirrel, Clarence Skunk,
Mr. Canis, Dexter Collie, Angel Collie, Sarge and Endora Mustelidae, Wendy
Vixxen, and Wanda Vixen© Chris Yost. Character ZigZag © Max BlackRabbit.
Character James Sheppard, Doug and Kelly Granitz © James Bruner. Character
Mark the cheetaur © Mark White Eric W. Schwartz © Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz.
Michael Jones © Martin Pedersen. Arden Eastridge © Keith Dickson.
All rights to additional characters reserved by their respective owners.
Paco nervously took a quick peek out through the closed curtains, looking to see if anyone is coming. “You shouldn’t have done that,” the priest complained.
“There are many things in life we shouldn’t do, Paco,” Anatol grudgingly replied, “and that’s only one of them.”
The coyote’s head snapped around to look at Anatol. “Damn it, Anatol, this is serious!” the priest barked. “He owns this town! You have no idea what he is capable of.”
Pressing fast-forward on the VCR control, Anatol watched the blurred images streak by. “I am serious. That’s why I didn’t waste time dancing around with that arrogant bastard.”
“That arrogant bastard, as you so glibly refer to him, could easily have us killed if he wanted to,” Paco replied flatly. “We should have taken our time and negotiated with him to get the tape.” Turning back to the curtains, he peeked out again. “Now, God only knows what will happen.”
“When did it happen?” Anatol asked in a quiet voice, causing his friend to turn and give him a quizzical look. “When did we stop fighting evil and start---negotiating,” he said, his voice heavy with distain, “with monsters like that?”
“Anatol?” the old wolf whispered under his breath. “What happened….?”
Anatol blew out a long breath as his shoulders slumped. “You heard about the incident that happened last year in the Bronx?”
Paco nodded. “Yes.”
“We could have prevented that,” Anatol said, shaking his head sadly. “There had been a series of ritual murders in the area. Ramires, Panji and I had all been assigned to investigate it.”
”Three hunters?” Paco asked, shocked at the thought.
“The brotherhood had determined it was a major summoning and they wanted to prevent its completion,” he explained while keeping an eye on the TV. “That’s why they brought me in. Ramires and Panji hadn’t had any luck tracking the killer.”
The outside world forgotten for the moment, Paco moved closer to Anatol and took a seat nearby. “What happened?”
Anatol glanced at his friend and then turned his attention back to the TV. “I was double checking the leads that Ramires and Panji had marked as having the highest probability. None of them really felt right to me. I was on my way back, when it hit me.” He turned to look at his friend. “You know, it hit me. But it was different. I can’t explain how, but it just felt different,” he explained, looking back to the TV. “I spent the next hour following the feeling and it led me to a young badger. I called the others in and we started following him. It turned out he was the son of a very powerful gangster who also happened to be a major contributor to the diocese.
“We could have stopped it right then and there, “Anatol complained. “We could have stopped it, but not for the infinite wisdom of Father Clayton Jones.”
“Jones?” Paco asked, not believing his ears. “What in the world was he doing there?”
Anatol hit the pause button on the VCR and turned to give his friend a look of mock surprise. “Why, Father, I’m surprised at you. Father Jones was there through the infinite and infallible wisdom of the Vatican.” Closing his eyes, he let out a deep sigh before turning back to the VCR. “Brother Clayton didn’t feel that we should act on my ‘hunch’, no matter how sure I am of it. He insisted that we contact his father and go through ‘channels’ to try and determine what was really happening. After all, we wouldn’t want to stumble upon anything illegal that might embarrass the church’s patron saint of abundant cash flows, now would we?”
“Madre de Dios,” Paco growled.
“We could have stopped it then and there, but we didn’t.” Clicking play on the remote, Anatol watched as the video played out. “He completed the summoning that night, only he couldn’t control the creature. It killed him and everyone else in that building before going on a rampage.” Shaking his head, he frowned at the memory of the night. “The summoning had been so powerful, I’d been able to sense it, but we were too late. By the time we got there, the building had been destroyed and the creature had moved to the projects nearby where it was killing anyone and everyone that got near it.
“I still have nightmares about what happened that night,” the priest confessed. “Torn bodies strewn about like a dog’s chew-toy.” Shaking his head, he took a deep breath to steel himself before continuing. “Ramires called out to us saying he’d found someone alive. He’d found a small child that the creature had somehow missed. When Punji and I got there, he was about to pick it up when it struck. The child’s body had been nothing more than a puppet to draw us in. It took Ramires’ head with one swipe.”
Paco crossed himself as he listened, praying for his fallen comrade.
“I don’t remember much else after that,” Anatol said, rewinding the video for a few seconds before hitting play again, as he leaned closer. “All I know is that they never found all of Punji’s body, and I spent the better part of a year lying in a hospital in a coma.” Squinting at the screen, Anatol backed the tape up and then started single-frame stepping the image forwards. “What have we here?”
“Eh?” the wolf grunted, turning his attention to the screen.
Anatol studied the TV as he watched the female reach into a pocket and then pop something into her mouth. “Did you see that?” he asked, stepping the video backwards and then forwards again. “She ate something just before she changed.”
“Yes,” Paco agreed, nodding. “What could it have been?”
Anatol stopped the VCR and ejected the tape before turning everything off. “I don’t know, but it makes me wonder if this is truly a creature or not.”
“How can you say something like that?” the wolf demanded, rising from his chair. “You saw how it changed. You saw how it moved and what it did! There’s no way that was natural!”
“Oh, I admit it wasn’t natural, but that doesn’t mean that it was an unnatural creature either,” Anatol replied, rubbing his chin for a second. “I agree it was quick, but the speed wasn’t unnaturally fast. As for the looks, I’m not so sure about that. And why did it eat something before changing? Could that have been some form of alchemy? Maybe the change is due to something granted through some Faustian deal, and whatever it ate is the catalyst.” Shaking his head, he slipped the videotape back into its case. “Whatever the answer, there are too many variables to figure it out right now.”
The wolf peeked out through the curtains again, checking to see if there were any changes. “So what do we do now?”
“Now we ask questions,” Anatol declared. “Who was she talking to towards the end of the videotape? The one who lived?”
“That would be Roberto, the mayor’s youngest son,” Paco replied, frowning. “But we don’t have time to talk to him.”
Anatol shrugged. “Why not? I won’t have too many questions.”
“Because I have to get you out of here!” The priest grabbed Anatol’s arm. “Damn it, Anatol, don’t you understand. You can’t stay here. There will be trouble!”
“There will be trouble no matter what I do, Paco, and you know it,” Anatol growled. “I need answers and Roberto is the one who’s gong to provide them.” Walking over to the door, he paused to look at his friend. “The mayor doesn’t have any bone to pick with you. Stay here and you’ll be safe.”
Stepping out the door, he closed it while settling the wide brimmed hat on his head. The sun was shining and there was a light breeze that carried the sounds of chirping birds. “A fine day for a walk,” the priest commented to himself.
Inside, Paco clung to his rosary while praying for the safety of his friend.
Sheila sat on the couch, sulking.
“Is there anything in particular you wanted to talk about today, Sheila?” Doctor Spivey asked, breaking the long silence.
“No,” the vixen tersely replied.
“You’re sure?” the doctor prompted. “Not even your little chat with Zig Zag.”
“Come now, Sheila,” the orangutan asked as she scooted her chair a little closer. “I know that you and Zig Zag were arguing; the orderlies heard you shouting at her, calling her all kinds of bad things. It must have been something pretty serious for that to happen.” She gave her most endearing smile and set her notepad aside. “You can tell me, Sheila. You know that. Everything we say in here is confidential.”
“Sheila, the reason I’m here is to help you manage your personal problems,” the doctor explained, trying to soothe the vixen. “You can tell me. It’s OK.”
“No, I can’t tell you,” Sheila said, standing up. “You can’t help me with this,” she declared as she moved abruptly towards the door.
“Sheila,” Doctor Spivey said, also standing, “If you leave, this is in breach of our agreement.”
“Whatever,” the vixen said, walking out the door.
Sheila went upstairs to her room and opened one of the dresser drawers. Inside was a belly-pouch that she removed. Checking the contents, she verified that everything was there before strapping it on. Taking the stairs two steps at a time, she returned to the ground floor and made her way to the front desk.
“Mary,” the vixen said, getting the day nurse’s attention. “Is Ricky around?”
“Yeah, he is. Let me page him,” the nurse replied.
Sheila took a seat and waited patiently for the few minutes it took the orderly, a stilted fox, to arrive.
“You looking for me?” Ricky asked?
“Yeah,” she replied, standing up. “I need your car.”
“Whoa there, little Nelly,” the orderly said, holding up his hands. “What do you need my car for?”
The vixen pursed her lips for a moment before speaking. “I just need to run an errand. I should be back in less than an hour.”
Ricky laughed. “Well, I hate to break it to you, but I don’t let just anyone drive my car.” He paused as the vixens face fell. Letting out a long sigh, he ran his hand through the long hair on top of his head for a moment and then nodded. “Look, I won’t loan you the car, but how about if I give you a lift?”
“Aren’t there rules against that kind of stuff?” Sheila asked, frowning at the orderly.
“Yeah, same as there are rules against loaning cars to patients, too,” he replied with a quirky grin, “but I figure this way I can at least claim that I was just trying to keep you under observation and make sure nothing happened.”
Sheila gave the stilted fox a hard look for a long second as she considered his words. She knew they kept an eye on her, and his statement had just confirmed it. “Whatever,” the vixen muttered, heading for the door.
Ricky cocked his head to one side before shaking it. Turning back to the nurse, he tapped on the counter to get her attention. “Hey! Let Ratched know I’m running Sheila round on an errand for the next hour, will ya?”
“She won’t like it,” the nurse replied.
“Is there anything she does like?” Ricky shot back, laughing as he hit the outer door. Catching up to Sheila, he slowed and tapped her on the shoulder to guide her towards his car. “So where are we going?”
Sheila unzipped her belly-pouch, pulled out a business card and handed it to him.
Examining the card, Ricky cocked his head slightly to the left. “Sheppard Computer systems?” he asked, reading the card. “Why there? You looking to buy a computer?”
“I have questions and someone there has the answers,” the vixen replied flatly, refusing to comment further.
The first thing the priest noticed as he entered the police station was the oppressive shadows. Despite the more than adequate windows spaced around the room, somehow, the darkness seemed to dominate the room. A pair of ceiling fans slowly rotated, stirring the thick air.
Anatol surveyed the room, taking in the differences between what he saw on the video and what was in the room now, adding what had been off camera to his mental picture.
“<Is there something I can help you with?>” the wolf behind the desk asked in Spanish, standing up.
“<Yes, I’m looking for Roberto>,” Anatol said, stepping towards the wolf, recognizing him from the video. “<That would be you?>”
The wolf frowned at the priest. “<Yes, I am Roberto. What do you want?>”
Anatol removed his hat and set it on the other desk in the room. “<I’ve come to talk to you about the night that creature killed your compatriots.>”
The frown on the wolf deepened. “<I don’t know what you are talking about. I think someone must be playing a joke on you.>”
“<Oh, it’s no joke,>” Anatol declared, removing the videotape from the pocket of his frock and tossing it onto the desk.
“<Where did you get that,>” Roberto demanded, recognizing the label on the tape.
Anatol smiled. “<Your father gave it to me.>”
Unsnapping the strap on his holster, the wolf stepped towards the priest. “<I don’t believe my father would just give that to an outsider.>”
“<True,>” Anatol casually replied, taking as non-aggressive a posture as possible without being submissive. “<It did take some convincing for him to give it to me. You see, I’m hunting the creature on that tape. It is my job to see that it is destroyed before it can kill anyone else. There are questions I have about it that I believe only you can answer.>”
“<You see? All you had to do was tell me what I wanted to know. If your boss had been as cooperative, he’d be alive now, too. Unfortunately, his bad attitude cost him and your friend their lives. Remember that the next time someone comes around asking questions.> The words echoed in the wolf’s head as he remembered that night. “<Ask your questions.>”
Anatol noted the brief flash of emotion that crossed the wolf’s face and filed it away for further consideration. “<Why was the creature here?>”
“<She said she was looking for someone,>” the wolf replied, sitting on the edge of his desk.
“<She didn’t have a name. Just a picture,>” the wolf said, remembering that night. “<It was the picture of a vixen. A fairly fancy one, too. Professional looking, like you’d see in a magazine.>”
“<By any chance, do you know this female’s name?>” Anatol asked, mildly annoyed with the slow flow of information.
Roberto nodded. “<Yes. Her name is Tammy Vixen. She’s a gringo from up north. She said that she wanted to travel and see the world.>”
“Tammy Vixen?” Anatol muttered to himself, wondering if this was some insane coincidence. “How long ago did she leave?”
“<What?>” the wolf asked.
“<How long ago did she leave?>” Anatol asked again, this time in Spanish.
“<Ah,>” the wolf grunted, understanding the question at last. “<It was five or six months ago. When she left, she was alone. I asked where she was planning on going and she mentioned that she had always wanted to see the Panama Canal. Last time I saw her, she was hitch hiking along the main road outside of town.>”
Anatol stroked his chin for a bit as he considered the new information. Why was this creature chasing Tammy Vixen? Was this the same Tammy as Sheila’s sister, or someone completely different? He looked up at the cop and frowned. “<Why didn’t she kill you?>”
The cop’s eyes changed, becoming somewhat haunted. “< I don’t know. The last thing she said was that all we’d ever had to do was to answer her questions. If we’d done that, my uncle and cousin would still be alive today.>”
“I see,” Anatol commented, nodding to himself. “<At the end, I saw you draw your gun on her while she was leaving. Why didn’t you shoot her?>”
The wolf’s eyes widened for a moment, before he turned away to look at the ground. “<I couldn’t pull the trigger.>”
“<Even though she had her back to you?>”
The wolf shook his head. “<Not even with her back to me,>” he said, turning to look at Anatol with those haunted eyes again. “<You don’t understand this creature. When I drew my gun, she looked at me. She stared at me. It felt like her eyes were studying my soul, looking to see if I would do it. She looked at me and knew that in the end, I’m just a coward.>”
“<No,>” Anatol declared. “<In the end, you were beaten by a creature you couldn’t defeat. You would have died needlessly if you had tried,>” the priest explained. “<I have hunted creatures like this before and each time I’m terrified of what I will have to face. Every time, I wonder if I’ll be able to go through with it, or if I would even survive.>” He placed his hands on the wolf’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “<That was not the fight you were born for. There is no shame in that.>”
“<I wish I could believe that,>” Roberto replied, turning away from the priest and dropping heavily into his seat. “<Unless you have any other questions, I think it might be best if you left now.>”
Anatol nodded and recovered his hat. “<Thank you for answering my questions. May God be with you, my son,>” he said, blessing the wolf before placing his hat back on his head.
Stepping from the police station, he was surprised to see an expensive looking Mercedes Benz skid to a stop in front of the building. His mood darkened when the driver jumped out and opened the back door for the mayor. From the other side of the car, a large wolf wearing a black leather vest, gloves and well worn blue jeans climbed out. The large wolf reached into the car and dragged Paco out by one arm.
“<Let him go,>” Anatol growled, addressing the large wolf who held onto his friend.
“<You are in no position to give anyone orders,>” the mayor declared. “<You gave Carlos a concussion when you attacked him. You will pay for that.>”
Anatol rolled his eyes. “<Let’s get the facts straight. Your man, Carlos, attacked me first, and I simply defended myself against him.>”
“<Try and twist the facts all you want, priest, but it won’t save you,>” the mayor snarled. “Chuy!” he snapped, nodding to the big wolf.
Chuy let go of Father Ramirez and took a step forward, cracking the knuckles of his hand. “<You shouldn’t have threatened my father,>” he declared, giving Anatol a sadistic grin.
“<Your father needs to learn that he’s a big fish in a little pond,>” Anatol replied, removing his hat and tossing it onto the hood of a police car parked nearby. “<I on the other hand, I am used to swimming with the big fish in the ocean. He should accept this as a hard lesson learned before things get out of hand.>”
The big wolf laughed. “<You should get down on your knees in front of my father and beg his forgiveness. Maybe he’ll let you off with just a few broken bones. If you don’t, I’ll put you through a living hell that you’ll pray will end quickly.>”
Anatol frowned and scowled at the wolf a moment before looking back over to the mayor. “<Don’t do it. If you force me to fight him, the consequences will be on your head.>”
The mayor’s face was twisted into a snarl as he barked, “<Chuy! Kill him!>”
The wolf immediately slipped into a combat stance, protecting himself. He studied the priest as he scuttled from side to side. Chuy frowned. Not being able to see the priest’s feet or legs would make it difficult to predict how he would move, but by the same note, it meant that the priest wouldn’t be doing any fancy kicks. Smiling to himself, he settled in on a plan and attacked.
Father Ramirez watched the two combatants as they squared off. He’d seen Chuy fight in the pack arena and know that he was a formidable opponent for any street fighter, however he’d also seen Anatol fight as well. Normally he’d have put his bets on Anatol, but for some reason the priest hadn’t removed or opened his frock and he could see that it was already causing problems.
He frowned as the two exchanged a series of blows, with Anatol taking the brunt of them. As he watched the pair circle, he wasn’t sure, but he thought Anatol’s stance was slightly off. He frowned as it occurred that one of the blows might have cracked a rib.
As he watched, the pair continued to circle, occasionally closing on each other and exchanging blows. After several minutes, Anatol’s immaculately clean frock was covered with dust and he was limping slightly while openly holding his injured side, while the wolf looked relatively unharmed, though he did look to be a bit out of breath.
Fearing for his friend, Father Ramirez clutched his rosary and prayed while trying to follow the fight. The wolf had all but cornered Anatol between the building and a parked car with its bumper almost touched the wall. He watched as a kick knocked Anatol back into the car. The wolf, seeing his chance to end it, drove forwards, bringing both hands down together in a strike which would probably kill the priest if they hit his head, only they didn’t. His hands hit the hood of the car, denting it.
Paco gasped as he saw Anatol roll between the wolf’s legs, then attack him from behind. The priest was a blur, striking the wolf’s legs, hips, lower back and kidneys with precise knife-hand strikes, causing the wolf to stumble. Regaining his legs somewhat, the wolf staggered around, looking for his attacker. Anatol reached down and drew the hem of his frock up around his waist as he leapt upwards into the air, bringing the heel of his left foot up well over the top of the wolf’s head and then dropping it squarely between the ears with an audible crunch.
The wolf dropped as if the wires had been cut on a marionette. There was a second crunch as the base of his skull bounced off of the hard edge of the car’s fender before he fell flat on his face, unmoving.
Anatol looked down at the wolf and saw that the unnatural angle of his neck confirmed that it was broken. Whether it was his heel-strike or the fender of the car, it didn’t matter. He was dead. Looking up, Anatol saw Roberto standing in the doorway, his face clearly showing the shock and horror of his brother’s death.
“Anatol!” Father Ramirez cried out.
Anatol started to turn but was struck in the back at the same instant he heard the report of a gun. A second blow followed the second report and finally a third. Off balance and stunned from the impacts, he fell forwards, landing on the sidewalk.
“<You son of a bitch!>” the mayor shouted at the prostrate priest. “<You killed him! You fucking bastard!>”
Gasping for breath, Anatol leveraged himself over with one arm and looked up at the pistol-wielding wolf. “<I tried to warn you, but you wouldn’t listen. All of this is on your head.>”
The old wolf walked towards Anatol’s prone form, cocking the revolver. He lifted the barrel and aimed at the priest.
“Paco! No!” Anatol ordered, holding out a hand towards his friend.
The mayor spun around, pointing the gun at Father Ramirez who put his hands up.
“<No, Paco,>” Anatol repeated. “<This isn’t your fight. You weren’t born for this fight. It’s time to see who will be true to their nature and who will fail God’s test.>”
“<God’s test?>” the old wolf demanded. “<I’ll give you ‘God’s test’!>” Shifting his stance, he aimed the pistol at Anatol again.
“<No!>” Roberto shouted.
The mayor looked up in confusion at his youngest and last surviving son. “<Roberto?>” He asked, confusion clearly played out on his face. “<What? Why?>”
“<No more,>” Roberto declared, drawing his sidearm. “<I heard you order Chuy to try to kill him. He’s right. It’s your fault Chuy’s dead. He had no choice but to defend himself.>” There was an audible click as he cocked the pistol. He raised it and pointed it at his father. “<Put the gun down, Father.>”
“<Roberto!>” The old wolf couldn’t believe his eyes. “<What are you doing? I’m your father!>”
“<You’re also responsible for Chuy’s death,>” the officer repeated. “<I won’t allow you to kill him. Now put your gun down.>”
The wolf’s confusion turned to anger. “<No! You’ll put your gun down!>” he ordered, pointing his weapon towards his youngest son. “<You will obey your father!>”
“<No, Father! No more!>” Roberto replied, altering his stance so both hands held the pistol steady. “<You’ve disgraced the good name of the Cordova family. You and my brothers have abused your position, treating everyone like they were here for your amusement. You’ve committed murders, rapes and taken that which never belonged to you, and it stops here! I became a police officer to protect people, not to see you run roughshod all over them! It will stop here and now!>”
Flabbergasted, the old wolf could only stare at his son for several seconds. Finally, he shook his head and lowered his pistol. “<I don’t believe you could shoot me, your father!>”
Panting and shaking slightly from the adrenaline, tears streamed down face as he continued to point the pistol at his father. “<I don’t want to, but I will if you force me to.>”
<”No, you won’t,>” the old wolf said, shaking his head. He lifted the pistol again and shot Anatol twice more, point blank in the chest.
The muzzle flash caused Roberto to flinch, pulling the trigger. The first bullet hit his father in the shoulder. The subsequent three shots made a small, upside-down cross pattern in his chest as they pierced his heart.
The mayor staggered backwards against the car, and stood there for a second, looking down at the bloody mess on the left side of his chest. He looked up at his son with a shocked expression of disbelief and betrayal as his knees buckled, allowing him to slide down the side of the car. He knelt briefly in the bright sunlight day as a light breeze tugged on his hair, before falling forwards, face-first into the dust, dead.
Roberto’s hand holding the pistol dropped as he watched his father fall. The pistol slipped from his grip as he, too, dropped to his knees, and began to cry.
Father Ramirez rushed to Anatol’s side, praying for some miracle that would let him survive this ordeal.
“OK, here we are,” Ricky said, pulling into a guest parking slot near the main entrance to Sheppard Computers. Turning off the ignition, he climbed out of the car, locking the doors before closing his. He turned to see Sheila giving him a dirty look. “What? You don’t expect me to sit out here in the sun, do you?”
Sheila stared at him for a moment before shrugging. “Whatever,” she replied.
The pair entered the building and approached a display listing what was on each floor. She saw the top still had the executive offices. The wait for the elevator was a short one as was the uninterrupted trip to the top floor.
As they stepped out, Sheila saw that the receptionist’s desk was empty so she blocked the elevator doors. “Excuse me, but which way to James Sheppard ’s office?” she asked the guinea pig who’d gotten on.
“Hallway to your left, all the way to the end. Big double doors lead into the boss’ office area. Just ask the secretaries' which one is his,” the guinea pig replied.
“Thank you,” Sheila said, moving out of the doors, which had been bumping her, urging her to get out of the way.
Following the directions, Sheila soon came to a set of large, double doors. Opening one, she stepped through and into the foyer where she saw a pair of secretaries desks, which were occupied, a small table, some comfortable chairs, plants and miscellaneous reading materials for anyone who might have to wait.
Sheila looked at Ricky and pointed to a chair. “Wait here.”
Ricky shrugged, picked up a magazine from the table and then sat down.
“Beg pardon,” Sheila said, addressing the secretaries, “but which one of these offices belongs to James Sheppard?”
The secretary on the right, a lemur, spoke up. “This is Mr. Sheppard’s office. May I help you with something?”
“I need to speak to James, please,” Sheila replied.
The secretary cocked an eye and an ear at Sheila, noting her casual t-shirt, shorts and sandals. “And you are?”
“I’m Sheila Vixen,” she replied, crossing her arms. “I’m a personal friend.”
“I see,” the lemur said, her voice implying understanding beyond what was said. She checked an appointment calendar before looking back up at the vixen. “I’m sorry, but I don’t show you on his calendar. Do you have an appointment?”
“No, I don’t,” Sheila replied, a tinge of annoyance in her voice. “Like I said, I’m a personal friend. Let him know I’m here. I’m sure he’ll see me.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Vixen, but I’m afraid you can’t see Mr. Sheppard without an appointment,” the lemur declared in a patronizing manner. “Would you like to make one?” She looked down at the organizer, which was pretty much blank while flipping pages. “I think I can fit you in later this week.”
“This is bullshit,” Sheila declared, walking around the desk.
The lemur was up, out of her chair and blocking Sheila’s way in an instant. “You can’t just go in there!” she declared, glancing over to the other secretary who’d picked up her phone and was dialing security.
“Listen here, rodent breath,” Sheila barked at the top of her lungs, staggering the lemur back a step. “If you don’t get out of my way, I’m going to turn you into hamburger and use you for a casserole.”
“You can’t go in there!” the wide-eyed lemur shouted, taking another step back as Sheila advanced.
The door to the office flew open. “What in the nine hells is going on out here!” James barked, startling everyone in the room. “Sheila?” he said, not quite able to believe his eyes. The vixen was the last person he ever expected to show up at his office. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m about to commit aggravated assault with intent to kill if this second cousin to a raccoon doesn’t get out of my way,” Sheila growled.
“You know this---this---bi---“ the lemur stammered.
“YES” James barked, interrupting her.“ Yes, I do. You can let her in.”
The lemur tugged on her dress skirt and jacket to recover her aplomb before addressing Sheila again. “Mr. Sheppard will see you now.”
“Gee, thanks---” Sheila snorted as she walked by, “---for nothing.”
James, already feeling the beginnings of a stress headache, quickly closed the door before any further friction would re-ignite the conflict. He turned to Sheila and waved her over to the couch. “What can I do for you, Sheila?”
Sheila looked at James for a moment with no apparent signs that he’d just said anything. Now that she was here, she wasn’t sure how to proceed. Slowly she made her way to the couch and sat down on the edge. “I need to ask you something and I want you to be honest with me.”
James sat down at the other end of the couch, sitting on the edge as well and nodded. “Sheila, I’ve always tried to be as honest as possible, not with just you but everyone.”
“I---I know that,” the vixen replied looking down, suddenly unsure of herself. She looked back up at the coyote with pleading eyes. “But this time, I want you to swear that you’re telling the God’s honest truth with nothing held back, OK?”
James was momentarily taken aback by her request. His mind darted from subject to subject as he tried to figure out just what she was talking about. “All right,” he replied, nodding solemnly. “I swear to be as honest as possible, with nothing held back.”
Sheila looked down at her hands as she tried to figure out what to ask and how to say it. Everyone already thought she was crazy. What if she asked James something and he went and told the doctors. They might never let her out! She looked back over to James. “Promise me that you won’t discuss this with anyone! ANYONE! Promise!”
Now James was really concerned. Whatever was going on it was serious. “All right, Sheila, I won’t talk about this to anyone. I swear.”
Sheila nodded and took a deep breath. “Tell me what happened the night Arden and I went to the studio so Zig could take pictures of us.”
James’ head swam with the shock of the question. He felt like he’d been sucker punched, and his expression showed it. After a few moments, he collected himself enough to answer. “In all God’s honest truth, Sheila, I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t there.”
“I know you weren’t there,” Sheila said, leaning towards him expectantly, “but you did talk to Zig Zag. What did she say happened? I’m talking about back then, not what she says today!”
Suddenly uncomfortable with sitting on the couch, James rose and paced the room like a caged animal. “I don’t know what to say, Sheila. When this originally happened, Zig Zag wouldn’t talk about it. She just said that you two were gone and we’d probably never see you again,” James said, coming to a stop by the window. He looked out at the clouds as they floated high in the sky. “Later, after the DA started investigating, they found all your personal property; your wallet, ID, credit cards, cash and even your car where Zig Zag had stored them. That’s when they charged her with murder.”
Looking down, he shook his head at the memory. “I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe that Zig would do something like that.” He turned and began to pace again. “I love her, you know?” he said looking up at the vixen who nodded. “I just couldn’t believe she was capable of that, but there was all this evidence. I confronted her about it and that’s when she told me this insane story about Arden really being from another world, and you having some kind of magic amulet that made the two of you vanish….”
The rest of the words were lost on Sheila as the truth of what he had said sunk home. Her whole world shattered into little tiny pieces, and began spinning around her head in a storm of confusing thoughts. Zig Zag hadn’t been lying to her yesterday. She and Arden really had been transported to another world. Arden really was the father of her kits. And the memories---the memories of her ordeal was just that, a memory, planted there by Lucifer as his ‘parting gift’.
Hecate had been right. She shouldn’t have trusted the bastard. What was it he had said? That she would be able to access either memory with equal ease. The bastard had played her for the sucker she was. She’d had equal access, so equal that she couldn’t tell reality from fact.
“Sheila?” James said, nudging the vixen with his hand as he knelt in front of her.
Sheila looked up at him with tears in her eyes for a moment before wrapping her arms around him and bursting into tears.
Momentarily stunned by what had happened, it took a few seconds before James reached out to embrace the vixen, as she cried on his shoulder.
Zig Zag tossed the folder in her hand off onto the reject pile. She’d interviewed eleven nannies so far and only two had managed not to rub her wrong somehow. She picked up another folder and examined the contents just as there was a knock at her door. “Yes?” she said, looking up as Maurine stuck her head in.
“Mister Livingston is here for his interview,” she said.
“Thank you. You can show him in now,” Zig Zag said, standing as the mouse entered the room. “Hello. I’m Zig Zag. It’s good to meet you, Mister Livingston.”
The mouse stepped in to the small yet comfortable office, taking in the environment at a glance as the receptionist closed the door behind him. He took Zig Zag’s hand and gave it a firm but gentle shake. “Thank you for making time to see me,” he replied.
“Please, have a seat and make yourself comfortable,” Zig Zag instructed. She was mildly surprised when he took a seat on the couch and crossed his legs. Rather than sitting behind her desk, Zig Zag picked up his folder and took a seat on the other end of the couch, facing him at an angle. She too crossed her legs as she got comfortable. “I’m surprised you chose the couch. So far you’re the only person who chose to sit on the couch.”
“You did say to get comfortable and this couch did look far more comfortable than the chairs did,” the mouse replied giving her an honest smile. “To be honest, I chose the couch for a very specific reason.”
Zig Zag blinked at his declaration. “You did?”
The mouse nodded. “You’ve been doing formal interviews all day. By now, some of them are probably running together in your head. By choosing the couch, I not only set myself apart from the rest of the applicants, but I also changed the setting from a formal interview to a much more relaxed and informal feeling one.”
Zig Zag blinked again. She gave her head a shake to clear it, realizing that he had just declared that he was changing the nature of the interview and didn’t care if she knew it. No, that’s not right, he actually wanted her to know he’d changed it and realize why.
Momentarily taken aback, Zig Zag opened his folder and used it as an excuse to gather her thoughts. The first thing her eyes lit on told her everything she needed to know: Licensed child psychologist.
Looking back up at the mouse, she saw him smiling. “That was a very good demonstration,” she said, giving him a small nod.
“Thank you, but it wasn’t just a demonstration,” the mouse said. “Being a full time, live-in nanny is a very personal thing. I’ll be working with you on a daily basis. I’ll see you first thing in the morning before you have your fur on, and I’ll probably see you last thing at night before you go to bed. Our relationship will be as intimate as one can have with a stranger living under their roof without the sex.”
“I see,” Zig Zag replied, nodding. “So by putting this on a less formal level, you’re hoping to create a situation where the interview isn’t a business relationship but more of a personal one.”
“Exactly,” he said, nodding. “I hope I haven’t overstepped my bounds.”
Zig Zag shifted in her seat, uncrossing her legs and then crossing them in the other direction, briefly revealing the area under her skirt to the mouse as she watched him. She was surprised that although his eyes had shifted with the movement, they had immediately returned to her face, rather than lingering on her legs. “I’m impressed. Most males would have been distracted by my legs longer than half a second.”
The mouse chuckled. “Madam, although you do have the most gorgeous appendages and a stunning physique, I’m afraid that you don’t appeal to my personal tastes.”
“Oh?” she replied, staring at him for a second before the answer struck. “Oh! I see.”
“I hope that won’t be an issue with my employment?” the mouse asked.
Zig Zag shook her head and laughed. “Not a problem. In this business, I work with all kinds. Your particular tastes have nothing to do with employment as long as they don’t run towards young kits.”
The mouse frowned momentarily and then nodded. “I understand. I wish your suspicions had no foundation, but unfortunately the realities we live with today make such a statement necessary.” He uncrossed is legs while shaking his head. “I swear to you now, Miss Zumbrowsky, that although I do love caring for kits, there is nothing in any way sexual about it.”
“I understand,” Zig Zag replied, “and please call me Zig Zag.”
“I’m afraid I can’t, Ma’am,” the mouse replied, again surprising the skunk. “You see, my training as a butler and long service as one ingrained the need for there to be a separation between the employer and employee. By referring to the employer always in a formal manner, it prevents an over-familiarity that can form between two such people which, in turn, can lead to inappropriate statements or actions.”
“All right, but just don’t call me Zumbrowski,” Zig Zag ordered. “I can’t stand that name.”
The mouse cocked an eyebrow in her direction for a moment before nodding. “As you wish, Ma’am.”
Zig Zag looked down at the folder and shook her head. “To be honest, I’m not so sure why I’m even interviewing you,” Zig Zag confessed. “You’re way overqualified for the job, and I don’t see how I could possibly afford someone of your caliber.”
Again, the mouse gave a small chuckle. “Please, don’t let my resume intimidate you,” the mouse replied, giving her an honest and open smile. “There’s a very long story behind it which has ultimately led to me being here and now, interviewing for this job.”
“Oh really,” Zig Zag replied, closing the folder and setting it aside. “We’ve got the better part of an hour, so why don’t you regale me with your history?”
“As you wish, Ma’am,” he again replied. “I do not come from a humble background. My family is quite wealthy and I have never lacked for funds. My parents insisted that I attend college and get some form of education before they’d allow me access to my trust fund. I chose psychology because it looked interesting and not too difficult. Once I graduated, I had full access to my trust fund and began traveling.
“In my travels I visited France where I learned to cook at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Later, while vacationing in Italy, I met up with a most gracious host who allowed me to accompany him on a tour of the Mediterranean on his yacht. During the trip, his butler slipped and broke his leg. As I wasn’t doing anything with my time, I assumed some of the butler’s roll, against my hosts wishes, I dare say,” he commented with a chuckle. “Frankly I found that I enjoyed the day-to-day tasks of supporting someone the way a good butler does, so I applied to and was accepted by the James Thomas Butler School where I must admit, I discovered that I had underestimated how truly valuable an asset a good butler could be to someone.
“After graduating, my patron from the yacht contacted me and informed me that a friend of his was interested in hiring a butler. After interviewing with Mr. McEldowny and his wife, I was accepted to the position. I worked for them for several years until they were in an unfortunate automobile accident, resulting in a rather extended convalescence. It was during that time when I was first asked to care for children. The McEldownys had a pair of twins, not unlike Miss Sheila’s kits. As they had no close relatives, they requested that I assume the roll of nanny until they were capable.
The mouse paused and smiled as he recalled some far away event. “The joy of raising those two kits kindled a fire that had only smoldered while serving the McEldownys.” His focus changed as he returned his gaze to Zig Zag. “Since it was unlikely that I would ever sire kits, I decided to once again change professions and become a nanny. I won’t bore you with the details as they’re all on my resume, but after leaving the McEldownys employ, I not only received formal certification as a nanny from the Crown, but also expanded on my original psychology degree by specializing in children.”
Zig Zag blinked, realizing that his story was done. She felt rather overwhelmed by his story while at the same time somewhat touched. Unfortunately, there was a nagging voice in the back of her head reminding her that he was someone quite capable of manipulating her emotions if he wanted to. “That’s some story,” she admitted, taking up the folder and opening it again. “I must say that your resume is impeccable and you have some very impressive letters of reference, one of which is from British royalty.”
Again the mouse chuckled. “Please, don’t be too impressed. There are many people over in Great Britain who can claim some form of relationship to the Crown, so I would prefer if you didn’t make too much of it.”
Cocking an ear at the mouse, Zig Zag wasn’t sure if he was being serious or self-deprecating. “Well, whatever you say, it still looks impressive,” she replied, shaking her head while smiling. “Still, I can’t help but wonder---”
Zig Zag’s statement was interrupted by a loud banging on the wall followed by the muffled sound of Hazel calling her name and the sound of squalling kits.
“What the hell?” she said, standing up. “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.” She yanked open the door and hurried the short distance to the makeshift nursery doorway. “What the hell is goin…” Zig Zag’s jaw dropped as she came face to face with Sheila. “Sheila! What are you doing here?”
Sheila took a step backwards, looking down and away from Zig Zag. “I came to see my kits.”
“You know her?” Hazel asked as she rocked the two kits, trying to calm them down.
“Yeah,” Zig Zag said, half wondering if this was a dream or a nightmare. She shook her head once to clear it and nodded. “Hazel, this is Sheila Vixen. She’s the kits’ mother.”
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t know,” Hazel replied meekly. “I’ve never seen her. She just showed up and claimed to be their mother and wanted to pick one up.”
“It’s all right, Hazel,” Zig Zag said, moving around to get a better look at the vixen. “Sheila, what’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry,” the vixen sobbed, her eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry, Zig. I’m really, really sorry.”
Instinctively Zig Zag reached out and embraced her friend. “Shush, now. It’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK.”
“No, it isn’t,” Sheila replied, trying to pull away. “I was horrible to you. I’m sorry.”
Zig Zag reached up to wipe her friends tears away. “Hey, kiddo. It’s all right. It was as much my fault as it was yours, OK?”
Sheila sniffed and nodded, still looking abashed.
“Hey, you want to hold one of your kits?” Zig Zag prompted, smiling. “That’s why you’re here, right?”
“Yes,” the vixen replied, sniffling. “Please.”
Zig Zag picked up a small bundle of fur wearing a blue jumpsuit. Carefully, she handed it to Sheila while standing at the ready in case the vixen had another attack of nerves similar to what happened at the hospital.
Holding the kit in the crook of her arm, she rocked it gently while trying to calm it.
“You’re holding him wrong,” the mouse said from the doorway.
“What?” Sheila said, looking up at the stranger. “Who are you?”
Zig Zag shook her head and looked back at the vixen. “Sheila, this is Doc---Mister Livingston. He’s one of the people I was interviewing to act as a nanny.”
“A nanny?” the vixen asked. “And what do you mean, I’m holding him wrong?”
The mouse stepped forwards. “It is my hope that I will be assisting you with the care of your kits on a full time basis until you’re capable of doing it on your own,” he said as he maneuvered himself to stand in front of the vixen. “You’re holding him well enough, but you need to give his head a little more support while not neglecting his back. At this age, their neck muscles aren’t up to the task of supporting their heads and they can get tired easily. A tired kit is a cranky kit, not unlike many adults,” he quipped. Reaching out, he gently adjusted the kit in Sheila’s arms so that it was cradled in a more natural manner. “There. I think you’ll find that he’ll be much happier like that,” he commented.
Sheila’s gaze darted between the mouse and the kit. There was something about the mouse that seemed somehow----familiar to her. She looked back down at the kit and realized that it had calmed down and was no longer crying. Snuggled there in her arms, she felt a warm flush. This was her kit.
Zig Zag studied the mouse, noting his reaction. The care and gentleness of his hands couldn’t be disputed, and he certainly knew what he was talking about when it came to holding a kit. There was something odd about the way he looked at her. There was a strange sort of pride in his gaze that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“So what’s his name?” the mouse asked.
“His name?” The question took Sheila by surprise. “Um. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” the mouse asked incredulously.
“It’s not that she doesn’t know,” Zig Zag explained, “It’s more along the fact that she hasn’t picked a name yet.”
“Oh,” the mouse replied, nodding. “That makes sense. Given what she’s gone through, and that this is obviously the first time she’s really spent any time bonding with the kits, I suppose giving them a name might slip through the cracks.”
“You’re telling me!” Hazel piped up. “You have no clue how many people have asked me if they’ve got a name yet.”
Sheila gave everyone an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. I should have picked one out before now.”
“That’s all right,” Zig Zag replied, patting her friend on the shoulder. “You’ve had other things on your mind.”
“Do you have any ideas for a name?” the mouse prompted.
“Let’s give her a litt---” Zig Zag started, but was interrupted.
“Thomas,” Sheila replied. “Thomas Livingston Bryant Vixen,” Sheila declared.
“Thomas?” Both Zig Zag and Hazel asked at the same time.
“Who is Thomas?” Zig Zag asked.
Sheila looked up with a tear in her eye. “He was a very special friend I encountered on my journeys,” Sheila replied. “I gave him a lot of grief he didn’t deserve. I think this would be a good way to remember him.”
“I---I think he would probably be honored that you remembered him this way,” the mouse replied.
Zig Zag’s head snapped around to look at the mouse as the realization just hit her. Shaking slightly, she turned back to Sheila and smiled. Sheila, hon, why don’t you sit down over there at the desk and get to know your kits, OK? While you do that, you can be thinking of a name for his sister. OK?”
“OK,” Sheila said with a smile as she moved over to sit down. She turned to look at the mouse and gave him a smile. “It was nice meeting you.”
“It was an honor to meet you, Miss Sheila,” the mouse said, giving her a brief bow. He turned and caught an odd look in Zig Zag’s eye.
“Well then, shall we return to my office and finish up your interview?” she asked, giving him her best screen smile.
“Indeed,” the mouse replied. As he followed her to her office, he removed a piece of candy from his pocket and popped it into his mouth. His hand hovered over the pocket for a moment, but it soon dropped by his side.
Zig Zag picked the folder up off of the couch and took it over to her desk. She sat down in the chair and opened it to the front page and frowned. “I knew it,” she said, looking up at the mouse.
The mouse quietly closed the door before taking a seat across from Zig Zag. “I never expected her to choose that name,” he commented quietly.
“Just who are you?” Zig Zag demanded.
The mouse focused his will as he declared his next words. “I am Doctor Thomas Bryant Livingston, a professional butler and nanny. Sheila’s choice of names was---just a coincidence.”
Zig Zag’s expression softened and became slack. “---just a coincidence,” she repeated.
“You have no misgivings about me,” the mouse continued.
“I have no misgivings about you,” she again echoed.
“In the end, you will choose me to be the kits’ nanny,” he declared.
“In the end, I will choose you to be the kits’ nanny,” Zig Zag droned.
The mouse relaxed and let the spell fade. “Is there anything else I can answer for you?” he asked, smiling pleasantly.
Zig Zag shook her head and gave the mouse a confused look. What had she been thinking? She knew it was something important, but something had broken her train of thought. She gave her head a mental shake to clear out the cobwebs and nodded to the mouse. “Not at the moment. You’ve done a wonderful job of answering my questions, Sheila likes you and you are obviously competent around kits. I’ll definitely be keeping you in mind for the job.” She stood up from her chair and moved around the desk to shake his hand. “Thank you for coming in.”
“Thank you for your time, ma’am,” the mouse replied. “I look forward to hearing from you.”
Nodding to herself she watched the mouse open the door and leave. Returning to her seat, she looked at his resume again and studied it. There was something in the back of her mind, tickling her about it, but she just couldn’t put her finger on it.
Closing the folder, she set it on the keepers pile and picked up the next folder in the stack, noting that she was almost done with the stack.
Thomas slipped back into the AP’s office where Sheila and Hazel were both busy feeding the kits. He leaned against the door and smiled as he took in the scene.
Sheila looked up, saw the smiling mouse and grinned herself. “So, did you get the job?”
The mouse shrugged. “I don’t know yet. Zig Zag has some more interviews to do before she can make the final decision,” he explained as he sat down. “Have you decided on a name for the female?”
“Hecate,” Sheila replied, nodding.
The mouse’s eyebrow arched in surprise. “That’s quite a name for her to live up to,” he replied.
Sheila cocked an ear in his direction. “Oh? How so?”
“Hecate is the name of an ancient goddess,” the mouse explained. “The most common representation of her is as the Goddess of the Crossroads. She stands in the crossroads and helps travelers with their decisions. The Romans included her in their pantheon as the Dark Mother, with all that the name implies, both good and bad. It’s said that she draws her power from the moon, and though it’s not tied to the moon’s phase, the power is at its peak when the moon is new.” He stopped and chuckled. “Which is kind of a contradiction, but what can you expect from ancient mythology. Yet more representations of her are the goddess of magic and also of revenge. That’s quite a lot to live up to.”
“Goddess of revenge?” Sheila said, looking over at the kit Hazel was holding. “Wow, I guess that is kind of a heavy name.” She quietly rocked the kit for a few more moments as she pondered names. “Michelle.”
“Michelle?” Thomas replied, again surprised by her choice. “Why Michelle?”
Sheila glanced at the mouse and then down at her kit. “When I was young, I found a stack of old pictures my mom had. It was back when we used to run wild with the pack. It showed my mom holding two kits and looking pretty trashed. I asked her if it was me and Tammy.” She paused and frowned. “She had the saddest look on her face. She said that the other kit was my twin sister. She’d been killed when a rival pack had attacked a few months later.”
“Oh,” was all the mouse could reply.
Sheila looked up and gave him a smile. “Don’t feel bad. It’s not like I ever really knew her. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to have a twin sister. I spent a lot of time imagining the kind of mischief we’d get into. I guess this little guy will know what it’s like, though not quite the same way I was thinking.”
The mouse chuckled. “I’m sure that they’ll manage to create their own unique brand of mischief that you’ll want to kill them for, but will laugh about once they’re grown up and gone.”
“Yeah,” Sheila said, rather distantly.
The mouse studied her for a moment before speaking. “What’s wrong?”
Sheila shook her head as her focus snapped back on the room. “Nothing. I was just thinking.”
“About?” Thomas prompted.
“About the fact that it’s not just me anymore, is it?” She asked, looking a bit afraid. “Now that I have kits to care for, everything’s going to change. I’ve got to start taking responsibility for things and stop living in the moment.”
The mouse nodded. “That’s very true. It’s a big responsibility, but you know what?” He paused as she gave him a quizzical look. “I think you’re up to it.”
Sheila gave him a nervous smile. “Thanks.”
District Attorney Khansman sat at his desk, reviewing the current round of plea-bargains. The stack annoyed him somewhat as it was thicker than usual. On one hand it was a good thing as it would be easier to hide the favors he did. On the other hand, it meant that he had to be very careful about what deals he allowed through so that his favors wouldn’t stand out. Fortunately there were a large number of deals that he knew were innocent people who’d been framed. His associates had seen to it that these people were added to the pile to help increase his conviction numbers without them having to actually sacrifice their own people in the process.
He looked up as the intercom beeped. “I’ve got a call on line three for you from Ninety Minutes,” his secretary announced.
“Do you know what it’s about?” the panther asked, leaning back in his chair. Ninety Minutes was a big hitter in the investigative reporting industry.
“They’re doing a story on the Zig Zag case,” the secretary replied.
Daniel cursed under his breath. “Tell them that the DA’s office has no comment,” he replied. “And make sure the word gets spread that nobody and I mean nobody in our office talks to them, understand?”
“Yes, sir,” the secretary responded.
The panther frowned as he watched the intercom light wink out on his phone. If Ninety Minutes was doing a story on Zig Zag, that could only mean bad news for him, unless of course, he found a way to spin it in his direction.
Leaning back in his chair, he rotated it to look out the window as he contemplated his options and how best to use them to his advantage.