| Story © 2000-2007 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.
Stepping onto the elevator, Anatol nodded to the small male operator, whose species he couldn’t quite identify since the large hat the short creature wore made seeing its face difficult. “Third floor, please.”
The elevator operator shifted his lever, causing the car to move upwards. “Stay away from your room, Father,” the operator said in a hushed voice.
“What?” Anatol asked, surprised by the statement. “Why?”
“It’s a trap,” the operator replied, looking up at Anatol, revealing its face. “The police know about what happened in Mexico and will be on their way here. Your entrance into the country was not covered. If they catch you here with the weapons they’ve left in the room, you’ll go to prison.”
Anatol blinked at the revelation, not of the information, but who was giving it. “Jacques? Is that really you? You’re alive?”
The elevator stopped at the third floor, but the operator didn’t open the door. “You never could keep up with me, could you?” the muskrat replied giving him a broad grin. “Yes, it’s me. Yes, I’m alive. No, the church doesn’t know. And finally, yes, I’m serious. They probably told you that they’d pulled the standard load out for you, but I have a friend in the church who tells me that they really pulled equipment for a demolition job.”
“A demolition job?” Anatol repeated, turning away slightly as the elevator started back down. “Why? Why would they do something like that? I’m on a mission! Sabotaging my mission would be heresy!”
“Cardinal Diamante drew the equipment personally,” Jacques replied. “He passed them to Father Ruiz under seal.”
Anatol’s ears flattened against his head as his hackles rose. “Diamante’s a Cardinal now? How in God’s name did that happen?”
“The way it always happens for the likes of him,” the muskrat replied, watching the indicator as the elevator descended down into the subbasement and stopped. He grabbed the grate and hauled it open before opening the door. “Brown nosing, blackmail and the occasional discrediting of his opponents,” Jacques declared. “The man is a snake.”
“Thank you,” Anatol replied, nodding. He started to step out and stoped. “Why are you hiding? Why did you not come in after Cairo?”
The muskrat’s mouth thinned as he thought about the question. “You know what happened. We were betrayed. Let them think I am dead.” He smiled and handed Anatol a piece of paper. “Besides, if they think I’m dead, then it will be harder for them to stop me from finding out who was responsible.”
Anatol glanced at the paper and saw that it had an address. He shifted his bag on his shoulder and nodded to his friend. “Thank you. Your help has been invaluable,” he said as the elevator closed.
Turning, Anatol made his way through the maze of the basement, following the signs to the exit. He stepped out of the building and began to walk briskly away. He was no more than two blocks from the hotel when the sound of sirens could be heard. A few seconds later a stream of police cars raced by.
He glanced again at the paper and crumpled it up. He knew of the hotel at the address on the paper. It had been over a decade since he’d been there, and yet it felt like yesterday. Nonetheless, he wouldn’t go there. Not yet. For now, he’d head down to the ghettos and lose himself among the commoners.
Zig Zag’s voice was loud enough to rattle the pictures on the wall, making her lawyer David flinch.
“How in the hell did they manage that?” she angrily demanded, leaning most of the way across her desk towards the tabby who flinched even further from her.
“It’s really not that uncommon,” he explained with a weak smile. “Considering how long this case dragged on, something like this was bound to happen.”
“You’re telling me,” Zig Zag said, straightening up and crossing her arms while she glared down at the lawyer like a schoolmarm would a child, “that it’s a common practice for the cops to lose cars that have been impounded?”
“The police, no,” David replied, shaking his head. “Independent contractors, sometimes so.” He flipped open his briefcase and pulled out a fat folder of paperwork before closing it back up and placing it on the floor. “According to the state’s records, her car was impounded the day you were arrested and transferred to the central depot. After being examined by investigators for evidence, it was placed in long-term storage at the A1 Storage Yard. However…” he let his voice trail off as he watched Zig Zag sit down.
“However, they don’t have any record of the transfer,” she completed for him as she flopped backwards in her chair. “So what do we do now? Sue the state? File an insurance claim? What?”
David shook his head. “You could sue the city since they’re the ones who impounded it, but the most money you could get would be the value of the car. Your best bet might be to try collecting the insurance on the car. If my memory is correct, Sheila’s insurance was paid up for another four months after it was impounded, so we may be able to try that. However, since it’s been almost a year since it was impounded…”
Zig Zag threw her hands up in disgust. “Great! What else can go wrong?” She frowned when she saw the cat flinch again. Her eyes narrowed as she studied him. “OK, what else has gone wrong?”
“Sheila’s medical insurance,” he replied with a tired sigh. “They’ve rejected the bill for her stay at the hospital for when she had her kits.”
Her eyes narrowed even further, until they were hardly open slits. She reached out and hit the intercom on her phone without having to look at the button. “Muriel? What’s the status on Sheila’s insurance? Haven’t we kept her on the rolls?”
“Um---yeah,” the unsure voice replied over the intercom. “I think we have. Let me check.” There was the sound of a drawer opening and papers being handled before the voice spoke again, “Yep. She’s been fully paid since she started here.”
“Thanks, Muriel,” she said, releasing the button. Her face relaxed and she smiled. “See, shouldn’t be a problem.”
David swallowed. “It wouldn’t if she’d actually done any work in-house over the last six months,” he replied, pulling out a copy of the insurance document with a section highlighted and handed it to Zig Zag. “Your insurance specifies that if someone doesn’t do any work here at the shop for six months, then their coverage lapses. We always figured it wouldn’t be a problem since you could just have them come in and do filing for an hour to qualify. Unfortunately---”
“Unfortunately,” she growled, interrupting him, “Sheila was AWOL for the last year meaning that she’s not covered for the insurance.” She leaned her head back against the chair and let out an inarticulate scream of frustration that caused a few faces to look in and then quickly vanish.
“Damnit,” Zig Zag spat after composing herself again. “How much am I out?” she asked without looking.
Lifting up his briefcase, David propped it on the desk between him and Zig Zag, hiding somewhat from her. “You want just the maternity bill, or should I add in the cost of the private hospitalization she’s currently getting?”
Zig Zag’s eyes flew wide open at that thought, then closed as she winced. “I am so fucked,” she quietly declared.
“Señor Antigua,” Anatol said to the austerely dressed lion that had greeted him in the Italian marble tiled patio. Taking the lion’s hand into his own, he gave a firm handshake, pleased to have it returned. “It is a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Father,” the lion replied. “Cardinal Sandoval said that you would be dropping by. Would you care for some refreshments? Miguel!” Snapping his fingers, he summoned one of the servants. “What would you like?”
Father Anatol nodded to the young cougar. “Iced tea, please,” he replied.
Picking up his drink, the lion leaned back and sipped it. “The Cardinal did not explain why you needed to see me, only that it was important. I have always done my best to help the church whenever I am able, so please, tell me what it is that you need.”
“I have come to speak with you about the night you were attacked,” Anatol said, watching not only the lion’s reaction to his words, but those of the servants who were within earshot. He noticed that one of them, a young canid crossed himself quickly and then hurried away. “I was hoping that you could enlighten me as to exactly what happened.”
Señor Antigua set his glass down and steepled his fingers together. “That was a most disturbing evening, Father. I am curious as to why you would be interested.”
Anatol glanced up as the young cougar placed his drink on the table. “Perhaps such a discussion is better had away from young ears?” he suggested. He sipped his drink as the lion shooed his servants away. Setting his drink down, he leaned forwards to speak in a more intimate fashion. “Let me be blunt, Señor. I hunt the creature that attacked you.”
The sharp hiss of air through clenched fangs was the lion’s immediate response. “So I was right,” he replied, shaking his head slowly. “That thing was el Diablo!”
“No! Not el Diablo,” Anatol replied sharply. “Something unnatural---yes, but to call it the devil is giving to give it too much power.”
Antigua leaned forwards, slapping his ringed hand against the table, striking it loudly. “Do not tell me what this thing was! You were not there! You did not see what it did!” he snapped.
“You are right,” Anatol replied calmly. “However I have seen what it did in other places. Let me ask you this, Señor---” He paused to ensure that he had the lion’s full attention. “Did this creature kill anyone?”
“Eh?” Antigua grunted, straightening up slightly at the question. He thought about it a moment and then shook his head. “No. No, it did not.”
“Then this is not el Diablo,” Father Anatol replied, leaning back in his chair. “Or are you saying that el Diablo would not have committed terrible and unspeakable acts upon you and your guests? Would he have some reason not to harm you?”
The implications of the question struck the lion. “What are you implying,” Antigua growled, glaring at the priest.
“I imply nothing,” Anatol declared, spreading his palms. “If the devil has no reason to spare you, and the creature did not kill or maim any of your guests, then I cannot believe that what attacked you was the devil.”
Antigua shook his head. “No. You did not see what it did. This---this monster. It came to us as a guest, disguised as female pantera negra. It was asking questions about a visitor I had some time ago. When I would not talk about it, one of my guests tried to show it out. When he touched it, it struck him and then---” he shuddered at the memory. “It was a monster. Its body seemed to melt and change until it had become a hideous monster with wings and a barbed tail.”
Father Anatol nodded. “I have seen what you speak of.”
“Then you know,” Señor Antigua said. “Even if it was not the work of the el Diablo, it was one of his children.”
Anatol started to speak, but the lion interrupted.
“No! I will speak of it no more,” the lion declared. “If you must talk to someone, talk to Señor Peterson. He is the one who fought with the creature.” Waving a hand at the lone servant standing on the other side of the patio. “Show the good father to Señor Peterson, Paco.”
“Si, Señor,” the cub replied, bowing slightly. “This way, Padre.”
Anatol finished his tea as he stood, and then set the glass gently back down on the table. “Thank you for your time, Señor.” He then turned to follow the cub.
The pair proceeded quickly through the mansion to a large terrace that overlooked the city and the canal. Standing by the railing was a large, black colored bear in a white suit with a matching hat on its large head.
“Señor Peterson,” the cub said, getting the bear's attention. “You have a visitor.” He bowed to both males, turned and left.
“Hables English?” the bear asked in very poor Spanish.
For a moment, Anatol was tempted to toy with him, but banished the thought to where such unseemly thoughts deserved to go. This was no time for amusement. “Yes, I do,” the replied smoothly, doing his best to cover his Russian accent.
“Hot shit!” the bear replied, cracking a wide smile. “I can make out some of the Spanish jibber jabber, but not a lot, and what English they speak around here is usually broken at best. Hell, if it weren’t for ol’ Antigua, I’d probably forget how to speak proper English all together!” He stuck a huge paw in Anatol’s direction. “Jack Peterson, at your service, Padre!”
“Father Anatol Lysenko,” he replied taking the bear’s hand in his. As the two shook hands, his mind flashed back to them exchanging handshakes in a fighting ring in Taipei. The father quickly recovered and smiled. “Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Peterson.”
“Aw, hell! Call me Jack. All my friends do,” the bear replied, releasing his grip. “You sure look mighty familiar, there Father. You ever been over to the far east?”
Anatol frowned slightly and shook his head. “I’m afraid not. My travels have kept me to mostly Europe and the Americas.”
The smile faded from the bear. “Really?” he said, studying the priest. “You remind me of someone I met over there a number of years ago.”
“It was not me,” Anatol replied.
“Ah, what the hell,” Jack declared, smiling broadly again as he scooped the priest up with a large arm around his shoulder and steered him over to the railing. “Heck of a view, ain’t it, Padre? I just love this joint. Warm winters, hot women, and cool drinks. What more could a man ask for, eh?” He laughed out loud as he drained his drink.
“Eternal salvation?” Anatol replied in a teasing voice.
Again the bear burst out laughing. “Well said, Padre! Well said!” He slapped the priest on the back of his robes so hard that Anatol had trouble keeping from being knocked over the railings. “So what can I do for a man of the cloth? Surely you ain’t here to talk to me about saving my soul!”
“Alas no,” the priest replied. “Though I’m sure that would be an interesting conversation.” He paused to let the bear laugh again. “I’m here about the attack that happened last week.”
All joviality in the bear vanished. “Oh,” he simply replied, turning away to look out over the city again.
“What can you tell me about this creature?” Anatol prompted.
For several very long seconds, the bear ignored the question, his gaze lost on the horizon. “You’re hunting it, aren’t you?” he asked, looking back at the priest with very grave and knowing eyes.
“I—” Anatol started to reply, but then paused, confused by the look. “What makes you think that?”
Jack gave the priest a derisive snort and looked away. “Because that’s what you were doing in Taipei fifteen years ago,” he replied before looking back at the priest. “Yeah, I remember you now. You fought in the killing rings at the same time I did.”
Anatol started to refute the statement, but couldn’t think of what to say. His fur had been dyed to make him look like a regular skunk, they had altered his scent, and he’d been careful not to get too close with anyone on that assignment. For the bear to remember him after all this time was unthinkable.
“Yeah, that was you,” Jack stated flatly. “I can see it in your eyes.”
For several seconds, Anatol fought to say something, finally managing to spit out, “How?”
Again Jack gave a snort. “Son, skunks are a dime a dozen, but skunks that fight in the killing rings are mighty rare. Rare even more so are fighters that not only defeat their opponents, but go out of their way not to cripple them,” he explained. He took a deep breath and let it out as he remembered. “I watched your fights the same way I watched all the fights and I noticed right off that you always took your opponent out quickly, efficiently, and without inflicting a lot of pain.” He gave the priest a sharp look. “Most folk who fight in the rings get off on pain, but not you.”
Anatol nodded. “Yes, that was me back then.”
“You were hunting the tiger, weren’t you?” the bear asked, startling Anatol again.
His eyes widened as he nodded. “Yes, I was. How did you know?”
The bear laughed again, though it wasn’t the light hearted laugh from before. “Because I was hunting that bastard myself,” he replied. “When you spooked him, I knew he’d try to run so I followed him---right in to you,” he said, poking the priest with a sharp claw. “What I saw that night is something I don’t think I’ll ever forget,” he said with a shudder.
Anatol looked away, dredging his own memories of that time. “I never knew. I was careful to check and make sure neither of us were followed.”
“What the hell was that thing you fought, Father?” the bear asked. “Some of the things it did…. I chalked some of the things it did in the ring to simply being a unique fighting style, but what I saw it do fighting you---that was just unnatural.”
“What you saw was a demon from hell, my son,” Anatol replied quietly. “Not unlike the monster I am hunting now.”
The bear shuddered at the priest’s words. “I thought it was something like that. When that thing tossed me around like I was some punk kit mouse the other night, I thought I’d lost my touch, but after it changed shape….”
“Please,” Father Anatol said, placing a hand on the bear's arm. “Will you tell me of your fight?”
Slowly, over the next hour, the bear gave a very detailed description of the fight that had lasted less than two minutes that night.
Zig Zag pulled into her driveway and idled to a stop as the garage door opened.
“Thanks for the ride, Zig,” Hazel said as she climbed out of the car. She closed the door and paused noting that Zig Zag hadn’t replied. “Hey, Zig? You OK?”
Zig Zag blinked and looked wearily over at the squirrel. Giving her a smile she chuckled, “Yeah, kiddo. I’m just tired and have a lot on my mind.”
The squirrel nodded. “Gotcha. OK, boss lady! I’ll catch you in the morning!”
“OK. Hazel,” Zig replied, inching the car into the garage.
She killed the engine and hit the button for the garage door opener, but didn’t climb out of the car. She leaned forwards and banged her head on the steering wheel. “Damn it.” A minute or so later, she took a deep breath and let it out before exiting the car.
Stepping into the house, she tossed her keys and purse haphazardly onto the table by the door before slipping off her coat. As she walked back to her room, she slowly started to undo parts of her clothing in order to change. Once in her room, she just dumped her clothes onto the floor. She debated for a moment about what to put on before disregarding the entire idea and wandering back out to the living room and on through to the atrium where the Jacuzzi was. A quick turn of the timer knob started the jets, which in turn soon created a maelstrom of churning waters.
“Now this is more like it,” she muttered to herself as she stepped down into the water, enjoying the heat as the water pushed its way through her fur. Once she was all the way in, she rolled over onto her back and floated, letting the bubbles from the jets buoy her up from below. She closed her eyes and smiled as she let her worries for the day slip away.
The unexpected sound of a voice startled Zig Zag, causing her to momentarily flounder in the water. She stood up, and looked around, quickly spotting Thomas. “God damnit, Thomas! What the hell are you doing here?”
The mouse, unperturbed by her reaction, simply cocked a brow in her direction and replied, “I work here, Ma’am.”
Zig Zag let out a sigh of exasperation as she dropped back down in the water. “That’s not what I meant,” she said, running her hands through her wet hair, slicking it back so it was out of her eyes. “You startled the shit out of me. You shouldn’t sneak around like that.”
“I apologize, Ma’am,” the mouse said, nodding slightly. “However, as a butler, one is trained to neither be seen nor heard. We are intended to be a part of the background that is unnoticed until called upon or needed.” He leaned forwards holding out a serving platter that Zig recognized as something she’d stuffed in a closet a long time ago that had a drink on it. “Judging by your actions this evening, I thought you might use a drink.”
Zig reached out and took the drink, and started to take a sip, but paused at a thought. Her recent conversation with Father Lysenko flashed into her head. She dismissed it with a quick sip of the liquor. “Mmmm. Scotch on the rocks,” she commented, savoring the flavor. She looked up at the mouse and gave him a curious look. “How’d you know I preferred this?”
The mouse straightened up and smiled. “I could claim that it’s a trade secret, however there really is no such thing. While cleaning today, I noted that there were several water rings left on various surfaces that matched the size of the tumblers, telling me that you preferred cold drinks. You have a very well stocked bar, but the only bottle that didn’t have dust on it was the scotch, ergo that was your preferred drink.”
Zig Zag sat in the water and listened to his explanation with a slack jaw. She shook her head and laughed. “You’re a regular Sherlock fucking Holmes, aren’t you?”
Thomas’ brow furrowed as he frowned slightly. “I wouldn’t say that,” he replied in a serious tone. “Observation is the cornerstone of being not only a good butler, but nanny and psychologist as well. If one does not observe their surroundings fully, then how can one anticipate the needs of their client?” He paused for a moment, watching Zig Zag’s reaction to his answer and then smiled just the tiniest fraction. “It was elementary, my dear Watson.”
“HAH!” Zig Zag let out a bark of laughter that had her grinning from ear to ear. “You have no idea how much I need a good laugh today,” she said before taking another sip of the drink.
“One can imagine,” the mouse replied. “I hate to bother you further, Ma’am, however there is the matter of dinner.”
Zig Zag groaned. “I’d forgotten about dinner tonight.” She tossed back the rest of her drink and set the glass back down on the edge of the Jacuzzi. Tilting her head back, she let her eyes close for a minute in an attempt to allow the day’s stress to fade from her body. Despite the gentle massaging actions of the bubbles and the alcohol, she just couldn’t relax. “I really am not up to going out for dinner tonight.”
“Ah. In that case, perhaps it’s fortunate that while I took the kits for a stroll today, I stopped off at the market and purchased some fresh supplies,” Thomas noted. “If you like, I could easily prepare something for the two of you.”
Zig Zag opened her eyes and squinted up at Thomas. “Wait a second. You took the kits for a stroll and just happened to pass the foodmart? That place is almost two miles away?”
Thomas thought about it for a second and nodded. “That would be about right. I do enjoy a nice refreshing walk, and this morning was simply perfect for it. The kits did enjoy the chance to get out for a bit and were perfect angels.” He paused and squatted down next to the Jacuzzi. “Did you know that the market would deliver for a small fee? It was quite fortunate as your pantry was most wanting.”
“Oh god,” Zig Zag groaned again. “How much did you spend?”
“Please, do not worry yourself with such trivialities,” Thomas replied. “I purchased enough food to feed two average adults for three meals five times a week. This was on the assumption that you would not be here for lunches and that Master James would be here occasionally for breakfast and dinner.” He stood up, brushing the crinkles in his pants with his white gloves and continued, “The total bill with delivery was under two hundred dollars. If your cash flow is constrained at the moment, please do not worry about reimbursing me directly. Much of what I had to buy was required for the kits and to properly take care of myself. I will, of course, deduct the cost of what I consume from the final total.”
“No, no…” Zig Zag said, running her hands through her long hair and then shaking her head to clear it some. “I should foot the food bill just remember that we’re not aiming for five star restaurant quality food here.”
“Noted,” the mouse stated, nodding. “Returning to the question; if you wish, I could prepare a simple dinner for the two of you.”
She thought about it for a moment and then nodded. “Yeah, I think that would be the best. Would you hand me the phone over there, please?”
Thomas recovered the cordless phone from its cradle by the stereo system and handed it to Zig Zag. “Please inform Master Sheppard that dinner will be in two hours.”
“Will do,” the skunk replied, smiling. “And Thomas---thank you.”
The mouse gave a small bow. “One is pleased to serve, Madam,” he replied before turning and walking briskly from the room.
Dialing James’ cell number into the phone, Zig Zag hit the talk button and listened for him to answer. “Hello, is this Studs-R-Us?” she said in a sultry voice.
“That depends, are we talking about interior construction work, or something else?” James replied over the phone.
“Oh, I’m definitely thinking interior,” Zig Zag replied, “although I’m more interested in you banging on things rather than construction.”
The voice on the other end chuckled. “Banging on things, eh? I’m pretty sure I can handle your needs. How soon do you need me to come over?” James asked.
“How about in two hours?” Zig Zag suggested. “I’m not really feeling up to going out tonight and Thomas has offered to cook up something.”
When there was no immediate reply, Zig Zag frowned. “James? Are you there?”
“Yes, I’m here,” he replied hastily. “I was just doing a little mental scheduling. Sure, two hours sounds fine. Ask him if he needs me to pick up anything on the way.”
“Will do, though I doubt he will. He did some grocery shopping at the market when he took the kits for a stroll,” she replied.
“The market?” James echoed incredulously. “That place is two miles from there. Are you telling me he walked all the way to the market and back with the kits and picked up groceries?”
“Not quite all that. Apparently the market will deliver for a small fee, so he did some shopping and had them deliver the food once he’d gotten back,” she explained, filling in the gaps in the original story with the most logical of assumptions.
James nodded, though she couldn’t see it. “Oh, OK then. I’m going to go home and do my quick-change act and then head on over. I’ll see you then. Love you.”
Zig Zag smiled at those words. “I love you too,” she replied before disconnecting.
She set the phone down by the side of the pool and smiled, feeling the tension finally fade from her body. Every time she heard him say that he loved her, it still gave her a warm, fuzzy feeling inside that made her feel like a kid again.
Thomas had exchanged his coat and vest for a kitchen apron with “Shag the Chef” written across the front in large letters. He’d made a mental note to purchase one more befitting of someone of his standing at the first opportune moment.
He quickly double-checked all the food that was in the process of being cooked. The marinara sauce was coming along well as was the spaghetti and meatballs. The chicken breasts that were grilling in the oven were coming along nicely as were the vegetables. Everything was at a point where he could take a few minutes to go and check on the kits.
Quickly, but without the appearance of hurrying, he walked back towards the spare bedroom where the kits were. As he passed the atrium, he heard Zig Zag call out to him. Backing up he stepped into the room. “Yes, Ma’am?” He asked, and then froze at what he saw.
Zig Zag stood by the side of the pool and was twisting the water out of her tail. She looked up at Thomas and flashed him a quick smile. “Would you mind grabbing me one of those big towels there by the door, please? I forgot to get one on the way in.”
Thomas swallowed and dragged his eyes away from a very wet and very naked Zig Zag and over towards the towels. Reaching out he drew one from the cart and unfolded it, holding it out to her as he approached.
“Thank you,” Zig Zag said, smiling again. “I’m not usually such an air head,” she said as she began to furiously rub the towel over her chest and stomach.
“Quite understandable,” Thomas replied, nodding slightly. “If you’ll pardon me, I was about to check on the kits.”
“Oh, sure, that’s fine,” she replied, nodding. “Don’t let me keep you.” She paused as he turned and left. For just a moment, she thought that maybe she saw that he was----no, she decided, it was probably just her imagination.
Thomas stepped into the kits room and leaned heavily against the wall, trying to calm his heart. “Come on, you knew what you were getting in to,” he said to himself, taking a deep breath. “You knew that sooner or later you’d see her walking around, starkers.” He looked down at his crotch and frowned. “And what about you. Lord only knows what she’d do if she saw me springin a nobby. I’m supposed to be gay, you know.” He straightened up and walked over to the double crib, still muttering to himself. “Bloody traitor.”
Leaning over the crib, he saw that his namesake was still asleep, but that Michelle was awake. He lifted the cub up and cradled her in his arms. “Well, good evening to you, Miss Mickey,” he said, tickling the cub under her chin. “And aren’t we looking more adorable by the second,” he crooned. “But unfortunately I have to get back to cooking, so I’m going to have to ask you to keep quiet a bit longer, OK? Good.”
Smiling, he placed the kit back in the crib. He reached out to the large, wind-up clock by the headboard and picked it up. Winding the key on the back, he flipped it over and muttered a few words, renewing the calming charm before placing it back in the crib.”
“I’ll be back soon, you two,” he said, before turning to leave. He froze as he turned around to see Zig Zag toweling her hair. “Miss Zig Zag,” he said, startled at her appearance. “Can I help you with something?”
“Not really,” she replied, entering the room while draping the towel over her shoulder, either oblivious to the fact she was naked or uncaring. She peered over the edge of the crib and smiled. “I don’t know how you do it. I always had a heck of a time getting them to calm down enough to sleep.”
“It’s not just how you act,” Thomas replied, glad for the diversion. “It’s how you feel. If you’re at peace with things around you, the kits will sense that as well. If you’re frustrated, they’ll be harder to calm because they can sense that in you.”
Zig Zag nodded as she straightened up. “That makes sense,” she replied turning to face him. “You’ve certainly done this long enough you would know how to handle something as touchy as a newborn.”
Thomas gave a polite laugh. “Ma’am, you have no idea. Compared to dealing with high maintenance corporate executives, a newborn is a stroll down the balmy lane.” Again he gave her a small bow. “If you’ll pardon me, I would not want anything to burn.”
Zig Zag watched him leave the room and shook her head. She must have been imagining his reaction in the atrium. He certainly didn’t seem to be affected by her standing next to him. She chuckled at the thought as she walked across the hall to her bedroom. It had probably all been her subconscious mind’s unwillingness to accept that there was a man on the planet who didn’t get a hard on looking at her.
James awoke to find he was alone in bed. He squinted over at the bathroom and saw that the door was open, but nobody was in there. Frowning to himself, he got up and put on a robe before making his way out to the living room. He spotted the Mouse standing next to the large, plate glass window that looked out over the back yard, staring out.
He watched the mouse for a couple of minutes, studying him. Despite the time, which his watch said was almost two in the morning, the mouse was still dressed in a suit, complete with white gloves. The expression on the mouse was one of deep concentration and concern as he watched whatever was happening outside the window.
James could tell by the play of light against the ceiling that the pool light was on and someone was in there, which could only mean that Zig Zag was swimming again. He started towards the mouse, moving silently and was somewhat surprised when he spoke without turning towards him.
“Good evening, Master Sheppard. I presume you couldn’t sleep?” He asked, still watching the form swimming back and forth in the pool.
James gave a generally affirmative grunt and looked out the window. Sure enough, Zig Zag was doing laps in the pool again. “Damn,” he muttered. “How long has she been doing that?”
“It has been almost twenty seven minutes since she entered the water,” the mouse declared. “Does she do this often?” He asked, looking over at James for a moment before returning his gaze outside. “Midnight swims, that is?”
“Only when she’s bothered by something,” James replied, shaking his head. “I wonder what it is this time?”
Now the mouse turned his entire attention to James. “She hasn’t talked to you about what’s bothering her?” he asked.
Again, James shook his head. “Zig Zag isn’t one to easily confide things,” he explained, frowning slightly. “She’s had to stand alone for so long that she really doesn’t know how to share the load with people.”
The mouse mouthed a silent “Ah,” and returned to watching Zig Zag. “That is most unfortunate. I have no doubt that there are vast resources amongst her friends she has yet to tap.”
James chuckled. “That depends on your definition of tapping, however you’re right. Zig Zag tends to try and deal with things on her terms. It’s part of what makes her such a control freak. She has a real problem with letting go of things.” He stopped talking and squinted at the mouse out of the corner of his eye. It suddenly occurred to him that this might not be the best person to be telling all this stuff. After all, what did they really know about him? And why did he get such an odd feeling whenever he was around him.
The mouse turned and looked at James for a moment, startling the coyote, making him think that maybe the mouse knew what he was thinking. “If you’ll pardon me for a second, sir,” the mouse said as he turned and disappeared down the hall.
A moment later he returned with a large bath towel and held it out to James. “Perhaps you’d care to join her?”
“No thanks, “James said, shaking his head. “I don’t have any trunks.”
“Neither does she,” the mouse commented, nodding towards Zig Zag’s silhouette against the pool bottom. He stepped slightly closer and spoke again before James could object, this time in a more intimate voice. “If I may, sir. She’s isolated herself both physically and mentally. Perhaps if you symbolically inserted yourself into her isolation, she might open up to you?”
James accepted the towel, but shook his head. “I don’t know…”
“As you wish, sir,” the mouse replied, nodding. “If you’ll excuse me, it’s almost time for the twins feeding. I should prepare their formula.” He stepped past James and walked onto the kitchen where he turned the light on and opened a cabinet to get out a pan.
James watched the kitchen for a minute and then turned back to Zig Zag who was still doing laps. “What the hell,” he muttered, gripping the towel tighter in his hand. He made his way out to the pool area and set the towel down onto the table next to Zig’s and removed his robe, self-consciously glancing over his shoulder at the living room window to see if the mouse was watching, before putting the robe on the table as well.
He quickly stepped over to the pool and made his way down the steps and into the warm water as Zig Zag turned to do another lap. He moved deeper until he could comfortably squat down up to his neck. As Zig Zag came back from the deep end, he reached out and grabbed her tail.
“YAAAaa!” The skunk yelled, startled by the tug on her tail and coming half out of the water as she turned around. She blinked the water from her eyes and looked at the culprit. “James! What the…?” she asked, letting the words trail off before another question forced its way into the foreground. “What in the world are you doing out here at this time of night?”
James moved forwards and grabbed her hand, pulling her towards him and into a quick kiss. “I hate waking up to an empty bed even more,” He stated. “You have no idea what kind of a blow to my ego it is to have some woman run off to have a secret affair with a swimming pool.”
Zig Zag smiled for a second, but it faded quickly and she frowned. “Seriously, James. What are you doing out here? You hate my midnight swims.”
James shook his head. “You know, Zig, being with you is a blast, but getting shut out when you have problems is really getting old. I thought we were a team.”
“Of course we’re a team,” she replied smiling and wrapping her arms around his neck. “What makes you think we aren’t?”
“The fact that you’re out here swimming instead of talking to me inside,” James replied flatly, pulling away from her. “Come on, Zig. Think who you’re talking to. I’ve known you too long to believe you came out here just to get a little exercise.”
“James…” she started hesitantly to say.
“Let me guess,” he interrupted. “It’s not something you can talk about right?” He turned away cursing before turning angrily back towards her. “Damnit Zig Zag, don’t you understand what it is to be in a partnership? Both partners have to be honest and up front with each other. You start hiding crap and you’re going to destroy this relationship and I don’t want that!”
Zig Zag watched him turn and start towards the stairs. “James, wait,” she said, causing him to stop. She walked over to the stairs and sat down on them. “I’m in trouble,” she finally admitted. “Serious trouble.”
James dropped down next to her. “What kind of trouble? You didn’t kill anyone, did you?”
“No,” she replied, shooting him a hard look out of the corner of her eye.
“OK, then. It’s not as big a problem as it could be,” he replied, taking her hand into his. “So what happened?”
“This Jerry Slotter project,” she said, looking down at her feet through the water. “It’s killing us. It’s costing more than we anticipated and the studio’s riding the bloody edge of bankruptcy as it is.”
James nodded. “Yeah, I know about that. We’ve talked about that before. If you need money, I can see about lending the studio some.”
“It’s getting worse,” she said, shaking her head. “Every time I turn around, there’s some big money expense hitting us out of nowhere.” She leaned her head back and looked up at the night sky. “The insurance company rejected Sheila’s hospital bills due to a technicality, so I have to cover them and the impound lot’s lost her car. I’m staring down the barrel of nearly two hundred thousand in medical bills so far including the private hospital and shrinks, and god only knows when that’s going to end.”
“Ouch,” James said, wincing somewhat. “That’s quite a bill, but they don’t want it right now, right? You can see about paying it off over time, right?”
“Yeah, in theory,” she replied, letting out a heavy sigh. “That’s assuming we had the money to make those kinds of payments.” She paused, for a moment. “I haven’t mentioned it to you because I didn’t want to worry you, but I’ve been raiding my stock portfolio and IRAs to keep the company afloat. They’re all just about gone.”
James frowned. He knew that she’d put her savings back into the company, but she’d never said a word about her other investments. He nodded. “You know I’m not rich, but what I have is yours. If you want…”
“No,” she sharply said. “If push comes to shove, you’ll need that money.”
“Oh?” James said, giving her a quizzical look.
Zig Zag turned and smiled. “Damned right, mister! I expect you to keep me in the lifestyle I’ve become accustomed to!”
“Zig!” James frowned and shook his head. “This is serious!”
Her features softened. “I know it is, but right now, there’s nothing much you can do,” she replied. “At this point my only hope is that Jerry Slotter sets records when it sells, or I’m out of business.”
“We’ll worry about that if it happens,” James said, giving her a hug and a kiss. “For now, let’s go to bed. We’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.” He glanced over at the window and was relieved not to see the mouse as they climbed out.
Bryant stood by the window, watching the pool in such a way that he was shadowed by most of the light. As the pair climbed out holding hands he smiled. Even at this distance he could make them both out clearly. As attractive as James may be, his eyes were locked on Zig Zag. Yes, this assignment was definitely going to be an interesting one. He thought he’d mastered the art of self-control, but his brief run in with Zig Zag earlier told him that this wasn’t going to be as easy as he had believed.
What annoyed him most was that his boss had warned him not to get cocky.