Anthropomorphic Foxes In Space….

Chapter 6


AFIS 4.61 Hot Georgia Night

Chessec:

We sped through the southern darkness, curtains closed on the van, air conditioning struggling to catch up with the heat. H'raawl-Hrkh and I stretched on a mattress on the floor in bare fur, panting in the stuffy, humid air. Scents of hot fur, of M'raeenn and Diyim'yi, overlaid with human sweat thickened it further. Dave's tape player blared from the far side of the curtains, covering the road noise and preventing him from overhearing our conversation. I began to tell her about my anxieties about Dave and Marie's situation, and my concerns about him and Chopka. She cut me off with a gesture.

"No. Are not going to talk about your sister and her human. Is time to think of mission, Lieutenant." My muzzle came around sharply at her tone. I realized I had treated this as more of a casual hobby, maybe a vacation. I'd settled into domesticity, and really wasn't thinking as a Corps officer. Her amber eyes bored into my own, and she smiled slightly, seeing she had my attention. "Your family, Captain Amkro told Captain Chopka and me we cannot let this fall into a war, no matter what. While you have been here, this crew has risked much. We will succeed in spite of the humans, even in spite of our own people."

"First, this has gone far beyond the simple trade treaty the Envoy was sent for. The humans have the pieces of the faster-than-light puzzle, just a matter of time before their scientists put it together. Might even be building a starship now, in secret place. Their news talks about Area 51 all the time." She flicked an ear when I started to laugh, then continued. "And now they are certain of our presence, it becomes vital not to accidentally give them more cause for alarm." She continued, counting off priorities on her paw. Now that her link with Jena was restored, her English was much more fluent.

"Yes. We stop Relloc before she attacks. She could start a war all by herself, and with the increased security, the odds of her being discovered are much higher than they might have been a year ago." She gestured at the Suburban following our van. "We're not going to be able to do this alone. Colin says his government will help, but they are even more concerned that he not be discovered working covertly in this country. We'll ask him to 'flash his badge' only as a last resort."

" Last, I'm the senior military officer on the surface of the planet, so it becomes my responsibility. Not that I'll get any credit. The two of us haven't much chance of promotion in the Corps, that's sure," she observed. The commander brushed some imaginary lint off her imaginary collar insignia. "I'll have a berth until your Chopka finishes his command, but I doubt they'd trust me with a ship again, even a freighter." She fished an ice cube from the cooler and let it drip down the bridge of her broad nose, occasionally licking the water before it threatened to drip on the floor, signifying she was finished. She grinned, crunching another cube between her teeth. "Now, tell me why your sister is not happy with your clansman? Chopka is a strong male, but you and her should be able to keep him asleep, happy and tired in the family den."

"Chopka's not mine. He's my sister's problem." I wondered how things would go once Marie was settled back at the estate. Chopka would have trouble enough with Ampris, his other wife. She certainly wouldn't give Marie much support, and was likely to try to undermine her relationship with their husband. I must have let my concerns leak out, because I suddenly felt a wave of reassurance from Marie in the other car.

"Marie thinks we worry too much," I remarked to the big cat. "She's more confident than me, that's for certain." It was certainly interesting having a telepathically linked twin. I asked H'raawl, "How well do you sense what your sister is up to?"

"Oh, it's like having two sets of feelings. While were connected for that short time right after the accident, we basically had one set of thoughts. Now though, we're close enough but with a little more distance in our heads. I still know what she's feeling, but I know it isn't me. Before, the differences between her human thoughts and instincts and my own were pretty big; now she acts more like a M'raeenn all the time."

"Marie and I are a lot like that. I know I got my original feelings toward Dave from her, and only later replaced them with my own. I think of it as a 75-25 split: I'm still more Diyim'yi, but she's more human. You probably shared more because Jena was so ill when she was transferred into your clone."

"That may be. But Jena says is because she needed to be someone else, she wasn't happy as the person she was before. Says she tries harder to 'be a cat.'" She worked a kink out of her hind leg, nearly brushing the ceiling. "Ooh, been caged too long. Ask your man if we can stop."

"Hey, Dave!" I called out through the curtain. He turned down his tape (The Cars) and opened it. "We'd like to stretch our legs. Is there anyplace to stop coming?"

"Five miles to a picnic area. It's late enough to get out. Would you mind driving so I have a chance to talk to H'raawl?" I looked across at her, but she seemed to have exhausted our topic.

"Sure."

After our rest stop, Dave and she were behind the curtain, talking, and I steered our little convoy through the darkness. Deer and smaller varmints were thick along this stretch, and I once saw my feral namesake standing over a road-killed possum. Her glowing eyes seemed to stare right through me. I was momentarily envious of her simple life.

We left the vixen, crossing into Florida just after midnight. As dawn started pinkening the sky we pulled into the antique stucco-walled motor court in Titusville where we'd agreed to meet Chuck and Cindy. Dave had rented one complete section of the motel; four adjoining bungalows not facing the highway, and the innkeeper left the key to one under the mat, per his agreement. The four of us occupied every sleepable surface of the room, the windows tightly curtained, the 'Do Not Disturb' sign on the doorknob. We slept until nearly noon.

Chuck arrived alone shortly thereafter, maps and notebook piled on top of pizza boxes. I greeted him from the shadows of the connecting room we intended to make our command post.

"I'm glad you decided to join us, come on in." I pointed to the table. "Just set everything over there, and we'll be right with you." Marie came in through the connecting door.

"Dave and Colin are still shaving, and H'raawl-Hrkh' got the hair dryer." She saw him look back and forth between the two of us. "Oh, that's right. You haven't seen the two of us together before." She did her 'look, we're identical twins' pose next to me.

"I thought I was seeing double. Chessec, we've met, of course. Which of you was I speaking to on the phone?"

"Probably me," Marie said. "It's good to finally match a face to your voice. But where's Cindy?"

"She's still in Orlando. We need to wrap up our part of the interagency task force, before our 'vacation' starts. She's got some leads, too, and she'll bring the other lioness over here with her later this evening. I understand she's not the same one as the Commander?"

"Yah, everyone's a twin around here," H'raawl growled as she joined us in the room, still brushing the bushy end of her tail. "Is just like situation comedy, just not funny." Dave and Colin followed her through the door, and we all settled around the table.

"Then," Dave said, opening the meeting. "Since this is everyone who's coming, lets figure out how we're going to locate a 14-year old girl-saboteur in the two weeks before the next shuttle launch. Any questions before we start?"

"Are two pizzas going to be enough?" I asked. "Maybe we should order another before we start. I want one with pineapple."


AFIS 4.62 Cue Miami Vice Theme

Jena:

Gavin returned from his job at the animal sanctuary. He smelled strongly of cat; he did all the time, now. If our close quarters together in his apartment for three weeks had done nothing else, it had made him confident enough to handle the big animals closely. Maybe too much, I worried he would get hurt. I'd asked him the day before, and he admitted he gave one of the cougars under his care a hug. I decided he needed another lesson.

"You can't treat those animals like they're pets, or people." I eased across the room on all four feet, tail and whiskers twitching, padded up beside him, closing the door suddenly by batting it shut with my forepaw. "They're still very wild. A single wrong move, and you might get your arm ripped off." While he bent over the coffee table to sort his mail, I rose up to my full height behind him, head almost touching the ceiling. I leaned over, coughed in his ear, then reached forward with my hind leg and jerking his feet out from under him. He fell, wind milling his arms to avoid hitting the table, but I scooped him bodily across it instead. I pounced, rocking the couch back and forth slightly, my weight forcing the air out of his lungs with a 'whoosh!'

As soon as he drew a breath, he giggled uncontrollably, spoiling my object lesson. "Get off me, Jena," he gasped. "You're too heavy." I braced an arm across his throat, choking off what breath he had left, then licked his face as wetly and sloppily as I could, nearly drowning him in saliva. A growing pressure from his pants against my belly showed he wasn't getting the message. Well, maybe I wasn't the right one to deliver it. I was losing track of why I'd started.

Oh, yeah; how to tell the animals from the people. I moved my arm enough to allow him to draw a breath. With the other, I carefully unbuttoned his shirt. I'd have ripped it off to further make the point, but the boy was running out of work uniforms. I licked the now-exposed tender flesh of his armpit hard enough to pull out some hair, and didn't stop until the skin was red. I rolled most of my weight off him, holding him lightly in position with my claws splayed on his chest.

"One of those cats might like the attention (ear rubbings feel pretty good) or she might not understand that you're just being friendly. She might think you're going to attack her, and strike out-" I drew my claws across his chest, leaving red welts. That was one place a hickey that large wouldn't show. "Or, she might think you're food…" I clamped down on his arm just below the shoulder, my jaws easily encircling it, teeth pinching some of the flesh I'd just licked. I released, looking into his eyes from a range of a few inches. "…And pull off a bite like that to taste."

I opened wider, showing my teeth to their best advantage, and roared quietly. "Now, quiz time. Why did I do that?" I stood up above him on the couch, giving him a chance to breath.

"Two reasons. I understand, I gave one of the sanctuary animals a thorough rubdown today, and you can smell it on me. I'm being careful, she was in restraints. I don't climb into the enclosures." He was defensive, placating. "Mainly, you did it because you like controlling me. You're so much bigger and stronger, and that's how you get your kicks. I don't know why I put up with it. I'm not like that any more, except…." He threw both arms around my midsection and pulled his face into my fur, rubbing back and forth. His next sentence was muffled in the folds of my neck. "Except that sometimes I really, really like it."

It is a basic law of the universe that someone will interrupt moments like this. My ears swiveled as the door opened, revealing Gavin's friend Edward, the only person he'd told I was living with him. It wouldn't have worked otherwise; the two were constantly together.

"Hi, I hoped-" He took in the tableau: the two of us embraced on the couch, Gavin's shirt open. "Never mind!," he said in a hurt voice. Ed stepped back outside and slammed the door again.

Gavin's attention instantly wilted, he made pushing motions to climb out from under me. He knew he'd hurt Ed more than he thought; his first instinct was to make up. While I might be the embodiment of Gavin's fetish (and how did that make me feel?), Ed was his friend, his alter ego, and his companion. And probably more, I didn't want to ask. I felt like the 'other woman' all of a sudden. I'd been on the other side of a situation like that with my 'ex, and I felt guilty that I'd come between the two of them.

"You'd better go catch him, tell him I don't mean anything. Remind him I'll be gone soon. And button your pants, first!" I peered anxiously around the window curtain at the two of them: Gavin leaned in Ed's car window, gesturing soundlessly. Ed said something sharply back, made as if to push him away from the car. Gavin looked back at the house, made an uninterpretable, but hopeless gesture to me, and then ran around and jumped in the passenger seat. They argued some more and Ed started to pull out of the driveway. He reached the street, then stopped, putting it back in reverse. They drove into the garage, out of my sight.

It was my fault, and clearly our playtime was over. I was at a loss, though: I didn't want to cause any more trouble between Gavin and his friend, but I was trapped in the middle of town in daylight; I didn't have anyplace to go, and no place to hide until dark. I listened through the kitchen door to the garage, but could hear nothing. I decided to give them privacy, going into the bedroom at the opposite end of the house. The phone (Garfield-the-cat, if you must know) gave me an idea: I called Cindy's cell phone.

"Hi, this is Jena. Are you someplace where you can talk?"

"Wait a minute." She covered the phone, but I could hear her talking to someone else. "As long as it's important, I guess so. I'm at the EOC again, and technically nobody is supposed to have his or her phone turned on. What's up?"

I told her that I was likely to need a place to go on short notice.

"No you won't." I looked up at Gavin standing in the doorway, half-dressed again. He gave me a stressed, brave smile. "Ed says he understands. He wants to talk to you about it." I smiled in relief and relayed the news to Cindy.

"That's good news. Hey, we should still get together this evening anyway. I've got some news for you. I had an anonymous phone call. How about later tonight?"

"Sure, we'll be here. Oh. And you might knock, first." She ended the call.

Would that all my relationships broke up this well: We three had that talk over the next couple of hours, and I acknowledged Ed's prior claim, reassuring him we were just having a 'fling.' Gavin helped him understand how powerful his attraction to the idea of me was; what just the smell of fur did for him. While I didn't plan to change myself, I became aware how much need for dominance was now an essential part of my own sexuality, too. Doctor Ruth would have approved, Springer would definitely have booked us all on his show. By the time Cindy showed up, we'd done the group hug, I'd even experimentally kissed Ed (did nothing for him-wrong gender and species) and the two of them were sitting hand-in-hand as I let her in the door.

She looked carefully at us three, barely a stitch of clothes between us; Gavin's skin a mass of scratches and red welts. I just smiled. She started to say something, reconsidered. Gavin offered her a seat, brushing an eviscerated plush (they don't make them as tough as they need to be sometimes) off the cushion.

"I-never mind." She started fresh, pulling a photo from her purse. "Is this girl Relloc?" The photo showed her in institutional garb, hair cut short, a hard expression on her face. I nodded. "This is the one I interviewed after you were caught. She's escaped from an Orlando juvenile detention facility. This photo is being circulated by law enforcement statewide as a runaway report. Nobody has reported seeing her, yet." She has vanished without a trace, almost."

"Almost?" Cindy smiled.

"I've gotten three anonymous phone calls from a young girl in the past few weeks. The first wanted to know if I would talk to her; whether I would turn her in to the police. The second asked if you were all right, Jena." I nodded. She continued, "early this morning she called again. She wasn't as hard-bitten as she tried to be before, and the topic was very interesting: she wanted to know how human females controlled fertility, and if I could explain human mating rituals to her." I laughed, Cindy gave me a cross look, and started to protest. I held up my paw.

Oh, it's very serious and funny both. She never planned to need to know anything like that! And since vixens control their fertility naturally, I can imagine her indignity when she found out. Seriously, though. It means she's either found someone she likes well enough she can be a female with him; or she's so close to her target she thinks sex can get her inside."

"It could be both. Since they were cell phone calls, I had the origin traced. The first was here in Orlando, the second in Titusville, and the last from the Cape."

"Then she's close. She's met some man who can get her inside the launch facility."

"That's probably true, but what if there's some other target? There are lots of defense facilities in this area."

"I've been sitting here in Gavin's apartment making lists. She's still a relatively weak person physically; she doesn't have enough money for a big bomb or a team large enough to infiltrate one. The shuttle is the only soft target." It's time to go track her down."

"Jena, it'll be another day or two before your folks drive here. Chuck and I are splitting our effort so we're not missed by the agency, but we don't have time for the canvassing effort it's going to take to find her. We'll just have to wait."

"We want to help." Ed spoke for the first time. Gav and I can do some of that: there's a weekend coming, and we could stay on my parents boat: Its tied up in Cocoa Beach ,at the marina."

"It's too dangerous to leave Jena alone here. If someone saw her, they'd shoot her on sight."

"If she's on the boat, we'll be hidden from sight. Its got a smoked glass enclosed bridge. Come on. It's dark now, lets get going. We can be there in an hour."

"And where do you plan to look?" Cindy was weakening.

"We'll cruise the bars, of course. And the waterfront ones, too. Some let you tie up alongside."

"You two certainly have grasped the essential part of the drudgery of detective work," I observed wryly. "Just remember, the bars you visit have to be ones that a young hetero girl might go into on a date with an at least nominally hetero man."

"That's no fun." He grinned. Cindy threw up her hands and gave me a copy of Relloc's picture.

So we went.


AFIS 3.63 Attracted to the Uniform

Relloc:

My schedule as a nocturnal human settled down to an unproductive routine. Sleep until mid-afternoon, Wake up and take care of the ordinary distractions of life, maybe interrupted by some research: a tour of the Cape, reading at the library; I might follow a likely person whose desk I'd previously searched. While I found people with jobs that gave them access to the manned program, or even better, to the launch sites, nobody had vulnerability I could exploit. To my growing disgust, my age and stature limited my ability to impersonate anyone except maybe the girl who ran the cash register at the cafeteria, and I already had more access than her. I was beginning to think I might have to infiltrate through the alligator-infested swamps, or drive a truck bomb on a one-way trip through the gates.

And that was a less attractive option all around: while I might be mistaken for any of their normal human enemies, eventually we would be connected with the attack. With the wrong administration in power, our own government might even feel obligated to apologize. A seeming series of accidents, hopefully without too much loss of life, might discourage their manned program without directing anger against us. And as I became more comfortable with my new life, I was realizing that to die for the cause at my young age seemed less and less attractive.

A surprising change was that I was beginning to develop a social life. Oh, not too much: By eight or nine at night it was time to get some food and meet up with the cleaning crew, and we liked to gather at a small back-bay diner on old Route 1 to eat, drink and talk until the foreman showed up with the truck. The two older women clucked and fussed over me, made suggestions about my appearance, coached me on how to look good to find a husband, what kind to marry to improve my life. The guys sat around us in a protective circle, smoking their cigarettes and flirting with the waitresses. Jame, the youngest (but still twice my age), occasionally made a pass in my direction, but my two pack mothers shooed him away with comments like 'you don't want one like him, he's no good!' He took it well, and his buddies made laughing comments about 'jailbait.' It was something like a family, and I hadn't had one of those in a while. We even met on the nights we weren't working. If money allowed, I went out with them to the cheaper ocean side clubs.

Ironically, that gave me the opening I needed, in the person of a handsome young man named Curtis. Us cleaners sat at a chrome end booth, talking, and sharing a plate of chips and a bowl of salsa. The guys were drinking beer, occasionally offering me a sip when they decided no one was looking. They all joked that I was 'too young,' never mind what it said on my green card. That theirs were probably as false as mine didn't enter into it. Still, my cover worked perfectly, nobody thought I was any more than what I appeared: a runaway.

It was almost midnight when a small group of firemen from the center came in together, wearing matching cotton shirts with the fire department logo and "NASA/USAF Fire & Rescue Services above the breast pocket, laughing and shoving each other and joking. One accidentally pushed Jame against me as they passed. When he started to raise up to challenge them, one of the firemen apologized quickly in fluent Spanish, waving away his own group who had gathered at his back as if they wouldn't mind a fight. They were all young, well-muscled men: it was probably safer for my companions to avoid a brawl, too. I smiled to cover my lack of understanding, although "very sorry", and "pretty" were both part of it. He was handsome, and he seemed friendly, and my subconscious was working overtime to decide how to get to know him better. I guess my flirting instinct kicked in, because I found myself eager to be noticed by this attractive male.

Normally, I was able to clamp down on whatever excessively hormonal reactions my body surprised me with, usually by reminding myself of the mission. This time the analytical part of my brain betrayed me to the emotional part, reminding me that an emergency services worker might be the way to penetrate the target. I waved off the crew, who said something, too fast for me to translate (which I'm sure included the all-to-familiar 'she's too young'.) I excused myself to the restroom, but made sure to stop by Curtis' table when I came back.

He worked at the fire station across the parking lot from the Vehicle Assembly Building, just a few miles from the Pad 39B complex. More significantly, during a shuttle launch he was part of the small crew of paramedics who manned the emergency escape system for the complex. This consisted of a fire-hardened bunker about ¼ mile from the pad, connected by wire cable down which a trapped worker or astronaut would slide to escape. Curtis boasted that he was the closest person to the launch besides the astronauts, sitting in his flame-resistant suit inside a yellow-painted M113 armored carrier.

I was impressed by all this information, as I'm sure he intended I would be. If I could persuade him to take me out to his jobsite on an unofficial tour, maybe I'd have an opportunity for sabotage. I stuck close to him whenever his crew came in, and I occasionally slipped across to the fire station when I was cleaning at the press center complex. Curtis took a fair amount of kidding about me from the older firefighters, but I flirted as much as I could, working on his vanity. And he was a handsome young human, I'll admit. If I was going to become a human woman in truth, I convinced myself I could do worse for my first.

I assembled the device from parts a bought at a large home improvement warehouse. In the high security alert, it'd need to be common components I could bring into the base a few pieces at a time, and then assemble just before I placed it. Something small enough for a girl my size to carry.

Curtis and I started meeting the firehouse during my 3:00 AM 'dinner break,' sometimes just sitting in the lounge watching TV with the other firemen, other times walking outside around the parking lot, talking. I would bring the pieces of the device in my purse and lunch bag, hiding them in an old brush-fighting equipment trailer near the building.

We talked and laughed a lot when we were together, I found him interesting. He told me stories about things that had happened to him, where he went to school, and his hometown. They were such different tales than the ones about my own abbreviated childhood: I mostly remembered the war, running messages for the Resistance. I made up a few careful fictions, told him about my fictitious emigration from Belize, and even the on-paper 'husband.' I assured him that as soon as I made enough money; I'd fix the irregularities with my paperwork. I left him the impression I'd actually run away from parents much closer, someplace in Orlando. We became more comfortable in each other's company, enough that he finally asked me to come to a picnic on the next day we were both off work in daylight together. I was going on a date!

It started as a group outing: his co-workers and their families playing in the sand that afternoon, then grilling hotdogs (horrible tasting sausages-don't ask) and sharing communal chilled dishes. We played a game where two sides hit a ball with their hands across a net; I had no talent, but loved chasing it when it escaped the field. Later, he borrowed an outboard fishing boat from a friend and took me out alone on the water. We sat side-by-side on the back bench seat while we motored across the lagoon, the wading birds standing where the water was too shallow. We were up against the barrier island when the sun set, and watched the pink aftermath together. As the air took on an evening chill, he put his windbreaker around my shoulders.

While he drove me back to my room, I wondered just how much I was playing a role, and how much I was responding in the correct manner to his courtship dance. I certainly felt that he was making the appropriate steps, and I felt ready to make the appropriate responses. Bending him to my will was problematical; I might just as easily be turned to his own. I ran everything back and forth in my mind as we went, and was caught by surprise as all at once we actually were standing at my door. He started to thank me for a pleasant day, I thanked him, then turned to go inside. At that moment, I realized I was still wearing his jacket; I mentioned it and spun around, pulling it off to hand it to him.

He must have stepped forward to reach for it at the same moment. I stepped up, and found myself inside his arms, his face just above my own. Some cross-wired Diyim'yi-jaguar-human instinct reflex fired, and I licked his neck. He must have been puzzled by that, but he recovered quickly, bending down and kissing me on the lips. I blinked, kissed him back, then stepped into the doorway. I think I said something, but the next thing I remember I was leaning against the back of my front door, tasting his scent on my lips with my tongue tip.

Disturbingly, I was having trouble breathing.

This could be a terrible problem. If human reaction to an attractive, sexually compatible partner were this strong, how would I have the will to break away from him when the time came to plant the bomb? Maybe this was just because of my age. I could be in heat, although Doctor Plaksa assured me human fertility cycles didn't work that way. I wished I could ask her. Or Jena, the big cat had been a reliable guide in my attempts to be human. I wondered how she was faring, suffering my daily worry and shame about abandoning her.

I wished there was someone I could ask, I was lonely all of a sudden. I wouldn't bother either of my co-workers: the mere mention of romantic troubles would start the two women fluttering around, planning my wedding, speculating about the handsome babies my Fireman and I would produce. Which reminded me…birth control. Jena and Plaksa both said I had no natural way to control my fertility. I went to get my phone book, looking up the number of the free health clinic I used. They always had posters on their walls about having healthy children, maybe they could suggest something. A card dropped out of the book.

The special investigator who interviewed my in the center. She'd implied she knew about the Diyim'yi, and the M'raeenn too, for that matter. I had called the number on the card twice already, when I'd been depressed enough to think about surrendering. I didn't trust her enough for that, and chickened out each time. Still, she was the only woman I knew who might give me a straight answer my question: How did I keep Curtis attracted to me, without becoming the mother to his children? How could I expect him to behave, and how did I control myself? I picked up the phone and dialed her number.


AFIS 4.64 Got the Ragtop Down, Cruisin' the Strip

Cindy:

The motel room looked like any other surveillance command post: Empty coffee cups, pizza and Chinese food boxes piled in drifts near, but not quite inside the trash cans, which would have to be dumped and searched for incriminating notes before we left anyway. Normal, if you discounted the 'Dogs playing poker' aspects of it all. The two large, talking vixens, two enormous lionesses, intermingled with us four humans, all sprawled over the beds, couch and chairs. Shed fur everywhere. We'd kept the maid away for a week, and the management would doubtless want the damage deposit. Phones and phone books from both adjoining rooms trailed their long cords in through the connecting doors to the table where Marie sat taking notes. A muted TV showed CNN.

It was almost dawn. Jena and I joined the rest of the searchers, fresh (fresh? I don't think that's the word I wanted,) after a long night barhopping with Gavin and Ed. After some cursory first aid they'd left us to drive back to Orlando and both planned to work their day jobs after a few hours rest. I'd been that young not too long before, but those two had a store of energy I'd never been able to match even back then. I planned to sleep the day through once I brought everyone up to date.

"Lets get this done. I think we've located her. I'm pretty sure it was Relloc I saw."

Jena agreed. "We might have caught her if that police patrol hadn't come by. She practically dragged her partner from that parking lot," she growled

"Should have taken the chance. Be twice as hard to find her again. Could have dealt with two police." H'raawl-Hrkh was snappish; clearly envious her sister Jena wasn't cooped up in a motel.

"OK, enough of that." Chuck waved his hand dismissively at the lioness; familiarity and close quarters had removed the awe the predator would otherwise inspire. "Let Cindy tell the whole thing one more time, so the night shift can get some sleep. Colin and I need to know whatever happened, before we go out and start knocking on doors." I took a swallow of warm soup mix and started in again.

"Jena's two boyfriends," I began, talking through her attempt to protest the description, "Have spent every night this week cruising bars and clubs from Daytona to Melbourne. Last night we worked the strip out on the Cape. We've got a pretty good routine working by now: Les Boys wander into a bar, making sure she's not already inside. When they give me the sign, I follow, flashing my ID and picture of Relloc to the staff. I get out before the real cops show; while Jena stays hidden in the back seat of their car, watching the entrance and parking lot."

"And nobody even questions the big cat in the back seat?" Colin asked, curious.

"Some of these places, I don't believe what I've seen in the back seats of cars. I've lived a sheltered, midwestern life. It's a miracle every car didn't contain at least a Puma."

"We add class," Jena added.

"Anyway, as usually happens, it was the last place we looked. Most of the high-dollar places had closed-"

"And a good thing, since Ed nearly spent our whole entertainment budget buying drinks and tipping dancers," Dave observed, sourly.

"They weren't that bad. You just don't go clubbing enough." I pressed on, sensing a loss of focus. "Anyway, as I said. They had been in one place, just across from the harbor, until closing time. As the crowd started to move outside, some drunken bastard nailed Gavin with a beer bottle to the head in the alleyway. I'm sure Ed tried to fight him, but he's nearly worthless, especially when he's not thinking, and he wasn't thinking then. He rushed into the brawl (which now included three of the drunk's friends)."

Jena said, "I couldn't see them, but I heard the yelling. I slid over into the front seat and started the motor in case we had to get away."

"Gavin was down, and Ed was being held by two big oafs while the third worked him over. I didn't want to pull a firearm in that crowd. Instead, I pushed my way back inside to get the bouncers. When I came back out, a group of bystanders, Samaritans, even, had broken up the fight. The attackers were gone, and one man was checking Gavin for concussion in a fairly professional manner."

"That's when I saw Relloc. She was standing with two other women, watching the men (who were clearly with them) help our friends. I worked my way behind her to try to follow, hoping she wouldn't see me. They all left in a group, helping Gavin toward the car first. He'd recovered enough to know where he was, and convinced them he could make it the rest of the way under his own power, or at least leaning on Ed."

"I continued to follow Relloc. They climbed into a custom pickup and drove off. As I said before, I got the plates and the NASA tag number, even though I lost them crossing the causeway. Jena saw the rest of the fight."

"Yeah. Our bully must have waited in the shadows until Ed tried to open his car door. He'd just seen me behind the wheel, so it was a complete surprise. One second he was outside, pulling on the handle, the next he vanished to the ground, and a man who coincidentally smelled like my last human fiancé, the one who dumped me before I met Mitzep, stood over him, kicking. I think that's what decided me, rather than any rational decision. I've had a need to have closure on that relationship for a long time. So I jumped him."

"And you don't think he'll report what he saw?" Colin inquired. Jena merely purred, smiling and showing lots of teeth.

"I meant that literally. I jumped him. Pounded him flat to the pavement. He was on his stomach, and I was there with my mouth around his neck, jaws closing. It took me another half second to make myself not close them, and the better part of thirty seconds to realize he wasn't moving. Neither was Ed, so I threw him in the back seat, searched the unconscious man," Chessec held up the wallet across the room, as Jena gestured, "and told Gavin to get us someplace quickly."

"We left just as the first patrol car arrived, and shortly after that, Cindy called on her cell to tell us she'd lost Relloc. We came back here." Jena borrowed my cup of soup, pouring the rest down her throat.

Chuck summed the night's work up with: "So we know she's here, and we can trace the truck to somebody who knows where she is. That's the best lead we've had. You get some sleep, and let's see if we can do enough old-fashioned detective work today to find her."


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