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"He's going to die unless you do something!"
The "he" in this case was not human, but that didn't make the situation any easier.
Leaning against the wall in a crowded college hallway, Katie Vincent frowned and wished she'd ignored her cell phone's ring. But she hadn't and now could only ask, "How did you get this number?"
Never trust a lawyer, especially not a semi-retired one who'd kept her dad as a client because of old times' sake.
"The panther you sold me," Luke Rittenhouse practically growled, "isn't responding to anything I've tried. Based on Aquila's weight loss, he probably won't last another week unless you do something."
The man sounded annoyed, worried and bossy all at the same time.
Katie closed her eyes. This wasn't the first time she'd been asked to make a difference in Aquila's life. But now Katie was no longer an adolescent girl who thought herself indestructible as well as indispensable.
"Mr. Rittenhouse, I'm at work. It's the beginning of the semester, and I don't have any vacation coming. Plus, I have responsibilities with my younger sister. You're asking the impossible. I don't work with animals anymore. I can't help you."
"You don't have a choice. I've gone over all the paperwork, and according to what you signed, you have to improve his condition or you're in breach of contract."
Breach of contract? Unfortunately he might be right. She'd wanted to settle her father's estate as quickly as possible, so when Luke Rittenhouse had asked her to guarantee her father's performance animals' health and abilities, she'd agreed. She'd not hesitated to put it in writing. Bob Vincent, her father, animal trainer extraordinaire with almost three decades of experience, took great care of his animalsbetter care of his animals than he'd taken of his children.
But improve Aquila's condition? Katie closed her eyes again and tried to remember exactly where Luke Rittenhouse lived. She was pretty sure it wasn't Texas.
"Are you still there?"
"I'm still here, but, Mr. Rittenhouse, I can't do anything for Aquila. I stopped helping my father more than a decade ago. I wouldn't know what to do. I don't even keep a pet and"
"I'm not letting Aquila die. Not if I can help it."
Katie seriously doubted that Aquila was dying. He was only twelve years old. Panthers, in captivity, usually lived into their early twenties.
"I need you to come to Scorpion Ridge."
Katie almost dropped the phone. "Are you nuts?" she said, getting the attention of the few students scurrying late to class. "Scorpion Ridge? What kind of place is that?"
"It's in Arizona."
"I'm not coming to Arizona. I"
The man had no trouble finishing her sentences. "signed a paper guaranteeing all of your father's animals were in good health."
"My father's animals were in excellent condition," Katie exclaimed. "Not only did my father's vet, as well as yours, examine each and every animal before the sale, but we hired an independent consultant to attest to their health. No way can you claim"
"Lady, I'm telling you, nothing we've tried has worked. Aquila is dying."
Katie paused as the memories washed over her. She'd been eleven when Aquila and his brother were born on her father's property. She'd cried for a straight week after their mother, an always standoffish black panther, rejected her two cubs. So Katie went to work alongside her father, bottle-feeding, seeing both Tyre and Aquila open their eyes for the first time, rubbing their heads, watching the silky gray babies turn black, soothing the cubs after the vet took blood samples, cleaning up after them. Anything her father asked, Katie had done because she loved those cubs, especially Aquila.
Later, her father had said she'd done "too" good a job with Aquila. The cat wasn't supposed to be a pet; he was supposed to be a performer. But in the end, the truth couldn't be changed. Aquila loved her, liked her father, but wouldn't perform for Jasperher father's right-hand man.
Tyre, Aquila's brother, was a typical panther and much like his mother, disdained captivity and prepped to attack. He didn't care for anybody. When her father started training him, Tyre performed but only because his reward was food.
"Are you still there?" Luke demanded.
"I'm still here. What's wrong with Aquila?"
"If a cat can be heartsick, I think this cat is. He won't eat, he barely moves and he won't perform. We've tried just about everything. We've fed him live game. We've put enough toys in his area to make him feel he's gone to stalk-pounce-chase heaven. But so far he just lies there. I can't watch him die." His voice softened, giving Katie hope. This man wouldn't give up on Aquila. He'd find a way to help him.
A way that didn't involve her.
"Mr. Rittenhouse. I can't come to Scorpion Ridge. Plus, I have a sister to take care of."
"Isn't your sister in college?"
So, Mr. Rittenhouse had done some homework.
"Yes," Katie said, "but in some ways she needs me now more than ever."
There was a long pause. Finally, he said, "Look, I have sisters, too. But I also have a responsibility to these animals, plus my employer and employees. Right now my number one priority is keeping Aquila alive. And, apparently, I need your help."
Katie didn't say anything.
His voice grew firmer. "Aquila was the inspiration for my purchasing your father's menagerie, and I'm sure you're aware I paid top dollar."
Yes, Katie knew to the penny what the man had paid for each animal and for some extras. He'd made a wise investment. George, the brown bear, had appeared in more than one movie. The camel, Kobie, could untie a knot in a rope. Ollie, the orangutan, waved and blew kisses.
Aquila, however, had been the reigning prince of Bob Vincent's menagerie. He could jump through a ring of fire, dive into a swimming pool and he actually danced to Cyndi Lau-per's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun."
Katie hadn't always agreed with her father's ideas of what his animals should do, but Aquila's affinity for dancing was entirely Katie's doing. Most of Bob's animals had been good dancers, at least to Katie's music.
Well, maybe not the snakes.
Luke went on. "If he can't perform, then I made a bad deal. One I cannot afford to keep. There's a six-month reversal clause for breach of contract, so I'm going to have my lawyer contact your lawyer "
Katie opened her mouth but no sound came out, and she sank to the cold, hard, tiled floor. The reversal clause would be for the whole kingdom, not just Aquila. She didn't have any place to put four large animals. Her father's house and land had been sold, allowing her to pay his bills and bury him. The money from the animals had allowed her to pay off her debts, get Janie into college and move into a decent apartment.
As for the lawyer, she barely knew him. Plus, from what she remembered of her dad's lawyer, he'd be on the side of the animals.
Not that she wasn't, but Two deep breaths later, she managed to croak out, "Mr. Rittenhouse, are you aware I've not been in contact with Aquila for years?"
"Yes, Jasper told me."
Katie all but collapsed against a wall and tried to ignore the students hurrying down the hall. She could have been one of them, if not for her life experiences and responsibilities.
"Jasper's with you?" she whispered.
The man had to be nearing eighty. He'd been like a grandfather to her once, and yet Katie had never looked into how he was doing after her father died. He and Bob had worked together for almost thirty years.
Guilt tapped her on the shoulder again.
"It was Jasper who suggested I call you before I called my lawyer," Luke said. "He's sure that Aquila would remember you and pull through."
Pulling together every ounce of stamina she could manage, Katie said, "Mr. Rittenhouse, wild animals aren't supposed to pine for people. Besides, I don't think you realize what you're asking. Last time I worked with Aquila, I was a kid. I'm a different person now."
She didn't know if he was agreeing with her or encouraging her to go on. No matter, Katie had a feeling the man on the other end of the phone didn't think much of the different person she'd become.
"Mr. Rittenhouse, the animal kingdom is no longer my world. I have no desire to work with animals again ."
She didn't mention she also had no desire to sacrifice her job, schooling or endanger herself or her family. She didn't say any of these things because if he worked with animals, he was a showman, and he accepted the sacrifices and ignored the risks.
"Lady, I don't have the time or willingness to play games. I've gone over the sales agreement for Bob's Backyard Animal Kingdom, and I'm real comfortable with my rights. You either show up here within twenty-four hours to help with Aquila, or my lawyer will begin proceedings to enforce the reversal clause."
"Twenty-four hours? I've already told you, I have a job. I have a home. I have a little sister to take care of."
"Just give me two weeks. Bring your sister along if you have to. Help me with Aquila. Then you can go back to whatever you're doing now. Two weeks. Jasper said you could do it. See you in twenty-four hours." He hung up.
Katie stared openmouthed at her cell phone until the silence of the hallway caught her attention. Thursday-morning classes had started and students were either cocooned safe inside their rooms or were already in the student union or out in the parking lot. As an interpreter for the deaf, she belonged in statistics class with her student, and no doubt both student and instructor were growing concerned. Her student, all of nineteen and extremely bright, could read lips, but this particular instructor spoke English with a heavy accent. More than once Katie had signed, "One hungry student" when the instructor had really said, "One hundred students." The instructor also tended to speak louder whenever he looked at the deaf student, which made the class giggle.
Katie didn't like the man.
Well, this might be her last day in Mr. Hungry Student's class. Luke Rittenhouse had backed her into a corner. And since she'd already gotten in trouble for breaking the "Thou Shalt Not Let Thy Cell Phone Ring During Class" rule, it looked like the perfect time for a change.
Too bad Katie didn't want one.
Luke hung up the phone and walked to the far wall of his office where a dryerase board displayed his five-goals-in-five-years plan. Standing in front of it, he reminded himself that people who didn't take risks were often people who stood still. Bridget's had stood still for way too long. His job was to change things for the better.
NEW ACQUISITIONS was number five on his list, and the only one with a check mark next to it.
That had been his risk, the one that kept him awake at night worrying.
The purchase was supposed to be a step forward, but it ultimately might be the undoing of the four items above it: EMPLOYEE SALARIES AND BENEFITS, GENERAL OPERATIONS, FACILITIES MAINTENANCE and CAPITAL RENEWAL. He'd chosen the order of importance. And he'd been the one to act on the dead-last goal first.
He moved to the window and watched as the day-to-day operations of Bridget's AZ Animal Adventure carried on.
At the front of Bridget's, his friend Adam was painting the grand entrance. It was an ongoing work that might never be finished.
He'd met Adam fifteen years ago in a tae-kwondo studio. Adam, aged ten at the time, took lessons with his twin brother who'd been born disabled. Luke, then a junior in high school, did his homework while his sister Bridget had a lesson.
Adam quit lessons and soon was asking Luke for help with math. Seemed he'd doodled during every math class and was now behind. They'd been friends ever since.
Five years ago, Luke asked for a favor in return.
Even at twenty-five, Adam was still a kida kid without a high school diploma, but a kid who could replicate anything he put his mind to. Luke needed his talent and his perspective to design child-friendly attractions. And now thanks to Adam, the entrance of Bridget's had cutouts of animals where kids could stick their heads in holes and become the animals. There were places where children looked in a mirror and suddenly their head appeared above a pirate, or a cowboy. Scattered among activities were animal information charts with lots and lots of pictures. And, of course, soon there would be places to buy souvenirs and snacks even before they walked under the giant Bridget's AZ Animal Adventure sign.
His little sister would have loved it.
For her, Luke's goal was to put Scorpion Ridge on the map and make Bridget's a success. Sure, it was a little off the beaten path, but with an orangutan that read the newspaper and took afternoon tea, an anaconda that weighed over a hundred pounds and a black panther that danced to Cindi Lauper, the number of people willing to drive a ways and spend money could quadruple.
It just needed to quadruple really soon.
As if sensing his owner's unhappiness, Tinker chose that moment to jump off the desk, meander over and plop down on Luke's foot to meow.
"I'm all right," Luke said, bending down and scooping up the full-grown, long-haired, black-and-white cat that was roughly the same size as his shoe. The zoo vet, Fred, said malnutrition had stunted the cat's growth. Luke figured the cat truly liked his compact size; the beast could fit anywhere.
Setting the feline back on his deskthere was already enough cat hair on his clothing to stuff a pillowLuke picked up his cell phone and called his most treasured coworker. Ruth Moore was almost sixty, weighed two hundred pounds, always wore a pair of reading glasses that matched her outfit and for years had run the place.
Before Luke had turned it into Bridget's, the property had been managed by his uncle Albert, and consisted of nothing more than a roadside petting zoo with a few exotics. And Ruth.
Ruth was straightforward, liked all animals and most people, and Luke couldn't get along without her. He'd known her all his life, and she'd been the one who'd suggested him for the job of director. She did whatever he asked without question. And, best of all, if he didn't ask, she figured out something to do.
She knew everyone in the animal world and definitely knew more than he did about Bridget's. She was his go-to person.
"I'm behind the scenes with my lion," Ruth yelled over the radio. Nothing Luke said could convince her he could hear her without the yelling. "Terrance the Terrible is yawning on command and getting his teeth brushed. We need to film this."
Ever since Jasper, Bob Vincent's right-hand manand somehow part of the "extras" Luke had purchasedarrived along with the Vincent animals, Ruth had suddenly become idea woman of the month.
"Good thinking," Luke said, just as he'd said to all her ideas for the past month. Though this idea just might be doable and affordable: Luke's two favorite words.
After ending his call with Ruth, he checked to see what his head keeper, Meredith, was up to. Then he opened his scheduler. He had two school tours booked; one had reserved the birthday area for their picnic lunch. A good sign this early in the school year. Scorpion Ridge's nearest neighbor, a college town called Adobe Hills, was 45 minutes away, and Tucson was fifteen minutes past that. So for most, a visit to Bridget's meant planning in advance.
But Luke needed to entice more visitors, desperately, and to get more visitors, he needed the cats to perform.
So far the cougar did a great job of mutilating giant cardboard boxes. And the bobcat walked across the rope from his shady area to a treewhen he wanted. To Terrance, the lion's, credit, he snored and made great noises while he slept. The kids loved it.
But Aquila so far, nothing.