The weathered sign on the gate read:
Happy Asses Donkey and Big Cat Rescue
Tours: Tues–Fri 1:00–dark.
Affixed below was a newer sign. The reflective white letters glowed in my headlights, and though the effect caused the words to blur, the message came across loud and clear.
ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING!
We are not responsible for death
or injury due to your own stupidity.
There are wild animals inside this gate.
If one of them eats you, it’s your own fault.
~Ozeal Mallory, proprietress
I smiled. I’d never met Ozeal, but I liked her already.
From what I’d heard, Ozeal Mallory was dedicated, competent, and experienced at handling all manner of big cats. Judging from the sign, no-nonsense could be added to the list of her attributes. I wondered what had gone wrong.
The minute hand on my dashboard clock ticked to twelve past six. I was supposed to be attending a black-tie gala on Jacksonville Beach at seven o’clock. I was going to be late.
Usually, I’d welcome an excuse to avoid any event that had the words black-tie and gala in the title, but tonight’s fund-raiser was an exception.
A local animal charity had teamed up with the sheriff’s office to raise money to provide Kevlar vests for police dogs. As someone who felt the canine officers deserved as much protection as their handlers, I had decided to donate my services as an animal behaviorist to be sold in the silent auction. Unfortunately, this required I be present to smile, answer questions, and talk up what I do.
As much as I appreciated Ozeal’s signage, it was time to get the show on the road.
The problem was, there was no one on the road. Nor was there anyone in the parking area on the other side of the gate. I squinted against the dusky gloom of twilight and was able to make out the shape of a small building nestled in a clump of pine trees at the far end of the lot.
I stared for a few moments but detected no movement.
I knew there were animals just beyond the building. I could feel the low hum of their brains. Equine. Probably the rescued donkeys referenced in the sign.
Not long ago, I wouldn’t have been able to sense their presence, but my telepathic ability had taken a step forward recently. My range for connecting to an animal’s mind used to be limited to about twelve feet. But I’d been faced with a desperate situation and discovered you can accomplish a lot when you’re fighting for your life.
Not that my new, long-distance skill would help me get through the gate. Unless there was a Houdini donkey somewhere in the vicinity, I was out of luck.
I thought about honking the horn but not knowing the scope of the situation, I decided to eschew any loud, unexpected noises. I don’t have many friends—well, human friends, anyway.
Dr. Hugh Murray was one of the few. When he’d called to ask for help dealing with an angry tiger, he’d been in one piece. I wanted to keep it that way.
The thought made my gaze drift back to the warning sign and I noticed a faded arrow painted on the gate’s railing. Following its direction, I spotted what looked like an oversized doorbell with the words RING FOR DELIVERY written in block letters underneath.
Above it was a security keypad.
I cut my engine, pushed my door open, then stopped myself just as I was swinging my legs over the running board and caught sight of my new shoes.
My new high-heeled shoes.
I peered out at the muddy ground then glared at my inadequate footwear. After a moment’s consideration, I tugged off the heels and climbed into the backseat of my car, a vintage Skyline Blue Suburban named Bluebell. She’s big and loud and her cargo area is roughly the size of Rhode Island, so it took a minute before my fingers brushed over the hard rubber tread of one of my all-weather boots.
I fished out its mate, clambered into the front seat, shoved my bare feet into the boots, and hopped out of my Suburban, landing with a splat on the sodden ground.
The evening was damp and breezy, the temperature hovering in the mid-sixties, not unusual for October in North Florida. The rain we’d had in the past weeks, however, had been excessive, and I slipped and slid my way over the muddy drive.
I’d just pressed my finger to the buzzer when a four-wheeler appeared, skidding to a stop just on the other side of the fence. The driver, a young, willowy blonde, called out over the soft putter of the idling engine.
“Are you Grace Wilde?”
The girl swung her leg over the seat and hurried to a post half a dozen feet inside the gate. She pressed something I couldn’t see, and, with a whirring click, the gate popped open.
“Ozeal said to come and get you as quick as I could,” the girl said as she opened the gate wide enough for me to walk through.
“What about my truck?”
She glanced up, eyes wide. If it hadn’t been for the numerous piercings dotting her pale skin, I would’ve said she looked like a typical girl next door. Big hazel eyes, a dash of freckles dusting her nose and cheeks.
“Oh—um . . . I guess you should pull in and park up by the office.”
I clomped back to Bluebell and hauled myself behind the wheel as the girl swung the gate open.
I drove through, parked, and grabbed the dainty beaded bag that was to serve as my purse for the evening.
A moment later the girl arrived on the four-wheeler. Her brows rose when she got a good look at my outfit.
Maybe she didn’t think the rubber boots went with the formfitting cocktail dress.
“Um . . . I’m not sure you’ll be able to ride in that.”
I looked at the four-wheeler’s long, narrow seat and sighed.
“I’ll ride sidesaddle.” As we started off, I added, “Just try not to fling too much mud on me, okay?”
My sister would have a fit of apoplexy if she knew what I was doing. Emma had worked hard on putting me together for the evening. She’d chosen everything from my earrings to my underwear, and I was grateful.
It wasn’t that I lacked the ability to dress myself. The issue was dressing myself up. Every time I diverged from my standby jeans and T-shirt ensemble, I ended up looking like a clown in drag.
Really, I had to think of the children.
And my date.
Kai Duncan was a crime scene investigator for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. I’d been surprised to learn he owned a tux, but I was looking forward to seeing him in it.
Aside from quick lunches here and there or meeting at the shooting range where Kai was teaching me how to handle a firearm, we’d had a hard time getting it together in the date department. Inevitably, one of us would have to cancel because of work.
I’d be damned if I was going to do it tonight.
“Pick it up, girl. I got someplace to be,” I called over the growling engine.
We zipped around a barn and turned onto a narrow road that most likely ringed the perimeter of the property to provide access to the buildings that housed the animals. We passed several enclosures as we went. Most were empty, their occupants secured in the adjoining houses for the night. Finally, we slowed to a stop when a figure came into view.
Trying not to flash anyone on my dismount from the four-wheeler, I walked to where the woman stood and introduced myself.
“Ozeal Mallory,” she said and gave my hand a firm shake. She didn’t so much as blink at my odd outfit.
I couldn’t attempt to guess her age in the harsh glow of the four-wheeler’s headlights, but judging from other physical characteristics I’d say she was a mix of Hispanic and Sasquatch.
Tall and barrel-chested, with skin like mocha cream and rowdy black curls framing her face, she looked like she could play safety for the Steelers.
“I don’t want to spook Boris any more than he already is. We’ll walk the rest of the way.” She motioned for us to continue down the access road.
“What happened?” I asked, struggling to keep up with her long strides. My boots squeaked with every swift step.
“I wish I knew,” she muttered, then fell silent as we neared a large concrete-block building, where I assumed Boris was fed and housed at night.
Attached to the building was a large enclosure. We slowly made our way along the side of the tall, chain-link fence, Ozeal’s troubled gaze fixed on the Siberian tiger as it paced in a tight circle around the base of a spindly pine tree.
We stopped and I reached out mentally for a quick evaluation, brushing the tiger’s mind with my own. No trace of aggression. Boris had moved past whatever had spurred him to go for Hugh and moved on to neurotic pacing.
I pulled my focus back and scanned the enclosure. I saw neither hide nor hair of Hugh—but there also wasn’t any blood, which I took as a good sign.
“Where’s Hugh?” I asked.
Ozeal started to answer when a wolf whistle cut through the air. The tiger glanced up and I realized the sound had come from the flimsy pine sapling growing in the center of the enclosure.
I followed the tiger’s gaze to see Hugh grinning down at me from the precariously bent treetop. He cocked an eyebrow.
“I have a date and didn’t want to get my heels muddy.”
His grin widened. “Must not be a very hot date if you came all the way out here just for me.”
“Careful, Dr. Murray, these boots are made for walkin’. I might just leave you up there.”
“Sorry. What I meant to say was, you look amazing and if you get me out of here in one piece I will make sure you have a chance to wear your heels. Even if I have to take you to dinner myself.”
I shook my head. “Do you ever give up?”
“Why? One day you might say yes.”
Not long ago, his flirtation would have ticked me off but I’d gained some perspective in the last few months. Maybe it was the whole almost-getting-murdered thing, but I didn’t take Hugh as seriously as I once did.
I turned to Ozeal, who stood with her hands on her stocky hips, frowning through the chain-link at the tiger.
“Okay, give me the short version,” I said.
“Boris has been agitated for the last couple of days so I asked Hugh to come out and take a look at him. He’s the most gentle cat we have. Even-tempered. Low-key.” She shook her head. “If he was a horse, he’d be giving pony rides to three-year-olds.”
“Okay,” I said. It was the best I could come up with. We all knew there was a big difference between a horse and a tiger. To my knowledge, horses didn’t eat people. Tigers, on the other hand . . .
“It’s just so out of character,” Ozeal continued, mystified. “There must be something wrong.”
“Your concern is touching,” Hugh called out.
Ozeal sent him a dismissive wave. “You’re not on the endangered species list.”
“Actually, at the moment, I’m not so sure about that.”
As we’d been talking, I’d noticed the lion in the pen across from Boris was watching us with interest—and hunger. It wasn’t that he wanted to eat us. He didn’t know what the humans were doing with the tiger and he didn’t care. It was past dinnertime and he expected Ozeal to get on with it.
Lions can be pretty bossy when it comes to keeping a schedule.
“Have you fed the other cats?” I asked Ozeal.
“Not everyone. I was in the middle of the evening feeding when—”
The lion chose that moment to voice his impatience with a roar. The reverberating bellow cut off Ozeal’s words. I was expecting it, but my heart still leapt at the sound. Even Ozeal flinched.
It didn’t matter how many times you heard it, a lion roaring that close made the caveman inside want to haul ass in the opposite direction.
“The natives are getting restless. Why don’t you deal with dinner and I’ll work on Boris.”
Ozeal gave me a long look. “Hugh says you’re the best. Can you get him out of there?”
“I’m going to get Boris inside his house.” I motioned to the building.
“I already tried to lure him with food.”
“He’s beyond taking that bait. I’ll have to try something else.”
“And by ‘something else’ you mean . . . ?”
“I have a few ideas.”
“She eez the tiger wheesperer,” Hugh said.
I cast him a quick, unamused glance.
Ozeal gave me one last appraising look. “All right. Don’t let Hugh get killed. I’ll lose my accreditation.” With that, she turned on her heel and walked away.
I looked up at Hugh. “Dr. Murray—”
“Yes, Dr. Wilde?” I narrowed my eyes at the title. Though I kept my license current, I no longer practiced as a veterinarian and it sounded weird to be addressed as doctor.
I pointed my finger at him in warning. “Not a sound.”
“You’re the boss.”
Strictly speaking, Hugh had no idea how I did what I did. He just knew it worked. I have a good reason for hiding my telepathic ability: People would think I was nuts. I couldn’t do my job if people thought I was nuts. You have to have a certain amount of street cred to do what I do.
Before I could solidify my plan, or rather, wing it and pretend I had a plan, I needed to understand how the tiger’s compound was configured.
I walked back along the fence to the attached building and stepped through the door. Buzzing, fluorescent lights clearly illuminated the space. The layout was pretty standard. A hallway ran the length of the structure along the back wall. A trio of tiger-sized runs lined the corridor. Each had two doors—an access gate that opened into the hall and a guillotine door that led to the exterior enclosure.
I noticed several offerings had been tossed through the chain-link to entice Boris to come into his run so he could easily be secured.
I clasped the lock on the gate that separated the hallway from the run and gave it two swift tugs.
Better safe than dinner.
I checked to make sure my phone was on vibrate—which was about the only thing I knew how to do with the new iPhone—and noticed it was nearing six thirty.
I was going to be so late.
Pushing the thought away, I stuffed the beaded clutch under my arm and walked out to where I could see Boris, pulled in a slow, calming breath, and began speaking in a low monotone.
“Hey there, Boris. Hey, gorgeous boy.”
I continued my litany of praises and slowly, gingerly opened my mind to the tiger’s.
The neurotic pulse of his thoughts matched his pacing. But there was an undercurrent of worry or fear that kept flashing to the surface.
Ozeal’s instincts had been spot on; something was wrong with the big cat.
Boris. I gave the tiger’s mind a little nudge and his head swiveled toward me. Like many animals, Boris had never encountered a human like me. Curiosity short-circuited the pacing for a moment and he slowed.
Gotta love cats.
Now that I have your attention . . .
“Come here, big guy.” I urged the cat to come to where I stood, halfway between the outside corner of the fence and the guillotine door leading into his indoor enclosure.
Boris came toward me and I edged sideways toward the door. All the while, mentally urging him to follow. I lost sight of him for a moment as I rounded the corner into the hall but by then he already knew where I wanted him to go and it didn’t take much to coax him through the door into the interior pen.
As quickly as I could, I released the latch, slid the guillotine door closed behind him, and let out a relieved sigh.
The tiger pressed his head against the chain-link that separated us.
I smiled and obliged by rubbing my fingertips on his forehead. For a moment, I could understand why Hugh would have trusted the cat. Boris seemed docile and calm, but I could sense something very different. The undercurrent of emotion I’d felt earlier remained.
My ability worked better with physical contact so I placed my other hand through the fence and rested it on the smooth fur between the tiger’s ears.
I focused and tried to understand the origin of the tiger’s unease. The emotions were jumbled. A mix of fear, anger, and a touch of . . . sadness?
It was almost as if he missed someone.
I’d experienced this mix of emotions plenty of times in my work but there seemed to be more to it for Boris.
I can’t look through an animal’s mind the way you flip through a magazine. I can only read their thoughts and feelings as they experience them.
“Talk to me, handsome. What’s going on?”
I tried to focus on the mysterious feeling, but trying to lock on to an abstract, underlying emotion was like trying to grab an eel. Finally, I managed to catch just a wisp of it, and pull it to the front of both our minds.
Boris let out a low, mournful growl, and I instantly moved to soothe him.
The murky image of a dark-haired girl fluttered through my mind. The girl laughed. She smelled like peppermint. But she was too out of focus to distinguish her features. I tried to latch on to the image and projected back to the tiger with a question.
I got a flash—the merest blink of an image.
The girl was standing outside a fence, her face in profile as if she was turning to look at something behind her.
A sharp stab of alarm pulsed from the cat, followed by a surge of anger so strong I felt my lips curl back in an answering snarl.
“Whoa.” I blinked and struggled to get a hold on my own emotions.
Boris let out a growl—it seemed to rumble endlessly against the bare, block walls.
“It’s all right,” I said. Though my heart was still pounding, I tried to smother the burning helplessness radiating from the cat with calming thoughts.
The echoing growl subsided.
“I see he’s back to being Dr. Jekyll,” Hugh said quietly from the doorway. Obviously, he’d made it out of the tree and through the enclosure’s exterior gate.
I eased up on the connection with the tiger and turned my attention to Hugh, motioning for him to head outside.
Thanks to the tiger’s eruption of emotion, I was feeling jumpy and on edge. Suddenly, I was irritated with Hugh.
“The cat has an issue and you go in the enclosure with it to do an evaluation? What were you thinking?”
He shrugged. “I wasn’t.”
“You could have been killed.”
“I had my tranq gun.” He motioned to the pistol holstered at his side.
I arched my brows. A tranquilizer gun would have knocked Boris out about ten minutes too late, and we both knew it.
“Okay,” he conceded. “I only wear it to look cool.” Hugh offered me a charming half smile that could probably be weaponized to disarm a legion of Amazon warriors.
I wasn’t in the mood. “Next time you decide to be dinner for someone, don’t call me to clean up the mess.”
“All right.” His smile faded a notch and he eyed me with curiosity.
I understood why. Usually, I’m as calm as a glacial lake when I deal with animals. I have to be.
Shielding against the onslaught of an animal’s thoughts and emotions was the only way I could help them—and keep my sanity. I had rushed it tonight and was paying the price—and so was Hugh.
I took a deep breath. I still wanted to berate him for being careless, but I’d known Hugh a long time. If he’d gone into the enclosure, he’d had his reasons.
“Sorry—let’s just focus on what’s making Boris suddenly want to eat people he supposedly likes.”
“No, you’re right, Grace, it was reckless of me to go in there. But to be fair, Boris isn’t like any other tiger I’ve known. He bonds with people quickly. And he’s never so much as sneezed at a human. His previous owner rescued him from a breeder as a cub—she was training him to work in movies—so he’s been socialized with people and other animals.”
“Then what’s he doing here?”
“The woman was injured in a car accident and had to give him up.”
Ozeal approached, stuck her head through the door to check on Boris, and turned to beam at me.
“Well, I have to say, I am truly impressed.”
I acknowledged the compliment with a nod. “We’re trying to understand the root of what’s upsetting Boris. It’s almost as if he has separation anxiety. Has someone he was attached to left recently?”
Ozeal’s brow furrowed.
“One of my volunteers.”
“When did she leave?” Hugh asked.
“Wednesday. Which is when Boris started acting strange.” She shook her head. “I should have made the connection. Boris loves Brooke. He took a shine to her right off.”
“Is Brooke coming back?” I asked.
Ozeal pressed her lips together. “I don’t know,” she said with a sigh. “We had a disagreement and when I went to ask her to help with one of the tours, she was gone.”
“She didn’t say anything?”
“I didn’t even see her leave.”
“What about her car?”
“Brooke just turned sixteen. She doesn’t have a car.”
I felt a knot of apprehension tighten in my stomach. Sixteen.
I stepped away from Ozeal and Hugh, who had started talking about the best treatment for Boris’s separation anxiety. I opened the little beaded clutch, pulled out my phone, and called Kai.
“Have you made it to the restaurant yet?”
“I’m pulling up to the valet now.”
“Do you have your crime scene stuff with you?”
“My field kit? Yes. Why? Your friend didn’t get eaten, did he?”
I hesitated a bit too long.
“Grace?” There was an edge to his voice.
“No. Hugh’s fine.” I explained the situation as quickly as I could.
“So you think this girl, Brooke, is missing?”
“Not just missing. Taken.” Boris’s description echoed through my mind. “Kai, I think she was kidnapped.”
I hesitated before turning back to where Ozeal and Hugh stood. Over the years, I’d gotten pretty good at tiptoeing around the truth when it came to my telepathic ability. Kai, being one of the few people who knew the truth, had kept his questions brief when I’d asked him to come to the rescue facility, before hanging up with, “I’m on my way.”
Explaining to Ozeal why I wanted a crime scene investigator to come snoop around her place would be more complicated.
I couldn’t tell her the truth—that Boris had told me Brooke had been taken. Maybe it was a cop-out, but I was guessing claims of psychic abilities would come under the category of nonsense in her book.
So, I decided to rely on a tried and true method—when in doubt, make something up.
With the phone still pressed to my ear, I walked back to Ozeal and Hugh.
“Ozeal, does Brooke have dark hair?”
“Can you describe her physically?”
“Average height, I guess. Pretty. She wears her hair long.”
Acting as if I was still talking to Kai, I grimly relayed this news into the phone and then said, “Okay, we’ll be here.” I turned my attention to Ozeal as I slipped my phone into my bag. “That was my date. He works for the sheriff’s office. They’ve been investigating a series of missing persons cases involving girls who match Brooke’s description. He wanted to come by and ask a few questions. Is that okay?”
“You think Brooke was kidnapped?”
The idea clearly troubled her and I felt a pang of guilt. I hated being deceitful but sometimes it was the only way to express what would otherwise take a lot of explaining on my part as I tried to prove I really could talk to tigers.
“I think it’s possible,” I said.
“Weren’t there tour groups here that day?” Hugh asked Ozeal.
She nodded. “We had a school field trip and a few other groups.”
“That’s a lot of people. What are the chances of someone snatching a sixteen-year-old girl in broad daylight with a tour group snapping pictures in every direction?”
“We’ll ask Kai when he gets here.”
“When will that be?” Ozeal asked.
“Wait, your boyfriend’s name is Kai? Isn’t that a type of tea?” Hugh said with a lopsided grin.
I ignored him. “He’s coming from Jax Beach so, thirty, maybe forty-five minutes.”
Ozeal nodded. “We’re running behind schedule tonight. Hugh, why don’t you make yourself useful and help me get the rest of the big guys put up before the next bout of storms moves in. Grace, could you take another look at Boris? I want your opinion on the best treatment for his anxiety.”
And just like that, I was recruited into the ranks—sparkly purse, mud boots, and all.
We’d just finished getting everything secured for the night and made it to the main building when lightning splintered across the sky. Rain swept over the grounds in a rush.
The temperature dropped on a gust of wind, causing goose bumps to cascade over my skin, but I lingered on the porch as Ozeal and Hugh filed inside. I liked to watch storms, and smiled when the monotonous roar of the downpour was punctuated with sporadic bursts of thunder and the echoing caterwaul of a bobcat.
Caitlyn, the girl who had fetched me on the four-wheeler when I’d arrived, had gone home, and Hugh had been volunteered for gate duty. He stepped out of the front door and lifted a bright yellow raincoat from a peg on the wall.
“Ozeal’s putting on some coffee,” he told me as he shrugged into the jacket. “I’ll wait here till your boyfriend pulls up and let him in.”
I started to correct Hugh’s designation of Kai. Technically, he wasn’t my boyfriend but I decided to let it go. I nodded my thanks and went inside to find the kitchen. It was easy to spot. Judging by the avocado green stove and matching Frigidaire, in the seventies the building had been a ranch-style family home. Now it functioned as reception, gift shop, and offices.
Ozeal handed me a mug displaying the Happy Asses logo: a rear view of a donkey and a tiger side by side, their tails entwined like friends holding hands.
“Donkeys and big cats? Seems like an unlikely combination.”
Ozeal let out a short laugh. “Well, you have the asses to blame for the cats.”
She lowered herself into a chair at the kitchen table and I did the same. I took a sip of coffee, breathing in the rich aroma, and waited for her to continue.
“I bought this house after my husband died. Thought I could have a nice, quiet life out in the country. My son and I showed up with our U-Haul and found three donkeys in the pasture. The previous owners had left them to fend for themselves.”
She shook her head as if she found the idea of someone abandoning an animal baffling.
I shared the feeling.
“So you decided to keep them?”
“What else could I do? We got them fixed up and fed. One of them, Jack-Jack, is a mini. Only three feet tall at the withers, but he has the biggest personality. Smart as a whip, loves to play, and he’s an escape artist. He used to get out of his pen and wander all over the place. One day, he came home with another donkey. A little jenny—she was in poor shape, too.”
I raised my eyebrows at that. “Jack-Jack rescued another donkey and brought it home?”
“A few weeks after that, he showed up with a stray dog.”
“A dog?” That surprised me even more. “Donkeys usually don’t like canines.”
“Not as a rule, no. But Jack-Jack is not one to go by rules.” Her lips quirked into a smile. “Guess what else he brought me.”
“I have no idea—a fawn?”
“A bobcat kitten.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I was going to have to meet Jack-Jack.
“Believe me, I was as shocked as you are. I called the wildlife rescue, but they had a full house and asked if I could keep the kitten for a few days. I agreed, and they sent a veterinarian out to do an exam. He explained that the wildlife sanctuary was full because they’d gotten a whole litter of bobcat kittens some breeder had abandoned, along with their mother. They planned to reintroduce the kittens to the wild but the mother had never been out of a cage. She needed to be placed in a rescue facility, or she’d be euthanized.”
“Terrible.” I’d muttered the word to myself, but Ozeal nodded.
“It was. But that young veterinarian was fresh out of school and full of energy and ideas. The more he talked about the need for a place these cats could go, the more I agreed.”
“So you took the mother.”
“Once the kittens were weaned. You can figure out the rest of the story.”
I looked at her and knew I’d been right to judge a woman by her signage. “The world needs more people like you, Ozeal.”
She shook her head. “The world needs fewer idiots who think lion cubs make good Christmas presents.”
A flash of headlights cut through the kitchen window.
A sudden thought occurred to me. “What happened to the young vet who talked you into all this?”
Hugh tromped into the room as I finished the question.
“Oh, he comes around from time to time to drip on my floor.” Ozeal’s tone was dry but her eyes shone with affection.
Hugh’s raincoat was so slick from his dash to open the gate for Kai, he looked like a melting lemon gummy bear.
“Sorry,” Hugh said, glancing at the puddle at his feet. “I’ll hang my jacket outside.”
He turned to go but stopped as Kai entered the room. Kai was wearing his tuxedo shirt under a dark rain jacket. Hugh paused to give him the once-over, then held out his hand.
“Hugh Murray. You must be the guy who got Grace in a dress.”
“Kai Duncan. You must be the guy she had to come rescue.”
The men shook hands but seemed to study each other a beat too long. I’d never been terribly astute when it came to men, but even I could tell there was some posturing going on.
Ozeal said, “Hugh, you’re still dripping. Mr. Duncan, would you like some coffee?”
The men moved apart. Hugh continued outside and Kai turned to smile at Ozeal. “Coffee would be great, thanks.”
He fixed his attention on me and I tried to ignore my body’s instant reaction. Kai’s Polynesian and Scotch heritage had gifted him with features I found very appealing. Dark hair and complexion. Green, almond-shaped eyes. Lazy surfer-boy smile.
Kai accepted a mug from Ozeal but waited for her to lower herself into a chair before taking a seat himself.
His manner tended to be disarming, his gaze and tenacity intense. The combo had affected more than just my libido. Kai had been the first person in years I’d told about my psychic ability. The admission had not been easy, but he’d promised to keep my secret.
I was banking on that promise now.
“I know I probably shouldn’t have,” I said, “but I told Ozeal about the other missing persons cases.”
Ozeal locked her steady gaze onto Kai. “Grace said the police are looking into disappearances of girls who look like Brooke.”
Kai shot me a look.
“Sorry.” I was apologizing for dragging him into a lie but Kai went with it.
“It’s not really something I can discuss.” He quickly moved past the fabled disappearances and began asking questions about Brooke. He covered several questions I’d already asked, then moved on to the ones I hadn’t even considered. Which is probably one of the many differences between someone with a degree in criminology and, well, me.
“Have you talked to her parents?” Kai asked.
Before Ozeal could answer, Hugh reappeared in the doorway.
“I’ve got to head out. One of our rhinos has gone into labor and I’m on the first watch.”
“Before you go,” Kai said, shifting his attention to Hugh, “do you know Brooke?”
“Not well. I’ve only met her a few times. She seems like a nice kid. I hope you find her.”
“Hugh,” I said before he could turn away. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. And thanks for coming to my rescue . . . especially in that dress.”
Kai watched him go then glanced at me. I wasn’t sure how to categorize his expression, but it wasn’t happy.
Now was not the time to explain Hugh’s teasing so I chose to bring the conversation back to the topic.
“You said you talked to Brooke’s parents?”
Ozeal nodded. “I called them when she didn’t come in yesterday. They weren’t surprised. Honestly, it sounded like they had been expecting me to call. Brooke has had issues with dealing with her problems.”
“Rather than facing them, she runs away?” Kai asked.
“According to her stepfather, yes.” There was a long pause. Ozeal seemed to be choosing her next words carefully.
“Brooke is part of the rehabilitation program,” she finally said.
“For young people. They volunteer and get the chance to work with some of the animals. It teaches them responsibility and it keeps them off the streets and out of trouble.”
“You’re saying Brooke is a—what?” I asked, truly shocked. “A troubled teen?”
“I don’t believe in labels. The kids in the program are promised a clean slate here. They come to me as volunteers. Ready to work and learn—not as junkies or thieves.”
“And Brooke had access to Boris?” I didn’t bother to hide my disbelief. The idea that a troubled teenager would have access, or possibly even keys, to a rescue facility that housed some of the world’s largest predators completely boggled my mind.
Ozeal met my eyes with a steady gaze. “I’m not a fool, Grace. Brooke’s contact with the animals was always supervised. I have rules. They apply to everyone. No lying. No stealing.”
“You use the honor system?” Kai sounded as stunned as I was.
“I believe in giving these kids a fair shot. But I’m not completely naïve. This ain’t my first rodeo.” She motioned to the clump of keys clipped to her belt. “Every one of these goes to a lock on this property.”
“So you keep certain things locked up.”
“We have twelve cats in this rescue facility. A tiger, a lion, two panthers, six bobcats, and two caracals. So yes, I keep a good deal locked up.”
“I know what you meant, Mr. Duncan, but before you jump to conclusions, or make judgments on my policies, maybe you should ask how many times in the last three years I’ve had an incident of any kind involving one of my volunteers.”
“I’m guessing zero.”
“Not once since I started the program have I had more than a few minor issues. Kids that drop out, mostly.”
It was an impressive claim.
“Do you think Brooke is one of the dropouts?” Kai asked.
Ozeal shook her head. “I’ll say this—I have a lot of hope for Brooke. She’s smart, and she’s got a good heart. Most of our animals come from less-than-ideal situations. Someone buys one of these cats as a cub without any real understanding of the kind of care and environment they need. That ignorance usually leads to severe health and behavioral problems. Brooke had taken it on herself to do some research. She wanted to figure out a way to make things better for them.”
“Enrichment projects?” I asked.
“Brooke thought it was only right. If she was getting a chance to turn things around, they should, too.”
“What does your gut tell you is going on with her?”
The big woman was quiet for a long time. She looked down at her empty mug and then raised her gaze to meet my eyes.
“I don’t know. People do things for reasons you can’t understand. I’ve been wrong plenty of times, but if you’d asked me two days ago, I wouldn’t even have considered the idea that she would up and leave.”
We all sat there in silence as the rain thrummed against the roof.
Finally, Kai said, “Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Ozeal. If I have any more questions, I’ll call.”
“Don’t you want to look around?” I asked.
“It’s pitch-dark and pouring,” Kai said, as if I was just tuning in to the program.
I met his eyes and held his gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment, then I turned to Ozeal.
“Do you have an extra jacket?”
“Should be one on the peg by the front door.”
“Excuse me.” I stood more abruptly than I intended, and my chair skidded backward and bumped into the cabinet. I gave Ozeal a quick nod, turned, and walked out the door.
Outside, I shoved my arms into the raincoat and flipped up the hood. Kai caught up to me at my Suburban, where I was pulling a flashlight from the door’s side pocket.
“Grace, what are you doing?”
“Going to look around,” I said, turning to march toward Boris’s enclosure.
“Brooke has been gone since Wednesday,” Kai said, walking beside me. “It’s been raining almost nonstop since then. If there was any evidence, the chance of finding it in the dark is slim.”
“You don’t think she was kidnapped.”
“I didn’t say that. But you have to look at the facts.”
“Okay, let’s start with this one: Boris said Brooke was taken. He didn’t say she’d run away. Taken.”
I tried to stay calm and keep my argument as logical as possible, reminding myself that Kai was a scientist, and even though he accepted my ability, it had been a while since we talked about it, at least as it applied to his world. No matter how much my temper was riding me, I had to remember that as a crime scene investigator, Kai was used to working with facts and evidence.
“Could Boris have misunderstood?”
“Grace.” As we trudged past a small pavilion dotted with picnic tables, he snagged my arm and pulled me out of the rain. “Just stop for a second and listen. Brooke is a teenager with issues. Her own parents think she ran away.”
I could barely see his face in the glow of the distant security light. But I could tell he was irritated. Water ran down the lines of his furrowed brow and dripped from the tips of his hair.
I knew it was hard to understand that a tiger’s worry trumped Brooke’s own parents. But that’s what I needed—to be understood. Having Kai question me hurt.
A calming chill swept over me. My self-defense instinct has always been to freeze people out. But in my heart I knew something was different with Kai.
Once you let someone in . . .
The thought brought my hackles up. “Look, if you don’t believe me—”
“I never said I didn’t believe you. But you’ve told me that you feel an animal’s emotions. It affects you.”
“Not really,” I lied.
“So that night you came over to watch a movie and fell asleep in the first five minutes wasn’t because of Dusty?”
I flushed. It had been one of our first dates. Kai’s cat, Dusty, had curled up in my lap—content and comfy—and his mellowness had washed over me like a warm bath. I’d conked out almost instantly.
“That wasn’t my fault. I’d had a really long day. You remember the deal with the water buffalo and the lady with the chickens?”
“Not easy to forget that story.”
“Well, I was tired and I didn’t have my guard up.”
“Exactly. You can be influenced, which makes you less objective.”
“This is different.”
“It just is.”
I started pacing to release some of the frustration that had started to boil through me. After a few seconds, I realized it was a very tigerlike thing to do and stopped.
“Why can’t you just take me at my word?” I asked.
“I’m not doubting your word. I’m questioning the circumstances of the situation.”
“Fine. You have questions—ask.”
“It’s never that easy with you.”
“Because you don’t like to answer.”
He held up a hand and cut me off. “I’ll rephrase. You don’t like to explain your answers.”
I shook my head, at a loss. Where had all this come from? I felt like I was back at square one with him, trying to substantiate something too nebulous to be proven.
“There’s nothing to explain,” I told him as rain pounded around us. “Brooke was kidnapped. No explanation needed.”
“What do you want me to do, Grace? I can’t call in a kidnapping based on what a tiger told you.”
I knew that, logically. The trouble was, I wasn’t feeling very logical.
“We have to do something, Kai.”
“Okay, how’s this—wait till tomorrow morning. I’ll meet you here first thing and we can look around then.”
I started to say no but I knew he was right. Wandering around in the dark would be futile. Thinking like a cat didn’t mean I could see like one.
I agreed with a grim nod. Thunder rumbled overhead as we stepped from the pavilion into the downpour. In the distance, I heard the muted, lonely roar of a tiger.
• • •
I dragged myself into my sister’s condo just after nine o’clock. Wet, grumpy, and worried, I was so distracted by thoughts of a missing sixteen-year-old and hurt by Kai’s obvious lack of faith in my ability, I almost didn’t notice my dog, Moss, enter the foyer to greet me.
Being that Moss is a wolf hybrid who outweighs me, he’s pretty hard to miss. As tall as his timber wolf relatives, his head comes to my waist. This meant I never had to bend over to pet him and he could peruse the kitchen counters freely—much to my sister’s dismay.
I’d been house hunting, but so far hadn’t found a place with a moat and twenty-foot wall.
“Hey, big guy.”
Sensing my mood, Moss let out a low, questioning grumble.
Before I could place my hand on his head for an appreciative pat, Moss caught the scent of tiger and other exotic wonders wafting in the air around me. He was used to me coming home coated with animal smells, but always got especially excited by the scent of a big cat. I assumed this had something to do with the fact that as a pup, he’d been BFF with a jaguar cub.
Whatever motivated his zeal, I knew his nose would be twitching over me as long as I smelled of Panthera tigris.
I was heading toward my bedroom to take a quick shower and change when the front door opened.
My sister, Emma, decked out in all-black vampire chic, strolled in carrying a purse in the shape of a tiny coffin. She took one look at me and shook her head.
“Dare I ask?”
“I didn’t make it to the gala.”
“That’s a relief. I’d hate to think you showed up in those boots.”
I glanced down at my feet, then at my sister. “At least I’m not sporting fangs. What’s with the outfit?”
“Theme wedding. October tends to inspire the Goth crowd.”
Emma was a premier party planner in Jacksonville, and she always attended the events she planned, which meant dressing the part. From Wild West to rockabilly, Emma had a closet full of costumes.
“I had planned to come home and change before meeting up with you at the soirée,” she said as she set the mini-coffin on the island separating the kitchen and open living room. “Clearly that’s not going to happen.”
Moss had continued to sniff me from toe to waist and back again, finally nudging at my fingers where I’d touched Boris. His brain was in high-excitement mode—which was wearing on me.
I bent and yanked off my boots.
“Here—see if I stepped in anything interesting.” I tossed the boots aside and stepped away.
“Eew.” Emma made a face.
I waved her off. “I’m too tired to block him out and talk to you at the same time.”
“Well, it worked,” Emma said, watching as Moss zeroed in on a spot on the bottom of one boot. “But I don’t want to know.”
“Neither do I. Come on.”
We fled to her room and shut the door. I let out a sigh of relief. Fatigue always made it harder to shield my mind, especially from Moss.
Emma turned her back to me and motioned to the laces of her boned corset. As I went to work freeing her from what I considered a torture device, we talked about the events of the night.
“Then,” I said, pulling the corset over her head, “Kai went all CSI on me. He’s not convinced Brooke was taken, because he thinks my emotions are too tangled up with Boris’s.”
“It’s a valid point.”
“For the record, as my sister, you have to agree with me.”
“I didn’t say I disagreed with you. Just that it’s a good point. And,” Emma went on as she shimmied into a red dress that worked perfectly with her dramatic eye makeup and ruby lips, “I think there’s something else to consider. Your emotions might have been influenced by the tiger’s but what about Kai’s? He may not have been as upset if you’d run off to save someone else.”
“What do you mean?”
“From what you’ve said, Dr. Murray is a bit of a flirt. I’ve seen his picture—he’s a hottie. Is he still asking you out all the time?”
“I told you, that’s just Hugh being Hugh.” I’d recently come to understand that all the flirting and silliness that used to irritate me were simply Hugh’s way of letting me know he cared about me. “He likes to tease me. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“You might know that, but Kai doesn’t.”
“What does that have to do with him believing me?”
“Maybe nothing. But let’s look at the situation in another way. You ditched Kai for Hugh.”
“That’s ridiculous. I didn’t ditch anyone. Hugh was being stalked by a tiger—”
Emma held up a finger and continued. “Then, you call Kai, expecting him to rush to your side and when he does, you’re still unhappy because he doesn’t want to go charging into a thunderstorm—in a tux, mind you—to search for a girl who might not even be missing.”
“She’s missing, Emma.”
“Understood. I’m just trying to illustrate how a person’s perspective can change things.”
“You really think Kai would be petty enough to let jealousy cloud his judgment?” I asked, standing behind Emma as she checked her appearance in the full-length mirror in her room.
“It’s not petty, it’s human nature. Everyone is influenced by their emotions. And you,” she said, glancing at my reflection before turning around to face me, “you get the bonus plan. You have to deal with your own emotions in addition to the influence of whatever animal you’re doing the Vulcan mind-meld on.”
“Em, this isn’t about Boris’s emotions,” I said, frustrated.
“I never said it was. I think there’s another reason you’re so convinced something happened to Brooke.” Emma walked into her closet and emerged a moment later with a black satin clutch. “You identify with her.”
“You’re right,” I said with a dramatic sigh. “Those years I spent on the street were really hard.”
Emma cast me a sharp look and clarified. “I mean you’re on the same page—mentally.”
“I’m on the same mental page as a sixteen-year-old habitual runaway with a criminal record? Really, Em—you keep saying stuff like that and I’ll have to revoke your sister card.”
“You can’t revoke my sister card.”
“Yes I can.”
She shook her head. “Nope.”
“Then I’ll suspend your sister card.”
“So I’ll be on sister probation? You don’t have the authority.”
“Mom.” Emma’s smile widened. “Let’s call her and ask.”
There was an unspoken rule between us—the first one to threaten to call our mother during a disagreement always won. You only called Mom if you knew you were right.
Of course, from time to time bluffs were made, but for the most part the “Let’s call Mom” declaration settled any dispute.
Knowing this, in addition to the fact that our parents were RVing out of cell range somewhere in Yellowstone, Emma pressed on with her point. “Brooke has found friendship with at least one animal at the rescue place. You should consider the idea you might be projecting, because you understand where she’s coming from.”
“No, I don’t. All I know is she’s some poor kid whose parents are deadbeats that don’t care about their daughter.”
“Do you know that for a fact?”
“Come on, Em . . .”
“I’ll take that as a no. So, find out,” she said as we walked out of her room, down the hall, and into the living room. “Talk to her parole officer or whatever kids her age have. Before you jump back into an argument with Kai, get more facts. Why try to make him see something he can’t?”
Dammit, my sister was right.
“You might also want to make a point of telling Kai you have no romantic interest in Hugh—just for clarity’s sake.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m not going to do that. Kai’s not stupid, Emma.” Even as I said it, I remembered how he and Hugh had sized each other up in Ozeal’s kitchen.
“No, but he’s human. And for the record,” she said, mimicking my earlier comment, “I’m always on your side.”
Kai stood me up. Kind of. He’d actually gotten called to a murder scene. I understood. But I was still irritated to be on my own, looking for clues.
My mood didn’t improve when an hour of traipsing through the woods surrounding Happy Asses yielded nothing more than a few scratches on my arms. I was pulling another twig from my hair when I remembered something.
I fished my phone out of my back pocket and called Hugh.
“You took your tranquilizer gun in with you, right?”
If my abrupt question bothered him, he didn’t comment. “Right. Why?”
“Did Boris see it before or after you entered the enclosure?”
“I don’t know. I keep the gun in my holster. Though I did check the CO2 before I went in. You’re thinking he wigged out because of a tranq gun?”
“It’s a thought.”
“Ask Ozeal if Boris has an issue with being tranquilized—maybe that will solve the mystery.”
I made a noncommittal sound. Mostly because I had a different mystery to solve. Could Brooke have been taken at gunpoint?
That might explain why Boris went after Hugh. Not because whoever grabbed Brooke looked like Hugh—which had been my working theory—but because they’d had a gun. Hugh couldn’t have had it out of the holster for more than a minute to check the CO2.
There was an easy way to find out if Boris had a reaction to someone holding a gun.
I walked to Bluebell, opened the back, and unlocked my metal storage box. The box was bolted down and contained medications that were considered controlled substances. It also contained the Glock Kai was teaching me how to shoot.
I lifted the gun and checked to make sure the clip was empty and there was no round in the chamber. I even went as far as to dry fire the gun twice with it pointed to the ground.
Safety check finished, I locked my strong box, closed Bluebell’s rear doors, and, with the gun tucked into the waistband of my jeans, made my way down the access road to see Boris.
The tiger was lounging in his small concrete pool when I walked up. He saw me, surged to his feet, and let out a low whine followed by a series of rumbling, slow, sneeze-like sounds.
It was called chuffing, and was the tiger equivalent of “Howdy, friend!”
I pursed my lips and mimicked the sound, placing my hand on the wire between us when he rubbed his face against the fence.
“How you doing today, Boris?”
As I asked, I gently probed his mind to get a feel for his mood. There was still an undercurrent of sadness, but he seemed calm and relaxed.
He pressed his forehead squarely against the fence and I scratched between his ears and down his nose.
Contentment filled the big cat and rolled over me in a soft wave. I hated to upset him, but I needed to know whether or not the sight of a gun might have prompted his reaction to Hugh. There was also a chance that seeing a gun would trigger a flash of memory and I might actually get a clearer glimpse of what happened.
I pulled my hands away with a mental apology and drew the Glock out of my waistband. I didn’t point the weapon at the cat—I just let him see it.
Boris blinked his golden eyes, then pressed his head against the fence.
“Well, I guess that answers that question.”
“Grace? What the hell are you doing?”
I turned to Ozeal, who had probably seen me waving a gun around in front of the tiger and thought I’d gone completely crazy.
“I thought maybe Boris had turned on Hugh because he saw a dart gun and had some negative associations with it.”
Ozeal’s frown deepened.
“I’m sorry. I should’ve asked. My tranquilizer gun isn’t a pistol so I had to use this. Obviously, the gun isn’t loaded.”
Ozeal seemed to consider my logic, then slowly nodded.
“I’m not sure I understand your methods, but as long as you’re doing what you’re doing to help Brooke or Boris, you’ve got my okay.”
I nodded and looked away, both moved and dismayed at her declaration of trust—something that came so unnaturally to me.
“I was wondering,” I said, hoping to redirect my thoughts, “how many other people work here?”
“Well, there’s my son, Ben, who mostly works in the commissary. Once a week I have a maintenance guy, Paul, who comes in to fix the list of odds and ends that need doing from the week before. In the office, we’ve got Debbie. She handles all the paperwork, the website, and answers the phone and e-mails.”
“Can I talk to them?”
“I already talked to everyone that was here on Wednesday. No one saw anything.”
“What about the girl I met last night?”