I knelt in the prickly brush on the hillside and carefully took aim. The cougar sniffed the air, but I was downwind. About twenty yards away, Anna watched intently from the truck. I knew she hated this part, but she kept still and very quiet. As did I.
The cougar sensed another presence besides her two cubs, but I had been doing this kind of thing for years. I knew to wait for the right moment. I gauged her at about seventy-five pounds; not too big for a wildcat. Actually, she looked thin. Probably hungry, too; these beasts didn’t come near civilization unless necessary. She’d probably wandered here from Griffith Park in search of food for herself and her two cubs, so I wasn’t absolutely sure just how strong she was.
The best place to hit her was in the back of the neck, so I waited for her to turn to the right position. She growled a little as one of the cubs tugged playfully at her tail. She was in no mood for play—she was very intuitive. I could tell. This cougar was nothing to fool around with.
Suddenly, she glanced in my direction. I held my breath. I knew Anna did, too. The cougar’s long, direct gaze penetrated me. I was ready to pull the trigger if she so much as hinted at a move in my direction. I didn’t blink, I didn’t move. I waited. She waited.
It was pre-dawn, still almost dark. Her vision was pretty much perfect in such light. Mine, not so much. She stood stone-still, watching me from slightly higher ground.
As quickly as she’d focused on me, she released her gaze and bent to sniff the ground.
I mouthed a word of prayer, and then...I pulled the trigger, launching the dart into the back of her neck. I quickly shot her again, this time between her shoulder blades. The cat screeched and ran, her cubs following obediently. I followed, as well. I knew Anna was dying to get out of the truck, but I signaled for her to wait a little longer.
One just never knew how tranquilizers would affect a wildcat. I hoped my aim was true and that this one would go down quickly. As I reloaded my injection rifle, I rushed through the foliage, following her tracks. How I didn’t trip and fall on my face, I don’t know. I hated leaving Anna alone in the truck, but I was wearing protective arm shields as well as a vest. Anna only had the vest, and even then, it was a little too big for her.
I found the old girl some thirty yards further up the hillside, struggling to stay on her feet. I silently thanked the gods for the anesthesia’s speed, even though she hissed viciously. Her cubs were a little bewildered. They watched with curiosity as I slowly approached. Mama usually told them what to do but Mama was staggering now, darts hanging from her neck and back.
As soon as the cat went down, I heard the truck door slam. There was a quiet rustle from the back of the truck, and then, shortly, Anna was beside me, out of breath and smelling like perfume. Who wore perfume on a tagging mission? Either way, I was grateful that she’d insisted on wearing moccasins. Hell, she could move as quietly as this cat.
Our work here wasn’t done, not by a long shot. I glanced over at the cage she’d carried with her. Anna looked up at me for approval. She always sought my approval, although she had already earned it the moment she was born. I almost winced at her beauty. Instead, I smiled and nodded a little. Her replying angelic grin made me glad I’d brought her along.
The cubs were still small, so I let Anna work on them as I bound the cougar’s paws, front and back. My volunteer co-worker sat cross-legged on the ground, distracting the cubs and coaxing them closer, the cage not far away. They were wary. They wanted to stay near their mother. Anna scooted a little closer. She’d covered her hands with earth, as I had, to try to mask our human scent. It worked a little. Her easy spirit worked better.
My work done, I watched silently as Anna worked her magic. She held a branch in one hand, moving it back and forth on the ground in a teasing motion. She held out her other dirt-covered hand, face up. Neither of us spoke. She merely held the cubs’ eyes and urged them to her. Slowly, slowly, they inched closer, spellbound by my daughter. She got them to play with the branch, and somehow, she maneuvered them closer to the cage, which was now also lined with branches.
I stopped breathing again when one cub climbed onto her lap. This was a critical time, and Anna knew it as well as I did. If either of us showed a hint of fear, these wild cubs would pick up on it and flee. I looked at my watch. It was probably another fifteen to twenty minutes until the mother would stir. I still hadn’t radioed the zoo, and there wasn’t much time unless I injected the mother again, which I didn’t want to do. Anna knew all this. Now, it was my turn to wait.
With one cub in her lap, she placed the branch nearer to the cage. With both hands now free, she toyed with the first cub as the second approached cautiously. Finally, it came close enough for her to grasp. Quick as lightning, she gripped each cub by the scruffs of their necks and slipped them carefully into the cage. I was by her side in an instant and, much to the cougar cubs’ dismay, we closed and locked the door.
Anna sat back and sighed. “Whew!” She laughed, and regarded the two cubs mischievously. “I got you two buggers.”
The cubs cried for their mother as Anna cooed at them through the metal cage. I switched on my radio. I watched my fourteen-year-old daughter with renewed awe as I talked into the walkie-talkie.
“Brice,” I said.
“That you, Carter?” came the voice over some static.
“Ten-four. I’ve got your cougar here.”
“You kiddin’ me?”
I turned to the mother cougar, presently lying on her side. “I’m not,” I responded, “and there isn’t much time.”
Anna left the cubs and gingerly approached the big cat. My hand reached for the rifle. Anna shook her head at me in defiance as I motioned for her to keep her distance.
I gave Brice our location in the north hills surrounding the zoo. “Can you be here within ten minutes?” I asked. I was beside Anna now. She caressed the mother’s injection sites. She ignored my motions to stop. She didn’t even have gloves on.
“Christ on a Christmas tree, Jack! Ten minutes?”
“I don’t want to sedate her again if we can help it,” the words spilled out before I could retract them. Too late. Oops.
“We? You’ve got Anna with you again?”
I could already imagine Brice’s disapproving frown. I didn’t have time to reply before his words vomited loudly through the walkie-talkie—too loudly.
“How many times do I have to tell you, Jack Carter,” he snapped, “that having her assist with any animal rescue is illegal. The liability alone—”
“This is her last time,” I said. “I swear.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“Look, let’s talk about it later. I presently have a sleeping wildcat on my hands—a cat that’s gonna be very, very pissed off in twenty minutes. Besides,” I added.
“Besides what?” snapped Brice.
“My daughter is a natural,” I said proudly.
On the day that changed his life forever, Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carter fought anxiety as he veered his government vehicle off the freeway.
He headed toward the naval base in Seal Beach, pondering who and what awaited him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to smoke in the car. He lit a cigarette anyway. He told himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong. Nothing to worry about. But still...
Why had he been summoned?
“You know why,” he told himself, but he didn’t want to think about it now. He inhaled deeply, turned up the radio and opened the car’s windows to clear out the tobacco smoke.
The base was less than ten minutes from the freeway. That meant, the Lieutenant Commander told himself, that he had ten minutes to gather his thoughts. Not that he hadn’t been doing so since earlier today when he was first ordered to report to Seal Beach. He wasn’t feeling well, and his sunglasses did little to shield the blinding rays that made his head ache even worse. He had little appetite. No surprise there. This morning, he’d consumed about a half-gallon of water, which he’d later upchucked.
“Must be the flu,” he muttered, remembering that his buddy, Mike, had displayed the same symptoms. Thinking of Mike, he glanced in his rearview mirror. “Hey, wake up!” He’d almost forgotten about Mike, and that was strange. Jesus, his thoughts were scattered.
Mike didn’t move, so Joe tossed an empty water bottle back to wake his comrade. Mike finally sat up, clearly bewildered.
“We’re almost there,” Joe said. “Get your shit together.”
Mike didn’t look so hot but did his best to comply.
“Can’t afford to get sick,” Joe muttered, whether to himself or Mike, he wasn’t sure. But Joe decided to squeeze in a clinic visit and ask for some antibiotics while he was on base. That would take care of whatever was ailing them. It was probably just the flu.
He almost missed the entrance, swerving into the left-turn lane at the last moment. He knew this exit like the back of his hand. How could he have almost missed it?
I’m just distracted and not feeling well, he thought.
It’s just the flu, he told himself again as he flashed his ID to the guards and was waved through the gate. He veered the car toward base headquarters.
* * *
“Let’s go over it again,” said the Agent in Black.
Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carter wanted to bury his head in his hands, but he knew better. This agent had now been questioning him for three hours. Joe knew the drill. It could go on for several more if this asshole didn’t get the answers he wanted.
Don’t lose your temper, he thought. Show respect. No matter how crappy you feel.
And Joe was feeling increasingly crappy. He was flat-out sick. He pushed thoughts of the sickness aside and focused on his surroundings, though he did note the location of the nearest wastebasket. Just in case.
The office was small and it would have been cozy if he had been there under more pleasant circumstances. The guards outside were the only hint of threat. The problem was that Joe Carter was having a very hard time remembering what had happened two nights ago. His thoughts felt scattered, incoherent, almost as if he was drunk. Or high. Or both.
The small room and guards outside were also making him feel claustrophobic. God, his head ached, too. He wanted to put on his sunglasses, even though the blinds were closed. The glass of water on the desk sat untouched. Joe was thirsty, yes, but he didn’t want to barf all over the office. Then again, maybe it would speed up this whole process.
Joe sighed. “Where do you want me to begin?”
The Agent in Black was seated on the corner of the desk—a position that allowed him to look down on the Lieutenant Commander. Joe knew all these tactics, but had never had them applied to him. His pristine record in the military spoke for itself. He’d never been in trouble and he didn’t think his actions the other night were unwarranted.
“You and your friend were returning to your quarters from the bar, when...?”
“I saw what I thought was a meteor,” said Joe.
“But it wasn’t a meteor.”
“It landed in the middle of a field.”
“Inside the base?”
“What did it look like, falling to the ground?”
“I just told you.” Joe tried to hide his frustration. “At first, it looked like a meteor. A falling star. It had a trail. But as it came closer, we realized it was very small, and it was going to hit the ground.”
“How small was it?” asked the Agent in Black for the hundredth time.
“About the size of a basketball,” Joe answered tiredly.
“And you two just ran over to it?”
“You didn’t think to report an unidentified object landing on military ground?”
“No, I...we...weren’t thinking, I guess. We’d had a few beers...we were off-duty.”
“Lieutenant commanders are never completely off-duty.”
Joe Carter remembered that he was supposed to be on leave. “I know. It was a mistake.”
“So, what did it look like?”
Joe looked longingly at the water. He lit a cigarette instead. He raised his bloodshot eyes to the Agent in Black. “It looked like a sphere, I told you. About the size of a football...” Joe trailed off. No, that wasn’t right.
“A football?” The Agent in Black was right on it.
“No, that’s not what I meant.” Joe Carter’s brain felt like jelly. He felt truly ill. He frowned. He concentrated. “A basketball. I meant it was the size of a basketball.”
“You just said football. Which was it?”
“A basketball. It was round. I got my words mixed up. I’m sorry.”
The Agent in Black regarded his detainee, for a detainee was exactly what Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carter was. For the moment, anyhow. The Agent in Black studied the man below him, and figured the man was either withholding information, or was coming down with something. Or hung-over, which the agent doubted. After all, Carter had been under surveillance for the last forty-three hours, ever since “The Incident.”
In fact, both Lieutenant Commanders Joseph Carter and Mike Mendoza had been watched closely—followed, even, from San Diego to Seal Beach. The Agent in Black was slightly surprised that they hadn’t been aware of it. At least, they hadn’t given any indication of knowing that they were being tailed, other than nearly missing their freeway exit.
The agent sipped his coffee, and glanced at Carter’s untouched water. “You thirsty?” he asked.