Thursday, August 6, 2009

Unleashing the Jaguar by Michelle Houston

For the hundredth time, Michael cursed himself for being seven kinds of a fool as he paced the length of his cage. The sounds of the zoo settled into a nighttime rhythm as the last of the attendants left, leaving the animals alone for the night with just a few guards.

During the day he tried to ignore his situation, preferring to nap and avoid looking at all of the people who embraced their freedom without even being truly aware of it. They had no idea, thinking about their job and family lives as being trapped, but at any moment they could walk away. He had once felt the same way, feeling trapped by his nature, frustrated that he couldn’t allow himself to shift when his beast felt like it. Instead he had to keep it on a tight chain, forcing half of his soul into a dormant state unless the situation was right.

Now, trapped in his jaguar form and in a zoo, he knew what true enslavement felt like. The complete loss of will, the inability to change a damn thing about his situation, without damning thousands of his kind to potential extermination was a heavy burden to bear. Almost as heavy as the loss of his mate.

Growling his frustration, he tried to figure a way out of the cage. As a jaguar, he couldn’t open the cage door; there was no way he could as a human. Worse, he couldn’t risk the chaos that would ensue if he were caught on camera shifting, so that he could try to escape. Flopping down on the cool ground, he laid his head on his front legs and huffed out a sigh.

There was no way out.

For the rest of his life he was stuck in his animal form, and behind bars. Thankfully the zoo hadn’t brought in a mate for him yet. As much as he got along with his animal kin, there was no way he was going to be mating with a non-shifter jaguar. The very idea repulsed; despite his animal nature, true jaguars were non-sentient at a human level.

Which meant that in addition to being trapped in a cage, he would be alone. Having thought himself alone after Danny left, he hadn’t realized what he still had in his family and friends.

His only alternative would be to expose the existence of his kind and potentially cause the loss of thousands of shifters after the panic set in. As much as their human kin had progressed, they weren’t yet ready to embrace someone so alien to them.

Growling softly, he tried to settle his mind and catch sleep while he could. After almost three months, he was bored out of his mind. The only news he caught was hearing people talk as they walked past his enclosure. He hadn’t realized before just how much he depended on radio, TV, and his books to keep him company. Solitary by nature, he didn’t have much need for interaction with others, yet he couldn’t stand being cut off from the world around him.

Being alone, without distractions, he had done more than his share of thinking and dwelling. It was the dwelling that was starting to get to him - the what ifs and self-doubts as he examined his life. Especially the events that had led to his being captured.

Having decided living without his mate wasn’t going to work, he had finally gathered his courage, faced the potential ultimate rejection, and had gone to find Danny.

He wanted to rail against the fates but knew he only had himself to blame. First for falling in love with someone he knew probably wasn’t capable of settling down, then for going off alone to lick his wounded heart, and finally for shifting into a jaguar before chasing down his mate. His worst mistake of all though was forgetting everything he had been taught about being aware of his surroundings when in animal form. At the top of the food chain he hadn’t worried about being dinner.

Unfortunately, he forgot to keep an eye out for humans, until it was too late.
The creak of his cage door startled him and had him rising to his feet before he really thought about it. As a dark form slipped into his enclosure, a soft growl welled within him. The scent wasn’t altogether unfamiliar, yet completely unexpected.

“Mike? Damn it, man, what have you gone and done this time?”

Hunted Witness by Carol Storm

“What happened? Did I do okay? Did I remember anything?” Jasmine opened her eyes, surprised she’d dozed off. A policeman was taking notes, though the room was still dark. The professor was cleaning his eyeglasses, and the district attorney signaled a tall man in the back to get up and open the shades. Something about his broad shoulders rang a bell. He was probably just another police detective, but somehow Jasmine hadn’t noticed him sitting there in the shadows. All she remembered was feeling wonderfully relaxed as the professor’s gold watch swayed to and fro.

“That was splendid, Miss Dumont. With the details you remembered, we can really put the screws on some of Nicky Romanov’s low-life associates. Once they know we’ve got an eye-witness to the murder, they’ll give us the dirt on Nicky just to save their own rotten necks.”

“But did I really see the murder?” Cheerful Frank Fredericks sounded very confident about the case. Jasmine wanted to learn the truth about what she had really seen that night. And she wanted to get the creeps who murdered Lola. Maybe then she could actually sleep at night.

“You saw plenty,” growled a rough yet familiar male voice. “If you hadn’t, Nicky wouldn’t be after you now. Too bad you can’t remember any of it without being put to sleep.”

“Nicky’s not after me,” Jasmine began, then stopped as the craggy features of the man in back suddenly became recognizable. “Oh, wait just a minute. Is this some kind of joke? You’re not a policeman. Your name is—”

“Miss Dumont, allow me to introduce Adam Black. Adam used to be undercover for the force, and I still consider him a top man all around. He’s graciously agreed to give us some unofficial help, providing protection for you until the trial.” The young district attorney smiled reassuringly.

“I don’t need protection.” Jasmine scowled as Adam confidently approached her, sitting next to Frank on the long black leather couch. “Especially not from a guy who fed me a line, took me out to dinner, and then took a powder just when…just when I was starting to like him!”

“Wait a minute. You two know each other?” Frank Fredericks was obviously intrigued.

“I was working,” Adam explained. “A dangerous suspect made a sudden move, so I had to end our evening a little prematurely.” His dark eyes showed not a flicker of apology or regret.

“Yes, you were obviously practicing your undercover skills.” Jasmine couldn’t resist glaring at Adam, letting him know how sore she was, even with an audience overhearing every word she said. She remembered that night. After the usual chitchat at dinner, they went to a sexy Cuban club. They danced, and after a couple of hot numbers with a frantic tempo Adam literally carried her off the floor. Of course her heart was pounding with anticipation. The two of them tangled in the dark, his mouth on hers, her body pressed to his. And then he just left her hanging.

“Undercover is tough.” Adam gave her a smoldering look, as if he remembered the same things. “You can’t always show what you’re feeling. To anyone. That’s one reason I moved to Florida.”

“Adam’s a small-town sheriff now,” Frank Fredericks put in eagerly. “And a darned good one. The locals are all millionaire types. It must be great, living down in the Florida Keys all year round.”

“Yeah, that must be great.” Jasmine didn’t like the level way Adam looked at her. He was too self-controlled, too sure of himself. Maybe he wanted her, or maybe he thought she still wanted him. But she wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. All Jasmine wanted to do was help the police catch Lola’s killer. “So what are you doing back up north in the dead of winter?” she asked casually, opening her expensive Prada bag and hunting for cigarettes. Her stupid hands kept shaking.

“Looking to drum up tourism?”

“This is personal.” Adam’s hands were steady. He snapped his lighter open and held it level. Jasmine leaned forward, her trembling fingers resting on his wrist. Their eyes met and held over the tiny flame. When they separated, he sank back on the couch, looking insufferably calm.

“Adam and I spent three years trying to bring Nicky Romanov down,” Frank Fredericks explained. “But every time we found someone who could get close to the Russian, tie him to the drug rackets, our guy disappeared. Usually we found the body in the river. Adam knows. They killed his partner. We want Nicky Romanov, Miss Dumont. That’s why it’s personal.”

“Oh, I get it,” Jasmine said cynically. She gave Adam a haughty view of her profile, turning her face to one side and blowing a plume of blue cigarette smoke high in the air. “This is like a cop revenge thing. I thought you cared about Lola. Well, why don’t you just tell me what I remembered when I went under? I did remember something important, right?” Adam was watching her without expression. Jasmine didn’t like that look, as if she were just a flimsy piece of evidence, or a witness with a fishy story to be evaluated, and nothing more. Feeling nettled, she settled casually back in the professor’s armchair and deliberately crossed her long legs.

“My dear Miss Dumont, you’ve had a severe trauma,” Professor Von Sternberg told her gently. “Your unconscious mind must recover naturally. In time, the memories will come back. To force them to the surface now would not be good for you. It would not be ethical medical practice.”

“Then what was the point of today’s session?” Jasmine raised one slim, jet-black eyebrow.

“Hell if I know,” Adam Black growled. “Showing off your legs to a bunch of cops?” His dark eyes flickered like a tiny spark in a big dark forest. But it only took one spark to set off an inferno.