This was not happening!
Mira Levine spent a lot of time alone lately, and her life had become brutally boring. Not just any kind of boring either, but the kind of boring that sucked the living right out of her soul. Tonight, she’d thought a good book would do the trick—the kind of book that let her live vicariously through the words of others—if only for a little while. A little something to help keep the shadows at bay. She’d just wanted to get the book she’d picked up that day—but accidently left it in her car….
She peeked past the cold bricks of the wall, letting out a shallow sigh. When she’d asked for more action in her life—this wasn’t exactly what she had in mind.
She flattened the back of her five-foot-nine, slender frame against the outside wall of her apartment. The dumpster from down the alley smelled of the next door Mexican restaurant’s leftover food, pitched to rot. Not the kind rot that curls the hairs of your nose either, but the rot that causes the stomach to threaten to pitch its contents.
Her stomach clenched. But even that wasn’t enough to tear her mind from what she’d just seen walking down the street—in the middle of the night—in the middle of St. Louis….
She flipped around pressing her chest and face to the cool, brick wall, letting out a loud, terrified breath, then clapped her hand over her mouth when she realized what she’d done. Sneaking a peek around the corner, she checked to make sure she hadn’t just given herself away. Taking a deep breath to calm her shattered senses, she used a shaking hand to shove her long, dark hair out of her face, not hesitating to press her face against the red bricks to take another look.
She’d been looking forward to a quiet evening—warm bath, soft pajamas, deep, plushy robe. She’d stepped out of her apartment with just that intention, not paying attention, taken three steps down the stairs, halfway down the walk, before she’d spotted it.
What she saw caused her to freeze—right where she stood—staring.
Fighting off the scream that clawed its way up her throat—but would surely have drawn its attention—before doing a fast sprint back to the side of her apartment, seeing the dark wall as her closest protection.
Well, it wasn’t like you saw something like that just walking down the street every day.
Working up her nerve for another look, she pressed her face next to her trembling hands on the cool bricks, digging her new manicure into the stone until pain shot through her fingertips, forcing her to ease up. Her mind warned her not to, but Mira wasn’t one for caution. She needed things to make sense more than she needed caution.
Chewing on her lower lip, she peeked around the corner at the street—and fought to take another breath.
Sure enough—there it stood.
Mira scrambled to come to terms with what she saw there, pressing her face against the cool bricks, once more, squeezing her grey-green eyes shut in the kind of denial the mind takes when something doesn’t fit. She stood there like that, her body uncooperative, fighting to breathe—fighting to stay standing when her knees were threatening to buckle…. After several long, agonizing seconds, she opened her eyes, arguing with herself not to look….
She peeked again.
There, at the end of the street, stood a full-grown, black-as-midnight, live, man-eating, jungle cat—a jaguar, judging from her heavier frame. A female, judging from her smaller stature. Mira shook her head.
Now, where had that come from?
She wasn’t having this conversation with herself—in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, in the middle of St. Louis, where there was no way that cat could possibly be….
The cat chose to defy her careful logic by letting out a loud cry, sending shivers skittering down her spine. Mira froze, telling herself not to move, fine hairs standing-up on her arms. If she didn’t move, she wouldn’t be detected. If she wasn’t detected, she wouldn’t be eaten….
She was doing it again.
She lost the argument and peeked again, if only to convince herself this really was happening. And to make sure that thing didn’t headed her way—which was exactly what it was doing….
The big cat headed straight for her.
For a second, she just stood there, trembling lips compressed against a scream. Then the force of her ramming heart propelled her into action. She glanced down the barren alley, fighting a fresh wave of panic. No doorways or stairways led out, just the ripe dumpster, overflowing with garbage and cardboard boxes, sitting against a brick wall and a gate, standing at the end of the alley, with an overly large padlock.
She saw no place to hide, no place to climb—no place to keep her from becoming that beast’s dinner.
Blood pounded in her ears, drowning out all other sound. Holding her hand over her hammering heart, she peeked around the corner again, in the kind of morbid torture the mind takes when it doesn’t want to look—and can’t seem to stop. Letting out a tortured cry as she scrambled to get her cell phone out of her pocket.
She flipped it open, punching 9-1-1 with fumbling finger. She brought it toward her ear, peeking around the corner—yet again—and dropped the phone.
There, not two-feet away, stood an old woman.
“Wha-at?” she said, trying to see around her. The cat wasn’t there.
She turned, swinging this way, then that, like a crazed thing, bobbing, trying to locate the cat as the elderly woman watched her, skin crinkling around wizened, old eyes, in what appeared to be patient amusement.
Without looking, Mira picked up her phone and went to press the call button when the woman’s words stopped her.
“Dear, I wouldn’t do that,” she said, not unkindly. “I mean, what are you going to say? ‘Officer there’s a large, jungle cat outside my place’?”
Mira had turned for another glance down the street, when the old woman’s words, and something else, snared her attention. She stopped, staring at the old woman’s eyes. She knew she stared, rudely so, but couldn’t help herself. Nothing about tonight made sense….
She looked down at her phone, not seeing, her ears buzzing. Somewhere out in the city, a horn blared. The crone actually smiled. Mira didn’t think to question why she saw her as a crone. She just did. She didn’t have to look, to know she smiled. She could hear it in her words.
“Actually, it would be quite amusing,” she said, drawing Mira’s attention back to her wrinkled hands, folded in front of her long, black dress. The dress, itself, falling in folds of black and silver, interlaced with what looked like—black fur.
“Ma’am, did you say, jungle cat?” she mimed. “Yes, are you deaf?” She smiled again at her own joke. “Ma’am, have you had something to drink?” She laughed.
No. Mira felt sure it was more of a cackle.
She glared at the older woman, shutting her phone with a snap as feeling came back into her limbs, anger coursing its way through her. She took one more look down the street before she met the elderly woman’s gaze.
Her eyes were as yellow and metallic as the cat’s, and Mira could swear that, for a moment, they’d been the same shape. Black hair, with two large silver streaks, fell down the crone’s back. Black fur, the same midnight color of the jaguar, had been skillfully interlaced into the dress. More of that same fur was carefully braided into her hair.
“Who are you?” Mira demanded, the last dregs of her fear giving way to anger, relishing in the feeling because it gave her back her control. “You frightened me half to death. Or rather…,” she gestured with an erratic jerk in the direction behind the older woman, where the cat had stood. No words explained what she needed to say.
Not giving the woman a chance to speak, even if she’d intended to—which she appeared in no hurry to do so—Mira blurted out, “Where’s that cat, Old Woman?” She realized she yelled the question, but couldn’t help it. She was certain she was about to do a lot more than yell….
The old crone smiled.
Mira frowned. Something about the woman felt strange. One moment, she appeared old—the next—years younger. She wrestled for several, long seconds with a crazy thought. No, she wouldn’t pile that thought onto the already bizarre things she’d witnessed this night. She tried to block it out—and failed. “Who are you?” she demanded, again
“So many questions, child.” The elderly woman smiled at her. “I see…”
Mira cut her off. The crone’s amusement too much, coupled with the other strange occurrences happening tonight. “You see? What do you see? That you have frightened me half to death? Or that I am, incomprehensibly, about to accuse you of being a cat. So that now, not only am I seeing things, I’m going crazy. And to top it all off, I’m doing something I find reprehensible… I’m yelling like a banshee at an old woman.”
Mira knew that with every word, she’d gone back to panicking, and a panicked state was never a good state to be in. But somewhere—between being angry with the elderly woman and voicing the impossibility that she’d seen a large jungle cat, more-or-less that she’d accused the old woman of being that jungle cat—she’d stopped caring that she’d stopped making sense.
The elderly woman stepped forward, putting a hand on Mira’s arm. “Calm yourself, child.”
Mira found the gesture strangely comforting, fear and panic melting away, giving way to an odd feeling of familiarity.
The crone’s gaze narrowed on her. “I needed to know how well you see. You’ve advanced nicely. You saw the cat because of this.”
Mira frowned. “You still haven’t told me who you are.”
“My name is Amar. I am of the Jaguar People. I have brought you a message.” She slipped her hand into her pocket and brought out a disk—an ancient-looking medallion. “And this…”
Mira reached out automatically, accepting the disk, then berated herself for having done so. It felt cool beneath her fingers. She couldn’t help it, she stood, tracing the ancient symbol. She’d known this symbol before. She didn’t have to look to know, Amar nodded, as if she approved.
Mira looked up at her. “I don’t—understand.”
Amar turned to go. She turned back, as if she had a thought. Looking at Mira, she pointed to the west. “You must go to a place that is a mile high, and so wide you can’t see the end from the tallest building.”
Mira frowned at her. “Are you talking about Denver? Speak plainly, old woman. I mean—Amar.”
“Four await you there. They will help you to find the answers you seek.” Her cat-like gaze turned serious. “But go quickly, child, for there is one who would stop you from following your destiny.
Mira automatically shook her head. “No.” She caught herself and tried to soften her words. “I mean—I don’t remember telling you I seek any answers….” She stopped. “Wait—was that a threat?” She shook her head again, but she couldn’t deny the shiver of anticipation, snaking up her spine, causing the fine hairs along her arms stand on end. “What—destiny? And why would I care?”
“Because,” the old woman smiled, “you don’t know who you are….” Amar watched her, as though she held some hidden secret.
It irritated Mira. She looked back down at the medallion, so cool in her palm. And when she looked up—the crone was gone….