|In this past October (2020) the Shifti Community lost Chris "Robotech Master" Meadows to an accident involving an SUV hitting his electric bike and leaving the scene. While we may never know the full story of this event, the administrators of Shifti will work to preserve his account and works here as he'd wish us to. Thank you all for being such excellent people.|
User:Robotech Master/The Truth About Cats and Dogs
|Paradise story universe|
Author: Chris Meadows
The Truth About Cats and Dogs
EARLY JUNE 2010
James Case, late member of security for Hugh Melton’s private “animal” pen, now head of security for the Melton Resort complex, stood on the fourth floor tower balcony of the Melton mansion with a pair of binoculars and a worried expression. He was using the tower’s fourth-floor perspective to see over the fifteen-foot security wall surrounding the grounds to watch what was going on just across the street.
A small, ragged group of about a dozen men was gathered on the sidewalk near the bus stop, carrying picket signs and chanting angry slogans. James couldn’t hear the chants from where he was, but could read the signs clearly through the binoculars. “GOD HATES FANGS!” “FURRY FREAKS GO HOME!” “LEVITICUS 18:23.”
The protesters were alone except for one bored-looking Branson police officer about a block up the street. There weren’t many other passers-by this far out of Branson proper, but those few there were steered well clear of the sign-bearers. On the first couple of days, there had been a small, angry Changed counter-protest, and a time or two it had looked like violence might break out. But then Trixie and James had met with the Changed group’s leaders and politely asked them to disband. “These punks thrive on attention and want to pick a fight,” James had said. “Let’s not give them what they want. We’re not going anywhere, so don’t feed the trolls, okay?”
Word had gone out among the local Changed community, and the opposition dried up. And now the protesters looked a little sad and forlorn, chanting their slogans to an empty audience.
“Why do they do it?” a soft, feminine voice said from right behind James.
“Gah!” James jumped straight up and nearly dropped his binoculars off the balcony. He turned to look behind him. “Don’t do that!”
“I am sorry,” Consuela said. The melanistic jaguar Changed looked abashed. “Perhaps I should wear a bell.”
“It’s all right,” James said, putting a hand over his heart and taking a deep breath to try to get it to stop racing.
“But why do they do it?” Consuela asked again. “It is muy loco. It makes no sense.”
“Their world has Changed and they don’t like it,” James said. “They can’t deal with it, so they look for someone to blame. And hey, here we are.” It was common knowledge that the Branson bubble had started right there in the Melton compound. Measurements of its perimeter confirmed it, and the epicenter was still exactly on the site of the old animal pit, now filled in with a row of cottages atop it. With that and the news stories about the kidnapping taken together, small wonder that the Melton place was a magnet for Changed-haters of any kind.
“But they will change themselves sooner or later,” Consuela pointed out.
“Yeah, and I’ve read some people think the more they hang out in a bubble or near Changed, the sooner it will be,” James said. He shook his head. “But they don’t believe that, and they’ve got a lot of practice disbelieving what the government tells them. These are the same guys who picket soldiers’ funerals, y’know.”
Consuela cocked her head, watching the protesters some more. “But why do they hate us so much? What did we ever do to them?”
“It’s not us they hate, but what they think we represent,” James said. “This is the same crowd who thought that AIDS was God punishing the gay people. They look at all the trans-gender furs and think this is God punishing gays again. And y’know, it’s a nice little tautology from their point of view. They haven’t Changed yet, therefore they’re not the wicked ones. Therefore, anyone who does Change must have been secretly wicked after all.”
Consuela thought about that. “Estupido. Muy tonto. I feel sorry for any Changed in their families.”
James nodded. “You said it. Of course, on the bright side, the problem will eventually take care of itself. And from some point of view, it could be funny as hell when one or two of that bunch down there eventually Changes and is then all surprised when his pals can’t see he’s just the same person he’s always been, and it’s all the other Changed who are the evil ones. That doesn’t help us right now, of course.” He looked again at the protesters, then checked his watch. “Hell. They should have knocked off for the day by now. Gina’s flight’s supposed to be landing now, which means she’ll be here in half an hour.”
“Your sister is coming here?” Consuela asked. “I thought she did not like you so much right now, since she learned you had been one of our guards.”
James rolled his eyes. “Yeah. I think she’s under some peer pressure from extremist Changees. Those highly-polarized, ‘us against them’ kooks that claim you shouldn’t trust anyone without fur. They don’t want to hear I’m the one who helped you escape. I was human and involved, therefore I should be shot. And since she’s my sister, she ends up having to try to distance herself from me on the boards, and it bleeds over into real life.” He shrugged. “At least, that’s what it looks like from the threads she’s been posting in.”
“So why is she coming here?” Consuela asked.
“She doesn’t have much choice,” James said. “The MSU dorms don’t open ‘til the fall semester starts in a couple of months, and she doesn’t really have anywhere else to live right now. I offered a room here for a couple months, and she pretty much had to take it.” He grinned faintly. “I’m kinda hoping that if you guys tell her how awesome I am, she might get it through her head to stop hating me.”
“You can count on me, amigo,” Consuela said with a smile. “I will tell her of nothing but how heroic you were.”
James looked down, face coloring bright red. “You can just stick to the truth and it’ll be fine,” he mumbled.
“Oh, but I will be.” Consuela beamed at him. “You risked yourself shooting your fellow guards to make it safer for us. That is heroic to me.”
“I don’t feel especially heroic,” James said. “I should have figured out how to shut Melton down months before. But I just stood by while he scooped up more and more people. I feel like I could have died saving you and it still wouldn’t have put a dent in the debt.”
Consuela reached out and put an arm around his shoulders. “You are a hero to me. You are a good man. Do you know how rare that is in this world?”
“Keep telling me that and maybe someday I’ll believe it,” James said ruefully. “But right now, I guess I’d better give Gina a call and tell her to hold off on driving out just yet. She—”
He felt Consuela stiffen next to him. “It may be too late for that. Look!” She pointed.
“Huh?” James raised the binoculars to his eyes. “Oh hell.” A red convertible was driving up the road, with a black and tan German Shepherd girl at the wheel. “Her flight must have landed early. And she’s going to come right up by those protesters! I’d better get down—”
He broke off as Consuela vaulted over the railing beside him, grabbing a nearby gutter and sliding down it with an ear-splitting screech of claws on metal. James stared, swore, then turned and ran for the stairs. What does she think she’s doing? She’s pregnant, dammit!
Gina Case drove up the road that her GPS said led to the site of the Melton mansion, experiencing feelings of marked ambivalence. She was going to be staying at the site of what might be the most heinous crime ever perpetrated against the Changed. She might well tread the very same land where those Changed had paced out their durance vile. Hell, forget that, she was going to meet ten out of the original eleven of them.
But on the other hand, she was also going to have to see her brother again, and she wasn’t sure how to handle that. He had, after all, been one of the very security guards who had kept the Changed in their pen—a member of the SS to Hugh Melton’s Hitler. He might have been “only following orders,” but he’d stayed there for months without doing anything to put an end to the whole affair. His lack of opposition had been an effective approval of Melton’s regime! Or, at least, that was what all her friends on the Changed forums were saying.
But when you got right down to it, Gina was starting to wonder just how much of that was really true. After all, if James had been so heavily involved in keeping those Changed prisoner, why were they still having anything to do with him now that he was free? In fact, they’d hired him on as head of security for their resort start-up, which must have said something about how they felt about him.
(The more extremist forums were buzzing with accusations of “Stockholm syndrome” or downright blackmail, but Gina was having difficulty envisioning James as some kind of mustache-twirling villain. She could see him as a little feckless, maybe, but not downright amoral.)
Either way, she would soon have the opportunity to quiz the kidnap victims in person. She resolved to leave no stone unturned when it came to the question of how evil her brother was or was not. One way or another, she was going to get some answers.
Gina rounded the last corner and came up on the stretch of road that led by the mansion. She could see the start of the 15-foot walls just ahead. Then she caught sight of the people standing across from the walls, and their signs and placards and angry expressions. “Oh…crud. These guys.” Gina had read on the forums about similar, if largely isolated, protests in other bubbles. Although most people seemed to be taking the Change revelation well, there were still the occasional fruitcakes who fell outside of those tolerances.
Gina cast wildly about for somewhere she could pull in and turn around, but there were no real shoulders on the road. And the protesters had already seen her coming and were moving out to block the road ahead. Gina’s ears flipped back and she whined a little as the road ran out ahead of her and she finally had to pull to a halt or run over a protester.
The protesters’ leader was in his late thirties or early forties with several days of stubble, wearing jeans and a ratty T-shirt. He carried a sign that read “GOD HATES FANGS!” “Well, what have we here?” he called out to the others. “Looks like another one of those furry freaks who thinks she’s a real person! We don’t want your kind here, bitch!”
Gina whimpered a little, even as part of her noted the irony that the epithet was, technically, accurate. “Please get out of my way,” she said.
“You hear that, boys? ‘Please’? Nobody told you to sit up and beg!” His followers laughed as if they thought he’d just made the funniest joke in the world. “In fact, I think it might be better if you just played dea—ACK!”
The man broke off as Gina calmly lifted the can of pepper spray she kept in the door’s map compartment and sprayed him in the face with it. “I did say please,” she said, with a calmness that belied her racing heart.
The protester rocked back, rubbing at his eyes. “Ow! You bitch! I can’t believe you did that! Oh, you’re gonna pay for that!” He took a grip on his sign and raised it over his head. Up the street, Gina saw a policeman starting forward, hand on his holster. She wondered if he would make it in time.
Then a feline scream split the air as a black-furred arm slashed at the sign, knocking it out of the man’s hands. A black jaguar landed at a crouch by the car, in front of the man, growling her defiance as she gazed up at him from bright amber eyes. The protester stared in shock, and rather quickly backed off, followed by the others.
The jaguar rose from her crouch, still glowering at the man. Then she turned to Gina and smiled. “I beg your pardon, señorita. I am Maria Luisa Consuela Cazador y de la Selva, but you may call me Consuela. I came to tell you the gate is open, so please drive inside.” She nodded back over her shoulder, at the wide-open security gate in the fifteen-foot wall. An un-Changed human figure was just running through it, panting as he slowed down. Oh—it was James! He looked quite smart in the dark blue security guard’s uniform—and quite angry at the men on the other side of the road.
“Gina—are you okay?” James called out. He arrived just at the same time as the police officer, who still had his hand on his holster. James glared at him. “So where the hell were you just now, huh?”
“I’m fine, James,” Gina said, overcoming her annoyance with him to show a united front before the real foes. “Thanks to Consuela here. I’ll see you inside.” She pulled forward and turned into the gate. But curiosity got the better of her and she pulled off the path, parked the car, and ran back to peep around the corner of the gate to see what happened next.
James was saying something to Consuela. “—were you thinking? You’re pregnant! What if something happened to the baby!” Gina’s eyes widened. Now that he mentioned it, she could make out the slight bulge in Consuela’s belly.
But Consuela just smiled. “Do not be worried,” she said. “A little exercise is good for a pregnant woman.”
“You freaks!” the protest leader said, glaring at them. “I’ll press charges for assault against you and that bitch!”
James crossed his arms. “If you want to, go right ahead,” he said in a low, dangerous voice. Gina shivered, thinking despite herself that he’d make a great German Shepherd. He certainly had the growl and the steely gaze down perfectly. “We’ll press them right back. We saw you threatening my sister.” He turned the gaze on the cop. “Didn’t we?”
The police officer glanced nervously at Consuela—his hand was still on his gun—but he nodded only a little shakily. “I did, and my report will mention it.”
James turned his attention back to the protester. “And I think our lawyers are going to be a bit better than any you can afford.”
“That furry freak is your sister?” the man said. “I guess it figures you’d have one of them in your family.”
“Sneer while you can,” James said. “Sooner or later there’ll be one in your family, too. Might even be you. C’mon, Consuela, let’s get back inside.” He nodded to the cop, and the pair of them walked back toward the gate.
Behind them, the protester plucked up his courage to come back and retrieve his sign. As he picked it up, the right half of the placard dropped off, sheared through by Consuela’s claws. What was left of the sign attached to the stick now read “GOD FAN”. Gina giggled and slipped back to her car, where she was waiting when the others came inside.
James stopped by the gate to throw the switch to shut it again, then he and Consuela came over to Gina. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” Gina said, in more of a growl now that they were alone. “What was that?”
“Our own friendly neighborhood whack-jobs,” James said. “I’m sorry about that. If I’d known your flight got in early, I’d have told you to hold off coming until they cleared out. Why didn’t you call?”
“I didn’t feel like talking yet,” Gina said. “I’m still trying to decide just how much I hate you for what you did for Melton.”
James rolled his eyes. “Gina, I’ve tried to tell you, I only played along until I could find a chance to help them break out. If I’d called the cops, Melton would have found out about it ahead of time and just moved everyone to another location.”
Gina sniffed. “So you say.” She found she was wanting to believe him, especially given how concerned he had been about Consuela, but she still didn’t know for sure yet.
“So I say, too,” Consuela said, coming up beside them. “Your brother es muy bravo. Had it not been for him, we might have been hurt badly. Do you know, he took out half the guards himself?”
Gina blinked at her. “You were…one of the Eleven?” She did remember a dark cat-Changed in the group photos, come to think of it, but the press coverage had mainly focused on Tiffany and the pregnant sheep.
“I was. Trust me when I say to you—your brother was a big help in freeing us. Everyone will tell you so.” Consuela nodded emphatically.
“Oh.” Gina glanced at James. “I guess…I may owe you an apology.” The way Consuela’s praise had set James to blushing fiercely did tend to lend it a certain suggestion of accuracy.
James shrugged. “It’s a mistake anyone could make. C’mon, let’s get up to the house. We’ve got your room all ready.”
Gina nodded to her car. “Climb in, I’ll drive you on up.” The two Changed and one human clambered into the convertible, and Gina drove up toward the mansion. She’d already gotten one shock to her preconceptions, Gina reflected. She wondered what else might await her when they got there.
James left Gina to get settled into her room in the staff wing of the mansion—the section where all the furres had small apartments except for Leo and Helena, who’d turned Melton’s old master bedroom into an apartment for two. He headed back up the stairs to the tower balcony, and picked up his binoculars again. There was a police car parked in front of the gate now, and a couple more officers discussing things with the group of protesters, who seemed notably more subdued. They weren’t waving their signs or shouting slogans at the moment, at least.
“Do you think they will give up and go home now?” Consuela asked from right behind his left ear.
“GAH!” James said, nearly dropping the binoculars again. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
“Lo siento! I am sorry!” Consuela said, raising her hands. “I did not think. I will try to stop frightening you.”
“I’m not frightened,” James said. “Just startled within an inch of my life. You’re so quiet all the time!”
“It is only how I am. It is hard to change.” Consuela leaned against the balcony and glanced down at the police cars. “Do you think there will be trouble from this?”
“I don’t know,” James said, peering through the binoculars again. “Theoretically, they could charge both you and Gina with assault, with the pepper spray and hitting the sign. Though I would think any judge in his right mind would throw that out as self-defense after thinking about it for just a few seconds.”
“I hope you are right.”
“I never really got the chance to thank you,” James said. “If you hadn’t gotten there so fast, Gina could have been hurt. I’m really grateful.”
Consuela smiled. She glanced over at the drain pipe she’d slid down, which was now scratched and slightly twisted all the way to the ground. “De nada. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
“I hope you won’t take it the wrong way if I say I hope you won’t have to.” James shook his head. “This sort of thing just shouldn’t happen. I’m going to talk to Trixie and Helena about hiring on some additional security folks—furres and humans both. We’d need them anyway when we opened up, so might as well get them in place and training now.”
“That could be a good idea,” Consuela said.
James nodded. “Anyway, I guess I should stay and keep an eye on things for now.”
“Then I will stay, too,” Consuela said. “For a little longer, at least.” She came over to lean against the balcony next to James. James was conscious of the warmth of her body and the musky smell that her Changed body naturally produced. He’d actually started to find it rather pleasant. And he couldn’t deny she was pleasant to look at, too. She had a well-toned, lithe body that was muscular without being grotesque, and she believed in concealing it under as few clothes as possible. Alone of all the others, she often still went entirely nude while within the mansion grounds. She wasn’t nude now, but the black shorts and halter-top sports bra she had on left very little to the imagination.
They watched the protesters in silence for a while, he with his binoculars and she with probably almost as good vision without them. Then Consuela spoke, more quietly. “James? I have something I would like to tell you. It may make you laugh. I hope it does not.”
She sounded serious. James lowered the binoculars and looked over at her. “What’s that, Consuela?”
The jaguar looked down, seemingly reluctant for once to meet his gaze. “I have been…watching you, over the last couple of months.”
“Not really any surprise there,” James said. “I’m pretty sure you all have. Even though I helped you bust out, I’m still the outsider here. I didn’t go through all the things you all did.”
Consuela shook her head. “No, no, it is not that. I mean that I have been watching you. For something else.” Her eyes flicked up once or twice to meet his, through her thick black eyelashes. “I am a selfish gato. I have always believed in looking out for myself. Planning to make things easy for me.”
“I don’t know if I’d really call you selfish,” James said. “You’ve helped the rest of us a lot. Like just now, when you rescued my sister.”
“I help my friends too,” Consuela said. “But I also help myself.” She glanced out at the protesters again, then back down at the balcony railing. “I was planning to seduce you.”
“You were what?” This time, James did drop the binoculars. Consuela absent-mindedly reached out and caught them before they could hit the railing.
Consuela bit her lip. “I need a mate.” She toyed with the strap on the binoculars. “I thought I was strong enough to make it on my own, but since my body has started to change from this pregnancy, it makes me worry what it will be like when it is further along.” She smiled ruefully. “I can be strong if I need to be, but I would like someone to pamper me sometimes if I feel like being pampered. And Leo…it would not be fair to ask him for that since he belongs to another.”
“And you wanted me?” James asked.
Consuela shrugged. “It was a calculation at first—you are young, attractive, and not yet claimed, and you already know all our secrets. I was going to seduce you, claim you, and make you mine.” She smiled again. “I could have done it, too.”
“I think you’re right,” James said. “I have to admit I’ve been…attracted to you.” More than that, he’d fantasized about her. She was gorgeous—and also exotic, dark, and dangerous, all elements with more than slight appeal. But he’d never once thought of actually approaching her—how was that going to look coming from one of the creepy guards who’d watched her cavort naked all those months? “So…why aren’t you?”
“Because I came to know you, and to respect and admire you,” Consuela said. “It is as I told you before. You are a good man, and those are muy raros. I like being around you, and I respect you too much to treat you as just a conquest.” Then she grinned at him. “And I am attracted to you. So now…instead of trying to take you…I come to ask if you would like to have me, instead.”
James swallowed. “To…have you?”
“I am very affordable. I do my own hunting, so I do not cost much to feed.” She winked at him.
“And of course I’d still have to pamper you when you felt like it,” James said.
Why had he never noticed that she dimpled when she smiled? “Of course. That is what you do with a pet, is it not?”
“But since you’d be a pet cat, you’d just end up owning me anyway,” James pointed out.
Did she actually giggle? “This is true.”
“This is a little sudden,” James pointed out. “Maybe we should just start by…hmm…dinner, tonight?”
Consuela actually purred. He felt the vibrations through the railing they were both leaning against. “That is…acceptable. In town, then? You will drive?”
“Yeah. 7 work for you?”
Consuela nodded. “I will be ready.” She got back to her feet. “Thank you for not laughing.”
James smiled. “I make it a policy never to laugh at someone whose claws are sharper than mine.”
Consuela laughed. “A most wise policy. I will see you then.” She handed him back the binoculars and turned to go.
“I’ll look forward to it.” James turned to watch Consuela pad gracefully off of the balcony and down the stairs, leaving him alone with his thoughts. “…huh.” He turned back to watch the protesters, though had a hard time concentrating for a while.
Gina took the last of her clothing out of her suitcase and put it in the chest of drawers. There—she was unpacked. She closed her suitcase, then looked around the room. It wasn’t bad at all, really. It was about the size of an ordinary studio apartment, and reasonably well furnished—nothing fancy, but sturdy and well-crafted bed, dresser, chest of drawers, desk, and a couple of chairs. She gathered that this had originally been the servants’ wing, though the current Melton hadn’t had much in the way of servants. Stood to reason, Gina supposed. The more people were around, the more likely someone would have been to notice the animal pit full of naked people.
Out of curiosity, Gina pulled open one of the drawers in the dresser and looked inside. She chuckled to find a lint brush, still in the original packaging. She glanced at herself in the mirror—a black and tan German Shepherd with a human body shape, wearing shorts and a T-shirt over her natural fur. “Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I need to keep that annoying pet hair off my clothing.” She flopped back on the bed and lay on her back, hands behind her head, tail sticking down between her legs. She stared up at the ceiling, thinking.
The preconceived notion she’d come with, that James had been a part of the regime that held eleven Changed prisoner, had taken a jolt from what Consuela had said, but after thinking about it Gina wasn’t quite ready to give it up just yet. After all, she was only one furre, and she could have been mistaken in what she saw. She’d have to talk to some of the others and see what they said. Gina sighed. She wanted to believe the best about her brother, but she’d already gotten flamed on the forums when she’d been foolish enough to admit she was his sister. She didn’t want to stick her neck out again without absolute proof.
“Knock knock!” said a friendly voice at the door. Gina glanced over to see a vixen in a dress standing there, fluffy tail wagging. “I’m Trixie Jacques. I allegedly run this insane asylum. I heard you got in and thought I’d stop by to say hello.”
“Oh, hi!” Gina sat up. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Gina Case.”
“I know. Your brother told us all about you. Mind if I come in?”
“Go ahead, it’s your asylum.” Gina recognized Trixie from the group photos and some of the interviews she’d given. She was another one of the Eleven, and this might be another good chance to get some answers.
Trixie chuckled. “Thanks.” She pulled up one of the chairs and straddled it backward, resting her arms on the top of the seat back. “What do you think of the place so far?”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t seen much of it except the driveway up. And the jerks out front.” She lifted her lip in a slight snarl.
“Ah, yes, them.” Trixie rolled her eyes. “At least that’s a problem that will eventually take care of itself.”
“I did see some places where it looks like statues have been removed?” Gina asked.
Trixie nodded. “You’re not missing much. Hugh didn’t really have a whole lot of taste in decorating. About the best that could be said for them is that other people with just as little taste were willing to pay more for them now than Hugh did when he first bought them. So we made a little profit, and also cleared the space for other uses.”
“Can I—will I be able to see the place where he kept…um…you?” Gina asked.
“It doesn’t really exist anymore, as such,” Trixie said. “We filled the place in and built cottages on top of it. We were tempted to keep it as a tourist attraction, but decided in the end there were too many bad memories there.”
“Oh, I see,” Gina said.
Trixie smiled. “We do still have one of the enclosures where he kept his big cats, though, and it’s pretty similar. I can show you later, if you want.”
Gina couldn’t contain herself any longer. “Is it…is it true that my brother actually helped you escape?”
“Not only did he help us escape, he helped keep our morale up while we were imprisoned, by sneaking in some books for us to read to help pass the time,” Trixie said. “You shouldn’t believe all the crap you read on the Changed forums. Most of those people don’t know what they’re talking about.” Her tail swished back and forth emphatically.
Gina blinked. “He…he did?”
“Yeah. And he told us about you, too. Said that a big reason he was trying to keep a low profile while he figured out how to help us was that he was worried what might happen if Melton found out about you.”
“Oh.” Gina felt herself blushing under her fur. “I guess I’ve really been an idiot.”
“It’s no big,” Trixie said. “We’ve all done some dumb things in our time. Some of them a lot dumber than others.” She looked distant for a moment, then shook her head. “Anyway, the important thing is what you do now that you know the truth.”
“I think I’d probably better go find James and apologize, for starters,” Gina said. “Can you tell me where he is?”
“Sure, I’ll show you the way.” Trixie led Gina out of the room.
At ten ‘til 7 that evening, James was waiting in his car, a slightly battered 2001 Nissan Altima, in a good mood for reasons apart from his impending date. After a talk with Trixie, his sister had come up to the tower to apologize to him, and ask him to tell her the whole story of Melton’s imprisonment of the Changed, and his participation in it. And so he had, giving her a fairly complete recounting up until the escape. After they’d gotten free, he said, they came up to Melton’s office to find him gone, and called the police and the paramedics.
He hadn’t mentioned Helena. After Leo had married her, they’d all agreed to keep her origin a secret, given that kidnapping didn’t have a statute of limitations. It wouldn’t do anybody any good if the whole sordid story of her imprisonment came out and she got arrested for the original kidnapping—and then they got arrested for imprisoning her. As far as anyone knew, she would just be another Changed they met after getting free.
In fact, given how obsessed Gina seemed to be with the imprisonment and events surrounding it, James had suggested to all the others (and they had agreed) that it would be a good idea to get into the habit of referring to Helena by the name on her marriage license, “Helga,” to try to keep her from getting suspicious at the “coincidental” similarity to Hugh Melton’s gender-change name. (James still thought it was risky even having a name close to Helena, but at the time she’d chosen it Helena had wanted to pick something easy to cover with if someone slipped.)
Gina seemed to be satisfied with the story, and relations between them had gotten a lot more cordial. There was still a little residual awkwardness, but it would probably fade with time. James was looking forward to having Gina around the next couple of months.
But more immediately, he was looking forward to the date tonight. Exactly at 7:00, Consuela came down the stairs wearing what was, for her, an unusual amount of clothing—a light grey dress that James remembered having seen Helena in before. They were about the same size, so it made sense Consuela would have borrowed an outfit from her if she’d needed it on short notice. Consuela climbed into the car and buckled her seat belt.
“So where would you like to go?” James asked.
Consuela smiled at him. “You will laugh, but…Taco Bell.”
James didn’t laugh, but he did blink. “Taco Bell? Why? If you want Mexican food, we can go to La Iguana—I can certainly afford it.”
“No, it is not that I want Mexican food,” Consuela said. “I want…fake Mexican food. I cannot explain it, but I have una adicción. An addiction.”
“Is this a pregnancy craving?” James grinned.
“I would say it might be, but I have always liked the stuff.” Consuela chuckled. “It is just so…fake. Not even a little bit real. It is like the Disneyland of food.”
“Then I guess we’re going to Disneyland.” James started the car and pulled out of the drive. As they pulled out the gate, James glanced around for any sign of the protesters, but they were long gone.
“Good riddance,” Consuela said.
“They’ll be back,” James said. “But not tonight.” He turned toward downtown Branson and stepped on the gas.
As they navigated the curvy Ozark road into town, Consuela glanced over at him. “I am curious. How did you end up working for a man like Melton?”
“Not much to tell, really,” James said. “Couldn’t find a job in my degree, ended up working full-time for a security firm I’d been at part-time during school. I was one of their better rent-a-cops, so when Melton was looking for someone to fill a vacancy, I was at the top of the list.”
“But how is it that you became one of our guards? It is hard to imagine anyone could mistake you for the kind who could tolerate injustice.”
“Well, you’d probably have to ask Helena about that,” James said. “I’m not entirely sure myself. I know that at the time I was really worried about paying off my student loan debts, and had let it drop from time to time that I would be up for any little ‘extra’ jobs that would pay more. And I think there’s a tendency among bad people to assume other people are just as bad as they are. So one day they tell me about a really high-paying secret job, that was only open to really trusted people.”
James paused for a moment to navigate the turn onto Highway 76, Branson’s busy central thoroughfare. “This was after Gina had Changed and forcibly broken the Veil on me so I wouldn’t think she was crazy. So the other guards show me this camera feed of the animal pit and they me what I think.”
“That must have been a shock,” Consuela said.
He chuckled. “You said it. I’m utterly shocked, and I’m just about to say exactly what I think—but right after I open my mouth it hits me that they’re not freaked out like they’re looking at human animals. They’re leering like they’re looking at naked people. And I remember that I’m not supposed to be able to see fuzzy people, so it might be a bad sign to let on. So I say, ‘A…bunch of naked people? What is this, some kind of weird porno channel?’ And they explain what’s going on, and I’m thankful for the acting classes I took at school.
“My first impulse is to call the cops, but I bite down on it for a little bit as I still don’t know exactly what’s going on and I want to be dead sure before I do anything. Because by now I know what kind of people these are, and how rich Melton is, and if they ever start thinking I’m not one of them, there might just be ways I could quietly disappear.
“So I’m all, ‘How much does it pay?’ and I didn’t have to fake my astonishment at the amount. So I’m like, ‘Sounds good to me.’ And they’re all relieved, I guess because now they didn’t have to kill me.” James shivered. “I don’t ever want to be there again.”
Consuela reached over to pat his arm. “We are all well out of that situation.”
“It’s really weird, you know? In a way, it’s sort of like Melton really wasn’t as bad of a person as the people he hired to work for him. Maybe that’s why it was so easy to forgive him—her. He just had this funny idea in his head that he was catching pretty animals for his own private little zoo. Totally off his rocker—Helena admits it—but at least he just wanted to look, not jerk off. But you have to wonder about the sort of guards who patrol and keep an eye on a pit full of what as far as they know are just naked humans.”
Consuela nodded. “Muy malo. But they are all behind bars now. For a long, long time.”
James nodded. “And I would be too, if you all hadn’t spoken up for me. I owe you all big for that.”
“Not as ‘big’ as we owe you for helping us to break out,” Consuela said. “As far as I am concerned, we are still in your debt.”
“I’d rather just call it even, if it’s all the same to you.” James grinned. “Anyway, the rest you know. When I could get away with it, I’d slip in little things like those books. Just a way of letting you know someone out there could see you and was trying to figure out what the hell to do. And we’re here.”
James turned into the parking lot of the Taco Bell, pulled into a parking spot, and killed the engine. As Consuela reached for the door, James held up his hand. “Hang on, wait a sec.” He climbed out, then came around to the passenger side, opened the door, and offered Consuela a hand out.
“Gracias, señor,” Consuela purred, accepting the hand and letting him help pull her to her feet. “Although I am not quite so far gone yet that I cannot stand up for myself.” She smiled to remove the sting from the words.
James grinned. “I’m just an old-fashioned kind of guy, I’m afraid.”
Consuela took advantage of the grip she still had on his hand to pull him into a hug. “I know. It is what I like about you,” she whispered in his ear before letting him go.
“Er…yes,” James said, momentarily nonplussed.
“Come along!” Consuela called cheerfully, prowling toward the restaurant. “I hear a taco calling my name!”
“Right!” James hastened to overtake her, then hold the outer door for her to enter. She smiled at him, then held the next door for him to precede her. A couple of minutes later, they were ensconced in a booth with their food.
As it happened, Consuela was the only Changed in the restaurant at the moment, and a number of the still-human patrons were eying her nervously. For all that more Changed had started showing up in recent months, drawn by the bubble, many of the city’s residents were still uncertain what to make of their new anthropomorphic neighbors—especially the dangerous-looking ones like the big cats.
Though the younger ones didn’t seem to have much problem with them. “Look, Mommy!” one little girl yelled excitedly, before her mother hastily shushed her. “A giant kitty!” Consuela chuckled and waved to the little girl before returning her attention to her food.
And so they ate. James nibbled on a burrito supreme while watching Consuela crunch her way with gusto through a 12-taco basket. The dessicated corpses of a couple of dozen Taco Bell fire sauce packets littered the table, their quirkily offbeat fortune-cookie slogans going unheeded.
“Are you sure you do your own hunting?” James asked.
Consuela smiled at him, licking taco sauce off of one finger. “These are probably terribly bad for me, and I have heard nasty stories about the way Taco Bell beef is made, but they are still so tasty! And so completely unlike any real food I have ever had. Not to say that the real food is bad, but I have had it so often it is nice to have something so different.”
“I guess Taco Bell is just about as different as you can get from the ‘real thing’,” James said. “So how did you end up here? I mean, I know they kidnapped you from MSU in Springfield, but what were you doing there?”
“Studying agriculture,” Consuela said. “I come from a small, poor village, where there is no real agriculture any more—only coca. I qualified for a United Nations study-abroad program, where I was supposed to learn to farm here, then go back there and teach what I have learned to help my people break free of the drug lords. Of course, I was dropped from the program when I disappeared from school. And my student visa expired while I was in Melton’s pen. It is a good thing we had money for lawyers.”
“So what are you going to do now? Finish school and go back?”
“I want to do that someday—but if I am to have a child, I want to raise it here. There is better medical care, no cartel gangsters, and less superstition. I am still worried what mamá will think when she sees what I have become, let alone that I am a single mamá myself.” She looked down at one of her hand-paws, flexing it to show and hide the claws.
“Hey, it’s not a bad thing, being what you are.” James chuckled at her. “I have to keep telling myself that, because I’m positive it’s going to be my turn this year.”
“You think so?”
“I know so. I’ve spent so much time around all of you that I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already.” He looked down at his hands, marveling that they were still fur-free. “And with my luck, I’ll probably end up flipping gender, too.” He chuckled. “That might put a little kink in your seduction plans.”
“If I spent all my time worrying about what might happen, I would never do anything,” Consuela said. “I think you would make a good stepfather to my child. But if necessary you would make a good godmother instead. We will worry about what happens later, later.”
James blushed. “It’s a little too soon to be saying words like ‘stepfather,’ don’t you think? This is only our first date.”
Consuela smiled. “I am sorry—I do not mean to frighten you. But my mind is already made up. I am only trying to convince yours.”
“I’m not frightened,” James insisted. “Well…maybe a little intimidated. But you don’t see me running.” He grinned shakily. “To be honest, I’m really attracted to you myself. I just feel like it’s not a good idea to rush into anything.”
Consuela munched on another taco. “Good. If we like each other already, we can work out any little problems.”
James took another bite of his burrito and nodded his agreement. Though he wasn’t so sure she was backing down quite as complacently as she seemed. More like she was making a tactical retreat to set a snare somewhere down the line. She was a master huntress, after all.
And she waited to spring the trap until they were back at the mansion. After James had parked the car and helped Consuela out again, she took his hand and led him out away from the mansion, to where they could see the stars more clearly. Then she took him into her arms and, to his surprise, kissed him gently on the mouth. “Mmm.” James said. Then as she deepened the kiss, “MMM!” But then he gave back as good as he got, feeling his smooth tongue pushing back against her bristly one. Consuela began to purr, and he felt the vibrations conducted skin to skin into his own body.
They stood there in each other’s arms for a while, enjoying each other’s mutual warmth and staring up at the sky. Then Consuela whispered, “Would you like to come back to my room with me? Or could I come to yours?”
“But—you’re pregnant,” James pointed out.
“So you do not have to worry about making me so again,” Consuela said.
“That’s not what I mean.”
“There are things we can do safely, if we’re careful.” Consuela said. “I have read about it.”
“I don’t know…I still think it’s too soon.”
“I like you…you like me. What is the problem?” Consuela asked philosophically.
“It’s just so sudden…I need a little time to get used to the idea,” James said. He realized it even sounded like an excuse to him, and immediately wished he could take it back.
But Consuela did not seem disappointed. She loosened her embrace and stepped away. She was only visible as a dim outline in the night with luminous amber eyes, and James was reminded of the lyrics Rhiannon moves like a cat in the dark, and then she is the darkness.
“Very well,” Consuela said. “I have waited months already. I can wait a little longer.” She smiled at him, and now her white teeth were also visible in the night. “Good night, James. I will see you tomorrow.” And then she was gone.
James stood there for a moment, shaking his head bemusedly and coming to terms with the fact that part of him—a small but very insistent part—wished he’d given Consuela another answer. Then he followed Consuela’s general direction back to the mansion.
At ten a.m. the next day, Gina Case sat in her guest room with her laptop on the desk, tapping away on her Furgonomics-designed Logitech PawsPlus wireless keyboard. After her talk with Trixie the day before, she had realized just how much she had let the web forums color her thinking about the Melton affair, and had resolved to inform herself fully before venturing out of her room to meet the others. She currently had the 60 Minutes segment on Youtube paused in one tab while she Googled some references in another.
At the moment, the frame was paused on a still of the enigmatic “Helena” Melton. It was the photo-op shot with badger-Changed congressman Sandrick, who stood there with a grin on his snout completely unaware he was consorting with a serial kidnapper.
There had been a minor scandal when it came out just how much Melton had contributed to Sandrick’s campaign war chest, and the congressman had very publicly donated that same amount to a number of pro-Changed charities. Gina wondered whether Melton had been planning to kidnap Sandrick, eventually, as well. Did the badger have any idea just how close he had come?
Gina shifted her gaze to Melton herself. She looked so innocent—a grinning woman in a fancy gown, her brown hair loose down her shoulders behind her. Except she hadn’t been, at the time—either innocent or, as it happened, a woman. Back then she had still been Hugh Melton, a man in a fancy suit according to those who had seen the photo before. The photo change was just another little trick of the “reality virus,” as some had started calling it, that edited any gender-Changed’s recorded backstory to conform to the new reality.
So, although Melton had been a man up until just a few months ago, right before the eleven Changed prisoners had escaped, no photos of the male him existed anymore, anywhere in the world. The only likenesses that could be produced of his old self were drawings from memory, Identikit-style representations, or Photoshop manipulations, all three of which had been used on the 60 Minutes segment. Such things were becoming more and more common these days as TGs sought after some way to remember the people they’d once been.
It was all so weird, Gina reflected, as she had more than once. Why did the reality virus backfill gender, but not species? Why weren’t the Changed uniformly furry in those pictures as well as gender-flipped? Was it because the Veil kept people from seeing them as furry but didn’t work as well against matters of gender? When the Veil came down completely, would people get photo-edited to be furry as well as TG?
But the thing that really freaked Gina out about the photo of Melton when she thought about it was that, unless Melton had been one of those extremely rare separate-shift cases like Richard Sobel from the Boston Globe, the photo was of a person who had literally never existed, save as a superimposed ghost image that she herself couldn’t even see—because Melton had become an animal-person of some sort at the same time she’d become female.
Whatever she was now, Helena Melton was Changed, and could only be seen as that brown-haired woman by a “mundane” outside a bubble. If she was within a bubble and stayed there, nobody would ever have the chance to recognize her. It was the ultimate disguise.
And she’d get off scot-free.
It really aggravated Gina that the perpetrator of the greatest crime against Changed-kind in recent history should get away with it. She felt with all the fiery fervor of a recent convert that Justice Must Be Done. If only there were some way to find Helena out!
Gina sighed, and paged down the New York Times article that she’d just found with Google. At least she was learning more about her brother’s role in events thanks to these pieces. He hadn’t been very talkative about his own role in the escape, but the others had described in great detail how he had taken out two of his fellow guards with a tranquilizer rifle, then lured the others into a trap—at the risk of being shot himself. She guessed he’d been too modest to say anything about it.
Gina finished the article and closed the laptop. She didn’t know what she was going to say next time she posted to the forums. Probably start a one-doggie flamewar in support of her brother, which might not be the most productive use of her time overall. Maybe she should just find a new forum, with fewer idiots. “Oh yeah, like those exist anywhere,” she muttered.
She stood and stretched, a shiver working its way down from the tips of her ears to the tip of her tail. She went to her dresser and pulled on shorts, T-shirt, and paw-shoes, checked her hair, grabbed her purse, then went downstairs to rustle up some breakfast.
After taking a couple of wrong turns, Gina found her way into the kitchen, where due to the relative lateness of the hour only a couple of people were still sitting at a side table eating breakfast sandwiches—a male lion and a female cougar. The lion waved. “Morning, stranger! You must be Gina.” He grinned. “Hey, you are cute!”
The cougress rolled her eyes. “Leo…”
“Sorry, hon! It’s just that I’d been wondering ever since I first heard about her, back when we were breaking out of the pit, whether she was cute or not. So it’s nice to find out at last.” He winked. “Of course, it’s too late for me to do anything about it now…” He held up one handpaw, on one finger of which a gold wedding band glinted.
“And you’re Leo Nelson!” Gina said, recognizing him from the video she’d just been watching. “And I’d heard you were something of a Casanova.” She grinned back, tongue lolling. “But I hadn’t heard you were married.”
“Just happened a few weeks ago.” Leo nodded to the cougress. “This is my wife, Hele—”
“Helga,” the cougress interrupted, casting a meaningful glance at the lion. “Helga Nelson, pleased to meet you.”
Gina took the proffered handpaw, but her ears pricked a bit. “Helga” was it? Gina could have sworn Leo had been about to say something else. “Uh, pleased to meet you, too,” Gina said, giving the cougress another look.
Helga was quite well-built, a little slim but very curvy in the bust in a way that made Gina feel a little inadequate, with brown hair worn loose down her shoulders. She wore a pleated pink skirt, a yellow blouse, and a friendly expression. Gina couldn’t quite shake the feeling that she’d seen this Changed somewhere before, but where? She didn’t know any cougresses.
“It’s the cook’s day off, so it’s make-your-own-breakfast day,” Leo said. “Or if you’re not the best cook, I can make it for you, no trouble.”
“I’m decent at eggs and bacon,” Gina said. “Just need to know where everything is.”
“Sure, I’ll show you.”
“Just be sure that’s all you show her,” Helga said mildly, though the grin belied her sardonic tone.
“Geez, a man just philanders a little bit and it’s like he’s got a reputation or something.” Leo grinned back. It was obviously a running joke between them.
As Gina cracked the eggs and scrambled them, she glanced back at the two sitting at their table. “How’d you two meet?” she asked.
“Oh, I caught her eye about a year or so ago,” Leo said. “Little bit before Melton got me. Then I found her again after I got out.”
“That’s certainly…romantic,” Gina said, putting bacon in to fry. Something about his delivery bothered her. It was off just a little, like he was somehow shading the truth. But it might just have been her appetite making her suspicious.
“It took a little while for him to get me to come to my senses,” Helga said with a smile. “But he finally convinced me to elope to Vegas to get married.”
“Wow, that really is romantic,” Gina said, impressed despite herself. She slid the eggs and bacon off onto a plate.
“And here we are,” Leo said. “Helga’s doing our accounting now, and I’m going to be a tour guide. We’re gonna help make this place awesome, together.”
“I see,” Gina said. She carried her breakfast to a nearby table and sat down.
“So how do you like the place so far?” Leo asked.
“I haven’t seen much of it—James is going to show me around today,” Gina said. “But what I have seen looks good!”
Leo nodded. “If you want my extra special private tour—”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” Leo leaned in to kiss his wife on the cheek.
She purred. “I know. But I’ve got a reputation as a lion-tamer to uphold. Don’t make me go get my whip.”
Gina giggled, as she simply couldn’t imagine Helga with a whip. Whatever it was she found weird about the two, it was clear that they loved each other very much. They continued their gentle jousting as Gina finished breakfast and headed back to her room to check her email and then find James for the tour.
When Gina got back to her room and flipped open the laptop, the first thing she saw was the YouTube video, still frozen on the still of Helena and Sandrick. She reached up to change the tab, then paused, thoughtfully. Helena Melton’s hairstyle was exactly the same as “Helga’s”. And something about the eyes…
Gina stared for a moment, then shook her head. Eh. Plenty of people had long brown hair and brown eyes. She was just jumping at shadows. Still… “Hele—Helga”?
Gina tabled the thought for later and went off in search of James.
“And this is the one habitat that we decided not to fill in, and keep as an example for the tourists. It’s only about half as big as the one the Eleven were kept in, but it’s basically the same other than that.”
Gina stood at the railing and looked down into it. “That bastard,” she growled. “When I think how he—she—got away right before they escaped…”
“Heh, yeah,” James said. “It’s kind of frustrating. But mostly I think the others would rather just focus on trying to put it all behind them instead of fret about taking an eye for an eye.” He turned and looked straight into Gina’s eyes. “In fact—don’t take this the wrong way, but I really hope they don’t find her. For your sake.”
“For my sake?” Gina asked. “But I want to see her brought to justice for what she did!”
“I meant the plural ‘you’, as in all Changed everywhere.” James shook his head. “Have you thought about what would have happened if they had found her, or if they find her now? The trial would probably still be going on. It would probably continue right into the election year. It would be the dog, pony, fox, bear, wolf, bobcat, and who knows what else show of the decade, and would completely overshadow everything that Changed activists are trying to accomplish.
“On the one hand, it would be all, ‘Oh, look at the poor Changed, locked up by the nasty man who thought they were animals.’ But on the other hand it would be ‘Look at that evil woman who used to be a nasty man! What a freak!’ It would be like a two-for-the-price-of-one deal: you get to be seen as both victims and freaks.
“And it would be on the news every time you turn around so nobody would ever forget it. So these few years, the crucial first few years that are going to decide how the whole world looks at you people, would be dominated by this show-trial that would completely drown out the voices of reason and moderation trying to convince everyone that Changed are people before anything else.”
“Oh.” Gina thought about that for a moment. “Guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’m surprised you have. You’re a human, after all.”
“You’re a human, too, Gina,” James said.
Gina rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
“I do, but it’s a bad habit to get into. Anyway, that’s the whole point, really. I’ve been around so many Changed so much this past year, I’m positive my number’s going to be up this August. So I’m enjoying being fur-free while I still can, and thinking about what the world’s going to be like when I’m not. I don’t want people thinking I’m a victim or a freak when I’m one of you.”
Gina punched him playfully on the shoulder. “You’ve always been a freak, James. That’ll never change.”
“Gee, thanks. That means so much,” James said dryly. “So yeah, anyway…I’m glad Helena got away.”
Gina cocked her head at her brother and considered him thoughtfully. His body language during his little speech had been impassioned, but he’d been a little stiff before, and was kind of stiffening up again when he talked about Helena directly. Weird.
She decided to change the subject. “By the way, I met Leo and Helga today.”
Did James just stiffen up a little more? “They’re nice people,” He said.
“Yeah. Leo’s almost like I expected he’d be from the news reports—Casanovaly lion, et cetera—except for the little thing of being married. Who is Helga, anyway?”
“Just a furre he met while we were all recovering from the ordeal,” James said. “We’ve hired her on as our chief accountant, and she’s been very helpful in getting the resort off the ground.”
“Hmmm.” Gina thought about that for a moment. Leo had said they’d met before he was imprisoned. Why were they telling two different stories?
Gina knew that German Shepherds were often police dogs—and while her own ambitions were for a job in the hospitality industry, sometimes she would swear she felt the investigative instincts of the breed stirring. Maybe she could compromise and get a job as a hotel detective? Anyway, one of those times was now. Gina pledged to get to the bottom of this mysterious “Helga”’s identity.
“So can we actually get down into the enclosure?” Gina asked brightly. “I want to get a feel for what it must have been like.”
James visibly relaxed. “Sure thing, but I hope you aren’t going to want to take your clothes off. There’s such a thing as getting too much of a feel for it.”
Gina giggled. “You know, bro, if you weren’t around, I actually might.”
“Want me to lock you in alone and go away for an hour or so?” James asked.
Gina thought about that. “You know what? Yeah! It’ll be fun.” She paused. “Unless you’re going to be watching me through the security cameras.”
“Would I peep on my own sister?” James asked.
Gina nodded. “Mm, yeah, I should have known better.”
“Of course, you never know whether someone else might be watching,” James pointed out. “They’ve got the same cameras and mics in here they did in the big pen, and they do turn them on from time to time. Of course, that just adds to the realism; the Eleven never knew when someone might be ogling them either.”
Gina cocked her head as she thought about that. “You know, I never really realized…well, OK, I realized, but I never really felt it in my gut just how creepy it must have been to be in their position. I think I’m starting to now.”
“I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts in an hour or so when I come back. If I don’t forget until tomorrow or so.” James winked.
Gina rolled her eyes. “Oh, you.”
“Seriously, we’re thinking of using this place either as a special overnight rental suite for tourists who want to ‘experience’ what it must have been like, or as some sort of charity ‘jail-and-bail’ theme event. Maybe both. So we’d like to hear your thoughts on that, from an outsider’s perspective.” James grinned at her. “Anyway, it’s right in here.” He led the way down the ramp to the doorway into the pit, opened it, and locked her inside.
As soon as he was gone, Gina looked around. It really was a desolate little place—a few trees for shade, a small stream running through the middle, a big rock for cats to sun themselves, a cave in one of the enclosure walls for shelter at night or from inclement weather. And this kind of place was where the Eleven had lived for months?
What was more, it was a bright, warm summer day, and the rocks absorbed and radiated the sun’s heat. Before she’d stepped too far out into it, Gina realized that perhaps being naked was the right idea in a place like this. She looked up at the railings and nobody was in sight. She looked around at the walls, and of course didn’t see any hidden cameras. She stuck her tongue out at them anyway, then pulled off her clothing and left it in a neat little bundle near the entrance.
Part of her felt like a poseur, showing fake solidarity with people who had gone through a great trauma that she was only playing at, but she ignored it. Anyway, it wasn’t just to show solidarity. She really did want to feel, if only for a little while, what it must have been like to be locked up naked in a place like this. Even if it was fake, it was as close as she could get.
Gina spent the first ten minutes pacing around, measuring out the limits of the pit, staring up at the sheer fake-rock walls and the bright blue sky overhead. She knelt by the little stream and splashed a hand in it, then went over to the big rock and climbed up to try sunning herself.
And that was where she got her first surprise. There were scent traces here. Faint, but someone must have spent a lot of time here to leave them so clearly, even after weeks or months of rain and sun. And it smelled familiar, like someone else she’d smelled only recently. She sniffed closer, then blinked. “Helga?”
This was interesting. Gina sniffed around some more, to see if there were any other traces, but didn’t find anything. Then her eyes fell on the black mouth of the artificial cave. Making a quick side-trip to the bundle of clothing to fetch an LED flashlight from her purse, Gina headed into the cave to see what she could find.
The scent traces were a lot stronger here, where there had been no sun or rain to wear them away—especially on a beat-up old futon lying in one end of the cave. There was Helga for sure, and perhaps a hint of Leo here and there. Interesting. Had they trysted here to get away from prying eyes? If so, why was Helga’s scent so much stronger? It was as if she’d actually lived here for a while, but Leo only visited. But that didn’t make any sense…did it?
Other than scents and the futon, the cave was empty—but when she shined the light into one of the darker corners, she noticed something on the floor. Picking it up, she found a button that might have come off a shirt or blouse. “Well, that tears it,” Gina said. “This wasn’t just where some feral cat was kept. You’re not going to see a feral cat with a button.”
Gina went back out to put the flashlight and button into her purse. Then, with nothing better to do until James returned, she climbed onto the rock in the middle of the enclosure and dozed in the hot summer sun.
When she woke up, the sun was noticeably lower. The pit was mostly in deep shadow, and it was starting to cool off. Clouds were rolling in, and she heard a distant rumble of thunder. She blinked. “What’s going on? It’s been way more than an hour.” She went over to the bundle of clothing and pulled it all back on, then rummaged in her purse for her cell phone.
Then she remembered—she’d left it charging next to her laptop this morning, and forgotten to pick it up before she went out to see James. She didn’t have any way of phoning out.
She cupped her hands around her muzzle, leaned back, and yelled, “Helloooo! Can anyone hear me!” Her voice echoed off the rock walls around her, but there was no response but stillness.
Gina knelt down and lapped some water out of the stream, then went back to sit on the rock again, clasping her knees up against her chest. She was really starting to worry now—and starting to get a better idea than ever just what the Eleven must have felt like. “James, you’d darned well better have a good explanation for this,” she growled.
As the sun sank lower, the rain began, first dotting the rocks with darker spots that immediately evaporated from the stored solar heat, then washing it into a darker gray. Gina hastily grabbed up her clothes and took shelter in the cave, watching the storm from its mouth, and finally flopping down on the futon in despair.
Was she ever getting out of here?
James chuckled as he turned the key in the lock and went up the ramp, leaving Gina locked inside Helena’s old habitat pit. He might have known she’d be curious enough to want to try it. He was almost tempted to stick around and watch her explore, but he halfway suspected she would take her clothes off, and he didn’t want to see it if she did—even if he had helped change her diapers.
James planned to leave her there for two or three hours—long enough for her to get a little anxious, but not for her to get really mad at him. Just a little brotherly prank. And who knew, it might actually give her some real appreciation for how the Eleven had felt.
That was the plan, anyway. Then as James headed back to the house, he happened to run into Consuela coming out of it. She was wearing sensible paw-shoes, jeans, and a T-shirt, with a loaded knapsack on her back. “Oh, James!” she said. “I was hoping I would find you.”
James raised an eyebrow. “What for, to invite me camping?”
“Not exactly,” Consuela said. “I have no tent or sleeping bag, so it is not spending the night. But since it is the cook’s vacation day and we must make our own food, I thought I would invite you to come out with me.”
“You’re going out to eat…with a backpack?” James asked.
“Yes. There is plentiful game in the woods. You did ask me last night if I really hunted for myself.” She grinned at him. “Come with me and find out.”
It crossed James’s mind to wonder what, or who, she was really hunting. But it sounded fascinating to get the chance to see her at work, and it should only take a couple of hours. He would be back in plenty of time to free Gina. “All right, why not.”
“Good!” Consuela beamed. “Change into some hiking clothes and meet me back here.”
“Got it.” James hastened off to change his clothes.
Half an hour later, James followed Consuela along a game trail into the deep woods. It was somewhat farther than he had thought they would come, but Consuela had her own ideas about exactly where they were going. He was glad he’d sprayed with Deep Woods Off, even if it did make Consuela wrinkle her nose a little. But she kept telling him they were almost there.
Finally they came to a clearing where all the grass had been cleared from one area and a stone fire pit built. “I see you come here often,” James said.
“It is a refuge,” Consuela said. “And there is good foraging nearby. Here, I will show you.” She led him down another trail from the clearing, to a clearing that was full of blackberry brambles. It was a little early for prime berrying season, but there were still plenty of juicy black berries on the vines.
Consuela handed James a Tupperware container from her backpack. “Would you fill this? While you do, I will hunt our dinner.” She smiled at him. “You would make too much noise if you were with me.”
“Okay, fair enough,” James said, starting to pick the berries. It wasn’t really hard work, and he had soon filled the container to overflowing. He hoped it had been enough time for Consuela to complete her work. He wondered what she had been hunting.
When James returned to the main clearing, he found Consuela already had one rabbit roasting on a spit over a fire, and was just finishing skinning and cleaning another one. She put the bloody skins in a zip-lock bag, undoubtedly to be turned into mittens or something later. “You know, rabbit season isn’t for another five months,” James pointed out.
“If that were the most illegal thing I had done lately, I might be worried,” Consuela said with a smile. “Besides, it is not as if I do not eat what I kill.”
“True enough,” James said. “And I have to admit, it smells good.” He put the berry container down nearby, and Consuela nodded.
“Thank you.” Consuela rubbed some herbs into the skinned rabbit and added it to the spit. “It always amazes me, how much easier it is to hunt now,” she said. “And I was not bad before.”
“Yeah, you’ll be one heck of a provider,” James said, chuckling. “Considered taking a deer in season?”
“I might register for bow-hunting,” Consuela said. “Since there is not a ‘claw-hunting’ season.”
“When we get enough Changed, there just might be,” James said. “I expect a lot of carnivore-Changed will want to try the ‘old ways of tooth and claw.’”
“Unless all the deer-Changed ask for it to be abolished,” Consuela said.
“The ones who know anything wouldn’t, even if they had sympathy for their animal kin,” James said. “It helps prevent overpopulation and overgrazing.”
“True, but when have the facts ever stopped anyone complaining?”
James chuckled. “You may be right.”
Consuela examined the progress of the rabbits and turned the spit. “Fortunately, taking a rabbit or two out of season is not such a big deal.”
“Fortunately for us. Not so fortunately for the rabbit,” James observed.
“Do you think there’s anything to the tabloid stories about Changed hunting other Changed? ‘The Most Dangerous Game Redux’?” James asked.
Consuela’s expression darkened. “I hope not. I would have thought not. Then I spent many months in a private zoo. Now I believe anything is possible.”
James nodded. “I hope they’re just making it up. Like they usually do.”
“Even if they are, some will still believe them. Others may imitate them, whether they were real or not,” Consuela said.
“And won’t that be fun to see in the news,” James muttered.
“Yes.” Consuela nodded. “But our food is almost ready. We should find something less depressing to talk about, for depressing things do not help digestion.”
“How about my sister?” James asked. “She seems to like the place so far.”
“I had heard she was being friendlier to you now,” Consuela said. “It is good.”
“And she met Leo and ‘Helga’ today, and seems to get along well with them,” James said.
“Excelente!” Consuela grinned. “Do you think she will get over her fervor at seeing the guilty punished?”
“She seemed to respond well when I told her why it was a good thing we didn’t have a show trial going on. We’ll have to see.” James shrugged. “I’m a little worried she might be able to work it out for herself, ‘Helga’ or no. She’s always been a smart cookie.”
“Do you think we should simply tell her?” Consuela asked, turning the rabbits again.
“I don’t know yet. I’ll have to sound her out over the next couple of days. I already think we can trust her not to tell anyone, given that I’d end up in jail along with everyone else who colluded to hold Helena. But I’m not sure she’d like it.”
“Que sera, sera,” Consuela said. “We will see what happens when it happens.” She opened the knapsack and started unpacking picnic settings: a blanket, paper plates, and even a loaf of store-bought wheat bread.
“So much for roughing it, huh?” James asked.
“‘Roughing it’ is for people who have something to prove,” Consuela said. “I would rather enjoy myself.” She brought out a bottle of sparkling grape juice and paper cups and started arranging everything on the blanket. “We will have a good meal.”
“I think you’re right.” James grinned and helped lay everything out. Consuela really had thought of everything—she’d even included a packet of wet-naps for cleaning greasy hands.
Finally, Consuela removed the spit from the fire and slid the roasted rabbits onto plates—the longer-cooked one for James, and the rarer one for herself. She tore into her rabbit with gusto, not to mention sharp feline fangs. James ate his more slowly, but with just as much enjoyment.
“This is really good!” James said. Whatever herbs Consuela had used really brought out the flavor of the meat.
“I am glad you like it,” Consuela said to him through lowered lashes.
Together, they ate and drank. James wasn’t able to finish his entire rabbit, but Consuela took care of hers and the rest of his. Then together they policed the site, putting every last bit of trash in a heavy-duty trash bag Consuela had brought along. They hung it from a tree to keep it from wild animals until they were ready to pack it back.
“So what now?” James asked. “Hike back?”
“On a full stomach? I think not.” Consuela grinned at him, and led the way over to a patch of tall grass soaking in the warmth of the sun. “Now we siesta. It is not good to exercise so much after a heavy meal.”
James looked doubtfully at Consuela. “You know I’m still not ready to sleep with you yet.”
Consuela shook her head. “No, no, I do not mean that I want you to make love to me.” She stage-muttered, “Though I admit, I would not mind…” then said louder, “Only let us lie together and share bodily warmth? I would just like to have you next to me is all. You can even keep all your clothes on.”
James glanced at his watch. Only 2:00. He supposed he could spare another hour or two before he had to go get Gina. “Well…all right.”
Consuela smiled at him. “Good.” She lay down in the grass, and James lay down next to her. Then she put her arms around him and kissed him full on the mouth.
“Hey!” James protested when he could speak again.
“I did not say there would be no kissing.” Consuela winked. Then she turned over and dozed off. And, warmed by Consuela’s body and the gentle afternoon sun, and soothed by the gentle purring vibrating him from Consuela’s back, James did the same.
James woke to the rumble of nearby thunder, and a much darker sky than when he had closed his eyes. Beside him, Consuela sat up. “Caramba!” she swore. “It is going to storm. We must take shelter.” She slung the backpack on her shoulder and led the still-groggy James down another path, which went downhill to a nearby stream, with a cave mouth poking out halfway up one of its banks.
No sooner had Consuela tugged James into the cave than the heavens opened and the rain started pouring down.
James looked at his watch, then looked again. He hardly ever swore, but he couldn’t help it this time. “Shit! How did we sleep this late?”
“A full meal…the warm sun,” Consuela said. “A warm body…” She purred.
James facepalmed. “You don’t understand. Just before I ran into you, I’d locked Gina into Helena’s old enclosure—she wanted to experience for herself what it was like in there. I was going to go back after lunch and let her out.”
“Oh, no!” Consuela looked out the cave mouth at the pouring rain. “I am so sorry, James—I did not know!” She looked again, stuck her hand out of the cave mouth, and shook her head. “It is raining much too hard to go out in now. We will have to wait until it passes.”
James pulled out his cell phone and flipped it open. “No signal. Crap.”
Consuela patted him on the shoulder. “Do not worry. She will have taken shelter in the cave, just as we have here. She will be all right.”
“She’s still gonna kill me,” James groaned.
Thunder boomed loud as lightning struck somewhere nearby. “There is nothing we can do about it now,” Consuela said. “It is not safe to move about in this weather.” She patted the floor next to her. “We can only wait.”
James sat down next to her. “That could be hours,” he groaned.
“I am sorry, James,” Consuela said again. “If I had known, I would never have let you sleep so long. I just thought it was a nice chance to spend time together.”
“I probably needed the rest,” James said. “And I probably should have said something myself.” He groaned again. “Gina is going to kill me.”
“I will explain that it was all my fault,” Consuela said. “She can be angry at both of us, then.”
James facepalmed. “And she’ll assume I’m sleeping with you. In the carnal sense.”
Consuela smiled wryly at him. “Would that be such a bad thing?”
“I’d kind of like to actually be doing it first,” James said, rolling his eyes. “And I still don’t think I’m ready for that yet.”
Consuela sighed. “I hope I am not coming on too strong. I do not want to drive you away. I just…like you so very, very much and want us to be together.”
James glanced over at her, admiring the way her long, dark hair fell in waves in front of her shoulder, the sleek grey-black fur that covered her body, and the way she looked back at him. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to drive me away. This is just…a little sudden, and it’s taking me a while to adjust.”
Consuela smiled at him. “Thank you. I understand. And I do not want to cause trouble between you and your sister.”
James chuckled. “Little too late for that.” He glanced out at the rain again. “But I expect she’ll come to look back on this and laugh. Eventually. In a few years, maybe.”
Consuela giggled. “We will see if we can make it sooner than that.” She put her arm around his shoulder and relaxed against him, purring, and they settled down to wait out the storm together.
Gina woke up a couple of hours after dropping onto the futon, unable to sleep due to the rumbling in her empty stomach and all the other rest she’d gotten earlier that day. She just lay there for a while, sniffing the air.
Perhaps it was her general frame of mind, or maybe just that she’d spent enough time in the room to become more attuned, but Gina thought she was starting to pick up more nuances in the scents that surrounded her.
Gina had read about psychics who claimed to be able to read emotional impulses, “psychic residue,” from events that had taken place before. She’d always laughed at the idea, but now she was starting to wonder—what if those “psychics” really just had a highly-developed sense of smell and subconscious sensitivity to the different pheromones and other scent cues that people gave off under different emotions?
Because now Gina thought she could actually smell out some of the moods Helga and Leo had experienced in this room.
In most of the room, where Gina smelled Helga alone, what she smelled the most was despair or sadness. She recognized that feeling from just now. But around the futon, where Leo’s scent mingled with Helga’s, she smelled hope and joy…and lust. It was actually a little embarrassing. Gina felt like she was reading someone else’s diary or poking through private photos.
But what could it all mean? She could ask James if he ever showed up to release her, but she had a feeling he might not be inclined to discuss it. This was something she was going to have to get to the bottom of for herself.
Her mind just kept going back to that picture of the human Helena, and the similarities to Helga even in name. But she kept shying away from the obvious conclusion. It raised too many questions—and she wasn’t sure that she really wanted to know the answers.
Gina frowned. It wasn’t enough just to have guesses and surmise. She needed solid proof. And she already had a few ideas of places to look for that—assuming she ever got out of here, of course.
She turned back to the cave entrance. The rain had stopped and it looked like the stars were coming out. Gina stepped out into the open and yelled out again, “Hey! Anybody out there?”
Her voice echoed again, then she heard a distant yell in return, “Coming!” It was James!
Gina clambered down to the pit floor, avoiding the puddles, and was waiting at the locked door when the key rattled in the lock. A moment later, the door slid aside, revealing James and Consuela behind it. “Well, it’s about damned time!” Gina growled.
Consuela stepped forward and bowed her head. “I am so sorry. Lo siento mucho. It is all my fault that you were locked up for hours. I…distracted your brother. I did not know he needed to come and let you out until it was too late.”
Gina’s nostrils flared as she sniffed the air. “Distracted, huh?”
“It’s not what you think!” James insisted. “We just lay down for a nap after a heavy lunch and didn’t wake up for hours. We had our clothes on the entire time!”
Gina rolled her eyes. Of course she could tell that—their scents were on each other’s clothes, which they wouldn’t have been if the clothes had been off. But she wasn’t about to let James off the hook after what he’d done, so she just sniffed, long German Shepherd nose pointed in the air. “A likely story.”
“Giiiiina…” James said.
“Not that it matters. My brother could sleep with a rabid hyena for all I care. You still left me in there for hours!” she growled. “I’m going to get something to eat.” Without another word, she stalked past James and Consuela, ears flat, tail held high. Behind her, she heard Consuela whisper, “Do not worry—I am sure she will come around.”
A few days later, Gina sat once more at her laptop in her guest room. The previous few days had all been kept pretty busy, as James and Consuela tried to make up for their negligence in locking her in. Amusingly, they seemed to be trying to avoid each other as much as possible when Gina was around. Perhaps they didn’t want to her to draw conclusions. Nonetheless, Gina had taken to muttering “rabid hyena” in James’s ear in passing just to watch his reaction.
She had met and spent time with all of the others of the Eleven, save of course for Tiffany. Amy had given her fur a perm and painted all her claw-nails, all the while gossiping about everyone in sight (except, oddly, Helga). Lee had given her car an oil change. And she’d babysat an afternoon so that Tim and Clarisse could enjoy a movie. (It had been remarkably easy. She was a German Shepherd after all.) She’d hung around some more with Leo and Helga, too. Leo had enjoyed further teasing her (and Helga), but then Gina started teasing back—her casual suggestion of a ménage à trois had made Leo choke and Helga giggle. The teasing had been a little less pointed after that.
Gina still wasn’t sure what to think about Helga. Sure, there was at least a superficial resemblance between her and “Helena” from the photos, but she didn’t act like the sort of person who would have taken pleasure in kidnapping eleven furres and keeping them in a private zoo. She wasn’t overbearing or egotistical—she was quiet and shy. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like just an unlikely coincidence—but one way or another, she had to know for sure.
Which was why it was good she had finally managed to steal some uninterrupted time to continue her research.
She began with a public record search in Nevada to get Leo and Helga’s marriage license. It cost her twenty bucks, but her curiosity was fully engaged and she didn’t scruple at the price. She opened the PDF, looked at the license, and stared at Helga’s last name. “Well, that’s obviously not a fake name at all,” she muttered sarcastically.
She frowned, closing the file. This was something, but still not really enough to go on. She still needed more, and there was one place in particular she’d like to look. If she could just work out where it was…
Then she had it. “James,” she said to herself, tongue lolling in a canine grin. It might take a little careful management…but hell, he owed her. She went off in search of her brother, and found him a few moments later in his office—alone, for a wonder.
“Oh—um, hi,” James said, looking up a little warily. “Um…you’re not still angry over what happened last week, are you?”
“Absolutely seething,” Gina said calmly. “But I could be persuaded to forgive you. Maybe. If you’d do one little thing for me.”
“And…what’s that?” James asked.
“Well…my time stuck in that pit made me start to wonder about the psychology of someone who would do that kind of thing to someone else. So I was thinking, I’d like to look around his stuff, see what I could make out for myself from his personal things. You did keep them, right? In case the tourists would like to see his study, kept just as he left it…”
“We did, actually,” James said. “Well, his study anyway. We gave his bedroom to Leo and Helga for their joint apartment. Nobody really goes there much…except for Carl, who likes to help himself to Melton’s cigars.”
“I might have figured he’d smoke cigars.”
“Who, Melton or Carl?” James grinned. “You promise not to mess anything up and leave it as you found it?”
Gina saluted, tail wagging. “Scout’s honor!”
“Well…I do kind of owe you for locking you up like that.” James opened his drawer and pulled out a keyring. “Here, it’s this key. Second floor balcony, west side of the main hall.” He tossed the key over, and Gina caught it.
“Thanks, bro! I’ll get this back to you later.” She gripped the keys tightly in her fist and headed back out of the office. James watched her go, then shook his head and went back to his paperwork.
Gina unlocked the thick oak-paneled door and swung it silently open. The room was dark. She fumbled for a light switch and turned it on, and found a fairly nice little office-cum-study, lined with bookshelves along three walls and a desk in matching mahogany finish. There were a couple of comfortable chairs, and the wall not lined with bookshelves had photos, certificates, and awards hanging on it—including that same photo from the 60 Minutes episode.
Circling around behind the desk, Gina sniffed at the chair. There were tantalizing traces of a familiar scent there, but several other people had sat in this chair since then, a couple for quite some time. Gina looked around for something else. She opened a couple of drawers and sniffed inside. Still the same scent, but not strong enough to be sure.
What else what else what else…then it hit her. The books! The only person who would ever have bothered to read any of them would surely have been Melton himself—so surely his scent would be on at least one or two of them. Gina started at the end of one of the outlying walls and worked her way inward, sniffing. An occasional hit, but nothing much.
But the scent got stronger as she got closer to the desk—naturally, he’d have kept the books he wanted in easy reach behind the desk. There were a few stronger traces—then one book whose scent was so strong she knew in a heartbeat she’d found what she was looking for.
This was it—the book smelled unmistakably like what Helga would smell like if you took away the musky aroma of female cougar and added the sour odor of human sweat. It was human-Helga—Helena—Hugh.
So that was it. Against all odds, “Helga” and Helena were one and the same person—which meant Helga had also been Hugh. All this time, the enigmatic, mysteriously missing Melton had been right under her nose. And what’s more, she’d been actively likable. Gina still found she was unable to conflate the two people in her head. It was like knowing someone off the Internet and meeting him in person to find him completely unlike you’d expected.
And what’s more, she was actually married to one of the Eleven, and the others obviously tolerated her presence. And there was no way they couldn’t know who she really was—not if they’d had access to this office, too. Her sense of smell might be finely-tuned, but she was almost certain any Changed had a good enough nose to notice the similarities. And then there were the scent traces that told her Helena had been imprisoned in the animal pit for weeks or months—and Leo had come to visit her. What was going on here?
Almost against her will, Gina reached out and pulled the book out of the shelf. She could tell immediately that it was far lighter than a hardcover of this size ought to be. She turned around, placed it on the desk, and opened it. The cover of the book came away revealing a hollowed-out space inside—and a pair of sunglasses.
Gina reached in and lifted them out gently, almost reverently. These, then, had to be the “Veil-Bans” Hugh Melton had used to spy on his charges. She guessed nobody had bothered to look for them since the Veil was a moot point within this bubble. Or maybe they knew about them already and figured the book was as safe a place as any to keep them. Either way, these could be the final proof she was looking for. Gina took the glasses out and slipped them into her purse, then put the book back on the shelf. Then she went looking for “Helga”.
She found the cougress sitting in the mansion’s library, reading a book. Moving calmly but not furtively, Gina stepped into the room, pulled the glasses out of her purse, and looked through them. Helga was still Helga, of course. But then she turned the glasses 90 degrees on their side and looked through one lens…and slowly grinned, tongue lolling again. “Oh, Helena?” she asked.
The cougress looked distractedly up from her book. “Yes?” Then her eyes widened as she realized what name she’d just answered to.
Gina lowered the glasses and grinned at her. “Gotcha.”
James leaned back in the seat behind his desk, watching his sister Gina leave the office with the key to Hugh Melton’s old study. He wondered what she was really looking for. Of course, he trusted her not to mess the place up, but she had been wearing that expression she’d always used to use that said there was something she wasn’t telling. It amazed him a little that he could still make it out even through her doggie face, but then it was still at least partly body language.
Maybe she was planning to do a post to her Internet forums: look at me, in the office of the master kidnapper himself! Well, whatever it was, it probably wouldn’t hurt anything. He couldn’t think of anything still in the office that would be more than a curiosity.
And glancing at the clock on his desk, James reflected that it was just about time to knock off for the night. He locked the office and headed for the stairs back to the hallway where they all had their studio apartments.
As he walked along the corridor, James was conscious of the open door to Consuela’s room that he would have to pass to get to his own. He couldn’t resist stopping to look in. She was lying on her bed, and watching him as he stopped. “Hola,” she said softly.
James leaned against the doorframe. “Hi.”
“Does all go well?” Consuela asked.
“So far, yeah.” James considered Consuela for a moment. Over the last few days, she had largely backed off her pursuit of him—perhaps at least partly out of feeling guilty for causing Gina’s prolonged imprisonment. She was still interested in him—he could tell that every time she looked at him, or every time she was even in the same room—but she was giving him some breathing room. The next move was clearly going to be up to him.
And it suddenly occurred to him exactly what that next move should be. “I’ve…got an errand I need to run in town, but I’ll be back soon,” James said. “Will you be around?”
“Si,” Consuela said, peering at him curiously. “Si, I will be aqui.”
“Then I’ll see you soon.” James headed back down the stairs and out to his car. As he pulled out of the drive and headed into town, he used the time to think about exactly how he did feel about Consuela. For what he was going to do tonight, he wanted to be sure there was no mistake.
How did he feel about Consuela? For starters, of course, she was gorgeous. Extremely sensual, with glossy fur, flowing black hair and a muscular body whose proportions rivaled even some of the male-to-female TGs’. But that wasn’t even her best quality. Far more attractive was her personality—she was quirky, compassionate, courageous, loyal, exciting—and, not to put too fine a point on it, dangerous. And she liked him.
Sure, she was pregnant. If he did decide to become an item with her, he’d be taking on a big responsibility right from the start—for a kid who wasn’t even biologically his own. But that was okay. There were plenty of other furres in their extended family, including the kid’s biological father, to provide a support network.
And when you got right down to it, James reflected as he pulled into the Taco Bell drivethrough, you just never knew what might happen to you next in this crazy world. There was a small but real chance he might wake up a female aardvark or something tomorrow morning. So if he was going to do anything with Consuela, it might be a good idea to hurry up before he missed his chance.
With that thought in mind, James ordered a burrito for himself and a taco basket for Consuela and a couple of Mountain Dews, then drove back to the mansion. He made a brief stop by the dining room to swipe a candle for a centerpiece, then took the stairs at the other end of the hall to get to his room without passing Consuela and prepare things.
He set up a small folding table and a couple of chairs in the open space in the middle of his studio apartment, put the candle on top and lit it, then arranged his food at one place and Consuela’s tacos at the other. He dimmed the lights, then—as a finishing touch—plugged a desk fan into a hall outlet, pointed it toward Consuela’s end of the hall, and placed a (wrapped) taco in front of it.
Then James returned to his room to wait—and he was just sitting down in his chair when Consuela appeared in the doorway, holding the taco. She smiled at the scene. “Is this an invitation?”
James grinned back. “It is. Come on in, and put the do-not-disturb sign out.”
Consuela put the hanger on the door and closed it behind her, then slid gracefully into her seat. She regarded the tacos and Mountain Dew warmly. “You think of everything.” She chuckled. “A romantic candlelight Taco Bell dinner. How sweet!”
James unwrapped his burrito. “Hey, you deserve it. Dig in.”
Consuela did so, examining the room around them as she ate. James was sure the flickering candlelight was more than adequate for her feline eyes to see everything clearly. “Your room is nice. Very neat. I like that.”
James chuckled. “You should see my closet.”
Consuela crunched another taco. “I am sure it is not too bad.”
They ate in silence for a while, Consuela devouring taco after taco and James eating his burrito at a more reasonable pace, then Consuela asked, “Gina has been doing well, no?”
“I think she’s getting on okay with everyone,” James said. “Maybe being penned up for a while did her some good.”
Consuela nodded. “I can personally recommend it.”
“Oh?” James asked. “That seems a little odd coming from someone who’s just been locked up for months.”
“True, but it brought me many good friends, a new home—and you.” She gave him another one of those lowered-lash looks.
“That’s assuming you do have me,” James couldn’t resist adding with a grin.
“True. But I am working on that.” She winked. “So you could say getting kidnapped was one of the best things to happen to me.”
“I kind of have to wonder, now that you mention it,” James said. “How did they get you? You don’t seem like the sort to be taken unaware by people only as competent as my old co-workers.”
“Um.” Consuela actually had the grace to look embarrassed. “It is a little foolish.”
“Really?” James grinned. “Now you’ve made me curious.”
Consuela waved a hand with half a taco in it, dropping a little filling on the table. “I was…experimenting.”
James raised an eyebrow. “Experimenting?”
“It is something people do at college, or so I am told,” Consuela said defensively. “I was trying new things. I had joined this campus club—it looked as if it might be fun.”
“Uh…huh?” James asked, curious where this might be going.
“So I was actually…expecting to be ‘kidnapped,’” Consuela said. “For make-believe.”
“…oh,” James said. “That kind of club, huh?” James said thoughtfully.
Consuela shot him a mild glare. “Do not judge me!” she insisted. “I was younger then, and foolish.”
What, 8 or 9 months younger? James thought, but didn’t say. Instead, he raised his hands and insisted, “I’m not! I’m not! If anything, it’s giving me…ideas.” He grinned.
Consuela snorted. “So I did not resist when they came to take me. By the time I learned it was for real, it was too late.”
“But you didn’t try very hard to bust out after that,” James pointed out.
“I tried once or twice,” Consuela said. “Before your time perhaps.” She shrugged. “You know how well the place was built to keep us in. You saw Tiffany’s attempts. I did no better. So it was not worth the frustration to keep trying.” At James’s skeptical expression, she sighed. “And, yes, I enjoyed being fed on a constant diet of steak. I could not even afford one steak per week as a student. But regardless, I knew there would be a chance sooner or later. And there was.”
“Or perhaps you just liked being pampered. Nothing to do except lie in the sun and eat steaks.” James chuckled. “Maybe I should lock you up in that enclosure and feed you on steaks.”
Consuela fluttered her lashes at him. “Oh, would you lock me up, señor security officer? I might do bad things.”
“You might do bad things if I don’t lock you up—or if I do?” James asked.
“Si,” Consuela said simply, closing her eyes and clasping her hands together as if offering them to be cuffed.
James laughed. “Okay, this is getting into a whole weird area…”
“You were the one who started it,” Consuela pointed out.
“Then I’ll also be the one who finishes it.” James also finished his burrito, and pitched the wadded-up wrapper at his trash can. It hit the rim, teetered on the edge—and then a carefully-aimed wadded-up taco wrapper hit it from the side and knocked it in before falling in itself.
James grinned. “Thanks for the assist.”
Consuela smirked. “De nada.” She finished her last taco, then carried the empty basket and the rest of the wrappings to the trash. She returned to her seat and sipped her Mountain Dew, looking speculatively across the apartment to James’s bed.
James followed her gaze, and chuckled. “I’ve got a pretty good idea what you’re thinking.”
Consuela nodded. “And you are going to say that you are not yet ready again?”
James thought about that. This was probably his last chance to back out before things went “too far.” For all that he’d almost talked himself into it already, there was still that little bit of hesitation.
But as he looked inside of himself, he was beginning to realize he really did want this, and furthermore to wonder just how much of his earlier hesitation had come from an ingrained believe that you weren’t “supposed” to go too far too soon. After all, he already knew he liked Consuela. And it wasn’t fair to her to keep giving her hope and taking it away again. If she wanted him…well, he suddenly understood that he wanted her, too.
“No,” James said, getting up from his seat. “No, I’m not going to say that. Not this time.” He looked across the table at her, observed the dawning hope on her face and what her quickened breathing did to her impressive bosom. “I think I am ready now.”
Consuela cocked her head. “You are certain of this?”
“Dead certain,” James said. “For all I know, I might wake up a woman tomorrow. If that happens, I’d like to know I didn’t miss any opportunities.”
Consuela smiled. “I will make this a night you remember for the rest of your life.” Her tail swished in anticipation as she came out from behind the table, arranging her position so that James was directly between her and his bed. Then she dropped into a crouch and, turning her head, blew out the candle.
“Hey, what’re you thinking he—whoa!”
Later that night, James drifted up from a deep sleep, feeling something warm and furry and soft all along his back, and two arms around his waist from behind.
As James gently sought to disentangle himself from Consuela’s embrace so he could use the restroom, Consuela instead tightened her grip, growling in her sleep, “Mío! Mine!”
James oofed a little as Consuela’s grip squeezed some breath out of him. Then he twisted in her arms enough to bring his face up close to her bewhiskered muzzle, at which point he gave her a very deep kiss on it. Thus distracted, Consuela murmured in her sleep and loosened her grip enough that James could slip out to use the toilet.
As he crawled back into bed, and Consuela once again clutched him like an oversized teddy bear, James reflected on how incredibly lucky he was. I still hope I don’t Change, he thought drowsily. But I’ll remember this forever no matter what I turn into. So if I have to, bring it on.
In the warmth of Consuela’s embrace, he drifted back to sleep.
“I’m sorry, you said ‘Helga,’ right?” the cougar-Changed Gina now knew as Helena asked.
Gina grinned. “Nice try, Mrs. Nelson nee Ms. Melton nee Mr. Melton.”
“I’m sorry, I think you have me mixed up with someone else—” Helena began, but Gina raised a hand to interrupt.
“You recognize these?” Gina held up the glasses. Helena stared at them. “No. I’ve never seen those before.”
“Here.” Gina held them out sideways, one lens above the other, just as she’d been looking through them at Helena a moment before. “Hold them like this, and look at me through one lens.”
Helena took them hesitantly, holding them like a snake that might bite her. She held one lens up to her face as instructed, then gave a little cry of surprise and almost dropped them.
Gina knew what she would have seen. Superimposed over her doggie self, a faint but recognizable double-exposure of a blonde-haired, slightly taller human woman—her Veil ghost.
Helena slowly lowered the glasses. Her shoulders slumped as she gave up the pretense. “Why did I never know about this?” she asked plaintively.
“It only came out on the forums a couple of months ago,” Gina said, reaching out to take the glasses back. “A couple of Changed got their hands on a pair and were playing around with them, and they noticed that they’re even more like polarized lenses than we thought. You rotate them 90 degrees and instead of non-Changed seeing the real us, Changed can see each other’s ghosts.” She shrugged. “I’ll bet the government’s always known. It works much better under the Veil, but even here our ghosts are still part of us.”
“So you know.” Helena sighed, sinking back down onto the seat. “How did you even guess?”
“Mostly a bunch of little things. The name on your marriage license was one clue.” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, come on. ‘Helga Mellencamp’? Really, Miss Cougar?”
Helena facepalmed. “It was all I could think of at the time.” She looked down, unwilling to meet Gina’s gaze. “So what happens now?”
“Well, when I got here, I was all fire and brimstone to see the evil Hugh-or-Helena Melton brought to justice. But now I’m just kind of confused.” Gina came over to sit down next to Helena, and reached out to take one of Helena’s hands in her own. “You don’t act at all like the kind of person who would lock up a dozen Changed in your own private zoo.”
“I’m not!” Helena insisted. “Well…not anymore.” She looked up at Gina, eyes glistening. “When I Changed, it’s like my whole mind was Changed along with my body. I’m not Hugh anymore. I can’t even remember what it was like to be him. He was crazy.”
Gina nodded slowly. “I thought it might be something like that. I’ve been researching gender-change on the forums and wikis. A lot of people do get personality…adjustments when they TG. Something about body chemistry being different, I guess. Usually it’s just stuff like former male chauvinists waking up and going, ‘Woooo, yay, I’m a gurl, just what I’ve always wanted!’” She rolled her eyes. “But I’ve read about a few more extreme cases, mostly dealing with personality disorders or mental illness. Schizophrenics being cured, stuff like that.”
Helena nodded. “Changes often heal you a little. They fix what’s broken.” She grimaced. “Hugh was broken. Badly.”
“But the others didn’t know you’d been ‘fixed’ when they found you right after they broke out, did they?”
Helena started, looking up at Gina again. “How did you—”
Gina raised a hand-paw to tap the side of her own muzzle. “This nose isn’t just good for making people jump when I touch it to the back of their bare neck, you know.” Gina grinned. “I did a little sniffing around—literally—while I was locked in where you were last week.” Her grin faded. “So they didn’t want a big show-trial to drag all of Changed-dom through the mud, so they figured turnabout was fair play and chucked you in the pit.” She growled, “And my brother went right along with it, didn’t he? I swear I’ll tear his throat out.”
“No—it’s not like that at all!” Helena insisted. “I went along with it willingly! I felt I deserved to be punished for what I’d done. I could have escaped before they put me in if I’d wanted to.”
Gina blinked. “But you spent a lot of time in there in despair or sadness. The scent traces were very heavy.”
“Not because I was locked up!” Helena said. “Because of what I’d done.” A tear slid down one of the tear tracks on her muzzle. “The only thing worse than being a monster and not knowing it is not being a monster and knowing you used to be one.”
Gina wasn’t sure what to say to that, so she put her arm around Helena’s shoulder and gave her a friendly hug. It was weird—even knowing for certain that ‘Helga’ had used to be Hugh Melton, she still found the cougress sympathetic and likable.
“And Leo stood up for me. Told them they shouldn’t hurt me.” She still sounded amazed just talking about it. “And he came to visit me, Leo did. He showed me I didn’t have to blame myself for what Hugh did anymore. And then we fell in love, and he took me off to Vegas to get married.”
Gina shook her head. “What a mess. Even if I did want to turn you in now, it would mean everyone else, including my brother, could face kidnapping or false imprisonment charges themselves. And the Change is young enough yet that the shrinks probably wouldn’t buy your personality change, either. So it would just get everyone locked up, and for what? At least this way the resort could help a lot of Changed and their families.”
“I sort of hope someday, once the Change is better understood and my child has grown up a little, I can turn myself in and face a more understanding form of justice,” Helena said wistfully. “Get the whole thing out from over everyone’s head. But until then…”
“Yeah,” Gina said. Then she stopped, replaying the conversation in her head. “Wait. Your child?”
Helena nodded happily. “Mine and Leo’s.” She patted her belly. “We found out just before the elopement.”
Gina stared. Now that Helena mentioned it, Gina could see she was starting to show just a little. “Um…wow. You mean Leo seduced you while you were still locked up?”
Helena shook her head. “No, no! I kept waiting for him to, but he was too much of a gentleman. So one day I seduced him!”
“…huh.” Gina shook her head. “There are going to be a lot of little feet around here before long, what with Christine, Consuela’s baby, and now yours.” Then she remembered that Consuela was apparently courting her brother. “Who’s the father of Consuela’s, anyway?”
“Oh, that was Leo, too,” Helena said calmly.
Gina blinked. “What?! And you’re okay with this?”
“It was while they were locked up together,” Helena said. “I can’t exactly blame them for it—Hugh didn’t give them much else to do.”
Gina shook her head. “Geez, this is messed up.”
“Yeah, and guess who’s to blame for that?” Helena sounded disgusted, and Gina knew it could only be with herself. “I’m just glad the others have mostly accepted me, and they’re letting me help them with the accounting and stuff. I don’t miss my old life, and I have this new one ahead of me.” She patted her belly again. “And this new one, too.”
Gina sighed. “Dammit, I just feel like someone should be punished for this. I mean, locking people up for months in a private zoo?”
“If it helps any, you could say Hugh Melton already paid the ultimate price,” Helena said quietly. “He’s dead. He’s not coming back. And I’m a new woman, trying to make up for his mistakes.”
“I guess it’ll have to do,” Gina said. “I’m sure not going to turn you in. It’s weird, but I believe you, and there’s no point busting up a happy home for something a different person did.”
Helena smiled. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, well, you’re welcome,” Gina said awkwardly. “Listen, I promised James I’d leave the study the way I found it, so I’d better go put these shades back.” She let go of Helena and got back to her feet.
Helena nodded. “Thank you for understanding,” she said.
“Sure.” Gina folded up the glasses, dropped them in her purse, and left the library.
On the way back to the study, Gina mulled over ways to minimize the chances of Helena’s exposure by future visitors. Burn that smelly futon, for one thing, and hose the cave and rock down with bleach to kill the tell-tale odors. Maybe Helena should occupy the study for a while to cover and muddle all traces of human-Hugh’s scent with her new one. She’d have to bring those suggestions to James’s attention.
Gina dropped the shades back into the hollow book and shoved it back into place in the shelf, then locked the room and headed up to the residential hall to drop the keys by James’s room. But as she approached the closed door, she heard the most interesting sounds emerging from behind and under it. Her canine ears pricked up and swiveled to track the cries of passion, and her keen nose detected a certain familiar melanistic jaguar’s aroma seeping out from under the crack.
“Rabid hyena,” Gina muttered sagely, and tiptoed back down the hall to her own room. She could return the key another time.
The next morning, James lingered at the kitchen table after breakfast, drinking coffee with Trixie. Neither one of them was saying much, which was fine with James—he had a lot to think about.
He was still plain-vanilla human. He was honestly more than a little surprised, after what felt like a massive dare to fate the night before. He certainly wasn’t disappointed, though. He knew he would Change sooner or later, and he was going to count as a gift every Unchanged day he had with Consuela.
“Hey, bro. Hey, Trixie.” Gina came bouncing into the kitchen, the study key jingling in her hand. She dropped it next to James’s coffee cup. “There you go, bro!”
“Good morning, Gina,” Trixie said. “You seem cheerful this morning.”
Gina’s tongue lolled in a canine grin. “Oh, I learned a couple of interesting things last night.”
“Oh yeah?” James raised his coffee cup for a sip.
He’d just taken a mouthful of coffee when Gina said, “Yeah. I learned what a plain human and a melanistic jaguar Changed sound like when they’re having a really good time together, for one thing.”
James sprayed a fine mist of coffee all over the table in front of him. “Gina!” he sputtered.
“What?” Gina asked innocently.
“You know what, you little twerp.” James rolled his eyes. “It’s none of your business, for one thing.”
“Then you shouldn’t have been so loud I could hear it in the hall,” Gina said reasonably. “Though I expect it was mostly Connie-cat doing the yowling, and she’s never seemed to care too much about modesty…
James groaned. “I’m never going to live this down, am I?”
“Nope, so you might as well live it up.” Trixie grinned. “And hope Amy doesn’t find out.”
“That’s a forlorn hope if I’ve ever heard one,” James said. “I swear I’m considering drafting that girl for my security department just so I can co-opt her information gathering network.”
“You know you don’t need to go that far,” Trixie said. “Just go have her do your hair and you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know before she lets you leave.”
Gina giggled. “Too true!” Then she turned to her brother. “So tell me, bro, was it just a one-night stand, or is there a fuzzy sis-in-law in my future?”
“Hmm.” James thought about that. “Well, I’m hoping for the sister-in-law,” he said. “We’re still sort of feeling out what we feel about each other, and how compatible we are. But…I think it’ll work out.”
“You know she’s preggers already,” Gina said. “That’s a big responsibility.”
“That’s why we’re all here,” Trixie said. “We’ll all help make it work, for everyone.”
James nodded, reaching for his coffee again, and taking another mouthful.
“Even Helena Melton—oh, sorry, I mean Helga Mellencamp Nelson?” Gina asked.
This time James sprayed coffee all over the table and Trixie. “Oh, thanks, Gina,” Trixie said dryly, wiping her muzzle with a napkin. “I hadn’t had my morning coffee bath yet.”
James stared at her. How had she worked it out? He had thought they’d covered Helena’s tracks pretty well. And—more importantly—what was she going to do now that she had found out?
Gina grinned at them. “So when were you planning to tell me?”
“I…don’t really know,” James admitted, looking down. “It’s kind of a tough thing to just come out and say. ‘By the way, we held our ex-captor prisoner in a pit until one of us fell in love with and married her.’”
“Yeah, it’s kind of funny like that,” Gina said. “By the way, what the hell were you thinking? Oh, don’t answer, I already know—avoiding the show trial and yadda yadda. But it’s a hell of a thing, taking the law into your own hands like that.”
“We were entitled if anyone was,” Trixie said. “We were the ones she’d hurt. And anyway, it worked out for the best, didn’t it?”
“Except for that little matter of criminal charges hanging over everyone’s heads,” Gina said. She sighed. “Including a nice little ‘accessory after the fact’ over mine, because I’m going to keep the secret too. Now that I’ve talked to her, I just couldn’t turn Helena in. She’s not the man who did it anymore. It would be like kicking a puppy.” She rolled her eyes. “So you can tell everyone they can stop calling her ‘Helga’ now. It doesn’t really suit her.”
James and Trixie exchanged relieved glances. “Maybe I should offer you a position in my security branch,” James said. “How did you figure it out?”
“Other than a general resemblance between Helena and her ghost, and the rather obvious name on the marriage license? Well, there was the fact that her scent was all over that enclosure you locked me up in.”
James facepalmed. “I keep forgetting the Changed sense of smell.”
“Hose the place down with bleach and it should be all right,” Gina said.
Trixie nodded. “Good thought.”
“I have some others, too, I’ll go over them with you later. But speaking of positions, I was wondering, Trixie…”
Trixie’s ears perked up. “Hm?”
“I’m majoring in Hospitality, and an internship would help me out a lot. And you’re getting ready to open this place as a resort hotel. Do you think I could do my internship here?”
Trixie furrowed her brow in thought. “I don’t see why not. What do you think, James?”
“I think it’s a great idea.” And he actually did, James realized. It would be nice to have his sister around more often, and what with the walls and gate the Melton estate was one of the safest places in the bubble when it came to the specter of anti-Changed violence. “If, that is, she will actually let me get some coffee inside me, rather than on the table or other people,” James added.
“I thiiiiink I know a hint when I hear it.” Gina winked. “I’ll just leave you two to it.” She waved and bounced back out of the kitchen.
Trixie watched her go. “If that girl were any sharper, she’d cut herself.”
James nodded, sipping his coffee and actually managing to swallow some for once. “Yeah. Though Helena’s lousy choice of alias didn’t exactly help matters. I’m just glad it was Gina who found out, not some reporter.”
Trixie nodded. “We’ll have to have her keep a low profile during the grand opening.”
“Right. But to be honest, I’m not sure how much it will help in the long run. I get the feeling we’re all living on borrowed time.” And some of us a little more than others, he thought, glancing down at his bare arms.
Trixie nodded. “We’ll just have to make the best of it for as long as we can.” She patted him meaningfully on the arm as she got up to take her mug to the sink. “We all will.”
Gina walked along the hall toward Consuela’s room. The door to the hall was open. Consuela was sitting at her desk working with a needle, a spool of heavy thread, and a couple of rabbit skins. “Knock knock,” Gina said.
Consuela looked up, and her eyes twinkled. “I believe the thing I am supposed to say is, ‘who is there?’”
“That would be right if I were telling a joke.” Gina grinned. “I just came by to talk a little.” She leaned against the doorframe.
“I hope you are not still angry at me for causing you to be locked up for so long,” Consuela said.
Gina waved a handpaw. “Nah, I’m over that by now. What I’m really here for is to ask you what your intentions are toward my brother.”
“Ah. Entiendo—I understand,” Consuela said, pulling the needle through the skin again. “You are concerned that I might break his heart?”
“Something like that,” Gina admitted.
Consuela nodded. “It is good you are concerned. You must care for him very much. It is why you were so upset when you thought he had helped keep us prisoner.”
“Yeah, and that doesn’t answer my question,” Gina said.
“Lo siente. Then let me be clearer.” Consuela looked up and met her gaze. “I love your brother and would never do anything to hurt him.”
“So the fact that he will be around to help you through your pregnancy is just coincidence?” Gina asked.
“If you mean, am I taking advantage of James…” Consuela considered. “Perhaps a little. But I explained it all to him at the start, what I was going to need and why, and he understood. I have not tried to trick or entrap him.”
Gina nodded. “All right. But I’ll be watching you.”
“I would expect you to watch me as you would a…rabid hyena.” Consuela and Gina smiled brightly at each other. “But on a different subject…I understand you have learned the truth about our little Helena.”
Gina raised an eyebrow. “You found out I know?”
“I have my sources,” Consuela said, making another stitch. “I am told you had a long talk last night.”
Gina nodded. “It’s weird, but I just can’t be angry at her. It’s like Hugh just…evaporated, and she’s someone else.”
“Si. Almost none of us have stayed angry at her, either,” Consuela said. “There are uno or dos who still nurse the grudge, but they will come around.”
“I’m still amazed you were all all right with locking her up like that, rather than turning her in,” Gina said. “I mean, I understand why it would have been bad to have a show trial drag Changedom through the mud, but…”
“There was much anger, much excitement,” Consuela said. “We had just fought for our lives, and some were upset we could not physically take out our frustrations on the man who had done it.” She shrugged. “It worked out for the best in the end, no?”
“For now, yes,” Gina said. “But sooner or later it’ll probably come out and we’ll all be in trouble.” She sighed. “But after spending time with Helena and seeing who she is now—I guess I can live with that.”
“Sooner or later, the whole world will be Changed,” Consuela said. “Then they will comprende.”
“I wonder if Sandrick will run for President,” Gina mused. “Maybe he could be convinced to issue a pardon.”
Consuela shrugged. “If it happens, it will happen. We should think more about the now.”
Gina nodded. “Anyway, you’re going to be seeing a lot more of me in the next few months. Trixie says she’s going to make an internship position for me here.”
“Bueno! I am sure you will be a fine intern,” Consuela said. She pulled the thread taut, knotted it, then bit off the tail. “And if you would come here, I have something for you.”
“Oh?” Curious, Gina approached the desk where Consuela had been working. Now she could see more clearly the scraps of thread and pelt that littered the work space—and the pair of oddly-shaped furry mittens in the middle.
Consuela picked them up and offered them to her. “I made them from a canine Changed hand-paw pattern,” she explained. “I think they will fit you.”
Gina pulled them on. “They fit perfectly, Consuela!” she said. “They’re very comfortable, and I bet they’ll be really warm in the snow.”
“Si. And you may call me Connie to my face, if you wish. Many do.”
Gina beamed, tail wagging. “Thanks, Connie! I think you’d make James a great wife, and me a great sister-in-law. I sure hope that really happens.”
“I will do my best to make it happen,” Consuela said. “That is a promise.”
Gina leaned forward and hugged Consuela, then pulled off the mittens and tucked them under her arm. “I guess I should be going. Thanks again for the mittens.”
Consuela nodded. “Wear them well. I will see you later, Gina.”
Gina closed the door to her room and flopped down on her bed, still clutching the rabbit fur mittens to her chest. She had to admit, her first few days here had turned out a lot different than she’d expected. But for the most part, she was happy with what she had found here—many new friends, the truth about her brother, and a deeper truth about the aftermath of the kidnapping that, regretfully, she couldn’t share with even her closest friends let alone the jerks on the forums who kept making inflammatory posts about her brother.
And there was the grand opening to look forward to. Just a couple of months from now, the resort would be throwing open its doors to a mixture of people who could afford the fees and those the resort itself would be deciding to subsidize on a needs-based basis. There would be group counseling for families of the newly Changed and gender-change counseling for TGs, health examinations to make sure the Change had gone all right, workshops on surviving under the Veil, and meet-and-greet sessions to prove to skeptics that Changed were still humans under the fur. It was going to be an exciting time to be a Changed—or an exciting time to Change.
And Gina was going to be a part of it all.
She tucked the mittens behind her head and dozed off, dreaming of those days still to come.
|Melton's Eleven||Succeeded by:|
The Taming of the Snow Leopardess