With the police station still four, dimly-lit blocks away, Emily Carter heard soft footsteps behind her. She paused to listen, but there was only silence. She resumed walking, and, once again, the padding sounds echoed behind her.
When in doubt, she thought, her best bet was to create an action plan. Lists had gotten her through her parents' funerals ten years ago, the establishment of her professional-organizer career, and countless other crises. She just needed another list: How To Escape From A Mugger In Five Easy Steps.
Step 1: Move faster. Emily picked up the pace. The footsteps behind her did, too. After a block, she stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk and fell against the lamppost. Rubbing her newly bruised shoulder, she heard the footsteps gaining on her.
She was breathing rapidly, exhausted, and a little light-headed. It was obvious she couldn't outrun her follower, even over the remaining distance to the police station. Time for step two on her list. If she couldn't avoid the problem, the next best choice was confrontation. Convince herself, and the mugger, that she wasn't a worthwhile target.
Emily spun to face her unseen follower. "Go away. You're wasting your time. My car and purse were already stolen. There's nothing left for you."
Emily waited for the sound of her would-be attacker leaving. Instead, there was only silence.
"I'm warning you," she shouted. "I'm not a pleasant person when I get angry, and you're really getting on my nerves."
This time, she heard a soft sound, like fabric brushing against a hard surface. An indistinct shape emerged from an alley twelve feet away.
Her rapid breathing came to a sudden, startled stop.
Whatever had been following her wasn't a man. The shape was too large and too low to the ground for that. Instead, it was some kind of animal. Sort of like a golden retriever, but with mottled fur and a great deal more bulk. It had to be four feet high and eight feet long. And that was without counting the tail, which really needed to be counted, given its size and annoyed swish.
Time to revamp her list: How To Escape From A Wild Animal In Five Easy Steps.
Step 1: Figure out what kind of animal it was. Her best guess was that it was a wild cat of some sort. A lion or a tiger. She could never remember which animal had the mane and which had the stripes. Not that it mattered; this one had some of both.
Step 2: Remember to breathe. After all, there weren't any wild cats in Massachusetts these days. No one had ever been mauled by a tiger—or a lion, for that matter—on the main street of a town right off the Massachusetts Pike. She sucked in a ragged breath, filling her lungs and then exhaling slowly.
Step 3: Think rationally. She could not possibly be looking at a wild animal. She was just imagining it. Perhaps a weird reaction to the antibiotics she'd taken for a sinus infection, right before her purse had been stolen. She'd filled the prescription here in this town whose name she'd already forgotten, at a local independent pharmacy, instead of at her regular place. She'd read newspaper stories about struggling business owners purchasing ineffective counterfeit drugs. That could explain everything from her increasingly pounding headache to the hallucination.
Time for Step 4: Consider the options. She could turn and run, but she'd probably fall again, and, besides, there was nothing real to run away from. She could scream for help, but the streets were deserted, and the retail buildings around her were dark and apparently unoccupied. That left only thing to do: continue, calmly and deliberately, to the police station, where there would be enough people and bright lights to scare away imaginary threats.
Step 5: Act. This was always the hard part of any plan. It sounded easy. Just turn to face the right direction. Except she couldn't. She wanted to, she knew it was the right thing to do, but, for once, she couldn't carry out the actions on her list. Her muscles refused to obey. She could not turn her back on the hallucination. Her eyes were locked with his, and she couldn't break free of his stare.
She dragged her left foot backwards, then the right one. If anyone was watching her, she probably looked like the film of a mummy, being played backwards. She didn't care what she looked like; anything that got her closer to the police station was a good thing.
As she moved backwards jerkily, the image that looked like an enormous wild cat, but couldn't possibly be a wild cat, slowly and gracefully padded toward her. He looked incredibly real, but she'd never had a hallucination before, and she supposed that being convincing was the fundamental job description for a hallucination.
It stopped every step or two, as if to reassure her, but Emily suspected it was just a skill he'd perfected while hunting his doomed prey. The old "look harmless until it's time to pounce" tactic.
She closed her eyes and reviewed her list in case she'd missed something. Breathe. She filled her lungs and slowly exhaled. Check. Next, think rationally. She'd been boringly sane for nearly thirty years, and now she was finally experiencing a little taste of insanity in the form of a hallucination. It would go away eventually. Check. Her options? Unchanged. Check. Finally, the action plan. Keep walking backwards. Check.
Before she could take her next step, though, she heard the hallucination approaching. He stopped beside her, not quite invading her personal space, staying about two feet away. She wasn't just having visions, she thought, but hearing imaginary sounds, too: the softness of padding paws, which wasn't as worrisome as the sharpness of claws tapping the sidewalk.
After a few moments of waiting for her imagination to maul her to death, she noticed the sounds had given way to complete silence. No people, no vehicles, and—best of all—no wild animal sounds. The hallucination was over.
She cautiously opened first one eye and then the other. The hallucination was not over after all. It was sitting beside her, right where she'd heard it stop. The cat nodded at her, in what appeared to be a greeting, as if he'd been waiting for her to pay attention to him.
He didn't move, and she had the impression that he was trying to reassure her. Or perhaps he was curious about the woman who'd conjured him up from her imagination. Hallucination or not, he was mesmerizing. He watched her with unblinking, golden eyes. She knew she had a plan, but under his intense stare, she couldn't remember what it was. For now, all she could do was look into those curiously intelligent eyes and wait for him to move, to break the hold his gaze had on her.
Finally, he rose and stalked around her, his fur brushing against her jeans, before he began padding away. She took a shaky breath. He didn't intend to have her for a midnight snack, after all. He was now between her and the police station. Time to revise her action plan and move back toward the relative safety of the pharmacy where she'd gotten the defective antibiotics.
The cat growled and circled, dropping into a crouch in front of her, effectively blocking her retreat.
She froze. He didn't have to growl twice. If he didn't want her to move, she could stand still for an hour. Or two. Twelve, tops.
Emily tentatively took a few shallow breaths. The enormous cat seemed to approve of her continued breathing. That simplified matters a little. Standing on the street overnight wasn't going to be fun, but she could do it. Not breathing for all that time would have been more of a challenge.
She was starting to relax enough to take slower, deeper breaths when the cat emitted another growl. Or maybe it was a small roar. He sounded more annoyed than angry, though, and Emily knew without a doubt that she'd disappointed him somehow.
An annoyed creature of this size, even if he allowed her to breathe, was still a threat. He nudged her, forcing her to turn in the direction she'd been walking originally, toward the police station to report the theft of her car. He took up a position behind her and pushed her between the shoulder blades with his head, until she stumbled forward.
"Make up your mind," she snapped. "Do you want me to stand still or to move?"
He nudged her forward again, a little less gently, but still without breaking any bones or severing any arteries. He wanted her to do his bidding, but apparently he preferred not to bruise her in the process.
For the moment, they both wanted the same thing: to get her to the police station. Maybe it was just her eyes adjusting to her surroundings, or maybe it was just that surviving an encounter with a wild animal had made her feel invincible, but the streets didn't seem quite as dark and threatening as they had before the cat appeared.
Emily resumed her original route. The cat maintained a position to her left, on the outer edge of the sidewalk, with his head and shoulders slightly ahead of her. He almost seemed to be protecting her from the non-existent traffic while herding her in his chosen direction. A real gentleman, she thought. In fact, now that she wasn't afraid he'd kill her, she rather enjoyed his silent, confident companionship.
He led her straight to the police station before assuming a position on the steps, blending in with the carved lions decorating the approach to the old-fashioned stone building.
She continued on to the brightly-lit main doors to the police station. Just outside, she paused to glance over her shoulder, but couldn't see the wild cat. Definitely a hallucination, then. She must have noticed the lion statues on the way down this street to the pharmacy earlier, and her drugged mind had used them to produce an imaginary but oddly reassuring cat to escort her to her destination.
The theory made sense, as long as she didn't dwell on the fact that the statues looked more placid and self-satisfied than ferocious. They were, at least by contrast, pale white, chubby and small, while her imaginary cat was dark orange, sleek and enormous.
* * * *
He purred contentedly while he waited.
She was the one. Every instinct he had, both feline and human, proclaimed it.
She was the one who…
His train of thought petered out. What was it, exactly, he was supposed to do with her? Something fun. He was sure of that much. But, in this form, his thoughts were limited.
Good, bad, hungry, tired. He knew those things, and they didn't quite apply to her, or perhaps they all did. For now, all that mattered was that she was his.
It would be nice if she'd stop yelling at him. If he were in human form, her attitude would have hurt his feelings and he wouldn't have been able to concentrate on what really mattered: keeping her.
Fortunately, ligers didn't need complicated reasoning. They worked on instincts, starting with the most fundamental one: chase anything that moved. He had a new toy now, and she moved in ways that promised them both a great deal of fun.
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