Monday, July 15, 2013
Adventures in Babysitting
“Go ahead,” Loki whispered, and gave Thor a quick push. “I dare you.”
Thor used his greater height and strength to swing his smaller twin to the forefront. “You first.”
“You first. You’re the oldest.”
“By five minutes. Doesn’t count.”
“Does too. Dare you. Double dog dare you.”
Thor hesitated. Double dog dares were neither lightly given nor lightly refused. “Together,” he compromised, and nearly moaned with relief when Loki nodded. They crept toward their quarry.
Keeping themselves occupied in the coffee shop while Marissa-Mom waited on customers too often proved a challenge to the pair of restless, inquisitive wolf pups. When all else failed, they fell back on instinct, and hunted. Today their quarry was the gigantic white-haired, white-skinned man in the long black coat. More specifically, his black slouch hat, which sat tantalizingly close to the edge of the table. Loki was convinced he would look supremely cool in it. Thor doubted that, but a hunt was a hunt.
They dropped to the floor and inched ever closer, using customers’ legs for cover. Their prey, sipping a tea they could smell from here (and really wished they couldn’t), remained oblivious.
Loki saw an opening and dove for it. His hand closed on the floppy brim of his coveted prize. At the same moment a hand three times the size of his own closed over his wrist.
“Thank you,” the white giant said. Their mom used that same dry tone of voice a lot. However, her voice didn’t sound like somebody had dropped it into the Grand Canyon. The giant coolly moved his hat closer to the huge rest of him. He didn’t let go of Loki. “It would have fallen on floor. Is safe now.”
Thor popped up. “Please don’t eat my brother.”
The big guy eyed Loki as if the idea had only now occurred to him, and that he liked the scent of it. Then he let Loki go. “Too small. Not even snack. You, though—”
“I taste awful,” Thor said at once. “Anyway, tigers don’t eat wolves.”
“Not so close to breakfast, no.” He sounded sorry. Not half as sorry as Thor, though. Mom had warned them over and over not to mess with Sergei. And now look.
Yeah. Look at Loki, who had scrambled up onto a chair, prudently opposite Sergei’s hat. “How’d you get so big?”
“I drink milk,” the tiger said solemnly. He tugged back his sleeve to better display the pallid snowyness of his skin. “Too much, I think.”
Loki inspected his own hand. “I like strawberry milk,” he admitted uneasily.
Sergei studied Loki’s visible skin. “No signs yet. I think you will be safe for several years. If berries sprout in hair, you must cut back.”
By now Thor had joined them, and taken a seat beside his brother. “Uncle Nick says you kill people.”
The big tiger showed his teeth. “Not cubs,” he assured them, “and not in public.”
“Can you kill Billy Long?” Loki begged. “He’s a jerk. His whole family’s jerks.”
Wouldn’t you know it, Marissa-Mom picked that remark to show up on. “That’s it, boys. Fun time's over. Sorry they bothered you, Sergei.”
“They are no bother. Perhaps they could help me.” He eased his empty teacup to one side. “I wish a glass of milk and a plate of cookies. You can help me eat the cookies, yes?”
They could help eat cookies, yes. They helped with a vengeance, and downed big glasses of milk. While they crammed cookies into their mouths, Sergei told them stories about the frigid, foreign land of Siberia, where in winter the air grew so cold words froze solid in the air. People must melt them over a fire to hear what the other had said, or else wait in silence till spring. Wives carried matches so that their husbands would always hear them. Husbands were forever hiding the matches.
“Mom wouldn’t like that,” Loki said through a mouth full of cookie. “Not talking all winter. Neither would Dad.”
“Or Uncle Nick,” Thor added. “Especially Uncle Nick.”
By now the morning rush had cleared enough to free up Marissa again. “Cleanup,” she said. The twins slid off their chairs with matching “awwws” and set about clearing plates and mugs off tables. Marissa murmured to Sergei, “Better make your escape now, or they’ll trail after you all day.”She watched her industrious step-cubs fondly. “That’s the longest I’ve ever seen them sit still. You must have made quite an impression. Thanks for watching them.”
“Is no trouble.” He handed her a bill for his tab, plus two more bills. “For tip jar.”
“You choose.” Sergei rose to his impressive height. He tipped his rescued hat to Thor and Loki, who imperiled their armfuls of crockery with waves. They didn’t follow him outside, though they looked as if they wanted to.
And why not? It was a lovely day, all brisk air and sunshine. A day to live for. Until nightfall.
Shere Khan was on his tail again over the Warner Hancock assignment. He had no feelings toward the elder Hancock one way or the other. Had Hancock been the target, the job would be long done. But straightforward wasn’t Lord Khan’s way. He preferred setting examples. Subtlety. That was how a twisted tiger hunted.
“Kill the bitch,” he’d ordered. Kill Hancock’s current mate, the she-wolf who was little more than a cub herself. Who carried a cub in her belly. Hancock’s cub, a possible heir to leadership of the Hancock pack. That cub would never drink strawberry milk or try to steal a man’s hat. By Lord Khan’s word, but by Sergei’s hand.
Sergei had never refused an assignment. Or failed in one.
He strode into the sunlight, his hat pulled low to hide his icy eyes. In his mouth swirled the taste of bitterness, and cookies.