Monday, January 19, 2015
When in doubt … My brain went blank this morning, so once again I’m dipping into my WIP, The Mountain Lion King. Rick just found the dead grizzly and now knows something deadly has invaded his mountain stronghold. He heads to Talbot’s Peak and the Grease ‘n’ Grill diner for the inside skinny.
# # #
Vern already had a hungry bunch seated and ripping away at their food. Wolves, primarily, with one booth taken over by coyotes and a solitary bobcat at a corner table crouched over his fish and chips. Every head turned toward them when they came in, marked by predators’ glares. Only the bobcat made a sound. He recognized their feline nature, hissed, and pulled his plate in even closer.
Just for a second Rick experienced a jab of concern. By now the tale of Ravi Ghan’s runaway bride would have spread all over the Peak. Vern’s carnie crowd was more suspicious than the laid-back patrons at Elly’s. Would Nilambari’s disguise pass muster here?
One glance and he realized he needn’t have worried. All female sways had vanished from her walk. Her stride matched his in length and swagger. She eyed the wolves coolly, ignored the coyotes completely, and acknowledged their kinship to the bobcat with a brief nod. The bobcat growled at her and deliberately shoved a fish fillet into his mouth.
“Rick!” Vern McMahon boomed from behind the counter. “Back in town again already? Don’t tell me you’re turning social.” His gaze fell on Nilambari. “And, um … ”
“Barry,” she said smoothly, in a voice pitched low as a boy’s. “It’s good to see you again. I’m hoping we get the chance to visit with your wife.”
“After we eat,” Rick added. “What’s the special?”
“Bison burger, so rare it fights back when you bite it. And fries. Coffee’s fresh, for once. I must have guessed you’d be coming.”
The burgers were all that Vern promised, except for the biting back part. Just as well. Rick preferred to save his fighting energy, and his roiling rage, for the battle he knew would be coming. Fuel would help. Nilambari ripped into her meal with similar gusto. Rick watched her eat in a kind of bemused wonder. “It’s okay to slow down,” he advised. “Just because we’re in a carnie joint doesn’t mean you have to eat like one.”
“I’m supposed to be male, correct?” She spoke with her mouth full, just like the wolves. “This is how men eat. The ones I’ve served always did so.” She swallowed and smiled at him, her eyes dancing. “You eat so daintily when you’re human. And you never guard your food.”
She snatched a fry from Rick’s plate and popped it into her mouth. One bite in her jaw froze, as the consequences of her daring suddenly hit her. Rick only grinned and stole a fry from her platter. “I’m smaller than a tiger. I don’t need to eat as much, or cram it in as fast. Keep that in mind, cousin mountain lion Barry.”
Nilambari swallowed her fry with an audible gulp. When no punishment was forthcoming she returned to her burger, this time devouring it in less frantic bites. She watched Rick over the rim of her bun. Her eyes regained their sparkle.
Like jewels, he thought. Like emeralds in the bosom of the earth. He must have been smiling because she smiled back, adding a string of pearly teeth to the flash of her emerald eyes.
Something dangerous had invaded his turf, Rick reminded himself. Helluva time to go poetic over a girl with a smudge of ketchup on her chin.
When they were done Nilambari left to cross the square to the Bighorn Diner and her promised visit with Elly. Rick got up and made his way to the register. On the way he bumped and was bumped by the group of coyotes exiting their booth. One muttered something. Rick only caught a snatch of it, but it sounded vile. He snarled down at the smaller canine. The coyote tipped his hat with a smarmy grin. The whole pack filed out the door.
“Coyotes,” Rick said to Vern. The men shared a shrug. Rick pitched his voice low. “Got a minute?”
“Sure.” Vernon rang up his tab. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nosy neighbors up on my spread. You know about Vesuvius?”
“That ol’ bugger? Is he still kicking? I always figured he’d die of orneriness. Do grizzlies get ulcers, you think?”
“He’s not kicking any more, and it wasn’t an ulcer that got him. It was a shifter, and he was in his human form when he snapped the grizzly’s neck. You know anybody in town with the muscle power to put paid to a raging grizzly bear? While human?”
Vern’s grin vanished, replaced by a look of disbelief. “A shifter killed that old bear? You sure it wasn’t a Sasquatch?”
“Don’t think so. Bigfeet leave that wet-fur stink. It’s kind of hard to miss. It wasn’t a dragon, either. A dragon would have flamed him. This bastard clawed him up, then switched to human for the coup de gras. Then he took the time to wipe out his tracks.”
Rick discovered he was gripping the counter’s edge hard enough to hurt his fingers. He pried his hands loose and balled them into fists. “Everything in me wants to say tiger, but the Yakuza run in packs. I’m pretty sure there was only the one.” He slid enough money over the counter to cover their breakfast, with a more than generous tip. “Be nice if I could put a name on him.”
“Well, you can scratch off Ravi Ghan. He kept coming into town and raging at everybody. Claimed we were hiding his wife and he’d tear the Peak apart if we didn’t give her up. He made such a nuisance of himself Daddy finally sent him out of state on some trumped-up business trip. That’s the only stripie been seen nosing around, here in town or elsewhere.”
“Oh,” Rick said. Not that Ravi had been high up on his suspect list. He just couldn’t picture Ravi Ghan fighting a grizzly, let alone winning. “Okay, then. Thanks.”
“Though now that you mention it … ” Vern counted out enough of Rick’s money to pay for the meals, with only a moderate tip. The rest he slid back across the counter. “The old rug’s added a teacher to his staff since the days when you were a regular in town. Supposed to be a mentor to his sons. That’s the cover story. Whispers on the wind say the cat’s an assassin. Does the old rug’s dirty work.”
Rick leaned forward. “Tiger?”
“Yeah, but not Bengal. His name’s Sergei. He’s Russian. Siberian. A white tiger. His human form’s albino. He’s got to be at least seven feet tall, every inch of it solid as steel. He likes to hang out at Java Joe’s. They’ve got some tea he likes. He wears this long black coat and a black slouch hat. Maybe nothing else in town is big enough to fit him.”
“Sounds like a pretty hard fellow to miss.”
“You’d think so.” Vern’s voice dropped to a growl. “Except Marissa over at Java Joe’s says nobody’s seen him around for the last week or so. Since, oh, about the time you chased those Yakuza off your mountain. Like I said, Ravi Ghan was not a happy kitty.” Vern leaned his elbow on the counter. “You might want to send your cousin back to Utah.”
“That’s not happening.” An albino tiger assassin. From the description, he certainly sounded physically capable of finishing off a wounded bear. But was he bulletproof? Doubtful. Nevertheless, Rick decided he’d better go join Nilambari, pronto. “Thanks, Vern. I owe you. We’re about to owe Elly. Barry went over for cooking tips. Native edible plants and stuff.”
“She—I mean, he cooks? Lucky you. Elly does her best, bless her heart, but meat’s just not her thing.” Vern glanced around the diner. “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m developing a taste for veggies. Mostly the greens. At my age, anything that helps the ol’ digestive tract along is a plus.”