Thursday, February 4, 2016
“So, Doctor,” Brandon Fledermaus said, “what’s the good word?”
Lin Hu bit her lower lip. Normally no-nonsense and direct, she found it difficult to face the owner of the Flying F ranch in this instance. Brand was quite wealthy, and generous with that wealth. Currently he was funding her special research project. True, he stood to benefit from it, but so would many others. Financial aid aside, she liked the man. He was polite and pleasant, for a bat. And never once had he made any jokes regarding her name and that silly TV show.
How could she look this man in the eye and tell him she had failed him yet again?
“Not so good,” she said at last. “The word, I mean.”
Curse it all, it was as she feared. The eagerness, the hope, slowly seeped out of his face. “That’s not to say it’s totally out of the question,” she hastened to add. “I’ve put out a call for volunteers. Those of mixed ancestry, human and shifter. For some reason humans have no trouble interbreeding with shifters. The offspring nearly always have some shifter ability. If I can isolate the genetic factor—”
“No.” He was already reaching for his Stetson. “It’s not that important, not at this time. Leona and I haven’t even discussed marriage yet, let alone … ” That part trailed away. “I’ll continue to contribute to the clinic, of course. You do vital work here. You’re needed.”
Vital to the varied denizens of Talbot’s Peak, perhaps. And to him, though he wouldn’t admit it. Lin touched his arm. “It’s not as if one of you were a bird or a reptile shifter. You’re both mammals. And your bat is at least partly carnivorous, which helps. The odds—”
“The odds of a bat and a jaguar conceiving, let alone birthing a healthy child, fall somewhere between slim to none,” he said, with a wry, humorless smile. “It’s fine, Doctor. I have the ranch, and Leona’s involved with her career. It will be a long time before either of us is ready to have a child. I suppose we can always adopt.”
“But it isn’t the same,” she said. “I know. I feel it too, more often than you know. The beast in us cries out to reproduce. I’ve as much chance of finding a compatible male panda as you do of breeding with a cat. Even if I were still in China. But although the odds are microscopic, they are not nonexistent. And so I keep looking. As I will keep looking, on your behalf.” She tilted her head to peer at him. “You’ve discussed this with Leona, of course?”
“We’ve touched on it. She says she has no interest in becoming a mother right now. Jaguars do tend to be solitary. But sometimes I catch a look in her eyes … I know she’s been thinking about it. I have too. My father and grandfather worked hard, and built an empire. I’ve worked just as hard to keep it successful. I don’t want it all to fall apart when my time comes. I’ve got something I’d be proud to pass on to a son. Or a daughter.” He winked at Lin. “A little girl with Leona’s courage and drive would be a world-beater.”
“There’s still your brother,” Lin reminded him. “Unless that’s out of the question?”
Brand snorted. “Jack hasn’t shown any sign of settling down. I don’t even know where he is right now. But if it came to that … hell, I’d take in a child of his in a second. Even a bastard child. Jack’s borderline psychotic, but he’s still family. If he ever has children, I’ll welcome them. Even leave the ranch to them.” He shrugged and offered up that crooked grin again. “Bats aren’t even that territorial. It must be an alpha male thing.”
“Must this child be a bat? Or part bat?”
“It would be nice. Helpful, even. But beggars can’t be choosers. If we adopt, we’ll have to take whatever breed is available. And hope they want to run a ranch when they grow up. That’s a risk Leona and I will face even if we do conceive together. Children do tend to grow up being who they’ll be.”
Liar, she thought. He spoke so glibly of adoption. The truth, his real desire, his need, still lurked within his eyes. The bone-deep, ancient need to create life and pass on one’s genes to a new generation.
If pandas were lacking she, at least, could fulfill her drives with a raccoon or a human. Brandon and Leona had fallen in love. Two breeds whose genetics would deny them the one thing their most powerful instincts wanted above all.
She’d seen a lot of this in Talbot’s Peak. Shifters, humans, joining, mating, playing mix and match. Sooner or later they all wanted that one basic thing. Some had a fighting chance. Those her gynecological training could help. Others were reproductively doomed from the start. Those she saw as a challenge.
Even if she never had a child of her own, she could see that others weren’t denied.
“I will keep looking,” she promised. “As I said, you’re both mammal shifters. You have a running start. We need only find a way to blend your genes. You may need to find a human surrogate. I can’t guarantee Leona could carry a hybrid to term. Humans seem capable of birthing anything. Genetically they’re quite resilient.”
“You don’t need to do that,” he said, too quickly. His eyes continued to lie. To plead.
She smiled. “Let me continue anyway, for my own amusement. The research is sure to help someone.”
“Yes, that’s true. Especially here. Thank you, Doctor. If you need anything—”
“I will call you. And I will be sure to keep you apprised of my progress.” She lowered her voice. “At some point, I will have to speak to Leona. And run tests.”
Brand grimaced. “Good luck. She’s tough to pin down, and she hates doctors. Better let me talk to her first.” He sighed. “We’ll work something out.”
“I’m sure the three of us will. Good day to you, Mr. Fledermaus.”
A girl entered her office as Brand went out. “You the doctor looking for medical volunteers?” she asked. “I heard you pay.”
“Let’s discuss the details first. You may change your mind. You’re a human-shifter hybrid?”
Her head bobbed. While she spoke, she hopped from foot to foot. “I’m supposed to be. Mom said Dad was human. I don’t know, I never met him. Mom’s a hare. When I shift, my ears are too short and my ass is too big, so who knows? Dad wasn’t a bunny, that’s for damn sure.”
This was good. This was excellent. Rabbits and humans were the most fertile of the breeds. Their genes mixed with practically everything. If she could isolate the common factor— “A simple test will determine your ancestry. Yes, I will pay you. Anything beyond that we’ll have to discuss.”
“Kewl.” The girl was staring at her medical credentials, framed on the wall. “Your name’s really Dr. Who?”
Lin swallowed an ancient Chinese curse. “If you’d please come this way?”