Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Unusual Suspects

I meant to write something new this week but time got away from me, so here's a continuation of last week's story. We'll see how I do next week, after I mow the lawn.
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Before the man could leap or Shane could shoot, a thick cord of rough-skinned muscle wrapped around Shane’s waist and lifted him clear off the ground. With a sudden flip of the cord he found himself upside down and being shaken like a can of soda. He got off two wild shots before the gun flew from his hand.

The cord slid loose and dumped him on ground that lurched like the deck of a ship. He flailed for the knife in his boot, his backup weapon, but couldn’t even find his own body, let alone the hilt. His head spun like a dervish, and his gut seemed determined to climb up his throat and join it.

Somewhere an animal roared anxiously. Shane thought it might be the tiger.

Gradually the world, his brain and his stomach all settled back into their usual places. Shane groped across the dirt for his gun. A pair of muscular brown legs stepped into his ground-level sightline. A hand appeared and disappeared, taking his gun with it. Another set of legs joined the brown ones. These were gray, wrinkled at the knees, and thick around as fire hydrants. There were four of them.

“Thanks, Mindy,” the man said from somewhere above Shane’s head. “Better get inside before one of those asshole do-gooders sees you and tries to liberate you.”

The owner of the wrinkly legs let out a sound somewhere between a wheeze and a car horn. A trunk swept across Shane’s field of vision and slapped the lion-man on the ass. He raised his head enough to watch all of “Mindy” amble into the tent, and realized he’d just found one of the missing elephants. Not exactly Jumbo-sized, more on par with a Clydesdale. A youngster? Considering an adult could have crushed him, Shane figured it was better not to argue.

He elbowed most of his torso off the ground. The roars still shook the tent walls. They did indeed originate from the tiger. The lioness treated Shane to a filthy look that said, You got me up for this?

“Dammit.” The lion-man passed Shane’s gun to the midget elephant and hurried over to the tiger’s cage. “Now look what you’ve done,” he fired at Shane. “If he shits himself, you’re cleaning it up.”

Shane sat up gingerly. Now that he was all the way upright and his head had stopped spinning, he had a better view of the elephant, which had his gun snugly secured in its trunk. He couldn’t take on even that small of a pachyderm with only a knife, or anything less than an assault rifle, so the gun was likely to stay in its possession. The elephant also blocked the tent’s only exit. It fanned its ears at him and made what sounded to Shane like a questioning noise.

“Because he’s a hunter, that’s why.” The lion-shifter eased his arm into the tiger’s cage and scratched the agitated cat behind the ears. “Take it easy, Ramar,” he crooned to the tiger. “It’s okay. Everything’s okay. The nasty human’s not going to hurt you. Before we can do anything to him, we have to tell Magritte,” he finished the elephant end of the conversation.

“You’re going to lose that arm,” Shane said.

The lion-man growled, in a deeper rumble than the tiger’s. “He wouldn’t dare. I outrank him and he knows it. There we go, that’s a good boy. See? I’m right here. Mindy’s right here. Everything’s okay.”

The tiger settled somewhat, although its tail continued to twitch and it continued to glare at Shane through the bars. The lioness huffed and lay back down.

“Now.” The lion-shifter pulled his miraculously intact and unmauled arm from the cage and turned to Shane. “Who are you after? Anyone in particular, or just any shifter you find?”

“Depends,” Shane said. “How many shifters do you have here?”

The man shut his jaw with a snap. Aha. So there was a family here. All lions? A killer pride? That would be new.

Beyond the tent, in the outside world, he caught another trumpeting call, unmistakably elephant. The smaller beast tossed the gun back to the shifter so she could respond. He caught the gun and pointed it inexpertly at Shane.

Shane weighed his chances. He’d yet to meet a shifter proficient in any kind of weapons beyond those provided by nature. Their instinct was to shift. He’d have to drop the gun for that, and Shane would have a chance. Not much of one with the elephant there, but more than if the rest of the pride showed up.

Suppose fortune favored him, and he got his gun back. What then? Shoot the young man in the head? Kill every lion he found here and hope he got the right one? It shouldn’t matter. They were shifters, and one was a murderer. But it did matter. For some reason it mattered a lot.

While he warred with a moral dilemma he’d never once considered before, the rest of the troupe arrived. The four roustabouts barreled into the tent, followed by an Indian couple, a twentyish kid in baggy pants, and another kid almost seven feet tall, at least two-thirds of it leg. They all made way for the final arrival, Magritte del Rio herself. She spotted Shane and stopped dead with an ominous hiss.

At the same time the small elephant suddenly shimmered and morphed into a plump, black and naked teenage girl. She darted behind the largest and beefiest of the roustabouts. From this safe haven she proceeded to make a series of faces at Shane.

“You said you’d got all of them,” Magritte said to the roustabouts. Her unblinking glare remained fixed to Shane.

“He’s not a protestor,” the lion-man said. He handed Shane’s gun to Magritte. “He’s a hunter.”

The close air inside the tent got closer, squeezed by sudden tension. The circus folk moved into a circle around him. By the looks on all their faces, he figured they didn’t plan on letting him out again.

Shane kept very still, not just out of caution. If he’d tried to stand with all the psychic zings shooting at him, he probably would have fallen over anyway. He didn’t even need the warnings from his gift. The young man and girl changing shape right in front of him were giveaways enough. Then there was the similarity of features between the girl and the man she hid behind, both in their faces and their wrinkled knees. One for the books, indeed.

“Let me make an educated guess,” he said. “You’re all shifters. Every one of you. Aren’t you?”

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