Clee approached the door of the school where the tiger was suspected to be using as her lair, remembering what Hodge had said, and how he’d said it. “The animal is not to be killed. If anything happens to it, you won’t get your bonus. And I’ll be very, very angry. You don’t want to see that. Get me that tiger alive and bring it to me. I’ve got plans for it.”
There was something ominous in his voice. Clee knew that there was something out of whack with the guy. He wasn’t like most of the Council members at Green City they’d said, which she supposed is why he’d left to set up a new town. But, she’d heard that same tone of voice, that same quality of intent in the voices of raiders that she’d dealt with and exchanged fire with when she was in the army. Her opinion of Hodge upon meeting him had been that he was a less than trustworthy person. But, in those few sentences, she knew her client was a breed apart, that he could be capable of anything. This was a bad job in a bad place.
She thought of her two little girls Cissy and Bea back in Green City, sleeping in borrowed beds at the Parent’s Network Centre. She wished they were all at home in their small apartment instead. She wished she’d never come to Hodgetown.
A guy named Frank Anders who had a ridiculous moustache to offset his football hero good looks had told her that he’d be providing her with backup, and overseeing the delivery of the tiger once it had been captured. Clee disliked him instantly. He seemed to be Hodge’s man on the ground there. He had set up a perimeter around the school with about ten of his men, all armed to the teeth yet with the same orders Clee had been given. This was just in case the tiger was still on the hunt, and each man had better hope that they wouldn’t have to choose between the tiger and their own lives. Dr Singh stayed by the fence at Clee’s insistence, but he stayed by his phone to advise Clee, sitting in the jeep that had brought him to Hodgetown in the first place.
Clee opened the door of the school with one hand, and clutched the tranquilizer rifle in the other. Then, her phone crackled and her earpiece made a popping sound.
“Hello, Ms. Harris.”
“Doctor Singh? What do you need?”
“Ms. Harris. This is a very dangerous situation. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“Now, that’s just not helpful.”
“I see what you mean. My apologies. I simply don’t want anyone to be hurt. I feel responsible for her, for the tiger.”
“S’alright. I like doing things this way, anyway. It’s what makes my job so much fun.”
“What is it, Doctor? I’m just about to enter the school.”
“There is something I need to tell you that I didn’t mention before.”
“Great timing. What is it?”
“The tiger, she’s … she’s going to have cubs. She may already have had them.”
“What? Does that mean there’s a boy tiger hunting around, too?”
Dr. Singh was quiet for a beat, as if he was working up the nerve to answer.
“No. Not anymore. I’m sorry, Ms. Harris. I haven’t been entirely honest with you. But, I’m convinced now that you mean the animal no harm. I wasn’t before, but I am now. You see, there was no brownout that caused the tiger to escape. It was me. I was the one who let Blake out.”
“The tiger. I named her after William Blake, the poet. You know: Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright …”
“… In the forest of the night. Yeah. I read that one too. Real cute. Why’d you let a tiger escape, Singh?”
“They were going to kill her. They’d already shot her mate. My employer was never the most stable of men. He wanted to … capture the essence of the male tiger by ingesting its organs. He is quite insane, as you may have guessed. And so, I let Blake escape. It would have been unconscionable not to have done so. I escaped myself as soon as I could. My employer was not to be trusted any longer. And I knew that I had to ensure that Blake would escape without harm coming to her. That’s why I followed her as closely as I could. I didn’t know she’d come so far, and to a populated area. I’m sorry. I made a promise to myself to protect her, and her unborn cubs. But, I may have miscalculated in the execution of that promise, somewhat.”
“Alright, alright. Let’s see if we can capture her so that you can keep your promise, and so I don’t end up being tiger food.”
“There is one more thing, Ms. Harris.”
“Call me Clee, Dr. Singh. It’s short for Cleopatra.”
“Call me Tarun, then. It’s short for Tarun.”
“Sure, sure. What’s the other thing you have to tell me. Hurry up. I’m just in the school now.”
“My former employer, Clee. I imagine that he is not far behind me in trying to reclaim his property.”
“And you too, I imagine.”
“Yes. Most certainly. My escape was as stealthy as I could manage. But, I am a scientist, not a sneak thief.”
“And who is this former employer of yours? Anyone I know?”
Clee felt a burning sensation in her gut. She’d heard of Ebilard Stakes. Singh had been right; he was batshit crazy. At least, that’s what she’d heard from the raiders who worked for him.
“OK, OK. One problem at a time, Dr. Singh.”
“Right. Tarun. Radio silence until I contact you, OK?”
“OK. Tarun – out!”
The school was dark, dirty, and there was a scent in the air that Clee assumed was the smell of marked territory. Blake was here alright, or at least this is where she made her home. The thought that she might be eaten by an animal she knew the name of passed through her mind slowly enough for her to acknowledge how absurd it was, and fast enough for her not to be less terrified. But, she’d been there before. She thought of her children, and pushed the fear to the back of her mind.
She moved slowly, the tranquilizer rifle probing the darkness ahead of her. Rounding a corridor in a hallway lined with grey, battered lockers, with a carpet of detritus of a nature that Clee couldn’t identify in the gloom. But, the smell of urine was getting stronger. Ahead was a set of double doors that yawned open like a dark maw. “This job better be worth it,” thought Clee.
The large room was the former gymnasium of the school with a ruin of a wooden floor covered in filth, dust, that same layer of random detritus, with some Vine climbing up the walls. It wasn’t as dark as the corridor had been, with windows near the ceiling of the room beaming silvery moonlight down and up against the far wall where Clee could see movement. She stepped closer, tranquilizer rifle thrust out in front of her. Then she saw them.
“Oh. Hello, babies.”
There bathed in moonlight were two tiger cubs staring up at her, all fur, eyes, and stripes. She smiled, despite her fear. Staring up at her, their eyes were like four golden discs of sunshine dancing on dark water. They were beautiful.
“I’ll be damned. You’re mama do take good care of you. You’re as safe as houses in here. And I’m not gonna hurt you.”
A shadow drank up the moonlight in that instant, and Clee turned, raising the tranquilizer rifle. It was Blake, padding up behind her. She gave a roar, twisting her muzzle to show her row of gleaming yellow-white teeth. She was beautiful too, and terrible. Clee moved slowly away from the cubs, not breaking eye contact with the great beast that Clee had only ever read about, and had never dreamed of seeing. Tigers were extinct. Except Blake was very real, and in that instant of terror Clee believed what she’d read about them being the biggest cats in the world, even bigger than the sabre-toothed tiger that had become extinct thousands of years before.
Clee circled around the enormous cat in as wide an arc as she could manage, her tranquilizer rifle at the ready. Tranking Blake in her den wouldn’t be ideal. An unconscious, six-hundred pound tiger wouldn’t be easy to move. She’d have to lure the cat outside, closer to the truck in order to get her into the harness, and then into the cage. It would be the same as bagging that brown bear that time. But, there was a lot of ground to cover between here and there. None of this was ideal. Clee could run, but that would mean turning her back on Blake; not a good idea. This tiger could easily run as fast as that bear, and maybe faster. No, she’d have to use her stare and her voice as her weapons, while getting as far away from the cubs as possible. She’d take her time.
Clee backed out of the gymnasium and back into the dim hall. Blake followed, her head lowered, and her eyes raised and locked onto this strange interloper.
“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night …” sang Clee softly. “I ain’t gonna hurt you, Blake. And I’m not gonna hurt your babies, neither. We’re just taking a little stroll together; just two Mamas takin’ a little stroll. That’s right. I’m a Mama too, Blake. I got two kids, just like you. Two girls. They ain’t gonna believe this when I tell ’em, Blake.”
The tiger padded forward, her green-yellow eyes reflecting what little light there was. Clee held the tranquilizer rifle steadily in front of her, but not threateningly. Blake knew what the rifle was about. That much was certain to Clee. The tiger had seen one before. So, to make sure the big cat didn’t feel any more threatened than she already was, Clee kept talking.
“Just you keep with me now, Blake. I’m gonna walk with you outta here. Then, maybe you can take a little nap. I know you’re just takin’ .. you’re just takin’ care .. of your children…”
Then, Blake’s eyes not only met hers, but Clee felt as if there was another deep connection between her and the tiger. They really were both mothers; the realization struck her so much so that the fear was almost completely extinguished. Blake’s massive muzzle slackened, and she let out a low rumble as if acknowledging that she’d felt it, too.
“Alright. It’s going to be OK, Blake. I’m gonna get you and your cubs outta here, OK. You just stay with me. I’m not gonna let anyone hurt you, OK?”
Clee tapped her headset with her free hand, and her phone made a popping sound in her ear.
“Dr. Singh? Tarun?”
“Right here, Clee!”
“I need you to open the door I went into. I got Blake right here in front of me. She’s a bit upset with me for disturbin’ her children, but she’s calm. I don’t think she’s going to get too aggressive as long as things don’t get complicated …”
“Did you say children? She had her cubs. How many?”
“Two. Two little ‘uns”
“That’s fantastic. How do they look?”
“Healthy. But, I need you to open the door, cause I’m backin’ my way outta here. Tell Anders and his men to step back about twenty yards or so, downwind. Drive my truck to the door with the keys I gave you. Do it as slowly and as quietly as you can. Then, back the truck up so that the cab is facing outward toward the climbing apparatus outside. Leave about ten yards between the truck and the door. Then count to ten and open the door. Do you think you can handle that?”
“Yes. Yes, absolutely.”
“OK. Remember: open the door very, very slowly.”
“Understood, Clee. Clee?”
“I really admire you.”
“Sure thing. Right, gotta go.”
“Oh, and also; Mr. Anders is here right next to me. He says that he is prepared to take charge once you emerge. He seems very adamant about it.”
“I bet he is. Look, I really do have to go now, Tarun. Ten count to ten, and then cross the playground to open the door, gently.”
“Of course, of course, Clee. Tarun out.”
“So. She’s alive?” asked Anders, leaning against Dr. Singh’s jeep.
“Clee? Yes, of course she is.”
“I mean the tiger. The tiger is alive, right Dr. Singh?”
“Uh, yes. And very healthy, too I’m told. Right, I have to go, now. Please move your men back about twenty yards until Clee gives the all-clear.”
“We’ll be right here, Dr. Singh!” said Anders, his thick-lipped mouth spreading into a predatory smile under his ridiculous moustache. “And remember, Dr. Singh; we’re in charge here, not your friend. She works for Mr. Hodge.”
“I could hardly forget, Mr. Anders.” replied Doctor Singh. “But we must consider safety first.”
“That’s good advice, Doctor. I suggest everyone remember that when the time comes.” said Anders, no longer smiling.
Doctor Singh moved away from Anders and the jeep, and opened the door to Clee’s truck. He could hear voices coming closer, those of Anders’ men. The doorway to the school was across a small playground. Dr. Singh turned the key in the ignition, bringing the engine to life. He counted to ten as he’d been asked out loud, while threading his way through rusted climbing apperatus, both hands gripping the wheel, turning the long truck in an arc. Then, he backed it up toward the door. He got out, and approached the metal door to the school where Clee had first gone in. When he gripped the metal handle of the door, his hand was slick with nervous sweat. He opened the door just as Clee was approaching, her voice singing the melody of some tune he didn’t know, but with “Tyger, Tyger burning bright …” as the words. He could hear Blake’s low grumble somewhere beyond her in the dark almost as if she was singing along.
Clee emerged and addressed Dr. Singh without breaking eye contact with the tiger. Blake stepped out of the shadow of the doorway, her head still lowered and the muscles in her forelegs tense. She looked as though she was ready to spring at any instant.
“Dr. Singh – Tarun, I mean. I want you to lower the gangplank to the back of the truck, and then await my instructions. Are Anders’ men still around?”
“They … They are. But, I get the feeling things could get sticky with them. I’m not sure they have much respect for your expertise, Clee …”
“Well, that’s OK. As long as no one gets hurt, including this here tiger. She and I have an understanding, don’t we Blake?”
Blake raised her head in that instant. Bathed in moonlight, she looked like a ghost. She gave a grunt. It was as if she’d answered Clee.
“OK, go to the cab and press the big green button to the right of the wheel, and move very very slowly. Once the gangplank is down, I’m going to try and convince Blake here to get into the back without tranquilizing her. I had to guess at the dosage based on what you told me, and it might do more harm than good.”
“I see,” said Dr. Singh. “I shall return!”
“Take your time, and don’t run, whatever you do.”
Dr. Singh backed up slowly and then disappeared behind the truck. Clee heard him open the door. She heard something else, too, still looking into the eyes of the great cat.
She thought she heard someone say: “please help me.”
Read Burning Bright Part III next week.