“This situation has gotten more complicated”, said Clee.
“How? We’ve got the tiger. You said it yourself; she just walked right into your cage there. You didn’t even have to use that tranquilizer gun. It’s time to bring it to Mr. Hodge. This isn’t your call. I’m in charge here!” said Anders angrily.
His men began to gather in a tight circle across from the tall woman tentatively, as if she was a tiger also. Dr. Singh stood by the truck, his arms crossed, and his eyes shifting nervously from left to right.
“Up until now, you people thought this animal was just some roaming killer. But, she isn’t. She belongs to Ebilard Stakes. Tell me you’ve heard of him.”
Anders smirked. “Yeah. I’ve heard of him. He’s the roommate of Santa Claus, isn’t he?”
His men laughed at that, and drew closer.
“Ebilard Stakes isn’t a real person. Anyone with brains will tell you that. He’s just a name the raiders use to keep everyone in the Outlands scared. But, this isn’t the Outlands. This is Hodgetown. And Mr. Hodge is very real.”
Dr. Singh kept silent, looking at Clee.
“Alright. It’s your funeral, Anders. But, imagine if I’m right, and Ebilard Stakes finds out you people have his property, and don’t plan on giving it back. What happens when Ebilard Stakes does to this town like he’s reported to have done to other towns that cross him?And what if Mr. Hodge found out that you, Anders, knew all of this the whole time?”
Anders smirk melted into a frown. His men ceased their approach as if it were choreographed.
“Hey, Frank! Look!” said a voice; one of Anders’ men. Everyone turned.
The man held the two tiger pups in his arms. They could all make out the two sets of golden eyes reflecting the moonlight. Clee caught her breath for an instant, and then hardened her resolve.
“Damn it. I told you not to go in there!” said Clee.
Anders smirk was reborn. “Dr. Singh. Would you say that these are new born tigers?”
Dr. Singh shuffled forward. “Yes. I should say so. About two weeks old, I’d say. But, I can’t imagine …”.
“That means these two definitely belong to us, even if there is an Ebilard Stakes.” said Anders turning to Clee.
“I don’t think Stakes will agree with that, Anders. Then you’ll have a war on your hands. Let me take both of them out of here. Then, it’s not your problem anymore. You can build your town just like you planned. How about it, Anders? Call Hodge. He’s a reasonable man, right? He’s at least as reasonable as you.”
“You think Stakes, if there is a Stakes, cares that much for a few of tigers?”
It was Clee’s turn to smirk. “A few tigers? Are you kidding, Anders? These animals are extinct. He cares at least as much for them as Hodge does. And Hodge told you guys not to shoot the mother there, even if it meant becoming dinner. I changed my mind. Let me call Hodge. If you don’t get the gravity of this situation by now, you’d only screw it up.”
“Watch it, Anders. You mind your manners, now. There ain’t but a few rangers out here this far. And you don’t want to lose your head before your boss finds out what’s going on here – before you get a chance to tell him.”
Dr. Singh stepped forward, soon to be flanked by Ander’s men. “I will make the call! I will call Mr. Hodge!”
Everyone turned in surprise.
“Just please – no violence. My own phone is in my jeep. I need one of yours to make the call.”
Anders turned to Clee and smiled. “Your phone or mine?”
Clee scowled. Then she detached her phone from her shoulder belt and tossed it to Dr. Singh, who caught it awkwardly.
Singh pressed a series of keys on the keypad and held the phone to his ear. “Yes. I have the tiger. The tiger is safe. And, yes; she’s had her cubs.”
“Yes. You can now take possession. We’re just outside of the school. We will wait here. Mr. Anders is here, talking with the animal re-location expert. Yes. I shall inform Mr. Anders myself. Yes. Goodbye.”
Singh lowered the phone.
“It won’t be long now. Not long at all.” said Singh, distantly.
The two men who flanked Dr. Singh fell like two rag dolls, suddenly and almost silently, one after the other. Then another man fell, and another, falling in the darkness, their guns clattering to the ground. Soon, all of the armed men under Anders’ command were dead. Anders’ face slackened in confusion. There was a faint, dry popping sound. The man holding the two cubs uttered a gurgled choke, and the two cubs leapt from his arms. He dropped to his knees, and then fell face first into the dirt.
“What … What’s … ?” Anders gasped.
Dr. Singh smiled. “Mr. Stakes. Mr. Ebilard Stakes.”
“What?” said Clee.
Singh held the phone up to his ear again. “Well done, Mr.Travers. You really are a splendid shot. I shall see you at the agreed upon location in one half-hour. So, off you go, now. Your work here is done. Out.”
He hung up the phone, and then threw it at Clee, who caught it with a dextrous snap of her hand. With a fluid motion, Dr. Singh reached inside his hemp coat and drew out a pistol, levelling it at Anders and Clee.
Anders just stared, raising his hands instinctively. Clee’s eyes widened in a moment of realization.
“I’m afraid that I was dishonest with you again, Clee. Now I must take the animals and go. Back to the Outlands for me.”
Anders stepped forward, his fists balled. “Who the hell are you?”
“Mr. Anders. I don’t like you. You are very stupid. And you have a very stupid moustache. ”
Dr. Singh shot Anders. The bullet caught him just above the bridge of his nose, and he fell into a lifeless heap.
“So. You’re Stakes.” said Clee finally.
“Yes. Well, that’s just one name I travel under. It’s not my real name, of course. But, it’s proven to be very effective tool for creating a reputation. Even before the world ended, reputation was everything to me, and certainly the key to my success. Now, in this cruel and desperate world, I’ve had to alter it slightly. Now instead of striking business acumen, and wonderful parties, I am now known as a ruthless killer. It’s a reputation I’ve earned. But, I am nothing if not tenacious. That’s what led me here.”
“You orchestrated all of this? Why?”
“Well, not all of this was planned, Clee. Blake really did escape. And Dr. Singh really was the one who’d done it. He was a warm-hearted soul. And he’s paid his debt to me, with no hard feelings, along with lending me his name for a time. For my part, the escape of my tiger has allowed me to investigate the competition a little bit more closely. This is a humble little town, but with a great deal of potential. I don’t like this Hodge fellow, though. No. Not at all. He was going to steal my tiger. Imagine that!”
“How were you planning on getting Blake back?”
“Well, that’s where you came in. I have a man inside of Hodge’s operation. He put the bug in Hodge’s ear to call in the experts – which turned out to be you. No need to waste one of your own men, Hodge. That was the ploy used to get Hodge to call you out here, or someone like you, to ensure that Blake would be captured by the best, and with very limited risk at her being shot. Once you got here, all I had to do was wait until you arrived to do your job. You did it, and splendidly so.”
“What are you going to do now?” asked Clee evenly.
“Well, I’m going to take my animals out of here, Clee, just as I said. I’m going back to the Outlands. And later, I’m going to come back here with an army and take this town. The rangers don’t have a full precinct here just yet, I’m told. So, I should have free rein. I’ll probably kill a few people to start with. Mr’. Hodge will certainly be taught a lesson in humility. It is one which he sorely needs, I daresay. I shall very much enjoy that.”
“And what about me?”
The man who called himself Ebilard Stakes smiled warmly.
“Well, I would very much like you to come with me, Clee. What I said earlier was true. I really do admire you. You went into a tiger’s lair, armed with a tranquilizer gun with a questionable dosage all by yourself without a moment’s hesitation. There aren’t many people left in the world with balls that big. And I’m always looking for talented people. Look at how talented Mr.Travers was at dispatching all of these good fellows. Did you see their faces, Clee? Wasn’t that delicious? I could hardly keep myself from laughing.”
It was true; Ebilard Stakes was batshit crazy.
“I suppose if I said no to you, you’d have to kill me.”
Ebilard Stakes smiled wanly. “Well, a part of my advantage is that there aren’t any persons who’ve done that and lived to tell about it. I don’t mean to sound menacing, or give way to dramatics. But, I can’t have anyone outside of my organization with knowledge of my appearance. It would ruin the effect, you see. In any case, that would certainly be a shame. It would be a waste of your talents.”
Clee smiled too. “Doesn’t look like I have much of a choice, Mr. Stakes.”
“No. Sadly for you, no. But, I promise you; your life under my employ will certainly be more lucrative than your current line of work.”
“Right. Look. I’m going to secure the cage, and then we can get going. You’re right; I hate my job, and I hate having to suck up to guys like Hodge.”
Ebilard Stakes let out a sigh. “Yes, I imagine you do. I loathe cliche, Clee. But just in case I am misunderstood, I should tell you that if you attempt any deception in the next few moments, you will be dead before you realize you’ve been found out. My calling is mainly in real estate, Clee. But, I have found that my sideline in killing people dovetails into that type of work very neatly. And I very much enjoy it under normal circumstances. Having said that, I’d hate to have to kill you, Clee. Truly. So, please.”
Clee backed toward the truck. Blake the tiger stirred there, the striped patterns of her body were accentuated by the shadows of the bars. The patterns between light and dark mixed in the moonlight were like some nocturnal spell, transforming the tiger into something otherworldly. Blake’s eyes caught the moonlight. Then she stood. Across her field of vision, her children played in the dirt. The Woman approached.
“Tell me something, Mr. Stakes,” said Clee conversationally. “How did you come by Blake here?”
Ebilard Stakes smiled, his eyeteeth catching that same moonlight that had made Blake into a divine vision. “I liberated her mother from The Central Park Zoo. It was during the evacuation. And Blake here was born in captivity, under my watchful eye, and Dr. Singh’s too, whom I also liberated. Now look at her; a full-grown hunter, and larger than most females of the species. I can see why you identify with her so readily, Clee.” And he laughed dryly.
“But can you, Mr Stakes? Can you identify with her? Trapped in this cage, and now caught again, but this time with two cubs to worry about, and trapped by the same man who kept her in another cage?”
“It’s the only reality she’s ever known. She belongs to me.”
“Yet, she’s had the taste of freedom by now, Mr. Stakes. The game has changed. What happens if she doesn’t want to go with you? Are you going to shoot her too?”
“Nonsense. No need. There will be no need to test that scenario. I have her. She’s mine. We are bonded. I know her voice! I’ve heard it!”
“You have her, alright. No one can dispute that. Some sucker tried to take her away from you. He tried to steal her, and you put his boys down. You’re going to put him down too. But, what happens if she isn’t yours anymore anyway, now that she’s been outside of the cage? What then?”
Ebilard Stakes’ face slackened. Clee couldn’t see it, but a tear rolled down his face in the darkness. He felt suddenly alone. He felt in that instant that everything he achieved was an illusion.
“She belongs to me. She … she loves me! She’s the only one who does!”
“Why don’t we let her decide that? What if we let her out of there? What if I open the cage? Then we can see whether she still loves you, Mr. Stakes. That way you’ll always know that even if you keep her in a cage for the rest of her life, and her kids too, that you don’t need that cage. That your possession of her is so complete, that cage just doesn’t matter?”
Ebilard Stakes remained motionless. He felt numb. Damn her! Damn this woman. She’d unlocked a truth he didn’t know that he was desperate to keep hidden. But, she was right. And now he had to know.
“She would never hurt me. She left me because she was confused. It was nothing more than that. Dr. Singh must have convinced her that I would hurt her. Just because I killed her brother. I needed her brother’s essence. I needed it to be closer to her. That was all! But, I would never hurt her. Never. I would die first!”
Stakes threw his pistol to the ground. “Let her come! Let her come to me!”
Clee opened the cage. Blake bounded out and closed the gap between her and Stakes and a flash.
“My love!” Stakes cried. Blake leapt with a roar.
Clee turned her head, hearing the wet crunch of Blake’s jaws around Stakes’ neck. She leapt into the truck and fired up the engine. She pulled the truck into a circle and the headlights burned into the darkness in a cold arc. When the truck came to a halt, the beams were trained on Blake and her cubs who gathered under her massive front paws. Stakes was dead, a bloody mass under the enormous tiger.
Clee just stared. Then, she thought she heard a voice.
“We must go. The children and me. Please take us.”
It was crazy. She’d heard it again; that voice that sounded strangely like her own. This was a maneater. Yet, Clee found herself turning off the engine, and using the automatic controls for the cage in the back of the truck.
Blake and her children padded forward. Clee heard the family make their way up the ramp and into the cage. Clee knew just where to take them. She started the engine.
She drove into the Outlands to a place where she’d released many animals before. There was a fresh water lake, and plenty of wildlife for hunting. The cubs would grow up learning to hunt, with their mother as their patient teacher. Who knows how long they’d live? But, they’d have a chance without anyone hindering them. There weren’t any human settlements this far out.
The sun rose when Clee opened the cage automatically again. The family of tigers circled around the truck and made their way past it. Just as they crested a scruffy hill, Blake turned. Clee didn’t hear the voice then; gratitude was understood. Then, the family disappeared into the cool, early morning.
“What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” whispered Clee.
Then, the phone rang. Clee answered. It was Hodge.
“Where the hell are you? Who did this to my men? Anders is dead!”
“You were the victim of Ebilard Stakes, Mr. Hodge. He is the real owner of the tiger you wanted me to catch for you to keep. Dr. Singh escaped from him because he was the one who let the tiger loose, but Stakes caught up to him. Stakes’ man killed your boys – a guy called Travers. The tiger killed Singh. Now the tiger is loose again. But, don’t worry; it’s left Hodgetown for good.”
“Damn you! How did you survive?”
“By keeping my head, Mr. Hodge. And by having a truck that goes faster than a pissed off tiger. Stakes has the tiger now.”
“Something doesn’t smell right, Harris.”
“Well, how things smell to you is not my problem anymore Mr. Hodge. That tiger belongs to Ebilard Stakes. And no bonus on earth is going to make me cross him.”
“You’ll be out of a job!”
“Nope. Benny will understand. He’ll probably shoot me something extra anyhow for driving all this way, too. Plus, Benny thinks you’re an asshole. So do I.”
“You piece of …”
“But, the real problem for you is going to be Stakes. He won’t stop with Anders and the rest of your crew now that he knows you were going to steal his property, that you are that kind of guy. So, good luck with that, Hodge.”
“You made an enemy today, Harris!”
“You made one last night smirking at me with your feet on the desk and not getting your ass up to shake my hand, Hodge! And you made another one by crossing Ebilard Stakes. And pretty soon, Ebilard Stakes is going to settle up for both of us without me even battin’ an eye.”
Clee hung up.
She grinned, letting Hodge think what he was surely thinking; that he’d soon be a dead man. Hodge would be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life. The thought of that would crowd out everything, including his designs for power, and any thought of retribution toward Clee. Ebilard Stakes’ reputation really was useful, she thought to herself. It was done.
The phone rang again. It was Cissy’s number displayed on the screen; her daughter, and probably with younger sister Bea waiting for her turn to talk to their mother. As her finger hovered over the answer button, Clee remembered the moving patterns of black, white, orange, and yellow, the rippling sinews underneath glossy fur, moving in the moonlight, and moving even more gracefully in the new morning light. She remembered the cubs following after their mother, unquestioningly.
Clee smiled, and answered the call.
Read the whole Burning Bright series from the beginning.