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Hidden Moon (Chapter 9)

I stumbled over my own feet as I hurried to join Malachi in front of a cage that I could have sworn had been as empty as my life. It wasn't empty any longer.

"Mary likes to rest at the back of the enclosure," Cartwright said. "I'm sure you just overlooked her."

A long, sleek, muscular mountain lion slid along the bars. She didn't seem like a Mary to me.

"You have a cougar?" Grace snapped. "Are you fucking nuts?"

"Not lately," Cartwright murmured, seemingly uninsulted by Grace's question or her language.

The animal enclosures were built differently from any I'd seen before – with two sets of bars set far enough apart so that no one could stick a hand inside and lose it, yet visitors could see the animal, hear it, smell it.

Though I might not have seen Mary the mountain lion, there were other wagons that had been empty, too. I skirted Cartwright and headed for the next enclosure.

A grizzly bear waddled forward, flat, dark eyes fixed on my face. He stretched his neck, tilted his head, and roared. Grace appeared at my side, gun drawn.

She stared at the bear for several seconds before turning to Cartwright. "You have got to be kidding me."

"We perform with animals, Sheriff." He spread his hands and his towel dipped lower. I waited for it to fall off altogether, but it didn't. "That means we need animals."

"A monkey, a goat, maybe an elephant. But a cougar and a bear? That's dangerous."

"We raised them from birth." His gaze rested on the still-roaring grizzly. "They are our family."

"Well, your uncle appears a bit teed off. Can you get him to shut up?"

"The gun, Sheriff." Cartwright flicked one long finger at the weapon. "He doesn't like them."

Grace stared at her hand as if she'd forgotten she held the thing, then holstered it with an impatient shove. However, she didn't secure the strap of leather over the butt.

"I hear you don't keep a wolf in your menagerie." She headed for the next enclosure.

Cartwright scowled in my direction before following.

"Was that a secret?" I asked.

He ignored me. "As I told the mayor, wolves are troublesome."

Grace stood in front of the third cage, which was empty. I was glad I'd seen at least one thing right tonight.

Logically I knew the cougar and the bear couldn't have been running around the woods with the Gypsies, then miraculously appeared back in the wagons just before we came to see them. But I was also pretty sure I couldn't have overlooked an animal the size of a grizzly when I'd glanced in that second cage. The conflict of what had to be true and what couldn't be made me a little bit dizzy.

"Explain how wolves are troublesome." Grace continued to stare into the empty space.

"They spook the horses," I volunteered.

"And a cougar doesn't?"

"We keep the predatory animals away from them," Malachi said.

"Neat trick." Grace tilted her head. "But they have to run into each other sometime."

"There can be incidents. But my horses are very well trained."

"If they're well trained enough to tolerate the scent of a wild cat and a grizzly, why would a wolf be any different?"

"Wolves are pack animals. They don't do well alone, unless they're rogues, and then they're dangerous."

"More dangerous than a cougar?" Grace asked.

"Depends on the wolf."

She cursed beneath her breath, kicked at the dirt, then stalked down the line of cage wagons, peering into each and every one.

Cartwright watched her go. "What did I say?"

I wasn't sure if I was supposed to mention the hiker who'd been mauled by the wolf. I suspected not, since we'd come out here to secretly search for it. Thankfully Cartwright hadn't asked yet what we were doing on his temporary property.

"Grace is prickly," I said, then headed after her, checking out the occupants of the wagons as she had.

Brass plates identified them with monikers you might find in any phone book. What happened to naming animals after their animal-like attributes – Fluffy, Blackie, and Spot for instance? I guess Teeth, Claws, and Horrific Bloody Death aren't exactly good for business.

"Three monkeys, two zebras, a camel," Grace tallied as I joined her.

"Five crows, an owl, an eagle, and a hawk," I added. "You must really go through the birdseed."

Grace spun toward Cartwright. "What was in the empty cage?"

Confusion spread over his face. "Nothing. That is what makes it empty."

Grace smacked herself in the forehead with the flat of her hand. "I meant," she said between her teeth, "what was in there before it became empty?"

"Nothing," he repeated. "We need to have at least one empty cage for an animal to be put into while their enclosure is cleaned."

Why was I disappointed that his explanation made sense? What could he possibly be up to?

I had no idea about the latter; unfortunately, I had a very good idea on the former. I wanted Cartwright to be untrustworthy so I had good reason to avoid him and the attraction I felt.

I had wanted him, and I hadn't wanted anyone since…

"We should go," I blurted.

Grace glanced at me. "Sure. Cartwright." She nodded and disappeared into the darkness.

I flipped my hand like a three-year-old waving bye-bye and followed.

I was both surprised and disheartened when he let me go. I couldn't say I blamed him. He probably thought I was crazy. However, I didn't keep wild animals within yards of where I slept.

To be fair, he didn't kiss someone as if he wanted to give her everything, then panic and run away. But I doubted Malachi Cartwright had been betrayed by someone he trusted.

"Did you find anything?" I asked as soon as we pulled onto the highway that led back to town.

"I found you with your tongue down the guy's throat."

"Did not," I returned. When she gave me a bland look, I muttered, "You came too late to see that."

"Who says I wasn't watching for a while before I intervened?"

I narrowed my eyes and she laughed. "Relax, Claire, I wasn't, but it doesn't take a detective to figure out what you'd been up to."

I guess Cartwright's erection gave us away. Or maybe it had been my swollen lips, my tousled hair, even my crumpled top.

"You told me to stall him."

Grace snorted. "I meant talk to him about his work."

"He wasn't inclined to chat."

"I bet." Grace slid a glance at me, then returned it to the dark highway. "I found something."

"Tracks?"

"None that I could see."

Which meant there weren't any.

"If not tracks, then what?"

"I'll show you inside."

I hadn't even noticed she'd used side roads to skirt downtown and approach my house from the opposite direction. I needed to be more aware of my surroundings. That had been the principal rule of the self-defense class I'd taken… after.

I hadn't finished the class – receiving the call about my father before I was through. If I had, then maybe I'd have known what to do when Cartwright manhandled me. Anything but freezing like a rabbit in the sights of a wolf would have been good.

Grace followed me to the front porch and waited patiently while I dug out my keys, then opened the door. I flicked every switch as I moved through the house, lighting the place up like Christmas.

The brrr a cat makes when surprised sounded from the staircase; then Oprah rocketed down faster than I'd seen her move in years. She twined around Grace's ankles and began to purr.

"Hey, you still alive?" Grace murmured, bending to pick up Oprah.

The two of them had always been pals. Whenever Grace had stayed over, Oprah had slept curled on her chest. I would have been jealous, except I had loved Grace, too.

Her father had refused to let her have a pet of any kind. He didn't like animals. Sometimes I'd wondered if he much liked Grace, which was why she'd spent a lot of time over here.

As each one of the McDaniel brothers had left Lake Bluff and never come back, Sheriff McDaniel, the former, had gotten crankier and crankier. By the time he'd died, everyone in town had been on their best behavior for fear they'd have to deal with him.

I tossed my keys on the hall table. The clatter made Oprah start. Two sets of green eyes – one more yellow, the other more blue – turned toward me.

"You wanna quit smooching my cat and show me what you found?" I asked.

Grace rubbed her cheek across Oprah's dappled head, then set her on the floor. The cat continued to twine between Grace's ankles as if she were in a maze.

"Don't I get a drink first?" Grace asked.

"A drink?"

"Wine. Beer. Whiskey. I don't care. I'm officially off duty." She glanced at her watch. "About an hour ago."

I shrugged and headed for the kitchen. As soon as I filled Oprah's bowl, she abandoned Grace for the food.

I opened my refrigerator. "Merlot. Sauvignon Wane. Bud."

"Whatever you're having." Grace leaned against the counter, her gaze flicking over the cabinets and the windows. She was always on the lookout for something, had been even as a child. Her oddly light eyes and overly inquisitive manner had made people nervous. Except for me.

I grabbed the bottle of merlot and two glasses. "You wanna sit on the deck?"

"Sure." Grace opened the patio door and let me precede her onto the wide expanse of white wood surrounded by the forest.

I lit the wicks on several citronella torches, which served the dual purpose of providing light and keeping the mosquitoes away, theoretically, then poured us each a glass of bloodred wine – why was everything bloodred lately? – and handed one to Grace.

She took a sip. "Ah. Much better than what we drank in high school."

I made a face. "Mad Dog 20/20 and Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill."

"We thought we were so cool." She lifted her glass in a toast. "To improved palates."

"Hear, hear." I mirrored the gesture and took a sip. The smooth berry taste made my tongue curl in pleasure, while the slight scent of earth and oak wafted across my face.

Grace set down her glass and pulled something out of her pocket. I squinted at what appeared to be a piece of bark. "So?"

Grace took a flashlight off her belt and hit the on button. When she washed the light over her hand I reared back, curling my lip as if I'd detected a foul odor.

A bright red swastika marred the surface of the wood.

"Hell," I muttered.

"Pretty much."

"You think that's blood?" I asked.

"Hope not."

"Where did you find it?"

"Under the apple tree where our hiking tourist says he was attacked."

"Just lying there?"

"Yeah." She bit her lip. "I didn't see any blood."

"So the guy didn't manage to shoot the wolf like he thought."

"Guess not." She continued to frown, deep in thought.

"What else?" I pressed.

"The tracks were weird. I found his and a few half prints that could have been a dog's. Although it would have had to have been one big dog. But there was also a second set of people feet all over the place."

"Odd."

"Yeah, especially since the only tracks that led anywhere were human."

"I don't get it."

"Me, either. The tourist hobbled away, the mystery guest, too, but the canine? Not so much."

"Where did it go?"

She lifted her hands, then lowered them. "The only other direction is up."

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