Chapter 69: Cousins
Gunny called a few months later. He hadn’t made any progress yet, but he had a few ideas. So did I.
Working with Jimmy Erickson, I arranged to have Derek and Amanda whisked down on a charter plane. They were hesitant, but Jimmy explained that there were some personal effects I had left behind that they needed to go through. Maggie King convinced them to come, and she and her son Jeremy and mate Jackson were on the same flight. Jackson insisted on finding and thanking everyone who had saved his heavily pregnant mate when the war broke out, plus Jeremy wanted to see his friends again.
The plane arrived late at night, and since it was a school night the children were already asleep. I stayed home with them while Craig went to see them at the airport. I spent the time pacing around the living room in anticipation, they were going to shit a collective brick when they saw me alive.
The twins had woken up and were hungry, so I was sitting in the chair with one on each breast. I had mastered the art of stacking pillows and blankets to the babies could be hands-free feeders with my first twins! I heard the SUV’s pull up outside and Amanda talking about how beautiful the island was as they gathered their bags to come in. I pulled Renee off, she was starting to sleep again, and burped her just before the door opened.
“You’ll need to be quiet, we have babies in the house and it’s late,” Craig said as he carried bags in and set them to the side. As soon as he moved to the side and bent down, Amanda saw me across the room. I said, “Welcome to our Pack, Amanda,” as she stood there and let out an ear-splitting scream before her knees started to wobble. Derek almost ran her over, but then her eyes rolled back and she started to drop. Derek jumped into action, catching her shoulders and easing her to the ground; his eyes kept going back and forth between his unconscious mate, and his very much alive cousin.
He held her against his chest as he sat on the carpet with his mouth wide open. Craig was finding this hilarious, while Maggie just looked at him and said, “Surprise?”
“You’re really alive?”
“She is, we’re sorry we had to keep you in the dark about it but she would be in danger if people knew she was still alive.” Craig lifted Amanda off the floor and carried her over to the couch and laid her down.
Derek jumped up and rushed me, hugging me tightly around the neck as his tears ran down into my hair. “Goddess, thank you for this,” he said as Craig and Maddie took the babies so I could hug him properly. When he finally let me go and sat back, he held his arms out to Craig for one of them.
“Derek, meet your cousin Gary,” I said as he pulled the baby into his chest and took a deep sniff of his scent. “Maggie is holding Renee.”
He had a wonderfully confused, happy and proud expression on his face as he looked up. “You know about them?”
“Yes, I watched it live. The babies were born the night Gary was killed, the stress of the watching it kicked off my labor. They were fine, though, and I’m glad Renee is too.”
I got up and offered the chair to Derek so he could sit and hold Renee as well. Meanwhile, I moved over to the couch and lifted Amanda’s head up so it could rest on my lap after I sat down. I smelled her, the scent was complex, not just her and Derek. I looked down at her belly, my hand going down to feel where the start of her baby bump was. “She’s pregnant? Congratulations!”
Derek grinned. “We found out recently, I’m so happy. During the war, none of our women went into heat. It’s been a long time since we had a baby in the Pack.” Craig had walked to the kitchen and retrieved the first aid kit, getting the smelling salts out. He broke one under her nose and she grimaced and shook her head, waking up on my lap.
“You could just say hello, cousin,” I said as I stroked her hair.
“How?” She sat up and jumped into my arms, hugging the life out of me. “We saw you die, Ella.”
Just then the rest of my children walked into the room, sleepy-eyed, with Emma trailing a stuffed wolf behind her. “Mommy,” she said, “Who are they?”
I opened my arms and the three ran up onto the couch, sitting on my lap and on a shocked Amanda’s lap as well. “This is your cousin Amanda, her mate Derek is holding your little brother and sister. They are from the Johnson Pack.”
“OK.” Darryl and Mitch jumped off and grabbed Jeremy. “Miss Maggie, can Jeremy stay with us tonight?” They had missed their buddy.
“Of course,” Maggie said. She got up and grabbed his bag and looked back at us. “Take your time, I’ll get the boys settled down and be back in a few. I’ve heard this story.”
Emma decided that her cousin was the perfect place to settle in and cuddle, and she was asleep a minute later. “So you know those two were Darryl and Mitch…”
She looked at them going back up the stairs. “They’re so big! I forget it’s been more than five years now since you had them. Who is this cutie?”
I smiled as she smelled Emma’s hair. “Her name is Emmanuelle, but we call her Emma like my Mom. I got pregnant with her after the CIA got me freed from Army custody. These two,” I pointed to Derek and the two he was holding, “are Gary and Renee. I got them with my last heat.”
“Heat? But you’re human.” She leaned in and sniffed me, her eyebrows went up and she took another whiff. “Wait a minute, you aren’t a wolf.”
“Nope, a black panther.”
She fell back against the back of the couch, confusion on her face. “Someone is going to have to explain what happened to you and soon!”
“I want to hear your story too, but I’ll give you the cliff notes version of mine.” I started with watching the war start, then seeing their Pack House bombed. I knew Renee had gone back to them after we picked up the refugees, so I picked it up with that. I told them about Olivia having to kill her wolf, along with Tony and Tina’s, to avoid being killed at the checkpoint. When I got to the part about being attacked in Wal-Mart and being captured by the Army, I had to remove her hand from mine because she was squeezing it too hard.
I skimmed over my two years as a lab rat at Fort Detrick, getting to my return to the Pack and the deal I made with the CIA. Craig picked up the story, telling them about our relocation to this private island sanctuary where we thought we could sit out the war. I told them Ker biting me to give my my Panther, about my mission to kill the druglord, my narrow escape, and how someone had nearly killed Al and I hadn’t seen Ker since.
“That’s why we had to fake her death,” Craig said. “The drug cartel got her picture, someone at the CIA gave her up. We had the whole thing staged; scuba gear, explosives in the boat, even a pig to bring in the sharks. It worked, too.”
“But only as long as I stayed out of sight.” I sighed, thinking back to those lonely days. “I spent months alone on a nearby island while things calmed down, all in cat form. Even here, I don’t open windows and I only go outside as a panther, mostly at night. I’m afraid of satellites and spies. The cartel won’t hesitate to kill me if they find out I’m still alive.”
After bringing them up to date, they filled me in on all the stuff that had been going on with them. We went late into the night, no one wanting to stop, but we were all getting tired. The babies woke up and I could smell why immediately. “I’ll tell you what, let’s get some rest and talk tomorrow,” I said. “The babies will need to be fed and I need a few hours’ sleep before daylight.”
We woke up late the next morning, Marge had put out a big brunch buffet and we were all sitting around the big dining table catching up. The children were all at school, even the youngest still had activities planned. I could see them on the beach playing in the sand as we ate.
Al, Craig and I filled the Alphas in on where we were with the search for the people who had burned us. After listening, Derek agreed with me. “You need to go on the attack,” he said, “a defensive strategy will never work. You don’t know when someone will find out, and you aren’t big enough to fend off an attack. You got lucky that Gunny wanted to talk to you first or you’d already be dead.”
“I know.” I looked around. “Until Gunny comes up with something, I just don’t know WHAT to attack.”
“There were a handful of people at the CIA who I know were aware of my group and what we were doing,” Al said, “but with the new Administration, things were turning over. I think someone wanted us dead and buried, but I don’t know who.”
“You don’t have to know,” Derek said. “Look at what we have already just with what they did to you, Ella. The CIA, operating domestically, with a secret squad of mercenaries involved with assassinations, extortion, kidnapping and theft. The Army taking a known human captive for two years, experimenting on her against her will at a secret location INSIDE the United States. Then, the CIA gets her out but in return forces her to travel to Mexico and kill a druglord. Finally, they release her name and photograph, knowing that she isn’t Black Ker, and knowing that she will be killed as a result.” He paused and looked at everyone. “There isn’t a reporter in the country who wouldn’t do anything to break a story like that, and it will scare the shit out of the Administration if they get wind of it.”
“So we go public?”
“No,” Amanda said, “if you do that, you’ll be killed. The Cartel still wants you dead, Black Ker or not.”
“But you can threaten to go public.” Derek sat back and thought. “I have some contacts in the Department of Justice, so does Alpha Robert Hastings, Renee’s second chance mate. We set up a meet and you give them a sworn statement and answer questions.”
“The new administration is much different than the last, they want to have good relations with werewolves. A story like this would destroy much of the goodwill that has been created since the end of the war.” I looked at Amanda a little surprised. “There are several Packs, mine included, that would react with anger at what they did to you. You have more allies out there than you think, Ella.”
“And then what?” Craig looked at the Alpha pair. “So what if there is a scandal if Ella still is in danger?”
“They can flush out the persons who burned you from the inside. Trust me, these people will get to the bottom of it,” Derek replied. “They’ve already shown that they will let Pack justice take care of things, quickly and quietly, instead of dragging it through their legal system. When you are done, tell them you want two things.” He leaned forward. “You want them to find out who was involved in you both being framed and targeted for assassination. And you want them delivered to this island.”
My cat was licking her lips, she wanted her enemies’ throats ripped open between her teeth. I could tell Al was feeling the same way.
We decided the rest of the stories could wait, they had two days here and I wanted to make sure they got a chance to enjoy the break. I could see the stress of the war etched in their faces, the losses in the distant looks that came to their eyes. It was time to have some fun.
They spent most of the day playing with the young ones on the beach, even learning to boogie board in the surf. I couldn’t imagine a Pack with no little ones, we were overflowing with them! Some of the orphans were still here, as well as the children of those Pack members who had decided to stay with us. I smiled as I looked at them playing in the shallow water, tossing my boys high in the air until they crashed back to the sea.
I had to stay in the house, napping with the babies and staying out of sight. I’d get my chance, though. After dark, we were going to take them for a boar hunt.
They watched in fascination as I shifted on the back porch into my panther form and stretched. Craig shifted and came over to rub his scent on me; I reared back and grabbed his wolf’s neck in my paws. The musk glands on my neck left their strong scent behind, marking him as mine. Olivia and Al’s panthers came up, along with Mabel’s and Mark’s wolves. A half-dozen other wolves from the Pack also wanted to come. The cats were going to carry the bags of supplies in our mouths, since we were going the shorter way and could hide them by the ambush point. Craig chuffed to start the hunt, we had learned early that we couldn’t howl because the sound would carry over the water for miles.
The wolves took off along the east side towards the airport as the cats slinked quietly through the jungle on the west. We had a good spot picked out, and the plan was for the wolves to drive the wild pigs into the funnel created by the rock formations and to the cats. It was a good way to take down up to a dozen pigs at once.
I could tell from the chatter that Derek and Amanda were having fun chasing through the jungle and making a racket. We were still taking it easy on the deer population of the island, only killing those that were injured, while we kept knocking back the wild boar population.
I started to hear the group of boars approaching, their grunts and the sound of their hooves easily picked up by my cat hearing. The three of us moved into position on the branches above the trail; we would take out the largest ones near the front. As they came into view, we crouched down and pounced.
I had a good-sized male in sight, and I dropped silently onto his back as he ran beneath me. My claws dug in and held on to his body while my teeth latched onto his neck. I heard his neck snap as I drove him to the ground, so I released him and leaped at a smaller one. My large paw raked his shoulder and rolled him, then I tore his throat out while he was on his back.
I looked around, my face covered in the blood of my victims, and my cat was pleased with the carnage. Olivia had taken down a male, and Al had taken down a large sow that probably went three hundred pounds. The herd had stopped and scattered when we dropped down onto the leaders, and the confusion allowed the wolves to take another eight. I moved around, checking to make sure my Pack members were all right as they shifted back to human form.
“We’ve got a truck coming to a point a quarter mile away,” Craig said as he took a bag from Olivia. They quickly pulled on clothes and removed the ropes and knives needed to field clean the pigs. Hoisting them up by the back legs, they quickly removed the guts and heads that would spoil quickly in the warm weather. Twenty minutes later, they were carrying the carcasses on their shoulders towards the truck. Everyone was in good spirits, this was a good hunt that would fill our freezers, and Al’s big one would be on the spit in an hour or two for their going-away party.
I stayed in cat form and relayed the message to Craig. “Derek, Amanda, she wants to know if you want to go exploring for a while before heading back.”
They eagerly agreed. “I love this,” Derek said. “It still feels weird to be able to run and hunt without worrying about drones, or maintaining our spacing so a single missile couldn’t take two of us out.”
It didn’t take long for us to visit a few of my favorite beaches, plus the high point of the island had a great view of the moon over the Pacific. We shifted back to human form on the top of the rise so we could talk. “I’m glad you guys came,” I said. “I missed you. It was hell not knowing what was happening with you all, you are my only family left.”
“You’ve done well, Ella.” Derek gave me a hug and pulled Amanda onto his waist. “We weren’t exaggerating when we gave you that award. You did so much good, you saved so many people, and you did the best thing of all.” I looked at him quizzically. “Unlike us and the other Packs, you kept living. You had pups, and you hid them from the horrors that the rest of us faced. I know with a certainty that if it wasn’t for Jimmy, my Pack would be gone. We couldn’t hunt, the land couldn’t support us and we wouldn’t have been able to fight back without it. He said you spent millions and never said a word, and you never turned him down when he asked for more.”
Tears started to stream down my face. “It was just money. The whole time, I was thinking I should be out there with you.”
“As a human? No, you helped us survive more than any warrior would.”
“Is it ever enough?”
Amanda held my hand. “Is anything to be gained by looking back now?” She gazed out at the water, the first glow of the dawn was approaching. “You have a wonderful home, a big family, an Alpha for a mate and your panther is just beautiful to watch. Five years ago, you felt like everything had been taken away from you, and now you have everything you dreamed of. I’m jealous, actually.”
“Five pups and kitts before I’m twenty-four. I never would have predicted that. I didn’t think I’d be mated by then, I thought I’d be getting my MBA and learning the family business.”
“Family IS your business, Ella. Family planning? Not so much.” Amanda gave me a hug and then we started back, since I had to be inside by daylight. We stopped at the base of the hill when we heard the sound of the helicopter over the water, rapidly approaching.