“The traps are down. I have secured the right position. How’s the left side looking, Dani?” Wes’s voice came through the handset, followed by radio static.
Wesley was one of the oldest crew members, and the only guy my boss, Kane, could trust. Hunters don’t have solid friends, we have allies, team players. We never get too close and like to keep ourselves guarded. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. And in this job, it was every hunter for themselves.
I picked up my radio and pushed the button to talk. “Left side all clear, over,” I confirmed, wiping the sweat from my brow.
It was way too hot to be running around the forest, tracking down cat shifters. Bears were strong. Wolves hunted in packs. But Cats... Cats were too damn fast.
“Dani, you got any gum?” Trick whisper-shouted from a few feet away.
He was the new guy and a royal pain in my ass. We called him Trick but his actual name was Rick. He used to be a hustler who conned his way from casino to casino before he got caught. The gangster who detained him almost blew his head off. That was until he thought of a better use for him. They gave him to Kane to do with as he pleased. Kane figured we could benefit from someone who could talk his way out of trouble He was full of bullshit. So, the stupid nickname just stuck, I guess. Unfortunately for Trick, he just didn’t know when to shut up. I’m guessing that’s why Kane paired him with me. He was a walking liability.
“No, and you should know better than to ask. Shifters can pick up the faintest scent. They’d smell you coming for miles,” I growled, irked by his stupidity.
I grabbed a handful of earth and rubbed it along my neck and face. The musky, damp soil and forest pine helped to mask my scent. The slightest whiff of body odour, deodorant, perfume, hair product, even minty-fresh chewing gum, they would detect it. I had been helping Kane to track down shifters for years, so I knew their habits. A change in the wind is all it would take, carrying your scent along, then bam, you’re a goner. The best thing you can do is to mask your scent with their familiar surroundings. And in this case, it was the forest.
This was cat territory. We had to keep our wits about us. They could travel through the trees just as swiftly as they could cut across the land.
“I’ll take to the trees while you cover the ground. Yell at the first sign of trouble. Don’t use the radio, it’ll give away our locations, then we’ll all be dead,” I instructed.
We were close. I could feel it. Don’t ask me how. I just had this ability to sense shifters. My inner feeling had served me well over the years. It hasn't let me down yet.
Slinging my rifle across my body, I secured the strap and climbed a tree. I was a natural climber, the best in the crew. With minimal effort, I could pull myself up onto a thick upper branch and adopt a comfortable sitting position. From up here, I had an excellent view of the ground below.
“Looks great from up here, Trick. I got a good visual of the clearing. No sign of any fury fuckers just yet," I replied.
“We secured tripwires. Now we've just got to wait. How many rounds are you packing?” Trick responded over the transmitter.
“Fully loaded with Silver tips, plus a few spare cartridges. Don’t forget, aim for the heart,” I advised.
I heard Trick cry out from below and I bristled, switching off my transmitter, pressing myself against the tree trunk, and held my breath. My heart thumped in my chest, I could hear the echo in my ears.
“Trick, are you there? Trick? Come in...” I heard Wes call through Trick’s radio.
“Shit,” I cursed, then risked a glance around.
His screams confused me. There was no sign of any danger. I would have seen it coming. Trick's relieved voice came through the transmitter, causing me to relax.
“Yeah still here, fucking snakes. I can’t stand them,” Trick responded.
Exhaling a pissed sigh, I switched on the radio and replied with, "Pussy." Then resumed my position.
Movement in the forest caught my eye. The foliage was swaying as if something was running through it at speed, heading straight for us. No doubt thanks to Trick and his girly-ass scream.
I held the transmitter up to my mouth. “Uh, guys, we got company,” I murmured.
My boss, Kane, answered on the other end. “On our way, kitten.”
He always called me that. It wasn't a term of endearment, it was more like an insult. The guys on the team repeatedly teased me about it.
Reaching for my rifle, I and positioned it ready, using the telescopic sight to get a better view of the mark. My finger hovered over the trigger as I watched the movement through the forest, blowing the loose strands of hair from my line of sight. The target was almost within firing distance, my finger squeezing with a little more pressure.
I heard a loud snap from one of the bear traps, accompanied by an agonized scream.
“We got one!” Kane exclaimed.
The rough bark scratched my fingers as I climbed down from the tree, my boots landing on the ground with a thud. Kane and the rest of the crew were standing over someone. I noticed one bare foot poking out of the ferns; the trap had sawed it clean off. It wasn't until I got closer; I saw the dead body with a gaping hole in his left breastbone. An uneasy feeling churned inside my gut. This felt wrong somehow. They raised me to hate shifters, but something in his face stirred a memory from deep within me.
“Who killed him?” I asked, choking down the bile that crept up my throat.
He seems familiar but I don't understand why.
“I did,” Kane declared, standing with one foot on the dead guy's body like he was a hunting trophy.
He sank into a squatting position and slit the corpse's jugular with a silver knife. Dark crimson liquid oozed out of the incision and Kane caught some of it in a small thin tube. He screwed the lid on and took several more samples. I couldn't watch it. This was sick.
“It’s pay-day, guys,” Kane boasted, earning a few whoops and cheers from the crew.
I staggered back, distancing myself from the gruesome scene. This wasn’t sitting right with me. Something was wrong. I was about to tell Kane to forget it; I was quitting, then all hell broke loose.
Jet black fur streaked past my line of sight in a blur. The jaguar sank its teeth into Trick's throat, knocking him off his feet in an explosion of blood. He tried to fight back the best he could, but it was useless, he was dead before he hit the ground. Time slowed down all around me, enabling me to witness everything in slow motion. The gigantic cat raised its head and gave a ferocious roar. He was magnificent, the most beautiful creature that I had ever seen. Then he turned to me with a snarl, his emerald eyes full of hatred.
"Open fire!" Kane roared.
My rifle rattled in my grasp like it had a mind of its own; I could scarcely breathe. It was terrifying.
Huge cats leapt from the ferns, some transitioning from animals-to-men in a millisecond. One seized Wes by the throat, lifting his feet off the ground. Gunshots echoed around the clearing, chipping holes in the tree bark. I ducked for cover, rolling to hide behind a stump.
Wes's scream came out like a garbled noise, then blood splattered upon the ground like crimson rain. His body landed a few feet away from me, minus his heart.
"Ugh," I whimpered, covering my mouth with my hand.
Darkness whirled above me, armed with teeth and claws. My eyes set round and hard, rearing my head to follow the sight. More gunshots peppered through the trees like wasps, and the cats roared their battle cries. My instincts were telling me to get out of there, so I saw an opportunity to run and I took it.
The next thing I heard was Kane’s anguished screams as they rang through the forest. There was no way that they would let him live, not him. They killed him, saved him until after they butchered his crew. It made little sense. One of them looked at me. He looked me dead in the eyes, yet he walked on by. Then it dawned on me, I was next. The shifter wasn't sparing me, he was saving me for last.