The Serpent's Mate (Iriduan Test Subjects Book 3)
Cassandra adjusted the fairy wings on the back of the patient bulldog that watched her with sad eyes and a lolling tongue. After she perfected the angle of the wings, she patted him affectionately on his head. “You’ll knock ‘em dead, Ruffus.”
Ruffus replied by licking her face as she chuckled and pushed him away. Her assistant, Trish, came to her rescue a moment later, grabbing up the leash to lead the sweet-natured, old dog out to the stage they’d set up in the pet store for their Halloween fashion show.
Cass rose out of her crouch, realizing she probably shouldn’t have worn her boardroom suit and heels for this event. She was not only covered in pet hair, but also aching from her back down to her feet. She couldn’t wait to kick off her shoes, but she wasn’t about to leave until she’d seen the show to completion and hopefully sent every animal that crossed that little runway in their adorable costumes off to a new home.
The idea for a fashion show to boost sales for Pet Galaxy had been the brainchild of her business consultation firm. The idea to use rescue animals in the show had been her own personal contribution, as she wanted to find homes for the many pets she spent time with during her volunteering at the local shelter. Some of them she’d even trained herself—like Ruffus. He would show off his tricks tonight, and hopefully snag the attention of one of the many attendees who might be willing to overlook his advanced age.
Cheers greeted Ruffus as he waddled out on stage in his little fairy costume, and Cass hurried around the curtain that they’d set up by the fish tanks as a staging area, so she could see her little buddy charm the audience.
She leaned against the endcap of shelves supporting the reptile terrariums, ignoring the snakes that lifted their small heads up as she stood near their tanks, their tongues darting in and out as if they could taste her on the air. She tried to focus her complete attention on the audience, looking for signs that someone was interested in filling out the paperwork to take Ruffus home tonight. There were a lot of smiling faces and one little girl tugging on her mother’s shirt with urgency as she pointed to Ruffus on the stage. Cass prayed that was a good sign.
If it were up to Cass, she would have taken Ruffus home herself, but despite the expansive size of her condo, it wouldn’t make a good place for a pet, because she was never home. Her maid spent more time in her home than she did. Her consulting firm consumed most of her time, and she spent the rest of her time at the shelter. Shelter pets were always happy to see her, even if she couldn’t visit every day. Her relationships with people had not been nearly as uncomplicated.
An image of her father lying sick in his hospital bed came to her unbidden. She buried that memory back where it belonged and focused her attention on the stage.
The last of the pets made their way across the stage, including the bunny, Peter, dressed in a tiny tuxedo. She could tell by the excited murmurings of a group of kids seated up front that he would be going home soon.
As was Ruffus. The little girl had apparently convinced her mother. Cass watched the woman fill out the paperwork as her daughter crouched in front of Ruffus, giggling as she stroked his head. He still wore the fairy costume, a complimentary gift from the store to the new pet owners. Cass suspected they’d be purchasing plenty more at Pet Galaxy for their new family member.
“You did it again, Cass,” Trish said, coming up to her as she watched Ruffus and his new family leave the store, trying to keep the moisture that pooled in her eyes from ruining her carefully applied makeup.
Cass nodded in agreement. “He found a home. Most of them did.” After the volunteers packed everything up, they’d return only a few animals to the shelter, but she had a feeling those animals would soon find homes once Pet Galaxy printed the story on their new website and circulated it to the press. No one could resist a cute animal in costume.
Trish chuckled. “I meant the relaunch of Pet Galaxy. This Grand Opening has drastically increased their sales. They made more in one night than they have in the last few months, combined.”
Cass had focused so much on rehoming the pets that she’d almost forgotten her other goal—the one she’d been hired for.
“Well, you know this was my pet project.”
Trish groaned and rolled her eyes, though she spared a reluctant grin for the pun as she helped Cass pack up her things, then waited patiently while she said goodbye to the remaining animals, promising to visit them at the shelter soon—all while hoping they’d have a home before then.
After that, Cass and her assistant said their final farewells to the grateful owners of Pet Galaxy, then strolled out of the store into the temperate Phoenix evening.
Trish had parked her Honda beside Cass’s Mercedes, and as they loaded their bags, she gave the sleek car an envious once-over. “I can’t wait till I’m rich enough to afford something like that.”
Cass stared at her own car without really seeing it. Like her upscale condo, she barely even noticed it anymore, though she’d been thrilled at the expensive toy when she’d purchased it. It’d been important to her at the time. So important that she’d actually found the time to visit her father just to show it off. He’d made the effort to appear suitably impressed, and Cass had failed to pay attention to the shadows beneath his eyes or the hollows in his cheeks, too enamored with her own success to look beyond herself and her fancy new toy.
Trish didn’t seem to notice Cass’s lack of response, her gaze scanning the cloudless night sky as if she hadn’t expected a reply.
“Did you see the vids going viral on NetMe?” Trish said. “The Phoenix lights are back!”
Cass laughed aloud at this, shaking her head at Trish’s hushed, excited whisper. “Kids these days.”
Cass had been a teenager herself during the first two “Phoenix Lights” incidents—not much younger than Trish—and they’d left her with a sense of wonder and awe at the idea that aliens might actually be out there, watching Earth.
Of course, as she’d lost that youthful credulity, she’d accepted the much more rational explanation about airplanes and military flares.
“I suppose little green men could visit us soon,” she said in a teasing voice.
Trish shifted her focus from the sky to Cass. “You think it’s silly, don’t you?”
Cass unlocked the Mercedes and opened the door, leaning one hand on the top edge of it to take off her shoes before tossing them into the passenger seat.
“I think it’s interesting. I’m sure there will be some explanation for those sightings soon, but it’s always fun to imagine what they could be.”
Trish opened her own car door, careful not to let it slam into Cass’s car. “It could be aliens, you know. The government lies all the time.”
Cass wouldn’t disagree with that last statement, but she had to make one thing clear to Trish. “Whatever it is, it isn’t going to hurt anyone. The last thing anyone wants is people freaking out and panicking and then rioting and looting.” Especially not over some easily explained lights. She chose to keep that last part to herself.
Trish snorted, leaning her back against her car and crossing her arms. “You don’t give people enough credit. All these sightings lately haven’t caused any riots. People want to know the truth, Cass. We deserve to know the truth.”
She wondered what people like Trish would think when they discovered they were being told the truth. She figured they wouldn’t believe it, because they couldn’t handle disappointment at the fact that the world really was as boring as it appeared to be. Disillusionment was a real bitch.
Cass merely shrugged in response, then waved. “I’d better head out. It’s getting late.”
She had no reason to rush home because no one waited at home for her. Not even a gold fish.
Trish checked her phone, gasping when she saw the time display. “Oh my god! I’m two hours late for my date!” She swiped her finger over the display. “There’s ten texts here. Crap. Josh is pissed.”
Cass said goodbye as Trish hopped into her car, her head down as she focused on the string of texts from her latest love interest. Trish barely acknowledged her with a brief wave over her shoulder before she buckled up and started up her car.
Cass watched her rush off to her irritated date, reflecting on the hassle of having to worry about being there for other people. No one else made demands on her time. No one expected her home for dinner. Not even the fake plants in her condo required watering.
She stared up at the clear night sky, spotting no sign of clouds or unexplained lights. Shaking her head at her brief spark of hope, she turned away from the empty sky and climbed into her car.
The normally brutal heat of summer in Phoenix had faded into mellow fall temperatures that were still warmer than most of the nation, making Phoenix nights at that time of year absolutely beautiful. Usually she enjoyed driving home with her windows down to let the cooler night air in to tease the strands of hair that had escaped her tightly-braided bun. Some silver strands fluttering free at her temples revealed that she needed another trip to the salon to refresh her mahogany dye job to cover the encroaching gray.
Still jazzed from the evening’s success, she decided to go for a drive around Phoenix, enjoying the experience when the streets weren’t so crowded and traffic had died down in the business areas. After all, she had nowhere else to be at the moment.
Without really paying attention, she wove through neighborhoods she rarely traveled, then ended up in a construction zone and had to follow a detour, which led her into unfamiliar territory.
She ended up turning on the wrong road while following the directions of her GPS navigator. A frustrated glance around revealed something on the side of the road that caused her to pump the brakes. Fortunately, there were no cars behind her on the near-deserted street in a neighborhood many blocks away from the fast food joint she’d set her GPS to find so she could pick up something quick to eat.
Two eyes glowed in her headlights as the ragged cat froze, her swollen belly slung low to the ground as she watched the car with wide, wary eyes. She looked like a feral accustomed to cruelty from the world around her.
Once Cass pulled up alongside the animal, the muted streetlight revealed that the cat was missing most of one ear and had a bent tail.
She parked the Mercedes next to the curb and cautiously got out. The cat had frozen for just a moment when she’d opened the door, but then she bolted into a nearby alley.
Fortunately, Cass not only had a carrier in her trunk, but also several small bags and cans of pet food she kept for just this purpose. She couldn’t pass up a stray.
She popped the trunk and pulled out the carrier, checking that the soft blanket inside looked clean and comfortable. Then she grabbed a can of cat food, a water bottle, and a collapsible bowl, juggling the items as she took just a moment to shut the trunk before walking towards the alley.
It would be a challenge to lure the feral into the carrier as she made her way into the dark alley that stretched the entire length of the huge, slump-block, multi-story buildings on either side. The darkness swallowed the streetlight about ten paces between the buildings. At the end of the alleyway, by a locked double-gate, trash spilled out of bags clustered around a row of over-filled dumpsters pushed against the side of a block wall.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” she called softly, not wanting to startle the animal with a loud voice in the heavy silence. She paused near the dumpsters as her eyes adjusted to the weak moonlight that illuminated the area enough for her to make out the bags and trash bins.
She slowly set the carrier down, scanning the garbage crowded against the stained block walls for any sign of the stray, wishing she had a better flashlight than the one on her keychain, which she pulled out and pressed on. With her other hand, she opened the carrier and took the blanket out, realizing she’d have to use it to catch the kitty if it wouldn’t go into the carrier. Otherwise, she’d be torn to ribbons by a frightened cat.
Crouching down, she set the blanket on her knees and cracked open the can of food, hoping the scent would be strong enough to overcome the stench of garbage, in order to lure the cat out into the open. She paused while setting the food down inside the carrier when she heard the shifting of bags nearby. She smiled and turned in her crouch towards the sound, moving slowly so as not to frighten the cat.
“Hey there, girl….”
Her mouth gaped open as she took in the huge person who’d approached from around the dumpsters.
She jumped up and staggered backwards, tripping over bags of garbage before catching herself with a hand on the wall before she fell against the overflowing dumpsters. The size of the stranger told her that running was really her only option, except she felt a prickle of unease on the back of her neck. Daring a quick glance over her shoulder, she saw another figure picking their way through the garbage behind her, approaching her to close her in.
She turned back to the first person and held up both hands. “Look, I don’t want any trouble, okay.” Her keys dangled from her middle finger, the flashlight still lit so the beam danced along the ground at her feet as it swung from its ring.
She held her keys out to the large person in front of her, who oddly enough, appeared to be wearing a Halloween costume that looked like armor from a space opera, complete with a helmet that had tubes coming out of the front of it.
“Take my car. Go ahead. Just let me leave, okay.”
Since it was almost Halloween, she might have been relieved that the futuristic armor-looking outfit with the helmet was just a costume, but that didn’t mean the huge stranger, towering well over six feet, with a broad chest that would make a pro-wrestler proud, wasn’t a threat to her. Especially not since he and his friend had approached her silently, at night, in a dark alley. Cass only hoped she got out of this alive. She prayed the offer of the expensive Mercedes would be enough to get them to leave her alone.
The stranger made no move to take her keys from her, but he did do something that spread goosebumps all over her skin. He growled.
It wasn’t human. A growl like that didn’t come from a human. She threw her keys at the creature and turned on her heel and ran, hurdling garbage bags as she charged directly at the other figure, planning to hit him full force in the hopes of staggering him enough that she could dart around him and make an all-out sprint back to the main road, where there would be lights and maybe even traffic.
It might have worked, if it hadn’t been for the armor, which turned out to be the real deal. The impact with the other creature felt like she’d collided with the slump-block wall. As she staggered backwards, the creature grabbed ahold of her.
She screamed for help at the top of her lungs, kicking and thrashing her body to break the iron-strong hold of the creature’s arms around her. Apparently, it grew tired of her fighting, and a sharp pinch bit into her neck, followed by blissful darkness.