Moon Tiger
© 2017 by Digitaltf

Moon Tiger

More with Jim and Julie. This time Jack sends Jim on assignment to another zoo, and… you'll have to read to find out.

The following day dawned pleasantly enough, though my work day was occupied almost completely by me reducing the mountain of paperwork, both electronic and physical, that I had been neglecting over the course of the past weeks. Frequent trips to the main office for this-and-that – to hand files to Emily or retrieve paperwork from the files for other purposes – consumed an inordinate amount of time. The evening was its usual routine of feeding the animals, dinner with Julie, and chatting amongst the shows of the evening. The following day heralded its own matters, having started fairly routinely, but it didn't stay routine for long.

"Mr. Peters!" the all-too-familiar voice called out as I was doing my morning Q&A in the cathouse. I looked around and there was Jack standing near the door end of the terrace.

I finished answering the question a young couple had about the lions as their daughter tried her best to hide behind her mother and their son was a fair distance away looking at Tatiana rolling against the bars, standing on the barrier fence to get a closer look even though that wasn't supposed to be allowed. A number of different kinds of parents wander through our facility with their children each day, but this couple seemed reasonably on top of what their kids were doing so a little minor mischief wasn't really a problem. I politely excused myself to respond to Jack and made my way down to the main floor.

"You sure took your good time getting down here, Mr. Peters…" Jack started in.

I merely shrugged in response. "What do you want, Jack? I figure whatever is on your mind must be something you consider important for you to wander about to find me rather than partake of your typical routine of waiting to ambush me as I come back to my office." I blandly rambled.

Jack's expression went to indignant ire rather quickly, but perhaps he thought better of himself for the time being as there were patrons milling about in the building. "Yes…" he merely grunted and held out a folded piece of paper for me. "Your services are needed elsewhere for the moment. They're expecting you there by noon. You'll probably be gone the rest of the day."

I took the sheet of paper and Jack stomped out of the building without any further ado. It wasn't entirely unusual for me to be sent about to some pre-arranged speaking engagement or another, for school groups or whatnot, but usually it was something that was set up weeks in advance rather than last-minute, and this turned out to be something even more unusual. I read the information on the paper as I strolled towards my office, then quickly folded it a couple more times and stuffed it into my shirt pocket as I turned about and headed back into the cathouse to gather some supplies.

***

As I drove the hundred-and-some miles towards Washington County Zoo, I thought through what was likely ahead of me. Washington County was a small community zoo, more picnic-park than zoo, even moreso than our own. Their exhibits were severely rudimentary in nature, comprising primarily of chain-link fence or welded tube steel outdoor cages and concrete-block dens, and they didn't have anywhere near the number and species of animals we did. Theirs was mostly native wildlife that had been wounded or debilitated in some substantial way or that folks had illegally kept as pets, the occasional "exotic" critter that was involved in trouble of some kind or another and wound up at the county pound or needing somewhere to be, or farm-type animals in their petting zoo. I had been requested to aid in a semen collection procedure, as their vet wasn't as well-versed in things as I was, and Washington County had a reciprocity agreement with our zoo regarding members and some resources. That and it only made sense as we were the biggest non-AZA zoo in the area and as such were better equipped than nearly any other.

I pulled into their gravel parking lot and made my way to the entrance. "Single adult ticket?" the young female clerk asked as I stepped up to the window.

I chuckled "My services were requested to help with one of the animals? I'm Jim Peters from [name omitted] Zoo."

The ticket clerk looked a little concerned. "Um… I dunno what to do Mr. Peters. We don't usually… Uh…"

I smiled as the girl got a little flustered. "If you don't want to just let me through, you can call the office and they'll confirm what I just said. But first you can ring up a couple of these folks so they can get in to see the zoo." I smiled as indeed a small line had formed behind me as hers was the only ticket window open.

"Oh… uhm… well, go ahead on through." She smiled meekly, still clearly unsure.

"Which direction to the office, then?" I inquired.

"Oh! Uhm… just go through the gate and turn left. It'll be the first building along that path." She smiled.

"Thanks. Have a good day, miss." I smiled and she seemed to settle out a bit as I made my way to the office.

"Can I help you?" the receptionist asked as I stepped through the glass door.

"Yes, I'm Jim Peters. Someone called for me to help with a procedure on one of the animals?" I smiled.

Before she had the chance to say anything a wooden door a bit down the hall behind her opened wide. "Jim, just come on back!" I heard from the gent that stepped out into the hall. "I see you've made good time getting down here."

My brow furrowed as I made my way towards the gent, smiling and nodding to the receptionist as I walked past her, and she smiled politely to me. I laughed heartily as I figured out who the gent was. "Ben, you goofy fart. How the hell have you been?" I smiled broadly.

"Oh… not been too bad all in all. But… what, you didn't recognize me at first?" he inquired as we stepped into his small office.

"Truthfully, no, I didn't. Not with that beard of yours and the horseshoe haircut!" I chuckled as we sat down.

Ben ran a hand across his chrome-dome. "Yeah, I had a bit more hair up there and a little less on my chin when you last saw me, that's true." He smiled. "Though I'm glad you'd not forgotten me."

You have stopped reading here

I shrugged. "Well, you were a good keeper when you were down with us. I'm guessing that's why you called for me to come up rather than having some local vet do the job."

Ben nodded. "Yeah, though… I'm pretty sure Jack didn't remember who I was and that he fired me. Either that or he had something else on his mind when I called."

I chuckled "Well, admittedly, Anderson is a fairly common surname and he likely did have other things on his mind. He's been trying to skewer my ass about stuff at the Zoo and we're about to go toe-to-toe in front of the board over it. He's trying to get me fired for gross insubordination, and in return I'll be requesting his dismissal for inability to competently discharge the requirements of his office." I shrugged. "That and there's been some other stuff going wrong this past year that just seem to keep piling up."

Ben nodded. "Yeah, I was sort of surprised to hear someone other than Julie answering the phone. She get some more help up there in the office or what?" Ben asked as he leaned back in his seat.

"Oh, that was part of what's been going wrong. He fired Julie over me bringing some of my Cats into town one day, and that started some more snowball shit." I chuckled.

Ben looked horrified. "Oh! How… uh… well…"

I smiled. "Don't worry. Julie's fine. We're sort of a couple now. Nothing official but she's been living out at my place for several months now and she's got a wrongful termination suit pending against Jack and the zoo."

Ben looked a little confused. "How does that… fit in with anything? You seem happy about it."

I smiled broadly. "If Jack gets shitcanned and they make me Director, the lawsuit disappears. If they can me and Jack stays, the lawsuit goes on, and… what Jack doesn't know… if I go, so do my "toys" and other stuff that I've loaned to the zoo over the years. Both the official leased stuff and the unofficial stuff that just showed up."

Ben started laughing. "And Jack has no idea?"

I nodded. "Yeah, he has little idea just how much he takes for granted ISN'T owned by the zoo. I think you remember more than a few of my little "contributions" before you left."

Ben nodded and grinned broadly. "Indeed I do. Sometimes I regret not fighting for my job when Jack fired me." He looked a little wistful.

"Don't worry… we got someone good in your place, and if you'd have stayed you wouldn't have gotten to be director here, I'm sure." I smiled encouragingly.

Ben nodded again. "That's certainly true."

My brow furrowed a bit. "So… who am I up here to see? I got the collection gear in my Blazer in the parking lot."

Ben sighed a bit. "A tiger…" My brow furrowed at his sigh and quirked an eyebrow in mute inquiry. Ben shook his head. "You'll find out. We've got our vet down here to help you with it all and she'll let you know what's up I'm sure."

I merely nodded and didn't press further. "OK. So… where do you have your vet setup? Or is the tiger back in one of the enclosures or something?"

Ben nodded. "We built a shed in back for doing some of the vet stuff… it's nowhere near as elaborate as anything you've got at your zoo, but… it works, it's actually under one roof rather than working in the various enclosures and trying to drag an anesthesia rebreather through gates and all. That and the building contractor donated the building and labor," he rambled a bit in reply.

I smiled "So… uh, can I drive back there or… how do we get the gear there?"

Ben chuckled and rose from his chair. "It's just a short walk so unless you've got a lot to move you and I should be able to carry the stuff."

I thought for a moment. "Got some sort of…" I then realized. "Can we grab one of those rental wagons at the gate? Most of the stuff can be carried easily but the case with the microscope and slide warmer gets a little heavy after a bit."

Ben nodded. "Yeah, we can grab one of the kiddy-wagons if any are available. I didn't really think about the microscope. If it's still that one that you had before, I'm sure that case weighs 50 pounds or better since I know how you don't skimp on value of equipment."

I nodded reply as we made our way out of the office. "Yeah, it's that heavy old stereo scope. Not exactly made for travel, but it does its job quite well."

Ben chuckled. "Yeah, seen a lot of use over the years too, I'd imagine. A lot of out-and-about use too, huh?"

We grabbed one of the kiddy-wagons on our way out through the main gate and started loading the handful of cases into the conveyance. "Well, not so much recently as… well, I shouldn't say that. I've not been out and about on stuff like this myself anytime recently, but that doesn't mean some of the other keepers haven't been loaned out. I don't really keep track of a lot of that. At least, not until recently. Julie knew I didn't really give a crap who went where as far as staffing was concerned so long as everything's taken care of at home."

Ben nodded. "So you've been pretty much staying at the Zoo then?" he inquired as I shut the hatch of the Blazer.

I shrugged a bit. "Zoo and home. Got more Cats in, got some dogs again…" I chuckled. "Bought out a fellow's traveling outfit to help out the circus museum down in Monroe… still gotta get them down there somehow." I shrugged. "Lots of stuff going on but nothing stupendously fantastic or surprising."

Ben nodded. "I see. Well, at least you're keeping busy." He winked.

I laughed. "About as busy as you are, I'd imagine. If not a bit more." I jibed as we wandered the paths in the smallish zoo. In the near distance a larger garage-like structure was visible through the trees and enclosures.

Ben laughed too. "Yeah, this place is pretty quiet and mundane. Then again, I wouldn't WANT to try to juggle a place like yours. Or even your home life from the sounds of it." Ben winked.

I had to chuckle as we arrived at the service door for the vet structure. "You know me… In for a penny, in for a pound."

Ben nodded. "I'll let you go here. The vet's name is Kristy… you'll know which is her. I've gotta… Well, I might see you before you head out. We'll see."

Again a look of confusion crossed my face, but I chalked it up to something going on he wasn't exactly supposed to talk about outside of park staff. I smiled. "Sure thing, Ben. And next time you're around by me, drop in and say hey… either at the park or give me a call and I'll let you know how to get out to my place."

Ben thought for a bit. "We'll see." His smile seemed forced as he waved and headed back towards the office.

My expression must have been an interesting sight as a 20-somthing in a white lab coat nearly bumped into me and the wagon as she opened the door and started out. "Oh! I'm sorry. Um… are you Jim Peters?" she inquired cheerily, though with a confused expression on her face, likely from my odd expression.

I chuckled softly. "Yep, that's me!" I smiled. "You must be Kristy."

"Oh! Yes, I'm Kristy Perkins." She proffered her hand in greeting. "I'm glad you could help us out… come on in. I'm guessing this is the equipment you brought with you?" she asked as she held the door wide for me to enter.

I shook her hand pleasantly. "Yep… Controller, probes, slide warmer, microscope, slides, stain, densimeter, hemocytometer and counter. Um…" I thought. "Cooling unit… I didn't think to ask but I think your note said you had dewars here for long-term storage?"

Kristy nodded. "Yep, we don't usually do collections. More natural breeding going on here… or restraining breeding." she smiled and shrugged a bit. "AI sometimes but usually it's semen supplied from elsewhere, since we're not a large park with lots of animals."

I nodded. "We ship all over so it's possible you've had some from us in the past, or in storage. Do you have a transport container or … about half a liter of liquid nitrogen for me to fill the cooling unit?"

Kristy thought for a moment. "I think I can skim some from the larger dewar… we had that filled recently. We have to go over to Newport to get LN2 as no one around here really carries it. Mostly just bottled gases here in town."

I smiled. "Anything close to a half-liter will do. Just enough to cover the straws after we fill and label them."

Kristy nodded and we quickly set up the equipment. On the table lay the patient… orange stripes, black stripes, already breathing isofluorane mix through the anesthesia machine. I noticed a few zoo workers in their embroidered jackets were watching the goings-on, and a middle-aged couple in street clothes. The woman looked like she had been crying.

I set up the electro-ejaculator on a rolling cart, along with the case of probes. "You can bring him into a lighter plane, Kristy… it helps." I smiled to the vet.

Kristy nodded and adjusted the proportioning valves as I checked the tiger's reflexes. When his nose reacted to me brushing his whiskers and his ear twitched in response to light brushing through the short hairs at its tip I nodded to the vet. "That's good… just barely out." I then moved about to the cat's rear and put on a pair of gloves and slickened a couple fingers with lube. Moving his tail aside I gently slipped the two digits up the cat's relaxed rear and felt around. "Good parallel dimensions, no nodules or irregularities… maybe a little swollen, but not overly hot to the touch, so we should get a good sample from this guy." I smiled and the vet noted that on the clipboard sheets.

After changing the one glove, I set about lubricating one of the probes. It was a little larger than some would have used but I knew the tiger could take it. The lady in street clothes asked, "Will it hurt him?" Her smile was weak and I couldn't exactly understand why.

I chuckled softly and smiled kindly. "No… not the way I do collections. I've sort of developed a slightly different way of doing things than most folks. Lower current, different patterns… lighter anesthesia… lots of factors go into getting a tiger or lion to ejaculate more readily and more naturally than using some of the older electro-ejaculation protocols. Really the worst he'd feel is an unusual sensation, sort of like when your leg twitches all on its own just before you fall asleep, or if some muscle just starts to spasm and twitch on its own beyond your conscious control." I smiled at her. "He's basically in a light dreamstate… not fully unconscious but not really able to wake up either. That's part of why my protocol works better, or at least it seems to. The major thing is that the Cats are either fully conscious or just in a dissociative state so their bodies react more naturally to the stimulation so there doesn't have to be as intense of stimulations given." The lady merely nodded and the zoo employees seemed quite interested in what I was saying and doing. Some had their cellphones out, either taking pictures or video recording.

I slowly slid the lubricated probe into him quite easily, a hand on his upper flank to detect his reactions indicating any issues. "What's the cooling unit read now, Kristy?" I asked.

"Two green lights, good to go." Kristy responded, after stepping over to the countertop and looking at the digital readout.

"OK… then we begin!" I smiled and started the controller doing its work.

The tiger, for his part, grunted a little with each pulse of current, his hindpaws flexed a bit but not in any consistent nor coherent manner nor was the flexing solely in time with the stimulations. After a little bit his member was fully erect and I bumped up the power a teeny bit more and he started releasing his seed into the collection tube.

The zoo workers and the couple were watching with rapt attention as I collected three samples from him, giving him a decent rest between collection cycles. I answered questions from them all, including Kristy, as she did counts and other tests on the ejaculates, then prepped them for freezing with warmed extender.

After the last sample was graded and prepped, we poured the contents into the straw filler, which automatically filled the 1/2cc AI straws with combination semen and extender, labeled them, and then we set them into the cooling unit and activated it to quickly freeze them to -321 degrees Fahrenheit, ready to settle into the large dewars for long-term storage.

The woman then went forward to the tiger's head as I set about cleaning up the probe and packing away the other items. She cuddled his head and kissed him while the zoo workers quietly and somberly filed out of the building. I was somewhat confused about the goings-on until I saw Kristy bring out a syringe full of neon pink fluid.

"We're ready," the gent said as the lady came back to him and clung to his chest, tears streaming down her face.

"Hold on a moment…" I held up my hand in a stop position as I spoke up, and Kristy stopped moving towards the tiger.

Kristy turned to look at me. "Didn't Ben tell you?" she asked, somewhat annoyed at the interruption.

"No, he didn't tell me anything important." I thought for a moment then gave a meek smile to the couple. "Please excuse us a moment…"

The gent nodded and Kristy was ahead of me at the door already. I waited for the automatic closer to shut it behind me before speaking. "Pardon my bluntness, but why's this tiger being killed?" I blurted out before she could say anything.

Kristy's expression quickly went from stern determination to looking a little uncomfortable, and unsettled a bit as well. "They… they're moving. He's blind and… they can't take him with them. Ben asked if we could get some semen from him before they… we… I…" Perhaps the rapid shift in demeanor put her off of her predetermined mental path, or maybe it was the bluntness and firmness of my inquiry.

I canted my jaw and nodded. "I see. Otherwise healthy?" I asked.

Kristy looked confused. "As far as I know… apart from being blind."

I pondered. "Congenital or acquired?" I inquired, brow furrowed and jaw canted in thought.

Kristy looked even more confused. "Acquired… got into some pesticide and got sprayed in his face as a cub. Caused corneal blistering and occlusion. Why?"

"What's their names?" I merely asked, not answering her question yet.

"Harold and Helen MacCaye. The tiger is Sinbad." Kristy turned a little indignant. "Why all this delay? Why are you…"

I merely shook my head and entered the building again. "Mr. and Mrs. MacCaye…" I started out as I stepped through the door with Kristy shortly behind me. "I apologize for the delay…"

"It's bad enough we… have to…" the gent started bellowing, interrupting me, but then coughed as he had to swallow the lump in his throat. "… but to put my wife through this all again…" he ranted tersely.

"I…" I stopped for a moment, canted my jaw, and chose my words carefully. "I… may be able to offer you an… alternative… to this current… process."

The woman turned to look at me. "What do you mean? Mister… mister…?"

I smiled kindly at her. "Peters. Jim Peters." I stated, then pondered. "I presume you're having him put down because you're moving, and that because of Sinbad's sight issue you figured he'd not be good at any sanctuary or any place other than your own home. Is that correct?" I inquired.

The lady mutely nodded. The gent grumped. "Sanctuary… hell… they wanted a big payment to take him in, and then they said they would just put him to sleep anyway when we told them about his being blind and needing special care."

I smiled some. "Would you give him to me?" I inquired, a pleasantly hopeful expression on my face.

The gent went instantly irate again at the mention of such things. "Who the fucking hell are you anyway?!?" he grumped loudly.

"Harold!" the woman exclaimed, slapping the man's chest hard and scowling sternly at him as she remained cuddled to him. "Language! At least we can hear what he has to say." She looked to me with what could only be described as a hopeful, pleading expression. "You… would be willing to take him? To take care of him and give him a home somewhere?"

I chuckled and moved the zipper edge of my coat to fully reveal the zoo logo and my name embroidered on my work shirt. "I work at a different zoo and… as you've seen, have a bit of knowledge about big cats. I also have Cats at home myself, though currently I'm not set up for someone like Sinbad. At least, not quite like him. Would you mind if we sat down somewhere and talked a bit? Kristy can let him wake up from the anesthesia, and… then if you choose to have him put to sleep, you can say your goodbyes and she can do that. If what I have to say interests you… then… we can take things from there as well. How does that sound?"

I turned to look at Kristy, and she nodded. "I can do that… yeah, no problem."

I looked back to the MacCayes. Helen looked up at her husband. "Harold…?" she inquired. He looked at her for a long time and then to me, studying my face. He then sighed. "Sure… let's talk."

***

I opened the door to the office and stuck my head in without bothering to knock. "Hey Ben… still driving a pickup truck?" I asked.

The occupant of the office looked up from his paperwork with an expression of instant confusion. "Yeah… an extended-cab F-150 this go-round, why?"

"Topper on the back or open?" I asked, ignoring his question.

"Open. Why?" his responses were getting short and apparently so was his patience.

"Got a transport cage for big cats here?" I asked further.

"Yes, WHY?" Ben was getting irritated now.

I smiled broadly. "I need your help moving a cat."

Ben's face went instantly confused. "Wh… huh?" He tilted his head trying to figure out, what was going on. "What cat?"

"I bought Sinbad for a buck." I said blandly.

Ben's face contorted even more. "Why would you need a transport cage to move a cadaver?"

I chuckled. "Cadaver, hell… " I smiled broadly.

Ben's eyebrows raised high as the realization dawned on him. "You mean…"

I grinned broader. "Yep, Sinbad won't be a cadaver for quite some time if I have anything to say about it. C'mon… I'll need your help getting him where he's going to go." I nodded in the direction of the vet shed.

Ben's face broke into a broad grin. "You…. Daffy bastard. Give me about 45 minutes and I'll see you over there."

Back at the vet shed Sinbad was in a padded pen, wobbling a bit as he recovered from the anesthesia. His rear legs would give out on him every so often and his balance was still messed up, but he was curious and alert. Though whenever his nose touched the fence he would try to jump back and he would fall again, clearly not used to the space he was in.

After a short time the MacCayes went in with him and he chuffed and greeted them pleasantly. I moved into the recovery pen after a bit as well and he shrank back as I approached. "Eaaaasy boy. It's alright…" I droned softly.

"He's not so good with strangers." Harold offered.

I chuckled and nodded. "I'd imagine not. Cats are usually wary of the unfamiliar, and that's those with all 5 senses working. He's got a bit different thing going on so… I'm completely unfamiliar and he can't read what my body language is. He can only go by experience and other sensations." I crouched low nearby and looked into his moonlike milky orbs. "Do you know if he can see light and dark, or if he's totally blind?" Even though I figured he couldn't see me in the normal manner, he'd be able to discern the change in location of my voice and the tymbre of my speech, hopefully acquainting himself with my mannerisms and demeanor to some extent.

"Our vet said it's doubtful he can tell anything." Harold said.

"I've never been so sure about that. He seems to know nighttime from daytime." Helen offered.

"Has your daily routine changed after he went blind? Like your sleep schedule or daily habits or whatnot that would distinguish morning from night?" I inquired.

"Oh, yeah… I changed jobs about a year back. Went from night shift at a manufacturing plant to management in an office firm. That's why we're moving is because my job is transferring me to a different office in a different state." Harold offered.

I thought for a bit. "If he didn't really change his sleeping and activity times then he likely can still see light and dark, and possibly even motion too… to some extent. Though maybe not." I scooted towards Sinbad and touched his shoulder. He tried to scoot to the side, only to run against Harold's legs, and then he moved to bite my arm, but stopped when he tasted shirt. "Eaaaaasy Sinbad." I droned and this time he started to relax a bit. "I'm not gonna hurt you… I'm here to help you."

Helen pet him some and I moved about, keeping one hand on his body as I shifted about some, then I began petting him as well. "Hi there Sinbad… Do you think you'd like to come to my zoo for awhile?" I asked, knowing full well he wouldn't really answer. After a short time of interacting with him pressed up against one of the MacCayes, he shifted about and headbutted me gently in the chest and chuffed, apparently requesting attention, having warmed up to me fairly quickly.

"Looks like he likes you." Kristy said, having been staying on the other side of the fencing barrier near the unlatched gate.

I chuckled softly as the MacCayes held each other. "I think he does…" I commented as I looked up to them from my crouched position. "Does he do well on leash?" I asked, having noticed the fur rubbed around Sinbad's neck in an unnatural manner.

"Usually. He'll either be at your side or trail a little behind, but usually he's right against my leg for guidance." Harold readily replied. "Oh! I should probably get his collar and leash then. We… well…" His voice trailed off some.

I chuckled softly and finished his statement for him. "Wanted to keep them as souvenirs of a past friend? Don't worry, I get it. If you want to keep them, that'd be alright with me after we get him loaded into the transport cage. I can come up with something once I get him to the zoo. I know it won't exactly be like your home and all but… for the time being that would be about the best option, as there's nothing he can really be injured by there and, just perhaps, he might get along with our tigress there too. He's not domineering and needs to be around people, and she's kind of assertive and likes people more than other cats. They'll get to know each other at the separator gate panels, and then, if all goes well…" I grinned. "… there may be some little tigers in the near future."

Harold looked to Helen, then smiled at me. "We would like to keep his collar and leash, if you don't mind, but I'll go get them so you and he can walk around a bit and he can get more used to you." Harold smiled and headed out of the pen and then out of the shed door.

Helen smiled. "That'd be so sweet if he can get to be a daddy. Maybe sometime…" her voice trailed off some.

I smiled. "Perhaps someday you can have another cub or two or three? Only time will tell with that sort of thing, just like only time will tell with some things I have going on myself. One never knows what turns life will take next." I chuckled. "Like me here today, right?"

Helen smiled in a grateful manner. "Yeah… I… I can't thank you enough. It's quite a weight off my shoulders as… I really… well… You saw me saying my last goodbyes to Sinbad and… Even though he can't be with us I'm glad you did speak up before… she…" She cut her sentence short as sorrowful emotions welled up again.

I smiled knowingly and chuckled softly as she sought to compose herself. "Ben Anderson can tell you that I tend to repeat odd and old phrases fairly frequently. "In for a penny, in for a pound" is one he's often heard from me. Sinbad here will cause me a bit of trouble with my boss, the zoo director, but… life is full of trouble – its an inherent part of the concept of social interactions. Some troubles are just worth the irritations more than other troubles are."

Helen smiled and nodded. "Do excuse me, but… I think it's time I visited the ladies' room."

"We won't leave without you. Take all the time you like." I smiled and she headed out the door as well.

Kristy had been standing in the gateway, with me just petting the semi-reclined Sinbad as he somewhat lay against me. She looked like she had something she wanted to say but didn't know the words or somesuch. "Penny for your thoughts?" I inquired.

Kristy looked instantly confused. "Huh?" she asked.

I chuckled. "You looked like you had something on your mind, but didn't know whether or not you wanted to actually say it."

Kristy smiled and looked a little sheepish at that. "Well… yeah, I did, or do, or…" she rambled a bit. "When I was about to euthanize Sinbad there and you interrupted me, I… I was more than a little pissed off at you. I thought that you were putting the MacCayes through an unnecessary interruption at a very sensitive moment. Then when we spoke that bit outside, and then when you came back in without saying a thing to me… I… I guess I shouldn't have been so quick to judge your actions and intentions like that."

I smiled. "You didn't know, since you presumed that I'd been told about what exactly was going to happen. Ben was dancing around something when I spoke with him in his office, and he didn't want to come into the shed here. At that point I didn't know the exact reasons for his peculiar behavior but I know why now. That one's not my story to tell, if you don't already know it, but that doesn't really matter. You acted professionally even amid my interruption, and were thinking of your human clients' psychological welfare." I chuckled. "Though I'm glad to hear you don't hold the interruption against me now."

Ben came in through the door along with the MacCayes as Kristy laughed some. "Would be a bit silly for me to, given the change in events."

"What's that?" Ben asked as he came over to where we were at.

"Kristy was irked that I interrupted her as she was about to give Sinbad his last shot… but she's glad I opened my yap now that things changed a bit." I answered in my typical matter-of-fact manner, causing Kristy to look a little sheepish again. "And now I know what you were trying to avoid saying about things when we talked in your office."

Ben sighed. "I… " he started saying, then just smiled and chuckled. "Just shuttup, Jim."

I laughed heartily and the MacCayes and Kristy looked confused at my mirth, the couple having come back in right behind Ben. "A long time ago and far, far away, in another time, in another place, there were these two guys named Fred and Ed…" I started reciting, as though telling a childrens' fairy tale.

"Enough with storytime, Jim." Ben said as Harold chuckled and Helen smiled.

I took the leash and collar from Harold and, petting Sinbad's head, buckled the collar around his neck. I stood up and gave the leash a gentle tug, at which Sinbad rose as well, "seeking" a bit with his forward half until he figured out where my left leg was and rubbed against it heavily until it was at his shoulder. "OK boy, c'mon." I said and started slowly walking in a straight line across the short distance of the recovery pen. "Whoa." I said as I reached the wall, stopping movement and Sinbad stopped moving as well. "Harold?" I asked. "Does he know directions? Left/right? Gee/Haw?" I spoke towards the wall but I knew the others couldn't help but hear me.

"I never thought about doing that, to be honest…" Harold casually commented.

"Sinbad, come Gee…" I said, giving another gentle tug on the leash as I swiveled on my right heel and started slowly pacing the perimeter of the pen. Sinbad moved with me the appropriate direction, likely having felt me move, and I wasn't walking fast. After a couple of missteps he was once again with his right shoulder against my left leg, or reasonably near it. "Seems like he'll do well. I don't rightly know how much of this he'll be doing at the zoo, if he stays there, but… it's valuable knowledge anyway. Also…" I chuckled as we moved about the small enclosure. "… I kind of doubt he'll run off anywhere. He seems a bit timid about exploring."

Harold chuckled at that. "Yeah, we had someone break into our house and apparently they couldn't get out fast enough after they encountered Sinbad. There was a trail of… brown… sludge all the way out the open side door."

I laughed heartily and Sinbad stopped and looked up to me. Apparently that was an instinctual reaction even with his aberrant sight, or limitations thereof. I reached down and gently pet his head. "Someone had a laundry problem…"

Harold chuckled some more and nodded. "The cop that came to take the report said he'd never seen a thief leave everything alone, mess his pants while leaving and not shut the door. I told him it must have been because he met our tiger. The cop got all concerned that Sinbad was running at large and didn't exactly believe me when I said he was just laying on the sofa. He didn't quite understand until he saw Sinbad's eyes and then realized why he wasn't out exploring or chasing after the thief."

I shrugged and brought Sinbad up to the gate, using directional commands again to get him used to them. "Well, from personal experience they're not so inclined to go off exploring anyway, unless they have good reason to."

I fished my watch out of my pocket to check the time and Sinbad's ears swiveled at the change in sounds. Harold and Ben noticed it and Harold chuckled. "I hadn't heard that until you got your watch out… that might explain why he was wary of you at the start. I don't have any watch like that, or that old."

Ben laughed some. "That ain't nothin' compared to the age of some of Jim's other toys at home. Or some of his books."

I thought for a moment. "Well, somewhat… this one's older than most of my belongings. It's from 1909, so even my Case is newer than the works of this watch. The watch case is from '36 when they changed to the gold standard from silver."

"Case?" Harold asked, curious.

I smiled and elaborated. "The J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company built steam traction engines as well as threshing machines. I have… interesting belongings."

Harold looked surprised. "I'll say. You certain seem an unusual fellow, Mr. Peters. I'll give you that!"

I smiled. "You can call me Jim, and I'm an oddball any which way you slice it, Mr. MacCaye. But that's part of why I know all that I know and do all that I do. Simply because I can, and in most cases, because somebody should."

Harold chuckled at that. "Well, I think Sinbad's gonna be in good hands, that's for sure. He warmed up to you a lot faster than I figured on."

I shrugged. "Between the smell of all the Cats and dogs I have at home, there's probably the scent of estrus tigress lingering too. Tatiana, the zoo's tigress, is just finishing off her heat cycle for the month. Certainly lots of different critter smells on my clothes and especially my boots."

Ben chuckled. "That would figure for you."

With that, Ben held the swing door open on one of their transport cages and I walked Sinbad into it, calling out "Step up!" before I manually lifted and placed each forefoot of his onto the plate deck and then moved into the cage myself a bit in a squatting-kneeling position before saying "Come about" and giving the leash a gentle tug. Sinbad got the cue after a moment and turned to face me and the door. I then unbuckled his collar before scooting back out of the cage as Ben shut the door to secure Sinbad.

The MacCayes had told me about Sinbad's diet, eating schedule, and such as I gave them back his leash and collar. I also handed them one of my business cards from the zoo and wrote my home address on it for them to mail his paperwork to, and then they decided to head home after their roller-coaster day, giving Sinbad some final attention through the sides of the transport cage. That just left Ben, me, Kristy and Sinbad still back in the vet shed.

"So, what's next?" Ben asked.

"It's your park… how do you want to do this? Where's your truck parked at?" I smiled at Ben as Kristy was scritching Sinbad through the side of the cage.

"I'm parked in back so…" Ben scratched his beard a bit. "I guess we can just walk the roll-cage out there and… Oh, crap. I don't have any ramps or anything to get it up into the truck."

I thought for a moment, pondering and weighing options. "Got anything like a…" I smiled and checked the size and style of the wheels on the cage, finding them to be suitable for what I had been thinking of. "Is there a small hill anywhere on the property you could back the truck up to?"

Ben thought for a bit. "Kinda… wh… Ohhhhhh, OK, gotcha." He smiled broadly as the realization dawned on him. "Yeah, we can do it that way."

Kristy looked a little confused, so I explained. "Back the truck to the hill, drop the tailgate, and roll the cage up the hill onto the truck."

Kristy smiled. "Sounds like you two have done this kinda thing before…" she commented offhandedly.

I laughed "A few times, though with me it's usually it's a cat in the truck rather than in a cage, but I can't really do that with Sinbad as he's not known me long enough yet."

Ben laughed. "I guess you have been up to some interesting tricks lately, from that comment."

I smiled broadly. "You should see what all I got at home." I then thought for a moment. "Think your wife would mind if you spent a night away?"

Ben looked confused and I nodded to his hand, then he realized. "Oh! Yeah… I guess that IS something that changed since we last saw each other. I dunno, though… she might not take too well to that idea." He chuckled a little as he twiddled with his wedding band.

I chuckled. "I just figured it'd make for a long day for you driving down and then back home… and it's not like I don't have a couch to crash on, or the one in the shop office." I rambled.

"Go ahead, dear… It's been an unusual day and it WOULD be a lot of driving…" Kristy piped up from where she was at with Sinbad.

I looked surprised, then chuckled softly. "If I'd have known…" I smiled politely at Kristy.

"Don't worry, Mr. Peters… there's no real way you could have known unless you already knew or Ben had told you." Kristy smiled. "I kept my maiden name for the clinic and some other matters. That and then folks don't get their undies bunched about us running this place pretty much together."

Ben smiled. "I also don't really advertize that I'm married, but I didn't count on you being as observant as you are. I'd forgotten that about you."

"The ring is something of a giveaway that you're taken, Ben… Or was it darted and captured?" I grinned broadly and winked, at which we three laughed together. "You can come down too, Kristy, if you'd like. The accommodations are still pretty bachelor in nature, and… well, too many animals, but… if you don't mind fighting over who gets the couch and who gets an army cot in a dusty, cobwebbed office, you're welcome to join Julie and I for a mini-vacation at my private headache."

Kristy thought about it a moment, then looked to Ben. "What do you think?"

Ben thought for a bit. "Jacquie can keep the office running and George can ring out the ticket booth at the end of the day, so… yeah, why not? We don't get out much."

I laughed. "Then the only remaining question is, what would you like for dinner?" I grinned broadly.

***

With Sinbad loaded in Ben's truck and the cage wrapped with a tarp to limit the wind he'd be subjected to during the drive, we were on our way back down the highways to my zoo. On the way, I gave Julie a call to let her know that we were going to have guests over and that I might be a little late home from work.

"Pete called and asked if he could come out tonight, too, so guess we'll be having a full house," she said in an upbeat manner.

"He probably called the zoo and only got my machine. There weren't any missed calls on my cell, but I had it off for awhile since I was helping with a procedure at another zoo. That's who's coming to dinner… the Washington County Zoo director and his wife." I said cursorily.

"Just decided to invite them over or…" she inquired with curiosity.

"I don't know if you remember Ben Anderson, but he's their zoo director now, and I was up here on an assignment from Jack that turned into something more than what he may have figured on… but oh well. In for a penny, in for a pound." I chuckled softly.

"What… did you do?" Julie asked hesitantly.

I grinned broadly. "You'll find out. It's nothing bad. In fact, you may like it." I said, chuckling softly. "You usually do like my surprises, don't you?"

"Well, most of the time, I guess." She replied, but her voice illustrated that she wasn't quite sure. "OK… I guess I'll make a double batch of chicken marinara and garlic bread then. Um… about an hour later than you usually get home?" she inquired.

I gave it some thought. "Yeah, or a little later than that wouldn't hurt. If you could, though, dig out a couple spare pillows and blankets from the upstairs hall closet and set up an army cot from the basement in the shop office? Ben and Kristy will be sleeping there tonight so they can have some privacy, Pete can have the couch in the house and you and I will be up in my room. That way if other stuff happens, no worries." I casually commented.

"Do they know about… uh…" Julie began to stammer.

"I don't know if they know about my side interests in animals, and I'm not necessarily going to advertize it, since Kristy is a veterinarian. We'll just leave it at "don't ask, don't tell" unless they bring it up. Anyway… there's some traffic coming up so I better get off the phone. I'll see you in a while." I said, cutting the conversation short.

"Drive safely, dear, and goodbye." Julie said and hung up the phone.

***

We arrived back at the zoo shortly before closing time, so it wasn't any big deal to have Chet and Kody set up some ramps to roll the cage off Ben's truck and then we began making our way through the park pushing the transport cage along the paths. Since I didn't know how Sinbad would do on the stairs coming up from the basement of the cathouse to the enclosures, I figured it was better to come in at the main floor and then have only the steps up to the terrace to deal with rather than all the way up from the basement. Vic came buzzing by on a Grunt, apparently heading back towards the powerhouse when he stopped quickly seeing us coming up the path.

"Whatcha got there, Jim? Sneaking something in again?" the old man grinned.

I chuckled. "I don't know if it really could be considered sneaking with us walking the surface paths like this. The fact that something's being moved about is rather obvious, isn't it?" I winked. "I got another tiger and he's blind. I'm not exactly set up for him back home so I figured I'd see if Tatiana would like some company, or maybe a bit more than just company."

"What's Jack gotta say about it?" Vic asked, grinning.

I shrugged. "He doesn't know just yet. The worst he can do is throw another hissyfit. We're all used to that, aren't we?" I asked and all but Kristy chuckled.

Vic scratched his head. "Don't I know you?" he asked Ben, staring at him for awhile. "You look awful familiar."

Ben chuckled. "Maybe I should put on Jim's work shirt, and stick my beard on the top of my head…"

Vic's brow furrowed then he grinned broadly. "Fuuuuck. Ben Anderson! Ain't seen you since pipsqueak told you to get the hell out. Howya been?"

Ben shrugged. "Been alright. Got a different job at a different zoo. Got different problems, and got a wife." He nodded sideways to Kristy, who had left her lab coat back at their zoo.

"Wellll!" Vic grinned "At least you've been taking care of yourself. Even Jim here got himself someone to pick up after him. Now if only Jerry Parker would settle down with someone."

I chuckled. "I don't know if that'd really suit him at the moment, Vic, but only time will tell."

"Anyhoo… gotta go fix the shower drain in the powerhouse. Someone probably sent a grease rag down it again or something… I'll see ya around, Jim. Nice seein' you again Ben and… whatever your name was, ma'am." Vic said with a nod as he trod on the accelerator and motored off.

"I don't envy him that fun, Jim… but glad to see Vic's still around." Ben commented as we continued on towards the cathouse, me holding the door open as we wheeled the cage in.

"Yeah, this place would have trouble running without Vic or Chet… but that sort of thing happens." I shrugged.

"It'd probably have real trouble running without you, too, Jim." Ben commented. "But then again you already knew that one."

I sighed. "Well, only time will tell with that, too. This time I'm not so certain on which way the board will vote so… we'll just have to see." I locked the doors behind us and unlocked both the lower and upper doors so Sinbad and I could freely access the enclosure gates when it came time. "First I have to move Raleigh over one cage… and still have to take him home with me." I chuckled.

Ben and Kristy strolled the cage row as I grabbed the webbing leash from its hook just inside the heavy oak door on the main floor, and went along the cage row myself until I came to Raleigh. "Hi there kitten… moving day today!" I chuckled. Ben and Kristy were over by Tatiana as I let myself into Raleigh's enclosure. "You can pet her through the bars. She's generally friendly. Probably still a little moreso as she's just finishing her heat for the month." I commented to them as I fuzzled Raleigh's head as he rubbed against me for attention and scritches. I knelt down and slipped the webbing leash over his head. "Are you going to be a good kitten for me today?" I asked in a friendly manner.

Raleigh just headbutted me and we went out through the gate, turned left, and then I thumbed through my keys for the one for the next enclosure. There was a bit of dust visible as it had been awhile since Vic's group had gone through and cleaned it, back when I'd gotten Hercules and them all, but it was still quite serviceable. After Raleigh and I entered, I walked him over to the one wall and turned on the line for the automatic waterer which then filled itself, then I shut the gate before undoing the leash-collar. "You're going to be staying here for a bit now as I've got someone that needs to meet Tatiana," I told him. "But sometime soon you, and possibly him too, will be coming home with me." Raleigh merely rubbed on me all the more and gently headbutted me in the crotch before I let myself back out and locked up that enclosure.

Ben and Kristy were back on the main floor before I got down there to collect Sinbad and get him situated where Raleigh had been next to Tatiana. "How do you want to do this?" Ben asked, and I thought for a bit.

"Well, the main doors are locked, I doubt he'd try to head down the stairs, though I suppose it wouldn't hurt for someone to be standing there in case he were to accidentally head that way too fast. I really don't want him to take a tumble since I'm new to him and so is all this. I'll need someone to be behind him in case he were to try to reverse course on me anywhere along the terrace…" I openly pondered. "I guess you can just open the door right now and see whether he's scared or curious."

Sinbad was standing in the middle of the cage when Ben opened the door, but backed to the far end as I sat down on the edge of the floor pan. "Come here, Sinbad. It's alright… I know, lots of new smells and sounds but it's alright." I droned as I reached out to touch his foot. He jumped a little and I chuckled. He took a hesitant step forward. "That's it, buddy… it's just me and Ben and Kristy and the other cats. Hugo, Jake, Pickles, Lola and Flo the lions, Tatiana the tigress, and Raleigh, Zeus and Anna the cougars. They'd all like to meet you…" I droned as I ran my hand up to his shoulder, putting me at an awkward angle inside the small cage. "C'mon… you can come on out. Or at least a bit further so I can put your collar on."

Sinbad took another step forward, rising to a full-standing position again as I slipped the webbing leash around his neck. It wasn't exactly like the collar he was familiar with but he wasn't objecting to the difference. "Good boy, Sinbad. C'mon… time to get settled in your new home." I gave the leash a gentle tug and he hesitantly stepped out of the transport cage, sniffing in the air and his ears swiveling about this way and that from the rustle of the other Cats moving about, equally curious about him, most likely.

"Kristy… could you…" I started saying.

She finished my sentence for me. "Stand by the lower stairs, you got it, Jim!" she smiled broadly as we started moving that direction, Sinbad plastered tightly to my left leg as apparently was his habit. Ben started following behind us at a reasonable distance.

"Sinbad, come Gee…" I said as I started making an easy turn to the right. "Step up!" I called out as he reached the first of the steps up to the terrace. There, he balked.

I pet along his back. "It's OK Sinbad… step up…" I bent low and lifted his right foot to put it on the stair tread. I patted his rump and he shifted his weight so both forepaws were now on that stair tread. "Sinbad, step up!" I said again. Again, he didn't move, and so I repeated the process, his forepaws now on the second tread, hindpaws still on the main floor. "Sinbad, step up!" I said for a third time. This time he hesitantly lifted his right forepaw and started patting around and found the floorplate of the terrace, his hindpaw scrabbling for purchase as he stretched a little too much, though soon his hindfeet were on the first stair tread and his forefeet at the threshold of the door to the terrace.

The lions had congregated at the near end of their enclosure, watching the goings-on, and Jake started voofing softly as they milled about. Sinbad was curious at the sound, as his head was extended through the door, ears perked forward, facing the lions, but pressed tight against me as far from their edge as possible. Another couple steps and Sinbad was completely through the door but had angled himself towards the lions' enclosure. "It's alright boy.. you can meet them. Jake, this is Sinbad…" I started droning as the lions milled about in hesitant excitement. Their tails were carried medium-high with tips twitching. Sinbad's was drawn tightly downward. He took a wary step towards the sounds and Jake and Sinbad sniffed noses. Jake visibly relaxed and voofed very softly. Sinbad made no vocalization but relaxed a little and whuffled the bars some more… Pickles, true to her forward nature, pressed between Jake and Sinbad and smelled him, her own posture more relaxed than the others, and in the next couple moments every lion had greeted the newcomer, though Hugo was being a bit standoffish. That would only figure for the moment, but… that happens.

Ben and Kristy were standing in the doorway, watching the Panthera pride milling about, holding each other and smiling. "C'mon Sinbad… time to meet Tatiana…" I said after a time and again gave the leash a gentle tug, at which he turned to start walking at my side again, the lions following into the adjoining enclosure as we made our way further along the terrace. Tatiana was standing at the corner of her enclosure, tailtip twitching the whole time and chuffing for me, then she gave a loud hiss as Sinbad padded up to the bars.

"Tatiana! Be nice to Sinbad." I commanded and she gave me a sour look, but quit hissing. For his part, Sinbad turned tense and wary at the sound of Tatiana hissing, so I knelt down and stuck my hand through the bars, and Tatiana padded up and leaned against my hand for scritches, mashing my wrist against the bars in a very uncomfortable manner. I was petting Sinbad's back too, and so he padded forward. The two cats whuffled each other through the bars and Tatiana chuffed softly. I smiled broadly. "See… he's different is all. Be a good girl and you two may get to snuggle with each other. I'm sure he'd like that and I'd wager you'd like that too."

I stood and unlocked the door to Tatiana's enclosure. I smiled at Ben and Kristy, who had followed me along the terrace. "You can go in with her if you like… she's friendly. Most often overly so," I absent-mindedly repeated myself. I chuckled and gave Sinbad's leash a gentle tug again, and he moved to follow the direction. I led Sinbad into the neighboring enclosure as I heard the couple enter with Tatiana and her chuffing her greetings to them. They started chattering with each other and speaking to Tatiana as likely they were petting her all over. I led Sinbad along the perimeter of his new home, and smiled as I saw through the separator panels them petting the belly-up Tatiana. I stopped at the loafing shelf and gently lifted Sinbad's forepaws up to the edge, petting him as he stood at an angle with one of his hindfeet braced against my klodhopper work boots while he sniffed at the shelf. He dropped back down to the floor after a moment and I led him forward to the automatic waterer and splashed the water some, getting his attention as evidenced by his ears swiveling. "Yeah… this is where you can drink. Your food will be here in a bucket, too, in the morning." I said to him, as was my habit. He started lapping at the water so I dropped the leash and moved the couple steps over to shut the gate.

As soon as he was done with the water I slipped the leash off over his head, letting Sinbad explore on his own. He moved about in what I would come to know as his typical seeking manner, so I lipsqueaked softly to let him know exactly where I was. He came up to me again and headbutted me lightly. At that I knelt down again, smiling broadly, and petted him some more. I then thought of something and, knowing Ben and Kristy were entertaining Tatiana, I pet along Sinbad's flank and then touched him under his tail.

He flinched for a moment as my fingers contacted his bare flesh, mere inches from his most intimate parts, but seemed to be troubled for a moment only as my other hand was petting his shoulder. I spit-slicked two fingers and touched under his tail again, earning another flinch but he relaxed quite readily as I started circling the opening, spreading my saliva around the flesh then, since he still had more than a bit of dried lube there from before which slickened readily with my saliva, gently pressed both digits into his rear for the second time that day, though this was the first time with him knowing fully what was happening.

Sinbad keened a bit, arched up and his tail raised up to stand virtually straight out as my fingers slid deeply into him. He was still clean inside and my fingers slid easily up to his prostate, which I gently rubbed. Sinbad licked his lips, arched further and started treading with his hindfeet as though mounting and seeking entrance to another tiger. His member started firming a lot at the internal contact and his insides ripples a bit on occasion as he was treading. I chuckled softly, then gently withdrew my fingers lest I start something with him that I couldn't have presently finished.

Sinbad turned and pressed his chin on my shoulder and I hugged him, chuckling softly. "Welcome home, Sinbad… hope you get to like it here or with me." I murmured. I then noticed Kristy and Ben at the bars, having let themselves out of Tatiana's cage in time to see Sinbad "hug" me. Whether or not they had seen anything more than the hug, I didn't know and couldn't tell.

Ben smiled broadly and sighed as I stood and let myself out of Sinbad's enclosure. "I'm glad I called you, Jim. Real glad."

I smiled and nodded. "I am too. Not like I need the headache, but… I think he'll be worth it." I winked.

"What do you mean?" Kristy asked, curiously.

Ben answered for me. "Jim's director is trying to get him fired. Unlike me when I was here, Jim can only be fired by the board of directors, just like the zoo Director himself. So this is just more ammunition for Jack to try to have the board fire Jim."

I added, as Kristy looked worried. "Or for me to get Jack fired, depending on how the board chooses to look at it. It's not that often a zoo gets a free tiger, you know. I mean, unless it has someone like me around." At that Kristy laughed. "Well… we better keep moving. I'm sure I have some mess in my office to mop up since Christina has been in there all day and then there's feeding chores when we get back to my place!" I commented.

"Christina?" Ben asked.

"Female Saint… I told you I'd gotten some dogs. She's one of them. You'll meet the rest when we get to my place. And the Cats, and Bill Peterson's animals and Julie and the cubs and… Pete Jackson, our local Animal Control Officer." I rambled as I locked up the enclosures and then walked towards my office to retrieve Christina and my laptop.

"You have been busy, Jim." Ben chuckled. "Sorta surprised you're not going broke with that many animals unless you've gotten a raise or three since I left."

I smiled broadly. "No raises, nope. And as far as going broke, not having the Peterson animals down at the Circus Museum is putting a little crimp in my wintertime budget, but… we'll figure something out somehow."

"Knowing you, I wouldn't be at all surprised." Ben said as we walked up the steps to my office.

***

Christina had been really anxious to go out when I unlocked the door to my office, as evidenced by her being right there and "dancing" a bit, so I immediately grabbed the leash and took her out to do her business. She hadn't made any mess in the office, so I was grateful for that. Once we got back to my house, Ben, Kristy and Pete helped with feeding all the animals, and Kristy got a kick out of Pete petting the growling Squeaker as the runt hyena chomped her meaty dinner with the gusto of a starving street dog. Ben and Kristy even got to opportunity see Cleo's cubs from the bottom of the stairs as I led Christina up to keep her away from the male dogs, and Cleo herself did a quick pass-by near the gate so they saw her too, but not too closely and not her face.

"I'd let you meet her but she may be a little protective of the cubs and all…" I said as a polite excuse. "She already knows Pete and the rest of us, but… you know how Cats can be when they have young ones." I smiled meekly.

Ben chuckled. "Yeah, no kidding. Don't need to have a pissy pussy trying to eat us. Looks like she's being a good mother, but… doesn't it get messy up there?" Ben asked and Kristy looked curious as well.

I merely chuckled as the bell dinged for dinner and Julie set about getting the food out of the oven, smiling to herself regarding the conversation occurring nearby as she moved about in the kitchen. "They have a kiddy sandbox. One of those midsized plastic ones? It works wonders as a litterbox!" I chuckled and Pete laughed too.

Ben and Kristy smiled broadly. "I'd have never thought of that…" Kristy commented.

At that, Pete spoke up. "Jim here comes up with all kinds of stuff most people wouldn't have ever thought up. I know he's helped me out a time or three that way." He smiled, and then corrected himself. "Well, more than three but you guys get the idea."

Ben and Kristy nodded and we made our way to the kitchen to the dinner of Chicken Marinara, angel hair pasta, and lots of thick slices of cheesy garlic bread.

"So how do you fit into this picture, Pete? I can call you Pete, right?" Kristy asked as we munched our meal.

"Oh… well…" Pete kinda thought a bit as he twiddled with his fork on the plate. "Well, Jim and Julie here kinda put up with me visiting now and agian so I can unwind my mind from the shit I have to deal with everyday." He canted his jaw a bit. "I… well… I'm…" he looked to me for some sort of explanation.

"Pete's going through some stuff as the local Animal Control Officer… there's stuff at the shelter as well as the issues with his job as it stands. This is sort of his get-away place to think things through sometimes when trouble gets a little troubling." I offered as I reached down to fuzzle Washington, who was plastered to my chair due to the unfamiliar folks being present in "his" usually-quiet kitchen. Frankly, I was somewhat surprised he didn't want to hide under the mudroom sink.

Kristy nodded. "I can sorta understand that with what I see in my clinic. I'm a vet, and the vet at the Zoo, so… err… Washington County Zoo…" she corrected herself and we all smiled. "So… I kinda know what you mean about things getting troubling sometimes."

Pete frowned a bit and I gave him a playful shove. "Hey… dig your head out of that crap and finish your food."

Pete looked to me and laughed. "Alright Sarge." He winked and we both chuckled. Julie smiled as Ben and Kristy looked confused. "Jim here is kinda like a Sergeant I had when I was in the Army. Good friend and good leader, so that's why the pun," Pete explained.

"Yeah, that and he works for me in his day job. After all, I help pay his salary." I winked and we all chuckled.

During movies later that night we all had dogs to snuggle. "So how can you afford this many animals?" Kristy asked.

"Really, I can't. Not quite THIS many." I said as Pete and Julie were looking through the Master Guide to find another film. "But I've made some good investments in objects over the years. It's not like I got this whole place and everything in it all at once. I've had lots of jobs through the years but they were all complementary to each other in some way or another, so… eventually enough puzzle pieces fit together so that now I can do a whole lot of things without too much effort at all."

Ben and Kristy thought about it, and Ben spoke up. "That kinda makes sense, given what you always were able to do at the Zoo. It's like you were the go-to guy for nearly anything out of the ordinary. And, from what I've seen, you still pretty much are that way."

Pete chuckled "He is… when Jack lets him, or when he sidesteps Jack's problems. Even helps me out now and again with things I get stuck with."

Julie smiled. "He's sure helped me with some stuff from my past that I really had trouble with, and I'll ever be grateful to him for it."

I laughed. "You all practicing for my funeral or something? Or are you two buttering me up for something big?" I asked with a wink and we all laughed in response.

***

After the movies, apple pie dessert, and more pleasant conversation, I headed out to the workshop to poke the fire there so our guests would have a warm place to sleep, and helped Ben and Kristy settle into the office accommodations. "I'm sorry it's so dirty in here, it's just that cleaning it gets to be a challenge with all the parts and pieces and little stuff among the dirt."

Kristy smiled. "I can see the couch and cot are clean, and I can deal with the toilet not being sparkling. I may not be used to having my arm up inside cows and stuff like your vet likely is, but I'm no girly-girl when it comes to messes."

Ben chuckled and I smiled. "Well, if you like, you could sleep in the vet room… It's as spotless as this is dingy." I offered.

"No." Kristy's face immediately fell to an unusual expression as she answered quite abruptly. I gave her a curious look and she sighed as she sat on the edge of the couch. Ben looked concerned and I looked confused.

She looked to Ben, and he smiled and nodded. "He'll understand. Go ahead." This prompted me to look even more confused.

"I… you probably know what I have to deal with for my job… my clinic. I just…" she sighed deeply and frowned. "Too many thoughts, too many memories, too many missed diagnoses… too many delayed surgeries… too many…" she started rambling and sniffed loudly as tears welled up.

"Too many goodbyes that shouldn't have been?" I offered. She nodded sorrowfully, wiping the tears away. I smiled and patted her shoulder. "Ben's right. I get it. Trust me that I get it." I sighed. "I didn't mean to upset you by saying that."

Kristy smiled meekly. "I know… You couldn't know that the idea terrifies me that much. That my job haunts my dreams so much."

I smiled back as I sat on the cot in front of her as Ben gave her a one-armed squeeze. "Kristy… We all have our demons in their bottles. Sometimes the corks rattle loose and they come out to play. Julie has hers, I have mine. Ben… has his too. I know a couple of them…" Ben chuckled softly at that. "…and he knows a few of mine."

Ben then looked confused for a moment and then enlightenment dawned on him. "Zera?" he inquired.

I nodded. "Yep, she came out to play a couple times since I got Cleo, that lioness upstairs, and had been with Julie. One rather recently. Max came back, too, with me getting the white sheps in there. Though his haunting wasn't as troublesome as the memories of Zera."

"Max?" Ben asked, confused for a moment and then a greater look of awe, fear and remembrance passed across his countenance. "Oh… Jim… I'd nearly forgotten about you telling me of him." He looked embarrassed that he'd forgotten, and like he stepped in something he really shouldn't have.

I smiled and nodded. "No worries. I lived it, you didn't." I turned to Kristy, who had a confused look on her face. "Those aren't stories for me to tell during nighttime, Kristy. But let's just say neither were pleasant goodbyes."

Kristy looked curious but nodded. I swallowed hard as I harshly smacked those corks back into their bottles. "Anyway… Would you two like a living throw rug to snuggle with? I have several to choose from." I smiled some as I inquired semi-cheerfully.

Kristy looked completely surprised. "You mean… like… all night? Wouldn't they…?"

I chuckled. "Canine or Panthera… choice is yours. For you two out here Maverick might be the best, or the Akitas. If you chose a Cat it'd have to be only one. All mine in the runs here can be good, but with any you'd have to watch for when they'd want to do some business, so you'd have to put them back in their enclosure when they do, since it's not like me in the house."

Kristy and Ben thought about it a bit, then he smiled. "I think this time it'll just be us, but…" he chuckled "… I think we may come down sometime to visit you again. If you don't mind, that is. I'd forgotten how it's like hanging around you, and with what all you got here… it's really a cool place to hang out."

Kristy added. "Thanks for inviting us down, Jim… and… well, everything today. I…"

Ben gave her a squeeze as she looked down. "She was dreading what was going to happen, and you picked up that I had been too. Frankly, I expected to be cuddling her most of the afternoon as she cried her eyes out." He said as he gave a half-smirk. "Now I'm really glad I called you to help, though I never expected you to help quite like this all."

I chuckled and smiled. "'In for a Penny, in for a Pound,' Ben. You've known that about me as long as I've known you." With that, I rose and with a nod, politely excused myself to give our guests some privacy for the night. The full moon was shining brightly on me and everything about the farm as I walked the outer path back to the house. I smiled, remembering a line from a book I had read in my youth, and spoke it aloud as I walked the long way, around the woodshed, the chicken coops, the old piggery, and up the drive from near the barn ramp, enjoying the etherial glow being cast about the place. "Path, young mooncaller, may you live a completed path." I smiled, as indeed it was a hunter's moon. A tiger's moon.